First Page Critique: City of Caves

My apologies to the brave writer who submitted this first page for critique. I meant to do it sooner, but I’ve had an insanely busy October.

The writer says the genre is paranormal/horror. My comments will follow.

 

City of Caves

The strange sounds emanating down the dank, dark tunnel, sent shivers down Albie Halstead’s spine. Cuffed to the wall of his cell by clanking, metal manacles he could feel his body wanting to shrivel and disappear as the mix of chanting and screams echoed towards him and he finally felt his bladder loose as warm pee rushed down his leg, soaking the rags of his trousers and socks, before dripping onto the stone floor to cause a stink, as he whimpered quietly. Hoping they’d forget he was there.

They’d just taken Esme. The screams had been hers and he’d squeezed his eyes shut, to somehow stop himself from imagining what they must be doing. To somehow stop hearing her cries of pain. To somehow pretend that he wasn’t there at all.

When the two men had dragged him in here to this dark place, she’d already been a prisoner and he’d taken in her pale face, torn dress and the chains attached to both of her wrists and ankles and neck and he’d tried to escape again. Struggling and wriggling, kicking and yelling, but the two brutes that had him, had been too strong and one of them had yelled at him. ‘Keep still, yer little bugger! Or you’ll regret it!’

He had not kept still. Continuing to fight, trying in vain to free a hand or a foot or something, so that he could fight back and escape.

It landed him a fisticuff to the face and then, his gut, knocking the wind from his lungs and putting stars in his eyes, as he flopped over and had his own body attached to the stone wall of the cell. He was vaguely aware of them slamming the heavy wooden door and locking it with a key that clanged an echo of its own down the tunnel. Then the laughing of the two men as they walked away.

It was some time before he looked up and could focus his gaze on the young girl on the opposite wall.

She looked to be about his age, if he had to guess.

‘How did they get you?’ She whispered, as if afraid to speak too loudly and attract attention to herself.

‘Coming home. From down the pit.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Albie. What’s yours?’

‘Esme.’

There seemed nothing else to say for a while.

I like the imagery in this first page, but we need to discuss a few important areas of craft. The first of which is continuity. In paragraph two, Esme had just been taken out of the cell. Then we’re told what happened to Albie in the past. We swing back to the current situation and Esme is sitting across from him. Only now, Albie has no idea who she is. See the problem?

Let’s take a closer look. My comments are in bold.

City of Caves (The title intrigues me.)

The strange sounds emanating down the dank, dark tunnel, sent shivers down Albie Halstead’s spine.

Not a bad first line, but I think you can make it even better. Rather than “shivers down the spine” (overused body cue), describe what he’s hearing. “Strange” is too generic for a first line.

Example:

Disembodied cries snaked through a catacomb of underground tunnels. Hooded guards dragged Albie Halstead through a dark, dank maze, his bare feet dragging behind him.  

Cuffed to the wall of his cell by clanking, metal manacles (I realize you’re trying to avoid repetition by using manacles rather than cuffs, but it doesn’t work. The imagery should be clear and concise.) he could feel his body wanting to shrivel and disappear as the mix of chanting and screams echoed towards him and he finally felt his bladder loosen as warm pee rushed down his leg, soaking the rags of his trousers and socks, before dripping onto the stone floor to cause a stink, as he whimpered quietly.

Do you realize the above sentence is 67 words long? It’s exhausting to read. Break up the text to make it easier to digest. Good writing has a mixture of short and long sentences. Short sentences pack a punch and are used for emphasis. Longer sentences add rhythm. Too much of either becomes redundant and weakens the writing. By varying sentences, we add interest, drama, and hold a reader’s attention. 

Example (continued from earlier example):

Helpless to fight back, his captors shackled him to the cell wall. Metal clanged against stone. When he straightened, a young girl sat across from him, streaks of tears bleeding black mascara over a crooked nose—bloody and swollen. Screams pierced the chanting outside the door. Albie squeezed his eyes closed. How did this happen? He attended church every Sunday, escorted the elderly across busy roadways, and volunteered at homeless shelters. He’d more than repaid his debt to society. Yet here he sat. Isolated. Shivering. Alone.

Except for her. [Segway into dialogue]

The details I added probably don’t match your storyline. Doesn’t matter. What I’m trying to demonstrate is how to include hints of who Albie is and why we should care if he’s being held prisoner. It’s not enough to show a harrowing situation. Readers must connect with the main character, or at least empathize with his situation.

They’d just taken Esme. The screams had been hers and he’d squeezed his eyes shut, to somehow stop himself from imagining what they must be doing. To somehow stop hearing her cries of pain. To somehow pretend that he wasn’t there at all. I like the rhythm here, but the action occurs prior to the scene. When we tell the reader what happened in the past, even if it’s only minutes earlier, we remove conflict and tension.

When the two men had dragged him in here to this dark place, she’d already been a prisoner and he’d taken in her pale face, torn dress, and the chains attached to both of her wrists and ankles and neck, and he’d tried to escape again. (46 words) Struggling and wriggling, kicking and yelling, but the two brutes that had him, had been too strong and one of them had yelled at him. ‘Keep still, yer little bugger! Or you’ll regret it!’

He had not kept still. Continuing to fight, trying in vain to free a hand or a foot or something, so that he could fight back and escape.

It landed him a fisticuff to the face and then, his gut, knocking the wind from his lungs and putting stars in his eyes, as he flopped over and had his own body attached to the stone wall of the cell. (41 words) He was vaguely aware of them slamming the heavy wooden door and locking it with a key that clanged an echo of its own down the tunnel. Then the laughing of the two men as they walked away.

The above three paragraphs have the same problem as the one preceding it. The action occurs prior to the scene, robbing the reader of experiencing the abduction and feeling Albie’s terror.

It was some time before he looked up and could focus his gaze on the young girl on the opposite wall. This implies Albie doesn’t know the young girl, but earlier you wrote “They’d just taken Esme.” If he knew her name then, why is this girl a stranger now?

She looked to be about his age, if he had to guess. If they’re about the same age, why would Albie refer to her as “the young girl”?

‘How did they get you?’ She whispered, as if afraid to speak too loudly and attract attention to herself. Good job here. And believable.

Side note: If you plan to publish traditionally or self-publish for an American market, use double quotes for dialogue, not single.

‘Coming home. From down the pit.’

Is the pit a well-known place? If he’s talking to a stranger, the pit might mean nothing to Esme. If it is well-known by the locals, include a line or two to ground the reader.

Example:  

Everyone in [town/city] worked at the pit at one point or another. Rumors circulated about the landfill being the most haunted place in [state], but Albie never believed the hype. Until now. [Include a hint of the paranormal element here]

‘What’s your name?’ (see below)

‘Albie. What’s yours?’

‘Esme.’

These three lines of dialogue come across as too on-the-nose. Granted, it’s an easy way to sneak in names, but it’s unrealistic in this situation. They’ve been kidnapped, beaten, held prisoner. More realistic questions might be: Why us? Will they kill us? Rape us? Sell us to the highest bidder? Who are these guys? What do they want?

Their top priority would be to figure out why they were taken and how to escape. The last thing on their minds should be getting to know one another. They’re shackled to the wall! Weird chanting, disembodied screams! At any moment they could die! Sheer terror should bleed through every word.

Brave Writer, I hope I wasn’t too hard on you. I worked on this for hours because I believe in you. If I didn’t think you had the writing chops to turn this into a compelling story, I wouldn’t have taken the time. Curse me, throw things, then roll up your sleeves and dig in. You’ve got this. 🙂 

TKZ family, what advice would you give this brave writer?

 

First Page Critique: Innocent to a Fault

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a novel entitled ‘Innocent to a Fault’ and, although we don’t have a genre specified, I’m assuming it is going to be a mystery or a thriller. The fact that this isn’t clear is indicative of some the key issues facing this page – which you can see discussed in the comments that follow. I’m looking forward to getting input and support from our TKZ community to help guide our brave submitter on how to address the issues raised and turn this into a compelling first page. Here we go!
INNOCENT TO A FAULT
Thirty-three years ago, on a sunny October afternoon, driving a classic GTO that he’d just stolen from his neighbor’s carport, a teenager murdered our parents. Celia was 18, Katie was 16, and I was 12 when the Springville police notified us about the horrible accident. Because the kid was about my age, he was given a rap to the knuckles as punishment. At that devastating time, I didn’t know who I hated more—the delinquent for destroying so many lives, or the legal system for saying, “Boys will be boys.”
Nana said the hate I felt harmed me more than anyone, so I tried keeping it in check. But I failed badly, mainly because I needed to feel something and since I couldn’t love my parents any longer, hate filled the void.
During those early days of loss, feeling more anger than a child ever should, I came to two conclusions. One, that sometimes hating a person feels good, no matter how self-destructive.  And two, people who hurt others should face punishment, with no excuses allowed. Or more simply, if they couldn’t do the time, they should not have done the crime.
I know some will disagree, but I believe those who commit crimes are selfish to the core. They figure what they want is more important than what’s right. If selfish behavior could be obliterated, murders, thefts, rapes, all crimes would go down significantly.
My sister Celia is of a different mind. She believes sometimes good people do bad things, and each situation should have room for wiggle, which was why her daughter turned out the way she had. Reni had been wiggling out of trouble since puberty, with Celia always nearby, excuse in hand.
A few weeks ago Reni got involved in trouble that even Celia couldn’t justify. The scheme was criminal, and it all hinged on me. I learned about the plot during an unexpected visit from my niece.
With little preamble, Reni presented me with two choices: commit a felony, which would keep my family safe, or refuse and see my family destroyed. It was then that I understood Celia’s wiggle room philosophy that sometimes a good person has only bad options.
I thought about those bad options—while being more scared than I’ve ever been in my life—and made my decision.
I don’t know if I would make the same choice today.
(end of Chapter 1)
 
Overall Comments
The most significant concern I have with this submission is that it reads like a synopsis not the first page to a novel. Not only have we been given the entire backstory to the narrator’s current situation but we’re also being told the entire set up for the novel without having any action, dialogue, character development, or inciting incident. All we really have is exposition and explanation that robs the first page of all dramatic tension and makes it feel like the summary of a plot rather than the start of a work of fiction. That being said, we do get some sense of the conflict that (I assume) forms the backbone of the story in the choice presented our narrator (“commit a felony, which would keep my family safe, or refuse and see my family destroyed.”) What we don’t have is a dramatic scene unfolding to show us this choice.
This first page introduces us to five characters without giving us any real sense of them as people. There’s the narrator (who is in his or her mid 40’s – the fact that we have no idea even about gender is indicative of the lack of character development); his/her sisters Celia and Katie, Nana, and Reni, Celia’s wayward daughter. That’s a lot of characters for a first page especially in the absence of action or dialogue, and when we don’t yet have any setting or real sense of time or place (everything is presented in the past tense). What we do have is a lot of explanations, theories, and beliefs – all of which could definitely come into the novel as we learn more about the narrator, but which seem very ‘non-fiction’-esque when laid out so fully in a first page. Despite these significant issues, however, there are definite stirrings of a voice for this narrator.  Brave submitter, I think that if you use this first page as an exploration of your narrator’s voice and POV, then you have a solid foundation on which to build a compelling first page.
Specific Comments
Given the major concerns I raised in my overall comments, I thought the most useful feedback I could give was to highlight specific issues and recommendations in bold/italics throughout the text of this first page. I hope these will be received in the spirit in which they are intended – as honest and helpful feedback that our brave submitter can use to start drafting a great first page. Again, here goes!
INNOCENT TO A FAULT (Odd title choice – doesn’t really seem to mesh with the story outline that follows)
Thirty-three years ago, on a sunny October afternoon, driving a classic GTO that he’d just stolen from his neighbor’s carport, a teenager murdered our parents. (This first line has too many details and yet is still strangely distancing – my recommendation is to either start with a visceral/vivid flashback to that day 33 years ago, or start with a scene in which the narrator is reminded of this traumatic event. We need to be taken straight into a scene and shown the full impact of this event on the narrator’s life. At the moment everything is merely being told to us as readers.)
Celia was 18, Katie was 16, and I was 12 when the Springville police notified us about the horrible accident. (We have nothing to ground us in the scene or make us care about the narrator or his sisters – age specifics seem unnecessary when we can’t picture who any of these characters are) Because the kid was about my age, he was given a rap to the knuckles as punishment. At that devastating time, I didn’t know who I hated more—the delinquent for destroying so many lives, or the legal system for saying, “Boys will be boys.” (Too much telling. Let the reader see the scene in the courtroom when he was sentenced. You need to decide in this first page whether your scene is set in the past or the present – at the moment we’re just being told the backstory.)
Nana said the hate I felt harmed me more than anyone, so I tried keeping it in check. But I failed badly, mainly because I needed to feel something and since I couldn’t love my parents any longer, hate filled the void. (Too much telling. We don’t know anything about the family let alone the character of Nana. Show us why the narrator was harmed more than anyone. Have the story unfold about the failure and how hate filled the void.)
During those early days of loss, feeling more anger than a child ever should, I came to two conclusions. One, that sometimes hating a person feels good, no matter how self-destructive.  And two, people who hurt others should face punishment, with no excuses allowed. Or more simply, if they couldn’t do the time, they should not have done the crime. (Show us this and structure a scene to demonstrate this to us. A conversation between siblings perhaps on the anniversary of their parents death (?)…)
I know some will disagree, but I believe those who commit crimes are selfish to the core. They figure what they want is more important than what’s right. If selfish behavior could be obliterated, murders, thefts, rapes, all crimes would go down significantly. (This reads as an opinion piece not the opening to a novel)
My sister Celia is of a different mind. She believes sometimes good people do bad things, and each situation should have room for wiggle, which was why her daughter turned out the way she had. Reni had been wiggling out of trouble since puberty, with Celia always nearby, excuse in hand. (Again we’re just being told characters’ opinions and behavior. We need to inhabit a scene where this is shown to us. Maybe this first page has Reni and the narrator and his sister Celia at a family function where this plays out in terms of action and dialogue.) 
A few weeks ago Reni got involved in trouble that even Celia couldn’t justify. (Too vague.) The scheme was criminal, and it all hinged on me. (Again too vague – is it petty crime, is it murder? – could be anything.) I learned about the plot during an unexpected visit from my niece. (Let us see this visit. Let us see the confrontation. It sounds like it is the pivotal event which sets the story in motion so we have to see it.)
With little preamble, Reni presented me with two choices: commit a felony, which would keep my family safe, or refuse and see my family destroyed. (We need may more details about the family dynamics and characters to understand this. If this is the critical conflict in the novel we need dramatic build up and a real scene to see this play out…) It was then that I understood Celia’s wiggle room philosophy that sometimes a good person has only bad options. (Again we have no real sense of character yet so why as readers should we care about the narrator’s dilemma or Celia’s philosophy?)
I thought about those bad options—while being more scared than I’ve ever been in my life—and made my decision. (At this stage the reader has no idea why the narrator was scared or the basis for making the decision. We don’t even really understand the basis for the ‘bad options’ being presented. We need a real story presenting this dilemma in dramatic terms)
I don’t know if I would make the same choice today. (I like this as an end line but we need a scene before this that builds character and dramatic tension so it can resonate)
(end of Chapter 1) (I don’t understand this either – this is only a page – how can it be the end of Chapter 1 when nothing in dramatic terms has actually happened?)
 
So TKZers, I’d love to hear your guidance and feedback to help our brave submitter on his/her path to producing a great first page. Looking forward to seeing your comments!

First Page Critique: Kangaroo Court

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is a British ‘book club thriller’ – initially set in Wales (note: Yr Wydffa is the Welsh name for Snowden – just to give some context – and spelling is English spelling). Enjoy – my comments follow:
Kangaroo Court
Dave leaned against the side of his car and savoured the pain of the hot metal on his legs. He looked at Boscombe, and Boscombe looked back, all hard eyes and cocky smile.
Boscombe the Bastard. Boscombe the Bogeyman. Boscombe the Dead.
Boscombe continued to exist in Dave’s memory, at Dave’s behest, trapped in a newsprint photo behind the plastic window of Dave’s wallet. And at the end of the weekend, Dave was going to snuff out this last, tenuous existence.
If Dave went to Penny’s reunion.
It was a year since he had stamped his footprints into the fresh soil of Boscombe’s grave, but was he ready for this last step of his DIY cure?
Far behind the houses opposite, the summit of Yr Wydffa shimmered blue in the afternoon heat. How much easier it would be to drive to Pen-y-Pass instead of the Forest of Dean, walk the Pyg Track to the top of Snowdon, cool air in his mouth and his thoughts as uncluttered as the space around him. His eyes wandered back to the grainy face in his palm and he found his answer. He brought up Paddy’s number on his phone and typed: Forgot to say to get the bubbles in the fridge for Sunday night. I’ve got a surprise announcement! Hit send so there was going back.
In the car, he took a dried date from the glove compartment, slid it between his lips, and swirled the warm, sticky fruit around with his tongue to mask the taste of bile.
He turned right at the end of the street and joined the traffic heading for England.
Overall Comments
When our brave submitter sent this in the note read ‘I don’t think the opening works but I don’t know what to do about it’…and this is where I think we all can help:)
For me, at least, the critical issue in this opener is understanding and caring about the main protagonist. The beginning is confusing as it already introduces us to 3 characters in addition to the protagonist – I was immediately asking myself who is Boscombe? who is Penny? Who is Paddy?..when ultimately what I really wanted to know is ‘who is Dave?’
My main advice to our submitter is to focus on introducing the reader to Dave and giving us enough insight into him as a character so we are motivated to care about him before introducing anyone else.
To be successful, this first page needs to draw the reader in close. We need to get a sense of the stakes and a hint at least of the kind of dilemma Dave might face. At the moment I don’t have a strong sense of his identity or character (or indeed what the book is going to be about). Everything about Dave is told to us/described in terms of a relationship to other characters which we also don’t know yet. This makes it very confusing.
Dave is also alone throughout the first page…and if you remember from my blog post a few months ago, agents and editors really don’t like this! Interaction with another character helps show us why we should care about the protagonist. Without dialogue or action, a character alone can feel very detached and inward looking. This first page illustrates this problem well – We’re so wrapped up in Dave’s thoughts that we don’t really understand who Dave is, or why we should care about his ongoing guilt/anger over Boscombe’s death. To overcome this, we need to see Dave in a situation where he’s interacting with other characters and where we get hints of backstory and more dramatic tension that leaves us wanting to read more.
Many of these overall comments can be best explained in a closer, more detailed, reading of the first page. To this end, I’ve copied the text and inserted my specific comments to (hopefully) better illustrate what I mean. I’ve also highlighted some recommendations in italics for our brave submitter – these are just some initial thoughts but they might help guide future revisions.
Specific Comments
Dave leaned against the side of his car and savoured the pain of the hot metal on his legs. So it sounds like summer, but why is he enjoying the pain? Where is he? Why has he stopped the car? Recommendation: Start off grounding us in the scene – maybe he looks at Snowdon right now – maybe we get a glimpse of backstory. Ideally he should have another character with him who can engage in dialogue/ conflict. What if it’s Paddy or Penny? What if they tell him to throw away the photo of Boscombe. Might even be more dramatic that Dave’s pulled over because of an argument – we can get all the backstory we need then as he and another character argue over Boscombe or Penny’s reunion – anything to get a reader invested in the story 
He looked at Boscombe, and Boscombe looked back, all hard eyes and cocky smile. (Why are we being introduced to another person/name when we don’t even know who Dave is?…) 
Boscombe the Bastard. Boscombe the Bogeyman. Boscombe the Dead. I like this stream of consciousness but it’s too early – we aren’t grounded yet in Dave as a character. Also confusing as previous sentence made us think Boscombe was actually there. Difficult for a reader to start off already confused.
Boscombe continued to exist in Dave’s memory, at Dave’s behest (The word ‘behest’ stopped me as it made it sound like Dave had asked Boscombe), trapped in a newsprint photo behind the plastic window of Dave’s wallet. And at the end of the weekend, Dave was going to snuff out this last, tenuous existence. (Again, we don’t know Dave, let alone his sudden motivation to get rid of a photo of a dead person we also don’t know…)
If Dave went to Penny’s reunion. (Who’s Penny? The reader doesn’t yet know enough about Dave to care about this – also what kind of reunion? What relationship is Penny to Dave – too vague for us to care)
It was a year since he had stamped his footprints into the fresh soil of Boscombe’s grave, but was he ready for this last step of his DIY cure? Recommendation: Slow down. Let us know more about Dave first and why he’s on this road – what kind of ‘cure’ or redemption  is he seeking? We need hints at least about backstory re: Boscombe so we can care. Still recommend having interaction or dialogue with another character to reveal this. Reference to Penny makes it only more confusing as we don’t have content for her (or Boscomber) at all.
Far behind the houses opposite, the summit of Yr Wydffa shimmered blue in the afternoon heat. How much easier it would be to drive to Pen-y-Pass instead of the Forest of Dean, walk the Pyg Track to the top of Snowdon, cool air in his mouth and his thoughts as uncluttered as the space around him. Like this but we need to be grounded – readers may not know these places at all and why are we getting so specific when we don’t really know the journey Dave is making? His eyes wandered back to the grainy face in his palm and he found his answer. He brought up Paddy’s number on his phone and typed: Forgot to say to get the bubbles in the fridge for Sunday night. I’ve got a surprise announcement! Hit send so there was no(?) going back. So we’ve switched from Boscombe to a surprise announcement and the introduction of another character we don’t know (Paddy)….also now a reference to a surprise announcement. Too may unknowns by this point in the first page. Recommendation: Slow down – don’t include this in first paragraph unless critical as it’s too confusing.
In the car, he took a dried date from the glove compartment (this is very specific and also sounds a bit odd. I don’t normally expect people to have dried dates in their car – more likely a mint or a sweet in England so this begs the question why dates and does this raise anything re: Dave’s background (?). Need more detail to feel authentic. Also we have far more detail about this sensation than why he’s stopped the car or where he’s headed etc.), slid it between his lips, and swirled the warm, sticky fruit around with his tongue to mask the taste of bile.
He turned right at the end of the street and joined the traffic heading for England. Still a bit confusing for those unfamiliar with geography or how Welsh people view England – need perhaps to make clearer. Also this is the first we know (as readers) that Dave’s driving to England.
Recommendation: Make it clear from the start that Dave is driving to England from Wales for Penny’s reunion. Then have an argument/conflict to reveal Boscombe backstory. Then add something about Dave’s conflicted feelings/guilt.
Hopefully both these overall and specific comments help provide a guide for revising this first page moving forward. I think the key thing to focus on is anchoring the reader in the scene (where is Dave? where is he heading?) and introducing us to the protagonist through action or dialogue that helps us feel invested in the conflict (and the Boscombe backstory) moving forward.
TKZers what advice or feedback would you offer our brave submitter?

First Page Critique: Side Effects

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

Title: Side Effects

Genre: Psychological Thriller

All he could hear was the thunder of rushing blood, only distantly aware of the sharp, bright pain in his palms as his fists tightened and fingernails sunk into flesh.  He pushed his hands deeper into his pockets and poured his focus into moving more quickly along the crowded sidewalk, but not so quickly as to attract attention.  It was a good thing to focus on, a much better thing than the closeness of the warm bodies surrounding him or the intoxicating coppery scent that still lingered in his mind, and as the scope of his concentration narrowed he felt the wild pounding of his heart begin to slow.

Things had gone even worse than he had imagined.  Much, much worse.  The entire point of taking this job had been to avoid contact with the target.  Just simple surveillance and data collection, no face-to-face interaction.  No unspoken promise of violence.  It hadn’t turned out that way at all, but even with the plan shot all to hell, he couldn’t honestly say that he hadn’t hoped for this.

And that was bad.

An alleyway not choked by storage crates or piles of trash appeared ahead on his right.  He darted into it, stopping behind a dumpster and immediately pulling a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket.  It was dry here, the layers of fire escapes overhead blocking out the steady drizzle of warm summer rain.  He lit up with surprisingly steady hands, the tip of the cigarette flaring as he inhaled deeply and pressed his back against the wall of the alley.  The brick was pleasantly cool and rough through the damp fabric of his shirt, and as his lungs burned he felt the first wave of nicotine-fueled calm wash over him.

After a moment he stepped forward and looked around the corner of the dumpster towards the street.  Everything seemed normal.  There were no sirens, no sprinting cops, no gawking onlookers wandering in the direction from which he’d come.  It was unlikely that anything could tie him back to what would be found in that apartment, and that possibility wasn’t what worried him about the situation anyway, but it was good knowing that there was one less problem to deal with right now.

Let’s look at all the things Brave Writer did well.

  • Compelling exposition
  • Action; the character is active, not passive
  • Raised story questions
  • Piqued interest
  • Great voice
  • Setting established. We may not know the exact city/town, but s/he’s planted a mental picture in the reader’s mind and we can visualize the setting.
  • Stayed in the character’s POV
  • The title even intrigues me. Side effects of what? Did an injury or drug turn this character into a killer?

The writing could use a little tightening, but nothing too dramatic. 

All he could hear was the thunder of rushing blood (anytime we use telling words like hear, we distance the point-of-view. Remember, if you and I wouldn’t think it, our characters can’t either. Quick example of how to reword: Blood rushed like thunder in his ears,) only distantly aware of the sharp, bright pain (Excellent description: sharp, bright pain) in his palms as his fists tightened and fingernails sunk into flesh. from his fingernails biting into flesh.

Technically, only distantly aware would be classified as telling, but I like the juxtaposition between only distantly aware and sharp, bright pain. Some might argue both things can’t be true. Hmm, I’m torn. What do you think, TKZers? Reword or leave it?

He pushed (use a stronger verb like shoved or jammed) his hands deeper into his pockets and poured his focus into quickening his pace moving more quickly along the crowded sidewalk, but not too fast or he might so quickly as to attract unwanted attention. It was a good thing to focus on, a much better thing Better to focus on his stride than the closeness of the warm bodies strangers (the warm bodies sounds awkward to me) surrounding him or the intoxicating coppery scent (Love intoxicating here! Let’s end well, too, by replacing scent with a stronger word. Tang? Aroma? Stench?) that still lingered in his mind,. and

As the scope of his concentration narrowed, he felt the wild pounding of his heart begin to slow. “Felt” is another telling word. Try something like: As he focused on his footsteps, the wild pounding of his heart slowed to a light pitter-patter, pitter-patter.

Things had gone even worse than he’d had imagined.  Much, much worse.  The entire point of taking this job had been  was to avoid contact with the target.  Just Simple surveillance and data collection,. No face-to-face interaction.  No unspoken promise of violence.  It hadn’t turned out that way at all, but even with the plan shot all to hell, part of him he couldn’t honestly say that he hadn’t hoped for this.

And that was bad. The inner tussle between good and evil intrigues me. 🙂 

He ducked into aAn alleyway—swept clean, no not choked by storage crates or piles of trashappeared ahead on his right.  He darted into it, stoppinged behind a dumpster, and immediately pullinged a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his (coat?) pocket.

Something to consider: Rather than use the generic word cigarettes, a brand name enhances characterization. Example: Lucky Strikes or unfiltered Camels implies he’s no kid, with rough hands from a lifetime of hard work, a bottle of Old Spice in his medicine cabinet, and a fifth of Jack Daniels behind the bar. A Parliament smoker is nothing like that guy. Mr. Parliament Extra Light would drink wine spritzers and babytalk his toy poodle named Muffin. See what I’m sayin’? Don’t skip over tiny details; it’s how we breathe life into characters. And it falls under fair use as long as we don’t harm the brand. For more on the legalities, read this article.

 It was dry here, the layers of fire escapes overhead blocking out the steady drizzle of warm summer rain (If it’s raining, we should know this sooner, perhaps when he’s focused on his footsteps).  He lit up with surprisingly steady hands, the tip of the cigarette flaring as he inhaled deeply and pressed his back against the wall of the alley. Love surprisingly steady hands! Those three words imply this is his first murder, and he’s almost giddy about it. Great job!

The cigarette flaring is a bit too cinematic, though. The last thing smokers notice is the end of their butt unless it goes out. If you want to narrow in on this moment, mention the inhale, exhale, maybe he blows smoke rings or a plume, and him leaning against the brick wall. That’s it. Don’t overthink it. Less is more.

The brick was pleasantly cool and rough through the damp fabric of his shirt, and as his lungs burned he felt the first wave of nicotine-fueled calm wash over him.

Dear Writer, please interview a smoker for research. A smoker’s lungs don’t burn. If they did, they’d panic, because burning lungs indicates a serious medical issue. Also, a smoker doesn’t experience a wave of nicotine-fueled calm. It’s too Hollywood. The simple act of him smoking indicates satisfaction. Delete the rest. It only hurts all the terrific work you’ve done thus far.

After a few moments, he chanced a peek at stepped forward and looked around the corner of the dumpster towards the street.  Everything seemed normal. There were Nno sirens, no sprinting cops, no gawking onlookers wandering in the direction from which he’d coame. Nothing It was unlikely that anything could tie him back to what would be found in that apartment (let him be certain so when the cops find something later, it throws him off-kilter. Inner conflict is a good thing. Also, simply stating that apartment is enough. We know he killed somebody. Kudos for not telling us who.), and that possibility wasn’t what worried him about the situation anyway, but it was good knowing that there was one less problem to deal with right now. I would end the sentence after apartment, but if you need to add the rest, reword to remove “knowing,” which is also a telling word.

One last note: Use one space after a period, not two.

All in all, I really enjoyed this first page. It sounds like my kind of read. Great job, Brave Writer!

I would turn the page. How ’bout you, TKZers? Please add your helpful suggestions/comments.

First Page Critique: Lethal Impulse

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a novel entitled ‘Lethal Impulse’ (which definitely suggests a mystery or thriller!). My comments follow and I look forward to getting further advice and input to help our brave submitter! See you on the other side…

Lethal Impulse

Chapter One

The time had come for the wife of Madison’s police chief to stain the town’s pride. Tess Fleishman decided on a manner unbecoming a Southern belle, antebellum homes, and the best small town to live in Georgia. She inhaled the humid air ripe with the scent of pine. An essence of success released an adrenalin rush as she filmed Vanessa Flack running through the pine thicket.

The sun’s rays conveyed a strobe effect on Vanessa’s yellow tee and orange shorts. The eighteen-year-old raced across uneven terrain, fought low hanging limbs, and craned her neck to look for her assailant. Vanessa cut over to the dirt road and hustled up the red clay embankment. She heaved breaths and rested her hands on her hips.

“How was that?” Vanessa puffed out the words.

Tess clapped. She ducked through the open driver’s window and backed out holding a towel and an insulate tumbler. “You showed me I made the right choice.”

Vanessa draped the towel around her neck and dabbed her face. “Thank you for this, Tess.”

Tess set the camera affixed to a tripod on the rear seat. “You can thank me when it’s over. I need your help with this next part because the doctor told me I’m not to lift anything over twenty pounds.” She popped open the trunk.

Vanessa embraced Tess. “I heard about your diagnosis. I thought about going into oncology once I complete medical school. That’s still a long way off, though. What has the doctor said about your prognosis?”

“We view my future differently. I’m hoping for remission.” Tess gestured to the trunk. “Climb in.”

Vanessa glanced inside the trunk. She retreated two strides. “Do I have to get in there? It looks grimy.”

“We can’t let anybody see you with me, Vanessa. It will ruin the surprise. It’s only until we get to the barn.”

Vanessa clambered into the trunk. Tess swathed towels around Vanessa’s wrists and ankles before she bound them with paracord. Vanessa thanked Tess for the use of towels to prevent ligature marks on her skin.

Tess grinned. “A killer must focus on details, Vanessa.”

General Comments

The last line certainly got my attention on this first page! I thought the author did a good job setting the scene for what the reader is sure is not what it seems at first glance…and a scene that definitely sets the stage for the taut mystery or thriller to come. That being said, I wasn’t completely grounded in this first page and I think part of this was because (a) I wasn’t entirely sure of the mood/tone though it was certainly suggestive of something dark  (which I love); and (b) I didn’t have enough background to understand what was going on (or at least what Vanessa thought was going on…). Both of these issues are easily fixed and I certainly think this first page has heaps of potential. I’m also pleased that there was dialogue/another character given how my last blog post illustrated the pitfalls of having the protagonist alone on the first page! I think the dialogue with Vanessa successfully raised red flags while also sounding believable but I would have liked a little more detail to fully understand what Vanessa thought she doing (acting in a short movie I’m assuming?) and why she was so willing to submit to being bound and placed in the trunk. I also wondered about the POV – As a reader, I wanted more insight or internal monologue for Tess but this might not be what the author wants (which is fine). Overall, bravo to our brave submitter!

Specific Comments

I thought the best way to tackle identifying more specific issues/comments was to go through this first page and highlight these in bold and italics. Hopefully this approach helps illustrate the areas where I think further revisions/clarification could be helpful…Here goes…

The time had come for the wife of Madison’s police chief to stain the town’s pride (I don’t love this expression and given how this first scene pans out I think it could be stronger) Tess Fleishman decided on a manner unbecoming a Southern belle, antebellum homes, and the best small town to live in Georgia (this is where I wasn’t sure about tone as it’s very light but then the scene that follows seems to hint at something darker so maybe have more than just a ‘manner unbecoming’?) . She inhaled the humid air ripe with the scent of pine. An essence of success (I don’t really know what this means) released an adrenalin rush as she filmed Vanessa Flack running through the pine (repetition of pine – maybe chose another word) thicket.

The sun’s rays conveyed a strobe effect on Vanessa’s yellow tee and orange shorts. The eighteen-year-old raced across uneven terrain, fought low hanging limbs, and craned her neck to look for her assailant. Vanessa cut over to the dirt road and hustled up the red clay embankment. She heaved breaths and rested her hands on her hips. (Like how this sets the scene nicely – I could totally visualize this)

“How was that?” Vanessa puffed out the words.

Tess clapped. She ducked through the open driver’s window and backed out holding a towel and an insulate tumbler. (Is she in or out of the car?) “You showed me I made the right choice.”

Vanessa draped the towel around her neck and dabbed her face. “Thank you for this, Tess.” (This is where I wanted more background detail/clarification about what Vanessa thinks she’s doing…)

Tess set the camera affixed to a tripod on the rear seat. “You can thank me when it’s over. I need your help with this next part because the doctor told me I’m not to lift anything over twenty pounds.” She popped open the trunk.

Vanessa embraced Tess (At first I thought Tess was still in the car – maybe clarify how she’d been filming earlier). “I heard about your diagnosis. I thought about going into oncology once I complete medical school. That’s still a long way off, though. What has the doctor said about your prognosis?” (The cancer issue seemed to come a bit our of nowhere and perhaps needs just one additional line. This is also where I felt like we needed a better sense of POV – are we viewing everything through Tess or is it 3rd person omniscient as I almost want some inside view on Tess’s motivation)

“We view my future differently. I’m hoping for remission.” Tess gestured to the trunk. “Climb in.”

Vanessa glanced inside the trunk. She retreated two strides. “Do I have to get in there? It looks grimy.”

“We can’t let anybody see you with me, Vanessa. It will ruin the surprise. It’s only until we get to the barn.” (Again, as a reader I feel I need to have more background as to what Vanessa thinks she’s involved in – getting into a trunk is pretty extreme.)

Vanessa clambered into the trunk. Tess swathed towels around Vanessa’s wrists and ankles before she bound them with paracord. Vanessa thanked Tess for the use of towels to prevent ligature marks on her skin.

Tess grinned. “A killer must focus on details, Vanessa.”

(Love this last line but just needed more details/background or at least further hints to understand why Vanessa would agree to this…and if Tess’s intentions are darker, maybe a few more hints on that…)

Hope some of these comments are helpful to our brave submitter. My fellow TKZers, what advice/comments would you provide?

First Page Critique: The Meaning of Life

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a novel entitled 00 Miles in My Shoes: The Meaning of Life – which is certainly an intriguing title! My comments follow and, as always, I look forward to everyone’s feedback on this first page.

00 Miles in My Shoes: The Meaning of Life

Journal of Michaela Isabel Abel

July 6, Monday – 1970 –  Sunrise –

The clouds blaze red above the mountains. Chickadees and bluebirds sing.  The freshest air in the world! Good morning to me!

Last night Wally tied me to the bloodwood again.  The flash kept flashing, and when he stopped taking pictures, I feared what he would demand next.

Wally keeps a book of positions in his nightstand drawer. He showed me a picture of a girl getting a spanking. He says I have to do what he wants to keep him happy or I’ll go to hell. He says since I am his wife, I belong to him.

After he finished taking pictures of me, he pushed the bloodwood under the bed and set the alarm clock to six for me to get up and make his breakfast. I lay beside him wearing only the garter belt and black stockings he made me wear.

My punishment went on long after Wally was done – bad memories hurtled through my mind.   I stared at the light fixture hanging from the middle of the ceiling, shiny points in the dark. I prayed for my memories to die —  my whole mind speaking to God. My heart pounded so loud I was afraid the sound would wake Wally.

But he snored and made clicking sounds in his throat. I imagined the bloodwood flying back to Brazil like a magic carpet. I imagined the girl in Wally’s book standing up and swinging her arm back and slapping the man spanking her with all her might. I counted past a thousand, wanting sleep, but then God spoke to me – like a flash of light in my mind:  GO.

General Comments

Overall this first page lays a good foundation for an effective and compelling start to what could be a gripping novel (assuming it centers around Michaela’s escape). I liked the way the reader is immediately caught off guard – from the chirpy first line to the darker entries that follow. Initially I wasn’t completely convinced by the journal entry device (see my specific comments on this) but I did think the use of the first person POV was effective at drawing the reader into Michaela’s world of abuse right from the start. That being said, I do have some specific feedback for our brave submitter that I think might make this first page even more compelling.

Specific Comments

Journal Device

I have two major concerns about the journal device in this first page. First I wasn’t entirely convinced that Michaela would write such a journal entry. The first line seems so cheerfully at odds with the rest of the journal it made me wonder who Michaela thought would read this – would she really be writing “The freshest air in the world! Good morning to me!” when she’s clearly being abused and terrified? My second concern was given what she was writing about Wally, would she really be able to keep a journal from him? He sounds way too controlling for that…and if that’s the case then she would hardly be confessing that God told her to leave him. My suggestion to our brave submitter is to consider using a first person stream of consciousness approach and maybe interspersing Michaela’s thoughts with direct action of what took place the night before. This approach could help introduce a heightened level of dramatic tension – especially if this first page is setting the stage for Michaela’s decision to run.

Grounding

While the reader doesn’t need much in the way of details, I do feel like I need a better sense of place to understand Michaela’s predicament. At the moment all we know is that it’s 1970, she’s somewhere in the mountains, married to an abusive controlling religious freak who likes taking photos and threatening punishment, and that she wishes she was back in Brazil. What we don’t get a good sense of though is exactly where she is (Utah? Colorado? Outside the US?, how she got there (just a hint perhaps of how she ended up married to him), or what kind of bad ‘memories’ are hurtling through her mind. Just a few added details would help ground the reader in the landscape of this first scene and allow us to visualize her predicament (is she miles from anyone else? How easy is it for her to leave? Is there a religious community surrounding her?) I’m not suggesting a lot of detail or background but just a few more specifics to give the reader a better grounding for the drama to follow. This leads to my final comment, on specificity.

Specificity

This first page is designed (I assume) to shock and gain the reader’s sympathy for Michaela’s plight right from the start. It certainly goes a long way to achieving this but I feel it loses some of its effectiveness by speaking in generalities rather than specifics. Not to get too lurid, but I think if the author wants the reader to be appalled and genuinely concerned for Michaela then we need more horrible specifics and less generalities like: “I feared what he would demand next”, “bad memories” or visions of her simply slapping the man (I would definitely be thinking of a far worse fate for dear Wally!). My suggestion for the author would be to step back and consider the intended genre and target audience for this book. At this point I can’t really tell how ‘dark’ this book is going to get, but if the author is going for a darker thriller, then the details are going to matter in a different way (because the audience is harder to shock) than if this is more women’s fiction focused on  Michaela’s escape from her abusive situation. I also can’t tell how much religion is going to play a role in the novel but if it is, then maybe we need to have a better sense of whether Wally a member of some specific religious group or if his penchant for abuse emerged only after they were married. Specifics matter. They add nuance and tension to a first page, so I think just a few more details would help clearly define the predicament and set up for the novel in this first page.

NB: I also noticed the repetition of ‘flash’ (The flash kept flashing; like a flash of light) and was also unsure whether ‘hell’ should be capitalized as ‘Hell.’

Overall though this is a promising start and the set up for a potentially gripping novel – so well done to our brave submitter!  TKZers, what other advice and/or feedback would you offer? Those of you that write darker thrillers might also have better advice when it comes to specifics (I tend to be very gore-averse!)

First Page Critique – The Trouble with Vivian

Happy snowy Monday!

Today’s first page critique is for a submission entitled The Trouble with Vivian and it’s a hard boiled mystery – a quick disclaimer, I am by no means a hard-boiled mystery aficionado, so I will be looking to my TKZ colleagues and community to provide more input in terms of the genre. As with any first page, however, there are a number of key factors that contribute to its success (irrespective of genre) so I hope my comments prove useful to our brave submitter. My feedback follows the submission – enjoy!

The Trouble with Vivian

I stab the red icon on my smart phone.

“Miserly witch.” This month’s rent is only five days late and already she’s talking eviction. I resist the urge to throw the phone across the room, instead slamming it on a pile of unfiled dead case folders. Of course, I still owe her for last month and she has little tolerance for the rain or drought nature of a private investigator’s business. She threatens eviction with more regularity than pigeons shitting on park benches. This time, though, the old biddy claims to have someone interested in my office—as if anyone would want to climb six flights of stairs every day for this rat-hole.

A sigh escapes me. Five days or fifty, what difference does it make? I haven’t landed so much as a missing tabby in months and my bank account is more shriveled than a year-old prune.

I pace.

Wind rattles the only window and I use two nail-bitten, decidedly unladylike fingers to separate a pair of horizontal blinds. Typical Buffalo—leaves swirling on heavy gusts offer the only color on an otherwise dreary grey fall morning.

Five floors below a uniformed man, dark hat obscuring his features, closes the back door of a black Lincoln parked in front of the building’s main entrance. Even alley cats avoid this neighborhood, so I can’t imagine what a chauffer-driven car is doing here.

Surely nothing to do with me.

I return to pacing.

Until the click of heels catches my attention. Frosted glass offers the silhouette of a woman standing right outside my door. She hesitates. A delicate hand lifts and pauses, dangling like the proverbial participle.

While she fights with herself, dollar signs and desperation kick me into gear. I quickly straighten my desk, assembling scattered files into one neat stack atop my in-basket, and then drop into my chair. A spring poking through cracked leather digs into my ass and I bite back a curse. I grab my cell and press its dead, black face to my ear.

“Yeah, yeah. Sure. No worries.” I hope the woman hears—anticipation has my heart pounding and stomach doing the Superman coaster. At last the shadowy hand hesitantly taps on the glass “It’s open.” The knob rattles and hinges squeak. Without looking, I hold up one finger toward whoever enters.

“Hey, Eddie. Gotta run. Don’t worry. I got this.”

Overall Comments

I enjoyed this first page and felt it had the requisite cynical voice and tone that fits the hard-boiled genre. There were some great one-liners that definitely helped reel me in. I particularly liked: “She threatens eviction with more regularity than pigeons shitting on park benches” and “A delicate hand lifts and pauses, dangling like the proverbial participle.”Overall, I think the author did a good job setting the scene for the case to come and demonstrating how desperately the protagonist needs it to make ends meet. I also liked that this hard-boiled PI is a woman:)

That being said, I did feel there was an element of predicability to this first page and some repetition in terms of the protagonist’s financial predicament. I think the ‘less is more’ adage applies here and some judicious editing in the first few paragraphs could help streamline this first page and make it stronger. In terms of the scene, I guess I was just a little concerned (and this is where I’ll need TKZers to help weigh in) that it sounded very much like the start of any number of hard boiled mysteries – a deadbeat PI desperate for a break receives a mysterious client who will change everything…so I wonder if the author is starting the story in the right place (?) as this beginning could seem a bit cliched.

One nit pick – what is the red icon on the phone? I kept looking at mine and wasn’t quite sure what this meant (I have red ‘bubbles’ indicating  when I have a new email or text message but none of those icons themselves are red). For me (and it might be that I’m just a bit dense!) this diminished the strength of the first line as I was puzzling what it meant.

Overall, this first page displayed some good writing chops and I liked the crisp and observant way the scene was laid out. For me, this page definitely has the ‘noirish’ feel of the genre and the protagonist is already compelling. I would definitely keep turning the page to read more!

So TKZers what feedback would you give our brave submitter?

First Page Critique: How To Improve a Compelling Opener

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments/suggestions will follow. Enjoy!

Expendable

Prologue 

Kate turned right onto her parent’s street only to find a street jammed with police cars. A cacophony of lights, flashing red and blue, backlighting people hurriedly moving against the night sky. My parents will certainly be outside watching, she thought. As she drew closer, she was alarmed to see her parent’s house isolated by swags of yellow police tape. 

She jerked her car to the curb and ran toward the chaos.

“I’m sorry, miss. You can’t go up there.” A policeman seemed to appear out of nowhere.

“But, I live here,” she lied.

“This is your house, miss?”

“It’s my parents’ house. I live with them. Please let me through.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. You can’t go up there.” The officer blocked her path and motioned to a man in an overcoat, standing near the garage. The man closed his notepad as he walked over. The two men had a brief exchange before the one in the overcoat spoke.

“Miss, my name is Detective Montoya.” A badge swung on a ball-chain around his neck. “You live here?” he said, opening the notepad again. She nodded. He put his hand on her shoulder, guiding her to a place on the lawn, away from the activity. He began writing as soon as she answered. Asked her name along with a few other questions. She gave terse answers, anxious to get inside. He asked whereabouts that evening requiring a lengthy explanation about her late class on Wednesdays. Each answer seemed to beget another question.

“Miss, what we’re looking at here is a double homocide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself. 

“No,” she said, covering her mouth with both hands. She battled her mind to keep from considering the obvious. “That’s impossible. No, it can’t be. Let me see,” she tried to force her way past him.

“I can’t let you in. It’s pretty gruesome. I don’t know that you could handle it.”

“I need to go inside.”

“I’m afraid you can’t, miss. Right now, it’s a crime scene and we can’t take the chance of you contaminating it.” 

“Look,” She said. “You owe me something. You can’t ask me to endure the entire night wondering if I’m still part of a family or not.” Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

The writer did so many things right. We’re dropped in the middle of a disturbance, s/he raised story questions, added relatability for the heroine, and I could (somewhat) feel her frustration, fear, and anxiety. Great job, Brave Writer! As written, I’d turn the page to find out what happens next.

Let’s see if we can improve this opener even more. Brave Writer included a note about using a prologue. I hope s/he doesn’t mind if I include it here.

I have never considered doing a prologue before but this allows me to describe a major event that will be referred to various times during the story as well as give some backstory about the protagonist and tell the reader what kind of story to expect.

Prologues

The correct reasons to use a prologue are:

  • the incident occurs at a different time and/or place from the main storyline
  • to inform the reader of something they can’t glean from the plot
  • to foreshadow future events (called a jump cut, where we use the prologue to setup an important milestone in the plot)
  • to provide a quick-and-dirty glimpse of important background information without the need of flashbacks, dialogue, or memories that interrupt the action later on (no info dumps!).
  • Hook the reader into the action right away while raising story questions relevant to the main plot, so the reader’s eager to learn the answers.

It sounds like you’re using a prologue for the right reasons. Keep in mind, if you plan to go the traditional route, many agents and editors cringe when they see the word “prologue” because so many new writers don’t use them correctly. If you can change it to Chapter One, you’d have an easier time.

Point of View 

For most of the opener you stayed inside the MC’s head.

Two little slips:

“Miss, what we’re looking at here is a double homocide homicide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself.

See how you jumped inside the cop’s head?

Same thing happened here:

Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

Stay inside the MC’s head. One scene = one point of view.

Dialogue

The dialogue is a bit stiff. I’ll show you what I mean in the “fine tuning” section. For now, I highly recommend How To Write Dazzling Dialogue by our very own James Scott Bell.

First Lines

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the first line, but I think you’ve got the writing chops to do even better. Let the first line slap the reader into paying attention.

To quote Kris (PJ Parrish):

  • Your opening line gives you an intellectual line of credit from the reader. The reader unconsciously commits: “That line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.”
  • A good opening line is lean and mean and assertive. No junk language or words.
  • A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. It says something interesting. It is a stone in our shoe that we cannot shake.
  • BUT: if it feels contrived or overly cute, you will lose the reader. Especially if what follows does not measure up. It is a teaser, not an end to itself.

“The cat sat on the mat is not the opening of a plot. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is.”  – John LeCarre

To read the entire post, The Dos and Don’ts of a Great First Chapter, go here.

Fine Tuning

I dislike rewriting another writer’s work, but it’s the easiest way to learn. I’ve included quick examples of how to tighten your writing and make the scene more visceral. Keep what resonates with you. After all, I don’t know where the story is headed.  

Kate turned right onto her parent’s street only to find a street jammed with police cars. A cacophony of lights, flashing red and blue, backlighting people hurriedly moving against the night sky. My parents will certainly be outside watching, she thought. “Thought” is a telling word. The italics tell the reader it’s inner dialogue. As she drew closer, she was alarmed to see her parent’s house isolated by swags of yellow police tape. “Alarmed” and “see” are also telling words. Remember, if we wouldn’t think it, our POV character shouldn’t either. Some writers have a difficult time with deep POV, which we’ve discussed before on TKZ. It’s one element of craft that we learn at our own pace. For more on Deep POV, read this 1st page critique. In the meantime, here’s a quick example to show you what I mean.

The swags of yellow police tape surrounding her parent’s house quickened her heartbeat. What happened? She’d spoken to Mom and Dad last night. Granted, the call didn’t last long. Mom said she had to go because someone knocked at the door. Endless questions whirled through her mind. Were they robbed? Are they hurt? Did Dad fall again?

She jerked her car to the curb, threw the shifter into Park, and ran sprinted toward the chaos, the soles of sneakers slapping the pavement. Use strong action verbs to paint a clearer mental image. Plus, I slipped in sound. With important scenes, tickle the senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, taste—for a more visceral experience.

A policeman seemed to appeared out of nowhere. Moved to the beginning to show who’s speaking. Here, too, you can paint a stronger picture: A meaty-chested cop blocked her path.I’m Sorry, miss, but you can’t go past the police tape.”

“But, I live here,” she lied. Not bad but think about this: She’s just happened upon a chaotic scene at her parents’ house. Would she be calm or hysterical? “Get the hell outta my way.” She swerved around him, but he hooked her arm. “I live here.”

His head jerked back. “This is your house, miss?”

“It’s my parents’ house. What’s the difference? I live with them. Please Let me through!

I’m sorry, ma’am. Sorry, but you can’t go up there.” Is the house on a hill? If so, you need to tell us sooner so “up there” makes sense. The officer hollered over his shoulder to blocked her path and motioned to a man in an overcoat (trench coat?), standing near the garage. “She’s the daughter.” The man closed his notepad as he walked over. The two men had a brief exchange before the one in the overcoat spoke.

Mr. Trench Coat hustled over, a badge bouncing on the chain around his neck. As he neared, he extended his hand, but she couldn’t shake it. Not yet. Not without knowing what happened. Miss, My name is Detective Montoya. And you are?

“[Insert her name]” Now the reader knows who she is.

Okay, [name]. Let’s talk in private.” He put clamped a his hand on her shoulder and guided, guiding her to a place on to the lawn, away from the activity. Describe the activity. Example: away from photographers snapping pictures, from uniformed officers guarding the front door, from men and women in white coveralls strolling in and out with evidence bags.

A badge swung on a ball-chain around his neck. “Do you live here?” he said, opening the notepad again.

Tears rose in her throat, and she could only nod.

He began writing as soon as she answered. Asked her name along with a few other questions. The detective would hold her gaze. She’s the daughter of two murder victims and he needs as much information as possible before he breaks the news.

She gave terse answers, anxious to get inside. Don’t tell us. Show us!

He asked whereabouts that evening requiring a lengthy explanation about her late class on Wednesdays. Each answer seemed to beget another question. Don’t tell us. Show us!

“Miss (since he knows her name, he wouldn’t call her miss), what we’re looking at here is a double homicide homicide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself.  This dialogue doesn’t ring true. A detective would try to avoid telling her about her parents until she forces him to, which gives you the perfect opportunity to add more conflict through dialogue.

Example:

“When’s the last time you spoke to your parents?”

“I dunno. Before I went to class, around eight. Why?”

“Did they mention anything unusual? A strange car or someone they didn’t recognize hanging around the neighborhood?”

“What? Why? Are my parents okay?”

“Did they meet anyone new recently?”

“Are they in the ambulance?” She peeked around him, but he stepped to the side to block her view. “Look. I’m done answering questions. Get outta my way.”

“[Name], I’m sorry to inform you, your parents…” His words trailed off, his voice muffled by the ringing in her ears.

“No.” Head wagging, she slapped her hands over covering her mouth with both hands. She battled her mind to keep from considering the obvious. What’s the obvious? Do you mean, the truth? Also, “considering” is a telling word. “No. What you’re saying isn’t That’s impossible. I just spoke to them. I’ll prove it to you. it can’t be. Let me see,” She tried to force her way past him. Don’t tell us. Show us! Example: She shoved him away, but he wrangled her flailing arms, pinned her wrists to her side.

“I can’t let you in. It’s an active crime scene now. pretty gruesome. I don’t know that you could handle it.” A detective would never tell the daughter of two murder victims that “it’s pretty gruesome,” nor would he even consider allowing her into an active crime scene whether “she could handle it” or not.

Instead, show us what’s happening around her. Example: The coroner’s van sped into the driveway. Two men dragged a stretcher from the back.

Our heroine entered a chaotic scene. She’d be on information overload, with sights, sounds, smells all around her, almost too much to process.

“Please.” She waved praying hands, her chest heaving with each hard breath, tears streaming over her cheekbones. “Please let me see them. Please.. go inside.

“C’mon, let’s get you out of here.”

“I’m afraid you can’t, miss. Right now, it’s a crime scene and we can’t take the chance of you contaminating it.” 

“Look.” she said. Remove tag. We know who’s speaking. She stomped the grass. “You owe me something kind of explanation. What happened to my mom and dad? Who did this?You can’t ask me to endure the entire night wondering if I’m still part of a family or not.” Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

Wrap it up soon. Prologues should be short. Unless, of course, you decide to make this Chapter One. 🙂 

Brave Writer, I nitpick the most promising first pages because I know you can write and write well. If I thought otherwise, you’d see a lot less red. 😉 You’ve given us a compelling opener and plenty of reasons to turn the page. Take a few moments to see the forest for the trees. The elements I’ve focused on are meant to enhance your storytelling abilities. So, yell, scream, curse me, then get back to work. You’ve got this. Great job!

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

Side note: I won’t be around today. What I’m doing is super exciting (!!!), but I’m not at liberty to speak publicly about it yet. Fill you in later…

Join me, Laura Benedict, and many others on Zoom for Noir at the Bar. Win a signed paperback in the giveaway!

When: Sat., March 20, 2021

Time: 7 pm CST/8pm EDT

Tickets are FREE (limited to the 1st 100 fans)

Where: Comfort of home

Register: noiratthebar.online

First Page Critique: Jane Unknown

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a dystopian YA novel entitled JANE UNKNOWN. This page provides a very atmospheric start to a novel that I’m hoping contains lots of witchcraft! My comments follow. Enjoy!

February 24, 1692

On top of the hill was the stake, not yet aflame. An upright log dark against the grey sky. Beams of light cut through the clouds, slanting down onto the fields, turning some of the tall grass golden. And so how, in this heavenly light, did the stake still look so foreboding? Send a chill to the bone?

The Bachelors of Divinities walked me up the hill. One on each side: Ely and Jonas. I’d known them since I arrived in Salem Village, orphaned, eleven years ago, but they did not act as if they knew me now. I suppose they felt as if they didn’t. They held my elbows roughly—my wrists were already secured with rope behind my back—although they did not need to. There was nowhere to go. We’d all been taught the witches had the woods. Not the other way around: Not the woods had witches. Perhaps that’s why they suspected me? As an orphan, I came from those woods.

My ankle wobbled on a clump of grass, causing me to near fall. Ely sighed loudly and yanked me up by the elbow. Pain shot through my shoulder. It felt as if the muscle had been ripped in half. He muttered under his breath, lip twitching.

The stake loomed taller and taller. We were close, only a few wagon-lengths away. Sweat crept along my cold skin, and I found it hard to take a deep breath.

As we reached the top of the hill, the wind whipped against us, pushing my grey dress against my legs. I wore no apron today. The wind caused hope to blossom within, especially as Ely and Jonas exchanged expressions. It had rained the night before, but this could only prolong my agony—but the wind, the wind it might help me yet. But hope could be dangerous. Disappointment fell all the further when hope lifted one high.

The stake was now in clean sight. A stool, where I would stand, against the log, where they would tie me. They’d arrange the branches and twigs at my feet, and perhaps, if I was lucky, I’d die by smoke first.

I tried to prepare myself: This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. Over and over.

It did help, I suppose. The grass blowing, as if in slow motion. Our walk forward inevitable.

Overall Comments:

I love how the author has woven together the sense of foreboding with the landscape and the weather in the moments leading up to what appears to be a witch burning outside Salem. The author definitely draws the reader in and creates a sense of empathy as well as fear for the main protagonist. Initially, I wasn’t too sure whether this was historical or dystopian YA (as this had been described) but I’d be happy to keep reading whatever direction the novel ultimately takes. I thought the stream of consciousness writing style also worked really well, helping keep the POV close to the protagonist while also feeling very much YA. At times the sentence structure did get a little confusing, but I thought it did feel like we were directly hearing the protagonist’s thoughts as they unfolded.

My only real comment would be that ‘less is more’ – while there’s plenty of atmosphere, there’s less in terms of action, and I think paring down some of this scene could help it flow a little easier. Sometimes the protagonist’s thoughts slowed down the dramatic tension. I’ve copied this first page below to highlight the areas which I think could be edited/cut and yet still retain the terrific atmosphere of this first page. The words in bold are the ones I think should be deleted and I have placed some extra notes in bold and italic. These are obviously just my thoughts (and TKZers may have other advice!). Overall though, tightening up a first page is always a good idea:)

Specific Edit/Cut Options:

February 24, 1692

On top of the hill was the stake, not yet aflame. An upright log dark against the grey sky. Beams of light cut through the clouds, slanting down onto the fields, turning some of the tall grass golden. And so how, in this heavenly light, did the stake still look so foreboding? Send a chill to the bone?

The Bachelors of Divinities walked me up the hill. One on each side: Ely and Jonas. I’d known them since I arrived in Salem Village, orphaned, eleven years ago, but they did not act as if they knew me now. I suppose they felt as if they didn’t. They held my elbows roughly—my wrists were already secured with rope behind my back—although they did not need to. There was nowhere to go. We’d all been taught the witches had the woods. Not the other way around: Not the woods had witches. Perhaps that’s why they suspected me? As an orphan (already said she’s an orphan so delete one of the references), I came from those woods.(note – I actually think these thoughts on the woods and witches could probably be moved to a later scene as it slows down the action)

My ankle wobbled on a clump of grass, causing me to near (do you mean nearly?) fall. Ely sighed loudly and yanked me up by the elbow. Pain shot through my shoulder. It felt as if the muscle had been ripped in half. He muttered under his breath, lip twitching. (Note: this whole paragraph could actually be deleted unless the injury to her shoulder is relevant later)

The stake loomed taller and taller. We were close, only a few wagon-lengths away. Sweat crept along my cold skin, and I found it hard to take a deep breath.

As we reached the top of the hill, the wind whipped against us, pushing my grey dress against my legs. I wore no apron today. The wind caused hope to blossom within, especially as Ely and Jonas exchanged expressions. It had rained the night before, but this could only prolong my agony—but the wind, the wind it might help me yet. But hope could be dangerous. Disappointment fell all the further when hope lifted one high.

The stake was now in clean sight. A stool, where I would stand, against the log, where they would tie me. They’d arrange the branches and twigs at my feet, and perhaps, if I was lucky, I’d die by smoke first.

I tried to prepare myself: This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. This will hurt, but then it will be over. You’ll be with mother. (maybe only need to state once?) Over and over.

It did help, I suppose. The grass blowing, as if in slow motion. Our walk forward inevitable.

Final Comment:

Bravo to our brave submitter!  I hope my comments are helpful. TKZers, what advice or feedback do you have? Looking forward to seeing your comments.

First Page Critique: Scattershot

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. Catch ya on the flip-side.

Scattershot

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  We had it planned, Tom and I. We said goodbye to friends – hoping retirement would be an adventure in everything we did. To drive cross country to New England, a picture postcard of snow and autumn leaves coloring the landscape in hues of red, orange, and yellow.  The Coronavirus took my Tom a week before the move.  His labored breathing and limp body placed in the ambulance drove him to the hospital.  I tested negative.  I never saw him again.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.   Oh sure, plans change, but no one ever thinks death will stop you cold.  Well, it stopped Tom and the hospital confirmed my worst fears.  Grateful to the nurse who held his damp, feeble hand, I listened to his last gasp from the speakerphone.  Tom was gone, the house was sold, and the movers expected me in Connecticut in two weeks to unlock the door.  My new life began without the love of my life.

My name is Joanna Seavers, and I am a 59-year-old retired teacher living in the age of Covid-19 or the Coronavirus or whatever the hell it’s called.  Who knows, and who cares?  All I know is the world stopped for Tom and me in 2020, and everyone else for that matter.

One thing I’ve learned in life, even in a pandemic, is never stop planning. It’s what keeps you alive.  You need a reason to get up in the morning, so I got up.   The pandemic wound down, and I drove north.  Businesses reopened and the population was injected with the second shot of the lifesaving serum.  Mask wearing became optional, but on occasions, I still wore the cloth covering my nose and mouth.  You can’t be too careful in a crowd.

Driving down the highway, the virus in my rearview mirror and Alfie, Tom’s faithful bird dog, really a raven, sitting in the passenger’s seat.  Not sure why my husband had a pet raven, but the relationship remained solid for fifteen years.  I read somewhere domestic ravens have a life span of 40 years, so it was a good thing Alf’s loyalty shifted to me.  We clicked and his companionship sustained me as we drove from the Bay Area out of California, not looking back to what we had lost.

I like the voice of this first page. The biggest problem for me was the lack of emotion. The words are there, but it’s not visceral. You can’t gain empathy for Joanna unless the reader feels her pain. As written, she doesn’t seem all that broken up. If Tom’s death is the trigger that kickstarts Joanna’s quest, it needs to pack a bigger punch. Because the first time I read this page, I thought maybe she’d planned his death…till she mentioned the coronavirus.

Dig deeper, Brave Writer. She’d pinned all her hopes and dreams on retiring with Tom. They had plans, plans they talked about for years. Where’s the grief? Where’s the heartache? Where’s the anger over not having the chance to hold him on his deathbed, of one last kiss, of professing her undying love to the man she’s spent a lifetime with? Tom’s death acted more like a minor blip in Joanna’s life.

To deliver a bigger bang, you need to let the emotions unfold gradually. We’re not fine one minute and hysterical the next. Emotions build in layers, change and intensify, and finally reach a crescendo. For Joanna, Tom’s death should be soul-crushing.

Actually, this is the perfect example of why JSB recommends interviewing characters.

A few questions for Joanna could be:

When did you first know Tom had the virus?

What made you call an ambulance?

How did you feel when the medics said you couldn’t accompany Tom to the hospital? Lost? Empty? Frightened?

Did you have a physical response?

Who broke the news of your husband’s decline? What’d s/he tell you? How did it feel to hear those words?

Are you a different person without Tom? What’s changed?

The reader doesn’t need to know every detail, but you do. Joanna’s past will affect her future. You may be thinking, but Sue, Joanna’s the type to raise her chin and forge ahead. Fair enough. But her silent keening should still bleed through.

Five Stages of Grief

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

The character should bounce between each stage to mimic real life. A step forward to depression, two steps back to anger, etc.

Infuse Emotion

I like the echo of “It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” but let’s force the reader to feel those words.

Quick example:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We had a plan, Tom and I. We had a chance at a new beginning, a fresh start. We had hopes and dreams for retirement. But now, emptiness consumed me, the pit widening more each day. If the movers didn’t expect me in two weeks, I’d never leave Tom’s grave. How did this happen? Why us? We were so careful, so diligent about protection. We made all the right moves. And for what? So I could drive cross-country alone?

Notice I never mentioned what happened to Tom. All readers know is he’s dead, she’s devastated. Let the reader flip pages to find out why. In the next paragraph offer a bit more and get the hero moving.

Example:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Tom and I dreamed of life in New England, with its snow glistening on autumn leaves, hues of Scarlet, orange, and gold-painted landscapes. Pointless now. Muted shades of black and gray zipped by the driver’s window. Up ahead, a motorist leaned under the raised hood of a minivan. (Or whatever the case may be.)

 I added the motorist to accomplish two things:

  • It gets our hero moving, active rather than ruminating.
  • It hints at trouble to come.

Delete the part where Joanna introduces herself. It’s the lazy way out. You can do better.

Add dialogue. Keeping with my motorist example…

I pulled in behind the van, and a man craned his neck around the side of the hood. Not a female. Crap. I should’ve let Dr. Rosenthal change my prescriptive lenses before I left.

The stranger approached my window. “Thanks for stopping.”

“No problem.” I held a tight smile, jabbed a chin at the van. “What happened?”

“Outta oil. I could use a lift to the gas station.”

Joanna resists. The motorist pushes. Against her better judgment she gives in. Blah, blah, blah. During the drive the conversation turns.

“Really appreciate this.” He blows into cupped hands (the cold signals she’s on the east coast). “I’m Frank, by the way.”

“Joanna.”

Boom. Now the reader knows her name. Keep in mind, Joanna’s a woman alone. Other than her first name she isn’t likely to tell this stranger her life story.

“What do you do, Joanna?” The way he said my name raised the tiny hairs on my forearms.

“Retired.”

“From what, Joanna?”

Never had my name sounded so creepy. Tom wouldn’t have allowed a stranger in the car. If he were alive, we’d be halfway to Connecticut by now. (See how I slipped in her destination without slowing the pace?)

Frank rested his hand on my knee. “Joanna?”

Mute, my gaze shifted between his hand and the road. “Is the gas station much farther? My husband’s expecting me.”

“So, you’re not from the area?”

“Umm, I…uh…”

“Where are you from, Joanna?”

Each time my name rolled off his tongue my stomach somersaulted, flipped, acids splashed against the liner. Damn you, Tom! We vowed to grow old together. You promised to never leave me.

“Michigan,” I lied, unwilling to share details about my route from the west coast to the east.

And on and on it goes. I don’t have room for a line edit, but keep in mind there’s only one space after a period.

Pets

The last thing I’ll mention is the raven who materialized out of nowhere. As a die-hard corvid lover, I hope you’re not using the bird as symbolism for doom, gloom, or death. Pets needs a valid role in the plot. If the raven doesn’t fill that need, please consider removing it.

As written, it doesn’t sound like Joanna ever bonded with the family pet, a gigantic bird whose lived in her home for 15 years. It’s odd. When a wife loses her husband, (or vice versa) she clings to any and all traces of him, including his possessions (i.e. Tom’s favorite football jersey, the collar saturated with his scent). A loyal feathered baby should act like Joanna’s life preserver, and not a pet she hardly knew.

Main Takeaway

Concentrate on the fine art of storytelling, less focus on backstory. Allow readers to get to know Joanna in bite-sized pieces. Force the reader to flip pages. And they will, if you avoid filling in the blanks right away. The inclusion of story questions, conflict, dramatic moments, and hints of danger (valid or misinterpreted) helps to create a compelling mystery that strangleholds the reader.

Thank you for sharing your work with us, Brave Writer. Pandemic stories will flood the marketplace, if they haven’t already. Thus, it’s more important than ever to craft a visceral thrill ride so yours rises above the rest.

Over to you, TKZers! I excluded a few things to avoid turning this post into a book, so please mention them in the comments. How might you improve this first page?