Thanks so much to Chuck H for offering his page for critique!
As many have noted in the comments section, this page has an engaging start, and there’s strong writing here. It manages to be both languid (two guys sitting on the porch) and tense (discussing tough questions), there’s an interesting dynamic between the characters, and it opens some questions that we want to know more about. Nice work, Chuck!
Other than some smoothing out (more about that in the redline), I have just one main point of concern, which has to do with the opening.
There was something that wasn’t quite working for me with the opening line, and I just couldn’t figure out what it was. There’s nothing technically wrong with it, it’s catchy, it’s intriguing on its own…. but there was something that felt just a bit off. And I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Then I realized: it’s not the first line that’s the problem! Instead, it’s actually the second line that threw me.
As I’ve discussed in past page critiques, starting off in provocative fashion (e.g. with catchy dialogue or rug-pulling/just kidding moment or something otherwise provocative etc.) is one of those trust-fall moments between a writer and reader. The hand of the author shines through in these types of openings. Yes, a provocative opening can help pull in the reader by making them want to find out what the writer is going to do, but the flashiness and artifice can make it difficult for the reader to immediately forget the presence of the author and immerse themselves in the book. So it’s very necessary to quickly catch the reader so they feel as if they’re in sure hands.
And unfortunately, in this case the second sentence drops the reader in the proverbial trust fall. It feels a bit stilted (“as I contemplated my companion who was staring out”), a bit redundant (the narrator both “thought about” and”contemplated”), and contradictory (the “as” in the sentence makes it seem like he’s thinking about both the question and the questioner simultaneously, which isn’t really how thinking works). It didn’t make me believe in the character’s voice, and I just don’t know that it delivers on the promise of the first line. As a reader it put me on edge.
The consequence: because I didn’t believe the second line, all of a sudden it didn’t seem plausible to me that this character would fixate on his companion’s appearance when faced with that question, even though the detail in the third sentence is good and even though there’s nothing wrong with a pause or a character observing another character in this situation. It’s just that the second sentence made me disbelieve this character’s reaction.
After that moment the page flows fine and it recovers. But when you’re starting in catchy fashion, it’s so important to make sure that what follows the catchy part is just as strong, if not stronger than the opening. Otherwise the reader is going to feel dropped and it undermines the trust that is so important to establish in the beginning of a novel.
All the same, I think this page is in very good shape and think it just needs a few tweaks.
TITLE: Old Farts
“Have you ever killed anyone?”
I thought about that one for a while as I contemplated my companion who was staring out across the valley. Joe was about my age—somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty—compact, wiry with a full head of gray hair speckled here and there with dark spots. I thought to myself that, with his dark complexion and that nose, he must have had some Indian ancestry. Excuse me, Native American. Evidently my contemplation had gone on too long Not necessary. Show it through the other character interrupting.
“Well, have you?” This bit of dialogue didn’t feel natural to me. Do people really say, “Well, have you?” when they’re impatient? Wouldn’t most people just say, “Well?” or “I’m waiting” or “Hey,” or something else? Also, I wasn’t sure whether it was Joe or the narrator who was saying this. A dialogue tag would clarify things greatly.
It was a simple question but not so easy to answer. I had been involved, peripherally at least, in a war. I had worn the uniform and, technically, I had been in a war zone. However, I hadn’t carried a weapon or shot at people. But I had made it possible for others to bomb hell out of folks on the ground and shoot down folks in the air. Then there was that gig as a company man after the war. Had I ever killed anyone I like this paragraph up to this point? I lied I found this confusing since he hasn’t said it yet. Maybe he just decides to lie here and then says “No”?.
Joe turned to stare at me for a moment then directed his attention back to the million dollar view from my front porch.
We sat for a while in silence. I was trying to decide whether or not I should call him a liar. God only knows what he was thinking. I finally made up my mind to confront him Wonder if there’s a way to show that he’s made up his mind rather than just saying he’s made up his mind. Thought process could feel a little more natural.
“I always thought that you were . . .”
“I lied.” Wasn’t totally 100% on who said which line of dialogue here.