First-Page Critique: Victor Fletcher’s Foster Children

Today I’m posting Entry #1 in this blog’s first-page critiques.

The anonymous author’s first page is below. My comments, and those of editor Ann Aubrey Hanson, follow.
________________________

VICTOR FLETCHER’S FOSTER CHILDREN

If he didn’t make it in time, she would die. It looked impossible, too. Everything seemed to be against their favor. His colleague, Ronnie, kept screaming and shoving people out of the way, but the people didn’t get it, none of them did. They had no idea that every second they spent remaining on that path reduced the chances of that girl surviving.

He wanted to say, “Please, please stop complaining. Just move over. Don’t even blink. Please. You might be able to save a life today,” but he couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t. So he just kept pumping his legs and breathing through his mouth as he edged through the crowd, trying not to bump anyone with the cooler he was hugging to his chest.

“Excuse us, excuse us,” he heard Ronnie saying desperately, his anger and frustration barely kept in check now.

“Hey you’re not the only one in a hurry,” a middle aged man said, looking over at them with contempt. “We’re all in a hurry here so we appreciate a little courtesy.”

“And we appreciate it if you move out of the way because we’re trying to keep a heart beating, arsehole,” Ronnie said in his Irish drawl which became really thick when he’s mad. “Get out of our way or I’m going to break your fucking nose.”

Not very far now. It won’t be long. “Time?” He managed to ask.

Ronnie glanced at his watch. His dark face was grim. “We’ve got four and eighteen, Brendan.”

Four hours and eighteen minutes.

The surgery lasts about four hours. They had eighteen minutes to bring the heart to the hospital.

“We’re twenty miles, man,” said Ronnie, the tremor in his voice evident now. “We ain’t gonna make it, are we?”

Brendan didn’t even blink. “We are.”

He saw the blue hospital-issued Mazda from about a hundred yards. It hadn’t moved an inch since they left it about an hour and a half ago. The road was as crowded as the pavement.

Sweat poured down his face and his sight slightly dimmed at the edges. They’re not gonna make it.

He ran.

_____________________________

My comments:

This submission does exactly what I tell my writing students to do: Figure out what the chase is, and cut to it. Start in the middle of the action. Put your characters in a scene, with others, in conflict, doing something. And boy, are Brendan and Ronnie doing something important — under pressure, with time running out. This is a terrific way to open a suspense novel.

Over all, this is a strong page. It doesn’t slow down the scene with backstory. It lets the mystery build and pulls readers in through the actions of the characters. My suggestions relate to clarifying and tightening the text.

First paragraph:

  • Brendan is the Point of View character in this scene, but he isn’t identified until halfway through the page, when Ronnie mentions his name. Though it’s slightly artificial to state his name when the story’s in his POV, it’s also standard at the beginning of a novel. If you can name Brendan in the first paragraph, before mentioning Ronnie, that will clarify the scene and help readers. Perhaps, “But it looked impossible to Brendan.”
  • “It looked impossible, too. Everything seemed to be against their favor.” You don’t need both sentences — they imply the same thing. The first is the stronger.
  • “They had no idea that every second they spent remaining on that path reduced the chances of that girl surviving.” You can tighten the sentence to “every second they remained on that path.” And I’d change “that girl” to “the girl” — because this is the first time she has been mentioned.

Second paragraph:

  • I’m intrigued that Brendan thinks he can’t say anything, because Ronnie is doing plenty of yelling.
  • Is Brendan running? “So he just kept pumping his legs and breathing through his mouth” implies that he is, but “as he edged through the crowd” suggests that he’s walking cautiously.

Later paragraphs: Watch tenses and some awkward sentence constructions.

“Excuse us, excuse us,” he heard Ronnie saying desperately, his anger and frustration barely kept in check now.

–> Suggest tightening to, “Excuse us,” Ronnie said desperately, etc.

“Hey you’re not the only one in a hurry,” a middle aged man said, looking over at them with contempt. “We’re all in a hurry here so we appreciate a little courtesy.”

–> The middle aged man’s two lines of dialogue are near duplicates. Simplify: A middle aged man looked at them with contempt. “We’re all in as much a hurry as  you. We’d appreciate a little courtesy.”

–> Following paragraphs — suggest changing to:

“And we’d appreciate it if you move out of the way because we’re trying to keep a heart beating, arsehole,” Ronnie said. His Irish drawl grew thicker as he grew angrier. “Get out of our way or I’m going to break your fucking nose.”

Not very far now. It wouldn’t be long. “Time?” Brendan managed to ask.

Later:

He saw the blue hospital-issued Mazda from about a hundred yards. It hadn’t moved an inch since they left it about an hour and a half ago. The road was as crowded as the pavement.

–> To clarify the blocking in the scene — its layout and choreography — it’s often best to indicate the physical geography at the start of a sentence instead of the end: From a hundred yards out, he saw the blue hospital-issued Mazda.

–> And the tense: It hadn’t moved an inch since they left it an hour and a half earlier.

Sweat poured down his face and his sight slightly dimmed at the edges. They’re not gonna make it.

–> Change to: They weren’t gonna make it.

He ran.

That is a great way to end the page — the odds are impossible, but Brendan’s going to try to beat them.

This scene does the most important thing an opening page can do: It makes me want to read on. I would turn the page in a heartbeat (no pun intended) to find out what happens next.

Well done. Thanks to this brave author for sending in the page for critique!

************

 Ann’s comments:

This is indeed thrilling writing, and easily engages the reader. The reader is instantly pulled into the story, certain of a deadline and brutal consequences if the deadline isn’t met. But the writing can be edited for greater clarity and impact. Here are an editor’s remarks. All edits are suggestions:

Para 1: If he didn’t make it in time, she would die. It looked impossible, too. Everything seemed to be against their favor. His colleague, Ronnie, kept screaming and shoving people out of the way, but the people didn’t get it, none of them did. They had no idea that every second they spent remaining on that path reduced the chances of that girl surviving.

  • If they didn’t make it in time… (there are two of them racing the clock)
  • Identify Brendan by name early.
  • Don’t need the “too.”
  • “Everything seemed to be against their favor.” (Wordy and vague. What else has been against them? Time? Crowds? Traffic? Quick specifics would help.)
  • Was Ronnie running in front of Brendan, or behind?
  • What path were they running on? A running path? A path at an amusement park? The reader has no idea, and therefore, is lost.
  • … the chances of the girl surviving

Para 2: He wanted to say, “Please, please stop complaining. Just move over. Don’t even blink. Please. You might be able to save a life today,” but he couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t. So he just kept pumping his legs and breathing through his mouth as he edged through the crowd, trying not to bump anyone with the cooler he was hugging to his chest.

  • Would he really have wanted to say that, or would he have wanted to say, “Get out of the way. Move it!” (Something to convey his panic.)
  • “…he couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t.” (Why not? Out of breath? Told not to say a word?)
  • He kept pumping his legs, breathing hard through his mouth, edging through the crowd, cooler hugged to his chest, trying to bump anyone. (Reads faster, tighter)

Para 3: “Excuse us, excuse us,” he heard Ronnie saying desperately, his anger and frustration barely kept in check now.

  • With a life at stake, would he really be saying, “Excuse us”? I suspect it would be more forceful. What does he care about their feelings? Somebody’s gonna die!

Para 4: “Hey you’re not the only one in a hurry,” a middle-aged man said, looking over at them with contempt. “We’re all in a hurry here so we appreciate a little courtesy.”

  • “Screw you,” huffed a middle-aged man. “Wait your turn.”
  • What path are they on that there were so many people in a hurry?

Para 5: “And we appreciate it if you move out of the way because we’re trying to keep a heart beating, arsehole,” Ronnie said in his Irish drawl which became really thick when he’s mad. “Get out of our way or I’m going to break your fucking nose.”

  • Again, not polite full sentences: PUNCH the line! Show his rage and his need for speed.

Para 6: Not very far now. It won’t be long. “Time?” He managed to ask.

Ronnie glanced at his watch. His dark face was grim. “We’ve got four and eighteen, Brendan.”

Four hours and eighteen minutes.

The surgery lasts about four hours. They had eighteen minutes to get the heart to the hospital. (Good. Tight. Concise.)

  • “Time?” he panted.

Para 7: “We’re twenty miles, man,” said Ronnie, the tremor in his voice evident now. “We ain’t gonna make it, are we?”

  • …, wheezed Ronnie.

Para 8: Brendan didn’t even blink. “We are.”

  • Delete “Brenden didn’t even blink.” Simply, “We will.”

Para 9: He saw the blue hospital-issued Mazda from about a hundred yards. It hadn’t moved an inch since they left it about an hour and a half ago. The road was as crowded as the pavement.

  • Where is the car parked? Had they left it and run back to it? Confusing for the reader.
  • It hadn’t moved because of traffic? Is there someone else in the car, waiting for them?
  • Again, a sense of place is vital here.

Para 10: Sweat poured down his face and his sight slightly dimmed at the edges. We’re not gonna make it.

  • Rather than, “We’re not gonna make it,” something like: “Shit. We’re out of time.”

Para 11: He ran.

  • Where is he running? Is he on the path, where he couldn’t run before?
  • Why is he running? Deciding running is faster than the car?

Ann notes: This is a line-by-line critique, which I would do for the first few pages of a client’s manuscript, and then highlight similar areas thereafter. Generally I wouldn’t critique every page so in-depth, unless it is a line-by-line edit.

I note: Ann’s and my critiques differ slightly — that’s the nature of editorial review. The author can take all our suggestions under advisement, and decide which, if any, to implement. Good luck!

Cross-posted at Ann’s blog, The Writing Itch.

2 responses to “First-Page Critique: Victor Fletcher’s Foster Children

  1. That’s a great opening page. What is more amazing is, despite it being a good novel opener, the number of improvements that a pair of professionals can still suggest. Awesome!

  2. If I picked this book up and scanned this opening scene I’d keep reading because the author made me want to know what’s in the cooler. I think the author also did a nice job contrasting the two characters. The critique comments make the piece flow smoother and clearer and helps it read a little stronger.

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