Forgive the blatant Prince/Purple Rain reference. After I read the first lines of this anonymous submission, I had purple on my mind.
Below is an anonymous submission for critique, the first 400 words or so of a project. Read & enjoy. I’ll give my thoughts on the flip side. Feel free to provide your constructive criticism in your comments. Let’s help this author with our take.
A Pitying of Doves
SATURDAY – July 14th, 2012…8:29 am
The delicate bird bobbed around in circles, oblivious to the hungry yellow eyes hidden within the greenery −a common Laughing Dove− it was searching for its own subsistence near the marble steps of the towering Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Latin name: Spilopelia senegalensis. On the fast track out of this messed up existence, Bertie thought, holding her breath and turning her D3x toward the ill-fated bird. Cha-click. Cha-click. Cha-click. Three-seconds. Three human heartbeats. It happened that fast. Death. Looking up over the top of the camera, she kept the shutter going as the lean, elegant feline blinked once in thanks before skittering off, prize in mouth, drops of blood trailing. Metaphor? Or prophesy? The pain in her gut said both as she swiveled the camera on its tripod back to the subject at hand. “Okay!” she shouted. Her assistant swung his arms about and stepped out of the frame as a burst of doves hit the air for her ravenous lens.
“You will get the perfect image I think,” said the Indian man breathlessly, scooping up the camera bag and preparing to follow her to another spot.
“It has to be perfect, Amir,” she said, still clicking, but thinking only of the killing that she’d been involved in three days ago. Murder. For the first time, she suddenly felt ill. “Khalas! That’s enough. I can’t do anymore.” She quickly abandoned her equipment for the parking lot and stumbled behind her silver Range Rover. The acrid smell of rubber and petrol made her eyes water as she held onto the bumper, pressing her black and white keffiyeh scarf across her mouth, trying to maintain her composure. Murder. The word ricocheted inside her skull. It thundered like an avalanche and threatened to bury her, just like they had buried him. “Necare,” she whispered, murder’s more attractive Latin equivalent. She usually found it soothing, translating words into the old language, perhaps because it took her back to her college years, back to a time of relative innocence. “Homicidium,” she went on, fist clenched against sternum, near panic as the tears came along with the realization that her virtue was lost forever. “What the hell have I done?”
Overview – I enjoyed the imagery of Bertie taking objective photos of a dove killed by a stalking cat. She merely observes and documents. The author eases the reader into why Bertie might view death differently. I also liked the reference “ravenous lens.” Very fitting. The last line intrigues me – “What have I done?” It makes me wonder what Bertie had to do with murder. The name Bertie seems like someone elderly and a very non-lethal person. Below are my suggestions for the author to consider:
1.) White Space & Flow – My first thoughts are to improve the use of white spacing on the page so the eye of the reader doesn’t get lost in what looks like weighty paragraphs they might skim. There are important imagery, plot details and dialogue embedded in these longer paragraphs that could be enhanced by merely showcasing them. Often, the reader’s eye looks for dialogue or (heaven forbid) they skim looking for dialogue if they see long paragraph’s ahead.
I’m a believer in steering the attention of the reader to important lines or showcasing a single line to emphasize something foreshadowing or important. I like shorter chapter lengths and using foreshadowing/cliffhanger techniques at the end of each chapter to keep the reader turning the page. I’m also suggesting the author use Bertie’s name sooner so the reader immediately knows whose head we’re in.
Here’s an example with only minor changes to tighten 1st paragraph:
Bertie spotted a delicate bird bobbing in circles, oblivious to the hungry yellow eyes hidden within the greenery. A cat searched for its own subsistence near the marble steps of the towering Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. The common Laughing Dove was on the fast track out of this messed up existence.
Bertie held her breath and turned her D3x toward the ill-fated bird. Cha-click. Cha-click. Cha-click. Three-seconds. Three human heartbeats. Death happened that fast.
She looked over the top of the camera and kept the shutter going as the lean, elegant feline blinked once in thanks before skittering off, prize in mouth, drops of blood trailing. Metaphor? Or prophesy?
The pain in Bertie’s gut said both as she swiveled the camera on its tripod back to the subject at hand.
“Okay!” she shouted.
Her assistant swung his arms about and stepped out of the frame as a burst of doves hit the air for her ravenous lens.
2.) Stick with the Emotion/Show Don’t Tell – In the last long/weighty paragraph, I understand Bertie is haunted by something bad that happened. I wanted to see more of her emotion, but the clinical word translation drew me out of her head and I didn’t understand why. If this was meant to give insight into Bertie and the way she deals with things, the author must still show her emotional struggle to get the reader more invested. Perhaps her mind takes over (with the word game) while her body reacts to a dark memory, but if this is the case, it wasn’t as clear as it could have been. The author also “tells” rather than “shows” Bertie’s turmoil.
Here’s an example with only minor changes to tighten last paragraph:
“It has to be perfect, Amir,” she said.
Her fingers trembled as she took the shots and her stomach roiled from the memory of what happened three days ago. Hot bile rose in her belly until she thought she would throw up. She couldn’t lose it in front of Amir.
“Khalas! That’s enough. I can’t do anymore.”
Bertie abandoned her equipment and ran for the parking lot before anyone saw her break down. She stumbled behind her silver Range Rover, out of breath. Her eyes watered from the acrid smell of rubber and petrol–and something more. She held onto the rear bumper and pressed her black and white keffiyeh scarf across her mouth to stop from getting sick.
Murder. The word ricocheted inside her skull. It thundered like an avalanche and threatened to bury her, just like they had buried him.
With her eyes stinging with tears, she shut them tight to block out the images that haunted her. For days she hadn’t slept. Exhaustion had worn her down until her mind tortured her with a word game she hadn’t played since she was in college. The old language game used to soothe her. Not today.
“Necare,” she whispered, murder’s more attractive Latin equivalent. “Homicidium.”
Tears ran down her cheeks and wouldn’t stop. Bertie wrapped her trembling arms around her waist, breathing hard until her head spun. She’d crossed a line three days ago and lost the last of her innocence. How could she look anyone in the eye?
“What the hell have I done?”
Final Thoughts – All the elements are here in the submission, but by focusing on Bertie’s emotional state and showcasing certain lines, plot elements, and dialogue, this submission can become a smoother read without much effort.
Discussion: What do you think, TKZers? Please comment.
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Nice imagery in this scene! I The focus of the first paragraph seemed a bit confusing–was Bertie oblivious to the eyes in the bush, or the bird? The next sentence introduces a cat, then back to the bird, but this time it’s called a Laughing Dove. I had to slow down to figure out exactly what was happening. I would keep the focus intensely on the bird, and not reveal that the eyes belong to a cat until we/Bertie actually “see” the cat pounce for the kill.But this is a very good start!
I had to reread that intro too, since the subject in the sentences went from bird to cat, then back to bird. But there is good imagery here. I agree. Thanks, Kathryn.
Not a bad set up at all. Like you, Jordan, I like the metaphor of the photographer heroine catching a “murder” on film and thinking of her own connection to some other mysterious murder in her past. Nice! And I like that I get a feeling right away of where I am in the world, although I wouldn’t squander the critical opening line by putting it there.
But your point about white space is so critical. It is one of my pet peeves — that writers often aren’t aware enough of what the words look like on the page. It goes to the point about rhythm. Good writing has rhythm, where you use legato and staccato, long and short, quick and slow, to enhance whatever info you are trying to convey or whatever mood you are trying to build. Lots of good stuff here, but it is all buried in long paragraphs — the rhythmic “voice” is thus a monotone. Your rewrite is much cleaner, clearer and has flow. We understand exactly what is happening and don’t have to waste brain cells figuring out simple points of choreography.
I also like how you retained the Latin reference for murder (it says something about the protag’s background) without inserting an inappropriate backstory thought). If she is in “panic” mood as the writer says, and feeling sick about a remembered murder, she wouldn’t be taking a moment to recall a Latin class in college. You can slip that backstory in later somehow. Stay with the emotion of the moment.
But nice submission that makes me want to know more about the protag.
Great input, Kris. I especially like your rhythm comments. Reading aloud is a good way to catch this rhythm of long & short sentences, so the narrative flows smoothly. Good stuff. Thank you.
The imagery was very good, but it lost me in the first sentence. I would suggest that you start out with Bertie and the murder to grab the attention of the reader.
Thanks for weighing in, Jan. If our anonymous author sees enough of similar input, it’s always a good thing to reconsider how the intro is worded and try to keep an open mind.
I find it interesting that Bertie could have chosen to order Amir to flush the birds sooner and perhaps saved the ill-fated bird’s life if it had flown away before the cat got it. Bertie let the death happen. It makes me more intrigued about her and what she had to do with a death. She apparently wasn’t alone when it happened. She mentions the word “they.”
Good submission and excellent comments, Jordan. Funny to see “Necare,” which is not only Latin for “to murder” but the name of a 1990s band. This is an interesting protagonist and I’d like to read more of this book.
Thanks for the 90s trivia, Elaine. I like Bertie too.
Interesting submission. Overall, the writing sounds like you’re trying a little bit too hard. Trim it down, and aim for clarity.
Here are my notes:
1. Adverbs: only, suddenly, quickly, usually, forever
Five adverbs on the first page is a sign of overwriting.
2. Repeated phrase:
“back to” seems to be a favorite phrase – it appeared four times.
“…she swiveled the camera on its tripod back to…”
“…it took her back to her college years, back to a time of…”
“… back to a time of relative innocence”
Watch out for repetition.
3. Bloated sentences:
“near panic as the tears came along with the realization that her virtue was lost forever”
See how many words you can eliminate from the sentence without losing any meaning.
4. First line:
“The delicate bird bobbed around in circles, oblivious to the hungry yellow eyes hidden within the greenery −a common Laughing Dove− it was searching for its own subsistence near the marble steps of the towering Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.”
You’ve clearly defined the setting, but this sentence is awkward.
“searching for its own subsistence” – did you mean sustenance here?
I’d trim this sentence. We know that a Laughing Dove is a bird. So try to rephrase without using bird and Laughing Dove in the same sentence.
One way to make long paragraphs sound more rhythmical is to begin and end with shorter sentences with the longer sentences in the middle. Try the approach with your first paragraph
Do you need to use the word “towering” to describe Grand Mosque? The word Grand implies this, imho.
“bobbed around in circles” – If the bird is going in circles, I don’t think the word “around” is needed.
White Space: I agree with Jordan about this. Make the writing easy on the eyes.
“ill-fated bird” – Just say bird.
“ravenous lens” – Just say lens.
“lean, elegant feline” – Just say elegant.
Latin name: Spilopelia senegalensis. – Get rid of this.
“subject at hand” – Just say subject.
“Murder. The word ricocheted inside her skull.” – Ricocheted isn’t the right word here, imho.
“It thundered like an avalanche and threatened to bury her, just like they had buried him.” – What thundered like an avalanche? (See: http://theeditorsblog.net/2011/04/02/the-ubiquitous-wandering-it/)
“along with the realization that ” – when she realized
Use of the word “said” should be consistent. Example:
“You will get the perfect image I think,” said the Indian man.
“It has to be perfect, Amir,” she said…
In order to keep things consistent, I’d rewrite the first one:
“You will get the perfect image I think,” the Indian man said.
Good luck, brave writer. Carry on!
Very detailed, GR. Thank you.
Sometimes I can’t help myself.. lol.
Always feel free, GR. You’re generous with your time & anyone would appreciate your attention to detail. Thank you for being an active member at TKZ.
Thanks, Jordan. I think you have a great site, and I enjoy reading your thoughtful critiques. (Your illustration was great, too.)
“back to” was only used three times, not four… sorry… I type too fast, but you get the idea!
I was confused when I read this but Jordan your use of white space and the small changes made all the difference, starting with the words “Bertie” and “the cat” in the first sentences.
Thanks, Nancy. This story has good bones.
Jordan, your comments about spacing and your re-writes are a wonderful demonstration of how relatively simple changes can transform a scene, without changing the meaning, or even a lot of the words. I will take this lesson on board when editing my WIP. Thankyou!
Thanks, Linda. I try not to change too much with this story having solid bones, an intriguing character, & good imagery. Spacing is a simple fix & can add good flow & clarity.
Great bones indeed!
– an intriguing character
– a rich, dynamic setting felt through your character’s senses
– a disturbance involving high stakes
I’m engaged and want to read more.
Jordan’s suggestions make it even better but I think this “first page” is really good and could be the start of a great read. Congratulations!
Great feedback & encouragement, Tom. Love it.
This story caught my attention. I liked the bird death by cat. The critique improved the story and I felt this tale had potential. I wish the author a good revision and good luck with the story.
Frances, I read (and love) MaryJanesFarm Magazine. Congrats on your article!
I agree that the story has potential. There are some stories that no amount of editing/polishing can fix; however, this story has an intriguing start.
I agree with Jordan about the white space. When I read the first page of any novel, I am acutely aware of my anxiety level when the paragraphs are lengthy. I can’t enjoy the flow of the story because I’m thinking about the length of the paragraphs. I know that sounds lame, but it’s true.
I’ll even open a book to the middle and flip through some pages and if I see a lot of long paragraphs, I’ll put the book down.
This first page had me hooked immediately because of the movement of the bird. Death is another thing that intrigues me. When a writer can introduce death in a natural way, then I can relate to the style of writing. So this was a rather easy read for me and I would read on, even though I don’t know yet where this story is going.