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First Page: COLD FISH

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Note: the is the first page of a crime drama

Floating peacefully while staring into space, her long limbs outstretched in the middle of the cool pond, she made a vibrant image with her pink tankini and sleek red hair, the green branches and bushes reflecting on the mirror-like water around her. A few feet away a fine ripple expanded, circling a dark shape slowly sinking, spewing a few air bubbles that popped softly as they reached the surface. Ellie, interrupting her daydream, turned her head towards the faint sound, and waited. Was the mass sinking to the bottom? The bubbles stopped, she looked irritably at the underwater form, not moving. Advancing towards the submerged shadow, she grabbed a handful of black hair and pulled up. The body followed easily enough, a young naked girl, with lifeless blue eyes, a blotchy face and an ugly red welt below her chin.

Where to hide this thing? Ellie thought. She did not want to dig a hole, this was a secluded spot anyway, the pond was popular during the very hot summer days, but otherwise nobody came here since there were more scenic and pleasant areas in the countryside nearby. The bushes? Stepping carefully while holding the wet baggage trailing her, she discovered a space behind a short prickly pine, below some birch overhangs. Ellie lifted the body and pushed it with all her strength against the conifer's flimsy flexible limbs, the branches gave way and the full cavity in front of the more mature trees was revealed. The dead girl settled nicely in the small alcove, the pine branches an effective screen.

In time, the odor might attract some wild life or curious swimmers, she considered. By then, she would be safe and away, with nothing concrete to connect her to her neighbor’s daughter, just another anonymous dead sweetie, found miles away from home. Ellie climbed out of the pond, and returned to her blue Ford Taurus, her arms itchy from the needle scratches. It was late June, a warm Sunday morning, with the rest of the day to tie up any loose ends. Monday was back to work, the school year not quite over yet. As their psychology consultant, she had some meetings to attend at the Toronto School Board building. The agenda was to prepare the following year's teacher seminars, the most important topics: how to recognize the signs of child abuse, and how to control bullies on school property.

The long drive back was exhilarating across the fields, small towns and highways, enhanced with the late spring euphoria. Ellie's destination was a North York suburb, one of those old rent controlled brick triplex with balconies in front and back housing six tenants, perfect for an up and coming young professional with student loans to pay. She enjoyed the top right flat, and was friendly with the woman sharing the upper floor. Alicia had invited her to supper the afternoon before, and since Ellie was in one of her rare sociable mood, she went.

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

23 Comments

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  2. DS
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 08:51:05

    It’s interesting, but I found myself wondering why the girl’s body is naked while the point of view character is wearing a “tankini”.

    (I also decided I did not like that word, it’s the first time I have run into it. Of course that Has nothing to do with the author’s writing ability.)

    “Stepping carefully while holding the wet baggage trailing her . . . .” Not sure what is actually happening here. Is she describing the girl as a baggage (probably too Regency), the girl’s body as a piece of baggage or does she have some damp luggage with her? If it’s the girl’s body is it being carried or dragged?

    I might go on reading, I might not. In other words, I don’t find it compelling.

  3. TKF
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 10:48:38

    Who is the one floating in the first sentence. I’m already lost. Is it Ellie or the dead girl? If it’s Ellie–and I think it is–there is a serious POV issue (as in she’s thinking of her own long limbs and the color of her own hair).

    And the rest of it just so distant. There’s no immediacy. Partially, I think this is due to the use of thought tags (she thought, she considered, etc.). These push us out of the POV character’s head and into a dull, almost omniscient narrative.

  4. Barbara
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 10:51:56

    I don’t like the word tankini either. It’s just a thing, I guess. It’s sort of ..cutesy? On my first read-through, my initial thought was that there were too many adjectives. I’m guilty of that myself.

    Second read-through, I was wondering how big this dead girl was. Was she dragging her or carrying her? She’d be leaving a hell of a trail to follow if she was dragging her, even if this was a secluded spot, not to mention that she’d be unable to step carefully.

    I thought it was compelling though and would want to read more. I’m into creepy sociopathic killer things.

  5. Darlynne
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 10:59:30

    Is this a story about a killer of young women who also happens to be a psychologist for a school board? I don’t even know what to say and I’ve read it over a couple of times to be sure.

    Someone would have to explain to me, at length and well, why a character who reads like a sociopath is of interest or worth my time. The schism between Ellie’s unemotional disposal of a dead body and the info dump–about school, apartment buildings, the long drive back–is just too jarring.

    I should state that I am a huge fan of mysteries and worked for years in a mystery book store. Perhaps my adverse reaction to the story would have been tempered if, as other submissions here have done, a tag of “Romantic Suspense” or “Crime Novel” had been included along with the title. As it is, I started reading what I thought would be a romance and quickly realized was anything but.

    I’m sorry, my intention is not to be unkind, but there is no way I would continue reading.

  6. gwynnyd
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 11:26:58

    Too many issues for me too.

    For example: “She did not want to dig a hole.” Was digging a hole even an option? Did she have a shovel nearby – has she brought one with her in the car or something – or was she planning on scooping up the dirt with her bare hands?

    If Ellie is the focus of the romance, I’m completely turned off by the thought of a sociopath protagonist and I’m backing away now. If she’s not the focus, and the romance is going to be between neighbor who’s kid she just killed and some female detective who are tracking her down (or some other combination of good guys), this might work as a prologue, but it is very badly labelled for this venue.

    But if this killer sociopath is not the focus, why the chatty infodump? Stop the narrative after “the rest of the day to tie up loose ends” and let the reader discover the connection later. If this is romantic suspense, leave some suspense in the intro. If it’s not and Ellie is the focus, see above, I have no interest in continuing to read.

    Nope. Makes no sense at all to me. Sorry.

  7. Lori
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 11:35:41

    The construct just doesn’t work. Ellie is floating in the pond while the girl she killed is not sinking to the bottom. So then she drags the body out and buries her under a tree.

    But then she climbed out of the pond again and got into her car, not changing clothes or wiping down or anything. And then back to her mundane life of murdering children and counseling people on how to protect them.

    Since I can’t stand anything about hurt children, I wouldn’t read more. But based on this I also wouldn’t because the writing is sloppy. You’re working too hard on tone and ignoring the basic construction of your scene.

    My advice is to visualize the steps your character is taking and then write it down. Floating, dragging, upending trees, back in the water, going home … it made little sense and all seemed much too easy. And a child’s waterlogged body is going to be heavy unless she’s under school age. There might be a little exertion described also.

  8. the author
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 12:04:56

    I should step in and say that my submission was under the ‘crime-drama’ genre, not the usual fare here, I am surprised Jane did not include that information at the top of the page.
    I can understand how offensive this text can be if it’s not what you expect.
    I start the story with the antagonist, there is a protagonist coming along, once she gets home.
    Its influenced by the TV show DEXTER, where a cop is a killer in his spare time.
    If you read carefully, Ellie remains in the pond with the body of the girl, who is 8 years old, to a hiding spot along it’s edge.
    The voice is in the 3rd person POV past tense. Might be some errors there. I’m an emerging writer, with little experience.
    Thank you for your feedback.

  9. TKF
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 12:35:09

    If you read carefully, Ellie remains in the pond with the body of the girl, who is 8 years old, to a hiding spot along it's edge.

    We did read carefully. All of us. Multiple times. It’s really very confusing.

    I’d advise that you really put yourself into deep POV and write from there. She can’t see herself in the pond, but she can feel the water on her limbs, see the reflection of the trees, etc. Give us what she sees and feels, not what we would see if we were viewing this like a film.

    Best of luck with it.

  10. Jane
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 12:38:47

    @the author Sorry, I made the update.

  11. theo
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 14:16:14

    I’m sorry. I too read carefully. I shouldn’t have to read that carefully. Not in the opening two paragraphs especially. My first thought was, Ellie is floating in a pool and some girl’s body just dropped from where into the water and Ellie isn’t even surprised. Did the other girl get shot? Was she already in the water and Ellie just didn’t see her? And why isn’t Ellie upset or shocked or…anything!

    The next paragraph’s first sentence, “Where to hide this thing?” and I was done. There are just way too many things I either have to sift through, reread or overlook and frankly, I didn’t care about Ellie enough to try. If she’s that far into lala land that a dead body floating in the pool doesn’t disturb her, then I don’t want to know anything else.

    Yes, I know you explained that she is actually your antagonist. You shouldn’t have to explain that. It should be clear within the first few sentences. There are mysteries that open with the antagonist. That’s nothing new. John Sandford comes to mind. But it’s not easy to do and do well.

    I read mysteries as much as I do romance and for several years, read more of the former. I would have set this one back on the shelf as muddled and confusing to me as this opening is. I don’t want to have to work that hard to figure things out. Sorry. But kudos for putting it out there. It’s a very hard thing to do.

  12. Berinn
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 14:19:42

    I couldn’t get into this. The purple prose kept pulling me out of the story, and I felt myself focusing on the sentences more than the story. It feels overly written. Part of the problem may be my new year hangover, but I had to reread the passage a couple times to see what was going on. Don’t let your story get imprisoned by your sentences. I think there may a really good scene there – let it come out.

  13. Anonymouse
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 14:52:34

    This makes every mistake in the book: the passive sentences, the overwriting, the purple prose, the run on sentences, the lack of correct punctuation…it’s an overcomplicated mess of a first page that completely obscures any sense of time, place, POV, action, character…

    Simple is always better. Clear, direct deep POV has ten times the impact of overwritten purple prose.

  14. jch
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 15:12:40

    Even knowing the genre, I am still just too creeped out by the image of a murdered little girl’s body being handled like so much trash on the very first page. Anything involving a child’s violent death is a very touchy thing, and I would question placing it so front-and-center – you are more likely to turn people off than intrigue them.

    I think there is also an issue of no real transition from that horrifying image to the following paragraph with the antagonist’s backstory (“exhilarating…enhanced with the late spring euphoria”). I get that the intent is to illustrate Ellie’s “cold fish” mentality, but I think it’s a lot to expect a reader to process the idea of a child’s murder so quickly and to move beyond it enough to care about Ellie’s profession and living arrangements.

    Berinn said it very well: “Don't let your story get imprisoned by your sentences.” Sentence structure is confusing throughout, and word choices could be more carefully made, for example: “Stepping carefully…”. Like others have mentioned, I was also confused about where she was, what she was doing, etc. How does she “step” while in a pond? Maybe describe the squashy muck beneath her feet, the feel of the pond plants as she brushes by them, etc., to help set the scene more clearly.

    Generally, there were a lot of areas where I had to read and re-read to understand what was happening, and that’s not a good thing.

    I think you’ve got a handle on the creepiness factor. As others have said, just get in there and work on the sentence structure and overall clarity, and consider reader reaction.

    Thanks for sharing your work. :)

  15. Tasha
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 15:31:22

    I realized immediately this was influenced by Dexter. In fact, you might want to go back and re-read the first couple of pages of Darkly Dreaming Dexter to see how POV was handled there; the first couple of pages drew me right in, without creating a lot of confusion.

  16. the author
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 16:43:03

    Ok. I probably made many/every mistake in the book (of creative writing?) anonymouse, but as you ask me to be simple and clear, your comments aren’t clear to me. What is purple prose?

    This story is creepy, I wanted to make the first paragraphs shocking in their contrast and texture, reflecting Ellie’s character.

    My biggest mistake was submitting ‘the first page’ of this particular piece of fiction I wrote 6 months ago. This story starts with the end, then unravels to explain what happened, when where and how in the first chapter. The second chapter introduces the protagonist and becomes a ‘catch the killer if you can’ tale.

    I appreciate the comments, that’s why I did this. As the author this time around, I find it’s a heck of a lot easier to judge and be critical than being on the receiving end… Still learning.

  17. BlueRose
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 17:28:16

    Purple prose is over described over detailed wordiness thats unnecessary to the story

    ie

    she made a vibrant image with her pink tankini and sleek red hair, the green branches and bushes reflecting on the mirror-like water

    Why do we care that she makes a vibrant image. Why do we care about the colour of her hair or anything on the opening page of a book?

    My biggest nitpick with this story is the timeline – you say the spot is deserted and only used during hot summer days but at the end you describe ‘late spring euphoria’. Its only a short period of time from late spring to summer – how long do you think it would take the body to decompose?

  18. Maria
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 17:41:32

    It takes a lot of guts to put your work out there for people to critique, especially in a forum such as this one. And it’s even harder not to take it personally.

    Keep your chin up. Don’t let this be a negative start to your new year. Remember the critique is of your work, not you personally, and the comments are aimed to make your work better, not make you feel bad.

    Best of luck.

  19. DM
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 18:22:12

    The prose, as others have pointed out, is unclear. But even cleaned up, this passage would still present a problem. There is no drama.

    Drama occurs when someone wants something badly and encounters difficulty getting it. Drama requires a character, a need, and an obstacle. You have only one out of three.

    In this passage, Ellie moves a body. She has no need to do so, and she encounters no obstacle to doing so.

    If, however, Ellie heard a family of campers approaching, and the body, though she had weighted it, kept rising to the surface, she would have a need: to conceal the body. And if she needed to move the body, but discovered that the corpse’s foot was caught on something under the water, she would have an obstacle.

    And you would have a scene. What you have now is slice of life. It’s slice of a killer’s life, but it’s slice of life all the same.

    Entertaining fiction requires the superlative. No one wants to read about the second worst day in any character’s life. They want to read about the worst day in that character’s life, the one with the steepest obstacle, because that is where the drama is found.

    Until you’ve mastered the basic principles of drama, you’re just spinning your wheels. Stop writing and bust out that high school copy of the Poetics and apply its principles to your own work, as though you weren’t the author. Better yet read Lajos Egri’s take on the subject.

  20. Berinn
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 19:02:50

    @theauthor: I think it’s awesome that you shared your writing with us. Laying your work out there for hungry critters is a very hard thing to do, and I totally respect you for that. Read through all the advice. Use what works, and most importantly, stay true to your voice. Best wishes!

  21. Sao
    Jan 01, 2011 @ 19:51:32

    What i didn’t like was Elie was too matter of fact. Instead of getting her as creepy, ia felt like she was empty. I didn’t know her. And i, too, was confused because she seemed to be floating peacefully in the pond, when a body appeared. It took me a Long time to figure out she was the kiler.

    But, ultimately, when i pick,up a book, i want to meet the heroine. If i start off with the bad guy, i want some reason to believe she will be hard to catch. A body in what i took to be a fqirly public pond in swimming weather, did not look like a challenge for the detective.

    That said, i far prefer not to know whodunnit, than to watch the dete tive figuee out what i already know.

    So, although i prefer suspense to romance i’m not all that interested in this one. I certainky wouldn’t want to spend a chapter with Ellie before i got to the heroine or hero.

    This was an interesting exercise, but i suspect starting with chapter 2is a better idea

  22. Lynne Connolly
    Jan 02, 2011 @ 08:25:32

    Author – I think there’s a disconnect here. This is a romance reading venue, and there are certain expectations that aren’t fulfilled. If you were writing a “straight” thriller, then this makes much more sense.

    I haven’t read the Dexter books, but this reminds me of something by Ruth Rendell under her creepier pseudonym. But Rendell is a master of what she does, and you have somewhere to go.

    Lots and lots of kudos to you for submitting your work. I think most of the commenters are right – you do have some way to go before this is ready, but don’t give up. Keep going. The only people who lose out are the ones who give up. Sometimes the learning is in the journey, so go for it.

    To specifics – the piece isn’t clear. That’s the main thing. Try writing the whole piece in the first person, then transposing it back to third. Be hard on yourself, and only include what you character will really be thinking. Don’t worry about the reader at this stage, just get it down. The time to consider the reader is when you start revisions, IMO, because if you don’t write from the heart, you won’t get anywhere.
    Passive sentences are when someone is having something done to them rather than being the doer. Those kinds of sentences are often characterised by the use of the verb “to be” and its various forms. They’re often easier to write, and sometimes they are the right choice, but not always, because it tends to deaden prose and add distance. So turn those sentences around.

    Mainly, I think your problem is that you’re not delving into the scene deeply enough. Take this sentence:
    “Ellie lifted the body and pushed it with all her strength against the conifer's flimsy flexible limbs, the branches gave way and the full cavity in front of the more mature trees was revealed”
    What did it feel like to lift the body? Did she grunt with the effort, does she work out, and if it was wet, was it hard to keep hold of it? Did the conifer shed needles or leaves, did the bark scrape her or her burden? And the second part is a passive “was revealed” and is easy to turn around.

    Anyway, give it a go. Try the first person trick, and see if that helps.

  23. Anonymouse
    Jan 02, 2011 @ 09:29:43

    My comments don’t have to be clear. I’m not trying to get them published. Though I would argue that the bigger problem is not me using the term purple prose, but you not understanding it. If you’re truly serious about getting published, you need to know about terms like this- but more than that, you need to be less defensive and more thick skinned. You will hear much worse from far more important people than you’ve heard here. And quite frankly, the people here have been much nicer about your attitude in the face of critique than I’ve seen them be in the past.

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