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 Every Friday I will provide an in-depth edit and critique of the first 500 words of an unpublished novel.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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First Page Friday #1: Science Fiction

First Page Friday

Hooray for the first ever First Page Friday! If you missed my introductory post, here’s some info:

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.

SciFi First 500 – By Charles Naylor

As the blue plasma tracer ignited the air scant inches from Buggin’s face and cut into the wall behind him, he tried to remember whether or not he left the oven on. << Avoid starting sentences with “as.” It’s not nearly as active or engaging as a simple rewrite: The blue plasma tracer ignited the air scant inches from Buggin’s face, cutting into the wall behind him, as he tried to remember whether or not he left the oven on. He remembered waking, and he remembered the rum, and he remembered Tak practically beating down his door as he burnt an omelet. But did he turn the oven off before Tak poured him into a pair of pants and hustled him outside? << I like how you’ve incorporated back story in a way that isn’t obvious or info dumping. 

He tried to roll left, but the fifth of rum he killed this morning made it more of a lurch-then-skid as the big bastard << Who is “the big bastard”? jerked his Cryotek Series II Plasma Cutter in the opposite direction, cutting a foot-wide line through the wall behind him. Buggin wrinkled his nose, he always hated the smell of melted concrete and rebar, and << These are two different concepts that don’t need to be connected as one sentence.>>He closed his left eye while bracing his heavy laser rifle against his right shoulder. He switched on his gun’s scope, disabling the transparency effect on his eyepatch << Since an eyepatch was not previously mentioned, I had to read this a couple of times to assess what I think you are saying – that he wears the eyepatch all the time and it darkens while he’s using the gun’s scope. For the sake of not jarring the reader, I think this could be made clearer. and piping in the scope’s wireless feed. He didn’t need the scope’s infrared sensor to notice the tip of the Plasma Cutter igniting again.

“Shit!” Buggin managed to rolled left just as another blue line ignited the area he had previously occupied, the busted concrete scattered on the ground that dug at his back working together with his near-death experience to briefly pierce the cloud of inebriation that suffused his brain.<< This sentence is working too hard, especially the second half. You have four things going on: he’s rolling left, he has concrete digging into his back, he’s having a near death experience, and his inebriation is pierced. Break these things up a bit. Give each some screen time with the reader so they can be processed separately. That wasn’t a Series II PC, hell it wasn’t even a Series III. That had to be some prototype PC to cooldown << “cooldown” should be two words “cool down.” in two seconds.

“Tak, you asshole! You told me they were some punk gangbangers using tenyearold tech! If this bastard isn’t using some prototype shit I’ll eat my damned eyepatch!”

Tak, busy exchanging shots with a few gangbangers from behind a rusted-out pile of scrap metal that had once been a car, << Consider making this more active. For example: Tak flung himself behind a rusted-out pile of scrap metal and shot at the gangbangers. shouted back, “That’s what I was told! Maybe that gun came from the merch they stole? The guy << Does “the guy” have a name? If so, use it here. If not, I’d use something a bit stronger like “the bastard.” that hired me wouldn’t tell me what they took, only that it was worth 1500 credits EACH << All caps is usually discouraged and may appear unprofessional. if we could recover it!”

Buggin, in the middle of the room after his last roll and wishing he hadn’t drank so much <<This sentence construction is weakening what you’re trying to say. It’s always better to show something happening in the moment rather than explaining that it happened in the past. For example, this could be rewritten as: Buggin rolled into the middle of the room, his head swirling. If only he hadn’t drank so much. , scanned the room as he stumbled to his feet. He started a count as he ran for the nearest cover, a pillar twenty feet away.

One.  A plan began to coalesce in his liquored-up brain. He looked over his shoulder, trying and tried << This reads as more active. to place himself between the pillar and the bastard.

One and a half. The pillar is in front of him, the bastard behind.<< You’ve switched to present tense.

Two. Trusting to his count, he dived forward and slightly-left << “slightly-left” should not be hyphenated. just as another blue plasma beam cut the air, punching a foot-wide hole in the pillar as he painfully belly-flopped onto some more loose concrete scattered around it. << This is another sentence that’s working too hard. You’ve got too much going on: he trusts his count, he dives forward, another plasma beam cuts the air, the beam punches a hole, he painfully belly flops, he lands on loose concrete. Whew! That’s an awful lot to pack into one sentence. Break it up. 

Buggin groaned, as he climbed to his feet, and ducked behind the pillar. Once in cover he took a half second to collect himself and observe the situation. <<This is telling (rather than showing). You can easily show that he’s collecting himself and observing the situation. He and Tak were caught between the bastard <<Who is “the bastard”? and the two bangers. One banger used suppressing fire << I don’t know what “suppressing fire” means so I can’t visualize this. to keep Tak pinned as the other moved from cover to get into a better flanking position. If he didn’t do something now Tak was good as dead.

The Writeditor’s Feedback

My Overall Thoughts

I can tell that Charles knows enough about his craft to not make beginner mistakes, and I felt like I was in the hands of a competent storyteller. The dialogue and voice both sounded natural. My biggest complaint is clarity, which was something that hung me up quite a few times.

The novel starts with a fairly humorous sentence about the main character being more worried about his oven being on than about the fight at hand. This is a great hook, but make sure it is true to the rest of the story. There were no other humorous moments or significant displays of the main character’s personality in the rest of the opening, which leads me to wonder if this is a hook that isn’t backed up by the rest of the novel.

Key Places to Improve

  • Watch out for sentences constructed like this: something happened as something else happened. This sentence construction was used nine times. That’s about 50% of non-dialogue sentences. The problem with this construction is that it makes the action feel less active, which makes it less engaging.
  • Where is this scene taking place? They’re in a room and there are pillars, but there is also a rusted-out old car. I can’t visualize the space, which distances me from the story.
  • Use short, choppy sentences to create tension and excitement. Watch out for sentences that are doing double, triple, or quadruple duty. These sentences are explaining so many concepts at once that each concept doesn’t have time to gel in the reader’s brain. In other words, it can both reduce tension and lower the reader’s comprehension.
  • Overall, I think you could be a bit richer with the details. Are they wearing street clothes or space suits? Are they in a warehouse? An indoor junkyard? What makes the various weapons different? What does the enemy look like? Are they fifteen or eighty-five? I’m intrigued by what’s happening, but I don’t really know what’s happening.
  • Where does the voice/humor go after the first paragraph? I missed it because it was a big part of what drew me into the story. The first few sentences of a novel set the tone for the whole book and make a promise to the reader about what’s to come. Writers always need to make sure that they’re living up to this promise.

The Writeditor’s Grade: 3.5

I’m giving this a 3.5 because I’m intrigued, but I’m not jumping out of my seat with enthusiasm. While I would definitely read on, if what’s happening isn’t made clear in the next couple hundred words, you’d probably lose me.  Improving the voice after the first paragraph would bump this up to a 4.

My Grading Scale:

1 – Wouldn’t have read past 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 writing ability.

Reader Participation

What Do You Think?

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

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

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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Help First Page Friday be a Success!  Please use the buttons below to share this post. The more views, the more submissions, the more First Page Fridays!