First Page Critique – The Halcyon Vengeance

By John Gilstrap

Another brave anonymous writer has submitted a first page for review and comment.  Y’all know the drill by now: First the piece, and then comments on the other side.  NOTE: The italics are all mine, a way to differentiate whose writing is which.

THE HALCYON VENGEANCE

              Adrian Steele stared out the 10th floor window in the direction of Sheremetyevo. Snow drifted lightly down. His jaw clenched. He was in Moscow. In winter. Again. He glanced over to Natalya who recited the final brief for his assignment in Cuba. Steele kept his expression neutral, his impatience hidden. He traced a finger through the condensation of his breath on the cold window. His hand remained steady. Good. He wasn’t nervy.

              “Steele,” Natalya said softly after a pause, “please remember why you’re here.”

              “You’re sounding like Pierce. Doesn’t suit you.”

              Natalya grimaced, stepping to the knapsack she’d left on the chair. She handed him an unmarked envelope.

              “That’s all there is. It could be my job for helping you. Especially with this.”

              “Clothes?”

              She tossed him the knapsack. “No trackers, I checked them myself.”

              Steele thought about the trackers that she’d doubtlessly put in.

              Natalya turned her head to the dark window as he changed his clothes. She’d watched him before. Now she wouldn’t. He’d need to lose the clothes, then.

              After he pulled on a thick parka she handed him a battered ushanka. 

             “Remember, flaps up. Or you’ll look like a pussy,” she muttered.

              Steele nodded. He knew.

              “And don’t die. Or get wounded. You need to be back by 0300 for your flight to Havana.”

              He put his hand out. Natalya bit her lip as she passed him a Makarov PM and two magazines.

              “Don’t fret, I won’t leave a mess.”

              “You’re lucky, going to a tropical place,” she muttered wistfully.

              “I wouldn’t exactly call it lucky.”

              “But the weather’s better.”

              “Yes, it is. Spasiba do svidaniya myshonok,” he muttered as he opened the door, checked the hallway, and slipped away.

              Natalya pulled the mobile from the inside pocket of her jacket. “Did you get all of that?” she asked Pierce.

              “Yes. But he lied, our Adrian did.”

              “You mean –?”

              “Oh, he won’t miss his flight, he knows what’s on the line.”

              “But he’s off the leash…”

              “I let him do this, or he won’t do the job in Cuba. He’s the only one who can and he knows it. I’m not sure what he’s got planned, but it’s going to leave a hell of a mess.”

              “Will he kill Voschenko?”

              “He wants to. Thank you for your help Natalya. You should go to ground.”

              “But…”

              “Leave myshonok. Disappear. Now.”

It’s Gilstrap again.  First, by way of full disclosure, I had some real formatting issues transferring the original email onto the blogging platform.  So, Anon, if I screwed up any of the paragraph breaks, I apologize.

First, the positives.  I like the tone of this story.  It has a very Cold War Ludlum feel to it.  No one trusts anyone.  I like that stuff.  I also like the flow of the dialogue for the most part.  It feels like a real scene, populated with believable characters.

On the downside, I have some quibbles with the prose, which I’ll discuss below, but the most urgent issue here is the fact that it’s confusing.  So, let’s get to all of that.

First things first: I hate the title. It doesn’t mean anything. Titles are supposed to draw a reader in.  It’s among your most important marketing tools. 

Now let’s go section by section:

           Adrian Steele stared out the 10th floor window in the direction of Sheremetyevo. Snow drifted lightly down. His jaw clenched. He was in Moscow. In winter. Again. He glanced over to Natalya who recited the final brief for his assignment in Cuba. Steele kept his expression neutral, his impatience hidden. He traced a finger through the condensation of his breath on the cold window. His hand remained steady. Good. He wasn’t nervy.

I get that it’s not my place to rewrite Anon’s work, but I think the opening line should be “Adrian Steele was in Moscow.  In winter.  Again.  He stared out the 10th floor . . .”  More people have heard of Moscow than have heard of Sheremetyevo, so the quicker you anchor the reader’s head to the setting, the better off you’ll be.

Anon, I urge you to cleanse your work of -ly adverbs. “Snow drifted lightly down” implies that snow can “drift” through the air heavily.  In this case, the word, drift, is strong enough to carry the entire image you’re looking for.

The image of Steele tracing his finger through the condensation implies to me that he is very close to the window, yet he’s receiving a mission brief.  This confuses me.  Is there something outside that he must watch? Is there a reason for him not to be fully engaged in what Natalya is telling him?

This is the paragraph where the confusion starts.  An assignment in Cuba could be a job as a missionary as well as an assassin.  I think you should plant something more specific as to the nature of what he’s going to do, just so the reader can get his head in the right place.

              “Steele,” Natalya said softly after a pause, “please remember why you’re here.”

More confusion for me.  Natalya’s admonition seems unearned.  To me, there’s no indication that he’s not remembering why he’s there. It doesn’t help that we the reader don’t know, either.

              “You’re sounding like Pierce. Doesn’t suit you.”

A one-sentence explanation could clarify who Pierce is.  Alternatively, Natalya could respond with a pithy remark like, “Impossible.  His voice is much higher than mine.”  Anything that would give us a hint of character.

              Natalya grimaced, stepping to the knapsack she’d left on the chair. She handed him an unmarked envelope.

Here again, the grimace feels unearned.  Is she in pain?  As she steps to the knapsack, where is she stepping off from?  In my mind, they were sitting, so she would have to rise before she steps.  We need more description of the setting.

If she’s briefing him, why is the knapsack someplace other than where she is?

              “That’s all there is. It could be my job for helping you. Especially with this.”

Until this line, I thought Natalya was the boss.  Also, shouldn’t there be some reaction from Steele?  A few lines later, we learn that he’s confident that she’s a liar, so it makes sense that he wold have some kind of cynical reaction to her fear that she might lose her job.  Given that Steele is risking his life, wouldn’t he be a little bit snarky, if only in his head?

            “Clothes?”

              She tossed him the knapsack. “No trackers, I checked them myself.”

Here we have back-to-back non-sequiturs (sp?). Steele asks a one-word question and Natalya gives a non-responsive response.  Is Steele naked?  What does he need the clothes for?  Is he asking if clothes are in the knapsack?  

              Steele thought about the trackers that she’d doubtlessly put in.

Yes!  I like this bit.  I’m not fond of the word, doubtlessly, but the sentiment works.

              Natalya turned her head to the dark window as he changed his clothes. She’d watched him before. Now she wouldn’t. He’d need to lose the clothes, then.

More confusion.  Changing clothes from what to what?  Why?  That she’d seen him without clothes implies that they are (or were) lovers, so why turn away?  Again, this seems unearned.

              After he pulled on a thick parka she handed him a battered ushanka. 

I have no idea what a ushanka is, so therefore I have no image.  Without an image, the next line makes no sense.

             “Remember, flaps up. Or you’ll look like a pussy,” she muttered.

              Steele nodded. He knew.

He knew what?  That he’d look like a pussy?

              “And don’t die. Or get wounded. You need to be back by 0300 for your flight to Havana.”

This is the best line of the entire piece.  I would break it into two parts, though:

“And don’t die.  Or get wounded.”

“I can’t,” he said.  “I’ve got an 0300 flight to Havana.”  He put . . .

             He put his hand out. Natalya bit her lip as she passed him a Makarov PM and two magazines.

              “Don’t fret, I won’t leave a mess.”

Okay, the Makarov PM is a clue. Unless the assassin is using old surplus equipment, the story must be set sometime between the late ’40s and early ’90s.  Now that he’s got his pistol, what does he do with it?  Is there a holster?  Does he slip it in his pocket? Surely he must load it (unless the two magazines Natalya hands him are extras).  My point here is that once you introduce an object, yhou can’t just let it disappear from the page.

              “You’re lucky, going to a tropical place,” she muttered wistfully.

              “I wouldn’t exactly call it lucky.”

              “But the weather’s better.”

              “Yes, it is. Spasiba do svidaniya myshonok,” he muttered as he opened the door, checked the hallway, and slipped away.

Jim Bell blogged last Sunday on using dialect and foreign words in manuscripts.  “Spasiba do . . .” translates in my head as blah, blah, blah.  Also, where’s the emotion?  They talk about the weather, and then Steele just walks away.

This section highlights a lack of point of view.  Whose scene is this? I’d like to be in someone’s head, but instead, I’m just watching the players move around on the set.  I’d like to feel something from someone.

              Natalya pulled the mobile from the inside pocket of her jacket. “Did you get all of that?” she asked Pierce.

              “Yes. But he lied, our Adrian did.”

What is the lie?

              “You mean –?”

I’m lost.  I don’t know what they’re talking about.

              “Oh, he won’t miss his flight, he knows what’s on the line.”

              “But he’s off the leash…”

              “I let him do this, or he won’t do the job in Cuba. He’s the only one who can and he knows it. I’m not sure what he’s got planned, but it’s going to leave a hell of a mess.”

              “Will he kill Voschenko?”

              “He wants to. Thank you for your help Natalya. You should go to ground.”

              “But…”

              “Leave myshonok. Disappear. Now.”

I sense that here at the end, I’m supposed to be fearful, but I’m not.  Dialogue can carry a scene only so far.  As a reader, I don’t want to feel like I’m merely eavesdropping on someone’s conversation.  I want to understand what’s going on.  I want to understand the stakes.

What say you, TKZers?  It’s your turn.

 

 

4+
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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

15 thoughts on “First Page Critique – The Halcyon Vengeance

  1. You have some great notes from a pro, Anon…and I would agree and reiterate that you have a style which fits this material. The most important thing (for me) is your lack of a strong, definitive and singular POV. Stay in Steele’s head exclusively. Always stick to one POV per scene.

    John mentioned the title as a marketing tool, which is quite true. I wasn’t so bothered by your choice, as it is pure Ludlum. The Halcyon Vengeance is just like The Aquitaine Progression or The Chancellor Manuscript, etc. If you’re planning a series with this type of title, that would make sense. If not, give thought to alternatives before making the final choice.

      • Just for fun I went back and looked at all his titles and they are a hoot! The only one I could remember was the Scarlatti Inheritance (loved that book!) But get aload of these:
        The Mantarese Circle
        The Acquataine Progression
        The Parsifal Mosaic
        The Tristan Betrayal
        The Scorpio Illusion…
        There’s a story about Christopher Hickens and Salman Rushdie playing a game where they renamed Shakespeare plays in the Ludlum style. They turned Hamlet into The Elsinore Vacillation and Othello into The Kerchief Implication. Someone else weighed in with movie titles and “Taxi Driver” became “The Bickle Permutation.”

  2. “Makarov PM” is a clue? For Gilstrap, yes, But probably not for most of us. I assumed it was a pistol, but for all I know it could be anything Adrian might need for his day’s work. A GPS maybe. We don’t know at this point he doesn’t always carry a gun. For sure it’s not a clue for most of us as to time period.

    Maybe: “She handed him the gun. A good old Makarov PM. He never knew what old junker [or whatever apt description would flash through his mind] they’d scrounge up for him. He hefted it a few times and confirmed that the muscle memory was still there.”

  3. I liked this as well, John. I am usually not drawn in with espionage novels but Russia floats my boat. Maybe it’s the times we’re living through. But I think all your points are right on, especially your observation about staying in one POV. I get why the writer feel s/he had to switch from Adrian to the woman — to inject more tension and danger for Adrian (who I assume is the protag). But it’s jarring and almost too amateurish a tactic for this good a start. I wonder if the same tension could be created by staying with Adrian? Maybe he leaves and we get in his thoughts a little about his mistrust of Natalya? Can the writer find a way to convey the sense of peril through Adrian’s consciousness rather than via the clunky device of switching POV (with a phone call yet — a static scene device).

    Which leads me to your second good point: This writing is nicely cold-war cool. I like that. The tone is there. But it is a little too spare emotionally. I don’t get much from Adrian as to where his head and heart are at. I’m not asking for a spilling of guts (too early in the set up for that). But we could use a few well-chosen hints about what this man is like at his core. I want to start investing in him.

    I wouldn’t bother to be so critical if I didn’t think this had real potential. I like it. It’s a really good start.

    The title? I am sort of with John on this one. These kind of titles are so over-used that they now feel trite and old-fashioned, very 1980s spy genre. Even if the story is set in the past, I’d like to see a more imaginative title, not a Ludlum knockoff.

  4. Good job, Anon!
    I agree with the commenters’ suggestions thus far. (I’m torn on the title. I appreciate the reference, but I agree that it initially reads as clunky. My first thought about “Halcyon” was, “I don’t think that means what you think it means.”)

    Re the scene with trackers in clothing: Perhaps “undoubtedly” instead of “doubtlessly”?

    I don’t write this genre, but I do love reading it. Gritty & sparse, (usually) single POV, a la Jack Reacher. Good stuff, in moderation.
    I enjoy a story that doesn’t beat the reader over the head with extraneous descriptors. As long as the writer intends to explain later, I’m usually willing to swallow my questions and read on faith…for a bit. But I enjoy surprises. Not everyone does. And the writer needs to make sure to follow through!

    Honestly, I thought the suggestion of why Steele would have to ditch the clothes later was clever. It hints at previous history between him and Natalya. To me, her aversion to watching him dress meant that there was something wrong with the clothing she had provided. Perhaps I read TOO much of this genre? But my warning bells went off even before I finished the paragraph. I appreciate subtle sociological interactions like that.

    I didn’t mind the change in POV; I felt that it was an easier way to show the duplicity and maybe even introduce the antagonist? (But that’s a difference in POV, which can be very subjective with readers!)
    Perhaps the scene cut wasn’t clear enough?
    That said, a little more descrption in that final exchange might prevent later exposition.

    And while I understood the Russian, it should at least be placed in italic to denote that its a foreign language. Definitely refer to Bell’s previous blog about how to “explain” the definition for those who don’t speak it. It’s a good one.

    Same for the gear. As other commenters have suggested, give the reader a bit of additional information. Just be sure it’s via description (or even dialogue!), NOT exposition. We don’t need full stats on the weapon, but explaining that it’s a weapon to begin with is helpful and allows for a wider range of readers! Eric’s suggestion is fantastic. Even gives more background on the character in a subtle way.

    And as John suggests…don’t let the item disappear. You don’t want to belabour the point later when it mysteriously reappears, fully loaded. Or, for that matter, put it in a strange place to begin with, like the knapsack. Be aware of your characters and where they are in the setting. As the writer, you have that setting well-formed in your head, but the reader is forced to guess from clues in the story. As one of my readers likes to joke, “Paint me a picture but don’t beat me over the head with the canvas.”

    All this aside, I enjoyed the snippet and would have read on.

    • Re disappearing things, Cyn. I call these “champagne glasses.” In my first romance, I had my heroine at a party and she’s holding a champagne glass but moments later, she applauds something that’s happening. My editor wrote in the margin: What happened to the champagne glass?

      Yeah, it’s picky stuff, but you gotta account for things, or physical actions (like having Natalya walk from here to there specifically). It all goes to logic…

  5. I’m a beginning writer. Had first page reviewed here and I am thankful. Had Russian in college so the translation is; thank you until we meet again my little mouse(small quiet person)

    • Good luck Tom! This is a great start and putting your writing out there for critique is not only brave, but shows a willingness to take on feedback, which will only accelerate your writing career. I love a good spy thriller, so cheering you on. Best of luck!

    • Tom, your style is clean and crisp. John’s excellent suggestions (and others in the comments) will lift an already-good first page into one that should catch an editor’s or agent’s eye. If you’re a beginning writer, you’ve obviously studied your craft well. Keep at it and let TKZ know when this is published.

  6. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer, and thanks to John for his wise words. Here are my comments to throw into the mix:

    Pronoun Reference Issues

    “He glanced over to Natalya who recited the final brief for his assignment in Cuba.”

    Natalya sounds female, and in this sentence “his” refers back to Natalya. See https://natureofwriting.com/pronoun-reference/ and listen to the video provided. Then reword any sentences with pronouns that do not refer back to a clear antecedent.

    Repetition

    Here are some examples:

    “She handed him an unmarked envelope…”
    “… she handed him a battered…”

    Try not to use “handed him” twice on a page.

    Also the word muttered is used at least three times:

    “she muttered”
    “she muttered wistfully”
    “he muttered…”

    Micro Actions of Characters

    Describe only the most important actions made by characters. It can be tedious for readers if you describe too much. Readers don’t need to hear about every nod, grimace, or twitch. Zero in on the actions that are the most significant (those actions you really want your reader to notice).

    Overwriting

    For the most part, the writing is tight. However, condense when possible. For example:

    “Now she wouldn’t. He’d need to lose the clothes, then.”

    Condense to something simpler like:

    No time for distractions.

    Character Introductions

    Four characters are mentioned:

    Adrian Steele
    Natalya
    Pierce
    Voschenko

    That’s a lot of characters to mention at once.

    Properly introduce your protagonist and stay in his/her POV. See “Making an Entrance” by Barbara Kyle (available online). If this is Steele’s scene, we need to see some conflict between Adrian and Natalya. Ideally, for every scene, you want your POV character to have a goal, motivation, and conflict. It’s more exciting for readers to have conflict between characters in the form of a scene, rather than to be fed information through a telephone call. If Steele is a James Bond sort of character, introduce the reader to him by showing him doing something to prove it. Perhaps he can find a tracker in the backpack and ditch it somewhere. Don’t tell the reader in a phone call that Steele is the only one that can do a certain job. Show the reader how good Steele is by his actions.

    Russian

    I know a little Russian, because my son had several Russian music teachers. However, not all readers will be familiar with all of the Russian words. Cora Bresciano has some wonderful tips in her article called “I Love You, My Little Cabbage: Using Foreign Words in Your Fiction.” (available online)

    Setting

    I think you should make it clearer in the beginning that Sheremetyevo is an airport. Many people will not know this. Aim for clarity. You don’t want the reader to have to think too hard to experience the story. The idea is to make the reader feel.

    Scene Structure

    Listen to “How To Write A Great Scene by Michael Hauge & Mark W. Travis” on YouTube. I think it will be very helpful.

    Your story sounds intriguing, brave writer. I like John’s idea about what to do with this line:

    “And don’t die. Or get wounded. You need to be back by 0300 for your flight to Havana.”

    Keep going. Interesting start!

  7. Anon here,

    Please excuse my lateness. Where I live we do not the most reliable internet, so I was not aware that my First Page was posted! I want to thank you all for taking the time to read and critique my first page. I agree with all your constructive suggestions, especially regarding the title and the POV.

    I appreciate your encouragement.
    Thank you all for your generosity.
    E. Brookes

  8. This reminded me of the opening paragraph of “Firefox”, by Craig Thomas

    The walk from the British Airways BAC-111 across the tarmac of Cheremetievo Airport seemed interminable to the slightly-built man at the end of the file of passengers. The wind whipped at his trilby, which he held in place, jamming it firmly down with one hand while in the other he held a travel bag bearing the legend of the airline. He was an undistinguished individual – he wore spectacles, heavy-rimmed, and his top lip was decorated with a feeble growth of moustache.

  9. First of all, I’m greatly impressed with this group and their constructive evaluation of this work. Thoughtful and helpful for sure.

    Next, I too enjoyed the initial read. Comments were well stated so I have nothing more substancial to add except to say, continue your story. I liked the beginning. Just know you’ll be doing multiple rewrites before it’s polished.

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