This is a re-submission. Followers of the site may remember just over a month ago reading a piece about a New York FBI agent turning up at a crime scene in full chain mail (“Chain Mail police?” was the title). It was a good opening, close to getting a gold star. Has the author improved on it?
Title: Feast or Famine
Genre: Dark Urban Fantasy
Language: US English
Synopsis: An idealistic FBI agent tracks down a serial killer targeting victims born with twelve fingers and twelve toes. When the trail leads to a homicidal cabal of angels, he is forced to take them on by becoming a member of the Four Horsemen.
“And lo, a black horse; and he that sat on her had the name Famine!”
Michael Childs tossed a $5 bill into the homeless preacher’s cash box and kept walking. East Drive was restricted, closed to street traffic, but tonight, the road on the eastern side of Central Park was jammed bumper to bumper with New York City police cars, ambulances, forensic vans, and a hearse from the coroner’s office.
Eager to preach to a congregation of one, the homeless man abandoned his meager camp near the entrance of the Greywacke Arch and scampered after Michael in bare feet. The blunt illumination of the city park lights rendered his torn, dingy clothing reminiscent of a frayed, faded Amish quilt that had seen better times. “And the Horseman was granted authority!” he bellowed, pointing to the heavens. “Authority to balance the scales from fruitful bounty to a bitter harvest of despair!”
Michael quickened his pace, lengthening his strides to elude the vagrant. With no time to change into a suit, he promptly made his way toward the police barrier on the far side of the tunnel, wearing a chainmail gorget around his neck. The weighted, maille shirt rattled as he walked, despite the padded black gambeson beneath it that covered him from shoulders to mid-thigh. Reinforced with buckles and straps that complemented his leather leggings, boots, and spurs, the medieval ensemble received more than a fair share of strange looks from the first responders on the scene. Ignoring the heavy police presence in the immediate area, the old preacher pursued him.
Manhattan was in the midst of a mid-winter heatwave with record-breaking temperatures that brought almost balmy conditions to the city. The mercury was expected to remain in the high 60s and peak at 70 by the weekend, just in time for Valentine’s Day. In the spirit of the holiday, Michael reached into his pocket, pulled out a $10 bill, and pressed it into the vagrant’s hand. “Get lost before you get arrested.”
An unhinged, toothless grin surfaced from beneath a filthy beard that was matted with the grime of the city. “May His angels guard and keep you.” The transient preacher retreated to his slapdash encampment at the base of the trees and swiftly gathered his possessions to relocate elsewhere in the park. Michael watched, peering over his shoulder, and then made his way through the Greywacke Arch behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Cleopatra’s Needle, a 3500-year old obelisk, towered into the night sky. A gift from the Egyptian government, the 70-foot monolith’s characteristic red granite was faded due to erosion from acid rain and poor conservation. Still, even a seasoned archaeologist would not have noticed the dulled stone against the deluge of flashing blue and red emergency lights cast by the crowd of official vehicles gathered on the museum lawn.
Michael merged with the flow of official traffic, both vehicles and personnel, and made his way toward the monument. It was going to rain soon. He could smell the scent of it in the air. As a few threatening drops fell from the sky, he pulled the collar of his joust tunic tighter against the back of his neck.
Dodging an ambulance as the vehicle departed, Michael swept back a padded, gray arming cap from his head and ran his fingers through his long, black hair. He pulled a leather cord from his sword belt and used it to tie a pony tail at the nape of his neck, a difficult feat with suede gloves, but he didn’t have time to worry about how he looked. He was already out of time and out of place at the official scene of a homicide.
“Sir, there’s an active police investigation going on here,” a uniformed officer said as he approached. The portly policeman held his hands up in a dismissive gesture to halt any further encroachment on the scene. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Michael pulled out his badge and ducked under the wooden barricade without waiting for permission.
“FBI sure has a funny dress code these days,” the cop said, a dour frown pulling at the corners of his thick lips.
“You should see us on dress-down Fridays” Michael replied. “Onesies and lingerie.”
“Mike?” Having heard the conversation, Elijah Pope poked his head between two CSI vans to have a look. “Let him through, Larry.”
Michael stepped aside and out of the way of a passing team of forensic techs in blue lab coats. Evidence collection bags in their hands, the three women paused long enough to stare at him before returning to their vehicles. “Ladies,” he whispered, lifting the yellow crime scene tape up over his head for them. Cheeks flushed from the attention, he ducked beneath the tape to join his partner. “What’ve you got?”
“Never mind what I’ve got.” Elijah walked in a circle around him. “What the hell are you wearing?”
Michael flashed a mischievous grin. “EJ, I was at joust practice. When I got the call, I was in full armor with a lance and an 1800-pound Clydesdale bearing down on me.”
“A crazed murderer running loose in the city, and you’re playing knights of the round table? At your age?” Larry tucked his thumbs into the gun belt under his ample belly and rolled his eyes in disgust. “What do you want to be when you grow up someday?”
“An FBI special agent.” Michael held up his badge again. “And you?”
“Damn!” Elijah winced. “Better see the EMTs about that burn, Larry.” Taking Michael by the shoulder, he led him around a second series of barricades and vehicles to the opposite side of the obelisk and away from the peevish cop.
“The locals are awfully testy tonight.”
“With good reason, Mikey.” Elijah directed his attention to a white tarp laying on the ground at the foot of the obelisk. “Meet Miss Mary Padgett, 36.”
Editorial comment: I don’t apologize for being blunt. I realize it’s painful but usually I think it’s best just to get the bad news out of the way as quickly as possible and move on. I’m afraid here I think you’re going in the wrong direction with this piece.
The main criticism that I gave your prior version was that there were a few paragraphs of exposition at the very beginning that weren’t really necessary, and my advice was to cut those and bring us more quickly to the crime scene and the sparky dialogue between Michael and his colleagues. If you did that, I thought you’d have a really good opening. Instead of doing that you’ve done the opposite. Where there were 316 words, just over a page, of rather dull scene-setting that dampened the impact of your previous draft opening before you got to the “Sir, there’s an active police investigation going on here” line, there are now 615 words before we get to the same place. That’s nearly double.
With this version, the first person who talks in your book is some homeless preacher that I’ll bet we never hear from again. We are treated to a guide-book tour of east Central Park (how old is that obelisk?), with all the monuments listed and described. There’s quite a bit about the weather being balmy for the time of year but then, in case we were really concerned or interested about the weather, you mention it feels like rain …
You’ve latched on to my quibble about the setting on Park Avenue being slightly unrealistic. You’ve come up with a solution, and sought to explain your idea for a new setting in some detail, but that wasn’t the real problem with your first draft. The criticism (read it again if you like) was that “I trip up a little on the first two paras, however. The reason is that they’re pure scene setting, exposition. They’re not overlong, and you might think I’m being too fussy, but they’re just unnecessary.” The suggestion was to cut them out. Instead of cutting them out, you’ve added another page and a half.
Honestly? I would go back to your previous version and try and cut out as much before “Sir, there’s an active police investigation going on here” as you can. Perhaps all of it. Instead of telling us what he’s wearing (and we don’t really need to know all the finer details, do we?), have the cop on the barrier say something like “Just come from the Round Table, sir?” and let the conversation start from there.
I do mention in the FAQs that it’s not a good idea to rush in to revisions based on a critique that you’ve received here. I tell my editing clients the same thing. Don’t rush in to rewrites. Read the editorial report, of course—you’ve paid for it! Read it a couple of times, but then put it away. A month is the bare minimum; three months or even six months would be better. All of that time two things will be happening. Your subconscious will be working away sorting the criticism between what resonates, and what you can dismiss, and your conscious mind will be quietly forgetting the actual words. When you come back to it you’ll have a whole new perspective. The text will appear slightly unfamiliar, and you’ll be much clearer about what of the editorial report you want to take on board, and what you can ignore.
Don’t be fed up. You’re a good writer. This is just a miss-step. It’s all learning.
Thanks for posting!
Not fed up at all. As you have said, there are varying opinions among the pros. Rejected here, but ‘freaking brilliant’ from another industry professional. It’s all about finding the sweet spot. Thank you.
Quite right, and I’m always at pains to point that out. These posts would be very dull reading if I prefaced every statement made by an “in my opinion” disclaimer, so I don’t bother, but that is implied in every agent/editor’s comment. I really liked your first version, if I thought it needed a little tweaking. The idea of an FBI agent in full chain mail at a crime scene was instantly appealing. That’s now lost on page 3 after 530 words of descriptive paragraphs about Central Park East and the weather. I think that’s a shame. Best of luck with it though. I have no doubt you have talent.
From gold to rejected? I think the assessment is somewhat unfair. The author made every attempt to please and appease the first critique (i.e. alleys, the weather, crime scene, etc.). Maybe she tried too hard and needlessly because the first draft certainly succeeded in my opinion. I originally liked the first chapter, but loved the rewritten one for its atomosphere. I have read well into the novel and know that the homeless man’s words are prophetic (Anton Chekhov’s gun). No wrong turn taken there. Good craft. You are a good writer, Patricia. Stay the course and kick on!
The aim isn’t to appease the editor, though, it’s to improve the book. The initial critique was glowing, apart from saying a page of scene-setting was probably disposable. There’s now twice as much scene-setting.
On your ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ comment, unless the homeless man takes a further active role in the story, his prophetic words are just coincidence. Coincidence is a very weak plot device, not a strong one. I’d be wary of using bit-part characters to make foretelling statements about the course of the story.
But thanks for the comment. Nothing is written in stone. Opinions will always differ.