First Page Friday #24: Mystery

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About First Page Friday

First Page Friday is a blog series where I provide a free edit and critique of the first 500 words of an unpublished novel. Read the excerpt without my notes first and leave your vote in the poll. Afterward, feel free to leave a comment for the author. Feedback is always helpful!

Mystery First 500 – Abby Titus

It was almost like sucking on a piece of cold oak wood. It would settle inside the mouth and run down the throat. It clenched whatever painful memory there was and made a person forget. It was cheap though, and it was the way Clayton liked it. The whiskey he sipped didn’t make him feel lonely at three in the morning.

“Coming to bed?” A sooth voice said behind Clayton. It was gentle but tried. If Clayton listened closely he could hear her fingers tap on the doorframe.

“In a little while,” Clayton mumbled. He held on the little taste of whiskey he had left in his mouth before it was time for another sip. His head tilted and he looked down at his glass. It was half empty more then it was half full. He began to swirl the liquor in the glass.

The woman sighed behind him. “Don’t be up too late.”

The door close silently behind Clayton and he went back to comfortably sitting in his chair. It was an ugly chair and loosing its comfort, but it was good for times like these. Clayton took another sip of the whiskey and set the glass on the armrest. On the other armrest laid a rectangular, clear card. It almost seemed like glass, but it was hard as metal. The screen’s light was on and it read one missed message, but Clayton had no reason to listen to it.

Clayton felt the soft fur that prickled his feet. He felt the rising action of the inhale and the slow release of breath from the old dog. It was almost comforting, but Clayton knew this feeling would not last. He would have to go to work in four hours and his dog’s affection would have to wait, as well as his. Clayton could already feel the failure of his last case easing its way into his chest, so he took another sip. This is what Clayton’s father thought he would become. A failure destined to live alone. Clayton still had his dog, Kek, but it was only time before the dog died from the polluted air.

Clayton took another sip when the card rang and viabrated against the armrest. Clayton stared at it for a second before he looked to see who it was.

“Shit,” Clayton grumbled. He had the card in his hand and set the glass back down. “Now, what do you want?” Clayton set the card by his ear.  

“I think you better come down here and find out,” a man said. At three in the morning the voice sounded too chipper. It was almost annoying for Clayton’s ears.

“Get Heikler,” suggested Clayton.

“Busy with another case.”

“Caris?”

“She’s here, but wants you to come down here anyway,” said the man.

Clayton rolled his eyes and grumbled. Kek, at his feet looked up to watch the changed emotion fall on Clayton’s face. “Why does Caris want my ass down there? In fact, have her call me herself, Nolan.”

“She’s busy,” Nolan said dryly. “Besides you have to get involved in a case again. Don’t want you to loose it.”

Clayton frowned at the cop’s words as he tipped the glass of whiskey. “Have her get someone else,” Clayton spoke. He knew detective Caris wasn’t busy. “You don’t need to worry.”

“Well, this case might peak your interest. Just come down to Port 39,” Nolan sighed. On that he hung up the phone before Clayton could get another word in.

Reader Participation – What Do You Think?

Before reading my take on this novel opening, please take a moment to record your thoughts in the poll below.

Your thoughtful critiques and suggestions for the writer are also welcome in the comments section. Explaining your vote gives the author even more insight into where they’re hitting the mark and where they can improve.

My Feedback

 Critique Key

Original Text is in italics.

Red is text I recommend removing.

Green is text I recommend adding.

Blue are my comments.

Mystery First 500 – Abby Titus

It was almost like sucking on a piece of cold oak wood. It would settle inside the mouth and run down the throat. < Writing “the mouth” and “the throat” rather than relating it to the character reads as awkward to me. It clenched whatever painful memory there was and made a person forget. It was cheap though, and it was the way Clayton liked it. The whiskey he sipped didn’t make him feel lonely at three in the morning.

“Coming to bed?” A soothing voice said behind Clayton. It was gentle but tried. If Clayton listened closely he could hear her fingers tap on the doorframe.

“In a little while,” Clayton mumbled. He held onto the little taste of whiskey he had left in his mouth before it was time for another sip. His head tilted and he looked down at his glass. It was half empty more then it was half full.  < This line seems a bit heavy handed to me. He began to swirled the liquor in the glass. < Avoid “began” because it weakens the action.

I’ve seen novel’s opening with a detective drinking whiskey enough times to consider it a cliche opening as well as a cliche personality trait of detectives. That’s not to say you can’t do it, but it’s something to keep in mind.

The woman sighed behind him. “Don’t be up too late.”

The door close silently behind Clayton and he went back to comfortably sitting in his chair. < Did he ever get up from the chair? If not, he doesn’t need to go back to sitting in it. It was an ugly chair and loosing its comfort, but it was good for times like these. Clayton took another sip of the whiskey and set the glass on the armrest. On the other armrest laid a rectangular, clear card. It almost seemed like glass, but it was hard as metal. The screen’s light was on and it read one missed message, but Clayton had no reason to listen to it. < I would condense the description of this screen, and I would also mention it’s a screen upfront. For example: On the other armrest laid a small, clear screen, about the size of a business card.

Clayton felt the soft fur that prickled his feet. He felt the rising action of the inhale and the slow release of breath from the old dog. < This read as a bit strange to me because suddenly his feet are on fur, then that fur is inhaling, then we realize it’s a dog. I’d either mention the dog earlier on or have the dog arrive at this point in the scene. It was almost comforting, but Clayton knew this feeling would not last. He would have to go to work in four hours and his dog’s affection would have to wait, as well as his. < I’m not sure what you mean. “As well as his” affection for his dog? Affection for his wife? Also, four hours is a pretty long time for the comforting feeling to last. Clayton could already feel the failure of his last case easing its way into his chest, so he took another sip. This is what Clayton’s father thought he would become. A failure destined to live alone. < But he doesn’t live alone because there’s a woman with him, right? Clayton still had his dog, Kek, but it was only time before the dog died from the polluted air.

Clayton took another sip when the card rang and viabrated against the armrest. Clayton stared at it for a second before he looked to see who it was. < It seems odd he could stare at it without seeing who it was.

“Shit,” Clayton grumbled. He had the card in his hand and set the glass back down. “Now, what do you want?” Clayton set the card by his ear.  < This makes me think he sets the card on his shoulder, which is a weird image. Isn’t he holding it to his ear rather than setting it there?

“I think you better come down here and find out,” a man said. At three in the morning the voice sounded too chipper. It was almost annoying for Clayton’s ears. < It’s annoying to Clayton, not his ears. His ears don’t have the ability to be annoyed.

“Get Heikler,” suggested Clayton.

“Busy with another case.”

“Caris?”

“She’s here, but wants you to come down here anyway,” said the man. < Avoid repeating the same word twice in a sentence.

Clayton rolled his eyes and grumbled. Kek, at his feet looked up to watch the changed emotion fall on Clayton’s face. < I don’t like this sentence because it implies that dog looked up so that he could see the changed emotion, which seems implausible. “Why does Caris want my ass down there? In fact, have her call me herself, Nolan.”

“She’s busy,” Nolan said dryly. “Besides you have to get involved in a case again. Don’t want you to loose it.”

Clayton frowned at the cop’s words as he tipped the glass of whiskey. “Have her get someone else,” Clayton spoke. He knew detective Caris wasn’t busy. < How does he know this? “You don’t need to worry.”

“Well, this case might peak < Should be “pique.” your interest. Just come down to Port 39,” Nolan sighed. < “Sighed” cannot be used as a dialogue tag. On that he hung up the phone before Clayton could get another word in. < I dislike the phrase “on that” or “with that” (followed by a character hanging up, leaving the room, etc.) because it’s unnecessary.

My Overall Thoughts

The writing itself is pretty smooth, but I don’t feel that this opening is terribly unique. It’s not jumping out at me. If I picked this up in a book store, I wouldn’t think much about it one way or the other.

Key Places to Improve:

  • Opening with a character being introspective rarely works. The reader has no investment in the character yet so they have little interest in the character’s emotional state. It also gives the opening a bit of a stagnant, just-wasting-time-to-get-to-the-good-part sort of feel.
  • The cliches in this opening are overpowering anything that might make it stand out as unique. Some cliches that I noticed: the whiskey drinking detective, the failed detective, the loner man with his dog, the man whose dad thought he would be a failure, the insomniac detective.
  • Figure out what is unique about your novel and put that uniqueness at the forefront. You have the futuristic phone in there and the pollution, which were both good (the only parts that really had me interested), but don’t bury those elements in cliches and introspection. If your character is sitting around depressed, bored, and wasting time, that’s exactly the feeling you’re going to convey to your reader. Since they don’t have anything invested in your character, those feelings aren’t very appealing.

The Writeditor’s Grade (out of 5): 2.5

There’s nothing glaringly wrong with this first page. It’s just not sucking me in or standing out as original.

A note on the grading scale: The rating of the first chapter does not indicate the rating of the novel as a whole nor does it indicate the writer’s overall ability.

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About the Editor

Ellen Brock is a freelance novel editor who works with self-publishing and traditionally publishing authors as well as e-publishers and small presses. She owns the editing company Keytop Services and the writing and editing blog The Writeditor. When not editing, she enjoys reading, writing, and geocaching. Check out her freelance novel editing services and mentoring.

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12 thoughts on “First Page Friday #24: Mystery

  1. Ella says:

    I agree with Ellen’s comment that this opening feels ‘stagnant’. With a mystery, we all want to know what the mystery is as soon as possible; there’ll be plenty of time along the way to learn about the detective’s character, after you’ve drawn us into the story. If, for instance, you started with the scene of the crime and then showed the detective drinking alone late at night, the sense of urgency that the crime gives us could carry through this scene.

    Watch out for simple spelling errors:
    * Baggy clothes, or a runaway dog, is loose; you lose your keys.
    * One peaks through a window; an idea piques one’s interest.
    * I assume you meant that the woman’s voice was ‘tired’, not ‘tried’.

  2. cassandracharles says:

    I thought the repetition of his name, Clayton, was unnecessary, since he was the only person in the room.
    I thought the writing style was smooth enough, but there wasn’t anything that grabbed my attention. Some of the descriptions seemed overly wordy, too.
    Having said that, I could envisage the world you were trying to set out.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Good feedback. I agree that repeating a character’s name can get a bit tedious when they’re the only one in the scene (and even sometimes when there are multiple people in the scene!).

  3. Ann says:

    Perhaps I am nit-picking, but can the dog’s soft fur really prickle Clayton’s feet? When I read the word prickle I thought of something that is itchy or irritating – you know, prickly.

  4. nikkiharvey says:

    I was starting to become interested by the end, but if I was in a bookshop I wouldn’t have read that far. There needs to be some action, a peak at the crime scene to begin with. Also contradictions- he lives alone but there’s a woman? And the character is very cliché. Even if he does fit the stereotype I don’t really want that to be the first thing I find out. I want to know what the thing is that makes this guy different. There’s potential but work is needed.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Great observations, Nikki. Someone else mentioned an early peak at the crime scene. That really sends a strong message about what readers like and find interesting about mysteries. Suck us into the story first, then move into character and emotion.

  5. johnhansendk says:

    I think a lot could be gained if the call actually said what the case was about, or at least gave a clear hint. Assuming it is unusual, it could make me think that, yes this may be a cliche but it will contain original elements. As it is, the text just issues a promise of something unusually – but I’m not quite ready to trust that promise based on the first page.

    I am not sure if the remark about living alone with a dog, when there is a woman in the bedroom, is meant to make me think that the protagonist relation with that woman is superficial, a kind of one night stand. That could be good as it would show both that the protagonist is lonely but on the other hand that he is not a monk-like hermit who have no relations with women at all. The problem is, though, that the interaction between the two make me feel that they know each other.

    Personally I think “almost” is overused. Three times something is “almost” something: the whiskey is almost like oak, the dog fur is almost comforting, the voice is almost annoying. Again this may be something personal, but while I know when something is annoying, I am not at all clear on when something is almost annoying etc.

  6. Yori Papilaya says:

    I feel strange with people’s reaction about Clayton living with a woman, as I imagined him at some bar or something, with the woman as the bartender. That probably either I am a bad reader or you didn’t clearly stated where he actually was. Lol

    It has alot of potential. It’s almost interesting. But perhaps if you take these critiques your writing will be more polished. Keep up the good work!

  7. Silvie Monk says:

    There is one simple reason why I just didn’t like this; I’m a huge Raymond Chandler fan, and felt as if you were trying to capture Chandler without being successful at it.

    There are a few great authors from that era, and they all wrote in a hard-boiled style, but each was distinct. You could easily tell within a paragraph if you were reading Chandler or Hammett.

    If you want to write in a hard-boiled way, you’ve got to do it from a new POV for a new audience. Find your own voice! Just keep writing. You’ll find it.

  8. jennfs10 says:

    Ellen mentioned the elements of the card/communicator and the pollution killing the dog were intriguing. I agree. I thought maybe this would be set in the future, but there weren’t any other indications that this was.

    Also, the detective that called said that he had to get involved with a case again and that they don’t want him to lose it. Wasn’t he already involved in a case? Isn’t that the reason he was trying to find comfort in the whiskey? The lose it comment implies that he hasn’t been working on cases recently. There needs to be clarification that the case was either a recent or old case.

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