First Page Critique: Neander: A Time Travel Adventure

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Greetings, fellow readers! It’s time for a peek at some work from one of our brave authors. Please read my comments, then add your own.

Neander: A Time Travel Adventure

I didn’t like caves.

Fears of getting stuck had often swamped my dreams. To find myself now working in one—and fighting off the panic sweats—was certainly ironic. But that’s where the best archeological evidence tended to be. I’d learned to live with it.

After rechecking the photo equipment and my to-do list again, I headed back to the entrance. Time to breathe. And call Carolyn.

I rested against the rim of Meredith’s Cave, pulled out my phone, and took in the sight of the whole Mediterranean spread out in front of me. The late morning sun danced and sparkled on the surface of the sea that surrounded Gibraltar. Gulls squawked and wheeled overhead hoping for a handout.

I spotted the whale-watching boat in the distance and pressed Carolyn’s face icon on the phone. She picked up on the second ring.

“Hey, future Dad,” she said.

“Is it great out there?” I asked, hoping—wishing—she wasn’t too upset about my sending her off on another excursion by herself. This was supposed to be a fun, together-trip to southern Spain. She was nearing the seven-month mark of her pregnancy, and this was her last opportunity to travel for a while.

“It’s amazing. We’ve already seen two pilot whales and a pod of dolphins. And Africa’s right there. I can almost touch it!”

Good. She sounded happy.

“How’s it going in the cave?” she asked.

“Fine,” I lied. “They’ve worked down another centimeter.”

The reality was, the tension was thick. And that was apart from the claustrophobia.

My assignment was to document the excavation’s progress for Science Alive, but my pushing to get it right with the lighting and the camera angles was annoying everyone. I knew that. But what were a few more minutes of attention to detail with a Neanderthal fossil that had been in the ground for tens of thousands of years?

I reached into my pants pocket and fingered the small, velvet ring box. I would propose to my beautifully pregnant Carolyn at dinner tonight. A thought that made me both nervous and excited.

I wanted this family so much.

“You’re not being too anal with them, are you?” she asked.

“Who me?” She was one of the few who understood my need for order, for perfection.

“Oh, there’s another whale! Gotta go.” The phone beeped and the call was gone.

Till tonight, I mouthed.

_____________________

Here we go:

I didn’t like caves.

Does this excerpt make you feel uncomfortable right off the bat? The opening line sets the tone: Our narrator is facing both mental and physical danger.

Good job, Brave Author. First lines are important.

A  possible red flag I can see is the use of past tense, which is important because we already know this will be a “time travel” story. It’s apparent that the narrator survives—at least in some place and time—to tell their story about the cave. You’ve missed an opportunity to create immediate suspense in the mind of the reader.

Fears of getting stuck had often swamped my dreams. To find myself now working in one—and fighting off the panic sweats—was certainly ironic. But that’s where the best archeological evidence tended to be. I’d learned to live with it.

This is a very calm, cool, expository explanation of the narrator’s intense reaction to a situation that certainly feels dangerous and untenable. So let’s have some true immediacy. Instead, let us feel his (I assume) hand shaking as he rechecks the photographic equipment, and his short, panicked breath, as he quickly heads outside to collapse against the entrance. Then you can note the irony of the situation, and have him be grateful for the calm of the sea.

“How’s it going in the cave?” she asked.

“Fine,” I lied. “They’ve worked down another centimeter.”

The reality was, the tension was thick. And that was apart from the claustrophobia.

I spotted the whale-watching boat in the distance and pressed Carolyn’s face icon on the phone. She picked up on the second ring.

“Hey, future Dad,” she said.

Should Carolyn’s whale watching boat be conveniently in the near distance? It feels coincidental. Does Carolyn have a satellite phone? Maybe I don’t know enough about these things, but such an easy cell connection seems unlikely. And “Hey, future Dad.” is confusing, as we 1) don’t yet know she’s pregnant, and 2) the time travel idea intrudes but isn’t clear.

“Is it great out there?” I asked, hoping—wishing—she wasn’t too upset about my sending her off on another excursion by herself. This was supposed to be a fun, together-trip to southern Spain. She was nearing the seven-month mark of her pregnancy, and this was her last opportunity to travel for a while.

“It’s amazing. We’ve already seen two pilot whales and a pod of dolphins. And Africa’s right there. I can almost touch it!” 

Good. She sounded happy.

This section is a well-timed mix of exposition and current action. We get a good view of Carolyn’s compassionate personality, and her state of pregnancy. The narrator sounds slightly less stiff.

“How’s it going in the cave?” she asked.

“Fine,” I lied. “They’ve worked down another centimeter.

The reality was, the tension was thick. And that was apart from the claustrophobia. 

This works. It would be a good place to add a detail about who else is down there contributing to the claustrophobic atmosphere. And be more specific about the narrator’s physical reaction to the claustrophobia. Let him own it, and continue on about how his need for order conflicts with the physical situation.

My assignment was to document the excavation’s progress for Science Alive, but my pushing to get it right with the lighting and the camera angles was annoying everyone. I knew that. But what were a few more minutes of attention to detail with a Neanderthal fossil that had been in the ground for tens of thousands of years?

See above. Let the emphasis here be on the assignment and the surprising discovery.

I reached into my pants pocket and fingered the small, velvet ring box. I would propose to my beautifully pregnant Carolyn at dinner tonight. A thought that made me both nervous and excited. 

I wanted this family so much.

“You’re not being too anal with them, are you?” she asked.

“Who me?” She was one of the few who understood my need for order, for perfection.

“Oh, there’s another whale! Gotta go.” The phone beeped and the call was gone.

Till tonight, I mouthed.

The proposal makes a really nice contrast to the tension and claustrophobia. Make sure to highlight the change in the narrator’s mood and feelings when he thinks about the proposal.

The “Till tonight,” I mouthed, is extremely awkward. Just have him say it to the empty phone line. The mouthing mention comes off as unnecessarily ominous.

Think about some alternate titles. Perhaps some TKZers will have ideas. This one has a pulp feel that the story doesn’t reflect.

Overall the action of this selection is fine. Always strive to make the story more visceral and immediate. You’ll connect better with your readers.

TKZers! Please share your thoughts with us. And Happy Almost Thanksgiving!

 

 

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

8 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Neander: A Time Travel Adventure

  1. Good. She sounded happy.

    And therein lies the problem (for me). This is what I call a “Happy People in Happy Land” opening. Everything is lovely. The sun dances and sparkles. There’s whales and dolphins. These two people love each other.

    But the problem with HPiHL openings is that we don’t really bond with, or care about, nice people being nice. What makes us care about and bond with a character is a disturbance to their Happy Land.

    This, it seems to me, is the missed opportunity here. The author TELLS us there is tension, TELLS us there is claustrophobia. SHOW us (as Laura suggests) only why not start with the guy IN the cave, fighting for his equilibrium, the elements, others on the team?

    Then, when he gets out and makes the call…start an argument!

    Be mean to your characters…we love that.

    • Could not agree more, Jim. I don’t FEEL this person’s claustrophobia at all (and I am clautrophobic so I know how hard it is to even get in an airplane). This is all telling and therefore emotionally uninvolving. I wrote a scene for a standalone once with the hero having to go deep into the Paris catacombs trying to save someone. He has to crawl across human bones at one point. Took me two weeks to write that chapter. I showed every sweaty, cold, dark, agonizing inch of it from his head. You gotta go here.

  2. Thank you, Brave Author, for allowing us to take a peek at your first page.

    I like the first sentence. In fact, it was my favorite because caves can be freaking scary!

    You can skip the second sentence entirely (“Fears of . . .”) without losing anything. Or, better yet, do as Laura suggested and make the second paragraph one of showing the protagonist’s anxiety.

    I thought when Carolyn said hello to “future Dad” that she was calling the protagonist her future dad, as if he was marrying Carolyn’s mother. Perhaps the capitalization of “dad” skewed my thinking to that direction, plus Laura is right in that we don’t know yet that Carolyn is pregnant.

    I was thinking the same thing James was, that everything was a little TOO happy. If an argument between the happy couple doesn’t fit your plot, maybe some kind of argument between Carolyn and a fellow passenger on the boat (or violence in the background so we worry if she’s safe).

    The title does seem pulp-ish as Laura said. But I do like just shortening it to “Neander” because Neander is a cool word and already makes me think of ancient Earth history (linking in the time travel stuff).

    I like the idea of a time travel story back to Neanderthal days. It’d be interesting to see where you take the story. Best of luck on your continued writing journey, Brave Author.

    • The “future Dad” thing made me wonder for a moment about Carolyn’s relationship to him as well, Priscilla. Establishing relationships early and firmly minimizes distractions for the reader and keeps the story flowing.

      “Neander” is a terrific title. And I really like the idea of having some alternate conflict where Carolyn is–so that she’s distracted, perhaps even irritating the narrator a bit.

      Thanks so much for weighing in today!

  3. Aside from Mr. Bell’s comment regarding HPiHL, I enjoyed this first page.

    I saw this character in my mind’s eye sitting outside the cave, watching the faraway boat where his soon-to-be fiance was enjoying herself. If I can see it playing in my head, I tend to enjoy it.

    And I liked the line about a few minutes compared to the tens of thousands of years the fossils have been buried. Chuckled at that one.

    Thank you for a good entry!

  4. Hi all. I’m the “Brave Author” (thanks for the title!) It turns out I had just (Indie) launched this book around the same time this critique thread appeared. So I quickly studied the comments here, made some text revisions based on them, and reuploaded the books, which appeared within 5 hours (ebook) and 16 hours (paperback) on Amazon. One of the advantages of Indie authoring/publishing!

    First, thanks to all who commented. I read and thought about your words carefully. This is an incredible resource, and I appreciate the time you’ve all spent.

    Here are some replies to each of you:

    LB: As the reviewer, thank you for taking this on. Some specifics:
    * Thanks for first-line comment. I wanted to start with a problem.
    * Not sure what you meant about the past tense. It’s 1st Person Past.
    * Lacking immediacy/visceral: you’re right. I’ve amended some.
    * The boat has to be visible to the hero for the plot and it’s normal in that geographic location. And yes, modern cell phones (at least iPhones) have worldwide connectivity (GSM and CDMA).
    * Your point (and PB’s) about “future Dad” is right on. That was a last-minute change and I hadn’t realized the confusion/linkage with the time travel theme. Have revised this now.
    * I’ve changed the “… I mouthed” last line. I always thought that was awkward and you helped convince me to revise it.
    * I’m wondering what you (and PB) mean by having a “pulp feel.” I had to look it up, and if you mean “…visceral, imaginative, and unafraid of mass appeal” then I’ll take it! I find myself moving more in the Action-Adventure direction anyway, and I’m totally a Genre Fiction writer, so maybe that’s part of it? Feel free to explain more about that, if you want (or anyone).

    JSB: I normally agree with 99.9% of your comments but I’m dropping that to 85% here. 😉 And ironically, I re-wrote this opening AFTER I had read one of your recent posts about having a Disturbance upfront. Believe me, it was much tamer before. But now, I don’t really see it as HPiHL. True, it’s not super-disturbed yet, but the Hook is coming soon after these 400 words. So for me, it’s a Mildly Unhappy Land that’s about to get Very Unhappy.
    * Also, the guy DOES start off inside the cave. But I’m adding a few words to make that even clearer, so thanks for that. And I don’t want more tension/conflict with his fiancee on the boat. She’s his love interest who sets up the major stakes. His conflict is with others and with himself.
    * Like the other commenters, you’re right about my doing a lot of Telling here, but things are about to heat up. There’s a significant Show Disturbance coming literally within one paragraph of this extract.

    PB: Thanks again for first sentence, and yeah, I need more anxiety (and then some sea calming).
    * Ditto agree on “future Dad”. Changed.
    * Thanks for nice words about the title. Your connecting it to ancient history and the time travel is right on. And there’s the important issue (especially for Indies) of “keyword juice.” Neander is short for Neanderthal (too long for good cover design) yet will be picked up by the search algorithms. But I’m also wondering about your “pulp-ish” description of the title. Care to explain more?

    Carl: Thank you. I’m happy you were able to see it playing in your head. That’s my goal with my “cinematic” writing style, although I never know if others see the same movie playing as I do.

    KM REPLY to JSB: I agree that I don’t spend a lot of time on the immediacy of the claustrophobia, but that’s because I move quickly to the main problems in the first scene/chapter: the tension with the other characters and the soon-to-come bewilderment of the situation. All of that starts happening after this opening. It sounds like you wrote a whole (good) scene on claustrophobia, and I’m spending a couple of sentences max on it. I’m using claustrophobia as a lead-in to other (bigger) psychological issues for my hero in a building-up sort of way. I know: excuses, excuses! 😉

    * So—and with permission of the Admin—here’s the link to the current version of the (paperback) book with the changes I’ve mentioned:
    https://www.amazon.com/NEANDER-Travel-Adventure-Harald-Johnson/dp/1710999101/
    You don’t need to buy the book (although I won’t complain if you do!) to see the changes in the Look Inside feature Amazon provides. Unfortunately, the ebook edition, which has also been revised, is not yet showing the corrections in that Look Inside (and both editions are not linked yet). But they’re there.

    Feel free to leave additional comments. It all helps. Again, many thanks.

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