First Page Critique: TATRICE

Photo (c) Kerrie Kelly via Pinterest

Happy Saturday! Please join me in welcoming Anon du jour for our irregularly featured presentation known as First Page Critique. Our First Page today introduces a work in progress titled Tatrice, so without further ado let’s take a look:

“Donna, get to this address for an interview.”

    I took the note and asked my boss, JJ, about my current assignment. He made a throat cutting gesture and I gritted my teeth. Two weeks research shot.

           “When is the appointment?”

           “Now. Get going.”

           “Excuse me, JJ. Who am I meeting?”                                    

           “It’s all there.” He flapped his hand toward the scrap of paper.

           The address was a magnificent Craftsman on the west edge of town. A tall, well-dressed man answered the doorbell.

           “Mr. Bonfig…”

           “Silent g. Bon-feel-ee-oh. Please come in Ms. Burdett.”

           My day went downhill from there.

     Mr. Bonfiglio and I had an unproductive first meeting. He claimed the only chair in the room sized for a lady so I sat on a leather ottoman rather than sink into the matching overstuffed armchair. I didn’t fancy him looking up my skirt. My strategy backfired. Now I found myself in imminent danger of sliding off the slick footstool. The muscles in my calf spasmed into a charley horse and I feared I would sprawl on the floor if my high heel broke. Nevertheless, my precarious seat was an improvement over getting sucked into quicksand cushions.

Since JJ failed to provide the nature of the assignment, I decided to jump right in. I would either stay at the edge of the pool testing the temperature or swim laps with this man.

“What can I do for you, Sir?” Thanks, JJ , for sending me here with nothing to go on. Was I supposed to write a piece on this fabulous house? My fingers itched to click away at the prospect. I flexed my ankle to relieve the cramp and slipped lower on the side of the footstool.

While I uneasily treaded water, he studied me as carefully as a prospective car buyer looking under the hood. Did he wonder why I didn’t take the chair he offered? We silently contemplated one another as I speculated on his marital status. My post graduation goals were to establish my career, get married and start a family before I turned thirty.

Thus far, except for my job, my time had been wasted on warm up exercises. Inexplicably, I was seldom asked for a second date. At age twenty-eight I saw myself as a speed swimmer poised on the starting platform. The finish line painted with that magic number loomed closer each week.

*                                *                              *

 Let’s start with the good, Anon. You do a terrific job in establishing that JJ, Donna’s boss, is a dou…um, jerk in just a couple of lines of dialogue. Donna’s interior dialogue tells us quite a bit about her as well, though perhaps a little early in the game.

Now for the rest. Let us begin with a few typos and then get to the meat of things:

“Two weeks research shot.”

Either “Two weeks’ research shot” or “Two weeks of research were shot” will fix that up.

— Also…”throat cutting,”  “room sized,” “post graduation,” and “warm up” should all be hyphenated. And…

— “Thanks, JJ ,“…let’s get that comma after “JJ” one space over to the left.

As to the meat of things, as it were:

The address was a magnificent Craftsman on the west edge of town. A tall, well-dressed man answered the doorbell.

I visualize a great big space between those two sentences, Anon, and you can help your story by filling it in. So the house where Donna is going is on the west edge of town. What town? How long does it take her to drive there? On the way, maybe Donna in her internal dialogue could tell the reader about the name of the company she works for, the nature of her job, whether JJ treats all of his employees so abruptly, and where she is in the company hierarchy. Perhaps she will be at her destination by the time she gives the reader that information. Donna at that point can give us more of a description of what she sees as she pulls up to Mr. Bonfiglio’s house. What is the neighborhood like? Does the house stick out or blend in? What is magnificent about it? Show us through Donna.

 

Now I found myself…

Drop the “Now” and begin with “I.” Your narrative is in the first person past so there is no “Now,” only “Then,” and you don’t really need “Then” here, either.

 

Mr. Bonfiglio and I had an unproductive first meeting.  

Whoops. You’re telling the reader this at the beginning of the meeting. Accordingly, the reader already knows what is going to happen.  Show your audience that rather than telling them. Leave that sentence out, and show the reader throughout the meeting that it is going bottoms up, instead of saying so at the beginning. Let the reader share Donna’s agony as the meeting unfolds, and establish empathy with her. After the interview, you can have Donna thinking about it as she is driving away, something to the effect of,”

“Well, THAT went well!” I thought, as I drove back to the office (or home, or to her favorite tavern, or whatever).

 

Which brings us to:

My post graduation goals were to establish my career, get married and start a family before I turned thirty.

Thus far, except for my job, my time had been wasted on warm up exercises. Inexplicably, I was seldom asked for a second date. At age twenty-eight I saw myself as a speed swimmer poised on the starting platform. The finish line painted with that magic number loomed closer each week.

This should all go somewhere else, such as after Donna’s meeting. You’re dropping it right at the beginning of her conversation with Bonfiglio and it brings everything to a halt instead of advancing things. The trip back to the office/home/wherever may also be a good place for Donna to review the current state of her life. When you do that, drop the word “(I)nexplicably.” Instead, why don’t you take a couple of sentences to have Donna describe her first dates and why she thinks they go well — shared interests with the person across the table, lots of shared laughs, the other party seemed interested and complimented her frequently — and then end the internal dialogue with Donna talking about waiting for the call that never comes. Communicate Donna’s befuddlement but drop a couple of hints that might indicate why she never gets a callback. Maybe it has something to do with her job, like constant complaints about her boss. 

Also, the metaphor that you used for the state of Donna’s life isn’t quite appropriate. What you are describing — Donna’s goals, and time running out — would more appropriately be described by a ticking clock, or a fuse burning, or, to use your swimming metaphor, the lane getting longer, not shorter, since Donna doesn’t seem to be getting any closer to her goal. I also notice that you like to use a lot of swimming metaphors, Anon. I hope that you are going to connect those to Donna’s life in some way. Maybe Donna was on the swim team in high school or college, or maybe it is her favorite form of exercise of recreation. Either way, it makes for a minor but interesting element of her personality, one that would make her feel more relatable to the reader and could perhaps tie into the main plot later in Tatrice.

Just in closing…I’m having a bit of trouble getting a handle on what sort of novel Tatrice is. I’m not being critical. If I were browsing either in a bookstore or online and saw Tatrice there would be a cover, the inside front jacket flap, or a RIYL hint to help me along before I skimmed the first page. That said, I  am fairly certain that Tatrice is not a thriller, hard-boiled detective novel, or science fiction. I’m guessing that it’s a cozy, cutesy, chicklit, or romance assuming that, on page three, Donna doesn’t look down the street and see the Zombie Apocalypse approaching.  Since I rarely read the latter genres, please accept my comments concerning the substance of the book with that in mind.

I shall now move out of the way and attempt to be uncharacteristically silent while our friends out there offer their own thoughts. Thank you again, Anon, for submitting your work to TKZ’s First Page Critique!

 

 

 

 

 

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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

15 thoughts on “First Page Critique: TATRICE

  1. Wonderful critique, Joe. You’re such a sweetie pie.

    I’m short on time today, so I won’t be able to add my two-cents, but I’m sure you’ll continue to receive excellent feedback. Best of luck to you, Anon!

    • Aw shucks, Sue. Thank you! May I say that you are held in similar regard by certain members of my household as well?

  2. The brave writer has given us a good question: why did Donna’s boss send her to Mr. Bonfiglio’s house? I want to keep reading a bit more to see why.

    I also want to know a bit more of the setting. It sounds present day, but are we in Fargo or Alabama? Are the cherry trees in Mr. B’s yard blooming? Is Donna wearing her thermal tights under her skirt? This is a good opportunity for the reader to learn about Donna as Donna notices things in the setting. She could smile at the little children playing in the yard, or sigh when a young couple walks past hand-in-hand, or pat the the knife she has strapped to her thigh as she drives through her own neighborhood on the way to Mr. B’s house.

    I’m appreciative when a writer adds a little trick to help us remember names, like when Mr. B says, “Silent g. Bon-feel-ee-oh.” (Thanks for that!)

    I agree with Joe: Lose the “inexplicably,” and show how dates go well from Donna’s perspective, but that there are never any second dates.

    And finally, I want to cheer for Donna, but she hasn’t really shown us why we should cheer for her . . . perhaps if we could see her being more proactive.

    Good luck, brave author, with your continued writing!

  3. Joe, I think your comment about swimming is right on. I like the sense of motion in the opening, of things on the edge of happening (like Donna nearly falling off the footstool).

    We can all relate to unrelatable bosses, too, so Anon is doing well to set up a bit of easy, early conflict and putting the reader on her side.

    As for nits, my preference would be to tighten the dialog, e.g., “Donna, get to this address,” leaving out “for an interview.” My reasoning is 1) her boss wouldn’t waste his breath explaining why, since he’s a jerk and everything Donna needs to know is in the note he hands her; and 2) I was briefly confused about who would be interviewing whom. Is Donna a nanny looking for work? A journalist doing a piece on bad bosses?

    Likewise, you might consider condensing or cutting unproductive dialog: “When…?” … “Excuse me, who…?” The real issue for Donna is her wasted two weeks of research. You do well to show JJ’s decision (line across the throat), but in addition to Donna gritting her teeth, is there something more you can give the reader to illustrate her frustration and emphasize her inability to argue her case (crumpling the note in her fist, shutting JJ’s door with a smack, etc.)?

    While there’s nothing wrong giving Mr. Bonfiglio an unusual name, hard names are hard for the reader as well as the story’s characters to work with. I want to caution Anon to be sure the decision pays off. Having Mr. B. interrupt Donna on his doorstep to correct her pronunciation reveals his character, for instance, which is clever writing; point for Anon. I dislike Mr. B already, and all it took was one line of dialog. Carry on, Anon!

  4. A couple of big picture things.
    First, I would like to know a little more about Donna and why she was sent on this mission before the conversation with her boss. I wonder if she is the go-to person for tough assignments or was she just standing there when the boss needed someone. This would help us know her. I want to be on her side.
    Second, she is on a mission and knows nothing about it. I would think she would be too apprehensive to spend her mental energy inventorying her life. She comes off as a goofball. I’d like to see her treated with more dignity, especially the whole chair thing seems like a 1930s Hollywood comedy. What I’m looking for is the hint of the strength she will need to get through the whole story.

  5. I concur with Joe’s assessment. I will add that when Donna was getting the assignment I assumed she was a PI or PI’s assistant, but then became totally bewildered when she talked about “writing a piece” on the house. At that point, I was floundering to understand what type of novel this was. If she was a journalist being sent on assignment, it didn’t make sense that the boss would be so tight lipped on information. I’ve no experience in journalism, but in that field I would assume the better prepared you are before you go on assignment, the better product you turn out for the boss.

    Also as Joe mentioned, the jump to “The address was a magnificent Craftsman on the west edge of town.” was sort of a whiplash moment for me–very abrupt change from her getting her assignment to being at the assignment locale. The transition from office to house seems like it would’ve been a great place to get some relevant telling details about the type of story and the character to set the stage.

    The nice touch to me was the ‘Bon-feel-ee-oh emphasis coupled with the ‘looking up her skirt’ reference, which implies she’s had problems with the womanizing before–that gave us something concrete about her character.

    And while I would later like to hear about Donna’s dating troubles after I get to know her, as Joe mentioned, it did seem out of place in this section, since we have no idea who she really is or even what the story is about.

  6. Somehow I feel as though this story needs to start somewhere else, but having no idea of what this story will be about, I might be wrong. Feels a bit like chic lit to me, which is not a criticism–there are some really good, award-winning chic lit novels out there.

    But there’s not a whole lot of tension here. Perhaps if Anon were to SHOW more of the protag’s inner conflict, I might want to read more.

    My main problem is that, so far, I have no reason to care about this protag. I don’t know much about her or her overall challenge in this story.

    What this excerpt and the other comments reveal to me is that an accomplished writer can achieve many objectives in 400 words, and that everything relates to something else. For example, if we see more conflict, we can learn, at the same time, more about what the story will be about, and more about the character. Think about the challenge–because it is a challenge–of doing double duty with almost every sentence, of deepening the meanings and layers of meanings, of getting more into the skin of your main character.

    When revising your opening, don’t worry about going too deep–you can always cut later. And don’t forget the Spicy Specifics in your descriptions because the details that you choose to bring out through the attitudes of your characters will be different from anyone else’s details, and that goes a long way to bringing out your true writing voice.

    Good draft with some good points (e.g., the quick characterization of Mr. B), and you can make it better.

  7. A big thank you to everyone who has read and/or commented so far, and of course we are still open for reading and comments because we never close. Anon, there’s plenty to digest here and I hope that it’s all helpful. Thank you again for submitting!

  8. Joe, a great critique. And some great advice from those who’ve contributed their ideas.

    A lot of the comments seem to center around the setup (or lack of setup). Anon refers to the scrap of paper the boss gives the protag. This would be a perfect place for the protag to read a few clues on her drive to the mystery interview.

    Anon, you have certainly drawn the reader in with curiosity. Good luck with your revisions. Give the reader a little better view of the bait, so they will know what is pulling them in.

  9. Thank you for your kind words, Steve. Just what the doctor ordered (and I am sure that no one has said that to you before!). Hope that you and yours are well.

  10. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Joe and some of the others have already given you some thoughtful critiques. Here are my comments:

    1. Opening line: “Donna, get to this address for an interview.”
    There’s nothing special about this opening line that would invite me to keep reading. It has the potential to give so much more information (e.g. name of interviewee, purpose of the interview, and perhaps some indication of why this person is so important.) I usually don’t care for books that open with dialogue. There are exceptions (like Charlotte’s Web and the “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” line).

    2. I am glad that you understand the need to begin with a scene, but the first scene seems scant to me. The dialogue is snappy, which is good. However, you didn’t bother to paint the scene of where the conversation was taking place. It was a brief “talking heads” kind of scene, and it wasn’t that interesting. Is this the best place to start?

    3. Be careful to avoid overwriting. (Google “Overwriting: How to Recognize and Correct it” if you don’t know what I mean.)

    Example 1:
    Now I found myself in imminent danger of sliding off the slick footstool. The muscles in my calf spasmed into a charley horse and I feared I would sprawl on the floor if my high heel broke.

    Here would be a good place to use the tightness that you used in your dialogue. Also, I think you meant to say “onto the floor” here.

    Also, think of pacing. Shorter sentences convey more urgency.

    Example 2:
    We silently contemplated one another as I speculated on his marital status.

    Sounds wordy. Keep it more natural.

    4. You used a lot of references to swimming, and these references seemed out of the blue. If Donna is a swimmer, please tell us before using the references. If she isn’t a swimmer, the references seem out of place.

    5. I concur with what Joe said about using “now.” Also, see rules for hyphenating words here: https://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/hyphens.asp

    Pay attention to Joe’s advice re: grammar, spaces before commas and such. Also, watch out for word repetition. No need, for example, to use “looking” twice on one page.

    6. “uneasily treaded” – awkward phrasing

    7. What genre is it? There is no hint until we get here: “Inexplicably, I was seldom asked for a second date.” Perhaps it’s a romance or something along those lines.

    8. I generally don’t like wimpy protagonists. Donna is a 28-year-old who allows some jerk of a boss kick her around. To me, it’s not “inexplicable” that she hasn’t been asked for a second date. As a reader, I’m tired of her after one page. I strongly suggest that you zero in on Donna’s redeeming characteristics and showcase those characteristics in the first scene. Let the reader have some reason to care about Donna. See “Marking an Entrance” by Barbara Kyle.

    9. Like Joe mentioned, there’s a big space between the two scenes. Fill in the gaps with a few more details when transitioning from one scene to another. You need a meatier transition sentence.

    I thought Sheryl’s critique was spot on, as well.

    Btw, brave writer, don’t be disheartened by the number of the comments. Revisions are a natural part of the writing process. Kudos for knowing the difference between eminent and imminent. Best of luck and keep writing!

  11. “Marking an Entrance” by Barbara Kyle should read “Making and Entrance” by Barbara Kyle. Sorry, brave writer. I type too fast sometimes.

  12. Thank you all for the great suggestions. I have a tendency to decide whether to open a book by reading the first few lines of the synopsis. ‘Donna Burdett has received a marriage proposal from a man claiming to be immortal, but she fears he is actually more interested in her imaginary friend.’
    I’ve tightened up the first page. The swimming elements must stay.

    I pressed the doorbell of the magnificent Craftsman and hummed along with the familiar chimes, the terse note from my boss JJ clutched in my hand. Despite living in Gideon, Missouri I momentarily mistook the man who opened the door for a butler.

    “Mr. Bonfig…”

    “Silent g. Bon feel ee oh. Please come in, Ms. Burdett.”

    He ushered me into a spacious man cave, then perversely sat in the only chair sized for a lady. I found myself in imminent danger of sliding off the leather ottoman I had chosen. I gouged one expensive Louis Vuitton high heel deeper into the thick rug.

    Since JJ failed to tell me if I was writing about the man or the house, I decided to jump right in. I would either stay at the edge of the pool testing the temperature or swim laps with this man.

    “What can I do for you, Sir?”

    While I figuratively treaded water, Mr. Bonfiglio studied me as carefully as a prospective car buyer looking under the hood. His intense gaze never wavered until he took a deep breath. Had he been holding it all this time?

    “I wish to engage you to ghostwrite a book.”

    Confusion washed over me. What about my job? While I lost my composure and mentally floundered about, he said he lacked the talent for that sort of venture.

    “Honestly, I haven’t a notion how to commence. I admire your writing style and have recently taken the liberty of contacting Mr. Jacobson to procure your services.”

    What did he just say?

    “What would this gig pay?”

    Puzzlement flickered across his face and I decided he appeared younger than his actual age. “That is negotiable. I assure you I would not take advantage of you.”

    “How long do you think it would take?”

    “As long as it takes to get the story out of my head and onto paper, or, into your laptop.”

    Keep your eyes above the waist, mister!

    “What’s the subject?”

    “The book will be controversial. I urge you to consider carefully before agreeing to my request.”

    He spoke in a melodious baritone. Despite his obviously foreign sounding name, I couldn’t detect an accent. In fact, he pronounced each syllable with precision. His words roused my curiosity. The imaginary swimmer who lived in my head switched from treading water to practicing junior lifesaving strokes.

    “Can you give me a hint? And I’m not saying I’ll take the job.”

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