First Page Critique: The God Glasses

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Please enjoy the first 400 words of “The God Glasses” from an anonymous submitter. I’ll have my critique after the excerpt. Please contribute constructive criticism in your comments.

***

Ella raced up the stairs as fast as her twelve year old legs could carry her. She had one objective, the same one every time—to escape the terror. She stopped mid-way and listened to her mother scream at her father.

“You never listen to me! You’re buried in your work, your motorcycle, or your sports. We wait for you to come home, but you never do. When you’re here, you’re somewhere else. Why don’t you just go away and never come back? Wouldn’t be much of a change—”

A slap and a heavy fall. Mama moaned—a pitiful sound, Ella thought. Her fists balled up at her sides, her legs shook.

She crept back down to the landing and peered over the railing into the kitchen. Daddy picked Mama up by the hair and backed her tight against the wall, his other hand knotted on her breastbone, pushing cruelly. He towered over her smallness, tattooed muscles bulging under his sleeves, face mere inches from hers. He wrenched her head back, forcing her to look up.

Mama’s wide eyes met hers. She blinked and a tear wetted her bruised cheek.

Ella gripped the rail. It creaked.

Daddy jerked his head up and smiled. He moved his hand from Mama’s breastbone to her throat and leaned in, thrusting his mouth next to Mama’s ear.

“You watch your mouth or I just might leave and never come back!” he screamed. Pulling back, he said, “What would happen to you and the girl if I left? How would you like that—to have to go and beg for help from that old woman up the street? Yeah, I thought not. So straighten up. I’m going out.” He snapped her head back. She fell again with a crash, upsetting the small side table which held his liquor and glasses.

“Clean that up before I get back,” he bellowed.

“Clean it up yourself, you pig—”

Ella ran, long dark hair streaming behind her. She stumbled on the top stair and fell to her face. She picked herself up, raced to her bedroom closet, and yanked the door open. She backed into the corner and sank to the floor, hands tight against her ears.

After Daddy leaves, I’ll go see Grandmother. She’ll tell me again about her God glasses. Maybe she’ll let me wear them.

She rocked back and forth, recalling better times.

***

FEEDBACK

First impressions, I like this author’s voice and the clear concise writing with visual imagery. Good use of the senses. On the surface, there is plenty to get drawn into with Ella. I like that the author stuck with the actions of the domestic violence scene and didn’t stray into backstory or an explanation. I’m rooting for Ella and love that the author has told the story through a twelve-year-old girl’s eyes. Domestic violence through a child’s eyes can be more powerful. Readers will want to protect her, but this first scene feels rushed for the sake of action. Violence like this should be more emotional, especially from a kid’s eyes. Make us feel Ella’s fear and helplessness.

We have clean copy and a solid start, but let’s dig deeper from a bird’s eye view to see how we can strengthen this scene.

ANOTHER OPENING SUGGESTION – The author has a choice to start with action (as in this case) or ground the reader into Ella’s world before the violence happens and build towards it. Anticipation can milk the tension in ways this action opening can’t. Would readers relate to Ella more if they got a taste of her world before the shocking inevitable happens? Should the author build toward a mounting dread that her father will be home or he’s late and both mom and daughter know what that means (without telling readers)?

In this opener, it’s my gut instinct when dealing with a young protagonist to show her world in a short punchy beginning that doesn’t slow the pace. Make every word count and build on what will happen with hints of foreshadowing. As much as I like the action in this opener, I can see how an unexplained growing tension between a mother and daughter can pique a reader’s interest more. Have Ella rushing to finish her homework from the safety of her small bedroom and not quite get it done because her mother yells for her to come downstairs to set the table. That would allow the reader to know what kind of mother she is before everything erupts.

Ella and her mother look at a clock ticking on a wall. When they hear boots climbing stair outside, they tense and wait for the door to open. He steps into the small apartment and he reeks of alcohol. Have Ella read her mother’s cues. Both women know what’s coming. How do they each react? Have patience for the scene to erupt and build on the natural tension.

In this current scene, Ella’s mom aggressively goes after the angered dad and puts Ella in danger. That makes both parents look bad. Is that the intention of the author? I don’t know. Let’s talk about character motivation.

CHARACTER MOTIVATION – This feels like violence that has happened more than once. If Ella’s mother is a battered wife, why would she taunt this man into beating her? She’s overly aggressive with someone who will punch her in the face and put her daughter in danger. It doesn’t feel natural, from a motivation standpoint. If the author would show more of how this anger is triggered and how the reactions would flow, the violence would be more grounded for the reader.

Also, Ella runs scared up the stairs, but turns around and comes back to watch. That feels like a cheat to the reader, to get them into the race up the stairs, only to deflate the tension by having Ella retreat. I can totally see a young kid who might want to protect the mom, stick around to watch. But that’s not how this began.

Make the reader understand why Ella might have a reason to protect the mom. By a slower build toward the violence, we could get a glimpse into Ella’s personality. Is she feisty or a beat dog? Is she ready to fight when her mother isn’t? Ella’s character motivation could be more interesting in this opener.

As a reader, I’m questioning character motives. The author should have patience to let the reader know the hearts of these characters. Contrivances (for the sake of action and tension) don’t allow the reader to buy into the story.

DIALOGUE – There are two long dialogue groupings – the first one when the mom goes after the dad. The second comes when the dad yells back. Because these are grouped together, they feel contrived and forced. Arguments, especially when there is violence, they are more believable if there is an exchange with shorter lines. Let the action ratchet up the tension and have the dialogue be punchy and shorter. More natural.

Have the dialogue get louder. Maybe have a neighbor yell and pound the thin wall, “Shut up or I’ll call the cops.” Then finish with the violence that will stop both parents. I can see him yelling down at her as she struggles to stay conscious.

“See? You drive me crazy. You always ask for it.”

RESEARCH – Abusers often blame their victims. It wouldn’t hurt to research the psychology behind domestic violence. Good research on motivation will add authenticity. Although there are lots of good books on the subject, I often look first at online articles on any given topic. These type of articles can inspire ideas on how to add impact to a scene. Here is a link to “The Psychological Wounds of Domestic Violence.”

COMBINE THE YELLING LINES? The long diatribe has the potential of losing the interest of the reader if it’s lumped together, without much grounding. Below is an example of breaking apart the dialogue groupings and combine them, with tensions escalating toward his first assault on her.

“You never listen to me!”

“Watch your mouth.”

“You’re buried in your work, your motorcycle, or your sports. That’s what matters to you. Not us.”

“Give me something to come home to. Look at you. You’re a mess.”

“Why don’t you just go away and never come back? Wouldn’t be much of a change—”

“Oh, yeah. What would happen to you and the girl if I left? How would you like it if you had to beg for help from the old woman? You don’t know how to make it alone.”

“Being alone is better than being with you.”

“You ungrateful pig.” (He strikes her)

WHAT WOULD ELLA DO? – What options does Ella have as a twelve-year-old child? Even if you didn’t change this scene much, I wondered what was going through Ella’s mind as she sat at the top of the stairs and watched her dad beat her mother. She must be in agony. I wanted the author to show the conflicts that must be raging through her. For Ella to sit on the stairs, without lifting a finger to call police or help her mom, that did not feel normal.

If you have the neighbor call the cops, the sirens could be wailing before he storms out, leaving Ella and her mom to deal with the aftermath. Ella would want to see if her mom is okay, wouldn’t she? Would she try to stop her father? The combination of Ella crying and fending off the old man, along with the cop sirens coming, could be enough to make the wife beater leave. But Ella running to hide in her closet, without checking on her mother, doesn’t seem heroic.

That’s why it matters to build on Ella’s world, even a little. A stronger foundation gets the reader in the girl’s corner from the start. We get a glimpse into her home life and how she feels toward her mother and father.

TITLE – I’m not sure what God’s Glasses have to do with the story. I like the title but I’m not sure why yet. It piqued my interest, but don’t rush to have Ella thinking about the old woman and God’s glasses. That feels like a contrivance for the sake of having a better opening scene cliffhanger. Be patient as the story unfolds. I’m sure there is something magical about God’s Glasses and Ella.

SUMMARY – This is the kind of story that would make it through a writer’s group reading with flying colors. It’s clean copy and there’s a lot to like about it. But as I read this strong opening, I had questions in my mind. Character motivation is a big one. Make it believable and real. Then ask yourself, is there a better way to start this? I don’t know if Ella will be a main character. I presume so, given the title, but it’s doubly important to have the reader think favorably of her from the first page. Or at least, be intrigued enough to turn the page. Have patience to portray your character. I normally love to start with action. Many of us do, here at TKZ. But with this opening, I thought a more deft hand in Ella’s portrayal was needed. What do you think, TKZers?

DISCUSSION:

Let me know what you think of this story, TKZers. I’m pretty sure we would all turn the page of this story, but what would you do to make this intro stronger?

Do you have different ideas on how to make this opening stronger?

Are there relationship elements between Ella and her parents that would enhance this scene?

 

5+
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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

18 thoughts on “First Page Critique: The God Glasses

  1. I’ve always loved your critiques, Jordan. They’re generous and detailed and insightful. I’m sure Anon will gain much out of this.

    I’ve been visiting TKZ daily for the past three years and the one constant piece of advice is to open your story with “action”. It’s been pounded home so well that it’s the first thing I think about when I start a scene. But of course action for the sake of it–to tick a checkbox, if you will–can leave a frustrating opening, as Jordan’s excellent critique points out. Without proper grounding, a reason to care for a character and his/her motivations, openings like the one above can come across as contrived. I, myself, prefer JSB’s word “disturbance”. It allows for variations and subtleties.

    Could it be that sometimes us newbies take the word “action” too literally?

    Thank you, Jordan and everyone at TKZ who’re making my writer’s journey easier and pleasurable. God bless you all!

    • Well said, Nana. Thank you for commenting & for following our blog.

      I love Jim’s advice on a “disturbance” as well. An opening should illustrate when something happens to change a character’s life & disrupt it.

      What is the disturbance in this scene with Ella? It doesn’t feel like the first time her father struck her mother. Yes, it’s compelling action to a degree & the author shows promise, but does the story begin where it should? We don’t know yet but if the author builds a better foundation for Ella’s story with solid motivation & a “disturbance” or change in course for a young girl, we may have a good start.

      Maybe the girl’s desperation leads to her reaching out to a grandmother who changes her life. A disturbance doesn’t have to happen in 400 words but a character’s motives shouldn’t have holes in it.

  2. As always, great analysis, Jordan.

    The title The God Glasses immediately grabbed me before I read a word of the submission. Short, punchy, evocative, plus it hints at supernatural powers. Well done. Will you please come up with a title for my untitled WIP? 🙂

    RE: character motivation. Since Ella shows an inclination toward avoidance (running up the stairs, hiding in the closet), maybe play that up. What if, when she’s tried to interfere in the past, she received a worse beating than her mom did? That would make her understandably leery of trying to save mom.

    Also, the abuser refers to her as “the girl.” That sounds like a hint he’s a stepfather.

    Here are few options:

    What if Ella runs upstairs and hides in the closet right after the argument starts? She hears the fight, catching a few harsh words, hears the crash as her mother hits the wall, hears the breaking glass of liquor bottles and the escalation of screams. If handled well, the sounds can be more terrifying than the sight.

    But…Ella knows if she tries to help, he’ll break her arm again and she just got the cast off this week (or something along that line).

    Ella’s only hope is to escape to Grandma’s b/c Grandma has the God Glasses. That hints at their potential power to save Ella from the ugly violence of her home life. Have her take action, e.g. climb out the window and leap toward a nearby tree she can slide down. As she runs down the street toward Grandma’s, she’s ridden with guilt b/c she can still hear her mom’s screams.

    Good job, brave author!

    • Hey Debbie. Thanks for your insights.

      The wife beater IS the father. I had the same thought & had to re-read. Ella calls him her father.

      The way this is written, Ella witnesses the fight so the author can stay in the girl’s POV and the reader can get a firsthand account. But you’ve presented another way for the author to focus more on Ella & less on the ugly scene downstairs. Goosld suggestions. Thank you.

  3. I liked the foundation of this submission. It certainly starts with action and disturbance and a vulnerable character, which creates immediate sympathy.

    So the fodder is there. I would suggest, however, that things happen too fast (rushed, as Jordan puts it), and in a rather cliched way. And as Jordan points out, Mom and Dad each have speeches that are too “on the nose.” That makes the dialogue feel like set-up, rather than real talk.

    My suggestion is to turn this first page into five pages. Go beat by beat as the violence slowly unfolds. This will help get that emotional attachment to Ella. (Read pages 23-40 of Dean Konntz’s Whispers to see how it’s done). Major in the action and emotions, and only occasionally drop in a line of backstory or exposition.

    Write some dialogue that is “off the nose.” Things we DON’T expect to be said.

    You’ve got the material. Now reshape it for effect.

  4. Overall, well told although the child witnessing wife beating is a cliche, at least it is a well written cliche.

    The title is both a little vague and foretelling. But titles change all the time. No worries. When the time comes the publisher may love or hate it anyway.

    Is the old woman down the street Grandmother? I touch clearer would help me.

    I think the next 100 words will bring the God Glasses and what they can do into the picture. Would be a good story with Grandma and her super power specs.

    • Good input, Alan. Thank you.

      I love the idea of God Glasses. That imagery really triggers the imagination, especially as seen through the eyes of a child.

  5. I totally agree with you, Jordan, on the motivation of the characters, particularly the mother.
    Her dialogue complains that the Father is never around – in an established domestic violence situation, his very presence would elicite a hightened, fearful response from her.
    The last thing she would be complaining about is his absence, that’s more likely to be a welcome reprieve from walking on eggshells.
    So, as you’ve suggested, there’s a great opportunity to rachet up the tension, and illustrate all the emotional turmoil, long before it comes to blows.
    The God glasses are certainly an intriguing element.

  6. Ahh…y’all are great! I loved reading through your critiques. And I have a serious confession to make. Somewhere in my studies of JSB craft books, Weiland, Rubart, Maas, and others, I think I read somewhere “who are you writing for?”

    I *gulp* changed a bit of these first 400 words to work more action/tension/scary stuff in, because, well, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Grab the reader in the first few paragraphs?

    Mea culpa…I wrote for y’all, instead of writing the story! I completely forgot that readers don’t yet care about Ella the way I already do, unless I make them care. Thank you, thank you, thank you for zooming right in on that. I won’t easily forget this lesson.

    Daddy calls her “the girl” because that’s all she is to him, even though he is her father. Worse, to me, than if a stepfather called her that.

    The God Glasses …Grandmother sends Ella on a treasure hunt through her huge old mansion down the street to find them. And when she finds them, she finds something else…her grandmother’s journal.

    And that’s all you get …

    • Thanks for your excellent submission, Deb. You definitely have a gift & your story sounds like what I hoped it would be. The treasure hunt sounds amazing. I’m excited for you. Good luck with your book. Hugs…

    • As a writer of YA, I believe your little Ella has tons of potential at the helm of your story. Have patience with your love for her. Be thorough & wring out the emotion. Your efforts will pay off.

  7. Excellent critique as always, Jordan!
    I think the writing itself is good. Opening so quickly on a domestic violence scene may be confronting for some readers, but the suggestion to take this scene a bit slower may fix this. If the reader becomes invested in the characters first, then they are going to stick around. Jordan’s suggestion of building the tension would work for this.
    I also found the mother’s retaliation – calling him a pig just as it seemed he was about to leave – at odds with the situation. Her throat may be sore from him grabbing it and also she could feel a bit fuzzy from hitting her head – I suggest showing the effects of his treatment of her. It would make me feel more sympathetic and scared for the mother (and Ella) and dislike him even more.
    Congrats to the author – a lot to like about this submission.

  8. Thanks for sharing your work with us, Deb. First of all, I applaud you for tackling domestic violence in a book written for (I assume) kids in the middle grades. There are books out there for younger kids and teens, but there’s not much for the ages in between that I could find. Here’s a sampling of what I found: https://www.domesticshelters.org/resources/books/teens-and-children

    Your first page definitely grabs the reader by heartstrings and makes the reader worry about the fate of the young protagonist. Good job. You’ve gotten a lot of great comments to consider already, but here are my thoughts on some things to think about as you make your revisions to throw into the mix:

    Title

    Love it!

    First Line

    “Ella raced up the stairs as fast as her twelve year old legs could carry her.”

    I think you can come up with a stronger first line, but I think this line does pull the reader right into the story. However, don’t forget the hyphens, like this, if you keep this line:

    Ella raced up the stairs as fast as her twelve-year-old legs could carry her.

    However, if you want to stay in Ella’s POV, consider this: would she really be thinking about her own age?

    Pacing

    Some folks don’t like leaping into the action so quickly, but certain books for kids do it. Consider the opening line of Charlotte’s Web: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” That line sucks the reader into a horrific situation immediately. Luckily, the reader doesn’t actually witness any violence, and the small pig is spared. The thought of what might happen with the ax is enough to terrify most kids.

    Your opening pulls a young reader directly into a very graphic scene. Since domestic violence is such a difficult topic, you might consider leading into things gradually. The power of suggestion works wonders with kids. Depending on the age group of your targeted audience, you could even “show” the violence by having the child “hear” what happens from upstairs, rather than actually having the child “watch” what is happening. A child could hear shouting, objects being thrown, things banging into walls and such. Later, the child could see bruises. It would convey the same message, without being so graphic. When it comes to writing for kids, I love the idea of using the power of suggestion to its fullest advantage.

    Dialogue

    I agree with JSB. The dialogue seems a little too on the nose. Also, as Jordan wisely suggested, I’d keep the dialogue lines shorter. When people are in a heated argument, they don’t generally speak in long paragraphs.

    Point of View

    Stay completely in Ella’s point of view for this scene. Consider this line:

    “Ella ran, long dark hair streaming behind her.”

    Ella would not be thinking about the length and color of her hair. This is author intrusion. There are other ways to work in characteristics of your protagonist. See “Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View” by Jodie Renner. She kindly posted a handout from her workshop which is available online.

    If you want to show that she has long hair, have it get caught on the button of her shirt or something. Check out Jodie’s checklist. I know it will be helpful.

    Show, Don’t Tell

    This line is telling:

    “She had one objective, the same one every time—to escape the terror.”

    Never state what can be implied.

    Last Line

    “She rocked back and forth, recalling better times.”

    I think I would prefer that you use a specific image instead of saying “recalling better times” — maybe pick something specific that makes her happy.

    That’s all for now, Deb. Good stuff here. Keep going with it!

    • Thanks, Joanne! Appreciate your help.

      As a side note: I’m not sure if this will be YA (middle grade) or not. Some of you pointed me in that direction in your comments, but I hadn’t even considered it. And perhaps you’re right.

      When Ella finds her grandmother’s journal (Grandmother is blind, BTW) and starts reading it, she discovers that the God glasses aren’t what she thought they’d be.

      One idea I have for the novel is this: after she finds the journal and the glasses, each chapter will open with an excerpt from the journal. (I’ve created a separate Word doc for her journal entries.) Those small excerpts, just a few lines, will paint a picture for Ella of her grandmother’s life-a life lived during the Vietnam war era. And she’ll learn how her Grandmother came to have and use the God glasses.

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