First-page critique: The Neighbor

Ann Aubrey Hanson 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’s number 3: The Neighbor. Our comments follow.

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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 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.

My  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!

3 responses to “First-page critique: The Neighbor

  1. Agreed. Don’t lose the reader in the first few paragraphs. I have to admit that I stopped reading because I thought this person cannot write. Even a well-known author would not dare to write such a risky opening.

    Great blog.

  2. Interesting piece. I never liked present tense until I read Ellie Griffiths and saw how deftly she pulls the reader in. I’m now more open to that style. I admit that here, I skimmed, although the first paragraph intrigued me. I would read a longer sample simply because of that paragraph. I, too, could see this as a short literary piece, but I wonder if that translates to a narrow audience.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts, Dorothy and Lisa.

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