Throat Clearing

By John Gilstrap

This morning, we take a look at a few hundred words that were submitted by Valiant Author, looking for an honest critique. I think we all know the drill by now. First, I’ll present the submission as I received it, and then it’ll be my turn on the back end:

Chapter 1

Beginnings

There was a knock at the door. “Major Edwards? It’s 0600; you requested a wake-up call, sir.”

Elijah turned the lamp on beside him and folded back the covers of his bed. The stark contrast between the warmth of the sheets and the chill of the room caused him to shiver. He sighed heavily as he placed his feet in the slippers beside the bed. He drew a short breath as they touched his skin, feeling more of ice than leather, before slowly walking to the door. Opening it, there stood a corporal with a clipboard.

“Thank you, Corporal, I’m up now,” said Edwards.

The Corporal nodded, “Yes Sir, do you need anything else Major?”

“No, that will be all.” Edwards replied closing the door.

The day’s ritual had begun.

He could hear the corporal move down the hallway and knock on the next door. Edwards rubbed his face, trying to wipe the fog of sleep from his mind, the stubble of his beard scratching his palms as he did. He turned from the door and paused to look around his “home”. A bed, with a washstand next to it, occupied most of the room. On the far wall, a wingback chair and ottoman sat before a fireplace. The walls, covered by large red roses on blue-tinted wallpaper, meant to be cheerful and welcoming.

The wood floor reflected his mood of late, worn, bare, and darkened by the passage of time. An Orderly cleaned it daily, yet it always smelled the same. A thick musty odor hung in the air, a reminder, of the many lives that passed through before him.

Edwards glanced at calendar on the wall, his only reminder that the world still moved along, read Friday, March 3rd, 1944.

It’s been over two years since I arrived in 1942, just one of thousands of Americans. Each of us, full of piss and vinegar, ready to kick the Nazis clean back to Germany. It seems like a lifetime ago. The swift victory we all believed in never came and one day just became the next in this interminable war.

=

It’s Gilstrap again.

A common trait among first chapters is what I call throat clearing, akin to the moment in public speaking when you approach the microphone and deliver an ahem as your first message to the audience. It centers you as a speaker. It makes the vocal cords vibrate to assure you that they are in place and ready to go, but the noise itself does little to advance the message people have gathered to hear.

In fiction, throat clearing is often disguised as setting or, heaven forfend, a prologue. It happens to all of us in early drafts, and I wager these passages rarely survive the final edit. All of that is fine. It’s part of the process. And it’s the bulk of what we find in this submission.  It’s less story than it is pre-story.

I can’t begin to calculate the number of times various writers in this space have espoused the importance of beginning at a high point in a story. As one who writes a fair amount of violence into my books, I feel confident in proclaiming that the process of awakening from a sound sleep is rarely the high point in a book set in the midst of war. Even if what follows is not a series of shoot-’em-up action scenes, the fact of the war–and the sense of melancholy that flows from it–is the central theme of this opening. I would feel much more empathy for Major Edwards’s situation if he were blowing bloody snot out of his nose in a trench than having been rousted out of the rack by his orderly.

Alas, I feel that Valiant Author’s actual story begins on the other side of the page turn.

That said, let’s take a look at the sample itself, ignoring the strategic location within the story and concentrating instead on the craftsmanship itself. My comments are in bold face.

Beginnings (Okay, this is purely my own prejudice, and I confess that I might be completely off-base, but I dislike named chapters. They seem trite and old-fashioned to me.)

There was a knock at the door. (This form of sentence construction–“there was . . .” is toxic to narrative. It’s so horribly passive. It means nothing. Room service knocks on doors, and so do SWAT teams when they serve a warrant, but each represents an entirely different variety of contact with the door.) “Major Edwards? It’s 0600; you requested a wake-up call, sir.” (A wake-up call? Is this in fact a hotel? And if so, why is a corporal doing the wakeup duty? Under the circumstances, not knowing what corner of the war Major Edwards occupies, 0600 feels a lot like sleeping in. While we’re here, another pet peeve of mine is the use of numerals in dialogue. I always spell things out–oh six hundred. Also a pet peeve: semicolons have no place in fiction. [Cue the arguments from English purists.])

Elijah (Because we’re not yet acclimated to these surroundings or these characters, we don’t know who Elijah is. I would write this as, Major Elijah Edwards . . .) turned the lamp on beside him and folded back the covers of his bed. (This seems at once precious and vague. Did he yank the chain on the lamp? Spin a knob? Was the knob knurled? Yellow light? Bright enough to hurt his eyes? And as for folding down the covers, is that really the image you’re after? That seems so very fastidious.) The stark contrast between the warmth of the sheets and the chill of the room caused him to shiver. (He shivered in the cold. We’ll understand why.) He sighed heavily as he placed his feet in the slippers beside the bed. (Generally speaking, sighs are a mistake. Heavy sighs are always a mistake in all genres but a few. As for the slippers, well, I guess we all must suffer in wartime.) He drew a short breath as they touched his skin, feeling more of ice than leather, before slowly walking to the door. (I don’t know where you intend to go with this story, so this might not be a criticism, but I hate this guy. He’s a whiny, privileged REMF [look it up]. If that’s what you’re looking for, then you’ve nailed it.) Opening it, there stood a corporal with a clipboard. (This is a tortured sentence. Notice the recurrence of the “there” construction.)

My recommendation is to kill all of the above paragraph–and the one immediately below–and replace it with something like, “Yup.”

“Thank you, Corporal, I’m up now,” said Edwards.

The Corporal nodded, “Yes Sir, do you need anything else Major?” (I wasn’t around in WW2, but this seems like a lot sucking up to a major. It’s not that senior a rank. Here again, I could be wrong.)

“No, that will be all.” Edwards replied closing the door.

The day’s ritual had begun.

Note: In over 150 words of text, nothing has happened. A guy heard a knock and he stood up. In 154 words.

He could hear the corporal move down the hallway and knock on the next door. (So everyone on the hall gets a wakeup call?) Edwards (He was Elijah above. Pick one and stay with it.) rubbed his face, trying to wipe the fog of sleep from his mind, the stubble of his beard scratching his palms as he did. He turned from the door and paused to look around his “home”. A bed, with a washstand next to it, occupied most of the room. On the far wall, a wingback chair and ottoman sat before a fireplace. The walls, covered by large red roses on blue-tinted wallpaper, meant to be cheerful and welcoming. (Still, nothing has happened. But I am hating him more. I mean, honestly. Who chose such awful wallpaper? I’m sure he’d take a trench any day.)

The wood floor reflected his mood of late, worn, bare, and darkened by the passage of time. An Orderly cleaned it daily, yet it always smelled the same. A thick musty odor hung in the air, a reminder, of the many lives that passed through before him. (Now, I might be thinking too hard. Are we in a hospital? Orderlies (never capitalized in the middle of a sentence) could be stretcher pushers, or, since this is a military setting, they could be folks who wake up officers and get their uniforms ready–though not likely for a major.

Edwards glanced at calendar on the wall, his only reminder that the world still moved along, read Friday, March 3rd, 1944.

It’s been over two years since I arrived in 1942, just one of thousands of Americans. Each of us, full of piss and vinegar, (cliche) ready to kick the Nazis clean back to Germany. It seems like a lifetime ago. The swift victory we all believed in never came and one day just became the next in this interminable war. (Quoted thoughts can be really tricky. We don’t think in complete sentences–at least I don’t. I think in feelings, images. I certainly don’t engage in eloquent internal monologues. If I were writing this, I would write it as close third-person narrative.)

It’s still me, but I took off the heavy dark coat.

Valiant Author, I hope you understand that honest feedback is intended as a kindness, not as a spirit-breaker. I encourage you to re-think your story’s opening–and perhaps the entire story, whatever that might be–to approach it from the point of view of readers who crave good tales and want authors to snatch them by the lower lip and pull them into drama from which they cannot look away. At each turn in your story–at each new paragraph, even–ask yourself if the words you’re writing are advancing either plot or character. In a perfect world, every passage advances both at the same time.

Okay, TKZ family, it’s your turn . . .

 

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

13 thoughts on “Throat Clearing

  1. If there’s one thing you take away from John’s incredibly detailed critique, Brave Author, it’s this: “Alas, I feel that Valiant Author’s actual story begins on the other side of the page turn.”

    I couldn’t agree with him more. Not that the rest of his critique is useless, because you can follow the same sage advice throughout the rest of your edits and revisions, but it makes fixing this first page easy. All you have to do is hit the delete key, which in my experience, can be a writer’s best friend.

    My current novel, currently out on query, started with roughly 70 pages of material that was full of action, witty dialogue and backstory–all of which, I found once I really started second drafting, was little more than throat-clearing. I was able to reuse some of it later on in the story, but once I identified the TRUE place my story started, it was amazing how quickly everything clicked into place.

    I agree with John that it feels like your story begins at some point later on, after Elijah has been woken by the Corporal and has shaved the morning stubble from his face. Maybe it’s a battle scene or maybe it’s something equally as quiet as this opening, but with more meat, more questions posed that us readers want answered. Once you find it, you’ll be thrilled how naturally the rest of the story unfolds. Good luck with this!

  2. The day’s ritual had begun.

    As the auto mechanic might say, looking with you under the hood, “There’s your problem right there.” An opening page should never be about ritual or routine! It should be about a disturbance to the ritual or routine. Said disturbance doesn’t have to be “big.” Even getting awakened from a deep sleep can be a disturbance if it’s something other than just a wake-up call. Is his Jeep missing? Or on fire? Do MPs want to see him? Is his daughter in the hospital? Get something like that into the first half of your page and you’ll be off and running.

  3. In my first novels, I ended up cutting almost the entire first eight chapters for all the reasons Mr. Gilstrap has mentioned. Serious throat issues.
    Folding laundry? Recalling what transpired on a plane as she walked through the airport? But I’d BEEN to that airport. Many times. My readers HAD to see it. And so on.
    However, Brave Author, these early paragraphs/scenes/chapters are not wasted. They’re for you. They help cement your characters in your mind. Take Mr. Gilstrap’s advice. He knows of what he speaks.

  4. Brave Author,

    Please don’t be discouraged. We’ve all been in the place you are now.

    Terry is right–nothing is wasted. You’ve written a mini-character sketch and a setting description for your own use to familiarize yourself with the story’s background. It’s like doing homework for the final version you plan to write.

    Your prose is clear and easy to read. WWII is an era that remains full of potential for fiction. Now make something happen and you’re on your way.

    • I’ll echo what Debbie said. We’ve all been where you are now. It’s part of the journey. Take the time you need to digest John’s remarks, then get back to work. Best of luck, Brave Writer!

  5. I hesitate to jump in here, but I will, purely as a reader and not as an expert author.

    Valiant Author, please heed these comments. If you do, your story (and I love stories about WW2…Higgins, Follett, etc.) will be the better. These folks here at TKZ know…

    My take: I really didn’t care to watch the major get out of bed.

    But, when I arrived at the line, It seems like a lifetime ago, I thought ah! There’s the beginning of the story! I wanted to know what happened a lifetime ago.

    And, Mr. Gilstrap, you sent me to the dictionary at least twice, maybe three times! Love learning new words… 🙂

  6. Brave writer, please don’t be discouraged by John’s feedback. I’ve received similar feedback from beta readers and my first editor. We writers often start the story too early, as well as engage in the throat clearing he described. I certainly have.

    It took me a few books to understand the importance of beginning with a disturbance, as Jim mentioned in his comments. Now, that’s my pole star for each of my novels. I find it absolutely crucial to the openings of each novel I write.

    Learning to write is a process. Like Sue said above, give yourself time to digest this, and then move forward. Onward and upward!

  7. Agree with the assessment. This is the kind of stuff I *do* write when first drafting & getting a feel for my story & characters, but ultimately ends up getting chopped out in revision.

  8. If he’s a major, he’s been in the military a long time. He’s been getting up early ever since basic training. He shouldn’t need anyone to wake him up by now unless he was out all night on a mission and has to pretend otherwise so is severely sleep-deprived.

    If it’s 1944 and he’s been there two years, why is he looking around the room? Hasn’t he seen it before?

    Where is he? I’m guessing the England or somewhere in the European theatre via the Nazi reference but that’s only a guess.

    It’s World War II. Something should be happening.

  9. This kind of scene *could* work as an opening scene in a movie – the visual would carry us through the few seconds of screen time, allowing us to get accustomed to the MC (assuming the major is the MC).

    That said, visuals like that rarely carry over into prose with any kind of effectiveness (to the reader, that is).

    While I don’t share Mr. Gilstrap’s aversion to chapter titles, a slugline to the effect of “London, England, May 3, 1942, 0600 hours” could orient the reader quickly.

    I do like the hook, when we finally get it, and I’m looking forward to reading the finished story!

  10. My thanks to Mr. Gilstrap for his evaluation, and to all that commented. Honesty, though it can be painful, often is the spark that renews the spirit. Far from being discouraged, I have a glimmer of light at the end of my tunnel, that’s not attached to a locomotive. The premise that my story probably starts after the page turn, tells me I should start digging, instead of quitting.

    If at first, you don’t succeed…

  11. Late to the party as usual. But I agree with the critiques and comments. A good example of the adage “get into your scene as late as possible.” Waking up, whether by knock on barracks door or phone call from police station to a sleeping detective, doesn’t work. (I started a first chapter exactly like that once; luckily had a good editor who told me to cut it). The body is lying there down by the river; start the scene there. I suspect this writer is capable of better. 🙂

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