First Page Critique: Go

By Sue Coletta

Today, we have another brave writer who submitted their first page. My comments will follow.

Title:  Go

Ch 1 Go, Said the Bird

I twirled a pencil. My second-graders rustled papers, whispered. We all watched the clock, how slow its hands moved.

The bell rang. I let out a breath.They scrambled into coats and jackets.

“…tomorrow, Miss Glass,” several shouted.

I plodded from school to the Blue Lake City cemetery. After the years I couldn’t, I now forced myself to visit my parents once a month.

“I’m fine,” I told my mother. “Really.”

I kicked at the slush of the last snow. The inside of my fur-lined boots grew wet. Someday, I’d mean those words.

A caretaker tended the graves. No gray lumps of old snow, no weeds, no trash.

I trudged back to Northside, food wrappers rattled on broken pavements, burnt out street lights, the remains of the last three snowstorms packed the gutters.

On Huron Avenue, a tall cop hustled a small, brown-skinned woman out of Ray’s Hardware.

“I did not steal,” she said.

He leaned forward. She retreated and bowed her head.

“Look at me, bitch.”

That deep voice. Redmann. I twisted my fingers together.

For years I’d avoided him, and he might not recognize in a twenty-six year old the terrified child he dragged out of the closet.

He never paid. No justice for my parents.

I ducked my head and hurried into Johnny O’s store.

A grin lit his broad ochre-colored face, and dissolved into drawn brows. “Long face, Nettie. ”

I leaned on the counter. He whipped out two pineapple popsicles and handed me one. Too sweet, the sour taste of lying to my mother, of seeing her killer, thick in my throat.

“You visit your parents today?”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Johnny O is psychic.” He clapped a hand to his heart. “But Nettie does not believe. Woe, woe.”

A smile tugged at my mouth.

“Better.” He patted my hand. “You need a boyfriend.”

“And here I thought I didn’t have a mother.” Thrusting Redmann out of my thoughts–I had to–I bought tomato soup, Swiss cheese, and bread while we made plans for dinner and checkers later in the week.

Across the street, Redmanm hauled the woman toward his car.

***

This is a tough opener for me to critique, because I get the feeling Anon is early in his/her writing journey. When we begin our writing journey, magic surrounds us. We can’t know what we don’t know, and there’s a magical beauty in that simplicity. A harsh critique at this writing stage could do more harm than good. It’s in this vein that I offer a few suggestions to help nudge this brave writer forward.

First lines

Your first sentence should entice the reader to continue on to the next sentence and the sentence after that. “I twirled a pencil.” Doesn’t accomplish that. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the sentence, except that it’s generic. Meaning, it delivers no punch, nor does it hint at the genre, nor does it promise an intriguing storyline to come. It just sort of sits there.

We’ve discussed first lines many times on the Kill Zone. Back in 2010, Joe Moore described a first line this way:

We’ve often discussed the power (or lack of) that first lines have on the reader. It can’t be emphasized enough how much a first line plays into the scope of the book. For just like first impressions, there is only one shot at a first line. It can set the voice, tone, mood, and overall feel of what’s to come. It can turn you on or put you off—grab you by the throat or shove you away. It’s the fuse that lights the cannon.

Joe nailed it! See how important your first line is, Anon? For further study, type “first line” in the search box and you’ll find numerous articles on this subject.

Point of View

Nailing Point of View is one of the hardest elements to grasp. It’s also imperative to learn, because readers connect with our main characters through the proper use of POV. 

The third sentence We all watched the clock, how slow its hands moved.” is a point of view slip. As Laura mentioned in a recent first page critique, “we” implies a rare, first-person, plural narrator. If we’re inside the teacher’s head, then we can’t know what the students are thinking i.e. “how slow its hands moved.”

You could show their boredom through the teacher’s perspective …

Carlton’s chin slipped off a half-curled palm, his elbow unable to hold the weight of his head till the bell rang. (then add a line or two of internal dialogue to show us the MC’s reaction –>) Why he insisted on sitting in the front row still baffled me.

Clarity

We never want to confuse the reader or make them re-read previous paragraphs in order to know what we’re talking about. My remarks are in red.

I plodded from school to the Blue Lake City cemetery. After the years I couldn’t, I now forced myself to visit my parents once a month.

With this sentence structure, the reader has no idea what the narrator means by “I couldn’t” until the end of the sentence. That’s too late. Easy fix, but it’s something you’ll want to look for in your writing.

Rewrite option: After years of avoiding my parents’ grave, I made it a point to swing by the cemetery once a month.

“I’m fine,” I told my mother (mother’s gravestone?). “Really.”

I kicked at the slush of the last snow. The inside of my fur-lined boots grew wet. Someday, I’d mean those words.

Here again, you’ve given us context too late. “Someday, I’d mean those words” should come before “I kicked at the slush of the last snow.” Which I love, btw. Great visual.

Dialogue

If you haven’t read How to Write Dazzling Dialogue by TKZ’s own, James Scott Bell, do it. The book’s a game-changer.

On Huron Avenue, a tall cop hustled a small, brown-skinned (<- is it your intention to show Redmann as a racist? If so, just tell us she’s Hispanic. Also “small” and “tall” are generic terms. “Petite” implies small in stature, though) woman out of Ray’s Hardware.

“I did not steal,” she said. Dialogue should sound natural. This woman sounds stiff and unconcerned. If she’s being unfairly accused of stealing, make us feel her frustration.

He leaned forward (why would he lean forward? Did you mean Redmann invaded the Hispanic woman’s personal space? Towered over her?) She retreated and bowed her head. Try to be as clear as possible. “She coward” or “quailed back” works.

Possible rewrite: Redmann invaded the petite woman’s personal space, and she coward.

“Look at me, bitch.”  Add body cue so we know who’s speaking. Perhaps something like, his spittle flew in her face.

That deep voice. Redmann. I twisted my fingers together. I don’t understand this body cue. Do you mean, my hand balled into a fist? Which implies anger.

For years I’d avoided him, and he might not recognize in a twenty-sixyearold the terrified child he dragged out of the closet. Delete the MC’s age. Or make it less obvious that you’re sneaking in information. Something like: For twenty years, I’d avoided him. Little did he know, I wasn’t the same terrified six-year-old who huddled in the closet while he murdered my family. Soon, he and I would reconnect.

Good luck dragging me out of the closet by my hair now, asshole. (Please excuse the foul language. I’m trying to show Anon how to use inner dialogue to portray rage, and the nickname works to prove my point.)

Sparse Writing

There’s a big difference between writing tight and writing that’s too sparse.

He never paid. No justice for my parents.

Here again, my initial reaction was, paid what? Sure, you cleared up the confusion in the second sentence, but that’s too late. Be concise. Don’t let your writing get in the way. “Redmann never paid the price for killing my parents” works just fine.  

I’m going to stop there. All in all, I like where the story is headed. A schoolteacher runs into the killer who murdered her family. Intriguing premise!

Favorite line: I kicked at the slush of the last snow. 

TKZ family, please add your thoughtful and gentle suggestions for this brave writer.

 

5+

13 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Go

  1. Weird how different readers have different takes.

    I thought this was a good first page, and it made me want to read the rest of the book. Today. Right now. The writing was spare, nuanced. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

    The first line (for me) pulled me into the scene, which very quickly became a classroom, and let me “feel” her bored anticipation of the end of the day. I also didn’t see a POV switch. The POV character saw that all the students, like her, were watching the clock. The slow movement of the hands was her perception.

    I do agree with the sentence structure issue as she plods to the cemetery.

    I also thought the scene with the cop and the “brown-skinned” woman was good, if spare, but the spareness felt right to me because the POV character was rushing past, trying not to be noticed by the cop. The brown-skinned woman’s dialogue, I thought, was appropriately defiant for a tough young woman who’s been pushed around a lot.

    The cop leaning forward also worked for me. He was intimidating the woman. “She cowed” probably would be better than “she retreated,” Likewise, “Look at me, bitch!” told me exactly who was speaking: the intimidating cop.

    And for me, the POV character twisting her fingers conveyed an unease and even fear. I’ll stop there, other than to say pretty much all of this first page worked for me.

    Brave Author, I hope you’ll go with your heart and finish this novel. And let me know, because I want to read it.

  2. The teacher can see the students clock-watching, but can’t know everyone is concentrating on the clock hands. Granted, it’s a nitpick, but too many slips can turn 1st POV into omniscient.

    I love that you enjoyed this first page, Harvey. Brave Writer has an intriguing premise. I’d like to see where the story goes from here.

      • You make a valid point. If that’s the writer’s intention, then s/he needs to reword the sentence to make that clear. “The students and I watched the clock, how slow its hands moved.”

  3. My problem with this page is that it has four different settings. It’s jarring. We never get fully ensconced in one place. The classroom and cemetery bits seem only there for backstory and exposition.

    I’d start the scene in Johnny O’s, and after a few lines let her see Redmann and have a reaction without telling us why. Save that for a reveal later. Make it a mystery up front.

    I will say I liked this little exchange (and thanks for the good word about my book, Sue):

    “Johnny O is psychic.” He clapped a hand to his heart. “But Nettie does not believe. Woe, woe.”

    A smile tugged at my mouth.

    “Better.” He patted my hand. “You need a boyfriend.”

    What I liked about this is that it’s unique (Woe, woe) and then off-the nose (out of nowhere, he says, “You need a boyfriend.”)

    IOW, this isn’t pat, direct-response dialogue. It characterizes and is not predictable.

    Get deeply into this setting, author. Describe it. Give us sensory details, details that give us tone and a bit of what’s going on inside Nettie. Let her try to hide her feelings about Redmann from Johnny O. That way, they’re hidden from the reader as well, until you’re ready to spring the truth later. Much later.

    • Love your idea, Jim! The above referenced exchange made me smile, too. I agree. That’s where the characters came to life. Everything before Johnny O’s seemed flat with no real characterization to draw in the reader.

  4. I agree, Jim. I loved the spareness of the dialogue. It sounded real to me, the voices unique to each character. Kudos, writer.

    I, too, didn’t like the three locations, for the same reason you cited — we never felt grounded in any one place. I’d lose the classroom setting — it is the least compelling of the three and doesn’t add much, other than tell us she’s a teacher, and that’s not an important enough reason for the scene to exist, esp in the critical first graph. You can always use a classroom scene later, and hopefully find a more interesting reason for it to exist on the page.

    I was torn between opening with the hardware and the cemetery. While the hardware scene with the bad guy really powers the plot into a forward gear, I’m wondering if the cemetery visit might be needed to set up the exchange that comes? If this were my opening, I think I’d opt for a brief cemetery visit (BUT BEWARE of a scene that has the character thinking, remembering, musing, mourning too long. Ho-hum). Maybe the trick is to get into the cemetery scene very late, just as she is leaving? We would get a sense of the loss she feels, and the pain that kept her away from the graves for so long. To heighten the drama, perhaps on this cold gray day — maybe the anniversary of the murder? — this might be the first day she worked up her courage to visit? At least the cemetery visit would then add some weight toward the plot. And the awful irony of running into her parents’s murderer would be even more dramatic. Just a suggestion. 🙂

    As I said, I love spare writing. But this is a bit too spare, I think. Most the paragraphs are one sentence. That can get as wearing as long blocks of narrative. And because this writer is so good at clipped dialogue, I’d like to see some longer graphs of narrative and more description to change the cadence and provide contrast. This one-sentence form can begin to look affected. We begin to notice the writer’s style instead of what she/he is trying to say. Again, this is just one reader’s observation.

    I’d like a little more meat on these lovely bones, but I’d definitely read on.

    • I had the same problem, Kris. While spare writing is an effective tool, and a style I’m especially drawn to, too much has the opposite effect. This opener lacks rhythm and sentence variation.

      Love your suggestions!

  5. I agree there’s a lot to like here. The opening was pretty good, but I agree with Jim that the journey from school to cemetery to store just seems like a backstory dump. Start with her on the street going into Johnny’s, seeing Redmann.

    Nice exchange in the store! You could have her going to the cemetery afterward, and Johnny asking her if she’s *going* to see them today. She might buy some flowers which would reinforce that something happened on this day in history.

    Strong writing and with some tweaks it will be even better! Thanks for sharing.

  6. I may be hanging around more unruly second graders, but the children saying the same thing at the same time seemed very Stepford Child to me. I can see them saying “Good morning. Ms. Whoever” (Miss seems very dated) in unison, but after the bell it’s usually chaos.

  7. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. While I agree with Sue that it’s important to have a first line with staying power, I also understand that many writers use a basic first line for a work in progress. (Some writers fret so much over the first line that they never get anything else written.) After you finish writing your novel, you can come up with a brilliant opening line.

    There’s a lot to like about the clean, uncluttered writing style of this piece. However, I agree with JSB about choosing one location for the opening scene. The problem many writers face is the desire to let the reader know everything about a character at once, but it isn’t necessary. I like the advice that JSB gave about how to open your story. Very wise advice. It’s fine if the reader doesn’t know the character’s entire life story immediately. With each scene, you can reveal more and more about your character. If you want to let the reader know that your character is a school teacher, you don’t have to begin with the teacher leaving school. You can work that information into the dialogue at Johnny O’s. The Johnny O’s store has the potential to be a colorful setting. Consider beginning your story there.

    I love your crisp writing style. With that in mind, this line doesn’t fit:

    “A smile tugged at my mouth.”

    The “tugged at my mouth” makes me envision a battle. Don’t go overboard when describing small body movements and such.

    Best of luck, and keep writing.

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