Wednesday, April 21, 2010

One-page critique of Bullet’s Name

By Joe Moore

We continue our one-page critique project at TKZ with an anonymous submission called Bullet’s Name.

August, 1937

It was just after eleven on a Sunday morning when God-fearing people were in church and reprobates were sleeping in from reprobating all night.

Jasper Green was waiting for me in a rundown colored roadhouse a few miles outside Salisbury, North Carolina. I parked the well-worn Ford sedan that I’d rented three days earlier for ten bucks a day from a less-than-honest car dealer in Charlotte. I parked just shy of sparkling Dodge coupe with a Carolina plate.

The front door stood open so I crossed the porch and walked into the dim interior. The water-stained ceiling undulated gently like the surface of the ocean. The pine floors were worn paper smooth and the place smelled of spilled beer, cigarette smoke and a hint of a shallow piss pit out back. Some of the dark-brown floor stains looked like residue from blade work.

Green sat like a king with his back in a corner, his black hair pomaded to his narrow skull like sun-baked paint. His right hand was under the table, his dusty brown eyes reflected amused disinterest. A young negress, with a lithe body that gave turned a simple cotton shift into an elegant gown, was delivering a bottle of whiskey to his table when I came in and she looked at me like I was tracking in a dog turd.

In a welcoming gesture, Jasper Green smiled disarmingly and raised his chin to invite me over. When I got to the table, he pointed at the chair opposite and said, “Sit down and take a load off, buddy.”

I would recommend that the writer proofread the work before submission. Even if this is a rough first draft, the writer could have taken a few seconds to make sure this single page was clean and devoid of errors. There are words missing: “the” or “a” before the word “sparkling”, and extra words that don’t belong: “gave” just before “turned”. We are told twice in a row that “I parked”.

Regarding the writing, there’s nothing wrong with using metaphors, similes and strong description to create atmosphere and sense of place. But in this example, there are way too many. Some are confusing and some just don’t work. I don’t think using the verb “undulated” is a good way to describe a ceiling unless you’re drunk on your back staring up at it.

I would bet that beer drinkers love the smell of beer. I would even bet that they would have no issue with the aroma of spilt beer. I think what the writer meant was the odor of spilled beer from a week or a month ago—the smell of stale beer.

I assume the dark stains resulting from “blade work” mean blood spilled from past knife fights. That almost works, but for me it was too obscure.

I would suggest changing “colored roadhouse” to “negro roadhouse”. In today’s politically correct mindset, colored does not have the impact that negro would.

I’ve heard of people described as having a narrow face or even a narrow head, but a narrow skull doesn’t quite put a vivid picture in my mind. Word choice is so important. The word skull, for me at least, has a totally different connotation than head. And is pomaded the right word choice for this setting? The first page may not be the best time to send your reader running for a dictionary or the writer trying to exhibit an extended vocabulary. Remember that you are establishing your voice from page one.

From across the room, the main character could see that Jasper’s eyes were a “dusty brown”, a description I find somewhat attractive for a person the writer is trying to paint as a dark or questionable character.

The sentence that starts with “A young negress” lacks proper punctuation. It also paints a contradiction. This “lithe” girl who turns rags to royalty when it comes to her wardrobe suddenly is assumed to think in terms of turds. A complete turn-off for me.

An overall comment: you cannot describe a character into being good or bad. This can only be done through their actions and reactions. This submission tries to use description to do the job. It may be a sign that the writer doesn’t “know” the characters well enough yet.

Summary: proof read, use economy of words—less is always more, use proper punctuation, and start a story at the moment of impact where the main character is tossed out of his or her comfort zone. Chances are, an agent would not read beyond this page.

What about you? Would your read on?

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  1. Interesting first page. I'd keep reading. I like the use of "colored" for the roadhouse, because it's such an antique adjective that it anchors the era for me. I disagree about "pomaded"--it's a fresh verb, but not unfamiliar at all. I do agree that some of the description could be culled in favor of character-revealing action, and the missing/extraneous words were a bit distracting.
    One thing--so much is made of the racial aspects of the setting and secondary characters, that I think we should have a firmer sense of the narrator's race by the end of the first page. I'm assuming he's white, but it would be good to have that clarified, perhaps in a humorous way.
    Also, Jasper's dialogue was banal and a bit of a let down. He's built up as an intimidating (or at least, interesting) character, but then he makes gestures that are described as "welcoming", "disarmingly" and "invited." His opening dialogue would be more effective if it provided a contrast or something more revealing than "Take a load off buddy."

  2. Good critique, Joe. Nothing is a bigger turnoff for me than work that has not been proofread. I wouldn't've made it to the end of the first page.

  3. I agree with Joe's point a well a ms/mr anonymous - dialogue is critical to establihing an immediate sense of character - something needed I think here.

  4. and there I go failing to proofread my comment for spelling errors!

  5. For shame, Clare!
    I agree, Joe- this page has a lot of potential, but a lack of proofreading and sloppy language is a killer. Agents and editors are ruthless. The first paragraph alone would probably have stopped them. Better if it reads: "It was just after eleven on a Sunday morning. God-fearing people were in church, and reprobates were still sleeping off a busy night of reprobating."

  6. It's perhaps a work in progress and as such maybe hasn't been prepared for an editor yet. I'd keep reading because I think something interesting is coming up soon... But who knows.

  7. It's perhaps a work in progress and as such maybe hasn't been prepared for an editor yet. I'd keep reading because I think something interesting is coming up soon... But who knows.

  8. Good critique, Joe. I hope the author takes your advice before he or she hands it to an agent or editor.

  9. Good advice, Joe. I just read a "tweet" by an agent complaining about little errors in a QUERY. If that bothers her, then think of what a sloppy page will do.

    My advice would be to get another pair of eyes on this, a pair that is experience in line editing. If you have to pay for it, do so.

  10. Good comments, Joe. Though I think colored is a better choice for this period piece set in 1937. It's more authentic like Anonymous said.

    There's definitely a story here. The author has established a very strong sense of place. Despite the polished description, typos, and not a lot going on, I'm still interested in knowing what comes next.

    The author's descriptive powers are spot-on for me. "I parked the well-worn Ford sedan that I’d rented three days earlier for ten bucks a day from a less-than-honest car dealer in Charlotte." I love reading things like this and they give me a really good feel for the book, but it's simply too much detail this soon. I'm not vested in the story or the characters enough to care yet. This must accomplish first before everything else. Get the reader hooked into the story then add in the details later.

    That said, the opening sentence needs to be a better hook. Same for most of this entry. I need a reason to keep reading. Adding action or something mysterious, unexpected, or contradictory would help. A better opening line: "Green sat like a king with his back in a corner, his black hair pomaded to his narrow skull like sun-baked paint." Maybe start there.

  11. Oops!

    - BE accomplishED first before everything else...

    (Seems like this is going around today...)

  12. Thanks to everyone who chimed in on today's critique. Everyone agrees that there's a story here. But it's so important for any submission to be squeaky clean before it's submitted to even our little corner of the blog world, much less an agent or editor. The old saying that you never get a second chance to make a first impression is critical. Good luck to the writer of today's submission.