Thursday, April 14, 2011

First Page Critique: Untitled

by Michelle Gagnon

So we're wrapping up our semi-annual series of first page critiques. I hope that by and large they've proven helpful. As someone who's currently chewing her nails to the nub while waiting for an editor to weigh in on chapters, I can empathize with the stress of opening your work up to criticism. Even submitting anonymously can be a terrifying experience. So kudos to all those brave souls who shared their work.
Without further ado...

Untitled

Sometimes the dead will not stay in their graves but instead arise out of the ashes with the wings of a phoenix, born anew. Upon lying comatose for many years, suddenly and inexplicably, they find life, beat their way out of their casket and crawl out of the dirt until they breathe again. It had been twenty five years since the devil in Todd Meyer’s life had been buried. Now, with one burst his demon had returned to terrorize him.

The sun broke through a low floating cloud sending a wave of warmth and brightness through the people on the pier. It was an aberration, a freakishly warm sunny evening in late May on Lake Michigan where Todd and Zelda Meyer were enjoying a lazy walk on the Saint Joseph Pier.

Todd often wondered what holds two people together through all of the rough and rocky times of their life. What comes to pass when the flames of hell begin to nip at their heels as fire and brimstone fall from the heavens? Does a couple cling together more fiercely to fight off the approach of the wolves? Or does their relationship fall by the wayside like a discarded toy never to be played with again. In Todd’s existence, change had been the only constant, a life filled with despair and littered with sorrow.

A sharp wind off the lake jolted Todd. “Do you feel like walking a bit farther down to the lighthouse,” asked Zelda, his wife of three years, “to watch the sunset?”

He paused for a moment, squeezed her hand and said, “With you on my arm, I’ll go anywhere.” She gave a quick smile, leaned into him and kissed him full on the lips. Letting go of his hand for a moment, she reached around his back and smacked him on the butt, “Alright, babe, let’s get going.”

Ten feet behind them, alone, a short blond Mexican followed, his gun hidden by a bright yellow and white Hawaiian shirt.

Critique:
I'm all about immediacy. I recently finished reading Daniel Woodrell's book WINTER'S BONE. An amazing novella that was extremely well written. But there were times when frankly I could have used a machete to hack my way through his metaphors. There is absolutely a place for that kind of writing. But for me as a reader, the critical thing is to strike a balance. Yes, I want to hear, see, taste, and smell what the characters are experiencing. But I also want to do that without having to re-read each sentence three times.

I found myself doing that here. This is an extraordinarily dense page, that for me only really started to pick up when we hit the short blond Mexican at the conclusion. (Side note: if you're going to make a Mexican blond, probably a bad idea to also dress him in a yellow shirt. Especially if he's trying to fly under the radar, which I gather is the case here).

I know we've been hammering away at this, but the truth is that those first few sentences are absolutely critical. They simply must be perfect for an agent (or, more likely, agent's assistant), to keep reading. We start with, "Sometimes the dead will not stay in their graves but instead arise out of the ashes with the wings of a phoenix, born anew."
Not bad. But it's followed by, "Upon lying comatose for many years, suddenly and inexplicably, they find life, beat their way out of their casket and crawl out of the dirt until they breathe again."
I'd argue that this is repetitive. There's not enough new information in that second sentence to justify its existence. Come up with a way to combine the two into something stronger.

Along those lines: be very, very wary of mixing metaphors. In the opening paragraph I'm given both a phoenix and a demon as representations of the dead. In a single page we also have discarded toys and wolves. All great images, but I would recommend parsing them out a bit.

Also: know when to hold back. I was intrigued by the sentence, "Todd often wondered what holds two people together through all of the rough and rocky times of their life." I'm intrigued by this concept too. Entire books can (and have) been devoted to precisely this question. And as I watch this couple walk along, heedless of the danger trailing at their heels, I'd love a hint of what is binding them together.

But that was followed by, "What comes to pass when the flames of hell begin to nip at their heels as fire and brimstone fall from the heavens?" The writer lost me on the second part. The scenery description is already heavy on moodiness and melodrama, setting the tone. But those types of statements push it too far. Less is more in this case, I'd say.

"Letting go of his hand for a moment, she reached around his back and smacked him on the butt, “Alright, babe, let’s get going.” This part was particularly jolting for me- the butt smack changes the entire tone that the author has been creating. Not that I'm opposed to butt smacks per se, but it felt like something that belonged on the first page of a very different novel. I surmise that this is an attempt to gain a moment of levity immediately prior to a truly terrible incident (as a thriller writer, I've already assumed that becoming attached to Zelda would probably be a mistake). But I think that what I'd prefer to experience as a reader, especially given the gravity of Todd's train of thought, is a sweet moment between the two of them. Something that illustrates that bond he's so concerned about losing. Something that makes me invest in them as people, since apparently something very, very bad lies just past the horizon.

With careful editing, I see some definite potential here. What other recommendations do people have for our intrepid author?

9 comments:

  1. Ditto everything, Michelle.

    The essential problem here is repetition, more properly called Tautology. And here's another example:

    "The sun broke through a low floating cloud sending a wave of warmth and brightness through the people on the pier. It was an aberration, a freakishly warm sunny evening in late May on Lake Michigan where Todd and Zelda Meyer were enjoying a lazy walk on the Saint Joseph Pier."

    The description of the sun as warm and the people on a pier are all repeated.

    Alton Gansky has an excellent short video explaining this concept (and Pleonasm) on Youtube. I invite the author and any interested regulars from the TKZ crew to watch it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ndj14Fwth3U

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  2. I'd move the Mexican following them to the front, make it the first paragraph. It would set the tone better. Then, if the author wanted to go into contemplative thought, the tension level would already be set. It also flows better to have that paragraph lead into what is currently the first one, like this:

    Ten feet behind them, alone, a short blond Mexican followed, his gun hidden by a bright yellow and white Hawaiian shirt.

    Sometimes the dead will not stay in their graves but instead arise out of the ashes with the wings of a phoenix, born anew. Upon lying comatose for many years, suddenly and inexplicably, they find life, beat their way out of their casket and crawl out of the dirt until they breathe again. It had been twenty five years since the devil in Todd Meyer’s life had been buried. Now, with one burst his demon had returned to terrorize him.


    A few minor changes to that second paragraph, and I think the opening of the passage is good to go. The slap doesn't bother me, just lets me know that Todd and Zelda really have no clue what's about to go down. Going into train of thought so early in a manuscript is a matter of personal style. The author should realize though, that by doing this, they are taking the reader out of the action. But Eric Van Lustbader does it all the time, especially in his Nicholas Linnear Series. And those books are classics.

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  3. I thought I was starting a Zombie book written by Herman Melville's great grandchild. I wouldn't have been surprised if the Mexican was wearing a grave-rotten leisure suit and calling out, "BRAINS!" In fact I would have preferred it.

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  4. I agree with Michelle, Daniel and Fletch--too many mixed images, too much repetition, less is more. I liked all the imagery but I think it would be more impactful if the author chose one and used that instead of giving many. I too would move the lurking Mexican to the beginning so there is a more concrete sense of foreboding (i.e. there is someone physically there). My other issue is that with all the demon/undead imagery I really wasn't sure where it was going--and yes the butt smack seemed out of place given the overall tone of the passage--is the comatose devil that Todd buried 25 years ago metaphorical or an actual zombie of some sort? Overall I think if the author simplified things, this would be interesting.

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  5. The zombie metaphors and the blond Mexican gave me weirder than normal images. For some reason I pictured Mr. Lunt from VeggieTales as the potential assassin.

    If this is a surreal piece, then it might work...if the reader is into surreal dreamscapes. If it is meant to be a realistic thriller, tighten it up a bit and lose some of the weird imagery.

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  6. I agree with Michelle - I see potential here but the number of images and metaphors on the first page need to be trimmed down. I often go overboard with metaphors and have to go back and cull them to make sure they are used for maximum effect. I remember my agent telling me to cut some paragraphs out my first book as I was really just repeating the same images and themes with greater embellishment - which was unnecessary. I still fall for the same trap occasionally, but I deal with it in the editing process. I think this author can do the same and have something great to work with.

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  7. I like that suggestion, Fletch. And I agree, I wasn't clear on whether the "undead" was intended to be literal or metaphorical.

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  8. I liked it. I thought it wasn't as slow paced as everyone else is making it out to be. Jeez at least it didn't start with an assassin/sniper in a dark closet. It was good writing. Reminded me of the book Salem's Lot.

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  9. I enjoyed the read. It's obviously well-written. But like some have said, the metaphors didn't always work, but to me that's forgivable and I would continue reading just to see if the flow and language was consistent. When I read the line about the blonde mexican, I couldn't help but think of Jay Manuel from America's Next Top Model. Not sure why.

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