First Page Critique: American Dream

Today, I  have an additional first page critique for us to discuss. This one is called American Dream and I think it illustrates some great points about framing an effective first page, particularly when it comes to POV. My comments follow, and as always I look forward to input from our great TKZ community:)

American Dream

The deputy’s vehicle careened into the parking lot, hopped a curb, plowing through a row of purple hydrangeas before coming to a stop inches from the red brick. An off duty deputy  stumbled out the vehicle sucking the last drops from a blue plastic cup. He slung the empty into the damaged shrubbery and staggered inside the Velde County, Georgia services building for the impromptu Saturday evening meeting.

The hottest summer in a century coupled with a defective air conditioner created a wall of heat and a stench of sweat that greeted upon entry. A coffeemaker gurgled and spat. Fluorescent tubes flickered, splashing an uneven yellow light onto the gathering of deputies.

Sheriff Roy Hacker squinted through the rising steam of his coffee. Crow’s feet framed his eyes. Crevices etched deep into his forehead. His starched uniform, crisp and dry. The only man in the room who didn’t perspire. He rose from behind a steel gray desk, removed his service revolver and slammed its butt onto the desktop calling the meeting to order.

“Evening deputies. I want to thank y’all for appearing here on a short notice. But crime does not operate on our schedule.” Roy looked to the drunken one. “Isn’t that right, Burnett?”

The deputy nodded, slurring his assent.

“You been with Juanita this evening?”

“Yes, sheriff I have. And we was having fun.”

“Don’t doubt that you were. We all know, some in great detail, that Juanita can be a whole lot of fun.”

Laughter erupted. Deputies nudged and winked. A sly grin crept over Burnett’s reddening face.

Roy lit a cigarette. He appeared as a looming slit eyed apparition within the haze of smoke. The zippo closed in a metallic click. The room fell silent.

“It has been brought to my attention that we have some criminal activity getting ready to go down in our fine county.”

Deputies shuffled in their seats.

“My informant tells me the area where this crime will occur is right here.” Roy pointed to the top right corner on the yellowed county map taped to the cinderblock wall. “I know what you’re thinking. That’s a desolate and barren shithole teeming with assorted vermin, rattlers and water moccasins . ” He took a step toward his men. “And I’d agree. But I would add, what better place for a crime to occur?”

A collective gaze fell upon the sheriff.

General Comments

POV

This page had some good elements but I think the failure to establish a strong initial POV made it less effective. We begin with a drunken deputy (who we learn later is Burnett) but by the third paragraph we seem firmly focused on Sheriff Roy Hacker. I would recommend the author chose a close POV to focus on (Burnett or Hacker most likely) and then give the reader this perspective right from the start. A distinctive and unique POV would also help the reader become more invested in the story. At the moment it feels too generic and emotionally distant.

That being said, I would caution the author to be careful to avoid the stereotypical ‘drunken deputy’ versus ‘starched sheriff’ story. Again, I think a distinctive and unique POV is what is needed – it would add greater specificity and emotional resonance to the story and give a different perspective that could help set this story apart.

Tone

In addition, a strong POV would also help clarify the tone of this piece – is it going to be a quirky, off beat, but lighthearted police procedural? I think so, but I’m not altogether sure. There are moments where I think the author is edging a little more ‘noir’ish in the wryness of tone…but maybe not.  Again, I think this is more a result of an amorphous POV/voice – once that’s stronger, I think the tone of the page (and the book) will become clearer.

Dramatic Tension

In this first page, all we really learn about is an informant who’s told the police where a crime is going to occur. This (along with the repartee about Juanita), robs the page of much of its dramatic tension. I’m not sure I get why the Sherrif has brought in his deputies for an impromptu Saturday evening meeting (or why the coffeemaker would be gurgling at that time) just to tell them that…seems a bit anticlimactic. Although I liked the humor in the sheriff’s description of the place, I think there would be more dramatic tension if a crime had actually occurred or if there was more detail (humorous or otherwise) about the actual crime that’s about to occur, to make me feel compelled to keep reading.

Specific Comments

Finally, there are some specific comments which are a but more nit-picky but which are nonetheless important for an effective first page. The first issue is one of repetition. The term ‘deputy’ and ‘deputies’ is used numerous times (twice just in the first paragraph). This looks sloppy to an editor and can also dilute the power of specificity in the first page. In addition, there’s a lot of description that can be pared down. Remember, in a first page every word counts. Do we need details about purple hydrangeas and damaged shrubbery? Could we just have one or the other? Likewise, do we need a whole paragraph description of the sheriff or could we just know he was the one person in the room who didn’t appear to perspire (from which we can infer a lot). I think the author could tighten up this first page by focusing on the details he/she really wants to emphasize – is it the drunken Burnett’s entrance, or the hottest summer on record, or is it Sheriff Hacker’s demeanor and humor (?)

Overall, I think once the description is pared down and a firm POV/voice established, this would be a much more effective first page. What do you think? TKZers, what advice or comments would you have for our brave author?

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First Page Critique: Prologue (Helston, England 1864)

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

 

iStock_000009293879XSmall

Photo image from iStock, purchased by Jordan Dane

Enjoy the first page anonymous submission (as yet untitled) for your consideration and feedback. My comments are on the flipside.

Prologue

Helston, England

December, 1864
The moonlight shined through the window, casting an eerie sheen down her caramel-colored hair.  Her fingertips, well-manicured with a light pink coating, gently held the stem of her wine glass.

The large house was empty save for the two of them, and as his eyes surveyed the dim living room, photographs of family members cluttered the mantelpiece above the fireplace.  The colorfully decorated Christmas tree reflected in the glass of a framed picture, the holiday lights so magnificent that he could hardly see the middle-aged couple depicted in the shot.

She smiled, and as she did so, he mimicked her gesture.

“Supper was great, thank you.”  Past her left shoulder through the window, the silhouettes of bare tree branches scratched at the moon.

“I am glad you enjoyed it,” she responded.  What was her name?  He blinked.  Catherine.

He could faintly tell she was beautiful, and regretted he couldn’t enjoy the sight.  Long, wavy light brown hair, just a hue darker than blonde, cascaded down her back.  Light blue eyes—sky blue to be exact—glanced at the maroon table cloth.  And her heart, beating through her black dress…

He sighed impatiently.

She leaned forward, tucking her hands underneath her chin.  “I must allow myself to admit I am relieved that Mrs. Norfolk has not returned.”

“For ought I know, she is on her way.”

Laughter jumped along the air.  “Oh, pray not!”

He narrowed his eyes as he studied her, trying his best to recall the letter that arrived at his flat just last week.  The girl was twenty-two.  Her birthday was to be on New Year’s Eve, just three weeks away.  Her parents, as he had suspected when he had coerced her into inviting him to dinner, were out at a social event.  They are clearly well-respected within the community, Cam commented, noting the high ceilings that resembled a cathedral more than an actual home.  If being wealthy counted as a community.

“I cannot believe we talked for so long,” he heard himself say.

“I know.”  She glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner.  “Three hours.”

“And I really should be going.  Any longer and I shall be missed.”

Lie.

She leaned back in her seat.  “Oh.”

His lips curved into an easy smile as he stood.  His right hand shoved inside his pocket, clacking coins together.

 

Feedback Comments:

1.) Historical World-building – After my first pass through, I went back to read the tag line and remembered this was a historical piece. By the dialogue and the prose, I did not get a sense of the period. I would have appreciated more setting that triggered my senses to place this story intro into the period. Is it cold in December? What does that look like or feel off the stone walls? Is there a fire in the hearth? What does the place smell like? These details do not have to go on forever, but a smattering of notions can put the reader into that room without much effort.

2.) Dialogue – The dialogue is more modern as well. The writing is sparse in general, mostly dialogue, but if this is to be a period piece, readers of the genre expect proper research. Simple phrases like “the large house” and “living room” do not reflect the time. I would have expected wording like: the manor and parlor, for example. Dialogue like “I cannot believe we talked for so long” might be changed to ” rarely do I engage in such congenial conversation, madam, and at such length.” (Come on, historical authors. Help me out here.)

3.) Point of View & Awkward Phrases – Most of this intro is seen through his perspective, but there are moments where the lines are clearly envisioned through her. This reads as head-hopping. I would recommend selecting one POV and sticking with that, per scene. If there is reason to keep his motives secret, for the sake of mystery and the plot, then I would select her POV as the main one. Or this intro can be cleaned up by making every line as seen through his eyes only.

POV problems and Awkward Phrase Examples:

Her fingertips…gently held the stem of the wine glass – Unless he knows how much pressure she is putting on that stem, he wouldn’t know how gently she is grasping it. He can only guess at it. Without the subject being him, this reads as if it’s her POV.

He could faintly tell she was beautiful, and regretted he couldn’t enjoy the sight – I had to read this again. It drew me from the reading. She is either beautiful, in his estimation, or she is not. And it seems he is enjoying her beauty quite a bit since he’s described her hair more than once and is noticing every aspect of her body. It also wasn’t clear to me why he couldn’t enjoy the sight, but perhaps that comes later.

Light blue eyes—sky blue to be exact—glanced at the maroon table cloth.  And her heart, beating through her black dress…– These descriptions make it seem as if her eyes (as the main subject) are not connected to her body or her heart is the only thing in that dress. By using pronouns in a better way, rather than purely writing for imagery, the meaning would be clearer – ie He admired how her sky blue eyes refused to meet his gaze as she glanced along the maroon tablecloth. When her bosom heaved, he imagined her heart raced under the dark ribbons and lace of her frock. There is also a POV problem where the last line is clearly in her point of view since he can’t know how fast her heart is beating under her dress.

Laughter jumped along the air – This line is very awkward. It tossed me from the reading. Anyone else? This generic reference to laughter also does not indicate who is laughing. I assumed it was her laughter, but then why not say it?

Past her left shoulder through the window, the silhouettes of bare tree branches scratched at the moon – This should be in his POV, yet he is not mentioned at all. Several descriptions are disembodied. I had to reread this particular line, thinking at first that it might be a dangling participle.. It’s not, but it through me out. It would be cleaner if the sentence flowed more simply with him as the subject – He gazed over her left shoulder to see the dark silhouettes of bare tree branches scratching at the moon.

He heard himself say – This could be simplified to: He said.

Overall: – There is obvious tension in this scene. The author does a good job of focusing on body language to set that mood. Adding more on setting can only enhance this friction and expand on the mystery of what’s happening. If the point of view were clearly in one head, there could be more mystery layered into this piece to make it more intriguing. Imagine if the POV is in his head and he does not trust her beguiling manner. Who is playing whom? And a better defined setting would not only add to the mood of the scene, but also set the stage in history.

What do you think, TKZers? Please share your constructive criticism.

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