First Page Critique ‘1940’

Today’s first page critique is a novel entitle ‘1940’. My comments follow, but I think it is a good example of some of the pitfalls when it comes to the opening of any novel – namely how to start with an incident that compels a reader to keep reading, while also providing a good grounding in the time and place of the story. See you on the flip side for more detailed commentary.

1940

Ilya began to fidget. The concrete bench he shared with his teacher chilled his thin frame. Martha stopped reading the Washington Herald and placed it on her lap. She watched Ilya finish a sketch of the blooming dogwood tree that stood across from them. It fascinated her he could draw the tree effortlessly at the age most boys in fourth grade just wanted to climb a one.

He slid the worn pencil over his left ear then stared at her, but kept silent.

“What is it Ilya? She asked. “I can tell something’s on your mind.”

He had been waiting for the right moment to tell her what the housekeeper said while he was waiting for the limo this morning.

“Alfrayda said teachers don’t take their students to the cemetery.”

She held her temper and calmly said, “This teacher does.” Then she confidently added, “I’ll set Alfrayda straight first thing when we get back to the compound.” She wasn’t afraid to confront the Soviet embassy housekeeper.

“Father should bring me,” he said angrily. “He’s just an attache at the embassy. He has time.”

She placed her arm around his shoulder and drew him close. “My dear boy, your father is not just an attache. He has many demands for his time and Ambassador Aleksandrovich relies heavily on your father’s skills.”

“You have demands, but you always have time for me.”

“Yes, I have demands, but nothing on the scale of a government official.”

He accepted her reply and began to sketch an outline of the gravestone set under the flowering dogwood. That upright gravestone in the sea of handcrafted concrete statues seemed cruel to her. Ilya’s slender fingers guided the pencil systematically, retreating to darken and emphasize his mother’s name engraved across the tarnished limestone.

                                       Sigrune Haushoffer  

                                               1900-1931

Ilya nudged her. “I’ve finished.” He held the sketch at arms length for her to observe.

“One day you will have your drawings displayed in a museum,” she told him. Maybe then, she thought to herself, Yaroslav Dalmatov would appreciate his son’s artistic talent.

“You mean like the museums here in D.C.?”

“Of course.” She never hesitated to encourage him.

COMMENTS

General:

Overall, although this first page is tightly written and interesting it doesn’t have anything that reaches out and grabs me from the outset. All we really have is a conversation between a boy and his teacher. Although the fact that is his father is an attache to the Soviet Embassy in DC is interesting, there’s not much in this first page that provides anything in the way of real intrigue. There are snippets of it – the fact that he’s sketching at the cemetery where his mother is buried, the fact that his father is clearly doing something important with the Soviet Ambassador, but there isn’t quite enough to get a reader invested in the characters as yet. We need to care about Illya and his artistic talent to have our interest piqued. Right now, I’m not feeling all that compelled as a reader to read more.  I think the author should reconsider where to actually start this novel – this page sounds more like the opening to a second chapter than the first.

Specific Comments:

There’s also not a lot in terms of historical grounding for this first page. If I didn’t see the title ‘1940’, I wouldn’t be able to place when this first page conversation is taking place. I liked the sparseness of the detail provided and the directness of the dialogue, but I felt I needed a greatest sense of historical footing so I could visualize the scene. Without historical context, this conversation could be taking place today, or the 1950s or 1960s. There’s no detail given to distinguish the time period for me. It’s always hard reviewing a first page when you don’t have a synopsis or outline, but it is important to set the stage both in time and space – I see Washington DC but I don’t, as yet, see 1940.

POV

This first page is written with an omniscient 3rd POV where we, as readers, hear the thoughts of Illya as well as his teacher. For me this dilutes the power of this particular first page – I wanted to feel closer to one of these two characters (registering their emotional responses and hearing their inner dialogue) to feel more engaged.

 

Names

Now this might be a bit of a nit pick, but the name ‘Alfrayda’ threw me out of the story – for some reason it sounded wrong for the 1940s and also (weirdly) reminded me of names in The Handmaiden’s Tale. This could just be me, but I caution the writer on including too many unusual names that could distract from historical grounding of the story (unless of course this is an alternate history/fantasy where names like that are common!). Also there are a lot of names used in this first page without any really characterisation provided: We have Martha, Illya, Alfrayda, Ambassador Aleksandrovich and Yaroslav Dalmatov (Illya’s father) – but out of all of them, I can really only picture Illya given the scene described.

Dramatic Tension

Although I liked the conversation between Illya and Martha about his artistic talent and the graveyard drawing session, all the dramatic tension feels off stage – between Illya’s father and his son, as well as between Martha and the Alfrayda. There isn’t any actual conflict on the page. Martha is supportive of Illya’s talent and wants to encourage him but we don’t understand why we (as readers) should care about his talent or his role in the upcoming story.

Summary

The good news is that the first page is well written with a nice clarity of prose and purposeful dialogue. For it to be a compelling first page, however, I think the author should either start the novel in a different place  (and keep this scene for a later chapter), or inject more dramatic tension onto the page to have us, as readers, fully invested in this story from the get-go.

So TKZers what do you think? What advice would you give our brave submitter?

4+
This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , by Clare Langley-Hawthorne. Bookmark the permalink.

About Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Her first novel, Consequences of Sin, featuring the Oxford graduate, heiress, and militant suffragette Ursula Marlow, was published in 2007. This was followed by two more books in the series, The Serpent and The Scorpion (2008) and Unlikely Traitors (2014). Consequences of Sin was a San Francisco Chronicle Bay Area bestseller and a Macavity Award nominee for best historical mystery. http://www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com/

15 thoughts on “First Page Critique ‘1940’

  1. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Here are my comments:

    1. If 1940 is truly the title of this work, I think you might want to reconsider. Likewise, the first sentence is a little ho-hum.

    2. Whose story is this? I assume the story is about the artist, rather than the teacher. Therefore, I’d write in the artist’s POV. (See my comments on yesterday’s critique about POV.)

    3. Every scene needs conflict and a change. I could regurgitate information that is contained in other articles about how to write a scene, but instead, I’ll just point you to a great article by Jodie Renner here. The way this scene is currently written, it sounds more like backstory. The information in your first scene could be woven into the story later. You’re just delaying the inevitable. You have to make something important happen to get the ball rolling. What sells your story is the first page. No time to warm up. Make that first page count! Put the meatiest scene you’ve got first, because that scene is what literary agents (readers, editors, etc.) will read in order to decide whether to keep reading. If you want to show conflict on the first page, rather than having a chat about a busy father with a teacher in a cemetery, you could show the conflict with a scene directly between the son and the father. Don’t convey that the father is dismissive through a chat with a middleman (the teacher). Whatever you do, I feel the scene is too passive for a first page scene.

    I hope this helps. Keep writing, brave writer. Good luck!

    • Thanks Joanne – some great points here. I forgot to mention the title issue – though as someone who is terrible at titles I understand the difficulty in coming up with something good but ‘1940’ doesn’t really tell us anything.

      • If this is a WIP, it’s likely the writer will have some better ideas once the book is finished. I do feel the title is too broad. This title made me think of the movie Summer of ’42. That title is a tad more descriptive. Maybe if the author wants to use the year in the title, (s)he could do something similar to the movie title so it’s not just a year.

  2. I agree Clare…tightly written but that doesn’t translate into compelling reading. But what most bothered me was the lack of a firm point of view. The writer is head hopping between the consciousnesses of the boy and his nanny right from the first graph:

    The cold bench chilled his thin frame. (we are in illya’s POV)
    Martha stopped reading…and watched (her POV)

    This continues throughout the sample. I would guess it might be best to choose the adult’s POV for this scene but not sure since, as you said, the situation isn’t that dramatically interesting. This quiet scene feels like it belongs later in the book.

    Telling the reader where and when the story is taking place is always a necessary “trick.” The writer does gracefully insert that we are in Washington D.C. via the newspaper and the boy’s dialogue — good job there. The time element could be solved easily: After Martha notes the tombstone year of death 1900-1931, have her think something like, “Had it only been nine years since he died?” We all have to look for small opportunities like this in our narratives.

    And as James said yesterday of his critique, attention needs to be paid to the title. This one might be a working title…I hope so. If it isn’t, it has to go. It says nothing about the story, mood, genre, tone, content.

  3. The first sentence includes what is (for me, anyway) one of the cardinal sins of writing: “began to”. I would ordinarily stop reading at that point. “Began to”, along with “started to” and its other relatives, are a red flag. The brave writer should rework that piece of information to eliminate the phrase, and — in accordance with Joanne’s suggestion — definitely not make it the opening sentence.

    The rest of the page seems like an info-dump, with lots of backstory and explanation and virtually no action or tension. And it is action and/or tension that draws a reader beyond the first page into the depths of a book.

    • I am drawn to books with a powerful, assertive opening sentence. For example, Nora Roberts opens The Witness like this:

      “Elizabeth Fitch’s short-lived teenage rebellion began with L’Oreal Pure Black, a pair of scissors and a fake ID.”

      The book grabbed me from the opening sentence, and I read the book in one sitting.

      I agree that I’m turned off when I read “began to” – in most cases, wording like this is akin to stuttering. Readers trust writers more when they say things in an authoritative way without weasel words.

  4. Dear TKZ,

    This is the author of today’s first page critique. The title of my book is ‘The Defector’. It was placed in the subject column of the e-mail. 1940 was just setting the timeline.
    I do appreciate your critique and the other comments. I agree with everyone.
    Thank you so much.

    • Hi brave author and thank you for submitting! Sorry the subject line must have got lost at my end so thanks for clarifying about the title – it makes sense that 1940 is the time frame only. I’m glad we at TKZ could provide some useful advice. Your writing style is great so I think it’s more about creating more dramatic tension on this first page and you’re well on your way.

    • Mary, I love that you’re writing about a gifted, artistic child. I’m drawn to books like that, and I look forward to reading your book when it’s finished. You’re on your way!

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