First Page Critique: “Deliah and the One Penny Blue”

Today we have yet another in our series of soul-crushing First Page Reviews.

Of course, I’m being a bit sarcastic. The intention is never to be soul-crushing, even when that seems to be the outcome. (We’ve all been there, on both sides of these little eviscerations.)

I’m not a big fan of first page reviews. They aren’t without some value, of course, because certainly they provide a glimpse of the writer’s ability to render readable prose, which is a square-one necessity in this business. (You’ll notice that this alone usually eats up over 90 percent of the feedback we provide here, and about 60 percent my own feedback today). And perhaps, to set up a scene… specifically, an opening scene. But that’s about it. They tell us little about the story arc itself. Nor should they. Stormy skies and perfectly coiffed hair and the color of sunsets, because we’ve all seen the color of sunsets and don’t need to be told – often the hallmarks of a first page – aren’t really the point, while they certainly can be stage lighting if handled properly.

We also often get some sense of initial foreshadowing, of course, but if the entire story is visible beyond a vague hint on page one, that, too, is a mistake. First pages aren’t there to tell us about the story itself. Nor should they. They are there to begin the process of setting up the story. Stormy skies and perfectly coiffed hair – often the hallmarks of a first page – aren’t really the point, while they certainly can be stage lighting.

And therein resides a paradox. Because if we don’t yet know the story arc, we can’t really access how well the setup for it has been handled… beyond, of course, the prose itself. So here we are, having come full circle to focus on the sentences.

That said, let’s see how today’s brave author (we are contractually obliged to include that phrase in these intros) does with her or his first page.

My not-quite-as-cynical commentary (really, I’m hoping I can help) follows.

Twilight coloured everything with purple shadows. Squeals echoed down the slope while the last of the kids raced the darkness home, the boys rounded up and kept safe by girls like us.  Surrounded by poplar trees, at sea in a stretch of grass and daisies, the tall ship appeared around the curve of the hill. A well-worn and familiar playground in Old Town, the tilted deck was strung with rope nets and a faded black flag flew above.

Our shoes stirred up the damp smell of woodchips as the two of us reached the hull and climbed up onto the deck. The boards sounded hollow, empty beneath our feet. Leaning back against the worn timber, I tore open the paper, and hot vinegar clouded up into my face, sharply comfortingly. With my eyes downcast, I offered the chips to Martha.

We ate in silence as the night pressed down around us. My wet clothes had chilled with the evening air and kept me from forgetting what had happened earlier. Though I tried to fill up somehow, swallowing past the rawness in my throat, my jaw was hard with tension. I felt overly conscious of every gesture and the quiet was building.

When the food was gone, I scrunched the paper, holding it close to my nose to inhale the familiar scent. It smelled of late nights; the familiar bustle around the fryers and the fluid motion of Martha working beside me. I clenched the paper tighter, wringing it between my hands. Sweat budded over my top lip and I coached myself to speak, to break the spell somehow.

Alongside, Martha crossed her arms and tilted back against the wooden balustrade, looking up at the sky. Waiting.

It was lonely, sitting side by side with my oldest friend. I toyed with the discarded paper, flicking it back and forth with my fingertips. I had a sense of something counting down.

“Can you stop that?” said Martha. Still, she didn’t look at me.

My cheeks flushed hot but I imagined I could hear ice cracking over dark water.

“I didn’t mean for it to go that far!” I choked suddenly, swiping at my eyes.

Martha finally looked at me, lips pressed tight together. “So, what the hell happened, Penn?

Here’s my first impression. And really, I say this with love and empathy: you’re trying too hard. Much too hard. My fear is a crusty old editor, whose taste for purple prose (ironic, since this is the color you evoke in your opening line) has soured like the tongue of a senior chef auditioning newbies for a cooking show.

Okay, now I’m trying too hard.

Shadows aren’t purple. Dusk skies are purple. Shadows are a lack of color. It’s never wise to try to revinvent nature.

So the girls have rounded up the boys and are keeping them safe on the way home, all of them squealing. Really… I don’t think this works. And if they’ve all headed home, nobody is squealing anymore.

Your sentence introducing the “tall ship” works better if you flip it around, like this: The tall ship appeared around the curve of the hill, surrounded by poplar trees, at sea in a stretch of grass and daisies. Another note: hills don’t curve, they slope. And the ship doesn’t “appear” unless ot or you are moving (a point of view thing); rather, om this case it is fixed in place, because it isn’t really a ship at all.

You’re trying too hard. The biggest rookie mistake, and the most common, is to try to sound like a professional author, but end up sounding like someone trying to sound a certain way. Professional authors live in a world where they understand that less is more, where adjectives and adverbs and over-wrought metaphors are the very things that mark the writing of a newbie.

This essence – sounding like a professional – is the hardest thing to teach and to learn (among a core set of more precise principles, which are absolutely teachable and learnable). The best way to learn is to have someone blue pencil your own narrative to understand why it is perceived as otherwise.

Your next paragraph is a confusion of up-and-down geometry: shoes stirred up… climbed up… empty beneath… leaning back… tore open the paper… clouded up… eyes downcast. This is literary motion sickness, I’m afraid.

Martha looked up at the sky… waiting for what, exactly? Whatever she was waiting for, it wasn’t going to descend from the heavens.

Nothing (beyond description) happens until your sixth paragraph. This is the whole point of the scene (and the first page): they feel like something is coming. That all of this is “counting down” to something, and this is the something that will crack open the story. This moment is the point of the scene… I suggest you get to it a bit quicker, cutting out all the existential pondering of sights and sounds, which really means nothing in context to what’s about to be revealed between the two girls… who must have taken a pass at gathering boys and protecting them on their way home.

Because that is what the reader will care about. The reader won’t care about what kind of tree surrounds them, or what smells are wafting about, or what vinegar smells like… because none of that is what the scene is about.

Begin with this awareness, and build an impactful lead into the moment when the girls get real about whatever happened that still haunts them, in context to what they know or don’t know, and can discuss or shouldn’t discuss.

This upgrade is an example of what I like to call mission-driven scene writing, versus overly sensated English Comp 101 scene writing. At the professional level, even on a first page, crusty old agents and pub house readers and even browsing readers on Amazon’s preview pages instinctively know the difference.

One other comment: your title… it makes me go, “huh?” You can do better.

Hope this helps. Killzoners (I won’t say “what think ye?” again, I got killed for that one), please weigh in and help this writer get over this purple hump.

 

 

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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

12 thoughts on “First Page Critique: “Deliah and the One Penny Blue”

  1. I now feel some validation because my very first reaction was the same: this writer is trying too hard. Too many adjectives and adverbs, etc…. the writing is cluttered, and the clutter is confusing, especially in the opening paragraph.

    Reminds me of my first essay in university English Lit class. I slaved over that thing, and received a mark of 64–the worst mark I had ever received. My prof told me, “Say what you mean.” Best advice. Say what you mean–you can make it pretty later, but not so pretty that it confuses or makes the sentence too hard to read.

    All the same, I think this writer has talent; just that the talent needs to be controlled. First, the writing itself, and I do believe that it’s possible to learn how to control the temptation to write award-winning prose, and, instead, let the story be King.

    Second, we tend to forget when we first write fiction that cohesiveness and logic count–not just in non-fiction. This excerpt is all over the place. I felt tossed about, which added to my confusion. I’m not talking about scene structure here; I’m talking about thought/idea progression, Stimulus and Response. The second sentence should be a response to the first, the third to the second, and so on throughout the entire scene (some exceptions apply.)

    As for scene structure, we get no sense of the character’s goal or even what the story is really about. I think that the writer should start with reviewing the craft on scene structure. That review may well go a long way to “curing” the tendency to over-write.

    Nonetheless (please don’t use this word in your fiction unless a character’s voice demands it in dialogue), once I got past the disorganized thoughts, I got a sense of a time and place, perhaps historical. Now, if that’s not what the writer intended, I’m really lost.

    It’s generally dangerous (i.e., rejection-worthy) to start a story with lots of description, especially if that description is unconnected to a character, preferably a dramatic character–even the protagonist–rather than an undramatic character. Most readers want to connect with the main character as soon as possible–it’s their story we want to escape into. Here, we don’t find out anything about the characters until the end of the excerpt, and even then, we get more hints about situation than character. Relying on too much description at the front end also risks POV issues.

    So, from an agent’s or acquisition editor’s perspective, this excerpt would be the most that they would read because it reveals a lot of weakness: writing, structure, POV, characterization.

    Don’t be discouraged. I see tons of potential in this writing. Just relax. I mean that–relax into the story. Focus more on STORY than the actual writing. Let the characters take you, the writer, on a journey (even though it’s a guided story)–you can fix up the writing during revisions.

    P.S. BTW, I still have a copy of the very first opening I wrote–it contains every weakness mentioned here, and then some, especially the over-writing.

  2. Hey Writer
    I love the detail about the vinegar chips. That could very well be an integral part of your first page, a way to draw out the tension. Hold on to that while I explain where I got confused.

    — The age of the characters. In the first paragraph, I felt like the main character was a mother looking down at the children running up. Then when you use the phrase “like us” I pictured two mothers gathering up the neighborhood kids and reminiscing on how they used to do the same. But then, when the narrator was racing up the hill all the way until she starts twisting the bag in nervousness, I thought: they can’t be more than twelve, maybe in a early twentieth century setting. But at the end, I realized they have to be at least fifteen. Going with the last assumption, perhaps you could use the playset as a safe haven, somewhere they can hide from whatever the problem is. In that case, the beginning should be all about reaching that safety. Remember, this is just a suggestion based off what I have read.

    Details. Like I said before, I love the vinegar smell, especially since it’s nostalgic for the narrator. I also like the poplar trees–maybe because I like nature descriptions–and the shadows do a good job at setting up the scene. But we all know what a playset is like, sounds like. We all know the hollow thump and that there’s nothing below. The extra details slow down the sensation of running, like the character is stopping on the ropes and thinking: ahh, it sounds like there’s nothing underneath my feet. To bring us closer to the character, only include the details that she would notice. And by all means, if she would stop and think about the hollow thump, include it. But if she’s in a rush to get on, don’t.

    The overwriting. I agree that the prose is overwritten, but it didn’t bother me until the paragraph that starts with “alongside.” It’s simply the wrong word; if you’re driving a car or paddling a canoe or running, then Maria would come up alongside you.

    If you can focus exclusively on the main character’s perspective–especially since it’s first person–that would really tighten up your prose and bring in tension.

  3. And Larry, you need to update your author description because accordin to it Story Fix is not out yet.

  4. Often, with our First Pagers, I find myself asking for more description, because some of our submissions are spare to the point of skeletal in terms of scene setting. But this one, as Larry and all have said, errs in the opposite direction.

    There’s definitely a talent at work here with a good eye for description, detail and mood-setting. But the underlying plot architecture is obscured by all the descriptive filigree. I really wanted to like this, but then I started getting confused. What’s going on? Who are these people? (I mistook them for moms, too). I really like that the writer implied something bad happened, and as a result, these two girls(?) are now in some kind of peril. But I wish I got a sharper sense of the events. I don’t want a total hand-tip, because I like the tension-building tease here. But maybe it would be helpful to the writer to pull off all the writerly vines so we can see the plot points:

    1. Something bad happened earlier today. (we know this cuz it’s dusk)
    2. It involved the two girls (age unknown…can we get a hint?) and was bad enough to leave them shaken and confused, esp Martha.
    3. I think it involved water (a drowning?) cuz Penn is shivering in wet clothes. good detail there! And she thinks about the sound of ice cracking over dark water. If this is NOT a reference to the bad event, then you need to lose it cuz it’s confusing…and if it’s ice, are we in winter? We could use a hint of the time of year here maybe.
    4. They have retreated to the comfort (and sanctuary?) of a playground to hide in a fake ship. (This is also interesting and implies they are quite young but I could be wrong.)
    5. Watch your order of mere events. They are scared right? Yet the very first thing Penn does when she gets up on the ship is to eat. We don’t even get a thought about the events that triggered their flight. I recognize eating is a comfort gesture but it isn’t logical. There has to be some thoughts, a line or two of dialog or something before this. It also might make Martha’s irritation more believable. I don’t like to rewrite your stuff, but here’s just a suggestion of how to make what is a good detail MEAN something:

    “What the hell happened, Penn?”
    “I don’t know, I don’t know.”
    I was breathing so hard my heart felt like it was going to jump from my chest. I pressed a hand against my coat to stop it. I heard a crinkle of paper and pulled out the bag of chips I had stashed there an hour ago. When I unwrapped the paper, the vinegary smell rose up to my nose, oddly comforting. I ate a chip. And then another. I couldn’t stop. It was like the chips could fill the small black hole I imagined inside me.
    “What are you doing?”
    I looked at Martha. Her eyes were wide in the dusky light. I held out the soggy paper to her, an offering, but she turned away.
    “I can’t believe you can eat after what we just did,” she said. (or saw or whatever.)

    This is a good moment to open a story. Something has ALREADY happened, the kids are scared, and they probably had a hand in it or witnessed it. (That’s all we need to know right now) But as I said, the tension is drained away by the overwriting. Just my opinion, but there are some things that might help:

    1. Clarify or lose the other kids running in your opening graph. It reads like a bunch of kids are running from the situation. You’re crowding your stage. Keep the focus on your duo.
    2. If you use weather (purple clouds, etc) make it mean something other than pretty description. Is it winter? You imply that sort of with the ice water.
    3. Use the ship locale more. It’s interesting and fresh…these two girls hiding out there. Why did they choose it? The image of the playground ship looming on the sea of grass in the gloom is good. You didn’t have your characters run into a playhouse. They — and you the writer — picked the ship for a reason. Exploit it.
    4. The chips are interesting, a nice use of sense. (are these like French fries? I get the sense we are in Britain!) But if Penn’s clothes are wet, where did she get the chips? Why are you using this? It needs to mean something. Easy to fix.
    5. Start more quickly, as Larry said. Lose that first graph and go right to the girls running. The playground is empty maybe? And make that ship loom large in their vision as they near it, and in our imaginations.

    There’s a lot to like here, and we tend to be harder on those with the most potential. Keep going, writer. This is a good start. Don’t “write.” Just tell us a powerful story.

    • Terrific and detailed input here, thanks for helping out. I really like the suggestion to create a relationship between setting and character – and quickly – including the smell of those chips. I didn’t care for it precisely because that’s all it was – the smell of chips – so when two other critiquers here say they do like it, I think Kris’s framing is what would make it work.

  5. I imagine that our brave writer is completely confused about now. The writer has worked on this piece, hoping it will impress, instead it is treated like a red-headed step child. The writer (and this is projection) feels like a sprout in a forest of grumpy old trees each with rougher bark than the last.
    “What do I do to fix this?” This phrase races though the writer’s mind and a desperate panic stirring somewhere in the dark. (Is that too purple?} Here is one way to fix it.
    Read. The answer is to read and analyze what you read. Because the writer is leaning toward the literary, read the opposite. Read mysteries, not the pulp but those that have stood the test of being widely read. For now, stay away from the old ones. Read the newer ones to absorb what current readers prefer. Read Gillian Flynn, Harlen Cobin, Denis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard, PD James, and Henning Mankill. Read them not so much for their voice but the structure of the story. How do they tell the tale?
    After you’ve read about 10 of these books in a row, you will begin to see what the authors are doing.
    Now read Stein on Writing, Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, Story Fix by Larry Brooks, and Story by Robert McKee. Stories don’t happen by accident just as good carpentry or good cooking doesn’t happen by accident. It is the result of learning and practice and is tested by those who buy the table or eat the dinner.
    Step two. Write at least 10 short stories to learn how to write in a compact form and submit them to a magazine. You will get rejected and not get feedback, but you will begin to build the skills we all need.
    Step three. Stop thinking of writing as fun. The purpose is not self amusement. That is called mental masterbation. You write because you have to. I write because it is the only thing I’ve ever been consumed by.
    I hope this helps.

    • Brian – this is awesome coaching for this writer. My friend and co-blogging partner, Art Holcomb, teaches exactly what you recommend: cut your teeth on short stories. When combined with what else you recommend – read, read, and read some more… but do it in context to observing technique, rather than reading just for the fun of it – you have landed on the golden ring of going to the next level.

      Really appreciate your insight and skill here, Brian, thanks for helping.

  6. My comment in this moment is actually a cry for WordPress help (because this isn’t appropriate as a post in its own right). My guess is that, while I’ve been blogging on WP for eight years now, most of the folks reading this will know more about WordPress than I do. It’s like trying to pilot the space shuttle.

    Here’s the problem I’m having:

    I draft most of my posts directly to WordPress. I know, I should do it in a Word doc, get it right (proofed) and then paste it in… maybe that solves my problem. But relative to direct input to the Editor here… for several of my last posts they’ve shown up with massive paragraph duplication (including today’s entry). It looks like I’ve written the same paragraph twice. Now, I’m certainly not above and beyond the dreaded typo… but believe me when I say, I proof the sh*t out of these posts. I catch those dups (and many of the typos) and fix them, and then and only then do I schedule the post itself. Sometimes I even save the post and come to it later and reproof. And yet…

    … in the morning, those dups are there AGAIN. Even though I caught ’em and fixed ’em. My fear is you’ll think I sound like a teen caught lying about not making their bed (“I swear to God that, like, I made it before I left for school!”), but I’m not imagining this. WordPress is going back an iteration or two from the one I actually schedule and publishing an earlier, uncorrected version. Anyone have any thoughts on this? I appreciate your help.

    • Larry,

      I tried drafting one of my early guest posts in WP blog format, then submitting it to TKZ. It caused all kinds of problems for their ever-patient tech guru Lynne. I even consulted a pal (who has a Harvard PhD) and she couldn’t figure it out either even though she uses WP for numerous blogs.

      That’s when I waved the white flag and surrendered to Word. Since I’ve submitted in .docx, no more problems.

      I believe most people who write these &%#&$ programs never have to use them in *real* life.

  7. First time poster, long time reader.

    Great advice Larry. I agree with most of it, except when it comes to shadows.

    Shadows, especially in twilight, can absolutely be purple. They can be almost any shade, including the warm ones, depending on the time of the day, angle of the light source, the surroundings, etc. Shadows at nighttime might appear to lack color.

    Thanks for the taking the time to add your wisdom; I follow your blog and have learned a ton from it.

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