Thursday, March 6, 2014

Angry Enough To Kill - First Page Critique

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane
 

This anonymous submission is called Angry Enough To Kill. I’ll have my critique comments on the flip side. Enjoy!
 
HUNTING SEASON
​Some people say most decisions are reversible, but what do they know? Not this decision. This time, she’s damned if she´ll change her mind and damned if she doesn´t. She's come too far and given up too much. The time to reconsider is past.
 
In the late Fall chill, she quickens her pace along the forest trail, the ground hard and frozen beneath her moccasins. The winter snows have yet to fall in Jackson, Wyoming, and for this, she is grateful. The sawed-off shotgun digs through the backpack into her waist, and she shrugs its weight to the side, rubbing her hands over her arms to warm them, forcing her fingers deep into her gloves. Her mouth is so parched, her lips cling to her teeth.
 
The fog forms and fades away, only to form again in different shapes, hunters ...witnesses.
 
Don’t think. Just get it done.
 
Beside the Snake River, trees pierce the haze. Tendrils of fog slither down the alder standing alone in the center of the clearing, and she imagines them creeping along the ground toward her. Magpies tch, tch, tch. An eagle screeches, wings flapping, and the river churns in the distance.
 
At the side of the clearing, she clambers over a fallen pine, crawling under the boughs she arranged so meticulously the day before. The laces on one of her moccasins have come undone. She ties them, this time with a double knot, loads the tranquilizer pistol and settles down. It shouldn’t be long now.
 
Nothing obstructs her view of the pathway leading from the town to the river. She rests her arms on the log, and waits, like a child playing soldier, but this is not child's play.
 
Something crawls up her neck. She swats at it; a spider lands on her arm. She coughs back a scream, and brushes it off. After a time, her knees ache and she shifts on the damp leaves, releasing a whiff of mold and decay.
 
A twig snaps.
 
Her hand tightens around the dart pistol.
 
Please let it be Devlin.
 
He's whistling, a tuneless wheeze she’s heard before, and he carries a plastic bag. She knows what’s inside: a Sears catalog with pictures of children in their back-to-school clothes.
 
Will he take a leak as he did yesterday and the day before? She tries not to breathe.
 
He hangs the bag on a branch of the alder and…
 
 
My Critique:
Wow. Did I love this. This author creates tension and doesn’t over-explain or “tell” the reader what’s happening. The author shows it and also does a great job at incorporating the setting in an evocative way. The first strong foreshadowing (beyond the intro paragraph) is the word “witnesses.” Good instinct, author. In one word, the reader knows the woman is not there to hunt.
 
Use of Present Tense:
I’m not a big fan of present tense. I’ve seen it effectively used for the young adult market, because it puts the teen reader into the moment with more immediacy. If this is a book for teens, maybe the present tense will work, but in general, the use of it throws me from the work. We’ve talked about this on TKZ before. Anyone have comments on present tense?
 
No Name:
This isn’t a big deal in this strong submission, but is there a reason that the character is not named? Sometimes an author thinks it is necessary to withhold a name and I’ve certainly had my reasons for doing it on occasion (mostly no name characters who will be dead by scene end). But it might help the reader to connect with this character if she’s given a name. Something to think about, dear author.

Stronger Opener:

Option 1: The first option to make this start stronger is to eliminate the first paragraph. It foreshadows what’s ahead, but it reads as author intrusion, like a storyteller giving an omniscient point of view. If it’s deleted, the reader can get immediately into the action and still have a subtle foreshadowing doled out in the narrative to come.

Option 2: Tweak the opening lines to make them stronger. Here are a few suggestions:


<<Some people say most decisions are reversible, but what do they know? Not this decision.>>
This line could be stronger if the author commits to the thought from the character’s POV and not make it a generic saying about “some people.”
 
For example:
Most decisions can be changed. Reversed. Not this one. 
 
Some may have the view that the first paragraph isn’t necessary, that the author could lull the reader into the menace of the story by making it seem as if she’s merely hunting before they learn “who” she’s stalking. Although I like the short and sweet foreshadowing of the first paragraph, it could use more punch.
 
<<She’s damned if she´ll change her mind and damned if she doesn´t. She's come too far and given up too much.>>
These lines are good, but they seem a bit cliché and generic for me. When an idea can be expressed in a cliché manner, I try to find an alternative way to express the thought, but with a more visceral approach.
 
For example:
She'd be damned for what she’d come to do, but damned for doing nothing is worse. He’s given her no choice. Not now.
 
<<The time to reconsider is past.>>
This line seems weak and without emotion, given what the character’s intention is. To pull out my meaning, this time I’ll ask the author an open ended question only they can answer, so I don’t sway the author into my point of view on specific wording. This line needs more punch that foreshadows the danger and commitment ahead.

1.) What does it feel like for her to know she will be a lawbreaker? This isn’t lip service. She’s crossing a moral line and she’ll never get back her innocence.

2.) Does her decision physically manifest in her body? She’s committed to a cause and willing to risk everything.


Sentence Structure:
In the sentence “At the side of the clearing, she clambers over a fallen pine, crawling under the boughs…” That sentence can be made simpler and stronger if the writer eliminates the ‘ing’ from crawling.

Example: “At the side of the clearing, she clambers over a fallen pine and crawls under the boughs…”

I understand the cadence of the structure, but this is something I have to look out for myself. Overuse of ‘ing’ words can force the reader to reread a passage if they get lost in a long sentence and forget what is modifying what.

Also look at the sentence: “An eagle screeches, wings flapping, and the river churns in the distance.” The eagle screeching doesn’t imply the bird is flying. It could be on a branch in a tree. Flying can be assumed, but the sentence would be clearer as follows: “An eagle screeches overhead with its wings flapping and the river churns in the distance.”
 

In critiquing another author’s work, it’s easy to nitpick on word choices and phrasing. We all want to give feedback to help the author make this a stronger submission (in our opinion), but only the author can make the decision on what will be changed. Overall there is a lot to like about this submission. I would definitely love to keep reading. The author has my undivided attention.


Comments, TKZers?

22 comments:

  1. I loved this submission - really strong and I wanted to read more immediately - especially with that last bit with the hint re: the bag with the sears catalog with the kids in back to school wear...then I thought this is going somewhere dark - but I trusted the author would be able to navigate through it. The voice is very strong and the present tense works for this section (though I'm not sure if it can be sustained - that's often what I find with the present tense, it can start feeling awkward after a few pages).

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    1. I loved this author's instincts right away, Clare. Great sense of using the setting to foreshadow without "telling" the reader what is happening. Thanks for your comments.

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  2. Very strong. I sense YA here (use of name Devlin.)

    I will give my caveat. I am not a fan of present tense. Not at all. To me it is like shaky-cam filming in movies, an intrusion (OMG - let's RUN NOW *shakeshakeshake*.) However, it is the way of things in YA and this is good use of it. I could translate it in my head with little difficulty.

    This has a strong sense of tension and carries along nicely. I agree on first paragraph, this is so strong, it isn't needed. As to the -ing words, I caught myself doing that and after Jodie's great post on misplaced modifiers, was able to strengthen the prose.

    Keep writing this, it is great.

    Terri

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    1. Thanks, Terri. There was definitely a lot to like in this submission. The voice is here, which is the hardest thing to master.

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  3. Interesting. I didn't have any problem with the present tense, but I read quite a bit of YA.

    Good comments, Jordan. I think the first paragraph isn't as strong as it could be. I like how you suggested changing it. And good point about the eagle. Actually, I like the idea of the eagle screeching while being perched on a nearby snag. A witness to what is coming. That could add tension to the scene.

    Anyway, strong writing. Powerful submission. I would definitely keep reading this.

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    1. Thanks, Eric. The intro paragraph was in omniscient and isn't pure POV in the character. An author can choose to break the rules on that, but in this instance, the rest of the writing is so strong, it really points out the weakness. Thanks for your comments.

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  4. I agree. Well done. We don't have a character alone, just thinking. We have a character in motion.

    I agree with Jordan. I would cut the first paragraph. It's a tad clunky and removes us from the immediacy of action.

    The rest flows nicely. Just the right amount of description, which adds to the mood. I would have suggested cutting it back a bit, but the line crawling under the boughs she arranged so meticulously the day before adds the right touch of mystery at the right time.

    One suggestion and one command.

    Suggestion: Cut this line: like a child playing soldier, but this is not child's play.. If it's not child's play, don't use the metaphor. It doesn't really add anything and works against the mood. Just do it this way:

    Nothing obstructs her view of the pathway leading from the town to the river. She rests her arms on the log, and waits.

    Isn't that so much more chilling? Answer: yes.

    Command: Put down the dart gun and take out the sawed-off. Then take that semi-colon to a clearing and shoot it. Bury it there. Then go back to your story.

    I definitely want to read on because, oh yes, something very bad is going to happen to the guy with the catalog....

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    1. Ha! We should kill all semi-colons in novels. Hate them. Hate them. Hate them. Did I mention that I hate them?

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    2. I wasn't clear on your opinion of that particular punctuation mark: the semicolon.

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    3. Wow. How did I miss the semi-colon? I hate reading them in a book. Now I know what to do. #Blast It

      Thanks, Jim.

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  5. Great critique, Jordan. I've gotten to a point in my old age that I pretty much refuse to read a book written in present tense. But that's just me. I also believe that the first paragraph in this submission should be reworked or deleted. It's like wading into rough surf before jumping into the speed boat. I would suggest revisiting all the "ing" verbs. They have a tendency to pair up non-simultaneous actions and make them appear simultaneous thus giving strange mental pictures to the reader. The sense of place is strong here. I would definitely keep reading. Thanks to the author for letting us have a look.

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    1. Yeah, definitely appreciate this submission. Lots to like here.

      The -ing words are something I fight and revise in my edits. Jodie's post on grammar was a nice refresher.

      Thanks, Joe.

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  6. Ditto to what Jordan said so well. I am another vote for no present tense. It always feels affected to me, like the author is trying to hard. And when the voice and story is this strong, you don't need anything that distracts. Excellent job. I would definitely read more. And I agree with James...the first graph is just throat-clearing...the story, with its firm POV, is off and running after that!

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    1. Thanks, Kris. I've become less tolerant of present tense in my crime fiction reading. But I've got a project for the YA market that it really works well in. Each project is different. Thanks.

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  7. Something creepy is going on there, for sure. This caught my interest. It sounds like someone is about to take the “law” into her own hands.
    JD’s ideas about trimming the ing-words and taking a direct approach with the intro ring true. I think extraneous words and phrases come from a basic insecurity. Everyone does this in an attempt to establish “role-distance” [read Irving Goffman] with the audience/reader. “Give me a break. I’m one of you.”
    I don’t write my intro until everything else is nailed down. Building the story around JSB’s Golden Triangle might eliminate opening hemming and hawing. I have yet to try it out.

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    1. Interesting points, Jim. I've sometimes saved my intro until I get into it, after I've gotten a better feel for that all important opening scene. Starts are so important.

      I also agree in tightening sentences as a rule. My first pass at any personal revision is to delete to strengthen sentences and get at the meat of it.

      Thanks for your comments. Jim.

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  8. A really strong start. I liked it. The first paragraph I think could go away and this would grab me even more. The only thing that made me feel awkward was her reaction to the spider. It wasn't needed if you're going for the patience and creepy setting, she seems to be the type who is familiar with the place, she knows there are elements to the outdoors, it's expected. I would like this more if she didn't react to the spider such as:

    "Something crawls up her neck. She swats at it; a spider lands on her arm and brushes it off."

    I would definitely read more.

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    1. Hi Diane. I can see your point on the spider. If she's plotting to abduct a guy, spider-phobia seems odd, but it does depend on who this character is. She could have odd fears, yet with the guts to do what she feels is necessary. This could be an endearing weakness, like a guy who is afraid of heights & hides it until he is forced to act.

      Thanks for your insights.

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  9. I second Jordan's assessment, especially the suggestion about the first paragragh. Ditch it. I also agree about using past tense. Great submission over all. It definitely hooked me!

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    1. Thanks for weighing in, Kelly. Feedback is always appreciated.

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  10. Great page! A first-rate example of creating high tension when virtually nothing is happening.

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  11. I found the constant use of she intrusive, which made me wonder: would this be better as first person? I find first person goes well with present tense (which, as you've said, is often used in YA).

    Apart from that, good setup, excellent atmosphere. It makes me want to turn the page, which is surely the point.

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