First Page Critique – Topher and Lucy

Another offering from a brave Anonymous Author. See you on the other side.

Topher And Lucy

ONE

You lunge, and strike. Three rapid-fire hits. Splintering wood. Three dents in the bathroom door. Your mother’s voice, coming from the living room, shrills in your ears. You move into the hallway. Muscles taut, nostrils flaring and collapsing with your sucked-in-pushed-out breaths, your hands are curled, the knuckles of the right starting to swell. Your eyes lock on the hall wall just as she steps between it, and you.

Quivering, you balance on the balls of your feet. Like a prize-fighter, itching to dance that half step forward and smash your balled fist into the flesh and bone of the face in front of you. You could put that head through the gyproc. One quick, hard punch. She’s daring you to do it. Just like she dares you all the time. Step out of line so I can throw you out. That’s not what she says, but it’s what she means. Breathe! You won’t hit her. Hurt her, you’ll have the cops to answer to, and you’re already way out of line. How did that happen? You in bed, her face over yours, screaming, Where were you last night? I don’t care if your head hurts. Get up! Then she dumped water on you.

Her mouth moves; sound rings in your ears. Get out! she says.

Fuck! You knew she’d do that. You shout, If I go I’m never comin’ back.

I won’t live with this kind of temper, this kind of threat, she says.

You’re gone, cursing her, shaking your bruised hand. Fuck you, mom. You don’t know a thing! Do you hear me? Fuck You!

 

Lucy leans against the wall beside the door, hearing Topher rant. Then, the crack of more wood breaking—the garage, or the barn, she thinks. It is not an unexpected sound. In a few minutes there may be tears on her part, self-recriminations, regret. Right now she’s numb. Then, relieved. He’s out the door. He’s cost her so much lately, more than she can pay.

Minutes later, her mind wakes up. The earthquake fund. He’s taken it before.

She runs out to the feed shed, checks the freezer where they store the earthquake kit. The shed’s never locked, the freezer’s not locked when they’re home. If an earthquake hit, keys could get lost. The cash-box key’s inside the zippered pillow-pouch of Harvey’s sleeping bag. The money’s gone. Of course.

***

Today’s Anonymous Author leads with a hard right jab. You certainly grabbed my attention with an explosive, violent character who’s a half-breath away from knocking his mother through a wall. The action is fast and vivid. The conflict is immediately laid out—an out-of-control raging young man (I’m presuming he’s young) and an at-her-wit’s-end mother throwing him out of the house.

In 400 words, you’ve tackled an ambitious task of introducing two clashing characters, each in their own POV.

You’ve further challenged yourself by writing Topher in the unusual second person POV, always a risky proposition. However, I think you pull it off well in the first page. This angry young man is dangerous, barely maintaining control. By using “you” instead of “he” or “I,” you’ve showcased his alienated, fractured personality. He thinks of himself as “you,” an entity separate from himself. I’m curious if Topher remains in second person POV throughout the story.

You carry his psychological quirks even further. He disconnects from the horrific act of wanting to punch his mother by instead referring to the flesh and bone of the face in front of you. You could put that head through the gyproc. He’s objectified her into detached body parts: the face, that head. Chilling.

Another scary aspect is his ability to justify his violent rage by claiming She’s daring you to do it. Just like she dares you all the time. Her peril is real and terrifying.

Yet, he’s oddly fearful of being thrown out of the house, which suggests Lucy has a higher level of power over him. That sets up an interesting dichotomy—his physical strength vs. her superior position. I’m guessing he’s a juvenile who’s still under parental control. While he chafes at that, he’s also scared of being out on his own.

Then you flip into Lucy’s head. You say she’s numb but she has enough presence of mind to know she will have a delayed reaction in the near future. This seems realistic for someone who’s lived under ongoing violence for quite a while—just get through it, get the crazy kid out, and break down later. But she is worried about him stealing her stash of money, which he does. That suggests the family has serious financial problems if she’s so dependent on that.

The earthquake fund introduces another layer of instability (sorry, couldn’t help myself). Where do they live that they find it necessary to set aside money and leave the shed unlocked in case the key gets lost in an earthquake? Although my husband and I used to live near a major fault line in California, we never had an earthquake fund. I want to learn where this scary place is but I’m willing to wait a little longer.

Gyproc was not a familiar term so I Googled it. It’s a gypsum board/drywall material that’s used in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, but apparently not common in the U.S.

Another clue this story might be set outside the U.S. was the lack of quotation marks around dialogue. Depending on where you market this, you might consider using American-English conventions of grammar and punctuation.

For example:

“Get out!” she says.

You shout, “If I go [add comma], I’m never comin’ back.”

“I won’t live with this kind of temper, this kind of threat,” she says.

Here are some small nits:

Is the title Topher And Lucy? If so, you can do better. At first glance, from the whimsical-sounding name of Topher, I thought it might be a children’s story, which obviously it didn’t turn out to be.

Skip the comma in the first sentence: You lunge and strike.

Splintering wood doesn’t match dents in the door. When wood splinters, it generally leaves sharp, ragged edges because of the grain. Dent seems more appropriate to metal or a surface that, when struck, remains largely intact but with an indentation.

The image of nostrils flaring and collapsing and sucked-in-pushed-out breaths is a fresh way to describe hard breathing. Nicely done.

Your eyes lock on the hall wall just as she steps between it, and you. Even though eyeballs can’t literally lock, that usage is common, although incorrect. However, if you still choose to go with it, consider that eyes usually lock with other eyes, not with an inanimate object, like a wall. Maybe instead: Your stare drills into the wall.

Hall wall is an accidental rhyme that doesn’t read well. Also it seems odd that he would be looking at the wall rather than Lucy. If it’s because he can’t bear to face her, maybe rewrite to show that. Your stare drills into the wall so intently that you almost expect to see two round holes in the plasterboard. Instead, your mother’s face appears, right in the line of your aim.

Step out of line so I can throw you out. That’s not what she says, but it’s what she means. These sentences capture the skewed communication between mother and son. Consider putting Step out of line so I can throw you out in italics to emphasize that’s what he imagines she is thinking.

In the following, I added a clearer attribution and changed dumped to dumps to keep tense consistent. Also suggest you rework the paragraphing:

Breathe! You won’t hit her. Hurt her, you’ll have the cops to answer to, and you’re already way out of line.

How did that happen? You in bed, her face over yours, [added] and she’s screaming, “Where were you last night? I don’t care if your head hurts. Get up!” Then she dumps water on you.

Semicolons belong in nonfiction, not fiction. Replace with a period.

Again, if you’re writing for an American audience, adopt quotation marks around dialogue. And fix the capitalization in the following:

“Fuck you, Mom. You don’t know a thing! Do you hear me? Fuck you!” Mom is used as a proper name, therefore capitalized. You might be attempting to show emphasis by capitalizing You, but the epithet followed by an exclamation mark makes the point.

Lucy leans against the wall beside the door, hearing Topher rant. Use this opportunity to ground the reader a little more in the setting. Lucy leans against the kitchen wall beside the back door, listening to Topher rant.

Minutes later, her mind wakes up. I think she’d remain aware of where Topher is until he leaves and the danger is past. Then she can zone out.

Maybe instead:

It is not an unexpected sound. Neither is the too-high revving of the motorcycle’s engine and the crunch and ping of gravel as he pops a wheelie out the driveway, down the road.

After the engine noise fades away, she allows herself a normal breath, a few moments of silence. Peace.

Then her muscles tense again.

The earthquake fund.
He’s taken it before.

For dramatic impact, suggest you make the last two sentences their own paragraphs.

The money’s gone.

Of course.

 

Anonymous Author, you’ve done an admirable job on your first page. You dug deep into the heads of two troubled characters, hinted at a threatening setting, and kicked off a chilling conflict that promises future violence. This story appears to fall into the Domestic Suspense or YA genre, with two narrators who may be both unreliable and unsympathetic. I don’t have an emotional connection yet with either one, except to feel sorry for Lucy. But I am curious to learn if Topher’s hatred toward his mother is justified.

 

 

TKZers, what do you think about Topher and Lucy? Would you turn the page? Are you engaged with these characters? Where do you think this story is going?

 

The first page of Instrument of the Devil went through TKZ‘s grinder and came out much improved from readers’ insightful comments. It became page 2 instead!

I highly recommend writers embrace this opportunity for honest, constructive feedback.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Debbie Burke

Crime novelist, suspense and mystery novels are her passion. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Her nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications and she is a regular blogger at The Kill Zone. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

20 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Topher and Lucy

  1. Talk about being a brave writer, the anonymous author starts with second person POV! It’s done so well that it makes the character seem even that much crazier and angrier, or like Debbie said, possessing a “fractured personality.” It’s refreshing and fabulous. I would turn the page.

    • Priscilla, second person POV is tough to pull off and our Anonymous Author did quite well. But, as K.S. points out, it’s off-putting to many readers. I doubt this would work as effectively if there wasn’t a switch to third POV for Lucy. I don’t know that I could make it through an entire novel in second POV.

      Thanks for chiming in.

  2. At first I thought to myself. “I can’t read a whole book written this way,” but then came the switch in perspective and style and I was a fan. VERY NICELY DONE. As Priscilla said above – I would turn the page.

    I always read the submission at least twice before commenting, but after Debbie’s comments I was looking to see what it was I had missed. I hadn’t missed anything – it’s just that we all read with our own ‘input’ until we are told otherwise.

    Debbie, and apparently Priscilla, read a submission about a mother with an unstable, possibly adolescent son, who may suffer from a fractured personality. That is not what I read.

    For the fun of it – these are some comments Debbie made and the thoughts I had while reading the submission and her comments

    This seems realistic for someone who’s lived under ongoing violence for quite a while—just get through it, get the crazy kid out, and break down later. Really? Let’s remember he was asleep when he woke to her standing over him screaming and then was soaked with a bucket of water she threw on him. Yes, this scene seems realistic for someone who’s lived under ongoing violence for quite a while – just get through it, get away from your crazy MOTHER, and break down later.

    Yet, he’s oddly fearful of being thrown out of the house, which suggests Lucy has a higher level of power over him. That sets up an interesting dichotomy—his physical strength vs. her superior position. Or, is he an adult child trying to care for his unstable mother in HER home? Maybe he is fearful she will throw him out and he knows she can’t care for herself.

    But I am curious to learn if Topher’s hatred toward his mother is justified. Or, does he love his mother and is willing to bear her abuse if it means she is cared for and safe?

    Is punching the bathroom door an act of violence or does it show his great restraint in the face of his abuser?

    Did he steal the money or is that just her perspective. Remember, he was asleep when all of this started. Now he is out of the house, most likely without his wallet and possibly even his shoes. Maybe he knows it is likely he will need cash and he will put it back later, like he did the last time she went nuts and he had to escape for his safety.

    This could be the beginning of a great Psychological Thriller – who is the unstable/violent one – it could take a whole novel to answer that question, a novel I would like to read.

    • Michelle, how right you are about readers bringing preconceived notions and perceptions based on our own lives and experiences.

      Like you, I wondered if Lucy was more “villain” and Topher more “victim.” I considered exploring that but the post was getting pretty long. Glad you brought it up b/c clearly the potential is there to support that possibility.

      You wrote: “This could be the beginning of a great Psychological Thriller – who is the unstable/violent one – it could take a whole novel to answer that question, a novel I would like to read.”

      Excellent observation!

  3. I had a completely different take on this piece. I thought Topher and Lucy were brother and sister, and that they both live with an abusive mother. When Lucy leans on the wall by the door, I got the impression she was hiding out in her room until the violence stops. I believe this is because she’s reported to be listening to Topher rant, as if she isn’t actually present in the vicinity, and I wasn’t clear that Topher was ranting as he walked away. I thought when the break came, he was done ranting, so how is Lucy still listening to him after the break? Perhaps I’m just a bad reader.

    I see Lucy’s feeling bad after the event. I attributed that to her not stepping in to stop the fight and not that she’d provoked the fight when she should have known better.

    Is the earthquake fund for a real earthquake, or is it a metaphor for an escape fund? Who is Harvey? I guess I’d suggest that the piece needs more clarity in the action aspects before I would read on.

    I’m not a fan of either second person, or of third person present tense. The brave author should be aware that those choices may limit readership.

    • During my first read through I too thought Lucy was a 3rd person. After reading the comments I completely forgot about my 3rd person thought during the reread – again, how we are all influenced.

      Should the writer clarify this or leave the reader confused? The latter would be so more compelling

  4. K.S., our Anonymous Author has taken big risks with unreliable narrators and unusual POVs. This will put off some readers but I suspect Anon is willing to take that chance.

    After you mentioned you thought T and L were siblings with an abusive mother, I reread the submission. It is possible there are three characters present b/c the situation hasn’t been clearly explained. However, in the panic of crisis, that didn’t bother me b/c I trust more will be revealed. But if your supposition is correct, Anon should clarify those relationships soon.

    Thanks for adding a new wrinkle to a complex submission.

    This story feels like peeling an onion. Each new layer will reveal different information.

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

    1. While I’m glad that you began your story with a scene rather than with a passive protagonist alone somewhere, I didn’t feel any kind of connection with the main character. I found myself not caring about the outcome. Start with a scene that demonstrates the kind of relationship the characters have so that the behavior makes sense to the reader.

    2. POV – Your choice of POV in the opening section does not work. Stick to either first person or third-person limited point of view. (See the POV section in The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings: How to Craft Story Openings That Sell by Paula Munier.)

    3. This sample needs a skilled editor. There are punctuation problems, tense shifts, and other issues. I don’t have time to correct them all.

    Example tense shift:

    “I don’t care if your head hurts. Get up! Then she dumped water on you.”

    Use “dumps” here.

    Example punctuation error:

    “The cash-box key’s…”

    The proper way to write this phrase: “The cash box key is…”

    Read how to use apostrophes here:

    https://www.scribendi.com/advice/using_apostrophes.en.html

    4. Too many exclamation points (I counted at least 5) on the first page.

    5. Lots of people are mentioned on the first page (Harvey, Mother, Lucy, Topher). Find a less confusing way to introduce these characters.

    6. Do you need to use the f-word so many times on the first page?

    Overall, I’d advise you to keep things simple and do all that you can to avoid causing confusion on the first page. A confused reader is not a happy reader. It’s important to have a first page that’s free of the kinds of errors that would be caught by an editor. Best of luck, brave writer.

    • Good points, Joanne. I also did not feel a connection with the characters yet it retained my interest. I had the same reaction to Gone Girl and Girl on the Train. Didn’t like the characters but had to keep reading.

      It’s a fine line between intriguing readers with mystery and confusing them.

      • You are such a nice lady, Debbie, and I always enjoy your wise words. I loved The Girl on the Train, but I haven’t had the chance to read Gone Girl yet. (I did see the movie.)

  6. Rich in conflict, emotion and energy…bursts out of the starting gate.
    Lots to like here.
    Congrats and all the best to you.

  7. I was totally confused. I thought there was a monster/alien/werewolf in the hallway and brave son was protecting his mother from being killed/abducted/eaten.

    Clearly, I was wrong.

    When we lived in Japan we experienced a lot of earthquakes. Most people had a cash reserve in case power went out and ATMs didn’t work. We do the same in hurricane season. (Actually we do it all the time just in case).

    It would be helpful to know who these people are and where they are. It’s hard to care about someone when you’re confused.

    Kudos for avoiding the Character Thinking About Interesting Things That Happened Earlier in the Day phenomenon.

    • Cynthia, thanks for contributing your earthquake experience. That setting detail does a great job of underscoring the unstable relationship between T and L.

      Your point about confusion is well taken. Anon does need to clarify who these characters are and how they’re related, hopefully on page 2.

      The werewolf/monster you envisioned underscores the vastly different assumptions each individual reader brings to a story. You’ve given Anon another point to ponder about the all-important first impression a writer strives to make.

  8. I read this first page differently. To me, it appeared as though Topher lives inside Lucy, who’s overhearing her parents fight while a separate identity inside her rants about her/their mother. I could be wrong, but that’s how I read it. This assumption may also explain why the dialogue isn’t inside quotation marks. If I’m right, Anon did an exceptional job, IMO. I’ve written fractured personalities before, and it’s not an easy thing to pull off, especially in 2nd POV. Bravo! Without question, I’d turn the page.

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