We have an anonymous submission of the first 400 words to a work entitled “NELF.” Please read and give your constructive criticism in your comments. I will provide feedback below. Our gratitude to the anonymous author for their submission. Enjoy.
Geraldine jogged around seaweed and broken shells deposited along the low-tide line by last night’s rainstorms. Turning from the gusting wind, she faced the horizon as the sun broke through a grey cloudbank. The tail of the storm had moved out to sea. She might have customers today after all. She’d better pick up her pace if she wanted a shower before opening the beach shop.
She searched the ocean for her half-way marker, the Hyde Channel buoy. As Geraldine hurdled over piles of seaweed and shells sweat rolled down her spine. Without slowing, she pulled off her sweatshirt, cinched it around her waist, and ran closer to the surf.
When she was parallel to the channel marker, she turned around. Wind pushed against her back and she sprinted all the way to the path leading to Beach Road.
While bringing her heartrate down, Geraldine trotted in place and faced the roaring Atlantic. A red object bobbed in the ocean. Too small for a boat or surfboard. The object disappeared behind cresting waves. Shielding her eyes, Geraldine focused on the whitecaps and waited for the object to reappear.
A small arm stuck up from the waves. A flash of red hair and white face. A child!
Geraldine dashed forward, her pulse racing, and stopped short at the surf line. The child bobbed up and down. The ocean was rough. Dangerous. She couldn’t go in without a boat or a boogie board or they might both drown. She sprinted toward the lifeguard hut. Any floatation device inside would do. She pulled the handle and the door rattled. Locked!
She glanced back at the rolling surf, but didn’t spot the child. Her stomach tightened. Had the child gone under? She shifted her gaze down surf. A flailing arm, and then a head broke through the foam. Thank God. The child was still afloat.
She scanned the beach for someone to alert.
The beach was deserted, but the child needed saving now.
She yanked off her sneakers and ran until she was a half-bay ahead of the child. Geraldine took a deep breath and dove into the surf. She torpedoed under the water.
Geraldine exploded to the surface and swam at an angle to reach the child quicker. Please stay afloat just a little longer.
This introduction sets up a classic and eerie story. I envision a bleak seashore on the morning after a turbulent storm that has disrupted an unwavering sea. How frightening to see the body of a child adrift in the current with YOU as the only one there to save a life. The premise is a good one that would normally get me turning the page to read more.
The writing is relatively clean and easy to get through without a lot of hiccups, but I wanted more. Let’s talk about setting first in a general overview.
SETTING – Setting can really contribute to setting up a story if it’s entwined with the character or contributes to the atmosphere or mood to the plot. When I think of great examples of settings that ARE an integral part of the story, I think of movies like the Jesse Stone stories from Robert B Parker, starring Tom Selleck. The Maine town of Paradise is mysterious, breathtakingly beautiful and scary at the same time. Another example of a setting that becomes the story is the crime show Wallander (from Swedish novelist Henning Mankell), starring Kenneth Branagh in the role of Kurt Wallander. The isolated setting in Wallander is haunting and also says a lot about the character who is content living alone and isolated.
Tips on Setting
1.) Decide what role you want for setting to play in your plot. In J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Hogwarts IS a character, a very enchanting and unforgettable one. Not every story needs to have the setting so prominently described, but a great setting can enhance the plot or give insight into the character(s).
2.) Settings can contribute to the mood or add tension or a mysterious sense of foreboding. I’ll never forget the effective use of setting in Tami Hoag’s book NIGHT SINS where children go missing as the extremely chilling winter nights continue to drop in temperature, dead of winter in Minnesota. The tag lines were a constant reminder that the child could die from exposure and the clock would be ticking for the police. I was a nervous wreck as I turned the pages and stayed up way too late to finish the book.
3.) Use the senses of the reader to convey setting. It’s easy to describe a visual setting, but it can add layers of nuance if the reader’s senses are engaged. In this example (NELF), what does the sea smell like after a turbulent storm? Does it affect her breathing as she runs? Does the grit on the shore cling to her damp clothes? How does the salty sea air affect her breathing as a runner (salt through her nostrils or the taste of it on her tongue).
4.) Setting can reflect something of the character and mirror mood or be symbolic of something in the character’s life. The example I gave before about Wallander and his remote home is a solid visual example of the isolated way he lives his life. He’s content, but trouble comes to his door like a personal affront, threatening his comfort zone.
5.) Setting can be described through the character’s POV by giving the character an opinion or by accentuating the character’s body and mind through setting. In the case of NELF, the lone woman runner describes her body as she runs. Rather than focusing so much on a simple task that most people know about (ie running), why not have the mist off the crashing waves mix with the dripping sweat of her body or have the chilly wind fight the heat of her churning blood as she ramps up her pace. I’ve run in the rain before and it’s exhilarating yet very soggy on the clothes and hair.
Examples of interesting settings reflected through the characters:
Catcher in the Rye – J D Salinger (on NYC)
“I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go? I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.”
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt (about Las Vegas)
“Though we’d been driving a while, there were no landmarks, and it was impossible to say where we were going or in which direction. The skyline was monotonous and unchanging and I was fearful that we might drive through the pastel houses altogether and out into the alkali waste beyond, into some sun-beaten trailer park from the movies.”
To the Lighthouse – Virginia Wolff (about the Isle of Skye – Scotland) “So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea.”
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte (about the Yorkshire moors, England) “My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary.”
TIME OF DAY – I didn’t get a sense of the time of day. I presumed it to be morning since the woman is thinking about opening her beach shop and references a storm from last night, but time of day could contribute to the mood. I would recommend this to be clearer.
REPEAT DESCRIPTION – In the first sentence, seaweed and broken shells are mentioned. The same is described in the very next paragraph (ie “piles of seaweed and shells). With such a moody setting, surely there is more to describe.
MAKE THE INTRO STAND OUT MORE – The description of the woman running is bland and forgettable. The setting is also bland, considering that this eerie shoreline could contribute to the foreboding aspects of finding a body adrift in the waves.
CAN THE SETTING ENHANCE THE INTRO? The author does not dwell too much on the setting before he or she gets into the mystery, but the set up could be more effective if the author decides how much the setting can enhance the intro. Review the tips on setting above to see if there is anything that would fit and enhance this mystery opener. An author would know the mind of the character and what would work best, but I would recommend the setting be enhanced to weave it into the mystery more.
WEAVE IN MYSTERY SOONER – The setting description and the woman running covers the first four paragraphs, then the story switches to “a small arm” and the mystery begins. There’s virtually no lead up to the moment she sees the arm. Fear and foreboding should be enhanced to draw emotions from the reader. What if she’s running and sees the red color on the water and keeps her eye on it. Any setting can be enhanced by the mystery element of what that red thing is that’s floating. This would give her something to do, rather than staying in her head and focusing on her running. Weave the mystery in sooner and let it unfold as the sense of foreboding ramps up.
NEEDS MORE TENSION AND EMOTION – As far as tension, the author has described the woman and her reaction, but it’s more in the sense of a clinical description of what she does. The emotional component is lacking for me as a reader. I can easily imagine what this might feel like to be alone on a beach run and see something horrifying, forced into action. Imagine that after she tries breaking into the lifeguard station, she dives into the ocean. On the same level as the rolling waves, she would easily lose sight of the body. Think of how that body might look as the waves undulate and lift that pale form into the sky. How would that body look in the crest of a wave?
If she thinks the child is still alive, the clock would be ticking and she’d be in a panic to get to the kid. How does that affect her breathing? Does she tread water to search the waves? Is the body floating on the back or on the face? Now imagine coming up on the body too fast and being faced with it as it brushes up against you. Cold skin. Icy water. Bloated face of the child? This opening scene could be much more emotional and I can picture how anyone would be drawn into the mystery of this child’s death.
What feedback can you give our brave author, TKZers?
2.) How do you work setting into your stories? Have you ever enhanced your story with setting? Describe how it worked.
I agree with everything you said.
If you took a shot every time “the child” is mentioned, you’d be drunk by the bottom of the page. Not sure how to fix it, but I got so caught up in counting “child” I lost track of the story.
Interesting premise. I’d definitely read it.
Now you’ve got me thinking of shot games for books. Ha!
I’m sure the author struggled with this wording to defer any reveal on the gender of the child or whether the kid is alive or not. The repetitive wording could be minimized if the woman describes a red garment floating on the water. Maybe she doesn’t get a clearer view until she climbs the lifeguard tower, thinking her eyes are playing tricks on her, but imagine seeing a child’s body & know you’re the only one to help.
The emotion is missing in this submission but the premise is worth getting it right.
A good effective setting can add to the tension & mystery. Not every story needs action from the first sentence. That would make stories formulaic. That’s why I recommended enhancing the setting to compliment the mood & plot while teasing the reader with mystery elements that build on the intrigue & emotion. If the author works on this, they’ll have a solid, page turning intro because the premise is good and the place to start can be spot on with some tweaking.
Thanks, Cynthia. Cheers! (Raising my shot glass.)
Cheers back, Jordan.
Another thought – why doesn’t Geraldine call 911?
I can see why she’d want to rescue the child, but I’d want a paramedic on site when I brought the kid in.
Really good point. A woman running alone would carry a cell with keys. If this is an older time period, before cell phone popularity, that’s something to clarify.
I think there’s a lot of potential here, but it needs some work.
First, as the esteemed Mr. Bell preaches (and others as well), get to the action sooner. Much sooner. It takes too long for any sense of danger to arise. Consider revising the opening sentences.
“Geraldine dove into the dark, choppy waters of the bay, praying that she’d spot it again. The flash of red hair. The tiny arm waving for help. She surfaced and swam hard, her arms pulling against the ocean’s desire to throw her back to shore. Where was–there. A child struggling to stay afloat.”
Also, avoid using Geraldine’s name once she’s introduced. She’s the only one present (other than the figure in the water), and using her name repeatedly draws the reader out of deep POV.
You’ve got a good premise here, so keep at it. Best of luck!
Thanks for your contribution, Tom.
One thing I meant to say is that the title needs work. It reads as a working title only. If there’s a reason for the title to be in all caps, then add periods – N.E.L.F. – but I would still find another, more compelling title.
In regard to the title – if it had the periods N.E.L.F. I would be intrigued – ummm, what does that stand for? And if you could avoid telling me what it stood for on the book jacket you could really suck me in.
The first 400 words offer plenty of information – the night storm, the child in the water, what she does for a living (not rescuing swimmers) and locked lifeguard stand – the problem, for me, is how it is presented. It’s too casual, granted that’s how it would have played out – a nice jog – low emotion, see the child – panic, try to rescue it. However, instead of starting with her jogging around the seaweed and broken shells, she runs right through them, maybe gets a little tangled in the seaweed left by last night’s storm. She reaches the lifeguard stand, tries to open the door – locked, yangs on it, pounds on it, kicks it. She then runs back to the water – this is when you tell us why she is in a panic, she looks again for the body, OMG where did the child go?
Just a suggestion, but what do I know? I continually rewrite the first chapter right up to the moment I decide I’m done.
So you’re suggesting that the woman’s reaction be shown without a full explanation of what she sees until the last minute. I can see it.
You’re correct in that the author has control over how the story is unfolded. That’s story telling and I love adding compelling mystery elements to tease the reader with pieces of the story to maximize and build on the intrigue.
Why did the MC run to the lifeguard shack when the person in the water may still be in distress. That didn’t seem like the logical reaction and took me out of the story. I would delete that to make room for Tom’s scene. I like the slower opening in this case. PD James talks about caring about the character before putting them in danger. This was a good example of that.
The author could make a point of rip tides or dangerous conditions that would force the MC to need a lifeguard “can” or assistance in the water, especially if she isn’t a good swimmer. For her to dive it then would make her move more heroic, but I agree that the diversion cost time unless there’s a good reason for the delay.
Good explanation on P D James & caring about the child AND the woman. Thank you, Brian.
The author explains that –
The ocean was rough. Dangerous. She couldn’t go in without a boat or a boogie board or they might both drown.
Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave author. Here are my comments:
1. The opening line doesn’t prepare the reader for the coming tone of the story. Consider the opening line from Neuromancer for an example of a great opening line:
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – William Gibson, Neuromancer.
Use the sample opening line above to come up with one for your story. You want something assertive that nails the tone and setting of the story at the same time. You could, perhaps, borrow the structure of the opening line from Gibson, but use details that fit your story.
2. The first paragraph has tense issues that need to be addressed. Also, this sentence:
“The beach was deserted, but the child needed saving now.”
I would not use the word “now” when writing in past tense. If you were intending to be inside your character’s head, you wouldn’t have her announce “the beach was deserted” because your character would know that. I’ll leave it to you to correct similar issues in the first paragraph.
3. Weave action into the description. Check out the way Barbara Kyle does this in the first chapter of The Traitor’s Daughter, which is available online. The reader gets an excellent sense of setting while the protagonist is in the middle of action. Today’s readers have short attention spans. Consolidate. It will improve pacing.
4. Be careful with word choice. For example:
“Geraldine exploded to the surface…”
The verb “exploded” doesn’t work.
Also “torpedoed” seems a bit much here:
“She torpedoed under the water.”
5. You begin no fewer than nine sentences with the word with “She…”; more variety would be better. Study psychic distance and how to write in a closer POV. Also, check for word/phrase repetition.
6. The title “NELF” seems odd to me.
Readers will definitely want to find out what happens to the child, particularly if you tighten up the writing. Best of luck, and keep writing!
5. You begin no fewer than nine sentences with the word with “She…”; more variety would be better.
5. You begin no fewer than nine sentences with “she”; more variety would be better.
Brave writer, I have a few more comments that I didn’t have time to make earlier:
1. Not all repeated words stand out as much as others, but I don’t think you should use the word “sprinted” more than once on a page.
2. The sentence that begins “While bringing her heart rate down…” is awkward.
3. When trying to convey urgency, use shorter sentences. For example:
“She glanced back at the rolling surf, but didn’t spot the child.”
could be written
She glanced back at the rolling surf. No sign of the child.
Ok, back to work. Keep going, brave writer.
I may be tempted to start with the child’s arm. That’s where the story first piqued my interest. Till then, the opening didn’t intrigue me like I’d hoped. I do, however, like your suggestion about setting up the scene with an eerie setting, Jordan. Love the examples, too.
Brave Writer, the easiest thing to do is go to the beach after a storm. Experience your surroundings, envision a child’s arm sticking out from the waves, the tuft of red hair, and what you’d do if you were the child’s only hope of survival. Take notes. Then write it so we can experience it, too. Do that, and you’ll suck me right in. The first page promises an intriguing premise, so you’re on the right track. Good job!
Almost forgot. The title made me think the genre was fantasy or sci-fi. Obviously it’s not. This is why it’s important to match the title to the genre.
I thought if Sci-fi too, Sue. The L.F. in the title (if this is an acronym) could stand for Life Form.
Good suggestions, Sue. You make me want to live near a shoreline.
I’m the writer of this first page submission.
Thank you all for your very helpful feedback. The point outs and mini-lessons are invaluable. It’s a gift to receive targeted practical advice from experienced published writers so I can effectively zoom in on and improve my weaknesses.
Some of the fixes, I’ll apply immediately. Others will be tough for me to implement at this point, simply because I don’t yet have the skill set. I am always studying different craft elements. Lately, I’ve focused on pacing and story structure (trying to apply JSB’s 14 Signpost Scenes to this draft). But I’ll move micro elements up to the front burner, and keep story structure on simmer.
BTW: N.E.L.F. (Non-Earth Life Form) is a sci-fi thriller. It began as a conspiracy thriller involving DUMBS (deep underground military bases), and since the little girl is a human from another planet, and Geraldine turns out to be a hybrid, the story morphed into sci-fi territory.
Thanks for this forum. I can’t express how valuable the advice, critiques, and TKZ library is to novice writers.
Thanks for clarifying things, Frances. The Sci-fi title intrigues me more that you’ve explained both the child & Geraldine have secrets on their origins. I love the idea of a “human from another planet.”
You have great promise in this story. Thanks for sharing it with us. Do what makes sense to you. This is your story. You’ll develop the confidence to know what feels right for you. I’m really glad you’re focusing on craft & challenging yourself. Good luck with your book.
Good luck, Frances. Writers have to consider so many things: premise, voice, POV, plot, structure, character, dialogue, setting, theme, style, conflict, grammar, and more. It’s overwhelming, but keep at it. When in doubt, pick up ten best-selling books in your genre. Use them as examples. The title, first line, and opening should make the genre clear.
Thanks for explaining NELF. When I Googled it, I came up with the following:
Nelf: Acronym for the playable race “Night Elf” on the popular Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game World of Warcraft. (Urban Dictionary)
According to Wikipedia, NELF may refer to:
Nasal embryonic LHRH factor
Negative elongation factor
New England Legal Foundation
Near East Land Forces, a former part of the British Near East Command
Nelf or nelfie, an explicit selfie
As you can see, readers may envision NELF as many different things without the clarification you provided.
Good luck, and carry on!
Well done, Jordan! Terrific critique–you always have such excellent examples to illustrate your points, too.
I got a very vivid picture of the setting in the first paragraph, but the following two paragraphs don’t move the story along. Totally agree with intro-ing the sight of the child much sooner. The last images are good. But we don’t need to see her thought processes about finding someone and alerting them. It slows down the pace way too much.
A small exercise: Take your ideas about the opening (without looking at the opening as it is) and list the actions of your character in a few declarative lines, ending with her plea that the girl stay afloat just a little longer. That will expose the bare bones of the action. Write from there, leaving off extraneous information.
I agree with Jordan that there needs to be more emotion and sense of the physical world. Close third POV is closer to first person than anything else. You need to be more in the protagonist’s head, looking out, rather than observing her.
Oh. And the title.
LOVE the concept, but the title is meh. It doesn’t tell me anything about the book at all. And I couldn’t help but think of the MILF label, lol. Nothing further from sci-fi than that!
Ha! My husband asked Siri what MILF stood for, and her answer was hilarious!