First Page Critique: A Thousand Cuts

By Elaine Viets

Have I got a first-page critique for you, TKZers – a biker, a strip club, serious money and the age-old struggle between mother and daughter. A winning combination in my book. Here, take a look. Then I’ll make my comments.
***

“Juliana, it’s time to grow up and stop being foolish.”

My mother and I had been locked in this loop for the last four days. Every morning, she descended from her five-hundred-a-day vacation perch on the lake and made her way to the trailer park to harangue me about my life choices. Of course, I had an open invitation to stay with her and partake in the luxury. After one night, I decided the natural stone hot tub wasn’t worth it. Being in her lair gave her more time to go on about all my failures.

“I’m going to be thirty-seven in a few weeks. I think I’m as grown as I’m going to get. I do not want to move to Houston,” I said with the flat monotone of a phrase well-rehearsed and often-repeated.

Rachel María del Carmen Delgado Martin could easily pass for ten years younger than sixty. She wore her vintage designer suit and cat-eye makeup like a queen. In contrast, my black jeans and tank top, still stained from work behind the bar at the Biloxi strip club, marked me as a refugee from a biker rally.

Evidently, my mother agreed. She pulled one of my wild curls straight and let it spring back. I hadn’t cut it since the FBI shut down the family law firm, and the jumbled mass was almost to my waist.

I grabbed her hand before she could start finger-combing my hair. “Stop it. I’m not five. I don’t need you to spit on a hankie and wash my face.”

“Well, you need something. A half-million dollar education and you’re living out here in that box with wheels. You’re better than this. Come to Houston. The co-op board needs a new lawyer. One word from me and it’s yours. You don’t even have to live with me, although you didn’t seem to mind after your surgery. There’s a nice two-bedroom unit on the tenth floor of the south tower, and,” she paused as if her next words hurt, “It’s yours.”

I choked back the sarcasm bubbling to my lips. For my mother to even think about giving away a couple of million in real estate; she was speaking from her heart. I wasn’t going to gain anything by being a bitch.

“Mom.”

My contrition was cut short by the rumble of a motorcycle pulling into my driveway.

***

I thought our Brave Author did a fine job of setting the scene: We know Juliana is 37 and her mother is 60. Mom has plenty of bucks and is staying at a $500 a night vacation place. She wants her daughter, who is 37, to leave the trailer park and her life as a bartender in a strip joint, and tries to bribe her with a job and a high-end condo in Houston.
As an editor, I would make some tweaks:

(1) The first sentence – “Juliana, it’s time to grow up and stop being foolish” – doesn’t have a tag. It’s obvious who is talking, Juliana’s mother, Rachel Martin. But just so readers don’t get lost, I’d recast it this way:

“Juliana, it’s time to grow up and stop being foolish,” my mother said. Again.
My mother and I had been locked in this loop for the last four days. Every morning, she . . .
That tag, or something similar, ties the first paragraph into the second.

(2) The next tweak is punctuation:
There’s a nice two-bedroom unit on the tenth floor of the south tower, and,” she paused as if her next words hurt, “It’s yours.”

It should read:
There’s a nice two-bedroom unit on the tenth floor of the south tower, and,” she paused as if her next words hurt, “it’s yours.” (It’s is lower case.)

(3) The parts of this sentence do not belong together:
For my mother to even think about giving away a couple of million in real estate; she was speaking from her heart.

Consider recasting it this way:
My mother must be speaking from her heart to even think about giving away a couple of million in real estate.

Finally, I’m not sure what kind of book this is. There are plenty of elements – the daughter’s wild life, Mom’s money, and the “FBI shutting down the family law firm” – that could make for a good mystery. On the other hand, it could be modern women’s fiction, examining the relationship between two headstrong women.
However, I believe the author throws too much at us too soon: What we really have here is the opening to a short story or other form of short fiction. For this to work as a novel, and avoid having the women become stereotypes (defiant rebel daughter vs. controlling mother), the author needs to introduce the characters a little more slowly, and build sympathy for both of them. We need to meet them a little at a time.

Congratulations, Brave Author. I’m intrigued.
How about you, TKZers? What do you think?
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A STAR IS DEAD, Elaine’s new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, debuts in April. Publishers Weekly says it has “witty dialogue and well-defined characters.” Pre-order it here: https://tinyurl.com/uwj27lv

5+
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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book. www.elaineviets.com

25 thoughts on “First Page Critique: A Thousand Cuts

  1. Brave Author, you drew me in right away. I stumbled in the same places that Elaine did, which are little things, really, but mostly I like the conflict on this first page and even felt a little tense in my body while reading it (good job!).

    My favorite line is “I don’t need you to spit on a hankie and wash my face.” We all remember that little-kid feeling when Mom wiped our faces.:-)

    I did think a lot was coming at me at once, and Elaine’s suggestion to slow down a little is perfect.

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

  2. Wow, I really liked this. It gave me a real connection to both characters and empathy for both characters. I don’t think there is too much info. It reads like a quick conversation by the front door. There is no doubt this conversation is on a loop.

    And then the motorcycle arrives. Even though the author doesn’t say it, I can picture both women rolling their eyes at the sight and sound. The mother thinking ‘And why this choice …’ and the daughter thinking ‘Could he have worse timing’.

    And I lived the fact that the daughter knows it’s coming, her mother will be here, v l

  3. Don’t know what happened there. Loved the fact the daughter knows her mother will be there, but not only doesn’t take a shower, she doesn’t change her shirt. It’s like an added act of defiance.

  4. Too much too soon is the perfect critique. Then there are some things I feel are missing. Perhaps the FBI raid and how Juliana went from lawyer to bar tender could be on page two? What kind of surgery? And I think everyone would want to know how Juliana ended up in a trailer park. You wedged a lot in. But it is interesting.

    Take a good look at Eliane’s notes. Changing a few words and punctuation could make this into a ‘stay up late I want to read one more chapter’ kind of book.

  5. I love this piece. My one minor quibble is with the line of dialogue where she says, “I’m 37 years old . . .” That felt more for the benefit of the reader than organic to the story.

    • I don’t know that I’d agree, John. I recently spent several days with my mom when she was in the hospital, and she kept saying, “It’s getting dark, go home.” Despite my telling her that there was over an hour until sunset, she wouldn’t let up. My words to her were, “I’m 72 years old and I can make my own decision about when it’s getting dark.”
      So, at least one other person says things like that to her mom.
      But I totally agree it’s a good piece, Brave Author.

  6. I’m having a problem imagining “descending” from a $500 rental perched above a lake to a trailer park below. Quite sure this is not what the author intended. I think the author meant that her mother drove (as opposed to “made her way”) to the trailer park which was not lake-front property.

    Loved “her lair”.

    Also had difficulty with “four days”. Surely, this battle has been going on far longer than that. Think the author means the four days her mother rented the lake house where the pressure to move escalated and the bribery began?

    Had a bit of an eww factor with stained clothes from bartending. It’s the morning, she’s home, and she hasn’t taken a shower? Changed her clothes?

    Good luck author, despite the nit picks I enjoyed this. Would definitely read more.

  7. I simply love this. Took me right to the space in front of my dear mom, where I’d stand toe-to-toe and eyeball-to-eyeball with her in my dangerous youth. And beyond. I agree with the critique and most of the comments.

    Great start, Brave Author! I hope to see it on my shelf someday.

  8. This is hilarious, brave writer. Today, I’m going to focus my comments on one thing that I think will help you the most: dialogue. Luckily, it’s very easy to fix.

    Be careful not to have the characters speak in long paragraphs. Short and snappy dialogue should be the goal. For some of the best dialogue ever written, take a look at the Gilmore Girls scripts online. Very funny but very quick. Sometimes good dialogue can become even funnier if you trim it. So, let’s look at this. You write:

    “Well, you need something. A half-million dollar education and you’re living out here in that box with wheels. You’re better than this. Come to Houston. The co-op board needs a new lawyer. One word from me and it’s yours. You don’t even have to live with me, although you didn’t seem to mind after your surgery. There’s a nice two-bedroom unit on the tenth floor of the south tower, and,” she paused as if her next words hurt, “It’s yours.”

    That’s a mouthful. Let’s see if we can trim it. Try:

    “A half-million dollar education and you’re living in that box of wheels. Come to Houston. The co-op board needs new lawyer. One word from me and the job’s yours. You don’t have to live with me, though you didn’t seem to mind after your surgery. There’s a two-bedroom unit on the tenth floor of the south tower and,”she paused as if her next words hurt, “it’s yours.”

    You might even consider breaking that big chunk of dialogue up with some kind of retort from the daughter, like this:

    “A half-million dollar education and you’re living in that box of wheels. Come to Houston. The co-op board needs new lawyer. One word from me and the job’s yours.”

    I counted to ten silently. (Or insert some kind of short response of your choosing.)

    “You don’t have to live with me, though you didn’t seem to mind after your surgery. There’s a two-bedroom unit on the tenth floor of the south tower and,”she paused as if her next words hurt, “it’s yours.”

    Let’s look at one more bit of dialogue:

    “I’m going to be thirty-seven in a few weeks. I think I’m as grown as I’m going to get. I do not want to move to Houston,” I said with the flat monotone of a phrase well-rehearsed and often-repeated.

    This dialogue seems a little “on the nose” to me. Here is chance for a witty retort. Try something like (and this is just an example I came up with on the fly… you can brainstorm some more):

    “Are there piranhas in the lake? I’ll jump in instead.”

    Anyway, I nearly choked on the olive in my salad when I read this. Some funny stuff here. My only caution is to edit judiciously. Avoid any dialogue that is too on the nose. Keep going with this, brave writer. I would turn the page. Nice job.

  9. You all are awesome. My new job (teaching high school) is kicking my butt and I’m late to the party.

    Elaine, thank you so much for your comments. Damn that misplaced capital letter, it gets me every time. And your other tweaks are perfect.

    The rest of the comments segue right into something I know there have been posts about, and could probably use a few more.

    This is the third book in the Juliana Martin series (after Devil’s Deal and Ride the Lightning.) It is indeed a mystery/thriller. I didn’t add that in because I wanted your opinion on it as a stand-alone. There is that balance between not boring the returning readers while not losing new readers.

    The surgery, for example, is from injuries sustained at the end of book 1. It leaves her with PTSD that follows her through the series. When she’s nervous, her hand goes one of two places – the pistol in her belt or the scar on her chest.

    The strip club was the setting for most of book 2 and she’s back home because of the events that drove her out of there.

    Back to her most fearsome adversary of all – her mother (who we first met in book 1.)

    Advice on how to weave series, especially ones that are fairly linear, to not start out too fast or too slow.

    And thanks to everyone for their kind words. This one has come slow. I recently canned most of my original outline and took it in a completely different direction. I was running the risk of falling into formula.

    PS: The motorcycle rider is an FBI agent. Her FBI agent.

    • Ah, hah! I figured you were a pro. Your writing is too polished for an amateur. Terri Lynn, you’re now at a tough stage in writing. In book 3, you have to provide enough information about what happened in your other two books, both to remind faithful followers and to help first-timers understand what is going on. Check out long-running series, such as Sue Grafton’s alphabet series and Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, to see how it’s done. Good luck. And thanks for teaching those future readers.

      • Y’all did a first-pager on book 2 as well that really helped, so I thought I’d come back for book 3. And I appreciate it.

        Excellent suggestion on Sookie! I need to revisit those.

        This book is more intimate with things from her past coming back at her. Old boyfriends, an unresolved love triangle, her family, etc., all while an elderly resident of the park is the target of a 40-year-old cold case investigation and she has to help unravel a Nigerian lonely hearts scam.

        And then there’s how to move a complicated love affair out of lust and adventure into the next phase or risk losing it. All while her mother is texting her for an answer about the Houston offer.

        So, I gotta weave a lot of threads of new and old together.

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