On March 13, members of the Moseley Writers Group, all of whom are published in a number of genres, read the first one hundred words of original, unpublished manuscripts for a speed critique. The Moseley Writers read the anonymous first pages aloud, discussed story elements that work, and suggested story elements that could be improved. Entries were critiqued according to the order in which they were received.
This event was presented as part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book’s Virginia Writing & Publishing series, hosted by these writing centers and organizations across Virginia: 1455 Literary Arts, James River Writers, The Muse, Randolph College MFA, Watershed Lit Center for Literary Engagement and Publishing Practice, and WriterHouse.
We invite your feedback on events you’ve viewed, using this brief survey. Watch the video of this event here and read the transcript below:
Thanks to The Muse Writers Center for hosting this event.
SUSAN DEUTSCH: Hello everybody and welcome. I can see we’ve had a few people join us. I know we have more people registered to attend, so we’ll just wait a second for people to come in.
All right. Hello everybody and welcome. My name is Susan Deutsch. I am the program manager at The Muse Writers Center. The Muse is a creative writing nonprofit in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and we offer classes, workshops, and seminars for all ages, genres, and skill levels. You can find us at the-muse.org. We are hosting this event, The Write Start: Moseley Speed Critiques in partnership with the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, which is a program of Virginia Humanities. Before we go any further, there are closed captions available. If you’d like to turn them on or off, there is a button down at the bottom of your screen to do so.
A little housekeeping before we start. Emergency exits are located in the top right corner of your screen. Should there be an emergency, feel free to leave. There will be a Q&A at the end of this event. If you’re joining us here live in Zoom, use the Q&A function to ask your questions at any point; you don’t have to wait until the Q&A section officially starts. We’ll see it when we get to it then.
If you’re watching live on YouTube, you can also leave questions in the comments section there. Again, there are closed captions available.
This program is one in a series of six devoted to Virginia writing and publishing presented by writing centers such as The Muse and organizations all across Virginia. In addition to The Muse, other hosts are 1455 Literary Arts, James River Writers, Randolph College MFA, Watershed Lit, and WriterHouse. The full series of events is available at vabook.org, where you can also explore the full festival schedule and watch past events. There are a lot of really exciting events coming up, so I highly suggest you give that a peek as well after this. While you’re there please consider making a donation to support the festival’s ongoing work at vabook.org/give.
Now I’m going to go ahead and pass the mic to the Moseley Writers Group. It is all you, Jody.
JODY HESLER: Thanks, Susan. Welcome to The Write Start: Moseley Speed Critiques. In 1996, Lucy Russell, Andy Straka, Kate Hamilton, Virginia Thompson, and Deborah Prum formed the Moseley Critique Group, which continues to meet today. For twenty-five years, it has functioned as a resource and support gathering for the forty-plus writers who have participated. Many are published award-winning authors, and many continue to provide critique support to each other even after moving away.
The Mosley Critique Group has offered presentations on the craft of writing at the Festival of the Book since 1997. As crowds have grown, so has the hosting venue, ultimately landing the event at one of the Omni’s largest meeting rooms, when we’re not virtual.
The speed critique was launched in 2008, so this marks our fifteenth year offering in-the-moment feedback on the first one hundred words of submitted fiction manuscripts. We got an especially high volume of entries this year, which we’re really excited about, and we’ll get to as many of them as possible. At the end of the session we’ll get to as many questions as possible, too, if you could follow Susan’s directions for how to enter questions for us.
Thanks so much for being a part of our event today.
Today’s panel includes four Moseley writers. Deborah Prum. Give us a wave, Debbie. Her award-winning fiction has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Across the Margin, Streetlight, the Sweet Bay Review, and other outlets. Her essays air on NPR member stations and have appeared in The Washington Post. She’s given writing workshops at WriterHouse, the University of Virginia, James Madison University, and many other places.
Betty Joyce Nash is a published journalist and fiction writer. She teaches at WriterHouse in Charlottesville. She’s seeking representation for her first novel.
Meredith Cole began her career as a filmmaker and screenwriter and now teaches writing. Her short stories and essays have appeared in various anthologies and magazines. She was the winner of the St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic competition. And her first book, Posed for Murder, was nominated for an Agatha award.
MEREDITH COLE: Thanks, Jody. I’m going to introduce Jody.
Jody Hobbs Hesler’s stories, essays, articles, and book reviews can be found in the Los Angeles Review, Arts and Letters, Craft, The Bangalore Review, The Rumpus, The Georgia Review, Charlottesville Wine and Country Life, and elsewhere. She teaches at WriterHouse.
We’re really excited to be here. I’m going to share my screen in just a second, and we’re going to start our critiques. We got a tremendous number this year, which was fantastic. I know we’re not going to be able to get to all of them, but we’re going to do our best to get to as many as we can.
What I’m going to do is I’m going to show each entry on the screen, and I’m going to read it aloud, and then the group is going to do our quick-speed critique of it. Then we will move on. If you have questions at any time, please put them in the Q&A. We’re going to get to them right at the end, once we have a chance to sort of look at them and figure out where all the questions are coming from.
Great, so let’s get started.
Just after midnight Buster Matthews pulled into the Quick-Mart in Moncks Corner, cut the engine to his pickup truck, and tried to stop trembling. He had only been homeless for three hours, and he still hadn’t adjusted. Beside him his dog, Bo, whimpered.
“Hush,” Buster said quietly, and calmed the dog with a touch.
Someone knocked at his window. To his embarrassment, he yelped. A young woman gave him an uneasy wave. Her clothes suggested hard times: a baseball cap with the brim low, blue jean shorts, sneakers, and a bulky sweatshirt, which would be hot on a night like this.
MEREDITH COLE: All right, who’d like to go first?
JODY HESLER: I’ll go. This one, I felt, was chock full of concrete details that brought us right into the scene. We have the time of day. We have that it’s hot outside. We have everyone’s name, and they’re good names. Buster Matthews at the Quick-Mart in Moncks Corner. These are very specific names. They have a feel to them. So everything that’s offered gives us a little bit more than just the detail that it’s conveying. It gives us context and brings us into the scene. I felt like these hundred words really pulled me in.
MEREDITH COLE: I like them, too. I think the only question I had until the very last was how or why her clothes suggested hard times. They sounded kinda like standard clothes to me. But right at the end he said it was too hot on a night like this, and I think that’s something that was a great little detail. I was sorta like oh, that sounds kinda normal. But that she’s wearing more clothes kind of suggests homelessness. Good detail.
Anyone else? Do you want to jump in? Nodding, shake your head. Okay, next one.
Bodie Byrne was a godless man who loved churches. Drifting in or seeking out chapels and cathedrals. A convent or abbey would do. He considered them vessels of hope that leaked despair. Like airships, they achieved perfect buoyancy. As soon as a believer rose through the roof, a sinner walked in the door.
He convinced himself this wasn’t philosophical wish-wash. He could admire a church—and churchly objects—strictly for history, form, artistic ranking. There were many kinds of pilgrims. Bodie simply appreciated honest efforts to transmit spirit into design, emotion into something useful. Toffee swirl tapestries of faith. Hope’s sturdy trusses. Charming stained-glass charity.
DEBORAH PRUM: I’d like to comment on this one. I really love this one. I like the name Bodie Byrne. I like the fact that the sentence—the first sentence says a ton. He was a godless man who loved churches. I loved “vessels of hope that leaked despair” and “charming stained-glass charity.” I thought this was really brilliantly done.
The only thing I might change—because everything is so elegantly written, in my opinion—is the sentence that starts out, “There were many kinds of pilgrims.” Next to all that elegant writing, it’s adequate, but it’s a little bit chunky. Anyway, that’s it.
MEREDITH COLE: Betty Joyce, did you have anything?
BETTY JOYCE NASH: The only thing that I would mention—because I agree with Debbie and everything that she said—but I would love to have seen him actually do something or just be grounded somehow in space. I don’t know where I am. Maybe that’s not important at this point. But yeah, I would love to see him actually . . .
MEREDITH COLE: You’re right. We’re not in a specific church at this point.
BETTY JOYCE NASH: Right. We’re just anchored somehow.
MEREDITH COLE: Right. But the language is really beautiful, especially at the end. It was delightful to read aloud. Okay, everyone.
Several men and women perch around the table. Gloha’s board of directors. Hands folded. Faces somber. No brothers or sisters in sight.
Chase heads for the single empty chair, a masterpiece of white leather and chrome, and takes a seat. The darn thing protests under his weight. He grimaces and attempts to raise it up a notch, but it sinks even lower with a resounding pop. Everyone stares at him, unimpressed.
Chase spreads his hands in a supplicating gesture. “Please, call me Chase.”
Aight. No comment. Fair enough. These crackers are armed against charm.
DEBORAH PRUM: I love the symbolism in this. The “masterpiece of white leather and chrome.” And then the seat, the person attempts to raise it up a notch, and a pop it sinks lower, and everybody side-eyes him. I think that’s a great symbolic paragraph. I would take all the italics out. That’s just my preference. And then unless people are actually perched on the edge of a table, I would take the word “perch” out and change it. But I really like this.
MEREDITH COLE: It was a nice “person out of their element,” feeling very much nervous. I thought they did a wonderful job of really putting us right there, and we’re sympathizing with Chase right away.
JODY HESLER: I had a hiccup in the beginning, and it might be the name “Gloha.” We’re starting at the very beginning of something so we don’t really know what genre we’re in. Gloha to me sounded like it could be a magical community somewhere. So it took me a little while for the grounding of the voice and the actual situation to kind of come clear. I thought there might be room for a phrase that just indicated what Gloha was. Just a little bit more grounding, concrete detail. Maybe even some more concrete details around the room of what Chase is seeing, to take advantage of his point of view a little more abundantly.
BETTY JOYCE NASH: I felt a little bit the same way. I would love to maybe just start with the second paragraph. But there is a lot of tension in that first paragraph, so I don’t know. It’s your call; you’re the author. But I was with you, Jody. I wasn’t really sure where I was.
MEREDITH COLE: There’s sometimes a desire to name every single thing there. I love that we didn’t hear the names of every board of director member. That’s not important. So that was a great job. But do we need to know the name of the company yet? It’s not like it’s Nike. We don’t recognize it; it’s a made-up company, right? So I think that maybe not saying who it was right away might be fine too.
JODY HESLER: I guess I had one other question. The author let us know in the email that this was a young adult piece. So I wonder what corporation might be interesting to the young adult audience. It seemed like that was something I was waiting to see clarified.
MEREDITH COLE: That’s hard in a hundred words to get it all in, though.
JODY HESLER: Right. I just meant in the entry, like here’s the entry for this YA (young adult) audience—
MEREDITH COLE: When I heard that, I assumed that Chase was a kid, but then he didn’t seem like a kid.
BETTY JOYCE NASH: Right, right.
MEREDITH COLE: So that was a great question. That’s a great question, Jody. So always be careful of your genre. All right, ready?
Martin hadn’t planned on making a pass at the woman who ended up getting him fired. He was relieved that he faced no formal charges. Still, a tension in his jaw stayed with him from the moment he woke up until he drifted off to sleep. He had invited an eighteen-year-old for a drink in the spirit of collegiality, touching her back as he led her through the doors of The Keg. The incident seemed contained within the chemistry department. He felt they were making an example of him. The young woman hadn’t even declared a major.
MEREDITH COLE: I was just going to say, really fast, I felt like I’m reading a synopsis rather than the beginning of the story. I really feel like the scene where he makes the pass at the woman and also has his colleagues sanction him, that’s great drama, and we’re missing out on those scenes. So, I would be reluctant to sum up unless something amazingly more dramatic is going to happen after that.
DEBORAH PRUM: I agree. However, I do like that first sentence, “Martin hadn’t planned on making a pass at the woman.” That is a catchy first sentence. But I agree. I said exactly the same thing as Meredith—don’t rob yourself of that scene. But I do like that first line and then maybe the scene.
MEREDITH COLE: You could kind of foreshadow the scene like that.
JODY HESLER: I guess I was going to chime in a little differently on the first sentence. There is a catchy hook to it, but I’ve noticed—this happened in a number of different entries—when we start with a negative, sometimes it blinds the reader from what the motivation of the character actually is. So I wondered if there was a way to rephrase that, that included what his intentions were, rather than just kind of tripping us up with what his intentions weren’t. For me it’s hard to enter in on the absence of a thing.
MEREDITH COLE: It says a lot about that character. I think there’s a kind of character that would be like, “Well I didn’t mean to rob the bank; I just happened to be there and then the money was right there.” So I was kind of assuming that we’re getting that kind of character.
JODY HESLER: Even in the one kind of character that you just riffed off the top of your head, there was a “but” phrase. So he hadn’t meant to do this “but.” That may be the way to round out that sentence—and just give us that little bit more—that does give us a glimpse of his motivation. We understand that his motivation is, like you’re saying, this character who is not really honest with himself. We get that. That’s good. But just that little more would round it out a bit for me.
MEREDITH COLE: Anyone else?
My father was a Chinese scholar who I only knew through photographs hidden from me. I don’t remember meeting him, although he didn’t leave our little family for a year or so after I was born. I was told once by my mother that he had returned to China to bring western style learning to the ancient land and its people, but her tight face told me I should not ask any further questions about him. Sometimes when I looked at my brother, Gil, with his thick jet-black hair and almond eyes, I wondered if I was also looking at my father.
BETTY JOYCE NASH: I’ll just weigh in on this one. I really am fascinated by this story of the father who’s a scholar but the family doesn’t know him. But I wonder if it might be better to start with the last line because it’s so mysterious. “Sometimes when I looked at my brother, Gil, with his thick jet-black hair, I wondered if I was also looking at my father.” And then go in with the explanation. Because, that way we’re right in the character point-of-view, and his longing, from the get-go.
DEBORAH PRUM: I noticed one little detail too. The narrator says “he didn’t leave our little family for a year or so.” It’s a huge thing for a father to leave his family and not come back. You don’t need the “year or so.” Be specific; you’re making it up anyway. And I agree with Betty Joyce. I think starting with her looking at a picture in a scene is good.
MEREDITH COLE: Anyone else?
Reverend Oliver Matthews didn’t expect that tonight wouldn’t be ordinary; his life had been. Without regret, he labored from morning into night, endeavoring to improve community life; most residents lacked gratitude. At 10 p.m., Reverend Matthews walked onto the porch of his parsonage with his tarnished house key in hand. As he opened the door, there was a slight squeak. He removed his black, fedora-styled hat and placed it in the coat closet. He patted down his salt and pepper hair, while his fatigued, blue eyes gazed down the modest foyer and were saddened to return to an empty home.
BETTY JOYCE NASH: I loved this Oliver Matthews guy. I loved the descriptions of him and how he goes to work every day, and his life is ordinary. But I’m left at the end wondering what is exactly happening. Was the empty home different? Was there something different? Yeah.
MEREDITH COLE: I don’t think we’ve gotten to the change yet.
BETTY JOYCE NASH: Right.
MEREDITH COLE: So we’re saying this is how he does it every day. I thought there were some wonderful details in this. I really could see him, and that’s a great thing in the first hundred words to be able to really see that character. I love that he sort of does this without regret but people lack gratitude. I thought that was a great little touch for him.
DEBORAH PRUM: I like the tone of this, and I immediately felt empathy. And also why not just give him a fedora instead of a fedora-styled hat. But I also felt something needed to happen pretty quickly to keep my interest longer. I felt for him, but I wanted evidence of some sort of conflict by the next paragraph.
MEREDITH COLE: I think there’s a tendency to feel that you need to show everything. But you do not need to show every character walking through every door and getting into every elevator. So sometimes it’s good to jump ahead and maybe you write this down because you want to know how he enters every night. But if tonight’s going to be different, let’s cut to where it’s different.
JODY HESLER: Right, right. I think spending just a little time on the routine and then jumping in. I wanted to point out that this was another opening sentence that had a couple of negatives in it. Once it’s something that I notice, I notice it more. So that might make me overly sensitive to it. But “didn’t expect tonight wouldn’t be ordinary.” I feel there’s probably a tidier, more direct way of saying he didn’t expect anything out of the ordinary or just something a little more to the heart.
MEREDITH COLE: I stumbled over it a little bit.
JODY HESLER: Yeah. And there was one moment where we’re—“as he opened the door there was a slight squeak.” And I know now, after reading it, that that was just a note that there was a squeaky door. But because we’ve already been set up for this being the night that is extraordinary, I thought that we were right upon it, like here’s the noise. That was just a tip that that’s where the reader’s mind went. I was ready already, I think is what I’m saying.
MEREDITH COLE: Boo! All right, moving on.
The morning sky in central Oklahoma was green. Robert Smith had never seen a green sky before. He had heard about rare green skies, though. A sign of severe weather, renowned in the OK state.
Robert was driving north on I-35, returning home to Oklahoma City after an overnight at a casino down the interstate. His wife, Sunny, his sister-in-law, Suki, and brother-in-law, John Park accompanied him. John was riding shotgun. The two sisters, fading Korean beauties, were in the back, chuckling while watching a spirited Korean talk show on a shared Samsung Galaxy phone. They ignored the ominous proceedings outside.
DEBORAH PRUM: I really like the elements of this, but I think you have to get rid of all of the passive constructions and get right into Robert Smith’s head. I’m just going to give you an example of maybe how to start which will show you what I’m saying: “Robert tried to keep his aching eyes on I-35. Last night’s casino venture left him with an aching head and an exhausted body. (I used “aching” twice; don’t.) Every few minutes he glanced upward. The morning sky in central Oklahoma looked yellow-green.”
So you see, just getting right in his eyes and seeing things. And then when you describe the women in the back, describe features of beauty that are fading rather than just saying they’re fading. I love all the elements; but I just want you to get into Robert’s eyes and hear things and feel things right from his center. And I think it’ll make this more engaging and lively.
BETTY JOYCE NASH: Definitely having that green sky in the first line, for anybody who’s seen a tornado or the beginnings of one would know what that implies, and I’m not even sure you need a sign of severe weather. I mean a green sky is bad no matter how you cut it. So I loved that first line. So his aching eyes can definitely go like, “Is it my eyes or is the sky green?”
MEREDITH COLE: I guess I was confused because he’d said he’d never seen it before but it’s common there or it’s known in Oklahoma, and he’s returning home to Oklahoma City. So I didn’t quite get that. I felt that there was a contradiction there. So maybe just to work that out. Maybe he hasn’t lived there very long or something.
I also call this the “roll call beginning,” which is to say in the car we have the following people, and they start listing them. I think it’s more natural to have it be like you’re talking. “His sister-in-law, Suki, tapped on the seat and said, ‘Are we close to where we can get coffee?’ ” So, you introduce people as they become relevant to the story, as opposed to trying to tell us everybody who is there.
JODY HESLER: The phrase “faded Korean beauty” sort of sat funny with me. It felt like it sort of objectified the women and their ethnicity, and I don’t think that’s the intention here. I rewrote a sentence thinking, “His wife Sunny and her sister, Suki, chuckled in the backseat over a spirited Korean talk show,” establishes a lot of the same information without doing it in this same kind of manner. So just a pointer there that this would be another way to approach it.
MEREDITH COLE: Good point. Anyone have anything else?
BETTY JOYCE NASH: I only liked the “fading” because it gave us an idea that they were older, because I didn’t know about their ages. But there are plenty of other ways to do that.
MEREDITH COLE: That they went to a casino?
BETTY JOYCE NASH: I guess so. I’ve never been to a casino so I don’t know.
MEREDITH COLE: That’s a good point. All right, next one.
A car coasted toward the drop-off with an unconcerned occupant behind the wheel. Unconcerned because he had bullet holes in the back of his head. The first shot had deprived the gentleman of life, and the next two were for insurance. Now, propped upright in the driver’s seat, the deceased was only along for the ride. The car did a nosedive into the creek, the rider’s head smashing headfirst into the windshield, rendering the face almost unrecognizable. Landing first to the feast were flies, but an arm hanging out the open driver’s window would soon attract other scavengers.
MEREDITH COLE: Now I know you guys are all gonna look at me because I write mysteries.
BETTY JOYCE NASH: I’m definitely interested in this setup, but I didn’t have any point of view or character to attach to. So I felt like it was just a scene in a movie, actually. It looked like I was just watching it from a distance. So there was nothing for me to really grab onto.
MEREDITH COLE: It’s the omniscient point of view, as far as we can tell, right, because we don’t seem to be in the killer’s head. Because they’re not saying, “Oh, I’m going to drop this guy off because now I’m gonna get away.” We’re not the dead person’s point of view. But we seem to be just watching this thing.
But it goes very quickly from someone apparently driving this car off something, having it land in a creek, to having flies in one paragraph. That’s incredibly fast. I think it could be probably pulled out a little bit and more detail could be added. We don’t necessarily need to know who this person is, but perhaps we’re going to spend the rest of the book trying to figure out who did it, I’m assuming. But, we know we’re in the mystery genre and not an illustrated children’s book.
DEBORAH PRUM: Well I looked at this as kind of a lyrical beginning in the sense that maybe it’s a prologue or just a few sentences. So I don’t mind that it went so fast because I’m assuming we’ll get into somebody’s head. Maybe we’ll get into somebody’s head in the next paragraph. So I actually loved the way it just coasted from one event to the other and landed with flies and a scavenger. I guess we have to see what the next paragraph would be.
JODY HESLER: I feel like it gave me enough in this paragraph so that I would be curious for the next paragraph. There’s definitely the concrete grounding details, a definite scene that’s unfolding.
My question isn’t of this paragraph but of what comes next. Is it possible to sustain this point of view? And if not, how do you manage the segue elegantly so that the ready shifts with the writing into a more direct point of view? That’s not to say it can’t be done, but that would be a challenge that I see ahead for that manuscript.
MEREDITH COLE: I’m assuming it’s a prologue as well. There are very few books now that are written from an omniscient point of view. Often it’s just really a prologue.
All right, anyone else?
I know you remember the first time we met. We started by just casually hanging out with your friends on weekends. Our relationship was easy. No serious commitments. Those times felt like so much fun.
As our relationship grew some of your friends said they didn’t like the way you acted when we were together. But there were some who understood our relationship, as they were in one of their own. We began to spend more and more time together. Then you decided we should take our relationship to the next level. It made perfect sense that we should move in together.
BETTY JOYCE NASH: I really like the easy conversational tone, intimate. It’s very intimate from the first sentence. “I know you remember the first time we met.” But it made me suspicious because I couldn’t really sense the tension. Maybe it’s coming later.
JODY HESLER: There’s an ominousness in the first line, “I know you remember when we first met,” that could direct us anywhere. But the next sentences, to me, they unfold almost like a synopsis of their relationship. I’m wondering what is the “now” of this story, what are we walking in on?
MEREDITH COLE: Yeah. It’s also interesting that the reader is being addressed as this person in the relationship. It’s an interesting choice. No, I don’t remember hanging out with you.
Anyone else? Okay.
Ash carefully placed the Trader Joe bag on a pharmacy shelf in plain view of the public counter. She pulled a Sharpie from her lab coat pocket and wrote “Dad” on it so no one would disturb her father’s remains. She needed him here. He was the award-winning pharmacist. Her skill was in the clean room, under the SterilGARD hood, handling medicines using aseptic techniques. Now she had to handle patients?
She stared at the bag, hoping for the guidance he’d always given, then surveyed the counter, confident that patients would feel safer, too, knowing he was right there.
DEBORAH PRUM: I love the dark humor in this piece, and the unexpectedness of it, and the fact that she’s writing “Dad” on it. I think those are all great points. The only thing I would question is that the writer is assuming that people are going to know what a SterilGARD hood is and the word aseptic is. Was there another thing? I can’t remember. So I might just take SterilGARD out of that and describe the SterilGARD hood. But I just loved this. I love the quirkiness of it.
MEREDITH COLE: I didn’t know that pharmacists could win awards. So, I don’t know. I’ve learned something new. Yeah, I loved that the remains were put in a Trader Joe bag. That was kind of hilarious.
JODY HESLER: I also loved the idea that the patients would feel safer, too, knowing that dad was there in a little plastic bag off to the side. That was such a charming detail. And it sets us up for a story that’s either about grief or potentially about murder. You could kind of go either direction from here, and both directions would be interesting.
I have to say I thought the SterilGARD and aseptic were—because they were pharmacist-specific—I felt like they were appropriate. I feel like sometimes when we’re in a setting in a book it takes us to these pieces of it that we’re not as familiar with, and that makes us familiar. So to me I was okay with that.
BETTY JOYCE NASH: I was too. I actually liked those details because you can infer that it’s just some kind of special pharmacist thing. And so it really did put us in the scene.
MEREDITH COLE: I think also, to Debbie’s point, sometimes it’s not good to knock someone over the head with that in the first hundred words. So you could also just say her skill was in the clean room handling medicines using advanced techniques. I think we would be all fine; we would get it. She’s not a people person. Her dad, even in his ashes, is more of a people person than she is.
Okay. Anyone else?
Only Father could look dignified wearing handcuffs. He stood quietly, listening to the detective recite his rights and paying no attention to the metal rings on his wrists, as if they were merely accessories bought in the same expensive men’s store as his suit.
It seemed indecent to stare at him, so I started at the detective instead, wondering if I should ride to the police station with Father. The detective answered my question for me, leaving me standing in the driveway holding a search warrant as other police officers trooped into the house to start pawing through our lives.
DEBORAH PRUM: I love this one, I really do. I love everything about it. It grabbed me right at the first sentence. The only thing I would change is the second sentence. I would make it into two sentences because you want people to keep moving along. And it took me a couple reads to get through. But I really love this. I love the humor in it.
JODY HESLER: That first line, “Only Father could look dignified wearing handcuffs,” was great. It tells so much about all the characters—well, the two characters that were really the narrator and the father. I am curious, and I don’t need the answer right now. But I’m curious about how old the narrator is and kind of what the dynamic is of that father/child relationship at this point. It feels like it’s an adult, I would assume, rather than a child because they’re holding the search warrant. But beyond that I don’t know.
MEREDITH COLE: Anyone else? Okay.
The days grow longer and the temperatures warmer, but summer’s still a few weeks away. These final dewy spring mornings when the fledgling bluebirds start to practice flying are some of my favorite of the year. The little guys are really quite terrible at flying, often falling more than succeeding, but I applaud their persistence. In all my years of watching them in the big oak tree out back, I’ve never seen one give up, and I’ve watched hundreds of them take that first bold leap from the nest.
JODY HESLER: It’s a very naturalist’s beginning, which makes me wonder if that’s the setting. I would expect that then to kind of form part of the tone or setting of the book, some sort of a naturalist’s eye. There’s a lot that’s really beautiful in this, though I do wonder—this has come up a few times—what is the scene that we’re in, what’s prompting this reverie? So to me sometimes the reverie feels like it could be better used as sort of that back story to fill in a scene rather than something to bring us in on from the beginning. Most of the time.
MEREDITH COLE: Something to be really conscious of is this is not actually a scene—it’s a summary. So this is not Monday morning watching a bluebird try to fly.
JODY HESLER: Right. But it could be.
MEREDITH COLE: Which is a very specific scene where you’re there, and you’re holding your coffee, and you’re watching this thing, and you’re kinda cheering him on. It’s a very general statement about bluebirds.
DEBORAH PRUM: Right.
MEREDITH COLE: And it feels a little too general to me to really invite me in at this point. Anyone?
BETTY JOYCE NASH: Yeah, I agree. There’s just the notion of watching the fledgling bluebirds is beautiful, and I could picture it, and I like that. But again, it’s not a specific scene.
MEREDITH COLE: Okay, I’ll go to the next one.
The first to arrive is the former sheriff, in farm attire complete with stained green Deere. He is obese and angry after four sullen years in Petersburg federal pen for grand larceny. The host knows his favorite libation, Red Stripe beer.
Ten minutes later, the host’s personal lawyer and aide comes, slim and white-haired, in his newest gray pinstripe despite the cold and ice. He sniffs at Lagavulin scotch, neat as usual.
The third arrives a half hour later. The self-styled organizer, fifties, ballcap over an archaic mullet, bizarre scar around mouth and chin, pressed chinos, sky blue sweater rolled to the elbows showing sleeves of animalistic tattoos.
BETTY JOYCE NASH: I really like the specificity in here, and I’m intrigued about this gathering of notables or questionable characters.
MEREDITH COLE: Who I’d prefer to leave on the page rather than have a drink with any of them.
JODY HESLER: Absolutely. Even though, a very interesting array of drinks they are.
MEREDITH COLE: Yes. And I think we cut off his drink because he ran out of words.
BETTY JOYCE NASH: And the voice, the descriptions, “farm attire complete with stained green Deere.” I wasn’t sure if that was a hat or a—
MEREDITH COLE: Right, yeah.
JODY HESLER: I’m with you there.
MEREDITH COLE: Or maybe that all of it is Deere.
JODY HESLER: Exactly. All stained, all themed. In this one, I felt like there was so much really great, gritty detail that brought me into the scene. But one thing kinda held me back, and I think it was that the point of view could have been more embodied. I’m going to give a sample sentence, which I don’t recommend in terms of exactly what it says but what it does. So, “Johnny, the town embezzler, arranged a reunion of likely suspects Saturday at his farm out in blank.” I don’t want that sentence, but I want that information. Who is the host? It’s sort of mysterious, and I suspect that the host is also the point-of-view character. If that’s the case, I want to be seeing these characters arriving through that lens and kind of get just that little bit more information about why these people are together. Because they’re obviously very different and gathering for social purposes.
MEREDITH COLE: Right. I think sometimes that people keep it a secret because they feel that creates suspense. But instead it might keep a wall between us in the story.
JODY HESLER: Or create confusion.
MEREDITH COLE: Right. Because maybe the host is this mysterious character or whatever. But instead we’re like, huh, well, we don’t really care. But in fact, if we were in that—Is the host an eighteen-year-old boy who wants to avenge his father’s death? Is the host someone who’s trying to get back at the town and who’s sixty years old?—that would help us to get into that story.
JODY HESLER: Absolutely jump right in. And we’re on the edge of it now, on the brim, waiting to jump in.
MEREDITH COLE: Yeah, yeah. Anyone else? Okay.
August 1st, 1979, San Francisco, California.
She had milky white skin that burned red when she played near the lake, so her parents changed her name; they called her Pearl, the one with stringy brunette locks.
Her folks named her Pearl for she was precious, to them, and reason enough for them leaving the darkness of Kentucky coal mines. They moved across the state line to Cincinnati that promised opportunity for their Pearl. While they made decent tip money in working bar service jobs, and what-not, they couldn’t reel in that rambunctious girl.
Pearl grew up; she had dreams.
DEBORAH PRUM: These are a lot of good images and ideas. I like the first sentence. I think for me to be more pulled into this story it needs to start with a scene or thoughts or feelings of the narrator, getting right into that narrator’s point of view. For me right now this is a summary, and I’d like it to be something a tiny bit different that engages me more.
MEREDITH COLE: I’m also a little bit confused because I’m told I’m in San Francisco, but then we’re in Kentucky coal mines, and we’re moving to Cincinnati. And I’m like, so we’re still not in California, so when do we get to California?
Also there seems to be two contradictory reasons for her to be named Pearl right next to each other. One is her milky white skin and the other is because she’s precious. I feel like it could be both things, but I feel like they’ve just been contradicted.
JODY HESLER: And we get that they changed her name to Pearl.
MEREDITH COLE: So she wasn’t precious when she was born?
JODY HESLER: There is some clarity that could just be solved right out of the block. Clarity in this scene would be good too. I feel like the story really wants to begin with when Pearl grew up, and she had these dreams, and they were being ruined for one reason or another. So I feel like her backstory may become more relevant once we get her “fore-story,” so to speak, and kind of see what is this broken dream she’s struggling with.
BETTY JOYCE NASH: I’m glad you mentioned that, Jody. One of the things that I always try to remember when I’m writing an opening of a story, which is very hard to do, is that you may have a really good chance of wanting to change it once the story is actually finished and once you’ve revised it. It’s okay if your opening is a little bit all over the map at first. And as Jody pointed out, once the story itself is clarified, you may come back and at least tweak it, certainly. Who hasn’t done that?
MEREDITH COLE: Often you start too early; almost no one starts too late. So you start really early, and you need to take some stuff away. Or take some of this info and kind of weave it in a little bit more, rather than just trying to present it all.
JODY HESLER: I find one technique that I use sometimes when I’m writing something and a lot of backstory just keeps falling out all at the same time, is I’ll just create a whole other file, and write the backstory. Then it means as I’m creating the action going forward, I have what I need to pull in when it’s necessary. And it gets out of my head at that point when it comes into my head. So I think that helps me.
MEREDITH COLE: It’s super important that you know so much about your character that if someone said to you, “What’s their favorite color?” you’d be able to tell them. But you don’t necessarily have to tell “us” (the reader) all of that. You just have to write like you know it. Write, from that authority. And if you were questioned you would know it. But we don’t need to have a list of every single characteristic about your character. We need to just know enough for the story.
Okay, anyone else?
There was a knocking at the door. What waited on the other side would change her life forever.
Death does that.
Six people stood quietly in a wide circle deep in a forest, under a moonless sky. Waiting. The silence was broken by the sound of popping twigs and crackling leaves in the distance as if a raging fire was rushing towards them.
But something much more destructive came out of the darkness. A thin older man limped into the circle, gloating.
“Good evening Council. Thank you for coming on short notice.”
MEREDITH COLE: Anyone?
DEBORAH PRUM: I like this beginning; it was intriguing. I might take the “there was” out and use something other than a passive construction there. And in the second paragraph, I loved all the images. There is something about it that made me want to be closer in it. For example, “The silence was broken by the sound of popping twigs.” Maybe have someone hear the sound of popping twigs instead of “the silence was broken” by it. But I really did like this. It drew me in, and I wanted to read more.
MEREDITH COLE: Once again we’re in that omniscient voice. We have six people, and we don’t know who they are. We don’t know if one of them is telling this story. I was standing among six people in a forest. We don’t have any of that, which can make it very spooky. But I don’t think you could sustain a whole book very easily that way.
JODY HESLER: I also feel like we have some really good details, but like Debbie was saying, if we have the point of view to give us context then we get deeper in. We are introduced to a flood of nameless people, and there’s a sense of ominousness that’s more told than revealed. We’re told that this skinny man coming out, limping out, is more dangerous than a fire raging. But I can’t see it yet. So I think that context, that pulling the point of view into service and bringing us more context would give this more oomph.
DEBORAH PRUM: I think we have time for maybe one more because it’s about ten of one. So maybe we could do one more.
MEREDITH COLE: One more.
DEBORAH PRUM: Before questions.
Andie Jordan was scared. Rigid neck, ironbound stomach, wobbly knees scared. She tripped over a root that had curled its way up from underground in the clearing outside Eben’s cabin. Righting herself, she stood still. Eben had asked the impossible. Oblivious to birdcalls in the breeze, she heard only a buzzing from deep inside her head. Its vibration blurred the scenery.
Eben had spoken with disgust. “Just choose to change your mind, Andie. There’s no eternal truth. You have a choice. Go outside and think about it. I have nothing to say until you do.”
That’s when the buzzing began.
DEBORAH PRUM: I would start this more in the second paragraph. You have tons of really good elements here, really fascinating elements, but it’s confusing, at least to me as a reader. I would put this in chronological order and then “that’s when the buzzing began” will have far more emphasis. I wouldn’t talk about buzzing near the beginning. I would just build up to it, and I would start with the conversation with Eben.
JODY HESLER: That’s a good idea. I also wanted to say that these are really good descriptions of fear. They’re very body-specific. Some of them like “iron-bound stomach” is definitely not the same as just a turned stomach. There are a lot of what I call clichés of the body that this one seems to avoid.
But I would say that what we have is this moment of conflict, “just choose to change your mind . . . go outside and think about it.” It would pull me in a lot more, if instead, we had an interchange at that point, and we got to see a little bit more about who Andie was and what is this crisis that she’s facing.
There’s again—like Meredith mentioned—something about when we think we’re making suspense but sometimes we’re actually kind of keeping a wall between the reader and the action. I always prefer interaction to inaction, and we’ve taken this character out of an interaction and plunged her into inaction.
MEREDITH COLE: Good point.
BETTY JOYCE NASH: Yeah, I agree. I think that’s a really good point.
DEBORAH PRUM: May I mention something? If your entry wasn’t read here, just because we’re in this virtual world and things are different in the real world, I’m going to send comments to people over the next couple of days, especially the ones that haven’t been read here, just so you don’t feel sad about not having your entry read. You’ll get some comments.
MEREDITH COLE: Awesome.
JODY HESLER: While Meredith browses some of the questions to get started, I was going to mention some of the things that I noticed looking at all of them. I was aware that we wouldn’t be able to get to all of them, so I was trying to think of some things that recurred that might be helpful in general for people to hear about.
One of the things that came up in a number of these was the importance of starting “in scene,” where the scene and the situation, the crisis is clear.
Also the characterization. One of the things I went through each of these entries and thought about was, “Is characterization present here?” Sometimes when there’s just backstory or whatever, we don’t get that characterization quite as much.
The other thing that I was really looking for were grounding details, something concrete in the “now” that has to do with scene and situation. All those elements work together.
Those are some things I was looking for, just as a heads up.
MEREDITH COLE: We have just a couple questions. One person said, “Why do we do a hundred words rather than two pages?” I think, first of all, two pages is a lot for us to read. A lot of people don’t give a book two pages. So I think one of the things that we talk about is that you have to grab people in the first couple of paragraphs. When you pick up a book, how long does it take before you say, I want to buy this book or I want to read this book?
JODY HESLER: I agree. That’s from, on the one hand, the marketing standpoint as writers producing a product, but also as writers having appreciated reading. In my teaching, I talk a lot about opening lines. We’ll have students bring in their favorite books, for example, and share just the first two sentences. From the first two sentences you can usually gather tone, genre, a little inkling of characterization and what’s happening around you. So it’s helpful to look at the first lines of things you really admire to kind of get an idea of what’s accomplished. It’s really interesting when you’ve finished reading a book, you really like to go back and read that first paragraph, and see how much was predicted and foreshadowed from just the opening lines.
So agreed, it would have been about seventy pages or something like that of reading for us to do and critique on. And we definitely wouldn’t have gotten through more than two or three in the time period for this format. But also those opening lines really do bring a lot to the table.
MEREDITH COLE: Here’s another question. “What would be your top two or three elements that must be in the first hundred words?” The person asking has suggested: main character, setting, mood, time frame, etcetera.
DEBORAH PRUM: I find that the longer I write, the more I understand that the best thing to do is to be in a strong point of view right off the bat. That will inform everything else. It’ll inform your setting, it’ll inform action. Just get in the head of that person, and that will launch your story.
I want to just take a second to also answer another question about why sometimes there are only one of two of us that will respond in this live setting. It has nothing to do with the quality of your piece at all. We’re just trying to move through as many entries as possible. If one or two of us panelists respond in the same way, then I might stay silent, rather than just repeating the same response.
But anyway, point of view is the answer.
MEREDITH COLE: Great point, great point. I was going to answer that by typing it, but that was better than I could have said while typing and chewing gum at the same time.
Someone asked, “What’s our opinion of prologues?” Some have said not to have one. I think there are as many opinions of prologues as there are people who read books. Quite frankly, some people don’t mind them or like them. Some, maybe agents, say they’re old fashioned. I think they can be a crutch, and it might be worthwhile while you’re editing, to just to say to yourself, “Do I need this or not?” And if the answer is yes, then do your prologue proudly. That’s my feeling.
JODY HESLER: Great answer. I might add one thing. When I come to a book as a reader when it’s not something I’m critiquing, I just accept it the way it is. If there’s a prologue, I enjoy a prologue. So that’s who I would answer that question.
MEREDITH COLE: Yeah, that’s an excellent point.
Are there any openings in older classic novels that are missing and that you would like to see more in contemporary works? Do you feel like they used to open books better?
DEBORAH PRUM: You used to get away with murder. Now I feel like you have to be—when I read some older classics that are wonderful, I think on my gosh, this has gone one for three or four pages and not anything is happening—yet they did very well as a classic. That’s my opinion.
MEREDITH COLE: I think it’s really important if you’re only reading classic novels when you’re writing, and you’re hoping to get published today, that you make sure to also read contemporary novels. There are things that were very common, like using omniscient voice, that are much less common now. They really want you to choose a point of view, whether that’s third person or first person or whatever. So it’s really important to acquaint yourself with how people are writing today. When I teach mystery writing and people are like, “I love Agatha Christie, and that’s all I read,” I’m like, “You should probably read some newer mystery authors because there are amazing mystery authors and they write very differently, and that’s who’s getting published today.”
SUSAN DEUTSCH: Unfortunately, that is all of our time for today. But thank you so much to all of our panelists. I know I personally learned a lot from hearing all of y’all’s feedback. Thank you to everyone who joined us live. If you’re watching after, thank you for watching. Be sure to check out the Moseley Writers on Facebook, and you can find The Muse at the-muse.org, and look at the full schedule of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at vabook.org. And thank you so much to our captioner; we really appreciate all your work.
Thank you so much everybody.
JODY HESLER: Thanks for having us.
MEREDITH COLE: Thank you.
DEBORAH PRUM: Thank you.
BETTY JOYCE NASH: Thank you. Bye-bye.