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!
“Remember, this isn’t a bust, so no ruckus,” he said.
“I mean it.”
“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?”
“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.