First Page Friday #29: Historical Fiction

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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First Page Friday is a blog series where I provide a free edit and critique of the first 500 words of an unpublished novel.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!

Historical Fiction – Anonymous

As a child I used to press my ear to my pillow, listening to the steady swoosh of my heartbeat, praying it would continue through the night. I was afraid the magic that kept it beating would vanish, and death would find me. What a foolish thought that had been – to fear death.

I’m not sure how long I’ve been here; maybe six months, maybe a year. I don’t keep track like the others: time has no place for me in this frozen land. If not for my hate, which is stronger than my misery, or for the promise I gave my sister Olga – who has never broken a promise to me – I’d gladly let the cold carry me away. Perhaps that day will come, when even the fires of hate cannot see me through this darkness. But not today. Today I will not feed my soul to the beast: let Stalin find his dinner elsewhere. Before the gulag I was a girl afraid of death, and now I’m a woman who teases herself with the notion of finding it.

My father would be proud that I have finally become brave. With nothing left to lose, bravery comes easily.

I wonder if being torn from such wealth and comfort means that I have lost more than most who were already starving, cold, and alone. I try not to think of my family, and the life I had, but it’s difficult to keep my mind within these walls. Sometimes I hear my mother call for me as I work. Her voice is warm and soothing against my chapped skin, carrying with it the scent of sweet bread and lamb stew, making my mouth water and my heart hunger. Time and again, I close my eyes and pray her voice will finally wake me from this nightmare. Always opening them to the other women cramped in this workhouse, with my limbs tangled painfully in the barb of hope. I no longer hope, as it will only bleed you slowly.

It’s easy to spot the new ones in camp. Their skin has a greenish tint with the whites of their eyes yellowing from months spent cramped in transport cattle cars, unbearably thick with the stench of urine. Seeing their gaunt faces and hollowed eyes, I am reminded of my own harrowing journey. A short eternity spent living off small chunks of frozen bread, which the guards would toss at us through the barred windows. We would scramble like packed pigeons, hoping to catch the bread before it hit the soiled floor. Even then, most of us would still eat the foul pieces, so desperate were we to ease the pain in our bellies – only to trade one sort of pain for another.

When the cries faded and the lined faces turned soft, we knew death had come. He was all around us; calm, and patiently waiting. And so tempted was I to say his name.

 

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.

My Feedback

 Critique Key

Original Text is in italics. (Author is already using italics, so my comments are going to be underlined this week)

Red is text I recommend removing.

Green is text I recommend adding.

Blue are my comments.

Historical Fiction – Anonymous

As a child I used to press my ear to my pillow, listening to the steady swoosh of my heartbeat, praying it would continue through the night. <I almost love this opening line but the two “ing” verbs weaken what could be a really punchy opening. This is mostly just a quibble because I feel like you have the chops to write an opening line that’s truly stunning. I was afraid the magic that kept it beating would vanish, and death would find me. What a foolish thought that had been – to fear death.

I’m not sure how long I’ve been here; maybe six months, maybe a year. I don’t keep track like the others: time has no place for me in this frozen land. If not for my hate, which is stronger than my misery, or for the promise I gave my sister Olga – who has never broken a promise to me – I’d gladly let the cold carry me away. Perhaps that day will come, when even the fires of hate cannot see me through this darkness. But not today. Today I will not feed my soul to the beast: let Stalin find his dinner elsewhere. Before the gulag I was a girl afraid of death, and now I’m a woman who teases herself with the notion of finding it.

My father would be proud that I have finally become brave. With nothing left to lose, bravery comes easily.< Again, a minor quibble. I don’t like the repeated “y” sound of “bravery” and “easily.” But this is a matter of opinion.

I wonder if being torn from such wealth and comfort means that I have lost more than most, who < The comma here is necessary as there’s a significant difference in meaning without it.  were already starving, cold, and alone. I try not to think of my family, and the life I had, but it’s difficult to keep my mind within these walls. Sometimes I hear my mother call for me as I work. Her voice is warm and soothing against my chapped skin, carrying with it the scent of sweet bread and lamb stew, making my mouth water and my heart hunger. Time and again, I close my eyes and pray her voice will finally wake me from this nightmare. Always opening them to the other women cramped in this workhouse, with my limbs tangled painfully in the barb of hope. I no longer hope, as it will only bleed you slowly.

It’s easy to spot the new ones in camp. < It’s not clear if she’s looking at them now or if this is simply a thought. Giving her physical presence and/or making it clear that she’s simply thinking would help with clarity. Their skin has a greenish tint with the whites of their eyes yellowing from months spent cramped in transport cattle cars, unbearably thick with the stench of urine. Seeing their gaunt faces and hollowed eyes, I am reminded of my own harrowing journey. A short eternity spent living off small chunks of frozen bread, which the guards would toss at us through the barred windows. We would scramble like packed pigeons, hoping to catch the bread before it hit the soiled floor. Even then, most of us would still eat the foul pieces, so desperate were we to ease the pain in our bellies – only to trade one sort of pain for another.

When the cries faded and the lined faces turned soft, we knew death had come. He was all around us; calm, and patiently waiting. And so tempted was I to say his name.

 

My Overall Thoughts

Wow! A strong style, lovely rhythm to the words, great characterization, and depth in nearly every line makes this an opening worth paying attention to.

Key Places to Improve:

  • I really think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this. Aside from a couple of nit picky line edits, I can’t see much that could be improved upon other than clearing up that last paragraph – is she actually looking at the new comers or just thinking about them?
  • The personification of death may bring up immediate comparisons with The Book Thief, especially given the similar subject matter. However, since your writing is strong, I don’t think this comparison will be something that drags you down unless too many aspects are similar later on. I don’t see that being the case, but still feel it’s worth mentioning.

The Writeditor’s Grade (out of 5): 4.5

I almost gave this a 5, but I really wanted a first line that punched me in the gut because I know you have the writing chops to pull it off. Adding that to the vagueness of the last paragraph just barely bumps this down a half point. The bottom line: if this is finished, so long as your structure is good, I can’t imagine you struggling much to get agents to bite. So go query! If it’s not done, finish it!

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.

Connect with the Author

http://donald-robinson.blogspot.com/

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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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15 thoughts on “First Page Friday #29: Historical Fiction

  1. Hailey says:

    Actually, I’ve read The Book Thief, and this isn’t like it at all. It reminds me more of a book called The Cage by Ruth Minsky Sender. It’s a true story about when the author was in a concentration camp.

  2. westfalen45 says:

    Some really great opening lines, and all the more interesting to me because I’m writing about similar subject matter. I wish him all the best.

  3. Silvie Monk says:

    Your writing makes me feel worthless and weak. I very much enjoyed this. Can’t wait to read the rest! If it makes a difference, I automatically pictured the woman observing the new prisoners. I probably wouldn’t have if you hadn’t used “spot.” It’s the perfect word that dropped me right in the middle of that camp, seeing through her eyes.

  4. Zarine says:

    Very powerful, with clear word-pictures.
    You engage the reader from the first sentence, as we remember our own secure childhoods, and then shock us as we realise ‘you’ are in a concentration camp. Then we look outwards, at the others. And the picture of the totally relaxed muscles of death: we seem to have run the gamut – safe childhood, adult pain, death. Now we want to know how it turned out for ‘you’/the first person narrator.
    With the kind of ‘nit-picky’ comments provided by Ellen, the novel could be a winner. Thank you for sharing it.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Your writing drew me in immediately. Very powerful, clear imagery. That is so important in writing about something so far beyond the experience of most readers (thankfully.) I am working on a novel set in WWII Amsterdam, and your writing has energized me to try harder!

  6. jennfs10 says:

    I have to admit, I had a difficult time connecting with this sample. I didn’t get the impression it was historical fiction right away and even though it eventually comes out that she was in a work camp, I felt like it took too long to get there. Then when I read Ellen’s critique and everyone’s comments here, I felt like I missed something. I’ve been back several times to reread the passage and Ellen’s critique and I’ve come to a few realizations.

    I’m very inexperienced when it comes to historical fiction. My current passion is YA. So, I was expecting quick action and immediate exposition. Instead, the narrative lingered through several memories and then the realities of the character’s situation were introduced. It’s subtle which shows great skill as well.

    I also realized that if the reader is familiar with the conventions of a genre, he/she will allow for certain conventions. Based on people’s comments, the subtle build up was not only expected, but also enjoyed.

    As a writer, I’m always looking for ways to improve my writing and this particular critique has reminded me that I need to read good writing in various genres. It’s so easy to stay in one genre because one enjoys it so much. I’m guilty of that, but I plan to rectify it soon.

    Thank you to the author for sharing your words. I did like it and it certainly left an impression!

  7. connie says:

    I loved it Danielle. I believe powerful is an appropriate description of the story thus far. I feel my paltry skills pale in comparison. Best of luck.

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