Saturday, March 19, 2011

First Page Critique: Stress Fractures

Stress Fractures

Kevin let go of the boxcar and jumped, hit the ground hard then tucked and rolled down the steep bank. His arm throbbed and his head felt light. It was still too dark to see the blood, but he could feel it running down his arm, dripping off the fingers. He fought the dizziness, got to his feet and looked around. He should have stayed on the train, but when it slowed down he thought it best to bail out, before it picked up speed again.

His plans involved getting off in the State Park near Staatsburg around two a.m. It wouldn’t be that time yet, because he’d jumped off early. A look at the sky showed no sign of the sun yet. No kidding. Nothing there but the clear black sky, the pinpoint lights of the stars, with a few white clouds and a hazy ring around the half-moon. Something in the recesses of his brain told him that meant rain. Perfect, then he’d be wet and cold as well as hurt and tired. He scrambled back up the bank and began to walk along the tracks, following the long gone train. He twined the fingers of his left hand into the fabric of his tee shirt and grabbed the open wound on the arm with his right hand, applying direct pressure. That nearly caused him to pass out, but he fought it, kept his head above the rising tide of black nothingness, and made himself keep going.

He’d been alternating resting with walking, force a few steps, stop and breathe, take a few more steps, sit and rest, when he realized he could hear and smell running water. He took a deep breath, then slid down the embankment, off the railroad tracks, pushed through the brush and waded into a stream. The water came over the tops of his boots and filled them, cooling his feet. He cupped his hand and splashed some of the cold water on his face and neck, then began to walk in the stream.


What I liked:

There is nothing like a train to get things rolling. Yes, ha ha, but seriously. Besides that, it tells us quite a bit about Kevin in just a couple of sentences. If he is riding a train in a boxcar ---- the rail equivalent of steerage --- it demonstrates that he is not a person of means, either by poor choices, bad luck, or an unfortunate combination of the two. So we start out with Kevin, who is down so deep he has to have sunlight pumped down to him, is injured to boot, and is somewhere far from where he is supposed to be. Not good, not good. And it’s going to get worse for him, almost certainly.

What needs work:

1)Jumping off of the train well short of Kevin’s intended destination just because the train slowed down doesn’t pass the smell test. Trains on their way from Point A to Point B slow down frequently for a lot of different reasons. Why jump off a good distance from your destination? The train is going to slow down anyway at some when it gets to Staatsburg (state and local law mandate so), and almost certainly as it passes by/through the state park, so why impulsively jump off prematurely? The answer of course is that the author wants Kevin to jump early in order to get him into even worse difficulty. The trick is doing that without making the author’s intent too obvious. I would have been a lot happier if Kevin had a more immediate, better reason to exit the premises, to wit: 1) someone who Kevin is sharing the boxcar with doesn’t like sharing the accommodations and physically throws Kevin out; 2) Kevin doesn’t like the way a couple of guys with whom he is sharing the boxcar are looking at him (a mixture of longing, edged with some free-floating hostility) and decides to exit; or 3) he was told by a friendly fellow rider of the rails at some point that a really nasty yard bull or park ranger or whatever rules the roost in Staatsburg, and that Kevin should get off early and hoof it the rest of the way. Or something else. Anything else. But just jumping off the train ahead of time because the train slows down doesn’t pass the smell test.

2) On what did Kevin cut his arm? I’ve done tumbles down hillside myself (well, “bounce” may be a more accurate description) and have been bruised, but not bloody.

3) How does Kevin know it isn’t 2 a.m.? Maybe the train is running slow. Does he have a watch? And if so, what time is it? Did he break his watch on the jump and then cut his arm on the glass? There! That kills two birds with one stone!

4) Why does a guy who is worried about it raining, because he’ll get wet and cold, walk through a stream? I know, to cool his feet off. But he’ll find out that it will chill him to the bone as well by page two.

Anyway…it’s an interesting set up, and for the most part a good start. It leaves you with the feeling that Kevin is in for a really, really bad night. With just a little bit of touching up I think that readers will be happy to walk with him. Or maybe a safe distance behind him.


  1. There's some back and forth here that jumps the reader around. He leaps off the train then thinks about why he chose to jump then. Also, he's not due anywhere until 2am but now he's jumped and it's not that time yet. Jogs like this irritate readers on a subconscious level and sometimes they'll stop reading without realizing why. You want a smooth forward movement for your story, no zig zags.

  2. I agree with Joe. And as much potential as there is for the story behind a guy jumping off a train in the middle of the night, there is no real sense of danger or much concern on his part. Jumping from the train without a good reason makes his injuries self-inflicted so I couldn't muster any sympathy. And with all that's happened to him, it's weird that he's worried about rain that hasn't happened, then walks into the water voluntarily, kind of like he jumped off the train. Without giving this guy proper motivation for his strange behavior, it's hard to feel sorry for him and the author hasn't given us any reason to worry about what happens to him either.

    And between the very first sentence and the second, a lot happens, but there is no transition between his leap off the moving train and him assessing his injuries. It's like the author had no interest in writing the action of the scene and skipped to the limping part.

    And the passive voice thing pulled me out of the story too. Key words to look for are "could" and "began to." "Could hear" should be "heard" and "began to walk" should be "walked" to make stronger verbs. The guy walked. What does beginning to walk look like?

    Without making changes to the start of this story, it would not grab my attention, but the author's style gives me hope he or she will figure out how to improve this.

  3. I also forgot to mention that the part where he walks two steps, then rests, then takes two more steps, then breathes---that made it seem like he was doing the zombie two step. Again the author is rushing the details by putting too much in a sentence, like he or she is bored with what's going on and wants to get on to the next part. Then as hurt as the character appears to be, barely able to take two steps, he slides down an embankment, heading for water that he seems to want mainly for his feet.

    The author needs to better imagine and describe the action and give the reader a reason to care.

  4. A) White space. Need more of it.

    B) POV. It's too objective/omniscient. We need to be more in Kevin's narrative voice. Compare:

    His plans involved getting off in the State Park near Staatsburg around two a.m.

    Where was he? The State Park near Staatsburg? No, too early.

    Etc. The "No kidding" is close, but it comes out of nowhere.

    Something in the recesses of his brain told him that meant rain

    Omniscient again. But then there's "Perfect..." which is inside him. Go for more of that latter feeling.

    I do like that we are opening with action. Recalls The Postman Always Rings Twice and it's famous opening: They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

  5. Jumping off a train alone in the middle of the night is a good opening to a story. This submission just needs some tightening up and line editing as others have suggested. I'm probably wrong, but my guess is that it's a YA mystery/thriller. Perhaps because of the voice. I'm intrigued and would read on for a few more pages.

  6. "Kevin let go of the box car" Interesting. How about "Kevin said 'fuck this' to his grip on the boxcar"

    Instead of that darned Postman's hay wagon again , Jim, how about:
    "Around midnight, the Wild Turkey threw me off the wagon."

    Okay, what could be more unpleasant than being slashed and bashed, and then have your boots full of water.

  7. I think Jordan hit what was bothering me the most- motivation...I was not absorbed and had a hard time caring because there was no real reason to.

    I can see some flare for description and think it will serve well later.

    The part that threw me the most has also already been covered... the rain and not wanting to be wet and then the next paragraph wanting to have soggy feet. Even when my feet are hot, tired, and swollen from hiking- I NEVER like to have soggy, wet boots, socks, and feet. I might pull the boots off and cool off the feet in water, but hiking around in soggy shoes is blister heaven and I hate blisters. Soggy shoes are worse than soggy underware...I don't think anyone would actively seek them.

  8. Interesting that you see this as a YA, Joe. I had to reread it, but I still don't see YA in this short piece. I write YA. And I would have probably done this in first person POV, to capture that younger way of thinking, of a boy on the run from something...or TO something. But if the author has chosen third person, they should probably mention his age at the start. And why doesn't Kevin have a last name?

    Writing YA isn't simply making the central figure a teen. The character must have the life experiences and mentality of a teen in order for teen readers to identify with Kevin. In my opinion, he wouldn't look at the moon and see the consequence of rain coming, for example.

    And YA has more character introspection, to help readers get into the story and identify with the protag. So him looking up at the moon might trigger a memory that allows the reader insight into his deeper POV, maybe about an argument he had with his dad.

    Personally I liked Miller's Wild Turkey idea, no matter how old Kevin is.