Hang On! First Page Critique: MANNAHATTA

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Welcome, Anon du jour!  Thank you for joining us this morning by submitting Mannahatta, your work in progress, to First Page Critique. I think you’re off to a great start with what I believe is an adventure novel. Let’s take a look, noting that the original line separation and paragraph breaks were lost in transmission:

Prologue

Winter 1602

The two hunters could see it would not go well.

They sat on the high bank, bundled in skins and eating parched corn, while they watched the canoe approach from the west—from the island.

The rain had stopped, but the gale at their backs was still gusting. Whitecaps roiled the gray, cold waters below them, and there was a continuous roar from both wind and raging sea, not unlike a waterfall.

“Worst time to attempt this passage,” the taller of the two shouted in their Munsee dialect.

The other man grunted agreement while he chewed and pulled his beaver cloak tighter against the north wind.

The tide was turning at this spot they called Monatun, just east of Mannahatta. Here three salt rivers and waterways converged into one channel. Currents from different directions raced and collided. Waves rammed into each other and shot spray high in the air. Deep whirlpools spun and sucked, and a standing wave spanned the treacherous water route.

The hunters could do nothing to change what they knew was coming. They would be silent witnesses.

The man was in front, a woman in back, and in the middle a boy who had seen maybe eight or nine winters. The man paddled furiously and yelled instructions to his woman, eyes wide with fright. The boy remained motionless, as if in his dreaming world, his small hands grasping each side of the canoe.

As soon as they entered the violent stream, the paddler’s efforts had little effect—the canoe was pulled helplessly into the standing wave that blocked its path. The man tried to angle up and over the wave, but it was no good. The heavy canoe flipped like a small twig, its occupants launched into the icy water and swept along with the main current.

The wind then caught the lip of the canoe and sent it sailing against a large boulder that jutted out from the water. It broke into splinters with a loud crash.

The man and woman flailed and tried to swim to shore while being carried on by the chaotic flow. Soon, they disappeared under the water’s choppy surface.

The hunters’ attention went to the boy. He was not helpless like his parents. He was not fearful. He struggled in the water, but with a fixed determination.

He held a rope, and while he bobbed toward the jutting rock, they could see him purposefully . . .

 

First, last and in between: Anon, you know how to tell a story. Good going. You set a scene and create suspense very well. Even though I was almost certain from their first introduction that the adults were goners and that Sonny Boy was going to make it (and that’s not a sure thing yet) I was wondering how it was going to go down. I wasn’t disappointed at all with what you presented.

It looks like I have made a lot of corrections here. That is no reflection of your storytelling skills. Your work here reminds me in a way of Edgar Rice Burroughs, one of my all-time favorite authors of adventure fiction. He probably wouldn’t even get published now, as he was not a stickler for grammatical rules, but he could tell a story by just picking the reader up and carrying them along, the same as you do. I was swept up by your story which in my opinion matters more than writing a story that follows all the rules in the telling but bores the waste out the reader. Accordingly, please consider the following to be fine detailing rather than a general remodeling.

They sat on the high bank, bundled in skins and eating parched corn, while they watched the canoe approach from the west—from the island.  I’m thinking, Anon, that this would be a good place and time to hint that there are three people in the canoe. You can say:

They sat on the high bank, bundled in skins and eating parched corn, while watching the canoe with three people aboard approach from the west—from the island.

The hunters could do nothing to change what they knew was coming. They would be silent witnesses. Since they are already silent witnesses, let’s change the tense and also bring the canoe back into the action to introduce what happens next:

The hunters could do nothing to change what they knew was coming. They were silent witnesses as the surging waves tossed the canoe and its helpless passengers.  

The man was in front, a woman in back, and in the middle a boy who had seen maybe eight or nine winters. Let’s introduce them in a parallel fashion:

A man was in the front of the canoe,  a woman in the back, and a boy who had seen maybe eight or nine winters was in the middle.

The other man grunted agreement while he chewed and pulled his beaver cloak tighter against the north wind.  I knew what you were saying here, Anon, but the image lept into my mind, almost unbidden, of the gent chewing on his beaver cloak. Let’s maybe add two little words:

The other man grunted agreement while he chewed his corn and pulled his beaver cloak tighter against the north wind.

The man paddled furiously and yelled instructions to his woman, eyes wide with fright.

This story is told from the point of view of the hunters who have no way of knowing the relationship, 1602 style, between the man and the woman. It could be the guy’s sister. Let’s make the change from “his woman” to “the woman” until we know for sure if we ever do. Also, tell us whose eyes are wide with fright, Anon. If they’re the woman’s, use:

“…to the woman whose eyes were wide with fright.”

If the man’s, use:

“The man, eyes wide with fright, paddled furiously…”

The man and woman flailed and tried to swim to shore while being carried on by the chaotic flow. Soon, they disappeared under the water’s choppy surface.  I don’t like the “soon” here. “Soon” for me implies a fifteen minute rest period. Let’s try “quickly” to further convey the urgency of the situation:

The man and woman flailed while trying to swim to shore but were carried on by the chaotic flow. They quickly disappeared under the water’s choppy surface.

He held a rope, and while he bobbed toward the jutting rock, they could see him purposefully…  I take the sense that the boy is probably not so much holding the rope as hanging on for dear life. I like the sense of urgency you have going overall and want to keep that going, so let’s use a word that does that. For example:

He clung to a rope, and the pair on shore watched him purposefully (tell us what he is purposefully doing) while he bobbed toward the jutting rock.

Just to close…I like that the perspective of the story is from the point of view of the two crusty customers on the bank, who so far are sitting there watching what unfolds. The implication here is that there isn’t anything they can do to avert the catastrophe that is unfolding. They’re not taking any joy in it. They are just stoically watching nature take its course. Fortunately, the boy is not. My guess is that after the Prologue we’ll meet up with the boy as an adult and he’ll be the protagonist of your book. I look forward to finding out.

I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically and unnaturally quiet as I turn the reins over to our wonderful visitors and commenters. Thank you for joining us, Anon, and good luck with Mannahatta!

 

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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

23 thoughts on “Hang On! First Page Critique: MANNAHATTA

  1. I love this. As I read it, I thought that I wouldn’t change a word until I saw what Joe said about changing the reference from ‘his woman’ to ‘the woman.’ I would buy this book. I am already heavily in favor because I shelled out big bucks to buy the hefty history book by the same name a few years back. I’m assuming the boy in the canoe is going places, and I can’t wait to read his story. Keep going!

    • I hate to disagree with Joe Hartlaub about ANYTHING. But on this one, I must.

      The suggestion to changing his woman to the woman just doesn’t fly in a tribal society–even a primitive society. His woman means that, on some level (not in 21st Century politically correct Manhattan, Hollywood, Washington, D.C., or Madison, WI), he has had to fight for her. That fight may have been combative, romantic, or tribally. At some point, he would have killed for her, overcome the romantic intentions of another guy, or had to fulfill the requirements of his tribe or her family with a seal, a buffalo skin, some kind of food stuffs, horses, goats, lambs, or other gift or requirement. And this would not presuppose American Indian tribes, but European, Asian, South American, Russian Steppes, or other tribes.

      The concept of his woman in a primitive society flies. Even in a matrilineal society, he would have had to struggle to make her his mate, wife, or partner. Picture this: she would have accepted that concept. Any political correctness would have been the political correctness of their tribal unit, all of whom would have accepted her as HIS woman.

      Even if the concept of the story is that these are two 21st Century people who have chosen to live along the banks of a river 500 miles from the closest city, town, or Circle K market–they have Circle Ks even in downtown Bangkok–the idea of his woman would stick if that’s the concept they wished to place upon themselves. Even if the concept of his woman is something she did not want and was struggling to remove herself from their relationship, the concept of his woman at the first of the story would be appropriate. If this were the case, then the concept that he thought of her as his woman would add to the reasons for her struggle to end that relationship.

      Okay, Jim. Breathe. Breathe. Joe Hartlaub is not going to hate you for the rest of your life. He’s not that kind of guy.

      • Jim.

        Jim, here seems to be a little confusion re: why I suggested the change from “his woman” to “the woman.” My reasoning was that since it appeared 1) that the author was going for third person, from the point of view of the hunters and 2) that the folks on the boat were strangers to the hunters that they would not know the relationships of the boat people to each other. That’s all. Regarding the woman as the man’s property in a conjugal relationship would have been common in 1602 for all of the reasons you gave. Heck, it’s common in 2018 in many parts of the world (including west and east Columbus, Ohio). It had nothing to do with political correctness, to which I am happily allergic. So, Jim, all other things being equal, I agree with you and would have left Anon’s term alone if, say, the hunters had known the folks in the boat and thus would be aware that they were romantically paired up.

        And you’re right, Jim. I wouldn’t hate you for disagreeing with me or for most anything else. I’d only hate you if you messed with my woman.

    • Thank you, Margaret (I’m the Anon author). Yes, Eric Sanderson’s nonfiction book “Mannahatta” was one of my inspirations for writing this work. And I was able to meet with him in person on my final research trip to the location.

      And yes, the boy in the canoe is definitely going places! See more of my comments below. And thanks again.

  2. Lots to like here, right from the opening line, a great example of how to telegraph (avoid the “little did they know” syndrome) properly by using the hunters’ “opinion,” not the author’s.

    I disagree with only one of Joe’s suggested revisions–I’d re-order the information in the silent witnesses paragraph by starting with the canoe but ending with silent witnesses because the ends of things are Points of Stress, and I think we should milk them.

    Something about this section bothered me: “He was not helpless like his parents. He was not fearful. He struggled in the water, but with a fixed determination.” When I read it, I felt a little bit of author intrusion. i’m not sure, but I’m wondering if there’s some way to show the boy’s fixed determination rather than tell us. If this boy turns out to be the MC, then perhaps the hunters can see something specific about his appearance, even from a distance–a key and unusual detail–that will help the reader to identify him later as an adult, and, at the same time, show his determination.

    “The man tried to angle up and over the wave, but it was no good. The heavy canoe…” Telling and then showing because of the “but it was no good.” Not an egregious problem. I’m only mentioning it because this writer might need a reminder that the action (most often) should unfold in chronological order so that the reader and the characters experience the action as it’s unfolding.

    I loved the way the writer introduced telling details that put us firmly into a historical setting even without the introductory “Winter, 1602.”

    I would read more.

  3. I got swept up in the tension of this opening, nice job, brave writer.

    I like Joe’s suggestions because they make the opening a smoother read, an easier read so I can concentrate on what’s happening to the characters.

    I was a little confused about the geography. Maybe there’s something I don’t understand, but weren’t the Munsee in the 1600s on the east coast of North America? Then wouldn’t the island be eastward and not westward?

    I wonder where the rope came from. It’s not such an odd thing that I’d stop reading, but it did make me question if I had missed something. Also, being a swimmer myself, I know it’s HARD to swim if you are holding onto a rope, so is the rope attached to the jutting rock and the kid is pulling himself in? Otherwise, he’d be trying to swim more efficiently and drop the rope. Okay, he could be Super Swimmer and pulling something important behind him with the rope. At any rate, I hope the rope questions are cleared up when I turn the page.

    And I would turn the page because this is an exciting opening!

  4. I enjoyed the split-second we (the reader) endure between knowing there’s a canoe in sight, but not knowing there’s someone in it, just as we endure learning the geography of these three waterways, and then realize someone is hurtling down it. I also find “his woman” okay because it probably makes sense to assume that in 1602, and in any case, it’s the character who’s making that assumption. The piece struck me as deep 3rd person POV, and some of the ‘anomalies’ are what I think bring this piece to life for the reader. Very well done. I’m jealous.

      • I get your point and you’re probably right. There is something very “of the moment” about the scene, though. Not sure how to describe that technique.

      • Sheryl, I vote for deep 3rd person, but there seems to be some disagreement with that so maybe it’s something that Anon should work on as they proceed through the ms.

  5. I wonder what the next scene is. It is critical. At this point, our two observers seem to be unaffected by the death of two people and the struggles of the boy. They even seem to be enjoying the show.

    I imagined this as the next scene:
    They both strained to see what happened. When the boy crashed into a boulder they cringed in unison.
    “Wow, Dude. That’s gonna leave a mark!”
    “No shit. Pass the corn.”

    Even if they only invoke a prayer, they need to be involved.
    I would read on to see what happened to the boy, and to find out if the two observers are human beings or just Beavis and Butthead.

  6. Great story. I would keep reading. The only two places that made me pause were: a) the island was to the west. I assumed that we were on the east coast. Maybe a little explanation of where the island was ?in the middle of the river? and b) the boy was so competent in the water. Maybe a little clue earlier that there was something unusual about this boy.

    Great story.

  7. Excellent advice, Joe. I enjoyed this first page. My only suggestion is to pick one of the hunters and show the story from only his perspective, especially if he’s to be our hero. This way, you can show the non-POV-hunter’s physical reaction as well as our hero’s inner turmoil. Even if they’re helpless to rescue these people, it’s still not an easy thing to watch. Through reactions the reader gets to experience the horror. As it stands now, there’s almost no emotion. Force the reader to worry if this family lives or dies. We take our cues from the hero. Is he frightened for these folks? I can’t tell.

  8. Great opening, and agree with most of these comments. Just one thing, the person at the back of the canoe does all the paddling and maneuvering.

    • I’ve done a bit of canoeing, but am no expert. However, I thought both front and back people paddle, the back person does most of the maneuvering but the front person helps with that, too.

  9. Hello all. I’m the Anon author of the piece. And I’m carefully noting the official review (thank you, Joe!) and the added KZer comments here. I find this tremendously instructive and encouraging, so I thank you all for that. Couple of quick comments back to reviewer Joe:
    — Did you pick that “in-the-tube” wave image at top? Turns out that I’m also a surfer and water is a key part of this story.
    — Your mentioning Edgar Rice Burroughs knocked me over. I happen to have the entire 22-book Tarzan collection! I see my writing of this story (my first full-length work of fiction) as “historical fiction with a strong adventure burnish.” So wow.
    — You’re looking at 2/3 of the Prologue. The boy decisively concludes his preliminary action here, and we then catch up with an older him as the chapters kick into gear. And yes, he’s the protagonist.

    Allow me to reply to some of the individual comments, which I found fascinating:

    * THE POV & AUTHOR INTRUSION: Of the 200+ scenes in this story (it’s a saga), this is the only one that’s slightly pulled back from 3rd person (whether deep or shallow, I’m not sure). I describe my scene writing as “loose 3rd POV” — but I consider this one prologue scene even looser and sort of “semi-omniscient.” All the others are much “tighter” in terms of POV with very little author intrusion. This one is the exception.

    * HIS WOMAN: I did internally debate this. But you guys are doing a good job debating it yourselves! 😉 Will reconsider more.

    * GEOGRAPHY CONFUSION?: Not at all. If you know anything about NYC (and that is the setting, which the actual title, cover, and following chapters make very clear), then it’s possible for the two hunters to be sitting at the lower edge of the South Bronx and looking either west or southwest at the approaching canoe with “the island” (Manhattan) clearly to the west. And I should know because I’ve swum in all these waters, including around the entire island. And I include maps that show everything, too. Of course, you don’t know that.

    * EMOTION & the HUNTERS: I wanted this Prologue to be a little removed and devoid of emotion (there’s plenty of that to come). The hunters are very minor characters; they show up only once in the early chapters. My main goal is to tease the story (with one complication), introduce the hero and show a hint of his “special abilities” that strongly come into play in the book, with water competence being just one of them. This is a very special dude! That becomes even more clear by end of this Prologue. ***NOTE: If you want I can post the rest of the Prologue here; it’s not long, only 168 words.***

    * ROPE & SWIMMING: All is revealed in the next 168 words. Wanna see it?

    * THE CANOEING: Good point about the Front/Back positions. I had the man in front as a kind of “leader in charge,” but I could put him in back where he’s providing more of the maneuvering. Am reconsidering.

    Feel free to respond to my responses, and thank you all again for this great critique service you provide. It’s wonderful.

  10. Anon, it’s great to hear from you. Thank you for your kind words. My early reading consisted of paperback detective novels (Richard Prather permanently warped me, and I am forever thankful) but my next big binge read, if you will, was Edgar Rice Burroughs. I was familiar with Tarzan from the films but I can still remember where I was the day that I discovered the books (the fifth-floor book department of the downtown Lazarus department store in Columbus, Ohio). I have a complete collection of those as well. When I finished the Tarzan series I went to the Pellucidar series, John Carter of Mars, Venus, and…anyway, I’m always happy to find another Burroughs aficionado.

    I did miss the surfing reference (my interest in surfing begins with Dick Dale and ends with the Bomboras) but that is very cool. Speaking for myself, and I’m sure many others, I can’t wait to see the finished product, Anon. Thanks again for submitting your first page and for commenting. I am sure that we’ll hear from others in the next hours and days so please keep checking back.

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

    Title

    Interesting title choice. “Mannahatta” is also the title of a Walt Whitman poem. For those who don’t know it, Mannahatta was the name given by the native Lenape people to the island now known as Manhattan.

    Adverbs

    I noticed a number of adverbs on the first page (furiously, helplessly, purposefully). The usage of adverbs isn’t a litmus test for fine writing, but here are some interesting stats: https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/i8wjh4uNOfjbcZNuVvMPQM/The-adverbs-that-gave-JK-Rowling-away.html

    Prologues

    “The number of times I’ve seen a prologue done extraordinarily well in requested submissions? Well, I can count that total on two hands….” — Agent Kristen Nelson, “Why Prologues Often Don’t Work”

    “The reader knows full well while reading a prologue that the real story is waiting. A prologue makes a reader start a book twice, because it doesn’t always involve the protagonist, and starting a book is hard because it takes mental energy to immerse oneself in a world.” — Nathan Bransford, “Prologues”

    “In fact, in all my years editing novels, I have come across one prologue that worked, and that was three days ago. Seriously. But he was a member of my Warrior Writer Boot Camp and has been coached by me, so I am not even sure it counts.” — Kristen Lamb, “7 Deadly Sins of Prologues–Great Novel Beginnings Part 2”

    “Prologues are out of vogue for the most part.” — Beth Hill, “Pros and Cons of Prologue”

    And I’ll save my favorite one for last:

    “One more word about prologues. Being aware that the label Prologue might hit some editor or agent the wrong way, outfox them: Don’t label it Prologue!” — James Scott Bell, “A Prologue Primer”

    Food for thought, brave writer.

    POV

    I don’t recommend a third person plural POV (“they”). That doesn’t mean some authors don’t do it. Example: Flower Children by Maxine Swann.

    Of course, there’s the short story “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane that begins like this:

    “None of them knew the color of the sky.”

    Opening Sentence

    “The two hunters could see it would not go well.”

    Note the pronoun “it” has no antecedent (not a catastrophe). The line does make the reader wonder what won’t go well. Still, I think you can make the first sentence even better if you use something more specific other than “it.”

    Setting/Description

    No confusion about the setting. Good. Plenty of descriptive details. Be sure to research the canoe paddling stuff. (I haven’t been in a canoe in years. I’m not much help in that department.)

    Grammar/Punctuation

    I didn’t find anything too egregious that a good editor wouldn’t spot, but if you are going to shop this work, be sure to use an editor. Joe already pointed out some areas that need attention.

    Style

    “As soon as they entered the violent stream”

    I’d just say “As they entered the violent stream” here.

    “…and there was a continuous roar from both wind and raging sea, not unlike a waterfall.”

    Here’s an example of where you can use a stronger verb in place of was. Try something like:

    …and a continuous roar from both wind and sea, not unlike a waterfall, thundered in the distance.

    Another example. You write:

    “The man tried to angle up and over the wave, but it was no good.”

    You could rewrite it like this:

    The man tried to angle up and over the wave to no avail.

    Just picking nits, but you get the idea.

    Originality

    Is this idea original enough to get the attention of a literary agent? Without knowing your premise and seeing more of your story, I can’t give too many more comments.

    Best of luck, brave writer. Carry on!

    • One more typo (wish I could edit my posts; they are hard to see when typing). Sometimes I’ll change the way I’m working something midstream. Anyway…

      “The usage of adverbs” should read “The use of adverbs”

  12. A huge thank you to everyone who has visited and/or commented, and who may do so later. Also, many thanks to Anon who submitted this piece and also dropped by the comment. Anon, best of luck on MANNAHATTA and let us know how things go.

  13. A day late and a dollar short. Liked it a lot. I don’t even mind the somewhat detached point of view. Reminds me a bit of how PD James opens her books. Not every approach has to be intimate, especially since this is high action and those two stoic dudes on the cliff are an interesting almost god-like filter. Also, normally I hate prologues. This one works. Because I suspect we are able to be catapulted years ahead in chapter 1 and that is a legit usage of the poor maligned prologue, as a special, very long-span suspension bridge to a new place in the story.

    Carry on, Tarzan!

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