Dianne Salerni author Dianne Salerni author Dianne Salerni books Dianne Salerni blog Dianne Salerni Appearances Dianne Salerni contact Dianne Salerni teachers
Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | First Impressions: THE PORTAL

First Impressions: THE PORTAL

Our second First Impression for the month of February comes from Larry O’Donnell, my brother-in-law and frequent guest poster.  This is the first page of his most recent WIP, a thriller titled THE PORTAL.
Chapter 1: The Release

It was one of those damp cold nights that only West Virginia seems to get.  It goes straight to one’s bones and stays there at least until the sun comes back.   I had been asleep for about three hours when my dog, Ralph, alerted me to the sound of rapping on my front door.  Arming myself with a five iron, I went to the door and flung it open.  There at my feet was Derek Sanders, one of a group of regulars who gathered on Wednesday and Friday nights for drinks at the Jeff Davis bar in downtown Port Anthracite.  I usually attended these gatherings, although I don’t drink anymore.  It is my only regular social activity, but I felt achy and the chilling weather decided me to go home after work.  Sanders was shivering in the cold mist and mumbling incoherently. 
“Jesus, Sanders, I nearly chipped your head back out to the street.”  As if I could hit anything with a golf club.  Instead of calling me on it, he pushed himself back up into a sitting position.
“We opened the door.  One of them got out.  We closed and barred it.  Too-late-to-stop-one.”  Derek gasped out the phrases and then sat up higher for a moment.  A low congested cough was the last audible sound he made as he fell over on his side in a fetal position. 
“Sanders!  Come on buddy, wake up!”  I couldn’t wake him and it was apparent that he was no longer breathing.  The last cough brought bright red frothy blood out of his mouth.  I felt for a pulse and found none.  Then I saw copious amounts of blood from several other places and I knew he was beyond any help I could give him.
A call to 911from the house of the Chief of Police resulted in a flood of State Police cars, ambulance, Paramedics, some Firemen, County Detectives, and Roy Biggers, the County Prosecuting Attorney.  Fifteen minutes later, the County Coroner, Doc Paxon, arrived. 

Now, Roy and I do not get along, not even going back to our time in High School.  It’s nothing specific, it’s just an oil and water thing.  We played on the same football and baseball teams but could never find common ground on anything else.  There was no competition between us, no argument over a girl, just a deep seated dislike of each other.  Oddly, just as it was when we played football, we could work together for a common goal but never cross the threshold of the other’s home. 
I’ll start with some small technical details: The opening paragraph uses past tense for things that happened that night and present tense for things that are always true. I think common practice would recommend keeping to the past tense throughout. (ex: It went straight to one’s bones and stayed there at least until the sun came back.)  There are also some common nouns that shouldn’t be capitalized, such as high school, firemen, and county detectives
I would hold back explaining why the narrator hadn’t been to the bar with Sanders on this particular night until the county prosecutor asks him.  If they don’t get along, it might make for a nice tension-filled moment later.
The cough with the frothy blood should probably come in the paragraph while Sanders is still talking, rather than when he has no pulse, and I would go for a more breathless feel to his words: “We opened … the door.  One of ‘em … got out.  Closed and barred it.  Too late … to stop one.”

I might also like a hint of what’s going on inside the narrator’s mind before everybody else arrives.  He’s the chief of police, and a death on his doorstep is going to activate the “business as usual” part of his persona, but still – this is somebody he knows.  Is he upset? Does he suppress it? Or, as chief of police in a small town, is he used to seeing death and disaster befall people he knows?  Just a line or two would help us bond with this character before the rest of the cast appears in force.
Now, as one of Larry’s CPs, I’ve read more of this. I wish I could include the line where the county coroner questions the narrator about Sanders’s last words and exclaims:  “Did he mean the door?  They opened the portal?  Holy shit, were they crazy, drunk, or crazy drunk?” But you can’t fit everything on the first page. 😉 I know Larry’s got a spooky thriller here, and beginning with a death on the police chief’s doorstep is not a bad way to start.
Thanks, Larry, for sharing your first page! Please be sure and stop by Mainewords today to check out Marcy’s critique of this same page.

7 Responses to First Impressions: THE PORTAL

  1. Sarah says:

    Whoa–a lot is happening in this opening! And while I would keep reading because the whole “we opened the door and one got out” thing is freaky, this feels like it happens TOO fast somehow. The voice is very matter-of-fact, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when you pair that with some of the “telling” in the paragraph when he calls 911, I felt like the impact of this grisly death in the middle of the night … was lost.

    A few things: I’d rather be shown he’s the Chief of Police than told it. If he’s a cop–and he’s worried enough about someone at his door to grab a golf club–wouldn’t he grab his gun instead? And as a cop, I’d like him to have some thoughts about the dead man on his door step as he makes the 911 call. I want to SEE him making the call. I want to SEE these vehicles skidding into his driveway. I want to know his thoughts as this happens, especially when Doc gets out of his car and strides across the lawn. These are great opportunities to SHOW me these characters (including the MC), to paint a picture of them, and this WV setting, in my head so I can envision this story while it’s happening. I think it’s important to be patient and take the time to set this up properly, because it certainly sounds worth reading! Best of luck!

  2. From a storytelling point of view, I really like this. As Dianne and Sarah have both pointed out, the premise of this story is clearly intriguing, and I too would read on.

    From a writing stand point, there are some things that need a little work. As Dianne mentions, tense is one. Another is the way the dialog comes across. It feels stilted, and keeps getting interrupted by narration. I also agree with Sarah about the lack of showing when it comes to all these law enforcement officials showing up. There might be a legitimate reason you summarize all that, but I think you’re missing an opportunity to show an exciting scene.

  3. DL Hammons says:

    I agree with Matt, the revelation that the murder victim is found on the police chiefs doorstep is treated to matter-of-factly and therefore a missed opportunity for further intrigue. Otherwise, well done.

  4. Chris Fries says:

    There’s much to like here, and overall, the story seems compelling — I would read on.

    But f I were to pick a few nits:

    — Yeah, the tense thing. I’d stick to one, preferably past.

    — I agree with Matthew above about the dialogue. It could flow a little better uninterrupted. Also, ditto on the familiar “show, don’t tell” advice.

    — Starting with the weather as the opening sentence. It’s cliche and lends to a “It was a dark and stormy night” comparison. Not the comparison you want your opening line to evoke.

    — The MC getting woken up: another cliche that implies “rookie writer.” I know — it seems like a very logical way to begin; waking up in a strange place, starting the ‘big day’, coming out of a dream, getting woken up by someone pounding on the door, etc. But it’s really overdone and trite. (and I’ve forced myself out of using it several times after having it pointed out, LOL).

    But story-wise: Definitely sounds like something I’d really be interested in.

  5. Linda G. says:

    Oh, intriguing! You’ve already gotten good craft comments, so I won’t add to those, but I did want to say that for me Story (yes, Story with a capital S *grin*) is king. I would keep reading. But a little polish would make it an even better read. 🙂

  6. I love the premise of the story and the only thing I would add to the craft piece is to read for use of contractions. A lot of time phrases like he had or can not sound clunky when re-read and flow better as he’d or can’t.

  7. Lydia Kang says:

    I think the premise is also very catchy and intriguing, but I agree with Sarah and Matt’s comments. They said it better than I could’ve.