First Page Friday #2: Historical Fiction

First Page Friday

First Page Friday is a new section on The Writeditor’s blog. Every Friday I will provide an in-depth edit and critique of the first 500 words of an unpublished novel.

I am still working on the best way to present the edit and critique so your feedback is welcome. Please let me know which sections you like, which you hate, and if you have any ideas for ways to make this segment more useful.

First Page Friday Edit & Critique

Critique Key

Original Text is in italics.

Red is text I recommend removing.

Green is text I recommend adding.

Blue are my comments.

Historical Fiction First 500 – By Maria Reeves

Maria informed me that this is an early draft, so I’m going to try to focus more on the big picture.

Strait of Juan De Fuca
July 17, 1897

It was amazing, Beriah thought, that the moon could be so yellow. She looked like a celestial gold nugget, << At first I thought the “she” was Beriah. hanging heavy and low in the night sky. << Starting with weather, the night sky, the moon, etc. is considered cliche and is likely to turn off agents and editors. It didn’t matter that she was waning; her beauty spoke for itself. Every night she issued a gentle reminder to humanity to strive beyond our limitations, to reach outside our capabilities, to explore the unknown. She belonged to everyone and no one, but tonight, Beriah knew she existed only for him << This threw me off because I expected Beriah to be a woman. It sounds like a feminine name to me. , and together they were going to issue a challenge to humanity that would be remembered for all time. << This paragraph is pretty generic. It doesn’t tell me anything about your character or the story other than that it’s nighttime.

Of course, much of that was dependent on human error, specifically Beriah’s human error, but he tried not to think about << Again, this isn’t telling me anything. The success of almost anything and everything is dependent on a lack of human error. that as he stood on the deck of the Sea Lion, a tiny tugboat, that was charging up the Straight of Juan De Fuca like a lonely ghost ship in the middle of the night. Beriah stood tall despite his nerves and checked his gold pocket watch for what must have been the thousandth time since he’d boarded the Sea Lion earlier that evening. <<Readers can infer that it’s been over the course of this evening. This slows down the paragraph. The watch had been a gift from his father, also a Beriah Brown, as well as a former Post Intelligencer editor and, one time Mayor of Seattle. << Does this matter for some reason? It seems a bit irrelevant.

This opening section has no apparent conflict and not enough information to grab my attention. If I picked this up at the book store, I wouldn’t keep reading.

2:14 AM.

Beriah felt the Captain’s eyes on him and tucked his watch back into his breast pocket. He’d made promises, perhaps too big for a lowly reporter to fulfill if he was wrong about tonight. << You’re still being vague. What promises? What is he trying to accomplish? What’s going on? He cleared his throat and clutched a sealskin bag firmly, in spite of the strap that was cinched tightly across his shoulder. He couldn’t think about what would happen to him if he were wrong. << He might not want to think about it, but as the reader, I want to know. What will happen if he’s wrong? And wrong about what? He felt himself reach for his watch again. Surely the moon, his cohort, was deceiving him.

There is still no conflict, only hints at one. My attention still hasn’t been grabbed. 

2:14 AM.

He heard the steamship before he could see her. The Portland was storming towards them up the strait. She sounded old and tired, laboring as if her contents were trying to pull her under. If Beriah was right, they were. She materialized from the shadows. << It’s repetitive to say that she materialized after you said that she was storming towards them, which implies that Beriah could already see the ship. So you’ve mentioned Beriah seeing the ship a total of three times in four sentences. This creates a feeling in the reader of jumping forward and backward in time: he’s seen the ship, then he sees it coming up the straight, then it materializes (implying he hasn’t seen it yet). This jars the reader out of the story. There was something beautiful about her stubborn nature. She was defiant and unrelenting, meticulously trying to outrun a fate that would drag her to the depths of oblivion if she showed any sign of weakness. << What “fate” are you referring to? Share more with the reader. Beriah counted on the moon, hoping she would reveal the Sea Lion to the Portland before it was too late, before they would collide, sending the Sea Lion to her doom while the Portland charged ahead. << This should be an exciting concept, but it’s not hitting my emotions. Mostly because I know nothing about Beriah or the ship. I have no reason to care what happens next.

Beriah nodded at the Captain and felt their speed increase. This was his moment to make something of himself separate from his father and family name. << Why does he want to make something of himself? I don’t have enough information to understand why this is important. He felt like he could taste his heart as they charged the steamship head-on, in a desperate play to intercept the Portland before she made port in Seattle. << I thought the ships were going to collide? Now they’re intercepting her on purpose? So he wants the ships to collide? It’s not clear. They would succeed, or they would die. Either way, he took comfort that the moon would bear witness. << I don’t understand Beriah’s preoccupation with the moon.

The Writeditor’s Feedback

My Overall Thoughts

The writing style is pleasant in that the structure is simple, flows nicely, and is easy to understand. But I don’t know what’s going on. Not because I don’t understand what’s on the page, but because there isn’t enough there. I know that Beriah is on a ship, has a preoccupation with the moon, and wants to intercept another ship for some reason, but I don’t really know anything about the main character or his motivations.

My emotions are not engaged.

Key Places to Improve

  • There’s a difference between raising intriguing questions and being so vague that there’s nothing for the reader to latch onto. Unfortunately, this leans strongly towards the latter for me. The vague statements feel like you’re withholding information to try to create tension. Tell the reader what’s going on or they’re not going to stick around.
  • The timestamps seemed odd to me. Is there a very good reason for their inclusion? If not, I would get rid of them. They cut up what little action there is, and I think they’re encouraging you to be vague and repetitive by including short sections that aren’t really needed.
  • Watch out for filtering (heard, felt, saw, etc.). This is probably a pervasive problem in your writing, but it’s one that can be easily fixed.
  • Give us more of your character. Not back story necessarily, but something that shows the reader who he is. In the first few pages (as soon as possible), you want to establish: what the main character wants, why the reader should be sympathetic, and how the main character is being proactive. None of these things are clear other than that the main character doesn’t want the ships to collide.

The Writeditor’s Grade: 1

I’m not sure what this novel is about so I’m not sure whether you’re starting in the right place. If this is the best place to start, make it exciting, create tension, make us feel the character’s worry. Avoid long descriptions of the sky and moon. Avoid vague statements and thoughts. Be specific. Make it feel real.

I am giving this a one, not because the writing is terrible, but because this doesn’t do what a first page needs to do: suck the reader into the story.

My Grading Scale:

1 – Wouldn’t have finished the first page if I wasn’t editing. Back to the drawing board.

2 – Read the whole thing, but couldn’t look past problems with the writing to enjoy the story.

3 – Read the whole thing, was entertained at times, but I probably wouldn’t read on.

4 – Read the whole thing and liked it. Wasn’t really “wowed” but I would read on.

5 – Read the whole thing and loved it. I’m excited to read the rest of the book!

A note on the grading scale: The rating of the first chapter does not indicate the rating of the novel as a whole nor does it indicate the writer’s overall ability.

Reader Participation

What Do You Think?

Grades are subjective. The more people grading her work, the better grasp the writer will have on how much she needs to improve. Please help Maria by providing your own grade.

Your thoughtful critiques and suggestions for the writer are welcome in the comments section below. Explaining your grade gives Maria even more insight.

Connect with Maria

You can connect with Maria (the author of the first page) on her blog: waterbloggedtriathlete.com

And on Twitter: @ultraswimfast

Submit to First Page Friday

If you’d like to submit your novel for First Page Friday, please send the following to ellenbrock@keytopservices.com:

  • The name you want me to use in the blog post (real name, alias, or anonymous).
  • The genre of your novel.
  • The first 500 words (give or take, don’t stop in the middle of a sentence) pasted into the body of the email.
  • Any links (Twitter, Blog, Goodreads, etc.) that you’d like included in the post (not required).

Please do not submit if you are not okay with your first page being posted, critiqued, and edited on my website.

About the Editor

Ellen Brock (AKA The Writeditor) is a freelance novel editor who works with self-publishing and traditionally publishing authors as well as e-publishers and small presses. She owns the editing company Keytop Services and the writing and editing blog The Writeditor. When not editing, she enjoys reading, writing, and geocaching. Check out her editing services and testimonials.

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3 thoughts on “First Page Friday #2: Historical Fiction

  1. ultraswimfast says:

    Thanks, Ellen! It is funny, I am adapting this from a screenplay I wrote (my degree is in radio tv film) and in that format, I was taught to always begin with an image. Nice to see what you had to say about beginning with an image in a different medium. I can’t change Beriah’s name because he was a real person but I can rework the prologue. I understand why it didn’t resonate with you. As it is my first draft, I’m not too broken up. I always try to get the story out first, and then make it sing through editing. I’m glad to be a part of this first page friday and show this part of the process publicly. Editing, editing, editing. Nothing replaces good editing. I look forward to reading work by other participants.

    I do have one suggestion for your format, it would be nice if you showed the original version as well. It is very difficult to read with the edits breaking it up. If you’re going to include a poll like you do, it might be nice for people read the work without interruption but with your feedback in mind.

    Thanks again! I really appreciate it.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Thanks for your suggestions and thanks for participating!

      I’ve been thinking about adding the original in without notes but I was afraid it would make the post too long. Your feedback has swayed me into thinking it is a good idea after all. Thanks!

  2. ShiraDestinie Jones Landrac says:

    Dear Maria and Ellen,

    I’m afraid I’ve only just now found this site, so my comment is a bit out of date, but I wanted to encourage Maria, if I may. While I agree with Ellen’s comments, for the most part, I enjoyed the idea, and even the first page.

    I first wondered if you had translated the work out of Spanish, when I saw your personification of the moon. I like the idea, but perhaps more explaination in some way up front could help? I found the scene description moving, but I love the moon over water. It also felt more like a Victorian Era novel. (Ellen, is a Victorian feel still acceptable these days, to modern readers?)
    Best Regards,
    ShiraDestinie
    MEOW Date: Wednesday, June 13. 12014 H.E. (Holocene Era)

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