First Page Critique: Gideon

Happy Monday! Today we have a first page critique from a dystopian novel – the extract we have is from a chapter entitled Gideon so I’m not sure if this is the first page to the novel itself or merely to a later chapter. The author who submitted this also provided an overview of the dystopian world he/she has created but I’m just going to focus on the page itself – as this is typically how a reader would first immerse themselves in the world  (and we at TKZ don’t typically go through a synopsis or overview for the pages we review). Suffice to say this novel takes place in the near future after a Third World War that has obliterated civilization in a nuclear strike. My comments follow after the extract but I do think this first page critique illustrates the need for clear, consistent world building for any novel that relies on a futuristic or alternative world that is unfamiliar to a reader.

Gideon

On his way to his scheduled fear desensitization treatment at the House of Pain, Gideon Guidry and his friend Paul Roseau had stopped at the Iron Byrd Tavern, where Gideon’s friend Paul, who had made several visits himself, felt sympathy for poor Gideon had purchased several large pink glasses of Le Grand Courage, a rare and expensive French wine for him, and began slurring his words, as the two shared the wine and sat discussing Gideon’s pending appointment and possible death sentence.
Gideon gulped the wine as if he had spent the day in the desert without liquids and as if wine would never be available again, to bolster up his courage for the day ahead.
Paul said, “You know they steal your memories and sell them to those rich citizens up on the Excelsior level of Sanitorium.”
  “No, you must be kidding. They wouldn’t dare.
  “They would, and they do. “Paul said.
  “And people go along with this? “asked Gideon.
  “Either the poor subversives don’t realize it is happening to them, or they just pretending it isn’t happening to them. No one has the courage to face the whip on Public Punishment Day. So, there really is no way, you can avoid the treatment. Why not fake an illness? ”Paul suggested, Gideon just shook his shoulders and said, “There is no point in putting it off. They will get me eventually and then I’ll be in the punishment square. Might as well get the dammed thing over. Right?”
  “No, OK, maybe. Well, let’s at least meet up tomorrow anyway and you can tell me how it went. My prayers are with you, my old friend.”
  Now Gideon was like a bull seeing red, as hate poured over Gideon’s soul like hot grease on a cook stove, imaginary smoke came out of his ears, as he stood there his hands shaking, his fist balled up tight, as he faced this indignity stoically and stood in front of the old converted psychiatric hospital. Surprisingly, near the front entrance, he saw a large pile of rotted timbers stacked neatly up against the sleek new part of the House of Pain and thought, I wonder what that stuff is for? Then, he thought, oh, I hope it is not what I think it is?
  Then, Gideon thought, Am I Drunk enough? Am I strong enough?  To hide the deep dark secret.

My Comments

As always, bravo to our brave submitter for providing us with an extract of his/her work to review. Even though I don’t typically write these sorts of novels, I’m a huge fan of works that fall in both the dystopian and science-fiction genre (which this clearly seems to do). When reading these genres, I look for the following: (1) novelty and clarity in world building; (2) an immersive experience that surprises or shocks me with details or events and; (3) something unique that sets apart the world from others I’ve read. Given how many novels have been set in a post-apocalyptic world it is very difficult to achieve all three.

Rather than providing an overview as I usually do followed by specific comments, this time I’m going to provide notes embedded in the extract itself – in bold and italics – as I think this is a more effective approach.

Extract with my notes:

On his way to his scheduled fear desensitization treatment at the House of Pain, Gideon Guidry and his friend Paul Roseau had stopped at the Iron Byrd Tavern, where Gideon’s friend Paul, who had made several visits himself, felt sympathy for poor Gideon had purchased several large pink glasses of Le Grand Courage, a rare and expensive French wine for him, and began slurring his words, as the two shared the wine and sat discussing Gideon’s pending appointment and possible death sentence.

This sentence is far too long and unweildy. The use of ‘had’ seems redundant in the use of the past tense. The ‘House of Pain’ and ‘fear desensitization treatment’ kind of make sense but when we learn that this appears to be a public whipping I’m not sure what the purpose of this treatment really is….or why this might be a death sentence. The world I’m expected to suspend disbelief and inhabit doesn’t seem entirely consistent. The description of a tavern in particular is hard to reconcile in a more sci-fi post apocalyptic world (sounds more fantasy/middle ages). I need to believe that this world has ‘taverns’ and pink French wine called ‘Le Grand Courage’ even if it also sounds pseudo science-fiction. 

Gideon gulped the wine as if he had spent the day in the desert without liquids and as if wine would never be available again, to bolster up his courage for the day ahead.

Gulping wine as if ‘he had spent a day in the desert without liquids’ and ‘as if wine would never be available again’ and ‘to bolster up his courage’ is too much – one of these reasons would have been fine and I’m also confused: In this post apocalyptic world, why is wine available? Are there still deserts even? 

Paul said, “You know they steal your memories and sell them to those rich citizens up on the Excelsior level of Sanitorium.”

More confusion – so do they steal the memories of pain/fear desensitization treatment? If so, why would rich citizens want them? If they are stealing other memories, how and why does this occur and how does this fit into the discussion of what is going to happen to Gideon at the House of Pain?

“No, you must be kidding. They wouldn’t dare.
  “They would, and they do. “Paul said.
  “And people go along with this? “asked Gideon.
  “Either the poor subversives don’t realize it is happening to them, or they just pretending it isn’t happening to them. No one has the courage to face the whip on Public Punishment Day. So, there really is no way, you can avoid the treatment.

This makes it sound like the memories are of the whipping – but how does Public Punishment Day relate to the House of Pain/Fear desensitization treatment? Again, I’m confused as to what this discussion is really about. Would Gideon really think people might go along with having their memories stolen? Why are we now talking about subversives when before it sounded like everyone went to the House of Pain for treatment (Paul, after all, had already made several visits). Also, why in a dystopian world wouldn’t ‘they dare’ steal memories (I mean they are happy to whip people in public…)

Why not fake an illness? ”Paul suggested, Gideon just shook his shoulders and said, “There is no point in putting it off. They will get me eventually and then I’ll be in the punishment square. Might as well get the dammed thing over. Right?”
  “No, OK, maybe. Well, let’s at least meet up tomorrow anyway and you can tell me how it went. My prayers are with you, my old friend.”

So you can avoid treatment by faking an illness? Seems incongruous for a society/government that inflicts treatment at the ‘House of Pain’ to allow people to delay just because they don’t feel well…again this goes to presenting a consistent and authentic feeling world for a reader. If a reader is confused or has to ask these questions, then the world building isn’t clear.

Also, it seems very strange that Paul which say ‘let’s meet up tomorrow and you can tell me how it went’ when he’s already endured ‘several visits’ to the House of Pain. Not only does this minimize what was described in the first paragraph as a ‘possible death sentence’ it also robs the scene of dramatic tension.

Finally, there is a missing quotation mark before Paul’s comment. As we always emphasize here at the TKZ, an author must go over his/her work to ensure it is error and typo free before sending it to an agent or editor.

Now Gideon was like a bull seeing red, as hate poured over Gideon’s soul like hot grease on a cook stove, imaginary smoke came out of his ears, as he stood there his hands shaking, his fist balled up tight, as he faced this indignity stoically and stood in front of the old converted psychiatric hospital.

Notes: Again, way too many descriptions/similes going on here – to the point where it almost seems humorous…and how did he get from the tavern to standing in front of an old converted psychiatric hospital (which I’m assuming is part of the House of Pain)?

Surprisingly, near the front entrance, he saw a large pile of rotted timbers stacked neatly up against the sleek new part of the House of Pain and thought, I wonder what that stuff is for? Then, he thought, oh, I hope it is not what I think it is?
  Then, Gideon thought, Am I Drunk enough? Am I strong enough?  To hide the deep dark secret.

I’m confused as to what the pile of rotting timbers were for – a hanging? A funeral pyre? Again, the punishments inflicted in this society sound more medieval that future/post apocalyptic so it is vital that this world is described in a way that the reader believes it has sunk back into medieval style punishments (which doesn’t seem to fit with having the technology available to steal people’s memories…). The final line also isn’t clear as we have been given no sense up to this point that Gideon is hiding any dark secret. 

Final Comments

Overall, my key concern here is world building consistency – especially in a genre that necessitates something different/unique to set it apart from all the other dystopian worlds out there. The writing could easily be tightened up but this dystopian world has to be clear to both the author and the reader. Believe me, I know how hard it is to create a world and to ensure all the elements are there on the page, rather than just in your head – but in this genre it is critical.

So TKZers, what comments do you have for our brave submitter?

 

5+

17 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Gideon

  1. A very confusing excerpt, and the lack of clarity and inconsistencies would keep me from reading more, despite the last line about a deep and dark secret.

    Speaking of that last line, aside from the lack of freshness in the way it’s worded, what about using a hint (only a hint) about Gideon’s desire to keep something hidden as the actual focus of the scene? This gives Gideon a goal for the scene, something that’s missing now. Just an idea, but it might help the reader to care a bit about Gideon.

    The world-building feels rushed to me, as if the writer is trying to get too much about this world into the first 400 words, and in the process, some basic scene-building tools have been forgotten. I’d tend to focus on building a great scene first, and then weave in only a few details about this “new” world. What must the reader know, at this point, to understand what will follow? Often it’s far less information than we think.

    What the reader needs, most of all, is to care about Gideon or his situation, and we don’t have enough here.

    Nor is there enough conflict. The focus almost seems more on Paul than on Gideon. The writer has missed the opportunity to help us to know a bit more about Gideon and to create more conflict at the same time. Gideon has serious reservations about his destination. Use those reservations to create conflict for the scene and between him and Paul. No matter the depth of our friendships, there is always some sort of conflict or power imbalance in any relationship. I’d use some of this type of conflict to reveal more about Gideon, and about Paul, if he will be a major character in the story.

    And do think about the rhythm of your sentences and how you can vary your sentence length to create the maximum impact, as Clare has pointed out.

    So I guess my major point is to start over, create a strong scene using Goal/Obstacles/Disaster and character revelation, along with many other tools, and then worry about how and when you do your world-building. You can intrigue readers, make them want to find out more about this world, by choosing just the right details without overloading them.

    You might want to read the opening of THE HANDMAID’S TALE by Atwood, and many other award-winning dystopian novels, to see how others use world-building as yet another tool to create narrative drive.

    • Here are a few of the great dystopian novels:
      The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
      The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin
      Neuromancer by William Gibson
      The Road by Cormac McCarthy

      • How about Divergent by Veronica Roth? (Our brave writer will notice that it begins with a simple seven-word sentence.)

  2. Essentially my thoughts as I read boiled down to 2 things:

    1. Confusion. As with Claire, I was confused at several points in the story. Unlike Claire, I didn’t make the connection about ‘fear desensitation treatment’ and public whippings being the same thing. I thought the latter was a separate thing. The inconsistencies were confusing also, like the free-flowing wine in this environment.

    2. Lack of sympathy for Gideon. In this excerpt, I didn’t really connect with Gideon–didn’t have cause to care about his impending appointment. For example, when I was reading this line in my head, “No, you must be kidding. They wouldn’t dare.” it read like one of those monotone reading devices. It just didn’t strike me as sincere & deep. Also, while “There is no point in putting it off. They will get me eventually….” is very realistic and a thought/attitude I can relate to, I don’t know if it sets the stage for a character to carry the whole story. I actually found myself more curious about Paul Roseau than about Gideon.

    You can’t solve every problem with just one page, but I think if you can find a way to clear up the confusion/inconsistency so that the world is very real to the reader, and if you can get the reader to connect with your protag, you will go a long way. One thing I wondered–it sounds like they’re standing right outside the House of Pain–but as a setting it had no life of its own—yes, you mentioned some timbers, but if “House of Pain” carries all the import we are led to believe, and they are right outside it, couldn’t it be used to greater effect to set the intensity of the scene? Just a thought.

    Appreciate the author’s bravery in submitting.

    • Great comments and I good point about lack of sympathy for Gideon. It is critical in any novel for a reader to care and be invested in the main character and I don’t get much inkling yet of why I should care or be invested in Gideon.

      • One more hint, brave writer. I keep thinking about your 82-word first sentence. One trick that seasoned writers use to help with the rhythm and flow of their writing is to begin a paragraph with a shorter sentence. The sentences toward the middle of the paragraph are a little longer. Then the final sentences are shorter. This method isn’t always appropriate, but it’s a trick that can help new writers make their writing flow. (Of course, I don’t recommend 82-word sentences.)

        I know that Clare doesn’t write in your genre, but actually her book Unlikely Traitors has an excellent example in her first paragraph. Her first sentence is short. Just six words. The sentences toward the middle get longer. Then she ends the first paragraph with an eight-word sentence. Maybe Clare didn’t do this deliberately. Perhaps she has a natural ebb and flow to her writing. However, this is something to think about and strive for when you write. Read your writing aloud and see if you like the way it sounds.

  3. Thanks for sharing your work, brave writer. Here are my comments:

    1. Punctuation.

    You must learn how to write dialogue correctly. This is basic. I once had a high school English teacher who wouldn’t give a student with a punctuation error higher than a C on a paper. Two mistakes meant no higher than a D. You must know the rules of dialogue. Read “12 Things You Should Know About Dialogue” by Chuck Wendig (http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2011/07/05/25-things-you-should-know-about-dialogue/). See number four.

    I’ll leave it to you to correct your dialogue. Take a look at these example sentences from your work:

    “No, you must be kidding. They wouldn’t dare. (missing quotation mark)
    “They would, and they do. “Paul said. (wrong type of quote; comma after “do” instead of period)
    “And people go along with this? “asked Gideon. (extra space after question mark; missing space before asked)

    These are only a few samples. I cringed when I got to the paragraph after the last example sentence and had to stop.

    It’s not a good idea to try to write a novel without a basic understanding of punctuation rules. It would be like someone who didn’t know how to play “Chopsticks” on the piano trying to write a piano concerto. If you’re serious about writing, get a copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. There are no shortcuts to great writing.

    2. Don’t begin a novel with an 82-word sentence:

    On his way to his scheduled fear desensitization treatment at the House of Pain, Gideon Guidry and his friend Paul Roseau had stopped at the Iron Byrd Tavern, where Gideon’s friend Paul, who had made several visits himself, felt sympathy for poor Gideon had purchased several large pink glasses of Le Grand Courage, a rare and expensive French wine for him, and began slurring his words, as the two shared the wine and sat discussing Gideon’s pending appointment and possible death sentence.

    When I read an unwieldy first sentence like this, I make assumptions about the writing style. If I weren’t doing a critique, I would’ve stopped reading after the second occurrence of the word “his” in your first sentence.

    3. Tired metaphors weaken writing. Examples:

    “like a bull seeing red”
    “like hot grease on a cook stove”

    Be original.

    4. Repeated words weaken writing. For example, the word “courage” is used three times (at least) on the first page. I’ll leave it to you to find the other repeated words. Obviously, certain basic words can be repeated, but words like “courage” jump of the page.

    I could go on about scene structure and more, but I think the first step is to tackle the basics. Go to the library and ask the librarian to give you ten great books in the genre that you want to write. Read them. Then go back and ask her for ten more books by accomplished writers. Best of luck, brave writer. Don’t be discouraged. You have a great imagination. Master the basics of writing so that you can put that imagination to good use.

      • Joanne
        Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful comments – all of which are spot on! As you say, the imagination is there, the brave submitter just needs to master some of the basics and then that imagination can resonate on the page.

        • Exactly, Clare. Mastering the “Strunk and White” stuff will help our brave writer’s imagination “resonate on the page” (great way to put it).

  4. Dear Writer, you have chosen a difficult genre. One of the prime reasons is that the story must be dictated by the characteristics of the dystopian world itself. In simpler terms, if you can write the same story in present time, you should. The Children of Men by P.D. James is a great example as is The Drown World by J.G. Ballard and my favorite, A Boy and His Dog by Harlan Ellison. In these stories you will see how great authors handled this issue and write compelling stories.
    The football coach Vince Lombardi said, Luck is where preparation and opportunity cross.
    I think some more preparation (understanding writing and your genre) will serve you well.

    • Exactly, Brian. The “preparation” part can be difficult for writers who are itching to write; however, I think most of the regulars here will agree that writing is even more fun when the basics are second nature.

  5. I quit reading halfway through the confusing, 82-word opening sentence. Glancing down at the rest of it, the punctuation errors which Joanne pointed out leaped off the page me, as did the capitalization of the word “drunk”.

    My advice to the writer: brush up on your basics.

Comments are closed.