Thursday, May 30, 2013

First Page Critique - Deliverance

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane
 
DINNER TABLE
 
For your pleasure, I have the first page submission for a project called – Deliverance. I’ll comment on the flip side. Enjoy!
 
Shelia Martin changed her outfit twice, from a flair-legged jumpsuit to a long black dress with a thigh high slit on the left side. She reapplied coral lipstick that had faded an hour earlier. She brushed her hair back with her hands and headed downstairs to check on Roger’s favorite dish—grilled chicken with garlic and butter sauce, roasted asparagus, and sage rice, which she had timed to perfection so the moment he walked in the door, removed his jacket, washed his hands, she could serve him a steamy hot dinner.

At the bottom of the staircase she surveyed the set up in the living room, sparkling fire, cozy blanket, oversize floor pillows, flute glasses, Moet and Chandon for Roger, and sparkling cider for herself. As of last week, she hadn’t had a drink in three years.

Her feathered slippers clacked across the shellacked floor.  She entered the kitchen with its fug of sage, garlic, onions, and vanilla. The moment Shelia heard about Roger’s new advertising contract —something he’d bid on three months earlier to help pull his business out of arrears—she decided to celebrate with a special dinner.

After twenty-three years of marriage, raising four children—two in medical school, one college freshman and a high school junior—and helping her husband launch an advertising firm, romantic rendezvous were few. Her heart pounded and butterflies knotted in her stomach, as if she were entertaining this man for the first time.

Tonight, Shelia baked a pecan pie torte, simple, easy, but his preference.

She swaddled the utensils in linen napkins, carried them into the living room and placed them on the blanket adjacent to the sweltering ice bucket. She looked at her watch wondering what was keeping Roger; their daughter Rose was expected home by ten, and Shelia was counting on a night with only her husband.

Shelia slipped off her slippers and paced the floor. The neighborhood lamppost flickered, the Maltese barked, indicating the arrival of her neighbor’s husband. She looked at her watch, ten o’clock. Rose would arrive fifteen minutes later than her curfew, her method of challenging authority.

Dinner was spoiled. She scooped up the ice bucket and took it into the kitchen.  She clicked off the oven. Her stomach growled, but she had lost her appetite.

“Wasted,” she said. “Where is he?” Scraping the food into the garbage disposal, she glanced at the microwave: ten thirty.
 
My Critique:
I loved the meticulous attention to detail in this submission. Without telling the reader what is going on, this author is showing the woman’s expectation of perfection or her intent to please her husband, her way. I would definitely keep reading.
 
I love the minimal back story, without embellishment. The fact that she’s having Apple Cider, suggests she’s a recovering alcoholic, for example. Her meticulous staging of her home and the dinner suggests she’s a stay at home wife and mom who likes a tight ship. It reflects her character in what she does, rather than the author “telling” the reader this. That’s the real strength behind this piece. Rather than me focusing on craft issues, I’m able to delve into character motivation and layering of emotional content, but only to the extent of adding a different dimension that the author may not have intended. Here’s what I mean by that caveat.
 
There is definitely a mystery about her husband not showing up when he’s expected. As a reader, I’m hooked as to why. I don’t find this woman particularly sympathetic or warm, however, but that could be the author’s intention. It’s like Shelia wants to show off her efforts, more than her husband’s accomplishment. This dinner is HER accomplishment. She has expectations for the evening and he’s messed them up, rather than her being worried about why he’s late.
 
She throws out the dinner, almost as if she’s punishing him for being late (or she doesn’t realize there are starving kids in Africa), when she doesn’t know the facts. If this happened to me, I’d be trying to reach him by cell phone and worried if he’s gotten into an accident. She’s more worried about her dinner being ruined and her plans upset. It sounds as if her husband is very reliable when it comes to his arrival time, if she can time her dinner to him walking in the door. So this would mean that if he’s late, it’s a big deal, right? (Okay, in reality, who can really do this? My husband is working in the yard and I can yell out the back door that dinner is in fifteen, and he’s still late.)
 
delivrance
Roger could have a very good reason for being late for dinner.

 
If the author did NOT intend for this woman to read as cold, it would be an easy fix to add more tension when Shelia shifts from being irritated to worried. She could cover her worry by making him a plate (meticulously arranged) that she puts in the fridge, to mask how her nerves are fraying. (She could cut herself on the plastic wrap container. Lord knows I always do. The blood could be a foreshadowing of danger.) Roger’s never late. She loses her appetite from worry, not irritation that he’s messed her up. Ramp up the pacing, take off the earrings, wipe off the lipstick, look at the clock more.
 
But I find this writing compelling and I would definitely turn the page. Well done, mystery author! I also want to eat at Shelia’s house, except she’d probably make me dress up.
 
What about you, TKZers? Your comments?

39 comments:

  1. Wow. I was really impressed with the author, I thought this first page was excellent...but I'm even more impressed with the critique. I'd be very interested to know more about the story, and how the author meant Sheila to be portrayed. Hint, hint.

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    1. I know. Me too. I think this author has everything under control, with a plan.

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    2. I KNEW you did. I had faith.

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    3. Amanda, I want Shelia to seem cold, but in just a few more paragraphs the reader will discover underlying tension in the marriage.

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    4. AHA! Very well done, please let me know when it will be available for purchase.

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  2. I think the first part of this could be strengthened by some judicious cutting. I don't think we need as much sensory detail to set the scene. Detail is best when it's selective. I'd cut the line Tonight, Shelia baked a pecan pie torte, simple, easy, but his preference, as it doesn't add anything and seems stuck in the wrong place.

    I had to look up the word "fug." Is that a common descriptive term? Maybe I've just missed it. But it sounds negative and I kept thinking it was a typo. IOW, it threw me. An odd word will do that (or it could be I'm just an odd reader). Anything we do to avoid "speed bumps" for the reader is wise strategy.

    Stomachs knot, but do butterflies? The butterfly sensation is associated with the light feel of wings, not "knotting."

    The transition from setting the table to the time lapse to tossing out the dinner is too abrupt. We went from dinnertime to ten o'clock in a blink. There are a few hours unaccounted for here.

    So I suggest switching things a bit. Show us her getting things ready, but leave out the paragraph that begins, After twenty-three years of marriage...

    Now, stretch out the waiting part so we see the passage of time a bit more, and in there drop in bits of the backstory, like from that paragraph. Show her mounting worry. IOW, we start to realize that he isn't showing up, and so does she.

    But keep it crisp. In general, I find "character alone" openings problematic because there's no real conflict. If you're going to use one, make the conflict inner and show it but get to a real scene as soon as you can.

    And please, I beg you, take out the semi-colon and shoot it.

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    1. I hate semi-colons too, especially as a reader.

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    2. I, too, found the time jump jarring. That's an easy fix. And ditto on semi-colons. They just always look wrong in a fiction to me. Useful in a thesis, death in a novel. Will weigh in later on the rest...

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    3. I have been known to use the word fug, but always in a negative sense, as in "reeking fug." So, seeing it describing something positive threw me. I confess to the occasional semi-colon. Don't hate me . . .

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    4. James once again I find myself reaching for a note pad and pen as I read your critique!

      As a reader, I too got stuck with the word fug and didn't like the time jump. However, I was hooked enough to wonder what was going on and would continue reading. :)

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    5. No more semi-colons. Didn't think of it's annoyance in fiction. James Bell Scott, thank you for showing me where to slow down, even more. And "fug." I laugh, this isn't my word that was the suggestion of a writing partner, so I'm thankful—this word is used again somewhere else in the novel. Eraser here we come. Jeanette Spanaird, I'm smiling ear to ear.... "I'm hooked enough to wonder what's going on and would continue reading."

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    6. James--
      Everything you say--especially regarding a bit too much detail--makes sense to me. And I'm glad you made mention of "fug." I assume the writer means "fugue," which is a good word to suggest the mingling of aromas--but the misspelling highlights the importance of simple details, in this case two missing letters. Such mistakes damage good writing every time--and this is good writing.

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  3. A touch of foreshadowing, early in the piece, might set the stage for her disappointment. Either "he promised he wouldn't be late this time" or "he didn't call at 4pm as he usually did". Or something more subtle, like the mixer breaking to show a small flaw in the plan.
    I agree about fug, stuffy would have worked better.

    And I just used a semi-colon in my WIP's latest chapter. I shall purge it.


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    1. Brian, thank you. I will use the foreshadowing suggestion. Loving it.

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  4. I concur with Jordan's statement about a cell phone call. When ever I'm running late that's the first thing I do, call and let her know. Although I must say that often she does not reciprocate by calling me when she's running late. I have to call her instead.

    One the other hand, if this is a period piece, may pre-1995 when cell phones weren't everywhere that could explain the lack of a call...or if he's been kidnapped or murdered...that could do it too.

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    1. Nice observation on the period piece, but using a date tag line would fix that.

      I was also referring to her calling him. Her special dinner seems like HER surprise for him.

      Thanks, Basil. I just started a new thriller set on the Prince of Wales island in Alaska. I'm excited about it. Thought of you. Ever been there? Specifically Point Baker, northern tip of the island.

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    2. My Defense Force unit was actually given orders to go there not long after 9/11 but were stood down when the threat was busted elsewhere so closest I got was to be packed and ready to get on a plane, but never got deployed. I'll look forward to the book though.

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    3. That's an odd place to get deployed to. Interesting.

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    4. We were strictly a state agency doing port, small airport, and rail security as well as Military Police constabulary units that backed up local police and state troopers. My unit was a coastal recon squad. We had lots of weird deployments throughout the state...well ASDF had lots of deployments...my squad ended up in Whittier most of the time getting rained on while we watched cruise ships roll in and out from our hide outs in the mountains.

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  5. Generally speaking, I think this is pretty well done. It's smooth, gets my interest and the writer does a nice job inserting just enough back story. (the cider reference is subtle and good!).

    I'm a little concern about the tone -- it sort of fluctuates. At first graph, I thought I was reading romantic suspense because the food and fashion details are too detailed. But then as I read on, I got the feeling I was reading "Gone Guy." (ie mystery layered over domestic dysfunction). This was suggested to me by the woman's rather chilly annoyed attitude when husband fails to show (as others said, why isn't she worried?) If you're TRYING to convey an underlying tension in the marriage, it works. If not, her reaction should probably be rethought. Because one minute she's got butterflies thinking about hubby, the next she's pissed he's late.

    Hard to tell what the exact tone is with just a page! Regardless, I'd also like to see a little more tension in those crucial first two graphs, something that hints of the conflict that's to come.

    James makes an excellent point about stories that open with a lone character in a passive sitation like this. If you do it, you really have to find a way to inject an inner tension to generate suspense.

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    1. Yes, that's why I'd mentioned getting emotional impact, rather than leaving the feeling that this woman is a cold fish about her husband not showing up.

      Another way to get any action in, if this is a suspense story, is to show her husband's mysterious abduction prior to this scene, with unexplained reasons. Beginnings always take time to develop for me and so much is simply not known in 300+ words, but I do feel this author has talent and I'd turn the page. Thanks, Kris. Always appreciated.

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    2. PJ Parrish, I'm feeling better now, you nailed it underlying tension in the marriage. I was just read an article about "good writing" vs "talented writing" and beat myself up the whole week thinking...how can I transform my writing from good to talented. So, "this author has talent" simply blows me away. And I can actually begin the third revision.

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  6. Sounds strong to me so far. My overall impressions were that it was smooth. My only suggestion is to bring in the worry about him being late a little earlier. I like a quicker start, but then I generally read middle grade fiction rather than adult, so I don't know how good my advice is in that respect.

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    1. Thanks for chiming in, Beth. No matter what you read, you'll know if something intrigues you. Nice advice on getting to the emotion sooner. Although I do think this author packs a pretty good punch in a short number of words, I'd have patience to see what would come next. If the emotional element were elevated, I'd definitely want to read more.

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  7. Other than the title, I like it. Sorry, but that title is so well known that it's hard to see it and not immediately think of the river. I'm betting the publishing house will want a different one, but what the hell do I know?

    As for the writing at the start, it was crisp, but part of the tension I had might have been because it reminded me of a flash piece I wrote where the wife has added a little something to the meal. That may be what I was picking up on, because the turn from he's coming home to he's late was very sudden. The passage of time seemed to jump several steps at the end, which also threw me.

    Oh, and I have to say, she threw out his dinner when he didn't come home? Was she worried or pissed, because I'm reading pissed. Did I miss something there?

    All that aside, the writing itself and the dark undercurrent of tension (whether from me thinking of my story or not) would definitely keep me reading. Nice job.

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    1. I know, Jake. That title was why I couldn't resist the John Voight pic. Thanks for your comments.

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  8. The Voight picture was brilliant!! Loved it!!! Yeah Deliverance as a title is almost as spoiled as Star Wars. :)

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  9. I get the same reaction ever time to the title. This weekend, my non writer friend suggested —Blood Roses. My pastor actually gave me the idea even though he doesn't know it.

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    1. I like the juxtaposition of blood with roses. Well done.

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  10. I liked the detail as well, but without conflict, my motivation for reading on would be slight. I may read a bit more to find out if there is a mystery here or just a husband being ... ahh well, a lone wolf.

    In my opinion as a reader, the detail and setting are well done, and there is a good story brewing here.

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  11. I am not a reader. However, if I was to read a book it would need to reel me in at the beginning. The writing is very detailed and grabs you in (at least me) I felt my own emotions stirring up. The story leaves me wondering what happened and I would continue reading. Your critique was on point and right on and added views that I did not even see. thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your insight, Nakresha.

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  12. With all due respect, I'm astonished at the universal praise this page has received, especially by other writers who have proven themselves in the trenches. This leads me to believe I'm missing something here, since I seem to be a lone voice of criticism.

    Essentially, my problem with it is that nothing happens. The first five paragraphs are entirely devoted to her preparing dinner. In paragraph six, we learn her husband is late coming home. The whole thing has the leisurely pace of a Victorian-era novel when readers were more accustomed to slow, plodding lead-ins to the story. Here, tension is noticeably absent.

    But, as I mentioned earlier, everyone else loves it, so I'm certain something has slid by me.

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    1. Everyone is entitled to their opinion on what would make them read on. I personally loved the detail and the character study, without all the "telling" introspection. Many of us have shared thoughts on improvements, to add emotional layering. It's up to the author to make whatever changes he/she decides on.

      The beginnings to any story are tough. None of us would write this story in exactly the same way, but I think that's the beauty of writing.

      It's interesting that you point out the leisurely pace of a Victorian-era novel. I've been noticing that today's readers (review bloggers that I've been following where I've read the same book or who read 300+ books a year) want to be hooked in the first few pages. I think we've trained ourselves to read faster paced novels. Even books that I loved when I first read them, I've gone back to try them again and find I don't see them the same. I'm not sure that's a good thing. Jury's still out for me, but knowing that pace is important to many readers, I'm very much aware of something needing to happen and can appreciate your thoughts.

      Another hard thing is that this is only 300-400 words. Many editors judge a proposal based on this. That's why we focus on it at TKZ, but I think many readers would turn the page of this author and read on.

      Thanks, Mike. I'm glad you felt comfortable enough to express your honest opinion.

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