For your reading pleasure, we have the first 400 words of a novel submitted by an anonymous and brave author. It takes guts to share your baby with others on a public forum. I’ll provide my feedback below. Please share your constructive criticism in your comments.
Naomi white-knuckled her steering wheel, working to stave off a panic attack as she drove eastbound on Route 50 toward Annapolis and the sanctuary of home. She’d flicked off the radio, as there was nothing but hurricane talk, so she didn’t even have that to distract her.
Where is the person I used to be? Or did I just think I was once someone different?
She focused on calming her breathing. The last thing she wanted was to have an all-out panic attack in full view of other post-work commuters while hurtling down the highway at seventy miles per hour. Her mind conjured a vision of losing control of the car and sailing off the side of the road into the trees. Then it skipped to crossing the median and into oncoming traffic, a reversal of what had happened to Wolfe’s late wife. Such thoughts and visions had to be beaten off with all the will she could muster.
“Get… a… grip,” she hissed, teeth clenched. Picture home.
She steered by rote, brushing aside more creeping mental images of passing out or having a heart attack—which only served to feed the anxiety. Inhaling, exhaling, one breath at a time, she slowly recovered some sense of control. Tension eased and her shoulders dropped. Calmer, her thoughts now turned to mulling over the day’s biggest challenge: the point at which she’d had to put on a neutral face while quashing down her humiliation.
Her phone rang, interrupting her thoughts. She tapped her hands-free device. “Hello?”
“Hey. How’s it going?”
Despite the blasting artificial chill of the car’s AC, warmth flooded her face and neck at the sound of Wolfe’s voice—and the news she had to tell him.
“I’m okay,” she answered, keeping her tone even.
“Uh oh. What happened?” His laconic voice belied an intensity and intelligence she admired, and which she believed many people didn’t immediately appreciate.
“I didn’t get it. I guess they just don’t see me as a leader. Sorry I didn’t call you earlier. I confess I was licking my wounds.”
He was silent a moment. “I’m sorry to hear that. You know they made a mistake in not giving it to you, right? Did you at least throw something at the person who got your promotion?”
“Clint got it. I guess they think he’s more qualified. Things work out like they’re supposed to, I hear.”
Before I give my feedback, I wanted to share my thoughts on where to start a novel. Since I am a thriller/crime fiction writer, I tend to start with a body or an act of violence or action that will change my protagonist’s life and tip it like a first domino colliding with others. An inciting incident disrupts the status quo and stirs things up in an intriguing way for the reader. It jump starts the story arcs and kicks off the plot to take its course.
An example of this is found in the first Hunger Games book where the inciting incident is a ‘district’ lottery drawing that forces Katniss into taking the place of her little sister in a fight to the death broadcast on a futuristic television show. That incident is a punch to the emotional gut of the reader who MUST turn the page to find out what happens.
But what if your inciting incident isn’t that dramatic? What can you do to strengthen your opener?
Point of No Return – One benchmark for a solid inciting incident is that the protagonist can’t retreat once it starts. There should be a point of no return where the hero/heroine is forced to step out of his or her comfort zone and head into the abyss, to take a risk they hadn’t seen coming or that forces them into confronting their worst fears. It’s the author’s job to set the stage for the reader to discover why the hero or heroine deserves a starring role.
To Go Forward, You Sometimes have to Step Back – Ask yourself, what is my story about, the main thrust of the plot? Let’s call that a demarcation line. Now step back to a point where you find your protagonist, living in relative obscurity. What will drive him or her into stepping toward that demarcation line? What will stir, incite, or force them into making a move they might not otherwise? Then ask what would make that move a one-way trip? What is their point of no return, line in the sand moment? Picture a burned out mercenary, living as a hermit in the jungles of Venezuela, when a nun running an orphanage crosses his path. Their meeting may not be the point of no return, but when the villain in your story makes it his business to force the mercenary’s hand (threatening the children or the nun), the anti-hero takes action and can no longer live in obscurity. He’s forced to give up his life of anonymity and face his demons in order to do the right thing.
Questions to Ask About Your Inciting Incident to Make it Stronger:
1.) Review your current WIP for your inciting incident. Does it propel your protagonist (or even your antagonist) into your plot arcs?
2.) Is the inciting incident big enough to sustain a novel or propel it forward in a meaningful and realistic way? Are there enough building turning points to make it a journey?
3.) Are the stakes high enough to make the reader care?
4.) Does the inciting incident influence or jump start the main story question for your plot?
5.) Can your hero or heroine retreat from the inciting incident or is it significant enough to force a change into a new direction? In other words, do you have a legitimate point of no return where they are forced to cross that proverbial line in the sand?
I generally liked that the author started with Naomi white-knuckled behind a steering wheel, knowing there is a hurricane headed toward Annapolis (although Naomi quickly deflates that tension by wanting the distraction of the radio over ‘hurricane talk’). I looked up the area and hurricanes have hit this part of the country with devastating results in loss of lives.
But the minute Naomi retreated into her head, asking where her old self had gone, it was a head fake into a different direction that stutter-stepped into the next paragraph. In paragraph 3, there is more faked or forced emotion that takes place in her head, with an emphasis on “telling” what she’s feeling. The fabricated suspense of imagined car accidents and panic attacks are quickly deflated when Naomi gets a call and she says, “I’m okay.” The imaginary incidents reminded me of Calista Flockhart in Ally McBeal where her inner thoughts were more exciting and dramatic than her real life, but those were done with dark humor and dancing babies as her biological clock ticked down.
I had to wonder, as an aside, where Naomi could drive 70 mph on a packed commuter highway. It’s hard to tell if the other cars are stopped and she’s the only one careening across the lanes and through trees, since the action only takes place in her head.
I don’t know if the author intended for the reference to the death of Wolfe’s late wife by car accident is intentional and a foreshadowing. Let’s hope so, but I was confused by the description “a reversal of what had happened…,” deciphering between Naomi’s imagination and what might’ve happened to his wife. That description forced me to reread and I still didn’t understand.
In the dialogue we learn that she has lost a job promotion to someone else, Clint, and she seems to accept it like a worn welcome mat. The reader doesn’t know what she does for a living either. It’s hard to relate to Naomi or get invested in her life with an opener that is more about misdirection.
The author is capable of writing a suspenseful scene. There are good parts to this submission if the author can stay focused on visualizing the fictional world through Naomi’s eyes and how her emotions manifest in her body or her senses (showing rather than telling), but when the narrative drifts to imagined car accidents, fake heart attacks or passing out at the wheel, these descriptions read as ‘over the top’ and forced emotions as more of Naomi’s story is revealed about her losing a promotion to Clint, a co-worker.
Since we don’t know from this limited 400 word submission which direction the plot will go or what genre this is, we won’t know if Naomi is a mild-mannered woman capable of hiring a hit man to take out Clint to get her promotion or doing that job herself with hours spent at a gun range. Or did the author intend for this to be a taste of Naomi’s world until the hurricane hits and she discovers what’s really important in her life? We simply don’t know.
I think the author would have a more compelling start if the contrived emotions were stripped from this intro and we get to know more about Naomi and care about her. There’s a lot of pressure to getting a lot packed into 400 words, but this intro could orient the reader into Naomi’s world with the hint of foreshadowing where the story will go. It doesn’t have to be all action and suspense when the story is a drama about a woman’s struggle to find balance in her life and how she makes a dynamic change to make to happen. How would that story look?
Maybe Naomi has been hit in the teeth by losing another promotion to a better candidate because she is overlooked at every turn, but the impending hurricane forces her out of her comfort zone and she confronts her demons that change her forever. I would read that story.
1.) What feedback would you give this author, TKZers?
2.) What tips do you have for finding the right place to start your story?
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