Today we are critiquing the first page of a story called TIMBER RIDGE. After reading the page and my notes, please add your thoughts in the Comments.
Digging a grave is thirsty work under the high summer sun, even when it’s your own.
“How about a break, we can both grab a drink? Five minutes, eh? I’m dying out here. Haha.”
Silence. It was my funeral, but he was being the glum one.
We picked this spot because the shade from the evergreens covered most of the rutted road shoulder, but over the course of the morning every worry from the past two days — every dead end, every lie, every person I couldn’t save — had hardened into a single, pure lust for water. The fact that I wasn’t likely to be thirsty for very long, or ever again, wasn’t any consolation. I couldn’t keep myself from wanting it.
Rice dropped his cigarette onto the dry pine needles that covered the road and smothered it with his boot heel, a good citizen. “There’s Coke back at the truck. In the cooler, on ice. A couple of beer bottles too.” Too much kindness hung off his high voice like an ill-fitting mask. “You know what you gotta do to get to it.”
Rice was not a bad guy, in fact I still thought of him as a friend. But he was a conscientious worker in a bad line of work. If this was the business for the day, he wouldn’t know how to neglect it. He’d feel bad about it later.
A Stellar’s jay sidled nervously across a low tree branch and screamed at us. We both looked vaguely past it, to the east.
The road was poorly maintained ahead, pitted and overgrown with thorny brush. Nature held court on both sides. Brambles were the only buffer before trees started jabbing into each other in a decades-long fight for position. The losers lay on the forest floor, damp and soft and rotten, where mushrooms and small bugs could use them. I looked down into the dirt and saw myself, blue-white and cold in the black topsoil, growing quickly soft next to them.
“Alright then.” I stepped out of hole and looked at him for a while. “Let’s go see about those beers. I’ll tell you what you need to know.”
I wouldn’t though, not for anything. I had one beer, maybe ten minutes, to make sure that Rice would be the one feeding the bugs and melting into the roots of the pine trees on Timber Ridge.
There’s some good tension in the setup of this opening scene. I like the self-deprecating humor of the narrator’s thoughts as he’s forced to dig his own grave. I also like some of the imagery: the Stellar’s jay sidling nervously and screaming at the men, as if he knows what’s happening below; the fallen trees portrayed as losers in a battle, which foreshadows the coming battle between Rice and the narrator. I admire the way the writer uses these images to add layers of depth to the action in this scene.
On the other hand, the imagery didn’t work for me in the following sentence, “Too much kindness hung off his high voice like an ill-fitting mask.” I had to pause to make sense of everything that was going on in this sentence: the high voice with “too much” kindness, an ill-fitting, hanging mask.
Avoid confusing the reader
On my first read-through, when Rice said (in reference to the drinks in the truck), “You know what you gotta do to get to it,” I thought he meant getting physically to the vehicle. This confused me until I reread the page and realized that Rice was demanding information from his would-be victim.
My initial confusion made me question whether the narrator was actually in danger. This section should be revised for clarity.
Break up long sentences to enhance pacing and tension
While there’s nice tension in the scene, I think it could be strengthened by tweaking some of the longer sentences.
For example, instead of
“Rice dropped his cigarette onto the dry pine needles that covered the road and smothered it with his boot heel, a good citizen.”
Break it up as follows
“Rice dropped his cigarette onto the dry pine needles that covered the road and smothered it with his boot heel. A good citizen.”
This is a minor point, but the first sentence, “Digging a grave is thirsty work under the high summer sun, even when it’s your own” might be stronger written as “especially when it’s your own.”
Good tension, fresh imagery, an appealing narrator–overall, I found this first page to be a promising start. Thank you to the brave writer who submitted this page to us for review today!
TKZ’ers, do you have additional comments or notes for our writer today?