First-page critique: untitled WWII era novel

Here’s a new first-page critique from me and editor Ann Aubrey Hanson. The anonymous author’s page is below. The novel is a historical thriller. Ann’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. ,” he said. “
  • 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!

5 responses to “First-page critique: untitled WWII era novel

  1. This is very helpful. English is not my first language, and I do get a bit chatty, so I will be vigilant from now on. Thank you both som much for reading it. An hopefully you’ll get to read what’s in the barrels soon …

  2. Double well done, writing in a language that is not your first. Many people never write this well in their mother tongue!

  3. I really enjoyed reading all of these and I loved seeing the process. Thanks!

  4. One thing all these critiques make me realize is how much I love stories – what others want to tell, how they share those stories, how they choose word combinations, how they bring characters to life. When English isn’t the first language writing can shine and inspire – when words are combined that wouldn’t typically be, little turns of phrases. That always makes me look at each individual word differently. The tightening critique here strengthens the opening without stealing the writer’s voice. So very well done. I, too, want to see what’s in those barrels.

  5. Thanks, Dana Jean and Lisa!

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