Wednesday, June 5, 2013

First page critique: A BOTHER OF BODIES

Here is a first-page submission titled A BOTHER OF BODIES, followed by my comments.  Then we'd like everyone to jump in.

Note: I'm posting from Tokyo using my iPad, which isn't Blogger-friendly under the best of circumstances. So please forgive any formatting errors!

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     I stepped on the bathroom scale, gun in hand, and waited for a number to register. The screen seemed reluctant to settle, hovering between a couple of digits, neither of which made me happy. I aimed the Glock between my feet, closed one eye and was a twitch away from firing when my cell phone buzzed. I refocused. Put the phone in my sights and squeezed the trigger. The empty chamber clicked, the phone continued its annoying buzz, and the scale finally settled on my least favourite number.
            This was going to be a bad day. Kicking the scale under the bed, I scooped the phone off the night stand and checked the screen. It was my brother, Dean—or half-brother. We’re not entirely sure which.
            “Mabel, you better come out to the barn. Fast.”
            “Mabel? It’s important. It’s beyond important, you’ve got to get out here.”
            I was heading to the back door as soon as he called me Mabel. He rarely calls me by name. Uses Maybe instead, as in “maybe I’ll keep it, maybe I won’t”, a popular phrase our mother, Della, used during the seven months she carried me. Dean was three at the time.
            “I’m on my way. What’s happened?” I stopped on the porch long enough to stick my feet into an old pair of Dean’s rubber boots.
            “A corpse happened.”
            That stopped me cold. “You’ve killed someone.” I knew this day would come. It’s always the quiet ones.
            Silence. Okay, it was a stupid thing to say. If anyone was going to guess who put a corpse in a barn, they’d pick me. Dean was a big believer in turning cheeks. I was big on smacking them.
            “Don’t touch him. Or her. Or anything else,” I told him. “Have you called the cops?”
            I heard him sigh. Of course he hadn’t. People whose mothers are convicted con-artists never do.
            I manoeuvred the dew-slick stairs, one hand on the railing, the other still clutching the phone. “Never mind, I’m on my way.” 
            Stuffing the phone into my bathrobe pocket, I clomped down the porch stairs, then stopped to survey the scenery. Not a barn in sight.
            Dean bought this forty acre farm three months ago while I was in Toronto doing some fieldwork for the small, semi-legitimate security system outfit that employs me. 

My comments:

I really enjoyed this page! The narrator has a fun, snappy voice, very Janet Evanovich-ish. My own series features a heroine who battles her weight, so I appreciate the shooting-the-scale opener.

My only suggestions are nits, really, easily addressed. 

I got confused and had to reread the line, "Uses Maybe instead, as in..." It's a clever line, though. As a possible fix I would use repetition from the previous line and revise as follows:

He calls me "Maybe," as in "Maybe I'll keep it, maybe I won't," a phrase  popularized by our mother, Della, during the seven months she carried me.

The sentence, "If anyone was going to guess who put a corpse in a barn..." might be stronger if written as
If anyone was going to put a corpse in the barn, it'd be me.

The sentence "Dean bought this forty-acre farm..." should read

Dean had bought this 40-acre farm...

The phrase, "security system outfit" sounds weak in comparison to the rest of the language for some reason to me. Could something snappier be found, perhaps? Also, it sounds like an alarm company as currently written, while I have the feeling it's something darker than that.

But that's it! I think this is a very promising first page. It's rare that I read a manuscript that immediately strikes me  as having a likable, appealing voice, and this one definitely does. Well done!

TKZ'ers, your thoughts?


  1. I agree with all your points, Kathryn. I enjoyed this one, too. Strong voice and just the right amount of tension, suspense and backstory. I'd keep reading.

    1. Voice is one of of the most important qualities that keep us turning pages, especially in a first-person POV work.

  2. I too got caught up with the sentence about her name but I really really liked it!!! I too would keep reading!! In fact I'd like to keep reading!

    1. Thanks, Jeanette! This really is a very promising start. Kudos to the writer.

    2. Thanks, Kathryn. Kudos much appreciated.

    3. Great job, Amanda! A pleasure to read.

  3. Nothing tripped me up, the voice was clear and defined. I was with you right up until that last paragraph. "Semi-legitimate security system outfit?" It sounds like your character works there, and has no idea what it is, so she makes up a name that sounds very "the water-flushie-down-the-hole thing" or some such. I would think a character that:
    A) feels comfortable enough around guns to dry-fire it at her phone or her scale, and
    B) is tough enough to have survived being born a preemie (7 months? damn), and
    C) is caustic enough to joke about the fact she could have been aborted at any time,
    would have a more exact name for what her company does and what she does for them. But that's just me. Other than that, I thought the whole thing was singing all the way through it. If I were an agent, I would be requesting pages and wondering why the hell you didn't send me more in the first place. Really fun start!

    1. I assumed she meant she was debating giving the baby up for adoption. But good points!

    2. I thought that too, but everything else about the character led me more toward someone raised by a mom who might one day just arbitrarily say, "Nope, get it out." Although I guess a mom not being able to decide to keep or give up for adoption is still pretty rough. Either way, looks like a good read!

  4. I love this piece. I agree with the nits that have already been picked (except for the "Maybe" sentence, which I had no trouble with), and see no need to pick more. Very well done.

    John Gilstrap

    1. So far we seem to be running about 3 out of 8 who tripped on that line. When I'm running a piece by beta readers or my critique group, and more than a couple of people stumble on something, I try to rework it to avoid the potential confusion. But that's just me...Thanks John!

  5. I'll join the choir - really liked this page and if I'd read it on Amazon, I'd buy it, assuming it was indie-priced. (budget a bit tight these days.) I also agreed with Kathryn's nits and, in general, her fixes. Great start!

  6. I loved it too, and agree with all Kathryn's comments, although the "Maybe" line didn't trip me up either (loved that line!).

    I would definitely buy this book, so I hope it gets finished and published. (Be sure to let us know, author.)

    I'm a big Janet Evanovich fan, so I love this style. Just a couple of weeks ago, I discovered another author with the same spunky style, and I was elated. I'd love to have more of these fun reads.

    Well done!

  7. Great start. Kicks the story off in fine fashion with a believable character, then pulls the reader in with plenty of tension. What more can you ask from a first page?

  8. Good stuff, and as one whose name has been mercilessly put through all kinds of nickname itterations I got the 'Maybe' thing right away, thought it was pretty smart.

  9. I have nothing but good things to say about this. It's clean, snappy, intriguing. I am not confused at all (except for minor hiccups mentioned by others.) LOVE the way the writer weaves in little bits of backstory! (ie the mom and the "maybe I'll keep it" and the oddly intriguing sibling relationship). Lots of fun questions set up here -- and the corpse is almost the least of, what is she doing up on her bro's farm? Was she really going to shoot the scale? (women get that, I think)

    Only false note is the narrator's job description. As someone said, it feels so blah amid such lively writing.

    And there is a voice! This is the hardest thing, I think, for writers to establish. Some long-published ones never really do.

    I would definitely read on. Kudos.

  10. One of the most enjoyable first pages ever on TKZ. I thought the author did an especially nice job weaving in backstory without distracting from the main action. I'd like to read more.

  11. The narrator lifts the edge on a bit of attitude that I like. Makes me want to come along. Right off, you know trouble is brewing. No "Maybe" about it.

  12. Good first page. I'll add one very small suggestion over a sentence that I had to go back and reread because it sounded awkward:

    It was my brother, Dean—or half-brother. We're not entirely sure which.

    Since you're comparing brother to half-brother rather than to Dean, the appositive noun, it would be more clear if you said this:

    It was Dean, my brother—or half-brother. We're not entirely sure which.

    Left the way it is, it makes it sound like Dean and the half-brother are two different people rather than the same person.

    Great job!

  13. Great stuff. Pro quality for sure. The Maybe line didn't throw me a bit. Neither did the semi-legitimate security system outfit. Actually that's exactly how those guys talk, in my experience. On the other hand, just because it's real it doesn't mean it won't throw people, so maybe it should be revised. Anyhow, this was very well done.