Thursday, July 16, 2009

Bernoulli’s Principle

I have been following Miss Snark’s First Victim blog, and currently she has up for feedback the first 250 words of 38 unpublished works. I love reading these, and have left feedback on a couple I especially liked. What particularly strikes me with these exercises/contests is just how important those first few paragraphs are. My sister, an avid reader and recreational writer, associates it with Bernoulli’s principle.

Bernoulli’s principle: The combined forces which generate lift in aircraft. In a literary application, we essentially rely on those first words to generate enough forward motion in our story to get it off the ground. We need to give the reader confidence that we will deliver them safely to a destination without a crash and burn.

She is a staunch reader of the first paragraph in books that catch her interest. If it is convoluted, cliché, not utterly easy to follow, or sounds pretentious then it has taken a nosedive and she puts it back on the shelf. “I’m willing to commit time to the journey, and if that first paragraph gives me confidence that I’m in good hands, I’ll read on,” she told me.

Based on that principle, I have rewritten my opening paragraph countless times.

As a side issue on this topic of opening paragraphs and offering critique on them: when I read the feedback provided by others, I am amazed at the authority with which it given. The writing qualifications of the reviewers, on so many of these blogs, spread across the entire spectrum of writers. From unpublished novelists (like me) on over to those with numerous credentials and published works. Yet very often, the feedback is consistently good; in view of it, I can return to the excerpt I just read and see exactly what needs tweaking. I’ve learned how to improve my own writing by means of it. I think it must be no small task, developing that critical eye. I'm still honing mine. When I read someone’s work, I am far more inclined to see what I like in it. Perhaps that’s just my nature.

Very soon, I will be swapping manuscripts with a fellow novelist who is at approximately the same stage I’m at. I’m a little nervous—okay, a lot nervous! I know I will find plenty to like about her work, but will I be up for the challenge of offering helpful critique? We’ve agreed to have a list—an agenda of sorts—as to what we specifically want; I hope that saves me. I wonder how many of those other bloggers out there are in the same boat.


  1. Good luck with the MS swap, JB.

    As far as feedback, I think you have to take it with a grain of salt (or a flake of pepper, if you're so inclined). If I were receiving feedback from Steven King or Cormac McCarthy, I would be more inclined to take what they say as gospel. Still, no matter who it is, it's my work and, ultimately, I'm going to make the final call on how it's done. It may work, it may not work. But that's on me.

    Look at Stephanie Meyer. Had she not followed her own instincts, her own voice, the whole Twilight thing probably wouldn't have happened.

    The problem with many critiquers, including me, is that on some level, we judge everything on how we would have done or said it. So, take it for what it is...

    Be well, live long and prosper! (Sorry I went all Spock on you there)

  2. Hi, Bridget!

    Ugh. I wish I had more time to keep up with Miss Snark's blog (and with the Public Query Slushpile, for that matter) - I love the idea of critiquing a novel's hook, as it can be so darn educational for all involved. But I barely have time to keep up with my emails... which reminds me that I owe you one, Bridget!

    Speaking as the person with whom you're about to swap manuscripts (it is me you're referring to, right?), I really appreciate your advice re: Bernoulli's Principle. At the moment, I could definitely use it to refine my hook - or so other beta readers have told me. :-)

    I'm super-excited to read your work, but like you, I'm equally nervous. I just hope that I can offer useful feedback. No matter what, I promise you two things: I will be kind and supportive in my criticism, and I'll only comment if I feel it's necessary to improve the story. Of course, it will only be my humble opinion (as an unpublished fiction writer and an avid reader of most genres) - to be taken "with a grain of salt" as Scott suggests. But the point is... I'm not the sort of person who feels the need to comment no matter what (you know, like some magazine editors feel the need to change a piece of writing, no matter how good it is, in order to justify their position) - so any critiquing will be honest and to-the-point if nothing else.

    I can't wait!

  3. Laura and Scott,

    You both make some good points regarding a critique. Truly, it is very subjective, and criticism just for the sake of offering something is counter productive. I do think an honest opinion goes a lot farther than a sugar coating—of course, offering it in a “kind and supportive” way is an art in itself. I’ve received some lovely and encouraging feedback on my story when I most needed it; now, I need straight honesty—I’m so ready for it.

    By the way, my desktop arrives tomorrow! My computer guy says he was able to retrieve all my files. What a relief, but I have to reinstall all my software. I should be up and running by early next week.

  4. Thank goodness you didn't lose everything.