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First Page: Unpublished Manuscript

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My friends and I were the only people on the dark road. Besides us, there were no other cars around — at least none that we could see.
It seemed out of nowhere, all of that changed.
The street we were on was now packed with cars. Lights flashed through the darkness, illuminating the area. Red. Blue. Red. Blue.
The songs playing from the radio were replaced with screaming, crying, and another sound I couldn’t quite identify. Metal scratching against metal?
Confused, I looked around and realized that my friends weren’t in the car with me. A surge of panic shot through me and I frantically searched around me until a strong hand steadied my movements.
A kind looking man that appeared to be a paramedic gripped my jaw and forced me to look at him. I saw his lips moving, but I couldn’t hear anything he was saying over the deafening and terrified screams that surrounded me. He unexpectedly shined a narrow beam of white light into my eyes, and my entire body jerked back in surprise. The abrupt movement sent an excruciating pain shooting through every part of my being, and immediately crippled me. The pain surprised me, and I suddenly had an overwhelming desire to just go to sleep.
Without notice, several sets of hands grabbed me from every direction and roughly lifted me from the car. I cried out in agony, and barely heard the different voices trying to pull me from the fog clawing at my mind. As I was being carried away, my eyes registered the details of all the activity going on around me. I felt the blood instantly leave my face, and I was suddenly freezing despite the fire raging within me from the tortuous pain.
My heart was banging around inside my chest, trying its hardest to break free and escape the throbbing pain mutilating me. Screams continued to surround me, filling my ears with terror and torment.
I felt my wrists being pushed down and secured a moment before a sharp pinch and a blazing fire ignited my entire left arm. A sudden heaviness consumed me, and threatened to take over my body. I struggled to fight the grueling pressure wearing me down, and the shock of what I was seeing kept my eyes wide open.
I stared at the disaster before me. My eyes locked on a pile of shattered glass where the broken and blooded gold charm bracelet laid that belonged to my best friend. I sucked in a sharp breath and coughed uncontrollably as a fetid burning stench infiltrated my lungs, making it hard to breathe.
My memories of tonight came flooding back, paralyzing me with their intensity. I was helpless as I was subjected to the images playing in my mind like a movie reel, scene by scene, before ending with what was in front of me again. Tonight’s nightmare would be permanently tattooed to the back of my eyelids, and I would see it every time I closed my eyes. I’d forever hear the terrified cries and pleas of my two best friends begging for their lives. I knew that I’d always replay the night’s events and what could have been done differently a million ways in my mind. This one single night would change who I was forever. My life would never be the same.
A moment later I lost the battle against my will to keep my eyes open. My weak body finally succumbed to the heaviness surging through it, and the screams faded into complete silence.

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

16 Comments

  1. SAO
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 06:04:22

    This doesn’t seem at all real to me. It’s chock full of detail, but the more you have, the less I feel. The only point of the detail is to put the reader in the scene. Here, less would really be a lot more.

    To start picking:
    “(We) were the only people on the dark road. Besides us, there were no other cars around — at least none that we could see.” This suggests they were looking for other cars. It also is telling. What is the narrator looking at? We don’t know. Where were they? Who were they?

    Compare, for example, “The highway is straight for miles, with the yellow lines down the center coming at you and the heat dazzles up so only the yellow lines are clear and the whine of the tires and if you don’t quit staring at that line and slap yourself hard on the back of your neck, you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the dirt shoulder. . .” (edited from Robert Penn Warren in All the King’s Men)

    RPW makes you feel like you are there. You didn’t.

    “A sharp pinch and blazing fire ignited” her arm? Was that a needle for the pain killer? What’s the blazing fire? I really didn’t get it.

    I think 1-2 sentences putting us on the road then waking up in the ambulance would work much better than all the detail you have.

  2. Kate Sherwood
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 06:37:16

    I’m with SAO. There’s so MUCH detail that it actually obscures the significance of the event.

    (And some of it, like the painkiller injection burning into her arm, doesn’t make any sense. I was also a bit taken aback by shocking pain making the narrator want to fall asleep, and by her apparently knowing immediately that she would see the accident every time she closed her eyes forever – felt melodramatic).

    I could see all these details being effective if you spaced them out over the course of the book. Like if every time she has a nightmare (I’m assuming that’s going to be part of the story?) we get another little bit of memory.

    But all together, and written as they are? I think less would be more.

    Good luck with it!

  3. Anne Gresley
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 07:41:25

    You have a lot of potential for a good dramatic opening here, but you take the spice out of it with passive word choices. Take your opening para:

    “My friends and I WERE the only people on the dark road. Besides us, there WERE no other cars around — at least none that we could see.
    It seemed out of nowhere, all of that changed.
    The street we WERE on WAS now packed with cars.” (You definitely don’t need two in a single sentence.)

    Your reliance on that verb ‘to be’ is making everything less immediate. The subsequent line “Lights flashed through the darkness, illuminating the area” is much better, but then ‘to be’ is back in the next:

    “The songs playing from the radio WERE replaced with screaming, crying, and another sound I couldn’t quite identify.”

    Obviously, we have to use ‘to be’ sometimes. It’s pretty vital. But some of the examples I’ve capitalized could be exchanged for more active verbs. This piece would be so much stronger if you revise with this in mind.

    Good luck with this.

  4. Carol McKenzie
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 09:05:26

    As mentioned above, there’s a great deal of detail, but the whole thing has a muffled feel. I’m not drawn in, partly due to passive word choices, partly due to shallow writing and because I think you’re trying to hard:

    My friends and I were the only people on the dark road. Besides us, there were no other cars around — at least none that we could see.

    In your first sentences, you’ve told me twice times there was no one else around…except for the equivocation at the end. You can give a more evocative sense of being alone on the road pre-accident…as SAO suggests…by showing us what the narrator sees; country road with farm houses, isolated, suburbia, interstate? I don’t know where we are and you compound my confusion by using ‘road’ and then ‘street.’ May be a nit, but those are two very different things and the images I have from ‘dark road’ change when you write ‘street.’ A bit of grounding in the first sentence helps me not be confused.

    The rest…I’m not feeling the urgency of an accident. Granted you’ve given me oodles of details, but you’ve place a narrator between me and your POV character with some instances of shallow writing:

    “I felt my wrists being pushed down…”

    Any time you write where you describe a feeling, you can leave out the “I felt” or “I saw”…we know your character can feel and see. You can put us right in the action by describing the feeling or what was seen, not the act of feeling or seeing.

    “Someone held my wrists, restraining me…” “My wrists were suddenly immobile…” “My wrists were pushed down…”

    “My heart was banging around inside my chest, trying its hardest to break free…” is better, although it would have more impact without the passive.

    “My heart banged around…”

    There’s a POV error of sorts: “Without notice, several hands grabbed me.” If she’s not noticing, then how can we notice? It’s a clunky sentence that a bit of work can fix.

    And then you lost me with the graph that talks about how she’s going to relive this nightmare over and over. She’s still in the midst of all this; how can she know what the future is going to be? I don’t believe I’d have those thoughts, if I were in that much pain. I’d be asking for drugs and fighting to get the oxygen mask off my face.

    Same with taking the time to consider if the man who is apparently a paramedic is kindly-looking. Another clunky tell-not-show sentence. If it’s important we know he’s kindly looking, then weave that detail with a little more finesse. As it is, that sentence took me out of the story for a second. (It should also be “A kind looking man who appeared…” not “that appeared”.)

    “A man–I think he’s a paramedic–leaned over me. His lips move, but I don’t catch the words. He has kindly eyes but then he shines a painfully bright light in my eyes and I jerk away, triggering a searing pain…”

    One last nit that took me out of the story. I’m not sure if they give pain meds to victims before they get in the ambulance (I’m not sure she’s even in the ambulance yet). There’s usually some kind of neurological assessment (hinted at by the light in the eyes) and pain meds can interfere with that. I know there’s a few who comment regularly who have medical backgrounds.

    Thanks for sharing with us. I’m thinking, if this were tightened up and revised, and I had a blurb, I might read further. I’m also getting the sense this is a YA, but again, without a blurb, I’m unsure.

  5. Lynne Connolly
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 09:06:33

    It’s a nice exercise, but it isn’t the beginning of a book I’d want to read. Because where from here? I have no idea.
    Technically, you have problems.
    The writing is very rough. You seem to be trying for instantaneous, be-there action, but there’s too much “telling” for that. Tags like “I felt” distance the reader from the scene.
    Take this sentence:
    “A surge of panic shot through me and I frantically searched around me until a strong hand steadied my movements.”
    That’s all “telling.” It doesn’t bring the reader into the scene. What does it actually feel like to panic? And how is he/she searching? Visually, or flailing, or screaming, what? Superfluous pronoun as well, you could completely cut “around me.” There are a few of those. And what did it feel like to have a strong hand steadying the movements? How did it feel and how did the narrator react? More panic, or reassurance?
    Too many easy words, like “look” and “touch.” You could strengthen the piece by replacing them with something more descriptive.
    I’m not there, and so I’m out. If you write a full-on scene like this, especially for the first page, it has to be done right.

  6. Jane Lovering
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 10:58:48

    Agree with all the other commentators, the scene is too ‘removed’, as though you are writing down something you are watching on TV rather than something that is actually happening to you. Oh, and the past tense of ‘shine’ is ‘shone’. Not ‘shined’.

  7. Shaya Gilford
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 11:23:37

    The use of passive voice and the overuse of adjectives/adverbs kept me outside of the scene. By the time I read to the end, I knew the character had been through a horrific scene, but I just couldn’t care about it. Overcoming passive voice is a difficult thing to do, as I know from experience. It is the biggest problem in my own writing, and I always have to make at least one editing pass concentrating on nothing but passive vs. active sentences.

    “Screams continued to surround me, filling my ears with terror and torment.” This sentence could become “Screams of terror and torment surrounded me.” “My memories of tonight came flooding back, paralyzing me with their intensity…” could become “Memories of the night paralyzed me, playing like a movie reel before ending in the present.” This example makes the scene more active, removes unnecessary wording, and takes the reader along with the character rather than watching the character.

    Words like “instantly”, “suddenly”, and “finally” are often superfluous. Used sparingly, they can add to pacing of a scene. You don’t need them in your narrative here.

    Most of what is wrong with this first page is that you tell rather than show and are attempting to use too many words in hopes of building intensity. Instead, you have a clumsy narrative that leaves your reader apathetic to the character and events. By changing from passive to active sentences, and asking yourself if a clause or phrase can be reworded or removed entirely without changing meaning, you could end up with a good scene. I would not continue reading as the page is written here.

  8. cleo
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 11:46:16

    This scene confused me – it took me awhile to figure out that the narrator blacked out and came to while being treated at an accident – I was seriously thinking this was going to be some sf/f or PNR thing with time travel or something supernatural taking them out of the car. Not a car accident.

    I glazed over all of the details. I think this has potential to be riveting but it needs tightening.

  9. Kate Sherwood
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 11:47:33

    Just for clarity – I don’t think the style issues that are being pointed out are actually examples of Passive Voice… they may be passive, as in not active enough, but “passive voice” is a pretty specific thing.

    Passive voice is when the person/thing performing the action isn’t mentioned in the sentence:

    The ball was thrown = passive voice.
    He had thrown the ball =/= passive voice.

    Screams continued to surround me =/= passive voice, although I agree that it could be written in a more dynamic manner.

    The standard test for passive voice is to add “by zombies” to the end of the sentence. If it still makes sense, at least out of context, the original was probably passive voice. (eg. The ball was thrown by zombies.)

    Sorry to be pedantic, but I didn’t want the author to look up passive voice and get confused about how to apply the understanding to her work.

  10. Kerry
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 11:51:18

    I thought at first it was an accident, then got lost in the confusing/overdone telling, and started to think they’d been waylaid by terrorists or something. Maybe that was just me, but with so little actual information, and so much extraneous, distancing detail, it could really go either way.

    Side note: Use of “to be” does NOT equal passive voice. Lack of identifiable subject (i.e., what/who is actually DOING the action) does.

    Example 1: “I was in love with him.” Use of to be, not as direct as “I loved him,” but NOT passive voice. I’m the subject, AND I’m doing the action.

    Example 2: “He was loved by me.” I (subject) have now become the object (by me) in the sentence, and NO ONE is really doing the action. That’s passive voice.

    However, overuse of “to be” + “verb-ing” is wordy, not as immediate, and distancing, with a similar end result to that of using passive voice, and I agree that this piece could easily be made more active and engaging.

    (Side-side note: you don’t have to use “to be” at all in passive voice – “cars driven by dogs” = passive, etc., – but it’s very often used, which is I think where the confusion comes in, making some people think ANY use of was, were, etc. should be banned.)

  11. Shaya Gilford
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 11:53:04

    My apologies to the author for the confusion. Kate Sherwood is exactly right. Rather than passive voice, I should have said passive tone. They are different, and create different problems. (Sadly, they are both still my biggest weaknesses.)

    Thank you, Kate, for the clarification and correction.

  12. Kerry
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 11:53:27

    Ha! Kate beat me to the punch! :)

  13. Anne Gresley
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 12:06:50

    I think the passive voice/to be confusion is probably my fault. I probably shouldn’t have used the words passive and active. It’s more about setting the reader at a distance or at least that’s the effect the ‘to be’ing has on me.

  14. theo
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 14:21:23

    With that type of accident, someone would be assessing the patient as they’re being loaded into the ambulance. No one would be giving any drugs whatsoever until they’d gotten a line in and were on the phone with the receiving hospital giving them all the vitals. To a doctor on the other end of the mic. Not a chance. Because should the pt die en-route to the hospital due to something the paramedic gave without instruction of an attending and the lawsuit would be humungous. In fact, rarely is anyone given anything until the pt arrives at the ER due to the attending wanting to do an assessment there first. The only time I saw that happen prior to arrival was if there was a severed limb or something like a fencepost embedded through torso, limb or face.

    The second problem I have with this is all this telling is just way too lucid for someone who has some type of head injury evidenced by the fact that they passed out. And it must have been for some amount of time to not come to before half a dozen rescue and police vehicles arrived.

    The third is, this is first person. Read this out loud while imagining you’re in tremendous pain. Then rewrite it in third person without using any telling verbs and read it aloud. I think you’ll find that you cut this by half and tighten it, but this is very over-the-top so maybe not.

    And a last note, unless that charm bracelet is up somewhere, one laying on a stretcher generally has to sit up to see the ground around it so that kind of detail didn’t work for me either.

    I understand what you’re trying to do here but the inconsistencies and florid telling instead of the character actually being in the moment just doesn’t work.

  15. Kilian Metcalf
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 15:48:44

    I agree with the other commentators. Overall the piece is slightly confusing. I gather that there is a traffic accident of some sort, and the narrator is telling her experience.

    I tell my writers to keep this list of words near their computers: be, been, am, is, are, was, were. No particular reason for the order, that’s just the way I memorized them. Whenever these words appear in fiction, chances are the writer is ‘telling’ the reader something, rather than ‘showing’ the reader. Adverbs are another clue that the writer doesn’t know how to describe what is happening. Adverbs kill a sentence. ‘She ran quickly.’ Thump. Dead sentence. ‘She ran, and she had to look down to avoid the broken spots in the concrete that tried to trip her as she sped over them’ Not great literature, but it’s not dead.

    A couple of nits: the bracelet lay on the shattered glass, not laid. It’s never too soon to learn the correct use of the verb ‘to lie.’ Yes, it’s confusing. That’s why it’s important to learn to use it correctly. Also IV fluids usually feel cold as they run in. The bags and the meds are either room temp or refrigerated. Some meds do burn as they go in, but very few. Most are cold. Check with a friendly health-care provider to check the facts if you write a scene involving them. Overall, generalized pain is not as common as localized pain. Pain in a limb, pain in the back or neck, is more common after trauma. Also my patients who were in excruciating pain generally weren’t able to sleep. They wished.

    I congratulate the writer on having the courage to share a rough piece of writing. It isn’t easy to ask for and receive criticism. Don’t give up or be discouraged. Learn from the people who are willing to take time to share their experience and knowledge with you because they want to encourage and nurture good writing. Keep writing.

  16. Stephani Hecht
    Feb 25, 2014 @ 23:37:50

    To add to what Theo has already very accurately pointed out, they would also be using universal c-spine precautions They wouldn’t just jerk her out of the car, but there would be a careful extraction process. Then she would be placed on a backboard and head blocks would be taped into place. So, there is no way she could have seen the charm bracelet.

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