First Page Critique – Little League; Huge Trouble

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Good morning and welcome to another Brave Author who’s submitted the first page of a mystery for discussion. Please enjoy the following then we’ll talk about it.

~~~

Little League; Huge Trouble 

Genre: Mystery

The streets were empty, black puddles filling the trench where they dug up the gas line. It was the quiet time after school and before the commuters wind through the neighborhood.

If anyone was walking through the neighborhood, they would have seen him. He was running with hard plastic soles slapping the pavement.

On Milbert Street, according to the police report, he ran behind the shingled Victorian and through the garden that’s been featured in 40 magazines and down 220 yards of wooded trails to Salmon Street.

He ran left on Salmon, which descends through three quick curves and a patch of native rhododendrons, rising 30-feet high and exploding with faded pink blooms.

The next street, Greenway, is a short road with only seven houses and just beyond the fourth home, the midcentury showplace, he was shot. The bullet entered behind his left ear, severing the spinal cord and the slug tumbled underneath his skull, burrowing through the brain tissue like an angry metal worm.

He rolled down the embankment to the water that collects in the culvert after every strong rain.

When I learned he died and that he had been murdered, I hate admitting my initial reaction.

Damn, I thought, I just lost my leadoff hitter and best catcher.

My leadoff hitter and best catcher, who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.

~~~

I confess to mixed feelings about this page. There are some really nice, evocative visuals—black puddles in trenches, hard plastic soles slapping the pavement, etc. Rather than an info dump to describe the town, Brave Author blends action with  description. Well done.

However, the POV is awkward and off-putting, switching from omniscient to first person. More on that in a moment.

Title: Little League; Huge Trouble sounds catchy, light, and humorous, as if this might be a cozy or a story for young readers. But the title is at odds with the vivid, gritty description of a bullet tumbling in a little boy’s brain like an angry worm, which, BTW, is an excellent simile.

I’m not a fan of semicolons in fiction and especially not in a title. It’s distracting and appears pretentious. Suggest you replace it with a comma or a dash:

Little League, Huge Trouble or Little League–Huge Trouble.

Point of View: The drone’s eye view of the streets, houses, and the boy fleeing from his killer is a cinematic effect that can be intriguing.

Omniscient POV is one way to show the overview of the setting. However, omniscient keeps the reader at a distance and delays introduction of the “I” character.

Tone: I felt off-balance and unsettled because the tone is uneven and inconsistent. It skips from an almost-flippant travelogue of an idyllic town featured in 40 magazines to the horrifying death scene of a little boy. Rather than becoming engrossed in the story, I spent too much time trying to figure out what direction the author was going.

This opener fouled out for the following reasons:

In parts, the tone tries to sound like a detailed official police report with precise factual details: “40 magazines”, “220 yards of wooded trails”, “three quick curves”, “rhododendrons, rising 30-feet high”, “seven houses”, “fourth home.”

But those cold facts feel in conflict with the wonderful, sensory descriptions that evoke emotion: “running with hard plastic soles slapping the pavement”, “exploding with faded pink blooms”, “burrowing…like an angry metal worm.”

Further, the observations about 40 magazines and midcentury showplace sound like authorial intrusions, further muddying the mood.

The contrast technique can work but must be carefully constructed so the reader doesn’t feel like a pinball bouncing from hard facts to the narrator’s flippant observations to strong emotions.

Likeability:  When the POV shifts from omniscient to “I”, the character’s reaction to the murder strikes out big time.

When I learned he died and that he had been murdered, I hate admitting my initial reaction.

Damn, I thought, I just lost my leadoff hitter and best catcher.

My leadoff hitter and best catcher, who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.

Gotta tell ya—The character may hate himself or herself but not nearly as much as I hate the character for that selfish, self-absorbed attitude. A child has been murdered and s/he worries how that affects their team’s chances to win.

Even the hardest-boiled noir treats a child’s murder more gently.

S/he may be a snarky anti-hero whose character arc eventually leads to redemption. But, after reading this beginning, I wouldn’t continue. No matter how much I want to see a child’s killer brought to justice, it isn’t worth spending 300 pages with a character whose values are so crass and selfish.

The Brave Author may be trying for irony, a technique that can be used to great effect. But it must be done deftly when dealing with a sensitive, emotionally-charged subject.

Writing: Overall, the craft is skillful and well done with excellent descriptions. There are some repetitious words (neighborhood twice in the first two paragraphs) and phrases (leadoff hitter and best catcher). Several times, the tense shifts from past to present within the same sentence (It was the quiet time after school and before the commuters wind through the neighborhood). That may be deliberate but it’s jarring.

The unevenness of tone and an unlikable narrator hit a grounder instead of a fly ball out of the park.

But this page is easily salvageable and can be rewritten into a home run.

In the example below in red, I tinkered with reordering and refocusing the tone to put more emphasis on irony: the contrast of a brutal murder in an idyllic setting; and the contrast of the promising sports career of a young boy who’s suddenly and violently cut down.

According to the police report, the streets were empty, the quiet time after school but before commuters wound through the neighborhood on their way home. Black puddles filled a trench where the gas line had been dug up.  

No witnesses had come forward yet. If anyone had been walking through the area at the time, they would have seen him, heard his hard, plastic soles slapping the pavement.

On Milbert Street, he ran behind the shingled Victorian and through the garden that’s been featured in 40 lifestyle magazines. He continued an eighth of a mile down a wooded trail to Salmon Street.

He ran left on Salmon, through three quick curves, passing 30-foot-tall native rhododendrons exploding with faded pink blooms.

The next street, Greenway, is a short road with only seven houses. Just beyond the fourth home, a mid-century showplace, he was shot.

The bullet entered behind his left ear and severed the spinal cord. The slug tumbled underneath his skull, burrowing through the brain tissue like an angry metal worm.

He rolled down the embankment into the water that collected in the culvert after every strong rain.

That evening, I learned the news that my leadoff hitter and best catcher had been murdered—a boy who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.

By starting the first paragraph with a reference to the police report, readers immediately know a crime has been committed. Then they follow the victim as he flees, setting up the contrast between the storybook setting and the horrific crime.

Lastly, the shock that the victim is a little boy is revealed but the “I” character’s reaction is not as off-putting. S/he may later admit disappointment that the team’s chances have been dashed IF that’s an important detail. But I suggest delaying that until the reader is much more invested in the story.

Brave Author, there is a lot of potential here for a compelling mystery but I think you need to decide on an overall tone that’s appropriate for the subgenre you choose.

Is this a small-town cozy? Unlikely because a child’s graphic murder takes it out of cozy realm.

A traditional whodunit mystery? More likely.

An amateur sleuth tale where a youth sports coach must solve a murder? This seems like the most appropriate slot.

What audience do you hope to appeal to?

Once you answer these questions, you can focus on a tone and title that are consistent and appropriate for that subgenre. Then the reader won’t feel off-balance. Instead s/he will be pulled into the story.

Thanks, Brave Author, for submitting this promising first page.

~~~

Over to you, TKZers. What are your impressions? Do you have suggestions for our Brave Author? Would you turn the page?

~~~

 

Try the first book in the Tawny Lindholm Thriller series for FREE. Available at Amazon and major online booksellers. 

First Page Critique – A Jealous God

Photo credit: Stefan Ringler, Unsplash

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Good morning, TKZers, and welcome to another Brave Author who submitted the first page of a domestic thriller entitled A Jealous God. Please enjoy then we’ll discuss.

~~~

Alice

1979

Preacher Gilroy slammed a fist against his Bible and declared God was not their friend. Thirty seconds into his sermon and sweat already dripped from his forehead. Black polyester stuck to his chest. Beside the pulpit, Alice’s father nodded in agreement from his throne, legs crossed and hands draped over the armrests and a rusty house fan buzzing at his feet. Poor Gilroy was about to melt into a puddle, but at least her father was comfortable.

“If I offer you an apple today,” Gilroy said. “Or promised you an orchard tomorrow, land and trees stretched out so far you can’t even count them all, just as certain as the sun rises in the East you’d choose the apple in my hand. Your hunger consumes you.”

Last week it was a penny over a dollar, the week before a lamb over the flock. God still wasn’t their friend.

Alice waited from her usual spot in the back pew near the side door where no one dared to join her. Her mother and four siblings squeezed into the front rows with the rest of the congregation, a line of sticky bodies shoved together like the candies in her Bozo the Clown Pez Dispenser she’d just bought for her seventeenth birthday. But that’s how it’s always been, even in the old church, before Tom and the accident. The closer everyone sat to her father and Gilroy, the further they were from eternal hellfire.

Gilroy held an apple up to the heavens. “You want—you need—something you can see, touch. You want to squeeze it in your hand, hear a crunch as you bite into the skin, feel the warmth in your empty belly.”

A man Alice had never seen before stood guarding the side door. After Tom went away, she noticed strangers, took inventory of their details to keep them real. Mid-twenties, short dark brown hair, clean-shaven, and a long thin scar above his right eye. A dry, starched white shirt buttoned to the collar and tucked into ironed dark blue trousers. Polished brown leather boots spared from the five inches of mud at the foot of the front steps.

“So you hold out your hand and take all that Satan has to give,” Gilroy said. “You’re proud, arrogant. Condemning your immortal soul into everlasting torment.”

Alice slid closer to the aisle. The stranger followed.

~~~

Okay, let’s dig in.

This is a strong example of how to start off a story with conflict and tension even though there’s minimal action. The scene is set, several characters are introduced with brief but effective descriptions, and questions are immediately raised in the reader’s mind.

What the heck is going on with a teenage girl in church who’s being shunned by family and perhaps menaced by a stranger?

What struck me most about this beginning was the author’s excellent use of sensory detail to set the scene. The reader feels the sticky, oppressive humidity and perspiration running down his or her torso. Not only is the temperature stifling, so is the mood. As the preacher instills fear of eternal damnation in his congregation, the reader feels something horrible will soon occur.

Let’s go through a few lines (in blue) in closer detail. My suggestions are in red.

Preacher Gilroy slammed a fist against his Bible and declared God was not their friend.

Punch up the first line by showing Gilroy’s exclamation rather than telling:

Preacher Gilroy slammed a fist against his Bible. “God is not your friend!”

 

Black polyester stuck to his chest.

That’s a great image—who hasn’t felt clinging, sweaty fabric that doesn’t breathe? But perhaps add a more specific detail:

The black polyester clergy shirt stuck to his chest.

The foreboding is already strong but Brave Author might add smell—the rank odor of nervous sweat.

When the focus shifts from Gilroy to Alice’s father, suggest you drop down and start a new paragraph:

Beside the pulpit, Alice’s father nodded in agreement from his throne, legs crossed and hands draped over the armrests and a rusty house fan buzzing at his feet. 

Maybe add a few words of explanation about the throne and why Alice’s father enjoys the elevated status.

Suggest you get inside Alice’s POV as soon as possible.

Alice watched her father nodding in agreement from his throne beside the pulpit. His legs were crossed and hands draped over the armrests, a rusty house fan buzzing at his feet.

 

Alice waited from her usual spot in the back pew near the side door where no one dared to join her.

“No one dared join her” nicely conveys not only her physical position in the church but also her social position in the congregation. She is separate from her family and shunned for reasons not yet known. The reader wants to find out why. Well done.

Nice job of slipping in Alice’s age, 17, as well as time reference with the Bozo the Clown Pez dispenser. Bozo adds irreverent humor—another hint at Alice’s attitude toward these pious folks.

…a line of sticky bodies shoved together like the candies in her Bozo the Clown Pez Dispenser she’d just bought for her seventeenth birthday. But that’s how it’s always been, even in the old church, before Tom and the accident. The closer everyone sat to her father and Gilroy, the further they were from eternal hellfire.

 

Suggest you move the line highlighted in red to its own paragraph. It’s clearly an important hint to the story conflict and shouldn’t be buried in the middle of a paragraph. The reader wonders who Tom is, what was his relationship with Alice, what accident, and did the accident happen in the “old” church.

…a line of sticky bodies shoved together like the candies in her Bozo the Clown Pez Dispenser she’d just bought for her seventeenth birthday. The closer everyone sat to her father and Gilroy, the further they were from eternal hellfire.

But that’s how it’s always been, even in the old church, before Tom and the accident.

 

The next paragraph offers more vivid sensory details.

Gilroy held an apple up to the heavens. “You want—you need—something you can see, touch. You want to squeeze it in your hand, hear a crunch as you bite into the skin, feel the warmth in your empty belly.”

While the pastor talks, the reader sees the image, feels the apple, hears and tastes the crunch. The verb choices squeeze and bite reinforce the underlying message of punishment. Good job.

 

A man Alice had never seen before stood guarding the side door. After Tom went away, she noticed strangers, took inventory of their details to keep them real. Mid-twenties, short dark brown hair, clean-shaven, and a long thin scar above his right eye. A dry, starched white shirt buttoned to the collar and tucked into ironed dark blue trousers. Polished brown leather boots spared from the five inches of mud at the foot of the front steps.

A stranger on guard foreshadows more conflict for Alice. Nice tight description of the man, especially the scar which makes him more threatening. His dry, starched shirt suggested he’s cool and removed, compared to everyone else who’s sweating.

But the last sentence of that paragraph was confusing.

Polished brown leather boots spared from the five inches of mud at the foot of the front steps.

The reader’s attention is jerked from the man’s description to five inches of mud at the foot of the front steps. Is the mud inside or outside the church? If there’s mud at the entrance, why are his boots still clean?

Suggested rewrite in Alice’s deep POV:

How had his brown leather boots stayed so polished and shiny after slogging through five inches of mud at the entrance steps?

 

This line was confusing: Alice slid closer to the aisle. The stranger followed.

The stranger is standing guard at the side door. Alice is sitting in the last pew. When she slides across the pew, apparently intending to escape, how does the stranger follow? Does he sit in the pew with her and slide closer? Rewrite so the reader can visualize exactly the position of each character and how they are moving in relation to each other, the pew, and the side door.

Big picture: This unfortunate teenager apparently committed an unknown sin and is shunned by her family and the congregation. The reader wants to find out what she did. Her wry comments on the fire and brimstone sermon, the minister, and her pompous father show her rebellious spirit and make her likable.

What transgression was so serious that a stranger follows Alice and tries to keep her from escaping?

The title A Jealous God is compelling and effective. It conjures up fearful wrath and vengeance, fitting themes for the domestic thriller genre. Deuteronomy 4:24 reads: “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”

I did a short search and found only two novels with that title, one by John Braine published in 1964, and one by Simon Mawer published in 1996. Surprisingly, the title hasn’t been used that often, making it a good choice.

The exact locale isn’t specified but I’m intrigued enough to wait a few pages to find out where the story happens.

The heading “Alice 1979” sets the time period. It also might indicate this scene is a flashback.

The tweaks are minor. Clarify a few points mentioned above. Rearrange several sentences to increase the dramatic impact.

The Brave Author starts with action, introduces a sympathetic character in trouble, sets the scene, shows conflict, and raises questions. A lot of tension and suspense thrum in this first page.

The writing is vivid and full of sensory detail that puts the reader into the stifling, oppressive atmosphere beside Alice. I want to escape as much as she does. I also want to find why she’s in this situation and if she can get out of it. Compelling start!

~~~

TKZers: What do you think of this first page? Would you keep reading? Any suggestions for the Brave Author?

 

First Page Critique – Rene Out on a Limb

Photo credit: evilpeacock cc by-nc-sa 2.0

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 Happy 2021 and welcome back to TKZ after the annual holiday break!

Today, we kick off the new year with the first page of Rene Out on a Limb, a humorous middle-grade mystery. Please enjoy this submission then we’ll discuss it:

 

 

 

Rene Out on a Limb – First 400 words

The branch of the tree makes a creaky noise when I wriggle out on it, and the ground looks really far away. I’m not worried, though. Oak tree limbs don’t break … do they?

“Psst.” My cousin Joanie tries to whisper, but it sounds more like a moose wheezing. Joanie is nine years old, but she never learned how to whisper properly. She’s sitting on a low branch like she’s glued to the trunk.  A squirrel pokes its head out of a knothole and gnaws on an acorn while he stares at me. Like he’s surprised to see a girl halfway out on a limb. But this is my life. An investigative reporter knows no fear.

“Psst. Rene, stop.” Joanie’s voice gets a little louder and scaredier as I inch my way along the branch.

“Shh.” I whisper back with much better form. “I want to hear what they’re saying.” It’s good practice for a reporter to eavesdrop on possible subjects, and I’d radared in on Nate Peterson as he walked across campus with his girlfriend. They were so wrapped up in each other, they didn’t even see us. They stopped next to that big elm tree a few feet away, and the girl stood with her back against the trunk while he leaned toward her with his hand on the tree and a goofy expression on his face.

I’ll never understand adults. If Nate’s trying to impress his girlfriend, he’d do better if he stood on his head or did a couple of cartwheels. At least it would show a little talent. Maybe he could buy a yo-yo.

I creep another couple of inches forward, ease the notebook out of my pocket, and strain to hear. He calls the girl “Cassie.” I write it down.

Cassie was saying something about Reverend Newton. I know him. He’s the minister at the university chapel. She says, “He asked me to stop by today after lunch. It’s about Mr. Myet.”

Mr. Myet? Wasn’t he the librarian who died in that fire?

Cassie frowns. “Reverend Newton thinks there may have been foul play.”

Murder! My heart pounds and my ears become antennae. Maybe I can solve the mystery and expose the killer. I could be famous. I’ll be the youngest person who ever won a Pulitzer Prize!

I try to ease forward, but my foot gets caught.

~~~

This story blasts right out of the gate. In three short paragraphs, the author introduces Rene, the first-person protagonist, establishes her approximate age, and introduces her goal—she wants to be a famous investigative reporter.

By the ninth paragraph, she presents the mysterious death of the librarian, Mr. Myet. Rene’s mission grows more ambitious with that revelation. She’s determined to solve the crime.

The Brave Author includes another important detail: Rene is already in danger because the tree limb she’s clinging to could break. If that happens (and I’m fairly sure it will in the next page or two), Rene might be injured. But a more serious consequence: she will be discovered by the people she is surveilling. Her covert mission is blown.

That sense of risk propels the reader to turn the page. We need to find out Rene’s fate.

Does she survive? Once she’s discovered, can she talk her way out of her dilemma? Can she continue with her mystery-solving mission?

The Brave Author sidestepped the common problems we see on many TKZ first pages—lack of conflict, lack of action, too much backstory, difficulty with point of view (POV), unclear characterizations. In this excerpt, character, action, and conflict combine smoothly to engage the reader immediately. Effective pacing moves the story forward, inducing the reader to keep turning pages. Well done!

Humor is a bonus in writing stories for most age groups but particularly, it seems, for young readers. Rene’s voice is wry, witty, and delightful. She makes observations that sound appropriate for an intelligent child without being too advanced. Although her exact age is not mentioned, her mildly superior attitude toward her nine-year-old cousin suggests she’s perhaps a year older.

Joanie as the cautious sidekick contrasts with the fearless Rene, showing the personalities of both characters quickly and efficiently.

Rene pokes fun at Nate’s attempts to impress Cassie. Further, she inserts her own suggestions that standing on his head, turning cartwheels, or doing yo-yo tricks would be much more effective. Young readers can follow her child’s logic and older readers should find her lack of sophistication amusing and endearing.

I do suggest rearranging that paragraph a little, grouping all Rene’s suggested alternatives together and then drawing her conclusion.

I’ll never understand adults. If Nate’s trying to impress his girlfriend, he’d do better if he stood on his head or did a couple of cartwheels. If he’s super cool, he could demonstrate yo-yo tricks like The Elevator or Walking the Dog. At least that would show a little talent. Maybe he could buy a yo-yo.

 

 

The paragraph below works better if it’s split into two paragraphs. Joanie’s inability to whisper should be a separate thought from the squirrel’s action and Rene’s reaction.

“Psst.” My cousin Joanie tries to whisper, but it sounds more like a moose wheezing. Joanie is nine years old, but she never learned how to whisper properly. She’s sitting on a low branch like she’s glued to the trunk. 

A squirrel pokes its head out of a knothole and gnaws on an acorn while he stares at me. Like he’s surprised to see a girl halfway out on a limb. But this is my life. An investigative reporter knows no fear.

Let’s talk about verb tense. The story begins in present tense, which is common in children’s books. That sense of immediacy appeals to young readers.

Then there’s a switch to past tense. That is understandable for events that have already happened, like this paragraph:

I’d radared in on Nate Peterson as he walked across campus with his girlfriend. They were so wrapped up in each other, they didn’t even see us. They stopped next to that big elm tree a few feet away, and the girl stood with her back against the trunk while he leaned toward her with his hand on the tree and a goofy expression on his face.

Then the tense switches back to present as Rene makes her entertaining observations about how Nate should impress his girlfriend. Present tense is appropriate because the reader is inside her head, thinking her thoughts as they occur to her.

This is followed by Rene’s actions of creeping further out on the branch and taking notes, also in present tense.

But then, in the next paragraph, a change to past tense causes a slight clunk:

Cassie was saying something about Reverend Newton.

It might read more smoothly this way:

Cassie is saying something about Reverend Newton.

Here’s another tense change that tripped me:

Mr. Myet? Wasn’t he the librarian who died in that fire? 

The thought in Rene’s head should be in present tense, in the moment that it occurs to her:

Mr. Myet? Isn’t he the librarian who died in that fire?

These nits are tiny. Yet they make a subtle difference. When the author avoids small bumps like these, the reader stays totally engaged in the story, without even a millisecond’s distraction from the fictive dream.

I had a hard time finding ways to improve on this already-excellent submission. Maybe other readers can see places to change but I was entirely caught up in the story and would read further.

A young girl who wants to become a crime-solving reporter is an appealing premise. I discovered Rene has a real-life counterpart, Hilde Lysiak.

The ambitious young lady, originally from Selinsgrove, PA, started a local newspaper when she was seven as a homeschooling assignment. By age ten, she had scooped conventional media with her coverage of a grisly murder committed with a hammer.

Because of that story, she was publicly criticized on social media. Her response to criticism from (so-called) adults was posted on You Tube and went viral.

Hilde made headlines again when the marshal in Patagonia, Arizona (where she now lives) challenged her right to shoot video, claiming she broke the law. She repeatedly asked him what law she had broken.

She did not back down despite his threats. Gutsy Hilde was acting within her First Amendment rights.

The officer’s false assertion led to a formal apology from the town mayor.

Along with her father, former NY Daily News reporter, Matthew Lysiak, Hilde scored a six-book series, along with a new Apple TV show chronicling her adventures as a kid reporter.

Judging by Hilde’s success, the appeal of a young female reporter who solves crime is certainly commercially viable.

With the excellent quality of writing and storytelling skills in Rene Out on a Limb, the Brave Author should be able to grab the attention of children’s publishers and enthusiastic young readers.

Thank you for submitting this fun piece, Brave Author. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

~~~

TKZers: Does this first page capture your interest? What suggestions can you offer the Brave Author?

~~~

Flight to Forever by Debbie Burke is coming soon!

Nobody tells Vietnam veteran Lou Belmonte he can’t hug his wife of 50 years. When pandemic restrictions won’t let him visit his beloved Cameo in a memory care lockdown, he busts her out, injuring two employees who try to stop him. The couple flees to a remote fire lookout in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness.

With cops in pursuit, investigator Tawny Lindholm and her defense attorney husband, Tillman Rosenbaum, race to find the aging outlaws first because Lou won’t go down without a fight.

Flight to Forever is the sixth book in Debbie Burke’s Tawny Lindholm Thriller series. Check out a sneak preview at this link.  

First Page Critique – Murder for the Sleep Deprived

@burke_writer

 

Please welcome today’s Brave Author who submitted Murder for the Sleep Deprived a dark comedy mystery.

Enjoy this excerpt then we’ll discuss.

~~~

NOW

Kevin Mills-Greene wasn’t a nice young man when he was alive.

He wasn’t exactly any nicer when he was dead, either.

The sun was beating down and reflecting off the pool in the Harding’s back garden, the sky a swathe of pale blue that was dotted with fluffy clouds, as the dappled sunlight fell through the leaves of the trees that brushed the edges of the garden.

Nice weather.

The sort of weather that the first thing you’d think as you sat down outside would be – “Ah, this is lovely.”

The weather was nice the morning after Kevin Mills-Greene was murdered, even if he wasn’t. The teenager was lying on his back, unblinking, unmoving, and utterly, entirely dead. To be fair, dead people aren’t exactly famous for moving and blinking. You mustn’t hold that against him.

The twitching of a curtain from inside the Harding household.

No blood-curdling scream.

Not yet.

The grass was soft and a luscious emerald shade – the entire garden practically radiating elegance, overlooking the corpse – even the small shed in the corner has neatly painted a shade of chestnut brown, the brightly colored plastic bottles creating as stained glass effect through the frosted windows as the sun reflected through. The burnished wood of a bench under the cover of a tree glinted in the sunlight.

One of those rare, perfect days; the kind of day that makes people forget to worry.

Perfect and worry-free, for everyone except Kevin Mills-Greene, obviously.

The buzzing of flies was a thick blanket of sound as they swirled like a rain-heavy cloud around the body, the twittering of birds in the trees overshadowed. The flies crept over his stiff limbs, his purpled, blueish skin mottled and paling.

Believe it or not, Kevin had been a relatively handsome young man.

~~~

The Brave Author categorized this as a “dark comedy mystery” and it certainly fills the bill. The ironic, understated humor has a tone that might be British. The idyllic description of the Harding yard and lovely weather contrasts effectively with the ugliness of the crime. A beautiful, peaceful setting is not where you expect to see the dead body of a teenager with flies feasting on him. That juxtaposition works well because it’s unexpected and surprise is a necessary component of humor.

Title: Good job! It caught my attention, which is a title’s main task. It establishes the genre and tone and piques the reader’s curiosity. Who’s sleep deprived and why? How does that connect to murder?

Time period: Now indicates a contemporary story.

First line: We’ve talked at TKZ about starting a story with a body.

It’s an attention grabber.

But it’s also a risk because the reader doesn’t know anything about the character yet. At this point, he is a two-dimensional being without personality, loves or hates, flaws or strengths. Why should the reader care if he’s dead?

However, I think the author pulled it off because of the intriguing opening line:

Kevin Mills-Greene wasn’t a nice young man when he was alive.

Why does that line work? It immediately raises a reader’s curiosity. Why wasn’t he a nice young man? Why is he dead?

What not-nice thing did he do that provoked someone to kill him? Who was that person?

There’s a hint at revenge, a very human, relatable theme for anyone who’s ever dreamed of retribution against somebody who wronged them. If this is a story of the ultimate comeuppance, what motive is behind it? How did an angry thought turn into murder?

The author took a risk and I think it paid off. I’ll keep reading to find those answers.

Point of View: The author took another risk here. The POV is omniscient which is difficult to pull off successfully. An all-seeing being floats above the scene and describes it, directly addressing the reader:

…the first thing you’d think as you sat down…

and

You mustn’t hold that against him.

Many readers dislike when an author uses “you” and talks directly to the audience. Personally, I don’t mind it. But it’s a matter of taste. In the comments, maybe TKZers will weigh in if they like “you” or not.

Back to the omniscient POV. Here, it sets the scene and gives context that would not otherwise be known to the reader. The narrator informs the reader that Kevin was not nice. How does s/he know? Is the narrator the god of the story issuing divine proclamations with dark wit? Or will the narrator soon become a character in the play?

Omniscient is not a popular choice for POV because readers don’t identify with a detached voice. They generally want to get inside the skin of characters, to experience the senses and emotions more directly. Omniscient is also difficult to sustain through an entire book.

This may be an introductory chapter where the problem is laid out, similar to the stage manager in the play Our Town. In this submission, perhaps the narrator makes the introduction then steps back and turns the rest of the story over to the characters and their POVs. If handled well, that could be an effective technique.

Does this POV work for the first page? Because of the humor, I think mostly it does. But the author should be wary of trying to maintain omniscience through the rest of the story because of the reasons mentioned above.

Here’s my biggest problem with the submission:

Where’s the body?

The statement about Kevin’s death is immediately followed by a detailed description of the pool. That led me to believe the body was floating in the pool, like William Holden at the beginning of the classic film Sunset Boulevard.

 

But, in the sixth paragraph, Kevin is lying on his back. That stopped me because generally bodies float face down in water. That sent me on another false trail: why is he floating face up?

In the tenth paragraph, there is a detailed description of a lush lawn and a beautifully landscaped back yard.

Okay, does that mean the body is lying on the grass?

No, wait.

The next sentence reads:

…the entire garden practically radiating elegance, overlooking the corpse.

How is the garden overlooking the body? Does the garden have eyes? Or is the body lying below the garden? If so, where? What or who is overlooking?

The last paragraph is a good, vivid description of the thick cloud of flies around the body.

But…I’m still not sure where the body is.

The author led me to several assumptions that turn out to be wrong. After going down false trails, I feel disoriented. Now I don’t quite trust the author. Do I really want to embark on a journey deeper into this book when I’ve been misled?

I don’t believe this was intentional misdirection on the author’s part. More likely, s/he saw the scene vividly in his/her head but something got lost between brain and keyboard. It happens to all of us! 

Details:  The twitching curtain raises the reader’s curiosity more. Who’s behind the curtain? Why doesn’t s/he react to the dead body? A blood-curdling scream is foreshadowed. These all increase tension and suspense. Well done.

There are several passages of detailed description of the setting–the shed, colored bottles, the burnished wood bench glinting in sunlight. Do these details play a significant role in the murder? If not, readers may become impatient because they want to know more about Kevin’s death.

…even the small shed in the corner has [typo-should be was] neatly painted a shade of chestnut brown, the brightly colored plastic bottles creating as [typo-should be a] stained glass effect through the frosted windows as the sun reflected through [repeated word]. The burnished wood of a bench under the cover of a tree glinted in the sunlight.

How much detail is enough? How much is too much that bogs down the story? This is a tightrope for authors. Because the author does a good job seducing the reader with the title and first line, I hope these details have significance.

But, if they’re not important, would the space be better used to describe what killed Kevin? Gunshot? Rodent poison? Garden trowel? Unknown cause?

Beware of –ly: In one page, I counted nine modifiers that ended with –ly.

Exactly, utterly, entirely, exactly, practically, neatly, brightly, obviously, relatively

Perhaps it’s a stylistic choice but they occurred often enough to be distracting.

Precision of language: The word choices sometimes don’t work.

…dappled sunlight fell through the leaves

Fell doesn’t accurately describe rays of sun.

I already mentioned the garden overlooking.

The twittering of birds in the trees overshadowed

Does that mean the twittering overshadowed? Or the trees?

Small punctuation nit:

…the first thing you’d think as you sat down outside would be – “Ah, this is lovely.”

 Normally, quotation marks are used for spoken dialogue. Since this line describes a thought, what if you use italics instead, like this:

…the first thing you’d think as you sat down outside would be: Ah, this is lovely.

 Humor: For humor to work well, it needs to be tack-sharp and spot on target.

The narrator’s statement:

One of those rare, perfect days; the kind of day that makes people forget to worry.

Perfect and worry-free, for everyone except Kevin Mills-Greene, obviously.

Since Kevin’s dead, he’s free of worries, so the line doesn’t quite work.

Here are a couple of suggestions but you can do better:

Perfect and worry-free. Kevin was no longer perfect but his worries were certainly gone.

Or:

Perfect and worry-free. At least, until the discovery of Kevin Mills-Greene’s body.

Overall, the Brave Author did an excellent job of teasing us. The reader wants to learn why Kevin wasn’t nice. Who is looking out from behind the curtain? Why the lack of reaction to a murder?

The fixes are small: sharper wit, more precise word choices, and pinning down the actual location of the body.

I’ll be interested to hear how the author handles POV through the rest of the story.

I would keep reading. How about you, TKZers?

What are your suggestions for the Brave Author?

When Verbs Go Rogue: First Page Critique

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments will follow.

Monstruo Cubano

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your first page. A public critique takes guts, and I admire your courage.

From this small sample I assume s/he is just beginning their writing journey. So, TKZers, please be gentle and kind in your comments and suggestions (I know you will).

With that in mind, I offer the following critique.

Using a foreign language on the first page is a huge risk. As someone who doesn’t speak Spanish, my eyes glazed over when I read the title of the library. It wasn’t until the second read-through that I stopped long enough to figure out “La Libreria” meant “The Library.” That’s a problem. Most readers won’t bother to read the scene a second, third, or fourth time.

For more on using foreign languages, see this 1st Page Critique.

I want to point something out that you might not be aware of, Brave Writer. Note all the words in blue…

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Look at all those strong verbs! You didn’t take the easy road, like “walked” for example. Strong verbs create a more vivid mental image. Problem is there’s way too many. In this short sample I counted at least 43 verbs. The second thing that jumped out at me was all the chaos in this first page. Don’t get me wrong, conflict is a good thing. It’s how we use it that matters. If the conflict doesn’t drive the plot in some way, then we need to rethink our opener. I’m not saying that’s what occurred here, but I want you to ask yourself…

Does the library or shopkeeper play a pivotal role in this story? What are you trying to accomplish with this scene? Does this opener set up a future scene? The answer should be yes. Otherwise, you’re wasting precious real estate.

For more on the best place to start a novel, see this post.

I love how you took advantage of smell, rather than relying only on sight. When I finished reading this submission, I felt like I needed a shower to get rid of the cat stench. Good job! We want our reader’s emotions to match our point-of-view character.

Now, take a deep breath, Brave Writer. This next part might be a bumpy road for you, but I’m hoping you’ll find value in my demonstration of how to write tighter and more concise.

Monstruo Cubano (Consider changing the title to English. Don’t limit your target audience. Back in 2014, Joe Moore wrote an excellent post on the subject.)

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. Brook Harper squeaked in horror when she stepped inside La Libreria de Juan Carolos, the closest library to her new apartment in Miami. (reworded to ground the reader) She gaped at the Rows of mildewed shelves housed lined not with books, but broken dishes and food-encrusted utensils instead of books. Did she have the right address? (added to show her confusion; for more on Show vs. Tell, see this post, which also dips a toe into distant vs. intimate/deep POV.) When she’d arrived at the airport several weeks ago, colorful displays advertised tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books, but this place didn’t even resemble those brochures.

Venturing several steps farther inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into littered the front window, the outside world obscured by a thick layer of grime.

Stay in active voice, not passive. An easy way to spot passive voice is to add “by zombies” at the end. If the sentence still makes sense, it’s passive. Example: Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window by zombies. Since the sentence still makes sense, it’s a passive construction.

Where did they keep the Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginners Spanish books? Brook hurried down an aisle, but leaped (leapt is archaic, use leaped) leapt wildly (adverbs and too many verbs and/or adjectives muddy the writing. For more on “writing tight,” see this post) into the air when a . A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches. I think “swarming” here creates a good visual, so I’m leaving it alone. Be sure to read JSB’s post, though. Too much description detracts from the action.

Brook skittered backwards (“backwards” is the British spelling of “backward.” Also, “skittered” might not be the best word choice. I’d rather you show us the action. Example: Brook’s boots shuffled backward), knocking into a shelf. Dishes crashed to the floor. (added for sentence variation; for more, see this first page critique) and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted (If Brook doesn’t even know beginners’ Spanish, how does she know SALIDA means EXIT? Something to think about).

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot wedged under peeling linoleum and she sailed through the air, landed face-first she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Cat urine coated her palms and one cheek. Vomit lurched up her throat. Why did she ever come to this hellhole? Maybe her new boss wouldn’t notice her bilingual inadequacies. Good looks had gotten her this far (or whatever fits the character).

If you’re not using dialogue between two characters, inner dialogue allows the reader to get to know Brook. Who is she? Why is she in Miami? Where is she from? Is she shy or extroverted? We don’t necessarily need to know these things, but you do. For more on building a character, see this post and this post).

Okay, I’ll stop there.

TKZers, how might you improve this first page? Please add the advice I skipped. Together we can help this brave writer up his/her game.

 

 

First Page Critique – Hell Hath No Fury

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Please welcome today’s Brave Author with a submission titled Hell Hath No Fury. Take a look then we’ll discuss it.

Photo credit: Fernando Aguilar, Unsplash

A DROP OF BLOOD CLUNG PRECARIOUSLY to the tip of the chef’s knife. On the fluffy white carpet of Madeline Hawthorne’s bedroom, a nasty red stain was forming. The woman gripping the knife breathed in staccato gasps; the muscles in her arm twitching after her recent exertion.  Madeline lay on her stomach on the king-sized bed, wearing a silver silk nightgown with two ragged gashes in its back.  Blood welled up from the wounds and ran down her side onto the satin sheet.  Madeline groaned and moved her left arm.

“I said die, bitch!”

The knife sliced into Madeline’s back five more times in quick succession.  Blood spatter covered the woman’s face and arms as well as her blouse.  She was petite, but the muscles in her arms and shoulders were well-defined, honed by hours in the gym and the dance studio.  Her calves, visible below her dark skirt were lithe and slender.  She tensed for another lunge, but there was no need. She stood over the dead woman while her pulse steadied and her breathing slowed to normal.  A dark pool had formed on the bed and ran in two thin rivulets off the edge of the mattress and down onto the stained carpet.  After a few minutes of motionlessness, she calmly laid the knife down on a bloodless space near the foot of the bed and wiped the handle with a portion of the comforter, leaving bloody streaks.  Then she reached down and removed her shoes, which had mostly avoided the flying blood.  She carefully walked to the bathroom and set the shoes down on the floor, then walked around the bed, not stepping in the obvious patches of blood, until she reached a closet door.  She opened it and went inside, then reached up to the shelf over a row of dark men’s business suits and removed a wooden case.

John had shown her the box once, after they had sex in his bed while his bitch wife was away for the weekend visiting her mother. He was unnaturally proud of his Colt Python .357 Magnum with the 4-inch barrel. She removed six bullets from a cardboard box lying next to the gun inside its case and loaded each of the revolving chambers, then took the gun back to the bathroom.  She sat down on the edge of the marble bathtub to wait.

~~~

The title Hell Hath No Fury makes a great first impression. The familiar phrase is commonly attributed to Shakespeare. But the source is actually a 1697 play, The Mourning Bride by William Congreve.

Here’s the original version:

“Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d,/Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d.”

No matter who said it, the quote fulfills requirements of a compelling title for a murder mystery. A female who’s suffered betrayal and rejection is consumed with passionate vengeance. Since titles can’t be copyrighted, Hell Hath No Fury has been used before. I suggest the Brave Author do a net search to find other books with that name and how recently they were published. If it’s not overdone, it’s an excellent choice for a murder mystery.

Now to deconstruct the first page.

At TKZ, we stress the importance of hooking the reader with action or a disturbance. Today’s first page kicks off with a gruesome stabbing, immediately followed by the promise of further violence as killer lies in wait with a gun for her next victim. The Brave Author sets up a tense situation that pulls the reader into the story in media res. Well done!

Let’s get into specific details:

Point of view – Keeping the killer’s identity secret is standard for mysteries.To accomplish this, the Brave Author starts in omniscient POV where the events unfold like a movie. The killer is described by an unseen narrator. The reader knows what she looks like but not who she is.  Except for her pulse steadying, the reader is not inside the character until the last paragraph, when the POV shifts to her thoughts.

The risk is the reader isn’t yet invested in the character therefore may not read further to learn what happens to her. This is the eternal balancing act for authors. How do you start with action but, at the same time, make the characters fascinating enough for the reader to turn the page?

Using deep POV, the author might go inside the killer’s head sooner to share her visceral reaction as she plunges the knife, feels the resistance of Madeline’s muscles against the blade and the warm blood spatter on her face, as well as her rage against her romantic rival. BUT, that technique takes a chance of exceeding the reader’s gore tolerance.

Personally, I don’t mind the camera-eye POV in the first three paragraphs. It’s gory but doesn’t sicken me enough to stop reading. But that’s only one person’s opinion.

The fourth paragraph hints at the killer’s motives. At first blush, the stabbing appears to be a crime of passion by a jealous other woman. Then it grows more sinister when the killer waits to ambush John. Will she succeed with a second murder? The reader turns the page to find out.

Analysis of the craft details:

The Brave Author uses a number of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. Strong verbs and vivid nouns paint the picture. Modifiers simply dilute the impact.

A DROP OF BLOOD CLUNG PRECARIOUSLY to the tip of the chef’s knife. Clung is a strong verb that implies precarious so you don’t need the adverb.

The chef’s knife is specific but also a bit misleading. For a moment, I thought the chef was a character rather than an adjective to describe the type of weapon. Suggest you delete chef’s to avoid confusion or use a more generic term like butcher knife.

…a nasty red stain was forming. Blood by itself evokes a strong reaction in readers so nasty is unnecessary.

The knife sliced into Madeline’s back five more times in quick succession. Sliced doesn’t accurately describe the normal movement in a knife attack. Slashed, plunged, stabbed are better verbs.

Blood spatter covered the woman’s face and arms as well as her blouse. Confusing because you refer to Madeline in the previous sentence then use “the woman” in the next. It’s not clear right away that the woman is not Madeline. Better to say: Blood spatter covered the attacker’s face and arms as well as her blouse. More changes to this sentence in a minute.

Extra credit for using the correct terminology: spatter rather than splatter.

…thin rivulets. A rivulet is thin by definition. A specific noun doesn’t need to be modified.

…stained carpet. With the vivid description of blood spatter and dripping blood, the reader already assumes the carpet is stained without being told.

After a few minutes of motionlessness, she calmly laid the knife down. Calmly contradicts the anger and passion the murderer shows with repeated stabbing. Rewrite to clarify.

She carefully walked to the bathroom and set the shoes down on the floor, then walked around the bed, not stepping in the obvious patches of blood, until she reached a closet door. 

Suggest you replace carefully walked with tiptoed.

Delete obvious. Patches of blood are visible, therefore obvious.

Is the following action unnecessary? The killer removes her shoes, goes to the bathroom, and sets them on the floor. She returns to the bedroom to get the gun from the closet then goes back into the bathroom to wait. Is the first trip needed? Seems like wasted action that doesn’t add to the story.

Since the killer is covered with blood, a normal reaction might be to immediately wash her hands and face, suggesting a Lady Macbeth conscience. However, if she ignores the sticky spatter, that cues something entirely different about her. I suggest you exploit this opportunity to show more of her personality.

Overwriting – Tighten the prose and delete unnecessary words. Here’s some line editing:

A DROP OF BLOOD CLUNG PRECARIOUSLY to the tip of the chef’s knife. A red stain pooled on the fluffy white carpet of Madeline Hawthorne’s bedroom, a nasty red stain was forming. The woman gripping the knife breathed in staccato gasps; [replace semicolon with a period]. The muscles in her arm twitcheding after her recent from exertion.

[new paragraph] Madeline lay on her stomach on the king-sized bed,  wearing a silver silk nightgown with two ragged gashes in its the back of her silver silk nightgown.  Blood welled up from the wounds and ran down her ribcage side onto the satin sheet.  Madeline groaned and moved her left arm.

“I said die, bitch!”

The knife sliced plunged into Madeline’s back five more times in quick successionBlood spatters covered the attacker’s face, arms, and blouse.  covered the woman’s face and arms as well as her blouse.  She The woman was petite, but the with well-defined muscles in her arms and shoulders were well-defined, honed by hours in the gym and the dance studio.  Her calves, visible below her dark skirt [add comma], were lithe and slender.  She tensed for another lunge, but there was no need.

[new paragraph] She stood over the dead woman, knife hanging at her side, and breathed deeply while her pulse steadied and her breathing slowed to normalA dark pool had formed spread on the mattress bed and ran in two thin rivulets off the edge of the mattress and down onto the stained carpet.  When her pulse steadied, After a few minutes of motionlessness, she calmly laid the knife down set the knife down in a clean area at the foot of the bed. She wiped the handle with a corner of the comforter, . on a bloodless space near the foot of the bed and wiped the handle with a portion of the comforter, leaving bloody streaks.  Then she reached down and removed her shoes, which had mostly avoided the flying blood.  She tiptoed carefully walked to the bathroom and set the shoes down on the floor. then walked around the bed, not stepping in the obvious patches of blood, until she reached a closet door.  She opened it and went inside, then Avoiding patches of blood, she walked around the bed to the closet. Inside, she reached up to the shelf over above a row of dark men’s dark business suits and removed a wooden case.

John had shown her the box once, after they had sex in his bed while his bitch wife was away for the weekend visiting her mother. He was unnaturally proud of his Colt Python .357 Magnum with the 4-inch barrel. She opened the case to reveal the gun and a cardboard box of ammunition beside it. She removed six bullets from a cardboard box lying next to the gun inside its case and loaded each of the revolving chambers. Gun Revolver in hand, she returned then took the gun back to the bathroom.

[new paragraph] She sat down on the edge of the marble bathtub to wait.

~~~

Overall, this first page has action, tension, and conflict with a promise of more to come. With a little line editing, this works well at drawing the reader to turn the page. Well done, Brave Author, and thanks for submitting.

 

As an aside, my recent thriller Stalking Midas starts with a murder, too. The killer, also female, is immediately identified. The story question is not “Whodunit?” but rather “Will she get away with it?” Please check out the Look Inside feature at this link and let me know what you think.

 

 

 

TKZers, what are your opinions about starting a book with a murder on the first page?

Do you have suggestions and feedback for our brave author?

 

Warmest holiday wishes to everyone in the TKZ family. I’m honored to be a part of this creative, supportive community. Looking forward to seeing you in the New Year!

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

 

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!

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?

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.