First Page Critique: CROSSROADS

Welcome, Anon du jour, welcome, to our Saturday morning installment of FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE! We have here the beginning of a work titled CROSSROADS, so let’s cue up either the Sailcat album, Neil Young’s Comes a Time LP, or Cream’s Wheels of Fire to provide some background music and proceed:

 

Crossroads

Kelli Wade speeds along the 405 at night, wears her chopped jeans, favorite silk T, coffee-with-cream Chanel jacket, and cowboy boots.  She threads her way between a bus and rusty Toyota, leaning on her Harley.  Blonde hair streams straight out behind her; her helmet strapped to the side of the seat, unused.  Tears streak the sides of her face, momentarily blurring her vision of the dark traffic.

He was sleeping with that waitress-whore!  Did he think I wouldn’t find out?

She has keyed his car, front, back and both sides, before riding away from her ruined relationship.  And this, after getting word that Jackie, her college roommate, has been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer.

“Up yours!”  The rage in her voice blends with the deep-throated growl of the cycle’s engine.  Kelli skids off the exit ramp, swallowing back her pain and pulls up behind the Taft Building.  She chains her bike to a fat drain pipe and takes the service elevator to the sixth floor, shoving open the double doors of Sunset Investigations.  Did he think I was stupid, or didn’t he give a shit about my feelings?

She sits down hard behind her desk, alone, surrounded by darkness.  To keep her mind off murder, she begins to sort through stacks of paper, invoices, and case reports.  The normal day-to-day function of her job.

She takes a deep breath.  Is there’s any wine left in the fridge?

Dawn leaks in through the window blinds, sending streaks across the polished floor.  Other operatives of the agency begin to arrive to work, including her mother.

 

I’m predisposed to like CROSSROADS, Anon, because from the jump I liked Kelli Wade and how you are developing her from the jump. You get several things right. Naming your protagonist right out of the gate is a great move. You also put the reader in the moment from the first sentence by using the third person present narrative style. I especially like how you show your readers without telling them that Kelli is in Los Angeles: Taft Building + Route 405 + rusty Toyota (that sounds like award-winning author James Scott Bell’s hooptie to me!) = Los Angeles. Additionally, you show that Kelli does not take betrayal lightly. Revenge may be dish better eaten cold, but it’s pretty tasty in the heat of the moment, too. You paint a very clear picture of your character’s appearance and personality within just a few paragraphs, yet we don’t feel bombarded with information. That’s part of good pacing. The additional element of Kelli working with her mother is a nice touch as well.  More on that in a second.

Those are the positive elements. CROSSROADS needs to be cleaned up just a bit in a few places.

FIRST PARAGRAPH:

— First sentence: Kelli hits a tiny speed bump. She should be “wearing her jeans,” rather than “wears.” The third person present narrative is a good choice, but it has its pitfalls. I think you want a gerund there as opposed to a verb given that she already “speeds” along. Oh, and while you are at it: tell us the model of the Harley Kelli is riding. Enthusiasts love that information.

—  Third sentence: Let’s change that “her: her” to something else. I like to avoid using the same word twice in a row. And let’s get rid of that semi-colon. Here’s one way: Blonde hair streams straight out behind her. She has a helmet, but it’s strapped to the side of her seat, out of the way.

THIRD PARAGRAPH:

— First sentence: “She has keyed his car” …let’s change that to “She had keyed his car” since it takes place in the past, even if it’s just a few minutes ago.

— Second sentence: While we’re at it, let’s do the same thing and change “has been diagnosed” to “had been diagnosed” for the same reason.

FIFTH PARAGRAPH:

— First and second sentences: These aren’t really incorrect but I’d like to see them a little shorter and tighter. Let’s use all verbs and make a couple of other changes. As things stand right now,

“Kelli skids off the exit ramp, swallowing back her pain and pulls up behind the Taft Building.  She chains her bike to a fat drain pipe and takes the service elevator to the sixth floor, shoving open the double doors of Sunset Investigations.”  

Let’s change that to

“Kelli skids off the exit ramp. She pulls up behind the Taft Building and chains her bike to a fat drain pipe. A service elevator takes her to the sixth floor, where she swallows her pain and shoves open the double doors to Sunset Investigations.”

SIXTH PARAGRAPH:

— The next issue is a question to which I honestly don’t know the answer. It seems as though most businesses store their files and send their bills electronically.  Would a contemporary private investigation agency use stacks of paper or would Kelli be poring over files on her computer? I’ve converted almost entirely to e-billing, electronic documents, etc. That brought me up short, if only momentarily. Of course, if the book’s “present” is before 2007 she is almost certainly pouring over paper. It’s a minor quibble.

SEVENTH PARAGRAPH:

— “Is there’s any wine” should be “Is there any wine”…but I suspect that you know that, Anon. Otherwise, good proofing all the way through.

EIGHTH PARAGRAPH:

—Dawn leaks in…so…we’ve already been told that Kelli arrived at night, but was it really night or really, really early in the morning? I would like some sort of sense of how long Kelli has been sitting in her office before morning comes. This can be handled in a few words earlier in the text to give us some idea of what time of night Kelli arrived at the office.

— I like the surprise of Kelli working with her mom, but it’s a reveal that you might leave for just a little later. Or not. Also…as CROSSROADS is presently written… how does Kelli know that her mom has arrived? Is Kelli’s office door open and she sees her? Or is the door closed and she hears her? There are all sorts of ways that you can address this and you can do it by showing, not telling. As is in:

Three knocks rattle Kelli’s office door. Only one person in the office knocks like that. “Come in, Mom,” Kelli sighs.

These suggestions are made in the spirit of making a good first page better, Anon. I like the setup and I like your character. Please keep going with both.

I will now strive mightily to be uncharacteristically quiet while our friends at TKZ today offer their own observations and comments. Thank you so much, Anon, for submitting CROSSROADS to First Page Critique! And please don’t forget to circle back and let us know when we can see the rest of CROSSROADS!

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8 thoughts on “First Page Critique: CROSSROADS

  1. I like Kelli, but this is a character sketch, not the opening of a novel. There’s no disturbance that sets a plot in motion, per James Scott Bell’s wise teachings.

    SHE is disturbed, but there’s nothing happening on the page to propel her forward. In fact, in going from a Harley-revving rage to stultifying busywork, it can be argued that she’s being propelled BACKWARD. I want to see her disturbance in action, not in reflection.

    What we need to see is something like Kelli confronting her boyfriend and finding him dead. Or confronting the other woman with the same outcome. And being a PI who gets caught at the scene by the cops. Develop the character alongside the plot, not independently of it.

    This feels like one of those novel drafts where the true opening is in Chapter 2 or 3. or even later.

    • I think Jim makes a good point. I think I’d be more intrigued if something was happening from the get-go that will tie into the main crime or obstacle or challenge. While I liked Kelli, the thing about the cheating boyfriend is a borderline cliche way to inject false tension. (The heroine is upset/rattled/angry/betrayed before she even gets to the office). But then again, maybe the boyfriend ends up dead and she has to deal with it or she’s a suspect?. But I have read this opening too many times before. (I think Stephanie Plum caught her ex with her best friend…)

      Might be wrong, but doesn’t Calif. have a helmet law? If so, the writer could make note of this fact, that she is such a bad-ass she flouts the law. (she must be if she’s looking for the wine bottle at dawn!)

      This has potential. Just would advise care in that the sassy betrayed female PI has been done and done and done. You have to work extra hard to make this fresh.

  2. The opening confused me a little. It implies that she is racing along wearing clothes. I’d change it to mention the Harley in the first sentence and her clothing in the second. Makes a bit more sense.
    Also, the Harley has to be a Road King in Vivid Black.

  3. Great feedback, Joe, and from the others as well. I have only two little additions:

    I don’t think Jim Bell is telling us to launch the plot on page 1. The goal is to launch the SETUP on page 1, and even then, it may be less than clear at that point of the narrative.

    Also, there’s a semi-colon in the first paragraph. While your English comp teacher may not mind, most working novelists will tell you that semicolons have no place in fiction. It’s an aesthetics thing, like hanging the head of a dead buffalo in the lobby of a seafood restaurant. A comma or a period is a better way to separate two thoughts. When an agent or an editor encounters a semicolon, the first word that flashes through their mind is “newbie.” Not good.

    Otherwise, a nice start!

  4. I like Kelli and would definitely keep reading. I respect the comments about the need to find a fresh way to characterize a betrayed female PI but I don’t mind an opening in which I am introduced to the character and her personal demons before the action of the plot kicks in. I fully expect her present state of mind to become part of whatever comes next and influence her choices. This will likely begin to happen within the next 400 words with the appearance of dawn and mom. At least that’s what this set-up seems to promise. I agree with the grammatical corrections (e.g. the semi-colon stopped the flow for me).

  5. I would scratch the clothing description from the first sentence, making it, “Kelli speeds along the 405 at night.” (although it is in reality moments before dawn) Clothing descriptions — and this one in particular — bring the pacing to a halt. The opening scene is very nice, tense where it should be and playing to character. Don’t bog it down talking about her clothing.

    I do believe a setup exists here. It could use a little smoothing out (such as changing “begin to arrive to work”), but overall, I like it. I would read on.

  6. Please continue this interesting discourse but permit me to thank all who have visited and/or commented today. Anon, I hope the experience has been helpful for you.

  7. I like the character already. The other comments are all on point. I would be interested to read more. The only thing that is truly driving me nuts right now is her hair – it “streams straight out behind her”. I have been riding motorcycles for a few decade through short, long, and mid-length hair (loose, tied back, and braided)… 99.8% of the time in a helmet, a couple of short runs without…. hair never streams straight back. That stuff whips around your face like mini bull-whips, randomly swatting you all over your face, neck, ears, eyes, mouth, nose, and anywhere else it can possibly reach, and it can really sting. She’s not wearing her helmet, though she has one with her. To me that means she would normally wear it, but for some reason chose not to this time – maybe a quick get away from her crime, maybe she was feeling kind of loose with life over the break-up, maybe the crazy bull-whip-stinging hair is a metaphor or a cover for her current state of mind and feelings. I wouldn’t waste it.

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