If You Want Pace & Tension – Stick with the Action – First Page Critique of ESCALATION

JordanDane

@JordanDane

 

A brave anonymous author has submitted their first 400 word beginning to their novel for feedback. My thoughts will follow the author’s submission. Please add your constructive criticism in your comments. Enjoy!

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ESCALATION

Chapter 1

Conversation was almost impossible over the sound of the siren and the roar of the ambulance’s diesel engine. Zach felt with his right hand for the siren tone switch without taking his eyes off the road. He flipped the switch to change the siren from the long monotonous wail to the rapid repetitive yelp that would alert the motorists in the busy intersection they were quickly approaching. Ana also intermittently hit the air horn to add another dimension to the sound.

Threading the needle of these busy intersections had become second nature to Zach. He had worked for the Sova County ambulance service for the past three years and had seen the increase in traffic with the county’s growth. His calm expression never changed as he muttered, “You stupid ass!” when a pale yellow late model Toyota Camry plowed through the light. The driver, bobbing his head in time with some unheard beat, was oblivious to the ambulance’s flashing lights and blaring siren. Zach came to a stop and made eye contact with the other drivers before proceeding through the intersection. A red Bronco came barreling around the curve and almost collided with a dark blue Honda pulled to the curb to allow the ambulance to pass. Zach steered through the maze of skewed vehicles with practiced precision. Once they were clear of the traffic, he gunned the engine. Fortunately, the day was bright and clear. It was better not to have the weather as a hazard; the traffic was definitely enough.

“Are you familiar with the area we’re going to?” Ana asked while shading her eyes from the gleam of sunlight reflecting off the side mirror of the truck. Her face felt just short of sunburned from the early morning sun beating down on her side of the ambulance.

Analyn Michaels, a pretty, petite girl with wavy light brown hair that fell just below her shoulders, had been partnered with Zach for the past eleven months. She tugged at the seatbelt cutting into the side of her neck and glanced over at him.

***

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – There is a sense of urgency as the ambulance races through the streets in the first paragraph. The heavy wordiness of that paragraph and the longer sentences contradict the urgency and I will rewrite that intro to show what I mean. (See the feedback below in – FIRST PARAGRAPH REWRITE.)

With the start of paragraph 2, the story action slows to a crawl with a backstory dump and the county history on traffic patterns. There is plenty of time to explain the guy’s resume and add to the setting of the story, but if the author dares to write a suspenseful opener, I always recommend – STICK WITH THE ACTION and explain later.

That long heavy paragraph shows Zach fighting traffic, but the sense of urgency is gone. He can be calm by nature of his character, but it’s the author’s job to convey the adrenaline rush to the reader. We can all imagine how tense Zach must be and how hard it must be to deal with bad drivers at busy intersections. Make the reader feel the tension and that a life is on the line.

By the time we get to Ana, the pace is gone as she shades her eyes from the sun and thinks about her sunburn. The description of her is another form of backstory that can wait, if the author’s intention is action and a medical urgency that has the ambulance weaving through traffic with sirens blaring. Ana also reflects on how long she’s been partnered with Zach as the seat belt cuts her neck because of their high speed race.

This introduction is conflicted between the stifled action and bad writing habits that slow the pace, but there is good news. We have ALL made these errors and sought improvement.

These are only my thoughts based on my assumptions on where this story might be going. Take any of my advice for what it is worth, dear author. FREE! I tend to imagine your intention and try to work with what is written. I offer advice based upon what I would edit in my own work. You may not like what I have to say and that’s okay.

TITLE – ESCALATION is not a bad title. I can visualize an action-packed cover and the sense of a thrilling medical drama, but I wanted this introduction to match the adrenaline surge of an EMT/Ambulance driver racing through traffic with the life of a patient on the line. Not all medical fiction books will have a title to match the intro, but this one makes sense since it appears to focus on the EMTs.

POV – I can’t see a particular point of view in this short intro. No telling if Zach is the lead/main character or Ana. Since we get Ana’s full name, it could be that SHE is the one to tell this story, but the focus is on Zach. I would recommend picking a main POV character per scene. Zach may not be the HERO of this story, but I would advise the author to clearly pick ONE POV and stick with it.

At present, this intro is not in Zach’s POV, not when Ana flips the air horn switch in the first paragraph, without being seen from Zach’s eyes. Also, Zach can’t know that the seat belt is cutting Ana’s neck at the end. This intro reads like “head hopping.” Even though we don’t know who the main character is, we still need ONE POV to see this action through.

I tend to pick the character with the most to lose or who has the best emotional vantage point. In this intro, that could be Ana, who has to watch as Zach barrels through traffic like a mad man. Or it could be Zach as he battles the traffic while watching Ana cringe, but pick a point of view and work the emotion.

NAMES – I’m not sure why Ana has a full name AND a nickname, but Zach has only a first name. I would suggest giving characters their full names as soon as you can, even if these characters aren’t the hero or heroine. By giving each character a name, it gives context to the reader and an author can write a fuller characterization with more voice if the character has a name.

On the second book I sold, I had a anonymous bad guy get killed in the intro. It wasn’t until I christened him with a full name, that I could tap into his inner voice and give him an arrogance where he deserved to die. It became more interesting.

FIRST PARAGRAPH REWRITE – I tried picturing a white knuckle ride through a busy intersection as I thought of how to rewrite this. With an action scene, the sentences should be shorter, punchy and filled with action imagery. Fragments are fine. You are conveying a sense of urgency to the reader and pulling adrenaline from them as they read, to get a visceral response. I also added DEEP POV, which are Ana’s thoughts in italics, that inner voice we all have. Mine are usually curses.

REWRITE EXAMPLE 1

Analyn Michaels gripped an armrest and held her breath. Oh, God! Streetlights had changed. Cars ignored the blaring siren. In seconds their ambulance would hit the busy intersection. Watch it! She winced. Ana wanted to trust Zach behind the wheel, but it wasn’t easy.

“Hold on. This’ll be tight.” He glanced at her sideways with a smirk. Smart ass!

An SUV lurched in front of a butt ugly Camry to make a turn. Damn it! The driver of the SUV never saw their flashing emergency lights. Ana reached for the air horn and flipped the switch. At the sound, the SUV screeched in front of them. Ana braced her body as Zach swerved to miss the bastard.

The roar of the ambulance engine rumbled in her gut. Ana fought the adrenaline surging through her veins. When they cleared the worst intersection, Zach gunned the diesel engine. Precious seconds ticked by.

Ana hoped they’d make it on time.

This is a quick rewrite. I would normally play with this more and go back to add layers of emotion, but I hope this conveys urgency and action and puts the reader in the front seat. There are smells to add of burned rubber or diesel fumes or beverages spilling on a tight turn. I made the assumption they were heading TO an emergency and not hauling someone to the hospital, since both of them are in the front. But imagine that you have an emergency of someone having a heart attack. Every second could make a difference.

WHITE SPACE ON THE PAGE – In an action scene, it is especially important to have white space on the page. Readers tend to skim the heavily worded paragraphs. Make paragraphs shorter, sentences shorter, and don’t embed dialogue. In my rewrite, it changes from one heavier paragraph to 5 bursts of action.

Over the years, I have cut back on the length of my chapters and my scenes. I give the reader more white space on the page and use deep POV to break up the prose. Call it “shorter reader attention span,” but that’s what I’ve noticed and changed my style accordingly. My paragraphs tend to be shorter too, but it’s the same idea. Long heavy narratives can appear daunting to a reader these days. Don’t give them a reason to skin.

VOICE – I like the character voice where we get a sense of dark humor in Zach. EMTs have seen it all. They can be adrenaline junkies. I like Zach cursing as he drives, not giving an inch, yet staying calm.

PACE WRECKING LINES – There are a number of lines that cut the pace and stop the action in this short intro.

He flipped the switch to change the siren from the long monotonous wail to the rapid repetitive yelp that would alert the motorists in the busy intersection they were quickly approaching. Ana also intermittently hit the air horn to add another dimension to the sound.

The two lines above are too focused on the details of sound and they lose any momentum for the action. It’s not as important to get the nitty gritty detail of what is physically happening. It’s mainly important to write a smattering of action (see an example of ‘smattering’ in my rewrite of paragraph 1) to give the reader a sense of it. Keep it punchy and focus on the bare essence of the action.

Fortunately, the day was bright and clear. It was better not to have the weather as a hazard; the traffic was definitely enough.

In an action scene, if you have to stop to write about the weather, you’ve lost the pace. In this case, the weather is “bright and clear,” not even a factor, so why bring it up? Since an author is in control of the weather, why NOT make the roads slick with rain and with lightning?

“Are you familiar with the area we’re going to?” Ana asked while shading her eyes from the gleam of sunlight reflecting off the side mirror of the truck.

I would imagine that ambulances have GPS to direct them into areas of the city they aren’t familiar with. Ana’s line doesn’t seem authentic. Also, this is an example of too much unnecessary detail that doesn’t add to the action. We authors are tempted to write details to put the reader in the scene with us, but the details should not be a distraction, as these sentences are.

To make this side mirror glint of light work, I can see Ana searching for cross streets as Zach barrels through an intersection.

REWRITE EXAMPLE 2

As the ambulance lurched, the sun blinded Ana. She kept one eye on the GPS screen and raised a hand to block the glare. Can’t see, damn it.

Are we close?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I missed it.” Ana craned her neck to spot another sign. “Don’t stop. I’ll catch the next one.”

I’m sure you can do better, dear author, but I wanted you to see the difference in how to pick action that works and doesn’t detract from the action.

Her face felt just short of sunburned from the early morning sun beating down on her side of the ambulance.

“Just short of sunburned” means NOT SUNBURNED. We’ve all been on long drives where our skin gets burned from the sun. Yes, but does Ana’s condition add to this scene? Not so much. Stick with the action to keep the pace and the attention of the reader. You can always bring in a sunburned trucker’s tan later.

ENCOURAGEMENT – We have all been here, dear author. You have a good sense of description. The details can come in handy, but be judicious about where you put them. With action, you should stick with the flow and keep the pace. Be patient with back story and descriptions. You WILL get a chance to strut your stuff.

I like your EMTs. Zach has a hint of personality & humor that I want to know more about. Ana can be fleshed out more, but I get a good sense of how you might write her. Being an EMT is heroic stuff. You have good instincts to start with action. Hang in there and keep writing. With every page, you will get better. Writing is the gift that keeps giving. I’m happy to read your work.

DISCUSSION:

1.) What do you think, TKZers? Do you have feedback for this author?

2.) Anyone with experience as being an EMT? I had a technical adviser who had all sorts of great life experiences. He was an EMT and a volunteer firefighter. The stories he told about how these emergency calls had ice flowing through his veins, until one of the 911 calls turned out to be about his wife and he had to respond–the most harrowing ride of his life. Or the time he was doing CPR on a guy and took the time to notice the man had really bad dandruff. EMTs are a HOOT!

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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

22 thoughts on “If You Want Pace & Tension – Stick with the Action – First Page Critique of ESCALATION

  1. Thanks for letting us take a peek at your first page, Brave Author.

    I love the idea of the protagonist being an EMT. Imagine the things EMT’s experience!

    This is my favorite line from your submission: “Zach felt with his right hand for the siren tone switch without taking his eyes off the road.” It shows us how Zach takes his job seriously and is pretty skilled.

    I agree with everything Jordan said in her excellent critique, especially about the backstory at the start of paragraph two. That’s where I expected things to pick up with exciting action, but the backstory info put the breaks on instead.

    If you keep the way cool EMT protagonist and work on the story-telling aspects that Jordan pointed out, I’d turn the page to see what happens next. Best of luck, Brave Author, on your continued writing journey.

    • I love your encouraging comments, Priscilla. Thank you. Authors need knowledgeable people who care to give honest feedback & encouraging motivation.

      After my acquaintance with my EMT adviser, I really loved all the stories he told. These guys are quiet heroes–the first face that people see when they’re scared & hurting.

      Medical people deal with a lot and keep their sanity in different ways. This author captured Zach & his steely nerves with his potential for edgy dark humor. There’s real potential with this story and with this author. I want to read more on Ana & Zach.

      Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

    • I don’t know if this story will be centered on these EMTs. I hope so but I believe this author has a story to tell and I want to read it.

  2. It’s been over 20 years since I rode my last ambulance call, but having logged a few thousand of them, I have some comments on the technical aspects here. They reflect my own experience, all in Virginia, so there may very well be jurisdictional differences.

    1. When responding to a call, which I presume Zach and Ana are doing because they’re both in the cab, the “aide” (the EMT in the shotgun seat) typically works the siren while the driver works the horn. That allows the driver to spend more time and attention on the business of driving. As an aside, when I was driving, and we had a kid in the front seat because mom or dad were in the back, I’d let the kid work the siren.

    2. The aide is in charge, the driver subordinate, irrespective of actual rank. As presented, Ana has no command presence whatsoever. It is her job, as officer in charge (OIC) to give travel directions to the driver. “Straight through this light to Parker Avenue, turn right on Parker . . .”

    3. Depending on how long it’s been since the call was dispatched, the aide would also be working the radio for additional information from the dispatcher. “The caller reported that her uncle, a 75-year-old diabetic fell down a flight of five stairs and hit his head on the floor . . .”

    3. If major medical issues are expected–something that might require CPR or relocation from another floor–an engine company from the fire department would likely also be on the way.

    4. In the traffic conditions you describe, there would be nothing “intermittent” about the use of the air horn. That puppy would be melting down. Also, there are (at least) four settings on an electronic siren: wail, yelp, hi-lo (think European) and manual. In stopped traffic, I would toggle between all of them (sometimes holding between the settings to get a wild space craft-y sound) while the driver nailed the air horn. I don’t care how much music you’re blasting–you’ll hear us coming.

    5. Good on you for stopping at the intersection. A siren merely demands right-of-way, it does not create it.

    My point here is that Ana has a lot more to do than just look at Zach.

    • GREAT INFO, John. Wow. I love your insights. Thanks for all the options you’ve shared with our author & TKZ.

      You’re especially right on Ana playing more of a role, especially by communication with dispatch. Ana getting an update from dispatch on changes in a patient’s condition can add urgency to the scene. This opening scene has real potential for extreme action.

      Thank you. (Bowing – “I’m not worthy.”)

    • Thanks, John! I agree with you completely. Unfortunately, having only a couple of paragraphs, you don’t get the continuation where a volunteer rescue squad is already on scene and they are trying to communicate via radio in a “bad” area. If that were not the case, there would definitely be a fire truck on the way.

  3. Brave Author, reading your first page took me back to 2015 when Jordan critiqued the first page of my thriller, Instrument of the Devil. She was encouraging but some comments hit like pinpricks. Ouch, ooow, eek. However, the more I studied her suggestions, the more I realized how right she was.

    I followed her advice, rewrote, and in 2017 the book got published–proving the value of her critique.

    You may be stinging right now but she’s given you a precious gift that will lift you to the next level of writing excellence.

    Best of luck, Brave Author!

    • Like this author, Debbie, your talent was there, along with your passion to improve & tell a great story. Thanks for sharing your success story. It’s a good one.

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Debbie! I completely understand the comments from Jordan and I think they are right on target. I am more appreciative than irritated when the advice is so valuable. I’ve learned a lot from her with just this small amount. I have over twenty years of experience writing textbooks and I think my skin has toughened up tremendously with all of the comments from editors, reviewers, and medical consultants! 🙂

  4. Overall I liked this a lot. But I did find it wordy. Look at the re-writes. There is no need for a “pale yellow late model Toyota Camry” when “an idiot in a Camry.” would do, or even just a Camry.

    I spend about a third of my waking hours in traffic. I have seen this scene a thousand times. You pretty much have it. Take a look at John’s notes. I have several friends who are EMTs. I never knew the right seat was in charge.

    And yes, move the history of traffic patterns, Anna’s sunburn and her full name to chapters 2-4. Maybe shoot for pulling up to the emergency in the first 400 words?

    Once again, I would turn the page and follow Zach and Anna.

    • Good input, Alan. I like your version of “stream of consciousness” character voice by stripping out unnecessary details on the Camry, but focusing on the frustration with bad drivers. It’s important for authors to imagine what it must be like for EMTs. The coolness under pressure, the tension & the frustration of things beyond their control.

      Also thanks for your encouragement.

    • Thanks Alan! I had actually considered rewriting the beginning to start on the actual scene of the crash. After reading your comments I will revisit that idea.

  5. Something that bothers me about this is that there is no mention of what kind of scene they are heading toward. The only tension comes from the traffic situation. Maybe John can provide some insight but wouldn’t the EMTs be talking about the victim or person in peril?

    • That bothered me, too, Kristy. In my experience, during the response phase, most conversation is focused on the logistics of getting to the scene and being useful as soon after arrival as possible. If it’s strictly an EMS call, and the location is a suburban house, we’ll talk about the house number–and whatever other weird calls we might have run on that street. “Isn’t that the house where the guy with the heart attack was chained to the bed?” (A real call.) If it’s an apartment complex, we’ll talk about which entrance door gets us closest to the fire department elevator–the one we can dedicate strictly to our incident.

      If it’s a fire call, the chatter is about apparatus positioning and hydrant locations.

      When I was in charge of the ambulance call (also called the agony wagon or the gut bucket), the aide would always grab the radio, clipboard and the aid kit on the way to the front door, while the driver would grab the oxygen and occasionally the suction unit, depending on the call. If there was a “third aide”–almost always a rookie (aka “wheel chock”)–I turned him or her into my Sherpa and carried only the clipboard and radio. But all of that was SOP, worked out ahead of time. Unless the rookie was REALLY new, we never talked about the jobs people already knew they had.

      Patient-oriented chatter didn’t start till we met up with the patient or a family member.

      • This is amazing insight, John. A real gift to all of us at TKZ. Research can add great layers to an opening scene that could make your writing stand out from the slush pile. Thank you.

    • Hey Kris. Thanks for your comment. I believe in giving a face to victims, even if they will only be in one scene. Adding the right victim reflects on the main characters too. A great way to breathe life into an opener.

    • Thanks Kristy. All of that actually comes up in the next couple of paragraphs. I think I have been concentrating on description instead of using the bare bones to generate the hook.

  6. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I liked Jordan’s critique, and I thought the information John provided was great. Aside to John: hope your recovery is going well.

    Now, brave writer, I’ll throw a few more comments into the mix. I like the title, and I’m delighted that you decided to begin your story with action. I have some specific ideas about how to revise your first page, however. And I concur with Jordan’s suggestions.

    Overwriting

    Overwriting is a problem I see often with first pages. There are occupations where it’s very important to make precise observations. For writers who think like scientists, it can be especially difficult to include only the most telling details. (JSB did a great post on “telling details” a few days ago.) However, writers should allow readers to use their imaginations whenever possible so that stories don’t get overloaded. When a writer describes something very carefully, readers automatically pay more attention and expect that there’s a reason for the information. In your story, you write:

    “pale yellow late model Toyota Camry”

    That’s very precise and that might be what the character would tell a police officer if there were an accident and an accident report had to be filed.(Not sure I’ve ever seen a pale yellow Camry around here.) However, in the heat of the moment when there’s a near accident, is your character going to be “thinking” in that level of detail? It also can be taxing for readers if everything is described. If you want to convey urgency in a scene, less is more. Focus should be on the details that matter most to the story. I think Jordan gave you great advice about pacing. Think shorter sentences, white space, and snappy dialogue. If I were trying to convey urgency in the sentence referenced above, I’d just say yellow Camry.

    Also, you write:

    “Analyn Michaels, a pretty, petite girl with wavy light brown hair that fell just below her shoulders…”

    How many women do you know who fit that description? Rather than tell the reader that the character is pretty and petite, find ways (later in the story, not necessarily on the first page) that show the character is petite. Maybe she needs help reaching something on a shelf. This would “show” the reader she is petite, rather than “tell” the reader she is petite. Show the reader the character is pretty by the way other characters react to her. See if you can think of a unique detail about your character. Perhaps she always wears pearl earrings the size of macadamia nuts (or whatever, you get the idea).

    Another example of overwriting:

    “Her face felt just short of sunburned from the early morning sun beating down on her side of the ambulance.”

    This is clearly from her POV. If she is going to be the POV character, be sure to keep her the POV character for the whole scene. However, since we’re talking about overwriting, think about condensing the sentence above. How many words can you eliminate and still convey the same meaning?

    POV

    Choose a POV character and give the scene some “attitude” by letting the reader experience the scene as that character. See “Point of View Basics: Through My Eyes. Or Your Eyes. Or Somebody’s Eyes.” by Janice Hardy (available online).

    Overuse of “Was”

    Examples:

    “Conversation was almost impossible”
    “was oblivious to”
    “the day was bright and clear”
    “It was better not to”
    “the traffic was definitely”

    I’m not suggesting that you eliminate “was” from your writing. There’s a place for it. However, your writing will be stronger if you eliminate “was” when possible. For example, let’s look at the first sentence:

    “Conversation was almost impossible over the sound of…”

    Instead, try writing the sentence like this:

    The sound of the siren and the roar of the ambulance’s diesel engine made conversation nearly impossible.

    I would not begin your story with this sentence. I would begin your story with Zach (give him a last name) taking some type of action (if he’s going to be the POV character).

    Now, let’s look at another sentence:

    “Fortunately, the day was bright and clear.”

    Instead of using “was,” try:

    “Fortunately, the sun shone brightly, not a cloud in sight.”

    Let’s look at one more sentence:

    “The driver, bobbing his head in time with some unheard beat, was oblivious to the ambulance’s flashing lights and blaring siren.”

    Instead, try it this way to eliminate “was”:

    Oblivious to the ambulance’s flashing lights and blaring siren, the driver bobbed his head in time with some unheard beat.

    And one more example. You write:

    “It was better not to have the weather as a hazard; the traffic was definitely enough.”

    Instead, try:

    “Better not to have weather issues.”

    Get rid of the semicolon and the second sentence. Condense.

    That’s enough for now, brave writer. I hope this helps. Best of luck, and keep writing!

  7. Thank you so much!! Believe me, I appreciate all advice. I am working on a rewrite to submit for a writer’s conference I am attending in October. Thanks again!

    • I’m excited for you, Rhonda. It’s good to hear you’re attending a writers conference. They are helpful on many levels & good for networking. Good luck on your rewrite. Woot! Go get ’em, girl.

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