Heil Safari – First Page Critique

Today let’s welcome another Brave Anonymous Author who offers the first page of Heil Safari.

Title:  Heil Safari

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot. He had stepped to the caution line and put one foot on the other side. The caution line, marked with wooden stakes and a strand of wire across the top, warned the prisoners of war from getting too close to the wire fence fifteen feet beyond. On the fence going around the entire prison camp there were signs in English and German that read:

ATTENTION!

Forbidden to Move Inside

Restricted Area

Violators Will be Shot

The American guard in the corner watchtower shouted, “You there! On the deadline! Git back!” The guard raised a rifle to his shoulder. “I said git back!”

But Fritz didn’t move.

“You damn Nazi,” the guard yelled at Fritz. “Git back or I shoot!”

Fritz still didn’t move, apparently not taking the threat seriously. Or caring. But Beyer took it seriously. He cared.

Returning to his barracks after doing his morning toilet, Beyer now stood still, uneasy. Then he heard the click of a breech bolt coming from the guard tower at the other corner of the compound. In horror he saw a guard hunkered behind a machine gun. He was covering the south end of the compound as if at any moment there might be a general uprising. The nearby prisoners, however, remained still and only stared.

But Beyer had to do something other than stare to see how the crisis would turn out. He couldn’t afford to lose Fritz. The only mining engineer in the Officers Compound, Fritz was essential to the success of Hermes. Beyer was desperate for Hermes to succeed. Being too long cooped in the densely packed prisoners and buildings of the enclosure, Beyer, much like Fritz, was becoming unnerved. Beyer frequently broke out in night sweats, his breathing rapid and shallow, and sigh a low, agonizing moan.

Considering that Fritz might be shot, a shiver of fear raced through Beyer at the prospect of a catastrophe. Without Fritz there may not be a tunnel completion, no one would get out, all the hard work done up to now remaining unfulfilled.

“Damn you! Stop!” the guard with the rifle shouted.

The shout startled Beyer, then he noticed Fritz beginning to take mincing steps, his short height straddling the wire in his crotch.

 

Okay, let’s get to work.

Usually first pages arrive naked and unadorned at TKZ, without genre or background information. Page One must stand entirely on its own. That’s good because a strong first page is critical to whether or not a reader buys your book.

However, this submission included a synopsis. And the synopsis was intriguing. For that reason, I’m going to handle this critique a little differently than normal.

Most writers would rather endure an IRS audit than write a synopsis because it’s damn hard to do well.

In the summary, Anon explained the novel was based on a true but largely-unknown incident during World War II at Camp Trinidad in Colorado. I Googled it and found this article. Essentially, The Great Escape got turned on its head with German prisoners of war trying to escape American captors.

Show, don’t tell is oft-repeated advice for fiction. However in a synopsis, telling is permissible because it’s the most efficient way to introduce characters, lay out the story problem/conflict, and set up what’s at stake.

Anon handled that summary very well. German prisoners plot to escape a POW camp in Colorado because they are going mad from wire enclosure fever. A main character, Beyer, would rather die than endure another day in captivity. But there is dissent among prisoners, some of whom are die-hard Nazis while others are not. There are additional complications because Beyer’s friend Fritz, the chief engineer in charge of building the escape tunnel, is teetering on the brink of insanity. Anon sets up external conflict between German prisoners and American captors and among the POWs themselves, internal conflict with severe psychological stress, and a ticking clock with a race to see if the tunnel can be finished before the engineer completely loses it.

Lots of great potential for a historical thriller. Congratulations on a clear, competent synopsis, Anon.

Unfortunately, on this first page, Anon is mostly telling when s/he should be showing.

The POV character Beyer observes the events unfolding not only from a physical distance but also an emotional distance. Anon tells us he’s concerned but the reader doesn’t feel his apprehension, his helplessness, his panic that Fritz’s actions may not only lead to his death but also ruin the escape plan that can’t proceed without him.

The stakes couldn’t be higher–life or death–which is a great way to kick off a first page.

But the problem is: the reader doesn’t care.

Because we’re not inside Beyer’s skin. We don’t feel his guts churning, smell the nervous sweat under his armpits, taste the bile rising in his throat. We don’t see what he sees—the madness in the wild eyes of his friend Fritz who’s trying to commit suicide. We don’t hear the angry bark of the guard with his twitchy finger on the trigger.

We don’t feel the urgency driving both men to risk death because they can’t endure another day in captivity.

Showing is more than visual—it must be visceral and emotional.

The synopsis used the term “wire enclosure fever.” Unfortunately there is no sense of  fever in this first page.

A few suggestions to consider as you rewrite:

Lead off with a simple dateline that immediately sets the date and location. The reader right away understands this is historical fiction set in a military environment. For example:

Camp Trinity, Colorado, 1943

Next, climb inside Beyer’s skin and stay there. Use sensory detail to bring action to life. Actions trigger Beyer’s thoughts and feelings.

As Jim Bell often recommends, “Act first, explain later.” Give the reader just enough information to set the scene and prevent confusion.

A lot of repetition can be cut and condensed. Consider the first two sentences:

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot.

These two sentences essentially repeat the same information that could be combined into a single sentence with much more punch. Again, it’s telling rather than showing. Instead of having Beyer “wonder” how to save Fritz, he should act. His action may help the situation or it may make it worse. But either way, it moves the story forward.

Every scene needs to accomplish at least five tasks:

  1. Set the scene;
  2. Reveal character;
  3. Introduce a problem or goal;
  4. Demonstrate the stakes if the problem is not solved or the goal is not met;
  5. Propel the action forward.

How do you build a compelling scene? By stringing together groups of sentences that accomplish these tasks.

How do you build a compelling book? By stringing together compelling scenes.

In a fast-paced thriller, each sentence must build on the previous one to push the plot forward. Treat each sentence as a springboard that induces the reader to jump to the next sentence to learn what’s going to happen.

Below is one possible way to rewrite this first page, using additional details gleaned from the linked article.

Captain Martin Beyer fastened the last button of the drab uniform shirt that shamed him every day with its PW insignia: “prisoner of war.” He stomped his feet on the wood steps of the officers barracks to knock the fine silt off his once-shiny Luftwaffe boots. Barbed wire surrounded this desolate, barren patch of dirt named Camp Trinity. On the fence, signs in German and English warned that anyone would be shot if they crossed the caution line, the restricted buffer zone that was fifteen feet inside the compound fence.

“Hey, Nazi, git back!”

The shout from the watchtower caught Beyer’s attention. He turned to see an American guard aiming a rifle at Beyer’s closest friend in the camp, Hans Fritz. The young second lieutenant had stepped beyond a wire stretched taut between wooden posts.

One foot over the caution line into the restricted zone.

Beyer’s gut cramped as he prayed his friend would heed the guard’s warning. Lately, he never knew if Fritz taunted the Americans for sport or if he truly sought death rather than endure another day inside the prison.

There was a wild gleam in Fritz’s wide blue eyes as he teetered on the line, one boot in life, the other in hell.

The metallic click of a breech bolt sounded from the opposite watchtower where another guard hunkered behind a machine gun. “Git back or I’ll shoot!”

“Don’t do it, Fritz,” Beyer muttered. If Fritz died, the escape tunnel plan died with him.

 

The above is about 230 words and conveys most of the same information more concisely plus gives a deeper glimpse into the POV character.

Work on sensory detail that draws the reader in. Let the reader see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the story world you’ve built.

Work on showing emotion and feelings in the POV character. It’s not enough to say he felt alarmed—show his alarm with his sensory reactions.

Examine each sentence. Ask yourself if it repeats information previously stated. If so, choose the strongest version and delete the weaker. Or combine two sentences into one.

Count how many of the five elements listed above are included in each sentence. I try to pack sentences with at least two elements, preferably more. When you compose a sentence, choose an action that reveals character as well as demonstrates the stakes. The consequences of that action either solve the problem or make it worse.

One last point: the title Heil Safari is vague and doesn’t hint at the meat of the story. “Heil” made me think of the Nazi salute so I deduced it took place during World War II. But how does that connect to “Safari”? Maybe refer to the escape tunnel to freedom. Or perhaps the perils that lie beyond the tunnel if they escape successfully. You can find a better title to convince a potential reader to click the “buy now” button.

Don’t be discouraged, Brave Author. You have a compelling storyline based on historical events that are not widely known. World War II history buffs will find this interesting. A strong foundation in fact serves as a solid platform on which to build your fictionalized version. Work on your craft and you should have a good book.

Over to you, TKZers. Suggestions and comments for our Brave Anonymous Author?

 

If you’re a member of Amazon Prime, you can read Debbie Burke’s bestselling thriller Instrument of the Devil for free. Here’s the link.

 

 

 

 

3+

27 thoughts on “Heil Safari – First Page Critique

  1. Good critique, Debbie. I agree, the writer included too much back story, telling. Better to show the events through the eyes and senses of the lead character. The story sounds interesting.

    • In first drafts, it can be helpful to “tell” the story so the writer can nail down the bones of the plot and work out pacing. Then in subsequent rewrites, s/he can fill in the flesh and muscles and guts of the story with sensory detail.

      The main thing is to get something–anything–written down, no matter how rough it is. Once it’s on the page (or screen) you can start fixing.

      Thanks for stopping by, David.

  2. Great advice Debbie and from the synopsis this story sounds like an intriguing one. I think you nailed the major issue with their first page and that is emotional distance. The reader will be far more invested this story if they feel they are right there with the character experiencing the action. Bravo to our brave submitter though – I think with some revision this could be a great start to a great story!

  3. Thank you, brave author, for showing us your first page.

    I think Debbie’s critique was spot-on in that it pointed out the need to engage more senses and help the reader feel the captain’s distress. I especially like the way the verbs in her suggested rewrite aligned with the mood of the opening: captured, stomped, caught, shamed, warned, cramped, prayed, endured, sought, teetered, died. Compare those with some of the verbs from the original: wondered, was, were, stared, read, noticed, may, remained.

    In particular, the “wondered” in the first sentence isn’t a strong way to open an historical thriller.

    I don’t think the title fits. When I saw the title, I thought the story could be anything from an African adventure to a German horror story about werewolves, but not a WWII prison camp in Colorado.

    I think you have a great story idea, so I’m really cheering you on, brave author. Good luck in your continued writing pursuits!

    • Thanks, Priscilla. Your encouragement should spur our brave author to push forward.

      Re: the title. A nonfiction book has been written about this camp. One POW’s name was “Heil” which might be where the title comes from–Heil escapes and goes on a safari in Colorado? However, that’s more research than a browsing reader on Amazon is going to do. Better to catch attention with a title that’s not so vague.

  4. Wow, what a great premise for a thriller. “The Great Escape” is one of my favorite movies, so I can vouch that this Nazi prison camp version would be a fabulous new twist on an old story.

    But Debbie is spot-on in her critique. Everything is “told” to the reader instead of allowing us to vicariously experience it through Beyer. Get into his head and senses and let the story unfold through him, not you the writer. Get visceral!

    The opening line is emblematic of the main problem: “Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot.”

    “Wonder” means to muse about something, implying no hurry or intensity. So you can’t “wonder in alarm.” But again, don’t tell us he is alarmed — show us! Debbie’s rewrite gives you some direction on the how-to. Study it and find your own way into the guts and heart of this potentially wonderful story.

    • The Great Escape was a classic, all right, Kris. Remember Steve McQueen with his baseball and catcher’s mitt every time he’d get stuck back in the cooler?

      As a reader, I’m always fascinated by little-known details of history that go beyond what we learned in school. Often gems come from diaries or journals of people who lived through the time. When their kids or grandkids stumble upon them, what a treasure trove they can be.

  5. Kudos to the anon author to recognize a great story premise. Plus, he or she picked a good place to start with a beginning fraught with danger, but your rewrite, Deb, really got me hooked. It has flow and I love how you described his uniform as a way to set the stage & show his pride & authority. The POV and emotion of your rewrite illustrates the desperation and hooked me into wanting to read more. Well done, Debbie. And again, congrats to this author. Please finish this book.

  6. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer, and be sure to give Debbie a giant cyber hug for all the help. I hope all of the aspiring writers here realize the amount of time and effort that (I’m sure) went into Debbie’s critique and the time that all of the authors here put into doing the critiques. Like the other folks here, I think you have an interesting story idea. I hope that you’ll devote some time to studying writing and developing your voice. Here are some comments:

    Title

    I think you should consider choosing a title that will be more meaningful to book buyers. The title should fit the genre of the book.

    First Line

    “Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life.”

    It’s not a good idea to begin a book with internal thoughts. Imagine the first scene of your book if it were on film. If a voice-over would be required to make the scene understandable to the viewer, re-think the scene. The word “wondered” is a filter word (http://blog.janicehardy.com/2012/07/youll-have-to-go-through-me-eliminating.html), and filter words distance the reader from the POV character. Seek to eliminate filter words from your writing (most of the time), particularly in your opening sentence.

    Also, you want to eliminate phrases like “in alarm,” because you don’t want to explain your character’s actions. Show the action of your character, but don’t attempt to explain it. Another example of a similar problem is in this sentence:
    “In horror he saw a guard hunkered behind a machine gun.” Get rid of the “in horror,” because those words are another attempt to explain the character’s actions. This is author intrusion. Simply show the reader what your character is doing, and don’t attempt to make any judgements about the action.

    Another example. You write: “Considering that Fritz might be shot, a shiver of fear raced through Beyer at the prospect of a catastrophe.” The word “considering” is another “filter” word that adds distance between the reader and the POV character. And again, don’t explain the character’s actions to the reader. You can say Beyer shivered, but don’t try to explain why he shivered to the reader. That’s author intrusion. Give the reader a powerful scene and allow him the thrill of drawing his own conclusions.

    One more example. You write: “The shout startled Beyer, then he noticed Fritz beginning to take mincing steps, his short height straddling the wire in his crotch.” Can you spot the filter word? The filter word here is “noticed.” Also, don’t explain actions. If a shout startled Beyer, show Beyer’s reaction to the shout. Did he jump up a little bit? Show, don’t tell.

    Overwriting

    Eliminate unnecessary words. For example, you write:
    “On the fence going around the entire prison camp…”
    Instead, write: “On the fence surrounding the prison camp…”
    Literary agents look for bloated sentences. If a writer uses fifty extra words on every page, imagine how much pruning would have to be done for a 400-page novel.

    Awkward Sentences

    You write: “Being too long cooped in the densely packed prisoners and buildings of the enclosure, Beyer, much like Fritz, was becoming unnerved.”

    That’s a mouthful. See if you can clean it up a little.

    Backstory

    You write: “Beyer frequently broke out in night sweats, his breathing rapid and shallow, and sigh a low, agonizing moan.”

    The first page isn’t the place for information that isn’t essential for the reader to understand the scene. In fact, there are so many things that a good opening needs to accomplish, and some sentences need to perform more than one function. See Paula Munier’s book on openings (which I’ve referenced in other critiques here).

    Final Comments

    Debbie rewrote your opening for you, but of course, she can’t rewrite your whole book for you. So study basic writing techniques and develop your voice. The work will be worth your time, because you have a great idea. Here are some book recommendations to help you on your way:

    For developing voice:

    Finding Your Voice by Les Edgerton
    Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing by James Scott Bell

    Check out the “Write Great Fiction” series, if you haven’t already.

    And for writing:

    It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences by June Casagrande

    See if you can manage to read one book on craft every week. The public library should have a good selection of books on writing. See if there’s a group for writers that meets at your library. Best of luck, brave writer. You have a great story idea. Carry on!

    • Thanks, Joanne! Speaking of putting in a lot of time on critiques, you certainly offer great detailed input! The reference books you suggest from time to time are excellent. Some of them I’m already familiar with, like JSB’s of course, but you’ve introduced others I didn’t know about.

      The writing community is generous. In a business where we face so much rejection, the support of other writers keeps us going.

      • I agree, Debbie. No one understands the problems a writer faces better than other writers. I really loved your post the other day about writers being your tribe. 😉

        • Aw, thank you, Joanne! And I appreciate the lead to June Casagrande’s book.

          Great point about reviews. Author Katie O’Rourke’s ending salutation for her newsletter is: The best way to thank an author is to write a review.

  7. This is the male author of Heil Safari, and I wanted to thank one and all for your insightful comments. Regarding one of them, it was generally agreed that the book’s title was confusing. It was taken from the Afrika Korps farewell to have a good journey. It’s mentioned about one third in to the story on the eve of the escape when a well-wisher says, “Heil Safari.”

    The title still may not work. What about a better one? Three of the book’s major themes revolves around escape, a journey, and freedom. The escape is to find freedom, all too human. How can the title reflect this universal trait? Should it?

    I’ve thought of: Escape to Freedom, Freedom’s Escape, Journey to Freedom, Escaper’s Journey, Freedom’s Journey, or maybe Hermes (code name for the tunnel) Rising, Hermes Born, The Flight of Hermes. Or, it could be setting: The Camp Trinidad Escape, Escape From Camp Trinidad, Under the Wire, Out From the Wire.

    Still, none of these may work. Any suggestions?

    • Hi Gary,

      Thanks for coming forward.

      Fiction titles are tough. How do you include enough info to grab a reader’s interest yet not use references that are so oblique they can only be understood after reading the book?

      I think Escape from Camp Trinidad is the best–straightforward and promises adventure. Under the Wire could also work b/c of its double meaning–their physical escape as well as a reference to the urgency of time.

      BTW, I was checking out one of Joanne’s reference suggestions, It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences by June Casagrande. It does a good job of deconstructing sentences with specific examples that show why one sentence falls flat while another one pops. She demonstrates how changing a single word can make or break a sentence.

      I’ll be downloading and studying it. Here’s a link: http://editrans.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/It-Was-the-Best-of-Sentences-It-Was-the-Worst-of-Sentences.pdf

      Good luck and keep us up to date on your progress.

    • I think Hermes Rising has a nice ring to it. Sometimes book publishers change the author’s title, though. Keep going with your idea, Gary. I’m already picturing the cover art and the blurb for your book.

      • Hi Joanne,

        Thanks for the title suggestion. Also, thanks so much for the detailed critique. It was very helpful.

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