My last TKZ first page critique for 2019. I want to thank all the brave authors who have submitted their novel introductions to share with our TKZ community. Although it’s never easy to hear criticism, no matter who you are, we grow as authors by taking risks. Kudos to all the courageous writers we have at TKZ–those who submit their work and those who offer constructive criticism. Thank you all.
From the airport, I drove north in a rental car toward Ketchum, and turned onto a small paved road that ended at an estate owned by a man who had offered to pay me handsomely for an assignment he wouldn’t describe over the phone. I announced myself to the intercom and the gates swung onto a flat curve of driveway. A big-guy checker piece in black answered the doorbell. He mumbled into an earpiece and jotted in a small notebook, a juxtaposition of the new and old. I noticed this because Tireia would notice, and lovers learn such habits from one another.
The big guy identified himself as Jonathan. He led me down a wide hall peopled by brass effigies and through double doors into the presence of a massive sandstone fireplace that loomed over curved and plush seating. The room was filled with paintings and statuary, rainforest plants, and stacks of oversized books on tables that looked as if they were laser-hewn from petrified wood. The drapes were open on floor-to-ceiling windows, displaying a lawn that flowed to sage-strewn foothills on this high-desert side of the road to Sun Valley.
Jonathan left and I wandered over to a Gainsborough-like portrait of a woman in a pleated gown that covered her feet. It was better than the other one on the same wall, of a high-breasted brunette in a print blouse, who sat in a thin chair and stared out of the 1940s at the viewer. She was familiar, and not being able to place her irritated me. The signature in the corner read, “Katherine March.”
Soft footsteps signaled the appearance of my trim and compact host. He sported a velvet smoking jacket and suede slippers, which made me grin.
“I’m Cassim Geyer,” he said.
We shook hands.
“I assume you’ll be flying your plane home, Mr. Sapere, so I won’t offer liquor. Will tea do?”
“Tea? Yeah, OK.”
He went to the fireplace and pulled a bell cord, which delighted me only slightly less than the lovely young woman who soon appeared, in a short black skirt over a white blouse. Cassim requested the tea and sat down across from me. He flicked a bit of nothing from his slacks, looked up, and caught me regarding him.
“Tradition has its upside,” he said, “if you take it with a dollop of nonconformity.”
SETTING FOCUS IN INTRODUCTION – This introduction sticks with the action of what is happening. No real backstory. That’s a plus, but when the tedious description of the setting overtakes the narrative, the pace slows down to a crawl. The author hasn’t given me enough reason to care about the setting. I really don’t know where Ketchum is – in Oklahoma or Idaho? If the character had more of a colorful opinion, I might see the reason for the description-to showcase and give insight into the character.
A reader isn’t as much after the details of a setting, but more about atmosphere and mood.
Here is an example of a more effective intro that paints a picture of setting, but it also reflects on the character and a darker mystery.
In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred introduces her room with details that not only grab us but hint at something dark:
A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.
If the action in this submission were better matched with the setting details, the main character might be more integral to the setting with hints of emotion or something more at stake. As it reads now, the setting descriptions are just an inventory of room furnishings. Below is a good example of how the author uses plain setting descriptions to stir feelings of foreboding in the reader and give insight into the female lead.
Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion turns a simple setting into something ominous when the character realizes someone has violated her home and been inside. Can’t we all relate to being shaken at the possibility of a home invasion? This short description, that incorporates the details of a setting, gives insight into the woman living alone and the emotion she must be feeling.
Reaching for the bedside lamp, she stopped and withdrew her hand. The photograph of her father had been turned out to face the room. She touched it every night before she went to sleep. It was always facing towards her, towards the bed, not away from it. … In the darkness, what had felt safe before now felt frightening: the way the dressing-table mirror reflected the street-light through the curtains and the sight of the wardrobe door left slightly ajar.
MYSTERY – There are elements of mystery to this intro. Below are four I noticed, but not all of them are presented well.
Good Mystery Elements
1.) The character is paid handsomely for an undisclosed assignment. Why? This is a good mystery to drop at the start. Make the reader wonder what this guy does for a living. Good guy or bad.
2.) Who is Katherine March and why is she familiar to him? This is a good mystery. It’s intriguing and it has the potential for foreshadowing something to come. I like it.
Not so Good…
3.) What gender is the central character (male of female)? I have to wait until nearly the end of the dialogue where he’s called Mr. Sapere. Even the first name of Reese can be female. It’s not good to keep a reader guessing about gender, but this can be an easy fix if the author would introduce gender earlier.
4.) Who is Tireia? From the line – “I noticed this because Tireia would notice, and lovers learn such habits from one another.” There’s no attempt at an explanation, but why bring it up? This reads like a series with characters the reader should know. This kind of mystery will have the reader scratching their head and wondering why. I would find another way to bring this up later, but it’s not necessary in this intro. It’s only confusing.
LOCATION – I mentioned this earlier, but the reference to Ketchum could be in Idaho or Oklahoma or anywhere. A simple tag line would clear this up. Or the author could make a choice to make the setting clear from the start and make it memorable in short order, as in the excerpt below.
Gabriel García Márquez, opening One Hundred Years of Solitude, introduces his village like this:
Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.
FIRST SENTENCE LENGTH – The first sentence is too long with too many unrelated details, that they get lost in the length. My instincts would be to make the character more colorful with a more memorable voice. Give him an opinion of his surroundings that reflect on him, as a protagonist. Make him more wary of who this new client is and why is the man so secretive about the assignment. The first sentence (below) is tedious, forgettable, and the last part of the mystery assignment almost gets lost at the tail end.
From the airport, I drove north in a rental car toward Ketchum, and turned onto a small paved road that ended at an estate owned by a man who had offered to pay me handsomely for an assignment he wouldn’t describe over the phone.
Also, in this submission, we learn at the very end of the 400 words (in the dialogue) that the protagonist is a pilot and must have rented a car from the airport. It’s seems odd that we have to wait until the end dialogue to discover that Sapere is a pilot. It’s a bit confusing that the new client knows more about Sapere than the reader does, after being in Sapere’s head.
MAKE DIALOGUE COUNT – For the first lines of dialogue, they are very anti-climactic and chit-chatty.
WHERE IS THE ANTICIPATION? – I would’ve liked to see the author have a build up of anticipation where the protagonist is curious about the man who wants to pay him handsomely yet couldn’t talk about the assignment over the phone. This is how you build on the mystery, when the protagonist is drawn in himself and searches for clues.
It’s obvious the man he came to see is someone he doesn’t know. I would think he would screen his jobs better. Wouldn’t he be more wary? Wouldn’t his mind be searching the grounds for hints of the assignment or who this man is?
SUMMARY – This author shows talent. There’s a good crime fiction start here, but this reads like a first draft. With some feedback and filling out of details to create more mystery and a sense of anticipation, this introduction could be more effective.
Please share your constructive criticism with this writer and with your TKZ family. We all have an opportunity to learn.