An Exercise in Self-Critique

A few weeks back, I was exposed to a Tumblr meme inviting writers to extract the first line from their ten latest works and see if some pattern will emerge. I accepted the challenge and indeed found some patterns — none of which are good. At about the same time, I started regularly listening to the marvelous writing podcast, Death Of 1000 Cuts (“making you an awesome writer one cut at a time!”) produced by the novelist, creative writing teacher and stand-up poet, Tim Clare. Among other things, this podcast features refreshingly honest and incredibly illuminating critiques of story beginnings submitted by courageous novice writers.

Thus inspired, I decided to make a series of posts in which I’ll take a critical look at the beginnings of some of my own stories. I’ll keep the excerpts under 250 words, and I’ll paste them whole before taking them apart one sentence at a time.

The first victim: Ghost in the Machine.

Chapter 1: Arbiter

If you were to ask, Nihlus would probably tell you that he loved his job. On any other day, that is. Right now, he imagined that being anything, anything at all, from a mercenary looking for easy credits among the arms dealers in the Verge to a lap dancer in Afterlife on Omega, would be better than being a Spectre. Because, most days, being a Spectre meant eliminating the scum of the Galaxy. It was as simple as that, and it was something Nihlus was extremely good at, although to say he enjoyed it would be taking it a bit too far. But there were days, the never-ending, dreary days, when the Council expected their top military operatives to don fancy civilian suits and act as diplomats, negotiators, or, like today, arbiters.

Nihlus knew all too well why the Council had set him up with this particular job, and not some other Spectre (or Spirits forbid, an actual expert in interstellar law). In part, they had done so because Nihlus was reputed to be a keen judge of character. And then there was the fact that, unlike most Council agents, Nihlus actually liked humans. Assigning him as the arbiter in the reevaluation of the Torfan incident carried the subtle message that the Council supported Humanity in this matter.

Still, he didn’t like being in the middle of it. There were so many things he’d rather be doing than interviewing nervous humans all day long.


On to the blow-by-blow.

If you were to ask, Nihlus would probably tell you that he loved his job.

Uh… where do I begin. There’s a lot about this line that’s just off. First, the second person address, “If you were to ask…” is a bit intrusive, even confrontational, and I know there are many readers who don’t appreciate when the story talks to them directly. It breaks the fourth wall. Perhaps there are such situations where it’s worth it, for whatever intended effect, but I happen to know that I didn’t have any particular purpose for it. It was just a random thing that probably sounded witty at the time, and now it’s just jarring.

And then comes the annoyingly noncommittal “Nihlus would probably tell you…”. I can just hear myself thinking, doubting. Would he really tell you that? Would he really feel like that every day? And sure, the answer is probably no (eye-rolling). But is this uncertainty important enough to showcase in the opening line of a novel? Most certainly not.

On the bright side, we get to learn right away that the POV character is Nihlus and that he enjoys his work.

I must make a brief digression here to address the elephant in the room. Like most of my writing, Ghost in the Machine is fanfiction for Mass Effect, and as such, it’s written for readers who are familiar with the setting and the main characters. They already know who Nihlus is, and what Nihlus does. Anyone who wants to read this series of self-critiques but is not familiar with Mass Effect is cordially invited to read this Introduction to the franchise and to my fanfiction first.

Nihlus is a Spectre, which involves risking his life on a regular basis to solve political problems that are either too dirty or too delicate (or both) for regular diplomats and soldiers to handle. It also involves making difficult moral choices (of the lesser of two evils type) that often hold the lives of other people, from innocent bystanders to entire cities, colonies and even races, in balance. It’s not an enjoyable job by anyone’s standards. (Which I address later in the extract.) It’s dangerous and stressful and all-consuming and doesn’t offer many obvious benefits (apart from being above the law). So by stating that Nihlus loves it, I send a strong message that he’s in a good place in life at the moment.

I think that was the intention, at least. But I make it uncertain it with all the reservations. “If you were to ask, Nihlus would probably tell you…” makes me think that it might be what he’d say but not necessarily what he really feels.

On any other day, that is.

This “twist” is neither here nor there. On the one hand, that first sentence introduces the “normal” state of affairs, and this one announces that there’s something abnormal happening in the narrative present, suggesting story, which is good. On the other hand, when all the uncertainty from the first line is taken into account, it demands quite a bit of mental gymnastics. And making the reader work hard to follow at the very beginning is not so good.

If I was to edit this text now, I’d merge these first two lines into one, and simplify to:

On most days, Nihlus loved his job.

Right now, he imagined that being anything, anything at all, from a mercenary looking for easy credits among the arms dealers in the Verge to a lap dancer in Afterlife on Omega, would be better than being a Spectre.

This is… fine. It’s not mind-blowing, but it’s not a total waste of words either. The named locations are nice details, and the choice of jobs tells us something about Nihlus’s character.

Because, most days, being a Spectre meant eliminating the scum of the Galaxy. It was as simple as that, and it was something Nihlus was extremely good at, although to say he enjoyed it would be taking it a bit too far.

My insecurity rears its ugly head again in “taking it a bit too far”. I’d cut that out now. I’m not sure how I feel about the verbosity of “It was as simple as that…” (also the “anything, anything at all” from the previous sentence). It’s a quirk of Nihlus’s voice, and something you won’t find in chapters told from Saren’s POV. But is that… OK? I don’t know.

But there were days, the never-ending, dreary days, when the Council expected their top military operatives to don fancy civilian suits and act as diplomats, negotiators, or, like today, arbiters.

Finally we get to what’s really going on! This bit, on its own, doesn’t strike me as either especially good or especially bad, but constant back-and-forth between ‘today’ and ‘any other day’ is annoying. There are four jumps: If you were to ask… (normally)… Right now… (today)… Because, most days… (normally)… But there were days… (today).

I think the reason why I can’t come up with simple line edits to improve this is because it’s not structurally sound. Basically, this whole first paragraph would need to be rewritten for anything to change significantly. Perhaps like so:

On most days, Nihlus loved his job. Being a Spectre meant eliminating the scum of the Galaxy. It was something Nihlus was extremely good at, although to say he enjoyed it would be taking it too far. And then there were days when the Council expected their top military operatives to don fancy civilian suits and act as diplomats, negotiators, or, like today, arbiters.

Nihlus knew all too well why the Council had set him up with this particular job, and not some other Spectre (or Spirits forbid, an actual expert in interstellar law).

With this I’m again conflicted about the verbosity (and other potentially jarring aspects) of Nihlus’s voice. The “all too well” and “Spirits forbid” strike me as wasted words. They’re not completely useless: they tell us something about Nihlus’s relationship with the Council. But would I really lose anything if I was to cut these out?

Nihlus knew why the Council had set him up with this particular job, and not some other Spectre (or an actual expert in interstellar law).

In part, they had done so because Nihlus was reputed to be a keen judge of character. And then there was the fact that, unlike most Council agents, Nihlus actually liked humans.

The verbosity in this bit is all mine. It could be shortened by a third without sacrificing anything:

In part, because Nihlus was reputed to be a keen judge of character. Also because, unlike most Council agents, Nihlus actually liked humans.

The content is fine: it provides the context for the scene and develops character. I also approve of the contrast between “reputed to be” and “the fact that”, which paints Nihlus as a modest individual.

What bothers me here is that it’s telling. It would be so much better to show that Nihlus has these traits than to just declare them. This could be done later, as the scene develops, either through dialog, or interiority, or as the inevitable result/conclusion, at the cost of moderate effort.

Assigning him as the arbiter in the reevaluation of the Torfan incident carried the subtle message that the Council supported Humanity in this matter.

This is the big ‘reveal’ where the dedicated fan will recognize the named event and correctly predict that Nihlus is about to meet Shepard in what follows. I approve of the attempt at weaving politics into the story: it’s a juicy little detail. But is the prolonged lead-up really worth it? Surely the bits of backstory and character development could be served later, leaving only the parts that actually provide context. It would condense and strengthen the prose, and bring it closer to a beginning in medias res.

The last bit of the extract is sadly anything but that.

Still, he didn’t like being in the middle of it. There were so many things he’d rather be doing than interviewing nervous humans all day long.

This is just awful. First, the repetition of “he didn’t like being in the middle of it.” Yes, we heard it the first time, thank you! And then the start of what would now be the fifth jump in the back-and-forth of where Nihlus would rather be and what he’d rather be doing. We got it. Jeez!

Not shown in the extract are some examples of what he’d rather do. None of them are entirely appropriate given the political context and professional tone set up so far, so this only serves to sabotage the developing atmosphere. It kills the momentum, relieves the tension, diminishes the stakes. I can hardly think of a worse way to end a beginning.

If I get rid of all that crap and adopt the line edits I’ve come up so far, I end up with:

On most days, Nihlus loved his job. Being a Spectre meant eliminating the scum of the Galaxy. It was something Nihlus was extremely good at, although to say he enjoyed it would be taking it too far. And then there were days when the Council expected their top military operatives to don fancy civilian suits and act as diplomats, negotiators, or, like today, arbiters.

Nihlus knew why the Council had set him up with this particular job, and not some other Spectre (or an actual expert in interstellar law). In part, because Nihlus was reputed to be a keen judge of character. Also because, unlike most Council agents, Nihlus actually liked humans. Assigning him as the arbiter in the reevaluation of the Torfan incident carried the subtle message that the Council supported Humanity in this matter.

From here I cut-cut-cut and lunge directly into the scene. It’s an improvement, but nothing breath-taking. It would need polishing at this point because all the cuts made it jagged. Perhaps another sentence or two on why Nihlus loved his job: justice, duty, the power to make things better. The “reevaluation of the Torfan incident” cries for elaboration. Doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just a couple of sentences explaining what’s going on, setting the stage. I’m afraid that, to make this really good by my current standards, I’d have to redo it from scratch.

Revising is difficult. Even at this, off-the-top-of-my-head level, it requires more effort to revise this than it took to write it in the first place, and I didn’t even touch on sentence composition, word choices and other fine elements of style. It has next to nothing in common with writing [the first draft] and requires a completely different skill set and for me, it’s always a struggle.

How about you? Any thoughts or suggestions? Do you think I was too hard on myself? Or not hard enough? Anything jarring that you noticed in the extract that I failed to address? Or something you liked and I cut out? Please let me know!

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