By Mark Alpert
And now, as we exit a cold, dreary March and await the arrival of an exuberant April, we turn to the latest first-page submission from one of our anonymous TKZ contributors:
“Sherlock has Moriarty. Batman has Joker,” said a voice in Kyle Dunn’s
earpiece. “How come a badass like you ended up with a fluffy white cat as
A badass? Kyle smoothed down the dress he wore and flipped a strand of his
wig behind the left ear. He decided fanning his false eyelashes at the
surveillance camera Creepy watched him with would probably be overkill.
“What was that?” Creepy asked. “That…. flick?”
Kyle sighed. “Ditch the word badass. That was that.”
“You could’ve said it.”
“Never mind. Focus now. I have trackers, and you’ve got them connected to
your, your… tracking thingy. Now I’ve gotta find that cat.”
Kyle took a step closer to the crime scene in his pea bed. The cat had
scratched away all the straw mulch and dug out dozens of peas. Seedlings
lay barren under deadly California sun.
He hid a smile. The cat probably watched as he followed the clues through
the garden. That shouldn’t have amused him, but hey, the cat played a human
version of red-dot-on-the-wall with him.
Well played, little vermin.
He looked at the surveillance camera on a six-foot stone wall hovering
above the garden. “Besides,” he said, “stalking the cat is good way to
check a perimeter without looking as if you’re, well, checking a perimeter.”
“Now you ditch that word,” Creepy said. “Gardeners don’t say perimeter. Say
plateau instead. Or hilltop. And speaking of checking… turn away from the
camera. Look towards L.A. and don’t move. I need a clear shot of your
Los Angeles spread out beneath them and over the better part of the
horizon, and the direction was too broad, but Kyle didn’t waste time
reminding him of that. He simply turned eastward toward Downtown. Distance
turned the skyscrapers into twigs that danced in an orange mist of smog and
No smog here. This high above Santa Monica, the air vibrated with dry heat.
Creepy named the plateau a devil’s saucepan. Yeah, sure; all devil’s pans
had a church in the middle of it, along with a garden – his garden – a
luscious green patch of joy bathing in mint scent.
The camera clicked twice, and Kyle returned his gaze to the pea bed.
One side step and he saw it. A white paw poking out from under a broccoli
leaf, followed by a soft pink nose. He held his breath. The cat peered at
him, but he didn’t move, watching it out of the corner of his eye.
It wore a bright blue collar with a medallion. Perfect for attaching the
tracker. Now he only had to think of how to lure the cat to come closer and…
It wasn’t a medallion.
The cat was wearing a small button camera.
Why do we read novels? Why do we listen to stories? Because we enjoy the journey of discovery. We like pondering questions and eventually learning the answers.
That’s why the opening pages of a novel are so crucial, because in the first chapter the author is posing the question that the rest of the book will be devoted to answering. Who killed the defenseless child? Who’ll save the planet from nuclear destruction? Will the couple fall in love? Will they stay together after the scandal? The same principle applies to movies and television too: What’s Rosebud? Who shot J.R.?
So the primary task of a novel’s first page is to present the reader with a journey worth taking, a question worth answering, a mystery worth solving. And I don’t think this first-page submission — in its present form — achieves that goal.
First of all, the tone of this submission puzzled me. The title, “Shadows Follow,” led me to believe that the piece was going to be noir-ish, but the first paragraphs seem comic. We have a point-of-view character, Kyle Dunn, performing some kind of undercover mission in drag. He has a partner named Creepy. Kyle seems pretty new to this kind of work, especially when he refers to the “tracking thingy.” He’s stalking a cat, under the gaze of a surveillance camera that Creepy appears to be remotely operating, and the cat is wearing its own spy camera.
Overall, it’s a good comic setup, but I was too confused to be amused. Instead of presenting a funny, intriguing mystery, the author has given us several baffling questions that may or not be relevant to the story. Why is Kyle in drag? If he’s pretending to be a gardener, as Creepy implies, then how do false eyelashes, a wig, and a dress help his disguise? And whose garden is it? (The text says “his” garden at one point, but I can’t be sure if that means the garden belongs to Kyle or Creepy or the devil or someone else.) Why does Creepy need a shot of Kyle’s profile? Why does Kyle need to apply a tracking device to the cat? And why is the cat wearing a camera? That last question is perhaps the most intriguing one, but I was completely befuddled before I even got to it.
Now, sometimes it’s good to begin a novel with a seriously inexplicable situation. For instance, I loved the beginning of The Maze Runner, the Young Adult novel about a boy who wakes up in a strange kind of prison, with no idea how he got there. He’s greeted by other boys who are equally bewildered by their imprisonment but have managed to create their own little society, totally isolated from the rest of the world. And their prison is walled-in by a constantly shifting maze that’s patrolled by killer blobs called “grievers.”
That’s a great premise, right? And the novel’s author, James Dashner, wrote the first chapter skillfully enough that I felt sure he would answer all my questions in due time. But I didn’t feel the same confidence when I read this first-page submission. The writing wasn’t clear or clean enough. A stone wall can’t “hover” above the garden unless it’s being levitated or lifted by a crane. Comparing distant, shimmering skyscrapers to “twigs that danced in an orange mist” is silly. The description of the setting’s geography was also confusing; Kyle is standing on a “plateau” that seems to loom over downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica, but calling it a “devil’s saucepan” is the wrong metaphor, because the bottom of a saucepan is lower than its edge. In other words, a saucepan is the opposite of a plateau. It’s more like a valley.
But the good news is that these problems can be fixed. I would start by making it clear whose garden this is, or at least providing a clearer hint. Also, is Kyle pretending to be the owner of the garden? (He doesn’t seem to be masquerading as a hired gardener, because what kind of lawn-care worker or landscaper would wear a dress for that sort of job?) You shouldn’t give away too much in the opening paragraphs, but you don’t want to leave your readers completely baffled either.
What do you say, fellow TKZ-ers? Any thoughts?