First Page Critique: Ghost Wind

Happy Monday! Today I’m critiquing the first page of a historical novel entitled Ghost Wind. My comments follow and I look forward to getting some great feedback from you, TKZers!

The Ghost Wind

This was the door the Mexican boy had pointed out to her. She stepped up onto the boardwalk, side-stepping a hole in the rotten wood, the wind pelting her with dirt and dead leaves and causing the oil lamp overhead to swing precariously back and forth. The door was solid and locked tight. Standing on her toes and reaching above her head her fingers found the iron key above the lintel, just as he’d said. The glass panes in one of the windows were shattered, their jagged edges reflecting the moonlight. She struggled with the lock, the key finally turning with a hollow click. The force of the wind slammed the door inward and knocked the few remaining shards of window glass from their panes.  She entered cautiously and looked around the room.  Just enough moonlight penetrated the darkness to reveal several pieces of furniture shrouded in dusty canvas. Lifting the coverings, she found a long leather-covered central table, a cot, a few cabinets still in serviceable condition.  The building seemed solid, but the wind still whined around the warped window sills sending leaves and twigs skittering over the floor and causing the ghostly canvas to billow and fall. She shivered and tried to rub some warmth back into her arms. Whatever made her think it was always hot here?

She continued making a slow circuit of the room, trying not to bang her shins against unseen obstacles. It was near midnight, but the night was still alive with sound. Guitar music drifted from a cantina across the street accompanied by bursts of laughter from a nearby saloon. A door banged somewhere farther down the street. Slow footsteps marched up the narrow boardwalk and then stopped, grinding the broken glass below the window. For a moment it seemed whoever was passing had moved on until a familiar sound stopped her cold. The four, slow, distinct clicks of a gun hammer being drawn back. She knew that sound.

She drew a sharp breath, inhaling the room’s lingering odors of dust, mildew, sour liquor, and stale sweat. The dry branches of a leafless tree scratched against a window making demon shadows dance on the far wall.  The lamp outside, creaking on its rusty hinges, thrashed in the gusty wind. Her hands, already cold inside her gloves, grew clammy.

“Don’t. Move.”

§

It had been a long journey across some of the ugliest, most barren wasteland imaginable. First by train to Waco, then by stage to some godforsaken place called Ben Ficklin, and finally by horseback to… here. San Angela, Texas. A hundred miles from nowhere and on the road to who the hell cares where. But here she was. Nearly fifteen hundred miles. And she felt like she had walked every one of those miles. She was dirty, cold, tired, hungry, and in no mood for an argument.

My comments

The real strength of the first page is the atmosphere it evokes and the attention to detail that allows the reader to get a strong sense of place as well as the past. That being said, these could also be considered weaknesses given the lack of action and dialogue – illustrating the delicate balancing act any author has to achieve on this all important first page!

Because I really enjoyed this first page, I’m wary of making too many recommendations (reader tastes are always subjective after all) but I do think tightening up the initial descriptive paragraphs would help pick up the pace so the reader can reach the critical moment where the gun is being drawn back a little quicker. I wouldn’t take out much, but some of the description is redundant and could be removed without impacting the atmosphere or dramatic tension in this first scene. I would also consider changing the one line of dialogue “Don’t. Move.” to something less conventional or cliched. Something unexpected here would definitely intrigue the reader especially since the next paragraph provides further background (I have to say I love the way the line ‘she was dirty, cold, tired, hungry, and in no mood for an argument’ could feed back into that one line of dialogue).

By way of suggestion only, I’ve re-pasted the first few sections, striking through some of the lines of description I feel are redundant.  See if you agree, TKZers. I think visually if the first page could end with the line of dialogue it would also seem less wordy and more appealing to readers. Otherwise, I thought this was a terrific first page. Bravo to our brave submitter!

The Ghost Wind

This was the door the Mexican boy had pointed out to her. She stepped up onto the boardwalk, side-stepping a hole in the rotten wood, the wind pelting her with dirt and dead leaves and causing the oil lamp overhead to swing precariously back and forth. The door was solid and locked tight. Standing on her toes and reaching above her headher fingers found the iron key above the lintel, just as he’d said. The glass panes in one of the windows were shattered, their jagged edges reflecting the moonlight. She struggled with the lock, the key finally turning with a hollow click. The force of the wind slammed the door inward and knocked the few remaining shards of window glass from their panes.  She entered cautiously and looked around the room. Just enough moonlight penetrated the darkness to reveal several pieces of furniture shrouded in dusty canvas. Lifting the coverings, she found a long leather-covered central table, a cot, a few cabinets still in serviceable condition.  The building seemed solid, but the wind still whined around the warped window sills sending leaves and twigs skittering over the floor and causing the ghostly canvas to billow and fall. She shivered and tried to rub some warmth back into her arms. Whatever made her think it was always hot here?

She continued making a slow circuit of the room, trying not to bang her shins against unseen obstacles.It was near midnight, but the night was still alive with sound. Guitar music drifted from a cantina across the street accompanied by bursts of laughter from a nearby saloon. A door banged somewhere farther down the street. Slow footsteps marched up the narrow boardwalk and then stopped, grinding the broken glass below the window. For a moment it seemed whoever was passing had moved on until a familiar sound stopped her cold. The four, slow, distinct clicks of a gun hammer being drawn back. She knew that sound.

She drew a sharp breath, inhaling the room’s lingering odors of dust, mildew, sour liquor, and stale sweat. The dry branches of a leafless tree scratched against a window making demon shadows dance on the far wall. The lamp outside, creaking on its rusty hinges, thrashed in the gusty wind. Her hands, already cold inside her gloves, grew clammy.

2+

10 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Ghost Wind

  1. Like Clare, I found a lot to admire about this atmospheric first page. Clare’s cuts tightened the writing and made it more immediate.

    However, the scene break was jarring. Right at the moment of highest interest, the reader gets yanked away and plopped into a rather dull travelogue with background information that could have waited until later, or been woven into the action and/or dialogue without the abrupt halt to the forward momentum.

    Brave Author, please consider staying in the first scene longer to sink the hook deeper. As Jim Bell often advises: “Act first, explain later.”

  2. I agree. Some nice evoking of atmosphere here but it’s overwritten. Clare’s pruning helps, but the writer might want to go back and read Jim’s Sunday post about how you need to write tight as a tick with thrillers. And although this is historical, which often allows for a more lush style, the scene is basic suspense, so some judicious tightening would really up the tension.

    I agree that “Don’t. Move” sounds tired. It’s the first line of dialogue. Don’t waste it. Make it mean something. I agree, too, with Debbie that the scene break and shift to backstory puts a huge brake on the story. I’d s let the house scene play out. I’m wondering if the writer thought breaking here would CREATE tension by making readers wait for the payoff? But I think it does just the opposite and takes all the air out of the good creepy set-up.

    • Agreed – it does take the air out of the scene. I certainly think some further pruning and tightening is warranted – though it’s always a tricky balancing act so the atmosphere doesn’t get lost in the process (which is why I didn’t make too many suggested cuts). I do think the author has the chops to make it work though!

  3. I agree with the comments so far, and with your critique, Clare. The writing needs tightening without losing the great imagery. I liked “side-stepping a hole in the rotten wood.” It shows the condition of the room through action.

    Try this, Anon …

    Instead of: She entered cautiously and looked around the room. Just enough moonlight penetrated the darkness to reveal several pieces of furniture shrouded in dusty canvas. (24 words)

    Slash all unnecessary words and delete the adverbs that add nothing to the action i.e. “cautiously.” Revision example: Her gaze roamed around the room. Moonlight pierced the darkness, revealing furniture shrouded in dusty canvas. (16 words, same imagery)

    Best of luck to you!!!

  4. Dear Author, You do have excellent use of description. I could feel being in the dust of San Angela, TX. Perhaps that is also this page’s undoing. Not much happens. While well told, the dried up Texas town is a cliche, as is the gunman hiding in the shadows. If you are going to take me down this trail, I need to know more of why.

    How did a “The door was solid and locked tight” end up in a dusty unused room? Why does this door have a broken window? Either the door needs to be more solid than it looks or the broken porch and window need to go. It doesn’t make sense.

  5. Thanks for sharing your work, brave writer. Sorry I’m late to the party. Here are my notes:

    Name Your Character

    If you want readers to bond with your character, give your character a name from the beginning.

    Grammar

    “Standing on her toes and reaching above her head her fingers found the iron key above the lintel, just as he’d said.”

    The way you’ve written this sentence, it reads like “her fingers” were standing on her toes and reaching above her head.

    “Slow footsteps marched up the narrow boardwalk and then stopped, grinding the broken glass below the window.”

    Footsteps do not march. People march.

    Overwriting/Description

    Be careful not to overdescribe the setting. Also, see “Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right” by Paula Munier on Jane Friedman’s blog. Try doing the exercise with the colored pencils that Paula recommends. Remember that you don’t have to describe everything. Pick the most important items. Also, don’t use more words than you need. For example:

    “Just enough moonlight penetrated the darkness to reveal several pieces of furniture shrouded in dusty canvas.”

    See if you can say the same thing in fewer words.

    “A door banged somewhere farther down the street.”

    Why is it important for the reader to know this? Go through your opening and weed out superfluous details. That way the important details will have more impact.

    Repetition

    Be careful about repeating phrases. For example:

    “and causing the oil lamp overhead…”
    “and causing the ghostly canvas…”

    Overall Impression

    Like Clare mentioned, action and dialogue are an important part of any opening. Readers need a reason to bond with a character in order to want to find out what happens to that character. Why is the character at this place? Perhaps begin with a scene where the character is interacting with the Mexican boy. Rather than opening with a sentence that tells the reader about that incident, why not show the reader? After reading your opening, the reader knows plenty about the setting but nothing about the personality of the character. So many writers ignore setting details, and that’s not good, either. However, I agree with Debbie about the scene break happening just when things get moving. If you’re going to build things so slowly, then you’ve got to throw the reader a bone for hanging in there and waiting for the action. Best of luck with your revisions. Keep writing!

  6. I don’t have any suggestions to add, but I really enjoyed the atmosphere this first page created. I would definitely read on. 🙂

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