Balancing Action with Voice – First Page Critique of Urban Patriot

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Purchased image – Croco Designs for Jordan Dane website

Hello, my fellow TKZ warriors. I’m busy cranking on the daily word count of my next release, but I have, for your consideration, an anonymous submission from a daring author and member of TKZ. The first 400 word intro to: Urban Patriot. Enjoy and join me on the flip side for my feedback and please provide your own thoughts in your comments.

Urban Patriot

Choosing a side is dangerous, especially when it comes to politics and you’re African American from a Jewish background, that is, everybody wants to either recruit you or kill you for something. When I was getting high – on life – shit was easier, the only people interested in you were those like you unless they had their own plans which everybody in tinsel town had. One minute you’re relaxing with a naked woman’s bare legs laying on your lap and the next someone throws a stack of $100 bills in at you and says there’s more where that came from, you’re gonna love it.

Instead of letting me deal with my fate on the streets of Chicago, at 15, mom got spooked and sent me off to California to join the father I’d never met and who turned out to be a bigger jerk than the Chicago idiots I was sent away from. Which wasn’t half bad until the thrill of finally meeting him caused me to want to live with him. Grandfather and Mimi took me in where we had a small swimming pool, my own bedroom, and took me on vacations with them. Hell, I even had an allowance. Quite a step-up from sharing a 3-bedroom apartment with five siblings, a single mom, and abusive step-father.

Dr. Anita Daniels, my uncles and aunts American Socialist Party affiliation’s caught my attention like a shiny new car and what they stood for was everything I’d felt being a Black Jew living in America. Working Socialist political campaigns and African American activist activities taught me a lot, to stand-up for myself and expected the worse from people. Encounters with White Supremacists, the police, and Politicians broaden my horizons to the point of rage and cunning calm.

In a sense, I guess my past prepared me for a life of risks, questionable alliances and an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Especially when my wife was shot and left for dead at the airport terminal as we arrived stateside from a five-year extended stay in the Middle East, I wanted nothing more than to personally smoke that bastard of New President and burn his administration to ground. But that opportunity would come much later if only I’m I am strong enough to do it.

“Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded as I leaned over the counter asking the clerk “where is she, is she alive” “I am sorry sir, I don’t have that information” the clerk replied.

“We must leave now Mr. Anderson; your accommodations are waiting” The agent snapped. “This is bullshit” I snapped back, “I’m going anywhere until you I get some information about my wife.” “We’ll explain everything to you later, but you’ll never know unless we get going.”

The agent was already holding the glass door open as I turned toward him, stepping into the hall he whispered: “We’re all just a bunch of bureaucrats following orders – you know that.”

FEEDBACK

Overview – The strong edgy voice drew me into this introduction. It read like a diary and appeared to be set in an alternate reality or a future America. It intrigued me. But the submission starts with lots of backstory and ends with the action of what’s happening in this opening scene. Once I learned that a man’s wife had been shot and left for dead, I wanted to stick with the action. The question of why a federal agent is ushering him away and not telling him anything about his wife intrigued me far more than the backstory that could’ve come later to fill in the gaps as the story progressed.

Housekeeping – By now, you guys know how I feel about embedding dialogue within a paragraph, but this submission goes a step further and not in a good way. Dialogue is embedded and often lines from 2-3 different people.

Example of 3 different people talking in one short paragraph – “Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded as I leaned over the counter asking the clerk “where is she, is she alive” “I am sorry sir, I don’t have that information” the clerk replied.

There’s also very poor punctuation which drives me crazy. Missing commas at end of dialogue lines (ie “Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded), the use of double quotes where a single quote should be (ie “I don’t give a fuck” attitude), and missing punctuation like in the example above where there should be question marks (ie “where is she, is she alive” or the lack of a capital letter to start those questions.

Editors and agents would be turned off at seeing so many errors in the first 400 words. Don’t give them a reason to say NO.

Stick with the Action – The meatiest part of this intro was embedded inside a paragraph and almost treated too dismissively. The words ‘when my wife was shot’ should have been the focus.

In a sense, I guess my past prepared me for a life of risks, questionable alliances and an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Especially when my wife was shot and left for dead at the airport terminal as we arrived stateside from a five-year extended stay in the Middle East

This submission seemed flipped backwards to me, in that the action was toward the end after all the backstory. I would suggest focusing on the shock he must be feeling at seeing his wife hurt or dead, then don’t let him find answers as he’s dragged away by the agent. Below is my suggestion for a rewrite. I tried to stick with what the author had written, but just re-ordered it and added more of his shock at the start.

I had her blood on my face and my hands. I couldn’t get the image of my wife out of my head. They must’ve left her for dead at the airport terminal. That’s the only thing I could figure. One minute, we were on the tail end of a five-year extended stay in the Middle East, the next we were stateside. This should’ve been home. How could this happen…here? I wanted nothing more than to smoke that bastard of a new President and burn his administration to the ground.

“Follow me,” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded.

I had to know what happened. I leaned over the nearest counter and found a reservations clerk with enough sympathy to care.

“Where is she? Is my wife alive?”

The federal agent yanked my arm and forced me to keep in step as he hauled me through the gathering crowd.

“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t have that information,” the airline clerk called after me.

 “We must leave now, Mr. Anderson. Your accommodations are waiting.” The agent picked up his pace and dragged me with him.

“This is bullshit. I’m not going anywhere until I know what happened to my wife.”

“We’ll explain everything to you later, but we have to go. Now.”

The agent held a glass door open and pushed me through it. When I stood my ground and faced him, he whispered, “We’re all just a bunch of bureaucrats following orders. You know that.”

I clenched my fists and fought a blinding rage.

The way this story started, with the intimacy of a diary, makes me wonder if this intro could stand with the action of violence, but drift back to where it all began, like the way movies begin with something horrific and back into what led up to it. If that’s not this author’s intention, I would suggest peppering in the backstory later when appropriate. I really do like the edgy voice and the ‘tude.

Names Matter – A federal agent by the name of Kelly made me think this was a woman. It wasn’t until near the end that the author lets us know the agent is a man. This is a bit nit picky, but it jarred for me to realize I had a wrong image in my head. Also, if the name Kelly will be through the whole book, that is a lot of time for the reader to forget this is a man. I also fought with another famous name – Kelly Clarkson, the singer. Her name is too similar to Kelly Carlson, the agent in this intro. I would reconsider the name.

Read your work aloud – Even with the edgy voice, there is a flow and cadence issue and typos where it reads as if the author made changes but didn’t catch all the words. If you get in the habit of reading your work aloud, you will find areas where you stumble over the words. Those are lines you should consider revising to make them flow better. Here are two examples where reading aloud would’ve helped to catch the typos:

But that opportunity would come much later if only I’m I am strong enough to do it.

“I’m going anywhere until you I get some information about my wife.”

Use of tags in dialogue – I noticed these following a dialogue line – demanded, snapped, snapped back. A whole book of words to replace a simple ‘said’ can be distracting, but in Elaine’s recent post on “The Burning Question: He said, She said,” she makes a good case to minimize even neutral tags like the word ‘said.’

Setting – I wanted to know more about where this scene takes place. I can only assume it’s at an airport terminal but the writing is too sparse to get a good sense of where this happens, especially when it starts with a backstory that mentions Hollywood’s Tinsel town and Chicago. Setting can place the reader there and trigger images in their minds. It’s important to ground the reader into imagery that enhances the emotion or action of the scene. For example, if the federal agent has to whisk this guy away and dodge travelers hauling luggage or airport security rushing toward the place where the attack on his wife took place. This kind of setting or world description could add pace and emotion to what’s happening.

On Tuesday, P J Parrish had an excellent post on Your Story as Sculpture: What to Leave In, What to Leave Out. It detailed some solid information on sparse writing (similar to this submission) and how an author should think twice about what to delete and what to keep. Check it out.

DISCUSSION:

What was your reaction to this introduction, TKZers? Did it grab you? Would you turn the page?

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2+

21 thoughts on “Balancing Action with Voice – First Page Critique of Urban Patriot

  1. I, too, liked the voice here, but all the grammar and punctuation mistakes threw me out of the story, plus the run-on sentences often confused me. (I didn’t mind the sentences beginning with ‘which’ because they felt intentional, but I’d still go easy on those.)

    The paragraph Jordan recommends as the opening is definitely where I’d like to see this story start… IF the story is about the impact of border controls on a family or individual and what happens as a result of that action. If the story is about something else, then a new start is definitely required.

    Very topical.

  2. I agree with Jordan about the necessity of action instead of backstory up front. Also, the unintentional grammatical mistakes in nearly every sentence took me out of the story.

    • I read a book where the poor grammar and typos were intentional to show the deterioration of the protag’s mind. But it was hard to get through.

      I don’t get the impression that the errors here are intentional.

      Thanks for your comments, Don.

  3. If I were a teacher I’d make a comment like “Promising, but needs work.” There’s voice, but we need the story upfront. A short paragraph of shock, and then the introduction of the action, with the backstory sprinkled in later, would be a much better approach. I do like the writer’s voice, and I think he has a different/unique character here, so with a good story this work has potential. I would find this a turn off on the first page: “you’re relaxing with a naked woman’s bare legs laying on your lap”. Action first, sex later. Even erotica doesn’t typically start with that type of action on the first page. The grammar and typos were a problem for me as well. Did no one else notice the missing “not” in this sentence: “I’m going anywhere until you I get some information about my wife.”? Or did you fill it in automatically? I also thought Kelly Carlson was a woman. IMO this – depending on how important the KC character is – might provide a more interesting dynamic than the standard M/M – especially black man/white man – authority relationship we usually see.

    I do like the voice, and I do think there is potential here. But, IMHO, it needs a serious overhaul.

    • I noticed the missing NOT and put it in my examples above, under reading aloud section. The action sets up a more effective story by showing, rather than telling (which is the backstory). If you get the action right, it will speak volumes. Thanks, CF.

  4. Thanks, Anonymous, for giving us an intriguing opener. The protagonist’s voice is interesting and edgy. I want to read more about him, but, as Jordan says, not all in one big lump.

    Also I found the set up very disorienting. The first paragraph caught my interest, but you jerk back in time to age 15, living with a father in CA, but then you refer to “Grandfather and Mimi.” Where did Dad go? Love the line how socialist politics “attracted my attention like a shiny new car.” But the rest of the summary–“Encounters with White Supremacists, the police, and Politicians broaden my horizons to the point of rage and cunning calm”–was too much superficial info that didn’t really explain how he got to his “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. BTW, why capitalize “Politicians”?

    While his back story is fascinating, presenting in such a truncated way on the first page left me totally confused.

    Jordan mentions the dialogue without proper punctuation and paragraphing. When I first read the line , I thought “Follow me” was her nickname (like Jordan, I also assumed female).

    The shooting of his wife is almost treated like an afterthought. We don’t see where her body is, if she’s been carried off and, if so, by whom. I like Jordan’s suggested rewrite, which clears up setting, choreography, and dialogue. While the character’s rage at the New President and his administration is an interesting twist, it comes out of left field and seems misplaced. Why be angry with them first and not the shooter? Maybe something like:

    Another intriguing line that hints at the story problem is:

    Lot of good material that just needs to be shaped and prioritized. Keep at it, brave author.

    • Whoops, seems a cut and paste quote didn’t get pasted.

      The intriguing line was: he whispered, “We’re all just a bunch of bureaucrats following orders. You know that.”

      • Double oops. Just caught another segment that didn’t paste. Meant to suggest an example:

        I wanted to kill the shooter, but even more, I wanted to smoke the new president and burn his administration to the ground for what had happened to my wife.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Debbie. This is a meaty intro with tons of potential. I think it’s the consensus here at TKZ that the voice is unique and strong, but the action can act as the framework, with the voice being the finesse. This author has talent, for sure.

  5. I didn’t like the choice of starting out with the second person point of view for the first paragraph, then the rest of the page in first person. The typos and missing words were distracting. I did like the edgy voice. Too much backstory like the others mentioned. I like Jordan’s rewrite. It is a good beginning but needs some work. I was intrigued. It sounds like our current administration. Keep going. I would like to read the edited version.

  6. Jordan gave lots of great comments. Heed her advice, dear writer. Soak up every word.

    There are lots of free writing classes available online that might be helpful:
    https://www.class-central.com/subject/grammar-writing

    There are rules for grammar and punctuation, and the quickest way to learn them is to take some classes. Learn how to punctuate dialogue correctly. Chuck Wendig has a nice article on this and some other interesting tidbits. Note: the article contains some coarse language.

    http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2015/08/26/i-smell-your-rookie-moves-new-writers/comment-page-1/

    I could make additional comments, but the first step is to address the basics. It might seem like a chore to learn the rules, but unfortunately, there are no shortcuts.

    Best of luck. Keep learning and writing. Relax and enjoy the process.

    • Thanks for the great links, GR. I had to relearn punctuation when I first started writing. It had been a long time since I’d taken a class on the subject. But I found a very knowledgeable nitpicky line editor-style beta reader & we read each other’s work. From her red lining, I made it a goal to minimize her corrections as I learned punctuation & caught my own typos. When she handed me back my unblemished submission, no red marks, I knew I’d learned what she had to teach me. Revisiting punctuation is not a daunting task & it’s part of the process. But every author should be open to learning the craft of writing & seek to improve on characterizations, plotting, dialogue, etc. That’s the journey, as I see it.

  7. I have a different feel for this piece than others. I don’t like the voice at all. It feels like an unreliable narrator, which is not a problem in itself. The problem I have is that the cliches, the narrative, and the backstory don’t register to me as genuine. I’m not seeing an African American with a Jewish background being sent off to live with a father of better means and describing it as a step up. How is a small pool, a bedroom to yourself, and an allowance a step up from naked women by your side and $100 bills being thrown at you….uh, at the age of 15. For real? I expect some resentment and boredom honestly.

    If this isn’t the linear flow of the storyline, then it needs to be fixed. The way I follow it is that life on the streets of Chicago at the age of 15 was pretty darn good, but then he gets sent off to live with his father because mom wanted a better life for him. At 15, I would be pretty bitter, refusing to adapt.

    I’m not finding a genuine protagonist that I like in this first page.

    • As much as I liked the elements of an edgy voice in this intro, the meandering prose of internal monologue rambled too much for my taste. You hit on a good point, Diane. Even if the protag is an anti-hero, if this is the main storyteller, the reader should see a glimmer of something that resonates or is likeable or is identifiable. Drawing the reader into the story by the hopelessness of his situation surrounding his slain wife might win readers over but the author must have a vision for what will make the reader keep turning pages. The protag can be borderline unlikeable as long as he has a compelling enough story or redeemable traits to keep the reader rooting for him. It’s an art to create a character like this.

      I have hope this author may find his or her way but this submission needs focus & revision. Your honest feedback on your take should be heeded in the development of this protag. Inconsistencies in personality will only frustrate the reader.

    • Agree with Diana 100% on this.

      I also think it’s worth pointing out that there are probably 100,000 drafts being written to express displeasure with the current administration and its real (and imagined) policies. That’s all well and good, I suppose, although I doubt so many of the comments would have been so generous if this had been four years ago and the protagonist wanted to kill the President, say, because he lost a loved one in Benghazi.

      But I digress.

      I’m guessing very few of the thinkly veiled anti-Trump screeds that do eventually get published will involve a protagonist that wants to kill the President from the beginning. That is too far beyond “borderline unlikeable” as to be a dealbreaker for most readers.

      I’m also guessing that even fewer of the ones that do end up working well and getting published will feature a radical left-wing hero, both for the reason above and also for the fact that it doesn’t work as well as a character journey or message.

      It strikes me that the most successful approaches to taking on the current admin by novel will feature an average Joe protag, maybe a Reagan Democrat, or even someone who is apolitical, who is forced by the events of the story to come to the difficult conclusion that “something must be done” about the specific policy or person behind the policy illustrated in the novel’s events. That would be true character growth, if not, necessarily, intellectual growth. Preaching to the choir isn’t going to cut it.

      The market is going to be flooded with much better attempts than this. If the writer wants to be a part of that, the work has to have a much more compelling setup than this.

  8. I had difficulty following this story right from the beginning. I found it confusing. I agree with the grammar, punctuation and dialogue errors. However, these would have caused that awful “rejection” syndrome we all face from time to time. That said, the story had potential but, as is, I wouldn’t have continued reading it.

  9. Although I daily suffered with the very debilitating pain of two degenerative arthritic knees, I had to put my feelings and the pain aside because my aunt needed me to speak for her.

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