23 August 2009

First Page Game #8


You can’t even trust the scenery in Alexandria. Shyla checked her exit route from the top of the city gate. She watched the edges of the streets and the corners of the buildings, even the spindly trunk of the solitary palm to the left of the gatehouse, for movement. Any kind of crate or bin, any space created by walls or fences, could hide a spy, someone watching the gate just as she was.

The sun was directly overhead and the stream of people coming from the spacedocks had dried up. It was time to go. Alex is quietest at noon when the brutal heat and light drive everyone indoors. The crenellations of the gatehouse roof hid her from eyesight but not from the weather.

She stretched her legs out, circling her feet at the ankles, getting ready to scramble down the wall, trying not to make too much noise. Then she took one last look at the gate and saw them. Two men were dressed as local merchants in long layers of white and yellow silk. Yet their bearing did not say merchant. They were too alert, too strong looking, too something. Too bearded. The fashion for men on Liberty Colony is to shave.

There are good details that put me in place: we're in a SF story (spacedocks) in a town called Alexandria. We've got a character trying to jump the gate and a couple of goons in disguise, so we're getting hints of a conflict.

This will sound contradictory, but here goes. There aren't enough details and specifics.

First, character motivation. We've touched on the ineffectiveness of keeping secrets from readers during this game. Right now I'm wondering: Why is she trying to get out? Why are people after her? What are the stakes?
Why are there spies? This seems to be a merchant town, so what's its underbelly look like and why does it matter to your character? Good, writers think. I have you wondering. Yeah, but unfortunately, I'm also wondering why I should care.

I think this sometimes happens accidentally. A lot of writers are pantzers and they don't know why something is happening when they put the words on the page. But it's important to go back and fill in those blanks. Sometimes it's intentional, though. So take a look at your character's motivation. Will revealing it up the tension in your scene? If it won't, then the reveal will only be that much more disappointing when we finally get it. Details and stakes help readers invest in the story and my distinct preference is to see all that as close to the first page as possible. Right now I don't feel a ton of tension in this scene. I'm guessing knowing what the stakes are would help that.

My second issue is choreography and scene setting.
Despite the description, I don't have a good sense of characters moving within this scene, how far up she is, what the ground below looks like, what the true nature of the danger is. Also, the men appear out of nowhere when she's been studying the scene intently. Again, I think some specifics would help here. I don't mean a list, but instead of Any kind of crate or bin, any space created by walls or fences, could hide a spy, someone watching the gate just as she was try having her look at a specific crate with a brief description. Is there movement behind it? Is it a common hiding place? Or even hark back to the time SHE hid behind a crate and how it had given her a perfect view of the gate. And what kind of crate is it? Does it transport plants, drugs, bombs, illegal slaves? That drops a clue to the underbelly of the town. Invoke the senses. All we have are visual clues. Can she smell the illegal spice on secret trade? The reek of the alien slaves? What does the heat feel like as it pounds her back? Is sweat rolling down her sides? Can she hear ships taking off and are they near or far? Do her joints ache as she prepares to jump? A few vivid, key details go further than a broad picture to aiding a reader to paint their own picture of the scene (as readers are supposed to--again, it's part of their investment in the story).

And a final, minor point, this tense switch really threw me: Alex is quietest at noon when the brutal heat and light drive everyone indoors.

In general though, the scene would lead me to read on while watching for these issues to pop back up in the writing. Thanks for playing! I really appreciate showing these to our readers because they help everyone become more effective writers, which makes Electric Spec more fun for our readers!


Boudica said...


Thanks for the feedback. It's really helpful and constructive.

I had taken out a lot of specifics and details in an effort to get to the story problem within the first two hundred words. It appears that caused more problems than it solved. I seem to have given the wrong impression about hat she's there to do.

It was originally first person and then changed to third and I missed the tense switch.

BTW, what are pantzers?

lesleylsmith said...

Thanks for playing, Author! We appreciate it. I agree with Editor Betsy that there are a lot of good elements here, including the spacedocks and Liberty Colony. :) Kudos.

The first line seemed a bit awkward to me: is this 2nd person pov? Or are we in the protag's head? And why can't we trust the scenery? Will it come alive? Will it change? Is this some type of virtual reality?

The description in paragraph one was not specific enough for me. What specific street or building is she watching? "Any kind of crate" etc. is vague. Is there a broken crate of Mendelian love oranges next to the gate? Show us the world!
The verb tense switch "is" was a little jarring.

In paragraph 2, the nickname for the city was confusing to me.
Also the author tells us it's hot; why not show us? e.g. Is sweat dripping into her eyes and does it make her miss the arrival of the baddies?

In the beginning of para 3, i couldn't picture "stretched her legs out, circling her feet at the ankles". What does this mean? Another verb tense switch at the end of this: "is to shave".

I think this first page would be stronger if the author started later, e.g. "She took one last look at the gate and saw them." maybe with an added phrase to indicate where she is, something about the "crenellations of the gatehouse roof".

This is promising. Good luck, author! :)
I'm sure Betsy would get to this but a pantzer is someone who enjoys writing without an outline.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Well written. It flows nicely.

On the other hand, my mind started drifting off as I was going along. So it wasn't pulling me in.

Maybe when you add back the details, it works better. I need something more to latch onto, but it's great writing.

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