Critique Group – Behind the Smile


No frying pans allowed. We will all be nice when we critique this week’s new submission.

Don’t forget the critiquing guidelines. All you have to do is post a comment about the submission below. Don’t feel like you need to critique the whole piece. Even a short comment on one aspect can be helpful.

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Behind that Smile – by Micki

Stalking down a dark alley way, the black figure paused; waiting, certain about what he would find further in the cluttered space.

He inhaled, letting the air slip easily into his lungs. There it was, near the back. With the location now known, a smile spread across the hooded face; the alleys dark shadows obscuring any identity of who this mad man might be.

Taking another slow step deeper into the gloom, the figure heard a sound; the barely perceptible sound of air escaping human lips, the salty smell of fear slowly increased.

Stopping again, the figure closed his eyes in sweet ecstasy. The thrill of the hunt, and soon to be kill, sent adrenalin rushing through his limbs. But he still had to be careful, one slip-up and the whole thing would come crashing down on him.

Aidan sat on a bench, watching the police on the other side of the pond. An officer started taking down the barriers to the public; the evidence had been collected, the pictures taken, and the body carted away, there would be nothing more for them to do.

A breeze kicked up that caused her to zip her jacket up all the way. “Always another, killing each other.” She hid her curled fists in her pockets, hoping the tremble in her arms and hands would go unnoticed to passers-by; then sighed and removed them. If anyone looked closely, they would see it wasn’t a shiver that caused her whole body to tremble so, it was her; but why?

A frown rippled across her face as she rose and started walking away from the pond and through the park, toward home.

She had known why she trembled, hadn’t she? It hadn’t always been this way, that much she could remember….wait, where was Chris?

Turning, she found no-one behind her. “Chris?” A muscle spasmed in her neck; panic crept into her mind. “Chris?!”

“I told ye I would nev’r leave ye.” A strong, warm hand was placed on her shoulder; the panic fled immediately.

Aidan turned; there he was, best friend for….how long? All she knew was they were the same age and the best of friends.

“Cam’ on, we should be gettin’ back.” Chris turned, waiting for her to follow before continuing the walk toward home.

They talked a bit as they passed a few people at the edge of the park, receiving funny looks before the pair turned off down the street.

“Why do th’y always look at us?” Aidan whispered, snuggling deeper into her jacket to ward off the wind. “Maybe th’y can nae understand yore accn’t because ets stronger th’n mine?”

Chris smiled and nodded as a person passed by. “I’m proud to say that yore accn’t is just as thick as mine.”

The street was old, the cracks in the sidewalk were made from more then just the weather. But, despite the less then stellar condition of the side walk, the houses on Wye pass were, though also old, in excellent condition; a funny contrast Aidan thought each time she passed through. Even the little church, and attached house, had kept in/ exteriors as well as neat yards. The only possible oddity was the wasp nest on the back of the building, hanging lazily on the overhang.

Ah, yes. Something shifted inside Aidan as she gazed at the modest building with a cross on top. The Church,… her home; were she and Chris lived with Pastor Derek Kestor. The only one that helped her, other than Chris.

She glanced at her watched; Derek would be expecting them about now.

Pushing the door open to the little house, she waited for Chris to join her before closing it again.

“Ah, Aidan.” Derek walked out of the kitchen and stood in the hallway. “How was your walk?”

Aidan paused before hanging up her coat. “The police found ah body ‘n the pond at Moore Park.”

“Another one?”

She nodded, then frowned. “Why do pe’ple kill other pe’ple?”

Derek sighed quietly before looking her in the eye. “I don’t know Aidan, some people just do…Have you taken your medicine?” She shook her head. “I didn’t think so, I put it on the table all ready to go.”

Chris followed them into the kitchen, silent as usual. He didn’t speak often around other people.

Picking up the eye-dropper, Aidan counted three drops of the grey-black liquid into a glass before adding water. With a face, she downed the entire glass and shivered; the vilest drink ever.

“Chris?” Her voice was quiet.

Chris’s gaze was cozy. “Aye, Aidan?”

“Do I h’ve hom’wrk t’night?”

A quick head shake from Chris. “No, luv.”

At the stove, Derek frowned. “Are you talking to yourself again?”

Another head shake, this time from Aidan. “No, I’m talk’in to Chris.”

The frown deepened on Derek’s face. “Yes…Chris…Supper won’t be ready for a little while yet, you can do as you please until then.”

After Aidan left, Derek sighed. Some days he couldn’t tell if the medication was working; and this was a new batch, only time would tell. He turned back to the stove; the only thing he wasn’t sure about was Chris. But then who was, other then Aidan?

Detective Bayrd stared at the file before her on the desk. Another one killed by The Ghost, the signature nail through the left eye confirmed it.

Shaking her head, she put the file with the other confirmed cases of The Ghost. Each case was different; random even with some repeats that were either the same type of weapon or person, but all of them had a nail through the left eye.


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16 replies

  1. Micki,

    An apparently imaginary friend is intriguing. That aspect made me want to continue reading. You did a good job with that part.

    I had some problems with your point-of-view choices. I am wondering if you hoped to employ omniscient point of view (POV), because you shifted the POV frequently, which was jarring to me.

    Writing good omniscient POV is very difficult. It usually requires a narrator style that stands back from intimacy. You seemed to try to be intimate and omniscient at the same time, which didn’t work for me.

    With that in mind, here is my detailed critique, which assumes you want intimate POV instead of omniscient.

    By starting with “the black figure,” you put the reader outside of the character’s point of view, but then you say that he is certain about something. No outside observer would know that the black figure is certain. Also, for distance, use “farther” instead of “further.”

    The same POV conflict is in the second paragraph. At first readers feel inside the character’s skin because you report how the air slips down his lungs, but then we are taken out of his skin with “a smile spread across the hooded face” and the fact that the shadows obscure his identity. The last part is the POV of an outside observer. Also, alley’s should have a possessive apostrophe, and madman is one word, and faces are not hooded. Heads are hooded.

    The third paragraph has the same POV problem. “The figure” indicates an outside POV, but anyone who is watching wouldn’t know that the figure heard a sound, and the outsider wouldn’t know that the character was detecting the salty smell of fear.

    The fourth paragraph has the same POV problem. “The figure” indicates an outside POV, but anyone who is watching wouldn’t know that the figure feels sweet ecstasy, feels adrenalin rushing, or is thinking about being careful.

    Also, what is the “thing” that might come crashing down? If the reader can sense all of these emotions and sensations within this figure, why can’t the reader know what the thing is? That doesn’t seem consistent to me.

    I don’t think this opening works. It is more confusing than intriguing. I enjoyed Aidan’s POV much more. I would start with her instead of this figure.

    In your opening description of Aidan, can you provide just one or two more details to set the scene? We see a bench and a pond. Is this a grassy park? A forested path?

    “A breeze kicked up …” Two uses of “up” in this sentence. I suggest deleting the second one.

    “Then sighed and removed them.” She removed her hands? “Withdrew” is probably a better verb choice.

    I don’t understand how passersby could see that it wasn’t a shiver that caused her to tremble. How would they know differently?

    “A frown rippled across her face.” This is a POV shift. First we were in Aidan’s POV, but now we are looking at her face from the outside.

    “Turning, she found no-one behind her.” This is an improper use of a participle, that is, an “ing” verb phrase. She doesn’t find no one during the process of turning. She has to turn first, then look before learning that no one is behind her. I mentioned this in my avoidance-list post. It was item #4 in the list. It is better to write, “She turned and found no one behind her.” Also, “no one” is two words, not a hyphenated word.

    I had a hard time with the dialectical spellings. It slowed my reading and comprehension, which outweighed the benefit of the accent. It is better to use just one or two of these to provide the flavor.

    “All she knew …” If they were best friends, shouldn’t she know more than that?

    “Chris turned, waiting for her to follow.” Chris had a hand on her shoulder. Why would he have to wait for her to follow. She was right there.

    Why did Aidan mention Chris’s accent as a possible reason the people looked at them funny? Chris wasn’t talking when the people were looking.

    “The street was old, the cracks in the sidewalk …” You have two independent clauses, so either add a conjunction (“and” or “but”) or use a period or semicolon instead of a comma.

    I wonder why Aidan notices these details every time she passes through. That doesn’t seem natural. I mentioned this in #7 in my avoidance list. Also, you used “condition” twice in a short span.

    “had kept in/exteriors” I don’t know what this means.

    What prompted the “Ah, yes”? I don’t see a motivation prior to the thought.

    “Something shifted” What shifted, and why? Was her gazing at the church the cause of the shift? If so, why would that cause a shift, whatever that shift was? If she lived there, seeing her home would be an everyday occurrence. Still, if seeing her home caused the shift, then report seeing it before reporting the shift.

    In any case, a “shift” is nebulous. As a reader, I have no idea what it means.

    “The only one that helped her, other than Chris.” Use a comma after Kestor and punctuate like this “… David Kestor, the only one …” Also, use “who” instead of “that” when writing about people.

    “Watch” instead of watched.”

    “Pushing the door open …“ This is another violation of avoidance list #4. She doesn’t push and wait at the same time.

    “before closing it again.” The closest antecedent noun for “it” is house.

    “Aidan paused …” She paused what? She wasn’t doing anything.

    “I didn’t think so, I put it …” Use a period instead of a comma.

    “He didn’t speak …” It is usually better to avoid writing what a character doesn’t do. Report what he does do. “He usually stayed quiet around other people.”

    “Picking up the eye-dropper, Aidan counted …” This is another violation of avoidance list #4. She doesn’t pick it up and count the drops at the same time.

    What does “with a face” mean? She drank with her face?

    “Her voice was quiet” would come from the POV of an observer. In Aidan’s POV you could write, “She kept her voice quiet.”

    What does a cozy gaze look like? I can’t picture it.

    “A quick head shake from Chris.” This is a narrative fragment. It needs a verb.

    “At the stove …” What was he doing at the stove? A bit of detail would help here.

    “Another head shake …” This is another narrative fragment. Also, this is a POV shift that makes the reader look at her from the outside.

    “After Aidan left …” This is a drastic POV shift from Aidan to Derek. Also, use a period after “batch” instead of a comma.

    “Detective Bayrd …” I would change it to “.. stared at the file on her desk.” Use a period after “Ghost” instead of a comma.

    “Shaking her head …” Use a comma after “different” instead of a semicolon.

    “all of them had a nail …” When I saw “all of them” I searched back in the sentence to see what “them” might refer to. The only plural noun was “repeats,” but that doesn’t make sense. I couldn’t figure it out.

    I think you have an interesting idea. Your main issues are POV shifts, participle phrase errors, lack of visual detail, and punctuation errors. I also think you should start the story with Aidan. The “figure” scene did nothing for me.

    When you get these cleaned up, I think you’ll have a good start to your story.

  2. Micki,
    I thought that the story was quite intriguing and I really wanted to read more. Plus, I love the name Aidan. I also think you had quite a few POV changes. And as I mentioned before, I would really love to read more. Great job!

  3. Thank you, both.

    I have not written a murder mystery before or even watched or read that many. I was unsure about the beginning myself, and now seeing all the POV errors, I am scraping it. I might restart, only this time start with Aidan.

  4. Love your group…hit follow! Looking forward to watching and learning 🙂

  5. Sounds like a good mystery :). Just a few things I noticed; when Aiden is thinking at the very beginning she doesn’t have an accent. Most people, unless they’re purposing to fake an accent, think how they talk so when she started talking that threw me off a little bit. I’m also a little confused on Chris and Aiden’s relationship. I know their close friends but are they dating too? Also the line about “vilest drink” seems a little redundant since you have her pulling a face and shivering. Overal was very intriguing!

  6. I think there are a lot interesting elements in this piece, but it’s a bit confusing to me and it needs some mroe smoothing out.

    Black Figure POV: Would the black figure really refer to himself as that? Can make the POV deeper and show us what he’s thinking instead of telling? “Letting the air slip easily into his lungs.” This doesn’t make much sense to me. Why would he have difficulty drawing air into his lungs? I know you’re going for an air of mystery, but I think it would suit you better to reveal some more. I feel like what I’m seeing is blurred by obscurity and it’s a bit frustrating. One thing is what is the “it” he’s talking about. What does he see? In deep POV, he can’t see the smile on his hooded face. “Heard” is unnecessary. Just say the sound he heard. Obviously this guy is a psychopath and I think you could show this more by his thoughts and how he describe things without calling him “the mad man.”

    Aidan POV: Make sure to set the scene. What time of day is it? Where is this pond? In a park? In the country? I like the part where you have her shaking. Her interior monologue is interesting there. “A frown rippled across her” face sounds odd. I’m not sure how that would happen. Also her interior monologue is a bit confusing especially here “She had known why she trembled, hadn’t she? It hadn’t always been this way, that much she could remember” and here “there he was, best friend for….how long? All she knew was they were the same age and the best of friends.” Did you mean it to be this confusing? Also show who Chris is earlier and why she would panic about him. At first I thought he was a little kid who ran off. Can you describe him more? And no interrobangs (?!) in novel writing. Why do they have accents? What country are they from? Is this earth? Make sure to use “than” and not “then” here “then stellar condition” and here “other then Aidan.” I’m not sure it’s logical for Aidan to stop in front of her home and think about why she lives there. I wouldn’t do that. Just have her walk inside and show she lives with the pastor and make sure you set the scene and describe the house. How old is Aidan? She seems a bit naive. “She shook her head” should be on its own line. She would definitely think about why she has to take medicine. What condition is it for? Is she schizophrenic?

    Detective POV: Are you going for a mystery piece? The nail through the eye is definitely creepy.

    You have a lot of intrigue going on here with the killer on the loose and the odd girl named Aidan and with some more work I think it could be a pretty cool story. ^ ^ Happy Writing!

    Stori Tori’s Blog

  7. Micki,
    I thought that it was a great story! So, yeah. A lot of the things have been mentioned already, like POV and the accent, but I had one other thing. Is there something wrong with Aidan? I ask that question because when she is walking to the church, she notices little details, like she is seeing them for the first time. The cracks in the sidewalk, the wasp’s nest, the neatness of the yards…Did you mean to write it this way? Personally, I like it, because if Chris is imaginary and she has to drink medicine, then something is wrong with her. Maybe people with a mental illness tend to notice little details often.

    • I have a slight mental disorder, and I do tend to notice small details and remember things, but I don’t need to take medication yet. So maybe, cool idea.

  8. Micki,

    Most of my concerns with your first two segments are point of view and intimacy related, which Bryan (or as I call him, Dad) has already addressed better than I could. Instead, I’ll focus on my area of expertise with the police investigation. My credentials: I’ve been a police officer for ten years and a detective for four of those years. I have worked many murder investigations (though no suspected serial killings)

    The amount of time between Aidan’s scene and Detective Bayrd’s scene isn’t clear. It doesn’t have to be clear, but some of my advice will change based on how much time has passed since the discovery of the body in the pond.

    If your serial killer is confined to a single jurisdiction, you will definitely have a Detective in charge of the case, as you do here. Bear in mind though that if it crosses jurisdictional lines at all, you will almost certainly have a special agent from the state-level law enforcement agency running the case. It is also very, very easy for cases to cross jurisdictional lines. I only drive thirty minutes from home to work and I cross through five different jurisdictions.

    Since the story was cut only two paragraphs into Detective Bayrd’s scene, I don’t know how many other characters you’ll end up introducing as her coworkers, but a hot (highly active) serial killer is a job for a major task force. In my agency that serves a city of only 45,000, we have eight detectives. All of us would be working full time on the case and we would bring in outside consultants to help with the case work.

    Modern detectives rarely use paper files. Everything is computerized. We often prepare paper files when we’re done with the case.

    It is rare to consider anything a “confirmed case” by a single killer, particularly with random weapons and target profiles. Even a signature is not considered an authenticating factor. DNA evidence from defense marks, such as skin cells under the victim’s fingernails or blood in their teeth, is considered fairly conclusive for linking victims together, but even then it’s only “probably linked” until you have a much stronger case.
    It would be useful for case detectives to note “possibly linked” cases, but a good detective tries to avoid the contaminating bias of assuming that two similar deaths were caused by the same suspect until the physical evidence proves that the same suspect killed both people. Of course, Detective Bayrd may not be a good detective, so use my advice appropriately for the character you have in mind.

    Unless you are a police veteran or have a police source for consultation, I suggest you not dig too deeply into police procedure in your story. It is a very involved field. Those who know about it will catch mistakes and be broken out of the story. Those who don’t know it will expect it to fit police procedural shows you see on TV, which carries the risk of seeming derivative. Unfortunately, if you use a police detective as a viewpoint character, you have to dig deeply into police procedure or your character will seem incompetent. Perhaps for the investigative standpoint you can have a non-police character, perhaps a journalist or similar nosy person, who is best friends with a slightly unethical cop and has an inside scoop. That way you can “black box” the procedures (hide the mechanics, only note the outcomes) and still keep the readers up to speed on what the police are doing.

    Good luck! Keep writing!

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