Friday, July 29, 2011

First Page Friday

I'm so excited for this week's First Page Friday. I learned so much! Let's get right to it.

The Entry

by Gail Zuniga

Xander knew he had to kill her.

Teal flames raged through Snow Cloud, Colorado like sharks at a feeding frenzy.

People ran for cover as the flames spread and swept beneath a pickup truck. When the fire hit the gas tank, the truck exploded, flipped through the air and crashed into a running man. He didn’t even have time to scream.

Xander trudged through the deep snow down the hill and moved into town. Follow the destruction. That was the best way to find her. It always led him right to her. He ignored the humans trying to escape. He wasn’t there for them. His mission was to kill the girl before she could destroy the world. He had failed once, but never again.

Slowly he moved down the sidewalk and peered around the corner. He spotted her half a block away. She stood in the center of town. She looked like a normal slightly chubby teenage girl with pale skin and ink-black hair, but that was just her vessel. He knew her true nature.

She spun around, her eyes darting here and there as if she were looking for someone. Did she know he was there? She turned away from him and he saw a man with a goatee approaching her. She backed away from him—toward Xander. Was this a trick? She wouldn’t worry about a simple human.

"What do you want?" she asked.

"Ya ‘ave something that belongs to me," Goatee said, with a thick Irish accent.

Ms. Shreditor’s Comments

Well, this story certainly knows how to make an entrance. What can I say about the opening line, really? It gets the job done in six words, and you all know how much I love economy of language.

The second sentence, on the other hand, is a bit clunky. The geographic locator (Snow Cloud, Colorado) drives a wedge between the two components of the simile. You might ask yourself if the teal flame simile adds anything to the text at all. All too often, writers contort themselves every which way to create awkward similes where none are needed. How are the flames analogous to feeding sharks? Is it because they’re devouring everything in their path? If the simile must stay, rework it to clarify the relationship between teal flames and feeding sharks.

An aside regarding punctuation of places and dates: When you’re using a town and state name midsentence, another comma needs to follow the state name—i.e., “...through Snow Cloud, Colorado, like sharks…” The same rule applies to dates in instances like this: “He was born on January 1, 1925, to a poor family.” The comma provides an added measure of clarity; without it, separate sentence components collide and create confusion. (My, that was alliterative, wasn’t it?) Please know that I don't throw commas around willy-nilly; Chicago style backs me up on this one.

Make sure to keep both perspective and verb tense consistent. For example, sonsider the following sentence: “Follow the destruction.” This doesn’t read like third-person limited perspective to me, and it deviates from the otherwise past-tense narrative. Is it a thought in his head? It blends in with the surrounding text and is a bit jarring at first read.

The narrative is a bit choppy at times, and some passages need better transitions to create a more logical flow of events/thoughts. I lost my way in a few places because the story flitted between abstract thoughts and concrete action with no transitions to pave the way.

“Goatee” makes for an intriguing development. Through him, we learn that it isn’t just Xander who is after the unnamed “her.” At first glance, though, I thought his actual name was Goatee and Googled up a storm to determine whether or not this was an actual Irish name. I realized my error in interpretation a few moments later, but I think that this may confuse a lot of readers. My advice: For clarity’s sake, ditch the “Goatee” moniker in the dialogue tag and refer to him as “the man” instead.

While we’re on the subject of “Goatee,” I would caution against using too much dialect. It slows the reader down and is, more often than not, more distracting than it is character-enhancing. A simple mention that he has a brogue when we first meet him should do the trick. Readers tend to be smart people; they’ll imagine the accent themselves in future dialogue without having it forced on them.

This brings up a good general rule of thumb for fiction writers: Don’t underestimate your readers. Let them fill in some blanks on their own so that your story isn’t filled with extraneous description and exposition. Part of the art of fiction writing is insinuation—i.e., giving readers enough to go on, but not chewing their food for them, so to speak.

Overall, this first page built some nice tension and introduced not one, but two immediate conflicts for Xander. It could use some copyediting to resolve grammatical errors and the aforementioned clarity issues, but it’s in fairly good shape.

Thanks again to our submitter and for the critique from Ms. Shreditor. I appreciate the insight every week! See you next Friday.


Debra Erfert said...

Ms. Shreditor wrote an excellent critique. I couldn't disagree with anything, and can't add to it. I learned a great deal. Thank you, Ms. Shreditor, for the time you spent on this first page. And, Julie, this is a wonderful blog.

Gina said...

I second the comment about the dialect! Rowling did it (with Hagrid, Fleur, Krum- she did it a lot!) in Harry Potter, and it was just generally annoying. I know it was meant to set these characters apart, but reading those passages aloud is a nightmare!

Anonymous said...

We have the opening of a wonderful techno-adventure -thriller on our hands. Well done! There are, however, some important things that make these kinds of science-fiction-thrillers thrilling, one of which is revealing the “science” in real-time with the characters (and the reader) present on-scene. If you tell the reader the heroes mission or explain that the antagonist is not human you miss the chance to capitalize on one of the major reasons people read this genre—to find out about all the cool alien forms, and techno-inventions that fill the pages of your novel. The reader doesn’t simply want to know that the girl isn’t human. They want the details. They also want to suspect that something isn’t “normal” for a while, and then have their suspicions confirmed on-scene in real time when the alien is revealed in all its technological (or gory, or repulsive, or awesome, or flame-breathing, or laser-shooting) glory. There are a few "telling" issues which if resolved could make your story that much more engaging.

In the fourth paragraph you tell the reader that "his mission was to kill the girl before she could destroy the world." And in the fifth paragraph you tell the reader that, "She looked like a normal slightly chubby teenage girl with pale skin and ink-black hair, but that was just her vessel. He knew her true nature.”

I'm assuming that in a later chapter, or possibly even a few pages further into your story, you’ve created an engaging if not intense, exciting, on-scene, coming-out party where the girl's shell is removed or she is enticed to come out of her shell in order to refuel, or kill an opponent, or sleep, or whatever this particular alien does. And that’s where the reader gets to see the alien form hidden behind all that black hair and pale skin. But to simply tell us that her body is a vessel for some alien form and to do it in the opening chapter, no less the first page, is to give away the power of your story rather cheaply.

Don't tell the reader that the girl isn’t human. Give us clues. A few subtle suggestions that she’s isn’t a normal chubby girl will engage your readers involvement in your story much more than telling us that the girl is alien. Have her walk with a mechanical stride. Show her hacking open a titanium plate on her forearm to fix a loose wire and then let the reader decide if it’s just a high-tech prosthetic gone bad or something more. Does she speak in a formal way? Like an alien? Does she slip up and use a word that doesn’t remotely resemble any language spoken on earth? Does she talk about technology that has yet to be discovered by humans? Give the reader a lot of hints, but don't tell us that she's not human in the opening. Let us figure it out as best we can so that when you finally get to the scene where the girl is either forced out of her shell in order to stay alive or to battle Goatee, the reader can say, "I knew she wasn't human! Remember how she walked funny or when her prosthetic limb glowed every time someone got irradiated or when she went hunting for electrical power whenever she was hungry." You don’t want to hide the true nature of this alien form for too long, but this is one genre where the reader expects you to give them clues before you reveal everything. Be clear. Be descriptive. But don’t tell us all the cool stuff in the first page. This is one (of very few) times you want to be very careful about how and when you reveal these important elements of your story.

(continued below)

Anonymous said...

(continued from above)

When a hero figure is on a "mission", it implies that he has superiors who have sent him on his mission and back-up characters who support the mission. The word “mission” conveys the sense of another planet or another "group" who have reason to send the hero on a mission. Those important others will manifest themselves in the course of your story along with the reason they need the hero to be victorious. The formal verbalization of the "mission" will likely happen in dialogue sometime later in the novel when your hero needs reinforcements or when he needs a technological upgrade or when his "people" are desperate for him to succeed. The larger reasons for the mission will be revealed later in your novel, but not in your opening page.

It’s enough that the reader knows that the hero figure is trying to kill the girl to give your opening scene enough motivation to drive it forward. It will also engage the reader’s curiosity. The reader will want to know why the girl must be killed and if you tell reader in the fourth paragraph of your novel that he’s killing her to save the world, not only do you destroy the curiosity you’re trying to create, you also set your plot up as a cliché. How many super-heroes or iterations of the James Bond character have, as their mission, to save the world? You may have a wonderful, inventive, fresh, new save-the-world plot that has never been written before, or even considered by the mind of greatest super hero ever conceived, but when you tell the reader that your hero is going to save the world, you may also be telling us that you're writing a comic book instead of a novel. Super heroes who spend their days saving the planet are the stuff of Super Man, Captain America and the Incredibles. If you're not writing the script for the next Pixar Animation block buster, you may want to hold off on telling the reader that the mission of our hero is to save the planet and let those details come out more naturally in the opening five or ten chapters, but well before the seer of planet Xion sends a light ray communication asking the hero why he hasn't completed his mission. By that time, the reader understands the complexity of the mission and won't be turned off by the simple-mindedness of the cliché of another super hero character come to save the world yet again.

(continued below)

Anonymous said...

(continued from above)

Authors are tempted to write dialect—whether it be southern black or Bronx Italian or Locust Valley lock-jaw—by using a lot of trick spellings and lexical gimmicks. It's the easy way out. And like most easy ways, it's not the best. When you use an unusual spelling, you are bound to draw the reader's attention away from the dialogue and onto the means of getting it across. If the dialect gets thick enough, it isn't read so much as translated, as any modern reader of Huckleberry Finn can tell you. The occasional dialectical spelling won't get you into trouble with your readers, but it doesn't take much to make too much. In this short snippet we don't know if you've gone hog wild with Irish dialect or just used it here and there. So far it’s only appeared once on the first page. But if you find you’re using these gimmicks all the time, you may want to do what seasoned authors would do to convey Goatee's Irish dialect through word choice, cadence, and grammar. If you can capture the particular rhythm, the music in, say, a Munster way of speaking on the Irish docks of Cape Clear, or maybe an Ulster dialect of the Clann of Dobhar (which was extensively used by authors like Irish brothers Jimi Fheilimi and Joe Fheilimi), you'll have put your character across with great effectiveness. Consider this example, taken from Ed McBain's review of “The Secret Pilgrim” by John le Carre:

It comes as no surprise that le Carre's tone-perfect ear can recreate in English even the cadences and styles of people speaking in foreign tongues. Listen, for example, to the German girl Britta, a prisoner of the Israelis, talking to Ned in her native tongue, transcribed as English:

"Are you inadequate, Mr. Nobody? I think perhaps you are. In your occupation, that is normal. You should join us, Mr. Nobody. You should take lessons with us, and we shall convert you to our cause. Then you will be adequate."

Isn't that German we're reading?

Another great example of using word choice, cadence, and grammar to convey a dialect, which I won't include here due to space except for one line—

"Reason ain't no free-feeling good world."

—can be found in the dialogue of author Catherine Cottle in her novel “The Price of Milk and Honey”.

In the example from John le Carre, and the dialogue of Catherine Cottle the authors never change the spelling, never even drop a "g". There are no explanations about the dialect that clutters the character’s speech, no adverbs, and no speaker attributions. But when you read the words aloud, they feel right because they fit the mouths of the characters they are coming from. That's what you should strive for in all your dialogue—to give a sense that the words you write are words real people would actually speak. Explanations, -ly adverbs, oddball verbs of speech, trick spellings—these can't really help your dialogue because they don't really change the dialogue. They take the place of good dialogue rather than help create it. And if you're serious about writing fiction well, you will accept no substitutes.

Gail said...

Wow! Thank you very much for your comments on my first chapter. I have cleaned it some since I submitted to this. I'm glad that most of the things I fixed were what you commented on. Thank you again. And thank you Julie for doing this.

Slushy said...

There's a lot of potential in the piece and you had me at attention. I want to share some thoughts from the POV of a long-time reader/peer reviewer.

I'm gonna toss this out there: consider tweaking the opening line from "Xander knew he had to kill her" to "Xander had to kill her." You have a great opening line, but to me, the change can bump it into WOWZA territory while retaining the same intent (e.g. Xander needs/wants her dead). Immediately, the line sets up the narrator POV relationship to our protagonist: he/she/it can see/share Xander's motivation/thoughts (which you do employ throughout the piece here and there). To this reader, it closes the gap between the narrator and Xander even more and, by extension, the readers/Xander.

"like sharks at a feeding frenzy" - I'm with Lady Shreditor on this one. I've actually seen sharks and they don't resemble flames, but I'm not sure if the (magical?) teal flames are meant to be different. If so, shark-like flames will now haunt my dreams.

Consider changing "Humans trying to escape" to "Humans escaping" (to put readers in the moment of action) OR (if you don't want to lose the struggling quality of "trying to") something like "Humans running in desperation for sanctuary" (as an off-the-cuff example of injecting some ALERT! into the writing)

On that note, be careful about having the narrator telling us vs. showing us. Many lines seemed more story-boardish instead of prose-y (clearly, I'm not a grammar person! LOL). How might you express what Xander sees beyond what he "sees" with his eyes? We "see" with our hearing/touch/taste/smell/intuition, so don't leave the other senses hanging.

Think about how everything Xander sees (via the narrator) *should* tell us: A) The narrator's POV, B) What Xander is looking at, and, perhaps *most importantly*, C) how Xander sees the world around him. C goes beyond a sense of sight and into his character. While the plot defines him, thus far, as "dude who needs to kill a girl," I wonder how the narration/Xander's perspective can give readers clues about who he is beyond this. Who is Xander beyond "Gotta kill her"?

"His mission was to kill the girl before she could destroy the world. He failed once, but never again." WOAH. These two lines would work great in a query letter (succinct + powerful), but *should* be played out throughout the entire book. This is a lot of heart/plot to give away without drawing your readers in with tension/heartbreak/intrigue/etc. As a reader, I don't want to know this in two lines! I want you to let me figure this out on my own...with your help, of course! To add to Ms. Shreditor's "trust your readers" advice, I'll add don't be afraid to guide your readers on *your* journey and lead them. It's a tough line to tread, but I think you have it in you.

And to play devil's advocate to Ms. Shreditor, I like "Goatee" as a name instead of "man." You might even bump it up by calling him "Goatee man" because it just reads funnier to me! The name showed (intentionally or not) a sliver of Xander's character: he is a surface man (immediately noticed the girl's chubby exterior, reduces potential evil guy to one facial figure) who, at the same time, knows what's below the surface of the girl (true nature/vessel business). Or does he?

A question I'm curious to find out!

Good luck Gail!

Melanie Goldmund said...

Well, I found this scene to be very intriguing and it makes me want to know more.

Just one little nitpick from my side, since I don't want to add to the long essays that Anonymous and Slushy have written.

Dropped H's in written speech usually indicate a Cockney (London) accent, so I was surprised to see that Goatee was then described as having an Irish brogue. I went to Youtube and listened to interviews with Derek Landy, author of the Skulduggery Pleasant books, and Eoin Colfer, author of the Artemis Fowl books. They are both Irish, and I paid special attention to their H's. Not a one got dropped! I agree with Ms. Shreditor's advice: don't use dialect.

But do go on writing! Why is the thing inside the girl vessel so dangerous, and what does it have that Goatee wants back?

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Wow, what a lot of great comments. Thank you everyone for your thoughtful critiques! I know I definitely have a lot to think about.

Nichole Giles said...

Great first page, and fantastic comments from Julie. Very nice points to make. I'd read more. Good luck, Gail!

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the first anonymous and Slushy. Except for the bit about "Xander had to kill her." By saying "Xander knew he had to kill her," there is an implied "but" in there. If Xander is going to struggle with killing the girl during the course of the story, I think it works just fine as the author stated it.

I agree with Ms. Shreditor's comment that the first line draws you in immediately. The next two paragraphs, unfortunately, kick you right back out and give the reader a great excuse to put the book down. My thoughts were:

"Wow. Great opening line. Huh? Wait. What happened to Xander? Why is the author dropping into setting? She just killed the mood."

With regards to the choppiness Ms. Shreditor mentioned, that's due to the lack of variation in the sentence structure. Look at how many sentences begin with the first two words being the subject and verb. Occasionally there is a minor variation, but it feels the same. This is especially noticeable starting in the 4th paragraph and continuing through the 6th. Here are the beginnings of the sentences:

"Xander trudged . . ."
"Follow . . ." This is different.
"That was . . ."
"It always led . . ."
"He ignored . . ."
"He wasn't . . ."
"His mission was. . ."
"He had failed . . ."
"Slowly he moved . . ."
"He spotted . . ."
"She stood . . ."
"She looked . . ."
"He knew . . ."
"She spun . . ."
"Did she know . . ."
"She turned away from him. . ."
"She backed away from him. . ."
"Was this . . ." Inversion.
"She wouldn't worry . . "

The story has potential, but the mechanics need some work.

Jordan McCollum said...

I loved the opening line, but I did feel like Anon@9:00 after that paragraph.

I was really only popping in to say exactly what Melanie said, so +1 to her comments.

Fascinating ideas in here! Best of luck, Gail!