First Page Critique: Musical Hairs

By John Gilstrap

I haven’t done one of these First Page things in a while.  As you read through Brave Anon’s submission, ask yourself one question in particular: So what?

MUSICAL HAIRS

Gertrude Watson, known as “Gert” or “Gertie” to her friends, was on the landline phone in her small, disheveled office in the back of her music store. The door was closed and she was finishing up a call with Mr. Carney from the local high school. “Of course, Mr. Carney,” she reassured him. “We’ll make sure all the instruments have been unboxed and checked for defects before we deliver them to the school. That’s always been our policy.”

Mr. Carney was new to the town of Cannonsville, Tennessee, and this was the first time Gertie had dealt with him. Bless his heart, she thought to herself. Not only did he seem to have a substantial case of OCD, but he was a talker and hard to get off the phone. He had a habit of repeating himself over and over again on the simplest of things.

Someone knocked on her office door loud enough that Mr. Carney heard it on the other end of the line and stopped talking for a second. Gertie said, “There’s someone here for a very important meeting I have this morning and I’ve got to go now. I’ll give you a heads up call when we get the instruments in.” She waited for a second and then hung up, breathing a sigh of relief.

The knock came again and Gertie said, “Come in, come in.” The door opened. It was her assistant manager, Olivia Stanton, with some papers in her hand. “Thank goodness, Olivia. You saved me from that new band director at the high school. He is a nice enough man, but he just doesn’t seem to know when to stop talking.”

“I know,” Olivia said. “I spoke to him yesterday and had to finally excuse myself to go to the bathroom to get him off the phone. Being new to the school, I think he’s a little bit overly nervous and is trying too hard to do a good job.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Gertie said, “but I’ve got a business to run. I know the customer is always right. I just need to learn how to graciously end a phone conversation when the other party gets over talkative.”

Olivia held up her hand of paperwork and frowned. “Have you seen these bills yet from Tommy’s session last week? There’re a little bit over the top if you ask me.”

It’s me again.  So . . . So what?  In my view, the most critical problem with this page is the lack of a so what.  What is at stake here?  Who are the players, really?  Truth be told, this reads like the warm-up to the beginning of a story rather than a story in and of itself.

As a self-taught writer, I’m not sure what “passive sentence construction” actually means, but I’ll apply it to virtually any sentence that relies on some conjugation of the verb, to be.  Gertie was on the landline . . . the door was closed . . . she was finishing up a call . . . Carney was new . . . That’s a snore-o-rama.  Consider: Gertie held the receiver . . . her closed door made the tiny office feel smaller . . . she wondered if the call would ever end . . . “I may be new,” he said . . .

The conjugated to-be+verb construction can’t be avoided in its entirety, but remember that better options always exist.  (Before editing that sentence, I had written, “It’s important to remember that there are always better options.”  Ha!)

Stories must always advance.  Word-by-word, paragraph-by-paragraph, page-by page.  If a sentence or scene does not advance either character or story, then it merely stops the story.

Let’s take another look at Brave Anon’s story.  My comments are in bold type.

MUSICAL HAIRS

Gertrude Gertie Watson, known as “Gert” or “Gertie” to her friends, [We don’t need to know this detail, and it interrupts the flow of the story] was on the landline phone [what would a landline be if not a phone?]in her small, disheveled office in the back of her music store. The door was closed and she was finishing up a call with Mr. Carney from the local high school. “Of course, Mr. Carney,” she reassured him. “We’ll make sure all the instruments have been unboxed and checked for defects before we deliver them to the school. That’s always been our policy.”

Consider: “Of course we’ll make sure that the instruments are fine,” Gertie said into the handset of her landline. “We wouldn’t deliver a defective product to your school.” If her office weren’t so cluttered with incoming inventory, she’d pace.  Or at least put her feet up.  As it was, every surface of her store was stacked horns, woodwinds and strings.

Mr. [I would give him a first name, but that’s a stylistic thing that you might not agree with.] Carney was new to the town of Cannonsville, Tennessee, [We don’t need this detail yet, and including it makes the syntax awkward.] and this was the first time Gertie had dealt with him. [If he placed an order, how can this be the first time she’s dealing with him?] Bless his heart, she thought to herself. [This is your first moment of narrative voice.  “Bless his heart” stands alone as a thought, and it establishes a Southern root for the story.  Also, is it possible to think to someone other than oneself?] Not only did he seem to have a substantial case of OCD, but he was a talker and hard to get off the phone. He had a habit of repeating himself over and over again on the simplest of things. [Either show it or kill it.  This entire paragraph is a squandered opportunity to show instead of telling.]

Consider: “I’m very serious about this,” Mr. Carney said in her ear.  “I may be new to the community and to the high school faculty, but this band is very important to me.  There can be no flaws.”

Gertie rolled her eyes.  “As your business is important to me,” she said.  “I don’t know how many times I can say the same thing until you believe me.”

“It’s not that I don’t believe you,” Carney said.  “I just want to make sure you understand the importance—”

A perfectly-timed knock at her door saved her from having to choose between homicide or suicide.  “Gotta go,” she said. “My next appointment just arrived.”  She disconnected before Carney could argue.  “Come in.”

Someone knocked on her office door loud enough that Mr. Carney heard it on the other end of the line and stopped talking for a second. Gertie said, “There’s someone here for a very important meeting I have this morning and I’ve got to go now. I’ll give you a heads up call when we get the instruments in.” [Say those lines of dialogue aloud.  Do they sound real to you? They sound stilted to me.] She waited for a second [Why wait?  Why not hang up as soon as possible?] and then hung up, breathing a sigh of relief.

The knock came [Knocks don’t come. Someone causes them to happen. A second knock does not advance the story unless there’s something different in the character of the knock.  More urgent, maybe?] again and Gertie said, “Come in, come in.” The door opened. [Of course it did.  Don’t need the detail.] It was h Her assistant manager, Olivia Stanton, entered with some papers in her hand. “Thank goodness, Olivia.  [Don’t need this.  The next sentence makes your point.] You saved me from that new band director at the high school Mr. Carney. He is a nice enough man, but he just doesn’t seem to know when to stop talking.”

Olivia laughed.  “I know,” Olivia said. “He’s a talker. I spoke to him yesterday and had to finally excuse myself to go to the bathroom to get him off the phone. Being new to the school, I think he’s a little bit overly nervous and is trying too hard to do a good job.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Gertie said, “but I’ve got a business to run. I know the customer is always right. I just need to learn how to graciously end a phone conversation when the other party gets over talkative [This point has been pretty much flogged to death.  Time to move on.] Consider: “What’ve you got?”

Olivia frowned as she held up her hand [stack?]of paperwork and frowned. “Have you seen these bills yet from Tommy’s session last week? There’re a little bit over the top if you ask me.” [“Tommy’s session” means nothing to the reader.]

 

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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 “First Page Critique: Musical Hairs

  1. John has given you detailed notes, Anon, all geared toward tightening things up. His overall point, that this feels like a “warm up” is apt. This is a common problem, Anon—the writer thinks she has to give a lot of exposition up front so the reader knows what’s going on. But they don’t. They’ll wait a long time for exposition if there’s a real disturbance happening, which doesn’t here until the very end of the page.

    My suggestion is to start with this:

    “Have you seen these bills from Tommy’s session?” Olivia handed Gertie the papers. “Over the top, if you ask me.”

    Now, keep the conversation going, and make sure it’s tense, and in little dribs and drabs drop in only the information that’s necessary for the reader to know, e.g., the setting.

  2. Thanks, brave author, for showing us your first page.

    I’m missing the conflict. I get that Gertie is tired of the fellow at the other end of the line, but nothing more than that. JSB’s suggestion to start with Tommy and the money conflict works.

    I liked the way John’s critique whittled down the prose to make it meatier, no wasted words. The opening reads faster that way, like we’re speeding toward a collision.

    I dig “Gertie” as a main character’s name, and I like the idea of a business woman delving into a murder mystery (if that’s what this is). If you kept your prose tighter and opened with a conflict, I’d turn the page!

    Good luck on your continued writing journey, brave author!

  3. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I concur with John’s review.
    Here are my comments:

    Don’t Begin With a Telephone Call

    While there are exceptions to this rule, I can assure you that this scene is not
    one of them. I tell people not to start with characters waking up in bed, too, but
    there are exceptions. In the movie The Cutting Edge, Doug Dorsey
    wakes up to find himself in bed with a girl whose name he can’t remember. The trouble is that he’s late for the Olympics. That works! There may be a reason to start a book with a phone call, but you have not given the reader a reason to care. Start your story in another place. Without knowing your premise, I cannot give more advice. Feel free to tell me your premise, and I will provide more guidance. However, this scene is not working as written.

    If Gertie is going to unpack the instruments and find a body in one of them, that would be a better place to start. Most of the time, you want to begin with a scene where the characters are interacting in the same room.There are exceptions. “So what?” is not the reaction you want from readers.

    First Line

    “Gertrude Watson, known as “Gert” or “Gertie” to her friends, was on the landline phone in her small, disheveled office in the back of her music store.”

    Come up with a better first line. The first line should prepare the reader for the tone of the book. Is it a romance? A mystery? The first line should give the reader a clue.

    Dialogue

    Dialogue should be short and snappy. Study the dialogue from The Gilmore Girls series. You can find many of the episodes online. Avoid “on the nose” dialogue. See my blog if you don’t know what this is. There should be lots of subtext. There are many great books on dialogue. Our own JSB wrote one. There are also books by Lewis Turco, Gloria Kempton, Robert McKee, and Tom Chiarella. There are many other writing books with chapters about dialogue. Read, read, read.

    Introduce Your Protagonist

    What A-list actor would want to play the role of Gertie? Why? These are a few questions to ask when you chose the scene that you use to introduce her. What is her defining quality? Why would a reader want to follow her for the length of a book? Read “Making an Entrance” by Barbara Kyle (available online in a PDF file).

    Overwriting

    John already pointed out many examples of lines that require editing. I’ve found that many writers like to use extra words to pad their word counts. Don’t do this. Use only the required number of words. For example:

    “Not only did he seem to have a substantial case of OCD, but he was a talker and hard to get off the phone. He had a habit of repeating himself over and over again on the simplest of things.”

    I would eliminate this. However, let’s just take a look how these bloated sentences bog down your writing. You can say the same thing in fewer words and eliminate redundant parts. For example:

    Not only did he have OCD, but he was talker with a habit of repeating himself.

    Show, Don’t Tell

    It can be tricky to know when to show and when to tell. When it comes to character traits, though, you want the reader to see them in action. Examples:

    Don’t tell us Gertie’s office is disheveled. Show the reader by having her trip over something on the floor.

    Don’t tell us someone is long-winded. Show us.

    Overall Impression

    When I choose a book to read, I look for a protagonist with an intriguing personality and some sort of big problem that will take the length of a book to solve. The problem has to be one that will compel me to care. I want to know what genre I’m reading right away. I want every scene to have a problem that advances the story. I’m sure that you have a story to tell, brave writer, but I can only judge what’s written on the page. When readers have millions of books from which to choose, you have to work hard to give them a reason to choose yours. Why should I want to follow Gertie the length of a book? Show me.

    A writer named Phil on Orson Scott Card’s writing forum once said: “A little girl is crying; make me cry in only two sentences.” After people floundered around trying to do it, he gave this example:

    Of all the members of her family gathered around her hospital bed, Karen’s attention was focused solely on the tiny, much-loved teddy-bear she had clutched against her cheek. Closing her eyes, she turned her head and whispered her last breath into the soft small ear near her mouth, “Look after mommy when I’m gone, Mister Perkins.”

    Writing is about manipulating readers. That’s what your opening has to do. Make us care. Make us want to turn the page. Best of luck brave writer, and keep writing!

  4. Oops. Typo in my quote from Phil at the end:

    “A little girl is crying” should read “A little girl is dying”

    Sorry!

  5. As the others have said, there are some words and phrases that need to go. That there is no conflict is an issue. Something needs to happen to make me turn the page.

    One thing that caught my eye. Tommy’s lessons. Music stores GIVE lessons, they don’t generally pay for them. Who Tommy is and why Gertie is paying for his lessons would be a good conflict to send me to chapter 2.

  6. Anon,
    Story telling is the most ancient of arts. God knows it isn’t easy. You must learn what works. John and Joanne has given you some great suggestions..
    You must write a lot of crap before you know what works. Keep writing in spite of how much critical replies can hurt. I quit writing every time I get a rejection notice, but somehow I come back each time a little bit tougher, a little bit smarter.
    Pixar films makes great movies based on great screenplays. Here are the rules they go by when writing their stories. I helps me. https://nofilmschool.com/2012/06/22-rules-storytelling-pixar

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