Today’s lesson comes via a first page submitted by an anonymous author. Here we go:
And The Curious Case Of Fatal Flatulence
Mr. Who had to face facts. Breaking the law was harder than it looked. Well, not so much the breaking part, he had no trouble doing that. But the getting arrested for it part, now that was proving to be a bugger.
This time, though, would be different, he thought. Robbing a bank, now that would definitely do the trick, right? Perfect for getting thrown into the hoosegow, the pokey, the big house. Hell, he’d settle for the little house if it meant getting his pinkies checked for their criminal history.
He’d have to do some time for it, of course, but convinced that his past was filled with who-knows-how-many bad deeds and broken laws, having done so much harm to so many innocent people, it would serve him right. Right?
Oh, yeah… Better start at the beginning so you got a chance to know what’s going on here.
The exact moment he lost all memory was one he’ll never forget.
Make that the moment right after his amnesia took hold.
It was strange enough not knowing who he was, or even simple facts about his life—talk about feeling like an idiot—but what happened after that… Well, that was stranger still.
The first thing he saw when he came to was… nothing. He was surrounded by complete and utter darkness.
Oh, no. His mind raced—but not in a homed in straight line, like a top fuel dragster. More like a bunch of lame bumper cars bouncing off each other in a ridiculous effort to come up with… something… anything… instead of the big fat zilch that did come forth.
His mind may have been empty, but his gut was talking to him loud and clear. And it was telling him the pitch-darkness was not his friend. Far from it. Feeling like it had him by the throat, he struggled to breathe. He couldn’t tell how many invisible hands it had, but it must have been at least three—enough to clutch his throat while also tying his stomach in knots.
It was so dark something terrible could be right in front of his face, like a crazed killer could be right there, and he’d never… Was that a growl?
Maybe a rabid pit bull was about to pounce. He cringed and braced for it.
In my last first-page critique, on the perils of author voice, I mentioned that the overt authorial voice is more fitting for a comic novel. Well, what can you say about a novel subtitled The Curious Case of Fatal Flatulence? It’s not going for an Anna Karenina vibe, now is it?
With that in mind, how does the voice work here? Okay, I’d say. The author chooses to set up the story with a jaunty intro which presents an intriguing mystery: why does this guy want his “pinkies checked” for criminal history?
That being said, I would counsel the author not to give any more away, leaving the readers with a mystery. That’s always a good way to get them to read further. Cut the last three lines of the intro, because you already have a wonderful last line hook: The exact moment he lost all memory was one he’d never forget.
Boom. (I changed he’ll to he’d for grammatical consistency.)
That opening would make me want to read the second part. Which, when you think about it, is the goal of any page of our fiction––get the reader to read the next page.
In this second section we move into Third Person POV. The comic author voice is not completely absent, but the more we get into the Lead’s head the better. Here are some notes:
1. Cut the line He was surrounded by complete and utter darkness.
It’s redundant. And it’s less immediate than the first line. Sol Stein has a little rule he calls 1 + 1 = 1/2. If you use two descriptive lines in a row for the same thing, it doesn’t add to the vividness, it dilutes it. Always go for one gem, not two nuggets.
2. Cut Oh no.
It doesn’t add anything to the rest of the paragraph.
3. Cut that did come forth.
It’s a little odd to think of “zilch” as “coming forth.” Zilch = nothingness, which by definition does not exist. Those four words don’t add anything, so cut them. In fact, this seems to be a point of style this author should be aware of from now on. Be zealous about cutting flab. Learn about RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain). Your writing will improve markedly.
4. Cut the first few words of the third paragraph.
So you don’t have two in a row that begin with His mind.
5. Logic problem: Does this guy still have voice and movement?
Instead of merely bracing himself for a pit bull attack, why isn’t he screaming? What position is he in? Why doesn’t he try to get up?
If speech and movement are not there, give us an indication before you end the page. If he does have speech an movement, use them!
6. Increase reader empathy with a hotter POV at the end.
Empathy is crucially important in an opening like this, where the character is alone and doing nothing else but thinking. We need to ramp up our identification with the character. (If you want to see how a master does it, read Stephen King’s short story “Autopsy Room Four” in his collection Everything’s Eventual.)
You can heat up the menace by going deeper into the Lead’s head and giving him more emotion. This is the part where you, the author, have a lot of freedom, but I’ve gone ahead and provided my own example for you. Emphasis on my own. Filter everything through your own vision and voice. The goal is to increase empathy, get that opening disturbance even more disturbing, and stretch the tension.
Here is my rewrite (in a comic novel, I allow for more exclamation points than usual!):
The first thing he saw when he came to was… nothing.
His mind raced—but not in a in straight line, like a top-fuel dragster. More like a bunch of lame bumper cars bouncing off each other in a ridiculous effort to come up with… something… anything… instead of a big fat zilch.
His gut was talking, though. Loud and clear. Darkness is not your friend! Get out!
He was on his back. A cold, hard slab under him. He tried to move but his arms and legs were dead weight. Uh-oh. Was this one of those caves serial killers love so much? Silence of the Lambs!
He opened his mouth to scream.
Nothing came out. The darkness had invisible hands clutching his throat and tying his stomach in knots.
Come on, think! You’ve got to move …
What was that? A growl?
Author, I salute you for attempting a comic novel. They’re very hard to do, and the market for them has always been limited. But every now and then, with the right touch and bravura voice, one breaks through, a la Catch-22, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Portnoy’s Complaint.
Maybe yours will, too.
Now it’s your turn, Zoners. What did you think of this first page?