First-page critique: HAIR TRIGGER

By Joe Moore

Today’s first-page critique is from a story called HAIR TRIGGER. My comments follow.


They were going to cut my hand off.

When I came to, I was tied to a chair. It was dark in the print shop and, like a character in a 1940s film noir, I could see the distorted silhouettes of a tall man and short man standing in the shadows. I was dizzy and felt sick from the blow to my head. The two figures swam in and out of focus.

Leaning over as far as I could, I barfed on the floor at their feet.

“Feeling better?” the short one asked in a strained high-pitched voice that reminded me of Peter Lorre.

“Please don’t say ‘fuck you’,” the tall one added.

I didn’t. I just vomited again.

After I finished whooshing whatever cookies were left inside me, I noticed my right hand was trapped under the clamping rail of a paper trimmer. This type of machine is commonly called a guillotine and has a razor sharp blade with thousands of pounds of pressure behind it. It can make very neat cuts through thick reams of paper.

The short guy stood next to it but I still couldn’t see him clearly.

“It says here this thing can trim up to a thousand sheets of paper at a time,” he read off the metal tag on the side of the machine. “Apparently, the operator must have a hand on each of the side switches for safety.” He looked straight at me. “Gee, I’d like to see how it works. Wouldn’t you?”

The big guy walked to the wall and pulled down the breaker handle on the electrical panel.

Machines around the shop started to power up. I could feel the vibration of the cutter humming through the metal surface under my hand.

The trimming blade gleamed wickedly.

“Now this is the part of the James Bond movie where I ask you to tell me what I need to know. If I don’t get an answer I like, you’re going to have to learn to jack off southpaw.”

I have very few phobias. One, however, is my fear of dismemberment. I get queasy just thinking about it, let alone imagining what my life would be like without a vital appendage such as my gun hand. In feudal Japan it was considered a sign of dishonor if a samurai lost a limb in battle. It showed everyone that he had failed in his duty as a warrior.

I liked this submission, and would keep reading. It starts, just as we so often suggest here at TKZ, with a life-changing event. The protagonist is in trouble and the author presents the reader with a big question: how is he going to get out of losing his hand? The bigger question, at least so far: what did he do to get into this situation?

The voice is not quite solid but it does take on enough character to intrigue. The scene is cliché – two bad guys, one tall, one short, but it does have forward motion and kept my interest.

A bit of line editing and cleanup would help, but it reads like a decent first draft. Nothing wrong with that.

I’m not sure who said the line starting with, “Now is the part of the James Bond . . .” That need clarification.

I would suggest not using the word “very”. It is meaningless. What’s the difference between few phobias and very few phobias?

There were a couple of places where the story slowed down while the writer explained how an industrial paper cutter works and what it means to lose a hand in feudal Japan hand. I would suggest avoiding those type of speed bumps at this stage of the story.

Lastly, even if it’s appropriate to the story, I recommend not dropping the f-bomb on the first page, or anywhere in the story for that matter.

Overall, not bad. I want to know what happens next. Thanks to the brave writer for submitting.

Now, Zoners, what do you think. Would you keep reading or does this guy losing his hand not grab you by the throat? Hold up your hands.


THE BLADE is an absolute thrill ride." — Lisa Gardner

Blade Of Hearts critique

By Joe Moore

Today’s first-page critique submission is called BLADE OF HEARTS. Take a look. My comments follow.

Banda Sea, Indonesian Islands
12 June, 1994

The shot pounded the confined space of the ship’s bridge with an impossibly loud explosion compared to the handgun’s size. The captain slammed into the console and slid to the deck, streaks of bright red blood smearing the panels. A pretty young blonde woman on the deck outside the room screamed and buried her face into the chest of a young man standing next to her. Rough hands reached down and grabbed the ship’s captain. Blood sprayed from between his lips on rapid panting gasps as he was dragged through the hatch and onto the aft deck where the rest of the ship’s passengers waited, trembling. They tossed him against the bulkhead where he crumpled to the painted metal deck slicked by his quickly pooling blood. Mustering his strength he rolled onto his back and forced himself to sit upright looking into the eyes of his assailant. Thirty years in the Marines meant there was no way he was going to die whimpering or squirming, he would face them, he would not cower.

“I am Colonel Galang,” the leader strode smugly before the trembling group of missionaries, his voice an odd high pitched flat tenor that sounded like he was forcing it to sound more masculine than it naturally was, like a fourteen year old boy trying to sound like a grown man. His face was that of a youth who seemed unnaturally aged. Though the skin was smooth and hairless it held the distinct look that belied a life of violence, like a centuries old vampire trapped in a teenaged body. Galang’s lips stretched tight in a frightening imitation of a smile that would’ve made a pitbull tremble with terror, “I am the most feared pirate in this ocean and you are my prisoners.”

“May God have mercy on your soul when you meet him,” said the captain through pale blue lips.

Colonel Galang glanced over to the gray haired man, his smile briefly faded then snapped back with an intense ferocity and he took three quick steps that brought him in front of the captain.

“No,” he leaned down to his face, “may I have mercy on your god when he meets me.”

Galang stood and reached across his body to a scabbard that hung on a belt around his waist and dragged out a heavy looking machete as long as his arm. He placed the blade on the captain’s shoulder and dragged it slowly across the man’s neck, eliciting a trickle of blood. The retired Marine officer stared unflinching into Galang’s eyes showing neither fear nor contempt, his face registering a sense of pity, as if he knew something more than the pirate leader before him. In a blur of motion, Galang spun a graceful ballet-like pirouette and brought the edge of the machette hard against the captain’s neck instantly severing his head with a clean cut. Blood jetted from the stump of the neck as the body remained upright against the bulkhead. The head rolled across the deck halting at the feet of the pretty blonde his lips nearly touching her toes as his mouth stretched in wide, gasping attempts at breath. She swooned into the arms of the young man standing next to her, his face registering every line of terror that the captain’s had not.

1: Omniscient point of view is a method of storytelling in which the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the story. The advantage to using it is that the storyteller can convey a great deal of information in a short amount of time and space. The disadvantage is that it virtually eliminates a personal connection between the characters and the reader. There’s nothing wrong with that if it’s the goal of the storyteller. That’s what we have here—third person, omniscient POV. What I came away with was a sense that this is a prolog, especially since it is dated 1994.

2: Whose story is it? Not the captain. He’s already lost his head over this. Colonel Galang? Maybe, if the story takes place in 1994. Also maybe, if the story jumps to a future or present time and he continues his pirating ways. The pretty young blond woman? Maybe, although since she wasn’t graced with a name, probably not. The young man? Side note: what does young mean? Eight years old? Eighteen? I’m 65. You can imagine what young means to me.

3: We’ve all heard Professor Jim Bell’s rule: act first, explain later. My compliments to this writer. He/she did just that.

4. The gun shot sounded bigger than the handgun’s size. Was it a derringer or a Dirty Harry .44 magnum? If this is omniscient POV, go ahead and tell us.

5. There’s a whole lot of trembling going on. The rest of the passengers waited, trembling. The figurative pit bull trembled.

6. The second paragraph had a bunch of comparisons including pre-pubescence, hairless skin that gave away a life of violence, and centuries-old vampires (don’t forget the hyphen). Hard to mentally see all those images.

7. Eliciting a trickle of blood? Eliciting? This word choice and visual doesn’t work for me.

8. Graceful ballet-like pirouette? See previous comment.

9. Machete? Machette? Check your spelling.

10. …his mouth stretched in wide, gasping attempts at breath. Impossible. How about: …his mouth frozen in a final, gasp for breath.

I would probably continue to read just to see if the story was about the pretty, young blonde. Hey, I’m a guy. But right now, I feel nothing for any of these characters. That’s not a tragedy. It’s the downside to omniscient POV. Hopefully, the story involves someone I will grow to care about. At this point, who knows. This appears to be an action/adventure story. My kind of book. But the writer has to know what he/she is getting into. There’s a stronger “hook” here than some of the previous first-page submissions, but there be dragons in them waters. Beware.

My hat’s off to the writer for having the courage to submit this sample. Best of luck with your WIP.

So, dear Zoners, what do you think. Would you keep reading or go watch Disney on Ice?

Writing lessons from the road

For the last three weeks I’ve been on the road with my sister Debbie, visiting family up and down the East Cost. It’s been a blast.

We bought an audio book for our trip, a thriller by an author we both love. This particular story, however, did not live up to our expectations. (I won’t name the author or title, because I’d hate to meet him at a conference and have a drink flung in my face). 🙂  

As we listened to the story, I was reminded about a few key writing lessons:

* Don’t let the reader out-think the narrator.  

After listening to the first story CD for five minutes, Debbie and I knew that the thing that was buried under the sea floor was A Very Bad Thing. However, it took the main character five more discs to figure this out for himself.  By then, Debbie and I were throwing imaginary popcorn at the CD player.

* Keep raising the stakes and the suspense.

In this story, the suspense question was raised at the outset: “Is the Buried Thing good or evil?” But after that, the author didn’t raise the stakes or suspense. The reader merely encountered a succession of  characters who repeatedly raised the same question.

* Provide a satisfying payoff for the suspense.

After the long tease of discovering what was buried, we never got to see the Bad Thing do anything. It merely shot a warning round over humanity’s bow, and the good humans got away. (The bad humans didn’t make it to the escape pod.)

When it comes to creating bad guys in a thriller, you’ve got to have some real action. Imagine watching The Thing and having it end when they first unfroze the monster. To have an enjoyable movie, you’ve got to see the monster tear apart a laboratory or two. Then you can kill it off.

* Don’t repeat phrases.

This is a Writing 101 point, but when you’re listening to an audio book, you really notice repetition. I started counting the number of times a character “stared thoughtfully down the hallway.” It was in the double digits.

* Don’t start a secondary story thread, only to drop it.

There was actually an interesting secondary story line that got started, only to be dropped mid-way through the book. It was as if the author had started an entirely different book concept, couldn’t pull it off, and wove in the leftovers as a subplot.

* Provide enough motivation for your characters’ actions.

None of the characters in the story, not even the protagonist, were written in a way that explained their actions. One secondary character became a hero, another a villain, and we never understood why. It was as if the writer spun a wheel and let the character actions go wherever the ball landed. Not a good thing.

* Have a competent voice narrator.

This book was voiced by a male. Whenever he had to read dialogue by a female character, he would make his voice go all quavery and soft. Ick.

After listening to the entire book, Debbie and I decided that the author had never clarified his story objective. He never figured out how to pull the story components together in a way that made sense. 
I’m going to read the printed version of the book, just to see if it comes off better on the page.

Have you listened to many audio books, and found them to be a different experience than reading? Is anyone aware of any special requirements for crafting an audio book that “reads” well?