Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Critique of First Page - Western

by Jodie Renner, freelance editor and craft-of-fiction writer

So far in this series of critiques of the first page of a novel or short story, I've introduced the series, then critiqued the first page of a mainstream novel, historical fiction, and a historical thriller. Today's first page is from a western novel.

I recently presented a workshop on writing compelling first pages to a writers' group, and afterward, volunteers read their first page aloud and we discussed their strengths and also ways in which they could set the scene better and be more engaging and intriguing, to hook readers in right away.

This one, the beginning of a western, is obviously well-written, but could have been much more gripping right from the first paragraphs. The author, GK Parker, has given me permission to use it and their name in today's blog.

Here's the original:

Trip Forrester studied the bank of heavy clouds collecting over the distant peaks of the Wyoming Cinnabar mountain range. Winter was coming. And it would be nothing like what passed for winter in Alabama. Overhead, the sky transformed from pink to soft shades of deepening purple and red as the sun slipped behind the mountains, stealing the day with it. A cool breeze sprang up, whispering through the branches of several nearby Ponderosa pines. In the buckboard traces Wilson, his ten-year-old gelding, shifted, his harness jingling. He stamped one foot impatiently. 

"Yep, me too," Trip said. He slapped the leather reins and they made their way down the valley to Snake Creek ranch. The crumpled letter rustled in his pocket. He ignored the temptation to throw it away just like he'd resisted the urge to punch the post office clerk who handed him the letter that had arrived five days earlier. Not that the pock-faced kid had really done anything to deserve it, but he was in front of Trip when he opened the letter and read the Mr. Forrester line. 

The small homestead he had put up with his partner, Marty Helms, stood in deepening shadows. Coming around the last copse of trees lining the dirt lane he caught sight of the small cabin. A light glowed through the single window of wavy glass Trip had bought from Otto Gramm's in Laramie at great expense. So, Marty was back from his hunting trip. 

He pulled into the yard, stopping on the apron of raw earth near the front steps to the porch. The wagon creaked when he set the brake, jumped down where he unhitched and led Wilson to the small paddock. Blue Dog, the roan he had won in a poker game last fall, hung his dark head over the top rail and nickered at them. Cactus, Marty's mustang, joined in.

With Marty home, maybe they could get the drift fence finished this week after all. He glanced toward the wood piled beside the newly finished barn. It was ready, now it only needed two men willing to put their butts to work and keep them there until the job was done.

The three geldings nickered back and forth while Trip unharnessed Wilson. He slapped the gelding's broad rump to get him moving through the gate. He checked the water and feed trough and found Marty had already taken care of both. Using his calfskin gloves, he wiped the dust and sweat off Wilson's back. Gate latched behind him, Trip carried the harness to the barn, sidestepping Nonny, Marty's milk goat, on the way out. Striding toward the cabin, he tried not to think of the letter scorching a hole in his pocket. He had ridden thirty-one miles to Laramie to meet the train carrying his potential bride only to be handed her letter instead." 

Jodie: I felt that, although quite lyrical and nicely written, to hook in today's busy and often impatient readers, this opening needs a lot more tension, conflict, and intrigue. Also, to bring the character alive and make us identify with him and start worrying about him, we need to see his emotions and reactions more. And it would be more dynamic to have him interacting with someone else, preferably someone with an opposing agenda, rather than alone, thinking. There's way too much description and not enough action and interaction and reaction. Also, I wasn't sure whether it was a historical western or a modern western, so it would be good to clarify the time period.

The author emailed me a second version, which was much improved, but I offered a few more tips. then they came up with this final version, which is much more gripping and engaging, I think, and really makes me want to read on and find out more about this character and what happens to him. 

Here's the second rewrite:

October 6, 1874 

Trip Forrester's fingers fumbled as he struggled to get the ivory buttons through the button holes. Even before the top one closed, the starched collar of his white shirt was chafing his neck. It would be raw before he reached town. He pulled on the blue silk vest and got the bolo tie in place and pushed the discomfort aside. He'd wanted this. 

Once he'd figured the only way he was going to get a wife was to advertise for one. He'd started all this with his post to the eastern papers before Christmas last year.

No time to get spooky. The girl come all this way to marry you.

He stared down at the brand spanking new boots that hurt and made him feel like a dandified Eastern dude. The bowler hat just looked ridiculous.

"Yer barkin' at a frog," he muttered, running calloused fingers under the stiff collar. "She's gonna come."

So why were his hands shaking? 

He pulled his duster on to keep his fancy clothes looking good. His gaze kept darting toward the door; he was gonna be late if he kept this primping up. 

"Never had to look this good for no damn cayuse."

Sweat dripped down his brow, stinging the raw flesh of his neck. He strode out into the sun-bleached yard. It hadn't rained in weeks, the road to Laramie would be bone dry. He'd be able to make the trip in three hours. The Union Pacific was due in at twelve-ten. He pulled out his pocket-watch. Nine-twenty. 

Pulling Roach, his ten-year-old gelding out of the paddock he put him to the buckboard. It was nearly twenty minutes before he guided the wagon off Snake Creek ranch.

[...] (Left out two short paragraphs in here that slow the momentum a bit and could be condensed or deleted.)

The steady clop-clop of Roach's shod hooves mesmerized him, messing up his sense of time but not his growing apprehension. Late. What kind of man was late for his own wedding? Butterflies, or something a whole lot bigger, thrashed around in his stomach. The road into Laramie was a flat stretch of dusty clay, pot-marked by much heavier traffic than what was near Snake Creek ranch. He trotted the last mile, passing a wagon carrying newly cut logs and a few riders out on business. One group led a half a dozen young horses down the side of the road. Mustangs. The canyons around here were full of them, ripe for the picking.

With the arrival of Union Pacific a few years ago the town was exploding. Too much so for Trip's taste but it meant a steady market for the stock he planned to bring in next year.

In the distance he heard the train whistle.

He didn't have time to stable Roach and left him in front of the terminal amid a cluster of other carriages and buckboards. Climbing down, Trip found himself hanging back, one hand on Roach's collar. He sucked in several deep breaths of air that smelled like burnt sand. 

The low, red brick two-story building loomed at the east end of town. As crowds streamed past him, he straightened, smoothing his hands over his hair, hoping the grease he had put on it was holding the normally curly mess in place. His newly shaved cheeks left him feeling naked and he knew he stood out like a peacock in a pen full of chickens.

"Big day, isn't it?" Ross Parker, the druggist slapped him on the back. "Bet this day's been a long time coming."

"Yeah," he said. "A long time."

I think these first two pages bring the scene and character to life much more vividly than the original. If I were working with this author I would probably still have a few more small suggestions here and there, but I think this opening has come a long way! It definitely hooked me in!

Feel free to submit the first page of your novel or short story (maximum 400 words) to j.renner.editing(at)hotmail(dot)com. I'll be glad to add it to the ones I've already received to critique here anonymously.

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

To subscribe to Jodie’s Resources for Writers newsletter (published about 4-10 times a year), please click on this link: http://eepurl.com/C9dKD

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