First Page Critique – Donny Malone

Photo credit: Thomas Wolf, Wikimedia CC

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

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

 ~~~

Donny Malone

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

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

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

He was asking about Malone.

“Donny’s swell. Donny’s Donny.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m talking about Mack’s wife.”

“They were done.”

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

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

“So what he say?” Howard asked.

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following lines confused me:

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

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

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

“So, [need comma] Larry,” he asked.

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

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

Buster Keaton, photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

“Donny’s swell. Donny’s Donny.” 

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

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

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

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

“I’m talking about Mack’s wife.”

“They were done.”

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

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

Here’s a different way to convey the info:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are minor problems with word repetitions and typos:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

~~~

 

 

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

8+

First Page Critique: Can You Find the Murder Weapon?

By Sue Coletta

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

The Invisible 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s not supposed to sleep?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, let’s look at the first paragraph…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

8+

First Page Critique – The Lies of Murder

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

PublicDomainPicures-Pixabay

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

The Lies of Murder

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

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

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

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

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

“You know her?” Officer Urbane asked.

“Cuff her.”

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

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

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

“What did Vivian tell you?”

“My feelings toward Vivian haven’t changed.”

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

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

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

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

“She knows my brother?”

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

“Yeah, sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

Several plausibility problems jump out but are easily fixable.

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

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

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

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

Some small suggestions:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

the last person he expected to see.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

“She knows my brother?”

Clarify who’s talking with a few action tags:

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

~~~

 

 

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

6+

The Dangers of Detail Derailment

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Okay, kids, we have a first page to discuss. Let’s read it and chat on the other side.

Shadow of Xiom-Thogg

Barbarians clashed on the road to Heliopolis. Three were stout, blue-bearded Sherdens, one of the tribes of sea-folk that sailed forth to harry faltering Egypt. They wielded long, leaf-bladed swords and were protected by horned helmets and bronze-banded corselets, augmented by round shields emblazoned with bulls heads.  One of their number already lay dying, a spear tangled in his guts. She who cast that spear was as alien to the land of the Pharaohs as the Sherden, though she came by a longer and more circuitous route. A green-eyed giantess, pale of flesh and tawny-haired, standing a good head taller than her sea-faring opponents. She was incongruously clad in the manner of a Persian soldier, with a bronze-scaled cuirass over a linen tunic and trousers thrust into soft leather boots. Like a lioness cornered by jackals she battled her tormentors, lashing out from behind a tall wicker shield with a sagaris, the deadly battle-axe of the Persians.

A Sherden made a bold thrust, seeking her vitals, but his blade transfixed the wicker shield instead, narrowly missing the woman’s sinewy forearm. She twisted to one side, tangling the sword in the wreckage of the shield. Unwilling to release his weapon, he was upended and tumbled to the ground. She let the ruined shield fall with the hapless swordsman, and his comrade, seeing an opening, lunged recklessly in an attempt to decapitate the tawny-haired she-devil. Moving with preternatural speed she sidestepped his powerful blow. As the momentum from the spent attack sent him stumbling past her, she brought down the axe, shearing through his horned helmet and splitting his skull in a welter of blood and brains. He fell, sprawling in the dust that thirstily sucked up his flowing blood.  

***

JSB: Ah, nothing like blood and brains to get us going this fine Sunday. Let me say some good things up front. I like this writer’s imagination. There is a vivid “other world” here, and the potential is bubbling in the pot.

In some ways it reminds of the great Robert E. Howard, and the many stories he did for Weird Tales back in the 30s. He could build a world and clash the swords unlike anyone before or since. This author has similar raw material; we just have to chisel it so it makes for gripping fiction.

First off, a tip about readability these days. No one likes big, blocky text. This entry is made up of two Brobdingnagian paragraphs. A browser opening up this book might take a look at the page and think, “Why bother?”

True, readers of epic fantasy are perhaps more tolerant of blocky graphs. But not all, so why turn off a significant percentage of readers when it’s so unnecessary? No one is going to complain that your first page isn’t hard enough to read. So break up the blocks! This page could easily be four to eight paragraphs. (Which reminds me of when Yogi Berra was asked if he’d like his pizza cut into four or eight slices: “Better make it four,” he said. “I don’t think I can eat eight.”)

Now to the heart of it. World building in any kind of speculative genre is a crucial part of the program. But the trick is to do it without overlarding us with details. Our brains (those that aren’t split by an axe, that is) cannot adequately process or appreciate too many unique details coming at us in a rat-a-tat fashion. We will either have to slow down and re-read, which ruins the flow; or we’ll set the book aside, which ruins the chances of selling the next book in the series.

In the first paragraph alone, I count at least sixteen unique details, all demanding to be a picture in my head, and two stopping me cold and sending me to the dictionary (cuirass, sagaris):

  • stout, blue-bearded
  • long, leaf-bladed swords
  • horned helmets
  • bronze-banded corselets
  • round shields
  • bulls heads
  • green-eyed
  • pale of flesh
  • tawny-haired
  • bronze-scaled
  • cuirass
  • linen tunic
  • trousers
  • soft leather boots
  • tall wicker shield
  • sagaris

The point is there’s an exciting fight going on, but my head is swimming with all these details. There are just too many.

So how many should there be? Ah, there’s the skill part of the equation. The answer is: just enough.

Thanks for stopping by.

Okay, let’s put it another way. Don’t let details derail the action. You, author, will have to develop a sense about this. It may be that you’ll require outside eyes to look at your pages: beta readers who are familiar with the genre, crit partners, perhaps a freelance editor.

What you want is an action scene with essential details. Pick a few that best set the stage and flow them in naturally with the action. In fact, that may be a good rule of thumb (though many writers bristle at rules, and use their thumbs primarily on the space bar): allow yourself only 2 – 5 unique details per page in the opening chapter. Everything else should be action.

One more crucial craft point will help you in this quest: pick a point of view! This passage is in Omniscient, which tempts the author to put in all the things they see in their imaginary world.

If, on the other hand, you filtered this action through the POV of a character, you would naturally become more selective in the detail work; plus, readers will be more fully engaged because it is through character that readers bond with the material. A twofer!

Right now you’ve got three Sherdens and one “she-devil.” We have no way of knowing who, if any of these, will be a main character. Maybe this is a prologue and no one here will end up being the MC.

No matter. You still should choose one of these characters to be the viewpoint. When you do that, the action of the scene will automatically take precedence over the details. And that’s what we’re after. [Note: Third Person POV is usually the better choice, but even in Omniscient POV you can select a viewpoint character. See the excerpt below.]

For laughs I looked up a Robert E. Howard story from the January 1934 edition of Weird Tales. Here’s the opening paragraph from “Rogues in the House,” a tale featuring our favorite barbarian, Conan:

At a court festival, Nabonidus, the Red Priest, who was the real ruler of the city, touched Murilo, the young aristocrat, courteously on the arm. Murilo turned to met the priest’s enigmatic gaze, and to wonder at the hidden meaning therein. No words passed between them, but Nabonidus bowed and handed Murilo a small gold cask. The young nobleman, knowing the Nabonidus did nothing without reason, excused himself at the first opportunity and returned hastily to his chamber. There he opened the cask and found within a human ear, which he recognized by a peculiar scar upon it. He broke into a profuse sweat, and was no longer in doubt about the meaning in the Red Priest’s glance.

Notice that we start with action and two named characters. How many unique details does Howard give us? One: small gold cask. No derailment here. We are caught up in the mysterious exchange (an ear? Really?) and what it could possibly mean. Nothing distracts us from the action, which is a hallmark any Howard story.

Thus, my advice:

  1. pick a viewpoint character
  2. give him a name (or her, if it turns out to be the she-devil)
  3. rewrite these 288 words using only 2-5 unique details
  4. with the action established, use 2-5 details per page until the scene ends
  5. from that point forward be strategic in your use of details. Utilize what you need for world building, but never let the details get so thick they interrupt the flow of the story

Others may have some advice, too, so let’s hear it. Help our anonymous writer out.

14+

My Brief Life and Tragic Death – First Page Critique  

 By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Please welcome another Brave Author who’s submitted a first page for a story entitled:

My Brief Life and Tragic Death

Chapter 1. Purple Pumpkins

I met Frank and survived an assassination attempt between lunch and teatime.

I suppose it started with the whistling. I had the palace library all to myself, as usual. The hush was shattered when a boy walked in, whistling. He caught sight of me and approached. It’s hard to smirk and whistle at the same time, but he managed it. When he reached my table, he stopped whistling and stood smiling at me. It was a good smile. It invited me to smile back, which I didn’t, of course.

He was a handsome boy of about thirteen, a year older than myself, with a haircut from the California side of the gateway. I liked him at once, which annoyed me. I didn’t get along with my fellow children.

His smile and likability made me uncomfortable. I gave him a cold stare. “This is a library, you know.”

He looked around in pretended astonishment.

I added, “You can tell from all the books? At least, I hope you can.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Hey, maybe you can help me. I’m looking for a sweet little girl named Flavia.”

I placed a bookmark and closed my book. “Are you being irritating on purpose?”

“Of course I am. How about you?”

I was taken aback. “Why?”

“Look, babe, do you know where Flavia is or not?”

“I’m Princess Flavia.”

“Then your portraits don’t do you justice. I like the freckles especially. A freckle is a beacon of honesty in a mendacious world. Allow me to introduce myself. Frank Barron, at your service.” He stuck out his hand.

If you ignored his actual words, he was wonderfully well-spoken, especially for his age. He had that command of language which only an intelligent person who reads a great many books develops, but without the stiff delivery of someone like me, for whom books are their only friends. I was a bit regretful when I said, “Princesses don’t shake hands.”

“Oh, that’s all right. I’m not a princess.”

I rolled my eyes. “But I am.”

~~~

First impressions:

Let’s start with the title: My Brief Life and Tragic Death.

It implies the first-person narrator, 12-year-old Princess Flavia, is apparently already dead. Is this fantasy? Magic realism? Is it similar to Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, told by a murdered teenager watching her family deal with the repercussions of her death?

I’m not sure what’s happening but I’m intrigued.

The first line drops a provocative bomb about an assassination attempt. That definitely qualifies as a disturbance in anyone’s life. But the tone struck me as too casual and matter-of-fact. I can’t imagine a 12-year-old girl, even a self-possessed princess, being this blasé about someone trying to kill her.

Next, the scene flips back to earlier that day. Flavia is alone in the palace library when her reading is interrupted by the entrance of a whistling boy who’s looking for her. This also qualifies as a disturbance, although on a much smaller scale than an assassination attempt.

Foreshadowing and disturbances, major and minor, kick off a good start, enticing the reader into the plot. Nice job, Brave Author.

Setting and Time:

The mention of teatime suggests the locale is the British Isles, so a haircut from the California side of the gateway sounds exotic and faraway to the cloistered Flavia. Although the haircut and the gateway aren’t clearly defined yet, that’s okay. Longer descriptions could bog down the forward momentum at this point. I’m willing to wait for more explanation.

The time period isn’t defined. Physical books in a library could be contemporary but might also indicate a past before digital books. Again, I’m willing to wait to find out.

Characterizations:

Right away, Flavia’s character interests me. She sounds much older than her age. She’s alienated from people and may be lonely but won’t admit it: I didn’t get along with my fellow children.

She doesn’t react in predictable ways: His smile and likability made me uncomfortable.

And she’s irritated by her reactions, as if she can’t control her own mind: I liked him at once, which annoyed me.

The author raises questions: Why does Flavia react like this? Why does she expect herself to be detached from normal human emotions? As a princess, is she pressured to behave a certain way? Does she secretly want to rebel against those conventions?

Flavia is a character in conflict with herself. Already she’s presented enough complicated psychology to make a reader want to learn more about her. Well done.

Her observation of Frank is not superficial. Like a normal adolescent girl, she notices he is handsome but she also digs deeper, probing into his character.

Frank is brash, cocky, yet charming. She’s interested but, for some unknown reason, can’t allow herself to like him.

Brave author, in a very few lines, you’ve skillfully painted a picture not only of Frank’s appearance but also his personality. 

Flavia quickly sets Frank straight that she is a princess who won’t tolerate being called “babe.” Frank isn’t at all fazed by being put in his place and goes on to eloquently charm her, while at the same time giving readers a quick sketch of what Flavia looks like: Then your portraits don’t do you justice. I like the freckles especially. A freckle is a beacon of honesty in a mendacious world. 

In first person, it’s difficult to find effective ways for a character to describe herself without resorting to cliches like looking in a mirror. This was a nice blending of dialogue and description that didn’t sound forced. 

Voice:

The humor works well. The banter between aloof Flavia and smartass Frank is entertaining. They keep trying to one-up each other, competing over who gets the last word. That creates ongoing tension between them. The reader wants to find out who wins the verbal jousting.

The author also nicely juxtaposes that humor with Flavia’s wistful longing for connection with another human.

The following is my favorite sentence:

He had that command of language which only an intelligent person who reads a great many books develops, but without the stiff delivery of someone like me, for whom books are their only friends.

That really pins down both personalities and poignantly conveys Flavia’s loneliness.

Audience:

Flavia’s age indicates the target audience may be Young Adult. Overall, I like her voice, even though she sounds much more mature than an average 12-year-old. I know intelligent, articulate, well-read kids like her so she comes across as unusual but still realistic.

Line editing:

What if you rearrange the order of the first sentence like this?

Between lunch and teatime, I met Frank Barron and survived an assassination attempt.

Switching the assassination attempt to the end of the sentence creates a more dramatic punchline. 

Another thought about the first line: it could come off as a gimmicky ploy unless the author delivers a payoff within a few pages.

Is Frank the savior who thwarts the attempt on her life? That creates a compelling reason for an ongoing relationship between them.

Or is he the would-be assassin?

Because Flavia already knows what happens (even though the reader doesn’t), she could foreshadow a little more.To raise tension, perhaps she wonders how he got past security into the palace library.

The phrase If you ignored his actual words confused me.

Here’s what Frank says: “Then your portraits don’t do you justice. I like the freckles especially. A freckle is a beacon of honesty in a mendacious world. Allow me to introduce myself. Frank Barron, at your service.”

His “actual words” show a sophisticated command of language so I don’t understand why Flavia talks about ignoring them. Maybe delete the phrase: If you ignored his actual words, 

~~~

Overall, this first page works well. The characters are likable, multi-dimensional, and complex. There’s conflict, tension, and suspense.

Additionally, the author proof-read and submitted a clean page without typos, misspellings, or grammatical errors.

YA, fantasy, and magic realism are not genres I’m terribly familiar with. But the Brave Author did a good job of pulling me into this intriguing submission. Thank you for sharing it!

~~~

TKZers: What do you think of Flavia and Frank? Are you interested in the premise? Any suggestions for our Brave Author?

5+

When Verbs Go Rogue: First Page Critique

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

Monstruo Cubano

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your first page. A public critique takes guts, and I admire your courage.

From this small sample I assume s/he is just beginning their writing journey. So, TKZers, please be gentle and kind in your comments and suggestions (I know you will).

With that in mind, I offer the following critique.

Using a foreign language on the first page is a huge risk. As someone who doesn’t speak Spanish, my eyes glazed over when I read the title of the library. It wasn’t until the second read-through that I stopped long enough to figure out “La Libreria” meant “The Library.” That’s a problem. Most readers won’t bother to read the scene a second, third, or fourth time.

For more on using foreign languages, see this 1st Page Critique.

I want to point something out that you might not be aware of, Brave Writer. Note all the words in blue…

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Look at all those strong verbs! You didn’t take the easy road, like “walked” for example. Strong verbs create a more vivid mental image. Problem is there’s way too many. In this short sample I counted at least 43 verbs. The second thing that jumped out at me was all the chaos in this first page. Don’t get me wrong, conflict is a good thing. It’s how we use it that matters. If the conflict doesn’t drive the plot in some way, then we need to rethink our opener. I’m not saying that’s what occurred here, but I want you to ask yourself…

Does the library or shopkeeper play a pivotal role in this story? What are you trying to accomplish with this scene? Does this opener set up a future scene? The answer should be yes. Otherwise, you’re wasting precious real estate.

For more on the best place to start a novel, see this post.

I love how you took advantage of smell, rather than relying only on sight. When I finished reading this submission, I felt like I needed a shower to get rid of the cat stench. Good job! We want our reader’s emotions to match our point-of-view character.

Now, take a deep breath, Brave Writer. This next part might be a bumpy road for you, but I’m hoping you’ll find value in my demonstration of how to write tighter and more concise.

Monstruo Cubano (Consider changing the title to English. Don’t limit your target audience. Back in 2014, Joe Moore wrote an excellent post on the subject.)

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. Brook Harper squeaked in horror when she stepped inside La Libreria de Juan Carolos, the closest library to her new apartment in Miami. (reworded to ground the reader) She gaped at the Rows of mildewed shelves housed lined not with books, but broken dishes and food-encrusted utensils instead of books. Did she have the right address? (added to show her confusion; for more on Show vs. Tell, see this post, which also dips a toe into distant vs. intimate/deep POV.) When she’d arrived at the airport several weeks ago, colorful displays advertised tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books, but this place didn’t even resemble those brochures.

Venturing several steps farther inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into littered the front window, the outside world obscured by a thick layer of grime.

Stay in active voice, not passive. An easy way to spot passive voice is to add “by zombies” at the end. If the sentence still makes sense, it’s passive. Example: Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window by zombies. Since the sentence still makes sense, it’s a passive construction.

Where did they keep the Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginners Spanish books? Brook hurried down an aisle, but leaped (leapt is archaic, use leaped) leapt wildly (adverbs and too many verbs and/or adjectives muddy the writing. For more on “writing tight,” see this post) into the air when a . A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches. I think “swarming” here creates a good visual, so I’m leaving it alone. Be sure to read JSB’s post, though. Too much description detracts from the action.

Brook skittered backwards (“backwards” is the British spelling of “backward.” Also, “skittered” might not be the best word choice. I’d rather you show us the action. Example: Brook’s boots shuffled backward), knocking into a shelf. Dishes crashed to the floor. (added for sentence variation; for more, see this first page critique) and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted (If Brook doesn’t even know beginners’ Spanish, how does she know SALIDA means EXIT? Something to think about).

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot wedged under peeling linoleum and she sailed through the air, landed face-first she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Cat urine coated her palms and one cheek. Vomit lurched up her throat. Why did she ever come to this hellhole? Maybe her new boss wouldn’t notice her bilingual inadequacies. Good looks had gotten her this far (or whatever fits the character).

If you’re not using dialogue between two characters, inner dialogue allows the reader to get to know Brook. Who is she? Why is she in Miami? Where is she from? Is she shy or extroverted? We don’t necessarily need to know these things, but you do. For more on building a character, see this post and this post).

Okay, I’ll stop there.

TKZers, how might you improve this first page? Please add the advice I skipped. Together we can help this brave writer up his/her game.

 

 

7+

Deep Dive into Craft: First Page Critique

I’ve got a special treat for you today. This Brave Writer submitted their first page for critique. Check it out. My comments will follow.

Lucky Lynx

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Carlos shook his head. He didn’t take his hands off the wheel as the battered Ford Bronco jounced over the pothole-ridden street. “You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

“He gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared.  Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Riker’s.”

That made Eduardo sit up. The seat’s rusty springs made a creak.

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

“Don’t matter what you believe. This guy can erase lives with a click. Don’t cross him, cousin. Keep that nine-iron under your jacket.”

Eduardo shifted in his seat.  The gun was a reassuring weight against his side.

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

Carlos put the vehicle in park, shut the motor off, and got out.  Eduardo followed suit. Their steps sounded abnormally loud in the sudden silence as they walked up to the fence.

Three of the four men watched warily as they approached.  The fourth one took a step forward. A pale face jutted out from beneath a black hoodie sweatshirt.  The sweatshirt hung loose around a lean, slender frame.

“The package is up against the fence, twenty yards to your right,” he said, in a young, high-pitched voice. “Either of you can pick it up and verify I’ve delivered what you want. If it checks out, then you’ll pay the agreed amount. You will not exit the premises until we signal that we have counted the bills.”

“Fine. I’ll pick it up,” Carlos said.

Eduardo scowled at the hoodie-wearing figure.

“You’re just a kid.”

A pause. “The name’s Ti. And yeah, I’m a kid. A kid who scored you your shipment.”

Brave Writer did a terrific job with this opener. S/he has a firm grasp of POV and the dialogue is easy-going and natural, though at times it took me a moment to figure out who was speaking. Easy fix, which we’ll get to in a moment. Because Brave Writer has the basics down, this gives us a great opportunity to dive a little deeper into craft.

First, let’s compare Brave Writer’s dialogue with my favorite craft book for dialogue: How To Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell.

In Chapter 3, Jim gives us a checklist for what dialogue should accomplish.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Story Information.

But only reveal enough information for the reader to understand the scene. Everything else can wait.

Dialogue is sometimes the more artful way to reveal story information. But here’s the key: the reader must never catch you simply feeding them exposition!

Jim gives us his two top tips…

First, determine just how much exposition you really need. Especially toward the front of your novel. Here’s one of my axioms: Act first, explain later. Readers will wait a long time for explanatory material if there is solid action going on.

In fact, by not revealing the reasons behind certain actions and dialogue, you create mystery. That works in any genre. Readers love to be left wondering.

Second, once you know what you need to reveal, put it into a tense dialogue exchange.

In other words, hide the exposition within confrontation.

For the most part, Brave Writer succeeded in this area. But the punctuation causes confusion. For example…

“You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

For clarity try something like: “You know Hector Flores? [That dirtbag who] ran with Familia Michoacana.”

“What if I do?” doesn’t sound right to this particular reader. Simple and direct works best. Example: “That dude? Punk. He’s lucky I didn’t—”

“[Anyway,] he’s gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared. Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Rikers.”

Rikers Island has no apostrophe, Brave Writer. Do your research! It took me all of two seconds to confirm. Details can make or break a story.

Careful of run-on sentences, too. Example: “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Those are two sentences that should be separated by a period.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Character.

We can tell a lot about character by the words they use. Jim gives us another checklist to keep in mind.

  • Vocabulary: What is the educational background of your characters? What words would they know that correspond to that background?
  • Syntax: When a character does not speak English as a first language, syntax (the order of words) is the best way to indicate that.
  • Regionalisms: Do you know what part of the country your character comes from? How do they talk there?
  • Peer groups: Groups that band together around a specialty—law, medicine, surfing, skateboarding—have pet phrases they toss around. These are great additions to authenticity.

Did Brave Writer accomplish this task? Let’s find out… 

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

The vocabulary, syntax, regionalism, and peer groups are all represented. Yet, something still feels off. If we look closer, Eduardo’s dialogue works really well. It’s Carlos’s dialogue that needs a minor tweak. “That’s right” is too on-the-nose. A more natural response might be, “No shit. But get this.” The rest of this short exchange works well.

Quick note about nicknames. If “primo” is the name Eduardo uses for Carlos, then be consistent. Don’t use both, especially on the first page. After all, we’re inside Eduardo’s head. If he doesn’t think of Primo as Carlos, then the reader shouldn’t either while we’re in his POV. 

  1. Dialogue Should Set the Tone (and Scene) 

The cumulative effect of dialogue on readers sets a tone for your book. Be intentional about what you want that tone to be… First, the way characters react to their surroundings tells us both about the location and the people reacting to it.

Brave Writer nailed this part. We know exactly where we are, and the tone is consistent. Great job! 

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Theme

Certainly, many writers do care about message, or theme. The danger in dialogue is to allow the characters to become mere mouthpieces for the message. This is called getting “preachy.” The way to avoid this is to place the theme into natural dialogue that is part of a confrontational moment. As with exposition, a tense exchange “hides” what you’re doing.

With such a small sample, it’s difficult to determine if Brave Writer accomplished this task or not. Just keep it in mind.

Aside from dialogue…

Sentence Variation and Rhythm

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

In this one paragraph every sentence begins with “The,” which dulls the image you’re trying to convey. By varying the sentences you’ll draw the reader into the scene. Let the writing work for you, not against you.

Example:

Carlos veered into the back-parking lot, and the Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble. Broken windows, boarded-up doorways, the headlight’s cast cylindrical spheres across the skewed faces of four men huddled next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. A chain link fence acted as an enclosure to keep this deal from going south—no one could escape unnoticed.

It’s still not great, but you get the idea.

Also, don’t rely only on sight. Add texture to the scene with smells, sounds, touch, and taste. Could there be a harbor bell in the distance? What might that sound like to Eduardo? Is he nervous and chews on his inner cheek to the point where blood trickles onto his tongue? Drag us deeper into the scene by forcing us into that Bronco.

Clarity

We never want the reader to wonder who’s speaking. An easy way to fix this is to move the dialogue up to the cue.

So, instead of this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Try this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster. “This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest. We just gotta push him.”

Or simply substitute “Eduardo” for “he.”

This raises another issue, though.

Would Eduardo really notice the sunlight gleaming off his gun as he’s holstering the weapon? Not likely. Remember Jim’s #2 tip: Dialogue Should Reveal Character. What I’m sayin’ is, you need a better opening line. We’ve discussed first lines many times on the Kill Zone. Check out this post or this one. For scene structure tips, see Jim’s Sunday post.

I better stop there. All in all, I think Brave Writer did an excellent job. The characters are real and three-dimensional, the tone is dark and pensive, and the dialogue keeps the scene active. I’d definitely turn the page.

The question is, do you agree? How many of you would turn the page to find out what happens next? What did you like most? How might you improve this first page even more?

9+

Where Am I? — First Page Critique

By SUE COLETTA

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

TITLE: Sonbgird

chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building. Below me, the slow curve of it swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below. Above me, it changed into a skyscraper. The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see. So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt.

Do it. Do it now.

I screamed at myself to move, but my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. Tingling my fingertips as sweat prickled my forehead.

Even if I didn’t believe I could, I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out. But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve on fire. The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast. He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bight brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate hair over her shoulder. It draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

The genre would be fantasy, I think. Full disclosure: this is not my preferred genre. As a reader, I’m drawn to stories that are logical or at least possible (think: The Martian by Andy Weirs). Brave writer, please remember this is one reader’s opinions. Perhaps others will see something I missed.

Let’s look at this opener in more depth. My comments are in bold.

TITLE: Sonbgird I’m guessing this is a typo and you meant to write Songbird, which I liked right away.

Chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. (first two lines drew me in—good job) I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

The previous two sentences I’ve read a gazillion times and I still can’t picture where I am. Is the MC standing in an empty culvert? If so, then how does wind blow his/her hair “up the side of the building”?

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The Sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building (excellent visual). Below me, the slow curve of it (of what, the walls or tunnel? In my mind a tunnel is horizontal, not vertical. If it is a vertical structure and s/he’s looking down into a tunnel-like pit, then you need a better way to set the scene. Also, whenever possible substitute the word “it” for the object) swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below.

“Sand” threw me. I’d assumed we were in a metropolitan area due to the word “tunnel,” so you need to ground the reader to where we are.

Above me, it changed into a skyscraper.

Again, what is “it”? And how did it morph into a skyscraper? Without some context, these details don’t make sense to this reader.

The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see.

That passage reaffirms a metropolitan landscape in my mind. Unless we’re in the desert outside Vegas or somewhere similar. See why it’s important to ground the reader? Don’t make us guess. If we can’t envision the surroundings, how can we fully invest in the story?.

So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt. Those two lines intrigued me. I’m thinking concrete smokestacks. Try adding more sensory details i.e. smoke plumed into an aqua-blue sky, tangoed with a lone cloud, and filled my sinuses with burnt ashes of sulfur (or somebody’s dearly departed — kidding. 😉 ) 

Do it. Do it now. Nice. I can feel the urgency.

I screamed at myself for my feet to move, but they wouldn’t comply my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. (try to decrease the sentences that begin with “I” while remaining in a deep POV). A cold rush of panic washed over me, tingling my fingertips, as sweat prickling my forehead (changed to show how to play with rhythm to create a more visceral experience. Just a suggestion. Your call on whether to keep it).

Even if I didn’t believe I could (could what? You’re trying too hard to be mysterious), I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair. This I like. It’s mysterious yet, as a reader, I don’t feel cheated—nicely done.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out (good visuals here). But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve was on fire (removed “I felt” to stay in deep POV). The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I still say the MC is in a horizontal culvert that’s hanging over a cliff of some sort. Regardless, please make it clear where we’re at. I shouldn’t still be guessing.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited. Whoa. The MC burst into flames?

I red-highlighted all the sentences that begin with “I” to make you aware of them. If this is intentional, and it may be, then fine, but be careful of overdoing it. Too many in a row can work against us.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast (this is a great way to weave in a tidbit of backstory). He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bright brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. This is a nit: whenever I read “eyes” instead of “gaze” in this context I think of disembodied eyeballs. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate-colored (added “-colored” so the reader doesn’t imagine real chocolate like I did on the first read-through. Some descriptive words are like that. Or choose a different way to describe the color i.e. deep brown) hair over her shoulder. It (Strands instead of “it”) draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

The first line indicates she has long flowing hair, then we find out she’s wearing a braid. Give us one solid image. When we’re not clear right away it causes confusion.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your work to TKZ. It’s been a pleasure critiquing this first page. I hope you found it useful.

Over to you, my beloved TKZers! Please add helpful suggestions for this brave writer.

3+

Set Up a Command Post Inside Your Character’s Head

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here is another first page for critique. It brings up a major issue that applies to all writers, but especially those writing fantasy and speculative fiction.

See you on the other side.

 

The Guide

Sam woke up in the middle of a field with a headache and a fuzzy memory of cold, rushing water. A thin black cat sat on the lowest branch of a large dead tree a few feet away. The cat hopped down from its perch, and disappeared behind the large trunk of the tree with a flick of its tail, as if to say, “Follow me, human.” After several minutes of walking, it turned around and stared. In an instant, the cat was gone and in its place, a man. “Make thy purpose known, mortal.”

Startled, Sam asked “Who are you?”

The man spoke, “I am Andrian, Guider of souls. Who might ye be, and from where do ye hail?”

“My… my name is Sam. I come from Oregon.”

“What bringst thee to my realm, ‘Sam’ of ‘Oregon’?”

“I… saw… a cat. I guess it wanted me to follow?”

“Ah, Cailleach.”

Once again, he was gone. In his place, the black cat from only moments ago. Just as quickly as he disappeared, he returned to his human form.

“Don’t– do that… It makes my headache worse…”

“My apologies. Be ye hungry?” There was something in his voice this time that sounded like….hopefulness? Curiosity? It was hard to tell. Nevertheless, Sam obliged. The man turned around, “Follow me.”

The man turned and began walking away. It was only after they reached an impassable wall of stone and being asked a direct question that he spoke again.

“How are we going to get past this cliff?”

“Do not worry. It is simply a cloaking spell I cast on my land, so that I may be hidden from view and protected in case something happens again.” He walked into the stone, and disappeared.

Sam asked, “What do you mean, ‘Something happening again’?”

He replied, “It is of no importance. Come, I shall give thee a meal.”

They crossed the barrier and Sam’s ears were filled with the sound of rushing water. Once through, the sound immediately stopped. Many different types of rare, colorful birds in all different sizes and colors sat perched on various branches. Andrian reached out, and a large white bird landed on his arm. The bird spoke, “Master has brought home a visitor?”

“Aye.”

***

JSB: Introductory note: I have a feeling the title here is for the chapter, not the book. If it is for the chapter, it’s fine. If for the book, please read my post on titles, for you can do much better.

A few months ago I wrote about the most important question you can ask about a scene. It is, Would they really? Is this how the characters would really act and speak under the specific conditions of that scene?

This is the overarching criticism I have of today’s piece. The result is that the reader, rather than being pulled into a unique story world, is kept at arm’s length. We don’t experience the scene along with the main character; we watch from afar. And Sam’s lack of reaction, resistance, wonder, fear, trembling or anything beyond “startled” runs afoul of the would they really? test. We get the feeling the characters are game pieces on a plot board being moved by the author, not living, breathing people making the moves themselves.

I want real characters here because I like this set-up—waking up in an alternate world. Yes, it’s been done, many times before, in fantasy and even, in a way, in noir (guy wakes up with amnesia). But that doesn’t mean a writer can’t tackle it afresh and put his unique stamp on it. Also a situation isn’t a cliché for a new reader (I’m assuming YA audience here).

So go for it.

But let’s make the “it” better.

Sam woke up in the middle of a field with a headache and a fuzzy memory of cold, rushing water.

Instead of starting us off in Sam’s head, allowing us to vicariously experience this most mind blowing of circumstances, the line merely tells us what’s happening. We need to be feeling, along with Sam, his groping toward consciousness. The only way to do that is to climb inside Sam’s head and lock the exit. Within his cranium is where you must set up your entire command post for the duration of your novel.

Firmly ensconced therein, you can only look through his eyes and think his thoughts. Since he’s just waking up he wouldn’t know that he is “in the middle of a field.” He has to find that out. Start by giving us his first sensations of waking. What does he see? What does he smell? (Smell is especially promising here. Wet dirt? Grass? Dung? Give us something!)

Weave in his pounding head and the memory of cold, rushing water (I like that last bit, as it dangles a mystery).

A thin black cat sat on the lowest branch of a large dead tree a few feet away.

Don’t just toss this in! Give it to us in real time, with vivid description and strategic revelation. What do I mean by the latter? My strategy would be to start with the tree and end with the cat, like a slow pan in a movie.

Describe the tree. Don’t just tell us it’s dead. Give us the gnarls and knots, the sharp witch fingers of the empty branches.

And when he finally gets to the cat, don’t let it just sit there. Make it ready to pounce and, more important, have it staring right at Sam! That’ll send a nice chill up the ol’ spine. We need more description of this kind, grounding us firmly in the reality of this unreal world. Channel your inner Stephen King. (Read, for example, the first page of The Gunslinger and you’ll see what I mean.)

The cat hopped down from its perch, and disappeared behind the large trunk of the tree with a flick of its tail, as if to say, “Follow me, human.” After several minutes of walking, it turned around and stared. In an instant, the cat was gone and in its place, a man. “Make thy purpose known, mortal.”

Okay, I’m lost. If the cat disappeared behind the trunk, where does the “several minutes of walking” come from? It took me a couple of readings to figure out that Sam is following the cat. But you don’t have that in there! So it seems like the cat walks away, or around the tree (?) but is still near Sam. You need a beat of Sam following. This is a perfect place to stretch some tension and give us more description of the world.

And how does the cat get “gone”? Does it just vanish? (Later, you imply that the cat and “the man” are the same, just different forms. A more liquid transformation would be the better choice.)

Next, you have the appearance of the “man.” And that’s all you give us, save for the Monty Pythonesque speech pattern. What the heck does he look like? His clothes, his coloring, his adornments? We desperately need these.

BTW, don’t take the Monty Python reference as a dig. You obviously want this scene (and, I’m assuming, the novel) to have some humor. That’s fine, but the humor needs to come out of the “reality.” If you don’t make us believe what Sam is experiencing, the humor will fall flat.

The late Danny Simon (Neil’s older brother, who taught both Neil and Woody Allen how to write narrative comedy) talked about knowing your “bubble.” He meant your story world. He said, “You must know ‘the world’ — physical and every other way — that you’re going to write about. That will suggest possibilities. You must ‘see’ all the characters in the scene, all the physical stuff, too. Each action of the characters is going to cause a re-action among other characters or the environment.” (And if you’re going to write with humor, you would do well to study the only known copy of notes from Danny Simon’s famous comedy-writing class.)

Startled, Sam asked “Who are you?”

Startled? I should say so! But I don’t tell the reader. Show it! Does Sam scramble backward? Lose his breath? Think he’s going crazy? Can he even speak?

The man spoke, “I am Andrian, Guider of souls.

We don’t need The man spoke. That’s obvious. Give us an action beat or description. He raised his arms or His eyes burned.

“My… my name is Sam. I come from Oregon.”

“What bringst thee to my realm, ‘Sam’ of ‘Oregon’?”

 Okay, the fun begins. I’d lose the internal quote marks, though. That will confuse your intended audience, and isn’t needed. If you want to imply hesitation, he could say something like “Sam of O-Re-Gone?”

“My apologies. Be ye hungry?” There was something in his voice this time that sounded like….hopefulness? Curiosity? It was hard to tell. Nevertheless, Sam obliged.

 Obliged is a wrong word choice. Sam obliged implies action, but there is no action, nor even a call to action. He was simply asked a question. So have Sam answer or nod.

The man turned around, “Follow me.”

The man turned and began walking away.  

That’s one turn too many. It would mean the man is walking away, only backwards. Remember, visualize every single beat through Sam’s eyes. Easy fix: just lose one of the turns.

It was only after they reached an impassable wall of stone

Whoa! That was fast. They get to a “wall of stone” in a nanosecond of fiction time. I mean, there is pace, and then there’s warp speed (which, you’ll recall from Star Trek, blurs everything).

Don’t skip what we need to see and experience. It won’t hurt your pace if, again, you’re stretching the tension. Stretch it! What is Sam feeling as he follows? In fact, why is he following in the first place? There’s no hesitation or doubt. Would he really (not have any)?

And man, we need to see this “wall of stone.” How would Sam describe it? What would he notice? How would it make him feel?

and being asked a direct question that he spoke again.

You make it clear in the next line that it is Sam speaking. It’s his voice. But that means you don’t need to tell us he’s about to speak again in the previous line. Let the action do the work. The words he spoke again are superfluous.

“How are we going to get past this cliff?”

I don’t know what I’m supposed to see. A wall is not a cliff. A cliff has no wall. Ack!

They crossed the barrier

What barrier? It’s gone. And you don’t cross a barrier anyway. You cross a chasm. You scale or go around a barrier.

Many different types of rare, colorful birds in all different sizes and colors sat perched on various branches.

Another great opportunity for description! Let us see these birds as Sam does! Reds and yellows and oranges and purples! And unless Sam is an ornithologist he’s not seeing “rare.” He’s seeing other-worldly. How would Sam react to that?

Whew. Okay, I’ve been tough on you, writer, because you have a situation that would make me want to turn the page…IF I was fully invested in Sam and IF I could SEE this world. So please do this for me: climb inside Sam’s head and don’t come out until you’ve done a complete re-write of this opening scene. And I mean complete. Forget what you’ve written and start with a blank page. Go step-by-vivid-step. Take your time.

Weave us a dream!

Comments are welcome.

5+

How To Invest Readers in Your Story: First Page Critique

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer has shared his/her first page for critique. Enjoy! My notes will follow.

Traders Market

Blowing up a house with five people inside wasn’t the best way to slip out of town unnoticed.

Heart pounding, hands shaking, knowing she should be gone, Emelia Lopez watched through the stockade fence two houses down, mesmerized by the inferno. She pushed the other thought away when she heard the first sirens, and pushed herself into motion.

Keep to the plan, Nick said.

Staying in the deep shadows cast by the fire, she moved steadily down the alley, around a corner, merging into a crowd of gawkers spilling out of a bar.

“It had to be a gas explosion…”

“Was it a house?”

Another boom, another explosion.

“Holy shit! What is it?”

“Your wife blew up your boat. You better go home.”

Laughing, untouched by whatever it was, they began drifting back inside to get another round.

Emelia moved away, her lumpy figure in its baggy dress and sweatshirt unnoticed, one of hundreds like her in the neighborhood.

The second explosion?

Couldn’t think about it now.

A few blocks later, lights from the bus station beckoned. She pulled up her hood and grasped the key in her gloved hand. Inside, no one was paying any attention to the explosion. Too far away. Sirens were common. She put her head down and made herself shuffle to a locker, key ready. She pulled out a large duffle bag, closed the door, left the key in the lock, crossed the few feet into the restroom.

The biggest stall was open, the one with the changing table. Inside, she pulled the table down and began emptying the duffel.

Twenty minutes later, when she was sure she was alone, she came out, stuffed the refilled duffle into the trash can under the counter, slipped a carry-on bag over her shoulder, and checked herself in the mirrors. She smoothed her slim skirt and straightened the matching jacket, tested her ankles in the spike heels, and readjusted the red wig that completed her transformation into Emma Baxter, a Baltimore, Maryland wife and mother, who wouldn’t discover her passport was missing until long after it was discarded in a trash can in Amsterdam.

Emma straightened and strode purposefully out of the restroom, out of the bus station, and climbed into a waiting cab. Gave directions. Checked her phone. Nothing from Nick.

Follow the plan.

She closed her eyes, and the thought came.

Dear God. I’m a murderer.

This first page has so much promise. Anon did lose me a few times, though. So, let’s see if we can make things a bit clearer for the reader. Below is the first page with my notes.

Traders Market (I don’t have enough info. to comment on the title)

Blowing up a house with five people inside wasn’t the best way to slip out of town unnoticed. (Awesome first line!)

Heart pounding, hands shaking, knowing she should be gone, (one clause too many) Emelia Lopez watched (use a stronger verb here: peered, stared, gaped?) through the stockade fence two houses down, mesmerized by the inferno (Nice!). She pushed the other thought away when she heard the first sirens, and pushed herself into motion.

Any time you use words like thought, heard, saw, considered, etc., you’re telling the action rather than showing it. Rearrange the above sentence to avoid that.

Example: When the first siren squealed, a spike of adrenaline shot through Emelia and she shoved off the fencepost. Sprinting toward the bus station (added to show the reader a destination), Nick’s words echoed through her mind. Keep to the plan. Easy for him to say. He wasn’t the one out here in the dark (added to weave in some personality).

Keep to the plan, Nick said. 

Staying in the deep shadows cast by the fire, she [Emelia] moved steadily down the alley, around a corner, merging into a crowd of gawkers spilling out of a bar. Very good. Don’t believe the advice that all gerunds are bad. They can be effective tools. Here, you’ve created emotional rhythm, which works for this particular reader.

“It had to be a gas explosion…” Who’s speaking? If it’s a bar patron, then please briefly describe the character so we can visualize the scene. Even something simple like: a bleach-blonde cougar in a leopard-print blouse.

“Was it a house?” Here, too.

Another boom, another explosion. Meh. It’s a little underwhelming, but it gets the job done. I’d rather see Emelia stop short when the earth shakes beneath her sensible shoes—in other words, show vs. tell.

“Holy shit! What is it?” I have no idea whose dialogue this is, either.

“Your wife blew up your boat. You better go home.” Here, too. Show us who this is.

Laughing, untouched by whatever it was, they began drifting back inside to get another round. Who are “they”? Show us! Also, since you’re not in their heads, you can’t know that they’re “untouched” by anything. You can show disinterest, but you cannot tell us they’re untouched. You also can’t know they’re going inside for another round. The protagonist can presume they are, but then you need to make that clear. For more on writing in deep POV, read this first page critique.

Emelia moved away (backed away? From what?), her lumpy figure in its baggy dress and sweatshirt unnoticed (Here again, you’ve slipped out of Emelia’s POV. Emelia wouldn’t think of herself of having a lumpy figure, would she? Most women would never use that term to describe themselves. By choosing Emelia’s POV, you, the writer, have effectively slipped inside her skin. You are Emelia while writing this scene). one of hundreds like her in the neighborhood.

On my second read-through I discovered that you might be referring to padding inside her disguise. If that’s true, then show us how itchy the material is or the padding lumping together. But you need to clue in your reader to what’s going on. Most readers won’t take the time to go back and reread the first page. See what I’m saying? Nailing an effective POV is one of the more difficult craft elements to master, but it’s crucial that you do. I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have. 

The second explosion? Couldn’t think about it now. (Nice. I just moved her response up a line.)

A few blocks later, lights from the bus station beckoned (beckoned what? beckoned her closer?). She [Emelia] pulled up her hood and grasped the key in her gloved hand (key? Where’d it come from?). Inside, no one was paying any attention to the explosion (don’t tell us; show us. Inside the station five fat guys guzzling Budweisers huddled around a black-and-white television with a tinfoil antenna. Monday night football—perfect timing). Too far away (Maybe the explosion was too far away? Not sure how they missed the sirens, though they weren’t uncommon around here). Sirens were common. She put her head down and made herself shuffle to a locker, key ready (Head down, Emelia shuffled to a row of lockers, stacked two high).

Side note: show Emelia searching for the right locker number to drag out the suspense, show her excitement over finding the duffle bag (or her devastation when the locker’s empty), show her hand tremble as she drags the duffle bag off the metal shelf, careful not to make a sound. Or maybe the zipper scratches the metal and draws unwanted attention from a security guard. See all the ways to create conflict? The possibilities are endless. Don’t make things too easy for Emelia. Your protagonist needs to stumble, fall, get back up and move forward, stumble again…that’s how we humanize her into a flesh-and-blood character.

She pulled out a large duffle bag, closed the door, left the key in the lock, crossed the few feet into the restroom.

The biggest stall was open (that’s convenient; maybe too convenient? Something to think about.), the one with the changing table. Inside, she pulled the table down and began emptied the duffel.

Twenty minutes later, when she was sure she was alone (why is she certain she’s alone? Did she peek out a crack in the door? Did she press her ear to the door as footfalls trailed down the hall? Show us!), she came out, stuffed the refilled (refilled with what?) duffle into the trash can under the counter. [Emelia] slipped a carry-on bag (where did this come from?) over her shoulder, and checked herself in the mirrors. She smoothed her slim skirt and straightened the matching jacket, tested her ankles in the spike heels, and readjusted the red wig that completed her transformation into Emma Baxter, a Baltimore, Maryland wife and mother, who wouldn’t discover her passport was missing until long after it was discarded in a trash can in Amsterdam.

Okay, so, I assume the duffel bag contained all these items. Show us the action as it happens. Don’t make us guess after the fact. Why risk confusing your reader? You did a terrific job of showing us Emelia’s transformation—bravo on that!—so I know you can do it. Yes, it takes more time to show an action, but the payoff is well worth the added work. Every time we draw the reader deeper into the scene they become more invested in the story.

[With her head held high,] Emma straightened and strode purposefully out of the restroom [and slipped right past the drunken footballers who failed to notice her departure. Go Pats! (sorry, couldn’t resist ;-)) At the door to an awaiting cab Emelia hip-checked some business-type dude out of the way and stole his ride. Sucker.]

“Corner of Howser and Jewel Street.” She flashed a fan of bills over the front seat. “There’s an extra twenty in it for you if you get me there in ten minutes.” (Note: I added dialogue to show Emelia giving directions to the cabbie, rather than telling the reader about afterward.) out of the bus station, and climbed into a waiting cab. Gave directions.Checked her phone. Nothing from Nick

[Glancing at her phone, Nick still hadn’t texted.]

Follow the plan.

She closed her eyes, and the thought came. Dear God, I’m a murderer. (This makes me want to flip the page to find out what happens next. Nicely done!)

Brave Writer, I hope I wasn’t too hard on you. If I didn’t see so much promise in this first page, I might be reluctant to bathe your opener in red ink. I want you to succeed, and I know you can. With a little more knuckle grease, this opener could be amazing.

One other thing is worth mentioning. Be careful with run-on sentences. Same goes for staccato sentences. They’re most effective when used sparingly. If used too often, they become a writing tic. 🙂

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

3+