Tough Skin First-Page Critique: Notes from the OC Christian Writers Conference 2012

The first line of a story is a promise. It evokes emotions and images and sets the mood and pace for your story. It sets the scene. The first page of a story needs to include the seminal event that makes everything else happen. There should be lots of action, doing, and movement—with very little explanation.

So began Andy Meisenheimer’s Tough Skin Critique on Friday evening, May 18, 2012. Thirteen first-pages were submitted by attendees; six were anonymously evaluated during the session. About 20 people were in attendance.

After the first critique, my page appeared on the big screen. My heart pounded, slow and big. My face burned. There was my first page, which up until now had been seen only by my husband, another writer (Hi C.B!), and my critique group.

I scribbled in my notebook while Andy critiqued my page. It was priceless advice. I want to share it here with you.

Ten-year-old Carrie Blanco awoke to a sharp pain deep in her core. [Too abstract. Concrete language is better than abstract language. Describe the sharp pain. What does it feel like? Give us something to compare the pain to.] She heard the familiar sounds of frogs croaking in the distance. The whisper of the breeze rustled through the trees outside. [Set the scene. Use small, specific, concrete, salient details. “Frogs and breeze” is too generic, too grand, too plural. It should be singular. A frog. A branch. Evoke large scenes through small details, details that reflect on the inner perspective of the character. Don’t use happy details with a creepy story. Evoke creepiness.] She opened her eyes to discover it was still dark out. Trying to relieve her discomfort, she rolled over to find a more comfortable position, rusty springs groaning beneath her as she moved. Feeling the chill of the night air, she reached for the flap of her sleeping bag and realized she was lying uncovered on top of a slippery mattress. Odd.

“Lacey?” she whispered, trying not to wake the other campers sleeping nearby. “My tummy hurts.”

Her camp counselor didn’t reply.

“Ladybug?” She tried using her sister’s camp name, slightly louder this time. [Don’t over explain. Let the reader wonder who Ladybug is.]

No response. Nor could she hear the rhythmic breathing or snoring from her fellow campers—a distraction that had kept her awake the first few nights in the cabin. Other than the forest sounds outside, all she could hear was something scratching and scuffing along the floor. Mice.

“Oh gross. Lacey? Where are you? Stop playing!”

Nothing. In the darkness, she gradually became aware of [Remove “she gradually became aware of. The way it’s written shows too much distance.]  the smell of wet green things and a sickly sweet odor she couldn’t identify. She sat up. Why is my dress torn? She wasn’t wearing her pajamas. It was the sundress she had worn over her green tankini swimsuit yesterday. The dress felt askew, and she gasped when she realized [Remove “when she realized.” Again, too much distance] she was no longer wearing the swimsuit bottoms. The skin on her legs felt sticky and tight, just like her palms felt when she and Sarah smeared Elmer’s glue on each other’s hands. They would let it dry, and then peel it off all in one piece. [These last 2 sentences SING. If everything before it could mimic these 2 lines, I’d be sold.]

Overall comments from Andy Meisenheimer:
We need to be placed into this scene in such a way that it’s just as disorienting for us as it is for Carrie. Don’t over explain. RESIST THE URGE TO EXPLAIN!!! Let the reader wonder. Go down to the bare bones. Don’t give all the details. Don’t explain who Ladybug is – that it’s a camp name. Think about how this scene would be filmed. You’d see the gross things around her. Don’t tell the reader everything. It would be more intriguing with fewer details. Be as visceral as possible. This is a traumatic moment for her. The way it’s written shows too much distance (e.g. “she realized”). Have her touch and smell things. You want the reader to know nothing. You want them to know just enough to feel something, to want to know more. Think in terms of cinema; screenwriting. Simple language is good.

After this session, I participated in a critique session with five other writers. Here are some of their comments about my first chapter. (Ryan K. Stansifer and Michelle Massaro, I’m GRATEFUL for your constructive, insightful input!)

  • It’s vivid.
  • Horrific. It’s a horror story. I can barely stand it.
  • Is this really where you want the book to start? I care about the character just because she’s a little girl, but I don’t know her well enough to be invested in her.
  • Reconsider the genre (I told them this is women’s Christian contemporary fiction)
  • Don’t name the emotions. Have something physical happen to show the emotions.
  • Don’t tell what doesn’t happen; e.g. “Her camp counselor didn’t reply” and “no response.” Say what does happen.
  • Simplify word choices. Remove “ly” words.
  • When possible, use 1 word instead of 2.
  • Two people said, “I wouldn’t keep reading.”
  • One person said, “This isn’t a Christian novel.” (This one irked me. It is most certainly a Christian novel. Faith and hope sustain the family through this crisis… it’s not going to be overt in the first chapter.)
  • Review similar books: The Lovely Bones and Peace Like a River. Those books don’t show the rape; they’re more subtle. (Mine doesn’t show the actual rape, so I didn’t understand this comment.)
  • Read The Art of Fiction and go to the section “The 7 mistakes young writers make”
  • RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain

I must admit, it was a tough evening. The critique session didn’t end until 11:30pm. During the one-hour drive home, I was feeling pretty discouraged. When I told my husband about the strong, negative reaction by the critique group, he said, “That’s good honey! It should upset them. You got a reaction from them, and that’s good writing.”

I told him that two times, people said I need to Resist the Urge to Explain. He laughed. He knows me. It’s one of my biggest faults – trying to explain myself and wanting to be understood. I guess I still have some inner work to do, too.

Little did I know, twenty-four hours later I would be flying high on encouragement, inspiration, and confirmation that my story is good and needs to be finished. More in future posts. 🙂

Would you be willing to share the first sentence of your novel? If so, please comment.

All posts from the OC Christian Writers Conference 2012:

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43 Comments

  1. Sounds like you were riding a roller coaster that weekend. Reading about your experience has increased my desire to attend a writer’s conferences, even though I know it will be hard. I’ll be taking your advice, for sure, as I prep for next year.

    Your first page: It was tough for me to read, but I understand that’s what you want to evoke from the reader. Will you be writing from her point of view through the whole novel?

    Reply
  2. Roller coaster is the perfect metaphor. It was crazy. I’m glad these posts are getting you excited to go to a conference. Now that I’ve been to one, I’ve got to go at least annually. It’s a shot of adrenalin, that’s for sure!

    Thanks for your input on my first page. It’s the prologue, and chapter 1 starts several months before this incident. During the critique session, it was suggested that I reconsider the placement of this scene; perhaps make it the climax of the story. He said he cared about Carrie just because she’s a child in a horrific situation – but wants to know more about the character. I’m giving it some thought.

    The rest of the story is written in first person from Carrie’s Mom’s POV.

    Reply
  3. Those critique sessions can be harsh. When I run them, I have a rule for the fellow writers—only express emotions and feelings. No solutions or rules or “don’t” phrases. Only express your experience.

    For credit where it is due, “Resis the urge to explain” is from Renni Browne and Dave King’s excellent Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. It’s not mine. I just use it or a variation of it often.

    Reply
    • Thanks for stopping by, Andy! Thanks for the quote credit info – I’ve updated the graphic to give proper credit and added a link to the book on Amazon. (I really need to purchase that book!)

      Your tough skin critique was my favorite session of the weekend. Selfishly, because I got your professional feedback on my first page, but I also learned SO much from your comments on the other writers’ first pages. I hope you’ll do it again at the conference next year!!!

      At the beginning of your session, you shared your favorite first line ever (you had it memorized). Could you share that with me here? I wish I could have scribbled it down. : )

      BTW, after updating my prologue to reflect your input, I’ve submitted my first 2500 words to your cohorts at The Editorial Department (the prize for being one of the 3rd place winners in the Fiction Writing Contest). Can’t wait to learn how I can improve my work more. 🙂

      THANK YOU!!!

      Reply
  4. It’s from Hey Nostradamus by Douglas Coupland. I’ll let you look it up.

    I hope to do more tough-skinned and rogue critique groups next year. They are a blast.

    Reply
    • Thanks Andy! Found it easily… 🙂

      For the rest of us, here’s the very first line of Hey Nostradamus, by Douglas Coupland

      “I believe that what separates humanity from everything else in the world – spaghetti, binder paper, deep-sea creatures, edelweiss and Mount McKinley – is that humanity alone has the capacity at any given moment to commit all possible sins.”

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  1. Preparing for my first writers conference « Natalie Sharpston
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