Monday, March 21, 2011

First Page Critique: The Crypt Thief

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne


As part of our ongoing first page critique, here's the first page of a book entitled, The Crypt Thief, with my comments/critique at the end. In essence, I think this particular entry raises important points about grounding a reader in time and space and setting up conflict that makes a reader care about the characters. More on that at the end...


The Crypt Thief

The man stood still, scanning the night for movement. Seeing none, he stepped off the cobbled path and moved through a cluster of crypts, looking for a place to rest. He found four low tombs and swept a bouquet of flowers from the edge of one before sitting down. He listened for a moment, then pulled a canvas bag onto his lap, reassured by the muffled clunk of the tools inside.

He rummaged in the bag and pulled out the map he’d drawn on his first visit to the cemetery, two weeks ago. He leaned forward and pointed his headlamp at the ground before switching it on, holding the map in its yellow glow and running his eyes over the familiar lines and circles.

A breeze passed through the trees and he heard the rustle of leaves, like sighs of relief after a long, hot day. The gentle draft reached him and ruffled the page in his hand, caressed his cheek. He clicked off the lamp and looked up, savoring the coolness, and he shut his eyes for just a moment, tipping his head back so the sweat on his throat could dry.

Behind him, a scraping sound.

He looked over his shoulder at a pair of oak trees, blacker even than the moonless night, their limbs reaching out to each other like uncertain strangers, sightless branches jostling each other to touch the wind.

He took a deep breath and turned his eyes to the concrete headstone at his back, suddenly curious about whose bones were beneath him. He switched his headlamp on and its light drew shadows out of the raised letters on a brass plaque. He mouthed the words James Douglas Morrison. Below the name it read, 1948-1971. A string of letters under the dates made no sense to him. Latin, or Greek perhaps.


He put the lamp and his map back into the bag, and pulled out a water bottle, half empty from his long and dusty journey to this place. He took a swig, then another, and put the bottle away.


*******


My initial reaction to this was 'mild interest' - there were certain elements that had me engaged but really only because the title 'the crypt thief' was intriguing. Many of the elements that keep me wanting to turn the page weren't quite there yet - at least on this first page. In this critique, I though I would focus my attention on two main elements that I think could do with some enhancement.

First: The issue of grounding a reader in time and space

I confess I couldn't quite picture where I was or what time period I was in. We have cobbled streets in the first paragraph, so I was immediately picturing Europe. Then we had references to heat and a dry, dusty journey there which made me think of more of the Middle East. Then we had a reference to Oak trees and I started to feel a little ungrounded. I couldn't quite picture where we were. I also wasn't sure about the time frame: a canvas bag seems very old fashioned, and switching off a lamp did too (as opposed to a flashlight) but the headstone is concrete and the inscription relates to someone who died in 1971. So I guess I want to know where and when are we??

I think the amorphous nature of location is also compounded by some of the visual images that go against the reader picturing a hardened 'crypt thief'. There are breezes caressing cheeks and ruffling pages. These images sap some tension from this first page- possibly more so as we only know the character as 'the man' so we don't really have any fully formed vision or voice for him. Which leads to the second issue...

Setting up conflict and engaging the reader

It's hard for a reader to care about a character if he/she doesn't get a strong image and voice at the very beginning. At some points in the first page I wondered if I was in a paranormal mystery (the scraping sound, the weird Latin or Greek inscription), in a more traditional mystery (with all the gentle descriptions) or even in a thriller (possibly). I couldn't tell what was the essential conflict or reason for me to keep reading - and in these days that has to be there (alas, no more 19th century lead-ins to the action!).

So all in all, this first page made me interested but perhaps not enough to keep going. I needed to feel that the headstone inscription was important, that the scraping sound was important and that the reason 'the man' was in this particular cemetery was important (i.e. I should care about it)...but I just didn't get a sense of any of that yet. It all felt a bit too generic for me. What do other TKZers feel? Would you keep reading?



11 comments:

  1. Clare, I think you hit the things that jumped out at me. I too was distracted during the entire piece trying to ground myself in a place and location. My first impression was New Orleans, then Jim Morrison's grave is mentioned and I'm thinking "Isn't he buried in France?"

    The inconsistencies with being a crypt thief also made me go "huh". A hardened CT isn't going to lurk around nervous or scared and "gentle breeze" and "caressing his cheek" also seem out of character. I also don't think a hardened CT would be jumpy about snapping twigs.

    Having checked out the area and being a pro, I would expect him to walk in more directly without the lurking- unless he knows something we don't. Is he stalking, hiding, or competing with someone for something- then bring it on and let us in on it- that would be conflict. A pro with tools that "clunk", that doesn't seem very reassuring, it seems unprofessional.

    Maybe I read it wrong, maybe he's not a pro, maybe he's a newbie CT, or maybe he's under tension because he's being forced to do something. Without the who and why, we are not really grounded either and it makes it less interesting, because we are distracted trying to find ourselves and why we should care. Give me some why and some who, and a little re-vamped where- and I'm there! I would read more.

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  2. I agree with your comments, Clare. I also think this opening needs a much stronger sense of mission--what is this guy trying to get? We need a sense of urgency about what this guy is doing, what his situation is. As written, the overall atmosphere is a bit lackadaisical, which is why it provokes only mild interest from the reader. It could be made more compelling.

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  3. Here's the thing--as a reader, in general, I know what I'm picking up to read. I know the genre and have probably read the blurb, so I'm already grounded in a general sense.

    Having said that, this opening totally worked for me. I didn't get the impression, necessarily, that the thief was a pro and I thought the fact that he took time to notice the breeze said something about the character. I liked it and I'd read on. I want to know what he's stealing, and why.

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  4. Clare, I agree with your critique on all points. This submission started out pretty cool with a dark, spooky, creepy, graveyard setting—my kind of mystery/thriller. But by the third paragraph, the whole atmosphere changed with words like breeze, gentle, ruffled, caressed, savoring, and jostling. These are not descriptors for middle-of-the-night graveyard settings. I was tossed out of the story after only three paragraphs and probably wouldn’t try to find my way back in.

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  5. Clare, I'm in total agreement with your critique. The reader dangles in the dark while not much real information is provided. The opening paragraph was properly spooky, but things quickly degenerated into antiquated descriptions of gentle breezes.

    Like you, I couldn't figure out where we were...Jim Morrison's grave means France, but not everyone knows that. An earlier reference to France would've helped immeasurably.

    Also, he was "suddenly curious" about whose grave it was. If he's after Jim Morrison, you can bet he knows whose name is on the headstone.

    Back to the drawing boards for The Crypt Thief.

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  6. Jennifer brings up a good point. When we pick up a novel in the bookstore, if it’s written by someone we’ve read before, we pretty much know what to expect. And if we’re not familiar with the writer, at least we get a good idea based on the cover art, cover blurbs, back cover copy, etc. What we’re doing here with our Kill Zone first-page critiques is to invite our friends to send us blind submissions of their unpublished or WIP writing. In critiquing the work, all we have to go on is the words--nothing more. There are no marketing support devices that give us an idea of what to expect. And even if there were, no amount of cover art or fellow author blurbs will save writing that needs work.

    Is it fair to do it this way? Maybe not. After all, an agent or editor would have requested a partial or whole based upon a query letter, synopsis and/or sample chapters. So the agent is not going in blind like we are. But is this exercise worthwhile? I think it is. And we've had too many comments saying yes it is to think otherwise.

    I admire these authors’ courage to agree to take part in this critique of their work. And I can honestly say that I’ve yet to see a fault or stumble in any of these submissions that I have not been guilty of committing many, many, many times.

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  7. Here I am in the middle of the night when it struck me about Jim Morrison and I felt like a dolt but still since it didn't occur to me right away....or that I was in France I think my comments still stand...but anyway funny at 1:49 am after putting the puppy out to pee that I suddenly realized...I must be just too young:)

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  8. Clare, don't feel badly, I didn't make the connection either. That may very well be the flaw in this firs page. If the author depends on the recognition of Jim Morrison's grave site to give us necessary background, he/she may have lost well over half of their readers.

    After reading this, I may very well be prompted to Wiki the Doors or Morrison's grave site, but I don't want to HAVE to do research in order to understand what is happening.

    The paragraph that threw me was the one after the carressing breeze. I know my trees pretty well, but I'm not sure I could recognize oak trees that were blacker than the moonless night.

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  9. I agree with Clare and many of the comments here, especially Joe and Wilfred's. The caressing breeze threw me out. That lingo didnt fit the urgency I expected. It was a little author intrusion that took away from the action of that scene.

    I'd say that this is a typical aspiring author thing, but I have to constantly remind myself to STICK WITH THE ACTION. I have that sticky note taped on my computer, the advice of an author friend who had read a similar thing I did in my 2nd book intro. If a character is sneaking around or ducking bullets, that's not the time for gusts of wind to caress the face. Who would actually think that in their head at that particular time...or maybe ever, given who the character might be?

    But I generally saw real promise in this author's work. A little tightening and focus will help.

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  10. I saw promise too and I think it's important when thinking about sensory descriptions to consider what a particular character would actually notice in a situation. In the middle of an action scene for instance, wind gusts won't figure highly unless they are gale force:)

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  11. Ah, Pere LaChaise cemetery, final resting place of Jim Morrison. It's such a fascinating place, and very different from most American cemeteries, so I think a bit more description of the surroundings was definitely in order here (particularly the jumble of crypts). Still, I did get chills at the scraping sound. I feel like there's definite potential here, I'd just like to see the writing toned down a bit and clarified.

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