Must be the season for First Page Critiques here on KZ. My last post was a FPC, several others followed, and here we are again.
As usual, here’s the call to chip in with your feedback. Which I will do after presenting today’s Brave Writer Submission.
It was always about the water.
Trina hacked through saw palms, ducked under spider webs, and climbed over fallen oaks and loblolly pines. She passed an overturned, rusted out SUV. It guts and doors removed, used for another purpose now. A mountain of garbage blocked her way—a baby stroller, plastic CD cases, kitchen utensils, plastic bottles everywhere. She picked her way around the mess—remnants from a previous life, a previous time. The brackish, sulfur-tainted saltwater tickled the hairs in her nose and she gagged, stifling a sneeze. She paused in the semi-darkness, aware to the dangers of walking through the forest, long enough to listen to her surroundings.
The lack of the natural sounds—birds chirping, frogs grunting—still offended. But she tightened her core, felt the weight of the automatic on her hip, brushed sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand and swallowed hard. Then she stomped on a No Trespassing sign. The tattered faded sign had been X’d out, another stark reminder that she wasn’t in Louisiana anymore. Or anywhere else familiar. A reminder that the laws that once governed the United States of America no longer applied. But she wasn’t deterred. Nor was she afraid.
Trina moved at a faster pace now, aware of the emerging predawn light, the guards and the Exiles—the unfortunate people who, once the tsunami hit the Gulf coast and changed the land they once knew, were neither afforded a place in academia, or could find work in Texicana. Those underprivileged, uneducated people who had it bad before The Big Rise, are now worse off. If that’s even possible. Recent rumor in the lab said Exiles are uniting and gathering strength.
The iridescent glow from the activity on and below the surface of the water illuminated the morning—thousands of tiny moon jellies and hopefully shrimp fry—made the risk of being caught worth the monthly trip.
I lean into liking this, though it confused me a bit. Delivering a sense of confusion on a first page is not necessarily a bad thing, provided the confusion compels the reader toward forward movement toward clarity from a sense of intrigue. Which for me, this does… in spite of rather than because of the confusion I’ll describe below.
But I suspect that may not be true for all readers here. So the confusion that troubled me may end up being on the problematic side for others, as well.
But first, the nit-picky stuff. There are a couple of grammar things to clean up. These nits are like flies on frosting, they always deter more than they should, but deter nonetheless. Here they are:
Second paragraph, second and third sentences: …rusted out SUV. It guts and doors removed… should read – It’s guts and doors removed. Probably a typo, but if so, then consider better proofing before you submit, or in this case, hold this up in front of a few thousand readers. But before that, I’d recommend not using the period after “SUV” and, with a comma, conjoin those two sentences into one. The second sentence, as used, is a fragment anyway, so this solves that problem, as well.
Then, first sentence in the third paragraph: The lack of the natural sounds… This would read better if you lose the word “the” here, to read as – The lack of natural sounds…
Okay, now a few words about the aforementioned confusion.
Your first line… what is the object of this, the “it” of it? Really, if you pose this question – as you’ve done – then your next line should begin to address the explanation. As presented, the shift is kind of a jolt that leaves the opening question hanging and unattached to anything, and as such, renders the opening line… confusing rather than compelling.
After that you open in a forest. Trees and stumps and such. And “loblolly pines”… huh? As a guy who grew up in Oregon, where there are as many pine trees as anywhere else on the planet, and who didn’t major in botany, I have no idea what a loblolly pine. When an author summons obscurity with no real upside to it, it screams “look at me, I’m a smart writer who is trying too hard to demonstrate that fact!” You don’t want to elicit a WTF? moment from readers, and this one might.
Back to the forest. Now we have the gutted carcass of a car, some garbage, and assorted plastic stuff from a house, and then the smell of brackish salt water. In a forest? What, is the forest flooded? And how can this be salt water, unless there was a tidal wave that reached an inland forest? Maybe that’s precisely what you mean, but in one short paragraph you’ve got the reader on unsure footing at this point.
Is the forthcoming disaster natural, social, military, or something else that ends up with a forest deluged with salt water? Political or criminal mischief would not accomplish that, but that feels like where you might be going… so its confusing.
I just think you can clean this up a bit, and the read will be better for it.
The next paragraph is good stuff. A girl with a gun, always interesting. A sign on the forest floor… did it float here? Was it a camp? Not sure. Still somewhat confusing, but hopeful.
Here’s the whopper moment on the confusion scale: “…she wasn’t in Louisiana anymore. Or anywhere else familiar.” Unless she was brought to this place in a coma and then awakened, I think she’d know where she was. But to suggest she has no idea where she is… really, this makes too little sense. An easy fix, because surroundings feeling unfamiliar is perhaps clear, while literally not being in Louisiana but not being sure where you are… isn’t.
This feels like a speculative and/or futuristic thriller, and if so it’s a good start. It’ll be a better start, though, when the vagaries are given a little more resolution. It would be good, too, to have her stumble into something truly baffling (to her) and frightening on the next page, which would complete a pretty strong hook overall.
One more thought. Wherever this premise goes, it needs to circle back to actually being about the water (aka Chinatown) as the underlying McGuffin or ultimate prize. If it doesn’t – and because it’s salt water, which isn’t a commodity with either economic or political value, I’m fearful it won’t – then you probably need to rethink that opening line.
Okay KZers, share your thoughts on this one. In any case, congrats to this author on going out on an edge early.