The Fifth Floor: First Page Critique

 

Happy Wednesday, everyone! Another anonymous Dear Author is here to share some work today. Check it out…

The Fifth Floor

A kid rolls by on a skateboard. It’s old—maybe one he inherited from his father—and  layered with stickers bearing the logos of early-nineties ska bands. Streetlight Manifesto, Hepcat, Five Iron Frenzy, The Toasters, Reel Big Fish.

“Do you want to make twenty bucks?” I ask, amplifying my voice just enough for it to carry over the wind.

The kid looks behind him, startled, but doesn’t lose his balance. Impressive.

I’m sweating like a jonesing addict despite the sixty-degree weather. My hair, once thick and lustrous, feels like a dank rag draped over my head.

With a degree of coordination I’ll never master, the kid shifts his weight to reverse the skateboard’s direction and comes back toward me. The board skids to a stop on the sidewalk two feet from where I stand.

“You say twenty bucks?” In his eyes, I detect more curiosity than suspicion. If I were a man, standing on the sidewalk in this same middle-class neighborhood, he’d probably have kept going. Maybe called the police from the cell phone I’m sure weighs down one of his pockets.

“You heard right.”

“I don’t deal drugs.”

“Never thought you did.”

The kid’s trying to look like a street punk, with a ratty tee shirt and worn cargo shorts that almost slip off his narrow hips. I’d put him at ten or eleven. But he’s clean, his hair’s been recently trimmed, and braces puff out his thin, pale lips.

“What do I gotta do?”

“What do you have to do,” I correct automatically. Bad habits.

The kid snorts. “You a teacher or somethin’?”

“Hardly. Listen, all I need you to do is go with me to that public storage place across the street. See it? Just ride up the elevator with me to my unit, then use my code to go back down. That’s it.”

He studies me for a moment through intelligent brown eyes. Probably sussing out potential reasons behind my odd request. “What’s your name?”

“Roxie,” I reply.

Shit. I’m so not cut out for this. Why couldn’t I have told him Angela or Kate or Thomasina?

“I’m Kevin.”

“Nice to meet you.”

We shake hands. His grip is firm and perfunctory. Somebody’s taught him well—maybe the father who gifted him the retro skateboard.

“Ready?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Okay. When do I get the twenty bucks?”

“When you leave me on the fifth floor.”

“Deal.”

_______________________

Today Dear Author has made my job tough by writing so well. Let’s talk about all the things that are spot on with this gem of an opening.

Opening paragraph:

A kid rolls by on a skateboard. It’s old—maybe one he inherited from his father—and  layered with stickers bearing the logos of early-nineties ska bands. Streetlight Manifesto, Hepcat, Five Iron Frenzy, The Toasters, Reel Big Fish.

I wish I knew if this were an opening to a novel or a short story. It feels to me like a short story, but I wouldn’t wager money on it. Immediacy is critical to any written story, and this paragraph draws us right in. We observe the kid, with an extra added bonus of movement. He “rolls by,” rather than “goes by” or “passes by.” Nice. We know the kid is a boy, and that the narrator seems to have been waiting.

The narrator is observant, and even makes up a small story about the skateboard and the boy’s dad. We don’t know that it’s a true story, of course, but it tells us that the narrator likes to provide possible reasons and explantations for the things she sees. It’s a hint that she may be a bit of a fantasist. In truth, the kid could’ve just come from stealing the skateboard from another kid or a pawn shop. That said, she also seems to know about 90s ska bands, and this detail tells us that it’s probably a contemporary piece.

“Do you want to make twenty bucks?” I ask, amplifying my voice just enough for it to carry over the wind.

The kid looks behind him, startled, but doesn’t lose his balance. Impressive.

It’s dialogue that drives this opening page and keeps up the theme of immediacy. I do take issue with the word “amplify.” Technically it’s okay, but it makes the narrator sound old, and her word choice stilted. But she also uses the very casual word, “bucks.” One of those two words should be changed. I vote for losing the “amplify.” Also, does the wind show up again?

The next sentence is perfect. The kid has skills.

I’m sweating like a jonesing addict despite the sixty-degree weather. My hair, once thick and lustrous, feels like a dank rag draped over my head.

More description of the narrator. Ew. She’s seen better days. I’m curious! I can almost feel the dankness.

With a degree of coordination I’ll never master, the kid shifts his weight to reverse the skateboard’s direction and comes back toward me. The board skids to a stop on the sidewalk two feet from where I stand.

Does the narrator ride skateboards? It feels like that’s indicated when she speaks of a “degree of coordination.” Or is she just awkward in general? Maybe “heads back,” rather than “comes back.” That the kid stops the board so suddenly is interesting. He seems rather aggressive, which I didn’t get at first.

 “You say twenty bucks?” In his eyes, I detect more curiosity than suspicion. If I were a man, standing on the sidewalk in this same middle-class neighborhood, he’d probably have kept going. Maybe called the police from the cell phone I’m sure weighs down one of his pockets.

Okay. So they are in a middle-class neighborhood. I didn’t see that coming. I think I was picturing a busy street.  Are there public storage rental places in middle-class residential areas? Nice detail about the phone and the pockets.

“You heard right.”

“I don’t deal drugs.”

“Never thought you did.”

A telling exchange. I like that the boy is matter-of-fact, but cautious.

The kid’s trying to look like a street punk, with a ratty tee shirt and worn cargo shorts that almost slip off his narrow hips. I’d put him at ten or eleven. But he’s clean, his hair’s been recently trimmed, and braces puff out his thin, pale lips.

In his ratty tee shirt, and worn cargo shorts that threaten to slide from his narrow hips, he’s trying hard to look like a street punk. But he doesn’t quite pull it off. He’s clean, his hair’s been recently trimmed, and braces puff out his thin, pale lips. I’d put him at ten or eleven-years-old.

I’m a big fan of this piece’s short, declarative sentences, but you don’t want to start out too many of them with, “The kid…”

“What do I gotta do?”

“What do you have to do,” I correct automatically. Bad habits.

Funny. Do the bad habits belong to the narrator, or the boy?

The kid snorts. “You a teacher or somethin’?”

“Hardly. Listen, all I need you to do is go with me to that public storage place across the street. See it? Just ride up the elevator with me to my unit, then use my code to go back down. That’s it.”

Very clear. I’d go!

He studies me for a moment through intelligent brown eyes. Probably sussing out potential reasons behind my odd request. “What’s your name?”

“Roxie,” I reply.

Shit. I’m so not cut out for this. Why couldn’t I have told him Angela or Kate or Thomasina?

This is very telling about the narrator, and does make her sound young, and inexperienced at making weird requests of an eleven-year-old boy. She no longer sounds stiff.

“I’m Kevin.”

Charmingly proactive to introduce himself so boldly.

“Nice to meet you.”

We shake hands. His grip is firm and perfunctory. Somebody’s taught him well—maybe the father who gifted him the retro skateboard.

Also excellent. I like that she carries the her fantasy about the dad forward.

“Ready?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Okay. When do I get the twenty bucks?”

“When you leave me on the fifth floor.”

“Deal.”

Terrific cliffhanger here. They are off to the storage unit. What can be there, and why does she want him to leave her up there????

_____________________

Overall, I’m delighted with this piece and would like to read more. My comments are essentially line edits. We get a great picture of the boy, who seems to think he’s streetwise, but who also can’t get over having manners. The narrator, too, is interesting. With a little tweaking she can be more consistent and defined.

TKZers! I couldn’t find all that much to say. What are your thoughts?

Thanks for sharing this first page, Dear Author!

 

5+

First Page Critique

Today’s first page critique is a great example of a piece where the ‘voice’ is critical. It’s a stream-of-consciousness, first page narration which we don’t usually see. My comments, follow. Enjoy!

Lilly’s Tree

There’s always been something gratifying in watching Mama suffer, even if it was only a little bug of a thing, like Lilly locking a fist around a swatch of hair hanging from the twisty knot Mama kept her hair tucked into. Lilly would pull on it like she was the force of gravity. Mama’s eyes would tear up, and she’d let out a screech that sounded like a cat with its tail flattened underfoot. That was when Lilly was in the hair-pulling stage of babyhood, right after the biting stage and right before the pinching stage commenced. It did no good trying to restrain those little Houdini arms when they came at you. Once her fingers latched on, no amount of force would make her let go. You had to distract her. Look, Lilly, there’s the firststar shining up there in the sky or Lilly, let’s you and me get some strawberry ice cream. Mama didn’t catch onto that trick like I did. Instead, she’d go off like a struck match. She was never quick to look for the funny in something. Mama I mean, not Lilly. Just about everything had a chance of making Lilly laugh, even Mama.

Before the accident, or even before Lilly for that matter, it felt like Mama was tall as a tower when it came to watching over me. It had some to do with her being protective, I’m sure, but mostly it was because she had a suspicious nature towards me, especially after Tommy Baxter and the hickey incident when I was in sixth grade and the pack of cigarettes she found in my sock drawer last year. I overheard her telling Pastor Mike I was a highly impressionable girl and religious instruction was essential for the development of my good moral character. She was sure he’d start me right in the world. Mama had Pastor Mike visit with us every Sunday after service. He’d talk about matters I didn’t much understand or even care about, but it was pleasant listening to him all the same. The pastor would throw a smile in my direction every so often, even when he was up there behind the podium at church, and his smile would stretch right up to those blue-as-the-sky eyes. I held the belief it was a smile he reserved exclusively for me, which made it impossible not to smile right back.

My comments

This seems at first glance (at least to me) to be non-genre specific – it could be a literary, coming-of-age novel, or it could be a first-person narrated mystery or thriller. At this stage, the scene is set really for either – with enough references to possible paths (Lilly’s accident, the pastor…) to keep this reader guessing as to the novel’s direction. I thought the characterization was strong – even in this first page we get a strong image of Lilly, Mama, and the narrator’s personality.

It is heavily reliant on the success of the first person narrator and this voice is what will carry a reader through the entire story so it has to be perfect. All in all I think this voice is successful so far and, as a reader, I was pulled along and wanted to read more. That being said, there were times when the word choice used seemed out of sync with the overall tone (use of the words ‘gratifying’ and ‘commenced’ and the ‘Houdini’ reference seemed a little more sophisticated than the voice appeared to be (at least to me). One of the key elements of any successful first person voice is the consistency and authenticity of the voice so this would be my only caution to the author – make sure you fully inhabit this narrator and make word choices accordingly. At this stage we don’t know enough about the narrator, beyond her being about middle school age, to be sure, but the sentence structure and voice on this first page seemed chatty, childlike, and unsophisticated (to me it also sounded very Southern – but as an Australian I’m not very good at picking American voices in literature). There was also an undercurrent of something a bit darker which I liked. In fact, if anything I’d like to see more darkness (particularly when it comes to the Pastor – not sure why, but I’m already suspicious of him!).

There wasn’t much in the way of action or dialogue on this first page but I think this worked in this stream-of-consciousness style beginning. For me there was enough narrative pull and tension to keep me reading but other readers may have wanted something more dramatic on the first page.

TKZers, what did you think?

Let us know what comments you have on this submission and how this first page can be improved.

3+

First Page Critique: A Million Closed Eyes

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

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Shuttetstock image purchased by Jordan Dane

 

Today I have the pleasure of reading and critiquing the first page of this anonymous submission. My feedback will be on the flip side. Constructive comments appreciated for this daring author.

CHAPTER ONE: AUTHENTICATION

Patrick, when you were seven, the three of us—you, your twin Prairie and I—stood exactly here, on the sidewalk in front of the Thomas J. Cahill Hall of Justice. I was teaching you about the injustice system, but I never called it that in front of you and never in front of Prairie, even after the police treated us so abysmally when Flemming stole you. Mommy wanted you to watch a trial, to see real lawyers in action, not TV lawyers.

That day, the sun reflected off the white walls of the courthouse and hurt your eyes so I bought sunglasses for you after the trial. You wanted pink ones like the ones Prairie picked out. Maybe you’re like your uncle Max. Not that I’d mind. You can be anything except gone.

Today, the clouds hover close to the ground, like the fog you hated because you thought it would smother you. Couldn’t convince you it wouldn’t.

On my way up the courthouse stairs, I bump shoulders with a protester, say, “Sorry,” and enter the double-glass doors. Protesting light sentences for pedophiles would be fine if more than a scatter of ten showed up. Max can attest that more protestors turn up to complain about gay marriages. What an upside-down world we live in, right?

Some of the children I meet in Internet chat rooms when I’m trolling for pedophiles remind me of you. Silly to imagine I might be chatting with you, but I do. Makes it hard to act like a child instead of a mother. I’m pretty good at it, though…acting like a kid I mean. Good enough to have eight notches on my belt, eight sick suckers who turned up to meet the pretend me and met the police instead. Whatever they got in court, they deserved. And more, so much more.

Wonder what today’s pervert will look like.
Oops. Not supposed to even think that word. Way too easy to slip up in court.

The defendants don’t send pictures, you know. Not their faces. Some body parts, that’s all, and that’s more than enough, but when I turn up court to give evidence about the chat logs, I’m always surprised. They look normal, Patrick, just like Flemming. You tried to tell me he wasn’t normal. Not directly, but I should have known.

A mother should know.

FEEDBACK:

I read this submission several times before I pondered what might make it stronger. The intimacy of this first person narrative is compelling. Who wouldn’t be drawn to this mother’s story of a young son kidnapped by an online stranger?

By the end of this short introduction, I wanted to get a better sense for what was happening and where it might go, but because the story is told through the meandering thoughts of the mother, without any true sense of the present action, it bounces between the present and the past without clear context. There’s a fleeting mention of her trip to the courthouse (written in present tense) without giving a reason why she’s there. In my opinion, to make this stronger, I’d like to recommend the following:

1.) Stick With the Action – Pick an action for the character and this scene. It could be a grieving mother struggling to get into a courthouse where protesters are trying to free a Hollywood celebrity jailed for three days on a DUI charge, to show the injustice of the system, but the action would allow us to focus on a framework that has pace and movement.

Or this first scene could be centered on her in a dark room, guided only by the light of the computer monitor, as she obsessively engages another pedophile. Leave it a mystery until the end that it is a mother searching for her missing son. Picking the right action can still get the story set up across, but with more thought for suspense or mystery, the author could draw the reader into the story with more focus centered on this poor mother.

2.) Use of Tense – The intro starts with past tense because the mother’s mind drifts from past into present and back into the past again. At the mention of the word “today” where she is at the courthouse, the tense changes to present for only a brief instant before it changes back into the past. I think this would be hard to keep up with throughout the story. Some readers take issue with present tense. It’s used in YA, because teen readers like the immediacy of it, but adult readers tend to gravitate toward past tense as the norm. Because this story has the potential to drift in and out of the past, I would pick the past tense and make it clear when the narrator is thinking in memory.

3.) Show Don’t Tell – If this intro had a more definitive action to frame the scene, it would “show” the reader what is happening, rather than “tell” the reader the story through the recollections of the mother. The reader is distanced from the story without the action.

4.) Nitpick: If Prairie is a girl’s name, it might be a good idea to add her gender in the second sentence – ie: “…and never in front of your sister Prairie…”

Overall: The author did a good job of allowing the reader to know we are seeing the story unfold through the eyes of the mother and let the gender be known. That’s not easy to do in first person. Often authors forget to clue the reader in, but this author did a skillful job in layering in those clues. Because this story is about a mother’s plight involving a missing son, I would have kept reading, but I think there are ways to make this introduction stronger.

What about you, TKZers? Please share your thoughts on what would make this 400 word submission stronger. And please share what you  like about it.

3+