First Page Critique – The Truth About Morality

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

For your reading enjoyment we have “The Truth About Morality” submitted anonymously for critique of the first 400 words or so. My feedback to follow. Join me with your constructive criticism in comments.

Tony Webster-Wikimedia Commons

Tony Webster-Wikimedia Commons

My face, well rested and laminated in a childlike innocence, looked the same as before. When I opened my lips to a smile, smooth skin stretched itself around white teeth, eyes bright and honest.

Nothing there, I told myself.

And still, my face from this day on would hide a murder.

A righteous murder some might argue, others would disagree. Alvin would say that the act had been neither right nor wrong. Morality nothing more than a construction we implement on ourselves.

The innocence of the spontaneous wasn’ a possible justification. Neither had I been forced. On the contrary, there had been many instances when I could have told them I didn’ want us to follow through with the plan.

I knew I had acted voluntarily. Despite this the feeling that advanced on me was one of dread.

I went to Livia and Alvin’ part of the apartment. Even though there were plenty of rooms to choose from they had their bedrooms next to each other. I started with Livia’ room. I wanted to understand them. Because it suddenly seemed that I, even with my feverish studies of the two of them, had overlooked one aspect. I just didn’ know what it was that I had missed.

The room had Livia’ scent of expensive perfume and nonchalance. I started lifting things and when that wasn’ enough I opened a drawer and then another one. I was careful. Livia’ room wasn’ neat but there were aspects of it that looked orderly, magazines sorted by month, philosophy books opened on a special page. I pushed aside the doors of the cabinet and found Livia’ clothes. Jeans were separated from pants, she had a section for t-shirts and one for the oversized cashmeres sweaters she favoured. The shades shifted from white to black, with plenty of blue and grey nuances in between, the colours of a sky minutes before the storm.

The search that had started out almost by accident turned meticulous. I crawled under the iron framed bed, swept my fingers alongside the outdated bottom of steel springs, trailed the blackened legs.

I rose, elongated shadows sliced the room. Everything was still, the world locked in a devotional silence. But inside me an alarm kept ringing, high pitched and toneless. I knocked on the walls, trying to pick up a hollow sounding note. When I didn’ find anything I moved over to Alvin’ room.

FEEDBACK

Although I liked some of the turns of phrases in this piece and found the character’s internal thoughts were interesting, I wanted more. The author left me wondering what this person (not sure of gender) is searching for after they presumably killed someone. From this intro, we do not know where this murder took place or when. I expected the body to be there, but that was never expressed. I had to read this a few times to search for something I had missed. It would appear the murder was committed by an “us” as well. Although the mystery left me curious to learn more, the writing needs work to anchor the character more realistically and keep the reader turning the pages. Here are some suggestions:

WHERE TO START – The entire intro takes place in the character’s head with only minimal action of him or her searching a room. I wanted there to be more. I had more curiosity about the killing, rather than a search of a room for a person I don’t care much about. The writing doesn’t make me empathetic for this person, even if the murder had been “righteous.” This reads as if it’s from a later scene, as if I’m starting after something important happened that’s not part of the story.

I’m assuming the character is looking in a mirror or reflective glass to see their face as the story opens. I’m not a fan of the ploy of describing the character’s appearance as they look in a mirror–because it’s so cliche–but if the author wants to keep that part, they should establish there is a mirror, otherwise the point of view is off since a character can’t see himself otherwise.

GIVE THEM SOMETHING TO DO – As a suggestion for this intro, I would recommend you give the character something more to do and focus on. Add tension. They could watch a spiraling stream of crimson against a white porcelain sink as blood drains off their shaking hands as they desperately wash the skin until it is raw. When they look into the mirror, what do they see? The notion of a murder could be only a tease that is not explained until later.

SENSE OF URGENCY – For someone who has killed another human being (presuming the death occurred recently), there does not appear to be any urgency to the character’s actions. Their search of Livia’s room is methodical and not rushed. I’d like to see more emotion in this intro, given that a death has occurred. When the character knocks on the walls for a hollow sound, are they concerned they’ll be heard?

ADD DEPTH TO THE CHARACTER’S POV – Have the character react to the neatly stacked magazines or the perfume. What do they think? Do they resent the lingering essence of Livia? I wouldn’t waste a scene by merely describing the character’s calm search. Add emotion by stressing out the character. Is Livia a victim or a fellow killer? Are there precious seconds before this person is discovered searching the room?

FIRST PERSON – It’s been my experience that a writer should infuse gender as quickly as possible, before the reader gets too far along and forms a hard to overcome attachment to one sex or the other. Keep in mind that the character can only see through their own eyes and not upon themselves, so use things like – fingernails, articles of clothing, types of shoes, hair length, or perfume/cologne to hint at the gender as soon as possible.

TYPOS – I’m not sure why there are so many of the same type of typos (bolded in red) where a single letter in a contraction is omitted – ie. wasn’ & didn’ and possessives with ‘s. “Oversized” should probably be hyphenated. There is also this – “cashmeres sweaters,” which should be “cashmere sweaters.” This could be attributable to software issues, but an editor or agent would not want to see this, even if it is explainable.

FOR DISCUSSION

Please share your thoughts on this introduction to help this courageous author develop this story. What do you like about the intro? What would you change?

RedemptionForAvery_highres

Redemption for Avery – $1.99 ebook

When he sleeps, the hunt begins.

FBI Profiler Ryker Townsend is a rising star in Quantico’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, but his dark secret could cost him his career. When he sleeps, he has visions of his next case. He sees through the eyes of the dead, the last images imprinted on their retinas. His nightmares are riddled with clues he must decipher to hunt humanity’s Great White Shark—the serial killer.

 

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

24 thoughts on “First Page Critique – The Truth About Morality

  1. I do think this writer has a nice command of language and of a style of narrator self-reflection. But having such is a temptation … to overuse it, or use it in the wrong place. The opening is, IMO, the wrong place. I have a rule of thumb for openings called “act first, explain later” Here, it ought to be “act first, THINK later.” As Jordan suggests, there ought to be a sense of urgency in the actions. When the narrator “thinks,” it should be emotionally and about the moment. Put the self-awareness and analysis later.

    Now, I hasten to add there could be an exception: a cold, calculating narrator for whom the killing doesn’t have that impact (that isn’t the case here, because of the “dread” mentioned). In such a case, go all the way with it, make it creepy, but also (again) stress the ACTIONS.

    • Exactly, Jim. There’s plenty of time to showcase the introspection and prose with this author but in an intro, the start could be more intriguing (to hook the reader) if there’s more action and mystery.

      I like your idea of doubling down on a cold hearted killer if the prose is intriguing enough. Although as a beginning, this can be a turn off for some readers, depending on this author’s target audience. But I like the challenge of finding a balance. Very interesting.

  2. I got off on the wrong foot as I read this piece with the “My face, well rested and laminated in a childlike innocence,” bit. While I like an unusual turn of phrase, I found myself hung up (more on the ‘well rested’ part) on this phrase for several seconds, so much that I didn’t get drawn into the rest of the reading and when I finally did move on from that sentence, I never quite conneced with what was on the page.

    What is the time period? Where are we? I didn’t understand the motivation for going through the rooms. Yes, I can understand a criminal ransacking a place for valuables, but the “I wanted to understand them” totally confused me. And I assume Alvin and Liva are the murdered but I’m not sure.

    I too struggle with how to use dialect in a scene—I like dialect in a story, but the trade off is having it slow the reader. And between that first opening sentence that threw me and reading the dialect, it took me a long time to read this one page.

    But I am curious to know if it WAS Alvin and Livia that were killed and why. The only question would be, if subsequent pages were as slow to get through as this one, would I stick with the story? Hard to say.

    • The excerpt mentions “a murder” and that there is an “”us” involved in s plan to commit the act. I can only assume the 2 people mentioned are co-conspirators but there’s no hint of why the search is being done. I agree more substance should be hinted at to develop the mystery a bit more.

      I like your suggestion of adding more setting and world building and time period. A subtle layering of these ideas would only enhance this piece without slowing pace if it’s nuanced. Thanks, BK.

  3. My first thought is that there’s too much description and too little action. As you said Jordan, opening with the “mirror scene” is cliche.

    I was also confused as to the timing of the incidents. “I went to Livia and Alvin’ part of the apartment.” Is the killer thinking back or is this actually happening now?

    I did not relate to the protagonist. He seems too intellectual and one-dimensional. No sense of panic, fear, joy, or any emotion really.

    I think a lot of what’s here is good, but could be filtered and spiced up a bit. As a reader, I want questions raised immediately. Whose body is that? Why is there blood on the wall? What’s he looking for in the bedroom? “I stepped over the body, careful to avoid the expanding red stain around her head, and tapped on the wall. It had to be here. Had to be. Or I’d killed her for nothing.”

    Keep the story, change the order of things a bit, flesh out the characters, and add some action. Good start!

    • Good points, Tom. What is here can be built upon with many of the suggestions mentioned. I like how you focused on wanting “questions raised” that the reader finds intriguing enough to want answer. Exactly. Great input.

  4. The most compelling aspect of this first page to me was the thematic question:

    “A righteous murder some might argue, others would disagree. Alvin would say that the act had been neither right nor wrong. Morality nothing more than a construction we implement on ourselves.”

    Not only do I want to learn why the narrator displays this attitude, I also want to know what happened that leads him/her to this thought. Those questions make me want to read more.

    That said, the suggestions by Jordan, Jim, and Tom all would help with the current muddiness of where, when, and who’s dead. Once those questions are pinned down, I’d be very willing to keep going to learn the why.

    Great turns of phrase. Good luck, brave author!

  5. I agree with all of the above comments. Too much thinking, not enough action. and the thoughts don’t ring true to me, unless the POV character is a real psychopath. Most people would be much more freaked out about having just murdered someone, not calmly reflecting on the ethics of it. The typos were very distracting, each one taking me out of the story. Also distracting was not knowing who or what this character is.

    Slightly off topic: Is there a policy or precedent about a writer who has had their first page critiqued here taking the comments and suggestions and rewriting the page then re-submitting at a later time? It might be helpful to know their rewriting was on the right track? Or, do you have so many submissions that resubmitting would be unfair or impractical?

    Thanks for the great material that appears daily on TKZ!

    • Hi Dave. I’ll let Kathryn be the official TKZ answer on resubmission question. In the past, it’s been my experience that some authors have contacted TKZ on their own through the submission email & requested a revisit review from the TKS member who did the original critique. I’ve been contacted a number of times and have never declined. To my knowledge, a resubmittal is not usually reposted for general comments but I will let Kathryn reply. She helped start TKZ and handles the submission distributions.

      Thanks for your comment.

  6. Good comments and feedback by you and everyone so far, Jordan. I think it would increase the drama if the protagonist observed his face in the mirror as if he were describing another person in the third person. Along the lines of the following (my rewrite is not polished below because I’m in a rush this morning, but just to give an idea):

    The face of the man staring back at me appeared rested and untroubled. As his bright, clear gaze met mine, the man’s eyes conveyed an almost childlike innocence. Nothing about the man’s expression suggested he was concealing a murder.

    So you’d have the narrator reacting and describing his own face in first person, and then pull back and, voila! It turns out that it’s his own face he’s been observing in the mirror.

    After that kind of introduction, we could then discover that the man had been observing his own face in the mirror.

  7. This was a tough read, but has some interesting points.

    Consider rearranging and starting in Livia’s room:

    Livia’s cashmere sweaters smelled of nonchalance and expensive perfume. Meticulously arranged by color, they were a contrast to the studied disorder of the room. . . . .

    (Less tell, more show)

    Finish the search, using the chance to world-build a bit and then end with the narrator leaving the apartment. But concentrate on the MC’s emotions and reactions and less on the rote actions. If s/he is looking at Livia’s socks, I can assume the drawer is open. Unless the drawer is special, as in it is locked or so loud the MC is afraid someone might hear, it’s not important.

    And then take the opening passage of the scene and put it at the end for contrast.
    Something like,

    Back on the street, no one looked at me twice. Evidently, my well-practiced smile – childlike and innocent – successfully concealed the fact that I’m a murderer.

    I really don’t like “laminated,” it feels forced and clever.

    This is using the lack of reaction to infer appearance instead of the “look in the mirror.” If you do have to use the reflection, consider catching sight in a reflective surface and having it contrast to how everyone else looks harried or worried or bored. “The meticulously polished brass panels told me I was the only one smiling on the elevator, which is amusing considering I’m a murderer.”

    I like that is has that solid British feel in the language. Stephen King said the British could write a “condom ad and make it sound like the damn Magna Carta.”

    Less tell, more show, more inference and mystery. Use your strengths of language as the set-up for the knock out punch.

    Terri

    • Thanks for your feedback & examples, Terri. Much appreciated. The author will have good input for revision decisions, if he or she decides to revise.

  8. Hmm. Well. OK. I think this might be a good start to Chapter 2. I kinda sorta agree with JSB: I don’t think this is the right place to open the story. I would consider opening with the murder. Either that, or the murder winds up as a flashback, and that scenario presents its own writing problems. Is there a co-conspirator here? I’m not sure. If so, the narrator could be looking in the mirror, cleaning him/herself up as suggested above, and the co-conspirator catches him/her and says something like “Yeah. You still look the same.”. Did s/he kill both Alvin and Olivia? I’m confused here. I need more clarity. And how big is this apartment? Side by side rooms (guess they weren’t a couple) when there were plenty to choose from? I need more information about the relationships. I’m confused as to why s/he’s searching the rooms. Either one or both are co-conspirators, or dead, but I don’t know which, if either. This makes the narrator’s actions difficult to understand.

    This really bothered me: “Alvin would say that the act had been neither right nor wrong. Morality nothing more than a construction we implement on ourselves.” I’m all for breaking up sentences, and sentences in a novel – especially dialogue – don’t have to be to Chicago Manual standards, but in this case I would either a) make this dialogue such as “Morality ain’t nothing more than a construction we implement on ourselves.” (which would further Alvin’s character, etc.) or b) join them and add one word like this “Alvin would say that the act had been neither right nor wrong, morality being nothing more than a construction we implement on ourselves.” As it stands now the lack of a verb in that second sentence bugs me.

    I don’t get why there are no letters after ‘. Strange. Gotta fix that pronto.

    I do like the language and voice in the first few paragraphs, and the writer is certainly capable of fixing this. I do think it needs more visuals, action, and clarity, and the writer should reconsider whether this is the right place to open this story. At least there’s something there.

  9. Thanks for sharing your work with everyone here at TKZ. Here are some comments that I hope you’ll find helpful:

    OPENING IMAGE: Your opening image seems to be a character who can somehow see himself (or herself), but we aren’t told how. Is he/she looking into a mirror? A babbling brook? A piece of aluminum foil? The readers do not know because you have not described the setting.

    A character looking into a mirror (or into anything where he can see his reflection) and describing himself is a clichéd opening. You should avoid this. Have you thought about what the final image in your book is going to be and how it relates to the opening image? How does this opening image relate to your story’s structure/final image?

    FIRST LINE: “My face, well rested and laminated in a childlike innocence, looked the same as before.”

    The word “laminated” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/laminated) is the wrong word here, imho. Still, since your first line is a part of a clichéd opening, get rid of it. You don’t want your protagonist describing himself/herself anywhere in the book. Let his actions define him. Let other characters describe him. Start the story with the character doing something (searching the room). He should have a goal. Is he trying to find something? What will add tension? Is he afraid someone will walk in?

    SETTING: It’s very important to ground the reader in the setting immediately. The reader is eventually told that the protagonist is in the “Livia and Alvin’ part of the apartment.” Who in the heck are Livia and Alvin? I don’t think you want the readers to have to guess about this.

    VOICE: If you write in first person, you need to master voice. One minute the storyteller sounds like an educated person, using words like “the innocence of the spontaneous.” The next minute he/she sounds like he is speaking in some kind of dialect (wasn’, didn’, etc.) and is maybe less educated. It leaves the reader very confused.

    “Alvin would say that the act had been neither right nor wrong.” Again, this line is confusing since you still haven’t introduced Alvin.

    PROTAGONIST: I’m sorry to say that your opening didn’t make me care about your protagonist enough to want to go on a journey the length of a book with him/her. The most important job a writer has in the opening of a book is to bond the reader with the protagonist. It’s harder to do when that protagonist is a killer, for sure. You have to show the reader that the evil protagonist has a different sort of moral compass and that he is somehow justified in his mind for his evil actions. Maybe show the reader that he has some redeeming quality first. Have you ever heard of the “save the cat” moment? If you’re going to tell the story from the point of view of the bad guy, you have to make the reader care about him/her.

    GOAL/MOTIVATION: Your protagonist needs a goal, not just in the first scene but in the story, as well. He/she seems to be conducting a search of the apartment of someone he knows in the first scene, but the reader isn’t told why. If you wait too long before grounding the reader in the setting and giving these important details, you will lose the reader. It’s good to pose an overall “story question”; it’s bad to leave readers confused.

    Possibly the best part of your opening was the thorough description of Livia’s room. What the reader doesn’t know is what the protagonist is looking for and why. Is he afraid that Livia will walk in and find him? What about Alvin? Or did he kill Livia and Alivin?

    OVERALL IMPRESSION: The protagonist obviously knows Livia and Alvin. Since Livia reads philosophy books, is she a killer who maybe used/manipulated the protagonist to help her commit other crimes? Then maybe the protagonist came back and killed Livia and Alvin? I hate to say it, but this whole thing left me scratching my head. Don’t be too tricky in your opening. If something isn’t on written on the page, the reader doesn’t know it. It’s not the reader’s job to try to piece together what’s going on in a confusing story world. If you want the readers to know something, put it on the page. You want to introduce story questions that invite the reader in without causing confusion.

    I strongly suggest that you read agent Kristin Nelson’s article about opening a story with one of the deadly R’s here: http://nelsonagency.com/2016/06/new-article-series-9-story-openings-to-avoid/

    Best of luck with your writing journey! I’d love to see the next draft.

  10. ” If something isn’t on written on the page” should read ” If something isn’t written on the page” — sorry!

  11. I agree with the other comments so won’t repeat them.

    Although I see echoes of an authorial voice, I think the writer is trying too hard to be literary, and/or to make one or more philosophical points (even though I love the points made thus far… but they should come out of what happens in the story). Even the title suggests that the writer may have a tendency to preach, rather than to tell a STORY about intriguing characters, what and why they do what they do during the story.

    The writer seems to be creating an atmosphere or tone to the story that is a bit distancing, and that’s okay, although personally I prefer a deeper POV. By incorporating the suggestions made thus far, and by relaxing into the story without worrying quite as much about making the prose beautiful (that can come later during revisions), the writer can accomplish all of his or her reasons for writing this story.

    However, the writer’s talent is a given.

    • Jordan gave a great initial critique, but sometimes I think it helps to hear the same things from different people. Then the author can proceed to make changes with more confidence, knowing that he/she is moving in the right direction. There are times when someone might say something in a slightly different way, and it will suddenly click. It would be great if we could all see and comment on the next revision.

      • I agree. Sometimes a key phrase or a word can resonate when the author is receptive. Plus sometimes writing a critique comment can help the feedback author as they find words to explain their view. Thanks, GR.

        • What’s nice here is the team spirit. All of the TKZers want to help get this story off to the best beginning possible. I personally enjoy doing revisions most of all. I hope the author feels encouraged, because that’s where the fun (for me, at least) really begins!

          • Well said. The author has the sole option of picking & choosing what advice, if any, that they take. But it’s great to have feedback with options to explore ways to strenghten the piece. I see it as only upside.

            • Right. As an author, you can’t please everyone all the time, but you can trust your gut. Sometimes an author might already have concerns about some of the areas of criticism, and once he gets confirmation, he will decide to go ahead and fix those things. Other things, he may stew about for awhile. It’s all part of the process, and we all go through it.

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