First Page Critique: Timber Ridge

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.

Halloween, dead hand coming out from the soil

Timber Ridge

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.

My comments:

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.”

Nits

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.”

Overall

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?

5+

25 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Timber Ridge

  1. This is great, really want to read more… However i did have some moments that jarred. Very nit picky. Take or leave them!

    – “bad line of work.” I would maybe say “nasty” bad implies having a bad job rather than doing dirty work? The paragraph contradicts a little with the “mask of kindness”. Is he nice or pretending to be nice? He would feel bad later” about being inefficient?

    -“I had one beer, maybe ten minutes,” I had to pause to work out what tense the “had” was for here. Initially thought he’d jumped ahead and had had it.

    -“every worry from the past two days — every dead end, every lie, every person I couldn’t save — ”
    The first every doesn’t read well for me. I tripped over it. Maybe “all the”

    Interesting that the choice of grave site was mutual.

    It’s great. Good luck with it.

    • That line about the past two days felt awkward and a bit vague to me as well, Sarah. Thanks for your comments!

  2. I was going to say the same thing about the opening sentence. “Especially” works better.

    I like the initial mystery. But when we got to the para that begins The road was poorly maintained ahead I started to get impatient. It felt like filler. I’d cut the whole thing and get to the action. And I want to know with certainty what’s going on very soon.

    The writing style is solid. I agree with Kathryn’s tweaks. With all this in mind, it’s a good opening: a disturbance, a mystery.

    • Good news for the writer that all the suggestions are easy fixes. Thanks for chipping in, Jim!

  3. Yeah, that’s the start of a good story, for sure. The author is confident, with a strong voice. Like you, I found he pushed it a little too far from time to time. The paragraph about all the worries from the past two days (apparently a setup to tell the earlier part in flashback?) hardening into thirst made no sense, made me stop and go, “Huh?” It just felt like he’s trying too hard, and he doesn’t need to. The voice is pitch perfect and the situation is as dire as it gets – not one foot in the grave but both. Good luck with this and I look forward to being able to read the whole thing.

    • Pushing a little too hard for effect, that’s a good way to describe it, John. That’s where editing comes in, when we pull back on the reins just a little bit and cut out everything that’s not necessary. Thanks for joining the discussion!

  4. The writer has achieved a natural, believable voice. I would definitely pick up the book after reading that first page.

    Kathryn’s suggestions will make the work even better.

    • I immediately saw Bruce Wiilis as the narrator for some reason, Mike. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I really liked the ‘worries hardening to thirst’ bit. It seemed to me as if he’s had layer upon layer of stress piled upon him and the pinnacle of it, right at the top of the pyramid looming over it all is the thirst.

  6. Distinctive voice. High stakes. An underlying conflict (what do they want?) Big trouble for our protagonist and time running out. Also the protagonist is ready to kill. Lots of fun stuff. Definitely works for me. I think it is an excellent opening!

    My 2 cents:
    The ‘especially’ recommendation seems like a slam dunk and I suspect you’ve already typed that one in.
    IMO the thirst reference is effective but would be no less so if it were underplayed a bit. Yes he’s thirsty – the sensory aspect pulls the reader in (awesome that one commenter felt thirsty) – but this does not need to be a “Lawrence of Arabia” thirst. He’s about to be killed and while his task is physical but in the big picture would his thirst be that dominant?
    For me a couple of clarity issues – Rice’s good guy in bad business might work better with less. Possible cut -“If this was the business for the day, he wouldn’t know how to neglect it. He’d feel bad about it later” – simply leaving good guy in a bad business line would work better for this reader. Also the “too much kindness” line was not clear for me.
    I think the “You know what you gotta do to get to it.” line makes sense in the context of the characters’ exchange but as a reader I needed it more clear. e.g.”Just tell us what we asked” or something more expressly stated. I did not initially understand the protag had a potential ‘out’ readily in hand.
    st paragraph and how it set up the final line regarding Rice. I would consider deleting ” Nature held court on both sides” as this sounds a bit detached and ‘off’ for the character and is not needed to establish the fight and decaying losers reference regarding his hope to turn the tables on (kill) Rice.

    Bottom line – really liked it! One of my favorite First pages ever. Best of luck!

    PS – “I looked down into the dirt and saw myself, blue-white and cold in the black topsoil, growing quickly soft next to them.” Nice!

  7. A great first page, clearly indicating that this will be a thriller. However, I lost my suspension of disbelief when the narrator began talking about the road. That might be a presage to the rest of the chapter, but it breaks the immediacy of the threat and interpersonal action. Still, I wish I could make my non-thriller first page this good …

    • Perhaps the narrator could skip the road observation (or, use more active verbs than “was” and “were”), and cut right to the fallen trees, which beautifully signify death in battle. Thanks for commenting, Don!

  8. I really liked this first page. I would keep reading to find out how our narrator gets out of this situation. Agree with changing even to especially, nasty business instead of bad, and breaking up the longer sentences. I would also argue for the removal of the word “vaguely”. East is vast, not vague, although I don’t know why they’re looking in that direction. I wasn’t confused at all by “You know what you gotta do” bit regarding the drinks, and I wouldn’t change it. Every criticism I can make is minor and nit picky. This writer is off to a good start.

  9. I really like this one. I love the set-up and the way the writer got into the scene as late as possible (ie, the guy is already down in what I envision as a half-dug grave) instead of walking us up to the scene, shovel in hand. I like the imagery and the voice is well honed. (It reminds me a tad of the book I am currently reading, “Dry Bones in the Valley” by Tom Bouman who won the Best First Edgar this year).

    Being a fan of ambiguity, I like the fact that the writer keeps me on edge but still guessing about what the heck is going on here. Is Rice a black hat? I guess, but that implication of friendship gone bad is there. Nice. And I like that the writer makes me already want to root for the guy in the hole. I like the hint in the last lines that the guy is going to try to do something to reverse this situation. But all of this is implied not told to us head-on. It’s subtle and thus all the more terrifying.

    I like what is NOT here: lots of adverbs and adjectives telling me how I am supposed to feel about this. That screeching blue jay is pitch-perfect. (I have jays terrorizing me every morning on my dog-walk!) There is just enough description to put me in a place without slowing things down. (But I agree with the others that you could lose the look down the road).

    All my nits are minor hiccups: The line about worries turning into thirst needs refining. “I had one beer, maybe 10 minutes” has to be read a couple times before you can figure it out. A simple fix: “I had maybe ten minutes, just enough time to down one beer, before…” And I had the same thought as everyone: Change that “even” to “especially” in the first graph and you’ve got a grabber.

    And I guess I am in the minority, but I sort of like the slipping mask metaphor. And I love that image of him looking down to the dirt and seeing his decaying corpse. Although isn’t he IN the hole? Might it not work better if he climbs out to go get that beer and looks back down into the hole and visualizes himself? Not sure.

    Really nice job.

  10. I’m intrigued by this first page and would definitely read more. The voice, pacing, and tension all work. And I liked the “mask metaphor” too. I agree with Scott Bell that the paragraph about the road stalls things a bit—if a writer does that too much I put the book down or start daydreaming. But I thought it was well written. I know of authors who write lots of descriptions and have huge followings—so take everyone’s advice with a grain of road salt and pave the literary highway that works for you and your target audience. Great first page.
    Blessings ~ Wendy ❀

  11. Hello! I’ve been lurking here for a few years, and I was so impressed with this first page that I had to delurk. Most of the criticisms ( as usual) are spot on, except for the issue of down the road. I liked that part a lot. It’s setting the scene and giving an extra clue to the environment the characters are in. Also, I had a sense that what was being described was “the end of the road” for the protagonist. Added to the creep factor for sure.

    I’d just like to add that this is one of my favorite blogs. It’s very educational in general, but especially the first page critics. I think I’ve learned more about writing from the comments in these posts than anywhere else.

    I’ll go back to lurking now.

    • Lydia, I’m delighted that you de-lurked to join the discussion! We love having you here, and hope to hear from you frequently from now on! You make a good point about the resonance of the road image. Even though it didn’t work for all readers, it’s another example of the writer using an image to “layer in” a level of depth to the scene.

  12. I was a little confused by Rice saying “You know what you gotta do to get to it.” My initial thought was he would have to kill Rice to get to it, but then the matter of giving up information was introduced. It was a confusing moment, but apart from that, I felt the piece was strong in every respect. Conflict, great descriptions, solid dialogue, and a setup for what promises to be an excellent story.

  13. I would read this book. This writer has a voice, which, for me, is always what will keep me reading at least the first page.

    Loved the opening line (agree with the ‘especially’ suggestion) …great hook. I agree with most of the other suggestions, except for the comment about the description…I think the description adds atmosphere and is metaphorical, too (especially the second-last sentence of the paragraph). The writer might consider a re-wording of the first lines, to avoid telling and then showing and the Starting Syndrome, e.g.,

    Current: The road was poorly maintained ahead (telling), pitted and overgrown with thorny brush (showing). Nature held court on both sides (too much? not the right tone?). Brambles were the only buffer before trees started (generally stronger if things/people do the thing instead of start to do it) jabbing into each other in a decades-long fight for position.

    Proposed: The road was pitted and overgrown with thorny brush, brambles the only buffer before trees jabbed into each other in a decades-long fight for position.

    I have a few nits, most picked up by others, but this is great work. Bravo!

  14. Well done, but I’d tone down the joking a little. Dying is a serious business and it would up the tension if our man was a little more afraid.

  15. I like this as well. I also liked the description of the road. It made sense to me in that it showed that due to its condition, poorly maintained and desolate, no one would disturb them. I don’t know why, but I assumed the narrator was female and everyone else assumes male. It doesn’t state one way or the other. I reread it several times to make sure I didn’t miss something. I see this as a contract killing, due to the bad work the murderer was compelled to do, and the information the narrator had that he wanted. It’s interesting to speculate, there are a number of scenarios that could arise from this beginning. This is a great start and I’d definitely read further.

  16. I enjoyed this first page and would most definitely read on. I agree with all the points mentioned, so I won’t repeat them, I only had one niggly little nit-pick. A pint that confused me right and made me re-read. About digging your own grave being thirsty work in the heat of the sun. I my mind automatically started picturing a desert like area and they are in the full glare of the sun. Then we’re told they are under the shadow of pine trees. To me, this feels cooler and in direct opposition to what the opening implied.
    Other than that, I loved the descriptions and the voice and wanted to read how the narrator got out of this pickle.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Please forgive my lack of proof-reading…I’m still jet-lagged from attending the late night delivery of my first grandchild!

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