First Page Critique: Outbreak

Happy Monday!
Today’s critique is the first page of a proposed YA novel of suspense entitled Outbreak/Breakout (not sure if those are alternative options or the whole title). My critique follows, but I do think this raises some interesting questions about choices when it comes to POV and tense – as well as the whole issue of writing about a pandemic!

11:00 am

You’ve never been great at fractions, but neither is the NOLA-25 virus. It allegedly kills 1 in 3 people, so why did it wipe out the entire Perez family? That’s six people dead when it’s only supposed to be two. And what about your own family? What’s 1/3 of five? Will the virus kill Marco? That’s only 1 in 5. Marco and Mom? That’s too many. Anyone is one to many. And this virus sucks at math.

Outside your front window, the Perez home at the end of the street is eaten by flames. You used to go to school with Savannah Perez, back when there was in-person school. Now, you’ll never see her again. Yesterday it was Mrs. Mitchell, who lived right behind you. Today it’s the Perez family. That’s just how it goes. A blue van shows up one day without warning and takes the family away. Most of the time they aren’t even feeling any symptoms yet. Soon, a burn notice shows up on their front door and the Fire Squad comes to destroy everything they’ve ever touched. Clothes, furniture, pictures, germs. Only in rare cases does a blue van ever bring a family back home. Exposure to NOLA-25 almost always results in infection, and infection is an almost certain death sentence.

* * *

Your eyes drift over to Marco, riding his bike up and down the block. You feel a twinge of guilt for thinking of him first when fears of the virus creep into your mind. It’s not like you’d choose him to be the one infected. He’s a good big brother (as far as big brothers go). Besides, Marco will be fine — his mask and face shield are on, he stays on your own block. You watch him anyway, just in case someone gets close to him. But there’s no one outside.

Behind you, two women on a morning news program joke about the appearance of a smoothie they’re pouring from a blender. It’s supposed to help boost immunity, but no one could possibly believe a smoothie can stop NOLA-25. As the women jabber on, holding their noses to sip the green concoction, a list of yesterday’s pandemic victims scrolls down the right side of the TV screen. The list includes dozens of names, and those are just the ones in Miami-Dade County. Broward County will be next, with Mrs. Mitchell’s name on the list. Tomorrow, the name Savannah Perez will appear.

Overall comments:

I definitely think this page has potential – there are a few stumbling blocks but none that can’t be overcome – and this definitely feels like an authentic YA voice which can be tricky to achieve! Bravo! For me the main stumbling blocks are:

  • The use of 2nd person – this is very hard to pull off and while I like the narrator addressing the reader in this way, I’m still not entirely sure this is a sustainable POV for a whole novel. I might get my fellow TKZers to weigh in on this but I think 2nd person is going to be a challenging choice.
  • Present tense – although this is very common in YA novels I still think present tense can be off-putting to some readers. While it gives a great sense of immediacy and dramatic tension (The Hunger Games is a great example of successful use of the present tense), it can sound clunky. Although I wouldn’t say don’t use the present tense, I would just caution that it takes a very skilled writer to pull it off effectively.
  • Pandemic fatigue – I am torn on this…but I suspect many editors are going to nix a lot of books that deal with a pandemic simply because they are living through one! Again, I’d like my fellow TKZers to weigh in on this, but I am worried that editors will be inundated with pandemic novels (particularly YA). To stand out in this crowd is going to be a challenge and I fear editors are going to be very cautious about acquiring these kind of novels.

None of these stumbling blocks are in any way deal-breakers. They simply present challenges for even a seasoned/experienced writer. There are also some other more specific comments that I’ve listed below – all of which, again, can be easily overcome. Overall, I do see potential in the voice in this first page.

Other specific comments:

Consistency – I was a little confused –  in the first paragraph it says that the virus allegedly kills 1 in 3 people but then it says that infection is an almost certain death sentence…which doesn’t totally make sense (I guess I would think killing 2 out of 3 people would be an almost certain death sentence…). It’s also not entirely clear to the reader why the whole house and all the possessions have to be burned even when the family taken away is asymptomatic. I think I need more detailed, consistent information when it comes to the NOLA-25 virus especially as my reading experience is informed by our current pandemic. For instance, is it a respiratory illness (sounds like it as Marco wears a face mask and shield)? How is it spread? (sounds like if they torch everything it spreads on every kind of surface but cannot be disinfected?) How do people know they have been exposed or have the illness if they don’t have any symptoms (or are they just hauled away because the government knows even if they don’t?). When writing a novel about a pandemic, especially given everyone’s heightened awareness, I think you have to be extremely specific with details right from the start for it to feel believable.

Action – This first page is really all exposition – which isn’t a deal breaker either, but I think I would have liked to actually seen real live action – like the blue van coming to take the Perez family away and then the house going up in flames. While reading this, I craved immediate action – I wanted to be in the thick of it, feeling the terror of what is happening, especially given this page is in present tense. I would be far more interested in the Perez family’s experience than the smoothie-making scene on the morning news. Just something to consider. At the moment I feel a bit ‘removed’ from the scene.

A Fresh Take – My final issue is really one of ‘where are we headed?’ with this novel. At the moment I don’t see anything except a pandemic related, possibly dystopian scenario but, given a potentially crowded ‘pandemic YA novel’ market I do think you need to have something really fresh/different or at least the foreshadowing of something different right from the start. I fear that an editor who picked this first page up would simply assume it was going to be the ‘same-old-same-old’…so I would recommend giving them something fresh that really intrigues them.

TKZers – looking forward to getting your feedback on some of the issues I’ve raised as well as any other comments you have from our brave submitter! It’s hard writing an authentic YA voice, but I think that is certainly one of the strongest elements with this first page.

37 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Outbreak

  1. Maybe it’s just because I’m a child of the 80’s, but whenever I read anything in 2nd person I immediately think of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. To my recollection, they were all written in 2nd person, and it’s the only time it’s ever worked for me as a reader. (I loved those books)! Not to say it can’t be done, but like Clare says, it’s going to be REALLY difficult to pull off throughout an entire novel. Especially a pandemic novel, because I’m with Clare on the whole pandemic burnout thing, too. I’m already living through one–I have no desire to read about a fictional one that appears to be, at least based on this first page, even worse. But that’s just my opinion.

    That being said, I really like the writing here. I have no problem that the scene is largely exposition because what it’s describing is interesting. I’m not reading about a character waking up or getting an info dump as they watch the news. In the first 400 pages, we’ve seen her neighbor’s house burn down, another neighbor die, and she’s debating whether or not she’d sacrifice her brother over her Mom. Even though it all happens largely in her head, it’s still riveting enough for me to turn the page, assuming I was looking for a pandemic read.

    Maybe consider switching POV’s, and be ready for a pandemic-fatigue hurdle. But you’ve clearly got some chops, so best of luck with this!

    • Whoops, make that the first 400 words, not the first 400 pages. Really wish there was an edit function for comments!

      • I never read those Choose your own Adventures but if they were all 2nd person then maybe that could be a resource the author could take a look at it! I was also thinking that the author could switch POVs – so have some entries in 2nd person, some in 1st. That could also work to alleviate some of the potential issues with an all 2nd person novel.

          • You weren’t a true Choose Your Own Adventure reader if you didn’t skip ahead to the page you chose, skim it to see if it ended badly, and then flip back to the previous page because, “I never took my finger off the page, so it doesn’t count!”

  2. Great critique, Clare. I agree with pretty much everything you said. I don’t like 2nd person POV (as a reader) except in nonfiction, like a how-to-do-something article. I would become weary reading a whole book in 2nd person POV.

    Present tense. I’m not a fan, but I guess it is common with YA novels.

    “Fresh take” – This is probably the biggest problem. Like is preached here at TKZ constantly, open with action. And that action has to foreshadow the real conflict. And it better be something bigger than the pandemic itself.

    Good luck, Dear author. I hope you turn your story into something great.

  3. I like the first page, but need some emotional reaction from the focus character. During the current pandemic several emotions trigger actions. Anger at conflicting advise from experts and political leaders showing up as defiance. Sadness at the loss of so many loved ones leading to despondency and excess drinking and drug use. Lock-ups and job loss leading to arguments and violence.
    These feelings can be shown with actions in this story.

    • Interesting take and one I hadn’t thought of – but yes that emotional reaction will be critical to this novel especially as, given the wide range of reader experiences with the current pandemic, readers will be craving an emotional connection to the main character. That would also help ground the novel and make it feel authentic.

  4. The voice of this piece really pulled me in with its wry, ironic tone. The narrator’s observations and contrasts feel authentic–how the merciless virus pays no attention to math and the silliness TV personalities giggling about green smoothies in the face of dire realities of dead friends and neighbors.

    And esp. the narrator’s musing about whom s/he’d choose to sacrifice among his/her family members. I wonder if that’s foreshadowing a Sophie’s Choice dilemma the narrator is forced to face later in the story.

    So the lack of action didn’t bother me that much at this point. But action does need to happen soon. Based on the strength of the voice, I’m willing to wait a few pages.

    Clare’s concerns are totally valid and important. I agree with her that none are deal-breakers if the rest of the story is handled well. But they are BIG hurdles to consider.

    Yes, this will be a hard sell. But, just as there are readers seeking escape, there are also readers fascinated by grim reality. YA readers are frequently drawn to dark, depressing subjects b/c they mirror the extreme roller coaster of emotions that adolescents go through in their minds and hearts.

    If this is the story the Brave Author is compelled to tell, I say go for it. If traditional markets won’t touch it, indie-pubbing is an option. Best of luck.

    • Ooh…Sophie’s Choice dilemma – now that would be a fascinating YA novel in the context of a pandemic (not to mention terrifying). I actually read a real example in the newspaper today in Italy when a daughter got the last oxygen for her ailing mother only to have her husband contract the illness and she couldn’t take the oxygen away from her mother, but it meant her husband died. Tragic.

  5. Hmm, this is a tough one. I agree with you, Clare. I see no reason to use 2nd POV, unless it’s a letter to the protagonist. If it is, the scene needs some sort of setup to pull it off.

    Pandemic stories…I agree. Editors will get inundated. For me, reading is an escape. I want nothing to do with books about a virus, plague, and anything close to our reality.

    • Sue – I do think editors are going to be very wary of pandemic novels because everyone is so traumatized that they don’t want to read it in fiction. Also agree that maybe the 2nd person could work if there’s more set up and it’s used sparingly in the novel as a letter or some other record for the reader…

  6. I salute the writer for taking a risk with 2d Person. Any risk carries with it the possibility of reward, as in maybe it catches just the right timing and becomes a breakaway hit. Admittedly, the odds are against it, but then what’s the fun of being a writer if you can’t jump off a cliff every now and then as you grow wings on the way down? (H/t Ray Bradbury)

    As for exposition, I’ll grant the first two paragraphs. The writing is sharp. But then I’d like to see the action start. Find the spot where dialogue begins and move it up to this point.

      • It’s tough to pull off. I tried it in short fiction and found the results not as compelling as I’d like. 2nd person feels more immediate, especially when coupled with present tense, but it can be harder IMHO to immerse the reader emotionally. It can certainly be done, it’s just more challenging 🙂

  7. I applaud the author for his/her work. I liked the little math lesson in the first paragraph, and I guess YA readers will enjoy the trip down fraction lane. (Clare, I took the 1 in 3 to mean a prediction that a third of the population would die. However, once infected, a person would almost certainly die.)

    The second person POV didn’t bother me, but I agree with other comments that starting the action sooner would be advisable.

    As far as the subject matter, we’ve all been deluged with information about this pandemic, and I’m tired of hearing about it. Perhaps younger readers will be more interested.

    Best wishes to the author for much success with this and all future works!

  8. I found the second person POV made the story hard to follow. I have read my fair share of dystopian fiction, The Stand and going back, Fail Safe. I also grew up with Soylent Green, Omega Man and the like. Fiction during the pandemic is going to be tough. Dear Author, look at what Claire says about consistency. A little more science could really help your story out, like how 1 out of 3… really works.

    With that, how long has NOLA-25 been effecting this community? Parts seem like the almost one year old pandemic we have now, and parts like it has been spreading for some time.

    As other have said, publishers may “not want to go here” but COVID is going to be a part of novels. Just like cancer, AIDS and 9/11.

    Best of luck.

  9. Bravo, brave writer, on using 2nd person in your opening. It’s a tough POV in my experience to make work. It works well here, but we because of that, we get less emotional immersion (in my humble opinion) than we might with 1st or a deep 3rd POV. Aside from that, I agree with Clare’s comments.

    As a reader, I’d prefer 1st or 3rd person POV here, and opening with action, emotional immersion in our protagonist etc. But, that’s my preference. As Debbie noted above, you can always self-publish (which is what I do with all my novels 🙂

    As for the subject of pandemic, for me, this is “too soon,” since we’re currently living through a global one. *But,* pandemics have been a regular occurrence throughout human history, and writing about them, be it Camus’s the Plague, Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, or more recent books like The Andromeda Strain and The Stand, is a long running literary tradition. So, if that’s what calls to you, especially now, in this moment, I say write your passion.

    • Great point! – we should all write our passion and despite the subject matter being a bit ‘too soon’ for many that won’t stop an editor is they fall in love with the book. Passion really does come through in someone’s writing so I hope the author takes that on board too!

  10. From the author: I sincerely thank you for the insightful feedback! This is my first novel, and I know that I’ve put up major hurdles with second-person, present tense, pandemic setting, and a 13-y-o (ish) MC. Some people are gluttons for punishment!
    Clare’s critique is spot-on, and things I’ve wrestled with (especially getting to the action – which occurs by the end of chapter 1). To those of you intrigued by the POV, it was a do-able challenge and enjoyable to write. Sadly, you’re all right about agent views on pandemic/virus (although the idea began brewing a few years ago). I return to Lisa Cron’s words “We don’t turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality.” I think that’s especially true of my YA audience.
    What a wonderfully honest, intelligent, and helpful community!

    • Robin, thanks for coming forward. You say this is your first novel? I’m even more impressed with your voice and craft skills. Keep going and keep us informed about your progress.

      • Yes, I’ve been a freelance writer for 8 years in the education field. This is the first time I’ve had my own story to tell, and I couldn’t believe how much there was for me to learn in the process.

    • So glad everyone’s feedback is helpful! I do think navigating reality for YA is a great approach as long as you can bring freshness to the genre when dealing with a pandemic – so I hope we haven’t put you off (especially since you thought of the idea a few years ago!). Just accept that agent/editor challenges will exist but that won’t stop them acquiring a novel they love!

  11. The second-person narration leaves me with three problems that I struggle with in every paragraph:
    1. Who the hell am I? In addition to the reflexive “nuh-uh” every time I’m told a Fact About Me, I don’t have much of a picture about who the not-me-at-all viewpoint character actually is.

    2. Who the hell is the narrator and why are they telling me things about myself that, in theory, I already know?

    3. The narration is permeated with implied amnesia that leaves “me” deeply dysfunctional, since “I” don’t remember any of this and the narrator is constantly filling me in about “my” life. It’s distracting.

    Eventually, I shrugged my shoulders and assumed that it was a first-person narrative that the viewpoint character inexplicably told in second person as an affectation. But I’d more or less lost the thread of the first couple of hundred words because the framing was so weird.

    • Thanks, Robert! Author here, struggling with the very issue you raise. Part of the audience wants a deeper emotional connection, yet I hesitate to tell what “you’re” feeling any more than I tell what “you’re” doing or seeing.
      So, why second person? I wrote with a young person in mind who is a reluctant reader and tired of slow, coming-of-age stories. My hope is that the second-person puts the reader front and center in the action, and as the suspense unfolds, I think the POV works better during chases, escapes, and such excitement.

  12. Seems to me the young protag is thinking of herself in second person – a way of distancing herself from the current horror – rather than addressing the reader. It almost works for me, but I think it would be a ton better in first person, and if it started with paragraph two.

    Showing the protag watching out the window as the neighbor’s house is engulfed in flames is stronger than ruminating about it. I’d keep all of the details, bits of backstory in this para, but have them happen in real time.

    I agree that 2nd person will be hard to sustain. And why create an unnecessary obstacle if there’s a more effective way? I’m grateful for all of the authors who came before, pushed the boundaries regarding story telling, just not sure this is the brave author’s intent.

    In any case, good luck. YA dystopians appeal to me, and this has story has promise.

    • Sue – I agree that the initial use of it could be intriguing – so the author could definitely consider perhaps using it sparingly – maybe at the start of each chapter before shifting to another POV. Just a thought…

  13. Although the premise might fly as a self-pubbed title, I’m with everyone else on thinking editors will set aside pandemic books, at least for a while.

    That point aside, this first piece of the first line stopped me cold: “You’ve never been great at fractions” – it immediately distanced me from the POV character. It’s like some off-screen voice is telling this person their own story.

    I don’t mind present tense. It’s tough to write, but I love reading it. I thought the voice itself was strong, but felt it would be stronger if hit straight-on in 1st person.

  14. I’m surprised nobody has yet mentioned this. I suggest avoiding “Outbreak” as the title. It was a hit movie in 1995, and basically cashed in on the success of The Hot Zone. Since the pandemic I’ve noticed it popping up on my various streaming services. So while it might seem like an appropriate title it’s still associated with another property. Breakout doesn’t work for me, either. Maybe you want to stew on this a bit. Perhaps when you’re further into the writing a more thematic title will pop into your head.

    Other than that I agree with a lot of what Clare said.

    • Thanks for the comment (author here). I got really caught up with this idea of wordplay — calling the book Breakout with mirrored/shadowed text showing Outbreak for the cover. Unfortunately, there’s a recent and popular MG book called Breakout. I couldn’t let it go, and ended up with the very clunky Outbreak/Breakout.
      My ongoing joke with my 13-y-o “alpha reader” is that if it becomes a series I’ll be stuck writing Racecar/Car race next!
      The title will have to go, I’m afraid, if the book is ever picked up.

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