First Page Critique of Cruel Sacrifices

Jordan Dane
Happy holiday season, TKZers! What better way to spend the season than partaking in a little murder and mayhem. For your reading pleasure, we have an anonymous first page critique entry entitled: Cruel Sacrifices. My comments will be on the flip side. Enjoy. And to work off those holiday calories, join in with your comments.

July 4, 2011/Baton Rouge, Louisiana
“Please don’t do it! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to!” the girl cried.

“Oh really, now?” the killer calmly stated.
“Yes, I am so sorry! Please don’t kill me!”

The killer looks into the girl’s eyes. The killer saw only fear and misery there. Then the killer glanced down at the girl in disgust. The killer never thought that they will see the day that this whining creature will be on her knees, begging anyone for anything. The killer remembered when this girl used to hold her head up high, played guys and then throw them away like trash. Party like it was the end of the world. This girl cared for absolutely no one but herself. The girl’s whimpers brought the killer back to the present.

“I’m sorry, okay, I didn’t mean to hurt him!” her tears fell onto the ground. She tried to get up but slipped again on the hard concrete. The killer cocks the pistol, aiming it with perfection on the girl’s face.

“Get up!”

The girl gradually got up. She shook all over. A violent tremor went through her. She glances around at the fireworks in the distance. She yearns to scream for help. She knew what would happen if she did. She didn’t bother to test it. She glanced quickly back at the killer, at the nose of the pistol aimed at her.

What kind of gun is that? She thought. Is that a Glock or a Magnum? She didn’t know the first thing about guns. She sniffled.

“You broke his heart; you do know that, don’t you? He cried that night in my arms. He never went to sleep that night,” the killer told her.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know. It was just a joke! You have got to believe me!” the girl broke down again.

“It was just a joke to you! My brother’s heart was only a game to you, you wench!” the killer screamed at her, eyes full of rage.

“Please! Don’t shoot! I really did like him, ya know.” The girl wrapped her arms around herself. “It was only a game! We were only joking, please!”

“That was no game! No joke! You humiliated him in front of everybody! You broke his spirit, lost his trust, his outlook on life,” the killer quietly told her, with a pang of sadness.

1.) This is obviously a flash back with a clear tag line as to time, date and location. A reader can clearly see what is happening when. I like the use of tag lines to orient the reader in a quick fashion. Also the scene starts with a dialogue line and pulls the reader into the scene right from the first line without too much back story or explanation to slow the pace.

2.) The description “the killer” is used before the killer kills. That begs the question – in whose POV are we? A killer would not usually refer to themselves as a killer, especially if they haven’t killed yet. It implies the killer is something coming from the girl facing the gun. Picky I know, but it drew me out of the intro.

3.) The overuse of the reference “the killer’’ is distracting to me. (It’s used 11+ times in this short intro.) I think this is because the author does not want to identify the gender of the killer, but there are more subtle ways of avoiding gender in the narratives by establishing the POV as the person with the gun, then focusing on what he or she sees (ie the girl).

The killer looked into the girl’s eyes and saw only fear and misery. Perfect. Whiny little bitch probably never imagined the day would come when she’d be on her knees, begging for her pathetic life. This girl used to hold her head up high, played guys and then threw them away like trash. She cared for absolutely no one but herself. Her whimpers meant nothing. After what she’d done, how could she expect mercy?

4.) Nearly the whole short paragraph before this line, starting with ‘the girl gradually got up…’ is in the girl’s POV. I would recommend picking one point of view and sticking with it. I generally select the person with the most to lose. In this case, it may be the girl with the gun pointing in her face. She’s scared out of her mind, maybe only seeing a shadow with a dim light reflecting off the gun. Perhaps the killer doesn’t say much, to not giveaway the gender. But if the author stayed in the killer’s point of view, it’s easier to hide gender. Whatever the reason, pick a character to place the POV and stick with it during the scene, rather than weakening the introduction by ‘head hopping’ between characters.

5.) There is a tense problem throughout. Lines like – the girl cried & the killer stated – are past tense, yet there are examples of present tense, ie ‘the killer looks into the girl’s eyes’ and ‘the killer cocks the pistol’.

6.) There is also a point of view problem. The start of the story appears to be in the killer’s POV, yet later it switches to the girl’s, ie ‘What kind of gun is that? she thought.’ And even in the killer’s POV, the perspective is muddled (ie ‘the killer screamed at her, eyes full of rage’ – How can the killer see his/her own eyes filled with rage?).

7.) In addition, if I had a gun in my face, the last thing I’d be thinking of is ‘what kind of gun is that,’ especially if I didn’t know guns. If the scene is written in the girl’s POV, the author could focus on the physical manifestations of fear, which in turn would ramp up the suspense.

I sense the killer might have more justification than revenge for his/her brother’s embarrassment – maybe the brother committed suicide and there is no going back. Whatever the premise, I have a sense that this author understands pace and tension. There’s a natural storytelling skill here. We have all had to relearn grammar and author craft issues, like point of view. Hang in there, author.

What say you, TKZers? Any constructive criticism for our brave author?

24 thoughts on “First Page Critique of Cruel Sacrifices

  1. If I may…

    I think the repeated use of “the killewe”is intended to keep the gender a surprise until the final reveal, which I think will be a difficult task to pull off across most of a book; but I think our author’s hand is tipped with the line, ” He cried that night in my arms…”

    Also, there’s the use of some uncommon (for the setting) words~ calling the girtl “you wench” and (going to your POV comments) telling us the killer spoke with a “pang” sadness.

    Lastly, while the girl seems to stay reasonably in the moment (I.e.- terrified), the killer goes roller coaster ~ screaming, pointing the gun perfectly at the girls face (an odd, to me, expression), speaking quietly- it seems the action escalates then calms too quickly…

    I agree on the tense problem, and the use of the tag line to set it up.

    My two cents (or senselessness).

  2. Excellent points, G. Thank you.

    I’ve written a “genderless” character and threaded those scenes into a novel, but it’s difficult and reads like omniscient POV from a secret narrator.

    • Good idea, Paul. I’ve read so many faceless “the man” suspect scenes that I rebelled & challenged myself to a genderless POV so I’d have flex on who the killer would be. In my first book, NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM, I had 5 suspects all guilty as sin until toward the end I had to flip a coin to see who I’d pick. Not even I knew for sure until I had to push the reveal as far as I could. These types of challenges are fun for me and keep the writing interesting. Thanks for your suggestion. I’ll come up with a post.

  3. I think the author has a good story line in his/her head (I’m guessing her), and that’s the most important part. Getting the words down in the right order, and grammatically correct, is where the work ethic becomes critical.

    I agree with everything Jordan and G. Smith had to say. My only other suggestion is to pick an author you enjoy reading and study, and I mean STUDY, that author. Don’t read the book, read the author. Figure out what tense they’re using and then take a page and highlight all verbs. Another page, highlight whatever makes you say, “hey, I like how this author made me see this scene” or some such thing.

    And don’t worry about the first draft. If you really like your story line, get it down and then terrier it. Made up my own word there. Get your teeth into the book and worry it to pieces.

  4. Great suggestions, Amanda. It’s easy to get caught up in a good book, but forcing yourself to study it takes concentration. It’s worth it.

    Thank you.

  5. This story start doesn’t feel authentic to me. At one moment, I almost felt like it’s all a big joke, meant to be some form of comedy like Mean Girls. The author pans away from the crisis with this:

    “What kind of gun is that? She thought. Is that a Glock or a Magnum? She didn’t know the first thing about guns. She sniffled.”

    Going from getting ready to meet death to wondering about what type of gun this “killer” has is somewhat like A.D.D. but in a funny way. If it’s intentional, it got a little laugh out of me. If it’s not intentional, there’s a lot of work to be done with this piece. It needs to be a bit more serious and focused on what’s going on, with no distractions.

  6. I like the use of dialog right away to set the pace. My mind was off and racing just as I think the author intended. But, as others have noted, the use of “the killer” over and over had my mind stumbling as it ran from the possibilities.

    This leads me to a thought. Perhaps that was part of the author’s intent; to create that nightmarish feeling of being frightened but unable to get away.

    If *that* was the goal, I think using “the killer” more judiciously, but still a bit more often than would normally be considered ideal, partnered with a clear POV, might create that thrill like we got as children hearing a ghost story by the campfire.

    Campfire tales tend to use “the killer” or the “monster” a bit too often in the telling, but that adds to the fear in the audience. Soon enough you are looking left and right at shadows, then at your fellow campers, and finally, if the story is really well told, even at yourself. What if *you* are the thing everyone is afraid of!?

    *goes and hides in her tent with her flashlight on inside her sleeping bag cocoon.*

  7. Acouple quick comments…but mostly I would stress what has already been said.

    1. Tense switching: Gigantic no-no.
    2. POV switching: Who’s head are we in? Who is telling this story? I can’t figure it out and thus can’t identify with anyone and thus don’t care much what is going on.
    3. What kind of book is this? Present time? Historical? The justaposing of the modern term “Glock” with the archaic “wench” is jarring.
    4. Overwriting: “the killer screamed at her, eyes full of rage.” “The killer calmly stated.” “She shook all over. A violent tremor went through her.”

    “Said” is a beautiful word. It is the writer’s best friend. Embrace it!

  8. Am I mean-spirited, small-minded? Perhaps. In any case, I did not read past the opening dialogue. The writer doesn’t understand something very basic: you can’t be telling the reader how to understand what’s going on: the girl cried, the killer calmly stated. Either you communicate what the girl’s state of mind is in what she does and says, or you don’t–you can’t then describe how to hear the words. Same with the “oh really now” all–too-calm killer, who is identified as such by the narrator, instead of letting him reveal himself through his own words and deeds. “Oh really now” as a response to a terrified woman tells me what I need to know without adding “calmly stated.”
    Back to the drawing board.

    • This is so true. In roleplay, its called power-gaming. One RPer cannot dictate to another what the other’s reaction should be. As writers, we need to be careful not to do the same with our readers.

      A really good RPer can have a dynamic storytelling influence on the other players to take certain actions with their characters, to draw desired emotions out.

      That’s what we need to keep in mind with writing for a reader too. Thank you very much for helping me apply something I am vary familiar with to something I am trying to learn.

    • It’s the old “show don’t tell” thing, Barry & Wren. SHOW the tension or threat by physical manifestations that put the reader in the head of the POV character. Not having a single relatable character POV, itsr a challenge for the reader to hone in on the emotion, therefore the author TELLS the reader what to feel. I agree, that’s a big no no. But giving feedback like this will give this author something to work on. Thanks.

  9. Inte3resting premise fighting against bad technical skills, grammar, tense, POV. Dialogue that is not quite right. “I am so sorry,” Doesn’t ring true.
    But that’s what the first draft is for, isn’t it. As Wendig says, “The first draft is when we get the words down. The second draft is when we make them not suck.” There’s a story there. Get it down, then rewrite until the writing sings.

    • Hi John. Yes, first drafts are basic frameworks that can be layered with improvements. All the feedback here in our discussion should give this author lots to consider. Thank you.

  10. I have to agree with what’s been said before.

    The writer is trying way too hard not to reveal the gender of the killer which is hard in a premise like this. Everything seems a bit stilted and forced because of it. I’d allow the gender to be known with a he or she. If you’re worried the reader will guess way ahead of time who the killer is, throw in a couple red herrings. Those are always fun to use when you want to mess with the reader’s head.

    • Love red herrings. And picking a single POV per scene can be good discipline for adding red herring elements, for example, have a POV character who’s an unreliable narrator. A witness or suspect who lies perhaps. Having a strong understanding of POV can aid an author in mystery elements. Thanks, KJ.

    • Thanks, Mike. The first pass at edits that I make is to delete excess words to tighten and strengthen sentence structure and dialogue. Good points.

  11. Hi,

    I appreciate the advice. I have since cleaned up the ‘tense switching’ and excess grammar. Actually, this first page is a prologue but I reworked it as a first chapter.

    The POV is in the killer’s. The killer is revealed in the same chapter but readers and the characters in the story do not know this. Readers become familiar with this character but do not know that this prominent character in the story is the killer.

    They find out that there are two killers instead in the end.

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