Friday, March 25, 2011

First Make Me Care

By John Gilstrap

I'm tackling another first page critique this week.  I'll start with the submission, and the see you on the back side with my comments in bold.
HAYWIRE
The Changeling


At five minutes past eight a.m., Amy Turner went upstairs and paused outside her son’s closed bedroom door, listening.


 
“Peter, this is your ten-minute warning.”

 She rapped sharply on the wood with her knuckles. “Ten minutes and we walk out the door, Mister. You got that? Or else you’re taking the bus to school.”


 
It was an empty threat. If Amy didn’t physically deposit her sullen 15-year-old at the front door of Venice High, he’d skip school again. Peter was about to fail the tenth grade due to his repeated absences, and it was only February. Amy sighed. Her son was incredibly smart, but after the divorce he’d become withdrawn, distant. She was at a loss what to do.

 
 Amy flung open the door with an angry flourish. Then she froze in her tracks, staring. Peter’s room, normally a hell hole of man-boy slovenliness, looked drastically changed. It was clean. The bed was freshly made with crisp linens and hospital corners. The buntings of draped clothes, the smelly shoe piles, the debris field of chips and God-knows-what-else on the floor, had vanished. Now you could actually see the brown carpet, which had been vacuumed. The room was eerily neat, as if a guest with OCD had tidied up before clearing out.
 “Peter?” Amy’s voice sounded thin in her own ears. No answer. Peter was gone.
 Oh my God he’s run away, like he said he would. She pivoted and thundered down the stairs, her thoughts already leapfrogging to panic mode. She visualized making frantic calls to the school, interrogating her son’s friends to see if they knew where he was.
 Amy rounded the living room corner, headed for the kitchen. Then she pulled up short. At the far end of the dining room table, sat Peter. He was spooning up cereal and quietly studying some notes. A couple of school books were stacked next to his elbow.
 “Oh thank God,” she gasped.
 Peter looked up and gave his mother a distracted smile. “Sorry Mom, did you call me? I'm trying to get through these notes—can't believe I let myself fall so far behind in trig.”

 
“It's okay," she said. "You'll catch up.”
 Was this a joke? Peter never worried about school. She did another double-take as she registered his clothes. He had on a pair of neatly pressed chinos—chinos?—plus the Harvard sweatshirt her parents had given him the previous Christmas. Peter had thrown the gift into his bottom drawer, where it had remained. Until now.
 After pouring herself a cup of coffee, Amy studied her son from the corner of her eye. Maybe he has a new girlfriend, she thought. Either that, or a hobgoblin with a dark sense of humor had swapped out a substitute for her son. Amy held her breath, afraid of breaking the spell.

 
“Your room looks amazing,” she finally ventured. “You’re not planning to join the military, are you?”
 “No way,” Peter gave her his old grin, the one she hadn’t seen in months. “I just decided that pig sty was getting old.”

 
He reached for his ear to adjust his new Internet appliance, which he’d had for just a week. Shaped like an ear cuff, the blinking gadget was called an “e-Hook.” It was supposed to be the latest thing for connecting to the Internet. Amy hadn’t squawked about the price—she was hoping technology would make him a better multi-tasker. He needed to get better at something.
 “Hey, Mom.” The lights on Peter's e-Hook flickered through his long hair, signaling a new connection. “Can you take me for a hair cut tonight after school? It’s so shaggy, it’s blocking my signal in hot spots.”

 
Looking heavenward, Amy sent up a little prayer of thanks.

 
Okay, let’s talk first about the good stuff. I like the way this author writes about mundane morning ritual. If you’re a parent, you’ve lived the first part of this scene one way or another, and it’s not easy to write well about something so common. I could feel the clock ticking. Nicely done.

Unfortunately, there’s no payoff.

This is another example of a first chapter that should have been a second chapter. Actually, no. This should have been a fourth chapter. By starting here, the author has put herself in the position of including back story with front story in the same paragraph (Note: right or wrong, I’m assuming that the author is a woman—which means there’s a voice to the piece, which is good).

Example: If Amy didn’t physically deposit her sullen 15-year-old at the front door of Venice High, he’d skip school again. Peter was about to fail the tenth grade due to his repeated absences, and it was only February. Amy sighed. Her son was incredibly smart, but after the divorce he’d become withdrawn, distant. She was at a loss what to do.

Another example: Oh my God he’s run away, like he said he would.

Do you see how the back story stops the action of the story, and in the process feels kinda clunky?

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that the ET (ear thingy) is somehow affecting Peter’s personality. Based on that assumption, here’s my recommendation for the beginning of this story:

Start in Peter’s POV, where he’s living this same scene a day (or week) before. We’re with him as he pulls on a pair of jeans and shrugs into a sweatshirt that he pulls out from under yesterday’s underpants on the seat of his drum set. His mom is calling to him to hurry, and he shouts something teenager-y. With all his attitude, he thinks about the next math test that he’s going to flunk (who needs trigonometryto play in a band anyway?) When he finally passes his mom in the hallway, he throws off a comment about running away if she doesn’t get off his back.

Maybe the next scene belongs to Amy. As she drives him to school she tries small talk. Or, maybe she’s off to work. Anyway, we learn about her troubles with Peter.

Next scene: Peter meets the guy who gives him the ET.

Next scene: Mom and Peter at war during dinner.

Next scene: We’re back to where the author started this piece.

The point of all this is for the author to take her time developing the characters. Make me care for them before you put them in harm’s way. If we know what the normal normal is, we can start the scene where the author originally started it, and from Amy’s point of view, the change to the new normal will be genuinely frightening.

I fear sometimes that we here in The Killzone violate my overarching rule for creative writing: there are no rules. We tell people to get right to the action. Sometimes, that’s not what the story really needs. Maybe we should tell people to get right to the interesting stuff.

I faced a similar challenge when I was writing my second novel, At All Costs (to be re-released in May). My heroes have been on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for over a decade, falsely accused of mass murders they didn’t commit. A random event exposes their cover, and their mission to prove their innocence. After countless false starts to begin the novel with high energy action, I realized that that wouldn’t work for this book. I needed to begin with normalcy so that the reader could commiserate with all that the characters were losing. To make up for the lack of action, I needed to make sure that normalcy was portrayed with a very strong voice. That’s what I did.

That’s what this author needs to do.

Okay, space break. Let’s pretend that I didn’t just re-write the author’s submission. Let’s talk now about the submission on its own merits.

In my first reading, I assumed from the first paragraph that Peter was much younger than fifteen. Thus, the second sentence of the third paragraph gave me pause.

Question: The story starts with Amy going upstairs to roust Peter. It ends with Peter downstairs. How did he get downstairs without Amy seeing him? I’m just sayin’ . . .

7 comments:

  1. Another thing I thought about when I read this was that there was way more telling than showing.

    For example:

    "Was this a joke? Peter never worried about school. She did another double-take as she registered his clothes. He had on a pair of neatly pressed chinos—chinos?—plus the Harvard sweatshirt her parents had given him the previous Christmas. Peter had thrown the gift into his bottom drawer, where it had remained. Until now.

    After pouring herself a cup of coffee, Amy studied her son from the corner of her eye. Maybe he has a new girlfriend, she thought. Either that, or a hobgoblin with a dark sense of humor had swapped out a substitute for her son. Amy held her breath, afraid of breaking the spell."


    That entire section could be made stronger with less narration. Let the characters and dialogue do the work instead. Like this:

    Amy said, "Are those school books next to you, Peter?"

    "Yeah. So?"

    "I just..." She paused. "It's just nice to see. That's all." She sized him up. "Are those the chinos I bought you? And the Harvard sweatshirt grandpa gave you for Christmas?"

    "Yeah." He kept staring at his math book. "Felt like throwin'em on. Didn't realized I put them in the bottom drawer."

    Amy poured herself a cup of coffee and studied her son from the corner of her eye. "So, do I have a new girlfriend to thank for all this? Maybe a hobgoblin?"

    "Mom, please, I'm studying."

    "All right, all right." She held her breath and put her hand on her chest.


    It's just a thought. I like the concept,though. Disturbing Behavior has been dying to be redone.

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  2. I think the critique was good.

    What I thought was done well was a lot of the description and character feel. It may need some smoothing, but I could see everything, I was in the moment, and I had a feel for the characters.

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  3. In addition to John's critique and the other comments, I would suggest the author avoid clichés such as "Then she froze in her tracks". It's been said that a cliché is the sign of a mind at rest.

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  4. I am with Chaco on this: I like that the author is getting us into the feel of the character. That's a good instinct. But it can be done with "less is more," which I think is the focus of John's critique.

    What I like is that it begins with a character in motion, with a scene objective. I also like the mother's concern. I would keep It was an empty threat. If Amy didn’t physically deposit her sullen 15-year-old at the front door of Venice High, he’d skip school again and cut the rest of the paragraph. We can get that exposition later.

    “Peter?” Amy’s voice sounded thin in her own ears. No answer. Peter was gone. I would cut that last sentence. RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain. That Peter is gone is clear. The moment is stronger without the explanation.

    Oh my God he’s run away, like he said he would. I actually like this little thought, as it humanizes and gives us essential exposition in one flash thought. There's a potential world of trouble in that thought, and trouble is what causes me to care about the Lead.

    Then there's that payoff thing. I was hoping Peter truly had run away. That first chapter needs to be about impending trouble (I call it "the disturbance"). John's advice about making this a later chapter, then, is apt.

    Unless you want to re-write it with Peter gone. That may mean a whole new novel. But I'd read on if that's how the chapter ended.

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  5. I agree, John, how did Peter get downstairs without his mother seeing him? That ending threw me way off.

    Also, I read a few too many sentences using "was" instead of taking the time to come up with stronger verbs. The fourth paragraph alone has five "was"es.

    Some other weakly-constructed sentences detracted from the reading, IMO, but those are easy fixes.

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  6. I think the voice and characterization worked well. I was actually pretty engaged and didn't mind the exposition as much as others but I did want a slightly bigger payoff in terms of peter's new behavior - something more sinister and foreboding to contrast with the normalcy of the start. I would have liked something more dramatic like he tells her that while he is fine, she is now the problem...and he is either going away or draws a gun...anyway something that totally throws us a curveball. Otherwise it is a little too stepfordish for me.

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