First Page Critique: El Cuco

Purchased from Shutterstock by Kathryn Lilley

Photo via Shutterstock, purchased by Kathryn Lilley

Today we are doing a critique of an anonymous first-page submission. The title is EL CUCO (THE CUCKOO). After my comments, please add your thoughts and constructive criticism. (Note: Content contains strong language).

***

It was hot as hell.   Four-thirty in the morning and it was already a fucking nightmare in her apartment.  The ceiling fan pushed warm air around the room, and the feel of it against her skin reminded Silky of the hot, stale, breath of an ex-lover she almost killed back in ’72.

She slid into a light robe and slippers, tucked her big gun into the deep side pocket, and headed for her car, where she intended to blast the A/C and smoke a joint.

When Silky pushed through the broken screen door onto the porch, Steve was standing there smoking a cigarette, his painted toes tapping a private beat against the pealing gray floorboards.

“What the fuck are you doing up this early?” she said.  “You scared the shit out of me – I thought you were that lunatic running around.”

Steve blew a column of out of the side of his mouth.  “Christ,” he said.  “What are you doing up?”

“It’s hot as fish grease in my apartment.”

Steve’s manicured eyebrows climbed into his hairline.  “Wait – what are talking about, a lunatic?”

“Some nut,” she said, waving a dismissive hand. “He’s out there slashing throats.”

“Around here?”

Silky nodded.

Steve reflexively touched his throat.  “I haven’t heard anything about a throat-slasher.”

“He’s out there,” Silky said confidently.  “Believe me.”

“That’s awful.”

“There’s all kinds of fruitcakes out there.  That’s why you never see me without this.” Silky pulled the big gun from her robe and held it up.

“Jesus!”

“And I won’t hesitate to use this,” Silky said.  She discharged the clip and showed it to Steve.  “You see?  Loaded.  I don’t fuck around.”

Silky slowly lowered herself onto the top stoop, her knees cracking like microwave popcorn.  “And just think,” she said, “you almost got shot with this grizzly.”  She rested the gun beside her.   “Gimme a cigarette.”

Steve withdrew a cigarette from his pack and handed it to Silky.   He flicked the lighter for her.  “Me?” he said.

Silky held the cigarette against the flame until she got it going.  She leveled her gaze at Steve, raised a perfectly sharp eyebrow.

“Yeah, you ,” she said.

“I almost got shot?  When?”

“Are you high? Two minutes ago when I walked down here.  You think I was expecting to bump into someone this early in the morning?  Who else but the slasher is out this time of day?”

***

My comments:

This page has an engaging spirit to it. I think it could be much stronger after some issues are addressed. Let’s discuss the issues one at a time.

First, kill off all the adverbs

In general, it’s a good idea to be very sparing in the use of “ly” adverbs such as “Slowly,” and “confidently”. Adverbs are a weak way of conveying action.

Shorten sentence structure

Many of the sentences on this page are too long. The prose will be stronger and snappier once they are broken up. For example:

“The ceiling fan pushed warm air around the room, and the feel of it against her skin reminded Silky of the hot, stale, breath of an ex-lover she almost killed back in ’72.”

Break up as follows:

The ceiling fan pushed warm air around the room. The feel of it against her skin reminded Silky of the hot, stale, breath of an ex-lover she almost killed back in ’72.

And the following sentence:

“When Silky pushed through the broken screen door onto the porch, Steve was standing there smoking a cigarette, his painted toes tapping a private beat against the pealing gray floorboards.”

Can be broken up as follows:

“Silky pushed through the broken screen door onto the porch. She immediately felt a warm presence in the shadows. It was Steve. He stood in the shadows, smoking a cigarette, his painted toes tapping a private beat against the pealing peeling gray floorboards.”

Watch spelling

Spelling errors such as the one contained in the previous example are a death sentence for any first page submission. In addition to running spell check, the writer needs to make sure the spelling of the word is correct for its meaning in context. (“Pealing” is the sound of a bell. “Peeling” is how one removes the skin from an orange.)

Keep cause with effect

When Silky says, “I thought you were that lunatic running around,” Steve’s response to the statement should follow immediately. The way it’s currently written, he responds to the first part of her statement (regarding the hour of day) before he reacts to the important part of her speech (a lunatic running around).

Vary the language for impact

Silky says, “You scared the shit out of me – I thought you were that lunatic running around.”

Steve eventually responds by using identical language. ““Wait – what are talking about, a lunatic?”

Steve’s response should be revised to use wording that is different than hers.

Avoid repeating phrases

“Big gun” is repeated twice on the same page, which is one time too many.

Use specific language

“Big gun” is vague language. Indicate what type of gun is being used. Using specific language helps reveal character.

A note about similes

Similes and metaphors can be effective when used well. The simile in this page, “…her knees cracking like microwave popcorn” didn’t quite work for me. “Popping” might be a better gerund to use in this case, but I would still jettison the simile.

Strong language

I’m not a prude about the use of strong language in fiction, but in this instance, I don’t think the F-bomb and related terms add anything interesting to the characters or scene.

Monitor tics and jerks

For some reason, many writers, including professionals, love to use eyebrows and other tics to convey a character’s reaction. This page has a little too much eyebrow action going on.

“Steve’s manicured eyebrows climbed into his hairline.”

She…raised a perfectly sharp eyebrow.

Convey action before dialogue

In this scene, Silky tells Steve that she almost shot him, but I didn’t get a sense of that during the action that leads up to their dialogue. Before she says to Steve, “I almost shot you,” the reader needs to see her going onto the porch, feeling a presence in the shadows, raising the gun barrel, etc.

Title note

I had to look up the title, EL CUCO, on a translator to verify what it meant. That’s not good. The story title is the  first opportunity to engage a reader. If the reader doesn’t understand what the title means, that opportunity is lost.

Overall

Even though I’ve called out quite a few issues with this page, I still felt engaged by the story, and found myself liking the characters. That’s half the battle right there–everything else is fixable with careful editing.

Thank you to the writer for submitting this page for discussion.

What do you think of this first page, TKZ’ers? Any comments to add?

7+

29 thoughts on “First Page Critique: El Cuco

  1. I agree with everything you said about this excerpt, Kathryn, and, I, too, found it engaging. I felt that the writer has a voice, which is a really good start, in my opinion.

    As far as voice is concerned, I wondered what would happen if the cuss words were eliminated, and I did so quickly…the voice remained. Another reason for eliminating most of them, i.e., maybe leave one only in this excerpt, and consider eliminating them all.

    I particularly liked your comment about Stimulus and Response because, in my experience, not many writers are aware of this great analytical tool. Bill Johnson in A STORY IS A PROMISE deals with Stimulus and Response, and I can’t believe how much this tool has helped me to smooth out narrative drive in my stories.

    I liked the bit of backstory in the opening (ex-lover she almost killed) because it hooks the reader, reveals character and likely genre, all at the same time.

    I don’t think the author needs the second ‘Silky’ (haven’t looked at other places where a character’s name could be eliminated). Too much unnecessary name repetition tends to distance the reader. Here, we only have two characters in the scene, so once the reader knows their names, I think the duplications can safely be eliminated. (Oops! self-editing note: avoid the passive voice)

    I liked the Steve’s body language, where he touches his throat, but the ‘reflexively’ is unnecessary: it tells the reader what to think about Steve’s reaction…I think the reader is smart enough to figure it out….and it may be a POV slip, too. However, I do think the writer can dig deeper for stronger body language generally. Every time I see a nod, I think of one of those dog dolls that sit on the dashboard and nod their heads. Finding meaningful body language is damned hard work (for me, at least) but the results are worth it.

    As for similes? I’d go to bed with them if I could. I even used three in the same paragraph years ago, and, to make it worse, they conflicted with each other. Noah Lukeman, in THE FIRST FIVE PAGES, says you can get away with one only every five pages, but you’d better be sure they’re apt and that they don’t look ‘writerly.’ The more invisible they are, the better.

    The line, “That’s why you’ll never see me without this,” threw me because Steve and Silky are friends. If you’ll never see Silky without it, then why doesn’t Steve know already? I think it’s enough for her to say she won’t hesitate to use it.

    I think Kathryn’s comments about the lost opportunity for increased tension is spot on, especially considering the likely genre. I wouldn’t overdo it, however, because if you do, you might detract from the overall intent of this scene and fall into the trap of the battle/fight/murder style of opening a story before the reader cares enough about the character.

    All that said, I enjoyed the opening, but wouldn’t read more because of the adverbs and the body language not being strong enough. Those issues would lead me to believe that I’d find other weaknesses in the writing, and I’m a sucker for really good writing. Just wish my own were stronger.

    • Ah! I like your calling it Stimulus and Response rather than Cause and Effect, Sheryl. For every action, we need to see the reaction (if there is one one), immediately. Or, if there there is a delay between stimulus and response, it needs to make sense. (For example, in a tense scene with three characters, one character could have a delayed response, but it would need to addressed in some way. Such as,

      Mary, who had been simmering throughout our discussion, suddenly shifted on her chair.
      “But you haven’t SETTLED anything,” she said, releasing a vent of steam.
      Thanks for commenting, Sheryl!

  2. There is a lot of promise in the story, and I agree with almost everything you mentioned, Kathryn. The only thing that threw me was suggesting Silky felt a ‘warm presence’ when she left the house. If it’s as hot as fish grease I’m not sure a warm body would stand out. But that’s a niggle, every other suggestion is spot on.

    As for the word ‘fuck’, my preference is to use it sparingly. Three times in the first page is overkill, and deadens the word’s effect. We get the idea. Silky is a hard-ass.

    Yes, there is a lot of eye brow action, and I’d certainly change that, but I’m glad the author realizes there has to be some action going on while the characters are conversing, and doesn’t fall into the ‘talking heads’ syndrome.

    All in all, a very positive start. I want to know more about throat-slashing-bad-person, and how Silky handles herself when their paths cross, as I’m sure they will. And I’ll add how very smart it was for the author to submit their first page to TKZ. You’re only going to get better, author, by taking their advice.

    • You’re right, Amanda–warm presence wouldn’t have stood up in context, unless one set it up as being cooler on the porch as she emerges from the inside of the apartment. But this is what makes writing so fun–or frustrating. We have to keep tweaking and reworking until the whole is just right.

  3. I won’t dwell on the language issue, but I would not read on after the first page because of it. But if that’s what the writer wants to do, it’s not my call. This writer has a strong, distinct voice, and I don’t think the piece would lose a thing by losing the language, or scaling it back. I actually think it would let the story and character come through better.

    Good, crisp dialogue. I always say dialogue is one of the fastest ways to assess writing strength, and this piece has it, even more if it loses the adverbs. Adverbs are all guilty until proven innocent.

    “Big gun” needs to be specific. I have no idea what kind of gun this is. You don’t have to over-specify (e.g., Glock 948 Semi-Automatic Burnished Steel “Homeboy” Special with Stippled Reversible Pattern Grip). Glock would do fine at this point.

    Speaking of which, you are going to catch it from gun-savvy readers over a common mistake. A CLIP is not a MAGAZINE. A magazine is what feeds the weapon and is detached. A clip is what feeds a magazine.

    Also, “discharge” connotes firing.

    So something like this instead: She released the mag and showed it to Steve.

    This author clearly has potential.

    • I was going to say the same thing about the “clip” vs “magazine”, Jim. Everyone calls it a “clip”. The same way a lot of writers talk about the “smell of cordite”.

      As an aside, I’m not crazy about opening a novel with the weak words, “It was”. We’ve come a long way from A TALE OF TWO CITIES, and “It was” strikes me as a lazy way of beginning a sentence, especially an opening sentence.

      And for that matter, even though I liked the dialogue, that kind of laziness spread itself across this piece like morning dew. Spread in a thin layer, mind you, but I felt it was still there. I think the writer could tighten this up considerably, show rather than tell, make the profanity a shade less gratuitous, and we would be off to the races.

  4. I too thought the opening paragraph did a good job of both setting the scene and telling us something about our (I assume) protagonist Silky whilst posing questions. The reference to ’72 gives us a rough age and telling us that she nearly killed an ex-lover gives a hint of the sort of person she might be, whilst also making you want to know more (like why she’s called Silky.)

    I did find the use of the F-word in the first paragraph particularly jarring, especially as this seems to be narrative and usually I’d expect to only see strong language in dialogue (or thoughts.) I too feel strong language is something to use sparingly. Not only can it put readers off, but if you over use it then it reduces the impact.

    That said, if you remove the F-word from the opening paragraph it reads just as well, plus gives more weight to it’s use a little later. Using the F-bomb in a characters opening dialogue is sending a very strong message about them and about what to expect from the book.

    “Big Gun” unfortunately made me laugh, sorry. I think you can get across the size of it without outright calling it a Big Gun (e.g. maybe it only just fits in her robe pocket?) But I really liked Sliky calling it a “grizzly” later. That really gives a vivid mental image. Also the gun seems to appear out of nowhere. Where was she keeping it? In a draw, on her bedside cabinet etc? And at this point we don’t know if she always carry it around or is she reacting to something? Maybe she heard something, like someone moving on the porch? Does she feel threatened in some way, is that why she goes for her gun? Even if the “threat” to Silky turns out to be nothing more than her friend Steve, I think you could really build some tension here to help grip your reader.

    Overall I think this is an opening that would make me turn the page, rather than put it back on the bookshelf.

    All the Best,

    Matthew.

    • Big gun made me grin as well, Matthew. I conjured up a Mae West image when I read it. Luckily, it’s an easy fix. Thanks for commenting!

  5. I liked it. First, the language didn’t bother me at all. It’s not a matter of voice, it’s the verisimilitude. Some people talk like that, all the time, and using the language helps make “SIlky” a specific person for me. I particularly liked “hot as fish grease.” It’s unusual, it’s sure not a cliche, I’ve never heard that before. I wonder about the time this story is set. If it’s set in today and she remembers a lover she had in ’72, that would make her about as old as – me. Older, but not too old. And the way I feel when I got out of bed today with my hip complaining and my feet sore is a lot different that it would have been in, say the 1980’s. I react differently to the heat today too, notice it more. So nailing down the time the story is taking place with some kind of detail would help, because I was seeing a “crusty old broad” with a history, who cursed and carried a hogleg (I was envisioning her “big gun” as Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum, except of course that doesn’t have a clip.) If she was supposed to be a sexy young thing, I wasn’t seeing that. But I got the distinct impression I wouldn’t be getting to know much more about her because it couldn’t be much more obvious who Steve is going to turn out to be.

    • I like the way you vividly describe the elements of voice, John. I’d be interested to know how many readers immediately assumed that Steve is the slasher. Thanks for visiting!

  6. Overall I enjoyed the opening and the characters. I also believe in only using strong language (F-word) as an effect, like a meek woman suddenly shouting F*** you! to show her frustration. It’s out-of-character so it becomes a powerful tool. Here it was a bit jarring especially on a first page.
    The author has already gotten stellar advice, so I’ll only add this… Most gun enthusiasts use holsters for their firearms. I thigh holster, for example, would work for a woman wearing a robe, especially if she always carries a weapon. My police buddies overheat when the read about a character shoving a gun in their waistband or, like here, in a pocket.
    Good luck. This excerpt promises an interesting story.

    • Come to think of it, why was Silky heading to the car in a light robe and slippers, gun or no gun? Thanks for joining our discussion today, Sue!

      • “To blast the A/C and smoke a joint” according to the text. (I know there are meant to be some people who even go out to buy milk and the morning paper in slippers and a dressing gown… Think I’d be too embarrassed.)

          • Happy to help.

            Right now I wish I had Air Conditioning… in the South East of England. I’m British, I’m not used to hot weather!

        • Matthew, here in the states people who go out in public dressed like that are often referred to as “Wal-Martians”. There are sites dedicated to eyewitness pictures of such characters.

  7. I won’t repeat all the excellent comments that went before me. You guys have covered just about everything. My feeling is that I would not read on. Here’s why:
    1. Nothing happens on page one.
    2. Using the F-bomb on the first page comes off as a cheap trick for shock effect.
    3. The author didn’t take the time to proofread the page. Makes me wonder what to expect with the rest of the pages.
    Thanks to this brave writer for submitting to TKZ. Good luck.

    • The “nothing happening” is a potential killer, you’re right, Joe. If the writer beefs up the tension in the encounter with Steve, and then abruptly releases it for comic effect, that might solve that issue. The lack of proofreading is another kiss of death with any editor or professional reader. Nowadays, they’re not looking for merely competent writing–the writing must SING.

    • I agree, Joe. Nothing happens in this very important start to a story. It’s almost like the dialogue is “telling” backstory or the set up, rather than “showing” the tension of a predator on the loose. The flirty banter does not support the tension, as if no one is in danger.

      I liked your spot on assessment too, Kathryn.

  8. I found everyone’s comments interesting and strong, and I pretty much agree with most of what everyone said.

    I found it a fairly intriguing start. I think, except for dialogue, it lacks meaningful character description, such as age, height, and weight, and many other possibilities. I have no idea of their relationship to each other. Friends, I guess. Who is Silky? Who is Steve?
    Steve’s not understanding that she was talking about him when she said she almost shot him seems a bit unrealistic.

    ‘fucking nightmare in her apartment’ seems a bit strong for describing a hot night.

    ‘where she intended to blast the A/C’ my first thought was Why is she going to blast the A/C with the big gun? So, that sentence needs revision.

    I found ‘his painted toes tapping a private beat’ interesting. How many men have painted toes (toenails, I presume)? I do find it questionable, though. Usually, it’s the foot tapping a beat, not the toes. This image becomes comical if it’s just the toes tapping a beat.

    ‘“You scared the shit out of me’ should be, I agree, shown by her actions.

    ‘waving a dismissive hand’ doesn’t make much sense to me.

    ‘Silky slowly lowered herself onto the top stoop,’ should be ‘onto the stoop’ or ‘onto the top step’. A stoop is a porch, in this case.

  9. Agree with most of the comments. The F-bombs didn’t bother me, but there were too many — I’d cut some. They are indicators of character, but we get the idea after one or two. Interesting characters. Change the title to English. This writer has promise.

  10. Overall, I like the tone and the voice. Everything Kathryn said about structure.

    A couple of additions.

    A lot of smoking going on. She is going out to smoke a joint. He is standing there smoking a cigarette. Mix word choice up.

    Use of “gun” too often takes away from the noir feel. She has a pistol. Or better yet, she has a Glock, or a Sig Sauer, or her Chief’s Special. “Gun” intimates a lack of firearms knowledge (whether it’s true or not.)

    Her pistol has a magazine or a mag, not a clip. Common error. If Silky is an assassin or general bad ass, she’d know the difference.

    Basic minor editing stuff. Easily fixed. I had an ex-military guy go over my firearms passages to see if they rang true and he changed things for the better (discussions over Tec-9s vs. Uzis for example.)

    Overall solid voice. Have fun with it. Terri

    • How great is it that you found an ex-military guy to run a technical check on your story, Terri. Thanks for dropping in!

  11. I’m waiting for Steve to slash her~ or ar her~ and maybe Silky gets the big gun out and fires in time, or the story follows the further adventures of El Cuco, Steve…

    Or is that a different story altogether?

    g

  12. Thought it was okay. I prefer a closer pov and I think an opportunity was missed. Slasher on the loose, Steve could knock over a potted plant or something causing the fight or flee reaction in Silky where she snatches the .44 magnum from the nightstand and bolts out the door to meet Steve and his painted toe nails. Wonder if the setting is in the Fla. Keys?

    • I got a Florida/Southern States feel from this, though I can only base that on books/TV series/Films I’ve seen as I’ve never been to the USA.

Comments are closed.