First Page Critique

Today’s first page critique is a great example of a piece where the ‘voice’ is critical. It’s a stream-of-consciousness, first page narration which we don’t usually see. My comments, follow. Enjoy!

Lilly’s Tree

There’s always been something gratifying in watching Mama suffer, even if it was only a little bug of a thing, like Lilly locking a fist around a swatch of hair hanging from the twisty knot Mama kept her hair tucked into. Lilly would pull on it like she was the force of gravity. Mama’s eyes would tear up, and she’d let out a screech that sounded like a cat with its tail flattened underfoot. That was when Lilly was in the hair-pulling stage of babyhood, right after the biting stage and right before the pinching stage commenced. It did no good trying to restrain those little Houdini arms when they came at you. Once her fingers latched on, no amount of force would make her let go. You had to distract her. Look, Lilly, there’s the firststar shining up there in the sky or Lilly, let’s you and me get some strawberry ice cream. Mama didn’t catch onto that trick like I did. Instead, she’d go off like a struck match. She was never quick to look for the funny in something. Mama I mean, not Lilly. Just about everything had a chance of making Lilly laugh, even Mama.

Before the accident, or even before Lilly for that matter, it felt like Mama was tall as a tower when it came to watching over me. It had some to do with her being protective, I’m sure, but mostly it was because she had a suspicious nature towards me, especially after Tommy Baxter and the hickey incident when I was in sixth grade and the pack of cigarettes she found in my sock drawer last year. I overheard her telling Pastor Mike I was a highly impressionable girl and religious instruction was essential for the development of my good moral character. She was sure he’d start me right in the world. Mama had Pastor Mike visit with us every Sunday after service. He’d talk about matters I didn’t much understand or even care about, but it was pleasant listening to him all the same. The pastor would throw a smile in my direction every so often, even when he was up there behind the podium at church, and his smile would stretch right up to those blue-as-the-sky eyes. I held the belief it was a smile he reserved exclusively for me, which made it impossible not to smile right back.

My comments

This seems at first glance (at least to me) to be non-genre specific – it could be a literary, coming-of-age novel, or it could be a first-person narrated mystery or thriller. At this stage, the scene is set really for either – with enough references to possible paths (Lilly’s accident, the pastor…) to keep this reader guessing as to the novel’s direction. I thought the characterization was strong – even in this first page we get a strong image of Lilly, Mama, and the narrator’s personality.

It is heavily reliant on the success of the first person narrator and this voice is what will carry a reader through the entire story so it has to be perfect. All in all I think this voice is successful so far and, as a reader, I was pulled along and wanted to read more. That being said, there were times when the word choice used seemed out of sync with the overall tone (use of the words ‘gratifying’ and ‘commenced’ and the ‘Houdini’ reference seemed a little more sophisticated than the voice appeared to be (at least to me). One of the key elements of any successful first person voice is the consistency and authenticity of the voice so this would be my only caution to the author – make sure you fully inhabit this narrator and make word choices accordingly. At this stage we don’t know enough about the narrator, beyond her being about middle school age, to be sure, but the sentence structure and voice on this first page seemed chatty, childlike, and unsophisticated (to me it also sounded very Southern – but as an Australian I’m not very good at picking American voices in literature). There was also an undercurrent of something a bit darker which I liked. In fact, if anything I’d like to see more darkness (particularly when it comes to the Pastor – not sure why, but I’m already suspicious of him!).

There wasn’t much in the way of action or dialogue on this first page but I think this worked in this stream-of-consciousness style beginning. For me there was enough narrative pull and tension to keep me reading but other readers may have wanted something more dramatic on the first page.

TKZers, what did you think?

Let us know what comments you have on this submission and how this first page can be improved.

3+

15 thoughts on “First Page Critique

  1. Very strong. I want to hear more. My guess is this is set in the 1930’s, which would make the Houdini reference apropos. Otherwise, yes, it may be out of place.
    For me, probably the best first 400 words on TKZ that I’ve ever read.

  2. Edward – good point – I hadn’t actually thought much about the time period (shame on me, historical writer!) but it does have a 30’s feel so that could definitely make a difference word choice and reference wise. I think it’s a really strong first page too!

  3. I loved the opening line, “There’s always been something gratifying in watching Mama suffer,” but then it needlessly wandered off into run-on-sentence territory. I had to go back over it again to pick up its meaning. Not a good sign for a first sentence. I immediately wondered how many more sentences I was going to have to reread. My advice, FWIW: put a period after the above quoted section and reword the rest.

    I did like (very much) the subtle tension that permeated the entire piece. The voice is strong and I had a good feel for the characters. I’m hoping the leisurely pace will pick up, and soon. I’d like to know what kind of story it’s going to be.

    And I have to admit, I found the two opening paragraphs off-putting. When I see long, forbidding paragraphs like that, I get nervous. The reader often will have a sense of plowing through them just to get to something readable.

    • While I didn’t mind the pace of this first page, you make a good point that it might put off some readers – especially as it is very much stream-of-consciousness thoughts. Perhaps if the end of the first page packed a bit more of a punch with dialogue or action that would help. I would have loved some ambiguous/chilling quote from the pastor to whet my appetite – especially to build more tension (but then, as I said, there’s something about the pastor that makes me shudder already).

  4. I like the voice very much and would willingly follow that voice through the entire story.

    But…

    1. I do want to know whether this is a thriller or a mystery, so I think the hints about Mama and the pastor possibly being “bad” guys should be a bit stronger.

    2. Where are we? Until this excerpt, I thought that knowing where we are was something that agents looked for, but readers not so much. Now I find I want to have a better idea.

    3. So much interior monologue that isn’t grounded in setting–specific rather than overall–details, i.e., the narrator isn’t doing anything–we’re entirely in her head– left me feeling a bit ungrounded. I guess I need more context.

    4. I’d put in more paragraphs, which would make it easier for today’s readers to get through, plus paragraphs could be used to increase the feeling that either the mother or the pastor, or both, could be bad guys, e.g., watching Mama suffer does raise a lot of questions, but it’s lost by all the details that follow immediately. What about stopping after “a little bug of a thing,” and then starting a new paragraph even if that second paragraph starts with a sentence fragment? Or, what about a new paragraph starting with “Mama had pastor visit us”… and then another paragraph break at “I held the belief…”?

    5. Aside from the issue of word choice raised by Clare, a line edit will eliminate some unnecessary words, plus the writer might want to look at how often s/he uses the verb ‘to be.’

    This opening breaks a lot of “rules” for thrillers–not so much for mysteries– so it might be a hard sell for an agent. On the other hand, I think some agents might be looking for more literary/genre projects.

    If the book’s description/jacket blurbs were appealing, and then I read the opening paragraphs, I would definitely give this more pages, both as a former acquisitions editor and as a reader.

  5. This is what is so difficult about our First Pagers. It’s really hard to tell what kind of book we are reading (unless mystery/thriller or some other genre is telegraphed). So I can’t come down hard on the writer for a lack of overtly dramatic tension that you’d find in the usual fare we tackle here. There is, as others have said, a nice tension in just the character dynamics the writer has set up, esp between narrator and mom and that oddly creepy pastor.

    Things I like: the really strongly established voice of the young narrator. But this is tough to carry over 250+ pages, and again, we don’t know where this is going, however.

    I like some of the fresh imagery and word choices: “She’d go off like a struck match.” Nice. But a writer this good can do more. That image of Lily grabbing on Mom’s braid? It is followed by this line: “She’d pull on it like she was the force of gravity.” Which she is, of course, so that’s not an image, that’s a statement of dull fact. Lily would pull on it like…like what? There’s an image begging to come forth here. Like she’s was hanging from the tree swing in the back yard? Like a life rope? Like she was ringing the dinner bell? What image would come from the narrator’s real-life experience and tell us something about her and the mom-Lily relationship? An image must have a reason for living. Don’t let an opportunity like this slip away.

    Didn’t understand the Houdini arms image though. What was special about Houdini’s arms? Or did the writer mean “magical” or “disappearing” arms? But the baby’s grasp was like iron, no? The Houdini reference sounds interesting on first glance but fades on examination because I can’t quite *see* what the writer is seeing.

    I have one complaint (which others have pointed out). I wish the author would pay a little more attention to the way the story *looks* on the page. Some judicious paragraphing might go a long ways to mitigate the monotone style. I recognize this might be due to a stream of consciousness style but it feels a touch old fashioned.

    Pacing is aural AND visual, imho. The pace here is leisurely, for sure. But the eye grows weary and the brain can wander. I don’t think I would mind the long second graph (which is of one thought about religion and moral upbring) if the first were broken up a tad. Maybe something like:

    There’s always been something gratifying in watching Mama suffer, even if it was only a little bug of a thing, like Lilly locking a fist around a swatch of hair hanging from the twisty knot Mama kept her hair tucked into. Lilly would pull on it like she was the force of gravity. Mama’s eyes would tear up, and she’d let out a screech that sounded like a cat with its tail flattened underfoot.

    That was when Lilly was in the hair-pulling stage of babyhood, right after the biting stage and right before the pinching stage commenced. It did no good trying to restrain those little Houdini arms when they came at you. Once her fingers latched on, no amount of force would make her let go. You had to distract her.

    Look, Lilly, there’s the first star shining up there in the sky. Or, Lilly, let’s you and me get some strawberry ice cream.

    Mama didn’t catch onto that trick like I did. Instead, she’d go off like a struck match. She was never quick to look for the funny in something. Mama I mean, not Lilly. Just about everything had a chance of making Lilly laugh, even Mama.

    But nice job! I would read on.

  6. I love this. Things like location and time will come later. What is most important in beginnings is getting caught up in the story and this does that. Sometimes, we as knowledgeable readers get caught up in the puzzle parts like plot, characterization, etc. and miss the imagery evoked. At this point, I want to know what Mama did to become the object of this subtle torture. This whole relationship is like a car wreck and I couldn’t look away.
    The “going off like a struck match” is a gorgeous image.
    Not only would I read on, I’d take it off the shelf and buy it.

  7. I’d scratch the first paragraph and begin with the second. The first paragraph is off-putting to me. She likes to see her Mama suffer? The burden is now greater to get me to be interested.

    OTOH, the second para has a great opening line, and gets to mysteries quicker. Start here, then slowly drop in—via actions—the REASONS the narrator likes to see her mother suffer. Don’t just tell us.

    One caveat: I do hope this isn’t another crazed-fundamentalist-mother or hypocritical-adulterous-pastor story … or backstory. It’s been done so much it’s a cliche.

    • I was intrigued by the first line and the whole liking to see her mama suffer…though not sure what that says about me! Inserting action – showing us why she likes to see her mother suffer – is a great point as this first page really is all telling (but again this didn’t bother me on the first page but I’d like to see the next one plunge us into the thick of things). Hard to know where this story is going but, fingers crossed, the author avoids those familiar cliches!

  8. I also sensed the darkness the darkness in tone, which was quite nice. This alone would keep me reading.

    I agree that the Houdini allusion (not illusion, lol) seemed a bit odd. Maybe referring to hard to restrain hands that can escape like Houdini?

    Over all, I was intrigued. Well done to the author!

  9. A really pretty piece of writing. The overall voice is clear as a bell, and the commentary draws the reader right into the story. The only change I might make (cautiously) would be italizise the word essential in the second para, for emphasis and tone. Think long, slow, southern.

    Mostly, I’d be tempted to leave it alone and ask the writer to keep spinning the story. It’s not my usual kind of reading, but the artristy might draw me in. I’d really like to see more.

    Holler if you want a beta reader, dear author.

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