First-page critique: THE LATERAL LINE

By Joe Moore

As we continue with our annual springtime first-page critiques, here’s an anonymous submission called THE LATERAL LINE. My comments follow.

Gabriel knew this day would come. It had taken fourteen years and more warnings than he thought necessary but fate had caught up to them. The danger he saw years ago had come to meet them head on. The alarms sounded shrilly over head and the sprinkler system made it rain indoors. An eerie red glow from the emergency generators made navigating tricky, but Gabriel knew where he was going. All he had to do was follow the trail of bodies.

His feet slapped the puddles on the floor as he ran, his breath come in gulps. He had one chance to finish this, to do what should have been done years ago. Fear made his hands shake but he knew he couldn’t fail this time. A side hallway brought him out ahead of the boys he followed and as he rounded the corner he saw he judged correctly. Gabriel stood at one end of the long hallway and watched as his sons walked toward him.

They were silhouetted against the flashing emergency lights and dripped with water, but they walked confidently forward obviously not concerned that their father waited. Half-way up the hallway, they stopped. It was close enough for Gabriel to see the cocky grin on Cross’s face. That only served to convince Gabriel this needed to be done. He brought the gun up and leveled it with Cross’s head. His brother stepped forward, concern etched into his features.

“Just let us walk out of here, Dad. No one else has to get hurt,” Kale said. Cross just glared and kept quiet. Gabriel never took his eyes off the boy.

“I can’t let that happen, Kale. You know that.” Gabriel’s head buzzed with the intrusion he felt from Kale. The psychic push he understood his son was capable of. Gabriel knew if he wavered now, he would end up like the men and women he passed in the hallway. He was the only thing that stood between a terrible mistake and a messy death.

“This ends now,” Gabriel said and pulled the trigger.

I think this is a terrific first draft. It has all the right stuff: conflict, tension, suspense, action, mystery, and more. There’s no doubt that something really bad happened here as Gabriel navigates a “trail of bodies”. And the fact that a father is faced with possibly having to kill his sons is about as tragic as it gets. I assume the two boys are responsible for the multiple deaths, and judging from Gabriel’s determination to stop them, this is not the first time they have killed.

I get the feeling from the statement “The psychic push he understood his son was capable of”, that we’re dealing with the supernatural or horror genre. Just need to get rid of the dangling preposition.

Thankfully, there’s no backstory or flashbacks to slow us down. The author tosses us right into the “middle of things”. Within a few paragraphs, he/she has cut to the chase and we’re whisked along for the ride. There’s a strong sense of place and a threat of immediate danger.

I think the only thing needed is a surgical pass through this sample with a sharp editor’s knife. Despite a need to tighten and clean up, this submission shows great promise and I would definitely read on.

How about you? Would you keep turning the pages to find out what happened?


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Conveying fear on the page

I spent a lot of time last weekend thinking about fear. It started with the 9/11 memorials. Being the morbid creature that I am, I watched the replay of the real-time events of that traumatic day–not once, but twice. I was amazed at how composed the newscasters remained as the world seemed to be collapsing all around us.

Fear was very much on my mind on Saturday night when my sister and I happened to visit a Russian attack submarine, the Scorpion, which is docked next to the Queen Mary in the port of Long Beach. It was amazing to see this relic of the Cold War transformed into a tourist attraction. It has been preserved exactly as it was for the Russian sailors (except, I assume, for the on-board nukes). You can see the torpedo tubes and attack periscope, the cramped quarters, piping, and weaponry, everything that made it yesteryear’s “terror of the deep.”  The sub spawned a lively discussion about which era was scarier–the Cold War, or today’s climate of fear surrounding terrorism. I argued that the Cold War was scarier, mainly because we were facing the possibility of the extinction of the human species with the pushing of a few buttons from vehicles like the Scorpion.

Fear can be found everywhere. Recently I heard about a crime wave in Mobile, Alabama, where I have lots of kin. Robbers follow people home from an ATM, rob them and shoot them in the head. I think those particular criminals have been caught, but nevertheless, some people in my family have gotten very proactive in handling their fear. One of my aunts, a very feminine, genteel southern lady, now has a license to carry. She totes her gun in a designer purse (it has a cunning little pocket designed just for that purpose). Auntie takes lessons at the local shooting range, and woe to the punk who breaks into her house and threatens her or her nine cats.

As writers, it doesn’t matter what type of fear we are trying to convey–we have to “bring it home” to the reader by making it seem real and visceral. In my current WIP I’m struggling to convey a fear that human society as a whole is going to be changed unless our hero–or the villain, depending on how you see him–succeeds in his mission.

In your current WIP, what type of fear are you writing about? World disaster? Danger to a loved one? Female in jeopardy? What types of techniques do you use to make it real for the reader?