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First Page: Absolution

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Jack bolted upright, bathed in sweat, his heart racing. He gulped in breath after greedy breath as he slowly registered where he was. The pale grey light of early morning filtered in through the window of the small apartment as fear coursed through his veins. Wide-eyed and shaken, he collapsed back onto the sweat-soaked pillow and stared at the ceiling.

It had been a few months since he last had the nightmare, but the details remained razor sharp. Four years had passed and still he could recall every last detail. Closing his eyes, he tried to think about something else. In his waking moments, he had control for the most part, but when he slept it was a different story. Memories, grief and guilt soaked him like acid, eating away at the last vestiges of self that remained.

He ran a clammy hand down his face and opened his eyes, pushing the covers off and swinging his legs down onto the threadbare carpet. His entire body ached, as though it remembered that night and was just as confused as his mind. The trembling hand he ran through his short brown hair made it stand on end, the nightmare still nipping at the edges of his subconscious as Ally’s face flashed in front of his eyes. He squeezed them shut, trying to block her out as he fought to regain control.

In, one thousand. Out, one thousand. In, one thousand. Out, one thousand.  Cautiously, he opened his eyes again, staring blearily at the stained carpet beneath his feet. The day hadn’t yet begun and already he was bone-tired. He stood up, rolling his shoulders to relieve the tension caused partly from the nightmare, and partly from the fight a week ago. His body still ached from the encounter and it seemed to him as if the recovery time was longer these days. He pushed the thought aside immediately. It didn’t matter. He needed somewhere to channel his frustrations and inside the ring was the perfect place. Taking a deep breath and trying to focus, he wished it was as easy as that. Somewhere along the line, things had become much more complicated. He was fighting again tonight, instructed to take a dive – being paid good money to do it, too. He would push his misgivings and his pride aside one more time. The fact that it had become easier to do these days sat like a lead weight across his aching shoulders.

He padded across the room in his boxers and grabbed his sweats, pulling them on. Jogging was a much less dubious crutch than punching the hell out of some poor bastard who was probably as lost and broken as he was. It would help to chase away the echoes of the nightmare that were still far too close to the surface. He took the stairs from his apartment down to the street two at a time, breathing through his nose. He ran through the deserted streets for several blocks, barely noticing anything around him as he tried to block out the world, searching desperately for some peace. Side-stepping around a couple of drunks still finding their way home after last night’s drinking session, he ignored the hookers who called out to him from their spot on the street corner. The sun had begun to rise by the time he ran back towards his apartment, having come full circle.

He showered quickly, unable to ignore his battered reflection as he shaved. The skin was still healing over the bridge of his nose and he had a dark bruise around the cut on his cheekbone, the result of last week’s fight.

“You’re a disgrace.” he mumbled to his scruffy self in the bathroom mirror.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

11 Comments

  1. SAO
    Sep 08, 2013 @ 05:35:56

    Maybe it’s me, but I don’t really get into the tormented guy. He comes off as a loser on this page, for me. The nightmares are beyond his control. He has anger he’s not targeting at the source, he’s taking it out in the boxing ring. And he throws fights for money.

    My recommendation is to spend less time wallowing in Jack’s swamp and put something on the page about what he’s going to do about it. After four years of being angry about the circumstances of Ally’s death, let’s see him do something about it.

  2. Kate Sherwood
    Sep 08, 2013 @ 06:35:17

    Again, this is pretty much all back story. What’s happened in your story so far? A guy woke up and then went for a run. Yeah, he’s a tortured guy with bitterness and self-loathing and blah blah blah, but all he’s actually DONE is wake up and go for a run.

    I know, it’s only one page. But I wouldn’t have read beyond this page if I’d picked the book up in the book store. All we’ve got so far is a tortured hero doing nothing, and I’ve read way too many tortured heroes lately. If you can hook me with some dialogue, some action, some something, I might end up really liking the guy. But if all I’m getting is a lightly disguised character study, I’m out.

    On the plus side, the writing seemed smooth. It’s a little purple for my taste, but I think that sometimes happens when we really work on perfecting a page or two, as I would hope people are doing before they submit for this exercise! Purists may point out that sentences like “He ran a clammy hand down his face and opened his eyes, pushing the covers off and swinging his legs down onto the threadbare carpet” are a bit confusing, making it sound as if he’s performing all of these actions simultaneously, but I didn’t notice it on my first run-through, so I don’t think it would affect my enjoyment of the finished product.

  3. Patricia
    Sep 08, 2013 @ 08:59:44

    Your character’s run is an apt metaphor for what happens in this piece: it starts and ends in the same place. The writing is smooth, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Additionally, waking up from the dream seems to take so long. I think there must be a better place to start this story, a point where your boxer makes a significant choice or interacts with another important character. Good luck.

  4. Vanessa
    Sep 08, 2013 @ 09:17:41

    This isn’t really my cup of tea, sorry. I think it’s a solid effort, but nothing has happened in this page to actually make me feel like I want to root for this guy. The descriptions seemed a bit over-the-top and made me giggle inside a little, even though I’m supposed to be feeling his distress. Also, waking up after a nightmare is a trope that you might want to avoid. Not that it can’t be done well, but there’s nothing original that’s separating this page from thousands of others written by similarly talented authors, and you want your first page to stand out.

  5. Carol McKenzie
    Sep 08, 2013 @ 10:39:07

    I’d like this story to start with what Jack does after he looks in the mirror and calls himself a disgrace. I think that might be where your story starts.

    The writing is good, a little purple as Kate says, for me as well. My impression of Jack makes me want the writing to be taut and tense, short jabs, less long descriptive passages. And not a long description of him waking up from a nightmare and going for a run.

    Thanks for sharing. Good luck!

  6. Lucy Woodhull
    Sep 08, 2013 @ 12:33:26

    I agree with all of the above, and the constantly-tortured hero does little for me. The biggest quibble I have is that you’ve written one of the most cliche openings there can be — the waking up. Google “start novel waking up” and you’ll find hit after hit of writing authorities telling you not to do this. Now, I love to break me some writing “rules,” but this is one even I wouldn’t touch. “But mine is different!” says everyone. The quality doesn’t matter — it’s done so, so often that editors and agents and even readers are over it. Find another way, one that jumps into something happening *now* that affects him, not just his tortured angst. Your story starts somewhere else. Good luck!

  7. hapax
    Sep 08, 2013 @ 12:34:43

    I liked the writing — it wasn’t too “purple” for *my* tastes — and I liked Jack; I’m a sucker for heros who start from rock bottom.

    What I did NOT like was this opening scene. I have never read a story that began with a main character waking up that couldn’t have started better somewhere else. It always reads like the author is “waking up” to the story, and trying to figure out who and where and why. We really learn nothing about Jack that isn’t conveyed in your very last sentence.

  8. Author Here
    Sep 08, 2013 @ 15:04:40

    Thanks for all of your feedback. I apologise too – true to the brief, this is the first 600 words of chapter one, but there is actually a prologue. I decided not to submit the first 600 words of that here as basically, it’s all conversation (dread to think what you might have said about that!).

    Just to fill you in though, the prologue takes place in a car with 3 friends, traveling home from a gig. The car is involved in a head-on collision at the end of the prologue, which is how we find Jack having nightmares about it four years later in chapter one. If anyone is interested in reading this, I’d be glad to flick them a copy (email me at [email protected]).

    I do realise the cliche of having my MC wake up from a nightmare. In fact, I was going to change it, but my beta readers advised against it. As the MC has this nightmare more than once throughout the book, it was felt that it should remain as it sets the scene. The car accident has affected them all in different ways – for Jack, he couldn’t handle the guilt at what he had done in the immediate aftermath of the accident, and has removed himself from his former life entirely. Effectively, he has run away.

    By the way @SAO – Ally did not die. That is what Jack is about to face, at the end of the first chapter.

    It’s so difficult to post 600 words and have it stand alone like this, as you probably realise.

    A week or so after submitting this page, this manuscript was picked up by a publisher and will be released at the end of October – so clearly, the nightmare Jack has at the beginning of chapter one didn’t bother them either. It’s probably a matter of context.

    As as for nothing happening here – you’re right, nothing does. Jack has been treading water for four years, but 600 words (or so) later, his new world comes crashing down and he must go back and face all he left behind. Hence the title.

    Thanks again for your feedback, sorry to mislead you. Perhaps I should have begun with the prologue…but again, I suspect that your feedback would have been even less positive with just banal conversation happening in a car. Tough call but I’ll take the hit :)

  9. Kate Sherwood
    Sep 08, 2013 @ 15:32:03

    Congratulations, Author!

    Who’s the publisher?

  10. Sunny
    Sep 08, 2013 @ 15:37:41

    I like that we definitely get a good sense of what Jack is feeling in response to the nightmare, and I’d be interested reading on and finding out what changes his life and how he climbs out of this hole. However, I do agree that it should start somewhere a bit further along, maybe even during the fight that he’s supposed to throw. I’ve read way too many books where the protagonist wakes up, then spends a while thinking about their history, when they haven’t done much to make me care about them.

    The only real quibble I have is with timing in the second paragraph. The last nightmare was months ago, no wait things happened 4 years ago, but the details were still clear — well, wouldn’t they be if he’d just re-lived them in a dream? If he hasn’t had a nightmare for months, why is his sleep so terrible?

    I would read on! That second paragraph just made me scrunch up my face, much like the book I was reading last night did when there was a really basic math error in the first page (100-82=18, but the heroine is 28 we find out later, yet I spent two chapters frowning and wondering how the hell a teenager was a hardened homicide detective). Devil’s in the details sometimes, but it’s enough to pull me out of feeling Jack’s pain and caring about him if my brain trips over something like that.

  11. Author Here
    Sep 08, 2013 @ 15:41:10

    @Kate Sherwood: I’d rather keep that to myself here, considering the responses received – but thank you! (Not self-published, I just prefer to wait until it’s released before that information comes out). All will be revealed next month :)

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