First Page Critique – Freets

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Today, please welcome a brave Anonymous Author with a story entitled Freets.

FREETS

By –

ONE

The coffin was nearly ready. Andy Turbett knuckled sweat off his brow and stepped back to get a good look at the lid. It was as fine a piece of wood as he’d ever had on his bench and the work was going well. Hmm, maybe a tiny shave off the side. He reached for a spokeshave just as Ruth came into the barn, toting some colourful paper stuff under her arm. Bright sunshine framed her.

“Andy,” she said, nodding, with her bunchy smile.

“Hello, lass. Come to check up on me, have tha?”

She looked at the side panels and base of the coffin leaning in a corner, waiting to join up with the lid. “Oh, you are getting on fast. I did come to say maybe we won’t need it so soon after all. Not if Dan has it his way.”

Andy blew at the curls of wood that he’d planed off. They joined the rest of the wood debris on the long dirt floor.  “Ah, well. Can’t say I disagree with him there.”

“Grandad needs to die,” Ruth said.

Andy made a non-committal sound. Her husband would never let her do it, and what he said went. Not one to let the wife put her foot out the door first after the wedding, wasn’t Dan. “What’s that paper?” he said, to change the subject.

“Oh, I made a banner to hang in the tea-shop. Tha won’t miss this afternoon, will tha?”

“Nay. Got to wash and change first, I’m sweating like a beast.” He took a pull from the pint-glass of water on the floor. Warm and dusty, but it’d do. “This weather. Got to be a record.”

“That’s what they’re saying.” She watched him. “There’s some houseleek growing by the rocks in the woods, I’m going tomorrow if tha wants me to get -”

“Nay,” he said. “Nay.” God, this little apple-cheek lass scared him sometimes. He took up the spokeshave again.

“Oh, Andy. I do wish tha knew it’s all right if tha treats it with respect.”

“Nay, best to leave ’em alone. I know tha thinks different, being so young and -” There. He should have kept his mouth shut after all; she wasn’t one to take offence, but you never knew, what with her thinking herself as much a daughter of the village as Fiona, his own wife.

~~~~

With TKZ first page critiques, the focus is usually on what’s not working and how to best fix it. Once in a while, a submission comes in that is so good, it’s more useful as an example of how to do things right.

Freets is such a submission.

However, I have to say that title put me off. How many readers know what a freet is? I didn’t. How many will take the time to look it up?

According to Wiktionary.org, freet is:

  1. A superstitious notion or belief with respect to any action or event as a good or a bad omen; a superstition. quotations ▼
    • 1824, John Mactaggart, The Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia, page 263:

If the old “freet” be true “ that those who fall when at the handspake aneath the corpse, will soon be the corpse themsell,” there would soon be a good few corspes; for at these “druken” concerns, the bearers are falling some of them every now and then.

  1. A superstitious rite, observance, wont, or practise. quotations ▼
    • 1903, Samual Ferguson, The Fairy Well of Lagnanay:

Oh, sister Ellen, sister sweet, Come with me to the hill I pray, And I will prove that blessed freet!

  1. A charm.

Okay, once we understand the meaning, Freets has the components of a great title—identifies a story problem, hints at the conflict, and evokes a wonderfully sinister tone.

However, the obscure meaning is a big negative. Perhaps the author can add a subtitle. A vivid, compelling cover is a must; otherwise, browsing online shoppers may pass it by because of the unfamiliar word. Also, define freets in the book description or jacket copy.

That’s the biggest nit I have with this submission.

At TKZ, we talk a lot about starting with action rather than static weather descriptions, backstory, or a character contemplating her navel. Jim Bell recommends opening a story with a “disturbance,” which doesn’t have to be violent or loud.

This submission avoids those common pitfalls. Each sentence is deliberately crafted and performs multiple functions, drawing the reader deeper into the story. I’m going to examine individual sentences and explore why they work.

Sentence 1 – The coffin was nearly ready.

This quiet, simple, declarative sentence caught my attention immediately. Death is a monumental disturbance yet the matter-of-fact tone sets an understated mood. The implication is that death has already occurred or is imminent. I’m guessing the genre is mystery, suspense, or horror so death is likely to mean murder.

Consider making this first sentence its own paragraph for more dramatic impact. See Kris’s excellent post on paragraphing.

Sentences 2, 3, 4Andy Turbett knuckled sweat off his brow and stepped back to get a good look at the lid. It was as fine a piece of wood as he’d ever had on his bench and the work was going well. Hmm, maybe a tiny shave off the side.

Andy’s character is introduced without superficial details about age and appearance but instead drills straight into his values, beliefs, and skills. He is a diligent woodworker who appreciates quality materials, is a perfectionist, and takes pride in his craft. “Knuckled” is a great active, visual verb.

Building a coffin by hand suggests the time period is historical rather than contemporary.

Sentence 5, 6He reached for a spokeshave just as Ruth came into the barn, toting some colourful paper stuff under her arm. Bright sunshine framed her.

Spokeshave is clearly a tool of his trade, even though the term was unfamiliar until I looked it up (see illustration). It also confirms a historical period, because he doesn’t reach for, say, a power sander.

Spokeshave – Wikimedia Commons

The spelling of colourful indicates the locale may be the British Isles.

The second character, Ruth, is introduced. Setting details (a barn) and weather (bright sunshine) are also established in an active way rather than as static description. The sun isn’t just shining—it frames Ruth, doing double duty as a weather report and an active verb.

Sentence 7“Andy,” she said, nodding, with her bunchy smile.

Bunchy is another unfamiliar word yet it evokes a great visual of a big mouth with lots of teeth. Turns out it’s an adjective, dating back to about 1400 AD, that means protuberant or bulging.

Sentence 8, 9“Hello, lass. Come to check up on me, have tha?”

Lass and tha are additional indicators the setting is Great Britain. Tha easily translates to you without stopping the reader. When I looked it up, I found it is Yorkshire dialect.

Sentences 10-13She looked at the side panels and base of the coffin leaning in a corner, waiting to join up with the lid. “Oh, you are getting on fast. I did come to say maybe we won’t need it so soon after all. Not if Dan has it his way.”

When Ruth says they might not need the coffin yet if Dan has his way, I’m totally hooked. Who is dying? More important, who is controlling how and when the person dies? Obviously there is more going on than an ordinary death due to natural causes.

Sentences 14-17Andy blew at the curls of wood that he’d planed off. They joined the rest of the wood debris on the long dirt floor.  “Ah, well. Can’t say I disagree with him there.”

Again, the author incorporates description into action. Curls of wood is a vivid visual. Long dirt floor reinforces the historical time period.

Andy’s response suggests conflict lurking under the surface of apparent calm.

Sentence 18 “Grandad needs to die.”

Wham! The author immediately gets to the core of Ruth’s character. She wants her grandfather dead and appears ready to help him along if he doesn’t go willingly, even though her husband disagrees.

Sentence 19Andy made a non-committal sound.

Sometimes what’s not said is more revealing than what is said. Andy’s non-response shows that not only does he want to avoid a confrontation with Ruth, but he may be intimidated by this outspoken woman who might be capable of murder.

Sentences 20, 21, 22Her husband would never let her do it, and what he said went. Not one to let the wife put her foot out the door first after the wedding, wasn’t Dan. “What’s that paper?” he said, to change the subject.

This statement of opinion reveals more insight into Andy’s beliefs, as well as delivering a glimpse into the relationship between Ruth and her husband, Dan. Not one to let the wife put her foot out the door first after the wedding, wasn’t Dan is an incredibly awkward sentence, yet it sounds authentic to the historical time period. It expresses Andy’s analysis of the marriage in a quaint, archaic way that’s still understandable to contemporary readers.

Sentences 23, 24“Oh, I made a banner to hang in the tea-shop. Tha won’t miss this afternoon, will tha?”

Apparently a public meeting is planned about an unspecified topic. Grandad? Or something else? The author is dropping questions like breadcrumbs. The reader will follow the trail to find answers and keep turning the pages.

Ruth adds another slightly veiled threat to Andy that he better show up.

Sentences 25-31“Nay. Got to wash and change first, I’m sweating like a beast.” He took a pull from the pint-glass of water on the floor. Warm and dusty, but it’d do. “This weather. Got to be a record.”

“That’s what they’re saying.”

This gives another revelation of Andy’s character as well as amplifying the weather and setting. He works hard and appreciates the small reward of a warm, dusty glass of water.

At the same time, these innocuous sentences show him trying to change the subject to avoid the unease of talking with Ruth. The author makes the setting description do double duty to point out conflict and tension.

Sentences 32, 33She watched him. “There’s some houseleek growing by the rocks in the woods, I’m going tomorrow if tha wants me to get -”

Already the reader has the sense that being watched by Ruth makes Andy uncomfortable. I didn’t know what houseleek was but, right away, I suspected poison.

Houseleek – Wikimedia Commons

 

Turns out it’s a succulent plant, also called hens-and-chicks, that was used medicinally to treat diarrhea, burns, and mouth ulcers. Even so, Ruth’s sinister aura makes the reader wonder how else she plans to use houseleek.

 

 

Sentences 34-37“Nay,” he said. “Nay.” God, this little apple-cheek lass scared him sometimes. He took up the spokeshave again.

Andy interrupts Ruth and repeats Nay twice for emphasis. Short, punchy sentences mirror his fear. He’s worried enough to pick up a possible weapon. Additionally, the reader learns more about Ruth’s physical appearance.

Sentence 38“Oh, Andy. I do wish tha knew it’s all right if tha treats it with respect.”

Ruth chides him while reinforcing the hint that houseleek is potentially toxic if not treated with respect. She’s also trying to reassure him. I can almost hear her next statement: “One little taste won’t hurt tha a bit. Here, try some.”

Sentences 39-42“Nay, best to leave ’em alone. I know tha thinks different, being so young and -” There. He should have kept his mouth shut after all; she wasn’t one to take offence, but you never knew, what with her thinking herself as much a daughter of the village as Fiona, his own wife.

Andy challenges Ruth and immediately regrets his statement. Uh-oh, you never knew if Ruth might take offence. The unspoken threat is clear—she may be capable of evil acts. He also appears to think she’s presumptuous, considering herself a daughter of the village as much as his own wife. That indicates Ruth is an outsider, who has brought youthful, possibly dangerous beliefs and omens–freets–to the village.

By now, I’m eager to turn the page…except the submission is over. Drat!

Today’s brave author provided a case study of how to effectively open a novel. Each sentence does double or triple duty—showing description incorporated into action, and revealing character and conflict. There is no pointless meandering.

While we don’t yet know the specifics of time period or locale, carefully chosen details give enough hints without bogging down in exposition. Each sentence builds on the previous one, inexorably marching forward, carrying the reader into a story full of intrigue and promise.

In one page, the author establishes s/he is as skilled in the craft of writing as Andy is in woodworking.

Thank you, Brave Author, for submitting this excellent page. Keep us posted when it’s published.

 

Just because I was taken by this piece doesn’t mean all readers will be. TKZers, do you have differing opinions or points? How might you handle the story?

 

 

 

 

 

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About Debbie Burke

Crime novelist, suspense and mystery novels are her passion. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Her nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications and she is a regular blogger at The Kill Zone. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

24 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Freets

  1. What a fantastic critique. I enjoyed the first page, but at first thought it a bit slow. After seeing it through the eyes of the critique, I had a whole new appreciation for the craftsmanship, beauty and mystery of these opening paragraphs and would also like to read more!

  2. Thank you, Julie! I really enjoyed dissecting this piece b/c it was so well written.

    A story doesn’t need to start with fireworks to be compelling. But even quiet beginnings must pull the reader in. This one did it for me.

  3. I liked the submission and would agree it sets a mood and has lots of potential.
    That said, I needed to read it several times to have a sense of what’s happening outside the barn, who is related to who, and how. Having to reread page one several times is not a good thing and will turn some people off. While I agree we don’t want a whole lot of exposition at this stage, a wee bit more clarity would help this piece along, in my opinion.
    But definitely well written and easy to improve.

    • Different readers look for different qualities in a story opener. Your questions about who is related to whom and more grounding in the setting are good ones for the author to consider.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion, Edward.

    • Thank you! I wonder would it be possible for me to let you have a look at a draft of the page based on your comments? I’d really like to get this right and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to pin down what’s not working. I don’t know how we would do this? Can we DM on this site?

      All the best, Tracey

  4. I got the idea of historical, of an innocence on the part of Andy, and a certain sinister quality in Ruth. But thought, maybe Amish, early American. Would really like to follow up and read the rest.. Any chance of that? Thanks, dear author and Deb.

    • Nancy, how sweet of you to say that. Yes, I’d be glad to send a followup. The book is actually out with betas, so one more would be hugely welcome. However, see my long post in reply to Debbie’s kind words.

      Let me know how I can send the finished draft to you,

      All the best,
      TV Brown

  5. Wow. Fabulous critique, Debbie. Alas, I feel as if we’d read different pages. I found the dialogue confusing and some of the word choices tripped me up. The word “tha” drove me crazy. There’s no way I could read an entire book written this way. It’s too much work for this particular reader. Dialogue should enhance the scene. For me, it felt stilted and forced. But you obviously saw something I didn’t, Debbie, and that’s the beautiful thing about fiction. No two readers will view the story in the same way.

    On the plus side, I loved the first paragraph. I also loved Anon’s style of describing the action, teasing the reader, and overall tone. Best of luck, Anon!!!

  6. I agree with your fine review of this first page, but. (there’s always a but) I found that not knowing the relationships between the characters to be confusing. I expected Andy to be the driving character but when that turned out to be Ruth I needed to know why. Why was Andy timid around her.? Was she his mother? Trying to figure that out and the peppering of archaic words throughout split my attention and made concentrating on the action difficult.
    Having a character building a coffin for a man who is still alive is both eery and compelling. Great stuff. Unfortunately, I found reading this first page to be too much work for a reader who is looking for entertainment.
    For me, a quick clause clarifying who Ruth is and maybe using a common word instead of “bunchy” would ease my concern.

    • Good points, Brian. Unless readers are really taken by a story, they don’t want to have to work hard to enjoy it.

      As you say, a coffin for a man who’s still alive is wonderfully eerie. Great hook!

  7. Really fine critique, Debbie, no matter where you come down on the submission. I liked it as well, and found the writing really original and bracing. Didn’t think the opening was slow at all…too many intriguing hints laid down for that! Go read the opening of Tana French’s newest “The Witch Elm.” It’s slooooow. It forces you to digest her words with great care yet you know something dire is going to happen. She’s considered a master of suspense.

    I liked the “bunchy” smile, even though I didn’t know exactly what it was. I assumed, without knowing the idiom, it was toothy. 🙂 And I never knew that the hens and chicks in my garden are poisonous houseleeks!

    I, too, found the use of “tha” a bit too much. But maybe it would “disappear” over the course of a whole book. Dunno about that one. But it might be worth noting that if this book is meant for U.S. publication, the dialect would be an issue for editors.

    And for that reason, I agree with Debbie that the title is troublesome. If it were just one word in the narrative, I might hit Google to dig out its meaning. But as a title? Nope. A good title has to convey with clarity the book’s essence and spirit. Such an idiomatic word would never fly with U.S. editors. It would be changed. I bet there’s a better, less “inside” title buried somewhere in this book.

    • Thanks, Kris. When one really gets involved in a book, dialect does seem to fade into the background and becomes part of the cadence of a writer’s voice. But as has been discussed often at TKZ, dialect is a risk.

    • I’m Brave Author. Thank you so much. The title is definitely a bug-bear. Sometimes, with me, a title appears immediately, but if it doesn’t, I know I’m going to have a tough time finding the right one. Both you and the others are right about thinking internationally in my choice of words, including title.

  8. I agree with you, Debbie; fiction is subjective…very much so! I make sure my beta readers are widely different in tastes for that very reason. If I let one person alone dictate writing tweaks, my WIP might become all action, or, conversely, all character interaction! In the same vein as Sue’s comment, everyone enjoys something slightly different.
    I think there’s also a deep divide among readers about comfort levels and complacency. Some, like myself, prefer to learn something new with each story, to be challenged. And we don’t need things fully explained, either. Spokesshave, for instance: I might not know the term initially, but I can either go with my hunch that it relates to woodworking or I can look it up. But I certainly wouldn’t want the writer to stop and explain for me!
    And yet I know readers who would find this story impossible because they want to read for pure enjoyment sake and not be bothered with unknown facts. That’s okay, too. Subjectivity; it keeps fiction wide and fascinating to all readers.
    Personally, I enjoyed this thouroughly and wish I had the book to hand already! Great job, Anon!
    I’m deeply curious as to why Ruth trusts Andy enough to confide such things to him. Is he just that innocent or does she have something to hold over him? The slightly sinister feel lurking behind that bunchy smile is fascinating!
    My sole concern is the title. I love the depth behind it, but have to agree with others; it’s simply TOO unknown for the weighty responsibility of Title. Don’t lose it; as Debbie suggested, put it in jacket copy or perhaps a description in an epigraph or prologue?

    • I’m BA. Thank you so much for your input. Yes, the title doesn’t work; I’ll have to find another.

      Interesting that so many find Ruth so sinister… I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or something that has missed its mark. I did mean her to be a worry, of course; I enjoyed juxtaposing her bunchy smile and being called ‘lass’ with ‘Grandad needs to die’. But I think perhaps she’s coming off as more sinister than I intended, poor Ruth (*slight (spoiler* Her husband’s the one you need to worry about (; (: (: ).

      All the best, TV Brown

    • Cyn, you are wise to enlist a wide variety of betas. While I depend on my critique group, I also ask for help from readers who are not writers, different ages, and both genders. Each one brings a slightly different perspective. If a beta makes even one suggestion I haven’t considered, that’s a worthwhile (and much appreciated) contribution.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion, Cyn.

  9. Hello! Am Brave Author of ‘Freets’.

    Thank you all so, so much for your help.

    Please forgive the long post but this critique and replies do give me a bit of a challenge…I’m totally in quandary now!

    I started off pretty much dancing round the room at your comments, Debbie, but then kind of came to a screeching halt!

    I often have a huge amount of trouble starting a novel, and I fear that when you hear how the novel goes on, I’ll have to chalk up another non-starter. Yet,it may also be easier on the readers who didn’t like the archaic speech etc.

    1. I thought I’d put a plane murmuring overhead when Ruth stands at the door (in fact, because yes, other readers have assumed they were in the past. Loweheaf is just a very isolated village with a unique curse. It behooves them to keep to themselves,and being necessarily so insular, their speech is sometimes quite ‘local’. Many , but not all, of their tools hark back to the old ways, too.

    2. Andy is not scared of Ruth physically, but yes, you’re right, scared of her rather optimistic, (quite hippie, actually!) attitude to the thing that threatens the village. She’s an ‘oft-comed’un’ (old slang for newcomer), having only been in the village 18 years, as she points out in the next line! I did want the reader to be apprehensive about Ruth, but not to the point of her inflicting physical harm on Andy! Ooops.

    3. Houseleek is used as protection against lightning, in superstitious circles. I’m thinking of putting in a list of superstitions the novel uses, as a frontispiece guide, but that might spoil some of my elements of surprise.

    4. Thank you so much for the heads-up on the language confusion; I had no idea Americans didn’t know ‘bunchy’! We use it quite a lot in the UK to refer to round cheeks! I did note that the crit board was mostly American, and I thought there might be some stumbling blocks along the way, but hey. We don’t have a blog like this for UK writers, as far as I can find.

    5. OK, the biggest problem now. (Deep breath) Into this world comes a bunch of Londoners trying to find out what happened to a man who disappeared after writing from the village a century ago. The protagonist of the novel is a young woman called Lennie, headstrong but prone to wishful thinking rather than reality, attracted to the exciting rather than the practical.

    (So most of the dialogue is good old modern-London – I totally agree with Kristie and Sue, I’d find it a bit annoying to have to read every ‘you’ as ‘tha’. In fact, I’m thinking, would it be best to cut ‘tha’? If it makes the reader trip up, it isn’t worth having. I will cut it. So thank you! )

    But I am tearing my hair out about how to begin this damn book! I know you should start with the protag, but I’ve also been advised that if your MC’s main story takes place after a journey, she’d better be ON that journey when the book begins. When I start with Lennie’s journey, it’s dull and exposition-y, not to mention the fact that there are five of them, so ‘character overload’. If I start when they arrive in the tea-room, ‘character overload’. Aaaaarrgh!

    So what I’ve done is start with two important characters, (and, underneath, the characters of the village). Andy and Ruth continue to talk while he works; she expresses her love for the village and he says that he thinks it might be better if they allowed themselves to die out. We learn he is afraid of ‘them that live in the woods’ (hence not happy about her going into them to gather houseleek) while she knows they are kinder to women.

    The last line is Andy turning his thoughts to something else when she’s gone ‘anything to take his mind off them that lived in the woods’; the first line of the next scene, where Lennie is introduced, is ‘So far, the best thing about Loweheaf was the woods’. She is only with her boyfriend at this point, the others having stopped at the stream, but as they go on to the tea-room, there is still the worry of Dan, Ruth, two old ladies and Andy’s wife, who owns the tea-room being in there with their stupid character-overloady selves.

    I am straight-up about to scream. HAY-ULP. And many many many many thanks to all for all your comments, especially, of course, Debbie. I love that you appreciate my turns of phrases, etc, and you don’t know how glorious it was to read that you think my book would be published, though you’ve probably changed your mind now! It was lovely while it lasted!

    I would appreciate any and all suggestions on how to improve ‘Freets’ (and yeah, I have no idea what to call the wretched thing.)

    • Hi Tracey, so glad you chimed in.

      Don’t worry about Ruth coming across as sinister at this point. What you want to do on the first page is intrigue the reader enough to turn to the second, third, and many more pages. You have done that. Early incorrect assumptions are part of the fun of unraveling the puzzle. Nothing you wrote was overt enough to make the reader feel “cheated” if Ruth is not the villain I took her to be. As a crime writer, I’m automatically suspicious of every character so that’s my particular tunnel vision.

      The bigger concern would be establishing the time period. The reader could feel whiplashed when they start out assuming historical then learn it’s contemporary.

      However, the concept of a village “lost” in time that must suddenly come to grips with the outside world is compelling. I have no doubt you’ll pull that off well.

      Best of luck, Tracey!

      • Thank you so much, Debbie. You don’t know how much you have encouraged and cheered me. I’m very hard-working as a writer and it’s nice to know I’ve progressed. I take all the criticisms seriously, and will work and work until the blips have been sorted. THANK YOU!

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