First Page Critique – Samaritan Sins

Photo credit: wikimedia CC-BY-SA-3.0

By Debbie Burke 

@burke_writer

 

Let’s welcome another Brave Author who submitted a first page for review. Enjoy reading it then we’ll discuss.

~~~

 “Waller, they found a body on the Midwest Bike Trail about two hundred feet east of the Northwestern tracks,” stated Police Sergeant David Dodson, our special-operations supervisor. His voice was full of tension. Even when he smiled, his dark brown eyes never quite lost their keenness or their watchfulness.

I sat up straighter at my desk. “Isn’t that the Forest Preserve Police?” I asked into my cell.

“They’ve asked us to handle it because it looks like a homicide. I want you and Garcia on it. I’ll notify the coroner next.”

“A body? Yeah, we’re on it.” I looked at my partner, Detective Carlos Garcia, seated at his desk.  He’s not bad looking. The Fu Manchu mustache looked good with his brown skin. A raised glazed donut perched in his right hand and a paper cup of Dunkin coffee before him on his desk. His white shirt and blue suit hung lean and long off his well-tapered build. I looked down at my solidly built arm, thinking, how can he eat donuts and still look like that? I became aware I had to hook my belt on the last notch when I dressed that Monday morning. I told him, “They’ve got a body for us.”

Garcia’s hand stopped halfway to his mouth. He made the necessary adjustments that would transform his appearance from simply splendid to magnificent. Only after each hair had been lovingly combed into position and his silk tie straightened, the second button of his jacket buttoned, he rose his six-foot frame and said, “Let’s go.”

My career as a detective with the violent Crimes division of  the West Chicago Police Department exposed me to a lifetime of crime and tragedy. We strode out of the station house in a hurry to begin our job. I pride myself on being a no-nonsense individual. I’m thirty-five-year-old Detective Alicia Waller. My black shoes making long, mean strides.

Once in our unmarked Ford Explorer, I turned towards him and asked, “What do you know about the bike path?”

Garcia grew up in this town, probably walked that path hundreds of times as a teenager.

~~~

Okay, let’s dig in.

Photo credit: Public domain

The title Samaritan Sins intrigued me. Samaritan conjures the image of kindness and compassion. Sins brings to mind misdeeds, perhaps even evil. The ironic juxtaposition hints at the story’s conflict. Does a good person commit a terrible act? I want to learn more. Well done!

Unfortunately, this first page doesn’t live up to its promising title.

Brave Author, recently Terry Odell and Jim Bell wrote excellent posts on beginnings. I highly recommend you read them at links here and here.

Jim coined a new term—Wood—and quoted an old saying:

Your story begins when you strike the match, not when you lay out the wood.

The first page of Samaritan Sins is wood laying. It needs work before a match lights it on fire.

Brave Author is getting acquainted with the characters, their backgrounds, and the setting, before starting the story. Yes, preparation is important homework. But the information belongs in an outline, story notebook, character sketch, etc., not on the first page.  

Police procedurals—which this appears to be—generally start with a dead body, in this case on a bike path in West Chicago. However, neither the point-of-view character, Detective Alicia Waller, nor the reader sees the body firsthand.

Instead the story begins with a report by a supervisor, Sergeant Dodson. That distances the reader from the crime. A report by phone, rather than in person, adds even more distance.

Further, it’s confusing. Alicia describes Dodson’s watchful dark brown eyes as if he is standing in front of her. Yet, in the next paragraph, she is talking to him on her cell.

The farther away from the crime, the less a reader cares about it. A crime needs to provoke an emotional response from the reader. A third-hand phone report dilutes the impact.

Details like “two hundred feet east of the Northwestern tracks” also dilute it. Specific details are important to paint a vivid picture. But choose details the reader cares about, not bland measurements.

There is a lot of repetition.

“…they found a body…”

“A body? Yeah, we’re on it.”

“They’ve got a body for us.”

Alicia mostly tells about Carlos Garcia, rather than showing. The description is also repetitive.

He’s not bad looking.

The Fu Manchu mustache looked good with his brown skin.

…transform his appearance from simply splendid to magnificent.

She appears to have a crush on him. Fine, but is that important enough to include on the first page? Not unless it’s significant to the story.

I strongly recommend getting rid of the donut cliché. Look for fresher ways to show Carlos’s looks. But again, consider if these details are significant enough to use up valuable first page real estate. If not, cut them.

Only after each hair had been lovingly combed into position and his silk tie straightened, the second button of his jacket buttoned…

Would this vain-sounding guy fuss with his appearance without first washing donut glaze off his hands?

I mention this because his sticky hands took my mind far away from the dead body. When the reader can be distracted that easily, there’s a major problem.

My career as a detective with the violent Crimes division of  the West Chicago Police Department exposed me to a lifetime of crime and tragedy.

This statement is pure telling without offering insight into Alicia’s personality or how the career has affected her. Is she jaded? Wounded? Fed up? Does she still hold out hope she can help people? “A lifetime of crime and tragedy” is vague and meaningless without specifics.

I pride myself on being a no-nonsense individual. I’m thirty-five-year-old Detective Alicia Waller. My black shoes making long, mean strides.

Again, more telling rather than showing. How important is it for the reader to know this on the first page?

Photo credit: Public domain

A Jack Webb/Dragnet-style introduction could condense the background info and establish a distinctive voice while also moving the story ahead. Here’s one way it might be written:

I’m Detective Alicia Waller, West Chicago Police Department, fifteen years on the job, the last four in Special Operations. I’m thirty-five, wear sensible shoes, battle my weight, and have a secret crush on my partner, Carlos Garcia, a stylishly-dressed six-foot hunk with a Fu Manchu mustache. He’s vain but I forgive that flaw because he’s easy on the eyes.

Together we’ve worked violent crimes ranging from gang murders to a sexual assault on a ten-month-old baby that sent us both to the department shrink.

Today, we stood over a deceased teen-aged male lying face-up on the Midwest Bike Trail. Forest Preserve Police had called us because they suspected homicide.

The above is about 100 words, conveys relevant facts, introduces characters, and plops the reader into the crime scene.

Wordsmithing:

Overall, the writing is competent but verb usage needs work.

Stated is an awkward verb that draws attention to itself. Why not use said?

Perched is another odd verb. A parakeet might perch on his hand but not a donut.

…a paper cup of Dunkin coffee [sat] before him on his desk. Missing verb.

His white shirt and blue suit hung lean and long off his well-tapered build. Hung doesn’t work. Is the suit hanging lean and long? Or do you mean his build is lean and long?

…he rose his six-foot frame. A person generally doesn’t raise his frame unless the frame is for his barn.

My black shoes making long, mean strides. This sentence lacks a verb. It’s also inaccurate and awkward. The shoes aren’t striding; Alicia is. What are “mean strides”? Emphatic, loud, decisive?

In trying to be creative with verbs, BA instead inserts speed bumps and confusion.

~~~

Brave Author, I hope you don’t feel beat up by these comments. As writers, we’ve all been here. It’s part of the learning process as you hone your craft.

I suggest you save this first page in a “story notes” file. Refer to it as you develop the plot and characters. The information is useful background—it just doesn’t belong on page 1. 

For now, move ahead with your story. After drafting a few chapters, you’ll likely find a more compelling place to start. Once you complete the ms., circle back and rewrite the opening.

Just because it says “Page 1” doesn’t mean it has to be written first. Write it last. 

One way to interest readers is to make them curious. Ask questions they want answers to. Here are a few ideas:

What makes one or both members of this detective team unique?

Why should the reader care about a faceless victim in a city where murders occur frequently? (Hint: give the victim a distinctive characteristic. Is she missing an arm? Is he a local celebrity?)

Are there special circumstances or unusual clues that set this crime apart from run-of-the-mill calls?

Thank you for submitting, Brave Author. It takes courage to expose your work to strangers. Please take suggestions in the spirit they’re offered—to help make your story the best it can be.

~~~

TKZers, your turn to offer ideas to the Brave Author.

~~~

Flight to Forever was a finalist for the 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Award. Try a sample at these links:

Amazon

Major online booksellers

Or ask your favorite independent bookstore to order the paperback.

First-Page Critique: A Mind Trap

By Elaine Viets

Another Brave Author has given us what looks like a spy thriller. First, let’s read the first page. Then I’ll offer my comments, and you can add yours.

A Mind Trap
Everything in the dimly lit warehouse of the aerospace company appeared
to be as it should. And for Edward Malver, crouching in the deeper shadows of
some packing crates, everything was as it should be. His digital wristwatch showed it
was midnight and every employee except one security guard had gone home many
hours earlier.
Widely spaced overhead lighting cast pools of weak light in a murky realm of lighter
and darker shades of black. Metal shipping containers and wooden packing crates of
all sizes were stacked in rows like giant tombstones in a netherworld. Malver stood up
and hurried toward the exit downstairs.
He didn’t want to remain any longer than was absolutely necessary. The risk of
discovery increased with every passing minute, and the dark made him uneasy. Malver
shuddered. If he stayed in it too long, he knew the terrible memories would resurface to
savage him.
Malver was relieved to see how well his black pullover sweater and slacks blended in
with the surrounding darkness, camouflaging his tall slender frame and rendering him
almost a part of the darkness. He checked his blue nitrile examination gloves to be sure
they were not torn, then pulled a dark beanie further down over his gray-peppered black
hair. Walking with the silence of a shadow, he glanced around while listening for any
out-of-place sounds. All was as quiet as the grave.
Malver’s lock picks, both manual and electronic, rested in his nylon shoulder pouch next to the photographs he’d just taken of the secret Raptor missile. The Raptor was a surface-to-air missile with a “smart” computer guidance system making it virtually
impossible to fool or escape from. Really bad news for any fighter or bomber pilot it
was fired at. The Raptor had taken dozens of scientists seventeen years to develop
and perfect. Malver could have targeted the minds of some of the key scientists but it
was so much easier to just steal what he needed; truly a rare opportunity too good to
pass up, he thought.
He’d be selling the photos of the technical specifications and schematic diagrams
three days from tonight. The photos would earn him good money. But in this instance,
the money was secondary. Malver was pleased at how smoothly this operation was
going, on schedule and with no glitches.
Then he saw the security guard approach the catwalk

Elaine’s Comments:
Our Brave Author gets this novel off to a creepy start, but we need someone to root for – or against. Is Malver a good guy or a bad one? Is he an operative for the United States, or an enemy spy? Why does he need these plans and who will he give them to?
It’s important that we know.
For the sake of this critique, let’s say he’s a villain. Then this  thriller can have a dramatic race to keep the Raptor plans from falling into enemy hands.
Also, the opening needs to ratchet up the tension. In the first paragraph, I’ve made some small cuts to move the pace along. I also had Malvern checking his wrist watch, getting rid of the passive voice “his wrist watch showed it was . . .” I left the second paragraph untouched.
In Paragraphs 3 and 4, I’ve done more tightening, getting rid of unnecessary words such as “in,” “just” and “so” I changed “darkness” to “gloom” to avoid repeating the word. Nitrile “examination” gloves is unnecessary. Your readers know what nitrile gloves are. I cut “as the grave.” It’s cliched.
The phrase that puts manual and electronic lock picks in apposition has been recast, so the sentence moves smoothly. Also, I cleaned up some other phrases. The last paragraph is fine, except it needs a period at the end.

PARAGRAPH 1 Everything in the dimly lit warehouse of the aerospace company appeared to be as it should. AndfFor Russian agent Edward Malver, crouching in the deeper shadows of some the packing crates, everything was as it should. be. His wristwatch showed it was He checked his digital wristwatch. Midnight. ed it was midnight and Every employee except one security guard had gone home. The lazy Americans didn’t stay late. The new Cold War had started when President Vladimir Putin offered to support the Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine. The clueless West called his actions an invasion, but what did they know? History was on Mother Russia’s side. manyhours earlier.
PARAGRAPH 2 Widely spaced overhead lighting cast pools of weak light in the murky blackness. Metal shipping containers and wooden packing crates were stacked in rows like giant tombstones. Malver stood up and hurried toward the downstairs exit.
PARAGRAPH 3 Malver’s black pullover sweater and slacks blended in with the darkness, camouflaging his tall slender frame, and rendering him almost a part of the gloom. darkness. He checked his blue nitrile examination gloves to be sure they were not torn, then pulled a dark beanie further down over his gray-peppered black hair. Walking silent ly as a shadow, he glanced around, while listening for anything out of place sounds. All was as quiet. as the grave.
PARAGRAPH 4 Malver’s lock picks, both manual and electronic lock picks rested in his nylon shoulder pouch next to the photographs he’d just taken of the secret Raptor missile. Developed by the US, the Raptor was a surface-to-air missile with a “smart” computer guidance system making it virtually impossible to fool or escape. from. Really Bad news for any fighter or bomber pilot in its path. it was fired at. The Raptor had taken dozens of scientists seventeen years to develop and perfect. Malver could have targeted the minds of some of the key scientists’s minds, but it was so much easier to just steal what he needed. This ; truly a rare opportunity was too good to pass up, he thought.
PARAGRAPH 5 He’d be selling the photos of the technical specifications and schematic diagrams three days from tonight. The photos would earn him good money. But in this instance,
the money was secondary. Malver was pleased at how smoothly this operation was
going, on schedule and with no glitches.
PARAGRAPH 6 Then he saw the security guard approach the catwalk.

Here’s a clean version:
Everything in the dimly lit warehouse of the aerospace company appeared as it should. For Edward Malver, crouching in the deeper shadows of the packing crates, everything was as it should. He checked his digital wristwatch. Midnight. Every employee except one security guard had gone home. The lazy Americans didn’t stay late. The new Cold War had started when President Vladimir Putin offered to support the Russian-speaking separatists in Eastern Ukraine. The clueless West called Putin’s actions an invasion, but what did they know? History was on Mother Russia’s side.

Widely spaced overhead lighting cast pools of weak light in the murky blackness. Metal shipping containers and wooden packing crates were stacked in rows like giant tombstones. Malver stood up and hurried toward the downstairs exit.

Malver’s black pullover sweater and slacks blended with the darkness, camouflaging his tall slender frame, rendering him almost part of the gloom. He checked his blue nitrile gloves to be sure they were not torn, then pulled a dark beanie further down over his gray-peppered black hair. Walking silent as a shadow, he glanced around, listening for anything out of place. All was quiet.
Malver’s manual and electronic lock picks rested in his nylon shoulder pouch next to the photographs he’d taken of the secret Raptor missile. Developed by the United States, the Raptor was a surface-to-air missile with a “smart” computer guidance system making it virtually impossible to fool or escape. Bad news for any fighter or bomber pilot in its path. The Raptor had taken scientists seventeen years to develop and perfect. Malver could have targeted some of the key scientists’s minds, but it was much easier to steal what he needed. This rare opportunity was too good to pass up, he thought.
He’d be selling the photos of the technical specifications and schematic diagrams three days from tonight. The photos would earn him good money. But in this instance, the money was secondary. Malver was pleased at how smoothly this operation was going, on schedule and with no glitches.
Then he saw the security guard approach the catwalk.

TWO MORE NOTES: Some of your manuscript was in purple ink, and some in black. Please be consistent when you show it to an editor.
And finally, I like the name of your villain.
Keep writing, Brave Author.

LATE FOR HIS OWN FUNERAL is “a fascinating exploration of sex workers, high society, and the ways in which they feed off of one another.” Enter to win a copy here:  https://kingsriverlife.com/08/06/late-for-his-own-funeral-by-elaine-viets/

 

First Page Critique: My Girl is a Dog

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

Title: My Girl is a Dog

Genre: Mystery/Thriller 

CHAPTER ONE

A Sunday morning on a snow-covered mountain trail, as I walked and dwelled on past sins and future amends, Girl hunted.

An old navy peacoat and flannel-lined jeans kept me warm. Girl always has her malamute-shepherd thick coat of hair.

Between her forays into the pines in search of prey, we played her favorite winter game: dig into a snowbank to follow my scent and retrieve snowballs. Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills.

When I threw another snowball, she veered away, dug deep into a different snowbank, and returned with a ski glove clamped in her mouth.

“Smart dog. Someone lost their glove. Let’s go. We’re short on time; things to do at the store today.” I wedged the glove in a pine tree branch and headed toward a meadow where animal tracks crisscross the snow and Girl runs in circles.

But her guttural vocals, dog-talk I call it, told me to turn around.

“What’s wrong?”

I followed her to the hole she dug, expecting to find another glove. Girl once found a purse buried in the snow; instead of a glove or purse, I saw a bare hand and forearm: black hair and white skin. I wondered if Girl pulled the ski glove off the hand as I touched the wrist—thick and cold—no pulse. After clearing more snow, I uncovered a shoulder tattooed in cursive: SEXUEL TABOU.

I brushed snow off the face: a mustached man, a stranger. And I wondered if what the tattoo implied tied to his being dead, at least half-naked, and buried in the snow.

My breath clouded in the frigid air as I pulled out my cellphone—no signal. I needed to call 911 from the truck.

A stark, contrasting memory of the last pulse I checked—five years ago, an unconscious man prone on a Mexican dive bar floor after he cut me with a knife and I busted a beer bottle over his head and held the jagged edge to his throat—accompanied me down the snow-covered trail.

I checked that guy’s pulse out of self-interest to ensure I hadn’t killed him. Then I walked out of the bar into a dusty street under a hot-as-hell sun and onto a bus heading out of town, leaving a job as a deckhand on a sportfishing boat without notice or collecting pay. Better than getting locked up again.

***

Brave Writer, we have a little colon/semicolon problem that needs to be addressed. With a few rare exceptions, they’re not necessary in fiction. If you pretend they don’t exist, you won’t use them as a crutch. That’s not a dig, btw. There isn’t a writer alive who doesn’t have crutch words, phrases, or punctuation they fall back on. The trick is learning our crutches so we can kill our darlings during edits.

Let’s dive right in…

A Sunday morning on a snow-covered mountain trail (Is the day of the week important? If it is, fine. If it isn’t, delete), as I walked (use a stronger verb. Hiked?) and dwelled on past sins and future amends, [my dog] Girl hunted. Added “my dog” for clarity.

An old navy peacoat and flannel-lined jeans kept me warm. Girl [had a] always has her malamute-shepherd thick coat of hair.

Between her forays into the pines in search of prey, we played her favorite winter game: (change colon to em dash) dig into a snowbank to follow my scent and retrieve snowballs. Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills. <–  Here’s your opening line.

When I threw another snowball, she veered away, dug deep into a different snowbank, and returned with a ski glove clamped in her mouth.

Condense all of the above, like this…

My dog Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills.

On the snowy hiking trail of Mount Whatever, Girl slalomed around pine trees in search of prey. I threw a snowball for her to fetch, but she returned with a ski glove instead.

“Smart dog. Someone lost their glove. Let’s go. We’re short on time; things to do at the store today.”

With only a pet character to chat with, be careful your dialogue doesn’t become too on-the-nose. Less is more. Example: “Huh. That’s odd. Somebody must be looking for it.”

I wedged the glove between two in a pine tree branches and headed (be precise. Hiked, clomped, plodded, lumbered, strode…) toward a meadow where animal tracks crisscrossed the snow and Girl runs ran in circles (if she’s running in circles, she’s not digging a hole, yet you say she dug a hole three lines below. Easy fix. End the sentence after “snow”).

But her Girl’s guttural vocals, dog-talk I called it, told (alerted?) me to turn around.

“What’s wrong?”

Girl bounced on her front paws, then took off, glancing over her shoulder every few seconds to ensure I followed (to give her some personality).

I followed her to the hole she dug, expecting to find another glove. Girl once found a purse buried in the snow.; instead of a glove or purse, I saw (saw is a telling word. Start the paragraph here –>) A bare hand and forearm protruded from a snowbank.: (lose the colons and semi-colons) Black hair, pale and white skin. I wondered (wondered is also a telling word. Rewrite into a question.) Did Girl pull the ski glove off the hand? as I touched the wrist—thick and cold—no pulse. (<– Nice!) After clearing more snow, I uncovered a shoulder tattooed in cursive.:  Rather than that pesky colon, set the next line apart like this…

SEXUEL TABOU. (Do you mean Sexual? Also, don’t change fonts. Use italics instead.)

I brushed snow off the face: (you’re killing me with these colons!) a mustached man, a stranger. And I wondered (rewrite into a question to remove “wondered”) if what the tattoo implied tied to his being dead, at least half-naked, and buried in the snow.

Why would the MC assume the tattoo and his death are related? If it is a clue, don’t tell us yet. Let the reader wonder if there’s a connection and move on. Later, the MC can circle back to this clue. For more on how to use misdirection, read this post.

My breath clouded in the frigid air (<– great imagery) as I pulled out my cellphone—no signal. I needed to call 911 from the truck.

A stark, contrasting memory (reminder?) of the last pulse I checked. (Don’t use an em dash here. It muddies the sentence.) Five years ago, an unconscious man lay prone (you know prone means facedown, right?) on a Mexican dive bar floor after he cut me with a knife. (This paragraph and ones after it can all be summed up in two sentences. Otherwise, it’s a flashback, and it’s much too early for a flashback.) He’s the reason I left a good-paying job and fled to [insert where we are]. Better than getting locked up. Again (I separated Again into a staccato to give it a little added punch, but it’s also fine as one sentence).

Hope I wasn’t too hard on you, Brave Writer. My only goal is to help you succeed. Once you clean up the few issues I mentioned, you’ll have a compelling storyline. I’d flip the page to find out what happens next. Best of luck, Brave Writer!

Favorite line: My breath clouded in the frigid air…

TKZers, please add your suggestions/comments.

What do you think of the title? Would you turn the page?

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.