Legacy in Blood: First Page Critique

By Elaine Viets

Another courageous writer has volunteered a First Page Critique, Legacy in Blood. This first page gets off to a such a rip-roaring start, I think the submission only needs light jiggering. Read Legacy in Blood. My comments follow it.

Legacy in Blood

The first time I met Shauna Kelly, she’d come to my rescue and over the years since, that never changed. That time my cantankerous temper and heaping passel of pride teamed up to push me over a line I shouldn’t have crossed.

The whole second grade class of boys surrounded me in the playground with nary a teacher in sight. Not even my colory imagination could conjure me walking away without my ration of lumps. Fat Eddie Langtree had stolen his last lunch from a scrawny kid who looked like he could use the meal and I’d had enough of his bullying.

I lowered my chin and raised my fists as the jackass wall closed in tight. When someone moved to my right, I turned to take a swing, but Shauna Kelly shoved through the line of idiots and stood by me—the prettiest girl in school.

‘You don’t need to do this,’ I’d told her.

‘Shut up.’ Pretty Shauna had her game face on. ‘You’re not the only one who hates bullies.’

It should’ve been ‘game on,’ but something hit me hard—a thing that came from inside me. No one had ever taken my side before. I knew about standalone fights. I’d grown up in the ‘throw away kid’ system and never knew my mother or father. I was on my fourth foster home and I had more in my future. When Shauna stood by my side, the adrenaline came in a rush and I felt the warm sting of tears. No way would I cry in front of Fat Eddie.

For the first time, someone had fought…for me.

I lost a tooth that day and Shauna scored her first black eye. ‘No one wins in a fight like that,’ she told me, but I had to disagree. I’d found my first real friend and I had Fat Eddie and a peanut butter sandwich to thank for that.

That memory of Shauna made my heart ache even more as I wandered through Lafayette Cemetery in the dark. Lost, I’d come to find her again—like a dog missing the only human I ever loved. A rumbling thunder cloud started to cry and I welcomed its fury and its tears. I knelt by Shauna’s headstone and touched her name with my fingers and let my tears fall. As the menacing storm closed in, I drowned in the flood of lifetime memories of me and my best friend.

Not a day has gone by that I haven’t missed her. Now I had to have her back—in the only way I could. I had to find her killer.
______________________________________________________________________

Anonymous Author sets an intriguing scene: Two second-grade classmates fight a schoolyard bully and become lifelong friends. As an added twist, one fighter is a girl, and we learn at the end of the first page that she’s dead. Bravo! I’m hooked.
A few tweaks would improve this already good submission.

(1) Is the narrator a man?

I assume he is, but let us know. Introduce him. Give us his name. You can do that early in the selection. Here’s an example, but I’m sure you can find a better way:

No one had ever taken my side before. Me, Billy Smith. I knew about standalone fights. I’d grown up in the ‘throw away kid’ system and never knew my mother or father.

(2) Put this first page in simple past tense:

The first time I met Shauna Kelly, she came to my rescue and over the years since, that has never changed.

(3) Consider making that first line into two sentences. Then simplify the second sentence to “over the years” or something similar:

The first time I met Shauna Kelly, she came to my rescue. Over the years, that has never changed.

(4) Where are we? Please tell us.
Where is this happening? What country or region? What year is it?
I assume this scene is set in recent times because the narrator talks about “growing up in the ‘throw away kid’ system” and “never knew my mother or father.”

(5) If the selection is set in modern times, why use the archaic language?
Why does the narrator use such 19th century terms like “heaping passel of pride,” “nary a teacher in sight,” and “not even my colory imagination could conjure me”? Is this scene set in an isolated community and that’s how people still talk in that part of the world?

(6) Are you British, AA?
The quote style seems to be British English, which uses single quotes around dialogue and other terms. If you’re not, switch to US punctuation.

(7) Fix a confusing phrase in the last line.
The section ends dramatically: The narrator is lost, alone, crying over Shauna’s grave in a cemetery.
He vows to avenge Shauna’s death, but the phrase “have her back” is confusing. At first, I thought you meant “have her back” as in “have her back alive.” On second reading, I realized you meant “protect her” or “save her memory.” You might want to recast that phrase:
Not a day has gone by that I haven’t missed her. Now I had to have her back—in the only way I could. I had to find her killer.

That’s it. Congratulations on an inventive, well-written work. I look forward to seeing this published.

 

6+
This entry was posted in Writing by Elaine Viets. Bookmark the permalink.

About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book. www.elaineviets.com

18 thoughts on “Legacy in Blood: First Page Critique

  1. I think the info-dump up front needs to go. It might be more effective to have the narrator walking through the cemetery, vowing to find Shauna’s killer, then judiciously weave in the backstory (which is very well-written, by the way) once the premise is established.

  2. I have to disagree with Don. I like the backstory playground fight. It gives me great sympathy for both the narrator and his savior. It’s a slow build but it’s so well-written (with the minor tweaks others mentioned) that I read on without hesitation. Yeah, maybe it could tighten a little, but I think it works well. It’s not truly backstory info-dump — it is relating a powerful memory but doing so with such immediacy that it FEELS current. It sets a tone (rescue, regret, mourning over a long period of time), and introduces both characters beautifully.

    And I love the fact the writer waited with the punchline of walking through the cemetery and telling us this brave girl is dead. Wow. That slow steady tension build would not be there if the writer had started out in the cemetery. Sometimes, you can back into your dramatic point. Sometimes, it is best to save your killer line for later. (“And now I wanted her back…I had to find her killer.”)

    Small things to maybe work on: Yes, give us the narrator’s gender, as Elaine suggested or inserting it in Shauna’s dialog: “Shut up, Tommy.” Heaping sounds southern but passel does sound archaic. Easy fix. But the voice is pretty spot on since it is an adult remembering a childhood episode. And yeah, find a graceful way to tell us where we are fairly quickly. I can wait for now, but try to do it after your last killer line soon.

    Good beginning! But your working title is meh. Your story deserves something more original. Keep your ear open for the true title as you move on — it will speak up.

  3. I agree with Elaine (and the others) comments.
    I would make one additional change. I’d do what I call a paragraph swap. Move the first paragraph to the end of the fight scene and say – That’s why I’ve always loved her or anything that conveys the meaning of the first paragraph. Where it is feels like its hanging out on its own.
    I like the second as the beginning. It takes us directing into the action. I think I got the swap idea from Professor Bell.
    The rest is good stuff.

    • I’d leave this selection alone, Brian. The first paragraph sets the tone: Shauna is a fighter. The twist at the end is that somehow impossibly brave Shauna lost a fight and now I want to know why she’s dead and buried.

  4. I really love this and see it just needing copyediting (tense shift, a few clunky spots, etc.)

    Agreed you need to establish it is a guy. It’s inferred in “prettiest girl in school,” but his name would work well.

    I agree that putting the cemetery scene at the front would destroy the twist. He’s a broken-hearted guy walking in the rain, remembering his (most likely) first love and BOOM, she’s dead. It sets the stakes.

    I interpreted the colorful language as setting this in the south in the, say, around the 60s. If that’s not right or it’s relevant, a few phrases will anchor the scene. For example, “I’d grown up in the Louisiana throw-away kid system . . . .”

    Total nit-picking. I love this. Terri

  5. That last line confused me too. I assumed it was written in a different time. “Have her back” as in to protect her etc. is a new slang term. Using this with the other terminology doesn’t fit. I agree with everything else you pointed out. It sounds like a book I would like to read.

  6. I like this and I think Elaine’s comments are spot on. At first, I assumed that the narrator was female (I’m not sure why). On second reading, it makes more sense that the narrator is male, but what a fun set up if both characters are girls!
    The first line also suggests that the narrator gets in to more trouble over time and Shauna continues to defend him/her. This made me want to read on from the first sentence, so great technique.

  7. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Elaine made some wonderful suggestions.

    Here are a few additional comments:

    1. In many places, I feel that you are overwriting. For example:

    “A rumbling thunder cloud started to cry and I welcomed its fury and its tears.”
    “my cantankerous temper and heaping passel of pride”
    “Not even my colory imagination could conjure me walking away without my ration of lumps.”
    “As the menacing storm closed in, I drowned in the flood of lifetime memories”

    These kinds of words don’t seem to be the type that would be used by someone who had grown up in the ‘throw away kid’ system. If there’s a reason for this character’s language choice, it would be good to let the reader know about it. Be sure to introduce the protagonist properly.

    2. There is some word repetition. For example:

    “only”

    ‘You’re not the only one who hates bullies.’
    like a dog missing the only human I ever loved
    in the only way I could

    “first”

    The first time I met Shauna Kelly
    For the first time
    I lost a tooth that day and Shauna scored her first black eye
    I’d found my first real friend

    “tears”

    the adrenaline came in a rush and I felt the warm sting of tears
    I welcomed its fury and its tears
    touched her name with my fingers and let my tears fall

    3. There’s a lot of backstory and waxing poetic on the first page. I’d tighten things up.

    4. Some literary agents caution writers about an opening where the protagonist is alone somewhere thinking (http://nelsonagency.com/2016/06/new-article-series-9-story-openings-to-avoid/). I would start with something happening (a scene) and weave in the backstory in small bits without so much flowery language. An Internet search revealed that Lafayette Cemetery in Louisiana is only open until 3 PM on weekdays (4 PM on weekdays). So, if the protagonist is visiting the cemetery in the dark when it’s raining, perhaps you could introduce conflict by having a confrontation between the protagonist and a guard or some authority figure if the guy is at the cemetery after visiting hours.

    Keep going with your story. I wish I could read more!

  8. Maybe I’m the only one, but I immediately saw the narrator as female. So, yep, you need to clarify or it will be jarring for everyone later. I also had the same problem with my first read of the “have her back” comment at the end. I thought “bring her back from the dead?” for a minute… the only thing that got me past it was it was echoing the earlier comment of backing someone up – having their back. Just those few tweaks mentioned. I really loved this opening – very visual, very emotionally grounding, great character establishment and great heart wrenching – twist of an opening – her friend is dead. I want to read more – NOW! Great job!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *