By Elaine Viets
THE CASE OF THE MISSING PAINTING is TKZ’s monthly First Page critique, submitted by an Anonymous Author. Congratulations, AA. You need courage to submit your work for evaluation, but it’s a major step toward publication. Here’s AA’s first page. My comments follow.
The Case of the Missing Painting
My cellphone startled me from a pleasant although dreamless sleep. The phone fell to the floor when I groped for it in the dark. Awake now, I grabbed the offending object. “Hello,” I said, sure someone had died.
“Jenna, it’s Toni,” my cousin’s voice rang out. “Someone stole Granddad’s painting,”
Granddad’s painting? Could she mean the Impressionistic landscape he’d painted long before I was born? I switched on the lamp and sat up in bed to the utmost annoyance of Stalin, who loved to sleep nestled against my back. The cat growled in protest.
“Did you hear me? Granddad’s painting’s been stolen.” More hysteria.
“I heard you,” I choked out. “But…” clearing my throat. “I’m not sure if I’m awake or dreaming. Why the devil are you calling me at…” I glanced at my phone. “At two-thirteen in the morning? Besides, I thought Aunt Lucy had that painting, safely tucked in her Florida condo.”
“Mom gave it to my brother, Joey. He says it’s disappeared, and let me tell you he’s frantic. Mom’s going to kill him.”
“Why would anyone want it? It’s a copy, an artist’s impression of a master. Priceless to us but worthless to anyone else.” My mind cleared and my voice sounded almost awake. That painting symbolized everything I loved about my dad and his Italian roots.
“That’s what I thought. But, apparently there’s more to it than that. I really don’t want to go into it on the phone and anyway…Neal, quit that.”
“What’s going on?”
“Neal keeps trying to cut off the AC. I’m calling from the car. We’re on our way to see you after we stop in Columbus to pick up Joey—”
“At this hour?”
“Joey can tell you all about it. We should roll in sometime this afternoon. Get the extra bed ready. I told Joey we could count on you. Cousins sticking together and all.” She clicked off.
Roll in to see me? This afternoon? Extra bed? What extra bed? This had to be a dream. Or a nightmare.
I switched off the light and closed my eyes. Visions of my granddad’s painting floated across my consciousness—the muted colors reflecting on the surface of the water. The building sitting on the bank as if submerged. A cherished painting I hadn’t thought about in years. But why had Toni called me in the middle of the night? What couldn’t she tell me over the phone? I tossed, repositioned my pillow, tossed again and finally drifted off to sleep.
Elaine’s Critique: Your novel has an intriguing start, AA, but too much information is crammed into your first page. You can deliver that information throughout the chapter, even later in the book. Your work is clean and free of typos, which is important. Here are a few other points to consider.
There’s an overlooked opportunity for a more dramatic opening. We all fear late-night calls. They usually mean someone’s dead, as you mentioned in an aside. Make that your beginning and ratchet up the tension. You can still have the cell phone wrestling scene, but I’d pare it down.
Where is your novel set? Cousin Toni tells Jenna, “I’m calling from the car. We’re on our way to see you after we stop in Columbus to pick up Joey . . . We should roll in sometime this afternoon.”
That’s an easy fix. Toni can say, “We left MY CITY AN HOUR AGO. We should roll into YOUR CITY sometime this afternoon.”
Hysteria? You do a good job of moving the action forward with dialogue, AA, but the first time you mention Toni you write, “my cousin’s voice rang out.” Then Jenna thinks in italics, “more hysteria.” “Rang out” does not indicate “more hysteria.” If she’s hysterical, show us. Have Toni talking extra fast, sounding frantic, tripping over her words, using a high-pitched voice, or other indicators of hysteria.
Give a clearer description of Granddad’s painting. It’s the key to the novel. AA writes, “Could she mean the Impressionistic landscape he’d painted long before I was born?” And “Visions of my granddad’s painting floated across my consciousness—the muted colors reflecting on the surface of the water. The building sitting on the bank as if submerged.”
Do you mean “Impressionist,” a school of painting? Or “impressionistic,” with a lower case I? What is the “building sitting on the bank”? A church? A mansion? Granddad’s home? Something else? And the bank of what? A river? A stream? Where is the painting set? The US, Italy, Britain? More specifics will give your novel a vivid start. Also, the painting is “an artist’s impression of a master.” Which master? Tell us.
Too many people in the first page. This is a common reviewers’ complaint. Jenna, Toni, Joey and Neal are crammed into one page. It’s over-crowded. Neal is never identified. Is he Toni’s husband? Son? Another cousin?
What’s the season? Is it in the chilly winter? A sticky summer night? A phrase can settle that question.
Tell us a little more about Toni and Jenna. How old are they? What kind of person is Toni? Right now, she sounds more impulsive than hysterical. Is she Jenna’s “crazy” cousin? Is she normally level-headed, so Jenna has more reason to pay attention to her alarm? A phrase or two can help us out. Somewhere in the first chapter, let us know what both these women do. Are they employed? Students? What are their last names? Are they married or single?
That darn cat. AA writes, “I switched on the lamp and sat up in bed to the utmost annoyance of Stalin, who loved to sleep nestled against my back. The cat growled in protest.” Don’t let your readers guess who Jenna’s sleeping with. Try this: “I switched on the lamp and sat up in bed to the utmost annoyance of my cat, Stalin, who loved to sleep nestled against my back.”
And do you really want to name your cat after a mass-murdering dictator? That’s like calling the cat Hitler. Not funny, and painful for some readers.
Do you need that last line? AA writes, “What couldn’t she tell me over the phone? I tossed, repositioned my pillow, tossed again and finally drifted off to sleep.”
Would Jenna really be able to go back to sleep if she got a worrisome phone call at two a.m.? I wouldn’t. Your first page will have stronger impact if you cut that final sentence.
- “a pleasant although dreamless sleep” to “a pleasant, dreamless sleep.”
- “to the utmost annoyance of Stalin.” Take out “utmost.”
- “I choked out.” Consider “I said.” “I choked out” doesn’t add drama. It’s a distraction.
- “My mind cleared and my voice sounded almost awake.” How does Jenna know what she sounds like? This can be cut.
- “This had to be a dream. Or a nightmare.” Make it, “This had to be a nightmare.” Or consider cutting it.
Don’t be put off by these comments, Anonymous Author. This is a good story. Go forth and write.
Any comments, TKZ readers?
The Art of Murder, Elaine Viets’s new Dead-End Job mystery, opens at Bonnet House, a whimsical Fort Lauderdale museum with rollicking art, exotic orchids, carousel figures, and three squirrel monkeys who escaped from a bar. Elaine worked as a museum volunteer while she researched her fifteenth Dead-End Job mystery. The Art of Murder has been on the Pub Alley Mystery Bestseller list for nearly three weeks. www.elaineviets.com