First-page critique: The Sugar Clan

Freelance editor Ann Aubrey Hanson and I have a couple more first-page critiques for you. Today, here’s The Sugar Clan. The page is below, and our comments follow.

Thanks to the author for submitting!

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THE SUGAR CLAN

Click-click. Click-click. Click-click. Great, her whole morning was now complete. Her car wasn’t starting, not even the slightest spark of life. She had just had it serviced last week. She was never going to make it to her advisor meeting on time. She might as well walk to campus. Maybe the two-mile walk would clear her head and burn off the growing frustration she was feeling.

Darcy started walking in the direction of campus at an angry brisk pace, leaving her car behind her, when she was slammed onto the gravel with an abrasive thud.  She felt the wave of heat whoosh past her before she heard the sound of the blast. As she looked back, she saw flames dancing ten feet high and plumes of smoke marring an otherwise clear blue sky. The briny breeze gently fanning the flames was now mixed with a smokey scent that felt oddly soothing under the circumstances.

Her car, nicknamed Fireball, had just become an actual fireball. “Words have power” never felt more true. Darcy decided she would be more selective naming her next car. Now she really wasn’t going to make it to her advisor meeting at all.

Feeling an inner surge of calm, she called Norma, her advisor’s secretary to tell her she wouldn’t make it. Norma seemed to be expecting an excuse. This wasn’t the first advisor meeting she cancelled this past year. When Darcy told Norma why she was canceling this time, she felt the first crack of emotion in that old battle-ax’s stoic demeanor. Instead of being the ever efficient and cool robot for her advisor, there was a glimmer of warmth and concern beneath her usually glacial facade. She clicked off, telling Norma she’d get back to her to reschedule once she’d sorted this mess.

Darcy proceeded to call 911, followed by her insurance. She had woken up this morning with an unsettling feeling from of a dream that she couldn’t quite remember. The alarm was already toning away on her phone on her bedside table as she came to full awareness. It was rare for Darcy to be woken up by the alarm and this was one of those days. Her body clock usually kicked in no matter how sleep-deprived she was. On her morning run she’d almost tripped over a rock she didn’t see because she was distracted.

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Meg’s comments:

This page starts with a bang, and has a kooky vibe that I thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, I think the author should further exploit that vibe. Doing so will require work on setup vs. payoff and on balancing scene, summary, and flashback.

Set up and payoff. In comedy and thrillers, a punchline or twist works best when it’s set up beforehand. Here, the twist is Fireball exploding in a fireball. But there’s no setup. The car’s nickname is revealed after the fact, as an example of irony, and then discussed at a length that dulls the joke. Possible ways to set it up:

  • Give readers a visual clue in the first paragraph—“Her rusting Civic, held together by a bumper sticker that said WORDS HAVE POWER, refused to start”—and, after the blast, have the smoking license plate holder inscribed with FIREBALL land at Darcy’s feet.
  • Show Darcy grinding the ignition, shouting, “Not even a spark? Why’d I name you Fireball, you stupid car?” followed by the WORDS HAVE POWER sticker floating past her on the soothing breeze.
  • Or, if you want to save it all for after the explosion, show Darcy sitting stunned, while pages of her term paper, titled “Words Have Power,” flutter across the asphalt. Then: She hadn’t believed it. But there lay her car, Fireball.

Scene, summary, and flashback. This page is thin on setting, and summarizes much of the action. That tends to flatten the scene to one emotional level. Darcy’s frustration about missing her meeting looms as large as her brush with death. Maybe that’s intentional, and part of the kooky vibe. But it slows the pacing—car won’t start, car explodes, Darcy calls her advisor’s secretary, reflects on the secretary’s personality, calls the police, and remembers waking up—to a single tempo. After the car explodes, expand on the drama. One beat at least. Give Darcy a real moment to feel the danger viscerally before she starts reflecting (oddly soothing…).

Flashback: the page segues directly from Darcy calling 911 to her waking up that morning. (I suspect that the story originally opened with her waking from the ill-remembered dream, before the author decided to spark things up with the fireball). Here’s the thing: flashbacks generally aren’t compelling unless the author first raises a question that the flashback provides the answer to. Right now the page offers no strong reason to rewind to Darcy getting out of bed. Why do we need to hear the alarm, or learn about the type of dreams she has? Don’t go there, unless it relates to the explosion and the initial scene shows readers that Darcy understands why her car blows up. 

Minor points:

“Advisor meeting”—clarify up front that this means meeting with Darcy’s academic advisor.

“Proceeded to call 911, followed by her insurance”—this is the jargon of a police report or insurance claim form. It dulls the scene and detracts from the more curious point: Darcy calls her academic advisor before the cops.

Watch for sentence constructions that phrase events in terms of a character’s feelings. Using all five senses to describe a scene is great. But writing, “she felt X…” is not as strong as stating directly what’s happening. Instead of, “the growing frustration she was feeling,” go with, “her growing frustration.” Instead of, “She felt the wave of heat whoosh past her before she heard the sound of the blast. As she looked back, she saw flames dancing ten feet high,” try: “A wave of heat whooshed past her. Then the roar of the blast. She looked back. Flames danced ten feet high and plumes of smoke marred the clear blue sky.”

The idea for the opening scene would get me to read on. But the languid flashback would drain my interest. Rewrite, and keep going!

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Ann’s comments:

My first thought is, why is a grad student being firebombed? You have my interest.

My second thought is, this is a clear case of “telling” not “showing” in the writing, which immediately weakens the story for me. You tell us, for example, that the advisor’s secretary Norma seemed to be expecting an excuse, and then tell us that there was a crack in her façade. How much more powerful the writing would be if you showed us these things.

The difference between showing and telling is the difference between witnessing an event and reading an account in a newspaper. The account removes the reader from the action.

I like the idea of this piece, and its unusual voice and pacing. But I believe the writing could be tightened a great deal, thus improving the piece overall.

One criticism is that you use too many adjectives: “angry, brisk pace”; “clear blue sky”; “ever efficient and cool robot.” I would tighten those to “angry pace,” “blue sky,” and “efficient robot.” I’d also change this phrase, “slammed onto the ground with an abrasive thud,” to simply “slammed to the ground.”

“She felt a wave of heat whoosh past her before she heard the blast,” could be tightened to “a whoosh of heat foreshadowed the noise of the blast.”

Strive for immediacy, with tightened sentences and action rather than reporting. I agree with Meg’s comments about Fireball and the use of “words have power.” Make that idea count. It’s powerful, and if it signals something to come later, emphasize the idea now.

It strikes me as interesting that Darcy’s first thought after the explosion is to cancel her advisor meeting. I hope this is intentional, else why isn’t she panicking about her car exploding? Was it an accident, or sabotage? She shows no emotional reaction to her near-death whatsoever. I find that strange. Is it oversight or does it tell us something about Darcy? Hard to tell with what we have here.

I think this story has potential. I’d encourage you to continue, but be aware of loose wording, and keep the action moving forward. Unless the flashback has great pertinence, leave it out, or refer to it in dialogue rather than as flashback. You want a certain pacing, but that doesn’t have to come through excess verbiage. Let your ideas flow, but succinctly.

Despite the need for careful editing, I would still read on. I encourage you to continue.

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