The name game, and another first-page critique

Before we get to today’s critique (I’ll explain McGruff later too), check out this fun toy that I heard about from my friend Sheila Lowe—it’s a name generator. They claim to be able to come up with “billions” of name combinations. I tried it and came up with a couple of new ideas by combining their suggestions.

So, here’s today’s first-page critique. My comments are in the bullet points that follow.


     Shopping, taxis, suitcases, dogs, wine, antiques and Private Investigators don’t mix well together.  Separately, they’re okay; together they can lead to murder.  I know that now, but I had no clue on my first day.  You would have thought that I had a clue since I’m the Private Investigator mentioned above.  My name is Graff, Guy Graff.  I’m twenty-four years old, opened my own detective agency, Graff Investigations, and thought I was ready for anything; wrong again.  Let me start at the beginning. 
Detective Rule Number twenty-seven: Get to the point before something with a sharp point gets to you.
    It was Valentines Day.  Well it was for everyone else, not for me.  More about that later as I’m trying to get to the point.  
    I woke up that day with a bit of excitement in my stomach. Enthusiasm mixed with anxiety, like before a blind date when you haven’t been with a woman for a year.  I opened my agency two months ago and today was the start of my illustrious career.
    Pulling the handle of my small noisy refrigerator, I knew that I had made a complete break from my former opulent Philadelphian Mainline life.  We had money.  At least my parents did.  I turned my back on it. 

My critique:

  • This first page suffers from “back story blues”it’s heavy on  background information, light on drama. It’s a cozy mystery, judging by the writing and the title, but like its hard-boiled cousin, a cozy must grab the reader’s interest with some kind of compelling opening scene or disruption (See Jim’s Sunday post on that topic). The narrator in this first page is so busy giving his back story and wandering off point that the reader’s attention wanders away, as well. All the information about opening the agency, breaking away from Mainline society, etc., can be presented after the opening scene. Take a look at how Elaine Viets opens her shopping mysteriesshe’s an expert at setting up humorous opening scenes that draw in the reader.
  • I like your Detective Rule No. 27, but I would use it in a different way. I suggest putting a Detective Rule at  the head of each chapter as a framing device. Look at some cozy mystery series, and you’ll see that many of them use chapter-heading framing devices (such as Deb Baker’s Dolls to Die For mysteries, and my Fat City Mysteries). 
  • It’s refreshing to see a male character as the lead in a cozy. That will help distinguish this story from the cozy pack.
  • Speaking of name games, the name “Guy Graff” reminded me of McGruff. You might want to reconsider that name. You don’t want the reader to pause or get distracted.
  • I suggest that you locate the first scene  where the action or conflict starts for Graffthat will probably be the true opening of your book. Then weave in the background information contained on this first page. 
  • If you keep that first line in the story, I would rework the list–the list is too long, plus it sounds a tad awkward. The title could be stronger, too. 
  • Keep going! All the revisions that I’ve suggested can be easily fixed in the rewrite stage.

So how ’bout it, other readers? Do any of you read cozies? What suggestions would you make?

14 thoughts on “The name game, and another first-page critique

  1. DETECTIVE RULE NUMBER 27 is a better title than one about shopping. And overall, I agree there is too much backstory. Opening scenes need life not monologue.

  2. Kathryn, your suggestions are all good ones. After so much emphasis on getting to the point, the author never does–at least not in the first page.

  3. Joe, I’m sure that was meant for humorous effect, but in this case, it didn’t work well. Anonymous, I like your idea about DETECTIVE RULE NUMBER 27. The current title is a bit weak.

  4. I agree with all of the criticisms, and would just say that every beginning and long-time authors should continually study the masters of their genre. How do they open? How do they introduce characters? How do they draw characters? How do they describe their settings? How do they build tension? How do they tie up loose ends? Why are their books successful? Don’t waste your time reading dreck. Read the best.

  5. I like the approach of the first sentence, but I think it has a couple too many items in it–I got distracted before I got to the punchline and had to reread it to make sure I’d taken in all the concepts. Making it shorter and punchier would grab my attention faster. Overall, I think there are some clever elements in the excerpt, but they’re hidden by a bunch of extra words. If you strip away as much as you can, you could have a real zinger of a first page. That’s my opinion, anyway (and I’m a big reader of cozies).

  6. Tammy, yours is a good suggestion about removing the wordiness. Half the battle of writing is knowing what to cut.

  7. I agree with everything that’s already been said regarding the overabundance of backstory. I had one other issue with this piece, however: although the main character is being presented as a male, something about the voice struck me as being inherently female. I also think casting a male as the lead in a cozy could be a great selling point, but in that case you want to make sure that the protagonist behaves and talks like a man. Be particularly wary of using expressions like, “bit of.” (as in, “bit of excitement.”)

  8. Good comment, Michelle. I was assuming it was narrated by a woman until I hit the name. Maybe it’s the Valentine’s Day mention–typically it’s a day of dread for men.

  9. Plus the opening word is, “shopping.” That threw me. I think that the title absolutely needs changing if the primary protagonist is going to be male.

  10. Here’s a little pet peeve re: PI first person type novels. I don’t like getting the info fed to me by the narrator, e.g., “My name is ___. I’m a private eye. I’m twenty-four and I don’t care who knows it. I have an office on Sunset and a dog named Bruiser….”

    And so on. It’s a lot more artful to have that information come out naturally, say, in dialogue.

    “You’re awfully young for a detective. What are you, ten?”

    “Twenty-four, and I even shave.”

    “Would you mind terribly getting that…beast away from my ankle?”

    “Bruiser? He’s harmless. He only eats clients who don’t pay.”

    And so on.

  11. I think about the only line I like in this page is “I knew that I had made a complete break from my former opulent Philadelphian Mainline life.” But I would change it to “I knew I had to make a complete break from my opulent Philadelphian Mainline life.” The problem I have with the as-is version is that this is the first time we’ve seen a problem—that being the opulent life—and within two sentences the problem is solved with the statement, “I turned my back on it.” I think it would be more intriguing if we leave the reader to think that Guy faces an inner struggle to get away from this lifestyle and we can’t help but wonder why he would want to. And I would change the refrigerator to a top of the line, computer controlled side-by-side model of some sort. It doesn’t make sense for a small noisy refrigerator to trigger his thoughts of breaking from his opulent lifestyle. I assume that he’ll find the refrigerator empty, since this appears to be a story about shopping, but it might be better if it is well stocked, just without whatever high end item he wants. So when he chooses to run to the store, we see that he has failed to make the break from his opulent lifestyle.

  12. Oops! It appears I read more into that line that was there. I was expecting a to where there isn’t one. But I stick by the rest of what I said. I would still like to see him struggle against something most people think they want, rather than being the typical P.I.

  13. I agree with your assessment about the opening list being too long, Kathryn. The first line could read:

    Shopping, suitcases, and private investigators [lower case] don’t mix well. Separately, they’re okay, but together they can lead to murder.

    “Mix well together” is redundant. I cut the semicolon because the pause feels too much like a sentence break. It flows a little better with the comma and the “but”.

    Just my 2 cents worth, and if you like, you can give me a penny change.

  14. The closest I ever came to cozies was Louis L’Amour, or maybe Mack Bolan.

    So the pull would have to be strong to drag a cute & cuddly ogre like me into one. But if the start was strong enough, I might.

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