First Page Critique: The Purple Door

 

 

(Purchased photo via iStock)

 

Greetings, readers and writers all! It’s First Page Critique time. Please take a few moments to read the submission, and my critique–then share your thoughts and advice in the comments.

THE PURPLE DOOR

CHAPTER ONE

Christina

Thursday, October 1

For the first time since Christina buried the yellow bag, it was time to check in. She was in no shape for it. She hadn’t slept in two days, maybe longer, and the Storm was here.

She stood at one of the windows, the old boarding house creaking in the wind. The Storm poured out of her unwell mind, blurred the pane of glass, blended with the actual, physical storm outside. The leaves on the treetops shook with tethered fury, and lightning splashed over the street. She looked down over the neighborhood, her ceaseless thoughts flowing out into the raindrops watering the ground.

So much had happened in a month, most of it bad. But she’d found something unexpected at the Purple Door. This attic room had become home.

She’d made herself a nest.  Up in this high-raftered roost, working on the mural and listening to her records as loud as she wanted, talking to Adam until the sun came up, this place was her whole world. Everything and everyone she needed was here… and all the little things she didn’t need, she’d buried.

She was going to stay right here. So she had to pass this phone call.

Christina dropped the curtain on her faint reflection in the glass, a flash of long blond hair. She had to be ready. She began to pace, staring into the fathomless black face of her phone until it lit up in her hand:

“DAD”

The name leapt off the screen in all caps, a visual shock. It was a trick she used in order to focus, now that the crazy thoughts her meds used to kill were back in bloom.

She’d buried her pills, and several other problematic artifacts, in little holes around the boarding house. In the back yard, a gauzy yellow bag that used to shimmer in the light was now stuffed with tablets of lithium, lamictal, and clozapine, and sealed underground with three feet of dirt. She was up here without a net.

________

Let’s start this party with a quote from William Howard Taft, 27th President of the United States, and 10thChief Justice of the United States:

Don’t write so that you can be understood, write so that you can’t be misunderstood.

This is a big deal when it comes to writing (or speaking), and it’s uniquely critical when a writer is creating a fictional world for the reader. If the reader feels unbalanced by the prose, or more confused than fascinated, the writer may lose them. Below I’ll discuss how this is relevant.

There’s so very much to like about this submission, The Purple Door.

–Christina is a vibrant protagonist. She’s a person of strong will and motivation.

–Dreamlike imagery

–Precise language

-Compelling portrait of a young woman with brain differences

 

 

“For the first time since Christina buried the yellow bag, it was time to check in. She was in no shape for it. She hadn’t slept in two days, maybe longer, and the Storm was here.

She stood at one of the windows, the old boarding house creaking in the wind. The Storm poured out of her unwell mind, blurred the pane of glass, blended with the actual, physical storm outside. The leaves on the treetops shook with tethered fury, and lightning splashed over the street. She looked down over the neighborhood, her ceaseless thoughts flowing out into the raindrops watering the ground.”

 

The first thing I imagined when I read this opening was that Christina was either a witch or a superhero who was maybe checking in with her handler. I had no clear idea what kind of this story was. Call me overly literal, but I cannot lie.

The second paragraph, about the Storm, definitely has a supernatural feel. Now, I understand that the drug combination at the end of the piece implies that our protagonist has psychiatric issues that present her with some spectacularly trippy, mind-blowing experiences. And there’s room for them in the story. Maybe just not right off the bat. Don’t give the reader dessert before the meal. UNLESS you’re going to start out with a hugely damaging or significant psychotic episode as the novel’s opening gambit. But that’s not happening here.

I’d like to see the piece start out with the bold facts, and resist being coy. Always resist coy.

Suggestion:

Exactly one week ago, Christina had used a rusted hand spade to bury her pills, and other problematic artifacts, in deep holes around the backyard of the boarding house. A gauzy yellow drawstring bag that used to shimmer in the light now lay hidden three feet underground, stuffed with what was left of her lithium, lamictal, and clozapine tablets. They were down there, which meant she was up here, living without a net.

We immediately know who Christina is, and the battle she’s fighting in her brain. It’s a fierce beast. Sure, she has to get by DAD, but he is a secondary foe. No doubt he’s one of many she’ll encounter over the course of the book. The real beast—that brings her both burdens and strange gifts—will be with her all her life.

With that in mind, it’s okay to go on and show us Christina’s current sleepless, exhausted, nervous state. If you’re going to go with a visual of the Storm she experiences as she looks out the window, be straight about it. She knows it’s not real, but she’s also experiencing it. Let the reader know, too.

Now she stood in the darkness, looking out the window, phone in hand, waiting for her father to call. It was time to check in. Time to convince him that she was doing just fine on her own. Except, she felt the Storm in her head coming on. It blurred the pane of glass, blended with the real rainstorm lashing the outside of the old house. The topmost leaves of the trees shook with tethered fury… [continue as written]

I very much like the imagery in this section. The splashing lightning made me hesitate, but I think it works.

As far as I’m concerned, the rest of the page works fine—as long as the burying of the pills moves to the beginning. Two minor points:

–Remove the ellipses in the fourth paragraph and replace with a comma, or begin a new sentence.

–Does she really think of her thoughts as “crazy thoughts?” [penultimate paragraph] One of the implications of not being on the drugs appears to be that she feels like herself. It brings into question the concept of normalcy—something that is certainly debatable.

One more significant suggestion. After the first paragraph, try switching to the present tense. Not everyone is a fan, but just try it. It offers an immediacy that I think is appropriate to the subject.

Now she stands in the darkness, looking out the window, phone in hand, waiting for her father to call. It’s time to check in.

Sally forth, Brave Author. This is a terrific story!

 

 

 

 

 

5+
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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.

12 thoughts on “First Page Critique: The Purple Door

  1. Brave author, I admired this first page very much–vivid, emotional, strong writing. The leaves blowing with “tethered fury” is a perfect image.

    That said, Laura’s rearrangement and suggestions make it even better. I too was confused at first if the Storm was a supernatural force or her inner mental storm.

    A couple other small points that could be clarified:

    1. When she talks to Adam until dawn, is he physically there in the attic or do they talk by phone? If it’s by phone, that increases the sense of her isolation and disconnection from the outside world.

    2. “DAD” in caps on the phone face as her focus point is another good visual but it’s not clear if she brought up his name or if it’s an incoming call from him. If it’s an incoming call, even if she’s been expecting it, that will startle her, increasing tension.

    As a general comment, I’m personally a little weary of the unreliable narrator trope but the use of Christina’s name as a heading indicates there will be more than one POV.

    This is gripping and compelling. I’d keep reading.

  2. The author has a great felicity with the language, which is all to the good … but can be a trap for openings, esp. what I call “character alone, thinking” openings with exposition loaded in.

    I would advise the author to try making Chapter 2 the opening chapter, and see how it feels. Act first (which should almost always mean with at least two characters in the scene), explain later.

    But again, kudos on your ability to weave the King’s english into pleasing strands. Just make sure they are always in service to a story that moves.

  3. Thank you, Brave Author, for letting us read your first page.

    I enjoyed these opening paragraphs, but after reading them, I went back to the beginning and read them again with the understanding that Christina had buried her meds. And then I liked the first page even better. I think Laura’s suggestion of moving the paragraphs/information around is spot on.

    Likewise, I pictured Christina on the first floor of a boarding house. (And maybe that’s just me.) When she “looked down over the neighborhood,” I was disoriented until the next paragraph that explains Christina is in the attic. Perhaps “from the attic” Christina could look down . . . or something to that effect to orient the reader.

    I liked several images, and this was my favorite line: The Storm poured out of her unwell mind, blurred the pane of glass, blended with the actual, physical storm outside.

    Like I said, I did enjoy this opening. I think with some tweaks it would be awesome and compel me to turn the page. Best of luck on your continued writing journey!

  4. Brave Author, the imagery on your first page is rich and delicious.

    With the Storm pouring out of “her unwell mind,” I too thought this was a paranormal novel until I read further.

    Like Laura, I paused over the splashing lightning. The word implies a gentleness, a lightness–like a splashing brook. Electricity is never gentle. Perhaps it could slash across the street.

    During my first read of this page, I wondered if Adam is real or imagined? Someone she lost but still refuses to let go? Is she communicating with him in person, by phone, or telepathically? I’d like to know a bit more about why he is important enough to appear in this opening chapter.

    I like Laura’s suggestions for reordering the paragraphs. That would clarify for the reader that the Storm is a mental one, not extrasensory.

    Can one pass a phone call? Is there another way to say this that will show the reader the importance of making her dad believe she is well? That’s why he’s checking on her.

    Brave Author, you’ve hooked me. I’d turn the page.

  5. Brave Author, Your language is beautiful. I love the imagery you put on the page. Perhaps that is also the downside. I was lost the first time I read through your page. I liked it, but didn’t understand what was happening. After reading Laura’s critique, I read it again and liked it much better.

    Seeing what others have said, I think their suggestions could turn this into one of those stories that makes me want to read one more chapter before turning off the lights.

    But
    Read the suggestions, Priscilla and Betty make some great points. My changes – Who is Adam? As Debbie asked, is he real or imaginary? Perhaps that is the big reveal later in the book, now it is just a meaningless name. DAD. People set the caller ID names on their phones. It should be no surprise that when Dad calls, her phone displays DAD. I have known a few people who take psychiatric meds. Some call the drug induced state a fog and how they are without their medications real. Some do call being without their meds a storm. Especially after a day or two without.

    Overall, with some fixes, looks like something that would come home from the bookstore with me.

  6. Thanks, Alan. This is solid input. I assumed she had put DAD in all caps in her contacts to get her “unwell” mind’s attention.

    If it were me, I’d make the contact name, OMG IT’S DAD, KEEP YOUR SHIT TOGETHER!

    And give him a n annoying ringtone.

  7. I think the fact the reader doesn’t know about her mental state and the pills from the beginning is what makes the first page interesting

    The suggested rewrite takes all the intrigue out of the page, leaving it flat

  8. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I agree with Laura about clarity. On the first page of a novel, clarity is king.

    The Perils of Opening w/Character Alone Thinking

    I also agree with JSB about the importance of not beginning a story with a character alone thinking. Our brave writer may be thinking that dialogue via the phone with the father was about to commence. Beginning with a phone call is risky, but it would be better than the stereotypical opening of a character sitting alone stewing about her sorry state of affairs. Just get to the phone call quickly without all the backstory and pontification. However, I’m not sure why writers are always in a hurry to tell the reader everything about a character’s past. The best thing a writer can do is to show restraint. Begin with a scene of something interesting going on in the character’s present, preferably at an interesting location. (The Purple Door does seem like an interesting location.) You can always weave in details about the character’s past later, in small bits. Remember that readers are infinitely more interested in something that’s happening in the “right now” of the story, rather than something that’s already happened. Perhaps pick a scene with some small disturbance/tempatation in it to show the reader the character’s new life at “The Purple Door.” Rather than a phone call, perhaps begin with the character interacting with someone at “The Purple Door.”

    Tense Confusion

    Consider this sentence:

    “She hadn’t slept in two days, maybe longer, and the Storm was here.”

    If you’re writing in past tense, try this:

    “She hadn’t slept in two days, maybe longer, and the Storm was there.”

    OR… (my preference):

    “She hadn’t slept in two days, maybe longer, and the Storm had arrived.”

    Vary Sentence Beginnings

    Eight sentences begin with “She” and two sentences begin with “She’d” – consider varying it up a bit.

    Dependence on “Was”

    You use lots of sentences with was:

    it was time to check in

    She was in no shape for it

    and the Storm was here

    this place was her whole world

    Everything and everyone she needed was here… and all the little things she didn’t need

    She was going to stay right here

    It was a trick she used in order to focus

    a gauzy yellow bag that used to shimmer in the light was now stuffed with tablets of lithium

    She was up here without a net

    Overwriting

    Be careful. There are some interesting phrases, like “shook with tethered fury.” Good. I also like the title of the story. However, some sentences seem padded. Consider:

    “She looked down over the neighborhood, her ceaseless thoughts flowing out into the raindrops watering the ground.”

    You can trim at least a few words from this sentence. Example:

    “She looked over the neighborhood, her ceaseless thoughts flowing into the raindrops.”

    We all know that raindrops land on the ground, no need to tack on the “watering the ground” at the end of the sentence. That’s fluff. Likewise the words “down” and “out” add to the padding of the sentence.

    Overall Impression

    You’ve created an interesting main character. Just consider beginning with a less generic kind of scene. Put your character in a scene with another character, perhaps someone who will tempt her, and let the reader get to know her through her actions. Best of luck, and keep writing!

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