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First Page: A CIRCLE OF MURDERS

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He was dead. The son of a bitch was finally dead. How ironic, sixteen year old Sarra Gray thought, that the top of the Christmas tree lay within reach of his one outstretched arm, the hand reaching for the white tree top angel just inches from his fingers. Maybe he was reaching for salvation, she thought bitterly. But, only the devil would want Homer James.

Two men had entered the apartment and faced Homer. POP came from the gun in the killer’s hand.

That was the only sound that she had heard from her hiding place behind the partially closed bedroom door. Through the crack, she had watched as Homer drop to the floor, his knees buckling first, the rest of his body twisting to fall backwards onto the beige carpet. While the killers ransacked the living room, she had rushed silently to hide behind the false wall in the closet where Homer hid his safe. There was nothing she could do but breathe as quietly as possible and pray the men did not find her. If they did, they would kill her too.

Immediately after closing the door to her hiding place, she heard them enter the bedroom. Thump! Thump! Drawers, jerked from the dresser, hit the floor. The sound of ripping fabric was easily heard behind the thin plaster wall. She held her breath, terrified that if she could hear them, they might hear her as well. Then, they were in the closet. Voices muttered low, indistinguishable words. The noise of hangers raking back and forth along the rod was far too close. Sarra prayed and waited in terror to be discovered.

Suddenly, everything went silent. Not a whisper, not a sound did she hear to indicate the men had left the room. Nor did a door slam to let her know they were gone from the apartment. There was only the absolute quiet. Still trembling with fear, she waited two hours before daring to emerge and peek into the other room. They were definitely gone. Hurriedly, she returned to the closet and grabbed a bag from the floor. Slipping behind the wall, she worked the carefully learned combination. Into the bag, she dumped the numerous stacks of one-hundred dollar bills, a stack of computer video discs, several ledger books plus two large brown envelopes, contents unknown. Even though the bag was heavy, she picked it up and returned to the living room.

Outside, the wind howled and whipped sheets of snow into dancing dervishes across the penthouse balcony. Lamps, toppled from end tables, cast bright yellow oblong shapes across the floor. Slashed sofa cushions were tossed in a heap before the balcony doors. Books with ripped pages and bindings were everywhere. Jerked from wall hooks, the back paper covers of the paintings had been slashed open. Sculptures had been broken and tossed in pieces to land on any available surface.

Homer lay just as he had fallen. A dark red stain had spread across the front of his white shirt and oozed in a widening circle beneath his body. The crotch of his gray trousers was stained by urine and his bare feet looked pale next to the beige carpet.

She wasn’t sorry he was dead. She knew all too well how he took people and twisted them into monsters, trapped them and drained them of all hope, then tossed them out like garbage. “That bullet deserved a better target, you bastard,” she hissed. “You got an easy death.”

She had to get out of the apartment. From what she could discern, it was only a matter of time before the killers returned to find what they were looking for. Hurrying across the butchered living room, she stopped a moment to stare down at the body, stunned that she felt so little grief for the man. She did not consider herself a cold hearted person and expected to feel something other than jubilation at his death. After all, he had saved her from her father. But, she felt nothing. Not even a twinge of regret.

The odor of blood, sharp and coppery, mixed with the smell of evacuated bowels and bladder emanating from the body, made her gag. Nauseated and repulsed, she crouched down and forced herself to search Homer’s pockets for the car keys. She hated to touch his body, but she had to have those keys. There would be two sets, one for the Mercedes and one for the old Chevy. Cringing, she reached into Homer’s right trouser pocket. Luck was with her. The key ring was in the first pocket she explored. Pulling them out, she flinched as the jingle of the keys sounded abrasively loud in the quiet room. She clasped them tightly, then hastened to the front door and set the tattered blue flight bag on the floor.

Quickly, she jerked a jacket off a hanger from the coat closet. Her hands shook so much she almost dropped the old Navy pea coat, but snatched it in midair and slipped her arms into the sleeves. She pulled a black knit cap down over her ears and made sure every long strand of dark hair was tucked securely beneath it. At this late hour, it would be bitterly cold and her clothes were not the warmest. But, there was no way she was going back into that mangled bedroom to search for heavier clothing. What she was wearing would have to do. Time was too short.

A red angora scarf wrapped around her lower face and neck for added protection against the frigid night air, she stuffed the bottom of the gray wool sweater she wore into the top of her jeans and tugged the thick coat closer, buttoning it over the scarf. Lastly, she put on her leather gloves, thankful for the cashmere lining. Apprehensive, she cracked the apartment door, glanced up and down the long corridor then sighed with relief. It was empty.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

12 Comments

  1. Upstart
    Aug 31, 2013 @ 04:17:03

    I really enjoyed this. It was gripping and I would definitely continue reading. A small thing: I thought the paragraph where the Hn stared at the body and wondered why she felt nothing could have been chopped and the information that this man had saved her from her father bled in somewhere else. It got a bit repetitive. But it was so well written and you could just as easily leave it in. Also some variation in paragraph length maybe.

  2. DS
    Aug 31, 2013 @ 08:23:58

    I would have begun with the 6th paragraph although the first sentence of that paragraph with the weather report is unnecessary at this stage of the story. Both this paragraph and the first paragraph happen in the present so the information from the first paragraph might be added to the sixth.

    I’m not sure I’m the audience for this if it is intended to be some sort of YA crime novel. I read a lot of mystery/police procedurals and noticed things that maybe a more casual reader might not care about.

    I think the way the killers entered which is just glossed over in the narrative– two men had entered the apartment and shot him– would be important if this is really to be a crime novel. Plus if she is already hiding behind the bedroom door for some reason and had been able to see what happened in the living room then she should have seen what happened at the door. Did the murdered man let them in willingly because he expected/knew them? Was he expecting someone else and they pushed their way in when he came to the door? And what sort of an apartment building, especially one lived in by a character who has a false wall in his closet, does not have some sort of security/video in the entrance way? He should have had some warning that someone was on the way up or been surprised when there is a knock at the door.

    Unless the guys were just wrecking the place to wreck it, where they looked for things should give the reader some idea of the size of what they are looking for. It doesn’t sound like they were looking for what she took which required a flight bag to contain it. Also that is a curious combination of items: “computer video discs”– DVDs? plus ledger books? The video and the ledge information could have been easily stored on encrypted thumb drives or data cards which would be easier to hide.

    She waits two hours to make sure the searchers were gone and manages to retrieve car keys from the pocket of a corpse but won’t go back into the “mangled” bedroom for warmer clothes?

    I also found it a bit jarring that someone who is trying to get away from the scene of a murder hauls on a red angora scarf–pretty noticeable if she is seen– and thinks about being thankful for the cashmere lining of her leather gloves.

    Sorry if this sounds nit picky, but it’s the sort of stuff that people who read a lot of crime novels think (and talk to one another) about.

  3. theo
    Aug 31, 2013 @ 10:05:02

    I agree with DS, the sixth paragraph is where the page really starts though leaving out the weather report would be wise at this point. Perhaps substitute ‘the sonofabitch was finally dead’ for the weather?

    I’m not sure I’m your target audience here either, but there were some inconsistencies for me that I would have a hard time getting past. If there are two shooters and they’re desperate enough to kill and then ransack the apartment, I would expect her to feel more while she’s hiding in her closet space, but you only say she’s terrified. How terrified? Are her hands shaking? Is she sweating? Is she chewing on her fist trying not to cry out? I just don’t get much of a sense of raw terror here.

    In fact, I don’t get much of that throughout this. It almost reads like a shopping list in some places because you’re telling me too much and not showing me enough. You tell me she waits two hours. How does she know? Is there a clock in there, ticking away the minutes? How does she feel during that two hours?

    It’s not that the writing isn’t good, but it’s flat. It neither draws me in or makes me want to run, but I won’t read a book that is written like that because always by the end, I’m not looking forward to another, I’m asking myself why I wasted my time.

    I too have some other nitpicky things like the color of the scarf and the fact that she’ll poke around a dead body but won’t easily sidestep it to go back for warmer clothes and really? A red scarf? I love arrest-me-red sportscars, but I don’t drive fast because they draw a lot of attention. The arrest-me-red scarf she’s just put on screams the same thing. And what is her relationship to the dead Homer? At first, I thought she must be his daughter, but her lack of remorse at his death or really, any emotion at all other than disgust at normal occurrences at death tell me probably not. So who then?

  4. Lucy Woodhull
    Aug 31, 2013 @ 11:33:25

    I agree with a lot of the above. I especially want her to just stuff a couple of extra sweaters in that bag if there’s a blizzard. Wouldn’t take a lot of extra time, and will help save your heroine from TSTL (too stupid to live) status.

    I almost didn’t get past the very beginning: “He was dead. The son of a bitch was finally dead. How ironic, sixteen year old Sarra Gray thought…”

    First: “He was dead. The son of a bitch was finally dead.” — you can do better than this. The rest of the piece says so. This is practically “It was a dark and stormy night.”

    Second: “sixteen year old Sarra Gray thought” — does she think of her own age in her own head all the time? “I shouldn’t have eaten that double-bean burrito sixteen-year-old Sarra Gray thought.” Probably not. That’s the author supplying the reader information, and it’s hella clunky. Convey her age another way.

    But not this way — “computer video discs.” No modern teenager in the world would put these words together. They’re DVDs if they must be video, or just make it a flash drive since we’re in 2013. Flash drives can hold anything.

    I think you’re on to something with a few tweaks. Good luck!

  5. coribo25
    Aug 31, 2013 @ 12:59:24

    Kudos for putting this out there. I think you need to streamline to make it less clunky. There’s an awful lot of padding and telling in the sentences when it could be punchy and immediate. This is a teen thinking and observing.

    Do 16 year olds think in terms of son of a bitch? Doesn’t sound like teen language.
    The speech tag, she thought is used twice in the first paragraph, can you think of a way to ditch both?
    Go through and lose some or most of the hads. They slow the writing.
    POP came from the gun in the killer’s hand. Doesn’t make sense.
    That was the only sound that she had heard… clunky.
    ..watched as Homer drop to the floor. Watch out for use of as… More immediate to say watched Homer drop to the floor or just Homer dropped to the floor.
    Use of while, immediately, equals telling.
    There was nothing she could do but…. could you use less words to say the same thing?
    Watch out for passives – voices muttered low,
    Paragraph five suddenly sounds like a historical written in the past ( sounded like twas the night before Christmas) – not a sound did she hear, nor did a door slam..the absolute quiet, hastened to the front door – the language here really doesn’t say present day sixteen year old.
    Watch out for over formality – in a fast paced, tense scene like this you don’t suddenly want the reader thinking they’re reading some technical paper. Ditch words like, discern, emanated, evacuated. explored, abrasively, urine, bowels.
    Overall I’m not getting a sixteen year old here. At the start she’s cold and thinking in terms of irony. Then urine and exacuated bowels when she’d be thinking, gross, he’d peed himself. Would a sixteen year old equate the smell of blood with copper? Would she be thinking she did not consider herself a cold hearted person? Has someone that age formed that kind of opinion of the kind of person they are? You open with her calling Homer a son of a bitch then later she’s stunned that she feels so little grief for him? I don’t get why she’s so stunned at that point.
    Sorry, I don’t feel the tone or language is right for such a gripping, graphic modern day scene or the age of the character. She was thankful for the cashmere lining… Maybe if she was her grandmother. This is the point I’d stop reading I’m afraid.

    But, it’s all an easy fix. Make the language less formal, more direct and make her think and sound like a mid-teen and you’ll be on your way.

  6. ViridianChick
    Aug 31, 2013 @ 13:31:45

    Not bad. I don’t have any real complaints. She doesn’t sound much like a sixteen-year-old to me, though I can’t put my finger on why.

  7. Carol McKenzie
    Aug 31, 2013 @ 14:13:17

    While the story is interesting, the writing gets in the way. And because of that, I wanted to skim through this. I’m taken out of the story at intervals with sentences like:

    “POP came from the gun in the killer’s hand.” Never do I want to read “POP” in a sentence about a gun being fired. That made me want to stop reading right there.

    Same with the Thump! Thump! of the dresser drawers. And it’s okay to say “dresser drawers” rather than drawers from a dresser.

    There are more. But I think the dresser drawer sentence is an example of why the writing gets in the way of the story. It’s clunky, there are unnecessary words, and they’re in a convoluted order.

    “The thud of dresser drawers hitting the floor reached her through the thin walls of the closet. If she could hear that, along with the sound of tearing fabric, could they hear her?” Q&D rewrite.

    I may recognize why this happens. It’s mostly in telling, as in “She heard” “She saw” “She felt”, rather than showing. And when that happens, many sentences tend to start with “She” or in this case, “Sarra.” And in an attempt to vary the start of each sentence, sentences start getting rewritten in awkward ways.

    “Pulling them out, she flinched as the jingle of the keys sounded abrasively loud in the quiet room.” Watch the order in which things are described. The sound of the keys made her flinch. We should hear that sound and then have her reaction.

    “The keys jingled, loud enough to make Sarra flinch, loud enough to make her heart thud painfully against her ribs.”

    Overall, I’m not a YA reader, and I think this might be YA. Or NA…but I’m probably not your audience for this. If it were tightened up, less clunky, then maybe I’d give it a read. But as it stands, I’m not really connecting with Sarra. The only person I’m really interested in is her father and why Homer took her away from him. The father sounds pretty interesting, in an evil sort of way.

    And yes, the red scarf. Unless it’s a crucial element later on, I’d ditch it. She’s being careful with the rest of her outfit, tucking her hair up, etc. The red scarf might as well be a neon sign.

  8. QC
    Aug 31, 2013 @ 17:38:47

    The character doesn’t think like a sixteen-year-old. If the main character had been Homer’s sixty-year-old housekeeper, the language and the appreciation of cashmere lined gloves would have made sense.

    POP bothered me a lot, as did the thumps and the red scarf.

    That said, the plot interests me and I would read on. Thanks for posting and good luck.

  9. Carol McKenzie
    Sep 01, 2013 @ 08:55:08

    One other thing that struck me was your descriptions, such as “thin plaster wall.” Plaster walls, at least in the US, where I think this story is set, are not thin. Plaster walls usually have a layer of plaster. a layer of wood lathe (which the plaster adheres to) and then wall studs. And then that’s repeated on the other side. They’re thick. And they’re not used in modern construction.

    So if your building is an apartment built after the mid ’70s, chances are the walls are drywall. And with that, a man can easily punch his fist through, provided he doesn’t hit a stud. Those are typically “thin” apartment walls, the kind where you can hear the neighbors fighting or having sex.

    It’s details like that, the little nit picky things, that your readers will notice. If you’re not 100% sure what you’re describing, then don’t. Leave it out. In this case, we all know what a wall is…there’s no need to make it a plaster wall.

    It’s padding the descriptions in an effort to make the writing more vivid, which it really isn’t. It’s counter-productive. Same with the cashmere-lined gloves and angora scarf and Navy pea coat, which really is a very heavy wool jacket and over a wool sweater, would be very warm.

    I sound like the fashion police now and I apologize. But it’s things like that, incongruities, that take the reader out of the story.

    Thank you for sharing. It’s a brave thing to put your work out for critique. It’s the one of many steps writers take to improve their craft and it’s one of the hardest.

  10. SAO
    Sep 01, 2013 @ 12:36:27

    It’s really hard to get such a dramatic scene to feel right. How does a person feel when a man (known or liked or not) is murdered a few feet away and the only thing saving her from the killers is her hiding place? How does it feel when the killers are ransacking the place, looking for the hiding place? You didn’t sell me on this scene.

    Perhaps it is because you focused on too much detail, rather than feelings. The angel on the xmas tree, the dresser drawers thumping. You also told us Sarra prayed in terror. I think showing would be more focussed on her, not what the killers were doing.

    Or maybe you just have too much other detail drowning it out. Everything seems to have three adjectives. The old navy pea coat, the gray wool sweater, the tattered blue flight bag, the black knit cap, the gray trousers, the red angora scarf. They really slow Sarra down when she should be getting out of the house fast. They don’t add any real information the way a surplus army coat, vs a black leather coat with studs vs a coat with a velvet or fur collar would.

    And you’ve got to ditch your first para.
    1) “He was dead. The son of a bitch was finally dead.” This would be a good opening line, but not for someone huddled in the back of the closer while killers ransack the house. Is Sarra really thinking about Homer? Or her own predicament?

    2) How ironic, sixteen year old Sarra Gray thought, that the top of the Christmas tree lay within reach of his one outstretched arm, the hand reaching for the white tree top angel just inches from his fingers. A) Is she really thinking about irony with killers on the hunt for her hiding place? B) you need hyphens in 16-year-old to made it one adjective. C) the pronoun ‘his’ is way too far from the source of it. I didn’t even know Homer was in the room, she could have read about his death in the newspaper, so his arm came as quite a surprise, and my first supposition was that Sarra was maybe a boy. D) you don’t mention the tree being on it’s side and top implies it’s upright, so I had trouble with the dead body reaching for the upright tree top. E) You use too many repetitive words to make you point. Two tops, two reaches, two mentions of the hand/arm. F) Sarra has a remarkably good view for being in a hiding place the killers can’t see.

    3) Maybe he was reaching for salvation, she thought bitterly. Really? Is this really what she is thinking at this time? It sounds like authorial attempt at metaphor, not a real person.

    4) But, only the devil would want Homer James. Good line, you don’t need the comma.

    Focus on what Sarra is seeing and feeling, not on what is actually happening. If she’s in a good hiding place, part of the terror is NOT really being sure what’s happening and isn’t she thinking about what she will do if they find her hiding place?

  11. katieM
    Sep 01, 2013 @ 14:09:03

    I like the way the story is going so far. There are some small things that are jarring. Is the story taking place now or several years ago? If it’s taking place now, then flash drives and memory cards are the preferred storage mediums. If it takes place some years ago, then I can understand some of the technology choices.

    I think the character sounds like a worldly 16 year old raised by older people. I didn’t get the impression that she was afraid and I would expect a bit of compassion for the person who saved her from her father. Some of the writing is clunky, but it can be easily cleaned up. I agree with the suggested changes of the above posters.

    This is a good start. Keep writing. I want to read more.

  12. Jayna
    Sep 02, 2013 @ 15:13:25

    Overall, very intriguing. Some POV errors. For example, instead of saying “…sixteen year old…” say, “..in all her sixteen years…” This way, you are fully engaged in the character’s mind, rather than giving facts from a narrator’s POV. I recommend reviewing “Rivet Your Readers with Deep POV” by Jill Nelson. It really opened my eyes and improved my writing so much, and I know it will help yours, too. Blessings!

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