Sunday, April 18, 2010

Critiques

by Wilfred Bereswill



This weekend has been one of going from one activity to another.  We are just about to leave to spend the evening in a luxury suite at Busch Stadium to watch the Cardinals play the Mets.  If it's anything like last night's 20 inning marathon, I'll be getting back late.  So I'm resorting to putting our readers to work.  Over at the Killzone Blog, they have been critiquing first pages.  It's been quite interesting to watch.  


While I have made it clear on several occasions that I'm not a fan of critique groups, I'm giving our readers a chance to take a crack at the first pages of a work in progress.  It's a Thriller and in the pages that follow, an explosion rocks an Atlantic City casino.


So, if you're game, let's get to work.  Tell me what you think, how I can improve things, or what you like about these first pages.  

He wanted it all to be over; the war in Iraq, the terrorism, the death, the killing. But it wasn’t going to stop. Not anytime soon.

Explosions rocked a large market in Iraq disrupting a diplomatic visit by two senior House of Representative  Congressional leaders. The in-country reporter glanced nervously over his shoulder as he searched for something to say. The scene played out on the plasma television above the bar, caught on tape by CNN cameras. Details on the forty-something U.S. soldiers killed that day scrolled along the bottom of the screen. The image changed. Visiting Representatives Jackson and Levey, draped in body armor, were being rushed from the scene by a tight knot of amour-clad soldiers.

Pete Robinson teetered on the bar stool contemplating the grizzly scene. Those political idiots were probably second-guessing their decision to parade around Iraq in support of the President and his claims that things were improving. The more he thought about the war, the more he drank, and the more he drank, the angrier he got. He’d been perched on the bar stool for the last two hours. He was hammered and pissed-off. Just nuke the bastards.


The scene above changed again. This time images of innocent Iraqi citizens filled the screen. The ones that were caught in the middle, casualties of evil mixed with stupidity. Bodies littered the sidewalk while crimson trails flowed from the wounded, leaking life onto the dirty streets. Smokey dust rolled from beneath the collapsed roof. Women wailed over the bodies of their young. Children should be playing hide and seek, not cowering in the corners of their hovels shaking in fear for their lives.

Pete lowered his gaze to stare through the bottom of his empty glass as if expecting answers to magically appear in the melted cubes and amber film. An empty bottle of Jack Daniels stood guard like a lone sentry--taunting him--begging for attention. It had only been two months, yet the feeling was becoming all too familiar. The soldiers fighting the battles were little more than children themselves. The lucky parents were left behind--hoping and praying. The unlucky parents mourned their loss. Worse still were those like Pete Robinson.

The electric buzz of the casino, with its rowdy shouts from the craps tables and the monotonous melodies of slot machines seemed to bend around his ears; unheard. Cigarette smoke permeated his hair and clothing, choking his throat and lungs without notice. Spying the bartender from the corner of a bloodshot eye, Pete made a halfhearted wave.


“Bring me another.” His lips barely stumbled over the words.

“I’m sorry sir, but I think you’ve had enough.” The bartender looked ridiculous with his wavy blond hair and puffy sleeved, gold-sparkle blouse. He laid a slip of paper on the counter. “That’ll be forty-five dollars. Would you like to keep that on your Visa card?”

“Who the hell do you think you are? My mother?”

Sparkle-boy backed up a step; eyes wide as if his eyelids were pinned to his forehead.


“Maybe I have had enough, but it’s not your damn call to make.” A steely gaze sent the bartender another half-step back. “Leave it on the damn Visa.” His stare lowered to the glass once again as he rolled his wrist to swirl the ice around the bottom.

Long stubble had erupted high on his cheeks that snagged his callused palms. He wondered how he must look to the outside world. “Screw it.” He just didn’t give a rat’s ass anymore. For too many years he cared and what did it get him? Trouble and misery is what.

Sparkle-boy appeared again. Trying to stay at arm’s length, he slipped a plastic tray in front of him and stepped back. “Please sign the top copy. I’m sorry sir... I mean about cutting you off. I have to follow the rules. I can’t--”

“Just shut the hell up.”

The bartender’s mouth clapped shut as he scurried off. Pete slashed a line through the space for gratuities and mumbled, “There you go asshole. Don’t spend it all in one place.” Standing on slightly wobbly legs with a hand on the back of the barstool for balance, he glanced around, finally noticing the hustle and bustle of the Silver Star Casino, Atlantic City’s newest resort. Adorned in silver walls and massive gold pillars, the main casino was an immense study of ostentatious gaudiness and glitz. Four stories overhead, the ceiling twinkled like the night sky in Montana. A huge star dominated the center of the sky, courtesy of a hidden holograph projector. It hung magically, suspended in midair, pulsing eerie emerald and amber hues from the center. Surrounding the holograph, thick crystalline rods and sharp-pointed stars suspended by fiber optic cables twinkled vibrant amethyst, cobalt and cherry. The ten million dollar special effect that had stretched the imaginations and budget of its designers went wasted on Pete Robinson.

It was too early to go back to the empty cave he called home and he didn’t feel like finding another watering hole. There had to be another bar in this damn place. He wandered through the maze of video poker and slot machines with their chintzy, simulated sounds of days gone by when real coins tumbled into dented, tin pots stirring gamblers into a frenzy; knowing their turn was next. Having to squeeze between rows of fat-assed old ladies slapping buttons, pulling handles and puffing out cigarette smoke like chimneys did little to settle his nerves. He turned and staggered past the long row of gaming tables, where scantily clad waitresses ducked around him to force-feed cheap drinks to the idiots wasting their hard-earned dollars. 


Another dead end.

“What the...” He looked up to find himself in front of the crowded poker room. People closed around the chrome railing separating the poker room from the main casino floor--many wearing military uniforms--jockeying for a view. Cutting off his egress. Above the poker room hung a large banner. Welcome Men and Women of the United States Armed Forces. An amplified screech pierced his alcohol-soaked brain like a sizzling ice pick.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the newest gem in Atlantic City, the Silver Star Hotel and Casino would like to welcome all of you to the first U.S. Armed Forces million-dollar Texas Hold’em Championship. It’s Silver Star’s way of thanking the men and women of the armed forces for the sacrifices they make to ensure our freedom.”

“Horseshit.” Something in him wanted those within shouting distance to hear. In a crescendo, he finished. “Only if you come back in one piece.”

A commotion in the far corner of the poker parlor caught his attention. A small knot of marines were embroiled in a shoving match with a group of sailors. Much like law enforcement, the various branches of the military seemed unable to work and play together. With this bunch, the testosterone level was off the charts. As casino security and military police moved in, he decided to push his way the hell out of there. No sense in being involved in an all out brawl if things escalated.

Being a full head taller than most, with broad shoulders and a massive chest, Pete Robinson pretty much intimidated even the roughest men. Unkempt gray hair and a scraggly beard contrasted with his neatly pressed oxford shirt and dress pants. Twenty-one years in the Secret Service had forged some habits that would never die. Those shoved from his path cowered rather than retaliated. The snootful of whiskey only enhanced his sour mood.

Finally clear of the sea of uniforms, Pete looked again for an exit sign. These damned casinos never post clocks or exit signs. They’d be happy if you never found your way out--at least not until you lost every dollar you own. Then they’d toss your ass on the street while saying, “Thank you sir, come again.” God help them if a fire broke out.

He spied a golden, luminescent sign for the hotel lobby, aimed his large frame in the direction of the arrow and lurched forward. Clearing the Keno Lounge, he spotted an oversize revolving door and dodged a petite girl in a nice suit.

“Excuse me sir.” The lyrical voice floating from behind shook him.

“Danni?” He turned around and stared at the young brunette holding a clipboard with customer surveys. She looked a bit like Danni, shoulder length dark hair, large bright eyes and a sweet smile that stretched wide between her ears displaying a mouth full of perfect, bleached teeth. The neat business suit was accented with a neck scarf emblazoned with the Silver Star logo.

“Uh, no, my name is Lisa and I’d really appreciate it, if you could answer some questions for this survey. It will only take a minute and I can give you a coupon for twenty-dollars off the magic show in the Silver Star Theater.” Her liquid brown eyes were full of life and her lips turned to a pout as he looked away.

He needed out. He needed out in a bad way.

Turning back to the lobby, he slammed into a rail-thin man half a head shorter than he was. The man’s forehead smashed into Pete’s nose causing a burst of pain and a blinding white flash. He barely made out a silhouette of flailing arms as a backpack slipped off the man’s shoulder and hit the marble floor with a dull thud.

Pete staggered back a step reaching for his throbbing nose and mumbled, “What the hell...”
The thin man, sporting a dark fleece pullover with the hood tightened around his face, turned his head slightly toward Pete. His features, shadowed by the hood, were oddly dark.

“Bloody wanker!” The pack was snatched from the floor and thin man disappeared in a hurry into the casino.

“Sir, are you all right? The nerve of some people!” Lisa, the survey girl, cocked her head to one side and accentuated her cuteness by jabbing her fists into the recesses of a tiny waistline. “Oh my God, your nose is bleeding. Let me take you to first aid.”

That voice, it sounded so much like Danni, he thought. Light and airy with an innocence that... His eyes began to burn. He needed to get away. Now! As he spun away from her, shouts emerged from the casino behind him. A low rumble ensued, followed by a deafening roar.
The rush of a blast furnace smashed into Pete’s back, hurling him forward; head first into the curved entryway. Safety glass buckled, sending shards into his scalp and forehead before his knees buckled under his two hundred forty pounds. He fell backward bouncing his head off the marble floor--a dull thud echoing through his brain. The lights in the ceiling spread into shimmering beams as his eyes lost focus. Everything began to fade as the screams and cries for help drifted away.

The fight for consciousness came by instinct, shaking cobwebs from his clouded head, spraying blood that coated his short, graying hair to the floor around him. His senses overloaded; pain radiated behind his eyes, his ears rang from the concussion of the shockwave and the distant whimpers of distress, his nose stung with the pungent scent of burnt flesh, and his eyes burned from the cloud of dust billowing from the casino floor. After two failed attempts to roll to his knees, he made a final lunge, body screaming in pain. Teetering on his knees, balance not fully intact, he fell forward and slapped his palms against the floor to catch himself, plunging them into shattered glass that coated the marble like road salt. His lips peeled back exposing yellowing teeth as pain shot through his arms. He struggled to his feet while blood dripped down the wrinkles in his forehead. His hands glistened from the razor-sharp bits of embedded glass. The fresh pain helped to push the alcoholic veil from his brain.

9 comments:

PatRemick said...

I liked the twists and turns because just when I thought I knew what was happening in some spots, I didn't. I did know when it came to the guy in the hoodie -- so I'd ask could that be hidden a bit more? I'm not sure why there is so much about Iraq, but I'm trusting you'll tell me later on. I would recommend that you use "congress" and congressmen rather than House of Representatives for the benefit of those not as current on their civics as they should be. But in total, I'm looking forward to reading more!

Gina said...

Wil-
At first reading, the only thing that really stands out (makes me stop to think rather than ride the action) is the mention of yellowing teeth in the final paragraph. Are we to assume that his teeth are now in the process of turning yellow because of something related to the explosion, or that his teeth are in a long-term yellowing mode, from smoking, aging, etc.?

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Thanks Pat. Good call on the Congress. I'll make that change. Shorter and more to the point.

Gina. I can probably pull the teeth description. The reasoning behind it is no longer there, so it merely became a description. Not being a Mystery, I'm not ususally in the mode that any description could be used as a clue.

Yes, losing family members in Iraq is the theme of the novel.

Here is a teaser from my latest query letters.

"A series of vicious attacks are unleashed at military gatherings on American soil. Demands to stop the war in Iraq are posted on an Islamic Extremist website and more attacks are threatened until troops are withdrawn. Three men are behind it; none of them Islamic. One for a cause, one for revenge and the last just because he enjoys the killing. One woman, FBI Agent Samantha Trap is dispatched to find the truth before the U.S. escalates the war."


BTW, the Cardinals beat the Mets last night in the regular 9 innings.

Joyce said...

My first impression is that it's a little "busy." I lost track of what was going on a couple of times and had to go back and read it again. I would cut some of the first few paragraphs and get to the action a little sooner.

Keep the first paragraph as is. Then maybe do something like this: Pete Robinson teetered on the bar stool watching CNN as an explosion... That way, we get into the protagonist's head right away.

You have a good start here--just needs a little cutting and tweaking.

Jennie Bentley said...

I started out picking each paragraph apart (should be armor in paragraph 1, not amour; lose the word 'perched' in paragraph 2, makes him sound sissy; cut the words 'for their lives' from paragraph 3 and 'unheard' from paragraph 4...) and then I got sucked in. I did do a double take over the yellowing teeth, since you're in Pete's head and it isn't something he'd mention in relation to himself. I think you should also cut the entire paragraph that starts with 'being a full head taller...' and incorporate that info elsewhere. It sounds like an info dump and slows things down.

All in all, I think I agree with Joyce. It's a little draggy in the beginning; you can establish his drunkenness in fewer paragraphs to get to the action faster.

Some of the descriptions are fabulous; you really nailed the inside of the casino, and his confusion about Danni/Lisa makes him very human and also says a lot about the state he's in right now.

BTW, I spent the day with Laura Bradford on Saturday, at the Southern KY book fest. Your name came up, of course!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Jennie and Joyce, good comments. I know there are opportunities to tighten things up.

Jennie, you nailed it on the teeth... I'm in Pete's head.

I heard Laura was going to the Festival. I hope my name came up in a good way???

BTW, the description of the casino comes into play in the following pages as Pete goes in and rescues a soldier that is trapped.

MaryQ said...

I hope you don’t mind that I put in my 2 cents (not being a published author). Just some of my thoughts:

In the first paragraph – the sentence ‘The scene played out on the plasma television above the bar, caught on tape by CNN cameras.’ – I feel as if this should be ahead of the sentence before it. At first, I thought he was in Iraq at the scene. This would clarify that he was watching it on TV.

Second paragraph – ‘Those political idiots were are probably…’ He’s watching them on TV at the moment & seems to me, he would be thinking in the present, not the past.
Also, since he’s suppose to be pretty drunk, I’m wondering if that string of thought is a little too long & coherent for his state of mind

Third paragraph – ‘The scene above changed again.’ – I’m not sure why this bothers me – maybe leave it out and start the next sentece with ‘Now images of innocent…’
Fourth paragraph – he’s staring into his glass as if looking for answers, but it’s not clear what questions were being asked

‘It had only been two months…” since what?

Fifth paragraph – he doesn’t hear the noise from the casino nor smell the smoke on himself – if the reader is in his head, should the reader be aware of them? – this is one I’m never sure about

When he’s talking to the bartender, I wonder again if his speech isn’t too long & coherent for a man who’s pretty intoxicated

The description of the casino – if it’s wasted on Pete Robinson, isn’t something the reader needs to be aware of?

When you describe the explosion & its aftermath – safety glass: doesn’t it break into chunks rather than shards? I could be wrong about this, tho.

Well, I took the assignment seriously. Again, I hope you don’t mind.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Mary, of course I don't mind. I'm a big boy with thick skin and I know writing is subjective. I chose to throw it out there, because I know good constructive criticism makes my work better.

I appreciate all of your comments. Some of the things I think come down to writing style. for instance:

"In the first paragraph – the sentence ‘The scene played out on the plasma television above the bar, caught on tape by CNN cameras.’ – I feel as if this should be ahead of the sentence before it. At first, I thought he was in Iraq at the scene. This would clarify that he was watching it on TV."

I was looking for that moment of confusion. That's just my style.

Pretty much some of the other things that are cleared up as you read on are why Pete was getting drunk. His daughter was kidnapped and tortured in Iraq while serving in the military. He encouraged her to serve and feels the entire weight of her condition.

I actually had one of my beta readers make a comment about some of the thoughts he has being too long for the inebriated mind, so good catch there. I decided back then to leave it go. Maybe I'll rethink it.

MaryQ said...

I agree with you about writing style differences. And once you get further into the story, I'm guessing it all plays out.
It's an interestng start to the story. Makes me anxious for the whole thing to be done & published so I can read it in whole.