by John Gilstrap
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?