First Page Critique for: Not Useless

Jordan Dane

For your enjoyment are the first 400 words of Not Useless, submitted anonymously for critique by a daring soul. My feedback will be on the flip side. Please join in the conversation with constructive comments. Thanks!

Quentin felt like a fly caught in a pitcher plant. The old woman had lured him with great promises, but they had been lies. If he didn’t escape, she would destroy his career, his dreams. That would kill him.

Dr. Windsor had her back to him now, kneeling in her space suit in the gray rubble of the crater’s ejecta. Boulders, some the size of New York taxis, made her look small against the planetoid’s monochrome landscape. She bent over a small box. Instead of a legendary scientist, famed for discovering exotic extremophiles, the old woman reminded Quentin of a retiree playing with her little insect hobby. Pitiful. He’d find nothing for his doctoral thesis while working with her.

Yet, many people still respected the exoentomologist for her past work. Quentin craved a recommendation from her.But he also wanted off this useless expedition. He sighed. How could he get both?

“Mr. Stone. If you plan to continue sighing, please disengage your helmet microphone.” Dr. Windsor’s voice crackled in his ears, but she did not look up from her work.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Doctor. I was just thinking of…um…Earth.”

“Important discoveries are not found on Earth, Mr. Stone. They are found out here at the edge of interstellar travel. I selected you because I thought you shared this vision. Was I mistaken?”

“No, definitely not, Dr. Windsor.”

“Good. Now, please bring me the rest of the light lures.”

Quentin winced.  “The rest? You said two packs were all we needed.”

Windsor stopped working and turned to Quentin. He was glad he couldn’t see her face behind her helmet visor.

“Do not be a buffoon, Mr. Stone. I distinctly said bring four packs of light lures. Did you forget some back at the ship?

“Ah, well, ah, when you said—”

“Mr. Stone, I have no time for idiocy. Return to the ship and retrieve them now.” Windsor resumed her work.

“Alone?” said Quentin. “But we’re supposed to travel with a partner.”

“I am aware of protocol, Mr. Stone,” Windsor said, as she continued working. “However, your incompetence has cost me valuable time. If I return, I cannot set enough live traps to make this stop worthwhile. We have a tight schedule and cannot ask the others to wait for us. Follow the guide cable and you will be fine. Do you think you can handle that simple task, Mr. Stone?”

The author teased me into this intro and I was first surprised by the fact this is on a planet or planetoid. My second surprise came when the doctor heard his sigh over the mic to bring the reader from Stone’s internal monologue and back into the scene. The tone is set for calamity. I liked the tension between these two. Stone’s internal thoughts are short and set the stage for what will come next. I would expect something to happen while Stone goes back to the ship, if the foreshadowing holds true.

It’s hard to tell if Stone is a main character, but the set up implies it. The way the author teases us deeper into this story and foreshadows something ahead for Stone, I would turn the page and keep reading. With Stone drawn into his worries about his thesis, it would appear he has done this procedure many times before and is not distracted by what he’s seeing on the planet, but I would like to know more about the setting. Below are some questions I have. The answers may add some depth to the scene.


What is his career? His doctoral thesis? Entomologist too?

Where are they? Which planetoid or galaxy? Any other colors besides a monochrome one? Number of moons? Can Earth be seen? Location, location, location.

What does it look like…feel like…to be encumbered by a space suit? Are they weighted or tethered? 

Staring through a visor, what does he truly see of the planet? I’m assuming there is zero gravity, yet she’s working with a box that’s not adrift or unsteady.

I’d like to see more mood or tone to this. I’m not sure if this will be a suspense story. The foreshadowing is all I have to go on. A suspenseful tone can be enhanced by simple word choices that give the narrative an edgy danger. Or perhaps a mishap of something small can remind Stone how dangerous things can be.

I’d like more setting and tone to fill this opener out. With only dialogue, the scene feels too sparse to create a world the reader will want to see in their mind’s eye. The bones are here, but in my opinion, this needs a bit of filler to broaden the world building.

What do you think, TKZers? Is there enough mood or tone to this? What would you add or change? Your feedback would be appreciated.

17 thoughts on “First Page Critique for: Not Useless

  1. I would have preferred them to be, perhaps, the second 400 words. These few sentences, without some setting of scenes, are a little out of place. Although I like a little mystery, I can enjoy a work much more when I’m not forced to wonder if my interpretation of what may have preceded the words, is completely wrong.

    • Thanks, Roger. The sci fi story intrigued me, but I wanted a little more world building to set the stage as an opener. The bones are here & I would read more. Thanks!

  2. Two, think, if I may:

    1. There’s a kind of parallel/symbolism in the first paragraph that might be missed (and that I didn’t catch till a second read), between the “fly caught in a pitcher plant” and the expedition to gather off-earth insects (D. Windsor being an “exoentimologist”)

    2. I found the second paragraph a bit ” clunky”, using the “unscientific” term “space suit” in the same sentence as the highly scientific term “ejecta” ~

    Otherwise, the set up/ foreshadowing for the page-turnd disappointed me because there was no page to turn~!


  3. A nice opening and I would give it some time. I think that the opening paragraph might be using too many words to convey the intent. It could get shortened to:

    The old woman had lured him with great promises, but Quentin felt like a fly caught in a pitcher plant.

    And then move right to the second paragraph.

    I didn’t have issues with type of celestial object – I presumed gravity from the doctor kneeling which gives a certain mass size. Space suit seemed a little inconsistent since it implies airlessness – insects would need atmosphere of some sort.

    One thing that jarred – the reference to New York cabs. I don’t know what they look like in the time of the story, so my mental image was of a current vintage cab which took me right out of the future world.

    So, when will it be done, and where can I buy it?

  4. I didn’t stop asking questions until this part:

    “the old woman reminded Quentin of a retiree playing with her little insect hobby. Pitiful. He’d find nothing for his doctoral thesis while working with her.”

    This tells me right off what Quentin is seeking and what he believes is an obstacle to that. It’s what draws me in. I felt like everything up to this point was fluff. It can be sprinkled in later and wouldn’t make a difference to me.

    The doctor is a hard ass, so I’m feeling a bit of sympathy for Quentin, so it’s a good thing and would keep me reading.

  5. Not sure I’d keep reading, although I think the author has done a good job of introducing the character’s goal. If this is the main goal, then I’d like to see a stronger obstacle to that goal in the opening chapter, at least, but perhaps not quite this soon, of course.

    Somehow I feel as though this might not be the right place to start the story, but not knowing the story, it’s hard to say. Just doesn’t feel compelling enough for me.

    The taxi-cab comparison felt inappropriate to the setting. For a great example of how to integrate metaphors into a story, read THE ENGLISH- MAN’S BOY by Guy Vanderhaeghe — two storylines that merge at the end. One takes place in cowboy country and the other takes place in the movie industry, and not a single metaphor is misplaced, which is probably why it won the Canadian Governor General’s Award (the Cdn. equivalent to the Pulitzer), although there’s a speech by the movie director in there somewhere that I felt was author intrusion. I happen to dislike speeches in novels.

    A little too much “Talking Heads” for my taste. Not enough setting details or the five senses to bring me into the moment of the scene or to feel enough for the character. Maybe he’s dying to pee and doesn’t like peeing in whatever rigamarole they use in space suits. Does his suit smell stale? Does he want to scratch his nose but can’t? Does the light glint off the Dr.’s visor and that obscures her face? Lots of opportunity here to make the reader identify with the character.

    I’m easily thrown by variations in character references and their names, i.e., old woman/Dr. Perhaps there’s a better way to introduce the fact that she’s old, and even though he can’t see her face through the visor, he could imagine an expression on her face that would reveal that she’s old and give the author an opportunity to reveal her character and their relationship without so much telling in the first paragraph.

    A picky thing, but the ends of things, particularly the opening paragraph, are Points of Stress. Find a way to end with a strong word rather than a pronoun.

    All these things may help the author to find his or her voice, something that didn’t come through to me in this excerpt.

  6. I enjoyed this opening even though sci-fi doesn’t tend to me kind of thing (at least in books). I think the tension is building so I’d probably overlook some of the questions I initially have and read on – though I agree with Jordan, that a little bit more of a sense of our location would be helpful. I wasn’t totally invested in the story yet but I would need to know what was going to happen immediately after this excerpt to be able to comment on whether we really needed more upfront. I do think the bones are here though.

  7. I think the author does a good job of setting the hook and the difficulties he’ll have in attaining his objective by showing the condescending/superior attitude of the doctor. The main character has his job cut out for him.

  8. Hey, thanks for all the comments! I will ponder them as I do a rewrite. I’m on vacation and hadn’t checked into the blog for a while, so I didn’t realize this had run. What a treat!

    In my first version I had dumped in way to much backstory right away. I knew I wasn’t supposed to do that, but the urge is strong. After reading another First Page Critique in which too much backstory was an issue, I went back, trimmed my backstory and shoved it farther into the story.

    Anyway, thanks again for all the comments. I’ll read them again a few times before rewriting. I’m sure I can do a better job of getting in more setting without losing the tension.

  9. This beginning has a lot going for it. It opens with anxiety and conflict. Very important. There’s enough info to show a place that is significant to the story and the characters.

    Depth and backstory will acquaint us with more of what is needed in subsequent scenes. What is needed here at the beginning is a ‘hook.’

    I like early dialogue. Gives me immediate feedback on character and anticipated action/reaction. My suggestion would be to put in a bit MORE action, something unexpected that shows how different both of these characters react to the same stimuli.

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