First Page Critique: Jane Unknown

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a dystopian YA novel entitled JANE UNKNOWN. This page provides a very atmospheric start to a novel that I’m hoping contains lots of witchcraft! My comments follow. Enjoy!

February 24, 1692

On top of the hill was the stake, not yet aflame. An upright log dark against the grey sky. Beams of light cut through the clouds, slanting down onto the fields, turning some of the tall grass golden. And so how, in this heavenly light, did the stake still look so foreboding? Send a chill to the bone?

The Bachelors of Divinities walked me up the hill. One on each side: Ely and Jonas. I’d known them since I arrived in Salem Village, orphaned, eleven years ago, but they did not act as if they knew me now. I suppose they felt as if they didn’t. They held my elbows roughly—my wrists were already secured with rope behind my back—although they did not need to. There was nowhere to go. We’d all been taught the witches had the woods. Not the other way around: Not the woods had witches. Perhaps that’s why they suspected me? As an orphan, I came from those woods.

My ankle wobbled on a clump of grass, causing me to near fall. Ely sighed loudly and yanked me up by the elbow. Pain shot through my shoulder. It felt as if the muscle had been ripped in half. He muttered under his breath, lip twitching.

The stake loomed taller and taller. We were close, only a few wagon-lengths away. Sweat crept along my cold skin, and I found it hard to take a deep breath.

As we reached the top of the hill, the wind whipped against us, pushing my grey dress against my legs. I wore no apron today. The wind caused hope to blossom within, especially as Ely and Jonas exchanged expressions. It had rained the night before, but this could only prolong my agony—but the wind, the wind it might help me yet. But hope could be dangerous. Disappointment fell all the further when hope lifted one high.

The stake was now in clean sight. A stool, where I would stand, against the log, where they would tie me. They’d arrange the branches and twigs at my feet, and perhaps, if I was lucky, I’d die by smoke first.

I tried to prepare myself: This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. Over and over.

It did help, I suppose. The grass blowing, as if in slow motion. Our walk forward inevitable.

Overall Comments:

I love how the author has woven together the sense of foreboding with the landscape and the weather in the moments leading up to what appears to be a witch burning outside Salem. The author definitely draws the reader in and creates a sense of empathy as well as fear for the main protagonist. Initially, I wasn’t too sure whether this was historical or dystopian YA (as this had been described) but I’d be happy to keep reading whatever direction the novel ultimately takes. I thought the stream of consciousness writing style also worked really well, helping keep the POV close to the protagonist while also feeling very much YA. At times the sentence structure did get a little confusing, but I thought it did feel like we were directly hearing the protagonist’s thoughts as they unfolded.

My only real comment would be that ‘less is more’ – while there’s plenty of atmosphere, there’s less in terms of action, and I think paring down some of this scene could help it flow a little easier. Sometimes the protagonist’s thoughts slowed down the dramatic tension. I’ve copied this first page below to highlight the areas which I think could be edited/cut and yet still retain the terrific atmosphere of this first page. The words in bold are the ones I think should be deleted and I have placed some extra notes in bold and italic. These are obviously just my thoughts (and TKZers may have other advice!). Overall though, tightening up a first page is always a good idea:)

Specific Edit/Cut Options:

February 24, 1692

On top of the hill was the stake, not yet aflame. An upright log dark against the grey sky. Beams of light cut through the clouds, slanting down onto the fields, turning some of the tall grass golden. And so how, in this heavenly light, did the stake still look so foreboding? Send a chill to the bone?

The Bachelors of Divinities walked me up the hill. One on each side: Ely and Jonas. I’d known them since I arrived in Salem Village, orphaned, eleven years ago, but they did not act as if they knew me now. I suppose they felt as if they didn’t. They held my elbows roughly—my wrists were already secured with rope behind my back—although they did not need to. There was nowhere to go. We’d all been taught the witches had the woods. Not the other way around: Not the woods had witches. Perhaps that’s why they suspected me? As an orphan (already said she’s an orphan so delete one of the references), I came from those woods.(note – I actually think these thoughts on the woods and witches could probably be moved to a later scene as it slows down the action)

My ankle wobbled on a clump of grass, causing me to near (do you mean nearly?) fall. Ely sighed loudly and yanked me up by the elbow. Pain shot through my shoulder. It felt as if the muscle had been ripped in half. He muttered under his breath, lip twitching. (Note: this whole paragraph could actually be deleted unless the injury to her shoulder is relevant later)

The stake loomed taller and taller. We were close, only a few wagon-lengths away. Sweat crept along my cold skin, and I found it hard to take a deep breath.

As we reached the top of the hill, the wind whipped against us, pushing my grey dress against my legs. I wore no apron today. The wind caused hope to blossom within, especially as Ely and Jonas exchanged expressions. It had rained the night before, but this could only prolong my agony—but the wind, the wind it might help me yet. But hope could be dangerous. Disappointment fell all the further when hope lifted one high.

The stake was now in clean sight. A stool, where I would stand, against the log, where they would tie me. They’d arrange the branches and twigs at my feet, and perhaps, if I was lucky, I’d die by smoke first.

I tried to prepare myself: This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. (maybe only need to state once?) Over and over.

It did help, I suppose. The grass blowing, as if in slow motion. Our walk forward inevitable.

Final Comment:

Bravo to our brave submitter!  I hope my comments are helpful. TKZers, what advice or feedback do you have? Looking forward to seeing your comments.

+6

13 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Jane Unknown

  1. What a wonderful first page! The first sentence is a beautifully understated introduction to a horrific fate. As Clare says, the vivid atmosphere, setting, weather, and deep POV all skillfully weave together for a compelling start. I would definitely read on.

    Clare’s suggestions tighten the already-good writing into stellar. I agree that one mention of orphan is enough. Probably keep the first one (“arrived in Salem Village, orphaned, eleven years ago”) b/c it quickly establishes the lonely desolation of the protagonist.

    I liked the sentence: “Disappointment fell all the further when hope lifted one high.” Even though it’s telling rather than showing, it’s also a good insight into the protagonist. It establishes that she’s been hopeful in the past and been disappointed. She’s aware of the risk of hope yet clings to it.

    Great start, Brave Author!

  2. Ooo, Brave Author, I love this. But it being a dystopian YA puzzles me because the opening seems like a horror story. Eh, maybe this is a prologue.

    My favorite line is “On top of the hill was the stake, not yet aflame” because I was already scared for whatever good (or bad!) person was about to be executed. What a horrible way to die! This first sentence made me want to read on to see if the condemned would escape somehow.

    I think Clare’s critique is excellent, and she pointed out some hiccups (like “near” vs “nearly”) that I noticed too.

    The main thing that I hope you do is cut out unnecessary words. I already think this opening is good, but it would be great with tighter prose.

    Best of luck, Brave Author, with this story!

  3. Good morning, Brave Author! Your opening page engaged my interest at once. We were place squarely in the midst of a dire situation for our protagonist, and I certainly would read on to learn what happens next.

    I agree with Clare’s comments, too, about paring down some of the excess and perhaps unnecessary words. I think here, less is more, especially since the opening scene is so compelling.

    One thing I’d like is perhaps a stronger hint as to when this takes place. “Bachelors of Divinity” made me think present day or future dystopian, simply because the way it was mentioned makes the scene seem more modern. I do realize that “Bachelors” as used in university eduction goes back in time quite a ways, so I’m still wondering if this is supposed to be historical or dystopian.

    Again, bravo on this first page! Thanks for sharing it with us.

    • Somehow I missed the date listed clearly across the top of the first page! Sheesh. Brave author, you made it obvious *when* this was supposed to take place–at least, when the opening scene is supposed to take place, and I missed that clue in my eagerness to dive into the first page. Again, well done on your opening!

      • Dale you make a good point about the Bachelors – I’m not familiar with the history of this time period, but I’d want to know if this was a real group the time or if it’s made up (not that it matters but it might help place whether this is historical or not)

  4. I missed the date the first time too.

    Overall I am already to turn the page. Not my usual fair, but well told.

    Just one minor thing. Does this story have to be in Salem. There are a lot of witch stories set in Salem. Dear Author, you can save your self dozens of angry emails from armature historians pointing out you got names wrong by moving your story down the road a day’s ride.

  5. I loved this first page…good job, Anon. Thank you for this great submission. Normally not my genre, but this first page changed my mind. I’d keep reading.

    Thanks, Clare, for offering such good critique comments, and for all the rest of the TKZ comments…I always learn, even when it’s not my first page.

  6. Bravo! I would love to keep reading. Agree with several of the tightening up suggestions, but overall very good.

  7. Congrats to the brave author. Though dystopian YA fiction is not my cup of tea, you drew me in with your first page and I would continue reading. Such ability bodes well for your commercial success.
    I chose to use braces {Comments} to separate my comments and hopefully make them easier to understand.
    First off, I’ve lived a markedly different life than most, on 4 continents so far. For this reason I see stories through the lens of those experiences, times with no electricity, no running water, clothes washed in a “witches caldron” over an open fire in the yard, etc. So, expect my comments to be different.
    Through more than a half century of reading tech heavy materials for comprehension, as a habit I read the whole passage first and then go back to reread and dissect it. I don’t expect to completely understand each sentence or phrase as it unfolds the first time.

    February 24, 1692 {Quickly brings reader into story time-frame without having to guess from context. Excellent.}

    On top of the hill was the stake, not yet aflame. An upright log dark against the grey sky. {I see this last sentence as if it were a drum beat. A single beat could be just a noise, but repeated it begins to feel like music. Keep it. Opinions will differ on the optimal speed of drawing the reader in. I think of it like water skiing off a dock. Too fast and you will either pull the skier’s arms out of their sockets, or feet out of their skis. Too slow and you allow the skier to sink too far below the surface as the boat accelerates, the forces required to bring them back to the surface will lose them by causing them to break their grip on the tow rope handle.} Beams of light cut through the clouds, slanting down onto the fields, turning some of {I would keep this “some of” modifier because it reinforced the concept of “beams of light” illuminating just parts of the grass, not all of it.} the tall grass golden. And so how {though not needed for clarity of statement, I took the “And so” to be an article of speech by the protagonist in her own internal voice. I would leave it just as I would not correct the voice of Huck Finn in a Mark Twain novel.}, in this heavenly light, did the stake still look so foreboding? Send {I would not correct this to be “Sending” for the same voice reason.} a chill to the bone?

    The Bachelors of Divinities {Having spent much of my working life solving the mysteries behind industrial accidents, I would copy this title on a 3×5” card and thumb tack it to a wall in my who-done-it quest. Don’t mess with it. I take it to be a hook and I want to figure out what this group is. I will make some guesses with question marks and tack them nearby, modifying them as I find out more.} walked me up the hill. One on each side: Ely and Jonas. I’d known them since I arrived in Salem Village, orphaned, eleven years ago, but they did not act as if they knew me now. I suppose they felt as if they didn’t. {Keep this last sentence as a secondary drum beat emphasizing the alienation the protagonist feels from those she felt were friends.} They held my elbows roughly—my wrists were already secured with rope behind my back—although they did not need to. There was nowhere to go. We’d all been taught the witches had the woods. Not the other way around: Not the woods had witches. Perhaps that’s why they suspected me? As an orphan {as others have noted, redundant use of the word, but I would change it to “young child” rather than delete it. It draws the reader in with sympathy.}, I came from those woods. {Note: I would keep this paragraph rather than move it to a later part of the novel as some have suggested. I feel its presence here maintains a more optimal speed of the opening action as noted in the above skiing analogy. Faster is not always better.}

    My ankle wobbled on a clump of grass, causing me to near {I would not correct this to “nearly” because I feel this is part of the character’s internal voice, Huck Finn and all that again.} fall. Ely sighed loudly {I would keep these couple words because they show an uncaring attitude of her captors, evoking more reader sympathy for the poor girl.} and yanked me up by the elbow. Pain shot through my shoulder. It felt as if the muscle had been ripped in half. {I would keep this sentence. It further magnifies the uncaring attitude and cruelty her captors inflict on the poor girl. Not only are they marching her up to be burned at the stake, a horrible fate, but they are acting in a way that is making her last moments on this earth more painful than they have to be. It is borderline torture and evokes more reader sympathy for the poor girl.} He muttered under his breath, lip twitching. {Note: I don’t think the injury to her shoulder and the part it may or may not play later in the story is the salient point. I view the salient point to be her captors are inflicting pain on the defenseless girl as if they were whipping her with a cat o’ nine tails on the way to her being burned at the stake. How the scars might figure in later parts of the story is a minor issue.}

    The stake loomed taller and taller. We were close, only a few wagon-lengths away. {I like this use of non-standard measures. It infers the girl is not formally educated in standard units of measure such as feet and yards. She is a poor, uneducated servant girl as further revealed by the apron comment in the next paragraph.} Sweat crept along my cold skin, and I found it hard to take a deep breath.

    As we reached the top of the hill, the wind whipped against us, pushing my grey dress against my legs. I wore no apron today. {While others recommend leaving this short sentence out, I believe it is very pertinent. This further indicates the girl is poor. From my own living experience under primitive conditions of grinding poverty, a female might have, at best, 3 dresses. Two would be common, everyday work dresses. One to wear when washing the other. They would quickly be destroyed if subjected to frequent washing in a boiling water caldron over an open flame. Therefore the dresses must be protected by the wearing of an apron which can be washed more frequently. A third dress, if they were lucky, would be a better one only worn for special occasions, such as church.} The wind caused hope to blossom within, especially as Ely and Jonas exchanged expressions. It had rained the night before, but this could only prolong my agony—but the wind, the wind it might help me yet. But hope could be dangerous. Disappointment fell all the further when hope lifted one high. {While others would cut this phrase, I would keep it because it evokes the feeling the poor girl can’t even allow herself any hope for fear it would make her already horrible situation worse. Again more reader sympathy.}

    The stake was now in clean {Obviously the author means “clear” but I wouldn’t change it because I consider this part of the girl’s voice. Again Huck Finn.} sight. A stool, where I would stand, against the log, where they would tie me. They’d arrange the branches and twigs at my feet, and perhaps, if I was lucky, I’d die by smoke {Obviously the author means “smoke inhalation” but I wouldn’t change it because I consider this part of the girl’s voice. More Huck Finn.} first.

    I tried to prepare myself: This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. {Agree with others, state once followed by “Over and over.”} Over and over.

    It did help, I suppose. The grass blowing, as if in slow motion. Our walk forward inevitable.

    {Final notes: As James Scott Bell often admonishes aspiring writers, a good story must have “death stakes.” They can be actual risk of the heart stopping variety, loss of professional status, or psychological. The author of this piece has certainly nailed it on death stakes. Not only is the girl facing a heart stopping death, but in a horrible fashion, being burned at the stake with wet wood that will likely make it slower and more agonizing yet. She is praying for the tiny sliver of mercy that she might die of smoke inhalation before the pain of being burned alive consumes her. Already rooting for her. Can’t wait to read this story when it comes out.

    Some might argue the issue I take with the mentioning of the apron is a moot point since I might be one of the very few readers to pick up on the significance of it. But do we feel, as authors we should limit our writing to things already understood by today’s readers? Or should we feel free to try to broaden our readers understanding of history by weaving in bits and pieces, allowing them to experience the thrill of discovery?}

    • One additional point regarding: Does this story have to be in Salem? I see the author’s choice of geographic scene placement as a matter of trade-off in word economy. If we suggest the author change the location to a non-Salem location, that decision carries with it the burden of additional “world building” pages to inform 99% of the readers how this new/unknown location is just like what they already know Salem to be, or perhaps slightly different in some unimportant ways.

      In this argument for geographic scene relocation aren’t we giving conflicting advice to the author? Brevity to move the story line at a faster pace, while expanding word count to build something the author already has with one word, “Salem.”

      I do have to warn the author; take my advice with caution. IRL I’ve worked for 5 years at a location where several hundred people reminded me daily of how much they hated my guts. Their ill will was blatantly extended to my young wife and small children. So in comparison, I would consider receiving dozens of angry emails from amateur historians as a pretty good day. The question being, are you comfortable with that?

Comments are closed.