First Page Critique – A Game of Days

Jordan Dane
For your reading enjoyment, we have “A Game of Days,” another first page critique entry from an anonymous author. My comments on the flip side. Enjoy.

Purchased image from Shutterstock by Jordan Dane

I kicked a piece of loose gravel down the street.

Buzz punched my arm and frowned. “Get over it. It was a history quiz, for crying out loud. A quiz!”

Spencer nudged me in the ribs, a sly hint of a grin on his face. “Yeah, Jackson. B minus is a decent grade from Camilla the Hun. There are kids in Africa who would be thrilled to have that grade.”

I stopped walking. “The point is, she told us the quiz was tomorrow. I had a paper due today in biology, so I didn’t study. It’s like she lied to us.”

Spencer stared at me. “No, she didn’t.”

“Didn’t what?”

“She didn’t say the test was tomorrow.”

I frowned. “Did.”

Spencer crossed his arms. “Didn’t.”

“Yes, she did. You write it in your notebook when she said it.” I spun Spencer around, and dug through his backpack.


“Hold still.” I fished out a dog-eared blue notebook with the word HISTORY surrounded by Spencer’s cartoon vikings and knights battling on the cover and opened it to the last page. Spencer’s eyes crossed as I shoved it under his nose. “Read it.”

He took a step back to focus his eyes. “But—”

“Read it.”

He shrugged. “History test Monday. Study or take the consequences. Mwha-ha-ha—”

“No way.” I flipped it over. Spencer’s cartoon lettering stretched across the top of Friday’s history notes.

“This is wrong. She wrote it on the board.”

Buzz snapped her gum hard. “Did you write it down?”

“No, but—”

“Then you got it wrong, Einstein.” She riffled through her own backpack and came up with a small calendar. “History test Monday. Read ’em and weap.”

“Didn’t,” I growled, kicking another rock.

“Look, Jackson. Maybe you should forget about history anyway and be a doctor like your dad. History’s just old news.”

I stared at Spencer while he shifted back and forth. “After what we’ve been through, you can say that?.”

“It’s just not meant to be changed, Jackson. You know what I mean.” He glanced nervously at Buzz. She didn’t meet my eyes.

The time piece hung smooth and warm against my skin under my T-shirt. Never to be used, never to be lost. It was almost like they didn’t trust me, and the feeling hovered in the air, unspoken.

“I’m not going to use it. I wouldn’t do that.”
My Critique:
WHAT I LIKED – This reads like a Young Adult book since the characters here are high school aged kids. I liked the natural banter between them and the line about “kids in Africa” brought a smile. The description of Spencer’s notebook with its cartoon drawings and lettering was vivid. I also loved the snap of Buzz’s gum. I know how hard it is to juggle three teen voices in one scene and the author made this look effortless. Kudos.
There is an intriguing plot about a time piece that Jackson has in his possession that can alter time. Time travel? We don’t know, but the premise of kids being in control of time can be intriguing. Their limited understanding of the risks and ramifications of abusing the time piece could make for a compelling read.
The intriguing premise reminded me of a YA book I read and enjoyed – Thirteen Days to Midnight by Patrick Carman. A boy by the name of Jacob has a power transferred to him by his mysterious foster father when the man says, “You are indestructible” at the moment they are in a horrific car crash. Jacob survives. His foster father saved him by dying and transferring his power to be indestructible. Jacob slowly reveals his secret of invulnerability to his two closest friends and experiments with his ability to transfer that same power to them. Ophelia, a gutsy and daring new girl in town (who Jacob has a crush on), suggests they can use his gift for good—that they all can share it. You can imagine how the story ends. Loads of conflict and the experimentation of kids who aren’t thinking about the risk of changing the course of people’s lives…and their own. This book was a YALSA pick for Reluctant Readers.
Bottom line is that I see potential in this story for a touch of kid humor as well as a lesson learned with plenty of conflict. Below are my suggestions for areas to improve.
1.) CHOICE OF STARTING POINT – The biggest issue I have with this opener is that the banter of a quiz detracts from the mystery we see only slightly at the end. I would think there could be a more intriguing start to this, to incorporate the time piece into the story faster. How does Jackson get his hands on this time piece? The story hints at a time it was used before. That could make a better place to start. If kids had a time piece where they could go back and change things, I can imagine tons of fun (seemingly harmless) ways for them to test their abilities in the beginning, until the power of this gift goes to their heads and everything turns dark.
2.) WRITING STYLE – The writing style is very sparse. Normally that is not a bad thing, but this is almost too sparse for me to get a sense of where they live and a more vivid setting. Small town Americana or urban ghetto, the setting can really help define this story. But overall, I really like this author’s voice for YA. The story needs more layers in voice to make it more commercial in my opinion.
3.) OPENING LINE – The opening line isn’t memorable. I can see Jackson kicking gravel down the street to demonstrate frustration over the quiz, but the opening sense of any book should be more memorable to draw the reader into the story.
4.) TYPOS – In the dialogue line “You write it in your notebook when she said it” should be past tense. The word WRITE should be WROTE. The word “weep” is misspelled as “weap.” In addition, there is an extra period after a question mark at the end of the line, “After what we’ve been through, you can say that?” Reading your work aloud can help catch some of these typos, along with following your spell check cues. Spell check would catch the punctuation errors also.
5.) ADVERBS/PASSIVE VOICE – Kudos to the author for having so few of these, but I wanted to point out a warning about LY words, like “nervously.” The way the sentence is written, with one guy staring at Buzz who won’t meet his eyes, conveys their nervousness, without the embellishment. An example of passive voice is the last line, “I’m not going to use it.” This sounds like a kid, so I am a bit forgiving when it comes to the use of passive in dialogue since people talk this way naturally, but the sentence would read stronger like this, “I won’t use it.” The stronger line makes Jackson sound stronger as a character.
6.) EMBEDDED DIALOGUE LINES – I’ve seen authors do this lately, but as a reader, I prefer to have dialogue on their own lines and not embedded within a paragraph. The eye naturally looks for dialogue lines and white space on the page. Heavy, long paragraphs and embedded dialogue lines don’t give the eye relief and make it harder to follow. I’d like to hear people’s opinion of this, but I like seeing my dialogue lines in the open.
7.) GESTURES/TAG LINES – The author does a pretty good job of not tagging the dialogue lines with names and pronouns, but in place of tags of who says what, there are plenty of gestures that attribute the line to certain speakers. There are repeated gestures – two “frowned” and two “stared.” By the end of the book, words like “shrugged,” “crossed arms” and “growled” could add up. My suggestion would be to find a balance of gestures to tag lines, or make the dialogue more distinctive between the main characters.
Thanks to the author who submitted their work. The start to any story is hardest for me. I revise this part a lot. There have been times when I started a book in one spot before I realized I needed a Prologue of an earlier event that fueled the plot and became my new punchy beginning – or I write more than one start to see which one I like best. Beta readers can help give feedback on whether a beginning works. Good luck with this project, author!
What do you think of “A Game of Days,” TKZers?

37 thoughts on “First Page Critique – A Game of Days

  1. A challenge writing YA is word choice, slang, vocabulary. The following don’t sound to me like contemporary kids would talk:

    for crying out loud

    would be thrilled

    Hold still

    Read ’em and weep

    One can cavil about these, but you get the point. The challenge is that adult writers trying to capture the slang of youth can end up sounding wrong or dated. OTOH, if they do get some slang right, that slang will probably be obsolete in a couple of years.

    Here’s an article on the subject that might help.

    On the plus side, I like that this starts as an actual scene. Good writer instincts. Keep after it.

    • The YA slang thing can pose a problem if authors try too hard. Definitely, Jim. Look at the movie JUNO and listen for the great teen speak that is mixed with a combo of teen lines as well as wording that seems older. After moviegoers meet Juno’s dad, they can easily see his influence in her word choices as she speaks. Also, Juno uses “made up” slang to fit the situation, which creates hilarious dialogue between her and her BFF. I personally like this technigue of dribbling in a few known slang words as well as inventing new ones.

      As you astutely pointed out, Jim, I would avoid glaring adult sounding phrases like “for crying out loud,” but when I went looking for good examples of teen speak from top YA books in search of “voice” (for a talk I was giving), I was surprised how few top YA authors consistently used teen slang. The story premise and characters acting their appropriate age and experience level are more key. Teens can also vary in voice depending on their education, financial situation, and the influence of their parents or other adults in their lives. These kinds of influences can change up the teen voice from one kid to the next, to help define each unique speaker.

      Teen voice is definitely a challenge and perhaps a future blog post.

  2. Liked this first page but agree on the slang – tricky to get that to sound right and not be age inappropriate or obsolete in like 6 months! My only quibble was the whole ‘drama’ over the history quiz wasn’t quite high stakes enough to grab me. I would have wanted perhaps something that had potentially greater impact on their lives – but I agree the banter between them flowed naturally and I think the time travel bit will offer intrigue but perhaps we need more of the suspense associated with this up front.

    • Isn’t it interesting that as writers we can envision dialogue or introspection for characters our age or older, but for characters decades younger, it is often a huge challenge and takes research. I applaud authors who can get it to sound right through the whole book.

  3. Jordan’s critique is right on and I agree with the challenge of writing contemporary slang. Besides being time-specific, slang is also regional. It gets tricky to get it right. But if your characters have their own slang, you get to make up the rules.

    One thing threw me for a bit. I thought Buzz was a guy until she “snapped her gum hard.” I had to momentarily stop and rethink the scene to change one of the characters from a guy to a girl (guys more than girls typically punch someone in the arm). I like the idea of a tomboy friend, but I don’t like having to re-gender a character unless there’s a good reason for it.

    • Hello Eric. Thanks for weighing in. When I write YA, I pick a region that I’m familiar with and make it specific. That’s why the setting is important to establish, for me. Try eavesdropping (not in a creepy way) on a conversation between teens when they think no one is listening. You can learn a lot, but that still doesn’t mean you can use it in a book. An author still needs to make the dialogue believable and sometimes kids don’t sound real enough for fiction, if you can believe it.

  4. I like the story’s premise, although I have to admit that I assumed that the “time piece” was some kind of time-telling device at first, rather than a time travel doohickey. I think it’s hard to establish an opening scene with dialogue between three characters. They don’t seem established well enough physically as the dialogue is going on. I suggest that the writer read Chris Roerdan’s DON’T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY. Her book offers specific techniques to solve the challenge of handling multiple characters within the same scene, plus other tricky craft-related challenges. I also think the homework banter could have been made more compelling. It didn’t get interesting to me until the end. There needs to be tension between these kids from the very first line.

    • Chris Roerdan’s book is an excellent resource. Thanks for sharing it, Kathryn.

      The author in this example has taken on a challenge from the first page by choosing a conversation between three characters. That’s why it is important to make each voice distinctive throughout the book and fill in the layers of each character to make them standout more. Give the narrator an attitude and an opinion about his friends that will translate into each character becoming more of a standout. Writing things like:

      For a girl, Buzz punched like a WWE wrestler whenever she wanted attention and she held the record for most wads of gum in her mouth without choking.

      Writing about kids can be captured if the author thinks outside the box of being an adult, to get at what kids might value, for example.

  5. This looks like a promising YA story. I thought the voice was authentic, but I had trouble envisioning the characters, and also thought at first that it was three guys. The little argument went on too long, I think, with too much repetition, and as someone earlier mentioned, wasn’t high stakes enough for me to get intrigued.

    This story looks promising and the characters seem believable, with great banter, but I’d definitely rewrite the opening to start with something more compelling, a scene that matters more, that reveals more character and adds more tension and intrigue.

    Good luck with this project!

  6. Meant to add that the title sounds intriguing if the story premise is about time traveling. An editor might want the word “time” in there, but I like the question this title raises. Could work well.

  7. Good start for what I, too, guessed to be YA but definitely needs tightening in the homework dialogue as others have said. Now, maybe I am just sleep-deprived today but when I got to this line:

    The time piece hung smooth and warm against my skin under my T-shirt.

    I had to go back and read it again. Maybe it needs a physical motion before the thought ie: I touched my chest. The time piece was there, smooth and warm on my chest.

    But that’s a nit, a tiny speed bump in what sounds like a cool set-up. But I also agree with Kathryn that at first I thought it was a mere watch on a chain and not something more significant than that. I would find some way to make it sound intriguing from the start — like give it a mysterious name?

    Also, does the fact the protag is having difficulty remembering the test date have something to do with time travel or disruption? If so, all the better…but you might want to find a way to strength the hint so there is more early suspense.

  8. I share others’ discomfort with the relative emphasis the history test holds in the dialog. Besides the insignificance of the issue, Jackson (presumably a or the main character as he’s wearing the object) comes across as annoying. A non-technical observation but as a reader my first inclination is to dislike him. I thought the author juggled the three different speakers well – challenging stuff!

    Jordan – I’m interested in the embedded dialog discussion. Might the topic link with the dialog issues of action beats and/or tag line use?

    An educational discussion! Thanks to TKZ contributors and submission author.

    • Hey Tom. I was pointing out the the dialogue lines should be a separate line so the reader’s eye can see them better, thereby allowing for more white space on the page. Tag lines or action/gestures can link two dialogue lines to break up the talking, but this author leads dialogue with action which covers up the line. Hope that answers your question, Tom.

    • Totally am with you on the need for dialogue to NOT be embedded, Jordan. It is so much easier for the eye to grasp the page flow when the dialogue stands alone. Whenever I feel urge to embed anything within quotes I slap my head. Nine times out of ten, the quote should stand alone, imho.

    • I remember the critique I got from you and Kelly back in 2007, Kris, which mentioned this concept–I think you called it “grouping” the dialogue and actions in that critique, rather than “embedding”. I have never forgotten that excellent advice. Newbie writers, listen up! Kris’s advice is worth its weight in gold.

    • Regards embedded quotes :

      I am not certain what the recommendation is regarding embedded lines. Should be rewritten or simply initiate separate paragraph for spoken lines?

      For example:
      I stared at Spencer while he shifted back and forth. “After what we’ve been through, you can say that?.”

      alternatively would be displayed as:

      I stared at Spencer while he shifted back and forth.
      “After what we’ve been through, you can say that?.”

      Or otherwise?

      And the following?

      “Then you got it wrong, Einstein.” She riffled through her own backpack and came up with a small calendar. “History test Monday. Read ’em and weap.”
      Convert to three paragraphs?

      Thanks -(hope not too late)

    • Initiate separate lines for dialogue (your alternately displayed example), but in your last example, three paragraphs aren’t necessary if the same speaker is continuing.

      If the flow of the dialogue exchange is clear, or the voices are distinct, tags like ‘he said’ may not be necessary except to remind the reader every so often in a long conversation. In this story, there are 2 males and 1 female, which can make it a challenge to keep straight if there are lines of chat without some attribution on who is talking, so I recommend a balance of simple tags like ‘she said’ or an action that gives credit to the speaker. These tags or action lines would come AFTER the dialogue for that speaker to help make it clear who is talking.

      Let me know if you have any more questions, Tom. I’m happy to help.

  9. Lots of great comments. All I have to add is that the focus for this submission seems to put emphasis on the “did he or did he not get the date of the test wrong” rather than on the more interesting question of “will he or won’t he use this time gadget to his advantage”.

    It might be more interesting to open with the last part — have his friends asking him if he’s going to use it. So the readers wants to know what does he have? What does it do? etc.

    You could still use a lot of the great banter you have going on.

  10. I like this, but the teens seemed a bit faked compared to the teens I work with. More Opie Taylor.

    This line – “Spencer nudged me in the ribs, a sly hint of a grin on his face.”

    Anybody who nudges me in my ribs gets my foot where it will hurt. That seems very Hardy Boys to me. It would seem more real to me if the kid pulled the test note up on his smart phone calendar than a notebook.

    Please do not get me wrong, I am intrigued by the time-turner. But the golly-gee vibe isn’t gripping me.


  11. I like this, but agree that the rock kicking is not the best opening and the quotes come from invisible talking heads. Who are these people?
    It has potential but the typos can be a deal killer for an editor.

  12. Thanks, everyone for your comments. I appreciate all your input. To give a little backstory, this is the second book of a group of three. In the earlier book, the kids were younger. (I sometimes wonder about crossing the line from middle grade fiction to YA in the middle of a trilogy. Some authors do it, but I had thought about leaving the kids younger and closing the time frame a bit.) In the earlier book, the MC does have the opportunity to gain his greatest desire by changing the timeline, but it will come (of course) at a terrible price if he does.

    In this second book, things get dicey because time is changing and the MC is apparently the only person aware the time line isn’t as it should be. In a very short time, the changes are so severe that his friends become enemies or disappear entirely and society becomes dangerously dystopian as he tries to survive and repair the timeline.

    I hadn’t looked at this in awhile, so when the request for the beginnings came out, I shot it out there, typos and all, hoping to make the group and get more feedback. Thank you for your help.

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