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?

 

 

1+

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.

_______________________________________________________

 

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?

6+

First Page Critique: Go

By Sue Coletta

Today, we have another brave writer who submitted their first page. My comments will follow.

Title:  Go

Ch 1 Go, Said the Bird

I twirled a pencil. My second-graders rustled papers, whispered. We all watched the clock, how slow its hands moved.

The bell rang. I let out a breath.They scrambled into coats and jackets.

“…tomorrow, Miss Glass,” several shouted.

I plodded from school to the Blue Lake City cemetery. After the years I couldn’t, I now forced myself to visit my parents once a month.

“I’m fine,” I told my mother. “Really.”

I kicked at the slush of the last snow. The inside of my fur-lined boots grew wet. Someday, I’d mean those words.

A caretaker tended the graves. No gray lumps of old snow, no weeds, no trash.

I trudged back to Northside, food wrappers rattled on broken pavements, burnt out street lights, the remains of the last three snowstorms packed the gutters.

On Huron Avenue, a tall cop hustled a small, brown-skinned woman out of Ray’s Hardware.

“I did not steal,” she said.

He leaned forward. She retreated and bowed her head.

“Look at me, bitch.”

That deep voice. Redmann. I twisted my fingers together.

For years I’d avoided him, and he might not recognize in a twenty-six year old the terrified child he dragged out of the closet.

He never paid. No justice for my parents.

I ducked my head and hurried into Johnny O’s store.

A grin lit his broad ochre-colored face, and dissolved into drawn brows. “Long face, Nettie. ”

I leaned on the counter. He whipped out two pineapple popsicles and handed me one. Too sweet, the sour taste of lying to my mother, of seeing her killer, thick in my throat.

“You visit your parents today?”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Johnny O is psychic.” He clapped a hand to his heart. “But Nettie does not believe. Woe, woe.”

A smile tugged at my mouth.

“Better.” He patted my hand. “You need a boyfriend.”

“And here I thought I didn’t have a mother.” Thrusting Redmann out of my thoughts–I had to–I bought tomato soup, Swiss cheese, and bread while we made plans for dinner and checkers later in the week.

Across the street, Redmanm hauled the woman toward his car.

***

This is a tough opener for me to critique, because I get the feeling Anon is early in his/her writing journey. When we begin our writing journey, magic surrounds us. We can’t know what we don’t know, and there’s a magical beauty in that simplicity. A harsh critique at this writing stage could do more harm than good. It’s in this vein that I offer a few suggestions to help nudge this brave writer forward.

First lines

Your first sentence should entice the reader to continue on to the next sentence and the sentence after that. “I twirled a pencil.” Doesn’t accomplish that. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the sentence, except that it’s generic. Meaning, it delivers no punch, nor does it hint at the genre, nor does it promise an intriguing storyline to come. It just sort of sits there.

We’ve discussed first lines many times on the Kill Zone. Back in 2010, Joe Moore described a first line this way:

We’ve often discussed the power (or lack of) that first lines have on the reader. It can’t be emphasized enough how much a first line plays into the scope of the book. For just like first impressions, there is only one shot at a first line. It can set the voice, tone, mood, and overall feel of what’s to come. It can turn you on or put you off—grab you by the throat or shove you away. It’s the fuse that lights the cannon.

Joe nailed it! See how important your first line is, Anon? For further study, type “first line” in the search box and you’ll find numerous articles on this subject.

Point of View

Nailing Point of View is one of the hardest elements to grasp. It’s also imperative to learn, because readers connect with our main characters through the proper use of POV. 

The third sentence We all watched the clock, how slow its hands moved.” is a point of view slip. As Laura mentioned in a recent first page critique, “we” implies a rare, first-person, plural narrator. If we’re inside the teacher’s head, then we can’t know what the students are thinking i.e. “how slow its hands moved.”

You could show their boredom through the teacher’s perspective …

Carlton’s chin slipped off a half-curled palm, his elbow unable to hold the weight of his head till the bell rang. (then add a line or two of internal dialogue to show us the MC’s reaction –>) Why he insisted on sitting in the front row still baffled me.

Clarity

We never want to confuse the reader or make them re-read previous paragraphs in order to know what we’re talking about. My remarks are in red.

I plodded from school to the Blue Lake City cemetery. After the years I couldn’t, I now forced myself to visit my parents once a month.

With this sentence structure, the reader has no idea what the narrator means by “I couldn’t” until the end of the sentence. That’s too late. Easy fix, but it’s something you’ll want to look for in your writing.

Rewrite option: After years of avoiding my parents’ grave, I made it a point to swing by the cemetery once a month.

“I’m fine,” I told my mother (mother’s gravestone?). “Really.”

I kicked at the slush of the last snow. The inside of my fur-lined boots grew wet. Someday, I’d mean those words.

Here again, you’ve given us context too late. “Someday, I’d mean those words” should come before “I kicked at the slush of the last snow.” Which I love, btw. Great visual.

Dialogue

If you haven’t read How to Write Dazzling Dialogue by TKZ’s own, James Scott Bell, do it. The book’s a game-changer.

On Huron Avenue, a tall cop hustled a small, brown-skinned (<- is it your intention to show Redmann as a racist? If so, just tell us she’s Hispanic. Also “small” and “tall” are generic terms. “Petite” implies small in stature, though) woman out of Ray’s Hardware.

“I did not steal,” she said. Dialogue should sound natural. This woman sounds stiff and unconcerned. If she’s being unfairly accused of stealing, make us feel her frustration.

He leaned forward (why would he lean forward? Did you mean Redmann invaded the Hispanic woman’s personal space? Towered over her?) She retreated and bowed her head. Try to be as clear as possible. “She coward” or “quailed back” works.

Possible rewrite: Redmann invaded the petite woman’s personal space, and she coward.

“Look at me, bitch.”  Add body cue so we know who’s speaking. Perhaps something like, his spittle flew in her face.

That deep voice. Redmann. I twisted my fingers together. I don’t understand this body cue. Do you mean, my hand balled into a fist? Which implies anger.

For years I’d avoided him, and he might not recognize in a twenty-sixyearold the terrified child he dragged out of the closet. Delete the MC’s age. Or make it less obvious that you’re sneaking in information. Something like: For twenty years, I’d avoided him. Little did he know, I wasn’t the same terrified six-year-old who huddled in the closet while he murdered my family. Soon, he and I would reconnect.

Good luck dragging me out of the closet by my hair now, asshole. (Please excuse the foul language. I’m trying to show Anon how to use inner dialogue to portray rage, and the nickname works to prove my point.)

Sparse Writing

There’s a big difference between writing tight and writing that’s too sparse.

He never paid. No justice for my parents.

Here again, my initial reaction was, paid what? Sure, you cleared up the confusion in the second sentence, but that’s too late. Be concise. Don’t let your writing get in the way. “Redmann never paid the price for killing my parents” works just fine.  

I’m going to stop there. All in all, I like where the story is headed. A schoolteacher runs into the killer who murdered her family. Intriguing premise!

Favorite line: I kicked at the slush of the last snow. 

TKZ family, please add your thoughtful and gentle suggestions for this brave writer.

 

5+

First Page Critique: Shadows of Leonardo

Happy Memorial Day! I want to first share my appreciation for all those who have served to defend our freedom and then turn to today’s first page critique entitled Shadows of Leonardo. Although I’ve provided my comments following the submission, I need to rely on you TKZers to help generate some further discussion and comments as I am winging my way to Mumbai, India(!) No doubt this trip will generate future posts, but for now, enjoy this submission and see my feedback  at the end.

Russia

Dosevski Railroad Station

January 1945

For the first time in his life, he hated snow. He glared at the endless white expanse and spat over the edge of the train platform, the spittle hardening into ice as he scanned the hazy blue horizon for Russian tanks.

. Standing over six feet tall, Sturmbannführer Kurt Seitz turned his back to the razor wind that piled snow over stiff straw-filled boots. A convulsive shiver racked him and he hunched inside his greatcoat, recalling skiing holidays in Austria with his younger brother before the war. Dieter had been the better skier, but he was dead now, killed at Normandy.

At least he’d been spared Russia, Seitz thought.

The abandoned station cowered like a stranded orphan in ragged clothes, half the roof collapsed, ice daggers lining the eaves. The frozen boards beneath his boots were hard as prehistoric stone, and Seitz imagined shaggy creatures stirring in ice-lined caverns below the platform. A tattered train schedule in Cyrillic script flapped in the wind until he ripped it down and let the wind carry it away.

Why, he wondered, had some witless Ivan constructed a rail line and train station in the exact center of nowhere? The entire goddam country was an endless succession of mosquito-infested marshes and impenetrable forests, scattered villages populated by beings no better than the animals they kept inside during the interminable winters.

And snow. An endless, punishing sea of snow.

Gloved hands balled in his pockets, his boots squeaked on snow as he paced the platform, scowling at the featureless landscape as though a giant hand had flung tons of bakers’ flour over the earth. Around him, only scattered bomb craters broke the monotony, the pitted earth filled with more snow. An expert in pits, he’d ordered droves of frightened Jews, Gypsies and Russians to dig countless mass graves in their final moments. An art education in Heidelberg and Berlin had promised a refined life, but his professors’ lectures hadn’t included toleration of Jews and Untermensch, and after enlistment, he was assigned to an SS einsatzgruppengroup to sweep away Europe’s dregs.

He stamped his feet and turned his back to lit his last Russian cigarette. The tip of the cardboard tube flared, his lungs convulsing at the coarse tobacco. Russian cigarettes smelled like a Turkish outhouse, but he had to hand it to the Russians: the bastards produced tanks like a bitch birthing pups.

Comments

What really stood out for me with this first page was the voice – I immediately felt a sense of the protagonist’s character and, even though he wasn’t exactly likable, it provided a compelling introduction. What also stood out for me was the immediate sense of place and of the cold – although I am on the fence as to whether there’s too much description in this first page…I like it as is, but I can imagine that some of our TKZers would argue that more action or dialogue would help ramp up the tension in this first page. For me, I was willing to wait to find out exactly what the protagonist was doing in this desolate part of Russia (apart from waiting for Russian tanks to appear!).

As far as character goes, the only thing that didn’t quite ring true to me was the art education reference in his background – Initially this protagonist sounded more hardened than that (though war will do that!) – but I would certainly be willing to read on to see how that backstory all came together. Given the title of the book, I’m assuming the art part plays a major role in the plot of this book so Seitz’s backstory will be an important component. Other than this, and some minor typographical errors (I think you need an ‘and’ before ‘scattered villages’ – or something to make this sentence complete), I thought this was a strong, compelling beginning to a historical mystery or thriller. I would definitely read on!  Bravo to our brave submitter and I look forward to seeing the feedback from some of our TKZers. Sorry in advance if I can’t contribute much to the discussion while I’m traveling.

 

 

5+

A Good Intro Still Can be Tweaked – See How with the First Page Critique of RELENTLESS

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Wikimedia Commons public image – S Korea interrogation cell

We have an intrepid author willing to submit the first 400 words of their latest project RELENTLESS for critique. Gutsy. I’ll have my feedback on the flip side. Please add your comments/constructive criticism to help this author.

***

I was seated in a faded leather armchair but couldn’t move. Nothing below the shoulders worked. I was able to turn my head from side to side. That was all. The sensation brought back a memory from twenty years ago when I was an eleven year old girl and fell out of that elm tree. The impact on the ground knocked the wind out of me. I was afraid. Back then the fear was temporary. This was different.

The room was stark, blacks and whites. Sharp edges on furniture, sun-bleached fabric on the one couch. A window was open. Cold air poured in. I heard waves pound against rocks at a distance. I took a deep breath, I wasn’t stressed. My practice of daily meditation born of my Buddhist belief kicked in. I remained calm, focused.

A solid dull brown door creaked open and he walked in. He was maybe five feet five inches, stocky build poured into a three-piece suit, vest and all the trimmings.

He carried a single manila folder, walked in front of me and sat on the edge of a scarred leather topped captains desk. His eyes were set close to a narrow nose, the only hair on his head was a tight goatee, closely groomed. He dropped the folder on the desk and crossed his arms. A small puff of air expelled through soft nostrils. He was Vietnamese. Some of that blood ran through me. I knew his essence.

He stared at me and smiled. “The resemblance is uncanny. Truly remarkable,” he said in a voice that sounded like he was telling me a bed-time story. “I must apologize for the inconvenience.”

My eyes were glued to his face. Not a muscle twitched. His or mine.

He dropped his arms, braced them on the desk with his hands. “Your name is Alice Weathers.”

“Yes,” I said.

“You teach second grade.”

“Yes.”

“I am curious. You did not have a purse with you.”

“It was in the trunk of my car. I didn’t need anything so I left it.”

“It’s of no matter. Fingerprints and blood type have provided your identity. A verification procedure to have been conducted regardless of personal identification.”

“What’s this about?”

“Miss Weathers, the drug that was administered affects your upper and lower muscles. It will wear off in modest time and you shall be fully restored. You have nothing to fear. Where is it you teach second grade?”

“Orange Unified.”

“That is correct. But you were seen leaving the Skyline Tower office building today. Why were you there?”

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW

There is a great deal to like about this submission. I really liked that the author stuck to the action and didn’t stray too far. I will suggest some clean up on the front end, but I would definitely keep reading to find out the mystery of why this woman has been drugged and interrogated.

There’s also palpable tension between Alice Weathers and her interrogator. Cagey dialogue. The author makes us care what happens to Alice, a teacher.

With the first person POV, the author quickly established the prisoner is a woman in the first paragraph and doesn’t make the reader have to guess.

I also like the quick dialogue with minimal use of tags. It’s easy to follow and the minimalist approach adds to the tension. I also like that she’s cagey too in her replies. She only answers his questions with one word replies of “Yes.”

Some good lines that I particularly liked:

…stocky build poured into a three-piece suit, vest and all the trimmings.

Some of that blood ran through me. I knew his essence. (In one simple line, the author cleverly gave insight into Alice, that she was Vietnamese, thereby raising the mystery of what’s going on.)

REALISM

I had to ask myself that if this were me, what would I want to know from my interrogator. Alice is too calm. She’s seems like more than a teacher by her cagey replies and her disciplined mind, but I’m wondering if the tension might become more real if she asked her interrogator questions as he entered the room. Fiction and conflict could be ratcheted up if she’s more confrontational from the start. Focus on THAT before she very clinically describes the room. (The author doesn’t go too overboard with the descriptions, but when you imagine this written with more conflict, the intro could be more emotional and more real.)

“What did you give me? I can’t move.”

“You have no right to hold me. I’m an American.”

I also have to ask myself why the man would’ve drugged her. He could have hauled her into the interrogation room or facility (like in an arrest). What’s the purpose for the drug? I’m sure we will find this out soon (I hope), but it might be more authentic if Alice would question this first before she describes the room so clinically. We need to feel her internal panic, even if she doesn’t allow him to see her fear. The first few paragraphs are too calm for someone drugged and taken against her will.

HOUSEKEEPING

This is a pet peeve of mine but a line like this makes my mind imagine this literally.

My eyes were glued to his face.

Of course her eyes aren’t literally “glued” to his face, but nonetheless, my mind shifts to the imagery and pulls me from the story. The distraction can be avoided by rewording.

My gaze fixed on his face.

Using “eyes” can be tricky, but as I’m writing the line, I’ve trained myself to think of the sentence as literal to avoid an editor or a reader raising an eyebrow. You could also play with the lines to make the brief description feel more real.

He had my full attention. I couldn’t turn away. His eyes were riveting.

Other nitpicks from me:

I heard waves pound against rocks at a distance.

Alice hears the ocean from that open window, but she can’t know (by the mere sound of the water) that the waves are hitting rocks. I still loved this detail, but I fixed this in the rewrite below.

A small puff of air expelled through soft nostrils.

In this short description of the interrogator, Alice can’t know his nostrils are “soft” and unless she has super hearing, she isn’t likely to hear a small puff of air leave his nose.

LAYER THE MYSTERY

As nicely written as this piece is, there are ways to milk this first short scene for a mystery that readers will be intrigued to discover. Questions that come to mind are:

Is Alice innocent or does this interrogator have a reason to hold & question her?

He seems to know something about her, but what?

In this paragraph, the interrogator remarks about “the resemblance is uncanny.” See the line below:

He stared at me and smiled. “The resemblance is uncanny. Truly remarkable,” he said in a voice that sounded like he was telling me a bed-time story. “I must apologize for the inconvenience.”

Since we’re in Alice’s POV, what does she think about this? Without drawing something out of Alice – perhaps fear that this man truly knows something secretive about her – this is a missed opportunity for dropping breadcrumbs for lovers of mystery.

Alice could be shocked by his remark and try to not show it, but too late. Also the transition between his “resemblance is uncanny” line shifts too quickly to him apologizing for the inconvenience. The mystery is trampled over. The more important aspect of this exchange is the fact that he hints about knowing something about Alice. The apology is really not necessary in light of that.

He stared at me and smiled. “The resemblance is uncanny. Truly remarkable,” he said in a voice that sounded like he was telling me a bed-time story. “I must apologize for the inconvenience.”

REWRITE SUGGESTION

When the man smiled, chills skittered down my arms.

“The resemblance is uncanny. Truly remarkable.”

REACTION 1:

What the hell was he talking about? (internal thought for Alice, formatted in italics. She strains not to react.)

REACTION 2: Let the man deliver his line and savor Alice’s shock by punctuating his line with a chilling smile afterwards, not before.

“The resemblance is uncanny.”

When the man smiled, chills skittered down my arms. I didn’t want to react, but too late. I blinked. How much did he know?

TELLING vs SHOWING

Here are a few lines that are definitely TELLING, but because the submission is already well-written and the tension palpable, the TELLING isn’t needed and can be deleted. If you get the prose right, the “telling” lines should not be required.

I was afraid. (paragraph 1)

…I wasn’t stressed. (paragraph 2)

I remained calm, focused. (paragraph 2)

REWRITE SUGGESTION

The first few paragraphs that have Alice seated in a leather chair, seemingly paralyzed, are too focused on describing the details of the room. It reads like “author intrusion” when the writer is more concerned with setting than what might be going on in Alice’s head. By focusing on these details, it diminishes her fear and any real sense that she is in danger.

BEFORE:

I was seated in a faded leather armchair but couldn’t move. Nothing below the shoulders worked. I was able to turn my head from side to side. That was all. The sensation brought back a memory from twenty years ago when I was an eleven year old girl and fell out of that elm tree. The impact on the ground knocked the wind out of me. I was afraid. Back then the fear was temporary. This was different.

AFTER:

I couldn’t move. Nothing worked below my shoulders. I could only turn my head, but the heaviness of my arms and legs scared me. It reminded me of the time I fell out of a tree when I was eleven. I thought I’d broken my back and the horror of being paralyzed for life rushed back to me. I swallowed a gasp and my eyes burned with tears that blurred the room.

Where the hell was I?

Cold air poured in from an open window. I felt it on the skin of my face and I heard ocean waves pounding against a shoreline or a barrier wall. I strained to shift my gaze to take in the room, looking for clues of where I was. It felt important.

A stark austere room of blacks and whites. I sat in a worn leather chair. A sofa across from me had been sun bleached, but nothing looked familiar.

My body reacted to my dire situation. Beyond my head movements, my lungs could breathe. I took a deep breath and settled my heart, letting my Buddhist belief in meditation take over.

When the only door to the room creaked open, I flinched when a man walked in. A short stocky build poured into a three-piece suit, vest and all the trimmings.

He carried a single manila folder.

There are ways to shuffle the descriptions around to create more tension and make Alice’s situation more dire. Remember, the reader is in her head. The author’s job is to intrigue the reader that they must keep turning the pages. We are already squarely on Alice’s side in this well-written piece, but tweaking this introduction can bring out more. That’s where “layering for added emotion” and editing can make a real difference.

DISCUSSION:

I know you all have comments for this talented author. Fire away. Please give constructive criticism and/or encouragement.

3+

First Page Critique: Ghost Wind

Happy Monday! Today I’m critiquing the first page of a historical novel entitled Ghost Wind. My comments follow and I look forward to getting some great feedback from you, TKZers!

The Ghost Wind

This was the door the Mexican boy had pointed out to her. She stepped up onto the boardwalk, side-stepping a hole in the rotten wood, the wind pelting her with dirt and dead leaves and causing the oil lamp overhead to swing precariously back and forth. The door was solid and locked tight. Standing on her toes and reaching above her head her fingers found the iron key above the lintel, just as he’d said. The glass panes in one of the windows were shattered, their jagged edges reflecting the moonlight. She struggled with the lock, the key finally turning with a hollow click. The force of the wind slammed the door inward and knocked the few remaining shards of window glass from their panes.  She entered cautiously and looked around the room.  Just enough moonlight penetrated the darkness to reveal several pieces of furniture shrouded in dusty canvas. Lifting the coverings, she found a long leather-covered central table, a cot, a few cabinets still in serviceable condition.  The building seemed solid, but the wind still whined around the warped window sills sending leaves and twigs skittering over the floor and causing the ghostly canvas to billow and fall. She shivered and tried to rub some warmth back into her arms. Whatever made her think it was always hot here?

She continued making a slow circuit of the room, trying not to bang her shins against unseen obstacles. It was near midnight, but the night was still alive with sound. Guitar music drifted from a cantina across the street accompanied by bursts of laughter from a nearby saloon. A door banged somewhere farther down the street. Slow footsteps marched up the narrow boardwalk and then stopped, grinding the broken glass below the window. For a moment it seemed whoever was passing had moved on until a familiar sound stopped her cold. The four, slow, distinct clicks of a gun hammer being drawn back. She knew that sound.

She drew a sharp breath, inhaling the room’s lingering odors of dust, mildew, sour liquor, and stale sweat. The dry branches of a leafless tree scratched against a window making demon shadows dance on the far wall.  The lamp outside, creaking on its rusty hinges, thrashed in the gusty wind. Her hands, already cold inside her gloves, grew clammy.

“Don’t. Move.”

§

It had been a long journey across some of the ugliest, most barren wasteland imaginable. First by train to Waco, then by stage to some godforsaken place called Ben Ficklin, and finally by horseback to… here. San Angela, Texas. A hundred miles from nowhere and on the road to who the hell cares where. But here she was. Nearly fifteen hundred miles. And she felt like she had walked every one of those miles. She was dirty, cold, tired, hungry, and in no mood for an argument.

My comments

The real strength of the first page is the atmosphere it evokes and the attention to detail that allows the reader to get a strong sense of place as well as the past. That being said, these could also be considered weaknesses given the lack of action and dialogue – illustrating the delicate balancing act any author has to achieve on this all important first page!

Because I really enjoyed this first page, I’m wary of making too many recommendations (reader tastes are always subjective after all) but I do think tightening up the initial descriptive paragraphs would help pick up the pace so the reader can reach the critical moment where the gun is being drawn back a little quicker. I wouldn’t take out much, but some of the description is redundant and could be removed without impacting the atmosphere or dramatic tension in this first scene. I would also consider changing the one line of dialogue “Don’t. Move.” to something less conventional or cliched. Something unexpected here would definitely intrigue the reader especially since the next paragraph provides further background (I have to say I love the way the line ‘she was dirty, cold, tired, hungry, and in no mood for an argument’ could feed back into that one line of dialogue).

By way of suggestion only, I’ve re-pasted the first few sections, striking through some of the lines of description I feel are redundant.  See if you agree, TKZers. I think visually if the first page could end with the line of dialogue it would also seem less wordy and more appealing to readers. Otherwise, I thought this was a terrific first page. Bravo to our brave submitter!

The Ghost Wind

This was the door the Mexican boy had pointed out to her. She stepped up onto the boardwalk, side-stepping a hole in the rotten wood, the wind pelting her with dirt and dead leaves and causing the oil lamp overhead to swing precariously back and forth. The door was solid and locked tight. Standing on her toes and reaching above her headher fingers found the iron key above the lintel, just as he’d said. The glass panes in one of the windows were shattered, their jagged edges reflecting the moonlight. She struggled with the lock, the key finally turning with a hollow click. The force of the wind slammed the door inward and knocked the few remaining shards of window glass from their panes.  She entered cautiously and looked around the room. Just enough moonlight penetrated the darkness to reveal several pieces of furniture shrouded in dusty canvas. Lifting the coverings, she found a long leather-covered central table, a cot, a few cabinets still in serviceable condition.  The building seemed solid, but the wind still whined around the warped window sills sending leaves and twigs skittering over the floor and causing the ghostly canvas to billow and fall. She shivered and tried to rub some warmth back into her arms. Whatever made her think it was always hot here?

She continued making a slow circuit of the room, trying not to bang her shins against unseen obstacles.It was near midnight, but the night was still alive with sound. Guitar music drifted from a cantina across the street accompanied by bursts of laughter from a nearby saloon. A door banged somewhere farther down the street. Slow footsteps marched up the narrow boardwalk and then stopped, grinding the broken glass below the window. For a moment it seemed whoever was passing had moved on until a familiar sound stopped her cold. The four, slow, distinct clicks of a gun hammer being drawn back. She knew that sound.

She drew a sharp breath, inhaling the room’s lingering odors of dust, mildew, sour liquor, and stale sweat. The dry branches of a leafless tree scratched against a window making demon shadows dance on the far wall. The lamp outside, creaking on its rusty hinges, thrashed in the gusty wind. Her hands, already cold inside her gloves, grew clammy.

2+

First Page Critique: Unearthed

Today’s first page critique is for a mystery/thriller entitled ‘Unearthed’. My comments follow  – see you on the flip side – and I look forward to getting further feedback from the TKZ community.

UNEARTHED

The thing Rosemary said was a corpse lay against the garden wall, under the tree. Jittery from lack of sleep, Cal left her on the outside stairs leading to his flat, crossed the lawn and approached the wall, cold London air nipping at him. It wouldn’t really be a dead body, of course, whatever his landlady said. A trick, a mannequin got up in men’s clothes, or some wino passed out after wandering in off the streets, it would be. Then he saw the long coat and dirty orange hood rising out of it.

“Oh, this guy,” he said.

“What?” Rosemary was all clenched into herself, teeth at her nails. He’d never seen the old girl shaken before; he couldn’t have this.

He raised his voice. “Come on, mate. Time to go.” The man didn’t move. His hooded face was turned to the wall. Cal tapped his shoulder. His fingers met a jolting thinness under the coat. He sighed. If he gave the guy some breakfast, he’d keep coming back and Amanda’d throw a fit. Rosemary wouldn’t be any too joyful, either. “Hey. You can’t sleep here.”

“He isn’t,” Rosemary said. “I knew I shouldn’t have, but I looked. I pulled that hood up a bit. He’s bloody dead.”

Cal crouched. The man didn’t smell of alcohol. Something weird, sweetish, but not alcohol. There was no movement, either. Not even breathing. “Oh, no. Oh, God.”

Rosemary came down a few steps. “Did you say you knew him?”

“No, just saw him this morning, coming home from work. I thought he was just pissed. He must’ve been ill. I’m such a dick, I should’ve checked.”

Rosemary waved a dismissive hand. Cal saw all her sixty-three years this morning, gathered in lines on her forehead and around her mouth. “That wouldn’t have been him.”

“It was. I remember the clothes. I was coming through the park, he was headed the same direction.” Stumbling and swaying behind him as he crossed the park in winter dawn. “He was holding his head funny; maybe he was in an accident. He was quite far behind but I could’ve stopped. I should have asked if he was — Oh, shit, Rosemary, what if he was dying and I just –”

“It wasn’t the same man. Look at him.”

Cal pressed his fingers into his brow. “Didn’t see his face.”

“Just look,” she said.

MY COMMENTS

Overall, I think this first page has potential. I liked the casualness and tone of protagonist and his reaction to the possibility that the body was that of ‘wino’ he’d seen earlier (someone he’d ignored rather than helped) felt both realistic and sympathetic. For me, however, the dramatic potential of this first page is undermined by some awkward phrasing and dialogue, as well as inconsistencies in Rosemary’s character/reactions. I would also liked a bit more sense of place (more about that below). First, let’s deal with my phrasing/dialogue concerns.

Even in the first paragraph there are some awkward, clunky sentences, repetition and disjointed sentences which initially seemed jarring (at least to me). I had similar phrasing issues throughout the first page and thought the easiest way to illustrate these concerns was to mark up the page – bolding the issues/awkwardness and putting my comments in italics. While some of my comments may seem a bit petty, it is vital that this first page reads smoothly and succinctly to capture the reader’s interest. I’ve also added some comments about Rosemary’s reactions and dialogue – which I discuss in greater detail after the marked up version.

So here goes.

UNEARTHED

The thing Rosemary said was a corpse (seems a clumsy way to begin) lay against the garden wall, under the tree. Jittery from lack of sleep, Cal left her (we know it’s Rosemary but grammatically this sounds like the corpse as that’s the subject of the previous sentence) on the outside stairs leading to his flat, crossed the lawn and approached the wall (repetition), cold London air nipping at him. It wouldn’t really be a dead body, of course, whatever his landlady said (note: at this stage we don’t know Rosemary is his landlady)(Maybe a colon or dash would be better grammatically?) A trick, a mannequin got up in men’s clothes, or some wino passed out after wandering in off the streets, it would be (this is unnecessary and clunky). Then he saw the long coat and dirty orange hood rising out of it (what is it? Assume coat but sounds awkward).

“Oh, this guy,” he said.

“What?” Rosemary was all clenched into herself, teeth at her nails (sounds like she’s bent over with her teeth pushing against her nails when I think author means she has her nails in her mouth). He’d never seen the old girl shaken before; he couldn’t have this (awkward/redundant).

He raised his voice. “Come on, mate. Time to go.” The man didn’t move. His hooded face was turned to the wall. Cal tapped his shoulder. His fingers met a jolting thinness (weird description for me) under the coat. He sighed. If he gave the guy some breakfast, he’d keep coming back and Amanda’d (looks weird – I prefer Amanda would) throw a fit. Rosemary wouldn’t be any too joyful, either. “Hey. You can’t sleep here.”

He isn’t,(maybe add ‘sleeping’ to be clear – otherwise sounds a bit of an odd reply). Rosemary said. “I knew I shouldn’t have, but I looked. I pulled that hood up a bit. He’s bloody dead.”

Cal crouched. The man didn’t smell of alcohol. Something weird, sweetish, but not alcohol. There was no movement, either. Not even breathing. “Oh, no. Oh, God.”

Rosemary came down a few steps. “Did you say you knew him?” (Cal hasn’t said this…just ‘oh this guy’ – which doesn’t mean/sound like he actually knew him)

“No, just saw him this morning, coming home from work. I thought he was just pissed. He must’ve been ill. I’m such a dick, I should’ve checked.”

Rosemary waved a dismissive hand (why dismissive?? This seems inconsistent given how tense and worried she’s been). Cal saw all her sixty-three years this morning, gathered in lines on her forehead and around her mouth. “That wouldn’t have been him.” (Not sure why she says this – doesn’t make much sense as she doesn’t know who Cal saw…why would she know it wasn’t the same person?)

“It was. I remember the clothes. I was coming through the park, he was headed the same direction.” Stumbling and swaying behind him as he crossed the park in winter dawn. “He was holding his head funny; maybe he was in an accident. He was quite far behind but I could’ve stopped. I should have asked if he was — Oh, shit, Rosemary, what if he was dying and I just –”

It wasn’t the same man. Look at him.” (Again how does she know that??)

Cal pressed his fingers into his brow. “Didn’t see his face.”

Just look,” she said. (At what?? Up till now Rosemary hasn’t said she knows anything more about the corpse that Cal does…so why does it now sound like she does??)

ROSEMARY’S CHARACTER, REACTIONS AND DIALOGUE

While I was fine with Cal’s reactions and concerns, I was a little confused by Rosemary. She obviously ran to Cal to tell him she’d discovered a body and, though it was understandable that Cal didn’t believe her initially, Rosemary’s attitude then seems to shift  from tension and concern to a dismissiveness that I found very strange. First she dismisses Cal’s observations out of hand and then seems to be certain that the dead body is not the person Cal saw earlier. The rationale for this is unclear. Perhaps Rosemary saw something on the corpse’s face but, based on this first page, it seems odd that she wouldn’t have said something to Cal right away.

SENSE OF PLACE

Finally, I would have like to have got a greater sense of place in this first page. Apart from the reference to ‘London air’ nipping at him, we have only generic references to a wall, a tree, a park, and a block of flats. I would have liked a bit more specificity. For example if we knew it was an old gnarled oak tree, that Cal had been walking on Hampstead Heath, and if the block of flats was a red brick, post WWII era block – this would have all added more color/texture to the first page and helped ground the reader in time/place.

Overall, I think this page could be an interesting opening to a mystery novel set in London and the specific issues I’ve identified can easily addressed during the revision process.  So TKZers what do you think? What comments would you give to our brave submitter??

 

 

 

 

3+

First Page Critique: Watch All Night

By SUE COLETTA

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

WATCH ALL NIGHT

It was the other buildings that looked sinister. They slumped against each other, lining the alley in ancient, faded red-brick. Their boarded-up windows bothered Joe the most. They made the buildings look blinded. February chill, boosted by the river, let him hurry past those dead old things, still hanging round like they didn’t know their time had come and gone.

He could hear the Felbrigg changing from a warehouse to an apartment-building before he saw it. And there it was, full of life, construction crews hammering and buzzing, wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows, fancy new glass door. Fitting into the London of now.  

Joe went in.

#

Greeley, the building manager, took off his reading glasses and nodded to the two construction guys coming up the corridor where the gym and lift were going to be. The men headed for the front door. This desk station and security room made an island in the middle of the reception floor. A corridor ran all the way to the back of the building, on both sides of the island. Greeley had already run through the CCTV system in the security room, and how to change the recording. The security technology at the desk station was more or less the same. Greeley had explained about the alarm, the keys, the touchpads, the drawer contents.

Greeley looked Joe over with down-sloping grey eyes for about the fifth time. Joe knew the sight he made, six-foot-three, the extra muscle he’d put on, and his entire past in his face. Good look for a security guard; not so good, otherwise, to men like Greeley.

Now the men working on the gym had gone, he could hear Greeley’s nasal voice better through all the banging and drilling.

Greeley’s wide, soft jaw settled back into his neck. He said, “So. Think you can remember all that?”

Joe nodded.

***

The way Anon set the scene in the first two paragraphs works for this particular reader. We know where we are, and I found the dinginess of the building compelling enough to keep reading. The first line implies something terrible is about to happen within said building. Which is great. Could the sentence be stronger? Yeah, but that’s an editorial nitpick. I’d rather focus on the big picture.

The largest concern for me occurs after the hashmark. We have a couple POV hiccups and a distant narrator. A hashmark indicates a new scene, yet we’re in the same building as the previous paragraphs. See my confusion? At first, I thought we’d switched to Greeley’s POV, but it doesn’t appear that way. 

Anon, if you meant to switch to a different POV, then we have an even bigger problem. The first page should only be one scene. One POV per scene. 

Everything after the hashmark is more world-building. There’s also a lot of telling. Whenever we use words like heard, saw, thought, knew, etc., we’re not showing the story in a deep point of view. Think about how you, the writer, views the world. For all intents and purposes, you are that POV character. So, rather than tell us you heard or saw something, show us.

Example of telling (limited POV): I heard waves crashing against the rocks. I saw the salt water slash through the veil of ivory foam.

Without adding to the imagery, here’s the same example, only this time we’re in deep POV (showing): Waves crashed against the rocks, the salt water slashing through the veil of ivory foam.

See the difference? You don’t need to tell the reader that the character heard or saw the waves. It’s implied. How else would s/he know?

Okay, there’s another problem. Everything after the hashmark isn’t interesting enough to carry the first page. The building is under construction. We get it. Move on. Don’t waste precious real estate by over-describing. If you want to include the debris, then sprinkle it in later.

The first page needs to accomplish several things:

  • Raise story questions
  • Pique interest
  • Indicate genre
  • Introduce hero (or in some cases, the villain)
  • Gain empathy; not necessarily likability
  • The POV character needs a goal

I recently finished a terrific thriller entitled A Killer’s Mind by Mike Omer. Let’s look at the first paragraph as an example of how to include all of the above by showing, not telling …

The sharp scent of formaldehyde filled the room as he poured the liquid into the mixture. He had hated the smell at first. But he’d learned to appreciate it, knowing what it represented: eternity. The embalming fluid kept things from deteriorating. “Till death do us part” was an unambitious concept at best. True love should ascend beyond that point.

Did this paragraph raise story questions in my mind? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out who this killer was embalming.

Did it pique my interest? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out what this killer might do next.

Did it introduce a character in a compelling way? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out more about this killer.

Did I know the genre right away? Absolutely! It’s a serial killer thriller.

Did I have empathy for the villain? Yes! He’s looking for love and thinks the only way to keep Mrs. Right is by embalming her.

Does the villain have a goal? Absolutely! His goal is to build a life-long union with a woman who will never leave him.

And Omer accomplished all of it in one paragraph. Bam. I’m hooked! The rest of the first page drew me in even more. Powerless to fight the urge to stop reading, the world faded away as I frantically flipped pages like a junkie searching for a fix.

Check out the rest of the first page …

He added more salt than the last time, hoping for better results. It was a delicate balance; he’d learned that the hard way. The embalming fluid promised eternity, but the saline solution added flexibility.

A good relationship had to be flexible.

There was a creak beyond the locked door. The noises—a series of irregular squeaking and scraping sounds, intermingled with the girl’s labored groans—grated on his nerves. She was trying to untie herself again. Always moving, always trying to get away from him—they were all the same at first. But she’d change; he would make sure of that. There would be no more incessant movement, no muffled begging, no hoarse screams.

She would be quiet and still. And then they would learn to love each other.

Notice, too, how the killer is moving; he’s active. We’re not hearing about what he did after the fact. We’re experiencing it firsthand through the killer’s POV.

Anon, you need to do the same in your first page. Show us where Joe goes after he enters the building and why we should care. You don’t need to reveal any big mystery, but you do need to hint at it to hold our interest.

This next paragraph tells us what happened instead of letting us experience it ourselves:

Greeley had already run through the CCTV system in the security room, and how to change the recording. The security technology at the desk station was more or less the same. Greeley had explained about the alarm, the keys, the touchpads, the drawer contents.

Granted, it’s best to breeze over the boring stuff. We don’t need to know how to operate CCTV, unless it impacts the plot in some way. If the paragraph falls into the boring stuff category, then it doesn’t belong on the first page.

Ideas

What if Joe reviews last night’s tapes and sees something strange … a burglar, someone being kidnapped, UFO lights, whatever fits your genre. He shows the footage to Greeley and we’re off and running with a new mystery, a goal for our hero, and intrigue.

Or …

What if Greeley storms over to Joe’s work station with damning footage of Joe sneaking into the building last night. But Joe was at home all night. See all the story questions that might arise from that one simple action? Is someone trying to setup Joe? For what, burglary, murder, or a far more sinister scheme? Who hates him enough to frame him? And why? How’d he or she get his passcode or security card?

With the right action, it’s easy to plant questions in the reader’s mind. But you do need the right angle. We also need to plant the reader in that moment with the hero or villain, rather than the narrator telling us about it after it happened.

This paragraph confused me:

Greeley looked Joe over with down-sloping grey eyes for about the fifth time. Joe knew the sight he made, six-foot-three, the extra muscle he’d put on, and his entire past in his face. Good look for a security guard; not so good, otherwise, to men like Greeley.

I’m guessing Anon’s trying to describe Joe, but it doesn’t work. Some authors never describe their characters. They leave it up to reader-interpretation. On Facebook, a fan asked Karin Slaughter what one of her main characters looked like. Her response? He looks exactly how you picture him in your mind. Perfect answer, right?

The writer needs to know their characters intimately, including their looks, but the reader doesn’t, unless their unique style adds to their character in some way. For example, some of my characters wrongly assume Shawnee Daniels lives a gothic lifestyle. She hates the label, but I show her uniqueness to enhance her character — dressing goth-like raises questions about her. Is she hiding behind all black for a reason? Is she using makeup like a mask to shield the innocent girl who cowers inside? See where I’m going with this?

Greeley has that bulldog look. Great. Let another character tease him about his downward-sloping eyes. Men give each other s*it all the time on construction sites. Show him getting razzed by one of the guys, and then show his reaction to the ribbing. Does he fire the guy on the spot? Does he throw things? Cry? I wouldn’t let this play out on the first page, though. Just spitballin’. 😉

Anon, I see something special in the first two paragraphs. You have the writing chops to make this first page compelling. You just dropped the ball after the hashmark. Happens to the best of us. So, take a moment to curse me out, then get back to work. Make us proud, because I know you have it in you. 

Favorite line of this first page: Greeley’s wide, soft jaw settled back into his neck.

You nailed the body cue in that line. So, stop playing it safe elsewhere. 🙂

Over to you, TKZers. How might you improve this first page? Did the first two paragraphs draw you in? Could you guess the genre from this small sample? What’s your favorite line? Which, if you’re game, I’d like to include in all first page critiques. Not only will asking for a favorite line add a positive spin to the critiques but knowing where the brave writer succeeded is just as beneficial as knowing where s/he went wrong. 

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