Would love a critique of my opening please

Fri, Jan 5 2018 11:34am GMT 1
Gemstar
Gemstar
39 Posts

The small room with its white clinical walls feels oppressive and cold despite the blanket around my shoulders. It’s late and they didn’t bring my jacket from the house. It’s probably been taken away as evidence. The woman in front of me is standing too close and I can feel her hot breath on my arm. It makes me squirm and I fight the urge to yank it away. I always hated being touched or my personal space invaded. Now even more so. She’s concentrating intensely, peeling the plastic bag carefully away from my bloodied hand to collect scrapings from my skin and beneath my fingernails. The tool she uses looks worryingly like a scalpel although she wields it with care. It doesn’t hurt, physically I’m okay except for my throat, which feels like it’s on fire and the annoying ringing in my ears. The woman delicately places each of the specimens in small tubes before labelling them to be sent for analysis. I don’t know why. I’ve told them exactly what happened. I know soon she’ll want to examine me properly. Internally. She glances at me, eyes me with pity. I must look a mess, from my reflection in the window of the police car I’m covered in dried blood, my face bruised and swollen. I cannot stop shivering. They told me it’s shock and provided me with a mug of hot, sweet tea after the ambulance checked me over. They wanted to make sure the blood I am doused isn’t mine. It isn’t.

Fri, Jan 5 2018 12:56pm GMT 2
Kate
Kate
1022 Posts
Hi Gemstar - there's some good hooks in here. The person has obviously been attacked, raped I assume, but there's an interesting twist at the end that she is covered in blood that isn't hers. So how did that happen? I want to read on and find out. That's all good, but there are some things that you are doing that flattens the writing and stops us connecting with the character. Fortunately they're easy to fix once the penny drops. I've competely deconstructed your passage below so you can see what I mean. Hopefully this will help you pull this up another level, but do ignore if they don't work for you.
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The small room with its white clinical walls feels 'feels' is a filtering word and should be avoided - it puts a distance between the reader and character - try not to use oppressive the whole description of this white clinical room is a bit of a cliche. Try to turn it around. and cold despite the blanket around my shoulders. It’s late and they didn’t bring my jacket from the house. It’s probably been taken away as evidence. This is good. Clearly tells us there's been a crime. The woman in front of me is standing too close and I can feel filtering again. If you change this to 'The woman in front of me is standing too close, her hot breath on my arm' the breath becomes more real and raises a shudder. her hot breath on my arm. It makes me squirm and I fight the urge to yank it away. I always hated being touched or my personal space invaded. Now even more so. this is quite a flat statement considering what I'm guessing she has happened to heer. Try to put us in the characters head and bring out her feelings. 'And now, after what's happened, God, I'll never let...' That kind of idea She’s concentrating intensely, adverbs and adjectives can be telly and should generally be avoided. Can you show the 'intensely', rather than tell us. Wrinkled brows, lips pressed together - that sort of idea. peeling the plastic bag carefully peeling suggests careful so you don't need this telly adjective away from my bloodied hand to collect scrapings from my skin and beneath my fingernails. The tool she uses looks worryingly another telly word. Try to show she's worried. 'Is that a scalpel? It could cut to the bone, but she...' That sort of thing. like a scalpel although she wields it with care. It doesn’t hurt, physically I’m okay except for my throat, which feels lose the filtering 'feels'. The reader will know that it isn't literally on fire and that filtering distances us again. like it’s on fire and the annoying very telly. Show that it's annoying. 'The ringing in my ears. On and on. Scraping against my eardrums...' That sort of thing. ringing in my ears. The woman delicately places each of the specimens in small tubes before labelling them to be sent for analysis. I don’t know why. 'I don't know' is filtering. We're in this persons point of view, so you don't need to use that first bit, just say 'Why?' I’ve told them exactly what happened. I know 'I know' is filtering again. Take it out and the following part becomes much more impactful. soon she’ll want to examine me properly. Internally. She glances at me, eyes me with pity. I must look a mess, from my reflection in the window reflections a bit of a cliche. The dried blood must be itchy, her face stiff from swelling etc. Try using her senses to show us the state she's in of the police car I’m covered in dried blood, my face bruised and swollen. I cannot stop shivering. They told me it’s shock and provided me with a mug of hot, sweet tea after the ambulance checked me over. They wanted to make sure the blood I am doused isn’t mine. It isn’t.
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Removing the filtering in particular should put us closer in the character's head, and should help increase the strength of the voice. At the moment it is told a bit deadpan. I know you say she's in shock, but maybe think carefully about the kind of things that might be ruuning through her head. A thread of hysteria held at bay by the shock. And try using phrases that are characterful and unique to your character.
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Hope some of that is helpful and good luck with this. Sounds interesting.
Fri, Jan 5 2018 06:58pm GMT 3
Gemstar
Gemstar
39 Posts
Thanks Kate, you're absolutely right and one of my awful habits I need to break is telling rather than showing. I have been critiqued on it but haven't actually been told where and how I do that. I really appreciate you going through those paragraphs and showing me. If it kills me I'm going to stop using the word 'feels'! Many thanks indeed! Gem x
Sat, Jan 6 2018 02:05pm GMT 4
Kate
Kate
1022 Posts
Glad you found it useful. I know the type of critique you mean, that tells you what not to do but gives you no idea of how.
My filtering word used to be wondered. All my characters wondered about everything. I never use it now and am still alive, so have faith you can make it through too. :)
Sat, Jan 6 2018 02:53pm GMT 5
BellaM
BellaM
2392 Posts
Kate's done a sterling job on the detailed crit and I agree with all she has said.

The only thing she didn't specifically mention is the sentence where you tell the reader "I always hated being touched or my personal space invaded." That came across as particularly telly to me, for some reason, and I think you could make more of it, given the situation. Maybe a thought like "How many more people are going to invade my personal space? Is it even personal any more?"

You've got some good hooks in here and I would certainly read on. The voice is good and the varied sentence lengths works well.
Sat, Jan 6 2018 03:49pm GMT 6
Gemstar
Gemstar
39 Posts
You're absolutely right Kate, so far I've trained myself not to use 'that' and I'm working on 'just'. Now I need to look at my filtering words and train my brain to see where I'm doing that as I'm doing it without realising. Very helpful, thanks again. My next section (Then) is written in the past tense, it's still the same character but talking about her (first) attack. It's a bit longer that those paragraphs but I'd really appreciate if you had a spare ten minutes to cast your eye over it? Now I'm wondering if the tense works, it's one timeline of now and another of then, leading up to the now.

Thanks Bella - I'm looking now for the 'telly' words. I hadn't come across that before. Perhaps when I'm visualising it in my head, it's coming across like that on paper. Which is why my critique is 'telling rather than showing' perhaps?

I appreciate both of your comments. Thank you.
Sat, Jan 6 2018 04:46pm GMT 7
Kate
Kate
1022 Posts
Happy to have a look Gem, and the past and present tense might be a good way to distinguish the timelines.
Sat, Jan 6 2018 07:09pm GMT 8
Gemstar
Gemstar
39 Posts
Thanks Kate, no rush but any critique is welcome. This is the follow up to the first section you looked at. I have amended that now and feel able to continue with the 'now' sections reasonably confidently with your advice.

As always, very much appreciated. Gem x

Then

The attack lasted seven minutes. The same amount of time it took the tattooist to ink my skin earlier this year. It stung but I gritted my teeth and it was over quickly. This seven minutes was infinite and changed everything that followed. I was no longer someone who thought bad things happened to other people. The rose-tinted glasses I viewed the world from were irrevocably shattered. I couldn’t understand it, the times I had walked home from clubs alone, at 2 o’clock in the morning sometimes wearing very little, with no thought to my safety. Those were the times I made it to my destination in one piece. It was eight o’clock on a Sunday morning when I was attacked, the sun was bright in the sky and the temperature warm. I was on my way to the train station to enjoy a day in London meeting up with Jane, an old school friend. I decided to take the short walk from home instead of hunting around for a parking space, knowing it was likely our lunch out might be a boozy one. A decision I would come to regret. The road it happened on was not unusual. A no-through road for cars but accessible for pedestrians. A cut through road to the station which housed offices one side and the entrance to the car park of a large hardware store on the other. My outfit consisted of jeans, trainers and a red hooded top. Nothing that could be deemed as being in any way provocative. I had my headphones in, listening to the radio as I walked briskly when two arms wrapped around my waist from behind, trapping my arms by my sides with such force I lifted off the ground. I remember laughing, in the second before I turned my head. Wondering what friend had sneaked up to surprise me. Perhaps they’d shouted, and I didn’t hear because of the music I was listening to. As I turned my head the notion disintegrated, the man that had his arms around me, dragging me down an alleyway, wore a balaclava. I only glimpsed his face for a second. He had deliberately jumped me from behind not only to have the element of surprise but to keep his identity hidden. His eyes were ice blue and cold, that much I saw. The alley was more of a small patch of overgrown wasteland, around eight feet wide between two office buildings. It wasn’t sheltered and didn’t look like somewhere to be avoided, just dead space. I tried to gather my thoughts but panic set in. He shoved me against the wall, grazing my forehead on the brickwork. We were still for a second, both panting at the exertion. The adrenaline coursed through me and I thought my heart would force its way through my chest but I was frozen. His entire body rigid against mine, using his weight to keep me motionless. I didn’t realise he had released his grip on me until he waved a knife in front of my cheek. The blade reflected in the morning sun, blinding me momentarily.

“Scream and I’ll cut you.” He whispered just behind my ear, close enough for his breath to ripple strands of my hair. His voice was so strange, soft and non-threatening, almost childlike. I was expecting a deep gruff tone or orders barked aggressively. Nevertheless, it was chilling and somehow made him more intimidating. I didn’t hesitate to comply. If I kept still and quiet, it would all be over soon. He kept the hand with the knife, loosely resting on my shoulder with the blade pointing upwards to my neck. With his free hand, he pulled my arm behind me and soft flesh was in my hand. It took a moment to work out what it was. He wore a condom even though he wasn’t quite erect but using my hand he got himself there quickly. I was terrified he was going to rape me there in the open. Tears pricked my eyes as he groaned in pleasure. The thumb of his hand, still wielding the knife, stroked my cheek tenderly. I felt sick at the intimacy. Thankfully he wore black gloves but he was touching my face like we were a couple in love. The clumsy act didn’t take long, the condom had either split or come off, I couldn’t tell but I felt the warm, sticky liquid on my hand. Bile rose in my throat and I fought hard not to vomit. His body slackened with the release and moments later I heard the zip of his fly. He pushed my head back against the wall, hard, the graze stinging. I thought the ordeal was over until he spoke.

“Walk down there.” He commanded quietly. I glanced sideways and saw his arm pointing down to the dead end of the wasteland. I hesitated, the seconds stretched out in front of me. The silence. There was no background noise at all, no traffic or birds singing. It was deathly quiet. Was this it? Was my life going to end here? Like this? Annoyed with my lack of cooperation he gripped my shoulder, his fingers digging into the tendons. He pulled me away from the wall and shoved me in the direction he had pointed. I took slow, pigeon steps trying to delay the inevitable. What had I done to deserve this? I couldn’t hear him behind me but was too frightened to turn around, instead I began to sob. Loud, heaving sobs as the realisation hit me of what had just taken place and how my torment was yet to be over. As slow as I walked, I reached the end of the wasteland too fast and placed my palms out in front of me onto the wall, the dust sticking to my sweat. Cornered with nowhere to go, I stood as though I was waiting for the firing squad. The wall in front of me was at least seven feet high and the two office buildings either side were like giants. I waited for something. a fist or a blade slicing my skin. Something to end my suffering, but it never came. After what felt like the longest time I dared to turn around, to face what was coming. When I did the space was empty. He was gone.

Sun, Jan 7 2018 01:17pm GMT 9
Kate
Kate
1022 Posts
Well done for stripping out lots of the filtering and there are definately fewer telly words in this extract. I think you can probably go further though. The piece still has a feel of someone recalling an event rather than us experiencing it, which does add a distant feel to it. Just because you're writing in past tense, doesn't mean it can't feel immediate, so I think that's something to work on.
When your writing in first person, your character has 2 jobs. The first is acting as narrator, telling us what's going on, but they also need to be the character in action. I feel that in this you stick too firmly with being narrator. Most of the time you tell us in correctly constructed sentences what is happening. I think you need to let more character emotion seep through. Put us more in the character's head. When there is an intense situation thoughts are likely to become more broken and confusing and you can reflect that in the writing with more fragmented sentences. When you're close in the characters head the sentences won't necessarily make sense. They become a stream of emotion or conscious thought. The trick is to get the balance right between narrating so the reader understands what is going on, and letting the characters emotion through so that the reader can feel and connect with the character. Streams of emotion can also be helpful in moments when you don't want to be explicit. You can hint rather that describe in full.
I would suggest trying to cut back on using 'I', especially in the tense bits. That might sound odd, but if you can phrase sentences so they are a thought offered directly to the reader, the reader in a way becomes the character, we are inside the characters head. For example, questions, which you have used a few times, are very good at doing this. 'How did this happen?' 'Why me?' Phrased like that they could be the readers thoughts.
I've deconstructed the extract again to give you some ideas. Be aware that my writing style will be leaking through, which won't be right for you or your character, but hopefully this will give you some ideas that you can adapt to your own style.
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The attack lasted seven minutes. The same amount of time it took the tattooist to ink my skin earlier this year. It stung but I gritted my teeth and it was over quickly. I wasn't sure about the last sentence because it's ambiguous as to whether you're talking about the attack or the tattoing. Maybe you don't need?This seven minutes was infinite and changed everything that followed. I was no longer someone who thought bad things happened to other people. The rose-tinted glasses I viewed the world from were irrevocably shattered. All your sentences are similar length up to this point. I'd be tempted to get in a punchy short one. The bit I've suggested knocking out also removes an 'I'. I couldn’t understand it, the times I had walked home from clubs alone, at 2 o’clock in the morning sometimes wearing very little, with no thought to my safety. Those were the times I made it to my destination in one piece. I like the inclusion of this bit about the club because it's drawing out the moment before we hear what happens, but I think it could be better phrased. The 'understand' is filtering. Try turning it into a thought eg 'How many times had I walked home...' Sometimes it just takes a little twist to put us in the characters head. It was eight o’clock on a Sunday morning when I was attacked, when I was attacked pushes this into a recall rather than happening moment the sun was bright in the sky and the temperature warm. I was on my way to the train station to enjoy a day in London meeting up with Jane, an old school friend. That previous section is quite distant and precise, but if you can up the PD (psychic distance) in the following parts it could act as a good contrast. I decided filtering - try moving away from the narration and put us closer to the characters thoughts. 'The station wasn't far from home, and hey, lunch was likely to be boozy' to take the short walk from home instead of hunting around for a parking space, knowing it was likely our lunch out might be a boozy one. A decision I would come to regret.Quite distant again. You could leave out or make it punchier. 'How I regretted that.' The road it happened on was not unusual.Referring to 'it happened on' is again making this feel like recall. If you can make it more immediate it will be more impactful. Perhaps stop referring to the attack before it happens and just take us through what happens. A no-through road for cars but accessible for pedestrians. A cut through road to the station which housed offices one side and the entrance to the car park of a large hardware store on the other. My outfit consisted of jeans, trainers and a red hooded top. Nothing that could be deemed as being in any way provocative. Those last 2 sentences you've not used 'I' at all, which is the kind of thing I meant, about putting us closer to the character. I had my headphones in, listening to the radio as I walked briskly when two arms wrapped around my waist from behind, trapping my arms by my sides with such force I lifted off the ground. I remember a filtering word that also pushes this into recall again and lessons the impact. Perhaps just go with what happens. 'I laughed. Had a friend sneaked up to surpise me?But then I saw the face. God. A balaclava. ...' Swearing is another good way of upping the PD, and short sentences adds pacelaughing, in the second before I turned my head. Wondering what friend had sneaked up to surprise me. Perhaps they’d shouted, and I didn’t hear because of the music I was listening to. As I turned my head the notion disintegrated, the man that had his arms around me, dragging me down an alleyway, wore a balaclava. I only glimpsed his face for a second. He had deliberately jumped me from behind not only to have the element of surprise but to keep his identity hidden. Your narrating this all very clearly and calmly. She should be terrified and that's not coming across.His eyes were ice blue and cold, that much I saw. Quite like that detail of the eyes. The alley was more of a small patch of overgrown wasteland, around eight feet wide between two office buildings. It wasn’t sheltered and didn’t look like somewhere to be avoided, just dead space. You give us quite a lot of precise detail about where they are. A person wouldn't be thinking this kind of thing when they were under attack. It's the narrator taking control. Let that go. I tried to gather my thoughts but panic set in. You're telling us that panic has set in, try showing it. 'Of God, oh God. Have to get away. Can't....' He shoved me against the wall, grazing my forehead on the brickwork. We were still for a second, both panting at the exertion. A short sentence might be better there, and I don't think you need to say from the exertion. It's obvious, but also due to the stress. The adrenaline coursed through me and I thought filtering, maybe 'Adrenaline coursed and my heart bam-bammed in my chest. I was frozen. my heart would force its way through my chest but I was frozen. His entire body rigid against mine, using his weight to keep me motionless. I didn’t realise filtering. A short punchy sentence might be good. The knife wavered in front of my cheek. he had released his grip on me until he waved a knife in front of my cheek. The blade reflected in the morning sun, blinding me momentarily.

“Scream and I’ll cut you.” He whispered just behind my ear, close enough for his breath to ripple strands of my hair. Nice His voice was so strange, soft and non-threatening, almost childlike. I was expecting a deep gruff tone or orders barked aggressively. I like the soft voice, that is chilling, but, I don't think you then need to go on and explain about the gruff tone. Be careful of putting in details that a person wouldn't think in a tense situation. Nevertheless Neverthless is a distant word. I doubt your character would be using this in this situation. It's the narrator version having too much control again, it was chilling and somehow somehow is a weak word. I think it's obvious why it's intimidating made him more intimidating. I didn’t hesitate to comply. this is quite telly and emotionless. Try giving us her thoughts. 'Just do what he wants. Stay still and quiet and it will be over with.' I realise it look as if I've slipped into present tense there, but if this were written out full hand there would be an 'I thought.' You don't want that phrase in there because it's filtering. You can only do this slip into present in a very tense moment when you're deep inside the characters head. Use it carefully or the change will leap out. If I kept still and quiet, it would all be over soon. He kept the hand with the knife, loosely resting on my shoulder with the blade pointing upwards to my neck. With his free hand, he pulled my arm behind me and soft flesh was in my hand. It took a moment to work out what it was. Distant and telly again. Maybe - 'What was that? Oh God, him, not quite errect...' Put us in the characters head and give us the horror He wore a condom even though he wasn’t quite erect but using my hand he got himself there quickly. I was terrified telly. A question might work well here.'Would he rape me right here in the open?' he was going to rape me there in the open. Tears pricked my eyes as he groaned in pleasure. The thumb of his hand, still wielding the knife, stroked my cheek tenderly. I felt filtering - my stomach heaved - sick at the intimacy. Thankfully not sure thankfully works he wore black gloves but he was touching my face like we were a couple in love. The clumsy act didn’t take long, the condom had either split or come off, I couldn’t tell but I feltfiltering the warm, sticky liquid was on my hand. Bile rose in my throat and I fought hard not to vomit. His body slackened with the release and moments later I heard the zip of his fly. He pushed my head back against the wall, hard, the graze stinging. I thought the ordeal was over until he spoke.

“Walk down there.” He commanded quietly. I glanced sideways and saw his arm pointing down to the dead end of the wasteland. I hesitated, the seconds stretched out in front of me. The silence. There was no background noise at all, no traffic or birds singing. It was deathly quiet. Was this it? Was my life going to end here? Like this? Nice use of questions and shorter sentences in that preceding bit. Annoyed with my lack of cooperation Annoyed is telling us again. The action tells us this so just start at 'he gripped...' he gripped my shoulder, his fingers digging into the tendons. He pulled me away from the wall and shoved me in the direction he had pointed. I took slow, pigeon steps trying to delay the inevitable. What had I done to deserve this?nice question. Try extending to get rid of the next filtered bit. 'Was he still behind me? Too scared to look. I sobbed.' I couldn’t hear him behind me but was too frightened to turn around, instead I began to sob. Loud, heaving sobs as the realisation hit me of what had just taken place and how my torment was yet to be over. A bit more in her head. 'When would it be over?' maybe As slow as I walked, I reached the end of the wasteland too fast and placed my palms out in front of me onto the wall, the dust sticking to my sweat. Cornered with nowhere to go, I stood as though I was waiting for the firing squad. The wall in front of me was at least seven feet high and the two office buildings either side were like giants. I think that detail of the surrounding helps to stretch out the moment, but maybe add an internal thougt. Something like 'No escape'. I waited for something. a fist or a blade slicing my skin. like that preceding sentence too. It stretches out time and keeps us in uncertainty. Something to end my suffering, but it never came. After what felt like the longest time I dared to turn around, to face what was coming. When I did the space was empty. He was gone. nice ending line
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I hope some of that is helpful. It's a difficult situation to deal with, but with a moment that changes the characters life I think it needs to be impactful rather than distant, but you may feel differently. Anyway, take what works for you and adapt to your own style.
Mon, Jan 8 2018 04:32pm GMT 10
Gemstar
Gemstar
39 Posts
Kate - again a massive thank you. I found that really helpful and I know it must have taken you some time. I'm going to work on that and then use these sections to work on my others. I think for me it's all about getting into better habits. My last critique from an agent, on a post it note (although I was grateful as previously I'd had 'thanks but no thanks' which doesn't really help at all) - this was for the book I wrote last year, my first completed novel:

Good: Liked the idea
Bad: Dialogue reads false and artificial, sentences very long and lacking in momentum
Too much 'telling' not enough showing. 3rd person narrative very distant.

At first I thought 'ouch' but then I thought, well actually that's good - now I know what I need to work on.

Mon, Jan 8 2018 04:58pm GMT 11
L.
L.
164 Posts
Hi Gemstar,
One advice I was given during a creative course, which I found incredibly useful is to read your work aloud when editing. It is very helpful to assess if your dialogue rings true and to spot sentences which are too long or complicated and word repetition too.

Mon, Jan 8 2018 07:07pm GMT 12
Gemstar
Gemstar
39 Posts
Thanks L. yes I try to do that, perhaps not well enough.
Tue, Jan 9 2018 10:54am GMT 13
Kate
Kate
1022 Posts
Glad it was of help. I think that post-it note is quite a positive thing. Someone liked your idea enough to give you those pointers. So, time to work on technique. It sounds as if the wonderful Self Edit course on this website would be good for you if you have the opportunity.
Tue, Jan 9 2018 10:24pm GMT 14
T B Carter
T B Carter
25 Posts
That was a terrifying read, it really made me feel like I was there. The only thing I can add to Kate's critisim is the end needs a bit more work, the tension really needs to ramp up, it seems to ease off slightly at the moment.
Wed, Jan 10 2018 06:48pm GMT 15
Gemstar
Gemstar
39 Posts
Hi Kate - yes I think I'll start saving for that. Was trying to decide between this one and the one with Curtis Brown. I need more material for this one really before I jump back to the one I wrote last year. Thanks again, I can't tell you how much I really appreciate your pointers - I'm really happy with all the edits now.

Thanks TB, weirdly enough, you probably wouldn't guess that the attack is based on an experience from 15 years ago so perhaps I'm a bit numb to it and need to tap into what was going on in my head then and use the tension. I think perhaps over the years, and I know the Eve from the 'Now' section is supposed to be quite matter of fact about it and that's probably where I am with it now.

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