First Page Critique – Little League; Huge Trouble

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Good morning and welcome to another Brave Author who’s submitted the first page of a mystery for discussion. Please enjoy the following then we’ll talk about it.

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Little League; Huge Trouble 

Genre: Mystery

The streets were empty, black puddles filling the trench where they dug up the gas line. It was the quiet time after school and before the commuters wind through the neighborhood.

If anyone was walking through the neighborhood, they would have seen him. He was running with hard plastic soles slapping the pavement.

On Milbert Street, according to the police report, he ran behind the shingled Victorian and through the garden that’s been featured in 40 magazines and down 220 yards of wooded trails to Salmon Street.

He ran left on Salmon, which descends through three quick curves and a patch of native rhododendrons, rising 30-feet high and exploding with faded pink blooms.

The next street, Greenway, is a short road with only seven houses and just beyond the fourth home, the midcentury showplace, he was shot. The bullet entered behind his left ear, severing the spinal cord and the slug tumbled underneath his skull, burrowing through the brain tissue like an angry metal worm.

He rolled down the embankment to the water that collects in the culvert after every strong rain.

When I learned he died and that he had been murdered, I hate admitting my initial reaction.

Damn, I thought, I just lost my leadoff hitter and best catcher.

My leadoff hitter and best catcher, who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.

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I confess to mixed feelings about this page. There are some really nice, evocative visuals—black puddles in trenches, hard plastic soles slapping the pavement, etc. Rather than an info dump to describe the town, Brave Author blends action with  description. Well done.

However, the POV is awkward and off-putting, switching from omniscient to first person. More on that in a moment.

Title: Little League; Huge Trouble sounds catchy, light, and humorous, as if this might be a cozy or a story for young readers. But the title is at odds with the vivid, gritty description of a bullet tumbling in a little boy’s brain like an angry worm, which, BTW, is an excellent simile.

I’m not a fan of semicolons in fiction and especially not in a title. It’s distracting and appears pretentious. Suggest you replace it with a comma or a dash:

Little League, Huge Trouble or Little League–Huge Trouble.

Point of View: The drone’s eye view of the streets, houses, and the boy fleeing from his killer is a cinematic effect that can be intriguing.

Omniscient POV is one way to show the overview of the setting. However, omniscient keeps the reader at a distance and delays introduction of the “I” character.

Tone: I felt off-balance and unsettled because the tone is uneven and inconsistent. It skips from an almost-flippant travelogue of an idyllic town featured in 40 magazines to the horrifying death scene of a little boy. Rather than becoming engrossed in the story, I spent too much time trying to figure out what direction the author was going.

This opener fouled out for the following reasons:

In parts, the tone tries to sound like a detailed official police report with precise factual details: “40 magazines”, “220 yards of wooded trails”, “three quick curves”, “rhododendrons, rising 30-feet high”, “seven houses”, “fourth home.”

But those cold facts feel in conflict with the wonderful, sensory descriptions that evoke emotion: “running with hard plastic soles slapping the pavement”, “exploding with faded pink blooms”, “burrowing…like an angry metal worm.”

Further, the observations about 40 magazines and midcentury showplace sound like authorial intrusions, further muddying the mood.

The contrast technique can work but must be carefully constructed so the reader doesn’t feel like a pinball bouncing from hard facts to the narrator’s flippant observations to strong emotions.

Likeability:  When the POV shifts from omniscient to “I”, the character’s reaction to the murder strikes out big time.

When I learned he died and that he had been murdered, I hate admitting my initial reaction.

Damn, I thought, I just lost my leadoff hitter and best catcher.

My leadoff hitter and best catcher, who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.

Gotta tell ya—The character may hate himself or herself but not nearly as much as I hate the character for that selfish, self-absorbed attitude. A child has been murdered and s/he worries how that affects their team’s chances to win.

Even the hardest-boiled noir treats a child’s murder more gently.

S/he may be a snarky anti-hero whose character arc eventually leads to redemption. But, after reading this beginning, I wouldn’t continue. No matter how much I want to see a child’s killer brought to justice, it isn’t worth spending 300 pages with a character whose values are so crass and selfish.

The Brave Author may be trying for irony, a technique that can be used to great effect. But it must be done deftly when dealing with a sensitive, emotionally-charged subject.

Writing: Overall, the craft is skillful and well done with excellent descriptions. There are some repetitious words (neighborhood twice in the first two paragraphs) and phrases (leadoff hitter and best catcher). Several times, the tense shifts from past to present within the same sentence (It was the quiet time after school and before the commuters wind through the neighborhood). That may be deliberate but it’s jarring.

The unevenness of tone and an unlikable narrator hit a grounder instead of a fly ball out of the park.

But this page is easily salvageable and can be rewritten into a home run.

In the example below in red, I tinkered with reordering and refocusing the tone to put more emphasis on irony: the contrast of a brutal murder in an idyllic setting; and the contrast of the promising sports career of a young boy who’s suddenly and violently cut down.

According to the police report, the streets were empty, the quiet time after school but before commuters wound through the neighborhood on their way home. Black puddles filled a trench where the gas line had been dug up.  

No witnesses had come forward yet. If anyone had been walking through the area at the time, they would have seen him, heard his hard, plastic soles slapping the pavement.

On Milbert Street, he ran behind the shingled Victorian and through the garden that’s been featured in 40 lifestyle magazines. He continued an eighth of a mile down a wooded trail to Salmon Street.

He ran left on Salmon, through three quick curves, passing 30-foot-tall native rhododendrons exploding with faded pink blooms.

The next street, Greenway, is a short road with only seven houses. Just beyond the fourth home, a mid-century showplace, he was shot.

The bullet entered behind his left ear and severed the spinal cord. The slug tumbled underneath his skull, burrowing through the brain tissue like an angry metal worm.

He rolled down the embankment into the water that collected in the culvert after every strong rain.

That evening, I learned the news that my leadoff hitter and best catcher had been murdered—a boy who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.

By starting the first paragraph with a reference to the police report, readers immediately know a crime has been committed. Then they follow the victim as he flees, setting up the contrast between the storybook setting and the horrific crime.

Lastly, the shock that the victim is a little boy is revealed but the “I” character’s reaction is not as off-putting. S/he may later admit disappointment that the team’s chances have been dashed IF that’s an important detail. But I suggest delaying that until the reader is much more invested in the story.

Brave Author, there is a lot of potential here for a compelling mystery but I think you need to decide on an overall tone that’s appropriate for the subgenre you choose.

Is this a small-town cozy? Unlikely because a child’s graphic murder takes it out of cozy realm.

A traditional whodunit mystery? More likely.

An amateur sleuth tale where a youth sports coach must solve a murder? This seems like the most appropriate slot.

What audience do you hope to appeal to?

Once you answer these questions, you can focus on a tone and title that are consistent and appropriate for that subgenre. Then the reader won’t feel off-balance. Instead s/he will be pulled into the story.

Thanks, Brave Author, for submitting this promising first page.

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Over to you, TKZers. What are your impressions? Do you have suggestions for our Brave Author? Would you turn the page?

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Try the first book in the Tawny Lindholm Thriller series for FREE. Available at Amazon and major online booksellers. 

This entry was posted in #amwriting, advice, advice for fiction writers, first page, first page critique, First page critiques, POV, Writing by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the Zebulon Award. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, Dead Man's Bluff, Crowded Hearts, and Flight to Forever. Debbie's articles have won journalism awards in 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

15 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Little League; Huge Trouble

  1. Agree, agree, agree, Debbie. As someone who’s written about tragedy and children, I gotta tell ya, Brave Writer, this is not the way. When I read the MC’s reaction to the death of an innocent child, I immediately disliked him/her. Hate might be a more accurate word. There’s no way I’d follow this MC through one more page, never mind hundreds. Too bad because, as Debbie mentioned, you’ve got some evocative passages.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Sue. You are certainly the authority on how tragedy can be handled effectively but also respectfully.

      If the character changes his/her attitude, this story can work well.

      • Totally agree with Sue here – that put me off reading any further. In fact as you mentioned Debbie, the POV is a little odd in this first page. My recommendation (for what it’s worth) is to get much closer to the MC either close 3rd or 1st person as I think that would be far more compelling.

        • That’s another good option, Clare. If the reader is inside the main character’s head from the start, the tone will change considerably.

  2. Debbie’s re-write is so much better. I must be honest, after the first two sentences, I almost clicked away.

    Even with the re-write, and I am pretty positive Debbie was trying to keep as much of your original as possible, there are things that don’t add up. Without witnesses how do we know the path he took? The ‘House Beautiful’ descriptions still seem out of place.

    You have a magic bullet. An 11 year old shot behind the ear and into the spine is moving down. The brain is up. Unless you are setting up a smaller shooter. That would be truly tragic.

    I am really not sure if I would keep reading or not. Thank you for the look though.

    • Alan, thanks for adding a good point about the magic bullet. Logistics need to make sense.

      If, as you say, the setup intends to indicate the shooter was smaller than an 11-year-old, that would be a horrific but gripping twist.

  3. Agree with your critique, Debbie. This has potential, absolutely, but needs some work. I’ll add my two cents.

    The title needs work. The semi-colon made me blink.

    Almost 5 graphs of street description. I found myself skipping through them to get to what was happening.

    In the 5th graph, …he was shot jarred me. Too passive. And when I discovered the victim was 11, double whammy.

    And, when I read the so-called team coach’s reaction, I knew I wouldn’t read further. It just didn’t sound like a real reaction from a Little League coach…bizarre. I hope there are no coaches out there in real life who would have this initial reaction to the murder of one of their own.

    BA, take this critique to heart, and your first page will shine. Thank you for submitting, and best wishes as you revise.

  4. I liked this opening…until the last three lines. I’ve seen this sort of “news report” opening in crime thrillers. I like them. Indeed, I used one myself to open my novel Try Dying. When I bring in the First Person narrator, it packed a punch.

    Which is what you need here. I know what you’re going for. You indicate that the narrator hated his reaction, and that sets up inner conflict. But you have to consider this strategically, and as all the comments indicate, it doesn’t work. Not just doesn’t work, but is positively off-putting.

    Debbie’s re-write of the last line is the answer. Packs that punch. I would follow up quickly showing us the narrator’s heartfelt and gut-wrenching reaction. I would leave out completely any thoughts of “This was my best catcher” etc.

    The good news is you can write. With a re-write I would turn the page.

    • My reaction exactly Jim. I, too, liked the matter of fact tone of the reportorial opening, because I know from reading experience that when I see this type of opening, something bad is coming. But the tone is diluted by a little too much Home & Garden description. Although I get what the writer was going for here — a contrast between the loveliness of the setting and the horror of the murder. (Sort of David Lynchian). But as Debbie’s rewrite shows, a little less is more.

      I, too, was put off by the callousness of the narrator. Just can’t get beyond that. Unless we’re meant to dislike the guy. And in that case, you’ve got other problems. But well-written, as others have noted. There’s potential here for sure.

  5. I have a thing against too many measurements, facts, and figures in writing. “40 magazines… 220-yards… 30-feet.” Chuck Paulniuk, author of Fight Club, wrote a book on writing last year where he encourages using other means of describing measurements like “the length of a bus” etc.

    I think the callous attitude of the narrator to the boy’s death is even more off-putting given how detailed and gory the shooting description was.

    Frankly, the tone is such a mish-mash of trying too hard to be so many different things, that it reminds me of my early writing back when I was not much of a reader. I didn’t read enough to gauge the tone of books and genres, so I struggled to find a voice.

    • Not-so-brave, you make a good point about this writer experimenting with different tones and techniques. Once s/he finds his/her voice, this story will take off like a shot.

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