The Fifth Floor: First Page Critique

 

Happy Wednesday, everyone! Another anonymous Dear Author is here to share some work today. Check it out…

The Fifth Floor

A kid rolls by on a skateboard. It’s old—maybe one he inherited from his father—and  layered with stickers bearing the logos of early-nineties ska bands. Streetlight Manifesto, Hepcat, Five Iron Frenzy, The Toasters, Reel Big Fish.

“Do you want to make twenty bucks?” I ask, amplifying my voice just enough for it to carry over the wind.

The kid looks behind him, startled, but doesn’t lose his balance. Impressive.

I’m sweating like a jonesing addict despite the sixty-degree weather. My hair, once thick and lustrous, feels like a dank rag draped over my head.

With a degree of coordination I’ll never master, the kid shifts his weight to reverse the skateboard’s direction and comes back toward me. The board skids to a stop on the sidewalk two feet from where I stand.

“You say twenty bucks?” In his eyes, I detect more curiosity than suspicion. If I were a man, standing on the sidewalk in this same middle-class neighborhood, he’d probably have kept going. Maybe called the police from the cell phone I’m sure weighs down one of his pockets.

“You heard right.”

“I don’t deal drugs.”

“Never thought you did.”

The kid’s trying to look like a street punk, with a ratty tee shirt and worn cargo shorts that almost slip off his narrow hips. I’d put him at ten or eleven. But he’s clean, his hair’s been recently trimmed, and braces puff out his thin, pale lips.

“What do I gotta do?”

“What do you have to do,” I correct automatically. Bad habits.

The kid snorts. “You a teacher or somethin’?”

“Hardly. Listen, all I need you to do is go with me to that public storage place across the street. See it? Just ride up the elevator with me to my unit, then use my code to go back down. That’s it.”

He studies me for a moment through intelligent brown eyes. Probably sussing out potential reasons behind my odd request. “What’s your name?”

“Roxie,” I reply.

Shit. I’m so not cut out for this. Why couldn’t I have told him Angela or Kate or Thomasina?

“I’m Kevin.”

“Nice to meet you.”

We shake hands. His grip is firm and perfunctory. Somebody’s taught him well—maybe the father who gifted him the retro skateboard.

“Ready?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Okay. When do I get the twenty bucks?”

“When you leave me on the fifth floor.”

“Deal.”

_______________________

Today Dear Author has made my job tough by writing so well. Let’s talk about all the things that are spot on with this gem of an opening.

Opening paragraph:

A kid rolls by on a skateboard. It’s old—maybe one he inherited from his father—and  layered with stickers bearing the logos of early-nineties ska bands. Streetlight Manifesto, Hepcat, Five Iron Frenzy, The Toasters, Reel Big Fish.

I wish I knew if this were an opening to a novel or a short story. It feels to me like a short story, but I wouldn’t wager money on it. Immediacy is critical to any written story, and this paragraph draws us right in. We observe the kid, with an extra added bonus of movement. He “rolls by,” rather than “goes by” or “passes by.” Nice. We know the kid is a boy, and that the narrator seems to have been waiting.

The narrator is observant, and even makes up a small story about the skateboard and the boy’s dad. We don’t know that it’s a true story, of course, but it tells us that the narrator likes to provide possible reasons and explantations for the things she sees. It’s a hint that she may be a bit of a fantasist. In truth, the kid could’ve just come from stealing the skateboard from another kid or a pawn shop. That said, she also seems to know about 90s ska bands, and this detail tells us that it’s probably a contemporary piece.

“Do you want to make twenty bucks?” I ask, amplifying my voice just enough for it to carry over the wind.

The kid looks behind him, startled, but doesn’t lose his balance. Impressive.

It’s dialogue that drives this opening page and keeps up the theme of immediacy. I do take issue with the word “amplify.” Technically it’s okay, but it makes the narrator sound old, and her word choice stilted. But she also uses the very casual word, “bucks.” One of those two words should be changed. I vote for losing the “amplify.” Also, does the wind show up again?

The next sentence is perfect. The kid has skills.

I’m sweating like a jonesing addict despite the sixty-degree weather. My hair, once thick and lustrous, feels like a dank rag draped over my head.

More description of the narrator. Ew. She’s seen better days. I’m curious! I can almost feel the dankness.

With a degree of coordination I’ll never master, the kid shifts his weight to reverse the skateboard’s direction and comes back toward me. The board skids to a stop on the sidewalk two feet from where I stand.

Does the narrator ride skateboards? It feels like that’s indicated when she speaks of a “degree of coordination.” Or is she just awkward in general? Maybe “heads back,” rather than “comes back.” That the kid stops the board so suddenly is interesting. He seems rather aggressive, which I didn’t get at first.

 “You say twenty bucks?” In his eyes, I detect more curiosity than suspicion. If I were a man, standing on the sidewalk in this same middle-class neighborhood, he’d probably have kept going. Maybe called the police from the cell phone I’m sure weighs down one of his pockets.

Okay. So they are in a middle-class neighborhood. I didn’t see that coming. I think I was picturing a busy street.  Are there public storage rental places in middle-class residential areas? Nice detail about the phone and the pockets.

“You heard right.”

“I don’t deal drugs.”

“Never thought you did.”

A telling exchange. I like that the boy is matter-of-fact, but cautious.

The kid’s trying to look like a street punk, with a ratty tee shirt and worn cargo shorts that almost slip off his narrow hips. I’d put him at ten or eleven. But he’s clean, his hair’s been recently trimmed, and braces puff out his thin, pale lips.

In his ratty tee shirt, and worn cargo shorts that threaten to slide from his narrow hips, he’s trying hard to look like a street punk. But he doesn’t quite pull it off. He’s clean, his hair’s been recently trimmed, and braces puff out his thin, pale lips. I’d put him at ten or eleven-years-old.

I’m a big fan of this piece’s short, declarative sentences, but you don’t want to start out too many of them with, “The kid…”

“What do I gotta do?”

“What do you have to do,” I correct automatically. Bad habits.

Funny. Do the bad habits belong to the narrator, or the boy?

The kid snorts. “You a teacher or somethin’?”

“Hardly. Listen, all I need you to do is go with me to that public storage place across the street. See it? Just ride up the elevator with me to my unit, then use my code to go back down. That’s it.”

Very clear. I’d go!

He studies me for a moment through intelligent brown eyes. Probably sussing out potential reasons behind my odd request. “What’s your name?”

“Roxie,” I reply.

Shit. I’m so not cut out for this. Why couldn’t I have told him Angela or Kate or Thomasina?

This is very telling about the narrator, and does make her sound young, and inexperienced at making weird requests of an eleven-year-old boy. She no longer sounds stiff.

“I’m Kevin.”

Charmingly proactive to introduce himself so boldly.

“Nice to meet you.”

We shake hands. His grip is firm and perfunctory. Somebody’s taught him well—maybe the father who gifted him the retro skateboard.

Also excellent. I like that she carries the her fantasy about the dad forward.

“Ready?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Okay. When do I get the twenty bucks?”

“When you leave me on the fifth floor.”

“Deal.”

Terrific cliffhanger here. They are off to the storage unit. What can be there, and why does she want him to leave her up there????

_____________________

Overall, I’m delighted with this piece and would like to read more. My comments are essentially line edits. We get a great picture of the boy, who seems to think he’s streetwise, but who also can’t get over having manners. The narrator, too, is interesting. With a little tweaking she can be more consistent and defined.

TKZers! I couldn’t find all that much to say. What are your thoughts?

Thanks for sharing this first page, Dear Author!

 

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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.

19 thoughts on “The Fifth Floor: First Page Critique

  1. Lovely writing. Enjoyed this submission very much and already my curiosity is piqued. Will read on. Good job, Anon. I agree with Ms. Benedict that our protagonist needs to be consistent with her word choice. She seems old and young at various points in her speech. Good job, Anon.

    P.S. The title is the same as another First Page submission, although the stories and writing are completely different. Coincidence? Anyway, nice, positive critique, Ms. Benedict.

  2. Great beginning, Anon. I agree with the critique.

    One minor dissent: My impression was that the protag’s use of the word “amplify,” plus her “bad habit” of correcting other people’s grammar suggested an educated person, maybe a teacher, who’d fallen on hard times. If that’s the case, the word choice is apt.

    • Thanks, Mike! My complaint about “amplify” is that it usually indicates the use of some sort of amplifier to aid in increasing sound. If she’s very fussy about word choice, I think she’d simply say she had to raise her voice to be heard over the wind, or as another person suggested that the wind carried her voice away.

      Great observation about “bad habit.” It does make it sound like she’s been in a position of grammar authority!

  3. Well done. It’s a scene. It raises mysteries. It’s got specific detail and compressed dialogue. I’d limit my editing to a word trim here and there, but that’s it. Especially in the dialogue. So often dialogue can be made that much sharper with bits of it (usually at the beginning) cut out. E.g., cut the words “Hardly. Listen…” and the exchange is even better.

    One more. Cut “Okay.”

    And a last caution. Be very sure about slang. The kid saying “twenty bucks” doesn’t sound quite right to me. I may be wrong about this, but even so, the protag as already used it. The line of dialogue would be sharper, IMO, this way:

    He shrugs. “When do I get the twenty?”

    I suspect for this writer it’s going to be the little things and not he big things, which is a great place to be. Good luck.

  4. Anon, thank you for submitting this first page. I enjoyed it.

    I usually don’t like present tense prose, but this works so well. It’s like the narrator is trying to relate to the youth she has clearly left behind.

    I’m interested in what genre this is. Mystery or horror is my guess.

    I also stumbled where Laura did on the “bad habits,” the kid’s or the narrator’s? But that’s an easy fix.

    I liked the first sentence, liked the internal dialog, liked the whole thing. Good luck on your continued writing journey, Anon!

  5. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I agree with Laura. This opening is a breath of fresh air. The page has action and dialogue. The protagonist has attitude. I’m wondering why this bedraggled female wants to get this boy up into the storage unit. Perhaps she wants to keep someone else from noticing her by walking with the kid. The mother in me is worrying for many reasons, and I want answers. I would turn the page. Of course, as usual, I always have comments.

    The Fifth Floor

    We’ve seen this title before with the Andromeda story, but this submission is substantially different. I still like the title.

    First Line

    Good. Sometimes a simple first line that sounds like it’s in the voice of the protagonist works well. I loved the first paragraph. It grabbed me by my, um, hair scrunchie and wouldn’t let me go.

    Dialogue

    The dialogue was good, but it can be tightened. For example:

    “Roxie,” I reply.

    There is no need for the “I reply” here. Do it like this:

    “Roxie.” Shit. I’m so not cut out for this. Why didn’t I say Angela or Kate or Thomasina?

    Notice I condensed the last line. Always look for ways to trim unneeded words. There are other examples. Consider this snippet:

    “Hardly. Listen, all I need you to do is go with me to that public storage place across the street. See it? Just ride up the elevator with me to my unit, then use my code to go back down. That’s it.”

    That’s a little clunky. We can trim it without losing any meaning. Like this:

    “Hardly. I need you to go with me to that public storage place across the street. Just ride the elevator up to my unit, then use my code to go back down. That’s it.”

    I trimmed a few words to make the dialogue a little leaner. One “with me” is sufficient. Notice I also changed the position of the word up. Snappier dialogue sounds more urgent.

    Also, this line:

    “What do you have to do,” I correct automatically.

    I would condense here. Try:

    Have to do.” I correct automatically.

    Use of Like

    “sweating like a…”
    “feels like a dark…”
    “trying to look like…”

    Be careful not to do this too much.

    Who has seen the wind?

    Don’t mention the wind unless it has some kind of story significance.

    Word Choice

    I would not use amplifying. If the wind is important to the story, try something like this:

    “Do you want to make twenty bucks?” My voice drowns in the wind.

    Overall Impression

    Nice job, brave writer. Carry on!

  6. I have little to add other than I loved this. I was hooked from the first graph and it is an excellent example of an opening that doesn’t shout or careen about with over-wrought action. The intrigue emerges from the interaction of the woman and the kid. The “telling” details are nicely dropped in, giving us hints about the kind of woman we’re dealing with here. Good dialogue…I believed every line of it. Yeah, “amplified” feels odd, (raised my voice?) but a minor point in something very good.

    I would definitely read on. And I don’t usually like present tense. 🙂 Thanks for submitting writer. You’re on the right road!

  7. Hello All! Thank you so much for your kind words and constructive feedback. Laura, I’m implementing your feedback in this first 400 words as well as throughout the rest of the manuscript. I’m so pleased that you nailed Roxie as a fantasist. She uses it as a coping mechanism and as a way to stave off boredom throughout the novel.

    Jim, I’ll try to keep that dialogue snappier. 🙂 I’m honored to have received your feedback.

    Roxie now raises her voice, I’ve eliminated a couple instances of “the kid” because the reader’s smart enough to know who “he” is in this interaction.

    Joanne, I’m so grateful you took the time to provide additional feedback, my favorite of which was to remove that dialogue tag. The wind is actually a strong metaphorical influence on the novel.

    For Laura and others who wondered, this is a full-length novel of domestic suspense. Thanks to all for wishing me luck.

    And I’m so grateful to have received feedback from such esteemed authors. Jim and Laura, I read everything you write. Jim, I particularly loved YOUR SON IS ALIVE. It inspired me to give domestic suspense a try, and I’m now reading widely in the genre.

    Again, I’m humbled.

    • Laura, you have the kind of professional attitude that any editor/agent would love. I’m glad to hear that the wind has story significance, and I can’t wait to read more. You’re off to a wonderful start. Keep going!

      • Thanks Joanne! I really appreciate the encouragement. I’ve been in that place where if I don’t try, I can’t fail, so I’m taking this story seriously. By the way, your blog is lovely. 🙂

  8. Also, Priscilla and Kristy, I don’t normally feel drawn toward present-tense stories myself. This just felt like it needed it. I can’t explain why. 🙂

    • Sometimes, you have to listen to your “gut.” I wrote 300 pages of a stand alone thriller before I realized I had to change the protag’s POV from third to first. Made all the diff in the world.

      • Oh, that sucks! I’ve had to do that before, and it’s so mentally draining. Search and replace can help sometimes, but definitely not for the whole manuscript.

  9. Excellent first page! The dialogue fit the characters. Anon has a firm grasp of POV. Well done! I’m guessing she’s setting the boy up to take the fall for a murder, perhaps? If so, her slip-of-the-tongue when she gave her real name could come back to bite her. Which, if I’m right, means Anon also used the first page to setup a future scene. Bravo! Without question, I’d turn the page to find out what happens next.

    • Thank you, Sue! Your kind words made my day. Roxie is indeed using the boy to pull off something. 🙂

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