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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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!

First-Page Critique #6: Slow Dissolve

zorrafreeHere is another first-page critique from Meg Gardiner and me. (I apologize for the delay in continuing these. Life precluded working on this for a bit.) Here is our critique of “Slow Dissolve.”

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SLOW DISSOLVE

Brody Doyle laid the small bouquet of wildflowers at the base of the headstone, picked up the dead bunch that was lying there, crushed the dried petals in his hand then let them blow away on an unusually strong wind. It felt like fall, or as close as Southern California ever got to fall. They both knew what real fall was like – the smell of molding leaves, the crackle in the air followed soon after by snow so high you could lay down in it and disappear. 

He missed the snow a little. Missed the fall a lot. Missed the old days even more. Not the days back East. Those days when they were a pair and on top of the world. Just the beginning, was what people said, but it turned out to be the end. The end for both of them, in very different ways, but still the end. Who knew? If he’d known, he would have done things differently, would have savored the moments instead of rushing through them like a child turned loose in a toy store.

With a gentle, reverent touch, Brody stroked the top of the headstone then ran a single finger over the name etched in the face. Then he rearranged the flowers, photos and teddy bears that had been left there by strangers. Even in death, he drew them in. 

He can’t be dead. I just saw him on TV yesterday. He’s living, breathing, smiling, captivating the camera, and in turn, the audience with his mischievous grin. And that’s the way he’ll stay forever. Never growing old. Never changing. Never having to see the disappointment in the eyes of a fan when they realize you don’t look anything like the man they remember. They’ve aged, one hundred pounds and bifocals, but still they’re surprised to find you’ve aged, too. Not such bad shape for a man of fifty. Still trim. Still blond and the eyes are still just as blue.

Dorian Gray had his portrait. We have TV.

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Meg’s comments:

This page drew me in with vivid imagery and an intriguing set-up. It starts in a good spot: in the middle of a scene (thank you!) and at a moment that naturally creates suspense. It features only one character—a tactic I usually warn writers to avoid, because scenes with a solo character tend to be static and can devolve into soggy interior monologue. But in this case, there’s a second spectral character in the picture: Brody’s dead partner. And his presence, beneath the headstone, is what creates the scene’s tension and suspense. What happened to the dead guy? It raises a primal question. Readers will turn the page to find the answer.

The writing is skilled; I feel confident that in this author’s hands, I’ll be led into a story expertly told. The author reveals details smoothly, by showing rather than telling the scene. “Then he rearranged the flowers, photos and teddy bears that had been left there by strangers,” elegantly reveals that the dead man was a celebrity. And the final line is fantastic: “Dorian Gray had his portrait. We have TV.”

My suggestions relate to adjectives. (1) Cut many of them. Write wherever possible with strong nouns and verbs that stand on their own without modifiers. (2) In a number of spots the author uses multiple adjectives where a single, more particular word might create a more vivid impression. For example, “the small bouquet of wildflowers” in the opening sentence would be stronger without “small.” Wildflowers are the distinctive thing. And “Unusually strong wind” may accurately describe the weather, but “unusually” seems bland in the situation. “swirling wind” or “savage wind” would create a stronger image. Same with “Not such bad shape for a man of fifty.” “Decent shape” or even “not bad shape” would be stronger.

And I know the author wants to leave the dead man’s name a mystery for now, but referring to him only as “he” becomes confusing. In the third paragraph, “he” refers in one sentence to Brody, and in the next to Brody’s dead partner. This stops the reader. That would be the spot to say, “Even in death, Joe Bob drew them in.” (If Joe Bob is actually his name, let me know.)

In sum: another strong first page. I would eagerly keep reading.

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Ann’s Comments

This is an appealing first page. I am curious about the “you” in the story, and who Brody is to the main character.

One of the first comments I would make is the inconsistent us of him/you within the narration. I would suggest naming the other character early on if he is to be referred to in the third person, or stick to one point of view, rather than switching as you do at the end.

I agree with Meg’s critique comments. This is a strong opening page, and you write well, clearly, enticingly.

I also agree with the comments about adjectives. Mark Twain said to use adjectives as though you had to pay for them. That’s sage advice. (See the use of adjective there? Sometimes, adjectives are needed for emphasis. Other times, they are just useless filler.) You write, “with a gentle, reverent touch…” I would hardly expect a reverent touch to be anything but gentle…

However, you should also be aware of the cadence of your writing. I highly recommend reading it aloud. Sometimes, reading a sentence aloud will provide a better sense of the cadence of a sentence. Take this example:

“He missed the snow a little. Missed the fall a lot. Missed the old days even more. Not the days back East. Those days when they were a pair and on top of the world. Just the beginning, was what people said, but it turned out to be the end. The end for both of them, in very different ways, but still the end. Who knew? If he’d known, he would have done things differently, would have savored the moments instead of rushing through them like a child turned loose in a toy store.”

The paragraph works as it is, but it is choppy. I think some of the truncated sentences might be blended for better cadence. “Not the days back East, when they were a pair and on top of the world.” Boom. Better rhythm.

All said, however, I would continue reading. You hooked me. Well done.

First-Page Critique #5: WWII-Era Story

zorraHere’s a new first-page joint critique from Meg Gardiner and me. The anonymous author’s page is below. Meg’s and my comments follow. Thanks to the author for submitting.

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Chapter 1

The barrels towered against the warehouse wall spilling out on the yard, one on top of the other. The stevedores tilted their heads and stared through the April morning haze. Their assignement started at first light. The warehouse owner wanted it done with a minimum of fuss, and before the regular hours of the harbour.

“How old did you say these barrels are?”

The youngest of the stevedores was barely 18 years old, with muscles straining against his shirt.

The foreman spat tobacco on the ground. “The oldest are from the last year of the war,” he said. “1918.”

The kid scratched his head. “Holy shit. Are you telling me that some of those barrels are older than I am?”

“That they are.” The foreman stuffed another wad of tobacco under his upper lip, and sucked tobacco flavoured saliva through his teeth. “We can use the crane to lift off the top layers and lower them directly on the barge. The barge will take them to the landfill.”

The kid wasn’t done being awed. “But isn’t it weird that the barrels have been here for so long? It’s 1940 for Gods sake. Why haven’t they removed them before?”

The foreman snorted and pulled on a pair of thick gloves. He was a big, burly man, with a face marked from a life on the docks. His shoulders were more powerful than the kid’s, as was his back.

“Our job is the clean-up. Get up there, you know how to work the machinery.”

The kid climbed up the crane. It gave him a tremendous feeling of power to look down on the foreman. One day he would take his girlfriend up here, and really show her … the view.

The thought made him grin while he started the engine.

A few hours later they were down to the last layer of barrels, closest to the wall. The barge had made one trip to the landfill already, and was waiting for them at the pier.

The foreman kept a close eye on the barrels. He waved up to the kid, and the crane stopped it’s creaking rhythm.

He bent over a barrel and looked closer at the metal hoops. He could clearly see rust, and he was unsure it if would hold.

If the hoops broke, the contents – litres of putrefied brine and rotten herrings — would spill all over his feet.

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Ann’s Comments:

I like this first page. Set in a different time, it interests me enough to keep reading. The last line leads me to believe that the barrels aren’t, in fact, full of brine and herrings, and I am intrigued to see what they will find left over from World War I.

The writing is solid and focused, but perhaps a bit wordy. Let’s look at some specific suggestions:

  • The barrels towered against the warehouse wall spilling out on the yard, one on atop of the other. The stevedores tilted their heads and stared through the April morning haze. Their assignment had started at first light. The warehouse owner wanted it done with a minimum of fuss, and before the regular hours of the harbour. [Assuming UK English in use.]
  • “How old did you say these barrels are?” The youngest of the stevedores was barely 18 years old, with muscles straining against his shirt. [No need for second paragraph.]
  • The foreman spat tobacco on the ground. “The oldest are from the last year of the war. ”
  • The kid scratched his head. “Holy shit! Are you telling me that some of those Those barrels are older than I am?”
  • “That they are.” The foreman stuffed another wad of tobacco under his upper lip, and sucked tobacco-flavoured saliva through his teeth. “We can use the crane to lift off the top layers and lower them directly on the barge. The barge will take them to the landfill.” [At some point, he has to spit.]
  • The kid wasn’t done being awed. “But isn’t it weird that the barrels have been here for so long? it’s 1940 for Gods sake. Why haven’t they removed them before?” [Careful with giving such precise dates like this. It can be easier, but weaker writing. Perhaps find another way to give an idea of the current date.]
  • The foreman snorted and pulled on a pair of thick gloves [this would be a good time for him to spit]. He was a big, burly man, with a face marked from a life on the docks. His shoulders were more powerful than the kid’s, as was his back. [This information should be important at some point, or we don’t really need to know it, unless he is a main character.] “Our job is the clean-up. Get up there, you know how to work the machinery.” [No need for separate paragraph.]
  • The kid climbed up the crane. It gave him a tremendous feeling of power to look down on the foreman. One day he would take his girlfriend up here, and really show her … the view. The thought made him grin while he started the engine.
  • A few hours later they were down to the last layer of barrels, closest to the wall. The barge had made one trip to the landfill already, and was waiting for the last load. them at the pier.
  • The foreman kept a close eye on the barrels. He waved up to the kid, and the crane stopped its creaking rhythm. He bent over a barrel and peered looked closer at the metal hoops. He could clearly see rust, and he was unsure it if would hold. If the hoops broke, the contents – litres of putrefied brine and rotten herrings – would spill all over his feet.

Simply tightening the prose helps move the story along and keep the reader’s interest. You could tighten further by leaving out some of the parenthetical prose (such as the foreman’s build, and the young man’s plan to take his girl on the crane). You want to capture the reader instantly. Too much chatter, and you risk losing the reader.

As I said, though, that last line grabs my attention. I would keep reading.

My comments:

All Ann’s suggestions are on the money. Using detail to show the era, the location, and set the mood are all great. But tightening this page will strengthen it, for several reasons:

1. Cutting the fluff (which isn’t that thick or fluffy, to be sure) will let the characters, setting, and events shine more clearly. Especially in dialogue, cutting echoes and verbal fillers will distill the conversation to its essence.

2. This scene is a set-up for the main story. Whatever spills out of those barrels is going to cause a disturbance in the world of the novel. It’s going to be the inciting incident that kicks off the plot. I’m confident that this the purpose of the scene because:

  • The author effectively creates a mood of mystery and anticipation (the barrels are so old! Their age is strange! They hail from the dying days of one massive war, and are about to be opened in the first year of another!)
  • The stevedores are minor characters who will probably only appear in this scene. Why? Because they’re “the stevedores.” They’re “the foreman,” and “the kid.” They don’t have names. That’s fine. But when minor characters appear, especially at the beginning of a novel, be careful not to give them too much personality. One identifying characteristic will be enough. If you describe them in detail, and show us their habits, and put them in lively conversation, and hint at their love lives, then readers will expect that they’re going to stick around and matter to the plot. When they don’t, readers will feel disappointed.

So: let the dock workers do their part. Don’t over-build them. Give readers one quick glimpse at the foreman (burly, tobacco-spitting) and the kid (fit, eager, young enough to be surprised) and then pry open those barrels. I want to know what comes spilling out, and see how the stevedores react.

Good job!

First-Page Critique #4: Pity the Living

zorra

Here’s a new first-page critique, of the British thriller Pity the Living. The page is below; author Meg Gardiner’s comments follow, with mine at the end.

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Pity the Living

Craig stood in front of the faded hardwood door and hesitated.  He glanced left and right. A few cars drove by, but there were few people on the street. He was a little surprised. This was a popular residential area, and he expected commuters and children to be heading out to work and school. He turned his attention back to the door and knocked, hard. Ten seconds seemed to be a reasonable time to wait for a response, but at three he was pulling out a key, its once sharp teeth smoothed by many years of wearing holes in pocket linings—some of them his. He tried to remember the last time he’d used it. Six years ago? Seven?

Craig pushed the key into the lock, the clicking of tumblers drowned out by the noisy squawk of Brighton’s seagulls. He glanced up and smiled. Those damn birds had probably started their morning racket with the rise of the sun, two hours earlier. The wooden door, swollen from years of neglect, squawked louder as he pushed it inwards. He hadn’t taken a step when the salt-fresh sea air was replaced by the unmistakeable stench of death. His stomach spasmed. He turned and threw-up the roadside breakfast-in-a-bun he’d eaten less than fifteen minutes earlier. His first thought was borne of pure shock, and he knew he’d forever associate it with this moment. That shit didn’t actually taste any worse the second time round.

Craig wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and turned back to the doorway. He breathed in through his nose, deeply. The smell wasn’t one he ever wanted to get used to, but this wasn’t the first time he’d smelled death. Those times were different, though. This time it was personal. This time he knew whose rotting corpse was waiting for him.

Craig pulled the sleeve of his jacket over his right hand and stepped over the threshold. He used his sleeved hand to push the door closed and stood for a moment, letting his eyes grow accustomed to the gloom of the familiar hallway. The two doors on his left were closed, as was the bathroom door at the top of the stairs ahead of him. Cheap curtains with no lining hung limply across the window to the right of the bathroom door, but did a poor job of keeping the morning light out.

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Meg’s comments:

This page offers a good mix of anxiety, determination, and mystery. I like the way we sense that this is a story weighted with history, and that the author creates this atmosphere without dumping backstory onto the page. The history is going to be revealed organically, strategically, after Craig opens the door. The page tantalizes us with hints—about Craig’s background, both personal and professional, and about the surprise that awaits him inside the house.

The writing is extremely competent. This submission has no issues with grammar, usage, or tenses. This might sound like a minor compliment, but writing competently is a tall hurdle to clear. When professional readers come across clean, proficient prose, we cheer. And the author knows to start the story in the right place: just before the main character crosses an awful threshold into a world soaked with death.

My suggestions relate to sharpening the prose, and pacing revelations. The author is interlacing description amid the action. That’s a good impulse, but in places it slows the flow of the story and results in long, convoluted sentences. Some details might not matter to the story, and can be tightened.

Opening paragraph: the author can reshape or cut most of the middle sentences. “Craig stood in front of the faded hardwood door. He raised his hand to knock, and hesitated. He glanced left and right. [Why? Checking for surveillance?] The street was surprisingly empty. This was a popular, leafy neighbourhood, but no commuters were driving to work, no children heading to school. And nobody was watching him. He rapped on the door, hard. He tried to wait ten seconds, but after three he pulled out the worn key. When had he last used it? Six years ago? Seven?”

One thing to change: the parallelism in the structure of these paragraphs. Each one starts with “Craig.” It’s too much. Paragraph two:

“Overhead, seagulls squawked. Craig smiled. Those damn Brighton gulls had probably been at it since sunrise. He jammed the key into the lock and pushed the door open. Swollen from years of neglect, it squawked louder than the birds. Instantly, a stench hit him. It overwhelmed the salt-fresh air. His stomach spasmed. He spun and threw up his roadside breakfast. The smell permeating the house was unmistakeable. Death.”

End the paragraph with the hardest hitting revelation!

“He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. His first thought, borne of pure shock, was: That shit didn’t taste any worse the second time around. His second: I’ll never forget that a puked-up breakast-in-a-bun is what I thought about at this moment. He turned back to the doorway. He breathed in through his nose, deeply. [Clarify why? Because the olfactory nerves soon go numb?] The smell was one he never wanted to get used to, but this wasn’t the first time he’d smelled death. Those times were different, though. This time it was personal. This time he knew whose rotting corpse was waiting for him.”

In the final paragraph, do you want to show his emotional state as the first seconds of shock give way to action?

“He pulled the sleeve of his jacket over his right hand and stepped across the threshold. [If he wants to avoid leaving fingerprints, would he wipe the lock?] He shut the door with his covered hand and stood. His eyes adjusted to the gloom of the familiar hallway. His heart didn’t. It pounded. The two doors on his left were closed, as was the bathroom door at the top of the stairs ahead of him. Cheap curtains with no lining hung limply across the window to the right of the bathroom door, but did a poor job of keeping the morning light out.”

This is a solid opening page—but if the book is going to be an action-oriented thriller, then soon—very soon, within the next few words—it’s time to instigate some action. I suspect that those closed doors might hide bad guys. I hope so. Because as soon as possible, it’s important to put Craig into a scene with other people. That’s where conflict, dialogue, and story really get rolling. Don’t leave your characters alone!

Thanks to the author for submitting this first page. Good luck!

Ann’s comments:

I am immediately pulled into the story. You have used the senses to set the stage and provide something more than just the bare outlines of action.

He walked to a door, knocked, waited, let himself in, and found a body—This is so much more than that! We smell the salt air, hear the birds, hear the tumblers, see the neglected wooden door, and then smell death, not specifically but knowing that it is bad enough to cause the narrator to heave. Excellent use of the senses!

The rhythm of the sentences is also outstanding. Whether read silently or aloud, the sentences slip off of the page without staccato or pause. Such a rhythm makes it easy to read.

Though you haven’t explained who Craig is or why he is there, but you’ve given us a lot to work on: the fact that he has been there before, numerous times, and the fact that he has a right to be there (he has the key). There is mystery, and a touch of suspense, but we immediately know that he has a right to be there, of one kind or another.

I like the breakfast-in-a-bun reflection too. Cleverly written, almost an aside.

I have no line-by-line specifics to correct. You’ve done a masterful job with sentence construction and punctuation.

Unlike Meg, I like the description worked into the opening. I don’t feel that this is an action-thriller, but will be more of a detective/mystery, in which such details can and should play such a part. It’s also a difference in taste between Meg and me. I like the detail. She can’t wait to jump off the ledge.

Well written and controlled. Keep going.

First-Page Critique #3: The Neighbors

zorra

 

Meg Gardiner and I have decided to critique 10 first-page entries sent to us. All are unique, and each offers a different challenge for critiquing.

Here is #3, “The Neighbors.”

The Neighbors

Ten years ago she meets a neighbor. She never knew him entirely.  She walks the street hoping for more contact, which he doesn’t give.  He, only, smiles once, although she never forgets the embracing smells of cigarettes and whiskey. She understands what this smile means and considers the meeting never-ending. She considers him closer, seeing what her chances are for more. She smiles back.

Five years later he reappears, riding shotgun, arm and arm with a red Cadillac wheel and a chemical blonde in a Raggedy Ann dress. Skye still doesn’t know his name but upon seeing him and the chemical blonde, thinks, that’s what happened to him.

On a third occasion she’s cashier in a community bookstore. He walks into the bookstore. He doesn’t recognize Skye.

“We’ve met before, she said.

He thinks.

He leaves.

He comes back. He asks for her phone number, “I know you’ve given it to me before”, he says, “but can I have it again”?

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Ann’s Critique:

My first reaction is, what? This seems so disjointed. But upon second read, I find I am intrigued, and I’m beginning to think the author is actually in control. Now, I am curious about what comes next.

As to specifics:

  •  I’m interested in these sentences: “Ten years ago she meets a neighbor,” and, “Five years later he reappears.” It seems to me that this “misuse” of tense is intentional. I’d have to read more to know for sure, but I suspect it will have play in the piece.
  •  I’m not sure about the punctuation here: “He, only, smiles once, although she never…” Is he the only one to smile, or did he smile just that once? If the latter, then the sentence should be, “He smiles, once only, although she never…
  •  “She understands what this smile means and considers the meeting never-ending.” Excellent line. This sets the reader up for a possible stalker situation, or at least, unrequited love.
  •  ““We’ve met before, she said.” Need a close quotation after before, and here you’ve switched up the tense. Again, intriguing, but if in error, be aware of that fact throughout the piece.
  •  Finally, all punctuation should go inside the quotation marks in this piece. (Otherwise, colons and semicolons don’t go inside, but that’s another discussion.)

Overall, despite my initial reaction, I feel the writer is in control here (story-wise). I’d certainly read more.

—————————

Meg’s Critique

My reactions parallel Ann’s. First read-through: Huh? The tenses and time shifts are all over the place. Second read-through: Huh. The author is shifting tenses in a deliberately edgy and controlled way, to pull us into the story with a contemporary, conversational voice.

This is both the story’s strength and a risk to its success. Readers who don’t give it a second read—that is, most readers—might feel confused. And if you confuse readers in the first few paragraphs, you’re likely to lose them. BUT—if this is aimed at a literary fiction market, where readers expect experimentation and word play, I think they’ll eagerly go along for the ride.

And I do suspect that this is a literary short story. At least, I hope so. Its concision, its quick half-scenes, give it a pace and momentum well-suited to short fiction. It really moves, in a series of rapid-cut snapshots. That gives us a lot to go on, and a lot to make us curious, in just 165 words.

If I’ve misread, and this is the opening to a novel, the mini-scenes will seem thin. But I don’t think this opening is meant to support another 90,000 words of story. In which case, keep it up—I want to know what happens with Skye and the neighbor.

(Ann has nailed all the punctuation and usage issues. Follow her advice.)

Thanks to the author for sending the page! This critique can also be found on Meg’s website.

First-Page Critique #2: Sci-Fi for Children

First-page critique: untitled science fiction for children

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Here’s Entry #2 in this blog’s first-page critiques.

The anonymous author’s first page is below. Author Meg Gardiner‘s comments and my edits follow.

_______________________

“Once upon a time…”

…said Mr. Pringle to his tired and mutinous children, all girls, as he dragged them in a ragged line through the Dolorous Garde, the gate on the westernmost side of Mayfair Gardens.

Usually these words begin a story. Here, they brought one to an end. Specifically, his.

If fate had let him finish, Manny Pringle’s last words on Earth might have ended in Paternal Advice: “…If thee were to be sick in company, Modesty, thee’d use thy hat”.

Or maybe in an Improving Proverb: “…I’d not have to remind thee, Patience: ‘Smile, and the world smiles with thee; cry, and I’ll give thee summat to cry about’”.

Or even with A Last Warning: “…Any wide-awake lass’d know only a fool gets ‘tween a dog and his ball, Prudence!”

Instead, as he hurried his family under the reverberating bronze dome, a bomb blew him out of his boots and into nothingness.

It was the boots that were to blame. They had been plaguing him all day. Only last Monday, they had been sat in all their dark glory on the two-pound-ten shelf of Lancashire’s finest bootmaker in (“Enoch Duckworth, Bootier. By Appt. to His Worship the Mayor of Cogthorp”).

“That sole had better last”, said his eldest daughter checking off her list.

“It’ll last longer than you, miss, and it’s almost as smart, if you ask my opinion”, said the shop boy.

A small face popped up over the level of his counter. “If we want your opinion, we’ll ask a monkey”, it scowled.

________________________

Meg’s comments:

This is a charming and fun opening page — which is an accomplishment, considering that the main character gets blown to smithereens. Its success is down to an intangible quality: the author’s voice. It’s lively, lighthearted without being saccharine, and has just enough of an edge to keep the story from feeling either gooey or dark. There’s a Roald Dahl-ish vibe to Mr. Pringle’s tale.

I’m curious that the author describes the story as science fiction, because the language is deliberately anachronistic, in a way typical of fantasy or fairy tale. It even starts with “Once upon a time.” (Kiddie Steampunk?) This can work, but the speculative/SF aspects need to get going quickly, especially in a children’s book. It doesn’t have to be in the first paragraph, because even in a kids’ novel there needs to be room for world building. But soon.

My main concern is with structure. This single page encompasses three disparate elements:

  1. It opens with the Pringle family on an expedition to Mayfair Gardens. That’s good: it’s an immediate scene.
  2. It veers into speculation about what Manny Pringle might have said, if he had survived. The imagined quotes, with their insightful labels (Paternal Advice, Improving Proverb, Last Warning) give us Pringle’s personality. But in essence they’re backstory. Coming immediately after the opening paragraphs, they distract and slow down the narrative.
  3. The final third of the page is a flashback to the purchase of the boots — an entirely different scene.

In other words, the page is trying to do a whole lot. Maybe too much. Starting with a dramatic event is a good impulse — it hooks the reader. Just don’t wait too long to come back to it. I don’t know what age range the story is aimed at, but if the narrative swoops back and forth too much, children can struggle to follow it. Be wary of that.

My only other comments relate to punctuation. Cut every ellipsis (…) on the page except, perhaps, for the first two. And maybe those as well. And put the punctuation for dialogue inside the quotation marks. (“That sole had better last,” said his eldest daughter.)

In sum, I would definitely read on.

Ann’s comments:

I absolutely loved this page. It intrigued me from the get-go, on many fronts. It was quirky, the language was elegant and playful, and I was hooked immediately. The father was a definite character, and the last line made me want more.

The tone of the piece could have been much darker, given the fact that Mr. Pringle blew up, but the fanciful and lively writing sets the reader up for something fun as well as mysterious.

As to specifics:

  • Using “Once upon a time” to start a story is risky, of course, but it works here, on two levels. First, it is something Pringle was actually saying. Second, it sets the tone for the piece. I see from your “title” that this is a piece of science fiction for children. In that case, this is an excellent opening line, but you must make it work for you later in the story.
  • You give examples of what last words Pringle might have spoken, led in with an ellipse, but the words don’t really follow on what the first part of the sentence was, “Once upon a time…” I love the possible quotes, but they don’t quite fit with the lead-in. That would need some remedy. And there are perhaps too many quotes, though I suspect this was due to his addressing each of his daughters, and perhaps giving us insight into their personalities (particularly to Prudence).
  • “a bomb blew him out of his boots and into nothingness. It was the boots that were to blame.” That is such an unexpected line. Caught me off guard immediately. I like that.
  • Only last Monday, they had been sat in all their dark glory  (“they had sat” is more concise).
  • “finest bootmaker in (…)   You don’t seem to finish the sentence after giving the bootmaker’s name.
  • I see by your punctuation that you are writing in British English, so I won’t comment on punctuation.

For a first page, this was exactly to my taste as appetizer. Well done!

Thanks for submitting. And thanks to graphic novelist Lucas Turnbloom for the swashbuckling editor icon!