First Page Critique: Angry Vines

By John Gilstrap

A brave anonymous author offers up a page for feedback.  First, the page, then the feedback (Italics are all mine):

Title: Angry Vines

A man, dirty and thin from living too many months with too little of anything, traveled slowly through the woods. He had been paid to deliver a package, and was traveling by the light of an oil burning lantern. Even though it was early enough now that the first hint of the sun was starting to peak over the ground and bleed into the sky, he’d been told that the cottage was well disguised, and didn’t want to risk missing it.

He was searching for any hint of a building of some sort. A crow that had been circling overhead for some time flew down and perched on his shoulder, cawing loudly in a mocking laugh when the man jumped. 

When the man regained his composure he shook the bird off, swatting at it as it flew to a nearby branch. “What did I say about doing that without warning me?” He said with the same tone someone might use to talk to a very young child that just broke a well established rule.

The crow cocked its head and blinked its beady black eyes. The man assumed this was the only response he was going to get and walked past it, holding his lantern up to continue his search. He didn’t stop when the crow finally spoke, hopping from branch to branch behind him.

“I didn’t see a thing up there. Are you sure you didn’t get us lost?” 

“I know how to read a map.” He replied indignantly. The man had it tucked under his arm, with the package.

“Don’t take everything I say so personally.” The crow flew back to the man’s shoulder, apparently too tired to keep hopping after him. “Maybe there isn’t even a cottage to begin with. I don’t think the kind of person that would hire a strange man to deliver something would have any problem sending him on a wild goose chase through the woods.” 

    The man shook his head. “I’m delivering this for a witch, and a powerful one at that. If someone like that wanted to mess with me, she would have done it by shrinking my head or turning my skin green. Not pay me to not deliver a package.” 

“Oh.” The crow said. “I didn’t know she already payed you.” And after a moment added “I think you’d look better with a smaller head.”

Hi,  It’s Gilstrap again.  And now for my thoughts:

First of all, I love the crow.  I love the wry sense of humor, and the last line of this sample is perfect.  I do hope it’s the end of the scene because that would be a very strong close.

Structurally and stylistically, I think this is a troubled piece, and the trouble starts with the first two words: A man.  Unless there’s a compelling reason to keep this character’s identity a secret, it’s very hard for a reader to bond with a pronoun.  If at all possible, give him a name.  For my purposes here, we’ll call him Tony.

Whose POV is this?  Who perceives him to be dirty and thin from living too many months with too little of anything?  This would work so much better if we were in [Tony’s] POV, and rather than seeing what he looks like, we could feel his exhaustion.

“Traveled slowly” is a great example of why -ly adverbs are loathed by so many.  Trudged, crawled, staggered, wandered and countless other stronger verbs would make a stronger sentence.  Consider: “. . . trudged through the woods, his way lit only by the dim light of an oil lantern.  Overhead, a crow flew lazy figure eights, no doubt mocking Tony for his dwindling strength.”  See below for why I added the crow here.

I don’t think we need to know in para 1 that he’s been paid to deliver a package.  Let us know that he’s searching, and let us wonder why.

[A]ny hint of a building of some sort is redundant.

A crow that had been circling overhead for some time flew down and perched on his shoulder, cawing loudly in a mocking laugh when the man jumped. The sudden introduction of the crow is jarring.  Stay in Tony’s POV.  Consider:

The flutter of approaching wings startled him and he jumped as the crow that had been mocking him landed on his shoulder.  When the bird cawed, Tony heard laughter.  He swatted it away and it flew to a nearby branch.  “What did I tell you about startling me?”

The crow hopped to a new branch, and then another one.  “Are you sure you didn’t get us lost?”

“I know how to read a map,” Tony replied.

“And I know how to fly,” the crow said.  “I didn’t see a thing up there.  And I’ve had enough of this hopping business.”

Tony made no effort to prevent him from returning to his shoulder.

“Maybe your witch friend sent you on a wild goose chase,” the crow said.  “Maybe there is no cottage.”

“It’s here,” Tony said.  “If she were trying to mess with my head, she could have just shrunk it.  Or turned my skin green.”

They trudged in silence for a few steps.  “I think you’d look better with a smaller head,” the crow said.

Okay, that was presumptuous of me.  I took the liberty of essentially rewriting your piece, but I did it for a reason.  By sticking to the moment and eliminating backstory, the narrative becomes more compelling.  Let us come to like the characters and experience things through their eyes as the events unfold.

Much of what you expose in dialogue, such as “I’m delivering this for a witch and a powerful one at that . . .” is information that the characters would already know, and therefore would not reasonably be spoken at this time.

That’s my take on the piece.  What say you, TKZers?  Fair warning: When this blog entry is posted, I will likely not have a reliable Internet connection, so I will probably not be able to interact with other posters.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. He will co-produce the film adaptation of his book, Six Minutes to Freedom, which should begin filming in 2017.

A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

7 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Angry Vines

  1. I agree with John’s comments. There’s a good opening here. I like the story idea, but it needs some polish.

    My main issue is I don’t get any feel for the tone of the novel. Is it supposed to be eerie or lighthearted? Is it YA or adult? It comes across as very flat to me. A few tweaks would help that.

    Assuming the author wanted to maintain the POV, consider the impact of changing the opening two words from “A man” to “The man.” He becomes less generic. How long has he been on this mission? A day? A year? Most importantly, what is the danger if he doesn’t succeed?

    I do like the use of the crow to provide some humor. That would really be enhanced if the scene was darker/spookier. The author could even use the bird to introduce the character’s name by having the animal intentionally mispronounce it or something.

    Overall, good start. Work on the tone and introduce an element of danger, and you’ll hook me!

  2. Thanks to the writer who shared this first page. This reads like a very early draft, when the writer has a notion, but not a very specific idea, of the scene. In addition to “the man” (and I agree with everything John said about the problems that creates), there are a number of other words that need to be more specific, such as “traveled” (how?) and “building” (what kind? later referred to as a cottage). The behavior of the crow also needs careful attention. Why would it hop along behind him? Is this accurate? Perhaps some of the problem comes from mixing up being mysterious with being vague – striking the right balance takes a lot of thought. The idea of this scene is intriguing and promising, it just isn’t fully realized yet. At a later stage (or now), the author should review the grammatical conventions for writing dialogue.

  3. I think introducing the crow at the beginning is the right decision–and perhaps even that the crow talks. This makes the genre immediately clear. At least, I think the genre may be a mix between fantasy and crime, or only fantasy/paranormal. Whatever genre this is, I think it ought to be clear within the first few paragraphs.

    I see some newbie weaknesses (adverbs, Starting Syndrome, lack of clarity, etc.) so I’m recommending Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by King and Browne. Eliminate the common errors, and your voice has a better chance to shine.

    I agree totally that the man must have a name, although I debated with myself, rewrite after rewrite, in one of my WIPs.

    Is ‘payed’ an alternate spelling for ‘paid?’ I use to check many things, especially hyphenations and non-hyphenations. Good resource.

    Word choice could be improved, something the author might accomplish by bringing the reader closer to the character. Some word choices that I feel could be improved: well disguised–does that really fit a cottage, unless you’re trying to make the cottage seem human? Plus it feels a little on the academic side, as does ‘of some sort.’ Word choice can also magnify the mood you’re trying to create, e.g., (from a ms. I read) The sunflowers danced in the wind, smack dab in the middle of scene where mercenaries were about to storm a facility. Exactly the wrong word choice if you’re trying to create menace and atmosphere.

    Eliminate unnecessary words because tight writing is generally good writing, unless a character’s voice requires otherwise.

    Passive construction: He had been paid, for one. Later on we learn that a witch paid him, so why not disclose it right up front? The question raised by leaving it out is not important enough, in my view, to leave it out.

    I like the crow’s wit, but I wouldn’t read further–yet. I think this writer has an innate storytelling ability that needs honing, and the writing itself as well, but with more miles and more reading craft books, this story could be a good one.

  4. I agree with all the wisdom here. Have only one observation to add: This feels like fantasy (talking crow! witches! angry vines, oh my!) If so, where’s the sense of place? I’m not asking for a larding on of description, but I get no sense of what these woods are like, other than one mention that the traveler can’t seem to see the cottage he is seeking. Why not? Are the trees thick and gnarly? Are we in Sherwood Forest, a jungle or an Pennsylvania dale? Are we on a twisty path or a well-traveled road? “Woods” is such a generic word that it is almost useless in helping your reader conjure up the scene and feel involved. Ditto for the man. He’s sort of a cipher…other than holding a lantern, which implies an older time, we don’t get a single detail about him. Clothes? Age? You can drop judicious hints without overburdening your opening.

    If this is fantasy, it’s imperative that you begin to “world build.” If I can’t *see* your world, I can’t get invested in the journey.

  5. First hint of sun is a peek. It peaks later in the day when it’s really hot. We’re still without power post hurricane. I’ve become an expert on this.

    Something that always yanks me out of a story is when the action doesn’t occur in the proper order. In this excerpt the crow flies, perches, laughs, then the man jumps. It makes more sense for the crow to perch which causes the man to jump which causes the crow to laugh.

    Good luck with this. Fantasy is fun.

  6. I am one of the many SFF writers that follow this blog for the exceptional advise and encouragement for new (and not so new) writers. I agree with all of the previous comments, but wanted to add a few of my own.

    The opening led me to believe the author was trying for an omniscient PoV, something that is hard to do even for an experienced writer. Writing fantasy already comes with a lot of extra work. In those first pages you have to introduce your main character(s), set up the story, engage your audience, and introduce a new world we are not familiar with. It is important for your audience to become emotionally invested in order to keep reading. They have to care about something, the characters, the story, the world, or better yet, all three. Omniscient PoV creates a distance between the reader the characters, making that emotional commitment less likely. I would recommend either an intimate 3rd person PoV or 1st person PoV.

    I think you have a good start on the story, but I think you could add more layers to help build your world. Is the cottage hidden by magic, then show this. Are the woods sentient, then imply that. For example:

    The cottage he sought would be hidden, guarded by a forest that resented intruders. He climbed over another gnarled root and paused, holding the lantern up to chase away the predawn shadows. Travel was slow this way, but he couldn’t trust his normal senses to see through the illusions he knew were there.

    This paragraph lets us know he is looking for a cottage in the woods, but it also lets us know the world is magical and gives us a bit of conflict.

    It looks like you have an interesting story idea, please keep writing and rewriting. I would recommend “How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy” by Orson Scott Card.

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