You Control the Action – Make It Flow Without Distractions – First Page Critique – In Vitro

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Another intrepid author has submitted their 400-word introduction to their work-in-progress for feedback. Please read and enjoy. Provide your constructive criticism in your comments. Thank you, my TKZ family.

***

The simple action of opening a door made Axel Chadwick an accomplice to murder.

The day of the shooting wasn’t supposed to be a normal day, but it didn’t feel like it was going to be a bad one. As usual, his eyes burned from reading a paper on his tablet titled The Further Evidence of Botanic Life Benefits on Astro-based Laboratories nearly too fast to comprehend. Striding through the busiest atrium at Invitron meant he’d bump into someone while trying to avoid someone else, and after planting on a fourteen-year old’s foot and nearly dropping his tablet, he decided to take a different route to his examination room.

Empty, he could sway without worry and delve further into his text. The soft patter of rain against the windows were interrupted by frantic bangs on the door a few feet away. A boy stood outside it. “Oi, let me in! I’m locked out!”

Axel glanced past him to see nothing but dark clouds over the beach through the window before returning back to his text. “Use the fingerprint scanner like you’re supposed to.”

“The rain—it’s short circuited it,” he cried, muffled through the glass. “I’m going to be late to my exam!”

He should have asked his name, what class he was in, which exam he had to take, and who his department head was so he could verify it, because even though no intruder had gotten onto the island before, it was the rules not to let anyone in.

A good question to ask him would have been: why on earth were you out in the pouring rain on the day of your exam instead of preparing. But he didn’t ask anything. Instead, one of his lanky arms propped up his tablet, the other pushed open the door, and his eyes were too buried in his screen to see if the boy was even a student.

The windowed-hallway was far behind him when Autumn caught up, pulling the pegs from her glasses out of her knotted hair. “Ready?”

Axel read the last sentence and then powered down his tablet, pulling its handle out of its top, and carrying it to his side. “Of course. You?”

“As much as I can be.”

***

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – This reads as if the story could be ripped from the headlines if the author intends this to be about a school shooting and an unauthorized entry on campus. To pull that off effectively, I would recommend the author stick to the action of the story and avoid diverging into back story or slowing the pace with actions not related to this intrusion. More details below.

FIRST TWO SENTENCES – The first sentence foreshadows what is coming, but it’s a head fake. I believe the author intended to force a compelling first line, but since it’s written in hindsight and quickly shifts into tedious details that slow the pace, it detracts rather than helps the pace and add to the intrigue. That first line might be more compelling if the author had stuck to the action and added that line to a scene ending, when Axel realizes what he’s done.

Any momentum from that first line is quickly diffused by a redirection into the POV of a student reading something on a laptop who reminiscences about the day as if he’s seeing it in hindsight with THIS line – The day of the shooting wasn’t supposed to be a normal day, but it didn’t feel like it was going to be a bad one. This line serves no purpose and is confusing. It should be deleted.

POV – I’m not sure why Axel is chosen as the POV, except that the author has probably given him a starring role as the main protag. I wonder how this intro might read if the POV came from the shooter gaining illegal access to the school, but let’s focus on Axel. If the action started with Axel racing through the school, against a clock, the author could set the stage better by focusing on Axel careening through the corridors, bumping into students and nearly dropping his laptop before he sees the kid pounding at the door in the rain. He knows he shouldn’t open the door (minimize his awareness of rules until later), but he tries to be a good guy and makes the mistake.

Give the shooter distinctive clothes that Axel realizes later is the guy he let into the building. Does the shooting start right away? Does the shooter do anything to let Axel realize he might’ve made a mistake? Does Axel see his face? There needs to be more tension in this gesture of opening a door, rather than Axel “telling” the reader that what he’d done was wrong. Following the action of Axel opening the door, he immediately gets back into his exam as he runs into Autumn. This diverts attention and adds to the slow pace.

STICK WITH THE ACTION – If the intruder to campus is a big deal, the author should focus on it as it happens and as the guy enters the premises. Instead we have Axel and Autumn talking about their test and if they studied enough.

AXEL’s AGE/STUDENT STATUS – I’m assuming that Axel is a student and not a teacher, although that is never really shown. Since Axel shows poor judgment in letting the student in and his mind sounds like the workings of a distracted teenager, but it’s not truly spelled out until he talks to Autumn. That point could be clearer, earlier.

DESCRIPTION OF ACTION – To give the illusion of pace, the author should give a better description of Axel’s scattered race through the halls. The original line below is too long. He’s also “striding” which is calm, but he is only thinking about “bumping into someone while trying to avoid someone else,” an awkward and distant way of describing the action. He comes across as too methodical in his run for his exam room.

BEFORE – Striding through the busiest atrium at Invitron meant he’d bump into someone while trying to avoid someone else, and after planting on a fourteen-year old’s foot and nearly dropping his tablet, he decided to take a different route to his examination room.

AFTER – Axel dodged bodies as he ran through the hectic atrium of Invitron. He careened through the horde of students with sweat running down his temple, Axel had one eye on the obstacles and the other on his open laptop. After he stumbled over a freshman, he nearly dropped his laptop.

“Eyes open, fish.” With his chest heaving, he darted by the bumbling kid without looking back.

Axel kept his eyes glued to the screen, studying with every second he had before his exam started.

CONTROL THE SETTING – Setting can add tension to any scene. In this intro, the author chose a soft patter of rain, against a frantic bang on the door. The sense of urgency is deflated if the rain isn’t a deluge. Since an author controls the setting, make it rain harder, where Axel feels badly for the drenched kid outside. Or have the intruder hold up his computer, saying it will be damaged, so Axel can relate to helping him.

CONTRADICTIONS – In this paragraph below, Axel is asking himself questions on why the kid is out in the “pouring rain” (that was previously described as a soft patter), but then Axel shows no regard as he lets the guy into the building without even looking at him. It’s not consistent if he has all these questions but his actions show indifference. Pick a perspective and do it for the betterment of the story.

EXAMPLE – A good question to ask him would have been: why on earth were you out in the pouring rain on the day of your exam instead of preparing. But he didn’t ask anything. Instead, one of his lanky arms propped up his tablet, the other pushed open the door, and his eyes were too buried in his screen to see if the boy was even a student.

This introduction needs work in order to make it consistent, descriptive with action, and focus on a foreshadowing of things to come. If the author’s intent is to focus on Axel and his studious world, that can be accomplished by endearing  him more to the reader, so when a fake student gets him to open a security door, the reader is rooting for him. But the author would need to get deeply into Axel overachieving head and give him some traits we can identify with. Opening a door to a drenched student might be understandable if the proper groundwork is set up. Don’t foreshadow that Axel knew all the rules and still ignored them. Have him be well-meaning and let the action unfold as he is duped. That would be another way to go.

DISCUSSION:

What do you think TKZers? Would you read more? What helpful feedback would you give this author?

 

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1st Page Critique: Pinprick

By SUE COLETTA 

We have another brave writer who submitted their 1st page for critique. My suggestions will follow. 

Title: Pinprick 

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA 

Rosa Gomez slammed the door behind her and stalked out onto her small front porch.  She’d just seen the tattoo on her nephew Bernardo’s neck, and knew that if she stayed in the house she’d do something she’d regret.   Mara Salvatrucha was scrawled in ink across the back of his sixteen year old skin.   Mara Salvatrucha meant MS-13, the most vicious street gang in the Americas.   

She collapsed into the rocking chair where she spent her evenings, rocking back and forth, glaring at the gang members who paraded past her bungalow.  Her house was the last one in the neighborhood with a mowed lawn and a front light that hadn’t been shattered by gunfire.  They’d demanded that she pay them money as recognition that they controlled the neighborhood, but she’d vowed to die before she paid them any tribute.   

Most nights she sat with a shotgun on her lap, reminding the punks that they might control the neighborhood but they couldn’t control her.  

She glared out into the darkness, her lower lip thrust forward, knowing that her defiance would be seen by the mareros.  She’d been stubborn since the day she was born.  Her father said he’d seen more of her lower lip than any other part of her body.

Chamacas,” she shouts at the street.   She’s calling them little girls, the way they said it in El Salvador.    It wasn’t much to throw at them, but she’s so upset it’s all she can think of.   

She collapsed back into her chair, rocking back and forth in the early November chill, settling into the rhythm that pumped blood into her arthritic knees.   

 

I like where you’re going with this, Anon. If done well, this could be a compelling storyline about a world many people don’t know a lot about. One word of caution: please portray the inner-workings of gang life and those affected by it in an accurate way, rather than basing your research on the stereotypes fueled by the media. I’m not saying you’ve done that here, just something to think about.  

Big Picture  

Why not show Rosa’s reaction when she first sees the tattoo? This is a big deal. Her nephew just joined a ruthless street gang, the same gang that’s harassed the neighborhood for years. SHOW us how he first told his aunt he’d jumped in. Did she see the tattoo by accident when he stripped off his shirt? Did he flaunt the tattoo in her face? Had he been covered in welts, cuts, and bruises days before this tattoo appeared? There’s your opening. Save what you have here for page 3 or 4. 

First Lines 

I’m a sucker for a great first line. It often takes me several rewrites till I’m satisfied, so I understand the struggle. A great first line accomplishes many things.

A first line should …

  • Hook the reader 
  • Establish mood  
  • Give a sense of foreboding 
  • Reveal character and voice 
  • Hint at, or outright show, an obstacle 

If the first line doesn’t grab the reader’s attention – Think: “Hey, pay attention!” — they may not read the sentence that follows. For writers who choose the traditional publishing model, here’s a hard truth. Agents and acquisition editors give each query 8 seconds, max. If the first line doesn’t grab them, you could drown in that slush pile. 

Links for further study … 

Jerry Jenkins broke down opening lines into four categories: surprise, dramatic statement, philosophical, and poetic. Find the post HERE. 

Writer’s Digest gave us 7 Ways to Create a Killer First Line. 

One of my favorite features on Writer Unboxed is Flog a Pro. Here, you can read numerous 1st pages from books that sit on the New York Times Bestsellers’ List. Skim 58 opening lines, and you’ll see why they’re so important. It’ll also help spark ideas for your story. 

Point of View 

You’re using a limited 3rd POV, which is fine if that’s your intention. However, deep POV has the ability to more closely bond the reader to the main character. Whether you write in 3rd or 1st doesn’t matter. The technique is the same. I hate to keep beating this particular drum, so for an in-depth look at deep POV read this 1st Page Critique 

Nitpicks 

We use one space after a period, not two (or three, like you’ve done in a few places). This may seem petty, but details matter. You also have your tab set to an awkward spacing, which justified when I copied to the blog. The norm is .5.  

Nitty Gritty  

Rosa Gomez slammed the door behind her and stalked out onto her small front porch. (Strong action verbs form an excellent mental picture. Very good. However, try using a first line that delivers more of a punch.) She’d just seen the tattoo on her nephew Bernardo’s neck, and knew that if she stayed in the house she’d do something she’d regret. “Seen” and “knew” are telling words. Anytime you tell the reader what’s happened you rob them of the experience. The same sentence rewritten to show the action would look like this: After glimpsing the tattoo on her nephew’s neck (we don’t need to know his name yet)Rosa stormed out of the house before she crucified him. Sixteen years old and he’s marked for life.

Mara Salvatrucha was scrawled in ink across the back (isn’t the tattoo on his neck? Or do you mean the back of his neck? Be clear and concise. I had to scroll to the top to make sure I’d read “neck” the first time) of his sixteen-year-old skin. Too on-the-nose. See how I slipped in his age earlier? That’s one option. Another is to show through dialogue.  

For example, when she confronts Bernardo, he could say, “I’m an adult. I can do what I want with my body.”  

“But you’re only sixteen, Meho.” 

Mara Salvatrucha meant MS-13, the most vicious street gang in the Americas. The explanation of MS-13 I’ll get to in a minute. In the meantime, America has no “s.” Perhaps you meant “United States”.   

She collapsed into the rocking chair where she spent her most evenings, rocking back and forth, glaring at the gang members who paraded past her bungalow.  Her house was the last one in the neighborhood with a mowed lawn and a front light that hadn’t been shattered by gunfire (the wording could be tighter, but I like that this shows Rosa doesn’t take any crap. She’ll make a fine hero for this story.) They’d demanded that she pay them money as recognition that they controlled the neighborhood, but she’d vowed to die before she paid them any tributeTribute’s an odd word choice. More importantly, you’re missing an excellent opportunity to sneak in a tidbit about Rosa’s background and/or show her personality. Example: She hadn’t scrubbed bedpans for forty years to fork over the cash to a bunch of gang-bangers. They’d have to kill her first. 

Most nights she sat with a shotgun on her lap, reminding the punks that they might control the neighborhood but they couldn’t control her.  Nicely done. 

She glared out into the darkness, her lower lip thrust forward, knowing that her defiance would be seen by the mareros. The title of a street gang should be capitalized. “Knowing” is a telling word. You started to SHOW us the action, then pulled back. Rosa glared into the darkness with her lower lip thrust forward. Any minute now, the Mareros would catch wind of her defiance. She tapped her signet ring against the cool steel of her shotgun. Let them come.  She’d been stubborn since the day she was born.  Her father said he’d seen more of her lower lip than any other part of her body. The last two sentences are unnecessary backstory and all telling. SHOW these details later through dialogue and action. 

Chamacas,” she shouts at the street.   She’s calling them little girls, the way they said it in El SalvadorIt wasn’t much to throw at them, but she’s so upset it’s all she can think of.  This paragraph slips into present tense … “shouts” should be “shouted”, etc. But it also raises a bigger, more important issue — the use of a foreign language. On one hand, we want to be authentic in our writing. On the other, we don’t want to have to explain. Or worse, risk confusing our reader. Some writing advice says to stick with English. Period. Or only throw in a foreign word (always italicized, btw) if the meaning is clear.  

I like to take chances in my writing, so I didn’t heed this warning. In SCATHED, I included an old-school Italian grandmother, Mrs. Falanga. Like many Italian grandmothers (and I’m no exception), she’s very excitable and enthusiastic around children. Problem is, when she gets rolling she slides into mixing both dialects together. It’s also part of her charm, along with hand motions to accent her words. These mannerisms and speech enhance Mrs. Falanga’s character. To avoid her native tongue would destroy some of her endearing qualities. That said, she wasn’t an easy character to write. I can tell you how I handled using a foreign language, but we don’t have room for that today. I will, however, write a post about it in the near future. To be continued …  

She collapsed back into her chair, rocking back and forth in the early November chill, settling into the rhythm that pumped blood into her arthritic knees. I like the mental image. Rosa reminds me of Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino. We don’t necessarily need to know about Rosa’s arthritic knees, but if you choose to include it, then SHOW her knees aching. With the shotgun leveled in her lap, does she take a moment to massage one knee?

Overall, I like Rosa enough to turn the page. How ’bout you, TKZers? What advice would you give to strengthen this 1st page? Thanks to Anon for sharing his/her work. A public critique takes courage. Best of luck to you!

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A Sea of Squares

by John Gilstrap

In the last few weeks, I’ve had the honor of teaching two of my six-hour classes entitled, “Adrenaline Rush: Writing Suspense Fiction.”  The first was at the always-wonderful Midwest Writers Workshop which is held every July on the campus of Ball State University, and more recently at the Smithsonian’s marvelous S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, DC.  It’s a fun, interactive course that includes four writing exercises that are designed to help students understand the issues of voice and characterization.

A large part of that discussion by necessity deals with point of view (POV).  I find that students inherently understand the relative strengths and weakness of first-person story telling, but when they shift gears into the third person, they have difficulty creating as intense a relationship between reader and character as they can with the first person.  I tell them that it’s largely a case of writing the same sentence and changing the pronoun (“His heart slammed in his chest as he opened the door” vs. “My heart slammed in my chest as I opened the door”), and while they get it intellectually, they have difficulty pulling it off on the page.  They tend to slip into that omniscient, reportorial space.

While teaching at MWW, I hit upon an analogy that I liked, and the students seemed to bond with.  I urged them to pretend that we were writing about a very intense chess game, along the lines of that scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where the chess pieces are living things.  I explained how the point of view of the chess master–the guy with the strategy–is entirely different from that of the pawn.  In the case of the latter, the poor guy just stands there, oblivious, staring out at a sea of squares until some unseen thing grabs his face and moves him forward.  After a few iterations, he finds himself kitty-corner from a guy who looks just like him, but in a different color, and now he’s supposed to kill him.  Hell, he never even met the guy!

That’s the close third-person, I told them.  Now, if you add the point of view of the knight who can’t move, but is exposed to certain death at the hands of the bishop on the other side of the sea, all because the pawn stepped out of the way, you’ve got a thriller told in shifting 3rd-person POV.  And it’s potentially much more interesting than the story that would be told through the omniscient view of the chess master.

What should I add in the next class to illustrate POV choices?

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The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction – ‘A Disloyal Element’ Critique

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Confederate General Robert E Lee

Confederate General Robert E Lee

 

For your reading enjoyment, we have an anonymous first 400 words submission from a daring soul. My feedback will follow. The author would appreciate your constructive criticism in comments. Thank you.

The procession of Yankees moved down Richmond’s High Street, clanking chains muffled by snow. Footsteps left a bloody path. Some wore whatever could be held together with rope to substitute for shoes. Many wore no coat. Some were bound for Chimborazo Hospital, the others Castle Thunder, Belle Isle or Libby Prison. Their faces were etched with apprehension, despair, dread, fear. Some appeared dejected, others stood straight and walked proudly.

The unknown lie ahead for them. Annie stood looking, useless, her hands clenched in her pockets unable to help or comfort them. How many would be dead in a month? Conditions were abysmal at the prisons. She’d heard stories. Prisoners who got too close to the barred windows were shot on sight. There were probably worse atrocities people were afraid to talk about.

Once they went in, they were never seen again. These men had families they longed to see and who longed to have them safe at home. How do you hold onto hope when it seems you’ve been forgotten? The war had gone on for nearly three years now with no end in sight.

The prisoners continued the slow march down the road. One man faltered in his step for a moment and collapsed to his knees. His comrades came to his aid and lifted him up to continue. Most of the citizens ignored them as they passed by, but members of The Butchertown Cats, one of Richmond’s street gangs, called out names not uttered in polite society and used slingshots to hurl stones at the men. These street toughs were little more than boys themselves, many only months away from being conscripted for service in the Army. The bravado they displayed today would be tested by their first taste of battle. A member of the local constabulary broke up the toughs and they ran in different directions. The prisoners they taunted marched on to face whatever fate God had for them.

Annie watched until they turned the corner and were out of sight. A green tartan scarf lay in the snow where the prisoners had just walked. It looked brand new and certain to be missed by its owner. A gift, perhaps, from a loved one. She started for the object in a vain attempt to return it when one of the Butchertown Cats flew past her and scooped up the garment and ran in the opposite direction.

Feedback

I was drawn into this submission by the human suffering and the idea of prisoners of war being paraded through Richmond. The word ‘Yankees’ and Richmond hinted at a Civil War period piece, but I had to look up the hospital name to be sure. The time period is a good one for intriguing stories, so the author had me hooked. But I have the following suggestions for consideration.

1.) Give Context – A tag line at the outset would clarify without a doubt this is a historical work about the Civil War. Something simple like – Richmond, Virginia and the date somewhere between 1861-1865 – would suffice. The reader would be oriented at the beginning.

2.) Make Point of View (POV) Relatable – The start of this offering, and most of the writing, is told in omniscient POV. This submission reminded me of a recent and excellent post by James Scott Bell on “The Perils of Author Voice.” Annie the observer first shows up in the 2nd paragraph and again in the final paragraph, but it’s not clear to me that she actually sees the whole procession and the men trudging toward their fate. It’s as if she sees into the heads of all the men marching (omniscient).

Think how much this beginning would change if Annie is the sole POV and the reader sees everything through her eyes. By orienting the reader inside Annie’s head, we learn more about her and the time period, as well as the story of the men she has empathy for. If you pick one POV per scene, where the reader can only see through that character’s eyes, the story will be more intimidate and emotional. In omniscient POV, the reader is held at a distance to be a neutral observer. This might work for some stories, but I prefer seeing history unfold through the strife of an endearing or compelling character.

Let’s take Annie. What could her story be?

Annie could find someone in the march who reminds her of her younger brother who’s missing in action. She leaps over the backs of tall men, straining for a glimpse of the rabble. When she sees a familiar gait or a pair of blue eyes she’ll never forget , she races after the men. She hides among them, maybe has the guards racing to pull her out. She sees each man’s suffering from the way they smell to the bones under their clothes from starvation. They beg her for water. They bleed on her clothes. The reader would more fully understand the plight of these men while also finding out about Annie.

  • What is Annie’s last name?
  • Why is she there?
  • What are her politics?
  • How is she treated as a woman during this period?
  • Is she looking for someone, is she a spy, or does she disdain the enemy?

3.) Add a Dose of Historical Perspective – The writing has a modern feel to it. There is no attempt to use historical authenticity using terminology from the time period or by inserting some clothing/uniform descriptions. Historical readers are fanatics about getting the history right. The insertion of “dark blue trousers and kepi caps” or the guards carrying “Springfield muskets and sabers” could add something. Depending on her backstory, Annie may not know details of weaponry, but during a time of war, I’m sure she’s seen what men wear and use in battle.

A resource I found on Civil War Terminology might help insert a few key descriptions to make the writing appear more period. Here is a resource for Civil War Uniform description. This is a resource for Civil War Weapons that the Confederate soldiers might be carrying as they take the prisoners down the street. These are quick resources I found online from a simple query. Experienced authors of historical fiction have a vast amount of reliable sites they use.

For Discussion:

What would you add, TKZers?

Would you turn the page?

Do you have good resource links for the Civil War?

 

Croco Designs

Coming November 15 – In The Eyes of The Dead (Omega Team/Amazon Kindle Worlds)

FBI profiler Ryker Townsend and Omega Team’s Athena Madero join forces in a small Texas border town after ritualistic murders of four teens point toward a sinister Santeria priest and his secret believers.

Cover by Frauke Spanuth at Croco Designs

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