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. 

4+

First Page Critique: ALEXA

 

The Party Busload of Exposition (GoDaddy Stock photo)

 

Dearest Readers,

Step into the Kill Zone Critique Parlor, where today’s Brave Author has a tragic tale to tell. Pull up a tuffet, and buckle up. I have Thoughts.

 

ALEXA

Tom’s death changed everything.

I sat in my car, the engine idling, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian. I wasn’t cheered.

It was only twelve weeks past his funeral. When I wasn’t sobbing, I was frowning at the myriad details I’d had to deal with in the days following the end of life as we know it. That’s how I thought of it. I’d packed up the furnished rental, mailed out change-of-address forms and done my best to put on a brave face for TJ. I was exhausted from the long drive that brought us to Ohio.

We’d been planning the move before Tom…went away, but now I was making it alone. Well, with TJ. Tom inherited the yellow house from his grandmother when she passed away six months ago. He’d flown out to look it over and reported back that it needed some updating but had good bones. He said there were lots of rooms, which sounded like heaven in comparison to our tiny two-bedroom in the city. “It has a huge country kitchen,” he said with a grin, poking me in the side and causing me to jump and make a face at him. At the time I was chopping veggies in the postage-stamp that passed for our current kitchen. I leaned my head back against his shoulder and sighed, daydreaming of twirling around in our future house, giddy at all the space.

I’m so angry at the goddamn drunk driver who snuffed out my husband’s life on March 16, 2017. March 16, 2017…a day that will live in infamy. Oh, ha ha. Bitter much?
I guess I have a right to be. All that crap about forgiving. I will not forgive the one who stole his life…and my life and TJ’s.

Maybe with time. Everyone’s quick to say that holding on to the hate I feel for Mr. George Goddamn Daniels will only poison me and not bring Tom back. I feel the poison in me now, but I embrace the huge empty hole eaten away by the acid-generating hatred. I don’t want to feel good, because everything’s bad now. Maybe with time….

I glanced in the rearview mirror at TJ. His face was sad, like mine. He gazed at the yellow house, not moving to open the car door. Maybe the two of us could stare it into becoming our home.
“Ready, buddy?” I asked as I opened my door. My heart broke at his wan smile and “Sure, Mom.”

____________________________________________________

Let me say right off that I’m impressed with the voice of this story. The narrator’s voice is confident and mature. Believable. The sentences are tight and declarative–my favorite. Let’s talk story.

My understanding is that ALEXA is about a newly-widowed woman and her young son who are moving into the house her husband inherited from his grandmother before he was killed by a drunk driver named Mr. George Daniels. The new house is somewhere in Ohio and they’re coming from a bigger (?) city, where they’d lived in a two-bedroom, furnished rental apartment. She loved her husband Tom very much, and she and her son are very sad that he’s dead. She feels poisoned with hate, but doesn’t yet want to go of her consuming, awful feelings.

This opening telegraphs that this is a family or personal drama, and neither a thriller nor mystery. It could end up with a romantic story line, but it doesn’t feel like that will be a focus.

Title

This story is called ALEXA, and there’s no evidence that it has anything to do with Amazon’s AI, Alexa. I was confused right off the bat. I know young women named Alexa, and while I would never confuse any of them with the AI, it’s different when I run into the name as a title. Perhaps I’m being picky (“I’m not picky, I have standards.” –Mindy Kaling), but Amazon comes up first in my brain. Amazon has appropriated the name, and there’s no going back.

Is our narrator named Alexa? Was it the grandmother’s name? If so, somehow let us know asap so we’re not left hanging. This seems to me a sad and rather tender story. If I’m mistaken, and they walk into the beautiful country kitchen (What is considered a country kitchen these days? There are many, many online definitions, but my ancient understanding is that it is a large kitchen with maybe a seating area and perhaps a fireplace. I don’t know what image it suggests to others.) to discover that ALEXA has taken over the house and is programmed to terrorize them, then it’s a story that surely takes a shocking turn on Page 2.

Pacing

May I just say… WHOA THERE, NELLIE!

I was exhausted by the time I finished the first 400 words. I was even more exhausted the second and third and fourth times I read it. I worry because at this pace the novel will only be approximately 60 pages long.

It feels as though you’ve decided to get the backstory out of the way so you can move on and proceed with the action.

We start out very well: “Tom’s death changed everything.”

“I sat in my car, the engine idling, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian. I wasn’t cheered.”

It’s clean. It’s direct. It’s compelling. Though you might consider shifting to present tense with the second line to give the story immediacy and emotional punch.

“I sit in our idling Toyota, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian house. I’m not cheered.”

The third paragraph continues with our narrator relating the many, many things she’s been doing in the past twelve weeks besides staring: sobbing, frowning, dealing, packing, mailing, and putting on a brave face.

In the next paragraph we learn that the family was moving. Tom was also inheriting, looking over, flying, reporting, grinning, poking, and causing our narrator to jump. And she’s making a face, chopping veggies, leaning back, sighing, and daydreaming about twirling and being giddy.

In the fifth paragraph, we learn how Tom died.

In the sixth paragraph, we learn that she’s really, really pissed off at the guy who killed him, and won’t be forgiving.

The seventh identifies the drunk driver.

Then we finally get back to the boy in the car, and the yellow house.

Whew!

What we have here is a busload of exposition. Exposition–a chunk of narrative or backstory plunked in the middle of the action to give the action context (see what I did there?)–can be a useful tool in small doses. In large doses it distracts from the action of the story and slows it down. Note my second paragraph in the TITLE section above. I digress on what a country kitchen might be for such a long time that the reader probably had to go back and figure out what I said about a country kitchen before I opened the parentheses. Even I had to go back and look!

It’s tough to give the reader just enough information to get them interested, and keep them reading.

The thing to remember is that you’re writing scenes. Sentences build scenes. Scenes build chapters, chapters build books. A good way to start is to write one scene per chapter–even if it makes the chapter short. You’ll keep the reader focused, which is what you want to do. At the end of that scene, give the reader a reason to read on.

Here, you could continue this small scene with the boy bravely opening the car door. (I would discourage you from have her opening her door as she asks him if he’s ready. It’s a weighty moment that doesn’t need an activity.) The reader will naturally want to know what they do and see when they’re out of the car. Does she take his hand? Does he shrink back, used to the smallness of their previous home? Is there someone waiting on the porch?

“I’m so angry at the goddamn drunk driver who snuffed out my husband’s life on March 16, 2017. March 16, 2017…a day that will live in infamy. Oh, ha ha. Bitter much?
I guess I have a right to be. All that crap about forgiving. I will not forgive the one who stole his life…and my life and TJ’s.”

There are a lot of critical emotions here. We don’t need them all on the first page. She has a good, direct, confiding tone. But it’s too soon to jump into this. Sure, her feelings are complex. Right now, she’s just arrived at this house. Slow it down.

An aside– Mr. George Daniels is the drunk who caused the accident. It’s probably just me, but I couldn’t help but think of George Dickel and Jack Daniels as though the two whiskey brands had morphed into one drunk person.

“Maybe the two of us can stare it into becoming our home.” This is a beautiful line.

I don’t often suggest rewrites, but here’s a brief beginning. I can envision them getting out of the car, continuing, but you can too.

Tom’s death changed everything.

I sit in our idling Toyota, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian house we were supposed to move into together. I’m not cheered.

Our son T.J. sits in the backseat. In the rearview mirror, I see that he, too, is staring at the house. Maybe the two of us can stare it into becoming our home.

“Ready, buddy?” I ask. It’s been twelve weeks since we buried his father, my husband. My heart breaks at his wan smile, and the way his sad eyes meet mine in the mirror.

“Sure, Mom.”

Get to it, TKZers! I’ve left a couple things unaddressed because I want you to have some fun. What have I missed?

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Know Your Genre and Do the Research – First Page Critique: The Nature of Things

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Wikimedia Commons – Author Cliff (GIANT PACIFIC OCTOPUS) https://www.flickr.com/people/28567825@N03

An intrepid anonymous author has submitted their first 400 words of “The Nature of Things” for critique. My feedback follows. Please help this author and provide your constructive comments, TKZers. Enjoy.

***

“Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella,” said the reporter.

Anna perused the mutilated body. Damage to the head. Impressive gash in the temple and the empty eye sockets.

“Who or what do you think did this?” the reporter prompted. “You were invited out for an expert opinion. Do you think a man or animal killed him?”

The cuts to the head and upper torso were massive and random. It was hard to recognize the face with most of it eaten.

The salty Oregon coastal breeze wafted into the cave opening. It mingled with the stench of rotting flesh warming in the sun. The smell of death has many scents.

“Looks like our friend here met up with some pretty irate sea dweller,” she said. “I’m thinking giant Pacific octopus.”

“How so?”

“See the cuts? How they’re sometimes random, then more concentrated at the injury sites? Looks like damage from an octopus beak to me. Sliced open the soft spot near the temple to get to the soft stuff inside.”

A grisly sight to behold. More hideous than the one she saw one night long ago. Same result. Different circumstances.

“You recognize this guy at all?” the reporter said.

“Why would you say that? Not much left here to recognize.” said Anna.

“No particular reason. You being a marine biologist in this area, thought maybe you might have seen someone hanging about the coastline lately.”

“I’m mostly out in the big ocean. Deep sea. But a person can get lost very easily if they want to.”

Like Pa’s buddy, Ray, from the Viet Nam war. Ray wanted nothing to do with people after being discharged and returned to the states. The hatred and name calling were too much to take. One of the reasons Momma and Pa had moved so far out in the woods of Oregon. Homesteading far away from the prying eyes of local busybodies. Small towns are like that. Gettin’ in other peoples’ business was not just normal. It was a way of life.

She said, “My guess is he went diving in this cave and surprised a trapped and hungry animal. Tentacles most likely grabbed his head and the beak started gnawing away.”

“Detectives just left,” he said checking his notes. “They noted extra shoe prints in the sand. Must’ve had somebody with him.”

“It’s a public beach. Footprints could be from anyone. Anytime,” Anna said.

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – I enjoyed this author’s “stick to the action” writing. The author jumps into dialogue without over-explaining the action.

POLICE PROCEDURE ISSUES – Right off the bat, I’m left wondering how a reporter would be inside the crime scene tape, which is the way this appears. Anna (whoever she is to the investigation as an expert) is examining the body, up close. She’s carrying on a conversation with a reporter as they apparently stand over the body.

Standard police procedure is that medical examiners or coroners (there’s a difference) would make the call on the cause and manner of death. The ME or coroner would take charge of the body and would not leave the corpse behind or bring in anyone at the scene to give an opinion on how the person died. That would be done in the autopsy, if the examiner needed the assistance.

For avid crime fiction readers, this opener would read as implausible for these reasons. That’s a “throw the book against the wall” error, in my opinion. Despite what I may like about this author’s writing, I’m not as forgiving on poor research and lack of knowledge on police procedure.

OCTOPUS KILLS HUMAN? – This seemed odd to me. I had to query it online. Most octopus or squid can cause harm to a human, but not death. Many species are venomous, but they’re mainly harmful to their usual prey and not harmful enough to kill a person. The Humboldt Squid is known to attack a human being en masse and there are videos of these attacks. Very creepy. Is this story about a giant squid or octopus? There’s not much known about them, only if they are found dead and can be studied. If this story is about the JAWS equivalent to a giant octopus, introducing that possibility through Anna in the first scene seems too soon. It would be best to build on the suspense.

GENERAL QUESTIONS – Why would the reporter say, “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella” in the first line? There’s no follow up on why the reporter disparaged the dead man. Then the reporter asks Anna if she knew the dead guy, without offering an identity. It would appear that the reporter doesn’t know the dead man either, so why the first line insinuation?

Why keep Anna’s last name a secret? This excerpt reads like a first draft with details stripped out. Now is the time to layer in details that don’t overwhelm the reader and slow the pace, but will add a gripping setting with details of who is on that beach with the corpse.

There’s also an assumption that the corpse is dead because a man or animal killed him (the reporter asks). A body could’ve been dumped in the water with animals eating at the corpse or damage sustained from churning in the water over rocks. The reporter is asking questions and leading the reader by TELLING what they should know. I would suggest that if Anna is the expert, let her examine the body and give her opinion to a detective or medical examiner/coroner. A reporter would be the last person allowed onto a crime scene when the body is still exposed. Also, if I were the reporter who got beyond the police barrier, I would be taking photos with my phone. Asking questions is secondary to getting those gruesome pics.

Why would the eyes have been eaten out of the body? Would an Octopus be so selective? Seems like a delicate procedure to focus on the eyes like that.

SHOW – DON’T TELL – In the dialogue lines, the reporter tells Anna what the author wants the reader to know. A sneaky way to TELL and not SHOW. Here are some examples of TELLING lines:

Reporter: “You were invited out for an expert opinion…” (Anna would already know this. A reporter would not.)

Reporter: “You being a marine biologist in this area, thought maybe you might have seen someone hanging about the coastline lately.” (Again, Anna would already know her occupation, but why would the reporter know?)

Reporter: “Detectives just left,” he said checking his notes. “They noted extra shoe prints in the sand. Must’ve had somebody with him.” (Reporter is TELLING the reader what the author wants them to know. Why isn’t the detective the one talking to Anna? And why isn’t she the ME or coroner? The author must do the research to make this more plausible.)

Maybe make Anna be the person who spotted the body on the beach and called it in to the police. She’d be involved and have to be questioned on the spot. A reporter wouldn’t be allowed near the body, especially if the next-of-kin notifications have not been done. Major No No.

BACKSTORY DUMP OUT OF CONTEXT – Because of the spartan style of this author’s voice, not much is known about Anna. Not even her last name. The excerpt below feels out of context. I would prefer the author stick to the action and layer in more details of the setting and the feeling of standing over a gruesome body than to read the details below that could be pieced in later when they fit better.

Like Pa’s buddy, Ray, from the Viet Nam war. Ray wanted nothing to do with people after being discharged and returned to the states. The hatred and name calling were too much to take. One of the reasons Momma and Pa had moved so far out in the woods of Oregon. Homesteading far away from the prying eyes of local busybodies. Small towns are like that. Gettin’ in other peoples’ business was not just normal. It was a way of life.

SETTING CAN ENHANCE THE SCENE – Is the weather cold and windy? What are the waves doing? Are they a calm ebb and flow of water or do the waves dramatically crash onto a rocky shoreline? The Oregon coast is mostly rocky, but pick a spot and describe it so a reader from the area recognizes the setting.

How does the sea mist and air feel on her skin as she stares down at a grotesque corpse? Sand carried in the wind and salty sea air can feel gritty on the skin. The brackish water has a smell that can mingle with the stench off a putrid corpse. Is the body tangled with seaweeds? Have other creatures crawled onto the body as the ocean laps around it?

I would recommend focusing on selective details that ADD to the setting and the emotion the author wants the reader to feel when they read this intro. Don’t write volumes that slow the pace, but pick the most essential descriptors that will trigger memories in the reader, even if they’ve never visited the Oregon coast.

CHARACTER ESSENCE – I had mentioned that the backstory dump seemed out of context, but nothing is known about Anna up until that point. Let the reader in on who she is without TELLING the reader in that backstory dump. The same way it is important to stick to the action and not TELL the reader about the character, try sharing details about Anna that SHOWS who she is.

What is she wearing? Does her clothing and other details say anything about who she is? Proper footwear? Jewelry? How does she fix her hair? Are her nails short or long, polished or not? You don’t need to describe all of these points, but have an idea who she is and pick the most essential ways to show the kind of woman she is to the reader by subtly filtering the most essential details into the narrative.

Is she repulsed or clinical about examining the corpse?

Is she observant about the details of the body AS WELL AS the details of the whole crime scene and who is there?

If Anna is the star of this story, the author could set her up better than the way she comes across in this intro. The reporter seems to know more than she does, for example. I have some suggested changes listed below:

SUGGESTED CHANGES – SUMMARY:

Pair Anna up with a detective that might challenge her. Have there be friction between them because she is an outsider and not a detective. If she proves to be a necessary expert where the detective is forced into using her, the friction you start with will only enhance the story line. Have her mind work like a detective as she clinically examines the dead body and doesn’t act squeamish. Any dialogue in an introduction like this could be like reading a game of cat and mouse. The lines would SHOW who these two are and how they’re matched for each other. Have him obviously trying to get her insights then try to get rid of her, while she keeps adding things that make him wonder if she might help him more. Do they know each other from the past? That could be fun.

Layer in more setting that enhances the morbid scene. That would be delicious.

Tease the reader with what killed the man and not spill the beans right away. It’s very cool that we could be talking about a giant octopus – an 8-legged JAWS creature. Milk that. I can hear the dialogue between the detective and Anna now. He thinks he knows how the guy died. Body dump. The sea and its creatures did the damage, but what if at the end of the scene, Anna breaks the news that the man died from a rare octopus attack. Have her hint that it’s not the first as she walks away. That could be a chilling start.

OVERALL – I really liked the voice of this author. Like I said before, this reads like a first draft and stark, bare bones writing. But it’s a good place to begin to fill in details that can only enhance the writing. Many of the typical beginner mistakes are not raging in this intro. Yes, the lack of crime scene research would be a deal killer for me as a reader, but if the author has a good foundation on writing, the research can be learned and developed. There’s lots to tweak with this beginning, but there’s a great deal of promise here. Good luck with your project, anonymous.

DISCUSSION:

What do you think, TKZers? Provide your feedback in your comments.

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