Kunoichi: Critique

Chapter 1
“Dismantle the bridge after crossing it”
Wednesday, August 26

S.S. Palma Soriano, 120 miles off the coast of Sevastopol, Ukraine

They executed the entire row. Two dozen men on their knees. Hands tied behind their backs. Looking over the side of the freighter at a reflection of the quarter moon on the calm waters of the Black Sea. Just a few seconds of racket. Then the bodies fell forward. Bled out. The men in black military fatigues relaxed. Let the muzzles of their suppressed MP5 submachine guns face the deck. A stocky, Nordic-looking redhead standing at one end of the firing squad whistled. Pointed at them.


They changed their clips.

The second half of the crew was brought out. Knelt next to the bodies of the first group, in deep, warm puddles of maroon.


Racket. Fall. Bleeding.

The wheel lock for the bulkhead hatch spun around and the door opened. An Asian woman in her late thirties walked out onto the deck, a twenty-four inch sword strapped to her back, a ninja-to. Two men in Russian military officer uniforms, a general and a colonel, followed her. Behind them, two more men in black fatigues escorted out the white-haired captain of the ship handcuffed. The general said something in Russian to the Asian woman. She turned to the colonel. In heavily accented English, he said, “General Kornilov wants to know if your men have checked the entire ship yet. He also thanks you again for agreeing to meet him here for the exchange, Ms. Mochizuki.”

With an American accent, she said, “Please, Colonel Grieg, call me Chiyome.” The colonel put his hand to his chest, genuflected slightly. Chiyome motioned towards the row of dead men. “We checked every inch, could only find forty-eight. But I’m sure your smuggler friend has a few secret compartments you’re unaware of.”

Grieg translated for Kornilov, briefly discussed something with the general. Then he sauntered over to the ship’s captain, said something in Russian. The white-haired man answered, shook his head at Grieg. Emphatic. The colonel got in the old man’s face. Yelled.

Pointed at the crew’s bodies.

The captain shook his head again, repeated his previous answer.

Grieg stepped away, turned to Chiyome. “That is everyone.”

“Good.” She moved in front of the captain. Smiled. Brushed his shoulders off. Then unsheathed her ninja-to and decapitated him in a single fluid motion.

Kornilov and Grieg froze. Watched the head roll across the deck. Over the side.

“Well,” said Chiyome, taking a breath, “now that that’s out of the way….” The redhead came over to them with a laptop under his arm, opened it so that Kornilov could see the screen. Chiyome flung the captain’s blood off of her sword. “Fifty million American, as promised. All you have to do is press enter.”

Grieg translated.

Snickering, Kornilov moved to press the key.

Chiyome put the tip of her blade against his chest.  “Wait.” She pushed her sword into him, forced him to move back. “Colonel Grieg, would you be so kind as to ask General Kornilov if he’s spoken to anyone else about our transaction?”

The colonel did as instructed. Got a response. “He says no, not to anyone.”

“Is that so?”

“He swears it.”

She stared into the general’s eyes. “How honest.”

The two men who’d been holding the white-haired captain drew their pistols on Kornilov and Grieg. Forced them onto their knees.

Kornilov shouted. Grieg translated. “What’s going on? I thought we had a deal.”

Chiyome sheathed her ninja-to. Took the computer from the redhead. Pressed several keys. Held it so that Grieg and Kornilov could see a video feed of the general talking and having coffee with a man in a suit in an office. The symbol of the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, was visible on the suited man’s cup. The video cut out. Came back on a close-up of the suited man’s dead body on the floor of the office, Chiyome standing over him. Static. Chiyome closed the laptop, squatted in front of the general. “You could’ve at least switched cars before driving to Lubyanka.”

Kornilov spat in her face.

She wiped it off. Nodded to the man behind him.

Racket. Fall. Bleeding.

Chiyome came over to Grieg.

“No, no,” he said. “Please…I—I don’t even know what this is about. I am just a translator.”


She nodded again.

Racket. Fall. Bleeding.

My Critique

This action-packed opening grabbed my attention right away. It’s a great opening hook. I could easily envision the scene. And the terse, rapid-fire style lends itself to the thriller genre.

That said, some of the longer paragraphs could be more divided. For example, the one beginning “They executed….” I’d like to see a new paragraph start with, “The men in black military fatigues…” We are switching attention from the executed to the executioners, and this would be a good place for a paragraph break.

I wasn’t sure who was meant by “Pointed at them.” Who? Maybe change to “Pointed at his comrades.”

I started to get confused by the paragraph beginning with, “The wheel lock opened…” Three people are mentioned here and I wasn’t sure who was the translator at first. I think this could be made clearer. I’d start a new paragraph beginning with “The general…” And I might name the characters more quickly. Here’s my rewrite:

General Kornilov spoke in Russian to the translator, Colonel Grieg. The colonel turned to the Asian woman and said in heavily accented English, “General Kornilov wants to know if your men have checked the entire ship yet. He also thanks you again for agreeing to meet him here for the exchange, Ms. Mochizuki.”

You mention that the Asian woman speaks with an American accent. Is this necessary? Is she American? Yet she’s Asian. And the other guys are speaking Russian and accented English. It gets confusing.

Also, the second time you mention “the redhead”, I’d rather you say “the redheaded man or soldier.” I tend to think of redheads as being female.

By the third “Racket. Fall. Bleeding,” I am getting tired of this phrase and I’m ready for the language to have a more natural flow.

More importantly, whose viewpoint are we in? An omniscient presence hovering over this scene? While the action holds my interest and I get the gist of what’s going on, I’m yearning to be in someone’s head and to experience this emotionally from a viewpoint character. In other words, emotional impact is missing.

In the best thrillers where the story starts with a prologue and someone dies, the writer immediately puts you into a character’s viewpoint so that you feel their horror as they face the last minutes of their life. Thus you care as a reader about what happens to them. Action without reaction is merely plot.

What if you have the trio on deck during the initial executions? What if we’re in the general’s head? We’d experience his cold sweat, his twisted gut, his fear of discovery. With this emotional investment, we’d be eager to see who would bring down this Asian woman after she kills him.

It’s a great beginning, but it could be even better if the reader identifies with one of the victims. Or you could even make the viewpoint character one of the soldiers who is sickened by what he has to do and what he sees.

This sounds like an exciting story, and after this engaging opening, I’d certainly be curious to read more.

13 thoughts on “Kunoichi: Critique

  1. This is mine. Thanks for the thorough critique, Nancy. Folks, tear this up, please. I want to be rocking back and forthin the fetal position in a corner of my bathroom when this day is over.

  2. I pretty much agree with Nancy. Great hook, needs more specifics and clarity.

    I’d put the POV with Grieg, since he’s the last to die. Being the translator, you can show his reactions to the conversation as he translates, sensing the fear in one voice, the confidence in another, etc. Then show his growing discomfort as all the men die before him, he thinks he’s safe, but perhaps senses that Chiyome is so ruthless that maybe he’s not as safe as he thought, or something like that.

    I too tired of “Racket. Fall. Bleeding.” after the third time. I like the concept of the recurring “action” but I’d work for something more graphic or specific. Maybe something like, “Volley of gunshots. Soft thuds onto the deck. Red pools amassing under bodies.”

    Great potential here. Good luck.

  3. For me, the writing started with the paragraph “The wheel lock for the bulkhead…” Everything before is ejaculation: short, snappy phrases spit out to grab the reader’s attention. It creates a hook, yes, but it borders on gimmick. But then again, that’s what sells commercial fiction.

  4. Wow, Fletch! Impressive writing. I agree with Nancy’s critique. I’d address each point she made.

    The cold-blooded, world domination attitude of the Asian woman (is she American or a plant?)knocks me lightyears out of my comfort zone. That is great!

    The repetitive description of the killing does get a bit overdone. Trying to figure out who is who throws me out of the reading a bit. And, who is the red head? Should the story be from his POV? What his investment?

    Don’t know your plans for this work but I can see this as a graphic novel which are so hot right now!

    Polish ‘er up and let her rock. This is good!

  5. I agree with most of the previous comments.

    The terse, rapid-fire style compresses the timeline and gives a strong sense of action. The one-word sentences work for me in this scene, but I’m not sure how it would play out over a full length story. “Racket. Fall. Bleeding.” works the first time, but looses something in repetition.

    Grieg sauntering over to the captain seems out of pace, as in slowing down the frantic action.

    The MP-5 uses a magazine not a clip. Fletch, you did me a great service by pointing out in my first page the folly of missing a little detail regarding guns. It sure heightened my awareness of what the reader expects and sees. Thanks again for your comments.

    Overall, I liked it. Good job Fletch.

  6. Works for me. With the exception of clips where there should be magazines I like it.

    The language, the scene, the imagery work very well for this story and are what readers of this genre would find entertaining.

    For those who tired of the repeated phrase, keep in mind this is a specific scene presenting a recurring violent image. If the phrase were to reappear throughout the book, there might be a problem, but I think it works well here.

    I sensed a feeling of something akin to a cross between Clancyesque novel and a Japanese action anime.

    Good job.

  7. Nice job. The following is all my opinion. Take or discard as you wish. That said, a few comments:


    They executed the entire row. Two dozen men on their knees. Hands tied behind their backs.

    Compound a couple of the sentences.


    Looking over the side of the freighter at a reflection of the quarter moon on the calm waters of the Black Sea.

    I’ve climbed an oil tanker on a rope ladder. Getting over the railing was the hardest part. If these guys were on their knees, it’s unlikely they’d see over the railing. Especially if you left enough room for them to fall forward.

    With a crew of 48, I’m picturing an old school freighter:


    The railing is about chest high. The railing I hoisted myself over had its own ladder for getting up and down.


    Just a few seconds of racket. Then the bodies fell forward. Bled out.

    I don’t care for the use of “racket” to denote gunfire. To me racket is something kids raise.

    Even suppressed, when thinking of an MP5, the word “racket” just doesn’t work for me to convey the soft, terrifying pap-pap-pap of the MP5 firing on either burst or full auto.

    Also, I don’t see them still on their knees after the shooting stops (they just got hosed down with machine fire). They’d be slumping as they were hit.


    “deep warm puddles of maroon.”

    Consider borrowing from Thomas Harris in Red Dragon and using the description that blood looks black under moonlight.


    I really don’t like the Racket/Fall/Bleeding even the first time. I know you are going for the repetitive horror, but something doesn’t work for me.


    I like that the Asian ninja-chick speaks with an American accent. It adds a layer of mystique. Is she an operative from the Shop, a sleeper cell agent . . . only The Shadow knows at this stage.


    I love the part where she dispatches the captain. However, my first thought was “where are the guards.” Would they have left him standing alone? Her sword has a pretty wide arc.


    Then unsheathed her ninja-to and decapitated him in a single fluid motion.

    This could be more showing by starting with “Unsheathing her ninja-to, she decapitated . . .


    Although I’m not sure the head would roll over the side. Even the turn of the century freighters with rope railing had a good sized lip at the bottom.


    Consider having her pull a silk scarf out of her sleeve and clean the blade rather than fling it. More cold-blooded. Your target audience has all read Shogun and the statement, “Your blade should only feel the touch of silk or the body of an enemy.”


    Chiyome put the tip of her blade against his chest. “Wait.” She pushed her sword into him, forced him to move back.

    Not sure he could keep talking with a ninja-to in his chest, how about digging the blade into his shoulder?


    The colonel did as instructed. Got a response. “He says no, not to anyone.”

    Nuke “Got a response.” Not needed, redundant.


    I don’t mind the POV for this opening/prologue scene. Common in thrillers and the cold-hearted approach works for me. I’m not part of it. I’m a crew member they missed and I’m spying from my hiding place.

    Overall, a little more compounding of sentences would increase the flow and make it more like I’m watching a movie and less like I’m reading a book.

    However, by pegging on details, it shows you got me into the scene. I was hiding on the deck watching and hearing it happen. That’s why some of the sensory clues were off.

    You obviously know your stuff and know how to create intrigue. I look forward to this tale when it is on the shelves.


  8. I had an issue with the image of the decapitation. This is an Asian woman and a male captain. He’s probably taller than her, potentially a lot taller than her. He has two guards next to him. In one sweep, she lops off his head.

    First, decapitation is very hard to do no matter what position you’re in. Second, if the captain is standing, she’s not in an optimal position to get real power in her swing since she’s shorter than him. Third, there’s two guys standing beside him, and she’s supposed to miss both of them while taking off his head. How? Fourth, if his head/neck are unsupported, more than likely, he’s going to get pushed sideways by the less than optimal swing as the blade hits the bones of the neck, and the head won’t come off ‘cleanly’.

    It’s also a short sword, so she’s standing close. She and the escorts are going to be covered in a fountain of blood. She won’t just be flinging a bit of blood off her blade.

    Is the whole novel this bloody? The opening makes the promise to the reader of what’s to come. Given this opening, I would expect a high body count and buckets of blood at every turn. If the rest of the novel isn’t this violent, maybe you want to tone it down a little here?


  9. I think Nancy’s and other comments are spot on. I was immediately grabbed by the story but you just need to make sure style doesn’t overwhelm comprehension. I too wanted to know the POV but I was willing, given it’s the first page, to let that unfold. I was eager to read more!

  10. Nicely done, Fletch. I love the style of your writing. My comments have more to do with substance.

    This scene would work much, much better for me if I had a clear point of view. Without that, it’s sort of reportorial. That’s not necessarily bad, but I do think it squanders drama.

    I have a problem with the decapitation imagery. As pointed out above, the angles don’t work for me, and I just feel like I’ve seen it before. As soon as I knew that the Asian lady had a sword, I knew that a head would roll. Personally, I’d prefer a blond Midwesterner with a sword and either a hacking cut at the head, or a fatal thrust through the gut. Never play to the cliche. Always startle.

    But these are quibbles. To my eye, you’ve got the goods.

    John Gilstrap

  11. Thanks for the outstanding feedback, everyone. This opening has garnered me a few full manuscript requests. There are structural issues further along that have stopped it from being picked up, though. So I’m in the process of addressing them. Figured I might as well take a sledehammer to the opening as well, see what falls out.

    To answer a recurring question (provided anyone even reads this before tomorrow’s post), it is relevant that I mention Chiyome’s accent. She’s an American, and her origins and history with the US government are central to the plot.

    And, Kathleen, the redhead/Viking/Nordic-looking fellow is the head of a mercenary group. I jump inside his head once, much, much later on. It’s an interesting idea to take his POV here, and it makes a lot of sense too.

    RG and Basil, thanks so much for pointing out the clip/magazine error. I hadn’t noticed that. Much appreciated, fellas.

    Terri, I officially worship the ground you walk on because you mentioned James Clavell and quoted him to boot. Throwing in the scarf would be a nice touch as a nod to the master. Thanks for the ship info as well.

    Kathy, this chapter is about on par in terms of violence with the rest of the book. The body count is high. So I’m not concerned about tone here. This is just about pitch-perfect in that regard. Also, thanks to you and JG for the feedback on the decapitation. I thought that it was clearly implied that Chiyome was nearly the same height as the ship captain (since she brushes his shoulders off, seems like that would be a little hard to do if you’re significantly shorter than someone). But I’ll take a second look and see what I can do to clarify it further. Regardless, a katana/ninja-to can slash through flesh and bone in a single slice no problem. The cutting angle is almost not relevant. There’s a school of Japanese fencing called Iaijutsu which specifically focuses on quick sword draws followed by fluidly slashing through solid objects (usually bundled tatami mats but I’ve seen metal used). At the bottom of this comment I’ve posted links to a couple youtube videos about Japanese swordsmanship and Iaijutsu. Feel free to look if you’d like. The points about the guards being nearby are fantastic. I hadn’t thought about that at all.

    Thanks again, everyone, for such detailed critiques. You’ve given me a lot of fat to chew. Much obliged!


  12. A few thoughts for what their worth:

    Chlyome – awkward to pronounce with variable possibilities. Caused me to stumble each time I read it.

    Magazines hold 15 or 30 rounds. How many shooters? Reload?

    Two dozen dudes kneel and get shot…no shouts, struggles, etc.
    Not realistic to me and missing an opportunity for relating details that impact (e.g. moans, pleading, struggles).

    Depending how many shooters and efficiency of their methods, bleeding out is not the likely mechanism of death imo. Head shots or center of chest result in rapid death. Bleeding out often refers to external exsanguination of blood volume and is more drawn out.

    The decapitation challenge with a short sword has been mentioned.(I had to look up minja-to)

    Put me in the group that did not like Racket. Fall. Bleeding.

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