Could This Be a Cozy Thriller? First Page Critique: Dressed to Kill

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

For your reading pleasure, I have an anonymous submission entitled DRESSED TO KILL from a brave author. I’ll have my feedback below, but please feel free to provide yours in the comments. Let’s help this gutsy author with constructive criticism.

Dressed to Kill

We’d been driving for ten minutes when Mark broke the silence.

“Do you think he killed her?”

“This is my baby brother we’re talking about.”

“Megan, you do realize she was a first class slut?” I looked at my husband. What would he know about it? He’d barely said two words to Annabel since she’d married Ted. In fact, at Thanksgiving, every time Annabel walked into the room, he’d found an excuse to leave. Although I had to admit, his characterization of my sister-in-law was, not to be morbid, dead on.

“Good. Then there’ll be a long line-up of suspects the police can focus on,” I replied.

“Should we let your Dad know?”

No way. Wendell Jenkins was an opinionated, blustery man, just as likely to tell you to go to hell as to take your side. He raised me to think I could be anyone I wanted and I loved him to distraction. But right now, my brother needed understanding and compassion. Not traits in abundant supply in my father’s arsenal.

“I’ll handle this for now. We can always involve them later.”

“Do you think they’ll arrest him?”

“They’ll have to deal with that pesky little thing called motive.” It didn’t seem to matter how badly Annabel treated him, he always came back for more. I always assumed it was love.

“It’s usually the husband.”

“Not this time.”

In our family, Ted had been the kid who collected stray animals like charms on a bracelet—not only the obligatory cats and dogs but iguanas, rabbits, even a snake he kept in a jar by his bed. He read voraciously—books with animals that talked, and went on adventures, and tolerated their human owners with a droll sense of humor and a wink. And God save you if he caught you fiddling with the microscope he used to analyze the fur and feather samples he gathered in the woods behind our house. So none of us batted an eye when he enrolled in vet school. Fait accompli, as they say in France. Not that I’d ever been to France, but you get my point. My brother was the modern-day equivalent of Dr. Doolittle.

So no way did he tie his wife to the swing-set in their backyard, stuff her panties in her mouth, and slit her throat.

FEEDBACK

APPEALING VOICE – I really liked the voice of the character and the author’s ability to write clean, flowing narrative with dark (tongue in cheek) humor. The talent of the author is definitely present, but this opener is mostly dialogue with a sparse set up of the one line – ‘We’d been driving for ten minutes when Mark broke the silence.’

TENSION DRAINER – If this was MY brother, I’d be more frantic and not so calm. The distance of this dialogue, coupled with the calmness and the humor, drains the emotional stress from the intro.

ALTERNATIVE INTRO – I would’ve preferred this woman and her husband be screeching to a halt outside her brother’s home while the police are still there. The chaos of a crime scene, mixed with a doubting brother-in-law and a concerned sister and her distraught brother in handcuffs would make a more interesting start.

LESS TELL, MORE SHOW – The way it reads now, this is a way to have characters “tell” what is happening, rather than “show” it. The inner monologue of the sister (even as engaging as it is) covers for a back story dump of the brother’s past. If the intention is to have these characters provide witty, dark-humored banter, they would still need more action, such as a crime scene, to draw the reader in more.

TO BE, OR NOT TO BE…FUNNY – This line veers the intro toward dark humor – ‘Fait accompli, as they say in France. Not that I’d ever been to France, but you get my point. My brother was the modern-day equivalent of Dr. Doolittle.’ But this left me confused with whether this is a cozy mystery with grim humor, after I read the last line, revealing the murder.

MISPLACED GORE OR SHOCKER WITH INTENTION? – The ending of this brief submission shocked me with its gruesomeness, coming off a calm discussion. It’s not enough to make the reader turn the page and keep going if the tension is diffused by humor in the midst of graphic violence. I’m confused on what type of book this is. If the characters aren’t taking this seriously, than how can I as a reader, unless the author fully embraces humor with more, over-the-top situations.

COZY THRILLER? – I’ve read about a new genre called cozy thriller, but I haven’t read any books with this genre bender.

The set up in this opener should be better, in my opinion. Clearly, the author can write, but I would prefer a better place to start. Less telling, more showing.

BETTER START IDEAS:

1.) Have the brother be the opener. Does he wake up from an unexplained stupor to find his wife dead in a gruesome state?

2.) Does a neighbor accidentally stumble upon the sight of the dead wife in the backyard, glimpse the husband on the scene, and assume the worst to call 911?

3.) If this is supposed to be filled with dark humor, have the sister and other ladies show up for a game of cards or a murder mystery book club, only to find her brother covered in blood with no explanation. Some of the ladies could applaud the dead body and the performance of the brother if they thought this was a murder mystery put on for their benefit. The sister could be frantic, trying to stop the ladies from trampling the crime scene, while she struggles for the truth from her brother.

CONCLUSION – Bottom line, there is much to like about the writing of this author, but the set up needs work. I also want to have a better feel for what genre this is supposed to be.

DISCUSSION:

1.) What feedback would you give this author, TKZers?

2.) What genre do you think this is?

3.) Have you ever read a “cozy thriller”? What would make a cozy thriller in your opinion?

FIONA’S SALVATION $1.99 ebook

Can she survive the truth of what really happened to her?

5+

With Help from Jeffery Deaver, Let’s Rock This First Page Critique!

Posted by Sue Coletta

Greetings, TKZers! Another brave writer has submitted a first page for critique. Rather than nitpick, I’ve approached this one a little differently. My comments are below. Hope you’ll weigh in too.

1st Page Critique

 

“Coming Home”

“Did I tell you I knew your father?”

John put on his best fake smile and nodded. “Yeah, you mentioned it when I first came in. You played football together?”

Ralph continued, “Yeah. Hank was one hell of a lineman. In our senior year against Haynesworth, he knocked their quarterback six feet into the air and…”

John couldn’t help but tune out. He’d heard the stories of his dad’s glory days retold hundreds of times with varying degrees of exaggeration. It happens when you live in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. It’s even more common when your father died becoming a local hero. It was bad enough when he was a kid, but ever since John returned home after flunking out of college last month he ran into people every day who felt the need to explain their connection to his father. He knew the story of every guy his dad had ever met or arrested and every woman he dated in high school. He just didn’t expect it during a job interview.

“…the refs decided we would get the point, the crowd went crazy. That victory carried us through the rest of the school year, but I don’t think that quarterback ever walked right again.”

John struggled to picture the large man sitting across the desk playing football. He couldn’t imagine this guy lifting anything heavier than a bowl of gravy since his beet-red face was sweating from the exertion required just to have this conversation. The man had to have had help squeezing his butt between the arms of that old wooden office chair which creaked horribly every time he moved.

John pushed to get the conversation back on track. “Pops, ur…sorry, Poplawski said you were looking for someone to start immediately.”

“The sooner, the better. Jim just walked out on us. No notice or nothin’. He came back from his shift one day last week and took his uniform off right here in this office. Said ‘this job doesn’t pay enough for this kind of shit,’ threw his clothes on the floor and drove home in his skivvies. Can you believe that? Left me in a pinch. I had to go out on his calls for the rest of the week.”

* * *

Overall, I liked this piece. Loved the voice too. With a few tweaks, I think this could be a strong first page. Brave Writer has given us a peek into the main character’s background without resorting to a huge info. dump. Paragraph four dances on the edge, but not so much that it pulled me out of the story. We have a sense of who John is and some of the difficulties he’s had growing up in his deceased father’s shadow. Life in a small town isn’t easy, and that’s clear.

I’m a sucker for snarky characters, so I loved this line:

He couldn’t imagine this guy lifting anything heavier than a bowl of gravy since his beet-red face was sweating from the exertion required just to have this conversation. 

It may read better if you broke it into two sentences, but I’d rather concentrate on the bigger picture.

What this first page is missing is a solid goal, something the MC needs to achieve more than anything. Sure, he’s applying for a job, but it doesn’t seem like he cares if he gets it. Why, then, should the reader care? Our main character must be in a motivated situation with an intriguing goal or problem to overcome.

The writer may want to save this piece for later in the story, even if it’s used on page two or three, and instead draw us in with a more compelling goal. Or, show us why this job interview is so important to John. Without the job, will he lose his house? Not have food? Is he trying to escape this small town for some reason?

Also, I’m not a fan of opening with dialogue unless it’s used for a purpose. For example, to raise a story question or to intrigue the reader. Dialogue, especially when used as an opening line, needs to sparkle (I’ll show you what I mean in a second). Without context and grounding, we risk disorienting the reader.

Let’s look at an example of dialogue that works as a first line and adds conflict to the entire first page. Maybe it’ll help spark some ideas for you.

The following is from The Burial Hour by Jeffery Deaver. For clarity, my comments are in bold, the excerpt italicized.

“Mommy.”

“In a minute.” 

Bam! Right off, we feel the tension mounting. 

They trooped doggedly along the quiet street on the Upper East Side, the sun low this cool autumn morning. Red leaves, yellow leaves spiraled from sparse branches.

Mother and daughter, burdened with the baggage that children now carted to school.

In five sentences the author has grounded us in the scene. We’re right there with the characters, envisioning the scene in our mind’s eye. Without even reading the next line we can sense the urgency of the situation. Plus, we can already empathize with the characters.

Let’s read on …

Clare was texting furiously. Her housekeeper had—wouldn’t you know it?—gotten sick, no, possibly gotten sick, on the day of the dinner party! The party. And Alan had to work late. Possibly had to work late.

As if I could ever count on him anyway.

Ding.

The response from her friend:

Sorry, Carmellas busy tnight.

Jesus. A tearful emoji accompanied the missive. Why not type the god-damn “o” in tonight? Did it save you a precious millisecond? And remember apostrophes?

“But, Mommy.” A nine-year-old’s singsongy tone.

“A minute, Morgan. You heard me.” Clare’s voice was a benign monotone. Not the least angry, not the least peeved or piqued.

first page critique

Can you see why this 1st page works? The goal is clearly defined and the main character needs to achieve it. The snappy dialogue between mother and daughter creates conflict. The voice rocks, and the scene hooks the reader. We need to read on in order to find out what happens next. More importantly, we’re compelled to turn the page. Questions are raised, questions that need answers. And that’s exactly what a first page should do. Don’t let us decide whether or not we want to turn the page. Grab us in a stranglehold and force us.

Over to you, TKZers. What advice would you give to improve this brave writer’s first page?

8+

First Page Critique: STEEL

Welcome to the Tempering Zone, where we’ll examine and hone the first page of STEEL.

(You know I had to go there.)

Today I’ve asked our Brave Writer lots of questions. As writers, we want to keep our readers asking the right questions—questions that occur to them because they’re excited to imagine how a story might move forward. What we don’t want is for readers to furrow their brows because they don’t quite understand what’s going on.

I get a pleasing sense of the world the Brave Writer is building: antique and magical, with a strong protagonist who is emotionally complex. With a little examination and reworking, it can be an very good beginning to what I assume is a YA novel.

STEEL

Chapter 1
Helia crept along the wall, her senses on high alert. The stars shone into the open-air courtyard, the uncertain light drawn toward the low-burning fire pit in the center. She walked just on the edge of this light as she carefully drew the spell of invisibility. It wasn’t true invisibility, but this spell made the caster as unnoticeable as was humanly possible. Another person would only see her if they looked at her directly. The flickering flames and trembling starlight could conceal even that.

Even with the spell, Helia forced herself to walk as if she was being watched. Straight and stiff, with her head held high with confidence. She walked as thou a crowd were analyzing her every move. As if the royal family was there to evaluate her. As if she needed to prove to the gods that she was strong, stronger than they gave her credit for.

She almost made it. She almost left her house without losing her guise. But as she passed the opening to the living room, both her confidence and her spell crumbled.

Her eyes flickered for just a moment to the right. Just for a moment, because they were so used to looking there. Looking for her twin brother and seeking his approval. Because Urian was the only one she felt like she could trust completely. And so he was the only one who could stop her from doing what she needed to do.

I need to do this, she reminded herself.  It’s for everyone… No it’s for me. It’s all for me because if I stay here…

If she stayed here she would have to face many more months of pity and severe disappointment. Her mother bursting into tears, her aunts scowling and scolding, and the rest of the village skirting around her like she was a plague. She needed to be somewhere where people didn’t know her, a place where the past wouldn’t crush her.

This was the right thing to do. But still, she stood there for half a minute—wishing hard for her twin to come out and tell her to stay—but then she forced her feet forward and flew toward the entrance of their tiny house. Just before she went outside, she snatched her bow and quiver from the stand right next to the door, heedless of the clatter it made.

Laura’s Mini-Synopsis:

A girl tries to use an invisibility spell to sneak out of her house and run away because she’s affected adversely by some event in her past. But she loses her confidence and the spell falls apart, so she’s no longer invisible. She leaves anyway, knocking stuff around noisily as she grabs her bow and quiver from beside the door.

Thoughts

“Helia crept along the wall, her senses on high alert. The stars shone into the open-air courtyard, the uncertain light drawn toward the low-burning fire pit in the center. She walked just on the edge of this light as she carefully drew the spell of invisibility. It wasn’t true invisibility, but this spell made the caster as unnoticeable as was humanly possible. Another person would only see her if they looked at her directly. The flickering flames and trembling starlight could conceal even that.”

Immediately I envision a wall with a wide, flat surface at its top, and it sounds like Helia is  creeping along there in a cat-like manner. Further reading shows that she is in fact walking, keeping her back close to a wall. Please be more clear.

We have stars shining into the courtyard, their light “drawn toward the low-burning fire pit.” Is there a fire in the fire pit? Or is the fire pit itself on fire? Wouldn’t a fire actually compete with starlight to the starlight’s disadvantage? It’s a pretty-sounding sentence, but feels like window dressing.

Cloak of invisibility: Let’s leave the revelation that it isn’t true invisibility for a slightly later reveal. We are dragged down by this detail. It’s a cloak of invisibility! Let us enjoy it for a moment before dashing excitement about it. Later, we can discover its limitations. IRL we purchase things that immediately seem fabulous, and later find they aren’t all we think they are. (I’m looking at you, As Seen on TV Bacon Boss!) And I don’t really understand what “that” describes in the last sentence.

The first paragraph of a novel works well when it’s focused on character and action, with  a small bit of scene-setting. Not trappings. We know she is being careful and alert. But that’s all we learn about her. Too much detail about the cloak and the light slows down the action in what is a very tense situation.

“Even with the spell, Helia forced herself to walk as if she was being watched. Straight and stiff, with her head held high with confidence. She walked as thou a crowd were analyzing her every move. As if the royal family was there to evaluate her. As if she needed to prove to the gods that she was strong, stronger than they gave her credit for.”

This paragraph is at odds with the first. She’s supposed to be creeping, yet she’s also trying to walk with royal self-possession. It makes her sound very childish. If this is the intention, okay. But it is still confusing. Use “as if she were” rather than “as if she was.” Use “were” if the situation is conditional or contrary to reality. Same goes with “As if the royal family were there…”

There’s a lot of information here: we learn that she’s someone who might be viewed by a crowd, or a royal family, or the gods. Either that, or she has a very active fantasy life. Again, it slows the action, and feels like it’s only there to foreshadow or telegraph what’s in her universe. Don’t try to give it to us all at once.

“She almost made it. She almost left her house without losing her guise. But as she passed the opening to the living room, both her confidence and her spell crumbled.
Her eyes flickered for just a moment to the right. Just for a moment, because they were so used to looking there. Looking for her twin brother and seeking his approval. Because Urian was the only one she felt like she could trust completely. And so he was the only one who could stop her from doing what she needed to do.”

What is the cause and effect here? As it reads, everything falls apart, and then she looks into the living room, seeking out her brother. Or does she lose her confidence and guise because her eyes flickered to the right, hopeful that her brother is inside, waiting to stop her? (I assume she looks toward the living room.) As I read the second bit, I assume the latter is how you mean it.

Whichever way you mean it, try to make the sequence immediately clear to the reader. Don’t require the reader to step lively to follow the action. Linearity and cause and effect are things that even mature writers sometimes struggle with. I know I do. I’ve put characters on scene, then added a quick couple of lines about how they got there. Lots of writers get away with it all the time, but it’s not a good habit. Reveal with subtle details, not exposition.

Also, her breaking of the spell seems like it would be a bigger disappointment to her. We get no reaction.

I do very much like the way Urian fits into the story. In a few lines you’ve sketched out their relationship: they are very close, and he is the sensible one, and she’s the one prone to acting on impulse. Nice.

“I need to do this, she reminded herself. It’s for everyone… No it’s for me. It’s all for me because if I stay here…
If she stayed here she would have to face many more months of pity and severe disappointment. Her mother bursting into tears, her aunts scowling and scolding, and the rest of the village skirting around her like she was a plague. She needed to be somewhere where people didn’t know her, a place where the past wouldn’t crush her.
This was the right thing to do. But still, she stood there for half a minute—wishing hard for her twin to come out and tell her to stay—but then she forced her feet forward and flew toward the entrance of their tiny house. Just before she went outside, she snatched her bow and quiver from the stand right next to the door, heedless of the clatter it made”

The reader will assume she’s already had this discussion with herself. You only need a line or two about what a relief it will be to not see her mother’s disappointment, and have the villagers avoid her. Give us just enough to make us curious. The internal dialogue is awkward and you’ve already done a good job of showing her hesitation by talking about wanting Urian to talk her out of it.

Is the house tiny? Given that it has a courtyard, I imagine it to be bigger. And I wonder about the phrase “living room” too. It doesn’t feel like a contemporary story and the concept of a living room is modern.

I might end with something like this:
Fighting tears, but resolved, Helia flew for the doorway, pausing only long enough to snatch her bow and quiver from their stand. The loud clatter of the stand falling onto the tiles followed her as she disappeared into the night.

Title: The opening doesn’t seem to have any connection to steel at all. Is it perhaps a story about the invention of steel? Or is it that she needs to prove herself to be as strong as steel to the gods? I’m not sure.

In a way, this first chapter feels like a prologue to a story. We know that Helia’s young and feels compelled to leave a difficult, if ultimately safe situation. I would expect that Chapter 2 might see her well into the action—perhaps older, already having some adventures behind her. But if it is, indeed, the very beginning of her adventures, leave more of your juicy details for later revelations.

Thanks for sharing this with Kill Zone!

*photo credit: GoDaddy stock photo
2+

First Page Critique: Legend of the Wild Ones

Photo courtesy of GoDaddy

Greetings and salutations, TKZers! Today a brave, anonymous writer has sent us the opening to a deliciously dark, supernatural tale. My comments are below. Hope you’ll weigh in, too.

Legend of the Wild Ones

Red covered the holly flour. A shadow was standing in the middle of the room red covering its hands, a corpse at its feet, a knife in its hand. The shadow leaned over the corpse and with its free hand checked the pulse of the body. Dead. Pleased the shadow walked over to the rope that hung next to the bed and pulled. It then sauntered back to the corpse, sat down next to it and waited.

At the other side of Woodrest Manor Ryker flew through the halls with a speed most humans would marvel at. His long blonde hair swishing behind him. His destination: the room of the master of the forest. He opened the holly door and for a while just stood their gawking at the sight before him. He shook himself out of his trance. No matter how many times it had happened he would never get used to this sight.

The room was basked in moonlight. In the middle of the room there was a big puddle of blood. In the midst of it lay a corpse with a shadow sitting next to it. Slowly the shadow turned around to face Ryker. Though its face didn’t show any emotion it’s ember eyes showed enough. They twinkled with a sadistic kind of joy, that send a shiver down Rykers spine. Slowly he began to make his way over to the dead body. As if approaching a wild animal, not breaking eye contact with the shadow for a second. He crouched down to check for a pulse, there was none. Sighing Ryker relaxed and looked at the shadow with questioning eyes. “So Kaenia how did he get in this time?” Anyone knew that whoever even dared to think about breaking into Woodrest would be killed. And trying to get into Kaenias room was only for the suicidal.

Dear Brave Writer:

There’s a handy quote from an unlikely quarter—President William Howard Taft—that all writers should keep in mind: “Don’t write so that you can be understood, write so that you can’t be misunderstood.”

After reading this opening scene a couple of times, I think I understand what’s going on. But it would be much clearer on a single reading with clarification and correct punctuation. Readers—this one included—will sadly stop reading very quickly if they have to work too hard to understand what’s on the page.

My interpretation: Ryker, of the long blonde hair, is a kind of factotum for Kaenia, the shadowy master of the forest (and perhaps for others, as well), at Woodrest Manor. Someone—a “he”— broke into Kaenia’s room, and was subsequently killed (possibly by Kaenia, but we’re not certain). Kaenia rings for Ryker, who attends right away. Ryker is sickened, but Kaenia is pleased with itself (if it is a supernatural creature—here no gender is implied). Ryker bravely questions Kaenia, and the reader is left wanting to know if it will answer. (Cliffhangers are always good!)

First paragraph:

Let’s talk about the first line: “Red covered the holly flour.” I’m not trying to be silly, but I was immediately brought up short. At first I wondered if Red was a person who was covering up holly flour. As in flour made from holly. But further reading told me that definitely wasn’t the case. I’m guessing “flour” is meant to be “floor?” (Typos happen to us ALL, and breed like rabbits. We just move on.) But then I’m left to wonder at the image of a “holly floor.” A holly floor sounds really, really painful. If this detail is terribly important, give it more weight. It might be woven from the finest, oldest holly trees in the entire forest. Then we’ll know it’s botanical holly, and that the room is very special in a way we might be curious about.

We don’t want to the reader to be at an immediate disadvantage. As writers, we have very strong images in our heads, but we need to interpret those images clearly for readers so that they understand very quickly what we want them to see. We are their eyes, but also their guides.

About the corpse: If we’re talking about a victim, it seems okay to me to refer to it as a body, but best to be more specific, identifying it as a “person” or “man” or “woman” or “creature,” as appropriate. It’s not a corpse until we know for a fact the creature is dead. So the shadow can lean over the creature, check the creature’s pulse, and then when the shadow discovers the creature has no pulse, the creature can appropriately be called a corpse.

Second paragraph:

“At the other side of Woodrest Manor Ryker flew through the halls with a speed most humans would marvel at. His long blonde hair swishing behind him. His destination: the room of the master of the forest.”

Perhaps:

“At the sound of the bell from the Master’s room, Ryker flew through the halls of Woodcrest Manor with inhuman speed, his blonde hair streaming behind him.”

Rather than the floating third person narrative voice the piece now has, you might consider keeping a tight focus on Ryker, who is the most natural character to act as observer for the reader. Beginning the story with his responding to the bell, or even opening the holly door to see the shadow standing over the body, will invest the reader in the story right off the bat.

Third paragraph:

The third paragraph has great interaction between Ryker and the shadow. I love the detail of him approaching the shadow as one might a wild animal.

“The room was basked in moonlight.” “Bathed” would be a more natural choice than “basked.”

“So Kaenia how did he get in this time?” This is confusing. The use of “he” implies that whoever is dead on the floor has broken in and been killed before. While this could be possible in a supernatural story, it needs to be clear if this is the case. If the victim is simply one in a long line of intruders, it should be stated differently. Possibly: “We need to know how they’re getting in here, Kaenia. Did you see where this one came from?”

Finally, Brave Writer, be sure to check your punctuation, including comma and apostrophe usage. There are many, many books out there, and lots of online resources. This website has free online rules.

Thanks for sharing your opening chapter with us!

Dear TKZers, what are your ideas for this piece?

1+

Write From the Side of the Nose

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here is another in our series of first page critiques. This one presents an important craft issue which I’ll discuss on the flip side.

Crossing the Line

He stood with his back to the doors leading to the balcony overlooking Lake Waco. His eyes remained focused on the 9mm Glock in the hand of Deputy U. S. Marshal Seth Barkley.

“What do we do now?” asked the blond-haired man. “Is this the part where you handcuff me and cart me off to jail?”

“You’re not ever going to see the inside of a jail,” Barkley responded.

“So you’re my judge and jury?”

“I’m the closest you’re going to get.”

“You can’t shoot an unarmed man.”

“You’re unarmed?” Barkley smiled. “What’s that in your hand?”

The man glanced at the dagger he was holding. “You know the old line about bringing a knife to a gun fight. You would shoot me before I got within six feet of you.”

“That’s a better deal than the one you offered your victims, but you’re right. Let’s make this fair.” The marshal reached behind his back and pulled his backup pistol from the waist of his jeans. He stooped down, laid it on the floor, and then kicked it with his foot toward the man.

“Pick it up,” Barkley said.

“No, you’ll shoot as soon as my hand touches the weapon.”

“I’ll shoot you either way. At least this way you stand a chance of living.”

Sweat poured down the man’s face as he looked from Barkley to the gun laying on the floor in front of him.

“You can’t do this, damn it, you’re a United States Marshal.”

Barkley unclipped the badge from his belt and tossed it to the side. The clink of the metal on the tile floor reverberated throughout the room. He holstered his weapon.

“Feel better now?” he asked, his eyes never leaving the eyes of his opponent.

“I didn’t do anything to those women they didn’t deserve.”

“So, you’re telling me you’re innocent in all of this because the women you stalked, tortured, and murdered asked for it?” Barkley said. The man went silent and glared into Barkley’s eyes.

The time was upon him, and his darkest fear realized. Seth Barkley was stepping over that imaginary line that would make him like his old man. His life would never be the same after crossing over from good to evil.

Barkley pulled his weapon and slowly eased the trigger. “This is for Kaitlyn,” Barkley said. He was now a vigilante, no going back.

***

JSB: The main point I want to make is about this piece deals with “on the nose” dialogue. That’s an old Hollywood term which means dialogue that is direct and predictable. Predictability is what makes reading boring. So learning to write “from the side of the nose” will immediately increase interest and readability.

Another problem that often shows up in dialogue at the beginning of a novel is that it overstuffs exposition. The result is that the reader gets the impression it’s the author talking, feeding us information, and not the characters talking to each other. You need to ask these questions of all your dialogue:

  1. Would the character really say that, in that way? If not, rewrite it, and don’t be afraid to cut.
  2. Is the character telling the other character things they both already know? If so, you should err on the side of cutting it. (You’ll sometimes see this when characters use each others’ names: “Hello, Frank.” “Nice day, isn’t it, Audrey?”)

The dialogue in this piece is back and forth, direct response, on-the-nose, and states things for the benefit of the reader. Remember my axiom: act first, explain later. And since dialogue is a compression and extension of action, that axiom applies here.

Here is a quick rewrite of the first few lines of dialogue:

“What do we do now?” asked the blond-haired man.

“You’re not going to see the inside of a jail,” Barkley said.

The man glanced at the dagger he was holding.

What’s left unsaid, what’s “between the lines,” is in the reader’s head now, and creating interest.

Here’s another way:

“What do we do now?” asked the blond-haired man.

“You’re not going to see the inside of a jail,” Barkley said.

“Shooting an unarmed man?”

“Do you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?”

What?

Some of you will recognize that last line of dialogue from the classic cop movie The French Connection. Based on the real-life NY cop Eddie “Popeye” Egan, this totally off-the-nose line was used by Egan (and by Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle in the movie) to completely throw off a suspect being interrogated. The suspect would get so rattled by this oddball question from the “bad cop” that he’d give up something to the “good cop.”

It works here because we, the audience, are also going, “What? What’d he just say? Why? Why is he saying that?”

Which means you have their interest!

Now, of course I’m not saying our writer should use that exact line. I am merely pointing out that “side-of-the-nose” dialogue works wonders. By side-of-the-nose I mean something that is not a direct response, and indeed at first hearing sounds like it doesn’t make sense!

Write, try it. Make up your own oddball line of dialogue. Even be random about it, and justify the line later!

Writing from the side of the nose is also helpful for avoiding exposition-heavy dialogue, like this: “You can’t do this, damn it, you’re a United States Marshal.”

They both know he’s a U.S. Marshal. You told the readers this in the first paragraph. Cut that line of dialogue and see how the action moves forward, faster.

Here’s another line you can cut:

“So, you’re telling me you’re innocent in all of this because the women you stalked, tortured, and murdered asked for it?” Barkley said. The man went silent and glared into Barkley’s eyes.

But, you protest, that explains this entire scene! To which I respond, act first, explain later. We don’t need to know why a U.S. Marshall is executing this guy at this moment in time. Leave a mystery!

Which brings us to the last two paragraphs, which are heavy with telling us what Barkley is becoming. As wth all exposition, ask: do we need to know that now? Here’s a shock: Almost always the answer will be no.

What if the scene ended this way:

“I didn’t do anything to those women they didn’t deserve.”

Barkley pulled his weapon. “This is for Kaitlyn,” he said.

What? End it there? Why not? The reader will be compelled to turn the page. And when he or she does, make them wait to find out what just happened. You could shift to another POV, or you could show us Barkley doing something, and through his actions we start to see what he’s becoming …

Bottom line: Check your dialogue and narrative for on-the-nose writing. Cut it. Surprise us with dialogue and details that are odd, surprising, mysterious, unpredictable.

Three other notes:

The first couple of lines give the impression we are in the “he” POV. But the scene ends in Barkley’s POV. Be strongly in Barkley’s head from the outset.

Barkley responded is redundant. Use said.

Barkley pulled his weapon and slowly eased the trigger. (You mean squeezed the trigger).

Okay, TKZers, your turn. I’m traveling today and probably won’t be able to comment. So take it away and help our brave writer.

5+

Create Mystery, Not Confusion, in the Opening

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s first-page critique raises an important craft issue: how much should you withhold from the reader when trying to inject mystery into the opening scene?

Mystery, one could argue, is the sine qua non of page-turning fiction. Why? Because you want the reader on the hook, desperate to know what happens next. You can’t have that without an element of mystery. And mystery involves holding back information.

Yet this requires a deft touch, especially in the opening pages. You are introducing the readers to the characters and story world. You want them to know enough to get into the scene, you want to dangle a bit of mystery, but you don’t want to overload the exposition. At the same time, you need to make sure the readers are not scratching their heads as they read along.

We’ll chat about all this on the other side of today’s anonymous first page:

***

January 1974
Egypt-Libya border

The blades of the search-and-rescue helicopter cut through salty air one thousand feet above the Mediterranean. The steep escarpment came into Temple’s view, sparse vegetation between ridges. His headset sputtered over the roar of the engines.

“Senator,” said the pilot, “I think that’s Lilah.”

Fingers clenched around the doorframe, Temple leaned into the wind and surveyed the scene below. Vehicles bound for Alexandria were stalled on the hilly pass by Gaddafi’s border patrol. The soldiers had separated the men from the women, holding them at gunpoint away from the caravan. Temple strained to spot the girl. “Where?” he shouted into the mouthpiece, blinking away gritty sand.

“Not with the crowd, sir. Check the port side,” the pilot said. “Look for yellow clothes.”

There. A figure running between boulders, her robes fluttering behind. Lilah was a couple of hundred feet from the group under inspection, concealing herself behind the limestone formations. She looked up at the chopper before plastering herself to the side of a rock. After weeks of reconnaissance, they’d located one of the abducted teenagers, the daughter of the late ambassador.

“She’s hiding from the border patrol,” Temple muttered. “What about the boy? There were two kids.”

“Probably with the caravan. Let me—” The pilot stopped to curse. “We have a problem, Senator.”

One of the soldiers had detached himself from his team to follow Lilah. If she got caught, there was little a single search-and-rescue chopper could do to help. Temple grabbed the AK-47. He did not have the skill to hit the target from this distance, but he could buy her some time.

“Hold position and inform the ground team,” Temple hollered.

Temple’s fingers trembled when he took aim. His stint in the army between world wars had not involved active combat. The helicopter shuddered. With a gasp, Temple tumbled back into the seat. Sweat trickled down his neck.

When he checked the terrain again, Lilah was not where she had been, but her yellow robes made her easy to spot even behind the rocks at the far border of an open space. The soldier in pursuit sprinted across the clearing, toward Lilah. Temple swore and took aim, once more.

Before he could press the trigger, there was a sudden blast on the ground. The soldier’s body disintegrated, ripped into pieces and scattered across the territory. Temple’s mouth fell open, and sounds struggled to escape.

***

JSB: There is much to commend here, not the least of which, of course, is that it opens with action and disturbance. In keeping with the thriller genre, we’ve got a girl in immediate danger as a rescue chopper tries to save her.

The writing is crisp and sure. I like Plastering herself to the side of a rock. I also like how details are marbled in with the action, never slowing things down.

My notes, then, are fine tuning, but with one major issue to resolve.

Let’s do the fine tuning first.

Character Name

I’d give Temple’s first name up front. I thought Temple was the first name of a woman. The next line clears that up, but unless there’s a strong reason we only know this character as Temple throughout (and I can’t think of one), give us the full name.

Dialogue Attributions 

Always place an attribution after the first complete sentence or clause. Thus:

“Not with the crowd, sir. Check the port side,” the pilot said. “Look for yellow clothes.”

Should be:

“Not with the crowd, sir,” the pilot said. “Check the port side. Look for yellow clothes.”

1 + 1 = 1/2

This is a Sol Stein rule I have found quite helpful. Stein, a legendary fiction editor and a novelist himself, held that when you use two different words or terms to describe something, the overall effect is diluted rather than strengthened. The writer should choose the most evocative descriptor and ditch the other one. This sentence threw me:

The soldier’s body disintegrated, ripped into pieces and scattered across the territory.

Something that disintegrates does not rip. The two images work against each other.

I suggest sticking with disintegrated here, and render what that would look like. I see red … but that’s as far as I am going to go before breakfast.

Also, territory implies a huge expanse of land. An exploding body would cover an area.

Cursing

I appreciate the author using The pilot stopped to curse and Temple swore. We’ve had several discussions here at TKZ on this issue. See, for example, here. My view is that the scene loses nothing, and no potential readers will be turned off when they sample the book.

And now for my main issue …

I’m not a writer of military thrillers, so perhaps others can chime in (Brother Gilstrap?). But here we have a United States Senator, probably in his mid-60s, in a military chopper, firing an AK-47 (would this be the correct weapon in this context?) We’re told the senator doesn’t have great skill and that he was never in combat. So how on earth is he in this position, as opposed to trained military? Perhaps the author is withholding this information to extend a mystery. Maybe the next page gives us the whole story. Ha!

But let’s deal with what we’ve got.

My standard advice in the opening is to act first, explain later. But as with all axioms, it requires some expansion. There are times when we need a bit of exposition to clue us in, or a line of backstory to explain a situation (Note: In workshops I tell my students they can have three lines of backstory in their first ten pages, used all at once or together.)

It would not be hard to come up with an interior thought or a couple lines of dialogue to at least give us a hint of why this situation has occurred. We don’t need all of it … yet. But as is, I fear readers are likely to think the situation isn’t plausible.

Also, why aren’t the soldiers firing back at the low-flying chopper?

To sum up, this is fine thriller style and potentially a gripping opening scene. If the major issue I’ve mentioned can be cleared up—and if the weaponry and other military details are sound—we’re off to a great start.

I’m at a writers conference today and may not be able to comment as much as I’d like. So have at it, TKZers. Anything else you’d like to offer our anonymous author?

9+

Heat Up Point of View for Greater Reader Empathy

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s lesson comes via a first page submitted by an anonymous author. Here we go:

Mr. Who
And The Curious Case Of Fatal Flatulence

Chapter 1

Mr. Who had to face facts. Breaking the law was harder than it looked. Well, not so much the breaking part, he had no trouble doing that. But the getting arrested for it part, now that was proving to be a bugger.

This time, though, would be different, he thought. Robbing a bank, now that would definitely do the trick, right? Perfect for getting thrown into the hoosegow, the pokey, the big house. Hell, he’d settle for the little house if it meant getting his pinkies checked for their criminal history.

He’d have to do some time for it, of course, but convinced that his past was filled with who-knows-how-many bad deeds and broken laws, having done so much harm to so many innocent people, it would serve him right. Right?

Oh, yeah… Better start at the beginning so you got a chance to know what’s going on here.

The exact moment he lost all memory was one he’ll never forget.

Wait.

Make that the moment right after his amnesia took hold.

It was strange enough not knowing who he was, or even simple facts about his life—talk about feeling like an idiot—but what happened after that… Well, that was stranger still.

###

The first thing he saw when he came to was… nothing. He was surrounded by complete and utter darkness.

Oh, no. His mind raced—but not in a homed in straight line, like a top fuel dragster. More like a bunch of lame bumper cars bouncing off each other in a ridiculous effort to come up with… something… anything… instead of the big fat zilch that did come forth.

His mind may have been empty, but his gut was talking to him loud and clear. And it was telling him the pitch-darkness was not his friend. Far from it. Feeling like it had him by the throat, he struggled to breathe. He couldn’t tell how many invisible hands it had, but it must have been at least three—enough to clutch his throat while also tying his stomach in knots.

It was so dark something terrible could be right in front of his face, like a crazed killer could be right there, and he’d never… Was that a growl?

Maybe a rabid pit bull was about to pounce. He cringed and braced for it.

***

In my last first-page critique, on the perils of author voice, I mentioned that the overt authorial voice is more fitting for a comic novel. Well, what can you say about a novel subtitled The Curious Case of Fatal Flatulence? It’s not going for an Anna Karenina vibe, now is it?

With that in mind, how does the voice work here? Okay, I’d say. The author chooses to set up the story with a jaunty intro which presents an intriguing mystery: why does this guy want his “pinkies checked” for criminal history?

That being said, I would counsel the author not to give any more away, leaving the readers with a mystery. That’s always a good way to get them to read further. Cut the last three lines of the intro, because you already have a wonderful last line hook: The exact moment he lost all memory was one he’d never forget.

Boom. (I changed he’ll to he’d for grammatical consistency.)

That opening would make me want to read the second part. Which, when you think about it, is the goal of any page of our fiction––get the reader to read the next page.

In this second section we move into Third Person POV. The comic author voice is not completely absent, but the more we get into the Lead’s head the better. Here are some notes:

1. Cut the line He was surrounded by complete and utter darkness.

It’s redundant. And it’s less immediate than the first line. Sol Stein has a little rule he calls 1 + 1 = 1/2. If you use two descriptive lines in a row for the same thing, it doesn’t add to the vividness, it dilutes it. Always go for one gem, not two nuggets.

2. Cut Oh no.

It doesn’t add anything to the rest of the paragraph.

3. Cut that did come forth.

It’s a little odd to think of “zilch” as “coming forth.” Zilch = nothingness, which by definition does not exist. Those four words don’t add anything, so cut them. In fact, this seems to be a point of style this author should be aware of from now on. Be zealous about cutting flab. Learn about RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain). Your writing will improve markedly.

4. Cut the first few words of the third paragraph.

So you don’t have two in a row that begin with His mind.

5. Logic problem: Does this guy still have voice and movement?

Instead of merely bracing himself for a pit bull attack, why isn’t he screaming? What position is he in? Why doesn’t he try to get up?

If speech and movement are not there, give us an indication before you end the page. If he does have speech an movement, use them!

6. Increase reader empathy with a hotter POV at the end.

Empathy is crucially important in an opening like this, where the character is alone and doing nothing else but thinking. We need to ramp up our identification with the character. (If you want to see how a master does it, read Stephen King’s short story “Autopsy Room Four” in his collection Everything’s Eventual.)

You can heat up the menace by going deeper into the Lead’s head and giving him more emotion. This is the part where you, the author, have a lot of freedom, but I’ve gone ahead and provided my own example for you. Emphasis on my own. Filter everything through your own vision and voice. The goal is to increase empathy, get that opening disturbance even more disturbing, and stretch the tension.

Here is my rewrite (in a comic novel, I allow for more exclamation points than usual!):

The first thing he saw when he came to was… nothing.

His mind raced—but not in a in straight line, like a top-fuel dragster. More like a bunch of lame bumper cars bouncing off each other in a ridiculous effort to come up with… something… anything… instead of a big fat zilch.

His gut was talking, though. Loud and clear. Darkness is not your friend! Get out!

He was on his back. A cold, hard slab under him. He tried to move but his arms and legs were dead weight. Uh-oh. Was this one of those caves serial killers love so much? Silence of the Lambs!

He opened his mouth to scream.

Nothing came out. The darkness had invisible hands clutching his throat and tying his stomach in knots.

Come on, think! You’ve got to move …

What was that? A growl?

Pit bull!

Help!

Author, I salute you for attempting a comic novel. They’re very hard to do, and the market for them has always been limited. But every now and then, with the right touch and bravura voice, one breaks through, a la Catch-22, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Portnoy’s Complaint.

Maybe yours will, too.

Now it’s your turn, Zoners. What did you think of this first page?

7+

The Perils of Author Voice

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

space-shuttle-582557_1920Today’s lesson comes via a Kill Zone first-page critique. It concerns what I call “author voice.” Let’s have a look at the submission and then we’ll discuss.

A FREE EARTH

James Klass lived alone in space, and you can be sure that he didn’t mind it so much. In his opinion – and his was the only one that mattered for at least a parsec – that dark, empty space was freedom. No distractions, no noise. A guy could hear himself think out there in the black, and James had plenty of time to think.

The only real downside to it all, James often mused, was that he couldn’t really be the one floating freely in space. It was always the ship, or a far-too-bulky space suit enjoying the fresh vacuum. As for James, he was always stuck inside, surrounded by walls of metal and plastic. It was a common topic of discussion between he, himself, and his robot as to what it would be like to be out there, allowing your body to absorb the starlight directly and to feel the touch of cold space on your skin. Death notwithstanding. The robot, Zee, had actually done it a few times, but how could an artificial being truly appreciate that experience? They couldn’t, that’s how.

At the moment, James was as close as he could get, which sadly meant he had his face nearly flattened against one of the only real windows on the ship. He strained his eyes to see the Retriever in action as it slowly grappled the nearby derelict starship, preparing to pull it inside. Sure, he could have watched a large, closeup view of the action via the large holographic cloud display that filled the whole bridge, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t real enough. Ever since those kuzon C-Specs came out…

Before C-Specs, holograms were mostly a novelty. They were always translucent, poor reflections of reality, and they rarely mapped well to their environments. There were military applications of course, but the headsets were too bulky and ugly for general use. Then a company called Prakaashan came out with the C-Specs, and the universe changed overnight. C-Specs were thin and light and easy to wear, and even attractive, but more importantly they made holograms that not only mapped perfectly to the real environment, but looked absolutely real.

***

It’s clear from the start that we’re hearing from the author. The phrase you can be sure is direct author-to-reader. So is At the moment, James was as close as he could get, which sadly meant he had his face nearly flattened against one of the only real windows on the ship. 

So is the entire last paragraph.

Which makes this page Omniscient POV. Now, Omniscient has a range of “author intrusiveness.” The author’s voice can be muted, as in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon: 

Spade sank into his swivel-chair, made a quarter turn to face her, smiled politely. He smiled without separating his lips. All the v’s in his face grew longer.

 (Spade can’t see the v’s in his own face, so we know this is Omniscient.)

On the other side of the Omniscient spectrum, the author’s voice can take center stage. This was common in the Dickens era. An author would sometimes address the “Gentle reader,” or give us a small essay on “the best of times and the worst of times.”

Our first page here uses an author voice that is more on the side of calling attention to itself. I assume this is intentional.

So let’s spell out the dangers.

First, these days author intrusion is used almost exclusively in comic novels. Which means the writing has to be funny. Really funny. Which is about the hardest thing there is to do in life. Just ask any standup comic.

Let’s have a look at the opening lines from one of the comic masters, the late Douglas Adams. This is from Life, the Universe and Everything:

    The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was.
    It wasn’t just that the cave was cold, it wasn’t just that it was damp and smelly. It was that the cave was in the middle of Islington and there wasn’t a bus due for two million years.

We hear Adams in these lines and, indeed, all the way through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. 

Thus, if A Free Earth is intended to be humorous, the author needs to really go for it, from the jump. Just remember what the old actor said: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

If this is not a comic space opera, I don’t like hearing an intrusive author voice. It distances us from the main character. Much better would be to use Third Person POV. Write everything from within the head and heart of James.

A second danger for an intrusive author is the temptation to tell us what’s going on. That’s what’s happening here. This page is almost entirely exposition and description. The only action is James looking out the window at a spaceship retrieval. But that’s only one line, and then we’re back to exposition.

My suggestion: Start with James looking out at the retrieval, then extend the action. I was intrigued by this line: It was a common topic of discussion between he, himself, and his robot as to what it would be like to be out there, allowing your body to absorb the starlight directly and to feel the touch of cold space on your skin. But instead of telling us this, give us the scene! Thus:

James Klass flattened his face against the window of the ship. He strained his eyes to see the Retriever in action as it slowly grappled the nearby derelict starship, preparing to pull it inside.

“It looks cold,” Zee said.

James whirled around and glared at his robot. “What do you know about it??

“I have been outside,” Zee said.

“But you have no skin!”

“I am sensing tension in your voice, James. Perhaps you would like your evening dose of Darnitol now?”

Now we have action and conflict. All the explanatory stuff can be dribbled in as we go along.

Act first, explain later.

So, writing friends, if you are determined to use author voice, understand that it is the nitroglycerin of POVs––one false move and it could blow the whole story up.

Now it’s your turn. What other suggestions to you have for the author?

7+

First Page Critique: Attitude, Voice, Conflict

Our first page today comes from a novel called Things Unseen. My comments on the other side:

joshua-tree-national-park-74399_1280

At the southeastern edge of California, there’s a slice of land the color of desolation. The air is staler than a week-old bread crust and drier than a burnt piece of toast. It’s a place like a daydream, suspended between consciousness and slumber. Like dawn, or sunset—a place of transitions. For over fifty years, one man had called this place home. I was on my way to meet him.

“Oriana,” I addressed myself aloud, “you’ve run out of gas.” I sat back from the wheel of my dad’s ‘95 Toyota Camry and imagined my existence fading across the desert landscape. I could see the Camry’s sand-colored exterior melting into an unpaved expanse. “Twenty miles from her destination, young woman collapses in the heat of the Mojave summer.” That would make great fodder for one of my novels. I lifted my gallon water bottle from the passenger’s seat and took a long drink. You needed water in the desert, but extra gas would have been nice, too. I stepped outside and surveyed the low mountain range ahead. The last station was fifty miles back. I should have known to stock up on gasoline. My family used to come out here every summer, after all.

I jumped at the sound of my cell beeping from my pants pocket. Low battery, huh? Even if I could get service out here, who would I call? 911? That rundown gas station? The National Park Service? No one would ever pass by here, except for that man, maybe. No one would—

Something glinted ahead, like the flash of metal beneath the sun. A mirage? It was heading in my direction. It moved quickly across the flat land at the foot of the mountains, morphing from a distorted ripple to a human form—on a bicycle?

A boy, about eleven or twelve, pedaled up to the front of the car. A veil of t-shirts shaded his face and neck. He got down from his bike, walked over to the open window by the driver’s seat, reached in with his right hand, and switched on the ignition. I just stood there, watching. I’ve been saved. He turned off the ignition and towards me. “Out of gas?” he said, lifting his headgear.

***

  1. Opening with a description

There’s a meme going around that you shouldn’t open your novel with a physical description. I don’t see anything wrong with it, so long as you make it clear it’s coming from a character’s perspective and there is some sort of disturbance involved.

Here we have a woman who has run out of gas in the desert, only we don’t know that until the next paragraph. The first paragraph ends with For over fifty years, one man had called this place home. I was on my way to meet him. 

The problem I have with that is it isn’t disturbing. It doesn’t portend trouble or change or challenge. She could be going to see this man for tea.

If you were to keep the opening paragraph, and describe the desert and desolation, why not end the graph with: And I was out of gas.Then you’ve got an immediate sense of trouble.

But I would advise the author to reformulate the opening paragraph into action showing us the car running out of gas. Get that in early, give us the character, then bring in the setting.

  1. 1 + 1 = 1/2

This formula comes from Sol Stein, the noted writing teacher and editor. What it means is that two descriptions of the same thing don’t strengthen the effect, but dilute it.

In the first paragraph we have this: The air is staler than a week-old bread crust and drier than a burnt piece of toast. 

That’s two similar descriptions. But they make the reader hold both simultaneously, and that takes away from the power of either.

So a simple rule is: don’t describe the same thing in two different ways in the same sentence. Choose one, the best one. Personally, I’d go with burnt piece of toast because burning goes with the desert effect you’re trying to establish.

But the first paragraph also gives us other desert descriptions: color of desolation, daydream, dawn, sunset. This comes close to fiction writing blunder #21 (as explained in my book 27 Fiction Writing Blunders – And How Not To Make Them!)––being too in love with lyrical. Readers don’t often connect with a lyrical opening or passage, unless it is so dang good it cannot be resisted (like the opening of Ken Kesey’s saga, Sometimes a Great Notion).

So major in action and disturbance in the opening.

  1. Attitude adjustment

When using First Person POV, it’s crucial to establish a discernable attitude from the get-go. Readers love a character who has some ‘tude, who has blood coursing through her veins. They want to hear a distinct voice. Like Stephanie Plum’s in Janet Evanovich’s High Five:

When I was a little girl I used to dress Barbie up without underpants. On the outside, she’d look like the perfect lady. Tasteful plastic heels, tailored suit. But underneath, she was naked. I’m a bail enforcement agent now—also know as a fugitive apprehension agent, also knows as a bounty hunter. I bring ‘em back dead or alive. At least I try. And being a bail enforcement agent is a little like being bare-bottom Barbie. It’s about having a secret. And it’s about wearing a lot of bravado on the outside when you’re really operating without underpants.

My advice to the author would be to spend some time really getting to know your character’s voice. Delve deep into her background and wounds and strengths and fears and yearnings and drive. Give her a real attitude about running out of gas. Get her angry about it. Show us more emotion. Re-write this opening page until it is soaked with voice and attitude.

  1. White space

A purely practical matter: most readers these days don’t respond well to long blocks of text. Your first two paragraphs should be four or five. It’s not hard to do, and it makes things easier on the reader.

  1. The boy on the bike

Here is where you can inject more attitude. Why does Oriana just stand there while a boy walks over and reaches into her car? This is a perfect time for an argument.


“Get away from my car!”
“You wanna die, lady?”
“Now!”
“You gonna shoot me or something?”

 In other words, conflict. It’s basic, but so often writers leave it out in the opening pages. They set things up, describe landscapes and situations, and it’s only later that another character comes into the proceedings, and even then it might be a friend or ally and it’s Happy People in Happy Land (writing blunder #10).

I’m going to leave off here and let others weigh in, but I want to give this author a bit of good news. Your ability to write coherent sentences in a logical flow is sound. That’s not something easily developed or taught if it isn’t there in the first place.

So now it’s a matter of craft, which can be taught. I’ve given you my view of your first page, and now it’s time for others to do the same.

But I will say that a woman out of gas in the desert is a great opening disturbance. Work this page until is vibrates with attitude and emotion and conflict. Cut all flab. Do that, and I’ll want to go on to page 2.

5+

First Page Critique: Watch That Exposition

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell



Here is a first page that has been submitted to TKZ for critique. My comments on the other side:
Ride the Lightning
I always knew my law degree would come in handy. I’d been promoted from bartender to manager of the strip club outside of Biloxi in less than three months. It hadn’t hurt that the owner had walked in on my old boss auditioning a dancer on the couch in his office. The books were a mess, both sets. It turned out the staff wasn’t all he’d been tapping.
Amateur.
No one would ever find the skim I’d set up. My dad had taught his only daughter well. The owner didn’t have a problem with it because this time it all benefited him. As long as I kept the cash flowing, he gave me free rein to run The Lightning Lounge as I saw fit.
A definite management challenge cluttered my desk. I had to arrange the biggest bash in county history. The sheriff had commandeered the club for a party celebrating the execution of Billy Ray Draper. The former police officer, convicted of killing his wife, a Lightning Lounge dancer, was scheduled to get the stick in six weeks. The club owner told me to pull out all the stops and that the sky was the limit. 
I riffled through my spreadsheets and made notes. The new sound system was online and the upgraded flooring gleamed and reflected the motion sensor lights. One huge problem remained. No matter how I shuffled the schedule, I didn’t have enough waitresses and dancers to man the tables and the poles for the multi-day party. I’d placed ads and been interviewing, but the pickings were slim. 
A knock at my office door interrupted my musing. Hopefully, part of the solution had just arrived. 
“Come in.”  
She glided into the room on red stilettos. Her painted-on jeans and tank top hugged ample curves all the way up to a mass of blonde curls that Dolly Parton would kill for. She was no schoolgirl, the horizon of forty was clear in her face, but she owned it. 
I took the out-stretched hand dripping with rings and jangly bracelets. Her grip was strong and sure. This was a woman who could wrestle trays of beer mugs and make it look easy. 
***
The first 3/4 of this page is all backstory, exposition and set-up. It’s a common problem because writers think readers have to know certain information before the story can begin.
They don’t.
Remember: Act first, explain later. Readers connect with characters in motion. They don’t connect with exposition.
If you give readers an actual scene, with a disturbance thrown in, they will wait a long time before you need to explain anything to them.
Not only that, they don’t need all your explanations at once, or in narrative form. I think it was Elmore Leonard who said that all the information a reader needs can be given in dialogue, and he’s not far wrong. 
So always start with something happening in the present moment. Later, if you decide you want to be stylish or poetic in the first paragraphs, that’s up to you. Tremble when you do, though, and hear my voice in your head. Act first, explain later.
I wrote not long ago about these “tar pits” of fiction. Have another look at that post.
Here’s a self-test. Check your opening pages for use of the word had and its derivatives. That’s a dead giveaway that you’re not in the present moment.
I’d    
hadn’t    
had walked    
he’d been tapping   
My dad had taught
The Sheriff had
That’s past tense. You don’t want to open with the past. Oh, but doesn’t To Kill a Mockingbird open that way? If you can write like Harper Lee and you want to go literary, have at it. But I still recommend the action way, even for literary types who would like to win a National Book Award before they die.
Look at your opening pages until you come to the place where an actual scene is happening. Or try the Chapter 2 Switcheroo, where you toss out Chapter 1 and make Chapter 2 the new beginning. That often works wonders.
Anyway, I’d start this novel here:
She glided into the room on red stilettos. Her painted-on jeans and tank top hugged ample curves all the way up to a mass of blonde curls that Dolly Parton would kill for. She was no schoolgirl, the horizon of forty was clear in her face, but she owned it. 
I took the out-stretched hand dripping with rings and jangly bracelets. Her grip was strong and sure. This was a woman who could wrestle trays of beer mugs and make it look easy. 
***
That’s a voice I like. I want more of it. And a scene is underway. I would want to read on from here.

A couple of suggestions. Always check your pop culture references to make sure they’re not too dated. I hope I’m not insulting Dolly Parton, but is she that well-known anymore to people under 40? I’ve been editing my WIP and saw that I’d referenced a hit song from the 80s. Oops. I did a little research and found a hit song from 2005 that worked much better.
Even so, be selective with these things, because in a few years they may become terribly awkward. How about all those books published before 1995 that used favorable O. J. Simpson references?
Now to some micro-editing:
She was no schoolgirl, the horizon of forty was clear in her face, but she owned it. 
Here is where our good friends Show, don’t tell and Don’t gild the lily come in. That first clause is a tell. And it is not necessary, because the rest of the line does the work and does it well:
The horizon of forty was clear in her face, but she owned it. 
Isn’t that crisper? You want that standing alone, not fuzzed up with a tell before or after. I see this all the time. Things like: I ran up the hill. My lungs were on fire. Sweat flopped off my forehead. I was dog tired.
That last sentence adds nothing. Worse, it takes something away from the immediate experience by the reader. It’s a little “speed bump.” Too many of these and the ride is ruined.
Let’s look at this sentence now:
I took the out-stretched hand dripping with rings and jangly bracelets.
I like the use of sight and sound here. But a tiny speed bump as I was wondering how jangly bracelets were dripping from her hand. It’s not too bad because know what the author meant to convey. Still, I’d consider making it clearer. Something like:
Bracelets jangled as she stretched out a hand studded with rings.
Finally:
This was a woman who could wrestle trays of beer mugs and make it look easy. 
I don’t know how or why someone would wrestle a tray of beer mugs. I assume the author means some kind of carrying of heavy trays. But carrying is not wrestling.
In my own writing, the things I always find during revision are metaphors and word pictures that don’t quite make it. That’s when I hunker down and try to figure out a way to make them work or simply come up with something else.
I advise the writer to tweak this one, and also to brainstorm a few other word pictures. Then choose the one that works best.
All that being said, I am interested in this character who slid into the room in stilettos! And I’d love to see the next few lines be dialogue that begin to give us a picture of the narrator and where she works, and so on.
Thanks to the author for submitting this piece.
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