The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

Photo by Nic McPhee

As is my custom, and habit, and my Bobby Brown prerogative, I’m going to go with the first page — as printed.

You know, printed with ink at these places we used to call “stores full of books,” where you handed the nice folks who live there paper decorated with dead presidents and they let you walk out with ALL KINDS OF YUMMY BOOKS.

So if you read the first page of this thing on a Kindle or iPad or Atari 2600, your page 1 will doubtless look different and such. Please give my regards to the Complaint Department.

After a line edit of Page 1, we’ll talk about our general literary impressions — about how metaphors are like similes, only different; about how my hatred of semi-colons runs deeper than my loathing of A-Rod; and how somebody wrote a mainstream and incredibly successful novel about sexy nonsense without putting any sort of sexy nonsense whatsoever on page 1.

Note: I’m striking out text, with any replaced text or notes in red, because my version of this novel would be called ONE SHADE OF RED after all the red ink we spill on this thing. Also, I don’t know what happened to this post. A friend wants to use it as an editing example, so I’ve resurrected it and updated the piece a little. Enjoy.

Also: If you have a famous novel with a brilliantly awful first page that needs serious red ink, send me your nomination.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.  (This may be a world record: bam, in the first sentence, she breaks a cardinal rule of fiction writing: don’t tell readers what the hero or heroine looks like by having them stare into a mirror, gaze upon their reflection in a pond or, I don’t know, whip out their driver’s license and say, “Huh, five-foot-ten, a hundred and twenty pounds, red hair, green eyes and a few freckles. Howbout that?” Ugh. This is not exactly “Call me Ishmael.”) Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. (Unless the heroine’s hair is crucial to the plot — unless she starts out with unruly hair in Act 1, switches to a bob in Act 2 and shows how much she’s grown and changed by rocking a purple Mohawk in Act 3, the hair, it is Boring, and a Distraction. Also, nobody refers to friends and such by their full name. If she’s your bestie, you say “Katherine.”) I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. (Enough already with the hair. Seriously. The only two words with any kind of real conflict and potential are “final exams,” and unless she flunks those, and therefore gets kicked out of university and has to live under a bridge in a cardboard box, it does not matter for the story.) Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. (More about the hair? MORE? Not necessary, not interesting and not entertaining, unless her hair is secretly a sentient being, organizing a plot to take over the world, one follicle at a time. I’m guessing Bruce Willis, being immune from such attacks, will foil this plot.) I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. (Back to the staring-at-the-mirror trick, which has to go. Find another way to describe the heroine.) My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable. (Now we’re beating the Dead  Hair Horse on its way to the glue factory.)

Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore, she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do, with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never heard of, for the student newspaper. (Awkward. First reference is Katherine Kavanaugh and now she’s Kate — just call her Kate both times, and let’s clean this whole thing up. Also, how many student newspapers score interviews with “mega-industrial tycoons” … who you’ve never heard of? If they’re really mega, then you have herd of them. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and so forth. If they you haven’t heard of them, they aren’t mega at all. Edited text follows in red.) Kate is my roommate and she’s chosen today, of all days, to succumb to the flu. That means I’m stuck interviewing some industrial tycoon for the student newspaper. So I have been volunteered. (Redundant.) I have final exams to cram for, (already said that) one essay to finish, and I’m supposed to be working this afternoon, but no – today I have to drive a hundred and sixty-five miles to downtown Seattle in order to meet the enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc. As an exceptional entrepreneur and major benefactor of our university, his time is extraordinarily precious – much more precious than mine – but he has granted Kate an interview. A real coup, she tells me.

Damn her extracurricular activities. (The last sentences were brought to you by the letter E: enigmatic, exceptional entrepreneur, extraordinarily, extracurricular. There are other modifiers that start with the letter E: extraneous, excruciating and ejector seat. I am looking for the handle, because it’s time to pull it.)

Kate is huddled on the couch in the living room.

“Ana, I’m sorry. It took me nine months to get this interview. It will take another six to reschedule, and we’ll both have graduated by then. As the editor, I can’t blow this off. Please,” Kate begs me in her rasping, sorethroat (compound modifier) voice. How does she do it? Even ill 

(end of page 1)

Editing notes

Are you kidding me? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

So this the first bit of a novel that sold a gazillion copies and rocked the literary world. It starts with an extended riff about wet hair and ponytails, as the author tells us how the heroine looks by having her look in a flipping mirror, goes back to the hair, uses every adjective and adverb in her dictionary that starts with the letter E and sets up the incredibly high stakes of whether or not a college student can tame her unruly hair and cram for her finals when she is forced — FORCED — to drive to Seattle and interview some billionaire for her friend.

I thought THE FOUNTAINHEAD was a bad Page 1, but Ayn Rand is flipping Shakespeare compared to this first bit. Related: The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

God bless anybody who sells a ton of books or movie tickets. I adore books and movies, and the more people read books, and see good movies, the better.

HOWEVER: the first page of a book is a lot like the trailer for a movie. You start out with your best stuff, and it’s a rock-solid guarantee that the writing doesn’t get magically better ten pages or 100 pages later. The first page, and the first chapter, get polished and polished until they are a shiny diamond made of words.

Maybe you could argue this book is the one exception to that rule. From the reviews of this book, though, that’s not the case.

Why did it sell so well?

I believe, deep in my soul, that packaging matters more than the product.

The title of a book — or a movie, or a TV show — can save your bacon or kill you dead.

The cover of a book, or poster for a movie, is the next most important thing, because it’s what people see when they decide what to buy in Barnes and Noble or what to see on Friday night at those giant buildings where popcorn costs $9 a bucket.

You can’t pitch quality.

If you gave this a more typical title for the genre, and a more typical book cover, you’d probably end up with a title like A BUSINESS AFFAIR and some kind of Ryan Gosling looking guy wearing a suit on the cover with the heroine nearby, messing with her ponytail while she wears the highest of high heels and a business suit with a skirt that is just this side of immodest. Or the cover would feature a blindfold and a pair of handcuffs. That sort of thing. You know, something like this:

See? Here we go. The cover above isn’t just a good representation of what I’m talking about. I bet it’s a far, far better book. If you gave FIFTY SHADES OF GREY a more normal title like this, and more typical cover, I would bet you my house, my car and my first-born son that the book would not sell like hotcakes and get turned into movies.

The unusual title and cover isn’t a side issue. I believe it’s the entire reason this book went viral.

True story: guess what the author of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO wanted as a title for his novel? Go ahead. Guess.

Here’s the answer: MEN WHO HATE WOMEN.

Raise your hand if you think that title would have set the world on fire and led to hit movies.

The title and cover — the packaging — are 90 percent of the battle.

The packaging matters more than the product.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is an interesting, literary title. The cover photo of a grey tie is also atypical of the genre and really stands out. The combined effect gives the book a literary veneer.

Some people might feel embarrassed getting on Flight 435 to Frankfurt and pulling out a paperback with A BUSINESS AFFAIR on the cover with a blindfold and handcuffs on the cover. And you can bet the male audience for such books is hard to find with a microscope.

Give it the gloss of lit-rah-sure, though, and that makes it okay for some people to read what they might never do: romance and erotica. 

And hey, I respect the hell out of romance authors. Have learned a ton from them. So I’m not talking smack about the genre here–I’m specifically talking smack about the first page of this specific book. There are far, far better examples of romance out there. Amazing writers. Go support them.

FIFTY SHADES reminds me of the early Eric van Lustbader novels, like THE NINJA, which I think were hot sellers because they slipped in naughty bits to readers — mostly men — who expected, I don’t know, ninjas sneaking around at night and fighting. It was like a James Bond movie where they didn’t fade out when 007 kissed the girl. I can tell you 14-year-old boys around the globe had their minds blown. You can print this kind of stuff without getting arrested? I can buy it at the store and they don’t ask for ID? NO WAY.

And let’s give respect where it’s due: there’s an editor somewhere who came up with this title, and a cover designer who thought up the idea, got the right photo and nailed it. 

Open up that brilliant cover, though, and you eventually get to the first page, which is a hot mess. And from the reviews, it doesn’t get better on page 2 or 152.

VERDICT

I truly thought, deep in my soul, that you couldn’t top the first page of THE FOUNTAINHEAD for a famous novel that is famously bad. But yes, we have a new champion.

Ripley sums up my mood here.

The Red Pen of Doom shoots up Train’s DRIVE BY

Here is an interesting song, and I mean “interesting” in a tragic, train-wreck sort of way.

Because it’s a decent melody by a good band with some of the WORST LYRICS EVER.

And the music video itself isn’t horrible at all. It’s fine. The words, though, they hurt me.

And I say this as a fan of Train, a man who has some of their songs and believes MEET VIRGINIA has creative lyrics for a pop song.

First up: the video, which I hope the evil known as VEVO lets you watch.

See? The song isn’t bad. The video is fine.

It’s the stupid lyrics.

Let the red ink flow.

DRIVE BY by Train

On the other side of a street I knew
Stood a girl that looked like you
I guess thats deja vu
But I thought this can’t be true
Cause you moved to west L.A or New York or Santa Fe
Or where or ever to get away from me

(OK, so far, this is alright. Nothing great, nothing horrible. The horribleness is hiding and saving its strength for an ambush.)

Oh but that one night
Was more than just right
I didn’t leave you cause I was all through
Oh I was overwhelmed and frankly scared as hell
Because I really fell for you

Oh I swear to you
I’ll be there for you
This is not a drive by

(I believe the singer — or whoever wrote these lyrics — is trying to say, “This isn’t infatuation, or a one-night stand, but something longer lasting and meaningful, possibly leading up to a white dress, a white picket fence and three years of white Pampers.” This phrase means, “A gang murders that utilizes one driver and one or more shooters, who send a wall of lethal lead at the homicide victim while making a rolling getaway from the crime.” So the message is kinda-sorta mixed. People hear this and don’t think of happy love. They think of Glocks and funerals.)

Just a shy guy looking for a two ply
Hefty bag to hold my love

(Because the only thing more romantic than a drive-by shooting is the leading national brand of garbage bags.)

When you move me everything is groovy
They don’t like it sue me
mmm the way you do me

(The bad pop trifecta: a word from the ’60s that needs to be retired, a reference to litigation and a crude reference to sex.)

Oh I swear to you
I’ll be there for you
This is not a drive by
On the upside of a downward spiral

(If he were definitely referring to NINE INCH NAILS, he’d get bonus points, but he’s not, so he doesn’t.)

My love for you went viral

(A tiny bonus point for not completing the cliche by name-dropping Facebook or Twitter.)

And I loved you every mile you drove away
But now here you are again
So let’s skip the “how you been”And 
get down to the “more than friends” at last

(“You didn’t really like me before, and you drove far, far, away, but now that you’re back, please pay attention to me as a boyfriend instead of some man you don’t really care about.” I believe that sums it up.)

Oh but that one night
Is still the highlight
I didn’t need you until I came to
and I was overwhelmed and frankly scared as hell
Because I really fell for you

Oh I swear to you
I’ll be there for you
This is not a drive by
Just a shy guy looking for a two ply
Hefty bag to hold my love
When you move me everything is groovy
They don’t like it sue me
mmm the way you do me
Oh I swear to you
I’ll be there for you
This is not a drive by

(The songwriter got ALL the bad cliches and phrases of this song into one tidy package right there. Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam! Kind of like a emptying the clip during a drive by shooting. No. Just no.)

Please believe that when I leave
There’s nothing up my sleeve but love for you
And a little time to get my head together too

(To woo somebody, it’s not overly bright to hint that you’re not quite right in the head.) 

On the other side of a street I knew
Stood a girl that looked like you
I guess thats deja vu
But I thought this can’t be true
Cause

Oh I swear to you
I’ll be there for you
This is not a drive by
Just a shy guy looking for a two ply
Hefty bag to hold my love
When you move me everything is groovy
They don’t like it sue me
mmm the way you do me
Oh I swear to you
I’ll be there for you
This is not a drive by

(A repeat and recap of all the bad lines from before, in case we hadn’t heard them the first, second or third time.)

Bottom line

A successful band like Train probably hires songwriters for some — or a lot — of their stuff. Which is fine. You need to focus on touring, performing and shooting music videos. None of those are bad things.

The words, though, actually matter. They matter as much as the bass line, the lighting on the set and the type of leather jacket worn by the lead singer.

Spend a little more time and money on the words, because I used to hear “Train” and think of two good songs. Now, the first two things that pop into my head will be “drive-by shootings” and “Hefty bags.” Which is too bad.

Storytelling insights from 3 minutes of glorious film with subtitles

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

Yes, I watch movies with subtitles, even if they’re in black-and-white, with people smoking French cigarettes while speaking French and watching things happen to other people in some scrappy, destitute part of Paris or, for variety, a tiny farming village in Normandy. 

We are talking about a different sort of foreign film with subtitles.

  • Bonus No. 1: This film is 3 minutes long instead of three hours.
  • Bonus No. 2: There is hardly any talking, or any need to read the subtitles at all.
  • Bonus No. 3: Most importantly, this little film can teach us all great big lessons about storytelling and structure.

Also, unless you have no soul, it will make drops of water drip from your eyes and scurry down your cheeks.

Here. Watch the clip in high definition. Or low def, it that’s your thing. Whatever floats your boat.

Okay. All done?

Let’s take it apart and see what makes it tick.

Strong bones

This little film has strong bones. The structure is a roller coaster: things are bad (son is running away), things get even worse (son nearly dies, is paralyzed), then in the climax, things get resolved and the world is forever changed, at least for this family.

The father is not sympathetic at first, right? My first thought was bad casting. No. Good storytelling. The main narrative question is, “Will they get together?” This is a love story, which doesn’t have to be a rom-com with a high-powered professional woman who eventually gets together with a chubby, unemployed virgin who owns the Largest Comic Book Collection Known to Man, because for some reason, that’s what half the rom-coms are these days.

The other half of rom-coms star Matthew McConaughey.

Back to this little film: if they’re getting together in the end, they must be split apart in the beginning.

Another narrative question is, “How do these people suffer, change and grow?”

The father moves from stern, humorless taskmaster to loving and dedicated. He’s the hero of this little film, because it’s his actions that matter most. The normal thing would be for him to let the doctors do their work, right? But it’s his turn to rebel. He carries his son out of the hospital, out of the wheelchair and back into the world. Rehab isn’t going to be nurses and machines and doctors. It’s going to be father and son, learning to walk again.

And all that suffering and sacrifice pays off. The son also transforms. In the beginning, he’s rebellious and aloof. In the end, he’s loyal and connected to his family.

The mother is a flat character. She suffers, but she doesn’t change. That’s OK. Having two characters go through all this in three minutes is plenty.

Real stories beat Michael Bay explosions

This tiny film, which is a flipping COMMERCIAL, moved me far more than bazillion-dollar CGI blockbusters involving dinosaurs, vampires or robots that transform themselves into Chevies.

You can take those $294 million budgets full of special effects and a scripts credited to five different writers. (Pro-tip: the more screenwriters you throw in the kitchen, the crazier the thing that comes out of the oven.)

Give me a story with strong bones and a tiny budget.

Give me people I actually care about, because I don’t give a hoot about Shia LaBeuf and Megan Fox fighting robots or whether the awkward teenage girl gets together with the Sparkly British Vampire vs some kid who used to be a Power Ranger.

Give me a story. A story like this.

The Red Pen of Doom sends LIKE A FOX ON THE RUN into hyperspace

This isn’t my usual thing–it’s not the first page of a Classic Novel professors decided in some secret meeting, probably in a Best Western outside Cleveland, they’d force all of us to write term papers on. And it’s not a bestseller which absolutely stinks.

It’s a random book I saw on the Twitters.

I did read out the first page of the prologue, and the first chapter. The cover and synopsis are more fun to play with, though.

Let’s check out the cover, then the synopsis / back page text, and we’ll chat.

The cover

like a fox on the run novel

The synopsis

Southern Syfy has arrived in this “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” adventure tale.

In a future spawned from the headlines of today, enter a world of contrasts, where Man has conquered the heavens, while at the same time becoming quickly obsolete on his own world. A world where science and technology brings exotic fantasy creatures to life … for the right price. Where hot rod rockets and redneck “spacers” rule the skies.

Tiger Thomas was a rocket pilot during the Great Space Rush, when humankind colonized the Solar System in the twenty-second century. Now, all that’s winding down, and so has the demand for old spacers like him. He makes a living now doing whatever jobs he can find, legal and otherwise.

Returning to his hometown of Huntsville, Tiger looks forward to a relaxing weekend back on Earth. Who knows, he might even re-kindle that old flame with Lulah Carter, “the one that got away” years ago. A dinner and dancing … who knows what might happen.

But when he rescues a genetically engineered, anthropomorphic fox girl from a clan of vicious, hillbilly thugs, his homecoming quickly turns sour.

Somebody wants this sexy, furry darling back. BAD! And they’ll do whatever it takes, including killing anyone who stands in their way. Tiger and newfound companion soon find themselves on the run from a deadly, high-tech unit of bounty hunters. And if that ain’t bad enough, revelations about this beautiful vixen starts to disturb him. Is she really a victim? Is there more to her than just a pretty face and a bushy tail? Is there something else? A part hidden and dangerous, waiting for the right time to manifest itself? And with all that to ponder on, there’s also one other small problem … he finds himself irresistibly attracted to her.

Oh, and then there’s that whole Lulah thing again. As if things weren’t complicated enough.

Well, so much for a relaxing weekend.

Edits and notes

The cover: Hey, I like it, especially given this looks like an indie book on a low budget. Does the job for a sci-fi novel just fine. Thumbs up.

The synopsis: This is what got me to write a post. You had me at “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers.”

Here’s a shot at the synopsis to pump up the wild stuff and slay boring bits:

Southern Syfy has arrived in this “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” adventure tale.

In a future spawned from the headlines of today, enter a world of contrasts, where

Hotrod rockets and redneck spacers rule the skies. Man has Yet conquering the heavens made man  while at the same time becoming quickly obsolete on Earth, his own world. A world where science and technology brings exotic fantasy creatures to lifefor the right price. Where

Tiger (If your love interest is a fox-woman, don’t make your hero’s first name Tiger–confusing, and no, you can’t call him Tiger and reveal in Act 3 that he’s a genetically engineered tiger thing) Thomas was a rocket pilot during the Great Space Rush,  when humankind colonized the Solar System in the twenty-second century.but now that space is civilized, he’s a cast-off, all that’s winding down, and so has the demand for old spacers like him. He making a living now doing whatever jobs he can find, laws be damned. legal and otherwise.

Returning to his hometown of Huntsville, Tiger Thomas looks forward to a relaxing weekend back on Earth. Who knows, he might even re-kindle that old flame with Lulah Carter, “the one that got away” years ago. A dinner and dancing … who knows what might happen.

But when he rescues a genetically engineered, anthropomorphic fox girl from a clan of vicious, hillbilly thugs, his homecoming quickly turns sour.

Somebody wants this sexy, furry darling back. BAD! And they’ll do whatever it takes, including killing anyone who stands in their way. Thomas Tiger and his newfound companion soon find themselves on the run from a deadly, high-tech unit of bounty hunters. And if that ain’t bad enough, revelations about this beautiful vixen starts to disturb him. Is she really a victim? Is there more to her than just a pretty face and a bushy tail? Is there something else? A part hidden and dangerous, waiting for the right time to manifest itself? And with all that to ponder on, there’s also one other small problem … he finds himself irresistibly attracted to her.

Oh, and then there’s that whole Lulah thing again. As if things weren’t complicated enough.

Well, so much for a relaxing weekend.

Edited synopsis as straight text

Southern Syfy has arrived in this “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” adventure.

Hot-rod rockets and redneck spacers rule the skies. Yet conquering the heavens made man obsolete on Earth, where science and technology brings exotic fantasy creatures to life–for the right price. 

Thomas was a rocket pilot during the Great Space Rush, but now that space is civilized, he’s a cast-off, making a living doing whatever jobs he can find, laws be damned.

Returning to his hometown of Huntsville, Thomas looks forward to a relaxing weekend. Who knows, he might even re-kindle that old flame with Lulah Carter, “the one that got away” years ago.

But when he rescues a genetically engineered fox girl from a clan of vicious, hillbilly thugs, his homecoming turns sour.

Somebody wants this sexy, furry darling back. BAD! And they’ll kill anyone who stands in their way. Thomas and his newfound companion find themselves on the run from deadly, high-tech bounty hunters. And if that ain’t bad enough, revelations about this beautiful vixen starts to disturb him. Is there more to her than just a pretty face and a bushy tail? Is there something hidden and dangerous, waiting for the right time to manifest itself? 

#

Feels faster and smoother. Mostly, it’s a matter of killing words. Could we have killed even more words? Maybe. Always worth trying, though I was working hard to edit with a light touch. Itchy Pencil is a real disease. There is no known cure.

The other bit I wanted to delete is everything dealing with his old flame, which felt like the B plot. You don’t see her on the cover, and there are no high-tech Boba Fett types chasing her around the galaxy. The fox girl as the A plot, though fox girl NEEDS A NAME if she’s so important to the story, and that name better not be something like Fox Amber Harrison, or I will throw the book clear across the room.

What say you–how else could we give the synopsis of “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” a boost into orbit?

A BOWL OF WARM MILK AND MURDER

The kitteh is surprised

evil cat

I was shocked — SHOCKED — to learn that there are mystery novels featuring talking cats, cats who help old British ladies solve murders and whatnot.

Then  my mind was blown to itty bitty pieces when I heard THIS IS NOT A FLUKE.

There isn’t a solo author who did this and was magically successful at it. Many, many authors write Talking Cat Cozy Mysteries, and many people hand over pieces of paper decorated with dead presidents to buy these novels, and read them.

So much so that Talking Cat Cozies are an entire flipping sub-genre now, just like Sparkly Vampires and the Angsty Teenagers Who Love Them.

Everybody knows cats can’t talk. Porcupines, now, talk up a storm.

This made me think, which is always dangerous.

What if somebody wrote a Talking Cat Mystery where the cat … is secretly the killer?

So I wrote the first chapter of an evil talking cat mystery. Here’s the first page.

 

A BOWL OF  WARM MILK AND MURDER

Chapter 1: My Secret

It should not surprise you that I know words. Even the Dog knows words, and does tricks, and he is Simple.

He did not stop chewing his bone while I sat in the lap of the Woman and watched the Glowing Box show a story about a sheep dog that knows thousands of words.

I would not know so many words without the Glowing Box. I sat beside the Boy as we watched the Sesame Street to learn about letters and numbers and words.

He grew taller. I learned all I could. When they left the house, I pushed the buttons on the Boy’s ABC toy to know letters and sounds. Then to spell small words. I learned how to press the button on the small stick to make the Glowing Box come alive and go to sleep. To climb on the boxes in the garage to push the other button to make the giant door open and close.

Oh, I learned many things. And I know these things must be Secrets, that the Woman and the Boy cannot know.

Tonight, I have an even bigger secret.

After the Boy and the Woman go upstairs, where I am not allowed, I will sneak out of the dog door. I will walk very far.

And then I will kill a Man.

A BOWL OF WARM MILK AND MURDER

The kitteh is surprised

evil cat, talking cat, talking cat mysteries

I was shocked — SHOCKED — to learn that there are mystery novels featuring talking cats, cats who help old British ladies solve murders and whatnot.

Then my mind was blown to itty bitty pieces when I heard this isn’t a fluke. There isn’t a solo author who did this and was magically successful at it. Many, many authors write Talking Cat Cozy Mysteries, and people hand over pieces of paper decorated with dead presidents to buy these novels and read them.

So much so that Talking Cat Cozies are an entire flipping sub-genre now, just like there’s an entire section in the bookstore dedicated to Sparkly Vampires and the Angsty Teenagers Who Love Them.

Everybody knows cats can’t talk. Porcupines, now, talk up a storm.

This made me think, which is always dangerous.

What if somebody wrote a Talking Cat Mystery where the cat … is secretly the killer?

So I wrote the first chapter of an evil talking cat mystery. Here’s the first page.

 

A BOWL OF  WARM MILK AND MURDER

Chapter 1: My Secret

It should not surprise you that I know words. Even the Dog knows words, and does tricks, and he is Simple.

He did not stop chewing his bone while I sat in the lap of the Woman and watched the Glowing Box show a story about a sheep dog that knows thousands of words.

I would not know so many words without the Glowing Box.

I sat beside the Boy as we watched the Sesame Street to learn about letters and numbers and words.

He grew taller. I learned all I could.

When they left the house, I pushed the buttons on the Boy’s ABC toy to know letters and sounds. To spell small words. I learned how to press the button on the small stick to make the Glowing Box come alive and go to sleep. To climb on the boxes in the garage to push the other button to make the Biggest Door open and close, the door they use to keep the Metal Horse asleep in its cage.

Oh, I learned many things. And I know these things must be Secrets that the Woman and the Boy cannot know.

Tonight, I have a bigger secret.

After the Boy and the Woman go upstairs, where I am not allowed, I will sneak out of the Dog’s little door.

I will walk very far.

And then I will kill a Man.

The Red Pen of Doom embraces THE AX by Donald Westlake

the ax by donald westlake, the first page of novels

Listen: it’s hard to slog through the first page of a novel by Snooki, a literary zero.

And beating up the first page by a literary hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald, feels rebellious, as if I’m giving sending a chunk of English teachers and profs into therapy. Even so, it doesn’t feel good. Giants of literature need to remain giant and omnipotent in our minds, not bogged down with meandering prose that doesn’t go anywhere for a full page.

So as a palate cleanser, this week we’re dissecting page one of a brilliant, relatively obscure novel by Donald Westlake, a master of the craft.

THE AX by Donald Westlake

I’ve never actually killed anybody before, murdered another person, snuffed out another human being. In a way, oddly enough, I wish I could talk to my father about this, since he did have the experience, had what we in the corporate world call the background in that area of expertise, he having been an infantryman in the Second World War, having seen “action” in the final march across France into Germany in ’44—’45, having shot and certainly wounded and more than likely killed any number of men in dark gray wool, and having been quite calm about it all in retrospect. How do you know beforehand that you can do it? That’s the question.

Well, of course, I couldn’t ask my father that., discuss it with him, Not even if he were still alive, which he isn’t, the cigarettes and the lung cancer having caught up with him in his sixty-third year, putting him down as surely, if not as efficiently, as if he had been a distant enemy in dark gray wool.

NOTES FROM THE RED PEN OF DOOM

This is an intense thriller, with an everyman anti-hero who responds to getting laid off in an interesting way: taking out a fake job ad, then collecting those resumes and killing off the competition for his specialized trade (managing paper mills, if I remember right). It’s a short, intense, amazing book by a master of his craft.

So, I didn’t get itchy pencil on this page one, though there are some easy edits. The run-on sentences are clearly on purpose, a little conversational tic of the narrator. My personal feeling is they get just a bit annoying early on here. Pretty easy to kill a few words and make it more readable.

What’s truly great is how Westlake strikes at the heart of his anti-hero, and the novel, not just on the first page but in the very first line.

You rarely see that. Not in movies, not in books.

Westlake takes a carpenter’s hammer and smacks you in the nose with this first line and I could not love it more.

The whole novel is like that.

If you’re a fan of BREAKING BAD, this is a similar story with a different ending. It’s not a tragedy, with a hero falling, sinning and dying due to hubris. This is a story of a suburban schlub who suffers, sacrifices and does terrible things to provide for his family…and wins in the end. He gets the job. The house doesn’t go into foreclosure, his family isn’t on the street. He wins, not that Westlake is saying what his character did is right and good.

BOTTOM LINE

This is a great first page that doesn’t meander around, and a terrific way to put the reader into the essential question of the story, a neat twist on “What’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for?”

The Red Pen of Doom embraces THE AX by Donald Westlake

the ax by donald westlake

Listen: it’s hard to slog through the first page of a novel by Snooki, a literary zero.

And beating up the first page by a literary hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald, feels rebellious, as if I’m giving sending a chunk of English teachers and profs into therapy. Even so, it doesn’t feel good. Giants of literature need to remain giant and omnipotent in our minds, not bogged down with meandering prose that doesn’t go anywhere for a full page.

So as a palate cleanser, this week we’re dissecting page one of a brilliant, relatively obscure novel.

THE AX by Donald Westlake

I’ve never actually killed anybody before, murdered another person, snuffed out another human being. In a way, oddly enough, I wish I could talk to my father about this, since he did have the experience, had what we in the corporate world call the background in that area of expertise, he having been an infantryman in the Second World War, having seen “action” in the final march across France into Germany in ’44—’45, having shot and certainly wounded and more than likely killed any number of men in dark gray wool, and having been quite calm about it all in retrospect. How do you know beforehand that you can do it? That’s the question.

Well, of course, I couldn’t ask my father that., discuss it with him, Not even if he were still alive, which he isn’t, the cigarettes and the lung cancer having caught up with him in his sixty-third year, putting him down as surely, if not as efficiently, as if he had been a distant enemy in dark gray wool.

NOTES FROM THE RED PEN OF DOOM

This is an intense thriller, with an everyman anti-hero who responds to getting laid off in an interesting way: taking out a fake job ad, then collecting those resumes and killing off the competition for his specialized trade (managing paper mills, if I remember right). It’s a short, intense, amazing book by a master of his craft.

So, I didn’t get itchy pencil on this page one, though there are some easy edits. The run-on sentences are clearly on purpose, a little conversational tic of the narrator. My personal feeling is they get just a bit annoying early on here. Pretty easy to kill a few words and make it more readable.

What’s truly great is how Westlake strikes at the heart of his anti-hero, and the novel, not just on the first page but in the very first line.

You rarely see that. Not in movies, not in books.

Westlake takes a carpenter’s hammer and smacks you in the nose with this first line and I could not love it more.

The whole novel is like that.

If you’re a fan of BREAKING BAD, this is a similar story with a different ending. It’s not a tragedy, with a hero falling, sinning and dying due to hubris. This is a story of a suburban schlub who suffers, sacrifices and does terrible things to provide for his family…and wins in the end. He gets the job. The house doesn’t go into foreclosure, his family isn’t on the street. He wins, not that Westlake is saying what his character did is right and good.

BOTTOM LINE

This is a great first page that doesn’t meander around, and a terrific way to put the reader into the essential question of the story, a neat twist on “What’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for?”

The Red Pen of Doom takes on GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee

go set a watchman

To Kill A Mockingbird is a classic novel that turned into an amazing film.

So when news broke that Harper Lee, who never published another novel, was coming out with a book-like object, and this book-like object would be a sequel to her big hit—well, that was huge.

It was also controversial, with sources saying Harper Lee never intended this to get published, that it was a draft, with the same characters later showing up in To Kill a Mocking Bird.

So here’s the first page, as printed on dead trees, and I allowed the last paragraph to actually finish instead of ending mid-sentence with “folding herself up” and such.

For previous posts bleeding red all over the first page of a novel, click away with your mousity mouse while enjoying some chocolate mousse:

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

The Red Pen of Doom harpoons MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

The Red Pen of Doom destroys FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

GO SET A WATCHMAN

Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical. Over her breakfast coffee, she watched (We already know she’s looking and watching, so these words get slain.) The last of Georgia’s hills receded and the red earth appeared, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires. She grinned when she saw (Looked, watched and saw all in the first paragraph, three shining beacons of bad writing, so let’s kill the last two.) her at the first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.

Jean Louise Finch always made this journey by air, but she decided to go by train from New York to Maycomb Junction on her fifth annual trip home. (Now we go back in time for backstory, which is Boring and must die.) For one thing, she had the life scared out of her the last time she was on a plane: the pilot elected to fly through a tornado. (This would have been good in the present tense, as an exciting start to the novel: “So I’m flying through this tornado, wishing I’d taken the train.” Nope.) For another thing, flying home meant her father rising at three in the morning, driving a hundred miles to meet her in Mobile, and doing a full day’s work afterwards: he was seventy-two now and this was no longer fair. (More exposition and backstory without the barest hint of conflict.)

She was glad she had decided to go by train. Trains had changed since her childhood, and the novelty of the experience amused her: a fat genie of a porter materialized when she pressed a button on a wall; at her bidding a stainless steel washbasin popped out of another wall, and there was a john one could prop one’s feet on. (Nice imagery in the last line.) She resolved not to be intimidated by several messages stenciled around her compartment – a roomette, they called it – but when she went to bed the night before, she succeeded in folding herself up into the wall because she had ignored an injunction to PULL THIS LEVER DOWN OVER BRACKETS, a situation remedied by the porter to her embarrassment, as her habit was to sleep only in pajama tops.

End of Page 1

Notes from The Red Pen of Doom:

You don’t need Michael Bay explosions on every page, especially when we’re talking about lit-rah-sure.

But you do need problems. Get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at them and let them find a way down. 

Jean Louise Finch (Scout) doesn’t get up a tree on this page one. There are no rocks aimed at her head, no suspense or trouble at all, unless you count the porter possibly walking in on Scout wearing only her pajama tops, though that sort of situation belongs more in a book with Fabio on the cover. 

This page one is all description, exposition and backstory.

Later in the book, we learn our heroine is traveling by train to meet the man she’s being pushed into marrying. That’s a real conflict. Why not foreshadow that?

Put her back on a plane instead of the comfortable train, and give us that tornado again, with a first line about Scout gripping the arms of her chair as the pilot headed insanely through the edge of a tornado and she headed insanely back home to a marriage she didn’t want.

Give us something. Anything. 

Because I’m feeling kind, I didn’t get into the brutal reviews of this novel, ones by people who pay the mortgage by reading and reviewing book-like objects of all sorts, or the whole controversial shebang about changing Atticus Finch from an iconic hero into a villain who’s sympathetic to the KKK.

I’m simply going after the first page, and the only job of a page one page is to make readers turn to page two, then page three and finally page 288 or even, if it’s a Stephen King doorstopper, page 1,104.

This first page fails at that job. I have no interest in hearing more about the interior décor of this train, no desire to see more of the scenery flashing by and no hope that this story will get any more interesting as it chugs along.

Verdict: Put it to rest, gently, far from the spot of honor on the library shelf for To Kill a Mockingbird.

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

worst-twilight-memes-funny-pictures-8

CHAPTER ONE – FIRST SIGHT

My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. (Fiction Law #1: Don’t open with the weather or your mom.) I was wearing my favorite shirt – sleeveless, white eyelet lace; (Fiction Law #2: Don’t open with what you’re wearing, because nobody cares.) I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. (Here we go, our first bit of conflict or story: a farewell.) My carry-on item was a parka. (This relates to how much it rains in Forks, and I guess you could argue it’s a bit of foreshadowing, but my God, no story on earth turns on whether a teenage girl is taking a parka as carry-on luggage versus stuffing the damned thing into her Samsonite.)

In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. (This reads like was cut-and-pasted from Wikipedia, with a surplus of Things in Caps, and it is all Rather Boring.) It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America. It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old. (Conflict! A tiny bit of it, finally.) It was in this town that I’d been compelled to spend a month every summer until I was fourteen. That

(END OF PAGE 1)

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