First Page Critique: The List

 

Image from GoDaddy

 

Hop in, fellow travelers. Today we’re off on a short, shocking car ride with the protagonist of The List. I hope you’ll take a few moments to read my critique, then add your own comments.

The List

Everyone has lists. I might have too many. I could probably be accused of living my life according to lists. There are the usual: a shopping list, a bucket list, ToDo lists, vacation packing list, followup email list, books to read list, etc. I even have a list of lists, so I don’t forget I have a particular list. But the list I’m thinking about right now is my I-More-Than-Hate-You list. This is the list of people that I plan to take with me if I ever cross thatline. You know the one. The line where you no longer give a flying fuck about the consequences, because someone’s gonna die. That list. And today I’m thinking about that list a lot.

For many years there was one name at the top of my list; one piece of shit that would have to go first. But over time he was replaced by other bastards that needed to die and finally fell off the list completely because I didn’t think I would ever see him again; didn’t think anyone would. But there he was. I almost rear-ended the car in front of me doing a double take.

“No fucking way!!” I said out loud and circled the block to get another look.

Junior Moore was standing on the corner opposite the bus station looking like a gawping tourist. The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look; never more than a fuzz on his scalp and wrinkles like scars all over it. His head looked as if the skin were too big for the skull inside; like badly fitted upholstery. He also looked to have only a single eye and I could see that one ear was mostly gone. His alley-cat glare followed me around the corner. He looked right at me. There’s no way he could have recognized me after all these years, but I’m sure the astonished gasp on my face made him wonder.

“Shit!…shit…shit…” I muttered as I sped toward the Duck. Thirsty Thursday with the girls was going to be interesting.

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Our protagonist’s strong voice gives The List a promising start. It takes a considerable amount of practice to make every word sound like it’s coming from a fully conceived character. This character strides onto the page and–to borrow a title from Joan Rivers–enters talking. Good job, brave author.

Let’s talk a moment about the opening paragraphs. I’ve written similar paragraphs many times, and I imagine other TKZers have as well. It’s a Big Intro With a Side of Throat Clearing. Here, you’ve already got the title explained, so that’s out of the way. And you’ve told us a lot about the character. This is an obsessive person. A disturbed person. A Person Not to be Messed With. (I get a strong, post-1978 Shirley MacLaine vibe.) Plus, we have the added bonus of it setting up what’s ahead. But if we look closely, it’s not really a bonus. It’s an impediment to the action of the story.

The reader doesn’t need to be wrapped in a bubble and delivered to the action. Hook us with the action first, and offer explanations and descriptions at a later time, if at all.

Without the throat-clearing, there’s no need for a transition INTO the action. Such a transition is nearly always awkward. When we finally get to the double take/near-accident, we are yanked out of the protagonist’s spotlight monologue intro and plunged into the action. The storytelling changes completely.

Homework for all of the above: Check out James Scott Bell’s latest blog, and all will be revealed.

One of the written and unwritten rules about settings is that you should never set a scene in an automobile. Usually we see two characters talking to one another, either fighting or giving us exposition. (Ah. The stress is off. We’re in the car, gov. Let’s bring each other up to speed on the investigation.) White space would suffice. Here, you have a mix of exposition and action. Because our protagonist is driving when she sees dreaded Junior, the car is perfectly appropriate for the action. Bravo! Now just eliminate the exposition. (Caveat: If you’re reading this and have been thinking about setting a scene in a car, proceed with caution.)

I like the promise of this page. I’m interested in the character, and want to know exactly what Junior Moore did, when he did it, and how/if he’s going to pay. I would definitely read on!

A few words about word choice, punctuation, and description. (I’m not sure of the sex of this character, though from the last line I’ll guess female. Her age is also unclear. She doesn’t sound like a Millennial or younger. And the fact that she’s got a long list of people on her um, shitlist (couldn’t resist), suggests to me that she’s at least in her forties.

First paragraph: I am seeing the word “list” way too many times, and I want it to go away with the paragraph. Have one of the protagonist’s friends make fun of her lists.

There are four semicolons in the piece. I will mourn with you over the loss, but they have to go. Replace them with periods or commas, as you see fit. Oddly enough, sentence fragments are now considered more acceptable than semicolons in fiction. Crazy, right? So feel free to type: But over time he was replaced by other bastards that needed to die and finally fell off the list completely because I didn’t think I would ever see him again. Didn’t think anyone would. But there he was.

Exclamation points and speaking out loud:

“No fucking way!!” I said out loud and circled the block to get another look.”

While this quote is, indeed, an exclamation, we’re only allowed one exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Exceptions are emails and notes to friends and family, birthday cakes, texts, and anything written in sidewalk chalk.

If we are speaking, it’s redundant to say that we’re doing it out loud. (It’s only in the last couple years that I’ve dropped out loud from my own prose.)

No fucking way!” I shouted, slamming one palm against the steering wheel. I circled the block to get another look.

Junior Moore:

Oh, there’s so much to love about this description of Junior Moore. It’s full of spite and anger and fierce observation. It reminds me again of why I’d like to read more. There are a few tweaks that could tighten it up.

“Junior Moore was standing on the corner opposite the bus station looking like a gawping tourist. The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look; never more than a fuzz on his scalp and wrinkles like scars all over it. His head looked as if the skin were too big for the skull inside; like badly fitted upholstery. He also looked to have only a single eye and I could see that one ear was mostly gone. His alley-cat glare followed me around the corner. He looked right at me. There’s no way he could have recognized me after all these years, but I’m sure the astonished gasp on my face made him wonder.”

I won’t totally rewrite the paragraph, but here are some suggestions.

“The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look…”

From here it’s not clear which characteristics Junior had “always had” and which were new. This can be fixed easily with something like:

…The years hadn’t been good to him. While he’d always resembled a grizzled alley cat, now he was downright monstrous (terrifying, hideous, etc). I was stunned to see that he’d lost an eye, and that part of one ear had been torn away. Wrinkles like puckered scars swam between the islands of sparse fuzz on his scalp. One thing that hadn’t changed was the way his skin hung like badly fitted upholstery on his too-small skull. I shuddered. His catlike glare followed me as I turned the corner…

I changed “alley-cat glare” to catlike glare to get rid of the repetition. Taking out “He looked right at me.” makes the image stronger. As a gasp is a sound, you might change “astonished gasp” to astonishment.

That the protagonist is headed to Thirsty Thursday to hang out at the Duck with her girl gang made me smile. Good lead-in to the next scene/chapter.

Language:

Some readers may object to the F-word, etc. I don’t have any concerns myself. In fact, “No fucking way!” is a statement I make way too often. But do check out TKZ takes on profanity. There’s plenty here. Be sure to read comments. Our own Kris Montee/P.J.Parrish takes on profanity in crime stories in a 2016 post. Jordan Dane has a First Page Critique that addresses it as well.

Okay, fellow travelers. You’ve read what I have to say (and thank you for reading!). What comments and advice do you have 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.

14 thoughts on “First Page Critique: The List

  1. I think Anon’s semi-colon problem is not that they use the semi-colon, but that they use it wrongly. The main proper use of the semicolon is to set off two independent clauses where, for some reason or other, it makes sense to leave out the conjunction (and, but, or).

    As in: “John was livid; his language scorched our ears.”

    This feels stronger than “John was livid, and his language scorched our ears.”

    “John was livid. His language scorched our ears” would also do.

    All three are correct. Are the separate sentences more readable? Does breaking the sentence into two convey something slightly different than using the semi-colon conjunction? Is the semi-colon version slightly smoother? Style judgments will decide these questions.

    “John was livid; nearly apoplectic” is wrong.

    “John was livid. Nearly apoplectic” is OK.

  2. I’d love to know who the writer is – this is a book I want to read!

  3. Full disclosure: I am a list person. Airplane school taught me all about the importance of a checklist.

    I am going to suggest a few edits to paragraph one. “”Everyone has lists. I live my life according to lists. There are the usual: a shopping list, a bucket list, ToDo lists, vacation packing list, followup email list, books to read list, etc. I even have a list of lists, so I don’t forget I have a particular list. But the list I’m thinking about right now is my I-More-Than-Hate-You list. This is the list of people that I plan to take <>out if I ever cross that line. You know the one. The line where you no longer give a flying fuck about the consequences, because someone’s gonna die. That list. And today I’m thinking about that list a lot.” I think I have your voice, just a little clearer. I might go ahead and call the I-More-Than-Hate-You list my hit list. I might have one.

    The F bombs are your call. Without knowing your other work, cover art, the profanity might or might not fit. It might put off some people.

    “There’s no way he could have recognized me after all these years, but I’m sure the astonished gasp on my face made him wonder.”

    Um you recognized him although the years have not been good to him. Why would he not recognize you? Assuming you hate him enough to want to kill him, he probably knows you. Does he remember you is another question. Perhaps one that belongs on page 1.

    It doesn’t grab me, but I am interested enough to turn the page.

  4. Excellent point about Junior recognizing our protagonist. My assumption was that she had changed in some dramatic way. It’s not clear. If he remembers her, we do need to know if the consequences are dire. Thanks, Alan.

  5. I really liked this

    I am not a list obsessive, but I certainly know someone who is. She jumped into my mind immediately while reading the first paragraph. That was good, it pulled me into the story, instantly connecting me with the character.

    I had no problem not knowing the name, age or sex of the character. I have faith the writer will fill me in when it’s necessary

    I liked the author’s style. I would hate for the author to get homogenized by the ‘this is what’s in in writing’ list of rules.

    For the record, I can see how someone could be on a hit list and not recognize, remember or even know the person who made the list. As an example – a woman who only gets involved with married men could be on several people’s hit list and may have never given the spouse a second thought. This character could be bleeding out and for the life of her (pun intended) can’t imagine why three women grabbed her out of a parking lot, stabbed her several times and left her in this dumpster. – I feel a story coming on.

    • I like the way you think, Michelle. Go write that story! Encouragement is always a good thing. There are certainly no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing, just generally accepted rules. My dos and don’ts are a tad tongue-in-cheek!

  6. Loved the voice in this piece!!! (<- yep, I'm using three. It's allowed in comments. 😉 In books, refer to Laura's sound advice). Laura, fabulous critique and suggestions to make this first page even stronger.

    I would definitely read on. Awesome job, Brave Writer!

  7. Thank you for letting us take a peek at your first page, Brave Author.

    My fave line: “His head looked as if the skin were too big for the skull inside; like badly fitted upholstery.” Lordy, what an image.:-) (Although I like Laura’s suggested alteration, too.)

    I think Laura gave you a wonderful critique, and I agree with everything she said except I like the idea of opening with the throat-clearing first paragraph. I don’t think many writers can get away with it, but your protag’s voice is captivating enough to keep me reading. I do think the first paragraph would be even stronger, though, if you shortened it a little, like eliminate the last sentence plus a good 6-10 of the repetitive-info words.

    Best of luck, Brave Author, on your continued writing journey!

  8. I didn’t mind the “throat clearing” either in this case as it roots us firmly in character. Reminded me a lot of the first Stephanie Plum book.

    Strong voice, strong writing!

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