First Page Critique: A Pearl of Great Price

by Joe Moore

We continue our first-page critiques with the anonymous submission: A Pearl of Great Price.

“Fug,” Jasper Moore muttered under his breath.  It felt good.  He hadn’t worked himself up to saying the real f-word, but he would.  It was damn hard to get past all those years of living with Prissy Miss Minnie.  If she’d even heard him say “fug,” she’d look like she was passing a pig from her butt.

He looked down at the bulging gut hanging over his dungarees, his hairy freckled arms, his fingernails dark with grease.  That was who he was.  His damn job kept him hovering over dirty engines twelve hours a day, this damn house always needed something fixed, and his damn wife wouldn’t even let him say “damn.”  Don’t forget the damn church was sucking him dry and scaring the pee out of him.  And those awful snake dreams.  Snakes crawling all over him, sticking their long fangs deep in his arms.  It was enough to make a man run screaming for his life.

He looked down at the large grease stains on the garage floor.  This was the only place in the house that was his.  Minnie had claimed everything else with lace doilies, prim little pink flowerdy furniture, and pictures of that pansy-assed Jesus.  Christ on a barbecue.  Except it was him, not Christ, that was roasted—every single goddam day.

Reaching past the canvas tarps covering a five-gallon bucket, he grabbed a hot Budweiser, dragging it out through the empties.  A man couldn’t even drink in his own home.  Had to hide it from the little woman who said drinking was a mark of the beast.  Well, he’d show her who the beast was when she got home from that stinkin’ church.  The Tabernacle of the Children of the Only Real Living Lord with Signs Following.  Huh.  One of these days he’d tell her just what that damn Tabernacle was all about.  One of these days.  He took a gulp of the hot beer and wiped his mouth his left hand.

A creak from the back door startled him.  A man stood against the light from outside, so Jasper couldn’t make out who it was.  The only light in the garage came from the open doorway and the grimy window above his workbench.

“What the heck?”  He didn’t like anybody to sneak up on him.  His heart pounded in his chest.  The man was about the size of his stinkin’ father-in-law, the man who made it clear that Jasper wasn’t anywheres near good enough for his precious daughter.  Hell.  He was too good for that little tight-assed prude.  Then, Jasper realized the man hadn’t said nothing.  He had to hold tight to the Bud to keep it from slipping out of his hands.

“What you doin’ here?  Ain’t good manners to sneak up on a man quiet-like.”  Still nothing.

“Now, looka here.  Just what the heck you want?”  Jasper felt a weight in his chest. “Why, Jathper, we gonna have uth a little talk.  You know the kind.”  The man’s calm voice spooked Jasper, who recognized that lisp from the Tabernacle and the trips the took to the beach. Only one man talked like that—Flembo Reeves.  He held a large wooden box in front of him, one like the snake-holding boxes the Tabernacle used.  Weird rattling and bumping sounds came from the box.

Jasper’s heart thumped even harder.  You coulda called, you know.  I’m busy right now.  Got stuff to do here.  And what you doin’ here with that box anyway?   Them things belong in the Tabernacle, not in a person’s home.”  He looked down at the Budweiser in his hand.

“Oh, I coulda called.  But I wanted to thurprithe you.  Juth like I have.  Don’t you like thurprithes, Jathper?”  Jasper’s hands shook, as he crushed the beer can in his hand.  Damn Flembo scared him like the snakes did.

I have mixed feelings about this one; I want to like it but I don’t. What I do like is that it contains an interesting voice with an edgy taste of humor, but the humor is walking a tightrope between appealing and raw. Like so many of our first-page submissions, this one is top heavy with exposition. I feel like I’m being forced to like Jasper. And like many other submissions, I believe the writer has started in the wrong place. As Jim previously stated, start with your character in motion, then drop back and explain. Or as he also puts it: Act first, explain later.

Possibly a better place to start would be somewhere around the fifth paragraph; A creak from the back door startled him. Of course, the writer would have to massage it a bit, but that would be my call.

Also, there are missing quote marks, missing words, and a couple of typos. Here’s a tip: proofread your submission before you send it to anyone; agent, editor, whoever.

Finally, be VERY careful using colloquialisms and characters with speak impediments. Strange or unusually spelled words will stop the reader’s eye cold. They are the equivalent of roadblocks placed in the sentence to cause the reader to slow down, pause or stop altogether. Never make the reader work at reading. There are too many other books out there that that your reader can choose from. Is it really so vital to THE STORY that you let the words get in the way?

I think with a little bit of work, this could be smoothed out. I would strive to let that unique voice come through that right now seems to be hiding just below the surface.

Other’s reactions? Would you keep reading?


12 thoughts on “First Page Critique: A Pearl of Great Price

  1. I loved it!

    I really want to know where this is going. Especially considering the title.

    I also agree that the typos are a killer. They stopped me dead.

    I liked the speech impediment.

  2. I like this piece a lot. A whole lot.

    We make a big deal here on the Killzone about the importance of strong action on the first page, and I stand by that–99% of the time. This submission is an example of the one percent exception, where a compelling voice is itself the hook. Combined as it is with strong imagery and a creepy box full of snakes, I am absolutely hooked for the page turn. Great job.

    But please lose the lisp (loothe the lithp). It’s distracting, and it really doesn’t add anything to the story. I’m not suggesting that the character can’t have a speech impediment, but I really don’t think it’s in your best interest to give a phonetic presentation of it. As an alternative, consider something like this:

    “Jasper, we gonna have us a little talk.” A heavy lisp turned Jasper to Jathper and us to uth . . .

    Then go on to write his dialogue as if there were no lisp. Occasional reminders from there will make your point.

    I confess that I was put off by the line about how Jasper is going to show his wife “who the beast is” when she gets home. It’s one thing to be a harried, emasculated husband; but to portend violence makes him instantly unlikable to me. If that’s your point, you made it well. If not, you might want to reconsider.

    In general, I think this piece is close to a home run. Does it need another pass or two? Sure, there’s always room for tightening and proofreading, but in the context of these first page submissions, I think it’s one of our best.

    John Gilstrap

  3. Voice is starkly apparent from the first paragraph. I wanted to continue because it was different than so many other stories I’ve read recently. For me, personally, my “hooked moment” came in the second paragraph: damn, damn, damn, followed by the “can’t even say damn” comment. That put both the relationship of the MC and his wife into perspective and created an ironic tongue in cheek moment. And, I love wry humor.

    It’s a style choice, but I tend to shy away from vulgarity in general. I agree that this one could easily tip over the edge such that I’d put it down and not pick it back up. Keeping a story accessible to a larger reading audience makes sense to me (from a business perspective) – so, my point is that the author walks a very fine line here and caution might be suggested. The Jesus / barbeque line is a bit over the top for me, and I wonder if it would turn off many readers (though it definitely supports the image we already have of the relationship between Jasper and his wife).

    Regarding the lisp: Might it be better to lisp on only some words to keep the speech impediment fresh in the reader’s mind? Obviously, the author must be careful which words so as not to slow down the reader: e.g. keeping the lisp mid-word rather than at the beginning or end so sight-reading is still possible. Perhaps only when the character says “Jathper” and then make a big deal out of how the lisp makes the MC feel? I get a creepy feeling from this character and would hate for the author to loose that potency. At the same time, “thurpritheth” is “damn” hard to read.

    Just one reader’s opinion.

  4. I stopped cold after reading the first couple lines, about how he couldn’t swear, and then encountering “damn” in the next sentence (not to mention the next paragraph).

    And I too wanted to like him, but couldn’t. In fact, I flipped back and forth into/out of liking every couple sentences. I think it would help to make him more consistent.

    Because I agree, there’s a definite voice and an intriguing story. I mean, who isn’t freaked out by snakes? Eeek.

  5. Thanks Anon, John and Richard for the comments. It’s obvious that there’s a great deal of promise in this sample. By far, it’s the strongest voice I think we’ve seen in the first-page submissions. And it wouldn’t take much to smooth out the wrinkles. Richard, I especially agree with you that the author is right on the edge between unique and offensive. But it’s great to see so much depth in just a few paragraphs of writing. Snake in a box—very creepy.

  6. I couldn’t get into this one – so for me the voice was off-putting – but that’s just personal choice. i do agree that you should get away witht he minimum re: speech impediments otherwise it’s very hard to read. I would need more to like to keep reading at this stage.

  7. “I have mixed feelings about this one; I want to like it but I don’t.” That about sums it up for me too.

    It shows that attention has been paid to craft and that is done well. However, and I’ll borrow a term from one of our great hosts in a recent post, this makes my own BS-o-meter ring out loud and clear.

    It feels completely too stereotyped for my tastes. It’s over-the-top: A foul-mouthed working man, a doily-loving prissy wife, and a lisping minister?! These are a bit too extreme and especially so when introduced together. Maybe in the 50s the author could get away with the husband and wife combination, but the minister makes it absolutely laughable. I mean I actually snickered when I realized what was going on – and that broke my “suspension of disbelief” (google it if you’re unfamiliar – wikipedia has a good explanation). The characters’ personalities simply need to be more realistic. Or perhaps their presentation just needs a little work?

    There are also too many damns. After the set of three – job, house, and wife – it becomes too repetitive like a foul-mouthed kid trying to talk tough like an adult. People don’t really talk or think like that for any extended period of time. Men in particular will cool down after a bit, their anger will abate but Jasper’s doesn’t. He remains on simmer.

    Finally, this entry paints a very black-and-white view of the world. I’m not sure that’s the best way to start a conversation about salvation. I get the impression that the author is using this novel as a way to implement the great commission. And maybe I’m wrong, but the reality is that this will likely do nothing to bolster Christianity in the minds of the world. It will in fact turn them off and push them further away. I think there are better ways than this to accomplish that kind of goal. That’s if the target audience is the non-Christian. If the TA is Christians instead, then this seems to paint the world in stereotypes rather than the more realistic shades of grey.

    And now, after reading the others comments (for I compose my own prior to reading even the host’s critique) it seems everyone else is very supportive. So I looked back at the writing and they’re right about its strengths. Like Clare I guess it just puts me off. So author, please don’t take my comments personally. Take them with a grain of salt, as another person’s view on your work. Should you make changes accordingly is entirely up to you.

  8. This one was a turn off for me. If as Daniel suggests this is a “conversation about salvation” thing, I think this page has a particular problem because the sinner is so over the top that the typical sinner won’t identify with him. Sinners typically see themselves as mostly good people.

    I see some inconsistency here. The guy is angry that he can’t use fowl language and drink beer in his house, but a Pentecostal preacher shows up with a box of snakes and he talks calmly to the guy. If there’s every a time this guy would get angry and let loose some choice words, I think this would be it.

    I’m not real sure who I’m supposed to be cheering for here. She isn’t highly visible here, but the person I want to cheer for his the wife. I would like to see her with a better relationship with her husband and to get out from under the influence of that cult, but that doesn’t seem to be the way this story is going.

  9. Wow, what a great example of black and white, love it or hate it reactions. Thanks to everyone for your terrific comments on this submission. I have to admit, as a writer, I would much rather have this type of a love it or hate it reaction than a middle of the road one. I wish this author great luck and admire anyone who can produce such diverse feedback.

  10. I agree, Joe, with starting farther down, with the action. Too much exposition at the beginning. But I definitely think there’s something here.

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