Friday, April 27, 2012

First Page Friday

Okay, for those of you entering the contest on Monday to have a minor character in a book named after you, here is something to think about over the weekend.

The contest for that prize will be a Writing Challenge.  Here are the parameters, so you can put your thinking caps on:

Write in 300 words or less, excluding the title, a post that begins with the words, "The shadow moved across the window."  It can be any genre you choose, suspense, humorous, historical, romance, whatever.  Just as long as those six words appear in the beginning.  Then I'm going to have you submit it to with Character Contest in the subject line and I will post each entry on my blog so people can vote for the winner.  It's going to be fun!  So start your writing engines.  :)  

And pass the word along to any of your friends.  The contest is open to anyone.

Okay, on to First Page Friday!

The Entry
by Dennis Bergendorf

1137 College Ave., Elyria, Ohio.
A Tuesday in mid-May in the near future.
5:55 AM EDT, 0955 Zulu.

For nearly as long as he could remember, Antwan Ware had wanted nothing other than to be an air traffic controller, and for the past 14½ years, he had been just that, a professional pusher of tin, a choreographer of ballets danced in the stratosphere. But for Antwan, air traffic control long ago ceased to be ballet, and has become Dance Macabre. Some call ATC the world’s greatest video game—and perhaps its second-greatest profession. To Antwan Ware, it is slow death.  

14-and-one- half- years. 166 months of dealing with (by his own reckoning) everything aviation could throw at him—though he does allow that he’s never been involved with, nor seen, a mid-air collision. The truth is (and perhaps this is the crux of the problem), aviation had started throwing things when he’d been on the job a mere six weeks, a developmental, a newbie, a pup so green he had to think about how to get to the tower elevator.
Just in from the FAA Academy, having settled into on-the-job training at his first certified position (ground controller at Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport), Antwan Ware was on duty the night an airplane crashed and burned. And two pilots died.

That incident, that deal, came about like so many others—in a perfect storm of circumstance. CHI was in the grip of a major meteorological event on a wretched early evening shortly after New Year’s. The air at ground level was 31°, but warmer aloft. And it was raining. Not particularly hard, but a steady drizzle that flash froze and stuck to everything. Light poles, hangar buildings, fuel trucks, even a few parked airplanes reflected light with a sparkling luminosity, as though they’d been turned upside down and dipped
in silver.

Angela Eschler's (and her assistant Heidi's) Comments

Kids, Dogs, Airplanes

The old saying is that any story/film with a kid or a dog in it is bound to be a success. A lot of people would add airplanes to that list. Whether it’s humorous and spoofy (Airplane!) or deadly serious (Michael Crichton’s Airframe), the field of aviation provides endless opportunities for great storytelling. This story promises to be a gripping adventure with solid research and a unique protagonist.  You’ve clued the readers in with little details like using Zulu time (in reference to aviation’s term for Greenwich Mean Time/Universal Coordinated Time) and other aviation terminology, as well as your main character’s interesting name and unusual choice of career (not the first thing that pops into most kid’s minds when asked what they want to be when they grow up.)  So let’s look at some additional ways you can strengthen your first page to make sure that your readers can’t put the story down once they’ve started.

Right off the Bat

The opening sentence is bound to confuse the reader. “As long as he could remember” tends to include the present. The 2nd sentence and later info tells us that he hates his job. Perhaps instead, try something more specific like, “Antwan’s dream since childhood/grade school/college had been to be an air traffic controller.” Given your skill with words elsewhere, obviously you want the opening line to be more interesting than that anyway. Perhaps something more like “For over fourteen years, Antwan Ware had been living his childhood dream—daily clocking in as a professional pusher of tin, a choreographer of ballets danced in the stratosphere. But for Antwan, air traffic control had long ago ceased to be …” Starting right out with the interesting language and imagery of your second sentence—which will make the reader curious to find out what you mean—might be a better choice all around. 

I ran this paragraph by another reader/writer, because I thought it could possibly be even more succinct in creating a question for the audience (the set-up for the tension is a little too slow), and he agreed that an even briefer version would be more gripping. Something along the lines of: “Antwan Ware had once thought being in air traffic control was akin to choreographing ballets danced in the stratosphere. But that romanticized view had ceased long ago, and the job was more Dance Macabre than anything.” This immediately introduces a tension and a question for the reader.  They want to know what happened to change his viewpoint.

From Fuzzy to Focused
Also, I think it might be overkill to share both metaphors in the opening paragraph—the video-game one and the dance one. Pick one and introduce it right away.  If you choose the video-game option, you might want to clarify a bit. Why is it the 2nd greatest profession? And what is the implication regarding the greatest profession?  What is it, and why is ATC 2nd? This is unclear and draws attention to the language/rhetoric problem rather than the tension of the story.

Another area that sends mixed messages is this passage: “The truth is (and perhaps this is the crux of the problem), aviation had started throwing things when he had been on the job a mere six weeks.” The crux is that problems had started early on? Not the type of problems? So if problems had started later in his career he’d think totally differently? Do you mean having a traumatizing experience right off soured him too fast? This needs a little clarity.

Finally, if there’s an important connection between the crash Antwan witnessed early in his career and the troubles that you plan to throw at him, this is the place you want to bring that up. Let the reader in on what role that plays in the main plot problem. Otherwise, if it is just to show things that contributed to his personal development and his current frame of mind, consider pushing it back at least a few pages, so you can save the vital first page for setting up the story-worthy problem,  something currently at stake, and the hook.

Too Many Words

Mozart was once told by Emperor Joseph that one of his pieces had “too many notes.” Although Mozart didn’t need to cut anything from his compositions, just about every writer could actually benefit from this advice. You do have some nice, complex, interesting writing, but due to your style, I think you also tend to overwrite. For instance, “Newbie, developmental, pup”—just pick one. The tendency to bring in metaphor, imagery, or interesting syntax (sentence structure) can also result in confusion for the reader, or the writer being redundant and thus boring the reader. Focus on information—are you sharing the same information with the reader in multiple ways/multiple times?  More literary writing is interesting and most powerful if it complements the story—not overpowers it. It should not draw more attention to itself than it contributes to immersing the reader in the story.  For instance, right after the "pup, newbie" line, we're told Antwan was just in from the academy, first job, etc. That information is superfluous to the line above, though more specific. If you'd just used one adjective to describe him—the bit about the tower elevator is nice—then the details on his first-time job won't feel so repetitive.

Sidelined by Details

Details can add interest and make a story come to life, but the first focus needs to be on the character, not the setting. Do keep some setting details. They give the reader important information to help them navigate the new world they are entering (in this case, the profession of air traffic controller), but in the opening, be judicious in assigning them. Place them for maximum impact. You want to get the most mileage from the fewest words, because your goal is to hook your reader, agent, or editor within the first page (the first paragraph is even better). Some of that real estate has to be used for painting a brief, fascinating picture of your main character and laying the groundwork for trouble.  After you’ve captured your audience, then you can be more generous with details relating to the industry. After all, you have other pages to fill, so don’t use all your eggs on the first page and leave nothing for later on. (Also, you note Zulu time in the opening, but some readers won’t understand that and won’t want to put your book down to go look it up—and you don’t want them to put your book down—so find a subtle and short way to sneak in the layman’s definition of Zulu time somewhere on the first page if you want to use it as the key setting signifier.)

Nothing but Trouble

As Les Edgerton says in his writing book Hooked, “It’s imperative that you understood what stories always have to be about. One thing and one thing only. Trouble.” While the first page won’t be enough space to dive into the story-worthy problem, you want to at least clue the reader in on the inciting incident—the (often) little trouble that’s going to lead the protagonist to the big trouble at the heart of the story. Right now, we have past troubles in the form of Antwan’s growing disillusionment with his career choice, based in part on traumatic experiences in the past. But that isn’t the problem that gets the ball rolling. It provides motivation for why Antwan reacts to circumstances that come his way. But without an inciting incident, there’s no reason for Antwan to act at all. So whatever spark you choose to fire the plot’s engine, let it take center stage.

Summing it Up

This beginning is interesting overall in terms of delving into the mysteries of a romanticized profession, and the writing style is unique and the voice is fresh. But get to the tension a little sooner and cut out any redundancy. Also, if you can hint at something currently at stake for the character, such would be good, as that would keep the reader’s attention through descriptions they might not be immediately interested in.  You hint at a tension for the character, but if you can develop that into something at stake, the opening would be even more compelling.

Thank you so much to everyone who participates each week.  It is much appreciated!  See you next week.


KaseyQ said...

I love First Page Fridays. And I want to read the rest of this book... :-)

Debra Erfert said...

Very intense critique. As always, I learned a lot. First Page Fridays are gold.

Kaye P. Clark said...

This will be an intriguing story, but should the first page include a big, fat info dump? And I thought backstory should be woven into the story in small chunks. Any thoughts?

Kaye P. Clark said...

I hope I don't sound critical. I've re-written my first chapter many times because I wanted to avoid info dumps and backstory. I wrote a short prologue to solve the problem. I always enjoy your First Page Friday posts and learn a lot from them.

My EveryDay said...

I'm following Your blog!!

My EveryDay said...

I'm following your blog! Yeah!!!

My EveryDay said...

I'm following you on twitter. Yahoo!

My EveryDay said...

The name of Robison Wells' first published book is "On Second Thought" (2004), ISBN 1591564301.