Today I’m offering a critique of an excerpt from VANGUARD RISING. I believe it serves as a great example of unexpected openings. Read on, and you’ll see why…

 The darkness was all encompassing. Dan could turn in any direction and save for the glow from the radio in the dashboard[,] there was only black. It was very fitting, it matched his mood. He had been feeling the black, emptiness since he woke up this morning. It was getting late. He looked at the clock on the radio faceplate. It had just turned ten.
     The glowing radio dial meant there was noise coming from the speakers in back. He didn’t hear any of it. He only heard the storm in his mind. You don’t amount to anything. You’re a failure. Nothing you do is right. He pictured every mistake he had ever made. Every embarrassing moment he had ever experienced was brought to the surface, magnified tenfold.
     When he was up he didn’t think about those things. But he was down right now. Way down. And he had been this way for days. He couldn’t take it anymore. He wanted it to stop.
     Dan knew this personal trial well. He would put himself through it almost routinely. This time was different. The void he felt in his belly would be silenced this time. For good. 

     He reached over and opened the glove box, allowing the door [to] drop freely. He sat and stared for a moment at his savior nestled inside. One of the many things he had inherited from his father after his death. The cold blackness of its six inch barrel seemed soothing to him somehow. It was a statement of ultimate control in his world.
     He reached in and grabbed the checkered walnut grip. It seemed heavier than [it] was only a few hours earlier. In the dim light of the radio he read the barrel, Colt Python .357 Magnum. For some reason, maybe because she knew it had value, she had kept it instead of selling it to one of his father’s friends.
     He had found the last of the ammunition in the house. His mother had thrown out all of it she could find after the funeral. It seemed fitting that he came across it this morning in the garage by accident. Eight rounds in the bottom of a toolbox drawer.
     He needed something to give him a feeling of control. Knowing he had it was burning at the back of his mind all day. He had a gun, and now he had bullets to go with it. They were even the right ones, 145 grain Winchester Silver Tip hollow points. More than enough to do job.
     He unlocked the cylinder and swung it open. Six rounds. He only needed one. With a quick flick of his wrist the cylinder and its lethal cargo snapped back into place. He pulled the hammer back quickly with his thumb. The trigger moved rearward in its housing. It was in single action mode. Just another four pounds of pressure and it would be over.
     He raised the revolver up and placed the barrel under his chin. Four more pounds of pressure. The top of his head would most likely be blown off. The bullet would probably put a hole in the roof of the car. Four more pounds is all it would take. His index finger rested on the trigger hesitantly. Is this what he wanted? Four more pounds. With a squeeze of the trigger he answered.
     Then came the blinding white light out of the darkness, and everything was once again black.

All in all,  I think this is a very strong beginning. As I said at the outset, losing a character on the first page of a book is unexpected, and can do a lot to draw a reader in. I’m curious to find out why Dan was feeling depressed enough to kill himself, and to know who said those terrible things to him. Clearly he’s lost his father relatively recently–could that alone have been the impetus? I would definitely keep reading to find out more.

A few technical points. I inserted edits in brackets, where a word was needed to clarify what was happening. I also think that since he was given a name, it should be used more frequently: “Dan” in place of “he” in several more spots. 

The language could also be trimmed some, which would help with clarity and would additionally serve to drive the reader toward the conclusion more rapidly. For example, “His mother had thrown out all of it she could find after the funeral” is a bit wordy. Better to say, “She’d thrown it all out after the funeral–except for the eight rounds in the bottom of a toolbox drawer. It seemed fitting when he’d come across them in the garage this morning.”

Also, there are a few places where punctuation could be used to strengthen the impact of a sentence. “With a squeeze of the trigger he answered,” might be better served by inserting a comma, “With a squeeze of the trigger, he answered.” I’d advise the writer to go back through this passage and carefully examine all the punctuation choices to make sure that they add to the narrative flow.

The final sentence could be tightened up. Rather than: “Then came the blinding white light out of the darkness, and everything was once again black;” I would  say, “A blinding white flash, then darkness fell again.” A small change, but in the end that can be what makes the difference.
What do you all think of today’s submission? 

6 thoughts on “Critique of VANGUARD RISING

  1. This is a well written if not utterly depressing beginning to a story. I would venture onto the next few pages just to see if this was an example of “backshadowing”: starting the story with the ending, then shift back to the beginning with the reader in full knowledge of the outcome but no idea how it all happened. If in fact, this is Dan’s story and he’s dead, I would at least suggest to the writer to delete the last sentence and end with: With a squeeze of the trigger he answered.

  2. This is some excellent writing. I agree with everything Michelle said, with the exception of the change to the end of the piece. My money says that he didn’t in fact pull the trigger. I think the white light is something else, and the author pulled off the beginning of a stunning twist.

    John Gilstrap

  3. I would say this is not such a strong beginning. For my taste, the first couple of paragraphs have too much “had” and “was”. It’s a bit of a backstory info dump telling.

    I also don’t feel any connection to this guy. He’s like a thousand other depressed people who feel like failures. Does he feel this way because he was fired and now the house is being foreclosed? Is he a doctor and a patient died who shouldn’t have? Was his family killed in a car crash a week ago? Is he an underdog with no real possibility of getting his life on track? Has some nasty person blackmailed him to this point?

    I don’t want a ton more backstory, but I would like something that causes empathy. Either this is the main character and I need to get attached, or the main character is going to figure out why this person did this and I need to feel it isn’t all a waste of the MC’s time.

    Also, this guy still seems to be beating himself up and feeling down right to the moment of pulling the trigger. Frequently at this point, suicides are feeling euphoric because all that pain will finally be gone. There’s a great sense of relief.


  4. Okay, time to fess up. This one is mine.

    The scene was supposed to be frightfully depressing Joe, so I guess I did my job there. I thought about including some back story about how he ended up where he was, but I thought in the interest of brevity, and to keep the downer atmosphere to keep things brief.

    This is actually a sort of sci-fi/action/thriller. You were right John, the light is something important, it’s his resurrection by pan-dimensional beings. So you were wrong on the trigger pulling point, he did blow his brains out.

    Dan will end up being resurrected and having a special implant put into him that supercharges his abilities. He is then sent back to this dimension to join a group of other individuals like himself to stave off an invasion.

    And from what I understand there is no euphoric feeling when you finally commit to death. Just an empty feeling that you have failed so badly that death is preferrable. So in the end you still end up screwing yourself emotionally. At least that’s the way I understand it.

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