First Page Friday #21: Fantasy

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About First Page Friday

First Page Friday is a blog series where I provide a free edit and critique of the first 500 words of an unpublished novel. Read the excerpt without my notes first and leave your vote in the poll. Afterward, feel free to leave a comment for the author. Feedback is always helpful!

Fantasy First 500 – Kathryn

Black figures crowded the trees around him, staring down with a shameless curiosity. Knowing what he had just done, he avoided looking at the birds. They called at him, and he swallowed hard. Who did it matter to, he thought, brushing away the red dust that clung to his fine, dark arm hair. The knife in his pocket rubbed against his thigh, a heavy reminder of the deed. Who the hell did it matter to, anyway?

He made the small trek down the tall hill covered in twisted trees, and felt his shoulders unwind at the sight of his lake. The lake front was quiet, as always. A soft breeze whistled across its glassy surface and rattled the shack he called home. The grass inside the poorly fenced garden was trimmed only by the goat, Daisy, and thus grew up to his waist. She stumbled as far as her knobbly rope would allow her to eagerly greet him. He patted her neck, firmly, before brushing her aside. At the very least she was company.

The door creaked open, a few paint chips flaking to the ground. He picked his way through the rubble that littered the hallway; fallen pieces of furniture, broken frames of shattered mirrors, rugs and blankets and old dusty books. A window without glass opened out to the south facing pier. Alvar swung a leg over , stopping at the pain in his chest. He rested his head on the frame of the window, closing his eyes to the setting sun and the pain rippling through his body. His dark curls swung around his gaunt face and his chest heaved. With a sort of apathy, he tumbled outwards onto the pier. While he caught himself a little too late, his tough gloves protected him from the splinters of the old grey boards. The splinters stuck up like small needles in haphazard rows. He figured that one day he would grab a rough stone and smooth the pier. Turning his head, he looked down the pier’s length and thought better of it.

Finding the wind that ran across the lake and bought salt to his nose calming, he didn’t bother to stand, and let his heavy eyes close again. He was always so tired, and sleep seemed less lonely than awakeness.

It was dark, the round moon brighter in the sky that the sun had seemed to be. Stars spread across, and he let his eyes wander. It was strange to him that some people would fear the dark. He could spend hours tracing where the velvets met the satins.

At the back of his mind, a nagging thought interrupted his peace and asked him why he could hear Daisy’s soft cawing. She would normally be asleep at this time. His body tensed.

Reader Participation – What Do You Think?

Before reading my take on this novel opening, please take a moment to record your thoughts in the poll below.

Your thoughtful critiques and suggestions for the writer are also welcome in the comments section. Explaining your vote gives the author even more insight into where they’re hitting the mark and where they can improve.

The Writeditor’s Feedback

 Critique Key

Original Text is in italics.

Red is text I recommend removing.

Green is text I recommend adding.

Blue are my comments.

Fantasy First 500 – Kathryn

Black figures crowded the trees around him, staring down with a shameless curiosity. Knowing what he had just done, he avoided looking at the birds. They called at him, and he swallowed hard. Who did it matter to, he thought, brushing away the red dust that clung to his fine, dark arm hair. < The adjectives seem like a bit much, like I’m supposed to find his arm hair attractive. The knife in his pocket rubbed against his thigh, a heavy reminder of the deed. Who the hell did it matter to, anyway?

He made the small trek down the tall hill covered in twisted trees, < Adjectives before every noun give writing a strange cadence that feels awkward. and felt his shoulders unwind < I’m not sure how shoulders can unwind because what would wound shoulders be like? at the sight of his lake. The lake front was quiet, as always. A soft breeze whistled across its glassy surface and rattled the shack he called home. The grass inside the poorly fenced garden < What does it mean for a garden to be poorly fenced? I can’t visualize that. was trimmed only by the goat, Daisy, and thus grew up to his waist. She stumbled as far as her knobbly rope would allow her to eagerly greet him. He patted her neck, firmly, before brushing her aside. At the very least she was company. < At this point I’m getting bored. I don’t have any reason to care about him, his house, or his goat, and the descriptions aren’t anything unusual or unique.

The door creaked open, a few paint chips flaking to the ground. He picked his way through the rubble that littered the hallway; fallen pieces of furniture, broken frames of shattered mirrors, rugs and blankets and old dusty books. A window without glass opened out to the south facing pier. Alvar swung a leg over , < At first I couldn’t understand what he swung his leg over, but that might just be me. stopping at the pain in his chest. He rested his head on the frame of the window, closing his eyes to the setting sun and the pain rippling through his body. His dark curls swung around his gaunt face and his chest heaved. With a sort of apathy, he tumbled outwards onto the pier. While he caught himself a little too late, his tough gloves protected him from the splinters of the old grey boards. < Is he dying or is he just being melodramatic? The way I visualize this, he’s sort of just dramatically throwing himself out the window. The splinters stuck up like small needles in haphazard rows. He figured that one day he would grab a rough stone and smooth the pier. Turning his head, he looked down the pier’s length and thought better of it. < You’ve got this character who is apathetic, has no immediate threats to his well being, and seems to have no objective/goal. It doesn’t give the reader anything to latch onto or find interesting.

Finding the wind that ran across the lake and brought salt to his nose calming, < For some reason I found this difficult to read. I read it as if he found the wind itself.  he didn’t bother to stand, and let his heavy eyes close again. He was always so tired, and sleep seemed less lonely than awakeness. < I feel like you’re trying really hard to get readers to feel sorry for him, but I don’t know why I should. Is he dying? Because otherwise it seems like he’s being a bit melodramatic.

It was dark, the round moon brighter in the sky that the sun had seemed to be. Stars spread across, and he let his eyes wander. It was strange to him that some people would fear the dark. He could spend hours tracing where the velvets met the satins. < This sort of paragraph (the protagonist looking at the stars and moon) is extraordinarily common in novel openings. I would avoid it.

At the back of his mind, a nagging thought interrupted his peace and asked < His thought isn’t asking him – he’s asking himself. I find this wording awkward. him why he could hear Daisy’s soft cawing. She would normally be asleep at this time. His body tensed. < I’m assuming something exciting happens here, but it’s too little too late. Readers won’t get to this point.

My Overall Thoughts

There’s nothing wrong with the writing itself. It’s smooth and doesn’t feel like an amateur, so that’s great! I think your big problem is that you’re not starting this in the right place. Imagine readers picking through their options at the library or bookstore – What about this opening stands out? What captures the reader’s interest? Now think about the most exciting thing that happens in the beginning of your story – can you make that the opening instead?

Key Places to Improve:

  • Remember that your opening should tell us something about your character – preferably something that’s unique and interesting and that will be present throughout the book. Readers relate to characters who are proactive, are in a difficult situation, and who have a goal. It’s tough to relate to a character who seems mopey and depressed, especially if we don’t know why.
  • Your narrative distance is a bit too far from Alvar. It would help the reader feel connected with him if you delved a bit deeper into his thoughts. Connect what he’s seeing with how he feels: What’s up with his house and how does he feel about it? Why does it matter that he has a goat? Or that the fence isn’t perfect? Or that the interior is a mess? If you don’t connect it to the character’s thoughts, feelings, history, etc., then it’s meaningless to the reader.
  • Remember that if your character is bored/apathetic/tired/etc, that’s how your reader is going to feel too. Unless those emotions create suspense (he’s too tired to react to a threat and is going to die) or are intended as comedy (obviously not the case here), then it’s best to keep your characters energized and motivated, even if their emotions are negative.

The Writeditor’s Grade (out of 5): 2

I’m giving this a 2 because the writing itself isn’t bad. It’s just that this opening doesn’t inspire or excite me. I don’t feel like I have to know what’s happening next, which is no good for a first chapter.

I hope my notes help you on your journey towards publication. Good luck!

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.

Submit to First Page Friday – (currently booking last week of May and beyond)

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 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 freelance novel editing services and mentoring.

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2 thoughts on “First Page Friday #21: Fantasy

  1. Donald Robinson says:

    The story did strike my curiosity a bit. It seems like he killed someone and is on the run and it does leave me wondering what happened. I am also wondering if he is injured or dying and why.

    One thing I think might help with his thoughts is to remove them from the paragraphs and tell the readers that he thought something. Rather, place it as an internal dialouge where he just is thinking. The readers will make the leap to understanding it is his thoughts. Such as in the first paragraph with “Who did it matter to, he thought, brushing away the red dust that clung to his fine, dark arm hair.” I would remove the “he thought” and end the sentence there. Place “Who did it matter to” in italics so the readers know he is thinking. Then start the next sentence with “He brushed away…”

    I’m still a novice and very green around the ears. Please take my advice with a grain of salt. I am no expert, just trying to offer some help/suggestions!

  2. ddrespling says:

    There was tension in the beginning. He’s done something bad, maybe killed someone or something since he has a knife. I wanted to know more about this crime. But too soon, we’re taken on a journey of description that feels forced. Why did he go home? Are there no repercussions from this crime? Even internal ones, like guilt? Is he not worried about getting caught? He seems very calm and nonchalant, as if he commits crimes all the time and feels nothing about them. So far, there is nothing to like about the character. He comes off as careless and messy based on the state of his house, and he is unsympathetic.

    There are a few weak constructions used where the sentences start with an -ing verb, like “Knowing what he had just done, he avoided looking at the birds.” There were a few places that description seemed to contradict. In “A soft breeze whistled across its glassy surface and rattled the shack he called home.” I’m thinking that if a breeze is strong enough to rattle a structure it’s not “soft” and it’s not going to leave the surface of the lake looking smooth, as “glassy” implies.

    I didn’t understand this: “Alvar swung a leg over , stopping at the pain in his chest.” I didn’t understand what he swung his leg over, or if he even did since he “stopped,” nor did I see what the pain in his chest was. We heard nothing of a pain before. And why was it necessary to leave through the window? Could he not just walk back out the door? Feels contrived. Then, he’s thinking of smoothing the pier of its splinters, but immediately discounts the thought. So why even mention it? Am I supposed to feel that’s he’s wishy-washy and cares about nothing? And what happened to the pain that was so strong it stopped him?

    I found this sentence confusing: “Finding the wind that ran across the lake and bought salt to his nose calming, he didn’t bother to stand, and let his heavy eyes close again.” It seems like he found the wind, I don’t understand why the salt coming to his nose calms him, and when did he close his eyes before that this is “again”? There is too much happening at once.

    This sentence contradicts: “It was dark, the round moon brighter in the sky that the sun had seemed to be.” It’s dark, then it’s bright. If the moon is brighter than the sun, it’s not going to be dark.

    Overall, there is not enough tension. There is not enough about the character to make me care about him. He seems very cold, which makes me apathetic towards him. Think carefully about description. Don’t put it in just to put it in. Make it count. There’s a good premise here, but the scene doesn’t go deep enough. Tell us what’s going on with the character and make us love him so we’ll care that house is falling apart, that he’s injured, and that he has done something bad.

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