First Page Critique: The Great German Escape

This is my last blog post for 2019 before we head to our holiday break, and I have a first page critique for a novel entitled The Great German Escape for you to enjoy and provide feedback. My comments follow – as always, thank you for all your great comments and feedback to our brave submitters this year. I think we all learn from these critiques:)

The Great German Escape

As the American army captain exited the front gate on July 2, 1943, Wehrmacht Major Kurt Jaeger’s heart raced. The accountability formation confirmed the presence of eighty-three officers. All recently arrived. All from Rommel’s Afrika Korps. All adjusting to a zoo life existence.

Jaeger’s gaze shifted to the southwest guard tower. Behind it, a thin brown haze curtained the southern horizon. Hanging in front, a makeshift plywood placard branded him a failure. Stomach acid burbled as he read A – 12, B – 2.

Out of the corner of his right eye, he spied the German Commander step forward. The man set two marred futbols on the ground. As his routine, Oberst Heinrich von Richter’s gaze swept left to right first.

Biting the inside of his cheek, Jaeger focused straight ahead. Outside the interwoven wire fence, American soldiers clustered, anticipating the day’s entertainment.

“This morning,” von Richter said. “We demonstrate endurance … resistance … expected by our leaders … our countrymen. This current state is not static … though some of you believe it to be.” Again, his gaze traversed the formation, stopping periodically, then continuing. “War is dynamic. Today’s vanquished … becomes … tomorrow’s victors. Preparedness is imperative.”

More American soldiers appeared, some jostled for a better view. A clamminess broke out on Jaeger skin.

“In combat,” von Richter said, “two critical skills are speed and agility. The footrace I’ve designed test these attributes. Barracks commanders, choose your representative.”

Jaeger read the sign, hesitated, gulped, faced about. Thirty-six pairs of eyes focused on him. Scanning the first rank he spied a thin, leggy Oberluetnant. The man’s gaze averted his. Afraid? The Barracks B leader thought. Stand here and choose a competent winner.

In the second row, a lithe Hauptmann puffed his chest out, his head nodding left.

Another movement captured Jaeger’s attention. His counterpart, Major Heinrich Weiss, Barracks A, stood in the middle of his platoon, talking to a soldier.

“We ain’t gots all day,” an American shouted. A ripple of laughter emitted from their side of the fence.

Weiss tapped the man’s shoulder, and they moved up front.

Jaeger studied the man next to the twitching Hauptmann.  “Luetnant Fogel, step forward.”

Eyes wide, the man blurted, “Herr Major, I’m no runner.”

Jaeger’s stomach acid roiled. To change his decision would suggest him weak, indecisive. Through clenched teeth, he said, “Do not shame us. Run the race.”

My comments:

Overall

I enjoyed this first page and can definitely see, from both the title and first scene, this turning into a great war-time adventure novel, focusing on the German experience (and escape I assume from the POW camp). However, I do think this first page could benefit from some overall revision, as well as some minor tweaks to address specific concerns.

First, I think this first page would benefit from additional description/sensory details to help firmly establish both the setting and the main characters. A first page should ground a reader with a sense of place and introduce enough details regarding the main character to get a reader invested – so far this page is almost there, but not quite. I also think that some tweaks to the dialogue would help. I’ve provided my advice on these overall comments below:

Grounding setting and characters:

I felt like there were a lot of names and specifics but, despite these, I found it hard to visualize the scene or get invested in the characters. In terms of characters, just in this first page we have five characters identified by name: Wehrmacht Major Kurt Jaeger, Oberst Heinrich von Richter, Major Heinrich Weiss, as well as an Oberluetnant (unnamed) and a German soldier called Hauptmann – that’s a lot for a reader to digest, especially as, at this stage, the reader doesn’t know who is going to be a major or minor character (apart from Jaeger, who I’m assuming is the main protagonist).

Despite all the names, we get only a a few visual cues so it’s hard (for me at least) to visualize all these people, or to know who is likely to become crucial to the plot. My recommendation would be to cut down on the names/titles at this early stage so the reader can concentrate, and become invested in, a key character from the get go.

Likewise, although we get specifics like the date (July 2, 1943), barrack numbers (A – 12, B – 2.) and some hints as to composition of the POW camp (All from Rommel’s Afrika Korps), apart from a vague reference to a ‘thin brown haze’ on the horizon, I can’t really visualize the camp. Where are we? Europe? North Africa? Given the Americans are in charge of the POW camp it’s important for me to understand the greater context – were the Germans captured after a particular battle or American victory? How long has Jaeger been at the camp? Why is this competition/race so important to him (and it doesn’t make a lot of sense, given his stress levels, why he would chose a random soldier who isn’t a runner – surely, for something this important, Jaeger would have been better prepared??)

In addition, I think some further background on Jaeger on this first page would help establish his motivation and character. I was a little confused by: ‘Hanging in front, a makeshift plywood placard branded him a failure’- – I’m assuming he feels a failure because he was captured but then I wasn’t sure why his ‘stomach acid burbled’ as he saw the barrack numbers. Has his barrack lost previous races? The more we know what’s at stake here, the more we can be invested in both Jaeger as a character and the outcome of the race.

Dialogue

I wasn’t completely sure why von Richter’s speech seemed so disjointed but I found it  distracting and it confused me as his words didn’t seem to match the ‘entertainment’ that was being organized (namely a race between the barracks). If there is a hidden meaning or wider implications of his speech I think we need more context to understand this.

Other specific comments.

I also had a few smaller, more specific ,comments about elements in this first page that I found distracting or confusing. These are easily rectified but important nonetheless.

  • The number of times left and right identified was distracting: Just in one page we have ‘out of the corner of his right eye, he spied the German Commander’ followed by ‘Oberst Heinrich von Richter’s gaze swept left to right first’ and then ‘Hauptmann puffed his chest out, his head nodding left’. For me this was too repetitive on one page.
  • I was confused why the ‘two marred futbols’ were placed out for a running race – at first I thought there was going to be a football match between the barracks or between the Germans and the Americans.
  • Using specific numbers became distracting: eighty-three officers; thirty-six pairs of eyes…I started trying to do the math as to how many people were there when I should have been focusing on characters and plot.
  • “We ain’t gots all day,” an American shouted – I assuming this was supposed to be “We ain’t got all day.” Be careful of even small typos like this on your first page.

As you can see from my comments, I think this page would benefit from further revision – but the key elements are there. A race in a German POW camp where there is clearly more at stake than the reader first believes – with some revisions, I think this first page could create some great tension to get this story off and running! (Pardon the pun!)

So TKZers what advice would you offer our brave submitter?

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11 thoughts on “First Page Critique: The Great German Escape

  1. One minor point, but it jumped out at me. I don’t normally feel qualified to do critiques, and Clare’s done most of the heavy lifting. If this is Germany, and the protagonist is American, then he’s going to see soccer balls, not “futbols.” If he knows enough German to call them by their correct name, then they’d be “Fussbolls.” (I don’t know how to get WordPress to use the double-S symbol in the German font, which looks more like a B.)

    • I assumed Jaeger was German but there seems to be some confusion (see Priscilla’s comment below) so I think this demonstrates there are too many names in this first page which creates uncertainty on the identity front. I’m assuming the German name for football/soccer ball is the one intended but agree, if that is the case, then the correct German spelling needs to be used.

  2. Thank you, Brave Author, for showing us your first page.

    This is my favorite line: “Outside the interwoven wire fence, American soldiers clustered, anticipating the day’s entertainment.” When the American soldiers got excited about the day’s entertainment, it made me get excited too.

    The first line confused me. I thought initially that Jaeger was the American captain (undercover as a German officer, or something).

    My biggest trouble with the page was trying to visualize the setting. I don’t need a huge bird’s eye view detailing everything about the layout, but it’d help me take in the story if I weren’t struggling to orient myself in the scene.

    Clare’s critique is excellent, and I agree with everything she said (especially about grounding the reader in the scene) except for the “gots” typo. I have heard people say in casual talk, “I ain’t gots.” If you wrote “gots” on purpose and it’s not a typo, I think it could stay if we see that character again and he consistently has a few quirks to his speech. (But it’d be overwhelming if all the Americans spoke like that.)

    Good luck, Brave Author, on your continued writing journey.

    • Priscilla – great points (Jaeger’s identity is also confusing) and I obviously has no idea ‘gots’ was part of the American vernacular (see my further comment below) so my bad on that:)

  3. A small thing: the observation that the line “We ain’t gots all day,” was the result of a typo. I don’t think so.

    I grew up in the then-small town of Phoenix, Arizona, back in the 1940s and 50s. Our small city–population 100,000–was just starting its post-war boom, which continues until now.

    I went to school with kids from many places in the U.S., their parents having pulled them from their old, familiar schools, and depositing them in ours.

    Believe me: the usage of gots, as a verb, was, and probably still is, widespread across our Nation. I heard kids from as far away as New York and New Jersey, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and other, scattered hometowns of America, say, “We gots the ball.” Or, “You gots to believe me.”

    And the very best efforts of Mrs. Brown, Miss Attaway, and Miss Miller, were probably not going to change the usage any time soon.

    On this, you gots to believe me.

  4. I’m inclined to like WWII war camp stories and all movies of the genre. And I like this setup. But this submission confused me at times.

    The opening graph: As the American army captain exited the front gate on July 2, 1943, Wehrmacht Major Kurt Jaeger’s heart raced. The accountability formation confirmed the presence of eighty-three officers. All recently arrived. All from Rommel’s Afrika Korps. All adjusting to a zoo life existence.

    It sounds like the American captain is walking out the front gate. That’s confusing in itself…I thought he was escaping or something. Then we get the line of “an accountability formation” — which I THINK is where they have the prisoners line up and be counted? But they are from Rommel’s corps? I pictured Americans. And what does this have to do with the upcoming race or soccer game? Unless there is a good connection that you can explain better, I don’t think I’d use it in your precious opening image.

    Which brings up the futbols. I pictured soccer balls because the narrator is German. But then he talks about a race. Confusing.

    Another thing I found odd: They allowed 83 American officers OUTSIDE the wire? Or am I just reading this wrong? Or are these 83 German officers and the Americans are BEHIND the wire watching?

    I want to like this, because the setup (as far as I understand it) is cool — some kind of game or race that tests somebody’s mettle. Although I can’t tell if it’s the Germans or the Americans who will be tested. This needs some clarity, but again, I like the idea behind the setup.

    P.S. As someone whose editors are constantly on my case about my shifting gazes, dropping eyes, shooting glares, etc., I feel your pain, dear writer. This is my writer’s tic. And yours, alas. Just keep the eye movement to a bare minimum. “He looked…” goes a long way! (My last editor Grace would be happy to hear me say that) 🙂

    Hanging in front, a makeshift plywood placard branded him a failure. Stomach acid burbled as he read A – 12, B – 2. Okay, I assume this is the standings? A barracks have won 12 times, B only 2. Each team, I think, is composed of Americans but led by a German? Why does this “brand him a failure” to the point that his stomach is upset?

    • Kristy – I’m glad you worked out the A-12 B-2 – I’d just assumed they were barrack numbers! Thanks for your feedback and agree there are way too many eye movements in this first page!

  5. Like Kristy, at first I thought the US soldiers were the prisoners. Even after identifying the Germans as from the Afrika Corps I was still confused as to who were the prisoners and who the guards. Like Pricilla, I thought the US captain was escaping or looking to escape.

    While some things are given in great detail, other things are missing all together. Where are we? According to Wikipedia, there were 700 POW camps in the US. Southwest Texas, the hills outside of San Jose, Louisiana bayou? It would help a great deal. For a WWII re-inactor identifying soldiers as being from the Wehrmacht might be important. For everyone else, it is just a wasted word.

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