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First Page: The Last Case

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The ghosts in my life had multiplied. One haunted every night; the other appeared briefly to save me and vanished.
On my ride home from work, I started reciting a wish. I was too on the outs with heaven to consider a prayer. Over and over I’d chant, please let me have a restful sleep. Spare me the visions of past mistakes, paths not taken and bleeding children.

My apartment welcomed me with its usual cold dark embrace. I dropped my clothes with the rest of the month’s dirty laundry on the floor. My stomach growled, but it would have to wait until food magically appeared. No energy to order out, I groped my way to my rumpled bed.

I’d close my blood shot eyes and make believe tonight I would be spared. The girl with no luck held on to a flicker of hope. Instead, my mind raced to start the nightmare.

Being the rookie cop, I had been selected to make a cigarette run for the desk sergeant. Not owning a car, I had taken a squad. Strike one.

As I drove down a dark rainy Sault Heights street, a girl stepped out of the shadows in front of my car. Windshield wipers slapped the glass and she appeared streaked in a rainbow of color. She flagged me down. I stopped and got out without a bulletproof vest or radio contact. Strike two.

“Is there a problem, ma’am?” I asked in my police-academy speak.

The wisp of a woman met my gaze with terror in her eyes. The lines on her clothing weren’t from the rain. Blood seeped from her side as she fell to the pavement.

“He’s gonna kill me,” she said, pointing to the alley.

Sporadic light offered up a silhouette of a man, stalking toward us. I pulled my service revolver from the holster. She whimpered and curled around my calf. The next sequence flashed in slow motion.

“Halt. Police,” I said, taking aim.

A gunshot rang out and I returned fire. Another squad arrived and two policemen took up positions behind me. The man had vanished. Not down or staggered, gone.

I went to take a step, stumbled, and landed on the dead body at my feet. Strike three.

My fellow officers shared their observations. The sixteen-year-old girl represented collateral damage in the battle for the streets, inevitable given her choice of profession. She had prior arrests for drug possession and solicitation. Her unclaimed body lay for weeks in a storage drawer at the morgue. Another Jane Doe, buried in a pauper’s grave, compliments of the county. I attended to my life in body, not spirit. Crushed by disappointment in myself and vanquished by the system, my soul retreated from my psyche and left an empty shell. The coldness grew inside, built into an iceberg, and waited for me to sink.

After an inquiry and reprimand for taking a squad without permission, I made my way back to work with the assistance of a secret friend.

Vodka, only when absolutely necessary.

The shooting happened six years ago, but replayed nightly on a continuous loop.

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

18 Comments

  1. SAO
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 04:32:25

    I like thrillers and woman researching a crime that’s haunted her is one of my favorite tropes. So, I should be your reader.

    However, you’ve convinced me that this woman shouldn’t be a cop. She’s too traumatized by the death of a stranger to do the job. “Crushed by disappointment in myself and vanquished by the system, my soul retreated from my psyche and left an empty shell.” After one rookie mistake that frankly, I’m not sure an experienced cop could have prevented?

    So, I’m not all that interested in reading about the unnamed MC self-flagellate. Everyone had to learn in life to move on. Six years and she hasn’t? Every single afternoon, she starts dreading the nightmare and then skips dinner?

    Unless this is about someone losing their sanity, like in Lehane’s Shutter Island, you need to tone this down.

  2. Carol McKenzie
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 06:39:41

    I agree with SAO. This is over the top and far too melodramatic for me to want to read further, if this is the MC…or if this is the tone for the rest of the story. The self-imposed sentence seems far to severe for a death she didn’t even cause, or even precipitate. (That sounds harsh, sorry.)

    Thanks for sharing Author. I don’t think this is the story for me.

  3. Kate Sherwood
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 06:49:48

    I agree that this response seems a bit over the top. I think most modern police forces have mandatory counseling for officers involved in traumatic situations, and they’d certainly be monitoring your character for signs of stress, which I kind of doubt she could hide given this level of trauma.

    Or maybe I’m just conditioned to the stereotypical male (fictional) cop, responding to trauma with repression, alcohol, and then explosive anger. I think this inward-turning reaction IS more typically female… And I’m not sure it’s less healthy than the stereotypical male response… so maybe you’re actually okay. But it took me a lot of thinking to get to that conclusion, and I’m still not sure it’s accurate. I don’t think you can count on your readers to do all that work on the first page of a novel.

    Other than that – there’s a rhythm to your writing that I’m not really able to analyze, but it’s a bit lulling, which probably isn’t what you’re looking for on a first page. Maybe someone else will notice that and will be better at identifying the cause!

    And, as usual… this is backstory. Nothing changes on this page. This same thing has been going on for months, and it’s still going on. You’re going to need to get to something new pretty fast.

  4. Kate Sherwood
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 06:52:10

    @Kate Sherwood:

    ETA: I was also going to say that I wasn’t sure what the error was that the officer made. Apparently she shouldn’t have taken the squad car? And I guess she shouldn’t have gone without a vest or radio? But neither of these caused or even contributed to the girl’s death… maybe the mistake is obvious, but I’m not seeing it.

  5. Carol McKenzie
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 07:11:41

    @Kate: I get what you mean by the lulling quality, almost like reading poetry. The sentences are similar in length, in syllables, and cadence. It’s actually easy to make the one small section rhyme by changing the last phrase.

    On my ride home from work, I started reciting a wish.
    I was too on the outs with heaven to consider a prayer.
    Over and over I’d chant, please let me have a restful sleep.
    Spare me the visions of past mistakes, paths not taken; make me no longer care.

    That cadence seems to repeat throughout. I think it’s also compounded by a muffled quality…the entire thing for me reads as one dull color. There are no highlights in the writing to contrast all the low lights.

  6. QC
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 08:21:33

    I agree about the lulling effect of the writing. I would read poetry by this author.

    As to the MC being haunted by a death she didn’t cause and the mistakes she made, perhaps this is part of her journey–realizing she is not cut out to be a police officer, or realizing she has to toughen up. People that go through POST (police) training have way of knowing, despite training, how they will initially react to the reality of their job. Being trained about shooting and being shot at–especially when one is not prepared, i.e. not wearing a vest, not having the radio–are two different things. Of course she would beat herself up for these mistakes. They could have gotten her killed.

    Thanks for putting this out there, author.

  7. QC
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 08:22:53

    Uh…that would be “no” way of knowing, despite training…

    Going for the caffeine now. :)

  8. Jane Lovering
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 08:31:37

    My advice would be to start your novel with that last line, ‘The shooting happened six years ago, but replayed nightly on a continuous loop.’ It’s a line that tells us what happened, tells us that the protag is still suffering – do we really need to know *which* shooting, or is it simply the fact that it happened that causes our heroine such distress? Cut all the ‘this happened in the past’ and start with the ‘this is happening to me now’. It’s at that point, the point where things start to change, that your story begins. All the stuff about the ‘secret friend’ and the vodka and the bad dreams, that can be drip-fed to us throughout the opening chapters.

  9. theo
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 08:35:13

    When you apply to the Police Academy, you are subjected to a rigorous background check. There is no way they wouldn’t have known about ‘the incident’ and no way they would have hired her without some heavy psychological evaluations. And somewhere along the line, the lightbulb would have gone off for one of those people evaluating her and she wouldn’t have been hired. That’s the first mistake I see.

    The second is the tone of her existence that you’re trying to impart here. If she’s in that much of a daze that she can’t focus on the daily trappings of life, someone in the department would have hauled her aside and at the least, given her the third on what’s going on with her.

    Third, this is so over-the-top that I had to read through it twice before I caught everything. If I have to work that hard, I’m not going to read it. I read for enjoyment unless it’s for my job.

    All of that said, your story doesn’t really get interesting until the fourth paragraph. Cut the first three. They make me not like your Hn and that gives me no real reason to read on. Someone that sorry for themselves is not a person I can spend 300 pages with and I get the feeling she’ll be like that for most of them.

    Wow, okay…reading through it a third time after reading the comments here, I now see that paragraph three/four is her telling her nightmare. That only makes things worse from an attention grabbing perspective. There’s no smooth flow into the nightmare. Everything is written in gasps. Short sentences that don’t get the chance to develop a rhythm or cadence that the reader needs. Maybe I’m the only one who had trouble with that. I don’t know.

    You might have a good story here. Right now, it’s not interesting enough to make me want to find out.

  10. Kate Sherwood
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 08:38:57

    @theo:

    Well, I think “the incident” happened after she’d been hired… she was going to get cigarettes for the desk sergeant, in a police car… surely she’s already a cop?

  11. MJones
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 08:55:59

    I think I get where the author is going. I also think it needs more finesse to get to that point. I see the grab for emotion, the need for us to feel her character’s stress and strain, haunted by memories of a mistake, a recurring nightmare. I do agree, though, with above comments that it’s too much, too soon, over the top. Hint at it. Less is more.

    I was reading the interpretation of the dream and thinking, no no no! This should come later, MUCH later, after a ton of overcoming and maybe some therapy and a harrowing experience and maybe the dream comes to life and the character gets a chance to ‘get it right’.

    As it is, this isn’t a readable novel for me, but the potential and direction is clear. Work on it. Could be something.

  12. wikkidsexycool
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 09:00:00

    Hello Author,

    Thanks for having the courage to post this. When I first started writing, my initial efforts read like yours. I wanted to make sure my sentences were both literary and perfect, but they were so clipped that my character had no voice. Instead of inhabiting the character, too much of me came out.

    Right now, you’re so focused on telling the story of a cop who can’t move forward because of the trauma in her past, that you’ve giving the reader your whole premise on the first page, but since her “voice” is written in the first person, you’ve not given her any character. She narrates like a police procedural.

    The thing is, first person can be the hardest choice unless you’re confident in the voice you’ve chosen for your narrator. Which means you have to inhabit your character, and you haven’t done that yet, not from this first page. I’m also of the mind that this isn’t where your story starts, especially with all the backstory.

    True, you’ve put in a bit of action, but that’s also in flashback, and a lot of good first person really works because the reader is in the moment with the character imho.

    I’d also have to agree with SAO and the other commenters who took a closer look at your sentences and noticed a pattern.

    That’s a good thing, because sometimes it’s difficult to see what should be re-worked.
    Now it’s important to let the reader know what makes your character tick.
    I get that she’s got guilt and depression and is trying to self medicate with Vodka.

    But people exhibit depression in several ways. There’s self mutilation, isolation, hoarding, etc. I wouldn’t add any of those to what you’ve already given her. I’d say there would be one major issue and the rest would be symptoms.

    There are so many avenues you can go down with this type of character. Perhaps she’s an over achiever and still wants the world to think she’s got it together, yet every night she roams the streets in search of the killer she let get away, becoming a vigilante.

    Only even that goes terribly wrong.

    But in your work’s present state, readers may not get to that part, because you’ve not fleshed her out and made her a living, breathing character. She’s still formless, and its up to you to decide whether she should be gruff but sensitive, or a total a-hole who comes full circle.

    I wish you the best with this. Maybe you can post a short blurb, giving a follow up on your progress.

  13. QC
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 09:00:17

    You know…I missed the last line about the shooting occurring six years ago. Hmm. If the MC has been in a tailspin over this for six years, then I do have a problem with this. Six years is a long time to beat herself up over a rookie mistake and a death that wasn’t her fault.

  14. Patty H.
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 09:42:45

    Some of this works for me. I have a job where people tell me a lot about themselves. I have known a few people (in what I would call ‘highly responsible positions’) that on the outside seem very capable but on the inside are completely messed up. Their private life might contain alcoholism, abuse, hoarding, etc. The lulling quality of the writing reflects how stuck the protagonist is and first person pov keeps her stuck in her own head.

    However, right now I feel like the protag is feeling sorry for herself, which makes me not like her–and I want to like her. I know this is only first pages, but I want to see something that makes me root for her. I want to see a contrast, is she still a cop? Does she function at work? If no, then pretty quickly we need a catalyst to make her pull herself up by her bootstraps. It’s been six years! If you don’t give me a reason to root for her I’ll just walk away.

    Think about goal, motivation, and conflict and let us see it. Good luck!

  15. Marianne McA
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 11:30:46

    I like your title.

    I feel nitpicky about the first lines – the way that I naturally read them takes me out of the story. Perhaps I just read them in an idiosyncratic way. However, I’m going to describe my reading of them anyway because first lines are important.
    When I read ‘the ghosts’ I assume two or more. Then ‘had multiplied’ gives me – well, frankly, it gives me a minimum of four, because that’s the smallest multiple of two, which is the smallest number of ghosts she had to start with. But I could live with the word ‘multiplied’ being used more loosely: I’d have read past three ghosts. However, in the next sentence ‘one…the other’ gives me only two ghosts haunting her and – in my head – she had at least two to start with so that, rather than being drawn into the story by the intriguing opening, you lost me immediately because I had to stop and reread to see where I’d miscalculated.

    Sorry to be so very picky – and good luck.

  16. Shaya Gilford
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 11:47:29

    The others have commented on problems with the tone and character, so I’m going to stick to the technicalities. You have some verb tense confusion that muddles the transition from present to past. “…I groped my way to my rumpled bed. I’d close my blood shot eyes…” If the part following when she closes her eyes happens every night, then there should be a transitional before “I’d.”

    “I went to take a step” is awkward and passive. Make it an active sentence. There are also some places that would benefit from commas.

    I think this page is fixable with some stringent editing and the addition of at least one characteristic to make the heroine appear likable and worth rooting for. As is, I want to toss her into intensive counseling and wait until she emerges a few months later before meeting her again. I strongly agree with Jane to start the novel with that last line.

  17. Willaful
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 14:15:11

    Writers often work overly hard to find synonyms for “said,” but in these two instances, it seems to need some embellishment:

    “He’s gonna kill me,” she said, pointing to the alley.

    “Halt. Police,” I said, taking aim.

    These are tense, dramatic statements that come across as very flat.

  18. jamie beck
    Feb 09, 2014 @ 11:26:43

    While I agree with a majority of the sentiment expressed by others, I think it might work okay if we were starting with her in the midst of another ‘tense’ situation on the job.

    Maybe open with her being in the middle of another showdown that triggers the past memory and causes her to hesitate or screw up. Then you have an active, exciting opening with a more natural link to important back story. I think it is okay for her to be forever affected in some way by a situation in which someone died (although I might choose a past trigger that was more directly related to some failure of hers, not her sort of being in the wrong place and the wrong time). I don’t think you want her to go on and on about it, although when she gets home from the current bad situation, perhaps she pours a stiff drink and makes a sarcastic quip about “one of these days” she’ll bury the ghost that apparently still hinders her on the job.

    I’m just brainstorming here, not giving it too much thought. But if you start stronger, have her go home AFTER another bad incident, then a little self-pity/irritation might be more understandable/tolerable to the reader.

    Good luck!

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