Even Sasquatch Needs Love – First Page Critique

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

By Gnashes30 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15715649

The title of this anonymous submission is ISKOLA. I’m not sure if Sasq’ets is Sasquatch, but that’s how we dubbed it. It conjures an image of the “Skunk Ape.” If this isn’t the author’s intention, a character name change might be in order. Please enjoy this submission and I’ll have my feedback after.

*****

Sasq’ets can’t help staring at the swarm of people standing on the side of the road. There are so many of them, and they look so small from where he stands. He scans each person quickly, moving his eyes from body to body, face to face, until he comes to a woman with a black hood around her head. Then he stops, lifts his nose high in the air, and tries to catch her scent. He strains his ears to hear the faint echo of her voice. It’s difficult from so far away.

As Sasq’ets watches the woman, he notices her pointing at a man who appears to be climbing down the side of the road. It looks like he is headed towards the woods – towards him – but Sasq’ets can’t be sure, so he squints his eyes to try to get a better look. It doesn’t matter. He shouldn’t be so close to people anyway, especially not in the light of day and after what has happened. He needs to start moving, so he turns around and walks the other way, maneuvering his massive frame carefully through the trees, dangling his arms loosely by his thighs.

He walks deep into the woods and doesn’t look back until he reaches the creek that marks the beginning of the path towards home. He needs to turn right to follow the burbling water until it winds into the river, but before he changes direction he stands behind a cedar, his body shielded by its 5-foot trunk, and puts his hands on his hips, bending at his waist to relieve some of the pressure from the wound in his stomach. The bleeding has stopped – when he puts a cedar bough up to the cut and pulls it away, it comes out dry – but the injury is still painful, and it aches if he thinks about it too much.

Sasq’ets focuses his mind on taking long sips of air – in through his nose, out through his mouth, and starts to calculate how long it will take to get back to the cove. At least a day, he figures, if he goes the long way. Which he should, to be safe.

He moves slowly to his left and peers around the tree to make sure no one has tracked him into the woods. Sasq’ets is pretty sure he would have smelled them if they had, or heard their heavy footsteps through the brush. But still, he needs to be careful.

Nope. No one. They’re probably all still back on the side of the road, hovering over the girl’s body.

FEEDBACK

In full disclosure, when I was a kid, we had a neighbor boy we nicknamed Skunk Ape. He lumbered like a walking grizzly, had big feet and he smelled. He remained my brother’s friend and we still run into him (although he’s married and he doesn’t stink anymore), but I’m not a stranger to Sasquatch. There, I said it.

TITLE: A title like Iskola needs work. This might only be a working title, but this word would not mean something to most people.

CREATURE POV: I’m making an assumption Iskola is a creature, Sasquatch to be exact. He appears to be an outsider and a loner, hiding from people. Whether he’s a creature or not, the Point of View should reflect his cagey, wiry nature.

The narrative is too wordy for a cautious creature, afraid of getting noticed. He also knows words like “road” and “people” which seems odd to me. It would be a challenge to create a believable POV inside the head of a creature. The author would have to invent a world as seen through the eyes of a beast that has evaded mankind enough that it wouldn’t know what to call things in a man’s world.

Personally, I would tell this story through the eyes of another character who tries to reach out to the creature in an adventure plot. I would recommend more of an element of mystery on what is disrupting the town and leave clues that are ambiguous. Is it Sasquatch or someone living in town who wants people to think it’s a creature.

I’m not sure why the author chose to put the reader in the head of a creature from page 1. It would be a hard sell to an editor or agent. Even if this is not Big Foot and is maybe a loner who lives in the woods, I’m not sure I understand the point of hinting at Sasquatch with the name Sasq’ets either.

PICK A POV: In this scene, I want to know why these people are gathered and what’s happened? The author can’t provide this information if the POV is seen through Sasq’ets. In order for the reader to care about this creature/Sasq’ets and his world, the author might need to ground the reader into the town and the people first. What happened that threatens both their worlds? (A girl is hurt or dead.)

CREATE the CREATURE: Let’s start with POV. 3rd person narration for a creature would allow the reader to see the character’s movements and actions, without delving too much into the head of the creature like 1st person would. The way this intro is written, it’s in 3rd POV, but the author has put the reader very deep into the head of Sasq’ets. Some distance might make it more believable. The creature’s actions would SHOW the emotion without having to TELL the reader too much.

How intelligent is the creature? What senses would he use? It might help to do research on animals and how they react or operate when threatened. Service dogs are interesting to study – how they use their senses and their reactions to certain situations. I would recommend using real animals even if the author is creating a mythical creature. Put the reader into the senses of an animal the author thinks is closest to Sasq’ets.

How does a wild creature, that is part human maybe, survive in the woods? I like how the author brought in cedar boughs to stop the bleeding. Maybe survivalist research would be in order.

Even if the creature is a human being living on the fringes of society, it might still be interesting to keep the reader in suspense whether Sasq’ets is human or something else. Instincts and senses and animal reactions would help build on that suspense.

The author might consider how Sasq’ets lives when he is safe and home versus when he is threatened like a wild animal. What would he do? His wild nature, when confronted, should be explored. Can he ever live with humans? What would happen if he is forced into captivity?

ANOTHER START SCENE: If the author started with danger and a situation readers might be intrigued by, the creature’s POV might be brought in later, if that’s what the author wants. To make it read authentic, the creature must have his own world and manner of thinking and moving in obscurity. Below is a brief start suggestion – first from a Sheriff and a brief one in Sasq’ets POV. I didn’t spend a great deal of time doing this, but I only wanted to show a quick difference.

Another beginning with townspeople to start the action:

“There’s blood. I got him.”

With his chest heaving, Sheriff Jason Tate knelt near the base of a tree and stared at the tip of his finger, smeared with blood.

“It’s still warm.”

“I don’t like this.”

His deputy, Gloria Mendez, had her service weapon drawn as she stared into the deepening shadows of the dense woods.

“We need to get these people out of here. What if it comes back?”

Creature POV:

Sasq’ets ran into the darkness of the forest and kept to the deepening shadows. He followed a scent he knew well. Water. He needed water…and water would take him home if he followed the river.

His belly hurt and the bleeding hadn’t stopped. He didn’t mean to hurt the small female, but she had been scared of him and fell. He hadn’t touched her, but that wouldn’t matter. They would hunt him.

SUMMARY: I didn’t spend time working with what the author submitted, because I don’t see this as commercial unless changes are made. Normally I like to work with what the author submits and try to capture their vision, but I had too many other points to explore.

When I talked about service dogs, I had done research on them for another book and found it fascinating. The images of how dogs smell scent in layers and in a conical fashion influenced how I described the dog “working a scene.”

I think the author can still work with the challenges of creating a world for Sasq’ets, but maybe start with human beings that readers can relate to more.

DISCUSSION:

What comments would you have for this courageous author, TKZers?

 

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She also pens young-adult novels for Harlequin Teen. Formerly an energy sales manager, she now writes full time. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs.

27 thoughts on “Even Sasquatch Needs Love – First Page Critique

  1. You are correct: Sasq’ets is the First Nation (Canadian tribes) word for sasquatch.

    I have written a novel about bigfoots (the designation that I, as an American, prefer).

    I appreciate the author of the piece trying to figure out the creature. But I agree that it’s difficult for me to identify with the thoughts, motivations, psychology, needs, and wants of a creature that is alien to human beings.

    I am afraid that we humans are locked out of the mind of bigfoots. During my own research, I corresponded with a number of bigfoot hunters and seekers. There is, as one can expect, great differences of opinion about what the creatures are all about. Some, like me, think they are flesh and blood creatures. Other people believe they are some sort of psychic animal that runs around the forests beeping thoughts from their skulls out into the ether. From there, the opinions are many and diverse.

    So for me to believe that a sasquatch/bigfoot is concerned about hurting a human female means that I have to know something about how a bigfoot thinks. But we don’t know. We just don’t know. The encounters with the creatures include accounts of bigfoot creatures protecting human children, even returning lost children to their parents, or their village. Then, there are the accounts of people finding huge bone piles. The bones, they say, belong to many different kinds of animals including, shudder, humans. The belief is that these bones are the leavings of bigfoot meals. What are we to make of how a bigfoot/sasquatch thinks and acts from knowing those two things about the creature?

    But a young woman, terrified because she is being chased by a huge animal that smells and is strong enough, she has discovered, to pull trees from the ground, turn them over and put them back into the ground. That would be a story that I would savor.

    Even King Kong, who could likely make anyone do anything he wants, had to be interpreted through the eyes of a young woman. The big guy protected the petite, frightened woman when he was attacked by biplane fighters as he stood atop the Empire State Building. His last moments, as he realizes he is going to die, he would not be able to convey to us. But the woman could.

    I hope the author takes another hearty cut at his story. I believe it’s well worth pursuing.

    • I love your take on this, Jim. This story would be very interesting from the perspective of fearful townspeople applying pressure on a sheriff & town council after a mysterious death that’s blamed on a mythical creature. I can see the town happy to make tourist money off Big Foot sightings until this sudden death wakes everyone to the danger.

      How did the girl die? Is someone trying to blame the creature to divert attention?

      I agree that putting the reader into the head of the creature would be a challenge. If the story tracks Big Foot & confronts the creature, the scene could be done through the eyes of the sheriff, witnessing the actions of Big Foot, a creature he didn’t think existed. He may not believe the girl died at the hands of this creature, but he’s forced to take action.

      This could be an amazing story. The myriad conflicts eating at a sheriff who’s alone in dealing with a mysterious investigation and a mythical creature. What would the sheriff do?

      I would read that book. It’s a mystery crime story that confronts our deepest fears of the unknown. Keeping Big Foot a mystery would be key. Does the creature exist & did it kill? Yeah, I would read that.

  2. Sorry author, I find this a mess. There are some basic ideas about Sasq’ets that need to be straight in your mind and that you can effectively tell readers. Is Sasq’ets a highly intelligent creature from a race that has hidden from humans for generations or some kind of big bear? You have elements of both in this page. Does he slam through the woods or move with the silence of a tiger? Figure it out in your mind then tell us.

    “he notices her pointing at a man who appears to be climbing down the side of the road. It looks like he is headed towards the woods – towards him – but Sasq’ets can’t be sure,…” Get rid of the ambiguity. The man is climbing down the hill. I would know, at least enough to take actions for my safety, if the man was heading towards me. If you want some tension, if the man turns left, it is time to go, if he turns right, Sasq’ets stays.

    Thank you for sharing. It is brave. But, I have to say, if I read this on the back cover, I would not have reached then end before going to the next book.

    • It’s always hard to read 400 words & tell where the story is headed. We can only say from the short intro if we like the author’s “voice” & if the premise is intriguing.

      I appreciate your honesty, Alan, and your insights into the mind of the creature. Thank you.

  3. As already well said, the difficulty here is the chosen point of view of an animal. (or half-animal, depending on how you view Sasquatch). Which unless you’re doing an allegory (Animal Farm) or trying to anthropomorphize (Watership Down), is really hard to pull off. Even Richard Adam’s book was roundly rejected before one publisher took it on. The editor famously wrote to a friend: “I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?”

    And I agree that the problem is compounded by the animal sounding far too cerebral and knowing. I wasn’t buying the set-up at all. Though I did feel a little sorry for the beast for being wounded. But that’s not enough to engage a reader in an opening scene.

    So I think Jordan is right that an unknown writer will have trouble finding an editor to take this on, especially in today’s cautious market. Even if self-published, it will be hard to get readers to care with this opening. The suggestion to filter this through a human who readers can relate to is well taken.

    • Well said, Kris. Thank you.

      After writing YA, I’m surprisingly open to unusual characters & points of view. To make this work, the author would have to have a complete view/concept of the world–but no matter what that is, starting with Big Foot doesn’t work.

      Thanks for your feedback. Every comment helps, as you know.

  4. I almost feel like I read a different submission from the other commenters. I do read a lot of fantasy, so perhaps that’s why I see this differently.

    Sasquatch is a mythical beast. The writer can make it smarter than a human or dumber than a stump. From the thoughts of the creature, it’s much smarter than even the best-trained service dog. It knows to avoid humans, and it knows that whatever has happened will bring trouble. It has alternate ways to get home and can make a reasoned decision on which to take. In this piece, it doesn’t sound at all like an animal but a member of an alternate intelligent race.

    Many, many SF and fantasy books tell the story from the POV of non-human characters. Even straight-up mysteries use animal POVs. (See the Chet and Bernie mysteries by Spencer Quinn, all of which are told from the dog’s POV.) I don’t see why this approach wouldn’t work here, especially given the intellectual level demonstrated by the creature.

    I agree that the writing needs work. There are some great touches, like the late reveal of the girl’s body. That would keep me reading. It would be nice if others could accept the premise offered by the author and provide more help to make the writing sparkle.

    • Everyone in our TKZ family has a perspective on the writing & the premise. It’s good to get a varied response as feedback so the author can consider a number of comments. Thanks for your input & encouragement, KS.

    • I looked at the Chet and Bernie mystery called Dog on It. Notice that it’s written in such a way to show immediate action and dialogue. That would be hard to do with a creature, unless our brave writer gives him a sidekick, perhaps a small animal friend. Without knowing more about what kind of story this is, it’s hard to give advice. I did give some suggestions for how to make the writing stronger that I hope will be helpful.

    • I like the premise that this creature has an intelligence beyond what most people would ascribe to Bigfoot. The info about the wound and the dead human intrigued me and I would turn the page. I hope to read the full novel some day. Others have made suggestions about the writing so I won’t duplicate them here. Keep at it!

  5. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Like Jordan, I’m not convinced of the commercial potential of this submission. I like Jordan’s idea of writing the story through the eyes of a person, and I think she suggested a better way to start. I will offer a few observations:

    Title

    I agree with Jordan about the title. I’d choose a title that will evoke a familiar image in the mind of the reader.

    First Line

    “Sasq’ets can’t help staring at the swarm of people standing on the side of the road.”

    The real excitement doesn’t begin until the reader learns about the body on the side of the road. Why not begin with someone finding the body? Reading blow by blow descriptions of every little nose scratch of the creature is not as interesting. I’d start with something that’s sure to get the reader’s attention: the body. Take a look at Jordan’s quick rewrite.

    Story Openings to Avoid

    Writers often begin stories inside the head of a character, rather than with an actual scene. JSB often advises using dialogue to help get your story started. but that’s hard to do with a creature as the viewpoint character. See this article about 9 story openings to avoid: https://nelsonagency.com/2017/08/all-9-story-openings-to-avoid-in-one-handy-post/

    Check out the first one on the list.

    Voice/POV

    As Jordan wisely suggested, consider writing this story from the point of view of a human, perhaps the person who will be responsible for tracking the creature. However, avoid laborious descriptions of every micro action, even if you tell the story from a different POV.

    Pacing

    The pacing was too slow. Again, avoid the micro actions and long sentences.

    Sentence Structure

    Avoid beginning too many sentences with the word he. Also avoid long, rambling sentences like this one:

    “He needs to turn right to follow the burbling water until it winds into the river, but before he changes direction he stands behind a cedar, his body shielded by its 5-foot trunk, and puts his hands on his hips, bending at his waist to relieve some of the pressure from the wound in his stomach.”

    These kinds of sentences are tedious for the reader. Long sentences slow the pace of a story. Be careful about overwriting. Tighten sentences.

    Adverbs

    While I don’t believe adverbs should be banned, I think sometimes it’s best to choose a strong verb that eliminates the need for an adverb. For example:

    He moves slowly to the left. (with adverb slowly)

    or

    He lumbers to the left. (with strong verb)

    Overall Impressions

    I’d like to see this piece written from the viewpoint Jordan suggested, brave writer. Give it a whirl, and see if you like it better. It’s fun to try out scenes from different viewpoints and pick the best one. Best of luck, and keep writing!

  6. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t get past the first sentence. I don’t read stories written in present tense. I think it is faddish, unnatural and pulls me out of the story.

    • Hi David. Thanks for your thoughts. Present tense is more popular in the young adult genre where young readers like the immediacy of present tense. I’ve written a YA story in present tense to test the technique, but it’s definitely an acquired taste in adult books.

      This could be a YA story. There’s not enough here to know for sure. Thanks again.

  7. The only problem I had with the submission was
    maneuvering his massive frame carefully through the trees, dangling his arms loosely by his thighs.

    Can one move carefully and dangle at the same time?

    I like the mystery of why was he bleeding, why is the woman on the ground, was there a confrontation between them and, if so, who attacked who?

    I liked the POV. And how arrogant to assume this creature isn’t smarter than the humans.

    • The intelligence & sensitivity of the creature would solely be in the vision of the author. Big Foot could be anything, right?

      I picture a creature like the elephant that grieves loss & has a strong sense of family. A profound innocence that’s admirable, a contrast to the scheming of some human beings.

      Thanks for your feedback, Michelle. It would be fun to brainstorm a creature, wouldn’t it?

  8. Mmmm.

    I have mixed feelings about this. I agree it’s a bit out there and could be a tough sell. Especially as presented. But not an impossible one. I’m thinking of Jack London’s WHITE FANG, or Richard Bach’s JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL, both with animal POV. The latter, however sappy, has stuck in my mind since childhood. (It’s not a kids book.)

    I would start by firming in your mind what kind of story you’re telling (fable, horror, suspense, etc.) and what your story is about at it’s heart. Then ask yourself if that core element can be conveyed through human characters’ pov or is the Sasquatch’s perspective vital in some way? If so how, why? What unique world view/experience does he bring that the reader must understand in order for your story to succeed in the way you want? If he just seems like another human, why bother? You’ll have to work very hard to make the reader connect with this character.

    My inclination would be to use a mix of human/creature POV, with more scenes going to the humans. But if you decide to take on the challenge of doing the whole book from the creature’s POV–you’re going to need the writing chops to pull it off.

    I suggest reading some articles or books about point of view, and deep POV techniques, as a start. I’d like to be much more in the mind and senses of your Sasquatch character. Which means you have to know and understand him intimately, as well as how to powerfully convey that picture to your readers.

    I think a story like this, well-told, could find a home. Sometimes weird ideas just won’t let you go. If this story is a book of the heart, go for it, dear author. There are billions of readers out there. But “out there” ideas also deserve and demand the writer’s very best work.

    Good luck!

  9. P.S. Good examples Jordan. I sometimes get my back up when critiquers rewrite an author’s work as they would do it, but at the same time, nothing illustrates better than examples. I like how you handled that.

    • Thanks, Sheri. I dislike imposing too much of a rewrite & prefer to work with the author’s ideas, but I struggled here. Bottom line is that none of us know the details of this whole story & the author’s vision, but we do know what might keep us reading. Like you, I’m open to re-imagining this story & find there’s enough here to be intriguing. Thanks again.

  10. Thanks for the feedback! This story is primarily told through the POV of a female detective, with small chapters of Sasq’ets interspersed throughout. I’ve been toying with the idea of opening with Sasq’ets, but based on the majority of this feedback, I will can that idea! I’ve also thought about axing Sasq’ets altogether, but for some reason I can’t seem to do that (I have tried). If I’m honest, I quite enjoy writing from his POV.

    Strangely, I’m not much of a bigfoot aficionado, so haven’t spent tons of time researching what other people think he’s all about. I will most likely stick to making him into the character he reveals himself to be through my own process. So far, he is quite human-like.

    Iskola is the name of the fictional Indigenous community that the murder takes place. I agree it’s not the best title, but I thought “Untitled” was worse.

    I wrote this section quite a while ago, so my writing has improved since then, haha! And I understand some people loathe present tense, but much like Sasq’ets, I can’t seem to dump it.

    Thanks again, I’ll go rock in a corner now (just kidding, sort of).

    • Thanks for explaining, Veronica. Starts are my biggest challenge & it’s good that you tested the waters with a different beginning.

      Bottom line is that most comments were positive on the basic premise. Your story is different & has potential.

      You can write the bones of it & insert additional scenes if you want them included. I would respectfully suggest you research Big Foot, like Jim Porter (the first comment) mentioned. It would infuse authenticity & potentially expose you to new ideas on how to portray your character & your town.

      Thanks for sharing your story with us. It’s got potential, for sure. If you focus on a different start & hopefully take some of these comments in mind, I think you COULD have something commercial. Good luck!

      • Thanks for writing back, Veronica. I wish more submitting writers would because you can often tell us things that illuminate the discussion at hand and sometimes make us reconsider our comments. As for that title…shoot, don’t sweat it too much. “Working title” or even “untitled” is fine until you figure things out. I struggle with titles with almost every book and strangely enough, the title usually sort of exposes itself — comes out of the shadows — toward the end of each book.

  11. Awesome feedback, Jordan. The other commenters have expressed a wide variety of praise and constructive criticism. It’s always interesting to see what resonates with one reader and doesn’t with another.

    Personally, I had a problem with the close third-person POV, just as you did, Jordan. Maybe it’s because we’re only getting a few hundred words, but the creature’s thinking with human intelligence without first grounding us in the world.

    It’s like any fantasy or piece of speculative fiction. You have to make the reader comfortable enough in the world to judge it fairly. From this opening, I’m just confused. I don’t know what’s going on with the throng of people or with the creature and his wound. Worse, I don’t know his intelligence level or his purpose in life. There aren’t any stakes raised.

    I’d love to know how this continues. It could be that the very next paragraph clears up some of these concerns. Thanks for submitting, Brave Author, and sharing your work with us!

    • Thanks, Laura. Excellent point about the reader needing to understand the stakes and that takes time PLUS a character the reader has a desire to follow.

      After your comments, I thought about the creature being only shown rarely (to keep the mystery) & build on the natural fear of human beings when confronted by a beast. Yet in rare scenes toward the end, the author could show the creature through the eyes of a sympathetic human, then get into the head of a more benevolent & intelligent creature to show him as almost superior to the cruelty of the worst of mankind. It could be an interesting story about a comparison of mankind & Big Foot as creatures & our humanity.

      The more I think about the nuances of this story, the more I want to read it. It could be a real exploration of our base nature.

      • I love that idea, Jordan! I’m always drawn to stories that involve dogs, for instance, who are shown to be above the pettiness humans possess, and therefore almost more intelligent. A great example is Dean Koontz’s THE DARKEST EVENING OF THE YEAR.

        Veronica, no rocking necessary! Sometimes it takes another pair of eyes to figure out weaknesses in a story and to see where people get confused. Your characters are real in your head, so it’s hard to be impartial 🙂 I thought the writing was solid.

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