Tuesday, December 10, 2013

First Page Critique: GAMES OF CHANCE

We have a first-page submission for critique today, titled GAMES OF CHANCE.  My comments follow.

***
As Callie crested the hill, the finish line appeared, lined with colorful flags – and then receded, as another girl thundered past.

Callie chased her on a gentle downhill slope, three hundred meters of fairway to the finish line of the State Championship. Through eyes hazy with exhaustion and the remnants of a cold, she could see Anna and Hanna, her twin teammates, sprint past the finish marker in a dead tie.

Two hundred meters to go and Callie could hear the gasping breath of another runner closing on her. Five strides later, the girl was beside her. Callie pumped her arms harder, willing her legs to move faster. Legs that could carry her for miles were failing now with the finish in sight.

Noise flooded both sides of the course and, penetrating over it, someone shouting her name. The cheers of the fans and coaches slid past her as she fought for position.

She saw the red singlet and slashing white diagonal as the last of the Fairchild Academy runners eased by her. Swearing, Callie leaned forward to gain momentum, rising up into a full sprint, her calves already starting to cramp, alternating with each foot strike, each spasm an opportunity to let the girl go, to quit.

Seventy meters and Callie still matched strides with the Fairchild girl.

At fifty meters, another girl caught both of them. She was a tiny runner from a small school up north, and her breath came in sobs.

The three of them closed on the flags at the top of the finishing chute. Callie felt the agony of each breath as it exploded from her lungs, too little air for starving muscles. The blood pounding in her head drowned out the runners beside her, and Callie’s vision squeezed down to a small circle focused on the white line that marked the end. She drew on the struggling efforts of the runners next to her, seeking just a small advantage.

The sobbing girl finished one step ahead, the last sob a moan as she collapsed. Instinctively, Callie dodged the fallen runner as she lunged past the line, a half-step ahead of the Fairchild runner.

Relief and exhaustion mingled with joy but a small doubt blossomed.

Was it enough?

***

My comments:

Update:

Clearly, I erred in attaching a soccer image to this story about a race! I formed a clear picture of a drive down a soccer field in the first paragraph and never let go of that image, despite counter-cues in the rest of the page. That shows how readers can go offtrack--which is a subject for another blog!

*** 

I appreciate the way this page describes Callie's efforts during her  thundering drive toward the finish. The writing regarding the action, concentration, and her sense of being pursued by others was convincing.

I do think that the first lines lost a bit of impact due to their construction. "As"used twice in the opening paragraph. It's important to vary your sentence constructions, especially in openers. Also--and this is just my personal opinion, others may disagree--starting a story with a sentence that begins with "as" is a weak way to open a scene. As readers, we don't yet have any context for relating the "as" to anything.  The writer should the character's main action, rather than introducing "as" right off the bat. 

While I enjoyed the way the running action was described, I do think we need to learn a bit more about Callie in this first page. As we've discussed so many times here on the blog, the first page of a story has to pull the reader into the character's world. As currently written, we only get the idea that Callie is trying to score a soccer goal. (Update: Oops!) For me, that situation is not quite compelling enough for a first page. We need a hint about Callie's character and motivation, as well as the story to come.

One nit: There were too many undifferentiated characters, I thought. To enhance the suspense, the writer might consider focusing Callie's running battle on one particular opponent in particular--especially if that rival will figure later in the story. (From my Soccer Mom days, I predict that the opponent will be the Dreaded Goalie.)

All that being said, I think the writer displays a promising strength for conveying action. That's a a real plus. Keep going, Writer! And thank you for submitting this page for discussion today.

TKZ'ers, what are your thoughts about GAMES OF CHANCE?





23 comments:

  1. Is this about soccer? Or is it a race? I got the impression it was the latter, but I'm not a soccer mom.

    But I agree with Kathryn here. By the time we get to the end of the race, I'm not invested or really interested in Callie.

    I do like the fact that the writer starts with action. That's a major plus. But what's at stake for Callie here?

    This is where the judicious and strategic use of backstory comes in. I've given students a "rule of thumb" just to get them started: Use three lines of backstory in the first 10 pages. You can use them all at once, or spread them out.

    Then three paragraphs of backstory in the next twenty pages....all together or spaced out.

    The purpose of backstory is not raw information, but information that bonds us to the character via empathy, sympathy, etc.

    If we knew WHY Callie had to win (to please her father? To beat a villainous rival?) it would greatly increase the readability. There's a hint in the last line, but I'd move hint more toward the beginning, and offer another clue along the way.

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    1. Really helpful rule of thumb on backstory, James. ~ B.D. Black

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    2. Totally with you on the backstory thing, James. I like the way the writer made this opening visceral (we feel the runner's physical pain...although maybe too much). But we don't feel her psychological pain. And a couple of judiciously placed thoughts (WHY does this matter so much to her?) would help us care about Callie.

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  2. Ack! I was seeing a soccer match the entire time! Egg on my face for that, for sure! Clearly I've spent too much time in the sun this week, lol! And you're right, Jim--giving her a motivation like wanting to please her demanding parent would be a good hint of drama to come.

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  3. Not soccer, cross country or marathon. How the finish line would recede is a mystery to me.

    Generally I liked it, the effort and the straining for one last bit of energy. I'm a former (long time ago) high school runner and father of many kids, veteran of many Saturday mornings on the sideline, and I could relate. But as KL says, I have no idea what the story might be about, and know nothing of the character except she has the grit to tough it out in a painful race to the finish. Ever read "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner?" It might repay the effort as you sit down to your next draft.

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    1. That sounds like one I should add to my TBR stack, John--maybe it'll cure me of my single-minded soccer brain. :)

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  4. I liked the instant sympathy I gained for this character as soon as two runners crossed the finish line and Callie is struggling to make 3rd.

    The author touches on the internals we all have felt in similar runs toward a finish line. These were all great and I felt myself tense while reading this first page.

    I would continue reading.

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    1. Although – it's not terribly clear – but apparently Callie is vying for FOURTH. Someone in the distance has won, then the twins finish second and third. Callie and the two other girls are vying to see who finishes fourth, fifth and sixth. I assumed it had to do with points for the team finish, but that was just a guess since the author hadn't let us in yet.

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  5. Getting that connection is the most important thing, Diane. Writer scores! :)

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  6. I run in community races and have had my share of battles to the finish. I think the author did a good job of describing the action-internal and external.

    But I agree with other commenters. I was confused about what type of race was happening (and I wasn't even thrown off by the soccer photo). I thought it might have been a bike race until I got to the third paragraph.

    And I didn't feel vested in Callie by the time she finished, so her supreme effort only mildly interested me. I want to know more about Callie. Why would her first thought be "Was it enough?" when she crossed the finish line? As a reader, I want to be asking that question too, not just be told that was Callie's thought.

    Wow. First pages really do have to do a lot of work.

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    1. I KNOW, right? It can be daunting! That's why we angst over them so much.

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  7. ""As"used twice in the opening paragraph."

    I agree that this weakens the writing. Recently finished reading 'self editing for fiction writers' and began editing my first draft and I had too much of the 'as' and '-ing's' taking action away. Sounds good when you write it, increase tension, but doesn't read well.

    The story isn't the type I'd read but the writing itself didn't read badly. Good luck

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    1. Especially in the very first sentence, definitely an issue. Thanks for commenting, Anon 1:39!

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  8. I think this opening is too specialized and too in her head, and goes on for too long. I'd show this character in a scene that more readers (who aren't runners) can relate to first, so we can bond more with her. I'd pick a scene with dialogue with other important characters, with some tension, so we get to know her more and see her interacting directly with people in her world. And as others have said, show her motivations and inner conflicts/emotions more so we can start identifying with her and bonding with her. Sorry, but this race scene didn't really grab me - maybe because I was never a cross-country runner? I think that starting the novel with a specialized scene like this could limit the overall appeal of the story.

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  9. I loved the opening. It was clearly written. And right from the get-go, I was right there with Callie, as she struggled to cross the finish line. All the detail of those who passed and of those coming on her heels kept me glued to the page. I'm intrigued as well by the question - Was it enough? I would keep reading.

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  10. My goodness! This whole effort of ours [writing] is a game of chance. For me, I'd like to see this from inside Callie's head. Through her eyes. Hearing what she hears-another runner huffing and puffing behind her. Feeling the PAIN in those shins. Lungs on fire!! I've been a runner and I was terrible. Everybody passed me. Sometimes everyone was waiting in the car by the time I showed up. :( Twisting, gut-wrenching angst here. Callie should have tears in her eyes and snot blowing out her nose. Get right into that character, writer, and FEEL it. Oh, and there should be a gut-busting side-ache going on, too. Ouch!

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    1. I agree with you Jim. And you said it well.

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    2. Excellent points, Jim! And I love how you expressed them!

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  11. I liked this opening but did feel it went on too long - so I started to lose momentum as a reader. Tightening it up will add to the last line's tension and impact - but I agree it is pretty specialised and to be honest if I picked this up as a book and read it as a real first page, I would be unlikely to keep reading as it's not really my thing.

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  12. I overall liked the opening. There is a lot of well-experienced action. I want to pass on an observation that an editor beat me about the head and shoulders with through 3 editing passes.

    Phrases like "Callie hears . . . " and " Callie feels . . ." are telling rather than showing. For example:

    Two hundred meters to go and Callie could hear the gasping breath of another runner closing on her.

    Two hundred meters to go and the gasping breath of a runner closing behind her reminded Callie the race was far from over.

    Or some such . . .

    What does Callie experience when she hears that gasping behind her? Home in on that and the passage will be stronger.

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  13. I lost track of the runners goal and internal struggle. It was the State Championship, but the character had already lost (other people were in front of her). What's her stake in this and why is it important for her to struggle? My writing instincts would be to establish that in the first two sentences.

    I also agree that the scene would benefit by placing your protagonist in a struggle against one runner rather than several and perhaps over a shorter distance.

    Overall the I likes the style and approach and I would have turned the page hoping for more anguish and reaction from the protagonist.

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