First Page Critique: Excellent Imagery, Intriguing Find

By Elaine Viets

 

This first page critique takes us back in time and back to the Old Country – Ireland. Let’s take a look at this offering. After the critique, I’ve made some comments. What do you think?
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No Title
Ireland 1240 AD

Eoin kicked the fallen oak’s trunk in disgust. He raised his face to the sky and loosed a stream of curses at the dark clouds. The reply came in a torrent of heavy rain drops that slapped his face like a thousand tiny fists, forcing him to turn his eyes back to the massive tree that that’d crushed the stone wall and let his sheep escape into the next farm. His father, Aengus O’Dowd, would have demanded his neighbor Finn return the lost sheep. But Finn hated Eoin, sole survivor of the fever sickness that had recently claimed both parents and his sister. According to tradition, if Eoin died Finn would have first right to claim the O’Dowd lands as his own. Therefore Finn counted Eoin’s recovery as theft, prevented him from becoming the wealthiest farmer in the county.

Lightning cracked in the sky, illuminating the twisted limbs like demon fingers reaching from the bowels of the earth to suck the remaining flicker of life from his Eoin’s weary soul. He tossed a scoop of mud over his shoulder and stabbed the blade back into the ground. The shovel jerked wildly as it glanced off a flexible tendril of root, slipped from his hand, and fell into the hole beneath the tree. It landed with a hollow wooden thump.
“What is this?” Eoin muttered as he stared down.

He jumped into the hole, mud splashing as he landed. He picked up the shovel and poked the metal blade into the soil probing for whatever it had hit. On the third jab he got the same hollow knock. He scraped soil away to reveal a smooth black surface, then dug until he found the edges of what appeared to be a large wooden box. Eoin soon freed it from its earthly tomb and heaved the chest up to the surface, climbing out after it. As wide as the length of his forearm and about two thirds that in both height and depth, sealed completely in pitch.
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Night was falling. He carried the box into his house.
“Get away,” he hissed at the cat, who’d immediately gotten under his feet, “or I’ll step on you.”

Too exhausted to light a lamp he, he shrugged off his wet clothes, exchanging them for dry, dropped a peat log onto the embers in the fireplace and passed out on his mat nearby.

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Elaine Viets: The author has a mystery here: Eoin has found a mysterious box under an uprooted tree. But there may be too much mystery in this first page.

Who is Eoin? How old is he? What does he look like? Is he a big man? Bearded? Muscular? Scrawny and overworked?

Eoin’s soul is described as “weary,” and Eoin recently survived a “devastating” fever. Has the fever left him weakened? Give us some hints.

Eoin’s sheep escaped. How many? If he’s a farmer, he knows exactly how many sheep he lost: two, five, six. Part of his wealth is gone.

Do we really need Eoin’s father’s name in this sentence?

“His father, Aengus O’Dowd, would have demanded his neighbor Finn return the lost sheep. “We have several names thrown at us in one paragraph: Eoin, his father and Finn.

What if you tried something like this?

            Eoin’s father would have demanded his neighbor Finn return the lost sheep.
The paragraph raises more questions:
Why doesn’t Eoin demand Finn return the sheep? Is he afraid of Finn? Is he too weak? Is Finn politically connected? We should know.

Instead we’re told, “But Finn hated Eoin, sole survivor of the fever sickness that had recently claimed both parents and his sister. According to tradition, if Eoin died, Finn would have first right to claim the O’Dowd lands as his own. Therefore Finn counted Eoin’s recovery as theft, prevented him from becoming the wealthiest farmer in the county.”

Finn’s hatred shouldn’t keep Eoin from claiming what is rightfully his. Give us a good reason.

There’s too much writing about the weather. First, the rain beats down on Eoin’s face:
“He raised his face to the sky and loosed a stream of curses at the dark clouds. The reply came in a torrent of heavy rain drops that slapped his face like a thousand tiny fists . . .”

Then, “Lightning cracked in the sky, illuminating the twisted limbs like demon fingers reaching from the bowels of the earth to suck the remaining flicker of life from his Eoin’s weary soul.”

That’s a little overdone. Think about stopping the sentence after “demon fingers.”
There is excellent imagery here. I especially liked the discovery of the box. Well done! But how does Eoin feel about this discovery? Does he think it might have a treasure to make him rich? Will it bring more trouble? Has he heard rumors that something – or the bones of someone – were buried in this area? Show us his feelings.

When Eoin gets home, he bullies the cat. Is that deliberate? Do you want to make him less sympathetic? The page ends with a cliff hanger: Eoin is “too exhausted” to open the box. I’m not sure that works. Maybe you could have him faint from exhaustion.
Be careful of the typos.

You have an intriguing situation here, Author, and good imagery. Solve some of these mysteries and you’ll have a first-rate beginning.

Get the complete Angela Richman, Death Investigator series: Brain Storm and Fire and Ashes, on sale now. http://tinyurl.com/yczfeeak

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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book. www.elaineviets.com

25 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Excellent Imagery, Intriguing Find

  1. I really liked this.

    Unfortunately, for the author, as often happens with critiques, I disagree with almost everything Elaine Viets said.

    “But there may be too much mystery in this first page.”

    Who is Eoin? How old is he? What does he look like? Is he a big man? Bearded? Muscular? Scrawny and overworked?”

    None of the things she listed here are ‘mysteries’ – they are simply descriptive details of the man and unnecessary at this point in time. Whether he is built like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Danny DeVito (sorry, the movie TWINS popped into my head) does not change or add to the fact that we have a man in 1240AD Ireland standing in a field being beaten down, physically and spiritually, by nature. Whatever his size is does not change the fact that he sees the tree as ‘massive’ and he is trying to remove it by himself with a shovel.

    ”Eoin’s sheep escaped. How many? If he’s a farmer, he knows exactly how many sheep he lost: two, five, six. Part of his wealth is gone.”

    Okay, this is 1240 AD so it is unlikely that Eoin owns a thousand sheep. I agree that he would know exactly how many sheep are supposed to be there. However, the tree has fallen taking out a section of a stone fence and leaving an opening for the sheep to escape. Isn’t it more important to close the gap and stop other sheep from escaping than it is to take a stroll along the field and count the remaining sheep?

    “Do we really need Eoin’s father’s name in this sentence?”

    Maybe not. However, I got two things from the name – first, Eoin’s most likely last name and secondly, by putting in his father’s full name I, as the reader, got the impression that unlike the Eoin we will meet in the story the mere mention of his father’s name warned other’s not to ‘mess with him’.

    “Then, “Lightning cracked in the sky, illuminating the twisted limbs like demon fingers reaching from the bowels of the earth to suck the remaining flicker of life from his Eoin’s weary soul.
    That’s a little overdone. Think about stopping the sentence after “demon fingers.”

    Are you kidding, this line says so much about this poor guy. He has lost his entire family, he is trying to keep this place together all by himself, his mere survival has made him the enemy of the man whose land his sheep are on and Mother Nature has it out for him. – … like demon fingers reaching from the bowels of the earth to suck the remaining flicker of life from his Eoin’s weary soul – right, what more can you take from him, he’s already in hell on earth and now the land itself wants to drag him down. The imagery is perfect.

    “I especially liked the discovery of the box. Well done! But how does Eoin feel about this discovery? Does he think it might have a treasure to make him rich? Will it bring more trouble? Has he heard rumors that something – or the bones of someone – were buried in this area? Show us his feelings.”

    Hey, I’m just impressed that Eoin had the strength to get the damn thing out of the ground and carry it back to the house. He is exhausted, how is he supposed to have the mental strength to go through all of that. And if the writer did go into all of that wouldn’t we just complain that he stopped the action to give us backstory? In chapter two Eoin can do all that contemplating while he is trying to get the box open.

    I do agree with two things being said –

    “When Eoin gets home, he bullies the cat. Is that deliberate? Do you want to make him less sympathetic?”

    As a person who has owned several cats I know the feeling, but I don’t think your character should verbalize it. Simply ‘push’ the cat aside – unless, of course, this cat is just another thing in a long list of things gone wrong, maybe it was his sister/mother’s cat who he never got along with and now, like the sheep, he is stuck dealing with it all by himself. If you feel it is important to threaten the cat give us a few words to let the reader know why BEFORE he says it. Maybe something like “he hissed at his sister’s pesky cat …”

    “The page ends with a cliff hanger: Eoin is “too exhausted” to open the box. I’m not sure that works. Maybe you could have him faint from exhaustion.”

    I agree, it is a good idea, but it is a bit weak. How about changing it around a little? He comes in, puts the box down and throws a pellet on the fire. Then you can have him remove some of his clothes (the top half) he sits on the bed to pull off his pants, lies down for just a second, but falls asleep instead. OR he changes his clothes, sitting on the bed to pull on his pants, knows he should put another pellet on the fire but is too tired to get up so he just pulls a blanket tightly around him.

    As I said before, I liked this. Keep up the good work.

  2. Rather than go through this line by line I’ll just say this was very, very good. It feels like I’m back in Ireland, in 1240 AD. That is not an easy task to accomplish, but the author succeeds by highlighting the deaths (by disease) of the POV character’s family, and by his focus on the weather, the tree, the escape of his sheep, and his troublesome neighbor, etc. I am not in the least concerned at this point as to whether Eoin is 6′ 6″ and brawny or 5′ 3″ and frail, nor do I care exactly how many sheep he lost. Those details would probably detract from the evocative scene. The hidden box was a surprise I didn’t see coming, and an intriguing one, at that. I would agree, the chapter/scene ending needs to be a bit more inventive.

  3. I have some problems with this, and some of it has to do with simple overwrought writing that can be easily fixed. (ie the stuff after demon fingers) But there’s a fatal flaw: You’ve built up some nice tension with this mystery box unearthed from the mud that Eoin drags home. It’s the reason to read on.

    And then he doesn’t open it?

    C’mon man.

  4. I agree with Elaine and PJ. There is so much introduced in these first paragraphs that I lost why Eoin was digging under the tree in the first place. I read the entry twice to try to figure it out. If it’s there, it isn’t strong enough. Why was he digging in the rain? He should be chopping the tree into pieces for firewood on a cold dry day.
    I would eliminate most of the backstory and save it for later because it is good stuff. For tension, he could be thinking about his neighbor and that juxtaposed to the physical action might be interesting.
    The box is what is important and I’m interested in its discovery and what the heck is in it. Pandora anyone??? Dear writer, you have the beginnings of a great story, just needs to be developed better. So far, I would read the next page.

  5. I think you have some very good bones here, though I agree with the comments that parts are a bit overwrought and overdone. You have some nice imagery, but be more judicious in use and tie closer to main characters thoughts and emotions.

    It feels as if what happens before the discovery of the box needs to be flushed out and made more immediate by getting more into the character’s head. Show more, tell less.

    I also agree it’s silly to end with him going to sleep. What is the point of doing that? If the story is about how his life changes due to what’s inside the box, just get on with it already.

    If your intent is to keep the reader reading, a chapter or a scene break will suffice without irritating them in the process. : )

    You have done a good job establishing conflict and presenting a situation to immediately interest the reader. You manage to convey a lot about the character and his situation in short order. So nicely done!

  6. I also liked this submission and would read on provided the typos were cleaned up. What some have attributed as ‘overwrought’ writing seems an appropriate representation of how someone in this time period would think. This is a pre-science culture that attributes everything to ‘God’s will’ and wholly believes in demons and the personification of weather. If the theme of this work is good vs evil, then the descriptions lay the foundation for that theme. If this is a fantasy rather than a historical mystery, then I think the descriptions become even more important to the whole of the work. I would like to see the protagonist wonder what’s in the box and go home with the intention of opening it immediately. Having him sit down to rest (perhaps right in front of the box) and taking just a moment to shut his eyes before he pries open the box, which results in him falling asleep instead, would keep me hanging on for the next paragraph/section/chapter. If he just leaves the box until morning, you’re telling the reader the box isn’t all that important, which saps all the strength from the opening, in my opinion. Characters are supposed to want things. He should want to open the box in the worst way before he’s overcome by fatigue.

  7. I, too, liked this piece. The extra details about how Eoin looks and how many sheep are not important, but I do agree with Elaine that there should be some cost on his body from the sickness. That would drive home the fact that it happened, and that his whole family died from it. I was also left wondering why he didn’t go after the sheep. Perhaps it would be even stronger if he just came back from his neighbor frustrated, that’s why he’s stabbing the shovel in to the ground. And the ending needs work.

  8. While the general feel of the scene here reminds me very much of home, in a dismal, miserable, wet and cold sense, I do notice a conspicuous lack of Leprechauns in this bit of story. And how are there no Faerie folk under the roots of that tree…or maybe they’re hidin’.

    Otherwise, Eoin seems like a nice enough fellow.

      • If memory serves correctly, around 1240 there was a temporary strike against physically helping humans, although the Leprechaun Guild did allow our people to stand by and mock them. The argument was about something to do with an incident in a pub where my Great-to-the-third-power uncle Hugo the Beardless was enjoying a nice pint one afternoon and was mistaken for a child skipping his lessons. A human grabbed him by the ear and led him out into the street shouting that children didn’t belong in a pub drinking ale. Well, Uncle Hugo was in fact over two hundred years old and was a close friend of the Faerie King, they’d played rugby together in the minor leagues in the day, and the Faerie King called for a general strike against being nice to humans. At any rate, the strike only lasted a few weeks, because most Leprechauns are inherently nice, and the Tree Sprites simply couldn’t stand the negative vibe. So they all made friends again and the sun came out, and there was ale and mince pie and dancing, and more ale.

  9. I like the overall tone of this piece. I think it can be pulled back a bit. It would be hard to read an entire novel written at this level, I think I would find myself skipping words after a while.

    The line that killed it for me (and made me flip to the would not continue to read side) is:
    Night was falling. He carried the box into his house.

    Up to this point we have vivid imagery showing us a man who is beat down, tragic, fatalistic, and then suddenly night is falling and he carries the box into his house. There is no equivalent imagery associated with this line. It almost reads as a note to the author to come back and flesh this out later. It does not match the previous writing, and completely threw me out of the story. Up to that point I found myself intrigued and would have kept reading.

  10. While I understand the critique, I have to say, this first page was fabulous. I was seeing this movie begin in my head as I read, and the imagery just pulled me right in. Fantastic job.

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