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all. Please forgive me, for I'm afraid I'm a novice when it comes to writing fiction. I wanted to get the community's thoughts and recommendations for improving the below passage. I realize it needs tons of work and I'm looking for suggestions on how to:

  1. Improve the flow,
  2. Refine the style,
  3. Identify any inconsistencies in the story,
  4. Increase the reader's level of interest/anticipation, and
  5. Improve the passage in any other way that the community may deem important.

With that said, please critique the passage below and I'll be happy to return the favor. Don't be gentle; I can take it. :)

“You understand it’s nothing personal,” the man half-asked, half-asserted as he turned and exited Mr. Jansen’s study. An empty silence hung in the air as Mr. Jansen lowered his gaze to the pistol on his desk below. He sighed and scooped up his Beretta .45 and swiftly walked out of his study, locking the door behind him. As he pulled out of the driveway in his red Ferrari F430, only one thing was on his mind: get the hell out of here while he still retained an ounce of his sanity.

Across the street, Mrs. Jansen watched through the bedroom window as her husband left. It had been only a year since their daughter had tragically disappeared. The Jansens hadn’t been the same since, but her husband Robert had been having an especially hard time. As Vanessa Jansen lowered her head in tacit exasperation, her lover took her in his arms and assured her that everything was going to be okay.


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Thank you all for your answers! It's clear I've got a lot of work to do. I'll aim to post an update in a few days once I've had time to carefully consider all of your wonderful suggestions. –  Matt Caldwell Feb 13 '11 at 22:33

4 Answers 4

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I'm just rewriting. :) A bit of trimming, a bit of adding:

"You understand — it's nothing personal." It wasn't quite a question. When Robert Jansen didn't quite provide an answer, the man turned and left.

Jansen lowered his gaze to the Beretta on the desk. After a long moment, he sighed, picked it up, and left the study, locking the door behind him. His too-expensive sports car waited for him in the driveway of his over-leveraged house. It was funny, he thought, how those things had meant so much at the time. Had it only been a year? Twelve painful, exhausting, bewildering months since his daughter had disappeared? Now all he wanted was to get the hell out of here while he still retained an ounce of his sanity.

Across the street, his wife Vanessa watched through the bedroom window as he left. She tried not to let her exasperation show, but her lover's warm arms wrapped around her, and she knew he had read the emotion in the tense lines of her body. "It's going to be okay," he whispered. She wished she could believe him.

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2  
Lauren, I got some great answers, but yours was most helpful in showing me just HOW much my writing can be improved. Thank you! –  Matt Caldwell Feb 14 '11 at 19:43
    
My pleasure. :) If you want, I can go through and break down the changes I made and how I got there. –  Lauren Ipsum Feb 14 '11 at 20:00
    
I'd hate to trouble you further, but if there are any significant changes you feel compelled to break down, then by all means... :) It's certainly appreciated, either way. –  Matt Caldwell Feb 16 '11 at 21:03
    
I added a new answer, which see. –  Lauren Ipsum Feb 17 '11 at 1:53

I'm just posting a second answer rather than try to force this into 500 characters:

I kept your first sentence, although I punctuated it to sound like actual speech. I can certainly hear the intonation you intend, but that requires a pause. So I added an M-dash.

I know what you were getting at with the idea that he's both asking a question and making a statement, but you worded it awkwardly. Saying "It wasn't quite a question" infers that it's mostly a statement, so that also trims some words.

You mention "study" twice in the same para, so I cut the first use.

"Mr. Jansen" is fine until we find later there's a Mrs. Jansen and that both have first names, so I put Robert here, since this is our introduction to him.

A silence only deserves an adjective when there's some kind of emotion in it: tense, contented, aching. "Empty" is redundant and inapplicable. Out.

Now we find that Robert is doing something. This would work better as a response to the other man's not-question, so I moved it up and made it parallel phrasing, which is more elegant and more vivid. It also allows there to be an exchange: speech, beat of silence, movement. This works better than words thrown over a departing shoulder.

I have no idea if a Beretta is properly a pistol or just a gun, but I assumed the one on the desk was his Beretta. I trimmed that to make it clearer.

We leave the study; that's fine. Then we come to the car. I added actual movement rather than have him transport from study to already moving down the street.

IF you're doing a deliberately exaggerated style of writing where part of the humor comes from over-branding, you could keep the Ferrari business. This appears to be pretty straightforward, however, so I would introduce the car description in whatever next scene it is with him, whether he's driving or arriving. My first thought here is that it's just distracting.

My second reaction to the Ferrari is that it's an expensive toy — classic mid-life crisis, compensation for something. So I thought it would be neat to add the idea (not in your original) that he had spent too much on everything at some earlier point, and was now regretting it.

When you mentioned the missing daughter, that tied in really well with the "spend in haste, repent at leisure" idea, so I connected them.

Kept your sanity. ;)

I note that the wife is not at home, but at someone else's house (her lover's?) across the street from her home. Left that.

Since Robert is the only person named, we can simply say "his wife," and then give her name as part of her introduction.

Daughter's disappearance is already moved out of here. Since I established that he over-spent, and the other man and the gun also portend trouble, that shows (rather than tells) the reader that he's taken it hard. So that's out.

"Tacit" is not the word to pair with "exasperation." It's usually used with "acceptance" or "rejection," since it means "unspoken" or "implied." I get that you wanted to say that she was exasperated but trying to hide it, so I reworded that. At this point we're in her POV, so I gave her thoughts and perspective. She has a lover (also showing that she hasn't been the same since the daughter went missing), so she's turning to someone other than her husband for comfort, and she's going to perceive the lover's arms to be warm emotionally as well as physically. That's an important detail.

I also added the idea that she doesn't believe her lover's assurances. She knows something of what's going on with Robert or she wouldn't be exasperated, and it's possible that she hasn't told the lover everything that's going on. So he's just giving her platitudes (maybe to make her come back to bed?) and she's not buying it.

So that's what was going through my head. :)

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I like the flow just the way it is. I don't see any inconsistencies in these few paragraphs. And I think there is plenty here to intrigue readers.

Several stylistic choices tripped me up as I read. My first stumble was over modifiers. Consider replacing "swiftly walked" with a stronger verb. "Tragically" is unnecessary. We know that a daughter's disappearance is tragic. I'm not sure about "empty silence." Seems redundant, but I like the rhythm of it.

Some non-simultaneous stuff is expressed as simultaneous. The man asks "as" he turns and exits. Are those really simultaneous?

Jansen walked out, locking the door. I'm especially picky about "-ing" verbs. I run those through two tests:

  • If I inserted "while," would it make sense? Jansen walked out while locking the door. Doesn't make sense.
  • If I reversed the order of the clauses, would it make sense? Jansen locked the door behind him, while walking swiftly out of his study. Doesn't make sense.

The phrasing fails both tests, so the actions are not simultaneous, and "-ing" isn't the right form.

Beyond the simultaneity trouble, there is an overabundance "this while/as that" in these two paragraphs. One in each of the first three sentences, and two in the fourth. Then two more in the second paragraph. The prevalence of that construction distracted me.

I found the narrative distance shifting in and out. In the first paragraph, "an empty silence hung in the air" puts us moderately intimately into Jansen's head. But "only one thing was on his mind" feels distant. That phrase not something he's thinking, but a comment on what he's thinking. Whose comment is it? Not Jansen's.

More troublesome is the sentence that begins, "The Jansens hadn't been the same since..." Whose thought is that? Surely Vanessa wouldn't refer to herself and her husband as "the Jansens." And the whole sentence is narrative summary. There's nothing evil about narrative summary per se, but given that the first two sentences place us so intimately in her head, the sudden shift in narrative distance is jarring.

Sometimes we're fairly intimate in the Jansen's heads, but they're referred to as "Mr. Jansen" and "Mrs. Jansen," which suggests distance. From these two paragraphs alone, I can't tell whether there's a reason for that. But wasn't sure how close to feel to these two characters.

Some people will advise against the POV switch from one paragraph to the next, and characterize all such POV shifts as evil headhopping. I'm okay with POV shifts as long as they're done well and with a purpose. "Across the street" marks the POV shift nicely.

It isn't clear what POV we're in at the start of the first paragraph. The man's? If preceding paragraphs put us in Mr. Jansen's POV, that's fine. If this is the first paragraph of the novel, it works less well. And given that we shift POVs from one paragraph to the next, it wouldn't likely work as the first paragraph of a scene or chapter.

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I will say that the "half asked, half asserted" construction is a bit cumbersome. I then expected him to half-turn and half-exit while leaving half-empty silence in the air.

I also found the "make and model" of the gun and car to be a bit jarring. Lauren mitigates this in an effective way, but specifying these things might be part of your style.

Within this snippet, you have four characters. Two of them are unnamed.

Also, Mr. Jansen takes a little too long to have a first name, which Lauren also noticed.

With the "its nothing personal" you could go into a bit about how cliche that phrase is or how it sounds like it is from a movie or tv show.

My general understanding of the situation is: somebody is shaking down Mr. J. His wife is schtupping another dude, which generally means that she is treating him with contempt, which probably means that he treated her with contempt for quite some time first (which is usually how that goes).

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