First Page Critique – An Easy Fix

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer 

Today, welcome to another Brave Author who’s submitted a first page for critique. The genre is noir fiction. Please take a look then we’ll discuss.

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An Easy Fix

You always think you know what you’re doing, but that’s just the first circle of hell. Well. Maybe not the first circle but the escalator only goes one way and that’s down.  Oh, you can try and run up but you’ll never make it. You’ll run out of breath, you’ll sweat and wheeze and pant and then you’ll collapse like a bag of dirty laundry.

The bartender came over to Elam’s end of the bar from where she’d been cleaning glasses. She wiped her hands on a towel.

“What’ll it be, Elam?”

“A double of Jack and a draft Bud, Katie.”

The bartender placed two coasters on the bar, poured the draft and two shots, and set them in front of Elam. He placed a crumpled twenty on the bar.

“What have you been up to, Elam? How’s Charity?”

“Exceptional children, they call ‘em. Whoever thought that up needs to be smashed in the face. I mean, what are they trying to do here? Make people feel good about disasters? The only reason Charity was exceptional was the fucking doctors with their knives and their halothane masks.”

“Really? I thought you were over the worst of it.”

“You know what a bum mitral valve is, Katie? She’d run out of breath and turn blue, couldn’t keep up with the kids on the playground. So they say, ‘Oh yeah. An easy fix. Be back home in five days.’ And then the fucking anesthesiologist is thinking about her cheating husband, and her girlfriend and his girlfriend and their trip to Aruba and her mind’s a million miles away and she’s not paying attention because it’s all so routine. An easy fix.  And the pressure drops and the cock sucker is fucking with the regulators in a panic but it’s too goddamned late. There’s no going back.”

“I didn’t know. You never talked about it.”

“Now the kid’s in a wheelchair and can’t see and can’t walk and she goes to a special school for kids like her.  She’s a tape recorder, everything that she hears she repeats.”

That’s how Elam knew about Carol’s boyfriend, from Charity.

A year after Charity came home Carol left.  It was anticlimactic. No big showdown like the OK Corral.  Elam came home from driving the beer truck and Carol was gone, took nothing except a suitcase and her Ford Fairlane. She did clean out the bank account and set the credit cards on fire at ATMs across Missouri and Kansas.

Elam never heard from Carol again. He’d hear things every now and again when his mother in law would let something slip, something about her boyfriend and Las Cruces, but that was all.

He didn’t care any more.

~~~

Title: An Easy Fix offers the right blend of noir and irony, promising the story will be anything but an easy fix.

First Paragraph: Trying to run up an escalator that’s going down is great imagery of never-ending frustration and despair.

But combining that image with the first circle of hell feels like mixing metaphors.

The point of view is uncertain. Is it omniscient or Elam’s? Is Elam addressing the reader? Or musing to himself?

A bag of dirty laundry doesn’t really collapse because that implies it was previously upright. Choose a different verb.

This first paragraph shows promise but needs a little honing.

Premise: Elam’s situation is tragic and compelling. He’s the father of a child who was permanently damaged by medical carelessness. His marriage has fallen apart. He’s tired of trying to run up the descending escalator of his life. He wants to give up.

The last line is: “He didn’t care any more.”

That line sums up what I see as the biggest problem with this page: If the main character doesn’t care, why should the reader?

How do you make the reader care?

Make something happen.

But…the next paragraphs don’t advance the story. The setting and actions are ordinary and generic—wiping glasses, ordering a drink, putting down coasters, paying, small talk.

That’s followed by an info dump of backstory about Elam’s daughter. Medical terms like mitral valve and halothane masks add authenticity. But there’s too much for one passage, especially on page 1.

Then comes another info dump about his failed marriage. At this point, do readers need to know all these details? Or can they be saved for later?

This first page describes a typical day in Elam’s dreary life as he unburdens himself to a bartender. That’s not enough momentum to compel the reader to turn the page. It needs a stronger sense that something dire is about to happen.

Disturbance: What is different about this day? What changes Elam’s course?

Charity provides an excellent opportunity to make the reader care and also pump up the forward momentum of the story: “She’s a tape recorder, everything that she hears she repeats.”

That line is loaded with possibilities. What did Charity say on this particular day to disrupt Elam’s life?

The scene in the bar could be reworked like this:

Before Elam had time to settle on his regular stool, Katie slid a beer and two shots across the bar to him and asked, “How’s your daughter?”

He slugged down half the brew. “You won’t believe what Charity said today…”

Then reveal the problem.

Another place to open the story might be when Elam comes home from work and Charity delivers a startling message. For instance:

“Your electricity will be shut off tomorrow for non-payment.”

Or Charity quotes her caregiver: “Tell your dad I quit. I’m sick of cleaning up after a brain-dead little brat who shits herself and parrots every effing word I say.”

Or Charity repeats a voicemail from Elam’s lawyer: “The judge dismissed your malpractice suit for lack of evidence. Sorry, there’s nothing more I can do.”

The words Charity hears and repeats force Elam to take action. Backstory can then be added in small bits while the action moves forward.

Action Options: What are Elam’s choices? He could surrender his daughter to an institution, commit suicide, or storm the hospital to take revenge. Or the Brave Author has entirely different plans in mind.

I’m guessing, in the next few pages, Elam makes his decision. Try moving that decision to page 1.

Another alternative: Keep the bar setting but make the big change occur there. Katie feels sorry for Elam’s financial troubles. She heard about an upcoming heist and the gang needs a driver. Since Elam drives a beer truck and knows how to handle a big rig, he’s the perfect guy. Then she hands him a phone number.

Character: There is no physical description of Elam and Katie. All character development is done through dialogue (more on that in a minute). I’m not suggesting  driver’s license details like hair and eye color but give the reader a few hints such as…

When Elam sits on the barstool, he realizes he’s slumping and thinks, at 40, he probably looks as old and broken down as his dad who died at 65.

Weave in their attitudes and personality. Elam can notice sympathy in Katie’s eyes. That irritates him because he doesn’t want to be pitied.

Add interior monologue, such as: People always think they understand but they don’t. They don’t know what’s it’s like to change stinking diapers or get her wheelchair trapped in a narrow doorway. 

Dialogue: Elam’s cursing shows his frustration and bitterness but it quickly becomes repetitive. Save F-bombs and C-bombs for significant moments. Otherwise, they lose their impact.

Try interspersing gestures, facial expressions, and Elam’s thoughts with the dialogue so what he says sounds less like a speech and more like a conversation.

Time stamp: Ford Fairlanes were manufactured between 1955-1970. Readers who aren’t gearheads probably don’t know that. But it’s a subtle, economical way to hint at the era.

Summing Up: Brave Author, the premise has excellent potential but I feel the story starts in the wrong place. As you reread your draft, look for the passage where a change occurs in Elam’s situation. As mentioned above, it may be on page 2 or 3 or later. Try beginning the story at that point.

Make something happen. Elam may not care but readers must care or they won’t turn the page.

Thanks for submitting and best of luck!

 ~~~

 TKZers: Does the Brave Author’s premise grip you? What do you think of Elam? Any suggestions?

~~~

 

When the law prevents justice…

When DNA isn’t enough…

When a lie is the truth.

Please check out my new thriller, Until Proven Guilty. 

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This entry was posted in #amwriting, action, action scenes, adding suspense, adding tension, first page critique, noir, 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, Flight to Forever, and Until Proven Guilty. 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

21 thoughts on “First Page Critique – An Easy Fix

  1. Thanks for letting us take at peek at your first page, Brave Author. I love your prose style, and my favorite line is “. . . took nothing except a suitcase and her Ford Fairlane” because there’s something anti-romantic about a Ford Fairlane. Also, like Debbie said, the car helps date the setting, and so does the halothane mask since we don’t use halothane in the States anymore.

    I also really liked the escalator bit, but Debbie is right about the mixed metaphor.

    As far as the F-bombs go, I don’t think they match the era. Wouldn’t Elam be more likely to say damn-this and damn-that? (Confession: I’m not old enough to remember the 50s and 60s, but it seems like I didn’t hear many F bombs until the 80s.)

    I think Debbie gave you an excellent critique. It might help to go ahead and finish your story. Then go back and pick out exactly where the story actually starts and rewrite the first page.

    Good luck on your continued writing journey, Brave Author.

  2. Excellent critique, Debbie. One of the best I’ve read on TKZ. And kudos to Anon for having the courage to submit his/her work for scrutiny. I know how precious a second opinion can be. Sue Coletta did me a solid a few years back on my own submission. You guys are awesome!

    Anyway, to the submission itself, like Debbie I was waiting for something to happen. An obviously depressed man sits at a bar and vents his frustrations to the bartender. That sounds like a scene that should be somewhere in the middle of a novel, not the first page. A protagonist who surrenders on the first page will have a hard time getting readers to root for him.

    Debbie pointed out the more intriguing details in Elam’s rant, like his daughter Charity and her tendency to repeat everything she hears. Now that’s an avenue for some serious drama and plot. Perhaps Anon could exploit that and get something happening right off the bat, get that disturbance JSB often talks about.

    Good luck.

    • Thanks, Nana! Submitting a first page is scary, knowing strangers will be reading it and commenting. But, as you say, the second (and third and 15th) opinions are a huge help. Their impressions reflect the honest reactions of potential buyers who might browse a book in a bookstore or preview it on Amazon.

      Charity has the potential to drive the story in dangerous directions while pulling the reader’s heartstrings.

  3. Priscilla, I also liked the sardonic, cynical tone which is perfect for noir fiction. The Brave Author is a good writer and, once the story gets started, it will be a gripping one.

    Thanks for your input, Priscilla.

  4. Try throwing out chapter 1 and begin with chapter 2. This often works wonders. Let the backstory come in gradually. Let’s see how the past wound affects his behavior in the present before revealing the fullness of it.

  5. Opening a first paragraph in second point of view is a tricky thing to do, and it didn’t work for this reader. I like the imagery, but my advice would be to rewrite in deep third, filtered through Elam’s perspective. The first paragraph should raise questions, hint at the story to come, and hook the reader. Follow Debbie’s suggestions, Anon. She’s given you gold. 🙂

    Best of luck!

    .

  6. I really like the potential of this opening page and I want to sympathize with the character, but a couple things threw me off:

    “The bartender came over to Elam’s end of the bar from where she’d been cleaning glasses. She wiped her hands on a towel.” I misread this line and was thinking the bartender was approaching a customer who was a female–named Elam. And I thought “HUH?” That kept me off kilter throughout.

    Also, this bit of feedback won’t apply to most, but those of us who are older remember the crusty actor Jack Elam. So the other thing that happened was that when I saw the name “Elam”, that actor’s crusty, bearded face immediately popped into mind. If that’s what you intended, then it was on the nose. If that was not the intention, I’m not sure about name choice. But again, depending on whom your target audience is, they may be of an age where that doesn’t matter.

    The profanity stopped me from reading further (which probably just says I’m not the target market). While I can’t claim to have read noir fiction, the profanity choices seem out of place–when I read period pieces in general I don’t see this kind of language. It read more like some folks I know in my personal life who want to use F-words at every opportunity to shove it in your face that they are going curse and you’re just gonna have to like it. I’m under no illusion that nobody curses ever, but in fiction it should be carefully chosen and well placed or you lose the reader.

    That said, I really do like the potential of this opening page.

    • BK, I too was confused at the beginning over the bartender’s name.

      Interesting observation on Elam. Names can reflect past and current associations with real people that may not be what the writer intends.

      F-bombs may fit the noir genre but repetition dilutes the impact.

      As you say, there’s good potential.

  7. Thank you, BA, for this submission. I liked the idea of the story, and I agree with Debbie’s excellent critique and the other suggestions offered here. There’s not much I can add except that this one line made me perk up: “She’s a tape recorder, everything that she hears she repeats.”

    What a great premise. A child whom no one pays attention to can be the repository of everyone’s secrets. I can imagine a fabulous mystery story here.

    One other thing: several folks mentioned the Ford Fairlane. When I read that line, I assumed it was an old car that the wife owned, so there’s some confusion about the year the story is set in.

    Good luck with this!

    • “A child whom no one pays attention to can be the repository of everyone’s secrets. I can imagine a fabulous mystery story here.”

      Kay, you’re spot on! Brave Author has a winning premise with Charity.

  8. I’ll try not to duplicate previous commentary, which has been quite thorough. I feel the piece could use a lot more noir. Another thing I’d like is a save-the-cat moment. And opening in action would help. Less victimhood and more reader identification would be a plus, both for the MC and the girl. Consider showing us the girl before the operation. If you retain this scene, note that where Katie’s standing and what she’s doing identify her as a bartender.

    There are some general principles that may serve you well:
    Avoid sit-down locations. They tend to stifle action.
    As a rule, a personal pronoun refers back to the immediately previous person(s).
    Mixed metaphors are best avoided, but some noir sub-genres welcome outrageous genre-apropos comparisons, like: “I could see the lights of Los Angeles spread out below me like a shattered bottle of muscatel glittering in the headlights of an ambulance.”

  9. I love the comments and always learn from them. Dear author, check your medical facts. As an experienced nurse anesthetist, who administers halothane, it is only given with a mask for a few minutes and then through an endotracheal tube. We stopped using halothane in the 1970’s, so I am assuming this situation took place before that. This is technical, I know, but it is worth getting it right.

    The story looks interesting at this point and am hoping for a compelling plot.

    • My mom was a nurse anesthetist, around 1922. Ethyl ether on a mask. When the patient got a dose, you got a dose. One of the surgeons offered to put her thru med school, but she had other plans involving a particular intern . . .

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