Know your perspective

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From editor and former agent Nathan Bransford, a portion of a first-page critique from a MS submitted to him for the purpose of a critique to be published, in part, on his blog:

Title – Girl at Sea
Psychological Thriller
David Burton

Chapter One

Willing to risk the sting of her husband’s palm, Emily Perrit asked, “Jamie, are you sure you have to go?” as she stood with her husband at the door to the garage.
Jamie Perrit let out a deep sigh. “Emily, you ask that every time I have to go out of town.”
“Can’t somebody else go? You should be a vice-president and not have to go. You know I don’t like to be here alone.”
Jamie froze on the first step.
Emily tensed, arms tight across her chest, heart racing.
Jamie stepped back into the house. He grabbed her jaw with his free hand. “Emily,” he said, full of disdain. “This is the last time we’re having this conversation. I’m only thirty-nine. There’s no way I can be a vice-president until I’m forty. It’s one of Mr. Teng’s rules.” He gave her face a shake. “Don’t make me punish you. You know I don’t like to do that.” He gave her a final squeeze and turned to the door.
Emily’s body vibrated with the release. She breathed deep. Eyes on the floor, she nodded. It was an old argument which she never won. “When will you be back?”
“Late Friday.”
“You told me Thursday. I got tickets for the symphony Friday night. We never go anymore.”
“Don’t whine, Emily. I don’t like it. Get Rachel to go with you.”
“She doesn’t like classical music. You do.”
“Okay, okay.”
He backed his BMW out of the garage. She thought he returned her wave then realized he only pushed the button to close the garage door.

While I like the final moment where she misunderstands a wave for him closing the garage door, I’m afraid overall that this page feels like it’s in pretty rough shape. It demonstrates quite a few common writing pratfalls rolled into one page:

  • Head jumping. We start with Emily’s perspective, and, while it’s subtle and there are no egregious violations, it feels like we start bouncing between Emily’s perspective and Jamie’s perspective due to the way his action is described. It doesn’t always feel contextualized from her perspective, nor does it feel like we have an omniscient narrator guiding us, so I ended up feeling just a tad disoriented about where to anchor my mind within the scene. It’s also confusing how we bounce in and out of the house without clear bridging action.
  • Empty gestures. There are some unique gestures (grabbing her jaw in particular, is a unique, if quite hostile gesture), but what little physical description we have feels padded with many empty and unnecessary gestures: Deep sigh, heart racing, breathed deep, eyes on the floor… Considering I recommend using generic gestures no more than two times for an entire novel, this is quite an expenditure for one brief page.
  • Launching into dialogue with insufficient context. It’s dangerous to begin a novel with a conversation the reader has very little context to understand. There’s very little contextualizing here to help orient the reader around what’s happening and what’s at stake.
  • Smushing exposition into dialogue. It doesn’t feel believable to me that Jamie would need to remind her about his age. Instead, it feels like it’s exposition crammed into dialogue, which invariably feels forced and unnatural.
  • Being coy with key details. What is Emily trying to achieve in this scene? What’s at stake? How is she thinking things through? There are quite a few missed chances to provide more details that would start to open up the story.

As I often say, all does not have to be revealed on the first page. But I’m afraid there are quite a few missed opportunities here to better anchor the reader and invite them into the story in a more natural way.

Link to the rest critique, including a redline of the first page, at Nathan Bransford