Are a Ghost’s Feelings Dead? A First Page Critique

Critiqued by Elaine Viets

 

Gather ’round, readers, and make sure the lights are on. Today, we’re critiquing a “murder ghost story,” a first page critique by a brave anonymous author. Read it first, and then I’ll discuss it. Here goes:

Continuing Adventures of Laurel Palmer: Murder Ghost Story

When I was a child I was afraid of ghosts.
As I grew up I realized people are more scary.

When I woke up, I was dead. It took a minute to sink in.
When it did, I sat up abruptly, immediately shooting up to the ceiling twenty feet above the first-floor landing. In a cloud of confusion, I looked down and saw myself, or what used to be myself, sprawled at the foot of the stairs. I waved my arms, wondering if that’s how I would need to propel myself in my current insubstantial form.
Actually, it only took thinking to be able to float down, where I hovered a few feet above the empty shell that used to be me. I examined the form critically. I had been beautiful, hadn’t I?
I was lying there picturesquely, almost gracefully, face up, large brown eyes wide in shock, long sable hair spread around my head like a dark halo. Or I could have pulled that off if my arms and legs weren’t bent at strange angles, and a crimson liquid wasn’t pooling on the hardwood floor, with strands of that sable hair soaking in it, and my normal olive complexion wasn’t unusually pasty, with maybe a little gray creeping in.
Nice legs, I thought, noticing that the filmy silk dress I had been wearing was halfway up my thigh, fortunately not exposing anything I…she…might be embarrassed to have on display when the appropriate authorities arrived on the scene. I tried to pull the dress lower to cover more of her exposed legs, but my hand passed right through.
Floating, both physically and emotionally, I felt only mild curiosity as I scrutinized the body on the floor. Having no lingering connection to it, I could watch it dispassionately, waiting to see if it did anything. Like breathe. I gave a soft laugh. Not likely, since I was here, and I would have been there if any life remained in the corpse.
I settled onto a step a few up from the recently deceased person, rested my elbows on my knees, and pondered the meaning of life. Or what it all means. Being dead and still here, I mean.

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Death is the ultimate mystery, and we all wonder what will happen when we meet our end. Our Brave Author gave us an imaginative look at the other side. This first page is readable and well-written, but I’d like to suggest some changes.

(1) Drop the italics line.
When I was a child I was afraid of ghosts.
As I grew up I realized people are more scary.

Consider using it elsewhere as an observation in your story. It takes away from the impact of your first two lines: “When I woke up, I was dead. It took a minute to sink in.”
Those lines are grabbers, and so is the next one. “When it did, I sat up abruptly, immediately shooting up to the ceiling twenty feet above the first-floor landing.”
So far, so good. This beginning shows imagination. But now the tone changes. It becomes distant.
(2) The woman is dead, and we need to know how she feels about it. At first, she seems confused, which might be the expected response – I hope I won’t know for sure for a long time.
“In a cloud of confusion, I looked down and saw myself, or what used to be myself, sprawled at the foot of the stairs.”
That “in a cloud of confusion” is a bit confusing. Consider making it something like: “Confused, I looked down and saw myself, or what used to be myself, sprawled at the foot of the stairs.”
Confusion is to be expected, especially since our new ghost is learning that she is incorporeal and has to navigate in a new world. “I waved my arms, wondering if that’s how I would need to propel myself in my current insubstantial form. Actually, it only took thinking to be able to float down, where I hovered a few feet above the empty shell that used to be me.”
That’s good.
(3) But by now, she should be feeling something – or wondering why she feels so numb.
Instead, she admires her dead body, as if it were a work of art. We need some emotion here.
Is she upset that she’s lost this beautiful body? Is she unhappy? Did she like her life? Will she be sorry to leave it? Are there any relatives, friends or lovers she will miss?
(4) Also, this is billed as a “murder ghost story.”
Was our ghost murdered? Tell us. Does she know who pushed her down the stairs to her untimely death? Let us know. Is she angry? Frightened? Vengeful?
(5) And last, but not least, our ghost is suffering from Ectoplasmic Anonymity.
Tell us her name. Right away. Maybe here in this sentence would be a good place: “Actually, it only took thinking to be able to float down, where I hovered a few feet above the empty shell that used to be me, Laurel Palmer.” Or whoever the ghost is.
Don’t let these criticisms scare you, Brave Author. If you want another good critique of a paranormal story, check out PJ Parrish’s paranormal critique: https://tinyurl.com/8f5jmbut
Your ghost story is off to a good start. Your ghost is just a little . . . insubstantial.
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Save the Date! Wednesday, March 17 at 6 PM ET
Charlaine Harris and Elaine Viets: A Zoom Event at Murder on the Beach
You know Charlaine from her Southern Vampire “True Blood” mysteries. Now she has a new series, featuring Gunnie Rose. The gunslinger for hire lives in a fractured US. I’ll have a new book, too: “Death Grip,” my fifth Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery.
Admission? Just buy either book. For reservations, call Murder on the Beach Bookstore at 561-279-7790 or email murdermb@gate.net.

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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

12 thoughts on “Are a Ghost’s Feelings Dead? A First Page Critique

  1. I like my ghost stories to be scary, so while a ghost mystery isn’t something I’d normally pick up, you do have my intrigued. Everything Elaine said is spot on, but one other aspect of this page did trip me up more than anything she listed, and that was what–to me anyway–was an overuse of adverbs. I’m not in the All Adverbs Are Evil camp, but too many is like putting too much sugar in a recipe. Overkill can ruin the entire thing. For example, in the fourth line of this one, “abruptly” and “immediately” appear back to back. While I don’t hate adverbs, two of them in a row is certainly one too many. Clean up some of those, follow the rest of Elaine’s advice, and you’re on your way to a much tighter novel. Good luck!

  2. Brave Author, this page was well written and intriguing. It asked questions that made me want to turn the page to learn answers. Who murdered Laurel? Why? How will Laurel’s ghost solve the crime and avenge her own death?

    “When I woke up, I was dead. It took a minute to sink in.” – Strong, compelling opening sentences. I agree with Elaine’s idea to begin with them instead of the italicized lines.

    “When I was a child I was afraid of ghosts. As I grew up I realized people are more scary.” – This could be your tagline for the book. I suggest rewording to “As I grew up I realized people are scarier.”

    Excellent description of her physical body with nice hint at her personality and concern for modesty: “not exposing anything I…she…might be embarrassed to have on display when the appropriate authorities arrived on the scene. I tried to pull the dress lower to cover more of her exposed legs, but my hand passed right through.” That also shows her spirit’s inability to cause physical changes to the world of the living. Well done!

    The detached tone didn’t bother me b/c Laurel is in shock at the discovery of her death. The first stage of grief is denial. With this author’s capable writing, I have faith the next stage of anger will come soon.

    You hooked me, Brave Author!

    Elaine, Murder on the Beach sounds terrific. Thanks for sharing the news.

  3. Thanks, Brave Author, for giving us a looksee at your first page. I love ghost stories of all kinds, so this piqued my interest. My favorite line is when she shot up to the ceiling. It’s exactly what I imagine a cognizant but suddenly dead person would experience.

    My overall impression is that the passage is wordy (lots of adverbs, for example). I urge you to consider cutting words to see if you can keep the important info and the stylistic stuff but with tighter prose.

    I agree especially with Elaine’s fourth point in her insightful critique. I can’t tell if the dead woman died from an accident and will become a detective ghost for future crime victims, or if the dead woman was a murder victim herself.

    Just a nitpik: “normally olive” instead of “normal.”

    You have me interested, Brave Author. Good luck with this story!

  4. I’m not generally a fan of paranormal fiction, but I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. I liked the ghost right away with her rational approach to the situation. You’ve created an atmosphere that makes me want to turn the page.

    I wonder if you could make the last paragraph a little stronger by dropping the sentence “Or what it all means.”

    Well done!

  5. I loved this! The italicized lines absolutely have to be included, just not where they are. How many of us (me included) have had this thought, that live people are scarier than ghosts? I guess more than a few…

    Thank you for letting us peek, BA, and Elaine’s critique is great.

    Keep calm and write on…this would make a fabulous movie! Just sayin’… 🙂

  6. Great critique! My two favorite suggestions from Elaine Viets:

    “Was our ghost murdered? Tell us. Does she know who pushed her down the stairs…:”

    “Tell us her name. Right away…”

    Since this is a mystery (whodunnit?), introduce the mystery ASAP. (Eliminating every unnecessary adjective and adverb is good advice, but it won’t jump start the plot).

    The premise isn’t new – a dead person investigating their own death – but the angle could be. If this is a unique take, I’d love to see some hint of that on page one.

    I’m a fan of ghost mysteries (who isn’t?), and would love to see this story on the shelf. Good luck author, I enjoyed the read.

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