by Debbie Burke
Please welcome today’s Brave Anonymous Author with a submission entitled Samuel’s Mine.
Oddly enough her fingernails were left unbroken. Each nail remained intact, as sharp and fresh as they had been right before Julia went to sleep. The bright pink polish now served as a beacon of hope in this otherwise despondent room. She looked around, unbelieving, and still trying to figure out the situation. How did she get here? Where is here? She remembered talking to Jacob on the phone. She remembered painting her nails sitting on the edge of her bed. All else was a fog, like unrecognizable shadows in the poorly lit recesses of her brain. Something was there but yet nothing.
She turned her head. Her neck seized instantly with stiff pain. Oh dear Christ! A thick perspiration began its slow descent down her forehead. She lay across the floor with a dull but growing pounding building inside her head. She rarely got headaches. I fell, she thought. The fog in her head was drifting away as her surroundings grew clearer. I fell..how could I fall? Sharp jabs of pain filled her upper body. No, No, I couldn’t have. This isn’t right. She winced while moving her head to the left. The room was dark and she could smell mildew. The perspiration slid a smooth path down her face although a chill ran through her. The fog finally lifted from her head leaving the remnants of ache and confusion. How did I get on the floor?
Her body shuttered, skin prickled, as a chilling draft surfaced. She could hear the faint shuffle of footsteps above her. Julia’s legs; however, were cramped and stiff pressed on the cold floor. In fact, the floor she was on was not a floor, but rather stones. She can see them now – large cobblestones like the ones that used to line the streets in the City. They were now biting against her body and left prickles on her skin. Goosebumps. This is not right. She scanned the room fighting the ache, unknowing where she was. Stone block walls now came into her ever-strengthening sight. And that smell was more than mildew, but what?
The thick moisture moving down from her brow found her parched lips and with a fine swoop of her tongue, Julia tasted it. At first the sheer moisture was soothing to her mouth, but shortly the taste surfaced. It was not sweat. This tasted coppery. She had her fair share of fights and busted her lip a few times playing hockey. Julia was tough and knew this taste well. It was the taste of blood.
Okay, let’s get to work.
At first glance, the title Samuel’s Mine doesn’t give any hints to the genre, story, or characters. Until the reader knows who Samuel is, it’s hard to determine if this is an effective title. It strikes me as vague and not that interesting. And it certainly seems on the tame side for the creepy scenario painted on the first page, which signals dark suspense or horror.
Julia, of unknown age, evidently had a bad fall she doesn’t quite remember and wakes up in an unfamiliar chilly basement that smells of mildew. She’s lying on a cobblestone floor, apparently can’t move, and is bleeding from a head wound. She hears footsteps above.
What sets Julia apart from many other stories that start with a similar setup?
Pink polish on unbroken fingernails.
Brave Author, your instincts are good to include vivid, specific details in your first paragraph. The reader easily sees Julia sitting on the edge of her bed, painting her nails and talking on the phone with Jacob. Then Julia evidently loses consciousness. She wakes up disoriented and is amazed that her nails aren’t broken.
The second and third paragraphs offer descriptions of her pain, confusion, and cold. A fair amount of overwriting and repetition could be cut and condensed.
More important, creepy descriptions will only hold the reader’s attention for a limited time. Compelling action is necessary to move the story forward. More about this in a moment.
A number of odd, awkward, or incorrect word choices jarred me. I sense the author is trying too hard.
Otherwise despondent room – Despondent describes an emotion that Julia feels but the room doesn’t. Maybe “desolate” instead?
Her neck seized with stiff pain – Is the pain stiff or is it her neck?
Thick perspiration – “thick” distracted me, although you later explain it’s not sweat but blood.
Shuttered – should be “shuddered.”
Lay across the floor – sounds awkward.
Growing pounding building – watch out for three words in a row ending in “ing”
Prickled, prickles, and goosebumps – repetitive.
Julia’s legs; however, were cramped and stiff pressed on the cold floor. In fact, the floor she was on was not a floor – repetitive. Replace the semicolon with a comma.
…but rather stones. She can see them now [tense change] – large cobblestones like the ones that used to line the streets in the City. – Repetitive. Also, suggest you use this opportunity to specify which “City” so you convey more about her background as well as her possible location.
The thick moisture moving down from her brow found her parched lips and with a fine swoop of her tongue, Julia tasted it. At first the sheer moisture was soothing to her mouth, but shortly the taste surfaced. – Odd phrasing. How does a tongue make a fine swoop? How does a taste surface?
She had her fair share of fights and busted her lip a few times playing hockey. – Another excellent specific detail that characterizes Julia.
The first 400 words basically set the scene and don’t give much insight into Julia’s character nor the conflict. So far, it’s a helpless-female-in-jeopardy trope. Her reactions are generic fear.
However, the details about her pink fingernails and familiarity with hockey and fighting make Julia real and relatable. I suggest you include more specific details like that.
The biggest problem: Where is the action?
The author actually submitted about 1400 words that revealed additional clues about the story’s direction that were not found on the first page. I suggest you cut repetitious descriptions of Julia’s cold, confusion, and pain, and instead move to the action sooner.
I took the liberty of rewriting (in red below) to incorporate developments that didn’t show up on this first page but did occur later in the submission.
Oddly, Julia’s fingernails weren’t broken—bright pink, as sharp and fresh as when she’d painted them, sitting on the bed before she went to sleep. Yet now she lay on a cold floor, cramped with pain, in a dim room, hemmed in by stone block walls. She smelled mildew and a faint odor of something else.
When she tried to look around, spasms seized her neck. A draft chilled her bare legs, her nightshirt pulled up to her panties. Her pink-tipped fingers traced the rough contour of the floor—cobblestones, like old streets in London.
I fell…how could I fall? Unrecognizable shadows clouded the poorly lit recesses of her memory. She remembered talking to Jacob on the phone but after that, nothing.
Wet warmth flowed down her face. When it reached her parched mouth, she licked it. Not perspiration. Blood. She recognized the taste from split lips she’d endured while playing hockey. And from fights. She touched a raw, pulpy spot on her skull. The wound was bleeding badly.
Footsteps creaked on the wood planks above. “Daddy?” she pleaded, her whisper harsh and scratchy.
Through foggy vision, she made out a dark corner where a propane cylinder sat on a table with other tools she didn’t recognize.
Above, a door opened and footsteps clomped down the stairs. She tried to see who was coming but pain froze her. She squeezed her eyes shut, fighting tears.
A new smell, earthy and ripe, familiar yet not. Coal River Farm. The petting goats. Julia and her parents feeding the animals.
When she opened her eyes, a tall, lean man in dirty jeans and boots was walking to the table. Not her father.
“Where am I?” she croaked. “What do you want?”
“Shut up, sow.” He picked up the propane cylinder and a long thin rod.
Terror prickled her senses. She had to fight, run, escape. But when she struggled to stand, her legs felt too weak, too heavy. “Let me go, please. I won’t tell anyone.”
He stood over her, staring down with piercing brown eyes. “How old are you? Nineteen, twenty?”
“Twenty-two.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Why do you care?”
“Ah, twenty-two. You’re ready.”
“For what?” She shivered in the chill of her own blood that now soaked her nightshirt.
He pulled a lighter from his shirt and lit the propane torch. A long blue flame shot out. “The culling.”
Print out these early pages and read them aloud. When you’ve repeated the same description several times—for example, how cold Julia is—choose the strongest way to say it and cut the others.
When you stumble over a sentence as you read aloud, that signals a place that needs smoothing out.
Take several different color highlighters. Assign one color to each element of the scene. For instance, orange for setting, blue for characterization, green for description, red for action. Once you’ve identified and marked up the scene in a tangible visual way, it’s easy to see where there’s too much emphasis on one aspect and too little of another. You can then work to play up the most important parts–action and character–to engage the reader.
Brave Author, there is a lot of scary promise in this story. Thanks for sharing your work.
TKZers, any helpful ideas for today’s Brave Author?
Thanks for letting us take a peek at your first page, Anonymous.
I’m digging the scary direction this story is going. I also like your first sentence. I actually like it more than Debbie’s version because yours emphasizes “unbroken.” But I enjoyed the rest of Debbie’s example rewrite better. She took your wonderful concept and streamlined the opening so we now have action and more tension.
The two things that stuck out as I read your first page were wordiness and word choice such as “biting against.” Do stones bite, or do they press, dig into, or something else? And if they bite, do they bite against or bite into? I think if you have a friend read the page out loud to you, you could hear words that don’t quite fit.
I love Debbie’s suggestion of using colors to highlight different elements of the scene. It’s something I’m going to try with my own work-in-progress.
Best of luck on your continued writing journey, Anon!
Priscilla, having a friend read the page out loud is a great idea! That is even more effective than the author reading it out loud b/c author knows what is in his/her mind and sometimes unconsciously substitutes those thoughts rather than the words that are actually on the page.
Another helpful tool is a computer text-to-speech program, like Natural Reader or Text-to-Speech Reader.
This excerpt definitely has potential to cause goosebumps for readers.
This opening grabbed me in a way that a number of submissions don’t. I think it’s the details and the convincing intimate POV that give the fresh take on the damsel-in-distress opening.
I’m willing to go with some of the awkward language–eg, “despondent room.” We are experiencing the world through the protag after all. But such usage needs to be carefully and at least somewhat self-consciously done. Perhaps Anon could sit with a friend who has a good language feel and look at word choices the way Debbie does here. I remember how educational it was to sit with my college newspaper editor and have him edit me out loud.
The tense switches are jarring.
We’re learning a lot, in an intriguing way, about the character and setting, so I’m not in a terrible hurry for “something to happen.” We do hear footsteps on the floor above. I’m not worried about what Debbie called “generic fear.” What I’m experiencing is the protag’s stock-taking and analysis; it’s like she hasn’t reached fear yet.
The title could work if the first page (or two) contained some reference either to Samuel or to a mine. There’s a suggestion of ambiguity–does the title refer to a mine that belongs to Samuel or is it saying “Samuel is mine.” Or both?
Those pink fingernails shouldn’t sit there alone and forgotten for the rest of the first page.
Thanks for submitting. Unless the language in the next few pages started to irritate me, I would keep reading.
Eric, good point about the title and possible ambiguity in its meaning. A title that has more than one level of meaning is always good. Maybe the Brave Author can drop an early hint.
Maybe even something like:
“Where is here? She remembered talking to Jacob on the phone. She remembered painting her nails sitting on the edge of her bed.” [Then insert: She remembered Jacob starting to ask, “What is Samuel–“] All else was fog.”
Good suggestion, Eric!
OK, Confession time. Mrs. P has had manicured nails longer than we have been married. I notice fingernails. Why is it shocking that they are unbroken? A great opening line goes no where. Pity. If the other bumps and bruises or more of a recollection were entered here I would be flipping pages in a hurry to see what is next.
Yes, while you write excellent descriptions, they don’t go anywhere. What does she remember before waking up? How does she think she got into this room? Take me someplace.
The color coding and cleaning up some wordiness would make this a page turner.
Oh, I am not a fan of “The City”. I find it either a New Yorker being pretentious about New York or someplace post-apocalyptic. Give it a name. Or even something descriptive, “…like the cobblestones that line the streets of the Schoolbrook District…”
Alan, the description of your wife’s fingernails made me chuckle.
Jim Bell always advises: “Act first, explain later.” Wise words.
I love being quoted. Thanks, Debbie!
You are wonderfully quotable, sir!
Openings to Avoid
Don’t begin your story with a character alone thinking. See agent Kristin Nelson’s article here:
Get to the good stuff (action, dialogue) and work the exposition, backstory, description into the scene later. I don’t know how many dozens of openings I’ve critiqued where there is a character imprisoned somewhere wondering how she got there. If you must begin your story this way, I recommend beginning with dialogue with the captor and working in the other details later. It’s not as effective to have pages of interior monologue of a character who hasn’t been properly introduced.
The most engaging part of your opening is the part about the culling. Don’t bury your lead.
See the article “Overwriting: How to Recognize and Correct It” on my blog. Here are a few examples of overwriting from your submission:
“The perspiration slid a smooth path down her face although a chill ran through her.”
“The thick moisture moving down from her brow found her parched lips and with a fine swoop of her tongue, Julia tasted it.”
“All else was a fog, like unrecognizable shadows in the poorly lit recesses of her brain.”
Urgent situations don’t call for flowery writing. Condense.
Use Sentence Length to Convey Mood
Avoid long melodramatic sentences. Julia is laying in a pool of blood in a strange place. Use shorter sentences to convey the urgency of the situation. See “Sentence Length: The Power Of Placing Periods” at the Writer’s Relief site.
There were many, and I won’t mention them all. Some appear to be typos.
“Her body shuttered” should read “Her body shuddered”
“The bright pink polish now served as a beacon of hope in this otherwise despondent room., and still trying to figure out the situation.”
This is a very awkward sentence (with a period in the wrong place). Rooms don’t get despondent.
“Julia’s legs; however,” – the semicolon should be a comma.
Debbie gave you some very wise and detailed advice concerning word choice. There many small errors that require correction. It’s best to use an editor.
The word “was” is overused.
All else was was a fog…
Something was there…
The fog in her head was…
The room was dark…
The floor she was on was not… (very awkward)
unknowing where she was (again, awkward)
And that smell was more than mildew.
…was soothing to her mouth
It was not sweat…
Julia was tough…
It was the taste of…
Do you need so many adverbs? (poorly, instatnly, rarely, finally, shortly)
Like Debbie, I love the contrast of the painted nails to the rest of the situation, but I’d begin using the character’s name. I’d also consolidate. Maybe something like this:
Julia’s nails remained intact, their bright pink polish a beacon of hope in what seemed a pit of despair. She heard the faint shuffle of footsteps above her as she tried to lift her throbbing head from the cold cobblestone floor, reminiscent of the streets of fill-in-the-blank-with-city-name.
Then I’d condense the description and get on with the interaction with the captor.
Don’t let the number of comments deter you! Best of luck, brave writer. Carry on.
In the article Joanne refers to, Nelson writes, “Angie and I like to say these openings have fallen prey to one of “The Deadly R’s”:
In the opening of today’s submission, the character observes and begins to analyze her situation, particularly the state of her body. This involves some “remembering” and maybe a bit of “rumination” but neither of those activities is central to what we experience on the first page. And little or no reminiscing or reflection. Mostly observation and analysis.
Experience is key, not rules. By virtue of the intimate 3rd person POV, I experienced an interesting person whose character comes through as she takes stock. As I said in my earlier post, I’d read on to get to know her better, to see how she handles the situation.
The highly acclaimed mystery, _American by Day_ by Derek Miller, starts with several pages of Remembering, Reminiscing, Reflecting and Ruminating, not to mention large Flashbacks providing Background.
Joanne, as always, your critique is detailed, thorough, and helpful.
“Sentence length to convey mood” is an excellent technique. Also several long sentences followed by a short punchy one gives dramatic emphasis.
Something happened and part of my critique didn’t get pasted. I want to thank you, brave writer, for sharing your work with us. Everyone here benefits from analyzing these opening samples. Keep going, brave writer.
Also, in my comments:
“There many” should read “There are many”
I’d like to address Eric’s comment about authors breaking rules. Some writers succeed, even when they break rules. Often there’s a good reason to break the rules, and sometimes, the premise of the story is so strong that the author succeeds in spite of less than perfect writing.
One writing rule tells writers not to begin with a character waking up in the morning. However, the movie The Cutting Edge begins with Doug Dorsey waking up in bed with a girl, but Doug is late for the Olympics! The rule is broken, but the opening is a wonderful way to introduce the protagonist. It works.
I’ve read the opening to American by Day, and it does not change my advice for the opening of Samuel’s Mine. The situation and the writing are not comparable. Some might argue that a character waking up in a room and wondering how she got there is a trope. (https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/YouWakeUpInARoom) The most interesting part about this opening is the culling. That’s the part of this story that makes me wonder and want to read more. I wouldn’t wait too long before getting to that part. I’m very glad Debbie shared it.
So, this is the fun of getting lots of feedback, brave writer. Now you have sort through it all and decide what to do. Best of luck!
I liked this, but it needs some clarity. The first line is really intriguing. Made me recall that moment in Silence of the Lambs when the woman in the basement pit looks up at the stone walls of her prison-well and sees pieces of fingernails and blood imbedded there. Horrifying.
I don’t think this is at all a “thinking, remembering” opening. Something is actually happening here. The things she does remember are fragments, which works here, imho. But there are some issues that if addressed could make this stronger.
The nails things definitely works as a tease. But as Alan says, the writer needs to exploit this more, make the “little” detail mean something bigger. (see Lambs above). But the nail device also creates a problem. (more on that in sec). We need a little more clarity here as to what is going on. Even though the victim apparently was unconscious, why can’t she remember anything except that she fell. (where? out on the street?) It is great to open like this but it has to have a little context unless you are dealing with amnesia.
Also, one thing that always bugs me is descriptions that don’t register logically. This woman is apparently just drifting back to consciousness. The room is described as dark at first. So how can she see her pink nails? If it is NOT dark, why does it take her so long to see the stone walls? A “fog” in the brain can’t account for it because her general thoughts, as written, are not foggy at all. What does this room look like? Also, at one point she feels a “chilling” breeze or something. Next second, she’s sweating. Is the room cold or hot? I can’t visualize this place so I can’t fully connect with the victim’s fear.
Okay, let’s just analyze what we DO know: She wakes up in a dark and dank room. She is in pain. (Is she bound? Why doesn’t she sit up?) She can’t remember how she got here. She finally figures out she’s lying on stones and the walls are stones. She hears someone walking above her.
Here’s what I have an issue with — and why this could have even more tension. Description, as filtered through an intimate POV (and that is what we have here, which is good) MUST come in a logical order. If you wake up in a dark room, what registers first, second, etc.?
It’s dark! (first thing the senses would register)
I can…or can’t move.
I am lying down on something cold. She might feel in the dark and think stones?
It smells bad.
Maybe as her vision clears, details of the room begin to register.
How did I get here? What happened?
Hears footsteps above. So she can maybe start processing…am I in a basement?
The problem with this is that it negates the pink nails opening line. Because she is dwelling on that one detail, she is already awake and somewhat lucid. So the writer has to decide — what MOMENT am I opening in here? Just awakening or already awake and analyzing her predicament?
Description, filtered through a characters senses, always has a logical progression.
But there’s some real potential here, a good beginning. I want to know how she got where she is and whose walking above. I just want to writer to make me *feel* the terror more.
Make that “who is walking above.” I need an editor today. 🙂 And when I said I need to “visualize” the room, that isn’t the best word. I need to “feel” and process the room as the victim does.
Hello everyone, brave author here!
I just want to thank everyone (especially Debbie!) for your amazing feedback. It opened my eyes to some of my more persistent writing challenges and gave me many new perspectives on how to make my story better.
Thank you all!
Thanks for coming forward, Stephen! Glad you received a variety of impressions and suggestions. There is no single “best” way to enter a story. Feedback helps open the door to possibilities we might not have considered.
Keep scaring us and you’ll have a winner!