First Page Critique – Rooster Strut

Chamber pot – photo courtesy of National Park Service

Today’s Brave Author takes us on a tour of a piss-poor town. Please enjoy this first page entitled Rooster Strut.

Rooster Strut

My name is J.B. Hoehandel Jr. But most folks call me June Bug for short. Me and my buddy Wad Larson was pigging out on two for a dollar corn dogs one night at the Silver Dollar Drive-In restaurant. Anita Moore Love just started working the night shift. She’d been a stripper someplace up north and was down here running from the law. At least that was according to the local rumor mill which was headed up by Wad’s great grandmother.

Anita finished taking an order from a carload of high-school hoodlums in someone’s dad’s station wagon when she turned her back to them and bent down to tie her shoes. That was kind of strange considering she was wearing flip-flops. When those tight short shorts rode up to the point of Oh-my-dear- God- in-Heaven, the whoops and hollers from that carload of brain-dead teenagers could be heard way over in Dognut County. Wad laughed so hard he about choked on his chewing tobacco.

Wad’s had a golf ball-sized cheek full of Red Man in his mouth since he was ten. He’s never taken it out, not even to sleep. He keeps chewing it down and adding to it, which is how Wad got his name.

We all live in a small town called Rooster Strut. It’s not the kind of place you want to raise your kids. The odds are against them making it much past puberty with all the toxic shit that comes out of the Morgan Tillman Tannery.

You may not know it, but the way they turn animal hides into those expensive purses and high dollar leather goods you folks like so much, starts by soaking raw animal skins in a mixture of cow piss, chicken shit, quicklime, salt, and water.

Back in the day, people would save up their piss and sell it to the tannery. A tradition that gave us such sayings as “piss poor.” or, “He ain’t got a pot to piss in or a place to put it.” Nowadays there’s more money in cooking meth than saving up piss, but they both smell pretty bad which is why real estate in Rooster Strut is so cheap.

~~~

Several years ago, at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson gave a talk about world building. I walked into the session with minimal interest since sci-fi/fantasy is not a genre I foresee myself writing. Also, as a reader, I tend to skip over setting details because character development and plot action are more interesting to me than places.

Was I surprised and blown away!

Kevin kicked off his talk with an anecdote about his family’s home town purported to be the sauerkraut capital of the world. His mom held the title of Miss Sauerkraut of 1955. He described how the waste water from the sauerkraut factory was expelled into ditches around town. The inescapable, rancid smell permeated the area for miles around. In winter, the same polluted water froze and kids skated on it. Occasionally someone broke through the ice into the rank slurry below.

The specific details Kevin chose were so vivid and evocative that my nose still twitches when I remember his talk. I came away with a whole new appreciation for how a powerfully described setting adds to a story.

Rooster Strut is similarly memorable. Brave Author uses the sense of smell to build the world of a depressed, dead-end, small town. The reader is immediately pulled into a place stinking with the greasy aroma two-for-a-buck corn dogs, pungent cow piss and chicken shit, and meth cooking. We’re not sure we want to be here because the overall impression is pretty disgusting.

But it’s also irresistible.

Short, punchy descriptions sum up the atmosphere:

It’s not the kind of place you want to raise your kids.

Nowadays there’s more money in cooking meth than saving up piss, but they both smell pretty bad which is why real estate in Rooster Strut is so cheap.

Why would a reader want to stick around this crummy place where clearly nothing good will happen?

I believe the main reason is the wildly humorous voice.

The names are unabashedly corny: June Bug Hoehandel, Wad, a former stripper named Moore Love, Dognut. The narrator not only pokes fun at the residents, the locale, and the situation, but also makes observations full of ironic wisdom.

The description of Anita bending over to tie non-existent shoelaces on her flip-flops makes a strong visual impact in the reader’s mind. Then the author layers on a deeper meaning with the phrase to the point of Oh-my-dear-God-in Heaven, giving a hint at the cultural and religious mores of the narrator, probably shared by many residents of the town.

Some readers don’t care for the technique of directly addressing the reader as you but it doesn’t bother me. In fact, it felt particularly appropriate and in keeping with the mood of this piece.

The narrator issues an invitation to the reader, essentially saying, “Howdy, stranger, you’re not from around here. Why don’t you sit down and let me tell you a story about Rooster Strut and its local characters? And have a corn dog while you’re at it.”

That evokes instant intimacy between the narrator and the reader.

While the story doesn’t open with an obvious problem—like finding a dead body, for instance—the scene is set in a skillful way that promises lots of conflict ahead.

An outsider (the stripper from up north) is on the run from the law and causing a disturbance in the community. The illicit meth trade is juxtaposed with young victims apparently poisoned by a supposedly legitimate industry, Morgan Tillman Tannery. People are stuck in a hopeless economy that will likely lead to desperate acts to escape or improve their family’s circumstances.

Yet, as depressing as the set-up sounds, the humorous voice promises considerable fun along the journey.

Great work, Brave Author!

The typos I saw were minor and easily fixable.

Insert hyphens in two-for-a-dollar.

Remove extra spaces in Oh-my-dear-God-in-Heaven.

The time period wasn’t specified. Someone’s dad’s station wagon sounds like 1980s or earlier but, in Rooster Strut, Dad might well drive a 40+-year-old vehicle. A poverty-stricken small town can often feel stuck in time, harking back to the days when there were good jobs and opportunities. Consider including a quick notation that signals if this is contemporary or in years past.

Humor is subjective. Vulgar, earthy language and hokey humor may put off some readers and that’s okay because tastes vary. However, like habanero peppers, a little goes a long way. A challenge for the Brave Author will be to sustain this rollicking voice through the story without becoming tiresome. But I have faith s/he can pull it off.

I thoroughly enjoyed this page.

Thanks, Brave Author, for taking TKZ readers on a tour of Rooster Strut!

~~~

Your turn, TKZers. What suggestions do you have for the Brave Author? Did you want to keep reading?

~~~

Please check out Debbie Burke’s award-winning thriller, Instrument of the Devil, on sale for $.99 until November 15. Here’s the link.

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About Debbie Burke

Crime novelist, suspense and mystery novels are her passion. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Her nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications and she is a regular blogger at The Kill Zone. 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

17 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Rooster Strut

  1. I agree with the above comments. I liked the voice, and the humor. I would keep reading past page one. I thought the obvious conflicts with the stripper evading the law and the illegal meth sales were enough to draw me in. Also, I love the names!

  2. Brave Author, thanks for giving us a look-see at your first page. I enjoyed it and chucked along the way.

    My favorite sentence was about Ms. Love’s shorts riding up and the boys hollering.

    Debbie gave you a wonderful critique. I’d just like to add three things for you to consider or not:

    Since June Bug talks like a redneck, he wouldn’t say “chewing tobacco,” just “chew” or maybe quid, leaf, or cud. Any non-redneck readers would pick up on the meaning with the very next paragraph.

    Second, I don’t carry a high-dollar, leather purse, but even I cringed a little at “high-dollar leather goods you folks like so much.” If you leave out “you folks like so much,” then you still get your point across about the piss-poor town folk breathing toxic fumes because of luxury goods manufacturing, but you wouldn’t potentially raise readers’ hackles on the first page.

    The third thing is not everyone will relate to June Bug’s voice, and that’s okay. Readers who do enjoy hillbilly/redneck/backwoods kind of speech (like me!) will love it.

    Best of luck on your continued writing journey, Brave Author.

    • Good catch about “chewing tobacco,” which raises another important plot question: Will Wad ever get kissed? Ugh.

      Excellent point about alienating readers by referring to “you folks.”

      Brave author will appreciate your encouragement, Priscilla.

  3. J.B. sounds like a boy; but June Bug sounds like a girl. That’s confusing.

    I like the voice over all, but it has the feel of a non-Southerner playing Southern. (This could just be my perception, as a Southerner who went to northern schools, I experienced this quite a bit).

    I would suggest have something happen. (Ex – Me and Wad were walking across the field when I tripped over the body.). Right now there is nothing going on, so I wouldn’t read further. Make something happen and I would.

  4. Distinctive voice, cutesy humor that is perhaps a touch over the top for my tastes. My complaint–nothing happens! Where’s the hint of the conflict to come? Our protagonist sits, watches, thinks. While entertaining, this first page sounds more like a character journal written while the author develops the character’s voice. I’d like to see some forward momentum while the author retains the voice or else I’d be concerned that the book is going to be nothing but a string of one-off jokes.

    • KS, you’re so right that a “string of one-off jokes” cannot carry a book. But I have faith this author has some conflicts up his/her sleeve. Thanks for your input.

  5. Not sure I’d read a whole book on a voice like this if the author is only counting on voice to carry the story. Regardless of the lure of the voice, nothing happens, as KS commented. This is pure exposition.

    I can see how you’d be drawn to the author’s unique voice, Debbie. Your writing welcomes readers into the worlds you create, but your stories also have great openings.

    We only have a scant 400 words from this talented author. We have to make assumptions, because professional editors & agents make their submission decisions in a snap.

    Here’s my take. There’s a unique voice & world building in Hunger Games, but book 1 starts with a bang with the impact of the lottery where teens are forced to fight to the death in a futuristic reality TV show.

    Not all books carry the impact of Hunger Games but think about how much more this opening would make an impression if the storyteller is busted making meth, driven by desperate need as in Breaking Bad. Maybe he’s a young preacher at the local church.

    The reader would be drawn in, through the emotional investment they’d have with an anti-hero trying to supplement his preacher’s income because his only child has cancer & treatments aren’t covered by insurance. Or his insurance may have lapsed because the church stopped paying premiums by mistake.

    The author shows promise, for sure, but something should STILL happen. The reader needs an emotional connection to relate to the characters & root for them.

    • Great suggestions, Jordan!

      I’ve started books b/c a compelling voice hooked me but gave up after 25-50 pages when the story didn’t live up to its initial promise. The confidence and competence in this excerpt gives me hope the Brave Author can carry off an interesting story.

      Thanks for your kind words! You’ve taught me many great techniques over the years.

      When is your new Trinity LeDoux book coming out? Eagerly anticipating it!

      • The Curse She Wore (A Trinity LeDoux Novel) is in final proof production. In my court for final review. Release date will be coming soon, I hope. Trinity has a unique & challenging voice that’s fun to write. I’d really like to make an audio book but the narrator would have to match her uniqueness & be performed as if the narrator is an actor. Thanks, Debbie.

  6. Where do I begin? First of all, brave writer, I’ve never critiqued anything quite like this. This piece took me back to my high school days when I was in the musical Li’l Abner. For those here who are familiar with the musical, remember the song “Jubilation T. Cornpone” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TfcJ82FAhw)? Anyway, I digress… Now let’s talk about this submission.

    Title

    FYI, Richard Scarry wrote a kiddie book entitled The Rooster Struts.

    First Line

    “My name is J.B. Hoehandel Jr. But most folks call me June Bug for short.”

    I’d tighten it, like this:

    “My name is J.B. Hoehandel Jr., but folks call me June Bug.”

    As someone else noted, June Bug sounds like a female name.

    POV/Voice

    While the voice is colorful, I don’t know if I could tolerate it for 400 pages, brave writer.

    Do stay in first person.

    Overwriting

    Consolidate when you can. A few examples:

    “At least that was according to …” can be rewritten: “At least according to…”

    “when she turned her back to them” can be rewritten: “when she turned her back…”

    “It’s not the kind of place you want to raise your kids.” can be rewritten: “It’s not the kind of place to raise kids.”

    “You may not know it, but the way they turn animal hides into those expensive purses and high dollar leather goods you folks like so much, starts by soaking raw animal skins in a mixture of cow piss, chicken shit, quicklime, salt, and water.” can be rewritten:

    “The way they turn animal hides into those expensive purses and leather goods folks like so much starts by soaking raw animal skins in a mixture of cow piss, chicken shit, quicklime, salt, and water.”

    (You don’t need both “expensive” and “high dollar” here.) I understand that sometimes your “wordiness” may be intentional for the voice of the character, but there are places where the extra words make the writing tedious to read.

    I’m not suggesting that you keep all of the revised lines necessarily. I’m just giving examples of how to edit.

    Genre

    The first page doesn’t give any indication about the genre of the novel. It should.

    Overall

    Read “9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 7” by literary agent Kristin Nelson, available online. Your opening gets the readers interested in Anita, and then you launch into a long diatribe about other stuff. Readers don’t want to be pulled away from what’s going on in the scene for too long.

    Also read “Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right” by Paula Munier (on Jane Friedman’s blog). You can find this with a search engine. Do the exercise with the colored pencils. Also, remember JSB’s wise words: “Act now. Explain later.”

    Something to consider:

    If you went out to a restaurant and saw something happening between two people there, you would not know the background of the people. You would have to form an opinion about the people solely by observing them. This is how you should introduce your protagonist and other characters in your story to the reader. Show the reader what kind of people they are by what they do in the “here and now” of the story. Readers don’t need a biography of each character on the first page. Something needs to happen that is interesting enough to make a reader turn the page. As Jake Vander Ark likes to say, “Put the cat in the oven before you describe the kitchen.” (This is a play on the “save the cat” theme — don’t harm any cats!)

    Also read “Making an Entrance” by Barbara Kyle (available in a PDF file online).

    Best of luck with your revisions, brave writer. I want to see your next draft.

    • Thanks for your always-thoughtful, detailed suggestions, Joanne. Ah, yes, Lil Abner!

      A critique buddy from the deep south always drawls, “Why say in one word what you can say in 20?” The tough part is finding a balance between that distinctive voice and wordiness.

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