First Page Critique – “Bird Without a Song”

 

“Bird Without a Song”

Prologue

       Somewhere near the end of my tour of duty in Vietnam, soon after I held the baby in my arms and felt him die, I began to imagine them. At first they were only quick movements in the corners of my tent but soon I began to see them in front of me. Some faces were clear, Corporal Terwilliger, Major Ayres, Corpsman Cooper, but there were strangers, too, ones I didn’t remember but who were familiar all the same. Some were faces from stretchers on fatigue-shattered nights when flares and panic were stabbing at us. I knew they were dead, too, even without names. There were hundreds of them. Thousands. They stood and waived to me from shadows when no one was around. They were small, and full of life.

      “I wonder if this is what heaven is like. You see all your friends again but they’re tiny. I’ll have to ask the little people,” I said to my crew chief one day while sweeping blood out of our chopper. I recognized the stare of concern he gave me. Shrugging, I laughed and pretended to be joking. I never mentioned them again. But they were real to me and, in time they began to talk. Major Ayres was the first to speak. “Tell my girlfriend I loved her,” he said.

      “Did they send my Air Medal to my mom?” Corporal Terwilliger asked.

      “You didn’t know me, but thanks for bringing my body back from the jungle,” one I didn’t remember said. I told them I would do everything I could to tell everyone they were safe and still alive. 

        When it was my time to leave, I tried to say good bye. 

      “We’re coming with you,” they told me in chorus.

      “I can’t take you back to the States. Someone would notice.”

      “They don’t see us,” Major Ayres argued. He was good at arguing. At his request, I was writing to his girlfriend’s fourth-grade classroom in Virginia to tell her students what Vietnam was like. “We will all fit quite nicely in your sea bag,” the major added.

        “Of course. That’s right, Sir. Others don’t see you. But why do you want to come with me?”

      “We want to be there when you tell our families we died with honor. When you tell them we’re still here and still love them. You must help keep us alive.”

      “But you’re dead, Sir, you all are.”

      “Not if you write about us,” a nameless ones said.

My comments and critique

It’s easy to assume that, because of the title of this Kill Zone feature – “First Page Critique,” that criticism is inevitable. That the submitted page is by definition flawed and in need of counsel.

But I’m happy to say that, in my humble opinion, this first page is on fire. It’s a fantastic launch for a novel, and while we can’t quite tell where it’s headed (not a requirement of a first page), we already know that we, like those dead guys that are attaching themselves to our hero, would like to come along for the ride.

What’s worthy of mentioning here, though, with a view of making this stellar page even better, falls more into the category of editing than it does story critique.

The second paragraph benefits from a tweak to the initial dialogue, moving the attribution to an earlier position, and then pushing the closing line (from Major Ayres) to a new paragraph. It’s a mistake to stuff lines of dialogue from different speakers into a single paragraph (not a hard and fast rule, but this one qualifies). And then, there’s another natural paragraph break in the middle, all of these edits contributing to a cleaner read.  I’ve rewritten it here:

      “I wonder if this is what heaven is like,” I said to my crew chief one day while sweeping blood out of our chopper. “You see all your friends again but they’re tiny. I’ll have to ask the little people.”

      I recognized the stare of concern he gave me. Shrugging, I laughed and pretended to be joking. I never mentioned them again. But they were real to me and, in time they began to talk. Major Ayres was the first to speak.

       “Tell my girlfriend I loved her,” he said.

The paragraphing was perfect from that point forward, as was the writing and the chill it shoots up the reader’s spine, with echoes of buried themes of war and personal loss emerging from between the lines.

I say.. bravo to this author. Keep going, this is a great start to what we can already tell will be a powerfully dark and personal story, perhaps the stuff of a bestseller someday.

What say you, KZ readers?

9+
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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

25 thoughts on “First Page Critique – “Bird Without a Song”

  1. My only comment would be a spelling error /word (homophone) choice at the end of the second paragraph:
    “…They stood and waived to me from shadows…”
    ought to be:
    “…They stood and WAVED…”

    But, as you said, it’s an editing/proofreading issue as opposed to content.

    I’d keep reading…

  2. I seem to be doing a lot of critiques at the moment, some with openings that drag. This was such a refreshing change. Drawn right in from the first line.

    And noticed ‘waived’ error but like G Smith felt that it was an editing correction.

  3. I totally agree, Larry. As I was reading, I was thinking, this is good, really good. Why is it here for critique? Your re-paragraphing of those two paragraphs do make it clearer. That was the only spot I was a bit confused. Other than that, awesome! I’m hooked and would definitely read on.

  4. I love this and would continue reading! I want to know these characters, all of them and I want to see how the protagonist deals with this calling. Very nice.

    One thing I am going to be picky about though:

    “Not if you write about us,” a nameless ones said.

    That extra S on “ones” threw me off.

    Great work!

  5. Like everyone else, this blew me away.

    I hope the writer will come forward with his/her name and publication date b/c you have eager buyers waiting….

  6. Nicely done. I would definitely read on after this. I have two suggestions and a tweak for the author.

    The first suggestion concerns the opening lines:

     Somewhere near the end of my tour of duty in Vietnam, soon after I held the baby in my arms and felt him die, I began to imagine them. At first they were only quick movements in the corners of my tent but soon I began to see them in front of me.

    IMO, it would be stronger to place the word “see” in the first line. It’s more potent than “imagine.” So then you’d need to change the second line a bit. One suggestion:

     Somewhere near the end of my tour of duty in Vietnam, soon after I held the baby in my arms and felt him die, I began to see them. At first they were only quick movements in the corners of my tent, but soon they crept into the light.

    The second suggestion: Drop “Prologue.” There seems to be an odd resistance to prologues these days, and I don’t see any reason to label them anymore. The two better options, IMO, are:

    1. Just leave it blank. Start with the text. Then label Chapter 1 and so on after that. Harlan Coben did this with great effect in Tell No One. This is my preferred option.

    2. Call it Chapter 1.

    The tweak:

      “They don’t see us,” Major Ayres argued. He was good at arguing.

    I wouldn’t use “argued” here because it’s clear from the dialogue. Plus, you repeat “arguing” in the next line. I’m not certain you need that anyway. It softens the paragraph. I’d edit it this way:

    “They don’t see us,” Major Ayres said. At his request, I was writing to his girlfriend’s fourth-grade classroom in Virginia to tell her students what Vietnam was like. “We will all fit quite nicely in your sea bag,” the major added.

    This page has emotion and mystery. It does what a good first page is supposed to do.

  7. What a great and gripping first page. Have nothing much to add to any of comments before except that I like the changes Jim recommended above. All in all a great start to what sounds like an intriguing book.

  8. This was moving, compelling and I was drawn in from the first line. The kind of book I’d keep reading. Bravo

  9. I really liked this as well. My one minor suggestion was already made by JSB: see instead of imagine in the first line. “Imagine” implies the narrator knows the “little people” are fictitious, or that he’s “crazy”, whereas everything else indicates that these ghosts are very real (at least to the narrator). “Argue” followed by “argument” doesn’t bother me so much in this context, but this is why thesauruses were invented. In any case, I would keep reading.

  10. Loved it. The writer has a voice. Yippee!

    To the suggestions already made, I’d add that perhaps some of the ‘begins’ could be dispensed with. It may well be stronger if s/he simply sees rather than starts to see, for example.

    Which, I suppose, leads to a question: the gender of the narrator. I assumed it was a man, but that’s not necessarily so any more, is it? Perhaps something that clarifies the gender?

    Not much to complain about here. I would definitely read more.

  11. I like the suggestion from JSB to start with text instead of Prologue. I’m going to steal that idea, too.

    I agree with everyone this is a very nice piece of writing. I do confess I stifled a groan at your first line as my first thought was cliche troubled Vietnam vet story. While you quickly dispelled that notion, I still think the rest of your wonderful passage could benefit from a stronger first line.

    : )

  12. I agree with all the above comments. I would love to read this book when it’s published. What a great beginning! That is what I’m struggling with right now, a stellar beginning. I am still working on it. I’ve been reading JSB’s book, 27 Blunders, and it has been so helpful. To the author of this book, keep going and once it is finished, contact me. I may be able to review it on my blog. I can’t promise at this time, but I’m intrigued. Bravo! 🙂

  13. The initial critique was good, JSB’s added comments put the star on top.
    I loved this. I was immediately hooked and drawn in. There was just enough woo woo vibe to make it a little creepy and to the side, but plenty simple to understand and get involved it. I would definitely read more of this. I was sad when it ran out. 😀

  14. I don’t really have anything extra to add, but I just wanted to congratulate the writer on an excellent job. Well done.

  15. I just have to say that this first page hooked me. I have nothing to add that hasn’t been covered. Excellent first page, my friend. 🙂 I would keep reading.

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  17. Am late weighing in from France but I liked this so much I felt compelled to add my kudos to the others. Great compelling start, writer. This reminds me a little of one of my fave books, “Ghosts of Belfast” by Stuart Neville, an ex-IRA soldier who is haunted by visions of the dead..

  18. Yes, the story grabbed me immediately. I like the JSB edit suggestions but regardless, it twisted my stomach.

  19. I loved the piece too and feel a rich psychological adventure coming on. This is enticing terrain for a main character to negotiate ala 6th Sense..of course I would read on.

    Major respect for the meticulous editing mindset here!
    I feel that the editing side gets shortchanged in writing conversations elsewhere. It’s like finding and fixing leaks in a plumbing system or a communications system..weak/unnecessary/inaccurate language or even the tiniest typos can interfere with the flow of the Reader’s attention and impair the suspension of disbelief which undergirds all other reading pleasures.

  20. I also think ‘see’ instead of ‘imagine works better but I like that Major Ayres ‘argued’ twice. I see why the author did that. It gave me a better picture of the Major for some reason. He suddenly had a trait that the hero recognizes as being part of who he was when he was alive and that made him real and more than just a sad ghost–for me at least.

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