First Page Critique: NUTTER BODINE

Bu John Gilstrap

Another brave soul has stepped up to the plate and volunteered for a First Page Critique.  The Italics are all mine, just to separate the author’s text from my comments, which appear on the far side.  Here we go . . .

NUTTER BODEEN

’tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free

     Eighteenth century Shaker song

 

“I think I killed someone.”

Not what Police Chief Will Edd Pruitt wanted or needed to hear first thing on a scorching hot Monday morning with the department’s A/C on the fritz. He’d positioned an oscillating fan next to his desk, but it only made his small office feel like a convection oven.

He silently cursed Jim Beam for last night, and waited for the caffeine and four aspirins to kick in. His eyes hurt as he tried to focus on the giant standing in the doorway to his office. He was shirtless, wore faded, grime-stained bib overalls meant for a much smaller person, and his sockless feet were stuffed into laceless brogans. His square head reminded Will Edd of Boris Karloff in the old Frankenstein movie.

Out at his desk, Gus Temple, made the “crazy” sign with his finger, careful to make sure the big man didn’t see him. Will Ed frowned at him, but the skinny dispatcher just grinned.

His name was Arvil LeRoy Bodeen, and he wasn’t crazy, just slow—— the result of a teen-age mother who consoled her unwanted pregnancy by snorting meth and drinking cheap wine. His eyes darted nervously around the room like a frightened kid on his first visit to the dentist.

Will Edd took a sip from his warm Dr. Pepper, sighed and said, “Come on in, Arvil.”

Arvil LeRoy Bodeen lumbered in and plopped down in the visitor’s chair. It groaned in protest. In the closeness of the room, the smell that rolled off him was a mixture of cheap booze, old vomit and unwashed armpits. Will Ed scooted his chair back as far as he could and tried to breathe through his mouth.

“My friends call me Nutter,” Arvil Leroy Bodeen said, his voice seeming too high pitched for his massive body. “You can too, if you want.” 

Will Ed doubted the man had any friends. He frightened the women and scared the men. Over the years, the town had learned to accept him as they would a stray mongrel—— let it sleep under your porch, but never let it into the house.

“How ‘bout I just call you Arvil?”

“Okay, but you can still be my friend.”

First the good:

There’s a lot here to like.  The first line is everything a first line should be. It’s short, to the point and engaging.  I get a real sense of place, a sense of atmosphere.  The writing is journeyman like (that’s a compliment), though it needs tightening (see below).  It’s a compelling setup.  If the point of a first page is to drive the reader to turn to the second page, then this is a success.  Except . . .

Now let’s talk about strengthening the already-strong writing:

Not what Police Chief Will Edd Pruitt wanted or needed to hear first thing on a scorching hot Monday morning with the department’s A/C on the fritz. He’d positioned an oscillating fan next to his desk, but it only made his small office feel like a convection oven.

  1. Is his middle name Edd or Ed? You present it both ways.
  2. Pruitt just heard some startling news, yet he’s more concerned about the heat and the fan.  I’m not sure I buy it, but I’m thinking like a critiquer (critic?), not a reader. If this were from an author I liked, it would not be a deal breaker because I would assume that the author wanted me to think Pruitt is something of a prick.  If that’s not your point, consider changing it.
  3. “Scorching hot” is superfluously redundant. Pick one, drop the other.
  4. “He’d positioned…” Who’s “he”?

He silently cursed Jim Beam for last night, and waited for the caffeine and four aspirins to kick in. His eyes hurt as he tried to focus on the giant standing in the doorway to his office. He was shirtless, wore faded, grime-stained bib overalls meant for a much smaller person, and his sockless feet were stuffed into laceless brogans. His square head reminded Will Edd of Boris Karloff in the old Frankenstein movie.

  1. The adverb in the first sentence weakens it, and the second part of the sentence weakens it further.  Consider: “He cursed Jim Beam for last night. The caffeine and four aspirins hadn’t kicked in yet.” Maybe it’s just my style, but I think breaking the one sentence into two strengthens them both.
  2. I think you need to give the giant man a name in this paragraph.  Consider: “. . .  in the doorway. Arvil LeRoy Bodeen.  He was . . .”  Note I deleted “to his office” because we already know that.
  3. Sentence construction that begins, “He was . . .” is inherently weak.  Consider, “Shirtless, he’d stuffed his sockless feet into laceless brogans.  Faded, grime-stained bib overalls barely contained the man’s girth, making Will Edd wonder if the man had dressed himself in someone else’s clothes.”  By eliminating the passive voice, the images become more vivid and the prose snaps a little more.

His name was Arvil LeRoy Bodeen, and he wasn’t crazy, just slow—— the result of a teen-age mother who consoled her unwanted pregnancy by snorting meth and drinking cheap wine. His eyes darted nervously around the room like a frightened kid on his first visit to the dentist.

  1. By introducing Arvil’s name earlier, you eliminate the need for more passive construction.  Consider: “Arvil wasn’t crazy, just slow . . .”
  2. This whole sentence, from Pruitt’s POV, presumes knowledge of backstory that doesn’t jibe with future paragraphs. Knowing about the unwanted pregnancy and the meth is pretty personal stuff.
  3. I would end the final sentence of this graph at “room”.  The simile about the frightened kid seems over-worked. (That is a simile, right?)

Arvil LeRoy Bodeen lumbered in and plopped down in the visitor’s chair. It groaned in protest. In the closeness of the room, the smell that rolled off him was a mixture of cheap booze, old vomit and unwashed armpits. Will Ed scooted his chair back as far as he could and tried to breathe through his mouth.

  1. More passive construction. Not bad, per se, but not strong to my ear. Consider: “A toxic bouquet of cheap booze, old vomit and unwashed armpits made Will Edd’s eyes water.  He scooted . . .”

“My friends call me Nutter,” Arvil Leroy Bodeen said, his voice seeming too high pitched for his massive body. “You can too, if you want.” 

Will Ed doubted the man had any friends. He frightened the women and scared the men. Over the years, the town had learned to accept him as they would a stray mongrel—— let it sleep under your porch, but never let it into the house.

“How ‘bout I just call you Arvil?”

“Okay, but you can still be my friend.”

  1. This is the part that confuses me.  Does the chief know him or not? That equation needs to be equalized somehow.
  2. Also, is it necessary to use all three of Arvil’s names at every mention? It feels awkward to me.

Fearless Writer, congratulations on a fine start.  These edits are of a polishing nature.  You done good.

What say you, TKZers?

 

7+
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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. He will co-produce the film adaptation of his book, Six Minutes to Freedom, which should begin filming in 2017. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

17 thoughts on “First Page Critique: NUTTER BODINE

  1. I would read more of this submission, something I don’t say that often (not that I’m an expert.) Lots of mystery in the opening sentence.

    My main criticism is quite likely just a personal one: the drinking cop. It feels like an overused trope to me.

    The dentist simile didn’t work for me, i.e., it threw me out of the story because it didn’t feel apt. Perhaps pick a simile that fits within the overall setting of the story, as a way of hinting about the locale… or leave it out entirely.

    I liked the contrast between Nutter’s size and his voice.

    Will Edd’s (Ed’s?) knowledge of Nutter is confusing… if he knows a lot about him, then make that consistent.

    Nutter, potentially, is a really interesting character. Will Edd not as much-yet. If you can find a way to interest me in Will Edd as much as I’m interested in Nutter, you’ve got a winner.

  2. I would read more. Arvil appears to me as a sympathetic character and I would want to follow the story simply because of the mention of his backstory (meth head, whino mother). I’m pretty intrigued with it all.

    I agree with John’s edits and suggestions for the more active voice and a tighter read.

  3. I really liked this one. Nothing to add to John’s salient points. But things that work for me: I get a good sense of atmosphere and setting (assuming the story will soon tell me where exactly I am). There is no confusion as to what is going on. (except maybe that point about does the sheriff know Avril well or not). The characters are nicely sketched in. (I even like how the writer used the deputy to tell us something about this Avril and how others relate to him). Nice craftsmanship. Very good start!

  4. As you note, there’s a lot to like. Maybe too much. It’s a overwritten, like a suitcase that springs open because it’s overstuffed. Time to repack, making hard decisions about what you *really* need to bring on the trip.
    My immediate question was, how did this guy get past the front office to the door of the chief’s office? That wouldn’t happen in any police station I’ve been in. If the chief was sitting in his office and heard that sentence, “I think I killed someone” from the front counter, that would force him to decide whether to let the office staff handle it or come out of his hangover and go out front to see what was up.

  5. I found this first page really engaging and was happy to read more. I agree with John’s comments and don’t really have anything else to add – except that I think there is a voice already emerging in this piece and I like it! The cadence and rhythm is starting to form and I commend the brave author for submitting this – keep at it!

  6. I like this a lot. It feels southern gothic to me like he’s going for a James Lee Burke atmosphere.

    I expect a “Now don’t make me go upside your head,” to appear somewhere along the way.

    I get a quick and early feeling that Will Edd’s day is about to get a lot worse and he’s likely to miss dinner, which won’t do his stomach any good after the Jim Beam.

    That said, yes on making the voice more active. The southern gothic trope of describing everything like it’s a faded photograph can get old . . . fast.

    So, get busy. I’ll be sitting here on the screen porch with some tea and a palmetto fan waiting for another In the Heat of the Night and Nightmare in Badham County.

    You go on now, anon poster, you’ve got writing to do: Terri

    • It can be done in many small ways:

      Not what Police Chief Will Edd Pruitt wanted or needed to hear first thing on a scorching hot Monday morning with the department’s A/C on the fritz. He’d positioned an oscillating fan next to his desk, but it only made his small office feel like a convection oven.

      ——————————-

      Not what Police Chief Will Edd wanted or needed to hear on a scorching Monday morning when the AC was on the fritz. The oscillating fan on his desk wasn’t cutting the humidity and the squeak wasn’t making the aspirin’s job any easier.

      ——————————–

      You don’t need to say “department’s AC,” that is inferred. He’s the police chief and it’s Monday, it is reasonable to assume he is at the department.

  7. “Out at his desk, Gus Temple, made the…” Gus Temple is not a clause. Otherwise I agree with JG.

  8. I would absolutely read more. Skillful rendering of characters, both physical appearance and personalities, setting, and problem in a few short sentences. Good first sentence hook.

    Sheryl’s point about the drinking cop is valid, but it didn’t stop me. With this author’s obvious skill, s/he will be able to lift it out of cliché territory.

    Several people commented on the plausibility of Will Edd’s foreknowledge of Nutter and his background, but since I live in a small town, that didn’t bother me a bit. Everybody knows everybody’s business and the “town character” would be familiar, especially to those in law enforcement. So allowing him access was not that surprising. Cops know who the serious threats are vs. the “town character” making a so-called confession.

    Nutter reminded me of Steinbeck’s Lenny in Of Mice and Men.

    Looking forward to reading this when it’s published!

  9. Great voice with this author. Your feedback would really clean things up, John. Your comments made me want to reread my WIP. HA! But now that I’ve read through this more than once, and considered some of the other comments, I have feedback for the author. Hope it helps. With so much to like in this sample, sometimes it clouds how another version might be stronger.

    I have to say that from the opening line, to whatever dialogue that follows, it doesn’t seem natural. I would think that the Chief would want to know who he killed and why he claims it. The internal monologue of the Chief, as clever and fun to read as it is, does not sustain any mystery. The matter of fact nature to the dialogue dismisses the seriousness.

    Like you’ve mentioned, John, there’s a question about the Chief knowing Arvil. If he’s a stranger, there should be more concern that someone died and this man may have committed murder. If Arvil is a chronic confessor, then I can see how the Chief might dismiss another visit.

    In trying to nail a great first line, there’s no real follow up and the reader’s curiosity might deflate by the time the next step is known. The internal monologue reads like backstory that slows the pace or meanders when the dialogue should stick with the action and become the framework to support the plot through this scene.

    Some of the clever writing could be turned into dialogue. If this happened, the Chief could become more interesting and sustain being the star, rather than let Avril take things over.

    Here’s an example of an intro with more dialogue used as a framework and something more focused on the Chief:

    “I think I killed someone.”

    A giant stood in the office doorway of Police Chief Will Ed Pruitt, blocking out any hope for circulating air into the cramped space that had turned into a convection oven.

    “You think? Now what would make you certain of that fact?” The Chief rocked back in his squeaky chair and nudged his toe to move the oscillating fan next to his desk. “If you came here because you thought we’d have air conditioning, son, you came to the wrong place. Our A/C is out again.”

    The man stood there, with his eyes unable to settle on any one thing. The Chief’s stomach roiled with the rocking motion in the man’s eye sockets.

    “Damn it, boy. You’re making me dizzy. You better come in and sit down. Tell me all about it.”

    Chief Pruitt popped two more aspirins and washed them down with the dregs of his warm Pepsi, cursing at his drinking buddy from last night, Jim Beam.

    “His name’s Avril LeRoy Bodeen.” Gus Temple, the dispatcher, poked his head into the Chief’s office and made the “crazy sign” with his finger behind Bodeen’s back. The Chief frowned at him, but Gus only grinned. “Don’t worry, Chief. He ain’t crazy. He’s just…slow.”

    Gus launched into a story about Bodeen’s momma snorting meth and drinking cheap wine during an unwanted pregnancy, but the Chief had enough.

    “I can’t stomach town gossip. Nothing more useless than a flock of wet hens with nothing better to do, even if one of those chickens wears a police uniform. Get back to work, Gus. There’s nothing to see here. Close that door, Mr. Bodeen.”

    Bodeen shut the door on Gus and turned to face Chief Pruitt, unable to stare him straight in the eye. His grime-stained bib overalls fit him tight like the skin on a pork sausage and his sockless feet were stuffed into brogans without laces. Bodeen had a square head that reminded him of Boris Karloff in the old Frankenstein movie.

  10. Since I’ve only got a few minutes, I’ll comment on some tiny things that haven’t been mentioned yet.

    ♥ “He silently cursed Jim Beam for last night, and waited for the caffeine and four aspirins to kick in.”

    You don’t need the comma here. The clause “waited for caffeine and four aspirins to kick in” is dependent. No big deal, but check out the rules for when to use a comma before “and” at one of the online grammar sites.

    ♥ “Arvil LeRoy Bodeen lumbered in and plopped down in the visitor’s chair. It groaned in protest.”

    As written, the second sentence is incorrect. Why? A possessive noun should not be the antecedent for a pronoun. “Visitor’s chair” is a possessive noun.

    Read this handout (see #5) for further instruction:
    http://utsc.utoronto.ca/twc/sites/utsc.utoronto.ca.twc/files/resource-files/PronounRef.pdf

    ♥ While using the word “was” isn’t usually advisable when there are stronger words you can choose, the use of “was” does not always signal passive voice. Anne R. Allen wrote an excellent blog article Should You Eliminate “Was” From Your Writing? Why Sometimes “the Rules” are Wrong. Use a search engine to locate it. I also wrote a blog post entitled “To Be” or Not “To Be”: Help For Distressed Writers. Check it out if you’d like more on this. Again, I try to avoid using the word “was” to the extent possible in my own writing, but I want to be sure that folks are clear on the difference between active voice and passive voice.

    ♥ I like Jordan’s ideas, too. This is a very helpful group! I think you’ve gotten some great feedback, brave writer. Good stuff. Keep going, and I’m sending lots of positive thoughts your way.

    • Clarification: “Visitor’s” is the possessive noun. For folks who want to get further confused/enlightened, check out Possessive Antecedents to Donkey Pronouns at this link. Enjoy!

  11. This strikes as a strong submission and I would keep on reading. The critique was insightful, as usual.

    About the objections some have raised regarding the chief’s reaction to the opening line “I think I killed someone.”, I shan’t join the choir. To me, the chief simply does not give credence to what the local benign crackpot has to say. From that premise, the chief’s cool and condescende are congruent. That would also explain why the gentle giant has been allowed to freely meander through the police station and bother him. The problem is consistency, or lack thereof, when later on it’s not all that clear the chief does know Arvil. My suggestion would be to dispel the ambiguity as early on as possible.

    A quibble.

    The author writes:
    “(…) a teen-age mother who consoled her unwanted pregnancy by snorting meth and drinking cheap wine”

    and then

    “(…) In the closeness of the room, the smell that rolled off him was a mixture of cheap booze (…)”

    Cheap wine, cheap booze. I would avoid the repetition. It lessens the impact.

    Congrats, author. You’re off to a very good start.

  12. I’m a reader, so I ‘ll the critique to the professionals.

    The writer had me at “I think I killed someone.” This line sucked me in to read more.

    I also found the writer’s voice to be somewhat comforting to me, like two friends talking to each other.

    I want to tread this book.

  13. I, too, loved the opening. In the next paragraph, I need to know who said it.
    The writing is crisp and will be crispier with the suggested edits. Great start.

  14. I liked the opening line and the obvious talent of the author. I would continue to read this story.
    The critiques were spot-on and strengthened the story.
    The only thing, I don’t know if I like the “Edd” versus just plain “Ed.”

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