First Page Critique – Sofa

Creative Commons usage

Today we welcome an Anonymous Author with a first page that takes place in an unusual location—the East Siberian Sea. Please enjoy this submission. My comments follow.

Title Sofa

August 2007

Overhead clouds cast pale grey shadows over the floating ice chunks adrift on the East Siberian Sea. The Wolf stood at the prow of a crimson, expedition vessel, inhaled the unpolluted air of the Artic, and wondered if this refreshing air existed anywhere else on Earth. He marveled at the inviting crystal-clear water imprinted with cloud shadows, and the magnificent ice shelf that erosion had sculpted into a piece of frozen art. The silence stirred something within him a memory of gentler times, peaceful times.

The Wolf, aka, Dimitri Volkov tore his eyes from the surrounding beauty of nature and focused on a drifting iceberg 100 yards in the distance. He gazed at the NASA Aqua satellite photograph of a massive iceberg floating off the shoreline. He raised his binoculars and zoomed in on his target, inspecting the surface of the immense mountain of ice. A sharp crack vibrated through the air. Startled, he watched as a wall of ice broke off the ice floe and crashed into the sea. It disappeared beneath the icy water and shot an angry spray of seawater hundreds of kilometers into the air.

Dimitri grabbed his satellite phone and punched in a number. “Zdravstvuj, “Its here, but melting,” he said, in Russian. He listened for a moment, nodded several times, and ended the call. He twirled his fingers in the air and pointed to the sea. A sleek Poseidon inflatable boat splashed into the water; The Wolf shouldered a mustard-colored, waterproof equipment bag and lowered himself over the side, jumping the last few feet into the rubber dinghy. He revved the engine and maneuvered the inflatable toward the iceberg.

As he approached the glacial mass, Dimitri noticed the iceberg cast a blue-green sheen, a dead giveaway; the iceberg was melting faster than he thought. He nosed the inflatable to the base of the berg, shut off the engine, and pitched the anchor overboard. He opened his equipment bag and snagged a pickaxe, ice drill, laser, clawed shoe cleats, and a spool gun. Aiming the spool gun at the iceberg, He shot an aluminum wire into the iceberg twenty feet above the waterline.

            The ice creaked, moaned.

Concern clouded Dimitri’s deep-set, black eyes as he glanced up. A crack appeared in the center of the blue-green haze.

Okay, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

The setting with ice floes and an expedition ship in arctic waters is exotic and intriguing. But you need to spell Arctic correctly. I’m guessing this is the start of a thriller or Clive Cussler-style adventure about climate change and melting polar ice caps, with the potential for international conflict because of the geographical location, north of Russia near Alaska. That’s compelling.

However, the title Sofa doesn’t hint at anything like that. My first thought was couch? Not compelling. You’ll come up with something better, perhaps relating to the locale, the intrigue, or the conflict.

The second sentence begins with The Wolf. Right away, I thought that was the ship’s name because ship names are italicized while human names generally are not. Why introduce the character in a way that causes momentary confusion?

Instead: Dimitri Volkov, aka The Wolf, tore his eyes from the surrounding beauty…

Whoops, another hiccup. Eyeballs generally stay in their sockets unless someone tears them out. It’s the gaze or focus that can be torn from the surrounding beauty.

Your description is vivid and colorful, but inviting doesn’t feel like an accurate adjective for water that must be near freezing temperature. You do a good job with sensory detail–I can smell and taste the fresh bite of pristine air. Nicely done. His memory of “gentler times, peaceful times” hints that the present is neither gentle nor peaceful–good foreshadowing.

Strengthen the sentence even more by cutting the vague word “something”: The silence stirred something a memory within him, a memory of gentler times, peaceful times. 

Work on more precise word choices (details below). Improve the clarity of action so the reader can see exactly what is happening. Also cut repetitions of ice, iceberg, and icy. Here’s a possible rewrite of the second paragraph to address those issues:

The Wolf, aka, Dimitri Volkov, aka The Wolf, tore his eyes gaze from the beauty of nature surrounding him beauty of nature and focused on a drifting iceberg 100 yards meters in the distance. He gazed at compared it to the photograph he held in his left hand–a the NASA Aqua satellite image taken a year before of photograph of a massive the same iceberg floating off the shoreline. He raised his binoculars and zoomed in on his target, inspecting the surface. of the Although still immense, the mountain had shrunk significantly of ice.

[Paragraph break] A sharp crack vibrated through the air. startled him. He watched as a wall of ice broke off the ice floe and crashed into the sea. It disappeared beneath the surface, icy water and shot an angry shooting spray of seawater hundreds of kilometers into the air.

Watch out for switches between US and metric measurements. The iceberg is 100 yards away, then water shoots hundreds of kilometers in the air. One hundred kilometers equals 62 miles in the air. I’m guessing you mean meters, not kilometers.

Next Dimitri jumps the last few feet into the dinghy and shoots a wire twenty feet above the water line.

Incorrect or inconsistent word choices jar the reader. Suggest you stick with the metric system since presumably Dimitri is Russian.

Need to fix typos in the following:  Dimitri grabbed his the satellite phone from his belt holster and punched in a number. “Zdravstvuj, “Its it’s here, but melting,” he said, in Russian.

This excerpt has been written in fairly close third-person point of view (POV). Yet you deliberately withhold the other side of the phone conversation. That may lead to the reader feeling cheated since the close POV gives him/her the expectation of hearing responses from the person Dimitri called. If the plot requires the speaker to be kept secret (and it probably does), suggest you come up with a different technique to mask that information.

Clarify the action in the below examples:

Why does Dimitri nod several times? That doesn’t make sense because the listener can’t see him unless it’s a video phone, unlikely in 2007.

Make clear when Dimitri twirls his fingers in the air that he is signaling to deckhands and giving the order that they lower the inflatable. As it reads now, the dinghy appears to fall magically from the heavens.

Recommend you replace semicolons with periods. Semicolons belong in nonfiction, not fiction.

Calling him both Dimitri and The Wolf seems unnecessary because, at this point, the reader doesn’t know the significance of the alias or code name. Suggest you defer the nickname until later, for instance, when another character refers to him as The Wolf or it comes up naturally as the plot unfolds. Right now, switching between the two names seems forced and pretentious.

Dimitri first needs to start the dinghy’s engine before he revs it.

Snagged is a good verb but it doesn’t quite fit here because he’s removing a number of items from the gear bag. Snagged sounds more like grabbing one item on the fly.

The following should read: Aiming the spool gun at the iceberg, he…

You say the iceberg cast a blue-green sheen. I like the visual a lot but the verb cast implies a reflection on another object, like the surface of the sea. A paragraph later, you write: A crack appeared in the blue-green haze. Is the reflection cracking or is it the actual iceberg? Suggest you find a more precise verb than cast, perhaps emitted a blue-green sheen or glowed with a blue-green sheen.

Don’t need italics for The ice creaked, moaned. By putting the sentence in a paragraph by itself, you’ve already emphasized it without using italics unnecessarily.  

Concern clouded Dimitri’s deep-set, black eyes is a POV lapse. He can’t see his own eyes cloud or that they’re deep-set. Also black eyes raises a question for the reader. Does he have a pair of shiners? Or is the iris color a very dark brown?

A few paragraphs earlier, Dimitri just watched a massive wall of ice crash into the sea. Now he’s at the base of the same iceberg. It could come down on him. Wouldn’t his reaction to the cracking sound be more extreme than simply glancing up? If it were me, I would jerk back, haul up the anchor, and get the hell out of there!

I realize you’re at the end of the first page but Dimitri should have a stronger reaction to the danger.

Brave Author, you have a colorful setting and you’ve set up a promising conflict that could go in interesting directions. But your attention to detail needs work. Correct punctuation, accurate proofreading, and precise word choice are vital. Once you master those skills, you should have an exciting story.

Be especially careful with word choice. Remember Mark Twain’s admonition:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightningbug and the lightning.”

 

Your turn, TKZers. What suggestions can you offer our Brave Author?

 

 

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About Debbie Burke

Crime novelist, suspense and mystery novels are her passion. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Her nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications and she is a regular blogger at The Kill Zone. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

25 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Sofa

    • Good suggestion, Cynthia. It’s always a wise idea to verify the spelling of any foreign names or words, unless you’re a native speaker of that language. Even then, it’s a good idea to double-check.

  1. I love this setting and the concept is a big one. There are a million ways to start a life and death struggle in this setting, especially with a character named Wolf. I wanted to see his nemesis on the page with him right away and get a sense of the conflict that will fuel the story.

    • Margaret, I also found the setting intriguing. An exotic, unfamiliar locale can interest the reader enough to wait a few pages to uncover the major conflict.

  2. My first comment is about colons and semicolons- we keep saying don’t use them. However, I have been catching up reading Clive Cusslers NUMA series (wield coincidence) and he has no problem using them -3 times in the last book. Yes, I counted.

    I had no problem with the title. Unless it is over in non-fiction i certainly wouldn’t think it was about a couch. I thought a person’s name or an organization. If it is an abbreviation, use capital letters.

    Wasn’t crazy about the second paragraph. These were too many repeating words, yet I am not sure it would have bothered me if I were just reading for enjoyment and not critiquing.

    he said, in Russian – This threw me out of the story. I understand why the writer did it, but unless there are several people in the room specking different languages it really isn’t necessary. This is his point if view, so it is already being translated for the reader. But then you have the comma as if the fact he is specking russian is unusual or would be a surprise to the person on the other side of the conversation. Also, there should be a lower case r in russian.

    I really like the submission. It is certainly something I would read.

    • Michelle, there is certainly enough to interest a casual reader who isn’t as craft-conscious as we who follow TKZ are. That’s great news for our Anonymous Author.

      I’m curious about your comment about lower case “r” in Russian. All rules and customs I’m familiar with specify a capital letter for countries or their languages. Is there an exception you’re referring to?

    • Sometimes, Michelle, we need to use semi-colons. If splitting the two sentences will risk ruining the sentence rhythm, I say use a semi-colon. Readers don’t care, only writers do.

  3. Wonderful critique by Debbie. And I also want to say, wonderful atmosphere by Anon. As I read the submission, I felt the cold and the isolation. Being that I care for neither, it gave me an emotional chill that, at the same time, made me want to read more.

  4. It’s certainly an interesting setting to begin an adventure.

    I don’t know a lot about icebergs, but I was surprised that the protagonist dropped anchor instead of tying his boat off to the berg. If his anchor point is up-current, the berg will drift away from his boat, and he’ll have a cold swim back. If the boat is down-current, the berg will run into his boat and either drag the anchor, snap the anchor line, or just destroy his boat as it plows over it. Since most of a berg is below water, his anchor might hit the underwater portion of the berg and slide off, failing to secure his boat. When I bump into this kind of logic problem in a story, it makes me question the knowledge and trustworthiness of the author. The devil is in the details. Show me this character taking precautions to ensure his boat is still available at the end of his mission on the iceberg.

    • KS, great catches. The mechanics must ring true. Maybe Anon could find an expert in boat handling to review specific passages or beta read.

  5. Debbie’s critique is excellent as usual. You’ve been given a great gift. Take it to heart. I’d like to look at this submission from a strategic level.
    I’m guessing you haven’t been the Arctic. You need to do research on what living in that environment is like. Plenty of people have lived in the extreme cold and will catch any inaccuracy. For some, that could ruin the reading experience. Here is a good article: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/features/photography/life-in-arctic-exploration-culture/
    This submission is a good example of a character alone observing. It feels like naval gazing. You need someone for Dmitri to interact with, and the someone should introduce conflict. They should be discussing in the mission ahead and not the smell of the air.
    By the way, the air at the poles is so cold that it rips at your lungs. And manipulating a photo with heavy gloves on, would be difficult.
    Standing on the bow of a ship wouldn’t happen casually. He needs a mission related reason for to be outside on the deck.
    Put Dmitri inside with his assistant, Boris, discussing the dangers (or illegality) of what they are about to do. Build tension.
    One last thing. Large icebergs have names and are routinely tracked by satellite. Read here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iceberg_B-15. B-15 is in the Ross Sea of the coast of Antarctica. Be careful not to mix up the environment of the two poles.
    I hope this helps. You have a good idea and a little work will make it compelling.

    • Great input, Brian. I did not know icebergs were named–the interesting details one learns hanging out at TKZ!

      Good observations about extreme cold. There comes a point when hands are so cold, even with gloves, that all dexterity is lost.

      Also the length of days at extreme latitudes is important to consider. A mission in the Arctic would be governed by how many hours of daylight they have to work.

  6. Thank you, brave author, for sharing your work. Debbie Burke gave you a wonderful critique, lots of wisdom in her words.

    I had the same problem K S Ferguson did with the anchor, plus inflatable boats rarely have anchors anyway. No place to store them, they get tossed around as you go over waves. The waves from the ice calving continue on for quite awhile, so we know The Wolf in his hurry went out into the waves.

    Along the same lines of knowledge of the author, my biggest problem was the iceberg calving. Since most of the ice is underwater, the piece that breaks off rolls. It either rolls inward like an enormous log, or it rolls outwards like a Titan settling back into a bath, but it doesn’t disappear underwater. Ice floats. An already floating piece of ice doesn’t behave the same way as an ice cube you drop from above your drinking glass into the water. (In your drinking glass, the ice cube does momentarily disappear.)

    Ice floes, glaciers, and ice bergs constantly creak and groan. It’s got to be a special noise to make Dmitri concerned.

    (Can anybody tell I grew up in Alaska?)

    Kudos for picking a Russian-made inflatable for The Wolf’s runabout. I hope the expedition boat is an icebreaker if it’s in the Arctic.

    I like the sounds and colors, and I always dig a cool nickname. I’m especially glad to see The Wolf doing something exciting on this first page. It drew me in.

    Good luck with your continued writing, brave author!

  7. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Debbie gave you a very thoughtful critique, filled with wonderful advice. Good stuff. Here are my comments:

    Title

    Sofa is not the kind of title that screams “thriller,” if you know what I mean. I’m a fan of one-word titles in the thriller genre. For example, Jaws works, because it evokes an image. When I think of a sofa, I think of relaxing with a good book and a cup of tea. However, I suspect the title doesn’t refer to a couch. If Sofa is meant to be an abbreviation, be sure to use the appropriate punctuation.

    First Line

    “Overhead clouds cast pale grey shadows over the floating ice chunks adrift on the East Siberian Sea.”

    I like the fact that you let the reader know when and where the story takes place immediately. However, I think you can still do that and name your protagonist in the first line.

    The phrase “overhead clouds” is redundant (unless the protagonist is flying in an airplane).

    Interesting setting.

    First Paragraph

    Artic is an obsolete variant of arctic. (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/artic)

    Don’t use a hyphen between crystal and clear. Why? Would you use a hyphen here?

    She wore a pale lavender dress.

    No, you would not put a hyphen between pale and lavender. Likewise, you don’t need a hyphen between crystal and clear. Same deal.

    When you introduce Dmitry (See the name “Dmitry” in Wikipedia for spelling choices), you should use his full name first, rather than calling him The Wolf.
    After you mention that his nickname is The Wolf, I would refer to him only as Dmitry. (Other characters could certainly use his nickname later.)

    Overall, the first paragraph is filled with thoughts and fluff. Is this enough to sustain an agent’s interest?

    Eyeballs Doing Strange Things/Mixed Units of Measurement

    I agree with Debbie about the “tore his eyes” line. As Debbie suggested, stick to the metric system. Don’t mix yards with kilometers and such.

    Sentence Structure

    You begin at least nine sentences (about half) with the word he.

    He did this. He did that. I’d use a little more variety.

    Capitalization Errors

    “Aiming the spool gun at the iceberg, He shot an aluminum wire into the iceberg twenty feet above the waterline.”

    Don’t capitalize the word he here.

    About Semicolons

    Advanced writers use semicolons in fiction all the time, and I can provide examples from books on bestseller lists. Jojo Moyes begins her novel Still Me like this:

    “It was the mustache that reminded me I was no longer in England: a solid, gray millipede firmly obscuring the man’s upper lip; a Village People mustache, a cowboy mustache, a miniature head of a broom that meant business.”

    Even so, Kurt Vonnegut writes:

    “First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

    Does he practice what he preaches? Of course not. People who know what they are doing use semicolons. According to an article entitled “Do Semicolons Make You Pretentious?” in Slate:

    “Vonnegut averages less than 30 semicolons per novel. That’s about one every 10 pages. To be precise, for every 100,000 words Vonnegut writes, he used [sic] 41 semicolons.”

    Great writers use semicolons all the time. Of course, great writers also use editors. In fact, if you have a list of items and one of the elements of the list contains a comma, you need to know how to use semicolons. Here’s an example from Grammar Monster:

    “I have been to Newcastle, Carlisle, and York in the North; Bristol, Exeter, and Portsmouth in the South; and Cromer, Norwich, and Lincoln in the East.”

    Semicolons aren’t something to be thrown in for variety, however. Semicolons are one tool in a writer’s toolbox.

    Odd use of italics/indentation

    The ice creaked, moaned.

    This sentence is just strange, as written.

    Btw, I don’t have time to mention all of the small errors that I see. It’s always a good idea to use a professional editor to look things over.

    Overall Impression

    Every scene (particularly the first one) needs to have a conflict which culminates in a turn within the scene and advances the story. I’d begin with a scene that shows the protagonist interacting with another character (on the phone doesn’t count). Read Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate by Brian McDonald. It will help you discover ways to make the reader relate to your protagonist. This is essential if you want folks to keep reading. Also read The Golden Theme: How to Make Your Writing Appeal to the Highest Common Denominator by Brian McDonald. Some stories touch all people, regardless of genre. Brian McDonald is a genius at teaching writers how it’s done.

    I also recommend that you complete the exercise Paula Munier recommends in the article entitled “Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right” (posted on Jane Friedman’s blog). Use a search engine to find it.

    Now carry on, brave writer. Good luck, and keep learning, reading, and writing.

    • Joanne, thanks as always for your detailed suggestions.

      I’ll have to look up the Brian McDonald book based on your recommendation but also the catchy subtitle “How to Make Your Writing Appeal to the Highest Common Denominator.”

  8. I liked the thrillerish setup, the feel in the Arctic Ocean. But Debbie had many good points to which the brave writer should pay attention. I would add the following very minor points:

    *No comma after “aka”. Put the comma after “Volkov” instead.

    *Don’t say “100 yards”. Say “a hundred yards”.

    *I would seriously consider adding a pronunciation guide. “Zdravstvuj” is simply unpronounceable to most Americans. Seeing this name might frighten readers into thinking the book is full of dense, intimidating Russian names, and they might not want to bother. If you really want to use that name, you should include a guide.

    • Don, you make a valid point about “intimidating Russian names.” It always bugs me when an author throws in foreign words or phrases without offering a clue to the meaning. While using another language can inject an element of authenticity, if a reader has to stop reading to look up the meaning, s/he is yanked out of the story, perhaps never to return.

  9. Debbie’s suggestions are spot-on, I think. Good setting! It’s fresh and well, bracing.
    Good thriller material here I suspect.

    And that “Zdravstvuj…”

    You have to take great care working foreign words and phrases into your books. (I’m posting on this subject this coming Tuesday because my First Pager has an issue with it). When I first saw this word, I thought maybe it was a name. Or maybe a translation of the next words, “It’s melting.” Then I Googled it and found out it was “hello.” (Formal to someone you don’t know well). You can’t lay a big weird word out there without helping the reader out a little. Not easy…even experienced writers struggle with this.

    But an interesting start, with some judicious editing. The title doesn’t do the work justice…gives no sense of the story, imho. Even if it’s an acronym (Soviet Offshore Floe Assault?) it sounds too…well, soft and squishy.

    • Kris, glad you’ll be writing in more detail about foreign terms. It’s a tough balancing act.

      “Soviet Offshore Floe Assault” – very good!

  10. Wonderful critique, Debbie. The comment section is filled with solid advice, as well. Anon, love the setting. This piece has a fantastic sense of place, beautifully depicted. Wishing you the best of luck. You’re off a great start!

    • Thanks, Sue. And thanks to everyone who commented, offering their particular knowledge and experience. Anon has a lot of good info to weave into this chilling first page (sorry, couldn’t help myself!).

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