Friday, May 31, 2013

First Page Friday

Can you believe it's Friday already?  I'm so excited for the weekend and for a new installment of First Page Friday.  

Thank you to our author and to Angela and Heidi for their hard work.  I am so appreciative of everything I've learned from these critiques.

See you next week!

The Entry
A Turn To Windward
by Robert M. Starr


The hands that pushed the rabbet plane carefully along the edge of the lapstrake plank were still strong and skillful, but they were no longer young. And the two teenage boys learning to cut gains into the ends of the planks being shaped for their sailboat no longer noticed the burn scars that began abruptly four inches above the wrists and continued up both arms to disappear under the sleeves of an olive drab T-shirt. As he handed the plane to the older of the two boys, the man was equally oblivious to the fact that both boys looked almost exactly like their Japanese-American mother and bore little resemblance to their Irish-American father.

“Okay, Frank, you finish the gain on this plank, and Joe can do the next one.”

“Sure, Chief,” the seventeen-year-old next-door neighbor agreed. “But stay close until I get the hang of it.” The almond-shaped coffee brown eyes sought reassurance from the faded grey-blue eyes of his teacher. “I don’t want to ruin this plank after all the work we did spiling the lines and cutting it to shape.”

“I’ll be right beside you, but you’ll do the same excellent work you always do, whether I’m watching or not.” Chief encouraged.

Chief felt the vibration of his cell phone before he heard the opening notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony and noted the name of his daughter-in-law on the caller.

“Hi, DeeDee,” he said.

“Chief, you were right,” she said, abrupt as ever. “Rachel is in New York. She’s safe, but she’s in trouble. I need you to meet me at JFK tomorrow. I’ve booked a flight for you. Sorry, all I could get from SeaTac was a ‘red-eye.’ I’m e-mailing the details as we speak.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“She’s in juvenile custody at a treatment center for drug addicts.” The worried mother paused a moment to take a deep breath. “And, Chief, she’s pregnant. I have to meet with a juvenile court judge day after tomorrow, and I need you to be with me. They want to put her in the U.S. Marshal’s Witness Security Program, and I’m going to insist that they let you look after her instead.

“What did she see?” the retired Navy SEAL asked softly.

“A murder.”

Comments by Angela and Heidi from Eschler Editing

What’s Working

You’ve got a good eye for detail, and have obviously put a great deal of thought into choosing interesting embellishments to add intrigue to the story. You’ve also got a couple of attention-grabbers that could function well to hook the reader: the burn scars above the protagonist’s wrists and a murder. In addition, murder is always a good place to start a story, and making the protagonist the grandfather of the witness opens up lots of interesting possibilities. I think you have the talent to pull off the right opening, but be patient, as this review touches on many points and gets a bit long.

Too Much of a Good Thing 

Details can add texture and realism to a story. But in the wrong time and place, they can muddy the story and slow its momentum, distracting the reader from the plot. Every word is a promise to the readers. They will assume that if it’s important enough to bring up in the first pages, it must be significant. So if woodworking or ring tones or the neighbor kids’ ethnic heritage aren’t central to plot, you should strongly consider inserting those details after you get the plot up and moving, rather than using up precious real estate in the first few pages.

Lost in the Jargon

While using detail lends nice realism to the story, the reader can’t infer meaning of new terms when there are so many in use simultaneously—and none of them provide anchoring context that allows readers to deduce what the new word means. There’s too much woodworking jargon (rabbet, lapstrake, gain, spiling) for this spot in the story. Readers like learning stuff like this, but they don’t like having to put down a novel to go find a dictionary. If you pick up a murder mystery at the store, you’re not going to last long if the first page is a how-to woodworking guide. Even if these details are relevant to the plot, there’s time to get to that later. Instead, focus on getting to the inciting incident as soon as possible. In the meantime, one unusual word or term is enough for the page—giving the reader a hint of flavor without drowning them.

Information Overload

It’s true that you want to pack a big punch in a short time, so every word should count. But in addition to too much detail (too many adjectives, especially), the overall amount of data in just these few paragraphs feels like overload. For instance, who uses the full name of the witness protection program, especially if they’re familiar with it? This opening is also crammed full of characters – neighbor boys, DeeDee, Rachel – all named and thus requiring us to pay more attention than we’re ready for, when we haven’t even really gotten a handle on the main character yet.

Don’t be Mysterious about Your Main Character’s Identity

Go ahead and introduce your main characters by name right away. You are going to have to do that in a paragraph or a page anyway, and most readers are savvy enough that they’ll see through the curiosity approach. Like all writing rules, there are exceptions. Daniel Silva uses a mystery approach to introduce his main character in The Kill Artist. But it works because he has a different named point-of-view character that is observing the unnamed stranger. By doing this, he anchors the reader in the scene. In your opening, since there appears to be no reason we can’t know his name, I’d just introduce Chief by name right away and hurry on to the inciting incident.

Start with Action or Strong Intrigue

Murder is great, especially on the first page. It would be even better if the reader could witness it with the character in question. What would happen if you started with Rachel, a teenage girl alone on the streets of NY, witnessing a murder? You’d be showing rather than telling, and it would add intensity to the opening. You could even have her thoughts stray to her grandfather—for good reason, of course—in that scene, thus tying a more page-turning opening with the following introduction of Chief. And even if Chief is the main point-of-view character, you can still open your story with Rachel’s point of view and then switch over. As long as you have one point of view per scene, it works fine.

Naming—Identity Clarity 

First the protagonist is anonymous. Then he’s Chief. Then he’s a retired Navy SEAL. If you jump from label to label for him, it’s confusing for the reader. What is most important about him? A name is an identity and we need that to start defining/assessing and connecting with him. Introduce him by his given name, and if other characters have a different name or nickname, let them use it, but try and keep it to those two unless absolutely necessary. Also, is Chief going to be his name the entire book? Do we ever find out his real name? If so, I’d introduce him using that, then use his nickname where appropriate. A good way to do this is with dialogue reveals instead of the narrator detailing it all.

As for the fact that he’s a retired Navy SEAL, it needs to be introduced relevantly. Definitely before we need it to explain his ability to engage in killer hand combat, say, but in a scene where it would naturally come up as information in dialogue or something else. Not as a stop-the-action-and-let-me-establish-everything-you-need-to-know moment. We don’t remember things that aren’t immediately applicable to our lives in some way. So with character information, if it’s not applicable to something in the story that will anchor it in our memory as significant, we’re very unlikely to remember a character fact when we really need to.

The Stakes

If Chief is the guy we care about, what’s at stake for him with this murder situation? No one seems terribly concerned. Normally, you’d expect family members to be freaking out. But the mother sounds matter-of-fact and the grandpa isn’t jumping to conclusions about his grand-daughter’s safety. There’s nothing for us to be stressed about, and the mood of the scene, if you will, is methodical to the point of being almost meandering. If there’s nothing at stake for the protagonist, the reader has no reason to keep turning the pages. (This is why I suggested an alternate beginning; but drastically changing up what’s at stake in this beginning would work too.) For instance, if you wanted to keep this scene, what if Chief was on the phone at the start of it, the conversation being about the murder and witness protection for his granddaughter, and he’s calmly (or even nonchalantly) wood working while having the conversation? That’s interesting—his lack of reaction. You’d still need to establish something at stake, but it could be something that surprised the reader, or a hint of something surprising, but without your fully committing to revealing all he’s thinking. (What if he thinks it’s lucky his granddaughter only witnessed a murder, rather than being party to one? Obviously that’s just very cynical—or hints at worse—but it’s a type of surprise that would stop a reader in his tracks to find out what kind of grandpa, or granddaughter, would produce a thought like that.) Starting with intrigue rather than overt intensity can also be a good hook, but there has to be a really good playout of mystery and surprise regarding a character’s motives—something totally unexpected for the character archetype that keeps us turning pages. The carrot has to be more than just information.

Point of View

The point of view in the opening is awkward, using that omniscient third person to get in the heads of people and demonstrate what they are NOT noticing about the scene around them. Really, that’s not a POV at all. POV is what defines the relevancy of everything in a scene—it is the story.

POV is the lens through which every detail—setting, character, plot—is built. You need to know why you are using a certain POV. Definitely don't start with what neighbor boys are not noticing about Chief. Yes, the scars are great, but introduce them efficiently. Every sentence should try to accomplish plot, characterization, and setting all at once. You shouldn't have big blocks of text only accomplishing one of those goals. The reader phases out and gets bored when such blocks don't inform the other two elements of story. Maybe note that his scars itch or that he glanced briefly at them as he rolled up his sleeve, thinking for a moment they looked faded – but really it was a trick of the light. Or he noted the neighbor boy looking at them (even if you’ve frequently seen a physical detail on someone else, it can still be interesting to that outside party if said observer has never had that physical experience himself).

Your Next Steps

Keep those details handy – just thin them out of the first page and transplant them in other scenes. Name your character right out of the starting gate and establish a strong POV. Establish the stakes for the protagonist—the most important thing you can do. And start with the most interesting thing (the murder) first. Do this and you’ll strengthen your opening and keep the reader turning pages.


Debra Erfert said...

I was a little disorientated with how I wasn't "seeing" this scene from the Chief's POV. I really thought it should've been. I enjoyed the details, and I agree with the critique. They will slip nicely into later scenes.

This sounds like a very interesting story. For some reason I keep picturing Clint Eastwood as the grandfather.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Debra, I did, too! :)

Robert M Starr said...

This proved to be a very helpful review for me. Some of the comments and/or criticisms reinforce or conflict with others I’ve received, i.e., using technical boat construction terms without explaining them at the time. I explain them later, and I generally explain any military jargon in the context of using it. In this opening, I wanted to be authentic and assure sailors that I knew what I was talking about, but I didn’t want to interrupt the flow to the hook: “A murder.” (Obviously, I failed in the attempt.) The kids’ ethnic heritage is relevant, as prejudices going back to WWII are explored later, but I was simply trying to create a scene at this point. My intent was to bring the reader into an ordinary moment of a retired warrior teaching a couple of neighbors things they would have normally learned from their father or grandfather, then interrupt the scene with ‘breaking news.’ (And I noticed that in one of my edits I accidentally deleted ‘ID’ in ‘caller ID.)

Chief is retired Master Chief Petty Officer Jacob Dean Stewart, but he has been known as Chief for more than thirty years. And I thought a full name and title, when he is Chief to everyone who knows him, was too much for the opening. I fill in the details on DeeDee and Chief in the first paragraphs of the second chapter.

I hadn’t recognized my POV gaff, as I was writing the scene as a third person omniscient narrator rather than a character in the scene and hadn’t realized I had created confusion rather than clarity.

I actually thought my timing of introducing Chief’s Navy SEAL past provided the information as needed to explain DeeDee desire to have him protect Rachel rather than trusting the U.S. Marshal’s Witness Security Program (which most people incorrectly refer to as ‘witness protection,’ and, as a former military analyst and intelligence team chief, I’m afraid I’m guilty of being one of those people ‘who uses the full (and correct) name of the witness protection program.’ I had DeeDee, the widow of a warrior, do the same thing.

I was trying to create an ordinary scene of people doing what people normally do then disrupt it with extraordinary news. My intent was to provide enough information without creating information overload. I do tend to be wordy and try to avoid that flaw in writing, and my training is to be both analytical and precise. But my efforts in this case seem to have created confusion rather than clarity. So, I’ll have to borrow a pair of shears from my wife, do some drastic cutting, and see what I can do to achieve the intended goals through yet another rewrite. (My wife thinks A Turn to Windward is the best story I’ve written to this point—she is also my most trusted critic and can be brutal in her honesty—so I’m encouraged enough to believe that continued efforts are worthwhile.)

Thank you, Julie, for providing an opportunity to have professional eyes look at my writing. The results have been very instructive.

Robert M Starr said...

And, Debra, if you can convince Clint Eastwood to play Chief in a movie, I'll be eternally in your debt! ;^)

Debra Erfert said...

Robert, I saw the interaction between the chief petty officer and the children just how you described it, and it was a difficult scene to describe, but I thought you captured it in those few words.

I'll ask Uncle Clint if he'd be interested. (Just kidding!) (About him being my uncle.) (Honestly!)

Robert M Starr said...

Oh, drat, not really your uncle, and my hopes were so high . . . sigh, cry, die (I guess I'll get over it;^).