Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Page 1 critique - "Untitled" by Mark Esber

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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A calm forest doesn't mean a safe forest.
It was during a tranquil afternoon when a group of five campers drifted through the woodlands in the north.
"It's about to get pretty dark soon" Herman muttered to himself while observing through his blue eyes the tangerine twilight between a gap that the giant trees had made, an orangish eye watching them from above. Then he turned his head to the back, "we should find a place to set up camp" he spoke out loudly, reminding his companions who were trailing his lead like a snake pattern. Herman meant it to sound more like a warning.
“You mean we should find a flat area, somewhere near a source of water” Guztav confirmed cheerfully while standing at the end of the zigzag. He always thought to know what others indicate about.
“What if we don’t find that place?” Evelyn disputed clearly. She and Guztav engaged a year ago.
“We’ll be eaten by a pack of wolves, or perhaps a bear” Guztav replied, mimicking a wild beast and howling. Everyone laughed nervously at his joke.
And somewhere in the vast forest, a pack of wolves grinned and giggled exposing their plain white fangs, sharp ivory knives.
Half an hour passed and the campers were still straying between the trees, avoiding the darker paths, unaware that in the twinkling of an eye all paths will turn out the same.
Another half an hour and the night had spread its moonless wings all over the forest.
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A calm forest doesn't mean a safe forest.
OK. That carries a certain threat/promise. Decent first line.
It was during a tranquil afternoon when a group of five campers drifted through the woodlands in the north.
I don't like that much. It's  passive sentence. It lacks the voice of the first one. It has no point of view.
It's a bit dull however you put it but this is better:  Five campers drifted through the woodlands in the north on a tranquil afternoon.
What does "the north" do here? I would be specific. "The Forests of Troos" or not say anything.
"It's about to get pretty dark soon[,]" Herman muttered to himself while observing through his blue eyes the tangerine twilight between a gap that the giant trees had made, an orangish eye watching them from above. 
No! No! and No! Lots of bad things here.
First, break it up. "It's about to get pretty dark soon," Herman muttered. He watched etc.
Second, where's the point of view. If it's Herman then he doesn't care about the colour of his eyes. If it's a friend they don't either. and if it's omniscient ... _I_ don't care.
Third, you've got the adjective disease. A noun won't die if it doesn't have an adjective in front of it. Blue eyes. Tangerine twilight. Giant trees. Orangish eye.
Fourth, colour obsession. There's more to description than colours. Here we have blue, tangerine, and orangish (terrible colour) in the same sentence.
Fifth, giant trees? Trees are big things, we know that. Unless these are freakishly big or Giant Redwoods, leave it at 'trees'.
Sixth, he's said what needs saying. I don't need on page 1 to be told what twilight is.
Then he turned his head to the back, "[W]we should find a place to set up camp[,]" he spoke out loudly, reminding his companions who were trailing his lead like a snake pattern. Herman meant it to sound more like a warning.
Ugh. 
"We should find a place to set up camp," he called.  
That says it all. The rest is just awkwardly worded and a waste of space.
>Then he turned his head to the back
You so rarely need to start a sentence 'then' and this isn't one of those occasions.
If you must: He looked back.
>he spoke out loudly, 
Wordy. He called.
>reminding his companions who were trailing his lead like a snake pattern
Wordy and redundant. Plus 4 people can't snake.
>Herman meant it to sound more like a warning.
Wordy and redundant. If you must then just replace 'called' with 'warned'.

“You mean we should find a flat area, somewhere near a source of water[,]” Guztav confirmed cheerfully while standing at the end of the zigzag. 
What? The whole line is a waste of space. He's just repeating the first guy pedantically. 
>confirmed cheerfully
said.
>while standing at the end of the zigzag. 
It's a zigzag snake? Still don't care.
He always thought to know what others indicate about.
At this point I start to wonder if this were written in a different language and put through google translate. Sorry, this sounds like English as a (poor) second language.
“What if we don’t find that place?” Evelyn disputed clearly. 
>disputed clearly
said.
Plus ... she's not really disputing ... and 'clearly'? what's that doing there?
She and Guztav engaged a year ago.
a) Who is telling me this?
b) I don't care.
You need to be following up on that threat of the wood not being safe, not introducing me to five people in short order.

“We’ll be eaten by a pack of wolves, or perhaps a bear[,]” Guztav replied, mimicking a wild beast and howling. 
Hooray! We get a simple 'replied' it's not qualified with an adverb, and the dialogue has a voice to it, some humour, it's something someone might really say. Score!
Everyone laughed nervously at his joke.
Why add 'at his joke'?
And somewhere in the vast forest, a pack of wolves grinned and giggled exposing their plain white fangs, sharp ivory knives.
Omniscient PoV is distancing but can be used to advantage. 
'somewhere' makes it seem as if they could be miles off ... so what are they reacting to? It lessens any threat.
Wolves can 'grin' though there's no humour in it ... but 'giggle'? That just sounds silly.
And 'plain'? Not sure what that's doing there.
Deep among the trees wolves raised their noses to the breeze. The pack leader's grin exposed a mouthful of sharp ivory.
Half an hour passed and the campers were still straying between the trees, avoiding the darker paths, unaware that in the twinkling of an eye all paths will turn out the same.
Feels more like a fairy story - it's the omni PoV. Tense issues here too.
Another half an hour and the night had spread its moonless wings all over the forest.
Rather than deal in specific lumps of time it can be better to talk about the sun dropping behind the treeline, horizon etc, shadows merging...
I like the night spreading its moonless wings :)
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So, this probably sounded harsh. Honesty is the most valuable currency here, and I'd do you no favours by pretending that there isn't a lot of work required on this piece.
You have issues with the language on a line by line basis. On top of that as a page 1, story-wise, this is somewhat lacking. It does pose a problem to be addressed - travelers unaware of the (possible) imminent threat of wolves - but it's not that interesting a threat and you don't deepen it by giving us a character who hooks us. I have to care about someone before I care if they're eaten. And by 'care' I mean be at least mildly interested in them. Wolves are not generally a threat to people, and less of a threat to five adults than one. So why should I believe these wolves are a problem?
I would up the urgency, underscore the threat, tighten the language, make the description work to drive the important elements, and use the dialogue to raise the emotional stakes plus give at least the leader some character.
Hope there's some help here! 


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4 comments:

  1. English not the writer's first language? That's the only explanation I can see.

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  2. Thanks Mark for your critique. I really appreciate it and I'll take it into serious consideration (already fixing/modifying it).
    Truth be told, english is not my first language but I don't use google translate, I just try hard to think/write english wise which I hope will sharpen my way of writing in the future.
    Thank you again for putting your effort into all this.

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  3. To be honest, that was a difficult read which I attribute largely to English not being the first language of the author. I critiqued a work once before where it became immediately apparent that the writer was not a native English speaker, but he seemed surprised that I picked up on it. Trying to write a letter in a foreign language is hard enough, so translating and then accommodating all the nuances of prose is even more so. I think a lot of problems can arise if you try to make a literal translation of something colloquial or idiomatic from your own tongue. It may or may not be understandable but it will look awkward and unfamiliar. I think, if you are not fully fluent in a language, you need to work closely with someone who is, to ensure a seamless translation, and to communicate your ideas to their best advantage.

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  4. "I have to care about someone before I care if they're eaten. And by 'care' I mean be at least mildly interested in them."

    I liked Guztav. His sense of humour/cockiness made him stand out from the others who all seemed more fretful. So at this early stage I'm anticipating him either a) fighting off a wolf pack with the same devil-may-care attitude, or b) getting the smile wiped off his face when he realises he's in the shit ;-)

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