The Bare Bones of a Story: SKELETON, a First Page Critique

Photo courtesy Max Bender from unsplash.com

Hello, Anon, and thank you for submitting the beginning of Skeleton, your work in progress, to us at The Kill Zone for our First Page Critique. Let us begin:

I slammed to the ground. A boltof pain cracked through my body then slid away. A dull throb took its place.The bust-up was the right arm. Between elbow and wrist. I looked at my arm and flexed it. A jagged edge of bone stretched the skin up. A dagger of horror seized my brain. My core instinct said not to move. But I had to get home.

I staggered to sloppy feet, heldthe damaged wing close to my body and stumbled down the sidewalk. As long as I didn’t move the arm, pain was secondary to fear, the ‘my mother will been raged’ type fear. What were you doing swinging from limbs of that pine tree in the first place? I could hear the shrill voice echo those words. But how mad could she get? I mean today was my tenth birthday and how mad could a mother be at her only daughter’s tenth birthday party? And why was I thinking about that now, twenty-five years later as I sat in a chair, high, wing back, cloth I thought. I couldn’t move. I could turn my head, but nothing below the shoulders worked. Maybe that was the connection. I couldn’t move the broken arm then and I couldn’t move anything now.

The room was gold and red with a hint of incense in the cold air. It was something out of an Agatha Christi novel. I swallowed, took a deep breath, scanned the room with my eyes. Floor to ceiling heavy draperies. A gold statue of a ten-inch Buddha in the corner. Thick tapestries hung on walls depicting combat with horses, spears and doomed men. I wasn’t stressed. My practice of daily meditation born of my Buddhist belief kicked in. I remained calm, focused.

A solid door, painted deep gold with carvings of dragons creaked open and he walked in. He was maybe five feet five inches, stocky build poured into a three-piece suit, vest and all the trimmings.  

He carried a single manila folder, walked in front of me and sat in the edge of a leather topped captains’ desk. His eyes were set close to a narrow nose; the only hair on his head was a tight goatee, closely groomed. He dropped the folder on the desk, crossed his arms and a small puff of air expelled through soft nostrils. He was Vietnamese. Some of that blood ran through me. I knew his essence.

“There has been a mistake,” he said in a voice that sounded like he was telling me a bed-time story.

“I must apologize,” he continued.” This is embarrassing at the least and inexcusable at best. This is not how I operate. Pressure applied from the client should not influence how results are obtained. However, to be human is to err human. And that misfortune is what has brought us together.”

 

Thank you for submitting, Anon. Please permit me to be blunt.  The bad outweighs the good here. I had a lot of trouble with the first couple of paragraphs of Skeleton because they are confusing, poorly written, and full of typographical errors. It gets better further down the page. Most editors, assistants, and agents (not to mention readers) wouldn’t have gotten that far, however. They would have read the first paragraph or two and told you that they weren’t interested if they told you anything at all.

 

First: please proofread. You have words running into each other, you misspell “Agatha Christie” as “Agatha Christi” — oh, the humanity! — and use a hyphen (“bed-time”) where you shouldn’t. Also please format. Lynne, the wonderful person who, among many other tasks, sorts these First Page Critiques out and sends them to us at The Kill Zone, mentioned to me that when she originally received Skeleton it had not been formatted. Putting it into Google Drive improved it but if your prospective agent or editor wants your manuscript in Word they’re going to be unhappy if you don’t format according to their specifications. Get you indentations, headers, footers and spacing all together and consistent. Yes, sometimes one or more of these things jump for some reason. Send it to yourself first and make sure it looks like you want it to. If it doesn’t, find out what is wrong and fix it.

Second: It’s fine if you want to jump from the past to the present, but give your reader a chance to get the thread of the story first. One minute your protagonist is ten years old, the next she is thirty-five. If you want to start off with the past, fine, but let us know as soon as possible that we’re in the narrator’s past. Try something like this:

I broke my arm on my tenth birthday. I was swinging from a tree limb and let go either too soon or too late. I’m still not sure which, a quarter-century after the fact.  I had been looking forward to my party in one moment and in the next I was falling and then screaming as I fell. I hit the ground hard and a bolt of pain cracked through my body. It was quickly replaced by a dull throb in my right arm, between the elbow and wrist, where a jagged piece of bone now stretched the skin upward where it never should have been. I was horrified. I just wanted to lay there but I had to get home. My pain was secondary to fear. I was afraid of my mother’s reaction, even though it was her only daughter’s birthday, or maybe because of it. I could hear her shrill voice in my head before I even got home. “WHAT were you DOING swinging from the pine tree in the FIRST place?!” I was good at predicting how people, whether families and strangers, would react, even back then.

That takes care of the past, Anon, and we know it’s the past. Now let’s transition to the present:

I couldn’t move my broken arm back then. Flash forward to the adult me, sitting in a high, winged back chair. I couldn’t move at all. Oh, I could turn my head, but nothing below my shoulders worked. The range of vision which I had wasn’t much. Maybe that’s why I was thinking about that immobile broken arm now. I didn’t appreciate how good I had it as a kid.

Three: I kind of like how you describe the man, but I’m not sure if your protagonist knows who or what he is. Let’s fix that up. And while we’re doing that, tell us a bit about your narrator:

The range of vision which I had wasn’t much, but I could see enough to know that I was in trouble. There was a solid door, painted deep gold with carvings of dragons, in the wall in front of me. It creaked open and a stranger — maybe five feet five inches, with a stocky build poured into a three-piece suit, vest and all the trimmings — walked in. He looked Vietnamese, a little like me. I nicknamed him “Diem” in my head. He walked over to the captain’s desk just inside my right field of vision and sat down, dropping the manila folder he carried on a desk blotter. “I’m sorry, Miss Tree,” Diem said. Oh, so he knows me, I thought. “There has been a mistake.” He crossed his arms and a small puff of air expelled through the soft-looking nostrils in his narrow nose, framed by his close-set eyes. ”This is embarrassing at the least and inexcusable at best. It is not how I operate. Pressure applied from the client should not influence how results are obtained. However, to be human is to err human. And that misfortune is what has brought us together.” The ceiling lights reflected off of Diem’s bald head, an expanse that was uniform and undisturbed until it reached his tight, closely groomed goatee. I thought of a crude joke about beards that my ex-husband used to make, a joke that I hated when we were married. Now, sitting in that room with a stranger in front of me and all but unable to move, I had to force myself to stop laughing.

I hope that helps, Anon. Your concept reminds me just a little of the Sax Rohmer books which I absolutely adored in my youth (and which I still do, actually). There’s promise here. You have a story, but you don’t have a book or even a first page just yet. Check out the books which my fellow TKZers have for sale about the craft of writing, get one with the basics, study it closely, and go for it. Good luck.

I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically quiet while our wonderful readers, visitors, and contributors make their own comments. Thank you for submitting to us, Anon, and keep trying.

 

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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.

13 thoughts on “The Bare Bones of a Story: SKELETON, a First Page Critique

  1. I agree with Joe. But you can’t write a good book without a sloppy first draft. So keep going. There are loads of online writing courses that are affordable, and you can definitely bring your work to a higher level if you work at it and do the homework as it is assigned. I read this over a few times and had an idea for a quick fix – – delete the second paragraph. Also in paragraph three, delete the last three lines. Try it and see how it reads. I think it picks up the pace and also opened up room to highlight her inner conflict. Inner conflict in an opening always grabs me :-). Good luck.

  2. Hi Anon

    I actually disagree with jo. I really liked this page. The immediate action, the pain, the childish indignance. However, the first two paragraphs do need a clean up.

    First paragraph- The dagger of horror is too much metaphor. And I don’t think horror comes as a dagger, no matter how fast it comes. Pain is sharp, horror is a bucket of water. It’s a lot and it’s messy. But I digress.

    Second paragraph- “sloppy feet” is not the right term. It kinda pulled me out for a moment. Unsteady, or shaky, or maybe even wiggly would work better.

    Now, about the transition from then to now. There needs to be a paragraph break. Something like this:

    how mad could a mother be at her only daughter’s tenth birthday party?…

    And why was I thinking about that now, twenty-five years later

  3. Good morning, Joe. Good critique.

    My first and second impressions after a quick read were: a) too many typos, and b) a lot of confusion.

    There’s a good story hiding in there, but it’s too much work to keep reading.

    Good luck, Anon, in cleaning it up.

  4. Thanks, Anon, for letting us take a peek at your first page.

    The lack of proof reading threw me out of the story more than once (the typos that Joe mentioned). I have trouble seeing my own typos and grammar mistakes, but I find it helpful to put a manuscript away for several weeks. Then when I take it out, I have fresh eyes to see all the “oops.”

    I really like Joe’s suggestion to describe the bald man while telling the reader more about the narrator. His rewrite of that description was wonderful.

    If you are going to keep the 10-year-old version of the narrator, I like AZAli’s suggestion to break the second paragraph into two, starting a new paragraph with, “And why was I thinking . . .?” That helps make it clearer that time has passed.

    I like Margaret’s idea of cutting down on the wordiness, though maybe not in the exact same places. For example, I don’t think you need the sentence, “I wasn’t stressed,” but I like the sentence that follows it.

    “Sloppy” feet reminded me more of a drunk grownup rather than a hurt child. Also, using “high” to describe the chair threw me for a moment back to the narrator’s childhood (a kid’s “highchair”). Perhaps the chair could be “tall” instead.

    You’ve raised intriguing questions for the reader: What is the bald man’s occupation? Who is his client, and what is the client’s relationship to the narrator? And of course, will the narrator survive?

    Good luck in your continued writing journey, Anon!

  5. To the critique that has already been done I would add: vary your sentence length. Especially in the first paragraph, it was a monotonous rhythm of same-type sentences. I know you have a story waiting to come out once you get past some of these initial stumbling blocks. 😎

  6. I liked it. Ditto on the typos and stuff.

    Goatees are on your face not your head. Easy fix. The only hair he had was a goatee.

    I’m going to go out in a limb here and make a wild guess – are we in a doctor’s office? If we are, or somewhere like that then I have some suggestions, if not, please ignore me. I wish I had an answer before I went on.

    Assuming I am correct, you could amp up the sceen with 3 or 4 pages before revealing where the character is. Instead of having left the examination room and sitting in the doctor’s private office, IMAGINE while writing your character is a hostage who has been taken from her cell to the interrogation room where she has been dumped to wait. Now describe the room. Its not chilly. There is an Artic breeze (how many times have I been to the doctor’s and wished i brought my blankie). The thick drapes and tapestries give off the illusion of warmth. Now your comment about her Buddhist training has more impact.

    It may seem like a weird exercise, but it works. I once wrote a scene to introduce a second character. It took place at a PTA meeting where they were discussing fundraising. It was flat. But when I imagined them as two senators on the senate floor arguing over appropriations it came to life. The simple act of jacking up the stakes, even if only in my mind, gave the scene more feeling. Reading it over I noticed I had replaced the word friends with allies. Now without changing the description the simple act of the PTA president calling the meeting to order seemed more like wrangling together enemy camps.

    In regard to the backstory of her at 10, it either needs to be expanded or moved to later in the story. It doesn’t offer enough info to take up such prime space in the story.

  7. ANON, hey buddy; good start. I should know, I’ve been there, done that, and got a tee shirt. Don’t ever let any criticism put the brakes on your efforts. Like everything else, comments are like the Spring Showers to the flowers. It fertilizes your developing talent. keep writing like you feel, it’s going to get better.
    There’s not a one of us who have been at it awhile who actually get to the point of getting it done the first five, or so times. Like anything else you’ve ever tried, “You aint gonna be good at it the first time you try.”
    I’ve found my efforts have caused me to relearn simple things I should have learned in high school. Things like spelling, grammar, etc.You do it over enough, and you will do better. So what if it takes months, that span seasons?
    Do you enjoy your talent? Many people don’t have a drop and aren’t willing to spend the time or put in the effort for the good stuff to develop. You can’t keep doing something without getting better at what you do. GO FOR IT. The only talent I’ve ever noticed that was near perfect the first time out came from a spider. The webs they build are pieces of art. What a gift, but some of us wouldn’t make good spiders.

  8. Dear Anon,
    Right now you probably feel like crap. I know I did at this stage of my writing. Use that feeling as motivation to study. Clearly, you already have the ideas for stories. Now work on the craft. There are thousands of books on writing out there.
    Here are three that I think will help right away:
    The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers by Christopher Vogler. He is a Hollywood development executive, screenwriter, author and educator, best known for working with Disney. This is a great overview.
    Plot and Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from the start to the finish by James Scott Bell. He is a well known thriller writer on part of The Kill Zone.
    The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. This is a concise, straight forward classic text on grammar.
    BONUS: Zen in the Art of Writing Ray Bradbury. Ray has passed but his book will live on.
    I hope this helps. Writing fiction is a long difficult journey. I believe it is a crazy occupation, but there is no feeling like it when you finally write something that you know in his heart is so good.

  9. Thanks to everyone who has visited and/or commented so far today on SKELETON, and if you have been hanging back please feel free to comment. Anon, there is plenty of good advice being offered here, so please read, consider, and implement at your own pace and best of luck to you. Thank you for participating in today’s First Page Critique.

  10. I would drop the whole falling out of the tree opening. The fact that our protagonist is sitting in a chair COMPLETELY PARALYZED is a really big deal. I’m not sure from what distance she’s looking back, as it’s all in simple past tense, but making the two experiences equivalent is unsettling. It seems like you’re trying to throw us into the story with a big piece of action–then we’re in a room with her, and she’s in an obviously dangerous situation.

    Very early in my career I made a similar mistake when I opened an essay about the failure of my second marriage with a story of how I jumped off a horse because I thought I was going to fall off when I was fourteen. Sure, it’s all similar and metaphorical and everything, but really you need to get to the real story right away.

    Good luck! Read lots and lots and remember to send out your very best work!

  11. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer, and thanks to Joe, for his honesty, even though I know it must’ve been hard for him. Brave writer, I’m hoping that some of the errors are due to some sort of computer glitch. Perhaps the wrong version of your file got sent by accident. I’m going give you the benefit of the doubt on the words that were run together and other strange issues that I spotted. Here are my comments:

    Title

    The title Skeleton sounds sophomoric. Maybe come up with a title that uses the words “bare bones” in it to add a little interest. Without knowing what your story is about, even after reading your first page, it’s hard to give specific advice.

    Story Openings to Avoid

    I’ve mentioned an article by Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp about story openings to avoid countless times, and I’m going to mention the same article to you. “9 Story Openings to Avoid” is the name of the article, and you can find it online if you use a search engine. Pay particular attention to Parts 1 and 7:

    Part 1: Your opening pages might be in trouble if…
    Your novel opens with your main character alone somewhere thinking.

    Part 7: Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

    Your novel opens with pages of backstory or exposition instead of a scene created to kick off your novel.

    Read all nine parts of the article.

    For some of the more advanced writers here, I’ll recommend an article by Peter Selgin (https://phillywriters.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Anatomy-of-a-flashback.pdf). This article is part of his excellent book entitled By Cunning and Craft.

    I’m assuming, brave writer, that you’ve seen the movie Silence of the Lambs. Did the movie open with Clarice Starling as a child as she tried to rescue a lamb from slaughter? No. That would’ve been much easier but much less clever. Generally speaking (with some exceptions), the best writers begin with a scene in the present and find a way to work in the backstory later. Of course, it takes more effort and planning by the writer. It’s so much easier just to vomit everything out in the beginning. Don’t do it.

    So, where does your story begin? Your story begins with the conversation with the Vietnamese man.

    Description

    Opening lines need to perform double duty. Work descriptions into the action. Long paragraphs of description on the first page are never a good idea. I hope you are familiar with the Save the Cat books, but if you aren’t, I recommend them. Speaking of cats, Jake Vander Ark wrote a witty book called Put the Cat In the Oven Before You Describe the Kitchen: A Concise, No-Bull Guide To Writing Fiction. (Note to animal lovers: This book has nothing to do with harming kitties.The book is about good writing.) Jake’s book is simple to read. Hopefully, after you read Jake’s book, you’ll know not to write a boatload of description before you hook the reader. Before you tell the reader about the draperies and the incense in the air (and so on), get right into the scene. For example, without knowing anything else about your story, here’s one suggestion on how to begin:

    “There’s been a mistake.” The Vietnamese man dropped the folder on the desk, crossed his arms, and a small puff of air expelled through soft nostrils.

    Note: don’t use “he” until you identify who the “he” is.

    This opening gets you right into the scene, and the reader will wonder what the mistake is. Your opening should be written as a scene, with action and dialogue. You should be able to picture it in your mind as movie scene, without the use of any voice overs. As an exercise, try writing your opening scene as a script first. Then convert it to novel form.

    Dialogue

    Dialogue should be short and snappy. You write (and I fixed the quotation mark for you):

    “I must apologize,” he continued. “This is embarrassing at the least and inexcusable at best. This is not how I operate. Pressure applied from the client should not influence how results are obtained. However, to be human is to err human. And that misfortune is what has brought us together.”

    This dialogue doesn’t sound authentic. Take a look a the dialogue for the tv series The Gilmore Girls for a great example of witty dialogue. The characters don’t speak in paragraphs. No rambling. No idle chat. All dialogue should have a story purpose. Keep it simple.

    Voice

    It’s hard to write in first person. If you do, don’t begin too many sentence with I. Vary sentence length and sentence structure. Use words that your protagonist would use.

    Emotional Connection

    If you want readers to connect with your protagonist, stay out of your protagonist’s head, and let your readers see her in action. The main emotion I feel after reading your first page is confusion. What you want to do is make me feel something about the protagonist to convince me that I simply must turn the page to find out what happens to her. Make me fear for her. Make me worry. Don’t make me guess what’s happening.

    Final Comments

    That’s all the time I have now. Best of luck, brave writer. I am going to leave it to you to find the errors with spelling and grammar yourself. There are tools that will assist you online (like Online-Spellcheck.com), and Microsoft Word will find many errors for you. You need to work out these issues if you want to be a writer. You wouldn’t apply for a job as a lifeguard without learning how to swim and completing coursework in lifesaving and water rescue. Of course, you’d also have to learn how to perform CPR and administer first aid. Writers have many things to learn, too. Writing isn’t as easy as it looks, but if you’re willing to put the time in, you can make great progress in small steps. Read through the other critiques here and check out the books that I’ve recommended to other writers. Don’t give up. Do something today that your future writer self will thank you for. (What’s wrong with my last sentence? *wink*) Carry on!

  12. My suggested opening should read:

    “There’s been a mistake.” The Vietnamese man dropped the folder on his desk, crossed his arms, and expelled a small puff of air through soft nostrils.

    I wanted to use your words, but you’ve got to keep the phrase parallel.

    You get the idea.

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