First Page Critique: American Dream

Today, I  have an additional first page critique for us to discuss. This one is called American Dream and I think it illustrates some great points about framing an effective first page, particularly when it comes to POV. My comments follow, and as always I look forward to input from our great TKZ community:)

American Dream

The deputy’s vehicle careened into the parking lot, hopped a curb, plowing through a row of purple hydrangeas before coming to a stop inches from the red brick. An off duty deputy  stumbled out the vehicle sucking the last drops from a blue plastic cup. He slung the empty into the damaged shrubbery and staggered inside the Velde County, Georgia services building for the impromptu Saturday evening meeting.

The hottest summer in a century coupled with a defective air conditioner created a wall of heat and a stench of sweat that greeted upon entry. A coffeemaker gurgled and spat. Fluorescent tubes flickered, splashing an uneven yellow light onto the gathering of deputies.

Sheriff Roy Hacker squinted through the rising steam of his coffee. Crow’s feet framed his eyes. Crevices etched deep into his forehead. His starched uniform, crisp and dry. The only man in the room who didn’t perspire. He rose from behind a steel gray desk, removed his service revolver and slammed its butt onto the desktop calling the meeting to order.

“Evening deputies. I want to thank y’all for appearing here on a short notice. But crime does not operate on our schedule.” Roy looked to the drunken one. “Isn’t that right, Burnett?”

The deputy nodded, slurring his assent.

“You been with Juanita this evening?”

“Yes, sheriff I have. And we was having fun.”

“Don’t doubt that you were. We all know, some in great detail, that Juanita can be a whole lot of fun.”

Laughter erupted. Deputies nudged and winked. A sly grin crept over Burnett’s reddening face.

Roy lit a cigarette. He appeared as a looming slit eyed apparition within the haze of smoke. The zippo closed in a metallic click. The room fell silent.

“It has been brought to my attention that we have some criminal activity getting ready to go down in our fine county.”

Deputies shuffled in their seats.

“My informant tells me the area where this crime will occur is right here.” Roy pointed to the top right corner on the yellowed county map taped to the cinderblock wall. “I know what you’re thinking. That’s a desolate and barren shithole teeming with assorted vermin, rattlers and water moccasins . ” He took a step toward his men. “And I’d agree. But I would add, what better place for a crime to occur?”

A collective gaze fell upon the sheriff.

General Comments

POV

This page had some good elements but I think the failure to establish a strong initial POV made it less effective. We begin with a drunken deputy (who we learn later is Burnett) but by the third paragraph we seem firmly focused on Sheriff Roy Hacker. I would recommend the author chose a close POV to focus on (Burnett or Hacker most likely) and then give the reader this perspective right from the start. A distinctive and unique POV would also help the reader become more invested in the story. At the moment it feels too generic and emotionally distant.

That being said, I would caution the author to be careful to avoid the stereotypical ‘drunken deputy’ versus ‘starched sheriff’ story. Again, I think a distinctive and unique POV is what is needed – it would add greater specificity and emotional resonance to the story and give a different perspective that could help set this story apart.

Tone

In addition, a strong POV would also help clarify the tone of this piece – is it going to be a quirky, off beat, but lighthearted police procedural? I think so, but I’m not altogether sure. There are moments where I think the author is edging a little more ‘noir’ish in the wryness of tone…but maybe not.  Again, I think this is more a result of an amorphous POV/voice – once that’s stronger, I think the tone of the page (and the book) will become clearer.

Dramatic Tension

In this first page, all we really learn about is an informant who’s told the police where a crime is going to occur. This (along with the repartee about Juanita), robs the page of much of its dramatic tension. I’m not sure I get why the Sherrif has brought in his deputies for an impromptu Saturday evening meeting (or why the coffeemaker would be gurgling at that time) just to tell them that…seems a bit anticlimactic. Although I liked the humor in the sheriff’s description of the place, I think there would be more dramatic tension if a crime had actually occurred or if there was more detail (humorous or otherwise) about the actual crime that’s about to occur, to make me feel compelled to keep reading.

Specific Comments

Finally, there are some specific comments which are a but more nit-picky but which are nonetheless important for an effective first page. The first issue is one of repetition. The term ‘deputy’ and ‘deputies’ is used numerous times (twice just in the first paragraph). This looks sloppy to an editor and can also dilute the power of specificity in the first page. In addition, there’s a lot of description that can be pared down. Remember, in a first page every word counts. Do we need details about purple hydrangeas and damaged shrubbery? Could we just have one or the other? Likewise, do we need a whole paragraph description of the sheriff or could we just know he was the one person in the room who didn’t appear to perspire (from which we can infer a lot). I think the author could tighten up this first page by focusing on the details he/she really wants to emphasize – is it the drunken Burnett’s entrance, or the hottest summer on record, or is it Sheriff Hacker’s demeanor and humor (?)

Overall, I think once the description is pared down and a firm POV/voice established, this would be a much more effective first page. What do you think? TKZers, what advice or comments would you have for our brave author?

5+

17 thoughts on “First Page Critique: American Dream

  1. Kudos for putting your work out there for critique!

    Biggest point first: I was turned off from the get-go by the drunk Burnett. Whether intended to be serious or humorous, someone driving while impaired isn’t humorous, especially not an officer of the law. No matter whether or not there were any other issues with the first page, I would not have proceeded with the rest of the story (unless the page opened with Burnett being locked in jail). He would never fly for me as a main protagonist.

    My other comments mirror Claire’s. I wasn’t sure whose POV we were to be in and which character was the focus. Also thought you could omit some of the sheriff description and just stick with the point that he was the only one not perspiring.

    “some criminal activity getting ready to go down”–here I recognized a familiar problem that I have with my writing at times, often when I don’t quite know my own story yet–using vague details that drop the reader off the page. Using “criminal activity” and later “the crime will occur” are just too vague to be workable and I can’t see people whose specialty is law enforcement speaking in such vague terms. I don’t know the particulars of police operations, but it does seem a bit odd to gather a bunch of deputies together to share this type of information–I would think if an informant gave critical information that either a) the officer in charge would call needed officers to the location in question or b) tell an officer on duty and have dispatch or somebody appropriate call in the needed number of men back on duty.

    The nice detail that was very movie-visual to me was “The zippo closed in a metallic click. The room fell silent.” I could instantly picture that room full of men called in on a Saturday night as if I were watching it on TV or in the theater.

    Finally, and this may just be me being overly sensitive & protective of southerners, the first page is heading for a dangerous cliche with the characters, especially Burnett (we ‘was’ having fun). I don’t know–maybe author is going for a Smoky & the Bandit type thing. Humor is very tricky to write and with some tweaking, maybe that will come across better (except the aforementioned driving while drunk).

    • BK,
      I don’t think you are being an overly sensitive Southerner. And I think that is much of the problem with this submission. (plus the POV problem that Clare points out.)

      Our first book was set in small-town Mississippi, modeled after a town where my sister Kelly lived. This submission reminded me so much of that book that, I think in retrospect, relied too much on stereotypes of small-town policing. We got some reviews that took us to task for this and I think, with the clarity of 12 years hence, that they were right. (We are rewriting our first book with a goal of re-issuing a new version, which is not an easy process).

      But that first book taught us a lot. Mainly that though at times human stereotypes can be true, if you hit them too dead-on, they feel false and trite. This is also why is is hard to write freshly about certain places in the world like Paris and Manhattan and, well, the American South. You have to approach these places and archetypes (ie Southern cops) with caution and very alert writer senses. You have to find ways to turn the stereotypes on their heads without being false.

      • Agree with both these perspectives – I’ve never attempted an American book let alone a Southern one as I fear I would fall completely into various stereotypes:) I think in this piece the POV question would definitely help and I agree, the drunken deputy was off putting.

  2. Thank you, brave author, for submitting your first page. I like the idea of the county sheriff’s department coming together to set up a sting or whatever their plan will be. Cowboys and bandits, cops n robbers, rangers and desperadoes, they’re all fun stories.

    I don’t like the idea of a drunken deputy arriving and none of the other deputies lifting a finger to arrest him or even just take his keys. I don’t like the idea of the sheriff banging his weapon on the desk. A sheriff surely wouldn’t do that. I don’t like that the sheriff is smoking in a government building because it’s not allowed in very many places anymore, so it’s not realistic. It’s also not realistic for a sheriff to carry a revolver instead of a pistol. Finally, all the law enforcement officers I’ve known or interacted with were super respectful toward women and wouldn’t break out in laughter over Burnett and Juanita, especially since there are probably female deputies in the room.

    If this is story takes place in the past, when officers smoked inside and carried revolvers, then maybe the first page makes more sense, but I didn’t see anything in the opening to let us know it’s not present day.

    Those water moccasins love water and richly vegetated areas. They wouldn’t be in a barren area.

    I think if the opening details were made more realistic, and if we got into the nature of the crime and the sheriff’s plan, then I’d keep reading the brave author’s story.

  3. First, thanks to the author who submitted this. It takes guts to put your baby out there for all to see!

    I agree with the above comments, as well as Clare’s critique. First, decide on your POV, then move forward. I think you’ll actually find it easier to write this scene once you’re able to get into the mind of that one character.

    By this point in the story, the reader should have an idea of the protagonist or antagonist. More time has been spent on the setting than the character. Trim the descriptions and focus on the people and the action.

    I also didn’t like that the drunk deputy was played almost as comedy (think Otis in Mayberry). The other cops wouldn’t find that humorous, since they’d be depending on him to have their back.

    Keep writing and learning! It’s a process, and we’re all right there with you.

  4. I agree with Claire and the TKZ faithful. I also see one other problem. BK alluded to it. This story is built on a cliche idea. From the Andy Griffith Show to Smokey and the Bandit we have have been inundated with ignorant southern sheriffs, deputies, etc. This might work on screen but not on the page. I don’t even think it is an idea that is still relevant.
    Maybe we need to see a different kind of southern cop. One who isn’t the butt of jokes. James Lee Burke does it well. Who and what the main character is about is up to you, but dig deeper and find the real person in either the deputy or the sheriff and stay in that POV.
    On the upside, you can write. Pair that with a worthy idea and you’ll have something to work with

    • A better illustration of my suggestion is Jim Thompson’s Killer Inside Me. Here is the Wiki description of the 1952 book:

      The Killer Inside Me is perhaps Thompson’s finest and best-known novel. The narrator, Lou Ford, is a small-town deputy sheriff who appears amiable, pleasant and slightly dull-minded. Ford is actually very intelligent and fighting a nearly-constant urge to act violently; Ford describes his urge as the sickness (always italicized).

      If you haven’t read Thompson, it is as hard boiled as it gets. He is a master at writing scenes that make you uncomfortable.

  5. I agree with the comments and salute the brave author. My first question was, “Why wasn’t the drunken officer deprived of his keys and his badge?” If he wasn’t, we’re edging into small town stereotypes.
    Also, I was stopped by too much description of the sheriff on the first page. I’d cut some of this “He squinted through the rising steam of his coffee. Crow’s feet framed his eyes. Crevices etched deep into his forehead. His starched uniform, crisp and dry. The only man in the room who didn’t perspire.”
    Get out your editing pencils, brave author, and you could have a good story.

  6. Elaine – agreed that with some editing, there’s potentially a good story in this first page! Thanks again to our author for submitting – it’s certainly brave to put your work out there for feedback, but hopefully the comments and advice today have been helpful.

  7. If may, and perhaps I’m belying my “shoulda been a English teacher insteada an alleged archy-teck,” but, a couple grammatical things in the first page “speed-bumped” me:

    Verb tense/parallelism:
    “The deputy’s vehicle careened into the parking lot, hopped a curb, plowing through a row of purple hydrangeas before coming to a stop inches from the red brick….” should perhaps read as:
    The deputy’s vehicle careened…hopped…plowed through a row of purple hydrangea and stopped inches…”

    Second is “…inches from the red brick”… what? Wall? Planter? Courthouse?

    Similarly, despite his drunkenness
    An off duty deputy stumbled out the vehicle, sucked (in lieu of ” sucking “… and is there a straw?), the last drops from a blue plastic cup. He slung the empty into the damaged shrubbery and staggered inside…”

    Lastly, for this paragraph, there ought to be a comma after Georgia in “…the Velde County, Georgia (,) services building…”

    Perhaps I’m just picking nits, but I can still see the red pencil marks on pages I’d turned in long ago (but not so far away…)

  8. I agree with the critiques above. I was bothered by the drinking and driving too, but also something else that no one has touched on. He also littered by throwing his cup into the shrubbery. I realize this is a minor point but I don’t see a law officer doing this. My older brother was my guardian during my teen years and he was a highway patrolman. Neither another deputy or officer would have dared do that in front of him. He would have given them a ticket.

  9. Thanks for sharing your work, brave writer. Here are my comments:

    1. You haven’t properly introduced your protagonist. Do an Internet search on “Making an Entrance” by Barbara Kyle and check out the article. I also have info. on how to introduce your hero on my blog. Also check out the articles here at TKZ on story openings. Listen to the YouTube video entitled “Script Consultant – Michael Hauge – Every story needs a hero.” Even though you’re writing a book instead of a script, this video will help you. You want to inspire readers to care about what happens to your protagonist. Your opening should make it clear whose story you’re telling.

    2. As for point of view, your best choices are first-person point of view or third-person-limited point of view. Avoid using third-person-omniscient point of view. Paula Munier gives additional of great advice about point of view (and lots of other stuff) in her book entitled The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings: How to Craft Story Openings That Sell.

    3. The opening, as it stands, isn’t as interesting as it could be. Start in medias res, which is Latin for “into the middle of things.” Perhaps you could put your hero in some sort of physical or emotional jeopardy. Whatever happens, make it very personal to your protagonist. If he’s going to drive through flowers, there had better be someone big and mean watching him do it (conflict). You’ve only got a couple of seconds to capture a reader’s interest before (s)he grabs another book.

    4. Check out James Scott Bell’s book entitled Plot and Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish.

    There are some issues with the writing (word repetition and such), but right now, you should focus on the larger issues. My best advice is to spend some time reading books on the art of fiction writing. (You should be able to find lots of books at your local public library.) Then revisit your opening.
    Brainstorm ten different ways to begin your book. Choose the best one.

    Keep writing and learning, brave writer. I can tell that you are a storyteller. You want to begin your story in the best way possible. The folks here at TKZ have given you some great advice.

    • Oops. Typo.

      “Paula Munier gives additional of great advice about point of view…”

      should read

      “Paula Munier gives additional great advice about point of view…”

  10. Thank you brave writer for submitting your work. I agree with most the critiques for this first page. IMO, the first paragraph needs the most editing.
    1st sentence: I don’t know what hydrangeas are so that stopped me. If the word was flowers I’d understand. Change. plowing to plowed keeping past tense.
    2nd sentence: change to …stumbled out of the vehicle….. cup. of what?
    3rd sentence: A deputy littering in front of a government building? Even if he’s drunk that took me out of the story.
    What a few people posted, in my mind had to do with the political correctness that we live with today. Establishing the year would bring believability as to what deputies would or would not do.

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