First Page Critique: A Thing of Beauty

Gentle Readers, today another Brave Soul has brought their work to the critique altar.

 

Chapter 1. A Thing of Beauty

I’m forgetting things.
That’s not good when someone’s been murdered.
Not when I’m holding a gun in my hand.
My memories are all mixed-up. I watch myself… this memory thing… always watching for lapses. The war, my mom’s illness…
Or maybe the lump on the back of my head has something to do with it?
Or maybe I’m seeing ghosts.
Lemme try get things straight.
I remember how it started… She came to my office—or did it begin before then?
Fog and anger and my finger pulling the trigger…
No, I have to get this straight.
Let’s start with the meeting…
* * *

I was in my office—up two flights, turn right and I’m at the far end. It must’ve been late. It was getting dark. A Wednesday. I never understood Wednesdays. Too far away from both weekends. Not that I did much at the weekend. Especially when I couldn’t afford to play poker with the boys.

I was closing up. The usual things: scowling at the in-tray full of bills, checking my phone was still working, closing the inner office door, switching off the lights in the outer office… Someday I’ll be able to afford a receptionist to look after these things for me.
Someday.
In the darkness the harsh splash of neon lights from the street below splattered across the office ceiling like weapon flash. Movie-town was still making magic and bringing dreams to life with flickering lights. Spinning money out of dreams. Little changed while I was busy in Europe saving the world. Was it really five years since that Liberty ship offloaded me back onto American soil, to find my mother crippled and confused by a blood clot in her brain?
I don’t know how long the blonde was standing in the doorway while my mind wandered. Maybe she made a sound, I don’t know, but I snapped out of it and took a look.
She was a sweet shape silhouetted by the strip lighting in the hallway and topped by tumbling platinum hair. I took in the sheath of her pencil skirt and snug, fitted jacket. I wanted to see more.
Maybe she was just asking directions for another of the petty outfits in this rat-run of a decrepit building.
I flipped on the lights in the reception area.

_______________

Kudos to Anonymous Writer for excellent clarity of sentences and scene visualization. The prose is sharp and moves at a good clip. But, oh my, I’m not sure how to approach this piece. Is it meant to be an homage to noir detective films and stories? It feels less like homage than clever duplication.

The image that immediately popped into my head was of Fred MacMurray in the classic noir film Double Indemnity (novel by James M. Cain). It begins with his character making a recording in his office–a confession about his involvement in evil Barbara Stanwyk’s murderous insurance scheme that results in the death of her husband.

But a more direct parallel is to the opening of both the novel and film of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade does have a receptionist, and it’s not the end of the day. Still there’s a beautiful woman in distress who shows up at a less-than-profitable private detective’s office, and not too long after, something goes badly wrong. (I can only assume our first-person character is a detective.)

The third comparison is to J. K, Rowlings’s  more modern character, Cormorant Strike, also a struggling detective.

The examples could go on and on because this is a classic, even clichéd scene.

First section:

“I’m forgetting things.” Then we’re presented with a litany of things they might have forgotten–or barely remember. I’m visualizing a cloudy collage above their head. Mom’s illness, bombs going off, a gun… It’s a voiceover, a setup. People don’t actually talk to themselves this way. If this is indeed an opening to a novel, it deserves better treatment. Here’s a person who believes they might have committed a murder. That’s a very scary prospect. Where’s the shock?  The drama? They’re HOLDING A GUN. They can’t be just standing there about to drift off into a long reverie about how they got where they are. How much better to give us an entire scene.

Second:

The prose here is very good. I particularly like this line: “In the darkness the harsh splash of neon lights from the street below splattered across the office ceiling like weapon flash.” Again, a bit too familiar, but far more substantial as the first lines of a novel than the original.

I still have to ask, what end does the scene serve? It’s dour and sad and a little lusty: classic noir is classic noir. As it is, it doesn’t offer the reader anything new. My only advice can be to either change it to make it more surprising, or possibly drop the intro and start here. I’m frustrated.

So, TKZers. I’m handing this over to you. What do you make of it? Am I missing some vital point?

 

 

3+
This entry was posted in Writing and tagged by Laura Benedict. Bookmark the permalink.

About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including the forthcoming The Stranger Inside (February 2019). Small Town Trouble, her latest book, is a cozy crime novel. Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

12 thoughts on “First Page Critique: A Thing of Beauty

  1. This is so well written that I don’t mind obvious echoes of Double Indemnity, Maltese Falcon, etc. It’s like a classic noir bedtime story that’s been told many times but that I still look forward to hearing again.

    One missing word: “Lemme try TO get things straight.”

    I would turn the page.

  2. Thanks, Debbie! I agree that it is very well written–though as noted I would make some changes to the opening.

    The idea of just rolling with it is definitely an option.

  3. There are some gems from the brave writer’s opening that stand out to me:
    She was a sweet shape silhouetted by the strip lighting in the hallway and topped by tumbling platinum hair.
    And,
    Maybe she was just asking directions for another of the petty outfits in this rat-run of a decrepit building.

    I agree with Laura that this opening is full of cliches, but maybe it’s meant to be a pastiche to Hammett or Chandler. Still, it’d be nice to flip a cliche on its head, make the reader snap to attention and say, “Now that’s different.” (I think that advice comes from JSB.) Perhaps our brave writer can reveal that the detective is a lesbian, or that the femme fatale is actually a skilled hand-to-hand combat veteran from the war.

    What gave me pause: The genre, mention of the war, and the setting have a 1940s feel, but pencil skirts didn’t hit the fashion scene until the mid-1950s. Peplums were popular, though, so there’s still something sexy to say about the nipped waist of a snug peplum or how the waves of a peplum pour over a woman’s luscious hips. Platinum blondes were a big deal in the 1930s and 1950s but not 1940s (probably because of Jean Harlow’s sad death). There’s a super good website for fashion through those different decades at glamourdaze.com.

    Good luck on your continued journey, brave writer!

    • Yes! I love those suggestions of flipping it on its head with some surprises. You have a great eye for historical detail, Priscilla. And thanks for the link!

  4. I love the writing and the voice, so it’s a challenge for me to get beyond that, to find the flaws and weaknesses, plus something does happen by the end of the section, even if it echoes other stories.

    One way of looking at the opening section is that the narrator is in shock, so being dazed and having your mind wander seems natural to me but I’d find a slightly different place to flash back to how it started. I’d both tighten and expand the opening frame: tighten by eliminating some things; expand by putting the narrator into the place where the dead body is, and providing slightly different details… more immediate details, immediate in the sense of the actual murder (could be quite exciting provided the writer gives us a reason to care about the narrator/perpetrator’s predicament.)

    e.g.

    “I’m forgetting things.
    That’s not good when someone’s been murdered.
    Not when I’m holding a gun in my hand.
    Maybe the lump on the back of my head has something to do with it?”

    Then put us right into action by having the perpetrator worry–and do something about–the crime scene. What are the stakes for the character if he gets caught? (the personal and story stakes–hints, at least–the moral stakes, etc.)

    The narrator can still be confused during the “clean-up” phase, and then at a critical point in the clean-up, something in the crime scene confuses him again, and he can…

    “Lemme try get things straight.
    I remember how it started… She came to my office—or did it begin before then?
    Fog and anger and my finger pulling the trigger…
    No, I have to get this straight.
    Let’s start with the meeting…
    * * * ”

    The writer might have more opportunities to feed in the backstory hints between actions and setting details.

    I’d take a look at how other writers have created frames, including those outside the noir and crime genre, e.g., A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY or THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, and I wouldn’t be afraid to expand the frame, i.e., more than the the few lines that precede the scene break.

    BUT, BUT, BUT–I love this writer’s voice. For me, it’s the kind of voice that would make me read almost anything written by him or her.

  5. Really quick cuz I have to fly off for doc appt:

    I really liked this. I liked the weird personal beginning that tells me I am dealing with a self-confessed unreliable narrator. And the possible reasons are nicely layered in. Really liked this opening. Didn’t even mind the segue “Let’s start with the meeting.”

    But…

    I dunno, I felt a little let down when the shapely blonde showed up and I realized I was reading a noir knock-off. It’s been done and done and done. (recently). But this writer’s voice is so interesting, I would be willing to read more to see if s/he can make it feel fresh.

  6. There is a clear movement toward more literary treatments of genre. In Mystery, Benjamin Black and Hari Kunzru are an examples. This movement is strong in the Horror genre. Writers like Brian Evenson, Paul Tremley, and Victor LaVille have written fascinating novels.
    As I read this submission, I wondered if this was a more literary way of approaching the P.I. novel. The beginning feels like a Kafka or Camu in a stream of conscious treatment.
    I was thrilled by this submission. My only concern is how well this will play in a novel sized piece, but I would love to find out.

    • Hammett, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith and so many other 20th century writers were considered literary but entertaining. Early on, few genres were very specific and exclusive. Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King have long written grotesque, suspenseful and even horrifying novels. I totally agree with your examples, but I see them as renewing an old tradition for new audiences!

      Let’s hope the writer lets us know where the story goes. They definitely have fans here!

  7. Thanks for sharing your work, brave writer. I agree with what Laura said. Very good advice. Here are some additional comments:

    Where to Begin Your Novel

    Never begin your novel with a character alone thinking. This isn’t just my rule. Agent Kristin Nelson wrote a series of articles on story openings to avoid. Check it out. Break this rule at your own peril.

    You want the reader living and feeling the story as if he were there. Show the conflict on the page. Don’t tell the reader about it like it’s a “once upon a time” kind of story. If you tell instead of show, the reader’s emotional involvement isn’t going to be as strong. One book I’d like to recommend is called Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver. If you must show the character alone,at least have him taking some significant action or making a decision.

    Here’s your lead:

    “In the darkness the harsh splash of neon lights from the street below splattered across the office ceiling like weapon flash.”

    This is good stuff. Don’t bury it. You might consider removing the “In the darkness” part and just write:

    The harsh splash of neon lights from the street below splattered across the office ceiling like a weapon flash.

    Introduce Your Protagonist

    One thing that you want to do in your first scene is to introduce your protagonist. Show the reader your protagonist’s defining quality in action. What about your protagonist will make your reader want to follow him for the length of a book? Read Barbara Kyle’s article called “Making an Entrance.” (available online) Decide on what your main character’s defining trait is before you begin to write. Then write a scene. Show the reader this trait by your character’s actions.

    How to Write a Scene

    A good scene, among other things:

    1. causes subsequent scenes to occur; think cause and effect
    2. is driven by the protagonist’s desires
    3. includes action that advances the plot
    4. has a problem/conflict that builds to a turn within the scene that affects the status of the main story problem

    Reading recommendations:

    Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld
    Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon.
    Writing Deep Scenes: Plotting Your Story Through Action, Emotion. & Theme by Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld

    You should be able to find many of these at your local library.If you can’t find these, let me know. I can recommend some others.

    Importance of Proofreading

    “Lemme try get things straight.”

    You have a missing word here, as Debbie mentioned.

    Italics and Punctuation

    A first page that’s entirely in italics is distracting. Also, the frequent use of “…” is distracting.

    Backstory/Inner Monologue

    “Movie-town was still making magic and bringing dreams to life with flickering lights. Spinning money out of dreams. Little changed while I was busy in Europe saving the world. Was it really five years since that Liberty ship offloaded me back onto American soil, to find my mother crippled and confused by a blood clot in her brain?”

    The first page is not the place to wax poetic about this stuff.

    I suggest that you do Paula Munier’s famous exercise with your first page. Read “Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right” by Paula Munier (posted on Jane Friedman’s blog), and do the exercise where you mark up your text in different colors to distinguish backstory, inner monologue, and description.

    What you want on the first page is mostly action and dialogue.

    Good job, brave writer. Have fun reading all the comments and making your revisions.

  8. Loved the voice in this piece. I would turn the page to find out what happens next. The shapely blonde showing up as a silhouette was a bit eye-roll-worthy, though. Anon’s voice might be enough to sustain us for the first few pages, but then s/he better spin a unique tale or readers will slay him/her in reviews. Just my 2c.

Comments are closed.