Thursday, August 29, 2013

First Page Critique

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


Today's first page critique is for what I think is a sci-fi thriller. It's called DEALBREAKER. My comments are at the end. Enjoy!

Mackenzie stood upright with his arms folded, concentrating on the sound made by the wheat on the planets surface far below as it gently swayed in the artificial wind. He cleared his mind of the constant flow of information from his implants, willing the augmented reality overlay to dissolve from his vision. Next he closed his eyes, allowing his arms to fall by his sides as he took cognisance of his own breathing. Finally his mind and body could relax.

Opening his eyes he looked into the distance, his view partially obscured by the huge hexagons of the domed superstructure protecting the buildings and land around him. The eastern horizon was dominated by a wall of dark cloud that blocked the view of the stars beyond. Already the very highest altitudes were tinged with crimson, hinting at the vivid reds and oranges that daylight would soon ignite. By the time the storm reached Dunvegan the sky would be a violent tempest of dust that would shred an EVA suit from anyone caught in the open.

Under normal circumstances the effort to secure all personnel and assets from the deadly weather front would be the companies top priority. Dealing with extreme weather was just part of the way of life on Demeter. It enabled junior operators to prove their worth to the company, and more seasoned figures the chance to prove they were still worth retaining. Mackenzie would rather have been coordinating the effort, ensuring the long range operators had taken sanctuary in the nearest survival dome, that those closer to base had made it back to the safety of Dunvegan. But today wasn't normal. He'd initially queried the decision to delegate all surface operations to a relatively junior team, but Mackenzie had learned to trust Munro's judgement during a crises, and had spoken no more about it from that point on.

He allowing his implants to interact with his mind and body again as he lowered his gaze from the horizon to the rest of the city. Calling up a tactical overlay, the numerous dome structures now appeared to take on different colours against the dusty reds and oranges of the planets surface. Most were now either white, to indicate no known disturbance, or a deep blue for those where order had been restored. The majority of red areas were dotted around the civic government quarter in the south of the city. He shook his head slowly and allowed himself a smile. When would they ever learn?


MY COMMENTS:


First of all there are numerous grammatical errors/typographical errors that detracted from the story. These include planets instead of planet's, companies instead of company's (or companies' if there are multiple companies involved); crises instead of crisis, allowing instead of allowed. When it comes to an editor, these kind of errors can be fatal. I can't stress this enough - the occasional typo is forgivable but wholesale grammatical errors are more than likely going to doom your submission. 


That being said, I thought the writer did a great job of providing an atmospheric, intriguing set up to his/her story. My main issue with this as a first page, however, is that it is all set up. There's only exposition and very little in the way of action to draw the reader in immediately. Now, I am not an avid reader of science-fiction but I expect a writer in this genre needs to balance world-building with action/tension and pacing from the get go. I feel that the book needs to start in a different place - perhaps in the midst of a 'disturbance' in one of the domes where order hasn't been restored and where we (as readers) encounter Mackenzie trying to juggle re-establishing government order while worrying about security and safety given the approaching dust storm.


Although this first page has a definite post-apocalyptic feel I think we need more immediacy to the crisis rather than just background. I also felt that there was too much repetition in terms of color. We have the vivid red which will be ignited once the dust storm arrives and we also have red areas where (I assume) disturbances are occurring within the domes. Though we get the feeling Mackenzie might be in law enforcement we aren't entirely sure what his role is (does he work for the company? for the government? Who is Munro? Why is today not a normal day?) Most of this can be dealt with later in the first chapter but because this page has so much exposition it feels a little ungrounded without more specificity about Mackenzie and why we should (as readers) care about him as a character. I was also unsure about the significance of the last line or why Mackenzie 'allowed himself a smile'.


What do you think? 


27 comments:

  1. I agree with all of your comments. I'd have liked to see this crisis begin with terse dialogue, where most of this background info could be interspersed. I'd also need an immediate identifier of the narrator's location. At first I thought he must be on a space station or spacecraft looking down at the planet's surface. And how could he hear the wheat? Via his implanted sensors? The world building is highly intriguing but as Clare said, it holds too much exposition.

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    1. I'm sure the writer probably has more of the dialogue and action in the following pages so it may easily be just a matter of switching things around in the first chapter. Often the hardest part of writing the first page is knowing at what point you 'enter' the scene to maximum effect.

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  2. My thoughts:

    1. There are quite a few errors which kept pulling my attention from the writing. (I.e. a crises-singular article doesn't agree with plural noun. I won't go into the others.)

    2. One of my overall impressions is that this takes a lot of concentration to read. The sentences are almost all complex, never giving the reader a break. This pulls the tempo down, too. You have to break it up.

    3. There's no action. You keep telling us this is a crisis, but there's virtually nothing that makes me feel like trouble is coming. Telling vs. showing.

    I'd just give up reading pretty quickly if this were on the shelves. Readers want the story to pull them in and along, like the strong current of a river. With this one, I felt like I was slogging upstream. Too much effort.

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    1. Beth - I think the 'slogging upstream' image is a good one. The key to any story is not to make the reader work too hard:)

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  3. Besides the grammatical errors that have already been pointed out (and which distracted me), the prose was generally awkward. Take just the first sentence, "Mackenzie stood upright with his arms folded, concentrating on the sound made by the wheat on the planets surface far below as it gently swayed in the artificial wind."

    I'm not sure we need "upright" - how else would he be standing? More importantly, the "planet's surface" interrupts the modifier of the wheat - making the sentence disorienting - first wheat, then the surface, then back to the wind.

    How about instead, "Mackenzie stood with his arms folded concentrating on the sound of the wheat gently swaying in the artificial wind on the planet's surface far below." ?

    In the third sentence of the first paragraph, we don't need, "Next." It's clear that his closing his eyes after clearing his mind - the "next" is just clutter and it feels like an intrusion of an author telling us what's happening instead of trusting the prose and the reader to understand. It's not like it's going to be confusing: He's done three things: stood with his arms folded, cleared his mind, closed his eyes.

    And the, "took cognizance of his own breathing?" To me, that phrasing is so distancing. Why not, he focused on his breath?

    I also agree that we need some idea of the story problem introduced here. This is too much exposition and no sense of what problems/decisions the character/s will be facing.

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    1. Judith - another great point here to keep things as streamlined and simple as possible. No need to use 10 words to describe someone standing up or breathing when far fewer will suffice. Again, it makes the reader work too hard to understand what's going on.

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  4. I've never attempted to write science fiction or fantasy so I admire anyone that tries world-building. In genre fiction, the "world" is something we can relate to or are at least aware of. So from that standpoint, I enjoyed the submission and found it visual albeit confusing.

    As Clare pointed out, typos and grammatical errors can sink a ship before it sails. Proof read, let others proof read, then proof again.

    Other than the setting, this submission has no "hook". Maybe science fiction readers have more patience that other at getting into a story, but I doubt it. Readers are readers. As professor Bell says, "Act first, explain later." Jump into the water. You can explain why you did later.

    One last thing not covered by Clare. The first line caused me to stop: Mackenzie stood upright with his arms folded . . . I'm not sure there's another way to stand with your arms folded than "upright". Delete unnecessarily words.

    Good luck to the author and thanks for submitting your sample.

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    1. Thanks Joe - I think with science fiction, though the world building needs to be introduced pretty quickly, the 'act first, explain later' motto is still very useful!

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  5. I like the details of this story world. But as others have noted, the page seems like descriptive set-up, no more. That's the great danger of the dreaded "character alone, thinking" opening.

    The simple fix: put in another character. Start with a scene with some conflict and dialogue between characters. Then marble the descriptive elements within the action.

    Do that (and fix the typos, as noted) and you'll have a first page that makes us want to read on.

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    1. Agree - I think there's potential here - we just need to jump into the story and see Mackenzie interact and act as the crisis unfolds.

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  6. Argh…typos really pulled me out of the story. Also, I haven't had my coffee yet but I am very confused reading this. And confusion is death in a book opening.

    “He cleared his mind of the constant flow of information from his implants, willing the augmented reality overlay to dissolve from his vision.” I had to read this three times and I am still not sure what is going on.

    “as he took cognisance of his own breathing.” As opposed to someone else’s breathing? Awkward…

    “Opening his eyes he looked into the distance, his view partially obscured by the huge hexagons of the domed superstructure protecting the buildings and land around him.” Again, this was hard reading. I THINK the writer is saying his distant view is obscured by the building NOT the hexagons. You can bring in the hexagons details later.

    “the sky would be a violent tempest of dust that would shred an EVA suit from anyone caught in the open.” The sky wouldn’t BE a tempest (which is usually violent by the way). And “shred” a suit implies leaving it in pieces. Don’t you mean strip it off?

    This paragraph beginning: “Under normal circumstances the effort to secure all personnel and assets from the deadly weather front would be the companies top priority” is way too much info way too early in your crucial hook opening. It’s the stuff, as Elmore Leonard says, readers will skip over. Nothing much is happening in this opening except a guy doing breathing exercises on a mountain top. At least I THINK he’s on a mountain. Or is he in a space ship? I am confused.

    “He allowing his implants to interact with his mind and body again as he lowered his gaze from the horizon to the rest of the city.” I know this is sci-fi but I don’t understand this. Give my brain something to grasp on this implant thing.

    “Calling up a tactical overlay, the numerous dome structures now appeared to take on different colours.” I don’t understand what “calling up a tactical overlay” means. And who called what up -- the structures? By now, I would have given up trying to figure out what the heck is going on in this scene.


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    1. Confusion is indeed the death knell but I think it could be remedied pretty easily with action and dialogue. The tactical overlay didn't bother me - I just imagined a computer interface that appears in his brain:) Wish I had one sometimes...

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  7. I don't have much to add. All the comments have been spot on. It's a potentially interesting world, but I haven't been hooked. For me, the two main things are 1) I don't know enough about the main character to care what happens to him, and 2) the story has almost no tension, so I have little interest in what happens next. If I'm not drawn in by the story or the character, I don't have much reason to continue reading.

    (I read and write science fiction. While world-building is important, it shouldn't come at the expense of the story. Write the story first and then weave in the world-building as necessary.)

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    1. Thanks Eric - it's useful to get input from someone who has more sci-fi background. I think in any genre, story must come first.

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  8. The world-building thing you guys are talking about is really interesting. We all do it, but for sci-fi writers, it is the heart of their special magic. I am in awe of sci-fi and fantasy writers or the Harry Potter books for that matter. I love being pulled into a world I don't know be it by a great historical or Stephen King (I was blown away by "Lisey's Story.") I wish I could write sci-fi...so I admire this writer's attempt to go big.

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  9. Twenty nine words for a first sentence? Seriously? And all you get out of it is the name of a character who is above a planet? It's just not enough. The writer needs to break up a lot of those sentences into shorter bites for the reader to understand and enjoy the story. I just ran the text through the Gunning Fog Index (look this up if you don't know what it is). It came back with a score of 13.52. This indicates the reader needs a college sophomore or better education to make it through this text. This is why so many are using terms like "slogging upstream" Anything above 12 is too difficult for most readers. Mark Twain is around a 6. One doesn't necessarily need to be this low, but someplace between 7 and 9 would be good. Writing shorter sentences would increase readability, and help with the tension.

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    1. I'll have to look this up - though I hate to think what my own fog index would be!

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  10. I love reading old cyberpunk stuff, like NEUROMANCER and WJW's HARDWIRED, so I get some of the implant and overlay technojargon, but there's so much of it. Compound that with a tense problem, multiple typo errors, and the fact that nothing is really happeneing except backstory (as Mackenzie thinks about stuff), and you have a snoozer for a first page. There's great description, but too much with nothing happening won't work. 400 words is well into page two in a manuscript, which means if you haven't grabbed readers with some kind of clear, apparent conflict, most have stopped reading.

    Again, as Miss Snark said, Start by lighting someone's hair on fire, preferably on page one.

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    1. I love reading steampunk so I'm usually right there when it comes to world building and fantasy elements (less so on the techno front) but I agree - someone's hair needs to be on fire in this first page. Still I always admire people who have the guts to lay out their own vision for fantasy, sci fi or alternate history. Cool but very difficult to pull off.

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    2. I just read Neuromancer not too long ago, so I fired up the old Kindle and took a look at the first page. It's got dialogue and a character with a problem. The characters are walking into a bar. It could be a regular bar in modern times, except for a few hints that suggest a sci-fi setting. That's the way it should be. Story first, world-building second.

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  11. While don't write sci-fi, and not sure I could, I do enjoy reading certain types of sci-fi. Orson Scott Card's ability to create complete worlds with complete histories behind them is simply amazing to me. That being said, I could get into this piece with a bit of work. Like the others said, start with a bit less exposition showing the scene through the character's eyes via observation, movement and dialogue.

    I'm feeling a bit creative so, if it doesn't offend, here's a suggested way of doing the first couple paras:

    ***

    Like the statue of an ancient deity Mackenzie stood arms crossed staring at the sea of shimmering wheat far below him. Mesmerized by the gentle rustling of the ripe heads of grain as they swayed to an almost natural rhythm in the artificial breeze, shadowy visions of another time and place danced behind the curtains of his mind. A burst of information from his augmented-reality-overlay yanked him back from the precipice of momentary peace he so seldom reached.

    “Augmentation off,” he spoke it aloud, even though the mere thought would've delivered the same command. The lines of data faded, he closed his eyes, relaxed his arms and tried to return to the sea of wheat. He opened his eyes to find his mind still on the same planet his body was on. The deadly sky was growing red outside the dome that protected Dunvegan. The storm was approaching.

    ***

    Anyway...just some creative suggestivity. Now back to correcting all the same kinds of errors in my own WIP.

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  12. I love dystopian post-apoc sci-fi. However, this is far too stiff and formal. Consider the first lines of Chuck Wendig's "Under the Empyrean Sky," a YA post-apoc romp that is so far out it is being called "cornpunk." (The corn is semi-sentient.)

    ______________________

    The corn reaches for the land-boat above it, but the corn is slow and the boat is fast. The stretching, yearning stalks hiss against the boat's bottom making a white noise that sounds like pollen coming out of a piss-blizzard.

    _____________________________

    Immediate action and the language and scene-setting is just enough off-kilter that you know you are not in Kansas anymore (well, at least not in this plane of existence.)

    Tension and movement on the first page. This, to me anyway, indicates that there will be several more pages of world-building with very little else introduced.

    Like the premise, but I'm not hooked.

    Terri

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  13. Typos are a major no-no, but that aside, this page is done in by extreme wordiness and convoluted sentences.

    My advice: start over and keep it simple.

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  14. I found it much too wordy and the typos were distracting. The formal, stiff exposition caused me to skip over the majority of the page to get to some dialogue or some break that never came. It used far too many words to really say nothing that would hook the reader enough to keep on reading. I am not a sci-fi reader either, so I would have to be intrigued right from the start. Maybe a conversation interspersed with his observations? Where is the tension and conflict, or at least a hint of what it is.

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  15. I'm surprised no one has commented on the "sin" of starting with weather. OK, anything done well can work. This time? I started skimming with paragraph 3. I LOVED the Miss Snark suggestion of setting someone's hair on fire to start. It doesn't have to be that literal but someone (JSB?) has said the protagonist's world has to irrevocably change right at the start. We don't see that here.

    I concur with all the comments on sentence structure, world-building, and technobabble. I read and write SF, so I know about technobabble! ;) Put the protagonist in trouble, THEN fold in the world-building and tech stuff.

    It looks like the author's from somewhere in the British Commonwealth, so the complex sentences aren't such a surprise, but shorter sentences will up the pace and tension. The author might want to take a look at the work of a modern British SF author like Charles Stross for style cues.

    And the typos? Yeah, here's one more whack at that dead horse. We've just GOT to get them gramer, speling, and puncturation bits right from the git go! No excuses.

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  16. Hi everyone. Apologies for the delayed response, I've busy at work.

    I finally got round to a bit of writing this year, and 'Dealbreaker' was my first effort. I've found TKZ to be one of the most useful blogs out there, and I appreciate everyone's comments. I'd passed the 30K word stage before I realised this story's pacing was too slow – and yes, the sentence structure needs work. I suspect the formality of my day job is somehow leaking through. I've switched to short fiction to tighten up the pacing, make my writing more economical, more urgent. I feel I've come a long way in a short space of time.

    As for 'Dealbreaker', it's a story I want to tell, have to tell. I can see their struggles. I have to get it out of me. I'll return to it when I'm ready to do it justice.

    I've learned a lot from other people's page one submissions, and I hope my own has added something new. Thanks again to everyone who took the time to respond.

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  17. P.S. Special thanks to Clare. I'll do better next time!

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