First Page Critique – Murder for the Sleep Deprived

@burke_writer

 

Please welcome today’s Brave Author who submitted Murder for the Sleep Deprived a dark comedy mystery.

Enjoy this excerpt then we’ll discuss.

~~~

NOW

Kevin Mills-Greene wasn’t a nice young man when he was alive.

He wasn’t exactly any nicer when he was dead, either.

The sun was beating down and reflecting off the pool in the Harding’s back garden, the sky a swathe of pale blue that was dotted with fluffy clouds, as the dappled sunlight fell through the leaves of the trees that brushed the edges of the garden.

Nice weather.

The sort of weather that the first thing you’d think as you sat down outside would be – “Ah, this is lovely.”

The weather was nice the morning after Kevin Mills-Greene was murdered, even if he wasn’t. The teenager was lying on his back, unblinking, unmoving, and utterly, entirely dead. To be fair, dead people aren’t exactly famous for moving and blinking. You mustn’t hold that against him.

The twitching of a curtain from inside the Harding household.

No blood-curdling scream.

Not yet.

The grass was soft and a luscious emerald shade – the entire garden practically radiating elegance, overlooking the corpse – even the small shed in the corner has neatly painted a shade of chestnut brown, the brightly colored plastic bottles creating as stained glass effect through the frosted windows as the sun reflected through. The burnished wood of a bench under the cover of a tree glinted in the sunlight.

One of those rare, perfect days; the kind of day that makes people forget to worry.

Perfect and worry-free, for everyone except Kevin Mills-Greene, obviously.

The buzzing of flies was a thick blanket of sound as they swirled like a rain-heavy cloud around the body, the twittering of birds in the trees overshadowed. The flies crept over his stiff limbs, his purpled, blueish skin mottled and paling.

Believe it or not, Kevin had been a relatively handsome young man.

~~~

The Brave Author categorized this as a “dark comedy mystery” and it certainly fills the bill. The ironic, understated humor has a tone that might be British. The idyllic description of the Harding yard and lovely weather contrasts effectively with the ugliness of the crime. A beautiful, peaceful setting is not where you expect to see the dead body of a teenager with flies feasting on him. That juxtaposition works well because it’s unexpected and surprise is a necessary component of humor.

Title: Good job! It caught my attention, which is a title’s main task. It establishes the genre and tone and piques the reader’s curiosity. Who’s sleep deprived and why? How does that connect to murder?

Time period: Now indicates a contemporary story.

First line: We’ve talked at TKZ about starting a story with a body.

It’s an attention grabber.

But it’s also a risk because the reader doesn’t know anything about the character yet. At this point, he is a two-dimensional being without personality, loves or hates, flaws or strengths. Why should the reader care if he’s dead?

However, I think the author pulled it off because of the intriguing opening line:

Kevin Mills-Greene wasn’t a nice young man when he was alive.

Why does that line work? It immediately raises a reader’s curiosity. Why wasn’t he a nice young man? Why is he dead?

What not-nice thing did he do that provoked someone to kill him? Who was that person?

There’s a hint at revenge, a very human, relatable theme for anyone who’s ever dreamed of retribution against somebody who wronged them. If this is a story of the ultimate comeuppance, what motive is behind it? How did an angry thought turn into murder?

The author took a risk and I think it paid off. I’ll keep reading to find those answers.

Point of View: The author took another risk here. The POV is omniscient which is difficult to pull off successfully. An all-seeing being floats above the scene and describes it, directly addressing the reader:

…the first thing you’d think as you sat down…

and

You mustn’t hold that against him.

Many readers dislike when an author uses “you” and talks directly to the audience. Personally, I don’t mind it. But it’s a matter of taste. In the comments, maybe TKZers will weigh in if they like “you” or not.

Back to the omniscient POV. Here, it sets the scene and gives context that would not otherwise be known to the reader. The narrator informs the reader that Kevin was not nice. How does s/he know? Is the narrator the god of the story issuing divine proclamations with dark wit? Or will the narrator soon become a character in the play?

Omniscient is not a popular choice for POV because readers don’t identify with a detached voice. They generally want to get inside the skin of characters, to experience the senses and emotions more directly. Omniscient is also difficult to sustain through an entire book.

This may be an introductory chapter where the problem is laid out, similar to the stage manager in the play Our Town. In this submission, perhaps the narrator makes the introduction then steps back and turns the rest of the story over to the characters and their POVs. If handled well, that could be an effective technique.

Does this POV work for the first page? Because of the humor, I think mostly it does. But the author should be wary of trying to maintain omniscience through the rest of the story because of the reasons mentioned above.

Here’s my biggest problem with the submission:

Where’s the body?

The statement about Kevin’s death is immediately followed by a detailed description of the pool. That led me to believe the body was floating in the pool, like William Holden at the beginning of the classic film Sunset Boulevard.

 

But, in the sixth paragraph, Kevin is lying on his back. That stopped me because generally bodies float face down in water. That sent me on another false trail: why is he floating face up?

In the tenth paragraph, there is a detailed description of a lush lawn and a beautifully landscaped back yard.

Okay, does that mean the body is lying on the grass?

No, wait.

The next sentence reads:

…the entire garden practically radiating elegance, overlooking the corpse.

How is the garden overlooking the body? Does the garden have eyes? Or is the body lying below the garden? If so, where? What or who is overlooking?

The last paragraph is a good, vivid description of the thick cloud of flies around the body.

But…I’m still not sure where the body is.

The author led me to several assumptions that turn out to be wrong. After going down false trails, I feel disoriented. Now I don’t quite trust the author. Do I really want to embark on a journey deeper into this book when I’ve been misled?

I don’t believe this was intentional misdirection on the author’s part. More likely, s/he saw the scene vividly in his/her head but something got lost between brain and keyboard. It happens to all of us! 

Details:  The twitching curtain raises the reader’s curiosity more. Who’s behind the curtain? Why doesn’t s/he react to the dead body? A blood-curdling scream is foreshadowed. These all increase tension and suspense. Well done.

There are several passages of detailed description of the setting–the shed, colored bottles, the burnished wood bench glinting in sunlight. Do these details play a significant role in the murder? If not, readers may become impatient because they want to know more about Kevin’s death.

…even the small shed in the corner has [typo-should be was] neatly painted a shade of chestnut brown, the brightly colored plastic bottles creating as [typo-should be a] stained glass effect through the frosted windows as the sun reflected through [repeated word]. The burnished wood of a bench under the cover of a tree glinted in the sunlight.

How much detail is enough? How much is too much that bogs down the story? This is a tightrope for authors. Because the author does a good job seducing the reader with the title and first line, I hope these details have significance.

But, if they’re not important, would the space be better used to describe what killed Kevin? Gunshot? Rodent poison? Garden trowel? Unknown cause?

Beware of –ly: In one page, I counted nine modifiers that ended with –ly.

Exactly, utterly, entirely, exactly, practically, neatly, brightly, obviously, relatively

Perhaps it’s a stylistic choice but they occurred often enough to be distracting.

Precision of language: The word choices sometimes don’t work.

…dappled sunlight fell through the leaves

Fell doesn’t accurately describe rays of sun.

I already mentioned the garden overlooking.

The twittering of birds in the trees overshadowed

Does that mean the twittering overshadowed? Or the trees?

Small punctuation nit:

…the first thing you’d think as you sat down outside would be – “Ah, this is lovely.”

 Normally, quotation marks are used for spoken dialogue. Since this line describes a thought, what if you use italics instead, like this:

…the first thing you’d think as you sat down outside would be: Ah, this is lovely.

 Humor: For humor to work well, it needs to be tack-sharp and spot on target.

The narrator’s statement:

One of those rare, perfect days; the kind of day that makes people forget to worry.

Perfect and worry-free, for everyone except Kevin Mills-Greene, obviously.

Since Kevin’s dead, he’s free of worries, so the line doesn’t quite work.

Here are a couple of suggestions but you can do better:

Perfect and worry-free. Kevin was no longer perfect but his worries were certainly gone.

Or:

Perfect and worry-free. At least, until the discovery of Kevin Mills-Greene’s body.

Overall, the Brave Author did an excellent job of teasing us. The reader wants to learn why Kevin wasn’t nice. Who is looking out from behind the curtain? Why the lack of reaction to a murder?

The fixes are small: sharper wit, more precise word choices, and pinning down the actual location of the body.

I’ll be interested to hear how the author handles POV through the rest of the story.

I would keep reading. How about you, TKZers?

What are your suggestions for the Brave Author?

9+
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About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with a Heart. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, and Dead Man's Bluff. Debbie's nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications. 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

14 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Murder for the Sleep Deprived

  1. You’ve got me hooked. Two excellent first lines. Third paragraph has some passive voice that is easy to clean up. “The sun beat down and reflected off the pool in the Harding’s back garden, the sky a swathe of pale blue, dotted with fluffy clouds…” Two paragraphs later is also a little bumpy, but easy to fix. “The sort of weather that made you think, Ah this is lovey, as soon as you sat down outside.” Everything is humming along nicely until we get to the line, “Not yet.” Right afterwards, I feel like I’m in a prose time loop where I’m back to reading description about the Harding’s yard, the weather, and the fact that Kevin is dead. All of which is done well, but is ultimately unnecessary.

    Kevin was not a nice kid, he’s dead in the Harding’s yard and it’s a beautiful day.

    Got it.

    Now tell me more about that twitching curtain…

    • Gregg, the first lines impressed me, too. Hooking the reader immediately is difficult but the Brave Author accomplished it successfully.

      “Prose time loop” is a good observation. Unless description of the setting propels the forward movement of the plot, better to keep it short

      Yup, let’s get to that twitching curtain soon.

      Thanks for your comments.

  2. Brave Author,
    Read Debbie’s critique carefully. I think you are well on your way to an interesting story. Word choice and description? Very good. A little clean up and would have me hooked. Dead body in the garden? Interesting choice, can go anywhere. Overall, I would keep reading.

    What is missing? Action. In the lush green grass under the blue sky and in front of the blowing curtain, not much is happening. Kevin is dead. And he apparently wasn’t a nice guy. What makes me turn to page 2?

    • Thanks, Alan. I agree the issues are minor and easy to clean up. The Brave Author is getting very close and should be encouraged by your comments.

  3. The first two lines are great — but for a tagline in your book’s description. They feel disjointed here, as if added only for the effect.
    Try to find a way to incorporate them better. I think they should lead into the next paragraph, which isn’t a case now.

    Overall, I like your voice.

  4. You gotta understand. I personally think you using you is okay.

    You, I think, often means that the character is frustrated, anxious, wanting a deep breath, or otherwise simply wants you to understand something about his story that he or she can’t fit in anywhere else. It is less than Simon Legree turning to the audience and saying, “And now you understand why.” Maybe it’s about the same thing as Obba Babatunde as Lamarr, in Tom Hanks’ movie, That Thing You Do, turns to smile at the audience–breaking the fourth wall–when all of his efforts to join together Gaye and Guy have finally come together, right at the end. His smile, I think, means. “You gotta understand. Now they’re happy.”

    To me, you can mean all sorts of things, from smart mouth remarks to resignation.

    You know?

    • Jim, thanks for bringing up the fourth wall https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_wall

      Classic comedians like Groucho Marx and George Burns had great success breaking the fourth wall. Their timing was impeccable which is so important in comedy. Good models to study for any author who wants to write snappy humor.

      Always glad for your input, Jim, y’know!

  5. I like it when an author addresses the reader in a story. It can be a disaster, though, if not written skillfully. In this case, with a humorous vibe and the omniscient POV, it works.

    My favorite line is: “Believe it or not, Kevin had been a relatively handsome young man.” It follows right after the grim description of his body, so the humorous impact is more intense.

    At first I thought the body was in the pool. Now I guess it’s by the garden. Like Debbie said in her excellent critique, it’d be good explain where the body is.

    If you read the page aloud, I think you’d notice the repetition of “through” in “The grass was soft” paragraph.

    I laughed. I was intrigued. Good first page, Brave Author, but it’d be even better with some tweaking.

  6. Great hook. It slows down quite a bit after the hook is set, but … the hook is set, and we’ve been promised blood-curdling screams, so that’s not a deal-breaker.

    I figure that third-person omniscient is the Cinderella of viewpoints, doing more work and getting less credit than its pampered stepsisters. This goes double for comic fiction: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, John Steinbeck.

  7. I approach these First Pages as a reader. I wanted to like this piece because it has a great title. But . . .

    This is only a sweeping overview of a crime? scene. There isn’t really even one character to care about and only the barest hint of a story. Even if this was the beginning of a BBC mystery (which I love), I’d have trouble sticking with it. I didn’t find it interesting enough,

    Finally, I hate the word ‘nice’ because it is neutral and in essence means nothing. There are stronger words. And to use it three times made it stick out.

    Brave writer, keep at it, your voice is good and your intention even better. Read James Scott Bell, Sol Stein, and Donald Maas to develop your technical skills. It will help you on your journey.

    • Brian, thanks for chiming in b/c your opinion exactly illustrates the risks of starting in this fashion. A good portion of readers (like yourself) will be put off if there isn’t a character who interests them right away.

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