First Page Critique: Oh By The Way

It’s seems a while since I did a first page critique  (though it probably isn’t) but time this year has been running in very strange ways – but it feels good to get back down to the nitty gritty of what makes a first page work. Today’s submission, ‘Oh By The Way’ provides a great introduction to the role of humor and setting the tone for a POV right from the start. Enjoy – my comments follow.

Oh By The Way

I didn’t go out with a bang. It was more of a thud. When the car hit me, all I could think  was, “Oh, great.” My body lifted ridiculously out of my shoes on impact, then fell to the ground so quickly that the rest of me didn’t follow. Thud.

I watched my crumpled body from above and thought, “I’m going to be late for work.” I  floated higher into the London sky, past the smog and into the clouds before realizing the whole cartoonish scene had been my death. “Lovely,” I folded my arms across my chest and rose into the heavens a bit pissed off.

Without any transition at all, I found myself standing in front of a bland sort of train station. It sat under a hazy orange sky surrounded by nothing at all. I turned in all directions and noted not a tree or a bird. The only sound came from my shoes crunching tired-looking pebbles beneath my feet.

“Well, my shoes are back. That’s clever,” I thought. But, the rest of it was quite disappointing. I mean, there was no ceremony to it. I didn’t exactly expect trumpets, but a  kazoo perhaps could have been spared.

I let out a frustrated giggle and noticed a card hanging from my neck by a lanyard. It had a mortifying picture of me with an astonished look on my face and the words “DISTRACTED  DRIVER” bolded in red.

“Bloody hell,” I said out loud.

My ears perked at the sound of pebbles crunching to my right as a plump little woman came walking toward me out of seemingly nowhere. She reminded me of my middle school  English teacher, except with better shoes.

“Oh, my dear,” she reached her hand out to me and I awkwardly took it. “How are you?”  she asked.

“Incredulous,” I blurted out. I was still gripping the photo around my neck and lamely held it up to her. “I was a pedestrian, not a distracted driver,” I said. As if getting my name tag right was what really mattered.

“Oh, not to worry. That’s just a conversation starter,” the woman smiled.

The sound of footsteps suddenly surrounded us on all sides. Beings began taking shape out of the orange haze and we were no longer alone.

General Comments:

I enjoyed this first page for its breezy tone and humor, setting the scene (I assume) for a story set in some kind of afterlife. My favorite line – ‘I didn’t exactly expect trumpets, but a  kazoo perhaps could have been spared.’ – provides a great illustration for how a POV can really come to life in just one sentence. This first page was a little less successful in other ways – mainly because of some uneven writing and lack of real imagery (there seemed to be a lot of non-descriptions like ‘bland train station’ or ‘not a tree or a bird’ which didn’t really add much to the story). Given that most of my specific comments are more directed at these kind of issues, I’ve copied the first page below with my notes embedded, as this illustrates what I’m trying to say a bit better. Despite these issues, though, I do think that this first page has a lot of potential. Starting with an ‘out-of-body’ death experience has been done before, however, so I would urge the writer to really hone those humor skills and make every word, in every sentence count. I love the Douglas Adams style of humor, which is hard to pull off, so overall I think with some more revising, this could be a very successful, wryly funny, first page.

Here is the version of this first page with my specific comments embedded in bold:

Oh By The Way [odd title but could work]

I didn’t go out with a bang. It was more of a thud. When the car hit me, all I could think  was, “Oh, great.” My body lifted ridiculously out of my shoes on impact, then fell to the ground so quickly that the rest of me  [bit awkward as reader left wondering what is the ‘rest of me’ is if not the body…maybe say my consciousness or my brain or my thoughts?] didn’t follow. Thud.

I watched my crumpled body from above and thought, “I’m going to be late for work.” I  floated higher into the London sky, past the smog and into the clouds before realizing the whole cartoonish scene had been my death. “Lovely,” I folded my arms across my chest and rose into the heavens a bit pissed off. [this works well! Like the tone/POV]

Without any transition at all [clunky], I found myself standing in front of a bland sort of train station [?? bland feels like a non-description that doesn’t add anything] . It sat under a hazy orange sky surrounded by nothing at all [except a colored sky…so this seems again more of a non description]. I turned in all directions and noted not a tree or a bird [so why say this? Again doesn’t add anything]. The only sound came from my shoes crunching tired-looking pebbles beneath my feet [so there are pebbles – not nothing at all].

“Well, my shoes are back. That’s clever,” I thought. [I’m assuming the narrator is also dressed – maybe an observation about clothes would also help reader visualize the person] But, the rest of it was quite disappointing. I mean, there was no ceremony to it. I didn’t exactly expect trumpets, but a  kazoo perhaps could have been spared. [Love this line!]

I let out a frustrated giggle [I can’t visualize what that looks like…] and noticed a card hanging from my neck by a lanyard. It had a mortifying picture of me with an astonished look on my face and the words “DISTRACTED  DRIVER” bolded in red.

“Bloody hell,” I said out loud.

My ears perked at the sound of pebbles crunching to my right as a plump little woman came walking toward me out of seemingly [redundant] nowhere. She reminded me of my middle school  English teacher, except with better shoes. [nice line! Love the repetition of shoe issue]

“Oh, my dear,” she reached her hand out to me and I awkwardly took it. “How are you?”  she asked.

“Incredulous,” I blurted out. I was still gripping the photo around my neck and lamely held it up to her. “I was a pedestrian, not a distracted driver,” I said. As if getting my name tag right was what really mattered. [love this line too – clever way of giving insight into character]

“Oh, not to worry. That’s just a conversation starter,” the woman smiled. [love this!]

The sound of footsteps suddenly surrounded us on all sides [awkward]. Beings began taking shape out of the orange haze and we were no longer alone. [Again feels more like a non-description. I would like something to visualize as a reader]

Hope this feedback helps – TKZers, what do you think? What suggestions do you have to our brave submitter??

11+

16 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Oh By The Way

  1. Just some quick notes:

    Cut Thud at the end of the first paragraph. You already used it, and the paragraph ends much better without it. IOW, don’t gild the lily.

    Thoughts should be italicized, not put in quotation marks: I’m going to be late for work. Thus, below, you can have Well, my shoes are back. That’s clever without adding she thought. Cleaner.

    Watch out for your dialogue attributions. If you leave off dialogue with a comma, you must have an attribution like said. Not: “Oh, my dear,” she reached her hand out to me and I awkwardly took it. “How are you?” she asked. Instead: “Oh, my dear.” She reached her hand out to me and I awkwardly took it. “How are you?”

    Not: “Oh, not to worry. That’s just a conversation starter,” the woman smiled.

    Rather: The woman smiled. “Oh, not to worry. That’s just a conversation starter.”

    Little errors like this can mount up and hurt what is otherwise a promising start.

  2. I liked this, but admit it left me feeling a little blah. That’s largely because the narrator is also left feeling rather blah about what’s happening, and the voice is so well done that it permeates the entire page. I’m not sure how much more you can spice things up and am willing to bet that more energy infuses subsequent pages, so I’d read on to find out. But if there was a way to add a spark somewhere in the first 400 words without compromising the dry, deadpan voice you’ve so expertly set up it might help people like me turn that first page even faster. Otherwise, good job!

    • Gregg, interesting feedback on the tone robbing the first page of a bit of zing – that’s such a tricky balance with the POV but I do agree. In Hitchhikers Guide Douglas Adams used action to liven things up so maybe that’s an option (particularly surreal, bizarre action!)

  3. Love the voice in this piece. Your critique’s superb, Clare. I agree with all your suggestions and Jim’s. Those first two lines cracked me up. One nitpick, and this is really more of a personal assessment than anything else. I didn’t buy the character’s initial reaction to dying. I realize the piece is meant to be fun and light, but she DIED. Yet, it doesn’t seem to bother her much. Would a person who died be more concerned about being late for work than the loved ones she left behind? Even a moment of regret could solve this issue for readers like me.

    • Sue – that’s an interesting observation and one that could be easily fixed with an extra line to either explain why there’s no regrets (depending on the narrator’s circumstance) or something deeper to show real regret. It’s up to the writer obviously but this is something worth taking note of for sure.

  4. Thanks for showing us your first page, Brave Author. I actually LOL’d, and Clare’s favorite line was also my fave: “I didn’t exactly expect trumpets, but a kazoo perhaps could have been spared.”

    The frustrated giggle tripped me up. I can see/hear a nervous giggle, or a forced giggle like when you try to laugh at someone’s lame joke, but not a frustrated giggle. Frustrated sigh maybe, frustrated grunt?

    When the narrator looked down at the card around her neck, I thought we’d his or her name. You might consider slipping the name in since the card is right there.

    Overall, I enjoyed this first page. I’m already wondering if the story is about our narrator going back to earth to figure out who killed him or her!

  5. I really liked the idea of this.

    I don’t think there is anything confusing in the first paragraph. Specifically the shoes were left behind so everything else wasn’t. I love the shoes showing up! Even after death there is incompetency.

    I agree that there needs to be more of a reaction, whether the narrator is pissed (not a bit pissed but truly pissed) or grateful.

    The part about being late for work comes before the narrator realizes they are dead so I can see that being more of an issue than their family.

    Sue Coletta – why did you say “she is dead”?

    I don’t see anything that lets the reader know the person is male or female, which I kind of liked since at this point in the story it is completely irrelevant.

    Author – I know this is only the first page but I think this would be better spread out over maybe 2 or 3 pages of Chapter One.

  6. Also liked this a lot but I am a sucker for a solid writer’s voice. Which this has. Very good critique, and others have already covered my nits. Only thing that trips me up was the use of the train. I immediately thought of the Meryl Streep Albert Brooks movie, “Defending Your Life” in which Brooks is delivered to the pearly gates in a train-like bus. So the heavenly transport metaphor has been done.

    I’d like to see a more original and slightly more fleshed out image of what the character encounters when she get up there. Getting the chance to describe heaven is really ripe for fun! Suggest the writer slow down a tad at this point. “A sort of bland train station” is, well, too bland for a writer who’s so good at voice and humor.

  7. I really enjoyed that first page. I’ve not much else to say.
    Thank you for the contribution.

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