On Critiquing and Rewriting, Part 1

“A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.” William Stafford

One of the participants in a memoir writing class I facilitated asked a question I’ve heard many times before: How do I critique my writing and the writing of others. That’s a complicated one, so today I’ll describe how I critique the beginning (one or two pages). In my next blog I’ll deal with the rest. Here goes.

First, right away, have you made your reader comfortable by indicating the place, time, and people involved? Readers hate to have essential information withheld from them, but do attempt to find subtle ways of conveying such essentials. Though there’s nothing particularly wrong about beginning with a date, finding a well known event occurring on that date or describing the weather or prevalent fads of that time, will add additional appeal. Example: Instead of “On November 22, 1963,…” a more interesting way to start a story taking place on that date might be “On the day President John Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, …” then go on to state what happened to you or your character on that same date.

Indicating the climate early on also helps you connect with your readers. Most stories have two climates–the exterior and the interior. The exterior consists of actual weather and how snow, rain, or sun, affects the character and what happens to him. The interior climate reveals how character(s) feel inside–angry, peaceful, irritated, happy, for example. Often writers contrast the interior climate with the exterior. Example: Though Joe’s heart ached during the graveside service, the sun shimmered in a clear blue sky, promising better days ahead. Of course, comparisons of interior and exterior climate can also be effective.

Early on, include a BIG CLUE concerning what your story or book will be about,  preferably the first or second paragraph. Even better, provide the BIG CLUE in your first sentence. Here are a few made-up examples: “After we married, I discovered my husband was a vampire” or “Mary left the Alabama farm where she’d always tended chickens and drove straight to New York City” or “Arnold, who loved to chatter, woke up one sun-kissed morning in July, unable to speak.” A well-placed hook makes it impossible for the reader to put your work aside.

What else do readers expect in the first few pages? A convincing voice, compelling descriptions which appeal to the senses, active verbs, concrete nouns, and a uniqueness that flows from the writer’s own personality and beliefs. Don’t forget to check the spelling and punctuation.

What’s the rest of the critique process? Check out my next blog.

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