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.  

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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.

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

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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.

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The Movie Deal

When I was asked to join this great group of writers to blog on a regular basis, I bet they didn’t think I’d kick things off by writing about movies. But I’d guess my Kill Zone colleagues would agree that one of the most commonly asked questions we get as writers is, “When is your book going to be made into a movie?”
This very question came up in my panel session at the Northwest Bookfest today. For better or worse, movies are more universal cultural touchstones than books. They’re easier to consume and many more people have seen them. When someone at a writers’ conference asks me what my books are like, I usually mention that they would appeal to readers of Clive Cussler or James Rollins. But at a party I say that they’re akin to an Indiana Jones or James Bond movie because I can always be confident that people will get the comparison.
When readers turn the tables and ask about my books becoming movies, I have a hard time formulating a pithy answer. Although I struggle to come up with a meaningful response, it’s flattering for readers to ask. It means that they thought my adventure novel was cinematic in its action, descriptions, and pacing and that they want to spend more time with the characters. It’s the ultimate expression of success for a book to be deemed worthy of the silver screen, but for a novelist the situation is complicated.
A good movie can help cement an author’s career, such as it did with John Grisham’s The Firm, which was bought by Hollywood before he even sold the literary rights. It could also faceplant along the lines of Clive Cussler’s Sahara or Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money. I’d risk the flop for a shot at a hit. The problem is that I don’t know when or if a film will ever happen. While I’m in full control of my writing, I’m a bystander when it comes to having the book made into a movie.
Hollywood has a well-deserved reputation for being a fickle town. The first time I got a call from my film rights agent that a production company was interested in one of my books, I was so pumped that I was already planning what to wear to the premiere before I’d even hung up the phone. Then came a whole bunch of nothin’. I have no idea what went on behind the scenes, but I never heard another peep. By the third time I got a nibble from a producer, I didn’t get excited because I understood that it was just the start of a long process, one which could get sidetracked at any point.
First comes the option. Although the rights can be bought outright, most books are purchased in two- or three-year options, during which the producer has the sole right to make the movie of your book. A novelist won’t get paid for the full amount of the contract until the day principal photography begins (because movies can be and have been canceled at any point up to that moment). However, if the movie isn’t made during that period, then the option rights revert back to the writer, who can sell them again. I know many writers who’ve optioned the same movie rights repeatedly for a decade or more, and the film still hasn’t been made.
That’s because the next step is finding a director, screenwriter, and actors to attach to the film.  If it’s got those, the movie is probably on the fast track to being filmed. If not, it’s likely to end up in “development hell,” the no-man’s land where projects can languish while a script is rewritten multiple times to fix story, budget, or casting problems. For example, the movie Salt was originally supposed to star Tom Cruise until he bowed out and the script had to be completely rewritten for Angelina Jolie in the same role.
When people ask me who I think would be cast as the main characters in my books, I usually tell them it’s somebody who is currently in high school. Katherine Heigl, who played Stephanie Plum in One for the Money, was sixteen years old when that book was written, and Matthew McConaughey from Saharawas four when the Dirk Pitt series was created. Besides, casting is notoriously difficult. Who can possibly see Mickey Rourke as Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop, Will Smith as Neo in The Matrix, or Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones, even though they were all the first choices for those iconic roles?
My agent has another challenge in selling my books to Hollywood. When I write, I don’t have a budget. I can destroy hundreds of cars, blow up buildings with abandon, place scenes in exotic locations, and employ a cast of thousands, all of which cost me nothing but would translate into substantial outlays in a film for elaborate stunts, difficult location shoots, and expensive computer graphics. I’m sure one of the reasons that my books haven’t been made into movies yet is that they would cost two hundred million dollars to produce.
For me, the original question remains unanswerable. No film is on the foreseeable horizon, though it would be a blast to see my words come to life on the big screen. I will always be open to getting those nibbles from Hollywood. I do, however, have one condition: even if it’s as a henchman who dies in the first ten minutes, I want a speaking role in the movie. If it’s a flop, at least I’d get a Screen Actors Guild card out of it.
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Jason Starr’s Hollywood Glossary

by Jason Starr

TKZ is thrilled to host Jason Starr today, an award-winning author who has written everything from graphic novels to novels to screenplays. His first series just hit bookstores this week, leading off with THE PACK, of which PW says, “Manhattan receives a lustrous varnish of black, black humor in this sly urban fantasy thriller.” His last thriller, PANIC ATTACK, was recently optioned by David Fincher (yes, THAT David Fincher, director of THE SOCIAL NETWORK and SE7EN), with OCEAN’S ELEVEN screenwriter Ted Griffin attached to write the screenplay. Here, the aptly named “Starr” offers helpful tips to navigating the Hollywood quagmire…

It’s widely known that in Hollywood people very rarely say what they are actually thinking, so the next time you interact with any agents or producers this glossary may come in handy. Here are some comments you might hear during your next trip to Hollywood, along with their actual meanings.

HOLLYWOOD: “Everyone’s really excited about your script.”
TRANSLATION: “I haven’t brought up the script with anybody yet except my girlfriend, but she thought the concept sounded pretty dope.”

HOLLYWOOD: “I like your script.”
TRANSLATION: “I think I read part of that script a couple of weekends ago. Didn’t I? Eh, maybe, maybe not. Wait, yeah, I did read it. I can’t remember much about it, but I think I remember not hating it.”

HOLLYWOOD: “I love your script.”
TRANSLATION: “I read your script. It was okay. I think there’s a five percent or less chance any studio will want to do it, but what the hell? If you’ll let me go out with it for free, I’ll give it a shot.”

HOLLYWOOD: “I’m obsessed with your script.”
TRANSLATION: “I like your script. I think it’s pretty good. I’m not sure anybody else will like it, but I actually think there’s a decent shot of other people liking it.”

HOLLYWOOD: “I have notes.”
TRANSLATION: “This script sucks. I pretty much hated everything about it. Did you really write this garbage? I have no idea what you can possibly come up with to salvage this total mess but I’ll have my assistant come up with some notes to send you.”

HOLLYWOOD: “We’re approaching Leo.”
TRANSLATION: “I’m going to discuss the idea of Leo, or some other A-list names we have no chance in hell of actually getting, with some other people here. Maybe I’ll do that sometime next week? Or maybe not. It’s probably a waste of time anyway.”

HOLLYWOOD : “Leo’s people are interested.”
TRANSLATION: “I think Leo’s name came up at that party at Cannes two weeks ago. Didn’t it? I don’t know, I was pretty wasted that night. Also, I think I was talking about like six projects at once, all bigger than yours, and I can’t really remember if I mentioned Leo in connection with your project or something else, but people totally seemed into the idea of trying to attach Leo to something. Yeah, this definitely sounds like a good idea.”

HOLLYWOOD: “Leo’s attached.”
TRANSLATION: “No one has actually made an offer to Leo yet. Leo’s manager is into the idea of Leo taking this role, but his agent will probably talk him out of it. Maybe I can figure out a way to get to Leo directly. Do you know anybody?”

HOLLYWOOD: “I want to make your movie.”
TRANSLATION: “I really do want to make your movie, but I’m broke and I’ve burned a lot of bridges lately. I think it would be a cool project to shop around though. Can I have a free option?”

HOLLYWOOD: “I want to make your movie in the fall.”
TRANSLATION: “Yeah, I want to make your movie in the fall. I want to make all my movies in the fall. You have fifty million dollars to lend me?”

HOLLYWOOD: “I’m going to make your move in the fall.”
TRANSLATION: “I’m not going to make your movie in the fall. I can guarantee you that.”

HOLLYWOOD: “There’s heat on me.”
TRANSLATION: “Fox hired me to write something five years ago. My deal has long since run out and I’m desperate to get back in the game.”

HOLLYWOOD: “I lost my offices at Fox.”
TRANSLATION: “Fox fired my sorry ass.”

HOLLYWOOD: “We have access to German money.”
TRANSLATION: “We don’t have a development deal anywhere and we have access to no money. But I met some guy from a German fund last year at that party at Sundance, and maybe if he’s still with that fund and they’re still interested in new projects they might want to do this. It’s worth a phone call anyway, right? Or, the hell with it, I’ll just have my assistant email the guy sometime next week. Hopefully by then you’ll forget this conversation ever took place.”

HOLLYWOOD: “It’s a go picture.”
TRANSLATION: “We’re hoping they greenlight this thing soon, but we haven’t heard anything yet and we’re all starting to seriously panic.”

HOLLYWOOD: “The movie’s been greenlit.”
TRANSLATION: “I hope the movie’s been greenlit. But everybody’s such a liar in this town, I hope people aren’t lying to me, but they probably are.”

HOLLYWOOD: “The movie is shooting.”
TRANSLATION: “The movie is shooting.” *

*This may mean the movie is actually shooting, but must be confirmed by an actual visit to the set.

JASON STARR is the author of numerous novels including THE PACK, the start of a new series, which is on sale now in hardcover and e-book from Penguin/Ace. He has several film and TV projects in development, including adaptations of his recent books THE FOLLOWER and PANIC ATTACK. For more info check out www.jasonstarr.com. Connect with Jason on Facebook and Twitter.

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