First Page Friday #36: Supernatural Suspense

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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First Page Friday is a blog series where I provide a free edit and critique of the first 500 words of an unpublished novel.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!

Supernatural Suspense – Laura T. Evans

New York City, New York

2:34 am

***Trigger Warning: Rape***

His eyes were sharp, focused; the kind that could be almost handsome in a different situation. He was still inside her moving with purpose. She tried to turn her head away, but his hand gripped her chin and forced her to look at him. If she tried to close her eyes, he would hit her; she had already attempted it once; the pain in her cheek still pulsing. She stared through him, thinking of her family and friends, hoping that he would finish and just walk away.

She felt the point of the knife slide into her throat and her body began bucking wildly to unseat him but her limbs chaffed at the ropes; he was just too strong, too heavy and she didn’t have the strength anymore to fight him.

 

He grinned at her sardonically. “Yeah baby, fight me.” He purred into her ear, his breath hot and sticky.

“NO!” her mind screamed, and she forced her limbs to go completely limp, challenging him with her eyes. There was no way she would live through this, she had heard the news stories. The knife pressed deeper; she felt it, the blood warm and sticky running down her breasts and onto the clean starched sheets. Should she feel sorry for the maid who would walk into this tomorrow?

He bent down and whispered in her ear but she only caught some of it as her mind was beginning to blur, “..pathetic, weak, I enjoy watching all of you die under me.”

She closed her eyes and prayed for the end. It came slowly as her heart ceased to beat.

***

***End Trigger Warning***

Aurora, Iowa

6:25 pm

Sarah opened the door to her shiny black sedan and stepped out, bumping it closed with her backside, and leaned against the cool metal, releasing the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. The house didn’t look much different that it had 12 years ago; just a few things were different. The shutter on her bedroom window was hanging askew and the front steps paint was flaking away in big pieces showing the bare cement; basically it was exactly as she remembered. It was once a beautiful place, the home of an actual family, but scrub and tall weeds now covered the front flowerbeds, which clearly hadn’t been tended years.

She stepped decisively up to the front door and stopped. Her hand gently extended on the knob; feeling the familiar crawling that started in her legs and moved slowly up her torso to her head, like tiny bugs scampering on her skin, when she used her abilities. The images were coming fast, flipping through her mind; a child playing on a rope swing, her father singing Frank Sinatra in the den while writing something on a paper, her mother digging in the front flower bed while she placed the small delicate sprout into the fresh clean earth.

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. (Author is already using italics, so my comments are going to be underlined this week)

Red is text I recommend removing.

Green is text I recommend adding.

Blue is my comments.

Orange is highlighting.

Supernatural Suspense – Laura T. Evans

New York City, New York

2:34 am

***Trigger Warning: Rape***

His eyes were sharp, focused; the kind that could be almost handsome in a different situation. < “The kind” seems awkward here to me. “Handsome” isn’t a kind of eyes in my opinion. I would just say “they could be almost handsome.” He was still inside her moving with purpose. She tried to turn her head away, but his hand gripped her chin and forced her to look at him. If she tried to close her eyes, he would hit her; she had already attempted it once; the pain in her cheek still pulsing. She stared through him, thinking of her family and friends, hoping that he would finish and just walk away. < There are some very strong opinions out there about the depiction of rape in fiction. Some agents/publishers are rarely or never okay with it; others are okay with it when it develops characters or is vital to the plot. I have seen many agents say that they do not like reading about rape or violence in the opening pages of a novel (before they’ve had time to settle into the plot). Opening with rape is risky and very unlikely to be a benefit. I would consider carefully whether the novel needs to start here.

She felt the point of the knife slide into her throat and her body began bucking wildly to unseat him but her limbs chaffed at the ropes; he was just too strong, too heavy and she didn’t have the strength anymore to fight him. <I would show the development from her “bucking wildly” to not having the “strength anymore to fight him.” I also feel that you aren’t giving the reader anything to latch onto other than the rape itself. Who is this person? Where is this person? Why are they there? If these are mystery elements, is it important to show this scene at all? There are alternatives. For example, you could describe where she was prior to the rape, where she was going, what she was doing, etc., then end the scene alluding to the fact that she never makes it home again.

 

He grinned at her sardonically. “Yeah baby, fight me.” He purred into her ear, his breath hot and sticky. < This is a description I’ve read many times before.

“NO!” her mind screamed, and she forced her limbs to go completely limp, challenging him with her eyes. There was no way she would live through this, she had heard the news stories. The knife pressed deeper; she felt it, the blood warm and sticky running down her breasts and onto the clean starched sheets. Should she feel sorry for the maid who would walk into this tomorrow?

He bent down and whispered in her ear but she only caught some of it as her mind was beginning to blur, “..pathetic, weak, I enjoy watching all of you die under me.”

She closed her eyes and prayed for the end. It came slowly as her heart ceased to beat. < Not to sound callous, but why should readers care about this woman’s death? We don’t know who she is. We don’t know why she matters. This scene has no value to the reader other than on a superficial fact-based level. Why should we care what happens next? She already died and there aren’t really any mystery elements to wonder about.

***

***End Trigger Warning***

Aurora, Iowa

6:25 pm

Sarah opened the door to her shiny black sedan and stepped out, bumping it closed with her backside, < I would start a new sentence here. Give the reader time to digest what you’re saying. and leaned against the cool metal, The house didn’t look much different that it had 12 years ago; just a few things were different. < This sentence feels redundant. I would condense the two clauses into one. The shutter on her bedroom window was hanging askew and the front steps paint was flaking away in big pieces showing the bare cement; < I’d cut the red section for a tighter description. basically it was exactly as she remembered. < I thought you meant those things were what was different (the shutter askew and the paint flaking), but now you’re saying this was how she remembered it. This was a bit jarring. It was once a beautiful place, the home of an actual family, but scrub and tall weeds now covered the front flowerbeds, which clearly hadn’t been tended years. <So was it “the home of an actual family” when she lived there? Or was it always like this?

She stepped decisively up to the front door and stopped. Her hand gently extended on the knob; <This description reads awkwardly to me. I think “to the knob” would make more sense.  feeling the familiar crawling that started in her legs and moved slowly up her torso to her head, like tiny bugs scampering on her skin, when she used her abilities. < This sentence is too long and I found myself struggling a bit to read it. It also means that her hand experienced the feeling (not her). The images were coming fast, flipping through her mind; a child playing on a rope swing, her father singing Frank Sinatra in the den while writing something on a paper, her mother digging in the front flower bed while she placed the small delicate sprout into the fresh clean earth. < “While” doesn’t make sense here unless she is digging with one hand and placing the flowers at the same time with the other hand.

 

 

My Overall Thoughts

Opening with a rape scene is a risk and one that I would avoid unless you feel very strongly that it is absolutely the best place to start your novel. The next scene is okay, but you still haven’t established a strong connection to a character. Why is Sarah going back to her childhood home? Alluding to the reason might be a good way to create suspense or intrigue.

Key Places to Improve:

  • Work on writing shorter, clearer sentences. Make sure when you describe things (like whether the house looks the same or different), all the descriptions relate back to the same idea.
  • Give the reader more character to latch onto. Other than her powers occurring, how does Sarah feel about going back home?
  • If you tend to rely on standard, easy descriptions (his breath was hot and sticky), go through your manuscript and replace these typical descriptions with something a little more “you,” something that will make agents see what is unique about your voice.

The Writeditor’s Grade (out of 5): 2

The opening is risky, but the second scene didn’t really reel me in either.

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.

Submit to First Page Friday – (currently OPEN to submissions)

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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. When not editing, she enjoys reading, writing, and geocaching. Check out her freelance novel editing services and mentoring.

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28 thoughts on “First Page Friday #36: Supernatural Suspense

  1. Robert Pfuetzenreuter says:

    Rather than the actual rape scene itself, why not open the book with the rapist walking away from the crime and having a tie-in to the character’s house? You want to show the danger of the rapist and focus it on the protagonist. Good luck getting that done in the first five hundred words! You’re braver than I am.

  2. Roman says:

    I started my story with a rape scene. It wasn’t on the first page, but was in the first chapter. I found that the scene read awkwardly in contrast with the rest of the chapter. so, Instead of getting rid of the scene altogether, I allowed my protagonist to escape though still left traumatized by the encounter.

    • Laura Evans says:

      Great thought there. I may dull it down to being a “death” scene minus the rape. The story is obviously about a psychic who need to catch a serial killer 🙂

      • Juan Zung says:

        It actually didn’t seem obvious to me that the story is about a psychic on the trail of a serial killer. This may clarify itself very quickly in the next page or so, but in these first 500 words, I was still questioning who is Sarah? Is she a supernatural incarnation of the victim? What are her powers? Are the images supernatural or simply intense memories?

        It’s not that I don’t like that these questions are still in my head. It’s just that I’d be concerned if you wanted it to be completely clear that it’s a Psychic Chasing a Killer story right away.

        Thanks for putting yourself out there! I’ve been learning a ton from these FPF critiques and always appreciate the writers who are willing to submit to this public forum.

  3. Ella says:

    Good beginnings tend to show the reader what kind of story to expect, so unless we’re to expect more, uncomfortable rape-scenes to come, I’d recommend either cutting it or postponing it, in favour of a scene that shows the supernatural side of the story more clearly.

    • Cheryl says:

      I agree with Ella. If the majority of the novel is a story about a character using psychic powers to achieve some end (which I am only assuming at this point, since I can’t tell from the excerpt), then I would make her skills the initial focus, and transition to the rape scene maybe later in the first chapter. Or begin Chapter 2 with that scene.

  4. trazanacho says:

    I don’t normally read this sort of thing and so my reaction was probably more knee-jerk than folks who enjoy this sort of thing. That being said, I was ready to bail at any moment given the ‘trigger alert’. I must say I was surprised at the level of ‘detail restraint’ shown by the author. I don’t need all the gory details for this sort of thing and think that the author handled the opening very well. This could have easily become a quick bail… but with restraint I was able to get through it.

    I will admit to being totally confused by the transition. The opening suggested that the victim died, yet I got the sense that the woman lived somehow and was the character returning to the house some years later.

    This is one of those instances when I wish we had gotten an extra 100 words. We were left hanging, almost sure that 100 more words would have told us if the woman entering the house was the victim/survivor or another person. Why would anyone else have debilitating feelings returning to the scene of the crime, especially with the passage of time?

    “just a few things were different.” felt really awkward to me. “few things had changed with the passage of time” would have read more smoothly to me [with the examples you provide].

    Still – the passage grabbed me.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Yes, I agree. I thought the author did a nice job with not giving the scene more detail about the rape than was necessary. The “trigger warning” was just added as a courtesy because the subject matter can be very sensitive for some readers.

      Thanks for leaving your feedback for the writer!

  5. Silvie Monk says:

    If I picked that book up in a store, I wouldn’t buy it because of the opening rape scene. If the opening scene were about a crime solving psychic, I probably would buy it. Maybe you could combine the two if it doesn’t sound too cliche: the rape could be visions from the psychic’s POV that come flooding in at an inopportune time.

    • trazanacho says:

      My feelings exactly, Silvie. Your suggestion is an elegant and character forming one! Reaction by the psychic rather than description of the victim would not only be more palatable, but a more [in my opinion] intense bonding with the psychic.

    • Laura Evans says:

      I did think about that, but I also follow very closely with Ellen’s “no no’s” and one of them is starting with a dream or vision 😛 I think that’s why the beginning didn’t work here and while I like it, I do need to put who “Sarah” is in the first 500… which I’m going to work to do! Thank you!

      • Ellen_Brock says:

        I’m flattered that you follow my advice. You get a gold star. *wink*

        If your novel is about a psychic and the vision is representative of the novel as a whole, I think you would be okay here. A dream/vision is a problem if used to provide an exciting beginning that 1. doesn’t represent the story as a whole, and 2. is followed by the “real” boring beginning the author was trying to hide.

        I hope that makes sense.

  6. Kate Sparkes says:

    I was confused about the timing until I re-read. I thought this woman died in NY early in the morning, and then went to a house in Iowa later that day, since there are no dates, and I wasn’t sure that it was a different person, even though that made no sense. The I wondered if we’d jumped back in time to some time before the rape/murder, and THEN I figured out that Sarah wasn’t the victim. It seemed strange to open on a character who isn’t the protagonist and who dies (still mad at Game of Thrones for that prologue…)

    But I’m tired and a little slow today, so take all of that with a grain of salt. 😉

    • Laura Evans says:

      lol no Kate, you have a good point and its hard when you “the writer” have that whole story in your head, to make it come out in a way that is understood. I SINCERELY thank Ellen for offering to do this because it helps me so much to realize.. (um these people don’t know what I know lol) Thank you!

      • Kate Sparkes says:

        I have the same problem! I accidentally edited a very important concept explanation out of a book and forgot to put it back in. I didn’t even notice because I knew the story so well.

        Oops. Thank goodness for early reader and editors!

  7. Laura Evans says:

    What I may try to do is have Sarah investigate the scene of the crime and then have that as “what she sees” through the eyes of the victim, but there’s a plot twist later on that may nix this idea …

    • trazanacho says:

      Secret plot twist?! Aren’t you the sly one! 😉 I have no doubt you will find the solution. Here’s a possible – I note that you are using ‘timestamps’ to punctuate breaks in your narrative [I was actually pleased to see it as they are an integral part to my own piece and I was beginning to wonder if I was the only one]. Couldn’t you start with the ‘6:25’ piece and then toss in the rape sequence with its own timestamp [it would need a year attached to it]? That way you could preserve the impact of the sequence without having to start with it – offputting a percentage of potential readers who aren’t prepared to jump into a novel with something so graphic on pg 1. I’m guessing your ‘6:25’ piece is at least a few pages long which would give the reader a chance to identify with Sarah and be hooked enough not to bail when the graphic scene hits. This way you could avoid Sarah having to ‘experience’ the scene personally [I’m guessing from your comments that was not part of your story arc] and preserving your plot twist.

      I am heartened to read all your responses to the many critiques tossed your way [and I agree – every piece of feedback is a gift] as that is how I tend to react to critiques as well. I love the back and forth – I have discovered a couple of good friends this way.

      • Laura Evans says:

        Thank you Traz! 🙂 I definitely do, without critique, we don’t write for our readers, we write for ourselves and while that’s okay, its not the way we get published is it? lol Thank you and I will take that into consideration. I may have to start a lot earlier with the story. Kicking it around this week. ❤ I hope to be able to read your story someday as well! 🙂

  8. Filip says:

    I think you write well. However, I would not start with a rape scene.
    Plus I don’t think the rape scene is credible psychologically. The things gong through the victims mind, I just don’t see it happening, when you’re being assaulted like that your thoughts are a mess, you don’t think about what someone’s eyes look like..

  9. S. Coley says:

    I found starting off with a rape scene a little unsettling and it could put me off making me think the hole thing will be like that but as it was only short and the second scene was not at all unpleasant it didn’t put me off too much, thought the reader dose have to decide to give it a chance if its not there normal cup of tea. I liked your sort of dirty grotesque way of delivering the details making it feel rather real (making me cringe, well done on that), I would suggest if you were to leave that scene in to add some random thoughts of the character like “how will mom make the cake without the eggs I just bought” as she is well aware of what is happening yet her mind is trying its best not to focus on the present, this will help make the experience slightly easier to stomach as it gives some breathing space till the next gory detail.

    I Understood that Sarah wasn’t the victim so if it turned out to be her I would of been surprised.

    In a Hole I like you stile of righting but I´m not a great reader so the fact that some of the explanations seemed to me to be a little long and not really add anything for example: ” feeling the familiar crawling that started in her legs and moved slowly up her torso to her head, like tiny bugs scampering on her skin, when she used her abilities” it would sound better to me to be ” getting a feeling of scampering bugs going up her legs to her head, as she always did when using her abilities” its just a little shorter thought it says the same.

    Hope this helps, if not just ignore it.

    Good luck to all and don’t stop righting 😉

    • Laura Evans says:

      Thanks S, Coley 🙂 Everything helps! I take every piece of advice given because you, will be my potential readers. If you don’t like the first 500 words, I won’t sell the book. Thank you for the compliments and I will do my best to start with another action that fits the first chapter more. ❤

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