photo by Kelly Robson
Here is the kind of paragraph I absolutely love to see when one of my students is critiquing another:
Your writing has some grammatical errors. I saw some confusion between it and it’s, and several comma splices. You might want to look into subject-verb agreement too. I’ve included some great and thoroughly unimpeachable links about these rules.
The reason I love this–especially if it’s tucked in at the end of a critique, after all of the substantial issues within the manuscript have been addressed–is it means the person doing the critique has learned that it is a misguided use of time if they copyedit* their classmates‘ manuscripts.
The urge to edit in a peer workshop is a powerful one. There is no greater joy than marking up someone else’s manuscript. Track changes options in word processing software make it easy and, to be honest, it’s fun. Providing a marked-up manuscript to a classmate shows an intense time commitment, usually earns some gratitude, and gives the reader a chance to directly share their own (possibly hard-learned) writing lessons.
So why am I arguing it is a bad use of resources?
Workshop submissions should always assumed to be early drafts. What’s important in a draft stage is to get the story out, and some writers cannot get out the words if they are worrying about the commas. Some members of your workshop might be perfectly capable of fixing up their grammar in later drafts, but are submitting 10 minutes before the workshop’s drop dead deadline. The reader can’t know if either of these things is the case. You could be driving someone into a panic without meaning to.
Almost no one in a student workshop is an actual copy editor. You’re fixing the errors you can see. A copy editor, who will ideally go through the manuscript in the latter stages of production, after even the savviest author and editor have polished it to a shine, can still find and address errors 90% of us won’t even dream of. Think of the movie ads that say: professional driver, closed course. Don’t try to drive the copy-editor’s race car.
Some participants may actually alter things that are correct and make them wrong. Unless the instructor checks every alteration in every edited manuscript, there’s no guarantee that someone isn’t teaching you bad grammar. Remember, there’s nothing to stop that person with the its/it’s problem from marking up your doc!
Copy-editing actually reduces the chance some people will learn the lesson. Look at the paragraph I love, above. If you tell someone they need to learn subject verb agreement, they have to go find out what the hell that is. If you just go and fix their sentences for them, all they have to do is hit Accept Change and go on making the same mistake in the next draft.
Copy-editing reduces the chance that you’ll learn something. All that time you spend changing mistakes that the author might know how to fix themselves (and possibly also mistakes they’re making deliberately as a style choice) is time you could’ve spent practicing your substantive editing skillset. That is to say: reading the manuscript more closely for big-picture strengths and weaknesses within characterization, plot, structure, setting detail, good images, not so good images, and clear thematic content.
Balance and positivity: Most workshops encourage readers to strive for a mix of positive and negative commentary in critique, so that the author knows both what they’re doing right and where they need to improve a story or novel. A document full of typo corrections and grammar notations is, by definition, a litany of negative notes. There is almost nobody who out there takes the time to mark up a manuscript while paying equal attention to the writer’s good sentences, clever ideas, nice character nuances, and brilliant turns of phrase.
Accountability: In a face to face workshop, you have to look the author in the eye as you deliver your opinion of their work. In an online workshop, your critique post has the same effect: whatever you say is out in the clear, where you’re responsible for it—and where the other members of the workshop can debate whether they agree or disagree with your points. If you say “I was confused by X,” another reader has the opportunity to say “I thought it was crystal clear and here’s why.”
The comments you append to an annotated manuscript aren’t public fodder, not really. Even if they’re available to the rest of the group, 99% of the time nobody but the author is going to read them. You’re taking a portion of your critique and tucking it out of sight, where it can’t be discussed.
Highest and best use of time: In a student workshop you should be aiming to try to achieve two amazing things with each and every critique. One is to give your classmate the best substantial reading you possibly can. The second is becoming a better reader and writer by formulating that outstanding critique. By reading deeply, digging below the surface (which is where the grammar lives) you sharpen your own sense of story. Every second you spend polishing the buttons and shoelaces, the commas and semicolons, is one you spend depriving both yourself and the submission’s author of deeper insights.
It is not always the case that the best and most thorough readers in my class are also the best writers. But there is a strong correlation. The better someone is at critting, usually, the better they are at craft.
Grammar can be a dodge: If a story is particularly difficult to critique—which happens both with the very problematic stories and the ones that are so good they seem done!—picking at the rules of language may even be a way of letting yourself off the hook. It’s hard to read and crit a great story. It’s incredibly tough to shine the way forward for someone who’s just beginning. If you’re copy editing their piece, are you really just writing yourself a pass to not wrack your brains about how to make the ostensibly great story incandescent? Or the apparently broken piece just one doable step closer to viable?
Give it some thought.
Finally, and in case you’re wondering, I’m not saying don’t critique the author’s writing style.** “It’s ungrammatical and hard to read” is a valid part of any prose critique… but it isn’t the whole story, and probably shouldn’t be all you have to say on the subject of their line by line writing.
All writers have to learn grammar. It’s okay to tell someone you think they’re falling down on this part of the job. Make the note, pull out a few offending sentences, offer some how-to links if you like… and then dig deeper. It’s tougher, but it’ll vault your whole workshop forward, and take your own writing with it.
*Most new writers don’t necessarily distinguish well between line editing and copy editing. I don’t particularly want my students line-editing each other in a separate document either, and I’ll talk about why at length sometime, but the tl;dr meat of it is in the Accountability item, above.
**I’m also not saying that instructors shouldn’t do some document editing, or that peer workshops between pros might not agree that this is useful.
You’ve all read the book whose protagonist moves ever so calmly from crisis to crisis. Maybe they experience the occasional pang of angst, but they never really need to do anything more dramatic about their problems than whip out the bastard sword (or the monster gun or ye holy guitar of rock godness or even their wand) and, y’know, lay waste. They’re together in a way that most of us aren’t.
From a reader’s point of view and the longer a novel goes on, this can be deeply alienating. No, we don’t always pick up fiction to read about someone as flawed and messily chaotic as the person falling apart, one cubicle over, from our desk at work. Most of us prefer to have a little bit of space from slow-motion drama explosions, real or fictional. But coolness, while it’s superficially attractive, is also distancing. It breeds remoteness. If someone is too cool, they become untouchable.
How do you find the balance between admirable and accessible? Here are five things you can check within your own writing:
We feel what they feel. Maybe Tyrion Lannister’s problems aren’t our problems (and for that, hooray!) But when his big sister’s carrying on about how she hates him for taking their mother’s love away, and why can’t he just die… well, what younger sibling hasn’t felt a shade or two of that? Tyrion’s an unlikely character, living in a shockingly hard-to-navigate world, but his sibling problems unlock a path into relating to him.
They snap when we’d snap. Behaving badly is part of character and there’s an art to choosing the moments when your mostly-nice characters devolve into rampant asshole behavior. (And, on the other side of things, the points where your evil ones experience those humanizing instances of benevolence.) Push them hard. Give them the emotional resources to put up with a certain amount of adversity, because few of us like a shrinking violet. Let them play it cool for awhile if that’s their thing… but at the point when any sane human being would break down, lash out or overreact, make it epic.
They have crimson or raven tresses, just like yours! Also: flashing violet eyes, adamantium manicures, bracing personal hygeine and an apostrophe in their N’Ame. No. I’m lying. That was a trick. The reason we like Harry Potter, if we do, probably isn’t that lightning scar. It’s the bravery, loyalty to friends and–for me, anyway–the fact that he hauls his ass in to work every day. Sure, work in this case means surviving and prevailing over he who can barely be spelled, but I dig perseverance.
Here’s one that’s crucial: they give a demonstrable shit about other people. I’m reading Fran Wilde’s Updraft right now, and there’s a crucial turn where her heroine believes she’s succeeded at something her best friend has failed at. And she’s happy for herself, and even takes time to celebrate, but she also spends a significant amount of time and energy thinking about ways to help that friend pick himself up off the not-ground and get back to his life.
They take risks. Sure, there are whole books about scaredy-cat wimptastic emotional basket-cases, guys who are so busy worrying about doing their job perfectly that they never ever extend themselves to make contact with another human being, but they are written by Kazuo Ishiguro, and the rest of us are probably better off not trying to emulate him.
Part of putting yourself in a fictional character’s shoes is believing you can fill them, and that is vastly more possible if they experience the range of human behavior, the noble and the petty, the humorous and the pathetic, the mundane and the glorious. No matter how awesome your characters are, let them break pattern now and then; give them a chance to be just like us. We’ll love them all the more for it.
I always liked the word hook, as writing terms go. Maybe it’s because I did fish as a kid…
(I realize that the fish should be turned sideways, so that it’s recognizable, for this photo to be any use as proof. Still. That’s me, and my first kill.)
It’s one of those metaphors that really works for me. Hook embraces the idea of the title as that first glimmer of a lure… and then the opening words or sentence, the first few paragraphs, get that opportunity to either grab the reader or let them get away.
No matter what term you use for it, a well-crafted opener is a must for fiction of any length. It’s the first thing a reader sees, and that’s true whether they’re reading purely for pleasure or because they are your dream agent and they want to consider representing you, you, you.
(Sure, there are people who will chew on through a few paragraphs of sawdust because they’ve liked your other published work, or because they’re completists who’ll finish anything once begun, or they’re your mom, or Harriet Klausner, or because it’s easier to keep going than to decide to switch to something else. But reaching the smallest possible subset of your potential readership isn’t the goal, right?)
So, how do hooks work?
Well, we’ve already established they make the reader want to read on. And want–desire, in other words–is an emotion. This is a lot of what fiction-writing is. You are trying to make the reader feel something.
Midway through a book or story, you can do something terrible to a character and that desire to read on will come from empathy. The reader will by then have befriended your characters, and they’ll want to see what happens next because they’re in a relationship of sorts with them. But early on, that emotional investment isn’t there. Imagine someone you’ve just met, who asks you to meet them for a coffee. If you aren’t pretty damn sure you like ’em, you’ll put them off.
That said, it’s not impossible to evoke empathy for a stranger. If you start a story with “The two homeless kids…”, you’re probably going to find a fair number of people who’ll go a little further.
And why is that? Partly, it’s because homeless children evoke a strand of sympathy just by being big-eyed starving moppets. But mostly it’s because some part of the reader is thinking: the two homeless kids… what?
And that’s the emotional essence of a veritable ton of hooks: curiosity. That sense of What? is a comparatively easy emotion to evoke. You can take that pair of disadvantaged children, for example, and crank the mystery right up:
The two homeless kids…
…were down to their last bullet.
…fought in the dark over the leprechaun.
…had been dead for at least a day.
…definitely weren’t human.
…not only were identical, but bore a creepy resemblance to young Elvis Presley.
…broke into the magic shop at moonrise.
…flat out refused to talk, even after we threatened to charge them with espionage and insulting the dignity of a police horse.
…had silver eyes and arsenic-tipped fingernails.
You see what I mean. If you get a person wondering, they’ll read on. And then you can move into engaging other emotions–be it friendly feelings for the characters or the surprise of “Hey! I wasn’t expecting that!” Once that happens, you’re well on your way to reeling them all the way to the end.
Here’s a favorite curiosity-inducing opener:
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving:
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice–not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
And another, very prettily written by Stephen Barnes in Zulu Heart: A Novel of Slavery and Freedom in an Alternate America:
In the verdant grasslands a brisk hour’s run from the coast, close enough for to spice the air with the ocean’s foam, thirteen solemn men sat circle, speaking of death.
Curiosity isn’t the only way to go, of course. There are other strategies, like…
Dialog is seductive to beginning writers–I see a lot of student manuscripts that open with speeches. The allure is that it lets you open with a character and a scene in progress. Someone’s saying something… to whom? The curiosity is almost built-in.
But, again, we don’t yet have a relationship with that character. So whatever it is that they say needs to be remarkable enough to catch our attention. If you want to open with two guys jawing over the weather over the back fence, either the weather should be life-altering or your way with voice better be as sure-footed as that of a mountain goat. “Well, Earl, we got the planting done and now it looks like rain,” just isn’t going to cut it. Though Jane Yolen comes close with Briar Rose:
Gemma, tell your story again,” Shana begged, putting her arms around her grandmother and breathing in that special smell of talcum and lemon that seemed to belong only to her.
(I looked hard for something really revolutionary, dialog-wise, on my shelves, and came up dry. Dialog hooks are hard! Help me, please, if you know of a good one? And hey–no “I” protagonists talking to the reader. That’s different.)
Here’s what happened, now I’ll tell you how: the classic example is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of the hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.
Running, Fighting, Chasing Each Other through the Trees: Another near relation of curiosity is suspense–opening with action. If the homeless kids in the above example are on the run, we’ll hang with them for a little while to see if they get away, and who’s after them, and why. A chase or a battle is inherently compelling. We want to know who wins. And, if over the course of that clash we come to know the players a little, to feel something for them and have a stake in their predicament, we’ll have three chapters read before we remember we meant to put the kettle on. (I’m going to talk about getting readers to like your characters soon, by the way, in another post).
Here’s a bit of action:
Zodiac, by Neal Stephenson: Roscommon came and laid waste to the garden an hour after dawn, about the time I usually get out of bed and he usually passes out on the shoulder of some freeway.
Start with character–Wherein you give us a look at someone, or better yet a glimpse into their soul:
The Rift, by Walter J. Williams:
He was a god to his people. He lived high above the earth, in the realm of his brother the Sun, and his rule stretched from the world of life to the world of spirits.
Expendable, James Alan Gardner:
My name is Festina Ramos, and I take great pride in my personal appearance.
Not last, and certainly not least, you can set a hook with the aesthetic appeal of your prose. Setting out an authoritative and cool storyteller’s voice, something we just want to listen to… it’s a powerful thing, and powerfully hard to do, too. Here’s one of my favorite voice-y openings:
In the Woods, by Tana French:
Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, water-color nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer-full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing washing-lines; it chimes and fountains with bird calls, bees, leaves and foot-ball bounces and skipping chants, One! Two! Three! This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the batts shrilling among the black-lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of hook types. I couldn’t possibly come up with them all. My hope is that by now you’ve got the general idea. Open any book you love, read the first two paragraphs, and analyze whether, how and why it gets your interest. Then compare it with your opener. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Try it: Here’s Roots of Evil, by Sarah Rayne:
It’s not every day that your family’s ghosts come boiling out of the past to disrupt your ordinary working day.
Why does it work? You tell me.
When in doubt, remember–you can put more than one worm on a story hook. So, my final hook type is this… Multibait! None of these tactics is mutually exclusive. A great hook is probably going to play on several reader emotions, and combine more than one interest-grabbing strategy.
But if you’re stuck, I recommend starting with curiosity. Dangle something shiny and mysterious, start the reader wondering, and get your tale underway.