Do You See Your Character the Way Readers Do? First Page Critique: Rabya

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

For your reading pleasure, we have an anonymous submission of the first 400 words to a story titled – Rabya. I give my feedback below, but I also wanted to share this tidbit that the author shared on the inspiration for the story. In my own writing, headlines often inspire my novels and I love blending my research into fiction to add gravitas and authenticity.

FROM THE ANONYMOUS AUTHOR – Based on a true situation, RABYA is the story of how an American software engineer lands on the Terror Watch List because his live-in girlfriend, Rayba Salik, is Turkish. Does she have a secret?

***

Two minutes before take-off, Justin Karns twists side-to-side, trying to carve out room for his shoulders. The tall guy to his left has already commandeered the armrest. His manspread invades Justin’s space. The thought of rubbing knees with him across the Atlantic Ocean is creepy. If Justin doesn’t resolve this problem soon, he’ll be a mess for his big interview.

A few rows ahead, three seats sit empty. Though it’s verboten to move during takeoff, the seat should still be available in five minutes if everyone follows the rules. Yet, when the plane levels off—with the seat belt sign still lit—a man darts into the empty row. Justin pushes his call button.

“May I help you?” The flight attendant asks.

“Yes, please.” He glances at her name tag. “Kirsten, this row is way too crowded for three tall men. I’m six-foot and cramped. Imagine how these guys feel.” He flips his thumb to the left. “There was an empty row ahead, but someone just took the middle seat.”

She glances over her shoulder and then back without a word.

“Would you mind asking that guy to take the window seat so we could both be comfortable up there. Then my friend here,” Wilt the Stilt, “will have a place to stow his legs.”

“I’m sorry,” Kirsten says. “That is not possible.”

“Seriously? I fly international all the time. People always change seats.”

“There are new rules. Sorry.” She walks away.

When Justin can’t settle in, he calls her back. He considers name dropping his interview with Cruise Talon, the famous international consulting firm, but he’d sound like a braggart. He could hyperbolize his agony, but he’d sound like a wimp. Instead, he resorts to the truth. “I really need to change seats. My future depends on being rested.”
Her blue eyes turn icy. “I am sorry. Enjoy the flight.”

Perfect. Flight attendant on a power trip.

Justin stands up, stretches his body, and watches Kirsten return to the galley. A man on the aisle with a cop’s buzz cut smirks at him and reaches into his jacket, for what—a citation pad? He wouldn’t be so judgmental if he were stuffed into a row with daddy long legs.

Desperate to relax, Justin tilts back and waits for a chance to steal a piece of the armrest.

So, I’m the only one on this flight who can’t change seats.

FEEDBACK

TO LIKE OR NOT TO LIKE JUSTIN – My overall impression is that I’m not sure I want to be in Justin’s head for an entire book. If I were a reader picking up a book and reading the first page or so, how important is it for me to like him?

Some authors can pull off complex characters, where it’s not necessary for the reader to instantly like them. If the reader can be won over by the deeds of a complicated character, you have a major bond and great writing.

But in this short sample, Justin comes across as self-involved, arrogant, cynical to a fault, and inconsiderate. If this is a story inspired by real events, I would recommend shining a more sympathetic light on Justin. The author would be better off making this guy relatable from page one. Even if Justin is irascible, if the reader sees him in an uncomfortable situation that they have been through, the focus wouldn’t be on Justin’s worst traits.

HELP THE READER RELATE TO THE SITUATION INSTEAD – If the author plans on Justin being a challenging character with a prickly nature, I would recommend the author divert the reader’s attention from his unsavory personality to focus on his situation.

Who hasn’t endured a terrible flight where everything seems to go wrong? I would concentrate on the things that many readers would have experienced, then show Justin navigating those waters to see how he deals with things.

1.) Cramped seats
2.) A crying baby or two
3.) Recirculating air that doesn’t work
4.) Seat that doesn’t recline
5.) The interior of the plane feels like a sweltering oven
6.) Someone knocks his elbow on the aisle and hits the raw nerve of his funny bone
7.) Or a plane too small for good overhead bin space and he has to cram his carry on under the seat in front of him, leaving him no leg room.

(Can you tell I’ve had my share of really awful flights? I traveled on business when I was with the energy industry. Now my commute is from my bedroom to my home office. Sweet.)

If the author is going for the kind of characters featured in GONE GIRL – as seen through the eyes of a failed and bitter marriage of a husband and wife where both of them look guilty – then the voice attempted in this opener would pose a challenge to a reader who might like to relate to a main character. It’s a fine line to have an arrogant character still be likeable enough that a reader might want to eventually root for him. Finding the right balance in a character like that takes a deft hand.

A book that resonated with me and I highly recommend is PARANOIA by Joe Finder. This novel was made into a movie. Read the book. It’s a MUCH BETTER story. As you can see from the synopsis below (embellished by me), the author has borderline criminal, Adam, start his downhill spiral by doing a favor for a friend, a buddy of his who works in the warehouse. After he gets caught in a crime by his employer, Adam is given a chance to rectify his situation and do the right thing, but instead he takes the corporate ultimatum/blackmail and breaks the law to spy on another company. It’s a story of David versus Goliath.

In Paranoia, Adam Cassidy is twenty-six and a low level employee at a high-tech corporation who hates his job. He’s a real slacker with hustler, street smarts. When he manipulates the system to do something nice for a friend, he finds himself charged with a crime and corporate security gives him a choice: prison – or become a spy in the headquarters of the company’s chief competitor.

PRESENT TENSE – I didn’t see the point to writing this story in present tense, since more readers dislike it. Present tense is more likely to appear in YA where teen readers don’t have the bias of living most of their lives reading 3rd person, past tense books.

PLAUSIBILITY ISSUES – I found several issues wrong with this intro, just from a factual standpoint.

Call Button – Before Justin presses the call button, he makes a point to notice the seat belt sign was still lit. Yet once he presses his call button, the flight attendant pops up at the ready to serve. Things happen too fast in sequence for them to sound realistic.

Rules on Changing Seats – I took issue with Justin expecting the flight attendant to settle his seating problems. Any flight attendant is there for safety reasons first, but pushy Justin expects her to fight his battles by intervening. But to compound the issue, he argues that he flies international “all the time” and people change seats. (Why he argues only about international flights and not domestic too, I have no clue.) The attendant tells him there are new rules and changing seats is not permitted, yet the whole incident that started this argument was that a guy changed seats and was allowed to stay. That’s a logic problem that readers would see, like I did, and not take the story seriously. The whole argument comes off silly. Justin is being belligerent and the attendant is being overly mean. (Most flight attendants are very accommodating.)

Justin has options – Justin has the option of asking the man who has the row to himself if he can share the seating with him. When he chooses to force the attendant to intervene, he comes across as weak and a whiner. If the objective is to give a voice to Justin that sets the stage for the entire book, I would recommend the author take a harder look at how Justin should appear in his debut moment of first appearing on the page. Is he a victim or is a jerk who’s asking for it? Does he have poor judgment or is the Cosmos teaching him a lesson in humility? The author could go anyway with this. I suggested drawing the reader in by putting Justin in a situation where the reader can relate to a terrible flight and a seriously bad day, but there are other ways for the author to go. We simply don’t what the author has in mind. As a reader, I would put this book down, however. Justin hasn’t won me over to turn the page or buy the book.

As an author, you have control of ANYTHING in the story, but the fictional world should be consistent or must seem real to the reader, in order for them to suspend disbelief and read along.

NITPICKS – Word choices and pop culture references are important and should fit the character if the story is from his or her POV.

1.) Do guys really use the word “creepy” to describe man-spreading and knocking knees with a guy sitting too close? That sounds like the word choice of a victim or a word that a woman would use. Similarly, the line below makes Justin sound childish and unwilling to even try to rectify his own problem. Not a very mature response for a guy traveling across the Atlantic for an international job with an elite employer. Anyone in this position would be assertive, a negotiator, and a charmer.

So, I’m the only one on this flight who can’t change seats.

2.) How many readers would get the reference, “Wilt the Stilt”? Wilt Chamberlain played from 1959 to 1973. Justin strikes me as a younger guy who might reference an NBA player currently playing. Another example of a description that stands out as odd to me is – Daddy Long Legs. My parents would use this. Pretty ancient reach back.

3.) By calling attention to Justin’s internal thoughts on his options (see below), the reader gets unfavorable thoughts planted about Justin that the author may not intend. By his actions, he’s already an acquired taste. Why add fuel to stoke the fire?

He considers name dropping his interview with Cruise Talon, the famous international consulting firm, but he’d sound like a braggart. He could hyperbolize his agony, but he’d sound like a wimp.

TITLE – Rabya may be a working title, but it wouldn’t make a good published title in my opinion. Using the woman’s name might also limit the cover design to feature the woman, when the story is truly about Justin and the calamity of his life. When I don’t “feel” the title right away, I start writing down alternatives and make a long list before I settle on one. Get feedback from beta readers.

DISCUSSION
1.) What do you think of books written in present tense, TKZ? Am I the only one without my 3-D glasses?

2.) What feedback would you add for this courageous author?

 

Since P J Parrish had to throw down the guantlet by adding music to the end of her post this week, I’ve included this link & dedicate the song to the character in this submission. Justin is having a very bad day. #TKZMusicChallenge

 

 

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

41 thoughts on “Do You See Your Character the Way Readers Do? First Page Critique: Rabya

  1. Thanks for submitting your work, brave writer. Jordan gave you wise and thoughtful advice. Here are my comments::

    1. I didn’t find the voice appealing, and that made the sample difficult to read.

    2. There’s a point of view shift at the end of the snippet.

    “So, I’m the only one on this flight who can’t change seats.”

    Use italics or something to let the reader know if you shift to a character’s inner thoughts.

    3. I don’t mind novels written in present tense, but the writer must be skilled in order to pull it off. Fifty Shades of Grey is an example of a wildly successful novel written in the present tense. Fifty Shades of Grey is also written in first person, which helps to make it seem less distant.

    4. Not enough happens in this sample and what does happen isn’t dramatized as well as it could be..

    5. Improper use of quotation marks:

    “Would you mind asking that guy to take the window seat so we could both be comfortable up there. Then my friend here,” Wilt the Stilt, “will have a place to stow his legs.”

    Wilt the Stilt should be inside of the quotation marks since the character is speaking the name.

    6. The protagonist isn’t likable. He seems whiny and self-absorbed.

    7. Without knowing your premise, it’s hard to advise you about where to begin your story. However, it’s rare that you want to start a story with the protagonist going somewhere in a plane, train, or automobile. If your protagonist is on his way to an interview, perhaps the interview is the place to start the story. If you’re going to start with the protagonist on the plane, then something had better happen on that plane that’s interesting. If you want a literary agent (or anyone) to want to read your book, your opening needs to be the most engaging scene that you can possibly come up with. One thing you could do is to make a list of ten different possible ways to open your story and then pick the one that is the most exciting. You’ve got no more than a few seconds to capture a reader’s interest before (s)he’s off to the next book.

    The bottom line is that the reader doesn’t know Justin and has no reason to care about his comfort on an airline flight. Here’s an article with some help on how to properly introduce your protagonist.

    Please don’t be discouraged by the comments, brave writer. I’m sure you’ve got a great story to tell, and I want to see you get off to the best possible start. Keep going!

    • I cringe when I think of Fifty Shades as an author craft benchmark. Yes, it’s popular for its sexual content, but it came from fan fiction for the Twilight vampire series books.

      Thanks for all your detailed input. Very much appreciated, Joanne.

      • Yes, but the author did (all issues with the writing notwithstanding) have a more engaging voice than the writer of this sample. Of course, sex sells. If there’s no sex, the writing has to be much better… lol.

        • HA!!! You reminded me when my own mother told me that SEX SELLS. Words you never think you’ll hear from your mom.

          On my wedding day when I was 23 yrs old, mo mother was too timid to talk about “the birds and bees,” so she said, “Honey, I’d tell you about the birds and the bees, but I’m afraid you’d correct me.” True story.

    • I noticed a couple of typos when I read what I wrote (double punctuation marks). Forgive me, I was sleepy, and it was dark.

  2. Jordan, if you hadn’t started with the tidbit about where this story is inspired from, I would be fed up with Justin. But, I’m getting the impression that the writer is trying to lead us into a situation where Justin is being discriminated against for Rabya. So, I also get the feeling he won’t reach his interview.

    Brave writer, I agree that this current set of events don’t work. If what I assume is true–and I’m not going to assume that–here’s my suggestion. Have Justin go to confront the dude who changed seats, and then have the flight attendant push him back to his seat and ignore the other man. It’s quite common for Muslims, or people associated with them, to be treated that way. Just take my word for it.

    Present tense- In my opinion, present tense only works for children’s books, and only in first person. When an adult story is written this way, the character comes across as selfish and not a forward thinker. Perhaps this is just the problem with your character coming across as whiny. I believe that children’s authors use present tense to emphasize the immediacy of the character’s problems, and the fact that kids normally don’t look too far in to the future.

    • I included the teaser to give us something on the intriguing plot because this intro doesn’t hint of where the story will go.

      If this is a betrayal of Justin’s trust in a lover, it might be a good idea to ground the reader in a loving scene between Rabya & Justin. That way when he’s arrested or questioned on terrorism, Rabya’s part in his trouble will be more shocking. The reader would be put in his shoes, when faced with his doubts about a woman he loves. But I would keep her involvement a continual mystery, have him fight for her, even when he’s faced with things discovered in an investigation. Reserve a twist at the end to spin the identity of the villain in another direction. There’s potential to this plot, but this intro doesn’t show the intrigue.

  3. I don’t like flying at all. The brave writer described that awful, cramped, frustrated feeling well!

    I would have cared more about Justin’s discomfort if I cared more about his mission. Justin won’t be rested and his “future depends” on him being rested. I find that doubtful because we’ve all rallied our energy after a sleepless night to do a good job at work on a particularly important work day. If his future has to do with outmaneuvering a criminal genius that has threatened his beloved Rabya, then yes, I care more about him trying to rest on the plane.

    I like the way the brave writer used just enough description in the opening, but not too much: the cop-like buzz cut, the long spider legs of the man next to him, the flight attendant’s eyes that ice over.

    • I have a feeling that Justin being rested will not matter in an intro. I might believe exhaustion could play a part as the story progresses, but only that the reader can understand his mental mistakes. A villain wouldn’t be able to count on Justin’s fatigue, for example. Thanks for your input, Priscilla.

  4. Opening in an airplane is what I classify as a “static situation.” It’s like opening your book in a car, or with a phone call, or just sitting at a desk in the homicide department. Yeah, open in a plane if it’s about to be hijacked. Yeah, open in a car if the driver is about to be in a Jason Bourne like chase. Yeah, open with a phone call if the first line is “I’m in a window across from your office. I have a cell phone in my left hand and gun aimed at your head in the right.”

    Otherwise, it is throat-clearing, I think. Or getting into a scene too early.

    If the scene in the plane conveys something very critical to the character or plot, or does something to fundamentally reveal character, yes, I think it could work. But I don’t get that feeling here. I suspect the story might best start in chapter 2 or 3, when Justin arrives at his destination and at a dramatic point where things are moving forward and in service of the story.

    And for the record, I cast a no vote for present tense here.

    • Love that song, Jordan! But now it will be an earwig all day. And I am actually having a very good day so far. 🙂

    • Well said, Kris. I like your examples of potential starts for a static situation.

      The opening scene can ground the reader into Justin’s world if it includes Rabya. The reader needs to SEE his love for the woman who might be a betrayer. Otherwise the story might devolve into a back story dump & TELLING the reader about Rabya.

    • Your examples are excellent. So many writers feel that they have to describe every boring detail of the protagonist’s day. For example, readers don’t need to see the protagonist getting out of bed (except, of course, in a scene like the one in The Cutting Edge where an ice hockey player wakes up in bed with a strange girl only to learn that he’s late for the Olympics because she didn’t set the alarm.)

  5. Hahaha. Perfect song!

    I agree with your comments, Jordan. Present tense POV feels unnatural to me. Maybe I’m too set in my ways to appreciate it. Which makes me wonder about the target audience. If this is an adult thriller, then many TKZers make up that audience. If we don’t like Justin, the whine-bag, then chances are others won’t either. As I read the first page, I secretly hoped the guy behind Justin would toss a garrote around his neck. Oops. Sorry. My halo fell cockeyed for a minute there. 🙂

    • Before I became an author with many hours of learning craft, I had more tolerance for present tense, but now it pulls me out of the book.

      Readers might pick up on this & reflect it in their reviews. As authors, that might be unwarranted, but it’s their honest opinion. Thanks, Sue.

      The song challenge baton has been passed to YOU.

  6. Justin appears to be in an aisle seat (primo position) since he gestures toward two men to his left. Yet he complains about the poor guy in the middle seat commandeering the armrest? What else is the middle seat supposed to do? If the author put Justin in the middle seat instead, I’d be a lot more sympathetic about his plight.
    AZAli’s suggestion of having Justin try to move, then be pushed back by Kristin is excellent. It would show Justin as a man of action, even if the reader doesn’t care for his pushiness. That escalates passive discomfort into active conflict. I’d stick around for a few more pages to see what happens.
    Brave Author, your writing is already clear and vivid. A little tweaking and this could make a compelling read, especially in light of your introduction.

    • Most guys ask for aisle seat for them to stretch their legs into the aisle. A bulkhead row might be prime worth fighting over.

      But I’m not sure why anyone would steal a middle seat in an empty row. The whole scene rings as unrealistic. Thanks, Debbie.

  7. In my opinion, this is an example of starting in the wrong place. The situation is too familiar to be interesting and our main character’s reaction is petty.
    Think about moving the story ahead in time to the point where the real conflict begins. Start there. It could be a small thing. Our main character see a man he thinks he saw in the departure lounge at the beginning of the journey and maybe our main character thinks he sees the man is putting a gun into an under arm holster. How did he get a gun in an airport? Even something small, if its out of the norm, can catch the reader’s interest.
    One last point. This is fiction and the temptation to “keep it real” can impair your ability to create a compelling story line. Best of luck and keep trying.

  8. One more thing I thought I’d mention.

    The author writes:

    Instead, he resorts to the truth. “I really need to change seats. My future depends on being rested.”

    There is no need for the first sentence explaining beforehand what he is going to do. This is an example of telling. The dialogue line after the preceding line is all that is needed. Many authors feel that they have to explain or announce something in advance. My advice: don’t.

    • One more example of this (sorry, I can’t help myself) is this sentence:

      Desperate to relax, Justin tilts back and waits for a chance to steal a piece of the armrest.

      Brave writer, don’t tell us Justin’s motivations using words like “desperate to relax.” Show us with his actions.

  9. While I write in past tense, I really don’t care whether a story is told in past or present. However, I personally do not like to read a book written in first person – talk about self-centered (which is why it is perfect for a YA).

    Yes – I heard a man use the word creepy two days ago.

    Jordan – I’m not sure why anyone would steal a middle seat in an empty row. The point of moving is to get a seat ‘with no one sitting next to you’. If the person takes the middle seat than neither seat next to him is a seat ‘with no one sitting next to you’. By taking the middle seat he makes both the window and aisle undesirable.

    This didn’t seem right to me – Two minutes before take-off, Justin Karns twists side-to-side,- wouldn’t the annoyance have been going on for longer than that or did one of his aisle mates just sit down as the door was closing? This might work – he was fine with the sit next to him empty – until someone plops into it, just when the seatbelt sign goes on so he can’t move – he’s ready to jump seats the second the light goes off (by then he can’t). It might just be me – but I can usually tell I want to move and would have jumped seats before the seat belt sign went on.

    I think too much emphasis is placed on the need to like the character within the first page, the first chapter would be more realistic. I believe it is impossible for a writer to convey enough for the reader to judge a character, get a good feel for the setting and an idea of where the story is going within the first page. When a writer does try to convey all that information in the first page we end up with either too much description and/or backstory. A writer must decide which of these (character, setting or story) is the most important thing for the reader to know/experience right off the bat and focus there.

    For me, that is the problem with this submission, there is nothing important being told (that’s assuming this whole story doesn’t take place on the plane – the setting, I could be wrong).

    • Yeah, I had an issue with that “stealing a middle seat” too, but the jerk would probably horde the middle to improve his chances of no one wanting to sit next to him on either side. A real jerk. Of course, I’d love to be the one who sat next to him…and force HIM to move to the window, just to see if he’d do it. I like messing with people.

      I’ve read a few books where the character is not very likable in the first part of the book. That’s okay, as long as they author gives more reasons for the reader to stick with it. So as you spelled out in your comments, Michelle, it’s important for something to be happening that will keep the reader intrigued.

      • Consider the character Jason Bourne. He was an assassin (not exactly a good guy), but readers (viewers) are interested in learning what happens to him because he’s so good at what he does. Readers also empathize with him because he was part of a government experiment. Readers don’t need to like the protagonist, but they at least need to empathize with him. Writers need to manipulate the feelings of the reader on the first page to make readers feel something for the protagonist.

        • Don’t think of the movie. Go read the Robert Ludlum book/series. Bourne had amnesia and didn’t know if he was Carlos the Jackal. Seeing Bourne searching for his identity and his chameleon disguises and murderous skills were real spy trade craft. Ludlum is a master at cliffhanger paging turning books. He got me hooked on writing.

          The Matt Damon movie was okay, but NOT even a fraction as good as the books. Damon miscast.

  10. another submission where nothing happens, a character’s idle thoughts, no disturbance to draw in the reader. How about some turbulence. Plane shudders and or loses altitude?

  11. One of the guys in our writing group is constantly reminding us of the writer who went through 16 drafts of his first chapter and never finished the novel.

    I suspect the first job of the first page and first chapter is to get the writer to chapter two and the rest of the story. Once the story is there, then the writer can go back and craft a first page and first chapter that hook and land the reader.

    We don’t know if the anonymous author has written the whole book yet. If not, it would probably be good to file all of these good comments somewhere and come back to them when they know what the first chapter needs to do relative to the rest of the book.

    • You bring up a good point about when an author should seek feedback. I’ve often started a novel, but had gone back to precede it with a chapter that fit better, after I was nearly half done & had a better feel for my characters & plot.

      When I started out, I belonged to a local chapter of writers and we were very active in monthly author craft presentations, research workshops, field trips, and we had active beta reading groups. I usually wrote 3 chapters (the basic setup) before I sought feedback, while so kept writing.

      If someone writes & edits the same first few pages, without moving on until the piece is perfect, they generally are insecure and may not trust their own judgment & lack confidence. Finishing a book is a challenge for anyone, but someone who continually doubts their work, they are doubly challenged. I really sympathize with this and try to keep the person writing because finishing a project, even if it’s not perfect, should be the goal.

      Many of us have finished drafts “under the bed,” never to be seen. I guarantee the author learned a TON about what works & what to differently next time. And there’s always a next time. Finishing a novel is never a waste of time. An aspiring author must give themselves permission to write poorly. Otherwise they will never get beyond chapter 1.

      Thanks for the reminder, Eric.

  12. Long time reader, first time commenting…
    It’s entirely possible that I may be reading too much into this first page, but I get the impression the writer is right on the verge of conflict with this scene. I suspect that Justin is going to be taken into custody during the flight.
    The references to the surrounding men, the guy with the buzz cut, and the ‘new rules’ about changing seats, all made me assume that Justin is about to get a nasty dose of reality.
    While the protagonist is certainly self-absorbed, I get a sense the author wants to increase the shock value experienced, when the character’s self-entitlement is utterly challenged.
    I didn’t mind Justin, though perhaps that’s partly because of my expectation of his imminent downfall…
    The word choices of ‘creepy’, ‘daddy long-legs’, etc, actually drew me in as they were more individual expressions then I’d expected.
    In any case, while the protagonist might be a bit of a whinger, I’d certainly read on to see what unfolds.

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