First-Page Critique: The Allure of World War II

By Mark Alpert

We live in a violent world, and our present-day conflicts distort our memories of past wars. With that in mind, let’s consider this first-page sample submitted by one of our anonymous TKZ contributors:

Title: Jaeger’s Dilemma

War Department Auxiliary Building, Washington, D.C.

10 July 1943

Captain Gregory Maxwell pulled at the starched uniform collar pasted to his 16-½ inch neck as he paced the room. A whirling fan bounced humid stale air off walls the color of Baked Alaska. Blackout curtains stifled the room’s dim light. Four stiff-backed wooden chairs guarded a projector and the table upon which it sat. Sweat dripped down his narrow brow stinging his eyes. He rolled his shoulders, severing the seal of the shirt clinging to his back.

A fly buzzed his right ear. He swatted it away, then checked his watch – fifteen twenty hours. Report at thirteen-thirty he’d been directed. No rhyme, no reason, no reporting official identified.

He glanced at his watch again. He would miss drinks with the Senator if he didn’t leave soon. The fly buzzed him again. He swatted and missed.

The door opened. A petite brunette, her uniform Women’s Army Corps, entered carrying a film canister, a folder, and a glass of water.

“Surviving, Captain?” She handed him the tumbler. “Isn’t cold, had to get it from a tap in the latrine. Drawing water from the hall’s drinking fountain is like a castrated bull fathering calves. Hades will freeze over first.” She grinned a white smile. “At least the war would be over.” She started to wind the film through the projector’s sprockets. “By the way, I’m Corporal Allen.”

“How much longer?” Maxwell sipped the water. Despite the slight taste of rusted iron, the tepid liquid soothed his dry throat.

“Hard to say,” she said, her tone Midwest apologetic. “As usual, the Colonel’s working like a crazed farmer chopping a hundred acres of wheat with a single scythe and only has two days before thunderstorms strike.”

He groaned.

“Not to worry, Captain. Senator Downey’s been given your regrets.” The corporal’s long fingers slipped the film’s edge into the slot of the take-up reel. “Done.”

Maxwell’s brow furrowed. “I didn’t send regrets.”

“I did.” The Texas twang reverberated about the closet of a room. A full bull Colonel, devoid of his military coat, stepped inside.

Maxwell snapped to attention.

“Fuck formality, Captain. I need results. Roll the film, Allen.”

_________

I have to admit: I’m a sucker for stories about World War II. I loved Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five. Two of the finest war poems of all time are Randall Jarrell’s “Eighth Air Force” and “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” And of course there are all the amazing movies about the war, from The Longest Day and The Dirty Dozen to Saving Private Ryan and Inglourious Basterds. (My personal favorite is Twelve O’Clock High, which was considered such a good primer on leadership techniques that at one time it was required viewing at West Point. General Curtis LeMay, the Eighth Air Force veteran who later talked about bombing Vietnam “back into the Stone Age,” was also a big fan of the film.)

But of the 16 million veterans of World War II, only about half a million are still alive, and they’re dying off at a rate of 2,500 per week. Can we still write compelling novels about WWII after so much time? I think we can, but it’s inevitable that the experience of more recent wars will color our stories of the so-called “Good War,” in the same way that the Vietnam War changed the depiction of the Korean War in M*A*S*H. And as all writers of historical fiction know, the author must be constantly wary of anachronisms and clichés.

For example: I grew up during the Cold War, and in my neighborhood in Queens most of the apartment buildings were plastered with yellow-and-black Fallout Shelter signs. When I looked out my bedroom window, I imagined mushroom clouds blooming over the Manhattan skyline. In 1982 I went to the epic “No Nukes” rally in Central Park, and a year later the anti-war song “99 Red Balloons” was playing on all the radio stations. I was in graduate school at the time, studying poetry, and when I tried to write a poem about nuclear apocalypse, the result was a weird mash-up of Twelve O’Clock High and Dr. Strangelove:

I dreamed of the secret bomber squadron,

seventeen jets that would start the war.

 

I dreamed, in particular, of an airfield in the jungle

on a South Pacific island, on the underside of the world,

where a sudden strike could maim the enemy

(thus spoke our generals, and we believed them).

Hidden in shadow, on the underside of the world,

where the world’s detonation would begin…

 

We trained for the mission in utmost secrecy,

six weeks that passed so quickly I never even

learned my place in the bomber. The general

asked me, “What’s your position, son?

Tail-gunner? Waist-gunner? Bombardier? Turret-gunner?”

The Plexiglas bubbles, like transparent boils

on the skin of the bomber (and in every airman’s mind

was a vision of cracked and bullet-pocked glass),

the positions of death, all my friends assigned

to one or the other. I told the general,

“I’ll be in charge of the parachutes, sir,”

but my friends didn’t think this joke was funny.

The general scowled at me, his face twisted

in anger, his breath stinking of cough drops.

 

A dozen times we loaded onto the bus

and rode down the path through the jungle,

heading for the island’s airfield. We were ready

to take flight and complete our mission,

but we turned back every time, our orders

canceled. Once, the general lost his nerve.

Another time, all the officers decided we

couldn’t attack without eating breakfast first.

So we turned the bus around

and headed back to the canteen…

 

Three women sat across the table from me,

dressed in twill uniforms like the Andrews Sisters,

curly hair spilling from their garrison caps.

I watched them flirt with the enlisted men.

I argued with them. I made a fool of myself again.

Meanwhile, my friends devoured bowls of oatmeal,

drank water from clean glasses, wiped their hands

on paper napkins. They didn’t say grace,

didn’t pat their bellies, didn’t ask for more.

 

We were waiting, all of us, for the last day

to arrive, when the word would come down

and we’d get our final orders (we were so sick

and tired of all the tests and drills), when the bus

would reach the end of the jungle path

and let us off at the airfield, that broad flat clearing

with the red and green lights flashing maniacally

in the short grass on both sides of the runway.

How many days and nights did we wait?

How many of us prayed for the word to come down?

 

The dream ended. I sat up in bed, trying to

picture everyone I’d left behind on that island,

all the enlisted men and officers and their scowling general.

The end of the world — why did we pray so hard for it?

And do they still pray for it now that I’ve left them?

Maybe it was my disappearance they were waiting for

and now the planes are taking off, one by one, from the airfield

and in the fishbowl view of every gunner’s glass turret

the red and green lights are fading in the distance…

 

See what I mean about clichés? I was born in 1961, long after the heyday of the Andrews Sisters (see photo above), and yet they somehow managed to worm their way into my subconscious.

I also thought of World War II clichés when reading the opening paragraphs of this first-page submission. I love the idea of featuring a strong, outspoken WAC corporal in this novel, but Corporal Allen goes a little overboard with her Midwest farm-girl metaphors: “Drawing water from the hall’s drinking fountain is like a castrated bull fathering calves.” “As usual, the Colonel’s working like a crazed farmer chopping a hundred acres of wheat with a single scythe and only has two days before thunderstorms strike.” It’s just too much, too obvious. In this case, less is more. Also, I didn’t like the sentence, “She grinned a white smile.” Better to say something like, “She smiled. Her teeth were perfect.”

The colonel with the Texas twang doesn’t appear until the last few paragraphs of this submission, but I’m worried that he’s going to veer into cliché territory too. First of all, I was a bit thrown by the term “full bull colonel” – I assume that means the same thing as the more common term “full bird colonel” (so-called because of the eagle insignia on a colonel’s uniform), but maybe it carries the extra implication that the man is built like a bull (or full of bullshit)? Either way, I think I’ve seen this guy before in about a hundred World War II movies. In the following pages of the novel, I hope the author develops the colonel into a more original character.

But my biggest complaint with this submission is about the all-important point-of-view character, Captain Maxwell. He’s worse than a cliché — he’s a cipher. We know the size of his neck, but almost nothing about what’s going on inside his head. His main preoccupations seem to be annoyance about a buzzing fly and anxiety over missing a barroom rendezvous with a U.S. senator. From the latter, I assume the captain’s job is to be a liaison officer, a contact between the Army and Congress – why else would a lowly captain have drinks with a senator? – and that would’ve been a pretty cushy posting in July 1943 when thousands of other Army officers were dying in Sicily or the South Pacific. But I’m just guessing, you see. Because the author hasn’t told us what Maxwell is thinking, I have to make guesses, many of which are probably unflattering and unfair and make me dislike the character right off the bat.

That’s not a good way to start a novel. I’m always inclined to like the main character of a book, but the author has to give me at least an inkling of what the character is thinking and what he/she wants. Maybe Maxwell is extremely frustrated about being stationed in Washington. Maybe he’s dying to get away from his desk job and fight Hitler or Hirohito. But the author has to hint at this desire right at the beginning. Otherwise, I’m going to assume that Maxwell is just an irritable goldbricker, and I’ll probably stop reading the novel.

One more thing: Maxwell should kill the fly with a barehanded swat. It’s kind of gross, but also interesting. It would hint that he has fantastic reflexes, which might come in handy in combat scenes later on in the book. As I’ve said before on this blog, competent characters are always more interesting than incompetent ones.

Sorry, yet another thing: Despite Corporal Allen’s overactive farm metaphors, I got the sense that this petite brunette is, in 1940s lingo, “a real peach.” And yet Captain Maxwell doesn’t seem very interested in her. That was disappointing. Part of the allure of World War II stories is that their characters are usually eager to hop into bed with one another, mostly because the threat of death is so near. And giving Maxwell more of a sex drive would help to define the character and make him less of a cipher.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

13 thoughts on “First-Page Critique: The Allure of World War II

  1. I agree re clichés. Too many. Swat the fly, snatch it out of midair and crush it. WAC enters room, go Al Franken on her. Grab buttocks and shove tongue down throat. It was war, 70 years ago, different times. Then she can slap his face, peel away from his grasp, stare into his eyes, re-embrace and join in passionate kisses. Need action!

    On the Lemay, ‘bomb into stone age,’ quote. His full statement re Vietnam was this, ‘My solution to the problem would be to tell [the North Vietnamese Communists] frankly that they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression or we’re going to bomb them into the Stone Age. And we would shove them back into the Stone Age with Air power or Naval power—not with ground forces.’ The useless politicians of that era like to parse that quote selecting only the bomb into stone age part, but Lemay’s full statement proved prophetic.

    • I recently watched the Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War (all ten episodes!), which featured a really good interview with General Merrill McPeak, who flew F-100s and F-4s in Vietnam and later became the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. McPeak said air power was incredibly ineffective in Vietnam. The U.S. dropped a huge number of bombs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but it never stopped the traffic of soldiers and supplies.

  2. Agree totally that Maxwell isn’t at all interesting yet, and that his attitudes need to be in the scene, even his attitude about the woman, so that we get some idea of who he is and what he wants.

    But even though wartime brings out the sex drive in people, I’m never particularly interested in sex on the first page… it can be a cheap trick to get people interested. (in life, I’m the same–I prefer to get to know a person first!) I’m assuming that sex is not going to be what this story is about. I’d have no problem with a hint of attraction on the first page, which would give the writer a chance to reveal more about Maxwell’s character at the same time (doesn’t want to be unfaithful to his wife? Will go after her later? Only interested in a fling, not marriage?) Lots of character choices there.

    Overall, I found the writing a bit stilted. Monotonous sentence structure, lack of rhythm, not particularly fresh. Signs of a relatively inexperienced writer, I think. It takes time to find your voice, but part of it is knowing the craft (given that we never know it all), taking risks, and having passion for the story and the characters.

    Because of the Nazis in WWII (and in 2017), I don’t think well-written WWII stories will ever go out of style.

  3. Way too much description for me before anything happens. A few choice details would work – get on to the action.

    The corporal is way too familiar with a captain she’s never met. I can see her saying some of those things to the colonel in private if they have a familiar working relationship. Two officers might word-spar. Two enlisted definitely would. An officer and an enlisted, not on the first meeting. Also, that’s pretty graphic for a woman of her time. Military women then were still expected to be ladies and were careful not to do things that might get them kicked out.

    My sister-in-law (USAF 1960’s) and I (USAF 1980’s) were recently sharing our experiences. She still had to march with a girdle on. It was way more strict in the 1940’s.

    Never heard of a bull colonel. Full bird in the Air Force.

  4. One more thing – if Maxwell is the hero, and we are expected to believe he is competent and capable, he needs to kill the danged fly.

    If he’s a bumbler, we’re good.

  5. I love WWII stories and hope this story shapes up into a good one.

    There was one thing going on in this first page as yet unmentioned here, that would have motivated me to set it back on the shelf at the bookstore.

    From the page:
    “Surviving, Captain?” She handed him the tumbler. “Isn’t cold, had to get it from a tap in the latrine. Drawing water from the hall’s drinking fountain is like a castrated bull fathering calves. Hades will freeze over first.” She grinned a white smile. “At least the war would be over.” She started to wind the film through the projector’s sprockets. “By the way, I’m Corporal Allen.”

    This corporal is addressing our captain like he’s just some guy she ran into at the county fair. The term of address, “sir”, makes no appearance at all. This is the military, right? I understand that some units had lax discipline in this regard, but we’re at the War Department Auxiliary in D.C. It seems to me the discipline there would be anything but lax, perhaps similar to the Pentagon today.

    Sorry, anon, but I cringed when I read, “By the way, I’m Corporal Allen.” I was already reeling from her very nonmilitary bearing, but maybe part of my brain was thinking Allen knew our captain well already and this was their relationship. Then she introduced herself, with a complete lack of formality, and those thoughts were vanquished.

    And the corporal sent the captain’s regrets to the senator on her own? Was it under the colonel’s instruction? She doesn’t tell us, leaving me to believe she did it on her own. Again, this is a corporal, right? Unimaginable.

    My observations are based on my own military service. Any military vet I know would not continue reading this book for the very reasons I’ve mentioned.

    But with all that said, I wish you the best of luck!

  6. Ditto to the ‘military’ stuff that’s been said in the other critiques.

    I had a problem with the first paragraph. The writer describes the person, the room and then the person again. I think the paragraph would flow better if you finished one topic first. I changed it around a bit, I hope you don’t mind (I started with my favorite line of the submission).

    A whirling fan bounced humid stale air off walls the color of Baked Alaska. Blackout curtains stifled the room’s dim light. Four stiff-backed wooden chairs guarded a projector and the table upon which it sat. Captain Gregory Maxwell pulled at the starched uniform collar pasted to his 16-½ inch neck as he paced the room. Sweat dripped down his narrow brow stinging his eyes. He rolled his shoulders, severing the seal of the shirt clinging to his back.

    Actually, I would drop the description of the chair and table with the projector until Allen is in the room getting the film ready –

    A whirling fan bounced humid stale air off walls the color of Baked Alaska. Blackout curtains stifled the room’s dim light. Captain Gregory Maxwell pulled at the starched uniform collar pasted to his 16-½ inch neck as he paced the room. Sweat dripped down his narrow brow stinging his eyes. He rolled his shoulders, severing the seal of the shirt clinging to his back.

    Whether he kills the fly or not isn’t important, the fly bit is too generic anyway and takes up too much valuable wordage for the first page. Since the writer goes from the fly to the time to the fly again the most important point is hidden in the wordage – he has been in the room waiting for ‘whatever’ – No rhyme, no reason, no reporting official identified.- for almost TWO HOURS. The writer lets the reader know he is uncomfortable, but shouldn’t he be frustrated, annoyed, angry, pissed (did people get pissed in the 40s?) – that needs to come through either in his thoughts, movements or reaction to the lowly corporal who had the nerve to cancel his plans.

  7. Forgot to mention that a few of the metaphors/similes didn’t seem apt to me, e.g., the color of Baked Alaska? I’ve actually made Baked Alaska, and I’ve never seen any room anywhere in the world (and I’ve traveled a lot) where the walls looked like Baked Alaska. Aside from that, you’re bringing the idea of baking/cooking into a scene where it doesn’t fit. (Unless he’s really hungry and everything reminds him of food.)

    Noah Lukeman (agent, THE FIRST FIVE PAGES) talk about metaphors/similes. Unless you’re writing poetry, you’re basically allowed one every five pages (not a hard and fast rule, of course, but not bad for a guideline). As the saying goes, “When in doubt, leave it out.” In other words, be careful with metaphors and similes. Great writing doesn’t require them. (Invisible metaphors are good, however, but that’s a whole other craft class.)

  8. I really liked this. I agree with Mark’s comments about the similes and the white smile. Carl (comments above) also makes some good points about military protocol. Otherwise, I liked the writer’s style and would read on.

  9. Too heavy on description, too light on story. Doesn’t bode well for the rest of the book. The color of the walls in the second sentence is unnecessary (baked Alaska, BTW, begins with a small “b”). The irrelevant farm similes could easily be eliminated, and Corporal Allen would quite likely not use the word “Hades”, but would instead say “hell”. I get the idea the writer is going way out of her way in order not to “offend” anyone with profanity. It was WWII. No one raised their eyebrows at profanity. Saying “Hades” feels very unrealistic.

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