First-Page Critique: A Mystery Worth Solving

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:

SHADOWS FOLLOW

“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
your arch-nemesis?”

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
profile.”

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
heat.

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?

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014) and The Six (2015). Next books: The Orion Plan (coming February 2016) and The Siege (July 2016). His website: www.markalpert.com

5 thoughts on “First-Page Critique: A Mystery Worth Solving

  1. Anon, you have written a clever and complex opening. You have a story that I want to read. Some good lines (“Well played, little vermin.”) suggest a POV character that I would enjoy spending time with.

    If you slow down and build the scene in a couple of layers, you will have a better opening. An example of rushing is: “Kyle took a step closer to the crime scene in his pea bed.” This line completely threw me, because I hadn’t been told yet that the scene takes place in a vegetable garden. You may be astonished to hear this, but I seriously wondered if “pea bed” might be a reference to an all-natural mattress made of pea shells (instead of the usual buckwheat husks — yes, those are an actual thing).

    I was confused as well about the pronoun. Here, “his” attaches most easily to Kyle, but I don’t think it makes sense for Kyle to be going undercover on his own property. So whose garden are we in? Could it belong to the cat? (There’s a fantasy element to the opening that I can’t quite shake. Maybe in Kyle’s world, a fluffy white cat really can be a Moriarty-class evil genius who enjoys weeding the veggies.) Slow down; make clear; ease the reader more into Kyle’s off-kilter world.

    You might consider injecting a bit more action into the first scene. Kyle smooths his dress, flicks his hair, hides a smile, and takes a couple of steps (of both forward and sideways varieties, yet they hardly constitute a tango). How about making the cat jump out of nowhere, negating all the fancy surveillance tech?

    Above all, what is Kyle feeling? I read only a slight annoyance at being called a “badass” despite the cute outfit he’s chosen (a nice bit of comedy, by the way). Consider working a bit more emotional context into the scene. Is he in danger? Is he smarting from humiliation at being given the job of tracking a cat through a garden while wearing women’s clothing? Does he like cats? (The reference to “vermin” suggest no, but I’d like to hear more.)

  2. I see a writer who already has an emerging voice (congratulations!), but who needs to slow down and clarify. Confusion abounds in this opening. A case where the writer has clarity in his/her mind but the clarity doesn’t reach the page. Readers will stop reading when they are confused.

    Might also be a case of trying too hard to be funny. The story comes first; the humor is an embellishment that can add depth to the characterizations and enjoyment to the actual story. Relax. Tell the story. Get that right, and then go back and flesh out the humor so that it doesn’t distract from the story but is integral to the story.

    The advice to relax also relates to word choice, as Mark has mentioned. Word choice doesn’t matter a whole lot in first drafts, but is key to creating and maintaining a mood or a tone. Every word counts.

    These are lessons my first writing mentor taught me. I could not believe how much my writing improved when I relaxed and simply told the story. Lots of revisions after that, of course. Many little darlings murdered during the revision process because they were not apt and were unclear, but the story was there when I let it be the most important objective.

  3. Mark.Doug, and Sheryl’s advice is critical and here’s why. I don’t care about Kyle, the cat, Creepy, the garden,or even the flying wall because you haven’t given the reader a reason to care. In its current state, this is just a collection of sentences. My best advice is to go to the library or bookstore and read a couple of dozen openings of books in your genre. I think you’ll see how to handle beginnings.

  4. I’m having a hard time thinking what to say about this submission because I like the brave writer’s voice, but I got thrown out of the story a couple of times. If the crime scene is in Kyle’s pea bed, then why does he have to wear a disguise? If there’s a typo, maybe the phrase is supposed to be “this pea bed” and not “his pea bed,” and maybe Kyle and Creepy think the cat will lead them to a big clue . . . if Kyle can get the tracker on the cat.

    Like Sheryl said, every word counts. It’d be wise to tighten sentences when you can to make room for the juicier stuff. For example, “fanning his false eyelashes at the surveillance camera Creepy watched him with” could become, “fanning his false eyelashes at Creepy through the surveillance camera.”

    I like the humorous tone, but Mark is right. If this is supposed to be a comedic mystery, the title doesn’t fit.

    If the brave writer clears up the confusing places and tightens up the prose, I would read another page.

    BTW, Creepy is a great nickname, both memorable and funny!

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

    1. Adverbs. You used at least 4 on the first page (probably x 2, simply, only). I don’t mind an occasional adverb when appropriate, but if you’re using four adverbs per page, that’s a habit you want to break.

    2. Word Repetition. Try to use more word variety. If repeated words don’t leap out at you, get software that will find them for you. It’s fine to use basic words more than once, of course. However, the second occurrence of certain words (followed, played, turned, heat, etc.) could be replaced.

    3. Try not to use the word “was” unless you must.

    Example:

    “The cat was wearing a button camera.”

    Make the sentence stronger by eliminating was. For example:

    A button camera dangled from the cat’s neck.

    3. Overwriting.
    ” He decided fanning his false eyelashes at the surveillance camera Creepy watched him with would probably be overkill.”

    Let’s see if we can make a stronger sentence by shortening it, like this:

    Fanning his false eyelashes at the surveillance camera, as Creepy watched,
    would be overkill.

    Example 2:

    “Distance turned the skyscrapers into twigs that danced in an orange mist of smog and heat.”

    Try something like this:

    Distant skyscrapers resembled twigs dancing in an orange mist of smog and heat.

    Example 3:

    “Kyle took a step closer to the crime scene in his pea bed.”

    Try this:

    Kyle stepped closer to the crime scene.

    or

    Kyle inched closer to the crime scene.

    Find a way to clarify what kind of “pea bed” you’re referencing before using “pea bed” at the end of the sentence.

    4. How to use a four-dot ellipsis:

    http://www.businessinsider.com/when-to-use-the-four-dot-ellipsis-2016-4

    5. Aim for clarity (without overwriting). Don’t be coy about telling the reader what is happening.

    Overall, I agree with everything Mark said. One clarification, though. Mark wrote:

    “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.”

    I pick up a novel not because I want to read about people doing things. I read because I want to feel something. The writer’s primary purpose is to elicit emotion. When I read, I want to live life vicariously through the eyes of the protagonist. What do you want the reader to feel after reading your first page? Why would a reader want to follow your protagonist to find out what happens to him? These are questions to ask as you do your revisions.

    Best of luck, and keep writing!

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