Where Am I? — First Page Critique

By SUE COLETTA

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. I’ll catch ya on the flipside. Enjoy!

TITLE: Sonbgird

chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building. Below me, the slow curve of it swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below. Above me, it changed into a skyscraper. The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see. So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt.

Do it. Do it now.

I screamed at myself to move, but my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. Tingling my fingertips as sweat prickled my forehead.

Even if I didn’t believe I could, I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out. But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve on fire. The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast. He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bight brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate hair over her shoulder. It draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

The genre would be fantasy, I think. Full disclosure: this is not my preferred genre. As a reader, I’m drawn to stories that are logical or at least possible (think: The Martian by Andy Weirs). Brave writer, please remember this is one reader’s opinions. Perhaps others will see something I missed.

Let’s look at this opener in more depth. My comments are in bold.

TITLE: Sonbgird I’m guessing this is a typo and you meant to write Songbird, which I liked right away.

Chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. (first two lines drew me in—good job) I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

The previous two sentences I’ve read a gazillion times and I still can’t picture where I am. Is the MC standing in an empty culvert? If so, then how does wind blow his/her hair “up the side of the building”?

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The Sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building (excellent visual). Below me, the slow curve of it (of what, the walls or tunnel? In my mind a tunnel is horizontal, not vertical. If it is a vertical structure and s/he’s looking down into a tunnel-like pit, then you need a better way to set the scene. Also, whenever possible substitute the word “it” for the object) swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below.

“Sand” threw me. I’d assumed we were in a metropolitan area due to the word “tunnel,” so you need to ground the reader to where we are.

Above me, it changed into a skyscraper.

Again, what is “it”? And how did it morph into a skyscraper? Without some context, these details don’t make sense to this reader.

The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see.

That passage reaffirms a metropolitan landscape in my mind. Unless we’re in the desert outside Vegas or somewhere similar. See why it’s important to ground the reader? Don’t make us guess. If we can’t envision the surroundings, how can we fully invest in the story?.

So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt. Those two lines intrigued me. I’m thinking concrete smokestacks. Try adding more sensory details i.e. smoke plumed into an aqua-blue sky, tangoed with a lone cloud, and filled my sinuses with burnt ashes of sulfur (or somebody’s dearly departed — kidding. 😉 ) 

Do it. Do it now. Nice. I can feel the urgency.

I screamed at myself for my feet to move, but they wouldn’t comply my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. (try to decrease the sentences that begin with “I” while remaining in a deep POV). A cold rush of panic washed over me, tingling my fingertips, as sweat prickling my forehead (changed to show how to play with rhythm to create a more visceral experience. Just a suggestion. Your call on whether to keep it).

Even if I didn’t believe I could (could what? You’re trying too hard to be mysterious), I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair. This I like. It’s mysterious yet, as a reader, I don’t feel cheated—nicely done.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out (good visuals here). But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve was on fire (removed “I felt” to stay in deep POV). The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I still say the MC is in a horizontal culvert that’s hanging over a cliff of some sort. Regardless, please make it clear where we’re at. I shouldn’t still be guessing.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited. Whoa. The MC burst into flames?

I red-highlighted all the sentences that begin with “I” to make you aware of them. If this is intentional, and it may be, then fine, but be careful of overdoing it. Too many in a row can work against us.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast (this is a great way to weave in a tidbit of backstory). He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bright brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. This is a nit: whenever I read “eyes” instead of “gaze” in this context I think of disembodied eyeballs. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate-colored (added “-colored” so the reader doesn’t imagine real chocolate like I did on the first read-through. Some descriptive words are like that. Or choose a different way to describe the color i.e. deep brown) hair over her shoulder. It (Strands instead of “it”) draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

The first line indicates she has long flowing hair, then we find out she’s wearing a braid. Give us one solid image. When we’re not clear right away it causes confusion.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your work to TKZ. It’s been a pleasure critiquing this first page. I hope you found it useful.

Over to you, my beloved TKZers! Please add helpful suggestions for this brave writer.

3+

24 thoughts on “Where Am I? — First Page Critique

  1. I like the suspense. Will the narrator jump? Can she fly? Is she trying to get up the nerve to kill herself? I also like the descriptive sentences. This was my favorite one: “Sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building.”

    However, like Sue, I got lost trying to picture the scene. A huge dam, maybe? But in a city with skyscrapers? Or are the skyscrapers so tall that the spaces between are like tunnels . . . but then what about the sand?

    I would like to see the scene better, know when it was (now in NYC, or maybe in the future on another planet?), and get a clearer understanding if the suspense is because the narrator is depressed and suicidal or has some kind of special flying ability.

    Best of luck, Brave Author, on your continued writing journey!

    • Totally agree, Priscilla. I enjoyed the suspense of this opener. At first I thought she might be suicidal, but now I’m thinking she might transform into something else. Some sort of warrior, maybe?

      That was my favorite line, too. 🙂

  2. Same issues here, Sue. I was drawn in initially by the stylish writing and the intriguing situation. But then I got confused which then grew into frustration. By the time the MC finally did jump (I think…but then she burned up? I don’t think the writer means that literally), I would have given up reading, had it not been a submission entry for TKZ.

    I wanted to like this more because there is real potential here. Some really nice imagery — I especially liked “I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see. So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt.” And I LOVE this line: “the dull stammer of the only life I knew” which made me care about the character in the same way Thoreau’s phrase “lives of quiet desperation” does.

    I get that the writer is going for mystery here (Wow, what is happening???). But there is a big difference between good misdirection and plain old obfuscation. I can’t envision the setting. (My imagination finally latched onto that scene in The Fugitive where Kimble is standing at the edge of the dam’s circular drainage tunnel getting ready to jump). As Sue says, it’s okay to be a little coy with details but we need SOME grounding in reality. This happens to all of us — our story is playing out like a beautiful movie in our heads but translating that vision to the page for another brain to grasp isn’t easy.

    I’m also a bit at sea about the fact the MC jumped from a very high structure and died (?). Then we back up a year to a scene of her dull life in a restaurant job. Does this mean that we are about to read an entire book about what led up to a suicide? This can work — we all know Susie Salmon is dead from the get-go of the The Lovely Bones. But it isn’t easy to pull off.

    But then again, as Sue says, maybe this is fantasy and we’re into metaphysics or such with this plot. Dunno…but I WAS intrigued by the opening scene,

    Less writerly writing and a little more clarity with simple choreography (moving your characters through time and space) will help this. Not being pedantic here, (like asking if the MC literally vaporized into ashes). Just asking a good writer to try harder because this is good stuff.

    • I found that jarring, too, Kris. If she’s dead, she’s dead. The only thing I can think of is maybe the MC morphs into a warrior of sorts.
      The opener definitely has intriguing elements, and I’m interested where the writer is going with the story. Thanks for weighing in.

  3. “I stood alone, ready to jump.” Love the first line. Sucked me right in.

    “Do it. Do it now.” And, “I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair.” I’m all over reluctant heroes.

    The hardest part for me is not knowing where I am. I could not visualize the setting based on BA’s description. Concrete tunnels are usually not located in the middle of skyscrapers, which was what my mind’s eye saw. But, perhaps in BA’s world they are.

    The second hardest part was the typos. It’s an effort for me to ignore those.

    I agree with Sue’s critique. The setting, for me-as a reader-must be fleshed out quite a bit more so I know exactly where I am as I follow your reluctant hero into his/her valiant mission. (And this is something I’m still learning…) If I’m firmly grounded with the MC in the setting, and typos are fixed, I’d definitely keep reading.

    Thanks for sharing, BA. You’ve got a start to an intriguing story.

  4. This is not a criticism–it’s an honest question.

    You point out, with red fonts, the number of times the writer uses I in character. I (eye, aye) have a question, because I use the first person a lot in my writing.

    How else could a person say I? I’ve not found a substitute. And “the person who is me” is stupid. My grandchildren think it’s stupid, and the guy across the street–the one with the really ugly dog–would think it’s stupid if I ever talked to him. The person who is me, am (is) confused.

    Sorry to write so late in the day.

    • I wrote one first person book Jim, and I admit it was a real issue. Took me a couple rewrites to get it right. You can’t avoid using “I” but you can find ways to structure each paragraph so you don’t open with it and have page after page like that. You just have to be hyper-aware of it. Finding alternatives is an acquired skill. 🙂

      Just opened my book for an example. One page I wrote: “Her skin had a gray pallor and I remembered suddenly she had had a bad case of food poisoning.”

      I could have started the graph: “I remembered she had had a bad case…”

      Or: “The kettle whistled, drawing me to the stove.” My first draft was “I heard the whistle of the kettle and went to the stove.”

      Or: “It had been rude of me to leave her alone…” First writing was “I had been rude to leave Paula standing there alone.”

      Little tweaks can help cut down on “eye eye eye” syndrome. But a caveat: You have to be careful you don’t end up in bad verbal gymnastics just to avoid the pronoun. Sometimes the “I”s have it.

      Does that make sense?

    • There are no stupid questions, Jim. It’s not a matter of substituting a different word for I. It’s a matter of breaking up those passages with other sentences, like using sensory details. Example: Buildings loomed overheard like shadowy spirits. A sweetness tinged the air. Etc., etc, etc… That way, when we use “I” it blends into the story. When writing is too sparse, the I’s stand out. The exception is, if the writer is using short I sentences for effect, either rhythmically or to up the tension.

      Hope this helps. 😊

  5. Once the typos were cleaned up, it had some great moments. It reads almost like it is written by a non English speaker. That would explain the oddly running tunnel, the sand, and igniting, unless, of course, the entire book is told in backstory to a suicide attempt. That would be interesting but a big bite for a new writer.

    The restaurant scene didn’t do much for me. I don’t think it fit with the first half of the page. It was more dystonian fantasy cliche than anything else.

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