First Page Critique – An Easy Fix

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer 

Today, welcome to another Brave Author who’s submitted a first page for critique. The genre is noir fiction. Please take a look then we’ll discuss.

~~~

An Easy Fix

You always think you know what you’re doing, but that’s just the first circle of hell. Well. Maybe not the first circle but the escalator only goes one way and that’s down.  Oh, you can try and run up but you’ll never make it. You’ll run out of breath, you’ll sweat and wheeze and pant and then you’ll collapse like a bag of dirty laundry.

The bartender came over to Elam’s end of the bar from where she’d been cleaning glasses. She wiped her hands on a towel.

“What’ll it be, Elam?”

“A double of Jack and a draft Bud, Katie.”

The bartender placed two coasters on the bar, poured the draft and two shots, and set them in front of Elam. He placed a crumpled twenty on the bar.

“What have you been up to, Elam? How’s Charity?”

“Exceptional children, they call ‘em. Whoever thought that up needs to be smashed in the face. I mean, what are they trying to do here? Make people feel good about disasters? The only reason Charity was exceptional was the fucking doctors with their knives and their halothane masks.”

“Really? I thought you were over the worst of it.”

“You know what a bum mitral valve is, Katie? She’d run out of breath and turn blue, couldn’t keep up with the kids on the playground. So they say, ‘Oh yeah. An easy fix. Be back home in five days.’ And then the fucking anesthesiologist is thinking about her cheating husband, and her girlfriend and his girlfriend and their trip to Aruba and her mind’s a million miles away and she’s not paying attention because it’s all so routine. An easy fix.  And the pressure drops and the cock sucker is fucking with the regulators in a panic but it’s too goddamned late. There’s no going back.”

“I didn’t know. You never talked about it.”

“Now the kid’s in a wheelchair and can’t see and can’t walk and she goes to a special school for kids like her.  She’s a tape recorder, everything that she hears she repeats.”

That’s how Elam knew about Carol’s boyfriend, from Charity.

A year after Charity came home Carol left.  It was anticlimactic. No big showdown like the OK Corral.  Elam came home from driving the beer truck and Carol was gone, took nothing except a suitcase and her Ford Fairlane. She did clean out the bank account and set the credit cards on fire at ATMs across Missouri and Kansas.

Elam never heard from Carol again. He’d hear things every now and again when his mother in law would let something slip, something about her boyfriend and Las Cruces, but that was all.

He didn’t care any more.

~~~

Title: An Easy Fix offers the right blend of noir and irony, promising the story will be anything but an easy fix.

First Paragraph: Trying to run up an escalator that’s going down is great imagery of never-ending frustration and despair.

But combining that image with the first circle of hell feels like mixing metaphors.

The point of view is uncertain. Is it omniscient or Elam’s? Is Elam addressing the reader? Or musing to himself?

A bag of dirty laundry doesn’t really collapse because that implies it was previously upright. Choose a different verb.

This first paragraph shows promise but needs a little honing.

Premise: Elam’s situation is tragic and compelling. He’s the father of a child who was permanently damaged by medical carelessness. His marriage has fallen apart. He’s tired of trying to run up the descending escalator of his life. He wants to give up.

The last line is: “He didn’t care any more.”

That line sums up what I see as the biggest problem with this page: If the main character doesn’t care, why should the reader?

How do you make the reader care?

Make something happen.

But…the next paragraphs don’t advance the story. The setting and actions are ordinary and generic—wiping glasses, ordering a drink, putting down coasters, paying, small talk.

That’s followed by an info dump of backstory about Elam’s daughter. Medical terms like mitral valve and halothane masks add authenticity. But there’s too much for one passage, especially on page 1.

Then comes another info dump about his failed marriage. At this point, do readers need to know all these details? Or can they be saved for later?

This first page describes a typical day in Elam’s dreary life as he unburdens himself to a bartender. That’s not enough momentum to compel the reader to turn the page. It needs a stronger sense that something dire is about to happen.

Disturbance: What is different about this day? What changes Elam’s course?

Charity provides an excellent opportunity to make the reader care and also pump up the forward momentum of the story: “She’s a tape recorder, everything that she hears she repeats.”

That line is loaded with possibilities. What did Charity say on this particular day to disrupt Elam’s life?

The scene in the bar could be reworked like this:

Before Elam had time to settle on his regular stool, Katie slid a beer and two shots across the bar to him and asked, “How’s your daughter?”

He slugged down half the brew. “You won’t believe what Charity said today…”

Then reveal the problem.

Another place to open the story might be when Elam comes home from work and Charity delivers a startling message. For instance:

“Your electricity will be shut off tomorrow for non-payment.”

Or Charity quotes her caregiver: “Tell your dad I quit. I’m sick of cleaning up after a brain-dead little brat who shits herself and parrots every effing word I say.”

Or Charity repeats a voicemail from Elam’s lawyer: “The judge dismissed your malpractice suit for lack of evidence. Sorry, there’s nothing more I can do.”

The words Charity hears and repeats force Elam to take action. Backstory can then be added in small bits while the action moves forward.

Action Options: What are Elam’s choices? He could surrender his daughter to an institution, commit suicide, or storm the hospital to take revenge. Or the Brave Author has entirely different plans in mind.

I’m guessing, in the next few pages, Elam makes his decision. Try moving that decision to page 1.

Another alternative: Keep the bar setting but make the big change occur there. Katie feels sorry for Elam’s financial troubles. She heard about an upcoming heist and the gang needs a driver. Since Elam drives a beer truck and knows how to handle a big rig, he’s the perfect guy. Then she hands him a phone number.

Character: There is no physical description of Elam and Katie. All character development is done through dialogue (more on that in a minute). I’m not suggesting  driver’s license details like hair and eye color but give the reader a few hints such as…

When Elam sits on the barstool, he realizes he’s slumping and thinks, at 40, he probably looks as old and broken down as his dad who died at 65.

Weave in their attitudes and personality. Elam can notice sympathy in Katie’s eyes. That irritates him because he doesn’t want to be pitied.

Add interior monologue, such as: People always think they understand but they don’t. They don’t know what’s it’s like to change stinking diapers or get her wheelchair trapped in a narrow doorway. 

Dialogue: Elam’s cursing shows his frustration and bitterness but it quickly becomes repetitive. Save F-bombs and C-bombs for significant moments. Otherwise, they lose their impact.

Try interspersing gestures, facial expressions, and Elam’s thoughts with the dialogue so what he says sounds less like a speech and more like a conversation.

Time stamp: Ford Fairlanes were manufactured between 1955-1970. Readers who aren’t gearheads probably don’t know that. But it’s a subtle, economical way to hint at the era.

Summing Up: Brave Author, the premise has excellent potential but I feel the story starts in the wrong place. As you reread your draft, look for the passage where a change occurs in Elam’s situation. As mentioned above, it may be on page 2 or 3 or later. Try beginning the story at that point.

Make something happen. Elam may not care but readers must care or they won’t turn the page.

Thanks for submitting and best of luck!

 ~~~

 TKZers: Does the Brave Author’s premise grip you? What do you think of Elam? Any suggestions?

~~~

 

When the law prevents justice…

When DNA isn’t enough…

When a lie is the truth.

Please check out my new thriller, Until Proven Guilty. 

Amazon sales link

 

First Page Critique – The Scribe’s Boy

Photo credit: desatboy at Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Let’s welcome another Brave Author who submitted today’s first page for critique, entitled The Scribe’s Boy. Please enjoy reading and we’ll discuss this on the flip side.

~~~

The worst thing about a beating is how much it hurts the next day. But this time I wasn’t going to wait that long. Seth and me were running away right now. Away from the Wiltshire Inn, away from being kitchen boys, away from Bernard and his fists like boulders.

The blood had dried on my cheek but my right eye still flashed and throbbed – I’d be lucky to see out of it tomorrow. Could barely see anything now, with darkness falling and this sudden downpour swallowing us. But dusk and the downpour helped hide us as we cowered further under the wet undergrowth, hoping those two horsemen wouldn’t see us. Bad luck the heavens opening like that just when we were making a run for it – we barely got across the road and into the trees. Even worse luck when the two riders came trotting towards us like smoky shadows and reined in at the hedge we’d scrambled under.

Seth shivered close against the curve of my body, his back to my front. He was folded, knees to chin, his bones digging into me. Our tunics and leggings were sopping wet and slimy with mud but I kept my arm tight around him, sheltering him best I could. The smell of wet earth and leaves filled me.

Twigs jabbed into my scalp and rain dribbled off my hair into my eyes. It stung.

“How’d you like that then, Alfred, eh?” Master Bernard’s fury rang in my head as if he were yelling right next to me. I flinched. Even curled up in the mud I could still hear him as he threw me across the kitchen to sprawl in the rushes on the earthen floor.

Beside me now Seth elbowed my ribs and whispered, “We should run for it.”

“No. They’re too close.” Fear kept me curled up, fear that had me by the throat and made me lie still and silent among knobbly roots and old leaves. My side ached and Seth pressing against it didn’t help. I tried not to tremble but the cold was eating me up. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking.

What I wouldn’t give for some stockpot stew right now. Bernard bragged he ran the best lodgings in the kingdom – always open to anyone willing to pay for pot luck. It was only his kitchen boys he didn’t like feeding.

~~~

Wow! I have to say I’m totally impressed. The Brave Author literally began with a wallop. I don’t know the protagonist yet but already feel sorry for him for being on the wrong end of a vicious beating.

Sentences two and three present the goal: escape from brutality.

Next, the Brave Author sets the scene with the location, establishes the approximate age (children rather than adults) and job of the protagonist and his fellow escapee, Seth, and introduces characters including Bernard, the bullying antagonist with fists like boulders.

One tiny suggestion: How about if you insert “Master” in the first paragraph? That shows the boys are in servitude: “…away from Master Bernard and his fists like boulders.”

A lot of information is packed into one sentence yet it flows well, is clear, and keeps the reader firmly in the action.

The next paragraph establishes the time (dusk), the weather (pouring rain), more location details about the road they crossed and the hedge they’re hiding in. Most important, it sets the era as historic by describing the searchers on horseback.

There is rich sensory detail in the next two paragraphs, especially touch and smell. The boys’ bony bodies not only offer physical description but also indicate the further abuse of being malnourished. The protagonist’s protectiveness toward Seth makes him not only sympathetic but admirable. He’s terrified yet still tries to help his friend.

I feel the chilly rain dripping on them, slimy mud, and sharp twigs poking the protagonist. Tunics and leggings additionally establish the historic time period.

The next paragraph is the only one that felt jarring.

“How’d you like that then, Alfred, eh?” Master Bernard’s fury rang in my head as if he were yelling right next to me. I flinched. Even curled up in the mud I could still hear him as he threw me across the kitchen to sprawl in the rushes on the earthen floor.

The flashback of Bernard attacking Alfred yanked me out of the story. It interrupts the forward momentum and intensity of the scene. Its main function seems to be a way to work in the protagonist’s name and more setting details like the rushes on the earthen floor.

I recommend cutting the flashback. The setting information can be woven in later. The Brave Author is definitely skillful enough to let the reader learn Alfred’s name without resorting to a flashback. One easy way is for Seth to call him by name: “We should run for it, Alfred.”

The next paragraph incorporates more wonderful sensory detail that evokes the boys’ terror.

The last paragraph is poignant, heartbreaking backstory of child slaves being starved by a cruel master. Reference to “the kingdom” sounds British, another location hint seamlessly layered in.

The title The Scribe’s Boy indicates the historic time period.

Dictionary.com defines a scribe as:

a person who serves as a professional copyist, especially one who made copies of manuscripts before the invention of printing; a public clerk or writer, usually one having official status.”

Such a job would require the ability to read and write, a rarity in the time period that this submission appears to be set. People with education were respected and awarded high status in the community.

Presumably a scribe’s boy is an assistant or helper. The title possibly foreshadows Alfred’s future. Will the abused kitchen boy rise to success and freedom? I’m rooting for him.

The page is clean–no typos or spelling errors. “Seth and me were running away…” is ungrammatical but appropriate and consistent with Albert’s voice.

Every word counts on this page. There is no sloppy phrasing or unnecessary verbiage. Each sentence is as tight and resonant as a violin string.

This page hits all-important story elements to hook the reader: action, tension, conflict, setting, introduction of characters, sensory detail, emotion, and suspense.  

Am I invested in the boys’ struggle? Completely. Am I eager to turn the page? Absolutely.

This is a really excellent first page, Brave Author. You should be proud. Let us know when this book is published.

~~~

TKZers: What are your impressions of Alfred, Seth, and Master Bernard? Do you have ideas or suggestions for the Brave Author? Would you read the book?

~~~

 

Try Instrument of the Devil for FREE. Then come back for more Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion by Debbie Burke.

First Page Critique: Envy Rots Your Bones

Another brave writer shared their first page for critique. Enjoy! My comments will follow.

Chapter One

Envy Rots Your Bones

Grandma Iris had never cradled me like she did that Bible. Sat across the table, she held it tight to her chest, tracing her bony finger down its decorative spine. The golden crucifix embedded in the book’s cover glinted as dawn streamed through the window. A wink… or a jeer… It knew it was Grandma’s favourite.

Jealousy stroked at me, teasing, and I swatted it’s claws away. Envy rots your bones. It’s a sin, I reminded myself. One of Grandma’s many teachings.

Leather creaked as Grandma delicately opened the book upon the table.

“Are you ready, Elisa?” A demand masked as a question.

I inhaled deeply, the cold dusty air of the dining room filling my lungs. I promised Grandma I would do better, be better, this time. And yet, for the second time that afternoon, I sinned.

“I’m ready,” I lied.

Her eyes flickered to mine. Somehow her wrinkles deepened, eyes became darker when they settled on me. And without another word, she fired the first test.

“Luke 1:47?”

With no time to comprehend the question, scripture tumbled out of me.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”

Grandma nodded, a fleeting gesture of approval. “Psalm 107:1?”

Again, I answered without pause, without a doubt. “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His mercy endures forever.”

“Excellent, Elisa,” she said, flicking through the dog-eared pages. “Psalm 18:3?”

I opened my mouth, expecting the answer to dance off my tongue again, but… nothing. Only silence filled the room. Scrunching my eyes, I frantically searched the depths of my mind, bible verses scrambled in my head.

‘When you ask, you do not receive,’ – no, not that one. ‘Come near to God, and he will be near to you’– not that either. 

I could feel her narrow gaze pinned to me now. Waiting, watching as I drowned amongst the scripture. Her fingers rapped against the oak table, underscoring each second that drifted by, still without an answer, still sinking. How silly of me to make false promises. Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, she always was.

Disappointed.

The word buzzed in the forefront of my mind, sending a ripple of familiarity through me. I said it out loud, feeling each syllable float from my lips.

Dis-a-ppoint-ment. 

And with that, I burst to the surface.

“In the midst of disappointment, know that God is listening and-”

But before I could complete the verse, a whoosh of air and the scent of old leather gushed towards me. Pain erupted in my cheek, knocking the words from my mouth and throwing me sideward. As I slammed into the floorboards, my eyes sprung open, just in time to see Grandma lower the bible back to the table.

* * *

Y’know what I love most about this first page? The scene is so complete and compelling, it could double as flash fiction. Anon didn’t feel the need to waste precious real estate by describing the room or the characters in detail. Instead, we’re dropped into the middle of a tense moment, and we cannot look away. This writer also gained empathy for the main character and showed us a lot about the relationship between Elisa and Grandma without resorting to telling. And the voice? Excellent.

I do have a few comments/suggestions, but nothing major.

Chapter One

Envy Rots Your Bones 

Grandma Iris had never cradled me like she did that Bible. (<– Compelling first line) Sat Aacross the table, she held it the book tight to her chest, tracing her bony finger down its decorative spine. The golden crucifix embedded in the bible’s book’s cover, glinted as dawn streamed through the window.

*Side note: Holy Bible, since it’s a title, should be capitalized; the bible—not a title—should be lowercase. Some writers prefer to always capitalize Bible. If you’re consistent, I don’t think it’s a big deal either way. When in doubt, listen to your editor.

A wink… or a jeer… It knew it was Grandma’s favourite.

*Side note: When I received the first page, Lynne noted: “UK writer.” Hence the British spelling of certain words, like favourite vs. favorite and Saviour vs. Savior. Please be aware, US spelling is the preferred industry standard.

Jealousy stroked at me, teasing, and I swatted it’s its claws away. (<–Love that line!) Envy rots your bones. It’s a sin, I reminded myself (<–we know it’s inner dialogue without this attrib.). One of Grandma’s many teachings.

Leather creaked as Grandma delicately opened the book upon the table. “Are you ready, Elisa?” A demand masked as a question.

I inhaled deeply (showing the act of inhaling implies deeply, so the adverb isn’t necessary), the cold dusty air of the dining room filling my lungs. I promised Grandma I would do better, be better, this time. And yet, for the second time that afternoon, I sinned. <–Excellent! These last two sentences say so much.

“I’m ready,” I lied.

Her eyes flickered to mine. Somehow her wrinkles deepened, eyes became darkened when they settled on me. And without another word, she fired the first test. (<– Slight hiccup here. As written, it implies “without another word” from Grandma. But I think you meant Elisa. Easy fix. “Without another word from me”)

“Luke 1:47?” (see below for citing scripture in dialogue)

With no time to comprehend the question, scripture tumbled out of me (comprehend isn’t the correct word. If she didn’t understand the question, she wouldn’t be able to cite the verse. Try: Without much forethought… Or leave out altogether: Scripture tumbled out of me). “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.”

Grandma nodded, a fleeting gesture of approval. “Psalm 107:1?”

Again, I answered without pause, without a doubt. “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His mercy endures forever.”

“Excellent, Elisa,” she said, flicking through the dog-eared pages. “Psalm 18:3?”

I opened my mouth, expecting the answer to dance off my tongue again, but… nothing. Only Silence filled the room. Scrunching my eyes, I frantically searched the depths of my mind, bible verses scrambled in my head.

When you ask, you do not receive,.(Removed single quotes and incorrect usage of en-dash.) No, not that one. Come near to God, and he will be near to you’–. Not that either. 

I could feel Now, her narrowed gaze pinned to on me now. Waiting, watching, as I drowned amongst the scripture. Her fingers rapped against the oak table, underscoring each second that drifted (drifted implies slow. Try: ticked, fled, drained, raced, sped, or another strong verb for fast) by, still without an answer, still sinking (<– Nice visual). How silly of me to make false promises. Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, she always was. (Suggestion: Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, her usual state of mind.)

Disappointed.

The word buzzed in the forefront of my mind, sending a ripple of familiarity through me. I said it out loud, feeling each syllable float from my lips.

Dis-a-ppoint-ment. (Would she really say this out loud in front of Grandma?)

And with that, I burst to the surface. (Consider deleting. I understand Elisa is metaphorically bursting to the surface, but it stopped me. Perhaps others will feel differently.)

“In the midst of disappointment, know that God is listening and—” (Use em-dash, not en-dash, to indicate cut off speech. For more on em-dashes, see this post)

But before I could complete the verse (Redundant since you went through the trouble of showing us the verse had been cut short), aA whoosh of air and the scent of old leather gushed (rushed?) towards me. Pain erupted in my cheek, knocking the words from my mouth, and throwing me sideward. As I slammed into the floorboards, my eyes sprang open, just in time to see catch Grandma lowering the bible back to the table.

The Editor’s Blog has a fantastic article about numbers in fiction. For citing scripture in dialogue, they recommend the following:

For dialogue, spell out the numbers as words. Do this whether a character is saying just the chapter or just the verse or is including both. “My dad always quoted Romans twelve to me.” “My grandmother’s favorite verse was Jeremiah twenty-nine eleven.” “I can’t remember if the verse he quoted was nine or nineteen.” (Could you make an exception for the Psalms? Probably so. “My niece learned how to say Psalm 23 in four languages.” If you consider psalm plus the number a title, I’d say that would work. I don’t know that other books and chapters, however, would get the same treatment.)

Outside of dialogue, use the typical convention for chapter and verse when you include both. Make this one of your exceptions to the rule about when to write out numbers. So—The text he’d quoted was Genesis 3:23.

Yet if you’re using only the verse, spell out the number (use a numeral for numbers greater than 100)—The text he quoted was verse twenty-three.

Also spell out the numbers if you’re not including the book and verses in the typical reference style—The text he was hunting for was in Luke—verses four through eleven of chapter six.

In a reference to the chapter only, you may want to adjust the wording—The text he quoted was from the third chapter of Genesis.

Could you write Genesis 3 or 1 Timothy 5? Probably. And I’d suggest using that format for the Psalms, writing Psalm 119 or Psalm 23. Yet such a format with other bible books might be difficult for readers, at least at first glance. You may want to play around with how you say it if you’re only including the book name and chapter number without a verse number. After all, many people would understand easily if you wrote—He loved the Twenty-third Psalm.)

Brave Writer, I really enjoyed this first page. Thank you for sharing your work with us.

I’d turn the page to find out what happens next. What about you, TKZers? Any suggestions/comments for this brave writer? Favorite line?

Keeping a Scene in Focus

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today we have another first page for the TKZ critique machine.

Last Man Standing

     Molly Hammond stared in horror as her fake fingernail strained against the pull tab on her Coke can. Her brain told her to let go, but her hand wouldn’t listen. With a tiny pop, the nail snapped off and made a low sideways arc, landing gracefully in her new boss’s paper plate the man had just placed in front of him on the metal picnic table. As the nail settled between a mound of potato salad and a large helping of barbequed beans, Molly’s fledgling professional life flashed before her light brown eyes. 

Oh god!

     She stared at the cheap fire engine red plastic glaring back at her and wished with all her heart she could slip quietly beneath the table and down into the bowels of the earth. She was about to reach out to retrieve the cause of her embarrassment when the man slipped his fork beneath the nail along with a small helping of salad. He held it out and motioned in Molly’s direction.

     “Well, Ms. Hammond.” He glanced at the fork and tilted his head toward Molly before looking back at the nail, the gesture an offer as well as a question. “I hope this isn’t one of our Your Time products.” 

     Molly felt her cheeks heat up, certain they’d morphed into the same shade as the nail. She shook her head. “I’m so sorry.” She thought she saw a hint of amusement in his blue eyes but she knew there was nothing funny about making a bad first impression with a no-nonsense businessman like Spencer Steele. He lowered the fork and slid the nail onto his napkin then folded the paper neatly into a small square and tossed it into a trash barrel behind him. Molly kept her eyes on her plate, her right hand in her lap and silently waited for the blazing July morning to finish her off.

JSB: I like this set up. A nervous new employee’s fingernail lands on her boss’s lunch. It’s unique, it’s action, and it is a sudden disturbance in this character’s world. On that last point, this page demonstrates that the opening disturbance does not have to be something “big” like a car chase or a gunfight. It’s enough that it is a matter of emotional importance to the character being revealed to us. A fingernail flying into a superior’s potato salad certainly qualifies.

But in order to take full advantage of this scene, there are a few matters that need to be clarified. We don’t want the reader pausing because the picture isn’t clear.

It’s worth a mention here that there’s a big difference between confusion and mystery. The latter is good. It has the reader thinking I want to keep turning pages to find out what the action is all about. The former is bad. It has the reader thinking I’m not quite sure what’s happening on the page in front of me.

In many cases the confusion is about the setting. That’s the problem here. Where exactly are we? What are the conditions? The picture is a bit out of focus.

When I read metal picnic table I immediately thought of a prison visiting area. That’s probably just my quirk, but in any case we need to know where this table is. We know it’s a meal featuring the employee and her boss. And the trash barrel indicates they are outside somewhere. But where? Are there other people around, or is it just the two of them? Who is “the man” who served the lunch?

The issue can be easily handled with a short paragraph after the first one (which, again, starts with a unique disturbance). Here’s an example:

The annual meet-and-greet picnic for new employees was supposed to be a casual affair. The courtyard of the Your Time Building was abuzz with happy anticipation and easy chatter. Now this!

Now the scene starts to come into focus. Think of it as a gentle turn of the camera lens. The reader can enjoy the rest of the scene now without a lingering question hanging in the background.

Another type of confusion arises when a reader asks something along the lines of Would she really? Here’s what I mean. Let’s go back to the beginning:

Molly Hammond stared in horror as her fake fingernail strained against the pull tab on her Coke can. Her brain told her to let go, but her hand wouldn’t listen.

Cute, but I don’t quite buy it. In this situation—wanting to impress her new boss—the moment her brain fired off that message I think she’d release the tab. Otherwise, I’m skeptical about her ability to be anyone’s employee.

I do like what the author is going for—a slo-mo effect as an embarrassing event unfolds.

We can achieve the same thing by shifting the focus a bit. For example:

With a tiny pop, Molly Hammond’s fake fingernail flew off the pull-tab of her Coke and made a low sideways arc through the air. She watched in horror as it landed gracefully on her new boss’s plate.

Editing Notes

Molly’s fledgling professional life flashed before her light brown eyes. 

This is only a minor POV violation, but I’m a believer that these little “speed bumps” take something away from a reader being fully immersed.

So what’s the problem? Molly would not think of her “light brown eyes.” She knows what color her eyes are! As you write, always be firmly inside your viewpoint character’s head, having thoughts she would really have, not thoughts that are signals to the reader.

“Well, Ms. Hammond.” He glanced at the fork and tilted his head toward Molly before looking back at the nail, the gesture an offer as well as a question. “I hope this isn’t one of our Your Time products.” 

Another fundamental to embrace is RUE: Resist the urge to explain. This is when the action and dialogue give us all we need to know without you offering up an explanatory line. That just dilutes the effect and gives us another, unnecessary speed bump. Here, you do not need the gesture an offer as well as a question. That’s already obvious from the head tilting and the dialogue.

Molly felt her cheeks heat up, certain they’d morphed into the same shade as the nail. She shook her head. “I’m so sorry.” She thought she saw a hint of amusement in his blue eyes but she knew there was nothing funny about making a bad first impression with a no-nonsense businessman like Spencer Steele.

I found this paragraph a bit clunky. The shaking of the head seems superfluous, and the dialogue is squeezed inside the paragraph. My suggested rewrite:

“I’m so sorry!” Molly felt her cheeks heat up, certain they’d morphed into the same shade as the nail….

[NOTE: Exclamation points should be rare, but I think in this moment one is called for!]

Finally, watch out for the physics of your scene. I like the last paragraph, but there’s some confusion there:

She thought she saw a hint of amusement in his blue eyes…He lowered the fork and slid the nail onto his napkin then folded the paper neatly into a small square and tossed it into a trash barrel behind him. Molly kept her eyes on her plate, her right hand in her lap and silently waited for the blazing July morning to finish her off.

Did you catch it? If Molly is keeping her eyes on her plate, how can she notice his blue eyes and disposal of the nail? It’s an easy fix. After the boss tosses the napkin Molly looked down at her plate, her right hand in her lap, waiting for the blazing July afternoon to finish her off.  

[Note: I cut the adverb silently as it’s obvious. And if this is lunch, it would more likely be in the afternoon.]

As you can see, writing friend, there are only small matters here to take care of. Your overall page is a good one. I’m no romance expert, but I can’t help feeling this is an excellent romance setup. Unless Molly decides to murder her boss to save her career…then we’ve got a crime thriller I’d also like to read!

Comments are open.

First Page Critique – Dinner with a Celebrity

 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Welcome to another Brave Author who submitted a first page for review. Please enjoy reading it then we’ll discuss.

 

Dinner with a Celebrity

My knees nearly buckled at the sound of the doorbell. Glancing through the window, I saw them waiting on the porch. Fortunately, they were five minutes late. I wished it could have been ten. Accepting that I couldn’t just leave them standing out there, I headed for the door. Even before the door was fully open, a guy hauling a camera brushed past me, mumbling to himself. Another hoisting a microphone boom like a javelin, followed right behind. Without another word they busied themselves setting up.

“Yes. Come right in,” I said, in a tone that may have sounded snarky but was mostly nerves. Without asking, the camera guy moved a chair nearer the window. Would it have killed him to ask? “Can I give you a hand?”

“Just need to get the soft light,” he said. Taking a few steps back he nudged my end table aside and spread out a tri-pod. “This gives the most flattering camera angle.” He was probably responding to my furrowed brow. “Carol will be here in a few minutes.”

“I see,” I had no idea what he meant.

“We have to get everything set up before she arrives. Heaven help us if we don’t capture the Grand Entrance.” He punctuated the statement with an exaggerated eye roll. Grand entrance? I was struck with dread that I might be spending a long evening with a diva.

The very last thing I needed in my life right now was a woman, no matter how innocent the circumstances. I rushed back to the kitchen to check on dinner. What had I been thinking?

The truth is, I hadn’t. Why had I done it? Here’s why? The most pathetic reason on earth—because my friends were doing it.

Honest, I’m old enough to know better. Cold beer may have also been a factor.

That was at least four months ago and I had completely forgotten about it—until yesterday. It all came rushing back to me.

Right there in the bar, we all applied to a reality TV show called “Dinner with a Celebrity”. The show’s premise is simple. A regular person, like me, prepares a dinner. A celebrity, like Carol, comes over to help eat it. There’s a little more to it than that, but not really. I went along only because there was zero chance any of us would be selected. Yesterday, they phoned to tell me I had won and to give me the name of my celebrity.

~~~

First of all, congratulations to the Brave Author for starting this scene with action, conflict, and tension.

GENERAL OVERVIEW: Brave Author doesn’t specify a genre but the light tone and the situation may indicate Romantic Comedy. TKZers, what do you think?

A camera crew barges through the front door of the protagonist’s home and hurriedly sets up equipment in preparation for a vain celebrity diva who’s about to arrive.

Right away, readers share the character’s discomfort. No one likes strangers to intrude in their home, even for a benign reason like a TV reality show. The description of a boom as a javelin is not only accurate but funny.

The backstory set up is handled quickly with a deft, humorous touch, showing the character’s personality and self-doubt:

Why had I done it? Here’s why.? The most pathetic reason on earth—because my friends were doing it. 

Honest, I’m old enough to know better. Cold beer may have also been a factor. 

Haven’t we all done dumb things because of peer pressure, aided and abetted by alcohol? That makes the character relatable and likable, if a bit goofy.

However, backstory can be further condensed and punched up. See the example shown later.

SPECIFIC SUGGESTIONS:

Name: When writing in first-person POV, the sooner a name is established, the more easily the reader can slide into the story world.

Since the person pushing through the door is mumbling, you might as well use that opportunity to have him say, “Sorry we’re late. You’re Mr./Ms. Doe, right?”

“Yes, but call me John/Jane.”

Gender: I’m unclear if the character is male or female. “The very last thing I needed in my life right now was a woman, no matter how innocent the circumstances.” That implies male but today it could go either way.

Like a name, immediate establishment of gender removes any nagging questions in the reader’s mind.

Maybe I’m being sexist but, to me, the overall tone sounded like a woman trying to write like a man. Would it have killed him to ask? and I rushed back to the kitchen… felt more like the attitude and action of a woman.

The first line could be stronger. “My knees nearly buckled” is not only a cliché but “nearly” weakens it even more.  Also, such an intense reaction to a ringing doorbell seems over the top.

Two lines struck me as better possibilities for the opening sentence:

The very last thing I needed in my life right now was a woman, no matter how innocent the circumstances.

 

Or

 

Honest, I’m old enough to know better. Cold beer may have also been a factor. 

 

Exaggeration establishes a humorous tone but it felt overdone. I already mentioned knees nearly buckling because of the doorbell. Another example: I was struck with dread that I might be spending a long evening with a divaDread is a potent emotion, too strong for the minor inconvenience the character is experiencing.

Secondary characters:

Good job of showing the camera guy as the long-suffering worker who must put up with  spoiled, entitled celebrities.

Excellent depiction of Carol’s personality. She hasn’t even appeared on the scene but the reader already knows she a vain PITA (pain in the a$$). If the genre is rom-com, you’ve set up a hate-at-first-sight introduction which immediately promises conflict between the principal characters. Well done. 

Tone: the overall feel of the writing is inconsistent. At times, it sounds tentative and uncertain yet other times overstated (e.g. dread).  If you’re establishing the character’s personality as an insecure, neurotic, Woody Allen-type, that may be appropriate.

However, if you want a stronger, more positive tone, I suggest you delete some modifiers and sharpen weak sentences.

Here’s a possible revision that assumes the protagonist is male. Also, a little rearrangement for punchier impact:

The very last thing I needed in my life right now was a woman, no matter how innocent the circumstances.

My knees nearly buckled at the sound of the doorbell. Glancing through the window, I saw them crew waiting on the porch. Fortunately, they were five minutes late. Ten would have been better. I wished it could have been ten. Accepting that I couldn’t just leave them standing out there, As much as I wanted to leave them standing there, I headed for the door. Even before it the door was fully open, a guy hauling a camera brushed past me, mumbling, to himself. “Sorry we’re late. You’re Mr. Doe, right?”

“Yes, but call me John.”

Another crew member, hoisting a microphone boom like a javelin, followed right behind the camera man. Without another word, they busied themselves setting up.

Yes. Come right in,” I said., in a  My tone that may have sounded snarky but was mostly nerves. Without asking, t The camera guy moved a chair nearer the window. Would it have killed him to ask permission? It was my house, not a sound set. “Can I give you a hand?”

“Just need to get the soft light,” he said. Taking a few steps back he nudged my end table aside and spread out a tri-pod. “This gives the most flattering camera angle.” He was probably responding to my furrowed brow. “Carol will be here in a few minutes.”

“I see.” I frowned, having no idea what he meant.

“We have to get everything set up before she arrives. Heaven help us if we don’t capture the Grand Entrance.” He punctuated the statement with an exaggerated eye roll. Grand entrance? I was struck with dread that Oh, great. I didn’t look forward to a long evening with a diva.

I hustled to the kitchen to check on dinner in the oven. The very last thing I needed in my life right now was a woman, no matter how innocent the circumstances. I rushed back to the kitchen to check on dinner. What had I been thinking?

The truth is, I hadn’t. Why had I done it? Here’s why? The most pathetic reason on earth—because my friends were doing it.

Honest, I’m old enough to know better. Cold beer may have also been a factor.

That was at least four months ago and I had completely forgotten about it—until yesterday. It all came rushing back to me. 

Four months ago, right there in the bar, we all applied to a reality TV show called “Dinner with a Celebrity”. The show’s premise is simple. A regular person [guy], like me, prepares a dinner. A celebrity, like Carol, comes over to help eat it. There’s a little more to it than that, but not really. I went along only because there was zero chance any of us would be selected.

I’d completely forgotten until yesterday when the producer phoned to tell me I had won. My celebrity was Carol XYZ, the hottest dancing sensation to light up TikTok this month. [or whatever Carol’s claim to fame is].

~~~

The writing is clear, competent, and easy to read. The premise is contemporary, intriguing, and funny. Tweaks are small and easily accomplished. This page contains the ingredients for a tasty dinner and shows plenty of promise as an entertaining rom-com. 

Brave Author, thanks for submitting.

~~~

TKZers: Would you turn the page? Do you have suggestions for the Brave Author?

~~~

Looking for a new series to read during long winter nights? Try Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. The first book, Instrument of the Devil, is FREE. 

Amazon             Other online booksellers

First Page Critique: City of Caves

My apologies to the brave writer who submitted this first page for critique. I meant to do it sooner, but I’ve had an insanely busy October.

The writer says the genre is paranormal/horror. My comments will follow.

 

City of Caves

The strange sounds emanating down the dank, dark tunnel, sent shivers down Albie Halstead’s spine. Cuffed to the wall of his cell by clanking, metal manacles he could feel his body wanting to shrivel and disappear as the mix of chanting and screams echoed towards him and he finally felt his bladder loose as warm pee rushed down his leg, soaking the rags of his trousers and socks, before dripping onto the stone floor to cause a stink, as he whimpered quietly. Hoping they’d forget he was there.

They’d just taken Esme. The screams had been hers and he’d squeezed his eyes shut, to somehow stop himself from imagining what they must be doing. To somehow stop hearing her cries of pain. To somehow pretend that he wasn’t there at all.

When the two men had dragged him in here to this dark place, she’d already been a prisoner and he’d taken in her pale face, torn dress and the chains attached to both of her wrists and ankles and neck and he’d tried to escape again. Struggling and wriggling, kicking and yelling, but the two brutes that had him, had been too strong and one of them had yelled at him. ‘Keep still, yer little bugger! Or you’ll regret it!’

He had not kept still. Continuing to fight, trying in vain to free a hand or a foot or something, so that he could fight back and escape.

It landed him a fisticuff to the face and then, his gut, knocking the wind from his lungs and putting stars in his eyes, as he flopped over and had his own body attached to the stone wall of the cell. He was vaguely aware of them slamming the heavy wooden door and locking it with a key that clanged an echo of its own down the tunnel. Then the laughing of the two men as they walked away.

It was some time before he looked up and could focus his gaze on the young girl on the opposite wall.

She looked to be about his age, if he had to guess.

‘How did they get you?’ She whispered, as if afraid to speak too loudly and attract attention to herself.

‘Coming home. From down the pit.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Albie. What’s yours?’

‘Esme.’

There seemed nothing else to say for a while.

I like the imagery in this first page, but we need to discuss a few important areas of craft. The first of which is continuity. In paragraph two, Esme had just been taken out of the cell. Then we’re told what happened to Albie in the past. We swing back to the current situation and Esme is sitting across from him. Only now, Albie has no idea who she is. See the problem?

Let’s take a closer look. My comments are in bold.

City of Caves (The title intrigues me.)

The strange sounds emanating down the dank, dark tunnel, sent shivers down Albie Halstead’s spine.

Not a bad first line, but I think you can make it even better. Rather than “shivers down the spine” (overused body cue), describe what he’s hearing. “Strange” is too generic for a first line.

Example:

Disembodied cries snaked through a catacomb of underground tunnels. Hooded guards dragged Albie Halstead through a dark, dank maze, his bare feet dragging behind him.  

Cuffed to the wall of his cell by clanking, metal manacles (I realize you’re trying to avoid repetition by using manacles rather than cuffs, but it doesn’t work. The imagery should be clear and concise.) he could feel his body wanting to shrivel and disappear as the mix of chanting and screams echoed towards him and he finally felt his bladder loosen as warm pee rushed down his leg, soaking the rags of his trousers and socks, before dripping onto the stone floor to cause a stink, as he whimpered quietly.

Do you realize the above sentence is 67 words long? It’s exhausting to read. Break up the text to make it easier to digest. Good writing has a mixture of short and long sentences. Short sentences pack a punch and are used for emphasis. Longer sentences add rhythm. Too much of either becomes redundant and weakens the writing. By varying sentences, we add interest, drama, and hold a reader’s attention. 

Example (continued from earlier example):

Helpless to fight back, his captors shackled him to the cell wall. Metal clanged against stone. When he straightened, a young girl sat across from him, streaks of tears bleeding black mascara over a crooked nose—bloody and swollen. Screams pierced the chanting outside the door. Albie squeezed his eyes closed. How did this happen? He attended church every Sunday, escorted the elderly across busy roadways, and volunteered at homeless shelters. He’d more than repaid his debt to society. Yet here he sat. Isolated. Shivering. Alone.

Except for her. [Segway into dialogue]

The details I added probably don’t match your storyline. Doesn’t matter. What I’m trying to demonstrate is how to include hints of who Albie is and why we should care if he’s being held prisoner. It’s not enough to show a harrowing situation. Readers must connect with the main character, or at least empathize with his situation.

They’d just taken Esme. The screams had been hers and he’d squeezed his eyes shut, to somehow stop himself from imagining what they must be doing. To somehow stop hearing her cries of pain. To somehow pretend that he wasn’t there at all. I like the rhythm here, but the action occurs prior to the scene. When we tell the reader what happened in the past, even if it’s only minutes earlier, we remove conflict and tension.

When the two men had dragged him in here to this dark place, she’d already been a prisoner and he’d taken in her pale face, torn dress, and the chains attached to both of her wrists and ankles and neck, and he’d tried to escape again. (46 words) Struggling and wriggling, kicking and yelling, but the two brutes that had him, had been too strong and one of them had yelled at him. ‘Keep still, yer little bugger! Or you’ll regret it!’

He had not kept still. Continuing to fight, trying in vain to free a hand or a foot or something, so that he could fight back and escape.

It landed him a fisticuff to the face and then, his gut, knocking the wind from his lungs and putting stars in his eyes, as he flopped over and had his own body attached to the stone wall of the cell. (41 words) He was vaguely aware of them slamming the heavy wooden door and locking it with a key that clanged an echo of its own down the tunnel. Then the laughing of the two men as they walked away.

The above three paragraphs have the same problem as the one preceding it. The action occurs prior to the scene, robbing the reader of experiencing the abduction and feeling Albie’s terror.

It was some time before he looked up and could focus his gaze on the young girl on the opposite wall. This implies Albie doesn’t know the young girl, but earlier you wrote “They’d just taken Esme.” If he knew her name then, why is this girl a stranger now?

She looked to be about his age, if he had to guess. If they’re about the same age, why would Albie refer to her as “the young girl”?

‘How did they get you?’ She whispered, as if afraid to speak too loudly and attract attention to herself. Good job here. And believable.

Side note: If you plan to publish traditionally or self-publish for an American market, use double quotes for dialogue, not single.

‘Coming home. From down the pit.’

Is the pit a well-known place? If he’s talking to a stranger, the pit might mean nothing to Esme. If it is well-known by the locals, include a line or two to ground the reader.

Example:  

Everyone in [town/city] worked at the pit at one point or another. Rumors circulated about the landfill being the most haunted place in [state], but Albie never believed the hype. Until now. [Include a hint of the paranormal element here]

‘What’s your name?’ (see below)

‘Albie. What’s yours?’

‘Esme.’

These three lines of dialogue come across as too on-the-nose. Granted, it’s an easy way to sneak in names, but it’s unrealistic in this situation. They’ve been kidnapped, beaten, held prisoner. More realistic questions might be: Why us? Will they kill us? Rape us? Sell us to the highest bidder? Who are these guys? What do they want?

Their top priority would be to figure out why they were taken and how to escape. The last thing on their minds should be getting to know one another. They’re shackled to the wall! Weird chanting, disembodied screams! At any moment they could die! Sheer terror should bleed through every word.

Brave Writer, I hope I wasn’t too hard on you. I worked on this for hours because I believe in you. If I didn’t think you had the writing chops to turn this into a compelling story, I wouldn’t have taken the time. Curse me, throw things, then roll up your sleeves and dig in. You’ve got this. 🙂 

TKZ family, what advice would you give this brave writer?

 

Don’t Gild Your Lilies

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s first page comes to us, it appears, from across the pond. The author identifies it as “Comedic Noir.” Let’s have a look at it, and discuss:

 

The Bookshop

I step over a shard of a broken concrete paver, its exposed edge a looming obstacle in the fine drizzle.

A raincoat-clad woman is leaning in against the shop front window. Rain water runs in rivulets off her black mac, the gloss and her shape, has me thinking of a wet seal. Her hands cup her eyes and she peers into its shadowed recesses. Red ankle socks cut into her stout doughy legs. It’s mere idle curiosity I’m sure. After all, the advert, secured by a rusty drawing pin to the general dealer notice board, was curling and crisp with age. Nobody’s been interested in these premises for a while. 

She startles at a squeal from the sole of my sneaker and jumps back guiltily.

‘Oh my goodness, where’d you pop up from? I didn’t hear you.’ Her voice is grumbly and hoarse, sort of Nina Simone.

‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to alarm you.’ I approach the door and fish the key out of my pocket.

‘Ah, you’re opening up. Great, I’d like a mosey inside. Any idea of the rental? I should’ve asked Daisy.’

‘I’m hoping to sign a lease on it.’ It comes out harsher than I’d intended, sort of snobby and possessive. I do know the monthly rental, but I don’t want to compete with anyone for occupancy. I unlock and push the door. It doesn’t budge. It’s wedged closed with months of accumulated dirt and rotten leaves. I scoop the slimy vegetation away with the toe of my shoe and push again.

‘Here, let me.’ She clutches the handle and puts her shoulder on the frame of the door giving a grunt and a heave. It swings open, taking her with it.

She stands inside, legs and arms akimbo, blocking my access. ‘Spiffy. Plenty of space. Ooh, I like the one raw brick wall, gives character. I can work with that.’

I could shove past her but she’s dripping water like a beached walrus. I clear my throat.

‘Oh sorry.’ She steps aside and makes her way to the right where there’s a wooden counter with pewter coloured cupboards. They contrast well with the red brick of wall.

A pungent mustiness of damp tickles my nose. I hear her opening and banging the doors but I’m drawn to the windows at the rear. They’re splattered with raindrops and the splotches of countless dead midges but when cleaned, they’ll give a great view of the village green. I can picture fellow bibliomaniacs curled in chunky armchairs, soaking up the view and the late afternoon sun.

She’s hollering to me. ‘Any idea about the wiring?’

Who is this woman? 

JSB: Let’s mention the POV off the bat. Obviously it’s First Person Present. We recently discussed this, so I’m not going to go over the same ground. As long as the writer has considered the pros and cons, I don’t have a problem with the choice. I’ll only mention that for fans of classic noir it might be a slight speed bump.

Overall, the scene is mildly interesting. But we don’t want mild in an opening page. We want to be grabbed and pulled in. I’d love to see more conflict here—more attitude, more intensity. The narrator is passive. Maybe that’s intended at the start, but at least give him some feeling—annoyance, aggravation, mad because his wife left him—anything. (Note: We don’t know what sex the narrator is, and that’s a problem. I’ll assume for discussion purposes that it’s a man. But do something on this page to clue us in.)

You, dear author, have an obvious felicity with words. But felicity can get you into trouble if you don’t watch it. I’m going to be tough on you because I know you can write. So hang in there!

In Shakespeare’s play King John, Salisbury says:

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily…
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

Somehow that’s come down to us as “gild the lily,” probably because it sounds better (I don’t think Bill S. would mind). It means to dress up what is already beautiful, to add a layer that is not only unnecessary, but actually dilutes the intended effect.

This piece has several such instances. The good new is that there’s an easy fix. It’s called the delete key, and the benefits are immediate.

I step over a shard of a broken concrete paver, its exposed edge a looming obstacle in the fine drizzle.

We already know a shard is something broken. We know that if he steps over it, it has to be exposed. We also know that drizzle, by definition, is fine. All those adjectives are gilding the lily. They weigh the sentence down. That’s fatal, especially for noir. Here’s the rework: I step over a shard of concrete paver, its edge a looming obstacle in the drizzle.

Much stronger, but there’s still more work to do. I’m not enamored of looming obstacle. For one thing, it isn’t looming. It’s right there under his foot. Nor is it much of an obstacle if a guy can just step over it.

Here’s a radical idea: ditch the whole thing. This opening line doesn’t add anything to the scene to come. In good noir style, let’s start with the woman!

A raincoat-clad woman is leaning in against the shop front window. Rain water runs in rivulets off her black mac, the gloss and her shape, has me thinking of a wet seal.

We know that shop windows are in front. Cut front.

We know that rain is water. Cut water.

The second sentence is compound, and the second comma is misplaced.

The word leaning is also puzzling. You tell us in the next sentence that she’s peering. But leaning could mean resting her head on the glass because she’s tired, etc.

You can clear up everything this way: A raincoat-clad woman is peering through the shop window. Rain runs in rivulets off her black mac. The gloss and her shape has me thinking of a wet seal. Red ankle socks cut into her doughy legs.

You’ll notice I cut the word stout because that’s the same as doughy. Don’t gild the lily—or the legs!

It’s mere idle curiosity I’m sure.

Cut mere, for that is what idle curiosity is by definition. You also need a comma after curiosity. Or you could write, I’m sure it’s idle curiosity.

After all, the advert, secured by a rusty drawing pin to the general dealer notice board, was curling and crisp with age. Nobody’s been interested in these premises for a while.

A couple of things jolt me here. After all sounds like an expression directed to the reader, rather than the flow of narrative. Also, you lapse into past tense with was curling. And the two sentences seem on the wrong side of each other. I’d suggest: Nobody’s been interested in these premises for a while. The advert, secured by a rusty drawing pin to the general dealer notice board, is curling and crisp with age.

She startles at a squeal from the sole of my sneaker and jumps back guiltily.

Do we really need guiltily? How does he know it’s guilt and not just surprise? Anyway, any adverb here dilutes the strong picture of her jumping back. Let the action itself do the work.

‘Oh my goodness, where’d you pop up from? I didn’t hear you.’

You can gild dialogue, too! After her first statement we don’t need her to say I didn’t hear you. Plus, she just jumped back at his approach. We saw that she didn’t hear him.

Her voice is grumbly and hoarse

Grumbly and hoarse are virtually synonymous. Choose one.

sort of Nina Simone.

Okay, we have to talk about this. Normally, I’m okay with a few pop culture references, so long as they are easy to identify and help set the tone.

But how many current readers, unless they are jazz aficionados, know Nina Simone?

And when I think of her music I picture Nina at a piano singing deep and soulful blues in a smoky café. That is directly opposite the impression I get from a doughy-legged woman crying, “Oh my goodness, where’d you pop up from?”

In short, this is an old and obscure reference, and works against the comic-noir tone you’re trying to create.

‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to alarm you.’ I approach the door and fish the key out of my pocket. 

Give the guy some attitude. Create tension. E.g., ‘You mind telling me what you want here?’

‘Ah, you’re opening up. Great, I’d like a mosey inside. Any idea of the rental? I should’ve asked Daisy.’

Ack! He’s going toward the door with a key. We don’t need her to tell him (or us) ‘Ah, you’re opening up.’

‘I’m hoping to sign a lease on it.’ It comes out harsher than I’d intended, sort of snobby and possessive.

Again, too passive. Let’s have some attitude, e.g., ‘I’m going to sign a lease, if that’s what you’re thinking.’ Then you wouldn’t need to gild it by telling us it’s snobby and possessive.

I unlock and push the door. It doesn’t budge. It’s wedged closed with months of accumulated dirt and rotten leaves.

I’m unsure of the physics here. Are “months” of dirt and leaves enough to wedge a door closed? And even so, if they’re on the outside and the narrator is pushing inward, where is the wedge?

‘Here, let me.’ She clutches the handle and puts her shoulder on the frame of the door giving a grunt and a heave. It swings open, taking her with it.

If she’s swept inside, her shoulder wouldn’t be pushing the frame, but the door itself.

‘Oh sorry.’ She steps aside and makes her way to the right where there’s a wooden counter with pewter coloured cupboards. They contrast well with the red brick of wall.

The word well, like the word very, should almost always be cut. Too bland. Also, that little of doesn’t do anything. Just write: They contrast with the red brick wall.

A pungent mustiness of damp tickles my nose.

Mustiness already implies damp, so the of damp is gilding the lily. The sentence is sharper without it.

Man! Seems like a lot of cutting, doesn’t it? But that’s what excellent writing often comes down to—trimming the fat for leaner and meaner prose (especially important in noir.)

Now let me end this on an upbeat note! I like the way the page ends:

I hear her opening and banging the doors but I’m drawn to the windows at the rear. They’re splattered with raindrops and the splotches of countless dead midges but when cleaned, they’ll give a great view of the village green. I can picture fellow bibliomaniacs curled in chunky armchairs, soaking up the view and the late afternoon sun.

She’s hollering to me. ‘Any idea about the wiring?’

Who is this woman? 

It’s a nice contrast between the narrator’s vision and the sudden hollering of the woman. Your description here of the splotches and midges and chunky armchairs is solid. You need a comma after midges, but I’d suggest making two sentences out of it: They’re splattered with raindrops and the splotches of countless dead midges. When cleaned, they’ll give a great view of the village green.

As I said up top, writer friend, you have a way with words and promise as a writer. I suggest you write your pages, then come back the next day and look for those gilding-the-lily spots. Pay special attention where you’ve used two adjectives in the same sentence. Almost always cutting one of them makes the writing stronger.

Thanks for your submission. Now let’s hear from the TKZers.

First Page Critique: Side Effects

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. Enjoy! I’ll catch ya on the flip side.

Title: Side Effects

Genre: Psychological Thriller

All he could hear was the thunder of rushing blood, only distantly aware of the sharp, bright pain in his palms as his fists tightened and fingernails sunk into flesh.  He pushed his hands deeper into his pockets and poured his focus into moving more quickly along the crowded sidewalk, but not so quickly as to attract attention.  It was a good thing to focus on, a much better thing than the closeness of the warm bodies surrounding him or the intoxicating coppery scent that still lingered in his mind, and as the scope of his concentration narrowed he felt the wild pounding of his heart begin to slow.

Things had gone even worse than he had imagined.  Much, much worse.  The entire point of taking this job had been to avoid contact with the target.  Just simple surveillance and data collection, no face-to-face interaction.  No unspoken promise of violence.  It hadn’t turned out that way at all, but even with the plan shot all to hell, he couldn’t honestly say that he hadn’t hoped for this.

And that was bad.

An alleyway not choked by storage crates or piles of trash appeared ahead on his right.  He darted into it, stopping behind a dumpster and immediately pulling a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket.  It was dry here, the layers of fire escapes overhead blocking out the steady drizzle of warm summer rain.  He lit up with surprisingly steady hands, the tip of the cigarette flaring as he inhaled deeply and pressed his back against the wall of the alley.  The brick was pleasantly cool and rough through the damp fabric of his shirt, and as his lungs burned he felt the first wave of nicotine-fueled calm wash over him.

After a moment he stepped forward and looked around the corner of the dumpster towards the street.  Everything seemed normal.  There were no sirens, no sprinting cops, no gawking onlookers wandering in the direction from which he’d come.  It was unlikely that anything could tie him back to what would be found in that apartment, and that possibility wasn’t what worried him about the situation anyway, but it was good knowing that there was one less problem to deal with right now.

Let’s look at all the things Brave Writer did well.

  • Compelling exposition
  • Action; the character is active, not passive
  • Raised story questions
  • Piqued interest
  • Great voice
  • Setting established. We may not know the exact city/town, but s/he’s planted a mental picture in the reader’s mind and we can visualize the setting.
  • Stayed in the character’s POV
  • The title even intrigues me. Side effects of what? Did an injury or drug turn this character into a killer?

The writing could use a little tightening, but nothing too dramatic. 

All he could hear was the thunder of rushing blood (anytime we use telling words like hear, we distance the point-of-view. Remember, if you and I wouldn’t think it, our characters can’t either. Quick example of how to reword: Blood rushed like thunder in his ears,) only distantly aware of the sharp, bright pain (Excellent description: sharp, bright pain) in his palms as his fists tightened and fingernails sunk into flesh. from his fingernails biting into flesh.

Technically, only distantly aware would be classified as telling, but I like the juxtaposition between only distantly aware and sharp, bright pain. Some might argue both things can’t be true. Hmm, I’m torn. What do you think, TKZers? Reword or leave it?

He pushed (use a stronger verb like shoved or jammed) his hands deeper into his pockets and poured his focus into quickening his pace moving more quickly along the crowded sidewalk, but not too fast or he might so quickly as to attract unwanted attention. It was a good thing to focus on, a much better thing Better to focus on his stride than the closeness of the warm bodies strangers (the warm bodies sounds awkward to me) surrounding him or the intoxicating coppery scent (Love intoxicating here! Let’s end well, too, by replacing scent with a stronger word. Tang? Aroma? Stench?) that still lingered in his mind,. and

As the scope of his concentration narrowed, he felt the wild pounding of his heart begin to slow. “Felt” is another telling word. Try something like: As he focused on his footsteps, the wild pounding of his heart slowed to a light pitter-patter, pitter-patter.

Things had gone even worse than he’d had imagined.  Much, much worse.  The entire point of taking this job had been  was to avoid contact with the target.  Just Simple surveillance and data collection,. No face-to-face interaction.  No unspoken promise of violence.  It hadn’t turned out that way at all, but even with the plan shot all to hell, part of him he couldn’t honestly say that he hadn’t hoped for this.

And that was bad. The inner tussle between good and evil intrigues me. 🙂 

He ducked into aAn alleyway—swept clean, no not choked by storage crates or piles of trashappeared ahead on his right.  He darted into it, stoppinged behind a dumpster, and immediately pullinged a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his (coat?) pocket.

Something to consider: Rather than use the generic word cigarettes, a brand name enhances characterization. Example: Lucky Strikes or unfiltered Camels implies he’s no kid, with rough hands from a lifetime of hard work, a bottle of Old Spice in his medicine cabinet, and a fifth of Jack Daniels behind the bar. A Parliament smoker is nothing like that guy. Mr. Parliament Extra Light would drink wine spritzers and babytalk his toy poodle named Muffin. See what I’m sayin’? Don’t skip over tiny details; it’s how we breathe life into characters. And it falls under fair use as long as we don’t harm the brand. For more on the legalities, read this article.

 It was dry here, the layers of fire escapes overhead blocking out the steady drizzle of warm summer rain (If it’s raining, we should know this sooner, perhaps when he’s focused on his footsteps).  He lit up with surprisingly steady hands, the tip of the cigarette flaring as he inhaled deeply and pressed his back against the wall of the alley. Love surprisingly steady hands! Those three words imply this is his first murder, and he’s almost giddy about it. Great job!

The cigarette flaring is a bit too cinematic, though. The last thing smokers notice is the end of their butt unless it goes out. If you want to narrow in on this moment, mention the inhale, exhale, maybe he blows smoke rings or a plume, and him leaning against the brick wall. That’s it. Don’t overthink it. Less is more.

The brick was pleasantly cool and rough through the damp fabric of his shirt, and as his lungs burned he felt the first wave of nicotine-fueled calm wash over him.

Dear Writer, please interview a smoker for research. A smoker’s lungs don’t burn. If they did, they’d panic, because burning lungs indicates a serious medical issue. Also, a smoker doesn’t experience a wave of nicotine-fueled calm. It’s too Hollywood. The simple act of him smoking indicates satisfaction. Delete the rest. It only hurts all the terrific work you’ve done thus far.

After a few moments, he chanced a peek at stepped forward and looked around the corner of the dumpster towards the street.  Everything seemed normal. There were Nno sirens, no sprinting cops, no gawking onlookers wandering in the direction from which he’d coame. Nothing It was unlikely that anything could tie him back to what would be found in that apartment (let him be certain so when the cops find something later, it throws him off-kilter. Inner conflict is a good thing. Also, simply stating that apartment is enough. We know he killed somebody. Kudos for not telling us who.), and that possibility wasn’t what worried him about the situation anyway, but it was good knowing that there was one less problem to deal with right now. I would end the sentence after apartment, but if you need to add the rest, reword to remove “knowing,” which is also a telling word.

One last note: Use one space after a period, not two.

All in all, I really enjoyed this first page. It sounds like my kind of read. Great job, Brave Writer!

I would turn the page. How ’bout you, TKZers? Please add your helpful suggestions/comments.

First Page Critique

By Elaine Viets

Today’s Brave Author gave us an intriguing story with a touch of the supernatural. Take a look, and then I’ll make my comments:

A Delima worth Millions

The man that just walked in the bakery to buy a lotto ticket is destined to win… but die the same day. If he plays. He stood in line. Waiting his turn. Like everyone else, he wished to wake up tomorrow as the mega lotto prize winner of 25 million. On an empty table to his left, a newspaper had a headline that caught his attention: LOTTO WINNER FOUND DEAD with the victim photograph and name-Pascual Montenegro. “That’s me,” he said. The hair on his body bristled as he walked slowly to the table and grabbed the paper. It was him. Short black hair, shaved, blue eyes. “What the hell is this?” he whispered.

A slight chill quivered his chest. The published date was two days from today. He scrutinized every word. According to the article, the police found him dead without a clear cause the same day he won. No further details revealed.

“Do you mind giving me back my paper,” said a voice. Pascual lowered the newspaper. There sat an old man he never seen before, dressed in a black suit with a fedora hat. “Do you mind?” the old man asked again. Pascual slammed it against the table. “Why is my picture here?” He looked at him.

The old man remained unrattled and sneered back with his dark eyes on a stone face. “Can’t you read? That is Sunday’s headline. You play, you win millions, you somehow die and its newsworthy,” he said. Pascual shook his head and pointed his finger at the old man’s face. “I don’t know who think you are. I do not appreciate this joke, scam or whatever bullshit lie you trying to pull with here” he said.

The old man sneered again. Then he leaned forward, the chair squeaked “buy the ticket and you will find out,” he hissed. Pascual shrugged his shoulders and grabbed and crumbled the paper. “Go to hell old man” he said and dropped it in front of him. He returned to the line. The old man smiled as he unwrinkled the paper with thump sounds like a judge gavel. Louder than the cracking sound of eggs being fried in the kitchen. “Go ahead, buy the ticket, you can’t stop what’s coming” he said. Pascual grabbed his cross necklace and kissed the image of Christ, a habit since childhood whenever he shivered in distress.

ELAINE’S CRITIQUE: I saw real possibility in this first page – and an author that needs help with some awkward phrasing and spelling. My changes are in bold. The problems start with the misspelled title:

Dilemma Worth Millions

The man that just walked in the bakery to buy a lotto ticket is destined to win… but die the same day.

ELAINE: That opening grabbed me, but Brave Author, please use it to tell us where we are. For example: The man that just walked in the San Antonio bakery to buy a lotto ticket is destined to win… but die the same day. If he plays.

BRAVE AUTHOR: He stood in line. Waiting his turn. Like everyone else, he wished to wake up tomorrow as the mega lotto prize winner of 25 million.

ELAINE: Twenty-five million what? Dollars? Pesos? Euros?

BRAVE AUTHOR: On an empty table to his left, a newspaper had a headline that caught his attention: LOTTO WINNER FOUND DEAD. He stared at the victim’s photograph and name – Pascual Montenegro. “That’s me,” he said. The hair on his body bristled as he walked slowly to the table and grabbed the paper.
There was no mistake. It was him. Same short black hair, shaved, blue eyes.

ELAINE: That “shaved” is puzzling. Do you mean “clean-shaven”?

BRAVE AUTHOR: “What the hell is this?” he whispered.

A slight chill quivered in his chest.

ELAINE: “A slight chill”? This is a man who just read that he was dead. He’ll need more reaction than that.

BRAVE AUTHOR: The published date was two days from today. He scrutinized every word. According to the article, the police found him dead without a clear cause the same day he won. No further details were revealed.

“Do you mind giving me back my paper?” said a voice. Pascual lowered the newspaper. There sat an old man he’d never seen before, dressed in a black suit and a fedora hat. He had dark eyes set in a stone face. (This phrase is moved up from below.)

ELAINE: You don’t need that “hat.” We know what a fedora is.

BRAVE AUTHOR: “Do you mind?” the old man asked again.
Pascual slammed the paper against the table. “Why is my picture here?” he demanded. He looked at him.

ELAINE: Cut the line in italics. It adds nothing.

BRAVE AUTHOR: The old man remained unrattled and sneered back: “Can’t you read? That is Sunday’s headline. You play, you win millions, you somehow die and it’s newsworthy.” he said.

ELAINE: Yikes! The dreaded “it’s” contraction was without an apostrophe. This mistake alone will send an editor screaming into the night. Also, you don’t need that “he said.”

BRAVE AUTHOR: Pascual shook his head and pointed his finger at the old man’s face. “I don’t know who you think you are. I do not appreciate this joke, scam or whatever bullshit lie you’re trying to pull with here,” he said.

ELAINE: We don’t need the word “lie”  or “with” and the punctuation is wrong for “he said.”

BRAVE AUTHOR: The old man sneered again. Then he leaned forward, and the chair squeaked. “Buy the ticket and you will find out,” he hissed.
Pascual shrugged his shoulders, and grabbed the paper and crumpled it. “Go to hell, old man,” he said and dropped it in front of him. He returned to the ticket line.

ELAINE: Again, there are some punctuation errors and the italicized “and” can be cut.

BRAVE AUTHOR: The old man smiled as he smoothed the wrinkled paper, the sound louder than the crack of a judge’s gavel.

ELAINE: “With thump sounds like a judge gavel” is an interesting image, but it doesn’t quite work. And it should read “with a thump that sounds like a judge’s gavel.” The same goes for “louder than the cracking sound of eggs being fried in the kitchen.” And do you mean “cracking” or “crackling”?

BRAVE AUTHOR: “Go ahead, buy the ticket, you can’t stop what’s coming,” the old man said.

Pascual grabbed his crucifix necklace and kissed the image of Christ, a habit since childhood whenever he was shivered in distress.

ELAINE: Cut “shivered.

ELAINE’S CONCLUSION: I was impressed with this first page. I want to know what happens to Pascual: does he win his fortune and cheat death? Will his faith help save him? And who is this mysterious old man – the Grim Reaper in a fedora? The devil? Or a nameless charlatan?
However, this first page presents a real writing dilemma: numerous misspellings and grammatical mistakes, starting with the title. No editors worth their red pencil will read this novel, and that’s a crying shame.
A writer has to know grammar and spelling. These are the tools of our trade. If we don’t, we’re like builders who can’t use a nail gun or a circular saw.
So what can our Brave Author do?
Take an adult education course in grammar and spelling.
Have someone who understands grammar and spelling read your manuscript.
Hire an editor to correct your grammar and spelling before you send out your manuscript.
I teach English as a second language, and judging by some of these errors, I suspect our Brave Author is not a native speaker. But I believe our Brave Author is a natural storyteller. Keep writing.

This Saturday, August 14, 10 AM to noon, I’m teaching “Dead Write: Forensics for Writers” a Zoom workshop at the Florida Authors Academy.
I passed the Medicolegal Death Investigators Course for forensic professionals at St. Louis University’s School of Medicine. I’ll discuss the proper methods and pitfalls of body identification, and other tips that will give your mysteries authenticity. Handouts are included. Contact Murder on the Beach Bookstore. Registration is required. It’s $25. Call 561-279-7790 or email murdermb@gate.net.

 

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.