First Page Critique: Sequenced Humanity


Critiqued by Elaine Viets

Another intriguing offering from an Anonymous Author. This one seems to be science fiction. Read it first, and then I’ll add my comments.

**********************************************************************************
He had no memory from before waking up inside the tank. A bespectacled face peered at him through the water, which flashed red at set intervals. A worried smile played across her features as the water flushed from the tank. With a soft hiss the glass panel in front of him slid open and he fell forwards into her arms. He shivered against the cold air as she helped him further out of the tank. She inhaled, the sound sharp in his ear.
“It feels so good to hold you. I know you don’t know who I am,” she placed her hand on his shoulder as she pulled back. “I’m your mother, in a manner of speaking.”
Her hand felt cold and trembled as it grazed his naked skin. The red lights were still flashing and he noticed the sound of an alarm now, like a deep throbbing pulse to accompany the light.
She pointed down the hallway behind her, “You have to go now son, quick, I’ll try to give you time.”
He opened his mouth as if to speak but she shook her head, then she cocked it sideways and ran her hand through his hair and peered into his eyes. “Blinking seems OK, you understand what I’m saying . . . The memory engrams were integrated then,” she muttered under her breath. Then she pecked him on the cheek. “Go now,” she whispered in his ear.
He nodded and ran in the direction she pointed. The alarm shifted in pitch. He could hear voices, loud and sharp. Were they coming for him?
“Go!” his mother repeated.
He ran and stopped as soon as he heard several loud bangs behind him. A woman screamed and then fell silent. Was it his mother?
His heart pounding in his ears, he ran faster. Pushing through a door, he felt snow crunch underneath his bare feet. His shivering became more intense as his teeth began to chatter. Small branches hit him as he crashed through the bare trees, but he kept going, not knowing where. With no light to guide him this far from the building he let his eyes adjust to the night. The moon slid in and out of view behind clouds above, providing scant illumination to guide him. A gust of biting wind blew across his skin and he stifled a sharp cry.
Something roared in the distance below him and he came to a sudden halt as the ground dropped away in front of him.
**********************************************************************************
Wow! I’m impressed. This grabbed me from the first sentence. The unusual opening, creepy setting, and plenty of action kept me reading to the last line. Now I wonder what’s going to happen to our “newborn” man.

Sure, I can nitpick this offering.
In this sentence, I’d take out the word further: He shivered against the cold air as she helped him further out of the tank.

And the punctuation for the dialogue is odd. In this sentence I’d put a period after “who I am” and make the next part a separate sentence. “It feels so good to hold you. I know you don’t know who I am,” she placed her hand on his shoulder as she pulled back,” so it looks like this: I know you don’t know who I am.” She placed her hand on his shoulder as she pulled back.

I’d make some of the dialogue into separate sentences instead of running them together: “You have to go now son, quick, I’ll try to give you time” would become: “You have to go now, son. Quick! I’ll try to give you time.”

But these are minor quibbles. Sometimes, the art of editing is knowing when to leave something alone. You have a terrific piece of writing here, AA. You say that “Squenced Humanity” is a working title. Give it a better title, and you’ll have a winner.
**************************************************************************
Win my 10th Dead-End Job mystery, Pumped for Murder, in hardcover. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com.

3+
This entry was posted in Writing by Elaine Viets. Bookmark the permalink.

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

19 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Sequenced Humanity

  1. I had to reread the first paragraph a few times to understand the sudden shift from the male POV to the reference of “her.” The author should have more patience to set up what is seen by this new being. Why not describe the face or the setting better?

    I also wondered how this being is breathing in water and then after it flushes from the tank, he’s breathing air. How does that feel to him. He seems to comprehend a great deal without any notion of a newborn being, like understands “mother” or what snow is. In the old movie STARMAN, an alien being takes over the human image of a man it sees in a photo, the dead husband of the woman who helps the alien while he’s on earth. The alien had to adjust to the awkwardness of being inside a human body or get used to facial gestures or sounds he would make. This piece reminded me of that movie, in tncehat the newborn being seems to leap into full awareness without any transition problems, like how the body would feel to breathe air for the first time, or what a quiet water existence would switch to a louder world of sounds (like a baby coming from a womb). The absence of these sensations standout to me. I think this could be much better and more intriguing if this being had to adjust and more care was given to such details.

    There’s also a bit of passive voice, like “could hear” rather than “heard” and “began to chatter” rather than “chattered.”

    The idea of this could be more effective if the author had more patience in setting up the details, but I’m intrigued by the premise. In Sci-fi, it’s important to world build. Setting and details are important. I recommend the author flesh out the details and keep the premise. It has real potential.

    Like you, Elaine, I liked this intriguing premise and love the mystery of it and the author’s self-restraint in not dumping back story or losing pace by explaining too much, but the details I’m suggesting would enhance the intrigue and deepen the mystery of an already solid premise.

    • “There’s also a bit of passive voice, like ‘could hear’ rather than ‘heard and ‘began to chatter’ rather than ‘chattered.'”

      While these are good stylistic suggestions, the quoted phrases are not really “passive voice.”

      I think we should keep the words “passive voice” for what they’ve always meant in grammar and use other language to talk about other wordings that are “less-than-optimally-dynamic” (after all, we’re supposed to be the language masters”).

    • You make some good points, Jordan, but your changes would significantly expand the first page and add details that would bog down the story, in my opinion. Also, if the man is newly born, how would he know how he was breathing during his “gestation.” That should be saved until later, when he becomes curious about the mechanics of his birth.

    • I believe his ability to act like an adult rather than a newborn is explained by the doctor’s reference to the memory engrams having taken. If that weren’t the case, he’d struggle to stand, never mind running away through dark woods.

      There’s a fine line between sci-fi and techno-thriller. This piece is too short to tell which this may become. Yes, the waking-in-tank has been done before. It’s the what-comes-after than can make this piece unique from all the others with similar openings. I read both SF and techno-thrillers, and I’d give this author more time to develop the story based on the solid understanding displayed about how to get the story moving without info dumping.

  2. First sentences are so important.

    “He had no memory from before waking up inside the tank. A bespectacled face peered at him through the water, which flashed red at set intervals. A worried smile played across her features as the water flushed from the tank.”

    As I read these, they felt awkward.
    -Fixing the first sentence will be a challenge. “From before waking up” is what feels awkward there. “The first thing he remembered…” seems too much a cliché. As JSBell would say, brainstorm a whole bunch of first sentences here. Something will come.
    -“Bespectacled” seems a bit much here, stylistically, unless the whole story is going to move in these stylistic environs.
    -Does the water itself “flash red”? How does he know the intervals are “set”?
    -“Her features”-I’m uncomfortable with the lack of antecedent here.

    These are the kinds of things I struggle with at the polishing stages. Ultimately there are no rules and no magic bullets. Just “feel for language” and critical distance from what one has written.
    ===

    Jordan makes good points about the “awareness” problem. I’d put it this way: Are we inside the character’s head as he’s coming to consciousness or are we inside his head later when he’s recalling this experience? If the former, then you really have to know what cognitive and verbal resources he has de novo. If the latter, then he can be more sophisticated in recalling the experience.

  3. I find the first paragraph a hot mess of sci-fi cliches. Is there water in the tank or someplace else? Are the lights in the tank, on a control panel, overhead, down the hall? Maybe I have just read/seen this story before.

    And yes the switch from his to hers is off putting and hard to follow. But it does then flow into any one of a dozen X-Files episodes of someone being rescued from the evil lab by the good doctor only to have the rescuer cut down by gunfire.

    And then to finish our cliche fest, barefoot in the snow. How did the author forget the exam robe flapping a bare tush?

    It needs work.

  4. Loved it, Anon! I’m not a huge fan of sci-fi, but you hooked me. I’d be flipping pages late into the night with this one. Excellent job!!!

    I do have a quick suggestion. Start with the second line: A bespectacled face peered at him through the water. Red lights flashed behind her. A worried smile played with her features as the water flushed from the tank. Mom?

    I tweaked it a bit so we’re not surprised the face is female. Is the water some sort of life-sustaining liquid? If so, it’d help the reader understand how he’s breathing. Either that, or mention an air tube. Easy fix. You’re doing great, Anon. Keep going!

  5. I like this offering. I would read on. I agree that the first sentence is a little clumsy. But . . .
    I disagree with a lot of the comments, because they represent personal preferences instead of constructive comments. I like the the unanswered questions about our MC because they add to the confused atmosphere he/she/it is experiencing. It sets up a quest story, maybe a coming of age story, where the MC discovers who he/yada/yada is by seeking answers those questions.
    I think a critique should shy away from rewriting the story to fit the commenter’s preferences, from comparisons to second rate movies and old TV shows, and especially tired advice based on amateur writer’s group thinking.
    The writers who submit have put a lot of work into their 400 words and deserve our best advice.
    Now, my advice. Dear Writer. Go over this good submission with a clear mind. Smooth sentences so they flow one to the next. Remove words you don’t need. Be the MC and think through every step. Is there something, the MC would have naturally thought or done? Look to increase the already good tension. Where possible, make life worse for the MC until you get the middle of the story. Remember, you story is competing for eyes to read it. Make it impossible for them to put it down. You’ll ask me how to do it. I don’t know. But keep going until you do it and you will.

  6. I like this piece a lot. It’s loaded with tension and terror, and it makes the reader sweat about exactly what is going on and where are we and why is this happening. I’m sure these issues will be cleared up later in the book, but it’s a terrific opening.

    Only criticism: it’s “forward”, not “forwards”.

    Another thought: if you want to change the first sentence, you could turn it around to say, “Waking up inside the tank, he had no memory from before.”

    • I agree, Don. The tension, terror, and confusion was palpable and visceral. Loved that. Too much explanation would ruin this opener, IMO. It’ll be interesting to see if others agree, as well.

  7. I really, really like this premise. The story kicks off immediately, giving us a hint of stakes, and intrigue and all sorts of great things.

    That said, this reads like a draft to me. Loaded with potential, but also some clunky phrasing and too much description of the wrong things. I’d love to trade some of the breakdown of movements (e.g. she placed her hand on his shoulder as she pulled back) for more visceral details of the protag’s emotional/physiological response to what’s happening, or of his surroundings.

    This opening can use a lot of tightening up which will leave room to advance the story with more powerful details. (So hard to achieve, still working myself to move beyond this phase of the writer’s apprenticeship. But necessary I think to stand out.)

    Very nice job, anon! If the rest of the story lives up to this opening, with a couple more passes to polish, you’ll have a winner!

  8. I am a science fiction reader. So is Dear Husband. We’d both read on. There are a couple of places where I stumbled as a reader, but not because of the premise or any thoughts of, “I’ve read or seen this before.”

    I stumbled over the opening two sentences wondering if I misunderstood the gender. Other commenters had nice suggestions. Mine would be to change the second sentence to read, “A woman’s bespectacled face . . ..” Later on, I wondered how he knew someone had set the red light to flash at intervals. I think our brave writer meant the red light flashed at regular or periodic intervals. And finally, I thought I had accidentally read the same line twice because the phrase “to guide him” is repeated so close together.

    Yes, we’ve seen characters wake up in tanks before, but that’s okay. In THIS episode, why was he in the tank, and what does it have to do with his missing memory? Is it even his memory or someone else’s transplanted to grow within a clone?

    Yes, we’ve seen patients escaping from hospitals before, but in THIS episode, who’s after him? Aliens, the government, an evil scientist? I can’t wait to find out!

    Good start, brave writer, and good luck with the rest of your story!

  9. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. It’s great that you understand that something needs to happen on page one. For me, however, this sample needs a lot of work. Fortunately, many of corrections that need to be made are easy once you know what to look for. Here are my comments:

    1. Without spaces between paragraphs, this sample was difficult to read.

    2. Exigent circumstances require shorter sentences that convey urgency. Long sentences slow a reader down. So, here are a few examples of how to shorten sentences to correct the pacing:

    Your last sentence:

    “Something roared in the distance below him and he came to a sudden halt as the ground dropped away in front of him.”

    Simplify it. Try this:

    Something roared from below. He froze as the ground dropped away.

    or even get into his head a little, like this:

    Something roared from below. No! He froze as the ground dropped away.

    Another example. Rather than this:

    “Go now,” she whispered in his ear.
    He nodded and ran in the direction she pointed.

    Try this:

    “Go now,” she whispered and then pointed left.

    He nodded and ran.

    I think it’s safe to let the reader assume (as long as he has the same anatomy as a human) that she whispered into his ear rather than, say, his big toe. The “in his ear” is just fluff.

    Go through your entire page and look for this kind of stuff.

    3. There are point of view issues. Get into the protagonist’s head. I’m assuming that’s the son. If the son is the protagonist, you shouldn’t write:

    “He opened his mouth as if to speak”

    The character would not explain his own motivation. Instead, why not have the character say something like:

    “But—”

    It’s better to show than to tell here. The em dash is used to convey interrupted speech.

    4. Avoid reader feeder dialogue. Example:

    “Blinking seems OK, you understand what I’m saying . . . The memory engrams were integrated then,” she muttered under her breath.”

    5. Also, the “she muttered under her breath” could be reduced to “she muttered.” No need for redundant words.

    Another similar example:

    “With a soft hiss the glass panel in front of him slid open and he fell forwards into her arms.”

    Get rid of the word forwards, which doesn’t add anything.
    While you’re at it, replace in front of with before. Never use three words when one will do.

    6. Dialogue should be snappy, particularly under exigent circumstances. Example:

    “It feels so good to hold you. I know you don’t know who I am,” she placed her hand on his shoulder as she pulled back. “I’m your mother, in a manner of speaking.”

    Try this:

    “You don’t know me.” She touched his shoulder. “I’m your mother, in a manner of speaking.”

    Again, don’t use three words like placed her hand when you can just say touched.

    7. Avoid overwriting. Example:

    “The moon slid in and out of view behind clouds above, providing scant illumination to guide him.”

    The word illumination seems grandiloquent when the word light will do. Get rid of “to guide him.” Give the readers some credit to know what the purpose of light is. Get rid of the word “above” since it’s safe to assume that most readers know that clouds are above.

    8. Use “farther” to indicate distance.

    You write:

    “He shivered against the cold air as she helped him further out of the tank.”

    Honestly, here I’d write it like this:

    He shivered as she helped him out of the tank.

    Give the reader credit to know that the cold air is what makes him shiver.

    I’m running out of time now. Overall, my best advice to you is to tighten up your writing. Sometimes less is more. I hope these comments will help you to revise your work, brave writer. Keep writing!

  10. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. It’s great that you understand that something needs to happen on page one. For me, however, this sample needs a lot of work. Fortunately, many of corrections that need to be made are easy once you know what to look for. Here are my comments:

    1. Without spaces between paragraphs, this sample was difficult to read.

    2. Exigent circumstances require shorter sentences that convey urgency. Long sentences slow a reader down. So, here are a few examples of how to shorten sentences to correct the pacing:

    Your last sentence:

    “Something roared in the distance below him and he came to a sudden halt as the ground dropped away in front of him.”

    Simplify it. Try this:

    Something roared from below. He froze as the ground dropped away.

    or even get into his head a little, like this:

    Something roared from below. No! He froze as the ground dropped away.

    Another example. Rather than this:

    “Go now,” she whispered in his ear.
    He nodded and ran in the direction she pointed.

    Try this:

    “Go now,” she whispered and then pointed left.

    He nodded and ran.

    I think it’s safe to let the reader assume (as long as he has the same anatomy as a human) that she whispered into his ear rather than, say, his big toe. The “in his ear” is just fluff.

    Go through your entire page and look for this kind of stuff.

    3. There are point of view issues. Get into the protagonist’s head. I’m assuming that’s the son. If the son is the protagonist, you shouldn’t write:

    “He opened his mouth as if to speak”

    The character would not explain his own motivation. Instead, why not have the character say something like:

    “But—”

    It’s better to show than to tell here. The em dash is used to convey interrupted speech.

    4. Avoid reader feeder dialogue. Example:

    “Blinking seems OK, you understand what I’m saying . . . The memory engrams were integrated then,” she muttered under her breath.”

    If you type “reader feeder dialogue” and “Anne R. Allen” into Google, you should find an article that explains what this is.

    5. Also, the “she muttered under her breath” could be reduced to “she muttered.” No need for redundant words.

    Another similar example:

    “With a soft hiss the glass panel in front of him slid open and he fell forwards into her arms.”

    Get rid of the word forwards, which doesn’t add anything.
    While you’re at it, replace in front of with before. Never use three words when one will do.

    6. Dialogue should be snappy, particularly under exigent circumstances. Example:

    “It feels so good to hold you. I know you don’t know who I am,” she placed her hand on his shoulder as she pulled back. “I’m your mother, in a manner of speaking.”

    Try this:

    “You don’t know me.” She touched his shoulder. “I’m your mother, in a manner of speaking.”

    Again, don’t use three words like placed her hand when you can just say touched.

    7. Avoid overwriting. Example:

    “The moon slid in and out of view behind clouds above, providing scant illumination to guide him.”

    The word illumination seems grandiloquent when the word light will do. Get rid of “to guide him.” Give the readers some credit to know what the purpose of light is. Get rid of the word “above” since it’s safe to assume that most readers know that clouds are above.

    8. Use “farther” to indicate distance.

    You write:

    “He shivered against the cold air as she helped him further out of the tank.”

    Honestly, here I’d write it like this:

    He shivered as she helped him out of the tank.

    Give the reader credit to know that the cold air is what makes him shiver.

    I’m running out of time now. Overall, my best advice to you is to tighten up your writing. Sometimes less is more. I hope these comments will help you to revise your work, brave writer. Keep writing!

    • Edit:

      “8. Use “farther” to indicate distance.”

      should read (clarification):

      8. Use “farther” to indicate distance and “further” to indicate degree, but in your sample, neither word is required, imho. (You could say: We had to drive further, but farther is preferred.)

  11. I’m not a sci-fi reader so don’t know what has been “done before”. After a stumble over the first sentence, this piece had me hooked. I always find reading my work aloud helps me spot the flaws. Good luck with your follow up to this intriguing opening.

  12. Dear all,

    I would really like to thank all of you for your honest critiques. A big thank-you for Elaine in featuring this piece here. I’ll continue on my story and will do my best to incorporate your comments into my writing!

    Thanks again!

Comments are closed.