Friday, April 12, 2013

First Page Friday

Thank you for your patience today.  This critique was definitely worth the wait, since it made me really think about how I present ethnicity as well.  A great First Page Friday, that I learned from, as usual.  Thank you to Brian and to Ms. Shreditor for their efforts.

See you next week!

The Entry

Ethan Crane
by Brian Crosby

Walking into the dining room, Ricki Candarossi sat at a large mahogany table and crossed her arms tight against her chest, her dark Asian eyes glowing pale with emotion. It was not the headlights that raked across her ceiling that caused her heart thump madly. Nor was it the hushed voices that she heard in the entry way a minute later. No, it was that her family was on the verge of being torn apart, and there was nothing she could do about it.

A moment later, her husband turned on a light. He walked into the kitchen and pulled a beer from the fridge. He popped the top and then, tipping back his head, he glimpsed his wife, just sitting there in the darkness by herself, almost startling him. Swallowing both the beer and the anguish in his throat, he reluctantly joined her at the table, removing his suit coat and loosening his tie before sitting down at the other end.

He took another sip, and Ricki watched as he examined the label on the bottle as though he was refusing to look at her, while all she could do was glare at him in utter disapproval.

“So, is it true, Mitch?”

Mitch didn’t look up but after pausing, his head bobbed in confirmation.

Her husband was only a couple years older than her forty-eight, but he’d taken good care of himself. With his thick dark hair, deep set eyes, and his muscular frame, Ricki had always thought that he looked young for his age, and much better looking than the political riffraff, strategists as he called them, that frequented their home. But now, disoriented, damaged, his jaw dark with a whiskery shadow, his voice having lost its normally steely edge, he looked like he’d just survived a train wreck, just barely survived.

Ms. Shreditor's Comments

Before I begin my critique proper, I wanted to address the length of the sample that came to me. When I formatted it in Microsoft Word according to Julie’s submissions guidelines, it was nearly two pages long. In this case, because the sample ran so far over the allotted length, Julie and I decided that it would be best to critique just the first page of the sample. There were three additional paragraphs in the original excerpt that have been excised here.
This piece has a lot of potential. There are kinks to be worked out, but before I address those issues, I want to talk about what does work here. I feel like I prattle on and on about the rhythm of a narrative, but I do so because it’s such a key element. A good piece of prose generates rhythm, momentum. If you’ve varied your sentence length, if you’ve weighed your clauses and commas and em-dashes carefully, you’ve created a rhythm that carries the reader across hundreds of pages. This piece accomplishes that end.
I believe that dialogue should be used sparingly on a first page, and the author has done exactly that here. We get one line of dialogue: “So, is it true, Mitch?” With just five words, the story has generated enough suspense to hook the reader. The reader can’t help but wonder what might be true about Mitch. That Mitch responds without words, that the story doesn’t swerve off-course here into what I call “dialogue dumping,” shows a lot of restraint and maturity on the author’s part. Mitch says more with his nod than he could with words.
Now to address some of the kinks: Be careful with syntax. There was one sentence that felt like a momentary head hop to me: “Swallowing both the beer and the anguish in his throat, he reluctantly joined her at the table, removing his suit coat and loosening his tie before sitting down at the other end.” If the story is unfolding from Ricki’s point of view, how can she know that there’s anguish in his throat? Be careful when stringing together participial phrases, too. Unless there are prepositions involved (e.g., “before sitting down at the other end”), participial phrases and main verbs don’t show a sequence of events; they denote simultaneous action. Mitch can’t be swallowing his beer, joining Ricki at the table, removing his coat, and loosening his tie at the same time, so this passage needs reworking. Excessive use of participial phrases to create prose rhythm is a common writing tic. Study up on their proper use and function to avoid dangling participles or chronological impossibilities (i.e., a participle and a main verb strung together that cannot happen simultaneously).
Lastly, weigh imagery carefully to ensure that it makes sense. I couldn’t readily envision what dark eyes “glowing pale” would look like. More important, watch ethnic descriptors. “Asian eyes” is very vague, and it’s the kind of trap a writer can fall into that might inadvertently upset some readers. Asians aren’t interchangeable—there are dozens of ethnic groups on the Asian continent, each with distinctive physical traits—but Western people tend to lump them, particularly East Asians, together. There is an entire school of literary theory, orientalism, devoted to Western interpretations of Asian cultures in literature and art (explored most notably in literary theorist Edward Said’s Orientalism). This is a testament to how challenging it can be to write convincingly about other cultures. The bottom line: I think it would be better to introduce Ricki’s ethnicity in some other way so that she doesn’t seem typecast based on the shape of her eyes, and so that the reader is clear on her exact heritage.
Otherwise, there are some copyediting-level issues that a good line edit would address. I must reiterate here the potential of this piece. It plants a lot of seeds and sets the stakes high from the beginning. It draws the reader into what appears to be a very troubled marriage. The reader can’t help but wonder what Mitch has done and whether or not any political intrigue, as hinted at by the mention of strategists, might be involved. Overall, this piece feels pretty close to ready; it just needs that final polish to up its odds of catching an agent’s or editor’s attention. 

1 comment:

Debra Erfert said...

We were just talking about head-hopping on a writer's facebook line, and I noticed very quickly that there was a head-hop. Eek! Didn't work, but it is very easy to fix.

Yeah, I want to know what Mitch did to get his wife's evil eye.