Thursday, June 27, 2013

First Page Critique – Bastion: The Last Hope

Jordan Dane

For your reading pleasure, we have what appears to be the start of a futuristic thriller focused on the military. Enjoy and look for my critique on the flip side. Share your thoughts in a comment that would help this brave author fine tune their intro.

Bastion: The Last Hope
A Web Serial

Chapter 1

Gunnery Sergeant Marianne Beaubien, USMC

Day:  E-Day +2
Time:  0300 hrs CST / 0900 hrs GMT
Location:  An airfield outside Madison, Wisconsin.

She was cold.  Though the weather had been unseasonably warm for December, the temperatures at night still dropped into the forties, or “the singles” as she would have called them back home.  Marie wrapped the blanket around herself a little more and refused to open her eyes.   To save fuel, they had shut everything down, robbing her of the familiar hum of the engines. After their last close call the decision had been made to forgo putting the plane to bed which, while logical in the circumstances, still left her uneasy. Curled up in bits of survival gear, her cheek against the troop bench of the KC-130J air transport, falling asleep had been hard enough the first time; she had no desire to hamper its return.

She turned her head away from the rough straps and took another long breath of the cold air.  The cargo ramp was opening, allowing the northern air to sweep up and down it at will.  She forced her eyes shut. Sleep should not be a challenge.  In the last two days she had totalled eight hours of rest, catching brief naps in between the mad dash to refuel after landing, and taking off again an hour or so later.

“Gunny.”  A firm hand shook her shoulder.  The shake was unnecessary.  Her eyes snapped open as a surge of anxious energy filled her with the evocation of her rank.

“Sir?”  The grim face of Maj. Thompson, the plane’s Aircraft Commander, stared back.  He was a serious man, a dyed-in-the-wool-Marine-for-life.  She respected him and all he had done for her over the last few years.  Even now, she knew that he understood what was going on enough to see the crew through this.  

“Wheels up in twenty eight minutes.  We’ve got another storm coming.”

He did not say anything else, instead moving up the cargo bay and into the flight deck, presumably to begin preflight.  She looked across the aircraft.  One of her two crewmen, was wrapped in his poncho liners and completely asleep.  Standing, she stretched and resolved to allow him another few minutes of sleep.  His name was Cable but everyone called him Larry.  She and Frias, who they all knew as Lefty, had managed the ground operations on their own, before she was ordered to get some sleep. It took a bit longer, but the tanks were filled, the fuel truck a fair distance away and all was in order for a quick departure.  Frias was sent off to scavenge for parts and she was ordered to bed.

She looked at her watch and stifled a groan.  0300.  Two hours of sleep was the longest she had managed since the first wave of meteors had hit.

My Critique:

Generally I am a fan of the intro tag lines that help a reader get an instant time and place setting, but too many lines and too much information (that I’m personally unfamiliar with) could have the potential of a reader skimming over what could be an effective tool to escalate the tension. (This reads like a futuristic setting with the reference to E-day+2, but I'm not sure without a year reference.) One of my favorite books where tag lines played an effective part was Tami Hoag’s NIGHT SINS. In the dead of winter in Minnesota, a child goes missing with the temperature dropping as the hope to find the kid alive diminishes with every passing minute. I found myself reading every tag line, watching the temp drop and the tension ramp up.

In the tag line set up, her name is Marianne, but in the intro, the name Marie is used. I'm not sure which to use in my critique, but I went with Marianne.

The opening sentence (She was cold) is “telling” the reader what she’s feeling, rather than finding a more effective way to “show” it. With Marianne wrapping tighter and shivering in a blanket, unable to get warm, that would say it. She could feel the urgency of needing to sleep, but unable to turn her mind off, waiting for an order she dreaded. (Haven't we all been there and back.) That would put the focus on her and set the stage for the mystery of what her mission might be and why she's roughing it, trying to sleep in a plane.

The line about the unseasonal weather is a snippet that took me out of her shivering misery before I really got a feel for her. Plus I was confused by how temps in the forties could be “singles” somewhere else and had to read the line again. She may be from Joe Moore’s neck of the woods, where everyone owns a dock out their back door. Where they drink alcoholic libations with little umbrellas, dress like Jimmy Buffett, have sand in every nook and cranny of their swim trunks, and call the dead of winter, "being in the singles." (Joe-Don't disappoint me. Do you have Buffett-wear? Speedos?)

The “to save fuel” line had me wondering what type of engine they had to shut down (the plane engine or a generator of some sort). I’m sure this is my ignorance, but an author needs to provide enough information that any reader can gather the gist of the story, at least in context. The fix would be simple by stating they'd shut down the plane engine. Also, they had shut down the engine, but in the next sentence it's mentioned that they made the decision to forgo putting the plane to bed. Isn't that a contradiction?

Also there is a reference to “the last close call” where they had made that decision to forgo putting the plane to bed. Hinting at a back story (that’s still slowing the pace here) without a fuller explanation of the danger they are in, isn’t presented in a satisfying way for me as a reader. I would tend to skim over this part to get at the meat of the situation and what she is all about, but I wouldn’t find those details in this short intro. There's too many details that take away from what should be the focus of a more dynamic start.

This is a small inconsistency that took me out of the reading. In the first paragraph she “refused to open her eyes” and in the next paragraph, she “forced her eyes shut.” I can understand her being restless, but these statements are emphatic and perhaps should be less so, in order to show she can't sleep.

The paragraph after she gets the “wheels up” order is again another slow paragraph laden with back story, crew information and nicknames,and functions for departure that are thrown at me. For me, that’s more to skim I’m afraid. It’s not until I see the last line about “first wave of meteors” hitting that I know something about why she is there. The author can savor that choice tidbit and save it as a means to draw the reader into the next action of the crew's take off, but in my opinion, there needs to be a laser sharp focus on the uncomfortable conditions, the restless tension of her and her crew, the anxiety needs to be there, before the reader learns about the meteors. Instead we get details on sleeping patterns, too many crew member names (with short back stories) who haven’t played a part yet, and military jargon and procedures that slow the pace and distract from the story.

I’m wondering if this is the right place for this book to start. I can see the timing almost there, but the focus needs to be on the human element and the tension that keeps her awake, until she gets the order to move. Then it should be hit the ground running, get the reader into the action as they deploy in a rush.

I would have a hard time turning the page of this story as is, except that the idea of meteors hitting the earth and what the military can do about that, would intrigue the hell out of me. I think this author has a very compelling premise that I would love to read, if this intro could have better pace with more laser focus on the human story of Marianne, her crew, and earth's peril.

In a nutshell, my advice would be to stick to the action and explain later.

What do you think, TKZers? Comments please.


  1. Author may be Canadian. If the temp is in the 40's it would be in the singles in Celsius. Putting the craft to bed, to me, would mean a long-range plan; draining the fluids, scheduling repairs and maintenance so I'm fine with all that.

    But I agree with Ms. Dane's nutshell. No action. The MC is cold and tired. That's all I really got out of 400 words.

    I don't think the author needs bombs or monsters but if the MC was showing some fear or had a festering wound from a previous skirmish...just a taste of conflict or suspense, something to evoke sympathy for Marie besides she's tired and cold. Starting the book during the last meteorite shower, or as they rush to deploy, as mentioned above, would be a good way to start and then use these 400 words after.

    Writing is very good and I'm willing to bet big that the book's action builds quickly from here. I would give it a few more pages.

    1. Just a short note with a thanks for the comment:

      Author = American

      Marianne "Marie" = Quebecois

    2. Thanks for your comments, Amanda. Hadn't thought of Celsius or perhaps the in this new world there may not be a Canadian border or separate citizenship. The author definitely has a great premise that could make for a stellar read. Beginnings are toughest for me. I usually tweak them a lot.

  2. Jimmy Buffett, no. Tommy Bahama, yes. And definitely no Speedos. This morning, I sat at the end of my dock at sunrise, sipped coffee, and watched a couple of dolphin chase a school of mullet. Just sayin'.

    Jordan, your critique is thorough and spot-on as always. You've hit all the stumbling points. Starting a story in the wrong place can cost dearly. My suggestion would be to delete everything down to the last paragraph, change "she" to "Marie", and go from there. Also, dump all semicolons and use dashes instead. Just sayin'.

    1. Thanks for the feedback!

      I really want to focus, oddly, on hyphens. It's something that I don't remember from when I studied grammar and just can't quite make myself use when the semi-colon feels like the right mark to make. I almost feel like they're "new" to the mechanics of writing and I just need to get with the times.

    2. The semi-colon thing is a sticking point with people, some more than others, but it throws me out as a reader and reminds me that this is a story, not a real world thing.

      I personally love using em-dashes to set off certain phrases that I want the reader to pay attention to. Weird.

    3. I am so jealous, Joe. Early morning dolphin chases would be awesome. I'd find it hard to work, especially in Tommy Bahama gear.

  3. I think one of the main reasons this first page isn't working for me is all the linking verbs. They make the writing less immediate.

    When I read the first sentence, I suddenly had a painful thought, "Uh oh, linking verbs ahead."

    I scanned for "was" and found it 12 times, 6 in the last two paragraphs. Wherever you can eliminate the state of being, try substituting action, even if it's an inanimate object.

    This is what I got from this first page.

    She was cold.

    The end.

    From that first sentence, the distraction stuck with me to the point I got nothing else from this.

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Diane. Your comments and others can really help all of us.

  4. I would continue reading.

    Jordan's and others' points noted and on target imo.

    I do not believe that this starting point is necessarily ill chosen. Commenting on these ultra short sections is difficult as the next paragraph might stand us all on our heads. That possibility noted there are a couple of things that might engender more interest/tension earlier.

    I suspect this is a cataclysmic scenario - perhaps instead of so much focus on the cold, lack of generator(?), plane, etc she might relate why it's hard to sleep-because they are all going to die(and she selflessly fears for x, y or z)! I may be off but I suspect the meteors have end-it- all potential and marie is acutely aware of it.(If so could reference her fear of death for x,y, or z without tipping off source until end line (the meteors).

    Related to that the aircraft commander , while historically great, perhaps CAN"T be counted on "to see the crew through this" because the events are beyond anyone (the sky is falling!).

    Verbiage-wise I found the single digits reference distracting (identified as USMC so Celsius seemed unlikely reference). I found the line "Her eyes snapped open as a surge of anxious energy filled her with the evocation of her rank." problematic.
    'Evocation of her rank' is, imo, awkward and draws undue attention to itself. Additionally it suggests that her rank is a source of her anxiety - I'm sure there are much greater sources.

    The details of the plane maintenance, etc may be based in establishing authenticity
    but I agree with the others who note that much/most of it can be deleted without compromise.

    The appeal of diving into action immediately can result in no reader appreciation of who is being impacted. I feel this start can be revised to still give us a glimpse of who Marie is (and perhaps see something more about her) while also generating a bit more tension in the same space.

    If my speculation on the story is off-target please accept my apology and a big Roseanne Rosannadanna "never mind".

    I liked the flow, easy readability and started to "feel" for Marie. I sense excellent story/character potential and some very good writing.

    Sorry for the length - I should be working on my own revision but I really wanted to pass on my encouragement. Good stuff!

    1. Thanks for your well-thought out comment, Tom. It's strange how much we all can dig into this and find more things to say. That could probably be true for any of our works, but I agree this author as real potential for this story. There's definitely something here to work with.

  5. I had no problem with the temperature reference having been born in Canada and lived most of my life in Australia where celsius rules:) I think I would have liked to have seen the meteors referenced in the first line to really pull me in. Something like. Another meteor strike and with less than 4 hours sleep I was not prepared...or Two days after the first meteors struck I was struggling to keep sane as the temperature dropped to the single digits. These are only rough cuts but I think I want the tension about the situation conveyed in the first line and first paragraph. I don't need a whole lot of backstory or description of sleep or cold. I want to be jarred by the sense of immediacy and horror as (I assume) the world is descending into chaos following these meteor storms. Beginnings are tough and I often spend weeks going over the first chapter to really make sure I am starting things off in the right place, with the right level of tension to pull the reader in.

    1. I was thinking that the meteors could work earlier too. Beginnings are always hard for me too, but definitely worth playing with. Thanks, Clare.

  6. I’ve made four assumptions after reading this opening.

    - The point of view character is female, at least in this section of the serial.
    - Sleep, and lack of it, is a major issue.
    - Global warming is an underlying theme.
    - United States finally dumps Fahrenheit and Imperial systems for Celsius and Metric.
    - It’s geared toward a middle-grade or young adult audience.

    The point of view character is female, at least in this section of the serial.
    I picked up on the Marianne-to-Marie conversion, too. Add something like (AKA Marie) after Marianne’s name, either in her bio intro, or inserted after the first mention of her in the text.

    Sleep, and lack of it, is a major issue.
    Why? Are people sleeping less because of fear, environmental changes, mind control, or just garden-variety, round-the-clock, work requirements? If “sleep” is not crucial in the overall scheme or theme, cut the number of references to it. Otherwise, to me, the references read as overkill, or filler to meet word count.

    Global warming is an underlying theme.
    Good, but it’s buried beneath references to sleeping patterns and flight procedures. I perceived the flight procedure detailing as a way to inject two features: authenticity and a precise military atmosphere. Okay, but feed it to me in easily-digested, baby food-sized portions. I’m not an expert or devotee of piloting. I only need enough detail about it to keep me alive and reading.

    United States finally dumps Fahrenheit and Imperial systems for Celsius and Metric.
    No need to confuse readers. Decide which measurement system to use and specify so in the first reference. It only needs to be stated the first time. (I’ve read that some Metric-centric countries still use the Imperial system in aeronautics and maritime navigation, to measure altitude, speed, and knots.)

    It’s geared toward a middle-grade or young adult audience.
    I based this assumption purely on the squeaky-cleanness of the language, characters, and probable themes. If I’m right, then I think it’s even more important to clarify the concepts presented, and simplify the language used to present them.

    I’m not a science fiction enthusiast. However, I’ll read a story in any genre that lures me with strong elements of danger, mystery, or other intriguing threats to humans. With some clarification of concepts and language, I think this story would fit that description.

    I’m curious. Is the following passage a nod to Larry the Cable Guy?

    “His name was Cable but everyone called him Larry.”

    1. Ha! I thought of Larry the Cable guy too.

      I wouldn't have assumed YA or MG simply for the clean language. I write for teens and my language can get a little dicey. HA! For this to be for younger readers, the main character would have to be of that age and experience. That's the main thing there.

      Thanks for all your sights. Well done.

    2. Jordan, I did not know about the practice of linking main characters' ages to that of target readers in the younger reader market. How sensible!

    3. Yes. It's a main component. Characters between the ages of 12-18. MG is 10-12. Young readers tend to read their age or older, but seldom younger. Of course many adults read YA, but the writing editors look for is targeted at teens.

      I've read that many readers didn't know that the Hunger Games books were YA. The subject matter of kids fighting to the death in a post-apocalyptic world reality show is anything but what you'd expect in a teen read, but it drew a wide cross over audience.

  7. As openings go this could definitely use a dose of speed and urgency. Marie the Marine is obviously exhausted. The writing can convey that exhaustion with energy. The way it is now it sounds as if it is being described by someone who is exhausted.

    Of course having said that, I must admit to my own current extreme tiredness which may have contributed to the tone of voice in my head. After reading it the first time, and before commenting, I took a short nap and dreamed I was wearing an entirely too small speedo while being chased by Joe's dolphins as the whole flower shirt wearing TKZ gang watched from Mr. Moore's porch laughing and clinking glasses of mint julep as meteors streaked across the sky to the accompaniment of the Weird Al version of the Marine's Hymn...yeah, maybe that skewed my review."

    1. As long as the only streaking comes from meteors...

  8. I'm going to say ditto on what Jordan D. said. Some of that I noticed, some of it I didn't, but she said it well, so there's no point in repeating. (Except I will say that I had no idea what you were talking about with the temperature, even after rereading that part three times trying to figure it out.)

    I'll add these thoughts. They aren't of huge importance, but I did notice them, and you might want to keep them in mind because in my opinion, they weaken your story.

    Watch out for passive voice, which dulls the action. Passive voice is best reserved for when you don't know who is doing the action, or you don't want anyone to know who is doing the action. A few stood out to me. (I didn't go line by line, so there could be more.)

    "The decision had been made to forgo putting the plane to bed..."

    This seems okay since we don't know who made the decision. If it is okay to know, you could just tell us the commander decided to do it and have better action. Also:

    "...she was ordered to get some sleep."
    "...the tanks were filled, the fuel truck..."

    Passive voice is passive. If this is a thriller, passive is your enemy.

    1. Passive voice is something that can creep into any story. Definitely good to recognize and nuke it. Thanks, Beth.

  9. I liked the voice and technique of the writer. It read much like the work of a bestselling author except for the content, which as most have mentioned, bogs down the beginning. But that's an easy fix with tight editing and revision.

    One tool I learned somewhere along the way is to give brief descriptions and backstories of a character ONLY when that character is first introduced, not before. Then add bits and pieces of each in subsequent scenes featuring that character until the character is drawn well enough for the reader to understand his/her motives, essential personality, loyalties, and relationship to the MC.

    I would have given this another page or two before deciding to buy the book. Like a commenter mentioned, a major crisis or piece of action might occur any minute, and the writer is merely setting up a contrast between the "slow" opening and the action.

    I get distracted by too much jargon and technical stuff on the first few pages of a novel, especially techno-thrillers and sci-fi/fantasy. Get me interested in the MC first, then show me the fancy equipment, terms, and created worlds.

  10. Congratulations to the brave author. Not what I normally read but I liked it. Needs more action, movement. Teeth chattering, engine roar, something breaking or otherwise askew.

  11. Not James Scott BellJune 27, 2013 at 10:38 PM

    "Don’t open with the character acting alone, experiencing solitary feelings. (I thought of Bickham’s stimulus and response here – the reader needs to see the stimulus that causes character to feel emotions before the reader can understand – or care about – that response/"
    James Scott Bell

    1. Thank you, oh great spirit of James Scott Bell. Good advice.

    2. I now have a "Not?" I think I'm flattered.

  12. In my directing class in college the rule was that you could not speak during the critique of your scene unless it was to answer a direct question. Seems a fair approach.

    First I have to thank everyone who gave my little snippet a read for their time and their critique. There were things there I did not even realize I had done (thank you, everyone, for not calling me out on using "sleep" or a variation on it three times in two sentences, by the by). It's always good to see other eyes on something.

    As for direct questions I'll share that I had this chapter reviewed by 4 different career military people, three of them Marines and one Army specialist and all four had a laundry list of things for me to include, comment on, mention, etc. My one friend who actually flies this model of aircraft actually said she'd find it nearly impossible to sleep with the engine off (too quiet) and the plane "not put to bed" (too many regulations being broken to be at ease). I think that my desire for authenticity got the better of me.

    The concept of YA was brought up and I do want to comment that it is the case that yes, YA "must" have a teen main character to be marketed there. That's the reason that The Hunger Games with lovely children executing children on live television for the masses is shelved next to the Babysitters club. If you ask me it's marketing genius-- the book probably shouldn't be for teens, but because of where it's shelved it's often challenged on it's appropriateness and that makes it a "banned book".

    Cpl. "Larry" Cable is indeed a reference to Larry the Cable Guy. Another of my advisors was given the name Lennon when he signed on as a contractor because of his long hair and "hippie" glasses. After a few weeks people has to look at his uniform to see his name badge because Lennon was the only name they knew for him.

    Thanks to everyone again and if anyone wants to chat more about it, I'm but an email away. :)

    1. Thanks for sharing your baby, Rob. I really love your premise and wish you much success as you fine tune your work. Good luck...and keep writing.