First-page critique: Slow Dissolve

Here’s a new first-page critique from me and freelance editor Ann Aubrey Hanson. The page is immediately below, followed by Ann’s and my comments. Thanks to the author for submitting.

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SLOW DISSOLVE

Brody Doyle laid the small bouquet of wildflowers at the base of the headstone, picked up the dead bunch that was lying there, crushed the dried petals in his hand then let them blow away on an unusually strong wind. It felt like fall, or as close as Southern California ever got to fall. They both knew what real fall was like – the smell of molding leaves, the crackle in the air followed soon after by snow so high you could lay down in it and disappear.

He missed the snow a little. Missed the fall a lot. Missed the old days even more. Not the days back East. Those days when they were a pair and on top of the world. Just the beginning, was what people said, but it turned out to be the end. The end for both of them, in very different ways, but still the end. Who knew? If he’d known, he would have done things differently, would have savored the moments instead of rushing through them like a child turned loose in a toy store.

With a gentle, reverent touch, Brody stroked the top of the headstone then ran a single finger over the name etched in the face. Then he rearranged the flowers, photos and teddy bears that had been left there by strangers. Even in death, he drew them in.

He can’t be dead. I just saw him on TV yesterday. He’s living, breathing, smiling, captivating the camera, and in turn, the audience with his mischievous grin. And that’s the way he’ll stay forever. Never growing old. Never changing. Never having to see the disappointment in the eyes of a fan when they realize you don’t look anything like the man they remember. They’ve aged, one hundred pounds and bifocals, but still they’re surprised to find you’ve aged, too. Not such bad shape for a man of fifty. Still trim. Still blond and the eyes are still just as blue.

Dorian Gray had his portrait. We have TV.

_______________

My comments:

This page drew me in with vivid imagery and an intriguing set-up. It starts in a good spot: in the middle of a scene (thank you!) and at a moment that naturally creates suspense. It features only one character—a tactic I usually warn writers to avoid, because scenes with a solo character tend to be static and can devolve into soggy interior monologue. But in this case, there’s a second spectral character in the picture: Brody’s dead partner. And his presence, beneath the headstone, is what creates the scene’s tension and suspense. What happened to the dead guy? It raises a primal question. Readers will turn the page to find the answer.

The writing is skilled; I feel confident that in this author’s hands, I’ll be led into a story expertly told. The author reveals details smoothly, by showing rather than telling the scene. “Then he rearranged the flowers, photos and teddy bears that had been left there by strangers,” elegantly reveals that the dead man was a celebrity. And the final line is fantastic: “Dorian Gray had his portrait. We have TV.”

My suggestions relate to adjectives. (1) Cut many of them. Write wherever possible with strong nouns and verbs that stand on their own without modifiers. (2) In a number of spots the author uses multiple adjectives where a single, more particular word might create a more vivid impression. For example, “the small bouquet of wildflowers” in the opening sentence would be stronger without “small.” Wildflowers are the distinctive thing. And “Unusually strong wind” may accurately describe the weather, but “unusually” seems bland in the situation. “swirling wind” or “savage wind” would create a stronger image. Same with “Not such bad shape for a man of fifty.” “Decent shape” or even “not bad shape” would be stronger.

And I know the author wants to leave the dead man’s name a mystery for now, but referring to him only as “he” becomes confusing. In the third paragraph, “he” refers in one sentence to Brody, and in the next to Brody’s dead partner. This stops the reader. That would be the spot to say, “Even in death, Joe Bob drew them in.” (If Joe Bob is actually his name, let me know.)

In sum: another strong first page. I would eagerly keep reading.

Ann’s Comments:

This is an appealing first page. I am curious about the “you” in the story, and who Brody is to the main character.

One of the first comments I would make is the inconsistent us of him/you within the narration. I would suggest naming the other character early on if he is to be referred to in the third person, or stick to one point of view, rather than switching as you do at the end.

I agree with Meg’s critique comments. This is a strong opening page, and you write well, clearly, enticingly.

I also agree with the comments about adjectives. Mark Twain said to use adjectives as though you had to pay for them. That’s sage advice. (See the use of adjective there? Sometimes, adjectives are needed for emphasis. Other times, they are just useless filler.) You write, “with a gentle, reverent touch…” I would hardly expect a reverent touch to be anything but gentle…

However, you should also be aware of the cadence of your writing. I highly recommend reading it aloud. Sometimes, reading a sentence aloud will provide a better sense of the cadence of a sentence. Take this example:

“He missed the snow a little. Missed the fall a lot. Missed the old days even more. Not the days back East. Those days when they were a pair and on top of the world. Just the beginning, was what people said, but it turned out to be the end. The end for both of them, in very different ways, but still the end. Who knew? If he’d known, he would have done things differently, would have savored the moments instead of rushing through them like a child turned loose in a toy store.”

The paragraph works as it is, but it is choppy. I think some of the truncated sentences might be blended for better cadence. “Not the days back East, when they were a pair and on top of the world.” Boom. Better rhythm.

All said, however, I would continue reading. You hooked me. Well done.

One response to “First-page critique: Slow Dissolve

  1. This intrigued me and if I picked up the book and read these opening paragraphs, I’d keep going. Great critique.

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