Tag Archives: First-Page Critiques

First-page critique: Gateway to the Divine

Here’s the tenth and final first-page critique by me and freelance editor Ann Aubrey Hanson. I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing how Ann and I approach editing. Thanks to all the authors who let us dissect their pages. You’re brave. Now get back to writing, all of you.

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Chapter 1: Kore’s Departure

As the biting wind stung her face Inanna clutched her as if her life depended on it. A chorus of leaves crunched beneath her feet cutting into the cold pulsing air. As she approached the bridge she paused – the creek water did not have its usual delicate trickling sound, but revealed gushing excitement. Soon Callie’s cottage was in sight. She paused once again and looked up at the sky. All hell is going to break loose tonight, she thought.

She rapped hard on the door. “Callie! Callie! It’s time. It’s time,” she uttered in a voice that hardly sounded like her own. She was highly cognizant of the urgency of the situation and was desperately trying to keep the panic in her heart from swallowing her whole.

The door opened slowly to prevent the wind from ripping it from its hinges. “Oh dear – it will take me a couple of minutes to get my things. Please, step inside for a moment,” Callie invited. “We’ll stop for Margot along the way,” she added.

As the two women gathered a couple of bags that had been prepared ahead of time, Callie slipped on her fur lined boots and swung her wool cloak around her. On the way out the door she grabbed her umbrella.

“Just in case,” she said as she winked at Inanna.

They two women strained to walk upright against the savage winds. Leaves and twigs raked against them and the percolating storm cut loose with a vengeance.

“Damn,” Callie bemoaned, “umbrella’s no use tonight.” She tucked it deep inside one of the bags, bouncing haughtily against her side. As if they hadn’t already been moving at a quick pace, the two women moved even faster. The contents of the bags was a constant reminder of what lay ahead this long night.

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My comments:

I like the urgency, the mystery, and the foreboding atmosphere in this scene. The storm effectively magnifies and reinforces the turbulence in Inanna’s heart, complicating her unknown mission. That’s all positive. What this page needs is another draft.

And, Dear Author—before you howl and rend your garments: this is a good thing.

This page has multiple early-draft issues—imprecise language, awkward sentence constructions, clichés. But the concept for the scene, and its execution, are basically solid. With care and attention, you can straightforwardly fix every issue. (I’m not telling you to throw it out and start over. See? Good thing.)

So:

Sentence construction:

1) The first sentence—the reader’s entry point into the story—is confusing. It uses her three times. Either the second her is a pronoun where a name should be used, or a word is missing. (“Inanna clutched her…” Her what? Pearls? Broadsword?)

2) Watch for overusing as. “As the biting wind stung her face,” “As she approached the bridge,” “As the two women gathered…” As can let a sentence get overloaded with too much action. Cut the word and cut the sentence in two. Or change “ ‘Just in case,’ she said as she winked,” to “‘Just in case.’ She winked.”

Speech tags. Stick with “said.” (Everybody who’s attended a writers’ group meeting with me is now stabbing a finger at their screen, thinking, “I knew she’d harp on this.”) On this page, dialogue is rarely said. It’s uttered, invited, added, and bemoaned. You’re allowed a speech tag that isn’t the word said — once a chapter. That exception is the word asked.

Clichés: “All hell is going to break loose.” “With a vengeance.” “As if her life depended on it.”

Come up with fresh similes and metaphors.

Imprecise imagery: Can a chorus “crunch”? Does a bag bounce “haughtily”? Does wind feel like “pulsing” air? When you say Inanna’s voice “hardly sounded like her own,” could you instead be specific? How does it sound different? Timid? Quavering? Too loud?

One larger issue is the disparity in Inanna’s and Callie’s reactions — Inanna is near panic, Callie breezy. That’s actually interesting. But Inanna doesn’t react to Callie’s breeziness. It’s a disconnect. If Inanna could show irritation, or anger, or be calmed by Callie’s seeming coolness, that would strengthen the scene.

This page has a lot of potential. So dig in and get going on the next draft.

Thanks for submitting!

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Ann’s Comments:

I like the sense of turmoil and need for speed that comes across in the early paragraphs. This is lost, however, with Callie’s lack of intensity. Is that on purpose? Is Inanna being unrealistic in her hurry? If you mean to have two reactions, then the two characters should play against one another in those reactions. If this isn’t meant to be, I would suggest that you hasten Callie’s responses. I hope that the sense of urgency is important, because that’s what drives this first page.

I won’t cover the clichés in the writing, since Meg has covered those. Just know that if a phrase immediately comes to mind (quick as a wink, in a New York minute, in two shakes of a cat’s tail), it is likely a cliché. When you edit, look for such phrases and reimagine the imagery (something that happens rapidly: like drool forming at the sight of chocolate cake; or a quickly as a fussing baby calms in its mother’s arms). Give yourself time to reimagine the world from your unique perspective, and share that imagining with your readers.

I also agree with her discussions of imprecise imagery and speech tags, all things that I would normally point out. I won’t repeat them here, but simply agree with them. Pronouns are especially problematic, as are sentence lead-ins (such as “as”).

All of that said, I also agree with Meg that you have a strong first draft here, one that deserves another edit, and then more of the story.

Reread Meg’s comments, and then study my suggested edits as follows. If you compare this edit to your original text, you’ll get an idea of how to tighten your writing:

With the wind biting her face, Inanna clutched her (missing word?), protecting it from the clutches of the wind. A chorus of leaves crunched beneath her feet. At the lip of the bridge, she paused—the creek didn’t trickle as usual, but gushed with laden energy. She scooted across the bridge on panic-light feet.

Soon Callie’s cottage was in sight. She paused again and looked at the sky. All hell is going to break loose tonight.

She rapped hard on the door. “Callie! Callie! It’s time. It’s time!” She fought to keep the panic in her heart from swallowing her whole.

The door opened deliberately, to prevent the wind from ripping it from its hinges. “Oh dear—it will take me a couple of minutes to get my things. Step inside for a moment. We’ll stop for Margot along the way.” (Question whether she doesn’t feel the need for speed as well?)

Callie slipped on her fur-lined boots and twirled her wool cloak about her shoulders, then handed Inanna one bulging bag and grabbed the other. At the last moment, she grabbed her umbrella. “Just in case.”

The two women strained against the savage wind as leaves and twigs raked against them, the percolating storm at last cutting loose.

“Damn! Umbrella’s no use tonight.” Callie tucked it deep into the bag bouncing against her side. The two women moved trod faster, the contents of the bags a constant reminder of what lay ahead this long night.

You have my interest. I vote that you continue! Thank you for submitting this.

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Cross-posted at Ann’s blog, The Writing Itch, where she adds:

“We hope you have enjoyed the critiques, and perhaps learned something from them for your own writing. The first step in any successful novel is getting the words on the page. The next step is proper editing. If you have editing questions, please feel free to contact me.”

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.

First-page critique: Ghost Roads

Here’s a new first-page critique. The page is below. Comments from me and freelance editor Ann Aubrey Hanson follow.

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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, Weda,” 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.

First-page critique: Depot 573

Here’s a new first-page critique by me and freelance editor Ann Aubrey Hanson. The page, from the Young Adult novel Depot 573, is below. Ann’s and my comments follow. Thanks to this author for submitting.

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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:

  1. Sentence construction and word choice
  2. 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 time→ 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.”

2. 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.

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: Slow Dissolve

Here’s a new first-page critique from me and freelance editor Ann Aubrey Hanson. The page is immediately below, followed by Ann’s and my comments. Thanks to the author for submitting.

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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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My 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.

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: 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. My comments, and those of editor Ann Aubrey Hanson, follow.

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“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.

________________________

My 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!

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

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.
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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.

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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.