When Verbs Go Rogue: First Page Critique

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments will follow.

Monstruo Cubano

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your first page. A public critique takes guts, and I admire your courage.

From this small sample I assume s/he is just beginning their writing journey. So, TKZers, please be gentle and kind in your comments and suggestions (I know you will).

With that in mind, I offer the following critique.

Using a foreign language on the first page is a huge risk. As someone who doesn’t speak Spanish, my eyes glazed over when I read the title of the library. It wasn’t until the second read-through that I stopped long enough to figure out “La Libreria” meant “The Library.” That’s a problem. Most readers won’t bother to read the scene a second, third, or fourth time.

For more on using foreign languages, see this 1st Page Critique.

I want to point something out that you might not be aware of, Brave Writer. Note all the words in blue…

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Look at all those strong verbs! You didn’t take the easy road, like “walked” for example. Strong verbs create a more vivid mental image. Problem is there’s way too many. In this short sample I counted at least 43 verbs. The second thing that jumped out at me was all the chaos in this first page. Don’t get me wrong, conflict is a good thing. It’s how we use it that matters. If the conflict doesn’t drive the plot in some way, then we need to rethink our opener. I’m not saying that’s what occurred here, but I want you to ask yourself…

Does the library or shopkeeper play a pivotal role in this story? What are you trying to accomplish with this scene? Does this opener set up a future scene? The answer should be yes. Otherwise, you’re wasting precious real estate.

For more on the best place to start a novel, see this post.

I love how you took advantage of smell, rather than relying only on sight. When I finished reading this submission, I felt like I needed a shower to get rid of the cat stench. Good job! We want our reader’s emotions to match our point-of-view character.

Now, take a deep breath, Brave Writer. This next part might be a bumpy road for you, but I’m hoping you’ll find value in my demonstration of how to write tighter and more concise.

Monstruo Cubano (Consider changing the title to English. Don’t limit your target audience. Back in 2014, Joe Moore wrote an excellent post on the subject.)

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. Brook Harper squeaked in horror when she stepped inside La Libreria de Juan Carolos, the closest library to her new apartment in Miami. (reworded to ground the reader) She gaped at the Rows of mildewed shelves housed lined not with books, but broken dishes and food-encrusted utensils instead of books. Did she have the right address? (added to show her confusion; for more on Show vs. Tell, see this post, which also dips a toe into distant vs. intimate/deep POV.) When she’d arrived at the airport several weeks ago, colorful displays advertised tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books, but this place didn’t even resemble those brochures.

Venturing several steps farther inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into littered the front window, the outside world obscured by a thick layer of grime.

Stay in active voice, not passive. An easy way to spot passive voice is to add “by zombies” at the end. If the sentence still makes sense, it’s passive. Example: Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window by zombies. Since the sentence still makes sense, it’s a passive construction.

Where did they keep the Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginners Spanish books? Brook hurried down an aisle, but leaped (leapt is archaic, use leaped) leapt wildly (adverbs and too many verbs and/or adjectives muddy the writing. For more on “writing tight,” see this post) into the air when a . A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches. I think “swarming” here creates a good visual, so I’m leaving it alone. Be sure to read JSB’s post, though. Too much description detracts from the action.

Brook skittered backwards (“backwards” is the British spelling of “backward.” Also, “skittered” might not be the best word choice. I’d rather you show us the action. Example: Brook’s boots shuffled backward), knocking into a shelf. Dishes crashed to the floor. (added for sentence variation; for more, see this first page critique) and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted (If Brook doesn’t even know beginners’ Spanish, how does she know SALIDA means EXIT? Something to think about).

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot wedged under peeling linoleum and she sailed through the air, landed face-first she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Cat urine coated her palms and one cheek. Vomit lurched up her throat. Why did she ever come to this hellhole? Maybe her new boss wouldn’t notice her bilingual inadequacies. Good looks had gotten her this far (or whatever fits the character).

If you’re not using dialogue between two characters, inner dialogue allows the reader to get to know Brook. Who is she? Why is she in Miami? Where is she from? Is she shy or extroverted? We don’t necessarily need to know these things, but you do. For more on building a character, see this post and this post).

Okay, I’ll stop there.

TKZers, how might you improve this first page? Please add the advice I skipped. Together we can help this brave writer up his/her game.

 

 

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Where Am I? — First Page Critique

By SUE COLETTA

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. I’ll catch ya on the flipside. Enjoy!

TITLE: Sonbgird

chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building. Below me, the slow curve of it swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below. Above me, it changed into a skyscraper. The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see. So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt.

Do it. Do it now.

I screamed at myself to move, but my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. Tingling my fingertips as sweat prickled my forehead.

Even if I didn’t believe I could, I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out. But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve on fire. The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast. He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bight brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate hair over her shoulder. It draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

The genre would be fantasy, I think. Full disclosure: this is not my preferred genre. As a reader, I’m drawn to stories that are logical or at least possible (think: The Martian by Andy Weirs). Brave writer, please remember this is one reader’s opinions. Perhaps others will see something I missed.

Let’s look at this opener in more depth. My comments are in bold.

TITLE: Sonbgird I’m guessing this is a typo and you meant to write Songbird, which I liked right away.

Chapter 1

I stood alone, ready to jump. A slow wavering breath parted my lips. (first two lines drew me in—good job) I gripped the sides of the worn concrete tunnel and looked over the edge. The wind blasted my hair up the side of the building, and rumbled in my ears.

The previous two sentences I’ve read a gazillion times and I still can’t picture where I am. Is the MC standing in an empty culvert? If so, then how does wind blow his/her hair “up the side of the building”?

I could do this. Just have to push through the fear. My eyes stung, but I kept the tears from erupting.

The Sunshine bounced off the pitted white walls of the building (excellent visual). Below me, the slow curve of it (of what, the walls or tunnel? In my mind a tunnel is horizontal, not vertical. If it is a vertical structure and s/he’s looking down into a tunnel-like pit, then you need a better way to set the scene. Also, whenever possible substitute the word “it” for the object) swept far away. The bottom lost somewhere in the sand below.

“Sand” threw me. I’d assumed we were in a metropolitan area due to the word “tunnel,” so you need to ground the reader to where we are.

Above me, it changed into a skyscraper.

Again, what is “it”? And how did it morph into a skyscraper? Without some context, these details don’t make sense to this reader.

The top disappeared in the clouds. I looked over the landscape of buildings in the distance as far as I could see.

That passage reaffirms a metropolitan landscape in my mind. Unless we’re in the desert outside Vegas or somewhere similar. See why it’s important to ground the reader? Don’t make us guess. If we can’t envision the surroundings, how can we fully invest in the story?.

So many lives held in each one, but all of them like mine. Concrete volcanoes ready to erupt. Those two lines intrigued me. I’m thinking concrete smokestacks. Try adding more sensory details i.e. smoke plumed into an aqua-blue sky, tangoed with a lone cloud, and filled my sinuses with burnt ashes of sulfur (or somebody’s dearly departed — kidding. 😉 ) 

Do it. Do it now. Nice. I can feel the urgency.

I screamed at myself for my feet to move, but they wouldn’t comply my feet wouldn’t budge. I could feel the rush of panic flushing over me. (try to decrease the sentences that begin with “I” while remaining in a deep POV). A cold rush of panic washed over me, tingling my fingertips, as sweat prickling my forehead (changed to show how to play with rhythm to create a more visceral experience. Just a suggestion. Your call on whether to keep it).

Even if I didn’t believe I could (could what? You’re trying too hard to be mysterious), I had to try.

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want the responsibility. It wasn’t fair. This I like. It’s mysterious yet, as a reader, I don’t feel cheated—nicely done.

I backed up to get a running start, sliding my feet along the safety of the concert. My fingertips and toes zinged with pin pricks, and I was sure I would pass out (good visuals here). But I let my instinct take over.

I ran.

The wind slipped over the sweat starting to flush my skin, and I felt every nerve was on fire (removed “I felt” to stay in deep POV). The dark, round tunnel lead me faster and faster to the end. My toes curled around the lip of the tunnel as I pushed off the edge.

I still say the MC is in a horizontal culvert that’s hanging over a cliff of some sort. Regardless, please make it clear where we’re at. I shouldn’t still be guessing.

I jumped.

The sunlight and wind rushed over my body, and I was free of the Block. But I didn’t fall. I ignited. Whoa. The MC burst into flames?

I red-highlighted all the sentences that begin with “I” to make you aware of them. If this is intentional, and it may be, then fine, but be careful of overdoing it. Too many in a row can work against us.

***

Almost a year earlier, I stood in the Comb’s Diner, going through the dull stammer of the only life I knew.

I cleaned and stocked all the tables for the waiter, Dan, in exchange for scraps left over from breakfast (this is a great way to weave in a tidbit of backstory). He complained plenty about it. “Do you work here or at the Capitol?” His burly and gruff nature matched his stature.

Amelia was the owner and cook.

That day, her bright brown eyes found me from behind the cook’s window. This is a nit: whenever I read “eyes” instead of “gaze” in this context I think of disembodied eyeballs. Something was up, but I didn’t know what. Looking back, I should have realized.

She flipped her long chocolate-colored (added “-colored” so the reader doesn’t imagine real chocolate like I did on the first read-through. Some descriptive words are like that. Or choose a different way to describe the color i.e. deep brown) hair over her shoulder. It (Strands instead of “it”) draped down her back in a loose braid she had to redo several times a day.

The first line indicates she has long flowing hair, then we find out she’s wearing a braid. Give us one solid image. When we’re not clear right away it causes confusion.

She handed me a few coins. “That’s enough to get you to work and back before it starts raining.”

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your work to TKZ. It’s been a pleasure critiquing this first page. I hope you found it useful.

Over to you, my beloved TKZers! Please add helpful suggestions for this brave writer.

3+

Lessons Learned from Writing True Crime

By SUE COLETTA

Have you ever considered writing true crime? With five days left of my deadline, I’ve finished the manuscript of Pretty Evil New England and am now just tightening the writing and gathering my photographs for the book. The hard part is behind me.

via GIPHY

While on this journey into true crime I learned a few lessons that might interest you.

Would I recommend true crime to new writers? The only honest answer I can give is, it depends.

The truth is, this work isn’t for everyone. Writing true crime is a huge undertaking that requires months of intense research and deep concentration. Some days I swear my brain had caught fire from overuse. Seriously, it can be physically draining to live inside a real killer’s head for months on end, never mind five killers’ heads, or the victims and their families. At the same time, my passion and excitement for the project kept me racing to work every single day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

Please indulge me for a moment. I do have a point, but you’ll need context to understand what I’m talking about. When the publisher approached me about writing Pretty Evil New England, they asked me to include 10 +/- female serial killer stories.

But I didn’t want to write 10 short stories. What fun is that? If I was to veer out of my comfort zone (psychological thrillers and mysteries), then I needed to write a story that mattered, a story that readers could sink into, spend time in the story world, and experience a visceral thrill ride. What I failed to realize at the time was that the publisher’s idea would’ve been a cakewalk compared to my over-eager proposition. But hey, I was never one to shy away from a challenge. Why start now?

In my book proposal, I outlined the book in four Parts. Part I – III focused on one female serial killer at a time, with each Part dedicated to the subject’s case, all four Parts the length of a novella. In Part IV, I zeroed in on two female serial killers — one poor, one “lady of influence” — who committed almost identical crimes. They both claimed to experience visions and prophetic dreams, both murdered the people they loved most, and both stunned the public with their heartless crimes. Yet, after they were exposed as killers, the two women’s lives ran in opposite directions. Even more shocking were the outcomes at trial. So, Part IV became not only two intriguing storylines that intertwined but it shined a (subtle) light on fairness and equality.

Not conforming to the publisher’s original vision for the book was a risk, but I backed up my argument with facts from various sources that proved true crime readers prefer quality over quantity.

Lesson #1: When pushing for your own concept, you need to provide proof that your idea will be more profitable and enjoyable than the one posed by the publisher.

Once I found my five cases, I delved into research. Now, I had no idea what to look for, so I researched everything… life in nineteenth century New England, nursing requirements back then, forensics of yesteryear, how trials worked back then, the gallows… you name it, I researched the topic to death (no pun intended). I had no direction, except for my five ladies, two of which had practically no online footprint and one who had too many articles written about her, and many with conflicting accounts that didn’t align with my early research. Which is worse, actually. It’s much more time-consuming to wade through conflicting information than to research a bare bones case.

Lesson #2: Have a plan of attack. Meaning, before you start to research plan what you’ll need for the story, like dialogue and a sense of place.

Being a fiction writer helped a lot, because I viewed the cases from a storyteller’s point of view. The worse thing we can do is to just report facts. Boring! Instead, we need to find that perfect balance between journalism and engaging storytelling. But, and this is key, we cannot change or embellish to enhance the story.

What I discovered is, there are numerous ways to write true crime. Each of my four Parts are written differently. Why? Because no true story is the same. Thus, it’s our job to be able to adapt according to the case. For example, in Part I, I used the killer’s confession and dialogue to write scenes from her perspective, the victims’ perspectives, and the dogged investigators who caught her. Using a backdrop of the historical Eastern Heatwave of 1901 enhanced the atmosphere in a creepy way. Which brings me to…

Lesson #3: Look outside the case for a sense of place. What else is happening at that time, in that area?

Lesson #4: No amount of online research can replace real-world experience.

Even if we’re writing historical true crime, we still need to visit the crime scenes, grave sites, walk where the killer walked, visit the town, or the murder house, if you’re really lucky. In my research I stumbled across a third floor that was perfectly preserved from 1881. I walked where the killer walked (in Part III of Pretty Evil), I sat where the victims sat, I laid my finger on the ivory keys of their piano and perused their bookshelves. What an incredible find! It’s an experience I will never forget. If you’d like to see the photos, I blogged about it.

The most important lesson I learned was this. Before choosing a subject to write about, ask yourself, why does this story interest me? What is it about this crime that makes it unique?

We, as writers, need to be passionate about all our projects. For true crime writers, we need to be doubly sure, because we can’t change real life. The true crime writer lives with the case for a long time… many months, sometimes years. If the writer isn’t passionate about the story, chances are readers won’t care, either. Same goes for fiction. Hence why TKZ members have written umpteen posts on concept, premise, when to keep a story idea and when to trash it.

By the time I wrote the final sentence of Part IV of Pretty Evil, I couldn’t wait to go back to page one. I missed my “characters” from Part I-III. And now that I’m just tidying up the manuscript, I feel like I’m visiting old friends, even if they are psychopaths. 😉 Their stories are part of me now, and hopefully, will become part of my readers’ lives as well.

Have you ever considered writing true crime? If you already do, please share your tips.

 

PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND: True Stories of Violent Vixens and Murderous Matriarchs hits bookstores Sept. 1, 2020. Can’t wait!

 

9+

Book Blurbs: The Good, The Bad, and The Hilarious

During the summer I had the distinct honor of blurbing a book. Not just any book, either. Larry Brooks’ new craft book, Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves. I love Larry’s (and Jim’s!) craft books, so I took my job seriously and did what any self-respecting writer would do… I Googled “How to Blurb a Book.” 🙂

The term “blurb” has amassed a number of meanings in the decades since it worked its way into our vocabulary, including a book description. But the true meaning of the word means a bylined endorsement from a fellow writer or celebrity that sings the praises of the book’s author.

There’s only two crucial steps to book blurbing.

Step 1: read the book.

Step 2: write whatever you liked about it.

That’s it. It’s not rocket science. The only way to screw up this assignment is to skip Step 1. Well, that’s not exactly true.

Don’t write the blurb to a fill-in-the-blank formula…

The Zero by Jess Walter

“Jess Walter’s The Zero is a tense and compulsively readable roller-coaster ride fraught with psychological thrills, unanticipated dips and lurches, and existential truths. The novel frightened and fascinated me in equal measures. Walter has written a neo-noirish masterpiece.” — Wally Lamb

This is also not the time to overwrite…

To The End Of The Land by David Grossman

“Very rarely you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling has opened in you that was not there before. David Grossman has the ability to look inside a person and discover the essence of her humanity; his novels are about what it means to defend this essence against a world designed to extinguish it. To The End Of The Land is his most powerful, unflinching story of this defense.” — Nicole Krauss

Nor is it the time to play with adverbs…

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

“To those who say there are no new love stories, I heartily recommend The Time Traveler’s Wife, an enchanting novel, which is beautifully crafted and as dazzlingly imaginative as it is dizzyingly romantic.” — Scott Turow

Although, if you’re as talented and creative as Jordan Dane, you might get away with adjectives…

“Riveting and haunting! Sue Coletta’s page-turning crime fiction is deliciously nuanced with delectable horror and dark humor. Unique and compelling characters make a sumptuous and satisfying meal. Save room for a decadent dessert of plot twists.”

Let’s not forget the blurb master, Gary Shteyngart, who blurbed the world’s worst books. Here’s a small sampling…

Eating People is Wrong by Malcolm Bradbury

“If eating people is wrong, I don’t want to be right”—Gary Shteyngart

Castration: The Advantages and Disadvantages by Victor T. Cheney

“The ballsiest book of the year”—Gary Shteyngart

Alas, I wasn’t that creative. I just told the truth…

“Larry Brooks has done it again!!! In Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves, Brooks delivers a clear, concise, easily digestible roadmap to make our stories work.

“From the initial story seed to concept to a fully formed premise, he walks us through each part of a four-part structure, with unwavering clarity. It’s the perfect craft book to help aspiring writers turn their writing dreams into reality and an excellent refresher for seasoned novelists.”

 

If you enjoyed Story Engineering or Story Physics, you will love Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves. Did I mention Robert Dugoni wrote the foreword?

While you’re stocking the toolbox, might I recommend another fabulous craft book? The Last Fifty Pages by James Scott Bell. Like Larry’s new book, it’s a game-changer.

Too much? It felt a little heavy-handed. Sorry about that. I get so fired up over craft books. Jim and Larry’s teaching style really speaks to me. Can a writer ever have too many books on craft? Not in my world. What about yours?

 

7+

First Page Critique: Singularity Syndrome

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer has submitted their first page for critique. I’ll see you on the flipside. Enjoy!

Title:  Singularity Syndrome

It was just the kind of case I like. Someone was sipping data from Hurgle’s supposedly leakproof data cloud. Hurgle wasn’t an especially evil corporation—just average evil. So, I didn’t mind taking their coins to send sniffers loose in the data streams. I found the leak and plugged it for good with a worm that trashed the sneak thieves’ servers. They never knew what hit them, and my client and I never knew who they were. But that didn’t matter. They’d be back, or someone else would. The universe holds an infinite number of crackers.

It was 13:06 hours of work by my intelligent agents while me, the Parrot and Altima sat around the warehouse snacking on Chapul bars and fresh water.

Then she called. And reminded me what kind of case I really like.

The call came in on my public comms screen with full voice and video. A woman with long scarlet hair, glossy in the style of years ago. She was beautiful, with lines around her eyes that showed she liked to smile. But not smiling now. Of course not. She wouldn’t be calling me if she had anything to smile about.

“How can I help you?” I’m the Finder, that’s what I do, so it’s obvious. But it helps them to start from the beginning.

“I’m worried about my husband.”

“He’s missing?”

“No.”

“Then what?”

A small crease furrowed her lovely forehead. “His behavior has changed.”

“How so?”

“He’s lost focus.”

“Is he dangerous? Accident prone? I’m not clear why you’ve called me. Why not a psychiatrist?”

“We run a business together. A significant company. He’s got some strange ideas, and they’re impacting our business.”

“If this is some corporate drama, I’m not interested.”

“I know about you.”

“Then you know I don’t care about the corps.”

“Unless it interests you.”

“And why would it?”

“I think his brain has been hacked.”

Okay, she was right. That was interesting. “His brain has been hacked or you just don’t like the way he thinks?”

“I don’t like the way he thinks, but it’s more than that. He’s not thinking the way he used to.”

“People change.”

“Yes, they do.” She let the silence draw out and so did I. I could be silent much longer than most people.

* * *

Excellent first page, Anon! The writing is crisp, exciting, and has an engaging voice. The dialogue is punchy and quick, sounds natural and believable. The MC’s personality shines through. There’s a solid goal and conflict, and you’ve dropped us into the story at an ideal place and time. I liked this opener so much, I wanted to keep reading.

Even without you having to tell the reader, we can assume the MC is male. We also get a good sense of who he is—a highly skilled white hat who works for a government agency in a specialized field (my guess is a cyber-tracker). That’s a lot of information that you subtly infused into this first page without clobbering us over the head with backstory. Well done! His name would be nice, but I’m willing to wait. See what good writing does? It tells the reader we’re in capable hands. If I didn’t learn his name for another ten pages, I’d still be content to go for the ride. Try to slip it in earlier than that, though. 🙂

Let’s see if we can improve this first page even more.

It was just the kind of case I like[d] add the “d” to stay in past tense here. Someone was sipping data from Hurgle’s supposedly leakproof data cloud. Hurgle wasn’t an especially evil corporation—just [an] average evil. So, I didn’t mind taking their coins to send sniffers loose in the data streams. I found the leak and plugged it for good with a worm that trashed the sneak[y] thieves’ servers. They never knew what hit them, and my client and I never knew who they were. But that didn’t matter. They’d be back, or someone else would.

The universe holds an infinite number of crackers. I brought this line down for greater impact; also, because you’ve switched to present tense, which isn’t wrong, btw. In this context, the statement still holds true. 

It was 13:06 hours of work by my intelligent agents while me, the Parrot and Altima [the Parrot, Altima, and I] sat around the warehouse snacking on Chapul bars and fresh water. Use the pronoun “I” when the person speaking is doing the action, either alone or with someone else. Use the pronoun “Me” when the person is receiving the action, either directly or indirectly. — courtesy of Webster’s Ask the Editor

Then she called. And reminded me what kind of case I really like. This line is redundant. Instead, I’d rather see you tease the reader here. I don’t know where you’re going with the story, but perhaps you could add something like: The woman that rocked my world, and not necessarily in a good way.

The call came in on my public comms screen with full voice and video. A woman (if you decide to use something similar to my example above, then change this to [There she sat,] with long scarlet hair, glossy in the style of years ago. She was beautiful, with lines around her eyes that showed she liked to smile (how ‘bout using “laugh” instead of “smile” here to avoid repetition, since you use “smile” at the end of this paragraph?) But not smiling now. Of course not. Not now, of course. (one sentence is tighter than two 🙂 ) She wouldn’t be calling me if she had anything to smile about.

“How can I help you?” I’m the Finder, that’s what I do, so it’s obvious (last part is unnecessary). But it helps them to start from the beginning.

“I’m worried about my husband.”

“He’s missing?”

“No.”

“Then what?” (This seems out-of-character. He’s nice enough to let her “start from the beginning,” yet here he seems agitated. How ‘bout: “Then… I’m not sure why—”)

A small crease furrowed her lovely forehead (normally I’d ding you for “lovely” because it’s a non-visual word, but here, it works to show he’s enamored with the caller). “His behavior has changed.”

“How so?”

“He’s lost focus.”

“Is he dangerous? (why would losing focus automatically make him think “dangerous”? Don’t tell us; you’ll ruin the intrigue. Just give us a hint in the right direction.) Accident prone? I’m not clear why you’ve called me. Why not a psychiatrist?” (I would delete this last question. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it. It just feels… misplaced. *shrug*) 

“We run a business together. A significant company. He’s got some strange ideas, and they’re impacting our business.”

“If this is some corporate drama, I’m not interested.”

I’d love to see her stumble over her words. “It’s not. It’s just that— What I mean is, I know about you.” “I know about you.”

“Then you know I don’t care about the corps.”

“Unless it interests you.”

“Exactly. So, lay it on me. ’Cause as it stands now, I gotta tell ya, so far this sounds like a waste of valuable time and resources.” (I added to the dialogue to increase tension. Your MC is about to hang up when the caller drops a bomb i.e. brain hack) And why would it?”

“I think his brain has been hacked.”

Okay, she was right. That was interesting. (Is a brain hack something that happens every day in your story world? If not, he needs a bigger reaction. Even if it’s as simple as confusion: Whoa. Wait. Huh?) “His brain has been hacked or you just don’t like the way he thinks?”

Both I don’t like the way he thinks, but it’s more than that. He’s not thinking the way he used to.”

(Add a lame half-shrug or another body cue that shows indifference). “People change.”

“Yes, they do.” She let the silence draw out and so did I. I could be silent much longer than most people. (Delete the last line. It adds nothing. How ‘bout something snarky instead? “If she thought she could out-silence me, she obviously didn’t have the first clue about me.”)

All in all, you did a terrific job with this opener, Anon. I really enjoyed it. Be sure to let us know how things progress with your story. So far, I’m intrigued!

Over to you, my beloved TKZers. Would you keep reading? Please add your suggestions/comments of how you might improve this first page. Do you like the title? Why/why not?

 

 

7+

Quit Trying to Write

 

You were expecting Yoda?

 

Having coffee this morning? Yum!

Now, try to pick up the cup. Go on… Are you touching the cup? No, no, no–that’s not allowed. You’re only allowed to try to pick it up.

Is your hand hanging uncertainly in the air?

This is not a trick. Okay, maybe it’s a little tricky, but it demonstrates something very important. Trying doesn’t get things done. It isn’t a thing. There is only doing. *insert Yoda here*

I think I read the phrase “I’m trying to write a (insert genre) novel” online five or six times a week. Although I empathize with struggling, beginning, and frustrated writers–as I’ve been them all–I want to gently shake these “trying” authors by the shoulders of their faded university sweatshirts and tell them to stop trying and just keep writing.

Either you’re writing a novel, or you’re not writing a novel. We can prepare ourselves to write. We can take a break from writing, or we can quit writing, or we can continue writing until we’re finished, and start the next one.

If you’re bogged down, or stuck, admit it. Don’t hide it. Ask for help, then quickly get back to your keyboard. Don’t worry: if you’re thinking constructively about your work, you’re still writing. But don’t think too long. Take an afternoon, or a day. Don’t lose your momentum, even if it’s the momentum of the  hundred words you wrote during the fifteen minutes before breakfast yesterday.

If you’re writing, you’re a writer.

Keep writing.

Help other writers.

Don’t bother trying. Make the choice to do, and not give up.

 

Are there things you find yourself “trying” to do, instead of doing them?

(for me it’s “trying” to lose weight)

 

13+

The Wagon Wheel of Suspense

By Sue Coletta

We have another gutsy writer who submitted their first page. Please pay special attention to the notes at the end of this post, and you’ll understand my title (I hope).

Gym Body

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. Deep breath. Step in. The cop cars outside reminded me of something that had happened long ago.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes.

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down.

Breathing in the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.”

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist, and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepen into greater and more cynical levels of boredom depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now she was pushing 11 on a bored-look scale of 10. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.”

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!”

Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars. She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

* * *

NITTY-GRITTY

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. If her hand is on the door handle, how could she feel her heartbeat in her palm? If you’d like to deepen the POV, reword like this: With my hand on the gym door handle, the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio pulsed through my hand.  Deep breath. Staccato sentence, which varies sentence structure and adds rhythm. Good job! Step in. This one may be overdoing it, but it’s a stylistic choice. The cop cars outside [the building] reminded me of something that had happened long ago. I’d love a hint to what happened. Don’t explain in detail, though. Rather, hint at it, teasing us to keep us interested. As written, it’s not enough.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes. Good. It makes me wonder why she’s so upset. I hope it’s because someone got their head bashed in with a weight and not due to a minor disagreement. Meaning, if you’re going to show us a woman racing down the stairs in tears in the opening paragraph, you ought to have a compelling reason why, a reason the reader will soon discover. This is precious real estate. Don’t waste it on meaningless conflict that has no bearing on the forthcoming quest. 

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down. Meh. I’d delete this sentence. It detracts from the next sentence, which I like. Breathing in Inhaling the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card. Bravo on using sound and smell to enhance the mental image. Too often writers forget to use these senses, and often they’re the most powerful.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.” You managed to sneak in the main character’s name, which is great. However, this dialogue is too on-the-nose. What if Trixie gossiped about why the woman ran out in tears? Again, give us a compelling reason. 

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist “Fell” indicates she had her hair up prior to this., and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepened into greater and more cynical levels of boredom, depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now, she was pushing 11 eleven on a bored-look scale of 10 ten. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.” Love the snark. This paragraph shows us Suzi’s fun personality. Very good.

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. Unless the character is shouting, lose the exclamation point. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!” <– Here too. Rather than pick away at this, I’m stopping here. Please jump to the notes below. Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars.  She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

Old Fashioned Wagon Wheel Garden Fountain

NOTES

Even if we tightened the writing, these last two paragraphs still aren’t interesting enough for the opening page. I’d rather see you use this space to hint at what Suzi will find inside her classroom. Dead body? Blood? An escaped zoo gorilla? Hordes of tarantulas from the exotic pet store next door? Prison escapee? Suzi’s ex-husband who just dumped the crying woman? My point is, the details must connect. Or show us why she fears the past might be repeating itself. Hint at the disturbance you mentioned in the first paragraph. As it stands now, the cop cars disappeared from Suzi’s mind. By including too many details about the surroundings you’ve undone the tension you started to build in the opening paragraph.

The title, I assume, is a play on words. Gym body = dead body in the gym? As a crime writer, my mind jumps to a scenario that involves murder. If this isn’t the case, then you need a new title. Preferably one that hints at the genre.

THE WAGON WHEEL OF SUSPENSE

Envision an old fashioned wagon wheel fountain (pictured above). The water rides up in the buckets, over the top of the wheel, and spills down into the same basin. The water itself never changes, even though it cycles through several buckets. In writing, especially in our opening chapter, we need to narrow our focus to one main conflict (i.e. a killer on the loose), one compelling question that the reader needs to answer (why do folks die at this specific gym?). This is how we force them to turn the page. We can and should include several disturbances along the way (in this analogy, I’m referring to the buckets), but they all should relate to that main conflict (the water) in some way.

In the opening chapter it’s crucial to stop the wheel partway. Don’t let that water escape till later, thereby raising the main dramatic story question. We still need to transfer the water from bucket to bucket on the way up the wheel (remember, conflict drives story). That’s how we build suspense, little by little, almost painfully teasing the reader till we’re ready to let the water flow.

In this opening chapter, the main conflict could be what’s inside Suzi’s classroom that’s so horrible a woman pounded down the stairs in tears after witnessing it, but you’d need to drop more clues to make us want to find out. Use the patrol cars outside the building as one disturbance. How does the past relate to present day? What sort of reaction do the lights and sirens have on Suzi? Has this gym been the scene of other murders? Hint at how these things connect to pique the reader’s interest.

Anon, please remember, if I thought you were just beginning your writing journey, you wouldn’t see this much red ink. Your grasp of POV tells me you’ve got the skills to do better. I already like Suzi enough to go for the ride. That’s a huge plus. All you need to do is give us a compelling reason to turn the page. With some tweaking, I know you can do it.

Over to you, TKZers! What advice would you give to improve this first page?

8+

How to Handle Critiques

After undertaking quite a few first page critiques here at TKZ, it occurred to me that it might be timely to (re)consider the role of critiques and, perhaps more importantly, how a writer should handle the feedback received.

Receiving criticism, even when constructive (but especially when it isn’t!)  is never a pleasant experience (and trust me, I’ve been there many, many times) but it’s a vital part of any writer’s review process. The tricky part comes when the feedback provided isn’t consistent – which quite often it isn’t (Hint: when the feedback is consistent, it’s usually worth considering!). As we’ve seen here at TKZ, reviewing someone’s writing is a very subjective experience. So how should a writer handle multiple points of view, advice and feedback?

Here are some of my thoughts – based on my experience with beta readers, reviewers, writing groups, agents and editors….

Trust the opinion of those you admire and who genuinely want you to succeed in your writing.

I would say everyone who provides feedback here at TKZ is supportive of the brave souls who submit their work for a first-page critique – so this comment is more directed to other reviewers or writing groups, where sometimes the quality of the feedback provided may be colored by differing degrees of experience as well as intention (just saying!) so make sure the advice you’re getting is from people whose honest opinion you admire and trust. This also means not seeking opinions solely from friends or family members who may hold back on giving you an honest appraisal out of fear of hurting your feelings.

Look for consistent themes in the feedback provided.

If everyone has difficulty say with the voice or POV you’re using in your work, even if their advice differs on how to fix that, I’d genuinely consider the issue. If a consistent ‘flaw’ is identified by multiple reviewers, then it’s always worth take a close look at the problem even if, as the writer, you disagree with the solutions offered.

Avoid comments that are vague and focus on the specifics.

There’s not much a writer can do with ‘I just didn’t like the character’ feedback so it’s much better to focus on specifics rather than vague generalities. That being said, if everyone gives you the same (albeit vague) feedback, then fundamentally something isn’t resonating with readers so, as a writer, I’d take that feedback on board and see what I could do to fix it.

Discuss comments and feedback with those your admire and trust

Sometimes, when my agent has identified an issue I haven’t even thought of, and none of my beta readers have identified, I’ll go back to them with her comments – and 9 times out of 10 they will agree…so it’s always worth bouncing ideas and feedback with your reviewers. This often leads to greater clarity and consistency in terms of what may not be working in a story.

When multiple, conflicting, but specific feedback is given, go with what feels right for you… 

This is the trickiest aspect of dealing with inconsistent feedback and, as writer’s gain more experience, it does get easier to identify what rings true and what doesn’t. In one of my writing groups, I’d sometimes get random feedback that I quickly realized was completely wrong for the genre of book I was writing, or which led me down a path that wasn’t going to work for me. It’s extremely hard, though, to sift through all the comments given in a writing or critique group and know what feels right. In that situation, I’d go back to my initial comment about relying on the feedback of those you trust and admire and who really want you to succeed in your writing.

But also take a big step back to see what the heart of the issue might really be…

One of our TKZ alumni, Larry Brooks, identified it best in his book ‘Story Fix’ – where he noted that what brings a story down is often less about the writing and more about the inherent appeal and strength of the story itself. So when digesting the plethora of feedback  you’ve received, I’d initially classify the advice into two buckets (1) feedback on the actually mechanics of your writing (weak grammar, clumsy sentence structure etc.) and (2) feedback that goes to the heart of the story you are trying to tell (POV, appeal of characters, dramatic tension etc.). It’s much easier to fix issues that reviewers identify in bucket number (1). Feedback the falls into bucket (2), may require you to take a long hard look at the concept and premise of your story. That doesn’t mean despairing, it just means going back to identifying the core of story you are hoping to tell and seeing whether it holds up under scrutiny. That could be the first step in identifying what is going wrong and the best way of rectifying it.

So TKZers, what advice would you give, particularly to our brave first page submitters, on handling multiple, sometimes inconsistent, feedback when it comes to your writing?

8+

What Do Tom Turkey and Writing Have in Common?

by Sue Coletta

Photo by Andrea Reiman on Unsplash

Clare’s recent post got me thinking about craft and how, as we write, the story inflates like a Tom turkey. If you think about it long enough and throw in a looming deadline, Tom Turkey and story structure have a lot in common.

Stay with me. I promise it’ll make sense, but I will ask you to take one small leap of faith — I need you to picture Tom Turkey as the sum of his parts, constructed by craft. And yes, this particular light bulb blazed on over the Thanksgiving holiday. We are now having spiral ham for Christmas dinner. 🙂

But I digress.

Story beats build Tom’s spine (hook, inciting incident, first plot point, first pinch point, midpoint, second pinch point, all is lost, second plot point, climax). The ribs that extend from Tom’s spine liken to the equal parts that expand our beats and tell us how our characters should react before, during, and after the quest.

Broken into four equal parts, 25% percent each, we call this the dramatic arc and it defines the pace of our story.

  •             Setup: Introduce protagonist, hook the reader, and setup First Plot Point (foreshadowing, establishing stakes); establish empathy (not necessarily likability) for the MC.
  •             Response: The MC’s reaction to the new goal/stakes/obstacles revealed by the First Plot Point; the MC doesn’t need to be heroic yet (retreats/regroups/doomed attempts/reminders of antagonistic forces at work).
  •             Attack: Midpoint information/awareness causes the MC to change course in how to approach the obstacles; the hero is now empowered with information on how to proceed, not merely reacting anymore.
  •             Resolution: MC summons the courage and growth to come up with solution, overcome inner obstacles, and conquer the antagonistic force; all new information must have been referenced, foreshadowed, or already in play by 2nd plot point or we’re guilty of deus ex machina.

Tom Turkey is beginning to take shape.

Characterization adds meat to his bones and interesting, conflict-driven sub-plots supply tendons and ligaments. When we layer in dramatic tension in the form of a need, goal, quest, or challenge, Tom grows skin. Obstacle after obstacle, conflict after conflict, he sprouts feathers. Utilizing MRUs — Motivation-Reaction-Units; for every action there’s a reaction — sets our story rhythm. They also aid us in heightening and maintaining suspense.

When we use MRUs, Tom Turkey fluffs those feathers. Look what happened. He grew a beak.

Providing a vicarious experience, our emotions splashed across the page, makes Tom fan his tail-feathers. The stakes add to Tom’s glee, and he prances for a potential mate. He thinks he’s got the goods to score with the ladies. He may actually get lucky this year.

Then again, we know better. Poor Tom, he’s still missing a few crucial elements in order to close the deal.

By structuring our scenes, Tom grew an impressive snood. See it dangling from his beak? The wattle under his chin needs help though. Hens are shallow. Quick, we need to imbue the story with voice.

Ah, now Tom looks sharp. What an impressive bird. Watch him prance, all full and fluffy, head held high, tail feathers fanned in perfect formation. Stud muffin.

Uh-oh. Joe Hunter leveled his shotgun at Tom. We can’t let him die before he finds a mate. We need to ensure he stays alive. But how? We’ve given him all the tools he needs, right?

Well, not quite.

Did we choose the right point of view to tell our story? If we didn’t, Tom could end up on a holiday table surrounded by drooling humans in bibs. In other words, we’ll lose our reader before we even get a chance to dazzle them with Tom’s perfect structure.

We also need narrative structure. Without it, Joe Hunter will murder poor Tom. We can’t let that happen!

Narrative structure, by the way, is almost impossible for me to define (maybe one of our craft teachers will weigh in here). I call it the “oomph” and I know it when I write it. I also know when it’s missing. Have you ever started writing a story but it didn’t have that certain something? The story was just … meh. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but it didn’t sizzle like it should for some reason.

Yeah, so have I. Those novels are now trunked. Without the oomph, the story doesn’t work. We need the oomph — aka narrative structure.

Tom needs narrative structure, too, if he hopes to escape Joe Hunter’s bullet. He also requires wings, in the form of context. Did we veer too far outside of our readers’ expectations for the genre we’re writing in? Did we give Tom a heart and soul by subtly infusing our theme? Can we boil down the plot to its core story, Tom’s innards? What about dialogue? Does Tom gobble or quack?

Have we shown the three dimensions of character in order to add oxygen to Tom’s lungs? You wouldn’t want to be responsible for suffocating Tom to death, would you?

  •             1st Dimension of Character: The best version of who they are; the face the character shows to the world;
  •             2nd Dimension of Character:  The person our character shows to friends and family;
  •             3rd Dimension of Character:  Our character’s true character. If a fire broke out in a crowded theater, would she help others or elbow her way to the door to save herself?

Lastly, Tom needs a way to wow the ladies. We better make sure our prose sings. If we don’t, Tom could die of loneliness. Do we really want that on our conscience? No! To be safe, let’s review our word choices, sentence variations, paragraphing, grammar, and the way we string words together to ensure Tom lives a full and fruitful life. Don’t forget to rewrite and edit. If readers love Tom, he and his new bride could bring chicks (sequels or prequels) into the world, and we, as Tom’s creator, have the honor of helping them flourish into full-fledged turkeys.

Aww … it looks like Tom’s story will have a happy ending after all.

Over to you, TKZers. Is Tom Turkey missing anything? What would you name his mate?Can anyone define narrative structure in a more craft-appropriate way?

Want to meet more feathered friends? The antagonist in BLESSED MAYHEM has three pet crows, Poe, Allan, and Edgar. The Kindle version is on sale for a limited time.

Blessed Mayhem by Sue Coletta

 

 

4+

With Help from Jeffery Deaver, Let’s Rock This First Page Critique!

Posted by Sue Coletta

Greetings, TKZers! Another brave writer has submitted a first page for critique. Rather than nitpick, I’ve approached this one a little differently. My comments are below. Hope you’ll weigh in too.

1st Page Critique

 

“Coming Home”

“Did I tell you I knew your father?”

John put on his best fake smile and nodded. “Yeah, you mentioned it when I first came in. You played football together?”

Ralph continued, “Yeah. Hank was one hell of a lineman. In our senior year against Haynesworth, he knocked their quarterback six feet into the air and…”

John couldn’t help but tune out. He’d heard the stories of his dad’s glory days retold hundreds of times with varying degrees of exaggeration. It happens when you live in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. It’s even more common when your father died becoming a local hero. It was bad enough when he was a kid, but ever since John returned home after flunking out of college last month he ran into people every day who felt the need to explain their connection to his father. He knew the story of every guy his dad had ever met or arrested and every woman he dated in high school. He just didn’t expect it during a job interview.

“…the refs decided we would get the point, the crowd went crazy. That victory carried us through the rest of the school year, but I don’t think that quarterback ever walked right again.”

John struggled to picture the large man sitting across the desk playing football. He couldn’t imagine this guy lifting anything heavier than a bowl of gravy since his beet-red face was sweating from the exertion required just to have this conversation. The man had to have had help squeezing his butt between the arms of that old wooden office chair which creaked horribly every time he moved.

John pushed to get the conversation back on track. “Pops, ur…sorry, Poplawski said you were looking for someone to start immediately.”

“The sooner, the better. Jim just walked out on us. No notice or nothin’. He came back from his shift one day last week and took his uniform off right here in this office. Said ‘this job doesn’t pay enough for this kind of shit,’ threw his clothes on the floor and drove home in his skivvies. Can you believe that? Left me in a pinch. I had to go out on his calls for the rest of the week.”

* * *

Overall, I liked this piece. Loved the voice too. With a few tweaks, I think this could be a strong first page. Brave Writer has given us a peek into the main character’s background without resorting to a huge info. dump. Paragraph four dances on the edge, but not so much that it pulled me out of the story. We have a sense of who John is and some of the difficulties he’s had growing up in his deceased father’s shadow. Life in a small town isn’t easy, and that’s clear.

I’m a sucker for snarky characters, so I loved this line:

He couldn’t imagine this guy lifting anything heavier than a bowl of gravy since his beet-red face was sweating from the exertion required just to have this conversation. 

It may read better if you broke it into two sentences, but I’d rather concentrate on the bigger picture.

What this first page is missing is a solid goal, something the MC needs to achieve more than anything. Sure, he’s applying for a job, but it doesn’t seem like he cares if he gets it. Why, then, should the reader care? Our main character must be in a motivated situation with an intriguing goal or problem to overcome.

The writer may want to save this piece for later in the story, even if it’s used on page two or three, and instead draw us in with a more compelling goal. Or, show us why this job interview is so important to John. Without the job, will he lose his house? Not have food? Is he trying to escape this small town for some reason?

Also, I’m not a fan of opening with dialogue unless it’s used for a purpose. For example, to raise a story question or to intrigue the reader. Dialogue, especially when used as an opening line, needs to sparkle (I’ll show you what I mean in a second). Without context and grounding, we risk disorienting the reader.

Let’s look at an example of dialogue that works as a first line and adds conflict to the entire first page. Maybe it’ll help spark some ideas for you.

The following is from The Burial Hour by Jeffery Deaver. For clarity, my comments are in bold, the excerpt italicized.

“Mommy.”

“In a minute.” 

Bam! Right off, we feel the tension mounting. 

They trooped doggedly along the quiet street on the Upper East Side, the sun low this cool autumn morning. Red leaves, yellow leaves spiraled from sparse branches.

Mother and daughter, burdened with the baggage that children now carted to school.

In five sentences the author has grounded us in the scene. We’re right there with the characters, envisioning the scene in our mind’s eye. Without even reading the next line we can sense the urgency of the situation. Plus, we can already empathize with the characters.

Let’s read on …

Clare was texting furiously. Her housekeeper had—wouldn’t you know it?—gotten sick, no, possibly gotten sick, on the day of the dinner party! The party. And Alan had to work late. Possibly had to work late.

As if I could ever count on him anyway.

Ding.

The response from her friend:

Sorry, Carmellas busy tnight.

Jesus. A tearful emoji accompanied the missive. Why not type the god-damn “o” in tonight? Did it save you a precious millisecond? And remember apostrophes?

“But, Mommy.” A nine-year-old’s singsongy tone.

“A minute, Morgan. You heard me.” Clare’s voice was a benign monotone. Not the least angry, not the least peeved or piqued.

first page critique

Can you see why this 1st page works? The goal is clearly defined and the main character needs to achieve it. The snappy dialogue between mother and daughter creates conflict. The voice rocks, and the scene hooks the reader. We need to read on in order to find out what happens next. More importantly, we’re compelled to turn the page. Questions are raised, questions that need answers. And that’s exactly what a first page should do. Don’t let us decide whether or not we want to turn the page. Grab us in a stranglehold and force us.

Over to you, TKZers. What advice would you give to improve this brave writer’s first page?

8+