First Page Critique: Gideon

Happy Monday! Today we have a first page critique from a dystopian novel – the extract we have is from a chapter entitled Gideon so I’m not sure if this is the first page to the novel itself or merely to a later chapter. The author who submitted this also provided an overview of the dystopian world he/she has created but I’m just going to focus on the page itself – as this is typically how a reader would first immerse themselves in the world  (and we at TKZ don’t typically go through a synopsis or overview for the pages we review). Suffice to say this novel takes place in the near future after a Third World War that has obliterated civilization in a nuclear strike. My comments follow after the extract but I do think this first page critique illustrates the need for clear, consistent world building for any novel that relies on a futuristic or alternative world that is unfamiliar to a reader.

Gideon

On his way to his scheduled fear desensitization treatment at the House of Pain, Gideon Guidry and his friend Paul Roseau had stopped at the Iron Byrd Tavern, where Gideon’s friend Paul, who had made several visits himself, felt sympathy for poor Gideon had purchased several large pink glasses of Le Grand Courage, a rare and expensive French wine for him, and began slurring his words, as the two shared the wine and sat discussing Gideon’s pending appointment and possible death sentence.
Gideon gulped the wine as if he had spent the day in the desert without liquids and as if wine would never be available again, to bolster up his courage for the day ahead.
Paul said, “You know they steal your memories and sell them to those rich citizens up on the Excelsior level of Sanitorium.”
  “No, you must be kidding. They wouldn’t dare.
  “They would, and they do. “Paul said.
  “And people go along with this? “asked Gideon.
  “Either the poor subversives don’t realize it is happening to them, or they just pretending it isn’t happening to them. No one has the courage to face the whip on Public Punishment Day. So, there really is no way, you can avoid the treatment. Why not fake an illness? ”Paul suggested, Gideon just shook his shoulders and said, “There is no point in putting it off. They will get me eventually and then I’ll be in the punishment square. Might as well get the dammed thing over. Right?”
  “No, OK, maybe. Well, let’s at least meet up tomorrow anyway and you can tell me how it went. My prayers are with you, my old friend.”
  Now Gideon was like a bull seeing red, as hate poured over Gideon’s soul like hot grease on a cook stove, imaginary smoke came out of his ears, as he stood there his hands shaking, his fist balled up tight, as he faced this indignity stoically and stood in front of the old converted psychiatric hospital. Surprisingly, near the front entrance, he saw a large pile of rotted timbers stacked neatly up against the sleek new part of the House of Pain and thought, I wonder what that stuff is for? Then, he thought, oh, I hope it is not what I think it is?
  Then, Gideon thought, Am I Drunk enough? Am I strong enough?  To hide the deep dark secret.

My Comments

As always, bravo to our brave submitter for providing us with an extract of his/her work to review. Even though I don’t typically write these sorts of novels, I’m a huge fan of works that fall in both the dystopian and science-fiction genre (which this clearly seems to do). When reading these genres, I look for the following: (1) novelty and clarity in world building; (2) an immersive experience that surprises or shocks me with details or events and; (3) something unique that sets apart the world from others I’ve read. Given how many novels have been set in a post-apocalyptic world it is very difficult to achieve all three.

Rather than providing an overview as I usually do followed by specific comments, this time I’m going to provide notes embedded in the extract itself – in bold and italics – as I think this is a more effective approach.

Extract with my notes:

On his way to his scheduled fear desensitization treatment at the House of Pain, Gideon Guidry and his friend Paul Roseau had stopped at the Iron Byrd Tavern, where Gideon’s friend Paul, who had made several visits himself, felt sympathy for poor Gideon had purchased several large pink glasses of Le Grand Courage, a rare and expensive French wine for him, and began slurring his words, as the two shared the wine and sat discussing Gideon’s pending appointment and possible death sentence.

This sentence is far too long and unweildy. The use of ‘had’ seems redundant in the use of the past tense. The ‘House of Pain’ and ‘fear desensitization treatment’ kind of make sense but when we learn that this appears to be a public whipping I’m not sure what the purpose of this treatment really is….or why this might be a death sentence. The world I’m expected to suspend disbelief and inhabit doesn’t seem entirely consistent. The description of a tavern in particular is hard to reconcile in a more sci-fi post apocalyptic world (sounds more fantasy/middle ages). I need to believe that this world has ‘taverns’ and pink French wine called ‘Le Grand Courage’ even if it also sounds pseudo science-fiction. 

Gideon gulped the wine as if he had spent the day in the desert without liquids and as if wine would never be available again, to bolster up his courage for the day ahead.

Gulping wine as if ‘he had spent a day in the desert without liquids’ and ‘as if wine would never be available again’ and ‘to bolster up his courage’ is too much – one of these reasons would have been fine and I’m also confused: In this post apocalyptic world, why is wine available? Are there still deserts even? 

Paul said, “You know they steal your memories and sell them to those rich citizens up on the Excelsior level of Sanitorium.”

More confusion – so do they steal the memories of pain/fear desensitization treatment? If so, why would rich citizens want them? If they are stealing other memories, how and why does this occur and how does this fit into the discussion of what is going to happen to Gideon at the House of Pain?

“No, you must be kidding. They wouldn’t dare.
  “They would, and they do. “Paul said.
  “And people go along with this? “asked Gideon.
  “Either the poor subversives don’t realize it is happening to them, or they just pretending it isn’t happening to them. No one has the courage to face the whip on Public Punishment Day. So, there really is no way, you can avoid the treatment.

This makes it sound like the memories are of the whipping – but how does Public Punishment Day relate to the House of Pain/Fear desensitization treatment? Again, I’m confused as to what this discussion is really about. Would Gideon really think people might go along with having their memories stolen? Why are we now talking about subversives when before it sounded like everyone went to the House of Pain for treatment (Paul, after all, had already made several visits). Also, why in a dystopian world wouldn’t ‘they dare’ steal memories (I mean they are happy to whip people in public…)

Why not fake an illness? ”Paul suggested, Gideon just shook his shoulders and said, “There is no point in putting it off. They will get me eventually and then I’ll be in the punishment square. Might as well get the dammed thing over. Right?”
  “No, OK, maybe. Well, let’s at least meet up tomorrow anyway and you can tell me how it went. My prayers are with you, my old friend.”

So you can avoid treatment by faking an illness? Seems incongruous for a society/government that inflicts treatment at the ‘House of Pain’ to allow people to delay just because they don’t feel well…again this goes to presenting a consistent and authentic feeling world for a reader. If a reader is confused or has to ask these questions, then the world building isn’t clear.

Also, it seems very strange that Paul which say ‘let’s meet up tomorrow and you can tell me how it went’ when he’s already endured ‘several visits’ to the House of Pain. Not only does this minimize what was described in the first paragraph as a ‘possible death sentence’ it also robs the scene of dramatic tension.

Finally, there is a missing quotation mark before Paul’s comment. As we always emphasize here at the TKZ, an author must go over his/her work to ensure it is error and typo free before sending it to an agent or editor.

Now Gideon was like a bull seeing red, as hate poured over Gideon’s soul like hot grease on a cook stove, imaginary smoke came out of his ears, as he stood there his hands shaking, his fist balled up tight, as he faced this indignity stoically and stood in front of the old converted psychiatric hospital.

Notes: Again, way too many descriptions/similes going on here – to the point where it almost seems humorous…and how did he get from the tavern to standing in front of an old converted psychiatric hospital (which I’m assuming is part of the House of Pain)?

Surprisingly, near the front entrance, he saw a large pile of rotted timbers stacked neatly up against the sleek new part of the House of Pain and thought, I wonder what that stuff is for? Then, he thought, oh, I hope it is not what I think it is?
  Then, Gideon thought, Am I Drunk enough? Am I strong enough?  To hide the deep dark secret.

I’m confused as to what the pile of rotting timbers were for – a hanging? A funeral pyre? Again, the punishments inflicted in this society sound more medieval that future/post apocalyptic so it is vital that this world is described in a way that the reader believes it has sunk back into medieval style punishments (which doesn’t seem to fit with having the technology available to steal people’s memories…). The final line also isn’t clear as we have been given no sense up to this point that Gideon is hiding any dark secret. 

Final Comments

Overall, my key concern here is world building consistency – especially in a genre that necessitates something different/unique to set it apart from all the other dystopian worlds out there. The writing could easily be tightened up but this dystopian world has to be clear to both the author and the reader. Believe me, I know how hard it is to create a world and to ensure all the elements are there on the page, rather than just in your head – but in this genre it is critical.

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

 

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First Page Critique

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is a fantasy entitled A Turin Mercenary. My comments follow.

A TURIN MERCENARY

I sat silhouetted on my warhorse on the top of the hill.  I wanted them to see me.  A band of brigands had noticed me when I left the town of Ashton this morning.  I knew they would follow me.  I decided to make a stand.

It was midmorning.  The sky was clear, but it was cold.  It was the beginning of winter in the Realm.  I had taken off my warm cloak and gloves and let the cold invigorate me.  I took a deep calming breath and prepared myself for battle.

I could see the four of them riding on the road toward me now.  All too often, there were brigands that made their living by robbing people.  A lone female mercenary against the four of them.  They probably thought I would be an easy target.  I think not. Because I made my living by stopping them.  I allowed myself a little smile.  I made sure they would never harm anyone again.

The lead brigand whooped out loud when he saw me.  He drew his broadsword and held it high in the air.  The three brigands behind him drew their swords raised them as well.  They turned off the road and sent their horses at a gallop up the hill toward me.

I had given Talon the order to stand still and placed him with his left side parallel to the road.  A tactical maneuver.  In my left hand, was my longbow with an arrow notched.  I held the black bow vertically so it was hidden with my black horse, tack and clothes. The brigands would not see the bow until it was too late.

I waited patiently for them to come closer within range.  I calmly took in their expressions as they got closer, their faces tense with sneers of rage.  It was time.  I quickly lifted my bow up and drew back the bowstring.  I aimed and released the arrow at the lead brigand.  The arrow hit him square in the chest.  I immediately pulled another arrow from my back quiver, drew and fired.  The arrow hit the second brigand in the chest.  I saw the disbelief on the two remaining brigands’ faces when they saw their companions fall.

I dropped the bow and gave Talon the command to charge.  My warhorse responded with quick acceleration.  I drew my rapier and rode straight at the third brigand…

MY COMMENTS

It’s always tricky with fantasy as a writers needs time for world building – so a first page critique can be hard to do, as we really only get a glimpse of this. Nonetheless, I think this first page demonstrates that, even in fantasy, it is critical to draw a reader in right from the starts with specifics, firmly rooted in whatever world (be in real or fantastical) the author has created. With this first page, we have some tension, a little character development and action, but I think what we most miss is the specifics to add color and texture to the scene. My comments therefore center on world building, characterization and POV.

World Building

In this first page we get a sense of the world but little in the way of specifics. For example, the world is called ‘the Realm’ but we know nothing about it, except that the character is a lone female mercenary who is waiting for a groups of brigands to attack. We don’t really get a sense of her role, motivations, or place in the ‘big picture’ of the novel beyond this (I admit, thought, with a first page only, that is often a hard task). I would have liked more detail that enabled me to see, hear, and smell this world, and enough to enable me to distinguish this story from many other medieval/fantasy novels. One of the key issues I had in this regard was the use of the word ‘brigands’ – which is used eight times on just the first page. This kind of repetition drains the scene of color and specificity – likewise the use of ‘lead brigand’, ‘second brigand’ and ‘third brigand’. Apart from their faces being ‘tense with sneers of rage’ I can’t picture or distinguish one from the other. Such an action scene as a first page would definitely benefit from richer descriptions.

Characterization

I like how the lead character is a kick-ass lone female mercenary, but I needed a little more to truly believe and root for her as a character. It seemed strained to me that she would merely wait in the open and the brigands would oblige by attacking – what was their motivation for doing so? Does she look rich enough to be worth robbing? Why is she a mercenary (even just a hint on this would make her more intriguing)? At the moment she seems a little generic – and again, it’s really a question of giving us more specifics and making her seem more human (is she nervous at all? If she’s so confident – why? Have her experiences in the past hardened her?). This also leads to the question of voice, which I found wasn’t quite fully formed as yet.

POV

The ‘voice’ in this first page is clearly the mercenary and yet I didn’t get a sense of her voice strongly enough as yet. Perhaps it was the vague drifting into third person/omniscience (e.g.. ‘A band of brigands noticed me’) or the odd change in tenses (‘I think not’) or the short staccato style sentences (which can work, but here, felt a little bland). For a fantasy novel to grab me, I need to be fully invested in the main character from the get-go. Although I liked the action in the scene, I feel that a bit more attention to the lead character’s voice would go a long way to upping the tension and stakes.

Overall, I think this page has good action but lacks some ‘color’ in terms of world-building details, POV and characterization. If the writer spent a bit of time enhancing these elements this page would be all the stronger for it.

TKZers, what do you think?

 

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First Page Critique: REBORN

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Today’s First Page Critique is called REBORN. My comments follow. Enjoy.

Back arched, pointed ears swept backwards, Archenon knelt before the High Queen in the Great Hall of Êvina. 

“Please—I beg you. Let me go.” An intricate braid of ebony hair lay heavy along his spine. The piece of parchment crunched between his hands, folded and read so many times that it had begun to crumble.

The High Queen of Aradria, his mentor Rhonja, looked down on him. “You know I can not.” She smoothed out a fold on her silky dress, which was fitted to perfection. It hugged her slender form, mirroring the blinding hall in its purity. Her hair, shining like starlight, wafted about her shoulders.

His imploring emerald eyes met hers from the bottom of the crescent staircase leading up to the white throne. A vast mosaic of Her Majesty’s Royal Crest lay fixed in the wall behind her—four petals aligned to the cardinal points held each other under the protection of a circle representing Spirit, the High Queen’s element. 

Archenon swallowed hard. “I have given you my life, and now the last tie to my heritage is to be torn away. Is there nothing I can say to make you change your mind? I want to see my mother one final time.”

Rhonja had never reciprocated Archenon’s feelings, but he thought she cared for him enough to allow this one request. She was the epitome of hope for her subjects, yet she would crush his. 

“You do care for me, don’t you?” he asked.

“Of course. I treasure you,” she replied, her brilliant gaze a calm ocean at twilight. But her words were scant comfort. 

Shafts of light pierced between the half-drawn purple drapes hanging over the arched windows. Elegant pillars of creatures, cunningly carved, held up the vaulted ceiling. Gryphons, mermians, dragons, elves and other beings stared at him with marble eyes. It was as if they fought to keep the very building from crashing down on him. More than ever, the immensity of the white hall felt intrusive and distinctly foreign. 

Archenon was afraid he would never belong anywhere. Not here, in this land where the trees were few and the ocean lapped around every edge of the border. Not even in his first home, deep in the woods of Elfen Harrows, in the realm of fire. Not an easy thing for an elf to admit, and he shivered with a sudden fear.

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I have great admiration for anyone who writes science fiction and fantasy. The author of these genres takes on an additional burden that the rest of us rarely do—world building. While the rest of us write about a world that we all know, sci-fi and fantasy worlds usually have a whole new set of rules.

Not only does the author have to lay out the rules and landscape, but it must be done right up front—at least within the first chapter or so. AND the author must identify the protagonist, possible antagonist, conflict, fear, story question, and the hero’s “need” at the same time.

Overall, this first-page submission accomplishes those tasks. I’m not saying it’s ready for prime time, only that all the ingredients are there. Even though it reads like a first draft, it kept my interest, and I would certainly read on.

There is a fine line between underwriting and overwriting. Underwriting drops the reader into a scene and advances forward with little or no delay (Jim Bell’s “Act first, explain later”). Overwriting drops readers into a scene and bounces them around like a pinball. In the case of this submission, I feel the scene was overwritten. The writer is trying to cover as much world building as possible in a page or two. But this is the burden I mentioned before. And the skill to do so must be acquired. Bottom line: it’s hard. What this sample needs is just a good, clean rewrite to smooth things out. That should not be a problem. Here are the ingredients that I found in the first page, and why I think this is a good effort.

Protagonist: Archenon
Possible antagonist: Rhonja
Conflict: Rhonja will not let Archenon “go”.
Fear: Archenon is afraid he would never belong anywhere.
Story question: Will he be able to see his mother again.
Need: Escape.

That’s my take on REBORN having only read one page. Tell us what you think. Would you read on? Thanks to this brave writer for submitting to our Thursday First Page Critique.

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