Wednesday, April 20, 2011

First-page critique: THE MARONITE

By Joe Moore

We’re getting down to the end of critiquing our anonymous first-page submissions. This one is called THE MARONITE. Enjoy the sample. My comments follow.

A bullet whizzed past his head as he ran down the alley. Somewhere else in the city, the sound of a gunshot would have prompted someone to call to the police. Not here, and definitely not at this hour. The man looked back, his three-piece suit sprinkled with blood. They weren’t far behind.

Fuck! They’re trying to make it look like a mugging.

The thirty-something got to the street, finally reaching his car. He shoved his right hand into his trouser pocket, frantic, his usually carefully coifed hair falling into his eyes. He wiped at the blood and sweat on his forehead. Earlier, the two men had tried to knock him out and failed. Those Krav Maga classes at Chelsea Piers had saved his life, for now. Desperate, he unlocked his car, and then, as his attackers emerged from the alley at a full sprint, dove into the driver’s seat.

Anyone could have easily mistaken the would-be killers for professional football players or ex-military, trained to kill. Both had hefty athletic builds and were over six feet tall. They’d been caught off-guard by their prey’s martial abilities when they had tried to pistol whip him near the front of his building. They wouldn’t make the same mistake twice, though. Those bonuses were too big, and they wanted them too badly. The assailant on the left broke off and situated himself in the street, diagonally from the car. He trained his pistol on the driver while his partner tried to keep their victim from closing his door. But it slammed shut and locked.

They’d failed again.

The driver turned the ignition.

The car revved.

His hand tingled as he pushed the gear shift into first. He watched the tachometer flicker then looked up. It seemed like only a few milliseconds between the explosion from the pistol’s barrel and the sound of windshield glass popping. The bullet hit him in the chest. He could feel the heat as the metal sank into a lung. Blood started rushing out onto his shirt and tie. He let go of the parking brake, disengaging it.

First, the good news. This is a heck of an opening scene. It has strong visuals, a solid sense of place, and enough tension to fill any reader’s plate. The situation is dire. We don’t know who “thirty-something” is—that’s a cliché, by the way—but by the end of the page, we’re all holding our collective breath. It would be hard to imagine someone putting this one down without turning the page. I know I would keep reading to find out if he makes it or not. So overall, I consider this an excellent, attention-grabbing start to an action-packed thriller (or mystery).

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a couple of things that bugged me about this example. It’s something we’ve discussed before, but I would refrain from dropping the F-bomb on the first page. Now, granted, if this gets published, anyone that picks up the book has already seen the cover and read the back blurb. So if the marketing department did their job well, the language might not be an issue to the potential customer. But there are a whole lot of folks out there who would see that and put the book back down. If the F-bomb was removed, would it change the story? Would it change the character?

Another thing is that there’s a good bit of telling here, and I don’t think it’s needed. Telling us that the guy is frantic and desperate is redundant to the man’s actions. This scene is so frantic and desperate, we don’t need the writer to say, “Hey, just in case you didn’t get it, let me remind you that my guy is frantic and desperate.” We get it.

Finally, I would shift the last few sentences into a more active voice and eliminate the last few words. Here’s my suggested rewrite:

He felt the hot metal sink into a lung. Blood rushed onto his shirt and tie as he released the parking brake.

Overall, I think this is a promising beginning that just needs a little editing and clean-up. Good job.

So what do you guys think? Would you keep reading?


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  1. First off, I really liked it too, but I had a hard time getting a grip on the POV...It could just be me, but sometimes it felt kind of deep POV and I felt like I was with the victim and then I felt pulled out and overlooking like I was omniscient. I felt a bit bounced around and a little discombobulated.

  2. Chaco Kid, I agree. The first time I read the piece, I thought there was a POV shift from the victim to the attackers, and included a comment in my critique. Then I took it out after I went back and reread the piece a couple more times. Even though it's a stretch, everything could be considered in the character's POV. But you're right, we're inside his head with the italicized inter thought, then the camera pulls back into omniscient POV. I suggest the author address this during the rewrite.

  3. I agree with Joe, this is a promising opening. I also agree with Joe and Chaco that there is a POV conundrum. This is told in omniscient POV which is out of fashion at the moment, esp. for thrillers. The author, of course, is free to choose it. But this scene would be more gripping, to me at least, if told in close 3d Person.

    The reason it's Omniscient is by default: there are things only an "above the action" narrator would say. E.g.,

    Somewhere else in the city, the sound of a gunshot would have prompted someone to call to the police. Not here, and definitely not at this hour.

    This is the author's voice, not something the character, in these extreme circumstances, would be thinking. I'd cut it. You could convey this information via character thoughts or inner-life narration.

    The thirty-something got to the street, finally reaching his car.

    The character would not think of himself as a "thirty-something." This description comes, again, from the omniscient narrator.

    Earlier, the two men had tried to knock him out and failed.

    Would the character be pausing to reflect on this? It's a bit of narrative flashback. It's the narrator giving information to the reader.

    The entire paragraph beginning with Anyone could... is omniscient. For example, how would our hero know about the bonuses? How would he be observing all the maneuvers of two different men when he's diving into a car, etc?

    As Joe rightly points out, this opening has great promise. It has an opening hook. (However, and this will be a surprise to no one: I agree about cutting that F bomb).

    Re-writing this in close 3d will really improve the page.

  4. This is mine. Question for you all, if the internal monologue was out, would you still have the same POV issues, do you think? And thanks for the advice about the F-bomb.

  5. Thanks for submitting your first page, Fletch. I think you have a good start here, and I wish you great luck with it. To answer you question, yes, it would help. But the bigger question is: do you want the reader to sympathize with the guy being shot at. At this point we don't know if he's your main character, but if he is, I would suggest staying in his head and forget about explaining why he's being chased. It's more important to see that he's threatened and trying to escape with his life. Relate the action and your character's reaction to it. We'll find out all about the bonuses and other stuff later. Ask yourself, what would you be thinking if you were in the same situation. Remember Jim's often-quoted line: Act first, explain later.

    And Jim, thanks for the great dissection on the POV issues.

  6. Good point, Joe. Unfortunately, he's not the main character and the information I'm providing is essential to understanding certain elements of the story further on. I very intentionally never mention them again. What do you suggest in this instance?

  7. Fletch, yes. I would still have the same issues. And I would actually put in more internality. That's what "close" 3d person means. For example:

    Desperate, he unlocked his car, and then, as his attackers emerged from the alley at a full sprint, dove into the driver’s seat. Anyone could have easily mistaken the would-be killers for professional football players or ex-military, trained to kill.

    Do you see that the part about his attackers emerging conflicts with him "diving" into the car? (I don't think you want him going in head first, so I'd change that image). Here's a quick stab at an alternative:

    He fumbled for his keys, hit the fob. Click. He jerked the door open and threw himself behind the wheel. As he did his eye caught a huge shadow shooting out of the alley. Football player size. Why him? Why?

    Make sense? Only what HE can see and only what HE would think. Would he really think of his carefully coiffed hair? Etc.

  8. Scratch that. I don't mention them again until the denoument of the story.

  9. Fletch, I just read your last comment. Now we have another problem. This turns your first page into a functional prologue. I don't know enough about your story to advise you, except that prologues are frowned upon these days because editors see so many misuses of it. This may be such a case. If the information is never intentionally mentioned later, why do this?

    Anyway, even if this is not the "main" character there is still no reason to do it in omniscient. The immediacy of it will be improved in close 3d person even if this character never shows up again.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Jim, this scene is the driver for the entire story. It doesn't happen. The story doesn't happen. So what the reader is seeing is the event that sets the ball in motion. I've had two professional editors and another professional author look at it, and they've all told me to keep it. By the way, the driver dies before the end of the next page. There is action that goes on after he dies. So I'm not sure how I can write close third-person without having to leave info on the cutting room floor. Suggestions?

  12. Fletch, that's terrific news that you've had other professionals review your work and like it. You're already way ahead of the game. Naturally, all we have to go on is the sample you submitted. And I also commend you for stepping forward to claim it and ask for additional feedback. In the end, this is your story. Only you know everything about it. Based upon your submission, we have pointed out what we feel would improve on what's already a good start.

    So, to answer you latest question, if the guy dies on the next page, but all this is critical, do either one of the bad guys play a role in the story that would be more than a walk-on? If so, one option would be to tell this scene through his POV. Just a suggestion.

  13. Got it. Thanks again, for the feedback.

  14. It's hard to assess in comments, Fletch. I'm not sure I understand how this drives the story if it "does not happen," etc.

    If there is indeed some reason to keep it, and this character dies soon, then I would either tell it from the POV of one of the assassins (close 3d) OR tell it in a purely cinematic fashion and NOT go into ANYONE'S head. Cinematic is a form of omniscience where you describe as it would appear on the screen visually. You can "cross cut" then, but not give us a POV character.

    This opening will confuse the reader. They are always looking for the WHO to care about in a scene. This gives a little, takes a little.

    Again, I can only advise about "cutting room floor" if I knew all the details of the story, but that is beyond the purview of this opening page exercise.

    Thanks for being open about it.

  15. Jim, thank you for the feedback. I think you misunderstood what I was saying previously. If this scene doesn't happen, then the story doesn't happen was what I meant.

    I think cinematic will have to be the way to go.

  16. This is an exciting first page and it grabbed my attention. But as Chaco first pointed out, the POV issue could pull the reader out of the story.

    If the victim is a dead end, then how about showing the scene from the POV of one of the hitmen? You could even start with the initial ambush, then the chase to the car, and the final gunshots.

  17. One way to keep a close 3rd person POV (which seems to be the theme of these comments :-)) Would be to start the story a bit earlier.

    I would do this:

    Start the story with your protag in a bad part of town. He feels like he is being followed. Then he is attacked. You could show that he has ninja-like reflexes from his martial arts training. He manages to escape and the story picks up where your submission starts.

    This would string out the tension a bit, give you a chance to show the back story instead of telling it, but not lose any of the excitement and keep the POV tight.

  18. Fletch: I really enjoyed this and would definitely keep reading but I too kind of stumbled over the point of view thing. I felt as though we were inside the head of the guy who was fleeing and then things changed abruptly and I felt like I wasn't sure who I was supposed to identify with. Right at "They'd been caught off guard . . . " is where I felt like it shifted POV and I wasn't expecting it. I like the idea of doing a close 3rd person with one of the hitmen. Of course I'm only saying this stuff based on this sample--I don't know what comes after and of course you are the writer and should be comfortable with what you're doing in the scene. But I did want to say as a reader, this was very suspenseful and really sucked me in! I would most definitely keep reading.

  19. This has me picturing Boondox Saints. Sounds like an interesting read when its done.

  20. Thanks for all the positive feedback, everyone. I was kinda hoping Michelle, JG, or JRM would tear this apart. But, oh well.

    This story was inspired by a real SEC fine for half a billion dollars against an investment bank that committed securities fraud. Its the largest civil fine in US history. I've already finished the manuscript. The POV thing in the first chapter was the last issue I had with it. Which is why I submitted. I'm gonna have to go with Jim's recommendation of a cinematic scene. Close 3rd person will not work, unfortunately.

    My current WIP is a modern day reimagining of the life of a real female ninja from the 16th century. Rest assured, if or when the next round of first page critiques occur, I will submit that first page as well.

    Thanks again, everyone!

  21. Joe, Jim or others -

    Good learning points.

    I've heard the "cinematic" also referred to as the "fly on the wall" POV.

    Any thoughts on ease, advisability or cautions regarding mixing "fly on the wall" POV scenes/chapters with close third POV content?

  22. All right, why am I being lumped in with the harsh critics? Really, I'm such a marshmallow...

    I think this was by and large fantastic. Really compelling, very visual, everything I look for in an opening page.

    That being said, I agree with Joe re: the F bomb. Most of the critical Amazon reviews I've received (and a lot of fan mail) complain about that. I believe it has a place, but the first page is a risky place to put it.

    Also, common error (and one that I always make): go back through and eliminate "started/to"and "began/ to" everywhere they appear before a verb. It dilutes the immediacy of the action taking place.

    I'd also trim a bit of the description. "usually carefully coifed hair" drew me out of the action.
    But all in all, a job very well done.
    There. That was nice, wasn't it?

  23. Thanks for the input, Michelle. I wasn't trying to say you were harsh, not at all. I enjoy your work as I do JG & JRM's, so I was quite curious to hear your opinion. It would've been fine if you had been torn it to shreds, seriously, as long as I had some meat to work with after.

  24. tjc,

    The cinematic POV is very much a "fly on the wall" idea. I prefer the camera/movie analogy, because you can do cross cutting that way (I'd leave a white space between quick cuts to different locations).

    The Maltese Falcon is done in this POV. It's rare, maybe best reserved for the hardboiled school. Even so, it lacks the intimacy and "heat" of a close POV, which is why it isn't used all that much. It doesn't give us thought life, and that's preferred in today's fiction.

    I could see a use for it in something like this piece, if it is indeed a necessary scene. But I'd drop into a POV in the next chapter.

    Perhaps one could use it from time to time in the middle of a book, for suspense purposes.

  25. Hey Fletch. Nice start. Plenty to like and your writing style would hold my interest. I don't have much to add to the thorough comments you've already gotten, except that your beginning reminded me of the start to my second book. Not so much the details, but the reasons you gave for beginning where you did.

    I had an opening to my novel, NO ONE LEFT TO TELL, where I had a hitman tricked to show up to an abandoned warehouse thinking he had a new client, but he got hunted in a very dark maze by men far worse than he was. I kept the POV with him--until he got his throat cut--because I wanted the reader to root for him getting away, setting up the reader for the characters that were to follow with questionable morals. Nothing would be black or white after that first scene.

    And similar to your situation, this killing instigated the action to follow. But at the end of that first scene, I introduced the guy who killed the hitman. He would be the nasty number two man working for a powerful crime boss who hired him. This henchman transitioned the action beyond my dead guy and suggested different motives that added to the mystery unraveling. I didn't introduce the man behind the killing until chapters later, to keep the suspense going.

    I don't know if any of this helps, but good luck with your project.

  26. Thanks, Jordan. That does help. Like you, I wanted the reader to root for the guy trying to get away, and then I'd kill him, basically showing how high the stakes are in the rest of the story.

  27. Jan Burke, in her book FLIGHT, killed off her male protag halfway through the book. It was devastating for me as a reader, but she replaced him with an equally intriguing investigator. I remember admiring her guts as an author. And obviously, I never forgot the book.

  28. It's a very fast-moving opening, overflowing with excitement. But the POV issue bothers me.

    What jumped out at me was the issue of the attackers wanting their bonuses. It seemed totally irrelevant to the central character's actions and motivations, to say nothing of being completely out of his POV.

    Also, a gunshot wound in the chest is nearly always fatal. So when I see our hero take one in the chest, I immediately think he's a goner, and therefore not really the central character. This is unfairly stringing the reader along. If he does in fact survive, it seems too miraculous to be true.

  29. I believe Fletch informs that the individual dies.

    But , just to set the record straight, individuals shot in the chest frequently survive if they get emergency care rapidly.

    Surprisingly, if heart or great vessels are missed, an emergency chest tube procedure performed in the ER in a matter of minutes,can be essentially definitive surgical care.

    Regarding survival, in general, many ER docs and trauma surgeons cynically suggest that the bigger the criminal/jerk/a-hole the more likely they are to survive high mortality injury. Danged if it doesn't seem true.

    Jim - thanks for the comments on cinematic POV

  30. I'm a bit late to this party, but I wanted to add something that no one else mentioned.

    First, something that Mike Dennis mentioned. The bit about the bonuses threw me. Up until that point, I was OK reading through. At that point I got lost. Sounds like you're going more cinematic so you can keep it, but delete it otherwise.

    The part no one else mentioned, and I'm not sure how useful my mentioning it can be at this point, is about your paragraphs. I think the bonus sentence should end the current paragraph. Start a new one after it. I noticed Jim (Or Joe?) mentioned rearranging some sentences toward the end of your submission and I'd encourage you to do that too.

    I have a similar writing style so getting the POV right is tricky for me too, but I've found that when my paragraphs are all clear then the POV tends to flow more naturally.

    Happy writing. I definitely want to keep reading.