First Page Critique: REB’S REVENGE, Chapter 1

Let us welcome Anon du jour, who has bravely submitted the first page of Reb’s Revenge to TKZ’s First Page Critique. Without further ado, let us proceed:

Reb’s Revenge


Farnook Province


February 14, 2009

The early morning sky was overcast and there was a chill in the air as the school bus traveled down the rural dirt road that connected the village of Kwajha to the nearby town of Bagshir. The bus was carrying sixteen young Afghani girls from the village of Kwajha to the local school for girls in Bagshir. Recent threats by the Taliban had the bus driver on edge.

Farzana, a young Afghani woman who taught at the girl’s school, was driving the bus. Martha Rawlings, a young American woman who also taught at the school, was leading the children, ages eight to fourteen, in the song “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” The children were taking great delight in singing the song at the top of their voices.

When the Taliban had controlled Afghanistan, they outlawed the education of all girls. Since girls would no longer receive formal educations, there was no need for schools for girls and the Taliban destroyed the girl’s school that had been in the town of Bagshir.

After the Americans defeated Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and drove the Taliban underground, the girl’s school in Bagshir was rebuilt. At the Afghanistan government’s urging, families from the surrounding area started sending their daughters back to school again.

Then the Americans elected a new President who promptly announced that he was going to start withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. He went so far as to tell the world the dates by which he planned to pull the American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Taliban leaders—who had gone underground and were fighting an insurgency in Afghanistan—were overjoyed when they heard the news about the new American President’s military plans for Afghanistan. They knew that, if they bided their time, the Taliban would once again rule Afghanistan.

The school bus rounded a curve and the driver saw that there were two Toyota pickup trucks up ahead blocking the road. Several Afghan men armed with AK-47s were standing in the road signaling for the driver to stop.

As soon as the bus driver realized that the men were Taliban, she slammed on the brakes causing the bus to swerve out of control. The children stopped their singing and started screaming in fear. When the driver turned the steering wheel to try to get out of the swerve, she over-corrected and the bus flipped over onto the driver’s side and slid to a stop not thirty feet from the Taliban roadblock.

Hmm. Okay. Anon, you set up an interesting situation here. The execution of it is not without flaws, but it has possibilities.

Let’s start with a generality. Your narrative point of view ping pongs into and out of that bus several times within the first page.  Let’s keep it in the bus. You actually start to create an interesting mood here before things go slipping away faster than that poor bus and all of its passengers do. Let’s let Farzana drive the narrative and the bus for those first few opening paragraphs. I would hazard a guess that all of us know at least one teacher, so she’s going to be a sympathetic and a somewhat identifiable character. She is also right in the thick of things.  Let’s just focus on the inside of the bus for right now and the terrible danger these teachers and students are in.  I’m not suggesting that you eliminate the political backstory, but put that in later, at the beginning of your next chapter. Instead, let your third person narrative unfold from Farzana’s perspective as to the terrible danger those teachers and students are encountering as follows:

The early morning sky was overcast and there was a chill in the air as Farzana drove the school bus down the rural dirt road connecting the village of Kwajha with the town of Bagshir. She had grown up in this area and knew the twists and turns of the road, but she was still on edge. The Taliban had recently issued threats, and when they threatened, actions always followed.

Farzana noticed that the sixteen girls on the bus didn’t seem to be aware of the danger they were in. Martha Rawlings, the young American woman who had recently joined the school faculty, was leading them in a rousing version of “Old McDonald Had A Farm.” All of the girls, ranging in age from eight to fourteen, seemed to be having a good time, their exuberance for singing making up for what they might have lacked in ability.

Farzana looked at them for just a second in the bus’s rear view mirror. When she brought her attention back to the road…

..and so on and so forth.  Anon, I’d like you to watch the movie Dirty Harry, particularly the last twenty minutes or so where Scorpio hijacks a bus load of school kids and begins leading them in song. The kids at first seem to enjoy the diversion from the usual slog home, but they gradually get the feeling that all is not well. That’s what you want to do. Show that fear radiating off of Farzana, first as she exhibits her own worries as to what is ahead on the road, then how she feels as her worst fears are realized, then further as her inattention/nervousness whatever causes her to lose control of the bus and how she feels as she hears the sounds of the children screaming as the bus tips over and books go flying. Keep that going with whatever happens next, whether the girls are all herded off the bus and massacred — or worse — or a John Rambo type shows up and saves the day.

Also, Anon…you mention Kwajha and Bagshir twice in the first paragraph, and Bagshir as the locale of the school a few more times over the course of the first page. Once for each is sufficient to inform your reader of where the road goes and where the school is located. And once you give the bus driver a name — Farzana — you have personalized her, which is a good thing. Call her “Farzana” thereafter, rather than “the bus driver.”

Anon, you get research points for noting the Taliban’s love of Toyotas (I’d love to see a television commercial where a group of them sing, with rifles raised in the air, “Oh oh oh oh what a feeling! Toyota!” just before a 990 AeroVironment Wasp III vaporizes them all) (but I digress). And while your first page needs some work, what you submitted really makes me wonder what happens next in the world of Reb’s Revenge. One more thing…your first page made me realize that, if I get impatient when I get stuck on the highway behind a school bus, I’m being a jerk. It’s actually a privilege for me to have a school bus in front of me, taking kids to school, without having to worry about a vignette like you describe here. Thank you.

Readers and visitors…it’s your turn to comment. I will remain more or less uncharacteristically silent as you weigh in. Thank you in advance for stopping by and contributing.



15 thoughts on “First Page Critique: REB’S REVENGE, Chapter 1

  1. I love the situation and the probable premise, and since readers like to learn about far off places while reading a story, once this is ready, I think it has a chance of doing well.

    But it’s not ready. The writing itself could be bumped up a few notches,e.g., there was construction, simple past rather than progressive past, short sentences during high tension scenes, etc. SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Renee King and Dave Brown will help. Perhaps Joe could recommend one of TKZ authors’ books on writing (and have a glass of fine wine while you’re deciding.).

    The paragraphs that give background should be eliminated and woven into the story. Only the info absolutely necessary to understand enough of what’s going on should be included (maybe two sentences, and perhaps attributed to your main character.)

    Better to start with something that hints at what this story will be about rather than a weather report not triggered by something that happens in the scene, or even using the weather as an obstacle during the action.

    Please keep on with this story.

  2. The story definitely has potential. I don’t usually chime in here, because others are more qualified, but I’m a strong proponent of Deep POV (I think they call it “Intimate” here), and I’d take Joe’s suggestions even further. If Farzana is your protagonist, I want to be more in her head in this opening. If we’re in her head, then you don’t need filtering/distancing words like “she noticed” — readers will get it. You can say “The sixteen girls on the bus didn’t seem to be aware of the danger” and we’ll know it’s Farzana doing the noticing.

    I’ll second Sheryl’s suggestions about heightening the tension with short, choppy sentences (I’m a huge Browne & King fan).

  3. I see definite possibilities in the piece, but I agree with Joe’s comments.
    I find myself wondering, though, where this scene is leading. Does Faranza, or anyone else on the bus survive, because if they do, that’s whose head I want to be in. Otherwise this strikes me as more of a prologue to the main action.

  4. I’m in total agreement with Joe about the importance of Farzana’s POV. In a tense situation like the one this brave writer has created, the POV of such a character cannot be overestimated.

    Some other observations:

    The movement of the bus should be the point of the very first sentence, not the weather. You can work the weather in somehow, but zero in on the bus and its inevitable journey into danger.

    I would lose the entire backstory info dump. It consumes four paragraphs and took me right out of the story. Weave it in later, and a little bit at a time, preferably through dialogue.

    Look over your sentences and remove the word “that” where possible. For example, “the rural dirt road that connected the village of Kwajha” could better be written as “the rural dirt road connecting the village of Kwajha”. The word “that” is a word we use frequently in casual conversation, but in writing, it is usually obtrusive.

    Also, a busload of Afghan girls singing “Old Macdonald” seemed improbable.

    But your core idea, that of a group of Afghan girls meeting up with a Taliban roadblock, is an excellent one and deserves full treatment on the page.

  5. I think Joe hit it on the head. The situation is good and the writer picks a good tense moment of entry for the story (ie: he/she didn’t come in too early by giving us a bunch of throat-clearing about the driver. Instead, we are on the road and moving toward a DISRUPTION…that’s good!)

    But there is no point of view here at all. We are locked into the writer’s narrative and watching everything from a high-up detached point of view. Which is not what you want here. You want us to empathize and *feel* the impending danger. We can’t do that when we are hovering above it all, godlike in our view.

    Get in the driver’s head and stay there! Use all her senses. Make us feel something. And as Don said, lose all that backstory…you can find a way to slip in that historical context later. Get your story moving first and make us care.

  6. There’s a lot of passive writing in this piece, and the first paragraph is about all I could take. The redundancy can be tightened a bit I think. To make it more active and to eliminate redundancy, I can only show by giving an example. I am more prone to follow a story when the opening paragraph is a little more tight and active.


    Sixteen young Afghani girls from the village of Kwajha sat in silence on a bus heading toward a local school in Bagshir. Recent threats by the Taliban left the bus driver on edge, and an overcast morning sky invited a chill in the air, but Farzana stayed focused as she drove along the rural dirt road to their destination.

    I love the idea of this story so far, but I think it would be a GREAT one if you could manage to tighten it up so that it is less cumbersome to read. As mentioned, the redundancy of mentioning locations more than once can be eliminated by simple scans and eliminating where needed. Change it to where there’s not a lot of “state of being” type of telling with overuse of the word “was”. You can do this by checking to see what is doing the action.

    The bus was carrying sixteen young Afghani girls.

    Rather than the bus being the subject, make the Afghani girls the subject. They are so much more interesting than a bus! 🙂

    Good luck with this story!

  7. I regret to say I only have harsh things to say. However, the author should be commended for his courage. Offering one’s WiP up for public dissection can’t be easy.

    But I’m afraid I don’t share the seemingly consensual sentiment that this piece has a number of redeeming qualities. To me, its body read like a dry pamphlet, and an info dump at that, with some dubious claims, such as «[…] the Americans defeated Al Qaeda in Afghanistan» and some oddities such as having Afghan girls sing «Old MacDonald Had a Farm». Somehow it strikes me that it would be neither a priority nor culturally savvy for foreign aid staff to teach young girls who had been deprived of basic education for so long, of all things, a popular American nursery rhyme.

    Then there’s the issue of the prose itself. Why wouldn’t you name Barack Obama? To me the conspicuously vague “a new President ” might be viewed as signalling an undercurrent of political resentment, an opinion to which the next sentence, which starts “He went so far as to”, gives credence.

    You repeat “young woman” in two consecutive sentences, repeat “Afghanistan” in four. Sentence structure is the same simple declarative style throughout. A measure of variety might help to give this opening page the sparkle it currently lacks.

    Keep on writing.

    • Oh, the irony!

      My first sentence…pot…kettle.
      “I regret to say I only have harsh things to offer”.

  8. I’m jumping in to thank everyone who has visited and commented today — and hope that more of you will as well — and to add one quick note. I didn’t find it unusual that the students would be singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” given that it was a song taught by Susan Rawlings, who, as Anon noted, was an American teacher on the bus. Anon didn’t say the kids understood the meaning of the song, anymore than I knew what the f-heck “Frere Jacques” meant when Sister Julia trotted that bad boy out to the snotty nosed kids in my first grade class. If I were the teacher, I might have had those Afghan girls singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” which of course would have subsequently put me on the first plane back to John Glenn Airport, but there you go. I don’t think Anon is guilty of anything with regard to that particular element, other than restraint. Anyway, thanks again and please continue. And thank you again, Anon, for braving TKZ’s First Page Critique gauntlet!

    • I don’t think “Frere Jacques” parallels “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” in this context.

      Yes, it is obvious why it is there. Yes, it’s a teaching tool. But it’s so blatantly insensitive to the historical and cultural context, to how easily it might be misrepresented as evidence of “cultural imperialism” – an accusation foreign aid volunteers are usually keenly attuned to – that I can only see it as a blunder.

      My two cents, anyway.

      • With all due respect, I think “blatantly insensitive” is quite harsh and drips with hypersensitivity. “Frère Jacques” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” are, after all, simple nursery rhymes. I fail to see how either is offensive, unless the latter is simply guilty of being American. In fact, there’s one that has religiously neutral characters, and it isn’t the one en français.

        From an anecdotal point of view, armed forces personal and volunteers I have met tell me young children and even many adults are quick to embrace things from other cultures, French, American, or fill-in-the-blank. “Cultural Imperialism” is a term I heard once as a guest at a Food Not Bombs meeting, but I highly doubt Anon’s audience or school-aged characters would slam the brakes at a “moo-moo here and a moo-moo there.”

        Anon has a good idea going, and I agree with the rest of you regarding what I would change. The big one is separating the “why” from the bus as it approaches the roadblock. Keep things in the bus. You can provide background info after you’ve finished the scene.

        Keep writing, Anon.

  9. The above comments are all excellent.
    I do see one other problem on the horizon. The evening news and the cable news channels have covered the issues in Afghanistan very thoroughly. If the story doesn’t add something new to the reader’s understanding of the situation, it will not be a success. Finding that something new is difficult.
    The horror and fear of innocent people is an element of the story but won’t carry the day. Mr. King can do that with a 1957 Plymouth Fury or a poor demented dog.
    I’m suggesting something like learning the Taliban’s POV and why. Maybe one of he girls, against all odds, can become a Taliban leader. In short, tell us a new story, something startling or unforeseen.
    Personally, I stay away from topical issues because I haven’t solved this problem yet.

  10. Another brave effort,and I agree with Joe’s recommendations. Also, much could be made of the children singing “Old MacDonald,” making various animal noises, giggling and laughing, and then the laughter stops and song dies as the children realize the situation is serious, possibly deadly. It’s common for children who are learning English in another country to sing American nursery rhymes, and an entertaining way to learn.

  11. Thanks for sharing your work, brave writer. Read on if you dare.

    ♥ The first line in your story has one job: to get the reader to read the next line. That’s why you want to lead with mystery. Take a look at the opening line of “Witness” by Nora Roberts. The line is short and snappy, and it immediately raises a question. Your opening line is long and not as exciting as it could be.

    ♥ Do a Google search on “info dump.” That’s a no-no. Your first page reads more like a report than a story. Start off with something exciting happening rather than dull background information. Weave background information into the story in small bits.

    ♥ There’s too much telling and not enough showing. For example: “Recent threats by the Taliban had the bus driver on edge.” Instead of telling the reader that the bus driver was on edge like a news reporter, show the bus driver behaving in way to show that she’s on edge.

    ♥ Your story needs a protagonist. Is it Farzana? Martha? A child on the bus named Reb? The reader needs someone to root for. Here’s some info. about protagonists here:

    I’d suggest telling the story from the point of view of the protagonist so that you can let the readers feel what’s happening from inside of the head of your protagonist. Give the readers a reason to care about the protagonist. This is very important.

    ♥ “The children stopped their singing and started screaming in fear.”

    The line above is an example of overwriting. There is no need to say that the children were screaming “in fear.” You’ve already said the bus swerved out of control and the children were screaming. The words “in fear” are overkill. Generally speaking, the writing needs to be tighter. Get rid of any unnecessary words.

    Have a great day, brave writer, and carry on! ♪♫♪♫♪♫

  12. I really liked this first page. Perhaps a bit heavy on the exposition for page one, though.

    IMHO, starting here would have been great:

    “The school bus rounded a curve and the driver saw that there were two Toyota pickup trucks up ahead blocking the road. Several Afghan men armed with AK-47s were standing in the road signaling for the driver to stop.”

    Conflict and tension from the first sentence. But again, I liked it quite a bit.

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