Know Your Genre and Do the Research – First Page Critique: The Nature of Things

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Wikimedia Commons – Author Cliff (GIANT PACIFIC OCTOPUS) https://www.flickr.com/people/28567825@N03

An intrepid anonymous author has submitted their first 400 words of “The Nature of Things” for critique. My feedback follows. Please help this author and provide your constructive comments, TKZers. Enjoy.

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“Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella,” said the reporter.

Anna perused the mutilated body. Damage to the head. Impressive gash in the temple and the empty eye sockets.

“Who or what do you think did this?” the reporter prompted. “You were invited out for an expert opinion. Do you think a man or animal killed him?”

The cuts to the head and upper torso were massive and random. It was hard to recognize the face with most of it eaten.

The salty Oregon coastal breeze wafted into the cave opening. It mingled with the stench of rotting flesh warming in the sun. The smell of death has many scents.

“Looks like our friend here met up with some pretty irate sea dweller,” she said. “I’m thinking giant Pacific octopus.”

“How so?”

“See the cuts? How they’re sometimes random, then more concentrated at the injury sites? Looks like damage from an octopus beak to me. Sliced open the soft spot near the temple to get to the soft stuff inside.”

A grisly sight to behold. More hideous than the one she saw one night long ago. Same result. Different circumstances.

“You recognize this guy at all?” the reporter said.

“Why would you say that? Not much left here to recognize.” said Anna.

“No particular reason. You being a marine biologist in this area, thought maybe you might have seen someone hanging about the coastline lately.”

“I’m mostly out in the big ocean. Deep sea. But a person can get lost very easily if they want to.”

Like Pa’s buddy, Ray, from the Viet Nam war. Ray wanted nothing to do with people after being discharged and returned to the states. The hatred and name calling were too much to take. One of the reasons Momma and Pa had moved so far out in the woods of Oregon. Homesteading far away from the prying eyes of local busybodies. Small towns are like that. Gettin’ in other peoples’ business was not just normal. It was a way of life.

She said, “My guess is he went diving in this cave and surprised a trapped and hungry animal. Tentacles most likely grabbed his head and the beak started gnawing away.”

“Detectives just left,” he said checking his notes. “They noted extra shoe prints in the sand. Must’ve had somebody with him.”

“It’s a public beach. Footprints could be from anyone. Anytime,” Anna said.

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – I enjoyed this author’s “stick to the action” writing. The author jumps into dialogue without over-explaining the action.

POLICE PROCEDURE ISSUES – Right off the bat, I’m left wondering how a reporter would be inside the crime scene tape, which is the way this appears. Anna (whoever she is to the investigation as an expert) is examining the body, up close. She’s carrying on a conversation with a reporter as they apparently stand over the body.

Standard police procedure is that medical examiners or coroners (there’s a difference) would make the call on the cause and manner of death. The ME or coroner would take charge of the body and would not leave the corpse behind or bring in anyone at the scene to give an opinion on how the person died. That would be done in the autopsy, if the examiner needed the assistance.

For avid crime fiction readers, this opener would read as implausible for these reasons. That’s a “throw the book against the wall” error, in my opinion. Despite what I may like about this author’s writing, I’m not as forgiving on poor research and lack of knowledge on police procedure.

OCTOPUS KILLS HUMAN? – This seemed odd to me. I had to query it online. Most octopus or squid can cause harm to a human, but not death. Many species are venomous, but they’re mainly harmful to their usual prey and not harmful enough to kill a person. The Humboldt Squid is known to attack a human being en masse and there are videos of these attacks. Very creepy. Is this story about a giant squid or octopus? There’s not much known about them, only if they are found dead and can be studied. If this story is about the JAWS equivalent to a giant octopus, introducing that possibility through Anna in the first scene seems too soon. It would be best to build on the suspense.

GENERAL QUESTIONS – Why would the reporter say, “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella” in the first line? There’s no follow up on why the reporter disparaged the dead man. Then the reporter asks Anna if she knew the dead guy, without offering an identity. It would appear that the reporter doesn’t know the dead man either, so why the first line insinuation?

Why keep Anna’s last name a secret? This excerpt reads like a first draft with details stripped out. Now is the time to layer in details that don’t overwhelm the reader and slow the pace, but will add a gripping setting with details of who is on that beach with the corpse.

There’s also an assumption that the corpse is dead because a man or animal killed him (the reporter asks). A body could’ve been dumped in the water with animals eating at the corpse or damage sustained from churning in the water over rocks. The reporter is asking questions and leading the reader by TELLING what they should know. I would suggest that if Anna is the expert, let her examine the body and give her opinion to a detective or medical examiner/coroner. A reporter would be the last person allowed onto a crime scene when the body is still exposed. Also, if I were the reporter who got beyond the police barrier, I would be taking photos with my phone. Asking questions is secondary to getting those gruesome pics.

Why would the eyes have been eaten out of the body? Would an Octopus be so selective? Seems like a delicate procedure to focus on the eyes like that.

SHOW – DON’T TELL – In the dialogue lines, the reporter tells Anna what the author wants the reader to know. A sneaky way to TELL and not SHOW. Here are some examples of TELLING lines:

Reporter: “You were invited out for an expert opinion…” (Anna would already know this. A reporter would not.)

Reporter: “You being a marine biologist in this area, thought maybe you might have seen someone hanging about the coastline lately.” (Again, Anna would already know her occupation, but why would the reporter know?)

Reporter: “Detectives just left,” he said checking his notes. “They noted extra shoe prints in the sand. Must’ve had somebody with him.” (Reporter is TELLING the reader what the author wants them to know. Why isn’t the detective the one talking to Anna? And why isn’t she the ME or coroner? The author must do the research to make this more plausible.)

Maybe make Anna be the person who spotted the body on the beach and called it in to the police. She’d be involved and have to be questioned on the spot. A reporter wouldn’t be allowed near the body, especially if the next-of-kin notifications have not been done. Major No No.

BACKSTORY DUMP OUT OF CONTEXT – Because of the spartan style of this author’s voice, not much is known about Anna. Not even her last name. The excerpt below feels out of context. I would prefer the author stick to the action and layer in more details of the setting and the feeling of standing over a gruesome body than to read the details below that could be pieced in later when they fit better.

Like Pa’s buddy, Ray, from the Viet Nam war. Ray wanted nothing to do with people after being discharged and returned to the states. The hatred and name calling were too much to take. One of the reasons Momma and Pa had moved so far out in the woods of Oregon. Homesteading far away from the prying eyes of local busybodies. Small towns are like that. Gettin’ in other peoples’ business was not just normal. It was a way of life.

SETTING CAN ENHANCE THE SCENE – Is the weather cold and windy? What are the waves doing? Are they a calm ebb and flow of water or do the waves dramatically crash onto a rocky shoreline? The Oregon coast is mostly rocky, but pick a spot and describe it so a reader from the area recognizes the setting.

How does the sea mist and air feel on her skin as she stares down at a grotesque corpse? Sand carried in the wind and salty sea air can feel gritty on the skin. The brackish water has a smell that can mingle with the stench off a putrid corpse. Is the body tangled with seaweeds? Have other creatures crawled onto the body as the ocean laps around it?

I would recommend focusing on selective details that ADD to the setting and the emotion the author wants the reader to feel when they read this intro. Don’t write volumes that slow the pace, but pick the most essential descriptors that will trigger memories in the reader, even if they’ve never visited the Oregon coast.

CHARACTER ESSENCE – I had mentioned that the backstory dump seemed out of context, but nothing is known about Anna up until that point. Let the reader in on who she is without TELLING the reader in that backstory dump. The same way it is important to stick to the action and not TELL the reader about the character, try sharing details about Anna that SHOWS who she is.

What is she wearing? Does her clothing and other details say anything about who she is? Proper footwear? Jewelry? How does she fix her hair? Are her nails short or long, polished or not? You don’t need to describe all of these points, but have an idea who she is and pick the most essential ways to show the kind of woman she is to the reader by subtly filtering the most essential details into the narrative.

Is she repulsed or clinical about examining the corpse?

Is she observant about the details of the body AS WELL AS the details of the whole crime scene and who is there?

If Anna is the star of this story, the author could set her up better than the way she comes across in this intro. The reporter seems to know more than she does, for example. I have some suggested changes listed below:

SUGGESTED CHANGES – SUMMARY:

Pair Anna up with a detective that might challenge her. Have there be friction between them because she is an outsider and not a detective. If she proves to be a necessary expert where the detective is forced into using her, the friction you start with will only enhance the story line. Have her mind work like a detective as she clinically examines the dead body and doesn’t act squeamish. Any dialogue in an introduction like this could be like reading a game of cat and mouse. The lines would SHOW who these two are and how they’re matched for each other. Have him obviously trying to get her insights then try to get rid of her, while she keeps adding things that make him wonder if she might help him more. Do they know each other from the past? That could be fun.

Layer in more setting that enhances the morbid scene. That would be delicious.

Tease the reader with what killed the man and not spill the beans right away. It’s very cool that we could be talking about a giant octopus – an 8-legged JAWS creature. Milk that. I can hear the dialogue between the detective and Anna now. He thinks he knows how the guy died. Body dump. The sea and its creatures did the damage, but what if at the end of the scene, Anna breaks the news that the man died from a rare octopus attack. Have her hint that it’s not the first as she walks away. That could be a chilling start.

OVERALL – I really liked the voice of this author. Like I said before, this reads like a first draft and stark, bare bones writing. But it’s a good place to begin to fill in details that can only enhance the writing. Many of the typical beginner mistakes are not raging in this intro. Yes, the lack of crime scene research would be a deal killer for me as a reader, but if the author has a good foundation on writing, the research can be learned and developed. There’s lots to tweak with this beginning, but there’s a great deal of promise here. Good luck with your project, anonymous.

DISCUSSION:

What do you think, TKZers? Provide your feedback in your comments.

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

21 thoughts on “Know Your Genre and Do the Research – First Page Critique: The Nature of Things

  1. Great analysis. I’d add this: What motivates me to turn the page and keep reading? Where’s the compelling question? The pleasurable uncertainty, to use James Scott Bell’s prescient term? I’m not seeing it.

    • Exactly, It needs conflict & a compelling set up to entice the reader into the story. A killer giant octopus isn’t enough for most people. The human story is lacking. Thanks for your insight, Jim.

  2. As always, your critique is spot on, Jordan. I too like the minimalist style, love the Oregon coast setting, and am intrigued with the idea of a giant killer octopus.

    The reporter was irritating for all the reasons you mentioned. As you suggest, a detective would be a much better foil in this scene.

    There is a missed opportunity to delve inside Anna. She’s a scientist, used to dealing with dead marine creatures, not dead humans. She has to feel an emotional reaction, even though her clinical training would keep her somewhat detached. Maybe, as she makes her observations about the wounds, in the back of her mind, she wonders who this guy is and why he’s here.

    She could still drop the hint: “A grisly sight to behold. More hideous than the one she saw one night long ago. Same result. Different circumstances.” Then move the action forward for now, inducing the reader to turn pages to find out about her earlier traumatic experience with death.

    Show how she has to force herself to focus on the facts of the death even as her mind races ahead, imagining the sinister ramifications of a giant man-eating octopus.

    Promising start, brave author.

    • Good points, Debbie, I know your writing & can imagine what you would do to create a different Anna. You always bring such a deft hand to characterization.

      Like you, I want to be more intrigued by Anna, but not with a backstory dump where I’m told about her from a distance. I want her personality woven into every word on the page of this scene. Thanks for your thoughts, Debbie.

  3. I nodded the whole way through your critique, Jordan. A marine biologist and a reporter are the only two people at a crime scene? Nope. Never would happen. A reporter might be able to stumble across a DB while exploring the caves with a friend (you’d have to work doubly hard to give us a believable reason why she’s there), but the friend couldn’t be a marine biologist, or it’d be way too convenient.

    Also, an average person who finds a body would be shocked. Speechless. The body has no eyes! It’s battered, mauled by God-knows-who, or what. Why aren’t her feet shuffling backward, away from the corpse? Why isn’t she slapping a hand over her nose and mouth? Trembling, crying? Death is traumatizing, yet Anna isn’t affected at all by the dead, mangled human in front of her. Blowflies, larvae/maggots (depending on the TOD), hornets, crabs … a corpse out in the open draws creatures for miles.

    The backstory about Anna’s father left me scratching my head. That info. dump has nothing to do with the scene. I’d rather see Anna visit her father for advice (later in the book) and SHOW the reader how he’s still affected by the war, but unless his trauma drives the plot in some way (added conflict?), then you may still run into trouble. Is her father an important secondary character? If he isn’t, then the reader doesn’t need to know his backstory.

    All that said, I still enjoyed the excerpt. Anon, you started in the middle of the action, which is great! If I didn’t see a special spark in your writing, then I would handle you with kid gloves (pardon the cliche, but it’s apt). 🙂 Best of luck!

    • Well said, Sue. Your vivid world building style that’s edged with horror, I thought of you when I read the body description. Like you, I walk a fine line in describing a body. I desperately wanted to have something slither out of his mouth as she drew closer. It’s a fine line to traverse when horror makes you giddy, while not alienating too many readers by overdoing it.

      Your completely tight about Anna having more of a reaction, even if she’s a marine biologist/scientist. There’s nothing like being close to a putrid, bloated corpse to draw out more shock. Plus it’s GREAT DRAMA. The author is in charge of all facets of the story. What would grip the reader more?

      I love your thoughts on Anna’s father & how to bring his story into the picture. It’s tempting to make him important because he’d be a part of her tapestry. I love that idea.

  4. You lost me at the first line. I was a reporter in my early days. Went to a couple crime scenes with a corpse. Never was I ever allowed past the yellow tape. But you don’t have to be a reporter to know this is unrealistic. Any average reader of crime fiction knows the basics of crime scene protocol.

    So should any writer.

    Nothing drives me more nuts than this in crime fiction. I like the idea of a death by octopus (if even possible, as Jordan notes) and a marine biologist as a protagonist/crime solver is cool. But this makes her an amateur sleuth so the writer has to come up with a credible way for her to be “invited” into the investigation. The investigator in charge would have to have a believable reason for seeking out Anna’s input.

    The story cannot credibly begin at this point.

    • Hey there, Kris. Crime fiction readers are very knowledgeable on police procedure & even basic forensics. If an amateur author fails out of the gate, a reader may not give them a second chance. I’ve done it myself. Even average readers know about police procedure from all the TV shows like.CSI & Law & Order.

      Authors have a basic duty to do proper research. Read other popular authors who write crime fiction well & whose writing style appeals to you.

      If you don’t have an interest in nitty gritty police procedure, write the scene from the POV of a character who isn’t a cop or coroner. Bill Cameron’s debut book BAD DOG was written from the POV of a kleptomaniac caught at a crime scene by accident. Bill creates an amazing anti-hero thief & the initial crime scene is filtered brilliantly through his amateur eyes. Such a smart book. I’ve never forgotten it.

      GET THE BASICS DOWN. No reporter would be allowed near the body & no detective or coroner/ME would leave the body at the scene. There’s a “chain of custody” police procedure that would not permit access to a dead body once police have taken charge of a scene.

      Thanks for all your insights, Kris.

  5. I think there’s a great story coming out of this–as Michaelangelo used to say there was a great sculpture in every block of granite. All he was doing, he said, was chipping away the excess.

    And I knew my opinion was going to clash with yours right away, Jordan, when you said you didn’t like over-explaining .

    But there has to be explaining . . . somewhere . . . of some kind.

    Foster-Harris used to say that writing is a highly-stylized form of drawing–that the same principles that make drawing work–light, shadow, movement (what was the Mona Lisa doing JUST before and after the moment of her portrait?), shading, and so forth.

    So when a reporter says out of the blue, “It wouldn’t happened to a nicer guy,” I’d like a bit of insight as to why and how the reporter would say that. There reporter shrugged, sneered, grinned, laughed, spat, burped, squatted to be nearer the corpse for a moment . . . what? Then what does the reporter do, in a couple of words? He scribbled a note? Flapped his notebook closed? Pulled a flask from his jacket?

    All or any of this would give me a clue as to what my own reaction, as a reader, should be. But without any movement, shadow (did the reporter grown or grin?), or shading, I get no light. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, to quote that horrific line from the movie Pearl Harbor. Neither do I know how or what to think. Three, four or five words of movement, shadow, etc., would help me to understand the scene and its context a little bit better. Because now, I’m confused. I wander off into the scene and story without a bit of a hint as to what’s going on.

    I said, frowning, fighting the death-smell, and making a note in my book.

    But as I said, I think there’s a great story waiting to rise from here.

    • Hey there, Jim.

      I’m saying the reporter being there at all would stand out as a mistake for most avid readers of crime fiction.

      When I reference “over explaining,” I’m referring to details that would slow the pace & shift the focus off the movement & momentum of the plot. I’ve read authors who like to show off their research and too many tedious details spill onto the page, making the average reader’s eyes glaze over. Not all readers have the same tolerance for minutia and they tend to skim weighty paragraphs full of details as they spot key words to give them the gist & move on.

      Thanks for your insight, Jim. It’s good for our anonymous author to read everyone’s input for consideration. Have a good weekend, my friend.

      • I just re-read my post. I had the reporter grown instead of groan.

        Foster-Harris would have written my name on the chalk board before class and called the spelling error to our class’ attention.

  6. Love your critiques, Jordan. This is especially good. I don’t disagree with any of your points.

    There’s a lot to see in the first 400 words of a novel. I wonder if some submitters try to put too much in their submissions. That feels like the case here.

    Scene setting is so critical, and those small details about what people look like, or some small tic, etc. give us real insight and help us form opinions about the players.

    It’s the first line, then first paragraph that need to grab the reader. They have to underpin the entire book. Tall order! Blossoming crime writers absolutely do need to do their crime story research so the beginning seems effortless. And underpinning requires subtlety.

    Slow down, Brave Author! Terrific potential here.

      • Good point on the title, Laura. Glad you brought it up. It feels like a working title only. If a publisher or agent is interested in buying this book, that title would never survive edits.

        In any professionally submitted proposal, the author must “elevator pitch” the essence of a story, perhaps come up with an irresistible tag line, and a more gripping title where any cover artist can enhance the overall package. The title must say something more about the book.

    • Hey girlfriend. Thanks for your feedback. I like to equate the intro to quick sand that sucks the reader deeper into the story with every new line & paragraph.

      This sample feels like a first draft that has real potential because of the premise of an amateur sleuth & a killer creature preying on a small town. The research errors must be addressed however.

      In my critiques, I like to ask open-ended questions (rather than rewriting it my way) to draw out the author’s imagination & creativity. They know the story best.

      It’s been my experience that the author usually finds resolutions that are far better than my quick fixes. In my own process, I add layers onto every scene as I do my evolving edits, but I pay particular attention to my introduction pages for my readers.

      Have a good weekend, Laura. I love following your fun instagram account.

  7. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Just when I thought it was safe to go back into the water! Jordan already gave you some wonderful advice. All good stuff. Here are few more comments to throw into the mix.

    Dialogue Punctuation

    You write:

    “Why would you say that? Not much left here to recognize.” said Anna.

    The correct way to write this is:

    “Why would you say that? Not much left here to recognize,” Anna said.

    The tag “said Anna” is old-fashioned (in the US, anyway).

    Introduce Your Protagonist

    It’s interesting that Anna is a marine biologist, but that’s all I know about her after reading your opening. When you do your revisions, think about what you can do to make the reader care about going on a journey the length of a book with Anna. What about Anna’s personality will make readers want to turn the page? What’s driving Anna? You’re off to a good start, but I think you can make her personality even more engaging. Perhaps give readers a hint at something about Anna’s “compromised life” that will make them curious.

    Overall Impression

    I don’t think the interview with the reporter is the best way to begin. It seems like an information dump. I’d rather see Anna, through the course of her work as a marine biologist, discover the scene and get her perspective through interaction with another character in the scene. Let the reader feel her terror as she makes the discovery.

    Also, you write:

    “A grisly sight to behold. More hideous than the one she saw one night long ago. Same result. Different circumstances.”

    The way this is written, everything seems kind of matter-of-fact, like she could dish out the information while eating a sandwich or something without a care in the world. Put the protagonist in some peril at the beginning. Make me afraid for her. Then I’ll definitely turn the page.

    Best of luck, and keep writing!

  8. The reporter says ‘couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy’ . Anna doesn’t ask him what he meant, so she must know him, and thereby what the reporter means by this. But then the reader finds out she doesn’t. Things start to not make sense.

    The backstory bit was jarring. Why even friend Ray? Why not only Anna’s parents?

    It’s an engaging first scene, but needs straightening up. Much of it, from the personnel on the scene to the unexplained first line, just don’t add up. I’m pretty sure the writer can sort this out. I like the idea of a giant squid and I’m curious about the backstory horror Anna witnessed.

    It was fun to read. Thank you.

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