Blue Menace: First Page Critique

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Greetings, readers, writers, and population at large. Today we have a first page critique of a futuristic story about a young woman with the colorful name of Diamond Blue. Please read the submission, and my comments, then let our dear writer in on your thoughts.

Working Title: Blue Menace

Diamond Blue scrambled around her small bedroom, grabbing clothes and accessories at random, shoving them in her backpack.

She looked at her wrist. Crap! Ten minutes to get to the ship, and maybe another twenty before the cops figured out what she had done.

In the bathroom, she held the backpack up to her side of the shelf and swiped everything in. She rested the bag on the vanity and pushed at the jumble inside to close the zip. As she finished, she glanced at the mirror – red face, sweaty, and wild-eyed. Oh sure, they’d let her on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.

She splashed water on her flushed face and ran her damp hands over her long sapphire-blue braids.

Deep breaths.

The memory flashed of her best friend, Rina, surrounded by a swarm of armed cops. She shook her head to clear it. If she didn’t get moving, it would all be for nothing.

She turned out of the bathroom, swinging the backpack onto her shoulder, and crossed the living room. She and Rina weren’t messy flatmates, but the remains of yesterday’s hasty planning session was strewn across the coffee table – pizza, wine, chocolate. Diamond grabbed the last few squares of chocolate and popped them into her mouth. Breakfast of champions.

At the front door, she waved her hand over the sensor. It slid across the opening and disappeared into the opposite wall.

Diamond pulled the hood of her sweater over her hair, leaned out and checked the corridor.

Her neighbors in this quadrant of Residential Floor Three liked to start work a little later than most. There was no one around.

Neither was her ride. Of all the times for the damn Sliders to malfunction!

The Sliders, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from the public bays near the core to her location based on the quantum chip in her hand.

The chip! Ahh, she was a class-A idiot!

She slapped at the cuff around her lower left arm to wake it up, and re-ordered the Slider in the name she’d stolen in the early hours of the morning – Rina Cavanaugh.

Somewhere on the Justice floor was a Slider hovering around the booking desk, maybe even outside Rina’s cell if it got that far.

She had less time than she thought.

______________________-

This, dear readers, is an example of a quite accomplished opening to a story. We have immediate action occurring in the midst of some troubling event—that desirable in medias res we so often encourage around here. A well-defined setting: sometime in the technological future. Clear, identifiable characters: Diamond Blue and her flatmate, Rina Cavanaugh, the cops. Interesting nomenclature in the story’s world. And a nearly complete scene that doesn’t lose its focus. Check, check and check.

So let’s look at some details, dear writer.

I like the title, Blue Menace. Evocative, and connected to the main character. While I’m not certain, the title and voice make it sound like it’s a YA story.

Opening line:

“Diamond Blue scrambled around her small bedroom, grabbing clothes and accessories at random, shoving them in her backpack.”

This is a perfectly good opening line for a chapter. I’m less convinced that it is telling enough for a novel. If this is, indeed, a novel, I’d like to see the opening chapter—even just a paragraph– be an event in the obviously chaotic world outside the building (or whatever where Diamond lives is called). It can be in the past, such as the scene where Rina is surrounded, or some apocalyptic event that we will eventually learn about. Make the stakes of the story bigger right off.

“She splashed water on her flushed face and ran her damp hands over her long sapphire-blue braids.”

A couple of commas will make the sentence clearer:

She splashed water on her flushed face, and ran her damp hands over her long, sapphire-blue braids.

You could even lose “-blue.” I don’t think anyone would imagine her hair is made of actual sapphires. Though there are a few sapphire stones of other colors (rubies are technically sapphires), they are typically blue. Then again, it occurs to me that her name is Diamond. Is the sapphire reference intentional?

I admire the way you do the reflection description of Diamond, dear writer. Mirrors can be cliché, but it works.

Quoting a character’s thoughts—

Oh sure, they’d let her on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.”

Using italics to hear a third-person character’s thoughts is fine. But if you’re going to use quotes or italics, you need to treat thoughts like internal dialogue, and use me instead of her, and I instead of she. It should read:

“Oh sure, they’d let me on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.”

When you quote this way, you can make the thoughts sound a little more natural, as in,

Sure. Like they’ll let me on board looking like a crackhead after a five mile run, no problem.”

Later, Damn Sliders. Of course they choose now to screw up!” and Holy crap, I’m an idiot!

A matter of agreement—

“The Sliders, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from the public bays near the core to her location based on the quantum chip in her hand.”

I had to think about this one a moment. I’m assuming individual Sliders are referred to as “a Slider.” If so, the sentence should read:

(Simpler, preferred version. Don’t get caught up in exact locations.) A Slider, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from a public bay closest to the requester’s location based on the quantum chip in their hand.

 Or, The Sliders, simple hover-platforms with t-bars to steer, were supposed to come from the public bays near the core to requesters’ locations based on the quantum chip in their hands.

(I know I use “their” as singular in the first one. According to some, that usage is still under debate. I’ve made the change in my work.)

 “She slapped at the cuff around her lower left arm to wake it up, and re-ordered the Slider in the name she’d stolen in the early hours of the morning – Rina Cavanaugh.

Somewhere on the Justice floor was a Slider hovering around the booking desk, maybe even outside Rina’s cell if it got that far.”

Okay, you’ve got me here, dear writer. I’m lost. Am I supposed to understand that she ordered in her own name originally? If the Slider is supposed to come to her based on the fact that it responds to the chip in her hand, shouldn’t it have located her where she is? What does the cuff have to do with it? I finally understand that Rina is locked up on the Justice floor—good news that she’s not dead—but I don’t get the explanation for the Slider mixup.

Perhaps simply drop the whole mistaken Slider thing, unless it will have an effect on the plot later. If that’s the case, just make it as simple as possible, and put the revelation of Rina’s location somewhere else.

What a great start, dear writer. I would definitely read on.

Have at it, TKZers! What are your thoughts and suggestions?

 

 

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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.

15 thoughts on “Blue Menace: First Page Critique

  1. Compelling start, brave author. Laura’s excellent suggestions make it even better.

    Can you include a hint why Rina was arrested and Diamond is desperate to escape? Maybe give the reason for last night’s hasty planning session. Are they plotting to overthrow the government, hijack a plane, etc.?

    I too tripped up with confusion about ordering the slider.

    Also, there might be a lapse in logic. Presuming each person has an implanted chip, wouldn’t there be code that identifies whose chip gives the order? Even if Diamond uses Rina’s name, someone should know it actually came from Diamond’s chip.

    These are all small fixes. Then you’re off and running. Good work!

  2. I liked this a lot. As Laura notes, we’ve got action. Even more important, a disturbance. Time pressure. Cops. Mystery.

    I also like the definite verbs, e.g., scrambled, grabbing, swiped.

    Grammar note, similar to the Sliders note from Laura: … but the remains of yesterday’s hasty planning session was strewn …

    Should be: were.

    Again, great start. This is how it’s done.

  3. Brave Author, I enjoyed this. I agree with Laura’s critique in that you started the story at an exciting place. Makes me want to read more.

    This was my fave line: “In the bathroom, she held the backpack up to her side of the shelf and swiped everything in.” It shows Diamond’s haste. Awesome character name, BTW!

    I would like a hint as to what Rina and Diamond were planning. A bank heist? Stowing away on a ship to a far planet? The execution of a dirtbag who’s also a powerful politician?

    A couple of nitpicks:

    When Diamond waved her hand over the sensor, the next sentence reads as if the sensor disappeared into the wall. Replacing “It slid” with “The door slid” would fix that confusion.

    “The remains” from the planning session is plural and needs a “were” instead of a “was.”

    I’d turn the page to see what happens next. Good luck in your continued writing journey, Brave Author!

  4. This opening got my heart pounding, and few openings do that. Tension, tension, tension that dragged me into the story. I have to know how she got into this, how she gets out of it, and why.
    The MC is immediately likable and I was cheering her on.
    With the small changes already mentioned, you have a great opening. Keep going.
    By the way, a good editor will help find those grammar issues.

  5. You had me at “Ten minutes to get to the ship, and maybe another twenty before the cops figured out what she had done.”

    This is what we preach all the time here — show a disturbing event but don’t over-explain. I like that the writer didn’t feel compelled to STOP the action and tell us what the event was that would cause cops to chase her. That can be explained later. It’s a great tease.

    Normally, I would advise against opening with a character waking up and trying to get going (ie the cop who gets a call to come to a crime scene rather than opening at the crime scene itself.) But the writer made this scene work by stressing Diamond’s nervous need to bolt from her home where, last night, she had been planning something important. (Which also does not need explaining now…another good example of skillful withholding of info to create suspense.)

    A good example, over all, of creating suspense with selective minimal info. I’d read on.

  6. Overall, with some fixes, I would turn the page. I am a “techie”. Trust me, you want someone else looking at your grammar.

    My fixes: The coat and hood go on THEN the front door opens. Someone else mentioned the whole embedded chip with a false name thing. A false name would need a stolen chip, or a friendly hacker. Almost everything seems very current, not future. Pizza, chocolate, the whole bathroom thing. All is very right now.

    Um, an escape vehicle is hanging out in the police station, keyed to the prisoner? Pretty weak law enforcement.

    Would love to see draft 2.

  7. Excellent start. Agree with many of the minor fixes, but I would definitely turn the page. Well done!

  8. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Nice job. I’m late to the party, but here are my notes to throw into the mix (and I’m going to try hard not to let the other comments influence what I say):

    First Line

    Choose the most exciting lines to begin your story. I’d go with something like this:

    Diamond Blue looked at her watch. Crap! Ten minutes to get to the ship, and maybe another twenty before the cops figured out what she’d done.

    Overwriting

    Don’t describe every tiny action your character makes. Example:

    “In the bathroom, she held the backpack up to her side of the shelf and swiped everything in. She rested the bag on the vanity and pushed at the jumble inside to close the zip.”

    This doesn’t warrant two sentences, and it slows the action. Condense.

    Character Looking in the Mirror

    It’s a bad idea describe a character’s appearance by having the character look in a mirror. This is a cliche, as much as I love the idea of sapphire braids. (Like Laura said, the blue isn’t needed.) Too much time is spent focusing on what the character looks like. What the character looks like isn’t the most important information for the reader to have on the first page. Read “Introduce Your Character to the Reader” by Monica Partridge (available online). Her blog is for screenwriters, but much of the information applies to novelists, as well.

    Use of Italics

    Laura writes in her critique: “Using italics to hear a third-person character’s thoughts is fine. But if you’re going to use quotes or italics, you need to treat thoughts like internal dialogue, and use me instead of her, and I instead of she.”

    Yep. I agree.

    There are some other issues with grammar and punctuation that I don’t have time to mention individually. Pay attention to subject/verb agreement. Be sure to get an editor, brave writer.

    Flashbacks on the First Page

    You write: “The memory flashed of her best friend, Rina, surrounded by a swarm of armed cops. She shook her head to clear it. If she didn’t get moving, it would all be for nothing.”

    This is a flashback. Although it’s brief, flashbacks should be avoided on the first page. Peter Selgin writes in a first page critique: “Rule No. 1 for flashbacks: until and unless you’ve invested us in a scene, don’t flash back (or away) from it.” (https://www.janefriedman.com/flashbacks-story-opening/)

    Wow, the idea of a swarm of armed cops sounds exciting. Have you considered beginning the story there?

    However, if you do start the story in a futuristic apartment/pad, provide descriptive details of what it looks like. Give the reader a clear opening image. Take the greatest care in describing the futuristic stuff.

    Pacing

    Use shorter sentences to convey urgency. Condense and tighten. Take a look at how Peter Selgin edited the first page that I referenced in the flashback section. Very tight writing. If you go through your writing and make similar kinds of edits to condense, you will make good writing even better!

    All of this stuff being said, I would definitely turn the page. I want to find out why the cops are after the protagonist and why she’s stealing her best friend’s identity. Great hook. Keep going!

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