Balancing Action with Voice – First Page Critique of Urban Patriot

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Purchased image – Croco Designs for Jordan Dane website

Hello, my fellow TKZ warriors. I’m busy cranking on the daily word count of my next release, but I have, for your consideration, an anonymous submission from a daring author and member of TKZ. The first 400 word intro to: Urban Patriot. Enjoy and join me on the flip side for my feedback and please provide your own thoughts in your comments.

Urban Patriot

Choosing a side is dangerous, especially when it comes to politics and you’re African American from a Jewish background, that is, everybody wants to either recruit you or kill you for something. When I was getting high – on life – shit was easier, the only people interested in you were those like you unless they had their own plans which everybody in tinsel town had. One minute you’re relaxing with a naked woman’s bare legs laying on your lap and the next someone throws a stack of $100 bills in at you and says there’s more where that came from, you’re gonna love it.

Instead of letting me deal with my fate on the streets of Chicago, at 15, mom got spooked and sent me off to California to join the father I’d never met and who turned out to be a bigger jerk than the Chicago idiots I was sent away from. Which wasn’t half bad until the thrill of finally meeting him caused me to want to live with him. Grandfather and Mimi took me in where we had a small swimming pool, my own bedroom, and took me on vacations with them. Hell, I even had an allowance. Quite a step-up from sharing a 3-bedroom apartment with five siblings, a single mom, and abusive step-father.

Dr. Anita Daniels, my uncles and aunts American Socialist Party affiliation’s caught my attention like a shiny new car and what they stood for was everything I’d felt being a Black Jew living in America. Working Socialist political campaigns and African American activist activities taught me a lot, to stand-up for myself and expected the worse from people. Encounters with White Supremacists, the police, and Politicians broaden my horizons to the point of rage and cunning calm.

In a sense, I guess my past prepared me for a life of risks, questionable alliances and an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Especially when my wife was shot and left for dead at the airport terminal as we arrived stateside from a five-year extended stay in the Middle East, I wanted nothing more than to personally smoke that bastard of New President and burn his administration to ground. But that opportunity would come much later if only I’m I am strong enough to do it.

“Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded as I leaned over the counter asking the clerk “where is she, is she alive” “I am sorry sir, I don’t have that information” the clerk replied.

“We must leave now Mr. Anderson; your accommodations are waiting” The agent snapped. “This is bullshit” I snapped back, “I’m going anywhere until you I get some information about my wife.” “We’ll explain everything to you later, but you’ll never know unless we get going.”

The agent was already holding the glass door open as I turned toward him, stepping into the hall he whispered: “We’re all just a bunch of bureaucrats following orders – you know that.”

FEEDBACK

Overview – The strong edgy voice drew me into this introduction. It read like a diary and appeared to be set in an alternate reality or a future America. It intrigued me. But the submission starts with lots of backstory and ends with the action of what’s happening in this opening scene. Once I learned that a man’s wife had been shot and left for dead, I wanted to stick with the action. The question of why a federal agent is ushering him away and not telling him anything about his wife intrigued me far more than the backstory that could’ve come later to fill in the gaps as the story progressed.

Housekeeping – By now, you guys know how I feel about embedding dialogue within a paragraph, but this submission goes a step further and not in a good way. Dialogue is embedded and often lines from 2-3 different people.

Example of 3 different people talking in one short paragraph – “Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded as I leaned over the counter asking the clerk “where is she, is she alive” “I am sorry sir, I don’t have that information” the clerk replied.

There’s also very poor punctuation which drives me crazy. Missing commas at end of dialogue lines (ie “Follow me” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded), the use of double quotes where a single quote should be (ie “I don’t give a fuck” attitude), and missing punctuation like in the example above where there should be question marks (ie “where is she, is she alive” or the lack of a capital letter to start those questions.

Editors and agents would be turned off at seeing so many errors in the first 400 words. Don’t give them a reason to say NO.

Stick with the Action – The meatiest part of this intro was embedded inside a paragraph and almost treated too dismissively. The words ‘when my wife was shot’ should have been the focus.

In a sense, I guess my past prepared me for a life of risks, questionable alliances and an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Especially when my wife was shot and left for dead at the airport terminal as we arrived stateside from a five-year extended stay in the Middle East

This submission seemed flipped backwards to me, in that the action was toward the end after all the backstory. I would suggest focusing on the shock he must be feeling at seeing his wife hurt or dead, then don’t let him find answers as he’s dragged away by the agent. Below is my suggestion for a rewrite. I tried to stick with what the author had written, but just re-ordered it and added more of his shock at the start.

I had her blood on my face and my hands. I couldn’t get the image of my wife out of my head. They must’ve left her for dead at the airport terminal. That’s the only thing I could figure. One minute, we were on the tail end of a five-year extended stay in the Middle East, the next we were stateside. This should’ve been home. How could this happen…here? I wanted nothing more than to smoke that bastard of a new President and burn his administration to the ground.

“Follow me,” Agent Kelly Carlson demanded.

I had to know what happened. I leaned over the nearest counter and found a reservations clerk with enough sympathy to care.

“Where is she? Is my wife alive?”

The federal agent yanked my arm and forced me to keep in step as he hauled me through the gathering crowd.

“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t have that information,” the airline clerk called after me.

 “We must leave now, Mr. Anderson. Your accommodations are waiting.” The agent picked up his pace and dragged me with him.

“This is bullshit. I’m not going anywhere until I know what happened to my wife.”

“We’ll explain everything to you later, but we have to go. Now.”

The agent held a glass door open and pushed me through it. When I stood my ground and faced him, he whispered, “We’re all just a bunch of bureaucrats following orders. You know that.”

I clenched my fists and fought a blinding rage.

The way this story started, with the intimacy of a diary, makes me wonder if this intro could stand with the action of violence, but drift back to where it all began, like the way movies begin with something horrific and back into what led up to it. If that’s not this author’s intention, I would suggest peppering in the backstory later when appropriate. I really do like the edgy voice and the ‘tude.

Names Matter – A federal agent by the name of Kelly made me think this was a woman. It wasn’t until near the end that the author lets us know the agent is a man. This is a bit nit picky, but it jarred for me to realize I had a wrong image in my head. Also, if the name Kelly will be through the whole book, that is a lot of time for the reader to forget this is a man. I also fought with another famous name – Kelly Clarkson, the singer. Her name is too similar to Kelly Carlson, the agent in this intro. I would reconsider the name.

Read your work aloud – Even with the edgy voice, there is a flow and cadence issue and typos where it reads as if the author made changes but didn’t catch all the words. If you get in the habit of reading your work aloud, you will find areas where you stumble over the words. Those are lines you should consider revising to make them flow better. Here are two examples where reading aloud would’ve helped to catch the typos:

But that opportunity would come much later if only I’m I am strong enough to do it.

“I’m going anywhere until you I get some information about my wife.”

Use of tags in dialogue – I noticed these following a dialogue line – demanded, snapped, snapped back. A whole book of words to replace a simple ‘said’ can be distracting, but in Elaine’s recent post on “The Burning Question: He said, She said,” she makes a good case to minimize even neutral tags like the word ‘said.’

Setting – I wanted to know more about where this scene takes place. I can only assume it’s at an airport terminal but the writing is too sparse to get a good sense of where this happens, especially when it starts with a backstory that mentions Hollywood’s Tinsel town and Chicago. Setting can place the reader there and trigger images in their minds. It’s important to ground the reader into imagery that enhances the emotion or action of the scene. For example, if the federal agent has to whisk this guy away and dodge travelers hauling luggage or airport security rushing toward the place where the attack on his wife took place. This kind of setting or world description could add pace and emotion to what’s happening.

On Tuesday, P J Parrish had an excellent post on Your Story as Sculpture: What to Leave In, What to Leave Out. It detailed some solid information on sparse writing (similar to this submission) and how an author should think twice about what to delete and what to keep. Check it out.

DISCUSSION:

What was your reaction to this introduction, TKZers? Did it grab you? Would you turn the page?

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Zoey Meager risks her life to search for her best friend Kaity in a burning warehouse, only to cross paths in the inferno with Mr. January, a mysterious man with a large black dog, completely devoted to its shadowy master.

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Don’t Stop the Story to Introduce Each Character

Captivate_full_w_decalby Jodie Renner, editor & author
Follow Jodie on Twitter

Imagine you’ve just met someone for the first time, and after saying hello, they corral you and go into a long monologue about their childhood, upbringing, education, careers, relationships, plans, etc. You keep nodding as you glance around furtively, trying to figure out how to extricate yourself from this self-centered boor. You don’t even know this person, so why would you care about all these details at this point?

Or have you ever had a friend go into great long detail about someone you don’t know, an acquaintance they recently ran into? Unless it’s a really fascinating story with a point, I zone out. Who cares? Give me a good reason to care, and feed me any relevant details in interesting tidbits, please!

In my editing of novels, I’ll often see a new character come on scene, then the author feels they need to stop the action to introduce that person to the readers. So they write paragraphs or even pages of background on the character, in one long expository lump. New writers often don’t realize they’ve just brought the story to a skidding halt to explain things the readers don’t necessarily need to know, certainly not to that detail, at that point. And it’s telling, not showing, which doesn’t engage readers. In fact, they’ll probably skim through it, and more likely, find something else to do instead.

Another related technique I find less than compelling is starting with the character on the way to something eventful, and as they’re traveling, they’re recollecting past or recent events in lengthy detail. It’s much more engaging to start with the protagonist interacting with others, with some tension and attitude involved. Then work in any necessary backstory info bit by bit as the story progresses, through dialogue, brief recollections or references, hints and innuendo, or short flashbacks in real time. And through reactions and observations by other characters.

Rein in Those Backstory Dumps!

Contrary to what a lot of aspiring authors seem to think, readers really don’t need a lot of detailed info right away on characters, even your protagonist. Instead, it’s best to introduce the character little by little, in a natural, organic way, as you would meet new people in real life. You might form an immediate physical impression, especially if you find them attractive or repugnant. You notice whether they’re tall or short, well-groomed or scruffy, timid or overbearing, friendly or cold, intelligent or dull, charismatic or shy.

If you’re interested in them, if you find them intriguing, you pay attention to them, ask them questions, and maybe ask others about them. You gather info on them gradually, forming and revising impressions as you go along, with lots of unanswered questions. Maybe you hear gossip, and wonder how much of it is actually true. Through conversation and observation, you formulate impressions of them based on what they (or others) say, as well as their attitude, personality, gestures, expressions, body language, tone of voice, and actions.

Involve and engage the readers.

It’s also important to remember that readers like to be involved as active participants, not as passive receptors of dumps of information. Finding out about someone bit by bit, trying to figure out who they are and what makes them tick, what secrets they’re hiding, is a stimulating, fun challenge and adds to the intrigue.

Unlike nonfiction, where readers read for information, in fiction, readers want to be immersed in your story world, almost as if they’re a character there themselves. So be sure to entice readers to get actively engaged in trying to figure out the characters, their motivations and relationships, and whether they’re to be trusted or not.

Let the readers get to know your characters gradually, just like they would in real-life.

For ideas on how to approach introducing your characters to the reader in your fiction, think about a gathering where you’re just observing for a while, trying to get your bearings, maybe waiting for some friends to arrive. You look around at who’s there, listening in to snippets of conversation. A few people interest you so you move closer to them, trying not to be obvious. You might pick up on glances, smiles, frowns, rolling of eyes, and other facial expressions. You read their body language and that of others interacting with them.

Perhaps you decide to strike up a conversation with one or two who look interesting. You find out about their personality and attitudes through their words, tone of voice, inflection, facial expressions, body language, and the topics they jump on and others they avoid. Then, if they interest you, you might start asking them or others about their job or personal situation and get filled in on a few details – colored of course by the attitudes and biases of the speaker. Maybe you hear a bit of gossip here and there.

That’s the best way to introduce your characters in your fiction, too. Not as the author intruding to present us with a pile of character history (backstory) in a lump, but as the characters interacting with each other, with questions and answers, allusions to past issues and secrets. Even having your character thinking about what they’ve been through, isn’t that compelling, so keep it to small chunks at a time, and be sure to have some emotions involved with the reminiscing – regret, worry, guilt, etc.

So rather than stopping to give us the low-down on each character as he comes on the scene, just start with him interacting, and let tidbits of info about him come out little by little, like in real life. Let the readers be active participants, drawing their own conclusions, based on how the characters are acting and interacting.

Reveal juicy details, little by little, to tantalize readers.

And don’t forget, the most interesting characters have secrets, and readers love juicy gossip and intrigue! Just drop little hints here and there – don’t spill too much at any one time. Give us an intriguing character in action, then reveal him little by little, layer by layer, just like in real life!

Readers and authors, do you have any observations or advice to offer on dealing with character backstory in fiction?

 Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

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