Friday, January 25, 2013

First Page Friday

I apologize for First Page Friday being a little late today.  We had a tiny snafu, but it was taken care of, so here we are!

As always, thank you to Eschler Editing for their efforts and to all our authors who submit.  If you would like your first page critiqued, follow the directions in the sidebar.  See you next week!

The Entry
The Dunsters

Samuel brought the muzzle down slightly, eyeing the pale chunk of wood they’d placed in a tree crotch—a small dot in his vision.

Peter shook his head. “Too far.” His words were burred with his Scandinavian accent.

“Well, now,” Samuel replied, unconsciously copying the drawl of Henry Clegg, his brother-in-law. It gave an interesting effect, combined with the Italian lilt of his inflection, and the French thickness of his consonants. Quickly he brought the sight up to his eye, took a deep breath, steadying himself and allowing all around him to blur. He took a second breath, letting the slight tremble of his index finger relax on the trigger. With his third breath, the shot exploded from the barrel.

“You did not hit,” Peter insisted, marching toward the tree.

Samuel put the safety back on, took his flannel cleaning cloth and ran it over the shiny, flat surfaces of the octagonal barrel of his Remington pistol. .44. It had been a gift from his former employer, Bishop Joseph Toronto, President Young’s chief herder. Carefully, he slid it into his hip holster and sauntered over to where Peter stood, his head bowed as he looked at the wood, now laying on the ground behind the tree. There was a nick in it.

Samuel picked it up and tossed it to Peter. The boy flinched, then caught it. “You’re getting good. But you waste the bullets.”

Samuel shrugged. “It does no good to have a pistol if you aren’t a shot.”

They were silent as they made their way through the brush back to where the herd was grazing on the long, grassy bench overlooking Provo City. The sun was low to the horizon, illuminating the sky in long, wavering bands of brilliance. The two of them stood for a few moments, quiet as they looked out over the valley. Samuel imagined he could see spires and turrets in the sunset. The kingdom of Enoch, he thought, feeling his heart swell. A golden city in the clouds.

Angela and Heidi's Comments

Strengths: I’m feeling grounded…

A key element of the strong beginning is our (the reader) being grounded in the story—tuning in to a clear tone and setting. You’re doing a great job with the dialogue (including the first mention of foreign accents) and descriptions in grounding us. The flannel cloth, the pistol details, etc., really bring the historical setting to life. (This model was probably produced between 1862 and 1875, and along with the Brigham Young reference, gives the reader a time frame for the story).

Samuel’s line about “no use in having a pistol if you aren’t a good shot” is a great way to show hints at his personality, his common sense. You’re building character in a nice, subtle way.

One note: The reader knows about Samuel’s relationship to Henry – who hasn’t even been introduced -- but we don’t know what the relationship between Samuel and Peter is. I like their interaction thus far, and find it interesting, but how old are they in comparison to each other, are they related or friends, in differing positions of authority? We need a bit more here to keep us from losing our grounding. You note Peter is a boy, but he seemed like an equal to Samuel in the opening (they interact like equals); since I assumed Samuel was a grown man, I assumed the same of Peter. But now I’m wondering if Samuel is young too. We need that cleared up right away.

Things to work on: Maybe too grounded…

So if you’re wanting to grab the attention of a reader right away, especially with today’s more impatient audience (unfortunate in some ways, but driving brilliant craft in others), you’ll want to shake up the ground just a little—even on the first page. You don’t need to start with the big reveal of danger or mayhem (and the danger might just be to the emotional/spiritual peace of the “City of Enoch,” which you’re potentially foreshadowing), but you do need to include at least a couple of lines giving the reader a hint of trouble to come or something at stake for the main characters. (Meaning a goal they have, that, if failed, will produce dire consequences in some personal way; or the reverse, where they want very badly for something not to happen, and we have an idea of what they will lose if it does.)

In short, the first page needs to establish some situation that is going to lead to the main conflict that needs to be resolved. There is no sense of urgency or trouble here on your current first page, but ideally the first page should at least hint that trouble looms on the horizon. The fact that Samuel’s doing target practice could be a great way to move over to why he is practicing – if he’s also a herder, then outlaws, hostile Indians, or wild animals would all be a possibility in this time (I’m placing it in the mid 1860s to early 1870s). Your last paragraph is pretty and lyrical, but doesn’t really move the story forward. The pace is too leisurely to grab us by the horns.

Another way to advance this element of the story is in the characterization. We don’t know enough about characters – who are they? Are they sheep-herders? Just settlers taking an afternoon off the homestead for target practice? What is the event that is going to have to be resolved in their story? What is their relationship to each other in terms of what’s at stake?

Your story has some good info, but not enough of the right info for getting off to a bang! (Puns intended throughout—sorry!)

Little details:

Though your details are wonderful, it’s all about the right amount and the right place. Misplacement of details can throw the reader out of the story or distract them by encouraging the asking of the wrong questions at the wrong time.

For instance, the line describing the flannel rubbed across the gun is a bit too long in the mouth. Separate some of the descriptions with separate sentences/actions.

Also, alluding to Henry’s (the brother-in-law) drawl is a bit too much in the opening as well. We don’t even yet know who these two main characters are, so throwing Henry into the mix distracts us from the events and people at hand, and since he’s not immediately relevant to what’s going on center stage or anything that will be happening immediately thereafter, his mention is definitely misplaced. (This is just extraneous info that doesn’t do anything for the opening of this story. Could be introduced later on in the chapter. For the first page, every word must count, must be a big hitter, must carry maximum weight. As I read this, I’m not even emotionally attached to or super intrigued by Samuel and Peter just yet, so throwing yet another character into the mix just muddles things up.)

I understand it was a tactic to slip in Samuel’s heritage (through his accents), but could you move it a little and thus find a more natural home? Or simply say Samuel was imitating a drawl many of his associates brought with them from X location, and thus leave the distracting Henry out of it. (Also tightening the accent-describing sentence a bit.)

One last related bit—mentioning the Scandinavian accent immediately before addressing this second, mixed accent seemed a bit too forced to me—drawing attention to the writing and not the story—as if you’re rushing to bring us up to speed on who everyone is so you can get that part of storytelling out of the way. Find a way to separate the descriptions of the men’s accents, etc., so it feels like we’re getting to know each man on his own terms and not getting a rushed intro so you can move on to something besides establishing characters. I think the combination of mentioning both accents together, along with throwing in Henry, made that bit of prose seem more awkward.

Lastly, your first sentence should attempt at being a mini hook in itself. I think your first sentence does this, given the pastoral setting and my assumption that you’re aiming for an older, more broadly read audience (not teens). It’s nicely worded and the details are interesting (though it needs to be supported as a hook by having more hints at something at stake or the trouble potentially coming—it would have more weight in the story if we could see the connection between target practice and anything dire coming). I think having the word “crotch” in your first sentence also gets the reader’s attention (especially if teens are in your potential audience). I can’t decide if that’s a good type of attention or not. It’s a perfectly useful word for the sentence, but these days, it’s hard for a reader to immediately dismiss all the crude connotations associated with the word. It is a well-drawn image though, so I think you could get away with it given a more mature audience. After all, it does serve as a hook for what you have going so far.


I think you’re a skilled writer and your story and characters are set up to be very interesting. I would suggest reading the book The First Five Pages, studying the sections on prose rhythm and pacing in particular (amount and placing of details). Just a bit more at stake in the opening and I think you’re off to a strong start.


Jordan McCollum said...

Great advice, Angela & Heidi!

One quick fact/suggestion: if the line about the flannel cloth is too long in the mouth, here's something that might help. I'm assuming this is an 1858 Remington New Model Army, and if so, it's also important to get this right: there is no mechanical safety on most single action revolvers, and I haven't been able to find anything to indicate the Remington is designed otherwise. So one action eliminated right there.

Debra Allen Erfert said...

I wonder the wisdom about target shooting around what I'm assuming are a herd of cows. This, to me, would make these fellas younger, more inexperienced. Teenagers, probably. Yeah, no safety. That made my husband laugh out loud. Sorry. Otherwise, I enjoyed this first page.

Sarah Dunster said...

Thank you for your critiques (all of you!) Will come back a few times to ingest & apply these suggestions. So excited to participate in this.