First Page Critique: Scattershot

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. Catch ya on the flip-side.

Scattershot

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  We had it planned, Tom and I. We said goodbye to friends – hoping retirement would be an adventure in everything we did. To drive cross country to New England, a picture postcard of snow and autumn leaves coloring the landscape in hues of red, orange, and yellow.  The Coronavirus took my Tom a week before the move.  His labored breathing and limp body placed in the ambulance drove him to the hospital.  I tested negative.  I never saw him again.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.   Oh sure, plans change, but no one ever thinks death will stop you cold.  Well, it stopped Tom and the hospital confirmed my worst fears.  Grateful to the nurse who held his damp, feeble hand, I listened to his last gasp from the speakerphone.  Tom was gone, the house was sold, and the movers expected me in Connecticut in two weeks to unlock the door.  My new life began without the love of my life.

My name is Joanna Seavers, and I am a 59-year-old retired teacher living in the age of Covid-19 or the Coronavirus or whatever the hell it’s called.  Who knows, and who cares?  All I know is the world stopped for Tom and me in 2020, and everyone else for that matter.

One thing I’ve learned in life, even in a pandemic, is never stop planning. It’s what keeps you alive.  You need a reason to get up in the morning, so I got up.   The pandemic wound down, and I drove north.  Businesses reopened and the population was injected with the second shot of the lifesaving serum.  Mask wearing became optional, but on occasions, I still wore the cloth covering my nose and mouth.  You can’t be too careful in a crowd.

Driving down the highway, the virus in my rearview mirror and Alfie, Tom’s faithful bird dog, really a raven, sitting in the passenger’s seat.  Not sure why my husband had a pet raven, but the relationship remained solid for fifteen years.  I read somewhere domestic ravens have a life span of 40 years, so it was a good thing Alf’s loyalty shifted to me.  We clicked and his companionship sustained me as we drove from the Bay Area out of California, not looking back to what we had lost.

I like the voice of this first page. The biggest problem for me was the lack of emotion. The words are there, but it’s not visceral. You can’t gain empathy for Joanna unless the reader feels her pain. As written, she doesn’t seem all that broken up. If Tom’s death is the trigger that kickstarts Joanna’s quest, it needs to pack a bigger punch. Because the first time I read this page, I thought maybe she’d planned his death…till she mentioned the coronavirus.

Dig deeper, Brave Writer. She’d pinned all her hopes and dreams on retiring with Tom. They had plans, plans they talked about for years. Where’s the grief? Where’s the heartache? Where’s the anger over not having the chance to hold him on his deathbed, of one last kiss, of professing her undying love to the man she’s spent a lifetime with? Tom’s death acted more like a minor blip in Joanna’s life.

To deliver a bigger bang, you need to let the emotions unfold gradually. We’re not fine one minute and hysterical the next. Emotions build in layers, change and intensify, and finally reach a crescendo. For Joanna, Tom’s death should be soul-crushing.

Actually, this is the perfect example of why JSB recommends interviewing characters.

A few questions for Joanna could be:

When did you first know Tom had the virus?

What made you call an ambulance?

How did you feel when the medics said you couldn’t accompany Tom to the hospital? Lost? Empty? Frightened?

Did you have a physical response?

Who broke the news of your husband’s decline? What’d s/he tell you? How did it feel to hear those words?

Are you a different person without Tom? What’s changed?

The reader doesn’t need to know every detail, but you do. Joanna’s past will affect her future. You may be thinking, but Sue, Joanna’s the type to raise her chin and forge ahead. Fair enough. But her silent keening should still bleed through.

Five Stages of Grief

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

The character should bounce between each stage to mimic real life. A step forward to depression, two steps back to anger, etc.

Infuse Emotion

I like the echo of “It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” but let’s force the reader to feel those words.

Quick example:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We had a plan, Tom and I. We had a chance at a new beginning, a fresh start. We had hopes and dreams for retirement. But now, emptiness consumed me, the pit widening more each day. If the movers didn’t expect me in two weeks, I’d never leave Tom’s grave. How did this happen? Why us? We were so careful, so diligent about protection. We made all the right moves. And for what? So I could drive cross-country alone?

Notice I never mentioned what happened to Tom. All readers know is he’s dead, she’s devastated. Let the reader flip pages to find out why. In the next paragraph offer a bit more and get the hero moving.

Example:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Tom and I dreamed of life in New England, with its snow glistening on autumn leaves, hues of Scarlet, orange, and gold-painted landscapes. Pointless now. Muted shades of black and gray zipped by the driver’s window. Up ahead, a motorist leaned under the raised hood of a minivan. (Or whatever the case may be.)

 I added the motorist to accomplish two things:

  • It gets our hero moving, active rather than ruminating.
  • It hints at trouble to come.

Delete the part where Joanna introduces herself. It’s the lazy way out. You can do better.

Add dialogue. Keeping with my motorist example…

I pulled in behind the van, and a man craned his neck around the side of the hood. Not a female. Crap. I should’ve let Dr. Rosenthal change my prescriptive lenses before I left.

The stranger approached my window. “Thanks for stopping.”

“No problem.” I held a tight smile, jabbed a chin at the van. “What happened?”

“Outta oil. I could use a lift to the gas station.”

Joanna resists. The motorist pushes. Against her better judgment she gives in. Blah, blah, blah. During the drive the conversation turns.

“Really appreciate this.” He blows into cupped hands (the cold signals she’s on the east coast). “I’m Frank, by the way.”

“Joanna.”

Boom. Now the reader knows her name. Keep in mind, Joanna’s a woman alone. Other than her first name she isn’t likely to tell this stranger her life story.

“What do you do, Joanna?” The way he said my name raised the tiny hairs on my forearms.

“Retired.”

“From what, Joanna?”

Never had my name sounded so creepy. Tom wouldn’t have allowed a stranger in the car. If he were alive, we’d be halfway to Connecticut by now. (See how I slipped in her destination without slowing the pace?)

Frank rested his hand on my knee. “Joanna?”

Mute, my gaze shifted between his hand and the road. “Is the gas station much farther? My husband’s expecting me.”

“So, you’re not from the area?”

“Umm, I…uh…”

“Where are you from, Joanna?”

Each time my name rolled off his tongue my stomach somersaulted, flipped, acids splashed against the liner. Damn you, Tom! We vowed to grow old together. You promised to never leave me.

“Michigan,” I lied, unwilling to share details about my route from the west coast to the east.

And on and on it goes. I don’t have room for a line edit, but keep in mind there’s only one space after a period.

Pets

The last thing I’ll mention is the raven who materialized out of nowhere. As a die-hard corvid lover, I hope you’re not using the bird as symbolism for doom, gloom, or death. Pets needs a valid role in the plot. If the raven doesn’t fill that need, please consider removing it.

As written, it doesn’t sound like Joanna ever bonded with the family pet, a gigantic bird whose lived in her home for 15 years. It’s odd. When a wife loses her husband, (or vice versa) she clings to any and all traces of him, including his possessions (i.e. Tom’s favorite football jersey, the collar saturated with his scent). A loyal feathered baby should act like Joanna’s life preserver, and not a pet she hardly knew.

Main Takeaway

Concentrate on the fine art of storytelling, less focus on backstory. Allow readers to get to know Joanna in bite-sized pieces. Force the reader to flip pages. And they will, if you avoid filling in the blanks right away. The inclusion of story questions, conflict, dramatic moments, and hints of danger (valid or misinterpreted) helps to create a compelling mystery that strangleholds the reader.

Thank you for sharing your work with us, Brave Writer. Pandemic stories will flood the marketplace, if they haven’t already. Thus, it’s more important than ever to craft a visceral thrill ride so yours rises above the rest.

Over to you, TKZers! I excluded a few things to avoid turning this post into a book, so please mention them in the comments. How might you improve this first page?

+12

18 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Scattershot

  1. A fine critique, Sue, with lots of specifics to guide the Brave Author deeper into the character. While numbness is definitely part of grief, it’s a thin protective veneer and, even though the person grieving tries to keep emotions at bay, they bleed through.

    Maybe show Joanne dealing with the logistical problems of a cross-country trip during a pandemic.

    Lots of cars and trucks at a cafe mean good food but too many people.

    The past six motels she’d passed were shuttered. The seventh is rundown but she can’t stay awake any longer. Do they take pets? Maybe Alfie will eat the cockroaches that likely infest the place.

    As she pulls into the lot, surly guys watch her and pull up black gators to hide their faces. What if they smash the back window and steal Tom’s laptop with a lifetime of family photos? And so on.

    Good, clean, error-free writing and definite potential, Brave Author. Best of luck.

  2. I enjoyed this first page, Brave Author. My favorite line is: “Grateful to the nurse who held his damp, feeble hand, I listened to his last gasp from the speakerphone.” because, ouch, it drives home the distancing from people during the pandemic.

    At first, I didn’t like the opening two sentences, but then I like the way you’ve echoed the first sentence and echoed “planned,” so it all ties together.

    I think Sue gave you a wonderful critique, and I agree with virtually all of it. I just think that some emotion actually does come through. The first page has the morose voice of a depressed widow. (Which will change over the course of the book, I’m sure, as Joanna heals and falls in love or becomes one half of a bird-and-woman sleuth duo or a cat burglar or whatever.) However, like Sue pointed out, it’s missing any physical symptoms of grief . . . the sun being too bright, ordinary noises hurting her ears, the constant clench of her stomach, etc.

    I didn’t understand the sentence about Tom’s dog really being a raven until the following sentence. (Eh, maybe that’s just me.)

    I like (love, actually!) the idea of an older protagonist.

    Overall, I’d turn the page.:-) Good luck on this story, Brave Author!

    • Excellent suggestions, Priscilla. Thank you! I agree that some emotion comes through, it just doesn’t strike the reader in the gut like it should.

  3. I’ll just overlap Sue’s fine critique with these views.

    I like the voice. It gives me confidence that this writer can actually write.

    As I always suggest with openings like this: go to the first place there’s dialogue, and try starting from there. Let the emotion come out in her words and actions. Let Tom’s death be “the ghost” (a past wound) that haunts the present. The reader will wonder why she’s talking and acting this way. When the why is finally revealed, we’ll be caught up in the action.

    The other suggestion I often give is make Chapter 2 your opening chapter. You may be amazed at how much you DON’T need to give us up front in order to hook the reader. Then you can add backstory elements from Ch. 1 strategically.

    JSB Axiom: Act first, explain later.

    • Excellent advice as always, Jim. The ghost idea reminds me of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Love that.

      Like you, the voice tells me the writer has the skills to bring this story to a whole new level.

  4. Excellent critique, Sue. And good suggestions from all. I have written many first chapters exactly like this, but I’ve always thrown them away and started over because they felt as if I were distancing myself from the real story. Obviously this is a good writer at work here, and the situation is in mid-drama. (What could be more dramatic than losing a spouse to Covid?). Yet it feels uninvolving, like the character herself is holding us at arm’s length. She is TELLING us everything. As Sue’s example’s show, would some of her thoughts and grief not be more interesting if it were SHOWN via action and dialogue? The personal exposition opening — My name is Joanna Seavers — is fine. Sue Grafton used the device in every book (“My name is Kinsey Millhone…”). But after one such graph, she moved quickly to the action. The writer needs to get the story moving more quickly. Something needs to happen in the present that then resonates with the past trauma. I like the set-up and would read on, but really yearn for the real story (and not the backstory) to begin.

    • Thanks, Kris. I’d forgotten about Kinsey Millhone. Still, since most of us aren’t Sue Grafton, I’d recommend finding another way to slip in Joanna’s name in a more natural way. A character describing one’s self can be a slippery slope toward an info dump of backstory.

      I agree, the writer has skills. If s/he slips inside Joanna’s skin, rather than keeping her at arm’s length, this could be a compelling story.

  5. I just have a couple of quick thoughts. The author refers to the pandemic as having wound down. It hasn’t. How far into the future is this set? They plan on retiring from an unspecified location out west to Connecticut. That’s just odd. Connecticut is not known as a retirement haven. It’s an expensive state, and people usually want to cut their living expenses in retirement. Plus it has really cold winters, and humid summers, in contrast to anyplace “out west”. Again, people usually want a better climate in retirement, not worse. So why Connecticut? Perhaps family? There could be a perfectly good reason for retiring there, but without knowing this it just seems strange.

    • Good point, Catfriend. Of all the New England states, Connecticut is the most expensive. Most New Englanders travel south (or west) to get away from inclement weather. New Hampshire has had an influx of people seeking refuge from the pandemic. but since the writer implies the pandemic is over, Connecticut is an even odder choice. You could be right about family. All valid questions the writer needs to consider.

  6. An interesting opening. Overall, I would turn the page, and that is the goal. I like the voice and totally understand the situation. I have lost too many friends to COVID. Several of them have left spouses whose plan for the rest of their lives have made a drastic change.

    I think the other reviewers so far are on to something. There is too much back story and not enough moving forward. Some things would be better shown with dialog.

    There is a real feeling there. Sounds like a good book.

    • Sorry to hear you’ve lost friends to the pandemic, Alan. There’s so much death, so much pain, so many suffering in silence. It’s gut-wrenching.

      • Thank you. There are days I just end up in a deep dark hole for a while. I have stopped counting the number of people I know who have tested positive. Most recover in a few days, one has had lingering effects for a few months.

  7. Enjoyed the voice and think Sue Coletta’s suggestions are solid.

    The biggest problem for me was the lack of a story question. A sad widow forced to accept a new future is backstory. But then what happens?

    I’d love to see some hint of what goes wrong in present time which makes all that backstory relevant.

  8. Thanks for submitting, brave author! Couple quick thoughts:
    1. I came away without an understanding of what the genre is supposed to be
    2. I agree with the assessment that the visceral feel isn’t yet there
    3. If I pulled this book off the shelf and read this first page, I would end my read confused about what kind of book I was reading and wouldn’t be sure that I’d want to turn the page just yet.
    4. This probably wouldn’t be noticed by anybody but a 70’s/80’s TV nerd like me, but your protag’s name is Joanna Seavers, and it threw me off momentarily because it’s a combination of a real name/character name: Joanna Kerns played Maggie Seaver on “Growing Pains” TV show.

    With revision and clarity of genre, I think you’ll have potential with this because it seems like it could lead to good story possibilities with a woman finding herself on her own.

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