First Page Critique: Singularity Syndrome

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer has submitted their first page for critique. I’ll see you on the flipside. Enjoy!

Title:  Singularity Syndrome

It was just the kind of case I like. Someone was sipping data from Hurgle’s supposedly leakproof data cloud. Hurgle wasn’t an especially evil corporation—just average evil. So, I didn’t mind taking their coins to send sniffers loose in the data streams. I found the leak and plugged it for good with a worm that trashed the sneak thieves’ servers. They never knew what hit them, and my client and I never knew who they were. But that didn’t matter. They’d be back, or someone else would. The universe holds an infinite number of crackers.

It was 13:06 hours of work by my intelligent agents while me, the Parrot and Altima sat around the warehouse snacking on Chapul bars and fresh water.

Then she called. And reminded me what kind of case I really like.

The call came in on my public comms screen with full voice and video. A woman with long scarlet hair, glossy in the style of years ago. She was beautiful, with lines around her eyes that showed she liked to smile. But not smiling now. Of course not. She wouldn’t be calling me if she had anything to smile about.

“How can I help you?” I’m the Finder, that’s what I do, so it’s obvious. But it helps them to start from the beginning.

“I’m worried about my husband.”

“He’s missing?”

“No.”

“Then what?”

A small crease furrowed her lovely forehead. “His behavior has changed.”

“How so?”

“He’s lost focus.”

“Is he dangerous? Accident prone? I’m not clear why you’ve called me. Why not a psychiatrist?”

“We run a business together. A significant company. He’s got some strange ideas, and they’re impacting our business.”

“If this is some corporate drama, I’m not interested.”

“I know about you.”

“Then you know I don’t care about the corps.”

“Unless it interests you.”

“And why would it?”

“I think his brain has been hacked.”

Okay, she was right. That was interesting. “His brain has been hacked or you just don’t like the way he thinks?”

“I don’t like the way he thinks, but it’s more than that. He’s not thinking the way he used to.”

“People change.”

“Yes, they do.” She let the silence draw out and so did I. I could be silent much longer than most people.

* * *

Excellent first page, Anon! The writing is crisp, exciting, and has an engaging voice. The dialogue is punchy and quick, sounds natural and believable. The MC’s personality shines through. There’s a solid goal and conflict, and you’ve dropped us into the story at an ideal place and time. I liked this opener so much, I wanted to keep reading.

Even without you having to tell the reader, we can assume the MC is male. We also get a good sense of who he is—a highly skilled white hat who works for a government agency in a specialized field (my guess is a cyber-tracker). That’s a lot of information that you subtly infused into this first page without clobbering us over the head with backstory. Well done! His name would be nice, but I’m willing to wait. See what good writing does? It tells the reader we’re in capable hands. If I didn’t learn his name for another ten pages, I’d still be content to go for the ride. Try to slip it in earlier than that, though. 🙂

Let’s see if we can improve this first page even more.

It was just the kind of case I like[d] add the “d” to stay in past tense here. Someone was sipping data from Hurgle’s supposedly leakproof data cloud. Hurgle wasn’t an especially evil corporation—just [an] average evil. So, I didn’t mind taking their coins to send sniffers loose in the data streams. I found the leak and plugged it for good with a worm that trashed the sneak[y] thieves’ servers. They never knew what hit them, and my client and I never knew who they were. But that didn’t matter. They’d be back, or someone else would.

The universe holds an infinite number of crackers. I brought this line down for greater impact; also, because you’ve switched to present tense, which isn’t wrong, btw. In this context, the statement still holds true. 

It was 13:06 hours of work by my intelligent agents while me, the Parrot and Altima [the Parrot, Altima, and I] sat around the warehouse snacking on Chapul bars and fresh water. Use the pronoun “I” when the person speaking is doing the action, either alone or with someone else. Use the pronoun “Me” when the person is receiving the action, either directly or indirectly. — courtesy of Webster’s Ask the Editor

Then she called. And reminded me what kind of case I really like. This line is redundant. Instead, I’d rather see you tease the reader here. I don’t know where you’re going with the story, but perhaps you could add something like: The woman that rocked my world, and not necessarily in a good way.

The call came in on my public comms screen with full voice and video. A woman (if you decide to use something similar to my example above, then change this to [There she sat,] with long scarlet hair, glossy in the style of years ago. She was beautiful, with lines around her eyes that showed she liked to smile (how ‘bout using “laugh” instead of “smile” here to avoid repetition, since you use “smile” at the end of this paragraph?) But not smiling now. Of course not. Not now, of course. (one sentence is tighter than two 🙂 ) She wouldn’t be calling me if she had anything to smile about.

“How can I help you?” I’m the Finder, that’s what I do, so it’s obvious (last part is unnecessary). But it helps them to start from the beginning.

“I’m worried about my husband.”

“He’s missing?”

“No.”

“Then what?” (This seems out-of-character. He’s nice enough to let her “start from the beginning,” yet here he seems agitated. How ‘bout: “Then… I’m not sure why—”)

A small crease furrowed her lovely forehead (normally I’d ding you for “lovely” because it’s a non-visual word, but here, it works to show he’s enamored with the caller). “His behavior has changed.”

“How so?”

“He’s lost focus.”

“Is he dangerous? (why would losing focus automatically make him think “dangerous”? Don’t tell us; you’ll ruin the intrigue. Just give us a hint in the right direction.) Accident prone? I’m not clear why you’ve called me. Why not a psychiatrist?” (I would delete this last question. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it. It just feels… misplaced. *shrug*) 

“We run a business together. A significant company. He’s got some strange ideas, and they’re impacting our business.”

“If this is some corporate drama, I’m not interested.”

I’d love to see her stumble over her words. “It’s not. It’s just that— What I mean is, I know about you.” “I know about you.”

“Then you know I don’t care about the corps.”

“Unless it interests you.”

“Exactly. So, lay it on me. ’Cause as it stands now, I gotta tell ya, so far this sounds like a waste of valuable time and resources.” (I added to the dialogue to increase tension. Your MC is about to hang up when the caller drops a bomb i.e. brain hack) And why would it?”

“I think his brain has been hacked.”

Okay, she was right. That was interesting. (Is a brain hack something that happens every day in your story world? If not, he needs a bigger reaction. Even if it’s as simple as confusion: Whoa. Wait. Huh?) “His brain has been hacked or you just don’t like the way he thinks?”

Both I don’t like the way he thinks, but it’s more than that. He’s not thinking the way he used to.”

(Add a lame half-shrug or another body cue that shows indifference). “People change.”

“Yes, they do.” She let the silence draw out and so did I. I could be silent much longer than most people. (Delete the last line. It adds nothing. How ‘bout something snarky instead? “If she thought she could out-silence me, she obviously didn’t have the first clue about me.”)

All in all, you did a terrific job with this opener, Anon. I really enjoyed it. Be sure to let us know how things progress with your story. So far, I’m intrigued!

Over to you, my beloved TKZers. Would you keep reading? Please add your suggestions/comments of how you might improve this first page. Do you like the title? Why/why not?

 

 

7+

18 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Singularity Syndrome

  1. Sue, I’ve got a question about correcting grammatical errors in a character’s dialogue. Maybe that’s the way this MC talks. Or would you say it’s too early to hit the reader that that “character flaw”?

    It’s actually refreshing 🙂 to see a character misuse “me.” Many more people, having been warned against “John and me went swimming,” make the opposite error (just between you and I and the wall).

    I agree with you that this is a good first page. It’s an interesting, up-to-date twist on a standard P. I. trope. But because it’s such a standard trope, I’d almost prefer the story to begin differently–or to uniquely invert the trope.

    • In the past I went ’round and ’round with an editor on the issue of proper grammar in dialogue. I think it loses its authenticity when proper grammar is applied, especially if it’s not the way a character speaks. So for me, I would NOT correct grammar in a dialogue. In this first page the “me/I” issue occurred in the narrative, not dialogue. Excellent question, though, Eric! And thanks for your helpful suggestion. You make a great point.

    • I don’t have patience with slow beginnings, so I almost stopped reading but the brain hack got me.

      I would start with the phone call and minimal setup because nothing actually happens until the phone call. Ex: “It was a quiet day until Lavender Overton called.” (or whatever her name is). Names help anchor people and give the reader’s imagination something to play with.

      Definitely intrigued by the brain hack – that sounds like fun.

      • Funny how we all take away such different things from a read. I didn’t see this as a slow opener at all. The writer packs in a ton of info in a very engaging, lively way.

        I thought this submission was great. I love the voice. Just enough uniqueness to make this trope-y opening feel new again.

        • I didn’t find it slow, either. The voice was so engaging I zipped right through it with almost no hiccups.

          Thanks for your input, ladies! I’m sure Anon will appreciate it. 😀

      • I agree with Cynthia that it’s a good idea to name the characters, and that’s easy to do. While I was happy enough with the pacing of this submission, there’s no compelling reason to pile all of the technical data ahead of the scene. If a reader doesn’t understand what a packet sniffer or something is, (s)he might use it as a reason to stop reading. Why take the chance? I like the voice and the first person POV, but I’d use a scene to introduce the protagonist, not a summary of something that happened to the protagonist earlier. If the tech stuff is crucial to the story, I’d turn that part into a complete scene, rather than using summary.

  2. I liked this page. It strikes that good balance of introducing sf terms without overlarding them, and doing it all with a good dialogue scene.

    On the “me” issue, this is the voice of the first person narrator, which is essentially how he would talk in dialogue. But in this case the “me” with a comma after it stopped me cold. Only after a re-read did I figure out what was being communicated. I would thus suggest this alternative:

    … while me and the Parrot and Altima sat around the warehouse …

    Not grammatical, but certainly how a large segment of our young population speak now.

    • It stopped me, too, Jim, but I still wavered on whether to even mention it. Perhaps it depends on your editor. Mine has flagged it many times, even in 1st POV. If Brave Author is submitting to agents/publishers, I would hate for them to stop reading because of a grammatical error on the first page. That’s my 2c, anyway.

  3. I have a question for you, Sue.
    In regards to this comment: “Even without you having to tell the reader, we can assume the MC is male.” ?
    Purely out of curiosity, what made you believe the narrator is male?

    I’m curious because I write with strong female characters who don’t speak/think any differently than this character. It’s not that I’m trying to blur any lines; it’s just the way they are.
    So when I read this first page, I was still undecided on the narrator’s gender. Especially considering the cyberpunk/futuristic flair of the material.
    Has anyone here read Ready Player One? (Or seen the recent movie.) It has a character that triklcks the reader with his/her computer avatar.

    • His actions and the way he described the caller made me think male. Which, now that you mention it, is funny, because I gravitate toward strong female MCs, too. Kudos to the writer if I’m right. 😀

  4. Perhaps the cleaned up grammar would help me, but the beginning made me almost stop two paragraphs in. I am sorry Anon, but your start seems like it was lifted from something 20 or so years old. The difference between hackers and crackers was lost before Y2K. Hurgle sounds a lot like a massive search engine provider. Google has a small army of security people, and they are very good. They also have a VERY generous bounty program if you find a security flaw. They don’t hire out. I am not sure where the rest of your story goes, but if you are going to write a cyber thriller, I am going to suggest getting to know some Infosec professionals.

    Now brain hacking? I could read that.

  5. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I have to agree with Sue; there’s certainly much to like about your first page. It’s refreshing to see a page with a clear POV and an engaging voice. For the most part, the dialogue was snappy. There are some issues that need to be addressed (as always). So, here are my comments (which together with fifty cents might buy you a cup of coffee):

    Title

    Singularity Syndrome is a mouthful. I like the word syndrome in the title, but singularity has a lot of syllables. You might consider choosing a first word that has fewer syllables.

    Beginning in the Right Place

    Brave writer, here is your lead:

    “The call came in on my public comms screen with full voice and video.”
    (I’d consolidate the other sentences in this paragraph, though.)

    The stuff that comes ahead of this paragraph is fstuff that’s already happened that isn’t needed for the current scene. Stay in one scene. Show your protagonist in action. Don’t tell us about what he’s done at another time. Begin with the here and now of the story. Fill in the backstory later. There’s a good article online entitled How to start a novel in first person: 8 pointers. One of the pointers is to begin with your character in action. This is always a good idea, rather than having a character regurgitate information about something that happened earlier.

    Technical Jargon in the Opening

    Since my degrees are in mathematics and computer science, I know what you mean by packet sniffers, worms, and the like. However, not everyone will, and I don’t think you want to turn people who aren’t technical away from your story at the start. Also, as someone mentioned, it’s important to make sure all of your terminology is correct and up-to-date. These days, writers need a good understanding of blockchain technology and cryptocurrency (https://blockchain.wtf/what-the-faq/blockchain-cryptocurrency-difference/), for example.

    In any case, if this kind of technical information is crucial to your story, I’d introduce it later. Remember that most of your readers won’t be computer scientists, though; so, use technical terms and information sparingly, and be sure to have a techie review everything for you.

    Overwriting

    Consolidate where you can. For example:

    “Okay, she was right. That was interesting.”

    You don’t lose any meaning if you simply say:

    “Okay, that was interesting.”

    This may seem like a small detail, but if you have twenty extra words on each page, for example, that turns out to be a lot of excess words if you’re writing a 400-page book. I recommend going through the whole first page and tightening up the writing wherever possible. See how many words you can eliminate with losing meaning (and style). You don’t want to eliminate words if they are there for a purpose (to show the personality of the protagonist). However, if a protagonist is too verbose, it can be tedious for the reader. Writers have to try to strike a good balance.

    Grammar/Clarity

    I’d rewrite this sentence in order to make it clearer:

    “It was 13:06 hours of work by my intelligent agents while me, the Parrot and Altima sat around the warehouse snacking on Chapul bars and fresh water.”

    Also, correct the tense of this line (if you keep it as your first line, and I wouldn’t):

    “It was just the kind of case I like.”

    You want to use liked here if you keep the line.

    Get a good editor to find this kind of stuff for you.

    Overall Impression

    Nice job. The brain hacking stuff intrigues me. I’m happy that you chose to write in first person. Best of luck, and keep writing.

  6. Oops. Spotted a few typos, and I just can’t help myself:

    fstuff = stuff

    and

    with losing = without losing

    Sorry, friend. Hope this helps.

  7. Enjoyed content and style.
    I was unsure if man or woman…initial impression was woman though unsure why.
    Would suggest you not feel compelled to make all the changes suggested. Options worth considering but in most instances I liked your original words best.
    Very strong start imo. I’d keep reading.

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