Friday, October 28, 2011

First Page Friday

As you may recall, Angela Eschler will be critiquing for us on the last Friday of every month. Isn't it hard to believe we're at the end of October already?

Here is this week's First Page Friday entry.

The Entry
Pilot Error

by Anonymous

“His engines are cutting out!” Jerrod tossed the small wrench to the hanger’s concrete floor and grabbed the handheld radio sitting on the wing of the old plane. Felix Fernandez ran out onto the tarmac along side his mechanic with his hand shielding his eyes from the rising sun. “There he is!” He pointed, his heart pounding up into his throat. “He’s not gaining enough altitude.”

Jerrod pressed the radio's mic, lifting it to his mouth. “Cessna, November, one-three-niner-niner-Bravo, you’re way too low. Are you able to climb at all?” A static squelch bleeped over the Unicom, and then nothing.

“God, please, help him!” Felix pleaded, watching his friend’s aircraft struggle. “Tell Tony to return—clear traffic for him. Do it now!”

“Tony, return to runway two-one. I’ll clear it for you. Sedona traffic—niner-niner-Bravo's experiencing loss of power, executing an immediate return to runway two-one.”

In a moment of hope Felix took a deep breath as the small plane’s wing dipped steadily. “He’s banking.”

“He’s going to make it!” Jerrod lifted the radio again and pushed in the mic, but before he could say a word—the plane dropped out of sight. A sharp explosion cracked like thunder across the high desert landscape.

“He hit the mesa,” Felix whispered, grasping the small silver cross hanging around his throat. “Dios esté con usted, mi amigo.”

Ms. Eschler's Comments

Strengths—Things that Will Capture the Reader’s Attention:

-Great hook in terms of instant tension.

There is something clear at stake, and there are potentially interesting characters to empathize with for whom that thing is at stake. Though there isn’t tons of character psychology revealed in the first couple paragraphs, the details of the scene supply enough reader stimuli that we’re hooked until we do know the characters better.

-Going into specifics on the details that carried the scene:

1) I like that you used actual dialogue with what is said into the radio and not just summarized the interchange; though I have no idea what any of that means, the confusion added to the tension for me. (Just make sure that’s the real deal—and you know what it all means—or some readers will be annoyed.)

2) I also really liked the Spanish at the end of the scene—adds nice flavor to the moment and reveals something about Felix’s upbringing/psychology.

3) Correct terms for scene-specific items, like Unicom, are great, as they really make us feel like we’re in a real place. Again, I am not familiar with these terms, but that’s why I read books—to be introduced to new worlds and learn things.

4) I liked the details of the old plane wing, and the high desert mesa, and the sun coming up, etc., as it gives an idea of what type of town/place we’re in, and that maybe we’re talking about guys who dream big, or who indulge in hobbies, as opposed to guys who just work for the airport/plane company. There’s an intimacy in the scene.

5) And I appreciated that you incorporated all of these little details in snippets as part of the action, not as breaks from or interruptions to it. The reader is sucking in the setting without even knowing it—and without having to be reminded that they are having a story described to them and aren’t really there. (Watch out on the first line or two—sometimes you want to keep the first couple of lines a little less wordy so you can start with a punch. So keep the detail, but drop unnecessary modifiers or split up some lines. Our very first intro to the scene is where you want to be subtle so we can forget we’re reading.)

Questions/Things to Finesse

-Things that were a little confusing—point of view clarifications (POV): Having a really clear point of view through which the reader starts the story eliminates any confusing re-reads that will pull the reader out of the action. Here were some POV issues that made it difficult for me to be fully engaged in the at-stakes issue:

1) Jerrod is introduced without a last name, but Felix is introduced with one. Seems odd and is noticeable. If Jerrod gets first screen time, we assume he’s the POV character. So why is he of less significance than Felix (doesn’t get a surname)?

2) Felix runs out of the hangar with his mechanic, but we’re not sure who the mechanic is—Jerrod? Makes sense after I read it a few times, but since we don’t know that Jerrod is the mechanic (as anyone on set could be wielding tools), we’re momentarily wondering where Jerrod is in the scene, and, since we switched to following Felix as the lead POV (who possesses a mechanic) we naturally wonder who the mechanic is. Switching the POV lead makes it feel as if Jarrod is literally and figuratively being left behind (as a character POV and a person in the story).

3) Starting with Jerrod makes us think it’s going to be his POV in which we first see the scene, but then you switch to making Felix the lead with “his mechanic” now playing second fiddle. This switch seems unclear in purpose. Perhaps start with clarity that we’re going to have an omniscient POV of some kind—that we’ll be watching “the two men” rather than making us switch our alignment from one to the other. For instance, you could do something like this:

“Jerrod stared at Felix as he yelled into the handheld radio. “Oh, come on, man, talk to me . . .” The silence on the other end paralyzed both men. “His engines are cutting out!” Jarrod dropped the small wrench onto the concrete, running behind Felix as they sprinted out of the hangar onto…”

This clarification right up front about the POV and the shared experience that we’ll be focusing on saves reader energy—we’re not jumping from one POV to another, thus trying to figure out relationships, who is most important in the scene, where everyone is physically, etc. If you don’t intend to open the scene with an omniscient narrator, but meant it to be mostly Felix’s POV, then start with Felix observing Jarrod, not just with Jarrod’s lines:

“Felix Fernandez stared at his mechanic as Jarrod gripped the handheld radio, desperately trying to get a response from …”

Putting Jarrod’s name after the title of “mechanic” also makes the connection a little easier to put together. It’s still possible that three men are on the scene here, but we’re more likely to put two and two together and assume Jarrod is the mechanic since his title is in the same line as his name. It also makes sense why Felix would have a last name now, as we start with his POV and use a possessive description with “his mechanic” immediately—thus we know relationships and hierarchies right away; opening with Felix, using only his last name, the possessive with “mechanic,” etc., all demonstrate what we need to know about the scene setup in one line.

Word choice—using precision: Along those same lines, even if the POV lead is only Felix, make sure to use the most clarifying and precise words in your descriptions, especially if they have to do with relationships. For instance, both men seem concerned about Tony in his plane, but in this line—“God, please, help him!” Felix pleaded, watching his friend’s aircraft struggle”—we aren’t sure if Tony is only Felix’s friend. If so, why is Jerrod super concerned? They might have different levels of friendship, but if so, specify that. For example: “watching their friend’s aircraft” or “watching his best friend’s aircraft.” The reason these little word choices matter is because a reader, newly introduced into a world, is sort of like a newborn—overwhelmed and struggling to place themselves. That reader has to find his/her sea-legs, so to speak. They are stumbling upon a scene and have to make sense of it, organizing it so they know what’s going on and who is important to whom and what’s at stake, etc., before they’re comfortable diving into the story. If the opening scene creates any confusion for them, so they have to stumble longer than is ideal (meaning re-reading in order for things to make sense), then you’ve lost the impact that opening hook might have had. They still might continue reading on after all the work they’ve invested in understanding the first page, but maybe not if the confusion continues to plague them. And even if they do read a little more, if the overall experience isn’t totally satisfying, they may not recommend the read to others.

Emotional impact—less is sometimes more: The very last image is of Felix saying that his friend hit the mesa, grabbing his necklace, and saying something in Spanish (which I don’t speak, but which I did study about 2000 years ago in junior high. I vaguely recall the words Felix uses, and think they mean something like “God go/be with you, my friend.”). If I’m right with the Spanish, then the scene loses some emotional impact for me. Granted, everyone is entitled to respond to shock, tragedy, grief, etc., in their own way, but I think most of us, upon witnessing our friend’s unexpected, potential death, would be in stunned shock. Possibly grabbing the necklace as we saw the plane crash down, but staring in silence before running that direction. The feeling I got from the scene, since Felix sort of commits his friend to God, is that he’s accepted Tony’s death in that moment. Now, I don’t know how the story moves on from this point, but it seemed sort of odd to me that he’d just accept it like that. (That type of response does fit, say, a deathbed scene where a best friend is dying of cancer, and everyone on the set knew it was coming.)

If your scene ends there and chapter 2 starts, I think it might be a little problem for the reader. How good of friends were they if he just writes him off to death at that point? If the scene continues with him running toward his friend with the intention of saving him and the delusion that God will somehow make Tony live, then maybe have him note the mesa, grab his cross, and ask for God’s grace while he is running toward the explosion. And maybe a Spanish prayer to God to help him reach Tony in time, as opposed to the other line. When I said “less is sometimes more” I mean that ending the scene with just the crash and maybe Felix grabbing his necklace, but no words from Felix, would supply more of the vicarious shock we’re hoping to attack the reader with. (There are other possible motivations for Felix’s Spanish phrase, of course, that I may not be seeing as a reader, given that the page ends the scene possibly prematurely; an out-there example might be that maybe Tony was suicidal and thus Felix knows this was what he wanted, hence committing him to God, etc., but then other hints would need to come into play. So obviously there are lots of ways the last image of Felix could work.) Anyway, just a thought on this one—throwing it out there.

Characterization: I think your story would be even more unique in its opening if you could use the same strategy you employed for setting details (snippets of the right details mixed in at the right moments without overdoing it) in creating your main characters. While there is good tension, and the bit of Spanish we get gives Felix a little flavor, the main characters are currently a little bit faceless. Even the Spanish and the cross necklace could be considered just a stereotype if you don’t have something else as a foundation. If you combine that bit of Felix with a little bit more individualism in the POV of the main character (word choice or a specific and unique fear/thought that crosses his mind as he watches his friend in danger), and maybe a drop of physical description for Jarrod that gives a hint as to his psychology or individuality, I think you’d have a really strong opening. The more clearly drawn the characters are, the more empathetic the reader can be, and thus the more emotional impact the tension will have on the reader: AKA—the reader will be eager to keep turning pages because they are as vested as the characters in what will happen.


Next to tension, fresh voice is the main thing that readers and agents are hungry for. So addressing the issues I noted above will up the ante on that just a tad, and you should be able to set yourself apart from the mass of stories seeking publication or a fan base. But for now, way to capture the tension element and way to use your description to engage the reader—upward and onward!

I'd like to thank Angela and our submitter. It gave me a lot to think about today. See you next week!


Sarah Pearson said...

I wouldn't have thought of half these ideas, but they all made perfect sense. Thank you Angela, and thanks to the person who submitted the page too :-)

Jon Spell said...

That is a very cool opening. Plenty of action and realism. I'm not put off by the last line - it doesn't seem like acceptance, so much as saying a little prayer for the dead.

I'm a little bit confused, though. Why has the plane dropped out of sight? Is the airport located on top of a mesa? (Isn't that sort of a weird place to build an airstrip?)

My inner skeptic tells me that if you don't see the plane actually crash, you can't assume that it did. =)

Observation: if you hadn't identified it as a Cessna, this could be set in practically any semi-modern time period: WW1 or WW2 or present day. With a Cessna, it could be anytime in the last, what, 40 years?

Anonymous said...

Yes, Jon, the Sedona, Arizona airport has a nasty drop off, and, during the summer, is one of the hardest and dangerous take-offs in the west due to altitude and humidity, and length of runway. These "attributes" made it the perfect location for Tony's demise, the scalawag. No chance of survivors. The radio chatter is true-to-life and co-written by a pilot.

Thank you Ms. Eschler, for your intense critique. I will take everything you've said to heart and rework this first page. I appreciate your time. And you were very close on your Spanish interpretation.

Julie, thank you for choosing my first page. It was exciting to see it here.