First Page Critique: The God Glasses

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Please enjoy the first 400 words of “The God Glasses” from an anonymous submitter. I’ll have my critique after the excerpt. Please contribute constructive criticism in your comments.

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Ella raced up the stairs as fast as her twelve year old legs could carry her. She had one objective, the same one every time—to escape the terror. She stopped mid-way and listened to her mother scream at her father.

“You never listen to me! You’re buried in your work, your motorcycle, or your sports. We wait for you to come home, but you never do. When you’re here, you’re somewhere else. Why don’t you just go away and never come back? Wouldn’t be much of a change—”

A slap and a heavy fall. Mama moaned—a pitiful sound, Ella thought. Her fists balled up at her sides, her legs shook.

She crept back down to the landing and peered over the railing into the kitchen. Daddy picked Mama up by the hair and backed her tight against the wall, his other hand knotted on her breastbone, pushing cruelly. He towered over her smallness, tattooed muscles bulging under his sleeves, face mere inches from hers. He wrenched her head back, forcing her to look up.

Mama’s wide eyes met hers. She blinked and a tear wetted her bruised cheek.

Ella gripped the rail. It creaked.

Daddy jerked his head up and smiled. He moved his hand from Mama’s breastbone to her throat and leaned in, thrusting his mouth next to Mama’s ear.

“You watch your mouth or I just might leave and never come back!” he screamed. Pulling back, he said, “What would happen to you and the girl if I left? How would you like that—to have to go and beg for help from that old woman up the street? Yeah, I thought not. So straighten up. I’m going out.” He snapped her head back. She fell again with a crash, upsetting the small side table which held his liquor and glasses.

“Clean that up before I get back,” he bellowed.

“Clean it up yourself, you pig—”

Ella ran, long dark hair streaming behind her. She stumbled on the top stair and fell to her face. She picked herself up, raced to her bedroom closet, and yanked the door open. She backed into the corner and sank to the floor, hands tight against her ears.

After Daddy leaves, I’ll go see Grandmother. She’ll tell me again about her God glasses. Maybe she’ll let me wear them.

She rocked back and forth, recalling better times.

***

FEEDBACK

First impressions, I like this author’s voice and the clear concise writing with visual imagery. Good use of the senses. On the surface, there is plenty to get drawn into with Ella. I like that the author stuck with the actions of the domestic violence scene and didn’t stray into backstory or an explanation. I’m rooting for Ella and love that the author has told the story through a twelve-year-old girl’s eyes. Domestic violence through a child’s eyes can be more powerful. Readers will want to protect her, but this first scene feels rushed for the sake of action. Violence like this should be more emotional, especially from a kid’s eyes. Make us feel Ella’s fear and helplessness.

We have clean copy and a solid start, but let’s dig deeper from a bird’s eye view to see how we can strengthen this scene.

ANOTHER OPENING SUGGESTION – The author has a choice to start with action (as in this case) or ground the reader into Ella’s world before the violence happens and build towards it. Anticipation can milk the tension in ways this action opening can’t. Would readers relate to Ella more if they got a taste of her world before the shocking inevitable happens? Should the author build toward a mounting dread that her father will be home or he’s late and both mom and daughter know what that means (without telling readers)?

In this opener, it’s my gut instinct when dealing with a young protagonist to show her world in a short punchy beginning that doesn’t slow the pace. Make every word count and build on what will happen with hints of foreshadowing. As much as I like the action in this opener, I can see how an unexplained growing tension between a mother and daughter can pique a reader’s interest more. Have Ella rushing to finish her homework from the safety of her small bedroom and not quite get it done because her mother yells for her to come downstairs to set the table. That would allow the reader to know what kind of mother she is before everything erupts.

Ella and her mother look at a clock ticking on a wall. When they hear boots climbing stair outside, they tense and wait for the door to open. He steps into the small apartment and he reeks of alcohol. Have Ella read her mother’s cues. Both women know what’s coming. How do they each react? Have patience for the scene to erupt and build on the natural tension.

In this current scene, Ella’s mom aggressively goes after the angered dad and puts Ella in danger. That makes both parents look bad. Is that the intention of the author? I don’t know. Let’s talk about character motivation.

CHARACTER MOTIVATION – This feels like violence that has happened more than once. If Ella’s mother is a battered wife, why would she taunt this man into beating her? She’s overly aggressive with someone who will punch her in the face and put her daughter in danger. It doesn’t feel natural, from a motivation standpoint. If the author would show more of how this anger is triggered and how the reactions would flow, the violence would be more grounded for the reader.

Also, Ella runs scared up the stairs, but turns around and comes back to watch. That feels like a cheat to the reader, to get them into the race up the stairs, only to deflate the tension by having Ella retreat. I can totally see a young kid who might want to protect the mom, stick around to watch. But that’s not how this began.

Make the reader understand why Ella might have a reason to protect the mom. By a slower build toward the violence, we could get a glimpse into Ella’s personality. Is she feisty or a beat dog? Is she ready to fight when her mother isn’t? Ella’s character motivation could be more interesting in this opener.

As a reader, I’m questioning character motives. The author should have patience to let the reader know the hearts of these characters. Contrivances (for the sake of action and tension) don’t allow the reader to buy into the story.

DIALOGUE – There are two long dialogue groupings – the first one when the mom goes after the dad. The second comes when the dad yells back. Because these are grouped together, they feel contrived and forced. Arguments, especially when there is violence, they are more believable if there is an exchange with shorter lines. Let the action ratchet up the tension and have the dialogue be punchy and shorter. More natural.

Have the dialogue get louder. Maybe have a neighbor yell and pound the thin wall, “Shut up or I’ll call the cops.” Then finish with the violence that will stop both parents. I can see him yelling down at her as she struggles to stay conscious.

“See? You drive me crazy. You always ask for it.”

RESEARCH – Abusers often blame their victims. It wouldn’t hurt to research the psychology behind domestic violence. Good research on motivation will add authenticity. Although there are lots of good books on the subject, I often look first at online articles on any given topic. These type of articles can inspire ideas on how to add impact to a scene. Here is a link to “The Psychological Wounds of Domestic Violence.”

COMBINE THE YELLING LINES? The long diatribe has the potential of losing the interest of the reader if it’s lumped together, without much grounding. Below is an example of breaking apart the dialogue groupings and combine them, with tensions escalating toward his first assault on her.

“You never listen to me!”

“Watch your mouth.”

“You’re buried in your work, your motorcycle, or your sports. That’s what matters to you. Not us.”

“Give me something to come home to. Look at you. You’re a mess.”

“Why don’t you just go away and never come back? Wouldn’t be much of a change—”

“Oh, yeah. What would happen to you and the girl if I left? How would you like it if you had to beg for help from the old woman? You don’t know how to make it alone.”

“Being alone is better than being with you.”

“You ungrateful pig.” (He strikes her)

WHAT WOULD ELLA DO? – What options does Ella have as a twelve-year-old child? Even if you didn’t change this scene much, I wondered what was going through Ella’s mind as she sat at the top of the stairs and watched her dad beat her mother. She must be in agony. I wanted the author to show the conflicts that must be raging through her. For Ella to sit on the stairs, without lifting a finger to call police or help her mom, that did not feel normal.

If you have the neighbor call the cops, the sirens could be wailing before he storms out, leaving Ella and her mom to deal with the aftermath. Ella would want to see if her mom is okay, wouldn’t she? Would she try to stop her father? The combination of Ella crying and fending off the old man, along with the cop sirens coming, could be enough to make the wife beater leave. But Ella running to hide in her closet, without checking on her mother, doesn’t seem heroic.

That’s why it matters to build on Ella’s world, even a little. A stronger foundation gets the reader in the girl’s corner from the start. We get a glimpse into her home life and how she feels toward her mother and father.

TITLE – I’m not sure what God’s Glasses have to do with the story. I like the title but I’m not sure why yet. It piqued my interest, but don’t rush to have Ella thinking about the old woman and God’s glasses. That feels like a contrivance for the sake of having a better opening scene cliffhanger. Be patient as the story unfolds. I’m sure there is something magical about God’s Glasses and Ella.

SUMMARY – This is the kind of story that would make it through a writer’s group reading with flying colors. It’s clean copy and there’s a lot to like about it. But as I read this strong opening, I had questions in my mind. Character motivation is a big one. Make it believable and real. Then ask yourself, is there a better way to start this? I don’t know if Ella will be a main character. I presume so, given the title, but it’s doubly important to have the reader think favorably of her from the first page. Or at least, be intrigued enough to turn the page. Have patience to portray your character. I normally love to start with action. Many of us do, here at TKZ. But with this opening, I thought a more deft hand in Ella’s portrayal was needed. What do you think, TKZers?

DISCUSSION:

Let me know what you think of this story, TKZers. I’m pretty sure we would all turn the page of this story, but what would you do to make this intro stronger?

Do you have different ideas on how to make this opening stronger?

Are there relationship elements between Ella and her parents that would enhance this scene?

 

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Fear, the Ultimate Motivation

(Photo by author)

I love it when a reader tells me one of my books gave them a good scare. Oddly enough, despite having written many dark suspense and gothic novels and stories, I’ve rarely actually set out to frighten readers. The scares in my stories are incidental to their unfolding.

Though, now that I think about it, there was one time I tried my hand at a truly creepy passage, but my editor shot it down. In my first novel, Isabella Moon, I thought it would be very cool for the villain to roll the decapitated head of my heroine’s erstwhile love interest into the kitchen to scare the hell out of her. The image seemed dramatic and seriously creepy to me, but my editor said it went too far. And I knew he was right. So I took it out. (Also, take note. DON’T kill off the love interest unless you’re writing a tragic love story, or you reveal that the love interest was a bad, bad person, and probably deserved to die. It’s almost, but not quite, as bad as killing a fictional dog or cat or rabbit or bird or mouse or even a particularly memorable flea. Kill all the humans you like, but leave the critters alone unless your story’s about the life of a very lovable dog that dies peacefully in its sleep.)

You don’t have to be writing a horror or suspense story to make good use of fear. Fear is a remarkable motivator in both life and fiction. I’m convinced that I write crime stories because I’m the most paranoid person I know.

When we write about things that frighten us, chances are there will be lots of readers who share our fears. We can exploit (terrible word, but I mean it in the nicest way) those fears and redeem ourselves through characters that may suffer for a while, but journey to overcome their fears or terrifying situations.

As humans we all have fears. They don’t have to be big, bloody fears, or deeply felt emotional fears to propel or inspire a story. They can be as small as a spider or as microscopic as damaged chromosomes. Resonance is the important thing.

Here’s a list of fears that immediately spark stories of all sorts for me:

Fear of death.

Fear of being submerged in water.

Fear of my embarrassing secrets being revealed in public.

Fear of losing a child.

Fear of being blackmailed.

Fear of being taken advantage of.

Fear of success.

Fear of being a failure.

Fear of a bug crawling in one’s ear or nose.

Fear of being watched in a lighted house from the darkness outside.

Fear of being pulled over by a fake cop on a lonesome road.

Fear of being mistaken for a criminal.

Fear of home invasion.

Fear of the apocalypse.

Fear of snakes in the house.

Fear of roaming packs of dogs.

Fear of being watched through a computer’s camera.

Fear of being kidnapped.

Fear of a child being hurt or being killed by one’s carelessness.

Fear of being judged and found wanting.

Fear of being too happy, because it can’t last.

Fear of one’s eye(s) being gouged out.

Fear of the supernatural.

Fear of random violence.

Fear of cancer.

Fear of loving too much.

Fear of poverty.

Fear of seeing open, bleeding wounds.

Fear of corpses.

Fear of being wrong.

Fear of betrayal.

Fear of snarky groups of teenage girls.

Fear of being vulnerable.

Fear of losing a lover.

Fear of losing a friendship.

As you can see from the list, many of these fears are close to being universal for humans. Readers always want to discover things in stories that they can identify with. It’s all about the resonance, and not so much about the shock value.

I’d love for you to add to this list!

 

 

 

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What does your character want?

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By PJ Parrish

Many moons ago, when I was just starting out in this crime writing business, I wandered into a workshop at SleuthFest. That day, all I was looking for was a reason to not lurk alone in the lobby of the Deerfield Beach Hilton. Besides, I had two books under my belt that got some nice blurbs and some good reviews. So I thought that I had all the answers.

Man, was I wrong. And thank God I went into that workshop because it forever changed the way I wrote.

LesStandifordHeadShot

The workshop was conducted by Les Standiford and he was talking about creating memorable characters. Now, every writing conference has panels on this. Yada yada yada…don’t rely on stereotypes…blah blah blah…give them interesting backstories and dossiers…humanize your villain…make your hero fallible but likeable…same old same old.  And despite the fact Les Standiford had his own successful mystery series and was a celebrated fiction teacher, I didn’t think I was going to get anything new from his session. But then, as I sat in the back of room, half-dozing off the effects of last night’s cocktail party, Les said something that made the hairs on my neck stand up:

“Ask yourself one question of every character you create: What does he want?”

He had hit a nerve in my writer’s subconsciousness. Because although I had been writing about my cop hero Louis Kincaid for a while, I had never really thought hard about what Les was talking about. So as I sat there in that hot crowded room, I asked myself:

What did Louis want?

Well, he wanted to solve the case! He wanted to find the men in the small Mississippi town who, thirty years ago, had lynched a black man and left his bones in a shallow grave in a swamp.

{{{{Loud sound of buzzer going off}}}}}

Okay then, Louis was a rookie who really needed a job and wanted to impress his new boss, the sheriff.

{{{{Buzzer}}}}

Well, dammit, Louis felt compelled to find the identity of the lynching victim and bring him peace.

{{{Close but no cigar}}}}

Okay, okay. Let me think hard about this. Wait…Louis is biracial. He was born in Mississippi but was fostered out to a white family in Michigan. He walks, uneasily, in two worlds. Could this be about him finding his “black” past, forgiving his mother for abandoning him and coming to terms with the white father who deserted him?

{{{You’re the writer. What do you think?}}}

I think that what Louis wants is to find himself. Twelve books later, both he and I are still looking. But way back when, I thought I had all the answers. That day I walked into Les Standiford’s class, I didn’t even have the right questions.

What does your character want?

It sounds like an easy question. But if you’re doing this novel writing this right, the answer isn’t so easy. Kurt  Vonnegut famously said, “Every­one wants some­thing on every page, even if it’s only a glass of water.“  That is true even of minor characters, but when you’re talking about your lead role players, I think you have get to the very bottom of that water glass.

Dead Poets

Are we talking about character motivation here? Well, yes, I suppose so. Les Standiford, Vonnegut and all great writers and teachers tells us we must plumb the depths of our character’s hearts and heads to find out what makes them tick. But it’s more than that. I think why Les’s question made an impact on me was because it forced me to come at the old question from a different angle. It’s sort of like when Robin William’s character John Keating in Dead Poets Society climbs atop his desk and tells his students, “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”

The first step of character development is figuring out what passions, fears, regrets, or desires consume your character. Then, all you have to do is show him interacting with his setting and other characters in a manner consistent with those possible “motives.”

What Les was asking us to do was to go beyond the surface, to dig deep and deeper to find out what was the one essential consuming need of each character. Think of character motivation as having levels. Yes, you can get published by going no deeper than defcon 1 or 2 in character development. But what happens if you push yourself to take just a couple more steps down into the darkness?

Speaking of going into creepy basements, let’s go to a simple example: Silence of the Lambs. If you’ve read Thomas Harris’s book, you know how effective the author was at descending into the lowest rungs of every character’s motivations. But even the movie did a pretty good job at this. Let’s dissect our heroine:

What does Clarise Starling want?

Level 1: She wants to solve the case. She wants to find Buffalo Bill. (basic thriller plot)

Level 2: She wants to prove she can hang with the big boys of the FBI. (basic thriller with feminist theme)

Level 3: She wants to escape her suffocating southern small-town roots and the FBI was a ticket out of hicksville. Remember how impressed one of the victim’s girlfriends was with Clarise’s job? (Basic thriller with feminist theme and rich backstory.)

Level 4: She wants to impress her boss-mentor Jack Crawford. (basic thriller with feminist theme, good backstory and father-figure character interplay.)

Level 5: She wants to validate herself as being worthy of her father’s legacy because he was a cop killed in action. She gets approval by proxy via Crawford, who tells her at the end that her father would have been proud of her.  (Now this is getting interesting!)

Level 6: She wants to make the lambs stop screaming. Cool…But what does this mean psychologically? Clarise is haunted by a childhood memory of hearing lambs being slaughtered. I have always read this as her attempt to exorcise her demons of abandonment, her human need to deal with existential loneliness, her way of pushing back against the black void. “I thought if I could only save just one,” she tells Lector. She’s talking about saving Buffalo Bill’s victims, but isn’t she really talking about herself?

(While we are at it, has anyone else noticed how eerily similar Silence of the Lambs and Jodie Foster’s other movie Contact are in character themes? Both are smart, emotionally fragile women raised by fathers then orphaned, both manipulated by brilliant outcast men. And both women are staring into the vast blackness and hoping they are not alone.)

Let’s go to another example. What does Captain Ahab want in Moby-Dick?

Level 1: He wants to catch the whale that maimed him. (Simple story of revenge).

Level 2: He wants to prove to his crew and himself that even though he’s got one leg, he is still a man. (He even smuggles his own crew onboard just in case.)

Level 2: He wants to strike out against the pacificism of his Quaker religion. Not so simple theme that’s right here in this passage:

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;—Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.

Level 3: He wants to vanquish evil, what he calls “the inscrutable thing.” And he’s not sure God is on his side or even exists. He’s like Hamlet, looking for some metaphysical truth in all the madness. And I am sure Peter Benchley had Ahab in mind when he created Quint the shark hunter in Jaws.  Both men are nuts but sort of magnificent. Which is why they had to die.

So here’s what I’d like to leave you with. The next time you think about your characters’s motivations, go deeper. Think hard and long, applying great gobs of elbow-grease of the mind. Don’t be content with staying on the top levels. Don’t skim the surfaces.

MSDSIOF EC076

Don’t be afraid to descend to the very bottom rung and enter that dank dark basement of the human soul. That’s where you find the good stuff.

 

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