First page critique: Oh, the places you’ll go! Or, not.

Hi Guys! Today we have a first-page submission from another brave writer. This one is called ALICE IN REAL LIFE.

My comments follow.


Life is funny . . . in a brutal kind of way.

One minute you’re a youngster surrounded by grown-ups shoving sunshine up your ass about your bright, shiny future and the next, you’re alone in a crappy apartment, pushing thirty and taking stock of your inadequate underwear supply while packing to leave the country.
Or, is this just me?

Come on, I can’t be alone here. As a kid, you must’ve heard crap like, “the world is your oyster”, whatever that means. And I know I’m not the only one given this inspirational little book by a well-meaning grown-up at high school graduation: “Oh the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss. Sound familiar? At one point, the main character enjoys a magical balloon ride, ascending through marvelous new experiences in a whimsical world. As if the only place to go is up. It’s cute. It’s promising. It’s bullshit.

Maybe parents hand this out to see the hope in their kids’ eyes that was lost when they found out the truth about Santa. Or, maybe they’re sadistic assholes that just want to tell one more lie. They know the ride into adulthood will be much more like a roller coaster. Not the Disneyland kind. The questionable, County Fair-taking-your-life-into-your-own-hands kind.

Sure, Dr. Seuss’s character hits a couple of bumps along the way, but my version would have even more reality mixed into those colorful pages. I’d still call it “Oh the Places You’ll Go”, but without the exclamation point and with a sad little Who on the cover pinching the top of his nose and shaking his head. Still whimsical, but with a hint of shame. Chapter 1, “Vomiting in a men’s room toilet while a stranger holds your hair”. Chapter 2, “The choice between paying rent and eating”. Chapter 3, “Your boyfriend’s selling drugs out of your apartment”.  But, wait – there’s more!  Chapter 5, “The engagement’s off”. Then, there’s the part I’m on now, Chapter 6, “Your mom battles cancer . . . and loses”.

Okay, I can see how this sounds like a great big bummer and book sales would not be good. Dr. Seuss wasn’t stupid. And Mom wasn’t sadistic for giving me hope, but, let’s cut the crap at graduation. Because I’ll tell you, the only time the world was full of magical shapes and whimsical colors was during Chapter 4, “That regrettable mushroom incident”.


My comments:

Doctor Bombay! Doctor Bombay! Emergency! Come right away!
Wow. Talk about having a voice. Reading this first page, I feel like I just got a two a.m. call from a close friend in crisis. The kind of call which would cause me to knock the sleep out of my eyes, throw on some clothes, and trundle across greater LA, braving freeway traffic to see how I could help sort things out.

My feeling is that this section sounds like the first page of an incredibly interesting memoir. I want to get to know this narrator.  What happened to her, and why? This page makes me want to go on the journey with her.

What say you, TKZers? Chime in!

45 thoughts on “First page critique: Oh, the places you’ll go! Or, not.

  1. I certainly want to read more. But it would have to start going somewhere pretty darn soon. It’s funny, and if those titles are real chapters and we’re going to hear about the bright colours of the mushroom story, then bring it on.

    Interesting voice. Good hint about where the book is going with the lack of underwear and the mother losing the battle with cancer. Now we need to know more about characters, plot, dialogue.

  2. I really liked what I read. Lot of voice. But too long by about half. We get the point. Get on with it already! I’d cut the “Maybe parents hand this out …” graf completely, maybe (MAYBE!) finding a way to salvage the roller coaster image, and tighten up the following graf.
    A lot of potential, with a really sardonic tone, but by the end of the page I was wondering if the author wasn’t a little *too* in love with the tone and it might get in the way of the story.

  3. This has the feel of a very good writing exercise, getting to some deep emotions which are fodder for the story–but is not the story itself. While the good part is that we have a definite attitude from the jump (essential, IMO, to good First Person POV) we also have to have a scene to get us invested in the character.

    The second paragraph gives me all the voice and attitude I need to get a real feel for this character’s insides.

    By the third paragraph the unrelenting angst is wearing thin. And that’s because nothing is happening. This is a variation on the dreaded “character alone, thinking” opening of 3d Person POV. We have to have a reason to care.

    Readers care about characters in motion, facing conflict, change, challenge. The Fault in Our Stars is a good example. We get the voice and the attitude, but by the third paragraph she’s going to a support group. We have a setting now and other characters, etc.

    So I would cut everything after Or, is this just me? and channel that voice and energy into an actual scene. And make it a scene that will do something to get us on the side of this character, or at least interested in him (her?) (Another reason for a scene is so we can figure out if the MC is male or female).

    I would lose the ellipsis in the first line. No reason for the pause and the first line would have more punch.

    • I think Jim has hit the critical point that though the voice is great for one paragraph it starts to wear thin quickly as there’s nothing actually happening. I agree with his advice as to where to cut and get on with a real scene.

    • Love the voice, but I agree – I need a story. Voice isn’t enough for me, although without it I stop reading after a paragraph.

  4. Sorry, Kathryn, but you and I are not on the same page with this one. Yes, there’s a well-defined voice. But after only one page, I don’t LIKE this girl. She’s a bad-luck magnet. I’m talking about the character, not the writing. The writing is fine. If I don’t like the main character this quick, I won’t be turning to page 2. I have no patience for negative people, real or fiction. She may have a wonderful journey from hell to Whoville but I won’t be tagging along,

    • I totally get that, Joe! In real life this girl and I would get along like a house afire, lol. So maybe that’s why I like the voice so much.

  5. I tend to agree with most of the comments so far. I love the voice, but I think the interior musings go on too long. Still, I like the reference to the Dr. Seuss book along with the new chapter headings. I think it’s an entertaining way to give quick backstory.

    • Clearly, I am in the minority in willingness to give the narrator plenty of venting time, Eric! 🙂 I loved the Dr. Seuss riffs, too. Thanks for visiting!

  6. Well, boohoohoo! Life’s a bitch, so stop the world, I want get off!

    I agree with James: Where’s the story? It might work better with a bit of self deprecating humor in a memoir, but continuing in agony only works in a horror venue.

    • Interesting–This actually read to me as humorous, not agonized. As if the narrator has gone through so much, she’s making snarky light of it. Kind of like Chick Lit noir, lol.

    • Aha, that’s the genre I need! A place for snarky gals like this one. I appreciate all of the feedback! As a beginning writer, it’s hard to know if what works for me works for other people.

  7. I think this writer has fallen into the trap that many people who write humor fall into, i.e., they get so enamored of the humor that they forget about story movement.

    Now I really envy this author’s voice…no doubt that s/he (feels like a man’s voice to me, BTW, but don’t have time to check out the Gender Genie) has a great voice, and since I’m lousy at writing humor (only two funny scenes in my first novel), I’m jealous as heck about this author’s ability to write humor.

    But the story is king – not the author’s ego – and although there are definitely some great hints about where this story might be going, it’s not happening quickly enough. I don’t feel a scene growing out of this excerpt, and stories grow out of strong scenes.

    I might go along for the ride a bit longer, despite the initial bitterness and general ‘unlikeability’ of the character IF this excerpt felt like the beginning of an actual scene.

    • I would start the next scene being between the dying mother and the narrator. That would kick off things in an interesting way. The mother could give HER take on the narrator’s Life of Whining. It would definitely set things in motion!

  8. Well great….while it may be longer than it should, Fillii, Gnillii and Boffin have been subsumed by the emotional images and are now weeping over their pints.

    I knew I should not have allowed them to have beer for breakfast.

    At least it was good for Berthold who is contentedly reading the Leprechaun Gaelic version of Dr. Seuss’s masterpiece. While the rhyming is significantly different, it apparently has much of the punch of the original.

  9. The negativity put me off. I forced myself to keep reading but if I’d been trying it out in a bookshop, it would have been returned to the shelf pronto. Having said that, I’m glad it kept going. It has the potential to be an interesting and funny story – editing is the key.
    Am I brave enough to submit my first page? :0#

    • I’m also beginning to wonder if people aren’t less accepting of negativity in a young, female narrator. Perhaps we’re more conditioned to accepting it only in the format of a cynical, alcoholic ex-cop, as cliche as that is. Negativity from a different type of character seems all that much stronger, because it is less common.

  10. I feel as if I’m piling on. But the beginning is fun, well written, and . . . and . . . I feel stuck.

    Cpuld your character start–the very first sentence–give us a sense of what’s going on while all of this . . . is going on? Could the first sentence be like this. “It’s strange the things you think about when you’re running across the sand floor of Helmand Province, trying to get away from the Taliban fighters who’ve place a bounty on your head”? Or some such.

    If you’re not at war, then, the thoughts could be going through your head while you’re dropping to the floor of Iroquois Lake. You don’t want to die, but that’s quite out of your hands at the moment.

    I’m glad you’re having fun with your opening. It’s delightful. But as I’ve said, I feel stuck.

  11. The ongoing negativity got to me after awhile. I was looking for at least one positive comment within the narration. It can’t be all bad. Although into each life some rain must fall, their is always a little bit of sunshine. Frances

  12. I waited until the end of the day to comment even though I read this one this morning. Wanted to think about it for a while. And I find I am with all the others here in that while the voice is razor-sharp and the tiny bits of backstory are inserted like slivers of glass, the negativity goes on too long.

    When you are dealing with such a strong (and maybe hard-to-like) narrator, I think you have to pull back a little. Less is more. This writer is very good at giving us telling details, like the Seuss book. But I am thinking the writer could have gotten her point across about the protag’s diminished expectations by really exploiting ONLY the Seuss thing — ie the comparison between the title’s sunny promise (“Oh, the places you’ll go!) and the dark reality of the narrator’s life. (oh, god, the places I went…) I think the Seuss metaphor is lost in all the black mood. Find that one telling detail and let it shine and work. The reader can fill in the rest.

    But we get hit over the head with a litany of misery that comes across almost as whining. The character needn’t be perfect but we must want to follow her journey. I’m not sure I want to. Perhaps if the negativity were toned down some and, as others have said, we get a sense of forward story motion (something has to happen or be hinted at), I might be more patient.

  13. I like the voice, even the negativity is fine for me, but I’m just wondering why everyone assumes the narrator is a girl? From the beginning “One minute you’re a youngster surrounded by grown-ups shoving sunshine up your ass about your bright, shiny future and the next, you’re alone in a crappy apartment, pushing thirty and taking stock of your inadequate underwear supply while packing to leave the country.” I thought this was a dude.

    I was thrown when the chapters were being listed “men’s bathroom, hair being held” and “boyfriend selling drugs.” These two things threw me for a loop as I’d assumed this narrator to be a guy. I just have a hard time believing a woman would consider “pushing 30 with limited underwear.”

    That was my only problem. I’d continue reading because the voice and attitude I enjoy.

  14. I’ve seen the story for this book elsewhere and this opening is just awesome!! A great character for the author to have to tell the story for. Great job!!

  15. I love the voice, it reminds me of Lisa Alther in Kinflicks and that is one of the highest compliments I can give.

    This is a personal peeve of mine, I do not like novels that break the 4th wall and talk directly to the reader (all the references to “you.”) I think it wears thin quickly and may be what some of the commenters are picking up on without realizing it.

    That said, this has the possibility of being weapons-grade funny, in a “humor in a jugular vein” kind of way.

    The opening passage of Kinflicks:

    My family has always been into death. My father, the Major, used to insist on having an ice pick next to his placemat at meals so that he could perform an emergency tracheotomy when one of us strangled on a piece of meat. Even now, by running my index fingers along my collarbones to the indentation where the bones join, I can locate the optimal site for a tracheal puncture with the same deftness as a junky a vein.

    The writer is talking to me, but not addressing me. And, I think you get the idea really quickly that this is going to be a woman whose life is a cluster-jump of epic proportions.

    I’m not as upset by the lack of immediately action. In Kinflicks, the first chapter is really prologue. When you turn the page to chapter 2, it starts, “Groggy with two in-flight martinis, Ginny huddled by the DC-7’s emergency exit.”

    POV shifts between 3rd and 1st depending on whether we’re in the present or the past.

  16. I thought the negativity was too over the top, at least to start out. I like some glimmer in the first page, something that will make me want to root for the character, something to make me care why s/he is such a gloomy Gus. What caused the pain? I got the feeling that this character was using negative humor to mask a deeper hurt. I would like to see a hint of that to make me want to turn the page. I wouldn’t continue reading as it is. Of course, I am still a little chicken to send my first page in! 🙂

  17. Maybe it’s me, (and maybe I missed someone else’s comment), but I found the “profanity/coarse wording” in the first two paragraphs a bit off-putting ~ not that I’m a #@*%$ prude, mind you… it just seemed to set a tone I found hard to embrace or take to, and that colored the rest as more a whine than sarcasm… I don’t find this character very sympathetic and don’t know that I’d care to spend much more time with her…
    Maybe it’s a case of too much too soon?

  18. I actually don’t mind the fact that the story doesn’t leap off the page at me. The voice, however, does. And I’m willing to give it a little slack to see where it goes. Something like this doesn’t need to lay out the story for you on page one.

    Even though it looks like edgy chick-lit (not my favorite genre), it managed to rope me in nonetheless.

  19. Wow, tough crowd! I like controversial characters, they’re more interesting than “nice” ones. I do agree that it went on a little long, BUT it’s funny. Especially the revised chapters. I think she has a great voice. If she starts the story a touch earlier she could have a great book on her hands. Well done!

  20. I read this submission yesterday and waited to read it again to comment. My first thought was “Wow” what a strong voice. I liked the hints of story, but found myself wanting to get to it a little faster. I agree that the Dr Seuss section could be pared to add strength, but it did make me laugh. I liked the Chapter headings, especially when she added Chapter Four. I found myself hoping that Alice would find something positive on her journey and the end of the first page made me want to read more.

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