Monday, April 30, 2012

Today's Critique

Today's first page critique is entitled: DEAD ON THE VINE. My comments follow, but overall I think today's piece raises issues specifically dealing with voice, setting and tone...more on that after the piece:

            Chief TR Henderson tried to maintain an appearance of competence and dignity as he approached the conference table for the meeting, but the chair groaned when he sat down, and Commissioner Dale Kirkpatrick flashed him the stink eye. Splendid. He was still at the top of her Stink List.
            “You’re late.” Commissioner Rick Petit didn’t bother looking up from his notes.
            “My apologies,” TR replied. “I stopped to help a disabled on Second Ave.” The smell of coffee and croissants called to him, but he resisted. Instead, he tried getting comfortable on the metal folding chair. It wasn’t going to happen. The commissioners all sat in padded chairs, forming a firing squad on the other side of a conference table the size of Rhode Island, and they stuck their mammoth chief of police in a folding chair. Classy.
            Kirkpatrick maintained her narrow-eyed glare, now directed at the fresh spot of motor oil on TR’s shirt.
He couldn’t be more delighted with the attention.
            Petit finally looked up. “Thanks for coming. You know this isn’t easy for any of us.”
            TR nodded.
            “The drug problem is growing worse.” Petit glanced at his notes before continuing. “We want to know what you’re doing about it.”
            Simple enough question. “Officer Mendoza is—”
            “What are you doing about it?” Kirkpatrick demanded.
            “I put my best officer on it,” he responded. “Mendoza’s got fifteen years of experience dealing with—”
            “That’s great,” Petit said, “but what’s he doing now? When’s he going to arrest Lester Rowley?”
            TR sat back and fought to keep a smile from cracking. “We have no proof that Lester Rowley has anything to do with the drug trade at the high school.”

My comments:
Overall, this first page didn't grab me. I found the tone a little inconsistent and the humor unsure of itself. The use of 'stink eye' and 'stink list' and asides like 'classy' are, I assume, designed to create a slightly smart-arse/wise guy tone but I didn't really get that - instead it seemed a bit juvenile given the caliber of the men in the room (all police commissioners). I also didn't really understand where we were - it sounds like a board room, with coffee, croissants and a massive conference table - yet all the commissioners are in comfy chairs and TR gets a metal folding chair (? really? I couldn't picture this) and it was a metal chair that groaned when he sat down in it (which seems a very un-metallic word - wouldn't it squeak, clang or grind?). 

The dialogue also seems unsure of itself - why does Petit say "You know this isn't easy for any of us"? Surely a drug problem at a high school is hardly an overwhelming issue and also why does TR fight to keep a smile from cracking when he says there's no proof Lester Rowley has anything to do with the drug trade? Again, as a reader I am unsure whether this is supposed to be serious, slightly tongue-in-cheek or what. So far the author's voice and tone aren't clear to me. Nor is the setting (apart from a generic conference room that I couldn't really picture). I need to be able to visualize the setting as well as the characters not merely be told that the Chief of police tried to 'maintain an appearance of competence and dignity' - how? What did he do? Did he straighten his jacket, look wisely over his glasses?? I had a hard time picturing him or the other commissioners in the room.

Though this first page had references to some kind of ongoing issue between TR and  Commissioner Dale Kirkpatrick I don't get a sufficient sense of tension to care - nor am I really compelled to read on as yet. In short, I think this first page needs a clearer voice and tone, a stronger sense of place and character and a big dose of drama and tension. At the moment it feels too uncertain and too passive to be compelling.

What do you think?


  1. Yeah, I have to disagree with you about this piece, Clare. The dialogue was pretty on point as far as I'm concerned. The sarcasm is about right for a bunch of battle-weary cops. Very rarely do you stay in a gig like that for any extended period of time and not develop a serious case of gallows humor.

    The setting, to me anyway, was clearly a disciplinary board of inquiry. Hence the line "This isn't easy for any of us", some of the commissioners may consider TR a friend, or at least classmate from the police academy or something. That's an interesting point about the chair noise descriptor, but groaned worked for me. And definitely more detail about what the room looked like, felt like, couldn't hurt. But I had no problem visualizing a conference room.

    Also, I suspect that the smile after the Lester Rawley comment is probably explained later, but to me it was obvious Rawley is not what he appears to be and TR knows it.

    This piece could do with some more internal dialogue from TR as the questions are asked probably, to heighten the tension a bit, but other than that I think it's fine. I'd keep reading.

  2. Clare's critique and Fletch's comment demonstrate something interesting about this piece. It is both a plus and a minus. This first page has an "inside baseball" quality about it.

    As a small midwestern town lawyer, I got it immediately. It rang true and dead on. I've been to these meetings in non-descript basement rooms that serve for courtrooms, commission meetings, storm shelters, and community reception halls. And the court/commission does get big comfy chairs while the rest make do with folding metal or plastic.

    There's motive behind these commissioners' actions and it is small town motive. A ladies' group is complaining. A prominent citizen who lives close to the high school. The mayor's daughter was arrested hot-rodding with Lester. Hard to say at this point, but I was compelled.

    But, therein is some of the problem. If the niche audience is too narrow, then the work leaves a larger group cold.

    Fun page! Terri

  3. The plus is that this is a real scene, with real conflict in it. That's always the way to start.

    The writing needs tightening. The first sentence, for example, tries to do to much.

    A minor tweak, but one that editors and agents seem to increasingly notice: speaker attributions should almost always be "said" or "asked." replied and responded and demanded are redundant. Using "said" as your default will give a much crisper feel to this, which is what you want.

  4. So from the previous two posts, if you are in the field, it's pretty straightforward. I'm not in the field and found myself in between the original review and those that followed it easily.

    An easy initial fix - specify the type of meeting the first paragraph. "..approached the conference table for the (disciplinary hearing/ethics board/internal investigation/etc)

    I was lost on a couple things that are a touch minor. Got lost in the genders initially. I'm not used to females named Dale. Also didn't realize what the grease spot was initially. Thought because of the craving for croissants it might have been a breakfast instead of helping the 'disabled', Then on my second read I realized it was motor grease and a disabled vehicle.

    With respect the asides. Stink List is a bit cliche. And 'as big as Rhode island' seemed paradoxical to me. Why chose the smallest state in the nation to express a large size, why not 'as big as Alaska?'

    In the end, I'd keep reading. There's some good early tension between characters and a hint at an overall quality story.

  5. I liked the hints we received about our ? protagonist lawman. I got the impression that he is overweight and struggles to look good. Additionally he does not appear cowed by the board members nor apologetic in manner. We know he is experienced (15 yrs plus) and he helps folks out(I agree with Nate W. on uncertainty with the'disabled' reference but like the helping, hands-on by the chief).
    The smile confused me - drugs not a funny topic for the police chief. Perhaps the basis for the smile revealed in next sentence. The character's voice might be a little overdone for the first page but I think I like where it's going (irreverent, independent, funny).
    I did not appreciate that this was a disciplinary meeting but more of a community concern meeting. i like the notion of the board being in the chief's face and he weathering the assault as he advances cleverly on the problem.
    Thought other points mentioned cogent and particularly those of Nate W.
    In sum, for me, the potential for an interesting character. Hoping that the conflict/stakes are ratcheted up (I'm sure they will be)
    I would read on.

  6. This piece worked really well for me. I get from it that TR is good at what he does, and is politically savvy enough to keep his job despite a lack of regard for his superiors. He knows he's going to be judged by people whose opinions don't matter to him. In only one page, you've managed to make me like him. He's a guy who sees helping a citizen whose car is broken as more important than a disciplinary hearing. (My guess is that this is not his first meeting of this kind.)

    I hope that his girth will pay off in the story. Rather than referring to himself as "mammoth", I think you should consider having him regard the others as skinny. Or maybe breakable.

    The setting worked for me, but Clare makes a great point regarding the business of maintaining "an appearance of competence and dignity." You could easily describe actions that convey his efforts.

    This first page brings me right into the story, making me want more. Well done.

    John Gilstrap

  7. About the drug thing and Lester. This is very small/medium town.

    Everybody knows who the cookers/pushers are, or at least, thinks they know. So, it is a constant, "why isn't Billy Bob in jail, I tell the sheriff at every Rotary Club meeting and that [insert clever expletive] is still out running around . . . I swear, they must either be stupid of on the take . . . (and so on and so forth)." Little things like probable cause and evidence are meaningless when you "just know" he's guilty.


  8. My thought: this is not the first page for this book. This is a scene midway through the first or second chapter. Too much is already happening that has not been explained.

    Why doesn't the author start us someplace more dramatic and tense? So that by the time we get to this room, we're clear!
    IMHO, of course. :)

  9. Thanks everyone - goes to show that everyone has a different take on a piece and what seems less compelling for some is great for others. This obviously didn't grab me but I am pleased that it appealed to some of you. Hopefully the author gets some useful feedback from this.