White Space on the Page Can Be Your Friend – 1st Page Critique: A Pitying of Doves

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Forgive the blatant Prince/Purple Rain reference. After I read the first lines of this anonymous submission, I had purple on my mind.

Below is an anonymous submission for critique, the first 400 words or so of a project. Read & enjoy. I’ll give my thoughts on the flip side. Feel free to provide your constructive criticism in your comments. Let’s help this author with our take.

A Pitying of Doves
SATURDAY – July 14th, 2012…8:29 am

The delicate bird bobbed around in circles, oblivious to the hungry yellow eyes hidden within the greenery −a common Laughing Dove− it was searching for its own subsistence near the marble steps of the towering Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Latin name: Spilopelia senegalensis. On the fast track out of this messed up existence, Bertie thought, holding her breath and turning her D3x toward the ill-fated bird. Cha-click. Cha-click. Cha-click. Three-seconds. Three human heartbeats. It happened that fast. Death. Looking up over the top of the camera, she kept the shutter going as the lean, elegant feline blinked once in thanks before skittering off, prize in mouth, drops of blood trailing. Metaphor? Or prophesy? The pain in her gut said both as she swiveled the camera on its tripod back to the subject at hand. “Okay!” she shouted. Her assistant swung his arms about and stepped out of the frame as a burst of doves hit the air for her ravenous lens.

“You will get the perfect image I think,” said the Indian man breathlessly, scooping up the camera bag and preparing to follow her to another spot.

“It has to be perfect, Amir,” she said, still clicking, but thinking only of the killing that she’d been involved in three days ago. Murder. For the first time, she suddenly felt ill. “Khalas! That’s enough. I can’t do anymore.” She quickly abandoned her equipment for the parking lot and stumbled behind her silver Range Rover. The acrid smell of rubber and petrol made her eyes water as she held onto the bumper, pressing her black and white keffiyeh scarf across her mouth, trying to maintain her composure. Murder. The word ricocheted inside her skull. It thundered like an avalanche and threatened to bury her, just like they had buried him. “Necare,” she whispered, murder’s more attractive Latin equivalent. She usually found it soothing, translating words into the old language, perhaps because it took her back to her college years, back to a time of relative innocence. “Homicidium,” she went on, fist clenched against sternum, near panic as the tears came along with the realization that her virtue was lost forever. “What the hell have I done?”

FEEDBACK

Overview – I enjoyed the imagery of Bertie taking objective photos of a dove killed by a stalking cat. She merely observes and documents. The author eases the reader into why Bertie might view death differently. I also liked the reference “ravenous lens.” Very fitting. The last line intrigues me – “What have I done?” It makes me wonder what Bertie had to do with murder. The name Bertie seems like someone elderly and a very non-lethal person. Below are my suggestions for the author to consider:

1.) White Space & Flow – My first thoughts are to improve the use of white spacing on the page so the eye of the reader doesn’t get lost in what looks like weighty paragraphs they might skim. There are important imagery, plot details and dialogue embedded in these longer paragraphs that could be enhanced by merely showcasing them. Often, the reader’s eye looks for dialogue or (heaven forbid) they skim looking for dialogue if they see long paragraph’s ahead.

I’m a believer in steering the attention of the reader to important lines or showcasing a single line to emphasize something foreshadowing or important. I like shorter chapter lengths and using foreshadowing/cliffhanger techniques at the end of each chapter to keep the reader turning the page. I’m also suggesting the author use Bertie’s name sooner so the reader immediately knows whose head we’re in.

Here’s an example with only minor changes to tighten 1st paragraph:

Bertie spotted a delicate bird bobbing in circles, oblivious to the hungry yellow eyes hidden within the greenery. A cat searched for its own subsistence near the marble steps of the towering Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. The common Laughing Dove was on the fast track out of this messed up existence.

Bertie held her breath and turned her D3x toward the ill-fated bird. Cha-click. Cha-click. Cha-click. Three-seconds. Three human heartbeats. Death happened that fast.

She looked over the top of the camera and kept the shutter going as the lean, elegant feline blinked once in thanks before skittering off, prize in mouth, drops of blood trailing. Metaphor? Or prophesy?

The pain in Bertie’s gut said both as she swiveled the camera on its tripod back to the subject at hand.

“Okay!” she shouted.

Her assistant swung his arms about and stepped out of the frame as a burst of doves hit the air for her ravenous lens.

2.) Stick with the Emotion/Show Don’t Tell – In the last long/weighty paragraph, I understand Bertie is haunted by something bad that happened. I wanted to see more of her emotion, but the clinical word translation drew me out of her head and I didn’t understand why. If this was meant to give insight into Bertie and the way she deals with things, the author must still show her emotional struggle to get the reader more invested. Perhaps her mind takes over (with the word game) while her body reacts to a dark memory, but if this is the case, it wasn’t as clear as it could have been. The author also “tells” rather than “shows” Bertie’s turmoil.

 
Here’s an example with only minor changes to tighten last paragraph:

“It has to be perfect, Amir,” she said.

Her fingers trembled as she took the shots and her stomach roiled from the memory of what happened three days ago. Hot bile rose in her belly until she thought she would throw up. She couldn’t lose it in front of Amir.

“Khalas! That’s enough. I can’t do anymore.”

Bertie abandoned her equipment and ran for the parking lot before anyone saw her break down. She stumbled behind her silver Range Rover, out of breath. Her eyes watered from the acrid smell of rubber and petrol–and something more. She held onto the rear bumper and pressed her black and white keffiyeh scarf across her mouth to stop from getting sick.

Murder. The word ricocheted inside her skull. It thundered like an avalanche and threatened to bury her, just like they had buried him.

With her eyes stinging with tears, she shut them tight to block out the images that haunted her. For days she hadn’t slept. Exhaustion had worn her down until her mind tortured her with a word game she hadn’t played since she was in college. The old language game used to soothe her. Not today.

“Necare,” she whispered, murder’s more attractive Latin equivalent. “Homicidium.”

Tears ran down her cheeks and wouldn’t stop. Bertie wrapped her trembling arms around her waist, breathing hard until her head spun. She’d crossed a line three days ago and lost the last of her innocence. How could she look anyone in the eye?

“What the hell have I done?”

Final Thoughts – All the elements are here in the submission, but by focusing on Bertie’s emotional state and showcasing certain lines, plot elements, and dialogue, this submission can become a smoother read without much effort.

Discussion: What do you think, TKZers? Please comment.

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First Page Critique of MOONSTONE

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

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

 

Another courageous author has submitted the first 400 words of a work-in-progress anonymously for critique. Read and enjoy. See you on the flip side with my comments, then join me with yours.

PROLOGUE

Waterford, MN
June 4, 1994

By the light of the moon you can catch fireflies, or sit by a campfire watching the embers drift upward toward the stars. By the light of the moon you can stroll down a dirt road, or just sit on a back porch with a tall glass of iced tea. By the light of the moon you can propose marriage, or just leave your lover.

And by the light of the moon, if you have a shovel, you can try to bury your past.

That’s exactly what Jack Cicero had in mind, on this night in early June. The sun had already dipped below the horizon, and the full moon was threatening to make an early appearance. As he ducked under the oak trees, darkness shrouded him, causing him to have to use his flashlight which lit up the area like a beacon. All of his senses went into high alert. He pushed his thick eye glasses tighter on his nose. He strained his ears to listen for the sounds of approaching cars. The night was silent except for sounds of the Snake River choking itself on the rocks in its path; and the pounding of his own blood in his head.

He pushed on not willing to test his luck. He spied a large rock under the trees, and set the flashlight down in such a way as to shield its light from the road. If he heard anything, he could grab it in an instant and kill it.

He picked up his shovel, and cursed and groaned as he stabbed the soft earth at the base of the rock. He had to hurry, because this moon was a reluctant, silent witness rising higher in the sky, threatening to expose him. Although she tried, the full moon failed to penetrate the thick oaks overhead. But that didn’t make Jack feel any better. Despite the cool night air, he was breaking a sweat. He swore and picked up the pace. He was in a race to put everything behind him, closing one chapter so that he could open another.

With a groan, he hefted one final shovelful. Then he patted the dirt down and scraped some of last fall’s dead leaves over his handiwork. For a moment he thought that he might actually vomit. He dropped to his knees, leaning against the large rock and bent his head. A single tear rolled down his cheek, soaking into the sandy soil below. A final act of contrition. He wiped his face with his sleeve, pushed off of the rock and stood up. It was done. But Jack knew that no matter how much he could try to hide the past, it could come back to haunt him. He’d always be looking over his shoulder for someone to figure out his secret and expose him. Considering he knew just about everyone in Waterford, the list of possibilities was longer than the river itself.

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW: At first reading, I liked this introduction because it stuck to the action (for the most part) and did not slow the pace with back story or explanation. That takes discipline for an author to do this. The narrative is simple and pulls the reader into the story with its mystery. Well done. But as I got into this on a 2nd and 3rd read, I found things I would edit if this were mine. This author shows promise and if the following items are addressed, I would keep reading.

THE START: I understand what the author intended with the first paragraph – to set the stage with a light and breezy beginning of harmless imagery before the reader is shocked once they realize the story will take a dark turn. Who’s POV is this? No one’s. It’s omniscient before the POV becomes that of Jack. This tactic–and the use of YOU–pulled me out. If the story is set up properly, where we see Jack in the dark with a shovel, he could be doing ANYTHING until we learn what’s happening and the mystery begins. The shock factor would be presented in another way, without the need for the faux lead-in.

THE ACTION: What is Jack doing? He’s got a shovel and a flashlight, but it doesn’t appear as if he’s burying a body because he’s not carrying anything else. Is he digging something up? He starts by digging into the ground with his shovel but ends by patting down a mound of dirt and pushing leaves over the pile to hide what he did. The transition from start to finish didn’t describe enough for me to understand what he’s actually doing. With the vagueness, the reader might make an assumption that would prove false later on, and the author takes a chance of alienating the reader if this is not made clearer. I also wondered why Jack would pick a spot by a road where he can be seen with his flashlight. If he’s got a choice and wants to be secretive, why risk a location where he can potentially be seen? I know the risk of getting caught adds to the tension, but maybe there would be a way for the author to explain why Jack picked the spot (even if it meant risk of discovery) and still leave an element of mystery.

WORD CHOICES: In 3rd paragraph, “The night was silent, except for the sounds of….” If there are sounds, the night can’t be silent. The night might be “still” or “quiet,” but not silent if noise is heard.

In 5th paragraph, calling the moon “she” pulled me out and made me wonder if another character had stepped into the scene.

In 5th paragraph, the moon can’t be a “reluctant” witness to anything, but in one line the moon is shining on him, threatening to expose him, then in the next sentence, that description is contradicted by this – “the moon failed to penetrate the thick oaks overhead.” (Oaks are usually ‘overhead’ too. Directional words like up, down, overhead should be scrutinized during the edit process. They can usually be deleted.)

I’m not a fan of the word THAT. It’s often unnecessary and can be eliminated.

DESCRIPTIONS: This might be nit picky, but this phrase pulled me out of the narrative and made me wonder if there would be a better way of describing what is happening. This comes across as TELLING to me and could be more effective.

As he ducked under the oak trees, darkness shrouded him, causing him to have to use his flashlight which lit up the area like a beacon. 

“The area” is actually the ground but what’s on the ground? How does the light play across it? it might be a more effective line if the author could get the reader to actually see the effect of the light, rather than merely saying it “lit the area.” Do the shadows of spindly grasses elongate and move as the light passes over it? The effect could add a creep factor. What sound do they make in the wind…for a guy who is already nervous?

PASSIVE VOICE: One of my favorite TKZ posts of all time came from Joe Moore in Jan 2012 – Writing is Rewriting. A great overview of the draft and edit process. Below are some examples of passive writing. My first pass at editing is to delete and tighten my sentences into succinct and clearer writing. Many readers might not pick up on the passive voice, but authors should strive to hone their craft and challenge themselves with each new project.

3rd paragraph: “was threatening” should be ‘threatened.’

5th paragraph: “was breaking” should be ‘broke.’

Last paragraph: “could try” should be ‘tried.’

PARAGRAPH LENGTH: I prefer to give the reader some white space so the paragraphs don’t appear laden and heavy as they look ahead. A heavy paragraph could encourage a reader to skim. As Elmore Leonard (RIP) once said – “Try to leave out the part readers tend to skip.” I often break up longer paragraphs into 3-4 sentences and change the length of those sentences to create a natural cadence if the words were spoken aloud.

FOR DISCUSSION:

What about you TKZers? What constructive criticism would you give this author?

 

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