Gone, but not forgotten…First Page Critique: REMINISCENCE

Photo courtesy marina4848 from pixabay.com

Welcome, Anon du jour, to yet another installment of First Page Critique. I’m a little hard on you today, but if you can make it through what follows I think you will ultimately be okay in the long run. Consider this your first day at Parris Island but remember that Myrtle Beach is only a few hours away! Let’s begin:


The piercing silence rang in my ears. My nerves rattled from a week of weeping. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not now but later, way later. I was never ready for this.

His smile shined at me every morning, embracing the life I hated for the past year. I struggled to keep my peace and appreciate every waking moment. It was hard to do knowing the certainty. I’d smile along with him, laughed at his jokes, it kindled a soft glow in my soul when it was dying.

At night, when I’m alone, tears wetted my pillow as I reminisced about the past. There was more good than the dreaded times. I’d taught him how to cook. He showed me I’m never alone. He promised me he’d be by my side with the rough and tough events in life that taunted me. Yes, he was there, comfort and content.

Oh, and he was strong, physically and mentally, supporting both our anguish and a wary eye for both of us. How sincere, sympathetic, and empathetic he was to this crisis in our lives. That was him, a man I wished we all could be. To think how the world would be if we all had that kindness in our hearts.

My hand shook out of control.

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

I watched my hands tremble as I reached and opened the envelope. This time a tissue wasn’t enough for my cascading tears. The letter read . . .

The reminiscence of past times of laughter, sorrow, and the emotion that shot steam out of my ears, I could never forget, even if I tried. It was a crazy life with her, but I loved every minute spent with her. She was the soul that kept me motivated to succeed. She was my inspiration. She was my life. I will miss her, but the reminiscences will hold the torch burning in my heart for her. I am proud of her and proud to be a part of her life. ‘Live for it,’ she’d say, and I did, every day in my planner book, every night in my prayers. Thank you for nurturing me, giving me the strength to live as far into the future as I can. I will be your angel in heaven as you have been my angel on earth. I love you, mom.

Anon, you have two major problems right from the jump. The first is overwriting. The second is vagueness. You’re saying too much and too little at different times and at the wrong times.

Let’s start with the overwriting. You’re getting in your own way.  You start in the first paragraph, which is kind of like putting a speed bump just past an intersection.  “Piercing silence ringing”…no. Also…Nerves don’t “rattle” but they do get rattled. You might never be ready but in the past tense you should simply be not ready, not “never ready.” It doesn’t stop there, either. The third paragraph includes the sentence, “Yes, he was there, comfort and content.” I don’t know what that means. I think what you mean is “Yes, he was there, providing comfort and content.” The letter (see below) is also overwritten, with phrases such as “…shot steam out of my ears…” “torch burning in my heart for her…”  

Now we come to vagueness. I’m having trouble figuring out who the narrator is and who they are to the deceased. I think someone is deceased. Maybe they’re just gone. What I am getting is that someone important to the narrator has died. I am assuming it is a son. At one point the narrator says that the deceased is “a man I wished we all could be.” But then that letter the narrator is reading is addressed to “mom.” Let’s try to get the identities and relationship established in the first paragraph, just to keep the reader on firm ground. And that letter…I assume that the last paragraph is a letter, based on your sentence “The letter read…” but I’m not entirely sure.  If so, please italicize the letter to set it off so that we know it’s separate from the story narration.  

You might ask (and should) why any of this is important. The reason is that I had to read your first page a couple of times to even come close to understanding what you were getting at, Anon, other than the obvious manifestation of loss and resultant grief. That’s a problem. If you’re submitting your work to an agent, editor, or ultimately to a reader, they’ll need to see a first page that grabs them and makes them want to go for the second, the third, and the fourth page and beyond, all the way to the end, without having to try to figure out who is what. If someone is browsing for a book on Amazon or in a store, they normally read the jacket summary or the Amazon blurb and then if it’s of interest they’ll read the first page or two to see if it grabs them. If it doesn’t, they put that book down and pick up another until they find one that does. I happened across a terrific quote from Mickey Spillane, who said, “Nobody buys a mystery to get to the middle.” That’s true of any book. If you would like an excellent example of a book that picks you up from the first page and carries you through all the way to the end, take a look at the newly published novel HOW IT HAPPENED by Michael Koryta. You can get a sample of the Kindle edition easily enough. It starts with a strong first sentence and keeps things moving all the way through.  Actually, Anon, better yet, walk over to your bookshelf and pick up any novel that you call a favorite and read the first page. I bet that it still calls and sings to you, even after repeated readings. That’s what you want to aim for.

The short version of the above? Name the person who is so dearly missed early on, in the first paragraph. Establish the identity of the deceased with the narrator. Delete four out of every five adjectives, similes, and metaphors.

Let me if I may rewrite what you have written to give you an illustration of what I’m talking about:

I couldn’t get used to the silence. It took on a presence of its own the house. It made my home — what had been our home — sad and lonely. The quiet was an unwelcome and unwanted guest that had arrived uninvited before its time.

Mike’s passing was inevitable, as is everyone’s. His, however, was a violation of the unwritten law that a parent should predecease their child. His Bose mp3 SoundDock sat silently in his room but I still kept hearing one of his favorite songs, a Bob Dylan tune with a jaunty melody about wanting and not being born to lose someone. I didn’t want to listen but my memory didn’t have an “off” switch. We had supported and complemented each other, freely giving to and taking from each other according to our needs and abilities. Now it seemed as though half of me — my better half — was missing.

Mike near the end could not talk but he could still write. I found his last note to me a few days after he passed. The ink was tear-smeared by my frequent  readings, but I could still make out his words, even though my hands were trembling as I held the thin paper:

I’m not saying that what I’ve just done is the only way to write this, or the best way, or even a good way, but it’s a start. It establishes (or at least hints at) the identity of the narrator and the narrator’s relationship with the deceased. It names the deceased. It also removes some of the clutter.

The bottom line, Anon, is that you’re going to need to roll up your sleeves, hit the delete button, and start over. There is no sin or weakness in that. Everyone — and I mean everyone — overwrites and loses focus the first time(s) through. What you see when you pick up any work of art is the end of the journey through the thicket, a sojourn fraught with getting lost, cutting through brush, fighting off chiggers, spiders, and wasps, and enduring cuts, scrapes, and bruises. Sit down and have the Raid, bandages, Neosporin, maps, and machete at the ready.   Keep trying to get through that thicket again and again. Don’t hesitate to write, revise, and revisit repeatedly until it’s the absolute best it can be. And thank you for being brave enough to bare your soul to us and risk the criticism. I hope you accept it in the spirit in which it is offered.

As I post this, Anon, one of our past submitters, if you will to the First Page Critique process got ‘er done, if you will. Harald Johnson (he of “the boy in the canoe”) has just published 1609 https://www.amazon.com/New-York-1609-Harald-Johnson/dp/0692115250/.  Yes. You can do this.

I will now step back and strive mightily to remain uncharacteristically quiet while I open the floor to our wonderful visitors and commenters. Thank you all, and especially you, Anon, for contributing to our First Page Critique!

This entry was posted in writing tips by Joe Hartlaub. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

16 thoughts on “Gone, but not forgotten…First Page Critique: REMINISCENCE

  1. “What you see when you pick up any work of art is the end of the journey through the thicket, a sojourn fraught with getting lost, cutting through brush, fighting off chiggers, spiders, and wasps, and enduring cuts, scrapes, and bruises. Sit down and have the Raid, bandages, Neosporin, maps, and machete at the ready.”

    Love this, Joe! Boy, could I relate. I’ve been bandaging wounds and chopping brush all week.

  2. I agree with Joe about overwriting and vagueness. The vagueness bothered me the most because I got confused. He/she/who died? I do feel a passion coming through, though. I just think the passion needs to be channeled into a tighter structure so the reader knows what’s going on.

    Thank you for submitting your work, brave writer, and good luck in your continued writing pursuits.

  3. Misdirection = good.
    Confusion = bad.

    I love a book that starts out making me guess what’s going on. But it has to be artfully and carefully done. That is what good misdirection is — leading the reader to a place they think they are going to then surprising them by revealing they have actually ended up somewhere else. But that’s not what’s going on here. This opening is just opaque and vexing. As Joe points out, we can’t tell who the narrator is or who s/he is remembering. The writing calls too much attention to itself. Makes me think of the Stephen King quote about his early efforts: “I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the signature of the editor was this mot: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft minus 10%.”

  4. Thanks, brave writer, for submitting your work. Here are my comments:

    Never Start w/Protagonist Alone Thinking

    I’m assuming that you’re new to TKZ. Anyone who has been reading TKZ for any length of time probably knows that I always advise writers not ot begin a novel with the protagonist alone somewhere thinking. This is something I point out for many submissions by new authors. See “New Article Series: 9 Story Openings To Avoid” (http://nelsonagency.com/2016/06/new-article-series-9-story-openings-to-avoid/) by Kristin Nelson.

    Introduce Your Protagonist Correctly

    Read “Making an Entrance” by Barbara Kyle. You’ll have to use a search engine to find a link to the article, because the blog program doesn’t allow folks to post multiple links. Also, check out my blog and put words like “hero” and “protagonist” into the blog’s search engine for more information about how to introduce your protagonist.

    Readers don’t bond easily with whiny or wimpy protagonists. Now, it’s understandable that a mother would be upset at the death of her son, but readers don’t know your protagonist yet. That leads to my next point.

    Begin Your Story in the Right Place

    I recommend beginning your story in a different place. Show readers the protagonist doing something that will help create a bond. The grieving mom should be in a scene with another person, maybe her best friend. The point is that she should be doing something that will show the reader what her defining quality is in action. What makes her such a special lady? Show us. Perhaps in spite of all of her own grief, she is somewhere helping a friend with something. Make her strong and courageous, and show the reader that courage in action. Then, after readers get to know her, let her find the letter. It will have so much more effect. And when that happens, don’t focus on pages and pages of Mom sobbing. Cut to the chase, so to speak.

    Think of it this way. When you watch the news and you hear about someone dying, you might be disturbed. However, the news would be much more disturbing much more disturbing if you know the people involved. So, it’s the same with writing. Introduce your protagonist to the reader first. Show us what’s good about your protagonist first. Then readers will bond with her and relate more to her emotions.


    I agree with Joe completely about overwriting. It’s something you want to avoid. If you don’t know what overwriting is, check out the article on my blog entitled “Overwriting: How to Recognize and Correct it.”

    I have some more tips for you, but I’m going to have to finish writing my critique later this afternoon. Don’t let anything you read here discourage you. Keep writing and enjoy your writing journey. More later.

    • Somehow the words “much more disturbing” got duplicated in one of my sentences. Sorry about that. Had to type fast this morning, as usual.

    • How many links a comment can contain is something determined by the people who manage the site. If you can only include 1, it’s because they’ve chosen that (lots of links is a spammer’s thing.)

      • Thanks, Terry. I understand why they might chose to limit links and don’t disagree with that choice. I’ve had to deal with some rather odious spammers myself.Sometimes it makes it hard to provide references, but we can certainly work around that.

  5. Congratulations on submitting a page for critique! I do concur with Joe’s assessment completely. In the big picture, I was utterly confused about the relationships involved in the piece, and overwriting did not help. I wanted to be sympathetic to the characters, but there just wasn’t enough there to really grab me.

    Don’t be discouraged–when I start a new project, I often find myself with the same obstacles. For me, it’s usually because I’m floundering around trying to get a foothold in my story–and when I haven’t quite yet decided where I’m going with it, I tend to overwrite.

    And when time comes to edit the details, watch for certain things. Like mixing up tenses in a sentence, or awkward word strings such as “week of weeping” — somehow it reminded me of sitcoms where they intentionally play on words that start with the same letter.

    I’m certain that as you become more confident in your story and what you want to do with it, these issues will smooth out as you keep writing/revising.

  6. LEt me jump in for a moment to offer a big thank you once again to Anon de jour as well as to all of the folks who have commented and/or visited today (and may yet in the coming days). Anon, all the best to you and your future efforts!

  7. I promised a few more comments, brave writer. Sorry it took so long to get back to you.

    I wanted to let you know that there are always exceptions to some of the “rules” and such. For example, you might be familiar with the epistolary novel called P.S., I Love You by Cecilia Ahern that was made into a movie. If not, you can read the first pages online at one of the online book sellers. You’ll note that the protagonist is alone, reflecting about the death of her husband in the opening. You might be wondering why the author was able to get away with doing this. The answer is that she had a great premise. The husband left behind love letters that she was to open at regular intervals to help guide her in her life without him. Sometimes when a premise is good, the writer can get away with breaking rules. You will always be able to find examples of writers breaking rules and being successful. However, most of the time, you want to begin your novel with a scene. Every scene has certain elements (goal, motivation, conflict). The scene should be filled with action and dialogue and not too much of the other stuff (description, backstory, inner monologue). Your opening scene needs to have a strong hook. A hook is like a story question that the reader will want answered that will entice him to turn the page and keep reading. I get the feeling that you have a lot of passion about your project, and I hope that you will make your opening the absolute best that it can be. In that spirit, let me recommend that you do some reading on plot and structure. If you want some book recommendations, please email me. You can always begin with the book by James Scott Bell. And, please, don’t be discouraged. Keep writing. It’s not unusual to have to write openings (and other sections) many, many times (and you’ll never please everybody.)

    One more thing. Your setting details were very sparse. While I’m not a fan of pages of setting information, you do need to ground the reader firmly into a time and a place. That’s all for now. Carry on!

  8. Dear Writer,
    You are embarking on a long, torturous,and fulfilling journey. Like any other endeavor worth taking up,there are hours and hours, some say as many as 10,000, of writing, reading successful writers, and learning the craft. Don’t give up now. Take Joe’s comments to heart. Congratulations, you have failed, but now you have the unique opportunity to learn and to fail better next time, and so on until one day, a moment of absolute genius will appear on the page before you. And that moment will be worth it all.
    I know. I have failed for the last eleven years and then the moment came. I cried when my editor who wasn’t related to me said my story was good enough to publish. I can’t wait to read the next story you submit.

    • That’s great news, Brian, but learning isn’t failing. In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. I often wonder why so many people expect to just sit down and start typing away and think that they’ll have a publishable novel as a result. Writing is no different than any other artistic endeavor. It’s hard work. Also, it’s much easier to critique/analyze a novel than it is to write one. Writing requires creativity and perseverance and organization and so much more. When will your book be published? Congrats.

      • My new target is June 1. I keep running into small problems that seem to take too long to solve, like putting the Amazon button on the website. I’ll sneak in a shameless pug as soon as its done. Thanks for asking.

        • Hmm… that shouldn’t take too long. That’s usually as ust pasting a snippet of HTML code, right? If you can’t figure it out, I’m sure someone in TKZland might be able to help.

          • “That’s usually as ust pasting a snippet of HTML code, right?” should read “That’s usually just pasting a snippet of HTML code, right?”

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