First Page Critique: Enemies Domestic

Critiqued by Mark Alpert

And now we turn to a submission from one of those brave souls who offer the first pages of their novels for the perusal of the Kill Zone community and our constructive criticism. The title is “Enemies Domestic” and here are the opening paragraphs:

Maricopa County, Arizona

A bare, red lightbulb intended for photography darkrooms hung from the rough ceiling inside a small rotting plywood shed, expelled the nighttime darkness immediately beyond the open doorway, and cast Duke and his malicious undertaking in its eerie glow. Seated on an aging, rickety metal stool before a shoddy plywood-and-two-by-four workbench, he carefully placed a soldering iron upon a porcelain tile to avoid burning himself and the rough, splintery surface. At least I won’t hear the boom, he thought.

Wiping his sweaty hands atop his faded, six-color-desert fatigue pant legs, Duke took a deep, calming breath, shut his eyes, and gently opened and closed his hands to relax his unsteady fingers. After several unsuccessful seconds, he decided to break from his deadly efforts to better calm himself; opening his eyes, he carefully scooted the stool back away from the workbench and slowly stood on the unsteady wood floor. The beams strained and creaked beneath his weight as Duke first stretched his lower back, and then removed a small metal case that contained a stash of hand-rolled cigarettes and an American flag-engraved Zippo lighter from his right cargo pants pocket before turning to his right and approaching the shed’s only doorway.

Walking from the stuffy shed and its low, red glow, Duke ignited his last rollup and stiffly strode a dozen steps into the cool darkness of the March desert night to loosen his legs.  Having traded the bulb’s tedious light for a dark and clear, moonlit sky, he deeply inhaled the burned tobacco smoke, stretched his sore shoulders and back, and then exhaled
forcefully, clearing his lungs of the calming toxins. Early spring rains had recently soaked the Sonoran desert landscape, which now emanated the earthy, lightly sweet smells of wet creosote and mesquite. Duke shifted his gaze east; first from the lowly scrub brush before him to the stately saguaros just beyond his reach, to the taller, more distant Palo Verde trees along his parcel’s dry washbed, and, finally, to the White Tank desert mountains backlit by the urban sprawl and nighttime light pollution of the Phoenix metroplex. Working to clear his head, Duke crossed his arms over his chest and stood still, moving his right forearm only as necessary to work the slowly diminishing cigarette.

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“Less is more.” It’s a piece of advice that’s easy to offer but sometimes hard to implement. When you’re trying to establish the setting for a novel’s opening scene, you want to fully describe it, right? You want to provide sights, sounds, smells, evocations. But it’s very easy to go overboard and ruin your efforts with over-description.

Let’s look at the opening paragraph of this submission. First of all, it starts with a run-on sentence. It needs to be broken up. Consider this edit:

A bare, red lightbulb intended for photography darkrooms hung from the ceiling of a rotting plywood shed. Duke sat on a metal stool beside his workbench and lowered his soldering iron, placing it on a porcelain tile so it wouldn’t burn the rough wood. At least I won’t hear the boom, he thought.

Now this paragraph is about half as long as the original, but you’ll notice that I really haven’t omitted much information. For example, I deleted the adjective “small” from the description of the shed, because all sheds are kind of small. And I deleted “rough” from the description of “ceiling,” because if it’s a rotting shed, then all its surfaces are going to be rough, right? I took out “eerie glow” and “malicious undertaking” because those are clichés, and they also don’t add anything. We already know that darkroom lights are eerie, and we’ll soon find out that Duke is doing something malicious. And for similar reasons, I deleted “aging, rickety” and “shoddy plywood-and-two-by-four.” We all know what stools and workbenches look like, so what’s the point of adding these adjectives? It would be a different story if there was something incredibly unusual about the stool or the workbench; then you might want to describe them in greater detail, especially if those descriptions provide clues to Duke’s character or what he’s up to. But if an adjective adds nothing that we don’t already know, then it should be deleted.

But notice also what I’ve retained: the last sentence in the paragraph. It’s brilliant. It’s a shivery intimation of evil and an intriguing first glimpse of Duke’s voice and character. It makes you want to keep reading, right?

I could make similar cuts to the second and third paragraphs, but they suffer from a more fundamental problem: they don’t really advance the story. We have a nice setup here, a mysterious guy using a soldering iron to make a homemade bomb, and all that can be conveyed in the first three sentences. But what do we learn in the next two grafs? Duke is in the desert near Phoenix, he’s wearing desert camo, and he smokes hand-rolled cigarettes lit with an American flag Zippo. But we don’t really get any more glimpses of his character or any clues to what he’s doing. He shuts his eyes and opens them. He walks outside and stretches. He smokes his cig and observes the scenery. But is any of this important? Does it advance the plot or illuminate the character? If it doesn’t, you should get rid of it, or at least compress the hell out of it. Go directly to the next important action or the next revealing insight.

I know this sounds a little harsh. But I’m not being any harsher than a typical literary agent or editor. Remember, folks: the first paragraphs of a novel have to be amazing to get the attention of the publishing industry. They have to feel like the takeoff of a supersonic jet. (I use this metaphor because I once got a chance to fly on the Concorde – it was a press junket – and man, that takeoff really felt like being shot out of a catapult. Whoa!)

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A side note: I have a new paperback in bookstores this week: The Siege, the second book in my Young Adult trilogy about teenagers who turn into robots. (Literally robots, and not just sullen kids who refuse to answer friendly questions from their parents at the dinner table.) It’s a fun story, and the book includes a teaser chapter from The Silence, the final book in the trilogy, which comes out in hardcover next month. Check it out! I’ve listed some Buy Links for the book here.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014) and The Six (2015). Next books: The Orion Plan (coming February 2016) and The Siege (July 2016). His website: www.markalpert.com

7 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Enemies Domestic

  1. Kudos to the author of ENEMIES DOMESTIC for submitting. You and the rest of us are learning a lot.

    At an MWA-NY conference last weekend, agents and editors on panels and in workshops consistently told us they know if they want a book once they read the first line. Wow.

  2. I agree with Mark. I tend to stop reading if the first sentence or two doesn’t grab me.

    I think “malicious undertaking” gives too much away too soon. Keep us thinking “who is this guy and what’s he up to?” Give us just enough to keep us interested and reading further.

    During the long scenery sequence I was looking for the UFO, the smugglers to show up, something to happen. If nothing does, leave it out.

    I would totally read this, just tighten it up a bit as Mark suggests. Best of luck with it!

  3. One other thing. Using the American flag on the Zippo borders on the political. With the country so split and so hyper-critical on political issues, you are guaranteed to pixx off half your readers. I would say the same thing if your character was clutching a Koran in one hand and a machine gun in the other. Neither image is necessary.

  4. Thank you, AA, for your submission. Sure, there are problems, but I for one (thriller reader that I am) would keep reading. You’re on the track of something fun. Save a ton of this detail for later. That American-flag Zippo is great, it just needs to be flourished at the right moment. Good luck!

  5. Mark, I agree completely. This writer appears to be trying to hard. It’s important not to ignore the setting, but it’s best to be more economical with words. There are many examples of overwriting in this snippet.

    I don’t have time to go through this writing sentence by sentence, but here’s one sentence that needs attention:

    “After several unsuccessful seconds, he decided to break from his deadly efforts to better calm himself; opening his eyes, he carefully scooted the stool back away from the workbench and slowly stood on the unsteady wood floor.”

    This sentence has so many unnecessary words and phrases that detract from the writing:

    “unsuccessful seconds”
    “deadly” “carefully” “slowly”, etc. – too many adverbs in one sentence

    This could be rewritten like this (without losing any meaning):

    He scooted the stool away from the workbench and stood on the unsteady wood floor.

    I feel the author needs to go through this page sentence by sentence and eliminate the overwriting. Also, something needs to happen to make the reader want to turn the page.

    Best of luck to the author. Keep writing!

  6. I agree with the great critique. Too many unnecessary adjectives, and although the scenery description was very good, it was too long and distracted me from the story.
    However, I wish the writer the best with revisions. I’d want to know what clandestine thing he’s doing in the shed:)

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