Nathan Bransford, Author


Friday, July 6, 2012

Page Critique Friday and the Importance of Patience

It's been way too long since we've done one of these!

In fact, so long that you might not know how these work. Here goes.

If you would like to nominate your page for a future Page Critique Event, please enter it in this thread in the Forums.

First I'll present the page without comment, then I'll offer my thoughts and a redline. As you offer your thoughts, please be exceedingly polite and remember the sandwich rule: Positive, constructive advice, positive.

Random numbers were generated, and congrats to coloradokid, whose page is below.
An Illusion of Justice
Part I

[Prologue]
The first cut was not intended to kill.
But it was effective. Imagine the paper cut you get on your finger – but seven inches long and to the bone – across your forehead. And it’s the middle of the night and you’re bound and gagged. And you know there’s more coming . .


[Chapter 1]
Wednesday, 3:30 p.m.
The closer he got, the better she looked. Driving southbound on US Highway 71 in the southern outskirts of Bossier City, Louisiana, Jim Shelton saw a blonde hitch-hiker walking north on the shoulder between the highway and the parallel railroad tracks. As soon as he could, he made a u-turn across the divided four-lane highway and approached her from behind. She looked as good from the rear. He pulled off the highway and stopped, letting the electric passenger-side window down. She looked fine up close.
“Hi, need a ride?”
“Yeah, thanks,” the girl replied as she opened the door and got in. It was hot outside, and the big Lincoln was cool inside.
“Where to?” Jim asked
“You know the Briar Patch?”
“Sure,” Jim answered, “Briar Patch it is.”
They drove a few miles further north on Highway 71, which within the city limits was named Barksdale Boulevard. They passed the West Gate of Barksdale Air Force Base to the right. A few blocks further, and a block past Airline Drive, was the Briar Patch Lounge, a non-descript, gloomy little bar with no windows. The only door was in back. Jim parked the green Lincoln in the rear parking lot, and they went in and took stools at the bar. Jim ordered a bourbon and water. The hitch-hiker didn’t order anything. Although about twice her age, Shelton was attracted to the young lady, who had introduced herself as Vicki Thomas.

I think this is an intriguing opening, and I particularly like the opening line of Chapter 1: "The closer he got, the better she looked." That immediately puts us in the mind of the character, it doesn't feel forced, and it sets up the rest of the page really well. I also like the way the page builds off of that first moment  with some further details, and the author doesn't try to set off a bunch of fireworks on the first page. Restraint = good.

This is an inherently suspenseful opening - strange man picking up an attractive woman on the highway. There are a lot of directions this could go. And I actually thought that more could be done to set the scene and draw out the suspense. Instead of lingering on the details of the woman, we get just a few details. Instead of the girl hesitating, she hops right in.

And because they get straight from the highway to the Briar Patch, I think there's a missed opportunity to reveal more about their characters. They have a perfunctory conversation, but what does Vicki think of Jim? We already know Jim is attracted to Vicki, but what specifically is catching his eye?

The action may well start at the Briar Patch, but even still - it's okay to linger on details and let things build slowly even in the opening pages. Patience is so important.

Lastly, I'm afraid the prologue didn't work for me. Not just because it's in the second person, but I found myself confused by the description. First I'm imagining a paper cut on my finger, then I'm imagining that it's seven inches long, then I'm imagining it across my forehead, then I'm imagining that I'm bound and gagged. But I can imagine a thin seven inch gash on my head while I'm bound and gagged, so I'm not sure why I had to start by imagining a paper cut.

This novel gets off to a suspenseful start on its own. I'd suggest starting there and letting things build without the prologue.

Redline:
Part I
[Prologue]
The first cut was not intended to kill.
But it was effective. Imagine the paper cut you get on your finger – but seven inches long and to the bone – across your forehead. And it’s the middle of the night and you’re bound and gagged. And you know there’s more coming . .

[Chapter 1]
Wednesday, 3:30 p.m.
The closer he got, the better she looked. Driving southbound on US Highway 71 in the southern outskirts of Bossier City, Louisiana, Jim Shelton saw a blonde hitch-hiker walking north on the shoulder between the highway and the parallel railroad tracks. As soon as he could, he made a u-turn across the divided four-lane highway and approached her from behind. She looked as good from the rear. He pulled off the highway and stopped, letting the electric passenger-side window down. She looked fine up close. This is  a good start, but I think it would be better with more details. All we learn about her is that she's blonde and looks "fine." But what is "fine?" What is she wearing? What are her mannerisms?
“Hi, need a ride?”
“Yeah, thanks,” the girl replied as she opened the door and got in. It was hot outside, and the big Lincoln was cool inside. Should she hesitate? Even if she's not the type to hesitate, wouldn't that surprise Jim that she doesn't hesitate and he could react to that? This feels like it happens too easily
“Where to?” Jim asked
“You know the Briar Patch?”
“Sure,” Jim answered, “Briar Patch it is.” Is this on his way? Does he think it's strange she's going there? Should he react to this? 
They drove a few miles further north on Highway 71, which within the city limits was named Barksdale Boulevard. They passed the West Gate of Barksdale Air Force Base to the right. A few blocks further, and a block past Airline Drive, was the Briar Patch Lounge, a non-descript, gloomy little bar with no windows. Should he be observing her on the way? Are they talking? What does he think she's up to? What does he want out of this? The only door was in back. Jim parked the green Lincoln in the rear parking lot, and they went in and took stools at the bar. Jim ordered a bourbon and water. The hitch-hiker didn’t order anything. Although about twice her age, Shelton was attracted to the young lady we know he's attracted to her - what is he attracted to?, who had introduced herself as Vicki Thomas should we see her introduce herself?.






27 comments:

Karen said...

I always learn so much! Thank you. :)

Gina said...

I generally think prologues are unnecessary, but I have to admit that this one is pretty perfect. It's super short, and it's so shocking that it really puts you in the right frame of mind for the rest of the story.

Anonymous said...

I love these so much. Thanks for bringing it back ;)

Bryan Russell said...

I concur. I think one of the problems of everyone advertising the need for a great "hook" is that writers feel the need to overwhelm the reader. Big, bigger, biggest! Great hooks can be the little things that intrigue the reader and lead them to the big things.

Emmie Mears said...

I actually really enjoyed the prologue and thought it could be very effective if reworded a bit. Here's the original:

The first cut was not intended to kill.
But it was effective. Imagine the paper cut you get on your finger – but seven inches long and to the bone – across your forehead. And it’s the middle of the night and you’re bound and gagged. And you know there’s more coming . .

I think the first line makes a better last line because of its inherent dramatic question. I agree about the paper cut analogy being a little confusing. When I think of a gash like that, I think of BLOOD. I had a tiny nick in my scalp once, and it spurted blood for thirty minutes before we could get to the ER. So a seven inch cut? Yeah. I think blood.

If you want to keep the prologue, here's my little idea. :)

Imagine a seven inch gash across your forehead. Hairline to hairline with you bound, gagged, powerless to stop it. Through flesh to bone. The slice of the blade drops the red velvet curtain of blood.

The first cut wasn't meant to kill.

Intriguing beginning -- congrats on getting your page reviewed!

abc said...

I like that it isn't over writerly or flowery. It is succinct and spare and that is refreshing. I also think we get a fairly good sense of character. The guy--he's kinda old school. Driving his Lincoln, admiring the young women, drinking at the bar. And he knows just where that bar is.

I'm not a big fan of the prologue either. It feels like it is there just to hook me and instead just confuses me. I think the writer sets up the book enough with the first page. There's an inherent sense of mystery and foreboding.

My needs as a reader are to get more details (like Nathan said) and less redundancy. He thinks she looks good from up front and behind and fine up close. I know he thinks she's hot, what about her makes her fine? Or maybe something like "he wasn't disappointed when he got a good look at her face." Except better than that, but I hope you know what I mean. Does he pick her up because she's fine or does he often pick up hitchhikers? Is he the main character? A good guy or a bad guy--I think we need some hints.

I would keep reading. It has my interest.

Thanks for doing this, Nathan!

Anonymous said...

I don't like the prologue - uck! (But then I don't like violence . . ;)
All the same, it gives me such a sinking feeling when I then read he picks up a female hitchhiker. If the story IS this man then abuses her, then I think I would rather not find out that is his intention until later - have no clue, just have the suspense. If it is someone ELSE who does the cutting (to whoever) then I guess it works as a red herring - but I still think it would work better leaving the reader wondering more what happens to whom.

sarahhawthorne said...

You do a great job of introducing the town and the bar with a few key descriptive words; I'd like to see you do the same for Jim and Vicki. If Vicki's a scuffed up waif or a free spirit with a backpack and a tan. If Jim's a fit 50-year-old who's going to try to score with her, or if he's a seventy-something retiree just enjoying the company of a pretty girl while he's got it.

Suzann Ellingsworth said...

The prologue is omniscient, second person. Brief, yes, but a prologue is always a foreshadow, and a foreshadow, but its existence, always author intrusion.

The opening grafs are predominately passive. Much tell, little show, and consequently, as others point out, a cagey tease, where the writer is attempting to lure in a reader. Not wholly ineffective, but the reader's too conscious of being lured, thus resistant to it and moderately unsatisfied by it.

It's a start and could be a strong one with editing input, but playing fair with the reader is a writer's job one. Fiction is a contract between story and reader, not writer and reader.

Tricia said...

I agree with everything Nathan said. And I think the prologue did more harm than good.

Also, if she were hitchhiking, she would generally be standing or walking backwards, facing traffic. How you present her here means a lot. A pretty girl might have the confidence she'll be picked up without ever having to walk. You have her walking with her back to traffic.

The part I like best is the creepy little part of him making a u-turn. He went out of his way and that's kind of spooky. I'm hooked.

Susanna Calkins said...

I also like the spare writing style, and the subtle creepiness after the prologue is intriguing. I would like a few more select details. As the other readers and Nathan suggested: I'd like something to indicate how they sized each up, and what went on in the car. Was that really her name, did he suspect she was lying? I'm also not sure how to place him; is he a creep? off-duty cop? a few minor details could help here--did she brush off some ashes off the sat. Was he regular at the bar etc. great start! (and thanks for bringing this feature back; its fun!)

Karen Duvall said...

I could take or leave the prologue, but I did feel the beginning of chapter 1 is well written. I'm giving the author the benefit of the doubt by thinking hitch-hiker girl does this a lot and never hesitates. That's her style. But I would like for Jim to call her on it.

I don't like the google maps driving directions. That shut me down, as did the play by play list of actions.

Some of those actions can work if they tie directly to the character. Going into the bar and choosing stools can be effective if there's an emotional connection, a memory, a desire, something that binds us to the character whose story we're about to read. I want to care about the people I'm reading about and at least pretend that they're real. :)

Anonymous said...

I like the prologue and agree that it sets us up for the kind of story we're in for. I went back and started without it and...though I like the first chapter beginning and the writing is good, I probably wouldn't read on without the prologue. Sets up the suspense nicely. Though I'm sure there are lots of ways of doing that without it--and they are used here--I think it's more a matter of personal taste.

I also like the succintness and lack of unnecessary detail at the beginning of chapter one. It keeps the suspense up for me.

I might want to know his reasoning for going in with her--just the obvious one, I'd imagine--but did he have to justify it to himself? Is this normal behavior for him? I'm thinking, Yeah, from the swiftness with which he turned to pick her up, it's normal. Thing is, me wanting to know more about him and his seemingly heedless, perhaps oddball choices (hers as well) is what keeps me reading. :)

I might play with the POV in the prologue. I see the need for the distance and like it and the prologue all in all...maybe it's more the word choice. There's a necessary distance...s'thing...

I love Jim's thoughts: natural. Seamlessly done.

Briar Patch = :)

I really like this opening and would read on. Nicely done. Thanks for sharing.

bettye griffin said...

Am I the only one ancient enough to remember that TV commercial (I don't remember what product it was for) from the late 60s/early 70s that began, "The closer he got, the better she looked" ? That's the first thing I thought of when I read this.

Other than that, I found it intriguing.

Anonymous said...

I liked the prologue. I would leave it. It kept me reading. With the prologue I think the hitchhiker is dangerous somehow. Without it i just thik she is full of herself and a little annoying with her one sentence she utters. Thos opening doesnt work without the prologue for me.
I agree that there should be some thoughhts and interactions in the car and maybe a short description of what she looks like, although i could pretty much imagine the fine looking blonde.

K. L. Romo said...

I have to say that I like the prologue. Perhaps the phrase "Imagine the paper cut you get on your finger" could be removed, but the rest could be kept with a couple of minor word changes. It makes me want to keep on reading.

Pamela Williamson said...

I like the prologue. Got my attention right away. I'd like to see the paper cut to the finger shortened to a paper cut across the forehead. The prologue keeps me guessing. Is it the guy who is a creep, picking up women in the night, who cuts her, or is the woman the psycho who goes after the driver? They both lack better judgement. Great for the story though. Love the suspense. Would like to see more details. More description, more inner dialogue. I couldn't shake the feeling that the woman is just a ghost. Especially when she doesn't order anything at the bar. The lack of upfront details, however, does keep me guessing. It leaves the door wide open for the writer to weave more information in slowly, keeping the reader glued for more detail.

virg_nelson said...

I'm so glad you brought this back!

D.G. Hudson said...

I see nothing wrong with prologues if they aren't too long. I had a well-known writer (during a crit appt at a conference) suggest to me that I add a prologue.

What I see in this story is a May-December connection: older man sees cute chick hitchhiking. That alone sets up certain expectations that may or may not be true. (as you say, Nathan, many things could happen from such a beginning).

I'm intrigued as to which way it will go and I'd like to know more about HIS intentions.

Thanks for offering your page for critique, coloradokid.

Are you bringing these back as a regular feature, Nathan?

marion said...

Hi, Coloradokid,
Thanks for having the guts to submit your opening for comments.
Not sure about the prolog. Maybe just the one sentence. "The first cut was not intended to kill." I like that. Says it all. Passive voice is good. Attempt to keep distance. Because, although 3rd person, you're inside the killer's head, aren't you?
I like the way you throw us right into the action, without bogging things down with description & backstory.
Certain things nagged at me.
1. "As soon as he could..." The action needs clarification I guess. Was he searching for a u-turn? Did he know where it was? Did it take forever to come up? After making the turn, did he speed up, slow down? And, by the way, I know you're not supposed to open with weather, but was he squinting through rain or was moonlight lighting the landscape beyond his headlights?
2. "hot outside...cool inside." I finally realized that the shift of POV was bugging me. Although 3rd person, the rest is his POV. Just this one sentence is hers. Either omit, or maybe expand to a short pgh. Perhaps addressing what someone mentioned about hitchikers: No one was going to pick her up. She tucked her thumb inside her jeans pocket(?), turned around and quickened her step. Heard car or saw glare of headlights, blah blah blah whatever. Cool air.
3. Name. Vikki Thomas. What's wrong with that? Oh, I know. Chick doesn't usually give full name to guy she doesn't know. But maybe she has a reason. Did she really introduce herself, without waiting for him to make a move? As others have said, I think this introduction needs to be clarified. A little dialog here maybe.
This beginning sets the scene really well, with action.

Mira said...

I like your point, Nathan, about patience. I agree the writer rushes. Details of their presence in the car together could build tension effectively, as well as anchor the reader. I agree it's a missed opportunity.

Also, because the author rushes, he ends up telling, rather than showing. Telling the reader that "Jim was attracted to her" is so much less fun than showing the reader that he couldn't look away from the soft skin of her bare shoulders.

On the plus side, the writer does set up a mystery very effectively. Who is the good guy? The bad guy? What will happen? This is a great hook, and I felt compelled as a reader to read on and find out what happened!

I agree he also sets up an atmosphere that could easily turn creepy.

In terms of the prologue, I agree with you, Nathan, although I'd want to see it in the context of the whole book. It seems to me it gives away ALOT of information. Danger could be conveyed through atmosphere and description in the opening chapter, I'm not sure revealing an entire plot point is needed, but it's hard to know without reading the whole book.


The POV change in the prologue - where the narrator is talking to the reader - telling them to imagine things - also didn't work for me.

But overall an intriging start, with a good voice and compelling story.

James Anderson said...

I too enjoyed the first line of the chapter. It made me chuckle to myself, because it a realistic thought that I think most men could identify with.

Nathan did a thorough job with the critique. I think the conversation that could take place en route to the Briar Patch could replace some of the directional scenery description. Is this whole section important to move the plot forward? "Highway 71, which within the city limits was named Barksdale Boulevard. They passed the West Gate of Barksdale Air Force Base to the right. A few blocks further, and a block past Airline Drive" It is very specific information that may or may not interest the reader.

I am curious to know why the hitch hiker requested the Briar Patch but then didn't order a drink. Good mystery there. =)

k m kelly said...

Glad you're bringing this back, Nathan. Thank you.

Maya said...

I agree that there is inherent suspense in the scene. You are definitely left wondering about what will happen. Is Jim a serial killer?

I do have some problems with it. For one thing, if Jim is meant to be a good guy, then I don't think the beginning works because I don't find him likeable. The reason is: the only thing he notices about this girl is that she's blond and good-looking. The fact that nothing else is on his mind feels sexist to me and I just can't like him. If on the other hand, he's meant to be an anti-hero or what-have-you than his minimalistic observations may fit very well with a sociopath.

Also, I was unable to suspend my disbelief that this good-looking girl would ask for a ride to a bar. Hitchhiking is dangerous and wouldn't she only do it if she was in trouble? Who hitch hikes to a bar?

Anonymous said...

The prologue essentially said, "Imagine a trivial little paper cut except it is really deadly serious and nothing at all like a paper cut." I never think about paper cuts when anything more serious happens.

So, I'm voting with the rest to nix it.

Anonymous said...

Agree that the prologue should go -- it sounds very artificial in contrast to the first chapter, which has a more natural voice. It can sometimes be suspenseful to know that something bad is going to happen and watch it coming, but it's often more effective to leave the reader guessing.

Also wanted to second the comment that it's perhaps not wholly realistic for a young attractive woman to be hitchiking to a bar, and especially for her to hop into a car driven by a lone man without a second thought. There may be reasons for it that make themselves clear as your story unfolds, but if so I'd try to establish more of that up front -- she could show some hesitancy and be reassured by the driver, or hop into the car and thank him profusely because her car broke down and she's been stuck by the road for an hour, etc.

Avery June said...

If it's the woman who has bound the man and is cutting him, then I think the prologue should stay (minus the finger comparison). I think everyone so far has assumed that the man is the creeper, but I think the delicate slash across the forehead sounds pretty feminine. If the woman is the killer, then your readers could smile and kick themselves in the rear for not noticing in the prologue.

Fun start :)

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