My Brief Life and Tragic Death – First Page Critique  

 By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Please welcome another Brave Author who’s submitted a first page for a story entitled:

My Brief Life and Tragic Death

Chapter 1. Purple Pumpkins

I met Frank and survived an assassination attempt between lunch and teatime.

I suppose it started with the whistling. I had the palace library all to myself, as usual. The hush was shattered when a boy walked in, whistling. He caught sight of me and approached. It’s hard to smirk and whistle at the same time, but he managed it. When he reached my table, he stopped whistling and stood smiling at me. It was a good smile. It invited me to smile back, which I didn’t, of course.

He was a handsome boy of about thirteen, a year older than myself, with a haircut from the California side of the gateway. I liked him at once, which annoyed me. I didn’t get along with my fellow children.

His smile and likability made me uncomfortable. I gave him a cold stare. “This is a library, you know.”

He looked around in pretended astonishment.

I added, “You can tell from all the books? At least, I hope you can.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Hey, maybe you can help me. I’m looking for a sweet little girl named Flavia.”

I placed a bookmark and closed my book. “Are you being irritating on purpose?”

“Of course I am. How about you?”

I was taken aback. “Why?”

“Look, babe, do you know where Flavia is or not?”

“I’m Princess Flavia.”

“Then your portraits don’t do you justice. I like the freckles especially. A freckle is a beacon of honesty in a mendacious world. Allow me to introduce myself. Frank Barron, at your service.” He stuck out his hand.

If you ignored his actual words, he was wonderfully well-spoken, especially for his age. He had that command of language which only an intelligent person who reads a great many books develops, but without the stiff delivery of someone like me, for whom books are their only friends. I was a bit regretful when I said, “Princesses don’t shake hands.”

“Oh, that’s all right. I’m not a princess.”

I rolled my eyes. “But I am.”

~~~

First impressions:

Let’s start with the title: My Brief Life and Tragic Death.

It implies the first-person narrator, 12-year-old Princess Flavia, is apparently already dead. Is this fantasy? Magic realism? Is it similar to Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, told by a murdered teenager watching her family deal with the repercussions of her death?

I’m not sure what’s happening but I’m intrigued.

The first line drops a provocative bomb about an assassination attempt. That definitely qualifies as a disturbance in anyone’s life. But the tone struck me as too casual and matter-of-fact. I can’t imagine a 12-year-old girl, even a self-possessed princess, being this blasé about someone trying to kill her.

Next, the scene flips back to earlier that day. Flavia is alone in the palace library when her reading is interrupted by the entrance of a whistling boy who’s looking for her. This also qualifies as a disturbance, although on a much smaller scale than an assassination attempt.

Foreshadowing and disturbances, major and minor, kick off a good start, enticing the reader into the plot. Nice job, Brave Author.

Setting and Time:

The mention of teatime suggests the locale is the British Isles, so a haircut from the California side of the gateway sounds exotic and faraway to the cloistered Flavia. Although the haircut and the gateway aren’t clearly defined yet, that’s okay. Longer descriptions could bog down the forward momentum at this point. I’m willing to wait for more explanation.

The time period isn’t defined. Physical books in a library could be contemporary but might also indicate a past before digital books. Again, I’m willing to wait to find out.

Characterizations:

Right away, Flavia’s character interests me. She sounds much older than her age. She’s alienated from people and may be lonely but won’t admit it: I didn’t get along with my fellow children.

She doesn’t react in predictable ways: His smile and likability made me uncomfortable.

And she’s irritated by her reactions, as if she can’t control her own mind: I liked him at once, which annoyed me.

The author raises questions: Why does Flavia react like this? Why does she expect herself to be detached from normal human emotions? As a princess, is she pressured to behave a certain way? Does she secretly want to rebel against those conventions?

Flavia is a character in conflict with herself. Already she’s presented enough complicated psychology to make a reader want to learn more about her. Well done.

Her observation of Frank is not superficial. Like a normal adolescent girl, she notices he is handsome but she also digs deeper, probing into his character.

Frank is brash, cocky, yet charming. She’s interested but, for some unknown reason, can’t allow herself to like him.

Brave author, in a very few lines, you’ve skillfully painted a picture not only of Frank’s appearance but also his personality. 

Flavia quickly sets Frank straight that she is a princess who won’t tolerate being called “babe.” Frank isn’t at all fazed by being put in his place and goes on to eloquently charm her, while at the same time giving readers a quick sketch of what Flavia looks like: Then your portraits don’t do you justice. I like the freckles especially. A freckle is a beacon of honesty in a mendacious world. 

In first person, it’s difficult to find effective ways for a character to describe herself without resorting to cliches like looking in a mirror. This was a nice blending of dialogue and description that didn’t sound forced. 

Voice:

The humor works well. The banter between aloof Flavia and smartass Frank is entertaining. They keep trying to one-up each other, competing over who gets the last word. That creates ongoing tension between them. The reader wants to find out who wins the verbal jousting.

The author also nicely juxtaposes that humor with Flavia’s wistful longing for connection with another human.

The following is my favorite sentence:

He had that command of language which only an intelligent person who reads a great many books develops, but without the stiff delivery of someone like me, for whom books are their only friends.

That really pins down both personalities and poignantly conveys Flavia’s loneliness.

Audience:

Flavia’s age indicates the target audience may be Young Adult. Overall, I like her voice, even though she sounds much more mature than an average 12-year-old. I know intelligent, articulate, well-read kids like her so she comes across as unusual but still realistic.

Line editing:

What if you rearrange the order of the first sentence like this?

Between lunch and teatime, I met Frank Barron and survived an assassination attempt.

Switching the assassination attempt to the end of the sentence creates a more dramatic punchline. 

Another thought about the first line: it could come off as a gimmicky ploy unless the author delivers a payoff within a few pages.

Is Frank the savior who thwarts the attempt on her life? That creates a compelling reason for an ongoing relationship between them.

Or is he the would-be assassin?

Because Flavia already knows what happens (even though the reader doesn’t), she could foreshadow a little more.To raise tension, perhaps she wonders how he got past security into the palace library.

The phrase If you ignored his actual words confused me.

Here’s what Frank says: “Then your portraits don’t do you justice. I like the freckles especially. A freckle is a beacon of honesty in a mendacious world. Allow me to introduce myself. Frank Barron, at your service.”

His “actual words” show a sophisticated command of language so I don’t understand why Flavia talks about ignoring them. Maybe delete the phrase: If you ignored his actual words, 

~~~

Overall, this first page works well. The characters are likable, multi-dimensional, and complex. There’s conflict, tension, and suspense.

Additionally, the author proof-read and submitted a clean page without typos, misspellings, or grammatical errors.

YA, fantasy, and magic realism are not genres I’m terribly familiar with. But the Brave Author did a good job of pulling me into this intriguing submission. Thank you for sharing it!

~~~

TKZers: What do you think of Flavia and Frank? Are you interested in the premise? Any suggestions for our Brave Author?

5+

27 thoughts on “My Brief Life and Tragic Death – First Page Critique  

  1. Not much of a YA fan myself, but enough of an alternate future SF reader to pose the following, if I may…

    I had a differing thought about time and setting, that being a post-semi-apocalyptic future in which San Francisco or the peninsula across the Bay have become separate fiefdoms/countries of “California” and wherever/whatever Flavia’s home might be – all of this inferred from “…the California side of the gateway…” (as in Golden Gate?).

    Also, his reference to her portraits, as opposed to “pictures” gives this a somewhat “feudal” or non-technological feel…

    If this is the setting, then books and libraries would be rarities, and her reaction to Frank’s being well-spoken becomes a bit more understandable ~ though how he got through “palace” security remains a question I’d keep reading to discover ~ as well as confirm my setting suspicions.

    And one last question (for now, anyway), is Frank the would-be assassin? Or the savior? Or the “side-kick…?”

    Next page(s), por favor… !

    • George, great thoughts about possible reasons for the phrase “across the gateway.” Frank’s role could well be the sidekick.

      Definitely had a fantasy/sci-fi feel. I too would read the next page…and the next…

  2. I don’t read YA but I enjoyed both characters and their interaction. I thought this was a great first page. Well done.

    • Carl, our Brave Author will be heartened by your comments. Their humorous interaction also drew me into the story. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. I liked this first page also. And, like you, Debbie, I don’t read this genre much…but I might turn the page on this one.

    I think I went to school with Frank, always using big words and strutting into the classroom like he was the prof instead of a lowly student like the rest of us. And I kind of identify with Flavia, insecure, not wanting anyone to know it, so remaining aloof. At least, that’s how I acted when I was her age. Now I just remain aloof. 🙂

    The use of “California” threw me a bit. I couldn’t figure out where this library was, or what decade I was in, but, like you, I’m willing to wait for it. The chapter title seemed out of place to me, but hopefully by the end of the chapter, the meaning would be clear. I don’t usually see chapter titles in the genres I read, but perhaps in YA, it’s more common.

    My fave line: “It’s hard to smirk and whistle at the same time, but he managed it.” Yep-the Frank I went to school with.

    “The phrase, ‘If you ignored his actual words’ confused me.”

    Debbie, I took this as an indictment of all of his words, not just the previous paragraph. I thought Flavia was saying that although well-spoken, Frank was basically, as you stated, a smartass.

    Good job, Anon! Your characters (they’re kind of C.S. Lewisish in my mind-think Eustace Scrubbs for Frank and Susan for Flavia-Chronicles of Narnia) are fleshed and identifiable with distinct voices within the first few paragraphs, while heightening tension and my curiosity at the same time. Now I’m going to go revisit some of my characters and bring them out of the shadows a bit. 🙂

    • Deb, thanks for introducing us to “your” Frank. Brave Author did a good job with characterization if it triggers the memory of a *real* person you knew.

      I also thought the chapter title “Purple Pumpkins” was a little odd, perhaps indicating the story is fantasy. BA seems competent enough to tie it in by the end of the chapter.

      BA should be encouraged by your comments. Thanks, Deb.

  4. I would definitely keep reading. Both characters are interesting. The world creation is subtle but inviting.

  5. Maybe I am too much of a time and space person. California, castle, Flavia, Frank, reading books, are bouncing me all around. When and where this castle is would be nice. Maybe it is in the next few pages, I hope so.

    Flavia, really doesn’t speak like a 12 year old. Maybe she does for the time and place she lives. There it is again.

    Frank reminds me of Han Solo. Maybe I need to read the Zelda books. But that is what I picture.

    I really, really need to hear more about this assassination. Maybe as a princess it is an ever present danger. Maybe Frank saves her, maybe he is the killer. It just seemed sort of tossed out there.

    Overall, interesting. Not sure if it is right for me.

    • Thanks for your input, Alan. Yes, the assassination attempt definitely adds tension.

      A thought just occurred to me about Flavia’s offhand treatment of it–considering the title, My Brief Life and Tragic Death, maybe the narrator is telling the story after Flavia dies from assassination?

  6. I rarely drop in on first page critiques, but for this one, I had to. I loved every word of the story. The writer’s voice is as strong as any I’ve read, and I already like the characters. I question the level of the vocabulary for 12- and 13-year-olds, but the writing is strong enough to give me confidence that the knows what s/he’s doing. Bravo!

  7. Like many others here, I don’t normally read YA, but a fellow reader has pushed enough stellar titles my way that I am now open to the idea…as long as the author does what this one did!
    Good opening line (altho I agree with the suggested tweaks), good handling of first person POV, great spark between well-rounded characters. And most especially NOT the whiny, “diary prose” of most YA!
    I agree that Flavia & Frank remind me a great deal of CS Lewis’ beloved characters. And that’s okay! It gives me a point of familiarity even though I know they’re not Susan & Eustace.
    I had the same thoughts as George when it came to clues about setting & time reference. As a great fan of alternate history settings. I would be more than happy to give this one a whirl.
    Great job, Anon!

    • Thanks for chiming in, Cyn. A number of us have mentioned YA is not our preferred genre yet this excerpt still intrigued us. If a writer is skilled enough to attract readers who don’t normally read that genre, s/he has done their job well.

  8. I love these two! Bookish girl, smart boy who must step on his tongue and get smacked repeatedly. What’s not to like? The author had me at “whistle.” It has a fantasy feel – palace intrigues, maybe masked villains or poison-pouring hags. Firecracker dialogue. Can I have the next installment please?

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