Wednesday, March 31, 2010

First Page Critique

By Joe Moore

ITW_Award_black_72dpi Yesterday, the nominees for the 2010 ITW Thriller Awards were announced. Congratulations to our Kill Zone blogmate, John Gilstrap! His thriller NO MERCY was nominated for Best Paperback Original. This is a great honor and we all wish John the best of luck in taking home that award next July.

This past Sunday, Jim posted a blog about the importance of the opening pages of a manuscript submitted to an agent or editor. He pointed out some common pitfalls that new authors make, and which ultimately can result in rejection. Clare continued the theme on Monday by listing additional sins committed by first-time writers. And yesterday, Kathryn invited our visitors to submit the first page of their manuscript for a free critique. Unless otherwise requested, the authors will remain anonymous. So to start things off, here’s our first submission and my critique, page one of the manuscript THE CASSIOPEIA EFFECT

Marcus had never seen a dead body before. No, that’s misleading. He had seen a dead body—two of them in fact. That came with burying his wife and daughter eight years earlier. What he’d never seen before was a dead body lying in the streets. It was common enough in the part of the city he found himself living, where the homeless turned up dead from time to time, but up until a few moments ago, he’d been lucky.

It seemed his luck had changed. Whatever streak he’d been riding was coming to an end at an alarmingly fast rate. In the last twenty-four hours he’d lost a small fortune to his bookie, been given a notice of eviction from his apartment, and crashed his computer. Now there was a dead guy leaning against his car. It really didn’t surprise him, though.

For him, Good Luck came and went like a five dollar whore giving head while parked next to the curb. Bad luck, on the other hand, was like a bad love affair he couldn’t put an end to. No matter how many times it left, it always showed back up knocking at his door. All the other stuff had been Bad Luck knocking; finding the dead guy next to his car was it breaking down the door and rushing back into his life.

Marcus stepped off the curb and walked to his car and the waiting dead man. The filthy trench coat, ripped pants, and mismatched shoes left little doubt that the guy was one of the many homeless who wandered the streets. The amount of blood splattered across the car door made it pretty apparent the homeless guy was dead. But Marcus was still going to check. There was no way he was going to let a man die if there was still a chance to save him. He already had to live with too many things he wasn’t proud of and wasn’t about to add another.

Careful to avoid the blood pooled on the oil stained pavement, he knelt down next to the body, pulled back the collar of the coat with one hand, and with the other, checked for a pulse. Nothing. Whoever he had been, he was nothing but dead now. Marcus’ eyes played over the strange pattern of blood spray on the car door as he tried to decide what to do next.

There wouldn’t be any calls to 911 or the police. Moving him off the car and leaving him in front of his building for someone else to find wasn’t an option either. He didn’t need a dead guy connected to him in any way. What he could do, Marcus decided, was take him a few blocks where he’d be found and, hopefully, get the burial he deserved.

One of the main issues raised in Jim’s post on Sunday was what he called “Exposition Dump”. Unfortunately, that’s what we have in this example—the first 3 paragraphs contain a great deal of backstory with little “here and now”. This information should be saved and revealed later.

The best method for a reader to get to know a character is through their actions and reactions. Telling me about the bad luck Marcus has had does not engage me emotionally or spark my interest.

But all is not lost. In addition to cutting back on the “telling”, the writer might want to consider shifting the story into first person. Doing so could cause the reader to be pulled up close to the character and perhaps have a bit more feelings for Marcus. Here’s an example.

The first couple of sentences read:

Marcus had never seen a dead body before. No, that’s misleading. He had seen a dead body—two of them in fact. That came with burying his wife and daughter eight years earlier.

Now, here it is in first person:

I’d never seen a dead body before. No, that’s not true. Eight years ago, I had to bury my wife and daughter. But this was different.

Suddenly, the scene questions that pop into the readers mind—questions that were weak before—are now personal and tantalizing. The most intriguing: What happened to his wife and daughter? The straight exposition didn’t cause me to consider the questions in the same manner.

The second point I need to make is that if Marcos is the main character (and I have no idea if he is or not), I don’t like him very much. Why? He shows bad judgment. He’s into $5 whores, illegal gambling, and not willing to at least call the police—even anonymously—to report what he’s found. He quickly comes to the decision that for his own best interests, he should gather up the dead man and dump the body in another location. Granted, we don’t know why he would react this way, but having a number of negatives with little positive doesn’t make for a very likeable character. The reader needs to feel something for the character pretty much from the start. All I feel about Marcus is negative.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing objectionable about a character with those attributes as long as there’s a reason for the reader to sympathize with him and respect or at least understand his judgment. Right now, there’s nothing here I was able to latch on to.

I like to use my “Dirty Harry” example of how to establish a reader/viewer and character relationship fast. The first scene of the movie, Harry helps a little old lady cross the street. Then he goes into a coffee shop that’s being robbed and blows the bad guy away. I like Harry right from the start even though I know he’s rough around the edges, dangerous, cocky, and kind-hearted.

The truth is that most manuscripts get rejected by the end of the first page—or at least the first couple of pages. This is reality. No agent is going to persevere for fifty or a hundred pages in hopes that things might get better. And no reader will either.

What I’ve expressed is my personal opinion. If I were an agent or acquisition editor, I would probably reject this manuscript and move on to the next one in line.

So what do you think? After reading the first page, are you compelled to read the second page?

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  1. First of all, thank you for the kind words and congratulations. This is my first nom for any of the majors, so I confess to being pretty jazzed.

    As for the manuscript, I agree with most of what Joe said in his comments, with the exception of the change to first person. As a third-person writer myself, I remain convinced that with enough swagger in the prose, third person is equally as personal and compelling as first.

    My suggestion to the author would be to kill the first three or four paragraphs and begin with Marcus finding the body. Something like,

    Until he found the dead guy smeared all over the side of his car, Marcus would have bet real money that his day could not have gotten worse.

    And Joe, you're dead-on about the backstory data dump. Those first few paragraphs, while well-written, feel like the warm up before the pitch, when we need to begin with the ball already on its way to the plate.

    One last point: I'd be really careful with the hooker and BJ analogy on the first page. It's an inherently off-putting image that is tolerable coming from a character we have already come to know, but feels unearned and gratuitous so early in the story. I told the same rule for all intimate body parts and the F-Bomb.

    John Gilstrap

  2. Hi Joe Moore and brave author who submitted this first page for critique. I love the idea of making this first person. I haven't conquered that pov yet myself but the changes you made Joe were right on the money.

    The other thing that bothered me about this piece is that I imgained a bustling city and lots of people. There's no mention of anyone else being around. I would want to know more about the surroundings in that case. I think this could work well with some changes.

    Also, this is such a great way to learn. Thanks for doing this. And major congratulations to John Gilstrap.

  3. Ditto to what's been said. When I see openings like this, I always take the writer as far into the scene as possible, to find the first place where a character is actually doing something. So I'd make the first line something like this:

    Marcus stepped off the curb and walked to the dead man.

  4. Big congrats to John on his nomination for this major award! I'll be rootin' for ya to bring it home!

    The critique: I like the title of this piece. A compelling title always piques my interest immediately. Joe, John and Jim identified the issues I was having as I read the page. I feel it is a diamond in the rough--it just needs some honing and rework to bring out the strength of the story and the character. The J's suggested three valid ways of doing that.

    I agree with the comment that one should avoid off-putting cliches like the $5 curbside service, at least at the beginning--unless, that is, you're going for comedic parody (a la "Airplane!")

    This is just my personal taste, not a rule: I don't care for dead bodies in the first paragraph. So many writers are pouring blood into the first line that it's becoming a bit cliche to me. But many, many successful books start that way, so maybe it's just me.

  5. Lots of great possibilities here. I'm with John (btw-go John! We'll be rooting for you), I'd keep this story in third person. And I would appropriate that first sentence he offered, that alone could sell a manuscript.

    I also agree that despite the fact that this is a noir piece, kicking off with the BJ analogy on page one is going to send most editors running for the hills. Even the masters usually hold off a bit at the outset. But I love the general tone. To reiterate what everyone else has already said: we don't need to find out that he's got a dead wife and daughter on p.1. All we really need to discover is that there's a dead guy on his car. And as Jill mentioned, there's very little actual setting description: what kind of car? Is it hot outside, or cold and rainy? What time of day is it? Why isn't anyone else around? Are we in the city, the country, or the burbs?
    I love the writing, though. Definitely has me intrigued.

  6. I actually agree with Joe - I think a first person POV would draw me in more too. I also agree with the backstory being parsed out later - though I would be intrigued (and not put off by the Marcus character) if (in first person) we got more attitude and a strong voice - that could overcome my initial dislike of him. I could then deal with a little bit more backstory. Nonetheless I am intrigued:) which is always a great start. If there was to be more description, my preference would be to have it from a first person POV as this would add to the voice and character as we saw the city etc. through his eyes.

    That's my 5c worth:) Congrats to John too on his well deserved nomination!

  7. I like the third person POV for this, but I also found it very infodumpy. The sentence structures themselves tend to be short and choppy which doesn't suit the tone of the piece. If I find myself paying more attention to grammatical structure than the story I'm concerned. I also found it interesting that he's going to move a body so someone can find it for proper burial without even a thought as to his fingerprints being on the corpse, or the death otherwise coming back to haunt him. There are a couple of major reasons why people call the police when they find things like this. They want someone else to clean it up and make it go away, they want the right thing to be done and they do NOT want to catch blame for it. Calling in is usually the first step towards distancing yourself from suspicion.

    As well I couldn't 'see' the scene very well. It'd be easy to add more subtle description so that the reader can get a better picture of what's going on.

    I can see from the talk about getting the dead man a proper burial that the character is supposed to be likable, but, as others have mentioned, the other details we get about him don't push me to care about his story or why he's doing what he's doing.

    Good luck.


  8. What they said.

    I think it could be good in either 1st or 3rd POV, but for 1st POV it has to be really good for me to get into it. I'd have to totally identify with Marcus. The fact that he is familiar with the quality of the $5 menu in redlightville indicates I cannot identify with him and would not want to shake his hand without a body condom and a self contained filtration breathing apparatus, let alone become so intimate as to get inside his head.

  9. Oh....and hey John G.

    WOOT!! Oorah! Buyah! and Yeah Baby!

    That's just spiffy!

  10. I'm anxious to hear if any of the fine Killzone authors use 1st & 3rd in the same novel? While I think Joe's 1st person rewrite does gget us closer, can it be sustained throughout the story.

  11. Wilfred - I just completed a 1st POV story but it is YA so that probably makes a difference. Althought it took much longer for me to 'find' the right voice for my character after that I found 1st POV was easily sustainable.

  12. I'm the author of this piece and wanted to say thank you for the critiques, opinions, and suggestions everyone has made. It definitely gives me a lot to think about when I get ready to edit the novel. Also a big thank you for doing this, it is such a great opportunity for us to get advice from published authors. You're all aces in my book!