Thursday, August 28, 2014

Thursday's First Page Critique

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I'm filling in for Jordan today and we have another first page critique. This one's entitled 'Discovering Aberration' - my comments follow.

DISCOVERING ABERRATION

I stood before the lectern in the Grand Literature Hall clutching my mangled copy of Draganvich's The Lament of the Beggar. Though I had the intention of reading a selection aloud, I found myself fixated on a note in the margin which caught my eye and caused me to pause. "I'm always homesick for the journey," I had once written in ink speckled script, adding almost as an afterthought, "...no matter what it might hold."

"No matter what it might hold," I whispered absorbed in remembering.

It had been two years since my extended journey to the orient. Two years spent writing and searching for employment, poor as Job's turkey. And then, six months ago everything simply seemed to happen on its own accord. The Oriental Adventure, the book I had written and published under the name Franklin P. Fitzgerald became a rousing success. I was honored by the Tetraelly Academy with a grant and a residency on condition that I teach. And then as suddenly as it all began I found myself, for lack of a better phrase, fantastically bored. Not weary, nor depressed, nor any other such nonsense. Bored, standing in front of a crowd of affluent students (any one of whom had inherited more than I had earned in my entire life), fumbling though the teaching process, and now lost in thought, remembering.

"Professor Fitzgerald?" came a voice from the young lady in the front row. "Professor, are you not feeling well?"

"Hm," the sound carried almost unnaturally clear through the vast auditorium and over the sea of students. Even those in the back sitting elbow to elbow could hear the slightest of whispers, such were the acoustics. I looked at the book in my hands to the fog of young and wealthy sons and daughters, most wearing ridiculous collections of posed taxidermy. As was the growing fashion among the young and wealthy, they wore the corpses of beasts of the air upon their hats or beasts of the land slung over their shoulders, but never both. Strange, to have all these eyes on me, the eyes of the students and the threaded eyes of the animals.

It still holds true, thought I. Homesick for the journey once more, eh old boy. I fumbled to find myself again, seeking out my originally intended selection. "Yes," I replied to the girl sitting directly before me. "I'm quite alright."

 MY COMMENTS

I have grouped my comments by heading, to make things a little clearer.

Setting? Genre?
Overall I had the sense from this first page that I was getting a lot of information I didn't really need, and not enough of the information I did need. From the outset it felt like we were entering the fantasy realm (the Grand Literature Hall, Draganvich's The Lament of the Beggar, Tetraelly Academy) and yet the reference to the orient and Job pulled me out of this and I was left wondering about what world and what time period I was supposed to be in. Was the main character a religious man? It sure sounded like he was about to give a theology lecture and his use of the expression 'Job's turkey' made it sound 19th century - so I was a little confused from the outset as to whether this was fantasy or history (or both).

Nothing in this first page gave me much of a grounding for the world I was entering and, without this, I found it hard to get excited about the story. To be honest this first page left me wondering why I should care about Professor Fitzgerald, or his memories of his trip to the orient. I did like the idea of him being up on the lectern, suddenly gripped by memories of the past, and unable to present his intended lecture - but I needed a higher level of tension to become fully engaged and invested in the story from the outset.

Character?
I couldn't really visualize Professor Fitzgerald. At first he sounded elderly, mulling over the past. Then it sounded like he was slightly younger and bored. Then he went back to sounding old again (particular when he thinks 'eh old boy'). As a character he was too amorphous for me. I needed less details about the audience and more about him. I also don't think a character who is merely bored (even if it is 'fantastically') generates a lot of narrative drive. I would prefer him to be haunted by his experiences in the orient and so when the memories return, they overwhelm him.

Redundancies?
So what makes it hard to critique this first page is that the details we do get don't really seem drive the story forward. We get some background regarding Professor Fitzgerald's journey to the orient but all we know is that he went poor, wrote a book that was a 'rousing success' and them ended up teaching. (As a side note why was the book 'published under the name Franklin P. Fitzgerald' - which makes it sound like this was an alias - when it appears that it is actually his name?) This information didn't really compel me to care about Professor Fitzgerald.

Instead of piquing the reader's interest with details of his journey to the orient, the author provides more details instead about the students. So we know they are affluent (this is repeated - we get told twice more that they are wealthy which is unnecessary repetition in the first page) and that they make strange taxidermic fashion statements. But even this makes it hard for me as a reader to visualize the world we're in. Is it a historical setting in an alternative world? Or is it in our real world? Again, I'm left without any real sense of where the story is set in terms of time or place. I also found it strangely redundant to know that the students wear 'corpses of the beasts of the air upon their heads or beasts of the land slung over their shoulders but never both' - and are these beasts ones we would know or are they fantastical?  I think the fashion provides plenty of scope to be intriguing but instead it seems stilted and too generalized. In a first page a reader wants to have the world evoked in a dramatic and sensory way.

Voice
So the author's voice in this piece seems old fashioned and a little stifled at times, as if designed to evoke the past. This can work if used to good effect but at the moment the first page isn't grounded enough in a vivid world/time period for this to be all that effective. Instead, this voice creates distance between the reader and the story.

Punctuation/POV issues
There is some lack of punctuation but, as it didn't detract from the story, I'm not going to focus on this - except to point out that the internal monologue 'eh old boy' needed a question mark. When the professor is supposedly lost in his memories, staring at his book, it was also hard to understand how he knew that the voice was coming from the young lady in the front row.  

Recommendations
I would recommend refocusing this first page on getting the reader intrigued about Professor Fitzgerald and what happened on his journey to the orient. I would ensure enough detail is given so the reader is well grounded in the world that he inhabits. I'd also do away with redundant details about the acoustics of the auditorium or the wealth of the students. The author needs to make it clear from the outset what kind of disturbance or event is going to provide the narrative drive to this story. Even the title 'Discovering Aberration' is ambiguous and I'd like to get some sense of where this story is headed...is it about species aberration? Does the plot turn darker and more 'thriller-esque' or is it going to be more of an alternate history or fantasy novel? It's really hard to tell at the moment.  

Finally, readers need a reason to turn the page and at the moment there isn't enough happening to do this. Everything seems to hinge on the main character's 'ruminations' which isn't really enough (especially when they offer little in terms of drama). 

So TKZers what feedback do you have?







19 comments:

  1. The author does a good job of conveying the character's boredom, but that's hardly something that would make me want to dive in and read more. The whole piece seems bound by some meandering ennui, a vague dissatisfaction, a longing for something to change. Nothing happens. The long grafs beg to be broken by some action. And the prose is dated. Nobody refers to "the orient" anymore. I don't know when it happened or why, but "oriental" became a disparging term some time ago and every time I slip and use it, I get angrily corrected. It's not on par with "the N word" or "redskin," but it's apparently in that class these days. "Rousing" success? Seems fairly tepid. "Eh, old boy?" "Poor as Job's turkey?" I've never heard that one, and I'm a pretty old coot myself.
    And the author seems to be using these kids' wealth as a shorthand way of demeaning them. They're rich and have funny fashions? They must be callow, useless.
    The fact that the school is an academy, as opposed to a college or university, suggests it's high school age. That being the case, it seems unlikely that the majority have already inherited great wealth, unless there was some calamity that struck the rich down in droves. That might make an interesting story.
    I get no sense of the character other than his boredom. Until the student refers to professor Franklin and I put that together with the "published under the name," I had no idea the narrator was male. I had somehow thought it was a woman. And there's no sense of the character's age. The fact that he just spent two years looking for a job makes him seem young, but "Eh, old boy?" and the general tone of the prose suggests this is someone my age or even older (if there is anyone older.)
    This might be one of those cases where the opening scene exists for the writer. As you suggest, I'd cut the redundancy, perhaps even cut the whole scene and start closer to the action. Because the character might have a good reason to be bored, but it's not a good idea to make the reader share that feeling.

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    1. I agree - we need something more than boredom to move the narrative along. Perhaps, as you say, this scene should be cut and the author should start in a different place closer to the action. Good point about the academy - I found it hard to know what age these students were likely to be.

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    2. Many is the time I've given an editing client some variation on this note: "This isn't your opening. This is a compilation of character notes. Your opening is on page 23 ... not coincidentally, where the actual action begins."

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  2. Good critique, Clare. You've pointed out most of the same issues I had. There were a few items that stopped me, and caused me to have to think about their meaning. "Ink speckled script" and "Job's turkey" are two examples. The former made me work to visualize it, and I had no idea the meaning of the latter. We never want to stop a reader, especially on the first page. And if the reader is an agent or editor, well . . .

    Just a note about the last sentence. "Alright" is not a word.

    My biggest issue, like John Baur said in his comment, "Nothing happens". Sadly, I would not read on.

    Thanks to the author for submitting this first page.

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    1. I must admit I had to look up 'Job's Turkey' as an expression as it stopped me too!

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  3. The character seems so fixated and aware of himself and that's a bit odd to me, but it can work. The formality of his internal thoughts seems a bit creepy in an Edgar Allan Poe sort of way, but there's not really anything going on here.

    If he were somewhere other than a boring classroom, for example a laboratory with caged, mutated rats, this voice and character would work for me.

    One type of thing I'm not too keen on is the writing of unnecessary known facts the reader shouldn't have to be exposed to, such as the italicized things below:

    "Though I had the intention of reading a selection aloud, I found myself fixated on a note in the margin which caught my eye and caused me to pause. "I'm always homesick for the journey," I had once written in ink speckled script, adding almost as an afterthought, "...no matter what it might hold."

    I would read on a bit longer just to see if there are any caged, mutated rats in the near future, or something equally creepy and Poe-like.

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    1. Good point Diane - the voice could be creepy in the right context - but I'm not sure that's what the author intends or not! At the moment he certainly isn't a very sympathetic character.

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  4. To the already excellent comments, let me add one of my axioms: Act first, explain later. The biggest problem I see with the opening is that it is stuffed with exposition and backstory. Readers don't need this up front. What they need is a character in motion, in action, in a scene, and one that presents a "disturbance" of some kind. Here's how I would suggest the page begin:

    "Professor Fitzgerald?" came a voice from the young lady in the front row. "Professor, are you not feeling well?"

    "Hm?"

    The sound carried unnaturally clear through the vast auditorium and over the sea of students. Even those in the back sitting elbow to elbow could hear the slightest whisper, such were the acoustics. I looked from the book in my hands to the fog of young and wealthy sons and daughters.

    I fumbled to find myself again, seeking out my originally intended selection in Draganvich's The Lament of the Beggar. "Yes," I replied to the girl sitting directly before me. "I'm quite alright."

    ***

    Now we have something interesting going on. I like stories that start with dialogue. It's a great way to ensure we're in an actual scene. Then we can drop in only the bits and pieces of setting and exposition we need to know where we are....and that's not many bits! Save all that till later. And then find a way to work it in some other way than a long paragraph. For example, the stuff in the long third paragraph could come out in dialogue later on, perhaps with another prof.

    "You look bored, old boy."
    "Hm?"
    "Exactly!"
    "Sorry."
    "Have a drink. How long have you been at Tetraelly anyway?"
    "Six months."
    "And what do you think of the students?"
    "Do you really want to know?"
    "I'm not speaking to the air, old bean."
    "I find them fatuous. Rich, privileged, more concerned with fashion than knowledge."
    "I think it's something else."
    "Pray tell."
    "Do you really want to know?"
    "Now you're mocking me."
    "A little. I think you expected to be treated like a sensation. You wrote that book about the orient and your name was suddenly everywhere. Here, you're just another teacher."

    Or something like that. Of course you'd add actions and attributions, but you get the idea.

    May I also strongly suggest a new title. "Discovering Aberration" doesn't sound like fiction.

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    1. Excellent suggestions, Jim! Both versions already had me intrigued.

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  5. Amazing feedback!
    Brave author I hope you are as impressed with these comments/suggestions as I am.
    I sense you have a tale to tell and what great advice on getting it rolling.
    Best of luck!

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    1. I also hope the author realizes that our advice is designed to help rather than hinder the process - in my opinion the story is there, it just needs to be reshaped to help drive the story and give it momentum moving forward:)

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  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  7. If the point of the kids being rich is to show they're bored and not interested in learning, showing that would have been helpful. If the prof looked up at a sea of heads bent down over their smartphones and laptops, more interested in their social media than in ..." whatever this guy teaches, that would have helped.

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  8. Takes a lot of nerve to submit their work for anyone w/an internet connection to read and critique. I've done it, not here but elsewhere, and have felt that anxiety rise in my throat as I see comments posted and prepare to read them.

    I like the premise and agree there is a story there to be told. Excellent advice has been given. With the risk of coming off as a jerk, I think the author needs to study the craft further. The issues pointed out are commonly made mistakes and are covered in many 'how to' books.

    Thanks for the read. You're a brave person.

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    1. I want to reiterate my admiration for anyone willing to submit their work to be critiqued. You have to be brave but also this writer should know, we've all been there, and the only way we've learned is by taking advice, practicing our craft and being willing to be brave enough to put our work 'out there'!

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  9. I thought some of the phrasings were good ("fog of young students..."), and I see glimmerings of an authorial voice.

    I suspect this is going to be a fantasy a la Harry Potter, but for an older audience? Difficult to tell.

    I agree with all the comments made so far, except for one (see below.) I really have no idea what this story is about, i.e., no story questions raised in this excerpt. and story questions make the reader want to turn the pages.

    The reference to a journey in the opening, and then later in the excerpt, may well be the writer's attempt to raise a story question, but since it's not tied to relevant action, it doesn't carry the reader forward.

    The comment I disagree with is opening a novel with dialogue, although the examples given are certainly more engaging than the excerpt.

    Opening a scene with dialogue, once the reader is involved in the story, isn't as challenging to do well as opening an entire novel with dialogue, but both are rife with traps for the unwary. I've seen it done well, but rarely. The one time I thought it was done extremely well (can't remember the specifics unfortunately--thought I had them memorized!), the dialogue itself raised the story's question, and that, in my opinion, was why it worked...and the words were immediately grounded in setting, speaker, etc.

    I suspect that the writer hasn't started this story in the right place, and that's why the opening doesn't grab the reader as well as it should.

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  10. One of the trickiest things to learn is where to start your story! Sometimes first pages, first paragraphs or even whole first chapters have to be set aside.

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  11. I always seem to arrive too late with nothing to add but "Yeah, what they said!"

    Ditto then regarding: Confusion over where we are (in time and place and genre). I really got tripped up when I hit the lines about the audience dressed in animal skins. I found it very interesting...and wanted a better explanation.

    Also, I'm not intrigued enough by the character to read on, although there's a bare hint of intrigue around why he's so unnerved by whatever he wrote in the margin. We don't have any sense of anything at stake here...as Clare said, picking your point of entry into your story might be hardest decision a writer must make. I bet there's a later chapter or scene in this manuscript that is maybe a more interesting place to open the door on this story.

    Waaaay too much backstory too early. (In the THIRD paragraph, no less). And as Jim pointed out, much of this man's backstory could be, and should be, conveyed in action ie dialogue. Show me, don't tell me.

    Re: the Title. It doesn't "scan" well, meaning we can't grasp what the heck this book is about and the juxtaposing of the two words is confusing. I'm not a fan of gerund titles. They are oddly passive. The only one I like, that I can recall, was Louise Ure's "Forcing Amaryllis" which works because the story is about a girl coping with sexual abuse and the title refers, in botany, to forcing a flower to bloom before its time.

    But...kudos, writer, for submitting. This is how you begin to learn and grow a thicker skin.

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  12. Excellent critique, Clare, and great comments from everyone else!

    My apologies, but my son is here for a short visit from Europe and is leaving tomorrow morning, so I've been kind of AWOL lately... Will catch back up with the world soon!

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