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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | First Impressions: THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE

First Impressions: THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE

Our final First Impressions for March comes from blogging friend Steven Symes. This is the first page of an adult science fiction novel with paranormal elements called THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE:
Everything was such a blur, even though simultaneously it seemed like they were moving in slow motion. One moment Christine was returning home from grocery shopping with the baby, the next moment the emotions came crashing over her like a sea deeply reddened by blood. She walked into her room, saw her eleven-year-old son bathed in slick red, on his shirt, his pants, his hands. He was cradling her husband’s head, which looked more like the grotesque remains thrown in a butcher’s backroom garbage.
                In that moment of panic, one detail struck her more forcefully than seeing her husband of thirteen years dead on the floor: her son was not shedding a single tear. His youthful face had an anguished look painted on it, but other than that he was stoic as he bid goodbye to his father.
                Samuel looked like some sort of a perverse, life-sized doll left crumpled on the ground. The dull grey pistol was still limply holding onto his hand, mocking her with a cold, detached gaze.
                Christine saw something else in Peter’s eyes in that moment: hatred. She knew immediately it was not hatred of his father who took his own life. Instead, it was hatred for her and the wrongs he perceived she had done to their family. That hatred had grown in intensity since then, but Peter was not one to display his emotions with regularity. He was more calculating, his mind harboring secrets she suspected went far beyond the large science books he lugged home to supplement his regular high school coursework.
                Since that day, Peter had become something small and damaged, like a vase you accidentally have broken and glued back together, the seams still showing the imperfections that lie deep beneath the surface. On the inside the putrid glue that holds the fragments together oozes and festers in sticky pools, reminding anyone who dares look into the vase that it is and always will be damaged goods.  
                That day changed everything for Christine. She lost her husband and her oldest son. Unknown to her at the time, forces had already been put into motion that would mean she would lose her youngest son, the tiny baby she cradled in her arms, through a series of events that would rock her to the very core. 

This could be a really intense first page with some rearranging of the information! First off, I’d like to see Christine walk into her bedroom in the opening line and be confronted by that horrific scene. Right now, the impact is lessened (at least for me) by confusion over sequence and location. Is she walking into the kitchen with the baby and her groceries, or into her bedroom? 
I’d like to see all the sentences describing Samuel, her husband, pulled together into a single, unforgettable paragraph about just him.  And then, I’d like the description of Peter cradling his head, with some – but not all – of the accompanying information. Yes, I want to know he was tearless, and yes, I want to know he looked at his mother with hatred. But it would be more suspenseful if there was no reflection about him being like a broken vase after that day. There’s probably a place for that image later, but not here on this dramatic first page. 
I do like the part about Christine losing her husband that day and emotionally losing her oldest son, but having no idea that events would soon cause her to lose her younger son and her baby, too. It just needs a bit of tweaking to make it fit at the end of this frozen tableau: Christine in the doorway with the baby, Peter on the floor with his father.
It’s not as simple as “show, don’t tell.” Sometimes, it is very effective to tell. But in this particular scene, we need to be clobbered by showing and enticed to read further by some subtle, very carefully selected telling. Readers, what do you think?
Steven, thanks for sharing your page with us! Marcy will have her own feedback at Mainewords, and I know Steve has posted more of his work on THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE at his blog.

16 Responses to First Impressions: THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE

  1. Sounds like an intense story and I like that you start out with a dramatic scene. I agree with Dianne’s suggestion to start with the scene where she sees her husband. And I wanted more showing than telling though like Dianne said, it’s not as simple as that. I felt like some of the things about her son could be shown to us as the story or the chapter progresses.

    Good luck with this. It sounds like it could be a great story.

  2. Tiana Smith says:

    I agree with Dianne. I do also like the vase description, so while it might not be best on the first page, I definitely think you should keep it somewhere!

  3. Lexa Cain says:

    First off, as a horror writer and reader, I’m very impressed by the great descriptions. They really gave me a chill! Great! Here are some things I think can be improved. Watch the use of passive (was/were) and generic verbs (walked, saw). Since we don’t know the character yet, we don’t really care her husband is dead. There needs to be more of a set up and something to make us sympathize with her. To make the scene less static and introspective, I’d like to see her do something, like rush to her husbands side, have an emotional reaction of horror, call 911, ask her son if he’s all right, etc. She seems overly observant and analytical, like she doesn’t really care about husband or son. Good luck! 🙂

    • Steven says:

      Lexa, thank you for your compliments. I usually am better about not using passive voice much, but this is about draft number 7 or so for the first page and I finally decided I needed some help before pulling it completely apart, again. Your comments help immensely.

  4. Overall, this first page presents a gripping scene, but I agree that it could have more impact with some less-is-more changes. Dropping some of the descriptive words would actually give the remaining words more of a pop.

    For example. “a sea deeply reddened by blood” might have more oomph if you said something as simple as, ” a sea of blood,” and “the grotesque remains thrown in a butcher’s backroom garbage” could be reduced to something like, “offal” or “scraps” in a butcher’s garbage can. Or even “escapees” from a butcher’s garbage can. Or like it looked like it “belonged” in a butcher’s garbage can. Etc.

    Although I confess to sometimes overusing the phrase “seemed like,” I think the first sentence would be more of a grabber without it. Something like, “From the moment she walked in the door with her baby in one arm and her groceries in the other, time flew by, while crawling in nightmarish slow motion.” (That’s kinda crappy, but you get the idea.)

    All in all, the opening premise, and the questions it poses, make for a good opening. With some minor changes, it could be great.

    • Steven says:

      Susan, I actually hate the phrase “seemed like” and will most definitely be taking that out. I’m glad you think the first page is fixable, because I was starting to wonder. Your feedback is most helpful!

  5. Jemi Fraser says:

    Wow – sounds intense! I’d echo the sentiment to include more show – this could pack an even bigger punch

  6. Steven says:

    Dianne, thank you for featuring my work here on the blog! I’ve struggled and struggled with the intro, having completely torn it apart at least seven times, not to mention massaging the different versions. Your feedback (and everyone else’s) lets me know I don’t have to scrap this intro, but instead it can be fixed. This book has been particularly hard to go through because it carries quite a few emotions for me, so the feedback has been quite helpful.

  7. I totally agree that the way this is written now is too distant. All the intriguing bits feel too removed from the MC. It won’t take a lot for Steven to put the readers right then and there. Good luck!

    • Steven says:

      Theresa, it’s become overwhelming obvious to me now. I have actually already drafted a new version and made changes accordingly. Thank you!

  8. Chris says:

    Hi Dianne, just stopping by to say how delightful your blog is. Thanks so much for sharing. I have recently found your blog and am now following you, and will visit often. Please stop by my blog and perhaps you would like to follow me also. Have a wonderful day. Hugs, Chris

  9. Consider using the last sentence of the excerpt as the first.

    Considering the importance of the first sentence: Avoid generic like ‘Everything’. Specificity is everything to seating the reader in the scene.

    May sound odd: but the harsh word ‘simultaneously’ just ruins any poetry.

    Lastly: ‘they’…used as a loose noun. Means nothing. They what. They everything?

    • Steven says:

      Thanks for your input, R. Mac. You’ve given me some different angles to consider, so I’ll have to keep playing with this intro some more.