October 26th, 2018

First Page Critique

 
Thank you, brave soul, for trusting me with your work. I hope you find this helpful.
 
I chose this month's submission to help explain a closer POV. This reads like a movie script. It is omniscient POV (mostly), which was great in the 1800's, but today's reader wants an immersive experience...they want to BE Katniss. This is like telling us a movie. You don't have to write really close POV if you'd rather not, but I'd challenge you to try, if only for the lesson.
 
Also, you have a very short space to hook the reader. Raising the right kind of questions pulls a reader into a story - like what's in the pack? Raising the wrong kind of questions - like logic and staging - cause the reader to put down the book.
 
Here we go:
 
My edits:

Black = original

Red = my thoughts/comments

Purple = text I added/altered

ORIGINAL:

Wearing multi-pocketed pants, a plaid red and blue shirt, and a pack, The Man shuffled with his eyes down. He was so accustomed to the smell of petrol from the oil and herbicides on his chosen mode of travel, that it did not register in his brain.  He was making a game of achieving the pace, which allowed each shoe to land on a crosstie. The amusement helped keep him attentive, as he was tired, and his alertness was not sharp, and his mind wanted to replace the current smell with salt air. The man looked up.  His hair lifted on the back of his neck. He stopped to listen for a train. 

            He heard footfalls, sticks breaking, and brush pushed aside to his left and turned to see a group of four uniformed men running out of the woods and down an embankment towards him. The Man angled to the right to get off the tracks so he could run unimpeded. But the group was fast and caught him and dragged him back up onto the tracks. There, they hit him and beat him on his body and his face, and he was thrown to the ground. He could smell their sweat and their fear, as they began removing his pack. He grabbed it and held it tight to his chest as they continued to hit him in the face. The nearby train-whistle made them all pause, and they released their hold on The Man and the pack.  

            With the train insight and a short distance away, their faces turned ashen, and their eyes sprang wide open. “Train-Drifter” took this opportunity to roll over the right rail and down the short embankment. He knew that trains in this area traveled fifty-five miles per hour and would be on top of them in seconds. 

            The group of blue-uniformed men with DVP stamped in yellow on the back of their jackets hesitated. Two of them jumped off the tracks and the other two reached with their arms as if they could somehow stretch far enough to catch the man. Realizing their intended prisoner had escaped, they jumped to avoid the iron monster. 

            The Man knew that this passenger train would be short and he did not have a lot of time. His attackers would be looking for him as soon as the train passed, so he ran for the woods as hard and as fast as he could. His fervent instincts caused him to run in the opposite direction of the trains travel, as he suspected the DVP men would continue to

My Thoughts/Comments:

Wearing multi-pocketed pants, a plaid red and blue shirt, and a pack, The Man shuffled with his eyes down. He was so accustomed to the smell of petrol from the oil and herbicides on his chosen mode of travel, that it did not register in his brain.  

I'd recommend some scene-setting first. Why? Because we don't care what he's wearing until we know where we are. Earth, we'd assume, but what time period? Men jumped trains in the 1920's to find work - that's where my mind would go first. What time of year is it? Is it December or July? Don't tell us, show us. Is the air crisp? Snow on the ground? Is he sweating? What color are the leaves on the trees? Are there even trees? See how we don't know?  You say, 'chosen mode of travel', before we know what that IS, making the reader stop, and read back, to be sure they didn't miss anything. That's an example of a question you don't want the reader asking. Also, you have a POV violation - we're supposed to be in his head, so if something doesn't register, you can't say it. See what I mean? That's why I say this feels like omniscient POV, but it's not, because a narrator wouldn't know what's going on in his head at all.

He was making a game of achieving the pace, which allowed each shoe to land on a crosstie. The amusement helped keep him attentive, as he was tired, and his alertness was not sharp, and his mind wanted to replace the current smell with salt air. The man looked up.  His hair lifted on the back of his neck. He stopped to listen for a train. 

It's not until 'crosstie' that we find out he's on a train track. You say 'amusement', but that doesn't fit with the tone of the beginning - he's watchful - we sense danger. Why does the hair lift on his neck? You never say, and it's important. He'd have plenty of time to get off the tracks, so it can't be worry about the train. It's okay to build suspense, if you give us some context. 

I'm going to try to rewrite this, below. It may not be right for your story (I'm making some assumptions that might not be correct), but hopefully it will illustrate what I mean.

     The man shuffled through the dead leaves covering the railroad ties, his feet finding them more by repetition than by knowing. The smell of diesel and creosote mingled with the dying smell of autumn. Jobs were hard to come by this summer, and if he didn't get a roof over his head by the time the snow flew . . . better not to think of that now. He stopped, listening. There! Rustling from the embankment above. Five dark-jacketed men broke from the woods and ran toward him, yelling.

Now, we need to see his emotion - heart rate speeding, dread...etc. since we don't know why they're after him, if we see that it's important to him, it will help us care. Why? It goes to stakes. For example, if he's just been jumping trains because he has no money, the reader will have empathy for him. If he's a child molester, they're going to feel very different! I think it's important here to give the reader a hint. It doesn't have to be a lot - just something like: He hadn't meant to kill that girl--it was an accident. Couldn't they see that? 

            He heard footfalls, sticks breaking, and brush pushed aside to his left and turned to see a group of four uniformed men running out of the woods and down an embankment towards him. The Man angled to the right to get off the tracks so he could run unimpeded. But the group was fast and caught him and dragged him back up onto the tracks.

I have a logic issue here. He's on tracks. Tracks are dangerous. So when they catch him, WHY would they drag him back to where there's danger? They're going to have their hands full, capturing him as it is - why make it harder? I don't see a way around this without rewriting the beginning. What if he was asleep in the woods, and wakes just before they're on him? Then he runs to the tracks and they catch him there? See how that solves your logic problem?

There, they hit him and beat him on his body and his face, and he was thrown to the ground. He could smell their sweat and their fear, as they began removing his pack. He grabbed it and held it tight to his chest as they continued to hit him in the face. The nearby train-whistle made them all pause, and they released their hold on The Man and the pack.  

            With the train insight and a short distance away, their faces turned ashen, and their eyes sprang wide open. “Train-Drifter” took this opportunity to roll over the right rail and down the short embankment. He knew that trains in this area traveled fifty-five miles per hour and would be on top of them in seconds. 

To increase tension, cut words. We're in his head, and thoughts would be short, cut off, jerky. Don't describe every single thing, or repeat. Less is more, in tense situations. Show us how those blows FEEL to him, from the inside, and that he's desperate to hold onto that pack.  Why are they afraid? And why isn't he? There could be a really cool reason for this (maybe he has a bomb in the pack?) but you never tell us, so the potential cool thing doesn't really do anything.

            The group of blue-uniformed men with DVP stamped in yellow on the back of their jackets hesitated. Two of them jumped off the tracks and the other two reached with their arms as if they could somehow stretch far enough to catch the man. Realizing their intended prisoner had escaped, they jumped to avoid the iron monster. 

Since I don't know what 'DVP' stands for, your mentioning it doesn't help. Even fast trains signal their approach by sound and vibration. They'd have plenty of time to get off the tracks before it was upon them. This is a bigger threat than losing their prisoner, so I don't understand why they'd wait so late. Unless, he has a nuclear device, or an airborne pathogen in that pack. But since we don't know, it doesn't make sense.

            The Man knew that this passenger train would be short and No time! Heartbeat chugging louder than the train, he sprinted for the woods.

Do you have problems showing close POV? Post a sentence, and we'll work on it!

 *     *     *     *     *

Like Laura's books/posts? There are two ways to get more!  Sign up for her quarterly newsletter, or her Write Stuff short podcasts on the craft of writing, and have them delivered to your inbox. What's easier than that? Would you like her to come speak or teach online to your group? You can do that here.  Oh and did she mention she has a December release?

31 responses to “First Page Critique”

  1. lrtrovi says:

    You point out some issues that didn't occur to me. Great stuff and the proposed solutions and re-writes are spot on (IMHO).

  2. I’m just starting to try and get my head around dpov. Reading your critique and explanations are really helpful.

    Thanks so much!

  3. Linda Brown says:

    Wow really helpful, do you do on line teaching? I would love to here from you. I write western. Thank you. Linda

  4. DLWillette says:

    Thanks for this one, Laura. I love close POV and you do a great job of critting all the right places.

    I recently read Celeste Ng's Everything You Never Told Me and was surprised to find it was written in an omniscient viewpoint. It was a little jarring to me at first--maybe because you just don't see it that often--but she certainly pulls it off. It struck me though, just how difficult omniscient can be. A different discussion for another day, perhaps!

    Laura, I do love your first pages and hope to see more!

    • LauraDrake says:

      Omniscient through a whole book, DL? I'm going to have to check that out. I'm doing a rewrite now, with the 2 POV characters in First Person, and the villain in Omniscient. We'll see if I can pull it off. Thanks for reading!

  5. Another Take says:

    Omniscient fiction may be "old fashioned," but it still has its place when the story teller has mastered his/her craft. See Richard Russo's defense of omniscient p.o.v. in his collection of essays, "The Destiny Thief" published earlier this year.

  6. Julie Glover says:

    Love reading critiques, because we always find some advice to apply to our own work! Thanks for the great breakdown from you and to the brave writer who let you critique the first page. Once edited for more immediacy and deep POV, this story sounds quite intriguing!

  7. johntshea says:

    Interesting! All books are scripts in a way, since we each make our own movies in our head from the words on the page. I didn't feel any need for more information on this first page, but who knows what happens next? As always, any more information added to this page would displace something else onto the next page, leaving another question unanswered until then. In any case, I would read on, which is the main objective.

  8. dholcomb1 says:

    I always love this feature

    denise

  9. Ann G. says:

    A great analysis of a potentially great story. Despite the issues of POV that you so clearly address, there's something about this story that has me wanting to know more. Best of luck to the writer!

  10. Thank your for sharing your thoughts in concrete ways. Always a good learning tool for me!

  11. Jeanne Kern says:

    Laura, I am awed by you. I don't know how you find time to breathe with all you do. Your blog, your website, the speaking engagements, the conferences, the organizations you run and /or participate in, to say nothing of your writing and your actual life--whew! And then to take on this challenge: the reading of the tons of first pages, deciding which one(s) will make the most universal of lessons. You are a heroine for sure. Thanks again for insightful teaching. And I can't wait for your December release.

  12. barbdelong says:

    Ditto what Jeanne Kern said!

  13. littlemissw says:

    Well done to the brave author - it's so hard to put your work out there for critique. As usual though, Laura, you do it in such a helpful and constructive way. It's interesting, I'm re-reading Louisa May Alcott's work (because I love it) and omniscient just the way books were written in her time but now it's so distancing. I still love Little Women and all the sequels but I definitely feel that there's more to the story.

    • LauraDrake says:

      Thank you, littlemissw, for nailing WHY I couldn't finish Little Women when I picked it up a few months ago. When I read for pleasure, I try to turn off the editor in my head, so I didn't even notice why it wasn't engaging, just that it wasn't. Duh, huh?

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        Interesting. I bought it for my daughter because I loved it so much and I wanted it on her shelf for a few years to get her interested. (I have The Phantom Tollbooth and the Chronicles of Narnia ready for her too.) We're just finishing up the Harry Potter series right now and it has been a huge hit.

  14. Laura, you catapulted it out of the park...again. I will be your eternal student at The Drake Academy for Storytelling.

  15. Luther says:

    The Department of Vagrancy Police is what DVP stands for. I am still analyzing your comments. I believe that they are helpful overall, and I also appreciate the feedback from other writers. Thanks for all the help. Luther

Leave a Reply to johntshea Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


2014-2018

Subscribe

Enter your email address to subscribe to new posts by email.

Join 7,041 other subscribers

Archives

%d bloggers like this: