Monday, October 14, 2013

First Page Critique - A Rose to Love



Here is today's first page critique - 'A Rose to Love'

My comments and feedback follow.

“So, what’s she like?” Will asked as he took a sugar packet and stirred it into his coffee. They were sitting in a booth in the Coffee House next door to their private detective agency.
Jesse, tapping on his laptop keyboard, barely looked up. “What’s who like?”
“You know.” Will narrowed his eyes and leaned forward in the booth. “The woman who’s moving into the apartment upstairs. What’s her name again? And doesn't she move in today?”
Jesse took a sip of his coffee before replying. “Guinevere Russo and yes. She should be here any time now.”
“So, what’s she like?” Will raised his eyebrows meaningfully.
“I don’t know. I haven’t met her. I only did a background check on her.”
“I thought that was the whole point of a background check.” Will had learned long ago to never doubt Jesse’s thoroughness. Because of his expertise, their clientele included several lawyers, various businesses and even the police departments in and around Chicago. Not only was Jesse expert at background checks, he was amazing at finding people who didn’t want to be found. 
Jesse sighed and looked up from his laptop. “Yes, but sometimes, even with the best and deepest background checks, there are surprises.” In their detective agency, Jesse handled the ‘cyber-investigations’ and Will did the more ‘hands-on’ field work. His expertise was in noticing details about people and at crime scenes. They were a good team. Jesse helped Will to become more savvy on the Internet and Will got Jesse out of the office for surveillance work, on-site crime scene investigation, and other jobs that required two sets of eyes.  
“Nah, you’re too good.” Will dismissed Jesse’s reservations. The man even did some work for the FBI and CIA. Will doubted there would be too many surprises. His partner was just very cautious. “So, is she pretty?”
Jesse’s eyes widened and then he frowned. Will couldn’t tell if he had touched a nerve or if the man was distracted by whatever he was doing on his laptop. He tapped at his computer some more before replying. “No, she’s not pretty, not like Hollywood pretty. She’s …” He looked up at the ceiling then back at his laptop. “She’s beautiful, but that doesn’t mean much.”
In all the years he had known Jesse, Will had never heard him describe a woman as beautiful. This should be interesting. 


     My comments:

First of all, I'm proceeding on the assumption (based on both the title and this first page) that this is a work of romantic suspense. 

My initial feeling, reading this first page, was that it was the start of a pretty clear (and possibly all too predictable) 'set-up' for a romance. Although I thought the style worked well - the sentences are lucid and the back story introduced succinctly and successfully - there wasn't much in the way of real suspense. Not enough at least to get me intrigued from the get go. The fact that Jesse was a background checker extraordinaire who had never described a woman as beautiful wasn't quite enough - at least for me. 

The strength of this as a first page, however, is definitely in the writing style (I liked the fact it was clear and cleanly written). However, I needed more ambiguity and tension to feel compelled by the story. To me this page read more like a romance and less like a mystery/thriller/suspense novel. The fact that Will and Jesse own a private detective agency suggests that this book will involve both romance and suspense - so I think a first page needs to balance both elements to succeed. I also was a little confused as to why they felt the need to do a thorough background check on the person  moving into the upstairs apartment - sounded like overkill unless there's something more to the story than on the page. 

It could be that the author needs to start the book off at a different point in time - perhaps when Jesse first sees Guinevere Russo and suspects there's something that the background check missed. We need something that shocks, disrupts or at least throws us off guard as readers. We need to be shown, not told, that there's something intriguing as well as beautiful about the new tenant upstairs. As Jim is always saying, the explanations can come later...

BTW- One little nitpicking quibble - Coffee House should only be capitalized if this is actually its name - otherwise just coffee house... 

So TKZers what's your feedback on this as a first page?

18 comments:

  1. A slow start but I'd keep reading. I'd want to know more about the beautiful neighbour and the writing was good. I'd be hopeful the author kept the set-up short.

    But let's say the book was taken from me before I turned the first page. Would I search it out? Not sure.

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  2. The writing is good and I think just upping the ante a bit would make it more of a 'must keep reading' experience

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  3. I'll use this first page to put forth a caution regarding dialogue attributions. To wit, there aren't any here, except for "asked" at the very beginning.

    Instead, the writer does something that must come from the Critique Group Book of Better Writing Style, namely, it's always better to eschew the use of "said" and substitute an action of some sort.

    This is a disastrously bad choice. "Said" (and even "asked") are practically invisible to the reader. They do their job and get out of the way. They keep the reader grounded in the important part, the dialogue itself.

    When you take them out and use innocuous actions, the result is a string of phrases that are like speed bumps along an otherwise nice road:

    Jesse took a sip of his coffee before replying.

    Will raised his eyebrows meaningfully.

    Jesse sighed and looked up from his laptop.

    He tapped at his computer some more before replying.


    These actions don't have any real meaning or significance. But note: The reader assumes the very opposite! Thus, every time you write this fluff the reader's imagination does extra "work." When it doesn't pay off--because the action is never anything else than a bit of "business"--the reader actually gets tired. The reading experience is made less pleasant.

    When you use an action beat instead of "said" make sure it's an action that does "double duty." It has some sort of significance to the story and the character. Otherwise, don't do it. Use our old pal "said" or, if it's clear who is speaking because of the language choice, don't use any tag at all.

    Also, the sort of non-essential beats listed above make the writing seem hackneyed. Nothing about the style zings. It's like filler. You don't want filler in your novels, anywhere.

    So next time you hear someone bragging about how they never use "said" in their novels, tell them James Scott Bell sighed, looked up from his laptop and pulled his hair out meaningfully. "Pish Tosh!"

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    1. Thanks JSB. This is the best explanation I've seen about how not to use action beats. By grouping the examples together, I see how they don't even add to the ambience of the setting. By looking back I see that the sentence "Will narrowed his eyes and leaned forward." adds to the story because it adds intensity to Will's interest. I'll have to be more careful of my work.

      As to the piece, I agree that it was clear and cleanly written, except for the action beats and "meaningfully." I have been thoroughly schooled against using adverbs--thoroughly. And I also wondered why these guys are investigating the woman but not so much that it piques my interest. There needs to be something more compelling.

      Thanks for being willing to subject your piece to constructive criticism and nitpicking. It's got potential, but I think you need to up the ante.

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    2. JSB -
      This is the first time I recall a caution regarding overuse of action beats.
      The comment resonates and will have me scouring my manuscript with a pruning shears.

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    3. JSb - as always a great addition to the comments and (cough) this is a trap I fall into a lot:)

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    4. Would you do a whole Sunday lesson on that (or link to an old one) Mr. B? I have a tendency to do that because that is something I was taught along the way.

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  4. The idea is good, but the writing is a little too "spot on," too much telling, too much "let's set up the exposition right at the top," instead of letting the reader discover things. A graf like " Jesse handled the ‘cyber-investigations’ and Will did the more ‘hands-on’ field work. His expertise was in noticing details about people and at crime scenes. They were a good team" is all tell, no show. If those are important character traits, the things they do and say will show it better than having the writer tell it. I'd be interested in seeing the personality traits that make them different, work habits, sense of humor, that kind of thing.

    Right now it feels more like the writer is ticking off boxes on his characters' personality resumes than just telling the story and letting them emerge as real people.

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    1. Good point - often what compels us to keep reading is a great character and so far this first page doesn't have any character that really leaps out and grabs my interest yet.

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  5. I had the same reaction James did -- got really tripped up by the lack of attribution and what he calls action beats. (I call them physical breaks in dialogue.) As he says, they are useful but they must have real organic purpose. Also, I realize it's hard to paragraph on TKZ template, but I'm seeing some paragraphing choices (or lack of them) here that lead to confusion as to who is talking -- or thinking -- at several points. And whose POV are we in here? I can't quite tell. I THINK it is Jesse?

    Jesse sighed and looked up from his laptop. “Yes, but sometimes, even with the best and deepest background checks, there are surprises.” In their detective agency, Jesse handled the ‘cyber-investigations’ and Will did the more ‘hands-on’ field work.

    Would this be easier to read:

    Jesse sighed and looked up from his laptop.

    “Yes," he said, "But sometimes, even with the best and deepest background checks, there are surprises.”

    Jesse had realized a long time ago that his partnership with Will was like a marriage, each of them bringing something special to the arrangement. He did ‘cyber-investigations’ and Will did the more ‘hands-on’ field work.

    Also, I agree with Clare that there's not a lot of tension here. I don't mind a slow build but I am not sure there isn't a more compelling place to enter this story.

    One last thing: If Jesse is the protag, he's sort of "meh." He's passive, incurious and kind of just sitting there like a lump sighing and pecking at his keyboard. Will may be a nudge but he's more interesting. Which I am not sure the writer wants so early in this story.

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    1. Don't get too hung up on formatting - that could easily have been when the text was transferred over (so it could be my bad!) but I agree that so far Jesse isn't grabbing me as a character.

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  6. In reading this, I felt that Will and Jesse were in high school or something. Their voices and actions seem to be of that age range, so it's a bit off to me that they are professional investigators, one having served with the FBI and CIA. I'm not buying it.

    The dialogue seems like small talk, like two bored men discussing the weather. I just lost interest. I would not read more.

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  7. Diana - your comment goes to the heart of what needs to be present in a great first page - a compelling voice, interesting characters and some kind of reason to keep reading. I think it does seem like all small talk and no real tension.

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  8. Clear writing, but dialogue isn't interesting enough. Do something, please.

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  9. I like the crisp, almost British, clip of the words. Now, I have a confession to make. I first read this just after midnight and I thought Jesse was being used as a female name. Yes, on second reading I got the male pronouns, but my first vision was a male and female partner sitting over coffee and the guy bugging her for info about the girl that moved in upstairs.

    Fixed, I see two guys, Jesse skinny and stylish, being bugged by his more "dude" friend about the hot chick upstairs.

    Whether I kept reading would depend on the backcover blurb and overall premise of the story.

    Thanks for the chance to read your sub! (I love these.)

    Terri

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  10. The first thing I noticed is that it starts out with dialogue. Maybe this is my personal prejudice, but I don't like the fist sentence to be dialogue. The second thing I noticed was that Will took a sugar packet and stirred it into his coffee. Ok, I may be nit picking here, but I envision the entire packet going into the coffee. I know that the general person would assume that he opened the packet, but that part really isn't clear. I would like some hint as to why they feel the need to investigate the new neighbor prior to her moving in. Do they check out everyone in general that gets close to them? If so, why? Or is she on their radar for a particular reason, other than being beautiful. There is no conflict of any kind going on and I can't identify with any character. I don't know who is even telling the story. There is not enough interest in this first page to keep me interested in reading further. If you are going for suspense, you have to have at least some foreshadowing of suspense to come, something to make the reader want to turn the page.

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  11. The biggest thing that jumped out at me (or didn't) was a clear differentiation between the two characters who are speaking. I find myself going back to see 'who was good at what' and trying to sort the two out. It may be a matter of beginning with dialogue and not setting one character, preferably POV character, firmly in mind before getting into a back and forth exchange with character descriptions woven in. I would read further especially with the suggestions of all above incorporated. Good start, keep it up, and as always I learn a tremendous amount myself from these first page critiques. May someday get up the courage to submit my own.

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  12. I like to play opposites, so I think it would have been more interesting to start with the two of them ducking for cover while the beautiful new neighbor threw things at them in a temper. William could berate Jesse for his "thorough" background check while objects were smashing around their heads. It's a personal thing, but I can't stand obvious romances. One of the few romances I've liked was the 'Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.' The author kept the romance part subtle and natural rather than beating me over the head with it.

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