First Page Critique – Counting Mountains

Credit: Joshua Fuller, Unsplash

Good morning, TKZers, and let’s welcome the brave Anonymous Author of Counting Mountains. Please enjoy this first page submission then we’ll open the discussion.

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Title- Counting Mountains

My name is Tessa Stynes, and I was witness to and involved in all the horrible things you’ve heard about the Australian Massacre in London. My name used to be associated with my family, my university, my friends, and if I’m being optimistic, maybe my photography, or my smile.People used to tell me I had a nice smile.

Now, and I think for a long time to come, my name will have a very different association in thousands of people’s minds. People think of my name and they think of murder, fear, and death. This is hatefully unwanted- but not necessarily unwarranted. I didn’t touch the Ripper’s knife, but it knew me, hunted me, found me.

I can tell you how I almost died, how parts of me most certainly did.

If I want to dig at the wounds and baby scars that tear open so easily, I can tell you how I was responsible for people dying. I dig a lot, trying to figure out which parts of me are gone forever, which parts I can resurrect with time, and which wounds deserve to lay open, festering. Even though it hurts, it’s cathartic, like pulling six-foot weeds out of the ground, or trying to reconstruct a broken clock.

I’m attempting to build my story – and the Ripper’s – from the ground up, pulling strands and dark clumps out of my head that are hiding and digging themselves in; picking out the broken parts, so that I can hope to build something new and shiny out of the rot.

Someone once said to me; there are mountains in everyone’s path. They are all different shapes and sizes, but they are all mountains, and they are all difficult to breach.

Right now, I’m counting mountains. Some I conquer, and some sit in front of me, daunting and ice covered, just like that winter.

In the beginning of our story, it was cold. I remember the cold being a constant reminder of how far I was from home. We were in the winter of 2010, the coldest winter on English record and in anyone’s memory. The feeling of cold in England seemed worse than the cold I had felt in actual cold countries like Norway, Estonia, or Finland. The cold I felt that winter in England was harsh and bone deep, like a blow I wasn’t expecting.

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Brave Author, I found a lot to like about this first page. It doesn’t start with action or in media res. It opens with the character alone thinking—a technique that we at TKZ often caution against. However, the voice is strong and the situation is compelling, making me want to know more.

In other words, even though you take a risk by ignoring conventional wisdom, your technique works. Well done.

Why does it work? I believe it’s because of the theme.

Tessa Stynes has been the victim of “the Ripper.” She also feels responsible for other deaths evidently caused by this serial killer. She survived where others didn’t. Her name is linked to horrific crimes—she is doomed to a haunted life of guilt by association.

The theme of guilt by association works because it’s a universal plight. Most people have suffered injustice where their proximity to a person, group, or incident taints their  reputation. There’s an immediate bond between the reader and a character who reminds us of the unfair shunning we’ve experienced ourselves.

Further, the Author has set high stakes. Tessa is not the victim of everyday petty injustice. The stakes of her suffering are life and death. Others have died in a “massacre.” Although this story is being told about events that already occurred, there is a suggestion Tessa herself might die in the future from repercussions of the tragedy.

James Scott Bell talks about death stakes that can be physical, professional, or psychological.

Tessa states: I can tell you how I almost died, how parts of me most certainly did.

She has faced all three forms of death that Jim describes. First, she almost died from knife wounds (physical). Second, she apparently once had a good name as a photographer that’s now tarnished (professional). Third, her musings show an ongoing emotional struggle that prevent her from living a normal life (psychological).

The Brave Author takes another chance by addressing the reader directly. In theatre or film, this is called breaking the fourth wall when a character speaks to the audience.

This technique momentarily disrupts the fictive dream the author wants to create, which can have negative results if the reader is pulled out of the story.

However, it can also promote the sense that the author is sharing an intimate secret with the reader. This character who witnessed terrible crimes is willing to reveal knowledge no one else has. The reader wants to learn the inside truth of what really happened.

For those reasons, I believe breaking the fourth wall works here. 

The setting is London in winter of 2010. Tessa is evidently a visitor to England, a stranger in a cold, forbidding land. The mood is chilling, physically as well as emotionally. Nice job of making the setting and weather reflect the plot.

Now to the aspects that tripped me up:

The Australian Massacre in London is treated like a news event that everyone’s heard about. I googled it and didn’t find a corresponding real-life occurrence. Not a problem but it momentarily sidetracked me.

By using “the Ripper,” readers have certain automatic, ingrained reactions to Jack the Ripper, who killed victims during the 1880s. That reference started me down a historical path. However, you then say the story begins in 2010, leading to other questions: Will this be a time-travel fantasy? Or is there a new Ripper in contemporary London?

These are not necessarily problems but merely things to consider as you draw readers into the story. You want to be mindful not to lead them off onto false trails.

You write strong, active sentences but the order in which you present them could be rearranged for more dramatic effect. What do you think of this:

People used to tell me I had a nice smile.

My name used to be associated with my smile, my family, my university, my friends, and my photography.

Now, and I think for a long time to come, my name will have a very different association in the minds of thousands of people. People think of my name and they think of murder, fear, and death. This is hatefully unwanted—but not necessarily unwarranted. I didn’t touch the Ripper’s knife, but it knew me, hunted me, found me.

I can tell you how I almost died, how parts of me most certainly did.

My name is Tessa Stynes, and I was witness to and involved in all the horrible things you’ve heard about the Australian Massacre in London in 2010.

If I want to dig at the wounds and baby scars that tear open so easily, I can tell you how I was responsible for people dying. I dig a lot, trying to figure out which parts of me are gone forever, which parts I can resurrect with time, and which wounds deserve to lay open, festering.

Next, you go into a mashup of similes and metaphors about pulling weeds, repairing a broken clock, strands of hair, clumps, digging, shiny objects, and mountains. Because these figures of speech are not obviously related to each other, they got distracting. Suggest you stick with the mountain motif, since that’s your title, and delete the rest of the debris.

Regarding semicolons: I fall into the camp of never in fiction. If you do use them, use them correctly.

Delete the semicolon in: Someone once said to me; there are mountains in everyone’s path.

The sentence could be rewritten in two ways:

1. Someone once said to me: there are mountains in everyone’s path.

2. Someone once said to me there are mountains in everyone’s path.

The second option (without punctuation) is my preference since it’s not a direct quote.

The following is a nice segue from Tessa’s thoughts into the story:

Right now, I’m counting mountains. Some I conquer, and some sit in front of me, daunting and ice covered, just like that winter.

In the paragraph that follows, you use a variation of cold seven times. Even if you intentionally repeated the word for effect, it wore thin.

The line like a blow I wasn’t expecting didn’t work for me because blow is a sudden, abrupt action whereas bone-deep cold creeps in more gradually, like gangrene.

There is additional repetition and overwriting in that paragraph you might condense. How about this:

The winter of 2010 was the coldest season on English record and in anyone’s memory. I remember the harsh, bone-deep chill that felt worse than the cold I’d experienced in actual frigid countries like Norway, Estonia, or Finland. The cold was a constant reminder of how far I was from home.

Brave Author, you took risks with this opener and they paid off. Your voice, theme, and premise are all compelling and make me want to read more. Good job!

 

How about you, TKZers?

Did this opening draw you in?

What suggestions do you have for our Brave Author?

 

 

 

Debbie Burke’s award-winning thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale for 99 cents from July 7-14. Here’s the link.

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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

18 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Counting Mountains

  1. Thank you, Brave Author, for letting us take a peek at your first page.

    This is my favorite line: “Even though it hurts, it’s cathartic, like pulling six-foot weeds out of the ground . . ..” That’s SUCH a perfect comparison.

    As I was reading, I kept thinking, this is a nice turn of phrase, that’s a great paragraph, or that’s a brave thing to do (like breaking the fourth wall), but as a whole, the opening didn’t work for me. I thought it’d read better if you cut some sentences, but I couldn’t decide what should be cut.

    Debbie, of course, came up with the perfect solution (her whole critique is fab): rearrange things. And those wonderful metaphors and similes that don’t belong on the first page, like the six-foot weed? Save them for somewhere else in the book.

    The one sentence with which I truly had a problem, and it may be just me, was the Australian massacre in London sentence. I had to read it three times to understand it.

    Overall, I love the voice, and I would turn the page for more. Good luck on your continued writing journey, Brave Author!

    • Thanks, Priscilla!

      The Australian massacre in London stopped me, too. The author addresses the reader, referring to “all the horrible things you’ve heard about…”

      The confusion lies in the fact that we *haven’t* heard about it and feel as if we missed something important.

      Brave Author should be encouraged by your comments. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I agree with Debbie’s critique wholeheartedly. I don’t usually say that, especially when rewriting the author’s words is involved, but I think she hit this one on the head perfectly.

    I was drawn in by the stakes and the despair that Tessa obviously feels. I can relate to it, and unfortunately I think a lot of young people can these days. The name of my town used to be a unheard of even by the towns surrounding us, if known at all it was for the creamery or the insane asylum. since December 2012, I can’t give my address without flinching.

    But after the “died” sentence, you lose me brave author. I skimmed through the rest of the page, and when the story actually started with “it was cold” I was not interested.

    If you delete most of the similes between there, and stick with one, I think it would be a lot stronger. And the way Debbie rearranged your other sentences really work, too.

    • Thanks, AZAli!

      Sadly, many towns, schools, buildings, etc. have been made notorious by violence. I’m sorry you have that sad association with your home. We can only hope the terrible memory will lessen with time.

    • AZAli,

      It will get a little better, most of the time. I used to work in Ferguson, MO. Maybe you have heard of it?

  3. The suggestions in Debbie’s critique trim away the distractions and move the reader into Tessa’s pain right away. The only other area of change I would offer would be in the last paragraph. Two things there dropped me out of the story. The first was when I read: “In the beginning of our story, it was cold.” It wasn’t the statement about the weather that threw me, but the “our story.” I was just getting into Tessa’s skin, and then it’s become a shared story? Except that it’s not. It’s Tessa’s story. I’ll only ever be able to know what Tessa experienced through her retelling of the tragedy. The second point is that all stories have a beginning, and most start there. So it feels unnecessary to state that.

    I feel the last paragraph would keep the reader engaged if tightened and by eliminating repetition of the word “cold.” Here’s another suggestion for how to rewrite it:

    The winter of 2012 was the coldest on English record or in anyone’s memory. It was worse than what I’d experienced in countries known for their frigid climates, like Norway, Estonia, or Finland. That year it was harsh and bone-deep, sucking every vestige of heat away, a constant reminder that I was far from home.

    You’ve given Tessa a distinct voice, and I’d want to hear her story, Brave Writer.

    • Good suggestions, Suzanne.

      I agree with your take on: “In the beginning of our story.” That’s why breaking the fourth wall is tricky. The author can intrigue the reader by offering to share secrets known only to Tessa but it’s also a risk that can distance the reader instead of drawing him/her in.

  4. Take Debbie’s review to heart, although, for me, a clean sheet of paper would be a better start.(blank screen?)

    I too looked up the “Australian Massacre in London” only to find nothing. Sadly given today’s climate, there are so many places with some kind of tragedy, that ‘the awful events’ or something similar would be better, especially in an opening paragraph.

    Likewise, “The Ripper”. There is a crowded field of Jack the Ripper stories set almost anywhere in the last 130 years. If you are not time travelling or doing a period piece, I would leave it out. The “Finsbury Park Slasher” is not going to take anyone to a time machine or the 1880’s.

    The big question, would I flip to page two? Not as it stands now.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Alan. Inadvertently sending the reader off on rabbit trails is not a good way to start a story. But I think those problems are easily fixable.

  5. I really liked the fact the character was speaking directly to me.

    My favorite line says so much – This is hatefully unwanted- but not necessarily unwarranted.

    The massacre rattled me too. It needs to be fixed somehow. Maybe move the story to the future so it is an event that just hasn’t happened yet or make Australia a fictional country if it doesn’t change the story.

    I think it would be so cool if Jack the Ripper was the same Jack the Ripper, it could explain so much.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Michelle.

      If the Ripper is indeed the original one, that sends the story in a supernatural direction, for sure. The Brave Author would need a fresh approach to a trope that has been used often.

  6. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. You’ve gotten some interesting comments from Debbie and the others. Here are some additional comments:

    Overwriting

    I found that most of your sentences, beginning with the first one, could be trimmed without losing any meaning. Be concise. Extra words detract from your writing. Here’s one example:

    “Now, and I think for a long time to come, my name will have a very different association in thousands of people’s minds.”

    This sentence, if needed at all, could be written much more simply:

    “Now my name will have a much different association.”

    The first page is not the place to ramble.

    Opening Line

    This line needs to be your opening line:

    “I didn’t touch the Ripper’s knife, but it knew me, hunted me, found me.”

    BAM. This line pulls the reader into the story immediately. Then get to the drama!

    Best of luck, and keep writing!

    • Joanne, “I didn’t touch the Ripper’s knife” would be a great first line. Good call.

      My only concern is the Ripper reference might send readers in the wrong direction. From only one page, we don’t know. Maybe the Brave Author will speak up and give us a hint.

    • The change in the overwrite is more concise, but it doesn’t say the same thing. In the original the character has hope that one day people’s memories might fade, in the rewrite there is no hope.

      • I wasn’t suggesting that the author use that particular rewrite, only that the page needs editing. Even if the intent of the author is as you suggest, the sentence can still be trimmed. The words I think can be changed to perhaps. The “in thousands of people’s minds” can be eliminated.

        Repetition is another form of overwriting. How many times does the word “cold” appear in the excerpt below?

        “In the beginning of our story, it was cold. I remember the cold being a constant reminder of how far I was from home. We were in the winter of 2010, the coldest winter on English record and in anyone’s memory. The feeling of cold in England seemed worse than the cold I had felt in actual cold countries like Norway, Estonia, or Finland. The cold I felt that winter in England was harsh and bone deep, like a blow I wasn’t expecting.”

        Also, look at this sentence:

        “We were in the winter of 2010, the coldest winter on English record and in anyone’s memory.”

        The “in anyone’s memory” really isn’t necessary and just adds to the rambling tone.

        Another example:

        “If I want to dig at the wounds and baby scars that tear open so easily, I can tell you how I was responsible for people dying.”

        This sentence rambles, and words could be eliminated from it without losing any meaning. I could say the same thing for many other sentence in this piece.

        So the overwriting comment was meant as a general criticism, rather that to pick nits with one particular sentence. I think it would be wise for the author to use a good editor. Sometimes less is more, and that’s the point I was trying to make.

        I’d like to see this author start with a bold sentence, like the one I mentioned, and then get to the action.

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