First Page Critique: The Devil’s Noose – A Pandemic Medical Thriller

 

Happy Valentine’s Day. You did remember the one you love, didn’t you? If not, finish this blog, then rush out and find something for your special someone.
Today another Brave Author, known as BA, sent in a First Page Critique. Take a look, and then we’ll talk about it. – Elaine Viets

The Devil’s Noose – A Pandemic Medical Thriller

Former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan
Central Asia

Seven-year-old Aliya Nizova darted through the trees, her little horsehair-trimmed boots slipping on the carpet of wet pine needles, heart pounding in her chest.
Her breath rasped in her throat as she ran, desperately seeking someplace to hide. She came to a stop at the edge of a clearing and looked around. To the right, a gray granite boulder jutted from the ground, a rime of dirty snow clinging to its base. To the left, the mucky soil sloped down to a cluster of tangled berry bushes.
A not-so-distant shout filtered through the dark forest. She made her decision and moved to the left. Cold mud squelched under her boots as she knelt behind one of the bushes.
She waited, ears keen to pick up any sign of her pursuer.
Aliya heard a thump.
Unlike the shouts, the strange noise had come from nearby.
It had sounded a little like a heavy pinecone hitting the ground, she thought. She craned her neck to look around at the nearby trees. But none of them had cones dangling from their branches.
A second thump.
The sound was followed by a strange scuffling noise.
Then silence.
Jumping to her feet, she stepped out from the bushes and back into the clearing. At first, she saw nothing but tea-colored earth and gray-green sedge grass. The breeze picked up, cutting and cold.
Aliya skipped back a step as more thumps sounded next to her, one-two-three, like rifle bullets burying themselves in the earth. The clouds parted, allowing a thin shaft of sunlight to bathe the clearing in golden light. They were all around her.
Small, broken black shapes.
The ground was littered with the bodies of carrion crows. Their heavy beaks and ebony plumage glistened as they lay sprawled on the ground, necks broken and wings shattered They’d fallen from the sky as if expiring in mid-flight.


Even at seven years old, Aliya knew enough about the world to think: Something’s wrong here.
One of the dark shapes moved. The bird’s wings fluttered, beating against the ground with a scuffling sound before going still. She knelt next to it, absently grabbing a slender twig in one hand. She gave it a gentle poke in its side.
No reaction. She poked it again.
The crow’s head whipped around as it struck with a convulsive snap.

Elaine’s Comments: This pandemic medical thriller has a good, creepy opening. It’s well-paced and the writing is energetic. But I have some questions:
– Who is the little girl running from?
All we know is he or she is described as “her pursuer.”
– Why is she running?
Since this is a medical thriller, is she trying to escape from someone who wants to use her in a medical experiment? Or is there another reason: she’s the only survivor in her family or village? Or is her pursuer not related to the medical crisis: is the pursuer a soldier? Let us know. It’s distracting to have this unsolved question.
The second sentence would be a good place to give us an answer:
“Her breath rasped in her throat as she ran, desperately seeking someplace to hide” from the white-coated scientist who wanted to take her away. Or from the soldiers who killed her family. You get the idea, BA.
Where are her parents?
Are they dead, in hiding, or have they been taken away?
A misplaced sentence.
“They were all around her” does not work where it is. I’d make a new paragraph, start it like this:
They were all around her: small, broken black shapes.
Describe Aliya for us more.
Her “little horsehair-trimmed boots” is a nice touch. The dead crows hitting the ground sound like “rifle bullets burying themselves in the earth.” That phrase tells us a lot about Aliya. How many seven-year-olds know how rifle bullets sound? A clever hint. But is the girl big or small for a seven-year-old? Dark-haired or blonde? A phrase or two can answer these questions.
The ending scene with the crow is a good one.
There’s much to love here, BA.
What do you think, TKZers?

Looking for a forensic mystery? You’ll love Ice Blonde, my third Angela Richman novella. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1625673620/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o00__o00_s00?ie=UTF8

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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book. www.elaineviets.com

7 thoughts on “First Page Critique: The Devil’s Noose – A Pandemic Medical Thriller

  1. I agree, good idea and departure point here. A little girl frightened in the woods and then wham! Crows start falling from the sky…creepy good! So congrats on the writer picking a good place to begin the story.

    But there’s some issues here, imho. First involves point of view. If this is YA, I am assuming that Aliya is NOT the protag. That should, ideally, be someone older for the genre, roughly fitting “teenager.” (though writers argue about this). Aliya is very young, and by the writer’s own admission — “Even at seven years old, Aliya knew enough about the world to think: Something’s wrong here.” — she has a very limited view and experience of the world. But this reads in syntax and word choice as someone with a much older perspective. (“rime” “ebony plummage” even the word “expiring.”) The problem is, it’s really really hard to maintain an interesting and reliable narrative through a little child’s POV. They just don’t KNOW enough. So the writer here takes over and we’re getting her/his POV as an omniscient POV and neither is fully engaging. And if Aliya is, indeed, the protag, I just don’t think this is sustainable over a whole book.

    A couple other things about description. There’s some nice stuff here (the crows), but the tone is inconsistent. The girl is being chased and she’s very afraid, yet we get poetic description (clouds parting so sun can bathe the scene in gold light) side by side with more earthy ones (mud clinging to boots).

    And this doesn’t compute: The sound a pine cone makes is a dull soft thud. (I have eight pine trees in my yard). Which is probably what a dead crow sounds like hitting the ground. But no way no how does could that be mistaken for the sound like bullets zinging into dirt.

    Another little thing that is not logical. She is steps from a clearing and is hearing the crows hit the ground. Why can’t she see them from behind the bush since she took mere steps to emerge? They seem to be falling all around her. Maybe she is far enough away that she can’t tell exactly WHAT the black shapes are, but surely she can see they are not pine cones.

    There’s also a little overwriting going on: “She knelt next to it, absently grabbing a slender twig in one hand.” She picked up a twig and poked the crow. Nothing “absent” about it. “She made her decision and moved to the left. Cold mud squelched under her boots as she knelt behind one of the bushes.” She darted behind a bush and knelt in the mud. Don’t spin your writer wheels on mundane action like moving around in time and place; save your more “writerly” chops for when you need it. It will shine in contrast.

    Still and all, I like the idea behind this — especially the raining down of dead crows, which I assume has something to do with the pandemic coming. Nice foreshadowing device there!

  2. BA, I was drawn in right away, nicely done.

    I agree with Elaine about the pursuer. Sneaking in a line about the scientist (or whatever, but probably a scientist since this is a pandemic thriller) would clarify things.

    Also, I don’t understand why Aliya jumped up and stepped into the clearing so readily if she was scared enough to run into an unknown area of the forest and hide. Did I miss something? Did the silence mean her pursuer dropped dead?

    Best of luck on your continued writing journey, BA!

  3. Hoping BA listens to your comments, Priscilla. They would definitely improve this opening. Like you, this opening immediately drew me into the story.

  4. A little girl in the big goods fearful and in danger – someone is chasing her! This is timeless suspense the pulls at anyone who has a heart and engages universal protective instincts.
    Crows plummeting dead from the sky in a macabre flurry. An inexplicable twist increasing the mystery!

    Some great elements in play…very promising!
    I question whether I would include in the title “a pandemic medical thriller”. I think it undercuts some of the tension and potential surprise for the readers. The mystery of the falling crows is likely already answered by the subtitle. I think the experience would be greater without that clue.
    Elaine and others have made excellent suggestions on craft:content.
    I was slightly taken aback by the description of the crows as having broken necks and dramatic wing disruption-that typically would not happen if the birds died of disease (i.e. the fall alone would not cause that). Because of the subtitle I anticipated the cause was disease and the traumatic damage seemed inconsistent. Whatever decision you make regarding the subtitle I would make the appearance of the crows consistent with the mechanism of their demise.
    Elaine-I assume you found the photos to accompany this post. Excellent! I think the image of the fallen crow is powerful. If the crows death signifies what I think it does I think the author might want to consider it or similar as an element of the cover.
    Author – great stuff. Write on!
    Thanks – tom

  5. Thanks for stopping by, Tom. Crows represent death to me, too. The crow photos are royalty free from Pixaybay.com. Good advice about the crows. I think with a few tweaks our authors could have a gripping story.

  6. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I have to agree with Elaine about the “litte horse-hair trimmed boots” phrase. I really liked that phrase, too. However, I think you can make your opening more gripping.

    First Line

    “Seven-year-old Aliya Nizova darted through the trees, her little horsehair-trimmed boots slipping on the carpet of wet pine needles, heart pounding in her chest.”

    I would leave off the “heart pounding in her chest” part. Why? Shorter sentences convey urgency. The sentence sounds more powerful without that last five words tacked on:

    “Seven-year-old Aliya Nizova darted through the trees, her little horsehair-trimmed boots slipping on the carpet of wet pine needles.”

    Sometimes less is more.

    Tighten the Prose

    One way to make the reader feel more “in the skin” of a character is writing in a close third-person POV. Like Kris noted, the child in the first scene of the book is too young to be the protagonist. However, there are ways to make the writing seem more immediate so that the reader can feel the child’s fear in this opening. Remember that long sentences don’t convey urgency as well as shorter sentences.

    I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to do a quick rewrite to try and demonstrate the effect of using more compact prose and shorter sentences to convey urgency. You’ve used some beautiful phrases that I think will “pop” more if we unclutter things a little bit, like this:

    Seven-year-old Aliya Nizova darted through the trees, her little horsehair-trimmed boots slipping on the carpet of wet pine needles.

    Her breath rasped in her throat. Nowhere to hide. To the right, a gray granite boulder jutted from the ground, a rime of dirty snow clinging to its base. To the left, the mucky soil sloped down to a cluster of tangled berry bushes.

    A shout echoed through the dark forest. Aliya moved to the left and knelt behind a bush, the cold mud squishy beneath her boots.

    THUMP! She shuddered at the sound of a large pine cone striking the ground. Only there were no pine trees in sight. Aliya sprang to her feet. Another thump and then a scuffling noise, followed by silence.

    She stepped out from the bushes into the clearing of tea-colored earth and gray-green sedge grass, the breeze cutting and cold against her back. ONE. TWO. THREE. The clonks exploded in her ears, like rifle bullets burying themselves in the earth.

    The clouds shifted, allowing a thin shaft of sunlight into the clearing. And then she saw them. All around her. Small, broken black shapes. Bodies of carrion crows covered the ground.

    One of the fallen birds fluttered its wings before going still. Aliya knelt beside it and poked it gently with a twig. Nothing. Was it dead? She stabbed at it again a little harder. SNAP! The crow’s head whipped around before thudding to the ground.

    Anyway, I hope this helps, brave writer. The above rewrite is just something I did quickly, on the fly. It’s certainly not perfect, but it gives you an idea of how to tighten the prose in a way that hopefully will get the reader’s pulse racing. Best of luck, and keep writing.

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