Today’s submission is an untitled first chapter featuring a bartender in a classic hotel. Please enjoy then we’ll open the discussion.
Under a trickle of air conditioning, Dylan swirled the bar spoon through a jumble of vermouth, bitters, Makers Mark, and ice. His shirt collar, rigid and wet, scraped against the back of his neck. Normally, he liked a penguin suit, the way it accentuated his biceps. But on the ten or so summer nights when the July heat pressed the moist cloth against his skin, he wished the owners would cough up enough cash for decent AC. Instead of cool comfort, they blew their wad preserving turn of the century crystal chandeliers, wrought iron balustrades, and red velvet wallpaper. Clayton Hotel’s clientele loved the ambience, confusing run-down with high style.
Dylan served the Manhattan to a regular at the end of the bar, a lawyer by the name of Jim whose pupils had overtaken the blue of his eyes. Must have gotten the 8-ball Dylan had stashed for him in room 414. This week, Jim wanted coke. Other weeks, ketamine or a tab of E. For the right price, Dylan could track anything down or make it himself. His meth was the purest in Portland. The graying lawyer sniffed hard and wiped his nose with a blue polka dot handkerchief for the fourth time that night. He set his half-empty martini glass on a gold napkin and waved his hand to get Dylan’s attention.
“You bruised my bourbon again.”
Dylan cleaned the mahogany bar top with a towel. “Ouch. Has it turned black and blue?”
The loose skin around Jim’s neck tightened. He was about to say something when a tall brunette in Lucite heels and a red leather bodysuit strolled past the dining room manager, a thin 40-something who looked so much like Rod Stewart in his sparkly blazers that everyone called him Rod. From deep down in his Rolodex, Rod could find the perfect escort for every man.
The brunette waved like a beauty queen. While she made her way across the dirty-blue carpet, her tits bouncing in gorgeous synchrony, everyone checked her out. She looked like a girl who came from someplace Dylan wanted to visit, like Malta or Majorca.
She took a seat next to Jim and clapped her red gloved hands against the bar top. Before Dylan could respond, she shot out, “Scarlet O’Hara.”
He walked towards her. “Scarlet? Nah. More like Rita Hayworth.”
She leaned forward, titties barely contained inside her sweetheart neckline. “Go heavy on the cran. Make it pretty and scarlet, just like Miss Morgan.”
The Brave Author does a good job of setting the scene without slowing the action to describe it. The reader is grounded right away: Clayton Hotel, a hot July night in Portland. The writing is generally clear and economical without extraneous verbiage.
Dylan, the POV character, quickly comes across as a disaffected bartender with a detached, snobbish, superior attitude toward his customers.
He’s vain and likes to show off his biceps, even though a tuxedo is miserably hot. Nice sensory detail of the collar chafing. One small nit: stiff collars generally cut into the throat rather than the back of the neck.
He takes pride in his skill set—“His meth was the purest in Portland.” He has no problem accommodating legal or illegal requests from his customers and feels disdain for them at the same time he profits from their cravings.
His banter is clever but insulting—“Ouch. Has it turned black and blue?” That crack nearly provokes an argument with Jim, the annoying, hopped-up lawyer whom Dylan can’t please.
Dylan is unabashedly sexist in his description of the brunette who flounces in on Lucite heels. He immediately flirts with her in front of Jim, even though Jim appears to be her john for the night. Dylan again pushes Jim’s buttons.
The potential for conflict is high. But…
Will readers want to follow a self-absorbed, egotistical, snobbish, drug-dealing, misogynistic antihero?
The Brave Author takes a chance by leading off with an unsympathetic character. Some readers (especially women) will instantly dislike Dylan and put the book down. Others may read a little farther to see what happens next. But, unless Dylan shows more promise, they will soon grow weary of him.
Author-screenwriter Heywood Gould said about Cocktail: “…met a lot of interesting people behind the bar and very rarely was it someone who started out wanting to be a bartender. They all had ambitions, some smoldering and some completely forgotten or suppressed.”
Gould has expressed what’s missing—at least for me—in this first page.
Readers don’t necessarily have to like a character as long as there’s a quality they can relate to and identify with. How can the Brave Author add depth and humanity to this character to make him resonate with readers?
Here are a few questions that might trigger ideas:
What ambitions or longings does Dylan have? What does he want to find or achieve?
What does he struggle against? What disappointment marks him? What traps him in a job he dislikes?
I’m not suggesting a backstory info dump but rather a carefully chosen line or two that hints at the trouble that haunts him.
Another method to make an antihero work is to give him a distinct, unique voice or an unexpected worldview that fascinates the reader. A few examples of recent successful antiheroes: Dexter, Walter White in Breaking Bad, and Tony Soprano.
I made the assumption that Dylan is the main character. But maybe he’s not.
Perhaps this first page introduces Dylan to set him up in an inciting incident. On page two, he could wind up dead in the Clayton Hotel dumpster and the story focuses on solving his murder.
Or maybe Dylan is the prey and the prostitute in the red leather bodysuit and Lucite heels is actually the undercover cop who busts him.
The story could go in dozens of different directions, which is why it’s difficult to judge from 400 words. However, in today’s competitive market, an author must grab the reader right off the bat. Often, the first page is the only shot you get and that’s why it must be pitch perfect.
A few line editing comments:
He was about to say something when a tall brunette in Lucite heels and a red leather bodysuit strolled past the dining room manager, a thin 40-something who looked so much like Rod Stewart in his sparkly blazers that everyone called him Rod.
The sentence is too long and gets confused between the brunette entering and the description of Rod. Suggest you split it up into shorter, punchy sentences and more paragraphs:
The loose skin around Jim’s neck tightened. He started to speak but movement at the entrance distracted him.
A tall brunette in Lucite heels and a red leather bodysuit strolled across the room. She bounced in all the right places. Dylan and Jim stared, along with everyone else in the room.
Dylan winked at the dining room manager, a thin 40-something everyone called Rod because he looked like Rod Stewart in his sparkly blazers. Rod’s Rolodex guaranteed he could find the perfect match for every man. Looked like he succeeded again tonight.
The following line confused me: “Make it pretty and scarlet, just like Miss Morgan.” Is the woman introducing herself as Miss Morgan? Or is there another meaning?
I googled “Miss Morgan” to see if it was also the name of a cocktail, like Scarlett O’Hara and Rita Hayworth. I found a reference to an actress “Miss Morgan” in a TV series, “Keye Bondage Images.” Hmmm.
Brave Author, your writing is solid. You do a good job of setting the scene and describing characters while keeping the action moving forward. Well done.
If Dylan is the lead, work on developing his depth and humanity. If you make him a more compelling character, readers will want to follow him.
Over to you, TKZers. What do you think of Dylan? Do you have suggestions for our Brave Author?