Get Some Blood Pumping in Your Prose

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here’s another first page for our review. See you in a few.

The Scorn of Time

“Time,” Hickstead McCarty said as he stepped onto the elevator and rode toward the third floor. His cart projected 13:40 into the air in front of him. That gave him twenty minutes. He hadn’t been inside Apartment 310 since early April. When was that? Six months ago? Not many women made it to the third trimester anymore, leaving the third floor deserted most of the time. He closed his eyes and envisioned the layout of the apartment, ticking off the areas he’d already searched. He’d stripped everything out of the bathroom, knocked on every square inch of the walls and flooring, and even snaked the drains. Nothing unusual there, unless you consider a large clump of matted, muck-covered hair that had wrapped itself around a simple gold earring, a special find. The year before that, he’d searched the bedroom. Twenty minutes was a lot of time, but once the clock hit 14:00 there’d be no spare time for anything other than work – his boss made sure of that, so there was no time to waste. If he planned it right, he might be able to cover most of the kitchen or go through the entire living room. Sure, the place had been searched many times before, by professionals even, but they must have missed something. They must have, because the Armit files were still there. He could feel it.

He nodded to himself as the old elevator inched its way upward. First, he’d move the couch and chairs away from the fireplace. Then he’d have room to check the hearth, then tap on the bricks in the firebox. Most people wouldn’t think to look there. Probably think it too hot to hide digital files, but the way he figured it, if those damn chips weren’t in the obvious places, then it made sense to look in places that weren’t so obvious. Fred Armit could have created some sort of special container to protect them from heat… or whatever else could happen to them in eighty years.

Hickstead’s heart beat faster with possibilities as he opened the door.

Crash.

He froze, his ears straining to hear through the wall that divided the entrance hall from the kitchen area. All he could hear was the tinny, metallic sound of … a bowl maybe? Spinning against the tile floor.

No one should be in this apartment.

***

JSB: First, the good. The opening paragraph raises questions that makes me want to read on. What sort of building is this? Trimesters? Why this one room constantly searched? Who is Armit? Why is there time pressure on the search?

However, as written, the paragraph is dry. No blood coursing through its veins. (More on that in a moment.) Another practical matter is the lack of “white space.” In today’s low-attention-span world, large blocks of text are a challenge for readers. The simple fix is to break big paragraphs into two, three or four. (James Patterson often does this on a macro level, too, by chopping what would logically be one long chapter into two, three, or four “chapters.”)

The second paragraph is mostly the character’s thoughts about what he is going to do (as opposed to actually doing it). It telegraphs action, but is not action itself. Thus, it slows us down considerably.

The page does end with a disturbance—the crash. An intruder. But it’s taken us a long time to get there.

Solution? Start with the crash! Start with McCarty listening. We don’t have to know why he’s there at the get-go. Dribble that in as the action continues.

Act first, explain later. Readers will go a long way with you if the character is doing something in response to a disturbance.

But there’s a larger issue, one that can haunt the pages which follow: we’re missing a sense of who this man is. We’re outside, not inside. The narrative is coolly objective. It delivers information but no sensation. You have one line— Hickstead’s heart beat faster—that is tiptoeing toward emotion, but it’s a cliché. Readers want more, because they are pulling for you! They want to get caught up in a character’s life and challenges.

Compare your piece to the opening of Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451:

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

See that? Every word is more than just a beat of the character’s heart. This is a full-on burst of blood and passion and soul. And notice that the blood is pumping within the action. Montag isn’t thinking about what he’ll be doing in a few pages … he’s doing it.

Try this: re-write the scene by starting with the crash. Then keep McCarty in forward motion, at the same time give us a sense of what he’s feeling as he’s acting. You can “marble” in some of those intriguing questions I mentioned earlier, too.

Here’s a tip: Re-write this first chapter in first-person POV. Feel it as you do. Then convert it back to third-person. I think you’ll find this wonderfully instructive. And I’m certain I will then want to follow McCarty into that apartment!

Final notes:

  • When characters are alone, watch out for this construction: He nodded to himself. The to himself is superfluous, since there’s no one else in the scene. He nodded
  • his ears straining to hear. Ears don’t do anything. The fellow between the ears does. (My favorite example of this type of physical mistake comes from a published novel of yesteryear: His eyes slid down her dress. Eww!)

Time to turn this over to you, Zoners. Any other tips for our writer?

7+

14 thoughts on “Get Some Blood Pumping in Your Prose

  1. Write it in first-person POV, then convert it to third.

    See… This is why I come here.

    I also have a tendency to read through my work with my snarkypants and Capt. Duh glasses and on, looking for redundancies or just plain silliness.

    “He picked his nose with his finger and waited for the light to turn green.”

    Uh, of course he picked his nose with his finger–he didn’t use someone else’s finger. And he likely didn’t use his toes.

    “He sat, finger buried knuckle-deep in a nostril, and waited for the light to turn green.”

    Great tip! Thank-you, sir.

  2. Great critique, Jim. Especially the part about switching from 3rd person to 1st and back again.

    I have to say, I was put off considerably by the second sentence: “His cart projected 13:40 into the air in front of him.” It makes no sense, I have no idea what his cart is nor do I have any clue as to what 13:40 means, or why it’s “projected” from the cart. It very nearly took me out of the piece altogether.

    I would also agree about breaking up any long, forbidding paragraphs. If your first paragraph is long, the reader might not even read a single word rather than attempt a slog through the intimidating paragraph.

    • The bit about the cart and projection put me in SF territory. The word cart, however, is contemporary and not very SF-like. If I’m right about the intent, this would be an opportunity for the author to make up a word for the thing, which is often done in SF world-building,

  3. Well, some intriguing questions set up, as you said. especially the line about women not making it to the trimester mark these days. And that gruesome little aside about a clump of hair in the drain still clinging to an earring. Ew…that made me want to read on. Until I got to the files or whatever was being hidden. The story went from human victims(?) — blood — to digital –dry stuff.

    Had to read the bit about the cart projecting three times and still don’t get it. I assume we’re talking military or European time, but the cart is making some kind of hologram in the air or projecting an image onto surface somewhere?

    A big ditto about the lack of viseral interest. Especially after that wow opening from Bradbury. I had forgotten about that brilliant first line! And a bigger ditto about the lack of eye-relief (paragraphing).

  4. Eighty years in the future, women rarely make it to the third trimester, an old digital storage unit is missing (no doubt the file has to do with human genome manipulation) . . . oh yeah, I’m intrigued. The 13:40 time makes sense if the protagonist is a scientist. I assumed it was a hologram. Maybe adding “lab” in front of the cart would make it clearer and not have it mistaken for a grocery cart or something.

    I agree that we don’t need to read about what McCarty is going to do. It’d be more interesting to be with him as he does it. I also agree that pumping some blood into the prose would make us feel McCarty in our guts. Right now he’s a black-n-white character on an old TV screen with the sound turned down. But with just a little bit of rewrite from our brave author, McCarty could come alive and be an exciting character, and I’d turn the page for more.

    Good luck with your continued writing, brave author!

  5. I like SF. Military time is fine by me.

    I agree – more action, less planning.

    Small nitpick – I read Armit as Armpit. Made me laugh. Then I forgot what the story was about.

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

    I found your story world very confusing. If you want to hook readers, aim for clarity. Try giving the reader more information in a straightforward way. When you give the reader more information, it helps to create suspense. The reader can worry for the protagonist and care about what might happen next. Unfortunately, such an ambiguous situation has the opposite effect. I suggest spelling out what’s happening in a way that anyone can understand. Remember, readers know absolutely nothing about your story except what’s written on the page. The reader should not have to struggle to piece together a confusing story world. Yes, you want your readers to have some questions, but you can’t be too vague.

    Also, you need to introduce your protagonist in a way that compels the reader to go on a journey with him for the length of a book. It’s hard for readers to root for a protagonist when they don’t have enough details about what is going on and the stakes. Readers need to know more about the protagonist (not just what he looks like but what makes him tick). Watch the movie Erin Brokovich for an example of how to introduce a character. Why do readers care about what happens to Erin? Try to find a way to make readers empathize with your protagonist when you do your first page revisions. Hint: they will need more details about what’s going on.

    One book that might help you is called Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. Highly recommended.

    One more thing. I want to clarify something. I agree with JSB that you should act first and explain later. However, when you do explain, the explanation needs to be clear. Perhaps you do want to begin with the crash. Honestly, without knowing your premise, it’s hard to advise you about the best place to begin your story. However, the beginning should never confuse the reader. There are too many books out there, and it’s easy for a reader to move on to the next one.

    Best of luck, and keep writing!

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