First Page Critique: A Plan of Change

Happy Monday! Today’s First Page Critique is entitled ‘A Plan of Change’. I think this page provides a good illustration of some common challenges when it comes to foreshadowing. My comments follow.

A Plan of Change

Jenny Holland never intended to go through with her plan. Plotting revenge against them was just something to ease her anger and pain. Then she opened the newspaper, and a mini-headline on page two ignited a whole new round of hate:

“Dean Decker Honored at Banquet.”

She laid the paper on her work table.

Dean and a group of VIPs smiled in a photograph below the bold type.  All the men wore tuxedos, except Dean.  He had on a gray suit and striped tie.  He was the center of attention and yet he found a way to make himself stand out even more.  In another photo, Carolyn stood beside him, her head tilted demurely toward his. Her coyness made Jenny want to stab her in the throat.

Jenny read the article.  Each line of praise tightened the muscles in her neck a little more.  The last accolade was too much:

“Without him, our charity wouldn’t be able to help as many clients as we do.  Dean is so giving.”

Giving?

Her heart pounded double-time.

“He doesn’t give!  He steals!”

Remember, Jenny.  Dean’s only power is the one you grant him.

She sat back in her chair. “I know.”

She looked out the window of her home office as she tried to calm herself.

Under the maple tree a thrasher foraged for food.  It tossed dead leaves aside, again and again. Usually bird-watching made her smile.  Not today.  Dean killed any chance of that.

Soon the thrasher began hammering the ground with its bill.  She envied the way it jabbed and punched.  The only punching she ever did was in her imagination. It flew away when Mrs. Moon jogged up the sidewalk.  Sarah waved, like most mornings.  Mrs. Moon did the same.

Once their neighborly routine was over, Sarah dropped her hand on top of Dean and Carolyn’s photo.  Dean’s face peeked between her fingers.

It wasn’t right that Dean and Carolyn enjoyed life while Bobby couldn’t.  If she went ahead with her plan, neither would smile ever again.

Dean’s eyes said “I dare you, Jenny.”

It was like the words were whispered in her ear.

Comments:

Overall

Although I enjoyed reading this first page, I think one of the major issues is one of foreshadowing – namely too much is disclosed up front about Jenny’s plan when it comes to Dean and Carolyn. It’s a good example of how a little can go a long way, especially in the first paragraph where we are already told that she is plotting revenge. There is also a great deal of extraneous information in this first page which really doesn’t pull the reader in – like the observations about the thrasher (a little too heavy-handed) and the exchange of waves with Mrs. Moon (unless it provides a sharp contrast to Jenny’s current thoughts, do we really need to know the neighborly routine right here?).

There is also the question of who exactly is in the room on this first page. We start and end with Jenny Holland, yet about three quarters of the way into this first page we are suddenly introduced to Sarah ( “Sarah waved”, “Sarah dropped her hand”). I’m proceeding on the assumption that there aren’t actually two female characters in the scene, but rather the author changed the name of the protagonist from ‘Sarah’ to ‘Jenny’ at some point and that ‘Sarah’ is now a typographical error. Here at TKZ we’ve emphasized the importance of proof reading your first page to the nth degree – an error like this would turn off an editor immediately.

When it comes to the issue of foreshadowing, my recommendation would be to cut most of the explanatory sentences and leave the reader intrigued as to what Jenny is planning. This first page should set up the key questions the novel will address (why is Jenny so angry? What did Dean do? Who is Bobby and what happened to him?) and provide intrigue and tension (what exactly is Jenny planning – can she go through with it?). Telling the reader in the first paragraph that: “Plotting revenge against them was just something to ease her anger and pain” robs this first page of dramatic tension. Similarly, sentences like “If she went ahead with her plan, neither would smile ever again” seem unnecessary as well as cliched. Far better, I think to keep the reader in suspense about Jenny’s plan (as well as her mental state).

To this end I would also urge the author to reconsider the inner monologue/dialogue as it sounds confusing and a little childish at the moment (especially “He doesn’t give! He steals!”). While I don’t mind the idea of Jenny having an exchange that sounds like she’s speaking to a therapist that isn’t there – this would have to be executed with more finesse (and possibly raising the question of an unreliable narrator, which is tricky to pull off).

I suggest a rewrite that reduces the exposition/foreshadowing and removes the extraneous information that drains the page of dramatic tension. Here’s my initial suggestion (apologies for the presumption, but I think it illustrates the points I’m trying to make):

Jenny Holland never intended to go through with her plan, then she opened the newspaper, and the headline on page two ignited a whole new round of hate.

“Dean Decker Honored at Banquet.”

Dean and a group of VIPs smiled in a photograph below the bold type. Carolyn stood beside him, her head tilted demurely toward his. Her coyness made Jenny want to stab her in the throat.

 Each line of praise tightened the muscles in Jenny’s neck a little more.  The last accolade was too much: “Without him, our charity wouldn’t be able to help as many clients as we do.  Dean is so giving.”

Giving?

Her heart pounded double-time.

It wasn’t right that Dean and Carolyn enjoyed life while Bobby couldn’t.  But could she really go ahead with her plan?

Dean’s eyes said “I dare you, Jenny.”

It was like the words were whispered in her ear.

This is by no means a great rewrite but I’m hoping it illustrates my point. Overall, I think this page could work well with some heavy revision. TKZers, what advice would you offer our brave submitter?

5+

The Fifth Floor: First Page Critique

 

Happy Wednesday, everyone! Another anonymous Dear Author is here to share some work today. Check it out…

The Fifth Floor

A kid rolls by on a skateboard. It’s old—maybe one he inherited from his father—and  layered with stickers bearing the logos of early-nineties ska bands. Streetlight Manifesto, Hepcat, Five Iron Frenzy, The Toasters, Reel Big Fish.

“Do you want to make twenty bucks?” I ask, amplifying my voice just enough for it to carry over the wind.

The kid looks behind him, startled, but doesn’t lose his balance. Impressive.

I’m sweating like a jonesing addict despite the sixty-degree weather. My hair, once thick and lustrous, feels like a dank rag draped over my head.

With a degree of coordination I’ll never master, the kid shifts his weight to reverse the skateboard’s direction and comes back toward me. The board skids to a stop on the sidewalk two feet from where I stand.

“You say twenty bucks?” In his eyes, I detect more curiosity than suspicion. If I were a man, standing on the sidewalk in this same middle-class neighborhood, he’d probably have kept going. Maybe called the police from the cell phone I’m sure weighs down one of his pockets.

“You heard right.”

“I don’t deal drugs.”

“Never thought you did.”

The kid’s trying to look like a street punk, with a ratty tee shirt and worn cargo shorts that almost slip off his narrow hips. I’d put him at ten or eleven. But he’s clean, his hair’s been recently trimmed, and braces puff out his thin, pale lips.

“What do I gotta do?”

“What do you have to do,” I correct automatically. Bad habits.

The kid snorts. “You a teacher or somethin’?”

“Hardly. Listen, all I need you to do is go with me to that public storage place across the street. See it? Just ride up the elevator with me to my unit, then use my code to go back down. That’s it.”

He studies me for a moment through intelligent brown eyes. Probably sussing out potential reasons behind my odd request. “What’s your name?”

“Roxie,” I reply.

Shit. I’m so not cut out for this. Why couldn’t I have told him Angela or Kate or Thomasina?

“I’m Kevin.”

“Nice to meet you.”

We shake hands. His grip is firm and perfunctory. Somebody’s taught him well—maybe the father who gifted him the retro skateboard.

“Ready?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Okay. When do I get the twenty bucks?”

“When you leave me on the fifth floor.”

“Deal.”

_______________________

Today Dear Author has made my job tough by writing so well. Let’s talk about all the things that are spot on with this gem of an opening.

Opening paragraph:

A kid rolls by on a skateboard. It’s old—maybe one he inherited from his father—and  layered with stickers bearing the logos of early-nineties ska bands. Streetlight Manifesto, Hepcat, Five Iron Frenzy, The Toasters, Reel Big Fish.

I wish I knew if this were an opening to a novel or a short story. It feels to me like a short story, but I wouldn’t wager money on it. Immediacy is critical to any written story, and this paragraph draws us right in. We observe the kid, with an extra added bonus of movement. He “rolls by,” rather than “goes by” or “passes by.” Nice. We know the kid is a boy, and that the narrator seems to have been waiting.

The narrator is observant, and even makes up a small story about the skateboard and the boy’s dad. We don’t know that it’s a true story, of course, but it tells us that the narrator likes to provide possible reasons and explantations for the things she sees. It’s a hint that she may be a bit of a fantasist. In truth, the kid could’ve just come from stealing the skateboard from another kid or a pawn shop. That said, she also seems to know about 90s ska bands, and this detail tells us that it’s probably a contemporary piece.

“Do you want to make twenty bucks?” I ask, amplifying my voice just enough for it to carry over the wind.

The kid looks behind him, startled, but doesn’t lose his balance. Impressive.

It’s dialogue that drives this opening page and keeps up the theme of immediacy. I do take issue with the word “amplify.” Technically it’s okay, but it makes the narrator sound old, and her word choice stilted. But she also uses the very casual word, “bucks.” One of those two words should be changed. I vote for losing the “amplify.” Also, does the wind show up again?

The next sentence is perfect. The kid has skills.

I’m sweating like a jonesing addict despite the sixty-degree weather. My hair, once thick and lustrous, feels like a dank rag draped over my head.

More description of the narrator. Ew. She’s seen better days. I’m curious! I can almost feel the dankness.

With a degree of coordination I’ll never master, the kid shifts his weight to reverse the skateboard’s direction and comes back toward me. The board skids to a stop on the sidewalk two feet from where I stand.

Does the narrator ride skateboards? It feels like that’s indicated when she speaks of a “degree of coordination.” Or is she just awkward in general? Maybe “heads back,” rather than “comes back.” That the kid stops the board so suddenly is interesting. He seems rather aggressive, which I didn’t get at first.

 “You say twenty bucks?” In his eyes, I detect more curiosity than suspicion. If I were a man, standing on the sidewalk in this same middle-class neighborhood, he’d probably have kept going. Maybe called the police from the cell phone I’m sure weighs down one of his pockets.

Okay. So they are in a middle-class neighborhood. I didn’t see that coming. I think I was picturing a busy street.  Are there public storage rental places in middle-class residential areas? Nice detail about the phone and the pockets.

“You heard right.”

“I don’t deal drugs.”

“Never thought you did.”

A telling exchange. I like that the boy is matter-of-fact, but cautious.

The kid’s trying to look like a street punk, with a ratty tee shirt and worn cargo shorts that almost slip off his narrow hips. I’d put him at ten or eleven. But he’s clean, his hair’s been recently trimmed, and braces puff out his thin, pale lips.

In his ratty tee shirt, and worn cargo shorts that threaten to slide from his narrow hips, he’s trying hard to look like a street punk. But he doesn’t quite pull it off. He’s clean, his hair’s been recently trimmed, and braces puff out his thin, pale lips. I’d put him at ten or eleven-years-old.

I’m a big fan of this piece’s short, declarative sentences, but you don’t want to start out too many of them with, “The kid…”

“What do I gotta do?”

“What do you have to do,” I correct automatically. Bad habits.

Funny. Do the bad habits belong to the narrator, or the boy?

The kid snorts. “You a teacher or somethin’?”

“Hardly. Listen, all I need you to do is go with me to that public storage place across the street. See it? Just ride up the elevator with me to my unit, then use my code to go back down. That’s it.”

Very clear. I’d go!

He studies me for a moment through intelligent brown eyes. Probably sussing out potential reasons behind my odd request. “What’s your name?”

“Roxie,” I reply.

Shit. I’m so not cut out for this. Why couldn’t I have told him Angela or Kate or Thomasina?

This is very telling about the narrator, and does make her sound young, and inexperienced at making weird requests of an eleven-year-old boy. She no longer sounds stiff.

“I’m Kevin.”

Charmingly proactive to introduce himself so boldly.

“Nice to meet you.”

We shake hands. His grip is firm and perfunctory. Somebody’s taught him well—maybe the father who gifted him the retro skateboard.

Also excellent. I like that she carries the her fantasy about the dad forward.

“Ready?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Okay. When do I get the twenty bucks?”

“When you leave me on the fifth floor.”

“Deal.”

Terrific cliffhanger here. They are off to the storage unit. What can be there, and why does she want him to leave her up there????

_____________________

Overall, I’m delighted with this piece and would like to read more. My comments are essentially line edits. We get a great picture of the boy, who seems to think he’s streetwise, but who also can’t get over having manners. The narrator, too, is interesting. With a little tweaking she can be more consistent and defined.

TKZers! I couldn’t find all that much to say. What are your thoughts?

Thanks for sharing this first page, Dear Author!

 

5+

First Page Critique – “New to the Neighborhood”

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

By Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21002061

For your reading enjoyment is another brave author open to feedback. My comments will follow. Feel free to share your constructive criticism in your comments. Let’s nurture this author, TKZers.

***

The words, sprayed in red, dripped like blood down the white siding of the ranch house on the corner. “They could have at least gotten the spelling right,” I called from the curb, loud enough for the woman in the yard, scattering grass seed from a coffee can, to hear.

Maggie looked up. She stood – a scarecrow with choppy, flaxen hair under a straw hat, worn jeans, and flannel shirt rolled to the elbow – and we looked at each other. She called toward the backyard: “June. We have company.”

A second woman approached along the slate flagstones that curved between a pansy-and-petunia border. Knee-length shorts and a Hawaiian shirt showed dimpled limbs and rose quartz skin. A halo of gray-flecked, light brown curls accented the cherub face. The tight line of her mouth loosened into something like a smile. Then her lips began to tremble and her eyelids flutter. She wrapped me in an airtight hug, which I returned with less vigor.

Maggie pressed June’s elbow. “June, get us some chairs. Can you sit a while, Kelly?”

They’d arrived two months before, in March, setting the block’s antenna twitching. Two single women, the wrong ages for mother and daughter, no men in sight. Sue Hoycheck said they seemed nice enough, but Sue was a kind-hearted grandmother who thought everyone seemed nice enough. They told Edie Isom they’d moved from St. Paul. One or the other –Edie couldn’t remember – had been hired to manage the art mall opening in the old Amtrak station downtown. When Olin Frey murmured that he’d seen just one bed – queen-size – come off the moving van, all the pieces fit together.

“It’s no big deal,” Lynn Franklin insisted. I’d come to Franklin’s Hardware to order specialty paints, coffee bean brown and French olive green, for a dining room trim. “As long as they return the rototiller they rented from us, who they sleep with is their own business.”

I smiled with mischief. “And if they don’t return the rototiller, who they sleep with is . . .?”

She frowned. “It may seem funny to you. You probably met a lot of them in New York. But around here . . .”

“I don’t know how many I met,” I said. “I’ll bet you don’t either.”

***

FEEDBACK

Overview: There is a lot for me to like in this intro. The inciting incident is a disturbance established with graffiti. It’s the first image the author draws our attention to. The idyllic setting is marred by red paint on the white siding of a ranch house. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the women. Very visual and easy to imagine. I also appreciated the underlying emotion in this scene when the visitor & the narrator console with a hug.

After I read and reread this intro, I noticed things that I would edit if this was my work. I had questions on POV and the characters as I read on. I sincerely enjoyed reading this intro. The talent of this author is very apparent, but some housekeeping is in order.

ESTABLISH GENDER: Since this is in first person, the gender of the narrator would be important as soon as possible from the start. This is minor, but add a word to this line:

I called from the curb, loud enough for the OTHER woman in the yard,…

Good call for the author to establish June’s name by having Maggie call out to her.

SENTENCE CLARITY: This is me, being nit picky. The sentence below might flow a little better:

BEFORE: “…loud enough for the woman in the yard, scattering grass seed from a coffee can, to hear.”

AFTER: “…loud enough for the other woman in the yard to hear as she scattered grass seed from a coffee can.”

STICK WITH ONE POV – If this scene is told from June’s singular POV, the intro should consistently be seen through her eyes. In the second paragraph, when Maggie looks up at June, this line follows”

and we looked at each other

I would suggest that the author stay in June’s head and try to imagine what she might see in Maggie’s eyes – worry, fatigue, hurt, concern, wariness? Or simply change the line to: “When my eyes fixed on Maggie’s, something passed between us.”

Another line switches the POV from June to Maggie: Maggie pressed June’s elbow. If this is truly meant for June’s POV, this line would read: Maggie pressed my elbow.

In paragraph 5, that begins with “They’d arrived two months before…”, the author switches from June’s POV to telling a “THEY” story. The POV should be consistent throughout this intro scene, so that line might read “I had moved with Maggie two months ago…”

But from this writing, maybe June and Maggie aren’t the “they” the author is writing about. Perhaps the author is writing about Kelly and her significant other. It’s not explained who Kelly is or why June is reticent to embrace her. By the time I got down to reading Lynn Franklin’s lines, I realized the hardware store owner was talking to June, as if June was an insider to the town. Some clarity is definitely needed.

If June and Maggie are the newcomers, other lines should be fixed for POV as follows:

BEFORE: Two single women, the wrong ages for mother and daughter, no men in sight. Sue Hoycheck said they seemed nice enough, but Sue was a kind-hearted grandmother who thought everyone seemed nice enough. They told Edie Isom they’d moved from St. Paul. One or the other –Edie couldn’t remember – had been hired to manage the art mall opening in the old Amtrak station downtown. When Olin Frey murmured that he’d seen just one bed – queen-size – come off the moving van, all the pieces fit together.

AFTER: We were two single women, the wrong ages for mother and daughter, no men in sight. Sue Hoycheck told others that we seemed nice enough, but Sue was a kind-hearted grandmother who thought everyone seemed nice enough. Word spread through town busy body, Edie Isom. It didn’t take long for folks to know Maggie and I hailed from St. Paul. Edie didn’t remember which one of us had been hired to manage the art mall opening in the old Amtrak station downtown, but I guess that didn’t matter much. But what set the town on fire came when Olin Frey murmured that he’d seen just one bed – queen-size – come off the moving van. That’s when all the pieces fit together for folks with small minds.

But if the “they” is Kelly and her partner or wife if they are married (unsure of the time period of this piece), then “they” should be explained with names.

EMBEDDED DIALOGUE – I would recommend to draw out dialogue lines so they are not embedded within a paragraph. It allows the reader to follow more easily and keep track of who is speaking.

The words, sprayed in red, dripped like blood down the white siding of the ranch house on the corner.

“They could have at least gotten the spelling right,” I called from the curb, loud enough for the woman in the yard to hear as she scattered grass seed from a coffee can.

Maggie looked up. She stood – a scarecrow with choppy, flaxen hair under a straw hat, worn jeans, and flannel shirt rolled to the elbow. When my eyes fixed on hers, something passed between us. She nudged her head and called toward the backyard.

“June. We have company.”

TIGHTEN SENTENCES WHERE NECESSARY: In the BEFORE line below, if the visitor’s lips are “beginning to tremble”, they are already trembling. A cleaner sentence would be:

BEFORE: Then her lips began to tremble and her eyelids flutter.

AFTER: Her lips trembled and her eyelids fluttered.

SHOW TIME LAPSE: When the dialogue line “It’s no big deal…” comes up, time has passed and June has left Maggie & Kelly or it’s another day or a memory. It would be nice to clarify this and I changed the flow a little in the AFTER example.

BEFORE: “It’s no big deal,” Lynn Franklin insisted. I’d come to Franklin’s Hardware to order specialty paints, coffee bean brown and French olive green, for a dining room trim. “As long as they return the rototiller they rented from us, who they sleep with is their own business.”

I smiled with mischief. “And if they don’t return the rototiller, who they sleep with is . . .?”

She frowned. “It may seem funny to you. You probably met a lot of them in New York. But around here . . .”

AFTER: Two hours later, I stared at the weary face of Lynn Franklin, owner of the local hardware store in town. I’d come to Franklin’s Hardware to order specialty paints, coffee bean brown and French olive green, for a dining room trim.

“It’s no big deal,” Lynn Franklin insisted. “As long as they return the rototiller they rented from us, who they sleep with is their own business.”

I smiled with mischief. “And if they don’t return the rototiller, who they sleep with is . . .?”

She frowned.

“It may seem funny to you. You probably met a lot of them in New York. But around here . . .”

“I don’t know how many I met,” I said. “I’ll bet you don’t either.”

SUMMARY: I really like how this ends. If the author adds clarity on the areas I brought up, the conflict is apparent, but I’m wondering where this will go and if it’s enough for a whole novel. The characters intrigue me. I would read on.

DISCUSSION:

1.) What changes would you recommend, TKZers? Would you read on?

2.) What possible plot twists can you see stemming from this introduction?

5+

Heil Safari – First Page Critique

Today let’s welcome another Brave Anonymous Author who offers the first page of Heil Safari.

Title:  Heil Safari

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot. He had stepped to the caution line and put one foot on the other side. The caution line, marked with wooden stakes and a strand of wire across the top, warned the prisoners of war from getting too close to the wire fence fifteen feet beyond. On the fence going around the entire prison camp there were signs in English and German that read:

ATTENTION!

Forbidden to Move Inside

Restricted Area

Violators Will be Shot

The American guard in the corner watchtower shouted, “You there! On the deadline! Git back!” The guard raised a rifle to his shoulder. “I said git back!”

But Fritz didn’t move.

“You damn Nazi,” the guard yelled at Fritz. “Git back or I shoot!”

Fritz still didn’t move, apparently not taking the threat seriously. Or caring. But Beyer took it seriously. He cared.

Returning to his barracks after doing his morning toilet, Beyer now stood still, uneasy. Then he heard the click of a breech bolt coming from the guard tower at the other corner of the compound. In horror he saw a guard hunkered behind a machine gun. He was covering the south end of the compound as if at any moment there might be a general uprising. The nearby prisoners, however, remained still and only stared.

But Beyer had to do something other than stare to see how the crisis would turn out. He couldn’t afford to lose Fritz. The only mining engineer in the Officers Compound, Fritz was essential to the success of Hermes. Beyer was desperate for Hermes to succeed. Being too long cooped in the densely packed prisoners and buildings of the enclosure, Beyer, much like Fritz, was becoming unnerved. Beyer frequently broke out in night sweats, his breathing rapid and shallow, and sigh a low, agonizing moan.

Considering that Fritz might be shot, a shiver of fear raced through Beyer at the prospect of a catastrophe. Without Fritz there may not be a tunnel completion, no one would get out, all the hard work done up to now remaining unfulfilled.

“Damn you! Stop!” the guard with the rifle shouted.

The shout startled Beyer, then he noticed Fritz beginning to take mincing steps, his short height straddling the wire in his crotch.

 

Okay, let’s get to work.

Usually first pages arrive naked and unadorned at TKZ, without genre or background information. Page One must stand entirely on its own. That’s good because a strong first page is critical to whether or not a reader buys your book.

However, this submission included a synopsis. And the synopsis was intriguing. For that reason, I’m going to handle this critique a little differently than normal.

Most writers would rather endure an IRS audit than write a synopsis because it’s damn hard to do well.

In the summary, Anon explained the novel was based on a true but largely-unknown incident during World War II at Camp Trinidad in Colorado. I Googled it and found this article. Essentially, The Great Escape got turned on its head with German prisoners of war trying to escape American captors.

Show, don’t tell is oft-repeated advice for fiction. However in a synopsis, telling is permissible because it’s the most efficient way to introduce characters, lay out the story problem/conflict, and set up what’s at stake.

Anon handled that summary very well. German prisoners plot to escape a POW camp in Colorado because they are going mad from wire enclosure fever. A main character, Beyer, would rather die than endure another day in captivity. But there is dissent among prisoners, some of whom are die-hard Nazis while others are not. There are additional complications because Beyer’s friend Fritz, the chief engineer in charge of building the escape tunnel, is teetering on the brink of insanity. Anon sets up external conflict between German prisoners and American captors and among the POWs themselves, internal conflict with severe psychological stress, and a ticking clock with a race to see if the tunnel can be finished before the engineer completely loses it.

Lots of great potential for a historical thriller. Congratulations on a clear, competent synopsis, Anon.

Unfortunately, on this first page, Anon is mostly telling when s/he should be showing.

The POV character Beyer observes the events unfolding not only from a physical distance but also an emotional distance. Anon tells us he’s concerned but the reader doesn’t feel his apprehension, his helplessness, his panic that Fritz’s actions may not only lead to his death but also ruin the escape plan that can’t proceed without him.

The stakes couldn’t be higher–life or death–which is a great way to kick off a first page.

But the problem is: the reader doesn’t care.

Because we’re not inside Beyer’s skin. We don’t feel his guts churning, smell the nervous sweat under his armpits, taste the bile rising in his throat. We don’t see what he sees—the madness in the wild eyes of his friend Fritz who’s trying to commit suicide. We don’t hear the angry bark of the guard with his twitchy finger on the trigger.

We don’t feel the urgency driving both men to risk death because they can’t endure another day in captivity.

Showing is more than visual—it must be visceral and emotional.

The synopsis used the term “wire enclosure fever.” Unfortunately there is no sense of  fever in this first page.

A few suggestions to consider as you rewrite:

Lead off with a simple dateline that immediately sets the date and location. The reader right away understands this is historical fiction set in a military environment. For example:

Camp Trinity, Colorado, 1943

Next, climb inside Beyer’s skin and stay there. Use sensory detail to bring action to life. Actions trigger Beyer’s thoughts and feelings.

As Jim Bell often recommends, “Act first, explain later.” Give the reader just enough information to set the scene and prevent confusion.

A lot of repetition can be cut and condensed. Consider the first two sentences:

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot.

These two sentences essentially repeat the same information that could be combined into a single sentence with much more punch. Again, it’s telling rather than showing. Instead of having Beyer “wonder” how to save Fritz, he should act. His action may help the situation or it may make it worse. But either way, it moves the story forward.

Every scene needs to accomplish at least five tasks:

  1. Set the scene;
  2. Reveal character;
  3. Introduce a problem or goal;
  4. Demonstrate the stakes if the problem is not solved or the goal is not met;
  5. Propel the action forward.

How do you build a compelling scene? By stringing together groups of sentences that accomplish these tasks.

How do you build a compelling book? By stringing together compelling scenes.

In a fast-paced thriller, each sentence must build on the previous one to push the plot forward. Treat each sentence as a springboard that induces the reader to jump to the next sentence to learn what’s going to happen.

Below is one possible way to rewrite this first page, using additional details gleaned from the linked article.

Captain Martin Beyer fastened the last button of the drab uniform shirt that shamed him every day with its PW insignia: “prisoner of war.” He stomped his feet on the wood steps of the officers barracks to knock the fine silt off his once-shiny Luftwaffe boots. Barbed wire surrounded this desolate, barren patch of dirt named Camp Trinity. On the fence, signs in German and English warned that anyone would be shot if they crossed the caution line, the restricted buffer zone that was fifteen feet inside the compound fence.

“Hey, Nazi, git back!”

The shout from the watchtower caught Beyer’s attention. He turned to see an American guard aiming a rifle at Beyer’s closest friend in the camp, Hans Fritz. The young second lieutenant had stepped beyond a wire stretched taut between wooden posts.

One foot over the caution line into the restricted zone.

Beyer’s gut cramped as he prayed his friend would heed the guard’s warning. Lately, he never knew if Fritz taunted the Americans for sport or if he truly sought death rather than endure another day inside the prison.

There was a wild gleam in Fritz’s wide blue eyes as he teetered on the line, one boot in life, the other in hell.

The metallic click of a breech bolt sounded from the opposite watchtower where another guard hunkered behind a machine gun. “Git back or I’ll shoot!”

“Don’t do it, Fritz,” Beyer muttered. If Fritz died, the escape tunnel plan died with him.

 

The above is about 230 words and conveys most of the same information more concisely plus gives a deeper glimpse into the POV character.

Work on sensory detail that draws the reader in. Let the reader see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the story world you’ve built.

Work on showing emotion and feelings in the POV character. It’s not enough to say he felt alarmed—show his alarm with his sensory reactions.

Examine each sentence. Ask yourself if it repeats information previously stated. If so, choose the strongest version and delete the weaker. Or combine two sentences into one.

Count how many of the five elements listed above are included in each sentence. I try to pack sentences with at least two elements, preferably more. When you compose a sentence, choose an action that reveals character as well as demonstrates the stakes. The consequences of that action either solve the problem or make it worse.

One last point: the title Heil Safari is vague and doesn’t hint at the meat of the story. “Heil” made me think of the Nazi salute so I deduced it took place during World War II. But how does that connect to “Safari”? Maybe refer to the escape tunnel to freedom. Or perhaps the perils that lie beyond the tunnel if they escape successfully. You can find a better title to convince a potential reader to click the “buy now” button.

Don’t be discouraged, Brave Author. You have a compelling storyline based on historical events that are not widely known. World War II history buffs will find this interesting. A strong foundation in fact serves as a solid platform on which to build your fictionalized version. Work on your craft and you should have a good book.

Over to you, TKZers. Suggestions and comments for our Brave Anonymous Author?

 

If you’re a member of Amazon Prime, you can read Debbie Burke’s bestselling thriller Instrument of the Devil for free. Here’s the link.

 

 

 

 

3+

First Page Critique: Heir of Death

It seems like a while since I’ve done a first page critique and I’m looking forward to today’s discussion surrounding what I think is a great example of the beginning of a new fantasy novel. My comments follow.

Title: Heir of Death

______

There was a girl amongst the grass. Alone in the moonlight and darkness.

The wind tugged at her cloak, tearing golden strands from her braid. She stood tall, blade weighing heavily at her side and watched the stars sparkle and fade.

Shadows danced across her knuckles and wreathed their way up her arms, curling around a patchwork of scars, around skin inked with the names of the dead.

They moved and swelled with her sadness, with her pride and hate – with the knowledge of what she was about to become.

So the girl stood on the bluff overlooking the city as the wind whispered her name, silhouetted by its twinkling lights. It spread out before her, a glittering mosaic of stone and wood and metal, of blood and bones and breath.

She stood cloaked in shadows and in darkness – and she waited.

And it was there, that Death came to her in the form of a man.

He was a dangerous man, arrogant and proud. Tall and powerfully built with a tangle of white blonde hair beneath his hood and eyes like soot stained ground. He wore a black cape and the blade at his side flashed in the moonlight.

Beside him he carried a crown of twisted metal. Of tiny daggers and drifting leaves, of gold and steel woven together to a thing of monstrous beauty. It floated on an invisible wind. Green eyes met charcoal, gold hair and blonde, beaten and broken and evil – daughter and father. She walked out to meet him, with an arrogant swagger, slowly, with the tension of fear only he would recognise. The shadows increased their pace, swirling around her arms. Darker and darker. Faster and faster. Tumbling to a crescendo as Death himself spoke her name.

The world disappeared then in darkness and night. The stars snuffed out, faded by nightmares. They swelled around the girl, snatching at her cloak, tearing her hair free from its cage, ripping the grass from its roots. The wind howled with her song and the earth shook with her magic. The bluff and the world disappeared.

And then it exploded.

It surged toward the man, toward him, a torrent of nightmares and pain. It surged toward him that raw unbridled power – and shattered against an invisible wall.

Shards of nightmares scattered into the sky, tumbling into the dirt and grass, into the city beyond. And the king of death smiled.

Green and charcoal met again across that ruined landscape, defiant and amused, and spoke in a silence only they could understand. Threats and nightmares and deals with the devil. Her hand itched toward her blade, toward the ornately carved knife at her side and her arm ached to bury it in his chest. But she knew she could not beat him, her deal with the devil, not even with her shadows.

Not now.

Not yet.

So the girl knelt before him and took his crown. Gold and steel and darkness above a snow white braid.

And under that black abyss of twinkling stars, on the ground between two worlds, she spoke Death’s name and became his heir.

My Comments:

Overall

As a lover of fantasy novels, I really enjoyed reading this first page. It certainly succeeded in raising my interest and in foreshadowing what I assume will be the battle to come. That being said, this reads like a prologue – setting the scene and written in abstract, descriptive terms that can sometimes feel a little too ponderous or deliberately ‘weighty’. So I just caution the author that even in fantasy – where these kind of prologues are more common – it’s important to tread lightly, lest the weight of the writing drag down the action/tension and slow the forward momentum of the actual story.  Overall, however, I liked what I read and think there’s some strong potential for this fantasy novel.

Specific Comments

Weight of Exposition

Up until the paragraph ending “Death himself spoke her name’, I was fully engaged in this first page. The next few paragraphs, however, started to feel a little overwritten for my taste and I started to get more confused about what was really happening in the scene. In the first paragraph we got an image of the daughter of death waiting for her father, waiting to be crowned perhaps with the crown of twisted metal he was holding. After that things got a little murkier. I wasn’t sure how the stars could get snuffed out ‘faded by nightmares’. Likewise was it the nightmares that swelled around her or the darkness and the night? I assumed that she was using her magic to send a surge of nightmares and pain towards him (her father, Death) and that this onslaught failed, but the way these next few paragraphs read was a little confusing – especially as we have no real sense of her motivation for trying to defeat him – except (as I read the final few lines) because she didn’t want to be crowned as Death’s heir.

My advice to the author is to perhaps step back from the exposition and add some dialogue into this scene to clarify matters. Dialogue could be a great vehicle to explain the relationship between father and daughter and also explain what is meant by her ‘deal with the devil’ (which in the context could be metaphorical or actual). This would also help lift the scene from being weighed down by exposition alone.

Use of ‘Death’

I’m not a huge fan of having Death as a character (I didn’t even like it in the well known novel The Book Thief). It can seem oblique as well as grandiose to have the personification of capital ‘D’ Death in your novel – especially if we don’t really understand what Death  is in the context (The grim reaper? A God like being like in Greek and Roman mythology?). If the character is a fantasy construct/personification that is going to be an actual character, then I think we need some hints of the mythology underpinning the novel right from the get go. I love the idea of the daughter of death as the heroine in a fantasy novel but I’d like to see more clarification in the latter paragraphs of this first page so I can really believe in them as actual characters in the novel.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I think there are some great elements to this first page – it prefaces an intriguing battle between Death and his daughter in a fanstastical landscape. I would just recommend inserting some dialogue to lighten the exposition, caution the author not to get too ponderous, and ask for some clarifications so the reader doesn’t get lost in all the foreshadowing of what is to come. TKZers, I look forward to seeing you comments and advice for our brave submitter.

 

 

 

 

6+

Does Your Story Have a Solid Foundation?

By SUE COLETTA

Most writers know this business can be soul-crushing at times, even if we don’t like to talk about it. As can life. This past week, my husband and I secured a mortgage and were over-the-moon excited to close on Friday. The house we’ve been living in for almost 7 years would finally be ours. On Wednesday, we received a call that told us the house had been deemed unsellable. Briefly, 30 years ago a mobile home stood on the land. Rather than remove the old mobile in its entirety, the then-owner stripped it down to the steel beam and built a beautiful 1 ¾ story country contemporary on top of it, rendering the property unsound. Unpredictable. Unsellable, except to a cash buyer who doesn’t glance at the deed.

Because the previous owner cut corners with the foundation, it throws off the entire house. Same holds true for our stories. Without a solid foundation — key milestones, properly placed — the story won’t work, no matter how well-written. The pacing will drag. The story may sag in the middle. The ending might not even be satisfying. It all comes down to the foundation on which the story stands.

After the mountain of paperwork involved to secure a loan, that day our mortgage disappeared. The closing got cancelled. It felt like someone tossed a Molotov cocktail through our living room window, and the fireball obliterated our hopes and dreams. We’d invested a lot of time, money, and effort into this property. We built a home. To receive a call like that two days before closing likened to a gut-punch.

Once we formed Plan B, a scary but exciting venture, I envisioned a parallel to writing. Specifically, the early days when harsh critiques and rejection letters cut deep. It’s never personal, even though sometimes it may feel like it. Writers, however, need to learn this lesson on their own, in their own time. More experienced writers can try to help those who aren’t as far along in their journey — like we do on the Kill Zone — but it’s all part of the process. Writers’ skin thickens over time. The trick is to allow yourself to fail, allow yourself to feel the pain of a harsh critique, poor review, or rejection letter, and then learn from it and move forward.

There is no rewind button for life, but we can press pause.

I applied this same logic to the house situation. For about 36 hours, we didn’t tell a soul. No one. My husband and I needed time to gather facts, talk through what happened, and then re-evaluate our options. The same holds true for writing. If you receive hard-to-handle news, step away from the keyboard and give yourself permission to absorb the blow. It may take ten minutes; it may take two weeks. We bounce back at different rates. When you’re ready, return to the source and re-evaluate with clear eyes. I guarantee you’ll see things differently.

We can’t change the past, but we can change the future.

After 36 hours, we informed “The Kid” who immediately jumped online to look for properties. Kids don’t like their parents’ lives in disarray, which is why we waited to tell him once we’d processed the initial shock. Then we told our closest friends. They sprinted across the dirt road to offer encouragement. My point is, we surrounded ourselves with positivity.

Positivity begets a renewed outlook on life (and writing). Negativity brings nothing but sorrow and unnecessary turmoil.

Trash-talking about how Agent X has no idea what she’s talking about won’t change the fact that she rejected the manuscript. Nor will lashing out at the writer who critiqued your first page. Instead, find writers who will tell it like it is, writers who’ve stood where you might be standing now, writers who will help you see the forest for the trees. I love that expression. It’s visceral. It’s raw. It’s truth.

In life as well as writing, sometimes the unapologetic truth isn’t an easy thing to hear. Yet it’s exactly what we need to move forward, to grow, to find acceptance in the unacceptable. Even if my husband and I had a spare $150K kickin’ around, buying an unsellable house would be a horrible investment.

When life hands you lemons …

I truly believe we’re meant to walk a certain path. When we misstep, life has a way of nudging us back on course. So, after I came to terms with the fact that moving was inevitable, the question then became: If we weren’t meant to buy this house, then why put us here in the first place? Admittedly, the anger may have lingered a bit longer.

Now I understand why.

A little over a year ago, “The Kid” bought 3.5 acres a few house lots down from us. It’s a gorgeous parcel of land nestled under a canopy of tall pines, maple, birch, and oak trees, with a stunning mountain view and a wildlife trail that runs through the back. My husband logged out truckloads of timber, clearing a secluded but serene house lot. At the same time, “The Kid” installed a driveway and had the land surveyed and perk-tested before he and his wife decided to put the land on the market. With three children under the age of 4, it ended up being a stressor they didn’t need.

The land never sold.

When one door slams shut, open a window.

Had we never moved into this house and stayed as long as we did, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to build our dream home now … a few house lots over on land we already love. We envision relaxing on the back deck, watching black bear, moose, and deer stroll through the yard. That’s the plan, anyway. If for some reason it doesn’t pan out, we’ll readjust again.

Give yourself permission to fail, in your writing as well as IRL. Then get back to the keyboard and move forward. Only you can make your dreams come true.

Ellle James’ new press ensured Fractured Lives released in paperback before she left for vacation, which added some well-needed excitement to the week.

Three couples, the perfect Maine vacation, and a fateful night that blows everyone’s mind.

Also available in ebook.

 

6+

First Page Critique: 12 Rules

Happy Monday! Today we have a first page critique entitled 12 Rules. My comments follow and I’m hoping that TKZers provide some great input and feedback for our brave submitter. I will be on a plane to Europe so may not be able to respond to comments – but I’m sure it will be a great discussion!

Title: 12 Rules

Chapter 1

Everything around them tended to die, including people. She always struggled with keeping pretty flowers in her room alive by forgetting to water them, and he never could sustain tiny house pets lifespan beyond a couple of weeks. Even inatime things like hopes and dreams had a tendency to writher over time between the two.

Though they both had to admit, this was the first human to die in their presence.

As heartless as Arlo hated to be, the person who had fallen quite literally at their feet was of no importance to either of them. It was Parks’ third cousins step sister. Technically, she wasn’t really family according to him.

Two weeks ago they were at his annual family gathering. Everyone was drinking, laughing, and having a good time as far as Arlo could tell. Her and Parks were huddled by a picnic table full of all the younger kids while sipping on red punch, discussing the boy Parks believed to be his nephew, but wasn’t all that sure. He was cute, Arlo had commented, and in the corner they were devising a plan to get him to talk to Arlo. She knew Parks was the wrong person to ask when his first suggestion came with, “accidently spill your drink on him.” Before she could even fathom saying a word to the gorgeous new stranger, Parks’ mom pulled them over for a picture. Lined up by height, Arlo of course was at the front along with a younger lady who was very pretty. She smiled at Arlo, flashing perfect whitened teeth over baby pink lipstick that popped. Then there was blinding flashes of more than one camera, and then the flashes were gone and she was seeing spots. Everyone stood up, including the nice lady next to her. Parks had already been back at her side with a new and improved plan, but never got the chance to tell her. The lady’s eyelids fluttered and her ocean blue eyes rolled like pool table balls backwards, and she tumbled to the ground like a tiny building- quick and short. The lady didn’t just fall to the side or backwards, she fell forward; right on Arlo’s sunshine yellow shoes she’d been so excited to wear. And just like that, the lady had smeared death all over her new converse. Following the fall and destroyed shoes had been earfuls of screaming.

Now they were bumper to bumper in early morning traffic yelling at each other over a blaring radio.

“You were supposed to take that exit we passed like ten minutes ago!” Arlo shouted. She felt the need to cup one of her hands around her mouth like a mega phone. But leaned back in the driver’s seat, he still refused to listen.

My Comments:

Somewhere in this first page there is a great story waiting to emerge – I can see glimmers of a cool, detached, wry POV and the beginnings of a story about two people who can’t keep anything alive suddenly being confronted with an actual death. Unfortunately, this story is stymied by some stylistic choices, a passive choice of sentence structure, and a lack of characterization that robs the page of much of its dramatic tension.

In brief, I think these are the main issues that need to be addressed:

  1. Pronoun confusion – The use of ‘them’, ‘she’ and ‘he’ before we know and understand the characters creates confusion as well as distance. At first I had no idea who was ‘he’ or ‘she’ as Arlo and Parks are gender neutral names (which is no issue – just needs clarification so we know who is who) and had initially assumed they were a couple who lived together. All through this first page, the use of pronouns creates an awkward sense of distance from the story which makes it hard for a reader to feel engaged.
  2. Passive sentence structure – Many of the sentences in this first page are written in passive voice creating further distance from the story. An good example of this is the phrase “Following the fall and destroyed shoes had been earfuls of screaming”…not only does this sound awkward and strange, it also robs the scene of the drama of having people screaming as someone literally dies in front of them. I would recommend the writer go through this first page and change passive sentences to active ones to create  sense of immediacy and action.
  3. Lack of dramatic tension – In the first few paragraphs, the reader starts to feel some anticipation about the death that is going to occur only for it to be handled in a prosaic, indifferent way that drains away all the dramatic tension. I wanted to be intrigued and invested in the characters and how they responded to this initial death and also to get some sense of the story to follow. Once the scene switched from the death to Arlo shouting about how they’d missed the exit, I was no longer engaged in the story.
  4. Lack of detailed characterization – Apart from my uncertainty over the relationship between Arlo and Parks – at first I thought they were a couple whose hopes and dreams withered as much as their house plants – there is also the issue of providing characters with real meaningful scenes and dialogue so that we, as readers, become invested in them as three-dimensional characters. In this first page, none of the characters introduced are given any real substance. We are told  that that Parks is trying to set Arlo up with someone at the party, but there’s no real action or dialogue to make us care about this occurring (also the suggestion to ‘accidentally spill your drink on him’ is so bland that it doesn’t give us a true sense of character’). Likewise all the minor character’s are merely described in detached terms like ‘Parks’ third cousin’s step sister’, ‘gorgeous new stranger’, ‘a younger lady who was very pretty’, ‘ the nice lady next to her’, and someone who Parks ‘believed to be his nephew, but wasn’t all that sure’ (which I didn’t really understand…). This meant it was very hard to visualize any of the minor characters or care about what happens to them in this scene.
  5. Telling not showing – This first page is almost entirely told to us rather than shown, with only the death itself containing much in the way of visual details. I would have preferred we were immersed in the scene and given sensory details so we could visualize all the characters and become invested in the story.
  6. Spelling and grammar issues – We always emphasize here at TKZ that a first page is the all-important first impression and, as such, it must be as perfect as possible. Grammar errors such as missing apostrophes and spelling errors (‘inatime’ not inanimate and ‘writher’ rather than ‘wither’) will immediately put off any agent, editor or reader from continuing to read the story.

Overall, I think there’s a good story lurking beneath the surface of this first page, but the writer could benefit from cleaning up the sentence structure, grammar, and pronoun use, adopting a more active voice, and immersing us in the scene with action, dialogue and more detailed characterization for this first page.

So TKZers what other advice or feedback would you provide our brave submitter?

 

 

3+

Cops at Your Door & a Mystery Unfolds – First Page Critique: Healing Wounds

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

For your reading enjoyment, we have the first 400-word submission from a work-in-progress introduction from an anonymous author. When I got this submission, the first few lines were broken apart, so I had to reunite them. I don’t know if this weighty first paragraph was the author’s intention, so forgive me if it doesn’t look right. I’ll have my feedback on the flip side. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

***

She had the dream again last night. It lingered as awareness of morning pulled her up and her thoughts coalesced into memory. Audrey Grey saw Jacob’s imprint on the pillow beside her. The light through the curtains told her it was time to get up, too. She stood under the water, transitioning to the day ahead. Thoughts of her dream receded as the day took hold. She dressed and finished a buttered bagel. He should be back anytime. The knocking surprised her. Not tentative and apologetic like you might expect so early in the morning. It sounded . . . commanding. She tiptoed to the window and eased apart a slit between the blinds. A man in a gray and black uniform waited. She let the slats fall shut and took inventory of her appearance. Wet hair, worn skinny jeans, baggy knit top. He knocked again.

You don’t just ignore the police at your door. It’s dishonest and she couldn’t lie to a cop about not being home. Her clumsy fingers fumbled with the lock and slid the chain off. The door always stuck a little, but with an extra tug it gave way. She leaned into the door frame, face to face with the visitor. She could see the gold shield, the belt fully rigged with gear and the black gun at his side.

“Good morning, Ma’am. My name is Officer Mike Welden, Wake County Sheriff’s Department.” He consulted a black notebook flipped open in his hand. His questioning eyes moved from the page to her wary ones.

“There’s been an accident and the identification on the injured party gave this address. Do you know Jacob R.

Grey?” She caught her breath. “Yes, he’s my husband.”

“May I come in?”

She stepped back allowing him to enter. His trained eyes scanned beyond the entry and he spoke her line.

“Would you like to sit down?” Obediently, she took a seat on the edge of the sofa, swiping at shower damp tendrils of hair falling onto her face. “You saw my husband? Is he okay?”

“I found him, yes, ma’am. It appears he was hit while on his bicycle this morning. He’s been taken to Duke Hospital.”

No. He would be here soon. They had to buy a grill for the cookout. “I’m sorry, what do you mean, ‘appears’?”

“We have no witnesses, so it’s not clear exactly what happened.

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – This intro is a classic opener with police knocking on the door of a wife to share bad news about the husband or a family member. Here at TKZ, we preach to start with a disturbance and cops at your door would qualify, but I would’ve liked to see the dialogue with more tension and intrigue. With this being a bicycle accident, the lines are bland. If you isolate only the dialogue and take everything else away, nothing much happens.

Would it have been better to open with the bicycle accident?

We also have an opener with someone in their own head and thinking about a dream, but with the dream not explained any more than a vague 2-line notion, it’s not interesting either. I’ve opened with internal thoughts of a character, but the writing has to intrigue and create elements of mystery to keep the reader (or an editor and agent) turning pages.

It’s my opinion that the author might try to find a better place or a better way to start. Let’s drill down into the details.

OPENING LINE: ‘had the dream again last night.’
The dream is only brought up twice in this weighty opening paragraph. With the first line and this one in the middle of the first paragraph – ‘Thoughts of her dream receded as the day took hold.’ There is so little known about the dream, it’s almost not worth bringing up. It’s a cheap tease that doesn’t work for me.

To intrigue a reader, there needs to be elements of mystery that would force them to want to know more about the dream. In these two lines, even the author dismisses the importance by saying ‘her dream receded as the day took hold.’ If this dream is significant, more of it needs to be layered in and it must reflect or foreshadow what is about to happen–or create the start of a mystery to be solved–otherwise it’s not worth the focus.

If this is a dream where Audrey symbolically loses her husband Grey or can’t find him, that might provide an answer as if she is telepathic or deeply connected to him. If the dream is of something else that will carry through the story, like a distinct thread that evolves, then more needs to be hinted from the start.

Maybe the dream is something buried in Audrey’s subconscious that has put Grey in danger. The author must show patience at dangling this kind of story element into the story, but there needs to be more in order for it to gain traction.

To play with this opener, the author could have the cops get Audrey out of bed from a dead sleep. I liked the imagery of her waking to see Jacob’s imprint on his pillow. She could be more traumatized and her mind muddled if they wake her from an exhausting night of bad dreams, only to wake into her own nightmare.

But I’m more of a fan of action in the opening. Hard to say what I might’ve done in these 400 words, but the bicycle accident would appeal to me more. The reader could be drawn into Grey’s world of normalcy as he rides his bicycle, only to be suddenly struck down by a mystery assailant who races from the scene. BOOM! Opener. Then build on the foreboding dream of Audrey’s that comes to fruition with a knock on her door with police standing there. Solid start.

DISTRACTING LINE – ‘You don’t just ignore the police at your door. It’s dishonest and she couldn’t lie to a cop about not being home.’

This line should be deleted. It’s a strange thought for her to even think about not opening the door to police. A lie about not being home is odd. Most people would be intrigued as hell about why cops were at the door. Why isn’t she? It makes her sound flaky and doesn’t read as solid motivation. In the following line, there’s a focus on action where ‘her clumsy fingers fumbled with the lock.’ That shows her mental state, as if she’s nervous (and rightly so) which is contrary to her strange thought about not opening her door as a dishonest gesture.

VISUAL IMAGERY – In the second paragraph, Audrey comes face to face with the policeman. This struck me as odd, given the next imagery of her staring at his duty belt and gun. I would imagine a cop would be taller than Audrey, unless she’s tall. If she’s shorter, her eyesight might see his duty belt better. I can see her distraction with it. Many people aren’t familiar with guns and she might be intimidated by it, but the police are there for a reason and she doesn’t seem curious enough about why they are there. If this image is important, then clean it up and make the cop more intimidating, if that’s the intention, but in the whole intro, Audrey doesn’t act like a normal wife getting bad news about her husband. I’ll explain below in the section on CHARACTER MOTIVATION.

HOUSEKEEPING – There’s plenty to clean up, line by line. I’m sure other TKZers will help with that, but something that stood out was the cop’s mention of Jacob R, about halfway down. Who is Jacob R? Didn’t the police have his last name? Why would the cop only call him by his first name and an initial? When Audrey says, “Grey?” I had to reread to get the leap she made. (Maybe she jumps in to add it and interrupts him, but there’s punctuation of em dash that would help make that clearer. The author should explain why the police only referred to Jacob R or use his full name. Presumably they would have it since Jacob is at the hospital and survived the accident. He would have ID on him.

In the sentence that starts with ‘His trained eyes scanned beyond the entry and he spoke her line.’ If this is in Audrey’s POV, the author leaps into the head of the cop when referring to ‘his trained eye.’ The author should delete the word ‘trained.’ I also had to reread the last part of that line – ‘he spoke her line.’ This is out of order from real action. How would Audrey know he was about to speak her line -‘Would you like to sit down?’ In that one short paragraph, two characters are speaking and it’s confusing. Separate the lines with space to make things more clear and I would write the cop’s line more distinctly to show he’s speaking.

“It’s best we sit down. After you.” The big man took charge and Audrey lead him into the parlor.

“You saw my husband. Is he okay?”

CHARACTER MOTIVATION – Officer Welden tells her that he found her husband, saying ‘it appears he was hit…’ Instead of Audrey focusing on what a real wife might want to know – “If he’s okay, why isn’t he home?” “Was he injured? Where is he?”

Instead, Audrey focuses on the word ‘appears’ and acts like a sleuth, at the expense of the well being of her poor husband. If she comes across as jarred by the news, physically and mentally, she would be more sympathetic and the tension and emotion would be escalated. But with this cold reaction, it only adds to the bland nature of this opener. The reader will care more if they can relate to the character and Audrey’s understandable emotion.

After Audrey asks if her husband is okay, Officer Welden only says, ‘I found him, yes, ma’am’ before he jumps to more of what happened. This is a police notification to a family. They would be more concerned with sharing news about the husband’s condition and where he’s been taken. Audrey can push for details on the case and who caused the accident once she knows her husband is okay and sees for herself, but there is no sense of urgency on Audrey’s part and the cop should explain more about Jacob’s condition.

“Your husband sustained a broken arm and a few cracked ribs. Doctors at Duke Hospital are examining him now.”

Audrey mentions an internal thought of ‘No, He would be here soon. They had to buy a grill for the cookout,’ (a line that I would italicize to show an internal thought for the reader). The emotion or her confusion isn’t in sync with her cold reaction and focus on the word ‘appears.’ Put more emotion into this section and have her react like a more normal wife and the reader will care more too.

DISCUSSION:
1.) What is your feedback, TKZers?

It takes guts to submit your work for critique. Any comments are solely for the purposes of providing help to a fellow author. We’ve all been here. Thanks for your submission, brave author. The beginning of every story is my greatest challenge, always. Tweak this and perhaps re-imagine a different beginning for Audrey and Jacob and you’ll have a solid start.

3+

Recognizing Writing Tics – First Page Critique

By Sue Coletta

We have another brave writer who submitted their first page for critique. I took the liberty of breaking up the paragraphs for easier reading. Anon, white space is our friend. My comments will follow. Enjoy!

Untitled

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman. Deafening and chilling screams, echoed through the steel door.  Andromeda found herself in a small room, with cold metal walls, a plain steel table, metal bed with a thin mattress and blanket, and an uncomfortable looking metal chair. She was a tall, beautiful young woman, whose long black hair fell down to her shoulders, and slightly covered her almond shaped face.

An eerie chill pierced the air in the room, and Andromeda wasn’t sure if the goosebumps that followed were because of the woman screaming, or the total lack of insulation in the room – likely a combination of both.

Andromeda looked around the room, her heart pounding through her chest. Her attempts to remember how she got here was futile; the only thing she remembered was cleaning up after her best friend and roommate Sofia, who was recuperating from the flu.

After disposing of soiled tissue paper and disinfecting their dorm room, Andromeda turned on some classical music and tucked herself in bed. After that, there was a black spot in her memory. She sat up in the bed that she woke up in, and began to stretch and look around the room.

Dressed in a white t-shirt, gray fleece shorts, and white socks, she began to walk around the stark and unoccupied room, looking for anything that may give her a clue as to where she was. She wrapped her arms around her body, bracing herself for the shudder and chills that followed.

The room had the look and feel of a military interrogation chamber: there were no windows, no traces that anyone even knew she was there. But someone knew she was here, the same someone who put her in this place. Suddenly, Andromeda was reminded of the screams as they began again, growing increasingly louder, followed by a loud “BOOM!” Andromeda ran to the door, preparing her mind to bang on the door with all of her might, to hell with alerting whomever put her in this room; the only thing on her mind was escaping. However, before she could even touch the door, it receded into the floor.  Andromeda fell face first onto the cold, hard, metal floor of the hallway. The palms of her hands were burning, and so were her legs.

***

After reading this piece several times, I still can’t figure out if it’s a dream sequence or if it’s the opener for a fantasy novel. The last line indicates the events happened in the real world—how else would her hands and legs be burning?— so my guess is we’re in a fantasy world. If this is a dream, however, we need to be careful not to trick the reader. Opening with a dream is risky. Does that mean we can never do it? No. But we do need to learn the rules of storytelling before we break them.

Let’s set aside the last two sentences for a moment.

Our hero is actively searching for a means of escape while at the same time, wrestling with how she landed in an unfamiliar room. Anon didn’t give away too much too soon, either. Which is great. An opening page should raise story questions and pique the reader’s interest. Our goal is to make it impossible not to flip the page. Anon, I really hope this isn’t a dream, or it’ll undo all the conflict and tension you’ve worked so hard to create.

Writing Tics

Believe me, we all have our fair share of words we favor, extra words (overwriting), and unnecessary words that get in the way. The trick is learning how our writing tics weaken our writing.

This first page is littered with began. It may seem nitpicky to mention it, but it popped right out at me. Our goal is for individual word choices to deliver the right balance of cadence, emotion, transparency, and rhythm, so the reader enjoys the story with no hiccups. Words like began and started detract from the action.  Allow me to show you what I mean.

First line of the excerpt …

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman.

If we only remove “began to be” …

The smell of burning wood and flesh drowned out the sound of screams … the screams of a woman.

See how more immediate that reads? Next, let’s shuffle a few words around so the reader can share in the experience.

Screams drowned out the smell of burning wood and flesh … the screams of a woman. 

Better, but it still needs a few tweaks. By being specific and intentional we paint a more vivid picture …

High-pitched screams collided with the stench of burning flesh … screams of a woman.

Next line: remember to introduce the hero right away so the reader knows who’s telling the story. While we’re at it, let’s deepen the point of view by removing all telling words i.e. smell, sound, remember, knew, thought, felt, etc.

Inside the cramped room with metal-lined walls, Andromeda [last name] jolted upright in an unfamiliar bed, the bare mattress yellowed, torn.

Adding Inner dialogue allows the reader to empathize with our hero. Let’s add that here …

Where was she?

We still need sensory details and conflict …

Rotted meat blended with the warmth of a campfire. Plumes of smoke billowed through the barred-window in the steel door—her only source of air. And light. No windows, no other doors, no means for escape. A steel hydraulic table sat in the corner, a trickle of blood snaked down one leg, the remaining surface polished to a glossy shine.

Hero’s reaction …

Andromeda’s heart thrashed, rattling her ribcage. Was her captor incinerating live victims?

Put it all together …

High-pitched screams collided with the stench of burning flesh … the screams of a woman. Inside the cramped room with metal-lined walls, Andromeda [last name] jolted upright in an unfamiliar bed, the bare mattress yellowed, torn.

Where was she? 

Rotted meat blended with the warmth of a campfire. Smoke billowed through the barred-window in the steel door—her only source of air. And light. No windows, no other doors, no means for escape. A steel hydraulic table sat in the corner, a trickle of blood snaked down one leg, the remaining surface polished to a glossy shine. 

Andromeda’s heart thrashed, rattling her ribcage. Was her captor incinerating live victims?

See how these tweaks pull the reader deeper into the story?

Because it feels like this brave writer is early on in their journey, I added a few quick tips rather than bleed red ink all over the excerpt. I’d hate to be responsible for shattering the magic that keeps us thirsting for knowledge, keeps us creating. The beginning of our journey is an important time in every writer’s career. The muse is running wild and possibilities are endless.

Quick tips

  • Watch your adverbs; words like suddenly don’t add tension;
  • Be specific; rather than “some classical music,” name the composer;
  • All caps are reserved for acronyms, not for words like “Boom”;
  • Use active voice, not passive; this post may help;
  • Followed by, for the most part, is similar to began and started in that we need to reword to make the action more immediate;
  • Anytime you write “herself” you lessen the point of view i.e. tucked herself in bed. Instead, try something like: she slipped under the covers. Or, she swung her legs under the blanket.

I hope these tips help with your next draft, Anon. If this first page isn’t a dream, you have the makings of an intriguing story. Wishing you the best of luck!

Over to you, TKZ family. What tips would you give this brave writer?

 

 

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First Page Critique: No Such Thing as Enough

Go Daddy Stock photo

Greetings and Salutations, happy readers!

It’s my pleasure to bring you a new First Page Critique. The chapter is the first from a novel called, No Such Thing as Enough.

Jamie Frampton took seventy-five feet to die. The first bullet entered his chest and blew out his back, leaving blood spatter on the brick wall of the alley. A crooked blood trail marked the cement where he staggered between the Chinese take-out place and the hardware store. Finally, he left a pool of blood where he collapsed on the North Main Street sidewalk after turning right and taking his last steps, trying to get home, the shooter putting another bullet in his head. The skinny seventeen-year-old had put up a good fight, but he lost.

Jamie’s mother, Alice, rousted me out of bed with a phone call at about 3:00 AM. “Pastor Rathbone, my boy is dead.” Her voice came through flat, expressionless. “Please come down to North Main Street. Maybe you could tell me where God was when my boy was dying? Or maybe you could tell me why God didn’t care that my boy was murdered in the street?” She cried as she hung up, leaving me sitting in my underwear, staring at the receiver.

I tried to place her face, but nothing registered. She had to be a member of the congregation, but I couldn’t remember ever seeing her. In a church the size of the Dayton Crossing Christian Tabernacle, that was easy. How had my predecessor, Pastor Richmond, been able to keep track of so many people?

I wondered what Alice expected me to do or say. Where was God when we needed him? I had no idea. I had struggled with that question most of my life, and still I had no answers. Nevertheless, it was my job to bring comfort—not that anything I could say would really comfort her—so I threw on some clothes and headed out to downtown Dayton Crossing.

***************

While I do enjoy working with writers who have that new baby writer smell (Mmmmmm, those potent combinations: Fearlessness/fearfulness. Inventiveness. Enthusiasm/despair. Overconfidence/zero confidence.), it’s always a pleasure to work with a writer who has read a lot of fiction and can construct not just a pleasing sentence, but a well-thought-out paragraph. Hear, hear, brave author! You’re off the ground, but let’s work on your aim.

I was going to start off with a most obvious comment about presenting a logical sequence of events, which is something a lot of us struggle with. What comes first, second, third, etc.?

But I’m going to short circuit that comment with an observation that came to me on my fourth or fifth reading of this opening: It reads exactly like a novelized screenplay. While I’ve only written one produced screenplay, and a handful of live theater pieces, I have—if there were such a thing—an unofficial  doctorate in crime television viewing.

[Opening]

Setting: dark, urban alley

Seventeen-year-old boy walking downtown at night is ambushed, shot in the chest with a high-caliber bullet by a shadowy assailant who could be either a man or woman. He staggers, badly wounded, through an alley leaving a trail of blood. He’s thinking of home (perhaps he’s just been on his phone, calling Mum to say when he’ll be home), and is desperate to get back there, but we can tell by the music he won’t be saved. He collapses on North Main Street, and the assailant shoots him in the head.

[Main titles]

Scene

Slightly tatty, darkened bedroom

Rathbone, a middle-aged man, ruggedly handsome buy not cocky, fumbles for the ringing phone. A woman speaking in a rather monotone, expressionless voice is on the line. She launches into the tale of her son being murdered, while Rathbone frantically feels around for the Dayton Crossing Christian Tabernacle membership directory. Who is this woman, and what is she saying? He sits up, wearing only his underwear. She hangs up, now weeping, and he’s left still puzzled as to who exactly she is. He stares at the receiver, still wondering if he’s supposed to remember who she is.

Rathbone puts on clothes, obviously pensive. He’s not sure what she expects from him, but he knows it has something to do with comforting her. He leaves the house in a God-existential crisis to meet her.

(I’m guessing that he shows up on the scene and finds himself more drawn to solving the crime than comforting the expressionless Alice? It’s a solid start to a story.)

***************

Most of the opening chapter is in Rathbone’s first person POV. But the very first paragraph—the establishing shot, if you will, is rather omniscient, with a bit of authorial editorializing thrown in for good measure. “The skinny seventeen-year old had put up a good fight, but he lost.” Something/someone with a personality is making this comment.

Who is saying this? I’m intrigued. The description of Jamie’s path is extremely specific. Are the mentioned places important?

First line: “Jamie Frampton took seventy-five feet to die.” I like this sentence. It sets up the paragraph well, and I suppose it connects to the specificity of his path. But in the end I find it awkward. Maybe more detail to improve the rhythm.

“Jamie Frampton took a 147-grain, .9mm bullet to the chest, but it took him two minutes and seventy-five frantic, painful steps to die.” If you’re going for drama, go big!

Consider doing one of two things with this paragraph. You can make it a prologue or the first chapter by itself. Back off on the editorializing unless that voice is going to reappear many more times throughout the book. The other thing you could do is give us—or give Rathbone—this information when he’s hanging around the crime scene. Perhaps the guy is a garrulous detective or M.E. who sees Rathbone as non-threatening because of his profession.

It just doesn’t work where it now is.

Rathbone seems a pretty sensible guy. Very philosophical and a bit troubled. Let him have his way with his story, and don’t be afraid to take chances with him.

It’s a terrific start! Just remember that what works in a screenplay won’t translate directly into a novel.

 

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