by John Gilstrap
http://www.johngilstrap.com/

Let’s do another first page critique. This one is entitled, “I Just Killed My Wife…Does Anyone Have Change for a Twenty?” The italicized block below is the original text (italics added by me):

It’s quiet here, although it shouldn’t be. I can hear my heart thumping in my ears. My breath is short and shallow. The beads of sweat trickling down the side of my cheek seem so pronounced. I should be hearing and feeling more than I am, but the sounds around me are muted. The girl I’m holding won’t stop crying, however, her sobs are more like faint background noise than anything I should be concerned with. The man pointing his gun at me is screaming something. I can barely hear what he’s saying. There is nothing in my foreground to take me away from the quiet I find myself suddenly enveloped in. Perhaps this is the calm one feels before they die.

The Glock I’m holding has no weight to it. It feels like a plastic toy. I’m sitting on the ground with my arm outstretched. It’s trembling as it aims at my target who is, in turn, prepared to fire himself. Suddenly we’re the living, breathing rendition of the Reservoir Dogs movie poster. The police have surrounded the building. I can see their pulsating lights penetrating the dark hallway beyond where I lie. With only a flashlight I left on in the other room and the emergency exit sign above the door, I can see the outline of the man I’m willing to kill, but can’t make out any details of his face. Parts of his weapon – the barrel and trigger guard – shine in our otherwise black surroundings. I should be home eating a TV dinner and watching Seinfeld reruns or Vampire Diaries. How did I end up here? How did I become a murderer?

There are some good bones here, I think; but as is the case in so many of the submissions to the Kill Zone, this one is way over-written for my taste. Before getting to the guts of the story, though, I have to say that I hate the title. Having said that, I have to confess that I always hate cute writing. Cute puppies and cute kids are great, but cute writing just makes me want to move on to the next choice on the shelf. If this were a published book on the shelves of my local bookstore, the title would keep me from even picking it up. But that’s just me.

Self-consciously clever or over-stylizaed writing are close cousins to cute. The more aware I am of the writing, the less engaged I am in the story, and for me, story is the most important thing. This is why I continue to believe that it is always a mistake to write in the present tense. I don’t like most present-tense books even when they are written by seasoned professionals. In less experienced hands, the distraction is overwhelming.

Now for the good stuff: Overall, I think the short sentence construction works well, even if in many cases the sentences are not quite short enough. Below, I’ve been presumptuous enough to edit the piece to demonstrate how shortening can make a piece stronger. Pay particular attention to how phrases such as “I’m sitting” and “it’s trembling” are stronger as “I sit” and “it trembles.” That -ing sentence construction is often troubling because it reads as passive.

Finally, the only major criticism I have is the throw-away reference to the Reservoir Dogs movie poster. It just didn’t work for me–largely because I have no idea what the poster looks like.

Now, here’s my shot at an edit:

“I Just Killed My Wife…Does Anyone Have Change for a Twenty?”

It’s quiet here. My heart thumps in my ears. My breath is short and shallow. The beads of sweat on my cheek seem so pronounced. I should be hearing and feeling more than I am, but the sounds are muted. The girl I hold won’t stop crying. The man pointing his gun at me screams but I can barely hear. Perhaps this is the calm before death.

My Glock has no weight. It feels like a plastic toy. My arm is outstretched. It trembles as it aims at my target who is, in turn, prepared to shoot me. Parts of his weapon – the barrel and trigger guard – shine in our otherwise black surroundings. I should be home eating a TV dinner and watching Seinfeld reruns. How did I end up here? How did I become a murderer?

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9 thoughts on “

  1. I liked this one from a suspense and tension standpoint. Lots of questions and I’m interested in seeing what the answers might be. The present tense always gets in the way for me, but I might stick with this read a little longer because of the dark, mysterious opening. Reservoir Dogs is one of my favorite movies. But comparing this scene to it is sort of a lazy way to steal another writer’s descriptive ability. I would rather this author use his/her own talent to build the scene without relying on a visual image someone else created. And I don’t think the reference is really needed here. Visually, the scene works well as written.

    John’s rewrite is much cleaner and crisper. Take it to heart. Removing the passive feel makes the writing edgier and the eye moves faster over the page. Overall, it’s a decent start to what appears to be a story filled with conflict. It’s a strong beginning, and unless this story turns a corner and becomes a humorous read, I would also agree with John to ditch the cutesy title.

  2. I think I would like it better if it began with the Glock. I read several lines of this without a clear picture in my head and it wasn’t until I got to the Glock that I could put them in context, forcing me to go back and reread the first several lines.

    I think it also has a problem in that we have no reason to like this guy. People generally don’t like cop killers and hostage takers. If we’re going to stick with this story, we need to like this guy quickly. So I might suggest beginning with The Glock I’m holding has no weight to it. It feels like the water pistols my son and I were playing with earlier. That would give us reason to question how a loving father could manage to get himself into this situation and isn’t that the point of this scene?

  3. I like very much that this begins with a disturbance, a big one. Definitely would read on. Along with the other suggestions, I like this as the opening line:

    The girl I’m holding won’t stop crying

    This immediately captures my attention and generates some sympathy for the narrator. I want to know wants going on here.

    I also agree with Joe on the Resevoir Dogs reference. I’m not familiar enough with the poster or the movie to get anything out of it. One has to be careful about such references. Will enough readers get it? An indie film from nearly twenty years ago probably doesn’t cut it.

    However, Tarantino is now established enough that he’s part of pop culture. A reference like, Suddenly, we’re in a scene only Tarantino would love… would work better. Any time you refer to pop culture, make sure it’s widely known.

  4. John, you make a good point about cute writing. Last night, I read “the taste of chilies smeared across my tongue.” I immediately stopped reading the piece and spent 5 minutes thinking about that one sentence. I couldn’t decide if it was a clever new way to describe something or silly. As writers we strive to come up with original descriptions and wording, where sometimes if not often, it is better to state simply and let the situation speak for itself.

  5. Victoria, you probably were stumped because taste doesn’t smear. Blood smears, jelly smears, really well-cooked chilies might smear, but taste doesn’t smear.

    I think that’s where trying to hard becomes obvious, when you stretch the metaphorical meaning of a verb to the breaking point (nouns and adjectives are more bendable, IMHO).

  6. I happen to know this author, (it isn’t me) and I’ve known him for several years and he writes good books, but has had little luck finding an agent and making the next step. And it isn’t getting any easier as we all here know.

    I know he has talent, and hope he will keep plugging along and just maybe something will break for him. It certainly isn’t for a lack of talent or effort

  7. Very strong opening but your first sentence should be, “Perhaps this is the calm one feels before they die.” This has punch and is your essential topic sentence for the first paragraph. So state it front and center. As they say, “Don’t bury the lead.” The other suggestions for the first sentence are good too, but I would prefer this one.

    To continue this pattern, move “How did I become a murderer?” to the beginning of the second paragraph and then read it through. I think this is a simple and effective improvement. I get the impression that this may be your normal writing style so watch out for it elsewhere in your writing. Maybe it will work for you again.

    Like Timothy says, I don’t know who’s having this internal conversation. Since we’ve not been properly introduced and I don’t know this person yet I don’t really care about this person. i.e. I want to stop reading. Add some kind of introduction to make us like the guy – or dislike his wife – so we care about him. Do this sometime before starting the second paragraph.

    All told, it’s good. It did draw me in. I’m curious how the guy got into this situation.

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