Thursday, September 26, 2013

First Page Critique: A HARD MAN TO KILL

What follows is the first page of a work entitled A HARD MAN TO KILL, with my comments afterward. Hope you enjoy both --- Joe Hartlaub

When I heard the front door creak open, I rolled out of bed and snatched up the handgun that sat on my nightstand. My bare feet felt cold against the wood floor, but my body was taut and my aim steady. My wristwatch said it was six-fifty in the morning.
  I waited.
  A steady downpour of rain drummed against my windows, and the street lights slanted through my curtains and projected a small sliver of blurry yellow light.
  Footfalls came from the cramped living room outside the door. There were voices. It sounded like two people. Both of them sounded male, and both sounded as though they were moving around the house.
  They were having a quiet, whispered conversation, but behind the door I couldn’t make much out. I walked over to the closet, opened it quietly, and slid on my tennis shoes. Then I closed it and stopped.
  The footsteps were coming this way.
  I moved to the far end of the wall, behind the door, and waited.
  The door slowly creaked open and the footsteps came in slow and stopped.
  “No one’s here,” the guy said. “I think we’re okay.”
  Another voice replied, “Alright, yeah – sounds good. Just check the room for it, okay?”
  There were footsteps that clapped away from the room. The door closed and I could see the shadow of a guy making his way to my bed with his back to me. In the darkness I couldn’t make out much other than his scrawny build, but when he stepped into the watery light of the streetpoles I saw he was light haired and was wearing a dark, wet jacket and sodden jeans that clung to his legs. I also saw the glint of the small, silver handgun in his hand.
  He was glaring down at my bed, the twisted sheets and the comforter. He seemed to be studying it for a long time. You could almost hear the wheels turning in his head. 
  Slowly, I came up behind him.
  It would’ve gone smoother, but one of the floorboards creaked as I put down my right foot and the guy glanced over his shoulder. I kicked him in the back of his knee, grabbed a handful of his hair, and smashed it against the end of the nightstand. The guy fell to the floor.

                     *                                                *                                                    *

I like this. I like this very much. The author has been studying their Kill Zone Joe Moore, balancing nicely between suspense and action. The narration tells us quite a bit without slowing down the pace, and gets things rolling without diddle-fuddling around. Show, don’t tell? This piece does it. Our narrator hears a noise and but doesn’t seem particularly surprised; he just gets locked and loaded and ready to rock ‘n’ roll. He is expecting trouble. Why?  He also doesn’t call 911, which means that he either 1)knows that when seconds count, the police are there in minutes or 2)  doesn’t want the police in his house, at least until he has time to clean up. Which is it? Let’s not even mention what’s going to happen when the other burglar checks up on all of that activity in the bedroom. And what are these home invaders looking for? I’d like to see the next couple of pages to find out. If an author can keep that feeling going throughout the book, their job is done.

I have two and one-half minor criticisms before I turn things over to you all for comments: 1) In the first paragraph, our rough and ready protagonist has …”my aim steady.” The narrator is a few paragraphs too early to be aiming at anything. You don’t aim a gun until you have a target. Nobody is even in the room yet. I would submit that “hand steady” would be better; 2) the light comes from the streetpoles, rather than "of"; ½) what’s up with Beany and Cecil doing a burglary at 6:50 in the morning when neighbors are up and maybe walking the dog, leaving for work, going to pick up coffee and donuts, and the like, and thus able to witness a break-in? Roll the time back four hours and it’s a bit more realistic, in my opinion. Those are minor quibles that made me go “umm” but did not detract from my desire to keep reading. I want to see more and I believe at some point that we will all have that opportunity. Author: keep writing and keep up the good work.


  1. An excellent start. The first line is a disturbance, and puts us "in medias res," as they say. Wonderful. Well done. All this page needs, IMO, is some tweaking here and there.

    Footfalls came from the cramped living room outside the door. There were voices. It sounded like two people. Both of them sounded male, and both sounded as though they were moving around the house.

    The triple use of the word "sounded" grates. Watch out for these echos in your prose. Also, starting sentences with There were.... or There was... is usually not the strongest choice.

    Therefore, compress the language. This will also up the tension. Something like this:

    Footfalls came from the cramped living room outside the door. Two voices. Male. Moving around the house.

    The word "Looters" really threw me. I don't know if this is a British page or not, but in America a looter is usually someone who is engaging in destruction of property, brazenly, to take stuff. These are burglars, trying to get away unseen. (Thus, I agree with Joe's point about the time issue).

    But even beyond that, you just don't need the word. RUE: resist the urge to explain. The reader will know what's going on without being told. I'd cut the word "Looters."

    I also had a problem with a burglar opening a door to a dark bedroom, taking a few steps, and immediately announcing, out loud, "No one's here." He hadn't even examined the bed yet. That makes him a complete doofus, and thus the danger of the scene is diluted. Unless this is meant to be comedic in some fashion, I'd rework it to make these burglars (or hitmen, or whatever they are) much smarter. I would think they wouldn't talk at all until they were absolutely sure no one was home.

    In sum, the great thing is we're starting right away with action and disturbance. Tighten the writing and think through the scenario from the POV of the burglars (to get the movements right).

  2. Nice work, mystery author. I agree with your critique, Joe--and Jim's comments.

    I would add that it seems odd our bedroom guy/gal (Is this a guy or gal? Don't know) would take the time to slip into his/her closet for tennis shoes with creaky floor boards. Why risk being heard for shoes? He/she moves around the room alot before settling behind the door to wait.

    Next, the intruder creeps into the room and closes the door behind him. Why? If he thinks the place is empty, he'd leave the door open so his partner could join him. It's too convenient that he's isolated himself to have his head bashed.

    Next, why bash his head when bedroom guy/gal had a handgun? The noise would only alert the partner. What if that partner has a gun? It would make more sense to whisper to the guy, threaten to shoot both of them if he doesn't call in his buddy--then of course, the guy doesn't cooperate and all hell breaks loose. But this scenario seems risky if he/she can't be sure the partner has a gun.

    But I agree this is a solid example of showing, not telling, with plenty of suspense. Tighten the sentences to add more tension, but I'd keep reading. Well done.

    1. I agree with Jim and Jordan's comments - but again these are pretty easy fixes. The main elements of tension and disturbance are definitely evident in this first page, which is what really counts.

  3. I'd certainly keep reading, and I do like the build of tension. But I agree with comments above, especially the idea that these intruders seem dumb. It's early in the morning (though not early enough) so they should expect, if anyone was going to be there, they'd be in bed. But, we don't know. Maybe these guys are supposed to be idiots.
    And maybe the author will explain why it was so important to get his tennis shoes out of the closet. Seems like this person is cool in such situations. I'd look forward to learning more about him.

  4. I agree with Joe et al. This is a decent beginning that exemplifies so much of what we preach here at TKZ. We’re placed in the scene, feel the tension, and are presented with an abundance of unanswered questions. There's no long, drawn-out backstory. I would keep reading.

    One point brought up by Jordan about gender: I heard a female voice throughout. In my mind as a reader, a man would not think of wet jeans clinging to the bad guy’s legs. Men don’t sleep under a comforter. They sleep under a blanket. Men don’t snatch up guns. They grab them. So I saw a female protagonist in this sample.

    Couple of line/copy edits.
    Delete “of rain”. A steady downpour means rain.

    You don’t need “quiet” AND “whispered” to describe the conversation. Pick one.

    Walking to the closet sounds casual and noisy. Perhaps slipped or sneaked or something quiet.

    Delete excess words and passive voice such as: The footsteps were coming this way, should be, the footsteps came this way.

    Search for “was” and “were”.

    “Alright” is not a word. Change to "all right".

    Unless the bed is on the ceiling, delete “down” from He was glaring down at my bed. Also, change to He glared at my bed.

    “You could almost hear the wheels turning in his head” is a shift to second person POV. And it’s a cliché.

    Count the number of times “slowly” is used. Avoid all words that end in “ly”.

    The second to last sentence says that the protagonist grabbed a handful of his hair and smashed it against the end of the nightstand. I would have smashed his head, instead. Can’t hurt his hair.

    Unless this takes place on the International Space Station, falling to the floor is a given. What other direction would he fall?

    Thanks to the author for the courage to submit this. It shows great promise. Just needs a bright red editing pen to tighten it up. Good luck.

    1. Joe--I saw female choices of words and wondered if this author was female or the character was.

  5. Definitely a good start. Pacing is taut and you can see the skill with words without it being so overdone (like someone going, "Look! See what a great writer I am!"). My only quibbles are with a few word choices. Both doors creaked, and I always try to vary descriptives like that, especially that close together. Same goes for when the "light of the streetpoles [showed that] he was light haired."

    It reminds me of the way a Reacher book typically starts, both because of the scene and because of the clearly analytic mind of the protagonist, seeing the whole field instead of just the players. And that's good company to be in.

    Nicely done.

  6. I agree with the critiques offered here by the real pros. As always, they're spot on. And, as an editor, I must confess I was doing a happy dance reading Joe's editorial suggestions. Ditto. Do all of those things. (And the ones Jim mentioned.)

    The only other thing that struck me was whether there was an appropriate sense of urgency in those first few paragraphs. The MC strikes me as pretty calm as he/she reacts to this intrusion (taking time to put on tennis shoes). If he/she is indeed calm, I would assume this character is some sort of professional who doesn't get rattled by people in the house with guns. If that's the case, I think some hints about that would be in order. If not, and we're dealing with an average joe here, I would expect to see more hints of stress (maybe even fighting off panic). I believe this level of detail would make this strong opening even more gripping.

    Well done -- thanks for sharing!

  7. I enjoyed this very much! Ditto all the comments made previously , plus a couple of nits. If a door 'creaks open,' that suggests to me that it was unlocked. An unlocked door would seem unusual for someone who is armed and ready for trouble. Also, 'my body was taut' suggests muscle tone to me rather than what I think the writer meant, which is that the narrator is physically prepared for action. Perhaps it would be preferable to use something like 'my body was springloaded,' perhaps? I was also thinking that a snappier title might be HARD TO KILL, or HARD TARGET. But overall, this page is definitely on the right track. Write on!

  8. I would keep reading and I second all the comments so far. Two things jumped out at me. 1) Getting the tennis shoes. That seemed unrealistic and out of character. Took me out of the story as I tried to think if I've ever read that before or seen it in a movie. 2) I wanted tighter writing for such a dramatic scene. Others have already commented on this, so I won't go into details except to offer a new, tighter opening line: "When I heard the front door creak, I rolled out of bed, grabbing my handgun from the nightstand."

    Good work.

  9. Very, very good. My only quibble – and that's what it is a quibble, not a problem – is, the street lights are still on and providing the main illumination at 6:50 a.m.? Where is this set? Above the Arctic Circle? And like Joe said, 10 to 7 is awfully late for B&E guys to be working.

  10. This is awesome. If you don't finish it, I will send Reacher to glare at you until you do. The voice is superb.

    All the comments above. If I was beta reading for you, I would add one suggestion. This is personal to me, I have a thing about sit/sat/set and all iterations of that word batch.

    I rolled out of bed and snatched up the handgun that sat on my nightstand.

    I rolled out of bed and snatched the handgun off my nightstand. Or just "grabbed my handgun" (or pistol).

    Most of the suggestions here, mine included, are about deleting unneeded words. That is part of the Stephen King formula, "Final Draft = First Draft - 10%"

    Great job! Terri

  11. The story had some great elements. I'm just going to mention that the one thing that troubled me most in this piece was the plethora of linking verbs as opposed to action verbs. Insidious and crafty as termites, they'll eat away at the intensity of your narrative and keep it from fully impacting the reader.

    Do a search for state of being verbs: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been. (You're not looking for when they're used as helpers for action verbs, but when they stand alone.) Also look for other linking verbs such as remain, feel, look, etc. (You can spot them by substituting a state of being verb for them and have the meaning of the sentence remain basically the same.)

    Example: My bare feet FELT body WAS aim [implied WAS] steady...wristwatch said it WAS six-fifty. There WERE voices. It SOUNDED like two people...Both of them SOUNDED male...both SOUNDED as though...and so on.

    (Sorry about the caps. I couldn't make them bold or italic.)

    Example of how to change these to action verbs: My bare feet twitched as they touched the icy floor, but I held the gun steady.

    You get a stronger mental picture when you use action verbs instead of state of being verbs/linking verbs. The paragraphs I kept me most engaged mentally had more action verbs and fewer linking verbs.

    (Also watch out for over-used verbs. The characters are involved in a lot of coming and moving.)

    Coming along! : )

  12. In situations like this, where the MC gets surprised in his sleep, I would trim the sentences down to bare bones. Right off the MC is functioning in super-sensitive mode, and he won’t be thinking about his cold feet. His ears will be straining for any tell-tale sounds. His eyes will be hunger for any sign of a target.

    Since the MC didn't crawl under the bed and hide or go for the phone. . .and since he went directly for his gun, we know the guy’s a hunter (and not the Bambi kind, either). With your MC being hyper-aware, everything should mirror the anticipated pop-pop-pop of lead flying. Time and everything else will compress into a tight little mode where there's no room for anything else. No reminiscing about what happened last night or any of other nonsense. Everything is on the edge. The sentences, the words the action has to follow suit. In my view there’s no room for “It would've gone smoother” or any other distractions that might pull the reader out of the narrow, tight action zone.

    And why did the MC take the intruder down from behind instead of shooting him in the head? With all the noise, the cat’s certainly outta the bag, right? So why not shoot him and immediately go after the second guy? In the course of the take-down, the second guy will jump right in there with his gun all ready to go.

    But, hey! We've certainly got ourselves a disturbance to kick things off.

    Anyway, just remember that being woken up like that puts a (trained) person into a super-defined action-tunnel, where he’s up, moving and taking care of business before he’s even conscious.

  13. Lots of great comments here. I don't have anything to add, other than 1) guys who break into houses by definition aren't geniuses, otherwise they'd be working at Oak Ridge and 2) I thought "guy" as I read this --- and then there is the title, which may or may not mean the person in the closet --- but figured that it will get sorted out on page two or three. I have the feeling that an author somewhere is busily changing the sex of their character. Without a scalpel or anesthesia, of course. Thanks so much for everyone who has and will comment on A HARD MAN TO KILL.

  14. Excellent first page. One minor critique: try "snatched the gun from my nightstand" (we can safely assume it's a handgun). It makes it a little tighter. Also, I'm with Jim Bell regarding the premature conclusion that "no one's here". But that's really about it. This thing oozes tension.