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

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

1st First Page Critique for 2021!

Despite 2021 starting off like a bad sequel to a disaster movie, I’m trying to get back on track with all my writing goals and I hope you are too (in between just a few news distractions!) Today is my 1st first page critique of the year, and this one, despite having no title, is described as romantic suspense.  My comments follow  – see you on the flip side.

First Page Submission

What do the bitches have planned for me today?”

Gasping, she looked around. Had she really said that out loud? The thought that ruled her life and had done so since she’d arrived on campus in August. What hell were her roommates going to subject her to this time? God damn it. How the hell did the trio manage to mess with her when they weren’t even around?

Sighing when it appeared no one was paying her any undue attention, she resumed trudging towards her dorm, absently wiping a tear from her eye. Having stayed away from the room as long as she could, there wasn’t anywhere else to go. The library and student union had closed so it was the room or her car. And sadly, if she wanted to try to sleep in her car, she’d need a blanket from the room anyway. To make things worse, the football team had won that day, so they’d be drinking and probably pretty wound up.

The key bounced all around the keyhole, her hand seemingly trying to protect her from the evil on the other side. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to relax so finally, on the tenth try, the key slid in and it was time. Bracing herself, she crept into the room. Madison and Morgan spun away from her desk, their faces turning red. Morgan hustled to the other side of the room, but Madison just stood and stared.

She walked to her bed and dropped her backpack, “Need something, Madison?”

“Your damn ass out of here.”

Right on cue, it was starting again. She tried to pretend she didn’t hear it, silently repeating to herself, don’t let them win, don’t let them see any weakness. Sitting on the bed, she pulled a fresh spiral notebook out of her backpack and grabbed a pen. All she wanted to do was ignore them and hope they might leave her alone, for once. She flipped to the first page, eager to document her initial thoughts for the latest English Lit project. It was her favorite class and the professor was the reason she was here. He was a friend of her junior college English teacher and had gotten her a scholarship. Today, he’d given her a special assignment, challenging her to dig deeper into herself after she’d confided that she had thoughts of writing for a living. ‘The ones who set themselves apart share a small part of themselves in each work’, he’d said, ‘Could she be a great one?’ Excited by the challenge, she started jotting notes. Ten seconds later, the notebook was ripped out of her hands.

Overall Comment
This page certainly has an attention getting first line, but after that I have to admit I was a little uncertain about the tone of the story, the voice of the protagonist, and whether this was the beginning of a younger adult novel dealing with bullying or (as it had been described) more of a romantic suspense novel. The tone of this first page definitely seems more suited to YA and I didn’t really get a suspense vibe…So my first major comment to our brave submitter, is what tone do you want to set for this novel? The first line “What do the bitches have planned for me today?” presents a very aggressive, in your face POV, which definitely drew me in, but after that the protagonist becomes much more passive and weak, and her actions seem to contradict an initial strong beginning. Likewise the descriptions and actions used in this first page are all over the place, presenting mixed signals about the protagonist’s character as well as the tone of the book. The final paragraph for example, seems very odd – after steeling herself for what her roommates will do to her, and fearing for the ‘evil’ they will unleash, the protagonist suddenly sits down and starts musing about her English Lit assignment…
Specific Comments
Given my overall comments focus on POV, character voice and tone, I thought the easiest way to illustrate these concerns was to go through this first page and embed my specific comments throughout. Here goes:

What do the bitches have planned for me today?” I love this attention getting first line. Wasn’t sure if intended to have as actual speech, if so need two quotation marks. Remember grammar and punctuation need to be perfect.

Gasping, she looked around. Now I’m deflated. Perhaps, the internal monologue should continue to give the protagonist a stronger voice Had she really said that out loud? The thought that ruled her life and had done so since she’d arrived on campus in August. What hell were her roommates going to subject her to this time? God damn it. How the hell did the trio manage to mess with her when they weren’t even around? Maybe move these questions up earlier so we continue to hear the protagonist’s inner monologue. Remember voice is critical to a first page so you want it ringing out loud and clear.

Sighing This seems passive, given the aggressive first line. when it appeared no one was paying her any undue attention does she secretly want attention?, she resumed trudging towards her dorm, absently why would it be absently if she’s so upset. Does she want people to see her pain and help? wiping a tear from her eye. Having stayed away from the room as long as she could, there wasn’t anywhere else to go. Explain why The library and student union had closed so it was the room or her car. And sadly, if she wanted to try to sleep in her car, she’d need a blanket from the room anyway. If she’s that afraid, why not go to a hotel? The reader needs to get a sense of why she had no one to turn to – especially as college campuses usually have counselors/RAs etc. To make things worse, the football team had won that day, so they’d be drinking and probably pretty wound up. In this paragraph the protagonist’s voice sounds far different to what we read in the first paragraph – much weaker, more passive and using different language..she says bitches and then only uses ‘wound up’?? It’s confusing for the reader and weakens the dramatic tension.

The key bounced all around the keyhole, her hand seemingly trying to protect her from the evil on the other side Very passive descriptionTaking a deep breath, she forced herself to relax so finally, on the tenth try, the key slid in and it was time. Bracing herself, she crept into the room. Again crept is a very weak description given how aggressive she sounded at the beginning of the page Madison and Morgan spun away from her desk, their faces turning red. Morgan hustled to the other side of the room, but Madison just stood and stared. So they’ve been looking through things on her desk – shouldn’t she have more reaction to this?

She protagonist should have a name as it’s unclear who this ‘she’ is walked to her bed and dropped her backpack, “Need something, Madison?”

“Your damn ass out of here.” Without more background their bullying starts to border on caricature – their actions need to feel very specific and real if we are to sympathize with the protagonist

Right on cue, it was starting again. She tried to pretend she didn’t hear it, silently repeating to herself, don’t let them win, don’t let them see any weakness. Why doesn’t she just grab the blanket and leave like she intimated in previous paragraph? Sitting on the bed, she pulled a fresh spiral notebook out of her backpack and grabbed a pen. Why do this? She’s been so afraid and upset, yet she calmly sits on the bed and pulls out the notebook?All she wanted to do was ignore them and hope they might leave her alone, for once. This seems inconsistent, given how much bullying we’ve been led to believe has happened She flipped to the first page, eager this verb seems oddly out of place given how fearful of their bullying she’s been to document her initial thoughts for the latest English Lit project. It was her favorite class and the professor was the reason she was here. These seem unnecessary details which drain the scene of dramatic tension He was a friend of her junior college English teacher and had gotten her a scholarship. Again, why is this detail here?Today, he’d given her a special assignment, challenging her to dig deeper into herself after she’d confided that she had thoughts of writing for a living. Suddenly, despite the threat from Madison and Morgan, she’s just thinking about an English Lit assignment?‘ The ones who set themselves apart share a small part of themselves in each work’, he’d said, ‘Could she be a great one?’ Excited by the challenge, she started jotting notes. Tone inconsistency – she was afraid of their evil a few minutes ago and now she’s excitedly jotting notes?Ten seconds later, the notebook was ripped out of her hands.

I hope these specific comments help highlight the issues I have with this first page. That being said, I think this brave submitter has the basis for a strong first page if the protagonist’s voice can really shine through and if the set up for the story is clearer, more consistent, and the bullying comes through as very real and dangerous.

So TKZers what constructive feedback do you have for our brave submitter?

+9

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!
Enjoy.
CHAPTER ONE

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.

+11

First Page Critique: Oh By The Way

It’s seems a while since I did a first page critique  (though it probably isn’t) but time this year has been running in very strange ways – but it feels good to get back down to the nitty gritty of what makes a first page work. Today’s submission, ‘Oh By The Way’ provides a great introduction to the role of humor and setting the tone for a POV right from the start. Enjoy – my comments follow.

Oh By The Way

I didn’t go out with a bang. It was more of a thud. When the car hit me, all I could think  was, “Oh, great.” My body lifted ridiculously out of my shoes on impact, then fell to the ground so quickly that the rest of me didn’t follow. Thud.

I watched my crumpled body from above and thought, “I’m going to be late for work.” I  floated higher into the London sky, past the smog and into the clouds before realizing the whole cartoonish scene had been my death. “Lovely,” I folded my arms across my chest and rose into the heavens a bit pissed off.

Without any transition at all, I found myself standing in front of a bland sort of train station. It sat under a hazy orange sky surrounded by nothing at all. I turned in all directions and noted not a tree or a bird. The only sound came from my shoes crunching tired-looking pebbles beneath my feet.

“Well, my shoes are back. That’s clever,” I thought. But, the rest of it was quite disappointing. I mean, there was no ceremony to it. I didn’t exactly expect trumpets, but a  kazoo perhaps could have been spared.

I let out a frustrated giggle and noticed a card hanging from my neck by a lanyard. It had a mortifying picture of me with an astonished look on my face and the words “DISTRACTED  DRIVER” bolded in red.

“Bloody hell,” I said out loud.

My ears perked at the sound of pebbles crunching to my right as a plump little woman came walking toward me out of seemingly nowhere. She reminded me of my middle school  English teacher, except with better shoes.

“Oh, my dear,” she reached her hand out to me and I awkwardly took it. “How are you?”  she asked.

“Incredulous,” I blurted out. I was still gripping the photo around my neck and lamely held it up to her. “I was a pedestrian, not a distracted driver,” I said. As if getting my name tag right was what really mattered.

“Oh, not to worry. That’s just a conversation starter,” the woman smiled.

The sound of footsteps suddenly surrounded us on all sides. Beings began taking shape out of the orange haze and we were no longer alone.

General Comments:

I enjoyed this first page for its breezy tone and humor, setting the scene (I assume) for a story set in some kind of afterlife. My favorite line – ‘I didn’t exactly expect trumpets, but a  kazoo perhaps could have been spared.’ – provides a great illustration for how a POV can really come to life in just one sentence. This first page was a little less successful in other ways – mainly because of some uneven writing and lack of real imagery (there seemed to be a lot of non-descriptions like ‘bland train station’ or ‘not a tree or a bird’ which didn’t really add much to the story). Given that most of my specific comments are more directed at these kind of issues, I’ve copied the first page below with my notes embedded, as this illustrates what I’m trying to say a bit better. Despite these issues, though, I do think that this first page has a lot of potential. Starting with an ‘out-of-body’ death experience has been done before, however, so I would urge the writer to really hone those humor skills and make every word, in every sentence count. I love the Douglas Adams style of humor, which is hard to pull off, so overall I think with some more revising, this could be a very successful, wryly funny, first page.

Here is the version of this first page with my specific comments embedded in bold:

Oh By The Way [odd title but could work]

I didn’t go out with a bang. It was more of a thud. When the car hit me, all I could think  was, “Oh, great.” My body lifted ridiculously out of my shoes on impact, then fell to the ground so quickly that the rest of me  [bit awkward as reader left wondering what is the ‘rest of me’ is if not the body…maybe say my consciousness or my brain or my thoughts?] didn’t follow. Thud.

I watched my crumpled body from above and thought, “I’m going to be late for work.” I  floated higher into the London sky, past the smog and into the clouds before realizing the whole cartoonish scene had been my death. “Lovely,” I folded my arms across my chest and rose into the heavens a bit pissed off. [this works well! Like the tone/POV]

Without any transition at all [clunky], I found myself standing in front of a bland sort of train station [?? bland feels like a non-description that doesn’t add anything] . It sat under a hazy orange sky surrounded by nothing at all [except a colored sky…so this seems again more of a non description]. I turned in all directions and noted not a tree or a bird [so why say this? Again doesn’t add anything]. The only sound came from my shoes crunching tired-looking pebbles beneath my feet [so there are pebbles – not nothing at all].

“Well, my shoes are back. That’s clever,” I thought. [I’m assuming the narrator is also dressed – maybe an observation about clothes would also help reader visualize the person] But, the rest of it was quite disappointing. I mean, there was no ceremony to it. I didn’t exactly expect trumpets, but a  kazoo perhaps could have been spared. [Love this line!]

I let out a frustrated giggle [I can’t visualize what that looks like…] and noticed a card hanging from my neck by a lanyard. It had a mortifying picture of me with an astonished look on my face and the words “DISTRACTED  DRIVER” bolded in red.

“Bloody hell,” I said out loud.

My ears perked at the sound of pebbles crunching to my right as a plump little woman came walking toward me out of seemingly [redundant] nowhere. She reminded me of my middle school  English teacher, except with better shoes. [nice line! Love the repetition of shoe issue]

“Oh, my dear,” she reached her hand out to me and I awkwardly took it. “How are you?”  she asked.

“Incredulous,” I blurted out. I was still gripping the photo around my neck and lamely held it up to her. “I was a pedestrian, not a distracted driver,” I said. As if getting my name tag right was what really mattered. [love this line too – clever way of giving insight into character]

“Oh, not to worry. That’s just a conversation starter,” the woman smiled. [love this!]

The sound of footsteps suddenly surrounded us on all sides [awkward]. Beings began taking shape out of the orange haze and we were no longer alone. [Again feels more like a non-description. I would like something to visualize as a reader]

Hope this feedback helps – TKZers, what do you think? What suggestions do you have to our brave submitter??

+11

The Smoke Eater: 1st Page Critique

Another Brave Writer submitted his/her first page for critique. My comments will follow. Enjoy!

The Smoke Eater

Reid never witnessed a sunset out of the plane, but the moment was a testament of god’s creation. He was amazed by the radiant heaven through thin clouds of twilight where the earth and sky merged into the silver-black horizon.

Above the horizon was a spectrum of a blue dark glass, teasing the twilight of angels above. Underneath, the fading glow of what lingered on the terrain was smothered by the dark. It was a cruel but beautiful waltz between a master darkness and its mistress of the light. The horizon slowly narrowed, and the radiance ran parallel to its ruthless nocturnal predator that grew with virulence. What was left of the fading light seemed to be distorted as if an imaginary barrier was blocking the warmth from reaching Reid?

He wondered if it was the trick of the glass, but his inner being that wouldn’t allow for comfort. Deep down, he struggled with the truth that he could be easily smothered by his own darkened fear just like the nighttime drape smothering the day.

Reid turned his head at the sound of a woman’s voice and quickly said, “If I fall asleep, please be careful with me.”

The stewardess frowned and tilted her head.

Reid sensed she didn’t understand and he didn’t know what to say. Telling this woman that he could become violent when he slept didn’t seem like the right thing to do but he had to say something. He was struggling to stay awake and he refused to take the medication with only a few hours left in the flight.

Reid didn’t know how much longer he could stay lucid. “If you need to wake me, give me a nudge, or throw something small at me, and stand back. I startle easily… in my sleep.”

The stewardess stood there, indifferent.

Reid was starting to feel uneasy, that he might have said too much. He told himself, how stupid could I be, that he essentially told an airline attendant that he was a threat, admitting that she needed to avoid him should he become violent. Then he realized that it was worse, he just acted strangely on a middle eastern airline that was passing into Asia. He might as well have yelled out that he was carrying a bomb.

 * * *

Intriguing, isn’t it? There’s a lot to love about this first page. The concept of a MC who’s violent while he sleeps piqued my interest right away. It also raised numerous story questions. Why is he dangerous while he sleeps? What happens to the unfortunate people around him if he drifts off? Could he kill? Has he killed before? How does he know he’s dangerous if he’s asleep?

Bravo, Brave Writer, for not telling us yet! “Something” happened in the MC’s life prior to this flight, and we’ll keep flipping pages to find out what that is. Great job!

Now for the technical stuff…

When I received the unformatted first page, I broke up the text into more manageable paragraphs. The lack of formatting could be caused by copy/pasting into the body of an email. In case the manuscript’s littered with large chunks of text, please remember white space is our friend. Transitions are also vital to keep the reader engaged. For more on these two areas of craft, see Jim’s post and Terry’s post.

Paragraph 1:

Reid never witnessed a sunset out of the plane, but the moment was a testament of god’s creation. He was amazed by the radiant heaven through thin clouds of twilight where the earth and sky merged into the silver-black horizon.

The first line isn’t bad, necessarily, but it also doesn’t draw me in. Plenty of folks haven’t flown before. That in and of itself isn’t intriguing, thought-provoking, or emotional. It’s only after we read the first page that we can envision why this plane ride could turn deadly, and that’s too late.

Paragraph 2:

Above the horizon was a spectrum of a blue dark glass, teasing the twilight of angels above. Underneath, the fading glow of what lingered on the terrain was smothered by the dark. It was a cruel but beautiful waltz between a master darkness and its mistress of the light. The horizon slowly narrowed, and the radiance ran parallel to its ruthless nocturnal predator that grew with virulence. What was left of the fading light seemed to be distorted as if an imaginary barrier was blocking the warmth from reaching Reid?

Beautiful imagery, but the writing could be tighter. By rearranging words and deleting filler, we paint a clearer picture.

Above the horizon was a spectrum of a blue dark glass, teasing teased the twilight of angels above. Underneath, the dark smothered the fading glow of what lingered lingering on the terrain was smothered by the dark. It was a cruel but beautiful waltz between a master of darkness and its mistress of the light (<– love that line!). When tThe horizon slowly narrowed, the sun’s ruthless nocturnal predator overshadowed its and the radiance ran parallel to its ruthless nocturnal predator that grew with virulence. What was left of the fading light acted as seemed to be distorted as if a an imaginary barrier was blocking the warmth from reaching Reid’s face.?

Paragraph 3:

He wondered if it was the trick of the glass, but his inner being that wouldn’t allow for comfort. Deep down, he struggled with the truth that he could be easily smothered by his own darkened fear just like the nighttime drape smothering the day.

“Wondered” is a telling word. For more on deep POV, check out a previous 1st Page Critique. “Inner being” also struck me as an odd choice. My suggestion would be to rewrite these two sentences.

Quick example: Is it a trick of the glass? Why, with the breathtaking view before him, could he not relax? The truth caved his stomach. If he weren’t careful, the darkness within him could smother his light, too. (Still not great, but you get the picture.)

All the last two paragraphs need are a couple tweaks to deepen the point of view. Easy peasy. Let’s do it. Changes are in red.

Reid turned his head at the sound of a woman’s voice, and quickly said, “If I fall asleep, please be careful with me.”

The stewardess frowned and tilted her head. Reid sensed She didn’t understand. Not many people did. How could he tell a stranger he could violent when he slept? and he didn’t know what to say. Telling this woman that he could become violent when he slept didn’t seem like the right thing to do but he had to say something. He was Struggling to stay awake, and he refused to take the court ordered (if it fits the story) medication with only a few hours left in the flight. But what if he couldn’t stay lucid? Reid didn’t know how much longer he could stay lucid.

With no easy way around it, he said, “If you need to wake me, give me a nudge, or throw something small at me, and stand back. I startle easily… in my sleep.”

The stewardess stood there, indifferent.

Reid was starting to feel uneasy (don’t tell us, show us! Is he fidgeting? Picking at his cuticles?), that he might have said too much. He told himself, how stupid could I be, Stupid, Reid, stupid. You just told a flight attendant you’re a threat. that he essentially told an airline attendant that he was a threat, admitting that she needed to avoid him should he become violent. Oh, no! He’s on a middle eastern airline heading to Asia (btw, Asia’s too broad. Tell us where the flight’s landing.). She probably thinks he’s got a bomb strapped to his chest. Then he realized that it was worse, he just acted strangely on a middle eastern airline that was passing into Asia. He might as well have yelled out that he was carrying a bomb.

Brave Writer, take a moment to look closer at this critique. For the most part, all I did was rearrange your words and delete filler. This first page works because of your hard work. Stand proud. And thank you for submitting an excellent first page.

Over to you, TKZers! Would you flip the page? What’s your favorite line? Any suggestions/comments for Brave Writer?

+10

First Page Critique: Can You Find the Murder Weapon?

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments will follow.

The Invisible 

Bette always joked Marge’s baking would be their demise—but not like this. The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

“What about those?” Marge said, pointing to a large cluster.

Bette tsked. “I’m sure we can do better. Do you want the girls eating green tomatoes? What if it was—?” She stopped mid-sentence, glanced down, and wiped her boot on a rock. “Oh, my,” she chuckled, shaking her head. “Well, if that’s the worse that happens today, I’m counting my blessings.” She continued her search. “What time did Paige get in last night?”

“Well, it was past 9:00—when we went to bed. She rents a room; she doesn’t answer to us.”

“I know that, Marge.” She moved down the row. “I just worry she’s not getting enough sleep.”

“She’s a student. They aren’t supposed to sleep.”

“Who’s not supposed to sleep?”

They looked up to see their boarder, backpack over shoulder, mug of coffee in hand, cut across the dewy lawn. “We were just saying,” Marge said, “that you don’t get enough sleep, dear.”

She laughed. “Can’t argue with that. But my paper’s due Monday, and I’m nervous about it. By the way, was that apple pie I smelled, or am I still dreaming?”

“Oh, my pies! I almost forgot.” Marge squeezed Paige’s arm. “If you wait a few minutes, you can have a piece.”

“It’s tempting, but I really need to get to the library.” She waved to the sisters as she hurried to her car. “Save me a slice.”

“We will, honey. Now don’t work too hard. Remember, life is short.” They watched her head to campus, after which Marge rushed off to check on the pies, promising to be right back.

Bette continued down the rows, her persistence eventually paying off. As she removed an almost perfect Brandywine tomato from its vine, a high-pitched scream split the air. She snapped her head around in time to spot a red-tailed hawk, something squirming in its beak, swoop below the treetops. Her heart was still pounding when a calloused hand grabbed her ankle, causing her to drop the basket. She jerked free, only to discover the hand was an out of control cucumber vine.

Though the sisters seem sweet, not much happens on this first page … unless you’re a research junkie like me and have studied this particular murder weapon. Which is genius, by the way. Kudos to you, Brave Writer. For those who didn’t catch it, I’ll explain in a minute.

Let’s look at your first line, which I liked.

Bette always joked Marge’s baking would be their demise—but not like this.

Your first line makes a promise to the reader, a promise that must be kept and alluded to early on. Just the suggestion of green tomatoes is not enough.

Now, let’s look at the first paragraph…

The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

I assume Brave Writer discovered that tomatoes contain a few different toxins. One of which is called tomatine. Tomatine can cause gastrointestinal problems, liver and heart damage. Its highest concentration is in the leaves, stems, and unripened fruit. Red tomatoes only produce low doses of tomatine, but the levels aren’t high enough to kill.

Like other nightshade plants, tomatoes also produce atropine in extremely low doses. Though atropine is a nasty poison, tomatoes don’t produce enough of it to cause death. The most impressive toxin from green tomatoes is solanine. Which, as Brave Writer may have discovered, can be used as murder weapon. Solanine can be found in any part of the plant, including the leaves, tubers, and fruit, and acts as the plant’s natural defenses. People have died from solanine poisoning. It’s also found in potatoes and eggplant.

If Marge eats, say, potato pancakes along with green tomatoes during that brunch, it’ll increase the solanine and other glycoalkaloid levels coursing through her system. *evil cackle*

The nice part of solanine poisoning from a writer’s perspective is that it can take 8-10 hours before the victim is symptomatic, which gives Brave Writer plenty of time to let her stumble into more trouble to keep the reader guessing how or why she died.

If I were writing this story, I’d study the fatal solanine cases and put my own spin on it.

Hope I’m right about this. If not, my apologies. In any case, the weekly Girl’s Club (no hyphen and only capped if it’s the official title of the club) brunch seems important and so do the tomatoes. What I’d love to see on this first page is why. You don’t need to tell us, but you do need to hint at the reason to hold our interest.

What if Bette plucks the deadly fruit from the vine and notices how strange it looks? You’ll have to research to nail down the minute details of a toxic green tomato, if any differences are visible to the naked eye.

There’s one other problem with this first paragraph. Here it is again:

The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

Who’s narrating this story? It isn’t Bette, as your first line indicates. And it isn’t Marge. An omniscient point-of-view is tricky to pull off. Newer writers should focus on one main character and show/tell the story through their eyes. If that character doesn’t hear, see, feel, taste, experience, smell, etc. something, then it must be excluded.

Yes, some writers (me included) use dueling protagonists, alternating scenes between the two, and even include an antagonist POV. But when we’re still honing our craft, especially when we’re learning the ins-and-outs of POV, it’s easiest to concentrate on one main character throughout the story. For more on mastering point-of-view, see this post or type in “point of view” in the search box. We’ve discussed this area of craft many times on TKZ.

As written, my advice is to keep the first line and either delete the rest and find a different starting point (sorry!) or better yet, saturate it in mystery regarding these tomatoes. That way, the reader will fear for your main character while the fruit lay on a bed of lettuce on a serving platter during the Girl’s Club meeting. If you choose this route, one of your goals is to make the reader squirm. “Don’t eat that tomato, Marge!”

What say you, TKZers? Please add your gentle and kind advice for this brave writer.

 

+8

First Page Critique: Falling Free

Today we have a first page critique for a project entitled Falling Free. My comments follow so see you on the flip side (and enjoy because I think this is a great first page!).
Title: Falling Free

I fell hard to the closet floor.

My head hit the carpet. My arms just kind of flopped where they wanted.

I lay there, wondering what’d happened.

The carpet in this Seattle hotel smelled like it’d been shampooed recently. I used to be a hotel maid, so I know about carpet smells.

I stared at the ceiling for a bit. There was a black spider in the corner, moving its legs slowly, like it was doing yoga or something. I tried to mimic its movement, but couldn’t get my arms to respond.

My head hurt a little. I closed my eyes, I swear, just for a moment.

The next thing I knew, a cop bent over me. He stared for a minute, then put his gloved hand on my shoulder and rolled me up slightly.

I guessed he was looking at the back of my head.

He settled me back down on the floor, then leaned over and brushed my long hair away from my face. He smelled like stale cigarettes and had kind brown eyes.

My wallet appeared in his hand. “Junie. That your name, honey?”

I heard movement beyond him. The room outside the closet suddenly seemed filled with people, snapping pictures, going through drawers, talking on their cell phones. Saying things like “next-of-kin” and “keep the media out”.

Didn’t make much sense to me. Who’d care, anyway?

The cop yelled out the closet door. “Hey, Jimmy! Get the boss on the phone.”

“Okay, Frank.”

Then another cop, Jimmy presumably, entered the closet and handed a cell phone to Frank.

“Why don’t you get yourself a phone, Frank?”

“Why should I when you’ve always got yours?”

Jimmy left the closet in a huff.

“Yeah, hey boss.”

His eyes strayed to where it’d landed when I fell. “Nah. Nothing to do here. Get the crew over.”

Frank snapped Jimmy’s phone shut and stuck it in his shirt pocket.

He stood, looked down at me, shaking his head. “What’s your story, Junie?” He lingered over me a moment longer, then turned and walked out of the closet.

I heard him give orders to those in the room, to get this wrapped up. The scurrying intensified, doors and drawers slamming. Then it was quiet again.

Just Frank, studying me from the closet doorway.

My story? You don’t really wanna know, Frank.

I could’ve changed things. Put that in your report.

Comments:
I thought this first page was a great example of ‘less is more’ with short, snappy paragraphs that nonetheless evoked the scene, well-paced and believable dialogue, and a POV/voice that was already compelling. Bravo to our contributor!
For once I have very little to say in terms of input or advice…but if I was to make some recommendations (and honestly this piece is fine to stay as is!) they would be:
  • Perhaps consider one more sentence to give a sense of the injury that’s occurred (as it sounds like something far worse than just falling on carpet).
  • Perhaps consider a brief sentence in the closet describing the iron/ironing board or clothes/robe hanging – just something that might reveal whether this is a seedy hotel, a motel 6 or a more up-market hotel…
  • Possibly clarify time period as it sounds like it’s the 90’s (e.g. Frank snapped Jimmy’s phone shut) but I wasn’t totally sure.
  • This could also be important as I didn’t quite believe Frank wouldn’t have a phone these days (definitely would believe it if it was the 90s) – otherwise I was going to recommend changing “why don’t you get yourself a phone, Frank” to “why don’t you ever have your phone with you, Frank”,  if it was contemporary.
  •  I wasn’t quite sure how Junie could see the room outside the closet from the floor (she’d settled back down after the officer had originally rolled her up slightly). Maybe just have some movement (turned her head, or her eyes saw over the officer’s shoulder…something like that…)
  • Finally, I didn’t love the title ‘Falling Free’ – although without knowing more about the book I can’t really give good input, except to say that my initial reaction to this title was ‘meh’:)
All in all I think this is a really strong first page – TKZers, what do you think? What advice or recommendations would you make?
+10

First Page Critique: Manuel’s Revenge

Happy Monday! (even though it’s starting to feel like everyday is like Sunday…)
Today I have a first page critique which illustrates the challenges in grounding a reader right from the start. My comments, and recommendations follow.  I also look forward to getting you input for our brave submitter after this first page submission.
Manuel’s Revenge

They wouldn’t understand, especially the little ones.

“Daddy’s gone to heaven,” she would say. They would cry and grieve and she would find someone else.

When he opened the door, the apartment smelled of greasy chicken and diapers. Earlier in the evening he told her he’d be at Jerry’s Bar and Grill. Julie was furious, of course, so she and the kids had gone to visit her sister for a few days. He and his wife had exchanged harsh words, but Manuel felt relief. She and the kids wouldn’t be home. They wouldn’t see the carnage.

The scotch having fixed his resolve, Manuel made the call.

As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he crossed the frayed carpet, opened the closet door and removed a plank near the back wall. He hadn’t used the weapon in years, a nine millimeter Smith and Wesson that felt strangely familiar. From years on the streets he knew how to use the gun, but only killed when necessary, always in self defense, never for pleasure—unlike the monster who murdered his brother.

After prison, Manuel truly believed he could change, but his mind never stopped playing that endless loop. His brother’s face—the pleading, the tears, the anguish—would never disappear. Graven into his memory like etchings on a gravestone was the leering face of the thug who pulled the trigger.

Tonight that man would die, and Manuel would die with him.

Replacing the plank, Manuel eased along the wall to observe the rendezvous point from his perch three stories up. On the street below, his brother’s killer would step into the alley expecting an easy exchange. Bills for baggies. No problem.

But when Manuel looked down on the scene, his fists tightened around the pistol. Cops were erecting a barrier and a tarp-covered body lay in the middle of the alley.

A crime scene.

Two uniforms conversed under a streetlight. The lights of a patrol vehicle rotated across the dark bricks of nearby tenements.  In the shadows something moved, something barely perceptible. Even from this distance, the thick man in the sideways baseball cap shifted easily from light to darkness, watching.

Then into the shadows the thug disappeared. The meeting would be aborted. The man who killed his brother would flee. Then, as it had so many nights before, Manuel’s cowardice would seize his thoughts and haunt another sleepless night.

Main Comments

This first page had some good things going for it, right from the get go. It was written in clear, direct prose, and was immediately personal. The reader could easily grasp that the stakes, at least for the main protagonist, were going to be high and that this story was going to be about avenging the murder of the protagonist’s brother. That helped create some nice tension right from the start, but for me, this first page suffered from a lack of specificity and grounding, that made the story, even though it was going to be high stakes and personal, feel almost generic.

In terms of lack of specificity, I wanted more detail about the main protagonist to set him apart. I wanted to be able to picture him, get a hint of intrigue (why had he been in prison for example?) and to hear a more realistic internal dialogue that made him feel like a real person – one I immediately felt sympathy for, and whose story created the kind of dramatic tension that could sustain a novel.

In terms of grounding, I wanted more details to be able to picture the apartment and the building – especially as it seemed such an easy vantage point from which he could have killed the ‘thug’ in the past (had he tried before? – this wasn’t clear).

Specific Comments/Feedback

Having mused over the best way to provide constructive feedback regarding this first page, I decided that providing further comments/notes in bullet form as I read the first page was probably the most useful. So here goes:

  • First line – ‘They wouldn’t understand, especially the little ones’ had me intrigued. But then, just as I was thinking about the children (and we never find out how many or their names, or ages), the comment ‘they would cry and grieve and she would find someone else’ suddenly seemed cold and rather flippant. I wanted to know more about his relationship with his children and their mother (who was, I assumed his wife) but was a little put off already.
  • We get a brief description of the apartment but nothing more. I wanted to be able to visualize the place, and feel grounded in the surroundings. Where are we? What is the socio-economic background of this family? (they sound poor but then he drinks scotch in the next paragraph which doesn’t seem consistent with this initial impression). I’m assuming Julie is his wife but why had they exchanged harsh words – was it because he was always at Jerry’s Bar and Grill (and here, the name is specific but seems unnecessary since I have no other information or context regarding all the other surroundings). Also ‘carnage’ is a very strong word and it makes me think of a large scale, mass killing.
  • Now Manuel makes the call – but I’m not sure what this means as we haven’t got the backstory or context yet – but I’m willing to go with it.
  • Then we have a paragraph about him getting his weapon out and again, we get specifics about it (9 millimeter Smith & Weston) but few specifics about his past. He always killed in self-defense? Why? How did he know the monster who murdered his brother killed for pleasure? I need more here to be invested in this story.
  • ‘After prison’ – again, we get a hint of a past/backstory but no details, except about his brother (who, as yet, remains nameless). The line ‘graven into his memory…” would work better if I had more details so I could really visualize the scene.
  • ‘Tonight that man would die, and Manuel would die with him’ – Why, if he’s shooting the man from the vantage point of a window three stories up, would Manuel have to die? This didn’t quite make sense without more context and information on what Manuel was planning. It sounds like he wasn’t going to be the one going to make the exchange below (as he is upstairs) but how is the exchange supposed to work exactly (?) – and how did Manuel know all this (had he set it up? I couldn’t tell by the end if he had, or if these kind of exchanges were just a frequent occurrence in the alley and Manuel had finally got the courage to try and kill the ‘thug’ this time (?) (again, this reveals lack of grounding and specificity to me).
  • Now, when Manuel looks down on the scene he sees cops…but didn’t he hear sirens or see the flashing lights as he walked across the dark room towards the closet in the previous paragraph?
  • So it’s a crime scene, but we have no context for it – and now a man is watching from the shadows but the police are clueless(?) There’s a reference to nearby tenements but again I can’t picture the scene, as I haven’t got any description or point of reference for where we are.
  • The final paragraph has the ‘thug’ disappear (which seems too easy given the police presence), and ‘then, as it had so many nights before, Manuel’s cowardice would seize his thoughts and haunt another sleepless night’. I really liked this last line, but it still confused me as I don’t have context for his previous attempts or the past that links him to the thug and the circumstances surrounding his brother’s murder.

As all these comments reveal, this first page really needs more specific details and a clear description of place, backstory, and characters to come to life for me, and to create the tension needed for me to turn the page and keep reading. That being said, the scene itself is a compelling one – a man risking everything to avenge his brother’s death – and our brave submitter no doubt knows all the details that could easily be added to bring color and tension to this story. Overall, most of my comments/recommendations are a relatively easy fix and I think once we get the specificity and grounding we need as readers, this first page could be the start of a something good.

So, TKZers, what comments or feedback do you have for our brave submitter?

 

+6

When Verbs Go Rogue: First Page Critique

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments will follow.

Monstruo Cubano

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your first page. A public critique takes guts, and I admire your courage.

From this small sample I assume s/he is just beginning their writing journey. So, TKZers, please be gentle and kind in your comments and suggestions (I know you will).

With that in mind, I offer the following critique.

Using a foreign language on the first page is a huge risk. As someone who doesn’t speak Spanish, my eyes glazed over when I read the title of the library. It wasn’t until the second read-through that I stopped long enough to figure out “La Libreria” meant “The Library.” That’s a problem. Most readers won’t bother to read the scene a second, third, or fourth time.

For more on using foreign languages, see this 1st Page Critique.

I want to point something out that you might not be aware of, Brave Writer. Note all the words in blue…

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Look at all those strong verbs! You didn’t take the easy road, like “walked” for example. Strong verbs create a more vivid mental image. Problem is there’s way too many. In this short sample I counted at least 43 verbs. The second thing that jumped out at me was all the chaos in this first page. Don’t get me wrong, conflict is a good thing. It’s how we use it that matters. If the conflict doesn’t drive the plot in some way, then we need to rethink our opener. I’m not saying that’s what occurred here, but I want you to ask yourself…

Does the library or shopkeeper play a pivotal role in this story? What are you trying to accomplish with this scene? Does this opener set up a future scene? The answer should be yes. Otherwise, you’re wasting precious real estate.

For more on the best place to start a novel, see this post.

I love how you took advantage of smell, rather than relying only on sight. When I finished reading this submission, I felt like I needed a shower to get rid of the cat stench. Good job! We want our reader’s emotions to match our point-of-view character.

Now, take a deep breath, Brave Writer. This next part might be a bumpy road for you, but I’m hoping you’ll find value in my demonstration of how to write tighter and more concise.

Monstruo Cubano (Consider changing the title to English. Don’t limit your target audience. Back in 2014, Joe Moore wrote an excellent post on the subject.)

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. Brook Harper squeaked in horror when she stepped inside La Libreria de Juan Carolos, the closest library to her new apartment in Miami. (reworded to ground the reader) She gaped at the Rows of mildewed shelves housed lined not with books, but broken dishes and food-encrusted utensils instead of books. Did she have the right address? (added to show her confusion; for more on Show vs. Tell, see this post, which also dips a toe into distant vs. intimate/deep POV.) When she’d arrived at the airport several weeks ago, colorful displays advertised tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books, but this place didn’t even resemble those brochures.

Venturing several steps farther inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into littered the front window, the outside world obscured by a thick layer of grime.

Stay in active voice, not passive. An easy way to spot passive voice is to add “by zombies” at the end. If the sentence still makes sense, it’s passive. Example: Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window by zombies. Since the sentence still makes sense, it’s a passive construction.

Where did they keep the Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginners Spanish books? Brook hurried down an aisle, but leaped (leapt is archaic, use leaped) leapt wildly (adverbs and too many verbs and/or adjectives muddy the writing. For more on “writing tight,” see this post) into the air when a . A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches. I think “swarming” here creates a good visual, so I’m leaving it alone. Be sure to read JSB’s post, though. Too much description detracts from the action.

Brook skittered backwards (“backwards” is the British spelling of “backward.” Also, “skittered” might not be the best word choice. I’d rather you show us the action. Example: Brook’s boots shuffled backward), knocking into a shelf. Dishes crashed to the floor. (added for sentence variation; for more, see this first page critique) and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted (If Brook doesn’t even know beginners’ Spanish, how does she know SALIDA means EXIT? Something to think about).

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot wedged under peeling linoleum and she sailed through the air, landed face-first she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Cat urine coated her palms and one cheek. Vomit lurched up her throat. Why did she ever come to this hellhole? Maybe her new boss wouldn’t notice her bilingual inadequacies. Good looks had gotten her this far (or whatever fits the character).

If you’re not using dialogue between two characters, inner dialogue allows the reader to get to know Brook. Who is she? Why is she in Miami? Where is she from? Is she shy or extroverted? We don’t necessarily need to know these things, but you do. For more on building a character, see this post and this post).

Okay, I’ll stop there.

TKZers, how might you improve this first page? Please add the advice I skipped. Together we can help this brave writer up his/her game.

 

 

+7