A Good Intro Still Can be Tweaked – See How with the First Page Critique of RELENTLESS

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Wikimedia Commons public image – S Korea interrogation cell

We have an intrepid author willing to submit the first 400 words of their latest project RELENTLESS for critique. Gutsy. I’ll have my feedback on the flip side. Please add your comments/constructive criticism to help this author.

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I was seated in a faded leather armchair but couldn’t move. Nothing below the shoulders worked. I was able to turn my head from side to side. That was all. The sensation brought back a memory from twenty years ago when I was an eleven year old girl and fell out of that elm tree. The impact on the ground knocked the wind out of me. I was afraid. Back then the fear was temporary. This was different.

The room was stark, blacks and whites. Sharp edges on furniture, sun-bleached fabric on the one couch. A window was open. Cold air poured in. I heard waves pound against rocks at a distance. I took a deep breath, I wasn’t stressed. My practice of daily meditation born of my Buddhist belief kicked in. I remained calm, focused.

A solid dull brown door creaked open and he walked in. He was maybe five feet five inches, stocky build poured into a three-piece suit, vest and all the trimmings.

He carried a single manila folder, walked in front of me and sat on the edge of a scarred leather topped captains desk. His eyes were set close to a narrow nose, the only hair on his head was a tight goatee, closely groomed. He dropped the folder on the desk and crossed his arms. A small puff of air expelled through soft nostrils. He was Vietnamese. Some of that blood ran through me. I knew his essence.

He stared at me and smiled. “The resemblance is uncanny. Truly remarkable,” he said in a voice that sounded like he was telling me a bed-time story. “I must apologize for the inconvenience.”

My eyes were glued to his face. Not a muscle twitched. His or mine.

He dropped his arms, braced them on the desk with his hands. “Your name is Alice Weathers.”

“Yes,” I said.

“You teach second grade.”

“Yes.”

“I am curious. You did not have a purse with you.”

“It was in the trunk of my car. I didn’t need anything so I left it.”

“It’s of no matter. Fingerprints and blood type have provided your identity. A verification procedure to have been conducted regardless of personal identification.”

“What’s this about?”

“Miss Weathers, the drug that was administered affects your upper and lower muscles. It will wear off in modest time and you shall be fully restored. You have nothing to fear. Where is it you teach second grade?”

“Orange Unified.”

“That is correct. But you were seen leaving the Skyline Tower office building today. Why were you there?”

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW

There is a great deal to like about this submission. I really liked that the author stuck to the action and didn’t stray too far. I will suggest some clean up on the front end, but I would definitely keep reading to find out the mystery of why this woman has been drugged and interrogated.

There’s also palpable tension between Alice Weathers and her interrogator. Cagey dialogue. The author makes us care what happens to Alice, a teacher.

With the first person POV, the author quickly established the prisoner is a woman in the first paragraph and doesn’t make the reader have to guess.

I also like the quick dialogue with minimal use of tags. It’s easy to follow and the minimalist approach adds to the tension. I also like that she’s cagey too in her replies. She only answers his questions with one word replies of “Yes.”

Some good lines that I particularly liked:

…stocky build poured into a three-piece suit, vest and all the trimmings.

Some of that blood ran through me. I knew his essence. (In one simple line, the author cleverly gave insight into Alice, that she was Vietnamese, thereby raising the mystery of what’s going on.)

REALISM

I had to ask myself that if this were me, what would I want to know from my interrogator. Alice is too calm. She’s seems like more than a teacher by her cagey replies and her disciplined mind, but I’m wondering if the tension might become more real if she asked her interrogator questions as he entered the room. Fiction and conflict could be ratcheted up if she’s more confrontational from the start. Focus on THAT before she very clinically describes the room. (The author doesn’t go too overboard with the descriptions, but when you imagine this written with more conflict, the intro could be more emotional and more real.)

“What did you give me? I can’t move.”

“You have no right to hold me. I’m an American.”

I also have to ask myself why the man would’ve drugged her. He could have hauled her into the interrogation room or facility (like in an arrest). What’s the purpose for the drug? I’m sure we will find this out soon (I hope), but it might be more authentic if Alice would question this first before she describes the room so clinically. We need to feel her internal panic, even if she doesn’t allow him to see her fear. The first few paragraphs are too calm for someone drugged and taken against her will.

HOUSEKEEPING

This is a pet peeve of mine but a line like this makes my mind imagine this literally.

My eyes were glued to his face.

Of course her eyes aren’t literally “glued” to his face, but nonetheless, my mind shifts to the imagery and pulls me from the story. The distraction can be avoided by rewording.

My gaze fixed on his face.

Using “eyes” can be tricky, but as I’m writing the line, I’ve trained myself to think of the sentence as literal to avoid an editor or a reader raising an eyebrow. You could also play with the lines to make the brief description feel more real.

He had my full attention. I couldn’t turn away. His eyes were riveting.

Other nitpicks from me:

I heard waves pound against rocks at a distance.

Alice hears the ocean from that open window, but she can’t know (by the mere sound of the water) that the waves are hitting rocks. I still loved this detail, but I fixed this in the rewrite below.

A small puff of air expelled through soft nostrils.

In this short description of the interrogator, Alice can’t know his nostrils are “soft” and unless she has super hearing, she isn’t likely to hear a small puff of air leave his nose.

LAYER THE MYSTERY

As nicely written as this piece is, there are ways to milk this first short scene for a mystery that readers will be intrigued to discover. Questions that come to mind are:

Is Alice innocent or does this interrogator have a reason to hold & question her?

He seems to know something about her, but what?

In this paragraph, the interrogator remarks about “the resemblance is uncanny.” See the line below:

He stared at me and smiled. “The resemblance is uncanny. Truly remarkable,” he said in a voice that sounded like he was telling me a bed-time story. “I must apologize for the inconvenience.”

Since we’re in Alice’s POV, what does she think about this? Without drawing something out of Alice – perhaps fear that this man truly knows something secretive about her – this is a missed opportunity for dropping breadcrumbs for lovers of mystery.

Alice could be shocked by his remark and try to not show it, but too late. Also the transition between his “resemblance is uncanny” line shifts too quickly to him apologizing for the inconvenience. The mystery is trampled over. The more important aspect of this exchange is the fact that he hints about knowing something about Alice. The apology is really not necessary in light of that.

He stared at me and smiled. “The resemblance is uncanny. Truly remarkable,” he said in a voice that sounded like he was telling me a bed-time story. “I must apologize for the inconvenience.”

REWRITE SUGGESTION

When the man smiled, chills skittered down my arms.

“The resemblance is uncanny. Truly remarkable.”

REACTION 1:

What the hell was he talking about? (internal thought for Alice, formatted in italics. She strains not to react.)

REACTION 2: Let the man deliver his line and savor Alice’s shock by punctuating his line with a chilling smile afterwards, not before.

“The resemblance is uncanny.”

When the man smiled, chills skittered down my arms. I didn’t want to react, but too late. I blinked. How much did he know?

TELLING vs SHOWING

Here are a few lines that are definitely TELLING, but because the submission is already well-written and the tension palpable, the TELLING isn’t needed and can be deleted. If you get the prose right, the “telling” lines should not be required.

I was afraid. (paragraph 1)

…I wasn’t stressed. (paragraph 2)

I remained calm, focused. (paragraph 2)

REWRITE SUGGESTION

The first few paragraphs that have Alice seated in a leather chair, seemingly paralyzed, are too focused on describing the details of the room. It reads like “author intrusion” when the writer is more concerned with setting than what might be going on in Alice’s head. By focusing on these details, it diminishes her fear and any real sense that she is in danger.

BEFORE:

I was seated in a faded leather armchair but couldn’t move. Nothing below the shoulders worked. I was able to turn my head from side to side. That was all. The sensation brought back a memory from twenty years ago when I was an eleven year old girl and fell out of that elm tree. The impact on the ground knocked the wind out of me. I was afraid. Back then the fear was temporary. This was different.

AFTER:

I couldn’t move. Nothing worked below my shoulders. I could only turn my head, but the heaviness of my arms and legs scared me. It reminded me of the time I fell out of a tree when I was eleven. I thought I’d broken my back and the horror of being paralyzed for life rushed back to me. I swallowed a gasp and my eyes burned with tears that blurred the room.

Where the hell was I?

Cold air poured in from an open window. I felt it on the skin of my face and I heard ocean waves pounding against a shoreline or a barrier wall. I strained to shift my gaze to take in the room, looking for clues of where I was. It felt important.

A stark austere room of blacks and whites. I sat in a worn leather chair. A sofa across from me had been sun bleached, but nothing looked familiar.

My body reacted to my dire situation. Beyond my head movements, my lungs could breathe. I took a deep breath and settled my heart, letting my Buddhist belief in meditation take over.

When the only door to the room creaked open, I flinched when a man walked in. A short stocky build poured into a three-piece suit, vest and all the trimmings.

He carried a single manila folder.

There are ways to shuffle the descriptions around to create more tension and make Alice’s situation more dire. Remember, the reader is in her head. The author’s job is to intrigue the reader that they must keep turning the pages. We are already squarely on Alice’s side in this well-written piece, but tweaking this introduction can bring out more. That’s where “layering for added emotion” and editing can make a real difference.

DISCUSSION:

I know you all have comments for this talented author. Fire away. Please give constructive criticism and/or encouragement.

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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

16 thoughts on “A Good Intro Still Can be Tweaked – See How with the First Page Critique of RELENTLESS

  1. Author, this is a great opening.

    Jordan, I fully agree on the “eyes” vs. “gaze” thing. I used to tell my students, “If you write ‘His eyes shot across the room,’ he better have just been hit in the back of the head with a shovel.” (grin)

  2. I have to wonder if it’s only people who have been trained in a certain way who get “pulled out of the story” by eyes that wander around the room.

    Why can’t such expressions be accepted as figures of speech? If we took every figure of speech literally, we’d never appreciate a lot of literature. The mountain was a monstrous golem, a massive storm manteling its menacing grandeur.

    Surely it has always been perfectly good English to say “he kept his eye on her.” If his eye can be on her, why can’t it be glued on her or wander to the next person?

    One might argue that such expressions are (often?) hackneyed metaphors. For me they seem to be perfectly natural, metaphorical ways of speaking that have been embedded in ordinary language and pose a problem only for people who have been taught certain rules.

    It’s not just in English. II Chronicles 9 gets translated as “For the eyes of Jehovah run to and fro throughout the whole earth.”

    • Eric, I so agree! Until I heard over and over in writing classes to never have the eyes do anything, phrases like you mentioned never bothered me. I dare say most of the people reading our books have never taken a writing class and the phrases don’t bother them, either.

      • You make a good point that something like this wouldn’t faze most readers, Patricia–and that’s definitely true. But as an author, I strive for being the best I can be. A personal goal. That takes in my whole edit process & my judgments. I’m not making edit decisions for average readers. I’m striving for something more & learning how to edit my work with each new book. My choice.

          • I’m smiling, Patricia. Totally understand. A good way to incorporate some of this back into your work is to do it in dialogue.

            I’m listening to one of my audio books (for some reason, something I never do) and hearing my tags & character gestures as an interruption in flow of the dialogue. Sometimes finding other ways to apply movement & visuals into my work, it hopefully will evolve.

            • Jordan, an agent told me to read my work aloud, as it is the best way to listen for clunky phrases, repetitive words, etc. and I have heard others recommend it too. To listen to someone else reading your work would possibly be even better.
              Also – great job on the critique. I learn so much from these!

              • Thanks, Linda. I still read my pages aloud to catch words left out or for cadence or stilted awkward phrasing. Great tip reminder.

                The narrator did such an amazing acting job & delivered on the nuanced character voices on my novel BLOOD SCORE that I’ve gotten lost in the story. He brought a different dimension to the project & breathed new life into how I saw the story.

                Thanks, Linda.

    • I understand your point, Eric, but as a reader, I would still get pulled from the story. “Keeping an eye on someone” is a common enough reference that it may not jolt me, but “eyes glued to his face”? Not so much.

      My only suggestion is to train yourself to be mindful on the use of “eyes” and “gaze” and be judicious if It matters to you. It matters to me. If it can be a distraction for readers (not just other authors), I’d rather avoid it but that’s a decision for each author. Once I learned from editors & critiquers that such wording should be changed, I decided that FOR ME, it wasn’t “the hill I would die on.” I saw their point & made a choice. This anonymous author can always ignore anything I’ve suggested.

      But I appreciate and respect your differing opinion. When you’re “in the zone” and writing a passage that’s coming naturally to you (in the voice of your character), an author may just choose to wing it and accept what comes out. I’ve been there, but certain things wouldn’t make it through my edit process. That’s just me.

  3. I think this first page is a rewrite of the September 22, 2018, first page submission. If so, MUCH improved. I got lost the first time. This first page was easy to follow.

    My fave line: “He dropped the folder on the desk and crossed his arms.” I like the line because it’s a showing sentence that tells us so much about the man (and about her dire situation).

  4. I am no trained English major, and I get your discussion of eyes and gaze. In the same vein, I don’t get why editors want their questions answered immediately. This draft submitted obtains unanswered questions which draw me into reading more to find out those answers. Without knowing the next couple of chapters or scenes, why demand changes here? Perhaps it’s my loose writing style versus a trained tight view, but that’s my question for you.

    • I’m not sure I understand your question about “changes” vs “unanswered questions.” But I’ll try to respond.

      The changes I suggested do not interfere with the storytelling. They’re meant to improve the flow, layer in more emotion & add to the mystery–to intrigue the reader. That last part means that questions are good.

      As for laying out “unanswered” questions, that’s the mystery elements. Editors may want to know enough to avoid confusion & create a framework for the reader to care what happens, but I’m not suggesting all questions must be answered in 400 words. Not at all. You WANT intrigue & mystery to draw the reader in. That’s what keeps readers turning pages. My feedback involved deepening those questions to keep the reader’s interest.

      I hope this answers your question. Bottom line is that we edit our work & strive for the best we can be as authors so the reader’s experience is the best IT can be. That allows the reader to get sucked into the story without the distraction of typos or bad grammar or poor muddled flow. Those things can pull them from the story & remind them that they’re reading words on a page, rather than being drawn into a story.

  5. Sorry I’m late to the party! Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I loved Jordan’s critique, and many of my notes are similar. Like Priscilla, I recognized this first page. The page is definitely better, and I hope my comments will help you to make the page better still. Here are my notes:

    Strange Eyeball Behavior

    I’m with Jordan. Check out the article entitled “Breakaway Body Parts: Are Your Characters’ Body Parts Acting on Their Own?” by Janice Hardy (available online).

    Overwriting

    The term “overwriting” covers a multitude of sins. Here are a few examples:

    Too Much Information

    “A small puff of air expelled through soft nostrils.”

    This is way more than your reader wants or needs to know. First page real estate is limited. Don’t use it for these kinds of details.

    Redundancy

    “I was seated in a faded leather armchair but couldn’t move. Nothing below the shoulders worked.”

    Combine these two sentences into one good sentence.

    “I was able to turn my head from side to side. That was all.”

    See if you can turn these two sentences into one good sentence.

    Pacing

    “The sensation brought back a memory from twenty years ago when I was an eleven year old girl and fell out of that elm tree. The impact on the ground knocked the wind out of me. I was afraid. Back then the fear was temporary. This was different.”

    Insignificant internal thoughts early on the first page slow the story down. Get to the conflict!

    Show, Don’t Tell

    I agree with everything Jordan said here. No need for me to repeat her examples. In general, never have a character come right out and state his/her emotional state. Give the reader the pleasure of figuring out what the character is feeling by witnessing the character’s behavior.

    Description

    “The room was stark, blacks and whites. Sharp edges on furniture, sun-bleached fabric on the one couch. A window was open. Cold air poured in. I heard waves pound against rocks at a distance.”

    Good details. To take your writing to the next level, work on weaving these details into the action, rather than giving the reader all of this at once. This is an advanced technique, but I think you are ready for the challenge.

    “the only hair on his head was a tight goatee”

    I’d just say something like “Bald, with a tight goatee”

    Conflict

    I like that you have some dialogue on the first page, but what this page needs now is more conflict. I understand that your character has Buddhist beliefs, but she still seems a little more passive than this situation warrants.

    “If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun.”

    ―- Dalai Lama XIV

    Grammar

    “eleven year old girl” should be “eleven-year-old girl”

    Overuse of “Was”

    “I was seated in a faded leather…”
    “I was able to turn…”
    “That was all.”
    “…when I was an eleven year old girl”
    “I was afraid.”
    “…the fear was temporary.”
    “This was different.”
    “The room was stark…”
    “The window was open…”
    “He was maybe five feet…”
    “was a tight goatee”
    “He was Vietnamese.”
    “…he was telling me a…”
    “It was in the trunk of my car…”
    “…the drug that was administered…”

    See “Send up the (Red) Flag: Telling Words That Often Spell Trouble in Our Writing” by Janice Hardy, available online.

    Carry on, brave writer, and your hard work will be rewarded. Best of luck!

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