Demonic Darjeeling — A First Page Critique

By John Gilstrap

It’s that time again.  The brave writer who’s stepped into the breach for a first page critique has been waiting for way longer than s/he should have.  This one was actually submitted back in December, and it got lost in the scrum of the Holidays.  My apologies for that.  So, here we go, hopefully better late than never.  I’ll see you on the other side.  (As always, the italics are mine for clarity’s sake.)

Title: When the Demons Came for Tea

The tinkling bell chimed in the teashop and I turned to see two figures, dressed smartly in velvety black business suits.  They could have passed for ordinary people save for the curling ivory horns and alabaster pale skin.  I picked up the rose patterned china tea pot and asked;

“Who is it this time?”  For as long as I had run the tea shop, the Demons would come in for afternoon tea before they went off to claim their next soul.  These were demons of death, in charge of claiming the souls of those ready to depart the earth and giving theme safe passage to…  well, wherever they went next.  I had no idea what had drawn them in here in the first place, by all accounts this was an ordinary tea shop.  Perhaps they just liked the tea I served.  That’s what I liked to believe anyway.  I handed the demons a cup of tea each and repeated my question, noticing for the first time their rather uncomfortable silence.  Oh God, was it one of my family?

“W-who is it?”  I asked again.  Kailor sipped his tea.  Malariz shot Kailor a furious look before turning to me.

He cleared his throat uncomfortably, “it’s… you Ness.”  The china tea pot shattered as it hit the marble floor, having fallen from my limp hand.

“M-me?”  I whispered.

Kailor sighed, repairing my tea pot with a sweep of his hand.  “Hennessey Kayla Jones, we Kailor and Malariz of Soul Reclamation come to you know with a choice.  Come with us, to your afterlife or accept our job offer.”

Job offer?  Was that a thing? 

“A job?”  I asked.

“You accept the job?” Malariz asked quickly.

“No, what is the job?”  I said quickly.  The demons exchanged a secretive look.

“We can’t tell you.”  Kailor said happily.  I gaped at him.  Taking a deep breath, I downed my tea in one gulp and turned back to the demons.

“Let me get this straight.  I’m the soul you’ve come to claim, and I can either go with you to my afterlife, or take this job offer.  A job which you can’t tell me about until I’ve accepted it?  Is that about right?”  I asked shakily.

Malariz looked happy that I was catching on, “Yep that about covered it.”  I stared at him, lost for words.  Kailor looked between me and Malariz.

“I think she was being sarcastic mate.”  He said.  Malariz looked crestfallen.  I looked back and forth between the demons for a moment before turning around to look at my beloved tea shop.  Either way I would have to leave this place, I’d might as well have an adventure while I’m at it.  I turned back to them.

“I’ll take the job.”

=

It’s Gilstrap again.

Truth be told, I don’t know what to make of this piece.  I think I like the tone, the off-handedness of the interaction and dialogue, but I don’t understand the world.  Wouldn’t those horns raise a ruckus as they wandered down the street?  If they’re visible only to Ness, then that should be made clear.  And if they can repair pottery with a sweep of a hand, why do they need to enter the shop through the door?  Wouldn’t they just *poof* their way in?

I don’t think this scene makes a good first scene.  It’s a good turning point, but I’d like to get to know Ness–and see her interacting with Kailor and Malariz on previous missions–so that we get a chance to buy into their relationships.  There’s a chumminess among them that feels unearned in this sample.

I’m reminded here of the Three Kings from the Gian Carlo Menotti operetta, Amahl and the Night Visitors, where Melchior is portrayed as playing with less than a full deck.  I presume that that’s what we are to believe of Malariz.

I think there’s real potential here, though angel-of-death stories have been done many, many times, and therefor pose a great risk of falling into the realm of cliche.

Brave Author, you’ll see below that I have made some specific suggestions for a re-write.  You have a tendency to be redundant in your narrative, and there seems to be an addiction to -ly adverbs.  Look for my comments in bold type.

And thanks for submitting!

Title: When the Demons Came for Tea

The tinkling bell chimed in the teashop and I turned to see two figures, dressed smartly in velvety black velvet business suits.  They could have passed for ordinary people save for the curling ivory (really ivory—in which case could she really know that—or ivory colored?) horns and alabaster pale (redundant) skin.  I picked up the rose patterned china tea pot and asked;,

“Who is it this time?”  For as long (How long is that? This is an opportunity for detail.) as I had run the tea shop, these Demons (why capitalized?) of death would come in for afternoon tea before they went off to claim their next soul.  These were demons of death, in charge of claiming the souls of those ready to depart the earth and giving theme safe passage to…  well, wherever they went next.  I had no idea what had drawn them in here in the first place. By all accounts this was an ordinary tea shop.  (We will assume the ordinary, unless instructed otherwise.) Perhaps they just liked the tea I served.  That’s what I liked to believe anyway.  I handed the demons a cup of tea each and repeated my question, noticing for the first time their rather uncomfortable silence.  Oh God, was it one of my family?

“W-who is it?”  I asked again.  Kailor sipped his tea.  Malariz shot Kailor a furious look (This feels unearned to me. Why the furious look?) before turning to me.

He cleared his throat uncomfortably, “it’s… you Ness.”  The china tea pot shattered as it hit the marble floor, having fallen from my limp hand.

“M-me?”  I whispered.

Kailor sighed, repairing and repaired my tea pot with a sweep of his hand.  “Hennessey Kayla Jones, we Kailor and Malariz of Soul Reclamation come to you know with a choice.  Come with us, to your afterlife or accept our job offer.”

Job offer?  Was that a thing?

“A job?”  I asked.

“You accept the job?” Malariz asked quickly.

“No, what is the job?”  I said quickly.  The demons exchanged a secretive look.

“We can’t tell you.”  Kailor said happily.  I gaped at him.  Taking a deep breath, I downed my tea in one gulp and turned back to the demons.

I think this is a place for some internal monologue as Ness sorts through her options.  As written—as dialogue—it seems too glib, too for-the-reader.

“Let me get this straight.  I’m the soul you’ve come to claim, and I can either go with you to my afterlife, or take this job offer.  A job which you can’t tell me about until I’ve accepted it?  Is that about right?”  I asked shakily.

Malariz looked happy that I was catching on, “Yep that about covered it.”  I stared at him, lost for words.  Kailor looked between me and Malariz.

“I think she was being sarcastic mate.”  He said.  Malariz looked crestfallen.  I looked back and forth between the demons for a moment before turning around to look at my beloved tea shop.  Either way I would have to leave this place, I’d might as well have an adventure while I’m at it.  I turned back to them.

“I’ll take the job,” I said.

 

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. He will co-produce the film adaptation of his book, Six Minutes to Freedom, which should begin filming in 2017. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

8 thoughts on “Demonic Darjeeling — A First Page Critique

  1. The teapot should fall, then shatter.
    The demons seem interchangeable. Is there any difference between them?
    Kailor is very close to Kayla.
    Why would she have to give up the tea shop? She’s jumping to that conclusion, but the demons never said that.
    This sounds like it could be a good Twilight Zone episode.

  2. I thought this first page was wordy to the point I got distracted, so I agree with John’s suggested rewrite. But this is good. That means there would be more room for meaty stuff like if horned demons are typically part of this world, or if Ness is the only one who can see them.

    I also wondered about Malariz being furious–why, because Kailor was sipping tea?

    I would caution the brave author to make sure he or she has done a grammar and spelling check. For example, “come to you know with a choice” should probably be “come to you now with a choice.” And there should be a period after “uncomfortably” (or after “throat” if you drop the adverb). Then start the sentence inside the quotation mark with a capital.

    I do like that the brave author raised an intriguing question. What is this job Ness has to do? I would turn the page to find out, but it’d be a more enjoyable read if the text were cleaner and tighter.

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

  3. I like it. I disagree with JS about using it for an opening scene. I’m good with it. It gets right to the point. If I recall correctly the series Dead Like Me opened with the main character getting killed in the first scene (she then becomes a reaper). Similar premise here. I agree that the horns have got to go. IMO the teapot falling and shattering at the “shock” announcement is cliche. Think up something more original to convey the surprise. If the setting is going to be important in the story, and since the demons come here every day I am left with this impression, give us more detail. Is this set in England? The tea shop setting and use of the word “mate” lead me to think this, but it could be elsewhere. Perhaps work in the name of the town, something about the weather, something specific to the place. And, yeah, why does she have to give up the tea shop? I wouldn’t mind seeing her argue more with the demons about the job. This could serve as a way to indicate how they’ve known each other a long time. This page needs tightening, yet at the time it could do with the addition of more color. I do like the premise, and would keep reading the final product.

  4. I like the voice, and some of the things Jim changed didn’t bother me. What lost my interest was the on-the-nose dialogue. The moment she asked, “Who is it this time?” I knew it was her. Don’t do this. Surprises are good.

    Perhaps Kayla could ask: “The usual, boys?”
    They could respond with, “Hennessey Kayla Jones, we Kailor and Malariz of Soul Reclamation…”

    If I was Kayla, I would freak out if someone came to tell me I was going to die. I would put up a fight and/or run away.

    You have a good set-up, brave writer. I would turn the page. Just fix the on-the-nose dialogue. Good job and good luck.

  5. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. You understand the need to have an important story question at the end of that first page. Will Grandma be serving tea at another location? If we want to know, we have to turn the page. Good. However, there are issues with the writing, as John noted. (Nice critique by John. I’d pay attention to his wise words.) Some of the other folks here have given some good feedback, as well. Here are my comments:

    Presentation

    You only need one space at the end of a sentence. Also, be sure to use an editor to find typos like this one:

    “come to you know with a choice”

    Grammar/Punctuation

    There are rules for writing dialogue. For example, you write:

    He cleared his throat uncomfortably, “it’s… you Ness.”

    It should read:

    He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “It’s.. you Ness.”

    As another example, you write:

    “I think she was being sarcastic mate.” He said.

    Instead, write it like this:

    “I think she was being sarcastic, mate,” he said.

    For more information about how to write dialogue, check out Beth Hill’s blog post (http://theeditorsblog.net/2010/12/08/punctuation-in-dialogue/).

    Writers may be able to get away with playing fast and loose with some rules, but when it comes to dialogue, the rules are firm.

    Also, let’s look at this sentence:

    “Taking a deep breath, I downed my tea in one gulp and turned back to the demons.”

    The way this sentence is written, it seems that Ness is breathing while she is drinking her tea. Try something like this:

    Deep breath. I finished my tea in one gulp and then turned toward the demons.

    Overwriting

    John gave wonderful suggestions for tightening your writing, and I would tighten it even more. Remember that old game show on television called Name That Tune, where people would bid to name a tune in some number of notes? The idea was to be able to name the tune in as few notes as possible. See if you can write each sentence using the fewest number of words possible (without losing meaning, of course). If you use 50 unneeded words on each page, that’s 20,000 extra words for a 400-page book.

    John edited quite a few of your sentences. I’ll choose a different one.

    “I looked back and forth between the demons for a moment before turning around to look at my beloved tea shop.”

    Instead, try something like this:

    I surveyed the demons and then my beloved tea shop.

    Don’t make each sentence tedious for the reader by adding unnecessary words. I recently read a manuscript for someone who had a similar problem. She told me that she was using as many words as she could for each sentence deliberately because she wanted to be sure to have enough words to make up a book! She wanted to add to her word count each day by stretching out those sentences. Editors and literary agents don’t like this trick. I guided her to some books on plot and structure, including the one by JSB. If you know where your story is going, you won’t feel the need to pad those sentences. I encourage you to go through each sentence and trim unneeded words.

    Genre

    We know this is some kind of paranormal story from the start. Good.

    Setting

    After you trim some of the unneeded words from your first page, you’ll have more room to tell us more about Ness. How old is she? I’m guessing she is a grandma who lives in Australia, but I shouldn’t have to guess. Is she the only one who can see the demons? This isn’t an invitation to write paragraphs of setting details. Many sentences on the first page need to do double duty. In other words, give us some setting details while a character performs an action. Some sentences will do triple duty. Weave multiple story elements into every sentence.

    Opening Line

    “The tinkling bell chimed in the teashop and I turned to see two figures, dressed smartly in velvety black business suits.”

    This sentence requires a comma before the word “and” the way it is written. However, I’d begin differently. As John suggested, maybe you want to establish the protagonist’s relationship with the demons first. Perhaps introduce the family that Ness mentions. We can’t feel her pain about leaving her family, because we don’t know anything about it. Like John said, the decision she has to make sounds more like a turning point. Remember The Wizard of Oz. Before Dorothy left Kansas, readers were introduced to Auntie Em and her family and friends. Without knowing more about your premise and such, I can’t help much more with plot. However, John makes a good point.

    I’d revise the opening line. It’s a little clunky right now. Try something like:

    Every afternoon at two o’clock, the bells on my shop door tinkle, announcing the demons’ arrival for tea.

    POV

    If you’re going to write in first person, voice is important. Give us more of your protagonist’s attitude. Is she more like Meryl Streep or Betty White (or someone else entirely)? Your character’s opinions and attitudes have to come through in every sentence.

    Repeated Words

    You use the word “looked” at least four times. You used the word “come” at least four times. You used the word “turned” at least three times. Then you use “turning” which is similar. Then you use “uncomfortable silence” and “comfortably” very close together. I don’t think you should go to the thesaurus to look for obscure words. Just use more of a variety of regular words.

    Adverbs

    You used “quickly” twice on the first page. I saw a few others (shakily, happily). Try to limit the use of adverbs to the extent possible.

    Dialogue

    Dialogue should be snappy. You write:

    “Let me get this straight. I’m the soul you’ve come to claim, and I can either go with you to my afterlife, or take this job offer. A job which you can’t tell me about until I’ve accepted it? Is that about right?” I asked shakily.

    Eliminate: “Is that about right?”

    Instead of the “let me get this straight,” you could use so at the beginning of the next sentence.

    That’s all I have time for today, brave writer, but now you have lots to ponder. Now, grab a cup of tea and start those revisions! Good luck and keep writing.

    • Whenever I type a long post, there are typos, which I have no way to edit, unfortunately. Under the repeated words section, I see that I alternated between “use” and “used” in my haste. Don’t do that in your writing, brave writer. I was a bad girl. But you get the idea.

      Also, the first line I suggested should read:

      Every afternoon at two o’clock, the bells on my shop door tinkled, announcing the demons’ arrival for tea.

      Once again, good luck, brave writer.

  6. Horns. Maybe the politically correct humans just pretend they can’t see them. You could add a lot of texture with short conversations between children and adults.

    You might remember the remake of “The Trouble with Tribbles’ on Star Trek Next Generation. While in the canteen of the original Star Trek, Captain Picard, Deanna Troy, and Worf are confronted with Klingons barging in. Their foreheads are normal.
    Worf is asked about it. He says, “We don’t talk about it.”
    Something similar could be used here.

    “Mommy, mommy, that man has horns.”
    The mother jerks on her son’s arm. “Charles, we don’t talk about things like that.”

    Just a thought.

  7. I loved the piece! Of course, remarks of a professional writer made it cleaner, but you had a really good material to work with. Too bad that authors are kept anonymous (for a reader), I’m a fan of fantasy, horns, and dragons:)
    In addition to stylistic ideas above I’d like to mention grammar. Brave Author, you have some minor mistakes like “tea pot” instead of teapot, which though do make a change. You might check out some reviews of editing services like on https://essayguard.com/services/editing and run your texts through checkers. This will help to clear out the majority of typos.

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