A page-turner? You decide.

Today, we have an untitled first page submission by another brave writer. I’ll get the ball rolling with a few comments after the page, but then I’d like you to put on your reader’s cap and give us your first gut reaction in the Comments. After reading this opening, would you turn to page two? Why, or why not? 

***

He lay still in a prone firing position looking through the scope of his rifle with his finger curled around the trigger. In the center of the crosshairs he watched the sinister eyes of his target. Even from a distance of eight hundred yards Max thought the man appeared to be smug. He was responsible for the planning of a terrorist attack in the United States that claimed the lives of thirteen innocent children. He was basking in the glory he was receiving from his fellow tribesmen. To them he was a king, a God among mortal men. He had attacked the great Satan in the name of Allah and they were all rejoicing.  The man looked around, smiling and waving to those around him. Without warning the man suddenly buckled at the knees and collapsed in a heap. There was no sound, other than him hitting the ground violently. Blood spewed three hundred and sixty degrees, splattering the crowd with blood and brain matter. Max couldn’t hear the screams of the crowd and didn’t take the time to see the fear on their faces. But he knew by the way they quickly scattered they were fearful and screaming. He wished the families of the thirteen victims could see what he was seeing. Perhaps it would bring some closure to some of them.

***

My comments: 

Perhaps because terrorism is dominating the news this week, I was grabbed by this premise of taking revenge on an evil-doer. The writer opens the story with a promising action scene.

Suggestions:

* I was distracted by the juxtaposition by the use of “sinister” and “smug” to describe the terrorist’s eyes, as seen by Max. I would suggest revising to convey “sinister” in a more specific way. Something like “flat, cold eyes,” perhaps?

* I was distracted in places by the point of view, by the middle of the paragraph in particular. The sentences beginning with “He was responsible…”; “He was basking in the glory…”; “To them he was a king…”; and “He had attacked…” seemed written in an omniscient point of view. Then we switch to the terrorist’s point of view, as he turns and waves. The next sentences, which begin with “Without warning…”; and “There was no sound…” seem to be from the crowd’s point of view. It would just take a little tweaking to show all of this action taking place from Max’s perspective. 

* Later in the page, there is a repetition of “screams and fear.” 

* There was a disconnect to me between “Max…didn’t take the time to see the fear on their faces,” and “He wished the families of the thirteen victims could see what he was seeing.” Again, a little tweaking could strengthen this section.

Overall:

I think this page simply needs a bit of tweaking to address the issues I’ve mentioned. I would definitely turn to page two to see what happens next in this story. Thank you, Writer, for your submission!

What about you? Would you turn the page? Why or why not?
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28 thoughts on “A page-turner? You decide.

  1. I too was distracted by a couple of phrases. “He lay still in a prone firing position” feels redundant – if he’s in a prone position he’s obviously laying down. you could show us that by describing his discomfort at having been lying there for hours waiting for this moment, ignoring the sand flies and occasional scorpion as he peered through the scope, etc., or something like.
    But the larger issue, for me, is that so much of this feels like an info dump. I’d stay closer in the shooter’s head and leave until later who this guy is and why he’s about to have a hole in his head. We can get that later. Right now, just tell the story, as tightly focused on the shooter as he is on his target.
    It might also work better that way, since all we know is there’s a shooter and a target and we don’t know who’s the good guy. Builds suspense.
    But that’s just me.

    • He could replace all that background with the shooter’s first thought when the man crumples to earth: “Scratch one.” Or something like that. Thanks, John!

  2. The terminology and style seems as though this may be written by a veteran and based, at least partially, on experience (It reads much like my 1st draft of Ghosts of Babylon, which was also based on personal war experience).

    I like the setting and the action. I would suggest stretching the scene out a bit, establishing intimacy. Make readers feel as though they are lying right there next to Max. Paint the picture. Use all the senses. Is it hot? Is it windy? Morning or afternoon? What does Max hear and smell?

    Also, let the reader ‘see’ the man in the crosshairs. Don’t tell us he’s smug. Show us. Think about how Max can deduce the target’s smugness through the scope and describe that. We’ll catch on.

    Lastly, it might be better not to spill the beans as to who Max has in his sights right away. Just stick to the experience. As this is the first page of the book, let us wonder why Max is scoping his guy. Is Max there to spy on him, kill him, or maybe even protect him? Then let the shot take the reader by surprise, just as a real on would.

    Maybe something like:

    “The target’s knees buckled, then gave way. He lay unmoving on the scorching sand. The crowd stared in shock. What was once the man’s head now covered them in a red mist. Surprise quickly turned to panic as sandaled feet trampled neighbors, running in all directions, desperate to escape the unseen wrath.
    Tango down.
    Max felt grim satisfaction at visiting terror upon the terrorists in their own den. He only wished the families of this savage’s victims could see it too.”

  3. I would probably keep reading for a couple of pages because I like the initial premise. As John said above, it felt like an info dump. Also, a lot of passive voice which divorced us from the action and impact as well as the emotions of the protag. More than the info dump quality, the passive voice usually sends me to the next book in the to-be-read stack.

    Congrats to the author. He or she has a nice idea to work with.

  4. I love the fact that the writer chose a pivotal moment to enter the story. No throat-clearing here! But as the other commenters have said, I would do three things to increase what is some good beginning tension:

    Get firmly in the protag’s POV. (You waver into omniscent and the bad guy’s). Give us more sensory details…what does this FEEL like, smell like. Don’t be so dependent on sight.

    Pare down that info dump. As said already, you can insert this later. It really slows things down this early and it is a tad heavy-handed. Terrorism is so constant on our minds now that we don’t need the “preachiness” of the sniper’s thoughts. Give us one or two quick visceral thoughts, like your good line about focusing in on the dead children. Maybe there is an interesting juxapositioning in his thoughts between the screams of the people around the bad guy as he died and the “screams” of the children’s families back home? Stress the humanity…don’t be didactic in your point. Trust your reader to get it.

    Third, you need some paragraphing here. Action scenes like this should be shorter, more staccato, crisper. This “scans” on the page as loooong and thus leisurely. I know we are in the sniper’s thoughts but this is still an action scene. A potentially very good one.

    Nice job.

  5. Hmmm… I don’t like that the page starts with “he.” If you’re going to give us a character, I’d like to see a name. Vague characters early on suggestions vague or weak character development to me. Also, since we start with “he” and our terrorist is “he,” the pronouns clash and I was having to reread to make sure we’re following the right “he.”

    Also, I don’t care how good a rifleman you are, there will be some kind of sound when you fire your sniper.

    Finally, I don’t really feel connection to the character. I’m thrown too far into the middle of action. I don’t care about the sniper, and I don’t care that he kills the terrorist. I’m just having a hard time connecting with the sniper with this vague description and little emotion.

    I probably wouldn’t continue, but the main reason isn’t these things. It’s the genre. Not my thing.

  6. I’ve been thinking about this all morning. Sometimes we see life in a broad view. Sometimes in a two shot, or a closeup. And sometimes through a rifle’s scope. And which view we choose as a writer affects the story we tell. The author of this page would have done better by keeping the focus through the scope. He could describe the heat, the rocks cutting into his waist, the bead of sweat trickling into the corner of the sniper’s eye, but SHOW US only what the shooter sees through his sights. Talk about deep POV. (He could see the target grin, laugh, and think “Arrogant bastard!” as he pulled the trigger, etc.)

  7. This is my genre, but I don’t feel anything out of this. I’m not in the action and there are a lot of cliches. This feels like a prologue. I expect the next chapter to be our square-jawed taciturn superhero in some sort of scene that completely contrasts to this one.

    I love me some terrorist stuff and military action-adventure tech thriller, but this could be the first page in about 500 books out there. It would take the blurb of the century to keep me reading.

    —————————————–

    He lay still in a prone firing position looking through the scope of his rifle with his finger curled around the trigger. In the center of the crosshairs he watched the sinister eyes of his target.

    Lay and prone are redundant. Sinister is cliche. And you use “he” to describe both Max and the DBG (designated bad guy.)

    Even from a distance of eight hundred yards Max thought the man appeared to be smug. He was responsible for the planning of a terrorist attack in the United States that claimed the lives of thirteen innocent children.

    “appeared to be smug” is passive telling. Why is is smug? Is he clinking glasses or getting high-fives from the others. Is he smoking or lounging? And is he smug or isn’t he? “appeared to be” is weak. And “thirteen innocent children” is also cliche. Would it have been different if they had been “thirteen evil reform school children.”

    He was basking in the glory he was receiving from his fellow tribesmen. To them he was a king, a God among mortal men. He had attacked the great Satan in the name of Allah and they were all rejoicing.

    What glory? And Great Satan has become cliche as well as the rest. It sounds forced and cliched.

    The man looked around, smiling and waving to those around him. Without warning the man suddenly buckled at the knees and collapsed in a heap. There was no sound, other than him hitting the ground violently. Blood spewed three hundred and sixty degrees, splattering the crowd with blood and brain matter.

    This completely takes Max out of the equation. For a second I thought someone else had shot him. And the man? Doesn’t Max know who he just shot? And “without warning . . . suddenly buckled” is redundant. He fell, I get it. Buckled infers that it happened quickly. I don’t need without warning and suddenly.

    Max couldn’t hear the screams of the crowd and didn’t take the time to see the fear on their faces. But he knew by the way they quickly scattered they were fearful and screaming. He wished the families of the thirteen victims could see what he was seeing. Perhaps it would bring some closure to some of them.

    “some closure to some of them” is awkward. Overall, feels stilted and cliched. Max just blew a guy’s head off. He has to break down and exfiltrate. You can show his coldness by him switching off his thoughts about the mission accomplished and turn it to getting the hell out of there.

    ——————————————–

    I love techno-thrillers, but they can too quickly devolve into superhero or political screeds. Clancy and Larry Bond work because of their rich characterizations woven into the military jargon and techno-spew. Max doesn’t feel rich at this point.

    My 2 cents, take or leave as you wish: Terri

  8. Love what I think the premise might be (I adore getting the bad guys!), but the voice didn’t draw me in, and when I’m reading first pages I look for a voice that grabs me. To me, this feels a bit too pedestrian, i.e., generally competent, subject to the weaknesses others have identified, but it doesn’t have that extra oomph I look for, and that alone would stop me from reading more.

    How to find that voice? Write, write, write, of course, but take risks and experiment, find fresh ways to say everything(!!!), and especially find the passion and emotions that drive you to write a particular story, and then make them show on the page.

    From a structural point of view, I’m not sure this the place to start this story, unless it’s a prologue, and even then I’m not sure. I, like Terri, don’t feel enough about Max and what he’s really feeling, and I’d like to feel more of his feelings, and feel more of the setting. The common trope of the thriller genre is to start with a scene like this. It might work if some of the other concerns expressed are addressed.

    From a scene-structure point of view, I see a goal, but don’t see any real obstacles, internal or external, although it’s perhaps too soon to see external obstacles. For me, It’s too easy for him to shoot the bad guy (and it’s unclear that he actually did the shooting…one can infer that by the end of the excerpt, but it’s not clear soon enough.) Even so, it’s way too easy, happens too fast for me.

  9. Intriguing at first. To me it was too much tell. As a reader, I would want to be right there in the dirt with Max the sniper. Feel the breathing and actually listen to the dialogue in his head. I would want to be right in that moment.

    The POV shifts are no good. Is there risk to Max? There has to be more going on than simply “another one bites the dust.” How hard was it to find this guy? The setup leads me to believe that this one was easy. They all aren’t. What are the stakes here? This should be one of those “face in the dirt” moments, but it doesn’t come across.

    Given that, I wouldn’t keep going.

  10. I think I would place this on my “for later” stack. It’s very promising, but I have a lot of similar books running right now.

    I really didn’t have any problem with any point of views, and I felt there wasn’t any real disconnect “between ‘Max…didn’t take the time to see the fear on their faces,’ and ‘He wished the families of the thirteen victims could see what he was seeing.'”

    It seemed that was covered by the previous lines where it said he couldn’t hear them but could see them scattering and knew what that meant. This is obviously a combat veteran, and he’s extrapolating previous-knowns to a likely known.

    I did agree that the “sinister” eyes didn’t quite work, and liked the idea of “flat, cold eyes.,” or maybe just “eyes.”

    And I especially liked, in the critique itself, the dual reference that really all that’s needed, in this otherwise pretty exciting scene with lots of questions to be answered (later), is “a little tweaking.”

    The rest, whether there’s too much info too soon, too much action too soon, too wide a perspective, all can be turn-offs for some readers, yet “necessary” for others. At some point, one has to choose, and just go with it.

    I tend to alternate types of work I read, so once I shifted to something other than action thriller for a bit, good chance I’d be hunting this one up for further sampling, to try a few more pages. 🙂

  11. I agree with what’s said above: POV issues need to be resolved, and needs more active voice.

    And then there’s this: our sniper never pulled the trigger.

    That said, the news makes this potent material.

    Lee Child in his latest, “Personal,” depicts sniper scenes with his usual virtuosity.

    Being short of that I’d try for a twist on this well-traveled trope. Maybe the sniper makes his shot, but realizes he’s gotten the wrong guy.

  12. The craft issues are legion, and have been capably dissected by others.

    I’m surprised that nobody’s mentioned the heavy-handed moralism, which I find tremendously offputting. Lay the action and the characters out for me and let ME decide who’s good and who’s evil. I don’t need to be told who my rooting interest is; have it dictated to me removes a key level of emotional engagement for me as a reader.

    Just tell me a story, OK?

  13. Like other commenters, “sinister eyes and “smug” don’t work together for me. And when I see a cliché like “innocent children,” I grow wary. As opposed to thirteen children who had it coming? It’s like TV news reporters glowering into the camera, then announcing another “senseless killing.” I keep waiting for one of them to smile and say, “At last I can report on a down-turn-earth, no-frills, sensible killing.”

  14. I feel like I don’t know or care who Max is yet, so the whole scene loses impact for me. Plus it’s just plain verbose. “Sinister eyes” is a tell (vs. show), a beginner mistake. I agree with John Baur, this passage feels way too much like an info dump. It has little impact, for me.

  15. The writer has the right idea, jumping into the story with this scene. No screwing around. But …

    There should be no backstory in an opening paragraph, or if it’s ABSOLUTELY necessary (which it almost never is), it should be woven in so skillfully that it’s virtually invisible.

    I don’t see how you can spot smugness on someone’s face at 800 yards, even through a scope. It doesn’t feel right that the sniper would even think of it. That’s a subjective thought that he’s not permitted to have at that crucial moment.

    A couple of clichés and the lack of proper punctuation added to the above ruined it for me.

    I don’t mean to be so hard on it, but that’s my honest response.

  16. One of the first things that stood out for me was his finger curled around the trigger. My husband is a firearms instructor, and though we may see a “curled finger” in movies, a sniper doesn’t curl his finger around a trigger. The area between the tip and the first bend is the only part of his finger that touches the trigger.

  17. My number one reason why I wouldn’t turn the page is lack of punctuation in the first two paragraphs. Run on sentences is a no-no for me.

    Second, I dont care to know who the target is, and why he is a target on the very first page. SHOW (don’t tell) me the gory scene first, them give me the boring background details later. The mystery of who the target is would have me turning the pages. The longer you take to tell me, the longer I’ll read.

    There were lots of other little things like the repetition of the the word blood in one sentence, the lack of creativity in sentence structure (<– R.A Mathis did an excellent job reconstructing the sentences, giving us a more vivid picture).

    I’m no expert, these are just my own personal preferences as a reader (as a writer, I make A LOT of these mistakes, too. Thank God for my editor.)

  18. I agree with your perceptions – I noticed them – especially the POV problem. However, I would probably turn the page and read a little longer. The subject matter is one that appeals to todays readers and I would want to see if the story evened out or the writing got worse. I may not make it to the end of the book – but just maybe…..

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