It’s always nice to get repeat business. As an editorial freelancer, it’s the best endorsement you can get that people are finding your critiques useful. This author previously submitted to this site and earned a “silver star”, good writing but maybe not quite up to scratch, primarily because that opening was particularly slow to get going and failed to convince on a number of technical points about the scene they were trying to set. Have they done better this time?
Title: The Last Place to Hide
Genre: YA Thriller
Language: Canadian English
Synopsis: Before he was murdered by the same man he was hunting, Frankie’s father was an esteemed crime writer. Now, after ten cold years, the killer is back – and seventeen-year-old Frankie is determined to complete her father’s legacy.
The kids at school call me Fox Face, not just because of my obvious vulpine features, but because I have a knack for sleuthing—something foxes are good at.
It comes in handy when I’m short on cash. Lately there’s always someone looking to spy on somebody else, a person who’s too chicken to do it themselves. That’s where I come in.
I pop a Cheeto in my mouth as I scroll through Matt Goddard’s Facebook messages, as requested by his loving girlfriend, Hailey Hickson. I could just give Hailey his password—it was laughably easy to guess, but something about her monitoring him from the shadows doesn’t sit right with me. A one-time deal for a hundred bucks is different. I guess I have some semblance of a conscience.
Someone knocks at the door. I expect to find Zach or my landlady, but the tall, annoyingly attractive cop on the other side sets me right on edge.
“You have some balls showing up here in that uniform, Finn Kelly.”
“Frankie, just listen—”
“Nope.” I slam the door in his face.
Just as I’m falling back into my chair, three more knocks. Then a deep, authoritative voice calls my name, and I get goosebumps. I whip open the door to find Finn’s dad, Angus Kelly, looking down at me beneath bushy, auburn eyebrows. His cop uniform is prim and buttoned up all the way, just like his son’s.
“Angus,” I say, “I swear, I didn’t do anything. I was home all weekend. You can even ask my landlady—she saw me at least three times, and—”
“I’m not here to nick you on anything, Frankie.” Angus clears his throat. “Can I come in?”
Finn rakes his fingers through his short brown hair and avoids my gaze like the plague. With washed-denim eyes and lashes so long it’s unfair, Finn’s got the type of conventional good looks you’d see on an ad for the force. A real poster boy for police work. Making a scene in front of his dad would be humiliating, so I smile and open the door for them. Once Angus is inside, I shoot Finn my deadliest glare.
I plop down in my desk chair while they take the sunken-in couch I’d found behind Chopstick House downtown. It’s nicer than my old one. Between us is a coffee table stacked with homework and cans of James Ready. Angus’ nose scrunches—normally he’d be all over this, yelling at me for underage drinking like he’s my real dad and not my godfather, but something’s different about him. His face is hesitant as he coughs into the collar of his shirt and squares his broad shoulders.
“I’ll level with you, Frankie—there’s been a murder.”
I eat another Cheeto. Murder. The word doesn’t digest. “What?”
“Frankie,” Finn starts, but Angus raises his hand.
“A couple’s been killed. Mr. and Mrs. Swanson, over on Juniper Boulevard. They were found on their bed with their throats slit. Their wrists were bound by rope and connected using a Zeppelin bend.”
My blood pressure drops and my vision goes white. I pinch the Cheeto between my fingers until it crumbles. He doesn’t need to tell me whose M.O. that matches. I’ve seen countless photographs of Zeppelin bends, even learned to tie one myself.
It’s him. The green walls of my apartment spin. I clench my eyes so tight I see ribbons of colour.
“Now listen,” Angus says, “we’ve got no reason to believe he’d ever target you, or if he even knew your father had a kid. You don’t fit the profile of his victims.”
“I’m not scared of him.” It isn’t necessarily a lie. As a little girl, I had nightmares about the boogie man who murdered my parents. But I’m almost eighteen now, and I haven’t had a bad dream since I was prescribed Zoloft.
“We’re going to announce the official reopening of the case today,” Angus says.
“It never should’ve been closed.”
“I had no control over that. We were short on hands, and the evidence was basically zilch. Eventually, we just had to call it a cold case. But listen to me—I know it’s been ten years, and I know more than anyone how close you are to this. But stay out of it, Frankie. Just don’t go… digging around, okay?”
A lump the size of an egg forms in my throat. Digging into the case of The Zeppelin Killer was my father’s last mistake. It put a giant X on his back, and consequently my mother’s, too.
“I just wanted you to know first,” Angus says. “Before we go live with it.”
My bones are cold. “I appreciate that.”
Zeppelin’s back. The words still aren’t real. I drag my fingernails along the skin of my forearms just hard enough to hurt.
“I want the book.” It comes out of my mouth like I’m on autopilot, but I keep my posture strong. “My dad’s book, Angus. I want it.”
His features darken, cheeks caught in a mesh net of wrinkles. “The book’s no good in your hands.”
“I have a right to read it. Those were my dad’s last words.”
He glances at Finn, then back to me. “I’m sorry, Frankie. It’s not happening.”
Silence. Angus shifts his weight. “Listen, your dad was my best friend, and his obsession with Zeppelin got him killed. You understand that? Once we catch the killer, then you can have a hay day with Giovanni’s notes. But until then, I don’t want you falling down the same rabbit hole he did. Got it?”
“He was my father, Angus. I have a right.”
“The answer’s no, Frankie. Drop it.”
A red fog of frustration clouds my vision. My nails dig deeper into my arms.
“Anyway.” Angus slaps his knees and stands. “Guess that’s it. You let us know if you need anything else, okay?”
I want to scream at him to give me my dad’s book, but that would never work.
Editorial comment: There’s a potentially frustrating iterative process in editing. On a first draft, editing is usually at a macro level, structural problems of pace and characterisation and plot that would be picked up in a developmental or substantive edit. Having got the big structural issues out of the way, instead of being satisfied, an editor is then left free to home in on tiny details that strike an odd tone, or individual words that seem out of place. At this level, editing is beginning to get quite subjective, and it’s here that an author might say quietly to themselves, “No, I see their point, but I’m going to keep it as it is.” I feel like my comments on this submission could be interpreted that way, but I’d just say, don’t dismiss them out of hand. Have a think and see if they resonate first.
Firstly, this is a much better start than your previous submission (“Slow beginnings” if readers want to compare and see if they agree). This is a YA novel, and someone illicitly flicking through your private social media accounts must rank pretty highly on a list of unforgiveables in most millenial eyes. This isn’t just a hacker though, it’s someone who thinks they’re doing some kind of social service. This is a “nuanced” character, which is so important in good fiction.
We’ve just absorbed that and there’s a new distraction: a good-looking boy at the door – what’s more, a good-looking boy in uniform. Now that’s got to be Pinterest fodder, another millenial obsession. So far, two home runs – you’ve got your audience’s attention. If they’re not interested at this point, they’re not YA readers and they should put their child’s book down right now and close the bedroom door behind them.
Then comes the hook, the whole Zeppelin Bend murder mystery, and the killer is on the loose, and something happened to our character’s family, and there’s a secret about the father’s journal, and all sorts of issues unravelling: pain, loss, anger, curiosity, some fear, but also drive to solve the case. Add a bit of authoritarian “We know better” frustration, and you’ve a winning formula here, I think.
However, were you paying attention at the beginning? There are some details here that could do with still more refining, I think.
You don’t need the first two paragraphs at all. They are classic “telling” (I am called “this”, because I look like “this” and I do “this”.) It’s hard to be critical, because they’re actually quite interesting paragraphs, but you’re still narrating something that, although you can narrate it, you have absolutely no need to. We will find out she’s called “Foxface” when someone calls her that, in dialogue, possibly across the crowded school yard. We don’t really need to know what she looks like, although we might find out, later. We don’t need, as readers, to be told she’s good at sleuthing because you so perfectly well show she is super smart and tech savvy by saying “I could just give Hailey his password—it was laughably easy to guess” in the next paragraph. If this story started “I pop a Cheeto in my mouth as I scroll through Matt Goddard’s Facebook messages”, we lose nothing, and we gain a whole lot of immediacy and tension. That way you haven’t explained anything about this character. You haven’t sat us down and said “look, the character is called ‘Foxface’ and she’s really clever at working stuff out and she earns a bit of money from her classmates …” You’ve just let her get on with her life, dumped us straight into her story – you’ve let this character live, without you leaning over their shoulder explaining what they’re doing like an over-protective parent.
This submission is very good and you might be content with it. However, now you’re down to the tiny details and literally, every word does count. Why do you need those first two paras?
“I pop a Cheeto in my mouth as I scroll through Matt Goddard’s Facebook messages.” That’s a gold star opening line.
Thanks for posting!
Thank you so much for this! In all honesty, I was aware of the telling in the beginning, but I decided to leave it in because my beta readers seemed to like it. However, I 100% agree with you, and I’m going to ax those first two paragraphs altogether and take your suggestion of starting it with her scrolling through the Facebook messages! It’s much more to the point without them – and I wouldn’t want to scare a potential agent away with frivolous telling at the beginning. I’m also very glad that you see an improvement in this submission 🙂 I really appreciate your feedback, it is incredibly helpful for my writing and confidence moving forward!!