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Saturday First Page: Alias, an Action Romance

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Healing is a matter of time, but it’s also a matter of opportunity. Hippocrates said that about 2500 years ago, but he wasn’t talking about criminals. Nevertheless, it was something carved into the cinderblock wall of cell 112B. Actually carved—they usually didn’t spend that kind of effort, Sharpie being the preferred method of decorating here at Livingston—and so it stuck out in Ethan’s memory. Like the permanence achieved through etching the words into three dimensions equated to a slot in his long-term memory. The other bit of eloquence he’d gleaned from these walls was one of the prison world’s greatest hits – When the world shuts a door, God opens a window.

Ethan Rafe was a prison guard, had been for seven years now, and that meant that he’d shut his fair share of doors. It also meant that he was the first line of defense against God, should the Almighty care to start opening windows.

It wasn’t quite the glamorous job his mother liked to brag about to her power-walking club of chattery old women. She had hoped he’d be on the three-piece suit side of criminal law—a lawyer, or something with a business card, at least. It wasn’t quite the job Ethan liked to brag about, himself, unless he was in a bar with his buddies, which was frequently. Ethan was lucky, he was 6’ 5”, broad across the chest, with a strong jaw coupled with the ability to wear a fantastic five o’clock shadow. He looked like the kind of guy that had been minted for work as a guard for the sole purpose of posing shirtless in the yearly fund-raising calendar. When Ethan mentioned his line of work, a listener would sit up taller, buy Ethan a drink, and either shake his hand or slip him a phone number depending on whether they wore a skirt or not.

Looks went a long way in earning respect for a job that otherwise sounded like a glorified security detail. The guards with paunches, weak chins, shiny bald foreheads and dull eyes never got strangers to buy them drinks when they mentioned career choices. Sometimes they’d garner the handshake though, because American’s loved Bruce Willis and somehow, they seemed to lump together prison guards as his near cousins.

The funny thing about this job as modern-day superhero was that is was about as dull as a lecture on eliciting boredom. Sure, there were spikes of excitement, but those were rare. And opportunities for thinking were even more elusive than excitement.

Mostly, Ethan’s job was painfully-honed dull with the occasional flash of change. In fact, Ethan was ready to create some change, himself.

“I’ll be asking for a transfer.” He said with the raise of his barely touched glass of whatever was on tap. Ed and Keller, his best buddies, swiveled their heads in his direction but didn’t seem to understand the language which had just been spoken. Ed blinked hard and held it, like a man who’d been punched in the nose and was waiting for the sting to register in his brain.

“No,” was all he said in anticlimactic response.

Ed was the oldest of the group and with his balding head and bags under his eyes always came in prepared to pay for what he was thirsty for, while his wife of 15 years made sure that he remembered that he was never very thirsty. Ed had three noisy kids that he loved, and they seemed to return the affection by pestering him until his patience was paper-thin. And that’s how Ed came to work every morning– looking like he’d just escaped off the doormat to hell and that if he wasn’t so grateful for the respite offered by being surrounded by murderers, he might snap. But in the 10 years Ethan had known him, Ed had never snapped. He just lived within varying degrees to the north and south of paper-thin nerves.

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

24 Comments

  1. Marianne McA
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 06:39:34

    I’d buy it in a heartbeat from that excerpt.

    And I’m reluctant to say more because I liked it so much. However, just fyi, and not because it’s incorrect, but because it’s pretty much the only thing in the passage that I didn’t like, the repetition of the word ‘but’ in the second sentence didn’t strengthen the opening for me – and I’m not a writer, so I can’t work out why.
    Just as a matter of personal taste I’d rather it was a different word on the second occasion e.g.’ Hippocrates said that about 2500 years ago, though he wasn’t talking about criminals.’

    Good luck.

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  2. SAO
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 07:00:26

    I loved a number of the lines, like the one about Ethan being the one to shut windows or scraped off the doormat of hell, but I wasn’t sold on this.

    1) He’s been doing a job he’s ashamed of (glorified security detail) for seven years? So, now he’s going to *ask* for a transfer? And his buddies are sure he’s not the sort to do that. Not a go-getter.

    2) I know as much about Ed as Ethan, but if Ethan’s about to go somewhere else, who cares about Ed?

    If Ethan’s making a big life change, I’d like to see what motivates him, as the opening scene.

    Further, you’re really more in omniscient than Ethan’s POV. Wore a 5 o’clock shadow well? Is that what a guy is going to think about himself?

    6’5″ and broad of chest is scary big. I’d expect on anyone other than a blond cherub, a 5 o’clock shadow is going to look intimidating rather than sexy.

    You’ve obviously got great writing skills and your choice of a prison guard makes this a different book from the run-of-the-mill, but I think you need to start somewhere else.

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  3. Maria
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 08:26:52

    I have to respectfully disagree with the other commentor, 6’5″ broad of chest and 5 o’clock shadow is exactly what I find sexy because of the rough around the edges quality, and I’m already pretty tall myself.

    I too am not a writer, and I usually lurk on 1st page Saturday because I enjoy the discourse. I felt the description at the begininng was too long, nothing was happening except a description of the pros and cons of his job. I did like the bit about hippocrates and the window. I would read on though because I like your voice and the different setting.

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  4. Abbie Rhoades
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 08:29:29

    Hey Writer of the Action Romance!

    Let me start by saying that anything I suggest is just a suggestion. Don’t ever make a change to your work unless it feels right to you.

    You have a good voice and writing talent. And it’s cool that your hero is a prison guard.

    IMHO–
    This section is in omniscient pov rather than 3rd. Because really how often does a guy go around thinking to himself, “Yep I’m 6’5, broad of chest, and have a great 5 o’clock shadow.” Because he wouldn’t think that, unless he’s a huge narcissist, that equates to not being in deep 3rd. Deep 3rd is a powerful way to connect with readers because the reader feels like the story is happening to them, rather than just reading about it.

    Most of the piece is backstory. I’d recommend starting ‘in scene’. All those details you used can be dribbled in. As it is you are ‘telling’ the reader about your character instead of ‘showing’ the reader your character. Starting the story ‘in scene’ will make it ‘feel’ like an action romance. Right now it feels more literary since its just info about the character–there’s no action.

    I really really like your opening paragraph (but maybe not as the opening). For some reason it reminded me of the Count of Monte Cristo, which I love. But it would be tons more effective if you set it ‘in scene’. Let the reader be with Ethan when he sees this and notices the words etched in the wall. As it is now, since you continue with a lot of backstory, it gets lost in all the info. And it may not be the most effective way to begin the story, but definitely don’t get rid of it–use it somewhere else. I loved it!

    Keep Writing!
    Abbie

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  5. dick
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 08:41:03

    Sorry. Nothing in the passage gave me any reason to be interested in Ethan. Telling that he planned to leave in the first sentence might be a better hook.

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  6. Ashlyn Macnamara
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 09:04:28

    I second Abbie Rhoades’ suggestions. My impression of this page mirrors hers, pretty much. I will add that it confused me for a moment that Ethan was actually in the bar with his buddies, because of the way the opening paragraphs read. With that lovely description of the etching in the wood, I was expecting we were in scene in the prison itself and Ethan was just discovering the quote. So yes, use that, but when Ethan is facing it.

    The other suggestion I might have here is this opening is very static. If you’re planning on writing an action romance, why not consider dropping the reader into some action, if not on page one, then as close as you can to page one without confusing us?

    Your writing has a lot of potential, so keep at it.

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  7. Cara Ellison
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 09:07:16

    I thought it odd that the first real thought we get – that healing is a matter of time is carved into a cinderblock – is utterly forgotten in the rest of the passage. Ethan isn’t even shown doing action until he was in the bar, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with “healing is a matter of time.” I felt a little jerked around since we began in the cinderblock cell and ended up in a bar. Also, there was no mention of what Ethan needed to heal from.

    It all all backstory. I think you could begin with the sentence “I’ll be asking for a transfer.” It would certainly seem more fair to me, the reader. But it would be more interesting to actually let us see the inscription with Ethan.

    Lastly, I agree about Abby Rhoade’s POV comments; the comment about his own broad chest, etc. really yanked me out of the story.

    The voice seemed right though, and the idea is intriguing.

    Hope this helps!

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  8. May
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 09:07:30

    Hmmm… my problem is that I said “What?!” and/or was pulled out of the first page more than once.

    * why is he thinking of himself as looking good with a 5′oclock shadow?!

    * “He looked like the kind of guy that had been minted for work as a guard for the sole purpose of posing shirtless in the yearly fund-raising calendar” – srsly?! he thinks this of himself?

    * “American’s loved Bruce Willis and somehow, they seemed to lump together prison guards as his near cousins” – um, who does this?! I lived next door to a San Quentin Prison guard for many years. While you are right it is mostly a quiet/boring job I have never heard of anyone thinking prison guard = action hero.

    Overall, while I’m interested to know where you’re going and while I realize it’s page one, I’d pass. Perhaps this character will come around – but as-is he is not someone I want to spend more time with.

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  9. May
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 09:09:18

    meant to add – there *IS* some undefinable quality about your writing that I really do like – I hope you keep at it and continue to develop this and other stories.

    ReplyReply

  10. Darlynne
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 10:14:50

    I loved your writing even as I agreed with the comments pointing out some issues. Please keep at it, there’s great stuff here.

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  11. joanne
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 11:48:28

    There is so much really good writing here and, Bruce Willis movies aside, the prison guard as main protagonist is not done often – so kudos for trying something different & interesting.

    @May:Yes, as soon as I read the part where he thought of himself as having a “fantastic” 5 o’clock shadow I was over Ethan as a leading character.

    Your first page really shows promise and I hope it all comes together for you and the reader. Thanks so much for putting your work here and much good luck.

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  12. Suleikha Snyder
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 12:09:34

    There are a lot of great individual sentences here, and I really thought this bit gave us some solid, succinct insight into Ethan:

    Ethan Rafe was a prison guard, had been for seven years now, and that meant that he’d shut his fair share of doors. It also meant that he was the first line of defense against God, should the Almighty care to start opening windows.

    But the organization of the paragraphs and the point of view problems (which others have spoken about already: Ethan thinking of himself as having a certain build/look doesn’t work) bury the nuggets of gold. I think reversing the narrative and beginning with Ethan wanting the transfer would open things up and allow for a smoother transition into the bit of philosophy carved into the cell wall.

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  13. Moth
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 13:12:22

    I really, really like the voice in this.

    The part with his physical description is a bit much. Kind of pulled me out and went on too long. Get to the part where stuff happens. Don’t pause to go on for several paragraphs about he looks.

    But, other than that, really well done.

    ReplyReply

  14. Kay
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 13:17:45

    I agree: there’s something there, please keep at it.

    The biggest action (romance) part for me:

    Ethan Rafe was a prison guard, had been for seven years now, and that meant that he’d shut his fair share of doors. It also meant that he was the first line of defense against God, should the Almighty care to start opening windows.

    After an interesting if somewhat muddled first paragraph, I loved this part. It’s a voice that I wanted to hear more of. It ratcheted up my excitement to read about a prison guard who quotes Hippocrates: how did he get there?

    But, the voice goes away. We mostly lose his Hippocrates side as well, beyond occasional word choices such as “eliciting.” (Had he earned an upper-level degree? It would be easy to tuck a reference into the part where his mother wants him to have a job with a business card, a little something to tide the reader over until later.)

    Instead, Ethan starts in on the chattery old women (between that comment and the description of Ed’s wife, it felt like he doesn’t like women much) and lingers on how a prison guard is or isn’t like a modern-day superhero. Even though the narrative mentioned the movie, it didn’t convince me that people would see prison guards that way, so the contrast with real prison guard life didn’t hold up. (Is he not American? There’s something about how the narration talks about Americans and “somehow” and “they.”)

    Also, watch your references:

    a listener would sit up taller, buy Ethan a drink, and either shake his hand or slip him a phone number depending on whether they wore a skirt or not.

    This reads as though the ones wearing skirts would shake his hand and the ones not wearing skirts would slip him the phone number, which I’m not sure is the intent. Similarly, “painfully-honed dull” doesn’t work for me, and earlier, it read as though Ethan was bragging about his job to his own buddies.

    I think that when you get a cohesive vision, that will help a lot. Good luck!

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  15. Kim
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 14:28:46

    I agree about the omniscient POV. Ethan’s description of himself comes off as narcissitic. No one wants the hero to be so self-involved. His physical features should come through another character or the third person POV.

    I also had a problem with this sentence: “It wasn’t quite the glamorous job his mother liked to brag about to her power-walking club of chattery old women.” It falls into the stereotype that all women gossip, instead of converse. Also, wouldn’t Ethan’s mother be middle-age? The term “old” brings to mind certain connotations and power walking isn’t one of them.

    Finally, the first paragraph was intriguing until I got to Ethan’s occupation. As I was reading, I thought Ethan might be a wrongly convicted man gaining sustenance through the carvings. So it was a bit anti-climatic to discover Ethan is a prison guard. If you took a survey, I don’t think anyone would pick this occupation as heroic. In fact, most would agree with Ethan that it’s quite dull with flashes of excitement. Therefore, no matter how handsome Ethan is, I can’t see people buying him drinks because he’s a prison guard. He would have had to do something heroic, such as stopping a prison riot. Perhaps then it would be believable that bar patrons bought him drinks.

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  16. Cara Ellison
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 15:33:13

    I hope it isn’t bad form to leave two comments. One other thing is bothering me about this passage. That is the title. I know that if you ever make it to the publication stage with this that it will be changed, but I worry that even thinking of “Alias” as a title for an action-romance is bad news. It is, to my mind, too much alike the tv show. I’d avoid giving the work a title that is already established in popular culture.

    But again, I liked the idea of this, and I liked the voice. Please do keep working on it!

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  17. Sofia Harper
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 16:28:07

    I too usually lurk on these things. Loved the voice, but the execution left me cold. I stopped reading after the first paragraph and skimmed to get to see if anything was going to happen. It did and then you jumped right back into infodumping and backstory.

    You included a lot of info I, as the reader, didn’t need to know, nor did it make me want to go to the second page. You’re voice is the reason I kept reading, which is a huge plus. I’m picky.

    So, my advice, imagine all you can send to an agent or editor is your first line. Based on that they’ll ask for the second line and so on and so forth. If that’s all you had to get to the next step how would you edit this page? Would you still start with:

    “Healing is a matter of time, but it’s also a matter of opportunity.”

    This tells the reader nothing about the story or character. Does this line set up the tone of the story? What promise is being made to me as the reader?

    ““I’ll be asking for a transfer.” Ethan Rafe said with the raise of his barely touched glass of whatever was on tap.”

    This tells me a whole lot more. His name. He’s in a bar. He’s dissatisfied with whatever his lot in life is at the moment. This says adventure to me. It could have more punch, but I want to know more. You can relay the info in pieces through the rest of the chapter or the book. Try not to let it clutter the first page. Piece meal it. Not huge drops. In the last paragraph you spent 120 words telling the reader something you could have said in 50 or less. Ethan’s brows rose in surprise when Ed snapped. Uncharacteristic for the man, blah, blah.

    Anyway, best of luck! Hope this helps. As always take what resonates. Toss out the rest.

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  18. No Thanks
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 16:53:16

    I thought the paragraph several others have quoted above beginning “Ethan Rafe was a prison guard, had been for seven years now…” was great and showed you have talent. But otherwise, I found this first page slow, meandering, distant and dull.

    If I’d been reading this in a book store, I would have put it back on the shelf. I tried to power through in the hopes of identifying some source for additional compliments to temper my complaints, but I hit this:

    The funny thing about this job as modern-day superhero was that is was about as dull as a lecture on eliciting boredom. Sure, there were spikes of excitement, but those were rare. And opportunities for thinking were even more elusive than excitement.

    Mostly, Ethan’s job was painfully-honed dull with the occasional flash of change. In fact, Ethan was ready to create some change, himself.

    Those two paragraphs basically say the same thing–that Ethan’s job is boring. The news is no surprise because Ethan, himself, sounds pretty boring. Combine similar sentiments into a single statement, and cut what you don’t need.

    Secondly, I don’t know anyone who thinks of prison guards as modern-day superheroes. Though I personally know a prison guard who is, like your hero, strong-jawed, six and a half feet tall, and quite a nice person, I still do not think favorably of the profession as a whole. It’s a perception problem: the only time prison guards make news is when they fail. Either they get caught abusing prisoners, or prisoners escape. Hence the negative associations.

    Anyway, those two paragraphs are the point at which I decided I did not care what happened next. I don’t want to discourage you. I wish I had something else nice to say. Maybe if your story had started with the action promised in the description, I would. Sorry. Good luck, keep writing.

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  19. Emily
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 17:06:52

    I disagree with some of the other comments. If someone is really good-looking like Ethan, I think that he will or might know that he’s really good looking. There’s nothing wrong with that. I actually thought he was humorous about it. The Bruce Willis thing did seem a little strange.

    I thought a lot of this information didn’t tie together yet, but I understood it all. I felt like you were planting seeds like all of this stuff would come back as themes or even characters in the novel. Take the opening quote it doesn’t really apply to this section, but it was a good quote and I felt like you would loop around back to that eventually. I would be careful about making changes.
    Ethan Rafe as a name is a little over the top.

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  20. Lucy Woodhull
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 18:16:27

    I agree with the previous comments. Great voice! The only other thing I’d say was maybe rethink your title since Alias was a fairly recent TV show.

    Good luck!

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  21. Wahoo Suze
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 19:13:54

    I really liked the voice, but am completely uninterested in the story. Is it a romance, or just a gritty slog about prison and the guarding of it? Small irk: Americans is plural. American’s is possessive.

    I almost don’t want to post anything because I don’t have anything helpful to say, except keep writing. Your voice is strong and compelling, and kept me interested in spite of the story.

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  22. DS
    Nov 20, 2011 @ 10:38:24

    There’s just points where the streams of reality and fiction shouldn’t cross. I read this just after reading an article about the causes of California’s budget woes where it was pointed out that a prison guard could start at age 45 and retire five years later with a pension very close to the full salary paid. I was not disposed to look favorably on a prison guard hero.

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  23. Courtney Milan
    Nov 20, 2011 @ 11:01:43

    There are a lot of great lines here–I’m definitely sensing voice–but there is So Much Telling, and like others, I thought we were starting off in the prison, since that’s what he was thinking about, not in a bar. It was jarring to go from thinking about jail to a transfer.

    If this is an action romance, you need to start with more action. I’m not insisting that you start with a jail break, but right now it’s 4 paragraphs of Stuff that gives me no mental picture of where he is now, and why he’s in danger.

    I have to admit that I also have a really hard time seeing a prison guard as hero. I know that the “closing windows” line wasn’t intended to be quite so metaphorical. It was a nice little line.

    It also reminded me that prison, as presently constituted, serves very little rehabilitative purpose, and that most people come out of it worse than they went in, and more likely to commit another crime.

    I know you didn’t intend it that way, but it almost struck me as the guard boasting that he’s part of a system that has some serious structural problems.

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  24. Author
    Nov 21, 2011 @ 23:46:33

    Wow! You guys are great! Thank you so much for the time you took to read and comment. And I can’t thank Jane and Dearauthor enough for this incredible gift of a whole bunch of unbiased criticism. Sincerly, thank you for the guidance.

    ReplyReply

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