First Page Critique: Jolted

By Elaine Viets

Another brave Anonymous Author would like us to evaluate this first page. Read it first, and then my comments. I’m looking forward to seeing yours. Here’s the offering:

JOLTED
From the window of the school bus, Hannah spotted her dad’s new black truck above the hay fields. A dry, cold Wednesday afternoon, the farm’s normal colors were today blanketed in shades of gray. The roof of the familiar BMW parked outside the horse barn seemed to glisten redder than usual.

Close to four o’clock—feeding time. Hannah skipped the steps and jumped from the bus before the creaky doors had fully opened, figuring that her impatient pony was already running circles in his stall, anticipating her kisses and treats, the appetizers to his half-quart dinner of grain. But hearing the rickety doors of the bus squeal again behind her, she quickly doubled back to get her books, which the driver was tossing onto the mud-stained snow.

Hannah sloshed her way up the icy drive and entered the barn through the tack room door, her wet-soled boots squeaking on the dry clay floor. She dropped the books on the nearest tack trunk and ran into the aisle past the horseback riding is a dangerous sport—ride at your own risk sign on the wall. When she got to Sparky’s stall, she threw open the door and wrapped her arms around his chunky neck, covering his muzzle and cheeks with damp kisses. The pony licked her from chin to forehead, the girl giggling as she wiped at her sticky face with her hands. “Yuck!” she said. “Pear juice!” A perfumed smell of ripe apples and riper pears drifted into her nostrils from next door, where the kindly owner of the BMW was slicing the fruit for a painfully thin mare.

“Hi, Mrs. Fields,” Hannah said, smiling. “Sparky says thanks!”

The pony nickered as though on cue. “You’re welcome, Sparky,” Mrs. Fields said, funneling a chunk of apple to the fat pony through the stall bars as the mare pressed against her and buried her wet nose in the grocery bag of fruit. “So, what do you think, Hannah? Does my girl look like she’s picked up any weight?”

Hannah held on to the stall bars, careful to keep her sleeves from riding up, and stood on tiptoes as she stared at the mare’s ribs, which were pushing up and out through the soft chestnut-colored hairs. “Yes, I think so,” she said, too afraid of her dad to tell Mrs. Fields why the mare had suddenly gotten so thin.

ELAINE VIETS COMMENTARY

The first paragraph is hardest part of any novel. Once you get that out of the way, you can introduce us to your characters and start your story. This first paragraph is confusing. It’s supposed to be an establishing shot, but we can’t figure out what we’re looking at. .
This Anonymous Novelist did an excellent job of creating young Hannah, eager to jump off the school bus to see her fat little pony. There’s a good sense of foreboding at the end of the section, when Hannah is “too afraid of her dad to tell Mrs. Fields why the mare had suddenly gotten so thin.”
But we’re missing opportunities to use that fear.

Consider the opening:
From the window of the school bus, Hannah spotted her dad’s new black truck above the hay fields. Fear gripped her heart. That meant her father was drinking and angry – and looking for trouble.
Give us some kind of reason who her father’s truck is in those hayfields.
And tell us where we are. So far, this farm is floating out in space: We don’t know if it’s in Kansas or Connecticut.
And why is her father’s truck “above the hay fields”? Is this hilly country, or are we seeing his truck from a distance?

The author sets the mood well: A dry, cold Wednesday afternoon, the farm’s normal colors were today blanketed in shades of gray.
(That’s a nice touch and the author could keep that mood going. Instead, the author introduces another vehicle.)
The roof of the familiar BMW parked outside the horse barn seemed to glisten redder than usual.

It’s obviously a bright spot in this bleak landscape, but tell us why. Who is the mysterious Mrs. Fields: Does she board her horse at the stables? Is she a riding instructor?
Give us more details about Hannah. She needs a first and a last name. How old is she? What color is her hair? These details can be supplied in a few words without slowing the pace of your opening. Here’s what I mean: 

JOLTED
From the window of Hannah’s (give her last name) school bus, she could see the normal (bright?) colors of her family’s farm (Is this correct?) were blanketed in shades of gray. She spotted her father’s new black truck above the hay fields. (Why is this truck important? How does make Hannah feel? Anxious, alarmed? afraid?)
The roof of Mrs. Fields’ (use her name here) familiar BMW parked outside the horse barn seemed to glisten redder than usual. (Who is Mrs. Fields? Why is she and her car a bright spot?) 

Close to four o’clock—feeding time for the horses. (You can give us Hannah’s age here) Twelve-year-old Hannah skipped the steps, and jumped from the bus before the creaky doors had fully opened, figuring that Sparky, (use the pony’s name here) her impatient pony, was already running circles in his stall, anticipating her kisses and treats, the appetizers to his half-quart dinner of grain.
But hearing the rickety doors of the bus squeal again behind her, she quickly doubled back to get her books, which the driver was tossing onto the mud-stained snow.

(This seems unusually mean. Was the driver cranky? Was there a grudge against Hannah’s family? Let us know. Or remove and relocate for later.
And the doors are confusing. Why do they “creak” open and then later “squeal again behind her” It sounds like the doors were closed before she could get her books.)

Hannah sloshed her way up the icy drive and entered the barn through the tack room door, her wet-soled boots squeaking on the dry clay floor. She dropped the books on the nearest tack trunk and ran into the aisle past the HORSEBACK RIDING IS A DANGEROUS SPORT—RIDE AT YOUR OWN RISK sign on the wall. (The sign adds a nice touch of menace.)

When she got to Sparky’s stall, she threw open the door and wrapped her arms around his chunky neck, covering his muzzle and cheeks with damp kisses. The pony licked her from chin to forehead, the girl giggling as she wiped at her sticky face with her hands. “Yuck!” she said. “Pear juice!”
A perfumed smell of ripe apples and riper pears drifted into her nostrils from next door, where the kindly owner of the BMW was slicing the fruit for a painfully thin mare. (Good details about the smell of the fruit.)

“Hi, Mrs. Fields,” Hannah said, smiling. “Sparky says thanks!”

The pony nickered as though on cue. “You’re welcome, Sparky,” Mrs. Fields said, funneling a chunk of apple to the fat pony through the stall bars as the mare pressed against her and buried her wet nose in the grocery bag of fruit. “So, what do you think, Hannah? Does my girl look like she’s picked up any weight?”

Hannah held onto (one word) the stall bars, careful to keep her sleeves from riding up, and stood on tiptoes as she stared at the mare’s ribs, which were pushing up and out through the soft chestnut-colored hairs. “Yes, I think so,” she said, too afraid of her dad to tell Mrs. Fields why the mare had suddenly gotten so thin.

 This last line is a critical detail. Build on it before you get here. I can’t wait to read the rest of this book. Good luck, Anonymous Novelist – Elaine Viets

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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book. www.elaineviets.com

24 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Jolted

  1. No fair — why is the mare so thin? Learning more about horses from mystery authors lately . . . don’t give them grass clipping. I never knew.
    Thanks, all, for the hard work of creating clarity in your books. <3

  2. Reading through I thought my suggestions would be nit-picky, but after reading Elaine’s comments, they aren’t.

    Above the hay fields just doesn’t work. On a hill side looking over the hayfields does. Is there significance to the truck being new?

    Normal colors doesn’t say much. Rich amber fall colors, bright green of spring, Reds and golds of the fields in autumn, all do. And set up the shades of gray.

    Whose BMW and why is it familiar? For that matter, is it an X5, the up and coming SUV of a well off farmer or an M3, belonging to a snooty yuppie boarding their horse.

    “driver was tossing onto the mud-stained snow.” Unless the bus driver ends up being horse murderer later, this really doesn’t belong. The driver would need to park, get out of their seat, get the books and then toss them. It really isn’t going to happen. If you want a scene to set the season she could step in a puddle. If the bus driver needs to be mean, the bus could have stopped so she had to step in a puddle.

    Author, you are brave to put a draft out for inspection. After one page, with some edits, I would probably want to see chapter 1, maybe the whole book.

  3. Brave author, this is the best use of sensory detail I’ve seen in a first page. The sounds (boots squeaking on clay floor), smells, tastes, and touch (sticky tongue) are vivid and put the reader right in the scene.

    The truck “above” threw me. Sounds like it’s floating in the air.

    Follow Elaine’s excellent suggestions, esp. about foreshadowing the father’s meanness, and you’ll have a terrific opening.

  4. Brave author, this is ALMOST there for me. I like the way you’ve set up the horse-loving, excited kid in contrast to an absent (but apparently lurking somewhere), mean father. I like the way you slipped in Hannah’s sleeves detail, too.

    I tried rewriting your opening using Elaine’s suggestions, and it reads smoother, no confusion about where the truck is located or who owns the BMW, or that the sign’s words are on the sign itself (and not a typo like I firs thought). Smoother, easier-to-read writing makes your opening more intriguing.

    Nice job raising questions for the reader: What did Dad do to Mrs. Field’s horse? And why?

    Does the horse HAVE to be named Sparky? Maybe it’s just me, but I am reminded of a book for little kids, a book about a pet named Sparky. It sounds quite juvenile . . . which is fine if we learn Hannah named the horse when Dad wanted it named Bitter Haint.

    I would want to turn the page and read more if it were smoother. Good luck in your continued writing journey, brave author!

  5. Yes, excellent sensory detail here, and I want to read more. Love Hannah and her horse….But, I agree, there is something off about that first paragraph. The second sentence is dangle-y and awkward. And the writer sets the stage for gray day and throws in a glistening red barn. …That aside…Congratulations on a nice opening and promise for a good story.

  6. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer, and of course, thanks to Elaine for her commentary. Before I give my suggestions, I want to say that I would turn the page. This opening grabbed me from the start and made me worry about the little girl and the pony. A worried reader turns the page. Sure there are things that can be polished, but I would definitely keep reading. So, bravo for putting the child and pony in jeopardy from the first page. Here are a few comments:

    Title

    I’m not sure about the title Jolted. I read lots of horse books as a child, and the titles were things like:

    Misty of Chincoteague
    Stormy, Misty’s Foal
    My Friend Flicka
    Black Beauty

    My suggestions for the title and other things would vary depending on the genre of your novel. If you’re writing a books for kids, I’d choose something similar in length and style to the titles listed above. Jolted sounds more like a title for a thriller.

    First Line

    “From the window of the school bus, Hannah spotted her dad’s new black truck above the hay fields.”

    This sentence makes it seem like Hannah is perched in the window of the bus, rather than peering out the window of the bus. Use wording where readers can’t misinterpret any of the scenery (e.g. “truck above the hay fields”). Also, give Hannah’s last name in the first sentence.

    Punctuation/Grammar

    “A dry, cold Wednesday afternoon, the farm’s normal colors were today blanketed in shades of gray.”

    The verb here is “were blanketed” and you inserted the word “today” in the middle. You can’t do that. Well, you can, but it’s incorrect. I’d lose the word “today” here. “Today” also suggests present tense, and the story is written in past tense. This is a no-no.

    —-

    Punctuation for Words on Signs

    “She dropped the books on the nearest tack trunk and ran into the aisle past the horseback riding is a dangerous sport—ride at your own risk sign on the wall.”

    Follow the recommendations in The Chicago Manual of Style for punctuating words on signs.

    Overwriting

    Example:

    “The roof of the familiar BMW parked outside the horse barn seemed to glisten redder than usual.”

    “Seemed to” isn’t needed. Just write: The roof of the familiar BMW parked outside the horse barn glistened redder than usual.

    Example:

    “Hannah skipped the steps and jumped from the bus before the creaky doors had fully opened, figuring that her impatient pony was already running circles in his stall, anticipating her kisses and treats, the appetizers to his half-quart dinner of grain.”

    Instead of “figuring that,” just say “imagining.” You don’t need to use the word “impatient” here, either. We know the pony is impatient, because he is running in circles, anticipating her kisses and treats.

    Adverbs

    Avoid unnecessary adverbs.

    I don’t mind adverbs. However, I think you could eliminate a few of them. For example:

    “quickly doubled back” – just say doubled back. It’s less clunky.

    If you tell me the genre of your novel, I’ll provide additional feedback. However, overall, I like your story, because it made me care about Hannah and her pony immediately. I don’t mind that the reader has to guess a little bit about the exact situation with Hannah’s father, because that’s another mystery for the reader to solve. For me, it’s not necessary to come out and say, for example, that he’s an angry drunk on page one. I think you can milk the situation a little, but do drop hints. Keep writing, and best of luck!

    • Oops. Brave writer, when I re-read my comments, I realized that I did something that I told you not to do. I wrote “would definitely keep reading.” That’s incorrect, because I put the word “definitely” in the middle of “would” and “keep.” So, sorry about that, but I definitely would keep reading.

      Also “writing a books for kids” should read “writing a book for kids.”

  7. As others have said, some nice stuff going on here: I like the young heroine and you’ve definitely got a good touch for the telling detail — and you do what too many other writers do NOT do — you use all the senses instead of mere sight.

    Take the good suggestions here to clean things up and you’ve got a good start.

  8. This excerpt feels like the work of a relatively new writer but with tons of potential showing (e.g., the sensory details.)

    But it also feels like a YA horse story rather than a thriller or mystery. Maybe that’s because I devoured the Black Stallion series when I was kid (plus Nancy Drew, of course.) If it is a thriller or mystery, I’d like to see the mystery about the horse’s thinness brought in earlier, because until that issue is hinted at near the end, there’s really no conflict in the opening. And, even if it is a YA horse story, I’d be looking for more conflict in an opening if nothing is going to happen (admittedly, 400 words doesn’t give you much space to make things happen, but it is enough space to add conflict–here, perhaps inner conflict is all you need sooner than you have it.) One way to kill two birds with one stone is to add the character’s goal (even if it’s a one-scene goal rather than a story goal) at the same time as introducing a hint of what might prevent the character from achieving that goal (i.e., the background of the horse’s thinness might well relate to the character’s goals. I’m not suggesting backstory here, BTW–the hint that’s already there is just fine; it’s just not soon enough for me.)

    My personal preference (not sure anyone will agree with me!!) is to open a manuscript and almost immediately have an idea of what the story will be about. Also, I’m not a fan of opening paragraphs that focus on setting unless the writing itself is breathtaking, but there are ways for a less experienced writer to permeate the setting description with theme hints and character hints, often merely by choosing the right words. (Well, maybe a more experienced writer–I wrote one of those openings once and accomplished both, but I’ve never been able to replicate it!)

    • I’m guessing that this is YA book also. The title Jolted suggests to me that the book will be about horse slaughter (kind of a Charlotte’s Web type book with an animal in peril of being slaughtered, perhaps for a slightly older age group). It’s horrible what happens to old horses. However, Jolted sounds more like a thriller title to me than the title of a YA book to me.

  9. Please forgive me for being so forward, but I love first lines. I was inspired by your story to take a shot at two you might like. I hope they help.

    Hannah Collins felt trapped in the slow-moving school bus. She wanted to hurry home to see Braveheart (Sparky) and check on the sick mare.

    or

    Hannah Collins looked into the sick mare’s stall. Gilly’s eyes pleaded with Hannah. Behind her, Braveheart (Sparky) whinnied. He wanted attention, but the mare …. She’d known the mare forever.

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