Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Blade Of Hearts critique

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Today’s first-page critique submission is called BLADE OF HEARTS. Take a look. My comments follow.

Banda Sea, Indonesian Islands
12 June, 1994

The shot pounded the confined space of the ship’s bridge with an impossibly loud explosion compared to the handgun's size. The captain slammed into the console and slid to the deck, streaks of bright red blood smearing the panels. A pretty young blonde woman on the deck outside the room screamed and buried her face into the chest of a young man standing next to her. Rough hands reached down and grabbed the ship's captain. Blood sprayed from between his lips on rapid panting gasps as he was dragged through the hatch and onto the aft deck where the rest of the ship's passengers waited, trembling. They tossed him against the bulkhead where he crumpled to the painted metal deck slicked by his quickly pooling blood. Mustering his strength he rolled onto his back and forced himself to sit upright looking into the eyes of his assailant. Thirty years in the Marines meant there was no way he was going to die whimpering or squirming, he would face them, he would not cower.

“I am Colonel Galang,” the leader strode smugly before the trembling group of missionaries, his voice an odd high pitched flat tenor that sounded like he was forcing it to sound more masculine than it naturally was, like a fourteen year old boy trying to sound like a grown man. His face was that of a youth who seemed unnaturally aged. Though the skin was smooth and hairless it held the distinct look that belied a life of violence, like a centuries old vampire trapped in a teenaged body. Galang's lips stretched tight in a frightening imitation of a smile that would've made a pitbull tremble with terror, “I am the most feared pirate in this ocean and you are my prisoners.”

“May God have mercy on your soul when you meet him,” said the captain through pale blue lips.

Colonel Galang glanced over to the gray haired man, his smile briefly faded then snapped back with an intense ferocity and he took three quick steps that brought him in front of the captain.

“No,” he leaned down to his face, “may I have mercy on your god when he meets me.”

Galang stood and reached across his body to a scabbard that hung on a belt around his waist and dragged out a heavy looking machete as long as his arm. He placed the blade on the captain's shoulder and dragged it slowly across the man's neck, eliciting a trickle of blood. The retired Marine officer stared unflinching into Galang's eyes showing neither fear nor contempt, his face registering a sense of pity, as if he knew something more than the pirate leader before him. In a blur of motion, Galang spun a graceful ballet-like pirouette and brought the edge of the machette hard against the captain's neck instantly severing his head with a clean cut. Blood jetted from the stump of the neck as the body remained upright against the bulkhead. The head rolled across the deck halting at the feet of the pretty blonde his lips nearly touching her toes as his mouth stretched in wide, gasping attempts at breath. She swooned into the arms of the young man standing next to her, his face registering every line of terror that the captain's had not.

1: Omniscient point of view is a method of storytelling in which the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the story. The advantage to using it is that the storyteller can convey a great deal of information in a short amount of time and space. The disadvantage is that it virtually eliminates a personal connection between the characters and the reader. There’s nothing wrong with that if it’s the goal of the storyteller. That’s what we have here—third person, omniscient POV. What I came away with was a sense that this is a prolog, especially since it is dated 1994.

2: Whose story is it? Not the captain. He’s already lost his head over this. Colonel Galang? Maybe, if the story takes place in 1994. Also maybe, if the story jumps to a future or present time and he continues his pirating ways. The pretty young blond woman? Maybe, although since she wasn’t graced with a name, probably not. The young man? Side note: what does young mean? Eight years old? Eighteen? I’m 65. You can imagine what young means to me.

3: We’ve all heard Professor Jim Bell’s rule: act first, explain later. My compliments to this writer. He/she did just that.

4. The gun shot sounded bigger than the handgun’s size. Was it a derringer or a Dirty Harry .44 magnum? If this is omniscient POV, go ahead and tell us.

5. There’s a whole lot of trembling going on. The rest of the passengers waited, trembling. The figurative pit bull trembled.

6. The second paragraph had a bunch of comparisons including pre-pubescence, hairless skin that gave away a life of violence, and centuries-old vampires (don’t forget the hyphen). Hard to mentally see all those images.

7. Eliciting a trickle of blood? Eliciting? This word choice and visual doesn’t work for me.

8. Graceful ballet-like pirouette? See previous comment.

9. Machete? Machette? Check your spelling.

10. …his mouth stretched in wide, gasping attempts at breath. Impossible. How about: …his mouth frozen in a final, gasp for breath.

I would probably continue to read just to see if the story was about the pretty, young blonde. Hey, I’m a guy. But right now, I feel nothing for any of these characters. That’s not a tragedy. It’s the downside to omniscient POV. Hopefully, the story involves someone I will grow to care about. At this point, who knows. This appears to be an action/adventure story. My kind of book. But the writer has to know what he/she is getting into. There’s a stronger “hook” here than some of the previous first-page submissions, but there be dragons in them waters. Beware.

My hat’s off to the writer for having the courage to submit this sample. Best of luck with your WIP.

So, dear Zoners, what do you think. Would you keep reading or go watch Disney on Ice?

40 comments:

  1. This is a promising piece that needs polishing and 'tightening.' Like you say, it's not clear whose story this is because of the omniscient POV. We all tend to over describe when we start out and it's with experience that we learn that less is better. This would have more impact if it was actually shorter and 'punchier'.

    Good luck and keep at it!

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    1. Thanks...and doing. All a matter of time and practice I suppose.

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  2. I wouldn't keep reading. Not my type of story. Trembling, pretty blondes feeling the need to swoon into the arms of strong young men turns me off in so many ways.

    But that's just me being sensitive. I can see this appealing to a young male audience. Not sure how big a market that is but I would suggest turning this into a screen play. Sounds like it's made for a big screen.

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    1. That's an important point Amanda, who the audience is. In this case, I wasn't writing for an audience, but creating backstory of an existing character to be introduced a couple pages later. And to be honest, in writing I was thinking more of a script than a book, as it was originally just notes jotted down about a couple people's past.

      Thanks for the comments.

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  3. Generally good, but a little overwritten, and the POV issue you mention. I would loose the vampire comparison – kind of out of left field and one thing too many. And vampires, even a figurative mention, send of warning signs of a different kind of book than I think this will prove to be. "Murder your darlings."

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    1. Thanks John. Sometimes it's hard to describe a mental image and the easy way out of that description ends up muddling things more. I agree, and the darling has been murdered in the final.

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  4. Right on, Joe, about the use of Omniscient. It's not favored these days for the very reason you cite. If it is to be used at all, I'd reserve it for historical or SF epics. I'd advise the author to pick (or create a new) POV character and run the scene through that perspective. I actually like the possibility of the young blonde, because that's where the head ends up! You could really create tension if you gave it to us that way. Then we'd have someone to feel it with. Give her a backstory, and marble in a few items of that as well. I'm already more excited about the story.

    And definitely watch the style. For example, this sentence tries to do way too much:

    the leader strode smugly before the trembling group of missionaries, his voice an odd high pitched flat tenor that sounded like he was forcing it to sound more masculine than it naturally was, like a fourteen year old boy trying to sound like a grown man..

    That's five adjectives and two similes for one voice, and three uses of the word "sound." Choose one descriptive element, the most striking (fourteen year old boy perhaps, or make up a new one) and cut the rest.

    One "telling detail" is better than five standard ones piled on top of each other.

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    1. Great advice Jim. Followed up on to find these and more. A bit of movement within the text and things tightened right up.

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  5. I've long thought (and taught) that a storyteller's greatest sin is to squander drama, and to my eye, this author has sinned. Imagine how much more intense this scene would be if it were told through the horror and fear of the nameless blonde. As it is now, the story is just chess pieces moving along the board. We don't know anything about the strategy or the stakes.

    The dreaded omniscient POV has another down-side. Without the filter of a character's impressions, the graphic descriptions of violence seem entirely gratuitous.

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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    1. I enter into the literary confessional seeking absolution for my gratuitously violent omniscience. And gratefully appreciate the guidance given.

      Really...I do appreciate it.

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  6. This is my type of book, but I'm not hooked.

    1. Is the pirate alone? Does he have minions? Who (or what) is controlling the people on the deck?

    2. The vampire simile doesn't work at all.

    3. Passages overwritten. "Galang stood and reached across his body to a scabbard that hung on a belt around his waist and dragged out a heavy looking machete as long as his arm," --------> Galang drew his machete.

    It can be inferred that it is in a scabbard (and that the scabbard is on a belt and that the belt is around his waist) and anyone draw to this type of novel knows exactly what a machete looks like.

    4. It is hard to decapitate someone without the leverage of a chopping block and a significant upswing. I found a video of a machete decapitation and it took over a dozen strokes. Post-decapitation gasping is also more of a horror movie trope.

    5. You need to take John Gilstrap's weapons course. Getting shot by a pistol does not "slam you back." That's not how the energy works. You crumple where you stand. Check out this video of a mass shooting (I know, I'm sorry, be details matter).

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRgE3TXZ4oA

    All in all, without a tight close-up POV of a significant character, my mind is free to examine all the details and find them wanting. I'm not part of the action.

    I love the character Galang. This is an under-examined villain and holds real potential. Keep it up and you will have a reader.

    Terri

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    1. Points well taken. Especially on losing the vampire simile, it just looked different in my head than what folks are seeing. Technical details are important, and even more important is wording a scene such that folks see what the writer sees, versus seeing what the writer thought he saw but wrote in a way not what he saw. Know-what-I-mean?

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    2. Oh...and if you do continue reading via the link below Terri, let me know if Galang meets your expectations...I'd be curious.

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    3. Will do and yes, I certainly know what you mean. I'm there myself.

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  7. My eyes are starved for paragraphs in this piece. This is an action scene. (heads will roll). Action should be concise, visceral, tightly written. Staccato. This is legato. Consider how this will LOOK on a page -- very gray and heavy, especially that crucial FIRST paragraph. Even though it is action it LOOKS like boring backstory narration to the eye. Consider this revision:

    The shot came as an explosion, filling the small space of the ship's bridge.

    The impact slammed the captain into the console and he slid to the floor, leaving smears of blood on panels.

    Rough hands reached down and grabbed the captain. Blood sprayed from his mouth as he was dragged through the hatch and onto the aft deck where the rest of the ship's passengers waited, trembling.

    A woman screamed and buried her face into the chest of a young man.

    Mustering his strength, the captain rolled onto his back and forced himself to sit upright looking into the eyes of his assailant. Thirty years in the Marines meant there was no way he was going to die whimpering or squirming.

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    1. Noted and appreciated. Keeping it cleaner does make it move smoother.

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  8. I agree with the previous comments, especially Terri Lynn Coop. People flying backward from being shot and the decapitation lost me. I think this might come from only having Hollywood as a reference point. I've had personal experience in war. And I've had the wonderful experience of a friendship with a retired medical examiner. Very helpful.

    My second issue is with the characters. They are all doing exactly what we would expect: the woman screams, the veteran Marine is brave, and the pirate is ruthless. I'd like a little more out of each of them.

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    1. Thanks for the feedback Brian. One thing I've learned through this process is that even if a writer knows the physical aspects of a scene, if it is not described such that the reader can see it ... it is wrong. That of course puts the responsibility back in the writer's lap to make it look as right on paper as it did in their head.

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  9. Great comments. Have The Kill Zone authors ever considered having a writing retreat or conference? I would go. Name the price. And the place.

    I like warm places.

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    1. Wow, thank you, Amanda and Basil, that's such a wonderful thought! Definitely worth considering for the future.

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  10. I think you were too kind and democratic about the omniscient POV, Joe. If it were me, I'd be strongly advising this writer to decide whose story this is and start right out with their name and write the whole scene and whole first chapter from their point of view only. That way, I as the reader would know right away who I'm supposed to be rooting for and can start identifying with and bonding with that person. Then I'll worry about what's going to happen to them, which will keep me turning the pages. As it is, I don't really know who to care about here.

    Omniscient POV is no longer in favor, except for historical sagas and the like, and for very good reason. It's too distant, too neutral, and lacks one (important) person's inner emotions and reactions to engage the readers emotionally, which you really need to do to keep them turning the pages.

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    1. Thanks Jodie. And you are right. While this POV only lasts a couple pages in the novella, if the reader doesn't go past that point in their sampling, they may well leave without ever connecting with the characters in depth.

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  11. Agree with a lot of the above. My main criticism, which has been touched on above and is similar to my first page criticism last week, is that a lot of these sentences need to be broken up. "The captain slammed into the console and slid to the deck. Steaks of his bright red blood smeared the panel." You could lose a few more words here. Shorter sentences make the action move faster. They don't allow time for vampire similes. Then when you do need the long sentence it will have more impact. Another example: The sentence starting "In a blur of motion...". I think the writer has a cinematic goal, but the blur of motion could go, along with ballet-like and brought the edge up. Breaking it up and losing the words would bring a better visual to the reader's mind than attempting to describe a cinematic action.

    By picking a main character pov, breaking up the sentences, and losing some of the little darlings, this opening could pack a lot more punch.

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    1. Thanks for the input Cat. Working toward the punch does make it better in the end. Both literally and cinematically.

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  12. The first sentence is poorly written, IMHO, and serves as a warning to the reader about the rest of the book. "… an impossibly loud explosion compared to the handgun's size" is not how you want to describe a gunshot, especially in your opening sentence.

    Things like "… streaks of bright red blood" and "blood sprayed from between his lips on rapid panting gasps" betray a need for much further work before this story can see the light of day. I would recommend this writer do a lot more reading, absorbing how these important scenes are written. Learn from it, then turn out a killer opening page.

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  13. Thanks, everyone, for sharing your comments on this first page. I think there's a great amount of excellent advice for the author to build on. And thanks to the writer for letting us take a look at this WIP.

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    1. Thank you Joe, for tackling the post on my novella. And thanks for the terrific advice. It's always a pleasure to be picked apart by someone who knows what they're looking for, and knows how to fix it.

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  14. I was not so put off by the third person omniscient as other commenters have been. Because of the dateline and the fact that most thrillers are written in contemporary time, I was wondering if this is a prologue of sorts. And/or I was wondering if the main character hasn't been introduced yet - and will come along days, years, decades later to deal with the fallout from this incident.

    In which case, the 3rd person might not keep going, but, apparently, many readers won't stick around to find out. However, I'd probably go a page or two more, or thumb thru, skimming, to see how it holds up.

    I agree about the sometimes awkward writing & overwriting, especially the sentence singled out by James Scott Bell.

    In general, my reactions paralleled Terri Lynn Coop. I like action books and this is a vivid villain and, in general, I think it has promise. I'm a potential reader, but not quite persuaded.

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    1. Thanks for the input Judith. I appreciate that you'd keep skimming to see if it's worth sticking with, and hope it would be. That said, there's always place for improvement as everyone here as helped me see. As far as villains, Galang was pretty vivid as I wrote, so hoping you'd find him to be all you think he might be...and more.

      If you'd like to keep reading, click the link in my below comment and see if it meets your desires.

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  15. I'm a minimalist, so take this for what it's worth. I wouldn't have made it past the first paragraph if I weren't forcing myself to for the sake of trying to give feedback. It's drastically overwritten for my taste, and turns an action scene into a slow-mo track. There's "action", but not really any conflict. Not one I care about, at least, and I think a lot of that is because of the POV.

    I also have no one to root for, because they all appear to be stock characters. The aged-but-valiant Dudley Do-right (Captain), 1950's token female who sobs and swoons, strong but scared guy who catches her, and the villain: Big, Bad, Bad-Guy...who goes from dastardly, with one decent line, to a ballet move? Really? I was honestly rooting for him to kill the rest of those cardboard cutouts until I got to the ballet thing. Then I wanted him dead too, not because I hated him but because he bored me with 'unrealism'. A beheading requires a level of strength and vicious aggression that you won't find in Swan Lake.

    Oh, and as a dog person, word to the wise: The mention of a pit bull as anything but the loving, loyal creatures they are (until some douchebag loser, trying to compensate for having a pathetically small penis, trains them to be attack dogs) will make me assume you haven't done your homework anywhere else, either, and that you're relying on "I saw that on TV once" to drive your writing. Now that may not be true, but it's the assumption I will make because you've shown you only know the stereotype about Pits. Unfair or nitpicky? Maybe, but it ain't changing.

    That said, you've got real potential here. It just needs a shitload of editing. That's a good thing, because editing is a lot easier than starting over with a blank page. Good luck.

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    1. Thanks....oh wait... you're not done ... sorry ...

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  16. And yes, I'm fully aware of the irony in starting that long comment by claiming to be a minimalist....

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    1. Ah...yes. Indeed, you are right in the overwritten bit I think. Building a scene in the first 500 or so words is a challenge, and the more I think it, the more I wonder if it should've started differently. That being said, I've this and other advice and rechambered it all bit. Maybe it works better now, or not.

      Regarding the pit-bull, you're right about pit-bulls being sweat. I've never actually known a bad one, or a rottie for that matter. The only really vicious dogs I've known were a chihuahua and a miniature pincer, both of whom were foisted on my by my mother in law (I think it was a test). But I just don't think the mental image would've worked the same if I said his smile would make a chihuahua tremble.

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    2. Sweet....pit bulls being sweet is what I meant.

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  17. Dang! Y'uns are so hard on a dude's ego you just knocked me back to speakin' Ohioan.

    Actually these were really good reviews. Good like working out till you puke. You know it'll get better if you keep up with it, and to quit is just plain weak.

    At any rate, the comments made me go back and take a fresh look over the whole thing.

    Blade of Hearts is a collection of a novella (the title story) and three shorts. The novella and the final short tell a chunk of backstory for three of the main characters of my other novels. It all started out as just notes I had that I figured couldn't fit into another novel, so got their own space.

    After I saw the strings of abuse ...erm... constructive criticism come down I actually spent much of the day going back over the whole shebang. If you'd like to see how the sparkly cleaned, minty fresh, spring scented with a twinge of proverbial cordite edited version turned out I am enclosing a link below to download Blade of Hearts in post edited (the portion above was shortened by about a hundred words) version to click and download while it is there for the next week or two for TKZ readers.

    Blade of Hearts Redux 2013

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    1. Off to download! And by the way, I just happen to have a Chihuahua-Min Pin mix, so I am going to sit here and be horrifically offended on the Interwebz . . . ;)

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    2. Basil, kudos for graceful responses to some tough critiques. I submitted a page here (anonymously, of course) a couple of years ago, and cowered under a Rock With No Name as the comments poured in. No way was I going to be brave enough to claim my own page! I would have had to send forth my lovable, gentle (and totally misunderstood), 85-pound German Shepherd wolf dog to clear the road for me. People take one look at him and beat a hasty retreat!

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  18. I sort of like the animated feel of this beginning. I'm not a fan of melodrama, but it works here. I could do without some of the things others have mentioned, but I'd keep reading.

    The sort of thing I would like to see in this type of work is to bring the villain a bit more snappish and quick to react, maybe a change in order of how you introduce the steps. An example to try:

    “May God have mercy on your soul when you meet him,” said the captain through pale blue lips.

    Colonel Galang's smile briefly faded then snapped back with an intense ferocity. He pulled his machette from his side and took three quick steps toward the captain. In a blur of motion, he smacked the edge of the machette hard against the captain's neck, instantly severing the head with a clean cut. Blood jetted from the stump of the neck as the body remained upright against the bulkhead. The head thudded against the wood deck.

    “No,” Galang leaned down to face the eyes of the beheaded man, “may I have mercy on your god when he meets me.”

    To me, it would introduce a more reactive and thoughtless villain, at the same time (for me and it's only my opinion), it speeds it up some and doesn't take away anything.

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