First Page Critique: MERCY KILLER

“Cloud Sculpture” by Berndnaut Smilde, from Architizer. All rights of ownership reserved to respective creators.

Good Saturday to you, and please join me in welcoming today’s Anon to First Page Critique! Anon combines thriller elements with a touch of the supernatural in a work entitled Mercy Killer, which begins as follows:

 

Mercy Killer

I checked the picture on the screen of my cell phone one last time.  Errors were not acceptable in my profession.  The blue light of my phone spilled out into the darkened hospital room that smelled of antiseptic and decaying flesh.  I glanced up at the old man in the bed. An overhead lamp lit his face in a circle of warmth. He was the one. His chest quivered as he drew in a ragged breath. I wondered how many breaths he would take before the end.

His silver blue mist floated in the air above him. I shook my head.  That was not a good sign.  When the mist had become completely detached, I knew that the time had come.  Sometimes the mist still clung to them, but as the hour approached, it tugged and pulled, begging to be free.  I could always tell when the end was near.  The mist told me and this man’s mist was already free. He was ready to die.

I glanced at a photograph on the stand that showed a young man in a suit holding a new born baby with a pink face.  Beside it stood a vase with a blood-red rose. Propped against the vase sat a card that lay open. I stepped close to read the words scrawled in an impeccable hand.  “To my dearest love.”

Crayon pictures of what looked like animals and grass and trees had been taped to the wall.  A photograph of a sailing ship with its sails billowing out before the wind clung to the wall over his bed.  This man had lived in this room for a long time.

I checked the history on my screen.  He had been here for over a year and he was scheduled for death in two days. I glanced at the mist again.  I couldn’t leave him for two days. He was ready now.

The man grimaced and opened his eyes. A hand strayed to his stomach were a cord poked out from under the sheets. I had seen pain before–many times. But I never got used to it. Seeing another human being in pain always sent a stab of sorrow to my heart.  I had endured pain, real pain. My handler told me that that is why I had been chosen for this special task. Not just anyone could do it.

“You have empathy,” she said as she peered down me from over her pink rimmed glasses.  “We need people like you.

 

Anon du jour strikes a mood here, for sure. I currently have a friend in what is known as a “rehabilitation center.” It is a nice one, as such places go, but there are certain things you just can’t clean up and the smell of slow-motion decay is one of them. I’ve been thinking of “Mercy Killer” often over the past few days as I walk through the corridors of the center toward his room. There’s a lot of misery in that place.

Overall, let’s give our Anon some applause for creating mood. I want to clean up a few things, however, to make it even better. I’m also going to propose reshuffling a couple of paragraphs to arguably improve the flow of the story. And…I know Anon uses the word “mist” frequently here, but I can’t think of a way around that. Maybe one of you out there can help.

First paragraph:

—  Errors were not acceptable in my profession. Anon, do you mean that errors were not acceptable in the narrator’s profession, but they are now? If there’s been a change in standards, fine, but if errors will still get the narrator dinged on their performance evaluation, the sentence should read that “Errors are not acceptable…”.  

An overhead lamp lit his face in a circle of warmth. Anon, I kind of get where you’re coming from but let’s cut that sentence off at An overhead lamp lit his face. so that the reader isn’t wondering if the lamp is a heat lamp or an illumination lamp or both.

— Also, let’s cut out the second “breath(s)” in the paragraph so that it reads, “I wonder how many he would take before the end.”

Second paragraph:

Parts of this paragraph — those dealing with the significance of the mist — are redundant. Your protagonist explains that they can tell when the patient is ready to die by the state of the mist, then notes the state of the mist and concludes that the patient is close. Also, you use the word “free” twice in the space of a couple of sentences. Let’s shorten and sharpen this up just a bit. One way to do it would be:

 

His silver blue mist floated in the air above him.  That was not a good sign. I shook my head. Sometimes the mist still clung to them, but as the hour approached, it tugged and pulled, begging for release. This man’s mist was already free. He was ready to die.

Actually, Anon, we’re going to do a bit more with this, combining it with the fifth paragraph when we get there. See below.

Third and Fourth Paragraphs:

— I like these. You do a nice job of putting us in the room, Anon. One typo: “new born” should be “newborn.” You might also combine these paragraphs, but they work fine separately, as well. It’s up to you.

Fifth paragraph:

— I recommend combining this with the second paragraph since as a whole it is somewhat redundant. Thusly:

His silver blue mist floated in the air above him.That was not a good sign. I checked the history on my screen.  He had been here for over a year and he was scheduled for death in two days. I glanced at the mist again and shook my head.  I couldn’t wait that long.  Sometimes the mist still clung to them, but as the hour approached, it tugged and pulled, begging for release.    When it was completely detached, however,  it was time.  This man’s mist was already free. He was ready to die.

Sixth and seventh paragraphs:

Anon, I think that you should save the introduction and mention of the handler for later in your story. Let’s try to keep things in that room and between the patient and mercy killer until things play out. We’re accordingly going to remove the seventh paragraph altogether, as well as the last three sentences of the sixth paragraph.

— As for the sixth paragraph:

1)  “Let’s change “A hand strayed…” to “THE PATIENT’S hand strayed…”

2) “were the cord” should be “WHERE the cord.”

 

Last…I would like to rearrange your paragraph order, Anon, so that the story goes from observations of the patient to the room and then concentrates on the mist. This involves keeping the first paragraph where it is, and moving your second paragraph (now combined with the fifth) so that it follows the description of the room. It’s going to look like this:

I checked the picture on the screen of my cell phone one last time.  Errors are not acceptable in my profession.  The blue light of my phone spilled out into the darkened hospital room that smelled of antiseptic and decaying flesh.  I glanced up at the old man in the bed. An overhead lamp lit his face. He was the one. His chest quivered as he drew in a ragged breath. I wondered how many he would take before the end.

I glanced at a photograph on the stand that showed a young man in a suit holding a newborn baby with a pink face.  Beside it stood a vase with a blood-red rose. Propped against the vase sat a card that lay open. I stepped close to read the words scrawled in an impeccable hand.  “To my dearest love.” Crayon pictures of what looked like animals and grass and trees had been taped to the wall.  A photograph of a sailing ship with its sails billowing out before the wind clung to the wall over his bed.  This man had lived in this room for a long time.

His silver blue mist floated in the air above him.That was not a good sign. I checked the history on my screen.  He had been here for over a year and he was scheduled for death in two days. I glanced at the mist again and shook my head.  I couldn’t wait that long.  Sometimes the mist still clung to them, but as the hour approached, it tugged and pulled, begging for release.    When it was completely detached, however, it was time.  This man’s mist was already free. He was ready to die.

The man grimaced and opened his eyes. His hand strayed to his stomach where a cord poked out from under the sheets. I had seen pain before–many times. But I never got used to it. Seeing another human being in pain always sent a stab of sorrow to my heart.  

I’m done. TKZers…please have at it. I will stay uncharacteristically quiet for the most part during your comments. And Anon…thank you for providing us with your first page. Your story feels as if it will raise an important issue which is still being played out. I hope that you get to the end and that we’ll have the benefit of reading it.

3+
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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

14 thoughts on “First Page Critique: MERCY KILLER

  1. I agree with Joe’s suggestions. Good work, Anon. I have little to add other than a couple of minor hiccups for me. I had to stop and try to figure out where someone would be in order to glance up at someone in a bed. Also, ‘glance’ is used twice in this short section, and it pops off the page. I also don’t think you need “out” where the blue light spilled, but these are all things that can be cleaned up in edits.

  2. Very good job of setting up an eerie atmosphere here, writer, well done! I agree with the previous comments. I would also suggest:
    * Tieing together the moment where he checks the cell phone, and then the man in the bed, to clarify what’s happening at the beginning of the scene. (I’m assuming he checks the screen to compare a picture of the man’s face with the man lying in the bed, but I had to read quite a few sentences to make that connection). As currently written, it takes several sentences for the reader (this reader, at least) to “see” what’s happening in this scene.
    * I would add a word to clarify what type of “history” the narrator is checking for. (I assumed health history, but it’s important to prevent the reader from making wrong assumptions.)
    * When one is writing about sci-fi elements that occur outside the realm of a reader’s everyday reality, I think it’s important to keep the non sci-fi elements very grounded and clear.
    * By the third instance of the word “mist,” I felt a bit frustrated that the word keeps being repeated, but the repetition doesn’t clarify or convey any more information about the significance of the mist. I assume the mist has to do with the soul? Then perhaps substituting a synonym for soul (such as anima, pneuma, or essentia?) might help convey the nature of the mist.
    * In the second paragraph I would suggest revising the wording to something like, “I glanced at a photograph on the stand. It showed a much younger version of the old man…”.
    * Somewhere in this scene I would like at least a hint of why the narrator is going around collecting people’s “mists” (and presumably, killing them in the process). That’s the natural question that arises in this scene, and by planting a clue about the narrator’s purpose, the writer would help the reader want to learn more about the main character.
    * Overall, I like the scene here, and would focus on connecting the relationship between a few of the disparate-seeming elements I mentioned, so that all the actions flow together smoothly for the reader.

    • Now this is dedication…Kathryn offered this excellent critique on her BIRTHDAY!

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      Happy Birthday, dear Kathryn….
      Haaaaaaaaaapeeeeeeeeee Birthdaaaaaaaaay tooooo yooooooou!

  3. I like the idea and I like the rewrite. However, there is no tension. Why is this “assignment” special? I would like to see it close with the old man raising his head slightly and saying, “I can’t die yet.” Or something else that throws a wrench in the grim reapers assignment

  4. Nice creepy atmosphere. I work at a hospital. They are full of sounds, especially if the patient is terminal (ventilators, heart monitors, etc.) Might consider adding a touch of sound.

    “young man in a suit holding a newborn baby with a pink face” seems a bit awkward. Is the pink face important or could he just be holding the newborn?

    The abundance of mist reminds me of hurricane season when we made a drinking game – take a shot or sip every time the weather guy said “hunker down”. If you did that with “mist” how drunk would you be by the end of the page?

    The premise sounds intriguing. I would read it.

  5. Great edit, Joe. You should expand your business.

    Anon, I agree with all of the comments, and would especially agree with Cynthia. The multitude of sounds in a hospital probably define the environment more than any other sensory input. I also like your premise, and hope you finish the story. The theme is one that will become more frequently debated. Well done.

    • Thank you, Steve, for your comments and kind words. As far as expanding my business, please see below under Richard Mabry’s comments.

  6. Folks are calling the atmosphere “creepy”, but I didn’t feel that. I think Anon’s description of the room, with kids’ drawings, photo and the flower was great. I saw the room clearly as I read. Once in my life, those pics hung on the wall were mine. The toch-up is, of course great, but the base material is, I think, quite good.

  7. I can’t add anything to what Joe has suggested. This looks like the start of a great story, and I’d love to read more of it.
    Meanwhile, Joe, please let me know where to send my manuscript for your editing touch. I agree with another commenter–you’ve added another profession to the many you already practice.

    • Thank you, Richard. You and Steve are very kind. I could not engage in editing on a competitive basis. It takes me far too long to get it right, and when I get it wrong I really get it wrong. For example, in one of my own published stories a .45 on one page turns into a .38 on another. I do enough damage in this space. But thanks!

  8. Thank you to all who have visited, added comments and suggestions, and all who may yet! I would note that one of the strengths and limitations of the First Page Critique is that it is, umm, one page, a first page, if you will, and that a lot of the questions regarding “why” might be answered on the second or third page of the ms. Most of the thrillers I read attempt to create mystery or suspense by dropping the reader into a “what the heck” situation and then explaining at least part of it at a later point in the chapter. It was my impression that such is what Anon was going for here. We’ll know when we see Mercy Killer in print, Anon! Thanks again for submitting!

  9. Great critiques from all commenters. Joe, you asked if we could come up with an alternative word for mist, as it is used too repetitively. The word that kept entering my mind as I read was essence. Of course, it is debatable if one could see essence but he can see the mist. I would like to see a different word substituted here, though. Aura, perhaps? I love paranormal mysteries/thrillers, so I look forward to reading this when you finish, Anon. I love the idea.

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