Friday, March 30, 2012

First Page Friday

Aaaaand we're back. It's Friday. And you know what that means. Quality time with some of the best editors in the country!

This one is a little long, but I loved getting Angela's perspective on a myriad of issues that authors can sometimes face in their writing. It's one worth reading twice!

If you would like to have your first page critiqued, just send your double-spaced, 12pt. font entry to juliecoulterbellon@gmail.com

On to today's submission!


The Entry
Out of the Water

by Deniz Bevan


She hurtled down the corridor, the slap of footsteps close behind. Her feet turned and her body followed, her thoughts a waterfall of words. Get away, get away, get away.

One flight, two flights. Gasping for air, she reached a long corridor lined with high windows. A haze of early morning light gave the stone walls a forbidding aspect, as though they might move inward to trap her.

The smell of sizzling garlic led her to the kitchen and a pot bubbling over an open fire. A man in an apron rolled out dough at the table. He was a stranger; not one of the inquisitors who’d removed her from her uncle Aram’s house nor yet de Armas, the officer who’d questioned her last night.

Behind him, a door stood open to the gardens.

She grabbed a poker as she skidded past. The man called out, lunging around the table, and she hooked the poker to the pot’s rim and yanked, jumping back before the hot liquid could splash on her. He yelped as broth splattered across his arms. The rolling pin clattered to the floor.

Out through the door and across the herb garden, a crashing and banging coming from behind as the man followed her. She was halfway to the gate when a second man stood up among the mint, a fistful of green leaves in his hand. She caught one glimpse of his gaping mouth and kept running, the strong scent of trampled dill rising up around her.

Flecks of mud flew up against her legs as she ran on and on, towards the forest at the edge of the field, clutching a stitch in her side, not stopping or looking behind. Bursting into the shelter of the branches, she tramped through the undergrowth, slipping and sliding on pine needles, ears pricked to their utmost, straining for the sound of pursuit above her own thrashing and of a river up ahead.

She sprang out of the tree line and crashed into another man.

“¡Cuidado!” A deep voice cried in her ear. A heavy clasp on her arm pulled her back from a swirl of foamy water.

“Let me go!” she hissed, and wrenched aside, snagging her sleeve on a branch.

He dropped her arm. “Disculpe me, Señorita.” Excuse me.

She could not return, nor cross the river, and this man’s height and broad shoulders blocked the only remaining direction she could take. Had she run so far, only to collapse from hunger at his feet?

Angela's Critique

Before we begin today, I'd like to thank one of my assisting editors, Heidi Brockbank, for helping put these reviews together. She is wonderful.

This one is a little long, but that’s a good thing because it means the author gave us a lot of great stuff to analyze and discuss.

Strengths

This is a nice opening with something at stake right away. I like the second sentence – it’s nice writing. Maybe I’d clarify the connection between the second and third sentence with an em dash or even ellipses for an emotional effect, but the two lines have a nice auditory effect. The strong writing in the opening of this suspense scene gives it a unique flavor and prevents it from feeling like the cliché opening of someone in danger.

Mystery Characters

One problem is that the POV character isn’t super developed. The potential tension is good, but mere curiosity is all that’s holding me hooked for the first few paragraphs. You want the reader to actually feel an emotional connection to the character pretty fast, so what’s at stake for the character is also vicariously at stake for me as the reader. Is there a reason we don’t get her name? My recommendation would be to give her name in the first sentence. A quick survey of a couple dozen books from my bookshelf had the main character being tagged with a name, generally within the first sentence or paragraph, all within the first page.

When you don’t give a name to a character, it can unintentionally indicate that they aren’t a main character. Perhaps, the reader thinks, they are going to be killed off in the first scene, and someone else is going to be the main character? That’s one reason you occasionally find stories opening with an unnamed character in the action. But even in that situation, a short-lived character with a name carries more emotional impact when they are murdered than an anonymous “he” or “she.”

If you are aiming to increase the mystery and tension, withholding a name isn’t the way to go. If she is a main character, the reader is going to find out shortly, so there is really no long-term benefit of withholding a character’s name, and always the possibility that you lose the reader’s interest. After all, one of the first things we do when we meet a new person is to find out what their name is. Mentally, we tend to relate to characters in a story the way we do to people in real life – one of the reasons that fiction has the capacity to be so powerful and, sometimes, even life-changing. So give “her” a name from the start. An added bonus: if you are trying to establish a certain culture or time period, the character’s name can help with that. So if this is the era of the Spanish Inquisition, and her name is Inez or Catalina, it provides one more detail to the image the reader is compiling in their mind.

In addition to giving her a name, could you give us a little more of her unique POV while she’s running—sort of like the nice writing in the first few lines? It’s helpful that you mention the inquisitors in the third paragraph, but it’s not quite enough to give us a clear picture of the setting. If you can ground the characters in a clear setting and help us make an emotional connection to them right off the bat, you’ll have an even stronger hook—which is important these days given how many people are competing for agents or readers. Fresh voice is key, and voice in this case will need to come from the POV character. For instance, what type of inquisitors are we talking about? Is this THE Spanish inquisition, and if so, can you subtly work in a hint about that – what religion is she or what ideas landed her in this predicament or…who betrayed her to them and why? Give us something to more clearly hint that we’re looking at a particular time period.

Ready, set, action – Helping the reader visualize the action

She grabbed a poker as she skidded past. The man called out, lunging around the table, and she hooked the poker to the pot’s rim and yanked, jumping back before the hot liquid could splash on her. He yelped as broth splattered across his arms. The rolling pin clattered to the floor. The layout of this scene is slightly unclear—is she jumping forward past it on her way out the door? I would maybe just have her hear him yelp as she leaves—seeing the yelp and the rolling pin seems to slow down the scene as if she’s standing there watching rather than running past. Perhaps give her a goal as she does this, so we understand her motive is to slow her pursuer.

Out through the door and across the herb garden, a crashing and banging coming from behind as the man followed her. Once again, having a nameless character creates vagueness. “The man” isn’t very intimidating. Who is following her so we can be afraid with her? Her torturer? The guard who was taking advantage of her and accidentally allowed her to escape? A priest who had never known the love of the God he accused her of blaspheming? Some specifics would help us understand her and the context in a way that makes this opening more compelling and unique.

Bursting into the shelter of the branches, she tramped through the undergrowth, slipping and sliding on pine needles, ears pricked to their utmost, straining for the sound of pursuit above her own thrashing and that of a river up ahead. Replacing “that” with a concrete word makes this flow better: “straining for the sound of pursuit above her own thrashing and the crash of a river up ahead.” Sometimes the smallest things make all the difference in our writing.

She sprang out of the tree line and crashed into another man. So you say she’s running toward a forest and runs into the “shelter” of branches. Now moments later, it seems like she’s running out of the forest—out of the tree line. I’ve never seen a forest that small. Explain or fix the scene? Clarify she was running in it a lot longer, or that it wasn’t a full forest but some copse of trees next to the river that cuts off her escape route.

A heavy clasp on her arm pulled her back from a swirl of foamy water. Is there a cliff or a steep bank she didn’t see? You’ll want to clarify this so the reader doesn’t get lost in the logistics of the flow of action.

She could not return, nor cross the river. Why can’t she cross? Is there a cliff or bluff that she can’t descend? Is the river too wild and rapid? She can’t swim? She seems desperate to escape, even desperate enough to try and cross a dangerous river, so help the reader understand what prevents her from this course of action.


When to Translate

“¡Cuidado!” A deep voice cried in her ear. A heavy clasp on her arm pulled her back from a swirl of foamy water.
“Let me go!” she hissed, and wrenched aside, snagging her sleeve on a branch.
He dropped her arm. “Disculpe me, Señorita.” Excuse me.


Is she speaking in English or Spanish? Because having her speak in English but the man in Spanish automatically sets them up as being different—different cultures or worlds. You don’t want to do that if Spanish is her native tongue. If you just want to give it a little Spanish flair and the rest of the book will be in English for the reader but is supposed to be a Spanish-speaking world, go ahead and have her speak in Spanish first, followed with a context explanation of “she demanded, trying to force him to let go.” Then gently merge the reader into the fact that we’re going to get their world from a translation viewpoint. Although technically, if this is a Spanish-speaking culture and she’s part of it, there is no need to actually have anyone speaking Spanish. There are plenty of other places to establish the setting. Most often, you would use language in this manner to indicate a difference between the languages/cultures of the main characters. If you want to keep a few words for embellishment, try to stick with well-known phrases that a majority of readers would understand.

Sometimes a story makes more extensive use of another language, and providing the translation as you did is a standard way of handling it. (Though I would suggest not using this method, as it is not the most subtle/skilled way of cluing in the reader—see details on why below.) However, if you are only using a limited amount of Spanish to accentuate the setting, you’ll want to subtly disguise explaining to the reader what someone is saying in a foreign language. Does she understand him? If so, then the next line should be her realizing that his tone is polite, conciliatory, apologizing. That will let the reader know what’s going on. They don’t need to know the exact words. In this case, it’s better to have a decent hint from context than to use Spanish and then relay it in English. Better to just say, ‘he apologized in Spanish’ than to use both. Providing an exact translation right after the Spanish can be awkward and defeats the point of having Spanish at all—which is to give the scene the flavor of realism, as if we’re really watching it happen. Throwing in the English pulls us right out of the imaginative place we’re in, which also helps dampen the effect of the suspense since that’s a real-time emotion.

Speaking of emotion, consider this sentence: Had she run so far, only to collapse from hunger at his feet? This emotion or physical sensation (hunger) sort of comes from nowhere. You need to hint at it earlier—that the energy she’s drawing from is hard to get due to the lack of food. Also, immediately precede the line with something like “even as she struggled to pull back, she felt the strength drain from her muscles, her reserves depleted. She could not fight him nor escape…” (Though you definitely don’t want to use the word “nor” more than once within two pages.)

Finally, be frugal about using old-fashioned sounding language (such as “nor”). Even if you are striving for a different time period, you can imagine your story as a translation, and your job as translator is to convey your story in the language that your audience best understands or relates to. An occasional use of an archaic expression (especially in dialogue) does lend flavor and set the scene, but overuse makes it hard for the reader to slip into the story, because each time they are confronted with unusual word usage, it interrupts the flow of the story for just a moment. (Using language from the period is far superior to overly modernizing the language however, like using terms, phrases, or viewpoints that were not in use in the time period.)

Conclusion

You’ve got a good opening with lots of potential; you’ve shown something at stake and have hooked the reader with curiosity, but to continue to keep us hooked, ground us in her identity, why she’s running, and who is after her, so the chase doesn’t get old or fail to keep our attention. Remember, you want initial curiosity to turn into concern pretty quickly, and for that to happen, the reader has to know enough about a character and situation to feel empathy.

4 comments:

Debra Erfert said...

I had an epiphany this morning reading Angela's awesome critique. It truly was that "ah-ha!" moment that I've always heard about, or read about in stories. I am going to copy every First Page Friday critique into a special file. They are priceless to any writer willing to learn about their craft.

Today, specifically, was so helpful, especially when Angela mentioned giving the character a name within the first paragraph would help the reader develop that important emotional bond. I so agree. Earlier this week I edited the very first short story for a dear friend, and basically told him the same thing. Having a national editor back me up on the premise is like winning a (totally undeserved) beauty title--I'm so stoked!

Thank you, Julie, for having First Page Friday available to us. I hope people (writers) take advantage of it for a very long time to come.

Janice Sperry said...

This is a treasure trove of information. Thanks to Julie, Angela, and Deniz! Fantastic submision and critique.

Sarah Pearson said...

So much information to learn from here. Thank you to Deniz for submitting,and to Angela for her invaluable advice.

Deniz Bevan said...

Wow, and double wow. That is an amazingly helpful critique. I can't believe I hadn't considered all that about naming her at the start - a very important point.
The language thing is a bit difficult. I'll really have to go through the story again to confirm that I'm doing it in way that's easy for the reader to follow.
Thank you so much!