First Page Critique – Cherry Bomb

Writers are advised to start their story with a bang. The Anonymous Brave Author of today’s first page took that advice to heart…literally! My comments appear at the end.

Cherry Bomb

             Vivienne Rook threw a cherry bomb off the backyard deck, aiming at her deceased husband. “Take that to the moon and back!”

A boom ricocheted off the dense wood that lined her sister’s house as the effigy’s crisp white shirt flailed. “Tsk, just got the arm,” Vivienne sniffled. She’d built “Win” out of a cotton mop and broomsticks, garbing him in his favorite outfit: khaki pants and a white dress shirt with a sports jacket. A charming dickhead in casual business attire.

She turned at the scrambling sound behind her. Clawing a quick getaway from the noise, Spot and Kitty, her sister’s pug and Maine Coon cat, had wedged themselves together in the pet door, their tails frantically waving as they tried to shimmy through the narrow entrance.

“Meow!”

“Woof!”

“Chickens.” Vivienne bent over and pushed the pug’s tan rear through the opening, allowing both animals to escape. She heard a bump and then a chair fall as they fled.

Back to work, Vivienne twisted together the fuses of two cherry bombs and set the pair on the railing, her therapeutic arsenal strung along like little missiles of pain.

“Should I get my own explosives or do you have enough for two?” her sister, Mirielin, called through the kitchen window. She was flanked by both animals who were standing on the kitchen counter scowling at Vivienne.

“I’ve got you covered,” Vivienne said. “Tell those animals to be less judgy.”

A few minutes later, the screen door creaked as Mirielin stepped onto the deck with a bottle of white wine and two glasses. “Scared us silly, Vivi. Did you break into the twin’s stash of homemade explosives?” Mirielin’s reading glasses were tucked into her updo, next to the chopstick that kept her red-gold hair in a messy bun.

“You betcha. Done at the shelter so soon?”

Mirielin’s sharp blue eyes took in the scene. “I just came home to feed the animals.”

Vivienne tried to sound tough, but her voice caught. “Look, I’ve got Win trapped in the lawn.”

Her sister’s mouth pursed into a sad knot that Vivienne had named the Woe-a-Widow look. It came over people’s faces when they struggled to comfort her over the unexpected death of her husband, and the revelations that followed.

***

In the first sentence, Anon follows Jim Bell’s excellent dictum: Act first, explain later.” And Vivienne definitely grabbed my attention. Why does a new widow want to blow up her husband’s effigy? Her unexpected reaction to tragedy makes her an interesting character.

Plus you inject a touch of ironic humor. That signals the genre may be a cozy with attitude. Readers admire gutsy characters who maintain a sense of humor in the face of adversity. I’m already on her side, rooting for her, even though I don’t yet know what the conflict is. You avoided the trap of a backstory information dump. Well done.

I didn’t spot any typos or grammar goofs in your submission. Congratulations on a good job of proofreading, the mark of a professional.

However, a few speed bumps stopped me.

The first question arose about the phrase: the dense wood that lined her sister’s house. Initially I wondered if “wood” should have read “woods.” Then the word “lined” confused me. Are you saying the house is in a wooded setting? Or are you trying to describe wood siding over the surface of the sister’s house? Clarify this small detail so it doesn’t sidetrack the reader with questions that are irrelevant to the story.

Because the rest of the page is error-free, I’m guessing “wood” wasn’t a typo, but rather an unclear sentence. Perhaps a better way to express it would be: A boom ricocheted off the dense woods that surrounded her sister’s house as the effigy’s crisp white shirt flailed.

“Garbing” was a distraction because it’s a peculiar verb. Suggest you simplify: She’d built “Win” out of a cotton mop and broomsticks, dressing him in his favorite outfit: khaki pants and a white dress shirt with a sports jacket. That’s a smoother way to say the same thing without using a word that could unnecessarily jar the reader out of the story.

A charming dickhead in casual business attire is a great line that reveals Vivienne’s humor, as well as her disappointment with her husband. Again, you’re pulling the reader into the story with more questions. Why is he a dickhead? What did he do to her?

The next bump that stopped me was:

Clawing a quick getaway from the noise, Spot and Kitty, her sister’s pug and Maine Coon cat, had wedged themselves together in the pet door, their tails frantically waving as they tried to shimmy through the narrow entrance.

            “Meow!”

            “Woof!”

            “Chickens.”

This is a funny visual but when using comedy, timing is everything, and this timing is off. Make this paragraph snappier by removing extraneous words that lessen the impact of the humor.

For instance, readers don’t need to know the pets’ names yet. Delay that information for a moment, as shown in the rewrite below. The sounds of meow and woof aren’t dialogue and don’t need to be enclosed in quotes. Otherwise the reader might think the story is about talking animals.

“Chickens” is meant to be an insult to the pets, but instead made me wonder if there were additional critters, like fowl, in the scene. These small stumbling blocks distracted me for a second.

An alternative rewrite:

Clawing a quick getaway from the explosion, her sister’s pug and Maine Coon cat had wedged themselves together in the pet door, tails frantically waving as they tried to shimmy through the narrow entrance. Mirielin would be pissed that Vivienne had upset Spot and Kitty. Vivienne bent to push the pug’s rear end through the pet door, breaking the furry logjam. From inside the house, she heard more scuffling, then the bang of a kitchen chair hitting the tile floor. “Cowards,” she muttered.

Another great line is: Her therapeutic arsenal strung along like little missiles of pain. It offers insight into Vivienne, showing her conflicted feelings about Win’s death. You found a fresh way to describe grief, expressing a lot of meaning with only a few well-chosen words.

Next distracting bump:

“Should I get my own explosives or do you have enough for two?” her sister, Mirielin, called through the kitchen window. She was flanked by both animals who were standing on the kitchen counter scowling at Vivienne.

Not bad, but could be smoother. How about:

Her sister’s voice came through the open window. “Should I get my own explosives or do you have enough for two?” Mirielin stood at the kitchen counter, flanked by Spot and Kitty who were scowling at Vivienne.

One key to great description is to choose specific details. You’ve done an excellent job showing Mirielin: Mirielin’s reading glasses were tucked into her updo, next to the chopstick that kept her red-gold hair in a messy bun. The reader not only sees her, but gets a glimpse of her personality. You neatly slip in the information about her family (twins) and that she volunteers at a shelter, all without slowing the action. Mirielin’s dialogue appears lighthearted on the surface but hints at her underlying concern with her sister’s odd behavior. Even the use of the nickname “Vivi” tells the reader about their relationship.

You wrap up the first page with a brilliant paragraph:

Her sister’s mouth pursed into a sad knot that Vivienne had named the Woe-a-Widow look. It came over people’s faces when they struggled to comfort her over about the unexpected death of her husband, and the revelations that followed.

You’ve gracefully shown the reader a lot of relevant story information. We know about Vivienne’s inner conflict, as well as what she must deal with in her outside world. At this point, I’m intrigued enough with the characters and actions that I would definitely turn the page to find out why Win’s death was unexpected and what revelations she’s referring to, as well as how Vivienne handles her challenge.

You start with action, give brief but effective snapshots of characters, and hint at a conflict that promises to grow. Just a little polishing will turn this into a terrific first page. Well done, Brave Author!

 

TKZers, any thoughts or suggestions for our Brave Author? Would you turn the page?

 

Debbie Burke’s thriller Instrument of the Devil recently became an Amazon Bestseller in Women’s Adventure. 

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About Debbie Burke

Crime novelist, suspense and mystery novels are her passion. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Her nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications and she is a regular blogger at The Kill Zone. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

29 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Cherry Bomb

  1. Great job, Brave Writer! You’ve piqued my interest. I’d turn the page to see what happens next. One tiny nitpick. Remove “she heard” to remain in deep POV. Instead, simply describe the sounds—when they fled they bumped into the table and a chair toppled in their wake—followed by Vivien’s reaction. Even though Vivien can’t see the action as it unfolds, what she hears gives her a good indication of what happened. Anyone with pets knows this. We don’t need to see the dog paw the counter to recognize the tap, tap, tap of his nails striking the granite. 🙂

  2. I really liked this. Would definitely read on. Love the authoritative voice (I know what kind of book I am reading and what kind of heroine I will follow). Nice descriptive touches throughout. Great beginning! Liked this graph…

    Her sister’s mouth pursed into a sad knot that Vivienne had named the Woe-a-Widow look. It came over people’s faces when they struggled to comfort her over the unexpected death of her husband, and the revelations that followed.

    …because it hints at backstory and poses questions I hope are answered. “Sad little knot” is a nice fresh visual.

    Good job, writer. Keep going!

  3. The first sentence is fantastic, but I stumbled over the “meow” and “woof.” Vivien already heard the animals scramble, and I laughed at the visual of their rear ends stuck in the pet door. I don’t need the cartoon-like animal voices, too.

    This was a fun read, and I would turn the page to see how Vivien deals with her dead dickhead husband and perhaps the murder mystery behind it all.

  4. I’d read on, Brave Author. I agree with Debbie’s comments on the small bumps. But those are easily fixed.

    You’ve given me a glimpse of these two women without dumping paragraphs of description into the action scene. I’d feel comfortable with the main character’s voice for hundreds of pages. And I really want to know what Win did to deserve his bang-up send-off.

    Good job.

    • Suzanne, agreed it was a great job of hinting at backstory w/o an info dump.
      There was so much right with this piece, it was honestly difficult to find something to critique.

  5. Debbie, great job at the critique. I agree with everything you noted. I want to really lean on how much I despise quoting animals. It didn’t work with Dick and Jane, and it deeply doesn’t work at this level of fiction.

    I was ejected by the notion of sound ricocheting off of anything. Reverberated would be a better verb, I think. Also, I encourage the writer to revisit her use of homemade cherry bombs. They’re actually kind of hard (and pretty friggin’ dangerous) to make. If that’s what the writer means, I’m fine with that. And I’m happy they don’t live next door to me.

    One final thought. When I read, I essentially read aloud to myself silently. Words I can’t pronounce pull me right out the story. It’s particularly a problem with character names (Tolstoy, anyone?). I would re-think Mirielin as a name. Even as I write it here, I had to go back up to the original post to spell it because I still have no idea how to pronounce it.

    • John, you’re spot on with “reverberate.” The perfect verb is so important. And thanks for the explosives lesson too.

      Good point about the unusual name. I’m guessing a variation on “Mary Ellen” but why add this unnecessary speed bump? In college, I read a lot of Dostoyevsky and loved it but the names made me crazy.

  6. I would definitely turn the page to read more. So much to like here. I love the voice. And the descriptions, such as: A charming dickhead in casual business attire. Really snorted at that one. And of course: the sad knot. As Debbie said, hard to critique when the submission was so well done.

  7. That is a killer first line. Love it. And I agree with the comments. Assured voice. Attitude, all of that. I would want to read on but (and here’s my caveat) because I’m interested (who wouldn’t be?) not because I’m bonded to the Lead. What she’s doing is certainly interesting but, let’s face it, weird. Unless it’s justified soon, it’s overkill (you’ll pardon the expression). Quirky characters are great at the beginning, so long as they don’t remain in an indefinite state of quirk (**cough**A Confederacy of Dunces**cough**). We are going to need empathy and sympathy here soon.

    But I’m sure the author knows this, for this is a confident bit of writing. Well done.

    • Jim, haven’t read Confederacy of Dunces but will definitely look it up. A little quirk is like a dash of salt. Too much is overwhelming.

      But I share your feeling that we’re in confident competent hands with this author.

  8. This piece promises to be a very interesting story! A few notes:

    I know I’ll sound like a party pooper, but I stumbled over the opening sentence. Though the explanation that Win’s an effigy comes quickly after, I was stuck in the idea that this was going to be a kind of zombie cozy/comedy. Once I got the explanation, I was able to get into the spirit of the story.

    How did the pug get on the kitchen counter? Is this a usual thing for pugs?

    After careful research, I believe “the twin’s stash” should read “the twins’ stash.” As “twin” implies two people, its plural possessive requires that the apostrophe come after the “s.” Of course, she could be talking about one of the twins, which would make it “twin’s.” But I’m guessing that she wouldn’t talk about one of her own children as “the twin.”

    Okay, this is really nitpicky, so I’ll apologize in advance. Would the dog really woof? I’ve never known a dog to bark when it was running away in fear. It might whine or give a petulant growl, but a bark seems strange.

    Carry on Brave Author!

    Excellent critique, Debbie.

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

    1. Wow! Best opening line I’ve seen here in recent memory. You definitely got my attention. Good job. I’m not sure about the title, but that’s something to think about as you continue writing.

    2. The phrase “dense wood that lined her sister’s house” is confusing. Make it clear. You don’t want readers to stumble after such a great opening line.

    3. ” A charming dickhead in casual business attire.”
    Love it!

    4. “She turned at the scrambling sound behind her.”

    I don’t think “at” is the word you want here. Perhaps “toward” would work.

    5. “Kitty, her sister’s pug and Maine Coon cat”

    This wording is confusing. Kitty can’t be a pug and a cat.

    6. “frantically waving” – get rid of the “frantically” (we get it from the action).

    7. “Back to work” – eliminate.

    8. “She was flanked by both animals who were standing on the kitchen counter scowling at Vivienne.”

    How did the pug get onto the kitchen counter? Maybe I’d better go back and read it again.

    9. Brave writer, the strange situation definitely got my attention. However, I hope some explanation for everything is coming soon. I’d like to see a few more pages. I have to agree with JSB about bonding with the protagonist.

    10. I agree with John about the name “Mirielin” – it’s a lot of syllables. If you like that name, maybe give her a nickname that has fewer syllables.

    Keep going, brave writer. For your first line alone, I’d read more pages. So many writers ignore the first line or offer up something that’s wimpy. Good job. Best of luck!

  10. Great job, good comments.
    My only other hiccup was referring to animals as “who,” which I believe should be reserved for people. I’m pulled out whenever anyone uses “that” for people, so “who” for pets, no matter how much of a part of our families they may be, is a bump in the road.

  11. To Joanne: #5 in your critique. You missed that the animals were named Spot and Kitty. I think the reader will get that Spot is the Dog and Kitty is the cat.

    The first line was a surprise and I wondered if she had murdered her husband. Shouldn’t his name be mentioned sometime before the end of the first page? Perhaps in the first line?
    I loved that both of the sisters had such a laid back attitude toward the cherry bombs and that apparently they were made by the sisters children. I wondered if their ages could be slipped in there.
    I didn’t like the name Mirielin.
    Woe-a-Widow is the best description I’ve ever read.
    I definitely want to read more of Cherry Bomb.

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