First Page Critique – FORBIDDEN

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane



Our first 1st page anonymous submission for 2015 is FORBIDDEN. I’ll have my feedback on the flipside. Enjoy.

FORBIDDEN Excerpt:

Voices of excited Middle Eastern travelers echoed throughout Samarra’s crowded airport. A large man bumped into Eliza and muttered, “Laanah aleiky.” (damn you). She cringed and turned her back to the frenzy. 

Her knowledge of the Arabic language and Islamic culture drove home the risk she was taking – travelling alone in a country with a history of treating women harshly.

Habitat For Humanity has requested Eliza meet fifteen American volunteers at Samarra’s International Airport. United Air was now overdue. After another hour, she again checked the airport’s arrivals digital board. ‘United Air 719 – DELAYEDFriggin hell, they’re almost two hours late. Eliza fidgeted with her hijab (head scarf).

As she gazed at ‘DELAYED’, a vision overshadowed the surrounding clamor. Bloodied bodies, flames in a dark void and screams impaled her with waves of horror. She barely contained a shriek. Stop it, just friggin stop it! A sense of foreboding urged her to run. Find the next plane out of RIPT and get the hell back to Dubai.

“Breathe,” she whispered. She inhaled and exhaled slowly. “Again.” She shivered as the vision faded. Thank God I can easily control those damn visions.

Certain her odd behavior glowed like a neon sign, she scanned the long concourse for a dark and quiet alcove, or a bathroom. Nothing close. She turned her back to the perceived prying gazes and walked to a bank of floor to ceiling windows.

 

Lights of the tarmac and runways glowed. She listened to a jet’s engines roar as it reached takeoff speed. The last departing flight to leave the Republic of Islamic States and Provinces (RIPT) disappeared in the night sky like a homesick angel.

Trapped. She gasped. Her anxiety soared out of control. One of her strongest triggers erupted. Wild eyed, she watched as a void swallowed a family standing beside her. Her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) psychosis began its torment. A horrific memory surfaced, seized her body and mind.

Instantly, her mind switched to the horror of four years ago. She fought against a seatbelt. It pinned her to the driver’s seat of her van. Screams of desperation. Her sons, Nathan and Noah engulfed in flames, still alive. Oh my God, my boys ….

She restrained a shout for help. No, no, no. I’m at the airport. I’m waiting for American friends. The floor swayed. She grabbed a window’s pillar, closed her eyes.

 
Feedback:
1.) The first paragraph is too brief to fully set up the imagery of a crowded airport before a large man bumps into Eliza. I didn’t feel the need for the language translation in parenthesis. If the description had been better, Eliza would get a good picture that the man was in a rush and disgruntled as he dismisses his rudeness with an over the shoulder slight. Anyone who travels has “been there, done that” and Eliza wouldn’t have to speak the language to know the gist of what he’s saying, so no need to translate for the benefit of the reader in parenthesis, which draws the reader from the story.

2.) The second paragraph is more “telling” than “showing” of the risk she is taking. The author could have shown Eliza’s body language as she, a woman traveling alone in a male dominated country, navigates through a crowded airport trying to keep a low profile. Does she look anyone in the eye? How does it feel to wear the traditional dress when she’s clearly not used to it?

3.) I would have appreciated knowing what country this takes place in at the top of this submission, as in a possible tag line, to orient me as a reader as to location and time of day. I had to look up that Samarra is in Iran.

4.) The first line of paragraph three has a tense error. ‘Habitat for Humanity has requested…” is present tense when everything else is in past tense. It should read, ‘Habitat for Humanity had requested…’  

5.) The translation of hijab in parenthesis, ie (head scarf), pulled me from the story. It reads as if the author is proud of his or her research and is trying to be authentic by using the correct word, yet adds an awkward translation that detracts from the story. Whenever I have a crime scene forensics procedure or a technical word, I find a way to explain in context as soon after I use the word, so the reader can surmise the meaning without having to resort to a footnote or parenthesized meanings. In this case, the author might have used: As a woman traveling in public, she had to wear a head scarf that covered most of her face. The hijab had grown hot and her scalp prickled with sweat.

6.) With very little world building or description, the reader is thrust into a confusing vision experienced by Eliza. And again, the action is more “telling” than “showing.” As a reader, I was pulled from the story with the sudden switch that read as a contrivance to create an air of suspense or mystery. It confused me and I had to reread to figure out if I missed something. The transition didn’t flow and seemed forced. The author might have given hints of foreshadowing to lead to this vision, like having Eliza grow more agitated with a mounting headache, with her desperate to control the onslaught of something familiar that she can foresee coming.

7.) As Eliza fights for control over her breathing, an italicized inner thought “tells” the reader what the author wants them to know, that she is easily in control, yet that doesn’t appear to be the case as her struggles intensify. So the ‘thank God I can easily control…’ phrase seems to be false or too quickly contradicted.

8.) I can’t be sure of this, but it appears there is a typo in the sentence, ‘Lights of the tarmac and runways glowed.’ The typo is the word ‘of’ should be ‘off.’ Is that how you read it, TKZers?

9.) While Eliza is stressing over her visions, I was distracted with two more parenthesis: RIPT and PTSD. In my opinion, if the full name is given for these, then it is unnecessary to add them in parenthesis right after. I’ve seen this done in corporate memos to allow the writer of the memo to use the acronym later, but that isn’t generally done in fiction. Just as I suggested in point #5, a way to bring in the acronym can be added in context later if needed.

10.) Lastly, the flashback at the end, from four years earlier, is too brief to fully make the horror read as real. A mother watching her sons burn to death would be catastrophic and the wording distances me from what should have been a painful scene to imagine. Then on the last line she cries out, “no, no, no, I’m at the airport.” That sudden reference, because it was italicized, read as part of her flashback and not her trying to regain control. The author might fix this perception problem by simply removing the italicized section where she is back in present day, but the memory is too sterile to be believed. It lacks believable emotion for me.

In summary, the author should have patience to set the stage for the world building in this foreign country and give Eliza more time to show how her visions work and how tormented she is. Other than the quick setting at the airport and the sudden jolt into an odd vision, there is no real action in this opener. The scene is confined to Eliza’s mind and her tortured past without a good enough anchor into the present to ground the reader. I want to care about Eliza and what happened (or will happen to her), but this introduction has too many quick snippets of something difficult for the reader to follow.

What do you think, TKZers? Share your thoughts and give your constructive feedback to this courageous author.

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24 thoughts on “First Page Critique – FORBIDDEN

  1. You hit all my concerns, Jordan. The explanations of the hijab, the translations, the ‘easy’ control. #8 – Lights of the runways, or lights off the tarmac? How about the lights of the runway glowed off the tarmac?

    I’d read a few more pages, I’m interested in finding out more about Eliza but I like dialogue and interaction between characters so something would have to happen pretty darn quick.

  2. You did a good job of picking the nits. The translations, such as for hijab, actually felt a little condescending, a little show offy, and that puts me as a reader off.
    There’s definitely a story here, but the author hasn’t figured out the best way to tell it yet. This needs a lot of work. Or, better, a lot of thought, then a lot of work.

    • Hi John. Good morning. Starts to stories always take me the longest to ponder. “A lot of thought” is a good suggestion. I think this author may be so hurried into forcing suspense into 400 words that he or she has missed the subtlety of intrigue and world building. But I thino there’s a story here. I can feel it. Thanks for chiming in.

    • The acronyms and translations threw me out of the story as well. But one thing I notice in this piece is the order of things, which seem a bit awkward.

      “A large man bumped into Eliza and muttered, “Laanah aleiky.” (damn you). She cringed and turned her back to the frenzy.”

      To me would not be out of sequence like so:

      A large man bumped into Eliza.
      “Laanah aleiky,” he muttered.
      She cringed and turned her back to the frenzy.

      And I think that “to the frenzy” would not be needed in this intimate exchange if the author sets up the frenzy prior to the scene so that the reader already has the vision in their head.

      Example:

      Describe the frenzied scene first.

      A large man bumped into Eliza.
      “Laanah aleiky,” he muttered.
      She cringed and turned her back.

      So, for me the piece works fine and I would read more. The story is interesting and keeps me reading, but it was a bit awkward with the order of things going on, minor things, but worth noting since I experienced it to the point it was glaringly noticeable.

  3. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO JOE MOORE!

    I’m sorry to pile on, but job one is to kill the parentheticals with fire. Once they are gone, how do you get your point across without them?

    The key is inference. Drop enough clues so the reader can fill in the rest.

    “A large man bumped into me and his muttered obscenity reminded me . . . “

    And most people who would read a novel in this setting already knows what hijab is. You can leave it as it is or work it in:

    “Eliza tugged at her scarf. Normally, keeping hijab wasn’t a burden, but today was unusually humid . . .”

    Every thriller reader knows what PTSD is. This isn’t a research paper.

    Samarra is an international airport. There would be a polyglot of languages. I’m going to throw something out here, take or discard as you wish. I used to work for my college and used the delicate PC term “middle eastern” to a student. He looked at me straight, flared his nostrils and said, “I am an Arab.” “Middle East” is more of a western construct.

    “To pass the time in Samarra’s international airport, Eliza picked out the different Arabic dialects from the swirl of voices . . .”

    Some readers are going to take some real umbrage at this statement:

    “Her knowledge of the Arabic language and Islamic culture drove home the risk she was taking – travelling alone in a country with a history of treating women harshly.”

    Many do not believe that women are treated harshly in Islam. May I suggest “differently?”

    “Even with her fluent Arabic and knowledge of Islamic culture and customs, Eliza knew she was taking a risk by traveling alone in a country that treated all women differently and foreign women with suspicion . . .”

    I love these stories and am interested. Right now I see a bunch of research the writer is not exactly sure what to do with. BTW, I had the same problem with my trunker “Ashes of Roses.” Setting in a foreign country and trying to catch the tang of local life is not easy.

    A great quote I got at a conference (sorry don’t know the source) said in effect, “The key to research and editing to to make a 500-page book into a 300-page book while leaving the other 200-pages in there. I have been known to do 4 hours of research for a 2-line passage. But it’s a good 2 lines.

    All in all, good first draft, but still a first draft.

    Terri

    • Nice input, Terri. Totally agree. It would be interesting to capture a foreign setting from two distinct perspectives, like from a new person and someone who’s a local. Incorporating research in subtle ways is not easy. It needs to look effortless.

  4. All of the above, and this: The Tormented Telekinetic Woman With A Tragic Past stopped being a trope somewhere around 1977 and lapsed into “dark and stormy night” cliché. For this to have any chance of working, there has to be something new and different and transcendent.

    • Hi Jim. Thanks for your feedback. It’s hard to say how this author might bring something new to this woman’s plight with only 400 words, but you’ve made a good point. To defy a cliched trope, the author would have to bring a new twist that would be memorable. I agree.

  5. I’m intrigued with the set-up: A foreign woman (we know this cuz of the name Eliza) in a hostile country who is fighting a demon memory (I am guessing of her sons dying in a car fire? But we mistake as a war memory at first).

    But there are some pretty basic problems:
    1. Where am I? I can’t tell although this hints at somewhere in the Mideast. Samarra is in a city in Iraq, no? Yet your mention the Republic of Islamic States which I think is Iran, no? Also, Samarra isn’t big enough to have an “international” airport.

    2. Where this is taking place, you don’t set the scene well enough. We need more sensory detail. What does it look, sound and SMELL like? My only basis of comparison is a large airport in Chennai India and THAT was a mad-house. You could do so much more to enhance your heroine’s mood by setting the scene better.

    3. As everyone has said, if you can’t find a way to gracefully insert foreign words in your narrative, don’t use them. (See sample below).

    4. I don’t understand this woman’s state of mreet the volunteers but she also is one step from crazy. ind. On one hand she is aware of her responsibility to gI need a line or two about what her job is also. Am curious what the heck Habitat volunteers are doing in Iran/Irag.

    5. Way too much you telling us what she is feeling and not enough showing us through her actions, thoughts, etc.

    I’m thinking the best way I can help is to show you a quick rewrite version. The opening paragraph is not good but it’s just to get things going:

    The voices and bodies eddied around her as she stood staring up at the arrival board. A large man in a WHAT? bumped into her.

    “Laanah aleiky,” he muttered.

    Eliza looked into his dark eyes for a second then quickly turned away, instinctively pulling her head scarf lower over her forehead. She knew enough not to stare right into any man’s eyes. She also knew enough Arabic to understand what he had said – damn you. It was a curse directed at a woman traveling alone.

    Again, she looked up the arrivals. United Air 719 was almost two hours overdue. She was sweating heavily under the habib and her head was pounding. She shut her eyes against the sudden flash of memory –- bloody bodies, flames and screams. She pulled in a deep breath and when she opened her eyes, they went to the departures. The last flight leaving WHEREVER SHE IS to Dubai was just getting ready to depart.

    Go, just go. Get out of this place and never come back.

    But she couldn’t. The American volunteers from Habitat for Humanity were counting on her to meet them when they arrived. She couldn’t just leave.

    “Breathe,” she whispered.

    She inhaled and exhaled, and slowly the vision began to recede. But she could still feel the stares of the men. She scanned the concourse for a quiet alcove or a bathroom. Nothing close. She walked to a bank of floor to ceiling windows.

    The lights out on the runway glowed in the dusk. A jet was taxing out — the last flight out of the Republic of Islamic States. She stood at the window, watching it until it lifted off and disappeared into the night sky like a homesick angel.

    Trapped. She was trapped.

    Her heart began to race and again, almost instinctively, she closed her eyes tried to harness the power of the breathing exercises the doctor had recommended to fight her PTSS. But it wasn’t working and the memory pushed its way forward.

    The cutting pressure of the seat belt across her chest. The smell and heat of the flames. The screams of Nathan and Noah. Oh my God, my boys…

  6. (Hi Jordan, it’s been a while! How’s it going?) Kudos to the author for putting herself (I assume, since it’s a woman protagonist, but I could be mistaken) out there. Jordan, your responses were, as always, spot on. I am also intrigued by her plight and I would keep reading, but as mentioned, with a better flow, more showing, etc, I would be more compelled to read on. Good job!

    • Hey Alice. Great to see you here. Hugs from Texas. I’m wishing you the best in 2015, my fine friend. Hope to see you this year, somewhere.

    • Hugs back! Thank you and wishing you the best as well. I plan to become more regular on the Kill Zone, so I’ll be virtually seeing you, but I would love to physically get together soon! 🙂

    • Definitely. Would love to see you this year. And I’m excited about the prospect of seeing you more on TKZ in 2015. Good people here, contributors and followers.

    • I know, I love this site, and I used to visit then I totally lost touch. Now I follow, so that won’t happen again. What a great place to connect with awesome, talented, successful authors. The followers seem pretty great too!

  7. I agree totally with your critique. In this day and age, most readers know what a hijab is. I’m not real sure why it’s in italics to begin with.

    If this is a straight suspense book, I’d consider starting with the “Bloodied bodies, flames in a dark void… sentence first. It’s a grabber.

    Am I the only one frustrated when authors put inner thoughts in italics? Drives me crazy.

    I don’t know a whole lot about Habitat for Humanity, but I don’t think they build in Iran. May want to research that a bit.

    • Good thoughts, K J. Research is so important to get right, even in fiction. If Habitat doesn’t work in Iran, then a fictional entity might be in order, providing the assertion is reasonable.

      You make a good point on italicizing words like hijab. Copy editors Iver worked with italicize foreign language sentences, but a single word could be different.

      As for internal thoughts, I italicize them to make it clear to readers. These sentences can be a different tense or POV (as in first person), so I think a different treatment is called for. But I’ll pay more attention to this after reading your take. Thank you.

  8. I agree with the critique and the comments so far.

    I have a strong preference for seeing a hint in the opening that raises the main story question. From this excerpt, I really have no idea of what this story will be about in any way but generally, i.e., a foreign woman in a strange land. Yes, she’s going to run into problems…a multitude of them, likely…but I’m wondering if there’s a way to let the reader know what the major problem will be.

    As for the actual writing, I know “they” say that emotions in fiction are larger than life, and in many ways they are, but I think it’s way too soon to have a character gasp (a word I’m not fond of anyway) and way too soon to introduce a PTSD flashback before we care a bit more about this woman and her situation. Sure, hint at it, but perhaps don’t reveal so much right yet. Make it a question the reader will want to find the answer to…later on. And what happened to this woman the past had better relate to what happens in the actual story.

    My two cents, for what they’re worth.

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