First Page Critique – NELF

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

We have an anonymous submission of the first 400 words to a work entitled “NELF.” Please read and give your constructive criticism in your comments. I will provide feedback below. Our gratitude to the anonymous author for their submission. Enjoy.

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Geraldine jogged around seaweed and broken shells deposited along the low-tide line by last night’s rainstorms. Turning from the gusting wind, she faced the horizon as the sun broke through a grey cloudbank. The tail of the storm had moved out to sea. She might have customers today after all. She’d better pick up her pace if she wanted a shower before opening the beach shop.

She searched the ocean for her half-way marker, the Hyde Channel buoy. As Geraldine hurdled over piles of seaweed and shells sweat rolled down her spine. Without slowing, she pulled off her sweatshirt, cinched it around her waist, and ran closer to the surf.

When she was parallel to the channel marker, she turned around. Wind pushed against her back and she sprinted all the way to the path leading to Beach Road.

While bringing her heartrate down, Geraldine trotted in place and faced the roaring Atlantic. A red object bobbed in the ocean. Too small for a boat or surfboard. The object disappeared behind cresting waves. Shielding her eyes, Geraldine focused on the whitecaps and waited for the object to reappear.

A small arm stuck up from the waves. A flash of red hair and white face. A child!

Geraldine dashed forward, her pulse racing, and stopped short at the surf line. The child bobbed up and down. The ocean was rough. Dangerous. She couldn’t go in without a boat or a boogie board or they might both drown. She sprinted toward the lifeguard hut. Any floatation device inside would do. She pulled the handle and the door rattled. Locked!

She glanced back at the rolling surf, but didn’t spot the child. Her stomach tightened. Had the child gone under? She shifted her gaze down surf. A flailing arm, and then a head broke through the foam. Thank God. The child was still afloat.

She scanned the beach for someone to alert.

The beach was deserted, but the child needed saving now.

She yanked off her sneakers and ran until she was a half-bay ahead of the child. Geraldine took a deep breath and dove into the surf. She torpedoed under the water.

Geraldine exploded to the surface and swam at an angle to reach the child quicker. Please stay afloat just a little longer.

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FEEDBACK

This introduction sets up a classic and eerie story. I envision a bleak seashore on the morning after a turbulent storm that has disrupted an unwavering sea. How frightening to see the body of a child adrift in the current with YOU as the only one there to save a life. The premise is a good one that would normally get me turning the page to read more.

The writing is relatively clean and easy to get through without a lot of hiccups, but I wanted more. Let’s talk about setting first in a general overview.

SETTING – Setting can really contribute to setting up a story if it’s entwined with the character or contributes to the atmosphere or mood to the plot. When I think of great examples of settings that ARE an integral part of the story, I think of movies like the Jesse Stone stories from Robert B Parker, starring Tom Selleck. The Maine town of Paradise is mysterious, breathtakingly beautiful and scary at the same time. Another example of a setting that becomes the story is the crime show Wallander (from Swedish novelist Henning Mankell), starring Kenneth Branagh in the role of Kurt Wallander. The isolated setting in Wallander is haunting and also says a lot about the character who is content living alone and isolated.

Tips on Setting
1.) Decide what role you want for setting to play in your plot. In J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Hogwarts IS a character, a very enchanting and unforgettable one. Not every story needs to have the setting so prominently described, but a great setting can enhance the plot or give insight into the character(s).

2.) Settings can contribute to the mood or add tension or a mysterious sense of foreboding. I’ll never forget the effective use of setting in Tami Hoag’s book NIGHT SINS where children go missing as the extremely chilling winter nights continue to drop in temperature, dead of winter in Minnesota. The tag lines were a constant reminder that the child could die from exposure and the clock would be ticking for the police. I was a nervous wreck as I turned the pages and stayed up way too late to finish the book.

3.) Use the senses of the reader to convey setting. It’s easy to describe a visual setting, but it can add layers of nuance if the reader’s senses are engaged. In this example (NELF), what does the sea smell like after a turbulent storm? Does it affect her breathing as she runs? Does the grit on the shore cling to her damp clothes? How does the salty sea air affect her breathing as a runner (salt through her nostrils or the taste of it on her tongue).

4.) Setting can reflect something of the character and mirror mood or be symbolic of something in the character’s life. The example I gave before about Wallander and his remote home is a solid visual example of the isolated way he lives his life. He’s content, but trouble comes to his door like a personal affront, threatening his comfort zone.

5.) Setting can be described through the character’s POV by giving the character an opinion or by accentuating the character’s body and mind through setting. In the case of NELF, the lone woman runner describes her body as she runs. Rather than focusing so much on a simple task that most people know about (ie running), why not have the mist off the crashing waves mix with the dripping sweat of her body or have the chilly wind fight the heat of her churning blood as she ramps up her pace. I’ve run in the rain before and it’s exhilarating yet very soggy on the clothes and hair.

Examples of interesting settings reflected through the characters:

Catcher in the Rye – J D Salinger (on NYC)
“I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go? I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.”

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt (about Las Vegas)
“Though we’d been driving a while, there were no landmarks, and it was impossible to say where we were going or in which direction. The skyline was monotonous and unchanging and I was fearful that we might drive through the pastel houses altogether and out into the alkali waste beyond, into some sun-beaten trailer park from the movies.”

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Wolff (about the Isle of Skye – Scotland) “So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea.”

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte (about the Yorkshire moors, England) “My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary.”

NELF Thoughts

TIME OF DAY – I didn’t get a sense of the time of day. I presumed it to be morning since the woman is thinking about opening her beach shop and references a storm from last night, but time of day could contribute to the mood. I would recommend this to be clearer.

REPEAT DESCRIPTION – In the first sentence, seaweed and broken shells are mentioned. The same is described in the very next paragraph (ie “piles of seaweed and shells). With such a moody setting, surely there is more to describe.

MAKE THE INTRO STAND OUT MORE – The description of the woman running is bland and forgettable. The setting is also bland, considering that this eerie shoreline could contribute to the foreboding aspects of finding a body adrift in the waves.

CAN THE SETTING ENHANCE THE INTRO? The author does not dwell too much on the setting before he or she gets into the mystery, but the set up could be more effective if the author decides how much the setting can enhance the intro. Review the tips on setting above to see if there is anything that would fit and enhance this mystery opener. An author would know the mind of the character and what would work best, but I would recommend the setting be enhanced to weave it into the mystery more.

WEAVE IN MYSTERY SOONER – The setting description and the woman running covers the first four paragraphs, then the story switches to “a small arm” and the mystery begins. There’s virtually no lead up to the moment she sees the arm. Fear and foreboding should be enhanced to draw emotions from the reader. What if she’s running and sees the red color on the water and keeps her eye on it. Any setting can be enhanced by the mystery element of what that red thing is that’s floating. This would give her something to do, rather than staying in her head and focusing on her running. Weave the mystery in sooner and let it unfold as the sense of foreboding ramps up.

NEEDS MORE TENSION AND EMOTION – As far as tension, the author has described the woman and her reaction, but it’s more in the sense of a clinical description of what she does. The emotional component is lacking for me as a reader. I can easily imagine what this might feel like to be alone on a beach run and see something horrifying, forced into action. Imagine that after she tries breaking into the lifeguard station, she dives into the ocean. On the same level as the rolling waves, she would easily lose sight of the body. Think of how that body might look as the waves undulate and lift that pale form into the sky. How would that body look in the crest of a wave?

If she thinks the child is still alive, the clock would be ticking and she’d be in a panic to get to the kid. How does that affect her breathing? Does she tread water to search the waves? Is the body floating on the back or on the face? Now imagine coming up on the body too fast and being faced with it as it brushes up against you. Cold skin. Icy water. Bloated face of the child? This opening scene could be much more emotional and I can picture how anyone would be drawn into the mystery of this child’s death.

DISCUSSION

What feedback can you give our brave author, TKZers?

2.) How do you work setting into your stories? Have you ever enhanced your story with setting? Describe how it worked.

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What Is Your Spark?

“He lets down as it were a bucket into his subconscious and draws up something which is normally beyond his reach. He mixes this thing with his normal experience, and out of the mixture he makes a work of art… And when the process is over, when the…novel is complete, the artist, looking back on it, will wonder how on earth he did it. And indeed he did not do it on earth.”  — E.M. Forster
By P.J. Parrish

Where does it come from?

I’m talking about that original impulse, that first bud of creativity that eventually grows into a book. Can you remember? What was it that tickled your brain and set the synapses glowing? What the very first moment when you knew you were onto something?

I’m not talking about inspiration or muses or the “need” to write. I’m trying to focus way way down to that little thing that got you going on whatever it is you are now working so hard to bring to life. What was the spark?

Normally I don’t think much about stuff from the ether like this. Especially since we here at The Kill Zone tend to focus on practical stuff like building credible characters and sturdy plot structures. But sometimes it’s fun — and maybe even a little instructive — to turn the microscope to its finest setting and examine the beginnings of life.

Every writer starts a novel from a different impulse. Some start with a situation, many by asking “what if?” Many writers are character-led.  Often you can trace it back to something as small as an overheard conversation. Or an old man standing a corner glimpsed as you pass by in your car. It can be a line from a half-forgotten poem or the smell of dime store lipstick.

Sometimes that first impulse is too weak to sustain a novel. Sometimes that clot of embryonic cells never quite grows into a character. But sometimes, when you dip a bucket into the subconscious you draw up something special.

I got to thinking about this today because I was trolling the internet boning up on the history of the detective novel. I am going to be on a panel at the Edgar Symposium tomorrow that focuses on the future of the detective novel. And because I didn’t want my fellow panelists to wipe the floor with me I was, I admit, doing a little brushing up on my genre history.

That’s why I happened upon a lecture P.D. James gave in 1997 called Murder and Mystery: The Craft of the Detective Story. (Click here to read it). I’m a huge James fan; she and Georges Simenon were my guiding lights when I was trying to learn how to write detective novels. Jules Maigret and Adam Dalgliesh…those are the guys I’d want on the case when there’s a body on the slab.

So you can imagine how cool it was to read this paper of hers. It’s a great survey of the detective genre. But what I found really fascinating was the part where she talked about how she got her ideas. For James, it always starts with the setting.

I was gobsmacked when I read that. Because that’s what always gets me going. I can’t see a story until I can see the setting. Our books move between Michigan and Florida. Our settings have been, variously, an isolated island in the gulf, an abandoned insane asylum, an old family farm, a cattle pen overgrown with weeds, and an Everglades swamp way down south where the bottom of the state spreads out into the straits like a tattered flag.

Sometimes I almost feel like one of those weird psychics who claim they can see the place of death. When we are starting a new book, I can’t always tell you exactly where we are. But I can sort of feel it. And eventually the place materializes on the page, sort of like an old Polaroid.

Like right now, we working on a new Louis book that takes him back to Michigan. That’s all we knew when we started, that he had to go home. But where? Kelly insisted it had to be the Upper Peninsula (she went to college up there) and we eventually decided to take Louis as far north as we could — way up to the Keweenaw Peninsula, that strange spit of land that extends out into Lake Superior like a crooked finger pointing the way toward the Canadian wilderness. End of earth sort of idea.

But still, things weren’t gelling. There was a spark but it wasn’t catching. Then I saw a photograph someone had taken of a small abandoned cemetery. Its crumbling headstones are obscured by dense carpets of clover. It’s in the middle of nowhere. But it once the middle of somewhere — a lively town where the copper miners lived and worked in the 1800s.

P.D. James said that once she found her setting all she then had to do was begin talking to its inhabitants. Thus came her characters. So it has happened with us. We’re only ten chapters into this new book so we’re still meeting the natives, still learning their histories, still trying to develop an ear for their odd Yooper accents. (it’s somewhere between the nasal tones of Detroit and the lilt of Canada with some Finnish thrown in).

In a bit of synchronicity, I am the editor of the Edgar annual this year and months ago we decided on our theme — the sense of place in the crime novel. The essays are great — Lawrence Block on New York City, Peter Lovesey on Bath England, William Kent Kreuger on northern Minnesota, Cara Black on Paris — each writer talking about how place colors their stories.

Even as I read them it didn’t really occur to me how important setting was to me as a writer. But it is the thing from which everything else comes. If I don’t know where I am I can’t begin to tell you where my story is going. I need to know my place. It is my first spark.

What is yours?

p.s. Forgive me if I don’t respond right away but I am en route to NYC today. Will catch up when I get into Newark Airport. There’s wifi on the bus! 

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