First Page Critique: ALEXA

 

The Party Busload of Exposition (GoDaddy Stock photo)

 

Dearest Readers,

Step into the Kill Zone Critique Parlor, where today’s Brave Author has a tragic tale to tell. Pull up a tuffet, and buckle up. I have Thoughts.

 

ALEXA

Tom’s death changed everything.

I sat in my car, the engine idling, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian. I wasn’t cheered.

It was only twelve weeks past his funeral. When I wasn’t sobbing, I was frowning at the myriad details I’d had to deal with in the days following the end of life as we know it. That’s how I thought of it. I’d packed up the furnished rental, mailed out change-of-address forms and done my best to put on a brave face for TJ. I was exhausted from the long drive that brought us to Ohio.

We’d been planning the move before Tom…went away, but now I was making it alone. Well, with TJ. Tom inherited the yellow house from his grandmother when she passed away six months ago. He’d flown out to look it over and reported back that it needed some updating but had good bones. He said there were lots of rooms, which sounded like heaven in comparison to our tiny two-bedroom in the city. “It has a huge country kitchen,” he said with a grin, poking me in the side and causing me to jump and make a face at him. At the time I was chopping veggies in the postage-stamp that passed for our current kitchen. I leaned my head back against his shoulder and sighed, daydreaming of twirling around in our future house, giddy at all the space.

I’m so angry at the goddamn drunk driver who snuffed out my husband’s life on March 16, 2017. March 16, 2017…a day that will live in infamy. Oh, ha ha. Bitter much?
I guess I have a right to be. All that crap about forgiving. I will not forgive the one who stole his life…and my life and TJ’s.

Maybe with time. Everyone’s quick to say that holding on to the hate I feel for Mr. George Goddamn Daniels will only poison me and not bring Tom back. I feel the poison in me now, but I embrace the huge empty hole eaten away by the acid-generating hatred. I don’t want to feel good, because everything’s bad now. Maybe with time….

I glanced in the rearview mirror at TJ. His face was sad, like mine. He gazed at the yellow house, not moving to open the car door. Maybe the two of us could stare it into becoming our home.
“Ready, buddy?” I asked as I opened my door. My heart broke at his wan smile and “Sure, Mom.”

____________________________________________________

Let me say right off that I’m impressed with the voice of this story. The narrator’s voice is confident and mature. Believable. The sentences are tight and declarative–my favorite. Let’s talk story.

My understanding is that ALEXA is about a newly-widowed woman and her young son who are moving into the house her husband inherited from his grandmother before he was killed by a drunk driver named Mr. George Daniels. The new house is somewhere in Ohio and they’re coming from a bigger (?) city, where they’d lived in a two-bedroom, furnished rental apartment. She loved her husband Tom very much, and she and her son are very sad that he’s dead. She feels poisoned with hate, but doesn’t yet want to go of her consuming, awful feelings.

This opening telegraphs that this is a family or personal drama, and neither a thriller nor mystery. It could end up with a romantic story line, but it doesn’t feel like that will be a focus.

Title

This story is called ALEXA, and there’s no evidence that it has anything to do with Amazon’s AI, Alexa. I was confused right off the bat. I know young women named Alexa, and while I would never confuse any of them with the AI, it’s different when I run into the name as a title. Perhaps I’m being picky (“I’m not picky, I have standards.” –Mindy Kaling), but Amazon comes up first in my brain. Amazon has appropriated the name, and there’s no going back.

Is our narrator named Alexa? Was it the grandmother’s name? If so, somehow let us know asap so we’re not left hanging. This seems to me a sad and rather tender story. If I’m mistaken, and they walk into the beautiful country kitchen (What is considered a country kitchen these days? There are many, many online definitions, but my ancient understanding is that it is a large kitchen with maybe a seating area and perhaps a fireplace. I don’t know what image it suggests to others.) to discover that ALEXA has taken over the house and is programmed to terrorize them, then it’s a story that surely takes a shocking turn on Page 2.

Pacing

May I just say… WHOA THERE, NELLIE!

I was exhausted by the time I finished the first 400 words. I was even more exhausted the second and third and fourth times I read it. I worry because at this pace the novel will only be approximately 60 pages long.

It feels as though you’ve decided to get the backstory out of the way so you can move on and proceed with the action.

We start out very well: “Tom’s death changed everything.”

“I sat in my car, the engine idling, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian. I wasn’t cheered.”

It’s clean. It’s direct. It’s compelling. Though you might consider shifting to present tense with the second line to give the story immediacy and emotional punch.

“I sit in our idling Toyota, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian house. I’m not cheered.”

The third paragraph continues with our narrator relating the many, many things she’s been doing in the past twelve weeks besides staring: sobbing, frowning, dealing, packing, mailing, and putting on a brave face.

In the next paragraph we learn that the family was moving. Tom was also inheriting, looking over, flying, reporting, grinning, poking, and causing our narrator to jump. And she’s making a face, chopping veggies, leaning back, sighing, and daydreaming about twirling and being giddy.

In the fifth paragraph, we learn how Tom died.

In the sixth paragraph, we learn that she’s really, really pissed off at the guy who killed him, and won’t be forgiving.

The seventh identifies the drunk driver.

Then we finally get back to the boy in the car, and the yellow house.

Whew!

What we have here is a busload of exposition. Exposition–a chunk of narrative or backstory plunked in the middle of the action to give the action context (see what I did there?)–can be a useful tool in small doses. In large doses it distracts from the action of the story and slows it down. Note my second paragraph in the TITLE section above. I digress on what a country kitchen might be for such a long time that the reader probably had to go back and figure out what I said about a country kitchen before I opened the parentheses. Even I had to go back and look!

It’s tough to give the reader just enough information to get them interested, and keep them reading.

The thing to remember is that you’re writing scenes. Sentences build scenes. Scenes build chapters, chapters build books. A good way to start is to write one scene per chapter–even if it makes the chapter short. You’ll keep the reader focused, which is what you want to do. At the end of that scene, give the reader a reason to read on.

Here, you could continue this small scene with the boy bravely opening the car door. (I would discourage you from have her opening her door as she asks him if he’s ready. It’s a weighty moment that doesn’t need an activity.) The reader will naturally want to know what they do and see when they’re out of the car. Does she take his hand? Does he shrink back, used to the smallness of their previous home? Is there someone waiting on the porch?

“I’m so angry at the goddamn drunk driver who snuffed out my husband’s life on March 16, 2017. March 16, 2017…a day that will live in infamy. Oh, ha ha. Bitter much?
I guess I have a right to be. All that crap about forgiving. I will not forgive the one who stole his life…and my life and TJ’s.”

There are a lot of critical emotions here. We don’t need them all on the first page. She has a good, direct, confiding tone. But it’s too soon to jump into this. Sure, her feelings are complex. Right now, she’s just arrived at this house. Slow it down.

An aside– Mr. George Daniels is the drunk who caused the accident. It’s probably just me, but I couldn’t help but think of George Dickel and Jack Daniels as though the two whiskey brands had morphed into one drunk person.

“Maybe the two of us can stare it into becoming our home.” This is a beautiful line.

I don’t often suggest rewrites, but here’s a brief beginning. I can envision them getting out of the car, continuing, but you can too.

Tom’s death changed everything.

I sit in our idling Toyota, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian house we were supposed to move into together. I’m not cheered.

Our son T.J. sits in the backseat. In the rearview mirror, I see that he, too, is staring at the house. Maybe the two of us can stare it into becoming our home.

“Ready, buddy?” I ask. It’s been twelve weeks since we buried his father, my husband. My heart breaks at his wan smile, and the way his sad eyes meet mine in the mirror.

“Sure, Mom.”

Get to it, TKZers! I’ve left a couple things unaddressed because I want you to have some fun. What have I missed?

7+
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 Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). 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.

13 thoughts on “First Page Critique: ALEXA

  1. I liked the POV character. She’s convincing as a mom/widow. It’s also nice to read such a clean copy except that last line. Did you mean to put a period after “smile” then just have a new paragraph with the boy saying, “Sure, Mom”?

    Laura gave you an excellent critique, and I agree with her that the title could be better. I immediately thought about a smart home going nuts and trapping the mom and her son, or maybe Alexa goes rogue and murders Mr. Daniels.

    My biggest hang up about this first page is it’s virtually all back story. The mom is summarizing what happened in the past. Why not start with a contemporary scene instead? Later on you can insert short back story scenes.

    I like your writing voice, Brave Author. Best of luck on your continued writing journey.

    • It is a terrifically clean submission, Priscilla. That always makes evaluating it much easier. And the voice is so solid.

      There are published books out there that are almost all exposition, and some people do read and enjoy them. But I think Brave Author is a writer who can easily go beyond that to very good effect.

  2. I agree with all your points, Laura. I assume the house is “smart” and Alexa will terrorize the family, but a hint that something’s “off” would enhance this first page. Perhaps while they’re sitting in the car, the porch light blazes on as though Alexa has been expecting them. The hero, of course, dismisses it as odd but not dangerous. The reader, however, will fear for their safety.

    One thing to think about: an out-of-control smart house has been done to death, so Anon needs to find a way to turn this premise on its head.

    Anon, I’d hoped you would make us feel the hero’s emotional impact, rather than tell us about it. Losing a spouse is devastating. Let the reader experience it along with the hero. Dig deep to a time when you, the writer, experienced loss and SHOW us how that felt, drag us through the grieving process. At the same time, I would suggest adding dialogue between the mother and son while they’re sitting in the car, staring at the house, which I assume is the antagonist.

    Wouldn’t she try to prepare her son? Wouldn’t she pretend that this is the right move? All the while she’s grappling with her own doubts. Also, don’t tell us how the husband died yet. By withholding tidbits of information, it raises questions in the reader’s mind and forces them to flip the page.

    • Great advice as always, Sue.

      The widow’s grief is essential to the story, but showing it, and weaving it through the story will make it much more powerful.

      I’m interested that you went straight to the smart house idea. It didn’t occur to me that it would really be that obvious. If so, then the tone definitely needs to be more unsettling and strange, right off the bat. Something needs to be “off” about the cheery house.

      • It was the first thing I thought of as well — the smart house as villain. Thought it as soon as I read the title. If this is about AI run amok, the title is too literal. If it’s not about AI, then the title means nothing.

        But a really nice touch and voice here, writer. I agree with all of what Laura said. Less is more in an opening. If you met this poor grieving mother at a gathering and she told you all this backstory in the first five minutes, you’d do anything to get away from her. Grief is such a powerful emotion, and the more powerful the motivating emotion behind a scene, the more you have to underwrite it, imho.

    • If baby monitors can be hacked, why not Alexa & a smart house? Evil technology is a fun idea, especially if it can be linked to dark human villain for a mysterious reason. Authors are twisted & I love it.

  3. Nicely done, and thanks for sending this along, Author. And thank you for using “myriad” correctly….like nails on a blackboard when persons write “myriad of.” Anyway, I agree on the point of backstory. And pacing of emotion. Right on. Would having a bit of dialogue between mom and son help this scene? Perhaps. I’d love to follow this woman and see what happens to her….Thanks, again!

  4. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I agree with all of Laura’s comments. Now I’ll throw my two cents into the mix.

    “Every good story starts at a moment of threat.” — Jack Bickham, The The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes

    If you haven’t read any of the writing books by Jack Bickham, see what you can find at the library.

    For most of us, nothing is more disturbing than change. Your opening line was good. However, not long after that you began to back pedal (not good).

    Fiction should move forward. When you begin a story, the readers want to know what’s going to happen in the here and now of the story. When I woke up this morning, I had no interest in reading yesterday’s newspaper. When you start telling a reader what happened earlier in a character’s life during a scene (particularly during an opening scene), readers lose interest. It’s yesterday’s news. It’s fine to weave in backstory without halting the forward motion of the story but only in small bits.

    Begin your story with a scene that could be filmed without any voice overs. No telling. Show the reader what is happening. Pick a date and time for your scene to start. Let’s say your scene begins on June 10, 2018 at 10:00 AM. Next pick a place for your scene to begin. Just as a temporary reminder to yourself, write that information at the top of your first page. Don’t tell the reader about anything that happened before the scene starts. (You can remove the heading after you’ve written the scene; it’s just a reminder.) For example:

    June 10, 2018, 10:00 AM; Victorian House

    Then begin writing your scene, using vivid action and dialogue. Don’t tell the reader about anything that happens before that time period. Readers don’t want to hear anything about what happened months or years ago on the first page. The idea is to get the reader to care about the character first. Your readers want to know what’s happening to your character at a particular moment in story time. Choose that moment, and then move forward. Picture your character on a bicycle moving forward. Don’t put your character on a stationary bike. Don’t back pedal. Move your character through time. If you begin your scene at the Victorian house in Ohio, don’t have the character thinking about the past. Stay in the scene.

    Next introduce some sort of threat to your character’s world that gives a hint about the story to come. The conflict has to be some sort of conflict the reader can see. (You should be able to film it.) Therefore, the conflict can’t be something going on in the character’s head. The first scene should show the character DOING something. Something has to happen. Show your character reacting to that something that happens.

    Show, don’t tell. The word “was” is often a telling word. You use “was” many times on your first page:

    “It was only twelve weeks…”
    “I was frowning…”
    “I was exhausted…”
    “… but now I was making it…”
    “At the time I was chopping…”
    “His face was sad…”

    Read “What You Need to Know About Show, Don’t Tell ” by Janice Hardy (available online).

    More Suggested Reading:

    Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld
    The Dramatic Writer’s Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories by Will Dunne

    I hope this helps, brave writer. Best of luck and keep writing.

  5. Really good critique points, Laura. Like you, I was drawn in by the voice. Very compelling, but I can see that quality making it hard for the author to get solid feedback or even want to edit the intro. There’s real merit here, but as you mentioned, it’s a massive amount of details to take in and the story dump becomes obvious to the critical eye.

    Your rewrite is a good example of how to keep as much of the author’s intent while capturing the intriguing emotional essence of the character’s plight, more bare bones so the reader can settle into the story.

    An intro like this has no real action until the end. All the info takes place in the character’s head & distances the reader from getting into the story. A reader is forced into many details they haven’t connected with yet. As you’ve suggested, the character is enough. Ease the reader into a story written by a promising author voice with patience.

  6. While I agree that the exposition was a little on-the-nose, I found that all that info made the final moments of the page more powerful. So, I would suggest not eliminating all of your background info, but choosing the most important detail. Or turning the backstory into a scene of it’s own. I’m not sure what would work best.

Comments are closed.