The Weapon of Surprise

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s first-page got me thinking about strategic decision making in fiction. That’s just a fancy way of saying that on occasion we need to step back, be objective, think about the overall plan, and be willing to give something up if it makes the whole thing better (which is where the admonition to “kill your darlings” comes from).

We writers are in a battle—for a reader’s attention. If the reader guesses where we’re heading, and we go there, said reader feels a twinge of disappointment. If that keeps on happening, the result is boredom and the battle is lost.

One of our primary weapons is surprise. When the unexpected happens on the page it delights readers. It pulls them more deeply into the story. It creates a mini-mystery. In my workshops I use the acronym SUES—Something Unexpected in Every Scene. It doesn’t have to be big (like a corpse dropping through the roof). It can be a small as a line of dialogue or a glimpse of something odd.

So let’s read this opening page and talk about it on the flip side:

Dark Elements

Sophia sipped her fish bowl-sized piña colada and wriggled her ring finger in the sun. The delicious princess-cut diamond fractured and rearranged the light, sitting on a platinum throne and presiding over her left hand like an ice queen. The sun was retiring to bed, and soon so would he. She lowered her sunnies and watched her fiancée hoist himself out of the pool, breathless after only two laps. He paused to recover under the shade of a palm. If she squinted her eyes long enough and let them go blurry, she could almost see what he would’ve looked like at her age. Almost. But that was a long time ago.

He towelled down his greying chest. I wonder if he knows, she thought, deep down surely he must know that I’m not marrying him for love. Maybe he thinks his sparkling personality has won me over, or his irresistible wit? Maybe he thinks I have a need for security, or some kind of daddy complex? Whatever it was, he wasn’t questioning it.

He came over to where Sophia lay on the sun bed, a polka dot bikini straining to cover her sensual curves.

“What did I do to deserve you, darling?” he said, kissing her forehead.

“You must’ve been a very good boy in a past life,” she said, smacking him on his wet speedo-ed bottom as he walked past. What was it with men and speedos? she thought, the older and more overweight the man, the smaller and more fluorescent the pair of speedos he tries to squeeze himself into.

Sophia herself had been a very bad girl in her past lives, and she was about to be bad all over again. She stretched her toned legs to check her tan and picked up a glossy magazine from the side table. As her lover boy went inside to shower, Sophia turned to a story about Kim Kardashian’s un-airbrushed butt, captured in its full glory on her recent holiday to the Bahamas. As she flicked through the uncompromising images, complete with dimples, cellulite and all, she smiled to herself. Not so perfect after all, are you? she thought, and for a fleeting moment she felt guilty for taking delight in another woman’s imperfections. But then again, celebrities aren’t really real people, are they?

Something stung Sophia’s ankle and she squished the first mozzie of the encroaching dusk. There’d be more where that came from, but she didn’t want to go inside just yet. She liked to milk every last minute of the dying sunlight out of these hot, lazy days. Daytime was her time, when she could do as she pleased while he was at work. Then in the evenings she felt like a B-grade actress, trying to play the role of the besotted fiancée with conviction.

At least it never got cold here, she thought. The nights were balmy and humming with cicadas as warm breezes tickled the tropical leaves. Kiralee Island felt wild, like anything could happen. Maybe she should wait a while longer, she thought, a few months at least, maybe even a year? What was the rush? The sex was surprisingly good, after all, and he was nice enough. She’d planned for next weekend, but it felt premature. You don’t pluck an under-ripe fruit from the tree just because you’ve become impatient, you wait for exactly the right moment. Yes, she could wait a while longer before she killed him.

***

JSB: Before I get to the editing, let me say up front that I like this voice. It’s got attitude, which is essential. It’s also funny and wry in its observations. All terrific qualities. But I suggest the strategy here ought to be reconsidered for one main reason: getting that last line to pop.

By the time we read before she killed him we already suspect this character. She’s a gold digger. She’s cold about it, too, mocking the guy’s personality and attempts at wit. Indeed, we are told outright she’s been a “very bad girl” in her past (lives).

So when we read the last line we’re not really shocked. It’s more like, “Oh, okay. She is taking this guy to the cleaners, and she’s also going to kill him. I could see that.”

What I suggest, then, is a rewrite of the page taking out all the on-the-nose references to her gold digging. And the snarky attitude toward the man. Keep the reader guessing about this relationship. Make the guy attractive. In fact, by using more dialogue, give us a reason to start liking the fellow.

And then, boom, drop the last line. Now you’ve got our attention. In fact, you’ve got us hooked.

The thing about voice, which everyone talks about but no one seems to be able to define (with, perhaps, one notable exception) is that when it’s good (as in this example) the author can easily overdo it. There’s a temptation to show it off at the wrong time (which is what I mean about strategy).

Thus, the observation about the Speedos (should be capitalized, as it’s a brand), while amusing, tells us we’re not exactly dealing with a warm personality. Again, that takes the surprise out of the last line.

The Kardashian bit seems forced and, by this time in our cultural zeitgeist, rather obvious. It feels like it’s in there only to be funny. Again, the temptation is to let voice show off at the expense of strategy. Voice should be in service to story, not the story itself. I say this because I really find this author’s voice has great potential. In fact, several times as I wrote this post I assumed the author was writing in First Person POV. When you can get a First feel into Third, you’re really on the right track with voice.

Now to some editing matters.

The sun was retiring to bed, and soon so would he.

Confusing, as the he seems to refer to the POV character, Sophia. I thought it was a typo. I’d just cut the entire line.

He towelled down his greying chest. I wonder if he knows, she thought …

Several times in this piece the author uses she thought when it is unnecessary. When we are firmly in the character’s POV, we don’t need it. The problem here is simply that we’re not firmly there. The fix is simply to get us into the character’s perspective with something like this:

She watched him towel down his graying chest. I wonder if he knows, deep down ….

Then you don’t need she thought. We know who is doing the thinking.

There are four other instances of she thought that can simply be cut.

He came over to where Sophia lay on the sun bed, a polka dot bikini straining to cover her sensual curves.

That’s a POV switch (“head hopping”) as the observance of the bikini is from his perspective, not hers.

Bottom line for me: The voice is promising, but I’d like it to be more seductive at first. Lull us into the scene so we’re really impacted by that last line. After that, there will be plenty of time for wry humor. Just don’t let that overtake your main task, which is to keep readers happily on edge from page one forward.

Okay, friends, take over from here. I’m traveling today so may not get a chance to comment. Help our brave writer out.    

5+

A Prologue Primer

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today we look at a first page from another anonymous author. Here we go:

Prologue

“Where is my Aunt,” Daniel Dubov hissed at the stranger. It was midnight and he was standing on the roof top of the Angebilt Hotel waiting to rendezvous with Esther Fiedler, the owner.

“She’s still in the nightclub, enjoying Wini Rose’s trombone solo,” said the shadowy figure. “Somehow Mrs. Fiedler didn’t get the note telling her to meet you here, but I have a message for you.”  Without warning, Daniel was grabbed and held tight while the Nazi slit his throat and dragged him behind some potted palms. The Nazi gloated that it had been so easy to finish this night’s mission and slipped through the darkness to the nightclub one story below.

 

Ludwig Lash, aka Flash, the leader and piano player of our swing band, handed me a bouquet of flowers to the cheers and claps from my colleagues and friends.
“Way to go, Wini,” my friend Mac shouted and gave a loud two fingered whistle.

I threw him a grin then looked around at the other four band members, and nodded my thanks to their encouraging smiles, well, all but one was smiling. Steve Beckett, the clarinetist, was scowling as usual. He definitely had a jealous streak and didn’t like all the attention I was getting. It wasn’t my fault that I finally graduated from college and Mrs. Fiedler, the owner of the hotel where our band played, decided to throw me a surprise party to celebrate. It was a surprise all right. Too bad I hate surprises. I smiled and waved to the audience and told Flash out of the side of my mouth, “Cover for me, please?  I needed some fresh air.”

After a five minute stop to powder my nose, I climbed a flight of stairs to the rooftop of the Angebilt Hotel. I shivered a little in the cool breeze. It was in sharp contrast to the smoked filled stuffy room of the Top o The Town Nightclub. I took a deep breath and could feel myself relaxing, enjoying the twinkling lights of Orlando, eleven stories below.

As I was leaving to go back to the nightclub and do some mingling, I saw what looked like a shoe behind a potted plant. Going in for a closer look I noticed the shoe was attached to a body and the body sure looked dead to me. Any ordinary girl might scream but I was cultivating a tough cookie persona and tough cookies don’t scream or at least not very often. There was a scrap of paper next to the body. I bent over to grab it and that is the last thing I remember before coming to.

***

JSB: When is a prologue not a prologue? And should prologues be used at all?

Some time in the last fifteen years or so, one of those critique-group memes mushroomed, ready to chew up young writers, like that plant in Little Shop of Horrors. This meme is Never use a prologue! Editors hate them.  

How did such a meme arise? Perhaps from the editors on conference panels who said, “Never use a prologue! I hate them.”

Just a guess.

Anyway, what are we to make of this? Prologues have a long and honorable history and are still being used by A-list novelists today. Okay, so you’re not A-list. Yet (and when you are, you can do whatever you dang well please).

What then, classically, is the role of a prologue? Here are three:

  1. To hook the reader from the get-go with a gripping scene.
  2. To lay out some mystery to be resolved later.
  3. Sometimes, to give us the POV of the villain engaged in an act of villainy.

All fine reasons. Here are some not so fine reasons:

  1. To give us backstory information only.
  2. To give us a scene that does not have an integral relationship with the plot.
  3. To tease.

This last one is what we have here. A prologue needs to be an actual scene—at least enough of a scene to get us bonded to a character. Even if that character dies.

If it’s not a scene, and we don’t click with a character—and especially if it’s as short as this—we have a teaser. But a teaser is not a function of storytelling. It’s a function of advertising. Like a movie trailer.

So … either cut this prologue or make it a full scene, from Daniel’s POV. As it stands now, we bounce out of Daniel’s POV and into the Nazi’s. And yet I’m not sure that there aren’t three POVs here. It’s not clear that the shadowy figure and the Nazi are the same. Physically, it appears they aren’t, because Daniel is grabbed and his throat is cut—an action that usually takes place from behind.

I’d say cut this, because a true prologue is separated in time from Chapter One. This teaser is merely some action happening just before the opening scene.

There is white space, and then the next scene. This is rendered in First Person POV, so I am assuming it’s Chapter One. If so, it should be so labeled. And this is where I would begin. If not, it’s still a distraction.

One more word about prologues. Being aware that the label Prologue might hit some editor or agent the wrong way, outfox them: Don’t label it Prologue!

Label it either Chapter One, or don’t label it at all. Begin with white space or a date stamp. Make sure it’s gripping and relevant and ends with a page-turning punch. Then you can label the next scene Chapter One and no one will be the wiser….heh heh.

As for the rest of the piece, there is nice potential. I like that she’s a female trombonist. That’s fresh. She goes up on the roof, discovers a body, and gets conked on the noggin. Nice disturbance to her ordinary world, I’d say!

I also like the voice. I threw him a grin … I noticed the shoe was attached to a body and the body sure looked dead to me. This has a nice, snappy, noir feel to it. And some attitude. That’s always a key for me to enjoy First Person POV.

I suggest a few tweaks:

smoked filled stuffy room should be smoke-filled room. (Stuffy is redundant)

but I was cultivating a tough cookie persona and tough cookies don’t scream or at least not very often. This is already a long sentence, and the last few words are superfluous. Don’t soften a good strike. The line is snappier this way: but I was cultivating a tough cookie persona and tough cookies don’t scream.

Similarly, clip the last line: I bent over to grab it and that is the last thing I remember. 

Now I really would want to read on!

In general, for this type of writing, keep long sentences to a minimum. I’d look over all of it and see about dividing some of them into two or three. You can even make paragraphs out of them. Here’s just one example:

I threw him a grin looked around at the other four band members. I nodded my thanks to their encouraging smiles.

Well, all but one was smiling.

All in all, though, this is promising. Well done, author. Keep at it.

TKZers, what have you to say?

5+

First Page Critique ‘Beware of Geeks Bearing Grifts’

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Bernie Madoff – DOJ photo 2009

The title of this anonymous submission gives us a clue on what this story might be about. At first pass, I had misgivings about mixing the tension of finding Granny’s body with the humor of this voice, but the title made me realize this is the voice of a grifter. I’ll have my thoughts on the flip side. Please share yours in the comments.

***

The pissy mood that sprang up when the supermarket was out of my favorite brand of salsa, evaporated at the sight of my grandmother sprawled at the foot of the stairs. I peeled the plastic bags off my right arm and dropped them on the needlepoint bench in the entryway.

“Nana?” My voice boomed in the silence of the house.

I don’t know why I said anything. It’s not like I expected an answer. I didn’t have to be a medic to interpret the sideways tilt of her head and the ninety-degree wrong way bend of her knee. There was also no need to call in the CSI team to figure out what happened. The old wood floors had soaked up most of the gin, but the outline of the shiny stain hinted that the broken glass had been full. The near-empty bottle near her head told me the glass had been refilled more than once. The cherry on top of this shit sundae was the bunched-up throw rug about halfway down the stairs.

I sat cross-legged, with my back against the elephant ear plant, sipping the dregs of her booze. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than a cigarette. I’d kicked in prison, it was easier than hustling, but if I had a pack right now, I’d be blazing up as fast as I could suck them down. I thought about calling the cops and even reached for my phone. Then, through the light liquor haze, I remembered the last time I’d voluntarily talked to the law. I’d stepped into the interrogation room and hadn’t seen daylight again for two years. I was an ex-con with a dead body on the floor and my name on all her financial accounts. I spun the bottle across the floor like a stone on a pond.

No cops.

Without a death certificate I couldn’t arrange a funeral, and even if I could, there was no money to give her the nice send-off she’d always wanted. Fixing the roof had drained most of the proceeds from the reverse mortgage. The words reverse mortgage sobered me up faster than a pot of hot coffee. The minute the bank heard that grandma had kicked they’d swoop in and take the house faster than I could say next-of-kin.

FEEDBACK

Overview: Feeling a little larcenous? After I imagined this guy coming across his dear Nana planted at the foot of the stairs (completely potted), and seeing him plop down for a drink to shrewdly think through his dilemma, I had to chuckle. Forget about a forensics team determining time of death and that his grocery receipt may give him an alibi, he’s an ex-con who would cause a good detective to put him at the top of his suspect list. What comes next for this grifter could be lots of fun.

INTRO – I would start with “Nana?” to focus on the inciting disturbance. With this being a grifter and the dark humor is apparent, I would take some of the first paragraph and add it as follows:

REWRITE example:

“Nana?” My voice boomed in the silence of the house. With my grandmother sprawled at the foot of the stairs, I forgave the supermarket for not having my favorite brand of salsa and set down my grocery bags.

POV – I’m assuming this is a man, but there is nothing that indicates this, other than reading between the lines. A way to remedy this is to have him chastise himself, using his own name, when he gets riled or finding another way to clarify gender before the reader gets too far into the narrative.

POINTS OF CLARIFICATION
1.) With the fall breaking her drinking glass, I can buy a shine left on the floor might indicate it was nearly full, but the author may want to describe the nearly empty gin bottle was unbroken. Did it have a cap on? Otherwise the shine on the floor may have come from the bottle tipping and spilling.
2.) The throw rug that caused her fall should probably be clearer that it was on the landing. I thought at first this was a stair runner or wondered why a throw rug had been on the steps.
3.) Why would she be carrying the bottle and the glass as she walked on the stairs? Was she going upstairs for bed and it was her usual habit to drink up there? She would have to be going up the stairs. I don’t know why she would be coming downstairs with the bottle and glass. Most people keep their booze downstairs.

WEIGHTY PARAGRAPHS
The paragraphs strike me as too many ideas lumped into each long train of thought. If the author broke up the elements, it would showcase the dark humor more.

REWRITE example:
I sat cross-legged, with my back against the elephant ear plant, sipping the dregs of her booze. I hated drinking alone. I raised a glass to Nana and craved a cigarette. Why the hell did I ever give up smoking? Oh, right, I remember. Selling smokes in prison had been easier than hustling.

I thought about calling the cops and even reached for my phone until deja vu cured me of stupidity. The last time I’d voluntarily talked to the law, I’d stepped into the interrogation room and hadn’t seen daylight again for two years.

I assessed my situation from a cop’s point of view. One dead body, check. One ex-con at the scene–that would be me–double check. Only one name on all the financial accounts of the dearly departed–yes, me again–trifecta check. DING! DING! DING! We have a winner.

FLOW – As I stated before, breaking apart a weighty paragraph might highlight the character’s thoughts better, show his dark humor, and highlight his train of thought flow better.

REWRITE (broken into 2 paragraphs):
Step one had to be no cops. Done, decision made. Step two, I needed a proper death certificate. Without legit paper, no funeral. Nana deserved a nice send off, but the funds from her reverse mortgage were nearly gone after fixing her roof.

Shit! The reverse mortgage sobered me faster than a good slap to the face. The minute the bank realized grandma had kicked it, they’d swoop in and take the house faster than I could say, ‘next of kin.’ Nana would’ve wanted me to have the house. That left me with only one choice.

SUMMARY:
I like where this is going, because it seems as if our ex-con has a scheme to grift grandma’s death into a fiasco. Reminds me of FARGO. I would encourage the author to get over the top with what this guy does. FARGO was based on real events. Keep piling on the absurd situation while you keep the protag deadly earnest with his situation. There’s load of potential for this plot and I love the dark humor of it.

DISCUSSION:
Where do you see this story going, TKZers? Constructive comments on the writing would be appreciated.

VIGILANTE JUSTICE (Available Now) $1.99 Ebook
In Montana, when a disturbing pattern of missing teens and college students falls under the FBI’s radar, former CIA operative Mercer Broderick fears the violent abductions are at the heart of a dark web of conspiracy that must be stopped and Brotherhood Protectors won’t be denied from the fight.

3+

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

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

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

ONE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOUSEKEEPING:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below are some things to keep in mind.

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

DISCUSSION:

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

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

3+

First Page Critique: A Change of Hate

old-monk-useCritiqued by Elaine Viets

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

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

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

 

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

4+

First Page Critique – The Truth About Morality

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

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

Tony Webster-Wikimedia Commons

Tony Webster-Wikimedia Commons

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

Nothing there, I told myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FEEDBACK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOR DISCUSSION

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

RedemptionForAvery_highres

Redemption for Avery – $1.99 ebook

When he sleeps, the hunt begins.

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

 

2+

First Page Critique: Fallen From Grace

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Wikipedia Public Domain

Wikipedia Public Domain

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Feedback:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4+

First Page Critique for Instrument of the Devil

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Smartphone image - free license from Wikipedia Commons

Smartphone image – free license from Wikipedia Commons

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

INSTRUMENT OF THE DEVIL – A suspense thriller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
She decided to name the thing Lucifer.

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

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

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

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

 

Feedback:

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

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

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

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

Example:

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, this is ridiculous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

3+

First Page Critique -The Lunar Lifestyle

THE LUNAR LIFESTYLE

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

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

“Any regrets?” I asked him.

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

“I guess you’re right.”

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

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

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

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

My Critique by Nancy J. Cohen

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

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

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

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

4+

Putting Backstory in its Place: First Page Critique

Shutterstock image via TKZ

Shutterstock image via TKZ

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

THE BANK BAR

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

My comments

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

Avoid getting bogged down in backstory and tell-itis 

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

Use specific language and details

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

Avoid weak words

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

Title note

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

Your thoughts?

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

 

 

 

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