First page critique: ARCTIC FIRE

By Joe Moore

Here is today’s first page critique. My thoughts follow the text.


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.

There’s not much to say about this. Unfortunately, it’s all backstory. Nothing happens. There is no story question, no tension, no suspense, no crisis (physical, mental or spiritual). I have no idea what the story is about other than a well-worn birch walking stick may be involved. Aside from instances of passive voice, the writing is clean, mature, and matter of fact. But there is no grab, no hook, no reason for me to keep reading.

Good luck to the author and thanks for submitting to TKZ.


13 thoughts on “First page critique: ARCTIC FIRE

  1. Unfortunately I stopped reading after the first paragraph. I agree, Joe. I went back to skim for Ben’s last name and found it in the fourth paragraph when it would have been better at the first mention of his name. Other than that and the passive voice in spots, there isn’t much to say.

  2. This author might want to think about starting his book with Ben Sanders telling a story. Ben’s storytelling would show us more about Ben.

    I wouldn’t throw these 400 words out, but I would place them later in the book.

  3. Yes I’d keep this stuff and weave it into the story later. I think the writer needs to fast forward to where the action starts, and maybe start the story there.

  4. So how to fix this common mistake (too much exposition or backstory at the beginning)

    1. Start with dialogue. This is a great way to make sure you’re writing a SCENE. Thus, instead of Ben was excited you write:

    “I made it!” Ben Sanders ran into the kitchen waving the letter.
    “What are you shouting about?” his mother said.

    2. Practice the art of putting all essential exposition (and much of what’s here is not essential, at least not up front) in dialogue itself. Elmore Leonard is a master of this move.

    3. The dribble. Put stuff in a bit at a time, within the action, rather than as a big “clump.”

    4. Act first, explain later. Reader will wait a long time for explanatory material if there is something GOING ON in the opening. That something should be a “disturbance”.

  5. Well, as others have said, you just don’t open a novel with a long expository backstory. There is no hook, no sense of place, nothing to grab you. I began to skim, looking for something of interest and then there it was — the story stick. It’s an interesting, unique image. Got my attention immediately but it’s buried. If this were my story I would start out right with the stick. Something like:

    Ben turned the old walking stick over in his hands, looking at the intricately carved heads of the bears, wolves and eagles. But it wasn’t really the animals he was seeing, it was his father.

    He was seeing his father’s face and remembering how it glowed in the light of the campfire as his father began to tell another one of his stories.

    Then go into a BRIEF backstory about the meaning of the stick and how his father had given it to Ben to carry on the storytelling tradition. Then segue to the present, maybe describing Ben somewhere in the camp, like his tent. BUT NO LONG BACKSTORY. Maybe someone comes into the tent, another camper and you can start some dialogue?

    Give me images to lure me in. Give me a reason to read on. Give me a reason to care about Ben, right from the start.

  6. Haven’t read anyone else’s comments yet, so I hope I’m not being repetitive, but I’m going to be frank and honest: I think it’s great that you either lived enough of scouting or researched enough of scouting to know all of this. But I don’t need to know it. And if I do, then I certainly don’t need to know it all on page 1. A good writer sparingly adds in that need-to-know info on a need-to-know basis. If I need to know this much about the camp and scouting right off the bat, then I can guarantee this book isn’t for me, and never will be.

    I’ll never forget the kind of things Miss Snark used to say about openings…things like “Start with someone running for their life. Don’t tell me why, let me want to find out. But for now, just make them run like hell.”
    Or, and I’m paraphrasing from memory here, I think I remember her saying, “Forget all that background stuff…just set someone on fire. Preferably on page one.”

    That’s what it seems to be missing. I’ve already forgotten both characters’ names, and while I don’t think every book needs to start with action, it does need to start with TENSION. There is none here. Get me twisted up and concerned about your characters right off the bat. Because right now? I don’t care about them. Sorry.

  7. Looks like everyone’s comments reflect my thoughts on this submission. There’s nothing wrong with the writing. There’s just no grab to pull the reader in. And like Jake said, we’re not talking about action or car chases or shootouts. We’re talking about what I call the “moment of impact”–the event that causes the main character’s life to change, usually for the worst. The advice from Miss Snark is exactly right and should be read repeatedly. Start with someone running for their life. That can mean, physically, mentally or spiritually. But fire the starting gun and get them going right from page one. Thanks to everyone for their comments.

  8. Seems unanimous, definitely too much backstory up front. Even if the next page takes sudden drastic turn into action, the reader has to have a reason turn to that next page.

    Lately I’ve been reading, or at least starting to read, a fair amount of self-pubbed works for members of the Alaska Writer’s Guild, where the writers are struggling to get folks to do reviews of their work for validation that it is decent.

    Problem is, most of them start like this, and if a reader can’t get past the first page or two you’re not going to get that purchase or the much sought after review.

    So maybe the writer of this bit could try something more like this:


    The story stick. Ben couldn’t believe it. His first summer as a camp counselor and his dad was handing him the story stick.

    “You’re going to need this son,” said his father. Dubbed the Campfire Wizard by the other scout leaders his dad was the most famous storyteller at scout camps. His face beamed with pride as he looked into his son’s eyes.

    Twelve year old Ian stood next to him, eyes wide with a knowing grin.

    Ben felt ten feet tall. Barely containing a desire to shout he spoke in a measured tone, “Are you sure, dad? I mean, I don’t think I’ve earned the right to use your story stick yet.”

    He stared at the carved images of bears, wolves and eagles decorating 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.

    “It’s just a stick,” replied his father. “The story comes from inside you, and I think you are ready.”

    Cut from a slender birch sapling 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 at the top encircling the bearer’s wrist.

    “The only requirements are that the story must always have a moral, and no weak or stupid bad guys. The good shouldn’t be perfect and 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. As he took hold of it he remembered his dad saying that the handle that was just the right size for a grown man’s hand. As he took hold of it, his hand wrapped fully around it, fingers meeting thumb. He was finally a man.


    You know…just an idea

  9. My mental eyes glazed over as I read the first line combo of backstory, a state of being verb, and telling vs. showing. I was hoping the backstory would end after the first paragraph, but it didn’t. No connection with the main character and no drama mean no reason to keep reading.

    Ask yourself, what is the dramatic event which causes the protagonist to embark on his story? Then run that first scene in your mind like a movie. When you write it, don’t tell about the scene, but write it as though it’s happening.

    Your first line:

    Ben was excited. (We know he’s excited because you just told us, but there’s no visual image which appears in the reader’s mind.)

    Possible first line:

    Ben rubbed sweating palms on his pants legs and took a deep breath. (This shows excitement/anxiety/anticipation. You don’t have to tell the reader Ben is excited. He/she can tell by your description of his actions.)

  10. Chiming in late but yes, way too much backstory – this could be spread out over the following few pages but for the first page we need some sort of disturbance, action or tense situation to get us eager to read more.

  11. Nothing to add that hasn’t been said by other commenters. A good start to this story is somewhere after this opening.

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