The Smoke Eater: 1st Page Critique

Another Brave Writer submitted his/her first page for critique. My comments will follow. Enjoy!

The Smoke Eater

Reid never witnessed a sunset out of the plane, but the moment was a testament of god’s creation. He was amazed by the radiant heaven through thin clouds of twilight where the earth and sky merged into the silver-black horizon.

Above the horizon was a spectrum of a blue dark glass, teasing the twilight of angels above. Underneath, the fading glow of what lingered on the terrain was smothered by the dark. It was a cruel but beautiful waltz between a master darkness and its mistress of the light. The horizon slowly narrowed, and the radiance ran parallel to its ruthless nocturnal predator that grew with virulence. What was left of the fading light seemed to be distorted as if an imaginary barrier was blocking the warmth from reaching Reid?

He wondered if it was the trick of the glass, but his inner being that wouldn’t allow for comfort. Deep down, he struggled with the truth that he could be easily smothered by his own darkened fear just like the nighttime drape smothering the day.

Reid turned his head at the sound of a woman’s voice and quickly said, “If I fall asleep, please be careful with me.”

The stewardess frowned and tilted her head.

Reid sensed she didn’t understand and he didn’t know what to say. Telling this woman that he could become violent when he slept didn’t seem like the right thing to do but he had to say something. He was struggling to stay awake and he refused to take the medication with only a few hours left in the flight.

Reid didn’t know how much longer he could stay lucid. “If you need to wake me, give me a nudge, or throw something small at me, and stand back. I startle easily… in my sleep.”

The stewardess stood there, indifferent.

Reid was starting to feel uneasy, that he might have said too much. He told himself, how stupid could I be, that he essentially told an airline attendant that he was a threat, admitting that she needed to avoid him should he become violent. Then he realized that it was worse, he just acted strangely on a middle eastern airline that was passing into Asia. He might as well have yelled out that he was carrying a bomb.

 * * *

Intriguing, isn’t it? There’s a lot to love about this first page. The concept of a MC who’s violent while he sleeps piqued my interest right away. It also raised numerous story questions. Why is he dangerous while he sleeps? What happens to the unfortunate people around him if he drifts off? Could he kill? Has he killed before? How does he know he’s dangerous if he’s asleep?

Bravo, Brave Writer, for not telling us yet! “Something” happened in the MC’s life prior to this flight, and we’ll keep flipping pages to find out what that is. Great job!

Now for the technical stuff…

When I received the unformatted first page, I broke up the text into more manageable paragraphs. The lack of formatting could be caused by copy/pasting into the body of an email. In case the manuscript’s littered with large chunks of text, please remember white space is our friend. Transitions are also vital to keep the reader engaged. For more on these two areas of craft, see Jim’s post and Terry’s post.

Paragraph 1:

Reid never witnessed a sunset out of the plane, but the moment was a testament of god’s creation. He was amazed by the radiant heaven through thin clouds of twilight where the earth and sky merged into the silver-black horizon.

The first line isn’t bad, necessarily, but it also doesn’t draw me in. Plenty of folks haven’t flown before. That in and of itself isn’t intriguing, thought-provoking, or emotional. It’s only after we read the first page that we can envision why this plane ride could turn deadly, and that’s too late.

Paragraph 2:

Above the horizon was a spectrum of a blue dark glass, teasing the twilight of angels above. Underneath, the fading glow of what lingered on the terrain was smothered by the dark. It was a cruel but beautiful waltz between a master darkness and its mistress of the light. The horizon slowly narrowed, and the radiance ran parallel to its ruthless nocturnal predator that grew with virulence. What was left of the fading light seemed to be distorted as if an imaginary barrier was blocking the warmth from reaching Reid?

Beautiful imagery, but the writing could be tighter. By rearranging words and deleting filler, we paint a clearer picture.

Above the horizon was a spectrum of a blue dark glass, teasing teased the twilight of angels above. Underneath, the dark smothered the fading glow of what lingered lingering on the terrain was smothered by the dark. It was a cruel but beautiful waltz between a master of darkness and its mistress of the light (<– love that line!). When tThe horizon slowly narrowed, the sun’s ruthless nocturnal predator overshadowed its and the radiance ran parallel to its ruthless nocturnal predator that grew with virulence. What was left of the fading light acted as seemed to be distorted as if a an imaginary barrier was blocking the warmth from reaching Reid’s face.?

Paragraph 3:

He wondered if it was the trick of the glass, but his inner being that wouldn’t allow for comfort. Deep down, he struggled with the truth that he could be easily smothered by his own darkened fear just like the nighttime drape smothering the day.

“Wondered” is a telling word. For more on deep POV, check out a previous 1st Page Critique. “Inner being” also struck me as an odd choice. My suggestion would be to rewrite these two sentences.

Quick example: Is it a trick of the glass? Why, with the breathtaking view before him, could he not relax? The truth caved his stomach. If he weren’t careful, the darkness within him could smother his light, too. (Still not great, but you get the picture.)

All the last two paragraphs need are a couple tweaks to deepen the point of view. Easy peasy. Let’s do it. Changes are in red.

Reid turned his head at the sound of a woman’s voice, and quickly said, “If I fall asleep, please be careful with me.”

The stewardess frowned and tilted her head. Reid sensed She didn’t understand. Not many people did. How could he tell a stranger he could violent when he slept? and he didn’t know what to say. Telling this woman that he could become violent when he slept didn’t seem like the right thing to do but he had to say something. He was Struggling to stay awake, and he refused to take the court ordered (if it fits the story) medication with only a few hours left in the flight. But what if he couldn’t stay lucid? Reid didn’t know how much longer he could stay lucid.

With no easy way around it, he said, “If you need to wake me, give me a nudge, or throw something small at me, and stand back. I startle easily… in my sleep.”

The stewardess stood there, indifferent.

Reid was starting to feel uneasy (don’t tell us, show us! Is he fidgeting? Picking at his cuticles?), that he might have said too much. He told himself, how stupid could I be, Stupid, Reid, stupid. You just told a flight attendant you’re a threat. that he essentially told an airline attendant that he was a threat, admitting that she needed to avoid him should he become violent. Oh, no! He’s on a middle eastern airline heading to Asia (btw, Asia’s too broad. Tell us where the flight’s landing.). She probably thinks he’s got a bomb strapped to his chest. Then he realized that it was worse, he just acted strangely on a middle eastern airline that was passing into Asia. He might as well have yelled out that he was carrying a bomb.

Brave Writer, take a moment to look closer at this critique. For the most part, all I did was rearrange your words and delete filler. This first page works because of your hard work. Stand proud. And thank you for submitting an excellent first page.

Over to you, TKZers! Would you flip the page? What’s your favorite line? Any suggestions/comments for Brave Writer?

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15 thoughts on “The Smoke Eater: 1st Page Critique

  1. Good lesson on deep POV, Sue.

    I’d begin the page this way:

    Reid turned his head at the sound of a woman’s voice and quickly said, “If I fall asleep, please be careful with me.”

    This avoids the “character alone, thinking” opening, gives us action and intrigue right away. The observations can be dropped in later. And when you do, god needs to be capitalized.

      • I like this story, and I don’t even know what’s going on! Good job, BA…and thanks for the POV tips, Sue. I love deep POV. (Not that I can pull it off perfectly…yet.)

        That said, I also thought immediately that it would draw me in more quickly if the story started with Reid telling the flight attendant (BTW, I don’t know in what time frame the story is set, but stewardess isn’t used so much anymore) that he’s a dangerous guy when he’s startled out of sleep.

        Yeah, I’d definitely turn the page. It sounds like it might be an espionage thriller…one of my fave genres.

  2. The idea of a guy who’s dangerous when he falls asleep is really cool. It strikes me as either a fresh take on the classic werewolf tale, or a neat twist on the Nightmare on Elm Street formula, only instead of sleep leading to death for the individual, it leads to the death of those around him/her. Great stuff.

    I agree with everyone that your strongest opening line is the one where he warns the flight attendant to wake him up. The poetic opening paragraphs lost me, but that’s more a personal taste. I prefer my descriptions short and punchy, but that doesn’t make what you wrote bad. I’d just be more willing to read those paragraphs after you hooked me into the story with the warning to the flight attendant. It would be even stronger if she responded to him, even if it was just a word or two. As it’s written now, she’s almost an inanimate object for him to bounce exposition off of. Give her a more active role, and I’m in.

    Good luck with this!

  3. The sunset imagery was beautiful, but it just didn’t sit right with me. Perhaps cutting some of it to bring the conversation with the FA closer to the first line. I have read through it a few times and can’t identify where it seems off, it may just be me. I do like the werewolf like story line, if that is indeed the case. I think it would be an interesting story.

    “Reid never witnessed a sunset out of the plane…” shouldn’t it be a plane?

    • Yes, it should, Alan. Good catch! The imagery also felt off to me, but like you, I couldn’t pinpoint why.

      Brave Writer, it’s “a plane.”

  4. I’ve noticed that some horror novels do start with a paragraph or two or even more to establish the setting, the MC, and the general situation. Then it sticks a pin in that particular balloon. Victor Lavallle’a ‘The Changeling’ comes to mind.
    I rather like the opening here. It establishes the MC as an ordinary man with an extraordinary problem. Doesn’t Hitchcock use that premise? Oh, and Stephen King and
    Lately, I questioned the idea that we must jump into some kind of action immediately. In this example, the author also gives us what is at stake — airplane wreck, possibly?
    Just a thought. Maybe breaking the rules are enough to intrigue some readers?

  5. I love the imagery of the sunset. But I agree with the other commenters that the story starts with Reid’s first words to the flight attendant.

    “Reid never witnessed a sunset out of the plane, but the moment was a testament of god’s creation.” Here, I think the Brave Author needs to add a word. “Never” means not before, not now, and not after. But he is watching the sunset. So rewording the sentence to “Reid had never witnessed a sunset from the window of a plane…” makes more sense.

    Since the author used the word “god” instead of “a god” they might think about capitalizing it. In lowercase letters, it could refer to any supernatural being from myths. Making the word a proper noun changes its meaning to the creator worshipped by Christians, Jews, Islamists, and Hindus. The author’s careful choice of this word use could reveal something about Reid as well.

    This page sounds like it may be leading to a thriller, but depending on why he’s taking medication, and why he’s violent if woken abruptly, it could be almost any genre. I’d turn the page to find out.

    • I would turn the page to find out, too, Suzanne. Thanks for your thoughtful suggestions! Brave Writer is lucky to have the experience of the TKZ community. Wish I did when I penned my first novel. 😀

  6. Alan & Suzanne hit on the snag that tripped me up first. “…out of the plane…” left me confused and thinking about anything but the story in front of me, which is not how you want your reader to begin!
    Great work on fixing that line for our brave writer, everyone!

    I’m honestly not sure how to approach the conundrum of action vs recollection.
    I’m with Brian when it comes to breaking rules in writing. If it works, go for it! How dreary would fiction be if everyone wrote purely “by the book”?
    And don’t get me wrong: I stand firmly behind Jim’s idea of the first line. That’s a crack of a first line! The kind of opening we all want to have. And, best of all, it packs a punch without a car chase or a fight scene!
    But, even with my roots planted firmly in literary writing, I found myself drifting in & out of the deeply descriptive opening paragraphs. There are some stellar lines hidden in that jungle. I agree with Sue about the “master & mistress” part: Well done! But I do feel the whole thing needs to be pruned, if you don’t mind me sticking to the plant metaphor. Haha.

    Definitely pay attention to the advice about Deep POV (I love it, too, and I know from personal experience that it is difficult to write well!)
    Also be wary of passive voice, as Sue instructed. It’s an insidious parasite to a good storyline. Not only does it add words to an already frustratingly-low final count per genre, but it bogs down your pace!

    You have a very intriguing idea here, Anon! I would want to know more, but with tighter perspective. Cheers!

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