First Page Critique: Endless Tomorrow

By John Gilstrap

We all know the drill by now.  A brave author has taken a big risk that we all respect.  First, the submission, and I’ll join you on the flip side:

Endless Tomorrow (TITLE)

The message from the Consul arrived before breakfast. Agnes had just wiped the last of the shaving lather from his face when Congressman John Paul opened the embossed and sealed envelope. He stared for far longer than it took to read the few words on the short scrap of paper.

“Well, what is it now?” asked Agnes.

Not the reserve a housekeeper should show to an employer but his momentary flash of irritation was soon forgotten. His fingers slid numbly over still tingling cheeks. “They know how to make guns.”

“Guns?” Her disbelief was evident. “Who’s got guns?”

John might as well have told her he could do magic. Guns were a relic of the past and long since gone from the world. “Strangers from behind the Eastern Mountains. We got word of them yesterday at the Ministers’ Meeting but there was no talk of guns.” He stared absently ahead. “A messenger must have come in the night.”

She laughed dismissively. “No one has guns anymore. Not for hundreds of years.” Agnes gently slapped powder on his cheeks and untied the barber cloth.

“Don’t be so sure, Agnes. I learned about them once in school. They are not complicated—at least in theory.”

“Oh, goodness. What else does the Consul’s note say about these people? They have rocket planes too?”

John had the feeling that rockets and planes were two different devices but his memory was fuzzy on the subject of the Moderns’ technology. He read the Consul’s note aloud. That was what Agnes wanted anyway. She was never satisfied until she knew everything.

Dozens of strangers from east now camped in field by Beaker’s Farm. Requesting our presence. Tech and crops unclear. Claim to have guns!? Ministers meeting at eleven. Then we ride. Richard.

Her voice was scolding. “Guns! Don’t believe those people—telling whatever lies they think might impress us. They’ll be wanting to settle here in the valley, just like every wanderer coming from the east. We both know it!” Her fingers moved adeptly over the contents of his shaving kit, brushing the blades clean, packing everything.

He folded the note away and regarded the woman beside him as she busily tidied his dressing room. Short in stature with a curvy figure slowly going plump, long dark hair done up in a bun, sharp gray eyes that never hesitated to meet his own. Clever she was, a bit of a schemer, a good source of town gossip—useful in every way but she had spent her whole life in the quiet town of Newhaven. Can she imagine the violence and slave-taking that reign outside our valley? Maybe none of us can. 

John shook his head and wished suddenly that he had heard fewer stories from terrified refugees who had fled from over the mountains. The era of the great seed traders was over. Only the wretched came now.

It’s Gilstrap again.

First the full disclosure: This piece is not from any genre that I care to read.  I don’t even know what genre it is.  And Author, that was not an insult, merely a confession.  That said, storytelling is storytelling, and from that perspective, this piece is troubled.  First, some general observations, and then I’ll dig a little deeper.

Adverbs.  Goodness gracious, there are a lot of them, and none are necessary. At a glance, I got numbly, absently, dismissively, gently, adeptly, busily, slowly, and suddenly. It’s a mistake to believe that -ly adverbs clarify meaning, because they never do. Either the modified verb will do the job on its own, or the writer has chosen the wrong verb in the first place.  There are exceptions, but I can’t think of one as I write this.  And yes, we’re all guilty of it.

Point of view.  The piece doesn’t have one.  I don’t know whose story we’re telling here.  The head-hopping detracts from the narrative pull of the story.

Setting.  Clearly, we are hundreds of years into the future, but the technology clock has for some reason spun the other way.  I don’t buy it.  This could very well be my unfamiliarity with the genre.

You started your story in the wrong place.  Getting a shave and receiving a note are not barn-burners of crises.  As it’s currently written, the opening is mainly a framework on which to hang backstory that we don’t yet need.  Assuming that guns are a big part of the McGuffin, I suggest starting with a holy-crap reaction that those new strangers have them.

Now, let’s get picky . . .

Endless Tomorrow (TITLE) JG: Years ago, I was told by an editor never to make a title an easy target for a snarky reviewer.  Casting no aspersions on this piece, Endless Tomorrow invites something like, “Endless Story” in the review. Just a thought.

The message from the Consul [Why capitalized?] arrived before breakfast. Agnes had just wiped the last of the shaving lather from his face [gramatically, the “his” here refers to Agnes] when Congressman John Paul opened the embossed and sealed envelope. [What did it look like? Thick, thin? How did it arrive?] He stared for far longer than it took to read the few words on the short scrap of paper. [So? what does Agnes think about that?]

“Well, what is it now?” asked Agnes.

Not the reserve a housekeeper should show to an employer [according to whom? Whose POV are we in?] but his momentary flash of irritation was soon forgotten [by whom?]. His fingers slid numbly [Why are his fingers numb?] over still tingling cheeks. “They know how to make guns.”

“Guns?” Her disbelief was evident [How? In what way?]. “Who’s got guns?”

John might as well have told her he could do magic. [POV?] Guns were a relic of the past and long since gone from the world. “Strangers from behind the Eastern Mountains. We got word of them yesterday at the Ministers’ Meeting but there was no talk of guns.” He stared absently ahead. “A messenger must have come in the night.”

[She laughed dismissively. “No one has guns anymore. Not for hundreds of years.” Agnes gently slapped powder on his cheeks and untied the barber cloth.

“Don’t be so sure, Agnes. I learned about them once in school. They are not complicated—at least in theory.”

“Oh, goodness. What else does the Consul’s note say about these people? They have rocket planes too?”

John had the feeling that rockets and planes were two different devices but his memory was fuzzy on the subject of the Moderns’ technology. He read the Consul’s note aloud. That was what Agnes wanted anyway. She was never satisfied until she knew everything.] The bracketed and underlined section is unnecessary backstory, and mostly redundant.  Recommend deleting it.

Dozens of strangers from east now camped in field by Beaker’s Farm. Requesting our presence. Tech and crops unclear. Claim to have guns!? Ministers meeting at eleven. Then we ride. Richard.

Her voice was scolding [What is a scolding voice? Tone, maybe?]. “Guns! Don’t believe those people—telling whatever lies they think might impress us. They’ll be wanting to settle here in the valley, just like every wanderer coming from the east. We both know it!” Her fingers moved adeptly over the contents of his shaving kit, brushing the blades clean, packing everything.

He folded the note away [What does “folded away” mean? Where did he put it?] and regarded the woman beside him as she busily tidied his dressing room. Short in stature with a curvy figure slowly going plump, long dark hair done up in a bun, sharp gray eyes that never hesitated to meet his own. Clever she was,[this structure sounds like Yoda] a bit of a schemer, a good source of town gossip—useful in every way but she had spent her whole life in the quiet town of Newhaven. Can [Could?–keep it in past tense] she imagine the violence and slave-taking that reign outside our valley? Maybe none of us can [Could?]. 

John shook his head and wished suddenly that he had heard fewer stories from terrified refugees who had fled from over the mountains. The era of the great seed traders was over. Only the wretched came now.

Overall, this piece feels like a very early draft to me.  Okay, TKZers, what say you?

 

5+
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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

24 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Endless Tomorrow

  1. Brave author,

    I agree with John’s points about adverbs and head-hopping. The first line about Agnes wiping shaving cream from “his” face totally threw me. Was this a man with a woman’s name? A trans character? Not good to inadvertently send your reader on a wild tangent in the first line.

    But I like the story concept that’s trying to peek out: a future that’s a throwback to life before the Industrial Revolution and the current tech era. The reference to seed traders, a messenger who arrives in the night (on foot or horseback?), and the idea of a secluded valley of prosperity with armed outsiders trying to push in, all raise intriguing possibilities.

    The gradual start didn’t bother me b/c the setting felt like a tranquil pool with a rock dropped into it. But a bit more world-building would help. Emphasize how their placid life is about to change. Put the reader firmly inside John’s POV and contrast his more worldly knowledge with Agnes’ naïve assumptions. Amp up John’s realization that this threat from outsiders is new and different from previous incursions.

    Take John’s suggestions, then find ways to showcase your interesting idea. Best of luck!

  2. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I don’t have time to do a complete review at the moment, but much of what I have to say is already in John’s critique. Here are a few redundancies that I saw that I didn’t want to forget to mention later:

    1. “momentary flash of irritation”

    Just say “flash of irritation” here.

    2. Guns were a relic of the past and long since gone from the world.

    More redundancy. Either say guns were “a relic of the past” or “long since gone from the world.”

    I’ll be back in a bit with more, brave writer. Lots to say about this.

  3. I often don’t get beyond a few lines of a submitted first page, but I must say, despite agreeing with the edits that have been suggested, this page drew me to the end. Whether I’d read a lot more of it, though, would depend on what I learned about the story’s “world” and the story’s premise/plot. Like Gilstrap, I’m not drawn to futuristic stories per se.

    If this first page were a story prompt for me, I’d likely write about the relation between John and Agnes and/or about politics in the Valley. A story about a nation whose Shangri-La feels threatened by alien immigration could have some contemporary resonance. But, of course, the author has to write their story, not mine.

  4. Yes, it feels like an early draft to me, as well.

    I was confused, and you never want to confuse the reader. The unclear POV has a lot to do with my confusion.

    I find the concept intriguing: something has happened to destroy technology, and we’re now living in a future (dystopia?) without guns. Then strangers/foreigners come and they have guns. What will happen?

    Reminds me of one of Joanna Russ’s stories, the one that takes place on a planet with only women (they’re technologically advanced and have reproduced via cloning, as I recall. Then the women discover that men in a spaceship are on their way. It’s been a long, long time since I read the story, but it might be worth taking a look at it.

    Tons of opportunity in this story (and hints already there) for themes of xenophobia, fear, and the gun debate (although please don’t debate; let the story show your message rather than ramming it down our throats).

    As for my last point, I don’t know why Joanna Russ and James Tiptree Jr. are on my mind today since it’s been so long since I read either of them, but a good example of how a story reveals a theme and a message without preaching is THE SCREWFLY SOLUTION.

    The guideline about spare use of adverbs is a good one. Avoiding them will force you to become a better writer. Then you can add some spicy and unusual ones back into the mix of your writing. In other words, it’s not an absolute rule–nothing in writing is absolute, except perhaps lack of clarity, and humorists use lack of clarity extremely well.

    I wouldn’t read more as the excerpt now stands, but with many revisions, I just might.

  5. Yeah, there are a lot of adverbs, but that’s an easy fix.

    John said –
    Point of view. The piece doesn’t have one. I don’t know whose story we’re telling here. The head-hopping detracts from the narrative pull of the story.

    I’m confused, the whole thing is written from John Paul’s POV – isn’t it? I didn’t see any switch in POV.

    I really liked how the author let us know that ‘things’ have changed – there are no more guns (so there used to be), there were people before who are now known as The Moderns*, The era of the great seed traders was over. – all of this made me curious. I appreciate subtle world-building, as opposed to being hit over the head with it. I would keep reading.

    I don’t mind the writer starting with an everyday event. Isn’t that usually how it goes- one is just going about their life as usual when whatever the s**t is happens and life is out of control.

    Here is what struck me as odd and I found distracting. The message – where did it come from. If Agnes had the note when she came in why didn’t she give it to him before she shaved him? If she did give it to him when she came into his dressing room shouldn’t he have read it before she shaved him? The message seems to arrive out of nowhere – maybe there is magic in this world.

    *This reminded me of the tv show Stargate Atlantis – there were people from the past known as The Ancients who had technology far superior to the characters the viewer was watching in the present.

    • Forget my comment about the message, read it again, it wasn’t the story it was me. There is nothing that says the two people are ALONE. Sorry.

      • One more thing – great line – John had the feeling that rockets and planes were two different devices but his memory was fuzzy …

    • “I’m confused, the whole thing is written from John Paul’s POV – isn’t it? I didn’t see any switch in POV.”
      The piece opens in kind of an amorphous POV, which ultimately leans toward John’s POV with this: “Not the reserve a housekeeper should show . . .”.
      Then, we get, “John might as well have told her he could do magic . . . He stared absently ahead.” These are observations from Agnes’ POV.
      Then we get, “John had the feeling that rockets and planes were two different devices but his memory was fuzzy on the subject of the Moderns’ technology,” which is clearly John’s thought.

      • John might as well have told her he could do magic.
        This is still John’s POV. It is what he is thinking based on her reaction to hearing about guns.

    • “I don’t mind the writer starting with an everyday event. Isn’t that usually how it goes- one is just going about their life as usual when whatever the s**t is happens and life is out of control.”

      Since nobody else addressed your question, I’ll jump in here. Certainly, the opening needs to be interesting, but it doesn’t need to be a wild car chase or something like that. You do need a hook (opening disturbance), and the idea is to make it as interesting as possible so the reader will keep reading. The first part of any story is the setup, according to Michael Hauge. The most important thing in the setup is to introduce the protagonist and immediately establish empathy for that character. The first turning point should not happen until about ten percent into the story. Check out what Michael Hauge has to say about story structure in his plot and structure masterclass. You’ll love it.

  6. Back again, brave writer. I’ll be giving my comments in small doses today, as I get time. A few more comments:

    1. The title could be better, and like John said, you don’t want to tempt reviewers by dangling the word “endless” out there. Endless Tomorrow sounds like a parody of the soap opera Search for Tomorrow.

    2. “The message from the Consul arrived before breakfast.”

    The first line does its job. The reader will want to know what the message is.

    3. “embossed and sealed” envelope

    If it’s important to tell the reader that the envelope was embossed and sealed, maybe you could also add a description of the seal here. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seal_(emblem)

    4. “short scrap of paper” is redundant. Just say “scrap of paper” here. (I guess I should’ve added that one to the list in my previous comment.)

    5. Adverbs. You’ve got way too many of them on the first page. There are times to use adverbs. I love this line from Shakespeare:

    “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.”

    However, you shouldn’t use an adverb when a stronger verb is available. For example:

    “Agnes gently slapped powder on his cheeks…”

    Just say:

    Agnes patted powder on his cheeks…

    Never use two words when one will do.

    More later, brave writer…

  7. Brave author, I admit that I am guilty of messing with the title before I even started reading. I think John gave you good advice to change the title.

    I had to read the first paragraph twice. At first I thought Agnes was a man with a name that normally a woman would have. Then I thought I was being old-fashioned and Agnes was transgender or something. THEN I realized it was a grammar mistake, and Agnes was actually a woman. Not a good way to start off a story, but a little rewording can clarify that.

    I did not have trouble with the setting. I figured it was another version of a post apocalyptic world.

    It was hard to sort out who was thinking what when the point of view switched around so much.

    I like that the first sentence raised a question: What’s in the note? I like that we get a sense of conflict by the end of the page: those over the mountains with guns vs those in Agnes and John’s world.

    Good luck, brave author, with your continued writing!

  8. This feels like Anon could be early on in their writing journey, so I’d only like to add one point. Please don’t use double punctuation. It doesn’t belong in professional writing.

    John, wonderful critique. I agree with all your suggestions.

    • I agree with your comment about double punctuation. An exception might be if the writing contains text messages going back and forth between two bubbly teenagers or something of that nature. In that case, the writing would be in the style of the teenager, rather than a writing professional.

      • Exactly, Joanne. Text messages are a different animal altogether. Anything goes, including words like “ur” for “your” and John’s favorite, “!!!” LOL

        • And some of us with fancy phones can even use cute little pictures in our messages, which are much harder to convey in writing. 😉

  9. Mr. Gilstrap’s critique is excellent as usual as are the readers comments. I’d like to add a few thoughts. First, the title tells us nothing and that’s a wasted opportunity the tell the reader what they are getting into. How about ‘The Last Gun’?
    First lines are an art unto themselves. You’re isn’t bad but could be better. Here are some to read: http://www.crimethrillerhound.co.uk/first-lines
    By introducing Agnes in the first scene, you set the expectation that she will play a significant part in the story. If she is John Paul’s Dr. Watson that might work. If she is just talking furniture – not so much. Is there a better foil for the Congressman?
    Gun control. Touchy subject. I wonder if you’ll loose half your potential readers because we Americans are polarized on that subject.
    Why is the Congressman the hero? He doesn’t have all that much power since there are 435 of them and he doesn’t seem to have much expertise on the subject. On top of that, Congressmen are less popular than used car salesmen. Give him a reason to be the hero.
    Anon. Keep writing. That’s the only way to get better. Read yesterday’s post. What do you fear? Not surface things like guns, but deep inside. Look to the boys (or girls) in the basement of your mind. What are they screaming at you? That’s where your stories begin.

  10. Back for part 3 of my comments, brave writer. Here are a few more ideas:

    1. POV – When it comes to point of view, two heads are notbetter than one (http://www.sfwriter.com/ow07.htm).

    2. Pronoun references. A pronoun must refer to one unmistakable noun which comes before the pronoun. This noun is known as the antecedent. The antecedent of a pronoun cannot be an adjective, a possessive noun, a clause, or a phrase. For more information, see the article on my blog entitled “How to Avoid Faulty Pronoun References.”

    Now, rewrite this sentence:

    “Agnes had just wiped the last of the shaving lather from his face when Congressman John Paul opened the embossed and sealed envelope.”

    Hint: The way it is written, the word “his” does not refer to John Paul.

    3. “Guns?” Her disbelief was evident. “Who’s got guns?”

    Don’t tell the reader her disbelief was evident. Show the reader. Maybe she rolls her eyes or performs some action to show that she doesn’t believe anyone has guns.

    Keep writing and learning, brave writer. Will give more hints later if I have time.

  11. Ditto what everyone is saying about the Agnes reference. I thought Agnes was a woman until she wiped the shaving cream from “her” face. Then I realized (after a beat of thought) that no, she was shaving someone. As Brian said, why make your first named character someone who is a spear-carrier? Easy fix to shift focus to your protag.

    Ditto on adverbs. We’re little rough on them here, but nine times out of ten, the urge to insert an adverb is usually due to writer feeling the need to “underline” the dialogue. The dialogue and characters actions should be strong enough to carry the emotion of the moment. You shouldn’t need to TELL the reader what to feel…make your dialogue convey it.

    Odd juxtapostion: the message arrived in a fancy sealed envelope but contains “a short scrap of paper.”

    I like post-apocalypic fiction, so I was okay with the premise and even a little intrigued by the gun reference. And I thought the set-up about the marauders camping nearby was interesting. You might want to deal with the idea that such an important government notice was delivered by hand-note. (we’re post-cells, too, here, I guess). Does John remember a time when people communicated with tiny hand-held screens? Don’t miss chances for such telling details when you world-build.

  12. Thanks to everyone who commented on my work. I do appreciate the time taken and think that overall the advice has been extremely helpful. Up until now I‘ve been writing in a bubble, without any feedback of any kind, so this helps clarify things. Particularly the advice regarding adverbs and POV I‘ve taken to heart. I didn’t actually intend any head hopping in the piece. It should be 3rd person, limited omniscient—as though told by looking over the shoulder of John. (Game of Thrones would be a popular example.) But if people are confused then I plainly didn’t get it right.
    Finally, for those who wondered, this is set in an isolated community some three hundred years in a post-apocalyptic future.

    • Mike, Game of Thrones uses many POV characters but only one per chapter. Here’s a list:

      http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/POV_character

      Btw, the book is a good one to study, because it’s an example of fine writing.

      The prologue is in Will’s POV. We know this when we get to this line:

      “Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel…”‘

      So, the reader is getting the thoughts inside of Will’s head. The reader can only know about what Will sees, hears, feels, tastes, and smells.

      Then, when we get to chapter one, another POV character takes over. It’s not unusual for stories to have more than one POV character, but most literary agents and editors encourage writers to stay in the head of one character per chapter/scene. I hope this helps.

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