Saturday, May 12, 2012
First Page Critique: OF DREAMS AND STARS
This is an excellent example of a first page by an author who does a great job of creating a mood but who needs to pay more attention to basic grammar and punctuation. Reading this first page is similar to being seated in a restaurant and loving the promise of the menu but finding spots on the glasses and --- worse --- a crusty flake or two of something unidentifiable on the silverware:
Between Dreams and Stars
John knew that if he didn’t find shelter soon, that this would be the end. It would be fitting though, for this icy wasteland was the first place that reflected how he had felt for the past three years, since she disappeared.
The shrieking wind reached another octave. John brought his arms and head towards his chest. Even if he could have lifted his head up, it would have been useless. The wind distorted the snow and ice into a blinding static. Groping along the frozen mountainside, he struggled to bring one foot in front of the other, sinking deeper into the snow.
He felt like he must be getting close now. The Sherpa, who remained thousands of feet and a day and a half behind, claimed that what he was after was within hundreds of yards of the summit. This peak, with rock as dark as the night, was a nameless crag amidst the Himalayas. Anonymous, jagged, and relentless, it challenged John's resolve. He had to know. John moved his leg forward and suddenly there was nothing. The narrow rock he had been on, slid down the mountain. Losing his balance, he reached out, hoping there would be something. His left hand found a slim crack, it was enough. He swung his right hand around and he fiercely clung to cliff, heart racing with adrenaline, his chest heaving with rapid breaths.
He closed his eyes and focused, slowly bringing his respiration rate down. He began to inch his way backwards until after an excruciating hour he made it back to the last place he had solid footing. He collapsed to the ground. The near fall had sapped a lot of energy out of him. He reached for his pack to grab some food. To his dismay it was gone.
Let’s get the bad and the ugly over with first so that we can focus on the good. The problems begin with the first sentence, and that’s not a good way to begin: two “that(s)” when one would do nicely with a comma the author doesn’t need at all. Try this: “John knew that it would be the end if he didn’t find shelter soon.” You can switch the clauses around if you want. Just use one “that,” however. Additionally, the absence of that pesky comma makes for a smoother sentence and introduction. It’s the first patch of storytelling ice that lets the reader slip right into the narrative and heightens the suspense. Let’s keep going. The second sentence is a bit overlong, and needs more than a comma to break it up. I’d like to know who “her” is as well. It makes the tragedy of “her” disappearance a bit more personal. Maybe: “It would be fitting. The icy wasteland around him was the first place that reflected his mood for the past three years, since (fill in name of ‘her’) disappeared.”
Similar problems surface and resurface throughout this piece. The author uses too many commas, an ongoing problem I have with my own writing as well). “His left hand found a crack, it was enough,” is but one example. It could be separated into two sentences or set off by a semi-colon, if one likes those. There are also some problems with adjectives and metaphors and the like (the wind doesn’t reach a new octave; the shriek of the wind would. Static would not be blinding, but a haze would be). Sometimes the author tells us the same thing one too many times. If John is cold, hungry and on the side of a mountain and he reaches for a pack of food and it’s gone, we don’t need to be told that he’s dismayed. “(D)ismay” doesn’t cover it in any event; I’d feel as if someone had p**sed in my cornflakes if I hadn’t already dropped them down a crevice. Add some good old fashioned typographical errors (“…and he fiercely clung to cliff…”) and it is quickly apparent that this piece needs some hard-nosed red-pencil review.
So. There are spots on the glasses and the silverware isn’t serviceable. The menu, however, is impressive. The author creates a great mood immediately. John is cold and hungry and between a slippery rock and a hard place that is waiting several thousand feet beneath him. There was a discussion here several days ago about opening a story with the weather. That is fitting and proper to do here. The weather is the story --- at least for the moment --- and it is a dangerous mother indeed. The author sets it up well, demonstrating that John is driven and desperate. He otherwise would be back at the lodge or camp or whatever, riding the storm out in front of a roaring fire while trying to talk the reindeer sweater off of a snow bunny. There is also that high peak where John is perched. You don’t have to be acrophobic when confronted with a stepladder in order to appreciate John’s predicament.
I’d like to see what happens next and find out what happened to the “her” that got him on the mountain and the snow. First, however, the author needs to rev up the snow blower and make the path accessible.