Today’s critique – TRUTH BE TOLD

Today we have an intriguing opening page. The story is called TRUTH BE TOLD. My comments follow the asterisks.

She had handled the photograph so often its surface was lined with creases and vein-like cracks. Tiny chips of colour would deposit themselves in the grooves of her fingertips, leaving the smiling faces pockmarked with spots of white. She was clutching the photograph now, tightly between forefinger and thumb. Her fading eyesight meant she had to hold it up close to her face if she wanted to see it clearly but it mattered little. The image was indelibly imprinted in her memory and had been ever since it had landed on her doormat, along with the note.

With considerable effort, Sadie Cardle craned her head towards her bedside table. The exaggerated numbers on her alarm clock told her Della was late again, by almost 20 minutes this time. Sadie hoped she wouldn’t be much longer. They had few moments left to spare.

Her death was fast approaching. Sadie knew because her body was telling her so. The disease that germinated in her right breast had spread to her lymphatic system. Nothing could be done to halt its progress and Sadie could sense its wretched presence as it silently stalked her body, filling every nook and cranny with its poison. The morphine that dulled the pain could not quell the sensation her body was gradually shutting down. Her limbs were beginning to feel numb and detached, as though they were no longer fused to the rest of her. She was exhausted from the effort it took to draw air into her lungs. The nurses wanted to administer oxygen to ease her discomfort but Sadie refused. Not yet, she told them. She wouldn’t be able to speak properly if a breathing mask was obscuring her face. And she desperately needed to speak to her granddaughter.

*  *  *

There are many things to like about this first page. It quickly draws you into an urgent situation–an old woman, dying, clutches a faded photograph. She’s trying to resist death long enough to convey a message to her granddaughter. Whose faces are in the photograph?  What secret is she about to tell? I’m hooked.

There are a few changes I’d suggest.  I might try switching the first and second paragraphs. Have Sadie realize with dismay that her granddaughter is late before you get into the photograph discussion. (The opening line could be “Della was late again.”) I think that change would result in an even greater sense of urgency. The way it’s written, you have to get to paragraph 3 before you realize she’s in a hospital. By that point in my reading I’d already envisioned her at home.

In the current second sentence, the use of “would deposit” took me out for a moment, because it interrupted the sense of time. The spelling of “colour” and use of “towards” (instead of the more frequently used toward, in the US) was distracting to this American reader. I’d also avoid the cliche “nook and cranny.” Here and there I also would have liked to see an additional comma used (but I’m old-fashioned when it comes to liking commas).

But those suggestions are really just nits. Overall I liked this piece, and would keep reading.


7 thoughts on “Today’s critique – TRUTH BE TOLD

  1. Generally I agree with you, Kathryn, that this is a compelling read., but some small details bother me. And like you, I believe shuffling parts might draw the reader in with a better sense of urgency.

    First, I believe she is at home because of the reference to the photo being dropped on her dormat and the exaggerated alarm clock purchased probably for her poor eye sight. . And if she is sick enough to hire nurses, wouldn’t Della have found the photo? Yet you get the sense that she had found it in secret.

    Where she is needs to be clearer.

    And the fact that she had held the photo so much that she had aged it with veiled cracks implies she’s had it for much longer than a few days. this defeats the need to convey urgency. More needs to be known, and revealed in the right order, to clue the reader in on what is happening and why. If she’s dying, why hadn’t she mentioned anything about her secret sooner?

    also, this is my personal preference, but important information shouldn’t be hidden at the end of a long paragraph. The last few lines about not wanting the oxygen mask so she can reveal her secret should start a new paragraph or be a standalone line to make sure the reader doesn’t skim over it.

    And can you crane your head? I’ve always heard crane your neck.

    The author’s style is solid and the general story has my interest, so kudos.

  2. I agree with Kathryn on reordering the paragraphs. I’d also change the voice from passive to active For example:

    Tiny chips of colour would deposit -> Tiny chips of corour deposited

    She was clutching the photograph now -> She clutched the photograph now

    Other than that, a very strong piece. I would keep reading too.

  3. Good comments, Jordan. In my reading I assumed she’d had the photo for a long time, and wants to reveal the secret only now, because death is at hand. I agree with your comment about using formatting to emphasize importance of information. When the eye gets a “break” with a new paragraph, the brain is less likely to skip over the information. A brief mention of Sadie sliding the photo out of a hiding spot might suffice to underscore the fact that this has been a well-kept secret (admittedly, it’s a challenge to hide anything when one is very sick in the hospital!).

  4. Excellent suggestions, all. I have a problem with the granddaughter being late when the woman is dying. Sheesh. I doubt her current state is a surprise. So why would the relative be late . . . again? What I like about this piece is we know the older woman will die dropping a bomb into the lap of her unsuspecting granddaughter. I’m dying (pun intended) to know what she will do with the news! Excellent hook for a first page.

  5. Just two little things. Overall, I think this works well.

    (1) People holding photographs typically hold them at the edges to preserve them. So, rather than describing a pock-marked image, how about dirty, dog-eared edges?

    (2) “They had few moments left to spare.” This is urgent! She’s dying! Since Sadie is dying, she has nothing “to spare” so remove these two words to make the sentence read better.

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