First Page Critique: The Fish Thieves

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.

5+
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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

16 thoughts on “First Page Critique: The Fish Thieves

  1. Like Larry, I lean into liking this. I do like the first line, but was also confused by the setting. My initial impression was that she was walking through an area of woods where people dumped their trash rather than an apocalyptic disaster area.

    Consider deleting the fourth paragraph completely. It felt like an information dump to me. Bring the tsunami into the story earlier and everything else can be fed in later.

    Overall, I think the story has a lot of potential and this chapter raises plenty of questions. What caused the tsunami? Is the whole world affected, or just the US? And I definitely want to know Trina’s story. Good start!

    (BTW, the correct word in the second paragraph is “its” without the apostrophe. Typos are easy, but I hate being that guy.)

  2. Compelled to correct a piece of the feedback first: its and it’s. One of my pet peeves. It’s = It is. Its is the possessive.

    Will be back with feedback for the writer after I’ve finished reading.

    • Got me on that one. Thanks for the shove on this, won’t make that mistake again. I’m just so used to the apostrophe indicating possessive.

  3. The title has a word misspelled, i.e., Theives should be thieves. I once got 99 on a grammar test. Lost 1 mark because I misspelled grammar as grammer, and I hadn’t needed to put that word at the top of my answer page. Anyway, another reason to proofread carefully before submitting something for feedback–because people like me get distracted.

    I like this writer’s emerging voice, and despite the confusion, I would read more. The excerpt does have a sense of mystery, of questions demanding answers. In other words, it has some narrative drive. Making things a bit clearer will not weaken the mystery.

    I agree that the opening line needs work, although it does raise a story question, but, as Larry says, it needs at least a hint of an answer fairly quickly thereafter. Also, it feels a bit like author intrusion. Perhaps there’s a way to reword it so that the reader knows immediately that we’re in Trina’s head, and then, once you’ve got that, try to replace the verb ‘to be’ with something else, and try to avoid the “it is./there was” sentence structure. If you get all those things into this opening line, an agent’s reaction will be, “This writer can write,” and will read more.

    Another thing I’d like to see is a bit more about Trina’s goal in this scene, not necessarily anything direct, e.g., you don’t need to spell out the goal by saying something like, “Trina wanted X.” You can be more subtle than that, but still give the reader an idea of what Trina wants in this scene. I suspect that what she wants relates to water, so by linking the opening line to what Trina does or thinks next, or almost next, you might kill two birds with one stone.

    As the master of using too many m-dashes and ellipses, I am qualified to suggest that you consider using fewer sentences with dashes because it might be one of your writing tics–we all have them. I think they work well in non-fiction but in fiction, not so much.

    Overall, I liked this and would read more.

    • Just for the record, the title was cut-and-pasted directly from the email sent to me, to here. The idea is to show it to you exactly as the author submitted it, then flag the issues later. I admit, my eyes just passed over the title, which I wouldn’t have changed (had I caught it) but I would have included (had I caught it) in my commentary.

  4. I really liked this and would happily continue readings.

    I didn’t find any of this confusing. Often it seems that readers expect the writer to spell everything out the first time it is mentioned rather than trusting the writer will explain it or lead us to our own understanding later. Here the writer has provided a little hinting in the first few paragraphs when they say
    “… remnants from a previous life, a previous time. The brackish, sulfur-
    tainted saltwater …
    The lack of the natural sounds—birds chirping, frogs grunting—still
    offended…
    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.”

    And then the mystery is revealed
    “ … once the tsunami hit the Gulf coast and changed the land they once
    knew,”

    I disagree with Larry’s comment about the first line. The rest of the first page answers that.
    1. The ground is brackish – water
    2. Something has changed causing the birds and frogs to be silent (at this
    point I was assuming dead or extinct). I’m not a biologist, but don’t birds
    and frogs need fresh water? – water
    3. The landscape and country has changed because the tsunami hit The Gulf
    – water
    4. Moon jellies (jellyfish) and shrimp live in salt water – water
    She’s right – “It was always about the water.”

    I believe the writer gives us the reason she is on this journey, SURVIVAL.
    “…thousands of tiny moon jellies and hopefully shrimp fry—made the risk of
    being caught worth the monthly trip.”
    She is looking for food (shrimp fry) and she has to do this once a month.

    • I disagree with your disagreement. “It was always about the water” seems to imply a bigger role for “the water” than simply this first scene. The first scene may have been “about the water,” for sure, but the larger McGuffin of the story – what happened, who is oppressing who (she has a gun, after all), and why… that’s probably more political power grab than it is “about the water.”

      That’s like saying a first scene about a blackmailer sending a cryptic message demanding a ransom was “always about the envelope.”

  5. I agree with Larry’s remarks. I also leaned into liking this piece, but it confused me too. For example, this:

    “Recent rumor in the lab said Exiles are uniting and gathering strength.”

    Lab? What does Trina do for a living? Why is she here? If she’s forensic personnel or a coroner, she wouldn’t be alone. Which brings up another point. Why is she alone? She’s obviously there for some reason and yet, we get no hint of what that might be. Is it for her job? Is she trying to survive after the apocalypse? Was she abducted by aliens and is on another planet? Whatever the reason, she needs a goal. Remember to structure your scenes properly, the first being Goal. You don’t need to “tell us” but make it clear.

    Here’s another problematic area for me:

    “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.”

    Huh? You lost me. This reads as if she’s inside some sort of water craft with ocean life swimming by. Otherwise, how is she seeing above AND below the surface of the water? Yet, she was just walking through the forest. Also, why would someone make a monthly trip to a forest with salt water? Which is confusing all on its own; I live in New Hampshire, where I’m surrounded by forests. Not one has salt water. Believe me, I checked, and Fish & Game confirmed (in a recent release I wanted to include salt water). A forest hopping with jelly fish and shrimp? Not even remotely close to reality. Maybe this is another planet, but you haven’t given us a clue either way. Therefore, it leaves confusion in the reader’s mind.

    On a positive note, I love the voice of this piece. The writing style also works for me. You’re off to a fine start, Brave Author. A little sprucing and you’ll have a strong hook. Best of luck!!!

    • I, too, found the piece confusing in places, but I disagree with the list of questions you want answered this quickly. Many of those questions aren’t relevant to the scene (e.g., I don’t give a damn what her job is or was at this point.)

      I’d just like it to be a bit clearer a bit sooner that we’re dealing with some kind of post-apocalypse situation caused, in part, by a tsunami, and that she needs to be where she is to be able to survive. This information is already in the excerpt, but it’s not as clear as it should be. I think some re-ordering of the information might solve the lack of clarity issues.

      And perhaps we don’t need to know, quite yet, about the Exiles–that could easily be postponed to the next 400 words, and it probably should be triggered by something happening in the “now” of the scene. Here it almost comes out of nowhere.

      • I listed example questions as a starting point. Of course the writer shouldn’t answer them ALL on the first page, but we need a hint of what her goal is and how it’s possible for her to see above and below the salt water at the same time. Perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I should have been. That’ll teach me to comment before my morning tea. 🙂

  6. I liked this piece a lot. The only thing that tripped me up was the pile of trash in front of the forest. Perhaps you want the word “woods.” Forest signifies dense trees; you plunge in and can’t see the sky anymore. Woods can be anywhere from a small forest to a sparse group of trees.

    Perhaps to bring in the apocalyptic world, you could say “a wall of trash, deposited here by…” And that’s it. I’m very willing to read on for the other answers; after all, the first page is just to trigger questions, not to answer them.

  7. I, too, liked this piece. And there are a LOT of loblolly pines in Louisiana and Mississippi, so I figured the line about not being in Louisiana was like Dorothy saying she wasn’t in Kansas anymore. She really was there, but everything was different.

    I agree that there is some confusion, would read on, thinking it would be cleared up in the next few pages.

  8. I also liked this a lot. Sure, there is some tidying up to do, but it has a strong voice, an interesting situation, and the hint of an interesting protagonist.

    I’d definitely read on.

  9. After seeing the title misspelled, I didn’t even want to read this piece, but I glanced at the first few lines and got pulled in. I agree with most of Larry’s critique, and I would guess the seemingly-disjointed final paragraph is followed by other paragraphs which help tie it into the opening material.

    I have to say the piece was extremely atmospheric, full of rising danger all around, written in a clear voice, and made me want to find out what exactly is going on.

  10. It’s confusing but interesting.

    “It was always about the water.” What was always about the water? That confused me.

    Loblollies are all over the place around here (southeast) but I had to look up saw palm. Turns out they are what we call palmetto. There’s also a magazine called Saw Palm.

    “aware to the dangers” sounds awkward. “alert to” or “aware of” might go better.

    If Trina is expecting danger and stifling sneezes why would she stomp on a sign?

    I don’t know where Texicana is, but if it’s anywhere near Texarkana, that was one big tidal wave.

    I’d read this. Sounds interesting. Good luck with it.

  11. I agree with Don Donovan that the piece is atmospheric and full of rising danger. What ruined the mood for me were the words “Nor was I afraid.” I had been pleasantly afraid up until that moment, identifying with the protagonist. Later we’re told that there is a risk of being caught, but by then, the sense of danger has been blown, and the mood isn’t recreated.

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