First Page Critique: Lost At Sea

By PJ Parrish

Good morning, crime dogs. Well, this one will be short. Has to be, because I can barely type. Lost a fingernail in a home improvement accident and my middle digit is swollen and swathed. DIY tip: Don’t try to hang a heavy mirror without proper wall anchors and if you do, make sure you don’t have your fingers underneath when it falls.

So forgive me my typos and here we go with a First Pager that shows some promise — but also some of the common problems we talked about here at TKZ.  Many thanks to our contributing writer. Please help him/her out with your comments.

CALL ME TRANCE

A few years ago, late May.

Atlantic Ocean, East of the Caribbean Sea

In the dark of night a naked woman, battered and bruised, lifted her face from the ocean’s surface, took a couple of breaths, and resumed the dead-man’s float on the waves. She had lost her direction amid broad, moonlit swells. How long had it been? It felt like an eternity.

Wielding a forced calm in the face of her circumstances, she lifted her head again, let her feet sink, and inhaled several slow breaths to steady her nausea.

How long can I keep this up?

Swiping saltwater from her eyes, she leaned to float on her back and released the tension from her quivering muscles. As her toes broke the surface, chilly in the light breeze and her body drifted like corkwood on wave after wave, the gossamer filaments of her anxious thoughts dissolved into nothingness and she dozed, drifting, unaware.

* * *

Caribbean Sea

British Frigate, HMS Donovan

“Bloody war and medicine,” Surgeon Commander Ian MacRorie mumbled as he slumped against the gray treatment room doorjamb in the wee hours of the morn. “I quit. I won’t treat one more patient.” He peeled off his medical gloves and chucked them into the nearby waste bin, regretting once again that he had condemned himself to this soul-wringing existence.

Ian heard the hum of the engines change, signaling the ship nearing Montserrat. According to the itinerary, HMS Donovan would patrol around Montserrat tonight and early tomorrow, and then would move on to do the same at Anguilla.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat, he thought. Whatever got them closer to home.

He rubbed his burning eyes, took a fortifying breath before heaving his carcass off the doorjamb, and trudged across the gray room to the nearby basin to scrub his hands.

God, I need sleep.

The ship’s ubiquitous gray interior dulled his mind. He felt as though he lost a wee bit of himself with each moment that passed in this gloomy, cheerless environment. All he wanted to do was to crawl into bed and withdraw under the covers. Disappear into oblivion. Ah, yes, only in the arms of Morpheus could he find relief for his physical and mental exhaustion, quiet his tormented thoughts, and escape this gray tomb.

Damn my grief.

Chief Petty Officer Jane Beasley swept into the infirmary. “Surgeon Commander MacRorie, here are Ensign Belgrave’s ultrasound images.”

_________________

Okay, let’s give this a good look-see. I liked the opening image — a battered woman floating, apparently lost at sea, is immediately intriguing. There are some point of view issues, mainly that I wish the writer would have stayed grounded in the woman’s POV instead of hovering above in omniscient. (More on that later). But I also wish this opening scene-ette had more to it.  An opening has to seduce us into wanting to read more and become emotional involved. This is just a truncated tease. Consider, writer, of expanding this into a full chapter somehow, even if it’s just a couple pages. Perhaps you got into too late? If you had shown more of what happened to get her to this point (without spilling all the plot beans), I might feel less frustrated when you switch away. Just a thought…

Now, about that POV issue. This opening graph isn’t bad, but it can be better. You need to make us feel the danger of her situation more. SHOW us, don’t TELL us. Show us through her senses, not your own descriptions:

In the dark of night a naked woman, battered and bruised, lifted her face from the ocean’s surface, took a couple of breaths, and resumed the dead-man’s float on the waves. She had lost her direction amid broad, moonlit swells. How long had it been? It felt like an eternity. Wielding a forced calm in the face of her circumstances, she lifted her head again

You tell us it’s dark. Filter that through her:  She could barely make out the moonlit tips of the ocean’s waves. You tell us she is battered and bruised. Have her make us feel that: Her naked skin felt pin-pricked from hours of being in the water. She was so cold she couldn’t even feel the bruises and cuts that she knew were still there. “Wielding a forced calm in the face of her circumstances” is you talking again. Let her tell us:

A new spasm of panic swelled in her chest and she took two long breaths to force it down. It wasn’t working. She licked her salt-swollen lips and began to recite the rosary, something she had not done since childhood but it was the only thing she could remember right now to calm her screaming brain.

That’s not great, but the point I am trying to make is use HER experience, background and emotions to convey the situation. You the writer, need to stay out of her way.

Now let’s go on to Commander Ian. I don’t mind that you switched locations and characters. But as I said, the ocean scene is so bare-bones, that I feel whip-lashed. Again, try to find ways to filter the emotions only through his consciousness. By using phrases like “regretting once again that he had condemned himself to this soul-wringing existence,”  again you are telling us what he feels rather than letting this emotion emerge through action, thoughts and dialogue. You actually do a pretty good job of showing us his frustration, so this type of phrase is overkill. You could easily lose it.

Now I’d like to do a deep-dive line edit.

CALL ME TRANCE

A few years ago, late May.

Atlantic Ocean, East of the Caribbean Sea I usually discourage the use of taglines like this because 99 times out of 100, this info can be — and should be — gracefully integrated into the narrative. But because of the switch in time, place and character, I’m going to give it a pass here. 

In the dark of night a naked woman, battered and bruised, as I said, convey this through her senses; it’s more powerful. lifted her face from the ocean’s surface, took a couple of breaths, and resumed the dead-man’s float on the waves. She had lost her direction This implies she at some point KNEW where she was. Is that correct? Another chance to deepen this scene amid broad, moonlit swells. How long had it been? It felt like an eternity. Cliche. You can do better. Also, because I think this scene needs more meat, why be coy? Can’t you drop a few hints about how she got here? And if, indeed, she has been floating naked in the ocean “for an eternity” she’d be in hypothermia territory by now. She’s not in the Caribbean, she’s in the Atlantic. 

Wielding a forced calm in the face of her circumstances, Very writerly. See above comments about getting inside her head. lifted her head again, let her feet sink, and inhaled several slow breaths to steady her nausea.

How long can I keep this up? When you use direct thoughts like this without attribution, always put in italics.

Swiping saltwater from her eyes, Again, I think you’re missing chances for great detail here. You imply she’s been floating in the ocean for a long time. Her eyes would be nearly swollen shut from saltwater exposure. The scene, as you describe it, feels way too tranquil, like she’s in a floatation tank at some spa. she leaned nit picking here but this seemed the wrong word, she was floating, then righted herself momentarily (?) then returned to floating? to float on her back and released the tension from her quivering muscles. As her toes broke the surface, chilly in the light breeze Sorry, this scene is way too relaxing! and her body drifted like corkwood Don’t think you “drift” like a cork. You bob maybe on wave after wave, Small thing here but waves are different than swells. the gossamer filaments of her anxious thoughts dissolved into nothingness Very pretty but not very compelling. And again, the emotions in this scene are schizophrenic — you can’t be battered, naked, tired, panicked and afraid and have gossamer thoughts. and she dozed, I had to look this up, but yes, apparently you can sleep while floating but again, it makes no sense in this context. AND IT IS ODDLY PASSIVE. When I read the first graph the first time, I immediately started to root for this woman. By the time she falls asleep, I didn’t care anymore because I know nothing about her. drifting, unaware.

* * *

Caribbean Sea

British Frigate, HMS Donovan

“Bloody war and medicine,” Surgeon Commander This is a character title tag. Don’t use them. Find a graceful way to convey this info in the action Ian MacRorie mumbled as he slumped against the gray treatment room doorjamb in the wee hours of the morn. Clumsy construction here. “I quit. I won’t treat one more patient.” He peeled off his medical gloves and chucked them into the nearby waste bin, regretting once again that he had condemned himself to this soul-wringing existence.

It took me a couple reads to figure out what “Bloody war and medicine” meant. I think it’s Ian cursing both the fact there’s a war going on (what year are we in here, by the way?) and the fact he’s a doctor. But I’m not sure about that. If you start a scene with dialogue, please make it mean something. And the graph needs some cleaning up:

“Damn this bloody war.”

Ian MacRorie roughly peeled off his latex gloves and threw them to the waste bin. He missed but made no move from his position slumped around the door of the sick bay. He looked up to the certificate hanging on the wall above the trash bin.

DEPT OF THE NAVY

DR. IAN MACRORIE

“And damn the day I became a doctor,” he said softly. (or something juicier)

By the way, he’s apparently in a sick bay and just peeled off surgical gloves. What was he doing? Is there a body on a table? Is he peering in a microscope? You can’t leave out details like this.

And I don’t understand his line: “I quit. I won’t treat one more patient.” Who’s he speaking to? Is a voiced thought? Is he literally going to quit? 

Ian heard the hum of the engines change, signaling the ship nearing Montserrat. According to the itinerary, He knew the HMS Donovan would patrol around Montserrat tonight and early tomorrow, and then would move on to do the same at Anguilla.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat, he thought. Whatever got them closer to home.

He rubbed his burning eyes, took a fortifying breath before heaving his carcass This is you talking — you really want to call him a carcass? off the doorjamb, and trudged across the gray room to the nearby basin to scrub his hands.

God, I need sleep.

The ship’s ubiquitous gray interior dulled his mind. I like what you’re going for here, using the gray interior of the ship to stand for his state of mind. So do more with it! Don’t you tell us how he feels, let him show us. 

He scrubbed his hands harder, staring at the gray soap bubbles. Gray, everything here was gray. The walls, the floors, the operating tables, even the damn food. He felt like he was disappearing down a gray tunnel that was narrowing, narrowing, always narrowing down to some dark gray hole. In his dreams, the hole was real and he was never able to get out, waking up in the gray dawn covered in sweat.  

Like the woman in the ocean, make us FEEL his emotional claustrophobia. And if you can, try to draw a parallel with the woman — they are both lost, are they not?

He felt as though he lost a wee bit You used wee twice. Wee is a nice word; this isn’t a nice thing he’s feeling of himself with each moment that passed in this gloomy, cheerless environment. More telling. All he wanted to do was to crawl into bed and withdraw under the covers. Disappear into oblivion. Ah, yes, only in the arms of Morpheus could he find relief for his physical and mental exhaustion, quiet his tormented thoughts, and escape this gray tomb. Very writerly. Very uninvolving.

Damn my grief.Whoa. Now this is interesting. Backstory hint. He’s lost someone. This line would be even more effective if you can find a way to link it to his FIRST line, so by the time we get here, we understand that he is not suffering from professional ennui or worries about the war. THIS IS PERSONAL. Which is way more interesting. Good hint..

Chief Petty Officer Jane Beasley Another character title tag. Don’t use these; introduce her title via the action or dialogue. swept Ugh…nobody sweeps into a room. Also, make this happen through Ian’s senses. He hears a bang of a door and turns to LOOK AT HER. into the infirmary.

“Surgeon Commander This is how you introduce a character’s title MacRorie, here are Ensign Belgrave’s ultrasound images.” Also: ALWAYS set off a new character’s dialogue in its own graph.

That’s it. I think I got through with not too many typos. And I hope our brave writer finds this useful and not too discouraging. I like much of what is happening in this opening — the mysterious woman in the ocean and the tormented doctor.  As I suggested, they are both metaphorically lost at sea.  Good chance for drama ahead. (I suspect the ship will rescue the woman and things will get complicated).  But you need to clean up some basic craft problems to make this shine.  Keep going…there’s good stuff to be mined here, writer.

 

7+
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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

16 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Lost At Sea

  1. PJ, commiserations.

    Don’t tell me you broke that mirror. You know what they say about the bad luck lasting for seven career-wrecking years?

    Will you consider breaking into voice acting?

    😀

    To me, the two major tools of engagement when it comes to First pages are the what, – what’s happening – and the how – how it’s being conveyed. At least one of those has to be working for me to carry on.

    Here, it’s not so much that little is happening, as that the richness of the situation is being withheld from the reader for no apparent reason.

    If the opening mini-scene is essential, why not turn it into a full-fledged prologue or even a chapter proper? I take it the woman is not the PoV character and that’s the reason why she remains unnamed. But the transition is jarring. Just when a hint of rapport is starting to kick in, the author switches time, place and character. All the more reason to root it out and retell it somewhere else.

    I could be wrong, but it seems to me the author stuck with that otherwise obviously extraneous naked woman’s predicament because he figured a pissed-off naval officer cursing mildly wouldn’t cut it as an opening. Better to make him interesting from the get-go. He’s the PoV character the reader is going to follow through the next 300 pages, isn’t he?

    I do not want to come across as discouraging. With hard work, this piece shall eventually shine.

    I have been meaning to ask TKZ if any of you have read the latest Le Carré or Lethal White by J K Rowling, under her male pen name. I can’t remember whether it’s been done here or not. But going through whole books of very successful contemporary authors and dissecting the techniques in their repertoire would be very instructional.

    And there’s a speech-to-.text functionality somewhere in Windows, provided you first hit the right key, that is. Endure that initial jolt of pain, PJ. You brought it on yourself, remember?

    😀

    A speedy recovery!

    • NR,
      Yup, this was my main problem with the submission, that, as you note, there is no time to empathize with the woman before we are jerked into a new realm. I would tell the writer that I had this very same issue with one of my own books. I wrote a first chapter with my protag arriving in a new city for a new job. While it was necessary (because I had to show his transition) it wasn’t very compelling. So I wrote a scene in which an unnamed woman, fleeing for her life, is so terrified she jumps into a small boat at night and tries to escape in the face of an oncoming hurricane. It was a ruse, but it worked, but I had to build the tension of her escape into a fully realized scene and chapter. Then I reworked chapter 2 into just not an intro-my-protag scene but a scene where he is called out to a mangrove where a body has washed up, post-storm. I think this might be the route for this writer to engage us more. If this woman is important to the plot, make us care.

      • p.s. the mirror didn’t break. But we gave up and found a lighter one. 🙂

  2. I agree with Kris. The woman in the first snippet isn’t believable. I did a ton of research into hypothermia for CLEAVED. Which is both terrifying and disorienting. Let us experience the horror of being adrift at sea. She could die if she doesn’t get rescued soon.
    The first two stages of hypothermia are…
    Stage 1: shivering, reduced circulation.
    Stage 2: slow, weak pulse, slowed breathing, lack of coordination, irritability, confusion, and sleepiness.
    Once she gets to the third stage she’s near-death. There’s also a very specific way to treat hypothermia, so if/when she’s rushed to the hospital, you need to get it right. Hint: a warm blanket is not enough. Your character will NEED medical attention. Research, research, research. Then send the reader on a visceral thrill ride. Make us fear for her safety. The rescue will mean more then.

    • Really invaluable input, Sue. I always research medical conditions to incorporate symptoms. Then pick them as tensions escalate to get that needed sense of panic or near-death weakness. Good stuff, Sue.

  3. Bravo for struggling through with an injury, Kris. Holy cow!

    Your line by line feedback is spot on & outstanding per usual. That opening scene DEMANDS more. Way too short. I’d be worried about sharks or becoming fish food. The fear is missing. Drowning is a terrible way to die. The author needs to fill out this scene & your comments will help a great deal.

    This author REALLY IMPRESSED ME. Great bones here. I hope he/she takes heed of your stellar input. Thanks, Kris.

    • Yes, good bones here. We’ve all been there, right? Sometimes you overwrite and sometimes you underwriter. Finding the balance is key.

  4. Good critique and follow-up comments. I agree with all of it. (And shall put them to use in my current WIP.) 🙂

    One thing that occurred to me: I’m not sure one can float on the back and drift off to sleep without sinking within a minute or so. Salt water makes the body buoyant, I know, but it seems like the victim would continuously wake up with her face under water. I’ve swum (or is it swam?) in the ocean before when I was a college student in LA, and I don’t think I’d stay afloat very long if I dozed off.

    Other than that nit, I really like this submission. Even though Brave Author needs to make me care more about this poor woman, and give a few more hints about her situation-and that of the doctor-I’d definitely keep reading this one.

    • Deb,
      I had no idea about the floating/sleeping thing and thought no way when I first read it. But apparently, you can drift off in salt water and not drown. But my research suggests you can do this for only moments at the time. I would think the waves would prevent this. Regardless, I think it is unbelievable for the average reader.

  5. Always appreciate these first page critiques.

    One of the things that discourages me, as a reader, from continuing on with a novel, is these initial who-where-why-what-am I? introductions. Because now, I’ve got to decide whether I’m dealing with a loonie, someone lost in some kind of existential wanderlust–or wonderlust, come to think of it, or someone dealing with nothing more than a hangover.

    The most famous novel of all time that deals with a simple pivot point at the beginning of a descent INTO disorientation begins with. “Call me Ishmael.” Ai-ee! (In the 1950s, Ai-ee meant that a poor one of some kind had discovered something astonishing, supernatural, out-of-the-ordinary in his world, or, simply, a white guy in a pith helmet.) Ai-ee. Ishmael pretty quickly gives us a plethora of detail, rich imagery, about a real place (okay, okay). Stuff that I can identify with. In my mind, I can place my own experiences into the middle of that place. Perhaps there was a peanut seller, bagging his goody-gump into the red-and-white bags that would sell in those days for two or three cents. I can see myself purchasing a bag and walking down, munching and nodding at the things that Mr. Melville wanted me to see.

    And from there, over hundreds of pages, thousands of words, we watch a man descend into an ego that must duel with a whale–an ego that has now lost sanity and purpose.

    But in these kinds of cloudy, existential openings, I have to decide whether or not I care to invest $2.99 on my credit card, or $24.95 on my credit card, in some few moments of reading about a person I don’t know whether I care enough about to follow the reason for her being in the cold, debilitating situation she’s in. Maybe she deserves to be there. Maybe she’s there through the ruinous, vindictive behavior of another, or others.

    I don’t want to be mean. I’m just saying that these kinds of beginnings don’t give me enough of an emotional stake to decide to invest my time, money, and warm and sunny Sunday afternoons (which, at my age, are now foreseeably limited).

    But let me start with Mr. Melville’s place: “There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.”

    Okay, Mr. Melville. I’m on board. Let’s go. Let’s see where this takes us.

    • Call me Trance took me to the great white whale too. And the thought of, “you ain’t Mehlville, get on with it.”

    • Excellent points. I esp liked your line: “I can see myself purchasing a bag and walking down, munching and nodding at the things that Mr. Melville wanted me to see.”

      That is what a reader longs for, that immediate connection, be it benign (peanuts) or panicky (lost at sea.) Thanks!

  6. Dear Author – there is a lot of good information in these comments. Read over them and think about it.

    The woman in the Atlantic was totally not believable for me. I almost stopped reading right there. Others have covered most of the points I would make, so I am not going to add more. But take a good look at the other comments.

    That leaves Commander MacRorie. Sorry, this section is just a mess. It has no time frame. World War II? Present Day? Faulklands? Are they at war or at peace?

    Cruise ships have itineraries. War ships have orders. If the ship was at war, it is possible the head of the medical wing would not know their route or plans.

    Commanders are command rank. Senior officers. A Surgeon Commander would not be dulled with the gray paint. He might be tired of it. It would be possible he has been in the Navy a decade. The same with disgust at his bloody gloves. He has been doing surgery a long time. Unless this story is leading to his retirement, I am not seeing it.

    Why, why why, did you feel the need to drop into a British accent? The British slang is your words not his.

    Overall, pick one opening and go with it. I hope these two characters fit together in some way. Page one is not the place for it.

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