Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress. Submit your first page for critique.
Dr. Zokosky, or Dr. Z as his students had warmly referred to him, was alone in his basement. However, he wasn’t exactly there at all. The wrinkles around his eyes and the deep furrow of his brow had been released by the limp weight of unconsciousness. His lanky, 74-year-old body was reclined against the pea-green vinyl of a repurposed dentist chair. A white helmet sat heavily on his head and framed his slumped face and unkept, grey beard.
The basement, which Dr. Z had ardently re-named “the lab,” was quiet except for a delicate whine coming from the helmet. The glow of the laptop screen and a hint of sunlight from the stairwell door were the only mentionable sources of light. They stood little chance of countering the dark and musty atmosphere of the space. The silhouettes of stacked boxes, laboratory stands, and various armatures littered the room and created the illusion that the basement was crowded with dancing robots that had been frozen in time.
Though the pea-green dentist’s chair looked to be playing some important role in Dr. Z’s current state, its only purpose was to provide a reclined position for his unconscious body. The device itself was made of two primary elements: the helmet and the control box. The helmet, currently on Dr. Z’s head, was made from a 1973 motorcycle helmet. It was one of several items that Dr. Z had purchased from a local pawn shop. Three circular shaped canisters, each roughly the size of a five ounce can of tuna, were attached to the helmet—one on top, one on the left side, and one on the right side. Inside each of the canisters were carefully balanced, and currently spinning, rare-earth magnets. Dr. Z had “acquired” the magnets from the university lab.
An overwhelming bundle of thin wires led from the magnet-filled canisters to the black control box, which was sitting on a nearby workbench. The control box was relatively small—roughly the size of a paperback book. Only two wires led out of the box. One wire snaked its way under the table and into a wall outlet. The other wire was plugged into Dr. Z’s laptop. If not for the steady rise and fall of Dr. Z’s chest, one might think that he was the now-deceased victim of a cruel, human experiment.
On the workbench, sitting alongside the small control box and laptop, was Dr. Z’s handwritten journal. The journal was currently open and ready to receive the next entry. The only comment thus far on the page was the date and time that the session had begun: Wednesday, June 13th, 2018. 2:30pm.
Dr. Z’s index finger twitched lightly. The time on the computer screen changed from 5:29pm to 5:30pm. The control box clicked and the light hum of the magnets drifted toward a deep and fully audible wavering. The magnets eventually slowed to a stop and the room returned to its musty silence.
Every now and then a first page perplexes me. All the ingredients of a compelling opening are—or seem to be—there. In this case, a university professor performing—or having just performed (he is no longer conscious)—an experiment involving a vintage motorcycle helmet, a dentist’s chair, and “rare-earth magnets” on himself.
A mad scientist in his underground laboratory; a bizarre experiment gone (possibly) very wrong. Who could ask for anything more?
Yet something isn’t quite right or is less right than it could be. I’m not talking about the style, which strains for effects (the doctor’s wrinkles “released” by his unconsciousness; a hint of sunlight “[standing] little chance of countering” the basement’s darkness)—effects that call more attention to a talented but self-conscious author than to the scene in question. Something bigger troubles this first page.
If my years of teaching have taught me anything, it’s that when a piece of narrative writing isn’t quite working, the prime suspect is point of view. When in doubt, blame the narrator.
Who is this narrator? What particular set of sensibilities and awarenesses define him (for convenience’ sake, let’s make the narrator a man)? From what vantage point or points does he convey the experience of this passed-out professor in his laboratory, so we experience it as clearly as though it were our experience?
For us to experience an event clearly through a narrator, the narrator has to experience it clearly, meaning from a specific angle or perspective rather than a vague, general one. In this opening, either the author doesn’t have a firm grip on his narrator, or he has failed to thoroughly create one in the first place. Though presented to us as an experience filtered through a narrator’s knowledge and sensibilities, what we’re getting here is an unstable mixture of the narrator’s experience and the author’s information. And as I’ve said here and elsewhere before, readers of fiction don’t want information; they want experiences.
Let’s look at this opening line by line, starting with the first: “Dr. Zokosky, or Dr. Z as his students had warmly referred to him, was alone in his basement.” The perspective here is that of someone who knows the professor well enough to know the nickname his students have given him and that he has a “warm” relationship with them. Could the narrator be one of Dr. Z’s students? Possibly, though apart from referring to him as “Dr. Z” nothing else in this opening suggests so.
Nor is the perspective that of Dr. Z, who, being unconscious, isn’t privy to this moment. In spite of this, the first sentence of the second paragraph unites us with Dr. Z’s experience. Who else could know how “ardently” he re-named his basement? The paragraph goes on to render the setting, with its glowing laptop screen and sunlight poking through the door and laboratory accoutrements that look like “dancing robots … frozen in time”—all presented objectively, as a stranger unfamiliar with the doctor’s laboratory might view it.
This alien objective perspective extends to the first sentence of the following paragraph (“Though the pea-green dentist’s chair looked to be playing some important role in Dr. Z’s current state, its only purpose was to provide a reclined position for his unconscious body.”)—a sentence that, however convoluted, suggests little if any awareness of context. The same alien objectivity applies to the next sentence (“The device itself was made of two primary elements: the helmet and the control box.”). The sentence after that, however, in which we’re told that Dr. Z. bought the motorcycle helmet in a pawn shop, breaks with that perspective, as do the paragraph’s final sentences, which put us in the mind of someone who not only knows what’s in those canisters, but where the doctor “acquired” them.
The next paragraph (“The overwhelming bundle of thin wires …”) re-establishes the alien point of view—implicitly at first, then explicitly with “one might think,” the “one” clearly referring to a stranger. Apart from calling the doctor by his nickname and that last sentence mentioning those magnets (apparent only someone who knows of their existence), the rest of the page is—or could be—from the perspective of an outsider.
Without looking for them, would anyone reading this first page notice these slight shifts? It’s doubtful. But there they are. And though they don’t entirely negate it, they dampen the effectiveness of what should be a riveting opening.
Can a narrator’s perspective never vary? Does it always have to be consistent? Can’t it shift from paragraph to paragraph, or even from sentence to sentence? It can, provided it does so such that at any given moment the perspective is clear. Case in point: the opening to Katrina Bivald’s The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. It begins:
The strange woman standing on Hope’s main street was so ordinary it was almost scandalous. A thin, plain figure dressed in an autumn coat much too gray and warm for the time of year, a backpack lying on the ground by her feet, an enormous suitcase resting against one of her legs. Those who happened to witness her arrival couldn’t help feeling it was inconsiderate for someone to care so little about their appearance. It seemed as though this woman was not the slightest bit interested in making a good impression on them.
Here, too, the perspective is that of someone unfamiliar with the “strange” subject, but unlike our first page it is unequivocally, determinedly so. That perspective is maintained solidly through the next three paragraphs, is which “the strange woman” is described in greater detail. Then we get:
In actual fact, Sara had taken in almost every detail of the street. She would have been able to describe how the last of the afternoon sun was gleaming on the polished SUVs, how even the treetops seemed neat and well organized, and how the hair salon 150 feet away had a sign made from laminated plastic in patriotic red, white, and blue stripes. The scent of freshly baked apple pie filled the air. It was coming from the café behind her, where a couple of middle-aged women were sitting outside and watching her with clear distaste. That was how it looked to Sara, at least. Every time she glanced up from her book, they frowned and shook their heads slightly, as though she was breaking some unwritten rule of etiquette by reading on the street.
We haven’t changed narrators. But the perspective has taken a 180-degree turn, putting us into Sara’s (the strange woman has a name now, being no stranger to herself) sensibilities. Is the narrative perspective consistent? No. Is it clear and determined? Yes. Does it work? Well enough to have made Bivald’s novel a bestseller.
Were the opening of our first page written exclusively and thoroughly from an outsider’s point of view, that of a stranger witnessing this scene, it would read far more effectively. But any clearly determined perspective(s) would work better than an indeterminate one.
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.) Here’s how to submit your first page for critique.
Note: The publisher of Your First Page is offering free shipping if you order the book directly from their site. Use code YFPfreeship.
Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2008). He has published a novel, Life Goes To the Movies (Dzanc, 2009), three books on the craft of fiction writing (Writer’s Digest, Serving House Books, Broadview Press), and a children’s picture book, S.S. Gigantic Across the Atlantic (Simon & Schuster). His first essay collection, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man (University of Iowa, 2012), was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize. A novel-in-manuscript, “The Water Master,” won the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for Best Novel. His memoir, The Inventors (Hawthorne Books), which won the Housatonic Book Award, was among Library Journal’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2016. He is Associate Professor of English at Georgia College & State University. Find out more at his website.