Happy Memorial Day! I want to first share my appreciation for all those who have served to defend our freedom and then turn to today’s first page critique entitled Shadows of Leonardo. Although I’ve provided my comments following the submission, I need to rely on you TKZers to help generate some further discussion and comments as I am winging my way to Mumbai, India(!) No doubt this trip will generate future posts, but for now, enjoy this submission and see my feedback at the end.
Dosevski Railroad Station
For the first time in his life, he hated snow. He glared at the endless white expanse and spat over the edge of the train platform, the spittle hardening into ice as he scanned the hazy blue horizon for Russian tanks.
. Standing over six feet tall, Sturmbannführer Kurt Seitz turned his back to the razor wind that piled snow over stiff straw-filled boots. A convulsive shiver racked him and he hunched inside his greatcoat, recalling skiing holidays in Austria with his younger brother before the war. Dieter had been the better skier, but he was dead now, killed at Normandy.
At least he’d been spared Russia, Seitz thought.
The abandoned station cowered like a stranded orphan in ragged clothes, half the roof collapsed, ice daggers lining the eaves. The frozen boards beneath his boots were hard as prehistoric stone, and Seitz imagined shaggy creatures stirring in ice-lined caverns below the platform. A tattered train schedule in Cyrillic script flapped in the wind until he ripped it down and let the wind carry it away.
Why, he wondered, had some witless Ivan constructed a rail line and train station in the exact center of nowhere? The entire goddam country was an endless succession of mosquito-infested marshes and impenetrable forests, scattered villages populated by beings no better than the animals they kept inside during the interminable winters.
And snow. An endless, punishing sea of snow.
Gloved hands balled in his pockets, his boots squeaked on snow as he paced the platform, scowling at the featureless landscape as though a giant hand had flung tons of bakers’ flour over the earth. Around him, only scattered bomb craters broke the monotony, the pitted earth filled with more snow. An expert in pits, he’d ordered droves of frightened Jews, Gypsies and Russians to dig countless mass graves in their final moments. An art education in Heidelberg and Berlin had promised a refined life, but his professors’ lectures hadn’t included toleration of Jews and Untermensch, and after enlistment, he was assigned to an SS einsatzgruppengroup to sweep away Europe’s dregs.
He stamped his feet and turned his back to lit his last Russian cigarette. The tip of the cardboard tube flared, his lungs convulsing at the coarse tobacco. Russian cigarettes smelled like a Turkish outhouse, but he had to hand it to the Russians: the bastards produced tanks like a bitch birthing pups.
What really stood out for me with this first page was the voice – I immediately felt a sense of the protagonist’s character and, even though he wasn’t exactly likable, it provided a compelling introduction. What also stood out for me was the immediate sense of place and of the cold – although I am on the fence as to whether there’s too much description in this first page…I like it as is, but I can imagine that some of our TKZers would argue that more action or dialogue would help ramp up the tension in this first page. For me, I was willing to wait to find out exactly what the protagonist was doing in this desolate part of Russia (apart from waiting for Russian tanks to appear!).
As far as character goes, the only thing that didn’t quite ring true to me was the art education reference in his background – Initially this protagonist sounded more hardened than that (though war will do that!) – but I would certainly be willing to read on to see how that backstory all came together. Given the title of the book, I’m assuming the art part plays a major role in the plot of this book so Seitz’s backstory will be an important component. Other than this, and some minor typographical errors (I think you need an ‘and’ before ‘scattered villages’ – or something to make this sentence complete), I thought this was a strong, compelling beginning to a historical mystery or thriller. I would definitely read on! Bravo to our brave submitter and I look forward to seeing the feedback from some of our TKZers. Sorry in advance if I can’t contribute much to the discussion while I’m traveling.
Name your character when we first see him. I call it The Nameless He (or She) Syndrome. Nothing will make me close a book faster.
Shivers wrack, not rack.
You have a gift for description. I was right there in the cold. Now make something happen.
The year, 1945, doesn’t augur for an allied relationship between Germany and Russia, which they’d had at the beginning of WWII. I’m wondering why this Nazi military leader awaits Soviet tanks in the middle of nowhere seemingly alone.
And…I’ve a question. During WWII, was there a distinction between when to use Russia or the Soviet Union? Russia was a nation within the Soviet Union, though Russia was the biggest and it had the capital.
I like the mood and voice here, but agree there’s a bit too much description in spots. It slows it down. My only other comment is about the passage below. What it doesn’t tell us is IMO important–was he assigned to the SS because he AGREEs with the notion of killing Jews, etc. or was he just following orders when he made them dig their own graves. Is he a sympathizer or simply interested in self-preservation? It will make a big difference in how I view him right from the start. Overall nice first page, and several of the descriptive passages are very clever.
An art education in Heidelberg and Berlin had promised a refined life, but his professors’ lectures hadn’t included toleration of Jews and Untermensch, and after enlistment, he was assigned to an SS einsatzgruppengroup to sweep away Europe’s dregs.
Thank you, Brave Author, for letting us take a peek at your first page.
I don’t understand the italics in the second paragraph. It starts with a typo I believe (the period), then italics, a cut-n-paste error maybe.
Just nit-picking: A blue, winter sky in the dry, cold months in Russia would not be hazy. The horizon would be crisp and harsh, hard to look at with the sun’s rays ricocheting off the snow.
I like your descriptions. This is my favorite line: Gloved hands balled in his pockets, his boots squeaked on snow as he paced the platform.
I also like this description, but it seems out of place in your story. It hints at a creature-feature novel, not an art/war novel: The frozen boards beneath his boots were hard as prehistoric stone, and Seitz imagined shaggy creatures stirring in ice-lined caverns below the platform.
I think this phrase of backstory is all you need on the first page because first page real estate is so precious: An art education in Heidelberg and Berlin had promised a refined life.
I agree with Clare about your writing voice. It’s compelling. Keep writing!
Wishing you a safe and fascinating trip, Clare!
The voice and descriptions totally captured me with perfectly chosen specific details: spittle hardening into ice, straw-filled boots, the cardboard tube of a Russian cigarette, and Seitz’s grudging admiration for Russian tank production “like a bitch birthing pups.”
The Nazi hierarchy plundered artwork throughout Europe and squirreled it away for private collections, esp. Goring and von Ribbentrop. Set near the end of the war, I can see this story going in a direction of Monuments Men but perhaps from the German POV.
I’m all in. Brave Author, let us know when this is published!
I liked this as well. Good sense of place, which I always look for in my pleasure reading. And the man is interesting, with some nice hints of backstory dropped in. (dead brother, art background). I am willing to wait for the “something needs to happen” moment a little while, given the writing.
I’m okay with the description, but that’s my taste. Maybe we could call this “Seitz’s Sense of Snow.” 🙂
Two small things I’d suggest: Proof your copy for typos and mistakes and lose the colon after “He had to hand it to the Russians.” You are in intimate third POV and no one thinks in colons. (Save them, and and their ugly brother the semi-colon for academic papers). And I’d lose the tag line:
Dosevski Railroad Station
You do a great job of incorporating this info into the narrative by telling us where we are (Russia) and the time frame (WWII). It’s cold and snowy so we know it’s winter. Tag lines can be the sign of a writer not trusting her narrative chops. They can read “amateur.” But here the tag is not needed. If you want the name of the station in there, put it in his thoughts.
Good job. I’d read on.
Thanks everyone for your input on this first page! I’ve arrived in Mumbai and just completed a confronting trip to the largest slum area (Dharavi) with my family. I think we all now appreciate not only our own way of life but the tenacity of those born into such poverty. I’ll definitely have to do a post on this experience!
Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Like Clare, I’m curious about the title of the story. Here are my thoughts:
I agree with everything Cynthia said. Give the character’s name in the opening line.
Avoid abrupt shifts in psychic distance. You begin the story from a medium narrative distance: “For the first time in his life, he hated snow.”
Then you pull away with “Standing over six feet” (which sounds like “telling” after beginning from a closer narrative distance). Note: narrative distance is another term that means the same thing as psychic distance. Once you’re giving the reader the character’s thoughts, you shouldn’t jump to telling the reader how tall the character is.
Read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction for more information and exercises. There’s a PDF file online (https://teachingpwr.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/psychic-distance-handout-1.pdf) that explains Gardner’s thoughts. Briefly, here are some examples of varying degrees of psychic distance according to Gardner:
1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
3. Henry hated snowstorms.
4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul…
Notice the differences between each level of psychic distance.
So, if you want to make the reader feel more inside of a character’s head (more intimate), instead of writing:
“Why, he wondered, had some witless Ivan constructed a rail line and train station in the exact center of nowhere?”
“Why had some witless Ivan constructed a rail line…”
You don’t need the “he wondered” here.
Another example. You write:
“At least he’d been spared Russia, Seitz thought.”
Once you get into intimate point of view, you could write:
“At least he’d been spared Russia.”
Allowing the reader to get more inside of a character’s head helps the reader to live vicariously through the character. If you stop the inner thoughts and throw in a lot of backstory and description, it can pull the reader out of the fictive dream. Once you get inside the character’s head, try to stay there for awhile. You are a capable writer, and I think you will be able to do this without a problem. That being said, it’s often best to introduce a character with action and dialogue before showing the reader a character’s intimate thoughts.
You write well, but I think you could still be more stingy with the backstory on the first page.
Don’t overdo the metaphors on the first page.
For me, this seems too schmaltzy:
“…scowling at the featureless landscape as though a giant hand had flung tons of bakers’ flour over the earth.”
Other metaphors on the first page:
“like a stranded orphan in ragged clothes”
“like a Turkish outhouse”
“like a bitch birthing pups”
Use metaphors like a chef would use spice. A little goes a long way.
Literary agent Kristin Nelson advises writers to avoid openings with characters alone thinking. I concur. See her article: “All 9 Story Openings to Avoid In One Handy Post” (available online). Rather than giving a character’s inner thoughts and biographical bits on the first page, show the reader the character’s personality in action. Then sprinkle in the backstory. You can weave in the wonderful descriptive bits while something is happening on the page. Sure, some readers may be willing to wait, but there’s no reason to lose any readers. You’re a good writer. When you do your revisions, see if you can find a way to work the backstory and description into a scene where something colorful is happening. I’ll bet you can do it! JSB likes to say, “Act now. Explain later.” Very wise advice.
It’s getting late, brave writer, so I’ll stop here. Good job. Best of luck, and keep writing!
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