First Page Critique

Admin note: Strong language, content advisory.

By Elaine Viets

Another brave writer has sent in this untitled first page for a critique. We’ll start with the page, then my comments.

Chapter One (Monday)
“I hate men.” Faith sat on the bed cross-legged, Indian style, naked, dipping pineapple chunks and strawberries into chocolate fondue.
“Well, you do have valid reasons to feel that way.” Bill stretched out along the side of the bed opposite the fruit and chocolate, naked.
“I only want to hate men that I knew before I was 24, so I can include Troy. But the list keeps growing.“
“I want you.”
“You’re trying to distract me.”
“Obviously, doesn’t change that I want you.”

“Why are you the only man I can stand to be around?”
“Because I want you for who you are. Because I respect the hell out of you. Because I accept all that you are, and all that you aren’t. Because I don’t want to change a single thing. Because I don’t want to control you. Because I don’t need to have power over you to feel like a real man. And some other things that nicely pass the eye-test.”
“Because you are the only man I have ever felt comfortable with.”

“Exactly what I said, just a bit more concisely. Pass me a strawberry. And you keep eating the pineapple.”
“Ha, you and your pineapple. That’s an old wives’ tale.”
“Not at all. I’ll let you taste my tongue next time.”
“I need to get to the office. Lots to do and I’m losing time here.”
“What? No session two? What the hell?”
“Not today. I owe you, rest up for a few days old man.”
“Fuck. OK. Go harass some men, make the world a better place, save some women, be the super-woman that you are. I will patiently await your blessing me with your presence again.” Bill stood up, picked-up the platter of fruit and fondue and turned toward the door. “Stay moist my friend.”
“Oh, you know I will. Someday I’ll understand how you make me wet and every other guy makes me grind my teeth.”

* * * * * * * * *******************************************************************
Monday
“Everyone, in the conference room please. Bring your creative and strategic minds and plenty of coffee. It’s time to change the world.” Faith skipped down the hall of her tiny set of offices and headed straight into their conference room, which was really just the largest of the tiny offices that she rented for her not-for-profit agency. “It’s time to rid the world of domestic violence. Are you WITH ME?”


ELAINE VIETS’S TAKE:
Two naked people are in bed eating chocolate fondue. This is a bold start to a novel. Many writers are shy about writing sex scenes, or in this case, postcoital scenes. Congratulations for a beginning that grabs readers by the (eye) balls.
This first page has so many possibilities, but many are unfulfilled.
Most important, who are these chocolate lovers? They seem lost, ghostly figures adrift on this mattress like shipwreck survivors on a raft.
All we know is they are naked.
What do they look like?
How old are they? What color is their hair? This is the one time we will truly know if characters are natural blonds. Is her hair tousled from sex and sleep? What about his? Does he even have hair, or is he all the way bare? We don’t know.
They’re both wearing birthday suits. What color is their skin: flour white, deep chocolate, caramel? Are they fit and tan? Pale and flabby? Wrinkled? Or well-nourished and well-developed, as the pathologists say?
What about the lovers’ relationship: Is this a long-term romance? Is it a romance at all? Are they married or single? This appears to be a passionless encounter. Is this true? If there’s heat, we need to know it. If love is dying, we need that too.
Where are we? We know it’s Monday, but what month? What’s the weather? Is it a sunny morning? A chilly afternoon? Is the day as hot as the potential scene? And what about the room? Is this a poorly furnished apartment? A luxurious home? Again, that mattress is floating in space.
The scene is supposed to be sexy, but there’s a strong ick factor. Bill says, “I’ll let you taste my tongue next time.” No, thanks.
Why does Faith hate Troy? Give us a hint: did he beat her, abandon her, or betray her? A word or two would ratchet up the tension.
“I want you.” Bill says this twice. Are these three words said with a sensual smile, or simply a demand? Does Bill love Faith, is he obsessed with her, or does he just want more sex? What actions go with those words? Show us what he’s doing. Show us her reactions: Does she love Bill? Is she bored with him?
What’s he doing with that fruit while they’re talking? Is Bill still eating strawberries? Dipping them? Dripping chocolate on her body? Painting it on his? Does she want him to do that? How was the sex for him? Is he exhausted? Exhilarated? Satisfied? Or was it just a routine roll in the hay?
Bill says he wants her, but is there any physical evidence? Is he fully erect? Does he reach for her? In this version, he’s all talk. Is that intentional?
POV: What’s the point of view here? It needs to be stronger.
Fix that misplaced naked. This sentence reads better as: Bill stretched out naked along the side of the bed opposite the fruit and chocolate. Otherwise, it sounds like the fruit and chocolate are naked.
What old wives’ tale about pineapple?
The dialogue starts out interesting, but slips in to self-help cliches. Bill says, “Because I want you for who you are. Because I respect the hell out of you. Because I accept all that you are, and all that you aren’t. Because I don’t want to change a single thing. Because I don’t want to control you. Because I don’t need to have power over you to feel like a real man. And some other things that nicely pass the eye-test.”
Does he mean that? Or is he being ironic? We can’t tell.
The scene at the office is confusing: We don’t know it’s Faith talking until four sentences into the paragraph. Set the scene first, please. Tell us the time of day.
Now that we’re naked – what are we doing? What kind of story is this? What are we reading? Is this a mystery? A thriller? Crime fiction or adult fiction? A line or two, a little foreshadowing, can answer this questions: “Faith wanted rid of domestic abusers, and she knew the best way was to eliminate the men who hurt those women . . .” “Faith knew the best solution for domestic abusers was to stash them six feet under.” You can come up with better examples, but you know what I mean.
You’ve got the start of a fascinating first page here, Anonymous. Now make it live up to that potential.
What do you think, TKZers? Feel free to add your criticism – constructive criticism only, please. We writers have tender feelings.

Elaine Viets is the author of the critically acclaimed Brain Storm, an Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery. “Brain Storm has everything I love in crime fiction – complexity, intelligence, pretzel-plotting, and a touch of dark humor.”– PJ Parrish, New York Times bestselling author of She’s Not There and the award-winning Louis Kincaid series.
Brain Storm is an e-book, a trade paperback and audio book. Buy it here: http://tinyurl.com/hr7b9hn

 

2+

The Exception That Proves the Rule About Opening With a Scene

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

school-1019989_1280

Writers and other artists are a touchy lot. We love our independence. We should all go around humming that song from Woody Allen’s Bananas, the one the guerilla leader sings:

Rebels are we!
Born to be free!
Just like the fish in the sea!

In short, we don’t like to hear the word rules. Don’t fence me in! Give me land, lots of land! Rules? We don’t need no stinking rules!

And yet, and yet … there are some things that are fundamental to storytelling and the fiction craft, so called because, guess what, THEY WORK! They help a writer weave a story that readers can actually relate to and get lost in. Imagine that!

Yeah, but So-and-so breaks the rules and writes bestsellers!

Sure, and how many So-and-sos are there? And maybe, just maybe, So-and-so compensates for the “rule breaking” by doing something absolutely astonishing somewhere else. Maybe So-and-so knows exactly what he’s doing when he breaks a rule.

In fact, I’d say good old So-and-so is actually the exception that proves the rule!

Let me show you what I mean.

I have a rule—or, if your hackles are starting to gather for a protest––a guideline or axiom: Act first, explain later. By this I mean it is much more engaging and compelling to begin your book with an actual scene in progress, with a character in motion, than it is to lard backstory and description and exposition all over the first couple of pages.

Is there an exception to this rule? Yes, one that proves it. The exception is this: a style that can enrapture you with the power of the writing alone. Almost always this is found in so-called literary fiction.

Example: here is the opening of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. (Note: The ellipses are Kesey’s):

Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range … come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River …

The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting … forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creeks, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittim bark and silver spruce––and the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir––the actual river falls five hundred feet … and look: opens out upon the fields.

Metallic and first, seen from the highway down through the trees, like an aluminum rainbow, like a slice of alloy moon. Closer, becoming organic, a vast smile of water with broken and rotting pilings jagged along both gums, foam clinging to the lips. Closer still, it flattens into a river, flat as a street, cement-gray with a texture of rain. Flat as a rain-textured street even during flood season because of a channel so deep and a bed so smooth: no shallows to set up buckwater rapids, no rocks to rile the surface … nothing to indicate movement except the swirling clots of yellow foam skimming seaward with the wind, and the thrusting groves of flooded bam, bend taut and trembling by the pull of silent, dark momentum.

A river smooth and seeming calm, hiding the cruel file-edge of its current beneath a smooth and calm-seeming surface.

Kesey reaches out with his wrestler’s arms and lifts you off the mat. It works for me. It may not for others, but that’s the point. Kesey knows exactly what he’s doing here, eschewing act first, explain later. The exception that proves the rule is a dazzling literary style.

What happens when a writer doesn’t dazzle, but ignores the rule anyway? You end up with something like this:

The trip by jeep from the small village near Luena to Malanje in Angola, in southwest Africa, followed by a train ride to Luanda, the capital, had taken seven hours. The drive from Luena was long and arduous due to unexploded land mines in the area, which required extreme diligence and caution to avoid as they drove. After forty years of conflict and civil war, the country was still ravaged and in desperate need of all the help outside sources could provide, which was why Ginny Carter had been there, sent by SOS Human Rights. SOS/ HR was a private foundation based in New York that sent human rights workers around the globe. Her assignments were usually two or three months long in any given location, occasionally longer. She was sent in as part of a support team, to address whatever human rights issues were being violated or in question, typically to assist women and children, or even to address the most pressing physical needs in a trouble spot somewhere, like lack of food, water, medicine, or shelter. She frequently got involved in legal issues, visiting women in prisons, interfacing with attorneys, and trying to get the women fair trials. SOS took good care of their workers and was a responsible organization, but the work was dangerous at times. She had taken an in-depth training course before they sent her into the field initially, and had been taught about everything from digging ditches and purifying water, to extensive first aid, but nothing had prepared her for what she had seen since. She had learned a great deal about man’s cruelty to man and the plight of people in undeveloped countries and emerging nations since she’d started working for SOS/HR.

So help me, that is the first page and a half of a published novel. If it had not been written by an A-lister who could sell her parking tickets, no agent or editor would have let this through. (For the identity of the author and feedback about this passage, go here.)

I will note there are superb writers in familiar genres who sometimes begin with a literary style. Michael Connelly comes to mind (e.g., the opening of The Narrows). 

The point, gentle writer, is that no matter what you call them––rules, guidelines, fundamentals, axioms––they survive because they work every single time. That’s what I said. There is never a time when act first, explain later doesn’t work as an opening move.

But if you want to try something different, go for it. I’m all for spreading your writing wings. Just be aware of what you’re doing and why. Because if it doesn’t work out, guess what? You can always go back to the rules!

6+

Crafting an effective opening

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

We do an ongoing series of first-page critiques here at TKZ and all too often the same set of issues come up when analysing these draft first pages. I thought today’s post could provide a summary of some of the key elements needed to provide a really effective opening to your novel. Most of these elements apply not just to the first page per se but to those all important first few chapters which (lets face it) are the critical ones in terms of enticing and keeping reader’s interest.

On my list, the following are crucial to providing an effective opening:

  • An initial ‘disruptive’ event that changes everything for the main protagonist: This event doesn’t need to be on the scale of a nuclear accident but it does need to profoundly affect the path the main character must take. It helps set up the plot, motivation and tension for the first chapters of the book.
  • Act/show first explain later: Often there’s way too much explanation and back story in the first few pages, which often serves to diminish tension and momentum. It’s better to show/have the protagonist act first and then wait to provide the reader with explanation. The only caution I would add is to beware of introducing actions that make no sense or which are completely unexplained to the reader which leads to…
  • Ground the book: It’s important to make sure the reader has a solid grounding in terms of the ‘world’ you have created. This means a solid foundation of time, place, character and voice. The reader shouldn’t have to work too hard to figure out what’s happening in the first few pages. An intrigued but well-grounded reader wants to read on, a disorientated reader may just put the book down.
  • Establish a strong, appropriate POV and ‘voice’ for the genre of book you are writing: Occasionally in our first page critiques we’ve found it hard to reconcile the ‘voice’ with the subject matter or tone of the book. Sometimes a POV ‘voice’ might sound like  ‘YA’ but the book doesn’t appears to be a young adult book. This is especially tricky when using a first person POV – as the ‘voice’ is the only point of reference for the reader.
  • Edit, spell check and edit again: We’ve seen some first pages that still contain many grammatical and spelling mistakes. Those first few pages have to be as perfect as possible so  make sure all errors are corrected. 


I usually spend a considerable chunk of time getting the first line, page and chapters more or less right before I move on with drafting the rest of the book. To me the first few chapters provide the all important ‘voice’ and guidepost to the world I’ve created. But it’s important also not get too bogged down in perfecting the first line/page/chapter. I’ve seen too many people write, re-write and re-write the first three chapters only to never move on and actually finish that all important first draft of the novel. 


So how do you strike the balance? 
What makes an effective opening for you and what items would you add to my list?

0

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

First Make Me Care

By John Gilstrap

I’m tackling another first page critique this week.  I’ll start with the submission, and the see you on the back side with my comments in bold.
HAYWIRE
The Changeling


At five minutes past eight a.m., Amy Turner went upstairs and paused outside her son’s closed bedroom door, listening.


 
“Peter, this is your ten-minute warning.”

 She rapped sharply on the wood with her knuckles. “Ten minutes and we walk out the door, Mister. You got that? Or else you’re taking the bus to school.”


 
It was an empty threat. If Amy didn’t physically deposit her sullen 15-year-old at the front door of Venice High, he’d skip school again. Peter was about to fail the tenth grade due to his repeated absences, and it was only February. Amy sighed. Her son was incredibly smart, but after the divorce he’d become withdrawn, distant. She was at a loss what to do.

 
 Amy flung open the door with an angry flourish. Then she froze in her tracks, staring. Peter’s room, normally a hell hole of man-boy slovenliness, looked drastically changed. It was clean. The bed was freshly made with crisp linens and hospital corners. The buntings of draped clothes, the smelly shoe piles, the debris field of chips and God-knows-what-else on the floor, had vanished. Now you could actually see the brown carpet, which had been vacuumed. The room was eerily neat, as if a guest with OCD had tidied up before clearing out.
 “Peter?” Amy’s voice sounded thin in her own ears. No answer. Peter was gone.
 Oh my God he’s run away, like he said he would. She pivoted and thundered down the stairs, her thoughts already leapfrogging to panic mode. She visualized making frantic calls to the school, interrogating her son’s friends to see if they knew where he was.
 Amy rounded the living room corner, headed for the kitchen. Then she pulled up short. At the far end of the dining room table, sat Peter. He was spooning up cereal and quietly studying some notes. A couple of school books were stacked next to his elbow.
 “Oh thank God,” she gasped.
 Peter looked up and gave his mother a distracted smile. “Sorry Mom, did you call me? I’m trying to get through these notes—can’t believe I let myself fall so far behind in trig.”

 
“It’s okay,” she said. “You’ll catch up.”
 Was this a joke? Peter never worried about school. She did another double-take as she registered his clothes. He had on a pair of neatly pressed chinos—chinos?—plus the Harvard sweatshirt her parents had given him the previous Christmas. Peter had thrown the gift into his bottom drawer, where it had remained. Until now.
 After pouring herself a cup of coffee, Amy studied her son from the corner of her eye. Maybe he has a new girlfriend, she thought. Either that, or a hobgoblin with a dark sense of humor had swapped out a substitute for her son. Amy held her breath, afraid of breaking the spell.

 
“Your room looks amazing,” she finally ventured. “You’re not planning to join the military, are you?”
 “No way,” Peter gave her his old grin, the one she hadn’t seen in months. “I just decided that pig sty was getting old.”

 
He reached for his ear to adjust his new Internet appliance, which he’d had for just a week. Shaped like an ear cuff, the blinking gadget was called an “e-Hook.” It was supposed to be the latest thing for connecting to the Internet. Amy hadn’t squawked about the price—she was hoping technology would make him a better multi-tasker. He needed to get better at something.
 “Hey, Mom.” The lights on Peter’s e-Hook flickered through his long hair, signaling a new connection. “Can you take me for a hair cut tonight after school? It’s so shaggy, it’s blocking my signal in hot spots.”

 
Looking heavenward, Amy sent up a little prayer of thanks.

 
Okay, let’s talk first about the good stuff. I like the way this author writes about mundane morning ritual. If you’re a parent, you’ve lived the first part of this scene one way or another, and it’s not easy to write well about something so common. I could feel the clock ticking. Nicely done.

Unfortunately, there’s no payoff.

This is another example of a first chapter that should have been a second chapter. Actually, no. This should have been a fourth chapter. By starting here, the author has put herself in the position of including back story with front story in the same paragraph (Note: right or wrong, I’m assuming that the author is a woman—which means there’s a voice to the piece, which is good).

Example: If Amy didn’t physically deposit her sullen 15-year-old at the front door of Venice High, he’d skip school again. Peter was about to fail the tenth grade due to his repeated absences, and it was only February. Amy sighed. Her son was incredibly smart, but after the divorce he’d become withdrawn, distant. She was at a loss what to do.

Another example: Oh my God he’s run away, like he said he would.

Do you see how the back story stops the action of the story, and in the process feels kinda clunky?

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that the ET (ear thingy) is somehow affecting Peter’s personality. Based on that assumption, here’s my recommendation for the beginning of this story:

Start in Peter’s POV, where he’s living this same scene a day (or week) before. We’re with him as he pulls on a pair of jeans and shrugs into a sweatshirt that he pulls out from under yesterday’s underpants on the seat of his drum set. His mom is calling to him to hurry, and he shouts something teenager-y. With all his attitude, he thinks about the next math test that he’s going to flunk (who needs trigonometryto play in a band anyway?) When he finally passes his mom in the hallway, he throws off a comment about running away if she doesn’t get off his back.

Maybe the next scene belongs to Amy. As she drives him to school she tries small talk. Or, maybe she’s off to work. Anyway, we learn about her troubles with Peter.

Next scene: Peter meets the guy who gives him the ET.

Next scene: Mom and Peter at war during dinner.

Next scene: We’re back to where the author started this piece.

The point of all this is for the author to take her time developing the characters. Make me care for them before you put them in harm’s way. If we know what the normal normal is, we can start the scene where the author originally started it, and from Amy’s point of view, the change to the new normal will be genuinely frightening.

I fear sometimes that we here in The Killzone violate my overarching rule for creative writing: there are no rules. We tell people to get right to the action. Sometimes, that’s not what the story really needs. Maybe we should tell people to get right to the interesting stuff.

I faced a similar challenge when I was writing my second novel, At All Costs (to be re-released in May). My heroes have been on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for over a decade, falsely accused of mass murders they didn’t commit. A random event exposes their cover, and their mission to prove their innocence. After countless false starts to begin the novel with high energy action, I realized that that wouldn’t work for this book. I needed to begin with normalcy so that the reader could commiserate with all that the characters were losing. To make up for the lack of action, I needed to make sure that normalcy was portrayed with a very strong voice. That’s what I did.

That’s what this author needs to do.

Okay, space break. Let’s pretend that I didn’t just re-write the author’s submission. Let’s talk now about the submission on its own merits.

In my first reading, I assumed from the first paragraph that Peter was much younger than fifteen. Thus, the second sentence of the third paragraph gave me pause.

Question: The story starts with Amy going upstairs to roust Peter. It ends with Peter downstairs. How did he get downstairs without Amy seeing him? I’m just sayin’ . . .

0

Innocence Lost

by Michelle Gagnon

Today we’ll be tackling another first page critique. This one is entitled, INNOCENCE LOST:

The elevator doors opened facing the sign for Children’s Psychiatry. Seth Bellingham froze. Places like this never changed. Dreary, gray waiting areas were filled with old, broken toys and troubled people. He was fifteen again, and angry with his mother for forcing him to come. Talking to someone wouldn’t help. No one understood how he felt and no one ever would. They kept asking him, how it made him feel. Why? They didn’t care.

The tap on his arm brought Bellingham back to the present. He saw his new partner, Jake O’Brien, eyeing him with caution before he asked, “Are you okay? Did they get the results back on your father’s tests, yet?”

Bellingham shoved the elevator door that bumped him for the second time, and stepped out. “I don’t know what the results are. The old man threw me out after I dropped my mother off.”

He changed the subject of his father with years of practice and asked, “What do we have?”

Jake pulled his small notebook out of his shirt pocket and flipped to the right page. “The hospital security was here first, followed by a couple of uniforms. They secured the scene and waited for us. I got here a few minutes ago.”

Bellingham followed Jake down the hall, past all the doors that normally would’ve been closed, hiding the private sessions of pain and trauma. Today the doors were open, filled with faces of doctors and patients curious about someone else’s misery. The last time he’d seen a place like this, he was a scared fifteen year old, with a gut full of pain and guilt. His years in the military and on the police force rid him of the fear, but the pain and guilt still lingered and grew stronger the longer he was forced to stay in Maine.

My notes:

I think there’s potentially a great premise here, but it’s buried under some fairly awkward sentences and way too much exposition. I understand that the author wants to give us a sense that Seth has past experience with Children’s Psych wards, and that will play into the story. But as of yet, I’m not invested enough in this character to really care. And not only am I being asked to care about him, but also about his father, an apparently negligent dad currently waiting for test results. That’s a lot of information presented at the get go, about people I don’t really know anything about yet. Better to hint at that dark past with a single sentence, farther along in the story.

I would open with the reason that Seth is there. If the cops are about to interview a kid, I want to see that right away. Consider starting with a line of dialogue, then show Seth’s discomfort throughout, but subtly. Get to the meat of the matter much more quickly. If I know why the cops are there, and how it feeds back into Seth’s past, then I’m engaged. I have no idea what the situation is, but take this as an example:

“So why’d you kill her?”

The kid shrugged, eyes fixed on the floor. He was fifteen, scared, with a gut full of pain and guilt. Watching him, Seth reminded himself that he was a cop here to do a job. Still, all of this was striking uncomfortably close to home…

That’s a little rough, but something along those lines would draw a reader into the storyline more than following two guys out of an elevator and down a hallway. The point at which you choose to open a story is critical. You’ve got one shot at grabbing a reader’s attention, and turning that browser into a buyer. Make sure you don’t squander it.


0

How to Grab Them on Page One

It’s first page week here at TKZ, and if you’re an unpublished writer you’ve been treated to some real gold. The instruction from our band of bloggers has been a valuable workshop on the art of what I call “the big grab” – getting the reader hooked from the start.

Last week, I wrote about what not to do on your opening page. Today, I want to suggest to you an opening strategy that works for any type of fiction.

At the outset, please note that what follows is not a formula. This isn’t painting by the numbers. But it is a principle, and thus has infinite possibilities for application. No matter what your style or genre, this principle will work its magic for you, every time.

Recall that last week’s post was triggered by something an agent said at a recent conference, to wit: “If you cannot write a compelling opening scene, from the opening sentence, I’m not going to finish your proposal.”

I assume you do want agents — and editors — to finish your proposal. If so, you must grab them on page one. How can you do that?

By beginning your novel with a disturbance to the Lead’s ordinary world.

Why disturbance? Because: Readers read to worry. They want to be lost in the intense emotional anticipation over the plight of a character in trouble. Only when that connection is made does reader interest truly kick in.

But in their opening pages many writers fall into what I call the “Happy people in Happy Land” trap. They think that by showing the Lead character in her normal life, being happy with her family or dog or whatever, we’ll be all riled up when something bad happens to this nice person, perhaps at the end of chapter one, or beginning of chapter two.

Or they fall into the “I’m the Greatest Literary Stylist of Our Time” trap. This is where a writers desires to display brilliance via pure prose before, somewhere down the line, something like a plot kicks in.

But that’s too long to wait. You need to stir up the waters immediately.

A disturbance is something that causes ripples in the placid lagoon of Happy Land. It can be anything, so long as it presents a change or challenge to the Lead. (It’s important to note that this disturbance need not be “big” as in, say, a thriller prologue. The opening disturbance can be a jolt, however slight, that indicates to the Lead she is not having an ordinary moment here).

And you need to have that jolt on page one, preferably paragraph one.

This is true for both commercial and literary fiction, BTW. Compare the following two openings, the first a commercial example, the latter a literary one.

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

(The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain)

The world outside the window was in flames. The leaves on the pistachio trees shone fire-red and orange. Mattie studied the early morning light. She was lying on the side of the bed where her husband should have been sleeping.

(Blue Shoe by Ann Lamott)

Notice that Cain starts with a character in motion at a point in time that is obviously a disturbance to him. In this case, the disturbance is physical.

In Lamott’s example, we have two lines of description, then the Lead is introduced, and the last line is a ripple of disturbance, this one emotional: where is her husband?

Dialogue, if it indicates immediate conflict, is another way to create an opening disturbance. I’ve heard more than one agent say they like to see dialogue in the first pages. Why? Because it means you are writing a scene. Not exposition or description or backstory, but a real scene. Like this:

“The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”

“Is it really?”

“Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odor though. That must bother you.”

“Don’t! Please don’t.”

(“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway)

From these examples it’s plain to see that there are countless ways to grab readers right away through this wonderful thing called disturbance.

Now why wouldn’t you want to do that?

Perhaps you have a reason. Maybe style is what you’re after most of all. A mood. Or maybe you’re writing a grand epic, and want to “set the scene” as it were. But before you abandon the disturbance principle, look at the opening lines from a couple of “big” novels:

The boys came early to the hanging. (The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett)

The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not make landfall in three days they would all be dead. (Shogun, James Clavell)

I don’t know about you, but that’s enough narrative energy to propel me through the next few pages. If I get a long weather report up top, or two pages on the sunlight over Rio (no matter how beautifully rendered) I will be sorely tempted to put the book down. If you tell me how the character got to the scene, via backstory or flashback, I’m definitely moving on.

But if you indicate there’s a character here facing change or challenge, uncertainty or conflict, I’m going to want to know why. I don’t need to know the background info yet. I’ll wait for that if trouble is brewing.

John LeCarre once said, “The cat sat on the mat is not the opening of a plot. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is.”

Mr. LeCarre has it right. The opening page of a novel has to draw the reader in with an indication of trouble to come.

Do that by disturbing your characters from the very start.

3+

Garlic Breath, or What Not to Do on Your Opening Page


“If you cannot write a compelling opening scene, from the opening sentence, I’m not going to finish your proposal.”
– Agent, speaking at a recent writers conference

The opening page of your novel is your big introduction. It’s what an agent will read with most interest, to see if you can write (which is why page 1 is often the first thing read in your proposal. You may have spent 100 hours on a killer synopsis, 50 on an irresistible query, but if the writing itself is not up to snuff, the busy agent can save time by tossing the whole thing aside without reading the rest of the proposal).
Think of it this way. You are at a party and the man or woman of your dreams is across the room. The host offers to introduce you. You walk over. There is great anticipation, even from Dreamboat, who is there to meet people, too. So Dreamboat extends a hand, you take it, and say, “Nice to meet you.”
Only you have a horrendous case of garlic breath. Dreamboat winces, whips out a phone and walks quickly away, muttering, “I have to take this.”
Well, that’s what it’s like for an agent reading your first page. He or she wants to like you, but if you’ve got garlic breath, it’s all over. Bad first impression. See you later.
I taught at a writers conference recently, where attendees were invited to submit the opening page of their manuscripts – anonymously. We then put these on two transparencies. The first one as is, the second I had marked up as a tough editor might.
It was quite educational. I got 12 first pages in all, and none were ready for prime time. There were several items that should be avoided at all costs on the first page. Here they are, in no particular order:
Characters Alone, Thinking
This was in the majority of the first pages I reviewed. We did not get a scene, which is a character in conflict with others in order to advance an agenda. We got, instead, the ruminations of the character as he/she reflects on something that just happened, or the state of his/her life at the moment, or some strong emotion. The author, in a mistaken attempt to establish reader sympathy with the character, gave us static information.
Such a page is DOA, even if the character is “doing” something innocuous, like preparing breakfast:
Marge Inersha tried to mix the pancake batter, but thoughts of Carl kept swirling in her head, taking her mind off breakfast and back to Tuesday, horrible Tuesday when the sheriff had served her with the divorce papers. Tears fell into the batter, but Marge was powerless to stop them. She put the mixing bowl on the counter and wiped her eyes. How much more could she take? With two kids sleeping upstairs?
Marge is certainly hurting, but you know what? I don’t care. I hate to be piggy about this, but I really don’t care that Marge is crying into her pancake batter. The mistake writers make is in thinking that readers will have immediate sympathy for a person who is upset.
They won’t. It’s like sitting at a bar and guy next to you grabs your sleeve and immediately starts pouring out his troubles to you.
Sorry, buddy, I don’t care. We all got troubles. What else is new?
Don’t give us a character like that on page 1.
Dreams
Agents and editors hate it when you open with a dream. And so do most readers. Because if they get invested in a cool opening, and then discover it’s all been a dream, they feel cheated. So you may have a gripping first page, but you’ll ruin the effect when the character awakens.
Yes, I know some bestselling authors have done this. When you start selling a gazillion copies, you can do it, too. Until then, you can’t.
Exposition Dump
In most of the first pages I reviewed there was entirely too much exposition. The author thinks that this is information the reader has to know in order to understand the character and the scene.
In truth, readers need to know very little to get into the story. They will wait a long time for explanations and backstory if the action is gripping, essential, tense or disturbing. My rule, ever since I began writing and teaching, is act first, explain later.
This rule will serve you amazingly well your entire writing career.
Weather Without Character
Another complaint you’ll hear from editors and agents is about “weather openings.” This is a catch all phrase for generic description. Chip MacGregor, agent, described his opening pet peeve this way: “The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
If you’re gong to describe weather on the opening page, make sure you’ve established a character on whom the weather is acting. And make sure that character is not alone, thinking.
Point of View Confusion
Another big error was a confusion about Point of View. This comes in several guises.
1. We don’t have a strong POV character. Who does this scene belong to?
2. We “head hop” between different characters on the same page, losing focus.
3. We have the terrible sin of “collective POV.” That is, we get a description of two or more characters who think or perceive the same thing at the same time.
John and Mary ran from the gang, wondering where they were going to go next.
The 300 Spartans turned and saw the Persians approaching.
4. We have First Person narration without a compelling voice. First Person needs attitude.
5. We don’t have a POV at all until the second or third paragraph. We have description, but no idea who is perceiving it. We need that information right away.
So these are some very big don’t’ on your first page. Care to add more to the list?
And next week, I’ll tell you how to write an opening page that works . . .every time . . .in any genre . . .

1+