First Page Critique: Finn Slew

Happy Monday! Today I’m critiquing a first page submission for a novel entitled Finn Slew which begins in Afghanistan and appears to be the start of an intriguing suspense/thriller. My comments follow.

Title:   Finn Slew

MAY, 2011, Kandahar, Afghanistan

The phone was vibrating. Again. Alive and angry, like he’d stuffed a rabid weasel in the breast pocket of his ballistic vest. If Finn was going to be shot, it was small consolation the phone would die first.

The ringer was off. Best not to draw attention on the streets of Kandahar City. If the phone squawked his two soldier escorts, front and rear, would want to shoot him before the Taliban had a chance.

The first four messages this afternoon were from increasingly higher links in the Astral Media chain of command.

The fifth, just now, was a text from his direct boss, Kate Adachi, managing editor of his home newspaper, the Vancouver Journal, the westernmost outpost in Astral’s media empire: “WTF Finn? Supposed to file from the base newser on  plans for our troop withdrawal. Major heat from head office AND our publisher. Also fm Major Cahill, at CFB Kandahar, wondering where the hell you are. Call me. Now.”

He ignored that, too.

He’d written the ‘glorious farewell’ story weeks ago, with too much emphasis, in Cahill’s view, on those allies who felt Canada was cutting and running with the job unfinished.

Not that the job will ever be finished. Ask the Brits. Ask the Soviets. Hell, ask the Afghans. 

The news conference would play out as others he’d endured. Cahill, the public relations flack at Canadian Forces Base Kandahar, would lay on what soldiers cynically called “the Full Canuck.” A visiting general with a full display of chest candy would share Tim Hortons coffee and donuts with the troops as he declared the mission an unqualified success.

There’d be a moment of silence for those killed in the service of their country during Canada’s decade in Afghanistan, and a nod to the grievously wounded. Not a mention of those tortured souls carrying the war home in a nightmarish loop of pain and fear. Soldier suicides? What suicides?

Then, off to the ball hockey rink at Kandahar Airfield where the big guy would play enough shinny for network visuals before hopping a flight home.

They’d make damned sure a dead soldier wasn’t catching a lift in the cargo hold. Don’t want to go off-message.

No more press-release journalism. Finn was chasing bigger game: misappropriated aid money, corrupt military contractors, black market trade in weaponry. That’s why Cahill’s shorts were in a knot.

Comments:

I think this first page is off to a great start. I’m intrigued by the premise of a Canadian journalist investigating corruption in Afghanistan just as Canadian troops are being withdrawn. The voice of our main protagonist is strong, cynical, and determined and the short paragraphs, clipped sentences and snide comments all fit the protagonist well. This is an easy first page to critique as I don’t have much to say, except well done and I want to read more!

I have only three (relatively minor) comments:

  • The first is to reconsider the title of the book. Finn Slew (to me, at least) sounds strange and a little awkward. I think a stronger, darker title that gives a reader a better sense of the book would work better.
  • The second is to perhaps shorten the 4th paragraph as the reader gets some extraneous information here about the newspaper/media corporation that slows the pace of this first page. Something like: “The fifth, just now, was a text from his boss, Kate Adachi, managing editor of  the Vancouver Journal”  – it would be simpler and the extra information can be provided later.
  • Finally, the last line suggests Major Cahill knows the story the main protagonist is pursuing, and yet in Kate’s text he’s trying to find out where the protagonist is so I’m not totally sure if the author intends Cahill to know (and hence have his shorts in knots) or not. Maybe this could just be clarified.

Otherwise, I thought this was a terrific beginning and I would definitely want to read more. What about you, TKZers, any comments/thoughts?

3+

First Page Critique: The Last White Rose

Photo by Laura Benedict.

 

Cheery good day, TKZers! It’s time for a critique of an anonymous author’s work. The Last White Rose is an excerpt from a novel that appears to be a modern gothic with both horror and romantic elements. But it might be a thriller.  I’m anxious to know what you think.

 

THE LAST WHITE ROSE

Epigraph

In my dream, I see my own green eyes, filled with terror and tears.I fall to my knees, submitting to the command of invincible blue eyes raging with white fire.His face twists into something else, something evil. He is ending my life. I wake with a strident scream… and stare into the same blue eyes.

Chapter One

Stonington, Connecticut

He was elusive, a ghost I needed to catch. The stranger whose face I’d never seen lurked around town, maintaining enough distance to mask his features in shadow. I saw his face for the first time in late July after the annual Blessing of the Fleet. His bold gaze burned into mine from the opposite side of Water Street. The highland band, piping loud and marching through the center, drew the post-ceremony procession to a close, granting me an unobstructed view.

A shiver slid through me despite the stifling summer heat.

He was magnificent. The kind of man you’d never find living in small-town New England. Imposing height and broad, muscled shoulders defined his stature. He wore jeans and a faded indigo tee shirt that exposed cut biceps and forearms. Sun-streaked, dark blond hair in a classic front wave and a commanding jawline framed his handsome, smirking face.

“Parade’s over,” someone shouted.

Even so, Jess and I held our advantageous spot at the curb. My best friend soaked in the late morning sun, sipping her raspberry lemon mimosa, watching me stare at him.

She elbowed me. “Who’s he and why are you staring at each other? Wait—Ellie, is he…”

My eyes skipped to Jess to deliver a dirty look. When I refocused across the street, he was gone. “The guy who followed me home the other night. Yes, I think so. There’s no one else as tall. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s just staying nearby.”

“And maybe you should say something to someone.”

“Not until I’m certain. Paranoia is my sister’s thing, not mine. Besides, aren’t you always saying I should be more open to meeting new people?”

“You do need to get out of your artsy little head. Just be careful.”

I struggled, trying to reconcile his presence in town and the sense that he watched me. After all, it was summertime. Stonington was a historically rich town, the only one in Connecticut to face the open Atlantic waters, so it attracted countless visitors. It was common to see strangers around town. Drunken tourists wandered the streets at night, unaware most businesses closed before ten. It was a colonial fishing town, and outsiders came from far and wide to work for the commercial fleet. It wasn’t the first time a man from one of the crews or a tourist had looked my way, I reasoned.

Then I saw him again.

The next day after the last of my noisy day-campers had gone, I locked the art studio door and headed for the fishing pier to sketch. It was either that or listen to another of Jess’s lectures. She’d go on about how I wallowed in self-imposed loneliness, and how it left her alone to test the waters in the pool of dateable men. The pool was small—blue plastic toddler swimming pool small—and I didn’t need to dip a toe to know there was nothing left in it for me.

The pier was a respite from my grandmother and sister’s intrusiveness as well. Gran and Isobel were all I had, and they meant well. Trysts with my art kept me sane, human.

I looked out over the harbor and spotted Neptune trudging her way in. The sailboats beyond paled in her presence. I don’t know what it was about the old girl, but I loved that fishing boat. Her emerald green hull had become chalky over time, and the once black and white hoists and booms were covered in rust, but she was still glorious against the backdrop of the sea. I lost myself in the sketch at once.

Photo by Laura Benedict

 

Dear Anonymous Author of The Last White Rose:

What a pleasure it was to critique this novel opening. There’s so much to work with here: you’ve obviously read a great deal of fiction and have a practiced hand in basic mechanics. Your grammar and sentence structure are strong, and even your barely-mentioned characters are vivid and distinctive. You also know how to structure a scene, which is no small feat, and your first person POV is flawless.

I like the Connecticut setting. It gives the story an immediate New England gothic feel. Gothic is one of my most beloved genres, so I’m particular.

Jess and Ellie have good chemistry. Jess is a lot of fun, though she falls down a bit on the best friend front. (More on that later.) These cracked me up: “My best friend soaked in the late morning sun, sipping her raspberry lemon mimosa, watching me stare at him.” And “She’d go on about how I wallowed in self-imposed loneliness, and how it left her alone to test the waters in the pool of dateable men. The pool was small—blue plastic toddler swimming pool small—and I didn’t need to dip a toe to know there was nothing left in it for me.”

And the scene with the Neptune was completely charming and nicely visualized. I could picture the boat “trudging” its way in. Your descriptions are—for the most part—very nicely done.

Please, dear Anonymous Author, read all of the above twice, because I know that, like most writers, you will forget it immediately as you read my criticisms and suggestions.

 

Here we go:

I’m not sure what sort of novel this is, and that distresses me. It contains gothic and demonic elements and is set in an old New England town. But there’s some romance as well. I need a few more hints. Does our heroine feel strangely attracted to the giant hot guy stalking her? Or is there some menace in the town that he might be connected to? The strong emphasis on the stalking makes me think it’s trying to be a thriller, but the stalker’s attractiveness makes me wonder if he’s a demi-god or paranormal beast or demon. Another mystery is that we don’t know if he’s the guy in the epigraph or not.

There’s a phrase that I learned from my mother-in-law very early in my marriage: “too much of a muchness.” That’s what you have in this opening section. You need to take a breath. Don’t try to tell us everything in 672 words, and definitely only tell us things once. Readers are smart. This section has too many repeated actions, too much stalking, and way too many characters. It’s important to mention or introduce all of your significant characters in the first thirty pages of a novel, but if you try to do it in the first three, your reader is going to be very confused. Fortunately, you can look at this as an embarrassment of riches because you can use much of this detail in other parts of the novel.

It’s also important for you to balance the light and dark. You can have both.

The last thing I want to address is your heroine, Ellie. Good heroines can be tough to write. Sidekicks get to be fun, villains get to be fun. Heroines can be a bit dull. Thoughts on Ellie below.

 

Epigraph

This is a dream: check.

I’m a bit confused as to how Ellie’s seeing her eyes in one line, then is falling to her knees in the next. Is she watching herself? Or is she experiencing it? Just clarify. Even if it’s a dream, it has to have its own dream physics and dream logic.

Perhaps reframe it so we know she is watching it as a scene, wondering at her own complicity.

“Strident” is awkward. As is “invincible blue eyes raging with white fire.” There’s an awful lot happening in those eyes all at once.

“He is ending my life.” Simple and to the point, but “ending” feels a bit tame since she’s about to be devoured/murdered by what appears to be a demon.

Clarify the last line and be specific:

“I wake, screaming, to find those same blue eyes—now watchful and worried (or laughing and scornful, etc)—gazing into mine.”

Chapter One

First paragraph:

The opening lines are confusing. He’s a ghostly elusive guy that has been skulking around the shadows for…some period of time. Months? Weeks? Two days? Then in the next sentence she gets to the immediate scene: “I saw his face for the first time…”

Instead, get right into it.

We’re prepped by the epigraph for scary and dubious. Give us something new at the top of chapter one. I’d much rather read: “The first time I saw Jeremy Porter’s* handsome face, he was smirking at me from the opposite side of Water Street.” Something straightforward adds a bit of levity, and keeps the story from being so frontloaded with ominosity (technically not a word, but ominousness is clumsy). I confess that I’ve been guilty of over-ominosity myself, so I know whereof I speak. He seems more condescending than threatening. If you want to make him threatening, change “smirking” to “staring.”

*Don’t be afraid to name the guy. We know he has a name. As Ellie’s telling the story, she already knows his name because she’s telling it in the past tense. As it is, it’s cheap suspense. If the story were all in present tense/present action, then we wouldn’t find out his name until she learns it. But the cat’s already out of the bag.

By making the opening of Chapter One just another in a series of stalking incidents, you’ve taken away the power of the epigraph, which could be very compelling. The epigraph hints that she dreams of a man who might be a demon, but she wakes to find him watching her in real life. My assumption is that she becomes romantically involved with sexy stalker guy during the course of the novel…? But we still don’t know if epigraph guy and stalker guy are the same.

The epigraph has already set your tone. Let it rest. We get it.

“He was magnificent.”

Our guy is obviously a gorgeous, eye feast of a man, and the word “magnificent” is striking. I kind of imagine him as a blond Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast. Is he unreal in his perfection? Some small flaw would make him more believable—unless you’re going for supernatural perfection.

Let’s break it down:

Why would we never find someone like him living in small-town New England? Where would we see a man like him? Hollywood? The cover of a magazine or romance novel?

Imposing height—how tall? Ellie says: “There’s no one else as tall.” What does that mean? Significantly taller than everyone else in town? Wilt Chamberlain tall? If so, someone would have surely noticed him by now. A man that tall would be a very poor skulker.

Instead of using an indefinite phrase like “defined his stature,” let’s see him through Ellie’s editorial filters:

“I’d never seen a man so tall in real life, at least not one with shoulders so broad that they made me wonder for a moment if he had to have his dress shirts specially made. But he wasn’t wearing a dress shirt. His taut, cut biceps emerged from the sleeves of a beautifully faded black tee that just reached the waist of his indigo jeans. And his black motorcycle boots looked comfortably worn. Most women I knew would pay a fortune to have their stylist give them highlights like the ones that seemed to flow naturally through the waves of his dark blond hair. His jaw was strong and commanding, reminding me of paintings I’d seen of ancient Roman centurions on my last trip to the Louvre.

“Parade’s over,” someone behind me shouted.

I startled, and felt my face flush. The slow smile of the man I came to know as Jeremy Porter told me he’d caught me staring.”

Then you can go on and have her interact with Jess. But let’s have some more urgency and concern in their exchange. Is Jess implying Ellie should call the authorities? Who is the “someone” of whom she speaks? Be specific.

In this next section, we get a lot of new characters introduced: noisy day-campers, dateable men, Gran and Isobel, an anthropomorphized fishing boat, drunken tourists, sailors. It’s overwhelming.

And, suddenly, skulking sexy guy appears again.

What is this book about? Right now I’m just reading stalking scenes, and I’m feeling fearful that they will just go on and on…

Three scenes (including the epigraph, if it is the same guy), three appearances. Actually four, because we learn he followed her home on some other night (super alarming to have a giant follow you home!). We have no resolution of his parade appearance in Chapter One before the pier scene. He has now let her see his face, and he’s still obviously stalking her. Please give Ellie some spunk. She seems incredibly unaffected by his stalking—her friend acts alarmed but then apparently lets her go home and go about her business and go to work the next day without any further investigation of the guy. It’s one thing that Ellie’s not paranoid. It’s quite another to make her seem not very bright. And I think she is bright.

Your opening chapter has to do more than establish the tone, and Chapter One tells us little more than that Ellie is living in a historic small town and is being stalked by a hot guy. It’s an ominous situation, but she’s reacting in a way that’s not credible. And we still don’t know if this is a romance, a thriller, or a paranormal story. Give us better clues.

My first suggestion would be to work on the epigraph and just let it set the tone. Then in your opening chapter, have Ellie confront hot stalker guy after the parade. It will make her the real protagonist rather than a woman who seems to be setting herself up as a victim. I love the sketching scene on the pier, but it’s too much with what you have already. Save the setting and scene—maybe it happens after they’ve actually met.

Having her confront the guy right off puts us immediately into the story, and will surprise the reader. Even if he is our villain, he will be put momentarily off-balance. Ellie and the hot guy instantly become equals, and thus more interesting adversaries. Or a more interesting couple. Therefore it becomes a more compelling story. Be bold.

That’s my two cents. I think this story could go far.

Chatter over, TKZ friends and bloggers. What say you?

 

 

 

4+

First Page Critique: Strangled by a Cloud

Welcome to this week’s first page critique – today we have the first page of a historical mystery/thriller entitled ‘Strangled by a Cloud’. As always, my comments follow.

Strangled by a Cloud

My part in the Tenant’s Harbor affair began on the last day of January in 1878. That morning I was at my usual station: peddling hand-penned calling cards in the lobby of one of Boston’s many hotels; this time it was Young’s, in the financial district. A dozen cards for a Harvard toff had already bought me a hearty breakfast; a dozen more – perhaps with some flourish – for a Court Street banker would carry me through the rest of the day.

As the clock and the thermometer waned and the clouds began to spit sleet, my mood soured:  I take days like this personally, as have the thousands with my surname since the days of Noah. To lighten my mood, I left the outer crust of the lobby and strode towards the warmth of the core – the front desk – where I was greeted with the welcome smile of my friend, Adam.

“Cold is it, Mr. Merryweather?” he asked

“As colde as eny froste,” I replied, in an ersatz Middle English tongue.

“Ah, Chaucer – very good, very good,” he said (Adam was also the hotel’s unofficial man of letters and always appreciated a well-placed quote from the Tales).

I pulled the hotel register at his hands my way.  Now and then I made a sport of guessing at the age, nationality, personality, or occupation of guests based on their handwriting. I traced my finger down the list of guests until I reached the name “Charles Goodword.”

“Now here’s a bad character, Adam,” I began. “I’m guessing a gambler by profession, maybe something worse…he’s about forty years old, broad-shouldered, perhaps five feet ten or eleven…stout…and mean.  You’ll want to be rid of him, and soon.”

“Mr. Merryweather, it’s remarkable!” Adam said, truly surprised.  “As to age and height and build, you are quite correct, sir, quite correct. But as to his character, you are very mistaken: he’s a clergyman, you know – here to preach for several weeks – the Benevolent Society for something-or-t’other is paying his board.”

“A clergyman, is he?” I asked, adding, “Well, he’s a thief to boot.  Humor me and send for him,” I said, handing him one of my cards.

Adam obliged and sent a valet to call on Mr. Goodword.  The valet returned swiftly, confirming that he had successfully delivered the card and invitation, with my compliments.

“You think he’ll come?” I asked Adam. He nodded in assent.  “We shall see,” I said, shaking my head. “We shall see.”

Overall Comments:

Overall this first page was cleanly executed with an initial voice and style emerging that I think is pretty engaging. It appears to be emulating a Sherlock Holmes detachment and narration which I think could work well. What it initially lacks, however, is a bit of ‘oomph’ to set our story in motion and build intrigue. It also teeters, I think, in terms of credibility (see my specific comments below), but overall with some editing this first page could be an effective one.

Here are my specific comments:

Credibility

I think in this first page we need more background regarding the main character, Mr. Merryweather, as I’m initially skeptical that a man who makes his living penning calling cards in hotel lobbies would be educated enough to quote Chaucer and have even peudo-expertise in handwriting analysis. I’m also a little doubtful that a front desk clerk would be even an unofficial ‘man of letters’ without a bit more background. I’d be more willing to believe all of this if we got a sense that either Merryweather is an educated man that has fallen on hard times or that he is deliberately masquerading as someone he isn’t. Likewise I need a little more to buy into the fact that Merryweather has uncanny, Holmesian powers of deduction based on viewing Mr. Goodword’s handwriting.

Oomph

I wanted a little more intrigue from this first page when it came to the set up re: Mr. Goodword. I was expecting the valet to discover his dead body! The pay off on the initial page wasn’t really there and I was also skeptical as to why a clergyman would be interested in meeting a man who penned calling cards (or why the main character thought if he sent the valet up with his card the clergyman would respond – to be honest I’m not sure I even believe a man who makes his living hand to mouth by making calling cards would present his own card to anyone).  I feel that on this initial page, more intrigue would set the story on a stronger footing and would entice readers to keep turning the page.

Minor editorial issues

There were a few moments where I was taken out of the story. The first was when the main character said ‘I take days like this personally, as have the thousands with my surname since the days of Noah’. I didn’t feel this reference worked, mainly because the name ‘Merryweather’ doesn’t exactly sound like a surname from biblical times. Perhaps a middle ages reference would be more appropriate but at the moment it sounds awkward. Likewise the reference to the ‘outer crust’ of the lobby sounds strange – even though I understand what the writer was trying to get at and how the main character moved to the ‘core’ of the lobby – It didn’t work for me in the context of this story. In addition, the clock and thermometer ‘waned’ didn’t seem quite the right expression either – as the clock ‘waning’ would surely mean going backwards if the numbers got smaller (?).

I also found it odd that Mr Merryweather would call Adam by his first name but Adam didn’t reciprocate, but called him the more formal ‘Mr Merryweather’ in return. I’m assuming they are on the same social level and know each other well enough (as Merryweather calls him a friend) so the formality of Adam’s response doesn’t seem to ring true.

Also when Adam says: ‘ But as to his character, you are very mistaken’,  I feel that this should be either ‘very much mistaken’ or just ‘mistaken’ (‘very mistaken’ sounds weird to me).

So TKZers, what comments do you have for our brave submitter today?

 

4+

First Page Critique: the Silencer

Happy Monday! Today we critique the first page submission entitled The Silencer. As always, kudos to those brave enough to submit. My comments follow.

The Silencer.

Friday, 9:45 a.m.

But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.

James 3:8

The worst part about waiting to testify is I spend the entire time terrified the lawyers will uncover some huge mistake that screams how lazy and incompetent I am. I tell myself a hundred different ways that I always do the best I can … but I don’t really listen.

After so many appearances in court you’d think I’d have no problem when it comes time to testify. But it never fails. Every time the bailiff comes to get me from this small waiting room, the cycle begins. My therapist once told me my fear in court had more to do with my lack of control then my ineptitude as a witness. I disagree. Then again, she also said I joined the police in an effort to stop for others what I couldn’t stop for myself when I was younger.

The door swung open and a big woman with a horsey face and short gray hair stepped inside. Her uniform hugged her well-nourished figure. The web belt is off-center and sagged to her right, the holster almost resting on her thigh. She looked directly at me and I’m waiting to see if her voice sounded like John Wayne.

“Detective Rebecca Watson?” she asked in a soft voice.

“That’s me.” Like clockwork, my stomach twists into a knot, pushing its contents toward my throat as I stand and follow her into the courtroom.

The courtroom is overflowing with spectators and media. Knees trembling, my high heels echoed off the marble floor as I approach the witness stand, carrying a red binder, also known as a murder book. Today is going to be a very tough day. This is no ordinary case. The Florida Supreme Court awarded Leonard Lee Lucius a new trial or whatever verbiage they used. Some crap about tainted evidence. Anyway, his new defense team argued a crucial piece of evidence, the knife used to kill his girlfriend, Teri Goodson, was exposed to foreign fibers after being collected from the crime scene and before being signed into the evidence locker.

Apparently, neither the jurors nor his lawyers saw fit to argue this point during the previous trial. The jury found him guilty. The District Attorney sought the death penalty, but Lucius ended up with life.

All eyes in the courtroom focused on me. I kept my head straight to avoid their stares. As each foot stepped in front of the other, it feels like I’m the one on trial. This isn’t true, but I can’t wrap my head around the fact they’re judging me, even before being sworn in.

My comments

Overall I enjoyed this first page, but there were a few critical elements that held me back from being fully engaged or invested in this story. I’ve summarized these under two main headings: Character Development and Dramatic Tension. I’ll deal with each in turn.

Character Development

  • The main protagonist, Detective Rebecca Watson, seems in the first paragraph at least, to be a rookie who is understandably nervous about appearing in court. The second paragraph, however, indicates that she has appeared countless times and it sounds like her anxiety is more of a deep-rooted issue (one she sees a therapist about) based on a traumatic event in the past which is what drove her (at least in the therapist’s opinion) to being a police officer. This sense of inconsistency, makes it hard to get a handle on Rebecca as a three dimensional character . By the end of this first page I have to admit, she seems rather generic and her anxiety makes her feel less believable as a seasoned detective. This meant I wasn’t totally invested in her as the main character.
  • I also felt like I needed some action and drama rather than merely exposition about Rebecca as a character. I wanted to feel like I was in Rebecca’s head hearing her unique voice but also seeing her in action.
  • Although I feel like the writer knows his/her character, as readers we aren’t on a firm foundation (I don’t quite buy Rebecca as a detective yet). Why does she feel like she’s constantly being judged? Why does she lack confidence in her abilities – is it this case, or part of her own neuroses? If I’m going to like Rebecca and root for her as a main character, I feel like a need more depth even on this first page. This may come more in the form of intriguing specifics that can be fleshed out later but at the moment there’s not enough that goes beyond the standard ‘cop’ genre to really draw me in. Action demonstrates character far more than mere description or background.
  • Also, there seems a few contradictions on this first page – she seems nervous and anxious, yet she’s supposedly experienced. She is a detective but she says ‘new trial or whatever verbiage they used’ when speaking of the Supreme Court when, as a detective she would know exactly what was ordered.
  • We also get far too much detail about the bailiff when compared to the protagonist – If Rebecca was a detective wouldn’t she already know most of the court staff? We also don’t know whether Rebecca was involved in the initial investigation or her role in the tainted evidence question that is the reason for her court appearance (we assume).

Dramatic Tension

  • A first page is first and foremost a powerful lure that draws a reader in. It has to set the scene as well as the main character and, most importantly, it needs to have dramatic tension to ensure a reader is immediately invested in the story. At the moment this first page seems more of an introduction than a dramatic entry point to the story. We learn about Leonard Lee Lucius’s new trial in a rather cumbersome way with details that should come later or should be used in the first page to greater dramatic effect (perhaps by way of a scene in which the police are confronted by the tainted evidence).
  • Overall, it felt like there was too much time spent on Rebecca’s worries/feelings of inadequacy that on establishing a dramatic scene that confronts and intrigues the reader. I was left wanting more ‘oomph’ to keep me going and a stronger, more consistent main character that had flaws as well as depth but who felt ‘real’ from the get go.
  • I also wasn’t sure how the biblical quotation at the start of the page relates to the story – while we don’t need an answer per se, I think readers would like to get a sense of how it illuminates the story to come.

So TKZers, what are some of your comments and feedback? How can we help this writer punch this first page up to the next level?

1+

Put Your Setting to Work – First Page Critique – Unknown Rider

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

iStock image purchased by Jordan Dane

iStock image purchased by Jordan Dane

My last critique for 2016. I’ve enjoyed reading the anonymous submissions this year. We have some very talented authors following our blog. Thanks to all of you who participate with your comments and for all those brave souls who have submitted your work for our feedback. We all learn from the experience.

Enjoy UNKNOWN RIDER and I’ll have my feedback on the flip side. Please provide constructive criticism in your comments. Thank you.

***

Prologue

A narrow palm-lined alley led off the main boulevard to the boat docks. A warm front had blanketed the area with a thick overcast, obliterating the faint starlight on the moonless night. At one o’clock in the morning, the few functioning streetlights created a dimly lit gloom that made it hard to distinguish between the living and the nonliving as the tropical breeze animated palm fronds and various pieces of trash on the derelict street. It was still a quarter of a mile to the docks, but even at this distance the low-tide smell of spilled diesel fuel, dead fish, and decay polluted the air.

Frank Stodd walked quickly down one side of the pavement towards the water. He looked very much out of place in his dark suit and tie, but he hadn’t planned to be here. He had a growing suspicion that he had taken a wrong turn on the way back to the hotel, but he pressed on, looking over his shoulder every few seconds for the black Escalade. Then he patted the gun through his jacket for reassurance, and felt for the small package in his inside coat pocket. He was a large man, quite overweight, and in spite of the sea breeze blowing in towards the shore, he was sweating profusely underneath the stiff white collar of his shirt.

Maybe he could see the hotel when he got to the water at the end of the alley, he told himself. It was a well-lit high rise, after all, with a big red ‘Hilton’ on the side. There was too much at stake to blow it now.

They had seen him in the van outside the bar in old San Juan. He’d sped off immediately, cursing his bad luck, but they tailed him for several blocks. Finally, he lost them somewhere near his hotel, ditched the van, and continued on foot. The shortcut he’d taken past the marina and docks should have thrown them off. Yes, he was sure now that he’d lost them.

But against the wall of a building, well hidden in the shadows to Stodd’s left, was another man. In blue jeans and a t-shirt, he looked like anyone else you might see in the city, someone who had bubbled out of the melting pot of the Caribbean. He checked the cylinder of his revolver to confirm that it was fully loaded and wondered again whether the silencer screwed into the end of the barrel might affect the gun’s accuracy. But when he got a good look at the size of his target he decided it wouldn’t matter.

He raised the gun at arm’s length.

Stodd saw a flash from his left. There was a slight whooshing sound like someone had spit, the sledgehammer impact of the bullet, then he was lying on his side, his left arm and shoulder on fire. The pavement was cool in spite of the heat of the night, his vision blurred, and the pain took a back seat. He knew only that he was tired and wanted to rest. He closed his eyes.

FEEDBACK:

OVERVIEW – There are some gems in this intro. The author has a visual style and imagery is important. Often setting is overlooked, but not with this author. I like how he or she describes through use of the senses too. I can see Frank sweating as he lumbers through a shady part of town. But there is an issue with ORDER in this scene. The idea is to introduce a conflict and tension and build upon it, not deflate it. Below are some observations:

SETTING – The first paragraph is an author’s chance at establishing a voice. In this example, the author describes weather and setting without these elements being through any character. As much as I can appreciate a good setting, without a character seeing it, I tend to skim. I don’t even know where the description is supposed to be, other than it’s coastal and has palm trees and water. By mentioning San Juan and Caribbean much later, this appears to be Puerto Rico. Why not include a tag line to establish the location right away? That would make the setting an instant recognition for the reader and even establish a time of day. It’s best not to make the reader guess or have to reread because they thought the setting was somewhere else, like Florida.

REVISED START – I would consider starting with elements of paragraph 2. I like knowing Frank is out of place and uncomfortable where he’s walking. It makes me wonder what he’s up to, but make him sweat for more than weather. The example below is a rough draft and if it were mine I’d tweak it more, but I hope you get the idea. Getting into Frank’s head and the tension he’s feeling is the place to start.

Example – Frank Stodd picked up his pace as he walked toward the docks, looking out of place dressed in his dark suit and tie. He tugged at his stiff white collar with sweat trickling through his hair. Muggy heat turned the stench of low-tide into a vile smell of spilled diesel fuel, dead fish, and decay. He must’ve taken a wrong turn on his way back from the hotel and he kept glancing over his shoulder for the black Escalade. The small package he carried in his jacket pocket weighed heavy, pressed against his gun.

PUT YOUR SETTING TO WORK – Rather than start with a long first paragraph to establish setting, the author might consider peppering the heat and the stench and other sensory descriptions to add to Frank’s discomfort and tension. Make the setting work by using it to escalate the tension or messing with Frank’s head. I’ve incorporated some of the setting descriptions into the revised intro to exacerbate Frank’s situation and add tension. He’s a heavy man and he’s sweating, not only because of weather and where he is. He’s anxious over his situation, so an author can drop in setting through action to enhance the intended emotion for the scene, without slowing the pace.

USE of PROLOGUE – I’ve never had an editor say they wouldn’t buy something because it had a Prologue, but when you get authors together and they talk about perceived rules, they usually are not in favor of using Prologues. If a Prologue is used properly, where the inciting incident of a story begins earlier (ie Batman as a boy when he witnesses his parents murdered before he dedicates his life to fighting crime), then make it clear it’s a short segment that is the foundation for what comes. Lately, I’ve simply started on Chapter 1, even if there is an older inciting incident, because I use tag lines to establish the time and place. But I wanted to point it out, as I’m sure others might comment. I’m indifferent, but a Prologue should be used in the right way.

STICK WITH THE ACTION – Once a story has started with action, it should stick to that action and not vacillate from what’s happening to drift away from it. The idea is to BUILD on tension and not deflate it. In the short paragraph that starts with “Maybe he could see the hotel…” – this deflates the tension established when the reader sees Frank is in trouble. He thinks of getting back to his hotel and even the line of “not blowing it now” is ‘telling’ and could be deleted to stick with the action of him being tailed.

ACTION OUT OF ORDER – The action in this opener is out of order. The author should resolve this to not lose any momentum in the action from start to finish.

“They had seen him in the van…” This is a 4th paragraph flashback to an earlier incident the same evening. The author could consider starting at that point where Frank is spotted by shady characters or by men in the Escalade and he tries to outrun them in his overweight condition, not dressed for the occasion. Or have Frank evading the Escalade and stick with the action to have the vehicle find him again. No need to go back. No matter which way the author decides, the action should gain momentum and tension should be mounted and not diffused.

KNOW YOUR WEAPON – Another point I would like to make with regard to action – once guns are drawn, there’s no time for checking for bullets in a revolver. Frank was nervous enough to pat down his pocket to make sure he had his gun. He should know if it’s loaded. I’m also a believer in adding details like the type of revolver. Most gun enthusiasts know what they are carrying. It looks novice if the author ignores the details. I’m also thinking guys who ride around in Escalades, aren’t carrying revolvers. I’d be thinking of ramping up the firepower to a semi-auto.

A SUPPRESSOR ON A REVOLVER? – A revolver has a short barrel. Between the cylinder (bullets) and the forcing cone is the cylinder gap where the gases, flames, and sound escape when fired. VIDEO ON THE MYTH The way this intro is written, very generically, most crime fiction readers would question a suppressor on a revolver unless the author can research a type of gun like the Nagant M1895, a Russian revolver, where these gases are contained. Here’s a VIDEO of someone shooting a suppressed Nagant. Look at how large this weapon is (with suppressor) and how difficult it would be for Frank to have it under his jacket. I don’t see how a suppressor enhances this scene and it actually stands out as a research error. Plus if other people are shooting back, without suppressors, what’s the point of Frank being stealthy? I tend to think of suppressed weapons as in the hands of assassins or killers who are the aggressors. Frank seems to have the weapon for defense purposes.

POV – In the sentence below, the author brings in a shooter, but since the guy is “well hidden,” how can Frank see him? It would appear to be an omniscient POV as was the first paragraph where the setting is described without being in Frank’s head. I would strongly suggest one POV in this scene, through Frank’s eyes.

“But against the wall of a building, well hidden in the shadows to Stodd’s left, was another man.”

FRANK SHOT – Frank seems like he’s resting rather than shot at the end. I know in the heat of the moment, often gunshot wounds aren’t felt (except as a punch) when the adrenaline is high, but I would consider shortening the sentences and making him feel more than tired, just to add tension for the reader. He seems too calm.

DISCUSSION:

1.) What do you think, TKZers? Comments anyone? What do you like? What would you suggest to improve this intro?

intheeyesofthedead_highres

In the Eyes of the Dead – $1.99 Ebook – Ryker Townsend FBI Profiler series

After four teens are murdered, a mysterious Santeria holy man and his devoted followers force Ryker and Athena to join forces to uncover a tragic truth.

 

5+

Stripping Away Distance to Draw on Emotion – 1st Page Critique – A Devotion of Dads

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

usmc-08340

This intriguing 400-word introduction comes to us from an anonymous author seeking feedback. Please read and enjoy. Share your comments/impressions with constructive criticism in your comments.

***

The video was grainy and dark, the images distorted.

“Can you tell who this is?” Dean pointed, his voice low, with only a slight nuance of horror.

“No,” Mabel lied, because she didn’t want her brother involved, not anymore.

The four people clustered around the laptop viewed the rest of the video in silence. Watched as one person slowly drowned while another patiently waited. The figure walking around the edge of the pool wore dark, loose clothing with a cap pulled low over their face, but not low enough to obscure their mouth. Whoever it was, and Mabel knew there was a chance she was wrong, had a lot to say to the poor soul in the water. There was no audio but you could see one set of lips moving slightly, as if calmly. The other set, when above water, was often distorted in apparent, but thankfully silent, screams.

Two things about the woman in the pool were obvious to the viewers. She couldn’t swim and was fully dressed. She hadn’t entered the water of her own free will. There was only one thing obvious about the person walking around the pool. They did not want that woman to live. Every time an attempt was made to cling to the side of the pool, her hands were stomped on, over and over and over, until she finally let go, fingers too broken to grip. It took a long time for her to die.

The final minutes showed the capped figure leave the pool area, alone, and Mabel was more sure by then who it was. But when she looked up to voice her opinion, she found herself alone in the room. She looked back at the blank screen. Could she stand to watch it one more time? She hit replay. She had to be absolutely sure.

FEEDBACK:

There is definite mystery to this creepy scene of people trying to unravel the identity of a killer, while looking at a video on a laptop and witnessing a murder. Very compelling. Without sound, it would be horrific to see something like this. Chilling. The opening scene (as written) is compelling and it triggered something in me, but I wondered if there might be a more effective way to tap into the emotion of those watching the grainy video as well as focusing more on the sheer panic of drowning.

Below are some suggestions on how to intensity the opener:

1.) CLOSE THE EMOTIONAL DISTANCE – As this 400 word submission is written now, the reader is held at a distance from the action of the scene, by the narrator describing (“telling”) what is happening on the grainy footage. The reader is being told of what’s not only happening, but also what is ‘felt’ by the witnesses. To close the distance, maybe the author could get into the head of the person most affected, Mabel, the one who appears to know the identity of the cold-hearted killer, and have her imagine what it would be like to be that helpless and dying, or perhaps trigger her worst fear of drowning.

2.) PEPPER IN DIALOGUE – More dialogue might help with the pace and the weighty paragraphs of “telling” descriptions. In a scene like this, less is more. Rather than describe what’s happening on a video, let the reader hear a dialogue line that is creepy or that they can imagine what is being seen. In my rewrite example below, lines like ‘She’d never seen anyone die before’ as the first hint of what’s happening on the video can carry a punch. Or a simple question like ‘Why isn’t he helping her?’ followed by ‘He’s killing her’ can be chilling.

3.) ADD PUNCHES OF MYSTERY – Added mystery elements, layered into the narrative, would draw the reader through this submission. In a short intro like this, I would add a question for the reader to ponder and pepper in more as the reader gets deeper into the story. In effect, it’s like being tugged from the shore by a strong current. In the rewrite example below, the mystery elements that might raise a question for the reader are lines like – She’d never seen anyone die before, or introducing the killer by adding a dialogue line ‘Why isn’t he helping her?’ followed by ‘He’s killing her’ is a nonchalant way of adding murder and mystery with a faceless guy.

ON REWRITES – I normally don’t like to rewrite a scene to show an author an alternative way to write it. It’s been my experience that if you can coax an author into seeing their scene in a different way, by asking them open-ended questions that could draw out a creative solution through them, the writer often finds a better way to resolve the scene than my suggestion. But on a blog, we don’t have the luxury of writing and rewriting to enhance an introduction. The following open-ended questions are designed to get the author thinking. The questions may not work or may not add anything to the scene, but in general, open-ended questions can trigger images or character motivations that could enhance the opening.

My open ended questions might be:

1.) Did Mabel ever have a close encounter with drowning? Does she see herself drowning as if she were the victim?

2.) When she sees the film over and over, who does she watch most–the victim or the killer? Does her perspective change the more she watches it?

3.) What does her answer reveal about her? Does she want to protect the killer, or is it more important to reveal the truth to the family of the dead victim?

4.) An even bigger question in my mind is – Who shot the film? Someone had taken the footage and let the killer walk away. Over the years, this mysterious someone didn’t tell anyone what happened?

REWRITE EXAMPLE:

Mabel stared down at the grainy footage on her laptop and felt the pull of the video with its distorted shadowy images. She couldn’t turn away. If she’d been alone, she might’ve succumbed to its unexplained allure and imagined she were there at poolside, watching it happen, but four others sat next to her. They were all voyeurs in the dark.

She’d never seen anyone die before.

“Can you tell who it is?” Dean broke the silence. She sensed his eyes on her, demanding an answer.

“No,” Mabel lied. She saw no point in speculating for the sake of her brother’s curiosity. What would it matter now?

The video had no sound. Thank, God. A woman, fully dressed in street clothes, floundered in the water. Her arms thrashed, but she couldn’t keep her head above water. When she gulped for air, Mabel squirmed in her seat, imagining what drowning would feel like.

You can’t do this. Help me!

Mabel swore she could read the woman’s lips as she begged for her life, pleading with the man in a cap—the only visible part of his face were his lips.

“For Christ’s sake, she’s trying to get out. Why isn’t he helping her?” A voice cut through the stillness, someone sitting next to Mabel. “Oh, no. He’s…what is he doing?”

“He’s killing her.” Mabel didn’t recognize her own voice. She wiped a tear from her cheek before anyone saw.

Mabel hadn’t believed it either, the first time she saw the video. The man, who had shoved the woman into the pool, taunted her and watched her flail and gasp for air. Whenever she reached for the side of the pool, to hoist her body up for air, he smashed his boot heel into her fingers. Blood sent dark spirals into the water.

It took the woman a long time to die.

Mabel watched the video to an ending that would always haunt her. When she looked up from the laptop, she was alone. The others had left. She never heard them go.

No one had asked who’d shot the video?

DISCUSSION:

1.) What do you think of this submission? What revision suggestions, if any, would you make?

2.) Have you used open-ended questions to enhance a scene? 

intheeyesofthedead_highres

In the Eyes of the Dead – $1.99 ebook

“He hunts killers through the eyes of the dead”

(A Ryker Townsend – FBI Profiler novella)

3+

Setting the Stage for Suspense – First Page Critique: Staying Alive

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased from Fotolia by Jordan Dane

Purchased from Fotolia by Jordan Dane

 

A brave anonymous author has submitted the first 400 words of their WIP – STAYING ALIVE. Read and enjoy. Catch you on the flip side for my feedback & your constructive criticism in comments.

***

The Dobbs Hotel wasn’t much to look at, a cheap dump really, but if you were going to kill someone, it was the perfect spot.

Nestled down a dark side street in one of Miami’s rougher areas, about a half-block off Northwest Seventh Street, it was little more than a flop — not even good enough for whores and their johns — surrounded by a neighborhood of closed eyes and silent tongues. Just what Jimmy Quintana needed for this job.

He and Raúl pulled up in front. No other cars in sight. A dim streetlamp down on the corner and the vertical neon sign in front of the hotel were the only sources of light, and they weren’t much. The moon was blacked out by low clouds moving in from the Keys, assuring a late-night rain. They checked their weapons — semi-automatic pistols — each jacking a round into the chamber and affixing silencers to their barrels. Their eyes met, only briefly, but long enough to cement the bond between them and validate the act they were about to commit. They got out of their car into the steamy night.

Inside, the night clerk dozed behind an ancient front desk. Cigarette smoke of sixty years lingered in the air, staining the off-white walls and choking what life was left out of the dusty armchair and threadbare rug in the small lobby.

Wilfredo was in room ten, according to the snitch. The men tiptoed up the sagging stairs to the second story, where room ten greeted them right away. Jimmy took up position by the wall nearest the doorknob and motioned Raúl to the opposite side of the door. They drew their guns. Jimmy turned the knob slowly and soundlessly.

Locked.

He knocked on the door, a couple of light, unthreatening taps. No answer. More taps, more silence. He wiped sweat from his eyelids.

He nodded to Raúl, who pulled two long, pointed instruments from the pocket of his shirt. Inserting them into the lock, Raúl skillfully twisted them and jiggled them until he heard a soft click. He withdrew the picks and shoved the door open.

Feedback:

The strength of this submission is the way the author sets the stage for suspense and sticks with the action, without unnecessary back story dump to slow the pace. There is a lot to like about this, but here are my comments:

1.) FIRST LINE – The first line needs to grab the reader more. It has the word “you” in it, which reads like omniscient POV. To eliminate the “you” and keep the voice in Jimmy’s head, I would suggest the line be changed to:

The Dobbs Hotel looked like an unmade bed with lice, but Jimmy Quintanilla knew it was the perfect place to kill someone.

I’m sure you can tweak this into something better, but you get the idea. Place this thought into Jimmy’s head and make it more direct with a bit of his attitude. It will make the reader curious from the start. Plus the words “cheap dump” are cliche.

2.) PICK POV PER SCENE & STAY WITH IT – In the following sentences, the author jumps back into omniscient by using the word “they” to describe both Jimmy & Raul. I tend to like picking one POV per scene, usually the person with the most to lose, or the character telling the story.

BEFORE – is the sentence ‘as is.’ AFTER – is Jimmy’s POV with more focus on his state of mind and what he has to lose, with added tension and mystery as to what is about to take place.

I also added more details like the type of vehicle he drove and his weapon, and I changed word choices like “affixing” which doesn’t sound like a word Jimmy would have in his head and “semi-automatic pistols” which sounds stilted. I also tried to imagine what would be in Jimmy’s head as he stared at Raul. “Cementing the bond” and “validating the act” seemed like a stretch for something Jimmy would assume is in Raul’s head. I thought Jimmy would wonder if he could truly trust Raul and hoped he could.

One POV per scene is not a hard and fast rule, but it’s good to try something and understand it, before you disregard it entirely. You might discover something important if you stay open to new things.

BEFORE – They checked their weapons — semi-automatic pistols — each jacking a round into the chamber and affixing silencers to their barrels. Their eyes met, only briefly, but long enough to cement the bond between them and validate the act they were about to commit. They got out of their car into the steamy night.

AFTER – Sitting behind the wheel of his parked SUV, Jimmy racked the slide of his Glock 19 and chambered a round. As he attached his suppressor, he cleared his mind and let go of his last shred of conscience. His fingers worked from muscle memory as he watched the street. When he looked over at Raul, the man stared back with a grave look in his eyes. Jimmy would cross a line with Raul that few men did and forge a bond of secrecy. Raul would hold his life in his hands. Jimmy hoped he could trust him. Without a word, he opened the vehicle door and embraced the muggy heat of Miami.

3.) USE THE SENSES TO SHAPE SETTING – I like adding the senses to any scene to trigger memories in the reader and make the scene real. I would like to see and hear more about the streets of Miami once Jimmy gets out of his car, or he could have his windows rolled down to let the atmosphere in as he rolls onto the street. That could enhance the paragraph starting with – ‘Nestled down a dark side street…’ if Jimmy can see and hear and smell what is happening through his life’s experience and his POV.

This author does a great job with painting a scene. Here are some examples I liked:

A.) …surrounded by a neighborhood of closed eyes and silent tongues. (This gives a face to the neighborhood that is memorable.)

B.) Inside, the night clerk dozed behind an ancient front desk. Cigarette smoke of sixty years lingered in the air, staining the off-white walls and choking what life was left out of the dusty armchair and threadbare rug in the small lobby. (I’ve been to this hotel. I can see the worn furnishings and smell the embedded smoke. Well done.)

SUMMARY:

I would definitely read on. This is an enticing crime fiction read, right up my alley. The author’s voice paints a great picture in word choice. A few things could be tightened or strengthened to punch up the voice, but there is a lot to like about this submission.

DISCUSSION:

1.) What do you think, TKZers? Would you read on?

2.) What suggestions do you have?

intheeyesofthedead_highres

In the Eyes of the DeadBook Birthday! $1.99 ebook
FBI profiler Ryker Townsend and Omega Team’s Athena Madero join forces in a small Texas border town after ritualistic murders of four teens point toward a sinister Santeria holy man and his secret believers. (31,000 words)

2+

The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction – ‘A Disloyal Element’ Critique

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Confederate General Robert E Lee

Confederate General Robert E Lee

 

For your reading enjoyment, we have an anonymous first 400 words submission from a daring soul. My feedback will follow. The author would appreciate your constructive criticism in comments. Thank you.

The procession of Yankees moved down Richmond’s High Street, clanking chains muffled by snow. Footsteps left a bloody path. Some wore whatever could be held together with rope to substitute for shoes. Many wore no coat. Some were bound for Chimborazo Hospital, the others Castle Thunder, Belle Isle or Libby Prison. Their faces were etched with apprehension, despair, dread, fear. Some appeared dejected, others stood straight and walked proudly.

The unknown lie ahead for them. Annie stood looking, useless, her hands clenched in her pockets unable to help or comfort them. How many would be dead in a month? Conditions were abysmal at the prisons. She’d heard stories. Prisoners who got too close to the barred windows were shot on sight. There were probably worse atrocities people were afraid to talk about.

Once they went in, they were never seen again. These men had families they longed to see and who longed to have them safe at home. How do you hold onto hope when it seems you’ve been forgotten? The war had gone on for nearly three years now with no end in sight.

The prisoners continued the slow march down the road. One man faltered in his step for a moment and collapsed to his knees. His comrades came to his aid and lifted him up to continue. Most of the citizens ignored them as they passed by, but members of The Butchertown Cats, one of Richmond’s street gangs, called out names not uttered in polite society and used slingshots to hurl stones at the men. These street toughs were little more than boys themselves, many only months away from being conscripted for service in the Army. The bravado they displayed today would be tested by their first taste of battle. A member of the local constabulary broke up the toughs and they ran in different directions. The prisoners they taunted marched on to face whatever fate God had for them.

Annie watched until they turned the corner and were out of sight. A green tartan scarf lay in the snow where the prisoners had just walked. It looked brand new and certain to be missed by its owner. A gift, perhaps, from a loved one. She started for the object in a vain attempt to return it when one of the Butchertown Cats flew past her and scooped up the garment and ran in the opposite direction.

Feedback

I was drawn into this submission by the human suffering and the idea of prisoners of war being paraded through Richmond. The word ‘Yankees’ and Richmond hinted at a Civil War period piece, but I had to look up the hospital name to be sure. The time period is a good one for intriguing stories, so the author had me hooked. But I have the following suggestions for consideration.

1.) Give Context – A tag line at the outset would clarify without a doubt this is a historical work about the Civil War. Something simple like – Richmond, Virginia and the date somewhere between 1861-1865 – would suffice. The reader would be oriented at the beginning.

2.) Make Point of View (POV) Relatable – The start of this offering, and most of the writing, is told in omniscient POV. This submission reminded me of a recent and excellent post by James Scott Bell on “The Perils of Author Voice.” Annie the observer first shows up in the 2nd paragraph and again in the final paragraph, but it’s not clear to me that she actually sees the whole procession and the men trudging toward their fate. It’s as if she sees into the heads of all the men marching (omniscient).

Think how much this beginning would change if Annie is the sole POV and the reader sees everything through her eyes. By orienting the reader inside Annie’s head, we learn more about her and the time period, as well as the story of the men she has empathy for. If you pick one POV per scene, where the reader can only see through that character’s eyes, the story will be more intimidate and emotional. In omniscient POV, the reader is held at a distance to be a neutral observer. This might work for some stories, but I prefer seeing history unfold through the strife of an endearing or compelling character.

Let’s take Annie. What could her story be?

Annie could find someone in the march who reminds her of her younger brother who’s missing in action. She leaps over the backs of tall men, straining for a glimpse of the rabble. When she sees a familiar gait or a pair of blue eyes she’ll never forget , she races after the men. She hides among them, maybe has the guards racing to pull her out. She sees each man’s suffering from the way they smell to the bones under their clothes from starvation. They beg her for water. They bleed on her clothes. The reader would more fully understand the plight of these men while also finding out about Annie.

  • What is Annie’s last name?
  • Why is she there?
  • What are her politics?
  • How is she treated as a woman during this period?
  • Is she looking for someone, is she a spy, or does she disdain the enemy?

3.) Add a Dose of Historical Perspective – The writing has a modern feel to it. There is no attempt to use historical authenticity using terminology from the time period or by inserting some clothing/uniform descriptions. Historical readers are fanatics about getting the history right. The insertion of “dark blue trousers and kepi caps” or the guards carrying “Springfield muskets and sabers” could add something. Depending on her backstory, Annie may not know details of weaponry, but during a time of war, I’m sure she’s seen what men wear and use in battle.

A resource I found on Civil War Terminology might help insert a few key descriptions to make the writing appear more period. Here is a resource for Civil War Uniform description. This is a resource for Civil War Weapons that the Confederate soldiers might be carrying as they take the prisoners down the street. These are quick resources I found online from a simple query. Experienced authors of historical fiction have a vast amount of reliable sites they use.

For Discussion:

What would you add, TKZers?

Would you turn the page?

Do you have good resource links for the Civil War?

 

Croco Designs

Coming November 15 – In The Eyes of The Dead (Omega Team/Amazon Kindle Worlds)

FBI profiler Ryker Townsend and Omega Team’s Athena Madero join forces in a small Texas border town after ritualistic murders of four teens point toward a sinister Santeria priest and his secret believers.

Cover by Frauke Spanuth at Croco Designs

4+

Users who have LIKED this post:

  • avatar

First Page Critique – Tree of Heaven

Happy Monday!

Today we’re reviewing the first page of a book entitled ‘Tree of Heaven’. My comments follow.

Tree of Heaven

18 September 1833, Zoar, Ohio

“I’ll get what’s coming to me, I will!”

The bellow of a man’s voice punctured the late morning’s peace and brought Adelaide Bechtmann to a standstill outside Josef’s log cabin.

She ducked under the low-hanging branches of an apple tree, snagging a bonnet tie on a leafy twig. She jerked it loose. What should she do? Call out? Had they seen her? Heard her?

A glance through the open door of the cabin allayed her concern. Engrossed in their argument, the men saw none but each other.

The Separatists’ leader faced the stranger across the table that centered the one-room cabin. His face flushed, and his fists tightened on the edge of a chair. “I owe you nothing, nothing.”

“You signed her indenture.”

What? Indenture? What did he mean?

Adelaide studied the man stylishly dressed in gray and white striped trousers, checkered waistcoat, and long-tailed black coat. Whatever was he doing in Zoar? Plain-dressed and plain spoken, the Separatists seldom saw such finery, though Adelaide had encountered men so adorned in Bolivar when she’d gone to the city for a birthing.

The man shook a paper in Josef’s face. “You owe me for—”

“She died, you fool.” Josef batted the paper away. “You can’t collect from a dead woman.”

Dead woman? Who’s dead? And what’s an indenture?

The man’s chin jutted. “You signed for her.”

“I signed for them all. I was, am, their leader. And I settled all my debts before I left Philadelphia.”

The stranger waved toward the outdoors, and Adelaide scooted back against the tree. “All this land, this industry, this prosperity that you’ve built on the backs of these people. You’ve the money to pay.”

They did indeed. Pride rushed through Adelaide. Only ten years old when they’d arrived, she’d watched her fellow Separatists work hard to carve their village out of the wilderness, helping as she could, totting baskets, buckets, and boxes to waiting workers. By their efforts, tenacity, and, Josef would say, the grace of God, they’d prospered in this new land.

My comments

Overall, this first page successfully sets a scene of a conflict in what I assume is a straightforward historical fiction novel (at least on the first page I don’t see the signs of either a mystery or thriller to come). I liked the way that Adelaide stumbles upon the argument and how we get, quickly and easily, a sense of the conflict to come. The speech and inner voice sounds authentic for the time period and I like the immediacy of the situation. My main quibbles really come down to two main areas: Historical grounding and voice.

Historical grounding

I admit I am not well versed in American history, so I did look up Zoar and Bolivar in Ohio and the early 19th century German separatists who settled there. However, the key to any historical novel is that a reader shouldn’t have to have (1) any prior understanding of the historical period; or (2) have to look up the historical references to understand what is going on. I do think, even on this very first page, we need more grounding in the historical period. One option, if the author doesn’t want to interrupt the flow of the first page, is to have a brief summary in either a prologue (yes, the dreaded prologue) or another hint – say a newspaper or historical excerpt that gives the reader a quick ‘heads up’ before the story begins. For example, if I’d had a quote from one of the German separatist leaders about their reasons for coming to Ohio, their journey, and settlement then I would have been able to place everything on the first page in better context (rather than having to do an internet search to see who the separatists were and why they had come to America).

I do like the paragraph about her noticing the stranger’s clothes – especially the old-fashioned use of words. This definitely felt authentic. Th page could have done with more description to be able to visualize the setting and the characters. In historical fiction, you have a little more leeway to introduce exposition like this early on as it helps ground a reader in the time period (particularly for readers who have no real sense of what the 1830s would have been like in America). More sensory information would have been great to really make a reader feel like they were there (the smell of smoke from the fire, maybe cooking (?), the stranger’s cologne or other elements to make us feel we are right there with Adelaide looking on at the scene).

That being said, I liked that we didn’t get a huge historical data dump, and that the author led with action and character interaction in this first page. This, however, leads to my second comment, which is a question of voice.

Voice

In this first page we don’t really get a strong sense of voice from Adelaide yet. Her inner questions suggest someone young – maybe a teenager or young adult – and yet we aren’t entirely sure why she seems to have no idea what indenture meant. Again, not being an expert on American history, I don’t have a strong handle on this time period, but based on what I have read it sounds like indentured servitude was a common practice given the need for labor at the time. So my question would be, why would she not know the word? Also when Josef speaks of the woman being dead I would assume in a small knit community Adelaide might be able to make some guess as to who the dead woman might be – rather than thinking ‘what dead woman’, I would expect her to think ‘did he mean X?’ or perhaps she knows Josef is lying…again, that isn’t clear on this first page.

Voice is critical to any first page – it’s what sets a book apart and what draws a reader in from the start – so my key recommendation is to make Adelaide’s voice stronger and unique. If she is a young adult then make sure the reader knows her age and understands her confusion. At the moment she sounds hesitant (doesn’t want them to know she’s there) and naive. This is fine but sometimes a stronger, more interesting voice can intrigue a reader. I, for one, wanted two girls to be there – one (Adeliade) who was quite prepared to go striding in there and demand to know what was happening and the other a girl holding her back (representing the more historically ‘appropriate’ type of young woman). At the moment there’s nothing about Adelaide yet that makes me want to keep reading her story (and because it is her POV as a reader I’m assuming it is her story).

Overall, I think this first page had a lot of appealing elements. It sounds like an intriguing time and place for a novel and I would love to read more about the separatists’ experience in America. With some fine tuning I think this first page could start a compelling historical novel – with the focus being on historical grounding and strength of voice.

So TKZers what do you think? What constructive comments would you give our author?

 

1+

First Page Critique – Miss Bryson Loses Her Hat

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Image By Frode Inge Helland - Wikipedia Commons

Image By Frode Inge Helland – Wikipedia Commons

An anonymous author has submitted the first 400 words of a work-in-progress. Please enjoy Miss Bryson Loses Her Hat and I’ll have my two cents on the flip side. Share your constructive comments to assist the author in making this intro shine.

Scene one
Once a girl crashed to the floor with a bone-shaking thud before a thousand people, it gave her a clarity of mind she lacked prior to the event. In Lara Bryson’s case, it elucidated too late the hazards of satin slippers on a freshly polished floor, and illuminated, in a flash of searing insight, the vagaries of a God who, in blessing her with an angelic voice, tempered it with the less benevolent bestowal of two left feet.

Yes, He seemed to say, in a voice Lara imagined as a rolling thunderous crack rending the heavens, she could sing as gloriously as the seraphim, just never in company, and never anywhere requiring the use of her legs.

If only He’d bothered to tell her this before she sold every possession, expended every shilling, and endured sixteen perilous hours battened to the top of a London Mail Coach.

Even a hint five minutes earlier would’ve sufficed.

Instead, Lara lay crumpled and mortified. The roar of adulation that had provoked a warm tingling sensation to cascade like a waterfall through her limbs moments before replaced with the frenzied gasps of a mob titillated by the unexpected sight of a lady splayed out like a ragdoll.

Even more lowering, the dismal conviction that her promise to her dying mother to sing for the Queen would remain forever unfulfilled settled like a rock in Lara’s heart.

The clip, clip, clip of boots dashing across a wooden floor interrupted Lara’s fit of the blue devils. She guessed she had about thirty seconds to find a dignified way out of the Ballroom before the crowd reached her.

Or she could crawl.

The odds poor she’d get upright in a graceful manner, and stay there, slinking away on all fours seemed not only the best option, but a fitting end to her wretched evening. Her decision made, Lara clamped her eyes shut, and prayed silently; God, if you wish to keep alive what little trust I still have in You right now, then at least clear a path for me to slink out of here.

“Clear a path everyone, and give the lady some air.”

Lara gasped; never before had she received such a direct answer from above. The request for air an inspired touch. An exotic woody scent drifted over her. Sandalwood. Interesting; she’d thought myrrh.

The voice spoke again, “Are you hurt?”

Feedback:

The intro is reminiscent of the beginning to a fairy tale as it starts with, “Once a girl…” The tag line Scene One reminded me of a script. I’m not sure why it’s there. But overall, I enjoyed the proper British tone of the author voice and the way the girl’s plight was detailed–it’s like Downton Abbey meets Bridget Jones–with an undertone of controlled humor. I sense a Cinderella story coming, although I can’t be sure in this short intro.

Here are a few things for the author to think about:

1.) Add More Mystery – Who are the 1,000 people? In the first sentence, we hear of the girl’s fall. The audience is not emphasized much until we get a hint at the promise she made to her dying mother, to sing for the Queen. If this is indeed a performance for the Queen, why not play that up more? Or at the very least, hint at the once in a lifetime opportunity, the titillation of the crowd, the tension as she builds to the moment where she walks out. The fall is put into the first sentence, very anti-climactic, because the author chose to focus on her mortification in great detail.

2.) Flip the Scene – Imagine this scene starting another way. As the girl’s mind prepares for her big moment (a moment the author holds back but only hints at), she’s haunted by the promise she made her mother on her deathbed. Tension builds. Her palms sweat. Every movement in her routine replays in her head as she waits in the wings of the stage or outside the ballroom, but the crowd noise and her mother’s face haunt her. She is introduced and the music starts. When she walks out under a glaring spotlight, she sees the silhouette of the Queen in the shadows. Everything is the way she visualized it and her mother’s voice fades in her mind. The stage is set for perfection, but that doesn’t happen. The end of the intro comes when she falls. Every reader will want to know – what comes next?

3.) Use of Humor – There is definitely charming humor written into this piece. It appeals to me, very much. But keep in mind that humor can diminish intrigue or lessen the danger in a scene or shift the focus if it’s used too much. (As an example, a smart mouthed detective can appear too confident and invincible if he doesn’t act afraid when a gun is pointed at him. Over time and as the pages turn, the reader becomes insulated to any danger and never fears for the protag’s life.) In this case, we are drawn into Lara’s cynical, self-deprecating humor about the wreck of her life and her big fall when she may resonate more with the reader if there’s a focus on the action, rather than her internal monologue. A sparing use of her humor could be used after the fall, but let the reader feel her anticipation of a promise fulfilled before we know what happens. I get the feeling this author is quite funny, but less can be more to make Lara endearing. Let her think big before reality sets in. It will make the punch line better.

4.) Who is her Prince? – I know this is only 400 words, but I am really intrigued by who this person is at the end. Her savior. This is a tribute to the author’s writing and the set up. There is a lot of internal monologue as the scene progresses, when what I really wanted to know is mentioned above and who this person is at the end.

5.) Scenes are Mini-Stories – I think of each scene in a book like a mini-story. There’s a beginning, middle and end. Each scene should progress the story forward with at least 1-3 plot points. If an author does this, the writing will be tight and each scene serves a purpose. There’s also a character journey within the scene where the protagonist will grow, learn something to advance the plot, or raise more questions to foreshadow what might be coming. With this in mind, I like the intro to a scene to have a strong opener, a tight middle with mystery elements to intrigue the reader, and a foreshadowing of things to come that will keep the reader turning the page. In Miss Bryson Loses Her Hat, this mini-story can be accomplished by sticking with the action building to her fall, with only a hint of how important this is to her and who she is dancing for. The big conclusion of the fall and who comes to her aid can be the foreshadowing and make a great page turner. (Another trick to make a page turner is to split a scene and carry it over into the next chapter. It’ll keep readers up late and you may get an email in the early hours saying, “I can’t stop reading.”)

Conclusion:

I really want to turn the page and read on. Kudos to the author. Overall, I love this author’s voice, but even with that talent, there is still a need for how to create and build on an introduction. Elements of mystery are very important, no matter what the genre. I like to tease the reader with questions as they read on, then build on the suspense to answer those questions as the reader finishes each paragraph. Add more mystery elements as the scene progresses and you’ll hook them deeper and in multiple ways.

Discussion:

1.) What feedback would you give this brave author, TKZers?

2.) Would you keep reading?

3.) Can you imagine this premise starting differently?

3+