First Page Critique: Go

By Sue Coletta

Today, we have another brave writer who submitted their first page. My comments will follow.

Title:  Go

Ch 1 Go, Said the Bird

I twirled a pencil. My second-graders rustled papers, whispered. We all watched the clock, how slow its hands moved.

The bell rang. I let out a breath.They scrambled into coats and jackets.

“…tomorrow, Miss Glass,” several shouted.

I plodded from school to the Blue Lake City cemetery. After the years I couldn’t, I now forced myself to visit my parents once a month.

“I’m fine,” I told my mother. “Really.”

I kicked at the slush of the last snow. The inside of my fur-lined boots grew wet. Someday, I’d mean those words.

A caretaker tended the graves. No gray lumps of old snow, no weeds, no trash.

I trudged back to Northside, food wrappers rattled on broken pavements, burnt out street lights, the remains of the last three snowstorms packed the gutters.

On Huron Avenue, a tall cop hustled a small, brown-skinned woman out of Ray’s Hardware.

“I did not steal,” she said.

He leaned forward. She retreated and bowed her head.

“Look at me, bitch.”

That deep voice. Redmann. I twisted my fingers together.

For years I’d avoided him, and he might not recognize in a twenty-six year old the terrified child he dragged out of the closet.

He never paid. No justice for my parents.

I ducked my head and hurried into Johnny O’s store.

A grin lit his broad ochre-colored face, and dissolved into drawn brows. “Long face, Nettie. ”

I leaned on the counter. He whipped out two pineapple popsicles and handed me one. Too sweet, the sour taste of lying to my mother, of seeing her killer, thick in my throat.

“You visit your parents today?”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Johnny O is psychic.” He clapped a hand to his heart. “But Nettie does not believe. Woe, woe.”

A smile tugged at my mouth.

“Better.” He patted my hand. “You need a boyfriend.”

“And here I thought I didn’t have a mother.” Thrusting Redmann out of my thoughts–I had to–I bought tomato soup, Swiss cheese, and bread while we made plans for dinner and checkers later in the week.

Across the street, Redmanm hauled the woman toward his car.

***

This is a tough opener for me to critique, because I get the feeling Anon is early in his/her writing journey. When we begin our writing journey, magic surrounds us. We can’t know what we don’t know, and there’s a magical beauty in that simplicity. A harsh critique at this writing stage could do more harm than good. It’s in this vein that I offer a few suggestions to help nudge this brave writer forward.

First lines

Your first sentence should entice the reader to continue on to the next sentence and the sentence after that. “I twirled a pencil.” Doesn’t accomplish that. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the sentence, except that it’s generic. Meaning, it delivers no punch, nor does it hint at the genre, nor does it promise an intriguing storyline to come. It just sort of sits there.

We’ve discussed first lines many times on the Kill Zone. Back in 2010, Joe Moore described a first line this way:

We’ve often discussed the power (or lack of) that first lines have on the reader. It can’t be emphasized enough how much a first line plays into the scope of the book. For just like first impressions, there is only one shot at a first line. It can set the voice, tone, mood, and overall feel of what’s to come. It can turn you on or put you off—grab you by the throat or shove you away. It’s the fuse that lights the cannon.

Joe nailed it! See how important your first line is, Anon? For further study, type “first line” in the search box and you’ll find numerous articles on this subject.

Point of View

Nailing Point of View is one of the hardest elements to grasp. It’s also imperative to learn, because readers connect with our main characters through the proper use of POV. 

The third sentence We all watched the clock, how slow its hands moved.” is a point of view slip. As Laura mentioned in a recent first page critique, “we” implies a rare, first-person, plural narrator. If we’re inside the teacher’s head, then we can’t know what the students are thinking i.e. “how slow its hands moved.”

You could show their boredom through the teacher’s perspective …

Carlton’s chin slipped off a half-curled palm, his elbow unable to hold the weight of his head till the bell rang. (then add a line or two of internal dialogue to show us the MC’s reaction –>) Why he insisted on sitting in the front row still baffled me.

Clarity

We never want to confuse the reader or make them re-read previous paragraphs in order to know what we’re talking about. My remarks are in red.

I plodded from school to the Blue Lake City cemetery. After the years I couldn’t, I now forced myself to visit my parents once a month.

With this sentence structure, the reader has no idea what the narrator means by “I couldn’t” until the end of the sentence. That’s too late. Easy fix, but it’s something you’ll want to look for in your writing.

Rewrite option: After years of avoiding my parents’ grave, I made it a point to swing by the cemetery once a month.

“I’m fine,” I told my mother (mother’s gravestone?). “Really.”

I kicked at the slush of the last snow. The inside of my fur-lined boots grew wet. Someday, I’d mean those words.

Here again, you’ve given us context too late. “Someday, I’d mean those words” should come before “I kicked at the slush of the last snow.” Which I love, btw. Great visual.

Dialogue

If you haven’t read How to Write Dazzling Dialogue by TKZ’s own, James Scott Bell, do it. The book’s a game-changer.

On Huron Avenue, a tall cop hustled a small, brown-skinned (<- is it your intention to show Redmann as a racist? If so, just tell us she’s Hispanic. Also “small” and “tall” are generic terms. “Petite” implies small in stature, though) woman out of Ray’s Hardware.

“I did not steal,” she said. Dialogue should sound natural. This woman sounds stiff and unconcerned. If she’s being unfairly accused of stealing, make us feel her frustration.

He leaned forward (why would he lean forward? Did you mean Redmann invaded the Hispanic woman’s personal space? Towered over her?) She retreated and bowed her head. Try to be as clear as possible. “She coward” or “quailed back” works.

Possible rewrite: Redmann invaded the petite woman’s personal space, and she coward.

“Look at me, bitch.”  Add body cue so we know who’s speaking. Perhaps something like, his spittle flew in her face.

That deep voice. Redmann. I twisted my fingers together. I don’t understand this body cue. Do you mean, my hand balled into a fist? Which implies anger.

For years I’d avoided him, and he might not recognize in a twenty-sixyearold the terrified child he dragged out of the closet. Delete the MC’s age. Or make it less obvious that you’re sneaking in information. Something like: For twenty years, I’d avoided him. Little did he know, I wasn’t the same terrified six-year-old who huddled in the closet while he murdered my family. Soon, he and I would reconnect.

Good luck dragging me out of the closet by my hair now, asshole. (Please excuse the foul language. I’m trying to show Anon how to use inner dialogue to portray rage, and the nickname works to prove my point.)

Sparse Writing

There’s a big difference between writing tight and writing that’s too sparse.

He never paid. No justice for my parents.

Here again, my initial reaction was, paid what? Sure, you cleared up the confusion in the second sentence, but that’s too late. Be concise. Don’t let your writing get in the way. “Redmann never paid the price for killing my parents” works just fine.  

I’m going to stop there. All in all, I like where the story is headed. A schoolteacher runs into the killer who murdered her family. Intriguing premise!

Favorite line: I kicked at the slush of the last snow. 

TKZ family, please add your thoughtful and gentle suggestions for this brave writer.

 

5+

First Page Critique: Watch All Night

By SUE COLETTA

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

WATCH ALL NIGHT

It was the other buildings that looked sinister. They slumped against each other, lining the alley in ancient, faded red-brick. Their boarded-up windows bothered Joe the most. They made the buildings look blinded. February chill, boosted by the river, let him hurry past those dead old things, still hanging round like they didn’t know their time had come and gone.

He could hear the Felbrigg changing from a warehouse to an apartment-building before he saw it. And there it was, full of life, construction crews hammering and buzzing, wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows, fancy new glass door. Fitting into the London of now.  

Joe went in.

#

Greeley, the building manager, took off his reading glasses and nodded to the two construction guys coming up the corridor where the gym and lift were going to be. The men headed for the front door. This desk station and security room made an island in the middle of the reception floor. A corridor ran all the way to the back of the building, on both sides of the island. Greeley had already run through the CCTV system in the security room, and how to change the recording. The security technology at the desk station was more or less the same. Greeley had explained about the alarm, the keys, the touchpads, the drawer contents.

Greeley looked Joe over with down-sloping grey eyes for about the fifth time. Joe knew the sight he made, six-foot-three, the extra muscle he’d put on, and his entire past in his face. Good look for a security guard; not so good, otherwise, to men like Greeley.

Now the men working on the gym had gone, he could hear Greeley’s nasal voice better through all the banging and drilling.

Greeley’s wide, soft jaw settled back into his neck. He said, “So. Think you can remember all that?”

Joe nodded.

***

The way Anon set the scene in the first two paragraphs works for this particular reader. We know where we are, and I found the dinginess of the building compelling enough to keep reading. The first line implies something terrible is about to happen within said building. Which is great. Could the sentence be stronger? Yeah, but that’s an editorial nitpick. I’d rather focus on the big picture.

The largest concern for me occurs after the hashmark. We have a couple POV hiccups and a distant narrator. A hashmark indicates a new scene, yet we’re in the same building as the previous paragraphs. See my confusion? At first, I thought we’d switched to Greeley’s POV, but it doesn’t appear that way. 

Anon, if you meant to switch to a different POV, then we have an even bigger problem. The first page should only be one scene. One POV per scene. 

Everything after the hashmark is more world-building. There’s also a lot of telling. Whenever we use words like heard, saw, thought, knew, etc., we’re not showing the story in a deep point of view. Think about how you, the writer, views the world. For all intents and purposes, you are that POV character. So, rather than tell us you heard or saw something, show us.

Example of telling (limited POV): I heard waves crashing against the rocks. I saw the salt water slash through the veil of ivory foam.

Without adding to the imagery, here’s the same example, only this time we’re in deep POV (showing): Waves crashed against the rocks, the salt water slashing through the veil of ivory foam.

See the difference? You don’t need to tell the reader that the character heard or saw the waves. It’s implied. How else would s/he know?

Okay, there’s another problem. Everything after the hashmark isn’t interesting enough to carry the first page. The building is under construction. We get it. Move on. Don’t waste precious real estate by over-describing. If you want to include the debris, then sprinkle it in later.

The first page needs to accomplish several things:

  • Raise story questions
  • Pique interest
  • Indicate genre
  • Introduce hero (or in some cases, the villain)
  • Gain empathy; not necessarily likability
  • The POV character needs a goal

I recently finished a terrific thriller entitled A Killer’s Mind by Mike Omer. Let’s look at the first paragraph as an example of how to include all of the above by showing, not telling …

The sharp scent of formaldehyde filled the room as he poured the liquid into the mixture. He had hated the smell at first. But he’d learned to appreciate it, knowing what it represented: eternity. The embalming fluid kept things from deteriorating. “Till death do us part” was an unambitious concept at best. True love should ascend beyond that point.

Did this paragraph raise story questions in my mind? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out who this killer was embalming.

Did it pique my interest? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out what this killer might do next.

Did it introduce a character in a compelling way? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out more about this killer.

Did I know the genre right away? Absolutely! It’s a serial killer thriller.

Did I have empathy for the villain? Yes! He’s looking for love and thinks the only way to keep Mrs. Right is by embalming her.

Does the villain have a goal? Absolutely! His goal is to build a life-long union with a woman who will never leave him.

And Omer accomplished all of it in one paragraph. Bam. I’m hooked! The rest of the first page drew me in even more. Powerless to fight the urge to stop reading, the world faded away as I frantically flipped pages like a junkie searching for a fix.

Check out the rest of the first page …

He added more salt than the last time, hoping for better results. It was a delicate balance; he’d learned that the hard way. The embalming fluid promised eternity, but the saline solution added flexibility.

A good relationship had to be flexible.

There was a creak beyond the locked door. The noises—a series of irregular squeaking and scraping sounds, intermingled with the girl’s labored groans—grated on his nerves. She was trying to untie herself again. Always moving, always trying to get away from him—they were all the same at first. But she’d change; he would make sure of that. There would be no more incessant movement, no muffled begging, no hoarse screams.

She would be quiet and still. And then they would learn to love each other.

Notice, too, how the killer is moving; he’s active. We’re not hearing about what he did after the fact. We’re experiencing it firsthand through the killer’s POV.

Anon, you need to do the same in your first page. Show us where Joe goes after he enters the building and why we should care. You don’t need to reveal any big mystery, but you do need to hint at it to hold our interest.

This next paragraph tells us what happened instead of letting us experience it ourselves:

Greeley had already run through the CCTV system in the security room, and how to change the recording. The security technology at the desk station was more or less the same. Greeley had explained about the alarm, the keys, the touchpads, the drawer contents.

Granted, it’s best to breeze over the boring stuff. We don’t need to know how to operate CCTV, unless it impacts the plot in some way. If the paragraph falls into the boring stuff category, then it doesn’t belong on the first page.

Ideas

What if Joe reviews last night’s tapes and sees something strange … a burglar, someone being kidnapped, UFO lights, whatever fits your genre. He shows the footage to Greeley and we’re off and running with a new mystery, a goal for our hero, and intrigue.

Or …

What if Greeley storms over to Joe’s work station with damning footage of Joe sneaking into the building last night. But Joe was at home all night. See all the story questions that might arise from that one simple action? Is someone trying to setup Joe? For what, burglary, murder, or a far more sinister scheme? Who hates him enough to frame him? And why? How’d he or she get his passcode or security card?

With the right action, it’s easy to plant questions in the reader’s mind. But you do need the right angle. We also need to plant the reader in that moment with the hero or villain, rather than the narrator telling us about it after it happened.

This paragraph confused me:

Greeley looked Joe over with down-sloping grey eyes for about the fifth time. Joe knew the sight he made, six-foot-three, the extra muscle he’d put on, and his entire past in his face. Good look for a security guard; not so good, otherwise, to men like Greeley.

I’m guessing Anon’s trying to describe Joe, but it doesn’t work. Some authors never describe their characters. They leave it up to reader-interpretation. On Facebook, a fan asked Karin Slaughter what one of her main characters looked like. Her response? He looks exactly how you picture him in your mind. Perfect answer, right?

The writer needs to know their characters intimately, including their looks, but the reader doesn’t, unless their unique style adds to their character in some way. For example, some of my characters wrongly assume Shawnee Daniels lives a gothic lifestyle. She hates the label, but I show her uniqueness to enhance her character — dressing goth-like raises questions about her. Is she hiding behind all black for a reason? Is she using makeup like a mask to shield the innocent girl who cowers inside? See where I’m going with this?

Greeley has that bulldog look. Great. Let another character tease him about his downward-sloping eyes. Men give each other s*it all the time on construction sites. Show him getting razzed by one of the guys, and then show his reaction to the ribbing. Does he fire the guy on the spot? Does he throw things? Cry? I wouldn’t let this play out on the first page, though. Just spitballin’. 😉

Anon, I see something special in the first two paragraphs. You have the writing chops to make this first page compelling. You just dropped the ball after the hashmark. Happens to the best of us. So, take a moment to curse me out, then get back to work. Make us proud, because I know you have it in you. 

Favorite line of this first page: Greeley’s wide, soft jaw settled back into his neck.

You nailed the body cue in that line. So, stop playing it safe elsewhere. 🙂

Over to you, TKZers. How might you improve this first page? Did the first two paragraphs draw you in? Could you guess the genre from this small sample? What’s your favorite line? Which, if you’re game, I’d like to include in all first page critiques. Not only will asking for a favorite line add a positive spin to the critiques but knowing where the brave writer succeeded is just as beneficial as knowing where s/he went wrong. 

4+

First Page Critique – Zip & Millie: Siberian Adventure

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Please welcome today’s Brave Author who’s submitted a first page entitled:

Zip&Milly: Siberian Adventure

Russian train – courtesy of Wikimedia

“Raccoon” — an inquisitive legal assistant from Ducklingburg, U.S.A., appeared in the car of a speeding Siberian commuter rail quite unexpectedly.

Appeared being the operative word. Raccoon was not exactly sure how he got there.

He did not board the rail; did not catch the rail; did not even wake up there with a start. He just . . .  appeared.

A gentle waft of extraordinarily fresh Spring-smelling air shifted and carefully inserted Raccoon’s body into a tight spot between two groups of bulkily dressed people . . . then, before he could get oriented, that same fresh-smelling waft nudged on and pushed him forward, along the swaying length of swiftly moving train, down the narrow corridor with a row of closed compartment doors on one side.

Instinctively, Raccoon steeled his gait — stance wide, head forward, chin in . . . and, finding no grounding point to balance himself, fell in into the closest compartment.

First thing he saw was Zip — or, more precisely, Spaniel Zip’s rear quarters.

“Score! There you are! Zip! Get here!” whispered Raccoon, leaning down. Losing their best client’s dog would be hard to explain back in Ducklingburg.

The Spaniel lay stiffly in the most unflattering position. Head buried deep under the train bench, black hind paws and short un-wagging tail sticking out on the floor, spread like a dead frog, and Zip’s most embarrassing part — the bright-yellow spot of fur under his tail that made him look like he — was not to careful doing business — was shining in full view.

Not like Zip at all, Raccoon plopped on the floor, sinking feeling in his stomach. Anybody who met Zip knew: Zip would rather die than let his rear side be seen in public.

Raccoon caught a glimpse of red under Zip’s hind paws . . ..

“Zippy?!” Raccoon hunted under the bench, hooked his arm around the dog’s neck and, scooping Zip, pulled gently, cajoling, “Zippy, why are you hiding — come outta — OUCH! Don’t bite!”

Zip whimpered, and scrambled, burrowing deeper under the bench, from where he growled with an unapologetic menace.

“Alive!” breathed out Raccoon, and for the first time, glanced up. Where are we?”

The train definitely looked like nothing that connected through their native Ducklingburg.

***

Let’s get to work.

This story appears to be a humorous fantasy about teleportation directed at young readers. The POV character is described as an inquisitive legal assistant named Raccoon from Ducklingburg, USA. He suddenly appears in a speeding Siberian commuter train without knowing how he got there. Kudos to the brave writer for starting with action and minimal backstory.

Animal names set a playful, lighthearted tone but also raise a question: is Raccoon the nickname of a human character or is he actually a furry, four-legged critter with a black mask across his eyes?

In all genres, pictures from the writer’s vivid imagination must translate to the page. In fantasy, that’s even more important because the world is unfamiliar.

Unfortunately, in this first page, the reader feels as lost and confused as poor Raccoon.

A scene in a fantasy world must be made clear to the reader. How does Raccoon know he’s on a Siberian commuter rail as opposed to, say, a New York subway?

The laws of physics in a fantasy world must also be clear.

How does a gentle waft of air carefully insert a person into a crowd? How does it then push him along a corridor? A waft isn’t powerful enough to move a person. Waft means “a gentle movement of air,” so adding gentle is redundant. Perhaps “force field” would be a better term to describe it.

The compartment doors are closed. How does Raccoon physically move through a closed door? Or do you mean a door is ajar and he falls through the opening? Clarify. Delete the extra word: fell in into.

There are too many modifiersquite unexpectedly; was not exactly sure; gentle waft of extraordinarily fresh Spring-smelling air; carefully inserted. Overuse of adjectives and adverbs dilutes the power of the prose.

You’ve chosen some good verbs, like nudged, hooked, scooping, but they’re used awkwardly. Suggest you simply say nudged, rather than nudged on. Also you don’t need pushed in addition to nudged.

The description of Raccoon attempting to steady himself on the swaying train confused me.

Instinctively, Raccoon steeled his gait — stance wide, head forward, chin in

He’s actually steeling his stance, not his gait, which describes movement (walking, running).

Head forward, chin in sounds inherently off-balance, which is how I felt reading this submission. Try physically acting out the movements in order to more clearly explain what’s happening.

Next, Raccoon spots Zip, a spaniel that belongs to an important client. However Raccoon’s dialogue causes confusion.

“Score! There you are! Zip! Get here!” whispered Raccoon, leaning down.

“Score!” is an odd word to use when Raccoon first sees the dog, unless it’s made clear earlier that Raccoon has been searching for him and finally finds him.

“Get here!” should read “Get over here!”

Why does Raccoon feel the need to whisper? Is there someone else in the compartment he doesn’t want to overhear him? If so, you need to show that character.

Losing their best client’s dog would be hard to explain back in Ducklingburg is a good summation of the story problem but seems misplaced. Suggest you move the sentence earlier in the page.

Was not to careful doing business should read Was not too careful doing his business.

When Raccoon sees blood, he worries Zip is dead. But the dog quickly proves he’s alive by nipping, scrambling away, burrowing under the bench, and growling. At the end of all these actions, Raccoon says, “Alive!” The timing of that exclamation is too long after the reader understands Zip isn’t dead.

Here’s one way the page could be rewritten:

Zip the spaniel was missing. Raccoon, an assistant at the Ducklingburg Law Firm, sat at his desk, wondering how to tell his boss that their best client’s dog had disappeared. He took a deep breath. From nowhere, a smell of spring flowers filled his nostrils.

Without warning, a gust of wind whisked Raccoon from his chair and set him down inside the crowded passenger car of a speeding train. The swaying movement made him stagger. He stumbled into a woman dressed in a bulky, fur-trimmed parka. She glared at him and spoke in a language that sounded like Russian. Outside the train windows, snow drifted across tundra.

Before Raccoon had time to steady himself–let alone wonder how he’d gotten there–the sweet-smelling wind shoved him into a corridor with compartments lining one side. He tried to stop the force by planting his feet but the gust tumbled him like a fallen leaf. He fell through the open door of a compartment, landing with a jolt on the floor, sprawled on his hands and knees.

Under the bench seat, he saw a dog’s hindquarters, stained with red, black rear paws spread out like a dead frog. Raccoon zeroed in on a bright yellow spot that looked as if the dog hadn’t been careful while doing his business—the embarrassing spot under his tail that Zip always tried to keep hidden.

“Zippy!” Raccoon reached under the bench to scoop him out but the spaniel sank sharp teeth into his hand. He jerked back. “Ouch! Don’t bite!” Blood seeped from the punctures. “Thank goodness you’re alive. But what are you doing here?” Dazed and dizzy, Raccoon glanced around the compartment. “What are we doing here?”

Odd punctuation was distracting. Insert spaces between Zip & Milly. The “s” in spring-smelling isn’t capitalized. Semicolons are generally not used in fiction. Try Googling punctuation rules to see when dashes, ellipses, and italics should be used. Here’s one helpful link: https://www.myenglishpages.com/site_php_files/writing-capitalization-rules.php

Be careful with your choreography. Movements have to make sense, be clear, and occur in the correct order that they happen. Action comes before reaction. Cause leads to effect.

I suggest you pretend to be on a swaying train and examine exactly how your body feels as you stagger and fall. Kneel on the floor and reach for an imaginary dog under a bench. When it nips, your arm will instinctively jerk back before you yell, “Ouch!”

By physically acting out the movements, rather than simply visualizing them in your head, you’ll have a better idea how to explain each step to the reader.

Brave Author, your humor comes through. Play up that quality. The story premise is fun. Your description of the dog’s hindquarters “spread like a dead frog” is spot on.

You’ve already taken an important step by submitting this first page. Opening yourself to feedback takes courage.

Critique can hurt as much as Zip’s bite. Read these suggestions. Feel free to jerk back in pain and yell “Ouch!” Wash the wounds and put on Band-Aids.

Then come back later and reread. Suggestions don’t hurt as much the second time around. At TKZ, we want to help you make your story as good as it can be.

Most important, please don’t be discouraged. Keep writing.

 

Your turn, TKZers. Any ideas to help out our Brave Author?

 

 

First page critiques work. Shortly after Debbie Burke submitted to TKZ‘s review, her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and was published.

3+

Creating Tension Between the Lines

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Another first page for us to analyze today. Note: Davina is not the title of the book, but the name of a first-person narrator. The author intends to switch POVs with other characters, and put the name at the start of each chapter.

Davina

      Someone once said nothing good happens after two am

      I try the familiar number at 3:10.

     Where was she? My sister’s an insomniac like me. She promised to call, the big move slated for yesterday. Pick up, damn it. Six rings, seven. I click off and pace, picking up and replacing my hairbrush, the phone, a bottle of baby aspirin, an inch-high silver tree with roots spreading out so it will stand. That one I keep hold of, cradling it in my palm, where the lines resemble roots.

   At 3:30, I try again.

   She answers on the sixth ring. “I didn’t,” she says. “I don’t think I did. I wanted to, but I wouldn’t. Would I?”

   Click, connection broken. What has she done or not done? I call again, get the annoying voice telling me the subscriber is unavailable.

   Off and on for four hours, I call, no answer. The little tree’s still in my palm, I can’t seem to put it down. The last present my father gave me, before he died and left Marissa and me alone with Mother. All these years and no sign of tarnish.

   At 7:30 I call Nate. He lives in the cabin next to ours. “Marissa hung up on me. She sounded weird. You have any idea what’s up?”

  “Trudy’s dead and the sheriff thinks Marissa killed her.”

  I drop the phone, the silver tree, clutch my hair in both hands. Marissa, what have you done? My hands shake, two tries to tap the speaker icon. “How, why?”

   Where’s my tree? Must have fallen on the floor.

    “Trudy went on the deck. The rail gave way where the porcupines gnawed the post. Last night, early morning, I guess.” Nate’s voice swells, an announcer who’s come to the juicy part. “I heard the sheriff talking to the ME. He thinks Marissa made the porcupine’s damage worse, or maybe just pushed her.”

     “Mother was deaf, mostly blind. had trouble walking. An accident waiting to happen.” I hear my voice rising, but can’t stop it. “She probably just fell.”

 “Not what the sheriff thinks,” Nate says. “You should come.”

***

JSB: The author has begun with a disturbance, which automatically puts this page into the “highly promising” category. Over the course of time here at TKZ we’ve seen two common errors popping up on these first pages: openings with characters alone, thinking or feeling; and loads of exposition and/or backstory.

But this page starts with the narrator, Davina, trying to get hold of her sister late at night. When she does, the sister sounds “weird.” Then she finds out the very bad news. Bad news is a good choice for an opening!

Now let’s render it in the most effective manner.

The first line seems superfluous to me. The second line is action, and I’d start there. Tweak it a bit. It’s 3:10 a.m. when I try the number again. 

I like the details of the next paragraph. It helps us feel what the narrator feels. The pacing, the anxiety. Specificity of small details is something many new writer’s overlook. Not so this author.

Next, the sister answers and gives her odd response. To this point, I’m right with the author.

Then:

Click, connection broken. What has she done or not done? I call again, get the annoying voice telling me the subscriber is unavailable.

Here is where a little craft will pay off with large dividends. Cut this line: What has she done or not done? We don’t need it. It’s explanatory. Never explain when what’s actually happening on the page. We know this is what the narrator is thinking; we don’t have to be told.

Off and on for four hours, I call, no answer.

This is a good use of narrative summary. It moves us along quickly to the next point in the scene. There are times when you should “tell” in just this way. Usually it’s to transition between scenes, but sometimes, as here, you do it jump ahead in time to get to the meat of a scene.

I like the one line of backstory: The last present my father gave me, before he died and left Marissa and me alone with Mother. My rule of thumb for new writers is three lines of backstory in the first ten pages, used together or spread out. This is one such line.

Then we come to the phone call to Nate. I have some concerns about the dialogue.

When the narrator asks what’s up, Nate immediately says, “Trudy’s dead and the sheriff thinks Marissa killed her.”

Is that the way a neighbor would give such horrible news? And he uses the name Trudy instead of Your mother. Maybe there’s something odd about him (no social skills?) but that doesn’t come through here. I think it would be more impactful if he prepared her a bit, and didn’t use Trudy to break it to her.

Let’s look at this passage:

I drop the phone, the silver tree, clutch my hair in both hands. Marissa, what have you done? My hands shake, two tries to tap the speaker icon. “How, why?”

Where’s my tree? Must have fallen on the floor.

Again, there are two lines in here that are explanatory. Can you spot them?

Look how much crisper it reads when those lines are removed:

I drop the phone, the silver tree, clutch my hair in both hands. My hands shake, two tries to tap the speaker icon. “How, why?”

Where’s my tree?

Then we get some exposition “slipped in” for the reader:

“Mother was deaf, mostly blind. had trouble walking. An accident waiting to happen.”

Always be aware of dialogue where one character tells another something they both already know. Chances are you’ve done that primarily to give the reader expository info you think they need to understand the scene.

Resist that urge. You can wait until a more natural time for this info, such as the narrator being questioned by the police or some such.

Try ending the page this way:

I hear my voice rising, but can’t stop it. “She probably just fell.”

“Not what the sheriff thinks,” Nate says. “You better come.”

(I changed should to better.)

In sum: this is a scene that has the natural tension of an opening disturbance. Cutting the lines of needless explanation will allow the tension to be felt more directly by the reader. And some simple cuts in the dialogue will render a more natural sound.

Well done, writer.

Okay, I’m in travel mode today, so I leave our author in the hands of the TKZ community for further comment!

4+

Recognizing Writing Tics – First Page Critique

By Sue Coletta

We have another brave writer who submitted their first page for critique. I took the liberty of breaking up the paragraphs for easier reading. Anon, white space is our friend. My comments will follow. Enjoy!

Untitled

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman. Deafening and chilling screams, echoed through the steel door.  Andromeda found herself in a small room, with cold metal walls, a plain steel table, metal bed with a thin mattress and blanket, and an uncomfortable looking metal chair. She was a tall, beautiful young woman, whose long black hair fell down to her shoulders, and slightly covered her almond shaped face.

An eerie chill pierced the air in the room, and Andromeda wasn’t sure if the goosebumps that followed were because of the woman screaming, or the total lack of insulation in the room – likely a combination of both.

Andromeda looked around the room, her heart pounding through her chest. Her attempts to remember how she got here was futile; the only thing she remembered was cleaning up after her best friend and roommate Sofia, who was recuperating from the flu.

After disposing of soiled tissue paper and disinfecting their dorm room, Andromeda turned on some classical music and tucked herself in bed. After that, there was a black spot in her memory. She sat up in the bed that she woke up in, and began to stretch and look around the room.

Dressed in a white t-shirt, gray fleece shorts, and white socks, she began to walk around the stark and unoccupied room, looking for anything that may give her a clue as to where she was. She wrapped her arms around her body, bracing herself for the shudder and chills that followed.

The room had the look and feel of a military interrogation chamber: there were no windows, no traces that anyone even knew she was there. But someone knew she was here, the same someone who put her in this place. Suddenly, Andromeda was reminded of the screams as they began again, growing increasingly louder, followed by a loud “BOOM!” Andromeda ran to the door, preparing her mind to bang on the door with all of her might, to hell with alerting whomever put her in this room; the only thing on her mind was escaping. However, before she could even touch the door, it receded into the floor.  Andromeda fell face first onto the cold, hard, metal floor of the hallway. The palms of her hands were burning, and so were her legs.

***

After reading this piece several times, I still can’t figure out if it’s a dream sequence or if it’s the opener for a fantasy novel. The last line indicates the events happened in the real world—how else would her hands and legs be burning?— so my guess is we’re in a fantasy world. If this is a dream, however, we need to be careful not to trick the reader. Opening with a dream is risky. Does that mean we can never do it? No. But we do need to learn the rules of storytelling before we break them.

Let’s set aside the last two sentences for a moment.

Our hero is actively searching for a means of escape while at the same time, wrestling with how she landed in an unfamiliar room. Anon didn’t give away too much too soon, either. Which is great. An opening page should raise story questions and pique the reader’s interest. Our goal is to make it impossible not to flip the page. Anon, I really hope this isn’t a dream, or it’ll undo all the conflict and tension you’ve worked so hard to create.

Writing Tics

Believe me, we all have our fair share of words we favor, extra words (overwriting), and unnecessary words that get in the way. The trick is learning how our writing tics weaken our writing.

This first page is littered with began. It may seem nitpicky to mention it, but it popped right out at me. Our goal is for individual word choices to deliver the right balance of cadence, emotion, transparency, and rhythm, so the reader enjoys the story with no hiccups. Words like began and started detract from the action.  Allow me to show you what I mean.

First line of the excerpt …

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman.

If we only remove “began to be” …

The smell of burning wood and flesh drowned out the sound of screams … the screams of a woman.

See how more immediate that reads? Next, let’s shuffle a few words around so the reader can share in the experience.

Screams drowned out the smell of burning wood and flesh … the screams of a woman. 

Better, but it still needs a few tweaks. By being specific and intentional we paint a more vivid picture …

High-pitched screams collided with the stench of burning flesh … screams of a woman.

Next line: remember to introduce the hero right away so the reader knows who’s telling the story. While we’re at it, let’s deepen the point of view by removing all telling words i.e. smell, sound, remember, knew, thought, felt, etc.

Inside the cramped room with metal-lined walls, Andromeda [last name] jolted upright in an unfamiliar bed, the bare mattress yellowed, torn.

Adding Inner dialogue allows the reader to empathize with our hero. Let’s add that here …

Where was she?

We still need sensory details and conflict …

Rotted meat blended with the warmth of a campfire. Plumes of smoke billowed through the barred-window in the steel door—her only source of air. And light. No windows, no other doors, no means for escape. A steel hydraulic table sat in the corner, a trickle of blood snaked down one leg, the remaining surface polished to a glossy shine.

Hero’s reaction …

Andromeda’s heart thrashed, rattling her ribcage. Was her captor incinerating live victims?

Put it all together …

High-pitched screams collided with the stench of burning flesh … the screams of a woman. Inside the cramped room with metal-lined walls, Andromeda [last name] jolted upright in an unfamiliar bed, the bare mattress yellowed, torn.

Where was she? 

Rotted meat blended with the warmth of a campfire. Smoke billowed through the barred-window in the steel door—her only source of air. And light. No windows, no other doors, no means for escape. A steel hydraulic table sat in the corner, a trickle of blood snaked down one leg, the remaining surface polished to a glossy shine. 

Andromeda’s heart thrashed, rattling her ribcage. Was her captor incinerating live victims?

See how these tweaks pull the reader deeper into the story?

Because it feels like this brave writer is early on in their journey, I added a few quick tips rather than bleed red ink all over the excerpt. I’d hate to be responsible for shattering the magic that keeps us thirsting for knowledge, keeps us creating. The beginning of our journey is an important time in every writer’s career. The muse is running wild and possibilities are endless.

Quick tips

  • Watch your adverbs; words like suddenly don’t add tension;
  • Be specific; rather than “some classical music,” name the composer;
  • All caps are reserved for acronyms, not for words like “Boom”;
  • Use active voice, not passive; this post may help;
  • Followed by, for the most part, is similar to began and started in that we need to reword to make the action more immediate;
  • Anytime you write “herself” you lessen the point of view i.e. tucked herself in bed. Instead, try something like: she slipped under the covers. Or, she swung her legs under the blanket.

I hope these tips help with your next draft, Anon. If this first page isn’t a dream, you have the makings of an intriguing story. Wishing you the best of luck!

Over to you, TKZ family. What tips would you give this brave writer?

 

 

3+

The Wagon Wheel of Suspense

By Sue Coletta

We have another gutsy writer who submitted their first page. Please pay special attention to the notes at the end of this post, and you’ll understand my title (I hope).

Gym Body

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. Deep breath. Step in. The cop cars outside reminded me of something that had happened long ago.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes.

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down.

Breathing in the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.”

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist, and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepen into greater and more cynical levels of boredom depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now she was pushing 11 on a bored-look scale of 10. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.”

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!”

Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars. She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

* * *

NITTY-GRITTY

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. If her hand is on the door handle, how could she feel her heartbeat in her palm? If you’d like to deepen the POV, reword like this: With my hand on the gym door handle, the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio pulsed through my hand.  Deep breath. Staccato sentence, which varies sentence structure and adds rhythm. Good job! Step in. This one may be overdoing it, but it’s a stylistic choice. The cop cars outside [the building] reminded me of something that had happened long ago. I’d love a hint to what happened. Don’t explain in detail, though. Rather, hint at it, teasing us to keep us interested. As written, it’s not enough.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes. Good. It makes me wonder why she’s so upset. I hope it’s because someone got their head bashed in with a weight and not due to a minor disagreement. Meaning, if you’re going to show us a woman racing down the stairs in tears in the opening paragraph, you ought to have a compelling reason why, a reason the reader will soon discover. This is precious real estate. Don’t waste it on meaningless conflict that has no bearing on the forthcoming quest. 

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down. Meh. I’d delete this sentence. It detracts from the next sentence, which I like. Breathing in Inhaling the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card. Bravo on using sound and smell to enhance the mental image. Too often writers forget to use these senses, and often they’re the most powerful.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.” You managed to sneak in the main character’s name, which is great. However, this dialogue is too on-the-nose. What if Trixie gossiped about why the woman ran out in tears? Again, give us a compelling reason. 

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist “Fell” indicates she had her hair up prior to this., and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepened into greater and more cynical levels of boredom, depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now, she was pushing 11 eleven on a bored-look scale of 10 ten. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.” Love the snark. This paragraph shows us Suzi’s fun personality. Very good.

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. Unless the character is shouting, lose the exclamation point. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!” <– Here too. Rather than pick away at this, I’m stopping here. Please jump to the notes below. Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars.  She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

Old Fashioned Wagon Wheel Garden Fountain

NOTES

Even if we tightened the writing, these last two paragraphs still aren’t interesting enough for the opening page. I’d rather see you use this space to hint at what Suzi will find inside her classroom. Dead body? Blood? An escaped zoo gorilla? Hordes of tarantulas from the exotic pet store next door? Prison escapee? Suzi’s ex-husband who just dumped the crying woman? My point is, the details must connect. Or show us why she fears the past might be repeating itself. Hint at the disturbance you mentioned in the first paragraph. As it stands now, the cop cars disappeared from Suzi’s mind. By including too many details about the surroundings you’ve undone the tension you started to build in the opening paragraph.

The title, I assume, is a play on words. Gym body = dead body in the gym? As a crime writer, my mind jumps to a scenario that involves murder. If this isn’t the case, then you need a new title. Preferably one that hints at the genre.

THE WAGON WHEEL OF SUSPENSE

Envision an old fashioned wagon wheel fountain (pictured above). The water rides up in the buckets, over the top of the wheel, and spills down into the same basin. The water itself never changes, even though it cycles through several buckets. In writing, especially in our opening chapter, we need to narrow our focus to one main conflict (i.e. a killer on the loose), one compelling question that the reader needs to answer (why do folks die at this specific gym?). This is how we force them to turn the page. We can and should include several disturbances along the way (in this analogy, I’m referring to the buckets), but they all should relate to that main conflict (the water) in some way.

In the opening chapter it’s crucial to stop the wheel partway. Don’t let that water escape till later, thereby raising the main dramatic story question. We still need to transfer the water from bucket to bucket on the way up the wheel (remember, conflict drives story). That’s how we build suspense, little by little, almost painfully teasing the reader till we’re ready to let the water flow.

In this opening chapter, the main conflict could be what’s inside Suzi’s classroom that’s so horrible a woman pounded down the stairs in tears after witnessing it, but you’d need to drop more clues to make us want to find out. Use the patrol cars outside the building as one disturbance. How does the past relate to present day? What sort of reaction do the lights and sirens have on Suzi? Has this gym been the scene of other murders? Hint at how these things connect to pique the reader’s interest.

Anon, please remember, if I thought you were just beginning your writing journey, you wouldn’t see this much red ink. Your grasp of POV tells me you’ve got the skills to do better. I already like Suzi enough to go for the ride. That’s a huge plus. All you need to do is give us a compelling reason to turn the page. With some tweaking, I know you can do it.

Over to you, TKZers! What advice would you give to improve this first page?

8+

1st Page Critique: Pinprick

By SUE COLETTA 

We have another brave writer who submitted their 1st page for critique. My suggestions will follow. 

Title: Pinprick 

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA 

Rosa Gomez slammed the door behind her and stalked out onto her small front porch.  She’d just seen the tattoo on her nephew Bernardo’s neck, and knew that if she stayed in the house she’d do something she’d regret.   Mara Salvatrucha was scrawled in ink across the back of his sixteen year old skin.   Mara Salvatrucha meant MS-13, the most vicious street gang in the Americas.   

She collapsed into the rocking chair where she spent her evenings, rocking back and forth, glaring at the gang members who paraded past her bungalow.  Her house was the last one in the neighborhood with a mowed lawn and a front light that hadn’t been shattered by gunfire.  They’d demanded that she pay them money as recognition that they controlled the neighborhood, but she’d vowed to die before she paid them any tribute.   

Most nights she sat with a shotgun on her lap, reminding the punks that they might control the neighborhood but they couldn’t control her.  

She glared out into the darkness, her lower lip thrust forward, knowing that her defiance would be seen by the mareros.  She’d been stubborn since the day she was born.  Her father said he’d seen more of her lower lip than any other part of her body.

Chamacas,” she shouts at the street.   She’s calling them little girls, the way they said it in El Salvador.    It wasn’t much to throw at them, but she’s so upset it’s all she can think of.   

She collapsed back into her chair, rocking back and forth in the early November chill, settling into the rhythm that pumped blood into her arthritic knees.   

 

I like where you’re going with this, Anon. If done well, this could be a compelling storyline about a world many people don’t know a lot about. One word of caution: please portray the inner-workings of gang life and those affected by it in an accurate way, rather than basing your research on the stereotypes fueled by the media. I’m not saying you’ve done that here, just something to think about.  

Big Picture  

Why not show Rosa’s reaction when she first sees the tattoo? This is a big deal. Her nephew just joined a ruthless street gang, the same gang that’s harassed the neighborhood for years. SHOW us how he first told his aunt he’d jumped in. Did she see the tattoo by accident when he stripped off his shirt? Did he flaunt the tattoo in her face? Had he been covered in welts, cuts, and bruises days before this tattoo appeared? There’s your opening. Save what you have here for page 3 or 4. 

First Lines 

I’m a sucker for a great first line. It often takes me several rewrites till I’m satisfied, so I understand the struggle. A great first line accomplishes many things.

A first line should …

  • Hook the reader 
  • Establish mood  
  • Give a sense of foreboding 
  • Reveal character and voice 
  • Hint at, or outright show, an obstacle 

If the first line doesn’t grab the reader’s attention – Think: “Hey, pay attention!” — they may not read the sentence that follows. For writers who choose the traditional publishing model, here’s a hard truth. Agents and acquisition editors give each query 8 seconds, max. If the first line doesn’t grab them, you could drown in that slush pile. 

Links for further study … 

Jerry Jenkins broke down opening lines into four categories: surprise, dramatic statement, philosophical, and poetic. Find the post HERE. 

Writer’s Digest gave us 7 Ways to Create a Killer First Line. 

One of my favorite features on Writer Unboxed is Flog a Pro. Here, you can read numerous 1st pages from books that sit on the New York Times Bestsellers’ List. Skim 58 opening lines, and you’ll see why they’re so important. It’ll also help spark ideas for your story. 

Point of View 

You’re using a limited 3rd POV, which is fine if that’s your intention. However, deep POV has the ability to more closely bond the reader to the main character. Whether you write in 3rd or 1st doesn’t matter. The technique is the same. I hate to keep beating this particular drum, so for an in-depth look at deep POV read this 1st Page Critique 

Nitpicks 

We use one space after a period, not two (or three, like you’ve done in a few places). This may seem petty, but details matter. You also have your tab set to an awkward spacing, which justified when I copied to the blog. The norm is .5.  

Nitty Gritty  

Rosa Gomez slammed the door behind her and stalked out onto her small front porch. (Strong action verbs form an excellent mental picture. Very good. However, try using a first line that delivers more of a punch.) She’d just seen the tattoo on her nephew Bernardo’s neck, and knew that if she stayed in the house she’d do something she’d regret. “Seen” and “knew” are telling words. Anytime you tell the reader what’s happened you rob them of the experience. The same sentence rewritten to show the action would look like this: After glimpsing the tattoo on her nephew’s neck (we don’t need to know his name yet)Rosa stormed out of the house before she crucified him. Sixteen years old and he’s marked for life.

Mara Salvatrucha was scrawled in ink across the back (isn’t the tattoo on his neck? Or do you mean the back of his neck? Be clear and concise. I had to scroll to the top to make sure I’d read “neck” the first time) of his sixteen-year-old skin. Too on-the-nose. See how I slipped in his age earlier? That’s one option. Another is to show through dialogue.  

For example, when she confronts Bernardo, he could say, “I’m an adult. I can do what I want with my body.”  

“But you’re only sixteen, Meho.” 

Mara Salvatrucha meant MS-13, the most vicious street gang in the Americas. The explanation of MS-13 I’ll get to in a minute. In the meantime, America has no “s.” Perhaps you meant “United States”.   

She collapsed into the rocking chair where she spent her most evenings, rocking back and forth, glaring at the gang members who paraded past her bungalow.  Her house was the last one in the neighborhood with a mowed lawn and a front light that hadn’t been shattered by gunfire (the wording could be tighter, but I like that this shows Rosa doesn’t take any crap. She’ll make a fine hero for this story.) They’d demanded that she pay them money as recognition that they controlled the neighborhood, but she’d vowed to die before she paid them any tributeTribute’s an odd word choice. More importantly, you’re missing an excellent opportunity to sneak in a tidbit about Rosa’s background and/or show her personality. Example: She hadn’t scrubbed bedpans for forty years to fork over the cash to a bunch of gang-bangers. They’d have to kill her first. 

Most nights she sat with a shotgun on her lap, reminding the punks that they might control the neighborhood but they couldn’t control her.  Nicely done. 

She glared out into the darkness, her lower lip thrust forward, knowing that her defiance would be seen by the mareros. The title of a street gang should be capitalized. “Knowing” is a telling word. You started to SHOW us the action, then pulled back. Rosa glared into the darkness with her lower lip thrust forward. Any minute now, the Mareros would catch wind of her defiance. She tapped her signet ring against the cool steel of her shotgun. Let them come.  She’d been stubborn since the day she was born.  Her father said he’d seen more of her lower lip than any other part of her body. The last two sentences are unnecessary backstory and all telling. SHOW these details later through dialogue and action. 

Chamacas,” she shouts at the street.   She’s calling them little girls, the way they said it in El SalvadorIt wasn’t much to throw at them, but she’s so upset it’s all she can think of.  This paragraph slips into present tense … “shouts” should be “shouted”, etc. But it also raises a bigger, more important issue — the use of a foreign language. On one hand, we want to be authentic in our writing. On the other, we don’t want to have to explain. Or worse, risk confusing our reader. Some writing advice says to stick with English. Period. Or only throw in a foreign word (always italicized, btw) if the meaning is clear.  

I like to take chances in my writing, so I didn’t heed this warning. In SCATHED, I included an old-school Italian grandmother, Mrs. Falanga. Like many Italian grandmothers (and I’m no exception), she’s very excitable and enthusiastic around children. Problem is, when she gets rolling she slides into mixing both dialects together. It’s also part of her charm, along with hand motions to accent her words. These mannerisms and speech enhance Mrs. Falanga’s character. To avoid her native tongue would destroy some of her endearing qualities. That said, she wasn’t an easy character to write. I can tell you how I handled using a foreign language, but we don’t have room for that today. I will, however, write a post about it in the near future. To be continued …  

She collapsed back into her chair, rocking back and forth in the early November chill, settling into the rhythm that pumped blood into her arthritic knees. I like the mental image. Rosa reminds me of Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino. We don’t necessarily need to know about Rosa’s arthritic knees, but if you choose to include it, then SHOW her knees aching. With the shotgun leveled in her lap, does she take a moment to massage one knee?

Overall, I like Rosa enough to turn the page. How ’bout you, TKZers? What advice would you give to strengthen this 1st page? Thanks to Anon for sharing his/her work. A public critique takes courage. Best of luck to you!

7+

Get Some Blood Pumping in Your Prose

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here’s another first page for our review. See you in a few.

The Scorn of Time

“Time,” Hickstead McCarty said as he stepped onto the elevator and rode toward the third floor. His cart projected 13:40 into the air in front of him. That gave him twenty minutes. He hadn’t been inside Apartment 310 since early April. When was that? Six months ago? Not many women made it to the third trimester anymore, leaving the third floor deserted most of the time. He closed his eyes and envisioned the layout of the apartment, ticking off the areas he’d already searched. He’d stripped everything out of the bathroom, knocked on every square inch of the walls and flooring, and even snaked the drains. Nothing unusual there, unless you consider a large clump of matted, muck-covered hair that had wrapped itself around a simple gold earring, a special find. The year before that, he’d searched the bedroom. Twenty minutes was a lot of time, but once the clock hit 14:00 there’d be no spare time for anything other than work – his boss made sure of that, so there was no time to waste. If he planned it right, he might be able to cover most of the kitchen or go through the entire living room. Sure, the place had been searched many times before, by professionals even, but they must have missed something. They must have, because the Armit files were still there. He could feel it.

He nodded to himself as the old elevator inched its way upward. First, he’d move the couch and chairs away from the fireplace. Then he’d have room to check the hearth, then tap on the bricks in the firebox. Most people wouldn’t think to look there. Probably think it too hot to hide digital files, but the way he figured it, if those damn chips weren’t in the obvious places, then it made sense to look in places that weren’t so obvious. Fred Armit could have created some sort of special container to protect them from heat… or whatever else could happen to them in eighty years.

Hickstead’s heart beat faster with possibilities as he opened the door.

Crash.

He froze, his ears straining to hear through the wall that divided the entrance hall from the kitchen area. All he could hear was the tinny, metallic sound of … a bowl maybe? Spinning against the tile floor.

No one should be in this apartment.

***

JSB: First, the good. The opening paragraph raises questions that makes me want to read on. What sort of building is this? Trimesters? Why this one room constantly searched? Who is Armit? Why is there time pressure on the search?

However, as written, the paragraph is dry. No blood coursing through its veins. (More on that in a moment.) Another practical matter is the lack of “white space.” In today’s low-attention-span world, large blocks of text are a challenge for readers. The simple fix is to break big paragraphs into two, three or four. (James Patterson often does this on a macro level, too, by chopping what would logically be one long chapter into two, three, or four “chapters.”)

The second paragraph is mostly the character’s thoughts about what he is going to do (as opposed to actually doing it). It telegraphs action, but is not action itself. Thus, it slows us down considerably.

The page does end with a disturbance—the crash. An intruder. But it’s taken us a long time to get there.

Solution? Start with the crash! Start with McCarty listening. We don’t have to know why he’s there at the get-go. Dribble that in as the action continues.

Act first, explain later. Readers will go a long way with you if the character is doing something in response to a disturbance.

But there’s a larger issue, one that can haunt the pages which follow: we’re missing a sense of who this man is. We’re outside, not inside. The narrative is coolly objective. It delivers information but no sensation. You have one line— Hickstead’s heart beat faster—that is tiptoeing toward emotion, but it’s a cliché. Readers want more, because they are pulling for you! They want to get caught up in a character’s life and challenges.

Compare your piece to the opening of Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451:

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

See that? Every word is more than just a beat of the character’s heart. This is a full-on burst of blood and passion and soul. And notice that the blood is pumping within the action. Montag isn’t thinking about what he’ll be doing in a few pages … he’s doing it.

Try this: re-write the scene by starting with the crash. Then keep McCarty in forward motion, at the same time give us a sense of what he’s feeling as he’s acting. You can “marble” in some of those intriguing questions I mentioned earlier, too.

Here’s a tip: Re-write this first chapter in first-person POV. Feel it as you do. Then convert it back to third-person. I think you’ll find this wonderfully instructive. And I’m certain I will then want to follow McCarty into that apartment!

Final notes:

  • When characters are alone, watch out for this construction: He nodded to himself. The to himself is superfluous, since there’s no one else in the scene. He nodded
  • his ears straining to hear. Ears don’t do anything. The fellow between the ears does. (My favorite example of this type of physical mistake comes from a published novel of yesteryear: His eyes slid down her dress. Eww!)

Time to turn this over to you, Zoners. Any other tips for our writer?

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1st Page Critique: Across the Road

By SUE COLETTA

We have another brave writer who submitted a First Page for critique. My comments will follow.

ACROSS THE ROAD

Edward stepped on the brakes and brought the car to a halt on the edge of the road. Adjusting his rearview mirror, he again looked to make certain his intervention was indeed required. On the streets of Accra two people fighting was hardly a novel sight, and third party intervention was not always welcome. But the man still held the young woman by her throat, and she squirmed in vain to break free.

Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car.

It hit him like a falling object. “What the…?” he muttered. Cupping his hand over his eyes, he looked up.

It was a stupid thing to do. The pain in his head only worsened. He looked at his watch to ensure it wasn’t already mid-day. Even at 7:45 in the morning, the sun churned an unbearable amount of heat. If he kept driving, he’d be in his office in fifteen minutes waiting on an aspirin from his secretary. He squinted in the direction of the helpless young woman, and marched towards her.

Every step he took increased the throbbing in his head. He’d stopped his car only a couple of metres away. Amidst her gasping and choking, Edward heard the woman say, “Let…go of me.” Her small hands slipped and slapped against the man’s vice-like grip.

“Give me my money or else…” The man, who couldn’t have been shorter than six-foot-four, threw up a big, veiny left hand, palm wide open, and began to drop it at a target on the side of her face.

Edward reached it in time. He caught the weapon in his left hand before it reached its target. His fingers barely closed around the thick wrist. “Easy, my friend,” he said.

The man staggered, and Edward’s head exploded. Still holding on to the woman, the man turned his eyes from her to Edward. Deep furrows in his forehead marked his confusion. In a quick movement Edward transferred the seized hand from his left hand to his right. With his left hand he grabbed the choking hazard and calmly said to the brute, “Let her go.”

For a brief moment the two men glared at each other in a not-so-epic Mexican stand-off. Edward fixed his gaze. Too many times he’d been told he had kind eyes.

* * *

The writer has given us a peek into Edward’s character and we’re thrown into an action scene. Yet the writer didn’t hook me enough to turn the page. Why? Because when we don’t resist the urge to explain every movement in detail, it ruins the suspense. Readers are smart. Trust us to fill in the blanks. I’ll give you a quick example.

He reached for the bloody rag. By two fingers he pulled it from the stranger’s grasp, then retracted his arm.

See how overly descriptive that is? Remember, every word counts.

He snatched the bloody rag.

Same action. Same visualization. Four words instead of 19. We know what it looks like to snatch a rag from someone’s hand. Too many body movements slow (or stop) the suspense rather than enhance it.

The Headache

Throughout the first page we learn about Edward’s headache. I’m guessing these episodes play a key role in the story. In which case, the writer has done a good job of showing us how migraines start as a dull ache and little by little build into mind-numbing pain.

A word of caution here. Headaches aren’t all that interesting, nor are migraines. They help gain empathy for the MC, but they’re not enough to carry an entire story. Unless— and this is key—these migraines are a symptom of something larger. Jason Borne had migraines after the CIA erased his identity. If Edward went through a similar procedure, then you need to drop a few clues. As it stands now, Edward’s an average Joe who makes his secretary bring him aspirin. Speaking of, unless the story takes place before the 1970’s, this tidbit makes Edward look like a male chauvinist pig. Do you want to turn your female readers against Edward?

Word Choices

Throughout the first page the writer chose odd wording. For clarity, the brave writer’s questionable word choices are in red, my remarks in blue. Please add your own helpful suggestions in the comments.

Edward stepped on the brakes and brought the car to a halt on the edge of the road. “Brought” is generic. The edge of the road makes me think Edward stopped at the edge of a steep cliff. Breakdown lane or dirt shoulder may work better. 

It hit him like a falling object. What hit him? “It” tells us nothing.

The man, who couldn’t have been shorter than six-foot-four (don’t confuse the reader with odd wording. If he’s the size of a Patriot’s linebacker, say so), threw up a big, veiny left hand (first, gross; second, unless Edward is inches away he wouldn’t be able to see the dude’s veins), palm wide open, and began to drop it at a target (what target? Did a bullseye suddenly appear on her cheek?) on the side of her face.

Edward reached it (reached what?) in time. He caught the weapon (there’s a weapon now?) in his left hand before it reached its target (I still don’t see a target).

Adjusting his rearview mirror, he again looked (did he look a first time?) to make certain his intervention (intervention reminds me of an alcoholic who needs to get sober) was indeed required.

Also, the first line is nowhere near strong enough for an opener. Rather than rehash TKZ’s sound advice on first lines, I’ve linked a few posts that may help HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Always try to use strong action verbs. You can find an active verb pdf HERE.

On the streets of Accra two people fighting was hardly a novel sight, and third party intervention was not always welcome. The first half of the sentence shows us that Accra isn’t a safe place. Bravo! After the comma, however, is called over-writing. Most people don’t like others prying into their business. Because it’s common sense and it doesn’t help to clarify, well, anything, we can (and should) delete.  

But the man still held the young woman by her throat (still? This is the 1st time you’ve shown us), and she squirmed in vain (meh. You can do better) to break free. 

Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car. 

Unless men have a habit of strangling women on the side of the roads in Accra, the terror should be palpable. He’s killing her! Yet Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car? No, no, no.

Edward slammed the shifter into park and leaped out the driver’s door. “Let go of her, you bastard!”

Force us into that fight! Let us feel Edward’s face flush with rage as he witnesses a man beat on a woman half his size.

Let’s jump ahead.

The man staggered, and Edward’s head exploded. His head exploded? What a mess! I understand what the writer is trying to convey here, but I can’t help but giggle every time I read that line. Migraines are no joke, though. Please choose words that best describe how painful they are.

Example:

A volcanic blast exploded within Edward’s head. Vision blurred. Words jumbled. With a flat hand, he latched on to the hood to steady his gait. The goon dragged the woman by the hair, but Edward couldn’t react. The migraine held him hostage.

Still holding on to the woman, the man turned his eyes from her to Edward. How does one turn their eyes? I’m able to “shift” my eyes, but alas, I cannot turn them. I’m also a stickler for “eyes” that shoot across a room. “Gazes” can shoot to and fro. They can also roam, wander, and dance.  Eyeballs, to my knowledge, remain in their sockets at all times. Unless, or until, someone pries them out.

Deep furrows in his forehead marked his confusion. Simple, clear, paints an image in the reader’s mind. Well done!

 In a quick movement Edward transferred the seized hand (Seized? Money and property can be seized, hands cannot) from his left hand to his right. With his left hand (avoid repetition. In less than two sentences the word “hand” is used three times. Too many details confuse the reader. Which hand did what now?) he grabbed the choking hazard (I must admit, I’ve reread this first page umpteenth times and am still unsuccessful in finding “the choking hazard.” To me, a choking hazard is a small toy or toy part that we keep away from babies and toddlers) and calmly said to the brute, “Let her go.”

For a brief moment the two men (we’re not in Edward’s head anymore) glared at each other in a not-so-epic Mexican stand-off (cliché). Edward fixed his gaze (this works better than the preceding sentence; good job here!). Too many times he’d been told he had kind eyes (delete this line. Not only is it irrelevant, but it makes no sense in this context).

To review

  • Resist the urge to explain every single body movement.
  • Choose words carefully.
  • Avoid repetition.
  • Trust the reader to fill in the blanks, but give us enough information to do so.
  • Know your audience.

Over to you, TKZers. What tips would you give this brave writer?

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First Page Critique: The Mask

Greeting, TKZers!

Welcome to another installment of First Page Critiques. Today our brave submitter offers us the prologue to a monster story. I love monster stories, so let’s get to it.

This piece came in untitled, but had a chapter title of The Mask. We’ll use that.

THE MASK (Prologue)

A hand twitched on the steel floor, its reflection mirroring its movement in pool of black and red liquid. A few meters away lay the rest of the arm. And strewn about it were the remnants of its other parts. A splintered leg, a collapsed torso. All was still, bathed in the red liquid that once pumped through them. The pool rippled, disturbed by a frantic pair of feet that were very much alive. “Open the door!” a voice shrieked, cracking with desperation.

 Hands pounded on the steel door. “Please!”

The door didn’t budge.

 The man backed away, his breathing frantic. They wouldn’t let him out. Not if they wanted to risk the entire facility. But this wasn’t how he had planned to die at all. He should have expected it, working in a place like this, doing so little for so much money. He should have known better. He could see his mother’s face, scolding him for being so lazy all the time. Now he’d never see her again. I told you so, she would have said angrily, even from her hospital bed. Now she truly was alone. After his father left–

 The thoughts stopped when everything became quiet. Before he could react, he felt a hand brush his arm. It was almost reassuring with the gentle way it traveled up to his shoulder. That thought stopped as well when the hand continued to his throat. It wrapped around his neck, joined with its twin, and squeezed. The man felt the tears that had been building in his eyes spill down his cheeks. The tears travelled more slowly than he thought they would. From the corners of his vision, he saw that the liquid streaming down his cheeks wasn’t clear. It was black. The pain blooming in his neck crept into his skull. He tried to scream. The only thing that came out was the pitch-like substance. It bubbled from his throat, rolled over his tongue, covered his teeth. It poured over his lips, burning all the way down, burning his grasping hands, his heaving chest.

The man’s feet thrashed as he was lifted off the floor. The sounds of his kicking boots bounced off of the steel walls. The hands around his throat twitched like the severed fingers littered on the floor. The men monitoring the cameras couldn’t help but involuntarily flinch when the hands twisted with a sickening crunch. The kicking came to an abrupt stop. After a moment, the body flopped onto the floor, a rag doll. The owner of the murderous hands stepped forward into the vision of the camera.

Let me summarize this opening as I understand it:

A man is locked in a steel-lined room with the remains of a dismembered corpse. He’s terrified, and reflects that he should never have taken the job that brought him there, and reveals that his mother thinks he’s lazy. Someone/something that is extremely strong strangles him, slowly and painfully, and he erupts in a burning black liquid and finally dies. Men operating cameras trained on the room see the murderer step into view.

This opening is described as a prologue, and I think it functions as a good illustration of how to set a mood. It’s dark and violent and spare. The scene is a fairly common science-fiction trope: a low-level employee/character is killed by (or sacrificed to) a monster. Tropes can be very useful, but can border on the cliché and should be used carefully.

I’m struggling with the voice. It feels…disembodied. (No pun intended.) It’s not that the voice is exactly passive, but it floats between omniscient (the opening and closing paragraphs) and a relatively close third (the victim). It lacks cohesion. Pick a POV. I would argue for using a close third so we see everything through the eyes of the victim during the prologue. Then jump to the POV of someone in the control room. Hopefully that will be a character critical to the telling of the story.

“A hand twitched on the steel floor, its reflection mirroring its movement in pool of black and red liquid. A few meters away lay the rest of the arm. And strewn about it were the remnants of its other parts. A splintered leg, a collapsed torso. All was still, bathed in the red liquid that once pumped through them. The pool rippled, disturbed by a frantic pair of feet that were very much alive. “Open the door!” a voice shrieked, cracking with desperation.

            Hands pounded on the steel door. “Please!”

This first bit feels like screenplay talk. It’s all scene-setting. A hand twitches. Parts are strewn. A pool of (blood?) is disturbed by a frantic pair of feet(!). All I could think was that the feet of the dismembered corpse were still alive! That was a very weird moment. Then a disembodied voice shrieks, and hands pound on the door. Can you see where I’m going here? Because we started out with random body parts, when we read about other body parts it’s hard to think of them as being attached to a human.

We finally discover that the hands and feet belong to a man who is trapped inside the room with a corpse.

Let’s reimagine the scene as seen through the eyes of the man.

Bill “Red Shirt”* MacNeil stared at the pale hand lying on the blood-soaked steel floor. The corpse’s crushed torso and one twisted leg lay within sight, but it was the hand that struck him dumb. When its fingers arched and twitched, the spell was broken and he ran for the door. Panicked, he stumbled on the slickened floors as he ran, and each time he had to catch himself, his hands were smeared with more of the warm offal.

“Let me out! Open up!” he screamed. He pounded the door with his fists. Breathing heavily, he stepped back, waiting for the familiar sound of bolts thumping into place and the electronic hiss of the door’s seal.

Nothing.

“Dear God, please let me out of here. You can’t do this!”

But hadn’t he known he’d never get out again when he saw the blood everywhere? They couldn’t let him out. They weren’t going to put the entire facility at risk.

If we have some growing sense of the man, even if he is a red shirt, then the trip into his head is less of a surprise.

A couple notes on the murder bit. As you can imagine, I don’t mind seeing a character’s death close up.

Before he could react, he felt a hand brush his arm. It was almost reassuring with the gentle way it traveled up to his shoulder.”

This is a terrific image. But I’m still kind of stuck on the disembodied hand thing. And this hand has a twin! Suddenly I’m thinking that this room is full of body parts that act independently (or in pairs). It’s not until the end of this piece that we learn that the hands are attached to a whole murderer.

Please give us a sense much earlier that there’s an actual person or creature behind him.

Important: It’s physically impossible for humans to see what’s coming out of their eyes and running down their cheeks. He might be blinded by the stuff, but he couldn’t really see it unless he looks in a mirror.

You could easily do our red shirt’s death in his POV. It’s awkward that we’re suddenly outside of his head again. He could be struggling to continue kicking against the walls, then realize he can’t do it anymore. He could black out with his last thought being of his sled, Rosebud. You might even add just a single out-of-POV line about what his blank eyes can’t see. For example, the monster stepping over his body to stare into the eye of the camera.

It’s a good start. With some attention and cohesion, I think it could be a wonderful opening.

*”Red Shirt” is the name given to a stock character in a story who dies at the beginning. It comes from the original Star Trek series, in which the low level characters wore red shirts and were usually the first to die.

What say you, TKZers? Do you agree about the close third POV? Would you do it differently? What further advice do you have for our brave submitter?

___________________________________________

 

A little personal BSP: I have a new book out this week! SMALL TOWN TROUBLE is a cozy mystery. (I love any kind of mystery.) And it’s not just a cozy, it’s a cat detective book! Light and fun. Plus, there are four other books in the series, all written by different authors, with more to come. Read all about it.

 

 

 

 

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