Wednesday, October 9, 2013

First Page Critique: PHV

Nancy J. Cohen

Today we have the privilege of reading the first page of “PHV.” My critique follows.

"I want out."

I squared my shoulders and said it louder, "I'm finished. I want out of the firm." I repeated it three times.

Silence. Then a loud honk from behind let me know the light had turned green. I hit the gas and made the short sprint to the next stoplight. Usually the downtown traffic made me crazy.

However, today I was in no hurry. Today, I planned on telling my dad that I quit. He and the firm could do their deals without me mopping up after billionaire clients and their obnoxious offspring. I was done being his cleaner.

I made a quick right turn the wrong way into an alley and pulled into a trash strewn vacant lot. The garage attached to our office building had been under construction for three months and I'd made a deal with the owner to park here. So far, all he had charged me was getting a nephew out of a marijuana jackpot. Given the price of parking in Dallas, that was cheap.

Practicing my speech one more time in the side view mirror, I grabbed my briefcase and picked my way through the beer bottles and burger wrappers to a hidden door leading to the garage elevator. I'd already ruined on pair of heels in this mess and had no desire to do it again.

Thankfully, the elevator was still running. The construction supervisor told me that until we were out of dutch with the city, it was technically closed down, but they used it anyway. He'd slipped me a maintenance key. The price? One DUI. Again, to avoid walking around the block to the front door, it was well worth a couple of phone calls. I was used to barter. It's what I did.
 
The elevator doors slid open at three where my office was located. Since I wasn't on the letterhead at dad's law firm; I insisted on being separate from the sixth floor suite. Plus, I didn't like it up there with the Texas hair and two-thousand dollar boots. I did my best work when I could blend into the background.

To my surprise, the upper floors of the garage were silent. I heard none of the usual jackhammers, concrete saws, and swearing that had greeted me since the building inspector had threatened to condemn the structure. What I did see was the ass end of a black Suburban parked by the landing and I heard voices coming down the stairwell. Something was wrong here. I hadn't seen a non-construction vehicle on my floor in weeks. Ducking under the plastic chain with the "Out of Order" sign dangling from it, I crossed the short hallway to a window overlooking the front of the building.

MY CRITIQUE FOLLOWS
 
"I want out." GOOD OPENING LINE. I AM WONDERING WHAT IT IS HE WANTS TO ESCAPE. 

I squared my shoulders and said it louder, "I'm finished. I want out of the firm." I repeated it three times. DON’T KNOW THAT THE LAST LINE IS NECESSARY. WE GET THE POINT. 

Silence. Then a loud honk from behind let me know the light had turned green. I hit the gas and made the short sprint to the next stoplight. Usually the downtown traffic made me crazy.  

OOPS, I HAD NO IDEA HE WAS SITTING IN TRAFFIC. HE MAY HAVE BEEN TALKING ON THE PHONE OR IN HIS OFFICE. MAYBE ESTABLISH LOCATION RIGHT AWAY BY SAYING HIS FOOT PRESSED HARDER ON THE BRAKES IN THE SECOND PARAGRAPH? 

However, today I was in no hurry. Today, I planned on telling my dad that I quit. He and the firm could do their deals without me mopping up after billionaire clients and their obnoxious offspring. I was done being his cleaner. 

OH, SO HE’S TALKING TO HIMSELF? MAYBE MENTION HE’S PRACTICING HIS SPEECH. 

CHANGE LINES TO: I pressed my foot harder on the brake and said it louder for practice: “I’m finished. I want out of the firm.” 

CLEANER HAS ANOTHER CONNOTATION FOR ME. IF YOU WATCH NIKITA, THAT’S THE NAME FOR THE ASSASSINS WHO DISSOLVE BODIES IN ACID. THEY CLEAN UP FOR THE FIRM, TOO, BUT A DIFFERENT KIND. 

I made a quick right turn the wrong way into an alley and pulled into a trash strewn vacant lot. The garage attached to our office building had been under construction for three months and I'd made a deal with the owner to park here. So far, all he had charged me was getting a nephew out of a marijuana jackpot. Given the price of parking in Dallas, that was cheap. 

Practicing my speech one more time in the side view mirror, I grabbed my briefcase and picked my way through the beer bottles and burger wrappers to a hidden door leading to the garage elevator. HE’S LOOKING IN THE SIDE VIEW MIRROR AT THE SAME TIME AS HE’S PICKING HIS WAY TO THE DOOR? WATCH YOUR GRAMMAR. I'd already ruined on pair of heels in this mess and had no desire to do it again. HEELS? IT’S A WOMAN? CAN YOU INDICATE THIS SOONER, LIKE WHEN SHE PRESSES ON THE BRAKES? 

Thankfully, the elevator was still running. The construction supervisor told me that until we were out of dutch THIS MUST BE SLANG BUT I’M NOT SURE WHAT IT MEANS with the city, it was technically closed down, but they used it anyway. He'd slipped me a maintenance key. The price? One DUI. Again, to avoid walking around the block to the front door, it was well worth a couple of phone calls. I was used to barter. It's what I did.  
 
The elevator doors slid open at three where my office was located. Since I wasn't on the letterhead at dad's law firm; COMMA INSTEAD OF SEMI-COLON I insisted on being separate from the sixth floor suite. Plus, I didn't like it up there with the Texas hair and two-thousand dollar boots REFERRING TO MEN OR WOMEN HERE?. I did my best work when I could blend into the background. 

To my surprise, the upper floors of the garage were silent. GOOD FORESHADOWING I heard none of the usual jackhammers, concrete saws, and swearing that had greeted me since the building inspector had threatened to condemn the structure. What I did see was the ass end of a black Suburban parked by the landing INSERT COMMA and I heard voices coming down the stairwell.
 
NEW PARAGRAPH. Something was wrong here. I hadn't seen a non-construction vehicle on my floor in weeks. Ducking under the plastic chain with the "Out of Order" sign dangling from it, I crossed the short hallway to a window overlooking the front of the building. AGAIN, WATCH YOUR “ING” PHRASES. TECHNICALLY, HE’S DUCKNG WHILE CROSSING THE HALLWAY. YOU COULD CORRECT THIS BY ADDING THE WORD “AFTER” BEFORE DUCKING. 

NOT SURE OF HER LOCATION HERE. SHE’S STILL IN THE GARAGE? IF SO, WHY IS THERE A WINDOW? MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE I LIVE IN FLORIDA, BUT OUR ABOVE-GROUND GARAGES DON’T HAVE WINDOWS. OPEN AIR SPACES , YES. 
 
MORE COMMENTS:

This story is intriguing in that something is wrong when the narrator arrives at work. I think you’d raise suspense by having the story start there. Like this: 

Something was wrong. I hadn't seen a non-construction vehicle on my garage floor in weeks. So what was that black Suburban doing parked by the landing? Nor did I hear the usual jackhammers or concrete saws that had greeted me ever since the building inspector threatened to condemn the structure.

With some tightening, this could come across as a lot more suspenseful. I’d also prefer a hint of something more about this person other than she plans to quit her father’s firm. That can be rather clich├ęd. Maybe tell us what she’d rather be doing with her life. I don’t get much of a sense of her personality. It's a good start, though!
 
NOTE: I am away on a research trip and will not be able to respond to comments. Thanks in advance for your replies.
 



23 comments:

  1. I really liked this. I got the "cleaner" reference since I'm a fan of the TV show " Ray Donovan" and there's enough context to get the general idea. I definitely agree the gender can be brought out earlier, maybe as she punches the gas to make the sprint for the next light. I got confused and had to reread the elevator part. After the office suite part, I thought she was already in the law firm, but then we're back in the garage. This is an easy fix to get the sequence right. I would suggest the author stay in the garage, heading for a breezeway that connected the buildings, and move the great TX law firm description of big hair and boots to her earlier ranting. (Being from TX, I got the genders of big hair and boots btw.) At that point in the narrative, the reader doesn't need to know why she's on the 3rd vs the 6th floor, only that she's still in the garage.

    I love the author's voice in this and I would definitely keep reading. Your review comments are thorough, Nancy. I'm not sure I would sacrifice the quick grounding into the character's world just to jumpstart the suspense. It's a great suggestion if this is a complete suspense work. but I get the impression this story hinges on who this character is and how she gets out of jams. Humor could play a part in the development. If that's the case, a little grounding in the character's personality and her connection to a law firm as a cleaner might be important to know, otherwise this intro is backstory that may or may not be necessary. I would be interested to read other TKZ comments on this. Personally, I like how it starts and gets us immediately into the voice.

    But the bottom line is that I'd keep reading. I like the voice and the set up in general.

    (Btw, there is a typo on the heels line. Should be ONE pair of heels, not ON pair.)

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  2. What's up with that title? Maybe this is only a working title, but for this to be published, the title needs work no matter how significant it is to the story - imo.

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  3. Thank you, Jordan, for saving me from a lot of typing.

    I agree with everything Jordan wrote, but especially the first line of her comment. I really liked this.

    Emphasis on knowing gender sooner. The 'ing' words. Slight confusion in location once she entered the building. I'm from a small town, there is not one building that has an indoor parking garage. When you are published, your readers will be widespread so go ahead and use jargon, but maybe with a tiny explanation. I understood the 'dutch' comment from the context of the paragraph.

    I would definitely keep reading. I want to know more about the daughter/father relationship. The MC sounds tough and smart (she handles DUI's and her working on the third floor instead of the sixth was a great example of show instead of tell...plus bartering with clients and construction foreman, this girl can take care of herself. But she is still vulnerable where her dad is concerned. Love that.) So even though her (whatever her name is. I'd like to know her name) RATS. Forgot where I was going with this. Never mind.

    All that matters is that I'm hooked. I want to read more. Please let me know when the book will be available. Seriously.

    Okay, I remember now after a preview...even though her repeating those three lines in the first or second paragraph sounded false to me, I know now that she was trying to bolster her courage by using the repetition but it doesn't really work so early in the story without some explanation. Or take it out all together.

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    1. And I don't like the title, either. Maybe by the end of the book I'll understand, but you have to make me want to buy the book first.

      Still ended up doing a lot of damn typing.

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  4. I have to disagree with Nancy. I love an opening that zigs when you expect it to zag. The "I want out," followed by the discovery that he/she is practicing in the car is great. Who hasn't done something like this? Tipping the reader off too soon spoils the surprise. The author got the timing just about perfect.

    I would, however, make it clear that the character is a woman, assuming it is a woman and not a guy who has a thing about shoes. It's Dallas, maybe they're cowboy boots with heels. But that did catch me off guard. And while I knew what a "cleaner" was from the context, I've never heard the phrase "marijuana jackpot." A jackpot is a good thing, isn't it?

    All in all, I'd say the writer is doing a great job of building the scene piece by piece and drawing me into his/her world.

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  5. I assumed the narrator was a woman, so we need a clue. Some action that indicates gender.

    I too liked the opening line. I like dialogue openings, and the twist that she/he is in the car is a nice one.

    However, today I was in no hurry.

    I don't like the world however in fiction (unless a character uses it in dialogue for some reason). It is a word used in formal, essay-style writing. The sentence is much crisper without it. Also, the repeat of Today in the next line is an "echo," which I advise avoiding (i.e., using the same word close together.) Just do it this way:

    Today I was in no hurry. I planned on telling my dad that I quit.

    As mentioned, really watch out for the "-ing" sentences:

    Practicing my speech one more time in the side view mirror, I grabbed my briefcase and picked my way through the beer bottles and burger wrappers...

    That's THREE different actions supposedly performed simultaneously. It has the narrator talking to the side view mirror while, at the same time, reaching inside the car for the briefcase, while also walking toward the elevator.

    If you write an "-ing" sentence like that, you have to be sure it doesn't violate the laws of physics. I would use such a construction sparingly, and only with TWO actions.

    Clearing my throat, I opened the door. Those two things can be done together.

    Clearing my throat, I recited the Gettysburg Address. Try that sometime.

    Final note from me, I'd cut Something was wrong. Remember RUE: Resist the urge to explain. We get it that something is wrong from the rest of the paragraph.

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  6. Good notes, Nancy et al. I agree that there are a lot of great ingredients here, tightening needed, plus a greater sense of immediacy. Let us see this scene as it unfolds. Right now it has a slightly narrative feel of the main character telling it to us. I also assumed the character is a woman, btw. Jim's suggestion would clear it up. Overall, a good suspenseful situation as an opening, which is a huge achievement!

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  7. I was the one who said in the previous critique that I didn't like dialogue openings. But this one, for me, works because it is unambiguous and I get it from the get-go. And I like the slow build-up beginning because there is tension from the narrator's personal situation rather than from the action. I'm kind of tired of bam-bing-boom action openings these days but the writer brings in the action soon enough for me.

    I also like the fact that I didn't know this was a woman until I got to the "heels" thing. Because I made the usual sexist assumption this was a man then the writer set me straight. Also like the graceful way the writer inserted the place -- Texas. This is SO much better than tags like DALLAS, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2013. Also like the subtle insertion of "cleaner." I am allowed to infer the vital info of who, what and where rather than being hit over the head with it. I would definitely read on. This feels fresher than a lot of published stuff I read last week on vacaction even though we are firmly in our genre. Good job, contributor!

    But that title has to go. Doesn't do justice to your story.

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  8. I agree with the comments already made.
    I need to be attracted to the MC right away. In this piece I am. The Texas hair and her reaction is what did it.
    Title suggestion: Texas Hair

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  9. A nice piece full of tension and good comments. I stumbled at one place. Practicing a speech in the side view mirror would be awkward. You could do it, but you'd pretty much have to move the mirror, which wasn't mentioned. So, I tried to picture the protagonist leaning in close to the car trying to practice a speech. The image was kind of absurd, which took me out of the story for a moment.

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  10. I thought this was a good opening - especially the first line (always hard to get that to punch:)) I agree with some of the minor comments and (with Jordan) I think it starts in the right place - building to the suspense so we get grounded with the character first.

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  11. Great critique, Nancy! I think all points I'd have made have already been covered.

    I'm intrigued by this story!

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  12. Intriguing story and good critique, Nancy, except I agree with Clare. I liked the opening.

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  13. First off, I'd like to thank Nancy for taking time off in her haunted hotel to give this a read and critique. All the comments are appreciated.

    I was a doof and forgot to add the title to my submission, so the PHV is off of the file name. However, the working title, isn't any better. I may have to come here and ask to have a contest to title this. The story is that the idea came out of a chat with an agent at a bar at a writers' con. She said she would be interested in seeing a female Jack Reacher type who cruised around righting legal wrongs. I replied that lawyers are tied to their home states. However, on the drive home, it hit me, she can practice Pro Hac Vice (see how clever I am) and that became the title stuck in my head. It will unstick before I start querying which is scheduled for 01/2014.

    This is an early version of the first page and I have sanded down a few rough corners since then and will take these comments as a place to catch a few more (-ing words are my personal addiction.)

    This is the WIP that brought home the Claymore Award from Killer Nashville and I really really appreciate the kind words. It has been quite a journey since Mr. Gilstrap told me a (long since trunked) WIP sucked.

    For your entertainment, the semi-serious tagline for this is, "Juliana Martin is a lot like Jack Reacher, except she is a chick, a lawyer, has a Chihuahua, and lives in a camper."

    This is her origin story about how she goes from a silk-stocking Dallas law firm to a trailer park in Cochinelle Texas (with a lot of mayhem in between.)

    Thanks so much and I appreciate every last comment!

    Terri

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  14. You got a good one working for you, Terri. I liked how you ease the reader into the circumstances. I thought not knowing that the MC was female was good. I thought the issue of not working for Dad anymore was gutsy. I suspected that the MC was female. I thought the purpose of the initial setup was to establish the head trip the MC was going through. In Terri's explanation, "silk-stocking Dallas to trailer park" nailed it. Whoo-hooo!

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  15. Thanks Jim and I'm holding you to that beta offer you made a while back!

    Terri

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  16. I liked it. I read and forgot to critique. (That must be a good sign.)

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  17. It's you, Terri! YAY!! Really, really, looking forward to reading this. Will check your website regularly for the publishing date.

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  18. I liked this. One of the better openings we've seen here.

    I agree about stating the gender earlier. I was assuming it was a man, and the gender reveal line was jarring. Of course, if this were a published book, I'd almost certainly have read the blurb, so this wouldn't be as big of a thing.

    I disagree with JSB about the "Something was wrong" line. That's a good line and builds the voice. As Lee Child says, we're storytellers, not story showers. Often, it's ok to explain.

    I did get a little confused trying to picture the scene in the parking garage.

    Good stuff.

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  19. When I read it, I liked the flow. I thought the gender was academic, it is something the reader discovers as they invest into the story.
    I love the premise of it being a female "Jackie Reacher" character. Good Luck TLC...will watch for updates. Cheers Hank

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