First Page Critique: I Wish I Had Her Job

 

 

Greetings, fellow travelers! Welcome to the latest installment of First Page Critiques.

Our brave writer has submitted the opening to “I Wish I Had Her Job” for your comment. Read closely. There’s a lot going on here.

I wish I had your job…

Alone at last! Loretta thought. I’m home! I’ve finished dinner. Now I can relax.

Today as always at Demon Investigators, there’d been too much to do, not enough time, too much criticism, and never enough pay.

Today, on top of everything else, her manager James Manetti got a call from the Global Center of Anti-Demonic Operations. They said that they had lost track of most of the Potential Vampire Stakers. Over the past two months, they’d all just disappeared, from wherever they were in the world. No one had any idea where they were.

I have no idea, Loretta thought, what they expect Jimmy to do about it. He promised them that we’d all look into it, and see what we (meaning me) could come up with.

After he hung up, she’d asked Jimmy, “If the Global Center of Operations can’t find them, what do they expect from us?”

He’d shrugged and said, “Who knows?”

There’d also been another annoying call from the Feds; routinely asking again if we’d heard anything about the whereabouts of Sylvia Demarco.   Sylvia, the former Vampire Staker, who’d been convicted of armed robbery and murder, had disappeared from her prison cell about a year ago.  The Feds had no idea where she was.  Nobody who worked at Demon Investigators, her former place of employment, had any idea where she was either.

This evening, 23 year old Loretta Carolton sat alone on the sofa in the living room of her apartment. She’d finished her dinner of canned ravioli that she’d heated in a microwaveable container in the microwave oven, and was now sipping from a half full glass of red wine.

The trim figured woman, with expensively coiffured black hair, remained dressed in the stylish white outfit that she’d worn to work that day. She’d turned on the TV and sat watching CNN.

I’m having wine with Wolf Blitzer again. She thought, I’ve got to get a life!

After the News, she switched to the Demonic Entertainment Network on Channel 666. That was recommended viewing for demon fighters, like herself and everyone else who worked for Demon Investigations. Tonight, something she saw might give her a clue as to the whereabouts of the missing Potential Stakers.

She now sat watching this week’s episode of that Network’s highly rated Travel Series: “Bloodthirsty Traveler”. The show was a documentary. Everything she was about to see actually occurred.

____________________

Brave writer, I can tell from this small sample that you’ve got a fully imagined world for us to enter. And I get a picture of Loretta as a positive, yet overworked Demon Investigator. These are real plusses, but let’s explore some changes that could help convince the reader that the story you’re telling is compelling and interesting.

In medias res. This is a narrative concept that puts the reader in the story’s action from the very first scene. You’re telling a story about a demon investigator, so show us immediately how dangerous and interesting that life might be. It’s okay to give your character genuine rest and reflection time, but we don’t need to see her at home, recalling her day right off the bat. Put us in her day, wrapping up a case, or even returning home to find a demon in her rose bushes that she has to deal with before she can have her glass of wine.

Thoughts. As it stands, we are only bystanders for Loretta’s thoughts as she tells us what happened that day. The old standard advice to “show” rather than “tell,” is still sound.

Many folks will tell you it’s wrong to open with dialogue. Personally, I do it all the time, though opinions differ. If you open with any kind of dialogue–especially internal–make sure it grabs us. You can also lose the she thoughts by simply writing internal dialogue in italics.

i.e.:

Where in the world are you, Sylvia? Where does a rogue Vampire Staker hide? 

Loretta Carolton poured herself another glass of Burgundy, and returned to the chair in front of her laptop. The bowl of canned ravioli she’d heated up two minutes after she’d walked through the front door sat beside her, the sickly-sweet sauce congealing into an unappealing mess. She no longer had an appetite. Sylvia DeMarco was loose, and she had to find her before she killed again.

Note: Save your few allowed exclamation points for action dialogue. Even at our most anxious, we don’t really think in exclamation points.

Keep the action in an easy-to-follow order. You have so much information here that’s filtered through Loretta, that you’ll want us to understand it. Lay out the events for yourself, line by line, in chronological order, to take a look at all you’re trying to convey on the first page. Then pare down to one solid event that motivates her to get to work, and illustrate that fully.

There are two flashbacks that occur within moments of the beginning. You do a great job with the writing in the flashbacks, but they act to slow down the story.

Point of view. This excerpt is written primarily in limited 3rd person. We see nearly everything through Loretta’s eyes, and so we will get no additional information that she doesn’t get or have.

Be careful to adhere to this single POV. There are a couple places where you use the word “we.” This is okay if it’s in her thoughts, as in the first instance. But here’s the second: “There’d also been another annoying call from the Feds; routinely asking again if we’d heard anything about the whereabouts of Sylvia Demarco.” You’ve slipped into first person with that “we’d.” With third person, it would be “they’d.”

“This evening, 23 year old Loretta Carolton sat alone on the sofa in the living room of her apartment. She’d finished her dinner of canned ravioli that she’d heated in a microwaveable container in the microwave oven, and was now sipping from a half full glass of red wine.

The trim figured woman, with expensively coiffured black hair, remained dressed in the stylish white outfit that she’d worn to work that day. She’d turned on the TV and sat watching CNN.

I’m having wine with Wolf Blitzer again. She thought, I’ve got to get a life!” [Again, you can use italics and drop the “She thought.”]

I’m wondering why, dear writer, you would have the above section in the middle of the first couple pages. It works as an introduction, which is odd that given that we already have some sense of her. If you’re going to go the contemplative route, this is a better start than what you have now (minus the “This evening”).

Forecasting. It seems evident to me that Loretta will see something useful on “Bloodthirsty Traveler.” If not, you can lose much of the explanation about the show/network. Also, “documentary” already implies that the story is true. No need to reiterate.

In all, I think this is a fun, interesting story. Good job, brave writer!

Zoners: What did I miss? What are your thoughts?

 

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

24 thoughts on “First Page Critique: I Wish I Had Her Job

  1. Great job on the critique, Laura. Although “demon investigator” piqued my interest, I had trouble sticking with this first page. Telling the action after it occurs should be saved for minor things. For example, rather than show a long drive home where nothing happens, show the MC jumping behind the wheel, then transition to her destination. Also, the reader doesn’t need to know the MC microwaved her meal. Instead, invoke our senses like Laura did here: The bowl of canned ravioli she’d heated up two minutes after she’d walked through the front door sat beside her, the sickly-sweet sauce congealing into an unappealing mess.

    The reader yearns for a vicarious experience. We want to feel like we’re in the room. Even if the writer shows us the phone call in real time, through dialogue, it’d help ground the reader in the story and make this first page more compelling. However, as Laura mentioned, I’d much rather experience a demon encounter. 🙂

    Best of luck, Brave Writer! I’m sure you’ll continue to receive stellar advice from our generous TKZ community.

  2. I agree with your insights, Elaine. I’m one of those who don’t like dialogue openings — unless what is being said really piques my interest. The way you re-wrote the opening does this for me. Instead of devoting the precious opening graphs to “telling” backstory (“Today, on top of everything else…), your simple reworking dropped us right into the character’s world (showing). I thought the line about wine with Wolf Blitzer was funny, though could be tweaked: I sat down with my glass of burgundy and turned on CNN. Great, another dateless wine with Wolf night.

    Interesting premise! Just get us more quickly into your character’s world and psyche!

  3. First off, I love the premise. It seems lighthearted/campy enough that I’m thinking it’s YA? I’m getting a very Ghostbusters vibe in the story.

    I agree with Laura’s comment about dropping us into the action. I want to experience her day, not listen to her rehash it. You’ve got a couple of things going on here: the disappearance of the PVS and Sylvia gone missing. Is it important that we know about both of those so soon? I’m guessing they’re related, so maybe focus on one, then introduce the other in another chapter (but soon). That would allow you to ramp up the tension in this scene.

    “Gone?” Loretta asked. “What does that mean?”
    Jimmy chewed his fingernail. “Poof. Disappeared. Can’t find them. The GCADO says that over the last two months, nearly all Potential Vampire Stakers have dropped from view.”
    She scooted to the edge of her seat. “But that means…”
    “Yeah,” he said. “We–you–gotta find ’em.”

    Overall, this looks like it’s shaping up to be a fun story. Good work, author. Keep honing the writing, and you’ll have a winner on your hands!

  4. I like the question the brave writer has posed: What has happened to the Vampire Stakers, and in particular what happened to Sylvia? I also like the description of Loretta. The physical image of Loretta makes her out to be a no-nonsense, tough woman, something she’d need to be in her line of work.

    I wish the writing were more condensed. For example, we don’t need to know that a microwavable container went into the microwave oven. The opening to a novel is so short, so every word is precious, and wasting a word on a microwave seems a shame.

    I agree with both Laura and Sue about needing to start with more action. In fact, one of the best openings I’ve ever read happens to be by Sue Coletta in her novel Cleaved. I was holding my breath in fear by the end of the prologue. And that was just the prologue!

    Brave writer, I enjoy vampire stories. I would read further if the opening held promise of action and suspense or horror. I think with less telling and more showing you could get me to turn the page and read on.

  5. I believe that the road to fixing a wayward opening is to craft (not write) a great opening sentence and first scene that points to the heart of the story. The heart of your story seems to be the disappearance of vampire stakers. Let’s see if I can put my money where my mouth is.

    Sylvia DeMarco eased down the filthy hallway. Her night vision glasses lit the pitch black basement in a flood of florescent green. Another step forward and the acrid smell of a vampire oozed into her nostrils. She touched her quiver of small wooden stakes then her compound crossbow and then the bazooka stakes at her side.

    Another step forward. Fear and excitement mixed in her mind. She wanted to throw up and wanted to kill the monster at the same moment. She peeked through the doorway. The end of the coffin was visible. Another step and she was in the room. As if by magic, the lid to the antique coffin slid a half foot to the right, then again. She loaded a clip of four stakes into the crossbow, then placed a bazooka stake between her teeth. The occupant of the …

    It needs some more work, but I think it conveys the idea. Your goal is to have every reader care about the character and what happens next. I’m sure you’ll come up with something better.

    • You bring up an interesting point, Brian. I’m getting ready to go to SleuthFest next week and my Powerpoint is all about great beginnings. (I’ve learned a lot here). Copying our First Page idea, I solicited 400 word submissions from folks and almost all of them started the way this one does — with the protag at ease THINKING about his/her hard day. Well, shoot, why not start with the hard day? As James always warns us, less thinking more doing.

  6. Interesting premise, but I’d like to see more of it. Your critique pointed that out. Also, the descriptions of the woman don’t tell me anything: “expensively coiffured black hair,” is it short, long, spiky?
    You’re off to a good start, brave reader. Give us more.

    • It *is* such a good premise, Elaine. I feel like the vibe of the character is less “expensive” and perhaps a bit earthier–either way, I definitely agree that it needs to be more specific.

  7. Dear Writer,
    This is how I visualize your scene:
    MC comes home and the t.v. is already on. She leaves it on channel 666, it’s like her pet who welcomes her and is there when she gets home. The volume is low.
    She kicks off her spiky heeled shoes, takes the pins out of her hair, goes into her bedroom and takes off most of her work clothes. She keeps her white tank top and pants on. She tosses her badge or some kind of identity onto the bed or dresser. It has the name of the agency that we will then see on the t.v. Maybe it shows the same symbol on the outside of her place of work.
    The t.v. is showing a story that would be of interest to her, but she did not pay attention because she is in her bedroom. But the reader knows it would be of interest to her because you have given the reader information and we see the MC as part of the article. The t.v. shows alarm over all the missing stakers but changes to something else, the documentary as MC comes back into the front room/kitchen. As she walks past the t.v. she sees the intro to the documentary stops and to look at the t.v. turns up the volume.
    She puts a can of already-in-microwavable-bowl ravioli in the microwave and turns it on. She pours herself a glass of something red (a drink that you invented) while facing away from the t.v. The microwave crackles and is malfunctioning, she opens the door with the hand that is not holding the glass of drink and is almost splattered by the red sauce and ravioli. She hears the t.v. say the name of the rouge woman, she quickly turns to watch the t.v. and spills the red drink on her white tank top.

  8. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I agree with Laura’s wise advice. Here are some additional comments:

    1. “I wish I had your job…” – Think of a more interesting title, possibly with fewer words. Or maybe something like D.I.E. (Demon Investigator Extraordinaire).

    2. Open with something exciting happening somewhere (not at home alone, not driving in car, not anywhere alone thinking, not with telephone calls, not with watching tv – there are exceptions but unless you know what they are, don’t try it). If this woman is a demon investigator, begin by introducing your protagonist doing something exciting in her line of work. Your first sentence will get you rejected by any literary agent: “Alone at last! Loretta thought. I’m home! I’ve finished dinner. Now I can relax.”

    3. Find the exclamation points (I counted three) on your first page. That’s about how many you’re allowed for 100,000 words of prose.

    4. Read “Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right,” by Paula Munier. Then find all the backstory on your first page. Mark it blue. Find all description. Mark it pink. Mark all inner monologue sections in yellow. Underline all areas where your character is alone. Now begin editing. Laura mentioned beginning in medias

    5. Too much repetition on the first page. For example, “idea where” is repeated three times. There are lots of other examples which I’ll leave to you to find.

    6. Stay in third-person-limited point of view. Avoid using third-person-omniscient point of view, because American editors (according to Paula Munier) view it as “hopelessly outdated.” (Study the section on POV in Paula’s book The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings: How to Craft Story Openings That Sell.)

    7. Too many characters mentioned on the first page:

    Loretta Carolton
    Jimmy /James Manetti (assuming they are they same but reader shouldn’t have to make that leap)
    Sylvia Demarco
    The Feds
    Potential Vampire Stakers

    Focus on the protagonist doing something other than sitting alone thinking about all these people and things that have already happened. Take the reader to the middle of some exciting action. Properly introduce your protagonist. I’ve discussed how to do this in some of the other first page critiques here.

    8. This whole thing reminds me of Ghostbusters. People will compare your book to this. If you attempt this project, make sure the comparison will be favorable.

    Out of time for now. Hope this helps.

    Best of luck, brave writer. Keep writing!

  9. Ilove the vipe of the writing – both sarcastic and nonchalant – a serious matter handled with humor.

    I also like the premise as it is presented here. I would read more, which is saying something since I am sick of vampires and other undead.

    I had no problem with the starting with the end of her day, characters have to have chill time, as long as we are going to learn something new from watching the show with her.

    Don’t mention microwave twice – once the machine and then the dish – however, I think the fact that she throws something into the microwave rather than ‘preparing’ something is a bit of a glimpse into her. On the other hand, her description makes no sense where it is on the page and a writer needs to be careful when in a tight POV describing the person whose view the reader sees. It is one thing for her to consider changing out of the white… before eating pasta or walking by the mirror and thinking about how spending all that money on her new haircut was worth it, but who really comes in at the end of the day and thinks about their whole look (that’s more a starting the day kind of thing).

    As said above, be careful with your POV.

    • I totally agree about the vibe. It’s very youthful in its sarcastic, nonchalant matter. That’s a very good thing, I think, when it comes to hunting demons, says the rabid Supernatural fan!

  10. A few more comments that I didn’t have time to give yesterday:

    1.There are rules about hyphens. For example:
    “23 year old” should be written “23-year-old”

    Note: some editors like numbers from zero through one hundred to be spelled out.

    2. Also, the word “now” cropped up a few times on your first page:

    Now I can relax.
    …and was now sipping from a half full glass of red wine.
    She now sat watching this week’s episode…

    (In many cases, sentences are better without the word “now” in them.)

    Just a few quick things that I didn’t have time to mention yesterday.

    Keep going!

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