Write Tight

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here’s a first page. You know the drill. We’ll talk on the other side.

The Reaper’s Scythe

The jungle had already started to darken around them when Lucas spoke up.

“We need to head back,” he urged, even as they continued down the barely-there dirt trail. “Even if the pigs really are there, I doubt they’re safe to eat.”

Imro let out a grunt. He shifted the grip on his 12-gauge as he pushed through a tangle of vines. The man’s knuckles were as dark and worn as the fiddleback myrtle that made up his shotgun’s stock.

“My brother says he saw them,” Imro finally said. His Sranan accent smoothed brother into brudda. “That damn good enough for me. ‘Sides, say we come back to camp empty-handed, you t’ink anyone going to be happy about their empty bellies?”

“That’s right,” Maikel called back from up ahead. “Maybe if they hungry enough, they gobble you up instead!”

Maikel made a wet smacking sound with his lips and laughed at his own joke.

Lucas rolled his eyes but said nothing. He’d arrived in Suriname as a volunteer with the Peace Corps. Over time, he’d picked up the country’s English-based creole language.

He’d also picked up a bad case of gold fever.

The rumors spoke of a place downriver that glittered with bright golden flakes. The location was achingly remote. But Lucas and a dozen others had gone in and reached the place, panning the sandbars from sunrise to sunset.

Eventually the stores of beans and tinned meat ran low. Lots were drawn, so the three least lucky were sent off to forage for bush meat. Pickings had been sparse. Then Maikel had climbed a tree and spotted them with his binoculars.

A group of dead peccaries lying like tusked gray stones in the clearing up ahead.

Lucas didn’t like it. The jungle’s ‘skunk pig’ was good eating. Up to sixty pounds of meat lay under a peccary’s collar of bristly hair.

But something must have killed those animals.

Worse, the rain forest made sure that every free scrap of flesh, skin or bone got recycled by a thousand tiny mouths. That nothing had yet come to touch these pigs did not make sense to Lucas. That sense turned into an uneasy feeling that settled into an ache at his temples.

Maikel froze. He pointed up ahead, his index finger quivering in disbelief.

“What you doing?” Imro hissed. “Stop playin’ at sticks, or I’ll–”

“The pigs…” Maikel gasped. “They gone.”

***

JSB: There’s a lot to like about the content. It’s action—characters in motion toward a goal—in a fraught-with-danger location (the jungle). And there’s a disturbance: all those dead pigs suddenly … gone! Plus, it’s a unique setting (Suriname).

So what I have to say here has to do with making the writing tighter. In a thriller, that’s always the better way to go. Heck, in any kind of writing it’s better. Note: I’m not talking about pace. That’s an entirely different subject. I’m not talking about scenes or scene length. I’m talking about the sentence level, so the words you use (your stock-in-trade, after all) can be most effective.

Let’s start with the opening line.

The jungle had already started to darken around them when Lucas spoke up.

This is a bit too sloggy, because of: had already started to darken. Whenever you write the word had, train yourself to pause and see if there is a crisper way of putting it. (I’ll have more on this in a moment.) Here, a tighter line would grab faster and better:

The jungle was starting to darken when Lucas spoke up.

Boom. We’re there without superfluous verbiage. The them isn’t needed because the scene reveals the trio as we go along.

“We need to head back,” he urged

As most of you know, I’m of the said school of attribution, unless another word is absolutely necessary for clarity. Here, urged is superfluous. The line itself is urging. And we don’t need he, because you just told us it was Lucas. Try something like this:

The jungle was starting to darken when Lucas spoke up. “We need to head back.”

Boom again.

Imro let out a grunt. He shifted the grip on his 12-gauge as he pushed through a tangle of vines. The man’s knuckles were as dark and worn as the fiddleback myrtle that made up his shotgun’s stock.

I have no idea what fiddleback myrtle is, or why it’s important here. I believe a majority of readers would get tripped up by this. Since the point is to describe Imro’s skin, the shotgun’s stock would do on its own.

“My brother says he saw them,” Imro finally said. His Sranan accent smoothed brother into brudda.

This is fine. You don’t want to overload dialect-dialogue with odd spellings. The occasional use of a phonetic spelling is fine, too. This is a judgment call. You could also do it this way:

“My brudda say he saw them,” Imro said in his Sranan accent.

I like this better, since (again) fewer words. The only “rule” is to get the sound of the dialect into a reader’s head as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Maikel made a wet smacking sound with his lips and laughed at his own joke.

This is close to the line of POV violation. While Lucas (the POV character in this scene) might surmise Maikel is laughing at his own joke, it feels like we’ve slipped into Maikel’s head. So why leave in this possible “speed bump”? Since Maikel just made a joke, we don’t need to be told why he laughed. Just end the sentence at and laughed.

Lucas rolled his eyes but said nothing. He’d arrived in Suriname as a volunteer with the Peace Corps. Over time, he’d picked up the country’s English-based creole language.

He’d also picked up a bad case of gold fever.

Okay, let’s talk about that pesky little word had again. When you are dipping into the past, one had is enough to get you there. You don’t need it after that. Take a look at my rewrite:

Lucas rolled his eyes but said nothing. He’d arrived in Suriname as a volunteer with the Peace Corps. Over time, he picked up the country’s English-based creole language.

He also picked up a bad case of gold fever.

See how much more immediate that reads? (Note also that Creole should be capitalized.)

The rumors spoke of a place downriver that glittered with bright golden flakes. The location was achingly remote. But Lucas and a dozen others had gone in and reached the place, panning the sandbars from sunrise to sunset.

Note the strikethrough, getting rid of had again.

I touched up the following:

Eventually the stores of beans and tinned meat ran low. Lots were drawn, so the three least lucky were sent off to forage for bush meat. Pickings had been [were] sparse. Then Maikel had climbed a tree and spotted them with his binoculars—a group of dead peccaries lying like tusked gray stones in the clearing up ahead.

We have a POV issue again. Who would describe these pigs as tusked gray stones? Certainly not Lucas, because he hasn’t seen them. And would Maikel describe them this way? I think not. This is one of those instances where “kill your darlings” applies. Please note that I like the description. It just doesn’t fit here.

Maikel froze. He pointed up ahead, his index finger quivering in disbelief.

A POV bump again. Only Maikel would know why his finger is quivering. But the main thing is we don’t need the modifier to prop up his index finger quivering. That is great images, so tighter writing keeps it from being diluted with unnecessary verbiage.

“What you doing?” Imro hissed. “Stop playin’ at sticks, or I’ll–”

I find hissed to be another speed bump. Outside of Kaa in The Jungle Book, who ever hisses anything?

“The pigs…” Maikel gasped. “They gone.”

It’s always the better choice, in my view, to let the dialogue itself and the surrounding action do the work, making the extraordinary attribution unnecessary:

“The pigs…They gone.”

We know from the exchange that Maikel is the one speaking, and the ellipses indicate the gasp. Tight!

Just one more thing. I’m not wild about the title. It’s hard to pronounce. How many people know what a scythe is anymore? Or that it is associated with The Grim Reaper? The author says this a “pandemic medical thriller.” Maybe there’s a one-word title somewhere out there, like Outbreak (the Dustin Hoffman movie based on The Hot Zone). But do some more thinking on this. Come up with several titles and test them on your friends.

Again, I like the potential here. With a bit of trimming, this is one where I’d definitely turn to page two!

We now turn matters over to the comments. Good luck, author!

12+

8 thoughts on “Write Tight

  1. I, too, think this has a lot of potential. When my husband was offered a diplomatic post in Surinam, I researched it and found it mysterious and wild. And said…”We are not taking our kids there.” Still, I’m eager to read about it.

    I would like to see this sentence moved up to the opening line: Rumors spoke of a place downriver that glittered with bright golden flakes.

    This gives me a setting, a motive, an emotion (greed or daring or fear of rumors), and a forward momentum: moving down river.

  2. I concur with the suggestions. Adding to the issue of title, when I got to the end of the blog post I was surprised it was supposed to be a medical thriller because the title is very generic (I’m sure most of us slap on a working title until we get around to fine tuning). But if I look on a shelf and see the title “The Reaper’s Scythe”, my brain instantly goes “Oh. Horror book. Not my style of reading. Move on to something else.”

  3. Thanks for letting us take a look at your opening, Brave Author. I enjoyed it, but I am surprised that this is a medical thriller and not a creature feature. The line about “something” killing the pigs, and later how their corpses suddenly disappear, made me think this is a horror novel about jungle creatures.

    Unless you meant zombie-virus thriller.:-)

    This is my favorite line: “Worse, the rain forest made sure that every free scrap of flesh, skin or bone got recycled by a thousand tiny mouths.” Makes the setting real (and makes my skin itch thinking about it).

    I thought JSB gave you an excellent critique. In fact, the verbosity that he pointed out was what tripped me up when I read it. But I like the opening overall. With a few tweaks on the rewrite, I’d certainly turn the page for more.

    Good luck on your continued writing journey, Brave Author.

  4. JSB, your suggestions are sound. Man, I’m excited. This is as good a First Pager as I’ve read on the Kill Zone and I’ve been following this blog for years. I wish I would know when it’s published. I WANT TO READ THIS BOOK!

  5. Hello, this is the Brave Author who submitted this piece. Just wanted to say ‘thank you’ to all the commenters, I will be taking all of your suggestions into account. You made my day, Peter Constantine. 🙂

    Also, what a privilege to have my work looked over by grandmaster James Scott Bell! Mr. Bell, around 10+ years ago, I had the good fortune to chat with you and attend one of your seminars at the LA BEA. Your advice strongly influenced my writing, and because of Killzoneblog.com it continues to do so. Once again, thank you sir.

    Best,

    Brave Author

    • Well, thank you for those kind words, Brave (Peter). I’m always touched to hear that I’ve helped a fellow writer. Your strong story sense is obvious…that’s what can’t be taught, so I’m confident of good things to come. Keep writing!

  6. Ooh, I really enjoyed this first page. Well done, Anon! Excellent critique on writing tight, Jim.

    Like Priscilla, I loved this line: “Worse, the rain forest made sure that every free scrap of flesh, skin or bone got recycled by a thousand tiny mouths.” Fantastic way to drop us in the scene!

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