First Page Critique: City of Caves

My apologies to the brave writer who submitted this first page for critique. I meant to do it sooner, but I’ve had an insanely busy October.

The writer says the genre is paranormal/horror. My comments will follow.

 

City of Caves

The strange sounds emanating down the dank, dark tunnel, sent shivers down Albie Halstead’s spine. Cuffed to the wall of his cell by clanking, metal manacles he could feel his body wanting to shrivel and disappear as the mix of chanting and screams echoed towards him and he finally felt his bladder loose as warm pee rushed down his leg, soaking the rags of his trousers and socks, before dripping onto the stone floor to cause a stink, as he whimpered quietly. Hoping they’d forget he was there.

They’d just taken Esme. The screams had been hers and he’d squeezed his eyes shut, to somehow stop himself from imagining what they must be doing. To somehow stop hearing her cries of pain. To somehow pretend that he wasn’t there at all.

When the two men had dragged him in here to this dark place, she’d already been a prisoner and he’d taken in her pale face, torn dress and the chains attached to both of her wrists and ankles and neck and he’d tried to escape again. Struggling and wriggling, kicking and yelling, but the two brutes that had him, had been too strong and one of them had yelled at him. ‘Keep still, yer little bugger! Or you’ll regret it!’

He had not kept still. Continuing to fight, trying in vain to free a hand or a foot or something, so that he could fight back and escape.

It landed him a fisticuff to the face and then, his gut, knocking the wind from his lungs and putting stars in his eyes, as he flopped over and had his own body attached to the stone wall of the cell. He was vaguely aware of them slamming the heavy wooden door and locking it with a key that clanged an echo of its own down the tunnel. Then the laughing of the two men as they walked away.

It was some time before he looked up and could focus his gaze on the young girl on the opposite wall.

She looked to be about his age, if he had to guess.

‘How did they get you?’ She whispered, as if afraid to speak too loudly and attract attention to herself.

‘Coming home. From down the pit.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Albie. What’s yours?’

‘Esme.’

There seemed nothing else to say for a while.

I like the imagery in this first page, but we need to discuss a few important areas of craft. The first of which is continuity. In paragraph two, Esme had just been taken out of the cell. Then we’re told what happened to Albie in the past. We swing back to the current situation and Esme is sitting across from him. Only now, Albie has no idea who she is. See the problem?

Let’s take a closer look. My comments are in bold.

City of Caves (The title intrigues me.)

The strange sounds emanating down the dank, dark tunnel, sent shivers down Albie Halstead’s spine.

Not a bad first line, but I think you can make it even better. Rather than “shivers down the spine” (overused body cue), describe what he’s hearing. “Strange” is too generic for a first line.

Example:

Disembodied cries snaked through a catacomb of underground tunnels. Hooded guards dragged Albie Halstead through a dark, dank maze, his bare feet dragging behind him.  

Cuffed to the wall of his cell by clanking, metal manacles (I realize you’re trying to avoid repetition by using manacles rather than cuffs, but it doesn’t work. The imagery should be clear and concise.) he could feel his body wanting to shrivel and disappear as the mix of chanting and screams echoed towards him and he finally felt his bladder loosen as warm pee rushed down his leg, soaking the rags of his trousers and socks, before dripping onto the stone floor to cause a stink, as he whimpered quietly.

Do you realize the above sentence is 67 words long? It’s exhausting to read. Break up the text to make it easier to digest. Good writing has a mixture of short and long sentences. Short sentences pack a punch and are used for emphasis. Longer sentences add rhythm. Too much of either becomes redundant and weakens the writing. By varying sentences, we add interest, drama, and hold a reader’s attention. 

Example (continued from earlier example):

Helpless to fight back, his captors shackled him to the cell wall. Metal clanged against stone. When he straightened, a young girl sat across from him, streaks of tears bleeding black mascara over a crooked nose—bloody and swollen. Screams pierced the chanting outside the door. Albie squeezed his eyes closed. How did this happen? He attended church every Sunday, escorted the elderly across busy roadways, and volunteered at homeless shelters. He’d more than repaid his debt to society. Yet here he sat. Isolated. Shivering. Alone.

Except for her. [Segway into dialogue]

The details I added probably don’t match your storyline. Doesn’t matter. What I’m trying to demonstrate is how to include hints of who Albie is and why we should care if he’s being held prisoner. It’s not enough to show a harrowing situation. Readers must connect with the main character, or at least empathize with his situation.

They’d just taken Esme. The screams had been hers and he’d squeezed his eyes shut, to somehow stop himself from imagining what they must be doing. To somehow stop hearing her cries of pain. To somehow pretend that he wasn’t there at all. I like the rhythm here, but the action occurs prior to the scene. When we tell the reader what happened in the past, even if it’s only minutes earlier, we remove conflict and tension.

When the two men had dragged him in here to this dark place, she’d already been a prisoner and he’d taken in her pale face, torn dress, and the chains attached to both of her wrists and ankles and neck, and he’d tried to escape again. (46 words) Struggling and wriggling, kicking and yelling, but the two brutes that had him, had been too strong and one of them had yelled at him. ‘Keep still, yer little bugger! Or you’ll regret it!’

He had not kept still. Continuing to fight, trying in vain to free a hand or a foot or something, so that he could fight back and escape.

It landed him a fisticuff to the face and then, his gut, knocking the wind from his lungs and putting stars in his eyes, as he flopped over and had his own body attached to the stone wall of the cell. (41 words) He was vaguely aware of them slamming the heavy wooden door and locking it with a key that clanged an echo of its own down the tunnel. Then the laughing of the two men as they walked away.

The above three paragraphs have the same problem as the one preceding it. The action occurs prior to the scene, robbing the reader of experiencing the abduction and feeling Albie’s terror.

It was some time before he looked up and could focus his gaze on the young girl on the opposite wall. This implies Albie doesn’t know the young girl, but earlier you wrote “They’d just taken Esme.” If he knew her name then, why is this girl a stranger now?

She looked to be about his age, if he had to guess. If they’re about the same age, why would Albie refer to her as “the young girl”?

‘How did they get you?’ She whispered, as if afraid to speak too loudly and attract attention to herself. Good job here. And believable.

Side note: If you plan to publish traditionally or self-publish for an American market, use double quotes for dialogue, not single.

‘Coming home. From down the pit.’

Is the pit a well-known place? If he’s talking to a stranger, the pit might mean nothing to Esme. If it is well-known by the locals, include a line or two to ground the reader.

Example:  

Everyone in [town/city] worked at the pit at one point or another. Rumors circulated about the landfill being the most haunted place in [state], but Albie never believed the hype. Until now. [Include a hint of the paranormal element here]

‘What’s your name?’ (see below)

‘Albie. What’s yours?’

‘Esme.’

These three lines of dialogue come across as too on-the-nose. Granted, it’s an easy way to sneak in names, but it’s unrealistic in this situation. They’ve been kidnapped, beaten, held prisoner. More realistic questions might be: Why us? Will they kill us? Rape us? Sell us to the highest bidder? Who are these guys? What do they want?

Their top priority would be to figure out why they were taken and how to escape. The last thing on their minds should be getting to know one another. They’re shackled to the wall! Weird chanting, disembodied screams! At any moment they could die! Sheer terror should bleed through every word.

Brave Writer, I hope I wasn’t too hard on you. I worked on this for hours because I believe in you. If I didn’t think you had the writing chops to turn this into a compelling story, I wouldn’t have taken the time. Curse me, throw things, then roll up your sleeves and dig in. You’ve got this. 🙂 

TKZ family, what advice would you give this brave writer?

 

This entry was posted in #writetip, #writetips, #WritingCommunity, first page critique, First page critiques and tagged , , , , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire and writes two psychological thriller series, Mayhem Series and Grafton County Series (Tirgearr Publishing) and is the true crime/narrative nonfiction author of PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND: True Stories of Violent Vixens and Murderous Matriarchs (Rowman & Littlefield Group). Currently on submission, her latest true crime project revolves around a grisly local homicide. For the spring 2022 semester, Sue will be teaching a virtual course about serial killers at EdAdvance in CT and a condensed version for the Central Virginia Chapter and National Sisters In Crime. Equally fun was when she appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

19 thoughts on “First Page Critique: City of Caves

  1. Great critique, Sue. I agree with everything you mentioned.

    “It landed him a fisticuff to the face and then, his gut, knocking the wind from his lungs and putting stars in his eyes, as he flopped over and had his own body attached to the stone wall of the cell.”

    Too much passive voice. Active voice would be more powerful.

  2. Thank you, Brave Writer, for letting us take a peek at your opening page. I love reading horror, so I’m excited about this one.

    My favorite sentence in your opening is “He had not kept still.” It shows us that Albie is determined and brave. (The sentence has previously-happened/tell issues that Sue addressed in her excellent critique, but the sentence still helps characterize Albie.)

    I think words like “strange” in your first sentence could be a more precise. Sue mentioned this. It’s not only that “strange” is generic, but also it’s a missed opportunity for you to use a word that hints at the creepy genre.

    Speaking of genre, if this is paranormal and not simply bad guys doing bad things, then it’d also be nice to get a hint of that.

    Good luck with the story, Brave Writer!

  3. Brave Author, there is a lot to like here. The setting, mood, and atmosphere are visceral. Good use of sensory details like the feel of warm pee down Albie’s legs, the smell, and the sound of screams and echoes in the cave. Truly creepy!

    The situation of two young people thrown together to endure torture and imprisonment is compelling. As Sue said, give a hint of who Albie is and what he was doing when captured. It’s okay for the time being that he and Esme don’t know why they’ve been targeted–that adds to the uncertainty and suspense.

    While Sue’s excellent suggestions may seem a little overwhelming, they really are quite easy fixes. Breaking up long sentences and keeping action in the present will go a long way to punch up this scary first page.

    Good luck!

    • Thanks for weighing in, Debbie. I agree.

      First pages like this make for a difficult critique, because they’re good when the critiquer knows they could be great. My hope is Brave Writer will see the forest for the trees, and realize, as you mentioned, everything I pointed out are easy fixes. It feels like a lot at first, but I did the same thing early on. The movie’s playing in your head and you don’t have enough distant to realize which tiny details might trip up readers.

  4. Congratulations, Brave Author, on your submission. Like others, I also liked the setup for the story. Starting in a dungeon is compelling, and I agree with everything Sue said. Using stronger, punchier sentences would keep the tension up.

    In addition to the other comments, I had just a few things:

    I’d delete the first paragraph. Although it’s good description, I think the sentence “They’d just taken Esme” would be a better start.

    Some of your wording seemed a little weak for this story. For example, you say “his own body attached to the stone wall.” Maybe they would have “smashed” him against the wall. Esme could have the chains “shackled” to her rather than “attached.” I would use every opportunity to hammer home the horror of the situation with strong words.

    I liked the answer the character gives: “Coming home. From down the pit.” I immediately wondered what “the pit” was and how it figured into the story. I would read on to get the answer to that question.

    Good job!

  5. I agree. There is a good start here sort of buried in some very long sentences and a bouncing around point of view.

    I am going to point out some odd word choices. Manacles. Sorry, but manacles makes me think of a bad pirate movie.

    Brutes, little bugger, and fisticuffs. Are you trying to place this in the UK? That whole section just threw me.

    My quick attempt.

    Struggling and wriggling, kicking and yelling, but the two men, had been too strong and one of them had yelled at him. ‘Keep still, maggot. Or punk. Or something stronger.


    A fast left to the face and then, his gut, knocking the wind from his lungs…

    Sorry. That part bugged me.

    Good luck with the revisions.

  6. Great critique, Sue. This first page shows great promise.

    I agree with Kay’s comment about starting in a different place. I think, in addition to her idea, the scene could start with, “How did they get you?” she whispered.

    That’d get my tension radar going for sure. And with a little sentence reconstruction to make it more frightening, “how did they grab you?”, or some such.

    Great start, BA. I like the set-up.

    • It does show great promise, doesn’t it, Deb. I agree. Finding the best place to start is tricky without losing all those visceral details that set the scene. I like your idea, though. That line would immediately get my attention, too. Thanks for helping, Anon.

  7. The strange sounds emanating down the dank, dark tunnel, sent shivers down Albie Halstead’s spine.

    A few nit-picks: Emanate means to come out from a source. Clearly, the tunnel is not the source, but the path. We find a bit later that Albie is not in the tunnel itself, but in a cell nearby, where he’d only know yon tunnel is dank and dark from his experience of several minutes/hours/days previous, i.e., you’re half in flashback, with Albie not currently experiencing the dank & dark. Try:

    Screams and ululations came echoing down the corridor outside Albie’s dank, dark cell,, sending shivers up his spine and hot pysse trickling down what was left of his trousers.

    Press on! Write with a video camera in front of your mind’s eye, recording what Albie would see/hear in real-time, in the order he would experience it. Avoid flashbacks, even small ones, as much as possible.

  8. Good critique, Sue. Especially the parts about the overwriting. I like the idea behind this, a creepy setting that seems to be a dungeon (?). Although all we are told specifically is that there are tunnels. When you’re starting out with such a great setting, you really need to ground the reader better in details. All we get are “dark” and “dank.” Which are lazy words. I want to FEEL this awful place, and it must be filtered through Albie’s consciousness. What exactly does it smell like? Is it cold? What are the walls like? If it’s dark, how can he see anything? And darkness can make your other senses really acute. Specific sensory details are missing here so the opportunity to really make us feel his terror is lost. By coincidence, my post tomorrow is all about establishing a sense of place, so that’s what I’m keying in on here.

  9. Yes I think the second sentence should be edited into more than one sentence. What gets me is the author took the time to write a perfectly structure, if not verbose, sentence and then wrote – Hoping they’d forget he was there. – which is not a sentence.

    • Definitely verbose. Writing tight comes with time and practice, and I have no doubt the writer will get there. Thanks for adding to this conversation, Michelle!

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