Page One Critique of The Storm Killer

Here’s the sample:

Chapter One

August 10th, 1935

For the past ten years I’ve spent my nights exploring the darker side of humanity. In the morning I’d cleanse my soul with a shot of Four Roses before writing about what I’d seen. My job as a reporter for the New York Daily Post was my life. Helen’s murder made me realize that the story isn’t everything.

I was sleeping off a night of heavy drinking when someone started pounding on the door to my room. With a groan I pulled the pillow over my head. It didn’t help. The banging continued.

I forced open my eyes. The shade was drawn on the only window in the room. Diffused light combined with my bad eyesight gave the room a surreal appearance, as if a cloud had enveloped my world. The tick, tick, tick of the electric fan near the window did little more than shuffle the heat from one side of the room to the other. Summer in New York. Who the hell needs it?

Crawling out of bed, I squinted at the clock. It was past noon. I grabbed my Luckies. Shook one out. Lit it. While I set my lungs on fire my unknown caller started rattling the doorknob.

“Hold your fucking horses,” I shouted.

Although the cigarette took the edge off my headache, I knew from experience that only time or a shot of whiskey would quell the tempest in my gut. It didn’t help that my neighbor was playing “She’s a Latin from Manhattan” on his Victrola. The wall might as well not have been there. I ground my teeth and winced when the record skipped a beat. He’d played it so many times that I knew exactly where the scratches were.

First things first, I like the title. I don’t love it, but I like it. (By way of full disclosure, the from the formatting in which I received the sample, it wasn’t clear to me if “The Sorm Killer” is the title of the story or the heading for the chapter.)

I would kill the first paragraph in its entirety. As a reader, don’t burden me with your character’s last ten years before you introduce me to the present. From the drinking problem to the job as a reporter to the fact that someone named Helen was murdered, there’s no detail in that paragraph that couldn’t be more artfully introduced later in the story.

You wrote: I was sleeping . . . someone started pounding on the door to my room. This kind of passive sentence construction is toxic. Plus, the fact that the character is sleeping is rendered redundant in the next sentence where he pulls the pillow over his head. Is the issue really that someone started pounding, or is it that someone pounded at all? Consider something like this:

The pounding on my door drove the Four Roses ice pick further into my brain. For a second, I actually believed I could make it go away by pulling my pillow over my head. It was that kind of morning after that kind of night.

That’s not the most artful paragraph in its own right, but the point is to illustrate how a lot of information can be conveyed in relatively few words, even with the implied backstory of a drinking problem.

I think you convey a very nice sense of place and atmosphere in this piece, even if it does remain way too wordy. For example, I would condense “. . . gave the room a surreal appearance, as if a cloud had enveloped my world” to “. . . made the room look cloudy.

I mentioned this earlier in the week with regard to a different piece: Avoid the F-bomb on the first page. It’s too off-putting to too many readers.

The final point I want to make is one that I considered not making at all because it has less to do with writing style than content choices. But, in for a dime, right?

I feel like I’ve seen this scene a thousand times in a thousand noir settings. There’s some great detail–I particularly like the bit of business about the Victrola and having heard the record so many time through the wall that he knows where the scratches are–but overall, it has the feel of a retread to me. That’s a problem. Perhaps what follows would knock me for a loop, but if that’s the case, then that’s the scene that should be moved to the front of the story.

Consider this: Can the story begin with whatever news the visitor is bringing? Rather than building up to it, just smash us in the face with it.

John Gilstrap

4 thoughts on “Page One Critique of The Storm Killer

  1. I agree with you, John. Despite an intriguing title and a good job of creating atmosphere, the whole thing is a cliche. It might not be if it started later in the story. Even with all that, I’d probably read the next page just to see who was at the door and why they were so persistent.

  2. I both read and write military/espionage ficiton primarily. I love the action and prefer realism in violence, even when brutal. I served in the Marines. That being said I am not a milk-sop pansy.
    Purpose of previous exposition follows
    Two things will make me put a book down. The f-bomb on the first page is one of those things. If there is crude vulgarity on the first page, especially in the first piece of dialogue, I will assume that the book is chock full of words that grate my senses. It goes back onto the shelf and I will probably avoid that author.

  3. I would want to know by the end of the first page who is pounding, and especially, a hint of the conflict it presents to the narrator. That’s what is going to pull me into the story. The rest of it (a jaded guy wakes up with a hangover) we’ve seen many times before, so it would be better to dive right into his unique conflict.

    I like the reference to Four Roses, and wonder if it could be used in a way that plays on the imagery of roses with the headache (Something about that last shot of Four Roses leaving him with a crown of thorns, maybe?) Just a suggestion.

Comments are closed.