Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

My Photo
Name:
Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Booky Noise II

Aimless Writer has submitted an opening for our consideration. Let's give him/her some feedback!


My eyes stung from the smoke as I stood across the street watching the flames roar out of control. Although twilight was settling in, the sky was lit like high noon. The intense heat from the fire warmed my face and bare shoulders even from this distance. Ash drifted about and the air tasted of acid and smoke, burning my nose and settling a nasty taste in the back of my throat.

“I didn’t start this fire.”

Officer Larry Schneider, one of Angel Fall’s finest, gave me a disgusted snort and walked away. I whispered it again, more to myself then anyone else, “I didn’t start this fire.”

And no one believed me.

My name is Riley Margate, a twenty-eight year old hairdresser and mostly average in all respects. My shoulder-length, blond hair is on the dark side (I have it highlighted regularly—one of the perks of the job), I have average hazel eyes that leaned more toward blue, then green. I go to work, sometimes a movie and then home to live out my quiet life. It’s a boring life, but I like it that way. I was never a drama-mama and prefer to be the fly on the wall instead of the one in the middle of a cat fight. I stay home most nights as a choice. Although my mother thinks I’m hiding, that’s just not true. I’ve just decided that I like things better at home.

No dating, no wackos and no problems. Average, like I said, but twenty-four hours ago I made a really bad decision and now the fire in front of me seemed to be the least of my problems. Fires burn, firemen put them out, but what that man on the beach made me do won’t go away as easily. I pulled the blanket up and hugged it to me. I thought about my bed at home and how good it would be to put on my flannel pajamas and get under the covers. Hide from the world and never come out. Then maybe this nightmare would go away.


NOTE TO Gregory Huffstutter: Please resend your Booky Noise excerpt and cut it down at least in half. We only want to deal with opening hooks, not whole pages. Thanks!

15 Comments:

Anonymous Tattieheid said...

I like this and want to find out what happened on the beach (but kind of hope it's not a rape scene).

I love the "drama mamma" phrase but wonder if there's a bit too much description of Riley this early on. I feel slightly confused with the eye colour but she has piqued my interest and potentially triggered some empathy in these opening paragraphs.

9:12 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

The last paragraph really caught my attention. I would start with "Twenty-four hours ago..." and use the last paragraph as your opener.

Needs a bit of editing, but overall a nice piece of first-person narrative. I would definitely read more.

4:04 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Hi Aimless,
It seems to me that your lead here has two parts. One of those parts is pretty good and the other part may or may not be problematic, depending on what you're trying to accomplish. The first part is this:

My eyes stung from the smoke as I stood across the street watching the flames roar out of control. Although twilight was settling in, the sky was lit like high noon. The intense heat from the fire warmed my face and bare shoulders even from this distance. Ash drifted about and the air tasted of acid and smoke, burning my nose and settling a nasty taste in the back of my throat.

“I didn’t start this fire.”

Officer Larry Schneider, one of Angel Fall’s finest, gave me a disgusted snort and walked away. I whispered it again, more to myself then anyone else, “I didn’t start this fire.”

And no one believed me.

Overall, I think it's good. This may be a matter of taste, but I think you might have too much description in the first paragraph.
I would prefer you ended it here:


My eyes stung from the smoke as I stood across the street watching the flames roar out of control. Although twilight was settling in, the sky was lit like high noon. The intense heat from the fire warmed my face and bare shoulders even from this distance.

Or maybe even earlier, but that's my preference for a sort of minimalist writing. Everything after that works well, I think (I'll have a comment about the Officer in a minute).

The second part is this, and here we may have some problems:

My name is Riley Margate, a twenty-eight year old hairdresser and mostly average in all respects. My shoulder-length, blond hair is on the dark side (I have it highlighted regularly—one of the perks of the job), I have average hazel eyes that leaned more toward blue, then green. I go to work, sometimes a movie and then home to live out my quiet life. It’s a boring life, but I like it that way. I was never a drama-mama and prefer to be the fly on the wall instead of the one in the middle of a cat fight. I stay home most nights as a choice. Although my mother thinks I’m hiding, that’s just not true. I’ve just decided that I like things better at home.

No dating, no wackos and no problems. Average, like I said, but twenty-four hours ago I made a really bad decision and now the fire in front of me seemed to be the least of my problems. Fires burn, firemen put them out, but what that man on the beach made me do won’t go away as easily. I pulled the blanket up and hugged it to me. I thought about my bed at home and how good it would be to put on my flannel pajamas and get under the covers. Hide from the world and never come out. Then maybe this nightmare would go away.

Okay. I personally think that you have this nice forward momentum going with the first couple paragraphs. There's a fire, she's standing out on the street looking at it, the fire department thinks she started it, now what?

"Now what" is you go backwards. You describe the character, her job, her relationship with her mother, her personality, etc. I think the reader (probably) would be happier if she discovered these things about your main character as she lives them. You can show her going to work later. You can show her coming home, fixing her Lean Cuisine and having her mother barge in and nag her about hiding out in her house, or setting her up with a blind date, or whatever.

Meanwhile, having set up this situation with the fire, I think you should instead have her do whatever it is she does next. Let's follow Riley, who appears to be having a really lousy day, for a while, get a sense of her. The reader will wait to find out what she does for a living, they want to see what just happened. Is it her house? Did she lose all her belongings? Is she standing out in the middle of her street wearing only a sheet while everything she owns goes up in flames? What does she do next?

A lot of how you handle these things depends on overall what you're trying to do. It occurred to me that you might be able to give a notion of what Riley does for a living and how she perceives people without really saying it, and you might do it early by writing something like this:

Officer Larry Schneider, one of Angel Fall’s finest, gave me a disgusted snort and walked away. I didn't deserve that from him. I'd been cutting his hair for five years, a #2 edge to keep it short and minimize the baldness that he was trying to hide, keep the sideburns long despite the flecks of gray. I kept his secrets, why wouldn't he respect mine?

Or something like that, anyway.

But on a line by line basis, it's fine. Just be careful about interrupting yourself with backstory, at least so early in the story.

Best,
Mark Terry
www.markterrybooks.com

9:44 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

I think Mark hit this one on the head and I agree with his assessment. Your opening does seem to have two parts and one is strong and the other is problematic.

I really like the opening four graphs (although I am with Mark in that the first graph could be tightened in its description; less is usually more, esp in the first graph). By setting off the second paragraph quote as you did without attribution, I am immediately drawn in -- who is this person? And did s/he start the fire?

An aside: For those who like to start out immediately with a quote, look how much more effective THIS way is: By opening with an evocative description and THEN slipping in that strong quote, the quote gains more impact. Try switching the first two paragraphs -- not as strong, imo.

Where I think you have a problem is with paragaph five. I don't mind that you immediately ID your protag, even with her name. (Shoot, Sue Grafton's made a career with this gambit). But I think you let the personal stuff go on way too long, so much so that you are dissipating the tension you set up in graphs 1-4.
I'd pare it down to:

My name is Riley Margate. I'm a 28-year-old hairdresser and average in all respects. (NOW TELL ME HOW SHE IS AVERAGE). My hair is medium length, not quite blond, not quite brown. My eyes are kind of blue and kind of green.

NEW GRAPH. My life is average, too. I go to work and go home, sometimes with a movie thrown in between. My mother thinks I'm hiding but that's just not true. I just like things better at home. I was never a drama-mama. (SAVE THAT GREAT LINE FOR LAST!)

But twenty-four hours ago, I made a really bad decision. And now the fire in front of me was the least of my problems....etc

You can slip in other details about her life later; resist the urge to tell us too much about your heroine too early. It's like meeting someone at a party and they want to tell you their life story in the first five minutes. What do you want to do? GET AWAY from them and find someone more gracious or mysterious! Ditto characters in books.

But overall, a really intriguing opening. I'd read on.

11:07 AM  
Anonymous Tattieheid said...

Hi Aimless,
I'm not a professional writer although i'm thinking about having a try. :) I agree with all that's been said but I do like the last paragraph as well as the first couple.

I would be tempted to try the following as I feel it allows a lot of options as to where you go next in terms of character development but maintains that element of suspense - what happened in the previous 24 hours?

Whatever you do, it sounds like you have story people would want to read and does capture the imagination.

My eyes stung from the smoke as I stood across the street watching the flames roar out of control. Although twilight was settling in, the sky was lit like high noon. The intense heat from the fire warmed my face and bare shoulders even from this distance.

“I didn’t start this fire.”

Officer Larry Schneider, one of Angel Fall’s finest, gave me a disgusted snort and walked away. I whispered it again, more to myself then anyone else, “I didn’t start this fire.”

And no one believed me.

Twenty-four hours ago I made a really bad decision and now the fire in front of me seemed to be the least of my problems. Fires burn, firemen put them out, but what the man on the beach made me do won’t go away as easily. I pulled the blanket up and hugged it to me. I thought about my bed at home and how good it would be to put on my flannel pyjamas and get under the covers. Hide from the world and never come out. Then maybe this nightmare would go away.

Shorter but still as effective.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

BTW,
I like "drama-mama" quite a bit, as well. Never heard it before, and it's at least as good if not better than drama queen (and yes, I know a few). I'm just not sure it was used in the right place.

I also was reminded of Sue Grafton when I was reading it. Not many authors do that or pull it off, though. Doesn't mean you won't or can't, just that there may be a reason you don't see it that often.

Best,
Mark

12:13 PM  
Blogger Shannon said...

I’ll have to agree with all that’s been said so far. I’d like to add that I think your choice of first person is great to slowly unravel the story for us, so keep that slow unraveling in mind as you write. I also love the way you incorporated all the senses in the beginning, how she felt, tasted and smelled the fire. The only thing that bothered me was her describing herself. Maybe you can work this in later in smaller pieces. The “really bad decision” line is great. Makes me very curious about that decision! Good luck with it.

1:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first paragraph was evocative, although it could have been one line shorter (tighter) or that extra line could have been used to add some information about the character/location instead of reiterating the ashy smell.

The reason I say this is because from the first line of dialogue I became a little confused. The “I DIDN’T START THE FIRE” is the first line of dialogue in the book and is given without an attribution. The next thing the reader gets is: Officer Larry...

Before the reader ever gets to the part - GAVE ME A DISGUSTED SNORT - the reader’s brain will jerk for a second at the name Larry and make the assumption that Larry not only spoke the line above but that Larry is also the main character watching the fire. It’s only a split-second hiccup in the brain but avoiding those small hiccups is important to a scene’s continuity and clarity.

I also found the introduction of the protag, although very well written, out of place and distracting from the action at hand (the fire). Background (or extra information needed to help the reader understand what’s going on) should intertwine naturally with the action on the page, as Mark Terry did with four words: THE NEW GUY SAID.

Those four words tell the reader:
1) the guy speaking is NOT the protag
2) This is a unit of some sort, probably men and based on the setting, probably military.

Once an author gives the reader a crime/action, retreating back into set-up material will always lessen the impact of the drama the author worked so hard to describe earlier on, and ultimately will water-down the whole scene.

The reference to the beach toward the end is far more powerful in terms of piquing interest, but still offers a little confusion. I did not get the impression she was on a beach now nor did I understand, even in a vague sense, what the fire had to do with whatever happened on the beach.

There is a very fine between intrigue (making the reader wonder what happened on the beach and what the connection is to the fire) and confusion (making the reader put the book down.)

The writing here is very good, but I got the sense things were a little out of order in terms of importance and clarity.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Another possible opening:


I didn’t start this fire.

But twenty-four hours ago, I made a bad decision. Now, the eye-stinging smoke, the roaring flames across the street turning twilight to noon, the distant heat penetrating my face and bare shoulders, seemed the least of my problems.

Then incorporate the description of what’s happening now with more about what happened on the beach.


I liked all the suggestions so far!

4:01 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Another possible opening:


I didn’t start this fire.

But twenty-four hours ago, I made a bad decision. Now, the eye-stinging smoke, the roaring flames across the street turning twilight to noon, the distant heat penetrating my face and bare shoulders, seemed the least of my problems.

Then incorporate the description of what’s happening now with more about what happened on the beach.



I liked all the suggestions so far!

4:04 PM  
Anonymous Tattieheid said...

Sorry, back again.

I've been trying to work out why I really like that last paragraph (from Twenty-four hours ago) reading it again I'm struck by how it triggers off strong feelings of empathy and interest. There's a mix of pragmatism, slight irony -Fires burn, firemen put them out, but what the man on the beach made me do won’t go away as easily. coupled with vulnerability -I pulled the blanket up and hugged it to me. I thought about my bed at home and how good it would be to put on my flannel pyjamas and get under the covers. Hide from the world and never come out. and of course an element of mystery -what bad decision? what happened on the beach? what is the nightmare?

All of these combine to make Riley potentially a likeable character and the way this paragraph is written also creates an impression of inner strength without labouring at it. I think it works best where it is, following on from the initial hook and pulling the reader further into the story and character's world in a seamless fashion. The initial hook and dialogue is very strong, allows for further development of the interaction between Riley and Officer Larry Schneider (if desired) but it is the final paragraph that completes the hook and draws us into the storyline.

All the comments are good and would work. Any changes you might choose to make are really dictated by the follow-on pages and how the story develops. But i still hope you keep this paragraph.:)

7:36 PM  
Anonymous gregory huffstutter said...

Here's the cut-down version of my opening. I'd say 'be kind', but what's the fun in that?

-----

The first time I died, I was too young to fully appreciate it.

There was no tunnel of bright light. No chorus of angels. No movie of my life playing as I rose up, freed from corporeal form.

It began with a warning: “You better get down from there. You’re not Superman, you know.” At seven years old, Chrissy had already perfected the hands-on-hips posture of authority.

My other friends didn’t give her a second glance. A dozen sets of eyes followed my rapid ascent up the oak tree.

“Do it,” Donnie said, flashing a wicked grin. “I double-dog dare you.”

“I d-d-don’t think he-he-he’ll make it.” Sanjay’s treacherous tongue glowed fruit-punch red.

Eighteen years later, I still can’t smell Hi-C without getting nauseous. Funny how the mind works.

It took one more boost to reach a clearing between the canopy of leaves.

The task at hand was tricky: clear the patio railing, carry the concrete deck, miss the diving board, and dry my sneakers before mom picked me up at three.

8:13 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Aimless,
Congratulations. You've just followed Stephen King's advice. Show the manuscript to ten people and ask for comments. If they all agree, make changes. If none of them agree, you can safely ignore them. :)

Best,
Mark

9:18 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

LOL Mark!

Another thing King says: If two people (among your respected beta readers) dislike something, you probably need to change it. If one dislikes it, and the other likes it, it's a tie. In baseball, a tie goes to the runner. In fiction, a tie goes to the writer.

I love Steve's arbitrary rules!

11:46 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

And last night I turned these pages into a critique group that included another published writer and agent. Everyone echoed the thoughts here. THANK YOU! I'm ready to rewrite and now I know the direction to go in. (I had put the discription of the protag in after another person said they couldn't "see" her, I wasnt' too happy with it either) You guys were great! I think I might start with "Twentyfour hours ago...

7:33 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home