With Help from Jeffery Deaver, Let’s Rock This First Page Critique!

Posted by Sue Coletta

Greetings, TKZers! Another brave writer has submitted a first page for critique. Rather than nitpick, I’ve approached this one a little differently. My comments are below. Hope you’ll weigh in too.

1st Page Critique

 

“Coming Home”

“Did I tell you I knew your father?”

John put on his best fake smile and nodded. “Yeah, you mentioned it when I first came in. You played football together?”

Ralph continued, “Yeah. Hank was one hell of a lineman. In our senior year against Haynesworth, he knocked their quarterback six feet into the air and…”

John couldn’t help but tune out. He’d heard the stories of his dad’s glory days retold hundreds of times with varying degrees of exaggeration. It happens when you live in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. It’s even more common when your father died becoming a local hero. It was bad enough when he was a kid, but ever since John returned home after flunking out of college last month he ran into people every day who felt the need to explain their connection to his father. He knew the story of every guy his dad had ever met or arrested and every woman he dated in high school. He just didn’t expect it during a job interview.

“…the refs decided we would get the point, the crowd went crazy. That victory carried us through the rest of the school year, but I don’t think that quarterback ever walked right again.”

John struggled to picture the large man sitting across the desk playing football. He couldn’t imagine this guy lifting anything heavier than a bowl of gravy since his beet-red face was sweating from the exertion required just to have this conversation. The man had to have had help squeezing his butt between the arms of that old wooden office chair which creaked horribly every time he moved.

John pushed to get the conversation back on track. “Pops, ur…sorry, Poplawski said you were looking for someone to start immediately.”

“The sooner, the better. Jim just walked out on us. No notice or nothin’. He came back from his shift one day last week and took his uniform off right here in this office. Said ‘this job doesn’t pay enough for this kind of shit,’ threw his clothes on the floor and drove home in his skivvies. Can you believe that? Left me in a pinch. I had to go out on his calls for the rest of the week.”

* * *

Overall, I liked this piece. Loved the voice too. With a few tweaks, I think this could be a strong first page. Brave Writer has given us a peek into the main character’s background without resorting to a huge info. dump. Paragraph four dances on the edge, but not so much that it pulled me out of the story. We have a sense of who John is and some of the difficulties he’s had growing up in his deceased father’s shadow. Life in a small town isn’t easy, and that’s clear.

I’m a sucker for snarky characters, so I loved this line:

He couldn’t imagine this guy lifting anything heavier than a bowl of gravy since his beet-red face was sweating from the exertion required just to have this conversation. 

It may read better if you broke it into two sentences, but I’d rather concentrate on the bigger picture.

What this first page is missing is a solid goal, something the MC needs to achieve more than anything. Sure, he’s applying for a job, but it doesn’t seem like he cares if he gets it. Why, then, should the reader care? Our main character must be in a motivated situation with an intriguing goal or problem to overcome.

The writer may want to save this piece for later in the story, even if it’s used on page two or three, and instead draw us in with a more compelling goal. Or, show us why this job interview is so important to John. Without the job, will he lose his house? Not have food? Is he trying to escape this small town for some reason?

Also, I’m not a fan of opening with dialogue unless it’s used for a purpose. For example, to raise a story question or to intrigue the reader. Dialogue, especially when used as an opening line, needs to sparkle (I’ll show you what I mean in a second). Without context and grounding, we risk disorienting the reader.

Let’s look at an example of dialogue that works as a first line and adds conflict to the entire first page. Maybe it’ll help spark some ideas for you.

The following is from The Burial Hour by Jeffery Deaver. For clarity, my comments are in bold, the excerpt italicized.

“Mommy.”

“In a minute.” 

Bam! Right off, we feel the tension mounting. 

They trooped doggedly along the quiet street on the Upper East Side, the sun low this cool autumn morning. Red leaves, yellow leaves spiraled from sparse branches.

Mother and daughter, burdened with the baggage that children now carted to school.

In five sentences the author has grounded us in the scene. We’re right there with the characters, envisioning the scene in our mind’s eye. Without even reading the next line we can sense the urgency of the situation. Plus, we can already empathize with the characters.

Let’s read on …

Clare was texting furiously. Her housekeeper had—wouldn’t you know it?—gotten sick, no, possibly gotten sick, on the day of the dinner party! The party. And Alan had to work late. Possibly had to work late.

As if I could ever count on him anyway.

Ding.

The response from her friend:

Sorry, Carmellas busy tnight.

Jesus. A tearful emoji accompanied the missive. Why not type the god-damn “o” in tonight? Did it save you a precious millisecond? And remember apostrophes?

“But, Mommy.” A nine-year-old’s singsongy tone.

“A minute, Morgan. You heard me.” Clare’s voice was a benign monotone. Not the least angry, not the least peeved or piqued.

first page critique

Can you see why this 1st page works? The goal is clearly defined and the main character needs to achieve it. The snappy dialogue between mother and daughter creates conflict. The voice rocks, and the scene hooks the reader. We need to read on in order to find out what happens next. More importantly, we’re compelled to turn the page. Questions are raised, questions that need answers. And that’s exactly what a first page should do. Don’t let us decide whether or not we want to turn the page. Grab us in a stranglehold and force us.

Over to you, TKZers. What advice would you give to improve this brave writer’s first page?

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Getting to Z Street

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unspash

My younger daughter Annalisa during her third year of life started talking about “Z Street.” We had no idea what she was talking about, but it was nonetheless interesting. There were apparently all sorts of things and many different stores on Z Street. Most of her sentences began with “On Z Street, there is…” or “On Z Street, they have…”. I asked her late on one afternoon if she knew where Z Steet was. She answered, “Sure!” I said, “Okay. Show me.” We jumped in the car and a couple of minutes later we were on the road while Annalisa eerily prefigured a talking GPS unit, telling me, with steadily decreasing confidence, to turn right at the next light, then left at the next corner and so on and so forth. We ultimately arrived behind a shopping center where we found ourselves parked by a couple of dumpsters and several stacks of palettes behind a Kroger. “So this is it?” I asked. Annalisa told me yes, with some hesitation. It was all good. Z Street had a Jersey Mike’s nearby, and the Hartlaub family had a fine meal to top off the journey. Annalisa, for her part, never mentioned Z Street again, opting instead to talk about her “owl friend.” 

More on the owl friend in a bit. Annalisa’s directions to Z Street were a terrific example of the writing process known as “pantsing.” She had a concept in her head which told her what Z Street was but really no idea of how to get there.  She comes by this honestly. I am horrible at outlining, which in part is why in my longer work I more often than not found myself…well, sitting at the rump end of someplace and looking at the mental equivalence of pallets and dumpsters. This isn’t the case with every author, of course. James Lee Burke reportedly has no idea about what his next book is going to be about until he starts writing, yet he arguably writes better than anyone. I don’t think that Cormac McCarthy outlines either. Jeffery Deaver, however, outlines obsessively, spending as much time outlining as he does writing the novel, year in and year out. It certainly has held him in wonderful stead.

I had an epiphany a few weeks ago about all of this when I suddenly realized how to get over a roadblock in a novel I’ve been working on for a bit now. Part of the epiphany included the unfortunate realization that the roadblock didn’t just suddenly appear in the story. I had, at some earlier point in the narrative, snuck ahead and built it without realizing it and without building a reasonable detour around it. I could have solved all of that by outlining, but let’s not forget…(cue up the chorus)… “I am horrible at outlining.”

What I want to report — to share with you — is that I worked my way around it. I thought about Z Street, and how I travel. I drive everywhere, and don’t like getting lost, so I map out my journey. I check hotel prices and distances and gas stations and how far it is between Cracker Barrels and Sonics and how long it’s going to take me to get where I’m going. Oh, and speed traps. I check for speed traps. Some folks use AAA, but I do it myself. The realization hit me: what is outlining, if it isn’t a self-made Triptik, or map, for writers?

I’m outlining now. What I do more resembles a map than an outline like you might use, but it’s getting me there. And if I want to pull away from what I have outlined and take a scenic diversion, why, that’s okay too. It’s my trip. I hope to tell you about it sooner rather than later.

I have one more thing, in case some of you are wondering about “the owl friend.” It became a constant source of reference for Annalisa. Accordingly, while on a family vacation in New Orleans a few months later, we were in the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and walked into the aviary. “Look, Annalisa,” I said, point up toward the top of a sloping rock wall, at a wise old bird sitting quietly on a ledge. “Is that your owl friend?” Annalisa immediately detached herself from me and started scampering up the wall on all fours. She almost got away from me on that one. The owl reacted by peering imperiously down at us, as if to say, “Whaddya want from me?” I of course had no answer, nor did Annalisa when I asked her, “So. What would you have done with him when you got him?”

Enough about me. Let’s talk about you. Are you outlining your story/Great American Novel? How are you doing it? In the traditional manner, like Jim Bell learned (and I didn’t) in Catholic school? With post it notes on a giant bulletin board (Yo! P.J. Parrish!) As if it is a map? Or some other way? Please share.

 

 

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Two Often Overlooked Reasons For Writing Short Stories

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

hemingway-thought-bubble

I love a good short story. When done right, it can lay you out emotionally, delight you, scare you, make you think, or some combination of the above. All in under 7,000 words.

Some of my best reading experiences have been short stories. Off the top of my head I see:

“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway.

“The Eighty-Yard Run” by Irwin Shaw.

“Chapter and Verse” by Jeffery Deaver.

“The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury.

All the stories in My Name is Aram by William Saroyan.

“The Ledge” by Stephen King.

When I was in college, I got into a workshop with one of the masters of the short story, Raymond Carver. What I learned was this: I couldn’t write like him. Or Hemingway. Or Saroyan. And I could not figure out the craft of the story. I was discouraged. I wish I’d known what Ray Bradbury was about to say in his Paris Review interview: “You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James?”

A couple of decades later I became a published novelist. Short stories remained elusive to me. But I still wanted to write them. Eventually, I went looking for some sort of key to the craft of short story writing. It took me a long time, but I finally found it.

how-to-write-short-stories-coverNaturally I had to write a book about it.

This book covers my theory of this “master key,” and goes on to suggest strategies for using short stories to help you with your long-term career goals. The book also has five complete stories for your analysis, including the aforementioned “Chapter and Verse” (with the kind permission of Mr. Deaver).

Today I want to talk about two often overlooked reasons for writing the occasional short story. The first reason is, simply, that they’re fun. Lawrence Block, one of the grand masters of crime fiction––short and long––says in The Liar’s Companion: A Field Guide for Fiction Writers:

I figured short stories would be fun. They always are. I think I probably enjoy them more than novels. When they go well, they provide almost immediate gratification. When they go horribly hopelessly wrong, so what? To discard a failed short story is to throw away the work of a handful of hours, perhaps a couple of days. In a short story I can try new things, play with new styles, and take unaccustomed risks. They’re fun.

Why should you sometimes write just for fun? I’m glad you asked:

  • Because “fun is the best thing to have.” – Arthur Bach
  • Taking a break from longer work to have fun refreshes your writer’s mind

Now, “fun” does not mean you’re just writing fluff. Far from it. Which leads me to the second overlooked reason for writing short stories: to deepen your intensity. Once again, Bradbury:

[T]he problem of the novel is to stay truthful. The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours. I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard. Don’t let people interfere with you. Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done. If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone.

Writing a short story this way sharpens your ability to concentrate, and also teaches you to bring intensity to the writing of scenes. Since scenes are the building blocks of your novels, that’s all to the good for your overall craft toolbox.

And so I have launched How to Write Short Stories And Use Them to Further Your Writing Career. The e-version may be found here:

Kindle 

Amazon International Stores

Nook

Kobo

A print version is available via Amazon or Barnes & Noble

In last week’s post, I asked you about books that may have brought solace to you at a point in your life. Can you think of a short story that had a similar impact? Was it memorable in other ways? Who is your favorite short story writer?

And have you tried your hand at the short story? What’s been the result?

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