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.

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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.

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Stripping Away Distance to Draw on Emotion – 1st Page Critique – A Devotion of Dads

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

usmc-08340

This intriguing 400-word introduction comes to us from an anonymous author seeking feedback. Please read and enjoy. Share your comments/impressions with constructive criticism in your comments.

***

The video was grainy and dark, the images distorted.

“Can you tell who this is?” Dean pointed, his voice low, with only a slight nuance of horror.

“No,” Mabel lied, because she didn’t want her brother involved, not anymore.

The four people clustered around the laptop viewed the rest of the video in silence. Watched as one person slowly drowned while another patiently waited. The figure walking around the edge of the pool wore dark, loose clothing with a cap pulled low over their face, but not low enough to obscure their mouth. Whoever it was, and Mabel knew there was a chance she was wrong, had a lot to say to the poor soul in the water. There was no audio but you could see one set of lips moving slightly, as if calmly. The other set, when above water, was often distorted in apparent, but thankfully silent, screams.

Two things about the woman in the pool were obvious to the viewers. She couldn’t swim and was fully dressed. She hadn’t entered the water of her own free will. There was only one thing obvious about the person walking around the pool. They did not want that woman to live. Every time an attempt was made to cling to the side of the pool, her hands were stomped on, over and over and over, until she finally let go, fingers too broken to grip. It took a long time for her to die.

The final minutes showed the capped figure leave the pool area, alone, and Mabel was more sure by then who it was. But when she looked up to voice her opinion, she found herself alone in the room. She looked back at the blank screen. Could she stand to watch it one more time? She hit replay. She had to be absolutely sure.

FEEDBACK:

There is definite mystery to this creepy scene of people trying to unravel the identity of a killer, while looking at a video on a laptop and witnessing a murder. Very compelling. Without sound, it would be horrific to see something like this. Chilling. The opening scene (as written) is compelling and it triggered something in me, but I wondered if there might be a more effective way to tap into the emotion of those watching the grainy video as well as focusing more on the sheer panic of drowning.

Below are some suggestions on how to intensity the opener:

1.) CLOSE THE EMOTIONAL DISTANCE – As this 400 word submission is written now, the reader is held at a distance from the action of the scene, by the narrator describing (“telling”) what is happening on the grainy footage. The reader is being told of what’s not only happening, but also what is ‘felt’ by the witnesses. To close the distance, maybe the author could get into the head of the person most affected, Mabel, the one who appears to know the identity of the cold-hearted killer, and have her imagine what it would be like to be that helpless and dying, or perhaps trigger her worst fear of drowning.

2.) PEPPER IN DIALOGUE – More dialogue might help with the pace and the weighty paragraphs of “telling” descriptions. In a scene like this, less is more. Rather than describe what’s happening on a video, let the reader hear a dialogue line that is creepy or that they can imagine what is being seen. In my rewrite example below, lines like ‘She’d never seen anyone die before’ as the first hint of what’s happening on the video can carry a punch. Or a simple question like ‘Why isn’t he helping her?’ followed by ‘He’s killing her’ can be chilling.

3.) ADD PUNCHES OF MYSTERY – Added mystery elements, layered into the narrative, would draw the reader through this submission. In a short intro like this, I would add a question for the reader to ponder and pepper in more as the reader gets deeper into the story. In effect, it’s like being tugged from the shore by a strong current. In the rewrite example below, the mystery elements that might raise a question for the reader are lines like – She’d never seen anyone die before, or introducing the killer by adding a dialogue line ‘Why isn’t he helping her?’ followed by ‘He’s killing her’ is a nonchalant way of adding murder and mystery with a faceless guy.

ON REWRITES – I normally don’t like to rewrite a scene to show an author an alternative way to write it. It’s been my experience that if you can coax an author into seeing their scene in a different way, by asking them open-ended questions that could draw out a creative solution through them, the writer often finds a better way to resolve the scene than my suggestion. But on a blog, we don’t have the luxury of writing and rewriting to enhance an introduction. The following open-ended questions are designed to get the author thinking. The questions may not work or may not add anything to the scene, but in general, open-ended questions can trigger images or character motivations that could enhance the opening.

My open ended questions might be:

1.) Did Mabel ever have a close encounter with drowning? Does she see herself drowning as if she were the victim?

2.) When she sees the film over and over, who does she watch most–the victim or the killer? Does her perspective change the more she watches it?

3.) What does her answer reveal about her? Does she want to protect the killer, or is it more important to reveal the truth to the family of the dead victim?

4.) An even bigger question in my mind is – Who shot the film? Someone had taken the footage and let the killer walk away. Over the years, this mysterious someone didn’t tell anyone what happened?

REWRITE EXAMPLE:

Mabel stared down at the grainy footage on her laptop and felt the pull of the video with its distorted shadowy images. She couldn’t turn away. If she’d been alone, she might’ve succumbed to its unexplained allure and imagined she were there at poolside, watching it happen, but four others sat next to her. They were all voyeurs in the dark.

She’d never seen anyone die before.

“Can you tell who it is?” Dean broke the silence. She sensed his eyes on her, demanding an answer.

“No,” Mabel lied. She saw no point in speculating for the sake of her brother’s curiosity. What would it matter now?

The video had no sound. Thank, God. A woman, fully dressed in street clothes, floundered in the water. Her arms thrashed, but she couldn’t keep her head above water. When she gulped for air, Mabel squirmed in her seat, imagining what drowning would feel like.

You can’t do this. Help me!

Mabel swore she could read the woman’s lips as she begged for her life, pleading with the man in a cap—the only visible part of his face were his lips.

“For Christ’s sake, she’s trying to get out. Why isn’t he helping her?” A voice cut through the stillness, someone sitting next to Mabel. “Oh, no. He’s…what is he doing?”

“He’s killing her.” Mabel didn’t recognize her own voice. She wiped a tear from her cheek before anyone saw.

Mabel hadn’t believed it either, the first time she saw the video. The man, who had shoved the woman into the pool, taunted her and watched her flail and gasp for air. Whenever she reached for the side of the pool, to hoist her body up for air, he smashed his boot heel into her fingers. Blood sent dark spirals into the water.

It took the woman a long time to die.

Mabel watched the video to an ending that would always haunt her. When she looked up from the laptop, she was alone. The others had left. She never heard them go.

No one had asked who’d shot the video?

DISCUSSION:

1.) What do you think of this submission? What revision suggestions, if any, would you make?

2.) Have you used open-ended questions to enhance a scene? 

intheeyesofthedead_highres

In the Eyes of the Dead – $1.99 ebook

“He hunts killers through the eyes of the dead”

(A Ryker Townsend – FBI Profiler novella)

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Emotional Resonance

Following on from Jim’s great post yesterday on describing characters, I was prompted to think about characters with emotional resonance while reading the great children’s book Wonder by R.J. Palacio. My kids had been urging me to read this book for a while now and as soon as I started reading it I could see why. Absolutely every character (even the mean ones!) in this book resonated with me on a deep emotional level. I think this is the reason many adults enjoy children and YA books – because, when they succeed, they provide a huge emotional wallop that stays with a reader long after they have finished reading.

Few adult books have had the same impact on me in recent years, but I think, as a writer, the issue of emotional resonance when it comes to character development, is a critical one. Almost every book I’ve failed to finish or which has left me disappointed, has failed because I haven’t been able to care enough about the characters. Even in books where the plot has become thin or events have stretched credulity, emotionally deep and resonant characters have kept me reading.

In some ways, the process of providing emotional resonance mirrors the way a writer describes a character because it focuses on the feelings the character inspires in a reader. Those feelings don’t have to always be warm and fluffy, but they do need to strike a chord with a reader. The most powerful characters stay with a reader long after the book is finished.

All too often at writing classes or conferences the pieces that I’ve read or critiqued have had one major failing – the characters themselves. They are often flat on the page, cliched or simply do not ring true. So how do you create emotionally complex, relatable and ultimately resonant characters? Maybe the best starting point is to identify what not to do and work up from there.

Many new writers may feel the urge to create a quirky, one-of-a-kind character or perhaps they hope to create characters similar to those that have proven most popular in their genre (here’s where the recovering alcoholic, down at heel PI often comes into play). In either case, a writer should beware of using standard character tropes and cliches as well as going too far the other way by creating the most ‘out there’ character who sounds nothing like anyone a reader would ever meet in real life. if a character is nothing more that a series of quirks or tics then a reader is going to be just as dissatisfied as if the character is little more than a carbon copy of the stock-standard genre character. The key is (I think) to get into the head and emotions of a character in a way that displays the writer’s own unique perspective. In some ways, perhaps you have to place a little of yourself in each character (maybe not in a literal sense but certainly in an emotional sense).

Striking a chord in readers can be tricky as each reader also brings their own perspective, background, and emotions to the books they are reading. One character’s actions may pack an emotional punch for some readers and yet leave others cold. I find, for example, that parents in books often pack a huge emotional whallop for me, especially in books like Wonder or The Fault in our Stars. If I’d read these books when I was younger, I suspect different characters would have evoked a very different kind of emotional reaction. Yet there are some universal truths out there and characters that evoke strong emotions will go on to have wider resonance.

It’s hard to provide any kind of definitive ‘tip list’ for creating this kind of emotional resonance, simply because it is an illusive target (we only know it when we feel in the gut) but I think some of the elements include:

  • Going deep within a character’s psyche to understand their motivations;
  • Drawing upon your own past experiences and interactions to add depth;
  • Using action as well as interaction to draw out a character rather than description alone (this helps readers experience a character rather than just reading about them in a static sense);
  • Finding the humanity within all the characters (even your villains);
  • Exploring the inhumanity within all your characters (we all have weaknesses and foibles, prejudices and flaws that make us who we are – even if we’re not proud of them);
  • Looking for the universality of experience that strikes a chord in you the writer as you describe your characters and take them on their unique journey through your book;
  • Avoiding thinking or describing characters in terms of what they should be but rather what they are – try to step back from relying on conventions or mimicking other writer’s characters and remember no one is superhuman or a psychopath in their own mind.

These are just a few ways I think writers can start to inhabit their characters to provide a level of feeling that will hopefully resonate in readers. What tips do you have?

 

 

 

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5 Key Ways To Entice Readers with Imagery

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Cry baby Truss ZF-9327-85193-1-001

Imagery conveys more than describing a setting. Done right, it can enhance the emotion and pull the reader into your writing in a unique way to them. It’s not merely about “show don’t tell.” Imagery is a skill that embellishes your author voice. Below are my thoughts on imagery and what’s worked for me.

1.) No Description Dumps – Layer your imagery into the scene in delicious morsels. Entice with flashes for the senses. Don’t stop your story to overwhelm the reader with detailed description dumps that will slow the pace and stall the action.

Example: Excerpts below are from The Last Victim (Jordan Dane) – Spears of light filtered through green leaves and daylight dappled the ground in colors that reminded me of light shining through the stained glass of a church. 

2.) Have the imagery enhance the intended emotion of the scene. Description shouldn’t sound like it came from a dictionary or research book.

Stilted Description (Example Only): Over the years, the floor of a forest became thick layers of pine needles that forced me to watch where I stepped.
Improved Version: The forest floor had a thick layer of decaying pine needles and fallen leaves that gave a pungent rich smell to the soil. The path buckled under my weight as if I were treading on a mattress. 

3.) Choose action words or descriptive Words that convey/enhance the senses – Action Words like slash, shiver, jab, or pound, denote the action they describe. Words like skitter, slither, squeeze, or ripple “sound” like the action they describe. So by toiling over each word in a scene (in your draft revisions), you can layer in greater imagery for the reader to “hear” or “feel.”

Example: With half-lidded eyes I relaxed into the moment and dropped my gaze to Justine’s boots as she walked ahead. I listened to the hypnotic sounds of the forest and let the subtle noises close in. A light breeze jostled the treetops and birds flitted in the branches over my head. My boots made soft thuds on the decomposing sod under my feet. Nature had a palpable and soothing rhythm.

4.) Use vivid imagery from your own past experience or pick something relatable and universal to others. For example, we’ve all been scared. Share your own worst fear, but in the context of your scene.

5.) Now, break down that emotion into how the body reacts inch by savory inch. Don’t rush it. Put the reader front and center through their senses. Trigger their own experiences. That’s why it’s important not to overdo the description. Simply hint at imagery that will trigger your reader’s minds. Be selective and pare down the images to the most vital and effective pieces.

1.) In your comments, please share an example of imagery in your current WIP.

2.) And please share what works for you when it comes to writing imagery.

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