First Page Critique: Skyler

By John Gilstrap

By now, we all know the drill.  A fearless writer has submitted a sample to the piranha tank.  First, the submission, and I’ll see you on the flip.

Title: Skyler

THEY SAID LOVE IS selfless. They said love is sacrifice. They said all that rubbish because they hadn’t been in love. They didn’t know that when he didn’t love you back, it felt like God created you and tossed you into an inferno—to burn and cease to exist the very moment you were born. Because you cared about him and along the way, he forgot to care about you in return. Maybe you were supposed to love him unconditionally without expecting anything of him. But in reality, it wasn’t the sappy, unrealistic feelings of seeing him smile that stuck with you. It was the doubt that maybe you weren’t enough—that maybe he didn’t think you were worth the love.

I looked at the closed window that overlooked the colorful leaves hanging from the tree outside. The leaves swayed so slowly, calmly. A stray leaf landed right on the puddle of rain on the ground. It floated, not giving into the power of the water yet. The leaf stared at me, its stem buried within the puddle. I watched for what felt like an eternity. Desperately, I hoped another leaf would tumble to keep the current one company. The wind would take this leaf to a faraway place soon, and how sad it would be for it to vanish from the Earth alone. After all, everyone needed a friend sometime.

Even a leaf.

I knew I sounded morbid, but I was confined here. The rules were clear: we weren’t allowed to open the windows. The facilitator, Teresa Castilla, said if I wanted to go outside, all I had to do was ask a rehab official. With a trusted authority, I could go anywhere. But the window rule was intact under all circumstances. Immediately, I’d thought this was a prison in disguise but the pretty receptionist with platinum blonde hair assured me people here weren’t terrible once I’d get to know them.

I’d arrived here at five in the evening two days earlier. The first thing I’d noticed was the medieval, timbered structure of the building. From the outside, the residence had seemed quite simplistic and bland, though I’d have to admit the timbered style carried an ornate energy. It was a two-story building and it was smack in the middle of a secluded neighborhood. There were several stores and other services two streets away, in case of emergencies.

Yo.  It’s Gilstrap again.  First off, I need to offer a bit of full-disclosure.  This is not a genre I read, nor is it one whose rules and expectations I’m familiar with.  From the first paragraph on, the tone is entirely too whiny for my taste.  That is not a criticism of the writer or the writing–it is merely a confession that I may not be the best judge for a book of this genre.

With that bit out of the way, I find a lot to like in the craftsmanship of this piece.  The voice is strong and the angst is clear.  In a different setting–if I were not expected to offer critique–I would have nothing to say.  I think the entire piece is of professional quality.

But let’s quibble anyway.  The leaf thing goes on way, way too long. The paragraph resonates to me like one of those darlings we’re required to kill.  It feels very . . . literary.  And by that I mean that while it takes up valuable first-page real estate, it does not advance the story.

The phrase, “I knew I sounded morbid” was a bit of a moment-breaker.  To “sound”, something must be heard, and I have the sense that this is all internal monologue.  Perhaps, “I knew these thoughts were morbid . . .” would work better.  I’m also not 100% sure that “morbid” is the word you want.  Morose, maybe?

Finally, I’m not sure what a “secluded neighborhood” is.  Secluded from what, especially given that there are stores and such nearby?

And that’s about all I’ve got.  Overall, this is one of the most satisfying, well-done submissions that I’ve had the pleasure of critiquing.  Well done.

2+
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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, 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. 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.

15 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Skyler

  1. I can’t agree. There may be a story here, but if so, this is not where it starts, with abstract ruminations and no action, no disturbance. As in a submission from a few days ago, the opening describes a disturbance that’a already taken place. Why not start there?

    There is something appealingly self-assured about the voice, but my unwillingness to read more is rooted in the fear that I’m going to be trapped inside this person’s head nonstop for 350 pages. This opening portends a stultifying inferiority that would not keep me turning pages.

    • Of course there’s a disturbance. A young woman (I presume) is confined to a place she doesn’t want to be, governed by rules that control even access to fresh air. She’s in a prison that goes by a different name. That’s all front-story, not backstory.

      I’d be surprised to find that this sample is the beginning of a thriller, but even in a thriller, sometimes you need to create a world before you destroy it.

  2. Brave writer,

    This piece is very well written, but I concur with the previous comments that too much angst in the first paragraph is off-putting. What if you start the story with “The rules were clear…”? Then the reader immediately knows the protagonist is confined and wants to learn why. Follow in the second paragraph with a shorter description of the leaf, which reflects the character’s state of mind w/o the wallowing of the first paragraph. Seduce the reader into wanting to learn more. Gradually work in the unrequited love and reasons for confinement. Attempted suicide, I’m guessing.

    This has a YA feel to it b/c of the self-absorption. But even teens want a heroine in whom they see a spark of courage.

    Also suggest you find a better title than simply the name of a character the reader knows nothing about and doesn’t have an investment in.

    Don’t give up. You are skillful at your craft and this story has plenty of potential.

  3. I guess I’m leery of “I awoke to find myself ….” openings because it usually means we’re in for a lot of stream-of-consciousness passages before the POV character snaps back to themselves, or a lot of action-delaying exposition. This opening just didn’t have the necessary “pleasurable uncertainty,” to use Jim Bell’s term, to keep me turning pages.

    At the very least, the first paragraph has to go. It’s a barrier to entry, for me.

  4. As it happens, I’m prepping a Sunday column about this very issue, an opening with a character alone, thinking, feeling. We don’t know anything about her, and that means we don’t care about her feelings. Yet. My simple suggestion would be to start with the last paragraph … and turn that into a SCENE. That would hook me and put the promising voice to best use.

  5. I’m not a fan of this piece either, regardless of genre. I read a lot of different genres, including romance, but primarily literary and thrillers/mysteries.

    So what is the genre here? The ruminations in the first paragraph sound preachy, i.e., author intruding, and hint at romance, or a rejection of romance, but I get no sense of what the genre is, if any, nor do I know anything about what this story will be about.

    The writer does have a way with words, but is possibly trying a bit too hard. The story should be king; the writing should be invisible–but here it seems to be mostly about the writing. Even in literary works, the best writing is invisible (except to other writers, some readers, and agents/editors.)

    I was confused about where this character is–in some kind of facility, possibly a rehab facility, but it’s not clear enough for me. In a way, the whole excerpt suffers from both a lack of clarity and a lack of story movement.

    I’d definitely start in a different place. When you find yourself using a lot of the pluperfect tense (had), it’s often a sign that your structure is out of whack.

    Few readers want to spend a lot of time in the dumps. Not that there isn’t a place for redemptive stories that start with a depressed or hopeless or angry (etc.) character, but the writer should find a way to make the character intriguing, at least. This character didn’t do that for me, so far.

    First Person POV can lead one into the trap of having too many “I” sentences. This writer seems aware of that trap, but I still think that there are too many “I” sentences, a problem that might be resolved if we get more story movement.

    In a way, this piece begins with a sequel rather than a scene. The character is reacting to the past; not so much to the present. I’d start with an actual scene. This will give the writer tons of opportunities to dribble in tiny bits of backstory, and, more importantly, the character’s attitudes about what’s going on now and the people around her now, i.e., opportunities to reveal character and not just situation.

    Another problem with the opening is that it tells rather than shows. There’s no mystery here, no gradual reveal. I suppose the question raised in the opening is what did the guy do to her, but that’s not enough, for me, at least, because I don’t care about her yet, so why should I care about what he did to her?

    This writer does have a voice, but, so far, the character doesn’t, i.e., I think what I see is the writer’s voice, not the character’s voice, and for 1st person, the character’s voice is a definite ‘must have.’

    But so many writers have no voice at all. It’s good news for this writer that s/he does. Lots of potential here that can be developed by more study of scene structure and story structure.

  6. I am guessing, like others have, that we’re not in thriller-ville here. Maybe YA or sidling up to literary. So it’s hard to tell with such a short sample how much tether we can give the writer. But still, also as other have said, I’m not crazy about the opening graph. I don’t mind this device — as if the main character has unscrewed her head and is letting us peek inside — before something happens. It can work really well when the writing is sharp and the character totally under the writer’s control.

    One good example of this is the opening page of Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects.” I can’t print it all here but it is, like this sample, the character telling us what her mood is like and hinting at why. The first line is a grabber: “I have a meanness in me, as real as an organ.” Flynn goes on to give us two long graphs of what is essentially backstory from the narrator’s POV but in graph 3, she whipsaws into the present. It works.

    So, I don’t mind this type of device. But it has to really glow with tension and the writing has to be so compelling that you can’t look away. This first graph isn’t there. Someone called it “whiny.” I can’t disagree and I didn’t really get interested until I found out she is “in prison.”

    But as everyone has noted, there is strong potential here, the beginnings of a distinctive voice. And although I agree the leaf metaphor is too long, I do like the attempt. If the metaphor is honed, maybe that is the opening graph, the narrator watching through a locked window (we wonder why it’s locked) at a tree. She sees an autumn leaf fall. The metaphor — a once alive thing now heading into winter, this fallen thing suddenly adrift and alone — it is her? Then I would have her think again about the locked window and go straight to the prison idea. The thoughts about being jilted are, for me, the least interesting thing here. Also, the writer tips her hand too early by telling us that a broken heart is the “disturbance.” Make us wonder what the source of her sadness is! Leave the revelation for later, when we become more emotionally invested in the woman.

    Re the title. I know we shouldn’t critique titles but again, like so many submissions lately, this one is lacking. It isn’t a title, it’s a label. Find something that resonates with your theme.

    Good job, writer…keep going.

  7. I usually read and write mysteries and thrillers and would never start a story like this. That is why I’m glad you don’t tell us the genre. It is important when you critique a piece not to allow your genre bias into the process.

    I personally liked it. It is clear the author knows how to write and has an interesting voice. I thought the part about the leaf was a bit long, but the length makes sense. Wouldn’t a character feeling the way this character does spend more time contemplating the leaf than a happy character?

    Above in the comments it was said – I was confused about where this character is–in some kind of facility, possibly a rehab facility, but it’s not clear enough for me. – I think the writer has told us a lot. We know there is a facilitator and rehab officials, that you can go outside with supervision, but can’t open the windows (I instantly thought of a place where suicide might be a concern), we know what the building looks like, there are other buildings around so it is not in complete isolation – that’s a lot of information to squeeze into about 400 words and still leave wordage for the reader to get a feel for how depressed the character is, which I believe is the point of the opening paragraphs.

    I loved this line – it felt like God created you and tossed you into an inferno—to burn and cease to exist the very moment you were born. – this is when I really began to get a feel for the character (not sure if it was a good feel or a bad one, but it was a feel).

    Instead of morbid I would go with maudlin – that’s the word that came to mind as I was reading it before the writer even said -I knew I sounded morbid …

  8. Stream-of-consciousness openings = few readers.

    After I read the first two sentences in the first paragraph, I skipped the rest of it. I already knew what it said. I skipped the entire paragraph about the leaf. Extraneous.

    The rest of it was way too self-absorbed for my tastes. But I’m sure there are those who would like it.

  9. Basically, what people don’t like here is the lengths of the first two paragraphs. Simple fix, pick the best details and cut out the rest.

    I personally liked it although I probably wouldn’t pick up the book on my own. I got really excited when she started talking about being confined–I wanted to experience this facility so much I was already thinking: how much is there in these 400 words.

    However, reading it again, there are much better ways to incorporate setting and immediacy. Perhaps she has her hands pressed to the unopen glass, or she’s too afraid to touch it. Seems to me like she’s actually wants to be that leaf, to float away from her prison. If you put in a flavor of that–the simultaneous feeling sorry for the leaf and wanting to be it–there’s already conflict. Perhaps the window glass is so thick everything outside is slightly warped, or so scratched up or special tinted glass. I’m rattling off possibilities here, ways for your leaf scene to be more nuanced and to bring the character in earlier.

  10. The introspective opening (whether for literary or YA genre) didn’t immediately engage my attention. I suggest rearranging these paragraphs to start where the narrator is doing something—even if it is only gazing out a window. And make it “gazing” so there aren’t two “look”s within a few words of each other. If the narrator sees trees and leaves beyond the window (is it locked or barred?), she is looking “out” not “at” the window. Defining the tree species will help reveal where this story takes place. Then eliminate most of the leaf in the puddle analysis so we can move right into the setting.

    “Residence” makes me think the narrator is talking about a dwelling, a family home. Later, the narrator suggests the place may be a prison, complete with facilitators and receptionist. That makes me suspect it’s a mental or rehab facility, but we wait too long to find out. Adding the sentence about the neighborhood stores and services at this point slows the flow. And since the writer has given us no indication of what constitutes an emergency, and whether it relates to the neighborhood or the facility, that info is unnecessary here.
    I’d also like to know who the narrator is. Perhaps the facilitator can use the narrator’s name with a brief bit of dialogue about gaining permission to go outside and never opening the windows.

    Here’s a quick and dirty suggested change:

    ***
    I gazed out the closed window that overlooked colorful leaves hanging from an old maple tree. A stray leaf floated in a puddle of rain on the ground. The wind would take this leaf to a faraway place soon, and how sad it would be for it to vanish from the Earth alone.

    Morbid, I know, but I’m confined here. Alone.

    The first thing I’d noticed on arriving two evenings ago was the medieval, timbered structure of the building. From the outside, the facility appeared bland, though I’d have to admit the timbered style carried an ornate energy. A two-story building, it sat smack in the middle of a quiet neighborhood.

    The rules were clear: we weren’t allowed to open the windows. According to the facilitator, Teresa Castilla, I wanted to go outside, all I had to do was ask a rehab official. With a trusted authority, I could go anywhere. But the window rule held under all circumstances. Immediately, I’d thought this was a prison in disguise, but the pretty receptionist with platinum blonde hair assured me people here weren’t terrible once I’d get to know them.
    ***

    By moving the introspection about love into later paragraphs, the writer can pull the reader in on the path to discover why and how the narrator became confined in this facility.

    I’d read a little more of what this fearless writer’s story. But if the entire first chapter remains introspective and abstract, I’ll lose interest fast.

  11. I would have liked to see some dialogue here to break up all the introspection. It was too much telling and I didn’t get a good feeling from this character. I also thought she was too whiny. There was too much of a setup for the first page. I would at least like to see some interaction, maybe some conflict with another patient(?) or staff. Maybe she could show some irritation over being interrupted from her reverie.

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