First Page Critique: Can You Find the Murder Weapon?

By Sue Coletta

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

The Invisible 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s not supposed to sleep?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, let’s look at the first paragraph…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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POV 101: Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There (for most of your story)

 by Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

This is the first of a three-part series on point of view (POV) in fiction.

I’ve been editing fiction for years, and the most difficult concept for many of my aspiring author clients who write in third-person point of view (the most common POV in novels) is to portray their story world through the viewpoint / eyes / head of one character at a time, rather than hovering above them (omniscient POV) or ping-ponging back and forth between different characters’ viewpoints (head-hopping).

Except for omniscient POV (the author talking directly to the readers), point of view or POV simply refers to the character through whose perspective the story events are told. Most of today’s novels are written in third-person POV, with the main character referred to as “he” or
“she,” even though we’re seeing their world through their eyes. First-person POV, where the main character is telling their own story, using “I” and “me” seems to be gaining popularity, and is very common in YA (young adult) fiction.

This post is about using close third person or deep point of view to bring your main character to life for the readers. Ideally, we should only see, hear, smell, feel, and experience events as that character would – with no additional information provided “from above” by the author. This closeness helps your readers get to know your viewpoint character intimately, which makes them start worrying about him or her – and that keeps them turning the pages!

A hundred years ago, novels were often told from a distant authorial point of view, hovering over everything. That omniscient POV is no longer popular today (except for historical sagas), and for good reason: Readers want to experience the events of the story vicariously through the viewpoint character, to immerse themselves in her world, and they can only do that if they’re “inside her skin,” so to speak. They know/feel her inner thoughts, insecurities, hopes, and fears, so they bond with her quickly and are eager to find out what’s going to happen to her next and how she’s going to handle it.

As the late, great Jack M. Bickham said, “You’ll never have problems with the technique of viewpoint again if you simply follow this advice:

“Figure out whose story it is. Get inside that character—and stay there.”

It’s especially important to open your book in your protagonist’s point of view, and stay there for at least the first chapter. This gives the reader a chance to figure out quickly whose story this is, and get to know him fast and start identifying with him and rooting for him.

Years ago I edited a novel in which a 15-year-old girl is riding in a car with her mother, who’s driving, and her 11-year-old brother in the backseat. (I’ve changed the details a bit.) The book starts out in the point of view of the mom, who is worried about uprooting her two kids and moving across the country, away from their friends. So we start empathizing with the mother, thinking it’s her story.

Then suddenly we’re in the head of the teenage girl beside her, who is deeply resentful at her mom for tearing her away from her friends and is agonizing over what lies ahead. Then, all within the first page, we switch to the head of the 11-year-old boy, who’s excited about the new adventure and wishes his sister would lighten up and quit hassling the mom. We’re also in his visual POV – he looks at his sister’s ponytail and considers yanking it. Now we’re confused. Whose story is this, anyway? Who are we supposed to be most identifying with and bonding with? Readers want to know this right away, so they can sit back and relax and enjoy the ride.

It’s essential to start out the story in your protagonist’s POV, but it’s also smart to tell most of your story from your main character’s viewpoint – at least 70 percent of it. That gets the reader deeper and deeper into that person’s psyche, so they get more and more invested in what’s happening to her.

As Bickham explains, “I’m sure you realize why fiction is told from a viewpoint, a character inside the story. It’s because each of us lives our real life from a single viewpoint – our own – and none other, ever.”

Successful fiction writers want their story to be as convincing and lifelike as possible, so they write it like we experience real life: from one viewpoint (at a time) inside the action.

So if you want your lead character to come alive and matter to the reader, and your story to be compelling, it’s best to show most of the action from inside the head and heart of your protagonist. Of course, thrillers often jump to the POV of the villain, to add suspense, worry, intrigue and dimension. But give the bad guy his own scene, and make sure he’s not onstage more than the protagonist is! And many romances have two main protagonists, the hero and heroine, but one usually predominates – most often the heroine, so the largely female readership can identify with her. Just don’t be inside the head of both characters in one scene – too jarring and confusing!

Also, if there’s a scene with your protagonist and a minor character, don’t show the scene from the POV of the minor character, unless there’s a very good reason for it – it’s just too unnatural and jarring.

In POV 102, I discuss “head-hopping,” a sure sign of amateurish writing, with a trick for spotting this in your writing; and in POV 103, I’ll get into more detail on deep point of view, or close third-person POV.

By the way, I presented two writing craft workshops at a conference two weeks ago, “Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View” and “Spark up Your Stories – Adding Tension, Suspense, & Intrigue.” Here’s the HANDOUT for the Deep POV one. The handout for the other one is there, too, as well as a list of writers’ conferences and book festivals through July 2015.

Captivate_full_w_decalJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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