First Page Critique – “New to the Neighborhood”

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

By Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21002061

For your reading enjoyment is another brave author open to feedback. My comments will follow. Feel free to share your constructive criticism in your comments. Let’s nurture this author, TKZers.

***

The words, sprayed in red, dripped like blood down the white siding of the ranch house on the corner. “They could have at least gotten the spelling right,” I called from the curb, loud enough for the woman in the yard, scattering grass seed from a coffee can, to hear.

Maggie looked up. She stood – a scarecrow with choppy, flaxen hair under a straw hat, worn jeans, and flannel shirt rolled to the elbow – and we looked at each other. She called toward the backyard: “June. We have company.”

A second woman approached along the slate flagstones that curved between a pansy-and-petunia border. Knee-length shorts and a Hawaiian shirt showed dimpled limbs and rose quartz skin. A halo of gray-flecked, light brown curls accented the cherub face. The tight line of her mouth loosened into something like a smile. Then her lips began to tremble and her eyelids flutter. She wrapped me in an airtight hug, which I returned with less vigor.

Maggie pressed June’s elbow. “June, get us some chairs. Can you sit a while, Kelly?”

They’d arrived two months before, in March, setting the block’s antenna twitching. Two single women, the wrong ages for mother and daughter, no men in sight. Sue Hoycheck said they seemed nice enough, but Sue was a kind-hearted grandmother who thought everyone seemed nice enough. They told Edie Isom they’d moved from St. Paul. One or the other –Edie couldn’t remember – had been hired to manage the art mall opening in the old Amtrak station downtown. When Olin Frey murmured that he’d seen just one bed – queen-size – come off the moving van, all the pieces fit together.

“It’s no big deal,” Lynn Franklin insisted. I’d come to Franklin’s Hardware to order specialty paints, coffee bean brown and French olive green, for a dining room trim. “As long as they return the rototiller they rented from us, who they sleep with is their own business.”

I smiled with mischief. “And if they don’t return the rototiller, who they sleep with is . . .?”

She frowned. “It may seem funny to you. You probably met a lot of them in New York. But around here . . .”

“I don’t know how many I met,” I said. “I’ll bet you don’t either.”

***

FEEDBACK

Overview: There is a lot for me to like in this intro. The inciting incident is a disturbance established with graffiti. It’s the first image the author draws our attention to. The idyllic setting is marred by red paint on the white siding of a ranch house. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the women. Very visual and easy to imagine. I also appreciated the underlying emotion in this scene when the visitor & the narrator console with a hug.

After I read and reread this intro, I noticed things that I would edit if this was my work. I had questions on POV and the characters as I read on. I sincerely enjoyed reading this intro. The talent of this author is very apparent, but some housekeeping is in order.

ESTABLISH GENDER: Since this is in first person, the gender of the narrator would be important as soon as possible from the start. This is minor, but add a word to this line:

I called from the curb, loud enough for the OTHER woman in the yard,…

Good call for the author to establish June’s name by having Maggie call out to her.

SENTENCE CLARITY: This is me, being nit picky. The sentence below might flow a little better:

BEFORE: “…loud enough for the woman in the yard, scattering grass seed from a coffee can, to hear.”

AFTER: “…loud enough for the other woman in the yard to hear as she scattered grass seed from a coffee can.”

STICK WITH ONE POV – If this scene is told from June’s singular POV, the intro should consistently be seen through her eyes. In the second paragraph, when Maggie looks up at June, this line follows”

and we looked at each other

I would suggest that the author stay in June’s head and try to imagine what she might see in Maggie’s eyes – worry, fatigue, hurt, concern, wariness? Or simply change the line to: “When my eyes fixed on Maggie’s, something passed between us.”

Another line switches the POV from June to Maggie: Maggie pressed June’s elbow. If this is truly meant for June’s POV, this line would read: Maggie pressed my elbow.

In paragraph 5, that begins with “They’d arrived two months before…”, the author switches from June’s POV to telling a “THEY” story. The POV should be consistent throughout this intro scene, so that line might read “I had moved with Maggie two months ago…”

But from this writing, maybe June and Maggie aren’t the “they” the author is writing about. Perhaps the author is writing about Kelly and her significant other. It’s not explained who Kelly is or why June is reticent to embrace her. By the time I got down to reading Lynn Franklin’s lines, I realized the hardware store owner was talking to June, as if June was an insider to the town. Some clarity is definitely needed.

If June and Maggie are the newcomers, other lines should be fixed for POV as follows:

BEFORE: Two single women, the wrong ages for mother and daughter, no men in sight. Sue Hoycheck said they seemed nice enough, but Sue was a kind-hearted grandmother who thought everyone seemed nice enough. They told Edie Isom they’d moved from St. Paul. One or the other –Edie couldn’t remember – had been hired to manage the art mall opening in the old Amtrak station downtown. When Olin Frey murmured that he’d seen just one bed – queen-size – come off the moving van, all the pieces fit together.

AFTER: We were two single women, the wrong ages for mother and daughter, no men in sight. Sue Hoycheck told others that we seemed nice enough, but Sue was a kind-hearted grandmother who thought everyone seemed nice enough. Word spread through town busy body, Edie Isom. It didn’t take long for folks to know Maggie and I hailed from St. Paul. Edie didn’t remember which one of us had been hired to manage the art mall opening in the old Amtrak station downtown, but I guess that didn’t matter much. But what set the town on fire came when Olin Frey murmured that he’d seen just one bed – queen-size – come off the moving van. That’s when all the pieces fit together for folks with small minds.

But if the “they” is Kelly and her partner or wife if they are married (unsure of the time period of this piece), then “they” should be explained with names.

EMBEDDED DIALOGUE – I would recommend to draw out dialogue lines so they are not embedded within a paragraph. It allows the reader to follow more easily and keep track of who is speaking.

The words, sprayed in red, dripped like blood down the white siding of the ranch house on the corner.

“They could have at least gotten the spelling right,” I called from the curb, loud enough for the woman in the yard to hear as she scattered grass seed from a coffee can.

Maggie looked up. She stood – a scarecrow with choppy, flaxen hair under a straw hat, worn jeans, and flannel shirt rolled to the elbow. When my eyes fixed on hers, something passed between us. She nudged her head and called toward the backyard.

“June. We have company.”

TIGHTEN SENTENCES WHERE NECESSARY: In the BEFORE line below, if the visitor’s lips are “beginning to tremble”, they are already trembling. A cleaner sentence would be:

BEFORE: Then her lips began to tremble and her eyelids flutter.

AFTER: Her lips trembled and her eyelids fluttered.

SHOW TIME LAPSE: When the dialogue line “It’s no big deal…” comes up, time has passed and June has left Maggie & Kelly or it’s another day or a memory. It would be nice to clarify this and I changed the flow a little in the AFTER example.

BEFORE: “It’s no big deal,” Lynn Franklin insisted. I’d come to Franklin’s Hardware to order specialty paints, coffee bean brown and French olive green, for a dining room trim. “As long as they return the rototiller they rented from us, who they sleep with is their own business.”

I smiled with mischief. “And if they don’t return the rototiller, who they sleep with is . . .?”

She frowned. “It may seem funny to you. You probably met a lot of them in New York. But around here . . .”

AFTER: Two hours later, I stared at the weary face of Lynn Franklin, owner of the local hardware store in town. I’d come to Franklin’s Hardware to order specialty paints, coffee bean brown and French olive green, for a dining room trim.

“It’s no big deal,” Lynn Franklin insisted. “As long as they return the rototiller they rented from us, who they sleep with is their own business.”

I smiled with mischief. “And if they don’t return the rototiller, who they sleep with is . . .?”

She frowned.

“It may seem funny to you. You probably met a lot of them in New York. But around here . . .”

“I don’t know how many I met,” I said. “I’ll bet you don’t either.”

SUMMARY: I really like how this ends. If the author adds clarity on the areas I brought up, the conflict is apparent, but I’m wondering where this will go and if it’s enough for a whole novel. The characters intrigue me. I would read on.

DISCUSSION:

1.) What changes would you recommend, TKZers? Would you read on?

2.) What possible plot twists can you see stemming from this introduction?

4+

Just Write the Story

 

Have you ever felt like every idea you currently have your finger on totally…sucks? That you may never have another good story idea?

I’ve been struggling with a short story for weeks and weeks. Not struggling with a single, specific story, but with FOUR beginnings of stories as I try to distill one. This isn’t a situation I’m used to, or particularly like. (I’m sure that I’m the only one this has happened to, right?) As those beginnings rolled around in my head, I’d stop to type out a page. Then stop. The idea never quite made it past another couple paragraphs.

This may be the absolute worst part of being a writer. Or at least being a writer under deadline.

I decided to get help from my resident writer guy/bedfellow. (Paraphrasing ahead because in real life conversation is rarely linear–something to remember as you write fiction. Think of the following as a kind of passion play. On writing.)

Me: I need to talk about something. [Trying not to sound too dire, yet going for serious. Because I am.]

Husband: Sure. [Isn’t he nice?!]

Me: So I’ve been trying to work on this story for a long time now. I just feel like–I don’t know–like I’ll never be able to write another short story again. Like I’ll never have another good idea. They’re just gone. [Confession: I know it’s a bit of a whine. A cry for help because what writer wants to EVER feel this way?]

Husband: Yeah, that sounds tough. You sound like you feel pretty bad. [I love empathy, don’t you? Yes, we’ve both had plenty of practice with, um, professional listeners.]

Me: *sigh* It’s a horrible feeling. What if I never have another decent idea?

Husband: That’s unlikely. But you could always get a job at Dairy Queen. [We are both big DQ fans.] Somebody–I don’t remember who, maybe someone we interviewed–mentioned they teach your Bug Man story in their writing classes all the time.

Me: That story just came to me all at once, you know? In one big piece. It was a giant gift from the sky. I don’t think I really had much to do with it. And then a couple of my stories got nominated for prizes. How can I write another story and have it not be as good? [This is a real feeling, y’all.]

Husband: So what if it’s not as good? [You can see who the Devil’s Advocate is in our house.] You just have to write a story.

Me: It just feels like the end of everything. [Apocalyptic scenarios are my specialty.][Intentionally ignoring the suggestion that my next story might not be as good as my former best. My currently fragile ego obviously can’t take it.]

Husband: You think you’ll spend the rest of your life not writing? [Why doesn’t he sound more alarmed, I want to know.}

Me: If I don’t have any ideas, I can’t write. Short stories, anyway. [Note to editor and agent: the current novel is going FINE] I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. It’s scary.

Husband: Yeah, that’s not really true. [What? Is he kidding? Calling me a liar? Them’s fightin’ words.]

Me: What do you mean? [Trying not to sound indignant because that would only refocus the discussion on a non-issue and listening would quickly cease on both sides. That’s what a professional listener might say, anyway.]

Husband: I hesitate to tell you this, but you say this every time. Short stories, novels, whatever. Especially if you have a deadline. [I am speechless for a long moment.] Sorry, but it’s true.

Me: Really? [I’m experiencing a glimmer of familiarity, to my surprise. But it’s…uncomfortable.] Seriously?

Husband: Yep. Every time. [Similar scenes from the past threaten to overwhelm me, making my brain spin like a spiral cartoon graphic from old Batman or The Monkees shows. (Yes, I’m that old, and if you don’t remember them I pity your loss!)]

Me: Maybe…I guess. [I’m awesome at poker. You never know what I’m thinking.]

Husband: You should probably go write the story.

Me: You think I can? What if it sucks? [Please don’t say it could suck.]

Husband: It could definitely suck, but I don’t think it will. I’m sure they’ll take it. [!!!!!]

Me: They’re not going to want it if it sucks, though. [Logic is surely on my side, right?]

Husband: You don’t get to be the judge. You just have to write the story. You usually think your work is no good until someone else likes it. Or publishes it. Go write the story. [He’s repeating himself. Could it all really be this simple? Hope fills my head, displacing the cartoon chaos. I’m finally remembering…] So what’s for dinner?

Yes, Husband was perfectly correct. I do go through similar throes sometime during every project. It’s a crisis of confidence that appears to be part of my process. It can come right at the beginning, and/or sometimes when I’m about 3/4 in. I wanted to share this little drama with you to let you know you’re not the only one. I know there are writers among us–TKZers on both sides of the screen [cue creepy image of ALL the TKZ contributors stuffed into the back part of my Mac, typing away diligently]–who NEVER have a crisis of confidence. And more power to them! The rest of us have to wrestle with our work and stories until they become clear in our vision.

You won’t ever run out of ideas. I promise.

Oh, I found my story the next morning. It’s a synthesis of two of my story ideas, plus an added murder. [Of course there’s a murder–maybe two!]

So, dear TKZers, tell us a story about your crises of confidence. Do you have predictable panicked moments? Or do tell us how you’ve managed to avoid them!

 

 

5+

Heil Safari – First Page Critique

Today let’s welcome another Brave Anonymous Author who offers the first page of Heil Safari.

Title:  Heil Safari

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot. He had stepped to the caution line and put one foot on the other side. The caution line, marked with wooden stakes and a strand of wire across the top, warned the prisoners of war from getting too close to the wire fence fifteen feet beyond. On the fence going around the entire prison camp there were signs in English and German that read:

ATTENTION!

Forbidden to Move Inside

Restricted Area

Violators Will be Shot

The American guard in the corner watchtower shouted, “You there! On the deadline! Git back!” The guard raised a rifle to his shoulder. “I said git back!”

But Fritz didn’t move.

“You damn Nazi,” the guard yelled at Fritz. “Git back or I shoot!”

Fritz still didn’t move, apparently not taking the threat seriously. Or caring. But Beyer took it seriously. He cared.

Returning to his barracks after doing his morning toilet, Beyer now stood still, uneasy. Then he heard the click of a breech bolt coming from the guard tower at the other corner of the compound. In horror he saw a guard hunkered behind a machine gun. He was covering the south end of the compound as if at any moment there might be a general uprising. The nearby prisoners, however, remained still and only stared.

But Beyer had to do something other than stare to see how the crisis would turn out. He couldn’t afford to lose Fritz. The only mining engineer in the Officers Compound, Fritz was essential to the success of Hermes. Beyer was desperate for Hermes to succeed. Being too long cooped in the densely packed prisoners and buildings of the enclosure, Beyer, much like Fritz, was becoming unnerved. Beyer frequently broke out in night sweats, his breathing rapid and shallow, and sigh a low, agonizing moan.

Considering that Fritz might be shot, a shiver of fear raced through Beyer at the prospect of a catastrophe. Without Fritz there may not be a tunnel completion, no one would get out, all the hard work done up to now remaining unfulfilled.

“Damn you! Stop!” the guard with the rifle shouted.

The shout startled Beyer, then he noticed Fritz beginning to take mincing steps, his short height straddling the wire in his crotch.

 

Okay, let’s get to work.

Usually first pages arrive naked and unadorned at TKZ, without genre or background information. Page One must stand entirely on its own. That’s good because a strong first page is critical to whether or not a reader buys your book.

However, this submission included a synopsis. And the synopsis was intriguing. For that reason, I’m going to handle this critique a little differently than normal.

Most writers would rather endure an IRS audit than write a synopsis because it’s damn hard to do well.

In the summary, Anon explained the novel was based on a true but largely-unknown incident during World War II at Camp Trinidad in Colorado. I Googled it and found this article. Essentially, The Great Escape got turned on its head with German prisoners of war trying to escape American captors.

Show, don’t tell is oft-repeated advice for fiction. However in a synopsis, telling is permissible because it’s the most efficient way to introduce characters, lay out the story problem/conflict, and set up what’s at stake.

Anon handled that summary very well. German prisoners plot to escape a POW camp in Colorado because they are going mad from wire enclosure fever. A main character, Beyer, would rather die than endure another day in captivity. But there is dissent among prisoners, some of whom are die-hard Nazis while others are not. There are additional complications because Beyer’s friend Fritz, the chief engineer in charge of building the escape tunnel, is teetering on the brink of insanity. Anon sets up external conflict between German prisoners and American captors and among the POWs themselves, internal conflict with severe psychological stress, and a ticking clock with a race to see if the tunnel can be finished before the engineer completely loses it.

Lots of great potential for a historical thriller. Congratulations on a clear, competent synopsis, Anon.

Unfortunately, on this first page, Anon is mostly telling when s/he should be showing.

The POV character Beyer observes the events unfolding not only from a physical distance but also an emotional distance. Anon tells us he’s concerned but the reader doesn’t feel his apprehension, his helplessness, his panic that Fritz’s actions may not only lead to his death but also ruin the escape plan that can’t proceed without him.

The stakes couldn’t be higher–life or death–which is a great way to kick off a first page.

But the problem is: the reader doesn’t care.

Because we’re not inside Beyer’s skin. We don’t feel his guts churning, smell the nervous sweat under his armpits, taste the bile rising in his throat. We don’t see what he sees—the madness in the wild eyes of his friend Fritz who’s trying to commit suicide. We don’t hear the angry bark of the guard with his twitchy finger on the trigger.

We don’t feel the urgency driving both men to risk death because they can’t endure another day in captivity.

Showing is more than visual—it must be visceral and emotional.

The synopsis used the term “wire enclosure fever.” Unfortunately there is no sense of  fever in this first page.

A few suggestions to consider as you rewrite:

Lead off with a simple dateline that immediately sets the date and location. The reader right away understands this is historical fiction set in a military environment. For example:

Camp Trinity, Colorado, 1943

Next, climb inside Beyer’s skin and stay there. Use sensory detail to bring action to life. Actions trigger Beyer’s thoughts and feelings.

As Jim Bell often recommends, “Act first, explain later.” Give the reader just enough information to set the scene and prevent confusion.

A lot of repetition can be cut and condensed. Consider the first two sentences:

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot.

These two sentences essentially repeat the same information that could be combined into a single sentence with much more punch. Again, it’s telling rather than showing. Instead of having Beyer “wonder” how to save Fritz, he should act. His action may help the situation or it may make it worse. But either way, it moves the story forward.

Every scene needs to accomplish at least five tasks:

  1. Set the scene;
  2. Reveal character;
  3. Introduce a problem or goal;
  4. Demonstrate the stakes if the problem is not solved or the goal is not met;
  5. Propel the action forward.

How do you build a compelling scene? By stringing together groups of sentences that accomplish these tasks.

How do you build a compelling book? By stringing together compelling scenes.

In a fast-paced thriller, each sentence must build on the previous one to push the plot forward. Treat each sentence as a springboard that induces the reader to jump to the next sentence to learn what’s going to happen.

Below is one possible way to rewrite this first page, using additional details gleaned from the linked article.

Captain Martin Beyer fastened the last button of the drab uniform shirt that shamed him every day with its PW insignia: “prisoner of war.” He stomped his feet on the wood steps of the officers barracks to knock the fine silt off his once-shiny Luftwaffe boots. Barbed wire surrounded this desolate, barren patch of dirt named Camp Trinity. On the fence, signs in German and English warned that anyone would be shot if they crossed the caution line, the restricted buffer zone that was fifteen feet inside the compound fence.

“Hey, Nazi, git back!”

The shout from the watchtower caught Beyer’s attention. He turned to see an American guard aiming a rifle at Beyer’s closest friend in the camp, Hans Fritz. The young second lieutenant had stepped beyond a wire stretched taut between wooden posts.

One foot over the caution line into the restricted zone.

Beyer’s gut cramped as he prayed his friend would heed the guard’s warning. Lately, he never knew if Fritz taunted the Americans for sport or if he truly sought death rather than endure another day inside the prison.

There was a wild gleam in Fritz’s wide blue eyes as he teetered on the line, one boot in life, the other in hell.

The metallic click of a breech bolt sounded from the opposite watchtower where another guard hunkered behind a machine gun. “Git back or I’ll shoot!”

“Don’t do it, Fritz,” Beyer muttered. If Fritz died, the escape tunnel plan died with him.

 

The above is about 230 words and conveys most of the same information more concisely plus gives a deeper glimpse into the POV character.

Work on sensory detail that draws the reader in. Let the reader see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the story world you’ve built.

Work on showing emotion and feelings in the POV character. It’s not enough to say he felt alarmed—show his alarm with his sensory reactions.

Examine each sentence. Ask yourself if it repeats information previously stated. If so, choose the strongest version and delete the weaker. Or combine two sentences into one.

Count how many of the five elements listed above are included in each sentence. I try to pack sentences with at least two elements, preferably more. When you compose a sentence, choose an action that reveals character as well as demonstrates the stakes. The consequences of that action either solve the problem or make it worse.

One last point: the title Heil Safari is vague and doesn’t hint at the meat of the story. “Heil” made me think of the Nazi salute so I deduced it took place during World War II. But how does that connect to “Safari”? Maybe refer to the escape tunnel to freedom. Or perhaps the perils that lie beyond the tunnel if they escape successfully. You can find a better title to convince a potential reader to click the “buy now” button.

Don’t be discouraged, Brave Author. You have a compelling storyline based on historical events that are not widely known. World War II history buffs will find this interesting. A strong foundation in fact serves as a solid platform on which to build your fictionalized version. Work on your craft and you should have a good book.

Over to you, TKZers. Suggestions and comments for our Brave Anonymous Author?

 

If you’re a member of Amazon Prime, you can read Debbie Burke’s bestselling thriller Instrument of the Devil for free. Here’s the link.

 

 

 

 

3+

First Page Critique: Heir of Death

It seems like a while since I’ve done a first page critique and I’m looking forward to today’s discussion surrounding what I think is a great example of the beginning of a new fantasy novel. My comments follow.

Title: Heir of Death

______

There was a girl amongst the grass. Alone in the moonlight and darkness.

The wind tugged at her cloak, tearing golden strands from her braid. She stood tall, blade weighing heavily at her side and watched the stars sparkle and fade.

Shadows danced across her knuckles and wreathed their way up her arms, curling around a patchwork of scars, around skin inked with the names of the dead.

They moved and swelled with her sadness, with her pride and hate – with the knowledge of what she was about to become.

So the girl stood on the bluff overlooking the city as the wind whispered her name, silhouetted by its twinkling lights. It spread out before her, a glittering mosaic of stone and wood and metal, of blood and bones and breath.

She stood cloaked in shadows and in darkness – and she waited.

And it was there, that Death came to her in the form of a man.

He was a dangerous man, arrogant and proud. Tall and powerfully built with a tangle of white blonde hair beneath his hood and eyes like soot stained ground. He wore a black cape and the blade at his side flashed in the moonlight.

Beside him he carried a crown of twisted metal. Of tiny daggers and drifting leaves, of gold and steel woven together to a thing of monstrous beauty. It floated on an invisible wind. Green eyes met charcoal, gold hair and blonde, beaten and broken and evil – daughter and father. She walked out to meet him, with an arrogant swagger, slowly, with the tension of fear only he would recognise. The shadows increased their pace, swirling around her arms. Darker and darker. Faster and faster. Tumbling to a crescendo as Death himself spoke her name.

The world disappeared then in darkness and night. The stars snuffed out, faded by nightmares. They swelled around the girl, snatching at her cloak, tearing her hair free from its cage, ripping the grass from its roots. The wind howled with her song and the earth shook with her magic. The bluff and the world disappeared.

And then it exploded.

It surged toward the man, toward him, a torrent of nightmares and pain. It surged toward him that raw unbridled power – and shattered against an invisible wall.

Shards of nightmares scattered into the sky, tumbling into the dirt and grass, into the city beyond. And the king of death smiled.

Green and charcoal met again across that ruined landscape, defiant and amused, and spoke in a silence only they could understand. Threats and nightmares and deals with the devil. Her hand itched toward her blade, toward the ornately carved knife at her side and her arm ached to bury it in his chest. But she knew she could not beat him, her deal with the devil, not even with her shadows.

Not now.

Not yet.

So the girl knelt before him and took his crown. Gold and steel and darkness above a snow white braid.

And under that black abyss of twinkling stars, on the ground between two worlds, she spoke Death’s name and became his heir.

My Comments:

Overall

As a lover of fantasy novels, I really enjoyed reading this first page. It certainly succeeded in raising my interest and in foreshadowing what I assume will be the battle to come. That being said, this reads like a prologue – setting the scene and written in abstract, descriptive terms that can sometimes feel a little too ponderous or deliberately ‘weighty’. So I just caution the author that even in fantasy – where these kind of prologues are more common – it’s important to tread lightly, lest the weight of the writing drag down the action/tension and slow the forward momentum of the actual story.  Overall, however, I liked what I read and think there’s some strong potential for this fantasy novel.

Specific Comments

Weight of Exposition

Up until the paragraph ending “Death himself spoke her name’, I was fully engaged in this first page. The next few paragraphs, however, started to feel a little overwritten for my taste and I started to get more confused about what was really happening in the scene. In the first paragraph we got an image of the daughter of death waiting for her father, waiting to be crowned perhaps with the crown of twisted metal he was holding. After that things got a little murkier. I wasn’t sure how the stars could get snuffed out ‘faded by nightmares’. Likewise was it the nightmares that swelled around her or the darkness and the night? I assumed that she was using her magic to send a surge of nightmares and pain towards him (her father, Death) and that this onslaught failed, but the way these next few paragraphs read was a little confusing – especially as we have no real sense of her motivation for trying to defeat him – except (as I read the final few lines) because she didn’t want to be crowned as Death’s heir.

My advice to the author is to perhaps step back from the exposition and add some dialogue into this scene to clarify matters. Dialogue could be a great vehicle to explain the relationship between father and daughter and also explain what is meant by her ‘deal with the devil’ (which in the context could be metaphorical or actual). This would also help lift the scene from being weighed down by exposition alone.

Use of ‘Death’

I’m not a huge fan of having Death as a character (I didn’t even like it in the well known novel The Book Thief). It can seem oblique as well as grandiose to have the personification of capital ‘D’ Death in your novel – especially if we don’t really understand what Death  is in the context (The grim reaper? A God like being like in Greek and Roman mythology?). If the character is a fantasy construct/personification that is going to be an actual character, then I think we need some hints of the mythology underpinning the novel right from the get go. I love the idea of the daughter of death as the heroine in a fantasy novel but I’d like to see more clarification in the latter paragraphs of this first page so I can really believe in them as actual characters in the novel.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I think there are some great elements to this first page – it prefaces an intriguing battle between Death and his daughter in a fanstastical landscape. I would just recommend inserting some dialogue to lighten the exposition, caution the author not to get too ponderous, and ask for some clarifications so the reader doesn’t get lost in all the foreshadowing of what is to come. TKZers, I look forward to seeing you comments and advice for our brave submitter.

 

 

 

 

6+

Fiction Is Truth Serum

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Driving a car in Los Angeles offers great insight into human nature.

Some years ago, along a stretch of the freeway we Angelenos call The 101 (not “one-hundred-and-one” but “one-oh-one,” thank you very much) I was being harassed by the car in back of me. I had just completed what is known in driving school as a lane change. As I recall I indicated my impending move by way of the turn signal, though how much notice I gave the gentleman in the next lane I cannot remember with precision.

Quite apparently, however, he took umbrage at my action and began honking his horn, flashing his lights, and declaring his displeasure with a single, upraised digit.

I could see how red his face was via my rear view mirror.

Now, what do I do in situations like that? My first urge is to try to think of something that will frustrate the churlish driver even more. But then (I certainly hope) a “better angel of my nature” kicks me in the ribs and I try to let the whole thing pass.

This I did, and started whistling a merry tune.

The fellow behind me, though, was not satisfied. The moment he had an opening he shot over to the lane on our right (without benefit of signal), gunned his automobile, then cut in front of me (again without benefit of signal). He offered me one more look at his middle finger.

Which was when I noticed the bumper sticker on the rear of his car:

ONE PEOPLE. ONE PLANET. PLEASE.

Ah, humanity. What a study. And what a lesson for our fiction.

For who are we really? Who are our characters?

We/They are not the masks we wear when things are smooth and tidy. Or perhaps, to put it another way, what we are truly made of is only revealed under pressure.

That’s what great fiction is about—how a character transforms when forced into conflict (I contend that to be great, the conflict must be life or death—death being physical, professional, or psychological/spiritual. This includes thrillers, romance, literary…any genre).

We’re not going to read 200—or even 20—pages about a flirty girl in a big dress trying to land an aristocratic husband. Only the Civil War and the prospect of losing her home is going to show us what Scarlett O’Hara is made of.

Who is Rick Blaine, the reclusive owner of a café and gambling den in the city of Casablanca? It seems he does live his life according to one rule: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” But what happens when the Nazis show up and try to push him around? And then close in on the only woman he has ever loved—and her resistance-hero husband? The whole movie is about forcing Rick to look at himself (as if in a mirror) and figure out who he really is … and, more important, who he must become.

Think of the pressure of the novel as being truth serum for a character.

So who was in back of me in that car? A nice guy advocating for peace in the world who was having a bad day? Or a plaster saint who plays The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” in his apartment even as he flames people with a burner account on Twitter?

The great thing about fiction is that the tests we give our characters, and who they turn out to be because of them, are infinitely variable. (Which is why I imagine my road-rage guy got off the freeway shortly after our encounter, lost control of his vehicle, slammed into a telephone pole, woke up in the hospital with amnesia and later became convinced he was Professor Irwin Corey.)

Here’s an exercise: Ask yourself what bumper sticker your character would place on his car. That’s his mask. That’s what he wants people to think of him. Then ask yourself what action the character can take that demonstrates the opposite of the sentiment. Now, what does that tell you about who the character really is?

Work that complexity into your manuscript.

And please, drive sanely.

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Another Deadline

By Mark Alpert

Me to Editor: I’m writing the book’s epilogue right now. As we speak.

Editor: Really?

Me: Yes! I’m, like, three paragraphs from the end. And I’m pushing aside everything else to get it done. No phone calls, no emails, no social media, no blog posts. I’m not even reading the newspaper.

Editor: So you didn’t hear what happened with Paul Manafort?

Me: Okay, I read that story. I mean, I had to. But nothing else, I swear.

Editor: All right, all right. Just send me the manuscript as soon as you can.

Click.

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First Page Critique: Jolted

By Elaine Viets

Another brave Anonymous Author would like us to evaluate this first page. Read it first, and then my comments. I’m looking forward to seeing yours. Here’s the offering:

JOLTED
From the window of the school bus, Hannah spotted her dad’s new black truck above the hay fields. A dry, cold Wednesday afternoon, the farm’s normal colors were today blanketed in shades of gray. The roof of the familiar BMW parked outside the horse barn seemed to glisten redder than usual.

Close to four o’clock—feeding time. Hannah skipped the steps and jumped from the bus before the creaky doors had fully opened, figuring that her impatient pony was already running circles in his stall, anticipating her kisses and treats, the appetizers to his half-quart dinner of grain. But hearing the rickety doors of the bus squeal again behind her, she quickly doubled back to get her books, which the driver was tossing onto the mud-stained snow.

Hannah sloshed her way up the icy drive and entered the barn through the tack room door, her wet-soled boots squeaking on the dry clay floor. She dropped the books on the nearest tack trunk and ran into the aisle past the horseback riding is a dangerous sport—ride at your own risk sign on the wall. When she got to Sparky’s stall, she threw open the door and wrapped her arms around his chunky neck, covering his muzzle and cheeks with damp kisses. The pony licked her from chin to forehead, the girl giggling as she wiped at her sticky face with her hands. “Yuck!” she said. “Pear juice!” A perfumed smell of ripe apples and riper pears drifted into her nostrils from next door, where the kindly owner of the BMW was slicing the fruit for a painfully thin mare.

“Hi, Mrs. Fields,” Hannah said, smiling. “Sparky says thanks!”

The pony nickered as though on cue. “You’re welcome, Sparky,” Mrs. Fields said, funneling a chunk of apple to the fat pony through the stall bars as the mare pressed against her and buried her wet nose in the grocery bag of fruit. “So, what do you think, Hannah? Does my girl look like she’s picked up any weight?”

Hannah held on to the stall bars, careful to keep her sleeves from riding up, and stood on tiptoes as she stared at the mare’s ribs, which were pushing up and out through the soft chestnut-colored hairs. “Yes, I think so,” she said, too afraid of her dad to tell Mrs. Fields why the mare had suddenly gotten so thin.

ELAINE VIETS COMMENTARY

The first paragraph is hardest part of any novel. Once you get that out of the way, you can introduce us to your characters and start your story. This first paragraph is confusing. It’s supposed to be an establishing shot, but we can’t figure out what we’re looking at. .
This Anonymous Novelist did an excellent job of creating young Hannah, eager to jump off the school bus to see her fat little pony. There’s a good sense of foreboding at the end of the section, when Hannah is “too afraid of her dad to tell Mrs. Fields why the mare had suddenly gotten so thin.”
But we’re missing opportunities to use that fear.

Consider the opening:
From the window of the school bus, Hannah spotted her dad’s new black truck above the hay fields. Fear gripped her heart. That meant her father was drinking and angry – and looking for trouble.
Give us some kind of reason who her father’s truck is in those hayfields.
And tell us where we are. So far, this farm is floating out in space: We don’t know if it’s in Kansas or Connecticut.
And why is her father’s truck “above the hay fields”? Is this hilly country, or are we seeing his truck from a distance?

The author sets the mood well: A dry, cold Wednesday afternoon, the farm’s normal colors were today blanketed in shades of gray.
(That’s a nice touch and the author could keep that mood going. Instead, the author introduces another vehicle.)
The roof of the familiar BMW parked outside the horse barn seemed to glisten redder than usual.

It’s obviously a bright spot in this bleak landscape, but tell us why. Who is the mysterious Mrs. Fields: Does she board her horse at the stables? Is she a riding instructor?
Give us more details about Hannah. She needs a first and a last name. How old is she? What color is her hair? These details can be supplied in a few words without slowing the pace of your opening. Here’s what I mean: 

JOLTED
From the window of Hannah’s (give her last name) school bus, she could see the normal (bright?) colors of her family’s farm (Is this correct?) were blanketed in shades of gray. She spotted her father’s new black truck above the hay fields. (Why is this truck important? How does make Hannah feel? Anxious, alarmed? afraid?)
The roof of Mrs. Fields’ (use her name here) familiar BMW parked outside the horse barn seemed to glisten redder than usual. (Who is Mrs. Fields? Why is she and her car a bright spot?) 

Close to four o’clock—feeding time for the horses. (You can give us Hannah’s age here) Twelve-year-old Hannah skipped the steps, and jumped from the bus before the creaky doors had fully opened, figuring that Sparky, (use the pony’s name here) her impatient pony, was already running circles in his stall, anticipating her kisses and treats, the appetizers to his half-quart dinner of grain.
But hearing the rickety doors of the bus squeal again behind her, she quickly doubled back to get her books, which the driver was tossing onto the mud-stained snow.

(This seems unusually mean. Was the driver cranky? Was there a grudge against Hannah’s family? Let us know. Or remove and relocate for later.
And the doors are confusing. Why do they “creak” open and then later “squeal again behind her” It sounds like the doors were closed before she could get her books.)

Hannah sloshed her way up the icy drive and entered the barn through the tack room door, her wet-soled boots squeaking on the dry clay floor. She dropped the books on the nearest tack trunk and ran into the aisle past the HORSEBACK RIDING IS A DANGEROUS SPORT—RIDE AT YOUR OWN RISK sign on the wall. (The sign adds a nice touch of menace.)

When she got to Sparky’s stall, she threw open the door and wrapped her arms around his chunky neck, covering his muzzle and cheeks with damp kisses. The pony licked her from chin to forehead, the girl giggling as she wiped at her sticky face with her hands. “Yuck!” she said. “Pear juice!”
A perfumed smell of ripe apples and riper pears drifted into her nostrils from next door, where the kindly owner of the BMW was slicing the fruit for a painfully thin mare. (Good details about the smell of the fruit.)

“Hi, Mrs. Fields,” Hannah said, smiling. “Sparky says thanks!”

The pony nickered as though on cue. “You’re welcome, Sparky,” Mrs. Fields said, funneling a chunk of apple to the fat pony through the stall bars as the mare pressed against her and buried her wet nose in the grocery bag of fruit. “So, what do you think, Hannah? Does my girl look like she’s picked up any weight?”

Hannah held onto (one word) the stall bars, careful to keep her sleeves from riding up, and stood on tiptoes as she stared at the mare’s ribs, which were pushing up and out through the soft chestnut-colored hairs. “Yes, I think so,” she said, too afraid of her dad to tell Mrs. Fields why the mare had suddenly gotten so thin.

 This last line is a critical detail. Build on it before you get here. I can’t wait to read the rest of this book. Good luck, Anonymous Novelist – Elaine Viets

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Pesky Deadlines

By John Gilstrap

Every September 15, I owe a book to my publisher, and somehow, every September 12, it’s not quite done.  It’s close.  I’ve written all the scenes, and the story has a complete structure, but I’m in the throes of making right that which is close.  It’s a tedious, arduous task, and alas, it takes away from activities such as blogging.  Feel free to gossip about my awesome new cover, but for now, I must go back to making stuff up.  I’ll see you here again in a couple of weeks.  Sorry about this.

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First Page Critique: Can Your
Language Be Too Blue?

By PJ Parrish

We have a new contribution from a writer today. For me, it hit home, because it made me think about something I had been dealing with in my own books. I’ll explain after you take a moment to read today’s submission. Thanks writer!

Darkness

His cell phone buzzed and rattled on the bedside table, forcing Jake Barnes to fight his way up through the haze of a deep sleep. He slapped blindly in the dark, searching for the offending device. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he looked at the screen. Shit, three thirty in the morning, and of course its work calling. When he had taken the supervisor’s position at the Energy Control Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, he hadn’t expected the phone to ring quite so often. And its always something they could handle on their own if they tried.

He answered the call with a quiet “Wait.” Sliding out of bed, he stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. “This is Jake, go ahead.”

“Holy shit, man, I’m glad you answered. We are having some serious problems right now.”

Jake winced and moved the phone an inch away from his ear. “Not so damn loud, Glen,” he said, leaning back against the sink. “Take a few deep breaths and start from the top, OK?” Glen Reynolds was another of the supervisors at the ECC, running the night shift this week.

“Sorry. It’s been a rough night. We were running the Sunday night system scans when the backup went down. As soon as IT hit go, the damn thing went black. We called in Ron to help, but he couldn’t get it running either. So we are down to one SCADA, and we have no idea why we lost the backup.”

The line was silent as Jake thought about the situation. The SCADA were computers used to control complex systems, made by Siemens in Germany.

“Jake, you still there?”

“Sorry, I was thinking. Look, I know things fail, but when is the last time you saw one of the SCADA go down?” He paused, waiting for an answer. When Glen didn’t respond, he continued. “Exactly. Is the primary server still working?”

________________

Okay, let’s start with general observations. First, it’s cleanly written (except for some typos and such). It’s easy to figure out what is going on — guy (protag maybe?) getting roused from sleep with a “situation.”  But here’s the rub: Do we care?

I can’t count the number of times I have read this opening. The person’s job may change (usually, it’s a cop getting called out to a murder scene) but the action-catalyst is always the same — the call that comes to wake someone up and spur them to action. It’s been done to death. The fact that Jake isn’t a cop doesn’t really make it feel any fresher. It’s a tired trope of crime fiction and maybe it’s time to retire it forever.

We talk often here about how an effective, grabber opening conveys a sense of disturbance, how we need to show that something has gone awry in the normal world. The disturbance can seem small (but as the plot plays out, we learn it was important). Or it can be earth-shattering, like a killer comet is heading our way and someone has to save the world.

It can be personal. In fact, I’d say the best disturbance/openings are usually human in scale. I pulled Miami Blues off the shelve to show you this opening from one of my favorite writers Charles Willeford:

As Roy Dillon stumbled out of the shop his face was a sickish green, and each breath he drew was an incredible agony. A hard blow in the guts can do that to a man, and Dillon had gotten a hard one. Not with a fist, which would have been bad enough, but from the butt-end of a heavy club.

Or maybe the disturbance is something that the protag observes. Here’s a dandy from John D. MacDonald:

We were about to give up and call it a night when someone dropped the girl off the bridge.

Maybe the disturbance starts out personal but morphs into something big, like Stephen King gives us in It.

The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.

This opening gives us a boy who tries to retrieve a paper boat from a drain and gets lured in by a killer clown who cuts the kid’s arm off.

But what an opening disturbance shouldn’t be is trite or tired. It has to be a catalyst for the conflict to come. And it has to feel like you alone among all writers could have put it on paper.  So, if you’re going to start your book out with a phone call, you better make it good, like this:

When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage killing a woman.

That’s Richard Stark aka Don Westlake. He knows his way around a juicy opening.

Back to our submission: There’s nothing wrong about it on the surface, as I said. Jake Barnes quite literally takes the proverbial “three a.m. call” challenge. The caller literally says, “We have some serious problems.” I wonder, dear writer, if there isn’t a more original way to begin your story? Just because it’s about computer geeks instead of cops doesn’t make it less hoary. If this big computer failure is your dramatic catalyst, why not start with Jake right on the scene? You can say he had been roused from sleep by a cohort, but why not START with him in action instead of in bed?

Now, let’s talk about the language — specifically the profanity. I’m going to throw this one out for discussion because there are arguments on both sides on this subject. Side 1: People swear. It helps make the dialogue feel more realistic. Side 2: Profanity is a big turn-off for a lot of readers, so why do it?

I come down on this somewhere in between. I write about cops and PIs, so my books have their share of blue language. I even drop the f-bomb when I really feel it’s needed. But over fourteen books now, and yes, after getting feedback from readers, I have really toned it down. In the first draft, I cuss like a sailor. But these days, on rewrites, I almost always take most of it out. Profanity can get old really quick. And not because it is offensive. Because it is can feel forced, almost desperate. If my characters swear, well, hell, they have to be well-rendered, right?

Now, I question every curse word I use. Here’s the original opening of our new book The Damage Done: 

Something was wrong. This wasn’t where he was supposed to be.

Louis Kincaid leaned forward and peered out the windshield. The gray stone building in front of him went in and out of focus with each sweep of the wipers, appearing and disappearing in the rain like a medieval castle on some lost Scottish moor.

But it was just an abandoned church, sitting in a weedy lot in a rundown neighborhood in Lansing, Michigan. Louis picked up the piece of paper on which he had scribbled the directions. It was the right address, but this couldn’t be the place where he had come to start his life over again.

He rested his hands on the steering wheel and stared at the church. A car went by slowly and pulled up to the curb, parking in front of him, maybe fifteen feet away. Louis sat up, alert. It was a black Crown Vic with tinted windows and a small antenna mounted on the trunk. But it was plate that gave it away -– three letters and three numbers, just like all Michigan plates, but this one had an X in the middle.

An unmarked cop car. The driver didn’t get out. But he didn’t have to. Louis knew who it was.

The devil. It was the f–king devil himself.

Now, Louis is looking at the man who once took away his badge. He hates the guy. But on rewrites, I took the f-bomb out. I didn’t need it. Because Louis isn’t an f-bomber by nature. And it works better simply as “It was the devil himself.” I have other f-bombs in the book, mainly uttered by another character because it feels true to his rough nature. But on the first page? I thought it was too in-your-face.

In this submission, we get two “shits” and two “damns.” Is that too much? I dunno. I’m just throwing this issue out for discussion here. Please weigh in with how you handle profanity as a writer — and as a reader.

Now let’s do some line editing:

His cell phone buzzed and rattled on the bedside table, forcing Jake Barnes are you sure you want to use the name of Hemingway’s most famous heroes? to fight his way up through the haze of a deep sleep. He slapped blindly in the dark, searching for the offending device. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he looked at the screen. and finally grabbed the phone. Shit, three thirty in the morning, and of course its work calling. Is this a thought? Then you should set it off in italics on its own line. When he had taken the supervisor’s position at the Energy Control Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, This is a mini-info dump. You can convey this info more gracefully through dialogue. he hadn’t expected the phone to ring quite so often. And its always something they could handle on their own if they tried. Tense lapse here. Should be: It was always something they could handle on their own if they tried.

He answered the call with a quiet “Wait.” Sliding out of bed, he stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. Little confused here. He’s in his own home? He’s alone? Why the need to hide out in the bath? If he had a bed-mate, mention her. “This is Jake, go ahead.”

Holy shit, man, I’m glad you answered. We are having some serious problems right now.” Is there some way to up the stakes here? “Serious problems” isn’t very interesting.

Jake winced and moved the phone an inch away from his ear. “Not so damn loud, Glen,” he said, leaning back against the sink. “Take a few deep breaths and start from the top, OK?” Glen Reynolds was another of the supervisors at the ECC, running the night shift this week.  This might be where you could drop in the backstory: Glen Reynolds was another supervisor at Energy Control Center. (This way you get it OUT of your crucial first graph)

“Sorry. It’s been a rough night. We were running the Sunday night system scans when the backup went down. As soon as IT hit go, the damn thing went black. We called in Ron to help, but he couldn’t get it running either. So we are down to one SCADA, and we have no idea why we lost the backup.”

The line was silent as Jake thought about the situation. The SCADA were computers used to control complex systems, made by Siemens in Germany. Good way to slip in what this is. 

“Jake, you still there?”

“Sorry, I was thinking. Look, I know things fail, but when is the last time you saw one of the SCADA go down?” He paused, waiting for an answer. When Glen didn’t respond, he continued. “Exactly. Is the primary server still working?”

Me again.  So, as I said, it’s not a bad opening. But is a computer going down big enough stakes to make us want to read on? When I get a computer glitch, all I feel is frustration and annoyance. I don’t know if I want to read about one, even on a big scale (as this seems to be) UNLESS you find a way early on to make me care. Like can we get a hint about WHY this thing going down is important? Does it supply the artificial atmosphere for the desecrated planet? (sci-fi).  Does it contain the world data base of moles for the CIA (political thriller). Is it a matchmaking super-computer? (Don’t laugh. Lincoln Child wrote a terrific thriller on this subject called Death Match.) 

Any old computer dying isn’t interesting. If you can find a way to at least hint at what the stakes are here, we might be lured into caring…and reading on.

One last thing. About that title. “Darkness” is much too generic. If you are writing a thriller or mystery set in the computer sphere, why not go with something that tells readers what they’re getting? My computer geek Gary told me about a great slang term called “In the black mirror.”  It is what you see when your screen goes suddenly dark — your own mug reflected back to you in creepy blackness. I always wanted to use it as a title but I have no interest in writing a novel about computers, so hey, it’s up for grabs. You need to stand out from the pack while you shed some light on what your story is about. Simple Darkness won’t do it for you.

Thank, writer, for participating. The line is open for discussion!

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