First Page Critique: “Blues In The Night”

This submission landed in a Kill Zone Inbox sometime last fall, and after a who’s-on-first? journey from then ‘til now, residing next to Trump’s tax return in a top secret eyes-only clandestine subterranean vault (my name is complicit, I’m told)… it finally shows up here, for our most well-intended group critique.

A consolidated apology goes out to today’s brave and persistent author.

Because this is short, I’ll show it undisturbed at first pass (nothing disrupts a read than a line of red typeface from someone suggesting it could/should be different), followed by— for the author, and those readers so inclined—my most empathetic input.

As usual, feel free to chime in. That’s the point, after all, shooting for consensus and clarity.

I will say, though, that while I’m delighted to be here participating, I’m not all that sold on first page critiques. It’s a bit like doing a home inspection with a high speed drive-by (“looks like that roof could use some patching up…”). And if the math of these things holds up, the dozen or so editorial suggesti0ns that almost always seem to manifest in these submissions (POV being the most frequent imposter), that translates to roughly 4800 total manuscript notes (12 per page in a 400 page manuscript)… which would send most of us sprinting to the local bar instead of back to the drawing board.

The math is explained by this particular human observation: when you ask a bunch of people sitting in front of the room for input, using the word “critique” to frame a process that is anything but precise—because this is not math—rest assured, they’ll find something.

If you think this is brutal, sit in on one of these things at a writing conference, especially if agents are doing the evaluations… it’s like a public hanging: dark, yet morbidly compelling… unless it’s us wearing the rope.

Remember what William Goldman once said: “Nobody knows anything.”

In this and all KZ critiques, know this: we’re just trying to help… and, we’ve all been there, swinging from that tree.

——————————————

Blues in the Night

Everett

Miami Beach, Florida

Tuesday, October 16, 1951

12:10 AM

Sarah rolled naked out of bed and sashayed into the kitchen to pour a couple of drinks. Her cute ass, uncommonly tight for her age, swayed from side to side as she left the bedroom, putting a smile on Everett’s face.

Not bad for an old gal.

When he heard her puttering around with the drinks, he slipped out of bed and across the room, and grabbed her custom-made replica of the Maltese Falcon from the occasional table. Stoneware bird in hand, he moved to a spot behind the door.

She never saw it coming. As she walked in with their drinks, he swung the falcon, which had to weigh five pounds, smacking her in the temple. The glasses flew from her hands as she sank to the floor, blood flying from the wide gash on her head.

In an instant he was on her, straddling her, hands wrapped around her neck tight, tighter, tighter. Her eyes, which only minutes ago gazed at him with unbridled lust, now bulged outward, as if in astonishment. Her well-tended complexion took on a ghastly blue tint.

Tight, tighter … until the faint rhythmic throbbing beneath his thumbs fell still. The only sound now was soft band music wafting out of the console radio, tuned to the late-night Sleepy Time Gal program.

Her hair hid the split in her skull but not the last of the blood. Everett watched it seek its own level, changing from red to reddish-brown as it spread across the rug. He touched it with the tip of his index finger and examined it, tilting his head to one side, then the other, to maybe discover some new feature of the droplet visible only from an odd angle.

The urge to lick the little red bead off his finger was great, and he thought about taking some of Sarah home with him, having her protein — her very essence — flowing through his own veins.

He recalled Violet. He hadn’t done that with her. But now? Yes! He swiped it off with his tongue and let it glide down his throat, then stood up and went into the bathroom to wash the blood from his arms and torso.

He got dressed, then rifled her purse for money and grabbed what jewelry he could find, including what looked like a nice diamond bracelet and a pair of emerald earrings.

He pulled a few drawers out of her dresser, looking for that stash. Everyone like her — rich, that is — had a big stash somewhere close by. He only had to find it.

——————————————

Here are my notes. In general I like the writing, but like everything just out of the printer, it could use some re-thinking to make it even stronger. It could be more visceral, more nuanced, and thus, the scene rendered more disturbingly.

One of the things that hit me is that this is more than a little terrifying. Which I suppose is a good thing in its genre. But keep in mind, a first page has a specific and unique mission: to thrust the reader forward, compelling them to keep going.

With that filter, read this again and ask how much invitation and motivation you’ve given your reader. While you tell us this isn’t his first time, there isn’t even a hint of motivation (beyond psychopathy) or a general sense of why we’d want more.

That becomes the context for my input today. Look for ways to get into the heads of these players, minding the fence of POV, using inner dialogue and context to intensify both vicarious roles.

Sarah rolled naked out of bed and sashayed into the kitchen to pour a couple of drinks. Her cute ass, uncommonly tight for her age, swayed from side to side as she left the bedroom, putting a smile on Everett’s face.

Not bad for an old gal.

Okay, this is seriously twisted.  But you don’t bridge it from what seems innocent to what ends up being incomprehensible… and you could. Perhaps add a comment that, a few sentences from now, will link his appreciation of her “”sashay” – am thinking you could find a better verb here; who gets out of a bed and sashayes anywhere? – to what will be her dark fate? He enjoys having put her at ease, it makes the take-down all the sweeter.

Play up the sickness playing in his head.

When he heard her puttering around with the drinks, he slipped out of bed and across the room, and grabbed her custom-made replica of the Maltese Falcon from the occasional table. Stoneware bird in hand, he moved to a spot behind the door.

You have three actionable movements here, in one sentence: hearing the drinks, slipping out of bed, and grabbing the fake Falcon. That’s too many. Chunk it up. While the writing is good, this is the most amateurish of all your sentences on this page.

And “stoneware in hand” is just… rewritable. Do so.

She never saw it coming. (Skip that… this is obvious.) As she walked in with their drinks, he swung the falcon, which had to weigh five pounds, smacking her in the temple. The glasses flew from her hands as she sank to the floor, blood flying from the wide gash on her head.

Could be tighter: He swung the falcon the moment she appeared in the doorway, anticipating,his feet leaving the floor from the force of his effort. Ceramic colliding into flesh, framed in an arcing spray of red. Bone shattering, creasing the skin before it tore apart. It played before his eyes as if in slow motion, a moment he would revisit again and again, turning up the sound to capture the wet thud of it, going in for a closeup on her eyes, scanning for the moment she knew she was dead, wondering if she could connect him to it before the darkness fell.

Present tense would put us more in his head.

He was on her as she fell, straddling her already limp body. Hands wrapping around her neck… tight, tighter, tighter. Her eyes, only minutes from gazing at him with unbridled lust, now bulging outward, a confusion of astonishment and realization. Her face took on a ghastly blue tint.  (Would that happen that quickly, moments after impact?  I don’t think it would.  And… not the time or place to comment on her well-tended complexion.)

His hands froze on her throat, his forearms screaming at him until the faint rhythmic throbbing beneath his thumbs fell still. The only sound now was soft (we don’t care if it’s a band or an accordion) music wafting (wafting? Really?) out of the console radio, tuned to the late-night Sleepy Time Gal program.  (Why do we need to know the name of the program?  Don’t think we do. You’re trying too hard here… stay in the moment, author, go deeper into it, don’t dress it up with peripheral uselessness.)

Overwriting. The bane of the new author. Start to notice, and start to avoid it.

(cut this: Her hair hid the split in her skull but not the last of the blood.) Everett watched the blood emerge from beneath her hair, seeking its own level, changing from red to reddish-brown as it spread across the rug (nope, it wouldn’t change color before his eyes, moments after impact). He touched it with the tip of his index finger and examined it, tilting his head to one side, then the other (you already said “side to side,” so what do you mean by “then the other” – which translates to “side to side to side”… need to clean this up), to (not maybe) discover some new feature of the droplet visible only from an odd angle. (this sentence is a stretch, I think… nobody looks for, or cares about, a “new feature” of a drop of blood; you’re contriving here.)

The urge to lick the (don’t need the adjective “little” here; we’re pretty sure it’s not a “huge” bead of blood) red bead from his finger was tugging. (new sentence, avoid the run-ons) He thought about taking some of her (we don’t know her name, this isn’t the time to tell us, either) home with him, having her protein — her very essence — flowing through his own veins.  (I like this… it’s twisted as hell…)

He recalled the last girl. Violet, he recalled. He hadn’t done that with her. But now? Yes! He swiped it off with his tongue and let it glide down his throat, motionless, submitting to the sensation. He then stood and went into the bathroom to wash the blood from his arms and torso, tasting it again before it was all gone.

He dressed (did he “get dressed, or perhaps a more active verb – dressed – works better here), then rifled her purse for money. Coming up with nothing, he rifled her dresser for jewelry, grabbing what he could find, including what looked like a nice diamond bracelet and a pair of emerald earrings.

He pulled out the remaining drawers, looking for that stash. There was always a stash. Everyone like her — rich, that is — had a wad of cash somewhere close by. He only had to find it.

But even if he didn’t, he would go away satisfied.

(This closing line punches up the darkness of it all.)

____________________

Of course, these are editorial prompts only.  They suggest a deeper dive into the moment, into the perp’s head, which is the scariest place of all you can take your reader. We get a sense he’s not done, which is why we’ll stay with him in this story.  Because we want him to go down.That context – not so much to experience him, but to build a sense of dread, so that we will root for his ultimate failure and demise – is the nuance that will add to this project.

I wish you great success going forward!

Kill Zoners, what say you?

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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with two bestselling books out on the subject, and his third book – Story Fix: Transform Your Novel From Broken to Brilliant – (with a Foreword by Michael Hague, and generously blurbed by several of the authors here on Kill Zone) releases in October from Writers Digest Books.

11 thoughts on “First Page Critique: “Blues In The Night”

  1. As you said, Larry, there’s some good stuff here. And I think your general observation to be more visceral and deeper in the narrator’s sensibilities is spot on. I think the writer is almost there in that regard, especially with lines like this:

    Tight, tighter … until the faint rhythmic throbbing beneath his thumbs fell still.

    What is good about this is the writer did not feel the need to write: He FELT the faint rhythmic throbbing fall still. No, we are deep in his feelings with “Tight, tighter…etc.” If there were more of this, the scene might be even more terrifying.

    But I’d caution the writer, as you did, against overwriting. Maybe this just goes to taste but a cleaner phrasing would be: “…until the rhythmic throbbing beneath his thumbs stopped.” That puts the emphasis square on the awful image of his thumbs around her neck.

    Like you said, look for places to “clean up” the narrative but also look for places to add more visceral details.

  2. While I agree with the comments made about the writing, I have concerns about the big picture here. This feels like the bog-standard serial killer opening. Psychopaths in crime fiction have been as overdone as vampires in fantasy. I’ve seen a million psychopaths; very few rose to the level of a Hannibal Lector. If I’m going to spend time with a book, I need characters I can engage with and/or a unique premise that excites me. Maybe if I’d read the blurb for this book, I’d have a glimpse of a story that I’d stick with, but I don’t see the promise of that in this opening. To be clear, I’m not questioning the ability of the author. I’m asking if this story is worth writing because it brings something fresh to the serial killer perspective. If the answer is yes, then is this the place to start?

    Kathy

  3. Kathy – totally agree, I think yours is perhaps a more on-the-nose reader response than my comments, in which I was trying to get to the same thing: the story needs more promise. Thanks for helping this author today!

  4. A jarring intrusion of omniscient PoV has the submission going astray from the get go.

    “Her cute ass, uncommonly tight for her age, swayed from side to side as she left the bedroom, putting a smile on Everett’s face.”

    Everett’s wouldn’t be able to see his own smile. Neither would Sarah. Yet “cute ass” does imply he’s the PoV character.

    What gives?

  5. I’m not sure why Sarah has a Maltese Falcon replica in her bedroom, but I like it. That’s something I’d hope to learn on later pages.

    Thank you, Anon.

  6. I like the writing itself, but like you, I yearned for a more intimate POV. Brave Writer has several things going for him/her, including a few stand-out lines and good rhythm. I’d love to get a hint of why he’s killing this particular woman, especially since he’s just slept with her. The bluish complexion is a red flag. Obviously the writer didn’t do their homework (the bluing this quick only happens on TV crime dramas, which are inherently wrong). The blood changing color was also a bit much. Love the creepiness, though. Definitely piqued my interest.

  7. Two thumbs down for Larry because of the cheap political shot at the start of your post. I thought this site was ‘apolitical’?

    Also, as I reader I don’t care to read about serial killers anymore. Just too monotonous and depressing.

  8. I’m late to this one, my apologies. It had a nice Chandler meets Hannibal Lector feel to it that has some hard-boiled noir promise.

    The comments were spot on about over-doing it and the errors about the blood and blue tint. Also, “rhythmic throbbing” is somewhat redundant. Throbbing usually connotes a rhythm and since we know it is her pulse, the rhythm can be inferred. Also, I can never spell rhythmic without looking it up.

    Tighten up the POV to Everitt in the first passage. At first, I thought this was going to be in Sally’s POV as she went to make drinks.

    Please don’t go to present tense. I absolutely loathe present tense and have discarded more books after reading the sample than for any other reason. It feels cheap and gimmicky to me.

    Still, this has a nice Noir at the Bar feel to it and could either really go dark and ugly or turn into one of those sad sack noir crime thrillers that I love.

    Terri

  9. This is a deeply creepy scene, and it takes a certain level of skill to pull that off, so kudos to the writer for that! I agree with the previous comments, and would add that I think some kind of unanswered question or sense of anticipation needs to be planted into this scene, in order to propel the reader forward. Perhaps if we got a sense of how “normal” this guy appears to everyone in his day to day life, it would engage the reader’s interest a bit more. I saw a movie recently in which there was a deeply weird and disturbing encounter between a homeowner and a felon on the run, who has invaded the man’s home. As the story progresses, we learn that the homeowner,is in fact a schizophrenic sadist who turns the tables on the felon. Then it is revealed that the homeowner is actually a Police Chief, who is keeping his demented side hidden from the people around him. I couldn’t stop watching it, it was like watching a snake swallow an animal alive.

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