First-Page Critique #7: Depot 573

zorra

Meg Gardiner and I present another first-page critique, this time: Depot 573.

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DEPOT 573

The Computer Science teacher droned on as James stared at the computer, but not at the coding he’d finished within the first five minutes of the lesson, but instead the tiny clock in the corner of the screen. The digits moved up in time with the slow countdown in his head. The harsh sound of the bell arrived a minute before the computer clicked over the hour, which caught James by surprise – but he was ready. Before the ringing died away, James had grabbed his bag and jacket and was running. For his life.

He burst through the classroom door, ignoring his teacher’s shouts of, ‘Holden, slow down!’ If he was to stand any chance of escape, he had to be fast. As he tore along the corridor, James felt his chest tighten and he started to struggle for breath. After only a few more steps, a stitch stabbed in his side, a precursor of the pain to come. He slowed to a fast walk, already knowing he wasn’t going to get away. He hadn’t really expected to.

Kids spilled from the classrooms and the corridors soon bustled with bodies, all eager to get home. James forced his way through the crush, risking a glance behind. He couldn’t see anyone – well, not one of them, anyway. Perhaps he had worried for nothing?  Maybe they had found fresh prey? He didn’t believe it for a moment, though. Before the bell, he’d spotted the early arrival of the full moon from the classroom window, leering over the school, ready to make everyone a little crazier.

‘What’s the hurry, Holden?’ a voice shouted. A girl’s voice. Sarah. James’s pushing became more frantic. He didn’t think he was scared of Sarah, but the notch-up in his heart rate told a different story – and not without reason. Sarah Rider wasn’t just any girl. She was part of the gang who’d tormented him for months. But what set Sarah apart was that she was Darrow’s girlfriend, and even the thought of that name was enough to make James shudder.

Just as he thought he was about to be caught, a break in the crowd meant James could run again—but for how long?  Wasn’t adrenaline supposed to give you superhuman strength?  Hadn’t he read somewhere that people had single-handedly lifted cars off road accident victims, all down to a rush of adrenaline?

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Meg’s comments:

I like this page. It opens in the thick of a scene, immediately sets out the stakes, and gives us a sympathetic protagonist with everything to lose. Making James a teenager increases our hopes and fears for him. The author craftily presents the school as enemy territory, a hostile landscape James has only minutes to escape.

You can strengthen the page by rewriting to address two issues:

  • Sentence construction and word choice
  • Internal monologue that undercuts the suspense.
  1. Sentence construction and word choice. Especially in the first paragraph, the sentences are long and convoluted, and some of the language is vague. The first sentence is 38 words long. It contains three clauses and a micro-flashback. Revise the paragraph. Break long sentences into shorter ones. Use evocative nouns and vivid verbs. Turn woolly words into real images. E.g., the second sentence reads: “The digits moved up in time with the slow countdown in his head.” I think you’re going for the compare/contrast of up in timeà countdown, but moving digits create no mental image. Maybe something like: “The tiny clock on the monitor ticked a countdown. 2:58:58. 2:58:59. Abruptly the bell clanged, a minute early. It startled him—but he was ready.”
  1. Suspense. A story creates suspense by raising a question—and not answering it immediately. Here, you raise two questions: (a) Why is James running for his life? (b) Will he make it? Those are heavy questions, and create real suspense. But at the end of the second paragraph you release the tension: James slows, “already knowing he wasn’t going to get away.” You attempt to revive the suspense in the next paragraph—“Maybe they had found fresh prey?”—then immediately cut it again: “He didn’t believe it for a moment.” Showing James’s fear and lack of self-confidence is fine. Adding uncertainty to the scene’s outcome is necessary. Don’t undercut the suspense by reiterating that he knows he won’t escape.

A question: does the “early arrival” of the full moon signal that this is fantasy/speculative fiction? If so, it adds an eerie element to the scene.

An aside: James Holden is a great name for a protagonist. In fact, it’s the name of a protagonist in James S.A. Corey’s science fiction novels (Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, etc.) that are coming to Syfy as the TV series The Expanse.

A nice touch: making the first tormenter to spot James a girl. That’s an unexpected twist.

This page throws the reader into the high school corridor with James, and I would turn the page to find out how he stays alive.

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Ann’s Comments

A stong first page. We are immediately thrown into a moment of danger and action, without understanding why. The why will come later. For this moment, we know that James simply must flee, and we care about whether he makes it.

One of strengths of this scene is the setting. You take what should be a secure setting and turn it dangerous. Charles Dickens was a master of that, yanking the security from his characters. I know that there is a sense that schools have become dangerous places in real life, but we all harbor the belief that children are safe at school. You have ripped that belief from us. Now, we follow James to see that he makes it safely.

I think you overwrite in some instances, however, thus diluting the power of your scene.

For example, you write:

He burst through the classroom door, ignoring his teacher’s shouts of, ‘Holden, slow down!’ If he was to stand any chance of escape, he had to be fast. As he tore along the corridor, James felt his chest tighten and he started to struggle for breath. After only a few more steps, a stitch stabbed in his side, a precursor of the pain to come. He slowed to a fast walk, already knowing he wasn’t going to get away. He hadn’t really expected to.

I think this could be tightened:

He burst through the classroom door, ignoring his teacher’s shout to slow down. He had to be fast to survive. As he tore along the corridor, his chest tightened. He struggled to breathe. A stitch stabbed his side. He slowed to a fast walk, accepting that he wouldn’t get away. He hadn’t expected to.

The pacing of the writing emphasizes the pacing of the action in this rewrite. This is the sort of thing to watch for when you edit. If you’ve said it, don’t say it again. Tighten your writing.

You write:

‘What’s the hurry, Holden?’ a voice shouted. A girl’s voice. Sarah. James’s pushing became more frantic. He didn’t think he was scared of Sarah, but the notch-up in his heart rate told a different story – and not without reason. Sarah Rider wasn’t just any girl. She was part of the gang who’d tormented him for months. But what set Sarah apart was that she was Darrow’s girlfriend, and even the thought of that name was enough to make James shudder.

I suggest:

“What’s the hurry, Holden?” A girl’s voice. Sarah. James pushed through the crowd more frantically. He didn’t think he was scared of Sarah, but his heart rate told a different story. Sarah Rider wasn’t just any girl. She was part of the gang that had tormented him for months. She was Darrow’s girlfriend. She was terrifying.

As I said, a great start, and you’ve immediately pulled me into the story. This is an excellent effort, and your edit cycle will help cut the slack.

Write on!

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