December 28th, 2018

First Page Critique

Laura Drake

I chose this month's submission to help explain how to show a tense scene from within the character, instead of telling - as if we're watching a movie. This scene has the potential to be edge-of-your-seat stuff, but it has several problems.
 
Thank you, brave soul, for trusting me with your work. I hope you find this helpful.
 
Here we go:
 
My edits:
Black = original
Red = my thoughts/comments
Purple = text I added/altered

Original

Tobias Baker drew his fingertips across eyelids that longed for rest while descending in the elevator. He celebrated his tenth anniversary working for the Palmer accounting firm three months ago. His job presented him with endless paperwork during tax season. He lumbered out of the building and over to a kiosk outside of the parking garage. Raychel, his six-year-old daughter, would be expecting a treat, candy or gum. The vendor had gray hair, a toothless smile, and tissue paper wrinkles on weathered brown skin. He was dressed in his customary pair of green coveralls worn thin around the knees. Tobias’ eyes roamed the selection of goodies and landed on a pink package of bubble gum

A rustling noise inside the entrance to the garage caught his attention. Two boys, not more than fifteen, fidgeted in the shadows. He paid for the gum and stuffed it into his shirt pocket. The boys ducked a little deeper inside keeping an eye on him as he approached the garage entrance.

“Hey man,”one of them yelled.

Tobias stopped beside his car. Intuition told him this would not be a good situation.The boys swarmed in on him. One of them was smaller than the other and looked to be younger. His complexion was darker, wore short braids with red beads woven in, and stood slightly behind the taller older boy. Their eyes roamed the room like a puppy cornered in an ally and their bodies twitched and shifted from side to side. The smaller boy repeatedly looked over his shoulder,watching for someone or something. The older boy looked down at his feet and shoved his hands in his pockets.

“You got any money, man? We haven’t eaten in a while. Just enough for a burger or something.” His voice was weak, slightly louder than a whisper.

Tobias, a tall man, leaned forward and reached into his back pocket for his wallet.

 “Sure. I can help you out.”

 “We hadn’t eaten all day. Man, we’re hungry,” said the younger boy becoming increasingly agitated.

Many people in the community needed money these days. Poverty had become a common problem since the big auto industry moved out several years ago. The older boy leaned in close to Tobias. His warm breath wafted across his face.

“You know...”

The boy reached deep into the pocket of his soiled hoodie. He fumbled with something then shoved it up against Tobias’ chest. Pop! Pop! Tobias could smell the discharge from the gun. His chest burned. Blood pumps rhythmically from two holes directly above his heart.

Do you see how the POV shifts - from within the main character, to almost an omniscient (narrator POV?) I'll point out where in my edits. 

Edits

The elevator descended. Tobias Baker drew his fingertips across eyelids that longed for rest while descending in the elevator. He celebrated his tenth anniversary working for the Palmer accounting firm three months ago. Don't slow the critical beginning with details we don't need.His job presented him with endless paperwork during tax season. He lumbered out of the building and stopped at over to  a kiosk outside of the parking garage. Raychel, his six-year-old daughter, would be expecting a treat, maybe candy or gum. You tell us what he buys, farther down. We can tell by the context she's young. We don't need to know exactly how old yet. The vendor had gray hair, a toothless smile, and tissue paper wrinkles on weathered brown skin.Great description! He was dressed in his customary pair of green coveralls worn thin around the knees. Tobias’ eyes roamed scanned the selection of goodies and landed decided on a pink package of bubble gum.

You only want to sketch bare bones in the beginning - enough to anchor the reader in time, place, and character. Then jump to the tension - that will build reader empathy, and peak interest.

A rustling noise inside the entrance to the garage caught his attention. Two teenage boys, not more than fifteen, fidgeted in the shadows. He paid for the gum, and stuffed it into his shirt pocket, and walked toward the garage entrance. The boys ducked a littledeeper inside inside what? the building? the shadows? keeping an eye on him as he approached the garage entrS

            “Hey man,” one of them yelled.

            Tobias stopped beside his car, senses on alertSee how this shows, instead of telling? Intuition told him this would not be a good situation. The boys swarmed in on him. 'Swarmed sounds menacing to me. What does HE think? A taller, older boy stood in front of a darker one with red beads woven in his hair. One of them was smaller than the other and lookedto be younger. His complexion was darker, wore short braids with red beadswoven in, and stood slightly behind the taller older boy. more important than all this - what expressions are they wearing? Open and sincere? menacing? Their eyes roamed theroom like a puppy cornered in an ally I wouldn't use 'puppy' to describe them - he knows they're a threat. Their bodies twitched, and shifting ed from side to side. The smaller boy repeatedly looked shot looks over his shoulder,watching for someone or something. we know. The older boy looked down at his feet and shoved his hands in his pockets.

            “You got any money, man? We haven’t eaten in a while. Just enough for a burger or something...we haven't eaten in a while.” His voice was weak, only slightly louder than a whisper.

            Tobias, a tall man, leaned forward and reached into his back pocket for his wallet.  Okay, I have several problems with this. telling us he's a tall man isn't his thought. So you've shifted out of third person POV to omniscient - a narrator's voice. But even more important - what is Tobias feeling?  Because he recognized the threat earlier. WHY would he take his wallet out now? Isn't he the least bit concerned? I'd think Van Diesel would be wary in this situation! If you want the reader to follow your character, you have to build a solid basis for why he'd do something so stupid. Was he homeless or hungry as a kid? Does he donate time to work with the homeless? See what I mean?

            “Sure. I can help you out.”

            “We hadn’teaten all day. Man, we’re hungry,” This is all a repeat. I'd have him say something else. said the younger boy becoming increasingly agitated. Instead of telling us he's agitated show us. He's on drugs, right?

            Many people in the community needed money these days. Poverty had become a common problem since the big auto industry moved out several years ago. This is preachy, and not what I'd think he'd be thinking right now. If he has reason NOT to be afraid, explain it here. The older boy leaned in close To Tobias. His warm breath wafting across Tobias' face.

            “You know...” Who says, this, and why? There's not enough here for us to guess.

            The boy reached deep into the pocket of his soiled hoodie. He fumbled with something then shoved it up against Tobias’ chest. Pop! Pop! Tobias could smell the discharge from the gun. His chest burned. Blood pumps rhythmically from two holes directly above his heart.   Okay, if he was shot twice in the heart, he'd be dead almost immediately. No time to smell the discharge. Instead of telling us - put yourself in his situation - what would you feel/see? I'll try to show you:

Pop! Pop! 

His chest exploded in blood-tinged agony. His legs dissolved and his head cracked the concrete. Black spots swarmed from the corners of his vision and the face rimmed with red beads faded...to nothing. 

Okay, that's not good, but see how it's a closer POV?

A witness standing between the kiosk and garage watched the scene unfold and told the police, “The boy didn’t hesitate. Pulled the gun, shot twice. Right in the center of that man’s chest. This is an abrupt, jerky shift of POV - and not even into the bystander, really. And it's repetitious - it doesn't tell us anything new.  I'd end the scene at the high point - Tobias dying. 

What do you think?

Do you ever have problems staying anchored in POV?


Laura's December release, The Last True Cowboy, was chosen by Amazon's Editorial Board as one of the Best Books of the Month!  

25 responses to “First Page Critique”

  1. lrtrovi says:

    Terrific edits. The advice to give just the bare bones of time, place, character at the beginning and dump the extra details is just what I need. Too often I'm desperate to tell more than the reader needs or wants. Get to the tension is solid advice. Thanks.

  2. Julie Glover says:

    Just love these critiques, Laura! We can learn so much for our own writing from seeing others' critiques. And thanks again to the brave soul who volunteered!

  3. Karen says:

    As usual, awesome edits, Laura! The writer has a great talent for hooking the reader right off, s/he just needed a nudge to switch from writer to editor of their own work. I'd love to read this story when it's finished! Nice job to both of you!

  4. Debbie says:

    I loved the suggested edits. It really made sense. Being a new author, and in the self-editing phase of my first draft, I learned so much from reading your advice. Thanks! I would love to have a first page critique in that way to see if I'm headed down the right track.

  5. jamesr403 says:

    Laura, all good edits. And kudos to the author for submitting the chapter -- it takes guts! I got into the story (reading only the original at first pass) and missed the POV issue until the line about poverty. Good catch!

  6. Fae Rowen says:

    You have such great insights, Laura. Along with the suggestions on how to fix problems, your critiques are pure gold!

  7. This is a big help with my work, thank you!

  8. The writing was good before, but the changes made it better. Decreased the word count too, a problem I have writing short stories. The tips are much appreciated.

  9. johntshea says:

    Interesting. I note that the original ends with the present tense sentence:- “Blood pumps rhythmically from two holes directly above his heart.”

    The rewrite adds another paragraph about a witness but then critiques it. Was that paragraph on the next page perhaps?

    • LauraDrake says:

      I didn't notice the present tense, John- good catch. The witness paragraph was on the same page. Since it didn't include anything new, I cut it. Thanks for commenting!

  10. Terrific observations, as always, Laura. This feature is such a great way to "show, don't tell" what good editing looks like and can do for an author's writing!

  11. apisacano123 says:

    It is always so insightful to read these one page edits. They are a favorite blog post for me every time!

  12. Jenny Hansen says:

    I like how gently you pull this scene from problematic to compelling. It's like sanding down and polishing the wood of the writer's words to bring out the grain.

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