07 March 2010

First Page Game

The over-rail shuddered and clanked through the smog into the hanging station at Piccadilly Plaza. In a mist of steam, smoke and slamming doors it decanted its passengers onto the vertigo inducing, open air, cast iron platform.

Hanging back, to allow a group of nouveau riche Mongolian diplomats to push their chattering way towards the staircase leading to street level, Marcus Akhurst held onto the waist high barrier and surveyed the city.

Almost at eye level was the impressive statue of Horatio Drake, one legged hero of the Defeat of the Armada. Ingrained in the British psyche, the historic naval engagement, where a small force of British Ironclads had broken and ‘spread to the winds’ the far greater force gathered by the Emperor of All The Chinas, still raised a quiver of national pride.

With a sigh, Marcus allowed his gaze to follow the great column on which the statue was mounted – two hundred and three new metric feet – down to the centre of the plaza below. The fountains, spurting out of deep trefoil cisterns of green water, provided a perfect counterbalance to the great black quartz statues of Imperial Camels set at the four points of the compass facing the wide avenues radiating out through the sprawling rooftops.

A note: My apologies to the writer. I had to cut this entry short . This entry was over 500 words but the rules clearly state 200 words (I've done up to 250). So to be fair to our other entries, I cut it in half and pretended like I didn't read the rest. (Though I did.)

I made this the First Page Game for a reason. That's, in all honesty, about as long as an editor with a big slush (my personal slush is sitting at 46 stories with more coming in every day) will allow. We simply don't have time. I wish I did. I wish I could indulge my love of critique and read each story through and help make it better. But I wouldn't do anything else, ever, much less meet my own deadlines.

Secondly, the best bit of advice I ever got was from a short story writer years ago. David Dvorkin, who's accomplished in short form, once said on a panel to start the story on the first page and end it on the last. Long version: present a story problem on the first page and solve it on the last. That's something I've taken to heart as an editor and writer and it's served me well in both capacities. Of course there are exceptions, but it's a good general rule to follow, or very consciously break. Whatever best serves your story.

On to our page. By the descriptions, I'm guessing this is may be steam punk and alternate history. Cool! We rarely see steampunk and we'd love to see more great submissions in that genre. Alternate history is always fun, too. The writer paints a great picture of the scene and we know immediately that this is not "our London" as it stands now. This is clearly speculative fiction and I'm intrigued by the setting. We meet our protag early and by name. Great so far.

But, all the while, I'm wondering why the character is here. All he does is emerge from a train, look at the city, and sigh. Why should I care? What propels me alongside him on this particular journey?

Unfortunately, that continues in the part I cut out. Our protag appears to just be seeing the sights and walking to who knows where for paragraph after paragraph. There's no sense of tension, foreboding, or story problem. Having read this entry, I can assure you it does have a somewhat intriguing premise, but I have to wade through over 500 words of lavish description to get there. Some of this description could have been used to build tension and paint the world by delaying a payoff. It would have been far more powerful as a tension building device if I'd known something of what I was waiting for. That said, a little of that still goes a long way.

Overall I liked the description, but I think there are two common failings in lengthy description.

1. It stops the story (or in this case, significantly delays the start of the story).

2. I find writers who lurve them some flowery description tend to write loooong sentence after looooong sentence. The leisurely pace stole all sense of tension. And without tension, I really have no reason to read on. I like word-play as much as the next editor, but I'm actually here for the story, and at this point I've seen very little of it. When writing description in a short story (like with everything else) writers need to question how every line serves the story.

In this case, having read the hook, I might have read on a little bit, but with a wary eye. I fear most of the story would progress (or not) according to the pace of description, which was too lengthy for my taste, and for, in my opinion, short stories in general. Online fiction, in particular, demands a somewhat quick pace. It's our reading habits comign back to haunt us.

Sometimes a lot of description works. It can lend tension and fresh dynamic to a piece. The reader can start to sense that God is in the details. In this case, though, I fear the description felt too self-indulgent for me to trust in its worth. Easily solved, though, with a little cutting.

Thanks so much for sending me this piece. The game is always open, so feel free to send me more, anyone and all!


lesleylsmith said...

First of all, thanks for playing Author. We appreciate it. :)
In the case of this submission, I agree with Betsy. This might be a nice opening to a novel, but it does not work, IMHO, for a short story--at least not for one of our short stories. There may well be some literary venues that would love this. :)
Good luck, Author!

betsy said...

While I agree with Bets and Lesley here, I think it is worth pointing out that one of the stories in the current issue begins with description: "Season of Blood." But take a look at how that opens. Both the setting and the voice draw you into the story (or, at least, the draw me in). This is a very tricky thing to do. The setting has to be very unique and the language has to be vivid. I think this submission comes close at places, but does not quite reach the mark. Thanks for sending it our way, author!

Betsy Dornbusch said...

I think that was David who commented under MY name. :)

Deb Smythe said...

It's ok to talk to yourself, Betsy;)We won't tell.

As for the 1st page:
Maybe a tighter POV? Some reaction/visceral response (more than a sigh) to what the MC's seeing could help draw the reader in.

lesleylsmith said...

I must admit I do not know what an "over-rail" is... Anyone?

Deb S said...

"over-rail" I assume= elevated-rail/train