Happy Monday! Today’s first page review is for a novel entitled A Goan Holiday – which seems appropriate since I just got back from India (although, sadly, I’ve never visited Goa). My comments follow and I look forward to feedback from our great TKZ community. Read on!
A Goan Holiday
For the leftover hippies sunbathing nude on the beaches of Goa, drug-induced illusions were often indistinguishable from the breath-taking reality of the moss-covered cliffs and the bright blue sea. Back in the ’sixties, Vagator was one such beach few knew of until a forty-year-old American tourist with only eight fingers trudged down the mud track to the nearby village, starting a hippie stampede to the settlement. The disgruntled children of the West left the residents puzzled by adopting the matted hair, the rancid clothes, and the broken sandals of the homeless, seeking enlightenment in LSD and heroin, but there was one enterprising fellow who saw in the new arrivals a chance to make an easy buck.
Gossip had it his ramshackle shed at the far end of the beach was the designated cop-free zone where the hippies rented cots to crash at night. To the surprise of no one who knew him, the owner of the establishment disappeared one day, only to resurface the next week as the corpse found in a fishing boat adrift a few miles from the shore.
Half a century later, the shed’s owner was forgotten. Rich, young locals and backpackers from around the world still partied to trance music on the moonlit beaches of the former Portuguese colony on India’s west coast, the pungent smoke from industrial-sized rolls of charas, the home-grown weed, swirling all around. White surf frothed over rocks, tickling the feet of the stoned couples as they groped their companions for the night and made promises which wouldn’t last past daybreak.
The shed itself morphed into a hip café which served delicious seafood and fine wines for exorbitant prices. It was where the rich and the famous were frequently caught in carefully choreographed candid pictures. At least, that’s what the kaamwaali bai—the maid—employed at the Joshi vacation home a few miles away claimed. The woman showed up at her leisure and barely did any work if she could help it but always carried news of the movie stars spotted in the seaside village where her cousin lived.
None of the celebs seemed to have ventured outside this lousy night. Lucky for them, thought Anjali Joshi, skirting the group of tourists dancing to ear-splitting music on the beach despite the ominous dark clouds rolling across the half-moon. Each screech from the synthesiser thrummed across her skull. Even her eyeballs were vibrating.
To be honest, this first page reads more like a travelogue at first than the start of a novel.
In my opinion it suffers from way too much data dumping about the history and clientele of the beaches of Goa and also from a lack of immediacy. Everything in this first page feels distant and third-hand to me – whereas I really wanted to be sucked into the drug scene at the beach and the ear-splitting music at the bar. I wanted to be introduced to a main character I could care about. I I wanted an inciting incident that would draw me into the story. Instead, I wasn’t sure who the book was really going to be about: Was it the forty-year-old American tourist with only eight fingers who started the hippie stampede to the settlement? Was it the enterprising fellow who saw a chance to make an easy buck and whose corpse showed up adrift a few miles from the shore? Was the maid who showed up at her leisure and barely did any work relevant to the story at all? Is Anjali Joshi who shows up in the final paragraph actually the protagonist? All of these characters have great potential but they are placed scattershot on this first page with no hint as to their relevance or importance to the story.
In this first page, nothing about the actual story is really clear and until the reader gets a handle on the story itself, the description and background to the drug culture in Goa doesn’t resonate (and, though I liked some of the detail and descriptions, most of this information could be inserted into the first chapter in discrete chunks rather than all at once).
So my main recommendation to our brave submitter is to start again – start the novel where the story really begins. Let us walk along the beach with Anjali Joshi and feel the music (I liked the image of her eyeballs vibrating BTW). Let us be drawn into the drama of an actual scene. Who is she? Why is she there? What incident is going to propel this story forward? Is it the discovery of a celebrity’s corpse? What dark events do the the ominous dark clouds suggest? Once we get these answers on the page, then, as readers, we will want to turn the page and care about the novel and its characters moving forward. Until then, this first page reads more like an interesting catalogue of the drug and hippie culture of the Goan beaches rather than the beginning of a novel.
TKZers, what advice would you provide to our brave submitter. How would you tackle the issues I’ve outlined?
Brave Author, there is a lot to like about this submission. You take the reader on a journey to an unusual, exotic setting and stimulate all the senses, including smell and taste. The history of the beach offers intriguing hints for story threads. Your descriptions are vivid and specific. Your writing is terrific.
But…as Clare points out, this does read like a travelogue. I’m interested b/c you do it well but the omniscient narrator keeps me at arm’s length when you want to grab me by the throat and pull me into the story.
Save this wonderful first page but dribble the background in later, perhaps in dialogue between Anjali and the maid who doesn’t work but knows everything.
Put the reader inside Anjali’s head as she walks on the beach and have her figuratively trip over a small ticking bomb that will kick the story into action right away.
Brave Author, thanks for sharing this–I want to see more.
Debbie – I agree, I’d definitely want to read more once the story pulls me in. There’s some great imagery and descriptions here that are used to paint the scene.
As a word of encouragement to the writer, I will say that, unlike many first pages, this person writes succinctly, with great evocative imagery. I agree with everything you said, Clare, but did want to emphasize there is talent here, it just needs pointed in the right direction. I was intrigued by the setting, which is totally unfamiliar with me and seemed to offer so many creative possibilities.
Maggie – great point and I hope my comments weren’t too negative. I do want to encourage our brave submitter to keep going and agree there’s lots of talent here and the setting is intriguing as well as evocative.
Clare nailed it. This is a beautifully written travelogue. There is a single sentence of action and it is in the past. You have a mastery of language. I see the beach and the party. Now, tell me a story I want to read.
Dead-on analysis, Clare. I agree that the story should start with Anjali passing the partiers and their ear-splitting music. There’s plenty of time to work in the background details. And the author has a brilliant eye for detail.
Sometimes we writers fall in love with narrow focus and bountiful detail. Because we get good at it, and the prose is good, it becomes a kind of beautiful, useful crutch.
Is Anjali actually the main character? It’s hard to tell. If so, I’d like a slightly more encouraging description. A rather lazy gossip in a story is a terrific device, and would be a unique protagonist!
Go forth, Brave Author, and get to the action. You’ve already got the necessary chops.
Good point Laura about author’s falling in love with detail – of which there’s plenty in this piece. These can all still be there, just parsed out around the action:)
“None of the celebs seemed to have ventured outside this lousy night. Lucky for them, thought Anjali Joshi.”
Why are the celebs lucky to be indoors? What is Anjali doing outside if it’s not safe? Is she going to do something drastic against them, or is she preparing to save everyone?
That’s the heart of the what-if here. But it’s buried, lost in long sentences filled with description and history. Will it ever matter to the conflict in this story that an eight-fingered American discovered Vagator beach for the celeb crowd? How crucial is the enterprising fellow who meets his death within two paragraphs’ space to the resolution of Anjali’s situation?
The descriptions of the beach and hippies are crystal clear. I could almost smell the hippies and their weed.
Brave Writer, I don’t know if you’re writing literary or genre fiction. There’s nothing here to show me for sure. But based on the length of your sentences, I’d guess it’s literary. There are only four sentences of less than twenty words. The rest vary between twenty-seven to fifty words each. The longer the sentence, the more the story slows. And here, the story begins with a lazy-feeling twenty-nine, thirty-seven, and then fifty words. Your beautiful descriptive phrases lose nothing by making the sentences shorter and more immediate.
As others have said, so far it reads like a travelogue. Be braver still, and move your protagonist to the beginning of this story. Grab the reader with some action or event. Once things start happening, sprinkle in the back story when the reader needs to know.
You have a lovely ability to engage the senses with your prose, Brave Writer. I would read more of this, just to revel in your lush descriptions of people and place.
Great point about sentence length as it can put many people of reading – varying sentence length and mixing up dialogue, description and action is what will keep a reader engaged. I agree that this writer has a keen eye for description and evokes all the senses in his/her prose.
I agree with Clare and the other comments. Brave Writer, you’re setting a scene, not telling a story. And there’s way too much backstory about the area for the reader to absorb. Sprinkle some of this beautiful imagery over time, little bits here and there, but only include what’s necessary to tell the story. The writer might need to know the location intimately, but the reader doesn’t. Unless it relates to the plot in some way.
If you decide to take Clare’s excellent advice, focus on choosing your point of view character. Who has the most to lose in this story? Keep in mind your protagonist needs a goal on the first page. Then pile on obstacles, conflict … things standing in the way of her reaching said goal. View the story world through only her eyes as she works toward to her goal. In other words, she must be active. When you have an active protagonist, you’ll be less likely to concentrate on the history of the locale, unless certain elements are important to move the plot forward.
Thank you for sharing your work with us, Brave Writer. I hope you’ll resubmit in the future.
Great advice here Sue – an active protagonist is vital and those obstacles will add dramatic tension to keep the reader turning the page.
The most concise advice I’ve read on opening pages comes from Ray Rhamey. It’s on his website everyday. Here is a copy, I hope prospective writers will find it useful:
1. It begins to engage the reader with the character
2. Something is wrong/goes wrong or challenges the character
3. The character desires something.
4. The character takes action. Can be internal or external action: thoughts, deeds, emotions. This does NOT include musing about whatever.
5. There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
6. It happens in the NOW of the story.
7. Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
8. Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
9. The one thing it must do: raise a story question.