About Kathryn Lilley

A crime writer, former journalist, and author of IMBA-bestselling mystery series, The Fat City Mysteries. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two neurotic cats. http://www.kathrynlilley.com/

First Page Critique: FIFTH FLOOR

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Today we’re reviewing the first page of FIFTH FLOOR, submitted anonymously for critique. I’ll start the ball rolling, and then please add your suggestions for today’s brave author in the Comments.

FIFTH FLOOR

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman. Deafening and chilling screams, echoed through the steel door.  Andromeda found herself in a small room, with cold metal walls, a plain steel table, metal bed with a thin mattress and blanket, and an uncomfortable looking metal chair. She was a tall, beautiful young woman, whose long black hair fell down to her shoulders, and slightly covered her almond shaped face. An eerie chill pierced the air in the room, and Andromeda wasn’t sure if the goosebumps that followed were because of the woman screaming, or the total lack of insulation in the room – likely a combination of both.

Andromeda looked around the room, her heart pounding through her chest. Her attempts to remember how she got here was futile; the only thing she remembered was cleaning up after her best friend and roommate Sofia, who was recuperating from the flu. After disposing of soiled tissue paper and disinfecting their dorm room, Andromeda turned on some classical music and tucked herself in bed. After that, there was a black spot in her memory. She sat up in the bed that she woke up in, and began to stretch and look around the room.

Dressed in a white t-shirt, gray fleece shorts, and white socks, she began to walk around the stark and unoccupied room, looking for anything that may give her a clue as to where she was. She wrapped her arms around her body, bracing herself for the shudder and chills that followed. The room had the look and feel of a military interrogation chamber: there were no windows, no traces that anyone even knew she was there. But someone knew she was here, the same someone who put her in this place.

Suddenly, Andromeda was reminded of the screams as they began again, growing increasingly louder, followed by a loud “BOOM!” Andromeda ran to the door, preparing her mind to bang on the door with all of her might, to hell with alerting whomever put her in this room; the only thing on her mind was escaping. However, before she could even touch the door, it receded into the floor.  Andromeda fell face first onto the cold, hard, metal floor of the hallway. The palms of her hands were burning, and so were her legs.

My comments

We’re definitely starting off with a sense of urgency in this scene, as Andromeda becomes aware of her surroundings and tries to assess her situation.

Here’s another version, with my comments/notes in bold:

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman. Deafening and chilling screams, (Edit the number of commas used throughout this submission) echoed through the steel door.

(The references to “the smell of burning wood and flesh” didn’t get much followup after this opening, which was a bit puzzling. The flesh of the screaming woman in the next room is being burned? That would be a truly terrifying conclusion to make. And if that’s what’s happening, I’d want Andromeda to have a reaction.)

Andromeda found herself in a small room, with cold metal walls, a plain steel table, metal bed with a thin mattress and blanket, and an uncomfortable looking metal chair. (I  stumbled briefly over the transition from a woman screaming to “Andromeda found herself in a small room.” Found herself? That wording struck me as a bit vague.)

She was a tall, beautiful young woman, whose long black hair fell down to her shoulders, and slightly covered her almond shaped face. (This description is a bit intrusive, and it’s what some editors would call a “description dump”. Try to work in character description in a way that isn’t a generic “She had brown hair and green eyes” sort of thing. For tips and examples of fresh ways to work character descriptions into a scene, I suggest taking a look at DON’T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY by Chris Roerden)

An eerie chill (Can a chill be eerie and piercing? Just wondering) pierced the air in the room, and Andromeda wasn’t sure if the goosebumps that followed were because of the woman screaming, or the total lack of insulation in the room – likely a combination of both. (Edit this down a bit. The ‘total lack of insulation’ seems off in tone. By now, I was also looking for some followup or clarification to the mention of burning wood and flesh in the opening sentence.)

Andromeda looked around the room, her heart pounding through her chest. Her attempts to remember how she got here was (attempts…were) futile; (semicolon alert) the only thing she remembered was cleaning up after her best friend and roommate Sofia, who was recuperating from the flu. After disposing of soiled tissue paper and disinfecting their dorm room, Andromeda turned on some classical music and tucked herself in bed. After that, there was a black spot in her memory. She sat up in the bed that she woke up in, and began to stretch and look around the room. (This transition stopped me. Which bed is this referring to? The one in the metal interrogation room? This is the first moment I realized she woke up in the bed there–that should be established earlier, the first time the bed is mentioned. And “stretching” seems too relaxed a gesture for the level of tension this scene requires.)

Dressed in a white t-shirt, gray fleece shorts, and white socks, she began to walk (she walked, not “began to walk”) around the stark and unoccupied room, looking for anything that may give her a clue as to where she was. (Try to pare down the number of clothing details, and work them in without calling them out so pointedly. And the use of “unoccupied “ is unnecessary—by now, we know she’s alone in the room) She wrapped her arms around her body, bracing herself for the shudder and chills that followed. (tighten up the wrapping, bracing, shudder and chills a bit) The room had the look and feel of a military interrogation chamber: (To me, the reference to a military interrogation chamber suggests a certain type of background–if so, we need to get a sense of that background somewhere in this scene) there were no windows, no traces that anyone even knew she was there. But someone knew she was here, the same someone who put her in this place. (Try to find wording that is stronger than “put her in this place”)

Suddenly, Andromeda was reminded of the screams as they began again, (Just start with the screams. No need to say that she’s reminded) growing increasingly louder, followed by a loud “BOOM!” Andromeda ran to the door, preparing her mind (nix the “preparing her mind”) to bang on the door with all of her might, to hell with alerting whomever put her in this room (the wording’s a bit awkward here); (semicolon alert) the only thing on her mind was escaping. However, before she could even totuch the door, it receded into the floor.  (What? The door receded into the floor? Visions of Sci-Fi rise in my head) Andromeda fell face first onto the cold, hard, metal floor of the hallway. The palms of her hands were burning, and so were her legs. (Burning from what? The metal door and floor? I’m not getting a clear sense of cause and effect here.)

Overall

Happily, most of my previous comments fall into the category of nit picky writing edits and craft tweaks that are easily introduced. I think the scene overall has enough inherent drama and tension to engage a reader’s interest and propel this story forward.

Our thanks go to today’s writer for submitting this scene for critique! TKZ’ers, please add your notes and suggestions in the Comments.

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“When I Grow Up”: Things I Never Planned To Become

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We spent Labor Day weekend in New York City, which meant I had to reacquaint myself with the sights and textures of Manhattan’s gritty streets in the sweltering heat of late summer.

Our activities revolved mostly around watching the US Open and Yankees baseball. As someone who had zero interest in spectator sports for most of her life, I’m a bit surprised by having acquired a sudden, rabid interest in baseball. Because my newfound enthusiasm for baseball far outstrips my knowledge of the game, I have a newbie’s tendency to vocalize (loudly) ill informed skepticism about Aaron Boone management decisions. This obnoxious trait leads to the occasional humiliation when his decisions turn out to be correct, leading to a Yankees win.

We spent the entire day on Saturday enjoying a close-up tour of Yankees Stadium. They let us wander around the dugout and take a quick peek at the bullpen. Later that day during the game we listened as the famed Bleacher Creatures bellowed outfielder Andrew McCutchen’s name as he made his debut in pinstripes. Per my usual, I questioned Boone’s decision to use him as the leadoff hitter in his very first game (I mean, Cutch had just traveled 3,000 miles on short notice—ever hear of jet lag, Aaron?) 

Checking out the Yankees dugout

But to his credit, Boone thrilled many hearts in Yankees fan world (a notoriously fickle lot) by getting thrown out of a game recently. Boone, who has been criticized in social media for being a bit too mellow, too nice, got suspended after storming the field to conduct a brim-to-brim confrontation with an umpire. The manager’s ejection seemed to galvanize his players, who rallied quickly to take the win.

So now I’m in the mood to read some great books about sports. The subject doesn’t have to be baseball; I’m looking for anything that captures the drama, personalities, or history of a sport. Any suggestions?

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Reader Friday: Dark And Stormy?

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As Hurricane Lane bears down on the enchanted islands of Hawaii, we’re reminded of the age-old advice against opening a story with a description of the weather.

Have you ever made an exception to that “rule” in your own writing? Was it effective?

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Dog Days, Mad Or Otherwise

Last Friday, on the heels of discovering that my flight out of Newark had been canceled due to violent thunderstorms —and that flights the next day were also being canceled in rapid succession—I Googled the phrase “dog days of summer”.

It turns out our ancient forebears coined the phrase “dog days” to describe the stretch of days in late July when Sirius the Dog Star appears at the horizon just before sunrise. To the Greeks and Romans, dog days were associated with fever, war, and general mayhem. In ancient Egypt, the Dog Star would appear just before the commencement of the Nile’s yearly flood season. They regarded Sirius as a “watchdog” heralding of that event.

The way people interpret the notion of dog days has evolved over time. In the 1930’s Noel Coward wrote a popular cabaret song with the lyrics “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”.

My adventures in Newark has convinced me that the ancients were onto something when they blamed Sirius for causing late summer mayhem. After an unscheduled overnight stay in Newark, my husband and I finally boarded a flight that took off between squall lines. We had a grand time over the next couple of days at Gene’s fiftieth high school reunion in upstate New York.

But the night before our return to LA, my phone started blowing up with messages and scrolling alerts. It was the airline—they were reaching out to issue dire warnings about thunderstorms in the city where we were supposed to change flights the next day.

I think Sirius is definitely dogging us this year. I feel like I should sacrifice something and throw him a bone.

How are you spending the dog days of late July and August? Has Sirius caused you any trouble this season?

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The Quiz Question That Inspires Fear

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“Describe the theme of this novel” is one of those pop quiz questions that can inject terror into the soul of an eighth grader in English class. Sometimes even an experienced writer can struggle to identify a specific theme in his or her story, especially during the writing process.

A story’s theme is the fundamental and universal idea behind its plot. If a plot could be compared to the body of a race car, the theme would be the engine turning its wheels. In King Lear, for example, one of its main themes is authority versus chaos.

Theme vs. Subject

We should not confuse a story’s subject with its theme. The subject of a story would be a one-word descriptor of its main idea. “War”, for example, would be the subject of many stories. A theme would be an opinion related to that subject, such as “In War, everyone loses.” Joe Moore wrote an excellent post a while back about how to distinguish between a story’s subject and its theme.

Some writers approach theme almost as an afterthought. But having  a well-crafted theme adds dimension and depth to our stories.

Using a character-driven approach to develop a theme

I like to use minor characters to explore a story’s underlying theme. I call this method the “360-degree” approach to developing theme. In this approach, the secondary characters represent various aspects of the main theme, and they act as foils to the main character’s experiences. For example, the theme of A KILLER WORKOUT was “Mean Girls Suffer Last”. That theme was explored through the story arcs of several characters. One woman had been victimized by bullies in her youth; another was a bully. Another character was a protector of abused women.  Each of these characters explored different facets of the subject of bullying and  emotional abuse.

What’s your theme?

How do you explore theme? What’s the theme of your WIP? How are you working that theme into your narrative?

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