First Page Critique – A Study in Suffering

Image credit: Pixabay

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Today, let’s welcome another Brave Author with a first page submission that’s described as an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes set in the future. Please enjoy then we’ll discuss.

A Study in Suffering

Ch. 1

“I’m sorry for your loss miss. Very sorry.” But right as the words leave his lip he glances down at his watch. The foot vibrates from his jostling foot.

“How did she die?” The words are strange, foreign. They leave my mouth, but I know they don’t come from me.

His features contort into a twisted pretense of sympathy. “I’m sorry, it’s classified. All you’re permitted to know is that it was an unexpected attack by one of the Betrayers. It’s not my choice, this is all that I know.”

I nod, but after a moment ask “You don’t know which one? Why would that be kept classified?” I’m once again shocked by the numb coldness of my words.

“I’m sorry, but I honestly don’t know. I’m sure you will be told more at a later date. Oh, and i do know that the prime minister will be reaching out to you soon.”

I stare at him.

“Now I truly am sorry miss, but I must go.” He practically runs out the door.

I remain frozen, practically glued to the seat. Then the tears come.

He was supposed to stay for at least a half-hour, but he left halfway through. That’s why it takes fifteen minutes for the secretary to find me, trembling in the chair, tears merging with mascara to create trails of grief running down my face, paper clenched so tightly in my hands that they turn a shade quite similar to it. The paper reads: Valentina Watson, died fighting in combat, 5:55 pm.

My sister is dead

~~~

Let’s dig in. Quotes from the original text are in red. My suggestions are in blue.

The chapter starts with a major upheaval in the life of a character who’s presumably the protagonist. Her sister has been killed in combat and the circumstances of her death are murky. Questions are immediately raised in the reader’s mind. What happened and why is the death is “classified”? Those are excellent hooks with which to begin the story.

However, typos distract from an otherwise promising start.

“I’m sorry for your loss [missing comma] miss. Very sorry.” But right as the words leave his lip [missing s] he glances down at his watch. The foot vibrates from his jostling foot. [this doesn’t make sense.]

…but after a moment ask [missing comma] “You don’t know which one?

“Oh, and i [needs to be capitalized] do know…”

“Now I truly am sorry [missing comma] miss, but I must go.”

My sister is dead [missing period]

Setting: The conversation between the POV character and an unidentified man floats in a vacuum. Is this taking place at her home or work? At military headquarters? Or somewhere else? The reader has no idea.

That’s why it takes the secretary fifteen minutes to find me… This line suggests the location might be a large government office but it’s not clear.

Grounding readers in the fictional world is important. If they have to guess where the action is happening, that not only feels unsettling but also lessens the impact of compelling questions about Valentina Watson’s death. Instead of being pulled into the story, readers are trying to figure out where they are.

This scene is probably crystal clear in the Brave Author’s head but it didn’t quite make the transition from brain to page.

Here’s one possibility to add hints about the place.

“I’m sorry for your loss, miss. Very sorry.” The uniformed soldier sits in a straight-back chair opposite me in a closet-size alcove at the British Embassy. Right as the words leave his lips, he looks down at his watch and crosses his legs. One foot jostles incessantly.

Mood: The characters’ dialogue and actions establish a tense, highly-charged mood for this opening scene. A terrible event deeply affects the POV character yet she is denied answers as to why her sister died. The mention of the prime minister foreshadows a brewing national or international crisis with high-stakes repercussions. Great job!

Character names and functions: First-person POV makes it difficult to introduce the main character’s name without feeling stilted and forced. However, there are a couple of chances to give her name in a natural-sounding way:

“I’m sorry for your loss, Miss Watson. Very sorry.”

Another option is to insert her name in the paper she’s been given: The paper reads: Valentina Watson, died fighting in combat, 5:55 pm. Notify next of kin, XYZ  Watson.

Brave Author effectively shows the obvious discomfort of the man who delivers the bad news. I’m guessing he’s probably a walk-on character whose name isn’t important to the story. But identifying his job or function would add valuable background information.

For instance, is he a flunky bureaucrat in a business suit? A doctor or nurse wearing blood-stained scrubs who’s just come from the field hospital where Valentina died? A reluctant grief counselor who’s supposed to stay with the bereaved sister for half an hour but runs out after 15 minutes?

Protagonist’s reaction: Brave Author shows her shock but the phrasing is a bit awkward.

Original: “How did she die?” The words are strange, foreign. They leave my mouth, but I know they don’t come from me.

Suggestion: The words come from my mouth but they sound as if a stranger is speaking.

Original: I’m once again shocked by the numb coldness of my words.

Suggestion: The cold, detached tone of my questions surprises me. How can I sound so calm?

Original: I remain frozen, practically glued to the seat. Then the tears come.

Try to avoid the cliché practically glued to the seat.

Original: “…tears merging with mascara to create trails of grief running down my face…” I like this description a lot because the image nicely combines physical and emotional reactions. However, it’s a minor lapse in POV—she can’t see her own face unless she’s looking in a mirror. Still, I’d keep it because it’s strong and vivid.

Suggestion: My muscles are numb, useless. I can’t rise from the chair. My eyes fill, tears overflowing and merging with mascara to create trails of grief running down my face.

Use the paper clenched in her hand to add more information.

Suggestion: My clenched hand turns the same shade as the crumpled white paper I hold—official Army letterhead that reads Valentina Watson, died fighting in combat, 5:55 pm.

Story questions: The man states: “All you’re permitted to know is that it was an unexpected attack by one of the Betrayers.” This is a great sentence that provokes many questions.

Who has the vast power to decide what information the surviving sister is allowed to know? Why was Valentina in combat? Who are the Betrayers? Why are the details classified? What is Valentina’s importance that causes a prime minister to become involved?

Time: As written now, the encounter between protagonist and the man lasts about 15 seconds rather than 15 minutes. What else happens during the rest of the conversation? Why is it supposed to last a half hour? Is this particular detail about time important? If so, give a hint why.

Photo credit: Wikipedia, First edition 1887

One last observation: The book is described as an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes set in the future. I’m guessing the Watson sisters are descendants of Dr. John Watson? The title A Study in Suffering could be a takeoff on A Study in Scarlet. Making the connection at this early stage is not necessary but the Brave Author will need to address that at a future point.

Overall impression: Brave Author, you quickly establish disturbance, tension, and mystery. The strange circumstances of Valentina’s death are compelling. The unanswered questions make the reader eager to learn more. But this first page is too bare bones. Flesh it out and it will be a good start.

Nice work, Brave Author! Wishing you the best of luck!

~~~

TKZers: What’s your impression of this first page? Would you keep reading? Any ideas for the brave author?

~~~

 

My new thriller, Until Proven Guilty, raises troubling questions about DNA evidence that’s supposed to show proof but may not.

Available at these online booksellers. 

Or ask your favorite independent bookstore to order it. 

 

 

 

 

First Page Critique – The Scribe’s Boy

Photo credit: desatboy at Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next paragraph is the only one that felt jarring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dictionary.com defines a scribe as:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

~~~

 

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

First Page Critique: Envy Rots Your Bones

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

Chapter One

Envy Rots Your Bones

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m ready,” I lied.

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

“Luke 1:47?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disappointed.

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

Dis-a-ppoint-ment. 

And with that, I burst to the surface.

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

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

* * *

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

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

Chapter One

Envy Rots Your Bones 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m ready,” I lied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disappointed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Page Critique – Dinner with a Celebrity

 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

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

 

Dinner with a Celebrity

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

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

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

“I see,” I had no idea what he meant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPECIFIC SUGGESTIONS:

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

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

“Yes, but call me John/Jane.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Or

 

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

 

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

Secondary characters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, but call me John.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

Brave Author, thanks for submitting.

~~~

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

~~~

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

Amazon             Other online booksellers

First Page Critique: City of Caves

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

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

 

City of Caves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Coming home. From down the pit.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Albie. What’s yours?’

‘Esme.’

There seemed nothing else to say for a while.

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

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

City of Caves (The title intrigues me.)

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

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

Example:

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

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

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

Example (continued from earlier example):

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

Except for her. [Segway into dialogue]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Coming home. From down the pit.’

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

Example:  

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

‘What’s your name?’ (see below)

‘Albie. What’s yours?’

‘Esme.’

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

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

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

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

 

First Page Critique: Side Effects

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

Title: Side Effects

Genre: Psychological Thriller

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

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

And that was bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Page Critique – Little League; Huge Trouble

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Good morning and welcome to another Brave Author who’s submitted the first page of a mystery for discussion. Please enjoy the following then we’ll talk about it.

~~~

Little League; Huge Trouble 

Genre: Mystery

The streets were empty, black puddles filling the trench where they dug up the gas line. It was the quiet time after school and before the commuters wind through the neighborhood.

If anyone was walking through the neighborhood, they would have seen him. He was running with hard plastic soles slapping the pavement.

On Milbert Street, according to the police report, he ran behind the shingled Victorian and through the garden that’s been featured in 40 magazines and down 220 yards of wooded trails to Salmon Street.

He ran left on Salmon, which descends through three quick curves and a patch of native rhododendrons, rising 30-feet high and exploding with faded pink blooms.

The next street, Greenway, is a short road with only seven houses and just beyond the fourth home, the midcentury showplace, he was shot. The bullet entered behind his left ear, severing the spinal cord and the slug tumbled underneath his skull, burrowing through the brain tissue like an angry metal worm.

He rolled down the embankment to the water that collects in the culvert after every strong rain.

When I learned he died and that he had been murdered, I hate admitting my initial reaction.

Damn, I thought, I just lost my leadoff hitter and best catcher.

My leadoff hitter and best catcher, who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.

~~~

I confess to mixed feelings about this page. There are some really nice, evocative visuals—black puddles in trenches, hard plastic soles slapping the pavement, etc. Rather than an info dump to describe the town, Brave Author blends action with  description. Well done.

However, the POV is awkward and off-putting, switching from omniscient to first person. More on that in a moment.

Title: Little League; Huge Trouble sounds catchy, light, and humorous, as if this might be a cozy or a story for young readers. But the title is at odds with the vivid, gritty description of a bullet tumbling in a little boy’s brain like an angry worm, which, BTW, is an excellent simile.

I’m not a fan of semicolons in fiction and especially not in a title. It’s distracting and appears pretentious. Suggest you replace it with a comma or a dash:

Little League, Huge Trouble or Little League–Huge Trouble.

Point of View: The drone’s eye view of the streets, houses, and the boy fleeing from his killer is a cinematic effect that can be intriguing.

Omniscient POV is one way to show the overview of the setting. However, omniscient keeps the reader at a distance and delays introduction of the “I” character.

Tone: I felt off-balance and unsettled because the tone is uneven and inconsistent. It skips from an almost-flippant travelogue of an idyllic town featured in 40 magazines to the horrifying death scene of a little boy. Rather than becoming engrossed in the story, I spent too much time trying to figure out what direction the author was going.

This opener fouled out for the following reasons:

In parts, the tone tries to sound like a detailed official police report with precise factual details: “40 magazines”, “220 yards of wooded trails”, “three quick curves”, “rhododendrons, rising 30-feet high”, “seven houses”, “fourth home.”

But those cold facts feel in conflict with the wonderful, sensory descriptions that evoke emotion: “running with hard plastic soles slapping the pavement”, “exploding with faded pink blooms”, “burrowing…like an angry metal worm.”

Further, the observations about 40 magazines and midcentury showplace sound like authorial intrusions, further muddying the mood.

The contrast technique can work but must be carefully constructed so the reader doesn’t feel like a pinball bouncing from hard facts to the narrator’s flippant observations to strong emotions.

Likeability:  When the POV shifts from omniscient to “I”, the character’s reaction to the murder strikes out big time.

When I learned he died and that he had been murdered, I hate admitting my initial reaction.

Damn, I thought, I just lost my leadoff hitter and best catcher.

My leadoff hitter and best catcher, who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.

Gotta tell ya—The character may hate himself or herself but not nearly as much as I hate the character for that selfish, self-absorbed attitude. A child has been murdered and s/he worries how that affects their team’s chances to win.

Even the hardest-boiled noir treats a child’s murder more gently.

S/he may be a snarky anti-hero whose character arc eventually leads to redemption. But, after reading this beginning, I wouldn’t continue. No matter how much I want to see a child’s killer brought to justice, it isn’t worth spending 300 pages with a character whose values are so crass and selfish.

The Brave Author may be trying for irony, a technique that can be used to great effect. But it must be done deftly when dealing with a sensitive, emotionally-charged subject.

Writing: Overall, the craft is skillful and well done with excellent descriptions. There are some repetitious words (neighborhood twice in the first two paragraphs) and phrases (leadoff hitter and best catcher). Several times, the tense shifts from past to present within the same sentence (It was the quiet time after school and before the commuters wind through the neighborhood). That may be deliberate but it’s jarring.

The unevenness of tone and an unlikable narrator hit a grounder instead of a fly ball out of the park.

But this page is easily salvageable and can be rewritten into a home run.

In the example below in red, I tinkered with reordering and refocusing the tone to put more emphasis on irony: the contrast of a brutal murder in an idyllic setting; and the contrast of the promising sports career of a young boy who’s suddenly and violently cut down.

According to the police report, the streets were empty, the quiet time after school but before commuters wound through the neighborhood on their way home. Black puddles filled a trench where the gas line had been dug up.  

No witnesses had come forward yet. If anyone had been walking through the area at the time, they would have seen him, heard his hard, plastic soles slapping the pavement.

On Milbert Street, he ran behind the shingled Victorian and through the garden that’s been featured in 40 lifestyle magazines. He continued an eighth of a mile down a wooded trail to Salmon Street.

He ran left on Salmon, through three quick curves, passing 30-foot-tall native rhododendrons exploding with faded pink blooms.

The next street, Greenway, is a short road with only seven houses. Just beyond the fourth home, a mid-century showplace, he was shot.

The bullet entered behind his left ear and severed the spinal cord. The slug tumbled underneath his skull, burrowing through the brain tissue like an angry metal worm.

He rolled down the embankment into the water that collected in the culvert after every strong rain.

That evening, I learned the news that my leadoff hitter and best catcher had been murdered—a boy who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.

By starting the first paragraph with a reference to the police report, readers immediately know a crime has been committed. Then they follow the victim as he flees, setting up the contrast between the storybook setting and the horrific crime.

Lastly, the shock that the victim is a little boy is revealed but the “I” character’s reaction is not as off-putting. S/he may later admit disappointment that the team’s chances have been dashed IF that’s an important detail. But I suggest delaying that until the reader is much more invested in the story.

Brave Author, there is a lot of potential here for a compelling mystery but I think you need to decide on an overall tone that’s appropriate for the subgenre you choose.

Is this a small-town cozy? Unlikely because a child’s graphic murder takes it out of cozy realm.

A traditional whodunit mystery? More likely.

An amateur sleuth tale where a youth sports coach must solve a murder? This seems like the most appropriate slot.

What audience do you hope to appeal to?

Once you answer these questions, you can focus on a tone and title that are consistent and appropriate for that subgenre. Then the reader won’t feel off-balance. Instead s/he will be pulled into the story.

Thanks, Brave Author, for submitting this promising first page.

~~~

Over to you, TKZers. What are your impressions? Do you have suggestions for our Brave Author? Would you turn the page?

~~~

 

Try the first book in the Tawny Lindholm Thriller series for FREE. Available at Amazon and major online booksellers. 

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?

 

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!

 

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…

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