First Page Critique – A Jealous God

Photo credit: Stefan Ringler, Unsplash

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Good morning, TKZers, and welcome to another Brave Author who submitted the first page of a domestic thriller entitled A Jealous God. Please enjoy then we’ll discuss.

~~~

Alice

1979

Preacher Gilroy slammed a fist against his Bible and declared God was not their friend. Thirty seconds into his sermon and sweat already dripped from his forehead. Black polyester stuck to his chest. Beside the pulpit, Alice’s father nodded in agreement from his throne, legs crossed and hands draped over the armrests and a rusty house fan buzzing at his feet. Poor Gilroy was about to melt into a puddle, but at least her father was comfortable.

“If I offer you an apple today,” Gilroy said. “Or promised you an orchard tomorrow, land and trees stretched out so far you can’t even count them all, just as certain as the sun rises in the East you’d choose the apple in my hand. Your hunger consumes you.”

Last week it was a penny over a dollar, the week before a lamb over the flock. God still wasn’t their friend.

Alice waited from her usual spot in the back pew near the side door where no one dared to join her. Her mother and four siblings squeezed into the front rows with the rest of the congregation, a line of sticky bodies shoved together like the candies in her Bozo the Clown Pez Dispenser she’d just bought for her seventeenth birthday. But that’s how it’s always been, even in the old church, before Tom and the accident. The closer everyone sat to her father and Gilroy, the further they were from eternal hellfire.

Gilroy held an apple up to the heavens. “You want—you need—something you can see, touch. You want to squeeze it in your hand, hear a crunch as you bite into the skin, feel the warmth in your empty belly.”

A man Alice had never seen before stood guarding the side door. After Tom went away, she noticed strangers, took inventory of their details to keep them real. Mid-twenties, short dark brown hair, clean-shaven, and a long thin scar above his right eye. A dry, starched white shirt buttoned to the collar and tucked into ironed dark blue trousers. Polished brown leather boots spared from the five inches of mud at the foot of the front steps.

“So you hold out your hand and take all that Satan has to give,” Gilroy said. “You’re proud, arrogant. Condemning your immortal soul into everlasting torment.”

Alice slid closer to the aisle. The stranger followed.

~~~

Okay, let’s dig in.

This is a strong example of how to start off a story with conflict and tension even though there’s minimal action. The scene is set, several characters are introduced with brief but effective descriptions, and questions are immediately raised in the reader’s mind.

What the heck is going on with a teenage girl in church who’s being shunned by family and perhaps menaced by a stranger?

What struck me most about this beginning was the author’s excellent use of sensory detail to set the scene. The reader feels the sticky, oppressive humidity and perspiration running down his or her torso. Not only is the temperature stifling, so is the mood. As the preacher instills fear of eternal damnation in his congregation, the reader feels something horrible will soon occur.

Let’s go through a few lines (in blue) in closer detail. My suggestions are in red.

Preacher Gilroy slammed a fist against his Bible and declared God was not their friend.

Punch up the first line by showing Gilroy’s exclamation rather than telling:

Preacher Gilroy slammed a fist against his Bible. “God is not your friend!”

 

Black polyester stuck to his chest.

That’s a great image—who hasn’t felt clinging, sweaty fabric that doesn’t breathe? But perhaps add a more specific detail:

The black polyester clergy shirt stuck to his chest.

The foreboding is already strong but Brave Author might add smell—the rank odor of nervous sweat.

When the focus shifts from Gilroy to Alice’s father, suggest you drop down and start a new paragraph:

Beside the pulpit, Alice’s father nodded in agreement from his throne, legs crossed and hands draped over the armrests and a rusty house fan buzzing at his feet. 

Maybe add a few words of explanation about the throne and why Alice’s father enjoys the elevated status.

Suggest you get inside Alice’s POV as soon as possible.

Alice watched her father nodding in agreement from his throne beside the pulpit. His legs were crossed and hands draped over the armrests, a rusty house fan buzzing at his feet.

 

Alice waited from her usual spot in the back pew near the side door where no one dared to join her.

“No one dared join her” nicely conveys not only her physical position in the church but also her social position in the congregation. She is separate from her family and shunned for reasons not yet known. The reader wants to find out why. Well done.

Nice job of slipping in Alice’s age, 17, as well as time reference with the Bozo the Clown Pez dispenser. Bozo adds irreverent humor—another hint at Alice’s attitude toward these pious folks.

…a line of sticky bodies shoved together like the candies in her Bozo the Clown Pez Dispenser she’d just bought for her seventeenth birthday. But that’s how it’s always been, even in the old church, before Tom and the accident. The closer everyone sat to her father and Gilroy, the further they were from eternal hellfire.

 

Suggest you move the line highlighted in red to its own paragraph. It’s clearly an important hint to the story conflict and shouldn’t be buried in the middle of a paragraph. The reader wonders who Tom is, what was his relationship with Alice, what accident, and did the accident happen in the “old” church.

…a line of sticky bodies shoved together like the candies in her Bozo the Clown Pez Dispenser she’d just bought for her seventeenth birthday. The closer everyone sat to her father and Gilroy, the further they were from eternal hellfire.

But that’s how it’s always been, even in the old church, before Tom and the accident.

 

The next paragraph offers more vivid sensory details.

Gilroy held an apple up to the heavens. “You want—you need—something you can see, touch. You want to squeeze it in your hand, hear a crunch as you bite into the skin, feel the warmth in your empty belly.”

While the pastor talks, the reader sees the image, feels the apple, hears and tastes the crunch. The verb choices squeeze and bite reinforce the underlying message of punishment. Good job.

 

A man Alice had never seen before stood guarding the side door. After Tom went away, she noticed strangers, took inventory of their details to keep them real. Mid-twenties, short dark brown hair, clean-shaven, and a long thin scar above his right eye. A dry, starched white shirt buttoned to the collar and tucked into ironed dark blue trousers. Polished brown leather boots spared from the five inches of mud at the foot of the front steps.

A stranger on guard foreshadows more conflict for Alice. Nice tight description of the man, especially the scar which makes him more threatening. His dry, starched shirt suggested he’s cool and removed, compared to everyone else who’s sweating.

But the last sentence of that paragraph was confusing.

Polished brown leather boots spared from the five inches of mud at the foot of the front steps.

The reader’s attention is jerked from the man’s description to five inches of mud at the foot of the front steps. Is the mud inside or outside the church? If there’s mud at the entrance, why are his boots still clean?

Suggested rewrite in Alice’s deep POV:

How had his brown leather boots stayed so polished and shiny after slogging through five inches of mud at the entrance steps?

 

This line was confusing: Alice slid closer to the aisle. The stranger followed.

The stranger is standing guard at the side door. Alice is sitting in the last pew. When she slides across the pew, apparently intending to escape, how does the stranger follow? Does he sit in the pew with her and slide closer? Rewrite so the reader can visualize exactly the position of each character and how they are moving in relation to each other, the pew, and the side door.

Big picture: This unfortunate teenager apparently committed an unknown sin and is shunned by her family and the congregation. The reader wants to find out what she did. Her wry comments on the fire and brimstone sermon, the minister, and her pompous father show her rebellious spirit and make her likable.

What transgression was so serious that a stranger follows Alice and tries to keep her from escaping?

The title A Jealous God is compelling and effective. It conjures up fearful wrath and vengeance, fitting themes for the domestic thriller genre. Deuteronomy 4:24 reads: “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”

I did a short search and found only two novels with that title, one by John Braine published in 1964, and one by Simon Mawer published in 1996. Surprisingly, the title hasn’t been used that often, making it a good choice.

The exact locale isn’t specified but I’m intrigued enough to wait a few pages to find out where the story happens.

The heading “Alice 1979” sets the time period. It also might indicate this scene is a flashback.

The tweaks are minor. Clarify a few points mentioned above. Rearrange several sentences to increase the dramatic impact.

The Brave Author starts with action, introduces a sympathetic character in trouble, sets the scene, shows conflict, and raises questions. A lot of tension and suspense thrum in this first page.

The writing is vivid and full of sensory detail that puts the reader into the stifling, oppressive atmosphere beside Alice. I want to escape as much as she does. I also want to find why she’s in this situation and if she can get out of it. Compelling start!

~~~

TKZers: What do you think of this first page? Would you keep reading? Any suggestions for the Brave Author?

 

0

First Page Critique – They Call it Street Justice

 

San Quentin
Photo credit: wikimedia

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Today, let’s welcome another Brave Author who submitted a first page for feedback and suggestions. The genre is Private Eye Mystery. Please enjoy reading then we’ll discuss.

They Call it Street Justice

I parked at the curb in front of San Quentin even though it was a No Parking zone.  I leaned against the front fender of my Ford and lit up a Camel.   Several people came and went.  Most looked like lawyers.  Big briefcases, fedoras, and shiny shoes.  Each time someone came out, I compared them to the photograph Walton Finesse Smith, Lawyer had given me of  Harold Darby.  Good old Harold  probably look different now.

No matches so far.

I smiled at the guard stationed outside the front door.  I could tell he was pissed because I told him that Governor Gordon Knight had given me special permission to park at the curb.  I’d given him the Governor’s business card with ’Special Permission” handwritten on the back.  He still didn’t believe me, but couldn’t figure how to prove I was fibbing to him.

Ten minutes and two Camels later, a gray-haired geezer who could have been my man stepped out into the sunshine.  He sighed.  I crushed out my cigarette out the bottom of my loafer.

“Are you Harold Darby?”

“Yeah.  Who the hell are you?”

“My name is Jack Rhodes.  I work for your lawyer.  He asked me to meet you and bring you to his office.”

“Doing what?”

“I don’t understand.”

“What do you do for my lawyer.  I’m not getting into a car, no matter how sharp it is, until I know who’s doing the driving.”

Tough guy.  “Usually, I do investigations for him.  Today, I’m your chauffeur.”

“Why didn’t he come?”

“Hell if I know. Lawyers. What can I say?”

He shrugged.

“Anyone else plan to meet you?”

A half-hearted laugh slipped out. “No.  No one else gives a damn.”

“Your wife?”

“I doubt it.”

We piled into the Ford.

“Beautiful day,” he said.

I put the convertible top down.  Darby didn’t say anything, but he seemed to enjoy to wind in his hair.

“You hungry?  There’s a good place for burgers and shakes in Richmond.”

“I didn’t kill him.”

“Yeah?  Why did they lock you up in the big Q?  Practical joke?’

“I don’t like you.”

I get that a lot.”  I stopped at the stop sign. Then turned toward the highway to Richmond.  “Look pal, it’s going to be a long drive back to Los Angeles and I don’t need you ragging on my ass all the way.  You want the burger?

~~~

I always enjoy retro hard-boiled noir. We meet Jack Rhodes, a wise-cracking, smartass detective on a mission to pick up a newly-released convict at San Quentin prison. Rhodes’s employer is a lawyer with the nifty name of Walton Finesse Smith who wants to meet with his client, Harold Darby.

The Brave Author has done a good job of avoiding the dreaded info dump that bogs down many first pages. Details are slipped in seamlessly but a little too sparingly. The reader could use more information, like when the story is happening.

Except for the mention of former California Governor Knight (BTW, the correct first name is Goodwin, not Gordon), the time is not specified. Knight’s term ran from 1953-59 but few readers will know that w/o looking it up. I suggest pinning down the era with a year. For instance, you might identify Rhodes’s car as, say, a 1956 Ford Fairlane Sunliner.

Instead of saying “Darby had been in San Quentin for XX years,” the author uses a barely-recognizable photo to show how Darby has changed during a long prison sentence. Well done.

The author might further use the photo to describe what Darby looked like in his younger days, then contrast that appearance with how he looks now.

The “special privileges” card from the governor is another hint that’s smoothly inserted, implying either Rhodes or his boss enjoys political influence. That establishes the detective as higher on the food chain than the stereotypical hard-luck gumshoe. The reader’s curiosity is tickled—why did the governor grant that status? What’s the backstory?

More intriguing questions are raised when Darby claims “I didn’t kill him.” Murder usually earns a life sentence so why is Darby being released? Why does Walton Finesse Smith want to see his client now? Was a deal cut with the governor? Who is the victim?

Generally, the Brave Author has achieved a good balance between raising curiosity and avoiding confusion. This page intrigues but doesn’t overwhelm. With too little information, the reader becomes mystified and frustrated. With too much, the story bogs down. Enrich this page with a bit more detail and it will be even more effective.

Although not a great deal of action happens on this first page, there is still a good sense of forward momentum in the story.

 

I color-coded suggested edits.

Blue is the original text.

Red demonstrates ways to combine sentences and rearrange the order to convey information more concisely.

Green indicates possible ways to go deeper into Rhodes’s POV, revealing more of his thoughts and reactions to give the reader more insight into his personality.

I parked at the curb in front of San Quentin even though it was a No Parking zone.  I leaned against the front fender of my Ford and lit up a Camel.   [suggest you move the following passage to later] Several people came and went.  Most looked like lawyers.  Big briefcases, fedoras, and shiny shoes.  Each time someone came out, I compared them to the photograph Walton Finesse Smith, Lawyer had given me of  Harold Darby.  Good old Harold  probably look different now.

To quickly establish that Rhodes flouts rules and has political influence, the author could rearrange the order as shown below:

I parked in the No Parking zone at the curb in front of San Quentin, got out, leaned against the front fender, and lit up. Before I finished my first Camel, the guard glared at me and approached. I flicked Governor Goodwin Knight’s business card at him. “The governor sends his greetings,” I said then indicated the handwritten notation on the back. It read: Special Permission.

The guard’s sneer said he didn’t believe me but he couldn’t figure out how to prove I was fibbing to him. He returned to his post at the gate, still casting suspicious glances at me. I smiled. He didn’t smile back. 

Several people came and went.  Most looked like lawyers.  Big briefcases, fedoras, and shiny shoes.  Each time someone came out, I compared them to the photograph [that] Walton Finesse Smith, Lawyer had given me of  Harold Darby.  Good old Harold  probably look[ed] different now.

            No matches so far.

The above paragraph could be tightened like this:

I smoked another Camel while I compared a black-and-white photo with the few men who walked out of the gate. Most looked like lawyers—big valises, fedoras, and shiny wingtips. No matches so far. 

Walton Finesse Smith, Attorney at Law, had given me the snapshot to identify Harold Darby. Good old Harold probably had a few more miles on him since the shot was taken. San Quentin did that to a guy.

 

            Ten minutes and two Camels later, a gray-haired geezer who could have been my man stepped out into the sunshine.  He sighed.  I crushed out my cigarette on out the bottom of my loafer. 

            “Are you Harold Darby?”

Make clear that Darby came through the prison gate. Also give Rhodes’s reaction to the man.

A gray-haired geezer who might be my man stepped through the prison gate into the sunshine. Looked like 80 but was probably 60. He sighed.

I crushed out my cigarette on the sole of my loafer and walked toward him. “Are you Harold Darby?”

            “Yeah.  Who the hell are you?”

            “My name is Jack Rhodes.  I work for your lawyer.  He asked me to meet you and bring you to his office.”

            “Doing what?”

            “I don’t understand.”

            “What do you do for my lawyer?  I’m not getting into a car, no matter how sharp it is, until I know who’s doing the driving.”

Use this opportunity to set the time period with a short description of Rhodes’s car.

“What do you do for my lawyer?” He eyed my aquamarine ’56 Ford Fairlane Sunliner. “I’m not getting in a strange car, no matter how sharp it is, until I know who’s doing the driving.”

            Tough guy.  “Usually, I do investigations for him.  Today, I’m your chauffeur.”

            “Why didn’t he come?”

            “Hell if I know. Lawyers. What can I say?”

Describe Darby through Rhodes’s eyes.

I scanned Darby’s features, deeply-lined forehead, gray eyes sunken in dark hollows. “Anyone else plan to meet you?”

A halfhearted laugh, more like a gag. “No one else gives a damn.”

“Your wife?”

“Especially not her.”

We piled into the Ford.

“Beautiful day,” he said. Delete dialogue that doesn’t move the story forward.

            I put the convertible top down.  Darby didn’t say anything, but he seemed to enjoy to wind in his hair.

[Needs attribution] “You hungry?  There’s a good place for burgers and shakes in Richmond.”

 

Combine sentences to condense action. Add more of Rhodes’s thoughts about Darby.

We piled into the car and I lowered the convertible top. As I drove, he raised his face to the bright sun. How long since Darby had felt a breeze blowing his hair?

“I didn’t kill him.”

What is Darby’s tone? Defensive, bitter, defeated? Does he spit out the words? Or is he weary after repeating the denial a thousand times?

The statement signals what is likely the main plot problem—the wrongly-convicted, innocent man. Because that is a common trope in PI fiction, look for ways to give it a fresh angle.  

What is Rhodes’s internal reaction to Darby’s denial? Is there an unusual hint in Darby’s manner or tone that raises Rhodes’s interest?

“Yeah?  Why did they lock you up in the big Q?  Practical joke?”

Make Rhodes’s retort sharper. “Yeah, damn shame about you and all those other innocent guys in the big Q.”

            “I don’t like you.” Show Darby’s reaction with facial expression or gesture.

            [Missing quote] “I get that a lot.”  I stopped at the stop sign. Then turned toward the highway to Richmond.  “Look, [missing comma] pal, it’s going to be a long drive back to Los Angeles and I don’t need you ragging on my ass all the way.  You want the burger?” [Missing quote]

Suggest you cut the phrase ragging on my ass all the way. It doesn’t fit since Darby has mostly been neutral or quiet until Rhodes challenges his profession of innocence.

“I get that a lot.”  I braked at a stop sign then turned toward the highway to Richmond.  “Look, pal, it’s a long drive back to Los Angeles. You want the burger?”

General suggestions:

The title They Call it Street Justice sounds weak because “They” and “It” are vague pronouns. Who are They? What is it?

Street Justice is a stronger title but has already been used for books, TV shows, and movies. Maybe someone can suggest better title ideas in the comments.

Ending a name with an “S” adds unnecessary complication in the possessive form and makes editing consistency tough—hard to remember if you used Rhodes’ or Rhodes’s. Also, in audiobook form, Rhodes’s sounds awkward. For those reasons, I try to avoid names that end with “S”.

Rhodes seems a bit flat as a character. Try to add more of his thoughts, feelings, and reactions. He doesn’t necessarily have to be likable but give the reader a reason to follow him through the story.

When setting a story in the past, carefully check historical references (like Governor Goodwin Knight’s name). Factual errors undermine the reader’s trust.

There are several places with extra spaces after words or missing punctuation. Also, use only one space after a period, rather than two. Those of us who learned to type on a typewriter have trouble breaking that old habit. However, two spaces after a period in an ebook causes formatting to go wonky.

The author withholds information but offers enough details that the reader can follow what’s going on without becoming confused and frustrated. That’s a tough balance to achieve but this page succeeds. Well done!

This is a promising start with a strong sense of forward momentum. Thank you for sharing, Brave Author!

~~~

TKZers: Does this first page draw you in? Do you have suggestions for today’s Brave Author?

Many years’ worth of First Page Critiques are available in TKZ’s library in the top main menu bar. Writers often say reading critiques of others’ work helps them spot problem areas in their own. Check out the free, useful resource at this link

~~~

Side note: I recently interviewed Tillman Rosenbaum, the brilliant, cynical attorney in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series. Over Tillman’s vigorous protests, the interview was published on The Protagonist Speaks and you can read it here. Thanks again to Assaph Mehr!

 

+10

First Page Critique: How To Improve a Compelling Opener

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments/suggestions will follow. Enjoy!

Expendable

Prologue 

Kate turned right onto her parent’s street only to find a street jammed with police cars. A cacophony of lights, flashing red and blue, backlighting people hurriedly moving against the night sky. My parents will certainly be outside watching, she thought. As she drew closer, she was alarmed to see her parent’s house isolated by swags of yellow police tape. 

She jerked her car to the curb and ran toward the chaos.

“I’m sorry, miss. You can’t go up there.” A policeman seemed to appear out of nowhere.

“But, I live here,” she lied.

“This is your house, miss?”

“It’s my parents’ house. I live with them. Please let me through.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. You can’t go up there.” The officer blocked her path and motioned to a man in an overcoat, standing near the garage. The man closed his notepad as he walked over. The two men had a brief exchange before the one in the overcoat spoke.

“Miss, my name is Detective Montoya.” A badge swung on a ball-chain around his neck. “You live here?” he said, opening the notepad again. She nodded. He put his hand on her shoulder, guiding her to a place on the lawn, away from the activity. He began writing as soon as she answered. Asked her name along with a few other questions. She gave terse answers, anxious to get inside. He asked whereabouts that evening requiring a lengthy explanation about her late class on Wednesdays. Each answer seemed to beget another question.

“Miss, what we’re looking at here is a double homocide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself. 

“No,” she said, covering her mouth with both hands. She battled her mind to keep from considering the obvious. “That’s impossible. No, it can’t be. Let me see,” she tried to force her way past him.

“I can’t let you in. It’s pretty gruesome. I don’t know that you could handle it.”

“I need to go inside.”

“I’m afraid you can’t, miss. Right now, it’s a crime scene and we can’t take the chance of you contaminating it.” 

“Look,” She said. “You owe me something. You can’t ask me to endure the entire night wondering if I’m still part of a family or not.” Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

The writer did so many things right. We’re dropped in the middle of a disturbance, s/he raised story questions, added relatability for the heroine, and I could (somewhat) feel her frustration, fear, and anxiety. Great job, Brave Writer! As written, I’d turn the page to find out what happens next.

Let’s see if we can improve this opener even more. Brave Writer included a note about using a prologue. I hope s/he doesn’t mind if I include it here.

I have never considered doing a prologue before but this allows me to describe a major event that will be referred to various times during the story as well as give some backstory about the protagonist and tell the reader what kind of story to expect.

Prologues

The correct reasons to use a prologue are:

  • the incident occurs at a different time and/or place from the main storyline
  • to inform the reader of something they can’t glean from the plot
  • to foreshadow future events (called a jump cut, where we use the prologue to setup an important milestone in the plot)
  • to provide a quick-and-dirty glimpse of important background information without the need of flashbacks, dialogue, or memories that interrupt the action later on (no info dumps!).
  • Hook the reader into the action right away while raising story questions relevant to the main plot, so the reader’s eager to learn the answers.

It sounds like you’re using a prologue for the right reasons. Keep in mind, if you plan to go the traditional route, many agents and editors cringe when they see the word “prologue” because so many new writers don’t use them correctly. If you can change it to Chapter One, you’d have an easier time.

Point of View 

For most of the opener you stayed inside the MC’s head.

Two little slips:

“Miss, what we’re looking at here is a double homocide homicide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself.

See how you jumped inside the cop’s head?

Same thing happened here:

Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

Stay inside the MC’s head. One scene = one point of view.

Dialogue

The dialogue is a bit stiff. I’ll show you what I mean in the “fine tuning” section. For now, I highly recommend How To Write Dazzling Dialogue by our very own James Scott Bell.

First Lines

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the first line, but I think you’ve got the writing chops to do even better. Let the first line slap the reader into paying attention.

To quote Kris (PJ Parrish):

  • Your opening line gives you an intellectual line of credit from the reader. The reader unconsciously commits: “That line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.”
  • A good opening line is lean and mean and assertive. No junk language or words.
  • A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. It says something interesting. It is a stone in our shoe that we cannot shake.
  • BUT: if it feels contrived or overly cute, you will lose the reader. Especially if what follows does not measure up. It is a teaser, not an end to itself.

“The cat sat on the mat is not the opening of a plot. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is.”  – John LeCarre

To read the entire post, The Dos and Don’ts of a Great First Chapter, go here.

Fine Tuning

I dislike rewriting another writer’s work, but it’s the easiest way to learn. I’ve included quick examples of how to tighten your writing and make the scene more visceral. Keep what resonates with you. After all, I don’t know where the story is headed.  

Kate turned right onto her parent’s street only to find a street jammed with police cars. A cacophony of lights, flashing red and blue, backlighting people hurriedly moving against the night sky. My parents will certainly be outside watching, she thought. “Thought” is a telling word. The italics tell the reader it’s inner dialogue. As she drew closer, she was alarmed to see her parent’s house isolated by swags of yellow police tape. “Alarmed” and “see” are also telling words. Remember, if we wouldn’t think it, our POV character shouldn’t either. Some writers have a difficult time with deep POV, which we’ve discussed before on TKZ. It’s one element of craft that we learn at our own pace. For more on Deep POV, read this 1st page critique. In the meantime, here’s a quick example to show you what I mean.

The swags of yellow police tape surrounding her parent’s house quickened her heartbeat. What happened? She’d spoken to Mom and Dad last night. Granted, the call didn’t last long. Mom said she had to go because someone knocked at the door. Endless questions whirled through her mind. Were they robbed? Are they hurt? Did Dad fall again?

She jerked her car to the curb, threw the shifter into Park, and ran sprinted toward the chaos, the soles of sneakers slapping the pavement. Use strong action verbs to paint a clearer mental image. Plus, I slipped in sound. With important scenes, tickle the senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, taste—for a more visceral experience.

A policeman seemed to appeared out of nowhere. Moved to the beginning to show who’s speaking. Here, too, you can paint a stronger picture: A meaty-chested cop blocked her path.I’m Sorry, miss, but you can’t go past the police tape.”

“But, I live here,” she lied. Not bad but think about this: She’s just happened upon a chaotic scene at her parents’ house. Would she be calm or hysterical? “Get the hell outta my way.” She swerved around him, but he hooked her arm. “I live here.”

His head jerked back. “This is your house, miss?”

“It’s my parents’ house. What’s the difference? I live with them. Please Let me through!

I’m sorry, ma’am. Sorry, but you can’t go up there.” Is the house on a hill? If so, you need to tell us sooner so “up there” makes sense. The officer hollered over his shoulder to blocked her path and motioned to a man in an overcoat (trench coat?), standing near the garage. “She’s the daughter.” The man closed his notepad as he walked over. The two men had a brief exchange before the one in the overcoat spoke.

Mr. Trench Coat hustled over, a badge bouncing on the chain around his neck. As he neared, he extended his hand, but she couldn’t shake it. Not yet. Not without knowing what happened. Miss, My name is Detective Montoya. And you are?

“[Insert her name]” Now the reader knows who she is.

Okay, [name]. Let’s talk in private.” He put clamped a his hand on her shoulder and guided, guiding her to a place on to the lawn, away from the activity. Describe the activity. Example: away from photographers snapping pictures, from uniformed officers guarding the front door, from men and women in white coveralls strolling in and out with evidence bags.

A badge swung on a ball-chain around his neck. “Do you live here?” he said, opening the notepad again.

Tears rose in her throat, and she could only nod.

He began writing as soon as she answered. Asked her name along with a few other questions. The detective would hold her gaze. She’s the daughter of two murder victims and he needs as much information as possible before he breaks the news.

She gave terse answers, anxious to get inside. Don’t tell us. Show us!

He asked whereabouts that evening requiring a lengthy explanation about her late class on Wednesdays. Each answer seemed to beget another question. Don’t tell us. Show us!

“Miss (since he knows her name, he wouldn’t call her miss), what we’re looking at here is a double homicide homicide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself.  This dialogue doesn’t ring true. A detective would try to avoid telling her about her parents until she forces him to, which gives you the perfect opportunity to add more conflict through dialogue.

Example:

“When’s the last time you spoke to your parents?”

“I dunno. Before I went to class, around eight. Why?”

“Did they mention anything unusual? A strange car or someone they didn’t recognize hanging around the neighborhood?”

“What? Why? Are my parents okay?”

“Did they meet anyone new recently?”

“Are they in the ambulance?” She peeked around him, but he stepped to the side to block her view. “Look. I’m done answering questions. Get outta my way.”

“[Name], I’m sorry to inform you, your parents…” His words trailed off, his voice muffled by the ringing in her ears.

“No.” Head wagging, she slapped her hands over covering her mouth with both hands. She battled her mind to keep from considering the obvious. What’s the obvious? Do you mean, the truth? Also, “considering” is a telling word. “No. What you’re saying isn’t That’s impossible. I just spoke to them. I’ll prove it to you. it can’t be. Let me see,” She tried to force her way past him. Don’t tell us. Show us! Example: She shoved him away, but he wrangled her flailing arms, pinned her wrists to her side.

“I can’t let you in. It’s an active crime scene now. pretty gruesome. I don’t know that you could handle it.” A detective would never tell the daughter of two murder victims that “it’s pretty gruesome,” nor would he even consider allowing her into an active crime scene whether “she could handle it” or not.

Instead, show us what’s happening around her. Example: The coroner’s van sped into the driveway. Two men dragged a stretcher from the back.

Our heroine entered a chaotic scene. She’d be on information overload, with sights, sounds, smells all around her, almost too much to process.

“Please.” She waved praying hands, her chest heaving with each hard breath, tears streaming over her cheekbones. “Please let me see them. Please.. go inside.

“C’mon, let’s get you out of here.”

“I’m afraid you can’t, miss. Right now, it’s a crime scene and we can’t take the chance of you contaminating it.” 

“Look.” she said. Remove tag. We know who’s speaking. She stomped the grass. “You owe me something kind of explanation. What happened to my mom and dad? Who did this?You can’t ask me to endure the entire night wondering if I’m still part of a family or not.” Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

Wrap it up soon. Prologues should be short. Unless, of course, you decide to make this Chapter One. 🙂 

Brave Writer, I nitpick the most promising first pages because I know you can write and write well. If I thought otherwise, you’d see a lot less red. 😉 You’ve given us a compelling opener and plenty of reasons to turn the page. Take a few moments to see the forest for the trees. The elements I’ve focused on are meant to enhance your storytelling abilities. So, yell, scream, curse me, then get back to work. You’ve got this. Great job!

Over to you, TKZers. How might you improve this first page?

Side note: I won’t be around today. What I’m doing is super exciting (!!!), but I’m not at liberty to speak publicly about it yet. Fill you in later…

Join me, Laura Benedict, and many others on Zoom for Noir at the Bar. Win a signed paperback in the giveaway!

When: Sat., March 20, 2021

Time: 7 pm CST/8pm EDT

Tickets are FREE (limited to the 1st 100 fans)

Where: Comfort of home

Register: noiratthebar.online

+10

First Page Critique: Scattershot

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

Scattershot

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  We had it planned, Tom and I. We said goodbye to friends – hoping retirement would be an adventure in everything we did. To drive cross country to New England, a picture postcard of snow and autumn leaves coloring the landscape in hues of red, orange, and yellow.  The Coronavirus took my Tom a week before the move.  His labored breathing and limp body placed in the ambulance drove him to the hospital.  I tested negative.  I never saw him again.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.   Oh sure, plans change, but no one ever thinks death will stop you cold.  Well, it stopped Tom and the hospital confirmed my worst fears.  Grateful to the nurse who held his damp, feeble hand, I listened to his last gasp from the speakerphone.  Tom was gone, the house was sold, and the movers expected me in Connecticut in two weeks to unlock the door.  My new life began without the love of my life.

My name is Joanna Seavers, and I am a 59-year-old retired teacher living in the age of Covid-19 or the Coronavirus or whatever the hell it’s called.  Who knows, and who cares?  All I know is the world stopped for Tom and me in 2020, and everyone else for that matter.

One thing I’ve learned in life, even in a pandemic, is never stop planning. It’s what keeps you alive.  You need a reason to get up in the morning, so I got up.   The pandemic wound down, and I drove north.  Businesses reopened and the population was injected with the second shot of the lifesaving serum.  Mask wearing became optional, but on occasions, I still wore the cloth covering my nose and mouth.  You can’t be too careful in a crowd.

Driving down the highway, the virus in my rearview mirror and Alfie, Tom’s faithful bird dog, really a raven, sitting in the passenger’s seat.  Not sure why my husband had a pet raven, but the relationship remained solid for fifteen years.  I read somewhere domestic ravens have a life span of 40 years, so it was a good thing Alf’s loyalty shifted to me.  We clicked and his companionship sustained me as we drove from the Bay Area out of California, not looking back to what we had lost.

I like the voice of this first page. The biggest problem for me was the lack of emotion. The words are there, but it’s not visceral. You can’t gain empathy for Joanna unless the reader feels her pain. As written, she doesn’t seem all that broken up. If Tom’s death is the trigger that kickstarts Joanna’s quest, it needs to pack a bigger punch. Because the first time I read this page, I thought maybe she’d planned his death…till she mentioned the coronavirus.

Dig deeper, Brave Writer. She’d pinned all her hopes and dreams on retiring with Tom. They had plans, plans they talked about for years. Where’s the grief? Where’s the heartache? Where’s the anger over not having the chance to hold him on his deathbed, of one last kiss, of professing her undying love to the man she’s spent a lifetime with? Tom’s death acted more like a minor blip in Joanna’s life.

To deliver a bigger bang, you need to let the emotions unfold gradually. We’re not fine one minute and hysterical the next. Emotions build in layers, change and intensify, and finally reach a crescendo. For Joanna, Tom’s death should be soul-crushing.

Actually, this is the perfect example of why JSB recommends interviewing characters.

A few questions for Joanna could be:

When did you first know Tom had the virus?

What made you call an ambulance?

How did you feel when the medics said you couldn’t accompany Tom to the hospital? Lost? Empty? Frightened?

Did you have a physical response?

Who broke the news of your husband’s decline? What’d s/he tell you? How did it feel to hear those words?

Are you a different person without Tom? What’s changed?

The reader doesn’t need to know every detail, but you do. Joanna’s past will affect her future. You may be thinking, but Sue, Joanna’s the type to raise her chin and forge ahead. Fair enough. But her silent keening should still bleed through.

Five Stages of Grief

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

The character should bounce between each stage to mimic real life. A step forward to depression, two steps back to anger, etc.

Infuse Emotion

I like the echo of “It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” but let’s force the reader to feel those words.

Quick example:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We had a plan, Tom and I. We had a chance at a new beginning, a fresh start. We had hopes and dreams for retirement. But now, emptiness consumed me, the pit widening more each day. If the movers didn’t expect me in two weeks, I’d never leave Tom’s grave. How did this happen? Why us? We were so careful, so diligent about protection. We made all the right moves. And for what? So I could drive cross-country alone?

Notice I never mentioned what happened to Tom. All readers know is he’s dead, she’s devastated. Let the reader flip pages to find out why. In the next paragraph offer a bit more and get the hero moving.

Example:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Tom and I dreamed of life in New England, with its snow glistening on autumn leaves, hues of Scarlet, orange, and gold-painted landscapes. Pointless now. Muted shades of black and gray zipped by the driver’s window. Up ahead, a motorist leaned under the raised hood of a minivan. (Or whatever the case may be.)

 I added the motorist to accomplish two things:

  • It gets our hero moving, active rather than ruminating.
  • It hints at trouble to come.

Delete the part where Joanna introduces herself. It’s the lazy way out. You can do better.

Add dialogue. Keeping with my motorist example…

I pulled in behind the van, and a man craned his neck around the side of the hood. Not a female. Crap. I should’ve let Dr. Rosenthal change my prescriptive lenses before I left.

The stranger approached my window. “Thanks for stopping.”

“No problem.” I held a tight smile, jabbed a chin at the van. “What happened?”

“Outta oil. I could use a lift to the gas station.”

Joanna resists. The motorist pushes. Against her better judgment she gives in. Blah, blah, blah. During the drive the conversation turns.

“Really appreciate this.” He blows into cupped hands (the cold signals she’s on the east coast). “I’m Frank, by the way.”

“Joanna.”

Boom. Now the reader knows her name. Keep in mind, Joanna’s a woman alone. Other than her first name she isn’t likely to tell this stranger her life story.

“What do you do, Joanna?” The way he said my name raised the tiny hairs on my forearms.

“Retired.”

“From what, Joanna?”

Never had my name sounded so creepy. Tom wouldn’t have allowed a stranger in the car. If he were alive, we’d be halfway to Connecticut by now. (See how I slipped in her destination without slowing the pace?)

Frank rested his hand on my knee. “Joanna?”

Mute, my gaze shifted between his hand and the road. “Is the gas station much farther? My husband’s expecting me.”

“So, you’re not from the area?”

“Umm, I…uh…”

“Where are you from, Joanna?”

Each time my name rolled off his tongue my stomach somersaulted, flipped, acids splashed against the liner. Damn you, Tom! We vowed to grow old together. You promised to never leave me.

“Michigan,” I lied, unwilling to share details about my route from the west coast to the east.

And on and on it goes. I don’t have room for a line edit, but keep in mind there’s only one space after a period.

Pets

The last thing I’ll mention is the raven who materialized out of nowhere. As a die-hard corvid lover, I hope you’re not using the bird as symbolism for doom, gloom, or death. Pets needs a valid role in the plot. If the raven doesn’t fill that need, please consider removing it.

As written, it doesn’t sound like Joanna ever bonded with the family pet, a gigantic bird whose lived in her home for 15 years. It’s odd. When a wife loses her husband, (or vice versa) she clings to any and all traces of him, including his possessions (i.e. Tom’s favorite football jersey, the collar saturated with his scent). A loyal feathered baby should act like Joanna’s life preserver, and not a pet she hardly knew.

Main Takeaway

Concentrate on the fine art of storytelling, less focus on backstory. Allow readers to get to know Joanna in bite-sized pieces. Force the reader to flip pages. And they will, if you avoid filling in the blanks right away. The inclusion of story questions, conflict, dramatic moments, and hints of danger (valid or misinterpreted) helps to create a compelling mystery that strangleholds the reader.

Thank you for sharing your work with us, Brave Writer. Pandemic stories will flood the marketplace, if they haven’t already. Thus, it’s more important than ever to craft a visceral thrill ride so yours rises above the rest.

Over to you, TKZers! I excluded a few things to avoid turning this post into a book, so please mention them in the comments. How might you improve this first page?

+12

First Page Critique – Rene Out on a Limb

Photo credit: evilpeacock cc by-nc-sa 2.0

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 Happy 2021 and welcome back to TKZ after the annual holiday break!

Today, we kick off the new year with the first page of Rene Out on a Limb, a humorous middle-grade mystery. Please enjoy this submission then we’ll discuss it:

 

 

 

Rene Out on a Limb – First 400 words

The branch of the tree makes a creaky noise when I wriggle out on it, and the ground looks really far away. I’m not worried, though. Oak tree limbs don’t break … do they?

“Psst.” My cousin Joanie tries to whisper, but it sounds more like a moose wheezing. Joanie is nine years old, but she never learned how to whisper properly. She’s sitting on a low branch like she’s glued to the trunk.  A squirrel pokes its head out of a knothole and gnaws on an acorn while he stares at me. Like he’s surprised to see a girl halfway out on a limb. But this is my life. An investigative reporter knows no fear.

“Psst. Rene, stop.” Joanie’s voice gets a little louder and scaredier as I inch my way along the branch.

“Shh.” I whisper back with much better form. “I want to hear what they’re saying.” It’s good practice for a reporter to eavesdrop on possible subjects, and I’d radared in on Nate Peterson as he walked across campus with his girlfriend. They were so wrapped up in each other, they didn’t even see us. They stopped next to that big elm tree a few feet away, and the girl stood with her back against the trunk while he leaned toward her with his hand on the tree and a goofy expression on his face.

I’ll never understand adults. If Nate’s trying to impress his girlfriend, he’d do better if he stood on his head or did a couple of cartwheels. At least it would show a little talent. Maybe he could buy a yo-yo.

I creep another couple of inches forward, ease the notebook out of my pocket, and strain to hear. He calls the girl “Cassie.” I write it down.

Cassie was saying something about Reverend Newton. I know him. He’s the minister at the university chapel. She says, “He asked me to stop by today after lunch. It’s about Mr. Myet.”

Mr. Myet? Wasn’t he the librarian who died in that fire?

Cassie frowns. “Reverend Newton thinks there may have been foul play.”

Murder! My heart pounds and my ears become antennae. Maybe I can solve the mystery and expose the killer. I could be famous. I’ll be the youngest person who ever won a Pulitzer Prize!

I try to ease forward, but my foot gets caught.

~~~

This story blasts right out of the gate. In three short paragraphs, the author introduces Rene, the first-person protagonist, establishes her approximate age, and introduces her goal—she wants to be a famous investigative reporter.

By the ninth paragraph, she presents the mysterious death of the librarian, Mr. Myet. Rene’s mission grows more ambitious with that revelation. She’s determined to solve the crime.

The Brave Author includes another important detail: Rene is already in danger because the tree limb she’s clinging to could break. If that happens (and I’m fairly sure it will in the next page or two), Rene might be injured. But a more serious consequence: she will be discovered by the people she is surveilling. Her covert mission is blown.

That sense of risk propels the reader to turn the page. We need to find out Rene’s fate.

Does she survive? Once she’s discovered, can she talk her way out of her dilemma? Can she continue with her mystery-solving mission?

The Brave Author sidestepped the common problems we see on many TKZ first pages—lack of conflict, lack of action, too much backstory, difficulty with point of view (POV), unclear characterizations. In this excerpt, character, action, and conflict combine smoothly to engage the reader immediately. Effective pacing moves the story forward, inducing the reader to keep turning pages. Well done!

Humor is a bonus in writing stories for most age groups but particularly, it seems, for young readers. Rene’s voice is wry, witty, and delightful. She makes observations that sound appropriate for an intelligent child without being too advanced. Although her exact age is not mentioned, her mildly superior attitude toward her nine-year-old cousin suggests she’s perhaps a year older.

Joanie as the cautious sidekick contrasts with the fearless Rene, showing the personalities of both characters quickly and efficiently.

Rene pokes fun at Nate’s attempts to impress Cassie. Further, she inserts her own suggestions that standing on his head, turning cartwheels, or doing yo-yo tricks would be much more effective. Young readers can follow her child’s logic and older readers should find her lack of sophistication amusing and endearing.

I do suggest rearranging that paragraph a little, grouping all Rene’s suggested alternatives together and then drawing her conclusion.

I’ll never understand adults. If Nate’s trying to impress his girlfriend, he’d do better if he stood on his head or did a couple of cartwheels. If he’s super cool, he could demonstrate yo-yo tricks like The Elevator or Walking the Dog. At least that would show a little talent. Maybe he could buy a yo-yo.

 

 

The paragraph below works better if it’s split into two paragraphs. Joanie’s inability to whisper should be a separate thought from the squirrel’s action and Rene’s reaction.

“Psst.” My cousin Joanie tries to whisper, but it sounds more like a moose wheezing. Joanie is nine years old, but she never learned how to whisper properly. She’s sitting on a low branch like she’s glued to the trunk. 

A squirrel pokes its head out of a knothole and gnaws on an acorn while he stares at me. Like he’s surprised to see a girl halfway out on a limb. But this is my life. An investigative reporter knows no fear.

Let’s talk about verb tense. The story begins in present tense, which is common in children’s books. That sense of immediacy appeals to young readers.

Then there’s a switch to past tense. That is understandable for events that have already happened, like this paragraph:

I’d radared in on Nate Peterson as he walked across campus with his girlfriend. They were so wrapped up in each other, they didn’t even see us. They stopped next to that big elm tree a few feet away, and the girl stood with her back against the trunk while he leaned toward her with his hand on the tree and a goofy expression on his face.

Then the tense switches back to present as Rene makes her entertaining observations about how Nate should impress his girlfriend. Present tense is appropriate because the reader is inside her head, thinking her thoughts as they occur to her.

This is followed by Rene’s actions of creeping further out on the branch and taking notes, also in present tense.

But then, in the next paragraph, a change to past tense causes a slight clunk:

Cassie was saying something about Reverend Newton.

It might read more smoothly this way:

Cassie is saying something about Reverend Newton.

Here’s another tense change that tripped me:

Mr. Myet? Wasn’t he the librarian who died in that fire? 

The thought in Rene’s head should be in present tense, in the moment that it occurs to her:

Mr. Myet? Isn’t he the librarian who died in that fire?

These nits are tiny. Yet they make a subtle difference. When the author avoids small bumps like these, the reader stays totally engaged in the story, without even a millisecond’s distraction from the fictive dream.

I had a hard time finding ways to improve on this already-excellent submission. Maybe other readers can see places to change but I was entirely caught up in the story and would read further.

A young girl who wants to become a crime-solving reporter is an appealing premise. I discovered Rene has a real-life counterpart, Hilde Lysiak.

The ambitious young lady, originally from Selinsgrove, PA, started a local newspaper when she was seven as a homeschooling assignment. By age ten, she had scooped conventional media with her coverage of a grisly murder committed with a hammer.

Because of that story, she was publicly criticized on social media. Her response to criticism from (so-called) adults was posted on You Tube and went viral.

Hilde made headlines again when the marshal in Patagonia, Arizona (where she now lives) challenged her right to shoot video, claiming she broke the law. She repeatedly asked him what law she had broken.

She did not back down despite his threats. Gutsy Hilde was acting within her First Amendment rights.

The officer’s false assertion led to a formal apology from the town mayor.

Along with her father, former NY Daily News reporter, Matthew Lysiak, Hilde scored a six-book series, along with a new Apple TV show chronicling her adventures as a kid reporter.

Judging by Hilde’s success, the appeal of a young female reporter who solves crime is certainly commercially viable.

With the excellent quality of writing and storytelling skills in Rene Out on a Limb, the Brave Author should be able to grab the attention of children’s publishers and enthusiastic young readers.

Thank you for submitting this fun piece, Brave Author. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

~~~

TKZers: Does this first page capture your interest? What suggestions can you offer the Brave Author?

~~~

Flight to Forever by Debbie Burke is coming soon!

Nobody tells Vietnam veteran Lou Belmonte he can’t hug his wife of 50 years. When pandemic restrictions won’t let him visit his beloved Cameo in a memory care lockdown, he busts her out, injuring two employees who try to stop him. The couple flees to a remote fire lookout in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness.

With cops in pursuit, investigator Tawny Lindholm and her defense attorney husband, Tillman Rosenbaum, race to find the aging outlaws first because Lou won’t go down without a fight.

Flight to Forever is the sixth book in Debbie Burke’s Tawny Lindholm Thriller series. Check out a sneak preview at this link.  

+6

First Page Critique – Murder for the Sleep Deprived

@burke_writer

 

Please welcome today’s Brave Author who submitted Murder for the Sleep Deprived a dark comedy mystery.

Enjoy this excerpt then we’ll discuss.

~~~

NOW

Kevin Mills-Greene wasn’t a nice young man when he was alive.

He wasn’t exactly any nicer when he was dead, either.

The sun was beating down and reflecting off the pool in the Harding’s back garden, the sky a swathe of pale blue that was dotted with fluffy clouds, as the dappled sunlight fell through the leaves of the trees that brushed the edges of the garden.

Nice weather.

The sort of weather that the first thing you’d think as you sat down outside would be – “Ah, this is lovely.”

The weather was nice the morning after Kevin Mills-Greene was murdered, even if he wasn’t. The teenager was lying on his back, unblinking, unmoving, and utterly, entirely dead. To be fair, dead people aren’t exactly famous for moving and blinking. You mustn’t hold that against him.

The twitching of a curtain from inside the Harding household.

No blood-curdling scream.

Not yet.

The grass was soft and a luscious emerald shade – the entire garden practically radiating elegance, overlooking the corpse – even the small shed in the corner has neatly painted a shade of chestnut brown, the brightly colored plastic bottles creating as stained glass effect through the frosted windows as the sun reflected through. The burnished wood of a bench under the cover of a tree glinted in the sunlight.

One of those rare, perfect days; the kind of day that makes people forget to worry.

Perfect and worry-free, for everyone except Kevin Mills-Greene, obviously.

The buzzing of flies was a thick blanket of sound as they swirled like a rain-heavy cloud around the body, the twittering of birds in the trees overshadowed. The flies crept over his stiff limbs, his purpled, blueish skin mottled and paling.

Believe it or not, Kevin had been a relatively handsome young man.

~~~

The Brave Author categorized this as a “dark comedy mystery” and it certainly fills the bill. The ironic, understated humor has a tone that might be British. The idyllic description of the Harding yard and lovely weather contrasts effectively with the ugliness of the crime. A beautiful, peaceful setting is not where you expect to see the dead body of a teenager with flies feasting on him. That juxtaposition works well because it’s unexpected and surprise is a necessary component of humor.

Title: Good job! It caught my attention, which is a title’s main task. It establishes the genre and tone and piques the reader’s curiosity. Who’s sleep deprived and why? How does that connect to murder?

Time period: Now indicates a contemporary story.

First line: We’ve talked at TKZ about starting a story with a body.

It’s an attention grabber.

But it’s also a risk because the reader doesn’t know anything about the character yet. At this point, he is a two-dimensional being without personality, loves or hates, flaws or strengths. Why should the reader care if he’s dead?

However, I think the author pulled it off because of the intriguing opening line:

Kevin Mills-Greene wasn’t a nice young man when he was alive.

Why does that line work? It immediately raises a reader’s curiosity. Why wasn’t he a nice young man? Why is he dead?

What not-nice thing did he do that provoked someone to kill him? Who was that person?

There’s a hint at revenge, a very human, relatable theme for anyone who’s ever dreamed of retribution against somebody who wronged them. If this is a story of the ultimate comeuppance, what motive is behind it? How did an angry thought turn into murder?

The author took a risk and I think it paid off. I’ll keep reading to find those answers.

Point of View: The author took another risk here. The POV is omniscient which is difficult to pull off successfully. An all-seeing being floats above the scene and describes it, directly addressing the reader:

…the first thing you’d think as you sat down…

and

You mustn’t hold that against him.

Many readers dislike when an author uses “you” and talks directly to the audience. Personally, I don’t mind it. But it’s a matter of taste. In the comments, maybe TKZers will weigh in if they like “you” or not.

Back to the omniscient POV. Here, it sets the scene and gives context that would not otherwise be known to the reader. The narrator informs the reader that Kevin was not nice. How does s/he know? Is the narrator the god of the story issuing divine proclamations with dark wit? Or will the narrator soon become a character in the play?

Omniscient is not a popular choice for POV because readers don’t identify with a detached voice. They generally want to get inside the skin of characters, to experience the senses and emotions more directly. Omniscient is also difficult to sustain through an entire book.

This may be an introductory chapter where the problem is laid out, similar to the stage manager in the play Our Town. In this submission, perhaps the narrator makes the introduction then steps back and turns the rest of the story over to the characters and their POVs. If handled well, that could be an effective technique.

Does this POV work for the first page? Because of the humor, I think mostly it does. But the author should be wary of trying to maintain omniscience through the rest of the story because of the reasons mentioned above.

Here’s my biggest problem with the submission:

Where’s the body?

The statement about Kevin’s death is immediately followed by a detailed description of the pool. That led me to believe the body was floating in the pool, like William Holden at the beginning of the classic film Sunset Boulevard.

 

But, in the sixth paragraph, Kevin is lying on his back. That stopped me because generally bodies float face down in water. That sent me on another false trail: why is he floating face up?

In the tenth paragraph, there is a detailed description of a lush lawn and a beautifully landscaped back yard.

Okay, does that mean the body is lying on the grass?

No, wait.

The next sentence reads:

…the entire garden practically radiating elegance, overlooking the corpse.

How is the garden overlooking the body? Does the garden have eyes? Or is the body lying below the garden? If so, where? What or who is overlooking?

The last paragraph is a good, vivid description of the thick cloud of flies around the body.

But…I’m still not sure where the body is.

The author led me to several assumptions that turn out to be wrong. After going down false trails, I feel disoriented. Now I don’t quite trust the author. Do I really want to embark on a journey deeper into this book when I’ve been misled?

I don’t believe this was intentional misdirection on the author’s part. More likely, s/he saw the scene vividly in his/her head but something got lost between brain and keyboard. It happens to all of us! 

Details:  The twitching curtain raises the reader’s curiosity more. Who’s behind the curtain? Why doesn’t s/he react to the dead body? A blood-curdling scream is foreshadowed. These all increase tension and suspense. Well done.

There are several passages of detailed description of the setting–the shed, colored bottles, the burnished wood bench glinting in sunlight. Do these details play a significant role in the murder? If not, readers may become impatient because they want to know more about Kevin’s death.

…even the small shed in the corner has [typo-should be was] neatly painted a shade of chestnut brown, the brightly colored plastic bottles creating as [typo-should be a] stained glass effect through the frosted windows as the sun reflected through [repeated word]. The burnished wood of a bench under the cover of a tree glinted in the sunlight.

How much detail is enough? How much is too much that bogs down the story? This is a tightrope for authors. Because the author does a good job seducing the reader with the title and first line, I hope these details have significance.

But, if they’re not important, would the space be better used to describe what killed Kevin? Gunshot? Rodent poison? Garden trowel? Unknown cause?

Beware of –ly: In one page, I counted nine modifiers that ended with –ly.

Exactly, utterly, entirely, exactly, practically, neatly, brightly, obviously, relatively

Perhaps it’s a stylistic choice but they occurred often enough to be distracting.

Precision of language: The word choices sometimes don’t work.

…dappled sunlight fell through the leaves

Fell doesn’t accurately describe rays of sun.

I already mentioned the garden overlooking.

The twittering of birds in the trees overshadowed

Does that mean the twittering overshadowed? Or the trees?

Small punctuation nit:

…the first thing you’d think as you sat down outside would be – “Ah, this is lovely.”

 Normally, quotation marks are used for spoken dialogue. Since this line describes a thought, what if you use italics instead, like this:

…the first thing you’d think as you sat down outside would be: Ah, this is lovely.

 Humor: For humor to work well, it needs to be tack-sharp and spot on target.

The narrator’s statement:

One of those rare, perfect days; the kind of day that makes people forget to worry.

Perfect and worry-free, for everyone except Kevin Mills-Greene, obviously.

Since Kevin’s dead, he’s free of worries, so the line doesn’t quite work.

Here are a couple of suggestions but you can do better:

Perfect and worry-free. Kevin was no longer perfect but his worries were certainly gone.

Or:

Perfect and worry-free. At least, until the discovery of Kevin Mills-Greene’s body.

Overall, the Brave Author did an excellent job of teasing us. The reader wants to learn why Kevin wasn’t nice. Who is looking out from behind the curtain? Why the lack of reaction to a murder?

The fixes are small: sharper wit, more precise word choices, and pinning down the actual location of the body.

I’ll be interested to hear how the author handles POV through the rest of the story.

I would keep reading. How about you, TKZers?

What are your suggestions for the Brave Author?

+9

The Smoke Eater: 1st Page Critique

Another Brave Writer submitted his/her first page for critique. My comments will follow. Enjoy!

The Smoke Eater

Reid never witnessed a sunset out of the plane, but the moment was a testament of god’s creation. He was amazed by the radiant heaven through thin clouds of twilight where the earth and sky merged into the silver-black horizon.

Above the horizon was a spectrum of a blue dark glass, teasing the twilight of angels above. Underneath, the fading glow of what lingered on the terrain was smothered by the dark. It was a cruel but beautiful waltz between a master darkness and its mistress of the light. The horizon slowly narrowed, and the radiance ran parallel to its ruthless nocturnal predator that grew with virulence. What was left of the fading light seemed to be distorted as if an imaginary barrier was blocking the warmth from reaching Reid?

He wondered if it was the trick of the glass, but his inner being that wouldn’t allow for comfort. Deep down, he struggled with the truth that he could be easily smothered by his own darkened fear just like the nighttime drape smothering the day.

Reid turned his head at the sound of a woman’s voice and quickly said, “If I fall asleep, please be careful with me.”

The stewardess frowned and tilted her head.

Reid sensed she didn’t understand and he didn’t know what to say. Telling this woman that he could become violent when he slept didn’t seem like the right thing to do but he had to say something. He was struggling to stay awake and he refused to take the medication with only a few hours left in the flight.

Reid didn’t know how much longer he could stay lucid. “If you need to wake me, give me a nudge, or throw something small at me, and stand back. I startle easily… in my sleep.”

The stewardess stood there, indifferent.

Reid was starting to feel uneasy, that he might have said too much. He told himself, how stupid could I be, that he essentially told an airline attendant that he was a threat, admitting that she needed to avoid him should he become violent. Then he realized that it was worse, he just acted strangely on a middle eastern airline that was passing into Asia. He might as well have yelled out that he was carrying a bomb.

 * * *

Intriguing, isn’t it? There’s a lot to love about this first page. The concept of a MC who’s violent while he sleeps piqued my interest right away. It also raised numerous story questions. Why is he dangerous while he sleeps? What happens to the unfortunate people around him if he drifts off? Could he kill? Has he killed before? How does he know he’s dangerous if he’s asleep?

Bravo, Brave Writer, for not telling us yet! “Something” happened in the MC’s life prior to this flight, and we’ll keep flipping pages to find out what that is. Great job!

Now for the technical stuff…

When I received the unformatted first page, I broke up the text into more manageable paragraphs. The lack of formatting could be caused by copy/pasting into the body of an email. In case the manuscript’s littered with large chunks of text, please remember white space is our friend. Transitions are also vital to keep the reader engaged. For more on these two areas of craft, see Jim’s post and Terry’s post.

Paragraph 1:

Reid never witnessed a sunset out of the plane, but the moment was a testament of god’s creation. He was amazed by the radiant heaven through thin clouds of twilight where the earth and sky merged into the silver-black horizon.

The first line isn’t bad, necessarily, but it also doesn’t draw me in. Plenty of folks haven’t flown before. That in and of itself isn’t intriguing, thought-provoking, or emotional. It’s only after we read the first page that we can envision why this plane ride could turn deadly, and that’s too late.

Paragraph 2:

Above the horizon was a spectrum of a blue dark glass, teasing the twilight of angels above. Underneath, the fading glow of what lingered on the terrain was smothered by the dark. It was a cruel but beautiful waltz between a master darkness and its mistress of the light. The horizon slowly narrowed, and the radiance ran parallel to its ruthless nocturnal predator that grew with virulence. What was left of the fading light seemed to be distorted as if an imaginary barrier was blocking the warmth from reaching Reid?

Beautiful imagery, but the writing could be tighter. By rearranging words and deleting filler, we paint a clearer picture.

Above the horizon was a spectrum of a blue dark glass, teasing teased the twilight of angels above. Underneath, the dark smothered the fading glow of what lingered lingering on the terrain was smothered by the dark. It was a cruel but beautiful waltz between a master of darkness and its mistress of the light (<– love that line!). When tThe horizon slowly narrowed, the sun’s ruthless nocturnal predator overshadowed its and the radiance ran parallel to its ruthless nocturnal predator that grew with virulence. What was left of the fading light acted as seemed to be distorted as if a an imaginary barrier was blocking the warmth from reaching Reid’s face.?

Paragraph 3:

He wondered if it was the trick of the glass, but his inner being that wouldn’t allow for comfort. Deep down, he struggled with the truth that he could be easily smothered by his own darkened fear just like the nighttime drape smothering the day.

“Wondered” is a telling word. For more on deep POV, check out a previous 1st Page Critique. “Inner being” also struck me as an odd choice. My suggestion would be to rewrite these two sentences.

Quick example: Is it a trick of the glass? Why, with the breathtaking view before him, could he not relax? The truth caved his stomach. If he weren’t careful, the darkness within him could smother his light, too. (Still not great, but you get the picture.)

All the last two paragraphs need are a couple tweaks to deepen the point of view. Easy peasy. Let’s do it. Changes are in red.

Reid turned his head at the sound of a woman’s voice, and quickly said, “If I fall asleep, please be careful with me.”

The stewardess frowned and tilted her head. Reid sensed She didn’t understand. Not many people did. How could he tell a stranger he could violent when he slept? and he didn’t know what to say. Telling this woman that he could become violent when he slept didn’t seem like the right thing to do but he had to say something. He was Struggling to stay awake, and he refused to take the court ordered (if it fits the story) medication with only a few hours left in the flight. But what if he couldn’t stay lucid? Reid didn’t know how much longer he could stay lucid.

With no easy way around it, he said, “If you need to wake me, give me a nudge, or throw something small at me, and stand back. I startle easily… in my sleep.”

The stewardess stood there, indifferent.

Reid was starting to feel uneasy (don’t tell us, show us! Is he fidgeting? Picking at his cuticles?), that he might have said too much. He told himself, how stupid could I be, Stupid, Reid, stupid. You just told a flight attendant you’re a threat. that he essentially told an airline attendant that he was a threat, admitting that she needed to avoid him should he become violent. Oh, no! He’s on a middle eastern airline heading to Asia (btw, Asia’s too broad. Tell us where the flight’s landing.). She probably thinks he’s got a bomb strapped to his chest. Then he realized that it was worse, he just acted strangely on a middle eastern airline that was passing into Asia. He might as well have yelled out that he was carrying a bomb.

Brave Writer, take a moment to look closer at this critique. For the most part, all I did was rearrange your words and delete filler. This first page works because of your hard work. Stand proud. And thank you for submitting an excellent first page.

Over to you, TKZers! Would you flip the page? What’s your favorite line? Any suggestions/comments for Brave Writer?

+10

First Page Critique – Donny Malone

Photo credit: Thomas Wolf, Wikimedia CC

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Please welcome today’s Brave Author who’s submitted the first page of a historical Crime Novel. Give it a read then we’ll discuss it.  

 ~~~

Donny Malone

Larry began eating at Vicenzo’s after his last picture went bust and his fourth wife fled with the remaining cash. It was a cheap breakfast joint off Santa Monica’s Broadway and Sixteenth.  A SWELL LITTLE JOINT, he wrote Howard Miller in a telegram arranging the meeting.

Miller was one of those full-time writers on the payroll at Paramount. Swell kid. Owed Larry too. Back in seventeen, Larry accepted Miller’s romance script titled: The Loving Call. Anyway, cut a long story short, the picture made money. Big money. Made Howard Miller a star. Or as much a star as its possible to be for a writer. Still, he had the manner of a kid from the Bronx, old Howie. He’d still roll up his sleeves when the L.A. sun hit noon. He’d still greet a guy with a firm, two-handed grip, and look any maître d’ in the eye without flinching. Howard weren’t into none of that small talk baloney neither. Soon as Vicenzo filled the coffees, he got down to talking shop.

“So Larry,” he asked. “How’s the kid?”

He was asking about Malone.

“Donny’s swell. Donny’s Donny.”

“Cos last I heard, Malone burnt his bridge back to vaudeville.”

“Donny’s done with that vaudeville hooey. Gets into L.A. tomorrow. Donny’s big time.”

“I hope you’re right.” Howard sighed, shaking his head. He dropped two sugar cubes into his coffee. Gave it a stir with his finger. “Since Malone gets his kicks making Mackenzie Campbell out like a chump.”

“Mack’s done. Donny’s contract was up.”

“I’m talking about Mack’s wife.”

“They were done.”

Done, Larry? You think Campbell – Campbell – is letting Malone cross the country with that broad?”

Larry didn’t know what Mack had planned. Never thought to wonder. All he knew was Donny Malone didn’t belong in no dying nineteenth-century circus act. This was a kid who could jump from a railway bridge onto a series of fast-moving carriages. Who would do it in a hot minute for a twenty-cent bet. A kid with the acrobatics of Buster Keaton. The dashing victory-smile of Fairbanks. And Larry wasted no time telling him. Put on his Hollywood voice and told the kid straight. Told him, ‘Donny. Baby. You ain’t signing with that bum another season.’

“So what he say?” Howard asked.

~~~

Let’s start with the title. On its own, Donny Malone isn’t intriguing. I immediately thought of the 1997 film Donnie Brasco with Johnny Depp and Al Pacino. Unless a person is famous or notorious, a name doesn’t generally make a good title because the reader doesn’t yet understand the reference. A better title could hint at the bygone era of Hollywood that might attract readers who enjoy the noir genre.

This first page does a nice job echoing conventions of pulp fiction and noir. A telegram  sets the time as early to mid-20th century in Santa Monica. The language is sharp, crisp, and slangy, further setting the period tone.

Brave Author introduces Larry who’s down on his luck, reduced to eating at a dive café after suffering professional and personal misfortunes in the Hollywood film industry.

Howard Miller’s character is established with backstory (more on that in a moment) as a successful Paramount screenwriter who is indebted to Larry. The inference is that Larry contacted Howard to call in a favor since Larry’s career is evidently languishing.

The subject of their conversation is an unseen third character, actor Donny Malone, followed quickly by the introduction of two more unseen characters: Mackenzie Campbell and Campbell’s wife with whom Donny has or had a relationship. Campbell is apparently not someone to mess with, raising a possible threat to Donny. The reference to an expired contract indicates Donny and Campbell once had legal obligations to each other but that’s now over.

The potential for conflict is present, although the reader isn’t sure yet what the conflict is. For the reader to fully engage with the story, s/he needs to understand the relationships among characters and what their opposing goals or agendas are. Suggest you fill in those aspects quickly in the pages that follow. 

The lead-off sounds promising but I see four issues that need work.

First problem: What is Larry’s profession? He’s in the Hollywood film business but in what capacity—producer, director, talent agent, actor, writer? The lack of that knowledge makes it difficult to pin down what he wants and what he hopes to accomplish by meeting Howard. It sounds as if Larry might represent Donny as his talent agent but that’s not clear.

The character sketch of Howard is well done. Describing him as a “swell kid” reinforces appropriate slang of the era. “Back in seventeen” narrows down the time closer to the 1920s.

However, it also highlights the second problem: most of that paragraph is an information dump about Howard. After the line “Still, he had the manner of a kid from the Bronx, old Howie” I suggest you cut the rest of the paragraph and save it for later in the story.

The following lines confused me:

Soon as Vicenzo filled the coffees, he [which he? Vincenzo or Howard] got down to talking shop. 

“So Larry,” he [again, which he? Vincenzo or Howard] asked. “How’s the kid?” 

Easy fix: Soon as Vicenzo filled the coffees, Howard got down to talking shop. 

“So, [need comma] Larry,” he asked.

The mention of sugar cubes and Howard stirring coffee with his finger were wonderful little details that again reinforce the era. Fun fact: restaurants replaced sugar cubes with packets after World War II.

The third problem is yet another info dump, this time about Donny Malone.

Buster Keaton, photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

“All he knew was Donny Malone didn’t belong in no dying nineteenth-century circus act. This was a kid who could jump from a railway bridge onto a series of fast-moving carriages. Who would do it in a hot minute for a twenty-cent bet. A kid with the acrobatics of Buster Keaton. The dashing victory-smile of Fairbanks. And Larry wasted no time telling him. Put on his Hollywood voice and told the kid straight. Told him, ‘Donny. Baby. You ain’t signing with that bum another season.’”

While the description of Donny is compelling and shows he has great star power, it’s still an info dump.

Don’t feel bad, Brave Author. We all struggle with finding the right balance between telling just enough background information to orient the reader and over-telling that halts the story’s forward movement.

Also, if this whole paragraph is Larry’s thoughts, the transition back to the conversation with Howard is a bit bumpy. ‘Donny. Baby. You ain’t signing with that bum another season’. Because of the single quotes around these sentences, I had to reread to determine if Larry is reviewing the conversation in his head or if he’s telling Howard about it.

In the passage below, Larry and Howard are already talking about Donny:

“Donny’s swell. Donny’s Donny.” 

“Cos last I heard, Malone burnt his bridge back to vaudeville.”

“Donny’s done with that vaudeville hooey. Gets into L.A. tomorrow. Donny’s big time.”

“I hope you’re right.” Howard sighed, shaking his head. He dropped two sugar cubes into his coffee. Gave it a stir with his finger. “Since Malone gets his kicks making Mackenzie Campbell out like a chump.”

“Mack’s done. Donny’s contract was up.”

“I’m talking about Mack’s wife.”

“They were done.”

Done, Larry? You think Campbell – Campbell – is letting Malone cross the country with that broad?”

Why not continue the conversation and incorporate Larry’s thoughts about Donny into dialogue?

Here’s a different way to convey the info:

Larry didn’t know what Mack had planned. Never thought to wonder.

One side of Howard’s mouth pulled down, unconvinced.

Larry leaned close and put on his Hollywood voice. “Listen, Howard, for a twenty-cent bet, this kid will jump from a railway bridge onto a fast-moving train. He’s every bit as good an acrobat as Buster Keaton. Plus, he’s got that Fairbanks smile. I didn’t waste no time telling him straight. ‘Donny. Baby,’ I says, ‘you ain’t signing with that Campbell bum another season.’”

The reader still doesn’t know exactly what’s happening or what conflicting agendas are in play among Larry, Howard, Donny, Campbell, and Campbell’s wife. But enough hints have been provided to promise the reader that fireworks are ahead.

The fourth problem is point of view. It feels off. Sometimes the voice sounds as if an unseen narrator is telling the reader about Larry rather than Larry thinking to himself.

Vintage films often used voice-over narration to explain context and introduce characters. A prime example is the 1944 classic Laura where Clifton Webb talks to the audience about her murder. If this is the effect Brave Author is striving for, it doesn’t quite succeed.

Currently, readers favor deep point of view, inside the main character’s skin, thinking his thoughts, experiencing his sensations and physical reactions. Yet that doesn’t feel quite right for this historical piece.

So I confess I’m stumped how to handle POV except to suggest that Brave Author study classics written during this time period to pinpoint how those authors treated POV to achieve their tone. If TKZers have other ideas, please chime in.

There are minor problems with word repetitions and typos:

“Or as much a star as it[‘]s possible to be for a writer.” I smiled at the humorous observation that the writer is definitely at the bottom of the movie industry food chain.

The word “swell” is used three times on the first page. If “swell” is a verbal tic Larry falls back on when he’s nervous, three times might be okay but more than that may wear thin with readers. Perhaps change one to a similar slang term for the era, e.g. Vincenzo’s is the bee’s knees. Same suggestion applies to “joint,” used twice in the first paragraph. And “still,” used three times in the second paragraph.

The last line So what he say? might be slang but could also be a typo. So what‘d he say? sounds more natural. 

Overall, this page is well written and captures the time, speech patterns, and period slang in a style that’s reminiscent of noir pulp fiction. The reader doesn’t yet understand the story problem or what’s at stake. However, the historic setting and the voice are intriguing enough that I’m willing to read on to discover if Larry is a sour-grapes loser, a hustler seeking a shortcut back into the big time, a determined guy who refuses to give up, or someone else. Knowledge of his profession would help frame his personality.

This promises to be an entertaining trip into the gilded age of Hollywood where treachery lurks beneath the glamorous veneer.

BTW, Jim Bell has discussed pulp fiction and noir here. On Patreon, he offers short stories set immediately after World War II about a studio fixer in the Hollywood film industry. You might check out how our resident expert handles his first pages.

Best of luck to you, Brave Author. You’re off to a good start.

~~~

TKZers: What do you think of Donny Malone? What suggestions can you offer our Brave Author? How would you handle POV? 

~~~

 

 

Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff, is on sale at the introductory price of only $.99. Please check out the link here.

+8

First Page Critique: Can You Find the Murder Weapon?

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments will follow.

The Invisible 

Bette always joked Marge’s baking would be their demise—but not like this. The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

“What about those?” Marge said, pointing to a large cluster.

Bette tsked. “I’m sure we can do better. Do you want the girls eating green tomatoes? What if it was—?” She stopped mid-sentence, glanced down, and wiped her boot on a rock. “Oh, my,” she chuckled, shaking her head. “Well, if that’s the worse that happens today, I’m counting my blessings.” She continued her search. “What time did Paige get in last night?”

“Well, it was past 9:00—when we went to bed. She rents a room; she doesn’t answer to us.”

“I know that, Marge.” She moved down the row. “I just worry she’s not getting enough sleep.”

“She’s a student. They aren’t supposed to sleep.”

“Who’s not supposed to sleep?”

They looked up to see their boarder, backpack over shoulder, mug of coffee in hand, cut across the dewy lawn. “We were just saying,” Marge said, “that you don’t get enough sleep, dear.”

She laughed. “Can’t argue with that. But my paper’s due Monday, and I’m nervous about it. By the way, was that apple pie I smelled, or am I still dreaming?”

“Oh, my pies! I almost forgot.” Marge squeezed Paige’s arm. “If you wait a few minutes, you can have a piece.”

“It’s tempting, but I really need to get to the library.” She waved to the sisters as she hurried to her car. “Save me a slice.”

“We will, honey. Now don’t work too hard. Remember, life is short.” They watched her head to campus, after which Marge rushed off to check on the pies, promising to be right back.

Bette continued down the rows, her persistence eventually paying off. As she removed an almost perfect Brandywine tomato from its vine, a high-pitched scream split the air. She snapped her head around in time to spot a red-tailed hawk, something squirming in its beak, swoop below the treetops. Her heart was still pounding when a calloused hand grabbed her ankle, causing her to drop the basket. She jerked free, only to discover the hand was an out of control cucumber vine.

Though the sisters seem sweet, not much happens on this first page … unless you’re a research junkie like me and have studied this particular murder weapon. Which is genius, by the way. Kudos to you, Brave Writer. For those who didn’t catch it, I’ll explain in a minute.

Let’s look at your first line, which I liked.

Bette always joked Marge’s baking would be their demise—but not like this.

Your first line makes a promise to the reader, a promise that must be kept and alluded to early on. Just the suggestion of green tomatoes is not enough.

Now, let’s look at the first paragraph…

The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

I assume Brave Writer discovered that tomatoes contain a few different toxins. One of which is called tomatine. Tomatine can cause gastrointestinal problems, liver and heart damage. Its highest concentration is in the leaves, stems, and unripened fruit. Red tomatoes only produce low doses of tomatine, but the levels aren’t high enough to kill.

Like other nightshade plants, tomatoes also produce atropine in extremely low doses. Though atropine is a nasty poison, tomatoes don’t produce enough of it to cause death. The most impressive toxin from green tomatoes is solanine. Which, as Brave Writer may have discovered, can be used as murder weapon. Solanine can be found in any part of the plant, including the leaves, tubers, and fruit, and acts as the plant’s natural defenses. People have died from solanine poisoning. It’s also found in potatoes and eggplant.

If Marge eats, say, potato pancakes along with green tomatoes during that brunch, it’ll increase the solanine and other glycoalkaloid levels coursing through her system. *evil cackle*

The nice part of solanine poisoning from a writer’s perspective is that it can take 8-10 hours before the victim is symptomatic, which gives Brave Writer plenty of time to let her stumble into more trouble to keep the reader guessing how or why she died.

If I were writing this story, I’d study the fatal solanine cases and put my own spin on it.

Hope I’m right about this. If not, my apologies. In any case, the weekly Girl’s Club (no hyphen and only capped if it’s the official title of the club) brunch seems important and so do the tomatoes. What I’d love to see on this first page is why. You don’t need to tell us, but you do need to hint at the reason to hold our interest.

What if Bette plucks the deadly fruit from the vine and notices how strange it looks? You’ll have to research to nail down the minute details of a toxic green tomato, if any differences are visible to the naked eye.

There’s one other problem with this first paragraph. Here it is again:

The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

Who’s narrating this story? It isn’t Bette, as your first line indicates. And it isn’t Marge. An omniscient point-of-view is tricky to pull off. Newer writers should focus on one main character and show/tell the story through their eyes. If that character doesn’t hear, see, feel, taste, experience, smell, etc. something, then it must be excluded.

Yes, some writers (me included) use dueling protagonists, alternating scenes between the two, and even include an antagonist POV. But when we’re still honing our craft, especially when we’re learning the ins-and-outs of POV, it’s easiest to concentrate on one main character throughout the story. For more on mastering point-of-view, see this post or type in “point of view” in the search box. We’ve discussed this area of craft many times on TKZ.

As written, my advice is to keep the first line and either delete the rest and find a different starting point (sorry!) or better yet, saturate it in mystery regarding these tomatoes. That way, the reader will fear for your main character while the fruit lay on a bed of lettuce on a serving platter during the Girl’s Club meeting. If you choose this route, one of your goals is to make the reader squirm. “Don’t eat that tomato, Marge!”

What say you, TKZers? Please add your gentle and kind advice for this brave writer.

 

+8

First Page Critique – The Lies of Murder

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

PublicDomainPicures-Pixabay

Today we welcome another brave anonymous author with a first page entitled:

The Lies of Murder

Merli Whitmore hadn’t stepped foot in her childhood home in ten years. She expected tension entering unannounced. Tension with her step-mother, not the heart-pounded tension of a bloody chef’s knife stabbed into the wood cutting board. Someone had left her a note on lined white paper dotted with drops of blood.

NO BETTER WAY TO START YOUR RETURN TO HAVEN HILL THAN FOR ME TO KILL HER FOR YOU. WELCOME HOME, MERLI.

From behind, Merli heard a familiar voice. “Hands up and turn around slowly.”

She obeyed the command, turning to face two police officers pointing guns in her direction. “Hello, Ian. Been a long time.”

“Merli?” She was the last person he imagined seeing. “What are you doing here?”

“You know her?” Officer Urbane asked.

“Cuff her.”

While Officer Urbane spouted the Miranda warning and cuffed her hands behind her back, Ian read the note under the bloody knife. Merli sat on a kitchen chair.

Ian pulled out a second chair and sat three feet away. “You didn’t answer my question. What are you doing here?”

Because I always follow my premonition dreams is what she wanted to say. Only her father and Aunt Cordelia knew about her dreams. “I haven’t been able to reach my father in three days. I finally jumped on a plane to find out why.”

“What did Vivian tell you?”

“My feelings toward Vivian haven’t changed.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Officer Urbane took a step forward, hands placed on his hips.

“You look familiar. What’s your name?”

“You’re not in a position to ask questions.”

Ian chimed in. “Zane Urbane. Xander’s younger brother.”

“She knows my brother?”

“Merli grew up in this house. Xander was in our class. Vivian’s her step-mom. Why don’t you find out what’s happening at the other scene?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Once Officer Urbane left the house, Ian returned his focus to Merli. “When was the last time you spoke to Vivian?”

“I don’t know. Probably a couple weeks ago. She has an unpleasant habit of interjecting herself when I’m face-timing with my dad.”

“And you came home because you couldn’t reach your dad?”

“He always returns my calls within a couple hours. I even tried texts and emails and no response for three days. If you know something, tell me.”

Ian leaned forward. “Where were you between six and nine this evening?”

~~~

This submission races out of the gate. Congratulations to the Brave Author for starting with action and a major crime. Merli Whitmore enters her childhood home for the first time in years and immediately finds a blood-spattered note fastened to a wood cutting board with a bloody knife. The message is a real punch in the gut—the note writer claims to have killed an unnamed woman for Merli. That’s some homecoming!

Then two cops pull guns on her and she knows one of them.

Merli has obvious, ongoing conflict with her step-mother and there’s a strong suggestion Vivian has been murdered, making Merli a suspect. Additionally, Merli’s premonition dream hints that her father is also at risk.

This page definitely grabs the reader’s attention early and piles lots of complications on the main character. Well done!

There is also potentially interesting backstory between Merli and Ian who know each other from school days. The author gives intriguing hints without an information dump. Her old classmate orders his partner to immediately handcuff her. Whoa! The reader wonders why–she’s cooperating and is not armed or combative. The author establishes things have already gone terribly wrong for Merli and only promise to get worse. Excellent!

Several plausibility problems jump out but are easily fixable.

  1. The cops appear only a few seconds after Merli enters the house and finds the note. If they were that close, wouldn’t she have seen their car before she goes into the house? Or hear sirens as they arrive?
  2. If a murder had already been reported, the house would be a cordoned-off crime scene and Merli couldn’t just walk in.
  3. As Jim Bell often reminds us, police do not immediately deliver Miranda rights. They gather background and hope the suspect will reveal information before requesting an attorney.
  4. Although putting Merli in handcuffs right away is an attention grabber, it seems excessive if the author wants to portray police procedure realistically. After all, they didn’t catch her standing over the body with a bloody knife in her hand.

However, if, as part of the plot, you want to establish these officers are overly aggressive or Ian is paying back an old grudge, then it does work to slap the cuffs on her as an intimidation tactic.

Merli’s character seems cool and confident, especially with guns pointed at her. She gives short, coherent answers but also shoots questions back at the cops. The reader roots for her because she doesn’t cave in to their heavy-handed tactics.

She has premonition dreams that predict the future—her dreams can be her curse but also her power. That makes for a complex, interesting character the reader wants to learn more about. Well done.

Some small suggestions:

Merli Whitmore hadn’t stepped foot in her childhood home in ten years. She expected tension entering unannounced. Tension with her step-mother, not the heart-pounded tension of a bloody chef’s knife stabbed into the wood cutting board.

Short, simple sentences might work better to convey the startling event.

Merli Whitmore hadn’t stepped foot in her childhood home in ten years. She expected tension for entering unannounced. She expected tension from her stepmother Vivian.

She didn’t expect the sight that made her heart pound: a bloody chef’s knife stabbed into the wood cutting board.

 

She was the last person he imagined seeing. This is a point of view inconsistency because it briefly goes inside Ian’s head:

Maybe instead: His startled expression said she was the last person he imagined seeing.

 

Weak gerunds: there are three verbs that end in -ing in three lines—turning, pointing, seeing. For stronger verbs, here are a couple of suggestions:

turning to see two police officers who pointed guns at her.

the last person he expected to see.

 

“You know her?” Officer Urbane asked. How does Merli know his name? Does she see a nametag? A few paragraphs later, she asks his name even though it has been used several times.

 

Attributions: Even though there aren’t many attributions, the dialog generally makes it clear who is talking. However, this passage was a little confusing:

“You look familiar. What’s your name?”

“You’re not in a position to ask questions.”

Ian chimed in. “Zane Urbane. Xander’s younger brother.”

“She knows my brother?”

Clarify who’s talking with a few action tags:

Merli faced the cop who’d cuffed her. “You look familiar. What’s your name?”

“You’re not in a position to ask questions.”

Ian chimed in, “Zane Urbane. Xander’s younger brother.”

Urbane’s face screwed into a frown. “She knows my brother?”

 

The author does a quick, efficient job of explaining the relationships without an info dump: “Merli grew up in this house. Xander was in our class. Vivian’s her step-mom.”

 

Ian leaned forward. “Where were you between six and nine this evening?”

Obviously, a crime happened between six and nine this evening. But would a responding officer ask about her whereabouts/alibi? That sounds more like an interrogation by a detective.

Also, where did the crime occur? There’s a reference to the other scene,” perhaps where the bloody knife was used. However, if the murder weapon is found inside this house, it would also be cordoned off. Ian would not disturb a crime scene by sitting and having Merli sit. He would take her outside and call for officers to secure the scene.

If the crime happened elsewhere, what caused the police to respond to this location?

I’m raising these questions because they will occur to a reader and will need to be answered within a few pages.

There is virtually no description or scene setting in this first page. The Brave Author might consider slowing down to include a few words to establish what the kitchen looks like (aside from the chopping block and bloody knife, which are great!) as well as the physical appearance of the officers, especially Ian since he appears to be an important character.

The time is this evening sometime after nine p.m., meaning it’s dark outside. Maybe include that detail: She expected tension entering unannounced at ten-thirty at night.

Merli displays almost no reaction to startling events that would normally provoke strong emotional responses—a bloody knife, a note confessing to a murder, cops who pull guns on her, being cuffed. While I admire her cool confidence, maybe include more reaction from her—the shock of cold, hard metal biting her wrists, a brief worry that her premonition dream about her dad is coming true. Let the reader inside Merli’s head to bond with her as she faces these frightening circumstances.

This submission features action, conflict, strong writing, and effective dialog that keeps the story barreling forward. The main character has a gift/curse of dream premonitions that offers great potential for present and future complications. Excellent work, Brave Author.

~~~

TKZers: Would you turn the page? What suggestions or comments can you offer this Brave Author?

~~~

 

 

Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff, is now available for pre-order at this link. If you order now, the special price is $.99. Dead Man’s Bluff will be delivered to your device on June 23.

+6