First Page Critique – Ocean Effect: No land, no law.

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Today’s first page critique takes us out on the high seas. Please enjoy the following then we’ll discuss.

Ocean Effect: No land, no law. 

You just can’t control some things when you live and work aboard a 260-foot private superyacht. Like being summoned near midnight to make coffee for the captain. But I was the chef, on call 24/7. Not an ideal job, but it kept me out of the public eye – and out of jail.

On my way to the galley I traced the teak spiral stair case railing, varnished to a high shine that cost more than my yearly salary to maintain. Built for people with names like Astor, I couldn’t let myself go too gaga over the Kathleen’s luxury. I was just glad land was far behind us after picking up the yacht owner’s son, Jonathan, and his friends in Newport. Now I could stop looking over my shoulder, keep my fear in check. Fear of being back there after more than a year on the run, fear of being connected to my old life as Penelope McKenna, assistant DA.

I was just stubborn enough to stay the course, eyes on my goal. That stubbornness had gotten me into trouble as a kid, but was my saving grace as an adult. Give me a goal and I’m laser-focused. Like life at sea: a steep learning curve but so worth it to get away. So yeah, I’d take orders. I’d get the captain his coffee at midnight. Gladly.

I opened the large walk-in freezer for the special coffee beans I kept just for Cap. As my eyes adjusted to the flickering fluorescent light, I saw a large heap on the floor against the far wall. I never put anything on the floor – who’d been in my galley? I stepped in but my brain wouldn’t process what it saw. A man? What? Laying on his side with his back to me, the galley’s super-sharp ice pick buried up to its handle in  his back. A small circular blood stain on his untucked white oxford shirt looked like an unfortunate bulls-eye.

Any sense of control I had disintegrated. Flee. Now. The same impulse I’d had a year ago; it was automatic. But there was nowhere to flee to. We were more than 350 miles offshore, no land ­– or law – in sight.

I took another step forward. Be cool, McKenna. I reached for a wrist pulse and the head lolled to the side. Whoa. Jonathan! The owner’s son and my benefactor, responsible for my recent promotion to head chef. Shock filled my ears with white noise. I instinctively rubbed my lucky four-leaf clover pendant. But if Jonathan was dead, luck was long gone.

~~~

The Brave Author opens this story with a boatload of intrigue (sorry, couldn’t help it!). A former assistant DA, Penelope McKenna, is on the run because of unspecified events in her past that could land her in jail. She’s working as a chef aboard a luxury mega-yacht and finds her employer’s son, Jonathan, in the galley with an ice pick in his back. She’s 350 miles from land, stuck on a boat with a murderer and presumably she’ll be blamed while the real killer is free to wreak havoc.

That’s a walloping start.

Brave Author, you’ve hit the mark with many important big-picture issues.

Character: you hint at McKenna’s trouble in her backstory without slowing the forward momentum. Well done.

Setting: The glitz and glamour of a luxury yacht captures reader attention. Plus, a ship at sea is a scary, remote location where potential victims are trapped with the killer. A killer who can’t escape is especially dangerous.

Crime: a murder on page one begins the story with a bang.

Now let’s fine-tune.

Time period: Without a specific reference, I assume this is contemporary, which made the reference to “Astor” sound dated. Wealthy John Jacob Astor IV perished in the 1912 sinking of the Titanic so maybe this is subtle foreshadowing but it distracted me.

Title: Ocean Effect: no land, no law implies a ship at sea is at the mercy of the lawless. However, the punctuation and lack of capital letters make the intent vague and unclear. See if you can come up with a punchier title.

Voice: Attorneys are skilled at laying out a situation in a logical fashion to make their case. Although the Brave Author packs a lot of information in one page, the way McKenna conveyed details felt a little jerky and disjointed.

The paragraph about McKenna’s stubbornness and laser-focus stopped the action cold. At this point, the reader wants to know why she is on the run and doesn’t yet care about the trouble she got into as a child. It also felt like a clunky device for the author to say, “Here are some of McKenna’s character traits.” A better method is to incorporate her personality into the action. Rather than tell the reader she’s stubborn, show it.

McKenna’s internal reactions are italicized for emphasis. However, three times in one page was a bit much. Flee. Now. and Be cool, McKenna are fine but suggest you delete Whoa!

White noise is a good description of that dizzy, plugged-ear feeling one feels from shock. But try a more concise, active sentence structure: White noise filled my ears.

Here are a few suggestions to smooth out the flow and get rid of extra words:

When you work as a chef aboard a 260-foot private superyacht, a call to make coffee at midnight for the captain means right now. As I climbed from my comfy berth, I reminded myself this job kept me out of the public eye and out of jail. Yeah, I’d gladly get Cap’s coffee 24/7.

The varnished teak rail slid like silk under my hand as I clipped down the spiral staircase to the galley, trying not to go too gaga over the Kathleen’s luxury.

[Early that morning,] we’d picked up the yacht owner’s son, Jonathan, and his friends in Newport [Beach?]. I relaxed now that land was far behind us. I could stop looking over my shoulder and keep my fear in check. Fear of being back [in LA?] after more than a year on the run, fear of being connected to my old life as Penelope McKenna, assistant DA.

In the galley, I opened the large walk-in freezer for the special coffee beans I kept just for Cap. In the flickering fluorescent light, a large heap lay on the floor against the far wall. I never left anything on the floor – who’d been in my galley?

When my eyes adjusted, I saw the heap was a man, lying on his side, his back to me.

With an ice pick buried up to the handle between his shoulder blades.

A small circular blood stain on his untucked white oxford shirt looked like a bulls-eye.

Flee. Now. 

The same automatic impulse I’d felt a year ago resurfaced. But there was nowhere to flee to. We were more than 350 miles offshore, no land ­– or law – in sight.

Be cool, McKenna.

I stooped to grasp his wrist to feel for a pulse. His head lolled to the side. 

Jonathan!  The owner’s son and my benefactor, responsible for my recent promotion to head chef.

My ears filled with white noise. I instinctively rubbed my lucky four-leaf clover pendant. But, if Jonathan was dead, luck was long gone.

~~~

Brave Author, your instincts about when to enter the story are solid. You chose a glamorous yet remote location that offers plenty of potential danger. You introduce a main character who has an intriguing secret that makes the reader curious. Then she immediately steps deep into trouble, compelling the reader to turn the page.

After you do a little bit of smoothing and cutting, this first page will work very well.

 

TKZers: Are you eager for page 2? Do you have suggestions for the Brave Author?

~~~

 

 

I’m happy to announce Stalking Midas, book 2 of Tawny Lindholm Thrillers, is now available at Amazon in ebook and paperback.

 

 

4+
This entry was posted in Writing by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with a Heart. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, and Dead Man's Bluff. Debbie's nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

9 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Ocean Effect: No land, no law.

  1. Thank you, Brave Author, for showing us your first page. I liked it, and my favorite line was about the white noise because your ears do buzz when you find something dangerous and unexpected.

    I think Debbie’s critique is excellent, and I like how she tightened the prose in her suggestions.

    Also, I didn’t get REALLY interested until the fourth paragraph. Perhaps you could start with the fourth paragraph and sprinkle in some backstory as the story progresses, or trim down the first three paragraphs so we get to the juicy stuff sooner.

    I love the yacht setting for a murder mystery, and I liked the details of the hand rail and the bull’s-eye blood spot. With a little more polishing, I’d turn the page to see what happens next. Best of luck on your continued writing journey, Brave Author!

  2. I also liked it a great deal. There were a few minor things that I would put on your edit list. Debbie is right about the timeline. In general you are describing a 1900’s-30’s yacht, including Mr. Astor. Something to set the time period would help.

    Sharp objects in a commercial kitchen tend to be surgically sharp. Super-sharp ice pick is redundant. Likewise, walk-in freezers are large enough to you know, walk in. Large is redundant.

    Good call on a commercial kitchen being a good place for someone on the run. Double points for a yacht where US hiring law may not be followed.

    Would a DA touch a dead body? Especially a DA on the run? Overall, put me down for a pre-sale.

  3. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer, and thanks to Debbie for her excellent critique. Here are my thoughts:

    Brave writer, you have an intriguing setting, but you’re starting your story in the wrong place. Here’s your lead:

    “I instinctively rubbed my lucky four-leaf clover pendant. But if Jonathan was dead, luck was long gone.”

    For the love of Pete, start with interesting stuff! This is great. Forget about how the character arrived at the current place and time. Fill in those details later. As JSB says: “Act now. Explain later.” I’d switch things around and begin with the discovery of the body, something like this (just as a quick example that still needs tweaking):

    I instinctively rubbed my lucky four-leaf clover pendant. But if Jonathan was dead, luck was long gone. Be cool, McKenna. I walked toward the body against the far wall of the walk-in freezer of the 260-foot superyacht. The owner’s son and my benefactor, responsible for my promotion to head chef, splayed on his side, the galley’s ice pick buried in his back. I reached for a wrist pulse…

    Grab the reader’s attention before launching a diatribe of backstory. Or, as Jake Vander Ark likes to say, “Put the cat in the oven before you describe the kitchen.” (This is not about cruelty to cats. It’s a reference to the popular “Save the Cat” series for writers.) Nothing will make a reader turn a page quicker than immediately putting the main character in peril. After you have your reader’s attention, then slowly weave in the details about the character’s past. Be sure to read Jake Vander Ark’s book on writing, because he has some wonderful examples of how to open a story with showing instead of telling. Readers don’t like to be told things. Show the character in action and let readers draw their own conclusions. In fact, see Jake’s book Put the Cat in the Oven Before You Describe the Kitchen and pay particular attention to the “werewolf” example. You’ll be glad you did. I want to see your revisions, brave writer.

    Best of luck, and keep writing!

    • Thanks for your suggestions, Joanne.

      PUT THE CAT IN THE OVEN has been on TBR pile for a while. Based on your enthusiastic recommendation, I’ll move it to the top. That is definitely one attention-grabbing title!

      • The book is short, but it’s packed with some great tips. I love the werewolf example on page 13 (which I think is available on the sample pages at Amazon), but the book has a number interesting tidbits.

  4. One thought:
    While I love the setting….
    Even on a ‘Super’ yacht, space is at a premium – I’d doublecheck the likelihood of finding a walk-in freezer on board. Not just as a space consideration but also for safety – in rough water, things would be flying around in there.
    Perhaps more likely to find freezers built into cupboard-type units?

    • J.A., excellent point about safety and space considerations on board. Everything must be battened down tight. Thanks for alerting the brave author to be mindful of realism.

Comments are closed.