First Page Critique – Broken Thrones

Photo credit: Pixabay

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Please welcome another Brave Anonymous Author offering a submission entitled Broken Thrones.

1

Joanie Brown opened one eye. The darkness had lifted. Light filtered from a slit in the ragged curtains covering the one window in the room, dust drifting down in the narrow beam. She breathed deeply and gagged. The stench of human filth and the sweet smell of pot overpowered her senses. Her head pounded, keeping time with her racing heart as she struggled to make sense of her surroundings.

Where am I? Why can’t I remember?

She lay on her back on a concrete floor. Under her fingers splayed out at her sides, she felt a gritty moisture. She hastily wiped her hands on her pant legs. She reached out and brushed a cold, rough wall with her left hand. Deep snores sounded from somewhere in the room, so she knew she wasn’t alone. Out of her one eye—the other one wouldn’t open and it hurt—she saw a closed door and four dingy gray walls. The floor was littered with bits of paper, discarded needles, condoms, and a filthy jacket tossed in the corner nearest her. She saw no furniture of any kind, except a soiled striped mattress across the room. She squinted at it, seeing a dark shape curled up on it. The source of the snoring, no doubt. The only other sound was the clack-clack of some insect as its feet raced across the hard floor. She scooted closer to the wall at her left and hoped it wouldn’t come her way. Joanie hated bugs.

She reached up and brushed thick hair out of her face, running her fingers over her other eye, wondering why she couldn’t see anything out of it. Now she knew—it was swollen shut. Wincing, she tried to pry it open. Her fingers came away with a smell of blood. She knew that smell. Her brain kicked into high gear now.

Memory now returned in chunks. Kyle. Where was he? The thought of him made her chest heave.

The last time she’d seen him, he was getting the crap beat out of him in a potholed alley littered with garbage and weeks-old refuse—by two thugs who’d dragged him there from the LA street corner where she’d finally found him. She’d hunkered down and watched from behind a dumpster reeking of rotting vegetables and month-old French fries.

Before that, she had spent hours searching for him.

~~~

Brave Author, your excellent title makes a promise of dire conflict. Broken Thrones implies destruction and violent overthrow of power. It’s short, punchy, and memorable, especially effective since Game of Thrones is currently a popular topic of conversation. Well done!

Your writing is crisp, competent, and vivid. You immerse the reader in the scene by making good use of the senses—sights, sounds, touch, and especially smells. We’ve all caught a nasty whiff from a stinky dumpster and know exactly what you’re describing.

The sense of foreboding is strong. Something bad already happened and worse is yet to come—like bugs crawling over Joanie.

That said, I see two problems with this first page.

First, this opening has been done before. Editors and agents always ask for something “fresh.” They’ve likely read many submissions with opening pages about an injured character waking up in a strange place without any memory of how she got there. This may be an easy fix and we’ll get to that in a minute.

The second problem: lack of action. Almost the entire page is spent setting the scene—a filthy shooting gallery basement littered with drug paraphernalia, an unknown man snoring, Joanie’s swollen eye, and her confusion. She’s taking stock in a scary situation but she’s in the passive role of watching and waiting, rather than driving the action.

The last two paragraphs are a flashback: Joanie watches someone named Kyle, whom she’s been looking for, while he gets beat up. And she hides.

Now that’s action!

Let’s consider if the story would work more effectively if you start there.

A character getting the snot pounded out of him immediately piques the reader’s curiosity, even if it’s not yet clear who that poor soul is or why he’s being beaten. Is Kyle a mugging victim? A druggie who owes his dealer? Or did Kyle sell bad junk to the daughter of the guys who are stomping him?

What is the relationship between Joanie and Kyle? Is he her boyfriend? An ex-husband she’s been chasing for child support? Or perhaps her dealer?

Those answers lead to the next questions: Why has Joanie spent hours searching for Kyle? Did he run away? Does she desperately need a fix?

The most provocative question of all: Why is Joanie hiding? If she fears for her life, why not yell for help or use her cell to call 911?

Does she feel guilty for watching the attack without doing anything to help?

Or does she feel he deserves what he gets?

See what happens if you start with action? The reader is immediately engaged, wondering and guessing, rather than passively watching the scenery, even though the scenery is skillfully and vividly described.

Additionally, that avoids the need for a flashback, which always risks reader whiplash. Just as they’re settling into the story, you yank them to a different place and time. Why flash back when you don’t need to?

If, while Joanie’s crouched by the dumpster, you reveal her character in a way that makes the reader care about her and her quest, we’ll willingly follow her into the next scene in the basement.

When she wakes up, you can still use the vivid description of the disgusting drug den with discarded needles and used condoms. The only difference: it’s probably now page 2 instead of 1. And the reader is more invested in the story and characters.

Then introduce a new series of questions to intrigue the reader. Did Joanie try to stop the thugs and they turned on her? Did their accomplice sneak up behind her and knock her out?

While she’s lying on the floor, reveal her character more deeply through her thought process and actions. Does she crawl to the mattress to see if the snoring man is Kyle? Does she look for a way to escape? Does she grab a syringe and hide it as a weapon for when the bad guys come back?

Keep raising questions while building characters who make the reader care what the answers are.

One tiny nit: since dumpsters are usually emptied at least weekly, “month-old French fries” didn’t quite hit the mark. Otherwise your scents are spot on. Made me gag, but I mean that in a good way!

Brave Author, you have a promising beginning for a dark thriller/suspense novel. Thanks for sharing your work.

 

Over to you, TKZers. What suggestions do you have for today’s Brave Author?

 

 

 

Today is the last day to download Debbie Burke’s thriller Instrument of the Devil for only 99 cents. Here’s the link.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Debbie Burke

Crime novelist, suspense and mystery novels are her passion. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Her nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications and she is a regular blogger at The Kill Zone. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

19 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Broken Thrones

  1. Agree with the critique, and would add that the story sounds a big false note in the first paragraph: equating marijuana use with a setting that strongly points to harder drug use. The two kinds of drugs can’t be credibly equated — users don’t toggle between the two — and cannabis is a gateway drug to harder stuff only in the reefer-madness fantasies of histrionic conservatives. To me, that’s a distracting fail on the level of calling a Sig Sauer a revolver.

    • Thanks for making an interesting point, Jim. Marijuana is as mainstream as alcohol now and legal in many places.

      One strength in this submission is the effective use of smells which immerse the reader deep into the atmosphere. Maybe the author could substitute the smell of meth?

    • I agree with Jim. That’s dated thinking and might not resonate with the Brave Author’s target audience.

      Debbie, excellent critique. Sorry I’m late. I read this yesterday and then our son surprised us with a visit. 🙂

  2. Jim’s comment about grass is important. I, too, thought it felt dated and/or out of place in this nasty room. And Deb’s suggestion to use meth led to Google “what does meth smell like?” Got a hit on the first try:

    “As a result of the materials used, meth can smell like powerful chemicals. For example, signs of a meth lab can include smells of paint or something that’s often called a “hospital smell,” because of the powerful chemical cleaners used in medical facilities. In some cases, meth smells like vinegar or ammonia, which is an odor similar to window cleaners.

    What about answering what does meth smell like when it’s smoked? This is a bit harder to define. The smells above, which are strong and often apparent are associated with meth labs, but when meth is smoked, it tends to have a lighter, more subtle and almost sweet smell.”

    Details make your story come alive. Verisimilitude! Take your reader someplace they don’t go on their own. We’ve all smelled marijuana. I’d say few have smelled smoked meth.

    • Kris, thanks for taking us deeper into verisimilitude.

      The last time I smelled meth was about 15 years ago at a Sheriff’s Citizen’s Academy. The drug task force passed around baggies of various substances for show and tell. The tiniest whiff of meth smelled sickening, chemically, and extremely pungent. I felt it in my lungs for some time after. Can’t imagine smoking it–ugh!

      I’d much rather *read* about it than actually smell it!

  3. Overall, a good start. Take the original critiques to heart, brave author. Flipping Kyle getting beat up and Joanie in the drug den would make a great start.

    About drug dens. Unless you are watching Law & Order reruns, they don’t really exist anymore. Street people do get high in abandoned buildings, but they get high just about anywhere.

    • Alan, interesting how the drug culture has changed over the years.

      However, plot drives the setting. The basement may be the right setting for a scene…but only *after* the action kicks off the story.

  4. Certainly agree that this scene could be tightened up. The details are visceral but the writer can probably distill them down to the best bits.

    Can we talk more about the comment that this opening doesn’t start with action. My instinct is to disagree. There is a disturbance. Something major is clearly happening here. I’m not sure the suggestion to drop us right into an alley fight scene with characters we don’t know or care about yet improves the opening.

    Maybe it’s been done before but this opening did make me curious about why this character is there and what happened. Seeing someone beaten and broken also engages my sympathies immediately.

    Yes, it needs to be tightened up and there’s room for improvement but it served the purpose in raising my curiosity about what happens next.

    • Thanks for adding your views, Sheri. What appeals to one reader might not appeal to another.

      The question that intrigued me the most is why Joanie watches the beating but apparently doesn’t do anything to stop it–like calling 911.

  5. I think the title is misleading. After ‘Gone Girl’ we got a truckload of novels with the word girl in the title. That’s a cheap trick designed to ride on the coat tails of a successful book. With this title I expected swords, scarred kings, and lots of blood. Didn’t get it. I can tell that you believe in your story, give it its own identity.

    This piece does have a lot of potential but it feels overwritten to me. The descriptions are too much and they slow the meager action to a crawl. Adjectives and adverbs galore. Time to edit.

    Original sentence:
    She reached up and brushed thick hair out of her face, running her fingers over her other eye, wondering why she couldn’t see anything out of it. Now she knew—it was swollen shut.

    Edited:
    She brushed her hair back. Her left eye hurt like hell and it was swollen shut. (the next sentence should explain how this happened and give the reader a look into the central conflict of the story)

    Two books that helped me. ‘Stein on Writing’ by Sol Stein and ‘Writing the Breakout Novel’ by Donald Maass. Both authors are respected literary agents and both know what readers want. Good luck. You clearly have talent and this was a good first draft.

  6. Thank YOU, brave critiquers! I appreciate all of your comments, and will take them to heart. I have so much to learn and am grateful you take the time to share your expertise with others.

  7. Thanks for speaking up, Deb. Blind readers bring up points that maybe never occurred to the author. Fresh eyes are always helpful. You’ve got a good feel for sensory details that really immerse the reader in the story. Best of luck with this!

  8. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I loved Debbie’s thoughtful critique. Take her wise advice. Here are my notes:

    Title

    I agree with Debbie. Good title.

    Style

    “The floor was littered with bits of paper, discarded needles, condoms, and a filthy jacket tossed in the corner nearest her.”

    You can reword this so that you don’t have to use the word was. Try this:

    Bits of paper, discarded needles, used condoms and a filthy jacket littered the floor.

    I’ll leave it to you to reword the sentence below to eliminate was:

    “The only other sound was the clack-clack of some insect as its feet raced across the hard floor.”

    Overwriting

    “Out of her one eye”

    Just say: “Out of one eye”

    “She reached up and brushed her thick hair out of her face”

    Don’t overdescribe. We know that she’d have to reach up (rather than down or sideways) to brush hair away from her face. Just say: “She brushed her thick hair away from her face.”

    Go through your first page and try to consolidate words.

    Another example:

    “Her fingers came away with a smell of blood.”

    Try: Her fingers smelled of blood.

    See how you can say the same thing with fewer words?

    Another example:

    “Her brain kicked into high gear now.”

    Just say: Her brain kicked into high gear.

    Another example:

    “She saw no furniture of any kind, except a soiled striped mattress across the room.”

    Try: She saw no furniture, except a soiled mattress across the room.

    Be concise.

    Grammar

    “She’d hunkered down and watched from behind a dumpster reeking of rotting vegetables and month-old French fries.”

    If it was the dumpster that reeked (rather than Joanie), write it this way:

    She’d watched from behind a dumpster that reeked of rotting vegetables and month-old French fries.

    Opening in the Right Place

    Rather than begin your story with a character waking up and wondering where she is after some action has taken place, why not begin the story with the action? Show the conflict on the page, and it will be more interesting for readers.

    Overall Impression

    I’m glad that you gave the character’s name in the first sentence. Good.

    Begin your story with action, like Debbie suggested. Show the reader what happened to the character, rather than the aftermath of it all. Show the conflict on the page. If you do this, you’ll be well on your way.

    After you make your revisions, scour the page to find places that could be written more concisely.

    Best of luck, brave writer. Have fun making your revisions!

    • Thanks, Joanne! Your detailed specific suggestions are always helpful.

      You say “Have fun making your revisions.” Many writers dread revisions but I totally agree with you. It *is* fun to cut and rewrite because you see how the improvements tighten and strengthen the story.

  9. Thanks, Joanne! I love examples-it really helps. I’m going to try revamping this beginning chapter using all of the team’s suggestions. Your collective expertise is fun to read over…I actually copied and pasted Debbie’s critique and each comment into a Word doc to have it handy for me.

    Thanks again!

    • You’re welcome, Deb. As Joanne says, “Have fun making your revisions!” because your already intriguing story will only get better.

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