First-page Critique: THINGS NOT FORGOTTEN

Today we’re critiquing the first page of a story called THINGS NOT FORGOTTEN. I’ll add my comments at the end, and then I invite you all to add your thoughts in the Comments.

THINGS NOT FORGOTTEN

normanbates_thumb2Wednesday, 10:30 p.m.

But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.

James 3:8

Keep running. Don’t stop until you know the madman is gone. But he was still alive.

Jason smelled his own sweat…pungent and sour. And vomit. He’d thrown up, splattering the front of his plaid flannel shirt, the taste still in his mouth. Urine soaked the front of his jeans. He couldn’t believe he’d pissed himself.

How could he run away and leave his best friend?

Eric’s screams still echoed inside his head.

His feet pounded the earth. He glimpsed over his shoulder to see if the maniac chased after him. His heart pulsed in his ears.

When he turned back, his forehead slammed into a branch. Jason staggered but stayed on his feet. Eyes watered from the pain.

Got to keep running. Don’t look back.      

His feet obeyed despite the dizziness swimming in his head. Moonlight flickered patches of light through the trees. Instead of providing a path, it only contributed to the vertigo. It had been two years since he and Eric came to the cabin to hunt. If only he somehow had grabbed his rifle when he escaped, but there was no going back.

As he ran, he used his hands as battering rams to clear a path. Knock down any low hanging branches. Twigs and brush slashed at him but he refused to stop. Blood trickled down his face and arms. It mixed with sweat and stung his eyes. He swallowed. His stomach lurched, threatening to spew whatever contents remained.

His mind replayed the events in short, choppy segments. Eric and he had been drinking beer, swapping sea stories in the navy when someone knocked on the front door. If only they had never opened it.

Now his best friend was dead, or soon would be. He didn’t know for certain. As the psychopath tortured Eric, Jason worked his hands and feet out of the rope binding him to a chair.

The nearest neighbor was five miles away, but he didn’t know in what direction. In his haste, he rushed into the thicket of trees and brush, running as fast as he could. Nothing else mattered.

But he must be far away from the cabin by now. Rare streaks of moonlight revealed glimpses of the ground. He tripped over a fallen tree. He tried to catch himself, arms flailing to catch anything his hands could grasp. He went down hard, his body spiraling across leaves like a helicopter until it crashed into a tree.

Pain shot through his ankle.

Get up!

His leaden legs wouldn’t obey. A twig snapped, then a rustle, soft and subtle. Then the crunch of leaves and footsteps like someone closing in on him.

It’s not possible. How could he have found me?

My comments:

I have to say my stomach tightened as I read this page, which is good news for the writer. The use of short sentences and strong verbs (pounded, slammed, staggered, flickered) are appropriate for an action scene. The punchy verbs and short sentences used in this example help underscore the sense of urgency and panic that is being experienced by the character. (An aside: this scene reminded me of a newspaper story I once read about a mass shooting that took place in Australia. The story included an unforgettable description of a mother and her two young girls fleeing into the brush, trying to escape from the shooter.)

I did get distracted by a couple of things in the writing. As I first read the third sentence, “But he was still alive,” I wasn’t sure if “he” referred to to the victim or killer. That unclear pronoun reference should be fixed to avoid causing potential confusion.

I found the references to the actual encounter with the killer to be generic, and therefore a bit of a let-down. Imagine that a maniacal killer has suddenly appeared at the door of your remote cabin in the woods, tied you up, and tortured your best friend. Wouldn’t you have a vivid impression of the experience as you attempt to flee? Each moment spent with such a  monster would be burned into into your brain cells. I think the writer could improve the scene by finding a stronger way to convey that experience to the reader.

The sentence, “It had been two years since Eric and he came to the cabin to hunt” was confusing. Had they been living in the woods for two years? The writer needs to rework that section, or simply edit out that line.

The phrase “dizziness swimming in his head” struck me as a bit off the mark. Same comment applies for the image of the body spiraling like a helicopter. That sentence  comes off as a bit of overreach. (Also, I think one tends to think of a person’s arms flailing in space in a circular pattern like a helicopter, not the entire body.)

This comment is a really tiny nit: I stumbled on “rare streaks of moonlight”, probably because I initially misread it as “rare steaks.” (Silly, I know, but you don’t want to lose any reader for a reason that can easily be avoided.)

Overall, I think this page is in promising first-draft condition. The writer just needs to sharpen the language here and there, and do some polishing with an edit.

Now I’d like to hear from the rest of you. How do you like this first page? Please add your comments and suggestions. And thank you to the brave writer who submitted this work!

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15 thoughts on “First-page Critique: THINGS NOT FORGOTTEN

  1. I really enjoyed it, and felt forced to keep reading. Always a good thing. The only thing I can say is: I thought it was “steaks”, too, and had to reread that sentence. And yes, the helicopter analogy was a bit out there, but as a reader it wouldn’t stop me from continuing. Oh, and… since I write and read crime I would also like to hear more about the psychopath. Otherwise… bravo! I wish you huge success with this book.

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one to stumble on the rare steak, Sue–thanks for commenting!

  2. I agree that the writing shows promise, and with the nits pointed out by Kathryn, but I’m wondering if this is the place to start this story.

    The agent’s adage, “Make me care” comes to mind. Why should I care what happens to this character? And if I don’t care about the character, what does it matter to me whether he escapes or not?

    Admittedly, the situation, i.e., he’s escaping so that he can get help for his friend, does add some sympathy for the character, but I’ve been taught that situation isn’t enough. To make the reader really care, the writer has to reveal more about the character (not via a backstory dump!), and then the reader will be more vested in what happens to the character.

    When a story starts with an action scene (e.g., a battle, a murder, an escape, etc.), the writer doesn’t have much opportunity to make the reader care.

    I know that starting with action scenes is a trope in thrillers, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to start a story (despite many established authors who do so!)

    P.S. If this writer wants to find an agent, starting with a reference to vomit might not be a good idea, although I liked the sentence, “He couldn’t believe he’d pissed himself”…that felt like the character’s voice and did help me to care a tiny bit!

    • Sheryl, you’ve pointed to an important issue–making the reader care about a character on the very first page. The conventional advice to “open with action” has to be balanced with enough characterization to make the reader interested in what’s happening.

  3. Good action, shows a lot of promise. My problems are really just the ticky tack stuff that makes all the the difference. “He and Eric,” not Eric and he. swapping sea story FROM the Navy, not in the navy.
    I’m not sure about using his hands as battering rams. That’s something you use to break down a door or wall. This sounds more like he’s using them as a machete to cut through the foliage.
    And the references to “the maniac” and “the psycopath” ring false to me, more like a writer visibly trying to raise the stakes than a guy running in terror through the woods. Maybe the intruder is both of those things – show me, don’t tell me. It should be in the character’s head more. The less you tell me about the intruder and the more you show me, the more gripped I’ll be.
    But all in all, a good start.

  4. I love a good action start, and this situation is killer (ahem). So the question arose about caring, and that’s a good Q.

    The way to address that is to get us hotter into the character’s emotions, and weave that in with the action. You’ve got some of that going on, but go deeper into the heart. Overwrite and then cull. An exercise might start like this:

    Dear God, dear God! Eric, God, I’m sorry. Forgive me! Dead. I let him die. God help me make it, please don’t let me die!
    His feet pounded the earth. He glimpsed over his shoulder to see if the maniac chased after him.
    Where, which way? Five miles. Got to make it. Which way?
    His mind wouldn’t stay in one place.
    Why? They’d just been jawing, drinking beer, swapping stories, like old times. Why this killer, this guy with a knife and blowtorch?
    Eric, I’m sorry!

    Just keep going this way to get the material, then use what’s best.

    I was a bit put off by the opening. You want fear, not ick. I’d counsel starting something like this:

    Eric’s screams still echoed inside his head.
    Dear God, dear God! Eric, God, I’m sorry. Forgive me! Dead. I let him die. God help me make it, please don’t let me die!
    Jason’s feet pounded the earth. He glimpsed over his shoulder to see if the maniac chased after him. His heart pulsed in his ears….

    Promising first page.

    • I like the idea of purposefully letting go in terms of overwriting, and then trimming back, Jim. Trim the fat later, and keep the, uh, rare steak. 🙂

  5. Could the “madman”, “maniac”, “psychopath” be Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers or Freddie Krueger? As I read this first page sample, I kept thinking I’d seen this scene a 100 times before. And like the basic don’t go in the basement, attic, old house, cabin in the woods, abandoned mental hospital, or some other spooky place, there’s no hint of a motive for why the killer is killing. Like Jim said, I also like a good action start. But this seemed to be straight out of central casting. It’s a decent if mostly telling first draft, and I admire the writer for the courage to submit it. Unfortunately I don’t think I would read on after this generic opening.

  6. I like the action in this page. It’s okay that I haven’t connected just yet with this character. However, I do want the action to continue and not cover as much reflection in between the action. Some is okay, but it tends to slow down the pace of his running with fear. Things that stump me in action is when one event is placed before another, such as:

    When he turned back, his forehead slammed into a branch.

    It feels more immediate when done like so:

    His forehead slammed into a branch when he turned back.

    That’s the only thing that stood out for me! I would continue reading.

  7. What I love most about these first page critiques is the opportunity to learn in real time as it were, how to move through a first draft. When I was a much younger writer, I was infatuated with the words I put down on the page and had a struggle to change them. And the more flowery the better. Being involved in critique groups has allowed me to get over myself and listen. I love being critiqued now, because I know it makes me better when I pay attention.

    All the critiques for this brave submission leave little to add. I liked the action and fear generated by the sentence structure and verb choice. It pulled me along with the protagonist and made me feel short of breath along with him. I liked Jim’s suggestions for how to incorporate the action and the fear with description if the maniac and the murder.
    I felt my heart rate tweak upwards on the last line. I would definitely read on!
    Good job! Thanks.

  8. What I love most about these first page critiques is the opportunity to learn in real time as it were, how to move through a first draft. When I was a much younger writer, I was infatuated with the words I put down on the page and had a struggle to change them. And the more flowery the better. Being involved in critique groups has allowed me to get over myself and listen. I love being critiqued now, because I know it makes me better when I pay attention.

    All the critiques for this brave submission leave little to add. I liked the action and fear generated by the sentence structure and verb choice. It pulled me along with the protagonist and made me feel short of breath along with him. I liked Jim’s suggestions for how to incorporate the action and the fear with description of the maniac and the murder.
    I felt my heart rate tweak upwards on the last line. I would definitely read on!
    Good job! Thanks.

  9. There’s some good stuff in this opening. It’s quick, visceral, with some good emotional impact. It’s an interesting set-up: guys who apparently went on an innocent hunting trip and something-went-horribly-wrong. But I had trouble getting through the first crucial graphs:

    Wednesday, 10:30 p.m.
    But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
    James 3:8
    Keep running. Don’t stop until you know the madman is gone. But he was still alive.
    Jason smelled his own sweat…pungent and sour. And vomit. He’d thrown up, splattering the front of his plaid flannel shirt, the taste still in his mouth. Urine soaked the front of his jeans. He couldn’t believe he’d pissed himself.

    First, it opens with a time tag. But why? Why did the writer feel compelled to tack this artificial device on when the night hour can be more effectively conveyed through description (ie moonlight). Then we get a Bible quote. Is this an epigraph (ie a poem that comes before the first chapter that sets the book’s mood?) If so, it needs to be set off on its own line or page BEFORE the time tag. At first read, I thought Jason was thinking about a Bible verse.

    So the REAL beginning, the actual first line of the story, is Jason’s thoughts about needing to keep running? Not sure italicized thoughts (intimate POV) is the best opening line. Get me into the scene first so I don’t feel like a coma victim just coming to and wondering where the heck am I?

    The story starts, I think, with “Jason smelled…” But I agree with others that the vomit is offputting. The real stink is of terror. That’s more powerful. Make me feel that.

    Nice feeling conveyed on the run through the trees. But I agree with others that the use of words like “maniac” and “psychopath” feel like they come from the writer and not the character’s sensibility.

    When I got to the line about the friend being tortured I went WHOA! What a missed opportunity. If this man’s best bud had been tortured before his eyes why isn’t he reliving THAT? Why did the writer not give us some quick flashes of memory on how horrible that was? So I guess I want less helicoptering through brush and more feeling and flash-memory of what just happened. Because these first critical moments when the man is running are going to be the best opportunity for the writer to be in a highly emotional POV. Later, the man might recall what he saw in that cabin but by then the first rush of emotion has drained away and so has the writer’s chance to make us FEEL the horror.

    Good first draft, writer. Keep going.

  10. Thank you all for the constructive feedback. You’ve given me some good advice on how to improve the story and my writing. James Scott Bell, thank you for the examples.

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