Wednesday, April 25, 2012

First-page critique: Untitled

By Joe Moore

Our annual first-page critique marathon continues with an anonymous submission that came in untitled. Take a look at it. My comments follow the text.

He stepped out from behind shadows cast by large oak trees, “Good evening.” Not a second passed before her smile faded. She obviously didn’t recognize him. A scream seemed to be stuck in her throat while she pulled her Publix grocery bag close to her body. She stepped away from him and when her elbow hit the wall of the house, two eggs fell out of a pink Styrofoam carton and onto the cement porch, orange yolk spraying against his polished shoes.

He felt his jaw tighten. “Open the door and don’t make a sound.” He kept both hands inside his coat pockets but gripped harder around the mallet in the palm of his right, in case she tried to run. First thing he should do is make her clean his god damned shoes.

She fumbled with the keys. She couldn’t be more than forty, but her hands shook like she was ninety years old. “I’m losing my patience with you,” he said. “Open the fucking door.” His voice sounded calmer than he felt. He wanted to crack her head open right there. Her skull would explode and her brains would splatter just like the egg yolk now drying on the tips of his loafers.

“Please. I have a brand new granddaughter I haven’t seen yet—” he shoved her inside when the key finally turned. She tripped on the corner of an area rug and the contents of her grocery bag spilled out across the hardwood floor. She crawled across the room and huddled against a wall. He shut the door and pulled down the shades.

The house brightened when he flipped on the light. It was tidy. Looked like something on the cover of Better Homes and Garden. In the center of the room, a rust colored sofa rested with a quilted afghan draped over the back. It was surrounded by dark cherry wood tables and a large grandfather clock encased in a solid oak frame.

Overall, this is not too bad, but it could be greatly improved. The setup has the same weakness as Monday’s submission—I felt like I’d seen the generic scene many times before, especially as an opening to so many TV dramas. The key to catching an agent or editor’s eye is originality—a new twist on a well-established theme. This is a basic setup but I don’t see anything new here. Not knowing anything else about the story, here are my line-by-line comments.

He stepped out from behind shadows cast by large oak trees, “Good evening.”

Ditch the comma and replace with a period after trees. Consider having him step out of or from the shadows rather than from behind them.

Not a second passed before her smile faded.

I would start a new paragraph with that line. And it reads a bit awkward to me. Under the circumstances, I’m not sure it’s even needed.

She obviously didn’t recognize him.

Does this signal to the reader that she should have recognized him? Perhaps she once knew him but he’s older or his appearance has been changed? Is he wearing a disguise? Or is his face otherwise well known or has it been on the news? Remember that the writer is laying the first groundwork here that has lasting impressions on the reader.

A scream seemed to be stuck in her throat while she pulled her Publix grocery bag close to her body. She stepped away from him and when her elbow hit the wall of the house, two eggs fell out of a pink Styrofoam carton and onto the cement porch, orange yolk spraying against his polished shoes.

I suppose that a Styrofoam container with a dozen eggs could be jarred open and have only two eggs fall out. Just being picky here, but I had to pause to picture if it were possible. Also, I assumed this is a big clue here: “polished shoes”. Does this signal that the aggressor is a well-dress villain or perhaps a neat freak?

jscHe felt his jaw tighten. “Open the door and don’t make a sound.” He kept both hands inside his coat pockets but gripped harder around the mallet in the palm of his right, in case she tried to run. First thing he should do is make her clean his god damned shoes.

Here we go with the shoes again. And his weapon of choice is not a knife or gun but a mallet? That’s certainly different. Perhaps he just came from eating stone crabs.

She fumbled with the keys. She couldn’t be more than forty, but her hands shook like she was ninety years old.

I liked this imagery with the hands although saying he wasn’t sure of her age gives me the impression that she may have been picked at random.

“I’m losing my patience with you,” he said. “Open the fucking door.”

OK, it’s time for my speech. You can’t even begin to imagine how many potential readers you will turn off by using the f-bomb on the first page of your book. Using it proves nothing. My advice: just don’t do it. Oh, and you don’t need the “he said” here. It definitely wasn’t the victim speaking.

His voice sounded calmer than he felt. He wanted to crack her head open right there. Her skull would explode and her brains would splatter just like the egg yolk now drying on the tips of his loafers.

Boy, this guy is (1) ultra violent (2) really into his shoes.

“Please. I have a brand new granddaughter I haven’t seen yet—”

I felt like this was a strange way of saying this. It’s almost like saying, “I’ve got a brand new plasma TV I haven’t seen yet.” Rather than “brand new”, how about, “Please, I’ve got a family, a granddaughter . . .”

he shoved her inside when the key finally turned.

You mean when the key turned and the door opened. Also, it should be a capital H on he since it’s a new sentence.

She tripped on the corner of an area rug and the contents of her grocery bag spilled out across the hardwood floor. She crawled across the room and huddled against a wall. He shut the door and pulled down the shades.

The house brightened when he flipped on the light.

“Brightened” may not be the best word choice since it connotes cheerfulness.

It was tidy.

The house or the light?

Looked like something on the cover of Better Homes and Garden.

This is an incomplete sentence lacking a subject. But that’s OK if it’s a style thing the writer intends to continue throughout the story. Warning: incomplete sentences get old fast.

In the center of the room, a rust colored sofa rested with a quilted afghan draped over the back. It was surrounded by dark cherry wood tables and a large grandfather clock encased in a solid oak frame.

Very observant villain. Is this to help build his character?

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So here’s what I take away from this first page. We have a shoe-fetish, stone crab-eating assailant who is a possible interior decorator and who picks random, forty-something victims who buy physics-defying cartons of eggs. What a hoot it would be if I were right.

These are my personal first impressions of this sample. Other’s may disagree with me or have different reactions. I’ve been hard on this writer, more so than normal even though this is a somewhat awkward but decent first draft. All first drafts need work. And I would keep reading at least for a few more pages to see what happens.

But my comments were also meant to emphasize that EVERY WORD COUNTS. Each word is like a brick laid in place to form the strong walls of the story. Choose them wisely.

If my facetious interpretation of this first page is correct, then it’s excellent storytelling. If not, I suggest the writer go back and rework it until every word builds on top of the previous one to form a solid image in the mind of the reader. Thanks for submitting it and good luck.

How about the rest of you innocent bystanders? Would you keep reading or go out for stone crabs?

13 comments:

  1. To add to Joe's comments....the bad guy here does sound like a million we've seen before. What if you turned this cliche on its head? Make this guy ultra charming or funny? And then drop the hammer (I mean, mallet)?

    Take a look at Strangers on a Train, the Hitchcock movie, and see what he does with the Bruno character (Robert Walker). Your first page could have this mix in it (charm or menace?) and that will increase interest.

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  2. I would be going out for stone crabs. The whole set up is off and doesn't make me want to continue reading the book.

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  3. I actually like the writing here. And I'm going to disagree with Joe's shoe issue. Since the splatter of the egg yolk plays off nicely later against the splatter of the brains, the egg yolk needs something important to hit, and shoes are as good as anything. Also, when I think mallet, I think something more along the lines of a two-pound sledge hammer. As weapons go, that would be really terrifying.

    I couldn't agree more about the F-bomb thing on the first page. As one who has written (and spoken) more than his fair share of profanity, I attest that it is ALWAYS a problem on the first page--arguably in the first chapter, and I can think of at least one of my very successful blog mates who would say it's a mistake anywhere in a story.

    But all of that is surface stuff. The most egregious squandering of drama in this scene lies in its selected point of view.for a There's no one here for the reader to bond to. There are miles of separation between the empathy a reader feels because he hates what the bad guy is going to do, and the empathy felt for a good guy (or gal)who is about to be victimized. Everything about this scene would work better for me if it was told from the woman's point of view. DDoes she think maybe she recognizes this guy? How did he find her? What about the granddaughter she'd never seen? Why is he keeping his hands in his pockets? Does he really have a weapon? Should I scream? These are the kinds of thoughts that drive compelling characters. A lurking bad guy is just kind of boring.

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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  4. I think John Gilstrap's right - I didn't feel bonded to anyone here. I've seen this scene before, and it makes me go "Ick", and shrug. Maybe writing this from the POV of the woman/victim would encourage interest in readers.

    I agree with Joe's comments too - we've come together to learn that EVERY WORD COUNTS (a big lesson for me through these critiques).

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  5. It is either a quilt or an afghan. One is sewn;the other is usually made from some type of yarn.

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  6. I see a nit-picky villian with a shoe fetish and a lot of anger. With focus and a little more polishing this writer could be an effective author. I could "feel" the bad guy negative vibes here. I'd be scared.

    That said, the above suggestions should be heeded. I get the feeling this page was tossed off as a "try-out" to see how it would be received. As I mentioned above, with focus and attention to detail, I see talent here.

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  7. I do think this has good bones to it. I pictured a scene from "Clockwork Orange".

    On a side note, maybe turn the mallet in to a silver hammer, and name him Maxwell. Then you'd have a built in theme song playing in the back of the mind as it all goes down.

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  8. Thanks, everyone, for chiming in, especially Basil, who by his mere suggestion has me constantly humming a Beatles' song about a guy named Maxwell.

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  9. I actually didn't mean for this submission to be anonymous and the title I stick with it is Precinct 9 (but I've read that you shouldn't get too attached to your title as they may change).

    I am super excited that my submission was critiqued by you guys! I have my next group meeting Monday and everyone in my group is going to be jealous when I tell them. :) I'm just saying.

    This is the start of my first attempt at a novel. I've only ever written short stories. It's been something I've been wanting to do for many years and now that I've outlined and plotted all the elements, I figured out that I absolutely must start the story in this murder scene. So, you can probably only imagine how stoked I feel that some of you have focused on the shoe thing and mallet.

    The reason for these clues in this first scene is because further along, it is actually a criminal profiler who provides the missing pieces to trace back to this villain. His behaviors and mannerisms are important in this first scene.

    Joe, you were not harsh on me! You were just being thorough. :D

    I so truly appreciate all of your comments and feedback, and I will be removing the f-bomb, seriously. I've read that rule of thumb before, but now I will heed the advice.

    About the quilt and afghan comment...THANK YOU! lol I should have done my research.

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  10. Diane, thanks for giving me the opportunity to critique your work. I hope my suggestions and those of the other's here will help. Best of luck and thanks for visiting TKZ.

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  11. Diane - I like your very scary bad guy. Everything everyone said. My own 2 cents, coming from someone who devours crime thrillers like they are candy:

    This paragraph grates.

    The house brightened when he flipped on the light. It was tidy. Looked like something on the cover of Better Homes and Garden. In the center of the room, a rust colored sofa rested with a quilted afghan draped over the back. It was surrounded by dark cherry wood tables and a large grandfather clock encased in a solid oak frame.

    Full of passive and too much use of the pronoun "it."

    It's my understanding that the entire piece of furniture is the grandfather clock, not just the works, so it wouldn't be "encased." I like the setting, but just a little more straight-forward.

    The tidy living room looked like the cover of Better Homes and Garden. The quilt covered rust sofa, flanked by dark cherry tables, . . . . (does it please him, calm him, remind him, enrage him . . . )

    Soldier on! I like serial killers that give me a creepy!

    Terri

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  13. To more specifically answer John's questions (thank you for the few kudos), the POV character ends up being a female detective who is assigned this case which is a lead in to a cold case unsolved mystery.

    The reason for the opening scene is to give the reader some insight into the villain's psyche, which will come up later as an "Ah ha!" <---I don't know how to punctuate that. LOL

    Thank you so much. You guys are the best. You give the best advice and you entertain at the same time.

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