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.

#

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.

***

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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First Page Critique: The Master’s Inn

Today, I’m reviewing the first page of a woman’s fiction novel entitled The Master’s Inn. My comments follow – looking forward to getting input from this great TKZ community and bravo to our brave submitter!

The Master’s Inn

“Mom! Where’s my iPad?” Joanie bellowed.

Susan Brown, downstairs in her newly remodeled dining room in Sandpoint, Idaho, ignored the stomping noises overhead and her fourteen year old daughter’s frantic voice.

It sounds like a bull moose on the rampage up there.

Staccato stomping was followed by Joanie’s voice floating down the stairs as she talked to herself. She used every foul word in her teenage vocabulary—loud enough for Susan to hear. Something else to confront.

She shook her head in exasperation and reviewed the contents of her garment bag once again—no mistakes this time. Two other bags were packed and strapped by the front door. She wanted to surprise Bill by being ready to go on time tomorrow. He was a stickler for schedules and sometimes lashed out at any bump in his plan.

She hummed to herself as she scanned her list for the third time. As usual, she’d packed too much.  But she hadn’t been able to decide what to bring. She’d whittled it down to two evening and three day outfits she could mix and match.

She tucked everything neatly into the bag and made sure the clothing was tightly strapped. It wouldn’t do to have wrinkled blouses—although the venue hotel in Las Vegas offered full valet service. Nothing but the best for Bill.

She lined up the bags by the front door where he would see them when he came home, then returned to the dining room and grabbed a clean microfiber cloth she kept handy and wiped the table where she’d had her bag. Bill had a critical eye—he would notice a blemish on the expensive table.

She stretched and looked at her watch. He would be home from his meeting soon.

She looked forward to the long weekend—only her and Bill. The one thing she didn’t look forward to was watching him compare her to the glamorous women they’d see on the stages and in the restaurants. She’d never had any reason to question his loyalty, but she knew—after all these years—that she didn’t measure up. She’d lost her petite figure and the glow had faded from her complexion.

She walked back out to the entry hall and looked at herself in the elegant full-length mirror outside the dining room. Her face turned red at what she saw.

Pudgy. That’s the word.  

Overall Comments

I liked how, as I continued to read this first page, the tension over Bill slowly began to build until the reader realizes just how much Susan is in his thrall, and how terrified she is of disappointing and angering him. That being said, I think that the dramatic tension could have been ramped up even more, so as to place the reader right at the moment Bill comes home. In some ways we get too much of her anticipation of what might happen if she doesn’t have everything exactly right for him and not enough actual conflict. Even the tension with her daughter is remote (just hearing her upstairs, rather than being engaged in an argument with her). I also wanted to know where her daughter figured in the upcoming trip – is she going with them or going to a friend’s place? Is Bill her step-father or just her mother’s boyfriend (and how does her daughter view Bill’s controlling nature?). I wanted a little more of this backstory to become invested in the characters and a little less about the house or the contents of the bags.

One thing I did ponder was whether Susan was going to be an unreliable narrator or if Bill really was as controlling as she made him out to be. As a reader I was torn between empathizing with her and being frustrated that she was so worried about satisfying his need for order and control. Given that the novel is described as women’s fiction, I wasn’t sure if there was going to be a suspense or mystery aspect to the story – but I have to say I already hope Bill gets what’s coming to him:)

Specific Comments

  • There was some repetition of words like ‘stomping’ and ‘strapped’ which was distracting and, as I looked down the page, 7 paragraphs all began with the word ‘She’. Although this might seem pedantic, it’s important to vary sentences so as not to appear repetitious or sloppy.
  • I also noticed that, apart from Susan’s inner monologue and preoccupation with her appearance, we don’t actually get any description of her which made it hard for me to picture her in my mind.
  • Although the descriptions of the house suggest a measure of wealth – expensive table, elegant full-length mirror, and remodeled dining room for example – the reader doesn’t actually get any specific descriptions to help visualize the scene. I would have liked a more sensory exploration of the house so I could imagine Susan in it (the glint of polish, the smell of cleaning spray etc.) as well as specifics that could be telling (such as the brand of bags, clothing etc.)
  • Finally, the title of the book, The Master’s Inn, seemed a little incongruous as it evoked more of a historical fiction novel in my mind.

So TKZers what additional comments or feedback would you give our brave submitter?

 

 

 

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How To Invest Readers in Your Story: First Page Critique

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer has shared his/her first page for critique. Enjoy! My notes will follow.

Traders Market

Blowing up a house with five people inside wasn’t the best way to slip out of town unnoticed.

Heart pounding, hands shaking, knowing she should be gone, Emelia Lopez watched through the stockade fence two houses down, mesmerized by the inferno. She pushed the other thought away when she heard the first sirens, and pushed herself into motion.

Keep to the plan, Nick said.

Staying in the deep shadows cast by the fire, she moved steadily down the alley, around a corner, merging into a crowd of gawkers spilling out of a bar.

“It had to be a gas explosion…”

“Was it a house?”

Another boom, another explosion.

“Holy shit! What is it?”

“Your wife blew up your boat. You better go home.”

Laughing, untouched by whatever it was, they began drifting back inside to get another round.

Emelia moved away, her lumpy figure in its baggy dress and sweatshirt unnoticed, one of hundreds like her in the neighborhood.

The second explosion?

Couldn’t think about it now.

A few blocks later, lights from the bus station beckoned. She pulled up her hood and grasped the key in her gloved hand. Inside, no one was paying any attention to the explosion. Too far away. Sirens were common. She put her head down and made herself shuffle to a locker, key ready. She pulled out a large duffle bag, closed the door, left the key in the lock, crossed the few feet into the restroom.

The biggest stall was open, the one with the changing table. Inside, she pulled the table down and began emptying the duffel.

Twenty minutes later, when she was sure she was alone, she came out, stuffed the refilled duffle into the trash can under the counter, slipped a carry-on bag over her shoulder, and checked herself in the mirrors. She smoothed her slim skirt and straightened the matching jacket, tested her ankles in the spike heels, and readjusted the red wig that completed her transformation into Emma Baxter, a Baltimore, Maryland wife and mother, who wouldn’t discover her passport was missing until long after it was discarded in a trash can in Amsterdam.

Emma straightened and strode purposefully out of the restroom, out of the bus station, and climbed into a waiting cab. Gave directions. Checked her phone. Nothing from Nick.

Follow the plan.

She closed her eyes, and the thought came.

Dear God. I’m a murderer.

This first page has so much promise. Anon did lose me a few times, though. So, let’s see if we can make things a bit clearer for the reader. Below is the first page with my notes.

Traders Market (I don’t have enough info. to comment on the title)

Blowing up a house with five people inside wasn’t the best way to slip out of town unnoticed. (Awesome first line!)

Heart pounding, hands shaking, knowing she should be gone, (one clause too many) Emelia Lopez watched (use a stronger verb here: peered, stared, gaped?) through the stockade fence two houses down, mesmerized by the inferno (Nice!). She pushed the other thought away when she heard the first sirens, and pushed herself into motion.

Any time you use words like thought, heard, saw, considered, etc., you’re telling the action rather than showing it. Rearrange the above sentence to avoid that.

Example: When the first siren squealed, a spike of adrenaline shot through Emelia and she shoved off the fencepost. Sprinting toward the bus station (added to show the reader a destination), Nick’s words echoed through her mind. Keep to the plan. Easy for him to say. He wasn’t the one out here in the dark (added to weave in some personality).

Keep to the plan, Nick said. 

Staying in the deep shadows cast by the fire, she [Emelia] moved steadily down the alley, around a corner, merging into a crowd of gawkers spilling out of a bar. Very good. Don’t believe the advice that all gerunds are bad. They can be effective tools. Here, you’ve created emotional rhythm, which works for this particular reader.

“It had to be a gas explosion…” Who’s speaking? If it’s a bar patron, then please briefly describe the character so we can visualize the scene. Even something simple like: a bleach-blonde cougar in a leopard-print blouse.

“Was it a house?” Here, too.

Another boom, another explosion. Meh. It’s a little underwhelming, but it gets the job done. I’d rather see Emelia stop short when the earth shakes beneath her sensible shoes—in other words, show vs. tell.

“Holy shit! What is it?” I have no idea whose dialogue this is, either.

“Your wife blew up your boat. You better go home.” Here, too. Show us who this is.

Laughing, untouched by whatever it was, they began drifting back inside to get another round. Who are “they”? Show us! Also, since you’re not in their heads, you can’t know that they’re “untouched” by anything. You can show disinterest, but you cannot tell us they’re untouched. You also can’t know they’re going inside for another round. The protagonist can presume they are, but then you need to make that clear. For more on writing in deep POV, read this first page critique.

Emelia moved away (backed away? From what?), her lumpy figure in its baggy dress and sweatshirt unnoticed (Here again, you’ve slipped out of Emelia’s POV. Emelia wouldn’t think of herself of having a lumpy figure, would she? Most women would never use that term to describe themselves. By choosing Emelia’s POV, you, the writer, have effectively slipped inside her skin. You are Emelia while writing this scene). one of hundreds like her in the neighborhood.

On my second read-through I discovered that you might be referring to padding inside her disguise. If that’s true, then show us how itchy the material is or the padding lumping together. But you need to clue in your reader to what’s going on. Most readers won’t take the time to go back and reread the first page. See what I’m saying? Nailing an effective POV is one of the more difficult craft elements to master, but it’s crucial that you do. I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have. 

The second explosion? Couldn’t think about it now. (Nice. I just moved her response up a line.)

A few blocks later, lights from the bus station beckoned (beckoned what? beckoned her closer?). She [Emelia] pulled up her hood and grasped the key in her gloved hand (key? Where’d it come from?). Inside, no one was paying any attention to the explosion (don’t tell us; show us. Inside the station five fat guys guzzling Budweisers huddled around a black-and-white television with a tinfoil antenna. Monday night football—perfect timing). Too far away (Maybe the explosion was too far away? Not sure how they missed the sirens, though they weren’t uncommon around here). Sirens were common. She put her head down and made herself shuffle to a locker, key ready (Head down, Emelia shuffled to a row of lockers, stacked two high).

Side note: show Emelia searching for the right locker number to drag out the suspense, show her excitement over finding the duffle bag (or her devastation when the locker’s empty), show her hand tremble as she drags the duffle bag off the metal shelf, careful not to make a sound. Or maybe the zipper scratches the metal and draws unwanted attention from a security guard. See all the ways to create conflict? The possibilities are endless. Don’t make things too easy for Emelia. Your protagonist needs to stumble, fall, get back up and move forward, stumble again…that’s how we humanize her into a flesh-and-blood character.

She pulled out a large duffle bag, closed the door, left the key in the lock, crossed the few feet into the restroom.

The biggest stall was open (that’s convenient; maybe too convenient? Something to think about.), the one with the changing table. Inside, she pulled the table down and began emptied the duffel.

Twenty minutes later, when she was sure she was alone (why is she certain she’s alone? Did she peek out a crack in the door? Did she press her ear to the door as footfalls trailed down the hall? Show us!), she came out, stuffed the refilled (refilled with what?) duffle into the trash can under the counter. [Emelia] slipped a carry-on bag (where did this come from?) over her shoulder, and checked herself in the mirrors. She smoothed her slim skirt and straightened the matching jacket, tested her ankles in the spike heels, and readjusted the red wig that completed her transformation into Emma Baxter, a Baltimore, Maryland wife and mother, who wouldn’t discover her passport was missing until long after it was discarded in a trash can in Amsterdam.

Okay, so, I assume the duffel bag contained all these items. Show us the action as it happens. Don’t make us guess after the fact. Why risk confusing your reader? You did a terrific job of showing us Emelia’s transformation—bravo on that!—so I know you can do it. Yes, it takes more time to show an action, but the payoff is well worth the added work. Every time we draw the reader deeper into the scene they become more invested in the story.

[With her head held high,] Emma straightened and strode purposefully out of the restroom [and slipped right past the drunken footballers who failed to notice her departure. Go Pats! (sorry, couldn’t resist ;-)) At the door to an awaiting cab Emelia hip-checked some business-type dude out of the way and stole his ride. Sucker.]

“Corner of Howser and Jewel Street.” She flashed a fan of bills over the front seat. “There’s an extra twenty in it for you if you get me there in ten minutes.” (Note: I added dialogue to show Emelia giving directions to the cabbie, rather than telling the reader about afterward.) out of the bus station, and climbed into a waiting cab. Gave directions.Checked her phone. Nothing from Nick

[Glancing at her phone, Nick still hadn’t texted.]

Follow the plan.

She closed her eyes, and the thought came. Dear God, I’m a murderer. (This makes me want to flip the page to find out what happens next. Nicely done!)

Brave Writer, I hope I wasn’t too hard on you. If I didn’t see so much promise in this first page, I might be reluctant to bathe your opener in red ink. I want you to succeed, and I know you can. With a little more knuckle grease, this opener could be amazing.

One other thing is worth mentioning. Be careful with run-on sentences. Same goes for staccato sentences. They’re most effective when used sparingly. If used too often, they become a writing tic. 🙂

Over to you, my beloved TKZers. How might you improve this first page?

3+

First Page Critique: Singularity Syndrome

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer has submitted their first page for critique. I’ll see you on the flipside. Enjoy!

Title:  Singularity Syndrome

It was just the kind of case I like. Someone was sipping data from Hurgle’s supposedly leakproof data cloud. Hurgle wasn’t an especially evil corporation—just average evil. So, I didn’t mind taking their coins to send sniffers loose in the data streams. I found the leak and plugged it for good with a worm that trashed the sneak thieves’ servers. They never knew what hit them, and my client and I never knew who they were. But that didn’t matter. They’d be back, or someone else would. The universe holds an infinite number of crackers.

It was 13:06 hours of work by my intelligent agents while me, the Parrot and Altima sat around the warehouse snacking on Chapul bars and fresh water.

Then she called. And reminded me what kind of case I really like.

The call came in on my public comms screen with full voice and video. A woman with long scarlet hair, glossy in the style of years ago. She was beautiful, with lines around her eyes that showed she liked to smile. But not smiling now. Of course not. She wouldn’t be calling me if she had anything to smile about.

“How can I help you?” I’m the Finder, that’s what I do, so it’s obvious. But it helps them to start from the beginning.

“I’m worried about my husband.”

“He’s missing?”

“No.”

“Then what?”

A small crease furrowed her lovely forehead. “His behavior has changed.”

“How so?”

“He’s lost focus.”

“Is he dangerous? Accident prone? I’m not clear why you’ve called me. Why not a psychiatrist?”

“We run a business together. A significant company. He’s got some strange ideas, and they’re impacting our business.”

“If this is some corporate drama, I’m not interested.”

“I know about you.”

“Then you know I don’t care about the corps.”

“Unless it interests you.”

“And why would it?”

“I think his brain has been hacked.”

Okay, she was right. That was interesting. “His brain has been hacked or you just don’t like the way he thinks?”

“I don’t like the way he thinks, but it’s more than that. He’s not thinking the way he used to.”

“People change.”

“Yes, they do.” She let the silence draw out and so did I. I could be silent much longer than most people.

* * *

Excellent first page, Anon! The writing is crisp, exciting, and has an engaging voice. The dialogue is punchy and quick, sounds natural and believable. The MC’s personality shines through. There’s a solid goal and conflict, and you’ve dropped us into the story at an ideal place and time. I liked this opener so much, I wanted to keep reading.

Even without you having to tell the reader, we can assume the MC is male. We also get a good sense of who he is—a highly skilled white hat who works for a government agency in a specialized field (my guess is a cyber-tracker). That’s a lot of information that you subtly infused into this first page without clobbering us over the head with backstory. Well done! His name would be nice, but I’m willing to wait. See what good writing does? It tells the reader we’re in capable hands. If I didn’t learn his name for another ten pages, I’d still be content to go for the ride. Try to slip it in earlier than that, though. 🙂

Let’s see if we can improve this first page even more.

It was just the kind of case I like[d] add the “d” to stay in past tense here. Someone was sipping data from Hurgle’s supposedly leakproof data cloud. Hurgle wasn’t an especially evil corporation—just [an] average evil. So, I didn’t mind taking their coins to send sniffers loose in the data streams. I found the leak and plugged it for good with a worm that trashed the sneak[y] thieves’ servers. They never knew what hit them, and my client and I never knew who they were. But that didn’t matter. They’d be back, or someone else would.

The universe holds an infinite number of crackers. I brought this line down for greater impact; also, because you’ve switched to present tense, which isn’t wrong, btw. In this context, the statement still holds true. 

It was 13:06 hours of work by my intelligent agents while me, the Parrot and Altima [the Parrot, Altima, and I] sat around the warehouse snacking on Chapul bars and fresh water. Use the pronoun “I” when the person speaking is doing the action, either alone or with someone else. Use the pronoun “Me” when the person is receiving the action, either directly or indirectly. — courtesy of Webster’s Ask the Editor

Then she called. And reminded me what kind of case I really like. This line is redundant. Instead, I’d rather see you tease the reader here. I don’t know where you’re going with the story, but perhaps you could add something like: The woman that rocked my world, and not necessarily in a good way.

The call came in on my public comms screen with full voice and video. A woman (if you decide to use something similar to my example above, then change this to [There she sat,] with long scarlet hair, glossy in the style of years ago. She was beautiful, with lines around her eyes that showed she liked to smile (how ‘bout using “laugh” instead of “smile” here to avoid repetition, since you use “smile” at the end of this paragraph?) But not smiling now. Of course not. Not now, of course. (one sentence is tighter than two 🙂 ) She wouldn’t be calling me if she had anything to smile about.

“How can I help you?” I’m the Finder, that’s what I do, so it’s obvious (last part is unnecessary). But it helps them to start from the beginning.

“I’m worried about my husband.”

“He’s missing?”

“No.”

“Then what?” (This seems out-of-character. He’s nice enough to let her “start from the beginning,” yet here he seems agitated. How ‘bout: “Then… I’m not sure why—”)

A small crease furrowed her lovely forehead (normally I’d ding you for “lovely” because it’s a non-visual word, but here, it works to show he’s enamored with the caller). “His behavior has changed.”

“How so?”

“He’s lost focus.”

“Is he dangerous? (why would losing focus automatically make him think “dangerous”? Don’t tell us; you’ll ruin the intrigue. Just give us a hint in the right direction.) Accident prone? I’m not clear why you’ve called me. Why not a psychiatrist?” (I would delete this last question. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it. It just feels… misplaced. *shrug*) 

“We run a business together. A significant company. He’s got some strange ideas, and they’re impacting our business.”

“If this is some corporate drama, I’m not interested.”

I’d love to see her stumble over her words. “It’s not. It’s just that— What I mean is, I know about you.” “I know about you.”

“Then you know I don’t care about the corps.”

“Unless it interests you.”

“Exactly. So, lay it on me. ’Cause as it stands now, I gotta tell ya, so far this sounds like a waste of valuable time and resources.” (I added to the dialogue to increase tension. Your MC is about to hang up when the caller drops a bomb i.e. brain hack) And why would it?”

“I think his brain has been hacked.”

Okay, she was right. That was interesting. (Is a brain hack something that happens every day in your story world? If not, he needs a bigger reaction. Even if it’s as simple as confusion: Whoa. Wait. Huh?) “His brain has been hacked or you just don’t like the way he thinks?”

Both I don’t like the way he thinks, but it’s more than that. He’s not thinking the way he used to.”

(Add a lame half-shrug or another body cue that shows indifference). “People change.”

“Yes, they do.” She let the silence draw out and so did I. I could be silent much longer than most people. (Delete the last line. It adds nothing. How ‘bout something snarky instead? “If she thought she could out-silence me, she obviously didn’t have the first clue about me.”)

All in all, you did a terrific job with this opener, Anon. I really enjoyed it. Be sure to let us know how things progress with your story. So far, I’m intrigued!

Over to you, my beloved TKZers. Would you keep reading? Please add your suggestions/comments of how you might improve this first page. Do you like the title? Why/why not?

 

 

7+

Blue Menace: First Page Critique

Photo credit: Canva.com (author pro access)

Greetings, readers, writers, and population at large. Today we have a first page critique of a futuristic story about a young woman with the colorful name of Diamond Blue. Please read the submission, and my comments, then let our dear writer in on your thoughts.

Working Title: Blue Menace

Diamond Blue scrambled around her small bedroom, grabbing clothes and accessories at random, shoving them in her backpack.

She looked at her wrist. Crap! Ten minutes to get to the ship, and maybe another twenty before the cops figured out what she had done.

In the bathroom, she held the backpack up to her side of the shelf and swiped everything in. She rested the bag on the vanity and pushed at the jumble inside to close the zip. As she finished, she glanced at the mirror – red face, sweaty, and wild-eyed. Oh sure, they’d let her on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.

She splashed water on her flushed face and ran her damp hands over her long sapphire-blue braids.

Deep breaths.

The memory flashed of her best friend, Rina, surrounded by a swarm of armed cops. She shook her head to clear it. If she didn’t get moving, it would all be for nothing.

She turned out of the bathroom, swinging the backpack onto her shoulder, and crossed the living room. She and Rina weren’t messy flatmates, but the remains of yesterday’s hasty planning session was strewn across the coffee table – pizza, wine, chocolate. Diamond grabbed the last few squares of chocolate and popped them into her mouth. Breakfast of champions.

At the front door, she waved her hand over the sensor. It slid across the opening and disappeared into the opposite wall.

Diamond pulled the hood of her sweater over her hair, leaned out and checked the corridor.

Her neighbors in this quadrant of Residential Floor Three liked to start work a little later than most. There was no one around.

Neither was her ride. Of all the times for the damn Sliders to malfunction!

The Sliders, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from the public bays near the core to her location based on the quantum chip in her hand.

The chip! Ahh, she was a class-A idiot!

She slapped at the cuff around her lower left arm to wake it up, and re-ordered the Slider in the name she’d stolen in the early hours of the morning – Rina Cavanaugh.

Somewhere on the Justice floor was a Slider hovering around the booking desk, maybe even outside Rina’s cell if it got that far.

She had less time than she thought.

______________________-

This, dear readers, is an example of a quite accomplished opening to a story. We have immediate action occurring in the midst of some troubling event—that desirable in medias res we so often encourage around here. A well-defined setting: sometime in the technological future. Clear, identifiable characters: Diamond Blue and her flatmate, Rina Cavanaugh, the cops. Interesting nomenclature in the story’s world. And a nearly complete scene that doesn’t lose its focus. Check, check and check.

So let’s look at some details, dear writer.

I like the title, Blue Menace. Evocative, and connected to the main character. While I’m not certain, the title and voice make it sound like it’s a YA story.

Opening line:

“Diamond Blue scrambled around her small bedroom, grabbing clothes and accessories at random, shoving them in her backpack.”

This is a perfectly good opening line for a chapter. I’m less convinced that it is telling enough for a novel. If this is, indeed, a novel, I’d like to see the opening chapter—even just a paragraph– be an event in the obviously chaotic world outside the building (or whatever where Diamond lives is called). It can be in the past, such as the scene where Rina is surrounded, or some apocalyptic event that we will eventually learn about. Make the stakes of the story bigger right off.

“She splashed water on her flushed face and ran her damp hands over her long sapphire-blue braids.”

A couple of commas will make the sentence clearer:

She splashed water on her flushed face, and ran her damp hands over her long, sapphire-blue braids.

You could even lose “-blue.” I don’t think anyone would imagine her hair is made of actual sapphires. Though there are a few sapphire stones of other colors (rubies are technically sapphires), they are typically blue. Then again, it occurs to me that her name is Diamond. Is the sapphire reference intentional?

I admire the way you do the reflection description of Diamond, dear writer. Mirrors can be cliché, but it works.

Quoting a character’s thoughts—

Oh sure, they’d let her on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.”

Using italics to hear a third-person character’s thoughts is fine. But if you’re going to use quotes or italics, you need to treat thoughts like internal dialogue, and use me instead of her, and I instead of she. It should read:

“Oh sure, they’d let me on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.”

When you quote this way, you can make the thoughts sound a little more natural, as in,

Sure. Like they’ll let me on board looking like a crackhead after a five mile run, no problem.”

Later, Damn Sliders. Of course they choose now to screw up!” and Holy crap, I’m an idiot!

A matter of agreement—

“The Sliders, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from the public bays near the core to her location based on the quantum chip in her hand.”

I had to think about this one a moment. I’m assuming individual Sliders are referred to as “a Slider.” If so, the sentence should read:

(Simpler, preferred version. Don’t get caught up in exact locations.) A Slider, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from a public bay closest to the requester’s location based on the quantum chip in their hand.

 Or, The Sliders, simple hover-platforms with t-bars to steer, were supposed to come from the public bays near the core to requesters’ locations based on the quantum chip in their hands.

(I know I use “their” as singular in the first one. According to some, that usage is still under debate. I’ve made the change in my work.)

 “She slapped at the cuff around her lower left arm to wake it up, and re-ordered the Slider in the name she’d stolen in the early hours of the morning – Rina Cavanaugh.

Somewhere on the Justice floor was a Slider hovering around the booking desk, maybe even outside Rina’s cell if it got that far.”

Okay, you’ve got me here, dear writer. I’m lost. Am I supposed to understand that she ordered in her own name originally? If the Slider is supposed to come to her based on the fact that it responds to the chip in her hand, shouldn’t it have located her where she is? What does the cuff have to do with it? I finally understand that Rina is locked up on the Justice floor—good news that she’s not dead—but I don’t get the explanation for the Slider mixup.

Perhaps simply drop the whole mistaken Slider thing, unless it will have an effect on the plot later. If that’s the case, just make it as simple as possible, and put the revelation of Rina’s location somewhere else.

What a great start, dear writer. I would definitely read on.

Have at it, TKZers! What are your thoughts and suggestions?

 

 

4+

First Page Critique: The Purple Door

 

 

(Purchased photo via iStock)

 

Greetings, readers and writers all! It’s First Page Critique time. Please take a few moments to read the submission, and my critique–then share your thoughts and advice in the comments.

THE PURPLE DOOR

CHAPTER ONE

Christina

Thursday, October 1

For the first time since Christina buried the yellow bag, it was time to check in. She was in no shape for it. She hadn’t slept in two days, maybe longer, and the Storm was here.

She stood at one of the windows, the old boarding house creaking in the wind. The Storm poured out of her unwell mind, blurred the pane of glass, blended with the actual, physical storm outside. The leaves on the treetops shook with tethered fury, and lightning splashed over the street. She looked down over the neighborhood, her ceaseless thoughts flowing out into the raindrops watering the ground.

So much had happened in a month, most of it bad. But she’d found something unexpected at the Purple Door. This attic room had become home.

She’d made herself a nest.  Up in this high-raftered roost, working on the mural and listening to her records as loud as she wanted, talking to Adam until the sun came up, this place was her whole world. Everything and everyone she needed was here… and all the little things she didn’t need, she’d buried.

She was going to stay right here. So she had to pass this phone call.

Christina dropped the curtain on her faint reflection in the glass, a flash of long blond hair. She had to be ready. She began to pace, staring into the fathomless black face of her phone until it lit up in her hand:

“DAD”

The name leapt off the screen in all caps, a visual shock. It was a trick she used in order to focus, now that the crazy thoughts her meds used to kill were back in bloom.

She’d buried her pills, and several other problematic artifacts, in little holes around the boarding house. In the back yard, a gauzy yellow bag that used to shimmer in the light was now stuffed with tablets of lithium, lamictal, and clozapine, and sealed underground with three feet of dirt. She was up here without a net.

________

Let’s start this party with a quote from William Howard Taft, 27th President of the United States, and 10thChief Justice of the United States:

Don’t write so that you can be understood, write so that you can’t be misunderstood.

This is a big deal when it comes to writing (or speaking), and it’s uniquely critical when a writer is creating a fictional world for the reader. If the reader feels unbalanced by the prose, or more confused than fascinated, the writer may lose them. Below I’ll discuss how this is relevant.

There’s so very much to like about this submission, The Purple Door.

–Christina is a vibrant protagonist. She’s a person of strong will and motivation.

–Dreamlike imagery

–Precise language

-Compelling portrait of a young woman with brain differences

 

 

“For the first time since Christina buried the yellow bag, it was time to check in. She was in no shape for it. She hadn’t slept in two days, maybe longer, and the Storm was here.

She stood at one of the windows, the old boarding house creaking in the wind. The Storm poured out of her unwell mind, blurred the pane of glass, blended with the actual, physical storm outside. The leaves on the treetops shook with tethered fury, and lightning splashed over the street. She looked down over the neighborhood, her ceaseless thoughts flowing out into the raindrops watering the ground.”

 

The first thing I imagined when I read this opening was that Christina was either a witch or a superhero who was maybe checking in with her handler. I had no clear idea what kind of this story was. Call me overly literal, but I cannot lie.

The second paragraph, about the Storm, definitely has a supernatural feel. Now, I understand that the drug combination at the end of the piece implies that our protagonist has psychiatric issues that present her with some spectacularly trippy, mind-blowing experiences. And there’s room for them in the story. Maybe just not right off the bat. Don’t give the reader dessert before the meal. UNLESS you’re going to start out with a hugely damaging or significant psychotic episode as the novel’s opening gambit. But that’s not happening here.

I’d like to see the piece start out with the bold facts, and resist being coy. Always resist coy.

Suggestion:

Exactly one week ago, Christina had used a rusted hand spade to bury her pills, and other problematic artifacts, in deep holes around the backyard of the boarding house. A gauzy yellow drawstring bag that used to shimmer in the light now lay hidden three feet underground, stuffed with what was left of her lithium, lamictal, and clozapine tablets. They were down there, which meant she was up here, living without a net.

We immediately know who Christina is, and the battle she’s fighting in her brain. It’s a fierce beast. Sure, she has to get by DAD, but he is a secondary foe. No doubt he’s one of many she’ll encounter over the course of the book. The real beast—that brings her both burdens and strange gifts—will be with her all her life.

With that in mind, it’s okay to go on and show us Christina’s current sleepless, exhausted, nervous state. If you’re going to go with a visual of the Storm she experiences as she looks out the window, be straight about it. She knows it’s not real, but she’s also experiencing it. Let the reader know, too.

Now she stood in the darkness, looking out the window, phone in hand, waiting for her father to call. It was time to check in. Time to convince him that she was doing just fine on her own. Except, she felt the Storm in her head coming on. It blurred the pane of glass, blended with the real rainstorm lashing the outside of the old house. The topmost leaves of the trees shook with tethered fury… [continue as written]

I very much like the imagery in this section. The splashing lightning made me hesitate, but I think it works.

As far as I’m concerned, the rest of the page works fine—as long as the burying of the pills moves to the beginning. Two minor points:

–Remove the ellipses in the fourth paragraph and replace with a comma, or begin a new sentence.

–Does she really think of her thoughts as “crazy thoughts?” [penultimate paragraph] One of the implications of not being on the drugs appears to be that she feels like herself. It brings into question the concept of normalcy—something that is certainly debatable.

One more significant suggestion. After the first paragraph, try switching to the present tense. Not everyone is a fan, but just try it. It offers an immediacy that I think is appropriate to the subject.

Now she stands in the darkness, looking out the window, phone in hand, waiting for her father to call. It’s time to check in.

Sally forth, Brave Author. This is a terrific story!

 

 

 

 

 

5+

First Page Critique: No Tomorrows

Happy Monday (and for me, the final week of summer before my twins start high school – so no stress at all this week…)!! Today I’m critiquing the first page of a project entitled (ominously…) ‘No Tomorrows’. As always, my comments follow and I look forward to your input!

No Tomorrows

Sally Lee’s sandals squished on the wet pavement. She should’ve changed to sneakers, but hadn’t wanted to take the time. She had to escape the house.

Escape? A curious word. Where’d that come from?

The fog had closed in after the evening’s pounding rain. It swirled around her, shrouding her in cold white anonymity as she walked away from the peaceful cul-de-sac where they’d lived for twenty years. It felt good to be walking somewhere, anywhere. Her jacket whipped around her. She zipped it up and tucked her blond curls under the hood.

Wrapped in the mist, she could think, find her reason again after the strange events of the evening. It had started with the conversation at the dinner table.

After the blessing, Sally asked, as she always did, “How was your day, kids? Anything interesting happen?” She started the mashed potatoes around the table, then reached for the platter of pork chops. Dinner as usual. Sally thrived on as usual. Dinner was family talk time.

Four scrubbed faces turned her way. Mayra answered first, tossing her long blond hair over her shoulder. At fifteen, she acted as if it was her right to be first in any circumstance. Sally often had to remind her to allow the youngest to go first sometimes.

“Remember I told you we have to write an essay?” she asked. “Today Miss Harris told us we had to choose one of three questions to answer in our essays.”

Five pairs of eyes looked at her.

“Well?” Roger asked, “What question did you choose?”

“What would I do today if I knew I’d die tomorrow?” Mayra answered her father, reaching for the platter of dinner rolls.

Sally dropped her fork. It hit her plate with a clang, then bounced to the floor, skittering under the table. Five pairs of eyes watched as she scooted her chair back and dived under the table. She picked it up, along with a piece of broccoli.  Her hand trembled as she pushed her hair back from her damp forehead. The fork clattered to the floor again.

“What are you doing under there, Sal?” Roger peered down at her.

“Getting my fork—you writing a book? Leave that chapter out, okay?”

The children giggled.

Crawling out, she wiped her fork on her napkin and popped the broccoli into her mouth.

“Five second rule?” chirped five-year-old Kimmie.

Overall Comments

I loved how this first page juxtaposed an ordinary dinner scene with Sally’s rather desperate ‘escape’ in the first paragraph. The reader knows something is off kilter, yet there’s nothing obvious to explain Sally’s disquiet…yet…and this provides the reader with a great reason to keep turning the page. The writing is also succinct and clear, with just enough detail to evoke the rain and fog, as well as the dinner table conversation and the family dynamics. Sally’s reaction to her daughter’s essay topic certainly left me wanting to read more and, as with any good first page, it left me with lots of questions I wanted answered.

I particularly liked the first paragraph and the chilling use the phrase Escape? A curious word. Where’d that come from? This definitely made me want to know more about Sally’s past and why she felt such panic and anxiety that she needed to flee her house. The author did a great job of introducing some short snippets of information that made us empathize and also be intrigued by Sally (I loved the line: Sally thrived on as usual. It reveals so much about her character in just a few words.)

Some Suggestions

Still, I do think there were a few ways in which this first page could be strengthened – although most of my recommendations are really only minor nitpicks:)

First, I did feel like the dinner scene could have had a couple of more lines describing the whole family as we only really hear Mayra, Roger, and Kimmie (if my math is right there are two other kids at the table). I found it hard to picture them all – and the use of “Four scrubbed faces turned her way” followed by “Five pairs of eyes looked at her” was a bit generic. Likewise, having both the protagonist and her daughter described by their blond hair didn’t seem very distinctive or interesting.

Second, I didn’t really believe the essay topic that Mayra had been given at school. At fifteen, “What would I do today if I knew I’d die tomorrow?” seems a rather odd topic (though maybe this is just me??). I think I would have been more willing to go along with it had Roger reacted in some way or said something like “Wow, that’s pretty dark…” or “Miss Harris is a strange one.”  – something to show his character a bit more. This would also provide a nice contrast to Sally’s reaction.

Finally, I think I would have liked just a little bit more tension, maybe even menace, when it came to Sally’s reaction to her daughter’s essay topic. Just one line that could intrigue the reader a bit more perhaps? I didn’t quite understand why Sally said: “Getting my fork—you writing a book? Leave that chapter out, okay?” but that might just me! I think I wanted her to snap at him or be more defensive – something – to add to the disquiet beneath the cozy domesticity of the dinner table scene.

Overall though, I thought this was an effective first page. It managed to combine the ordinary with an uneasiness that made me want to find out more about what was really going on in Sally’s life – so bravo to our brave submitter!

So TKZers what comments, feedback, or advice would you provide?

 

 

4+

First Page Critique: A Goan Holiday

Happy Monday! Today’s first page review is for a novel entitled A Goan Holiday – which seems appropriate since I just got back from India (although, sadly, I’ve never visited Goa). My comments follow and I look forward to feedback from our great TKZ community. Read on!

A Goan Holiday

For the leftover hippies sunbathing nude on the beaches of Goa, drug-induced illusions were often indistinguishable from the breath-taking reality of the moss-covered cliffs and the bright blue sea. Back in the ’sixties, Vagator was one such beach few knew of until a forty-year-old American tourist with only eight fingers trudged down the mud track to the nearby village, starting a hippie stampede to the settlement. The disgruntled children of the West left the residents puzzled by adopting the matted hair, the rancid clothes, and the broken sandals of the homeless, seeking enlightenment in LSD and heroin, but there was one enterprising fellow who saw in the new arrivals a chance to make an easy buck.

Gossip had it his ramshackle shed at the far end of the beach was the designated cop-free zone where the hippies rented cots to crash at night. To the surprise of no one who knew him, the owner of the establishment disappeared one day, only to resurface the next week as the corpse found in a fishing boat adrift a few miles from the shore.

Half a century later, the shed’s owner was forgotten. Rich, young locals and backpackers from around the world still partied to trance music on the moonlit beaches of the former Portuguese colony on India’s west coast, the pungent smoke from industrial-sized rolls of charas, the home-grown weed, swirling all around. White surf frothed over rocks, tickling the feet of the stoned couples as they groped their companions for the night and made promises which wouldn’t last past daybreak.

The shed itself morphed into a hip café which served delicious seafood and fine wines for exorbitant prices. It was where the rich and the famous were frequently caught in carefully choreographed candid pictures. At least, that’s what the kaamwaali bai—the maid—employed at the Joshi vacation home a few miles away claimed. The woman showed up at her leisure and barely did any work if she could help it but always carried news of the movie stars spotted in the seaside village where her cousin lived.

None of the celebs seemed to have ventured outside this lousy night. Lucky for them, thought Anjali Joshi, skirting the group of tourists dancing to ear-splitting music on the beach despite the ominous dark clouds rolling across the half-moon. Each screech from the synthesiser thrummed across her skull. Even her eyeballs were vibrating.

Overall Comments

To be honest, this first page reads more like a travelogue at first than the start of a novel.

In my opinion it suffers from way too much data dumping about the history and clientele of the beaches of Goa and also from a lack of immediacy. Everything in this first page feels distant and third-hand to me – whereas I really wanted to be sucked into the drug scene at the beach and the ear-splitting music at the bar. I wanted to be introduced to a main character I could care about. I I wanted an inciting incident that would draw me into the story. Instead, I wasn’t sure who the book was really going to be about: Was it the forty-year-old American tourist with only eight fingers who started the hippie stampede to the settlement? Was it the enterprising fellow who saw a chance to make an easy buck and whose corpse showed up adrift a few miles from the shore? Was the maid who showed up at her leisure and barely did any work relevant to the story at all? Is Anjali Joshi who shows up in the final paragraph actually the protagonist? All of these characters have great potential but they are placed scattershot on this first page with no hint as to their relevance or importance to the story.

In this first page, nothing about the actual story is really clear and until the reader gets a handle on the story itself, the description and background to the drug culture in Goa doesn’t resonate (and, though I liked some of the detail and descriptions, most of this information could be inserted into the first chapter in discrete chunks rather than all at once).

So my main recommendation to our brave submitter is to start again – start the novel where the story really begins. Let us walk along the beach with Anjali Joshi and feel the music (I liked the image of her eyeballs vibrating BTW). Let us be drawn into the drama of an actual scene. Who is she? Why is she there? What incident is going to propel this story forward? Is it the discovery of a celebrity’s corpse? What dark events do the the ominous dark clouds suggest? Once we get these answers on the page, then, as readers, we will want to turn the page and care about the novel and its characters moving forward. Until then, this first page reads more like an interesting catalogue of the drug and hippie culture of the Goan beaches rather than the beginning of a novel.

TKZers, what advice would you provide to our brave submitter. How would you tackle the issues I’ve outlined?

 

 

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First Page Critique: The List

 

Image from GoDaddy

 

Hop in, fellow travelers. Today we’re off on a short, shocking car ride with the protagonist of The List. I hope you’ll take a few moments to read my critique, then add your own comments.

The List

Everyone has lists. I might have too many. I could probably be accused of living my life according to lists. There are the usual: a shopping list, a bucket list, ToDo lists, vacation packing list, followup email list, books to read list, etc. I even have a list of lists, so I don’t forget I have a particular list. But the list I’m thinking about right now is my I-More-Than-Hate-You list. This is the list of people that I plan to take with me if I ever cross thatline. You know the one. The line where you no longer give a flying fuck about the consequences, because someone’s gonna die. That list. And today I’m thinking about that list a lot.

For many years there was one name at the top of my list; one piece of shit that would have to go first. But over time he was replaced by other bastards that needed to die and finally fell off the list completely because I didn’t think I would ever see him again; didn’t think anyone would. But there he was. I almost rear-ended the car in front of me doing a double take.

“No fucking way!!” I said out loud and circled the block to get another look.

Junior Moore was standing on the corner opposite the bus station looking like a gawping tourist. The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look; never more than a fuzz on his scalp and wrinkles like scars all over it. His head looked as if the skin were too big for the skull inside; like badly fitted upholstery. He also looked to have only a single eye and I could see that one ear was mostly gone. His alley-cat glare followed me around the corner. He looked right at me. There’s no way he could have recognized me after all these years, but I’m sure the astonished gasp on my face made him wonder.

“Shit!…shit…shit…” I muttered as I sped toward the Duck. Thirsty Thursday with the girls was going to be interesting.

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Our protagonist’s strong voice gives The List a promising start. It takes a considerable amount of practice to make every word sound like it’s coming from a fully conceived character. This character strides onto the page and–to borrow a title from Joan Rivers–enters talking. Good job, brave author.

Let’s talk a moment about the opening paragraphs. I’ve written similar paragraphs many times, and I imagine other TKZers have as well. It’s a Big Intro With a Side of Throat Clearing. Here, you’ve already got the title explained, so that’s out of the way. And you’ve told us a lot about the character. This is an obsessive person. A disturbed person. A Person Not to be Messed With. (I get a strong, post-1978 Shirley MacLaine vibe.) Plus, we have the added bonus of it setting up what’s ahead. But if we look closely, it’s not really a bonus. It’s an impediment to the action of the story.

The reader doesn’t need to be wrapped in a bubble and delivered to the action. Hook us with the action first, and offer explanations and descriptions at a later time, if at all.

Without the throat-clearing, there’s no need for a transition INTO the action. Such a transition is nearly always awkward. When we finally get to the double take/near-accident, we are yanked out of the protagonist’s spotlight monologue intro and plunged into the action. The storytelling changes completely.

Homework for all of the above: Check out James Scott Bell’s latest blog, and all will be revealed.

One of the written and unwritten rules about settings is that you should never set a scene in an automobile. Usually we see two characters talking to one another, either fighting or giving us exposition. (Ah. The stress is off. We’re in the car, gov. Let’s bring each other up to speed on the investigation.) White space would suffice. Here, you have a mix of exposition and action. Because our protagonist is driving when she sees dreaded Junior, the car is perfectly appropriate for the action. Bravo! Now just eliminate the exposition. (Caveat: If you’re reading this and have been thinking about setting a scene in a car, proceed with caution.)

I like the promise of this page. I’m interested in the character, and want to know exactly what Junior Moore did, when he did it, and how/if he’s going to pay. I would definitely read on!

A few words about word choice, punctuation, and description. (I’m not sure of the sex of this character, though from the last line I’ll guess female. Her age is also unclear. She doesn’t sound like a Millennial or younger. And the fact that she’s got a long list of people on her um, shitlist (couldn’t resist), suggests to me that she’s at least in her forties.

First paragraph: I am seeing the word “list” way too many times, and I want it to go away with the paragraph. Have one of the protagonist’s friends make fun of her lists.

There are four semicolons in the piece. I will mourn with you over the loss, but they have to go. Replace them with periods or commas, as you see fit. Oddly enough, sentence fragments are now considered more acceptable than semicolons in fiction. Crazy, right? So feel free to type: But over time he was replaced by other bastards that needed to die and finally fell off the list completely because I didn’t think I would ever see him again. Didn’t think anyone would. But there he was.

Exclamation points and speaking out loud:

“No fucking way!!” I said out loud and circled the block to get another look.”

While this quote is, indeed, an exclamation, we’re only allowed one exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Exceptions are emails and notes to friends and family, birthday cakes, texts, and anything written in sidewalk chalk.

If we are speaking, it’s redundant to say that we’re doing it out loud. (It’s only in the last couple years that I’ve dropped out loud from my own prose.)

No fucking way!” I shouted, slamming one palm against the steering wheel. I circled the block to get another look.

Junior Moore:

Oh, there’s so much to love about this description of Junior Moore. It’s full of spite and anger and fierce observation. It reminds me again of why I’d like to read more. There are a few tweaks that could tighten it up.

“Junior Moore was standing on the corner opposite the bus station looking like a gawping tourist. The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look; never more than a fuzz on his scalp and wrinkles like scars all over it. His head looked as if the skin were too big for the skull inside; like badly fitted upholstery. He also looked to have only a single eye and I could see that one ear was mostly gone. His alley-cat glare followed me around the corner. He looked right at me. There’s no way he could have recognized me after all these years, but I’m sure the astonished gasp on my face made him wonder.”

I won’t totally rewrite the paragraph, but here are some suggestions.

“The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look…”

From here it’s not clear which characteristics Junior had “always had” and which were new. This can be fixed easily with something like:

…The years hadn’t been good to him. While he’d always resembled a grizzled alley cat, now he was downright monstrous (terrifying, hideous, etc). I was stunned to see that he’d lost an eye, and that part of one ear had been torn away. Wrinkles like puckered scars swam between the islands of sparse fuzz on his scalp. One thing that hadn’t changed was the way his skin hung like badly fitted upholstery on his too-small skull. I shuddered. His catlike glare followed me as I turned the corner…

I changed “alley-cat glare” to catlike glare to get rid of the repetition. Taking out “He looked right at me.” makes the image stronger. As a gasp is a sound, you might change “astonished gasp” to astonishment.

That the protagonist is headed to Thirsty Thursday to hang out at the Duck with her girl gang made me smile. Good lead-in to the next scene/chapter.

Language:

Some readers may object to the F-word, etc. I don’t have any concerns myself. In fact, “No fucking way!” is a statement I make way too often. But do check out TKZ takes on profanity. There’s plenty here. Be sure to read comments. Our own Kris Montee/P.J.Parrish takes on profanity in crime stories in a 2016 post. Jordan Dane has a First Page Critique that addresses it as well.

Okay, fellow travelers. You’ve read what I have to say (and thank you for reading!). What comments and advice do you have for our Brave Author?

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