First Page Critique: Last Night I
Dreamed of Going Back to Brooklyn Again

By PJ Parrish

Time for a First Page Critique, this one titled Avenue M.  This submission has much to teach us about backstory, developing a writer’s voice and it poses that oft-debated question here:  When does a slow start work?  A big thank you to our writer for letting us read this work and learn from it.  Please weigh in with comments!

Avenue M

I want to go back to Brooklyn, Avenue M East 3rd. If I say it enough times, will that happen? If I am very specific with the address, sit quietly, visualize the street? I want to see grandma one more time; smell the mothballs on her sweater, take her hand walking back from Maggio’s Deli on the corner, trip over the cracks in the uneven sidewalk, past Ms. Johnson’s house – “Wave to Mrs. Johnson, Sugar” – and onto the stoop of the attached two-family home where I had spent each summer as a little girl. I want to have more patience with Aunt Billie and be kinder to grandpa. I want to go back to Brooklyn, just one more day.

The night before the wake, my mother told me how grandma, at fifteen – Elizabeth – grandpa called her Ella – had gotten pregnant with Aunt Billie, my “slow” aunt. Grandma had just died the week before, propped up in bed, a half jelly jar of warm Budweiser, a crushed filtered Camel in the ashtray on the bedside table, and an empty box of Whitmans, you know, the kind that hold four different chocolate pieces with the little drawing of each and a description on the back of the box? She was reading one of her Harlequin Romance novels, fell asleep, and just didn’t wake up the next day. That is when I started dreaming of grandma, of going back to Avenue M.

I’m a forty year old grown woman, for heaven’s sake, with two great kids and a loving husband, so why do I constantly think of grandma and feel her presence, and while driving, worrying over something or another about one of my boys, put my hand on my own shoulder as if she were caressing mine and I were caressing hers? Dreaming of Brooklyn, Avenue M, the dead-end street with the baseball field behind the chain link fence, walking to the EL with grandpa – a trip to Coney Island, – eating ice cream at the foot of grandma’s bed watching television with Aunt Billie.

I just want one day, one more day, nine years old but knowing, knowing everything and in that knowing, able to hold her and comfort her. I would be such a good girl. I wouldn’t give her any grieve and I wouldn’t be fresh to grandpa and I would hug Aunt Billie more, I promise.

______________________________________

Okay, I suspect you are all one step ahead of me here with some salient questions. But I’ll try to lay them out as I see them:

What kind of book is this? Because The Kill Zone is about mysteries and thrillers, I have to start with the premise that this writer knows that and thus this story will fall within the genre parameters. But I can’t tell from this sample what kind of story we are reading. This has the feel of general fiction, maybe leaning toward a literary attempt.  If it is, indeed, a mystery, this beginning is, I think, much too leisurely for readers’ expectations.

What is happening here? Not much, really. I don’t mean that snarkily but as an observation that dovetails with the first question. I am all for a slow build beginning. In fact, in these days of wham-bang-blow-it-up-and-dump-a-corpse openings, I have gotten to prefer a writer who takes their time with a slow tease.  But even a slow beginning has to beguile and at least hint at the central tension of the story. This opening is all reminiscence.  It is all about the past. It is all memory with no forward movement. A 40-year-old woman is lamenting that she can’t go home again.

What is the central conflict?  Every good story has one. Every protagonist faces a life-altering challenge. But we get no sense of this woman’s problem.  All we know is that she misses Brooklyn and her grandmother.  This is far too generic to fire our imaginations. Did this woman (girl) do something dire that hastened her grandma’s death? That’s interesting! But we need a strong hint of it here. Even it is one devastating line. Give us a reason to turn the page. Nothing here is disturbed.

What does this character want?  This relates to the question above and I maintain must be asked — and answered by the writer — of every major character, but especially for the protagonist.  What does this woman want? To turn back time. To see her grandma one more time. It’s there at the end of the crucial first graph: “I want to go back to Brooklyn.” That’s not enough to sustain 300 pages.  Now I know this is only 400 words, but we still must get a hint of this woman’s journey to come.

Now let’s talk about some good things in this submission.  There is a definitely voice at work here.  The writer has a nice feel for what I call the telling detail.  The writer hones in on small things that bring her characters alive — the smell of a mothballed sweater, warm beer served in a jelly jar, the little drawings on the lid of the Whitman’s candy box. Very nicely observed.  I wish the details about Brooklyn had been a little less generic — ie, cracked sidewalks, chain-linked baseball field could be Anywhere USA.  Make me feel, smell, and hear the uniqueness of Brooklyn the way you made me feel grandma.

Now let’s go through the opening quickly with Line Edits.

AVENUE M

I want to go back to Brooklyn, Avenue M East 3rd. Might this abbreviated line be more interesting rather than reading like Google Maps direction? How about: Last night, I dreamed I went back to Avenue M again. I stood by the chainlink fence at the end of the dead-end street and I found I couldn’t go in for the way was barred to me. Apologies to Daphne DuMaurier but you get my drift.  Make the memory sound mystical! If I say it enough times, will that happen? If I am very specific with the address, sit quietly, visualize the street? I want to see grandma one more time; hiccup here with that semi-colon. You don’t need it. smell the mothballs on her sweater, take her hand walking back from Maggio’s Deli on the corner, trip over the cracks in the uneven sidewalk, past Ms. Johnson’s house – “Wave to Mrs. Johnson, Sugar” – and onto the stoop of the attached two-family home where I had spent each summer as a little girl. I want to have more patience with Aunt Billie and be kinder to grandpa. I want to go back to Brooklyn, just one more day. I like repeating the first line, what I call an echo, but it means nothing here. It sounds flat.  Hint at the WHY.

The night before the wake, my mother told me how grandma, at fifteen – Elizabeth – grandpa called her Ella – had gotten pregnant with Aunt Billie, way too many names in one phrase to digest. I’d lose BOTH mom’s names and Aunt Billie. my “slow” aunt. Grandma had just died the week before, Whoa. Grandma died the week before giving birth to Billie? That’s how this reads propped up in bed, a half jelly jar of warm Budweiser, a crushed filtered Camel in the ashtray on the bedside table, and an empty box of Whitmans, you know, the kind that hold four different chocolate pieces with the little drawing of each and a description on the back of the box? Where is this box of candy? On the table? You don’t say. She was reading one of her Harlequin Romance novels, fell asleep, and just didn’t wake up the next day. No need to slip into “yesterday” here. Stay in the present:  A Harlequin romance was open across her chest, “Her Family Betrayal” by Janet Jackson. (Or make up a title that says something about your story! That is when When is “when?” After the wake? After grandma’s body was found? Very confusing. I started dreaming of grandma, of going back to Avenue M.

I’m a forty year old grown woman, for heaven’s sake, with two great kids and a loving husband, so why do I constantly think of grandma and feel her presence, and while driving, worrying over something or another about one of my boys, put my hand on my own shoulder as if she were caressing mine and I were caressing hers? You need to get us in the present moment and get your story OUT OF HER HEAD and moving forward.  What if here, you switch to this woman (give her a name by the way somehow) actually driving somewhere. To pick up her boys at baseball practice? She actually feels a presence in the car, a hand on her shoulder. Give us something except dreaming! Dreaming of Brooklyn, Avenue M, the dead-end street with the baseball field behind the chain link fence, walking to the EL with grandpa – a trip to Coney Island, – eating ice cream at the foot of grandma’s bed watching television with Aunt Billie.

I just want one day, one more day, nine years old but knowing, knowing everything and in that knowing, able to hold her and comfort her. I would be such a good girl. I wouldn’t give her any grieve ???and I wouldn’t be fresh to grandpa and I would hug Aunt Billie more, I promise. Well heck, we all wish we had been better kids.  This feeling is universal but not terribly interesting for fiction.  Find this woman’s real source of pain and give us at least a hint of it in these first 400 words.

Back to me again: Thanks again, dear writer!  I think your main issue here is to find a way to get out of the past and into the present.  We want to follow characters in their real lives and watch them doing things rather than just thinking, remembering, lamenting. Get out of this woman’s head and get her moving. Good luck!

 

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

10 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Last Night I
Dreamed of Going Back to Brooklyn Again

  1. This definitely feels “literary,” as PJ points out. But even then readers benefit from something happening at the start. Then you can weave in the details within the action. Even if it’s just answering the door or moving some furniture.

    I agree that there is an emerging voice here, with a good eye for detail. That can work against you, though, if the details aren’t tied to something relevant, like a character’s inner life. WHY does she notice THAT particular box? Etc.

    Here’s the way I’d like to see this open: The night before the wake, my mother told me how grandma, at fifteen, had gotten pregnant with Aunt Billie, my “slow” aunt. I would then write a new paragraph to go with it, giving us further details of this incident.

    Then, in the second paragraph, get us into the present moment, with the character in motion against some kind of disturbance, even a small one. I need to care about her before I’m told how old she is, how many kids she has, how she feels about anything. The way readers care about characters is when they face trouble.

    BTW, your last paragraph here sounds more like the last paragraph of the novel.

    Bottom line: good voice, but it will be much more effective in the service of story, rather than the service of mere style.

    • Excellent points, Jim, but especially what you say in the last sentence. Style, in and of itself, isn’t enough. It’s like putting gold filigree on a ramshackle building. Without the sound architecture of story and a character we care about, it’s just gloss. I like your idea of starting with “After the wake…” because it implies some drama and intrigue. At least something has ALREADY happened. But as you say, any memories must be quickly grounded in a present reality.

  2. While I was reading all I could think of was the book jacket flap and the fact that it had to be full of intrigue and mystery to get me to purchase the book. But if the first four hundred words were all I was given, I’d probably put it back on the shelf.

    I am sure the story is there, but I didn’t feel it. Stay the course anon and listen to all the advice you receive from TKZ. And read every critique on this site.?

  3. I really like the tone and voice. It’s excellent.

    Overall, this is straight-up prologue. Lyrical and beautifully written, it does set a mood but doesn’t give any direction to the story at all.

    And that could be a problem . . . .

    I have to confess, I mentally added “And then the murders began” as the last sentence. Just to give a feeling that something was happening.

    The voice is beautiful. It makes me want to go to Brooklyn. Now I need to know why I want to go.

    Terri

  4. I fully agree with the consensus (so far) that this leisurely beginning fails to hint at any imminent tension or, for that matter, storyline. However, the voice is so strong and this page is so well done that I’m willing to overlook that problem. I would prefer to think the story begins to unfold not in the first 400 words but maybe in words 400-800. After all, the 400-word limit is but an arbitrary one, put in place by TKZ.

    Hey, I bet if someone were reading this on a Kindle or in a paperback, he or she wouldn’t stop after these 400 words and say, “Well, no story here. I’m done.” Not when it’s this beguiling. The story, the conflict, everything that’s missing, might be right around the corner. After all, there’s no rule that says you have to lay out the story — complete with tension, character motivation, and fully-described setting — in words 1-400. Is there?

    • You’re right, Don. There is no rule that says you must lay out the story in 400 words. But I think what we are asking for here is some whiff of conflict-to-come, some hint that something will happen. Or that the something that already happened still resonates in the present for our protag.

      I just finished reading a Amazon sample of Dennis Lehane’s new novel “Since We Fell.” Lehane has said he doesn’t want to write “white man crime fiction” anymore and this novel features a female protag on a very leisurely opening heavy on backstory. (but there is still a crime).

      Here is the opening:

      On a Tuesday in May, in her 35th year, Rachel shot her husband dead. He stumbled backward with an odd look of confirmation on his face, as if some part of him always knew she’d do it.
      He looked surprised, too. She assumed she did as well.
      Her mother wouldn’t have been surprised.

      What follows is narration of an event in the woman’s childhood that is a lengthy trip to backstory land (another broken rule!) The writing is typical beautifully rendered Lehane-esque style. But that opening grabs you. Maybe this is the difference we are talking about here. We forgive a breaking of the “rules” if the opening provides a strong enough promise that our patience will pay off.

      Here’s the novel’s sample link:
      https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01M312NB9/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

      • PJ — That Lehane opening is pretty compelling, all right. He, of course, knows how to break the “rules” and get away with it. Another one was the late Tom Piccirilli, whose novella, EVERY SHALLOW CUT, was a complete reversal of the “rules”. It was written almost entirely in backstory, with the story of “the present” dexterously woven in here and there, as you or I might weave in backstory to a running plot.

  5. Respecting criticism of the address in the title, as written. It may be–we don’t know yet–that the house that once stood there in the time of the character’s grandma, may be gone. Perhaps the address was thought of by the viewpoint character with a tear in her eye because the house burned down several years ago. Perhaps she wants to go to that specific place of grandma’s house, but no longer can. And perhaps she mourns the passing of the house as much as she mourns the passing of her grandma.

    I say this because none of the houses that I lived in before my 16th birthday exist. When I go back to the happy times of my childhood and teenage years, I go back in my thoughts to one of those houses and the family and friends associated with that specific place at the specific time i lived there.

    I would love to go back to 72 E. Midway in Phoenix, Arizona, but I can no longer do that. It’s not there, hauled off in the middle of the night by a house mover, to a small Indian reservation near Phoenix. It became a tribal office for that small tribe. Then someone burned it down. Accidentally, I’m told. Even now, I’m not quite ready to forgive the burner-downer. They TOLD him now smoking in the office.

    Maybe the viewpoint character is in the same situation with the same sense of loss.

    • That would be powerful, Jim. Many of us, as we age, think about going back to our childhood homes. (I’ve Streetviewed several of mine and even went back and knocked on the door of my old grandmother’s house and the kind owner let me in for a peek). I think this might be a good departure point for this opening. I just wish it weren’t all in the protag’s head. Might it feel more involving for us if she were actually standing in front of the place that was once her beloved home and she sees it altered in some way that resonates with her? I’m just looking for a more “active” entry point into this story, even if the “action” is subtle.

  6. An author with a strong voice, PJ, and I agree with most of your comments. But I’d leave in Brooklyn. The name evokes powerful emotions in people, whether or not they know New York. Avenue M is too generic.

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