When Verbs Go Rogue: First Page Critique

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments will follow.

Monstruo Cubano

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your first page. A public critique takes guts, and I admire your courage.

From this small sample I assume s/he is just beginning their writing journey. So, TKZers, please be gentle and kind in your comments and suggestions (I know you will).

With that in mind, I offer the following critique.

Using a foreign language on the first page is a huge risk. As someone who doesn’t speak Spanish, my eyes glazed over when I read the title of the library. It wasn’t until the second read-through that I stopped long enough to figure out “La Libreria” meant “The Library.” That’s a problem. Most readers won’t bother to read the scene a second, third, or fourth time.

For more on using foreign languages, see this 1st Page Critique.

I want to point something out that you might not be aware of, Brave Writer. Note all the words in blue…

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Look at all those strong verbs! You didn’t take the easy road, like “walked” for example. Strong verbs create a more vivid mental image. Problem is there’s way too many. In this short sample I counted at least 43 verbs. The second thing that jumped out at me was all the chaos in this first page. Don’t get me wrong, conflict is a good thing. It’s how we use it that matters. If the conflict doesn’t drive the plot in some way, then we need to rethink our opener. I’m not saying that’s what occurred here, but I want you to ask yourself…

Does the library or shopkeeper play a pivotal role in this story? What are you trying to accomplish with this scene? Does this opener set up a future scene? The answer should be yes. Otherwise, you’re wasting precious real estate.

For more on the best place to start a novel, see this post.

I love how you took advantage of smell, rather than relying only on sight. When I finished reading this submission, I felt like I needed a shower to get rid of the cat stench. Good job! We want our reader’s emotions to match our point-of-view character.

Now, take a deep breath, Brave Writer. This next part might be a bumpy road for you, but I’m hoping you’ll find value in my demonstration of how to write tighter and more concise.

Monstruo Cubano (Consider changing the title to English. Don’t limit your target audience. Back in 2014, Joe Moore wrote an excellent post on the subject.)

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. Brook Harper squeaked in horror when she stepped inside La Libreria de Juan Carolos, the closest library to her new apartment in Miami. (reworded to ground the reader) She gaped at the Rows of mildewed shelves housed lined not with books, but broken dishes and food-encrusted utensils instead of books. Did she have the right address? (added to show her confusion; for more on Show vs. Tell, see this post, which also dips a toe into distant vs. intimate/deep POV.) When she’d arrived at the airport several weeks ago, colorful displays advertised tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books, but this place didn’t even resemble those brochures.

Venturing several steps farther inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into littered the front window, the outside world obscured by a thick layer of grime.

Stay in active voice, not passive. An easy way to spot passive voice is to add “by zombies” at the end. If the sentence still makes sense, it’s passive. Example: Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window by zombies. Since the sentence still makes sense, it’s a passive construction.

Where did they keep the Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginners Spanish books? Brook hurried down an aisle, but leaped (leapt is archaic, use leaped) leapt wildly (adverbs and too many verbs and/or adjectives muddy the writing. For more on “writing tight,” see this post) into the air when a . A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches. I think “swarming” here creates a good visual, so I’m leaving it alone. Be sure to read JSB’s post, though. Too much description detracts from the action.

Brook skittered backwards (“backwards” is the British spelling of “backward.” Also, “skittered” might not be the best word choice. I’d rather you show us the action. Example: Brook’s boots shuffled backward), knocking into a shelf. Dishes crashed to the floor. (added for sentence variation; for more, see this first page critique) and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted (If Brook doesn’t even know beginners’ Spanish, how does she know SALIDA means EXIT? Something to think about).

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot wedged under peeling linoleum and she sailed through the air, landed face-first she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Cat urine coated her palms and one cheek. Vomit lurched up her throat. Why did she ever come to this hellhole? Maybe her new boss wouldn’t notice her bilingual inadequacies. Good looks had gotten her this far (or whatever fits the character).

If you’re not using dialogue between two characters, inner dialogue allows the reader to get to know Brook. Who is she? Why is she in Miami? Where is she from? Is she shy or extroverted? We don’t necessarily need to know these things, but you do. For more on building a character, see this post and this post).

Okay, I’ll stop there.

TKZers, how might you improve this first page? Please add the advice I skipped. Together we can help this brave writer up his/her game.

 

 

7+

21 thoughts on “When Verbs Go Rogue: First Page Critique

  1. Great critique, Sue! Although I liked the atmosphere that the author created (almost a bit Harry Potterish?), I was wondering why Brook would persevere – one look at the mildewed shelves with food encrusted utensils and I’d be out of there! Perhaps it’s not obvious yet, but I didn’t feel that there was a purpose to the scene and I wonder if this is the right place to start the story. Brook needs a good reason to be there other than just buying a book, unless she is desperate to get the book rightaway, in which case nothing would stop her. Why is buying this book so important?
    Good luck, Brave Writer. I like your voice.

    • I agree, Linda. If the library has nothing to do with the plot, s/he needs a better opener. Like you, if I walked into a place like this, in this condition, I wouldn’t stick around.

      Thanks for adding key suggestions! Brook needs a better GOAL.

  2. La Libreria de Juan Carlos is actually a bookstore in Spain.

    Why would Brook be thinking about the Miami Airport? If I were her, I’d be thinking “Where the heck are the books?”

    Forgive me, but Brook being determined to find a book in a space where there is a lot of trash but absolutely no books makes her seem not very smart. Why wouldn’t she just get out of there?

    The switch of POV to Juan Carlos is jarring. Stay with Brook.

    I love zombie movies. Could be fun.

    • Wow, Cynthia. This first page didn’t even hint at Spain. I nodded all the way through your comments. Excellent points. Thank you!

      Brave Writer, how would the average reader know where the library is located? The name is NOT enough.

  3. Except, she is in the streets of Old Havana when she finally exits the library. From this first page, I figured she had flown to Cuba from the Miami airport to begin a new job, and found her employer needing someone who spoke Spanish? I would have looked inside and tried another place.

    • Good point, Becky. Without some sort of context to ground the reader, Old Havana slipped right by me. The city is in Cuba, which is even more baffling, considering La Libreria de Juan Carlos is in Spain, according to Cynthia.

  4. (Consider changing the title to English. Don’t limit your target audience. Back in 2014, Joe Moore wrote an excellent post on the subject.)

    If a nokozjumi were to chase you, would it, (A), chase you because it didn’t like you? (B), chase you because it wanted to eat you alive? (C), be repelled by citronella? (D), want you out of its territory? Or, (E), want to carry your bags at Haneda Airport? Does an unfamiliar, foreign name add further interest to a title? Would people buy a novel that has the name Nokozjumi in it?

    I ask because I’m intrigued by the title, Monstruo Cubano. I think it provokes my curiosity. I’m wanting to know, right away, if Monstru Cubano is a cigar, a drink, a dish served at a southern Miami Cuban restaurant, or the curve taken when it is kicked by a huge, terrifying Cuban player nicknamed Monstru, whose family fled to Miami after his Dad killed all the 15 policemen sent to arrest his family by the Policía Nacional Revolucionaria, in the dead if night.

    See, I think the foreign words add much intrigue and interest to the title, and I’m not certain how they would stop a potential reader from selecting it off the shelf, picking it out of the Kindle listings, or purchasing it. I don’t wish at all to insult you. But I see the advice as dated. It sounds as if it comes out of the days when white, smelly, cigar-smoking agents advised singers, actors, and others to Americanize their names because foreign names turned off American audiences. Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III, for example, merely shortened his name, but it was still Cuban. We knew him as Desi Arnaz. I think I’d hate it if Lucille Ball’s husband name was named Joe Smith.

    If the Spanish title is really so of-putting, couldn’t the writer simply add English words to it? She called it Monstru Cubano. Monstru Cubano Came at Night. The Assassin Monstru Cubano.

    So, then. What is a nokozjumi?

    It’s a good question.

    • To answer your question, Jim, no, I would not buy a book with a foreign language in the title. Instead, I would assume the story wasn’t meant for me. Fiction is an escape. If I keep having to look up words, it’d ruin the experience. If the writer wants to limit his/her audience to only Spanish-speaking readers, then s/he’ll limit the book’s success. Whether we like it or not, English is the industry standard.

      Would I buy a book entitled “Nokozjumi”? Nope. Not because I’m a racist, but because I don’t speak the language. Without turning to Google, a nokoziumi could be fluffy kitten or an ant. And that’s why using a foreign language is a risk.

      If the title was The Assassin Monstru Cubano, that changes things. Now we have context to understand the foreign language.

  5. Good critique, Sue. Agreed. I’m mildly intrigued by this opening and what might happen later to the MC, but the verb usage had me tripping over every other sentence.

    The one thing that had me thoroughly confused, though, was where in the dickens is she? In a bookstore that’s not a bookstore, right, but where? You mentioned Miami, probably because of “Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior…”, but I did a search on Old Havana, and it’s in Cuba. Maybe Miami has a section with the same name. The description of the setting, taken as a whole, might place her in Cuba, having just arrived from Miami? But I don’t even know anymore if Cuba has a tourist trade. Very confusing.

    There is a germ of a story here, no doubt. BA, I want you to know that I learned a lot from this critique about my own story-telling by taking each of Sue’s comments to heart, and also clicking on the links she provided. I always learn at TKZ.

    • I was also confused about where the story takes place, Deb. Clearly. I thought we were in Miami. #readerfail 😀

      Thanks for the kind words. I’m so glad you benefited from the critique.

  6. Good story advice from others. I’m going to make one comment about sentence structure/grammar since it’s easy to fall into these patterns that can become pitfalls.

    Watch out for overuse of “ing” verb construction, especially at the beginning of a sentence. First, it’s too easy to make mistakes with dangling modifiers (if that’s the correct term. I’m not big on labels). An agent spoke at a conference and said she’d automatically reject any submission with more than one ‘ing’ construction in the first pages.

    In this paragraph, all the sentences begin with ‘ing’ verbs.

    Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

    The first sentence is an example. Who or what is sprinting down the aisle? As written, it’s “something” but I know you mean Brook.

    In addition, the “ing” construction means simultaneous action, so things have to be happening at the same time. I did a post on my own blog a while back about this. https://terryodell.com/dont-misuse-ing-words/

  7. Forgive me if this is too in the weeds but it jumped out at me. Every writer has a tic (or two). This writer should watch out for over-using commas and weak gerund phrases to begin sentences:

    Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled…
    Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot…

    And this relates to the passive opening sentence comma construction: Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper…

    The over-used construction is: Action — comma — action. Look for ways to eliminate those comma hiccups and make the action into one seamless sentence. As Sue did with her rewrite of the opening line:

    Brook Harper squeaked in horror when she stepped inside La Libreria de Juan Carolos.

    Much livelier! And it gets your girl’s name out front instead of Juan’s.

    And I second Sue’s observation that there are some good muscular verbs here. Good job, writer. But, as she says, if you pump-up EVERY verb, you tend to look like you’re just showing off. The active verbs work best when they have room to stand out. Sometimes a walk is just a walk…

  8. Thank you, Brave Author, for showing us your first page. I love a good horror story, and I think that’s what this is, so you caught my attention. This was my fave sentence: “His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.” It’s a description that made me cringe (good for you!).

    I am not sure where we are. At first I thought Cuba, then Miami, but maybe Spain. Then back to Cuba with the “old Havana.” You could ground us better in the setting up front.

    Sue gave you such a helpful review! I, too, noticed the number of strong verbs that, all put together, call attention to themselves and away from the story. Also the filtering verbs (recalled, spotted, discovered) took me back a step from the action when I wanted to be in the action with poor Brook.

    Gnashing, yellow teeth . . . eek! (Bravo, Brave Author.)

    Good luck on your continued writing journey.

    • I’m so glad you pointed out the filtering verbs. Priscilla. Thank you! I also loved that line. Great imagery.

      Brave Writer, words like “recalled” are telling words (aka filtering verbs) that distance the narrator. Ideally, we strive for a closer, more intimate point-of-view (I included a link in the critique).

  9. Hey Brave Author,
    I like the vibe of this first page. Might be wrong but it feels like an interesting take on the usual dystopian zombie story, with a big ol’ side of gluttony.
    I’m intrigued.
    One thing that stood out for me was the repetitive start to sentences:

    Brooke hurried…
    Brooke skittered…
    Brooke launched…
    Brooke sprang…
    Brooke burst…

    Would be worth mixing it up and varying the sentence structure a little to keep the reader more engaged.
    Best of luck!

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