Cops at Your Door & a Mystery Unfolds – First Page Critique: Healing Wounds

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

For your reading enjoyment, we have the first 400-word submission from a work-in-progress introduction from an anonymous author. When I got this submission, the first few lines were broken apart, so I had to reunite them. I don’t know if this weighty first paragraph was the author’s intention, so forgive me if it doesn’t look right. I’ll have my feedback on the flip side. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

***

She had the dream again last night. It lingered as awareness of morning pulled her up and her thoughts coalesced into memory. Audrey Grey saw Jacob’s imprint on the pillow beside her. The light through the curtains told her it was time to get up, too. She stood under the water, transitioning to the day ahead. Thoughts of her dream receded as the day took hold. She dressed and finished a buttered bagel. He should be back anytime. The knocking surprised her. Not tentative and apologetic like you might expect so early in the morning. It sounded . . . commanding. She tiptoed to the window and eased apart a slit between the blinds. A man in a gray and black uniform waited. She let the slats fall shut and took inventory of her appearance. Wet hair, worn skinny jeans, baggy knit top. He knocked again.

You don’t just ignore the police at your door. It’s dishonest and she couldn’t lie to a cop about not being home. Her clumsy fingers fumbled with the lock and slid the chain off. The door always stuck a little, but with an extra tug it gave way. She leaned into the door frame, face to face with the visitor. She could see the gold shield, the belt fully rigged with gear and the black gun at his side.

“Good morning, Ma’am. My name is Officer Mike Welden, Wake County Sheriff’s Department.” He consulted a black notebook flipped open in his hand. His questioning eyes moved from the page to her wary ones.

“There’s been an accident and the identification on the injured party gave this address. Do you know Jacob R.

Grey?” She caught her breath. “Yes, he’s my husband.”

“May I come in?”

She stepped back allowing him to enter. His trained eyes scanned beyond the entry and he spoke her line.

“Would you like to sit down?” Obediently, she took a seat on the edge of the sofa, swiping at shower damp tendrils of hair falling onto her face. “You saw my husband? Is he okay?”

“I found him, yes, ma’am. It appears he was hit while on his bicycle this morning. He’s been taken to Duke Hospital.”

No. He would be here soon. They had to buy a grill for the cookout. “I’m sorry, what do you mean, ‘appears’?”

“We have no witnesses, so it’s not clear exactly what happened.

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – This intro is a classic opener with police knocking on the door of a wife to share bad news about the husband or a family member. Here at TKZ, we preach to start with a disturbance and cops at your door would qualify, but I would’ve liked to see the dialogue with more tension and intrigue. With this being a bicycle accident, the lines are bland. If you isolate only the dialogue and take everything else away, nothing much happens.

Would it have been better to open with the bicycle accident?

We also have an opener with someone in their own head and thinking about a dream, but with the dream not explained any more than a vague 2-line notion, it’s not interesting either. I’ve opened with internal thoughts of a character, but the writing has to intrigue and create elements of mystery to keep the reader (or an editor and agent) turning pages.

It’s my opinion that the author might try to find a better place or a better way to start. Let’s drill down into the details.

OPENING LINE: ‘had the dream again last night.’
The dream is only brought up twice in this weighty opening paragraph. With the first line and this one in the middle of the first paragraph – ‘Thoughts of her dream receded as the day took hold.’ There is so little known about the dream, it’s almost not worth bringing up. It’s a cheap tease that doesn’t work for me.

To intrigue a reader, there needs to be elements of mystery that would force them to want to know more about the dream. In these two lines, even the author dismisses the importance by saying ‘her dream receded as the day took hold.’ If this dream is significant, more of it needs to be layered in and it must reflect or foreshadow what is about to happen–or create the start of a mystery to be solved–otherwise it’s not worth the focus.

If this is a dream where Audrey symbolically loses her husband Grey or can’t find him, that might provide an answer as if she is telepathic or deeply connected to him. If the dream is of something else that will carry through the story, like a distinct thread that evolves, then more needs to be hinted from the start.

Maybe the dream is something buried in Audrey’s subconscious that has put Grey in danger. The author must show patience at dangling this kind of story element into the story, but there needs to be more in order for it to gain traction.

To play with this opener, the author could have the cops get Audrey out of bed from a dead sleep. I liked the imagery of her waking to see Jacob’s imprint on his pillow. She could be more traumatized and her mind muddled if they wake her from an exhausting night of bad dreams, only to wake into her own nightmare.

But I’m more of a fan of action in the opening. Hard to say what I might’ve done in these 400 words, but the bicycle accident would appeal to me more. The reader could be drawn into Grey’s world of normalcy as he rides his bicycle, only to be suddenly struck down by a mystery assailant who races from the scene. BOOM! Opener. Then build on the foreboding dream of Audrey’s that comes to fruition with a knock on her door with police standing there. Solid start.

DISTRACTING LINE – ‘You don’t just ignore the police at your door. It’s dishonest and she couldn’t lie to a cop about not being home.’

This line should be deleted. It’s a strange thought for her to even think about not opening the door to police. A lie about not being home is odd. Most people would be intrigued as hell about why cops were at the door. Why isn’t she? It makes her sound flaky and doesn’t read as solid motivation. In the following line, there’s a focus on action where ‘her clumsy fingers fumbled with the lock.’ That shows her mental state, as if she’s nervous (and rightly so) which is contrary to her strange thought about not opening her door as a dishonest gesture.

VISUAL IMAGERY – In the second paragraph, Audrey comes face to face with the policeman. This struck me as odd, given the next imagery of her staring at his duty belt and gun. I would imagine a cop would be taller than Audrey, unless she’s tall. If she’s shorter, her eyesight might see his duty belt better. I can see her distraction with it. Many people aren’t familiar with guns and she might be intimidated by it, but the police are there for a reason and she doesn’t seem curious enough about why they are there. If this image is important, then clean it up and make the cop more intimidating, if that’s the intention, but in the whole intro, Audrey doesn’t act like a normal wife getting bad news about her husband. I’ll explain below in the section on CHARACTER MOTIVATION.

HOUSEKEEPING – There’s plenty to clean up, line by line. I’m sure other TKZers will help with that, but something that stood out was the cop’s mention of Jacob R, about halfway down. Who is Jacob R? Didn’t the police have his last name? Why would the cop only call him by his first name and an initial? When Audrey says, “Grey?” I had to reread to get the leap she made. (Maybe she jumps in to add it and interrupts him, but there’s punctuation of em dash that would help make that clearer. The author should explain why the police only referred to Jacob R or use his full name. Presumably they would have it since Jacob is at the hospital and survived the accident. He would have ID on him.

In the sentence that starts with ‘His trained eyes scanned beyond the entry and he spoke her line.’ If this is in Audrey’s POV, the author leaps into the head of the cop when referring to ‘his trained eye.’ The author should delete the word ‘trained.’ I also had to reread the last part of that line – ‘he spoke her line.’ This is out of order from real action. How would Audrey know he was about to speak her line -‘Would you like to sit down?’ In that one short paragraph, two characters are speaking and it’s confusing. Separate the lines with space to make things more clear and I would write the cop’s line more distinctly to show he’s speaking.

“It’s best we sit down. After you.” The big man took charge and Audrey lead him into the parlor.

“You saw my husband. Is he okay?”

CHARACTER MOTIVATION – Officer Welden tells her that he found her husband, saying ‘it appears he was hit…’ Instead of Audrey focusing on what a real wife might want to know – “If he’s okay, why isn’t he home?” “Was he injured? Where is he?”

Instead, Audrey focuses on the word ‘appears’ and acts like a sleuth, at the expense of the well being of her poor husband. If she comes across as jarred by the news, physically and mentally, she would be more sympathetic and the tension and emotion would be escalated. But with this cold reaction, it only adds to the bland nature of this opener. The reader will care more if they can relate to the character and Audrey’s understandable emotion.

After Audrey asks if her husband is okay, Officer Welden only says, ‘I found him, yes, ma’am’ before he jumps to more of what happened. This is a police notification to a family. They would be more concerned with sharing news about the husband’s condition and where he’s been taken. Audrey can push for details on the case and who caused the accident once she knows her husband is okay and sees for herself, but there is no sense of urgency on Audrey’s part and the cop should explain more about Jacob’s condition.

“Your husband sustained a broken arm and a few cracked ribs. Doctors at Duke Hospital are examining him now.”

Audrey mentions an internal thought of ‘No, He would be here soon. They had to buy a grill for the cookout,’ (a line that I would italicize to show an internal thought for the reader). The emotion or her confusion isn’t in sync with her cold reaction and focus on the word ‘appears.’ Put more emotion into this section and have her react like a more normal wife and the reader will care more too.

DISCUSSION:
1.) What is your feedback, TKZers?

It takes guts to submit your work for critique. Any comments are solely for the purposes of providing help to a fellow author. We’ve all been here. Thanks for your submission, brave author. The beginning of every story is my greatest challenge, always. Tweak this and perhaps re-imagine a different beginning for Audrey and Jacob and you’ll have a solid start.

3+

Don’t Make the Reader Guess the Important Stuff – First Page Critique – URGE

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

 

For your reading pleasure, we have an anonymous submission of 400 words. Please help with your constructive criticism by commenting. My feedback will follow. Enjoy.

***

Remnants of Sunday night trade at the Royal Derby Hotel were strewn in the gutter. Some poor bastard who didn’t get to enjoy the benefits of it would have to clean up the beer cans and broken glass. Jude stepped over vomit stains and around a bent up bicycle obstructing the footpath as it strained against the chain that kept it attached to a street pole. Cams message had been brief, “Murder in Brunswick Street, think your PI outfit could help. Meet me near corner of Cecil, 7am.” She hadn’t been able to reach him when she tried to return his call. That was an hour ago. She had left three messages for James already without any response. She willed him to come. Check your phone James. Please be on time. I need you here.

Two hundred metres further on the opposite side of the street Jude saw a gaping black hole in a shop front and stopped. Its window display had spilled across the footpath after a fire had blown out the glass. She felt a mild strangling feeling and shuddered. Fuck. Why does it have to be a fire crime, I hate fire crimes, Cam must remember that, he should have told me. Cam was standing outside the shop scratching his head and surveying the contents of the footpath. Beggars can’t be choosers she reminded herself, took a deep breath, checked for cars and stepped into the road. She was hungry to get back into some serious investigative work and wasn’t going to let a bit of queasiness get in the way.

Cam looked up and smiled warmly when he saw Jude and stepped forward to give her a peck on the cheek. “Great to see you. Thanks for coming on such short notice.”

Jude took a quick step back. What’s with the kissing, that’s a bit familiar, this is a crime scene meeting she thought as she nodded towards the shop, “Appreciate the call, what’s the story?”

Cam’s smile faded as he looked at the shop, “Fire brigade got a call around 11pm. Extinguished it by four this morning and secured the scene. Found a body at the back.” He gestured into the open black hole of the building. “Forensics are in there now, doesn’t look like an accident to me,” he nodded at the contents of the footpath and smirked, “it’s, a, uh, fetish shop.”

FEEDBACK

GROUNDING THE READER – From the start we have what feels like a cop investigating a crime scene, but the reader has names without knowing what the players do or even what city they are in. (I had to look up that the Royal Derby Hotel is in Australia.) It takes work to decipher who Cam and Jude and James are. Things aren’t clearer until the very end.

Are they police? Arson investigators? News reporters? From Cam’s message, we learn that there’s a PI involved and it took a reread to see this is Jude. I’ve made a quick stab at a rewrite, trying to stay true to the scene as written, but I hope you can see how the names and job titles clarifies the intro. I might’ve started this story a different way, but I am showing this rewrite to demonstrate how important it is to orient the reader into the scene with details.

REWRITE SUGGESTION

Private investigator Jude Hawthorne stared down at the unexpected text message she had received from Homicide Detective Cameron Hunter as she stood under a pale street lamp.

Murder in Brunswick Street, think your PI outfit could help.

Meet me near corner of Cecil, 7am.

I’m here, Detective Hunter. Where are you?

Remnants of Sunday night trade at the Royal Derby Hotel were strewn in the gutter, making it hard to distinguish the trash from the explosion caused by the fire. Jude stepped over vomit stains and around a bent up bicycle obstructing the footpath as it strained against the chain that kept it attached to a street pole. As she came upon the charred remains of the storefront and shattered glass, she cringed.

Why does it have to be a fire crime? I hate fire crimes. Cam must remember that. He should’ve told me.

Readers don’t get a description of what happened until the mention of the fire blowing out a window half way down, otherwise the intro sounds like the dregs of a drunken party or Mardi Gras. In the last paragraph, there’s a mention of a ‘crime scene’ and a fire brigade with a body inside, but readers need to be oriented into the scene much sooner. In my rewrite above, I added the two red letter lines to mention the crime scene.

START WITH A DISTURBANCE – In the rewrite above, I focused on the disturbance of Jude getting an unexpected text message. She’s a PI and it would not be normal for her to get called to a homicide.

KEEP FOCUS ON EMOTION – Jude obviously has an issue with fires, yet her fear is embedded in a longer paragraph and glossed over. Make that front at center. By sticking with her emotional state, the reader gets invested in her as a character. They want to root for her. (I slapped this rewrite together as an example and cherry-picked what resonated with me. I’m sure the author could do better.)

BEFORE – Two hundred metres further on the opposite side of the street Jude saw a gaping black hole in a shop front and stopped. Its window display had spilled across the footpath after a fire had blown out the glass. She felt a mild strangling feeling and shuddered. Fuck. Why does it have to be a fire crime, I hate fire crimes, Cam must remember that, he should have told me. Cam was standing outside the shop scratching his head and surveying the contents of the footpath. Beggars can’t be choosers she reminded herself, took a deep breath, checked for cars and stepped into the road. She was hungry to get back into some serious investigative work and wasn’t going to let a bit of queasiness get in the way.

AFTER – Jude shuddered and found it hard to breathe as she stared into the gaping hole of the shop front, pitted by fire. Its window display had spilled across the footpath after a fire had blown out the glass. Her own demons were never far from the surface. Detective Hunter should have known to warn her.

Jude took a deep breath and clenched her jaw as she checked for cars and stepped into the road. She needed serious investigative work, even if the case cost her sleep and brought back nightmares she thought she’d left behind.

CHARACTER NAMES – Why does the author only mention first names in this intro? I recommend giving authority to your investigators from the beginning. Give them a job title and what relation they are to each other, as I did in the rewrite above. It took me awhile to realize that Jude is the PI, but who are the other players? Who is James?

To avoid the gender issue using the name Cam, I would mention his full name of Cameron at the start and maybe only start using ‘Cam’ when other people call him by his nickname to establish that Cam is Cameron.

I would also question why a cop would call in a private investigator to an official crime scene, but I will leave that up to the author to establish. I’m sure there is a good reason and it sounds intriguing.

POINT OF VIEW – It took me a few readings to get oriented into the POV intended here. The first two lines were through the eyes of a character, I presumed. So when I saw the name Jude, I thought this is deep POV 3rd person, but then Cam steps into the spotlight and because that name is gender neutral, I thought Cam was a woman until I get to a couple of spots and realize he’s not.

Did anyone else have an issue with gender and whose POV is central? Giving titles and orienting the reader faster would help with this confusion.

PUNCTUATION – A well placed comma can make all the difference. Remember the old grammar joke – “Let’s eat Grandma.” versus “Let’s eat, Grandma.” That comma would mean a huge difference if you’re Grandma. I would recommend reading aloud as part of an edit process. When you get to a spot where your voice naturally pauses, that’s usually where a comma goes. Just ask Grandma. There is also missing question marks and run on sentences that should be broken apart to be clearer.

Here’s a couple of examples:

BEFORE – ‘Fuck. Why does it have to be a fire crime, I hate fire crimes, Cam must remember that, he should have told me.’

Break this apart for clarity and add punctuation. I also recommend internal DEEP POV be italicized (if mixed into 3rd person POV) and I suggest that DEEP POV not be embedded into a paragraph. If it stand out more, it will draw the reader’s eye to it as if it were dialogue. Readers naturally look for dialogue when they are reading. With weighty long paragraphs, as in this submission, the reader might skim or lose important dialogue if it’s buried.

AFTER – Why does it have to be a fire crime? I hate fire crimes. Cam must remember that. He should’ve told me.

Cams message had been brief,… (Cam’s message had been brief,…)

BEFORE – Jude took a quick step back. What’s with the kissing, that’s a bit familiar, this is a crime scene meeting she thought as she nodded towards the shop, “Appreciate the call, what’s the story?”

AFTER – Jude took a quick step back, stunned.

What’s with the kissing. That’s a bit familiar. This is a crime scene, she thought.

All business, Jude nodded towards the shop and said, “Appreciate the call, what’s the story?”

LAST PARAGRAPH – I would break out the dialogue lines to allow the reader to find them more easily. But I’m still not sure why a PI would need to be called in on an arson/murder investigation, especially if it’s a fetish shop. Riddle me that, Batman.

And why is he sure it wasn’t an accident simply because it’s a fetish shop? That’s the implication. His smirk is a little sophomoric, but maybe that is intentional. Is he a professional guy or a wise cracker? We don’t know yet.

BEFORE – Cam’s smile faded as he looked at the shop, “Fire brigade got a call around 11pm. Extinguished it by four this morning and secured the scene. Found a body at the back.” He gestured into the open black hole of the building. “Forensics are in there now, doesn’t look like an accident to me,” he nodded at the contents of the footpath and smirked, “it’s, a, uh, fetish shop.”

AFTER – Cam’s smile faded as he looked at the shop.

“Fire brigade got a call around eleven pm. After they extinguished the blaze by four this morning and secured the scene, they found a body at the back.”

He gestured into the charred chasm of the destroyed building.

“Forensics are in there now, but it doesn’t look like an accident to me.” He nodded at the contents of the footpath and smirked, “it’s, a, uh, fetish shop.”

FOR DISCUSSION

What feedback would you give this author, TKZers?

3+