Submission for Coaching – Nicholas Beacham

It’s difficult to put your writing out there and open it up for criticism.  Nicholas Beacham took just that brave step and submitted the piece below:

“Finn, I have a job for you.” Aost smoothed the parchment in front of him. “There is a merchant in town, you might know him, Mills?”

In general, I don’t like using direct address in dialogue.  When you read it out loud, it sounds off as people rarely do it in speech.  If you keep it in sometimes, it can add a little bit of emotion.  In this instance, I’d delete “Finn.” 

I don’t like “in front of him” as it doesn’t add any setting details.  Is that as opposed to the parchment behind him?  Something like: “the parchment on the oak desk” works.

“There is a merchant in town” is a complete sentence, as is “you might know him.”  Place a period after “town” instead of the comma.  I’d also replace the comma after “him” with a period. 

“That old fart? Does he still buy from us?” Finn released his gaze from the window and looked at Aost amused.

Purely a personal preference, but try “He still buys from us?”  Do you like it better without the “does?”

“Released doesn’t sound right.  How about: Finn’s amused gaze drifted from the window to Aost.  That way, you avoid “looked,” which is a weak verb.

“He does, but he offers to low a price and we have to turn him away often.”

No!  I hate three independent clauses in a single sentence.  Break this up.

“So what’s the job then boss?” Pondering how a thief could help in the matters of fencing stolen goods.

Since you show Aost acting first in this passage, I think that most readers will assume that he’s your viewpoint character.  This is Finn speaking, and you show him thinking.  I consider this a viewpoint shift.  Such shifts are considered out of favor in modern writing techniques.

Also, your beat (another word for an action tag) is a sentence fragment.  While fragments are okay to use for emphasis, this is not an appropriate place for one.

“Finn, don’t call me boss, how long have we known each other?” Aost protested.

I still don’t like the use of the name inside the dialogue.  It works here, however, better than above if you’re trying to add that little extra hint of emotion. 

You’ve got more punctuation problems here.  You do not separate two independent clauses with a comma.  You either need a semicolon (not recommended here) or to start a new sentence.

I hate speech tags other than “said.”  “Protested,” to me, is particularly bad as it does not describe a form of speaking.

“Fine, what’s the job then… my lord” Finn said with a smirk as he fumbled with a quill on the desk.

The ellipsis does the job here, but a beat might be better. 

I hate the speech tag followed with an action.  All speech tags do is tell the reader who’s talking.  If you can delete them, do so.  In this case, writing: Finn smirked as he fumbled with… is a great action tag.

Since you’ve never told us that there’s a desk, this needs to be “a” desk instead of “the” desk.

Speaking of never telling me about a desk, I have no idea about the setting.  Are they in an office?  In the middle of the forest?  On a spaceship?  Give me something!

Aost sighed and slid the parchment across the desk. “Sources retrieved this from a messenger, give it a read.”

Same punctuation problem.

Finn picked up the note, the scribbled handwriting was hard to read but from what he could make out, it looked like it was from Mills.

You might consider something like “grabbed” or “retrieved” instead of “picked up.”  “Up” tends to be a wasted word.

New sentence after “note.”

Eliminate “was” when you can.  Describe Finn squinting or twisting the paper in an attempt to make out the handwriting instead of telling us that the writing was hard to read.

Finn knows Mills’ handwriting well enough to discern who wrote it?  This doesn’t seem credible unless Finn is a handwriting expert.

Is the break from the previous paragraph to indicate that you’re changing viewpoint characters?  If not, I don’t see the need for the line space.

“Appeared to be” is one fewer word that “looked like it was,” and it avoids that dreaded three-letter word.

Something about a big job tonight and getting back at those rotten thieves.

This is not a sentence.

Still unsure what this had to do with him, Finn tossed the parchment on the desk. “So Mills is planning something. I still don’t know what you want me to do.”

I don’t like that first phrase.  It’s telling the reader why Finn is doing something.  It’s generally considered better to describe actions and let the reader figure out the motivation.  Also, it’s redundant with the last sentence.  I’d delete it and just go: Finn tossed the parchment back onto the desk.

You can delete the “I still don’t know” in that last sentence, and it will come across as far more impactful.

“Sources tell me that Mills is asking around town for independent thieves to work on a job for him.”

I’d delete “sources tell me that.”  I think you’ve adequately established where Aost is getting his information.

Is that last part – to work on a job for him – needed?

“And you want the guild to do the job instead?” Still confused, Finn went back to staring out the window.

I think the response reads better without the “and” to start.

I’d delete the “still confused.”  Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE).

“We are the job, Finn. Mills is planning to steal from the guild. He is asking thieves to rob our storehouses.”

Consider contractions here.  It sounds a bit stilted.  “We’re” and “he’s” might help.

“Our storehouses are hidden and well guarded.

“Well guarded” should be hyphenated.

Even if he did find a thief stupid enough to try it, they wouldn’t make it past the traps.” Finn boasted. He took pride in the traps he set up for the guild.

Try “found” instead of “did find.”

I’m not sure the “it” is needed.

“A thief” doesn’t match with “they.”

“Boasted” does not work here. 

That last sentence is telling.  It’s not horrible to do so but consider whether you want it.  Delete “up” regardless.

“I don’t doubt your ability to lay a good trap.

This is three uses of “trap” in three sentences.  Try not to overuse words.  The repetition sounds really bad here.

The guild is offended by Mills’ actions and he needs to be taught a lesson.” Aost adjusted his sleeve cuff and reached for a quill. “I need you to teach him this lesson.”

This is really stilted.  Make it more personal.  Could Aost say: He offended me.  He offended the guild.  He’s offended you.  Teach him a lesson.”

The dusty red cushion of the window seat gave little support as Finn sat. “I’m not an assassin, Aost. Go talk to that guild if you want him taken care of.”

I think you can delete the entire last sentence.

“I’m not asking you to kill him” a hint of irritation in his words.

That last part isn’t a sentence, and it needs to be.

 “I’m asking you to rob Mills.” He scribbled something onto the parchment and folded it. “I want you to show that coward that he cannot cross us, that we are masters of our trade.”

Replace “he” with “Aost” so you don’t start two sentence in the paragraph with the same word.

Delete “I want you to” to tighten up that last sentence.  Get rid of the second “that.”  Consider replacing “cannot” with “can’t.”  Consider changing that last phrase to a sentence by making it something like: Everyone needs to see that we’re the masters of our trade.

He slid the parchment into an envelope and picked up the burning candle on his desk letting its crimson wax drip forming a seal.

Delete “on his desk.”  You’ve sufficiently established the desk by now.  Add a comma after “candle.”  “Form” not “forming.”

“Leave this for him when you’re done,” extending the envelope to Finn.

Again, that last needs to be a full sentence.

Sighing, Finn lifted himself from the window seat and shuffled over to the desk. “Any more details, or just rob the guy?” grabbing the envelope from Aost.

To me, it’s almost too much information to show him rising from the window seat.  I think your reader will understand that he stood if you just show him shuffle to the desk.  Regardless, delete “over.”

Same thing with that last phrase needing to be a sentence.

“He will be at Mog’s Tavern tonight. I’ve arranged for him to pick up some goods. He doesn’t seem to think we know about his plan so I sent a messenger saying to meet our fence there.” Finn detected a tone of satisfaction.

I think it would be better to combine the first two sentences.  “I’ve arranged for him to pick up goods from Mog’s Tavern tonight” is much cleaner. 

Get rid of all the weasel words in the next sentence.  “He doesn’t think we know about his plan.”  You don’t need the rest. 

You have to start a new paragraph when Finn detects the tone of satisfaction.  Aost is talking.  Because you have Finn acting, the reader’s expectation is that Finn is talking.

“Mog’s Tavern? I hate that place, drunks vomiting all over.” Finn held his nose at the thought of liquor infused stomach acid. “So you want me to take his wagon while he is doing false dealings with the fense?”

Delete “at the thought of liquor infused stomach acid.”  RUE.

Delete “while” and everything after it in the last sentence.

“Do whatever you have to, Finn, just get the job done.” Aost brushed away a lock of gray hair from his wrinkled forehead. Reaching for the cane propped against the desk, his knees shook as he stood. “Just remember to leave him that note. And don’t get caught!” he shot Finn a scowling look.

Still don’t like the use of the name inside the dialogue.

You have his knees reaching for a cane.  Watch the misplaced modifier.

“Sure thing boss, go take your nap now.”

This wants to be two sentences, I think, with a comma after “thing.”

Finn waved his hand as he stepped out of the room, the heavy oak door creeped shut behind him.

Consider replacing “out of” with “from.”  Replace “creeped” with “creeping,” or make that a new sentence with the word “crept.”

He tucked the note into the leather pouch at his hip and set off down the hallway. The floor creaked under his boots. Aost had the nails pulled up slightly for this very purpose, it warns him if someone is coming. A thief thwarting a thief, finn thought; or was it the assassins he was more afraid of?

Starting with “Aost,” this appears to work better as internal thought.  Change it to present tense, including that last part. 

You missed capitalizing “Finn.”

Overall, not a bad setup.  I think that I remember your orginal version of the opening scene that you posted on the Mythic Scribes forum.  I like this better as it doesn’t have all the plot holes.  However, what you gained in realism, you lost in action. 

Thanks for the submission.  I hope my comments help.

BrianWFoster’s Second Law of Writing

Second Law: Show, Don’t Tell

Perhaps no other rule has given the novice writer more heartache and sleepless nights than this one.  I’ve seen this scenario countless times.  Our intrepid author posts his cherished work for comments on a writing forum.  Expecting praise and adulation, he checks back the next morning.  Five comments await him, all amounting to “show, don’t tell.”  Crushed, he shouts “what does that even mean” and throws his laptop in the trash never to write again.

In this post, I’ll attempt to remove some of the mystery from that dreaded phrase.

It is imperative you show the reader what is happening rather than telling them.  Showing engages them.  Telling bores them.

She went to the market, almost getting lost along the way.  When she arrived, she realized her money was missing.  She had to go back home.  Her father yelled at her.

What do you think?  Are you engaged?  I’d say probably not because this is all about the telling. 

Let’s see if we can improve it:

Full of hope, Jane opened the door.  The sunlight warmed her as she stepped into its vibrant rays.  She sniffed, and the perfume of the azaleas made her close her eyes in delight.  

“It’s such a beautiful day, I think I’ll walk through the woods instead of taking the road,” she said to herself.

Whistling, she skipped through the tall grass behind her house… 

You should get the picture by now.  So, what’s the difference between the two passages?  Several things: detail, revelation of character, and engagement of the senses. 

Detail – It’s not just “she,” it’s Jane.  There are azaleas, vibrant rays of sunshine, and tall grass. 

Revelation of Character – In the first version, the only thing we know about the girl is that she’s perhaps a bit irresponsible not being able to keep track of her money.  In the second, we know she’s full of hope, she likes the smell of azaleas, she enjoys a beautiful day, and she’s happy.

Engagement of the Senses – Could you picture any of the first version in your mind?  What did the market look like?  How did the money feel?  You’ve got nothing to go on.  In the revision, you feel the sunlight and see its vibrant rays.  You smell the azaleas. 

A question I hear a lot: Is it ever okay to tell?  Ready for the answer: Yes!

Here’s a great example.  You have a great action scene where you give a lot of detail, reveal character, engage the senses, advance the plot, and move the story in time.  You follow it with another great scene that does the same thing.  The problem is that nothing happens between the two, but there’s a gap in time and distance.  It’s perfectly okay to tell the reader: “hey, the POV character traveled to this new city over the course of the next day.”  Now, you’re ready to launch into the new scene. 

Sometimes, it’s okay to give some exposition by telling.  It’s almost always better to show, so don’t lean on this hesitant permission as a crutch.  Be careful, but I’ll allow you to slip in the occasional sentence if it’s presented well and flows with your narrative.

Review of Critical Failures

In Critical Failures, Mr. Bevan introduces us to a humorous tale of a group of slackers who, for not taking Caverns and Creatures seriously enough, are sentenced by the Cavern Master to experience it for real.  Unfortunately for the players, they have to live with the consequences of their actions from when it was just a game.

Why to buy this book: It’s well written and fast paced.  It’s easy to become immersed in the world.  Besides that, it’s laugh out loud funny.  Literally.  My wife had to tell me to quiet down a couple of times so as not to wake the little one.  The best thing about the humor, though, is that it flows from the characters and the story instead of seeming contrived for the sake of a laugh. 

Why not to buy the book: Though the plot contains quite a bit of adventure, one of its primary charms is its humor, and I’m not sure you’ll catch all of it if you’re not familiar with role-playing games.  The most serious negative to me (with the caveat that I really enjoyed this book) is that I didn’t find the characters all that likeable.  They fit the story well, and Mr. Bevan brought them to life.  I could see these guys sitting around a pizza shop playing D&D (excuse me, C&C).  The problem is that I wouldn’t enjoy being around them very much as they didn’t seem to have a lot of redeeming qualities.

Bottom Line: I try to save 5 stars for my favorite books of all time like Eye of the World and Name of the Wind, so I couldn’t stretch quite that high for this one.  It’s a solid 4, maybe even 4.5 though.  I do recommend giving it a read if you’ve ever done RPG’s.

Disclaimer: I purchased this book; I did not receive a promotional copy.  However, Mr. Bevan is a member of a writer forum that I frequent.  In exchange for this honest review, it is anticipated that he will provide an honest review of Power of the Mages when it is released.

BrianWFoster’s First Law of Writing

My First Law: Have a goal.

Oh, you say you want to write a 1000 words a day or finish your novel in a year?  Great, fine.  It’s good to set objectives for yourself, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

Have a goal for your writing.

If you’re a humorist, you want to make people laugh.  If you’re Stephen King, you want to give people nightmares.  You may desire to teach something or to convey your political viewpoint. 

Whatever that goal is, keep it in the front of your mind and use writing techniques designed to accomplish your objective.

I have two goals:

1. Keep the reader engaged – I want my readers to be a hazard on the roads because they’re so sleep deprived from not being able to put my book down the previous night.

2. Envoke an emotional response from the reader – It’s great if my reader enoyed the book and couldn’t put it down, but I won’t be satisfied unless it caused them to feel something for the characters.

All the Laws and tips that I give from this point forward will be keep these two goals in mind.  If you have different objectives, understand that my tips may not apply to you.

BrianWFoster’s Zeroth Law of Writing

I believe in the rules of writing, and, in the coming months, I’ll be sharing those views with you. 

In all honesty, however, there is only one rule you need follow in order to be a writer.  Are you ready for my Zeroth Law of Writing, the foundation for everything that comes after?

Okay.  Here it is…

Write.

That’s it.  To be a writer, you must write.  No matter how much or how well, it’s the one thing you simply must do.

Introducing BrianWFoster.com

Welcome to my site.  Here you’ll find links to my work, tips on writing, and an opportunity to have your work critiqued. 

I’m excited about my upcoming releases.  I hope to have my first published work, a short story entitled Abuse of Power, ready for public consumption no later than December 1, 2012.  I’ll link to Amazon where you can buy it for just 99 cents, or you can download it for free from this site in exchange for signing up for my easy-opt-out newsletter.  More importantly, my first novel, Power of the Mages, will be available in spring of 2013.

Also stay tuned for my writing tips.  I’ve got some great advice coming for the beginning writer.  As the blog advances, I’ll also share my thoughts on the publishing process and marketing techniques.

At the moment, I’m actively soliciting short works for critique.  If you have a work in progress and want line-by-line comments on it (try to limit portions to 1000 words, though), email it to me at author@brianwfoster.com.  A word of warning: be prepared to have the piece torn up.  I am quite opinionated and willing to share my expertise with you.  By submitting it, be aware that you are agreeing to let me post the piece, along with my comments, on this blog.