Week 3 Mini-Critique

Title: Untitled
Author: Carol G.
Category: Unknown

“I might have work for you tonight.” The remark, offered by the dark stranger hovering over her, was straight forward enough. It wasn’t the first such suggestion Teagan had received this past week. When you spent six nights in a row sleeping in a cardboard box in a neighborhood like this one you attracted a certain amount of unwanted attention from the late night crowd. Short and painfully thin, with a long braid of greasy blond hair, she was far from a beauty, but with most of those guys you didn’t have to be. I really like how you’ve showed us the heroine, rather than telling us about her. We’re intrigued – why has she spent six nights sleeping in a cardboard box? Is she really homeless? Pretending to be homeless? What on earth’s going on? I can’t wait to read on to find out more.

This man, however, wasn’t the typical lech stumbling out of the nearest bar. He had a clean and sophisticated look to him. Everything from the full length dark coat and gloves he wore to the light briefcase he carried in one hand, spoke of money. His dark hair was longish, but slicked back in a tidy style. The toes of his shoes, sticking out from beneath his black slacks, were shiny enough to reflect the glow of the single streetlight overhead. Again, you have an excellent reason for pausing here to tell us all about the man’s looks; it’s not an interruption to the story, because his out-of-place appearance is a hint that something odd is about to happen.

Teagan drew her eyes from those fancy shoes to return them to the stranger, who was still looming over her expectantly. He might have a well-off and imposing look to him, but a few weeks on the street hadn’t robbed her of all self-respect. At least not yet.

“I don’t do that kind of work,” she told him stiffly. “But if you move on down a block or two, I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for.” Okay, if I’d been out there for six nights I might see why she instantly assumes he’s asking for sex – but that’s not what he said. As a reader, I need to either see why she jumps to this conclusion, or have him say it a little more suggestively so her conclusion makes sense. Right now they seem to be reading each other’s minds.

He leaned forward and for the first time the light from the lamp overhead fell across his face. Teagan couldn’t help staring. He was younger than she’d first thought, appearing around his thirties, but he still had a good ten years on her. He had a darkly attractive face, with strikingly chiseled features that went well with the broad shoulders? under his coat. A pair of thick, black brows arched over deeply set, brown eyes that were all but lost in shadow. Teagan thought she caught a glimpse of a steely glint within those shadows and then he tilted his head and his features were lost to her again.

“I’m sure I could,” he responded to her comment, “if that’s what I was looking for.” And he clearly understands that she’s talking about sex. This is not as much of a leap for him, perhaps, but still it feels like they’re mind-reading.

His voice was deep and easy, belying the emotions Teagan sensed lurked beneath the surface. Although his posture and words were smooth, she somehow felt there was a nervous energy beneath his controlled movements, some unnamed feeling rattling at the emotional prison he had constructed for it, trying to get out. Ooh, nice hint that this is really critically important. A bit scary, too; if it’s got this guy all wound up, it must be dangerous.

Teagan didn’t want it to get out now. She shivered under the bite of the winter wind. Uneasily, she cast a glance up and down the empty alleyway, looking for a casual by-passer. Even another cop showing up to tell her to move along would be welcome just now.

At her nervous gesture, the stranger laughed – a low, chilling sound that Teagan thought had the ring of malice to it. Unexpectedly, he dropped into a crouch beside the bundle of rags and newspapers that made up her makeshift bed. Taken aback by the sudden motion, she would have scrambled to her feet immediately had not some inner sense warned against it. When stalked by a dangerous animal, the worst thing to do was break into a run. Now we really see him as threatening…

The stranger must have read something of her thoughts. When he spoke his voice had lost any trace of humor. “You misunderstand me, I think,” he said. “The task I have in mind for you is something of a simpler, yet still very personal nature.”

“I can imagine,” Teagan said, and then bit back any further comment. And she’s still thinking this is about sex, even though he was pretty clear it isn’t.

The stranger seemed amused. “Forgive me. I didn’t think in your position you’d be choosy about how you landed a roof over your head and a bite of food in your stomach.” His mocking gaze took in the cardboard box that provided her temporary shelter and the bulge of crumpled, discarded newspapers she had shoved inside her sweater for insulation against the bitter cold.

Teagan was in no condition to take offense at his boldness. Besides, his reference to food and shelter had caught her attention. Her belly ached from a day passed with no more food put into it than a half eaten cheeseburger from a garbage can. Maybe she could afford to part with just a small sliver of that self-respect…

“What kind of task did you have in mind?” she asked, meeting the stranger’s eyes with an effort. She wouldn’t look ashamed. Let him be the one ashamed, if he had the grace to feel guilt at making her balance her physical needs against her self worth. What was she getting herself into? If this is a direct thought, she would think What am I getting myself into? – first person, in italics (or underlined) to set off the thought. Otherwise, no italics.

At her question, he smiled craftily, as if he already knew he had her. “The kind of task that pays five hundred dollars.”

“Five hundred –” Despite herself, Teagan’s eyes bugged out.

“Caught your interest, have I?” he asked, sounding coldly amused. “Good. No doubt you’re wondering why I offer so much.”

Teagan held her tongue. She was wondering exactly that. Yep. Me too!

He continued. “You might say the extra amount is for the tricky part of the job: the silence. If you and I were to enter into a little … business arrangement, it would hinge on the stipulation there are to be no questions asked. Not now. Not ever. And you could speak of our deal to no one else. Is that clear?”

It wasn’t. Teagan had thought she knew what kind of proposition they were discussing. Now she was lost. “Do you want me to help you rob a bank or something?” she asked. “How much trouble am I risking for this money?”

He raised dark brows. “That remains to be seen,” he said, straightening. “But if you can’t handle not knowing, this won’t be the job for you. Again…”

“I know. No questions asked.”

“You catch on quickly,” he said. “Good. Do we have ourselves an understanding?”

LEIGH SAYS:

This is a very intriguing start to a story, with a heroine who’s sympathetic and yet makes us wonder. (Is she really homeless? Six nights in a cold cardboard box; half a cheeseburger – yes, she must be. And yet…. is she totally without resources?) And the man who’s making her the offer is equally fascinating. What’s he doing out there, and what kind of a job is worth five hundred dollars? I’d keep reading just to find out who this woman is, what the job is, and why it pays so well. And it’s a great spot to leave the reader – I’d turn the page to read on.

So you may wonder why this entry has been chosen for a mini-critique rather than as a winner. I picked this one because it’s very close to being a winner – yet, as good as it is, it misses the mark in a couple of subtle but crucial ways.

The first problem with this scene is something that I see a lot of in the work I critique for students and clients. Much too often, characters seem to catch each other’s thought patterns, as Teagan and the hero do here when he says “job” and she assumes “sex” and so on. This mind-reading phenomenon makes perfect sense, when we think about it. Because the same mind – the author’s – is creating everything both characters see, notice, think, and say, it’s no surprise if they think alike, or if one of them makes a vague reference and the other one gets it right away. The trouble is that the reader may not follow that same logic, so she may feel lost – not seeing why a simple phrase holds so much hidden meaning to these characters.

The other thing that’s going on here – and I see a lot of this as well – is a heroine who seems to know this guy is a hero when she has no evidence for assuming that.

You’ve done such a good job of showing him as dangerous – the malice, the sudden moves, the chilling laugh, the emprisoned emotions  – that it really makes no sense at all for Teagan to trust him enough to take the job he offers. When she seems to agree to his terms, the hair on the nape of my neck stood up. Maybe that’s the effect you want! – but it made me wonder if this woman is crazy as well as homeless.

She has no idea who he is; she has no idea what he’s going to ask her to do, she has no idea where he’s planning to take her. Yet she’s ready to go off with him and do some unnamed task that’s worth what to her is a fortune. And she assumes he’ll really pay up. (It would actually be more believable for Teagan to trust him if he showed her a twenty  – just enough to buy a good meal – rather than talking about five hundred.)

A bank robbery would be the least of her problems; he could tell her to kill someone, or he could be picking her up as his next murder victim. Yet she appears to believe him, and trust him. Why?

The only answer seems to be, Because he’s the hero. But how does Teagan know that?

Of course, the author knows that the guy is the hero and he’d never hurt the heroine. But the heroine isn’t in a position to know that – so when she trusts him anyway, she’s violating the reader’s common sense. When a heroine doesn’t ask the sensible question, or take the sensible action, then the reader has trouble suspending disbelief and really getting into the story.

Giving us – and Teagan – a little more information about what he’s asking her to do would make it much easier for us to believe that she’d actually do it. Sooner or later he has to tell her what the job involves. Let her ask about the basics before she agrees, and she’ll look sensible. Then we could suspend disbelief, and we’d be more eager to follow her into the next scenes.

9 responses

28 01 2009
Week 3 Winners Posted « Chase the Dream Writers Contest

[…] Week 3 Mini-Critique Winner Week 3 Finalist […]

28 01 2009
Christina

[quote]He had a darkly attractive face, with strikingly chiseled features that went well with the broad shoulders? under his coat.[/quote]
*arches eyebrows*
Maybe [i]that’s[/i] why she assumed he wanted sex… It wasn’t [i]shoulders[/i] under his coat. *leers*

28 01 2009
Jeannie Lin

Great job Carol! This is a great opening. I agree, I totally want to read more to find out what where this dark proposal leads.

Thank you Leigh for the insightful comments. Those are issues I’d never be able to put my finger on when critiquing other than to say…I’m not quite convinced why she goes…

Also made me so how airtight an opening scene should be. Daunting, but educational.

Congrats Carol!

28 01 2009
Tamara Hughes

Carol,
Interesting opening. I love the characters you’ve created. I do agree, however, that the heroine needs more motivation to go with this guy when it could mean her death. Maybe she’s at such a low point in her life that she doesn’t care anymore if she dies? Or maybe she’s been out there longer than 6 days, or maybe she’s had a scare where someone tried to hurt her and she’s fearful that the person will come back to do her more harm. OK, I’ll stop now. You have a lot of options. Good luck!

Tami

29 01 2009
leighmichaels

Those are some excellent ideas — adding a reason why the heroine would want to escape the situation would be just as workable a solution as adding more information about the job. Either way, the reader would understand why she’s going. Even if we wouldn’t do it ourselves in a million years, once we see why *she* thinks it’s the best course of action, then we’ll happily go along for the ride.

31 01 2009
Carol G.

Leigh, thanks so much for the excellent critique. You’ve given me a lot to think about and some great ideas for changes to make in this opening scene.

Best,

Carol G.

3 02 2009
Sarah

That’s an interesting observation — that characters tend to read each other’s minds or each catch a vague allusion to something, because it’s the author making the connection… I’ll have to check over my current WIP! 🙂

4 02 2009
Rachelle Chase

So sorry for the delay in commenting, Carol. I thought I’d done so long ago – and just discovered that I hadn’t.

At any rate, I just wanted to say I truly loved your opening scene. The attractive (though not at the moment) homeless woman with a lot of mystery and the wealthy hero with a mysterious job and unknown motives … well, it makes me want to know more. Your submission was very well-written and intriguing, with interesting characters and a unique plot.

But the heroine’s repeated belief that the hero’s interest in her was sexual (when I saw no reason for it), coupled with my inability to understand why she seemed to be on the verge of accepting his unknown, potentially dangerous offer (without understanding why it was so appealing to her), prevented me from choosing it as a Finalist. I know these items have already been mentioned. But, I point this out simply to reiterate how crucial the first few pages of a book must be — it only takes a couple of “small” things to make a reader quit reading. For me, it was just these two things, which are relatively minor, considering all the other things in your scene that work.

But, once you address them, you’ll have a compelling scene that will make it a winner for me — and entice me to continue reading!

11 02 2009
Darlene Torday

If I could read more and find out what he’s offering, why he’s there and why he picked her I’d be happy.

Darlene




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