First Page Critique: STEEL

Welcome to the Tempering Zone, where we’ll examine and hone the first page of STEEL.

(You know I had to go there.)

Today I’ve asked our Brave Writer lots of questions. As writers, we want to keep our readers asking the right questions—questions that occur to them because they’re excited to imagine how a story might move forward. What we don’t want is for readers to furrow their brows because they don’t quite understand what’s going on.

I get a pleasing sense of the world the Brave Writer is building: antique and magical, with a strong protagonist who is emotionally complex. With a little examination and reworking, it can be an very good beginning to what I assume is a YA novel.

STEEL

Chapter 1
Helia crept along the wall, her senses on high alert. The stars shone into the open-air courtyard, the uncertain light drawn toward the low-burning fire pit in the center. She walked just on the edge of this light as she carefully drew the spell of invisibility. It wasn’t true invisibility, but this spell made the caster as unnoticeable as was humanly possible. Another person would only see her if they looked at her directly. The flickering flames and trembling starlight could conceal even that.

Even with the spell, Helia forced herself to walk as if she was being watched. Straight and stiff, with her head held high with confidence. She walked as thou a crowd were analyzing her every move. As if the royal family was there to evaluate her. As if she needed to prove to the gods that she was strong, stronger than they gave her credit for.

She almost made it. She almost left her house without losing her guise. But as she passed the opening to the living room, both her confidence and her spell crumbled.

Her eyes flickered for just a moment to the right. Just for a moment, because they were so used to looking there. Looking for her twin brother and seeking his approval. Because Urian was the only one she felt like she could trust completely. And so he was the only one who could stop her from doing what she needed to do.

I need to do this, she reminded herself.  It’s for everyone… No it’s for me. It’s all for me because if I stay here…

If she stayed here she would have to face many more months of pity and severe disappointment. Her mother bursting into tears, her aunts scowling and scolding, and the rest of the village skirting around her like she was a plague. She needed to be somewhere where people didn’t know her, a place where the past wouldn’t crush her.

This was the right thing to do. But still, she stood there for half a minute—wishing hard for her twin to come out and tell her to stay—but then she forced her feet forward and flew toward the entrance of their tiny house. Just before she went outside, she snatched her bow and quiver from the stand right next to the door, heedless of the clatter it made.

Laura’s Mini-Synopsis:

A girl tries to use an invisibility spell to sneak out of her house and run away because she’s affected adversely by some event in her past. But she loses her confidence and the spell falls apart, so she’s no longer invisible. She leaves anyway, knocking stuff around noisily as she grabs her bow and quiver from beside the door.

Thoughts

“Helia crept along the wall, her senses on high alert. The stars shone into the open-air courtyard, the uncertain light drawn toward the low-burning fire pit in the center. She walked just on the edge of this light as she carefully drew the spell of invisibility. It wasn’t true invisibility, but this spell made the caster as unnoticeable as was humanly possible. Another person would only see her if they looked at her directly. The flickering flames and trembling starlight could conceal even that.”

Immediately I envision a wall with a wide, flat surface at its top, and it sounds like Helia is  creeping along there in a cat-like manner. Further reading shows that she is in fact walking, keeping her back close to a wall. Please be more clear.

We have stars shining into the courtyard, their light “drawn toward the low-burning fire pit.” Is there a fire in the fire pit? Or is the fire pit itself on fire? Wouldn’t a fire actually compete with starlight to the starlight’s disadvantage? It’s a pretty-sounding sentence, but feels like window dressing.

Cloak of invisibility: Let’s leave the revelation that it isn’t true invisibility for a slightly later reveal. We are dragged down by this detail. It’s a cloak of invisibility! Let us enjoy it for a moment before dashing excitement about it. Later, we can discover its limitations. IRL we purchase things that immediately seem fabulous, and later find they aren’t all we think they are. (I’m looking at you, As Seen on TV Bacon Boss!) And I don’t really understand what “that” describes in the last sentence.

The first paragraph of a novel works well when it’s focused on character and action, with  a small bit of scene-setting. Not trappings. We know she is being careful and alert. But that’s all we learn about her. Too much detail about the cloak and the light slows down the action in what is a very tense situation.

“Even with the spell, Helia forced herself to walk as if she was being watched. Straight and stiff, with her head held high with confidence. She walked as thou a crowd were analyzing her every move. As if the royal family was there to evaluate her. As if she needed to prove to the gods that she was strong, stronger than they gave her credit for.”

This paragraph is at odds with the first. She’s supposed to be creeping, yet she’s also trying to walk with royal self-possession. It makes her sound very childish. If this is the intention, okay. But it is still confusing. Use “as if she were” rather than “as if she was.” Use “were” if the situation is conditional or contrary to reality. Same goes with “As if the royal family were there…”

There’s a lot of information here: we learn that she’s someone who might be viewed by a crowd, or a royal family, or the gods. Either that, or she has a very active fantasy life. Again, it slows the action, and feels like it’s only there to foreshadow or telegraph what’s in her universe. Don’t try to give it to us all at once.

“She almost made it. She almost left her house without losing her guise. But as she passed the opening to the living room, both her confidence and her spell crumbled.
Her eyes flickered for just a moment to the right. Just for a moment, because they were so used to looking there. Looking for her twin brother and seeking his approval. Because Urian was the only one she felt like she could trust completely. And so he was the only one who could stop her from doing what she needed to do.”

What is the cause and effect here? As it reads, everything falls apart, and then she looks into the living room, seeking out her brother. Or does she lose her confidence and guise because her eyes flickered to the right, hopeful that her brother is inside, waiting to stop her? (I assume she looks toward the living room.) As I read the second bit, I assume the latter is how you mean it.

Whichever way you mean it, try to make the sequence immediately clear to the reader. Don’t require the reader to step lively to follow the action. Linearity and cause and effect are things that even mature writers sometimes struggle with. I know I do. I’ve put characters on scene, then added a quick couple of lines about how they got there. Lots of writers get away with it all the time, but it’s not a good habit. Reveal with subtle details, not exposition.

Also, her breaking of the spell seems like it would be a bigger disappointment to her. We get no reaction.

I do very much like the way Urian fits into the story. In a few lines you’ve sketched out their relationship: they are very close, and he is the sensible one, and she’s the one prone to acting on impulse. Nice.

“I need to do this, she reminded herself. It’s for everyone… No it’s for me. It’s all for me because if I stay here…
If she stayed here she would have to face many more months of pity and severe disappointment. Her mother bursting into tears, her aunts scowling and scolding, and the rest of the village skirting around her like she was a plague. She needed to be somewhere where people didn’t know her, a place where the past wouldn’t crush her.
This was the right thing to do. But still, she stood there for half a minute—wishing hard for her twin to come out and tell her to stay—but then she forced her feet forward and flew toward the entrance of their tiny house. Just before she went outside, she snatched her bow and quiver from the stand right next to the door, heedless of the clatter it made”

The reader will assume she’s already had this discussion with herself. You only need a line or two about what a relief it will be to not see her mother’s disappointment, and have the villagers avoid her. Give us just enough to make us curious. The internal dialogue is awkward and you’ve already done a good job of showing her hesitation by talking about wanting Urian to talk her out of it.

Is the house tiny? Given that it has a courtyard, I imagine it to be bigger. And I wonder about the phrase “living room” too. It doesn’t feel like a contemporary story and the concept of a living room is modern.

I might end with something like this:
Fighting tears, but resolved, Helia flew for the doorway, pausing only long enough to snatch her bow and quiver from their stand. The loud clatter of the stand falling onto the tiles followed her as she disappeared into the night.

Title: The opening doesn’t seem to have any connection to steel at all. Is it perhaps a story about the invention of steel? Or is it that she needs to prove herself to be as strong as steel to the gods? I’m not sure.

In a way, this first chapter feels like a prologue to a story. We know that Helia’s young and feels compelled to leave a difficult, if ultimately safe situation. I would expect that Chapter 2 might see her well into the action—perhaps older, already having some adventures behind her. But if it is, indeed, the very beginning of her adventures, leave more of your juicy details for later revelations.

Thanks for sharing this with Kill Zone!

*photo credit: GoDaddy stock photo
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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including the forthcoming The Stranger Inside (February 2019). Small Town Trouble, her latest book, is a cozy crime novel. Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

9 thoughts on “First Page Critique: STEEL

  1. The opening line intrigued me, so good start! The repetition of “light” and “invisibility” in the first paragraph made me stumble a bit.

    I agree with Laura’s comments, but want to add that when I got to the third paragraph, I was disappointed to learn what I’d read so far was pretend. It seemed like the danger just got lowered dramatically.

    To me, this scene might work better as a flashback later in the story when Helia really is trying to sneak up on someone. She could remember her failure and worry what might happen if she allowed the cloak of (almost) invisibility to drop again.

    If the author is set on this being the opening scene, perhaps beginning the story with a tense confrontation with the villagers might work better? Then Helia could steel her resolve (sorry) to run away that very night. Maybe the villagers even post guards nearby to keep an eye on her? Something to ratchet up the tension.

    Overall, I think the story has a lot of potential with the main character. I do want to know more about Helia (though not in the first chapter necessarily). Good job, author!

  2. I agree with all you said, Laura. Some good potential here but could really shine with some judiciously rewriting (which can be said of everything everyone of us writes). Like you, I misread the first graph because I was visualizing the woman creeping along an outside wall which was surrounding an exterior courtyard. Did like the use of the starlight but I, too, was confused by its linkage to the fire.

    It might be more interesting and mysterious to start your scene outside in the starlight rather than in a mundane house. She could already have her bow.

    As for the title, normally I don’t focus on them for our First Pagers because, as we all know, good titles come so very hard for all of us and maybe this is just a working title. But we’ve had a spate of “meh” titles on submissions lately so maybe we need to talk more about them. “Steel” conveys nothing. No sense of the genre, no mystery or magic, nothing about the heroine. It could be anything and thus it is nothing. It wouldn’t work for any kind of book, imho.

    Titles are magical. Good ones convey in just a word or a phrase the whole soul of a book. Often, if you work hard and come up with a great title, the book as you write it begins to reveal itself to you in a way that “WIP” never does. It’s maybe the hardest part of writing…

    • You’re right, Kris. “Steel” doesn’t really convey any sort of tone or genre. A working title can be anything that motivates the author, but it’s a different issue when it comes to conveying information to potential readers.

      Right now I’m going back and forth with the publisher about the title for my next book. It’s never an exact science–at any level. *sigh*

  3. I think everyone is confused by the house. We only picture palaces as having courtyards, not normal houses. But in warmer climates, like Pakistan, a house is built around a small courtyard with even smaller rooms attached. How could the writer clarify this in a compelling way?

    • Excellent point, AZAli.

      I would want an indication that she’s wary because she’s only a few feet from her sleeping family. Perhaps she hears her aunt or father or someone else snoring, or talking in their sleep. There’s also the issue of there perhaps being only one or two rooms for sleeping–especially since this doesn’t appear to be a modern story.

  4. The advice already given is great.
    I think there might be some issues at a deeper, conceptual level. First, this feels derivative of “The Hunger Games” trilogy, which invites immediate comparison. That is an immediate stumbling block.
    The biggest internal issue I see is Helia’s personality as portrayed in the beginning. She seems too concerned with herself. Katness was concerned with others especially her sister. That made her a more sympathetic character. Helia seems to need her brother’s approval. That makes her look a little on the weak side. If she is trying to escape why look for his approval. Fear him? Make him a bad guy? Either could help.
    Lastly, she is alone in a scene with her thoughts. It isn’t a grabber. I’d like to see an opening scene where she has already escaped and left to ponder the wisdom of her decision. But not alone. She needs someone to talk to. She also needs a reason to escape.
    You can see how a master handles a solo character in Harlan Ellison’s story ‘A Boy and his Dog’. The main character, Vic, travels with a telepathic dog named Blood. The relationship is brilliant. Vic has someone to talk to, to help him, and even act as a foil. It was made into a movie in 1975 and is faithful to the story. You also get to see a very young Don Johnson as Vic.
    Write down your premise. Think about it. Make it stronger. Also, make us see Helia’s internal strength right away. Remember we readers want to connect to her.

    • Starting with a strong, hashed out premise is a great idea, Brian. It’s critical to have something on which to hang the story.

      What you’re describing about Helia represents the imitative fallacy. Teenagers are still children and thus are notoriously self-centered. It’s all about their thoughts, their wants, their hormones, and often their sense of shame. Helia is no different. But memorable heroes and heroines are often drawn as exceptions. They, like Katniss (or IRL Malala Yousafzai), have more going on. Her transformation should be a big part of Helia’s journey, but it can’t be the only story.

      As you point out, giving her a stronger spine and an immediately visible opponent would go a long way to making her more appealing.

      Thanks for the great suggestions–I hope Brave Author is listening closely!

  5. The first page of ‘Steel” intrigues me, but I found myself re-reading the first couple of paragraphs. At first, it appears the character is outside, then a paragraph or two later, it seems Helia is inside her home? How does she see the courtyard and fire if she is inside?
    The phrase “the uncertain light drawn toward the low-burning fire pit in the center,” I find somewhat confusing as well. I’m not sure how light can be attracted to fire? Or maybe it’s uncertain light “cast” by the fire, or does the fire capture her gaze?
    I’m not sure as to why her spell failed? Was it due to the loss of her concentration/confidence?
    Regardless, I did find myself interested in the story.

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