Friday, 5 February 2016

Page 1 critique - "Balance" by Kareem Mahfouz

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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Prologue

My world was reduced to the rhythmic beat of my boots, the burn in my lungs and my need to end this chase. My target led me through cattle fields in the dead of night. He navigated the farmland with obvious familiarity; I however had almost lost my footing a number of times. Most people would try to lose me in the bordering woodland, but then, Survivors aren’t most people… He jumped a low fence and disappeared into a large building, it outlined the night in deeper shade of black. A barn if I had to guess. One of the massive doors was ajar and inside was a void of darkness, following would be… risky. The noise that followed kept me from moving any closer.

It was the sound of a sizable dog that managed to congeal the sound of a bark and a growl together to create a noise that made you wish you had fresh underwear to hand. It became increasingly offended by my existence and the hellish sound it produced was amplified by the empty barn. My imagination projected images of creatures my father would tell tales of to scare my brother and me.
The barking increased in ferocity. I don’t care how brave you think you are. An angry set of sharp teeth bent on ripping you apart will make you reconsider.

“Ha! The big bad fucking Orphan scared of my pup!” Apparently the dog had given him enough courage to make a stand.

“This night has one ending, Brant, and if you make me kill that dog because you are too cowardly to face your death then I’ll make sure that you feel every agonising second of it.”

“Let’s find out, Orphan!” The dog came running. Shit …

I considered shoving something in the dog’s mouth, but what? …  Without the luxury of choice I picked up a stick that would have to do, for a second I looked for something else but the dog was now only a few feet away. Fuck it! He leapt for my neck, jaws open and all four legs off the ground. I wedged the stick in his mouth and felt teeth bite into the wood; I kept a hold of the stick, hoping it gave the animal the sense that it had hit its mark ... it worked. I knew it wouldn’t stay there long before he realised his error. In an instant I was racked with regret, felt sick with guilt and resigned myself. I unsheathed my sword, the steel in my hand caught the moon’s light before it arced through the air and bit into the dog’s neck, severing the spine. The tiniest of yelps cut short confirmed the beast had died.

My heart ached for the dog, his death a result of unyielding loyalty. Loyalty to someone who had spent his life like spare change. I turned my grief into anger, and then aimed it straight at Brant.
I ran into the barn, my anger burning all caution away. Once inside the moon was to my back, I could see nothing within and all was silent.


“Brant!” I called after him.  He had drowned seven years ago in a fishing wreck up north. He reawakened with the ability to breathe underwater, and set to using his new talents robbing merchant vessels of their goods. He also had three murders under his belt. Four, if you include the dog. “When I find you I’m going to core out your throat like an apple! Then watch the life leak out your neck, you cowardly waste of life! Brant!” I heard him before I felt him fall on me from the barn rafters, the impact left me prone on the floor. I dropped my sword in the fall but I’d be damned if I was going to lose him. He was close; I could hear him, so I blindly felt my way around in the dark. I felt some part of him and got a kick in the face for my labours. He thought it an adequate enough strike to make his escape and hurry for the barn door. The moon blessed me with enough light to be able to kick his feet from underneath him. Quickly I was back on my feet and hot with anger. 


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Prologue

Some people skip prologues. I used to be one of them. Now I write them and hope my readers don't skip them.

There's a school of thought/writing that says prologues fulfill a unique role and as such follow different 'rules'. Some prologues are essentially info dumps, a condensed world-building / history. These are the sorts I used to encounter a lot, and skip, without losing much.

Another school of thought is that prologues should be as exciting and engaging as any other part of your book. If you have a prologue then your prologue contains your page 1 and that page 1 has to work just as hard as if it were in chapter 1. I try to write my prologues like that. And the only reason I opt for a prologue is usually because I'm offering a PoV I may not return to, or won't for a long time, or I'm dealing with a period a significant time before (or maybe after) the main story.


My world was reduced to the rhythmic beat of my boots, the burn in my lungs and my need to end this chase. My target led me through cattle fields in the dead of night.

So this isn't the info-dump type of prologue. Good.

My, my, my, my, my. Can restructure to reduce 'my' and 'I' in first person. Eg:
My world was reduced to the rhythmic beat of my boots, to burning lungs and the need to end this chase.

He navigated the farmland with obvious familiarity;

We soon learn it's his farm and the narrator knows this. He also knows his name. So why not tell us now? Brant could navigate his own farm as easily by night as by day.

I however had almost lost my footing a number of times.

Might be better shown than told. Turning the corner my foot tried to slide from under me and for the fifth time I nearly fell. 

Most people would try to lose me in the bordering woodland, but then, Survivors aren’t most people…

Lost + Lose, repetition.

He jumped a low fence and disappeared into a large building, it outlined the night in deeper shade of black. A barn if I had to guess. One of the massive doors was ajar

Farm, large building, massive door ... let's just call it a barn and skip the guessing?

 and inside was a void of darkness, following would be… risky. The noise that followed kept me from moving any closer.

void of darkness - feels like overkill


It was the sound of a sizable dog that managed to congeal the sound of a bark and a growl together to create a noise that made you wish you had fresh underwear to hand.

noise, sound, sound, noise - awkward repetition.

'congeal' feels like the wrong word, maybe fuse, marry, blend etc

It became increasingly offended by my existence and the hellish sound it produced was amplified by the empty barn. 

Doesn't feel as if enough time has passed for 'increasingly' plus realistically it would've been barking the whole time. Also, the barn's a void of darkness ... it could be full of stuff rather than empty? This whole line like feels like a bit of a waste to me.

If you want to underscore how scary it is maybe take it in a different direction. The sort of guttural howl that reminds you who's the predator and who's the prey.  

My imagination projected images of creatures my father would tell tales of to scare my brother and me.
The barking increased in ferocity. I don’t care how brave you think you are. An angry set of sharp teeth bent on ripping you apart will make you reconsider.

Good to make it personal, but here it's a tale about tales told. Perhaps a quick direct memory of actually being savaged/threatened by a dog as a child. Throw in specifics, rolling eyes, white teeth, slobber, ferocity, the quickness, the sound, the smell. All these will remind most readers of something similar whereas describing the descriptions in the tales is a bit more distancing. Remember the pain, the strength of the animal, the helplessness, being paralysed in the moment.

“Ha! The big bad fucking Orphan scared of my pup!” Apparently the dog had given him enough courage to make a stand.

“This night has one ending, Brant, and if you make me kill that dog because you are too cowardly to face your death then I’ll make sure that you feel every agonising second of it.”

“Let’s find out, Orphan!” The dog came running. Shit …

Brant could name the dog - make it more specific - "Go get him, [FIDO]!"

I considered shoving something in the dog’s mouth, but what? …  Without the luxury of choice I picked up a stick that would have to do, for a second I looked for something else but the dog was now only a few feet away. Fuck it! He leapt for my neck, jaws open and all four legs off the ground. I wedged the stick in his mouth and felt teeth bite into the wood; I kept a hold of the stick, hoping it gave the animal the sense that it had hit its mark ... it worked. I knew it wouldn’t stay there long before he realised his error. In an instant I was racked with regret, felt sick with guilt and resigned myself. I unsheathed my sword,

This dog is sometimes a he, sometimes an it. Pick one. Probably 'it' unless Brant does name it and deliver a gender.

It's dark, so he does well to spot this stick and get it as the dog is charging him. It makes me realise I can't see the setting - I didn't know there was a stick to hand. Perhaps if it were a rake handle leaning against the barn etc.

All this is fine ... until I get to "I unsheathed my sword." Then I'm thinking ... why wasn't that the first thing he did? Even if he didn't want to kill the dog ... a sword is a big metal stick.

 the steel in my hand caught the moon’s light before it arced through the air and bit into the dog’s neck, severing the spine. The tiniest of yelps cut short confirmed the beast had died.

A tad wordy. Plus with a severed spine we don't really need confirmation it's dead. Nothing wrong with snarl becoming a yelp that gets cut short - just don't need to be told it confirmed the beast had died. 

Could get us into the fight more if it brought him to the ground, give us hot breath, slobber, mud, blood, the weight of it, the smell.

Mechanics a bit strange - it's a dog of man-killing size... does he hold it back with one hand while swinging the sword at its neck with the other? And now would be a good time for some of the aforementioned raw animal terror at being savaged (attempted) by a ferocious hound.

My heart ached for the dog, his death a result of unyielding loyalty. Loyalty to someone who had spent his life like spare change.

To be fair he's told Brant he's going to kill him. Brant's spending this dog's life in the hopes of saving his own, not for a giggle.

I turned my grief into anger, and then aimed it straight at Brant.
I ran into the barn, my anger burning all caution away. Once inside the moon was to my back, I could see nothing within and all was silent.


Imma say the moon was at his back outside the barn too.

“Brant!” I called after him.

After him? Into the darkness perhaps.

  He had drowned seven years ago in a fishing wreck up north. He reawakened with the ability to breathe underwater, and set to using his new talents robbing merchant vessels of their goods. He also had three murders under his belt. Four, if you include the dog. “When I find you I’m going to core out your throat like an apple! Then watch the life leak out your neck, you cowardly waste of life! Brant!”

Interesting about Brant.
Still not buying 'running away from the man with a sword trying to kill him' as 'cowardly' :)

I heard him before I felt him fall on me from the barn rafters,

What did he hear? Him falling through the air?
He felt him hit him - the falling is separate and not felt. Better perhaps with something like - a huge blow across my shoulders staggered me. Brant's weight bore me to the ground. He'd dropped from the rafters. 

 the impact left me prone on the floor. I dropped my sword in the fall but I’d be damned if I was going to lose him. He was close; I could hear him,

Again 'I could hear him' would be better replaced with what 'I' could hear. Brant groaned close at hand and I turned to face him. - or - The shuffle of feet swung me to my left. etc

Try to use the actual thing rather than an adjective describing the type of thing. Not 'I heard him.' But 'I heard [something].' It puts the reader there.


 so I blindly felt my way around in the dark. I felt some part of him and got a kick in the face for my labours. He thought it an adequate enough strike to make his escape and hurry for the barn door. The moon blessed me with enough light to be able to kick his feet from underneath him. Quickly I was back on my feet and hot with anger. 

Kick, kick, feet, feet.


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I put a lot of red ink on this but actually it was a solid effort. My suggestions were just that - possible improvements to something that already did a good job, rather than replacements for bits that failed.

To me this did all the right sort of things - local, easy to grasp problem, gives us immediate action and interest, there's a threat, the PoV has a voice/character, and some interesting world-building slips in when we learn the nature of the enemy. It leaves the reader with a reason to continue and the expectation that the situation will unfold into a larger story.




2 comments:

  1. An easy read. It's mostly clear what's going on, and the learning curve is low. I enjoyed it.

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  2. I'll try this without reference to Mark's critique, so just a few quick thoughts. The moon? Where did the moon come from? One moment all we read about is shades of darkness and blackness then out of nowhere the moon appears at a convenient moment. Maybe I should have already placed the moon in the sky, but I hadn't, so its occurrence seemed contrived. The scene seems unsure whether it is trying to show something, describe something, or tell us something. The action is broken up by insights into the thought process of the protagonist. Maybe it's supposed to give us an insight into his nature but it's a bit of a clumsy insert breaking the flow. I would say the same about about the short section of Brant's back story. Not necessary at that point. Paragraph one - using variations of follow in consecutive sentences. It looks like an oversight. Paragraph two - It just feels as though it could be streamlined, fewer words an more impact. All that said, I think it is an interesting piece of writing. A protagonist and an antagonist are established. There is conflict and action, it has a momentum that takes the reader somewhere, and it reveals a mystery, the "Survivors." If I am honest, the dead who won't stay dead doesn't seem that exciting, but maybe there will be more to them than I think and I'm intrigued enough to consider reading more. I'm not a dog person, so I don't care one way or the other about that.

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