20 July 2009

First Page Critique Game

Galaxy of Spirits

“It must be strange for you, standing here after all this time.”

Mark breathed in the thin, dry, dusty air. “Lost would be a better description.” He walked a few steps further away from the shuttle and stopped. Crouching down, he pushed his hands into the sand and watched the two handfuls he pulled up fall through his fingers.

“Do you want to be left alone?”

“I want to be sent back home.”

“Do you want to be left alone?”

Mark sighed. “Just leave me in peace for a while.”

“It can only be for a minute, then we have to return to the homeship.”

The slow, crunching sound of Hanry's methodical walk back to the shuttle was only a mild relief to Mark. After the extended grind of metal on sand as Hanry turned round on the sand by the shuttle's ramp, there was relative silence.

Mark listened to the faint sound of the wind in the thin atmosphere. He stood up and glanced over his shoulder at the lump of human shaped metal and plastic that was Hanry. He stood there, unmoved, waiting for the moment when his internal chronometer would start the program to collect Mark and take him back to the shuttle. “Typical bloody robot.”

Cool, intriguing title.

I greatly prefer a story problem to present itself as close to the start of the story as possible. I subscribe to the "start the story on the first page and end it on the last" school of thought. This is not a "rule," though I'm hardly the only one with that bent. This is my strong preference. But preference is what you run up against with editors.

So, from reading this, all I've got is that Mark wants to go home. No idea why. No imminent threat or dilemma. I don't see much holding him back from this goal, if that is his goal. (In fact, he's about to get on the "home"ship.) This is not to say I need a shoot-'em-up right off the bat. But I need some hint of a problem, a sizable one that compels me to wonder how Mark is going to solve it.

See my thinking here? A page in and I'm still looking for something to grab me: a cool setting, a problem, and a compelling character to solve it. I'm not thinking what will Mark do next?

As for the writing, I see a couple of issues that alerted me that this story might not be for me. For instance, I'm not a fan of stacked modifiers because it makes for sufficient writing rather than great writing. "Thin, dry, dusty air" is sufficient, but that's really all it is.

Put yourself in my shoes for a minute.
  • I'm on a new planet. I'd like to know what the air tastes like, what Mark smells, what it tells him. Has a bomb gone off, ruining the atmosphere? Is he breathing bones and ash? Alien poop? What's the sand feel like? Hot? Cold? Remind him of that time on Orion5 when he hung out with that chick? Played with his kid? Killed that guy? Which leads me to:
  • I've just met Mark. I feel the writer missed the opportunity to directly link Mark's experience of breathing, the simplest of acts, right into Mark's personality, past, problem, and to this world he's standing on. As an aside, I live at altitude in a semi-arid climate. I breathe thin, dry, dusty air pretty often. How does Mark's experience differ from mine? Or does it? Either way is okay, but it's the writer's job to control the reader's experience to some degree. That's what editors mean when they say they're in the hands of a great storyteller.
I like when writers use every opportunity to subtly introduce character and situation via action. I don't mean drag me through a bunch of internal narrative. Just drop a few clues to help me get my boots on the ground. So while this scene is sufficient, it doesn't work nearly as hard as it could.

Ditto with "was." For the record, I don't hate was. I think it's a handy little verb. But I like to call to-be construction "kinda passive" construction, more as a joke than anything. Some people call all to-be construction passive construction, but that's not technical enough for this editor. Passive construction is when action is being done to the subject in the sentence rather than the subject being the actor. In either case, I always ask myself: is there a better way to rephrase?

Now, I realize that by using was it might've been the writer's intent to add to the aura of malaise. But when I see a bunch of to-be construction combined with something like stacked adjectives, I start wondering if the writing will be
just sufficient throughout. The vast majority of our rejections have sufficient writing.

I'd give this a few more graphs, but it'd have to make a turn-around pretty quickly to get me to read on.

Thanks so much for playing! Hopefully this is of some help! Readers, feel free to kindly comment and ask questions in the thread.


Sarah Laurenson said...

The writing's good but not great. I get that he's heading somewhere and that maybe this was home. There's a feeling I think you're trying to evoke but you're not quite getting there, yet.

There bones here are good. It needs a bit of sprucing up. More description in the sights, scents, etc. And a bit more of his internal thoughts. A bit more grounding in who he is and why we should care about him. And perhaps a thought about the conflict he's in so we can identify with it.

I have very little time for my pleasure reading and want to be drawn in from the first or second paragraph. This isn't doing it, yet, but it has great potential.

lesleylsmith said...

Thanks for playing, author! We appreciate it. I thought this snippet was good. I would keep reading. The hint that Hanry is a robot is nice "grind of metal on sand".
I'd have to say, though, the dialog didn't totally match up; it seemed a bit disjointed. Hanry seems to think Mark wants to be left alone. Why? What does Hanry know that we don't? :) And why does Hanry keep asking when "it can only be for a minute"?
This is just a guess, but I think this story actually starts later...
Or maybe the story will be a flashback to before "all this time"?
Overall, this is promising.

writtenwyrdd said...

Workmanlike writing here but it's a bit bland emotionally. Like Betsy says, it's better to start with the problem stated right off, or at least a decent hint. You don't always have to, though, if you give the reader something interesting, and by that I mean an emotional hook.

When I saw Mark playing with the sand of this obviously not-earth planet, I expected something emotional, something that helped explain the repeated statement about home as it relates to playing with alien dirt. When neither the dialog or narrative delivers, the point of the actions remains obscure. You can fix that with just a little change to the dialog (most likely via Hanry's response) or via Mark thinking about the earth he's fondling. (He makes observations, relates them to something else, etc.)

Another thing is that you say that they are only going to be on the planet briefly; which implies that Mark has something he wants to do. Is he going to bury something? Take samples? I think just a hint in with the breathing and touching earth and the talk will do; but we need a teensy bit of foreshadowing as to what the purpose is on this planet.

So I think you've got some good action, but nothing driving it yet. Thanks for playing along, and I hope my comments help.

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

I want to know what the sand was like. It's sifting through his fingers. Does it look and feel like Earth sand or is there something interesting, extraordinary, comforting, etc. about it?

Then in the second to last paragraph I found the two "sand" references too close together. Once again, forcing me to focus on the sand and little else.

I do agree about the great title. I'd read more to see why Mark feels lost. I'm fascinated with lost souls ;)

just a reader said...

(Disclaimer: I am not a pro editor so please regard my remarks as possibly not really the feedback you should care that much about. I am just a reader.)

I loved this story beginning.

In the first three sentences I learn that where Mark could be feeling strange, he IS definitely feeling lost. Now I want to know why on both counts.

I also like that this author didn't bombard me with way too much info and action.

I didn't have to walk away or take notes. I got to meet Mark.

I get to be curious about Hanry. I mean, wow, for a robot, he is bossy and opinionated. That's interesting too.

For my tastes, I have a big imagination so all you have to do with me is hint at the setting and background and I can do the rest and appreciate the fun the author leaves me in doing that.

However, it seems that more people want more description and intense world building. For me, too much is boring and I drop the book (like in the third book about that dragon rider).

Mark also shows attitude" Typical bloody robot."

I can absorb this information easily and am ready for more.

Betsy Dornbusch said...

Don't be apologetic, JAR. Readers are the lifeblood of every book and magazine.

Your comment perfectly illustrates how taste runs a wide spectrum!

David E. Hughes said...

I'd like to echo my thanks for the story submission and all of the thoughtful comments. My take on this is the same as Bets and Lesley. The first page is good but is missing the elements necessary to make it really strong. More details and immediacy would make it stronger and more likely to catch the eye of a slush editor.