Key Ways to “Show” Your Character & Not “Tell” on Him – First Page Critique: Palm Beach Nasty

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

This photo makes me want to go on vacation. Let’s take a ride with Crawford, our character in Palm Beach Nasty, a 1st Page Anonymous Submission. Read and enjoy. My feedback follows:

ONE

It turned out Crawford really missed the murder and mayhem up in New York. Which was weird, since the whole reason he’d gone south was to get away from it all.

At age thirty-six, with a bad case of acid reflux, chronic cynicism, and acute burnout, Charlie Crawford had packed up his Upper West Side apartment and headed down to the Sunshine State. He decided on the Keys, the plan being to take up surfing, give the Jimmy Buffett thing a shot. But after three long months of listening to stoned-out beach bums in lame Hawaiian shirts oohing and aahing pretty average sunsets and duding each other to death, Crawford was ready to move on.

So he’d reached out to a handful of Florida law enforcement agencies, and when the Palm Beach Police Department made him an offer, he grabbed it. But almost a year into the job, no one had come close to getting knifed, shot, garroted, or even banged up a little. Christ, what he’d give for a nice facedown stiff, a little rigor setting in. Crawford was drawing a bunch of nowhere cases, which could best be summed up by the one he was writing up now.

It was late afternoon on Halloween, and a call had come in about a possible trespass up on the north end. The north end of Palm Beach was really two places, depending on the exact location. Obscenely rich or doing just fine, thanks. Spectacular houses on the ocean and Intracoastal that started at ten million dollars and went up from there. Or fixer-uppers, on postage-stamp lots at around a million. Recently a Russian fertilizer billionaire had plunked down a shade under a hundred mill for Trump’s monumentally ugly, but colossally huge, ocean spec house.

But despite that, the real estate market had been hit hard when Wall Street collapsed three years before and was still wobbly. Somewhere between anemic and soft, desperately trying to claw its way back to pre crash levels. One of the top brokers in town was whining about having a lousy year—4.8 million in commissions as opposed to over 7 million in ’07. And real estate lawyers quietly grumbled about fewer closings, but even more about a troubling new phenomenon: clients hondling them on their fees. And pity the poor builders, who had traded down from tricked-up ninety-five-thousand-dollar Escalades to basic Ford 150s.

FEEDBACK
Overview – There is an ease to this writer’s voice that I liked. This intro is written in a deep POV that is close to first person. I almost wish it was full blown 1st, to give the character more room to breathe. This character has opinions about everything, which would work for the intimacy of 1st person if the author can tighten the narrative (without too much meandering). Because of the mental meanderings, the pace is significantly slower with a lack of focus for the action or world building.

A good thing to note is that this author can hear the character and is willing to channel him. That’s not an easy thing to get and execute. Kudos.

But how can this author retain the good parts of the character voice, yet not slow the pace? A big part of this resolution is how to introduce a key character by SHOWING rather than TELLING about him.

HOUSEKEEPING:

Where to Start? – The author started with a back story dump, sharing where Crawford had lived in NYC with a subsequent stay in the Keys, then on to police work in Palm Beach. These are all things that can come out later with patience. At the start, it’s too much misdirection without a point. That puts us down to paragraph 4 to search for a place to start–at the body or crime scene and any interesting lead up to that moment–but we get a lesson in real estate and the Wall Street crash. Bottom line, we need a better place to start that can showcase Crawford and his personality, through his actions and his cynical dialogue or banter with his colleagues.

Passive Voice – There were too many uses of ‘was’ and ‘had’ to indicate a past time period, or hint of backstory. ‘Was’ is used 8 times and ‘had’ is used 9 times in 400 words of this introduction. These are words I try to minimize and correct in an edit. It indicates this story should start with the present action and minimize the backstory.

Missing words typos – These are hard to catch. As authors, we are too familiar with our own work and miss words that should be there if we don’t read more carefully or read aloud. Last sentence in 2nd paragraph – “…oohing and aahing AT pretty average sunsets…” (‘At’ is left out.)

But how can this author retain the good parts of the character voice, yet not slow the pace? A big part of this resolution is how to introduce a character.

Key Ways to SHOW your Character rather than TELL On Him:

Try introducing your character like some films do, with big character stars like Capt Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. Johnny Depp doesn’t merely walk onto the scene and speak his first line, he makes a big intro to SHOW who he is. In mere seconds, we know him and who he’ll be. It takes practice to do this for an author of fiction. I call this “The Defining Scene.”

So imagine who Crawford is when he’s first introduced to this story. Since I like the author’s instincts on voice, I wanted to ask open ended questions for a rewrite of this intro. I didn’t want to influence the author by rewriting it myself. Think of it as a homework assignment, a short exercise.

1.) He’s a transplanted New Yorker with a side trip to the Keys. I can see his NY accent coming through. Are there remnants to his Keys stay? What does he wear in Palm Beach as a former New Yorker?

2.) Crawford is cynical and opinionated. How does this affect his co-workers, the other cops. Is he liked? Does he like them? Is he a loner?

3.) What hobbies does Crawford have? Are these apparent? Does he let other people know about them? What does he dream about? Is he saving for a beach house or a boat? Maybe he works more than one job to save up for something he doesn’t want to share with anyone else. Why did he choose the beach again? Does he miss NYC?

4.) He seems to thrive on crime scenes, being in his element. How does that manifest? Is he overly detailed in his approach or almost too relaxed? Does he communicate on the scene or keep to himself? Does he have a partner? If so, is his partner the same or opposite? Do they get along or not? How does that work for them?

To make Crawford memorable, the author gets a ‘first shot’ at a reader’s first impression. How would the author set the stage?

Below are some things to keep in mind.

  • Devise this crime scene for Crawford to shine or standout. Is it particularly morbid? Has he seen cases like this before? Does he bring NYC bagels and coffee? How does he react versus how others do? Set the stage for Crawford.
  • Give him something to do that will show the reader who he is. When others are turning away, he’s unusually attentive to details of the corpse. Does he have any idiosyncrasies at the scene, like how he treats the victim? Does he notice a stray cat in an alley with a possible clue when no one else does?
  • Make this scene about Crawford and focus on him. Let the reader know how he ticks, his values, his likes and dislikes. Carry these things through the book to take the reader on a journey.
  • Focus on Crawford’s character, more than plot, to give the reader a sense of him in this intro. If the author can devise a way to jump-start the plot (as in the murder scene), then you’ll get two birds with one stone.
  • Build on the energy from the Defining Scene. The reader will make an investment into Crawford going forward.

DISCUSSION:

What feedback would you give this author, TKZers? Is the engaging voice enough to keep you turning the pages?

Mr. January Available NOW! $2.99 Ebook

Zoey Meager risks her life to search for her best friend Kaity in a burning warehouse, only to cross paths in the inferno with Mr January, a mysterious man with a large black dog, completely devoted to its master.

3+

First Page Critique: A Change of Hate

old-monk-useCritiqued by Elaine Viets

Congratulations to the anonymous author who sent in this first-page critique. Submitting your work for a critique is a brave but necessary step toward publication. My comments follow this first page:

A Change of Hate
Movement outside the translucent glass office door caught Madison’s eye. Intrigued by the orange patterns, she watched the flowing waves of color settle, almost motionless. The intense color altered the view through the smoked glass, catching the light from the hall, melding into shadows.
She slid her chair back from the desk and waited.
A slight, almost imperceptible knock, broke the silence. Who knocks on an office door? Madison thought. Watching as the rippling orange movement resumed and the door opened.
She had her answer.
Closing the door gently behind him, a saffron-robed Buddhist monk turned and smiled at the young woman.
The man moved to stand in front of the desk.
In her several years as a legal assistant, this was the first visit by a monk. They were not a common sight in a law office.
Clasping his hands together, he bowed. “Good morning.” His smile accentuated the many nooks and crannies of his face. “Please excuse this interruption. Is this where I might find Mr. Harrison Bennett?”
His quiet tone, hypnotic and calming.
Madison realized she was staring, held by the aura of the man.
“Good morning,” Madison said, regaining her composure. “This is Hawk’s, I mean Mr. Bennett’s office. Do you have an appointment?”
“Ah, of course. An appointment. No, I don’t, I’m afraid,” the man shook his head. “Please excuse me, Miss…?”
“King. Madison King. I am Mr. Bennett’s assistant.”
“I am pleased to meet you, Ms. King. I am sure Mr. Bennett is a busy man. I apologize for arriving unannounced. I find myself in a somewhat difficult situation. I was hoping Mr. Bennett could find the time to speak with me. I knew Mr. Bennett from, well, what seems like a lifetime ago. Perhaps if you told him Thich Quang Duc was here to see him, that might spark an interest. I can wait as long as it takes.” The man bowed again, then sat in one of the chairs, hands folded on his lap, waiting for an answer.
Reaching for the phone, she paged Hawk.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
The author has an intriguing setup – a mysterious stranger appears in a law office. This first page shows promise. I’d like to read the novel and find out who this monk is and why he wants to see Mr. Bennett. But the first page is a little too mysterious.
Who is Madison King? The legal assistant is nearly as shadowy as the figure of the monk. She’s described as “young,” but what does that mean? Is she 20, 25, 30? Some specifics could flesh out this woman, and there’s an opportunity in this sentence:
In her several years as a legal assistant, this was the first visit by a monk. They were not a common sight in a law office.
That could be changed to: In her five years as a legal assistant (or however old you want to make her).
What does Madison look like? Give us more details. And use her full name in the first line.
Where are we? Please don’t leave your readers strangers in a strange land. Once again, that sentence could easily give us some clues:
In her several years as a legal assistant, this was the first visit by a monk. They were not a common sight in a (insert city name here) law office.
Is the office used to offbeat clients? Or does this law office serve a more conventional clientele? And what kind of law does Mr. Bennett practice?
About that monk: This sentence says he’s older: His smile accentuated the many nooks and crannies of his face. His tone is “hypnotic and calming.” But give us more detail: Is he tall, short, fat, thin? Is his body bent with age, or is he lean and vigorous?
What time of year is it? What’s the weather? Is it cold outside? Is the radiator rattling? Is the air-conditioner thumping? We need all five senses.
The opening: Movement outside the translucent glass office door caught Madison’s eye. Intrigued by the orange patterns, she watched the flowing waves of color settle, almost motionless. The intense color altered the view through the smoked glass, catching the light from the hall, melding into shadows.
She slid her chair back from the desk and waited.
Think about cutting a little of that description of the colors through the smoked glass. It goes on a bit too long.
Let us know what Madison is feeling. She seems to be alone in an anteroom and someone odd is outside her door. Is she frightened? Does she have a buzzer she can press to alert Hawk that trouble might be approaching? Does she have a gun or pepper spray for protection? Is she trained in the military or has she taken defense classes and feels fearless? Believe me, I wouldn’t sit and wait for a weirdo to walk in the door. I’d have backup.
The office door: Madison is “intrigued” by the movement on the other side of the door. Does she use the office door to size up visitors? Do most visitors wear suits? A slight, almost imperceptible knock, broke the silence. Who knocks on an office door? Madison thought.
Lots of people, when the door is closed. You may want to drop that sentence.
Beware of too many sentence fragments:  Watching as the rippling orange movement resumed and the door opened. His quiet tone, hypnotic and calming. A few give your writing variety. Too many are annoying.

You’re off to an interesting start, Anonymous Author. Build on it and you’ll have a first-rate novel. Thanks for letting us see your first-page critique.
Readers, what’s your opinion?

 

viets-brainstorm-smallDeath Investigator Angela Richman is misdiagnosed by Dr. Porter Gravois, a wealthy  insider. Angela has six strokes, brain surgury and a coma. She’s saved by brilliant outsider Dr. Jeb Travis Tritt. Gravois’s murdered and Tritt’s arrested. Drug-addled, hallucinating Angela fights to save the man who saved her. I lived this story. Buy Brain Storm in tradepaper, e-book and audio here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1503936317/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_x_B0S.xbE7SZ65V

4+

First Page Critique – The Truth About Morality

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

For your reading enjoyment we have “The Truth About Morality” submitted anonymously for critique of the first 400 words or so. My feedback to follow. Join me with your constructive criticism in comments.

Tony Webster-Wikimedia Commons

Tony Webster-Wikimedia Commons

My face, well rested and laminated in a childlike innocence, looked the same as before. When I opened my lips to a smile, smooth skin stretched itself around white teeth, eyes bright and honest.

Nothing there, I told myself.

And still, my face from this day on would hide a murder.

A righteous murder some might argue, others would disagree. Alvin would say that the act had been neither right nor wrong. Morality nothing more than a construction we implement on ourselves.

The innocence of the spontaneous wasn’ a possible justification. Neither had I been forced. On the contrary, there had been many instances when I could have told them I didn’ want us to follow through with the plan.

I knew I had acted voluntarily. Despite this the feeling that advanced on me was one of dread.

I went to Livia and Alvin’ part of the apartment. Even though there were plenty of rooms to choose from they had their bedrooms next to each other. I started with Livia’ room. I wanted to understand them. Because it suddenly seemed that I, even with my feverish studies of the two of them, had overlooked one aspect. I just didn’ know what it was that I had missed.

The room had Livia’ scent of expensive perfume and nonchalance. I started lifting things and when that wasn’ enough I opened a drawer and then another one. I was careful. Livia’ room wasn’ neat but there were aspects of it that looked orderly, magazines sorted by month, philosophy books opened on a special page. I pushed aside the doors of the cabinet and found Livia’ clothes. Jeans were separated from pants, she had a section for t-shirts and one for the oversized cashmeres sweaters she favoured. The shades shifted from white to black, with plenty of blue and grey nuances in between, the colours of a sky minutes before the storm.

The search that had started out almost by accident turned meticulous. I crawled under the iron framed bed, swept my fingers alongside the outdated bottom of steel springs, trailed the blackened legs.

I rose, elongated shadows sliced the room. Everything was still, the world locked in a devotional silence. But inside me an alarm kept ringing, high pitched and toneless. I knocked on the walls, trying to pick up a hollow sounding note. When I didn’ find anything I moved over to Alvin’ room.

FEEDBACK

Although I liked some of the turns of phrases in this piece and found the character’s internal thoughts were interesting, I wanted more. The author left me wondering what this person (not sure of gender) is searching for after they presumably killed someone. From this intro, we do not know where this murder took place or when. I expected the body to be there, but that was never expressed. I had to read this a few times to search for something I had missed. It would appear the murder was committed by an “us” as well. Although the mystery left me curious to learn more, the writing needs work to anchor the character more realistically and keep the reader turning the pages. Here are some suggestions:

WHERE TO START – The entire intro takes place in the character’s head with only minimal action of him or her searching a room. I wanted there to be more. I had more curiosity about the killing, rather than a search of a room for a person I don’t care much about. The writing doesn’t make me empathetic for this person, even if the murder had been “righteous.” This reads as if it’s from a later scene, as if I’m starting after something important happened that’s not part of the story.

I’m assuming the character is looking in a mirror or reflective glass to see their face as the story opens. I’m not a fan of the ploy of describing the character’s appearance as they look in a mirror–because it’s so cliche–but if the author wants to keep that part, they should establish there is a mirror, otherwise the point of view is off since a character can’t see himself otherwise.

GIVE THEM SOMETHING TO DO – As a suggestion for this intro, I would recommend you give the character something more to do and focus on. Add tension. They could watch a spiraling stream of crimson against a white porcelain sink as blood drains off their shaking hands as they desperately wash the skin until it is raw. When they look into the mirror, what do they see? The notion of a murder could be only a tease that is not explained until later.

SENSE OF URGENCY – For someone who has killed another human being (presuming the death occurred recently), there does not appear to be any urgency to the character’s actions. Their search of Livia’s room is methodical and not rushed. I’d like to see more emotion in this intro, given that a death has occurred. When the character knocks on the walls for a hollow sound, are they concerned they’ll be heard?

ADD DEPTH TO THE CHARACTER’S POV – Have the character react to the neatly stacked magazines or the perfume. What do they think? Do they resent the lingering essence of Livia? I wouldn’t waste a scene by merely describing the character’s calm search. Add emotion by stressing out the character. Is Livia a victim or a fellow killer? Are there precious seconds before this person is discovered searching the room?

FIRST PERSON – It’s been my experience that a writer should infuse gender as quickly as possible, before the reader gets too far along and forms a hard to overcome attachment to one sex or the other. Keep in mind that the character can only see through their own eyes and not upon themselves, so use things like – fingernails, articles of clothing, types of shoes, hair length, or perfume/cologne to hint at the gender as soon as possible.

TYPOS – I’m not sure why there are so many of the same type of typos (bolded in red) where a single letter in a contraction is omitted – ie. wasn’ & didn’ and possessives with ‘s. “Oversized” should probably be hyphenated. There is also this – “cashmeres sweaters,” which should be “cashmere sweaters.” This could be attributable to software issues, but an editor or agent would not want to see this, even if it is explainable.

FOR DISCUSSION

Please share your thoughts on this introduction to help this courageous author develop this story. What do you like about the intro? What would you change?

RedemptionForAvery_highres

Redemption for Avery – $1.99 ebook

When he sleeps, the hunt begins.

FBI Profiler Ryker Townsend is a rising star in Quantico’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, but his dark secret could cost him his career. When he sleeps, he has visions of his next case. He sees through the eyes of the dead, the last images imprinted on their retinas. His nightmares are riddled with clues he must decipher to hunt humanity’s Great White Shark—the serial killer.

 

2+

First Page Critique: Fallen From Grace

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Wikipedia Public Domain

Wikipedia Public Domain

A brave author has anonymously submitted the first 450 words of their work for critique. Read and enjoy. I’ll provide my comments on the flipside. Please feel free to give your constructive criticism in your comments to help this author with feedback.

***

When I first walked in, I hadn’t seen the guy who tried to kill me four years earlier.

I’d squeezed past the wooden tables, threw a nod the bartender’s way, and then walked around a railing to the right side. This is where all the pool tables were arranged. Usually the place was empty, but tonight, two middle-aged guys looked to be finishing a game while a couple of young girls played while laughing on about something at another table on the opposite side. The whacking of pool balls clacked over the country music that babbled over static from a stereo fixed on the wall.

I chose the lone pool table in the rear corner of the pool hall, like usual, and shrugged off my coat. The place was dark, but wide cones of light shone down on the pool tables from a light fixture above. I began retrieving the cue balls from the pockets and setting up the table.

When I’d glanced up, debating on a beer, my eyes snagged on him. I couldn’t see much more than a shadow. The place was dark, except for the cones of light that shone down on the pool tables from above. At first all I saw was his body darkened by the dimness of the pool hall. He was bigger than most men, and perfectly still, like a mannequin. It was perhaps unusual, but not worth focusing on. My mind didn’t pay him attention for too long. After a second had passed, it had wandered on to other thoughts.

It wasn’t until my eyes adjusted to the darkness a few minutes later that I saw him in more, this time in more detail.

He was slumped in a chair too small for him, taking small measured sips from a glass of amber liquid. It was a face coarse like alligator hide, broad and mean looking, with a small forehead cut deep with hard frown lines and cheeks pitted with craters. The face sloped and rounded down to a strong cleft chin peppered with stubble. The eyes, dark and cold like bullet holes, glared my way.

It was the kind of face you’d pick out of a line-up even if you weren’t sure that was the guy who was guilty. It was a face I knew all too well.

***

Feedback:

1.) Opener POV Issue – The first sentence has a point of view problem. Can you see it? How can the character “know” the man who tried to kill him is in the pool hall when he hadn’t seen him? I’m sure the first sentence is intended to grip the reader with the mystery of the deadly conflict between these two men and set up the tension, but unfortunately the POV issue deflated it for me from the start.

2,) Pull The Reader In – Having a gripping first line isn’t enough if the next two paragraphs (or a POV error in that first sentence) defuse all the tension and work against any imagery that might have been established. The next two paragraphs go into the setting, but the descriptions are vague and add nothing to the mood of the scene. It’s like the author is doing an inventory of the room to paint a picture that would have been more effective if the voice of the character had been more colorful and expressed more of an opinion of the pool hall’s patrons and decor, or added mystery. I recommend a strong opening line, followed by more intrigue to pull the reader in with mystery elements, in this case. Otherwise the opener is totally forgettable.

REWRITE Example: I hadn’t been back to Rudy’s Pool Hall since the day I almost died in this dump. I stubbed out my fourth cigarette as I leaned against my truck in the parking lot and made up my mind that I had to do it. I had to walk inside and see for myself. It wasn’t about daring fate to take another shot at me, A man had to face his demons, even if one of those demons outweighed him by fifty pounds. 

This rewrite suggestion creates an unexplained mystery of what happened years ago and hints of another man who is bigger than him. It also establishes the gender of the POV character as male. His 4th smoke shows he’s nervous and is building up courage to go inside. Once he’s inside, it’s already set up that he’s looking for someone and is haunted my his memories. Build on that. The author could set the scene of what the pool hall looks like, but never forget the tension. Let it build.

3.) First Person POV Has Gender Challenge – When an author chooses to write in first person POV, it’s important to try and establish the gender of the main character before the reader gets into the story too much. In this case I assumed this is a man, but nothing in this intro actually reveals that. This could easily be a woman.

4.) Where the Scene Starts – The scene might start with the 4th paragraph, the sentence that starts with “When I’d glanced up, debating on a beer, my eyes snagged on him.” This is the first place where the character truly sees his nemesis. The author might build up to this moment but creating a setting of a seedy pool hall. Why is the character there? Is he to meet someone? From the writing, I presume the guy is a pool player who comes to the place often. But maybe the mystery from the start could be that he hasn’t returned to this place since he almost died there.

5.) Redundant Imagery & Research Problems – In paragraph 3, there’s a line that is repeated in the next paragraph. The description is “cones of light shone down on the pool tables above.” Also, the last line in that paragraph describes the guy retrieving cue balls from the pockets. Big research error right out of the gate. There is only one cue ball and it is solid white. If this character is to be construed as an experienced player, the author must do research into the game of pool and know the basics that most people would know. I grew up with a pool table in my house. When we weren’t playing the game, my mom folded laundry on a field of green.

6.) The Wandering Mind – At the end of paragraph 4, I had to reread the last line. I usually try to rethink the use of the word “it” and clarify the subject so readers don’t have to be jolted from the book. In this case, the “it” should’ve been “my mind.” But this sentence reads as if this man has no control over his mind. His brain “wanders” without him being involved (ie. My mind didn’t pay him attention for too long.)

7.) Grip The Reader with Physical Reactions – The line “It wasn’t until my eyes adjusted to the darkness a few minutes later that I saw him in more, this time in more detail” needs rewriting to delete the typos, tighten it up and add more drama. What is the character’s physical reaction to seeing him at this moment? If the author wants to add the proper emotion to this scene, add that physical reaction to grip the reader.

8.) Setting Works Against the Drama of the Moment – The description of the menacing face in the pool hall is effective when it’s finally spelled out, but after the author has established how dark the place is, it made me wonder how much detail could actually be seen. Maybe have the guy stand up or lean into the light when he sees the main character.

With a rewrite, this first scene might establish the mystery of this confrontation and it certainly makes me intrigued over what happened in the past. I would recommend a more foreboding start that establishes this pool hall has a dark past for the character, but he goes there anyway. Don’t over-explain at the start. Pull the reader in with morsels of mystery that makes readers want to know more, like how the character is searching the darkness – for what? Be patient with luring the reader into the story. Set the mood, add a mystery, then climax with the final confrontation of that face.

What do you think, TKZers? Please provide feedback in your comments.

tmp_4087-TheLastVictim_highres-1601584079

“When FBI profiler Ryker Townsend sleeps, the hunt begins.” The Last Victim now available in print and ebook. Sales links HERE.

4+

First Page Critique for Instrument of the Devil

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Smartphone image - free license from Wikipedia Commons

Smartphone image – free license from Wikipedia Commons

Please enjoy Instrument of the Devil, submitted anonymously for feedback. My comments are on the flip side.

INSTRUMENT OF THE DEVIL – A suspense thriller

“Instrument of the devil!” Tawny Lindholm glared at the new smartphone that her well-meaning son had sent for her fiftieth birthday. “I can’t even figure out how to call for help.”

 
The glossy black screen reflected her scowl while a musical tone dinged. What did that mean? She had tapped, swiped, and imitated other gestures she’d watched people make while zipping around the screens of their phones. They got directions, played games, texted, and now and then, made a plain old phone call. It looked so simple.

 
The screen remained blank, indifferent to her frustration. “If someone calls me, I don’t even know how to answer you.” The damn thing had her talking to herself.

 
A different tone chimed five times. Was this an incoming call? Or had she accidentally told the thing to launch a missile?

 
While Dwight was sick, she’d used a simple cell phone, no problem. Flip it open, punch in numbers, and connect with doctors, the oxygen company, friends, and finally, on a July night nine months ago, the funeral home.

 
Tawny didn’t need this monster that barely fit in her palm.

 
The bubble package came from an online retailer with a printed message on the address label. Happy Birthday, Mom. Love, Neal. She couldn’t even return it to a local store. If it hadn’t been a gift from him, she would gladly have smashed it against the wall. She still might.

 
She decided to name the thing Lucifer.

 
She sat at the breakfast bar, fingering a postcard that had arrived in the mail, along with the birthday package. Baffled by your smartphone? Free class. Easy, fun, impress your grandchildren. If she went, she’d be the dumbest one there. But how else could she learn? No instruction booklet had come with the phone.

 
The oldies station Dwight had liked played in the kitchen. The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” faded out. “I’m begging someone to put me out of my misery,” she answered the radio.

 
The announcer came on, promoting the same free class described on the postcard. Tawny turned up the volume. “Learn how to operate your smartphone. Tonight, seven o’clock, at the library in downtown Kalispell.”

 
First, the postcard, now the radio ad. Someone was sending a message. Might as well pay attention. Besides, what else did she have to do, except sit home in a silent house, listening to mysterious beeps and whistles on the phone?

 

Feedback:

1.) This intro is for a suspense thriller. but it reads more like a cozy mystery to me since it starts off with an almost funny scene of a woman trying to navigate a new cell phone.(I could definitely relate.) The title – Instrument of the Devil – seems to refer to the phone itself. Presumably if the cell had a previous owner, who carries a pitch fork and dons horns, the plot could turn into something scarier than the latest Google app. We only have 400 words or so to make a determination if we want to read further, so every word is a precious opportunity to snag the attention of an editor, agent, or a reader. In my opinion, this intro sends a mixed message, if the author intends for this to be a thriller.

2.) The narrative starts with the woman already dealing with her confusion over the new cell, yet later in the story describes how the cell came packaged in bubble wrap, which takes us back to when she first received it. I found that a bit jolting so I would recommend “the bubble package” line be moved to the start so the action reads in order and creates a bit of mystery for what’s in the package.

3.) I liked how the author inserted a quick backstory bit about Dwight and how this poor woman had been dealing with a sick husband who later died. The whole sad incident was expressed in terms of the cell phone. Clever. So I would recommend the mystery package arrival be quickly followed by the woman’s tragedy, so the reader is even more sympathetic.

4.) Everyone knows a cell phone does NOT come set up. If this one did, the author should play that up for a bigger mystery to draw the reader in. The way it reads now, it seems as if the author made a mistake on how phones usually come or makes Tawny seem foolish not to question the obvious.

Example:

Tawny Lindholm stared down at the opened package and sighed. She would never have ordered it. A smart phone came bubble wrapped from an online retailer with a printed message on the address label. Happy Birthday, Mom. Love, Neal. Her well-meaning son had sent it for her fiftieth birthday. She couldn’t even return it to a local store. If it hadn’t been a gift from him, she would gladly have found a way to get his money back. She still might.

While her husband Dwight was sick, she’d used a simple cell phone, no problem. Flip it open, punch in numbers, and connect with doctors, the oxygen company, friends, and finally, on a July night nine months ago, the funeral home.

Tawny didn’t need a phone smarter than she was, one that barely fit in her palm. Still, she might’ve given it a try if it came with instructions. For heaven’s sake.

“Instrument of the devil!” Tawny glared at the new cell. “Whoever set you up should’ve known I needed help. I can’t even figure out how to make a call.”

The glossy black screen reflected her scowl while a musical tone dinged. What did that mean? Who had set up her new phone…and why didn’t it have instructions?

“Oh, this is ridiculous.”

She had tapped, swiped, and imitated other gestures she’d watched people make while zipping around the screens of their phones. They got directions, played games, texted, and now and then, made a plain old phone call. It looked so simple.

The screen remained blank, indifferent to her frustrated prodding. “I wouldn’t even know how to answer you.” The damn thing had her talking to herself.
A different tone chimed five times. Was this an incoming call? Or had she accidentally told the thing to launch a missile?

Without an operating manual, she’d be dead in the water. She sat at the breakfast bar, fingering the only reading material she had on the phone. A postcard had arrived in the mail, along with the birthday package. Baffled by your smartphone? Free class. Easy, fun, impress your grandchildren.

Tawny shook her head. If she went, she’d be the dumbest one there. But how else could she learn without an instruction booklet?

 
The oldies station Dwight had liked played in the kitchen. The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” faded out. “I’m begging someone to put me out of my misery,” she answered the radio.

 
The announcer came on, promoting the same free class described on the postcard. Tawny furrowed her brow and turned up the volume. “Learn how to operate your smartphone. Tonight, seven o’clock, at the library in downtown Kalispell.”

 
First, the postcard, now the radio ad. Someone was sending a message. Might as well pay attention. Besides, what else did she have to do, except sit home in a silent house, listening to mysterious beeps and whistles on her annoying new phone?

 

What about you, TKZers? Any feedback for this brave author? Would you keep reading?

3+

First Page Critique -The Lunar Lifestyle

THE LUNAR LIFESTYLE

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

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

“Any regrets?” I asked him.

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

“I guess you’re right.”

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

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

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

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

My Critique by Nancy J. Cohen

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

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

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

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

4+

Putting Backstory in its Place: First Page Critique

Shutterstock image via TKZ

Shutterstock image via TKZ

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

THE BANK BAR

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

My comments

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

Avoid getting bogged down in backstory and tell-itis 

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

Use specific language and details

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

Avoid weak words

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

Title note

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

Your thoughts?

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

 

 

 

1+

First Page Critique: Prologue (Helston, England 1864)

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

 

iStock_000009293879XSmall

Photo image from iStock, purchased by Jordan Dane

Enjoy the first page anonymous submission (as yet untitled) for your consideration and feedback. My comments are on the flipside.

Prologue

Helston, England

December, 1864
The moonlight shined through the window, casting an eerie sheen down her caramel-colored hair.  Her fingertips, well-manicured with a light pink coating, gently held the stem of her wine glass.

The large house was empty save for the two of them, and as his eyes surveyed the dim living room, photographs of family members cluttered the mantelpiece above the fireplace.  The colorfully decorated Christmas tree reflected in the glass of a framed picture, the holiday lights so magnificent that he could hardly see the middle-aged couple depicted in the shot.

She smiled, and as she did so, he mimicked her gesture.

“Supper was great, thank you.”  Past her left shoulder through the window, the silhouettes of bare tree branches scratched at the moon.

“I am glad you enjoyed it,” she responded.  What was her name?  He blinked.  Catherine.

He could faintly tell she was beautiful, and regretted he couldn’t enjoy the sight.  Long, wavy light brown hair, just a hue darker than blonde, cascaded down her back.  Light blue eyes—sky blue to be exact—glanced at the maroon table cloth.  And her heart, beating through her black dress…

He sighed impatiently.

She leaned forward, tucking her hands underneath her chin.  “I must allow myself to admit I am relieved that Mrs. Norfolk has not returned.”

“For ought I know, she is on her way.”

Laughter jumped along the air.  “Oh, pray not!”

He narrowed his eyes as he studied her, trying his best to recall the letter that arrived at his flat just last week.  The girl was twenty-two.  Her birthday was to be on New Year’s Eve, just three weeks away.  Her parents, as he had suspected when he had coerced her into inviting him to dinner, were out at a social event.  They are clearly well-respected within the community, Cam commented, noting the high ceilings that resembled a cathedral more than an actual home.  If being wealthy counted as a community.

“I cannot believe we talked for so long,” he heard himself say.

“I know.”  She glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner.  “Three hours.”

“And I really should be going.  Any longer and I shall be missed.”

Lie.

She leaned back in her seat.  “Oh.”

His lips curved into an easy smile as he stood.  His right hand shoved inside his pocket, clacking coins together.

 

Feedback Comments:

1.) Historical World-building – After my first pass through, I went back to read the tag line and remembered this was a historical piece. By the dialogue and the prose, I did not get a sense of the period. I would have appreciated more setting that triggered my senses to place this story intro into the period. Is it cold in December? What does that look like or feel off the stone walls? Is there a fire in the hearth? What does the place smell like? These details do not have to go on forever, but a smattering of notions can put the reader into that room without much effort.

2.) Dialogue – The dialogue is more modern as well. The writing is sparse in general, mostly dialogue, but if this is to be a period piece, readers of the genre expect proper research. Simple phrases like “the large house” and “living room” do not reflect the time. I would have expected wording like: the manor and parlor, for example. Dialogue like “I cannot believe we talked for so long” might be changed to ” rarely do I engage in such congenial conversation, madam, and at such length.” (Come on, historical authors. Help me out here.)

3.) Point of View & Awkward Phrases – Most of this intro is seen through his perspective, but there are moments where the lines are clearly envisioned through her. This reads as head-hopping. I would recommend selecting one POV and sticking with that, per scene. If there is reason to keep his motives secret, for the sake of mystery and the plot, then I would select her POV as the main one. Or this intro can be cleaned up by making every line as seen through his eyes only.

POV problems and Awkward Phrase Examples:

Her fingertips…gently held the stem of the wine glass – Unless he knows how much pressure she is putting on that stem, he wouldn’t know how gently she is grasping it. He can only guess at it. Without the subject being him, this reads as if it’s her POV.

He could faintly tell she was beautiful, and regretted he couldn’t enjoy the sight – I had to read this again. It drew me from the reading. She is either beautiful, in his estimation, or she is not. And it seems he is enjoying her beauty quite a bit since he’s described her hair more than once and is noticing every aspect of her body. It also wasn’t clear to me why he couldn’t enjoy the sight, but perhaps that comes later.

Light blue eyes—sky blue to be exact—glanced at the maroon table cloth.  And her heart, beating through her black dress…– These descriptions make it seem as if her eyes (as the main subject) are not connected to her body or her heart is the only thing in that dress. By using pronouns in a better way, rather than purely writing for imagery, the meaning would be clearer – ie He admired how her sky blue eyes refused to meet his gaze as she glanced along the maroon tablecloth. When her bosom heaved, he imagined her heart raced under the dark ribbons and lace of her frock. There is also a POV problem where the last line is clearly in her point of view since he can’t know how fast her heart is beating under her dress.

Laughter jumped along the air – This line is very awkward. It tossed me from the reading. Anyone else? This generic reference to laughter also does not indicate who is laughing. I assumed it was her laughter, but then why not say it?

Past her left shoulder through the window, the silhouettes of bare tree branches scratched at the moon – This should be in his POV, yet he is not mentioned at all. Several descriptions are disembodied. I had to reread this particular line, thinking at first that it might be a dangling participle.. It’s not, but it through me out. It would be cleaner if the sentence flowed more simply with him as the subject – He gazed over her left shoulder to see the dark silhouettes of bare tree branches scratching at the moon.

He heard himself say – This could be simplified to: He said.

Overall: – There is obvious tension in this scene. The author does a good job of focusing on body language to set that mood. Adding more on setting can only enhance this friction and expand on the mystery of what’s happening. If the point of view were clearly in one head, there could be more mystery layered into this piece to make it more intriguing. Imagine if the POV is in his head and he does not trust her beguiling manner. Who is playing whom? And a better defined setting would not only add to the mood of the scene, but also set the stage in history.

What do you think, TKZers? Please share your constructive criticism.

3+

First Page Critique: Where to Start the Story – Secrets of the Home Wood

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

twilight forest moon


Below if the first 400 words of an anonymous submission from a follower here at The Kill Zone. My feedback is on the flip side, but please share your constructive criticism. Let’s discuss this submission.


Secrets of the Home Wood: The Escape
Why didn’t he just stay by the creek? It was quiet and peaceful there. The trees that hung their heads together over the creek, were enormous in girth and mossed with age. He used to like sitting with his back against a willow on the creekside, but lately that just led to staring through the swaying branches to the path on the other side of the creek. And then his thoughts would turn bitter as they circled for the hundredth time. How could they go back without me? Dang summer cold. He was better now. Maybe he could just go through and surprise them. Yeah, that would go over well.


Why didn’t he just stay by the creek? He had flung a stone into the creek and as he watched it ricochet off the rocks and sink beneath the water, he was reminded of the battle. He had looked forward to going back with his parents to help set up the King’s library and the school. He earned the right. Tugg told him he had become a warrior…well, a furless warrior were the exact words, but that didn’t change what he’d done. He felt different over there. He felt he could do things and be what he couldn’t at home. He had saved his friend Pugg’s life and then held his head while he died. He had fought in a battle to save a kingdom and on this side of the portal he had to go back to being ordinary Jon. A kid with responsibilities on the family farm and a best friend he could no longer share everything with. And now look where that had gotten him!


“Jon! What is the matter with you?”


Marly stood with one hand on his arm and the other fisted on her hip. They each stood astride their bikes on the gravelled shoulder of the Concession Two road. Her green eyes sparked with hurt. A cool, late summer breeze trickled between the mature trees that lined the road and lifted the red curls on her forehead. Something boiled in his gut when her next words were borrowed straight from his mother. “Have you lost your marbles?”


Jonathon jerked his arm out of his best friend’s grasp.


“What’s it to you?” He said rudely. He regretted his unfair words immediately when her bow-shaped mouth dropped into an “O”. Too late to take it back. He rode it out. “Look. I’ve got to go. Gramp’s waiting for me.”


Before he could say something else he’d be sorry for, Jonathon leaped onto the seat of his bike and pedalled furiously away. He gave himself a mental boot. How could he talk to his best friend like that? What was the matter with him? He should turn right around and apologize. No. He couldn’t. If he did that, he might break down and tell her the secret. He had thought that coming to see her would distract him from the misery of his thoughts but he didn’t take into account how well she knew him. She knew something was up with him. Marly had been bugging him more and more lately saying he had changed in the last couple of months, was different, holding something back. He couldn’t go back to her just yet.  He’d call her later after he had gathered his thoughts as his Mom would say.


The thought of his mother made him pedal even faster. They were all supposed to go back together. How could they go back without him? She and Dad had been gone two weeks. The burn of resentment flicked around his heart, again. He was supposed to go, too, dang it. And to make it worse, he couldn’t even let off steam to Marly about it. “Let off steam.” Worst. Now he was channelling his grandfather. 


Feedback:
The start of any story can be challenging for any author. We focus on the first 400 words in our TKZ review process, because industry professionals, who are inundated with countless submissions, can usually determine whether they will want to read more or reject the work that quickly.


In an excellent TKZ post, The Great Backstory Debate, by our own James Scott Bell, Jim talks about starting with a character in motion or a disturbance happening in the character’s world that jumpstarts the story at a key spot that should intrigue a reader. New writers may begin a story that way, but they often add back story dumps or too much introspection that “tells” the reader what is happening, to catch them up with events that have already happened. That’s what is taking place in this story.


The first two paragraphs are back story, until a voice calls out to Jon (a disturbance), saying, “Jon! What is the matter with you?” The author might have a better beginning at that point, but there is also “the secret” mentioned in the second to last paragraph. Depending on what the author has in mind, I could see Jon and Marly having a tense talk to lessen his internal monologue, where Jon is obviously holding back before he pedals away, with more of a hint as to the secret. 

NO EXPLANATION OR BACKSTORY. The author should have patience to reveal whatever the secret is in due time. The main thing is to STICK WITH THE ACTION and get the reader caught up in the MYSTERY ELEMENTS of what Jon is keeping from Marly and why his family might have left him behind because of it.


DIALOGUE can lessen the introspection and minimize the author’s tendency to add what Jon knows from his past. Force Jon to stay in the moment with Marley and only allow the reader to glimpse his reticence to talk, so the reader might wonder why. Or have him wanting to race off to stop his family from leaving him behind, if that is part of the story. SHOW DON’T TELL what is truly happening and wait to reveal the mystery later.


ADVERBS –  During my edit process, I look for adverbs, generally words that end in LY. If a sentence is worded correctly, to convey the author’s intent, an adverb is redundant and unnecessary. Here’s an example from the submission: “What’s it to you?” He said rudely. He regretted his unfair words immediately… In this example, the word ‘rudely’ is redundant because the snappy remark from Jon is indeed rude, plus he regrets saying it immediately. Overuse of adverbs can be seen as weak writing in the eyes of industry professionals.



HOUSEKEEPING – There are typos in this short intro. I’ve highlighted the misspellings in yellow. My Word software caught the errors and underlined them in red. Authors should use the benefits of this type of software application. Submissions to industry professional should be error free. Don’t give them an easy reason to say no. I also wasn’t sure if the names TUGG and PUGG were the same character, yet with a misspelling. Reading the work aloud could help catch errors like this.


That’s my overview of the submission from this brave author. Please share your thoughts to help with ideas on how to improve this introduction.

0

First Page Critique – FORBIDDEN

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane



Our first 1st page anonymous submission for 2015 is FORBIDDEN. I’ll have my feedback on the flipside. Enjoy.

FORBIDDEN Excerpt:

Voices of excited Middle Eastern travelers echoed throughout Samarra’s crowded airport. A large man bumped into Eliza and muttered, “Laanah aleiky.” (damn you). She cringed and turned her back to the frenzy. 

Her knowledge of the Arabic language and Islamic culture drove home the risk she was taking – travelling alone in a country with a history of treating women harshly.

Habitat For Humanity has requested Eliza meet fifteen American volunteers at Samarra’s International Airport. United Air was now overdue. After another hour, she again checked the airport’s arrivals digital board. ‘United Air 719 – DELAYEDFriggin hell, they’re almost two hours late. Eliza fidgeted with her hijab (head scarf).

As she gazed at ‘DELAYED’, a vision overshadowed the surrounding clamor. Bloodied bodies, flames in a dark void and screams impaled her with waves of horror. She barely contained a shriek. Stop it, just friggin stop it! A sense of foreboding urged her to run. Find the next plane out of RIPT and get the hell back to Dubai.

“Breathe,” she whispered. She inhaled and exhaled slowly. “Again.” She shivered as the vision faded. Thank God I can easily control those damn visions.

Certain her odd behavior glowed like a neon sign, she scanned the long concourse for a dark and quiet alcove, or a bathroom. Nothing close. She turned her back to the perceived prying gazes and walked to a bank of floor to ceiling windows.

 

Lights of the tarmac and runways glowed. She listened to a jet’s engines roar as it reached takeoff speed. The last departing flight to leave the Republic of Islamic States and Provinces (RIPT) disappeared in the night sky like a homesick angel.

Trapped. She gasped. Her anxiety soared out of control. One of her strongest triggers erupted. Wild eyed, she watched as a void swallowed a family standing beside her. Her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) psychosis began its torment. A horrific memory surfaced, seized her body and mind.

Instantly, her mind switched to the horror of four years ago. She fought against a seatbelt. It pinned her to the driver’s seat of her van. Screams of desperation. Her sons, Nathan and Noah engulfed in flames, still alive. Oh my God, my boys ….

She restrained a shout for help. No, no, no. I’m at the airport. I’m waiting for American friends. The floor swayed. She grabbed a window’s pillar, closed her eyes.

 
Feedback:
1.) The first paragraph is too brief to fully set up the imagery of a crowded airport before a large man bumps into Eliza. I didn’t feel the need for the language translation in parenthesis. If the description had been better, Eliza would get a good picture that the man was in a rush and disgruntled as he dismisses his rudeness with an over the shoulder slight. Anyone who travels has “been there, done that” and Eliza wouldn’t have to speak the language to know the gist of what he’s saying, so no need to translate for the benefit of the reader in parenthesis, which draws the reader from the story.

2.) The second paragraph is more “telling” than “showing” of the risk she is taking. The author could have shown Eliza’s body language as she, a woman traveling alone in a male dominated country, navigates through a crowded airport trying to keep a low profile. Does she look anyone in the eye? How does it feel to wear the traditional dress when she’s clearly not used to it?

3.) I would have appreciated knowing what country this takes place in at the top of this submission, as in a possible tag line, to orient me as a reader as to location and time of day. I had to look up that Samarra is in Iran.

4.) The first line of paragraph three has a tense error. ‘Habitat for Humanity has requested…” is present tense when everything else is in past tense. It should read, ‘Habitat for Humanity had requested…’  

5.) The translation of hijab in parenthesis, ie (head scarf), pulled me from the story. It reads as if the author is proud of his or her research and is trying to be authentic by using the correct word, yet adds an awkward translation that detracts from the story. Whenever I have a crime scene forensics procedure or a technical word, I find a way to explain in context as soon after I use the word, so the reader can surmise the meaning without having to resort to a footnote or parenthesized meanings. In this case, the author might have used: As a woman traveling in public, she had to wear a head scarf that covered most of her face. The hijab had grown hot and her scalp prickled with sweat.

6.) With very little world building or description, the reader is thrust into a confusing vision experienced by Eliza. And again, the action is more “telling” than “showing.” As a reader, I was pulled from the story with the sudden switch that read as a contrivance to create an air of suspense or mystery. It confused me and I had to reread to figure out if I missed something. The transition didn’t flow and seemed forced. The author might have given hints of foreshadowing to lead to this vision, like having Eliza grow more agitated with a mounting headache, with her desperate to control the onslaught of something familiar that she can foresee coming.

7.) As Eliza fights for control over her breathing, an italicized inner thought “tells” the reader what the author wants them to know, that she is easily in control, yet that doesn’t appear to be the case as her struggles intensify. So the ‘thank God I can easily control…’ phrase seems to be false or too quickly contradicted.

8.) I can’t be sure of this, but it appears there is a typo in the sentence, ‘Lights of the tarmac and runways glowed.’ The typo is the word ‘of’ should be ‘off.’ Is that how you read it, TKZers?

9.) While Eliza is stressing over her visions, I was distracted with two more parenthesis: RIPT and PTSD. In my opinion, if the full name is given for these, then it is unnecessary to add them in parenthesis right after. I’ve seen this done in corporate memos to allow the writer of the memo to use the acronym later, but that isn’t generally done in fiction. Just as I suggested in point #5, a way to bring in the acronym can be added in context later if needed.

10.) Lastly, the flashback at the end, from four years earlier, is too brief to fully make the horror read as real. A mother watching her sons burn to death would be catastrophic and the wording distances me from what should have been a painful scene to imagine. Then on the last line she cries out, “no, no, no, I’m at the airport.” That sudden reference, because it was italicized, read as part of her flashback and not her trying to regain control. The author might fix this perception problem by simply removing the italicized section where she is back in present day, but the memory is too sterile to be believed. It lacks believable emotion for me.

In summary, the author should have patience to set the stage for the world building in this foreign country and give Eliza more time to show how her visions work and how tormented she is. Other than the quick setting at the airport and the sudden jolt into an odd vision, there is no real action in this opener. The scene is confined to Eliza’s mind and her tortured past without a good enough anchor into the present to ground the reader. I want to care about Eliza and what happened (or will happen to her), but this introduction has too many quick snippets of something difficult for the reader to follow.

What do you think, TKZers? Share your thoughts and give your constructive feedback to this courageous author.

0