Thursday, March 17, 2011

First Page Critique: The Puget Sounds

by Michelle Gagnon

Part of our continuing series of first page critiques...

The Puget Sounds

The scar across his cheek was itching; he didn’t like what was happening. The waters of Puget Sound were surprisingly calm that night, but since the moon was hidden behind a thick layer of overcast clouds you couldn’t tell unless you were actually in a boat. Not that Ramtin could enjoy the night sky; he wasn’t keen on boat travel. In spite of his misgivings, everything on the boat was going smoothly. The diesel engine in the next compartment sat quiet. It was normally only used to charge the large compliment of batteries for the electric drive. The electric motors, which were currently in operation, whirred without incident. The hydraulic lines that seemed to go everywhere were holding their valuable fluid, to be used when called upon by the captain. Along the sides and roof of the hull tucked into races neatly arranged near the hydraulic lines were a myriad of stainless steel braided electrical wires painted an odd shade of off white for various control and sensor operations.

To say it was claustrophobic inside was an understatement. But this wasn’t first class traveling. This wasn’t even third class. This was travel under dubious circumstance. Even though they were running under electric power, the smell from the diesel engine hung in the air like a sort of omni-presence. In a submarine, because of the enclosed space, that smell permeates everything. And it only serves to aid the claustrophobic feeling inside knowing you’re surrounded by the cold blackness that is the water just beyond the thin plating of the hull.


I'll start by saying that I love the title, PUGET SOUNDS, in general, but it seems better suited to a literary novel than a thriller or other work of crime fiction. Still, I can picture it on a cover.

There's a lot of great detail here. The reader gets a strong sense of what it's actually like to be on a submarine. That being said, the writing is too dense. I felt at times that I was wading through it. A perfect example is this sentence:
Along the sides and roof of the hull tucked into races neatly arranged near the hydraulic lines were a myriad of stainless steel braided electrical wires painted an odd shade of off white for various control and sensor operations.

I read that passage three times, and was still not exactly sure what I was supposed to imagine. Particularly when writing about something they know well, authors need to toe a fine line. You have to provide a layperson with enough detail that they can visualize something that is foreign to them, but not so much that it ends up confusing them. Some careful editing could resolve this problem.

There are also a few minor technical issues at work here. One is the double spacing between each sentence. There was a great article in Slate about this a few months ago (
Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period: 1/13/11) that emphasizes why such use is dead wrong and worse, appears dated (which, considering the average age of a NYC editor, is never a good thing). Jim also wrote a fantastic post about semi-colons. His conclusion, "Semi-colons. For academics, yes. For novelists, no," pretty much sums it up. And kicking off the first sentence with a semi-colon is a definite no-no. Always err on the side of starting a new sentence.

Another issue (and a common mistake among debut authors) is shifting between tenses and viewpoints. We start in the past with "was" and "were," but in a few places slip into the present, with "serves" rather than "served."
I'm also not a fan of employing the second person, ie, "...
knowing you’re surrounded by..." In this instance, I think it's better to stay with a close third, writing from the perspective of Ramtin.

Above and beyond these more nitpicky technical details, I have to confess that this opening didn't grab me the way I was hoping it would (despite the fact that I'm a huge fan of anything set on a submarine). Based on what little we learn on this first page, it seems like it should. The reader ends up knowing more about how well the boat is running than what kind of situation Ramtin finds himself in. I have no idea if he's stowed away in a tight compartment, or if he's helming the sub from a captain's chair. And depending on what his specific situation is, the writer could kick off with boots tramping past his hiding place, or orders given to subordinates. There needs to be something stronger and more compelling inserted here to keep me turning to the next page.
I fear that this is one of those cases where the book really needs to kick off a few pages in, when the story really gets going.


  1. Michelle, I second all your points. It’s possible that this writer has fallen into the most common trap of all—starting the book in the wrong place. This reads like a documentary on the History Channel. Although the writing is OK, there appears to be nothing at stake. Give me some sort of hint or foreshadow of things to come--perhaps right after stating that Ramtim didn't like what was happening. It might only take a word or short sentence. The only conflict I see is that the setting is claustrophobic and smelly. I need a reason to keep reading.

    From a line editing standpoint, I would search for the word “was” and find alternative ways of saying the same thing. Such as “The scar across his cheek was itching” to “The scar across his cheek itched". Also, the term “races” threw me. My first reaction: did the writer mean recesses? Maybe “races” is a tech term in submarines, but don’t stop me in the first paragraph of the book with an unfamiliar use of a common word. The idea is to keep my eyes moving along the sentences, not throwing up a speed bump. Sad to say, I would probably not read on.

    BTW, Michelle, the double-space between sentences thing is an old, very hard habit to break. I do it without even thinking. One tip is to do a search and replace after the fact.

  2. The spacing you mentioned wasn't on the page here, but I hate those "NEVER" rules because if the juice is there, the editor can move the lines up or X out a few semi-colons. The manuscript for ANGELA'S ASHES was typed on onion skin and single spaced. Cormac McCarthy has never used quotation marks in dialog. They also say never write "The End" after the last sentence of a manuscript like that matters. Any editor gets to the end and they won't care what form rules you violate. Next they'll say never use dashes, or never type while sitting in your underwear. Even young editors (I've had two that were astoundingly talented) should know in the first pages if the story is there.

    That said;

    Some guy with a scar on his face is in an overly described submarine; so what. By the way, I think a sub is technically a boat. And a nice title can be just a fancy hat on a slow-motion turkey.

  3. Hmm. What to say? I have to admit I got lost more than once. I thought we were on a boat on the surface. I didn't realize it was a sub until after my mental image had formed.

    I think the author should go back and rework this - largely reorder and reorganize the sentences rather than necessarily rewrite them. For example, we need to know it's a sub before the description. Here's a suggested outline:

    Paragraph 1: Describe the place, water, clouds essentially as you've done. Note this is a good spot to build in foreshadowing to contrast what is to come.
    P 2: Introduce Ramtin who can't see any of the beautiful scenery because he's on a sub. Describe his scar and introduce his goal.
    P 3: Show us Ramtin's claustrophobia by using the descriptive elements of the inside of the sub.

    This reworked introduction will accomplish the following: (1) generated interest with foreshadowing, (2) set the mood, and (3) introduced your character through an emotional reaction. All of these things will help grab your reader.

    And how about a title change? Given this beginning, I suggest "Under Puget Sound." It's a little more unique and will also help to orient the reader to the sub trip.

    Looking forward to reading a new version in the future. Like Michelle, the idea of the sub alone is quite interesting to me. I think it has potential. I'm curious where this story is going. Take us there.

  4. I'm with Daniel--I thought we were on a boat on the surface. In the first paragraph you describe the moon, the captain, the diesel engine, the hull...only "the next compartment" says submarine to me, and that's not a very strong hint.

    I am curious to know what a scarred guy in a submarine is doing in Puget Sound at night. In the first half of the first paragraph, you filter the description through Ramtin's perspective, which gives us a POV to hang onto while we wait to find out what he's up to. If you'd kept doing that, I would have kept reading.

  5. I don't know, John--by chance I was sitting next to what must have been an agent's assistant in a NYC Starbucks one afternoon, and I watched as she'd opened a manuscript, say something like, "No title page!" and toss it aside. So I think that while there are always Angela's Ashes stories, there's certainly nothing to be lost by having your work properly formatted (and to be honest, the double-spacing is a good habit to break anyway).
    I agree, Joe, too much passive voice here. I'd be curious to see what happens a few pages in...

  6. Michelle,
    Give the editor's assistant the benefit of the doubt. My title page includes my book title, my name, my agent's name and contact info. Perhaps the EA thought that information was essential to reading the work. If the title page were located, perhaps the manuscript would have been read and purchased. I do have a header on each page of my MS containing my name and book title.

  7. I too thought it was a boat, until I was told it was a sub. I didn't get a feeling of action, and I didn't get a feeling of character. I have no reason at this point to care about the character.

    Except for thinking it was a boat rather than a sub... for the most part the description aspect was good and I got a feel for being somewhere and what it was like (a bit too much, but further in to the story it would have worked better and been a bit more appropriate- but not for a first page).