Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Daniel Hadley is Down in Somerville

This submission for critique has no title, but I think it shows promise. The central character has appeal. Catch my comments on the flip side.

Excerpt
"Daniel's in stable condition, but he's been shot."

I lay in bed, propped up on one elbow, the cell phone digging into my ear. I didn't even remember it ringing. Had I passed out drunk while talking to someone? But every light in my bedroom was off, save for the pale green LCD of the alarm clock: 1:45 AM. Then the part of my brain that makes sense of words - the part that I normally can't shut up when I'm trying to go to sleep - kicked in. "Shit," I said, sitting upright.

"He's stable, like I said. They're monitoring him at Mass General."

"Right," I answered. "How long?" But the phone went dead.

"Fuck," I repeated. Then I hung up and got out of bed. I padded across to the closet to pull some jeans off a hanger and yesterday's bra out of the hamper. A tanktop and a ratty Redskins sweatshirt completed the ensemble. Ninety seconds after getting off the phone I was out the door.

Somerville's a dense town, so I had to walk a block to where I'd parked my car. The autumn air sobered me up enough to realize I didn't have a plan just yet. There was one detail I could check, of course. Fishing my phone back out of my pocket, I called Daniel. "Hey, this is Daniel Hadley. I'm either on the phone or -" Damn it. Is there anything longer than a voice mail greeting when you're trying to reach someone live?

"Daniel, hey, it's Mara," I began. "It's 1:50 A.M. on, uh, Tuesday. Listen, I just got this really strange call that said you were ... um. Please call me as soon as you get this, if you're okay. If you're not, well ..."

I cut myself off there, shutting the phone and fumbling for my keys. I hadn't fully processed the news yet (Daniel had been shot; holy hell; fatigue and shock kept shoving that detail to the back of my mind, like a rookie hockey player hitting the boards).

Comment Summary on “No-title” Story:

Generally I like the voice of this woman character. She comes across as a no nonsense person who could sustain a reader’s interest with the uniqueness of her character’s attitude and her low key fashion sense. And her attachment to alcohol could prove to be interesting as baggage. But rather than starting out with the dialogue line (as I explain my objection below), I might start out with how this woman feels getting the shock of the cell phone ringing her out of her drunken stupor. No one likes getting calls in the middle of the night. It’s a relatable moment most readers will understand. These calls are NEVER good news. And establishing this character from that moment might also help in creating her “voice” and her attitude more fully from the get go.

This is a personal preference, but I wouldn’t begin a novel with a dialogue line because it feels too much like the start of any other scene. An intro dialogue line into a scene can be effective and I’ve done it, just not for the start of a book. And whoever is speaking needs to be identified in some fashion, even if it’s just someone generic, like “dispatch.” Try to ID the person as soon as you can after the dialogue.

And speaking of identification, when you write in first person, you need to ID the speaker’s gender in some way as soon as you can. The reader will get an idea in their head—like I did that the narrator is a man—who is a cross dresser, when he reaches for yesterday’s bra from the hamper. I’ve done this before too. (The name of my character was a gender neutral name and was supposed to be a teen girl. But when my beta reader read the passage, she thought it was a teen boy who was checking out another guy’s wranglers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it wasn’t my intention.) Once you write a first person POV story, you notice things to watch for. And gender at the start of a book is one of them.

I’m writing a YA book now where I have two teens speaking in first person. I identify them by using their names at the top of each scene and try to have one character per chapter where possible. It makes sense for this book and I like writing challenges.

I also wasn’t sure I understood Mara's question – “How long?” Is this her entire question? If this was intended to be a question cut short, then add punctuation like a dash to indicate this. “How long—?” or “How long…?”

And if the line goes dead, it takes a while before anyone to notice, but in this scene, the character knows immediately. If the line goes dead, make it more realistic by her rambling until she hears dial tone and gets frustrated.

Also, if you have only one character in the scene, I would try to minimize the use of tag lines identifying her. You should ID the person on the phone, but after that, there isn’t a need to clutter the scene with unnecessary tag lines like ‘I answered, I repeated, I began.’ There are four tag lines in a short segment of a scene with only one character in it after the phone goes dead.

And finally the last paragraph. The punctuation seemed odd to me and pulled me from the story. I’ve never liked the use of semi-colons. Break apart the sentence into fragments if you have to, but resist the semi-colon, especially when the character has the informal attitude this one has. (What do the rest of you think about semi-colons—readers and authors? Copy editors try to put them in and I take them out, making other changes that are more my preference.) See James Scott Bell’s post on semi-colons HERE.

I also rarely use parenthesis, except in my YA books where it can be fun to use sparingly. I prefer em-dashes for emphasis, as shown below.

And the use of the metaphor on hockey—“…fatigue and shock kept shoving that detail to the back of my mind, like a rookie hockey player hitting the boards”—didn’t seem to fit when she was referring to such a serious event as someone getting shot. It makes her sound flip about something that should be more important to her. Also, she’s a Redskins fan AND a hockey fan? I’m sure this is possible, but in one short scene, it seems excessive. You may get more mileage if you made her a super fan of one sport when it comes to her metaphors, rather than spreading her enthusiasm over many.

Even though this scene could be written better, it shows promise with a compelling character voice. I would also consider starting the novel with something else that happens prior to this scene—like maybe Daniel’s shooting. If this is crime fiction, I like to start with a crime. And I’ve also found that you can always go back to write that action scene after you’ve started the book to get a feel for the story and its characters. It might help to know Daniel before you shoot him, for example. (Wow, that sounded awful.)

Any other helpful comments for this author?

11 comments:

  1. Hey Jordan!

    This is my submission - thanks for giving it your attention!

    Re: the gender: I could definitely use advice on how to work this in earlier. It's important to the story - particularly to the narrator's relationship to Daniel Hadley - that she be female, but I can't think of a better way to do it than in this draft. Definitely open to suggestions.

    Re: tag lines: the identity of the person on the other end of the line is supposed to be a mystery (for now). Should I bring that up sooner? Right now, I want to convey a sense of Mara hustling out the door in response to this urgent phone call, not fully processing it. But I realize I'm omitting a lot of important details in the process. Is there a better way to handle this?

    Re: sports: you're probably right. A Bruins sweatshirt would work. Plus that would let me shorten the line below to "a rookie hitting the boards" if I end up keeping it.

    Re: semi-colons and parentheses: I want this last segment to be sort of rambly. Mara's been jerked out of a sound sleep by an emergency. Her thoughts are still out of order. I figured semi-colons and a rambling parenthetical comment were the best way to handle that, but I'm absolutely open to other suggestions. Sentence fragments? Run-on sentences?

    Also, just realized this: based on some excellent TKZ posts, I omitted one of the F-bombs in Mara's initial dialogue. But I still left the tag line "I repeated" in there. Rookie mistake!

    Thanks again for the critique! I'm eager to hear what other commenters think, too, especially in re: the above.

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  2. Hey John. Nice entry. I like your woman character.
    As for identifying her gender AND not knowing who is on the phone, she could have that bleary eyed moment of getting awakened by the abrasive ring of the phone and answer some version of this.

    "You better have a good reason for yanking a girl out of her beauty sleep."

    I didn't recognize the voice on the other end of the line, but what he said jolted me out of my stupor.

    "Daniel Hadley's been shot."

    Something like that might work. Maybe other TKZers can weigh in. This is a very creative group.

    I like the visual of her being "checked" into the boards. Maybe she could feel like that earlier, a combo of her receiving the bad news while still being in the clutches of Jack Daniels.

    I like your instinct about her being disoriented while rushing to get dressed. Sentence fragments would work well for that, but remember what drunk feels like? (Or so I've heard...) She stumbles in the dark. Needs the wall to put on her pants without doing a face plant. She forgets to brush her hair, has to settle for a finger comb. Her mouth tastes like feet. She races out the door before the thought suddenly hits her.

    Who the hell was that on the phone? And how did he get my number?

    That might even be a scene ending moment that foreshadows what's coming--with her racing to find Daniel with a mystery in her head.

    With a fun character like this, I'm sure you can come up with more and better ways to show her condition and her attitude. Your instincts are good with how you are visualizing this character for this scene. You just need to fill in the gaps more.

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  3. Also John, if you change the first part to her getting awakened by the ringing phone, you could move the details of the clock and some of her disorientation to that part, to streamline her reaction to hearing Daniel has been shot. Stick with the action once she gets the bad news. And keep her messed up, maybe talking over his dialogue lines until she finally hears him and becomes more coherent. That's when the phone goes dead.


    "Daniel? What...?"
    "He's stable...for now. He's at Mass General."
    "Who shot him?" when the guy didn't answer, I jumpstarted a headache by raising my voice."Hey, you still there?"
    I got nothing but dial tone. The phone had gone dead.
    "Shit."

    Put the reader in her confused frame of mind before the fog clears. That will establish her condition AND create a sense of urgency and tension.

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  4. Actually, phones don't go dead with dial tone, but I hope you get what I mean.

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  5. A late night phone call with bad news is something most of us can relate to. So the scene works.

    I think it just needs some clarity. I read in Stephen Koch's Modern Library Writer's Workshop that 'you can't be too clear.' This is my new mantra. Sometimes what the author sees in their head isn't fully communicated to the reader. Then we have confusion.

    So I'd take a look at all the small ways this scene can be made clearer, and then press on.

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  6. John, regarding how to bring gender up earlier, you could mention her bra being uncomfortable in the first paragraph. Most women don't go to sleep with them on, and if Mara got drunk the night before, it's totally conceivable that she forgot to take hers off. So you could say something like this:

    I lay in bed, propped up on one elbow, the straps of my bra cutting into my shoulders, my cell phone digging into my ear.

    You could also go with mentioning her bangs (if she has any) being in her eyes. Most people won't associate bangs with a man.

    Another thing, you have to change that 1:50 A.M. in the dialogue. Numbers and times in dialogue have to be written out. I had an editor give me an earful about that in THE MARONITE.

    And, have you considered adding to the hockey simile? Maybe something like fatigue and shock kept shoving that detail to the back of my mind, like a veteran defenseman putting a rookie forward into the boards. I dunno, just seems like there should be more parity for that visual to really come alive.

    Interesting start, though.

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  7. I think all the suggestions so far are spot on - and would really help improve this first page. It already has the essential elements and I was eager to read more.

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  8. I like where this scene begins, late night phone call, as mentioned. That's what I call a "disturbance" and is where all novels should begin--something out of the ordinary rippling the character's ordinary world. "Your story begins when you light the match, not when you lay the wood."

    A couple of notes:

    Watch for the "violates the laws of physics" construction:

    Fishing my phone back out of my pocket, I called Daniel.

    That's doing two things at once that can't be done. It's a common mistake. You could write, Fishing the phone out of my pocket, I checked my eyes in the mirror. Those two things can be done simultaneously. A little thing to watch for.

    The line: "Hey, this is Daniel Hadley. I'm either on the phone or -" should be in italics, without quote marks.

    Hey, this is Daniel Hadley. I'm either on the phone or -

    Only dialogue spoken in "real time" gets quote marks.

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  9. John: as a reader, I really liked this passage. The only thing I took issue with was that at first I thought the narrator was a man and only realized it was a woman when the bra came up so I agree with the various suggestions here to work in her gender earlier so it doesn't come as such a jolt.

    I just wanted to say that for me, I didn't really need to know who was on the phone yet. I liked this narrator's voice a lot--especially for a woman. She was very intriguing and I wanted to read more to find out who she really is and what she's about and what her relationship with Daniel is. I liked the mystery of not knowing who she is talking to right away. As a reader, not knowing everything at this point kind of mirrors her own experience--she's kind of disoriented at the moment. I thought it worked and I would love to read more. I don't think every question the reader has needs to be answered in these first one or two paragraphs. I think the voice is strong enough to keep people reading so they can find the answers later in the story.

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  10. Lisa--It's nice to have a reader's perspective on this blog. John packed a lot of good stuff in this intro. And it does make me want to read more because Mara is interesting.

    Sometimes with these critiques, I have to remind myself that this is only the first 300 or so words. The idea behind the word count is that editors or agents often make their decision about a project after reading that first page. Sad but true. But the fact that the concensus is that we want to read more of John's work means that he's been successful at grabbing our interest with his writing style and the voice of his character.

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  11. What stopped me was, "Shit!" I said. then "Fuck," I repeated. Shouldn't that be "Shit," I repeated.

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