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First Page: The Last Wish

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It was raining hard on the dreadful night when Daniel O’ Conell PFC is shot in the upper arm, he remembered that most of all. Not the pain or smell of death all around him, just the rain, and a rain so hard it bounced off the rocks and leaves all around him.

They had just entered a clearing in the jungle somewhere North West of Nha Trang, and were in the process of moving round the edge staying low, when all around them gunfire had erupted just as the heavens opened and the rain came down. It bounced off them like rocks, bullets flew, as the bodies fell, ripping through flesh and bone. Daniel threw himself into the tangle of bushes next to him. He hugged the ground as bullets, tracer fire flew over his head and pinged off nearby rocks, within seconds the patrol was completely decimated, and just before the fire ended, Daniel felt a blow against his right arm. A glacial spasm of pain like the stab of a dagger of ice frozen from a poisoned well ran down his arm followed by the feeling of wetness as blood flowed.
He pulled himself deeper into the jungle as silence descended and that silence now appeared to be a source of additional peril. Daniel listened intently for any sounds of movement nearby; the enemy had arrived, like ghosts in the night. No warning and suddenly death was all about.

He was now in serious harm’s way with only his training to rely on, a training that ended just under a month ago. He tried to think but the pain in his arm made it difficult, and he knew he needed to attend to the wound speedily less infection set in. Inch by inch he moved back into the deeper darkness of the jungle, listening out for any sound that would mean the enemy was close by. He heard a crunching sound off to his right and froze. Looking in the direction of the sound, he saw silhouetted, a figure carrying the familiar AK assault rifle, standard issue for the Vietcong. Rising to a crouch, he tested the movement of his arm and found that although painful it would still operate. The figure had his back to Daniel. Sliding out his K-bar he quickly rushed forward, just like in boot camp sentry removal training-left hand covers mouth, kick to back of knee, K-bar into the right side of neck and slicing round, taking out the voice box. Blood gushed and silently the man died.

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

12 Comments

  1. Ann Rose
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 05:26:19

    While I applaud your courage in writing an action (?) story set in Nha Trang — a relatively rare setting within Vietnam War lit — the immediate tense disagreement between “It was raining hard” and “Daniel O’Connell PFC is shot” in your very first sentence takes me right out of the story and your setting. Then we get a confusing “They had just entered a clearing in the jungle” — who is “they”? O’Connell’s squad? The VC? You’re moving too quickly from the single person viewpoint to the group, and I still don’t have any sense of who PFC O’Connell is as a person or as a soldier. Is he an FNG on his first tour? A short-timer Navy Seal? Is he walking point or is he an RTO?

    You also need to check your misuse of commas: “It bounced off them like rocks, bullets flew, as the bodies fell” should be “The rain bounced off of them like rocks. Bullets flew as the bodies fell.” You’re describing action, so keep commas to a minimum here and instead go for short and punchy, echoing the automatic assault rifle fire O’Connell is trapped in. And a few sentences later, “He hugged the ground as bullets, tracer fire flew over his head and pinged off nearby rocks, within seconds the patrol was completely decimated, and just before the fire ended, Daniel felt a blow against his right arm.” Here, you don’t need the comma between “bullets” and “tracer fire”, but you do need a period between “rocks” and “within” — “within” is setting up a new, if related, thought and image.

    I think you might be well served by reading more Tim O’Brien, John M. DelVecchio, Gustav Hasford, and other luminaries in the field of Vietnam War literature, just to get a better sense of both what a character like your O’Connell might do during a night patrol and skirmish with the VietCong in a south coastal area. A tour of duty was rarely all fighting, all the time, even for a sniper or a LRRP unit, but since you’re setting up Daniel O’Connell as a quasi-Rambo figure who ends up being the only member of his group to survive this skirmish and able to act as a highly trained and experienced killer only a month out of basic, you’ll want to hone in on the action sequence and describe O’Connell’s motions, his reactions and emotions in a plausible way.

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  2. Des Livres
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 07:18:28

    Not bad – I feel like I am a bit fettered by not being clear what genre this is meant to be. Is it a straight war book my comments would be a bit different from a paranormal.

    Having said that, I was reading away, processing “Nha Trang.. .all right VN… Jungle…nothing about temperature? Rain…something something icy? where are they? Maybe it’s Korea?”

    I just had a look and Nha Trang is the same latitude North as Darwin is South, so they are fighting in a jungle in the tropics. And in VN infantry had to carry a crazy amount of equipment (they still do of course – hopefully the footwear has improved) plus weaponry as well as wear full uniform. Heaving about 50 odd kilos of equipment, plus weaponry, while being fully dressed, through heavy tropical jungle in seething heat is likely to be a noticeable issue one month out of training. Plus the jungle is loaded with horrible creepy crawlies – I got no sense of being in a jungle at all. That’s why I thought maybe it was Korea instead.

    The other thing is that his mental processes come across as being quite isolated, whereas his immediate thoughts would be about his unit, his place in it, the guy immediately before him and immediately after him. Just out of training he would not have too much of a clue what was going on, while it was happening. Unless he has a previous career as a super commando alien vampire or something – hence my initial comment about genre.

    The way it the combat is written is quite distancing, versus the visceral “icy death” stuff. It might be the way he would recount it to someone, but not how he would have experienced it. Which may in fact be what the character is doing – we don’t know yet.

    Would I keep reading? Depends on the genre. Depends on what the book’s about. Depends on why there’s all this stuff about Vietnam in it. I’m into history, and read a lot into Vietnam in the past, and had to do heaps of stuff about war and combat for work, (including dealing with combat veterans) so I would only engage with a book with lots of Vietnam war stuff in it for a good reason.

    That’s the other risk – heaps and heaps of people know an awful lot about the ins and outs of Vietnam and the various forces that were involved (plus the army generally – particularly in the US right now with so many families with people serving or who have served), and there’s quite a bit of cultural loading around Vietnam in particular as well. I’m not saying don’t write scenes about a US soldier in the Vietnam war, just that you should be aware that your readership is likely to have a good bit of knowledge about it, and inaccuracies are likely to eject them from the suspension of disbelief, as the jungle stuff did with me.

    Having said all that, this is actually a lot better than quite a few first pages that get posted up. The title is The Last Wish so maybe a paranormal element is going to suddenly materialise?

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  3. Author on Vacation
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 08:02:30

    This is a very interesting first page, and the subject is definitely atypical of many DA First Pages I’ve read. : )

    Although I found your page interesting, eventually my eyes started tripping and skimming over your words for two reasons: 1) repetition, and 2) too much wordiness.

    If this is your first page, I’m assuming Daniel’s wounding is a significant event relating to future events to be played out in your story. The page doesn’t read like that, though. It’s a bit too clinical and distanced from any emotion. Also, I think the details and descriptions need better development.

    When someone suffers a traumatic event, they often enjoy (or endure)vivid recall of the event. Your page doesn’t read like that. Daniel remembers rain, hard rain. We know he’s in Nha Trang because you told us he was, but you didn’t show us. We know there’s rain, rocks, and jungle. What does it look like, smell like, and feel like? I’ve no idea because Daniel never experienced it.

    I also think some tighter, more concise writing would really benefit your work. Again, my eyes started “skipping over sentences” because I found them awkward or overwritten. Try reading your work aloud, or have a friend read it aloud to you. If it sounds awkward on your ear, it reads awkward, too. Also, take out any words that don’t enhance your storytelling.

    Try reading this aloud:

    A glacial spasm of pain like the stab of a dagger of ice frozen from a poisoned well ran down his arm followed by the feeling of wetness as blood flowed.

    I stopped reading and started “skipping” between “arm” and “followed.” You’re describing agonizing injury, but the excessive words and distancing language are a distraction. Also, human blood is hot. Although the injury itself might feel “icy” and “poisonous” flowing blood should feel hot (unless the pounding rain is rinsing it away.) The “feeling of wetness as blood flowed” is not nearly so traumatic or creepy as the “hot stream of blood soaking his sleeve” or spattering the side of his shirt. Or whatever.

    Avoid too much repetition. You’ve got a lot of it in this page and it’s misused. It’s creating monotony, not drama or tension.

    Example:

    It was RAINing hard on the dreadful night when Daniel O’ Conell PFC is shot in the upper arm, he remembered that most of ALL. Not the pain or smell of death ALL around him, just the RAIN, and a RAIN so hard it bounced off the rocks and leaves ALL around him.

    How important is this rain, anyway? Is Daniel’s excessive attention to it a psychological safeguard to block out the horrors of war? Does he simply like, hate, or fear rain? You never show us why it matters.

    In this revision, the rain becomes a character and a participant in the story:

    It stormed the night Daniel O’ Conell PFC took lead in his upper arm. He remembered that more than the pain. Rough wind drove rain hard enough the drops bounced off rocks and whipped leaves and trees into a demented, dancing frenzy. The downpour plastered Daniel’s clothes to his body faster than gunfire and saturated most of his hair. Its chilled organic odor muted death’s stench and cleansed the goriest injuries on the freshly killed dead.

    Some of your sentences are pretty complex. You could try breaking them up a bit to make your work more readable. This sentence is a mouthful:

    He hugged the ground as bullets, tracer fire flew over his head and pinged off nearby rocks, within seconds the patrol was completely decimated, and just before the fire ended, Daniel felt a blow against his right arm.

    Overall, I didn’t enjoy reading this page, but I wanted to. I think you have interesting ideas and you’ve definitely tackled a compelling historical moment. Strengthened, more tempered writing would definitely make this a good read. Thank you for sharing with DA, and keep writing.

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  4. NCKat
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 08:45:58

    First of all, I applaud you for posting this – it’s always an act of courage to post a first page here. Secondly, your locale of Vietnam is one that’s not usually seen here and this could be an interesting book.

    But I’m confused – is this to be a war story, a romance, a paranormal, or a time-travel? It would be good to have some indication within the first two pages of a book – that determines whether I will read it or put it back on the shelf.

    Regarding grammar – please watch your verb tenses. In the first paragraph you have this:

    It was raining hard on the dreadful night when Daniel O’ Conell PFC is shot in the upper arm, he remembered that most of all.

    That should probably have read like thise:

    It was raining hard on the dreadful night when Daniel O’ Conell PFC was shot in the upper arm, he remembered that most of all.

    Ditto to what the others have said.

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  5. LisaCharlotte
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 09:07:57

    Very first stumbling block that made me question the author’s military knowledge — rank goes before name. It should be PFC Daniel O’Conell or even more accurate is PFC O’Conell. First names are rarely used in the military.

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  6. Cara Ellison
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 12:22:27

    I will second what the others have said, but add that the title sounds mawkish to me. In the plus column: the imagery was quite good.

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  7. akaria
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 13:12:58

    Despite the action happening I felt rather distanced from your hero. I wanted to be much deeper in his head experiencing the event through all of his senses. What did the jungle smell like? Where are his fellow soldiers? Are they screaming and yelling as all hell breaks loose? His reaction to getting shot is kind of carefree. Yeah it hurts but it’s functional. Is he used to getting shot?

    Phrases like “he heard” or “he felt” put distance between story and reader. “He threw himself into the bushes” and “He hugged the ground” are good at getting me up close and personal then the tension is lost again when “He felt a blow” and the “feeling of wetness as blood flowed.” He’s already wet. It’s pouring. How does he distinguish wet blood from the rain?

    You have bones for a good story here. The setting is unique and could really serve to ratchet up the tension. Good luck and keep writing!

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  8. Wahoo Suze
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 13:23:20

    To be honest, you lost me in the first sentence. Along with the tense mismatch, the choice of the word “dreadful” was just confusing. It may be a dreadful thing to be shot, but “dreadful” is a kind of missish, pearl-clutching sort of word, which doesn’t leap to mind as a soldier’s probable response to being shot. I immediately equated the sentence to “It was a dark and stormy night” and stopped reading.

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  9. Jayne
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 14:21:07

    @Wahoo Suze: I have to agree about the word dreadful. I’d expect something more like “the night PFC O’Conell’s world got shot to shit.”

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  10. Bren
    Jun 17, 2012 @ 10:02:10

    The subject matter appears as if it would be very interesting and I’d like to know more about your protagonist, but your story appears fettered by clunky writing.

    You have some basic grammar problems here in run-on sentences and comma splices. (for example, but not limited to, your opening sentence: It was raining hard on the dreadful night when Daniel O’ Conell PFC is shot in the upper arm, he remembered that most of all. That comma should be a period and “he” should be capitalized.

    The other problem I found was that you suffer from overwriting and long, windy sentences that lose their way before their destination. He hugged the ground as bullets, tracer fire flew over his head and pinged off nearby rocks, within seconds the patrol was completely decimated, and just before the fire ended, Daniel felt a blow against his right arm. This one sentence is 38 words long! Wayyyyy too long. You are writing about some pretty tense, life-threatening action. Short, punchy and visceral sentences are more in order for a scene like that.

    Lastly, for an opening sequence you are telling us too much and not showing us enough. Sometimes in a story, telling is more appropriate than showing but NEVER EVER in the first page of the book. Probably not even in the first chapter. Show first, tell later (that’s my axiom to the “Show, don’t tell” rule.

    Your third paragraph is almost all telling. You have just had your character shot and crawling through the mud and an enemy lurking nearby yet I feel very little of the pain (“a glacial spasm of pain” does not give me a sense of what his arm feels like) and fear that he is feeling. Put us in your protagonists skin. It’s the reason we read stories. We want to know what he knows, feel what he feels and sense what he senses. Use imagery to show us this. Where are the smells of the rotten jungle, the feel of the balmy tropical air, the clammy sweat sticking to his skin under his clothing, where is the feel of the bush scratching his face as he dives into it, the taste of bile in the form of fear in his throat? Giving us these images will go a long way to giving us your POV character’s experiences.

    Good luck with your re-write.

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  11. henofthewoods
    Jun 18, 2012 @ 00:08:07

    I admire the bravery to post a writing sample for review and it makes me want to say only nice things. But that isn’t actually helpful, so I will nitpick.
    I did get hung up on the use of “just” six times in three paragraphs. “Less” does not equal “lest” or “unless”. You could use “less infection set in” for dialogue, but otherwise you are saying that there could have been more infection.

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  12. SAO
    Jun 18, 2012 @ 09:47:31

    This didn’t feel the slightest bit real to me. Daniel dives into bushes, hugging the ground and his friends and fellow soldiers are “completely decimated”, by which I assume you mean all killed, although decimate means one in ten killed. But how does he know? We seem to be in his POV, but he (we) don’t see it. From under the bushes, what did he see? He didn’t even bother to check that someone might have survived?

    After everyone is killed, then Dan pulls himself deeper into the jungle, presumably away from the source of gunfire and the dead bodies of his comrades-in-arms, but you say, “suddenly death was all about.” Then, laughably, “He was now in serious harm’s way.” Um, now that no bullets are flying?

    To make me believe this, I have to see it. Not, “He was now in serious harm’s way and only his short training to rely on.” But something like, “the enemy was between him and his base and he had to (concrete detail) but (another concrete detail). And if he’s in a small detail, he has to care about his fellow soldiers.

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