First Page Critique: The Table

By: Kathleen Pickering

It’s my turn to post the first page of a work and offer my opinion—of which, I will stress is merely that. One of my fantasies about reading new, anonymous work is that I would come to discover that I critiqued the next block-busting novelist. Could this one be he/she?

The Table

When Noa Torson woke up, the first thing she noticed was that her feet were cold. Odd, since she always wore socks to bed. It was bright, too—and she hated sleeping in a bright room, had even installed blackout curtains over her apartment’s sole window so that morning light never penetrated the gloom. She squinted against the glare, trying to make sense of her surroundings as her eyes adjusted. Her head felt like it had been inflated a few sizes and stuffed with felt. She had no idea how she’d ended up here, wherever here was.

Was she back in juvie? Probably not, it was too quiet. Juvie always sounded like a carnival midway, the constant din of guards’ boots pounding against metal staircases, high-pitched posturing chatter, the squeak of cots and clanking of metal doors. Noa had spent enough time there to be able to identify it with her eyes closed. She could usually even tell which cell block she’d been dumped in by echoes alone.

Voices intruded on the perimeter of her consciousness—two people from the sound of it, speaking quietly. She tried to sit up, and that was when the pain hit. Noa winced. It felt like her chest had been split in half. Her hand ached, too. Slowly, she turned her head.
An IV drip, taped to her right wrist. The line led to a bag hanging from a metal stand. And the bed she was lying on was cold metal—an operating table, a spotlight suspended above it. So was she in a hospital? There wasn’t that hospital smell, though, blood and sweat and vomit battling against the stench of ammonia.

Noa lifted her left hand: her jade bracelet, the one she never took off, was gone.
That realization snatched the final cobwebs from her mind.

Cautiously, Noa raised up on her elbows, then frowned. This wasn’t like any hospital she’d ever seen. She was in the center of a glass chamber, a twelve-by-twelve foot box, the windows frosted so she couldn’t see out. The floor was bare concrete. Aside from the operating table and the IV stand, rolling trays of medical implements and machines were scattered about like an archipelago of islands marooned in a grey sea. In the corner stood a red trash bin, “MEDICAL WASTE” blaring from the lid.

***

Wow. Now that’s a nightmare to which I NEVER want to awaken. Am I hooked? Hell, yeah! This catapults “The Perils of Pauline” to the stratosphere–and, she’s not even tied down.

First off, the first three paragraphs delivered so much information so incredibly (what seems) effortlessly, while ratcheting up the tension, that this writer is no amateur. We learn Noa is tough, opinionated, world-weary and intelligent. Noa gives us insight into a world (Juvie) with so much detail, that you can taste the coppery resentment she holds against society. And now, as if she hasn’t been “processed” enough through life, she is stretched out on an operating table for the final dissection.

Is she in danger, or was she hurt and being aided? Holy smokes. I WANNA KNOW!

A poet at heart, I’m hugely into symbolism. This page is loaded with it. For example:

1. The “sole” window apartment and sleeping in the “gloom”—As if living in a rabbit hole, Noa has seen enough. When she’s most vulnerable she wants safety from the world.

2. Her jade bracelet missing –Jade symbolizes justice, renewal, contentment and courage. She never took it off. It’s gone. Now she has to go it alone.

3. A 12 by 12 frosted glass box and concrete floor—a reflection of her view of the world: cold, confusing, hard, unwelcome.

4. Two people whispering –nothing is ever clear. She always has to be on guard.

5. The Medical Waste trash bin –Is that what her life has been reduced to?

Next, every action verb (installed, pounded, dumped, scattered, split, battling), every description (blackout, clanking, squeaking, metal, cold) was perfectly chosen to create mood and move the plot forward. Not a feat for the unfocused writer. This author knows exactly what she/he is doing with word choice to make the reader empathize and act with the character.

Now, I know when given the chance to read on, I will learn her age (though I suspect she’s either still a juvie or a recent graduate), occupation, where she lives, why her bracelet is so important, why her chest hurts and what she was doing before awakening on this Table. But, let me point out, this page was so expertly crafted with concrete (not vague) impressions in this woman’s mind, that these questions created a need to know more; hence, a page turner.

Excellent writing. When can I read the book?

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17 thoughts on “First Page Critique: The Table

  1. I’m impressed! I want to keep reading too. I hope this author has the book done. I think a good agent might come tapping at your door. Nice crit.

  2. Wow, that definitely taps into a deep primal fear- waking up, not knowing where or what, and things seeming equal parts off and bad. I am worried, in the scene, and with the character. I definitely want to know more!

    Thanks Kathleen- Thanks author! Again, I want to go back and check my opening to see what more I can do to add more depth of feel.

  3. Wow. Excellent writing and an excellent critique too. Thank you Kathleen.

    I’m really big on ‘flow’ and this page has it in droves. I have only one tiny complaint. In the sentence starting “Juvie always sounded like a carnival midway,” there should be a colon after midway not a comma. Missing the punctuation cue that a list was starting made me do a double take. But it’s really minor and not everyone reads punctuation cues like I do. Congratulations author!

    (Now if I can only get my WIP to be this good…)

  4. Okay- I’ll be the odd man out- while I agree this flows and it does get your attention, I have some issues with it-

    It begins with a character waking up-a big cliche and I would have stopped reading there if I was an agent or a reader picking this up in a book store-

    When Noa wakes up the description is very good, but also a bit of a checklist- this remindedme of the Dehlia piece from a few days ago.

    Just my opinion mind and I’m certain to be in the minority judging fromt he commnts it has recieved so far, but It did not ring any bells for me-

  5. I, too, see good writing talent here. Nice sentences. Good sensory descriptions. My only word of advice would be to consider something I’ve heard editors and agents talk about quite a bit: White space.

    Which looks like this.

    IOW, readers are often intimidated by long blocks of text. Especially in the opening pages. So my simple advice is to break these paragraphs up a bit.

    The first two sentences could stand alone. Another idea is to start more actively, say:

    Noa Torson tried to sit up, and that was when the pain hit.

    That, too, could be a standalone paragraph.

    This may strike some as trivial, but I’m just the messenger. No reason to put up unnecessary obstacles on the path to publication.

    Well done.

  6. You got an easy one, Kathy. This is one of if not the best first-page submission so far. It’s not perfect, but it sure has most of the elements to keep me wanting to read on. I like the short juvie backstory that tells us quite a bit about Noa. There’s plenty of danger and intrigue to go around. My only fault would be too many “likes”, too many comparisons. This early in any story, you don’t want to send a signal to the reader that they’re in for a lot of similes and metaphors. In this short sample we have:

    like it had been inflated a few sizes and stuffed with felt

    like a carnival midway

    like her chest had been split in half

    like an archipelago of islands marooned in a grey sea

    I would suggest pushing back from this stuff and concentrating on story, character and voice. You’ve nailed the setting. But good job to the author.

  7. I have to agree that most of this first page is a great hook. However, the first few sentences need improving. There’s simply too much telling:

    When Noa Torson woke up, the first thing she noticed was that her feet were cold. Odd, since she always wore socks to bed. It was bright, too—and she hated sleeping in a bright room, had even installed blackout curtains over her apartment’s sole window so that morning light never penetrated the gloom.

    The only reason I read on was because YOU have my interest piqued. I had to see what about this first page that hooked you. She should have started the page with something like:

    Noa Torson awoke, squinting against the bright light glaring in her eyes. She hated waking to light. What happened to her black out curtains? Chills shot through her and she rubbed her feet together. No wonder they felt like frozen blocks of ice, her socks were gone. She always wore socks to bed.

    Maybe not this exactly, but you get the picture. Honestly, the telling in the first few sentences would have lost me before I got to the good stuff. The good stuff should always start with the first sentence. NO telling! Show me!

    Other than the opening, it was great!

  8. I really liked the opening. My one suggestion is: she seems pretty calm about waking up in a strange place. If she has a history of drugs and alcohol, maybe this is normal for her and you should mention it. If not, I’d build a rising sense of panic in her.

  9. Sensational! This author shows the setting through carefully chosen words of action, rather than the usual listless description, sucking the reader right into the book from the first sentence.

    This should be required reading for any novelist, regardless of their place on the spectrum of success.

  10. Considering I wrote the other ‘wake up in a hospital bed’ first page, to me this felt quite different. Different in a good way.

    I was intrigued, and I saw some things in the Comments that will help me improve my own scene. I hope the writer of The Table keeps at this story.

  11. I agree with Linette and Stewart. I need to SEE more of this instead of hearing about it (telling), and I need to FEEL what Noa is feeling.

    However, the premise hinted at in this opening sounds really interesting!

  12. Wow!! I thought this was good, but what has me chuckling is that even among the commenters the opinions vary, lol. Writing is indeed subjective!!

  13. I thought this was great – good tension and atmosphere. I agree with Jim that the paragraphs could be shortened to make it easier to engage the reader and make the drama really come alive on the page. I could quibble that there was too much description to start off with but really I think just a wee bit of paring down is all this needs. Great first page!

  14. Thanks for the feedback, everyone, it’s all very helpful. This was from my current WIP, a YA novel that will be released next summer by Harper Collins Teen. “The Table” is the title of the opening section, but we’re still working on a title for the book.
    Definitely fun to throw my hat in the ring, especially after Fletch asked a few days ago if we were able to recognize each others’ work. I like to think so, but then I missed on Gilstrap’s the last time we offered critiques. It’s trickier than you’d think…

  15. Great writing, Michelle! I’m sure you appreciated all the feed back. Please let us know when the book is ready for prime time!

    Oh, and I’d like to add that positive criticisms are always welcome, but IMHO, if the critic wants his/her insights to be considered, he/she should not remain anonymous.

    Thank you all for your excellent feed back!

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