Deep Dive into Craft: First Page Critique

I’ve got a special treat for you today. This Brave Writer submitted their first page for critique. Check it out. My comments will follow.

Lucky Lynx

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Carlos shook his head. He didn’t take his hands off the wheel as the battered Ford Bronco jounced over the pothole-ridden street. “You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

“He gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared.  Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Riker’s.”

That made Eduardo sit up. The seat’s rusty springs made a creak.

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

“Don’t matter what you believe. This guy can erase lives with a click. Don’t cross him, cousin. Keep that nine-iron under your jacket.”

Eduardo shifted in his seat.  The gun was a reassuring weight against his side.

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

Carlos put the vehicle in park, shut the motor off, and got out.  Eduardo followed suit. Their steps sounded abnormally loud in the sudden silence as they walked up to the fence.

Three of the four men watched warily as they approached.  The fourth one took a step forward. A pale face jutted out from beneath a black hoodie sweatshirt.  The sweatshirt hung loose around a lean, slender frame.

“The package is up against the fence, twenty yards to your right,” he said, in a young, high-pitched voice. “Either of you can pick it up and verify I’ve delivered what you want. If it checks out, then you’ll pay the agreed amount. You will not exit the premises until we signal that we have counted the bills.”

“Fine. I’ll pick it up,” Carlos said.

Eduardo scowled at the hoodie-wearing figure.

“You’re just a kid.”

A pause. “The name’s Ti. And yeah, I’m a kid. A kid who scored you your shipment.”

Brave Writer did a terrific job with this opener. S/he has a firm grasp of POV and the dialogue is easy-going and natural, though at times it took me a moment to figure out who was speaking. Easy fix, which we’ll get to in a moment. Because Brave Writer has the basics down, this gives us a great opportunity to dive a little deeper into craft.

First, let’s compare Brave Writer’s dialogue with my favorite craft book for dialogue: How To Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell.

In Chapter 3, Jim gives us a checklist for what dialogue should accomplish.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Story Information.

But only reveal enough information for the reader to understand the scene. Everything else can wait.

Dialogue is sometimes the more artful way to reveal story information. But here’s the key: the reader must never catch you simply feeding them exposition!

Jim gives us his two top tips…

First, determine just how much exposition you really need. Especially toward the front of your novel. Here’s one of my axioms: Act first, explain later. Readers will wait a long time for explanatory material if there is solid action going on.

In fact, by not revealing the reasons behind certain actions and dialogue, you create mystery. That works in any genre. Readers love to be left wondering.

Second, once you know what you need to reveal, put it into a tense dialogue exchange.

In other words, hide the exposition within confrontation.

For the most part, Brave Writer succeeded in this area. But the punctuation causes confusion. For example…

“You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

For clarity try something like: “You know Hector Flores? [That dirtbag who] ran with Familia Michoacana.”

“What if I do?” doesn’t sound right to this particular reader. Simple and direct works best. Example: “That dude? Punk. He’s lucky I didn’t—”

“[Anyway,] he’s gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared. Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Rikers.”

Rikers Island has no apostrophe, Brave Writer. Do your research! It took me all of two seconds to confirm. Details can make or break a story.

Careful of run-on sentences, too. Example: “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Those are two sentences that should be separated by a period.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Character.

We can tell a lot about character by the words they use. Jim gives us another checklist to keep in mind.

  • Vocabulary: What is the educational background of your characters? What words would they know that correspond to that background?
  • Syntax: When a character does not speak English as a first language, syntax (the order of words) is the best way to indicate that.
  • Regionalisms: Do you know what part of the country your character comes from? How do they talk there?
  • Peer groups: Groups that band together around a specialty—law, medicine, surfing, skateboarding—have pet phrases they toss around. These are great additions to authenticity.

Did Brave Writer accomplish this task? Let’s find out… 

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

The vocabulary, syntax, regionalism, and peer groups are all represented. Yet, something still feels off. If we look closer, Eduardo’s dialogue works really well. It’s Carlos’s dialogue that needs a minor tweak. “That’s right” is too on-the-nose. A more natural response might be, “No shit. But get this.” The rest of this short exchange works well.

Quick note about nicknames. If “primo” is the name Eduardo uses for Carlos, then be consistent. Don’t use both, especially on the first page. After all, we’re inside Eduardo’s head. If he doesn’t think of Primo as Carlos, then the reader shouldn’t either while we’re in his POV. 

  1. Dialogue Should Set the Tone (and Scene) 

The cumulative effect of dialogue on readers sets a tone for your book. Be intentional about what you want that tone to be… First, the way characters react to their surroundings tells us both about the location and the people reacting to it.

Brave Writer nailed this part. We know exactly where we are, and the tone is consistent. Great job! 

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Theme

Certainly, many writers do care about message, or theme. The danger in dialogue is to allow the characters to become mere mouthpieces for the message. This is called getting “preachy.” The way to avoid this is to place the theme into natural dialogue that is part of a confrontational moment. As with exposition, a tense exchange “hides” what you’re doing.

With such a small sample, it’s difficult to determine if Brave Writer accomplished this task or not. Just keep it in mind.

Aside from dialogue…

Sentence Variation and Rhythm

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

In this one paragraph every sentence begins with “The,” which dulls the image you’re trying to convey. By varying the sentences you’ll draw the reader into the scene. Let the writing work for you, not against you.

Example:

Carlos veered into the back-parking lot, and the Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble. Broken windows, boarded-up doorways, the headlight’s cast cylindrical spheres across the skewed faces of four men huddled next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. A chain link fence acted as an enclosure to keep this deal from going south—no one could escape unnoticed.

It’s still not great, but you get the idea.

Also, don’t rely only on sight. Add texture to the scene with smells, sounds, touch, and taste. Could there be a harbor bell in the distance? What might that sound like to Eduardo? Is he nervous and chews on his inner cheek to the point where blood trickles onto his tongue? Drag us deeper into the scene by forcing us into that Bronco.

Clarity

We never want the reader to wonder who’s speaking. An easy way to fix this is to move the dialogue up to the cue.

So, instead of this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Try this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster. “This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest. We just gotta push him.”

Or simply substitute “Eduardo” for “he.”

This raises another issue, though.

Would Eduardo really notice the sunlight gleaming off his gun as he’s holstering the weapon? Not likely. Remember Jim’s #2 tip: Dialogue Should Reveal Character. What I’m sayin’ is, you need a better opening line. We’ve discussed first lines many times on the Kill Zone. Check out this post or this one. For scene structure tips, see Jim’s Sunday post.

I better stop there. All in all, I think Brave Writer did an excellent job. The characters are real and three-dimensional, the tone is dark and pensive, and the dialogue keeps the scene active. I’d definitely turn the page.

The question is, do you agree? How many of you would turn the page to find out what happens next? What did you like most? How might you improve this first page even more?

9+

The First Line Game, part II

By Joe Moore

Last month, my blogmate Jim Bell posted a blog called The First Line Game, a cool exercise he and some friends do to have fun with the first lines of their WIP. We’ve often discussed the power (or lack of) that first lines have on the reader. It can’t be emphasized enough how much a first line plays into the scope of the book. For just like first impressions, there is only one shot at a first line. It can set the voice, tone, mood, and overall feel of what’s to come. It can turn you on or put you off—grab you by the throat or shove you away. It’s the fuse that lights the cannon.

Some first lines are short and to the point—built to create the most impact from a quick jab. Others seem to go on and on and on. And only when we arrive at the period at the end do we see how expertly crafted it was for maximum effect.

So in the spirit of sharing what I consider examples of pure genius, true literary craftsmanship, and genuine artistic excellence, I’d like to share what I think are some of the best first lines in literary history. Let’s start with two of the most famous:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. —Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. —Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938)

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. —Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

All this happened, more or less. —Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. —William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. —Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

It was the day my grandmother exploded. —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

It was love at first sight. —Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. —Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. —Louise Erdrich, Tracks (1988)

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. —Ha Jin, Waiting (1999)

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

"To be born again," sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, "first you have to die." —Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)

The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm. —Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962)

Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me. —GŸnter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959; trans. Ralph Manheim)

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. —Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)

He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.  —Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900)

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.  —L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. —Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)

Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women. —Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (1990)

In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. —Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. —David Lodge, Changing Places (1975)

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. —Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

Let’s finish with my personal all-time favorite:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

So which ones have I missed? If it’s not on this list, what’s your favorite first line?

————————————
THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 2011
"A knockout apocalyptic thriller." – Douglas Preston

0

The First Line Game

James Scott Bell

A number of my novelist friends share an e-mail loop, and from time to time we put up the first lines of our WIPs. It’s always fun to strut our stuff and see what others are doing.
First lines can also be an idea generator. Dean Koontz, in his book How to Write Best Selling Fiction (1981), told how he used to do this all the time, in order to find material. One day he wrote this:
“You ever killed anything?” Roy asked.
He stared at it awhile, then decided Roy was fourteen and talking to a younger boy. And from that one line he developed what became The Voice of the Night.
Joseph Heller wrote this line, without knowing anything else: In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. This became the genesis of his massive satirical novel, Something Happened. (The line was moved further in by Heller once the book was finished, but it was the line itself that suggested the larger work).
I was at Bouchercon last week, in a good place because I had just submitted my manuscript to my editor. I am about to begin another novel, so sitting in the hotel lobby one afternoon, I was “in between.” I took out my notebook and wrote this line:
He had loved her since she was six years old.
Now, that is not my usual style, and it has the word had in it, which I would normally try to eschew. But that’s what I wrote. Then I kept on writing, to find out what the scene was about. When I got to the end of the page I had made two startling discoveries, both of which I’ll keep to myself as I may actually want to write this thing!
It is very cool to find ideas this way. Do you ever do that?
Okay, if you’re a writer, do you want to share the first line of your WIP?
If not, what is a favorite first line from a recent book you read? 

0

The First Page

By John Gilstrap

Greetings from Muncie, Indiana, where I have the honor of serving on the faculty of the Midwest Writers Conference on the campus of Ball State University. As part of my responsibilities, I’m evaluating students’ manuscripts. I had forgotten how much I learn about my own writing by helping others improve theirs.

The manuscripts submitted to me are all thrillers, and the submissions were limited to five pages in length. As you might expect, the competency of the writing–from a commercial standpoint–varies fairly significantly among the students I’m evaluating, but I’ve noticed a common denominator among all of them that I think is a potential trap for writers everywhere: Slow first pages.

In this particular batch, the slowness trap is mostly about physical description. We open with a detailed rendering of eye color, fabric, hand gestures or in one notable case, breast size. In six of the ten manuscripts I evaluated, literally nothing had happened by the end of the five-page submission.

In the early drafts of everything I write, I seem to need a few pages of warm-up before I really get down to the business of telling the story at hand. That’s my process, and like all things process-related, I don’t even try to understand it anymore. It just is what it is. But I always go back and edit out all of that stuff. At least I try to.

I occasionally hang out in bookstores and watch people shop for their next book. The pattern is universal: Look at the cover; read the jacket notes; read the first page. Inexplicably to me, a significant minority also read the last page. Then they make their decision. I make my decision the same way. Don’t we all?

Those first few pages need to really sizzle. With any luck at all, the first line really sizzles. Ditto lines two, three, four . . . all the way to the end of the book. There’s probably some forgiveness somewhere in the middle, once you have the reader hooked, and they’ve already spent their money, but man those first pages are the audition. They’re the sales pitch. Thy’ve got to scream.

Do you obsess about your openings? Do you re-write the beginning a dozen times like I do? Are you constantly aware of that reader out there who’s judging you from a cold start based only on those first words?

0