First Page Critique – The Wildfire Pathogen

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I am posting my first page critique to assist Clare who is in Australia with personal family business. My first critique in 2020, I hope you’ll enjoy THE WILDFIRE PATHOGEN. Very timely with the Coronavirus out of China. Let’s sanitize our hands and read on. My comments will be on the flip side.

The Wildfire Pathogen

Even through six inches of solid acrylic, Conrad Jurek could see the monsters moving inside the box.

They were no more than grainy mists inside individual test tubes. Those mists swirled with each jolt of the plane as it powered through pockets of turbulence. Almost as if the bumpy ride irked them.

Jurek reached into his sage-colored flight suit, pulled out a pen, and began to jot notes on his clipboard. The acrylic box was a four-by-six foot transparent crate mounted on a hardwood dolly. A locking mechanism the size and weight of a manhole cover sat on top. He’d seen the same tamper-proof device protecting the innards of nuclear warheads.

The monsters inside could do far worse than mere firecrackers.

Six tubes hung suspended below the locking device like bullets chambered in a revolver. Each finger-length container held twenty grams of orthohantavirus, a solid mass of viral matter dried into particles as white and delicate as baby powder.

Yet each cylinder of glittering borosilicate glass held enough pathogenic material to kill several million men, women, and children.

A beefy hand came down on Jurek’s shoulder. He suppressed his instincts and allowed the hand to turn him around. A man wearing a black uniform with the word SECURITY stenciled across the front scowled at him before growling two words.

“Back off.”

Jurek held up the clipboard. “I’m supposed to do a load check mid-flight.”

“No one’s supposed to come close to the package.” The guard’s eyes flicked to the name tag at the chest pocket. “If I were you, Corporal Witkowski, I’d leave. Now.”

Two more security men stepped into view on the opposite side of the box. Jurek considered them for a moment. Under his flight jacket, a 9mm Beretta Nano hung snugly in a holster. The weapon was still warm from when he’d shot Witkowski and taken the airman’s uniform off the hanger.

No, he thought to himself. Stick to the plan.

Jurek turned away and went up to the cockpit. He locked the door and took the empty co-pilot’s chair. The pilot glanced over with a raised eyebrow. His uniform’s tag also bore the name of a man murdered in the last two hours.

“I’m familiar with the outer locking mechanism,” Jurek confirmed. “We go forward as planned, Doctor Isenhoff.”

“Good,” came the reply. “Get your oxygen mask ready.”

With that, Isenhoff reached out and flicked a single switch on the flight panel.

FEEDBACK

SUMMARY – Great place to start. This time it’s not SNAKES ON A PLANE. It’s monsters in a vial. We are already in the middle of the action with plenty of mystery and intrigue to keep turning the pages. The author sticks with the action without slowing the pace with backstory. There’s time for explanation once the reader is pulled in. At the end of the 3rd paragraph, the author draws the reader in tighter in describing the tamper proof canister and compares it to the protection on a nuclear warhead. Nicely done. And it got my attention when the author described a nuke to “firecrackers” compared to the monsters on the plane.

I also liked that the author had patience to let the reader discover that Jurek committed murder to get on the plane, wearing a dead man’s uniform. At this point, we aren’t sure if Jurek is trying to stop a deadly pathogen attack by hijacking the material from villains or if he plans to steal the deadly virus to commit his own attack. Great set up with plenty of mystery to unravel.

I especially like how the author had Jurek accosted by security and he had to restrain his instincts to fight the man off. He’s got more up his sleeve (a plan) and that’s when we find out that Jurek killed to board the plane. Nice touch, author.

Then a stroke of genius to have Jurek working with the pilot – a doctor presumably familiar with the pathogen – who is also a pilot. Jurek and Dr Isenhoff are in it together. And there’s a hint that there’s a reason Jurek went to check out the dangerous cargo, to determine if he knew how to break into the canister. Something bad is about to happen that involves oxygen masks. At this point, we don’t know who the protagonist is, but we have a great start.

TITLE – I like the reference to “wildfire.” We all know what that could mean in terms of spreading fast and the word “pathogen” is timely and medical. Only the author knows if there are other titles that could establish the critical danger in a better way, but I would be happy taking this title to a publisher. It’s more than a working title, in my opinion.

NIT PICKY – At the start of paragraph 3, I spotted a pet peeve of mine. I like a strong sentence with tight wording. The words “began to” are unnecessary. It would be better to say “…and pulled out a pen to jot notes on his clipboard.”

Jurek reached into his sage-colored flight suit, pulled out a pen, and began to jot notes on his clipboard. 

Great job, anonymous author. There’s action and I’m intrigued. I would definitely keep reading. Okay TKZers, please leave your comments and provide feedback to this brave author. (Safe travels, Clare. We missed you.)

The Curse She Wore – Coming Feb 10, 2010. On presale now.

Trespassing on Fate’s turf comes with a price for two broken people–one they will never see coming.

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

33 thoughts on “First Page Critique – The Wildfire Pathogen

  1. Oooh, Jordan, are you sure about your comment near the end of your critique?

    The original “Jurek reached into his sage-colored flight suit, pulled out a pen, and began to jot notes on his clipboard” [emphasis mine] allows us to see Jurek touching the pen to paper, taking notes.

    On the other hand, “Jurek reached into his sage-colored flight suit and pulled out a pen to jot notes on his clipboard” indicates preparation and intent, but he isn’t actually taking notes. Just sayin’.

    But I have a nit to pick too. The sentence following yours, “The acrylic box was a four-by-six foot transparent crate mounted on a hardwood dolly” is redundant. I would make it read, “The four-by-six acrylic box was mounted on a hardwood dolly.”

    My reasoning— We already know the acrylic is transparent (he could see through it in the first sentence), and calling the devoce both a “box” and a “crate” serves no useful purpose. Though it might be better to change both instances of “box” to “crate.” Depends on the picture in the anonymous writer’s mind.)

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    • I like your thoughts, Harvey. Thank you. The word “crate” makes me think of wood. I like your rewrite line.

      On the “began to jot notes” line – it’s a timing thing for me. If he “begins to” make a note, it means he’s already writing. The “begins to” isn’t necessary. But my your comment, you are really into the visual of the action & that’s a good thing for this author.

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    • When I read the sentence about jotting notes, in my head I saw the action as 1) reaching into the suit, 2) pulling out a pen, and 3) jotting notes. So maybe the sentence could just be:

      Jurek reached into his sage-colored flight suit, pulled out a pen, and jotted notes on his clipboard.

      It’s a good sign that we’re only nitpicking. It’s a great first page.

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  2. What bothered me more (and it’s a peeve of mine) is that the guy mentions his sage-colored jumpsuit. My first thought was that it signified some kind of rank or position. Otherwise, why think about it.
    Once I knew it wasn’t his, and that he could be thinking about it, it was a little easier for me to understand, but perhaps adding the color later when we know it’s not his would smooth out that wrinkle.
    I prefer Jordan’s deletion of began to. Since we saw him pull out the pen, we know he couldn’t have been writing with it yet.

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    • I agree. No reason to waste space telling us what color a jumpsuit is unless it is an important detail. But that’s a nit. I did trip a bit when we got to the line about the hidden gun, however. The writer first called it “flight suit.” Which conjured up a one-piece jumpsuit thing in my brain. But then the writer says the gun was warm under his jacket. Just a minor thing but important in establishing clear images in readers’ minds.

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  3. Good morning, Terry.

    The color of his jumpsuit could be like Star Trek where the officers wore different colors & everyone knew who would die first. Ha! Just kidding.

    Now that you mention it, the word “sage” seemed odd & specific. I picture a dark green flight suit for military pilots, but sage is fashiony.

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    • What creates these hiccups is wondering why the guy would think about the color of his jumpsuit at this time. (And yes, the color-coding came to me, too. Glad the author didn’t choose red!). But since it’s not “his” suit, the color might be something he notices. I just think it could be worked in better. Still, I really liked this piece and think Brave Author has a good start here.

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      • Good observations, Terry. The “author intrusion” of the jumpsuit color is a small thing that authors may notice because of our edit process for our own work. We know the tricks to add visuals for the reader. We’ve seen behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain.

        It’s a beautiful thing to read a submission where we’re picking at small, fine tuning stuff because it’s a solid start as is–as you’ve mentioned.

        As an author, I really like the subtle, patient way this writer unravels & optimizes the mystery to pull the reader in & keep the reveals coming throughout this short intro. Very cool. Lots to like here.

        Thanks for the sage discussion, Terry. (See what I did there?)

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  4. Brave Author, I love this first page. You’ve dropped the reader in at a tense moment. Something huge is planned. And it’s dangerous, too, as hinted at by my favorite sentence:
    The monsters inside could do far worse than mere firecrackers.

    Just two nitpicks: First, I think “suspended” in the fifth paragraph is unnecessary. We already know the tubes are hanging, so I stumbled on the extra word.

    And second, I’m not sure “swirled” is the right verb in the second paragraph. It may be just me, but I was thinking magical (unicorn-like) vapor, not deadly, churning lifeforms. (Yes, I know, a virus isn’t technically alive, but there’s a hint at them being sentient with the “irked.”)

    I’d turn the page to read more.:-)

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  5. I, too, liked this for all the reasons already mentioned. Good going, writer! I’d read on, but then I am a sucker for end-of-world stories. 🙂 I like the fact that we don’t know yet if Conrad wears a white or back hat.

    Gotta ask the hive, though, about the gun. We don’t know how long ago the murder took place but it has to be some time ago. Would a gun still be warm under clothing? I doubt it. But readers savvy about guns surely would surely know.

    Not crazy about that title; it does as a placeholder I guess. Wildfire is a cool word. But then tacking on the literal “pathogen” sort of takes the air out of things. Titles should be precise as to content but also symbolic of theme and mood. Richard Preston writes books about bad germs — with titles like “Panic In Level 4” and “The Hot Zone.” And one of my all-time fave virus books is “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel. Her title refers to a comic book created by a character named Miranda about a group of survivors who scramble to live on a man-made exoplanet which has slipped through a worm hole. (Mandel’s novel is more about survival AFTER devastation than the actual event). A good title is never literal — it resonates emotionally.

    You might find the real title will emerge as you move on through your story. Sometimes titles don’t show themselves until you’ve finish the book. Don’t sweat it for now, but keep your ear attuned for something more worthy.

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    • Ha! That warm gun bothered me too, but I let it go for the author’s taste for drama. Glad you brought it up, Kris.

      Good thoughts on title too. There are better, more gripping titles. Any publisher would probably elect to change it. But if the author self-publishes, there are no committees to brainstorm it. It could be better.

      Thanks, Kris.

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  6. “Six tubes hung suspended below the locking device like bullets chambered in a revolver.” Nice line!

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  7. This is the Brave Author for The Wildfire Pathogen. A big thank you for all of your comments, I will be taking each one into account as I revise this opening chapter.

    Incidentally, I also ran this by an epidemiologist friend of mine. He didn’t mention any of the points brought up here. Instead, he noted that I need to change the quantity of the pathogen stored (too much), the size of the vials (too big), and the material used (high-density polyethylene, not borosilicate glass).

    Proof that we all bring our unique expertise to bear when reading a piece of text!

    Thanks again to everyone for your time spent on my first 400 words,

    Brave Author

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  8. Overall, great piece, and great feedback. I disagree with the nitpick, though. That change actually changes the meaning of what’s written. The nuance is entirely different with “began to” versus the recommendation in the feedback. It gives a different visual, as well, and doesn’t necessarily align with what the author means to convey.

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  9. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. There’s much to like about your first page, but as usual, I’m going to do my best to help you make it even better. I apologize if this stuff sounds picky (it is), but I’m hoping you’ll appreciate that I took the time to do this. You’re off to such a good start that your writing deserves this level of attention.

    Opening Line

    You write: “Even through six inches of solid acrylic, Conrad Jurek could see the monsters moving inside the box.”

    So, I want you to reverse the dependent clause and the independent clause, like this:

    Conrad Jurek could see the monsters moving inside the box, even through six inches of acrylic.

    Writing the sentence this way makes it more powerful.

    Metaphors

    Don’t overdo the use of metaphors. One per paragraph is plenty. In fact, one per page is enough.

    Example:

    These appear in the same paragraph:

    “like bullets chambered in a revolver”
    “as white and delicate as baby powder”

    Overwriting

    Tight writing is powerful writing. While it’s okay to use extra words occasionally for variety, don’t do it often, particularly on the first page.

    Example:

    “Yet each cylinder of glittering borosilicate glass held enough pathogenic material to kill several million men, women, and children.”

    This could be rewritten more succinctly without losing any meaning, like this:

    Yet each cylinder of glittering borosilicate glass held enough pathogenic material to kill millions.

    Or you could say “millions of people” here. However, the “men, women, and children” phrase is overkill.

    Example:

    “A beefy hand came down on Jurek’s shoulder.”

    Instead of using “came down” here, can you think of one word that means the same thing? Try:

    A beefy hand landed on Jurek’s shoulder.

    Example:

    “He suppressed his instincts and allowed the hand to turn him around.”

    Try this instead:

    He acquiesced, allowing the hand to turn him around.

    Example:

    “Two more security men stepped into view on the opposite side of the box.”

    Try this instead:

    “Two more security men appeared on the opposite side of the box.” (I would use “security guards” rather than “security men” here.)

    Example:

    “Jurek turned away and went up to the cockpit.”

    Try this instead:

    “Jurek turned and approached the cockpit.”

    Example:

    “Good,” came the reply. “Get your oxygen mask ready.”

    Try this instead:

    “Good,” Isenhoff replied. “Get your oxygen mask ready.”

    Or, since you used the name of the doctor in the previous line of dialogue, you could write simply:

    “Good. Get your oxygen mask ready.”

    Example:

    “With that, Isenhoff reached out and flicked a single switch on the flight panel.”

    Try this instead:

    With that, Isenhoff flicked a switch on the flight panel.

    Example:

    “They were no more than grainy mists inside individual test tubes. Those mists swirled with each jolt of the plane as it powered through pockets of turbulence. Almost as if the bumpy ride irked them.”

    Try this instead:

    The grainy mists floating in the test tubes swirled with each jolt of the plane as it powered through pockets of turbulence.

    The way you have this paragraph written, the bumpy ride irked the pockets of turbulence. I’m sure that’s not what you intended. So omit this sentence:
    “Almost as if the bumpy ride irked them.”

    Example:

    “A man wearing a black uniform with the word SECURITY stenciled across the front scowled at him before growling two words.” Try this instead:

    A man wearing a black uniform with the word “security” embroidered on the shirt pocket scowled. “Back off.”

    There is no need to announce that the man is going to say two words. Just let him say the words. No need to use the words “at him” since readers will assume this.

    Example (and Jordan mentioned this, too):

    “Jurek reached into his sage-colored flight suit, pulled out a pen, and began to jot notes on his clipboard.”

    Try this instead:

    Jurek took a pen from his sage-colored flight suit and jotted notes on his clipboard.

    When you describe every micro action, writing can sound melodramatic. Be succinct or the writing will become tedious for readers.

    Word Repetition

    The word “inside” is used at least three times:

    “could see the monsters moving inside the box”
    “inside individual test tubes”
    “monsters inside could do far worse”

    I’ll stop now. As your proofread your work, look for ways to tighten phrases. All of my suggestions may seem picky, but remember that sometimes big progress happens in small steps. Fix the little things, and your writing will improve by leaps and bounds. Best of luck and keep writing.

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  10. I would turn the page on this book, at least 300 times. I agree with everyone’s comments, except one. And this is probably picking nits, too. I offer my comment as a reader, not an expert author. (Maybe some day…) 🙂

    Joanne’s comment: “’He suppressed his instincts and allowed the hand to turn him around.’”
    Try this instead:
    He acquiesced, allowing the hand to turn him around.”

    I like Brave Author’s “suppressed his instincts” better. Why? Because it’s the first clue we get that Conrad has “instincts” most of us don’t have. It placed him, in my mind, within that small circle of guys and gals who have no trouble taking care of any unforeseen contingencies. The 007 small circle.

    IMHO, Brave Author’s phrase gives an edge, a sharp one, to the character and had me wondering exactly what his “instinct” would look like had he not suppressed it.

    Good job, Brave Author!

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    • Hey Deb, even if the author wants to keep the “suppressed his instincts” part (I personally like showing his special skills or instincts, rather than “telling” the reader about them), the “and allowed” part could still be replaced with “allowing.” Obviously, the author will have to choose what’s important to his/her story. My main point was to look for examples of overwriting and consolidate, and I tried to give a decent number of examples. Writers will not always agree with an editor or reviewer and must learn to make their own decisions. That’s part of the process. Carry on, brave writer. You’re driving the bus.

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      • Good point about showing versus telling, Joanne. Hadn’t thought of that angle. It could be something like “suppressed his instinct to…” anything from his trigger finger flexing or feeling the sheath against his thigh.

        Thanks for pointing that out. Show vs. Tell is still high on my learning curve.

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  11. I like this and a nice chewy apoc thriller is always a favorite of mine.

    I agree with “began to.” It’s pure tell and needs to go on the pile with “attempted to” “started to” etc.

    I also tripped up on “sage” but it’s minor and something that gets cleaned up in edits. At this stage, it’s that desperate need to visualize every detail.

    And it’s really hard to “suppress your instincts.” That’s why they are instincts. I find it hard to believe that an operative who could coolly murder a member of the flight crew in the locker room and not get blood on the hanging uniform has all these brutish “instincts” he has to suppress. More likely, his training took over.

    ———————————–
    A beefy hand clamped tight on his shoulder. It took every bit of his training not to elbow the interloper in the gut. Instead, Instead, Jurek turned to face a man in a black uniform with SECURITY stenciled across the front. The guard scowled at him and growled two words: “Back off.”
    ————————————

    Also unnecessary to tell me he is wearing the uniform and that SECURITY is a word. And “tight” is a stronger word than “down.”

    Also, having Jurek turn on his own instead of “allowing himself to be turned” makes him more powerful.

    Just a few thoughts. I’m a word taker-outer rather than a putter-inner.

    Seriously, this is cool. Keep at it.

    Terri

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