Thursday, 6 March 2014

The First 555 words are the best ...

... or that's what I'm hoping. A very brave lady has taken up the challenge and set me loose on the first page of her darling child. I'm trying not to be too snarky - she is a relative newcomer. I've gotta say, I would have been so proud if my second novel was this good - see what you think.

My crits are small so they don't hurt so much. Here it is:
It had been a little over ten years since Michael tasted freedom, since he had the choice to feel love or love back. It had also been just as long since he hadn’t been forced to kill in the name of ‘his’ country, and so many others.
It had been a little over ten - passive, feels old. Use It was ten instead to make it more active, vibrant. 
It had also been just as long - Eyes glazing at the back story. Try a repeat for emphasis: Ten years since …

The “Collective” is a global multi-government sanctioned organization, which protects the innocent against tyranny. The Collective recruited Michael off the streets of Los Angeles at the age of eighteen. Pure backstory – drip feed it in with a reaction from Michael. Is this the Collective’s story? No. Put it in Michael’s pov. 

Michael had grown up in the foster care system and group homes since he could remember. At the tender age of fifteen he decided enough was enough, and got out. He survived those three years doing odd jobs for local gangsters and drug dealers until he got caught holding the bag, literally. Michael was found with enough heroin on him to send him away for a long time. While Michael was in prison a riot broke out and he took a shiv in his back and ribs. He was rushed to the local hospital with life threatening injuries. An hour later he was pronounced dead, or so the world thought. So after an allowable couple of sentences introducing Michael and hinting at his dilemma, we get 139 words of backstory. You, the author, telling us about Michael’s past ten years. It’s all history – nothing to grip, excite or intrigue me. It already happened in the last 10 years. It’s a great anecdote, but I’m not feeling his pain because it’s not now and immediate. 

The Collective turned Michael into the perfect killing machine, void of any emotions or regrets. After two long years of rigorous training in mixed martial arts, linguistics, weaponry and the latest technology, Michael graduated at the highest level an operative could, tier 3. To the Collective Michael was truly one of a kind. He followed orders without question and the mission always took priority, elevating him quickly to the top of the ranks at tier 5. Michael traveled often on the job, but the base of operation for his section of the Collective was located in the U.K., London to be exact. And yet another 102 words of pure backstory. Long dead history. A classic case of the writer telling the reader everything she thinks he ought to know. Kill it dead.

It was an early morning flight that had Michael heading home to the states for his next assignment. Passive, time stamping. If the time of day is germaine to the plot, let us see the effect on Michael. I need to know how this travel impacts on him physically, emotionally and/or mentally. Also, keep Michael at the forefront of the action – front and centre at all times – no-one wants to read about a hero who has stuff done to him.

He was to get close to a female FBI agent whose partner, Agent John Randolph, was suspected of working with the known terrorist group, “Black Hail”. Black Hail was responsible for several bombings in Eastern Europe and Asia and was said to be planning an attack on U.S. soil. Why would you tell the reader everything he needs to know about the bad guy in one fell swoop? Where’s the incentive to read on? Tease him by drip-feeding the info one nugget at a time. Make him work, it’ll give him a feeling of accomplishment, make him want to invest more effort in uncovering the gold. 

Michael took a seat in first class. Not passive, but not exactly inspiring me that I’m there on the plane with him. I need more sensory experience than just bland looking. It’s kinda like you’re watching the movie and telling me about it while I sit with my back to the screen. He had his choosing because all of first class was empty, the Collective saw to it. In the UK, we would say “He had his choice.” Could be a pond thing, so I’ll leave it. “saw to it” feels a bit like flabby telling, but it could be a voice thing so I’ll leave it. They bought out all the seats to give him the privacy he would need in order to study Agent Shyira Chandler’s file. Why would he need to study her file in private if he already knew her profile? (In the next graf you make it clear he’s travelling commercial because of her expertise) I’m confused. Normally Michael would fly on the private jet that the Collective owned, but occasionally the job required him to fly commercial, it added to his cover. This job was a prime example; if Michael knew Agent Chandler’s profile like he thought he did, he knew she was very thorough. If she was that thorough, wouldn’t she know that the Collective had booked the entire first class and only he had travelled in it? I need more. After that first showing sentence, the rest of this graph is pure telling – kind of a combination of backstory and world-building. The detail is all excellent, it’s the detached, passive voice that gets the eyes glazing. Michael isn’t speaking to me yet. Michael didn’t mind the flight, it made him feel normal for a short time. Aha. Now I get the briefest glimpse of who Michael might be. Not exactly happy in his work.

Agent Chandler is a tall, 5’7” beauty of mixed blood. Her mother is Caucasian and her father is of African American decent, and her features showed her mixed heritage. Shyira’s build is slim, but athletic. Her eyes are a deep green, and her lips full. Her hair is long, curly, and the color of brown sugar from what he could tell of her picture. And the reason for swapping to present tense is??? Again with the tell-all. 56 words of nothing but facts. Drip feed please and add reaction/ emotion. Her looks, however were of no concern to him, she was the mission. Nice bit of intrigue to end on – just a missing comma after however. I'm sure purists would want a semi-colon, colon or an em-dash instead of that final comma (depending on who you talk to), but I'm no purist. The very antithesis. Mean and dirty, me.

If you disagree with any of my crits I want to know - please add a comment in the poor girl's defence. We'll call her A because she is the first. Feel free to argue in A's favour - I like a good debate. I'm making this all up as I go along and the last thing I want to be is dogmatic or rule-bound.

If you want to risk your darling, you'll find all the details here.


  1. I agree with it all. Unfortunately right now, it reads like more of a movie script than a novel. The beginning would give the actor the "what's my motivation" info, and the following chapter gives us the pacing.

    And saying that, if this was a tv show- I'd be interested. But as a book, I'm finding a hard time connecting with the character. I'd say bye bye to the prologue, and hello chapter one, let's just start off with the plane. I agree with your favorite phrase, drip feed it too us. Tell us to much at first, and we won't want to read it.

    Good luck to the writer! Editing is tough, but it helps to have Jacky on your side!

  2. Jacky, you're crit is bang on. This reads more like a quick summary of facts. Like someone read a book and is trying to TELL US ABOUT the character and the story instead of GIVING US THE STORY itself. Your "back to the movie screen" analogy is perfect.

    All of this information can be given to the reader inside of your story. If you cut out the prologue (which I recommend), you could use the time that Michael is on the plane to show us some of his backstory (not all of it) and give us some sort of emotional connection to him. We need to know how prison affected him (not just that he was there) and the same with foster homes.

    Jacky's favorite line is "show us, don't tell us" and she is absolutely right. You've told us a lot, but haven't shown us much of anything.

    I know it's difficult to get this kind of thing right (believe me, I still need Jacky's guidance more than I'd like to admit) but if you really listen to her advice, you will come up with a wonderful story - I promise.

  3. Thanks Ladies for adding your pearls of wisdom, I'm sure the author will be very grateful.