First Page Critique -The Lunar Lifestyle

THE LUNAR LIFESTYLE

We booked the cheapest seats on the rocket, which meant that neither of us faced a window. If I craned my neck, I could see the other couples sitting in the expensive seats, ogling at space and Earth through their window views. I didn’t let it bother me. Once we got to the moon, everything would be free.

I turned to Matt and pointed out a leftover drop of puke drying on his chin. He wiped it away with his sleeve. He didn’t do so well with g-forces.

“Any regrets?” I asked him.

Matt shook his head. “We can always video chat my parents. Or your aunt. And we’ll make new friends up here.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“Besides, Clara, it’s a fresh start. Think of it that way. A start for our family, you know?”
Matt yawned and thumbed through the Rocket Passenger Safety Handbook as we waited to disembark. It occurred to me that there was no point in reading the Rocket Passenger Safety Handbook at the conclusion of a one-way trip. But he’d had a rough flight, so I didn’t say anything.

Matt and I had lived in Lake Placid, New York. Matt taught sixth grade math, and I’d taught seventh grade geography. Eventually, they had to close the school because parents were getting concerned with the levels of radiation in the lake, so we signed up to go to the moon.

Matt and I hadn’t met at school, actually. He tells everyone that he fell in love with me at first sight. I’d stood out to him, apparently, in my bright green sundress on a warm winter’s morning at the dentist’s office. I’ve never had the heart or the courage to tell him that I’d only worn it because I’d been too lazy to do my laundry, and it was the only thing I had left. I certainly hadn’t fallen for him as I waited to be de-plaqued. Matt had grown his bushy red hair out into a bushy red mustache back then. I considered it something of a public service when I made him shave.

Our rocket docked directly inside the lunar base. There were six or seven other bases scattered around the moon-China had one, as did Russia and a few other European countries-but Matt and I would be part of the first group to settle the new American base.

My Critique by Nancy J. Cohen

Being a science fiction fan, I loved the opening. I surmise Matt and Clara are married and are about to embark on a new life on the moon. The point of view is clear, and I’m interested in these characters and their new adventure.

But then the story segues into a flashback that stops the forward motion cold. Starting with this paragraph— “Matt and I had lived in Lake Placid…” and ending at the next paragraph, “…when I made him shave”—it’s all background info that could have been woven into the story later or brought in via dialogue.

Then suddenly the rocket is docking. I would have liked to stay in the moment during their voyage to experience it with them. Their reactions would help the reader learn more about these characters via conversation and their gut responses to the trip. The voyage went too fast.

Also, you’re telling rather than showing. Instead of “Our rocket docked directly inside the lunar base,” let us share this trip through their sensory impressions as the rocket turns, descends, decelerates and docks. Does their pulse race? Their stomachs churn with anxiety as the ship tilts? Their hearts lurch as the vehicle thumps to a landing? I want to smell the rocket fuel. In other words, show—don’t tell. This could be an exciting trip told through the viewpoint of these newlyweds. But you lost me at “Matt and I…”

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Putting Backstory in its Place: First Page Critique

Shutterstock image via TKZ

Shutterstock image via TKZ

Today we are critiquing the first page of a reader-submitted story, titled THE BANK BAR. I’ll add my comments at the end, and then please add yours in the Comments.

THE BANK BAR

The young man had been stalking Sadie for over a month. He sat in his car and watched as Sadie walked home from the store. She didn’t know him. He wanted to make contact with her, but it was too soon. He just wasn’t ready. The only connection he had to Sadie was that he had gone to high school with her older brother. But, they weren’t friends, they didn’t really know each other. He had seen Sadie in a store one day, and knew she was special. Well, special to him. He had no problem attracting girls. He was good looking, smart, in good shape, and was charming. He didn’t have a role model growing up, although if his friends had known his father they would probably disagree.
Sadie was 20 years old, and he was surprised that Sadie was still single. It was 1938, and it wasn’t uncommon for girls younger than Sadie to quit school, marry, and get pregnant; or the other way around. The depression had forced a lot of students to leave school to look for work to help their family. Nor was it unusual for girls to marry someone older. His father was six years older than his mother when they married, and she was 16. But his father was gone now. Good riddance. The bastard had mistreated his mother, and often beat him in a drunken rage. For a long time, there wasn’t much he could do. Things change. A boy grows up. A boy gets bigger, stronger. Eventually, a boy becomes a man. That day came when he finally was able to face his father, and it was no contest. His father would never abuse his mother or beat him again. The neighbors heard that his father left to look for work, and would return for his family. A lot of men had gone off to try to find work. Lord knows there wasn’t much work in Greenville, Alabama. Only he and his mother knew the truth. It was something they could live with, and in fact, preferred to the violence they lived with before his father disappeared. He would not be returning. Ever.

My comments

I like the way this first page sets up a level of tension and expectation in the reader. At first, I wondered why the narrator describes “stalking” Sadie. Once it was revealed that the boy had previously killed his father, I immediately thought, “Uh oh, poor Sadie is next. We have an attractive, charming, serial killer on our hands.” If that’s where this story is headed, I’m interested!

Avoid getting bogged down in backstory and tell-itis 

Unfortunately, this scene suffers from a malady I call “the backstory blues.” The very first line of the story, “The young man had been stalking Sadie for over a month” sets the reader’s focus in the past. And there we stay–mired  in backstory details–for the rest of the page. This problem can be fixed by refocusing the scene to show what’s happening now. Let us see through the young man’s eyes as he’s watching Sadie. Is she a farm girl? Pretty? Vulnerable looking?

Use specific language and details

The language, “Walked home from the store”, is too brief and nonspecific to convey dramatic tension. Is Sadie walking a dusty back road or village sidewalk? Perspiring as she struggles with a heavy bag? Is she walking with a friend, and is her stalker waiting until she’s alone to make his approach? The more specific and “in the moment” this stalking scene can be written, the stronger and creepier it will be. Weave in the backstory elements without losing focus on the here and now.

Avoid weak words

Certain words are inherently weak, in conversation as well as writing. “He ‘just’ wasn’t ready.” “They didn’t ‘really’ know each other.” Edit those out.

Title note

I was a bit confused by the title. Having read the first page, I still have no idea what THE BANK BAR refers to. (A spot for dumping bodies, perhaps?) In this title, both words–bank and bar–can have multiple meanings. This title can be interpreted in different ways, and therefore, it lacks clarity. The title is a writer’s first opportunity to grab the reader’s interest. Make it as strong and compelling as possible. At the very least, the title should give a hint about the type of story that is to come.

Your thoughts?

How did you like THE BANK BAR, TKZ’ers? Please add your notes and suggestions in the Comments. And thank you to our brave reader for submitting this first page!

 

 

 

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Thursday’s First Page Critique

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’m filling in for Jordan today and we have another first page critique. This one’s entitled ‘Discovering Aberration’ – my comments follow.

DISCOVERING ABERRATION

I stood before the lectern in the Grand Literature Hall clutching my mangled copy of Draganvich’s The Lament of the Beggar. Though I had the intention of reading a selection aloud, I found myself fixated on a note in the margin which caught my eye and caused me to pause. “I’m always homesick for the journey,” I had once written in ink speckled script, adding almost as an afterthought, “…no matter what it might hold.”

“No matter what it might hold,” I whispered absorbed in remembering.

It had been two years since my extended journey to the orient. Two years spent writing and searching for employment, poor as Job’s turkey. And then, six months ago everything simply seemed to happen on its own accord. The Oriental Adventure, the book I had written and published under the name Franklin P. Fitzgerald became a rousing success. I was honored by the Tetraelly Academy with a grant and a residency on condition that I teach. And then as suddenly as it all began I found myself, for lack of a better phrase, fantastically bored. Not weary, nor depressed, nor any other such nonsense. Bored, standing in front of a crowd of affluent students (any one of whom had inherited more than I had earned in my entire life), fumbling though the teaching process, and now lost in thought, remembering.

“Professor Fitzgerald?” came a voice from the young lady in the front row. “Professor, are you not feeling well?”

“Hm,” the sound carried almost unnaturally clear through the vast auditorium and over the sea of students. Even those in the back sitting elbow to elbow could hear the slightest of whispers, such were the acoustics. I looked at the book in my hands to the fog of young and wealthy sons and daughters, most wearing ridiculous collections of posed taxidermy. As was the growing fashion among the young and wealthy, they wore the corpses of beasts of the air upon their hats or beasts of the land slung over their shoulders, but never both. Strange, to have all these eyes on me, the eyes of the students and the threaded eyes of the animals.

It still holds true, thought I. Homesick for the journey once more, eh old boy. I fumbled to find myself again, seeking out my originally intended selection. “Yes,” I replied to the girl sitting directly before me. “I’m quite alright.”

 MY COMMENTS

I have grouped my comments by heading, to make things a little clearer.

Setting? Genre?
Overall I had the sense from this first page that I was getting a lot of information I didn’t really need, and not enough of the information I did need. From the outset it felt like we were entering the fantasy realm (the Grand Literature Hall, Draganvich’s The Lament of the Beggar, Tetraelly Academy) and yet the reference to the orient and Job pulled me out of this and I was left wondering about what world and what time period I was supposed to be in. Was the main character a religious man? It sure sounded like he was about to give a theology lecture and his use of the expression ‘Job’s turkey’ made it sound 19th century – so I was a little confused from the outset as to whether this was fantasy or history (or both).

Nothing in this first page gave me much of a grounding for the world I was entering and, without this, I found it hard to get excited about the story. To be honest this first page left me wondering why I should care about Professor Fitzgerald, or his memories of his trip to the orient. I did like the idea of him being up on the lectern, suddenly gripped by memories of the past, and unable to present his intended lecture – but I needed a higher level of tension to become fully engaged and invested in the story from the outset.

Character?
I couldn’t really visualize Professor Fitzgerald. At first he sounded elderly, mulling over the past. Then it sounded like he was slightly younger and bored. Then he went back to sounding old again (particular when he thinks ‘eh old boy’). As a character he was too amorphous for me. I needed less details about the audience and more about him. I also don’t think a character who is merely bored (even if it is ‘fantastically’) generates a lot of narrative drive. I would prefer him to be haunted by his experiences in the orient and so when the memories return, they overwhelm him.

Redundancies?
So what makes it hard to critique this first page is that the details we do get don’t really seem drive the story forward. We get some background regarding Professor Fitzgerald’s journey to the orient but all we know is that he went poor, wrote a book that was a ‘rousing success’ and them ended up teaching. (As a side note why was the book ‘published under the name Franklin P. Fitzgerald’ – which makes it sound like this was an alias – when it appears that it is actually his name?) This information didn’t really compel me to care about Professor Fitzgerald.

Instead of piquing the reader’s interest with details of his journey to the orient, the author provides more details instead about the students. So we know they are affluent (this is repeated – we get told twice more that they are wealthy which is unnecessary repetition in the first page) and that they make strange taxidermic fashion statements. But even this makes it hard for me as a reader to visualize the world we’re in. Is it a historical setting in an alternative world? Or is it in our real world? Again, I’m left without any real sense of where the story is set in terms of time or place. I also found it strangely redundant to know that the students wear ‘corpses of the beasts of the air upon their heads or beasts of the land slung over their shoulders but never both’ – and are these beasts ones we would know or are they fantastical?  I think the fashion provides plenty of scope to be intriguing but instead it seems stilted and too generalized. In a first page a reader wants to have the world evoked in a dramatic and sensory way.

Voice
So the author’s voice in this piece seems old fashioned and a little stifled at times, as if designed to evoke the past. This can work if used to good effect but at the moment the first page isn’t grounded enough in a vivid world/time period for this to be all that effective. Instead, this voice creates distance between the reader and the story.

Punctuation/POV issues
There is some lack of punctuation but, as it didn’t detract from the story, I’m not going to focus on this – except to point out that the internal monologue ‘eh old boy’ needed a question mark. When the professor is supposedly lost in his memories, staring at his book, it was also hard to understand how he knew that the voice was coming from the young lady in the front row.  

Recommendations
I would recommend refocusing this first page on getting the reader intrigued about Professor Fitzgerald and what happened on his journey to the orient. I would ensure enough detail is given so the reader is well grounded in the world that he inhabits. I’d also do away with redundant details about the acoustics of the auditorium or the wealth of the students. The author needs to make it clear from the outset what kind of disturbance or event is going to provide the narrative drive to this story. Even the title ‘Discovering Aberration’ is ambiguous and I’d like to get some sense of where this story is headed…is it about species aberration? Does the plot turn darker and more ‘thriller-esque’ or is it going to be more of an alternate history or fantasy novel? It’s really hard to tell at the moment.  

Finally, readers need a reason to turn the page and at the moment there isn’t enough happening to do this. Everything seems to hinge on the main character’s ‘ruminations’ which isn’t really enough (especially when they offer little in terms of drama). 

So TKZers what feedback do you have?







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First-page critique: HAIR TRIGGER

By Joe Moore

Today’s first-page critique is from a story called HAIR TRIGGER. My comments follow.

HAIR TRIGGER

They were going to cut my hand off.

When I came to, I was tied to a chair. It was dark in the print shop and, like a character in a 1940s film noir, I could see the distorted silhouettes of a tall man and short man standing in the shadows. I was dizzy and felt sick from the blow to my head. The two figures swam in and out of focus.

Leaning over as far as I could, I barfed on the floor at their feet.

“Feeling better?” the short one asked in a strained high-pitched voice that reminded me of Peter Lorre.

“Please don’t say ‘fuck you’,” the tall one added.

I didn’t. I just vomited again.

After I finished whooshing whatever cookies were left inside me, I noticed my right hand was trapped under the clamping rail of a paper trimmer. This type of machine is commonly called a guillotine and has a razor sharp blade with thousands of pounds of pressure behind it. It can make very neat cuts through thick reams of paper.

The short guy stood next to it but I still couldn’t see him clearly.

“It says here this thing can trim up to a thousand sheets of paper at a time,” he read off the metal tag on the side of the machine. “Apparently, the operator must have a hand on each of the side switches for safety.” He looked straight at me. “Gee, I’d like to see how it works. Wouldn’t you?”

The big guy walked to the wall and pulled down the breaker handle on the electrical panel.

Machines around the shop started to power up. I could feel the vibration of the cutter humming through the metal surface under my hand.

The trimming blade gleamed wickedly.

“Now this is the part of the James Bond movie where I ask you to tell me what I need to know. If I don’t get an answer I like, you’re going to have to learn to jack off southpaw.”

I have very few phobias. One, however, is my fear of dismemberment. I get queasy just thinking about it, let alone imagining what my life would be like without a vital appendage such as my gun hand. In feudal Japan it was considered a sign of dishonor if a samurai lost a limb in battle. It showed everyone that he had failed in his duty as a warrior.

I liked this submission, and would keep reading. It starts, just as we so often suggest here at TKZ, with a life-changing event. The protagonist is in trouble and the author presents the reader with a big question: how is he going to get out of losing his hand? The bigger question, at least so far: what did he do to get into this situation?

The voice is not quite solid but it does take on enough character to intrigue. The scene is cliché – two bad guys, one tall, one short, but it does have forward motion and kept my interest.

A bit of line editing and cleanup would help, but it reads like a decent first draft. Nothing wrong with that.

I’m not sure who said the line starting with, “Now is the part of the James Bond . . .” That need clarification.

I would suggest not using the word “very”. It is meaningless. What’s the difference between few phobias and very few phobias?

There were a couple of places where the story slowed down while the writer explained how an industrial paper cutter works and what it means to lose a hand in feudal Japan hand. I would suggest avoiding those type of speed bumps at this stage of the story.

Lastly, even if it’s appropriate to the story, I recommend not dropping the f-bomb on the first page, or anywhere in the story for that matter.

Overall, not bad. I want to know what happens next. Thanks to the brave writer for submitting.

Now, Zoners, what do you think. Would you keep reading or does this guy losing his hand not grab you by the throat? Hold up your hands.

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THE BLADE is an absolute thrill ride." — Lisa Gardner

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First-Page Critique – The Pink Motorcycle

by Jodie Renner

Here’s our first-page submission for today, with my comments at the end.

The title is The Pink Motorcycle.

Why did they hurt me? What? Pavement. Rough and warm, I know this, the heat feels good against my aching body.
 
“Rae? Rae Lynne?”

They’ve come for me. No! Not again. No.

“Hey watch out with that.”

Blinking the sleep from her eyes she was surprised to see her brother standing over her. “Billy, I’m-I’m so sorry. I must have…” She set the screw driver down sucking in a deep breath. Her hands shaking. Sweat dampened her shirt, she shivered, chilled and frightened she swallowed the rising bile. The nightmare lingered, leaving her off balanced. She breathed through it the way the psychiatrists had told her. 

“They took him away.”

Staring at the ceiling she blinked dry eyes, gritty with the need for tears. She did not cry. She couldn’t allow it. Taking a deep shivery breath she returned her attention to the motorcycle.

“Rae, did you hear me. I said they took his body away.”

“I heard you.” She rummaged through her tool box. Sucking her lips between her teeth. She kept her head down forcing the grief away.

“Come on Rae, I’ll take you home.” He knelt beside her crowding her with his need to comfort her.

HERE’S THIS SHORT EXCERPT AGAIN, WITH JODIE’S COMMENTS & EDITS INTERSPERSED, PLUS GENERAL IMPRESSIONS AT THE END: [,* = added a comma]

Why did they hurt me? What? [I don’t really get the “What?” Maybe “What did I do?” or “What happened?” or …?] Pavement. Rough and warm, [I’d make it a period here: “…warm.” or “Pavement under me, rough and warm.”] I know this, [or maybe “At least…”] the heat feels good against my aching body.

“Rae? Rae Lynne?”

They’ve come for me. No! Not again. No.

“Hey,* watch out with that.”

Blinking the sleep from her eyes,* she was [the switch from first person to third seems a bit jarring to me… Maybe stick with first person? (e.g., …from my eyes, I was…) Or put the first-person, present tense thoughts above in italics to indicate direct thoughts.] surprised to see her brother standing over her.

“Billy, I’m-I’m so sorry. I must have…”

She set the screwdriver [one word] down,* sucking in a deep breath. Her hands shaking. [“Her hands shook” or “Her hands were shaking.” Or: Sucking in a deep breath, she set the screwdriver down, hands shaking.”] Sweat dampened her shirt, [I’d put a period and cap here.] she shivered, [and period and cap here] chilled and frightened,* she swallowed the rising bile. The nightmare lingered, leaving her off balanced [feeling off-balance]. She breathed through it the way the psychiatrists had told her.

“They took him away.” [Who’s talking here?]

Staring at the ceiling [ceiling? I thought she was lying on pavement…? If she’s in bed or on the couch or whatever, would it feel rough and warm under her? And why would she be holding a screwdriver in her house?] she blinked dry eyes, gritty with the need for tears. She did not cry. She couldn’t allow it. [Maybe say why not?] Taking a deep shivery breath,* she returned her attention to the motorcycle.

“Rae, did you hear me? I said they took his body away.”

“I heard you.” She rummaged through her tool box [Okay, so she’s in her (or a) garage? I’d make that clear as soon as she wakes up, where she is. And if she’s in her/a garage, would the floor feel warm under her?]. Sucking her lips between her teeth. [Attach this fragment to the one before (or after) it with a comma.] She kept her head down,* forcing the grief away.

“Come on,* Rae, I’ll take you home.” He knelt beside her,* crowding her with his need to comfort her.

COMMENTS: This short opening definitely incites my curiosity! If you can clear up some of the confusions, I think it will make a gripping opening. I’m intrigued by the references to hurting her and the psychiatrist and taking the body away and her grief about that. I’m already empathizing with Rae Lynne and starting to worry about her – an excellent sign!

I definitely want to read more, to find out about Rae Lynne and Billy, and what’s going on with them.

Maybe keep brainstorming to see if you can come up with a more compelling title?

Thanks for submitting this first page for a critique. I look forward to seeing this book in print! Good luck with your revisions!

P.S. One alternate possibility for the beginning, just to give you some ideas:

Why did they hurt me? What did I do? Where am I?

She was lying on pavement. Rough and warm, the heat felt good against her aching body.
 
“Rae? Rae Lynne?”

They’ve come for me. No! Not again. No.

“Hey watch out with that.”

Blinking the sleep from her eyes, she was surprised to see her brother standing over her.

Related links:

Those Critical First Five Pages

Set up Your Story in the First Paragraphs

Open Your Novel in Your Protagonist’s Head

12 Do’s and Don’ts for an Amazing First Page

More first-page critiques by Jodie

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