First Page Critique: The Last White Rose

Photo by Laura Benedict.

 

Cheery good day, TKZers! It’s time for a critique of an anonymous author’s work. The Last White Rose is an excerpt from a novel that appears to be a modern gothic with both horror and romantic elements. But it might be a thriller.  I’m anxious to know what you think.

 

THE LAST WHITE ROSE

Epigraph

In my dream, I see my own green eyes, filled with terror and tears.I fall to my knees, submitting to the command of invincible blue eyes raging with white fire.His face twists into something else, something evil. He is ending my life. I wake with a strident scream… and stare into the same blue eyes.

Chapter One

Stonington, Connecticut

He was elusive, a ghost I needed to catch. The stranger whose face I’d never seen lurked around town, maintaining enough distance to mask his features in shadow. I saw his face for the first time in late July after the annual Blessing of the Fleet. His bold gaze burned into mine from the opposite side of Water Street. The highland band, piping loud and marching through the center, drew the post-ceremony procession to a close, granting me an unobstructed view.

A shiver slid through me despite the stifling summer heat.

He was magnificent. The kind of man you’d never find living in small-town New England. Imposing height and broad, muscled shoulders defined his stature. He wore jeans and a faded indigo tee shirt that exposed cut biceps and forearms. Sun-streaked, dark blond hair in a classic front wave and a commanding jawline framed his handsome, smirking face.

“Parade’s over,” someone shouted.

Even so, Jess and I held our advantageous spot at the curb. My best friend soaked in the late morning sun, sipping her raspberry lemon mimosa, watching me stare at him.

She elbowed me. “Who’s he and why are you staring at each other? Wait—Ellie, is he…”

My eyes skipped to Jess to deliver a dirty look. When I refocused across the street, he was gone. “The guy who followed me home the other night. Yes, I think so. There’s no one else as tall. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s just staying nearby.”

“And maybe you should say something to someone.”

“Not until I’m certain. Paranoia is my sister’s thing, not mine. Besides, aren’t you always saying I should be more open to meeting new people?”

“You do need to get out of your artsy little head. Just be careful.”

I struggled, trying to reconcile his presence in town and the sense that he watched me. After all, it was summertime. Stonington was a historically rich town, the only one in Connecticut to face the open Atlantic waters, so it attracted countless visitors. It was common to see strangers around town. Drunken tourists wandered the streets at night, unaware most businesses closed before ten. It was a colonial fishing town, and outsiders came from far and wide to work for the commercial fleet. It wasn’t the first time a man from one of the crews or a tourist had looked my way, I reasoned.

Then I saw him again.

The next day after the last of my noisy day-campers had gone, I locked the art studio door and headed for the fishing pier to sketch. It was either that or listen to another of Jess’s lectures. She’d go on about how I wallowed in self-imposed loneliness, and how it left her alone to test the waters in the pool of dateable men. The pool was small—blue plastic toddler swimming pool small—and I didn’t need to dip a toe to know there was nothing left in it for me.

The pier was a respite from my grandmother and sister’s intrusiveness as well. Gran and Isobel were all I had, and they meant well. Trysts with my art kept me sane, human.

I looked out over the harbor and spotted Neptune trudging her way in. The sailboats beyond paled in her presence. I don’t know what it was about the old girl, but I loved that fishing boat. Her emerald green hull had become chalky over time, and the once black and white hoists and booms were covered in rust, but she was still glorious against the backdrop of the sea. I lost myself in the sketch at once.

Photo by Laura Benedict

 

Dear Anonymous Author of The Last White Rose:

What a pleasure it was to critique this novel opening. There’s so much to work with here: you’ve obviously read a great deal of fiction and have a practiced hand in basic mechanics. Your grammar and sentence structure are strong, and even your barely-mentioned characters are vivid and distinctive. You also know how to structure a scene, which is no small feat, and your first person POV is flawless.

I like the Connecticut setting. It gives the story an immediate New England gothic feel. Gothic is one of my most beloved genres, so I’m particular.

Jess and Ellie have good chemistry. Jess is a lot of fun, though she falls down a bit on the best friend front. (More on that later.) These cracked me up: “My best friend soaked in the late morning sun, sipping her raspberry lemon mimosa, watching me stare at him.” And “She’d go on about how I wallowed in self-imposed loneliness, and how it left her alone to test the waters in the pool of dateable men. The pool was small—blue plastic toddler swimming pool small—and I didn’t need to dip a toe to know there was nothing left in it for me.”

And the scene with the Neptune was completely charming and nicely visualized. I could picture the boat “trudging” its way in. Your descriptions are—for the most part—very nicely done.

Please, dear Anonymous Author, read all of the above twice, because I know that, like most writers, you will forget it immediately as you read my criticisms and suggestions.

 

Here we go:

I’m not sure what sort of novel this is, and that distresses me. It contains gothic and demonic elements and is set in an old New England town. But there’s some romance as well. I need a few more hints. Does our heroine feel strangely attracted to the giant hot guy stalking her? Or is there some menace in the town that he might be connected to? The strong emphasis on the stalking makes me think it’s trying to be a thriller, but the stalker’s attractiveness makes me wonder if he’s a demi-god or paranormal beast or demon. Another mystery is that we don’t know if he’s the guy in the epigraph or not.

There’s a phrase that I learned from my mother-in-law very early in my marriage: “too much of a muchness.” That’s what you have in this opening section. You need to take a breath. Don’t try to tell us everything in 672 words, and definitely only tell us things once. Readers are smart. This section has too many repeated actions, too much stalking, and way too many characters. It’s important to mention or introduce all of your significant characters in the first thirty pages of a novel, but if you try to do it in the first three, your reader is going to be very confused. Fortunately, you can look at this as an embarrassment of riches because you can use much of this detail in other parts of the novel.

It’s also important for you to balance the light and dark. You can have both.

The last thing I want to address is your heroine, Ellie. Good heroines can be tough to write. Sidekicks get to be fun, villains get to be fun. Heroines can be a bit dull. Thoughts on Ellie below.

 

Epigraph

This is a dream: check.

I’m a bit confused as to how Ellie’s seeing her eyes in one line, then is falling to her knees in the next. Is she watching herself? Or is she experiencing it? Just clarify. Even if it’s a dream, it has to have its own dream physics and dream logic.

Perhaps reframe it so we know she is watching it as a scene, wondering at her own complicity.

“Strident” is awkward. As is “invincible blue eyes raging with white fire.” There’s an awful lot happening in those eyes all at once.

“He is ending my life.” Simple and to the point, but “ending” feels a bit tame since she’s about to be devoured/murdered by what appears to be a demon.

Clarify the last line and be specific:

“I wake, screaming, to find those same blue eyes—now watchful and worried (or laughing and scornful, etc)—gazing into mine.”

Chapter One

First paragraph:

The opening lines are confusing. He’s a ghostly elusive guy that has been skulking around the shadows for…some period of time. Months? Weeks? Two days? Then in the next sentence she gets to the immediate scene: “I saw his face for the first time…”

Instead, get right into it.

We’re prepped by the epigraph for scary and dubious. Give us something new at the top of chapter one. I’d much rather read: “The first time I saw Jeremy Porter’s* handsome face, he was smirking at me from the opposite side of Water Street.” Something straightforward adds a bit of levity, and keeps the story from being so frontloaded with ominosity (technically not a word, but ominousness is clumsy). I confess that I’ve been guilty of over-ominosity myself, so I know whereof I speak. He seems more condescending than threatening. If you want to make him threatening, change “smirking” to “staring.”

*Don’t be afraid to name the guy. We know he has a name. As Ellie’s telling the story, she already knows his name because she’s telling it in the past tense. As it is, it’s cheap suspense. If the story were all in present tense/present action, then we wouldn’t find out his name until she learns it. But the cat’s already out of the bag.

By making the opening of Chapter One just another in a series of stalking incidents, you’ve taken away the power of the epigraph, which could be very compelling. The epigraph hints that she dreams of a man who might be a demon, but she wakes to find him watching her in real life. My assumption is that she becomes romantically involved with sexy stalker guy during the course of the novel…? But we still don’t know if epigraph guy and stalker guy are the same.

The epigraph has already set your tone. Let it rest. We get it.

“He was magnificent.”

Our guy is obviously a gorgeous, eye feast of a man, and the word “magnificent” is striking. I kind of imagine him as a blond Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast. Is he unreal in his perfection? Some small flaw would make him more believable—unless you’re going for supernatural perfection.

Let’s break it down:

Why would we never find someone like him living in small-town New England? Where would we see a man like him? Hollywood? The cover of a magazine or romance novel?

Imposing height—how tall? Ellie says: “There’s no one else as tall.” What does that mean? Significantly taller than everyone else in town? Wilt Chamberlain tall? If so, someone would have surely noticed him by now. A man that tall would be a very poor skulker.

Instead of using an indefinite phrase like “defined his stature,” let’s see him through Ellie’s editorial filters:

“I’d never seen a man so tall in real life, at least not one with shoulders so broad that they made me wonder for a moment if he had to have his dress shirts specially made. But he wasn’t wearing a dress shirt. His taut, cut biceps emerged from the sleeves of a beautifully faded black tee that just reached the waist of his indigo jeans. And his black motorcycle boots looked comfortably worn. Most women I knew would pay a fortune to have their stylist give them highlights like the ones that seemed to flow naturally through the waves of his dark blond hair. His jaw was strong and commanding, reminding me of paintings I’d seen of ancient Roman centurions on my last trip to the Louvre.

“Parade’s over,” someone behind me shouted.

I startled, and felt my face flush. The slow smile of the man I came to know as Jeremy Porter told me he’d caught me staring.”

Then you can go on and have her interact with Jess. But let’s have some more urgency and concern in their exchange. Is Jess implying Ellie should call the authorities? Who is the “someone” of whom she speaks? Be specific.

In this next section, we get a lot of new characters introduced: noisy day-campers, dateable men, Gran and Isobel, an anthropomorphized fishing boat, drunken tourists, sailors. It’s overwhelming.

And, suddenly, skulking sexy guy appears again.

What is this book about? Right now I’m just reading stalking scenes, and I’m feeling fearful that they will just go on and on…

Three scenes (including the epigraph, if it is the same guy), three appearances. Actually four, because we learn he followed her home on some other night (super alarming to have a giant follow you home!). We have no resolution of his parade appearance in Chapter One before the pier scene. He has now let her see his face, and he’s still obviously stalking her. Please give Ellie some spunk. She seems incredibly unaffected by his stalking—her friend acts alarmed but then apparently lets her go home and go about her business and go to work the next day without any further investigation of the guy. It’s one thing that Ellie’s not paranoid. It’s quite another to make her seem not very bright. And I think she is bright.

Your opening chapter has to do more than establish the tone, and Chapter One tells us little more than that Ellie is living in a historic small town and is being stalked by a hot guy. It’s an ominous situation, but she’s reacting in a way that’s not credible. And we still don’t know if this is a romance, a thriller, or a paranormal story. Give us better clues.

My first suggestion would be to work on the epigraph and just let it set the tone. Then in your opening chapter, have Ellie confront hot stalker guy after the parade. It will make her the real protagonist rather than a woman who seems to be setting herself up as a victim. I love the sketching scene on the pier, but it’s too much with what you have already. Save the setting and scene—maybe it happens after they’ve actually met.

Having her confront the guy right off puts us immediately into the story, and will surprise the reader. Even if he is our villain, he will be put momentarily off-balance. Ellie and the hot guy instantly become equals, and thus more interesting adversaries. Or a more interesting couple. Therefore it becomes a more compelling story. Be bold.

That’s my two cents. I think this story could go far.

Chatter over, TKZ friends and bloggers. What say you?

 

 

 

4+

First Page Critique -The Lunar Lifestyle

THE LUNAR LIFESTYLE

We booked the cheapest seats on the rocket, which meant that neither of us faced a window. If I craned my neck, I could see the other couples sitting in the expensive seats, ogling at space and Earth through their window views. I didn’t let it bother me. Once we got to the moon, everything would be free.

I turned to Matt and pointed out a leftover drop of puke drying on his chin. He wiped it away with his sleeve. He didn’t do so well with g-forces.

“Any regrets?” I asked him.

Matt shook his head. “We can always video chat my parents. Or your aunt. And we’ll make new friends up here.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“Besides, Clara, it’s a fresh start. Think of it that way. A start for our family, you know?”
Matt yawned and thumbed through the Rocket Passenger Safety Handbook as we waited to disembark. It occurred to me that there was no point in reading the Rocket Passenger Safety Handbook at the conclusion of a one-way trip. But he’d had a rough flight, so I didn’t say anything.

Matt and I had lived in Lake Placid, New York. Matt taught sixth grade math, and I’d taught seventh grade geography. Eventually, they had to close the school because parents were getting concerned with the levels of radiation in the lake, so we signed up to go to the moon.

Matt and I hadn’t met at school, actually. He tells everyone that he fell in love with me at first sight. I’d stood out to him, apparently, in my bright green sundress on a warm winter’s morning at the dentist’s office. I’ve never had the heart or the courage to tell him that I’d only worn it because I’d been too lazy to do my laundry, and it was the only thing I had left. I certainly hadn’t fallen for him as I waited to be de-plaqued. Matt had grown his bushy red hair out into a bushy red mustache back then. I considered it something of a public service when I made him shave.

Our rocket docked directly inside the lunar base. There were six or seven other bases scattered around the moon-China had one, as did Russia and a few other European countries-but Matt and I would be part of the first group to settle the new American base.

My Critique by Nancy J. Cohen

Being a science fiction fan, I loved the opening. I surmise Matt and Clara are married and are about to embark on a new life on the moon. The point of view is clear, and I’m interested in these characters and their new adventure.

But then the story segues into a flashback that stops the forward motion cold. Starting with this paragraph— “Matt and I had lived in Lake Placid…” and ending at the next paragraph, “…when I made him shave”—it’s all background info that could have been woven into the story later or brought in via dialogue.

Then suddenly the rocket is docking. I would have liked to stay in the moment during their voyage to experience it with them. Their reactions would help the reader learn more about these characters via conversation and their gut responses to the trip. The voyage went too fast.

Also, you’re telling rather than showing. Instead of “Our rocket docked directly inside the lunar base,” let us share this trip through their sensory impressions as the rocket turns, descends, decelerates and docks. Does their pulse race? Their stomachs churn with anxiety as the ship tilts? Their hearts lurch as the vehicle thumps to a landing? I want to smell the rocket fuel. In other words, show—don’t tell. This could be an exciting trip told through the viewpoint of these newlyweds. But you lost me at “Matt and I…”

4+

Putting Backstory in its Place: First Page Critique

Shutterstock image via TKZ

Shutterstock image via TKZ

Today we are critiquing the first page of a reader-submitted story, titled THE BANK BAR. I’ll add my comments at the end, and then please add yours in the Comments.

THE BANK BAR

The young man had been stalking Sadie for over a month. He sat in his car and watched as Sadie walked home from the store. She didn’t know him. He wanted to make contact with her, but it was too soon. He just wasn’t ready. The only connection he had to Sadie was that he had gone to high school with her older brother. But, they weren’t friends, they didn’t really know each other. He had seen Sadie in a store one day, and knew she was special. Well, special to him. He had no problem attracting girls. He was good looking, smart, in good shape, and was charming. He didn’t have a role model growing up, although if his friends had known his father they would probably disagree.
Sadie was 20 years old, and he was surprised that Sadie was still single. It was 1938, and it wasn’t uncommon for girls younger than Sadie to quit school, marry, and get pregnant; or the other way around. The depression had forced a lot of students to leave school to look for work to help their family. Nor was it unusual for girls to marry someone older. His father was six years older than his mother when they married, and she was 16. But his father was gone now. Good riddance. The bastard had mistreated his mother, and often beat him in a drunken rage. For a long time, there wasn’t much he could do. Things change. A boy grows up. A boy gets bigger, stronger. Eventually, a boy becomes a man. That day came when he finally was able to face his father, and it was no contest. His father would never abuse his mother or beat him again. The neighbors heard that his father left to look for work, and would return for his family. A lot of men had gone off to try to find work. Lord knows there wasn’t much work in Greenville, Alabama. Only he and his mother knew the truth. It was something they could live with, and in fact, preferred to the violence they lived with before his father disappeared. He would not be returning. Ever.

My comments

I like the way this first page sets up a level of tension and expectation in the reader. At first, I wondered why the narrator describes “stalking” Sadie. Once it was revealed that the boy had previously killed his father, I immediately thought, “Uh oh, poor Sadie is next. We have an attractive, charming, serial killer on our hands.” If that’s where this story is headed, I’m interested!

Avoid getting bogged down in backstory and tell-itis 

Unfortunately, this scene suffers from a malady I call “the backstory blues.” The very first line of the story, “The young man had been stalking Sadie for over a month” sets the reader’s focus in the past. And there we stay–mired  in backstory details–for the rest of the page. This problem can be fixed by refocusing the scene to show what’s happening now. Let us see through the young man’s eyes as he’s watching Sadie. Is she a farm girl? Pretty? Vulnerable looking?

Use specific language and details

The language, “Walked home from the store”, is too brief and nonspecific to convey dramatic tension. Is Sadie walking a dusty back road or village sidewalk? Perspiring as she struggles with a heavy bag? Is she walking with a friend, and is her stalker waiting until she’s alone to make his approach? The more specific and “in the moment” this stalking scene can be written, the stronger and creepier it will be. Weave in the backstory elements without losing focus on the here and now.

Avoid weak words

Certain words are inherently weak, in conversation as well as writing. “He ‘just’ wasn’t ready.” “They didn’t ‘really’ know each other.” Edit those out.

Title note

I was a bit confused by the title. Having read the first page, I still have no idea what THE BANK BAR refers to. (A spot for dumping bodies, perhaps?) In this title, both words–bank and bar–can have multiple meanings. This title can be interpreted in different ways, and therefore, it lacks clarity. The title is a writer’s first opportunity to grab the reader’s interest. Make it as strong and compelling as possible. At the very least, the title should give a hint about the type of story that is to come.

Your thoughts?

How did you like THE BANK BAR, TKZ’ers? Please add your notes and suggestions in the Comments. And thank you to our brave reader for submitting this first page!

 

 

 

1+

First Page Critique: PHV

Nancy J. Cohen

Today we have the privilege of reading the first page of “PHV.” My critique follows.

“I want out.”

I squared my shoulders and said it louder, “I’m finished. I want out of the firm.” I repeated it three times.

Silence. Then a loud honk from behind let me know the light had turned green. I hit the gas and made the short sprint to the next stoplight. Usually the downtown traffic made me crazy.

However, today I was in no hurry. Today, I planned on telling my dad that I quit. He and the firm could do their deals without me mopping up after billionaire clients and their obnoxious offspring. I was done being his cleaner.

I made a quick right turn the wrong way into an alley and pulled into a trash strewn vacant lot. The garage attached to our office building had been under construction for three months and I’d made a deal with the owner to park here. So far, all he had charged me was getting a nephew out of a marijuana jackpot. Given the price of parking in Dallas, that was cheap.

Practicing my speech one more time in the side view mirror, I grabbed my briefcase and picked my way through the beer bottles and burger wrappers to a hidden door leading to the garage elevator. I’d already ruined on pair of heels in this mess and had no desire to do it again.

Thankfully, the elevator was still running. The construction supervisor told me that until we were out of dutch with the city, it was technically closed down, but they used it anyway. He’d slipped me a maintenance key. The price? One DUI. Again, to avoid walking around the block to the front door, it was well worth a couple of phone calls. I was used to barter. It’s what I did.
 
The elevator doors slid open at three where my office was located. Since I wasn’t on the letterhead at dad’s law firm; I insisted on being separate from the sixth floor suite. Plus, I didn’t like it up there with the Texas hair and two-thousand dollar boots. I did my best work when I could blend into the background.

To my surprise, the upper floors of the garage were silent. I heard none of the usual jackhammers, concrete saws, and swearing that had greeted me since the building inspector had threatened to condemn the structure. What I did see was the ass end of a black Suburban parked by the landing and I heard voices coming down the stairwell. Something was wrong here. I hadn’t seen a non-construction vehicle on my floor in weeks. Ducking under the plastic chain with the “Out of Order” sign dangling from it, I crossed the short hallway to a window overlooking the front of the building.

MY CRITIQUE FOLLOWS

 
“I want out.” GOOD OPENING LINE. I AM WONDERING WHAT IT IS HE WANTS TO ESCAPE. 

I squared my shoulders and said it louder, “I’m finished. I want out of the firm.” I repeated it three times. DON’T KNOW THAT THE LAST LINE IS NECESSARY. WE GET THE POINT. 

Silence. Then a loud honk from behind let me know the light had turned green. I hit the gas and made the short sprint to the next stoplight. Usually the downtown traffic made me crazy.  

OOPS, I HAD NO IDEA HE WAS SITTING IN TRAFFIC. HE MAY HAVE BEEN TALKING ON THE PHONE OR IN HIS OFFICE. MAYBE ESTABLISH LOCATION RIGHT AWAY BY SAYING HIS FOOT PRESSED HARDER ON THE BRAKES IN THE SECOND PARAGRAPH? 

However, today I was in no hurry. Today, I planned on telling my dad that I quit. He and the firm could do their deals without me mopping up after billionaire clients and their obnoxious offspring. I was done being his cleaner. 

OH, SO HE’S TALKING TO HIMSELF? MAYBE MENTION HE’S PRACTICING HIS SPEECH. 

CHANGE LINES TO: I pressed my foot harder on the brake and said it louder for practice: “I’m finished. I want out of the firm.” 

CLEANER HAS ANOTHER CONNOTATION FOR ME. IF YOU WATCH NIKITA, THAT’S THE NAME FOR THE ASSASSINS WHO DISSOLVE BODIES IN ACID. THEY CLEAN UP FOR THE FIRM, TOO, BUT A DIFFERENT KIND. 

I made a quick right turn the wrong way into an alley and pulled into a trash strewn vacant lot. The garage attached to our office building had been under construction for three months and I’d made a deal with the owner to park here. So far, all he had charged me was getting a nephew out of a marijuana jackpot. Given the price of parking in Dallas, that was cheap. 

Practicing my speech one more time in the side view mirror, I grabbed my briefcase and picked my way through the beer bottles and burger wrappers to a hidden door leading to the garage elevator. HE’S LOOKING IN THE SIDE VIEW MIRROR AT THE SAME TIME AS HE’S PICKING HIS WAY TO THE DOOR? WATCH YOUR GRAMMAR. I’d already ruined on pair of heels in this mess and had no desire to do it again. HEELS? IT’S A WOMAN? CAN YOU INDICATE THIS SOONER, LIKE WHEN SHE PRESSES ON THE BRAKES? 

Thankfully, the elevator was still running. The construction supervisor told me that until we were out of dutch THIS MUST BE SLANG BUT I’M NOT SURE WHAT IT MEANS with the city, it was technically closed down, but they used it anyway. He’d slipped me a maintenance key. The price? One DUI. Again, to avoid walking around the block to the front door, it was well worth a couple of phone calls. I was used to barter. It’s what I did.  
 
The elevator doors slid open at three where my office was located. Since I wasn’t on the letterhead at dad’s law firm; COMMA INSTEAD OF SEMI-COLON I insisted on being separate from the sixth floor suite. Plus, I didn’t like it up there with the Texas hair and two-thousand dollar boots REFERRING TO MEN OR WOMEN HERE?. I did my best work when I could blend into the background. 

To my surprise, the upper floors of the garage were silent. GOOD FORESHADOWING I heard none of the usual jackhammers, concrete saws, and swearing that had greeted me since the building inspector had threatened to condemn the structure. What I did see was the ass end of a black Suburban parked by the landing INSERT COMMA and I heard voices coming down the stairwell.
 
NEW PARAGRAPH. Something was wrong here. I hadn’t seen a non-construction vehicle on my floor in weeks. Ducking under the plastic chain with the “Out of Order” sign dangling from it, I crossed the short hallway to a window overlooking the front of the building. AGAIN, WATCH YOUR “ING” PHRASES. TECHNICALLY, HE’S DUCKNG WHILE CROSSING THE HALLWAY. YOU COULD CORRECT THIS BY ADDING THE WORD “AFTER” BEFORE DUCKING. 

NOT SURE OF HER LOCATION HERE. SHE’S STILL IN THE GARAGE? IF SO, WHY IS THERE A WINDOW? MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE I LIVE IN FLORIDA, BUT OUR ABOVE-GROUND GARAGES DON’T HAVE WINDOWS. OPEN AIR SPACES , YES. 
 
MORE COMMENTS:

This story is intriguing in that something is wrong when the narrator arrives at work. I think you’d raise suspense by having the story start there. Like this: 

Something was wrong. I hadn’t seen a non-construction vehicle on my garage floor in weeks. So what was that black Suburban doing parked by the landing? Nor did I hear the usual jackhammers or concrete saws that had greeted me ever since the building inspector threatened to condemn the structure.

With some tightening, this could come across as a lot more suspenseful. I’d also prefer a hint of something more about this person other than she plans to quit her father’s firm. That can be rather clichéd. Maybe tell us what she’d rather be doing with her life. I don’t get much of a sense of her personality. It’s a good start, though!
 
NOTE: I am away on a research trip and will not be able to respond to comments. Thanks in advance for your replies.
 

0

Interface: A Critique

INTERFACE (a thriller)
First Page Critique

Tom Faraday awoke feeling like he had been sleeping forever, and immediately struggled to recall where he was, or how he had got there. Some nights, he reflected, you hope you remember. Others you hope you forget. Tom was not sure which category the previous night would crystallise under. Right now he was just feeling the after effects of what must have been an evening of extraordinary excess.

He rolled over in the hotel bed and blinked repeatedly. The alarm clock read 8:30 a.m. Next to the clock was his watch, and next to that an electronic card key for his room. Picking it up he saw he was at the Western Star Hotel, in Waterloo, central London. This seemed vaguely familiar, but a stabbing pain deep in his head was making it hard to think clearly. He slipped on his watch, a present from his mother, slid out of bed and padded across to where his suitcase lay open. From a small zipped compartment he retrieved paracetamol and swallowed them down with gulps from a bottle of mineral water. He then stumbled into the bathroom, and was greeted by a tired visage in the mirror. His eyes were bloodshot, hair unkempt, stubble unusually obvious. He stroked his chin distractedly, thinking he must have forgotten to shave the previous day.

Back on the desk he found an elegantly printed invitation, and as he read it his memories started to return. The card bore his name in calligraphic handwriting, and was to the launch party for CERUS Technologies’ new office building. Tom rubbed his eyes and thought hard. What did he know?
He knew his name. He knew his age: 26. He remembered his job. He was a lawyer at CERUS Technologies. And he remembered the party.

He remembered getting there by taxi, late on Friday night. He remembered William Bern’s speech. And he remembered drinking a few beers. And then a few more. Perhaps a lot more. Of the trip back to the hotel, he remembered nothing. Friday night had come and gone.

He stretched slowly and looked for another bottle of water. Apart from the headache he did not feel too bad. Hopefully no harm done, and the rest of the weekend to recover. The noise of a mobile phone ringing broke him from his thoughts. His phone. He retrieved it from his pocket, noticing the battery was nearly dead.

<><><>

Critique by Nancy J. Cohen

The opening line is great. It immediately draws me in, wondering the same thing as the character. Where is he, and what is he doing there? I would delete “he reflected.” We’re in his viewpoint, and that qualifier is unnecessary.

Crystallize has a “z” not an “s”.

Delete the “just” before “just feeling.” This is one of those overused words. For more info in this regard, please see my review of a fabulous self-editing program at http://bit.ly/12iU9nZ. The Smart-Edit software points out all the words and phrase you overuse and much more.

What kind of drug is paracetamol?

I’d separate into a new paragraph, “The noise of a mobile phone…”

The cell phone is in his pocket? Is he still wearing his clothes from the night before? Or did he get dressed in them?

So the guy is hungover from a workplace party. I’m intrigued, but I am wondering where this is going. Hopefully the caller will inject more information. You do point of view very well, and I have no problems with the pacing especially if a dialogue ensues.

At first, I thought Tom had memory loss and couldn’t remember how he got where he is. But he does seem to recall everything, except maybe the cab ride back to the hotel. Then again, where does he normally live? My questions tell you I am hooked and would read more. I’d be hoping, though, that something happens to tell me all isn’t right and things are going to get hairier from here on in. Good job and Happy Fourth of July!

0

First-page critique: CANNIBAL’S HYMN

By Joe Moore

I took a break from first-page critiques last time around to make room for my friend and guest blogger Tom Schreck to give us some tips on hand-to-hand street fighting. Now back to my regularly scheduled blog. Today, I take a look at a first-page submission called CANNIBAL’S HYMN. My thoughts and suggestions are on the flipside.

Fredrick’s knees and hands shook as he pulled his wallet from a back pocket, bumping his wrist on the Glock snugged against the small of his back. He extracted a business card and flicked the wheel of a cigarette lighter. On the seventh try, and after cave-fireturning his back to the mouth of the cave, the flame stood upright and he set fire to the card stock. Crouched down, he tucked the curling paper into a small mound of dried leaves. His hands were turning white and going numb from cold and he could barely feel his toes, even though he slept with his tennis shoes on.

I should have bought boots. Or better socks, he thought. Shielding the infant pyre with his hands the wind blew across his back and dropped snow onto his neck. He shivered. He snapped pieces off of a branch and began laying them on top of the smoldering tinder. Tight, tiny pops gave way to less meek snaps as the fire grew. He blew steady breaths through pursed lips at the bottom of the fire. The horse clomped about, swishing its tail outside.

Turning around Fredrick stared through the aperture of the cave towards the trees. The snow fell in orderly, regimented lines that seemed more akin to the static waves painted on community theater backdrops than real weather and his eyes began to lose focus, depth disappeared and the forest flattened into a single crowded plane of dark green, gray and white. Then, right then, a small voice opened fire in the back of his mind. He knew it was right. There was no way he was getting away. Everything was too far, the weather too hateful, too many people looking.

He hunched over and crawled back into the darkness of the cave. Pawing around in the darkness he gripped his backpack and pulled it towards him. Setting the Glock to one side he reached down along the side of the bag and shimmied a collapsible aluminum bowl from the bottom and pushed it into shape. But the bottle of water was frozen.

OK, here’s what I know so far: Fredrick is trying to build a fire outside the entrance to a cave. He is hiding from “people”. It’s freezing and he’s not properly dressed for the elements. He is armed. There is a horse nearby. He has come to the realization that he may not survive. After Fredrick starts the fire, he goes inside the cave to fetch a bowl and heat some water.

First the good news. The writer has established two strong questions here that should keep a reader wanting to turn to the next page.

1. Will Fredrick survive the cold?

2. Will he avoid capture?

Now the not-so-good news. This is a hodgepodge of mixed images and confusing staging. Some of the writing is illogical. And a number of things just don’t work visually. Here’s my line-by-line critique.

Fredrick’s knees and hands shook as he pulled his wallet from a back pocket,

Does this mean that the rest of his body parts did not shake? Why isolate the shaking to his knees and hands?

bumping his wrist on the Glock snugged against the small of his back.

Is “snugged” really the word to use here? Is it even a real word? It stopped me as I tried to determine if it was a typo. How about snuggled or pressed?

He extracted a business card and flicked the wheel of a cigarette lighter.

It sounds like the cigarette lighter was in the wallet, too. Unless it really was in the wallet, I would suggest clarifying that he removed it from a pocket or pouch or whatever.

On the seventh try, and after turning his back to the mouth of the cave, the flame stood upright and he set fire to the card stock.

This is an instance of staging confusion. Is Fredrick inside the cave and is shielding the flame from the wind blowing in or is he outside the cave and shielding the flame? Why would he turn his back to the mouth of the cave if he was outside? At this point, I’m not sure where he is. But I do know that building the fire outside in the wind makes little sense.

Crouched down,

The word “down” is not needed since it’s physically impossible to crouch “up”. The economy of words rule: deliver the most information with the least amount of words.

he tucked the curling paper into a small mound of dried leaves. His hands were turning white and going numb from cold

“Were turning” is passive voice, and there’s no need to mention that the numbness is from the cold. What else would it be from?

and he could barely feel his toes, even though he slept with his tennis shoes on.

Why would he do otherwise? Sleeping with his shoes off under these conditions would be insane.

I should have bought boots. Or better socks, he thought.

Better socks? Like $100 silk dress socks? Instead of a meaningless word like better, how about thicker or insulated or woolen or hiking?

Shielding the infant pyre with his hands

OK, I admit that a “pyre” is technically a type of fire—a heap of combustible material, but it’s usually the size of a Rose Bowl Parade float. He may have high hopes that his fire will grow to the size of a pyre, but seriously, this is thesaurus-intensive writing. And it’s the wrong image to put into the reader’s mind.

the wind blew across his back and dropped snow onto his neck. He shivered. He snapped pieces off of a branch and began laying them on top of the smoldering tinder.

Now I know he’s outside the cave. So where is the logic in trying to build a fire in the wind when he could use the shelter of the cave instead?

Tight, tiny pops gave way to less meek snaps as the fire grew. He blew steady breaths through pursed lips at the bottom of the fire.

What other kind of lips would he use to blow steady breaths? And the way this sentence is constructed, the pursed lips are at the bottom of the fire. A cleaner version would be: He blew at the bottom of the fire.

The horse clomped about, swishing its tail outside.

The horse? So is it his horse or did the animal just wander up out of nowhere? Another bit of confusing staging. And it swished its tail outside. Outside of what? The cave?

Turning around Fredrick stared through the aperture of the cave towards the trees.

So is he now inside the cave looking out? And the choice of the word aperture is another example of thesaurus-intensive writing. Yes, technically, aperture is a type of opening. But the image it places into the mind of the reader is normally associated with the parts of a camera lens. Is Fredrick a photographer?

The snow fell in orderly, regimented lines that seemed more akin to the static waves painted on community theater backdrops than real weather

I’ve never seen snow fall in regimented lines. If anything, it’s exactly the opposite. I’ve also never seen “static waves” painted on a community theater backdrop. As a reader, I can’t relate to these references.

and his eyes began to lose focus,

Mine, too.

depth disappeared and the forest flattened into a single crowded plane of dark
green, gray and white.

No idea what’s going on here. Is he on drugs? Hallucinating?

Then, right then,

I think one “then” should do fine.

a small voice opened fire in the back of his
mind.

Opened fire connotes gunfire. Since we don’t know who Fredrick is yet, it would be easy to assume with this phrase that he is military and thinks in military terms. If he is, then this is probably OK. Otherwise, it might not be the best word choice.

He knew it was right. There was no way he was getting away. Everything was too far,

Too far as in distance or plot development? In other words, was the closest place to which he could escape too far away, or had pervious events leading up to this scene gotten too far out of hand?

the weather too hateful,

Hateful is normally a human emotion and may not be the best word choice here. Unless the author intends for the weather to become a contributing “character” with human attributes (think OLD MAN AND THE SEA), I would suggest words like harsh or severe might be better.

too many people looking.

A slight clarification would help here and ratchet up the suspense. Rather than the generic word “looking”, how about something more intense as in, too many soldiers out to kill him or too many cops out to capture him or too many villagers with pitchforks hunting . . . Obviously I don’t know the story, but I think this is a missed opportunity to create tension.

And if so many people are searching for him, wouldn’t the smoke from the fire attract their attention?

He hunched over and crawled back into the darkness of the cave.

OK, so he really is outside the cave.

Pawing around in the darkness

Pawing conjures up the image of the actions of an animal, not a human. That may be fine if the writer wants to start planting seeds in the reader’s mind that Fredrick is someone with animal-like instincts, despite the tennis shoes and bad socks.

he gripped his backpack and pulled it towards him. Setting the Glock to one side he reached down along the side of the bag and shimmied a collapsible aluminum bowl from the bottom and pushed it into shape. But the bottle of water was frozen.

Again, the staging is confusing. Where did the water bottle come from? Like the horse, did it materialize out of thin air? A short clarification avoids confusion.

As we’ve said many times, it takes a lot of guts for a writer to submit a sample for a public TKZ critiquing. And I have the utmost admiration for the courage of anyone who does. At the end of the day, this exercise is all about helping a writer become better at the craft. This submission is not bad at all, but it needs a great deal of clean-up and revision. I get the impression that this is probably a really cool story. The writer needs to decide what images to plant in the reader’s mind that correspond closely to those of his own, and avoid confusing alternatives. Probably the biggest sin committed here is questionable word choice. The words are all a writer has to get the story clearly into the head of the reader. It’s not easy. If it were, everyone would be writing books. Hey, wait, come to think of it everyone is.

So I hope that this writer will take my comments and sometimes snarky suggestions as a means to improving skills. It’s never personal. In fact it can’t be because I have no idea who wrote this submission. It’s always about advancing the art of story telling. Good luck.

Any additional thoughts? Do you agree or disagree with my suggestions? Would you keep reading?

0

First-page critique of ARTIC FIRE

By Joe Moore

Here’s another submission to our first-page critiquing extravaganza. It’s called ARCTIC FIRE. Have a look. My thoughts follow.

Ben was excited. It would be his first year as a full time counselor at scout camp, a hard to get position he’d dreamed of since first attending as a Tenderfoot four years earlier. His brother Ian, three years younger, was a First Class scout attending his second camp and seemed proud of his brother’s position. Ian would only be at Gorsuch for a week while Ben would be there for two months. Ben hoped to give his brother something to attain to.

Ben was an exemplary scout, a member of the Order of Arrow. At fifteen he was within six months of earning his Eagle Scout rank. Only ten percent of all scouts complete the demanding path to Eagle. It had been hard work and he was going to complete it a full eighteen months ahead of schedule.

After two sessions of the National Youth Leadership Training School at Camp Denali he knew how to lead boys. He was aware of not only how to teach them the skills every scout should know, but knew how to prepare for any emergency he could think of, how to keep them safe on campouts and hikes, how to perform advanced first aid and wilderness survival.

And to top it all off, maybe most important for many of the scouts in his charge, Ben Sanders knew how to tell stories. It was a skill he had learned from his father whose skill at filling the boys imaginations with visions of mountain trolls, sea spirits and brave warriors was amazing. The only props his father used for his tales were a ratty old gray wool blanket and his story stick.

The well-worn birch walking stick had been made about the time Ben was born. Carved images of bears, wolves and eagles decorated the shaft just below the handle, worn smooth and shiny by his father’s own grasp, the oil and sweat of his palm rubbing the white wood to a sheen as if it had been polished and rubbed with varnish. And now, his father was handing the stick to him.

I’m not going to get into any nitpicking here even though there are a couple of punctuation errors. Despite the fact that this is decent writing, the major problem is that nothing happens. It is 100% narrative backstory. After reading it, I have no idea what the story is about, what’s at stake, what the story question is, and why I would want to read page 2.

I’ve spoken many times on this blog about the pitfalls of starting a story in the wrong place. And I along with my blog mates have tried to emphasize that there’s really no need for backstory at the beginning. This first page contains important information, but we don’t need to know any of it yet.

My advice to the writer: find a point in the story where something happens that jolts Ben Sanders out of his “ordinary” life into an extraordinary situation because of physical, mental or emotional stress. Delete everything that’s written up to that point. That’s where the story should start.

Thanks to the author for submitting this first page and good luck.

0

Kunoichi: Critique

Chapter 1
“Dismantle the bridge after crossing it”
Wednesday, August 26

S.S. Palma Soriano, 120 miles off the coast of Sevastopol, Ukraine

They executed the entire row. Two dozen men on their knees. Hands tied behind their backs. Looking over the side of the freighter at a reflection of the quarter moon on the calm waters of the Black Sea. Just a few seconds of racket. Then the bodies fell forward. Bled out. The men in black military fatigues relaxed. Let the muzzles of their suppressed MP5 submachine guns face the deck. A stocky, Nordic-looking redhead standing at one end of the firing squad whistled. Pointed at them.

“Reload!”

They changed their clips.

The second half of the crew was brought out. Knelt next to the bodies of the first group, in deep, warm puddles of maroon.

“Fire!”

Racket. Fall. Bleeding.

The wheel lock for the bulkhead hatch spun around and the door opened. An Asian woman in her late thirties walked out onto the deck, a twenty-four inch sword strapped to her back, a ninja-to. Two men in Russian military officer uniforms, a general and a colonel, followed her. Behind them, two more men in black fatigues escorted out the white-haired captain of the ship handcuffed. The general said something in Russian to the Asian woman. She turned to the colonel. In heavily accented English, he said, “General Kornilov wants to know if your men have checked the entire ship yet. He also thanks you again for agreeing to meet him here for the exchange, Ms. Mochizuki.”

With an American accent, she said, “Please, Colonel Grieg, call me Chiyome.” The colonel put his hand to his chest, genuflected slightly. Chiyome motioned towards the row of dead men. “We checked every inch, could only find forty-eight. But I’m sure your smuggler friend has a few secret compartments you’re unaware of.”

Grieg translated for Kornilov, briefly discussed something with the general. Then he sauntered over to the ship’s captain, said something in Russian. The white-haired man answered, shook his head at Grieg. Emphatic. The colonel got in the old man’s face. Yelled.

Pointed at the crew’s bodies.

The captain shook his head again, repeated his previous answer.

Grieg stepped away, turned to Chiyome. “That is everyone.”

“Good.” She moved in front of the captain. Smiled. Brushed his shoulders off. Then unsheathed her ninja-to and decapitated him in a single fluid motion.

Kornilov and Grieg froze. Watched the head roll across the deck. Over the side.

“Well,” said Chiyome, taking a breath, “now that that’s out of the way….” The redhead came over to them with a laptop under his arm, opened it so that Kornilov could see the screen. Chiyome flung the captain’s blood off of her sword. “Fifty million American, as promised. All you have to do is press enter.”

Grieg translated.

Snickering, Kornilov moved to press the key.

Chiyome put the tip of her blade against his chest.  “Wait.” She pushed her sword into him, forced him to move back. “Colonel Grieg, would you be so kind as to ask General Kornilov if he’s spoken to anyone else about our transaction?”

The colonel did as instructed. Got a response. “He says no, not to anyone.”

“Is that so?”

“He swears it.”

She stared into the general’s eyes. “How honest.”

The two men who’d been holding the white-haired captain drew their pistols on Kornilov and Grieg. Forced them onto their knees.

Kornilov shouted. Grieg translated. “What’s going on? I thought we had a deal.”

Chiyome sheathed her ninja-to. Took the computer from the redhead. Pressed several keys. Held it so that Grieg and Kornilov could see a video feed of the general talking and having coffee with a man in a suit in an office. The symbol of the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, was visible on the suited man’s cup. The video cut out. Came back on a close-up of the suited man’s dead body on the floor of the office, Chiyome standing over him. Static. Chiyome closed the laptop, squatted in front of the general. “You could’ve at least switched cars before driving to Lubyanka.”

Kornilov spat in her face.

She wiped it off. Nodded to the man behind him.

Racket. Fall. Bleeding.

Chiyome came over to Grieg.

“No, no,” he said. “Please…I—I don’t even know what this is about. I am just a translator.”

“Unfortunate.”

She nodded again.

Racket. Fall. Bleeding.

My Critique

This action-packed opening grabbed my attention right away. It’s a great opening hook. I could easily envision the scene. And the terse, rapid-fire style lends itself to the thriller genre.

That said, some of the longer paragraphs could be more divided. For example, the one beginning “They executed….” I’d like to see a new paragraph start with, “The men in black military fatigues…” We are switching attention from the executed to the executioners, and this would be a good place for a paragraph break.

I wasn’t sure who was meant by “Pointed at them.” Who? Maybe change to “Pointed at his comrades.”

I started to get confused by the paragraph beginning with, “The wheel lock opened…” Three people are mentioned here and I wasn’t sure who was the translator at first. I think this could be made clearer. I’d start a new paragraph beginning with “The general…” And I might name the characters more quickly. Here’s my rewrite:

General Kornilov spoke in Russian to the translator, Colonel Grieg. The colonel turned to the Asian woman and said in heavily accented English, “General Kornilov wants to know if your men have checked the entire ship yet. He also thanks you again for agreeing to meet him here for the exchange, Ms. Mochizuki.”

You mention that the Asian woman speaks with an American accent. Is this necessary? Is she American? Yet she’s Asian. And the other guys are speaking Russian and accented English. It gets confusing.

Also, the second time you mention “the redhead”, I’d rather you say “the redheaded man or soldier.” I tend to think of redheads as being female.

By the third “Racket. Fall. Bleeding,” I am getting tired of this phrase and I’m ready for the language to have a more natural flow.

More importantly, whose viewpoint are we in? An omniscient presence hovering over this scene? While the action holds my interest and I get the gist of what’s going on, I’m yearning to be in someone’s head and to experience this emotionally from a viewpoint character. In other words, emotional impact is missing.

In the best thrillers where the story starts with a prologue and someone dies, the writer immediately puts you into a character’s viewpoint so that you feel their horror as they face the last minutes of their life. Thus you care as a reader about what happens to them. Action without reaction is merely plot.

What if you have the trio on deck during the initial executions? What if we’re in the general’s head? We’d experience his cold sweat, his twisted gut, his fear of discovery. With this emotional investment, we’d be eager to see who would bring down this Asian woman after she kills him.

It’s a great beginning, but it could be even better if the reader identifies with one of the victims. Or you could even make the viewpoint character one of the soldiers who is sickened by what he has to do and what he sees.

This sounds like an exciting story, and after this engaging opening, I’d certainly be curious to read more.

0

First-page critique: Untitled

By Joe Moore

Our annual first-page critique marathon continues with an anonymous submission that came in untitled. Take a look at it. My comments follow the text.

He stepped out from behind shadows cast by large oak trees, “Good evening.” Not a second passed before her smile faded. She obviously didn’t recognize him. A scream seemed to be stuck in her throat while she pulled her Publix grocery bag close to her body. She stepped away from him and when her elbow hit the wall of the house, two eggs fell out of a pink Styrofoam carton and onto the cement porch, orange yolk spraying against his polished shoes.

He felt his jaw tighten. “Open the door and don’t make a sound.” He kept both hands inside his coat pockets but gripped harder around the mallet in the palm of his right, in case she tried to run. First thing he should do is make her clean his god damned shoes.

She fumbled with the keys. She couldn’t be more than forty, but her hands shook like she was ninety years old. “I’m losing my patience with you,” he said. “Open the fucking door.” His voice sounded calmer than he felt. He wanted to crack her head open right there. Her skull would explode and her brains would splatter just like the egg yolk now drying on the tips of his loafers.

“Please. I have a brand new granddaughter I haven’t seen yet—” he shoved her inside when the key finally turned. She tripped on the corner of an area rug and the contents of her grocery bag spilled out across the hardwood floor. She crawled across the room and huddled against a wall. He shut the door and pulled down the shades.

The house brightened when he flipped on the light. It was tidy. Looked like something on the cover of Better Homes and Garden. In the center of the room, a rust colored sofa rested with a quilted afghan draped over the back. It was surrounded by dark cherry wood tables and a large grandfather clock encased in a solid oak frame.

Overall, this is not too bad, but it could be greatly improved. The setup has the same weakness as Monday’s submission—I felt like I’d seen the generic scene many times before, especially as an opening to so many TV dramas. The key to catching an agent or editor’s eye is originality—a new twist on a well-established theme. This is a basic setup but I don’t see anything new here. Not knowing anything else about the story, here are my line-by-line comments.

He stepped out from behind shadows cast by large oak trees, “Good evening.”

Ditch the comma and replace with a period after trees. Consider having him step out of or from the shadows rather than from behind them.

Not a second passed before her smile faded.

I would start a new paragraph with that line. And it reads a bit awkward to me. Under the circumstances, I’m not sure it’s even needed.

She obviously didn’t recognize him.

Does this signal to the reader that she should have recognized him? Perhaps she once knew him but he’s older or his appearance has been changed? Is he wearing a disguise? Or is his face otherwise well known or has it been on the news? Remember that the writer is laying the first groundwork here that has lasting impressions on the reader.

A scream seemed to be stuck in her throat while she pulled her Publix grocery bag close to her body. She stepped away from him and when her elbow hit the wall of the house, two eggs fell out of a pink Styrofoam carton and onto the cement porch, orange yolk spraying against his polished shoes.

I suppose that a Styrofoam container with a dozen eggs could be jarred open and have only two eggs fall out. Just being picky here, but I had to pause to picture if it were possible. Also, I assumed this is a big clue here: “polished shoes”. Does this signal that the aggressor is a well-dress villain or perhaps a neat freak?

jscHe felt his jaw tighten. “Open the door and don’t make a sound.” He kept both hands inside his coat pockets but gripped harder around the mallet in the palm of his right, in case she tried to run. First thing he should do is make her clean his god damned shoes.

Here we go with the shoes again. And his weapon of choice is not a knife or gun but a mallet? That’s certainly different. Perhaps he just came from eating stone crabs.

She fumbled with the keys. She couldn’t be more than forty, but her hands shook like she was ninety years old.

I liked this imagery with the hands although saying he wasn’t sure of her age gives me the impression that she may have been picked at random.

“I’m losing my patience with you,” he said. “Open the fucking door.”

OK, it’s time for my speech. You can’t even begin to imagine how many potential readers you will turn off by using the f-bomb on the first page of your book. Using it proves nothing. My advice: just don’t do it. Oh, and you don’t need the “he said” here. It definitely wasn’t the victim speaking.

His voice sounded calmer than he felt. He wanted to crack her head open right there. Her skull would explode and her brains would splatter just like the egg yolk now drying on the tips of his loafers.

Boy, this guy is (1) ultra violent (2) really into his shoes.

“Please. I have a brand new granddaughter I haven’t seen yet—”

I felt like this was a strange way of saying this. It’s almost like saying, “I’ve got a brand new plasma TV I haven’t seen yet.” Rather than “brand new”, how about, “Please, I’ve got a family, a granddaughter . . .”

he shoved her inside when the key finally turned.

You mean when the key turned and the door opened. Also, it should be a capital H on he since it’s a new sentence.

She tripped on the corner of an area rug and the contents of her grocery bag spilled out across the hardwood floor. She crawled across the room and huddled against a wall. He shut the door and pulled down the shades.

The house brightened when he flipped on the light.

“Brightened” may not be the best word choice since it connotes cheerfulness.

It was tidy.

The house or the light?

Looked like something on the cover of Better Homes and Garden.

This is an incomplete sentence lacking a subject. But that’s OK if it’s a style thing the writer intends to continue throughout the story. Warning: incomplete sentences get old fast.

In the center of the room, a rust colored sofa rested with a quilted afghan draped over the back. It was surrounded by dark cherry wood tables and a large grandfather clock encased in a solid oak frame.

Very observant villain. Is this to help build his character?

———-

So here’s what I take away from this first page. We have a shoe-fetish, stone crab-eating assailant who is a possible interior decorator and who picks random, forty-something victims who buy physics-defying cartons of eggs. What a hoot it would be if I were right.

These are my personal first impressions of this sample. Other’s may disagree with me or have different reactions. I’ve been hard on this writer, more so than normal even though this is a somewhat awkward but decent first draft. All first drafts need work. And I would keep reading at least for a few more pages to see what happens.

But my comments were also meant to emphasize that EVERY WORD COUNTS. Each word is like a brick laid in place to form the strong walls of the story. Choose them wisely.

If my facetious interpretation of this first page is correct, then it’s excellent storytelling. If not, I suggest the writer go back and rework it until every word builds on top of the previous one to form a solid image in the mind of the reader. Thanks for submitting it and good luck.

How about the rest of you innocent bystanders? Would you keep reading or go out for stone crabs?

0

First-page critique of LISTEN TO ME

By Joe Moore

Today we kick off our annual first-page critiques marathon. This is where we invite you guys to submit the first page (350 words max) of your WIP. We’ll take turns featuring a submission on our blog posting day and offer comments. In general, this is not meant to be a line editing exercise although suggestions on misspelling, improper punctuation, and other obvious errors are sometimes included. Instead, what we try to determine is our personal first impressions on story content, hooking the reader, establishing voice, creating a setting, developing characters, and any other advice that we hope will help the anonymous author move forward toward attracting the attention of an agent or editor.

Today, the first page is from a story called LISTEN TO ME. Join me at the end of the sample for my reaction and notes.

As he sinks slowly into the chair across from me, he looks just like a doctor should — greying hair, a well-trimmed beard with badger stripes framing his lips, and wire-rimmed glasses his wife must have chosen. They’re far too tasteful compared to the terrible shirt he’s wearing. On the plus side, his smile seems genuine.

"How are you feeling about today, Stacy?" His voice is too loud for the muted tones of the room – – all earthy browns and soft corners. It’s his office, but he’s tried to make it look like a living room. There’s a broad coffee table between us, and lamps on the tables at our sides. Too bad the external door has a combination lock. Kind of kills the good-time vibe.

He’s waiting for an answer. I start shrug, then freeze in place until the razors of pain ease. My stitches are all out now, but the hard pink lines spider webbing across most of my upper body are just the flag of truce for healing. Underneath I am still many layers of mangled nerve endings and fractured flesh.

Doctor hears me catch my breath and his eyes snap to mine. All that beguiling distinterest is an act. He is measuring me.

"Pain?" he says, softly this time.

"Yes. But it’s not so bad. I just moved wrong." It burns and crackles under my skin until I want to scream. But I won’t tell him that. He may measure me as wanting.

I will get out of here today.

His lips press together, barely visible under the curtain of heavy mustache. But after a second he smiles again. Planting his hands on his knees, he creaks to his feet, speaking as he turns to reach behind his chair.

Overall, this is pretty good storytelling. There’s a lot of mystery and unanswered questions already forming in my head. I immediately wanted to know more about Stacy, what brought her into what looks like an exit interview with the doctor, what kind of place is she being released from, why is there a combination lock on the door, and most of all, what caused her extensive and dramatic injuries. The setting is developed well as is the uneasy relationship between Stacy and the doctor. Tension is present right from the start.

Now lets take a look at the text again and I’ll include some specific impressions:

As he sinks slowly into the chair across from me, he looks just like a doctor should —

How should a doctor look? Instead, just describe him as having greying hair, a well-trimmed beard with badger stripes framing his lips, and wire-rimmed glasses his wife must have chosen. They’re far too tasteful compared to the terrible shirt he’s wearing.

I’m not sure what a “terrible” shirt is.  Florescent, day-glow, Hawaiian, animal skin, camouflage? Tell us why it’s “terrible”.

On the plus side, his smile seems genuine.

"How are you feeling about today, Stacy?" His voice is too loud for the muted tones of the room – – all earthy browns and soft corners. It’s his office, but he’s tried to make it look like a living room. There’s a broad coffee table between us, and lamps on the tables at our sides. Too bad the external door has a combination lock. Kind of kills the good-time vibe.

You didn’t describe a place that has a “good-time vibe”. Unless you’re being sarcastic, in which case we don’t know yet what Stacy’s personality is, so good-time vibe doesn’t really work here.

He’s waiting for an answer. I start to shrug, then freeze in place until the razors of pain ease. My stitches are all out now, but the hard pink lines spider webbing across most of my upper body are just the flag of truce for healing. Underneath I am still many layers of mangled nerve endings and fractured flesh.

Flesh is soft. I’m not sure if you can fracture soft flesh. Perhaps torn would be better?

The Doctor hears me catch my breath and his eyes snap to mine. All that beguiling distinterest is an act. He is measuring me.

"Pain?" he says, softly this time.

"Yes. But it’s not so bad. I just moved wrong." It burns and crackles under my skin until I want to scream.

Is “crackles” really the best word choice here?

But I won’t tell him that. He may measure me as wanting.

I will get out of here today.

His lips press together, barely visible under the curtain of heavy mustache.

I don’t think “a well-trimmed beard with badger stripes framing his lips” works visually with “barely visible under the curtain of a heavy mustache”.

But after a second he smiles again. Planting his hands on his knees, he creaks to his feet, speaking as he turns to reach behind his chair.

————-

My advice about the typo (distinterest for disinterest) and a missing word (I start to shrug): Rule number one before submitting anything to anyone for review: Proof read it. Then get someone else to proof it. Finally, check and double check it again. A typo on the first page of a manuscript can be deadly.

Like I said, this is pretty good storytelling. A cleanup and edit would solve the minor issues I raised. I like the way the author is building suspense right out of the gate. I would not hesitate to read on and see what happens next. Thanks for submitting this, and good luck.

How about you guys? Do you agree with my critique? Any other comments? Would you keep reading this manuscript based on the first page?

0