First Page Critique

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is a fantasy entitled A Turin Mercenary. My comments follow.

A TURIN MERCENARY

I sat silhouetted on my warhorse on the top of the hill.  I wanted them to see me.  A band of brigands had noticed me when I left the town of Ashton this morning.  I knew they would follow me.  I decided to make a stand.

It was midmorning.  The sky was clear, but it was cold.  It was the beginning of winter in the Realm.  I had taken off my warm cloak and gloves and let the cold invigorate me.  I took a deep calming breath and prepared myself for battle.

I could see the four of them riding on the road toward me now.  All too often, there were brigands that made their living by robbing people.  A lone female mercenary against the four of them.  They probably thought I would be an easy target.  I think not. Because I made my living by stopping them.  I allowed myself a little smile.  I made sure they would never harm anyone again.

The lead brigand whooped out loud when he saw me.  He drew his broadsword and held it high in the air.  The three brigands behind him drew their swords raised them as well.  They turned off the road and sent their horses at a gallop up the hill toward me.

I had given Talon the order to stand still and placed him with his left side parallel to the road.  A tactical maneuver.  In my left hand, was my longbow with an arrow notched.  I held the black bow vertically so it was hidden with my black horse, tack and clothes. The brigands would not see the bow until it was too late.

I waited patiently for them to come closer within range.  I calmly took in their expressions as they got closer, their faces tense with sneers of rage.  It was time.  I quickly lifted my bow up and drew back the bowstring.  I aimed and released the arrow at the lead brigand.  The arrow hit him square in the chest.  I immediately pulled another arrow from my back quiver, drew and fired.  The arrow hit the second brigand in the chest.  I saw the disbelief on the two remaining brigands’ faces when they saw their companions fall.

I dropped the bow and gave Talon the command to charge.  My warhorse responded with quick acceleration.  I drew my rapier and rode straight at the third brigand…

MY COMMENTS

It’s always tricky with fantasy as a writers needs time for world building – so a first page critique can be hard to do, as we really only get a glimpse of this. Nonetheless, I think this first page demonstrates that, even in fantasy, it is critical to draw a reader in right from the starts with specifics, firmly rooted in whatever world (be in real or fantastical) the author has created. With this first page, we have some tension, a little character development and action, but I think what we most miss is the specifics to add color and texture to the scene. My comments therefore center on world building, characterization and POV.

World Building

In this first page we get a sense of the world but little in the way of specifics. For example, the world is called ‘the Realm’ but we know nothing about it, except that the character is a lone female mercenary who is waiting for a groups of brigands to attack. We don’t really get a sense of her role, motivations, or place in the ‘big picture’ of the novel beyond this (I admit, thought, with a first page only, that is often a hard task). I would have liked more detail that enabled me to see, hear, and smell this world, and enough to enable me to distinguish this story from many other medieval/fantasy novels. One of the key issues I had in this regard was the use of the word ‘brigands’ – which is used eight times on just the first page. This kind of repetition drains the scene of color and specificity – likewise the use of ‘lead brigand’, ‘second brigand’ and ‘third brigand’. Apart from their faces being ‘tense with sneers of rage’ I can’t picture or distinguish one from the other. Such an action scene as a first page would definitely benefit from richer descriptions.

Characterization

I like how the lead character is a kick-ass lone female mercenary, but I needed a little more to truly believe and root for her as a character. It seemed strained to me that she would merely wait in the open and the brigands would oblige by attacking – what was their motivation for doing so? Does she look rich enough to be worth robbing? Why is she a mercenary (even just a hint on this would make her more intriguing)? At the moment she seems a little generic – and again, it’s really a question of giving us more specifics and making her seem more human (is she nervous at all? If she’s so confident – why? Have her experiences in the past hardened her?). This also leads to the question of voice, which I found wasn’t quite fully formed as yet.

POV

The ‘voice’ in this first page is clearly the mercenary and yet I didn’t get a sense of her voice strongly enough as yet. Perhaps it was the vague drifting into third person/omniscience (e.g.. ‘A band of brigands noticed me’) or the odd change in tenses (‘I think not’) or the short staccato style sentences (which can work, but here, felt a little bland). For a fantasy novel to grab me, I need to be fully invested in the main character from the get-go. Although I liked the action in the scene, I feel that a bit more attention to the lead character’s voice would go a long way to upping the tension and stakes.

Overall, I think this page has good action but lacks some ‘color’ in terms of world-building details, POV and characterization. If the writer spent a bit of time enhancing these elements this page would be all the stronger for it.

TKZers, what do you think?

 

5+

26 thoughts on “First Page Critique

  1. I agree with all your insights here, Clare. This has potential (I like the way the writer neatly slips in that we have a female lead!) but despite the action, it feels flat because, as you note, there is no sense of place and context. Again, that’s difficult to do in such a small sample but this is the crucial introduction to the story. I like the use of the cold winter and that she takes off her cloak almost to ice herself for battle. More of this use of small but telling detail would go a long way to adding some warm blood to the scene. The cloud of Talon’s nervous breath in the wintery air? The mossy smell of the woods? The muted sound of horse hooves coming closer before she sees them and maybe how the sound changes — which can also tell us something about HER and her comfort with the woods?

    A nit to pick: I was confused about the geography in this scene. She wanted to be seen by the bad guys so she pulled off the road and positioned her horse on a hill? So why don’t they see her first? And why don’t they have bows and just shoot her dead because she’s such an easy target up there. Might not a bit of suspense be better? Find a way to make the scene work harder and make your heroine look smarter.

    When I read this, I thought of an old movie, “Solomon and Sheba” where the outnumbered good guys line up facing the oncoming Egyptian horde then then at the last second, position their polished shields to reflect the sun, blinding the bad guys who then ride into a ravine.

    How about if she knew they had trailed her from town so she pulled off the road and hid until the critical moment? Then she eases Talon out of the dark shadows and into the sunlight so she is a gleaming and SUDDEN silhouette in the winter sun? The bad guys are then literally stunned by the sight. And because she is smart, she knows the sun will be in their eyes so she has the advantage. Never let an opportunity go by to make your heroine look smart. Have her use her knowledge of the environment (the woods) as a weapon…it’s more interesting than her literal weapon.

    One other thing: When using first person, there is always the issue of overusing the pronoun “I.” Out of 39 sentences here, 20 start with “I.” So be aware of this trap when writing in the first person. Although it’s hard, find ways to open sentences with something else so you vary your paragraphs. Writing is a visual thing on the page…too many “I’s” tire the eyes. My excellent editor pointed this out to me the first time I tried a first-person POV and I was eternally grateful.

    • Agree and I think when using the first person POV it’s vital to mix things up, otherwise as you say the ‘I’ gets tiresome at the start of sentences. One option for the writer here is to try 3rd person and see if this makes the page flow better. I often play around with POV just to see what seems to come more naturally to the story.

  2. There’s a LOT of the following; I held the black bow vertically so it was hidden with my black horse, tack and clothes. The brigands would not see the bow until it was too late.
    The character is telling us she did this maneuver to hide the bow, and then compounds the issue by telling us that by hiding it, the enemy won’t see it.
    We need to trust our readers. Better, I think, is; I held the black bow vertically, hidden with my black horse, tack and clothes.
    The reader is then forced to picture the action, and instinctively knows why, both of which create immersion.

  3. I get put off immediately by the writing at the sentence and paragraph level. Repetition. Lack of subordination. Lack of flow (jumpy). Stating the obvious or describing to unnecessary detail.

    Here’s a suggestion for the first paragraph:

    The mid-morning sun silhouetted me as I waited at the top of the hill. My warhorse, Talon, trembled with excitement. I shared his arousal. The early winter cold invigorated me for battle. I took a deep, calming breath.

    Local warlords throughout the Realm employed me to combat the brigands who infested the countryside. A single woman, riding out alone, her weapons concealed beneath a large cloak, now flung to the ground. The outlaws had been following me since I left town that morning. Coming out of the woods, the leader saw me. With a loud whoop he raised his broadsword and charged up the hill, his comrades close behind.

    [“The lead brigand whooped out loud”–how would he whoop silently?]

    [“I waited patiently for them to come closer within range.” I don’t thing we need ‘patiently.’ More likely, her arousal would match that of the horse. We don’t need “come closer.”]

    Jumping to the sixth paragraph, here’s my suggestion:

    It was time. The first arrow struck the leader square in the chest. Before the others could react, a second arrow delivered death to the next rider.

    [In the final paragraph: “Rapier” against two men with broadswords? The reader will need to have this “justified.”]

  4. Clare is right on about using specific detail to bring the world and characters to vivid life.

    Suggest you tighten the writing by deleting repetitious phrases like, “It was midmorning. The sky was clear, but it was cold. It was the beginning of winter in the Realm.” Skip the weather report and get to the action.

    Put the major details in the first paragraph. You have several compelling elements: a lone female mercenary, protecting others, who’s determined and confident she can kill bad guys. That’s intriguing and would hook me.

    As Jim Bell suggested yesterday, “Act first, explain later.”

    Something like:

    “I sat on my warhorse, silhouetted atop the hill, waiting for the four approaching brigands. They meant to rob me, a lone female. I smiled, knowing that in moments they would never again harm me, or anyone else in my village of Ashton. I made my living by stopping such as these.

    The lead brigand whooped and drew his broadsword, waving it in the chilly morning air. The other three followed his lead, spurring their horses up the hill toward me.

    I gave Talon the order to stand still and placed him with his left side parallel to the road. I held my longbow, with an arrow notched, in my left hand, hidden by my black horse, tack and clothes. The brigands would not see the bow until it was too late.” Etc.

    You’ve set up a tense, intriguing situation and, once the writing is tightened, you’ll have a page-turner. Good work, Anon!

    • I do think with some added depth and detail this page could work well – the writer here could definitely take on board the comments here and see what works for him/her and then revise accordingly.

  5. I agree with my fellow commenters, with some additions of my own.

    Lots of word repetition here (brigand is used 9 times on the first page). Think of some synonyms to break up the sameness of the narrative. I also think that you hamper an otherwise engaging piece with unnecessary words. You’re particularly enamored of (with?) adverbs. Consider:

    I wanted them to see me so I silhouetted myself on a hill atop Talon, my magnificent black warhorse. A band of brigands had noticed me when I left Ashton this morning and they’d followed me, just as I knew they would. I decided to make a stand.

    The mid-morning sky was clear, but cold, the beginning of winter in the Realm. I had taken off my warm cloak and gloves the cold invigorated me. I took a deep breath and prepared myself for battle.

    Four of them advanced toward me along the road below. These highwaymen no doubt saw me as easy prey, a lone female mercenary against the four of them. I allowed myself a little smile. I would soon make sure they would never harm anyone again.

    The leader whooped when he saw me. He drew his broadsword and held it high. The other three did the same as all four reined their horses and galloped up the hill toward me.

    I’d positioned Talon with his left side parallel to the road. A tactical maneuver. My left hand held my longbow with an arrow notched, its presence camouflaged by the back-lit glare and masked by the lines of my black horse, and my clothes. The brigands would not see the bow until it was too late.

    I waited for them to come within range. I took in their expressions, their faces tense with [sneers of rage–I’m not sure what you mean by this]. It was time. I snapped up my bow and released the arrow at the lead brigand. The arrow hit him square in the chest. Even as he fell, I nocked a second arrow from my quiver and launched it through the heart of a second attacker. The remaining two slowed their approach as they watched their comrades fall.

    I dropped the bow and gave Talon the command to charge. My warhorse responded with quick acceleration. I drew my rapier and rode straight at the third brigand… [I’m completely baffled by this maneuver. The bow seems to be working for her, and she’s got wicked skills. A skilled warrior–and I’m assuming that’s what your mercenary is–would never trade effective long-range fighting for hand-to-hand, let alone bring a rapier to a broadsword fight.)

    The point I’m trying to make here–and forgive me for presuming to re-write your story–is to demonstrate the importance on strong verbs (thus eliminating the need for adverbs) and fewer words overall.

    • Great points John – and I appreciate the input on the fighting aspect (something I know nothing about but it makes sense what you say in terms of what would she would use/do)

  6. I fully agree with PJ’s assertion that the piece needs more “warm blood”. Currently, it almost feels like a rote recitation of dry facts.

    I’m not sure this is a fantasy novel, actually. When reading the first couple of paragraphs, I dropped myself into medieval Britain thinking I was reading the beginning of a historical novel. Maybe I’m wrong, though. If I am, and if it is a fantasy, that should be made clearer up front.

    Finally (I know, I know, this is REALLY petty), but I get unnerved when I see two spaces after a period. That convention has truly fallen by the wayside over the last several decades and it’s time to let it go.

    • Don – I think the use of the word ‘the Realm’ is what made me assume fantasy over historical – but I could certainly be wrong. The title does suggest historical – I guess key take-away here is that it should be crystal clear from the start:)

    • About the two spaces. I brought that up with my editor at Kensington (decades of experience with NYC publishing houses), and she had no idea that the convention had changed. I’m not disputing that it has, but space elimination is fodder for copy editors down range. For some of us, that two-space thumb tap is an un-alterable reflex.

      • I think both MS Word and LibreOffice writer will go through and eliminate these. (Maybe it’s just a “search-and-replace” two spaces for one.) It made sense with monospace typewriter font. Less so or none with the computer’s proportional fonts.

        A more serious problem for me is the way “magic quotes” give us wrong-way facing apostrophes at the beginning of words. Many people seem unaware that they should correct that manually. I haven’t thought of a way to automate that correction.

        • Eric, I’m about to change your life. When using smart quotes with Word, and you want an apostrophe at the beginning of a word, like, ’nuff said, hit the CONTROL key while pressing the quote key, then press the quote key. Same procedure for quotes at the end of em dashes.

          This is one of my favorite accidental discoveries with Word, a program I otherwise despise. What ever happened to WordPerfect?

  7. I agree with you. The protagonist voice isn’t very strong in this first page, but fortunately, that’s something that can be fixed relatively easy.

    One of the things that jumped on my right away is the plot. Is the story about her taking out brigands to help people? If not, we cannot grasp it here. IMO, the first page should at least give the reader a hint about what to expect about the story, so when the time comes, it makes the “click” and the reader have this “Oh, I see” moment.

    World building in the first page in fantasy is very, very hard, but it can be pulled off. Little details like “I calmly took in their expressions as they got closer, their faces tense with sneers of rage. I always found it funny, it was as if all the bandits from the southern realms had learned from the very same teacher” can make a difference, just like “All too often, there were brigands that made their living by robbing people. A lone female mercenary against the four of them. They probably thought I would be an easy target, but what could I expect from the Crowhead guild?. Of all of with whom I have run into, I still haven’t find one who thinks beyond his nose.”

    Of course, I’m not an expert, but I hope my input can help the writer to improve his/her draft.

  8. I agree with Clare and PJ, and I’d like to know more about this woman physically. Warhorses are monster animals. How can she control one? And aren’t longbows used on the ground, not on horseback? Not saying she can’t fight — I like the idea very much — but let us know she has the muscle and the training for this assignment.

    • For me rapier was so wrong. That is a dueling weapon and stabbing weapon. She needs a broadsword, saber, or even a katana, something that slashes and cuts.

  9. Sorrybto jump in so late… Staff Beating Monday and all that goes with it…

    My catch is the passive voice ~
    I had taken off my cloak…
    I could see them…
    I had given Talon…

    Perhaps I’m picking knits, but it was something I got hammered on throughout my school daze…

    • And my peeve is that those sentences you quoted are NOT passive voice. Past tense, weak, maybe, but passive voice is where the action happens to the subject, which isn’t the case here.

  10. Thank you KillZone for critiquing my First Page! I am the writer of A TURIN MERCENARY. This is my first novel! I appreciate all your comments and suggestions. I’m learning so much! I can’t wait to rewrite and make my novel better.

    • Liz – I only just saw this so sorry for delay! Thank you for submitting your first page – we know just how brave that is to open yourself up for commentary! I’m glad the feedback was useful. All the very best – you have a solid foundation to start from which is great!

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