First Page Critique: The Heights of Valor

Happy Monday TKZers! Today, I have a first page critique that I think is really terrific – which means I don’t have a lot of comments as a result (though I have some you can read at the end). I think this submission demonstrates what a tight, well-written, historically authentic first page should look like!

THE HEIGHTS OF VALOR

Platteville, Wisconsin

April 26, 1898

The white-haired man behind the desk threw the newspaper down on the blotter. “It is completely out of the question,” Jeremiah Dawson sat back in the leather chair and stroked his beard. “The semester is not yet over. If you fail to complete the term, you shall not graduate with your class next year.”

The well-built young man sitting in front of his elder responded with a sober nod. “I am aware of that, Father. After my service in Cuba, I can return to the campus and take my final examinations. I have spoken to my professors. My standing in the class has earned me some measure of…leeway, let’s call it.”

“Charles, I–”

The young man leaned forward. “If you’re concerned about me delaying my joining the firm, rest assured, Father, I have every intention of coming back here once I complete law school. When the new century dawns, I will be here, at your right hand. Just as you and Mother planned all these years.” He sat back, crossed his legs and joined his hands. “I know that was her wish, God rest her soul.”

“It was most certainly not her wish for her only son to become cannon fodder.” The older man frowned, then stood, boosting himself up with a hand on the heavy oak desk. He reached for a cane. “You have no idea,” he whispered, shaking his head. He walked to the display case on the far wall of the office, unable to hide his limp. Pausing before the case, he placed a hand on it. “Son, war is not a lark. It is not…it is not some grand adventure.”

The young man stood, tugged at his waistcoat, and strode confidently to his father’s side. He moved with the easy grace of an athlete, and indeed he was one of the best boxers at the University of Wisconsin. He’d also taken up polo, further developing the horsemanship skills he’d honed riding through the ridges and valleys of Grant County. Fully three inches taller than his father, he stood next to the old man and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I understand that, Father,” he said. “Truly, I do.”

“That is not possible. You have not seen the elephant.” He flipped the latch and raised the glass lid. Reverently, he reached down and touched the old sword that rested on the red velvet. “If it is glory and adventure you desire, Cuba is the last place you shall find it.”

Comments

I think this is a great first page. The conversation between Charles and his father has a nice balance of tension, affection, and drama when it comes to why Charles wants to go serve in Cuba. I found this first page compelling and I would certainly continue reading. Even after just one page I have a good sense of the relationship between father and son, their expectations, and the conflict between them. I can already visualize both characters and have an understanding of who they are and what motivates them. Without having a whole lot of historical information, there’s just enough provided to set the scene and the dialogue and descriptions provided feel authentic for the time period.

If I was to be nitpicky I might say there were just a tad too many adjectives and description for Charles but that really didn’t bother me (although I was wondering if the writer meant ‘somber’ nod as opposed to ‘sober’ nod). I wasn’t totally sure about the reference to the elephant (seemed a strange nickname for a sword) but again, that didn’t bother me. Overall, I think this first page is tightly written and compelling. Bravo, to our brave submitter!

So TKZers, what comments or advice would you provide?

8+

29 thoughts on “First Page Critique: The Heights of Valor

  1. I like that we begin with an actual scene, with actual tension. The scene is written in the omniscient POV, which is a legit choice, but less popular these days. I’m not yet bonded to either character. Since the book appears to be about Charles, seeing the scene through his eyes would move me toward that kind of engagement.

    • Agreed. I’m a Deep POV kind of person, and I wasn’t in anybody’s head. Seemed to be a bit of extra info dumping like his athletic prowess. A little too much AYKB for me.

      However, there does appear to be a good story in here, and things are happening, which is good. Just because I’m not a fan of omniscient POV doesn’t make it ‘wrong’ or ‘bad.’

      One minor typo: “It is completely out of the question,” Jeremiah Dawson sat back in the leather chair and stroked his beard.

      Should be a period after question, not a comma, but those are things that get caught in edits.

      • I don’t mind the POV but can appreciate that it can make the scene seem a bit distant. In the context, I’m fine with it as is but some internal monologue down the track for Charles would probably help deepen his appeal as a character.

  2. I wasn’t as taken with it as you were, Clare, because I found it rather distant, but that may just be me, or the omniscient point of view.

    One issue might be how the characters are named–or unnamed. The references to young man and older man (and their variations) threw me out of the story, and I’m wondering if it would be better to get the descriptions out of the way, and then use their names instead. I wanted to feel closer to these two men.

    The conflict between father and son here is very subtle–a bit too quiet for me. I’d like to see more frustration from both, and more yearning and appeasement from the son. This could be accomplished, in part, by focusing on fresh and perhaps more accurate body language. Is stroking a beard the right movement? That seems more thoughtful than annoyed or worried, for example. The throwing of the newspaper was good, but the beard thingy softened it too much, I think.

    I’d examine the adverbs to decide if they are really necessary. “Reverently” might be, but “confidently” might not be, especially if the writer wants to show more tension between father and son.

    Check punctuation–I think there should be a period at the end of the first dialogue line, rather than a comma.

    The physical descriptions of the two characters seem rather bland, not fresh enough. I’d try to find ways to describe these characters that create a more vivid picture in the mind’s eye of the reader, perhaps even something that sneaks in a bit of characterization. Is the father a stubborn old coot? Perhaps something specific about his face or body language that reveals more of that. A hooked nose might do the trick. Or perhaps the father is well into his dotage, more fragile than when he was younger, more fearful. Rheumy eyes, hands with a tremor might do the trick. (My quick examples are pretty awful because I normally spend a lot of time finding just the right way to describe a character’s physical attributes or body language that reveal character at the same time–one of my biggest writing challenges but well worth the effort when I finally get it right, e.g., rather than say someone is unkempt, better to say something like, “he had more dandruff than hair”.)

    The opening paragraph? Not as strong as I like to see. Yes, it raises a question, but a small one. I’m not sure how I’d handle this opening, particularly because I don’t know the story, but I’m wondering if Cuba could be introduce somehow in the opening paragraph, some way of identifying what this disagreement between father and son is really about and at the same time provide more context.

    All of my comments might be way out of line–I read some historical fiction, but not that much. Plus, I prefer a closer point of view generally.

    • Thanks for the great feedback and I can see why a closer POV would be more appealing (though it doesn’t bother me) and a upping the tension could make it more compelling. I liked it as it is – but I don’t think it’s necessarily a question of historical fiction, just reader preference:)

  3. “Seen the elephant” is a phrase dating from the US Civil War that means one has experienced combat. http://www.nellaware.com/blog/seeing-the-elephant.html

    Omniscient POV may be typical in historical fiction but it was off-putting for me. I didn’t feel drawn into either character, although the conflict, relationships, and backstory were clear and well-written. What distinguishes this story from many others where a naïve young man resists following in his father’s footsteps and goes off to war over family objections?

    If the story began in 1898 Cuba, that setting would pique my interest more.

    “It is completely out of the question” should end with a period rather than a comma.

    Good start, brave author. Consider finding a fresher angle to enter the story.

    • Thanks Debbie – I had no idea about the elephant reference so thank you! Good feedback on starting in Cuba or coming up with a fresher angle – though as I say, I was happy to keep reading as it is:)

  4. I found this particularly interesting since my great-grandfather served in the Spanish-American war and his father served in the Calvary in the 1870’s.

    The name/non-name did throw things off a bit. The elephant seemed out of place. Was that the nickname of the sword? Was dad referring to the horrors of war? Neither really fit. Probably the ‘elephant in the room’ needs to go altogether.

    When I read through the first time, I thought Charles had already served in Cuba, not that he was planning on enlisting. Maybe that was just me.

    After reading bits of my own family history of the time, I would love to see the rest of this book. A young man looking for adventure in Cuba could easily be my great-grandfather. Maybe the author is one of my cousins?

    • Alan – that’s so interesting. You might be right that this author has a family connection that inspired him or her to write this! I too was interested to hear more about the Cuba campaign (not knowing much about American history)…so I definitely would like to see where this first page is leading.
      Clare

      • I have several papers from my great-great grandfather’s time in the Calvary in 1868. I knew my great grandfather had been very active in the then new VFW. I found his papers only recently. By the records I have, he was in training in Florida when the war ended.

        But, his story could easily be close to where this book goes.

  5. Among military men “seeing the elephant” often means going to war.

    I was confused with the old man, young man, Jeremiah, etc. I wasn’t sure at first just how many people were there. (That could be because it’s Monday morning and I need more coffee).

    This sounded more like an employer/employee conversation than father/son.

  6. I like the interplay between father and son and the graceful way the writer slipped in some backstory (ie mother is gone, son is in college).

    The omniscient POV is, well, okay. But because we get a named character in the crucial first graph, I assume that is our protag. Especially since Charles’s name is tossed out in mere dialogue. Readers tend to relate to the first full name, and dad got all the other “firsts” as well — the opening graph, prime early description and action, first line of dialogue, the strongest emotion, and is the only one who merits a full name. I would rather see the opening spotlight shifted to Charles. I sense his story will be interesting, but why not let us beginning the bonding process from the get-go? I think if the writer shifted things to focus more on the son, we’d be off to a stronger start.

    • Sounds like quite a few of you would prefer the focus on the son rather than the omniscient POV and I think that would make the story more accessible – so that could definitely be something our brave submitter would like to take on board.

  7. Umm, perhaps I’m not the best judge since this isn’t a genre I normally read. I see other comments about the POV choice. Maybe an omniscient narrator is the norm in historical fiction? Nonetheless, it kept me from experiencing the story. Also, the dialogue, for me, felt stilted. But again, maybe this fits the genre. Anon can write, though. That’s a huge plus.

  8. It’s not really the norm but it sounds like you’re not alone in finding this POV made the story less accessible/distant so i think this is definitely something the submitter should consider taking on board. I was fine with it as it seemed to suit the story and the dialogue too – given the more formal nature of interactions at that time.

  9. It is possible that the early POV was deliberate. It gives the arguments of both men equal validity. That is brilliant. It doesn’t give a hint as to which man will be proven right.

    Also, I thought the way Charles’ name was introduced was well done. Subtle.

    I would not read this book, but it isn’t the writer’s fault. For me, books that include war drags up too many bad memories.

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

    1. There are punctuation errors on the first page. A good editor is a must.

    Example:

    “It is completely out of the question,” Jeremiah Dawson sat back in the leather chair and stroked his beard.

    Joining two sentences with a comma is a no-no. I’ve seen writers break this rule and get away with it, but don’t do it here. Replace the comma with a period.

    2. I found the repeated words and phrases on this page distracting.

    Examples:

    The white-haired man behind the desk…
    The well-built young man…
    The young man leaned…
    The older man frowned…
    The young man stood…
    he stood next to the old man…

    Not only is this style of writing repetitious, but it helps to create the distance that many of the other reviewers mentioned. To fix this, I’d introduce the characters by name and use their names rather than going back and forth with “old man” then “young man” and the like.

    Also, watch out for repeating verbs. For example, the verb “stood” was used three times on the first page:

    then stood…
    The young man stood…
    he stood next to the old man and placed…

    There are other verbs used more than once on the first page.
    Examples: placed, reached

    3. Get rid of unneeded words. Examples:

    “The white-haired man behind the desk threw the newspaper down on the blotter”

    The word “down” isn’t needed here. Just say he threw the newspaper on the blotter. Readers will assume the “down” part.

    4. The speech sounded haughty in places. I realize that historical language is less casual, but consider this phrase:

    “When the new century dawns…”

    Sounds pretentious.

    Also, even in historical novels, dialogue can be snappy. It’s not necessary to use complete sentences.

    5. It was refreshing that you opened with an actual scene, rather than having a character alone, contemplating his situation. However, I wonder if you’ve started your novel in the best place. I’d make a list of alternatives and try writing several opening scenes. Then get some trusted beta readers to tell you which one was most engaging.

    6. It’s clear that the novel is set in someone’s study, but I want more. Find a way to work in more details about where the office is located and such. This can be done briefly, but it should be done. Remember, the readers only know what you put on the page.

    7. When I finished reading this page, I didn’t feel like I had bonded with the protagonist. If Charles is the protagonist, I’d find a way to introduce him in a way that makes his defining characteristic (whatever that is) shine. The idea is to make the reader “feel” something. People don’t read stories to think. They read stories to feel. Even really good writers often miss this. Consider how you might show Charles in a situation that would get the reader on his side. Maybe you were trying to do that here, but I think you have to try harder. We need more. If Charles has great horsemanship skills, maybe begin with a scene to allow the reader to see them in action in order to bond with him. (Just an example, but you get the idea.)

    8. “He flipped the latch and raised the glass lid.”

    By the time I got to this sentence, I wasn’t sure what latch he was flipping. I had to go back and re-read. The case was mentioned in an earlier paragraph. Sometimes the reader may need to be reoriented to details.

    9. The overall tone of the first page is cold and distant. I’m not sure what the theme of your book is, but that’s how it’s coming across.

    10. POV – Consider writing in third-person limited point of view. It might help solve the distance issue. Keep studying, writing, and reading. You will develop your voice.

    Best of luck, and carry on!

  11. 3rd POV limited would do wonders for this scene. Right now, it’s so distant that I had a feeling I read stage directions.
    Just imagine what could you show us – and make us feel – if Charles was your POV character. Smell of an old man’s body mixed with leather smell, color of his father’s voice, a clack of his denture, all through Charles’ eyes, painted with a mixture of his love and his annoyance…
    You don’t have thoughts, sounds, smells. And most important, through Charles’ POV, you can show us stronger feelings.

  12. I was confused at the beginning. I thought Charles was speaking with a priest (“Father”) who was his college dean or someone like that. It was a while before I realized he was talking with his father. And the description of the father suggested to me a man much too old to be the father of a college student. I can’t imagine the father could be much older than fifty, and even 120 years ago fifty-year-olds would not, I think, be gray-beards.
    Finally, even in that more “respectful” age, I’m sure there would be more passion in their argument.

  13. I have more time tonight, and I’d like to offer some suggestions for tightening sentences.

    Let’s look at a few sentences from this sample and see if they can be tightened without losing any meaning.

    Example 1:

    “The well-built young man sitting in front of his elder responded with a sober nod.”

    That’s a mouthful. Let’s trim it:

    The well-built young man sitting before his elder gave a sober nod.

    Can we do even better? Try this:

    The well-built young man nodded. (We already know the white-haired guy is his elder.)

    Example 2:

    “I’m aware of that, Father.”

    If you strike out the “of that,” you won’t lose any meaning.

    Example 3:

    “It was most certainly not her wish for her only son to become cannon fodder.”

    Try this for snappier dialogue:

    “She didn’t wish her only son to become cannon fodder.”

    Editor Beth Hill advises getting rid of the contractions: http://theeditorsblog.net/2011/06/28/word-choices-contractions-and-dialect/

    Example 4:

    “He walked to the display case on the far wall of the office, unable to hide his limp.”

    Try this:

    He limped to the display case on the far wall of the office.

    Example 5:

    “If you’re concerned about me delaying my joining the firm, rest assured, Father, I have every intention of coming back here once I complete law school.”

    Try this:

    I have every intention of returning to join the firm once I’ve completed law school. (We know he is speaking to his Father.)

    These are just a few examples of how to tighten your writing. Sentences that are easy on the eyes make happier readers. It is fine to mix in some longer sentences, but there should be no superfluous words. Each word in a sentence must have a good reason to exist.

    Hope this helps, brave writer. Hopefully, the things I’m pointing out will be second nature to you in no time.

    • Oops. BIG TYPO.

      Editor Beth Hill advises getting rid of the contractions.

      should read:

      Editor Beth Hill advises using contractions.

      Sorry, it’s late, and I’m sleepy!

Comments are closed.