First Page Critique: Portrait Of A Young Man

Yes, ’tis the season for catching up on first page critiques from our TKZ “In” box. Today we’re reviewing the first page of PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG MAN. Please add your feedback for today’s brave writer in the Comments.

Portrait of a Young Man

I picked up the dead man about twenty miles west of Columbus. I stopped to take care of my business and grab a soda at a Pilot gas station at mile marker seventy-nine. When I returned to my car I found him in the passenger seat. He was the one I’d seen frequently in the weeks before, but I’d seen him then in my dreams, not in the waking day, and certainly not in my Civic. I went back into the station and milled about for a solid fifteen minutes, examining overpriced sunglasses and t-shirts, hoping the dead man would wander off. But when I went back, he was still there.

So, I got in the car and I drove. I still had some miles to cover. I had a job waiting in Cleveland. Not too much rough stuff, Maxwell had promised.

My passenger was, as he had been in my dreams, clad in a Prussian blue Union greatcoat with a small cape. The double-bar insignia on his lapels showed his rank to be that of a captain and the crossed sabers on his slouch hat meant he was cavalry. In my dreams, I’d seen him only from afar, charging on horseback across some remote fog-blurred field of battle with his sword raised, into a fusillade of Confederate musket fire. In my dreams the wounds he suffered were but specks in the smoky distance. Up close and sitting beside me I saw them as jagged, fleshy holes, one above the left eye and one through the throat. They bled, as he sat, but not so much as to seem to distract him.

My car was old, built before smoking had become unofficially criminal, and the dead officer spent several minutes inspecting my lighter, pressing it in and waiting for it to pop out again. He inspected the glowing coils closely and returned the thing to its slot to repeat the process. He made a quick examination of the glove box, taking no apparent interest in the ‪1911‬ .45 caliber pistol I kept there, then he just stared out the window, watching the cornfields of central Ohio glide slowly by.

Unlike Larry, and most of my other visitors, he never said so much as a word. He began to fade around mile marker one-fifty, heading north on I-71. He was totally gone before we passed through Mansfield, twenty-five miles later.

My feedback: I’m intrigued by the underlying notion here: a dream image suddenly materializes in the passenger seat of the narrator’s Honda Civic in the form of a Zombie Yank officer, who calmly proceeds to rummage through the glove box. Who wouldn’t want to hear more about that?

That being said, I was confused about what type of story to expect here. The narrator’s lack of reaction to his bizarre driving companion is puzzling, for example. If I suddenly encountered a hitchhiker plucked from a recurring dream, I’d immediately assume that someone had slipped a spiked mushroom into my breakfast casserole. Here, however, the narrator displays little reaction to the bizarre passenger. That muted response muffles the dramatic impact of the scene, making the opening seem a tad flat despite its compelling setup.

The title doesn’t help the reader anticipate what  type of story to expect. PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG MAN sounds like a Joycean, literary title rather than mystery or suspense.

Craft-wise, the writer should pay heed to punctuation rules and edit with an eye to avoiding run-on sentences and an overuse of commas.

Overall, the writer grabbed my interest with the opening image, but he needs to add “more”: more narrator reaction is needed to punch up the drama and set the stage for this story; more context is also needed to clarify certain details as the scene progresses (who is “Larry”, for instance?).

Update: After rereading the page, I realized belatedly that this story is in the zombie mystery category. I never read that genre, so I missed a couple of cues that might  have been obvious to fans of that genre. (The reference to “other visitors”, in my case). It’s generally a good idea to write a scene so that even newbies to a genre can “see” clearly what is going on in a scene during the first reading.

Please share your thoughts about PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG MAN in the Comments. And we thank today’s brave anonymous writer for submitting this first page!


17 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Portrait Of A Young Man

  1. I liked this one. Yes, as Kathryn says, it has some minor issues, but I read this one all the way through. And I found myself reading in enjoyment rather than reading to analyze. That’s a compliment. It signals, to me at least, that this writer is on course. Good use of detail (description of soldier) and graceful slipping-in of info, like where we are and the fact that the driver has a gun in glove box implying an intriguing job. Good opening line (but it loses its tension by the “meh” second line.)

    But this is good enough that I really am rooting for it to be better. Like Kathryn, I think we need emotional reaction of some kind from the narrator. We are told that these zombies have visited her in the past, so she can’t really be *surprised* by this soldier. But we do need some emotional context. Is she vexed by the visitors? Is she scared? Is she resigned? We need something for us to get us emotionally invested with her.

    I don’t normally like zombie/supernatural fiction but when it’s good, I love it, because it takes me to worlds I would never go. (See Stephen King and Dean Koontz) One of the best thrillers I ever read was Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast. It is about an hard-bitten IRA killer who is haunted — literally — by the 12 people he killed, including a boy. Brilliant book. And why it works is that from the first page, we are deep in the protagonist’s head, living his agony and past right there with him. We know what he is feeling.

    I suspect this writer is not going for the same elegiac tone here, but I really think this would be improved by letting us into this woman’s head and heart on page 1.

    I suggest the writer go read the opening of Neville’s book to see what I am trying to express here:

    Oh, and that title has to go. It is a label that tells us nothing about the tone of this book.

    • Wow, that Neville piece is beautiful writing. That one’s going on my Kindle. I definitely see how bring in more sense of the impact of these odd events on the main character would make it even stronger.

      I also read all the way through and enjoyed it. Go deeper and keep it up! One of the top first pages I’ve read on this site.

      • Sheri,
        I really recommend the Neville book. I was listening to Dennis Lehane talk at SleuthFest and he said it was the best thing he had read in years. Well, he was right. It works til the very end.

  2. Ah! You can tell I never read the zombie/witch/woo-woo genre (although I love paranormal suspense involving an unreliable narrator). After rereading I realize I overlooked the significance of the reference to previous “visitors”, which means having this phantasm appear is a commonplace occurrence for the narrator. Thanks for your insights, Kris!

  3. I do read in the fantasy genre, and especially mystery/thrillers in fantasy settings. I found much to like here.

    I believe this is not a zombie (which is physically in the world), but a ghost. Typically ghosts in fantasy are not so able to interact with objects like the lighter and glove box, but that would be a nice twist to differentiate this story from others with ghosts.

    I was especially impressed that the author managed to give us a look at the main character’s dreams without opening in a dream sequence but instead keeping us firmly rooted in current action.

    Larry? Who’s Larry? Great story question to leave open for when Larry becomes significant.

    I thought the main character was male. As I looked back, I didn’t see any indication of gender. I would suggest that the writer add some passing reference so readers are surprised when they learn the protagonist’s gender later.

    All in all, I found this to be a subtle and well-crafted start despite the already mentioned grammar issues. For my money, the writer is on the right track.

  4. I liked this piece as well; even though I don’t read paranormal, I might just read on. I’m going super specific so you have something to work with.

    — Second line, clear up the verb tense: I had stopped to pick up a soda…

    — This does not warrant an emotional response, just an indication that it has happened before. Something as simple as this: hoping he would leave. Sometimes they do.

    — My last comment, break the first paragraph in to two. I would suggest right before he comes back out, but that decision, as all the decisions, is yours.

    I literally have no other criticism. Excellent job.

  5. Personally, not really into the dead/undead story, but I liked this.

    I thought it was pretty clear it was a zombie or some other undead story. When he first says – I picked up the dead man ..- he could work for a funeral home, but the line – When I returned to my car I found him in the passenger seat. – that kind of says it all.

    Even though we don’t know how far he is from Columbus, it is clear the soldier has been with him for a while. I don’t think we need to see/feel his reaction – that would have happened twenty miles west of Columbus.

    Unlike Larry, and most of my other visitors, he never said so much as a word. – explains his nonchalant attitude.

    They bled, as he sat, but not so much as to seem to distract him. – is a perfectly good sentence, it just seemed a bit clumsy to me.

  6. Kathryn, my thoughts on the piece pretty much mirrored yours. The whole zombie thing went right over my head as I have no clue about that genre. I really did find the page engaging, but as has been mentioned, found the lack of reaction mystifying. But I would read another page. I think there’s really good material to work with. I may be clueless about zombies, but I love American history, especially 19th century, so for the author to start off with a mysterious Union cavalry man grabbed & held my attention. That’s the chief reason I would read on.

  7. I love the first sentence! It hooked me for sure. I’m just a reader, not an author, so please take this with a grain of salt: After the wonderful first sentence, I stumbled on the second. The at’s being so close together I think is what stopped me: “at a Pilot gas station at.” Can we just say, “at a Pilot gas station northbound on I-71?” Then at the end, you can drop the “heading north on I-71” and there wouldn’t be three numbers close together.

    It didn’t bother me at all that the narrator doesn’t react much. I think his non-reaction tells us it ain’t his first rodeo dealing with dead folks, and he’s not exactly eager to do it again the way he waits around in the convenience store. (And I assumed the narrator is a man because of the title.) Maybe it’d help to add a simple sigh somewhere, signaling his resignation to the presence of a another dead interloper.

    I liked it. I’d read more!

  8. How can everyone, or almost everyone, find an issue with the lack of the protagonists emotional response to the soldier??? That is the precise point of the last paragraph, It is the hook (THIS HAPPENED TO ME BEFORE, AND WITH REGULARITY!!!) that keeps you going if you’re so inclined to read this type of novel.

  9. I like this opening, it reminds me of Darynda Jones and her Charley Davidson series. I agree that an emotional response to the ghost would be beneficial if only to establish tone(humor, fear, resignation), and early clarification of gender would be helpful as well.
    I found the repetition of the word “dreams” to be a bit distracting but overall I quite liked the piece, and I’m curious to know more.

  10. I was thinking Darynda Jones as well, though I initially thought this was just some guy who got in his car, then died. Didn’t catch on that he was an apparition or whatever until he played with the lighter. I thought when the MC said he/she hoped he would leave, that they were kidding…maybe thought whomever killed them would come back for them. Shows how much paranormal I read.


  11. Grrrr! Prior comments have left me with almost nothing to add. I, too, liked this every much.

    Perhaps if the info about this having happened before could come earlier in the excerpt, or at least a hint, with a bit more reaction–the resignation idea suggested by another comment might work well. In a way, it could kill two birds with one stone: resignation = this has happened before, without needing to spell it out.

    I’m assuming that more follows the excerpt, i.e., that the end of the excerpt isn’t the end of the scene. If so, you have plenty of time to create the scene-ending hook.

    I wouldn’t normally read this genre, but I definitely would read this one when it’s finished.

    These excerpts and critiques are so much fun to read… I look forward to them.

  12. I loved this piece. A few of the sentences were awkward and could be easily reworked, but beyond that and the title (which promises boredom), I felt the tension, the spookiness of the whole improbable situation. The writer made me feel as though I were in that car with the driver and the dead Union soldier. And when a writer can do that, he/she is on to something.

    As for Larry? I’m sure he’ll be explained very soon, because I would definitely continue reading.

    But please, please change the title.

    • I forgot to mention the title in my earlier comments. I agree with you, I think it needs to change. It might have relevance to the story, but it doesn’t make me want to read the book.

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