Thursday, July 25, 2013

First Page Critique – The Scissorgate

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

We have another brave soul who anonymously submitted their intro to a book entitled THE SCISSORGATE. My comments on the flip side.



The Scissorgate

January 2002
The tire treads dug into the snow covered road, shattering the icy surface, as the car with government issued plates pulled over.  The car’s exhaust blew billows of white steam that hung in the air before dissipating.  The Chicagoan neighborhood was still and the air was light and brittle.  The two men prepared to approach the modest home at 428 Lincoln Drive. 

Even with the heater running they could still feel the bite in the freezing air. As they exited the vehicle, they immediately squared the hard shiny brim of their service caps across their foreheads.  Frosted vapors expelled from their lips and noses with every breath.  Their patent leather shoes, shined to a mirrored finish, crunched over the snow as they passed through the gate across the small yard.  The naked branches, like fingers on the trees, pointed accusingly and directed them to leave.  No matter how well groomed, with their hard starched lines and mirrored shoes, in every way their presence was an assault and even nature knew they shouldn’t be there. 

“Jaxon, son, you left your socks and shoes in the middle of the living room again!”  Olivia yelled as she bent to pick up the discarded items.  

“That boy would lose his head if it weren’t attached,” she mumbled.  She started toward his room when a knock at the door stopped her in her tracks. 

She couldn’t imagine anyone being out in the weather as cold as it was.  But unbeknownst to her, the chill the two soldiers brought to her doorstep was far more than Mother Nature could ever conjure.
Olivia saw two dress blue uniforms standing on her porch.  Her mouth went instantly dry while her upper lip became beaded with sweat.  Every Army wife’s worst nightmare. Her heart painfully began to thud against her sternum, screaming to escape. 

Don’t panic.  Jason’s home early to surprise us.  He always found new ways to surprise her and Jaxon.  She tried to convince herself that that is what brought these two to her home.  But something about the soldiers standing on the other side of the glass front door . . . something about their stillness . . . the tension so thick and heavy made the seconds pass like minutes but her thoughts raced out of control.  They’re in dress blues.  It’s too formal.  Where’s Jason? 

“Ma’am are you Mrs. Olivia Parks?”  The first frozen soldier finally broke the silence.

Critique:

Tag line 
I like the use of tag lines to immediately let the reader know when and where the story scene takes place. In this case, the date of January 2002 is used, but for a bit of house cleaning, I would add another line – Chicago, Illinois – so the use of “Chicagoan” would not be necessary. This is a very minor point. Maybe it wouldn’t bother anyone else.

First line structure 
The very first line of a book should stir some element of mystery or capture the imagination of the reader, such that if the sentence stood alone, it might make the reader want to read the book just to know more. Many readers post their favorite beginning lines on Goodreads, for example. This structure of this sentence could be stronger, since the subject (the car) is at the end of the line. See Recommendations for suggestions on a different focus for the first line.

Point of View (POV)
1.) For the first two paragraphs, there is no clear POV. It’s as if there is an omniscient narrator until the action gets to Olivia and the POV switches to her. There are two men in the government issued car and the word “they” is used to describe them. To make the POV clearer, it would be better if the action started with Olivia and she noticed the dark sedan pull onto her street. Create a mystery and center it on her emotion as she sees the car stop at her house. 

2.) Another POV issue is the phrase “unbeknownst to her.” If Olivia doesn’t know whatever is unbeknownst to her, then it can’t be in her POV. An editor or agent would look at this first few paragraphs and see “head-hopping” POV and assume the rest of the book is full of it. I would suggest picking one POV per scene and stick with the action as if it’s through that character’s eyes. I usually select the character with the most to lose. In this case, Olivia is a solid choice since she’s worried about the bad news these soldiers are bringing to her door.

3.) The last line is a POV problem too. The reader is in Olivia’s POV, but she can’t possibly know that the soldier is frozen.

Setting/Over-writing 
There is a lot of really pointed use of the cold weather in the first two paragraphs. I love a good setting and weather is a great way to emphasize the emotion of a scene, but I would prefer it be used more subtlety. As example of overly dramatic use of setting AND POV problems are these lines: The naked branches, like fingers on the trees, pointed accusingly and directed them to leave.  No matter how well groomed, with their hard starched lines and mirrored shoes, in every way their presence was an assault and even nature knew they shouldn’t be there. It’s as if the Chicago chill and the icy trees have POV now. The trees are telling the soldiers they should leave and shouldn’t be there. This is over-writing to me. Similes and metaphors can be done effectively, but they should be more subtle and add clarity to what the main POV character is feeling, not inanimate trees.

Character Names
This is a minor point, but Olivia’s husband is named Jason, but the son is named Jaxon. Since I’m not sure how relevant this will be later in the story, if there are two characters with such similar names, the reader could be confused. I try to pick names using different letters in the alphabet, to make sure each name is more distinctive. This goes for secondary characters as well.

Recommendations
Since the main objective of this intro is to establish that Olivia has two soldiers at her door, presumably to give her bad news about her husband Jason, I would start with the anticipation of her getting that bad news. Have her see the car pull up. Maybe have her dealing with her son more directly, but trying to get him out of the room, while she deals with her emotions and the start of her horrific day. 

Focus on her physical reaction to what she’s seeing – her heart racing, trembling fingers, unable to catch her breath and wanting to throw up, with flashes of her husband’s face in her mind as the soldiers walk to her door. A blast of cold air could hit her as she opens the door. 

As they speak to her, where does her mind go? What does she see as the bad news hits her? She might focus on the details of the formal uniforms these men wear – their shiny shoes and belt buckles – or how a glob of ice melts on their shoes. But the point is to focus on Olivia and keep the POV in her head. That’s where the emotion is. The book may jump off into other characters and other action, but in this scene, it is about Olivia getting bad news.

What do you think, TKZers? What advice would you give this brave author if you were their critique partner?

Blood Score by Jordan Dane – Now Available on Amazon Ebooks at this LINK.

“Jordan Dane has an extremely skilled and talented hand at creating riveting suspense and characters that become real to us. You will find yourself living the story, holding your breath and turning the pages as fast as possible. I highly recommend BLOOD SCORE to everyone. It's truly among my Top Ten reads of all time.”
~Desiree Holt

33 comments:

  1. I agree with Ms. Dane about making Olivia the main POV right from the start because I already like Olivia. I like the image of the young (?) mother picking up after her (young? teenage?) son, and at the same time giving us an idea of what he's like (lose his head...).

    But there is too much detail about the cold conditions and not enough about the characters. I like the image of the tree pointing fingers and telling the men to go but I would cut down on some of the other references to the cold. Setting a scene is important but repetition can cause a reader to skim and miss some of the good stuff.

    I'm really, really hoping these men are not bringing Olivia bad news, but it sure looks that way. I'd keep reading because of Olivia. My suggestions would be to shorten the description of the men approaching the house and expand on Olivia. Not a detailed description but hints on her age, is Jaxon her only child, does she look harried, anything that might help the reader identify with her. Maybe have her hear the car approach and intuitively feel a chill. Then she watches them, sees them adjust their hats, etc. and associate their demeanor with the cold weather. Your cold setting and atmosphere is great, just slightly overplayed.

    And congrats on getting your book out into the world. Big step.



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    1. Wonderful suggestions, Amanda. I agree with your take. I'm hoping it isn't bad news for Olivia too, but that's how Olivia would see it. So the author should make the reader feel her dread until she learns why the soldiers have come. Thanks for your helpful comments.

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    2. And our brave author definitely should be congratulated for sharing their work here. It's a big step. I really do want to know what will happen with Olivia. The author has made both of us care about her, Amanda. That's huge.

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    3. Thank you Ms. Dane and Amanda. As much as I would like to remove my ego entirely it is still a great ego boost that you like Olivia with the very little info I gave of her. :)

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    4. I saw my early boojs in your writing, Jeanetter. You definitely have a gift to cultivate. Stick with it and keep writing.

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  2. First pages are so difficult, aren't they? I think Jordan's comments are spot on. For me, this writer clearly has an evocative way with words--but used here on unneeded and fairly irrelevant things--the car crunching, the weather, the trees, in her attempt to set up the action to follow. However, I think it's easier to learn to edit down a bit of over-writing than it is to learn lovely, evocative writing, so this author--to me--is on the right track. Kudos.

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    1. Good points, Leslie. Yes, I think we all struggle with first pages. I sure do. You should see some of my overwriting when I wrote on fanfiction. I was a head hopper too. Oy! Good elements are here in this author's work.

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    2. Leslie, Thank you for your comments and the lovely compliments.

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  3. Yes. POV is the big issue here. It's one of the first things a writer needs to master. And I do mean MASTER. Best way to think is ONE POV per scene and no "collective" sensory experiences. E.g., THEY could still feel the bite in the freezing air.. No "they." Stay in the perceptions of one character throughout.

    Other notes:

    I don't like the title. I can't determine genre or tone, and I have no idea what a "scissorgate" is (is it a presidential scandal?) I guess there are scissor gates (two words) but that sounds more literary. Titles are crucial. Test several with friends.

    I don't know what "Chicagoan" is doing there. Is it Chicago or not? Be specific.

    And Jaxon looks like a typo.

    IOW, don't needlessly confuse readers. I call these "speed bumps." They take us out of the story for a second. Too many of them and we're liable to stop the ride.

    Your story has good set up possibilities. Use Olivia's POV, take out the bumps, and we'll be into it.

    Keep writing.

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    1. Solid specifics, Jim. Thank you.

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    2. Oh, and I also agree on the title. A publisher would not go for it. It's not intriguing enough and it doesn't give insight into the genre or even hint at what the book is about. I actually thought of Edward Scissorhands or the rounded blade of a child's scissors.

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    3. Good points, Jim, as always. I'm especially in agreement on "Chicagoan", the title, and multiple POVs.

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    4. Thank you so much Mr. Bell for your comments. I have a lot of work to do and am very inspired by yours and Ms. Dane's instructions.

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  4. First - I agree with the points already made. As usual, I learned from the comments.

    A few days ago, I reread a number of these critiques. I decided to subject my own first pages to the same sort of analysis, but privately.

    I wanted to strengthen my opening, since those reading Amazon previews or people in bookstores may not go much farther than 400 words.

    I found this to be an excellent exercise. I took the first 400 words only. Generally, I liked my beginning. But some critical information didn't appear until long after the first 400. Why did I do this? No reason, just the way the story rolled out. Could I change it, strengthen it? I rewrote, hinting at that information. I liked the changes. They clarified the situation and didn't harm the primary mystery (surprise) in Chapter One.. In fact, the changes helped with the foreshadowing.

    I suggest that all authors try this. 400 words to grab the reader. It is a great way to put yourself in the shoes of the new reader.

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    1. I love your advice, Brian. It reminds me of my first suspense book. I thought it would be a good idea to keep a man's name secret until later when his body is found, but after a crit partner asked, "Who is this guy?", I decided I could give him a name and add more flavor of him to the intro. It definitely worked better.

      Another tip--as a crit partner, ask open ended questions to stir the imagination of the author, without resorting to writing for them. The authors I have done this for always come up with surprises that were better than my ideas because they know the story better? That's why I asked this author - where does Olivia's mind go?

      Thanks for adding to our discussion, Brian.

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  5. I also agree with most of the comments, especially the suggestions to confine the POV in this passage to Olivia, limit the weather descriptions, and shift the opening focus from the men to Olivia.

    Miscellaneous thoughts:

    The author has an affinity for beautiful language, so I understand why he or she wanted to incorporate so many poetic images and metaphors, but best to play with that type of literary writing in much shorter stories, prose poems, and poetry, and to crisp up the writing in novel-length works.

    I suggest reading out loud to monitor the freshness and implications of the phrasing used in this work. For example, I noticed a few clichéd expressions:

    “naked branches”
    “stopped her in her tracks”
    “worst nightmare”
    “tension so thick and heavy”

    and odd expressions:

    “Olivia saw two dress blue uniforms standing on her porch.” (I pictured two person-less uniforms arranged like porch sculptures.)

    “Their patent leather shoes, shined to a mirrored finish” (Patent leather isn’t shined or polished. It’s pre-glossed during the manufacturing process.)

    Regarding the title: I wasn’t bothered by the significance or lack of it in the title, because it may not be the real one, but rather a working title or one used strictly for this critique submission.


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    1. Thanks for your take, Marbles. Reading aloud always helps me. Definitely.

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  6. As others have said so well, wavering POV is the main issue here. I like the "cold" feeling to the opening, but it was tough to get into emotionally because I am not seeing this scene through anyone's specific emotional prism. Until the writer DOES move the camera into Olivia's head. But by then it's too late.

    That said, for a second I THOUGHT I was going to see this scene through the senses of one of the men delivering what we assume is bad news. And that might be interesting. In fact, I was more intrigued by the men and what they might be thinking/feeling than by Olivia. I suspect this is because the military wife getting bad news type of opening is sort of common.

    By the way: You never tell me what KIND of men are at the door. Military? All I get are clues like govt licence plate, blue uniforms, caps and shiny shoes. Why be coy? If Olivia's husband is in the military she would recognize the uniform immediately.

    Also, ditto what others have said about the over-writing. There's some good imagery in here but pick one or two and get rid of the others. Metaphors etc are like jewelry: less is always more.

    One last thing: I'm not a big fan of timeline tags at chapter beginnings. Unless it is a ticking clock thriller and specific time shifts are crucial to the action, it just feels like the writer can't figure out a graceful way to insert the info into the narrative.

    Keep going! There's good stuff in here.

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    1. Nice comments, Kris. On the timeline tag, because the scene is set in Jan 2002 and not the present, it probably is necessary. The author may bring the storyline into the present later, but either way, a tag line is quick way to establish this.

      I had thought of the POV being in one of the men's heads too, but there simply isn't enough known in 400 words to say where this story is headed. You've definitely given this author something to think about though. Making each character count, even secondary ones, can make a book so real. Giving breath to one of the bad news bearers could set a certain tone too.

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  7. I agree with all the comments, and I believe Jordan offered a great, detailed review.

    The liberal use of descriptive words in the opening paragraph made me a little antsy. Two uniformed soldiers, getting out of a car -- most of us know what they're there for. I'd prefer you didn't prolong the agony for me.

    I love the suggestions to start with Olivia and focus on how the arrival of these visitors is going to affect her. As readers, we're going to be in her head and heart anyway, so put us there to start with.

    If you like the build-up, you could have Olivia looking out the window and seeing the government vehicle coming down her street -- the impending doom could hit her before they even arrive at her curb.

    I also agree with tossing "Chicagoan".

    Overall, this excerpt was engaging and definitely left us wanting to know what happens to Olivia. Best wishes to you, writer!

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    1. Thanks for contributing to our discussion, Diane.

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  8. Right off, this sounds like it's going to be a very sad story about the sudden death of a loved one. That's some tough sledding. If that's NOT where this story is going, I wouldn't have this be the initial setup.

    "Okay. It's a story about death, tragedy and grief." That's what popped into my head -- along with the question: "Do I want to read about that?" Every reader asks this question on page one, right after: "What's this about?"

    I once opened my story in the midst of an operation set during the war in Vietnam. It was a precarious nighttime chopper ride into the mountains in the midst of a raging storm (thunder, lightning,the whole smear). It was suspenseful and fraught with danger. However, the overwhelming message coming through was that this was going to be "another" Vietnam war story. There have been many written. Only this wasn't a war story at all. It's just that an essential story element began there, but the book didn't have to begin there. So I changed my exciting opening to correct this unintended misdirection.

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    1. Hey, Jim. How are you, buddy? Thanks for your comment. I have a feeling that this author has plenty more story to tell and this opener is only an iceberg lurking in dark waters. A book jacket summary would help clarify what the book is about too, but it sounds like you had options with your book on the opening. Always a good thing to remember. Happy writing!

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  9. Well done, oh brave new author. I agree with my colleagues. The main problem is POV and I'd keep it Olivia's you've created a likeable character here and I'm already rooting for her.
    The Chicagoan stopped me. I used to spend a lot of time in Chicago and I believe they called it Chicagoland, which sounds silly to outsiders.
    Could definitely feel the cold and see the people. Tone down the writing slightly and you have a real winner.

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    1. Thanks, Elaine, my Thursday partner. I agree.

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  10. Hello Ms. Dane and TKZer’s. I would like to take the opportunity to thank you all for the chance to take advantage of the wealth of knowledge her at TKZ. And as my co-author has put it, “this may be called the kill zone, but you’re still alive after your critiques.” Lol. So thank for you for going kindly on me.
    Since my co-author and I are brand new writers, and hopeful authors, we are unfortunately like the blind leading the blind with our critiques to one another, with all due respect to my co-author and her superb writing abilities. Your critiques were to me a priceless educational experience.
    Because I am proud of our baby I would like to clarify some questions that were raised.
    This story is actually a sci/fi thriller about four friends overcoming challenges of the past and present. The main protagonist, Jaxon, has to deal with the loss of his father in the war, at the tender age of 12, which most of you have guessed is the opening scene.
    The title, The Scissorgate, is in reference to the manual gate on many of the older elevators. The elevator is a key element in the story because it serves as a multidimensional portal. It is in the alternate dimensions that each of the players discovers the strength behind their own characters, lessons are learned and demons are overcome.

    Here are the things I can take with me from all of your wonderful critiques.
    Stick with one POV for each scene to avoid “head hopping” and vertigo for the reader.
    Avoid overwriting by selective use of metaphors and limiting descriptives pertinent to the scene.
    If we have to offer an explanation for the title, perhaps we should consider another. 
    Chicagoan is not a word. What was I thinking?? LOL.
    Beware of clichés.
    Be sure not to confuse the reader with names for the characters that are too similar. I wanted it to be a novel idea that he was semi named after his father. We have discussed changing it in the past and now we’ve got confirmation, I should change it.
    Thank you again for your help. I’ve been humbled and am truly thankful for this precious gift. 

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    1. You are amazing, Jeanette. You definitely took away a good summary. The one POV per scene will open your eyes to how to tell a story or hide red herrings using unreliable narrators or other mystery elements. Once I learned I had POV choices, I loved the many ways I could unfold a story.

      My first writing efforts were terrible. I still have 2 unsold books that will never see the light of day. It took me joining an active local writers grp and the Romance Writers of America (an organization that has great resources for aspiring authors) so I could learn the craft of writing. Even if you don't write romance, the craft of writing can stretch you beyond the genre.

      Reading craft books helps too, but keep writing and finish what you start. I think you learn best from your mistakes. Don't get caught up in one book and get in a continuous revision cycle.

      I got feedback from my local writing grp and crit grps and national writing contests. We all have different journeys but you and your writing partner have taken a big step to be open to a critique here. Thank you and best of luck to you both.

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  11. Good:
    • Sounds ominous.

    Issues:
    • Description felt stilted and repetitive. Some info we don't need. I.e. they squared the shiny brim across their foreheads. (Where else would they square them? You could stop at brim.)
    • POV issues.
    • Names too close to each other.
    • Writing felt writerly and overdone.
    • Avoid clichés.

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    1. Lol. I just summed it the same from everyone's comments. :) Thank you so much for your input. I really feel like I've got some really good meat and potatoes to work with for recreating this scene.

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  12. I'm not sure if this is going to post. I've been trying to post a picture of a scissorgate. Here is a youtube video an elevator aficionado recorded and shows a scissorgate. Not that I'm fighting the issue just thought I'd share why we decided on that title.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHNh_8D44wA

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    1. I couldn't use the link, but looked up images. I would still bet that an editor would want a different title, but you get an A++ for effort. :)

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  13. Lol. Ok. *giving my best Little Rascal snap, and kicking rocks* :) Lol.

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    1. Have I told you today how much I love you, JS? Consider it done. (kiss, kiss, mean it.)

      JD

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