First-page critique of ARTIC FIRE

By Joe Moore

Here’s another submission to our first-page critiquing extravaganza. It’s called ARCTIC FIRE. Have a look. My thoughts follow.

Ben was excited. It would be his first year as a full time counselor at scout camp, a hard to get position he’d dreamed of since first attending as a Tenderfoot four years earlier. His brother Ian, three years younger, was a First Class scout attending his second camp and seemed proud of his brother’s position. Ian would only be at Gorsuch for a week while Ben would be there for two months. Ben hoped to give his brother something to attain to.

Ben was an exemplary scout, a member of the Order of Arrow. At fifteen he was within six months of earning his Eagle Scout rank. Only ten percent of all scouts complete the demanding path to Eagle. It had been hard work and he was going to complete it a full eighteen months ahead of schedule.

After two sessions of the National Youth Leadership Training School at Camp Denali he knew how to lead boys. He was aware of not only how to teach them the skills every scout should know, but knew how to prepare for any emergency he could think of, how to keep them safe on campouts and hikes, how to perform advanced first aid and wilderness survival.

And to top it all off, maybe most important for many of the scouts in his charge, Ben Sanders knew how to tell stories. It was a skill he had learned from his father whose skill at filling the boys imaginations with visions of mountain trolls, sea spirits and brave warriors was amazing. The only props his father used for his tales were a ratty old gray wool blanket and his story stick.

The well-worn birch walking stick had been made about the time Ben was born. Carved images of bears, wolves and eagles decorated the shaft just below the handle, worn smooth and shiny by his father’s own grasp, the oil and sweat of his palm rubbing the white wood to a sheen as if it had been polished and rubbed with varnish. And now, his father was handing the stick to him.

I’m not going to get into any nitpicking here even though there are a couple of punctuation errors. Despite the fact that this is decent writing, the major problem is that nothing happens. It is 100% narrative backstory. After reading it, I have no idea what the story is about, what’s at stake, what the story question is, and why I would want to read page 2.

I’ve spoken many times on this blog about the pitfalls of starting a story in the wrong place. And I along with my blog mates have tried to emphasize that there’s really no need for backstory at the beginning. This first page contains important information, but we don’t need to know any of it yet.

My advice to the writer: find a point in the story where something happens that jolts Ben Sanders out of his “ordinary” life into an extraordinary situation because of physical, mental or emotional stress. Delete everything that’s written up to that point. That’s where the story should start.

Thanks to the author for submitting this first page and good luck.

15 thoughts on “First-page critique of ARTIC FIRE

  1. Totally agree. All back story and no action – this whole first page can become just one or two sentences.

    Ben was at the epitome of his scouting career as a full time counselor at camp Gorsuch, but as he stared at the well worn walking stick his father gave him, he still doubted he’d ever be able to make his family proud.

    This post does make me want to raise a question to the group. How do you go about weaving in information/facts into your stories? It seems like the author wants to educate the reader about scouting, but is letting that interfere with the story.

    Last, and randomly, I’ve been to Camp Gorsuch.

  2. Nate, there’s no right or wrong answer to your question. It’s not unlike asking a chief when it’s time to weave in the parsley, sage, rosemary or thyme (sorry, couldn’t resist). The answer is really when it feels right. And in many cases, backstory can be introduced by other means than through narration. There’s always going to be a need for background information, clarification and history. But I suggest holding off on doing it as long as possible without losing or confusing the reader.

    Now, let’s play “what if” with today’s submission. First off, I have no idea what this story is about. But, what if it starts in the first paragraph with a boating accident or animal mauling or assault or murder or suicide or bunkhouse fire, or some other traumatic event? What if Ben Sanders is the first on the scene and realizes that the victim is his brother or next door neighbor or best friend or the one kid in his class he hates the most? What if he pulls his cell phone out, dials 911 and tells the emergency operator that he’s a counselor at Camp Grosuch? What if he then jumps in the water and swims to the overturned boat or scares the bear away or performs CPR on the victim or rushes into the burning bunkhouse? So far, no backstory is needed, and the reader (hopefully) is hooked enough to read on. When all the dust settles and the police or fellow counselors or the victim’s parents or a friend asks how Ben became interested in scouting, he can TELL them a little bit of backstory since we’ve already been SHOWN what kind of a person he is by his actions and reactions. Hope this helps.

  3. I concur with Joe–all backstory. What jumped out at me instantly was the first sentence. Telling, not showing, and using “was” as well. Not a sentence that immediately drew my interest.
    That put me on guard for the rest of the page, and I was not surprised that it lacked that “hook factor.”

    A suggestion for the first page would be to have Ben actually doing his storytelling in front of the group. Get inside his head, how he’s feeling standing in front of the group, holding his father’s stick, hoping he can live up to his father’s reputation as a storyteller, watching the listener’s reactions as he spins his tale, etc.

  4. Ah, yes the old too much back story, show don’t tell, and don’t submit a draft of a draft while taking pain meds story. Of course I knew better, but didn’t want to miss the line up and had only started the story a couple days before so … plop…icky writing. But!
    While above is what I did indeed submit, it ceased to be the first page of my story several days later as the notes coalesced and became a thing entirely other. I had considered sending a quick email to ask for the page to be replaced, but then thought … nah, I’ll take my whippin.

    Therefore here is the actual current first page of the working title “Arctic Fire”:
    Little more than a boy at nineteen, the military uniform didn’t fit properly over his scrawny frame no matter how he tried. Nonetheless, the other soldiers did not harass the diminutive Second Lieutenant Liu Xinying. The kind of war he waged had little need for big muscles but nonetheless required strength, patience, speed and endurance of the mind. And no one else in all the millions of soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army had those qualities in a measure like Liu Xinying.

    Liu leaned back in his chair and smiled triumphantly as he watched the screen before him. The numbers and lines of code spoke to him with the power of a lover’s whispers, sending tingles of pleasure down his spine. The bastards would not see it coming. Their window to the world would be blacked out, and Liu Xinying’s hand would be the one to draw the curtain.

    He chuckled to himself as he imagined the panick when their screens went black, their airplanes vanished from radar screens, the cell phones, televisions, and radios all sat mute and silent, giving them no sign of what was wrong. No sign of what was coming. Would they even imagine they’d been taken down by a nineteen year old computer genius from the desert wastes of Xinjiang Uygur. The grin stayed on his face as he reached for the phone and dialed Colonel Lim’s office.

    There was a sharp click as the encrypted line was picked up and Liu recognized Mai Hong’s sexy voice answer. He wondered if she’d look at him differently now, as a man instead of a programmer.

    “Colonel Lim’s office, this is a secure line. Senior Private Hong speaking. How may I direct your call?”

    “This is Lieutenant Xinying, tell the Colonel everything is verified and I await his command to execute the procedure.”


    That might give the start a slightly different spin I think, what?

  5. Oh and the original submitted segment now looks like this:


    Gorsuch Boy Scout Reservation
    Chugiak, Alaska

    The story stick, his father was handing him the story stick. Ben couldn’t believe it. About to walk into his first summer as a paid camp staffer and with his Eagle Scout Court of Honor scheduled in just a few weeks Ben Sanders was already riding high. Now this, it was almost too much.

    “Ben, I think you’re going to need this for the summer,“ said Buck Sanders, the perennial Campfire Wizard. His face beamed with pride as he handed the iconic stick to his middle son. “I wish I could be here for camp this year, but I just can’t get out of work. I have a feeling that my place here will be filled nonetheless.”

    “Are you sure, dad?” Ben said. His younger brother Ian stood next to him, eyes wide, grinning as though he knew this would happen. Suddenly Ben felt ten feet tall, barely controlling his voice, resisting the urge to shout. “I mean, I don’t think I’ve earned the right to use your story stick yet.”

    Carved from a slender birch sapling sixteen years earlier, in the summer before Ben was born, the well-worn walking stick was just thick enough for a grown man to wrap his hand around it. A leather thong looped through the hole in its top encircling the bearer’s wrist. Carved images of bears, wolves and eagles decorated the shaft just below the handle, worn smooth and shiny by his father’s own grasp, the oil and sweat of his palm rubbing the white wood to a sheen as if it had been polished and rubbed with varnish. And now, standing at the gate of Camp Gorsuch his father was handing the stick to him.

    “Trust me son,” replied his father, “it’s just a stick. The story comes from inside you, and you’re ready. The only requirements I have for you to use this stick, is that the story must always have a moral, and while the bad guys can be strong and wreak havoc for a bit and the good don’t have to be perfect they must always do everything within their power to win, at all costs.”

    “Yes sir,” Ben said. His heart raced as he grasped the stick. The tips of his fingers touched as he wrapped them around the handle that was just the right size for a man’s hand. He was finally a man.


    Better? Oh and Nate, very cool! When were you up here in the great north?

    My boys are regulars there. And one actually is a camp staffer…and a good story teller.

  6. Basil, I thought all writing should be done under the influence of pain meds. 🙂 It looks like your story is still in the raw alpha stage. Just remember to follow the ancient advice: start it In Medias Res, in the middle of things. Good luck.

  7. Info-dump all the way. Hack it off.

    Perhaps the writer would be better served if he knew he was writing this backstory for his own benefit and not the reader’s. Once he realizes this, he can throw it out and get down to the business of telling a story the reader wants to read.

  8. So true, Mike. More times than I care to admit, I have written a chunk of text that later turned out to be for my benefit only, not the reader. Your advice is spot-on.

  9. A great quote that I love and try to remember goes something like, the key to editing is cutting out 300 pages while leaving them in at the same time.

  10. Terri, your editing tip is a great way to approach the issue. Thanks.

    Wendy, thanks for dropping by TKZ, and good luck with your WIP.

  11. When I read this entire piece, my conclusion was the following sounds like the first paragraph of a story I would want to read more:

    “The well-worn birch walking stick had been made about the time Ben was born. Carved images of bears, wolves and eagles decorated the shaft just below the handle, worn smooth and shiny by his father’s own grasp, the oil and sweat of his palm rubbing the white wood to a sheen as if it had been polished and rubbed with varnish. And now, his father was handing the stick to him.”

  12. I agree with Joe. When I realized I was getting a description of scout ranking and honors, I lost interest. This is all back story and stops the story dead in its tracks.

    We need action–something happening. Pepper the backstory between what’s happening to the character at that moment. I think Diane’s suggestion above is a good one.

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