Thursday, November 21, 2013

First Page Critique – Brueghel the Elder (Pros/Cons of Using First Person)


We have another first page anonymous submission from an intrepid author. My comments on the flip side.

 

 

Brueghel The Elder

My name is Lucas.  Lucas M Steiner.  My friends of course never pass up the opportunity to use it.  “LUKE, I’M YOOR FAHTHER.”  I cannot describe in words how much I have come to loathe that line.  Don’t misunderstand.  I thought the movie was great—just like everybody else.  But after you’ve heard the same joke a thousand times the charm wears thin.  And invariably they say it as if they were the first person to have thought of it.  The last impresario of impish wit went so far as to put his head inside of a metal trashcan to get that much-coveted “voice of god” effect.  He then walked smack into the edge of a swinging kitchen door and landed square on his ass.  He leaned back against the wall and remained there the rest of the evening.  I don’t go to parties so much anymore.  Suffice it to say, the Force has not been with me.

 

​At one time in my life I thought things would be different.  At one time I thought I would be tenured, published, renowned, and happily on my way to a well endowed retirement by now. Instead I am here telling you this story.  Things didn’t work out as I had planned.  Who knew?
 

​I wanted to teach.  Specifically, I wanted to teach art.  During my post-graduate years at the school—you’ve heard of it but it doesn’t matter as they are all somewhat similar—I had the opportunity to teach an art history class.  Several, in fact.   I loved art.  I loved the making of it.  

 

I loved the history of it.  And I loved teaching it and if I was good enough and  lucky enough I may have imparted a little of that love to some of those previously unimpressed minds full of mush.

 

​My schedule was pretty agreeable.  It consisted of an hour and a half lecture twice a week and office hours on class days.  I taught a survey course—sort of a “greatest hits” list of the marquee masters.  The remainder of my time was spent on research.

 

 

My thoughts:

I love the intimacy of first person point of view. I became more aware of the effectiveness of this kind of narrative after getting hooked on Young Adult books, but recently I’ve seen more suspense authors (for adult crime fiction) doing this with success, so much so that I’m trying it myself with my latest project. It is very tempting to follow the stream of consciousness of a strong character to hear their story in your head, but an author should still be aware of what will entice a reader to stay tuned and keep turning pages.

 

Advantages of First POV:

1.) First person is easier to write (if you get the whole stream of consciousness thing going where you don’t filter yourself much) and it can help you flesh out the character – a good exercise even if you write in third POV.

 

2.) There is an immediate connection and intimacy to a first person POV voice. It is a blast to write. Even if you are writing in third and come across a bad writing day where nothing works, try writing your character’s diary and see what I mean. It can jumpstart your creativity.

 

3.) Writing in first person creates a clear perspective and a more linear plot involving the same character in every scene, but you better love that character—and make the reader love him/her too.

 

 

Challenges of First POV:

1.) If you choose to stay in first POV only, you must stick in the head of the character and plot the book from only things they can see. By doing this, you may give up some ability to manipulate your plot for mystery elements through secondary characters or foreshadow the workings of a villainous mind. Your character can only know what they have seen through your plot. This can be a limitation. I mix first with third POV to keep all my flexibility and tag the start of every scene where the main character is in first person so the reader can easily follow, but this method may not suit every author.

 

2.) The gender of the character can be a challenge if you do not identify your character, as the author did here with a name. He/she pronouns aren’t used, so you should find a way to indicate early on which gender is speaking before the reader gets too far along with an idea.

 

3.) The biggest challenge is not slipping into the “tell” mode, rather than the “show” mode in a first person narrative. This submission falls in that category where the lure of the narrator appeals for a while, but when nothing really happens in the critical first paragraphs, the reader’s mind may stray. Give the character something to do that will showcase his nature and attitude so the reader sees why he is a star in your story.

 

4.) Setting the scene can be a challenge in the first person. You have to “see” the surroundings and convey them through your character’s eyes, using the same attitude and flavor of their voice, without being obvious that you are “setting the stage” with an inventory or checklist.

 

Comments on the Submission:

1.) I tend to like a more distinctive first line to start a story, something more memorable, or something that might foreshadow what’s to come, or say something more about Luke than his first name.

 

2.) I was lured into the story for the first paragraph, but the weight of that paragraph (with nothing going on except one incident at a party and a Star Wars schtick on the perils of being called Luke) had my mind starting to drift toward the end. The last few lines of that paragraph were the first indicator that he was at a particular party and justify why he doesn’t go to parties anymore. It might be more interesting to me if Luke shared the reason he wasn’t a party animal, and how that might relate to the rest of the story as to why his life didn’t work out, but that could just be me.

 

3.) This intro quickly turned into back story dump. The author should focus on creating a “Defining Scene” for Luke by showing us who he is, similar to Johnny Depp in his Pirates movies. In that first scene, Depp does something that will be memorable while also revealing something of his nature. In one nutshell, a moviegoer will know who Capt Jack Sparrow is.

 

4.) In writing first POV, an author can get so invested in their character, that they can’t edit  out what need to go to keep the pace moving. Therefore the actions of the character must dictate what’s important, with a peppering of the character’s thoughts added for seasoning/spice.

 

5.) The title needs work, but perhaps this is only a working title. Without knowing what the story is about, the significance of the title doesn’t stick with me.

 

What do you think, TKZers? Our daring author could use good feedback to help improve the intro.

 

 

31 comments:

  1. Is there a reaqson this is all cap? I can't read that big a block of capitalized text, so I didn't.

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    1. Sorry, John. I've been having trouble with Microsoft's changes to Live Writer and forgot to recheck this with all the travel I have this week. It's fixed now. Thanks for the reminder.

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  2. I've developed a fondness for 1st POV and am using it for my WIP. I agree with all your points and want to add one more.

    Breaking the 4th wall is dangerous and I typically don't care for anything that speaks to me directly as if "wink wink" I'm in the room unless it is satire or comedy. Lines like:

    "Instead I am here telling you this story."

    "During my post-graduate years at the school—you’ve heard of it but it doesn’t matter as they are all somewhat similar—I had the opportunity to teach an art history class."

    Can be deadly to a WIP as it can become gimmicky very quickly. This is a monologue, not a scene.

    That said, this has a great voice and a touch of sardonic self-deprecating wit that is very appealing. Even the Star Wars gambit can still be worked in by putting it in a scene, letting it happen, and letting Luke react to it rather than just tell me about something that has already happened.

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    1. I agree on the appeal of this author's voice. Great elements are here and revising for a sharper focus (with something actually happening) will go a long way to improving this submission. Thanks, Terri.

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  3. I do like the voice of this first page, it feels friendly and humourous, and I'd keep reading for a couple more pages because of it, but something better happen soon. Something to put Luke in trouble, or with a problem, or with a major decision...anything to make me want to cheer for him.

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    1. Hi Amanda. Yes, I want to root for Luke too. Everyone likes an underdog.

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  4. I love first person POV, but it is fraught with peril. As has been mentioned, the tendency to TELL is an easy trap.

    I am just not grabbed by starting with the narrator telling us his name. Melville did it in 1851, and that should have been the end of it.

    The two most important things a first person POV must do on the very first page are:

    1. Establish an definite ATTITUDE. See, e.g., Janet Evanovich

    2. Give us an action DISTURBANCE. See, e.g., Janet Evanovich

    What I would advise is starting with an actual scene, and then limiting yourself to a short paragraph of backstory sometime after page 2. With modification (cutting the direct address), I like this:

    At one time in my life I thought things would be different. At one time I thought I would be tenured, published, renowned, and happily on my way to a well endowed retirement. Things didn’t work out as planned. Who knew?

    [TIP: Search for the word "had" in your text. It can usually be cut for better effect.]

    Whether writing 1st, 2d (gasp!), 3d or Omni, start with an actual scene and a disturbance. A great literary stylist can get away with something else, appealing to the smaller segment of the reading public that likes to swim in style. But for commercial fiction, disturb us (remember, that doesn't mean BIG. Just stirring the waters).

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    1. Hi, Jim. I love the idea of attitude in a character, then kicking off a disturbance that messes with his head. Excellent input, as always.

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    2. Everyone writing in 1st person POV should print out this JSB comment and tape it to your wall.

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  5. I like first person, but you're right, it does have the limitation that the story can't tell the reader anything the main character doesn't know. It makes you think a lot more about how to tell the story – and that can't be a bad thing, can it?

    As to the story, OK, it's only one page, so maybe something will actually happen on page two. But while Luke may have a wry, almost sardonic view of life and the world, that's all he's got going for him so far. Does the Star Wars bit have ANYTHING to do with the story, a payoff, or was it just something the author threw in to be clever. I need a little more to convince me to go on. I like the character, I just wish he'd do something.

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    1. No, John. Carefully crafting a first person story is not a bad thing, but it can be a challenge. We focus on the first 400 words to critique because a seasoned editor or agent can make up their mind on a submission that quickly. Sharpening this start is the lure to keep them reading.

      Good comments, John.

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  6. Sorry to be blunt today, but this one just didn't grab me. It seems just too self-indulgent, all about "me, me, me," and not in a fascinating or intriguing way, like an unpublished memoir. It could use a good edit to take out the little backstory dump so early on and make something interesting happen - a scene with action and dialogue. As outlined so well by Jordan and reinforced in the comments, first-person POV is fraught with difficulties and not nearly as easy as it might seem to pull off well. I agree with all the comments as to how to improve this opening. I'm sure this story gets better soon! Let's jump to that part! :-)

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    1. Yepper, Jodie my dear. Some readers might see humor, some might see the self-indulgence. But give the reader a disturbance that intrigues them, as seen through the eyes of an underdog with attitude, and they might root for him.

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    2. I was starting to feel like Jodie after the first paragraph as it was sounding a little too self-indulgent. Had we sudden'y got a disturbing event/or action I think that would have lessened that reaction. Maybe if the protagonist was in the midst of an interview to get tenure for example -something where it's all going terribly wrong - then I think the interspersion of the 1st POV voice would have balanced well. I'm thinking of a Lucky Jim kind of scenario…to showcase the voice and provide momentum and action.

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    3. I forgot to say that I do like the voice, though! :-)

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  7. I was rather taken by the voice of the MC, but then I was thrown by the second paragraph. After the first paragraph I was certain the MC was a teenager. The "Luke, I'm your father" joke being done a thousand times sure seems like a teenager thing to me. Same with the metal trashcan trick. Suddenly the second paragraph tells me that I'm much farther into the MC's life. I immediately felt less connected to the MC.

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    1. Yeah, Eric. I mistook this for a YA or teen POV because of the Star Wars snark. He seems like a twenty-something, but a bit of a stick in the mud who didn't have fun in college. Harder to relate to.

      Maybe if the author infuses that "no matter how hard I try, I never fit in" vibe, Luke could hold the reader's attention better.

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    2. Good point, Eric. I found that, too.

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  8. I hope the writer listens to what is said here, esp. by James Scott Bell. In the end, there's only one rule in writing fiction: it has to work, it has to be engaging. For the reasons Jordan gives, this opener does not really succeed. As for point of view, I understand the advantages of first-person narration, but for me it is very limiting. What makes great plays and movies great? Multiple points of view. Imagine experiencing a Stars Wars film strictly through the grillwork in Darth Vader's mask, that is, from a single pov character. The same applies to most (not all) great novels. Imagine any of Elmore Leonard's novels being presented through just one character. Thank God Leonard knew himself as a writer better than that.

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    1. Yes, Barry. I really love mixing first with third to get the best of both worlds and it has stirred my creative juices in a good way. Thanks for your comment.

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    2. I agree, Barry. One of my recommendations in my book, Writing a Killer Thriller, is to use multiple points of view. Great for showing what the villain knows that the hero doesn't!

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  9. Without reading the other comments, here are my initial impressions. From the title, I was maybe expecting a fantasy, but that could be because I'm into Norse mythology. I loved the author's humorous voice and Star Wars references. Now I'm thinking maybe this is YA. The flippant tone would suit this genre or urban fantasy. Paragraph two informs me that this is an older gent at the far end of his career. It does make me curious as to what went awry in his life. The rest descends into backstory, not to mention telling and not showing. So I agree with Jordan's comments in this regard. An opening should grab the reader and thrust him into the story and keep the action moving forward. The author has a humorous voice that's appealing, so hopefully he will find the right mix.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Nancy. The author does have a voice for humor, but less is more if that internal monologue takes over with something happening.

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  10. Yes, the author does have an appealing voice.

    Three concrete things would improve this for me:

    1) Establish a scene. Let me in there with you, wherever you are.

    2) As TKZ says in #4 above, "the actions of the character must dictate what’s important, with a peppering of the character’s thoughts added for seasoning/spice." ACTION -- we need some, please.

    3) Why not just leave out those last 4 paragraphs? You can fill us in on those things when the ACTION warrants/necessitates it.



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    1. Well said, Kathleen. Thanks for your feedback.

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  11. Thanks for more lessons learned. I'm back at the editing with a chainsaw.

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  12. I liked the critique and information on first person POV more than I liked the first page of the story. I lost interest.

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    1. Hi Frances. Thanks for the read. Starting any story can be a challenge, even from book to book. I think once this author finds a different place to begin, the voice of the character will add to it.

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  13. Nice voice. I would tighten the first paragraph a lot, and then immediately plunge the character into a disturbance (to use JSB's excellent noun) that clearly illustrates that the main character does not have A) The Force with him, or B) Tenure, published status, or renown.

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    1. Thanks, Kathryn. Something definitely needs to happen. It will also take discipline for the author to learn when to cut loose with the attitude and when to reign it in.

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