Setting Can Add Tension – Use it – First Page Critique: Dancing with the Well-Bred Devil

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

By Usien – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22220725

I will be traveling today for a bit of sun and fun. I’ll try to pop back when I can…IF I CAN. For my post, I offer the work of a gutsy anonymous submitter for a first page critique. I’ll have my feedback below. Please add to the conversation with your constructive comments so we can help this author with suggestions for him or her to consider.

The submitter added this insight into their work:

This is a murder mystery set in the early 1990s that digs into the dark, unseemly corners of academia where moral corruption and the abuse of power hide.

***

Club Orleans,
Sayreville, NJ
As Megan completed her sinuous corkscrew down the pole she saw him—Professor D.B., the last person she ever hoped to encounter here.

Holy. Fricking. Hell. She released the pole and strutted across the stage away from him, forced on her most seductive stage face, and hoped it hid the rush of fear that filled her stomach to overflowing. She managed to resist covering her all-but-naked breasts.

Her mind flooded with the image of the Psych Department chair dressing her down before sliding the letter across his pompous desk, the letter that would explain that she’d been kicked out of the grad program, and that she might as well pack up her apartment and move back to Gump-ville, Indiana, to the welcoming jeers of everyone who’d ever warned that she was too big for her britches. But it was the thought that followed that made her shudder—the thought of what good old D.B. might propose to keep his silence.

He couldn’t have recognized me. When she started dancing again, she’d gone to great lengths to morph her appearance—heavy make-up, huge eighties hair, costuming—and to transform her persona from Miss Quiet-Studious. Considering she only worked at clubs at least a half-hour from campus (and avoided the elite establishments altogether), she was certain she’d never see anyone from the program. Her transformation was good insurance nonetheless.

As she latched onto the life-preserver thought that D.B. couldn’t have recognized her, the fear dissipated. But what was he doing here? Look, make a last round and call it a night. Stay in persona and treat him like any other customer.

She worked her way around the rectangular bar that surrounded the stage, her nerves increasing proportionally as the number of bills in the elastic of her G-string grew. The whole time, she felt D.B.’s eyes crawling over her body. She suppressed another shudder.

And then she was facing him. “I hope you enjoyed my show.” She tried to keep the right level of sultry in her voice.

“Oh, it was . . . eye-opening, despite how much I missed.” D.B.’s eyes bored into her as he dangled a ten.” Miss . . . ?”

And in those eyes was the damning truth—he recognized her.

FEEDBACK

There is definitely a disturbance happening for Megan. Nothing like an unexpected visitor to your place of employment to rattle you, especially when you are half-naked and plying your best moves on a stripper pole. It’s hard to imagine why a graduate student would be stripping. The money must be good or she must be desperate for funds.

To have a professor be the one to find her is a solid set up. I don’t know why Megan calls him Professor D.B. by his initials for the reader. Why not just say his name since she’s in her head? I had to reread to see if DB is the chair of the Psych department and assumed DB wasn’t the big kahuna. I liked that the author didn’t drift into back story and stay there until the face off when Megan sees in his eyes that he recognizes her, but there is enough back story and “slow the pace” explanations that divert the reader’s attention from Megan’s mortifying moment of being recognized by someone from her graduate program.

This is definitely a page turner, but I would like to offer a few tidbits for the author to consider, to add layers to this intro. The writing is a little sparse and more can be woven into this intro to give a feel for how much Megan has at stake.

GENRE – If I only had this intro as a peek at the genre, I would’ve thought it to be a Harlequin Romance. There’s a hint of humor to Megan as a feisty heroine working her way through her graduate program. Is DB a soon-to-be love interest or a dastardly villain will to blackmail her into his sexual demands? What conflict would they have to sustain a whole novel? From this set up, I don’t know.

From the set up the anonymous author sent with the submission, we see that this is a murder mystery set in the 1990s and it’s about moral corruption and abuse of power in the academic world, but that’s not the feel of this intro. If Megan will be blackmailed by DB to keep her secret in exchange for sexual favors that will grow into a murder, then I would suggest the author layer in more mystery and the threat of coercion to this piece. The reader needs to see Megan’s fear and vulnerability at getting caught and her willingness to do anything to keep her secret. Beyond this short intro, the reader would need to feel her shame if her mother found out, or how her career plans would be dashed.

Words like “Gump-ville Indiana” and “too big for her britches” and “eighties hair” are meant for cliched humor. If this is not the intention with the rest of the story line, then why begin the book with implied humor?

SETTING – I like the world building of a good setting. It doesn’t have to be drawn out or slow the pace, but an effective setting can add to the emotional aspects of the scene. In this intro, I wonder if the setting can be an element of mystery to draw the reader into the scene, where it’s not completely clear where Megan is. The phrase “sinuous corkscrew down the pole” is a dead giveaway where she is and what she’s doing, but what if the description is vague and develops into something more as a tease. (The sample rewrite below was written hastily by me to illustrate the point of focusing on Megan, avoiding back story and adding more of a threat from DB. I’m sure the anonymous author could do better.)

SAMPLE REWRITE WITH MORE SETTING AND LESS BACK STORY

Through the blinding lights of the small stage, Megan caught a familiar silhouette—a tall man standing in the shadows apart from the rest. Something triggered a memory and made her think of him, but he vanished as soon as his face came into her mind. Spirals of smoke clouded the air as she moved and the music built to a crescendo. Her big finish would be next. Her fake eyelashes made it harder to search the crowd for the last person she expected to see.

Please…it can’t be him.

She strayed from her usual routine to stay in the murky corners near the velvet curtain and worked the edge of the stage until she felt the heat off the horde of faceless patrons and heard the low grumbles from her regulars. Megan couldn’t avoid her big finale. She had a reputation to uphold, but as she strutted across the stage and into the spotlight toward the shiny brass stripper pole, she sensed the laser heat off his eyes—Professor D.B. from her Psych department graduate program.

He’d stepped closer to the stage—and her.

After she turned her back on him and reached for the brass pole, she hoisted her body into her signature spiral that had the men hollering for more. With every turn and every impossible stretch of her limber body, she searched the shadows and hoped the professor hadn’t recognized her. She had troweled on enough makeup where her own sweet mother wouldn’t recognize her.

Her future, everything she had worked for, would be riding on whether she had only imagined Professor D. B. in the front row. Adrenaline raged through her body as heat flushed to her cheeks. Oh, God, please no.

OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS THAT MIGHT ENHANCE INTRO – Here are a few questions that came to my mind that may keep the focus on Megan and the tension, rather than dipping a toe into back story. The back story is sparingly used, but it’s there. It starts in the 3rd paragraph and is threaded through as Megan thinks of the ramifications of getting caught because D.B. might recognize her.

With open-ended, the author can put his or her take on the answers that might make it into a rewrite, to put their own spin on the story. I’ve found that by offering open-ended questions, the author usually comes back with something far better than my rewrite. It’s their story and their characters.

1.) When Megan spots D.B., is she upside down or spinning on a pole with stage lights? This would make it harder for her to see him clearly. She’d have to change her routine to peer through the silhouettes of men and hands touching her costume. It could add to the tension if she catches a glimpse of him, but he disappears–or build up her stress as she sees a familiar face without letting the reader know who she spots until the last minute.

2.) Does she change her routine because she’s afraid of taking off everything if it’s him? Or maybe she does awkward poses to get a better look at the crowd, like looking between her legs upside down. How do patrons of the club react as she changes her routine?

3.) What does the club look like, smell like? Setting might add to her stress if it’s the same “grind” – pardon the pun.

HOUSEKEEPING

In the sentences below, there are words to clean up. I’m not trying to offer different writing. I’d like to use the author’s words to start and clean up from there. I don’t begin sentences with “And,” don’t embed dialogue lines within a paragraph, and try to build stronger sentences and delete uses of “was.”

BEFORE

And then she was facing him. “I hope you enjoyed my show.” She tried to keep the right level of sultry in her voice.

“Oh, it was . . . eye-opening, despite how much I missed.” D.B.’s eyes bored into her as he dangled a ten.” Miss . . . ?”

And in those eyes was the damning truth—he recognized her.

AFTER

“I hope you enjoyed the show.” She fought to sound sultry as she came face-to-face with him.

“Oh, it was…eye opening, despite how much I missed.” DB’s eyes drilled into her as he dangled a ten. “Miss…?”

In his eyes were the damning truth. He recognized her.

Thanks to the author for their submission. I wish you luck on your project. For discussion, please comment with your feedback. Thank you.

1.) Is this a page turning submission for you?

2.) What suggestions would you make for this author?

3.) Bonus points for PUNS in your comments.

4+
This entry was posted in #amwriting, adding tension, first page critique, Writing and tagged by Jordan Dane. Bookmark the permalink.

About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She also pens young-adult novels for Harlequin Teen. Formerly an energy sales manager, she now writes full time. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs.

13 thoughts on “Setting Can Add Tension – Use it – First Page Critique: Dancing with the Well-Bred Devil

  1. Interesting submission, brave author!

    It may be just me, but I had to read it three times to understand that Megan feared the professor would threaten to kick her out of the program. I originally had it in my head that that the professor had already kicked her out of school, so she had to start dancing just to pay the rent (because she would have lost her campus living quarters and her scholarship money and whatnot).

    Realistically speaking, I ran into some college students about 15 years ago who were openly talking about exotic dancing and specifically how much one of them had made the previous week. That was 15 years ago. I’m not sure a prof would be able to kick a student out of a grad program nowadays for such an occupation. But maybe if the grad student were dating the most eligible bachelor in the state senate. . . .

    I like the little snippets of description like Megan’s sinuous corkscrew, Gump-ville, and Megan’s eighties hair. Each description put a clear image in my head.

    Darn, I can’t think of any puns. No bonus points for me.

    Good luck, brave author, with your continued writing pursuits!

    • I agree. When I finished reading the submission the first time I went back up to the top to see if I had miss read it and the time was early 1890s, but I hadn’t. 1990’s – who cares. Working your way through college as a stripper is/was certainly done and it pays better than waitressing. However, I can see her being embarrassed.

      As we all know, the problem with reading such a short piece is we have no idea where the writer is going with it. This starts out with a fork in the road –
      To the right – the grad student, harmlessly working her way through college, fearful of the knowledge her professor now has.

      To the left – the other way around – seems to me the situation should be scarier for him. In response to the question what were you doing in a strip club, her answer is, ‘Raising my tuition”, his answer is what? Not that professors don’t have the same right to frequent strip clubs as everyone else, but would all his colleagues see it that way?

      the thought of what good old D.B. might propose to keep his silence. – who is really holding the bargaining power here?

      If given the choice of reading a story where the helpless grad student is prayed on by the professor or the grad student is the blackmailer I would choose the latter.

      That’s just my humble opinion.

      Now about the submission itself, I enjoyed it. There was just enough background and setting description to give me a feel for the character and the situation she is about to face.

      While the rewrite offered by Jordan is good, I sense it is not your natural style/voice, changing styles is a hard decision to make.

      Good luck.

  2. Definitely caught my reading eye, but I had the same problem — she was only imagining the prof was going to kick her out. I’d like that to be clearer, too. Otherwise, good submission, but so are your suggestions.

  3. Didn’t Carl Hiassen write this already. I’m sure I saw Demi Moore doing the part in the movie. Anyway, watching pole dancing is a participatory sport and doesn’t make good fodder for much other than variations on the “poor but honest hooker’ trope. College girls working in strip clubs is common. And by the way, they don’t actually make much money.
    What this scene does is provide a motive for murder and is presented prematurely for a mystery. If you really want to write a mystery, start with a dead body. And that is naked truth,

    • Thought I’d add an example.
      The anticipation in the audience grew palpable, customers pounded the tables in a countdown to the curtain opening, to revealing the winner of the Miss Nude Winter strip contest.
      The curtain pulled back, the spotlights caught her glittery minimalist costume, then it caught the blood rolled from her chest through her blonde hair and dripping onto the floor. She was dead.

    • In a murder mystery, there should be a body by the end of chapter one. Certainly, the body could turn up on the first page.

  4. As usual, I have a smart-mouth remark. Why is it always pole dancing? Doesn’t ANYONE ever do any Czech dancing? (Don’t boo. I work nights, and I don’t think very well before going to bed.)

    But it would only take a couple of thoughts to turn the pole dancing into the crisis that Megan supposes could happen. If she were a student at a conservative Christian college, this might be a problem. If she were a student at a college run by a cult that CALLS itself a Christian group, and one of the nitpicky rules the cult promotes is that the showing of flesh is in fact a mortal sin, then that could be a bit of a problem for her. Of, if the professor is somehow tiched in the head with a dire hatred of her kind of behavior–that is, he has a mental illness that she has picked up on but is not obvious to the rest of the people on campus including the person or body that reviews professorial behavior–that could also present her with a problem. After all, there’s at least a slim chance that someone we say “You’re crazy” to or “he’s crazy” about, might actually be crazy.

    But it seems to me, if the writer solves the problem of why the professor might fail her, I believe the writer has a way to go.

    Anyway, I hope to see this in its published form. Keep going. I think you have a story.

  5. I liked this submission as it stood. If Megan is our main character (and not the victim), then I’d gladly journey through a novel with her. On the other hand, if I’d started with Jordan’s version, I would have put the book down. In the rewrite, Megan came across as wimpy and weak. I couldn’t see a character who is terrified out of her wits having the guts to make the round of the floor. But the Megan of the original showed fortitude and empowerment. She’s clever enough to use a disguise. She’s taken precautions not to work where she knows she might bump into someone she knows. If she’s the killer, I’ll be rooting for her.

    As for whether the department head could kick her out, he most certainly could. He wouldn’t have to make a frontal attack and kick her out on the grounds of her employment. He could see to it that she failed critical classes or spike her chances to find a practicum site. Should she still manage to graduate, he could poison her career and prevent her from getting hired.

    I attained a Psych Masters in a small university in the early 90s. From my own experience, this piece is spot on. The lack of morals in my department astounded me, especially since the worst offenders were the ones teaching our ethics class. Our department head married one of the graduate students. (They started living together before she graduated.) Another professor had many formal complaints for sexual harassment against him, none of which caused any repercussions despite witnesses coming forward to corroborate the claims. A new female PhD hire slept her way around the department to ensure that she’d get tenure when the time came. This is a setting ripe for a murder mystery.

    Kathy

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

    1. The first line works. When I read the initials D.B., I thought they might be an abbreviation for a feminine hygiene tool. I could be wrong about that, though.

    2. If this is a murder mystery, we need the following:

    a sleuth (assuming that will be Megan)
    villain (maybe Professor D.B.)
    innocent suspects (maybe other patrons of the strip club)
    victims (maybe the victims will be strippers who are friends of Megan’s)

    If this story is going to be about solving a murder (or murders), the beginning of the novel should prepare the reader for the coming tone. You’ve probably seen the movie Eyes Wide Shut. Didn’t you just feel that sense of foreboding with that haunting piano music, the masks, and such? Try to work some details into your setting so that there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind about what kind of story you’re writing. Jordan thought you were writing a romance novel. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say that the opening didn’t scream murder mystery. Try to paint your setting details in a way that there will be no confusion.

    3. “she felt D.B.’s eyes crawling over her body”
    “D.B.’s eyes bored into her”

    I think we’ve talked about body parts doing strange things (http://blog.janicehardy.com/2012/09/breakaway-body-parts-are-your.html) before.

    4. Watch out for word repetition. You used “was” too much on the first page. There are times when you need to use the word, but don’t use it when you don’t have to use it.

    was to the welcoming jeers of everyone who’d ever warned that she was too…
    But it was the thought that followed…
    she was certain she’d never see anyone…
    Her transformation was good insurance…
    But what was he doing…
    And then she was facing…
    And in those eyes was the damning…

    Other words were repeated, too. (shudder, persona, hoped, recognized). You get the idea. Use more variety in words and sentence structure.

    5. Why should the reader care about what happens to Megan? We need to know why she’s doing it. What’s wrong with the typical work/study programs? Does she need the money? Is she conducting a research experiment about the life of a stripper? Why is she there?

    6. It doesn’t seem feasible that she could get kicked out of a grad program for stripping in the 90s. She could be embarrassed, and perhaps she’d be concerned that if the professor sees her as loose or easy that he could use it to maybe get her to grant him sexual favors in exchange for good grades. Is there someone that she doesn’t want to know about her stripping (a boyfriend at school, perhaps)? Readers need details so that they know the stakes.

    7. ” But it was the thought that followed that made her shudder”

    This line is a suspense killer. If you want readers to shudder, don’t warn them in advance.

    8. “her nerves increasing proportionally”

    Show, don’t tell.

    9. Too much inner thought and backstory for the first page. Edit out all but the essential. Too many long, rambling thoughts from a character we haven’t gotten to know or care about yet.

    10. “When she started dancing again, she’d gone to great lengths to morph her appearance”

    Tell us why she started dancing again. Give us a reason. Make us care.

    11. “She managed to resist”

    Watch out for overwriting. Just say “She resisted…”

    12. Do you really want her to confront Professor D.B. in the first scene? Would it be better for the story to have her think she saw him there but not be sure? Maybe let the reader guess by his behavior at school (cat and mouse games, etc.) as to whether he was there and recognized her.

    In general, I think you want to keep up the energy of the first couple of sentences. You don’t want to drop the ball on the first page. If there’s too much thinking/backstory rather than something happening, your story will lack narrative thrust. Figure out a way to give readers info. in small doses to keep the story moving.

    Best of luck, and keep writing!

    • One more idea. You might want to put a sexy mask on her for the first show. Maybe she sees Professor DB, but he doesn’t recognize her at first. Maybe he finds out about her by seeing a parking sticker on her car. Or something like that.

    • Number 1 i never thought of. It is funny. Dear writer, if that wasn’t your intention, clam it is terrific. And please keep writing, it never gets easier, but it does get better results. The difference between failure and success is the effort you put in.

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