First Page Critique: Coyotes

Gentle Readers, We’re in dusty New Mexico today, at a delightfully grisly scene. Let’s go!

(Coyotes)

Three days is a long time to be dead, especially out under the intense New Mexico sun. The bodies were stacked like cord wood; if they were wood, I’d wager there was a good half a cord there. New Englanders know these things.

The smell was overwhelming; the chorus of a few thousand flies filled my ears and the half-cord sized pile shimmered with writhing maggots. I gagged but forced myself to look, to see the coyotes’ empty yellow eyes.

There were at least fifteen of them, maybe more, it was hard to be sure. Blocks of wood with a date scrawled in black marker—October 20th, three days ago—had been placed into the animals’ mouths, to what end I couldn’t imagine. Temporary markers for temporary remains, I guessed. Somehow, though, it didn’t feel like those small sections of two-by-four pressure treated wood had been placed there with any measure of respect.

The coyotes’ once sumptuous red-gray coats were matted, their fur dulled by the ever-present dust that blows across the desert, by the lack of lifeblood for nourishment. Their bodies had already begun to shrink. To flatten, sinking back into the plains where they had made their homes, where they had hunted their prey. Where they’d eaten berries and birthed their young and filled the night with their songs. No one would come to dispose of their bodies; the BLM land would simply reclaim them.

I looked away then. I didn’t understand it but, when I’d risen this morning, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’d needed to see for myself. “Fucking hell,” I whispered and wished I had a cigarette, but they were a quarter of a mile away, in my unit—dubbed the Eunuch by my friend Ben, since my unmarked Charger “has no balls and protects divine royalty.”

Ben has a little bit of a crush on me.

“They think of it as a sport,” he’d sputtered the night before, his youthful cheeks red with righteous indignation, his prominent nose red from the beers. Ben’s half Jewish and has the shnoz to prove it. He’s also very tall and thin and his tagline, when meeting new people is, “Ben Short. All my life.”

______

Dang, there’s so much to love about this passage. I’m wild for it. We’re BANG, right into the scene of the crime, with a smart narrator showing us around. The slaughtered animals tell us this isn’t going to be a gentle story, and the grisly detail is carefully observed. Such an opening won’t be for the faint of heart, but this will find plenty of fans. And there’s humor here to leaven it. I don’t have much more than praise to offer, so I’m going to give it a line edit.

______

“Three days is a long time to be dead, especially out under the intense New Mexico sun. The bodies were stacked like cord wood; if they were wood, I’d wager there was a good half a cord there. New Englanders know these things.”

Terrific opening line. Don’t change a thing. Except maybe get rid of “out.”

Not identifying the bodies as belonging to coyotes is misleading. I assumed they were human, and felt a little confused and dopey when I learned they weren’t. Whole different story. 

__Three days is a long time to be dead, especially out under the intense New Mexico sun. The coyotes’ stiffened bodies were stacked as high as a half cord of firewood so that they appeared to be one hideous creature with way too many heads. Against my better judgement, I moved a few steps closer.__

(Okay. The “so that they appeared to be one hideous creature with way too many heads” may sound like too much, but you need something to carry forth some rhythm into the middle of the paragraph.)

Lose “New Englanders know these things.” Keep us in New Mexico for now. You’re in it for the long haul, and the confident voice needs no justification pertaining to knowledge of cords of wood.

“The smell was overwhelming; the chorus of a few thousand flies filled my ears and the half-cord sized pile shimmered with writhing maggots. I gagged but forced myself to look, to see the coyotes’ empty yellow eyes.”

I want to know more than that the smell was “overwhelming.” What does that mean? That it’s so strong that the narrator staggers and might faint? That it smells like rotting hamburger wrapped in the socks of a million sweaty feet? Be specific. Give us a sentence.

Same deal with the flies and their sound.

 __A thousand hovering flies, their electric hum vibrating in my ears, swept and dove at the pile, which already shimmered with patches of wriggling maggots. Gagging, I forced myself to look into the coyotes’ empty yellow eyes.__

“There were at least fifteen of them, maybe more, it was hard to be sure. Blocks of wood with a date scrawled in black marker—October 20th, three days ago—had been placed into the animals’ mouths, to what end I couldn’t imagine. Temporary markers for temporary remains, I guessed. Somehow, though, it didn’t feel like those small sections of two-by-four pressure treated wood had been placed there with any measure of respect.”

You’ve got an amazing visual and powerful commentary by the narrator here. Remember to keep the voice active and confident.

__I counted fifteen heads, but there may have been more that I couldn’t see. A block of wood scrawled with a date of 10/20–three days earlier–jutted from each animal’s mouth. Temporary markers for temporary remains, I guessed. Somehow, though, it didn’t feel like those small sections of two-by-four pressure treated wood had been placed there with any measure of respect.__

“The coyotes’ once sumptuous red-gray coats were matted, their fur dulled by the ever-present dust that blows across the desert, by the lack of lifeblood for nourishment. Their bodies had already begun to shrink. To flatten, sinking back into the plains where they had made their homes, where they had hunted their prey. Where they’d eaten berries and birthed their young and filled the night with their songs. No one would come to dispose of their bodies; the BLM land would simply reclaim them.”

“Matted.” Were they bloody? Were the coyotes shocked to death, or shot? Attacked by vampires/vampire bats?! The “lack of lifeblood” implies they’ve lost blood.

Call me an idiot, but I wondered at the (BLM) Black Lives Matter land reference. Further investigation suggests that it refers to Bureau of Land Management land. Adding the BLM reference dulls the poignancy of the last line. Slip it in a tad later.

__The coyotes’ once sumptuous red-gray coats were matted, their fur dulled by the ever-present dust that blows across the desert, by the lack of lifeblood for nourishment. Their bodies had already begun to shrink and flatten, sinking back into the plains where they had made their homes, where they had hunted their prey. Where they’d eaten berries and birthed their young, and filled the night with their songs. No one would come to dispose of their bodies. The land would simply reclaim them.__

“I looked away then. I didn’t understand it but, when I’d risen this morning, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’d needed to see for myself. “Fucking hell,” I whispered and wished I had a cigarette, but they were a quarter of a mile away, in my unit—dubbed the Eunuch by my friend Ben, since my unmarked Charger ‘has no balls and protects divine royalty.'”

“I didn’t understand it but, when I’d risen this morning, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’d needed to see for myself.”

I don’t get this at all. Are we not on the immediate scene? Had the narrator been told about the coyotes sometime earlier, and that’s why they’re now at the scene? Very confusing. If that’s the case, make that super clear and don’t drop it randomly in here–tell us at the end of the scene when they’re driving away or something. “The captain was going to be pissed as hell that I’d gone by the scene, but I’d been up all night thinking about it after Ben told me. I had to see it for myself.”

__I looked away then. “Fucking hell,” I whispered, and wished I had a cigarette. But they were a quarter of a mile away, in my unit—dubbed the Eunuch by my friend Ben, since my unmarked Charger “has no balls and protects divine royalty.”__

“Ben has a little bit of a crush on me.”

I must ask. Does our narrator identify as a man, woman, as transgender, or something else? Please make this clear, and sooner. It will matter to many readers because they’ll want to get the picture in their head.

“Ben is a bit of a comedian. He also has a crush on me.”

“They think of it as a sport,” he’d sputtered the night before, his youthful cheeks red with righteous indignation, his prominent nose red from the beers. Ben’s half Jewish and has the shnoz to prove it. He’s also very tall and thin and his tagline, when meeting new people is, “Ben Short. All my life.”

Okay. Now I see that Ben is the one who told her about the coyotes the night before. Still, the implied timeline is confusing. There’s no need to go back and forth–just tell us straight out what the narrator is doing there and at whose behest. Earlier.

Who is “they?” Maybe he can refer to them as son-of-a-bitches or bastards, etc. If he doesn’t curse, he could say “Jerks.”

The line about Ben joking about his name is cute. But given the intense scene, I think it’s one joke too many on top of the grisly coyote situation.

“Ben’s half Jewish and has the shnoz to prove it.” Really? This sounds like a line from a 1940s noir. It’s a stereotype that some people might find offensive. Use at your peril.

__“Bastards think of it as a sport,” he’d sputtered the night before, all six feet of him towering unsteadily over me. His youthful cheeks were red with righteous indignation, his prominent nose red from the beers.__

____

Again, I think this is a terrific beginning, and can be near-perfect with a small amount of thoughtfulness and editing.

What do you all think? Tell us your advice for our Brave Author!

 

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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.

25 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Coyotes

  1. I don’t usually chime in on these, but I have a couple of other maybe helpful notes.

    Actually, the opening line jerked my brain around. Dead is forever, so “Three days is a long time to be dead” seemed unimportant at best.

    On the other hand, I actually liked how the narrator let us know she’s from New England with her unobtrusive “New Englanders know these things.” As such, she’s maybe not overly familiar with New Mexico and desert creatures.

    I agree with you, Laura, on the need for more sensory detail re “overwhelming,” the stuff about the flies, etc. I was okay-enough with the date scrawled on blocks of wood unti I got to “pressure-treated.” It would be a lot easier to see the marks on regular untreated wood. Unless that fact is necessary later in the story, I’d lose “pressure-treated wood.”

    Ooh, the coyotes. The description really threw me. I’ve lived in New Mexico and Arizona all my life and have never seen a “sumptious red-gray coat” on a coyote. The “red” puts me more in mind of a fox. All of the coyotes I’ve seen (dozens, if not hundreds) were mostly grey, some with black hairs mixed in, and most of them looked matted at best. And that’s while they’re alive and healthy.

    I hope this helps.

    • Great observations and suggestions, Harvey.

      Coyote fur probably is only sumptuous after the animal has been groomed. (Ugh. I wouldn’t want to get close enough.) Now, a well-made coyote fur coat can be truly stunning, if disturbing on many levels.

      • For some reason, when you mentioned a coyote being “groomed,” an image popped into my head of (Michael Keaton as) Beetlejuice being forced into a chair for a haircut and a shave, and his reaction. 🙂

    • I tripped over the sumptuous red coyotes as well, Harvey. My sister lived in Laughlin Nev. and the coyotes I saw out there were grayish and sort of mangy looking. But I’m not expert…

      Like you and Laura, I longed for more exact description than “overwhelming” smell. This writer is so vivid, this felt a little lazy. When the submission is this good, you ask for more from the writer!

  2. Good stuff. Lotsa promise. Two thoughts;
    One, I thought we were looking at human dead at first.
    Two, I’d like to know if the narrator is a man or a woman.

  3. Great voice. But I can feel the author struggle with almost every sentence between their instincts and their craft, quivering with tension between the need to stay in scene and the desire to rip away from it and stop everything to explain things. I find it exhausting to live with that unintended conflict. And “stacked like cord wood” is a bad enough cliché without compounding the error by piling on like … you know. So the opening doesn’t quite dance for me despite the compelling voice.

    I agree that there’s a lot to like here. But as things stand now, I’m not turning the page because I don’t quite trust the author to pin their bad instincts to the mat and let the story tell itself. Hopefully the author will take that heart during revisions and stay out of the way of what could be a standout story.

  4. Yes, a promising voice. But…

    –Don’t use the word “cord” again after the first time. It dilutes rather than enhances the image. 1 + 1 = 1/2, as Sol Stein puts it. Meaning one clear image is best. When you add another, it cuts the effectiveness.

    –And take the semi-colons outside and shoot them, bury them, then continue writing.

  5. The ironic humor makes the voice truly compelling. Every time my stomach started to rebel at the gruesome description, the author threw in a great line that defused the nauseating grossness just enough to keep me reading.

    That’s why I liked the line about “New Englanders know these things.”

    Also loved the Eunuch comparison. Chargers are sometimes described as sheep in wolf’s clothing.

    As Laura noted, the time line was confusing. Her fixes solve that. Also clarify the narrator’s gender.

    I’m totally onboard for this ride. Great work, Brave Author!

    • Ha! My husband loves his Charger. Our mutual affinity for muscle cars is one thing that binds us together. But I digress…

      You’re right about the wry observation and the humor. My complaint is that the humor timing was clunky.

      • Just a thought about the humor. I am assuming this narrator (woman?) is an officer of some kind (the reference a car being a unit?). If so, the cops I’ve known often use black humor to diffuse a scene. But I think one reference is enough. You have to be careful using this because you can tumble into the stereotype of the wise-cracking cynic old cop. But I do love the voice here.

  6. Terrific opener. Like Harvey mentioned above, the “red” coat also made me think of foxes. In New England coyotes are grayish tan. Not sure about New Mexico. As an animal lover, initially I was put off by a stack of dead coyotes (even though they’re killing machines), but the writing drew me in and kept me reading. Well done, Anon! I’d definitely flip the page.

    • I really liked it, too. The only thing that put me off was the comment about Ben’s nose. That kind of left a taste in my mouth about the narrator. I also didn’t understand ‘ I looked away then. I didn’t understand it but, when I’d risen this morning, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’d needed to see for myself. ‘ I feel that the author should let us know how she knew (was she told?) about this. Also ‘risen’ doesn’t sound like someone who uses the word ‘shnoz’ would use. ‘Got up’ sounds more in keeping with the rest of the voice when it isn’t being poetic about the coyotes – which works well in that instance because the narrator is contemplative at that point.

  7. Author, you do have a gift of description. Keep it up. The whole cord wood thing, as others have said, was overdone. It doesn’t really matter if the stack of bodies was a true cord or not. Stacked like cordwood, would have been sufficient. Ditto the pressure treated lumber. All you are doing is inviting an hour long discussion about 2 X 4s with a carpenter. Neatly cut, sawed, broken, fresh from Home Depot, all would say a lot about why they are in the mouths of the coyotes just as well.

    A big nosed Jew? If Ben being Jewish is important to your story, find a better way to say it.

    On the first go, I wondered how Black Lives Matter got to the desert. Unless you are setting up a government conspiracy, just drop it. If you are, right it out the first time.

    Police package Chargers are not “balless”. Might want to rethink that. Also, why did they park so far away? You do have some great descriptions, this would be a good place to use one.

  8. The author has given the reader a fascinating disturbance in the normal. a pile of dead coyotes. That is a real grabber. I wanted to stay on that and not on the police officer’s reaction. Being disgusted by the pile, thinking about the Charger, and noting her partner’s nose made her seem unprofessional. Make her tough and make Ben a good partner. We don’t need more conflict right here in the story. The pile is more than enough. Exploit that. Let Ben ask the personal questions.
    Example:
    Ben walks up as she is staring at the pile.
    “Are you okay?”
    “I’m always okay.”
    Ben shakes his head.
    IMHO these are the salient questions the main character should be concerned with:
    How were that many coyotes killed in one day? They are solitary animals and rarely gather in groups larger than a family. (I have a family of coyote who lives on my property and drives my dog nuts)
    What is the message the killers wanted to convey in making a display of them?
    Are the MC and Ben the police and why aren’t investigators from the Bureau of Land Management there?
    Why should we (the reader) care about the characters?
    All this is my opinion and I have a bias against female characters who seem weak. Every successful woman I know will tell you that making it in an old boy’s club leaves no room for weakness. Note: this could lead to conflict later in the story. A rival. officer could label her The Bitch and that will ignite more conflict. But not yet.
    Also. The Charger as a Eunuch is just wrong. My rule #3: do your research because no matter what, someone out there is an expert on whatever you mention. 75% of the police Chargers in service are Hemi Powered 375hp beasts. Besides, it doesn’t move the plot forward.
    If the story is intended as a romantic suspense novel, then forget my comments. But the pile of coyotes makes me think this is a more serious work.
    I think this writer is terrific and this could be a really good book.

  9. I can’t add much more other than I will say this writer is onto something good here. I LOVED the dead coyote stacked like cordwood image. Drew me right in. Hey, it’s a hell of a lot more original than the usual dead human body opening. It immediately made me think that some one truly evil — a human being — is behind this horrendous deed. I like going at evil obliquely through the cruelty to the animal. And I am a dog lover. So it’s not like this didn’t get to me.

    Great potential here. I love the voice. Editors often say it is the one thing they always look for and seldom find. I would read on. But some really good critiques here for the writer.

    I also like the reference to New England. It is a tidbit of backstory dropped in about the protag and hints that she/he is something of a fish out of water in New Mexico. Always a good source of tension for a plot.

  10. What does it say about me that a stack of dead humans didn’t bother me, but I was really disturbed to find out they were coyotes?

    I like being disturbed. Keep in the reveal.

  11. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I loved Laura’s critique, and you’ll find that many of my notes touch on some of the same points.

    Opening

    “Three days is a long time to be dead, especially out under the intense New Mexico sun.”

    I agree with Harvey about the first line not making sense. If you want to keep the same flavor, try something like this for your opening:

    Three days is ample time for bodies to rot beneath the intense New Mexico sun. The carcasses were stacked like cord wood. If they were wood, I’d wager there was a good half a cord there. New Englanders know these things.

    Notice that I removed the semicolon. There’s a place for semicolons in a writer’s toolbox, but you don’t need one here.

    Second Paragraph

    “The smell was overwhelming; the chorus of a few thousand flies filled my ears and the half-cord sized pile shimmered with writhing maggots.”

    You definitely want to lose the semicolon here. Rather than simply saying the smell was overwhelming, describe the smell. Try something like this:

    A stench resembling raw sewage mixed with rotten eggs cooking in a dumpster emanated from the decaying corpses. The sickly smell clung to my nostrils. As I nearly choked on vomit, a chorus of thousands of flies buzzed in my ears, and the heaps of flesh shimmered with writhing maggots. Still gagging, I forced myself to look at the coyotes’ empty yellow eyes.

    Third Paragraph

    “There were at least fifteen of them, maybe more, it was hard to be sure.”

    Redundant. Just say: “There were at least fifteen of them, maybe more.”

    I agree with Harvey about ditching the “pressure-treated” part (unless it’s needed for some reason later).

    Fourth Paragraph

    The fourth paragraph (most of it) is an example of overwriting. You’re trying too hard here, brave writer. Don’t overdo it. Also, you should explain “BLM land.”

    Fifth Paragraph

    Get the comma in the right place, like this:

    “I didn’t understand it, but when I’d risen this morning, I couldn’t get it out of my head.”

    Sixth Paragraph

    “Ben has a little bit of a crush on me.”

    More explanation needed here. Make sure the genders of Ben and the narrator are clear from the start.

    Seventh Paragraph

    Who is they?

    Be careful about stereotyping.

    Coyote Color

    I’m not an expert on coyote color, but I did find some pictures of coyotes here:

    https://coyoteyipps.com/category/coyote-physical-appearance/coyotes-coat/

    What do you think, folks?

    Anyway, you’re off to a great start, brave writer. Best of luck with your revisions. I want to read more.

  12. Wow, thank you all so much for your kind words and constructive critiques. I do find I like the semi-colon too much–will work on editing that out. I’ve changed the coyote coat description to ‘rust-grey’ and that truly is what it is. And sadly, coyote hunts are a thing. The scene described here happened in Las Cruces in 2014–nearly 20 coyote bodies found piled up in the desert, shot for sport….But of course, my detective finds a couple of human bodies in the piles a couple hundred words later. 😉 You’ve all raised some points I wasn’t even thinking about, so again, thanks!

  13. p.s. The Charger has ‘no balls’ because our MC is a female and works alone–not meant to speak to the car….I think this becomes clear just a little further in the story….

  14. I’ve read your post twice because of it’s really pretty amazing.
    Thank you for your work. Keep on pleased us by your posts. Well done

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