Saturday, April 16, 2011

First Page Critique: Untitled aka "The Watcher"

This came with no title, so for convenience’s sake (and for reasons which will become self-evident) we will call it “The Watcher”:

The Watcher was patient, exceedingly patient. He was on the hunt. He had his prey in sight and alone walking through the Caesars Palace parking garage that was as hot as a preheated oven. The air was stale with a simmering heat that would dissipate in the winter months and then come roaring back like a lion in the spring, teeth bared and hungry. He paced his prey, following behind in his rented red Ford Mustang convertible one lane over. His disguise was in place. He wanted to be recognized and remembered for the man that he was impersonating.

It was all part of a long term plan. There she is another hapless girl who escaped from the farm. A sheep who’s lost her way, thought she could make it big in Las Vegas, get discovered and become a star. She wobbled on six inch high heels toward her car. She was quite attractive as they all had to be in Vegas. However, it was her petite frame and long red tendrils of hair that set her apart from the herd.

Thwack, thwack, thwack. The Watcher flinched as he stopped the car and looked around for the source of this noise. He had heard this noise before; it was etched in his brain. Many years earlier a ruler had been slapped across his bare knuckles, thwack, thwack, thwack, always in sets of threes. Shuddering, he looked at his hands. Those damn nuns. They used to ties his hands to his chair before they whacked his tiny four year old fingers. They always told him he was a bad boy. Told him he was a bad seed before the wood smacked the nape of his neck. You want to see bad behavior, you should see me now. They had tied his hands to his small wooden chair because if they didn’t he would scratch them; scratch their eyes out if he could reach them. No one loved him, so now he loved no one. Shaking his head the noise dissipated, for it bled only through his ears as a stinging memory of disgrace.

There are some things to love, here, others…not so much. Let’s try itemizing them:

1) The author sets the mood beautifully in this hot, steamy parking garage. I can practically feel the humidity. Defeat is then snatched from the jaws of victory with the talk about the heat going and coming over the next couple of seasons. Nobody cares what it’s going to be like in three or four months or even three or four days. The initial description --- the preheated oven simile --- was fine. The bit about the lion is overkill, for so man. There are a couple of grammatical errors here --- “man that” should be “man who,” and I would have put a common between “alone” and “walking” --- but otherwise it’s okay.

2) The author in the second paragraph changes tense in mid-stream, back and forth. Actually, there’s a bunch of things wrong with this paragraph which can easily be fixed. It’s easier to show than tell:

The original:

“It was all part of a long term plan. There she is another hapless girl who escaped from the farm. A sheep who’s lost her way, thought she could make it big in Las Vegas, get discovered and become a star. She wobbled on six inch high heels toward her car. She was quite attractive as they all had to be in Vegas.”

My suggestion:

“It was all part of a long term plan: there she was, another helpless girl who had escaped from the farm, a sheep who’d lost her way, who thought she could make it big in Las Vegas by getting discovered and becoming a star. She wobbled…”

In my suggested re-write, the tense is consistent, and there is some consistency to the order of how these things usually happen: one gets discovered, becomes a star, and thus becomes big in Vegas, as opposed to getting big in Vegas and then getting discovered and ultimately becoming as star, as the original submission would have us believe.

3) Thwack, thwack, thwack. If the woman is actually that attractive, I can pretty much guess the origin of the “thwack, thwack, thwack” and it has nothing to do with the Watcher’s past. Actually, I like the explanation; it just a)comes way too early in the story, b) goes on for a bit too long, and 3) is plagued with grammatical problems. We’re only going to deal with a) right now. To whit: The Watcher has the girl in sight and then he’s distracted by the “thwack.” Let it bother him now, and explain why later. It will give the readers a reason to keep going reading through the book. As it stands now, by the time we get done with the explanation, we’ll have a “now, where was I?” moment. Let the Watcher attack the woman or let her slip away while he is having the convulsion, or whatever, but finish the scene. There are other ways to build suspense that one can do right in the garage --- someone else comes along so the Watcher has to wait, the woman gets a phone call, etc. --- that are better than discussing the attacker’s distraction issues on the first page. I would keep the first three sentences and cut everything else out but the last sentence. Since I’m cutting everything else out I won’t even go into the problems with some of the sentence structure in that (hopefully) deleted section.

Despite having chewed all of this up (teeth bared and hungry), I would love to see what happens next, and happens later. Maybe some day I will, with a lot of work on the part of the author.


  1. Hey Joe. Good morning. I enjoyed your comments and liked what you had to say on "the order" of things. I still have to redo things when I edit for that same reason.

    Another point I'd like to make is on the anonymous Watcher guy. Many authors struggle with how to do these kinds of scenes where you don't want to reveal the killer. And dealing with a no name guy is not easy. This author gave him a name to break up the generic HE. That's one solution.

    This piece reminded me of a scene opener I wrote not long ago where I wanted to hide the gender of the killer too, so I wrote it in first person. Getting into the head of a killer in first POV can be a challenge but it worked well for my story. it also kept my killer unidentified to the reader. The book is written in third person, but to make my killer the only first person POV helped set those scenes apart too.

  2. Good critique, Joe. I liked this one despite all the issues you pointed out. It has an undercurrent of tension and suspense, and I'd read on to find out if the girl makes it out of the parking garage alive. I noticed that in 350 words, "was" is used 12 times. I'd suggest shifting many of those into a more active sentence construction. But this submission has potential.

  3. I just reread your comment on THWACKING, Joe, and I'm still chuckling. HA!

    Another way for the author to keep the watcher in the present and stick with the action might me to insert little mini flashback scenes (where he gets punished for being bad with that ruler) between the mounting tension he's feeling as he stalks the girl. The flashes of memory could be isolated in short bursts of images in italics. This could also show his deteriorating mental state while adding tension for the reader, but these flashes need to be short bursts of the decaying morality that plagues him--more like suggestions of images the way people really remember things.
    I like "playing" with different ways to do a scene, to see if I can push my writing to a visual trigger in the reader's mind the way movies work. And this author's scene sparks that kind of imagery in my mind. I'd want to hear the girl's stilletos echoing in the parking garage in rhythm to that memory of the ruler, let one image or sound bleed into his mind like a temptation he's struggling to resist.

    This start has potential and I would be tempted to turn the page with some editing.

  4. Agreed. I think with some editing this first page could be gripping. The tension is there - but there needs to be some cleaning up for consistent tense and clarity. I would prefer just an allusion to the nuns and then leave the detailed backstory for later - would certainly be more intriguing.

  5. You are a professional critic, so we expect great critique from you, Joe.

    I once wrote an opening from the POV of a wharf rat in a warehouse. Gilstrap read it and said, "I do not want to be in a rat's mind." I changed it.

  6. Thank you, Jordan (x2!), Joe, Clare, and John M for some great comments. And John, I don't care much for wharf rats either but you can learn from them!

  7. Good critique all. I had a totally different view of the "thwack". It followed right after describing her on 6 in heels, and she's in a parking structure that would echo. 6 in heels are difficult to walk in, especially if they're not strapped on well. And you would be surprised how many women do not walk well, or pretty, in high heels. I thought it was the girl walking who was generating the sound (although if that was the case I would have gone more for a click-clack...thwack makes her sound like a horse in heels).