Thursday, January 30, 2014

First page critique: QUEST FOR HONOR

by Joe Moore

Today’s first-page critique is from a story called QUEST FOR HONOR. My comments follow.

July 2011

Somalia

​Every night, he saw the children. No matter how tired he was, no matter how preoccupied he was from the events of the day, no matter anything, he dreamed. And in his dreams, they came for him. Their eyes were filled with pain and supplication, and behind them was always a shadow, looming in the back, dark and menacing, and sometimes he could hear its wicked laughter, smell its fetid breath.

​On this hot night, he woke up screaming. “No! Save them! Save them!” Bolting upright suddenly, the bedclothes fell away from him, drenched with his sweat. He was panting. The shadow had gotten close to him, as the children milled around, and he felt its cold tendrils snaking around him, drawing him closer…

There was a knock at the door, then a muffled voice.

“Yusuf! Are you all right?”

He didn’t answer, and the door edged open. The face that peered in was that of Amir, his most trusted lieutenant. Did the man never sleep? “Are you ill, Yusuf? May I get you anything?”

​In his bed, the man shook his head, banishing the last wisps of the faces, knowing they would be back, perhaps as soon as he nodded off again. “Thank you, Amir, but I am fine. A bad dream, that is all.”

​“Shall I prepare some hot tea? It often helps me sleep.”

​Yusuf started to object, but said, “That would be good. Please, bring it to the library, and join me.”

He rose and pulled on a dry robe, switching on the light. The lone overhead bulb sputtered but stayed on. At least the electricity was running, he thought. Otherwise it would be candles and lanterns, as it was some nights. How could this truly be part of the land of Allah’s people if it could not consistently provide even the bare necessities? Ah, but what necessities are we thinking of, Yusuf reminded himself. The ones you enjoyed back in America, at university? Or the ones the true believers scraped and scavenged for every day, here in the barren countryside, the crowded cities, that made up the lands of the Prophet, blessings be upon him?

I’m not a big fan of opening a book with a dream, but this does set the stage for drama. The writer has a good command of storytelling. I have a suspicion that this is going to be an emotionally charged tale. There’s not much I find to critique here. Some unneeded use of adverbs and extra wording. A bit of cleanup can cure that. But overall, a good start. Here are a few suggested line edits.

Avoid passive voice. Change “Their eyes were filled with pain and supplication…” to “Pain and supplication filled their eyes…” Change “…and behind them was always a shadow, looming in the back, dark and menacing…” to “a shadow, dark and menacing, loomed behind them…”

Avoid run-on sentences. “Their eyes were filled with pain and supplication, and behind them was always a shadow, looming in the back, dark and menacing, and sometimes he could hear its wicked laughter, smell its fetid breath.” to “Pain and supplication filled their eyes, and a shadow, dark and menacing, loomed behind them. Sometimes he heard its wicked laughter, smelled its fetid breath.”

Avoid adverbs and unneeded words. For example: “Bolting upright suddenly, the his bedclothes fell away from him…”

Avoid confusion. “Did the man never sleep?” is Yusuf’s interior thought yet the reader might feel it is Amir who thinks it. Place it in italics. Then start a new paragraph with “Are you ill, Yusuf?”

Avoid unneeded words. Change “In his bed, the man shook his…” to “Yusuf shook his head…” We already know he is in bed.

Avoid simultaneous actions that are not simultaneous. Change “He rose and pulled on a dry robe, switching on the light.” to “He rose, pulled on a dry robe, and switched on the light.”

I think this is a good first draft. A little editing would make it tight and crisp. I would definitely keep reading. Thanks to the author for submitting this first-page sample. Good luck.

How about you guys? Would you turn to page 2 or move on?

11 comments:

  1. I like this page, though I can't really put my finger on why. I think it's because I immediately empathized with Yusef.

    My only suggestion would be to remove "no matter anything" from the second sentence. It feels like it was just thrown in there to make a series. In fact, I might rewrite that entire sentence to eliminate the redundancy of "he was".

    I think the author has set up Yusef as a very sympathetic character. Assuming he's the protagonist, that bodes well for subsequent pages. I'd read on!

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  2. I agree that this has a lot going for it. However, I was confused by the shadow in Yusuf's dream. At first I thought it was threatening the children. But in the second part of the second paragraph it appears to be threatening Yusuf but not the children. That didn't make sense to me.

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  3. Your suggestions are spot on, Joe. Some tightening and shortening of sentences here and there would improve an already promising start. I like the way this first page immediately establishes mood, character, and setting. The dream is handled deftly enough so that it doesn't bother me. I would love to read the rest of this story. Good job by the writer.

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  4. Best compliment I can give is that I KEPT reading and barely stumbled. I wanted to know what was going to happen and the writer stayed out of the way of the story -- no fancy writerly gymnastics! -- just giving me a clean entry into things. Even though not much is actually happening here action-wise, there is suspense via that dream fragment. Good job there. As Joe said, dreams are a tad cliched as openings...they can get away with them as you get deeper into a story...we often see the protag bolt from a bad dream especially as the case or plot starts working on him. But as the crucial first paragraph...dunno. I have heard some agents say they hate them. But this one is pretty short and punchy.

    Other good things: The writer gives us a sense of place right away. Not just because s/he tagged it "Somalia" but with telling details like the erratic electricity and the tea. Also, good use of inserting JUST ENOUGH back story to be intriguing with this: "Ah, but what necessities are we thinking of, Yusuf reminded himself. The ones you enjoyed back in America, at university?" We know this man is probably foreign-born because of his name but the writer drops this major detail about his education. This is intriguing! Makes me want to know more about this man.

    Nits: This line: "Their eyes were filled with pain and supplication, and behind them was always a shadow." The use of "them" in behind them made me stumble because I thought it referred to the eyes, not the kids.

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    Replies
    1. P.S. I'm not crazy about your title. It's too prosaic, been-done-before, and has no sense of mood, place, tone or genre. Whenever I see a title like this, I think of W.E. Griffin churn-em-out military stuff. But titles can always be changed. Good start, writer!

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  5. I like the sensory descriptions-hear its wicked laughter, smell its fetid breath, cold tendrils snaking around him. Nicely done and placed me in the scene. Also, the piece made me curious as to how the character got from an American university to his current situation.

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  6. I really liked this first page and, apart from Joe's recommendations, I don't have any edits/changes to suggest. I wanted to keep reading and thought there was a terrific balance of emotion, tension and character to start off what I think is probably a great book!

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  7. A solid and engaging page one. I like Joe's suggestions.
    Author could consider deleting "from the events of the day" which serve to explain (yet actually needlessly limit) what preoccupies Yusuf. The modifier "consistently" weakens Yusuf's thought and could be deleted imo.
    I'm not sure that "The shadow had gotten close to him, as the children milled around, and he felt its cold tendrils snaking around him, drawing him closer…" does much and extends focus on the dream itself rather than the caring fear/dread for the children that is its trigger (which has already been effectively communicated imo).
    Keeping us tighter within our sympathetic character's POV one might make a tiny change in this key section:
    Ah, but what necessities are we(change "are we" to "am I') thinking of, Yusuf reminded himself. The ones you(he) enjoyed back in America, at university?
    tiny point - might change to barren countryside (and) crowded cities that...

    Would I read on - heck yeah!
    1) Intriguing, sympathetic protagonist in conflict
    2) exotic, strife torn setting
    3) the high stakes of children's lives at risk
    4) clean, evocative writing
    Strong work contributor - feels like a compelling story!

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  8. Thanks to this author for having the courage to put his/her work out for review. Judging from the comments, it has promise and potential. Keep writing and best of luck.

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  9. I liked it as well. I felt his confusion. We're also left with the suspense of what will happen in the library. Will he act on his dream? Will he shake it off? Good work.

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  10. I'm with you, Joe. This is a pretty good beginning that needs very little help.

    A lot will depend, however, on the cover. Set in lawless Somalia, will this story be told within the context of war? Is Yusuf an Islamic terrorist? Or is it about something else altogether? The cover will have to point the way. Also, it could use a more powerful, evocative title.

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