First-page Critique: UNTITLED

road in the mist

By Kathryn Lilley

Another brave author has submitted the first page of a work-in-progress anonymously for critique. Read and enjoy. See you on the far side with my comments. Then, please join us with your feedback.

 

UNTITLED

March, seventeen years earlier.

The car ahead of Noah Webb vanished.

He eased to a stop on the shoulder and stared into the soup beyond his headlights. He had followed the car for twenty minutes, two lone drivers trying to negotiate the fog. This road lulled a driver to sleep for eleven miles of straight blacktop. Then it snaked through a series of wooded curves and deep ravines. Under a full moon, this road was a challenge. Tonight, it was deadly.

The other driver never saw the curve coming. Noah shut his eyes. Memories from another distant fog shrouded night, on another lonely road, washed over him. A tear oozed from the corner of his eye and crawled down his cheek. Why was I the one following him?

Webb exhaled, flicked at the tear and mustered the strength to move. He released his grip on the wheel and shook blood back into his fingers. He fished a flashlight from under the seat. As he opened the door, cold, damp air slithered in and licked his face. He pulled himself from the car and stood still, staring where the headlights dissolved into the fog. He dug his nails into his palms and called, “Anybody out there?”

No answer. As he crept around the car, gravel and frosted grass crunched under his feet. He turned and looked back into the glare of his headlights. He checked his watch. Almost midnight. His breath froze and shimmered in the light. He shivered, pulled up his collar and then faced the darkness before him and approached the curve.

He followed the gravel to where the ground spilled over an embankment into the woods. He searched the darkness then stopped. From the bottom of the ravine, two red lights glowed in the fog like squinting eyes. He aimed his light at the car, but the mist swallowed it. “Hang on, I’m coming.”

Webb dug his heels into the slope and sidestepped down. Halfway, his foot slipped. Groping for balance, he fumbled the flashlight and it clattered away. He crashed on his hip then slid over rock and wet grass until he thudded against the bumper of the car.

My Notes: 

I am impressed by the way the writer of this page quickly incorporates several important story components:

  1. An inciting incident takes place (the car in front of Webb’s vehicle careens off a fog-shrouded curve)
  2. Tension is introduced (Webb must decide to act in order to rescue the other driver)
  3. The tension level is raised  (Webb has to overcome a reluctance to act  due to a previous accident experience)

It’s hard to check off all those story points in just 400 words, and I think it was done quite deftly here. I was drawn in by the setup on this first page–kudos to the writer!

I have a few suggestions for edits.

Keep the focus on the fog

The fog in the second paragraph is such a strong element, and the offset  rhythm of the last two sentences is great.

Under a full moon, this road was a challenge. Tonight, it was deadly.

But before I reached the end of that paragraph, the focus had shifted from the fog to the road itself (lulling the driver to sleep, snaking around curves). I would suggest revising the paragraph slightly to maintain a constant sense of the menacing fog.

How do we know? 

When did Webb first become aware of the crash, exactly? In the first sentence?

The car ahead of Noah Webb vanished.

 

During my initial reading, I didn’t get a clear sense of the crash as it was supposed to be taking place. The first sentence is too nonspecific (The car vanishes–where? Into the fog? Over the side of the road?) I first assumed that the car had simply vanished into the fog. I later deduced that it had crashed from the narration and flashback. As the standard advice goes, it’s better to “show” the crash clearly as it takes place, rather than “tell” it after the fact.

Flashback note

I like the information about Webb’s previous crash because it raises his tension level, but the flashback device itself is a bit clunky. It slowed down the story, especially when we got to the part about the tears rolling down Webb’s face. I’d suggest trying to weave in the  information about the previous crash without bringing the present-day action to a full stop. Perhaps Webb could struggle with his memory and tears as he’s stumbling down the ravine toward the victim’s car. (At least he’d be moving.)

Speaking of flashbacks, the chapter frame puzzles me (in retrospect).

March, seventeen years earlier.

Is the entire scene supposed to be taking place in the past? In that case, it suggests something of a flashback within a flashback, doesn’t it?

Repeated words, format

As I was reading I felt like there were a few too many instances of the word “he”. Try to vary the sentence structures to pare down the repetition.

Also, at one point the name used to refer to the character changes from Noah to Webb. Once you settle on the name you want to use, keep using the same same name for consistency.

Overall

You can file all of my comments today under the “easy to fix” category. Overall, I think the page is a great start. Thanks to our writer today for submitting this first page!

TKZers, can you add more feedback for the writer in the Comments? And don’t be shy if you disagree with any of my notes. The more, the merrier!

6+

25 thoughts on “First-page Critique: UNTITLED

  1. I prefer openings that give you an idea of what the story is about, but this one doesn’t. It does reveal what this scene is about, but that’s a different issue. C.S. Laken has a First Page Checklist that is very helpful, plus she analyzes the first pages of bestselling books to see if they meet her checklist points. Highly recommended (by me.) So, as someone who used to have a small publishing company (but couldn’t make any money at it), I probably wouldn’t have read much more had this been a submission.

    I, too, liked the hint of a past crash, and the writing itself didn’t make me want to scream. I agree with the naming issue, i.e., pick one and stick to it. Here, I’d have picked the first name, a little less distancing than a last name… usually.

    Had I liked the opening better, I probably would have read on to see how the writer handles dialog, so often a trap for relative newcomers.

    Some signs that this writer has talent, e.g., “cold, damp air slithered in and licked his face,” although perhaps the verb ‘licked’ isn’t quite right, but at least the writer is looking for vivid verbs. What isn’t yet evident is a strong authorial voice, but that can take years.

    I think what this writer may need more than anything is a solid understanding of structure, and that can take time, too.

    • Thanks so much for that feedback, Sheryl! Checking off EVERYTHING on a list in 400 words while providing something fresh and original…the eternal and elusive goal! 😀

  2. I have to agree (and expand upon) the opening frame: “March, seventeen years earlier…”

    Seventeen years earlier than when? (That tripped up before I ever got to the fog).

    I assume it’s “than present day,” so perhaps “seventeen years AGO” might be better…

    Otherwise, I concur with y’all thus far… And appreciate Anonymous’s submitting to our critical eyes…

    🙂

    • Thanks, George. I truly appreciate writers volunteering for a review of their work here. It’s very difficult to read the criticism, even when it’s anonymous and constructive. But it’s a useful exercise–otherwise, one may not spot all the issues until a rejection letter arrives. (Or, perhaps worse, when one pushes the E-Publish button, followed by the sound of crickets).

  3. Much to like here…A quick entry, some well rendered imagery, the writer establishes a mood, gives us some suspense (an accident compounded by questions: Why was Noah following this car and what happened years ago that he is so upset about?)

    But I have to bring up the same problem that I see in most our submissions — simple confusion about what is happening. And because the writer is not firmly within Noah’s POV, we might have some missed chances for true suspense.

    How does Noah know the car went into a ravine? We get this line: “The other driver never saw the curve coming.” This is a lapse into omniscient POV because this is not something Noah can know. In the same vein, we have this line: “Under a full moon, this road was a challenge. Tonight, it was deadly.” Again, this is omniscient because Noah cannot know the road is deadly…he hasn’t seen anyone dead yet. And this implies that Noah has traveled this same road before (“normally, the road was a challenge”) and I don’t think the writer intends this. What CAN Noah know? Not much given the fog. The car could have just turned off the road or gone around a curve, rendering it “invisible” for a moment. Be more specific about the movement of the TAIL LIGHTS ahead. Did they seem to turn? Did the brake light go on for a second? And if the car went down a ravine that is passable enough for Noah to go down, we might even see the red tail light up ended for a split second. Think this moment out more clearly and milk it.

    Try writing this scene only from Noah’s point of view, SHOWING us rather than telling us only what he can see and hear. (any sounds, by the way? I would think so). Again, milk every thing you can from the creepy fog-shrouded woods.

    We also have some confusion that’s easy to fix: How far behind is Noah? A couple yards? How fast are they going? What exactly is he seeing ahead of him — red tail lights diffused in the fog would be a cool image instead of just “the car.” The tail lights vanish, not the car. Small but significant.

    Noah eased onto the shoulder to a stop. Well, shoot, if a car vanished in front of me, I’d stop the car right where I was because I’d be pretty surprised. Then I’d think, what the heck just happened? Then I would pull over.

    Also, as Kathryn said, the mini-flashback is out of place. This is an ACTION scene essentially, with high suspense. Someone might be dead. I don’t think Noah would take the time to dredge up a memory and shed a tear just as the car disappeared. Wait for a quiet moment of non-action to insert such a passage. Maybe…maybe you can get away with it as he stands at the edge of the ravine looking down. But I just don’t buy that anyone would be thinking of themselves at this critical moment. It’s like stopping a fist fight in your narrative and having your hero think back to his childhood when his dad used to beat him. Save the self-examination for “quiet” moments.

    And might we have a bare hint about why Noah is following this guy? Just something juicy to whet our appetite.

    But it’s a darn good start, writer. Keep going forward.

    • Thanks, Kris! Your point about the deadly road being omniscient POV is interesting. It didn’t bother me during the reading because I immediately “heard” it as an internal thought of the narrator. It should be clarified as an internal thought, if so. Could do something like “Tonight, he knew, it was deadly.”
      Also: I could be wrong, but I got the impression that the car ahead was not being followed by Webb; I thought that Webb was just doing one of those endless mind-numbing foggy night drives stuck behind some guy, who then requires rescue by Webb when he veers off the road. I interpreted the “Why did he have to be the one following him?” more as “Why am I the guy randomly selected for this rescue mission?”
      But like most people, I have a tendency to interpret everything I read based on initial impressions and assumptions. So if Webb IS intentionally following the car ahead of him, it needs to be made clear to readers like me who got a misimpression. And as you said, we also need to see a hint indicating the reason.

      You are absolutely right that we need some strong hint of the story that is going to be kicked off by Webb’s rescue encounter. It could be suggested, perhaps, by something odd he’s noticed about the car (the occupant/s, condition, the license plate, driving style). Something like that, maybe?

  4. What I thought I’d do today is focus on three things that I feel will kick this writing up a notch. So, here goes:

    Repetition in openings is a common problem. For example, in this brief excerpt, thirteen sentences began with “He” (i.e. He eased…, He had…, He released…, He fished…, He pulled…, He dug…, He turned…, He checked…, He shivered…, He followed…, He searched…, He aimed…, He crashed…). Two sentences began “As he” (i.e. As he opened…, As he crept…). Obviously, we want to eliminate repetition in our writing, but why does this repetition happen in the first place? K.M. Weiland wrote a good article entitled “Most Common Writing Mistakes: Are Your Verbs Showing or Telling?” (http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/most-common-mistakes-series-are-your/) Addressing this issue will take your writing to the next level.

    Another thing to watch out for is using the word “was” in your writing. “This road was a challenge.” (Use a stronger word here). Here’s a guide that might help: (http://www.stlcc.edu/Student_Resources/Academic_Resources/Writing_Resources/Grammar_Handouts/To-be-Verbs.pdf)

    Finally, Janice Hardy wrote an article called “The Trouble With Reactive Protagonists” (http://blog.janicehardy.com/2016/03/the-trouble-with-reactive-protagonists.html). Every protagonist needs a goal (not just a scene goal but a story goal).

    Someone here mentioned a checklist (http://www.livewritethrive.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/first-page-checklist.pdf). I’ve seen other ones, too. Nothing is ever carved in stone when it comes to writing, but some folks may find checklists useful in the beginning.

    Keep writing and good luck! I’d like to see this after it’s been revised.

    P.S. One more little thing: Using the word “tonight” in the past tense can be tricky, unless it’s in dialogue or a direct thought of a character.

    • Wow, thank you for that substantive feedback and the links, Gentle Reader! That’s what I love about these critiques–the majority of the constructive suggestions takes place in the Comments. I’m someone who flinches at a lot of the checklists floating around–in fact, I didn’t like that my own critique kicked off with something that sounded like a checklist. As you pointed out, a page that hits all the “checkpoints” can still miss the mark, while a page that ignores those same points can sometimes work brilliantly. It’s maddening, but there it is. 🙂

        • Thanks for giving us that update, GR! That’s GREAT news, a positive sign of the payoff for rewriting, and then rewriting again! 😄

          • Yes, it is. Looks like she added some words to the title, but it’s clear from the opening that the story is the same (but modified based on the critiques she got).

            Openings are so crucial. You’ve got a couple of seconds to convince a reader (or agent) to keep reading, and that’s it. I love the work that you do here, because the time spent on openings is never wasted.

  5. This seemed prologue-ish to me. In additon to PJP’s comments about the car and the road I have this one: if a car goes off the road and down a ravine and crashes does it make a sound? Because I’m thinking it does, and Webb hears the sickening metal on metal on wood etc sound(s). That would be part of his experience, perhaps leading into his flashback of the previous crash. Oh, and if eleven miles of straight blacktop lulls you to sleep, you’re going to have trouble negotiating much of the rural midwest. Or Texas. Or Saskatchewan. Perhaps it would be better if the road tricked drivers into thinking it was easy or simple, or went on like that forever, before snaking through the curves and ravines. Maybe of the ____ hills? Some place known to locals, but not such common knowledge among visitors? I also wondered why Webb was following this car. Was it coincidence, or is he a cop or PI? Is this why doesn’t he call 911 before going down the ravine? They did have cell phones in 1999. Consider dropping some little hint about his identity. I agree that the writer need to alternate the name and pronoun. There are too many instances of “he”.

    • Yes, sound! I totally forgot to mention that. Adding a reference to the sound (or a disturbing lack thereof) also introduces another one of the five senses, which helps add a sense of reality to the scene. (Or so the checklists tell me) 😎 Thanks, Cat!

  6. This sample is well-done and deftly written. A few quibbles: I also had problems with that “seventeen years earlier.” Can the author give us a more definite date, say 1999 or 2000? Also, I’m a car freak, so I want to know a little more about the make and model of the car. At least tell us if it’s a sedan or SUV and give us some idea of the color — maybe just a generic “dark.” And this line sounded a little clunky: “A tear oozed from the corner of his eye and crawled down his cheek.”
    Again, these are quibbles. Good job, brave but mysterious author. I want to read more.

    • That praise is great news for the writer coming from you and Kris–it should be very encouraging feedback (and revision suggestions) to our writer today. Thanks Elaine! (ps speaking of cars, I went to the Peterson Auto Museum in LA Saturday. Have never seen so many exPENsive James Bondy cars in my life. Had no idea what any of them were. If you get anywhere near LA, you should go! )

  7. Not a critique, just an acknowledgement. It was easier for me as a reader to get into the seat of the driver, because I have driven in this type of weather. The worst weather to drive in is thick fog. It is more dangerous than snow or ice.

    • I had a harrowing experience driving in rural Mexico on a narrow, foggy road with incredibly steep embankments on both sides. The cars in front of me were brought to a halt by a very serious, fatal bus wreck ahead. I remember finally doing an 18-point turn to get turned around, before deciding to follow another car in which an odd looking trio of Americans (one well-dressed Asian businessman, flanked by two muscle-bound guys who were clearly “Security”) who claimed to be going to the same destination as me. It turned out that they were, ultimately, but meanwhile, I was totally convinced that I was going to be robbed–and probably killed. They’d find my body somewhere in that ravine later on, I figured. Nevertheless, I continued to follow that car in that unbelievably dense fog, sticking to it like I was an imprinted chick and the car ahead of me was the last Mother Hen on earth. 🐔

  8. Thank all of you for your comments! They are encouraging and valuable beyond words. Lots of great ideas here. I will definitely take a hard look at them as I rewrite. This whole exercise shows the importance of other sets of eyes on your work. And I couldn’t ask for better sets than those from this community.

    • Welcome to the Zone, Anonymous! I really enjoyed reading your page, thank you for submitting it! It actually induced a flashback of that harrowing journey I once took on a fog-shrouded road in rural Mexico described above, lol. Keep going with it, and check in to let us know how you’re doing! (You shall henceforth be known by the pseudonym “Foggy Road, Friend of Zone”). 😄

    • You’re off to such a great start. I loved this line, btw:

      “From the bottom of the ravine, two red lights glowed in the fog like squinting eyes.”

      Really good stuff, imho.

  9. While I can agree with most of the prior comments (few bothered me until you guys pointed them out), the piece is a wonderful example of craftsmanship. And I fell in love with this.
    As he opened the door, cold, damp air slithered in and licked his face.
    Great start of a story I’d really like to read.
    Walter

  10. Overall I liked it and would want to know more. A few things:

    I got stuck on the “He had followed the car for twenty minutes…” line and never got out of it. My brain kept asking “Is he following on purpose (ie. a detective after a perp?” or just happenstance. I assume from reading on that it was happenstance, but the followed the car sentence made me think he was tailing it. (maybe I wouldn’t have made that assumption if I wasn’t reading it on The Kill Zone b/c of the expectation of crime and trouble 😎

    The “March, seventeen years earlier” part got me too. But that may be because I write historical and so when I see a header like that I’m expecting something date specific, not ambiguous.

    I was confused by the car vanishing–this either implies that a) it’s supposed to be some spooky paranormal thing or b) that the narrator had music on so loud that he didn’t hear the crash, because surely if he was following the car, he would have heard crashing noises, particularly if the car went over an embankment.

    But I would read another few pages to see how it grabbed me.

  11. I wouldn’t change a thing. I would, however, keep reading. Great submission!

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