First Page Critique: THE ARCANISTS

Artwork by Jean-Louis Grandsire, courtesy pixabay.com

Good morning, my friends, and thank you for visiting us at The Kill Zone today. Please join me in welcoming Anon du jour, who has bravely offered a submission entitled The Arcanists to our irregularly scheduled First Page Critique!

The Arcanists

“Remember, this isn’t a bust, so no ruckus,” he said.

“Sure.”

“I mean it.”

“Sure.”

“If things get tight, drop out.”

Grim waved behind her and strode toward the Gasping Grouse.

Not far off, a foghorn warded ships into port. A train rattled, tracking, like a harried squirrel, along the rails overhead.

Grim hunched her shoulders, shoved her hands in her deep pockets.

As she pushed past the wooden doors, a sulfur cloud of smoke and unwashed flesh wormed into her nostrils, wringing water from her eyes. She should have been used to this by now, but that didn’t stop her from wanting to cover her face with her sleeve.She kept her eyes low as she snaked between the bar and the tables, past rows of cardsharps and washed up sogs who didn’t know when to give in.

She found the informant gazing into a full tankard at the end of the room.

 

Grimhorn liked to settle her accounts with a lamb’s smile and a loaded spell deck in her overcoat pocket. The smile came free of charge. The deck was insurance.

You could never know many aces an informant was hiding in his vest, and Grim didn’t give two lashings if things got messy when they refused to pay up.

She leaned into the shadow of a brick wall and turned her collar up against the cold. Across the road, smoke and steam poured from the gaslit hub of the Gasping Grouse. Tonight’s quarry was a dream merchant with a penchant for fraud.

Grim’s partner, Gravehound, stood by as Grim flexed her mechanical left arm. He tossed his cigarette onto the cobblestone and stamped it out with his boot.

“Rusty gears?” he asked.

Grim shook her head. “Steelshifter’s metal. It don’t rust.”

“That isn’t cheap. How’d you get your hands on it?”

Grim smiled.

“You’re a piece of work,” Gravehound said.

“Don’t I know it.” Grim pulled a leather glove over her metal fingers. The steelshifter had fitted her just a week ago but the arm suited her almost as well as if she’d been born with it. And it had only cost her one month’s pay—after she’d bartered him down a little.

“I’m going in,” she said, patting the deck beneath her wool coat.

Gravehound clutched her arm.

She glanced back. His hair shone silver in the darkness, making him look far older than his twenty odd years.

 

Anon, The Arcanists appears to me to be aimed at the steampunk audience. Steampunk is not a genre that I reflexively reach for when looking for something to read, but a good story is a good story. Unfortunately, there are what I consider to be a couple of major flaw in your first page.

— Your story structure needs some work. You need some transition between the first section and the second sections of your story on this page. The transition 1) will connect them the sections and 2) advance the story.

Specifically, your first page is divided into two sections by a large paragraph break. These two sections appear to me to be alternative beginnings in a way.  They don’t really seem to connect and thus the story does not really advance. The first section begins with a person who we eventually learn is named “Grim” talking to… someone…for a few moments before Grim goes into a tavern called the Gasping Grouse and approaches an informant. Like Achilles chasing Zeno’s tortoise, however, they never quite meet up, at least on the page. We don’t know what the informant told Grim either generally or specifically in this section, and we don’t learn later. 

There is a paragraph break and things resume.  The second section has Grim, who we learn is also known as “Grimhorn,” and her companion, who we are now told is named “Gravehound,” once again standing outside of the Gasping Grouse. Grim is about to re-enter the establishment (apparently) with the intent of getting her quarry, who is referred to as the “dream merchant.” The section ends.

The first section should include some interaction between Grim and the informant, where the latter reveals where the dream merchant is, as well as a sentence or two indicating that Grim is leaving the premises. This will help you to advance the story to the second section. You can begin the second section with Grim and Gravehound discussing what she is going to do to apprehend the dream merchant and proceed accordingly.

— The second major flaw — and to my mind, the larger — is that what you have Grim doing makes no sense at all. If you go into a place to talk with an informant — particularly a crowded bar (you don’t go into a crowded bar to talk to an informant, by the way) — and the informant tells you that your target is at the bar, you don’t leave and then go back inside to get your target. If I go into a bar and talk to an informant who tells me, “Aye, the dream merchant is sitting at the bar, right over there, and is well into his cups!” and  then I leave, re-enter, and  grab the dream merchant, everyone, including the dream merchant, will know that my informant told me that he was in there. That’s a good way to lose an informant, not to mention one’s own eye. For your story’s sake, either put the dream merchant at another location (as revealed by Grim’s informant) or have Grim wait outside of the Gasping Grouse for the dream merchant and follow him for a couple of blocks before nabbing him.  

—  A third problem: when you begin a piece with two major characters having a conversation with each other you should name them both immediately. That way you get both characters established so that the reader will 1) have a better idea of who is saying what to whom and 2) begin to form a picture of those characters. You can then begin fleshing the characters out in the opening pages of the story.  You might also mention Grim’s  mechanical arm (even though you can’t flesh it out, heh heh) in the introductory paragraph. It sets Grim up as a badass from the jump.

There are a few other problems but those items are the story killers. All is not lost, however. I like the names and descriptions of your characters and the tavern (the Gasping Grouse is a terrific name for a dive bar) as well as your manner of describing the scenery. You set up mood and tone very well. It’s your substance and structure that need some work. Keep plugging away, Anon!

I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically quiet and open the floor to all who are assembled and inclined to comment. Thank you, Anon, for your submission.  Keep moving forward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4+

19 thoughts on “First Page Critique: THE ARCANISTS

  1. Fantastic feedback, Joe!

    Brave Writer,

    Having two scenes on the first page, especially when switching POVs, loses the reader. Focus on one MC in the opening, and like Joe mentioned, introduce them right away to indicate whose head we’re in. Proper scene structuring is crucial. Check out these TKZ articles for a more in-depth look.

    I’m not a fan of starting with dialogue, but that may be a personal preference. A line or two beforehand goes a long way, IMO. It’s also a good idea to stay away from similar sounding names and names that begin with the same first letter, which becomes especially important for dueling protagonists. The one exception is if it’s done intentional for a clear purpose. On my first read-through I didn’t notice they were two separate characters. Also, watch your telling. “He liked” is an example of telling. Instead, “show” what he may or may not like in a compelling way.

    Like Joe, I enjoyed the tone of this piece. Meeting with an informant is intriguing if you hint at why this person needs to be caught and the meeting is portrayed in a more realistic way. Slow down and amp up the tension in the room. What if Grim and the suspect lock gazes, and they recognize each other? The reader would immediately say, “Uh-oh.” Remember, conflict drives story.

    Best of luck!

  2. Anon, some very cool elements and personifications. There’ve been a couple of bold SFF first pages showing up on the Kill Zone, so am reaching out. Seek @MorgynStar on Twitter if you’re interested in a private online SFF crit group.

  3. Even with the page break, I didn’t get that we had moved. I thought the writer had just forgotten we were already in the bar. That’s a problem. It gave me no confidence in the writer – they can’t keep track of what’s going on, why should I? I would urge you to give a little attention to that.

    I really like the line –

    ‘Grimhorn liked to settle her accounts with a lamb’s smile and a loaded spell deck in her overcoat pocket. The smile came free of charge. The deck was insurance.’

    It gave me insight into the character, it told me what she was doing there and it let me know that there will be magic going on in the story. That’s a lot for two short sentences, WELL DONE!

    I agree with the opening with dialogue comment and in this case the dialogue isn’t really strong enough to be the opening sentence, but I think that is an easy fix. You wrote –

    ‘Not far off, a foghorn warded ships into port. A train rattled, tracking, like a harried squirrel, along the rails overhead.

    Grim hunched her shoulders, shoved her hands in her deep pockets’

    Where this comes into the page makes no sense. It just felt like writer said, ‘Oh, let me put in a description’. However, it is a good line and it could solve the opening with dialogue problem. How about moving it? Start with –

    Not far off, a foghorn warded ships into port. A train rattled, tracking, like a harried squirrel, along the rails overhead. Grim hunched her shoulders, shoved her hands in her deep pockets.

    “Remember, this isn’t a bust, so no ruckus,” he said.

    “Sure.”

    “I mean it.”

    “Sure.”

    “If things get tight, drop out.”

    Grim waved behind her and strode toward the Gasping Grouse.

    ***
    ‘You could never know many aces an informant was hiding in his vest, and (should that be but Grim?) Grim didn’t give two lashings if things got messy when they refused to pay up.’

    Sue, above, said especially when switching POVs. I didn’t see a shift in POV.

    Interesting story, I like where it is going.

  4. I agree with the above. On the good side, the main character is very interesting and I like her(?). Her sidekick’s hectoring has good potential for fun banter. It can also act as the voice of the opposition.
    Ray Rhamey has a great first page checklist here: http://www.floggingthequill.com. I hope this helps. It helped me.

  5. Hello, Anon here.
    I truly appreciate the critique. However, I think some kind of mistake occurred. My submission was supposed to read like this:

    Grimhorn liked to settle her accounts with a lamb’s smile and a loaded spell deck in her overcoat pocket. The smile came free of charge. The deck was insurance.

    You could never know many aces an informant was hiding in his vest, and Grim didn’t give two lashings if things got messy when they refused to pay up.

    She leaned into the shadow of a brick wall and turned her collar up against the cold. Across the road, smoke and steam poured from the gaslit hub of the Gasping Grouse. Tonight’s quarry was a dream merchant with a penchant for fraud.

    Grim’s partner, Gravehound, stood by as Grim flexed her mechanical left arm. He tossed his cigarette onto the cobblestone and stamped it out with his boot.

    “Rusty gears?” he asked.

    Grim shook her head. “Steelshifter’s metal. It don’t rust.”

    “That isn’t cheap. How’d you get your hands on it?”

    Grim smiled.

    “You’re a piece of work,” Gravehound said.

    “Don’t I know it.” Grim pulled a leather glove over her metal fingers. The steelshifter had fitted her just a week ago but the arm suited her almost as well as if she’d been born with it. And it had only cost her one month’s pay—after she’d bartered him down a little.

    “I’m going in,” she said, patting the deck beneath her wool coat.

    Gravehound clutched her arm.

    She glanced back. His hair shone silver in the darkness, making him look far older than his twenty odd years.

    “Remember, this isn’t a bust, so no ruckus,” he said.

    “Sure.”

    “I mean it.”

    “Sure.”

    “If things get tight, drop out.”

    Grim waved behind her and strode toward the Gasping Grouse.

    Not far off, a foghorn warded ships into port. A train rattled, tracking, like a harried squirrel, along the rails overhead.

    Grim hunched her shoulders, shoved her hands in her deep pockets.

    As she pushed past the wooden doors, a sulfur cloud of smoke and unwashed flesh wormed into her nostrils, wringing water from her eyes. She should have been used to this by now, but that didn’t stop her from wanting to cover her face with her sleeve.

    She kept her eyes low as she snaked between the bar and the tables, past rows of cardsharps and washed up sogs who didn’t know when to give in.

    She found the informant gazing into a full tankard at the end of the room.

    Again, thanks everybody for stopping by to read my submission.

    • Anon! Flipping the script, if you will, makes quite a bit of difference. I’m not sure what happened, as I received your entry as I presented it (I just checked again), but I apologize for what seems to be an error of some sort between your mailbox and mine. What you’ve just sent eliminates most of my criticisms so there you go. By all means, keep on doing what you are doing!

      • Your comments are very encouraging, thank you. I checked my sentbox and the submission looked fine on my end, so yes, e-mail can be funky sometimes. But no problem.
        Keep up the great articles on TKZ. They’re really a lifesaver for my writing. 🙂

    • The corrected submission was a pleasure to read. Nice work.

      A few things to consider:

      “You could never know many aces an informant was hiding in his vest”

      Would it be better to use “One could never know…” here?

      “Not far off, a foghorn warded ships into port. A train rattled, tracking, like a harried squirrel, along the rails overhead.”

      This sounds a little like narration. You might want to give this information more from Grim’s perspective.

      However, I’m picking nits. Good stuff. I want to read more.

  6. So glad I read the comments to see the actual order of the scenes. It reads very nicely. The opening line is engaging and makes me curious about where the story’s going.

    The line about the informant having aces in his vest was a little confusing–assuming Grim has an actual deck, does the informant have actual aces? Or is that metaphorical. It just took me out of the scene for a moment.

    The “sure” and “I mean it” exchange could be cleaned up to quicken the pace.

    __Gravehound clutched her arm. His hair shone silver in the darkness, making him look far older than his twenty odd years. “Remember, this isn’t a bust, so no ruckus.”

    “Sure.”

    “I mean it. If things get tight, drop out.”

    Grim waved behind her and strode toward the Gasping Grouse.__

    Well done!

  7. By all means, keep commenting, but thank you to all who have visited and commented today and a special you tha…er, thank you, to Anon whose first page offering somehow got turned upside down in cyberspace!

  8. I looked up “spell deck”, a term I am unfamiliar with. I remain confused about what it means in the story context. “Aces” and “cardsharps” are terms I associate with poker and other gambling games which use traditional 4 suit playing cards, and I can’t figure out how a “loaded” (whatever this means) spell deck figures in this scene setting.

    The use of “warded” as a verb to describe a lighthouse directing/guiding ships into port does not jibe with the definition of warded:
    verb (used with object)
    to avert, repel, or turn aside (danger, harm, an attack, an assailant, etc.) (usually followed by off):
    to ward off a blow; to ward off evil.

    A lighthouse wards vessels away from navigation hazards, instead of toward anything.

    Your opening interests me enough to read further. The usage of warded nags because I was a sailor involved with navigation of my ship. I also play poker regularly, and am very curious about the loaded spell deck.

  9. I liked the correctly ordered submission very much, especially the way Anon wove the world-building into the story with no real info dump. Anon is definitely not a newbie (but if s/he is, I am terrifyingly envious.)

    I also liked the voice here–Anon not only has a voice but it’s a sassy and appealing one. The writing is fresh–didn’t notice any cliches.

    I wasn’t confused by “spell deck”…I just assumed that I’d find out the specifics later, but it (and the title) told me that this story has some fantasy elements (unless you actually believe in spells and magic.)

    Like Joe, the genre isn’t one that I’d normally reach for, but I’d like to read this one when it’s finished. Main reason? Your voice. Love it.

  10. Wow! So glad I read the comments too. That was excellent. It wasn’t a genre I would normally read but I would’ve EASILY kept reading. Well done!

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