First Page Critique: Can You Find the Murder Weapon?

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments will follow.

The Invisible 

Bette always joked Marge’s baking would be their demise—but not like this. The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

“What about those?” Marge said, pointing to a large cluster.

Bette tsked. “I’m sure we can do better. Do you want the girls eating green tomatoes? What if it was—?” She stopped mid-sentence, glanced down, and wiped her boot on a rock. “Oh, my,” she chuckled, shaking her head. “Well, if that’s the worse that happens today, I’m counting my blessings.” She continued her search. “What time did Paige get in last night?”

“Well, it was past 9:00—when we went to bed. She rents a room; she doesn’t answer to us.”

“I know that, Marge.” She moved down the row. “I just worry she’s not getting enough sleep.”

“She’s a student. They aren’t supposed to sleep.”

“Who’s not supposed to sleep?”

They looked up to see their boarder, backpack over shoulder, mug of coffee in hand, cut across the dewy lawn. “We were just saying,” Marge said, “that you don’t get enough sleep, dear.”

She laughed. “Can’t argue with that. But my paper’s due Monday, and I’m nervous about it. By the way, was that apple pie I smelled, or am I still dreaming?”

“Oh, my pies! I almost forgot.” Marge squeezed Paige’s arm. “If you wait a few minutes, you can have a piece.”

“It’s tempting, but I really need to get to the library.” She waved to the sisters as she hurried to her car. “Save me a slice.”

“We will, honey. Now don’t work too hard. Remember, life is short.” They watched her head to campus, after which Marge rushed off to check on the pies, promising to be right back.

Bette continued down the rows, her persistence eventually paying off. As she removed an almost perfect Brandywine tomato from its vine, a high-pitched scream split the air. She snapped her head around in time to spot a red-tailed hawk, something squirming in its beak, swoop below the treetops. Her heart was still pounding when a calloused hand grabbed her ankle, causing her to drop the basket. She jerked free, only to discover the hand was an out of control cucumber vine.

Though the sisters seem sweet, not much happens on this first page … unless you’re a research junkie like me and have studied this particular murder weapon. Which is genius, by the way. Kudos to you, Brave Writer. For those who didn’t catch it, I’ll explain in a minute.

Let’s look at your first line, which I liked.

Bette always joked Marge’s baking would be their demise—but not like this.

Your first line makes a promise to the reader, a promise that must be kept and alluded to early on. Just the suggestion of green tomatoes is not enough.

Now, let’s look at the first paragraph…

The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

I assume Brave Writer discovered that tomatoes contain a few different toxins. One of which is called tomatine. Tomatine can cause gastrointestinal problems, liver and heart damage. Its highest concentration is in the leaves, stems, and unripened fruit. Red tomatoes only produce low doses of tomatine, but the levels aren’t high enough to kill.

Like other nightshade plants, tomatoes also produce atropine in extremely low doses. Though atropine is a nasty poison, tomatoes don’t produce enough of it to cause death. The most impressive toxin from green tomatoes is solanine. Which, as Brave Writer may have discovered, can be used as murder weapon. Solanine can be found in any part of the plant, including the leaves, tubers, and fruit, and acts as the plant’s natural defenses. People have died from solanine poisoning. It’s also found in potatoes and eggplant.

If Marge eats, say, potato pancakes along with green tomatoes during that brunch, it’ll increase the solanine and other glycoalkaloid levels coursing through her system. *evil cackle*

The nice part of solanine poisoning from a writer’s perspective is that it can take 8-10 hours before the victim is symptomatic, which gives Brave Writer plenty of time to let her stumble into more trouble to keep the reader guessing how or why she died.

If I were writing this story, I’d study the fatal solanine cases and put my own spin on it.

Hope I’m right about this. If not, my apologies. In any case, the weekly Girl’s Club (no hyphen and only capped if it’s the official title of the club) brunch seems important and so do the tomatoes. What I’d love to see on this first page is why. You don’t need to tell us, but you do need to hint at the reason to hold our interest.

What if Bette plucks the deadly fruit from the vine and notices how strange it looks? You’ll have to research to nail down the minute details of a toxic green tomato, if any differences are visible to the naked eye.

There’s one other problem with this first paragraph. Here it is again:

The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

Who’s narrating this story? It isn’t Bette, as your first line indicates. And it isn’t Marge. An omniscient point-of-view is tricky to pull off. Newer writers should focus on one main character and show/tell the story through their eyes. If that character doesn’t hear, see, feel, taste, experience, smell, etc. something, then it must be excluded.

Yes, some writers (me included) use dueling protagonists, alternating scenes between the two, and even include an antagonist POV. But when we’re still honing our craft, especially when we’re learning the ins-and-outs of POV, it’s easiest to concentrate on one main character throughout the story. For more on mastering point-of-view, see this post or type in “point of view” in the search box. We’ve discussed this area of craft many times on TKZ.

As written, my advice is to keep the first line and either delete the rest and find a different starting point (sorry!) or better yet, saturate it in mystery regarding these tomatoes. That way, the reader will fear for your main character while the fruit lay on a bed of lettuce on a serving platter during the Girl’s Club meeting. If you choose this route, one of your goals is to make the reader squirm. “Don’t eat that tomato, Marge!”

What say you, TKZers? Please add your gentle and kind advice for this brave writer.

 

8+

First Page Critique: Falling Free

Today we have a first page critique for a project entitled Falling Free. My comments follow so see you on the flip side (and enjoy because I think this is a great first page!).
Title: Falling Free

I fell hard to the closet floor.

My head hit the carpet. My arms just kind of flopped where they wanted.

I lay there, wondering what’d happened.

The carpet in this Seattle hotel smelled like it’d been shampooed recently. I used to be a hotel maid, so I know about carpet smells.

I stared at the ceiling for a bit. There was a black spider in the corner, moving its legs slowly, like it was doing yoga or something. I tried to mimic its movement, but couldn’t get my arms to respond.

My head hurt a little. I closed my eyes, I swear, just for a moment.

The next thing I knew, a cop bent over me. He stared for a minute, then put his gloved hand on my shoulder and rolled me up slightly.

I guessed he was looking at the back of my head.

He settled me back down on the floor, then leaned over and brushed my long hair away from my face. He smelled like stale cigarettes and had kind brown eyes.

My wallet appeared in his hand. “Junie. That your name, honey?”

I heard movement beyond him. The room outside the closet suddenly seemed filled with people, snapping pictures, going through drawers, talking on their cell phones. Saying things like “next-of-kin” and “keep the media out”.

Didn’t make much sense to me. Who’d care, anyway?

The cop yelled out the closet door. “Hey, Jimmy! Get the boss on the phone.”

“Okay, Frank.”

Then another cop, Jimmy presumably, entered the closet and handed a cell phone to Frank.

“Why don’t you get yourself a phone, Frank?”

“Why should I when you’ve always got yours?”

Jimmy left the closet in a huff.

“Yeah, hey boss.”

His eyes strayed to where it’d landed when I fell. “Nah. Nothing to do here. Get the crew over.”

Frank snapped Jimmy’s phone shut and stuck it in his shirt pocket.

He stood, looked down at me, shaking his head. “What’s your story, Junie?” He lingered over me a moment longer, then turned and walked out of the closet.

I heard him give orders to those in the room, to get this wrapped up. The scurrying intensified, doors and drawers slamming. Then it was quiet again.

Just Frank, studying me from the closet doorway.

My story? You don’t really wanna know, Frank.

I could’ve changed things. Put that in your report.

Comments:
I thought this first page was a great example of ‘less is more’ with short, snappy paragraphs that nonetheless evoked the scene, well-paced and believable dialogue, and a POV/voice that was already compelling. Bravo to our contributor!
For once I have very little to say in terms of input or advice…but if I was to make some recommendations (and honestly this piece is fine to stay as is!) they would be:
  • Perhaps consider one more sentence to give a sense of the injury that’s occurred (as it sounds like something far worse than just falling on carpet).
  • Perhaps consider a brief sentence in the closet describing the iron/ironing board or clothes/robe hanging – just something that might reveal whether this is a seedy hotel, a motel 6 or a more up-market hotel…
  • Possibly clarify time period as it sounds like it’s the 90’s (e.g. Frank snapped Jimmy’s phone shut) but I wasn’t totally sure.
  • This could also be important as I didn’t quite believe Frank wouldn’t have a phone these days (definitely would believe it if it was the 90s) – otherwise I was going to recommend changing “why don’t you get yourself a phone, Frank” to “why don’t you ever have your phone with you, Frank”,  if it was contemporary.
  •  I wasn’t quite sure how Junie could see the room outside the closet from the floor (she’d settled back down after the officer had originally rolled her up slightly). Maybe just have some movement (turned her head, or her eyes saw over the officer’s shoulder…something like that…)
  • Finally, I didn’t love the title ‘Falling Free’ – although without knowing more about the book I can’t really give good input, except to say that my initial reaction to this title was ‘meh’:)
All in all I think this is a really strong first page – TKZers, what do you think? What advice or recommendations would you make?
10+

First Page Critique: Manuel’s Revenge

Happy Monday! (even though it’s starting to feel like everyday is like Sunday…)
Today I have a first page critique which illustrates the challenges in grounding a reader right from the start. My comments, and recommendations follow.  I also look forward to getting you input for our brave submitter after this first page submission.
Manuel’s Revenge

They wouldn’t understand, especially the little ones.

“Daddy’s gone to heaven,” she would say. They would cry and grieve and she would find someone else.

When he opened the door, the apartment smelled of greasy chicken and diapers. Earlier in the evening he told her he’d be at Jerry’s Bar and Grill. Julie was furious, of course, so she and the kids had gone to visit her sister for a few days. He and his wife had exchanged harsh words, but Manuel felt relief. She and the kids wouldn’t be home. They wouldn’t see the carnage.

The scotch having fixed his resolve, Manuel made the call.

As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he crossed the frayed carpet, opened the closet door and removed a plank near the back wall. He hadn’t used the weapon in years, a nine millimeter Smith and Wesson that felt strangely familiar. From years on the streets he knew how to use the gun, but only killed when necessary, always in self defense, never for pleasure—unlike the monster who murdered his brother.

After prison, Manuel truly believed he could change, but his mind never stopped playing that endless loop. His brother’s face—the pleading, the tears, the anguish—would never disappear. Graven into his memory like etchings on a gravestone was the leering face of the thug who pulled the trigger.

Tonight that man would die, and Manuel would die with him.

Replacing the plank, Manuel eased along the wall to observe the rendezvous point from his perch three stories up. On the street below, his brother’s killer would step into the alley expecting an easy exchange. Bills for baggies. No problem.

But when Manuel looked down on the scene, his fists tightened around the pistol. Cops were erecting a barrier and a tarp-covered body lay in the middle of the alley.

A crime scene.

Two uniforms conversed under a streetlight. The lights of a patrol vehicle rotated across the dark bricks of nearby tenements.  In the shadows something moved, something barely perceptible. Even from this distance, the thick man in the sideways baseball cap shifted easily from light to darkness, watching.

Then into the shadows the thug disappeared. The meeting would be aborted. The man who killed his brother would flee. Then, as it had so many nights before, Manuel’s cowardice would seize his thoughts and haunt another sleepless night.

Main Comments

This first page had some good things going for it, right from the get go. It was written in clear, direct prose, and was immediately personal. The reader could easily grasp that the stakes, at least for the main protagonist, were going to be high and that this story was going to be about avenging the murder of the protagonist’s brother. That helped create some nice tension right from the start, but for me, this first page suffered from a lack of specificity and grounding, that made the story, even though it was going to be high stakes and personal, feel almost generic.

In terms of lack of specificity, I wanted more detail about the main protagonist to set him apart. I wanted to be able to picture him, get a hint of intrigue (why had he been in prison for example?) and to hear a more realistic internal dialogue that made him feel like a real person – one I immediately felt sympathy for, and whose story created the kind of dramatic tension that could sustain a novel.

In terms of grounding, I wanted more details to be able to picture the apartment and the building – especially as it seemed such an easy vantage point from which he could have killed the ‘thug’ in the past (had he tried before? – this wasn’t clear).

Specific Comments/Feedback

Having mused over the best way to provide constructive feedback regarding this first page, I decided that providing further comments/notes in bullet form as I read the first page was probably the most useful. So here goes:

  • First line – ‘They wouldn’t understand, especially the little ones’ had me intrigued. But then, just as I was thinking about the children (and we never find out how many or their names, or ages), the comment ‘they would cry and grieve and she would find someone else’ suddenly seemed cold and rather flippant. I wanted to know more about his relationship with his children and their mother (who was, I assumed his wife) but was a little put off already.
  • We get a brief description of the apartment but nothing more. I wanted to be able to visualize the place, and feel grounded in the surroundings. Where are we? What is the socio-economic background of this family? (they sound poor but then he drinks scotch in the next paragraph which doesn’t seem consistent with this initial impression). I’m assuming Julie is his wife but why had they exchanged harsh words – was it because he was always at Jerry’s Bar and Grill (and here, the name is specific but seems unnecessary since I have no other information or context regarding all the other surroundings). Also ‘carnage’ is a very strong word and it makes me think of a large scale, mass killing.
  • Now Manuel makes the call – but I’m not sure what this means as we haven’t got the backstory or context yet – but I’m willing to go with it.
  • Then we have a paragraph about him getting his weapon out and again, we get specifics about it (9 millimeter Smith & Weston) but few specifics about his past. He always killed in self-defense? Why? How did he know the monster who murdered his brother killed for pleasure? I need more here to be invested in this story.
  • ‘After prison’ – again, we get a hint of a past/backstory but no details, except about his brother (who, as yet, remains nameless). The line ‘graven into his memory…” would work better if I had more details so I could really visualize the scene.
  • ‘Tonight that man would die, and Manuel would die with him’ – Why, if he’s shooting the man from the vantage point of a window three stories up, would Manuel have to die? This didn’t quite make sense without more context and information on what Manuel was planning. It sounds like he wasn’t going to be the one going to make the exchange below (as he is upstairs) but how is the exchange supposed to work exactly (?) – and how did Manuel know all this (had he set it up? I couldn’t tell by the end if he had, or if these kind of exchanges were just a frequent occurrence in the alley and Manuel had finally got the courage to try and kill the ‘thug’ this time (?) (again, this reveals lack of grounding and specificity to me).
  • Now, when Manuel looks down on the scene he sees cops…but didn’t he hear sirens or see the flashing lights as he walked across the dark room towards the closet in the previous paragraph?
  • So it’s a crime scene, but we have no context for it – and now a man is watching from the shadows but the police are clueless(?) There’s a reference to nearby tenements but again I can’t picture the scene, as I haven’t got any description or point of reference for where we are.
  • The final paragraph has the ‘thug’ disappear (which seems too easy given the police presence), and ‘then, as it had so many nights before, Manuel’s cowardice would seize his thoughts and haunt another sleepless night’. I really liked this last line, but it still confused me as I don’t have context for his previous attempts or the past that links him to the thug and the circumstances surrounding his brother’s murder.

As all these comments reveal, this first page really needs more specific details and a clear description of place, backstory, and characters to come to life for me, and to create the tension needed for me to turn the page and keep reading. That being said, the scene itself is a compelling one – a man risking everything to avenge his brother’s death – and our brave submitter no doubt knows all the details that could easily be added to bring color and tension to this story. Overall, most of my comments/recommendations are a relatively easy fix and I think once we get the specificity and grounding we need as readers, this first page could be the start of a something good.

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

 

6+

When Verbs Go Rogue: First Page Critique

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments will follow.

Monstruo Cubano

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your first page. A public critique takes guts, and I admire your courage.

From this small sample I assume s/he is just beginning their writing journey. So, TKZers, please be gentle and kind in your comments and suggestions (I know you will).

With that in mind, I offer the following critique.

Using a foreign language on the first page is a huge risk. As someone who doesn’t speak Spanish, my eyes glazed over when I read the title of the library. It wasn’t until the second read-through that I stopped long enough to figure out “La Libreria” meant “The Library.” That’s a problem. Most readers won’t bother to read the scene a second, third, or fourth time.

For more on using foreign languages, see this 1st Page Critique.

I want to point something out that you might not be aware of, Brave Writer. Note all the words in blue…

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Look at all those strong verbs! You didn’t take the easy road, like “walked” for example. Strong verbs create a more vivid mental image. Problem is there’s way too many. In this short sample I counted at least 43 verbs. The second thing that jumped out at me was all the chaos in this first page. Don’t get me wrong, conflict is a good thing. It’s how we use it that matters. If the conflict doesn’t drive the plot in some way, then we need to rethink our opener. I’m not saying that’s what occurred here, but I want you to ask yourself…

Does the library or shopkeeper play a pivotal role in this story? What are you trying to accomplish with this scene? Does this opener set up a future scene? The answer should be yes. Otherwise, you’re wasting precious real estate.

For more on the best place to start a novel, see this post.

I love how you took advantage of smell, rather than relying only on sight. When I finished reading this submission, I felt like I needed a shower to get rid of the cat stench. Good job! We want our reader’s emotions to match our point-of-view character.

Now, take a deep breath, Brave Writer. This next part might be a bumpy road for you, but I’m hoping you’ll find value in my demonstration of how to write tighter and more concise.

Monstruo Cubano (Consider changing the title to English. Don’t limit your target audience. Back in 2014, Joe Moore wrote an excellent post on the subject.)

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. Brook Harper squeaked in horror when she stepped inside La Libreria de Juan Carolos, the closest library to her new apartment in Miami. (reworded to ground the reader) She gaped at the Rows of mildewed shelves housed lined not with books, but broken dishes and food-encrusted utensils instead of books. Did she have the right address? (added to show her confusion; for more on Show vs. Tell, see this post, which also dips a toe into distant vs. intimate/deep POV.) When she’d arrived at the airport several weeks ago, colorful displays advertised tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books, but this place didn’t even resemble those brochures.

Venturing several steps farther inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into littered the front window, the outside world obscured by a thick layer of grime.

Stay in active voice, not passive. An easy way to spot passive voice is to add “by zombies” at the end. If the sentence still makes sense, it’s passive. Example: Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window by zombies. Since the sentence still makes sense, it’s a passive construction.

Where did they keep the Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginners Spanish books? Brook hurried down an aisle, but leaped (leapt is archaic, use leaped) leapt wildly (adverbs and too many verbs and/or adjectives muddy the writing. For more on “writing tight,” see this post) into the air when a . A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches. I think “swarming” here creates a good visual, so I’m leaving it alone. Be sure to read JSB’s post, though. Too much description detracts from the action.

Brook skittered backwards (“backwards” is the British spelling of “backward.” Also, “skittered” might not be the best word choice. I’d rather you show us the action. Example: Brook’s boots shuffled backward), knocking into a shelf. Dishes crashed to the floor. (added for sentence variation; for more, see this first page critique) and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted (If Brook doesn’t even know beginners’ Spanish, how does she know SALIDA means EXIT? Something to think about).

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot wedged under peeling linoleum and she sailed through the air, landed face-first she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Cat urine coated her palms and one cheek. Vomit lurched up her throat. Why did she ever come to this hellhole? Maybe her new boss wouldn’t notice her bilingual inadequacies. Good looks had gotten her this far (or whatever fits the character).

If you’re not using dialogue between two characters, inner dialogue allows the reader to get to know Brook. Who is she? Why is she in Miami? Where is she from? Is she shy or extroverted? We don’t necessarily need to know these things, but you do. For more on building a character, see this post and this post).

Okay, I’ll stop there.

TKZers, how might you improve this first page? Please add the advice I skipped. Together we can help this brave writer up his/her game.

 

 

7+

Deep Dive into Craft: First Page Critique

I’ve got a special treat for you today. This Brave Writer submitted their first page for critique. Check it out. My comments will follow.

Lucky Lynx

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Carlos shook his head. He didn’t take his hands off the wheel as the battered Ford Bronco jounced over the pothole-ridden street. “You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

“He gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared.  Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Riker’s.”

That made Eduardo sit up. The seat’s rusty springs made a creak.

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

“Don’t matter what you believe. This guy can erase lives with a click. Don’t cross him, cousin. Keep that nine-iron under your jacket.”

Eduardo shifted in his seat.  The gun was a reassuring weight against his side.

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

Carlos put the vehicle in park, shut the motor off, and got out.  Eduardo followed suit. Their steps sounded abnormally loud in the sudden silence as they walked up to the fence.

Three of the four men watched warily as they approached.  The fourth one took a step forward. A pale face jutted out from beneath a black hoodie sweatshirt.  The sweatshirt hung loose around a lean, slender frame.

“The package is up against the fence, twenty yards to your right,” he said, in a young, high-pitched voice. “Either of you can pick it up and verify I’ve delivered what you want. If it checks out, then you’ll pay the agreed amount. You will not exit the premises until we signal that we have counted the bills.”

“Fine. I’ll pick it up,” Carlos said.

Eduardo scowled at the hoodie-wearing figure.

“You’re just a kid.”

A pause. “The name’s Ti. And yeah, I’m a kid. A kid who scored you your shipment.”

Brave Writer did a terrific job with this opener. S/he has a firm grasp of POV and the dialogue is easy-going and natural, though at times it took me a moment to figure out who was speaking. Easy fix, which we’ll get to in a moment. Because Brave Writer has the basics down, this gives us a great opportunity to dive a little deeper into craft.

First, let’s compare Brave Writer’s dialogue with my favorite craft book for dialogue: How To Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell.

In Chapter 3, Jim gives us a checklist for what dialogue should accomplish.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Story Information.

But only reveal enough information for the reader to understand the scene. Everything else can wait.

Dialogue is sometimes the more artful way to reveal story information. But here’s the key: the reader must never catch you simply feeding them exposition!

Jim gives us his two top tips…

First, determine just how much exposition you really need. Especially toward the front of your novel. Here’s one of my axioms: Act first, explain later. Readers will wait a long time for explanatory material if there is solid action going on.

In fact, by not revealing the reasons behind certain actions and dialogue, you create mystery. That works in any genre. Readers love to be left wondering.

Second, once you know what you need to reveal, put it into a tense dialogue exchange.

In other words, hide the exposition within confrontation.

For the most part, Brave Writer succeeded in this area. But the punctuation causes confusion. For example…

“You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

For clarity try something like: “You know Hector Flores? [That dirtbag who] ran with Familia Michoacana.”

“What if I do?” doesn’t sound right to this particular reader. Simple and direct works best. Example: “That dude? Punk. He’s lucky I didn’t—”

“[Anyway,] he’s gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared. Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Rikers.”

Rikers Island has no apostrophe, Brave Writer. Do your research! It took me all of two seconds to confirm. Details can make or break a story.

Careful of run-on sentences, too. Example: “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Those are two sentences that should be separated by a period.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Character.

We can tell a lot about character by the words they use. Jim gives us another checklist to keep in mind.

  • Vocabulary: What is the educational background of your characters? What words would they know that correspond to that background?
  • Syntax: When a character does not speak English as a first language, syntax (the order of words) is the best way to indicate that.
  • Regionalisms: Do you know what part of the country your character comes from? How do they talk there?
  • Peer groups: Groups that band together around a specialty—law, medicine, surfing, skateboarding—have pet phrases they toss around. These are great additions to authenticity.

Did Brave Writer accomplish this task? Let’s find out… 

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

The vocabulary, syntax, regionalism, and peer groups are all represented. Yet, something still feels off. If we look closer, Eduardo’s dialogue works really well. It’s Carlos’s dialogue that needs a minor tweak. “That’s right” is too on-the-nose. A more natural response might be, “No shit. But get this.” The rest of this short exchange works well.

Quick note about nicknames. If “primo” is the name Eduardo uses for Carlos, then be consistent. Don’t use both, especially on the first page. After all, we’re inside Eduardo’s head. If he doesn’t think of Primo as Carlos, then the reader shouldn’t either while we’re in his POV. 

  1. Dialogue Should Set the Tone (and Scene) 

The cumulative effect of dialogue on readers sets a tone for your book. Be intentional about what you want that tone to be… First, the way characters react to their surroundings tells us both about the location and the people reacting to it.

Brave Writer nailed this part. We know exactly where we are, and the tone is consistent. Great job! 

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Theme

Certainly, many writers do care about message, or theme. The danger in dialogue is to allow the characters to become mere mouthpieces for the message. This is called getting “preachy.” The way to avoid this is to place the theme into natural dialogue that is part of a confrontational moment. As with exposition, a tense exchange “hides” what you’re doing.

With such a small sample, it’s difficult to determine if Brave Writer accomplished this task or not. Just keep it in mind.

Aside from dialogue…

Sentence Variation and Rhythm

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

In this one paragraph every sentence begins with “The,” which dulls the image you’re trying to convey. By varying the sentences you’ll draw the reader into the scene. Let the writing work for you, not against you.

Example:

Carlos veered into the back-parking lot, and the Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble. Broken windows, boarded-up doorways, the headlight’s cast cylindrical spheres across the skewed faces of four men huddled next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. A chain link fence acted as an enclosure to keep this deal from going south—no one could escape unnoticed.

It’s still not great, but you get the idea.

Also, don’t rely only on sight. Add texture to the scene with smells, sounds, touch, and taste. Could there be a harbor bell in the distance? What might that sound like to Eduardo? Is he nervous and chews on his inner cheek to the point where blood trickles onto his tongue? Drag us deeper into the scene by forcing us into that Bronco.

Clarity

We never want the reader to wonder who’s speaking. An easy way to fix this is to move the dialogue up to the cue.

So, instead of this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Try this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster. “This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest. We just gotta push him.”

Or simply substitute “Eduardo” for “he.”

This raises another issue, though.

Would Eduardo really notice the sunlight gleaming off his gun as he’s holstering the weapon? Not likely. Remember Jim’s #2 tip: Dialogue Should Reveal Character. What I’m sayin’ is, you need a better opening line. We’ve discussed first lines many times on the Kill Zone. Check out this post or this one. For scene structure tips, see Jim’s Sunday post.

I better stop there. All in all, I think Brave Writer did an excellent job. The characters are real and three-dimensional, the tone is dark and pensive, and the dialogue keeps the scene active. I’d definitely turn the page.

The question is, do you agree? How many of you would turn the page to find out what happens next? What did you like most? How might you improve this first page even more?

9+

Where Am I? — First Page Critique

By SUE COLETTA

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. I’ll catch ya on the flipside. Enjoy!

TITLE: Sonbgird

chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building. Below me, the slow curve of it swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below. Above me, it changed into a skyscraper. The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see. So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt.

Do it. Do it now.

I screamed at myself to move, but my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. Tingling my fingertips as sweat prickled my forehead.

Even if I didn’t believe I could, I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out. But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve on fire. The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast. He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bight brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate hair over her shoulder. It draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

The genre would be fantasy, I think. Full disclosure: this is not my preferred genre. As a reader, I’m drawn to stories that are logical or at least possible (think: The Martian by Andy Weirs). Brave writer, please remember this is one reader’s opinions. Perhaps others will see something I missed.

Let’s look at this opener in more depth. My comments are in bold.

TITLE: Sonbgird I’m guessing this is a typo and you meant to write Songbird, which I liked right away.

Chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. (first two lines drew me in—good job) I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

The previous two sentences I’ve read a gazillion times and I still can’t picture where I am. Is the MC standing in an empty culvert? If so, then how does wind blow his/her hair “up the side of the building”?

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The Sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building (excellent visual). Below me, the slow curve of it (of what, the walls or tunnel? In my mind a tunnel is horizontal, not vertical. If it is a vertical structure and s/he’s looking down into a tunnel-like pit, then you need a better way to set the scene. Also, whenever possible substitute the word “it” for the object) swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below.

“Sand” threw me. I’d assumed we were in a metropolitan area due to the word “tunnel,” so you need to ground the reader to where we are.

Above me, it changed into a skyscraper.

Again, what is “it”? And how did it morph into a skyscraper? Without some context, these details don’t make sense to this reader.

The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see.

That passage reaffirms a metropolitan landscape in my mind. Unless we’re in the desert outside Vegas or somewhere similar. See why it’s important to ground the reader? Don’t make us guess. If we can’t envision the surroundings, how can we fully invest in the story?.

So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt. Those two lines intrigued me. I’m thinking concrete smokestacks. Try adding more sensory details i.e. smoke plumed into an aqua-blue sky, tangoed with a lone cloud, and filled my sinuses with burnt ashes of sulfur (or somebody’s dearly departed — kidding. 😉 ) 

Do it. Do it now. Nice. I can feel the urgency.

I screamed at myself for my feet to move, but they wouldn’t comply my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. (try to decrease the sentences that begin with “I” while remaining in a deep POV). A cold rush of panic washed over me, tingling my fingertips, as sweat prickling my forehead (changed to show how to play with rhythm to create a more visceral experience. Just a suggestion. Your call on whether to keep it).

Even if I didn’t believe I could (could what? You’re trying too hard to be mysterious), I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair. This I like. It’s mysterious yet, as a reader, I don’t feel cheated—nicely done.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out (good visuals here). But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve was on fire (removed “I felt” to stay in deep POV). The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I still say the MC is in a horizontal culvert that’s hanging over a cliff of some sort. Regardless, please make it clear where we’re at. I shouldn’t still be guessing.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited. Whoa. The MC burst into flames?

I red-highlighted all the sentences that begin with “I” to make you aware of them. If this is intentional, and it may be, then fine, but be careful of overdoing it. Too many in a row can work against us.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast (this is a great way to weave in a tidbit of backstory). He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bright brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. This is a nit: whenever I read “eyes” instead of “gaze” in this context I think of disembodied eyeballs. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate-colored (added “-colored” so the reader doesn’t imagine real chocolate like I did on the first read-through. Some descriptive words are like that. Or choose a different way to describe the color i.e. deep brown) hair over her shoulder. It (Strands instead of “it”) draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

The first line indicates she has long flowing hair, then we find out she’s wearing a braid. Give us one solid image. When we’re not clear right away it causes confusion.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your work to TKZ. It’s been a pleasure critiquing this first page. I hope you found it useful.

Over to you, my beloved TKZers! Please add helpful suggestions for this brave writer.

3+

First Page Critique (sort of): The Writer I Was

Photo of me by the late poet Glenn McKee, whom I met at the workshop.

juvenilia (plural noun) : compositions produced in the artist’s or author’s youth.

When: Early August, 1989

Where: The Appalachian Writer’s Workshop, Hindman Settlement School, Hindman, Kentucky

Who: Your Faithful Correspondent

Weather Report: Hot and humid Kentucky summer, not a lick of rain

I’d been writing fiction for about two years. Maybe not even that long. Looking at the definition of juvenilia, it would seem hardly to apply to what I was writing then, as I was twenty-seven years old. Not seventeen, or even twelve. But when we talk about writers of any age, their earliest work is referred to as their juvenilia.

Fully employed, but terminally broke, I wanted to combine a cheap vacation with a writer’s workshop. The Appalachian Writer’s Workshop was pretty much the cheapest out there, with the added bonus that Eastern Kentucky was The Land of My People. Though I didn’t actually know anyone there. That didn’t seem a bad thing to me, as I was shy about my writing.

I signed up for the fiction workshop. That worked out well for me because the instructor was named Pinckney Benedict, and now my name is Laura Benedict, and we’ll be married thirty years in July. But I digress.

The workshop was obviously everything I’d hoped for—and more. Now I wish I still had the story manuscript (we’re talking maybe ten pages) that Pinckney enthusiastically commented on. But here’s the thing about juvenilia for most writers: it’s embarrassing. Sure, when I was eighteen, it wasn’t long after I’d accidentally seasoned my from-scratch spaghetti sauce with celery seed instead of oregano that I could laugh about it. The same wasn’t true for my early writing. There’s a video (vhs no doubt) of me reading my work to the Hindman crowd that someone (thoughtfully?) sent us after Pinckney and I married. Mortifying! Even two decades later I threw out the printed pages of my two practice novels, The Disappearing and Skin Hunger (which I still think is a brilliant title, even though someone used it about ten years ago as a YA title).

We are currently deep into a house renovation due to an early fall plumbing disaster. I discovered a box on the top mud room shelf that was full of surprises from our early years. Among them was a story that another Hindman instructor kindly commented on in exchange for a ride from Hindman to the airport in Lexington.

It’s the only story I have from those very early days, and I warn you: it’s not good. It might even be funny-as-hell not good.

I thought it would be fun if I put it up as a First Page Critique. At first I planned to critique it myself, then let you all have at it. Then I decided that I would probably do a critique that would end up ten pages long, and less than thoughtful. Seriously, I practically have to tie my hands behind my back to keep myself from pointing out the first fifty things I see wrong with it.

All this is to say that it takes a lot of writing to become a writer with eight published novels and a couple of collections’ worth of short stories. I’ve been unpublished, and I’ve been a step below amateur, and I’ve been wildly, unabashedly not so good.

Take a few minutes, if you will, to read the beginning of “The View From the Woods.” What criticism could you offer its newbie writer? I’m curious to know if you see the same things I do. I’m so far from this story that it feels like it was written by someone else, so zero worries about my feelings. Or if critiquing isn’t your sort of thing, tell us how you approach your own juvenilia.

[Update, written just after I typed in the excerpt that follows: There’s a dog that has died before the opening of the story. Also, I can’t believe I am offering this up for you all to see. Oh! The melodrama!]

 

The View From the Woods

 

”Mama? Mama, did you hear what I said?” Jerilee screamed into the mouthpiece of the phone. “He shot the dog, Mama. He’s killed Petey!” The valley of silence between Jerilee and the other end of the line was breached by a thousand “I told you so’s”. She paced the cracked linoleum on the kitchen floor, twisting the phone cord around her knuckles as she walked. “Mama, what do I do?” Her voice was a frustrated whine.

”Well, I’d say the first thing you do is bury the dog. He’ll be drawin’ flies in the heat. I’ll send your brother along.”

”No, Mama! I don’t need Will over here!” Jerilee stopped pacing. “I want to take care of it myself. I do.”

”Suit yourself, Jerilee. You’re the one who sounds like she’s dyin’. Now just take a deep breath and calm down,” the older woman ordered.

Jerilee closed her eyes, shutting out the harsh sunlight that poured from the kitchen window.

”Now,” her mother said, “is he gone out of the house?”

”God, yes,” Jerilee answered. “He took his guitar an’ all them stupid dead animals of his.” She looked out at the tiny, towel-covered lump that sat in the middle of the yard. “An’ his guns,” she spat. “He took his guns.”

”You shoulda known better than to get that little dog, Jerilee. Billy Clyde hated that poor thing, always ready to step on it whenever it made a noise. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.”

”Mama, it was a helpless little animal, for Christ sake.” Jerilee was pacing again. The floor creaked under her feet. “The man’s crazy, Mama. What I can’t believe is he didn’t shoot me. He’ll be back. I know he’ll be back.” Jerilee’s anger had erupted into fierce rushes of blood that pounded in her head; the air around her seemed close and tight. The ends of her fingers, wrapped securely with the phone cord, throbbed with pain.

Her mother’s voice continued from the fingerprint-blackened receiver. “Why, good riddance to bad rubbish, I say. You shoulda got rid of him soon as he started steppin’ out with that little redhead from down the drugstore last year. I never can understand why you keep takin’ him back. One day you call me to say he’s gone, and the next day he’s answerin’ the telephone. You just leave the rest of his junk packed up on the front porch.”

 

4+

First Page Critique: The Great German Escape

This is my last blog post for 2019 before we head to our holiday break, and I have a first page critique for a novel entitled The Great German Escape for you to enjoy and provide feedback. My comments follow – as always, thank you for all your great comments and feedback to our brave submitters this year. I think we all learn from these critiques:)

The Great German Escape

As the American army captain exited the front gate on July 2, 1943, Wehrmacht Major Kurt Jaeger’s heart raced. The accountability formation confirmed the presence of eighty-three officers. All recently arrived. All from Rommel’s Afrika Korps. All adjusting to a zoo life existence.

Jaeger’s gaze shifted to the southwest guard tower. Behind it, a thin brown haze curtained the southern horizon. Hanging in front, a makeshift plywood placard branded him a failure. Stomach acid burbled as he read A – 12, B – 2.

Out of the corner of his right eye, he spied the German Commander step forward. The man set two marred futbols on the ground. As his routine, Oberst Heinrich von Richter’s gaze swept left to right first.

Biting the inside of his cheek, Jaeger focused straight ahead. Outside the interwoven wire fence, American soldiers clustered, anticipating the day’s entertainment.

“This morning,” von Richter said. “We demonstrate endurance … resistance … expected by our leaders … our countrymen. This current state is not static … though some of you believe it to be.” Again, his gaze traversed the formation, stopping periodically, then continuing. “War is dynamic. Today’s vanquished … becomes … tomorrow’s victors. Preparedness is imperative.”

More American soldiers appeared, some jostled for a better view. A clamminess broke out on Jaeger skin.

“In combat,” von Richter said, “two critical skills are speed and agility. The footrace I’ve designed test these attributes. Barracks commanders, choose your representative.”

Jaeger read the sign, hesitated, gulped, faced about. Thirty-six pairs of eyes focused on him. Scanning the first rank he spied a thin, leggy Oberluetnant. The man’s gaze averted his. Afraid? The Barracks B leader thought. Stand here and choose a competent winner.

In the second row, a lithe Hauptmann puffed his chest out, his head nodding left.

Another movement captured Jaeger’s attention. His counterpart, Major Heinrich Weiss, Barracks A, stood in the middle of his platoon, talking to a soldier.

“We ain’t gots all day,” an American shouted. A ripple of laughter emitted from their side of the fence.

Weiss tapped the man’s shoulder, and they moved up front.

Jaeger studied the man next to the twitching Hauptmann.  “Luetnant Fogel, step forward.”

Eyes wide, the man blurted, “Herr Major, I’m no runner.”

Jaeger’s stomach acid roiled. To change his decision would suggest him weak, indecisive. Through clenched teeth, he said, “Do not shame us. Run the race.”

My comments:

Overall

I enjoyed this first page and can definitely see, from both the title and first scene, this turning into a great war-time adventure novel, focusing on the German experience (and escape I assume from the POW camp). However, I do think this first page could benefit from some overall revision, as well as some minor tweaks to address specific concerns.

First, I think this first page would benefit from additional description/sensory details to help firmly establish both the setting and the main characters. A first page should ground a reader with a sense of place and introduce enough details regarding the main character to get a reader invested – so far this page is almost there, but not quite. I also think that some tweaks to the dialogue would help. I’ve provided my advice on these overall comments below:

Grounding setting and characters:

I felt like there were a lot of names and specifics but, despite these, I found it hard to visualize the scene or get invested in the characters. In terms of characters, just in this first page we have five characters identified by name: Wehrmacht Major Kurt Jaeger, Oberst Heinrich von Richter, Major Heinrich Weiss, as well as an Oberluetnant (unnamed) and a German soldier called Hauptmann – that’s a lot for a reader to digest, especially as, at this stage, the reader doesn’t know who is going to be a major or minor character (apart from Jaeger, who I’m assuming is the main protagonist).

Despite all the names, we get only a a few visual cues so it’s hard (for me at least) to visualize all these people, or to know who is likely to become crucial to the plot. My recommendation would be to cut down on the names/titles at this early stage so the reader can concentrate, and become invested in, a key character from the get go.

Likewise, although we get specifics like the date (July 2, 1943), barrack numbers (A – 12, B – 2.) and some hints as to composition of the POW camp (All from Rommel’s Afrika Korps), apart from a vague reference to a ‘thin brown haze’ on the horizon, I can’t really visualize the camp. Where are we? Europe? North Africa? Given the Americans are in charge of the POW camp it’s important for me to understand the greater context – were the Germans captured after a particular battle or American victory? How long has Jaeger been at the camp? Why is this competition/race so important to him (and it doesn’t make a lot of sense, given his stress levels, why he would chose a random soldier who isn’t a runner – surely, for something this important, Jaeger would have been better prepared??)

In addition, I think some further background on Jaeger on this first page would help establish his motivation and character. I was a little confused by: ‘Hanging in front, a makeshift plywood placard branded him a failure’- – I’m assuming he feels a failure because he was captured but then I wasn’t sure why his ‘stomach acid burbled’ as he saw the barrack numbers. Has his barrack lost previous races? The more we know what’s at stake here, the more we can be invested in both Jaeger as a character and the outcome of the race.

Dialogue

I wasn’t completely sure why von Richter’s speech seemed so disjointed but I found it  distracting and it confused me as his words didn’t seem to match the ‘entertainment’ that was being organized (namely a race between the barracks). If there is a hidden meaning or wider implications of his speech I think we need more context to understand this.

Other specific comments.

I also had a few smaller, more specific ,comments about elements in this first page that I found distracting or confusing. These are easily rectified but important nonetheless.

  • The number of times left and right identified was distracting: Just in one page we have ‘out of the corner of his right eye, he spied the German Commander’ followed by ‘Oberst Heinrich von Richter’s gaze swept left to right first’ and then ‘Hauptmann puffed his chest out, his head nodding left’. For me this was too repetitive on one page.
  • I was confused why the ‘two marred futbols’ were placed out for a running race – at first I thought there was going to be a football match between the barracks or between the Germans and the Americans.
  • Using specific numbers became distracting: eighty-three officers; thirty-six pairs of eyes…I started trying to do the math as to how many people were there when I should have been focusing on characters and plot.
  • “We ain’t gots all day,” an American shouted – I assuming this was supposed to be “We ain’t got all day.” Be careful of even small typos like this on your first page.

As you can see from my comments, I think this page would benefit from further revision – but the key elements are there. A race in a German POW camp where there is clearly more at stake than the reader first believes – with some revisions, I think this first page could create some great tension to get this story off and running! (Pardon the pun!)

So TKZers what advice would you offer our brave submitter?

2+

Keys Ways to Begin A Story – First Page Critique: The Young Lieutenant’s Dog

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

National Archives and Records Administration [Public domain]

One of my last First Page Critiques for 2019 and of course it is about a dog. Please enjoy this anonymous submission for your consideration – The Young Lieutenant’s Dog. My feedback will be on the flip side, after my thoughts on book introductions.

***

The history of humanity is held in the fragile palm of our stories. When they are lost, a part of us leaves with them. Perhaps that is why, even as a young child, I treasured the stories my father told us. Although a born raconteur he was, however, oddly reticent to discuss the most dramatic story of his life: his role in WWII.

With an older brother and sister on the cusp of adolescence and I still engrossed in childhood, we were too young to understand the brutality of war. Thus intrigued and naive, we cajoled him mercilessly to tell us about his life in the army during those years, especially when the tales spoke of life-and-death adventures.

Unlike his other stories, which were invariably charismatic and often humorous, those from the war were meant to serve, like Aesop’s Fables, as a moral lesson for his children to learn. I didn’t grasp this until many years later when it was too late and my father was gone, felled by a heart attack. By then, the stories he’d told were either forgotten or punctured with holes, the remaining threads barely clinging to our fragile childhood memories. But one remains, fixed with absolute clarity as if it had been related just moments ago.

I always assumed that I remembered this one because it was about a dog. But, of course, it was much more than that.

In light of the horrendous events of WWII, many have forgotten that in the early years of the war, the United States stood staunchly isolationist. Our country was still struggling to recover from WWI and a cascading depression. On September 3, 1939, Great Britain declared war on Germany. Our President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his staff, watched with mounting concern the steady onslaught of Hitler’s armies and knew that it was not a question of “if” the United States would enter the war, but “when.”

***

Keys Ways to Begin a Story

There are many techniques to begin a novel – from an intriguing first line that triggers questions in the reader’s mind, to the paragraphs that draw the reader into a mystery or suspenseful action or a compelling story.

A good hook gets to the point quickly to raise a question or shock the reader into reading on. If a story begins in the voice of a narrator, that voice must be intriguing from the start. Successful openings raise unanswered questions or they describe intriguing actions/events or they highlight odd or troubling scenarios of intrigue or suspense.

Here’s a few types of intriguing opening lines:

1.) Teaser Line:

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” Jeffrey Eugenides – Middlesex

2.) Autobiography

“Whether I turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Charles Dickens – David Copperfield

3.) Dialogue

“‘Where’s papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” E. B. White – Charlotte’s Web

4.) Announcer/Omniscient POV

“The year 1866 was signalized by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten.” Jules Verne – Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

5.) Scene Setting

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

The Next Paragraphs – Following a solid first line or a quick and compelling intro, the next paragraphs must draw the reader deeper into the story with more questions. This is where storytelling comes in and patience. Make the reader ask, “Who? What? When? Where? Why?” Think about an interesting, seemingly unimportant detail of a character or setting that can become symbolic to your story’s larger themes. In the case of our story for submission, that detail is brilliantly the dog.

No matter how great the first line is, if the paragraphs that follow don’t draw the reader deeper into the story, that great opening is deflated and reads like a gimmick.

Below is an example of an intriguing opening line from Paula Hawkins – The Girl on the Train, followed by paragraphs that draw a reader into the story as questions are raised by the author.

Excerpt

She’s buried beneath a silver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn. Not more than a little pile of stones, really. I didn’t want to draw attention to her resting place, but I couldn’t leave her without remembrance. She’ll sleep peacefully there, no one to disturb her, no sounds but birdsong and the rumble of passing trains.

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One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl . . . Three for a girl. I’m stuck on three, I just can’t get any further. My head is thick with sounds, my mouth thick with blood. Three for a girl. I can hear the magpies—they’re laughing, mocking me, a raucous cackling. A tiding. Bad tidings. I can see them now, black against the sun. Not the birds, something else. Someone’s coming. Someone is speaking to me. Now look. Look what you made me do.

This introduction leads into a morning where the reader meets the narrator – Rachel. It’s a short intro written with patience that raises lots of questions and paints a mystery in the reader’s mind. There are ominous visuals like a secret grave, the disturbing rumble of passing trains, the muddled mind of the narrator, and the bad tidings of magpies. There’s no real action, but since the intro is short and very much to the point, without diversions into backstory, this opening works well.

FEEDBACK

My notion of critiquing is to provide feedback that’s in keeping with the essence of the story the author submitted. I don’t want to rewrite lines as much as I want to give a 30,000 ft view of the overall beginning and analyze it for impact.

I liked what the author submitted. It was well-written and unfolded a story I would be curious to read, but I wanted to provide an alternative way to take the essence of this story and reorganize it to tell a tighter narrative. I truly want to know about this man and his dog story. I also like the title. It hints at the mystery of the story. Who doesn’t love a dog in wartime story? There are so many ways to parallel the innocence of a dog with the horrors of war and the potential for the redemption of humanity through the eyes of man’s best friend.

My thoughts, without knowing where this story is going, is to intrigue the reader’s mind with questions about the mystery. I also love stories that start in the present, but delve into the past for answers to a mystery. Hence, the ending that implies a grown child had been intrigued enough to dig into his father’s most memorable story to uncover the truth. That definitely would hook me. Why is the dog story the one this narrator couldn’t forget? How will the mystery unfold? Whose life will be changed by the reveal? What’s the journey of this book? The author has teased us with a wonderful mystery with lots of promise. Kudos.

Tighter Narrative for Mystery Setup

Although a born raconteur, my father was oddly reticent to discuss the most dramatic story of his life: his role in WWII. His tales of life-and-death adventures in the army became an enticing mystery for my brother, sister and I, as curious children. His stories from the war held even more significance after he died of a heart attack years later. After we realized his stories were meant to serve as moral life lessons for his children to learn–like Aesop’s fables–they became a message from the grave that kept him alive in our minds.

One treasured story remained, fixed with absolute clarity as if it had been related moments ago. I never forgot it and always assumed that I remembered this one because it was about a dog. But, of course, it became much more than that–after I uncovered the truth.

As rewritten, this rearranges the original submission to a first line I thought held a particular mystery to pique the attention of any reader. It focused on a story-telling father who played a particular role in WWII that he held back. Why? What role?

I then picked out a tighter narrative with a flow that is more direct and leads quickly to the point of the introduction – to set up the mystery of the dog. I added my own interpretation of the narrator uncovering a truth about the story so the reader gets hooked faster. I also chose to leave out the history lesson in the last paragraph. After the author has the reader focused on a mystery about a dog during wartime, the back story deflates the mystery and slows the pace. That morsel could be saved for later, along with the character development of the surviving children.

As written, this story may leap back into the war to tell the story of a young Lieutenant’s dog. That’s fine too, but if that’s true, why begin with a child’s memory and a son as a narrator? I made an assumption that this story will be woven between the past and the present. I don’t have enough to go on with the first 400 words, but my intention is to show an alternative intro that perhaps is more complicated by weaving in a mystery that straddles the line between past and present.

This story could be like Bridges of Madison County where surviving children uncover a mystery in the life of a deceased parent and the story unravels that truth. That’s my assumption.

The rewrite is similar to the Paula Hawkins excerpt for The Girl on the Train. It’s laser focused on the essence of the story and creates questions in the reader’s mind, before it starts telling the actual story through the eyes of the storyteller.

DISCUSSION:

Please provide your constructive criticism of this compelling submission, TKZers. How do you see this story unfolding?

 

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Whose Story Is it? First Page Critique: Sunny Days Ahead

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Wikimedia Commons

I feel for Charlie in this story opener when he makes a phone call that risked his pride and ego. Join me in reading this 400 word opening and providing constructive criticism in your comments. I’ll have my comments below.

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Charlie examined the slip of paper and wondered if he had been set up. It could have been some random set of digits she pulled out of her head? That shit happened once before and it ended up being the number for Dial A Prayer.

Charlie fed the payphone, and the muscles in his neck tightened as he dialed. He recalled the cute turned-up nose, dimples, and full pouty lips of the girl at the concert. He struggled to believe he’d worked up enough nerve to ask for her number and was suspicious of the ease with which she gave it to him.

Finally, the first ring sounded. He waited for someone to pick up, but took a breath when he realized no one answers on the first ring.

The second came, and his stomach rumbled.

As the third arrived, hope began to fade.

After the fourth, he relaxed, thinking either she wasn’t at home, or his suspicions were true. Then, a click, and there came the smooth, soft, voice of a sleepy angel.

“Hello.”

“Hi, this is the guy who sat behind you at the concert. I hope you remember me. Anyway, I only have a couple of minutes to impress you. So, here goes. I think you may well be the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen in my life. I got my own place. I like every kind of music there is except opera. Dogs love me, and oh, I don’t remember if I mentioned this, but I think you are, without a doubt, the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen. Okay, how am I doing so far?” It felt like a year-long silence as he waited for her response.

“Well, Dude, you are most definitely full of shit. And that’s okay. On good days so am I. Of course, I remember you. And I’ve been hoping you’d call.”

“No shit, really. Why? I mean, wow. That’s great.”

Sonny, paused. I felt your eyes on me in the concert and when I turned around everyone in the audience was scoping out what was happing on the stage. But you were looking straight at me with the sweatiest smile. That’s what made me remember you.

“And dude, If I’m the prettiest girl you’ve ever seen, you need to work on your social life.”

“Yeah, that’s sort of why I’m calling. Oh, and I’m Charlie Anderson. What’s your name?”

“It’s Sonny, Sonny Makenzie.”

FEEDBACK

All the typos were obstacles to me truly enjoying this anonymous submission. Even the last line and name of a main character is misspelled. More misspellings: happing & sweatiest. Editing 400 words for clean copy is the least an author should do to make it harder for an editor or agent from rejecting the story right away. Enough said. Let’s get to the substance.

Overall Impression – I liked the first line where Charlie hints of a set up. That got my attention. The tension was quickly diffused by the revelation that Charlie is calling a girl, so I didn’t mind that this wasn’t about a crime. I thought Charlie was charming and I could relate to the risk he took.

General Questions – Charlie is using a payphone? In a technical age, why doesn’t he have a cell? If this is a retro story line, that should be tagged at the beginning to ground the reader in another decade. Plus, is ‘Dial A Prayer’ still in existence? I queried on the Internet and only found a reference to a 2015 movie. Charlie mentions that a girl had slipped him a ‘Dial A Prayer’ number, but wouldn’t that have to be an 800# since that’s a national service? If a girl slipped him a phone number that starts with 800, that should’ve been a clue. These details kept me from getting fully engaged, beyond Charlie’s story.

Setting – Where is the setting? What is Charlie doing as he makes a call from an old payphone? World building is important. Did he slip away from his apartment to make a call from a public phone? What city or town? What can be shared about Charlie? This feels like a stripped down first draft without depth. The bones might be here, but it needs more.

To help an author realize what layers are missing, I like to ask open ended questions to trigger ideas from the author. Questions like: Where is Charlie? Can the weather add tension or mystery to the scene? Does Charlie have money? Does Sonny? Can their clothes give insight into their lives? What other open ended questions would you ask, TKZers?

Add More Tension & Build Up – The long dialogue line where Charlie tries to charm Sonny with “Hi, this is the guy who…” is long and the reader might lose interest or the build up could be better. I would suggest the author break up Charlie’s lines with how he reacts as the tension builds. When he hears nothing on the other end of the line, he keeps talking. We’ve all gone through phone calls like this. Make the reader feel his mounting doubts and the risk he finally takes to spill his guts.

Rewrite Example:

“Hi, this is the guy who sat behind you at the concert. I hope you remember me.”

The girl left him hanging and didn’t bail him out. Dead silence. Charlie decided to keep talking and go for it. He had to bring his A-game, whatever that is.

“Anyway, I only have a couple of minutes to impress you. So, here goes.” He swallowed and took a deep breath.

“I think you may well be the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen in my life.” What a tool. You sound lame, Charlie. Give her your best stuff. Go for it.

He pictured her mesmerizing blue eyes staring at him and how lights from the stage last night had played on her blond hair. Don’t sound like a stalker, asshole.

“I got my own place. I like every kind of music there is except opera. Dogs love me, and oh, I don’t remember if I mentioned this, but I think you are, without a doubt, the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen. Okay, how am I doing so far?”

It felt like a year-long silence as he waited for her response.

Point of View Shift – Before this scene ends, Sonny’s Point of View (POV) interrupts Charlie’s moment. I found this jarring and editors and agents would see this as head hopping. Sonny hints that she might have an ulterior motive to giving her number to Charlie. As a general rule of thumb, I write each scene using one POV. I tend to pick the character with the most to lose or the most emotion. To revise this intro, I like Charlie’s vulnerability for the start, but then create a scene break and shift to Sonny’s POV to draw the reader into her mystery. But when you jumble both together, you lose the impact for both.

First Person Shifts to Sonny – Another craft issue is that when the POV shifts to Sonny, the tense changed to first person. A whole book of this will confuse the reader, especially if, within scenes, Sonny starts speaking in first person in the middle of Charlie’s third person.

HERE is the POV shift to SonnySonny, paused. I felt your eyes on me in the concert and when I turned around everyone in the audience was scoping out what was happing on the stage. But you were looking straight at me with the sweatiest smile. That’s what made me remember you.

As I’ve suggested, the author might consider staying with Charlie’s third person POV as the intro, because he is relatable and vulnerable and there’s a mystery for readers to get into. End his first scene, then pick up Sonny on the other end of the line. What is she doing? What has Charlie interrupted? I often have fun with a simple outsider person calling my protagonist and they talk as if it’s a normal call, but I clue the reader in on what my protag is doing – like killing someone, or cleaning up blood.

Title – ‘Sunny Days Ahead’ needs work as a title. There’s nothing intriguing about it and no mystery.

SUMMARY – I look forward to seeing other comments and opinions on Sunny Days Ahead. For me, I might want to read the book jacket to see what this story is about. I like Charlie, but this intro needs filling out. Sonny holds promise in my mind, but nothing here tells me that. It’s my hope. Thanks for your interesting submission, anonymous. You have bones to build on here. I hope my feedback and the comments from our members will stir your imagination to fill out this story. Good luck.

DISCUSSION

Feedback comments, TKZers? Would you read on?

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