Wednesday, April 18, 2012

First-page critique of LISTEN TO ME

By Joe Moore

Today we kick off our annual first-page critiques marathon. This is where we invite you guys to submit the first page (350 words max) of your WIP. We’ll take turns featuring a submission on our blog posting day and offer comments. In general, this is not meant to be a line editing exercise although suggestions on misspelling, improper punctuation, and other obvious errors are sometimes included. Instead, what we try to determine is our personal first impressions on story content, hooking the reader, establishing voice, creating a setting, developing characters, and any other advice that we hope will help the anonymous author move forward toward attracting the attention of an agent or editor.

Today, the first page is from a story called LISTEN TO ME. Join me at the end of the sample for my reaction and notes.

As he sinks slowly into the chair across from me, he looks just like a doctor should -- greying hair, a well-trimmed beard with badger stripes framing his lips, and wire-rimmed glasses his wife must have chosen. They're far too tasteful compared to the terrible shirt he's wearing. On the plus side, his smile seems genuine.

"How are you feeling about today, Stacy?" His voice is too loud for the muted tones of the room - - all earthy browns and soft corners. It's his office, but he's tried to make it look like a living room. There's a broad coffee table between us, and lamps on the tables at our sides. Too bad the external door has a combination lock. Kind of kills the good-time vibe.

He's waiting for an answer. I start shrug, then freeze in place until the razors of pain ease. My stitches are all out now, but the hard pink lines spider webbing across most of my upper body are just the flag of truce for healing. Underneath I am still many layers of mangled nerve endings and fractured flesh.

Doctor hears me catch my breath and his eyes snap to mine. All that beguiling distinterest is an act. He is measuring me.

"Pain?" he says, softly this time.

"Yes. But it's not so bad. I just moved wrong." It burns and crackles under my skin until I want to scream. But I won't tell him that. He may measure me as wanting.

I will get out of here today.

His lips press together, barely visible under the curtain of heavy mustache. But after a second he smiles again. Planting his hands on his knees, he creaks to his feet, speaking as he turns to reach behind his chair.

Overall, this is pretty good storytelling. There’s a lot of mystery and unanswered questions already forming in my head. I immediately wanted to know more about Stacy, what brought her into what looks like an exit interview with the doctor, what kind of place is she being released from, why is there a combination lock on the door, and most of all, what caused her extensive and dramatic injuries. The setting is developed well as is the uneasy relationship between Stacy and the doctor. Tension is present right from the start.

Now lets take a look at the text again and I’ll include some specific impressions:

As he sinks slowly into the chair across from me, he looks just like a doctor should --

How should a doctor look? Instead, just describe him as having greying hair, a well-trimmed beard with badger stripes framing his lips, and wire-rimmed glasses his wife must have chosen. They're far too tasteful compared to the terrible shirt he's wearing.

I’m not sure what a “terrible” shirt is.  Florescent, day-glow, Hawaiian, animal skin, camouflage? Tell us why it’s “terrible”.

On the plus side, his smile seems genuine.

"How are you feeling about today, Stacy?" His voice is too loud for the muted tones of the room - - all earthy browns and soft corners. It's his office, but he's tried to make it look like a living room. There's a broad coffee table between us, and lamps on the tables at our sides. Too bad the external door has a combination lock. Kind of kills the good-time vibe.

You didn’t describe a place that has a “good-time vibe”. Unless you’re being sarcastic, in which case we don’t know yet what Stacy’s personality is, so good-time vibe doesn’t really work here.

He's waiting for an answer. I start to shrug, then freeze in place until the razors of pain ease. My stitches are all out now, but the hard pink lines spider webbing across most of my upper body are just the flag of truce for healing. Underneath I am still many layers of mangled nerve endings and fractured flesh.

Flesh is soft. I’m not sure if you can fracture soft flesh. Perhaps torn would be better?

The Doctor hears me catch my breath and his eyes snap to mine. All that beguiling distinterest is an act. He is measuring me.

"Pain?" he says, softly this time.

"Yes. But it's not so bad. I just moved wrong." It burns and crackles under my skin until I want to scream.

Is “crackles” really the best word choice here?

But I won't tell him that. He may measure me as wanting.

I will get out of here today.

His lips press together, barely visible under the curtain of heavy mustache.

I don’t think “a well-trimmed beard with badger stripes framing his lips” works visually with “barely visible under the curtain of a heavy mustache”.

But after a second he smiles again. Planting his hands on his knees, he creaks to his feet, speaking as he turns to reach behind his chair.

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My advice about the typo (distinterest for disinterest) and a missing word (I start to shrug): Rule number one before submitting anything to anyone for review: Proof read it. Then get someone else to proof it. Finally, check and double check it again. A typo on the first page of a manuscript can be deadly.

Like I said, this is pretty good storytelling. A cleanup and edit would solve the minor issues I raised. I like the way the author is building suspense right out of the gate. I would not hesitate to read on and see what happens next. Thanks for submitting this, and good luck.

How about you guys? Do you agree with my critique? Any other comments? Would you keep reading this manuscript based on the first page?

14 comments:

  1. I was immediately pulled into the story itself. Interested in finding out what this lady (assuming Stacy is a femme) has done that apparently landed her in a psych ward somewhere.

    The badger stripes description was pretty cool. Clean, and trim, but the shirt and room decor indicate he's faking. I'd keep reading.

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  2. Thanks for doing this exercise. I can't wait to read more of the critiques - how exciting!

    For the most part I agree with your critique, Joe. It's wonderful storytelling and I'm drawn in, and I want to read more.

    I caught the typos too - those are an easy fix.

    The sentence about the flesh crackling actually worked for me. It's the exact opposite of what flesh does, but scars like that, as they heal into hideous fibrous things, do crackle. I felt Stacy's pain more with the word crackle because it's not what normal skin feels like.

    I want to know what happened to her, and if she'll get to the other side of that combination lock.

    Paula

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  3. I would read on. A wound is a great place to start because it grabs your interest.

    I agree with the comments about proofing. It can cause a person to put down the manuscript fairly quickly.

    I'm only just getting used to present tense, some is done well and some is still a bit jarring for me unless I'm seriously immersed.

    Nice job!

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  4. I agree that, typos aside, this is good writing. Great, actually. Although, I don't believe writing in first person POV should ever be done in present tense. First person is employed to make the reader feel like the protagonist is sitting with them having a chat. Some of that intimacy gets lost in present tense. But hey, that's just me. Take it with a grain of salt.

    Anyway, I like the writing, but I disagree that it's a good opening. This is the beginning of a second chapter. There needs to be an inciting incident before it. Doesn't mean the writer has to put in a bunch of action or anything, or that she has to reveal how Stacy got into his/her current predicament, but it just seems like the writer is trying too hard to start the story in the middle. Begin at the beginning. I'd pass on this book if I read this introductory sequence in a store or on Amazon.

    The writer might want to look at her diction again too. She uses table twice six words apart. And everything is too something. Too tasteful. Too loud. Too bad. Change it up a bit. Play with the prose. For example, instead of the pedestrian razors of pain ease, perhaps say vicious raw gnawing dissipates, or something to that effect. Maybe even indicate the pain localization. That kind of extra illustration will really make a difference in a piece that seems already pretty damn good.

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  5. Also, since this is a first person narrative, I'd like to see more unique voice in the narration, quips and asides. There's definitely opportunity for that, like where Stacy notifies the reader that the doctor is only pretending to be disengaged. Why doesn't Stacy make a personal comment about that? She/he is among friends (the audience). This doc is poking and prodding him/her for what seems to be the umpteenth time. Most of us would have an opinion about something like that.

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  6. I try to look at how much I can cut out of a piece and still make it have the same impact.

    The first paragraph could get to just two sentences. I cut the shirt stuff altogether.
    The doctor with the badger striped beard sinks into the chair and smiles. It seems genuine.

    I thought the second paragraph is also a touch heavy on description. I'd go directly from soft corners to the combo lock. There's a theme that's emerged of warm appearance with a looming threat that I really like in this piece.

    Cut the flag of truce for healing - not sure what that even means.

    I'd cut the stuff after "his eyes snap to mine" and go right to "Pain?"

    I'd axe the "he may measure me as wanting" comment. this is a cool moment because now the narrator is playing the game of illusion.


    All in all, very successful in creating tension. And I totally agree with the original critiques.

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  7. I wasn't particularly grabbed by the first paragraph. The second was where I started to get pulled in.

    I think the physical description of the doctor and the room can wait just a little bit. Get us to the conflict/tension/problem right away, then fill in.

    Joe's comments on word choice and proofreading are dead on (appropriate for TKZ, no?).

    Good start!

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  8. I thought this was a lovely, hard-working opening that raised a lot of great story questions and had a strong undercurrent of tension. Stacy is characterized such that I made an immediate empathic connection. The degree of touchy/feely characterization of her is balanced by an equal degree of touchy/feely description of the setting--no more and no less. It's the promise of things to come. We're going to see the heart of this character, not just a lot of action sequences.

    The setting is more than just the setting here. Because it's a setting designed by the shrink, it characterizes him. Then we have Stacy's reaction to both his manipulations and to the setting itself to help characterize Stacy. Nicely done getting that much out of just 350 words. I would definitely read more.

    And yes, thanks to the Kill Zone authors for doing this!

    Kathy

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  9. I like this too, for the reason Joe mentioned. There are unanswered questions (mystery) and that's a good thing. Makes me want to know what's going on.

    Re: the good vibe section, I see the writer wanting to counterpoint the "soft" comfortable office with the combo lock. I would therefore cut the line about the vibe. Why? RUE--resist the urge to explain. Let the reader get the picture, thus:

    ..all earthy browns and soft corners. It's his office, but he's tried to make it look like a living room. There's a broad coffee table between us, and lamps on the tables at our sides. Too bad the external door has a combination lock.

    Boom. Leave it there. The picture is immediately contradictory, and the narrator need say no more. We don't need the "tell."

    I would also do as Joe suggests and look at the word choices. I had to think twice about the doc "creaking" to his feet. Reminded me of the Tin Man, and I don't think that was intended.

    But a promising opening for sure.

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  10. Thanks to the anonymous author for submitting the first page of LISTEN TO ME for critique. And also thanks to everyone who took the time to comment.

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  11. It's the Anonymous Author here. Thank you all. So much! This is incredibly helpful.

    Thank you TKZ for such a rich experience!

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  12. I have to be humble, I read my sub for the umptieth time and the typo shrieked at me. Of course this was after I had hit enter at proof umptieth minus one.

    Nice opening gambit. I agree on some streamlining and put the locked door to the forefront. Love the odd wounds.

    In the crit that said "the external door has a combination lock," you can cut to the chase even faster, " . . .the only door had a combination lock."

    Nicely done! Terri

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  13. Good opening. Pulls you in and intriguing enough to keep reading.

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  14. I was hooked on this one. I want to know who, why, where and how come!!

    I agree with word choice on some descriptives, but otherwise, this work is intriguing. If the rest is as good as the first, I could see this book going movie.

    I wish the author every success.

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