Monday, 16 November 2015

Page 1 critique - "City of Sons" by James Shoemaker

I'm critiquing some page 1s - read about it here.

First the disclaimers.

It's very hard to separate one's tastes from a technical critique. There are page 1s from popular books with which I would find multiple faults. I didn't, for example, like page 1 of Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule (I didn't pursue the rest of the book). But that book has 150,000+ ratings on Goodreads, a great average score of 4.12 and Goodkind is a #1 NYT bestseller. His first page clearly did a great job for many people.

I'm not always right *hushed gasp*. You will likely be able to find a successful and highly respected author who will tell you the opposite to practically every bit of advice I give. Possibly not the same author in each case though.

The art of receiving criticism is to take what's useful to you and discard the rest. You need sufficient confidence in your own vision/voice such that whilst criticism may cause you to adjust course you're not about to do a U-turn for anyone. If you act on every bit of advice you'll get crit-burn, your story will be pulled in different directions by different people. It will stop being yours and turn into some Frankenstein's monster that nobody will ever want to read.

Additionally - don't get hurt or look for revenge. The person critiquing you is almost always trying to help you (it's true in some groups there will be the occasional person who is jealous/mean/misguided but that's the exception, not the rule). That person has put in effort on your behalf. If they don't like your prose it's not personal - they didn't just slap your baby.


I've flicked through some of the pages looking for one where I have something to say - something that hopefully is useful to the author and to anyone else reading the post.


I've posted the unadulterated page first then again with comments inset and at the end.

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THE MEETING

The errant wind descends the mountaintop.  It pushes west headlong towards the flatland and the plains of the southern continent, Pannotia.  It collects the moisture on the upward journey from the great river, dislodging droplets so that they fall, pit pat, to the floodplain below.  Turning north and back east, the wind descends into the wooden city.  Upsetting hair and cloth of Smithic merchants and pilgrims, it careens through the portal called Westgate.  It moves more quickly now, encouraged by urban heat.  Up the east-west artery of the city and past the Great Intersection, suddenly the wind bursts against the body of a man, all of its energy dispersed around this cloaked impediment.  The air chills.   
Dakra Gandaris shivers and clutches the lapels of his cloak.  It is unusually cold for an early spring month.  He pulls his hood up and around his face and walks briskly east towards the river.  The paving stones outside the south entrance of Woodhall give way to trodden dirt along the Decomana. He lifts his knees higher to encourage blood and warmth into his legs.  The dagger in his trousers rubs against his hip.  A small leather sheath protects the blade.  The weapon makes Dakra feel more at ease with the upcoming meeting, as though its mere presence is protection enough.  Though he has been assured that he will be dealing with professionals of the utmost caliber, he is not foolish enough to arrive unarmed.
The Decomana is crowded and unusually frenzied.  Guilders are setting up banners with their heraldry above woven awnings and market stalls.  Two merchants argue over a row of mudbrick amphorae that separate their plots.  Gaolers wear punitive expressions and keep their pike-tips lowered at a threatening angle.  The upcoming Venrachu festival has set everyone on edge, including Dakra.  He turns south into the seventh district of the 2nd Quarter.         
The wind abates in the narrower street.  Dakra follows it as it curves west towards the seventh-second gardens.  The dagger is chafing his hipbone, but he makes no move to correct it.  He follows an alley south and stops at the top of a sunken staircase that leads down to an unassuming door cut out of a woodplank building.  In the lunette above the door is the name “B – B.”  The letters are carved without flourish, as though they were an afterthought.  Dakra enters without knocking. 
It is a tavern, windowless.  There are no patrons.  The only occupant besides Dakra is a pretty bartender who glances at him for only a second before she turns away to wipe out a wooden carafe.  The empty tables are all lit with beeswax candles, and a tallow lantern is suspended above, burning emphatically. Dakra crosses over to a high-backed booth against the far wall and sits down.  He is early. 

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THE MEETING

The errant wind descends the mountaintop.  It pushes west headlong towards the flatland and the plains of the southern continent, Pannotia.

I mentioned the "It was a dark and stormy night" syndrome in a previous crit. It's generally not a good idea to open with weather. It's over-done, and not very interesting. Here it's true that you're doing something more akin to the blown feather opening of Forrest Gump or the 'track the bullet' scene in various videos/movies - then it becomes an interesting 'where are we going'/'set the scene' device ... which is good for scene setting. The question is should page 1 be for scene-setting or reader-seizing? The answer there can depend on whether you've got a following already or are an unknown trying to snag one.

  It collects the moisture on the upward journey from the great river, dislodging droplets so that they fall, pit pat, to the floodplain below.  Turning north and back east, the wind descends into the wooden city.  Upsetting hair and cloth of Smithic merchants and pilgrims, it careens through the portal called Westgate.  It moves more quickly now, encouraged by urban heat.

I like the writing. But it would have to be INCREDIBLE writing to grab me when the topic is the water-cycle and geography.

I'm also questioning why this is in present tense. I like present tense writing, and use it myself - often to emphasize the difference between threads. The strength of present tense is an immediacy and focus though - which seems rather wasted with floodplains and Westgates...

  Up the east-west artery of the city and past the Great Intersection, suddenly the wind bursts against the body of a man, all of its energy dispersed around this cloaked impediment.  The air chills.

Why does the air chill? Was it not windy a moment ago and now it is and the wind is colder than the non-wind? I certainly don't want an explanation, just registering my confusion. Confusion isn't good.
   
Dakra Gandaris shivers and clutches the lapels of his cloak.

I normally whinge about two-name introductions, saying that they weaken point of view and are distancing. Here though we started in a disembodied wind-PoV so I guess this is settling into a Dakra PoV by stages... To be honest though - I have to ask why not open with "Dakra shivers"? What have the wind and the pit pat rain and the floodplains given us? That setting can be introduced here and there as necessary later once you have secured my attention with whatever interesting or exciting thing is happening to Dakra.

When an agent or potential reader picks this up they will have hundreds of other books clamoring for their attention. You need to give them a reason not to put it down. The current opening paragraph shows you can write - but they expect that - and it also threatens that you're going to spend a lot of time on such things, which they might not want.

What is your Unique Selling Point? What USP makes you different from the hundreds of others demanding their time. When they come to remember or recommend ... what will they say? So far it will be "That book in the present tense."

  It is unusually cold for an early spring month. 

Don't care. Sorry, but I don't.

He pulls his hood up and around his face and walks briskly east towards the river.

Up? That sounds more like down...  

The paving stones outside the south entrance of Woodhall give way to trodden dirt along the Decomana. He lifts his knees higher to encourage blood and warmth into his legs.

Slow. Detail is good - but dull.

The dagger in his trousers rubs against his hip.

There we have it. A short line that does lots of work. A dagger - it's rubbing, so he doesn't usually wear it - so he's expecting trouble/violence - we have a threat, we have tension!

  A small leather sheath protects the blade.

Don't care. Tell me unexpected things. I expect he's wearing trousers and shoes - we don't need to know unless it's unexpected. If the dagger was naked, or rusty with disuse, or sticky with fresh blood - that'd be worth mentioning. If it's in a leather scabbard ... don't care.

  The weapon makes Dakra feel more at ease with the upcoming meeting, as though its mere presence is protection enough.  Though he has been assured that he will be dealing with professionals of the utmost caliber, he is not foolish enough to arrive unarmed.

Good. Here you could add detail that makes us feel it's real. "Though Sheera assured him" doesn't matter who Sheera is but here a specific name makes it feel real and personal. 

The Decomana is crowded and unusually frenzied.  Guilders are setting up banners with their heraldry above woven awnings and market stalls.  Two merchants argue over a row of mudbrick amphorae that separate their plots.

This is good - yes it's scene setting detail but it's scene-setting detail that matters to Dakra and is in front of him. It's personal, it puts us there with him. Not sure what mudbrick amphorae are - amphorae made from the same mud as bricks are? Sounds like they're made from mudbricks ... which doesn't make sense.

  Gaolers wear punitive expressions and keep their pike-tips lowered at a threatening angle.

Wait what? Where's the gaol? Who mentioned a gaol? Punitive sounds like the wrong adjective. And pikes aren't a gaoler's weapon.

  The upcoming Venrachu festival has set everyone on edge, including Dakra.  He turns south into the seventh district of the 2nd Quarter.         
The wind abates in the narrower street.  Dakra follows it as it curves west towards the seventh-second gardens.

Sounds for a moment as if the 'it' is the wind.

The dagger is chafing his hipbone, but he makes no move to correct it. 

We already know it's rubbing and don't tell us what he doesn't do. If you want to raise tension have him wonder if he has the courage to use it. Has he ever done something like that before? Real people anticipate and worry - if you want to attach us to Dakra's cause consider making him anticipate the meeting and worry about it. He can speculate. What if... to my mind this is better use of space than the wind.

 He follows an alley south and stops at the top of a sunken staircase that leads down to an unassuming door cut out of a woodplank building.  In the lunette above the door is the name “B – B.”  The letters are carved without flourish, as though they were an afterthought.  Dakra enters without knocking. 
It is a tavern, windowless.  There are no patrons.  The only occupant besides Dakra is a pretty bartender who glances at him for only a second before she turns away to wipe out a wooden carafe.

'Pretty' is a bit blah. I'm not sure I would encourage more description here but I'd rather know what makes her pretty to him than that the candles are beeswax or the BB was carved without flourish. It's always good to make writing achieve several goals at once. A little more about why she's pretty doesn't just tell us about her, it tells us about him. Whereas the beeswax just tells us a touch more about the candles.

  The empty tables are all lit with beeswax candles, and a tallow lantern is suspended above, burning emphatically. Dakra crosses over to a high-backed booth against the far wall and sits down.  He is early. 

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So, I slapped down a lot of red ink, but actually the writing is pretty solid and my comments are more about what you choose to do with it.
You use present tense but don't really take advantage of it (tight PoV and action milk present tense for the immediacy it offers).
You introduce a character and a mild tension but there's nothing really unique here to make me remember it or *NEED* to turn to page 2. What is unique about the character or the situation?
Page 1 is valuable real-estate in writing terms. I would be using that space on character, tension, interest rather than show-casing my wind-following abilities. Make me feel Dakra's worry. Let me know what he's hoping to achieve. Why is it important? What's at stake? What makes him interesting as a character?

Those are my thoughts. Hope there's something useful for you there! Good luck with it.



4 comments:

  1. "Pretty solid," sums it up. The opening reminded me of Robert Jordan. The first paragraph is unnecessary. Opening with Dakra Gandaris would be fine, and I do find it useful to know that it's unusually cold. "Lifting his knees," makes the character sound slightly absurd, as thought he is marching, which I suspect was not the intention. "Mudbrick," amphorae are just wrong. The journey through the streets feels a bit too long to me. Too many incidental details that distract from the mood and momentum.

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  2. Perhaps the chapter should just start in the tavern, with Dakra fretting about the upcoming meeting. A sentence regarding the knife he carries could be a nice opening hook as it tells you immediatly that he is in danger.

    The world building before it is fine, but not terribly original or exiting, and should work better after we're drawn into the story and the character. The wind-thing is just too reminicent of the Wheel of time.

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  3. I think this is the start of something interesting, I'd continue to read if it was the first page of a book, but I'd be irritated by the north, south, east, west, south again, north again, is the gate facing west, oh yes it is because the wind is blowing east yawn yawn yawn.

    "suddenly the wind bursts against the body of a man, all of its energy dispersed around this cloaked impediment. The air chills.
    Dakra Gandaris shivers and clutches the lapels of his cloak. " Has the wind burst against the body of some slightly magical man who manages to chill the air? Is this man a threat to Dakra Gandaris, who enters the scene in the next paragraph? What does Dakra Gandaris have to do with this mysterious man? Oh, hang on, is Dakra Gandaris the man that the wind burst against?

    Too much information about beeswax and tallow.

    Having griped at all that, I wouldn't be put off, it sounds like the start of a book I'd read

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  4. The opening reminded me too much of the opening in the books of The Wheel of Time. Took me right out of the writing.

    Also, the SJWs would love to hate "Smithic merchants."

    Other than those points, I enjoyed the text. Would have liked some more info on this meeting that is going to take place too.

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