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. 

Avoid the Bait-and-Switch Opening

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s first page is a thriller submission. Read it, then we’ll talk.

Out of the Cold

Cara Conroy sat straight up in bed. Sweat soaked both her and the bedding. Instinct drove her hand into the nightstand draw and around the grip of her Glock 26. Her eyes swept the haze of her moon-draped room.

Sampson perked his ears and padded to the bed, laying his muzzle next to Cara’s leg. His soulful eyes searched hers, hypervigilant and ready to pounce at a moment’s notice.

It had happened again. She was absolutely positive.

Cara fought the urge to run to the next room and check on her daughters. She knew they were fine, but so had all the mothers whose children hadn’t been. She heard it all the time—I looked away for just a second—and a second was all it took.

The urge won. She threw back the covers. Her feet barely touched the floor before she raced, heart pounding, Sampson on her heels.

She held her breath. The Glock shook ever so slightly as she toed the door open a crack. The light from the hallway sliced into the darkness, and illuminated the innocent faces of her daughters who lay sleeping, unaware of the dangers lurking for them in an evil world.

Sampson stealthed into the room and nosed each girl in turn. The ceiling fan thrummed its constant low thump like a tire out of round. Cara searched for Raina’s faint snore, an assurance the child was still breathing. After finding its reassuring cadence, she lowered her weapon and dragged back to her bedroom. Inside the sanctity of her own room, she closed the door and leaned her back against it, allowing it to support her controlled collapse.

Silent sobs wrenched her gut.

***

JSB: This author can write. The prose flows. Exposition and description are kept to a minimum, but with just enough to give us a feel for the setting and the setup.

All good. But I have an overarching critique, which I’ll attempt to explain.

What we have here is a type of opening that agents warn about, namely the “character alone” variety. I see two types of these. The first type is “character alone, thinking/feeling.” This is when the author gives us a character who is in the throes of some deep emotion or thinking about some terrible situation. The author believes this will immediately bond us to the character. It doesn’t, because we don’t know the character yet. The author is asking us to sympathize with a stranger.

But Jim, this is the first page! Of course the Lead is a stranger!

True that, but the better way to get to know a stranger is by observing what they do.

Which leads me to the second type of “character alone” opening, one that is functionally better: character alone, doing. When we see a character engaged in some sort of action that holds our interest, we’ll follow her for a long time before wanting more exposition.

JSB Axiom: Act first, explain later.

So why am I not giving full-throated approval to this opening, which is a clear case of character-doing, along with the elements of fear and child endangerment? Isn’t that the very essence of what I preach for the opening—a disturbance?

Stay with me on this.

You know how we’re warned about not opening with a dream? I agree with that. You read an incredibly gripping opening chapter, only to have the character wake up at the end. It feels like a big cheat, a bait-and-switch.

Because it is.

(Literary mavens may delight in reminding yours truly about one of the most famous openings of all time, from Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. Of course that is not a cheat because the narrator tells us up front that she’s describing a dream. But thanks for playing.)

This opening is not a dream, but it has a bit of bait-and-switch to it. It gives us a potential threat, but it turns out only to be in the Lead’s head.

We get this set up: It had happened again. She was absolutely positive.

Okay, we think, “What is it?” We read on.

In the next paragraph we get the answer: there have been kidnappings of small children! So Cara grabs her Glock and checks on her kids.

Is there a kidnapper in the house? Are her children gone?

Nope, all is well.

So there was never really an it. It feels a bit like waking from a dream, no?

One way out of this is to put an actual it in the scene—a real noise, a seen shadow, an open window. True, a disturbance that awakens the Lead is a bit of a cliché, but I don’t think readers care if the writing is taut and action-oriented (which this author is capable of).

There’s also disconnect here that lessens the tension. Look again at: It had happened again. She was absolutely positive. Okay, fine. That’s why she woke up in a sweat, right? And we’ll find out it’s because of the kidnappings that have happened.

But then we get: She knew they were fine.

Wait, what? A second ago she was absolutely positive it had happened again.

So if she knows they’re fine, why the sweats and the Glock?

Also, the it alluded to appears to be about children kidnapped in public. I looked away for just a second.

But this scene is taking place inside a home.

Further, if Cara is so concerned about a potential kidnapping, why isn’t she sleeping in the same room with her daughters? Why doesn’t she have a security system? Why doesn’t she station her hypervigilant dog near the front door?

So when at the end of the scene Cara collapses as silent sobs wrench her gut, I’m unmoved.

I’m also confused because a silent sob is an oxymoron. A sob is, by definition, a sound. You can have a loud sob, a weak sob, a low sob…but not a silent sob.

Yet, whatever it is, it is wrenching her gut.

But why such a reaction? Cara seems to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown because of some kids being snatched somewhere out there in an “evil world.” The collapse into gut wrenching sobs is meant to garner our sympathy. Instead, it causes me alarm about her mental state. What it doesn’t do is compel me to care about the character.

Here’s a suggestion that will help you here, dear writer. And also anyone writing a scene of heavy emotion.

Show us the character fighting against the emotion, not succumbing to it.

This has a two-fold benefit.

First, it give us an action rather than a reaction. The action can be internal (She told herself she would not cry! Her kids needed her…) or external (She took a deep breath and forced herself to stand…) or a combo of both.

Second, we are drawn to characters who, by strength of will, fight against obstacles in their way. We don’t have sympathy for characters who don’t fight.

The only thing Cara fights in this scene is the urge to run to the next room and check on her daughters. But why? She’s sweating, armed, worried about her children. Why would she fight against checking on them?

In sum, the actions taken and motivations for same confuse me.

So I offer these takeaways:

  • Re-think your opening to give us real action in response to real stimuli.
  • Show your character fighting, internally and/or externally, against breaking down. She has her kids to protect!

Notes:

the nightstand draw

Should be drawer.

Sampson stealthed into the room

Be very careful when stretching a word into a new meaning. I was pretty sure stealthed was not a word, so I looked it up. Ack! It apparently is a word, a slang term, and not one to be used in polite society.

nosed each girl in turn

I get a picture of the dog poking the girls with his nose, making me wonder why they didn’t wake up. I would think a mom wouldn’t want the dog to disturb her softly sleeping daughters. Did you mean sniffed?

Cara searched for Raina’s faint snore

I’m not sure you can search for a sound. You can certainly search for the source of a sound. But Cara knows the source. Use listened instead.

After finding its reassuring cadence

Again, finding is the wrong word in this context. Use hearing.

she lowered her weapon

Ack! She was pointing a loaded weapon into a dark room where her children are sleeping? The most basic of rule for loaded handguns is don’t point them in an unsafe direction. This is especially so if the gun is shaking in her hand! What if it goes off accidentally?

A Final Word

Don’t let any of this discourage you, writer friend. You’ve got what it takes to write good, gripping scenes. So go forth and write them. Get them critiqued, and write some more.

And never stop.

Carpe Typem.

Comments are welcome.

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 – They Call it Street Justice

 

San Quentin
Photo credit: wikimedia

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Today, let’s welcome another Brave Author who submitted a first page for feedback and suggestions. The genre is Private Eye Mystery. Please enjoy reading then we’ll discuss.

They Call it Street Justice

I parked at the curb in front of San Quentin even though it was a No Parking zone.  I leaned against the front fender of my Ford and lit up a Camel.   Several people came and went.  Most looked like lawyers.  Big briefcases, fedoras, and shiny shoes.  Each time someone came out, I compared them to the photograph Walton Finesse Smith, Lawyer had given me of  Harold Darby.  Good old Harold  probably look different now.

No matches so far.

I smiled at the guard stationed outside the front door.  I could tell he was pissed because I told him that Governor Gordon Knight had given me special permission to park at the curb.  I’d given him the Governor’s business card with ’Special Permission” handwritten on the back.  He still didn’t believe me, but couldn’t figure how to prove I was fibbing to him.

Ten minutes and two Camels later, a gray-haired geezer who could have been my man stepped out into the sunshine.  He sighed.  I crushed out my cigarette out the bottom of my loafer.

“Are you Harold Darby?”

“Yeah.  Who the hell are you?”

“My name is Jack Rhodes.  I work for your lawyer.  He asked me to meet you and bring you to his office.”

“Doing what?”

“I don’t understand.”

“What do you do for my lawyer.  I’m not getting into a car, no matter how sharp it is, until I know who’s doing the driving.”

Tough guy.  “Usually, I do investigations for him.  Today, I’m your chauffeur.”

“Why didn’t he come?”

“Hell if I know. Lawyers. What can I say?”

He shrugged.

“Anyone else plan to meet you?”

A half-hearted laugh slipped out. “No.  No one else gives a damn.”

“Your wife?”

“I doubt it.”

We piled into the Ford.

“Beautiful day,” he said.

I put the convertible top down.  Darby didn’t say anything, but he seemed to enjoy to wind in his hair.

“You hungry?  There’s a good place for burgers and shakes in Richmond.”

“I didn’t kill him.”

“Yeah?  Why did they lock you up in the big Q?  Practical joke?’

“I don’t like you.”

I get that a lot.”  I stopped at the stop sign. Then turned toward the highway to Richmond.  “Look pal, it’s going to be a long drive back to Los Angeles and I don’t need you ragging on my ass all the way.  You want the burger?

~~~

I always enjoy retro hard-boiled noir. We meet Jack Rhodes, a wise-cracking, smartass detective on a mission to pick up a newly-released convict at San Quentin prison. Rhodes’s employer is a lawyer with the nifty name of Walton Finesse Smith who wants to meet with his client, Harold Darby.

The Brave Author has done a good job of avoiding the dreaded info dump that bogs down many first pages. Details are slipped in seamlessly but a little too sparingly. The reader could use more information, like when the story is happening.

Except for the mention of former California Governor Knight (BTW, the correct first name is Goodwin, not Gordon), the time is not specified. Knight’s term ran from 1953-59 but few readers will know that w/o looking it up. I suggest pinning down the era with a year. For instance, you might identify Rhodes’s car as, say, a 1956 Ford Fairlane Sunliner.

Instead of saying “Darby had been in San Quentin for XX years,” the author uses a barely-recognizable photo to show how Darby has changed during a long prison sentence. Well done.

The author might further use the photo to describe what Darby looked like in his younger days, then contrast that appearance with how he looks now.

The “special privileges” card from the governor is another hint that’s smoothly inserted, implying either Rhodes or his boss enjoys political influence. That establishes the detective as higher on the food chain than the stereotypical hard-luck gumshoe. The reader’s curiosity is tickled—why did the governor grant that status? What’s the backstory?

More intriguing questions are raised when Darby claims “I didn’t kill him.” Murder usually earns a life sentence so why is Darby being released? Why does Walton Finesse Smith want to see his client now? Was a deal cut with the governor? Who is the victim?

Generally, the Brave Author has achieved a good balance between raising curiosity and avoiding confusion. This page intrigues but doesn’t overwhelm. With too little information, the reader becomes mystified and frustrated. With too much, the story bogs down. Enrich this page with a bit more detail and it will be even more effective.

Although not a great deal of action happens on this first page, there is still a good sense of forward momentum in the story.

 

I color-coded suggested edits.

Blue is the original text.

Red demonstrates ways to combine sentences and rearrange the order to convey information more concisely.

Green indicates possible ways to go deeper into Rhodes’s POV, revealing more of his thoughts and reactions to give the reader more insight into his personality.

I parked at the curb in front of San Quentin even though it was a No Parking zone.  I leaned against the front fender of my Ford and lit up a Camel.   [suggest you move the following passage to later] Several people came and went.  Most looked like lawyers.  Big briefcases, fedoras, and shiny shoes.  Each time someone came out, I compared them to the photograph Walton Finesse Smith, Lawyer had given me of  Harold Darby.  Good old Harold  probably look different now.

To quickly establish that Rhodes flouts rules and has political influence, the author could rearrange the order as shown below:

I parked in the No Parking zone at the curb in front of San Quentin, got out, leaned against the front fender, and lit up. Before I finished my first Camel, the guard glared at me and approached. I flicked Governor Goodwin Knight’s business card at him. “The governor sends his greetings,” I said then indicated the handwritten notation on the back. It read: Special Permission.

The guard’s sneer said he didn’t believe me but he couldn’t figure out how to prove I was fibbing to him. He returned to his post at the gate, still casting suspicious glances at me. I smiled. He didn’t smile back. 

Several people came and went.  Most looked like lawyers.  Big briefcases, fedoras, and shiny shoes.  Each time someone came out, I compared them to the photograph [that] Walton Finesse Smith, Lawyer had given me of  Harold Darby.  Good old Harold  probably look[ed] different now.

            No matches so far.

The above paragraph could be tightened like this:

I smoked another Camel while I compared a black-and-white photo with the few men who walked out of the gate. Most looked like lawyers—big valises, fedoras, and shiny wingtips. No matches so far. 

Walton Finesse Smith, Attorney at Law, had given me the snapshot to identify Harold Darby. Good old Harold probably had a few more miles on him since the shot was taken. San Quentin did that to a guy.

 

            Ten minutes and two Camels later, a gray-haired geezer who could have been my man stepped out into the sunshine.  He sighed.  I crushed out my cigarette on out the bottom of my loafer. 

            “Are you Harold Darby?”

Make clear that Darby came through the prison gate. Also give Rhodes’s reaction to the man.

A gray-haired geezer who might be my man stepped through the prison gate into the sunshine. Looked like 80 but was probably 60. He sighed.

I crushed out my cigarette on the sole of my loafer and walked toward him. “Are you Harold Darby?”

            “Yeah.  Who the hell are you?”

            “My name is Jack Rhodes.  I work for your lawyer.  He asked me to meet you and bring you to his office.”

            “Doing what?”

            “I don’t understand.”

            “What do you do for my lawyer?  I’m not getting into a car, no matter how sharp it is, until I know who’s doing the driving.”

Use this opportunity to set the time period with a short description of Rhodes’s car.

“What do you do for my lawyer?” He eyed my aquamarine ’56 Ford Fairlane Sunliner. “I’m not getting in a strange car, no matter how sharp it is, until I know who’s doing the driving.”

            Tough guy.  “Usually, I do investigations for him.  Today, I’m your chauffeur.”

            “Why didn’t he come?”

            “Hell if I know. Lawyers. What can I say?”

Describe Darby through Rhodes’s eyes.

I scanned Darby’s features, deeply-lined forehead, gray eyes sunken in dark hollows. “Anyone else plan to meet you?”

A halfhearted laugh, more like a gag. “No one else gives a damn.”

“Your wife?”

“Especially not her.”

We piled into the Ford.

“Beautiful day,” he said. Delete dialogue that doesn’t move the story forward.

            I put the convertible top down.  Darby didn’t say anything, but he seemed to enjoy to wind in his hair.

[Needs attribution] “You hungry?  There’s a good place for burgers and shakes in Richmond.”

 

Combine sentences to condense action. Add more of Rhodes’s thoughts about Darby.

We piled into the car and I lowered the convertible top. As I drove, he raised his face to the bright sun. How long since Darby had felt a breeze blowing his hair?

“I didn’t kill him.”

What is Darby’s tone? Defensive, bitter, defeated? Does he spit out the words? Or is he weary after repeating the denial a thousand times?

The statement signals what is likely the main plot problem—the wrongly-convicted, innocent man. Because that is a common trope in PI fiction, look for ways to give it a fresh angle.  

What is Rhodes’s internal reaction to Darby’s denial? Is there an unusual hint in Darby’s manner or tone that raises Rhodes’s interest?

“Yeah?  Why did they lock you up in the big Q?  Practical joke?”

Make Rhodes’s retort sharper. “Yeah, damn shame about you and all those other innocent guys in the big Q.”

            “I don’t like you.” Show Darby’s reaction with facial expression or gesture.

            [Missing quote] “I get that a lot.”  I stopped at the stop sign. Then turned toward the highway to Richmond.  “Look, [missing comma] pal, it’s going to be a long drive back to Los Angeles and I don’t need you ragging on my ass all the way.  You want the burger?” [Missing quote]

Suggest you cut the phrase ragging on my ass all the way. It doesn’t fit since Darby has mostly been neutral or quiet until Rhodes challenges his profession of innocence.

“I get that a lot.”  I braked at a stop sign then turned toward the highway to Richmond.  “Look, pal, it’s a long drive back to Los Angeles. You want the burger?”

General suggestions:

The title They Call it Street Justice sounds weak because “They” and “It” are vague pronouns. Who are They? What is it?

Street Justice is a stronger title but has already been used for books, TV shows, and movies. Maybe someone can suggest better title ideas in the comments.

Ending a name with an “S” adds unnecessary complication in the possessive form and makes editing consistency tough—hard to remember if you used Rhodes’ or Rhodes’s. Also, in audiobook form, Rhodes’s sounds awkward. For those reasons, I try to avoid names that end with “S”.

Rhodes seems a bit flat as a character. Try to add more of his thoughts, feelings, and reactions. He doesn’t necessarily have to be likable but give the reader a reason to follow him through the story.

When setting a story in the past, carefully check historical references (like Governor Goodwin Knight’s name). Factual errors undermine the reader’s trust.

There are several places with extra spaces after words or missing punctuation. Also, use only one space after a period, rather than two. Those of us who learned to type on a typewriter have trouble breaking that old habit. However, two spaces after a period in an ebook causes formatting to go wonky.

The author withholds information but offers enough details that the reader can follow what’s going on without becoming confused and frustrated. That’s a tough balance to achieve but this page succeeds. Well done!

This is a promising start with a strong sense of forward momentum. Thank you for sharing, Brave Author!

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TKZers: Does this first page draw you in? Do you have suggestions for today’s Brave Author?

Many years’ worth of First Page Critiques are available in TKZ’s library in the top main menu bar. Writers often say reading critiques of others’ work helps them spot problem areas in their own. Check out the free, useful resource at this link

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Side note: I recently interviewed Tillman Rosenbaum, the brilliant, cynical attorney in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series. Over Tillman’s vigorous protests, the interview was published on The Protagonist Speaks and you can read it here. Thanks again to Assaph Mehr!

 

The Period is Your Friend

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Image by David Frampton from Pixabay

It’s a First-Page Critique bonanza here at TKZ. This one was submitted as a thriller. See you on the other side of the waters.

Turbulent Waters

In fluid dynamics, turbulent flow is motion
Characterized by chaotic changes in pressure.

Jake Burton knew next-to-nothing about diesel maintenance, but he knew about the marine mechanic’s thirst for Canadian whiskey, and he knew even more about the fine art of negotiation with thirsty men. 

“I dunno, Jake. State law says every boat’s gotta have a certified captain and a licensed and bonded mechanic aboard. Fines are high if the Coast Guard catches you.”

“Nobody’s going to catch me—you said it yourself, the engine in that boat is running smooth, and the trip only lasts four hours. You’ll be back on board for the afternoon tour.” Jake pressed the knuckle of his thumb against his upper lip to stop an itch, then pulled a fifty from his wallet, slapped the worn leather shut, and handed the bill to the other man. “Take the morning off. Go get yourself a big breakfast.” 

The mechanic took the bill and stuffed it into the pocket of his oil-stained coveralls. He scratched his head. “I’m just not sure. I could lose my job—”

“Okay, look, here’s another twenty. Honest, that’s all I’ve got. You’ve officially cleaned me out.” He pulled a lone bill and stood for a moment holding the empty wallet wide in illustration. “But, I do have a little something else you might like.” 

The man took the bill, pushed it into his pocket with the fifty. “What’s that?”

Jake pointed his thumb over his shoulder. “See that blue Ford pickup in the lot? Well, there’s a brand-new bottle of Crown Royal still in the box under the passenger’s seat. I could toss that in to sweeten the pie.” 

The mechanic shielded his eyes against the bright morning sunlight and looked across the marina parking lot. “You mean that old beater?”

Jake nodded and tilted his head. “Deal?”

The mechanic shifted from one foot to the other, pulled the lobe of his left ear, and sighed. “Yeah, okay, deal. Just make sure you bring my box back the minute you get off the boat. And don’t lose any of my tools overboard.” Without another word, shuffled off to the blue truck, the purple box, purple bag, and golden liquid.

Jake dug through the contents of the borrowed toolbox, but was interrupted by the threatening notes of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”—the ring tone he’d chosen for his ex-wife’s number.

***

JSB: On a macro level, I like this scene. It’s active (dialogue is always an action) and there’s a disturbance—a criminal enterprise is afoot and an angry ex-wife is calling! I certainly would turn the page to find out what she has to say, and what Jake’s boat trip is all about. I get a Florida-noir vibe from this, which is John D. MacDonald territory. I’m interested.

Now let’s see if we can’t do some editing which will ratchet up that interest for the reader. Beginning with your epigraph.

You probably know that an epigraph normally goes on its own page. That’s what I’d advise here, as it gets in the way of the active opening. Also, the way you have it makes it look like lines from a poem (the capital C in Characterized). Surely it’s not, unless it’s the worst poem ever written. So why is it broken up that way? It should be: In fluid dynamics, turbulent flow is motion, characterized by chaotic changes in pressure.

Further, an epigraph always requires a source. Thus:

In fluid dynamics, turbulent flow is motion, characterized by chaotic changes in pressure. — Diesel Maintenance For Dummies

A good epigraph should entice the reader, raising the question What does this have to do with the plot? and somehow preview the tone of the story.

Thus, I actually like this quote because it does those things, especially the last part, chaotic changes in pressure. Two good things in a thriller. Just put it on a stand-alone page and tell us where the quote comes from.

On to the first line.

Jake Burton knew next-to-nothing about diesel maintenance, but he knew about the marine mechanic’s thirst for Canadian whiskey, and he knew even more about the fine art of negotiation with thirsty men. 

An often overlooked aspect of the craft of fiction is the shaping of sentences for greater effect. I’ll start off with this tip: The period is your friend! Use it like voting in Chicago: early and often.

This is especially important in thrillers, because you want the prose to pack a punch. One sharp jab or left hook is better than three glancing blows. I feel you opening line  is like the latter—it’s three sentences strung together. That’s a lot of work for the reader. Yes, there will be times when you want to use a more complex sentence structure, but I’d advise you not to do it off the bat.

And consider another aspect of the effective sentence: the right word to end with. You should always end with the most potent word or phrase, for the obvious reason that it will more forcefully compel the reader to keep reading.

Here’s a suggested edit:

Jake Burton knew next to nothing about diesel maintenance, but he knew about the marine mechanic’s thirst for Canadian whiskey. 

Whiskey is a strong word to end on. It’s got a good sound. It also raises a mystery in the reader’s mind: How is Jake going to entice this mechanic, and why? Leave it there. Lose the part about negotiation. That’s telling us what we’re about to see. Let the action of the scene do the work.

Notice also that I removed the hyphens from next to nothing. You don’t use hyphens to connect words unless they are being used as an adjective, e.g., Florida-noir vibe; minority-owned business.

So get in the habit of looking for alternative sentence endings. I wouldn’t do this while you’re actually writing, because you want to be in flow. That’s why I like to edit my previous day’s work before I start in again. It’s the best time for me to look at my sentences.

Now, after that first line, which is in Jake’s POV, the next action (and remember, dialogue is action) should be from Jake. Having the mechanic talk first is a slight jolt to our expectations. Not fatal, but it does require a bit of readjustment as we read. Instead, you can simply reshuffle some of the dialogue. I’ll do a little of it to show you what I mean:

Jake Burton knew next to nothing about diesel maintenance, but he knew about the marine mechanic’s thirst for Canadian whiskey. 

“See that blue Ford pickup in the lot?” Jake said. “There’s a brand-new bottle of Crown Royal still in the box under the passenger’s seat. I could toss that in to sweeten the pie.”

The mechanic shielded his eyes against the bright morning sunlight and looked across the marina parking lot. “You mean that old beater?”

“Deal?”

“I dunno, Jake. State law says every boat’s gotta have a certified captain and a licensed and bonded mechanic aboard. Fines are high if the Coast Guard catches you.”

“Nobody’s going to catch me. You said it yourself, the engine in that boat is running smooth, and the trip only lasts four hours. You’ll be back on board for the afternoon tour.”

Notice a few edits. I put in said as a dialogue attribution. You don’t have any in this entire page. I fear you may be falling for the It’s more skillful and literary never to use any dialogue attributions at all trap. It’s a trap because you end up using a lot of innocuous action beats to indicate who’s speaking. Like Jake nodded and tilted his head (which is something I have trouble picturing). Every time you do that the reader has to do a little “work” to form a picture. They’re also subconsciously wanting to know the significance of it. If it’s only to clue us in to who’s talking, that creates an unneeded burden for the reader.

I once read a novel by a friend who had boasted to me about not using a single said. About halfway through the book, I kept wondering why I felt tired reading it. Like it was a bit of a slog (not a good thing for a thriller). That’s when it hit me. Instead of said I was getting a lot of pulled his earlobe and tapped the desk with a pencil and crossed his legs. None of those things had any significance to the story. They were just substitutes for said. The pictures were wearing me out.

The beauty of said is that it does its job almost invisibly and then politely gets out of the way. It doesn’t require any reader effort. Use action beats on occasion for variety, yes. But make sure they reveal something relevant, like the character’s emotion:

Danny spit out his coffee. “You did what?”

Here’s another sentence that takes some effort: Jake pressed the knuckle of his thumb against his upper lip to stop an itch, then pulled a fifty from his wallet, slapped the worn leather shut, and handed the bill to the other man.

Yeesh, that’s four actions in a single, run-on sentence. Is it really crucial for us to know that Jake suppressed an itch? Or that he slapped his wallet shut? Maybe this pays off later, but if not I don’t see any point. Call in your friend, the period, once again:

Jake pulled a fifty from his wallet. “Take the morning off. Go get yourself a big breakfast.”

The mechanic looked at Ulysses S. Grant. “I could lose my job—”

I took out the bit where the mechanic stuffs the bill in his pocket, because if he’s thinking he could lose his job, he wouldn’t accept the deal yet. I do, however, I like the detail of the oil-stained coveralls, as it adds to characterization. How about this:

Jake pulled a fifty from his wallet. “Take the morning off. Go get yourself a big breakfast.”

The mechanic looked at Ulysses S. Grant. “I could lose my job.”

Jake stuffed the bill in the pocket of the mechanic’s oil-stained coveralls. He pulled a last bill from his wallet. “Here’s another twenty.” [Etc.]

I hope you see the value of the period, and punchier sentences. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use variety. There’s no rule. Just listen to the sound and see if you can’t break up a longer sentence into two shorter ones. And end with a strong word or phrase.

Speaking of that variety, I like the last line, for it uses my beloved em dash. But I think there’s a stronger way to end it: 

Jake dug through the contents of the borrowed toolbox, but was interrupted by the threatening notes of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”—the ring tone he’d chosen for his ex-wife.

Since you tell us it’s a “ring tone” we don’t need the added bit about this being her number. And ex-wife is a snappier way to end the sentence. You might even experiment with simply ex, which everyone understands. How to choose? Say it out loud a few times, and also (this is the key): how would your character say it? You want your narrative sentences to sound as much like the POV character as possible.

The difference your re-worked sentences make will be the difference between a good read and a great one—and it’s great reads that make a career.

Again, I like this setup. I’m interested in hearing what Jake’s ex-wife has to say, and what sort of caper he has in mind with the boat. With some editing, you can turn my interest into page-turning compulsion.

And now for a snappy way to end my critique: The End.

Comments welcome.

First Page Critique: How To Improve a Compelling Opener

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments/suggestions will follow. Enjoy!

Expendable

Prologue 

Kate turned right onto her parent’s street only to find a street jammed with police cars. A cacophony of lights, flashing red and blue, backlighting people hurriedly moving against the night sky. My parents will certainly be outside watching, she thought. As she drew closer, she was alarmed to see her parent’s house isolated by swags of yellow police tape. 

She jerked her car to the curb and ran toward the chaos.

“I’m sorry, miss. You can’t go up there.” A policeman seemed to appear out of nowhere.

“But, I live here,” she lied.

“This is your house, miss?”

“It’s my parents’ house. I live with them. Please let me through.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. You can’t go up there.” The officer blocked her path and motioned to a man in an overcoat, standing near the garage. The man closed his notepad as he walked over. The two men had a brief exchange before the one in the overcoat spoke.

“Miss, my name is Detective Montoya.” A badge swung on a ball-chain around his neck. “You live here?” he said, opening the notepad again. She nodded. He put his hand on her shoulder, guiding her to a place on the lawn, away from the activity. He began writing as soon as she answered. Asked her name along with a few other questions. She gave terse answers, anxious to get inside. He asked whereabouts that evening requiring a lengthy explanation about her late class on Wednesdays. Each answer seemed to beget another question.

“Miss, what we’re looking at here is a double homocide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself. 

“No,” she said, covering her mouth with both hands. She battled her mind to keep from considering the obvious. “That’s impossible. No, it can’t be. Let me see,” she tried to force her way past him.

“I can’t let you in. It’s pretty gruesome. I don’t know that you could handle it.”

“I need to go inside.”

“I’m afraid you can’t, miss. Right now, it’s a crime scene and we can’t take the chance of you contaminating it.” 

“Look,” She said. “You owe me something. You can’t ask me to endure the entire night wondering if I’m still part of a family or not.” Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

The writer did so many things right. We’re dropped in the middle of a disturbance, s/he raised story questions, added relatability for the heroine, and I could (somewhat) feel her frustration, fear, and anxiety. Great job, Brave Writer! As written, I’d turn the page to find out what happens next.

Let’s see if we can improve this opener even more. Brave Writer included a note about using a prologue. I hope s/he doesn’t mind if I include it here.

I have never considered doing a prologue before but this allows me to describe a major event that will be referred to various times during the story as well as give some backstory about the protagonist and tell the reader what kind of story to expect.

Prologues

The correct reasons to use a prologue are:

  • the incident occurs at a different time and/or place from the main storyline
  • to inform the reader of something they can’t glean from the plot
  • to foreshadow future events (called a jump cut, where we use the prologue to setup an important milestone in the plot)
  • to provide a quick-and-dirty glimpse of important background information without the need of flashbacks, dialogue, or memories that interrupt the action later on (no info dumps!).
  • Hook the reader into the action right away while raising story questions relevant to the main plot, so the reader’s eager to learn the answers.

It sounds like you’re using a prologue for the right reasons. Keep in mind, if you plan to go the traditional route, many agents and editors cringe when they see the word “prologue” because so many new writers don’t use them correctly. If you can change it to Chapter One, you’d have an easier time.

Point of View 

For most of the opener you stayed inside the MC’s head.

Two little slips:

“Miss, what we’re looking at here is a double homocide homicide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself.

See how you jumped inside the cop’s head?

Same thing happened here:

Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

Stay inside the MC’s head. One scene = one point of view.

Dialogue

The dialogue is a bit stiff. I’ll show you what I mean in the “fine tuning” section. For now, I highly recommend How To Write Dazzling Dialogue by our very own James Scott Bell.

First Lines

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the first line, but I think you’ve got the writing chops to do even better. Let the first line slap the reader into paying attention.

To quote Kris (PJ Parrish):

  • Your opening line gives you an intellectual line of credit from the reader. The reader unconsciously commits: “That line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.”
  • A good opening line is lean and mean and assertive. No junk language or words.
  • A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. It says something interesting. It is a stone in our shoe that we cannot shake.
  • BUT: if it feels contrived or overly cute, you will lose the reader. Especially if what follows does not measure up. It is a teaser, not an end to itself.

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

To read the entire post, The Dos and Don’ts of a Great First Chapter, go here.

Fine Tuning

I dislike rewriting another writer’s work, but it’s the easiest way to learn. I’ve included quick examples of how to tighten your writing and make the scene more visceral. Keep what resonates with you. After all, I don’t know where the story is headed.  

Kate turned right onto her parent’s street only to find a street jammed with police cars. A cacophony of lights, flashing red and blue, backlighting people hurriedly moving against the night sky. My parents will certainly be outside watching, she thought. “Thought” is a telling word. The italics tell the reader it’s inner dialogue. As she drew closer, she was alarmed to see her parent’s house isolated by swags of yellow police tape. “Alarmed” and “see” are also telling words. Remember, if we wouldn’t think it, our POV character shouldn’t either. Some writers have a difficult time with deep POV, which we’ve discussed before on TKZ. It’s one element of craft that we learn at our own pace. For more on Deep POV, read this 1st page critique. In the meantime, here’s a quick example to show you what I mean.

The swags of yellow police tape surrounding her parent’s house quickened her heartbeat. What happened? She’d spoken to Mom and Dad last night. Granted, the call didn’t last long. Mom said she had to go because someone knocked at the door. Endless questions whirled through her mind. Were they robbed? Are they hurt? Did Dad fall again?

She jerked her car to the curb, threw the shifter into Park, and ran sprinted toward the chaos, the soles of sneakers slapping the pavement. Use strong action verbs to paint a clearer mental image. Plus, I slipped in sound. With important scenes, tickle the senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, taste—for a more visceral experience.

A policeman seemed to appeared out of nowhere. Moved to the beginning to show who’s speaking. Here, too, you can paint a stronger picture: A meaty-chested cop blocked her path.I’m Sorry, miss, but you can’t go past the police tape.”

“But, I live here,” she lied. Not bad but think about this: She’s just happened upon a chaotic scene at her parents’ house. Would she be calm or hysterical? “Get the hell outta my way.” She swerved around him, but he hooked her arm. “I live here.”

His head jerked back. “This is your house, miss?”

“It’s my parents’ house. What’s the difference? I live with them. Please Let me through!

I’m sorry, ma’am. Sorry, but you can’t go up there.” Is the house on a hill? If so, you need to tell us sooner so “up there” makes sense. The officer hollered over his shoulder to blocked her path and motioned to a man in an overcoat (trench coat?), standing near the garage. “She’s the daughter.” The man closed his notepad as he walked over. The two men had a brief exchange before the one in the overcoat spoke.

Mr. Trench Coat hustled over, a badge bouncing on the chain around his neck. As he neared, he extended his hand, but she couldn’t shake it. Not yet. Not without knowing what happened. Miss, My name is Detective Montoya. And you are?

“[Insert her name]” Now the reader knows who she is.

Okay, [name]. Let’s talk in private.” He put clamped a his hand on her shoulder and guided, guiding her to a place on to the lawn, away from the activity. Describe the activity. Example: away from photographers snapping pictures, from uniformed officers guarding the front door, from men and women in white coveralls strolling in and out with evidence bags.

A badge swung on a ball-chain around his neck. “Do you live here?” he said, opening the notepad again.

Tears rose in her throat, and she could only nod.

He began writing as soon as she answered. Asked her name along with a few other questions. The detective would hold her gaze. She’s the daughter of two murder victims and he needs as much information as possible before he breaks the news.

She gave terse answers, anxious to get inside. Don’t tell us. Show us!

He asked whereabouts that evening requiring a lengthy explanation about her late class on Wednesdays. Each answer seemed to beget another question. Don’t tell us. Show us!

“Miss (since he knows her name, he wouldn’t call her miss), what we’re looking at here is a double homicide homicide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself.  This dialogue doesn’t ring true. A detective would try to avoid telling her about her parents until she forces him to, which gives you the perfect opportunity to add more conflict through dialogue.

Example:

“When’s the last time you spoke to your parents?”

“I dunno. Before I went to class, around eight. Why?”

“Did they mention anything unusual? A strange car or someone they didn’t recognize hanging around the neighborhood?”

“What? Why? Are my parents okay?”

“Did they meet anyone new recently?”

“Are they in the ambulance?” She peeked around him, but he stepped to the side to block her view. “Look. I’m done answering questions. Get outta my way.”

“[Name], I’m sorry to inform you, your parents…” His words trailed off, his voice muffled by the ringing in her ears.

“No.” Head wagging, she slapped her hands over covering her mouth with both hands. She battled her mind to keep from considering the obvious. What’s the obvious? Do you mean, the truth? Also, “considering” is a telling word. “No. What you’re saying isn’t That’s impossible. I just spoke to them. I’ll prove it to you. it can’t be. Let me see,” She tried to force her way past him. Don’t tell us. Show us! Example: She shoved him away, but he wrangled her flailing arms, pinned her wrists to her side.

“I can’t let you in. It’s an active crime scene now. pretty gruesome. I don’t know that you could handle it.” A detective would never tell the daughter of two murder victims that “it’s pretty gruesome,” nor would he even consider allowing her into an active crime scene whether “she could handle it” or not.

Instead, show us what’s happening around her. Example: The coroner’s van sped into the driveway. Two men dragged a stretcher from the back.

Our heroine entered a chaotic scene. She’d be on information overload, with sights, sounds, smells all around her, almost too much to process.

“Please.” She waved praying hands, her chest heaving with each hard breath, tears streaming over her cheekbones. “Please let me see them. Please.. go inside.

“C’mon, let’s get you out of here.”

“I’m afraid you can’t, miss. Right now, it’s a crime scene and we can’t take the chance of you contaminating it.” 

“Look.” she said. Remove tag. We know who’s speaking. She stomped the grass. “You owe me something kind of explanation. What happened to my mom and dad? Who did this?You can’t ask me to endure the entire night wondering if I’m still part of a family or not.” Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

Wrap it up soon. Prologues should be short. Unless, of course, you decide to make this Chapter One. 🙂 

Brave Writer, I nitpick the most promising first pages because I know you can write and write well. If I thought otherwise, you’d see a lot less red. 😉 You’ve given us a compelling opener and plenty of reasons to turn the page. Take a few moments to see the forest for the trees. The elements I’ve focused on are meant to enhance your storytelling abilities. So, yell, scream, curse me, then get back to work. You’ve got this. Great job!

Over to you, TKZers. How might you improve this first page?

Side note: I won’t be around today. What I’m doing is super exciting (!!!), but I’m not at liberty to speak publicly about it yet. Fill you in later…

Join me, Laura Benedict, and many others on Zoom for Noir at the Bar. Win a signed paperback in the giveaway!

When: Sat., March 20, 2021

Time: 7 pm CST/8pm EDT

Tickets are FREE (limited to the 1st 100 fans)

Where: Comfort of home

Register: noiratthebar.online

First Page Critique: Scattershot

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. Catch ya on the flip-side.

Scattershot

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  We had it planned, Tom and I. We said goodbye to friends – hoping retirement would be an adventure in everything we did. To drive cross country to New England, a picture postcard of snow and autumn leaves coloring the landscape in hues of red, orange, and yellow.  The Coronavirus took my Tom a week before the move.  His labored breathing and limp body placed in the ambulance drove him to the hospital.  I tested negative.  I never saw him again.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.   Oh sure, plans change, but no one ever thinks death will stop you cold.  Well, it stopped Tom and the hospital confirmed my worst fears.  Grateful to the nurse who held his damp, feeble hand, I listened to his last gasp from the speakerphone.  Tom was gone, the house was sold, and the movers expected me in Connecticut in two weeks to unlock the door.  My new life began without the love of my life.

My name is Joanna Seavers, and I am a 59-year-old retired teacher living in the age of Covid-19 or the Coronavirus or whatever the hell it’s called.  Who knows, and who cares?  All I know is the world stopped for Tom and me in 2020, and everyone else for that matter.

One thing I’ve learned in life, even in a pandemic, is never stop planning. It’s what keeps you alive.  You need a reason to get up in the morning, so I got up.   The pandemic wound down, and I drove north.  Businesses reopened and the population was injected with the second shot of the lifesaving serum.  Mask wearing became optional, but on occasions, I still wore the cloth covering my nose and mouth.  You can’t be too careful in a crowd.

Driving down the highway, the virus in my rearview mirror and Alfie, Tom’s faithful bird dog, really a raven, sitting in the passenger’s seat.  Not sure why my husband had a pet raven, but the relationship remained solid for fifteen years.  I read somewhere domestic ravens have a life span of 40 years, so it was a good thing Alf’s loyalty shifted to me.  We clicked and his companionship sustained me as we drove from the Bay Area out of California, not looking back to what we had lost.

I like the voice of this first page. The biggest problem for me was the lack of emotion. The words are there, but it’s not visceral. You can’t gain empathy for Joanna unless the reader feels her pain. As written, she doesn’t seem all that broken up. If Tom’s death is the trigger that kickstarts Joanna’s quest, it needs to pack a bigger punch. Because the first time I read this page, I thought maybe she’d planned his death…till she mentioned the coronavirus.

Dig deeper, Brave Writer. She’d pinned all her hopes and dreams on retiring with Tom. They had plans, plans they talked about for years. Where’s the grief? Where’s the heartache? Where’s the anger over not having the chance to hold him on his deathbed, of one last kiss, of professing her undying love to the man she’s spent a lifetime with? Tom’s death acted more like a minor blip in Joanna’s life.

To deliver a bigger bang, you need to let the emotions unfold gradually. We’re not fine one minute and hysterical the next. Emotions build in layers, change and intensify, and finally reach a crescendo. For Joanna, Tom’s death should be soul-crushing.

Actually, this is the perfect example of why JSB recommends interviewing characters.

A few questions for Joanna could be:

When did you first know Tom had the virus?

What made you call an ambulance?

How did you feel when the medics said you couldn’t accompany Tom to the hospital? Lost? Empty? Frightened?

Did you have a physical response?

Who broke the news of your husband’s decline? What’d s/he tell you? How did it feel to hear those words?

Are you a different person without Tom? What’s changed?

The reader doesn’t need to know every detail, but you do. Joanna’s past will affect her future. You may be thinking, but Sue, Joanna’s the type to raise her chin and forge ahead. Fair enough. But her silent keening should still bleed through.

Five Stages of Grief

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

The character should bounce between each stage to mimic real life. A step forward to depression, two steps back to anger, etc.

Infuse Emotion

I like the echo of “It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” but let’s force the reader to feel those words.

Quick example:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We had a plan, Tom and I. We had a chance at a new beginning, a fresh start. We had hopes and dreams for retirement. But now, emptiness consumed me, the pit widening more each day. If the movers didn’t expect me in two weeks, I’d never leave Tom’s grave. How did this happen? Why us? We were so careful, so diligent about protection. We made all the right moves. And for what? So I could drive cross-country alone?

Notice I never mentioned what happened to Tom. All readers know is he’s dead, she’s devastated. Let the reader flip pages to find out why. In the next paragraph offer a bit more and get the hero moving.

Example:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Tom and I dreamed of life in New England, with its snow glistening on autumn leaves, hues of Scarlet, orange, and gold-painted landscapes. Pointless now. Muted shades of black and gray zipped by the driver’s window. Up ahead, a motorist leaned under the raised hood of a minivan. (Or whatever the case may be.)

 I added the motorist to accomplish two things:

  • It gets our hero moving, active rather than ruminating.
  • It hints at trouble to come.

Delete the part where Joanna introduces herself. It’s the lazy way out. You can do better.

Add dialogue. Keeping with my motorist example…

I pulled in behind the van, and a man craned his neck around the side of the hood. Not a female. Crap. I should’ve let Dr. Rosenthal change my prescriptive lenses before I left.

The stranger approached my window. “Thanks for stopping.”

“No problem.” I held a tight smile, jabbed a chin at the van. “What happened?”

“Outta oil. I could use a lift to the gas station.”

Joanna resists. The motorist pushes. Against her better judgment she gives in. Blah, blah, blah. During the drive the conversation turns.

“Really appreciate this.” He blows into cupped hands (the cold signals she’s on the east coast). “I’m Frank, by the way.”

“Joanna.”

Boom. Now the reader knows her name. Keep in mind, Joanna’s a woman alone. Other than her first name she isn’t likely to tell this stranger her life story.

“What do you do, Joanna?” The way he said my name raised the tiny hairs on my forearms.

“Retired.”

“From what, Joanna?”

Never had my name sounded so creepy. Tom wouldn’t have allowed a stranger in the car. If he were alive, we’d be halfway to Connecticut by now. (See how I slipped in her destination without slowing the pace?)

Frank rested his hand on my knee. “Joanna?”

Mute, my gaze shifted between his hand and the road. “Is the gas station much farther? My husband’s expecting me.”

“So, you’re not from the area?”

“Umm, I…uh…”

“Where are you from, Joanna?”

Each time my name rolled off his tongue my stomach somersaulted, flipped, acids splashed against the liner. Damn you, Tom! We vowed to grow old together. You promised to never leave me.

“Michigan,” I lied, unwilling to share details about my route from the west coast to the east.

And on and on it goes. I don’t have room for a line edit, but keep in mind there’s only one space after a period.

Pets

The last thing I’ll mention is the raven who materialized out of nowhere. As a die-hard corvid lover, I hope you’re not using the bird as symbolism for doom, gloom, or death. Pets needs a valid role in the plot. If the raven doesn’t fill that need, please consider removing it.

As written, it doesn’t sound like Joanna ever bonded with the family pet, a gigantic bird whose lived in her home for 15 years. It’s odd. When a wife loses her husband, (or vice versa) she clings to any and all traces of him, including his possessions (i.e. Tom’s favorite football jersey, the collar saturated with his scent). A loyal feathered baby should act like Joanna’s life preserver, and not a pet she hardly knew.

Main Takeaway

Concentrate on the fine art of storytelling, less focus on backstory. Allow readers to get to know Joanna in bite-sized pieces. Force the reader to flip pages. And they will, if you avoid filling in the blanks right away. The inclusion of story questions, conflict, dramatic moments, and hints of danger (valid or misinterpreted) helps to create a compelling mystery that strangleholds the reader.

Thank you for sharing your work with us, Brave Writer. Pandemic stories will flood the marketplace, if they haven’t already. Thus, it’s more important than ever to craft a visceral thrill ride so yours rises above the rest.

Over to you, TKZers! I excluded a few things to avoid turning this post into a book, so please mention them in the comments. How might you improve this first page?

Stretch That Tension

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here’s a first page up for critique. Put on your muskrat-fur ushanka and join us in the bowels of Moscow’s busy transit system. And watch your back.

***

Death was close, following him like a ghost’s lingering presence.

District court judge Konstantin Reznikov felt it deep in his bones as he rushed along the platform of Komsomolskaya metro station. He clutched his briefcase like his life depended on it. And in a way it did. If he could pass the evidence to the man he was meeting, he might live to see another day.

People were swarming into the station from all sides that early Monday morning and there was barely enough room to put one foot in front of the other. A stranger’s warm breath grazed his neck and frozen fingers brushed his hand—the one holding the briefcase. He shuddered as a chill coursed through his body. Ignoring the angry protests as he pushed through the crowd, Konstantin searched for his contact. All he’d been able to find were some old newspaper photos, but he couldn’t have changed much.

“Damn it,” he muttered when a train entered the station and more people flooded in. Right then and there, he hated the Russian subway system and its 1 minute time-lapse between trains during rush hours. As the sound momentarily deafened him, he hated himself even more for choosing this place as the rendezvous point.

Komsomolskaya metro station was one of the busiest stations in Moscow. Even tourists came to visit due to its breathtaking architecture. Once upon a time, when he’d been a student from the province coming to attend law school, he’d been one of these awed people. But that was long before cynicism and corruption rotted away his innocence. For so long he’d been unable to live with himself, but this last case was too much. He couldn’t turn a blind eye to this one too.

Ironically, the theme of the station’s eight large ceiling mosaics was the historical Russian fight for freedom and independence. Maybe that’s why his subconscious had chosen this particular place. Maybe this was his attempt to fight and rebel against the system that had trapped him for years in a golden cage adorned with money and accolades.

There it was again: malevolent eyes boring into his back. His time was running out and the man was nowhere to be found.

Inhaling deeply, steeling himself, Konstantin stopped next to the escalator, clutching the banister until his knuckles turned white and looked around once more. Finally, he saw him.

***

JSB: This is good fodder for a grabber of an opening page. I love the uniqueness of the setting and the description of it. And what’s not to like about a Russian judge in the grip of an opening disturbance of the most basic sort—life and death? The writing is cinematic. I can see this on the big screen. Brian Cox as Konstantin.

So let’s do some editing.

Death was close, following him like a ghost’s lingering presence.

There’s nothing really wrong about this opening line. It acts like a teaser for the scene to follow. That’s a technique many a writer has used before. For example, Ken Follett in The Pillars of the Earth:

 The small boys came early to the hanging.

So it’s fine as is, but I’ll suggest an alternative for future reference. Instead of telling us in narrative what’s about to unfold, just start off with the unfolding:

District court judge Konstantin Reznikov rushed along the platform of Komsomolskaya metro station. He clutched his briefcase like his life depended on it. And in a way it did. If he could pass the evidence to the man he was meeting, he might live to see another day.

In this way, you drop the reader into the story in medias res—into the action itself.

He shuddered as a chill coursed through his body.

Two descriptions, side by side, of the same thing dilute the overall effect. Sol Stein called this the “1 + 1 = 1/2” mistake. I would go with shuddered. Chills coursing through bodies or up spines is a cliché.

All he’d been able to find were some old newspaper photos, but he couldn’t have changed much.

This needs more clarity. The pronoun he is used twice in the sentence, but applied to different people, so it slows us down (we recently discussed the importance of grammar, and this is a good example of the need). Put in another sentence or two about when and where this research was done, and a line explaining why this person “couldn’t have changed much.” People change their appearance all the time, often instantly, if they don’t want to be recognized, etc.

“Damn it,” he muttered when a train entered the station and more people flooded in. Right then and there, he hated the Russian subway system and its 1 minute time-lapse between trains during rush hours. As the sound momentarily deafened him, he hated himself even more for choosing this place as the rendezvous point.

I’m not getting why he would choose this place if he hated it so much. Later you say it might be his “subconscious.” That’s a little hard to buy considering this man is a judge who seems careful about planning things out, and knows that what he’s doing could get him whacked.

Also, as a general rule, spell out numbers under ten. And don’t hyphenate time lapse, as I believe that always refers to time-lapse photography. Thus: … Russian subway system and its one-minute time lapse between trains…

For so long he’d been unable to live with himself, but this last case was too much. He couldn’t turn a blind eye to this one too.

Another confusing sentence. If he’d been unable to live with himself, then this last case really didn’t push him anywhere. I’d suggest this fix: For so long he’d been fighting to live with himself, but…

Ironically, the theme of the station’s eight large ceiling mosaics was the historical Russian fight for freedom and independence.

This sounds a bit too author-ish. Almost like a line out of an essay. I do like the detail here, so filter it through the character. Something like:

For a moment he looked at the eight large ceiling mosaics depicting Russia’s historical fight for freedom and independence. He choked on the bitter irony, trapped as he was in a golden cage adorned with money and accolades.

There it was again: malevolent eyes boring into his back. His time was running out and the man was nowhere to be found.

Here, I think, is a good place to do some stretching of the tension. That is, whenever you have a suspense situation, do not resolve it too soon. In fact, in a first draft, overwrite these scenes. You can always trim them later. But the more skilled you become at tension stretching, the more you’ll be writing what all us scribes are after—a page turner (or page swiper or page clicker, as the case may be nowadays).

So instead of telling us Konstantin’s time is running out, show us. Instead of a feeling of “malevolent eyes,” give us more to see on the page, like Konstantin spinning around, desperately looking for his stalker. Maybe spotting one who might be him! Approaching! But then the guy jumps on a train, or just walks by. Etc.

Inhaling deeply, steeling himself, Konstantin stopped next to the escalator, clutching the banister until his knuckles turned white and looked around once more.

The POV police will let you off with a warning this time, but watch it from now on. We are in Konstantin’s POV, so he is not looking at his white knuckles (in any event, the cliché squad will come after you, too). But he can feel his knuckles. (Note, escalators have handrails; stairways have banisters). Thus: …clutching the handrail until his knuckles ached… 

Finally, he saw him.

I would definitely turn the page. But I get the feeling the scene (a prologue?) is soon to end, with Konstantin getting iced. Maybe not. Maybe this is our lead character. Assuming for the moment he is not, let me leave you with a suggestion about using strategic backstory.

This scene could go on for two, three, maybe more pages. You could stretch the tension with added beats, but also drop in Konstantin’s internal thoughts and more details about his backstory. Does he have family? How did he get put in the gilded cage? Does he have hope for the future?

What this does is build up empathy and even a little sympathy. We as readers get more invested in this character. So if he does indeed get sent to the marble orchard we’ll feel some emotion. And that is the key to popular fiction, after all—it is primarily an emotional ride.

To see how a master stretches tension with strategic backstory in what is essentially a prologue, and creates sympathy for a character who is being stalked, have a look at the opening of Dean Koontz’s Midnight (below).

Again, writer, good setting and situation. I hope these notes and the comments to follow help you on your scribal journey. Keep writing!

***

Click “Preview” to read the Koontz opening.

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?