First-Page Critique #8: Ghost Roads

zorraHere is the 8th of 10 first-page critiques offered by author Meg Gardiner and me as a professional editor. It’s a tightly written piece. Thanks to the author for submitting it.

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GHOST ROADS

Chapter 1

Harlow Grafton was back in Wallace, Idaho, back at the frantic request of her mother, back to try again. The problem was that there were so many fractured memories and failed attempts that she wasn’t sure exactly what she hoped to mend, heal, or abolish. Other than the anger she never seemed able to diffuse no matter how far she ran. The only thing Harlow was sure about was that she didn’t want to be here, in Wallace, or in the woods.

Summer light, diluted and broken, filtered through the dense forest canopy. Many years ago she’d believed trails led to the homes of fairies, woodland creatures, and all things magical. But when Mike Grafton died among the tall tamaracks, she’d lost any desire to be in the mountains.

Yet here she was.

At least she wasn’t alone. This time she had a companion, a rescued dog that jerked at the leash she gripped. He jumped at bugs droning in the shafts of light, he lunged at birds flitting through branches, and then, as she tried to adjust her backpack, he charged a squirrel and pulled Harlow down on her knees. The collar slipped off the dog’s head and he was off, sprinting after the squirrel while she struggled back to her feet with the useless leash.

Furious, she bent, scooped up a stick, and threw it so hard her elbow popped.

She missed her dog’s butt by several feet.

“Damn it Weda! Get back here!”

The dog responded by launching deeper into the woods and crashing through the underbrush. His odd gold-brown color blended with the bark of the tamarack trees as he surged ahead.

Harlow charged after the dog, jumping tree roots and rocks, leaving the trail behind. The backpack thumped against her and the safety pin holding her already-fragile bra gave up. She caught the strap in a futile attempt to support one breast, and chugged uphill after Weda, breath coming hard.

“Get back here you stupid dog!” She meant to shout so loud that people three miles away in Wallace could hear echoes off the canyon walls. But the words came out in a breathless gasp, emphasis lost.

Harlow stumbled, caught a tree branch for balance on the steep, rocky slope, and stopped. Bending, she gasped for air and heard a faint shout.

Great.

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Meg’s comments:

This author has a strong voice and employs vivid imagery. I love the rhythm and phrasing of the opening sentence: “Harlow Grafton was back in Wallace, Idaho, back at the frantic request of her mother, back to try again.” That sentence delivers a dense dose of information in a pleasing cadence. The “the frantic request” of her mother – “fractured memories” – “what she hoped to mend, heal, or abolish” – all of these are great turns of phrase. I think this story could be rich and rewarding.

And I think the page will be stronger if the author does two things: (1) chooses stronger verbs in other sentences, and (2) pays attention to pacing.

(1) Word choice: Watch for generic words, especially forms of the verb “to be.” The second sentence wallows with “The problem was that there were” – a roundabout construction, as well as a string of bland, static words. Look for every instance of a “to be” verb, and try to replace it with a stronger, more dynamic verb. For example: “She wasn’t sure exactly” – the author could replace that with, “She wondered,” or “she didn’t know.” And: “She was sure” – could be replaced with, “she did know” or “she knew.”

(And does “diffuse” refer to Harlow scattering and attenuating her anger, or should the word be “de-fuse,” as in disarming it?)

As soon as the writing shifts from summary into a real scene – Harlow and the dog walking the trail – the verbs brighten, and so does the scene’s vitality. Put that vitality into every sentence.

(2) Pacing: Almost three fifths of the page consists of Harlow chasing Weda. This allows the author to extend the description of the forest, to expand on Harlow’s emotional state, and to hint at losses she has to face and drama that lies ahead. But the detail of the chase begins to drag. The dog’s escape shows Harlow’s frustration – that’s what matters. We want to know what happens when Harlow catches up with Weda. Tighten the scene. Get to that sooner.

The page’s strongest points, the ones that create suspense, are the hints of discord between Harlow and her mom, and the reference to Mike Grafton’s death. Readers will go a long way to find out what killed a guy with the same last name as the heroine. But keep moving forward with every word. Don’t skimp on the atmosphere (either physical or emotional) but give readers something new with every sentence.

Thanks to this brave author for submitting!

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Ann’s comments:

This is excellent writing. The reader is immediately drawn into the story, and the conflicts and history are conflated and established: Harlow’s conflict with her mother, the death of Mike Grafton, and Harlow’s unwillingness to be back in the woods, now chasing her dog in those woods. All in one page. Well done!

The writing is tight, though it can be tightened more, as Meg illustrates. I won’t belabor the point. The details you choose to provide are varied and keep this reader interested.

One small point to add. When addressing someone in speech, or thought, add a comma before their name. For example, “Damn it, Wedda,” and, “Get back here, stupid dog.”

I have to say, the last word weakens the ending of this page. “Great” is weak. What emotions did the shout cause in Harlow? “Great” tells us next to nothing. And, given the title of the piece, “Ghost Roads,” I think the shout might be significant.

Overall, as I said, I think this is a well-crafted first page, with the caveats that Meg wrote about. Good editing means tightening your writing, and being aware of word choice even on the smallest of words.

Keep going…

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2 thoughts on “First-Page Critique #8: Ghost Roads

  1. Thank you very much for doing this critique. As I mentioned on Meg’s website, I think I’m going to leave work early to start revising. I love a critique that makes you enthusiastic to jump back into a story. And I’m grateful for your honesty.

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