Don’t Make the Reader Guess the Important Stuff – First Page Critique – URGE

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

 

For your reading pleasure, we have an anonymous submission of 400 words. Please help with your constructive criticism by commenting. My feedback will follow. Enjoy.

***

Remnants of Sunday night trade at the Royal Derby Hotel were strewn in the gutter. Some poor bastard who didn’t get to enjoy the benefits of it would have to clean up the beer cans and broken glass. Jude stepped over vomit stains and around a bent up bicycle obstructing the footpath as it strained against the chain that kept it attached to a street pole. Cams message had been brief, “Murder in Brunswick Street, think your PI outfit could help. Meet me near corner of Cecil, 7am.” She hadn’t been able to reach him when she tried to return his call. That was an hour ago. She had left three messages for James already without any response. She willed him to come. Check your phone James. Please be on time. I need you here.

Two hundred metres further on the opposite side of the street Jude saw a gaping black hole in a shop front and stopped. Its window display had spilled across the footpath after a fire had blown out the glass. She felt a mild strangling feeling and shuddered. Fuck. Why does it have to be a fire crime, I hate fire crimes, Cam must remember that, he should have told me. Cam was standing outside the shop scratching his head and surveying the contents of the footpath. Beggars can’t be choosers she reminded herself, took a deep breath, checked for cars and stepped into the road. She was hungry to get back into some serious investigative work and wasn’t going to let a bit of queasiness get in the way.

Cam looked up and smiled warmly when he saw Jude and stepped forward to give her a peck on the cheek. “Great to see you. Thanks for coming on such short notice.”

Jude took a quick step back. What’s with the kissing, that’s a bit familiar, this is a crime scene meeting she thought as she nodded towards the shop, “Appreciate the call, what’s the story?”

Cam’s smile faded as he looked at the shop, “Fire brigade got a call around 11pm. Extinguished it by four this morning and secured the scene. Found a body at the back.” He gestured into the open black hole of the building. “Forensics are in there now, doesn’t look like an accident to me,” he nodded at the contents of the footpath and smirked, “it’s, a, uh, fetish shop.”

FEEDBACK

GROUNDING THE READER – From the start we have what feels like a cop investigating a crime scene, but the reader has names without knowing what the players do or even what city they are in. (I had to look up that the Royal Derby Hotel is in Australia.) It takes work to decipher who Cam and Jude and James are. Things aren’t clearer until the very end.

Are they police? Arson investigators? News reporters? From Cam’s message, we learn that there’s a PI involved and it took a reread to see this is Jude. I’ve made a quick stab at a rewrite, trying to stay true to the scene as written, but I hope you can see how the names and job titles clarifies the intro. I might’ve started this story a different way, but I am showing this rewrite to demonstrate how important it is to orient the reader into the scene with details.

REWRITE SUGGESTION

Private investigator Jude Hawthorne stared down at the unexpected text message she had received from Homicide Detective Cameron Hunter as she stood under a pale street lamp.

Murder in Brunswick Street, think your PI outfit could help.

Meet me near corner of Cecil, 7am.

I’m here, Detective Hunter. Where are you?

Remnants of Sunday night trade at the Royal Derby Hotel were strewn in the gutter, making it hard to distinguish the trash from the explosion caused by the fire. Jude stepped over vomit stains and around a bent up bicycle obstructing the footpath as it strained against the chain that kept it attached to a street pole. As she came upon the charred remains of the storefront and shattered glass, she cringed.

Why does it have to be a fire crime? I hate fire crimes. Cam must remember that. He should’ve told me.

Readers don’t get a description of what happened until the mention of the fire blowing out a window half way down, otherwise the intro sounds like the dregs of a drunken party or Mardi Gras. In the last paragraph, there’s a mention of a ‘crime scene’ and a fire brigade with a body inside, but readers need to be oriented into the scene much sooner. In my rewrite above, I added the two red letter lines to mention the crime scene.

START WITH A DISTURBANCE – In the rewrite above, I focused on the disturbance of Jude getting an unexpected text message. She’s a PI and it would not be normal for her to get called to a homicide.

KEEP FOCUS ON EMOTION – Jude obviously has an issue with fires, yet her fear is embedded in a longer paragraph and glossed over. Make that front at center. By sticking with her emotional state, the reader gets invested in her as a character. They want to root for her. (I slapped this rewrite together as an example and cherry-picked what resonated with me. I’m sure the author could do better.)

BEFORE – Two hundred metres further on the opposite side of the street Jude saw a gaping black hole in a shop front and stopped. Its window display had spilled across the footpath after a fire had blown out the glass. She felt a mild strangling feeling and shuddered. Fuck. Why does it have to be a fire crime, I hate fire crimes, Cam must remember that, he should have told me. Cam was standing outside the shop scratching his head and surveying the contents of the footpath. Beggars can’t be choosers she reminded herself, took a deep breath, checked for cars and stepped into the road. She was hungry to get back into some serious investigative work and wasn’t going to let a bit of queasiness get in the way.

AFTER – Jude shuddered and found it hard to breathe as she stared into the gaping hole of the shop front, pitted by fire. Its window display had spilled across the footpath after a fire had blown out the glass. Her own demons were never far from the surface. Detective Hunter should have known to warn her.

Jude took a deep breath and clenched her jaw as she checked for cars and stepped into the road. She needed serious investigative work, even if the case cost her sleep and brought back nightmares she thought she’d left behind.

CHARACTER NAMES – Why does the author only mention first names in this intro? I recommend giving authority to your investigators from the beginning. Give them a job title and what relation they are to each other, as I did in the rewrite above. It took me awhile to realize that Jude is the PI, but who are the other players? Who is James?

To avoid the gender issue using the name Cam, I would mention his full name of Cameron at the start and maybe only start using ‘Cam’ when other people call him by his nickname to establish that Cam is Cameron.

I would also question why a cop would call in a private investigator to an official crime scene, but I will leave that up to the author to establish. I’m sure there is a good reason and it sounds intriguing.

POINT OF VIEW – It took me a few readings to get oriented into the POV intended here. The first two lines were through the eyes of a character, I presumed. So when I saw the name Jude, I thought this is deep POV 3rd person, but then Cam steps into the spotlight and because that name is gender neutral, I thought Cam was a woman until I get to a couple of spots and realize he’s not.

Did anyone else have an issue with gender and whose POV is central? Giving titles and orienting the reader faster would help with this confusion.

PUNCTUATION – A well placed comma can make all the difference. Remember the old grammar joke – “Let’s eat Grandma.” versus “Let’s eat, Grandma.” That comma would mean a huge difference if you’re Grandma. I would recommend reading aloud as part of an edit process. When you get to a spot where your voice naturally pauses, that’s usually where a comma goes. Just ask Grandma. There is also missing question marks and run on sentences that should be broken apart to be clearer.

Here’s a couple of examples:

BEFORE – ‘Fuck. Why does it have to be a fire crime, I hate fire crimes, Cam must remember that, he should have told me.’

Break this apart for clarity and add punctuation. I also recommend internal DEEP POV be italicized (if mixed into 3rd person POV) and I suggest that DEEP POV not be embedded into a paragraph. If it stand out more, it will draw the reader’s eye to it as if it were dialogue. Readers naturally look for dialogue when they are reading. With weighty long paragraphs, as in this submission, the reader might skim or lose important dialogue if it’s buried.

AFTER – Why does it have to be a fire crime? I hate fire crimes. Cam must remember that. He should’ve told me.

Cams message had been brief,… (Cam’s message had been brief,…)

BEFORE – Jude took a quick step back. What’s with the kissing, that’s a bit familiar, this is a crime scene meeting she thought as she nodded towards the shop, “Appreciate the call, what’s the story?”

AFTER – Jude took a quick step back, stunned.

What’s with the kissing. That’s a bit familiar. This is a crime scene, she thought.

All business, Jude nodded towards the shop and said, “Appreciate the call, what’s the story?”

LAST PARAGRAPH – I would break out the dialogue lines to allow the reader to find them more easily. But I’m still not sure why a PI would need to be called in on an arson/murder investigation, especially if it’s a fetish shop. Riddle me that, Batman.

And why is he sure it wasn’t an accident simply because it’s a fetish shop? That’s the implication. His smirk is a little sophomoric, but maybe that is intentional. Is he a professional guy or a wise cracker? We don’t know yet.

BEFORE – Cam’s smile faded as he looked at the shop, “Fire brigade got a call around 11pm. Extinguished it by four this morning and secured the scene. Found a body at the back.” He gestured into the open black hole of the building. “Forensics are in there now, doesn’t look like an accident to me,” he nodded at the contents of the footpath and smirked, “it’s, a, uh, fetish shop.”

AFTER – Cam’s smile faded as he looked at the shop.

“Fire brigade got a call around eleven pm. After they extinguished the blaze by four this morning and secured the scene, they found a body at the back.”

He gestured into the charred chasm of the destroyed building.

“Forensics are in there now, but it doesn’t look like an accident to me.” He nodded at the contents of the footpath and smirked, “it’s, a, uh, fetish shop.”

FOR DISCUSSION

What feedback would you give this author, TKZers?

3+
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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 is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

27 thoughts on “Don’t Make the Reader Guess the Important Stuff – First Page Critique – URGE

  1. I didn’t make it all the way through this one. It was too much work trying to figure out who and where.

    I was trying to figure out if Royal Derby was in England or Kentucky (I didn’t even think about Australia). I decided on England when I saw “Jude” because that sounds to me like England rather than Kentucky.

    Cams message made me think someone was sitting in a surveillance van watching a camera.

    I thought Jude was a man. When Jude was a woman and Cam was not a camera but a person and a man, I gave up.

    It sounds like a really good story, just let us know where we are and who these people are.

  2. Hey Cynthia. Thanks for kicking off the discussion.

    I was thinking Jude Law.

    This submission turned out to be a bit of work on who the players are. These are easy fixes with a little effort. I was intrigued by Jude & her potential as a lead character once I peeled back the layers of smoke screen (no pun intended).

  3. I was intrigued by “the footpath as it strained against the chain that kept it attached to a street pole.”

    It’s hard to know whether page two would tell us where the Royal Derby Hotel was. But we do need to know where we are. The same would apply if I started a story at the Palmer House.

  4. I thought Jude was male and Cam was female and so I couldn’t figure out who the “she” was or what James had to do with it. I felt in a muddle during the whole thing. n spite of this, I liked much of the writing, in particular the descriptive details.

    • I agree, Nan. There’s still something in the writing that holds promise.

      I once wrote an intro that kept the name of a secondary character a secret until someone critiqued that I should just give the guy a name. Once I did, he came to life for me & the scene became much stronger. Sometimes we’re too close to our work to see the obvious. Thanks for your comments.

  5. I had all the same issues with confusion that you did, Jordan. Your simple reworkings of the graphs adds clarity. But notice how it also breaks up the type so the eye can digest the material more efficiently. I don’t understand the impulse to bury dialogue inside narrative graphs. I mean, it worked for Dickens, but he’s been long gone now. We (and our reading brains) have moved on.

    • Exactly! My rewrite was more about illustrating clarity with names/titles but also about highlighting the dialogue & deep POV. As a reader, I like white space on the page. I tend to lose the importance of details in a weighty paragraph & may skim.

      Thanks, Kris.

  6. I thought this was an intriguing situation with nice light hints of Jude’s horror of fire and the relationship between Jude and Cam. The descriptions were vivid and not static, setting the scene w/o boring the reader.

    But the names also distracted me (“Hey Jude” by the Beatles came to mind). Like Cynthia, I initially thought Jude was male and Cam was female. Also mentioning “some poor bastard” cleaning up the mess would have been a good hint at Jude’s personality but, as written, the sentence came across as an omniscient narrator since it preceded the introduction of Jude as the POV character. Introduce Jude first, then show her musing about the poor bastard.

    Typos: Cam’s message (missing apostrophe); check your phone, James (missing comma and who’s James?); two hundred meters farther (farther is distance, further is quantity); beggars can’t be choosers, she reminded (missing comma); this is a crime scene meeting, she thought (missing comma); doesn’t look like an accident to me.” He nodded (period at the end of his comment. Nodding is not an attribution.).

    Jordan’s rewrite solved the problems and pulled me into the story.

    There are enough questions in a crime story w/o making the reader guess about unnecessary ones like gender, location, etc. With some tinkering, this promises to be a good story. Keep at it, brave author.

    • Well stated, Debbie. Thanks for the extras. I don’t always make every correction for brevity’s sake. I also like commenters to participate with good feedback, like you did. Thanks for your encouraging feedback to this writer.

  7. I really liked this submission, I like how it starts and I like the characters. I agree that the paragraphs should be broken up, but that is an easy fix. I don’t understand why we need to know where this crime scene is happening. Footpath and meters were enough for me, and I think if this story is published in Australia, no one in Australia needs to know what country it’s in. I really think we’re overthinking this. Just roll with it. And if there’s a name followed by a pronoun, just assume that pronoun belongs to the name.

    My only suggestion is to cut the last few sentences of the first paragraph. Just end with “that was an hour ago.” As is, the extra sentences make Jude sound desperate and amateurish, which maybe she is, but I don’t think it works so early in the story. Plus you’ve established hints of that later on. And break up your paragraphs, like I’m not doing now.

    • When a book is sold, deals are often for world rights, meaning a book can be distributed anywhere the publisher has distribution. Why not be clear? What’s the point of keeping a setting a mystery when a fix is easy? The suggestions for clarification are meant to give broad appeal to world rights agents & editors, not just publishing in Australia.

      Thanks for giving a different view for the author to consider. Your feedback is appreciated, AZ.

  8. I thought Jude was a man and Cam was a woman, especially with the sentence, “She hadn’t been able to reach him . . ..” I think the She is supposed to grammatically refer back to the nearest person, which would be Cam. But that’s easily fixed with the type of rewording Jordan suggested.

    I did know about the historic Royal Derby, so I was expecting a mystery having to do with the hotel. Perhaps someone was reenacting an unsolved murder from 100 years ago. Or maybe a ghost was disturbing guests. Either way, the Royal Derby plays a significant role in the story because it’s in the very first sentence. Then we learn all the way down in the second paragraph that the mystery has nothing to do with the hotel but a fetish shop two hundred meters away. It was a letdown. Again, Jordan’s suggested rewording solved the problem by moving the hotel name further down the page and associating the hotel with with unimportant trash in contrast to the explosion and fire in her reworded sentence.

    The brave author has introduced some great questions. Who is the victim? Why is Jude afraid of fire? What does the murder have to do with a fetish shop? Has Cam developed a crush on Jude, and will it hinder the investigation? With a little rewording, and maybe getting rid of James for now and properly introducing him later, this story beginning would be clearer, and I’d turn the page to find out more.

    Best of luck in your continued writing, brave author!

    • Lots of things for the author to consider, Priscilla. Thank you. I kind of like your version of the hotel. Maybe there will be a connection later. I would sure love to hear more about a setting in Australia.

      I’m finishing a novel today that’s set in New Orleans. Lots of authors have written about NOLA, but it took quite a lot of research for me to make the setting of New Orleans into a character. I’ve never taken this much time with a setting before, but I am glad I did. I hope this will be sold as a series, so the research will be worth it. The rich cultural history and the various social and political influences, the food, the music, the spiritual influences add to the depth of a location. The first time I visited New Orleans, I could feel the draw and understood why so many writers have made NOLA a setting.

      I’m a big believer in making a good setting a part of any story. An intro might need to stick to the action and draw the reader in, but there are ways to hint at setting until you can really dive in later.

  9. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Don’t let the number of comments scare you. Here they are:

    Introducing Your Protagonist

    One of the biggest jobs a writer has is to introduce the protagonist. Read Barbara Kyle’s article called “Making An Entrance,” which you can find using a search engine. (Search for the one that’s the PDF file.) In short, your opening should show the reader your protagonist’s essence in action. What is Jude’s defining admirable quality? I couldn’t tell from reading your first page.

    Too Many Character Introductions at Once

    Jude, Cams, and James were mentioned on the first page. Take the time to properly introduce each character. When you mention too many characters at once without taking the time to properly introduce each one, readers get confused. It’s best to choose names where there will be no gender confusion (or clarify the sex of each character immediately). Consider working in last names if you can.

    Private Investigation

    Private investigation is one of my wheelhouses, and I know some investigators in Australia. *wink* Make sure to acquaint readers with Jude’s investigative background. Why would someone call Jude’s “pi outfit” (as you called it in your writing) to work on a murder investigation? The readers don’t know, because you didn’t properly introduce your protagonist. This would be a great way to create empathy. If Jude has a special skill that makes her “the one” to call, don’t keep the reader in the dark. (Also, remember that the rules for what private investigators can do in Australia are different than the USA; I hope you’ve done your homework in that area.)

    Further vs Farther

    You write:

    “Two hundred metres further on the opposite side of the street Jude saw a gaping black hole in a shop front and stopped.”

    Put “Further” Versus “Farther” and Grammar Girl, into a search engine. Farther is used for physical distance.

    Also check out metre vs meter in various parts of the world here:

    http://grammarist.com/spelling/meter-metre/

    POV

    One trick to writing in a close POV is to avoid using the protagonist’s name when it is not necessary. Each time you do this, it pulls the reader out of the narrative.

    Example:

    “Two hundred metres further on the opposite side of the street Jude saw a gaping black hole in a shop front and stopped.”

    Instead, try something like this (which is a little less jarring to the reader):

    Two hundred meters ahead, across the street, a gaping hole in a shop front made her stop.

    Dialogue

    When writing dialogue, skillful writers eliminate the “hi, how are you” parts. Yes, you want it to seem real, but cut the boring parts.

    Example:

    “Great to see you. Thanks for coming on such short notice.”

    This kind of dialogue doesn’t tell us anything about the characters. Unless the dialogue gives us information about the characters, summarize. He greeted her would work. Better still, give us a meatier greeting with some subtext.

    Overwriting

    The term overwriting covers a lot of writing problems. One is repetition. For example, you write:

    “She hadn’t been able to reach him when she tried to return his call. That was an hour ago. She had left three messages for James already without any response. She willed him to come. Check your phone James. Please be on time. I need you here.”

    This is too much. Seven sentences. See if you can rewrite this with one or two powerful sentences. This kind of hyperbole makes her seem too needy (not a good characteristic for a protagonist, unless you balance out with some other redeeming traits.)

    Another type of overwriting happens when a writer uses more words than are necessary. Any words you use should add something to the story. Every word has to earn its reason to live on the page.

    Example:

    “Cam looked up and smiled warmly when he saw Jude and stepped forward to give her a peck on the cheek.”

    Too formal. Try something like this (told from Jude’s POV):

    Cam smiled warmly and gave her a peck on the check.

    Another type of overwriting happens when a writer uses hedge words.

    Watch out for phrases like “a bit” that creep into your writing.

    I’ll leave to you, brave writer, to find other examples of overwriting and correct them.

    Grammar/Punctuation

    Learn the rules for using punctuation. This is something that you should do before you begin writing. Crawl before you walk. You can’t get a license to drive a car before you learn about traffic signals. A red light isn’t a mere “suggestion” to stop the car. Likewise, writing has rules. The rules for dialogue are firm rules that you may not break. I don’t like the way you join sentences with commas, but advanced writers get away with doing it sometimes. Also “nodded” is an action, not a dialogue tag. “Smirked” is also an action.

    Example:

    “Forensics are in there now, doesn’t look like an accident to me,” he nodded at the contents of the footpath and smirked, “it’s, a, uh, fetish shop.”

    How I’d rewrite this:

    “Forensics team is in there now. Doesn’t look like an accident.” He nodded at the contents of the footpath and smirked. “It’s…uh…a fetish shop.”

    Setting

    Let us know where the Royal Derby Hotel is immediately.

    Long Sentences Joined by Commas

    These kinds of sentences don’t do your writing any favors. Examples:

    1. Why does it have to be a fire crime, I hate fire crimes, Cam must remember that, he should have told me.

    2. Beggars can’t be choosers she reminded herself, took a deep breath, checked for cars and stepped into the road.

    Also, you don’t have to give so many micro details about her actions. A protagonist who rambles too much may deter some readers.

    Unnecessary Use of “Was”

    Example:

    She was hungry to get back into some serious investigative work and wasn’t going to let a bit of queasiness get in the way.

    Rewritten:

    Hungry to get back into serious investigative work, she refused to let queasiness get in her way.

    That’s enough for one day, brave writer. Don’t be disheartened by the number of comments from the folks here. Writing is a process. Best of luck, and carry on!

  10. The story was interesting. I’d read more, if only to find out why a PI was involved. The police would have sealed the building as a crime scene – therefore no access.

    I’d also omit naming the Royal Derby Hotel if it’s not relevant to the rest of the story. Find another way to establish which town and country the story is set in.

    Adding to the confusion is the fact that the word hotel has two different meanings in Australia – in addition to place of accommodation, it also means pub or bar. (As a lot of the small 19th-century suburban hotels stopped offering accommodation but the hotel bar stayed open)

    Footpath is another potentially confusing word that has different meanings across the English-speaking world. In Australia it means sidewalk, in the UK it means walking track through the woods.

    But these are small nitpicks – a great start from the author that promises an intriguing story!

    • You bring up excellent points, Gareth. Whenever my books were sold internationally in English or translated into languages, I never had to tweak meanings but chuckled when I knew my idea of humor may not translate, even in English speaking countries.

      Your point about mentioning a real place, my publishers would have been sensitive to real locations being used if my story painted the location in a negative light. I never tested that theory by forcing the point. I would never want to cast shade on a legit business, even lightly, so I would make up fictitious names to give me freedom to do what I wanted.

      Thanks, Gareth.

  11. Sorry – chiming in late here but I think all the comments are spot on. Of course, I knew immediately that this was set in Australia (and in my home town too!) but agree on the confusion and some of the word choice issues that may hinder comprehension:) I have no problem with the location issue but I think the re-write suggestions Jordan made were excellent.

  12. I think there is great potential here. Aside from the other comments, I think the dialogue needs a bit more snap so that we can get a sense of the character’s personalities. So it doesn’t feel so much like exposition.

    Example: The last the paragraphs could read something like this…

    Cam looked up and smiled warmly when he saw Jude and stepped forward to give her a peck on the cheek.

    Jude took a quick step back. “This better be worth my time.”

    Cam’s smile faded. “It’s always business with you, Jude.”

    Jude turned toward the shop.

    “Right,” Cam said. “Fire brigade got a call around 11pm. They found a body at the back.” He gestured into the open black hole of the building. “My guess is intentional.” He turned to her with a smirk.

    “A fetish shop, Cam. Really?”

    I think having the characters play off each other lends even more intrigue to their possible relationship. It’s a bit more relatable.

    • I love your suggestions for snappy dialogue, Toni. I totally agree that dialogue should give insight into the characters & how they relate to each other.

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