First Page Critique: END POINT

First the submission, and then my input: 
Mason Boll leaned forward in the driver’s seat of the van, squinting to get a better view of his target. Twenty yards away the focus of his attention—a tall, gangly youth named Brett Feinman—was chatting with a girl at the corner of two residential streets in a tony section of Santa Monica. The girl seemed to be doing all the talking. Feinman was mostly listening. Periodically he cast shy glances down at the sidewalk.  The girl wore a smug, flirty smile, as if she relished her power over the kid. She kept leaning in, touching his arm for emphasis.
Mason’s orders were clear: grab Feinman off the street and deliver him as promised. Today’s job would pay handsomely: well into five figures, with a promise of more to come. For that kind of money his employer demanded that everything go without a hitch. Feinman had to be delivered without any injury to the head. Not even a bruise. Mason wasn’t worried on that score. He prided himself on swift, error-free operations using the skills he’d honed as a military contractor in Iraq. 
From the van’s cargo bay behind him, Mason heard one of his crew crack his knuckles for the umpteenth time. What the hell were those two kids yakking about for so long? Mason wondered. Stifling a surge of impatience, he checked the van’s long side mirror for any sign of a cop or nosy Neighborhood Watch type. Except for some wild parrots doing acrobatics on an overhead power line, the street appeared deserted. Without taking his eyes off Feinman, Mason extracted a pack of cigarettes from the glove compartment. He lit a smoke. Then he settled in to wait.
There’s stuff to like here, storywise, but the author gets in his own way, stylewise, by reverting to passive voice, and non-specific language.  Consider this change to the first paragraph after a little cosmetic adjustment:
Mason Boll leaned forward in the driver’s seat of the van, squinting to get a better view of his target. Twenty yards away, a gangly sixteen-year-old named Brett Feinman chatted with a girl at a residential corner. Actually, Feinman mostly listened, periodically casting shy glances at the sidewalk while the girl flirted, occasionally touching his arm.  As in most adolescent conversations, the girl seemed to have all the power.
Okay, I added a detail there at the end, but by doing a little tightening and adding detail where there was only generality (sixteen-year-old instead of “youth,” for example), the piece feels more professional to me.
I would severely trim or even cut the second paragraph.  This is page one—the hook, the most important bit of literary real estate.  We don’t need to know that Mason had been a contractor in Iraq, and we certainly don’t need to know what his fee is.  If that stuff is important to the story, I would find a way to plant it somewhere else.  As for the mission to snatch the kid, let the reader piece that together from Mason’s actions.
Moving on, allow me to play with another paragraph:
Behind him, in the cargo bay, Paulie Knuckles earned his handle yet again, popping his finger joints for the umpteenth time. “Must you?” Mason asked.
“They get stiff,” Paulie said.  “You don’t want them stiff if I have to hit the kid, do you?”
“I don’t want you hitting him at all.  No bruises, remember?”
“No bruises on the head,” Paulie corrected.  “Everything else is free game.”
“I want this paycheck,” Mason said.  “Don’t screw it up.  We only hurt him enough to get him into the van.”
Mason let it go.  Paulie knew the rules, and he needed the money, too.  
“Come on, kids,” Mason grumbled.  “Either get a room or break it up.  I ain’t got all night.”
Okay, that wasn’t true.  He’d stay here for a week if it took that long to get the job done.
I tried to do a couple of things right there.  First, I gave a name to “one of his crew” and then gave some life to characters.  I have no idea if the changes reflect the specific desires of the author, but that doesn’t really matter in this case.  The point is that characters don’t become interesting until you hang a few details on the skeleton.

Note also that I was able to accomplish through dialogue and character interaction all of the important elements of that expository paragraph that I cut.  I’m still not convinced that the first page is the best place for that interaction, but this is a pretty clear illustration of how “showing” through interaction is better than “telling” through narration.

5 thoughts on “First Page Critique: END POINT

  1. Great critique, John. As I was reading it, before I got to your comments, my first thought was to just cut the second paragraph altogether. Leave a little mystery for the readers to piece together as they go along.

    The rest of the notes are spot on, and the writer will do well to take them. I’ll also add one other. When we’re properly and firmly planted in a POV, interior thoughts don’t need attribution, thus:

    What the hell were those two kids yakking about for so long? Mason wondered.

    Cut Mason wondered. It’s not needed, makes for a cleaner, tighter read.

    With those notes, I like this set-up. I’d keep reading.

  2. I’m on board, John. Excellent job of critiquing.

    I would also eliminate the reference to parrots. I don’t know if there are wild parrots in Santa Monica, but the mention of them conjured up images of a more tropical, third-world locale, momentarily taking me out of the story.

  3. Hi! First, everything John said you can take to the bank.

    A couple of little technical things. I proofread for a small press and have been either deleting the word “then,” replacing it with “and then” or compounding clauses with semi-colons for the last four hours. I can’t call for a rewrite, so all I can do is spackle over the cracks.

    The mere sight of the phrase “Then he settled in to wait,” raised my hackles. “Then” is so rarely a good choice that you should have to think about how to spell it. I consider it to be one of the ultimate tell-not-show words.

    Without taking his eyes of Feinman, Mason lit a smoke and settled in to wait.

    Every time you start a sentence or a clause with “then,” Gaia kills a proofreader. Please, do it for the proofreaders.

    Otherwise, bits of lanuguage and prose that don’t fit the character. He wouldn’t say “youth” more likely he’d say boy or kid. Not sure he’d use “gangly,” more likely skinny. “Extracted a pack . . . ” is too much. He got it or he just lit one, the inference being he had the pack within reach.

    You also pull punches by adding extra qualifiers: kept leaning,was chatting, appeared deserted, stifling a surge, and so on.

    He leaned. She chatted. The street was deserted or it wasn’t. He was impatient or he wasn’t.

    You have him in the front seat, that the cargo bay is behind him is inferred. Just easy places to trim unneeded words.

    Like the last page, I don’t mind a bit of hands-off POV, it makes the scene seem very cold. You’ve woven a nice pic. I’m curious to see what happens next.


  4. Finally! An LA story! I enjoyed this, particularly the mention of the parrots (which is an actual phenomenon, sorry, Mike)because it shows the author actually knows something about Santa Monica. JG’s points were all valid. I also think it’s worth mentioning that it is a brave to take the POV of a child kidnapper to start off a story. You’re going to get some pushback from agents and editors on that I’d imagine. Ignore them, author. You’ve made a good choice here.

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