First Page Critique: ROAD TO ARRAY

By now, we all know the drill.  First, the submission in its entirety (the italics are mine), and then I’ll see you on the other side:

Daniel watched the rain drops rolling down the windshield. The drizzle had quickly become a downpour, but he couldn’t use the wipers, couldn’t risk the burr of the engine.  The car’s lights were out, and the Crown Victoria hidden in the alleyway where no one could spot it.
He whispered instinctively, then remembered that this time they weren’t using the communication wires. Rick had argued the situation was dicey enough without a guard pointing out the tiny earpiece and microphone. Daniel shifted in his seat. He should have insisted. Not that it would have made a difference. He was a rookie on his first major assignment. Rick had been on the force for a decade.  His partner made a decision, and that was that.
Daniel glanced at his watch again. Rick was ten minutes late, which wasn’t very long in this weather, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.
“Ah dammit.” Before he changed his mind, he rushed out the door. He was drenched in an instant. 
            Removing the gun from his shoulder holster, he pointed the Browning .38 at the ground as he slid alongside the apartment building. He and Rick had scouted the area earlier, but he peeked at the entrance again from around the corner. He saw no one. He would have welcomed some security on the place, even a sniper on the roof, to ease the queasy feeling forming in his gut.

My first thought in reading this is that I’ve seen it before—a hundred different times in a hundred different cop shows.  I realize even as I write the comment that it’s a tad unfair criticism, because at one level, we’ve all seen elements of every story before.  In this case, though, there’s not much to differentiate it.  A stronger narrative voice would have helped.  Some distinctive action would have helped, too.

When we did this critique exercise last year, I believe it was either Jim Bell or Joe Moore who verbalized something that I had always felt, but had never quite put my finger on: It is always, always, always a mistake to start a story with a weather report.  That first paragraph is arguably the most valuable slice of real estate in any book, and I hate to see it squandered with rolling raindrops.

In his haste to bring readers into action, this author neglected to give us a sense of the stakes.  Weather is not tension.  It’s barely even atmosphere.  By placing a barrier of non-communication between the two characters in this scene, the author robbed himself and his readers of an opportunity to care about the characters.

The issue of the “communication wires” bothers me at several levels, beginning with the phrase, communication wires.  I’m not a cop so I don’t know their lingo, but that phrase strikes me as not-legit.  I was an emergency responder for many years, though, and I know my way around assault operations, and I have heartburn with “a rookie on his first major assignment” getting to make decisions regarding something as essential as the communication protocol.  As the senior team member, Daniel is responsible for everything that happens on this op, and he comes off as a real toad when he tries to palm that responsibility off on the new guy.
How, exactly, does one whisper instinctively?  Is that really something we’re born with?  I think you might have been going for reflexively, but even that’s not quite right.  Even more importantly (certainly for Rick), ten minutes is a freaking eternity when an op is in motion.  What could Daniel possibly have on his calendar that was more important than pulling his partner out of a jam?  (This, by the way, is why communication protocols exist.)

If Daniel preferred to have additional security, why didn’t he call for it?  Just because Rick ran off without a radio doesn’t mean that Daniel didn’t have one either.  And if firepower is the thing he’s worried about, why the hell is he advancing on the apartment with only a “Browning .38” (whatever that is)?  Surely, he’s got some higher-caliber toys in the trunk of his Crown Victoria, and if he doesn’t there should be a reason.

I’m sorry to say that this piece really didn’t resonate with me.  It read as research-by-television series, and it just didn’t work.  Not knowing what lies ahead in the story, I will venture a guess that this part of the story might be better told from Rick’s point of view.  Assuming that he’s having a bad day on the other side of Daniel’s suspicions, I propose that Rick’s world view might be more interesting.

13 thoughts on “First Page Critique: ROAD TO ARRAY

  1. John puts it nicely about that first paragraph being valuable real estate. That’s how the “don’t open with the weather” meme developed with editors and agents. They saw too much “setting up” with “weather reports.” If you mix weather with character reaction and mood, as I think the writer is attempting here, it can work, but I would put it a bit later. Get us in the head of a character up front.

    We have the makings of a tense opening, but as suggested the challenge is to “originalize” it. You do that via character.

    Thus, I’d start this way: Daniel pointed his Browning .38 at the ground as he slid alongside the apartment building.

    Re-write the first page, eschewing all back flashes or summary (e.g., Rick had argued…see that word “had”? Kill it. Shoot it with the .38). Act first, explain later.

    Put us in Daniel’s head and make that perspective unique and even unpredictable. Give him one aspect that would cause us to go, “What the heck?”

    You can then drop in some rain, and some of the situation, but give it through a strong reaction from Daniel. Make the narrative voice unique, too.

    And do make sure your weapons research is correct. Gun experts are very sensitive about these things, and you’ll hear about it if it’s not right.

  2. I totally agree with John’s points. “research-by-television series” is something we often see with these first-page submissions. It’s the easy way out. No real research legwork involved. My advice: if you’re going to incorporate TV series facts and situations in your manuscript, adhere to President Ronald Reagan’s motto: Trust but Verify.

  3. In my criminal defense gig, I’ve read hundreds of police reports, hung out in the halls with cops, and questioned them on the stand. Detectives communicate differently than uniforms who, in turn, sound different from troopers/sheriffs. You have to peg it correctly because it defines everything, right down to the weapon that is in that holster.

    As John pointed out, the lingo isn’t resonating true.

    It’s tiny things like “removed his gun from his shoulder holster.” A cop would say he drew or unholstered his weapon. Not gun – weapon.

    A guard (assuming you mean bad guy) wouldn’t “point out” a wire, his reaction would be a lot less polite.

    The phrase communication wires also clanks. And “Ah dammit” sounds like mom spilled the cake batter.

    Cops don’t “peek.” “Slid alongside” and “rushed out the door” aren’t the imagery you are going for.

    My fav blogging agent said about “The Wire,” that she didn’t know if cops and dealers really talked that way, but the writers convinced her that they did. It is that tang of authenticity that is missing here.

    Don’t pull your punches. If this is a procedural, then the edges need to be sharp to keep my attention. I don’t have a real problem with TV-style police work. However, it has to have the wit and grit of “Hill Street Blues,” or the reality of “Law & Order” to keep me engaged. “Starsky & Hutch” doesn’t cut it.

    If you haven’t read it, get thee to John’s “No Mercy” and check out the op that opens the book. The tension crackles and there are parallels between the paramilitary action and a law enforcement raid.


    PS: Thanks for posting your first page. Everyone will get a turnaround-fair-play shot at mine. I also answer questions, when I can, on stuff like probable cause, search warrants and my favorite, custodial interrogations.

  4. John, I agree with your critique of the first paragraph. It’s far to valuable to fritter away on a weather report.

    Also, I’m not a gun expert, but I don’t believe Browning makes .38s. In fact, I don’t think they make revolvers at all. If I’m right (which I may well not be), this is a serious error that needs correcting. It’s like writing about “the smell of cordite”.

  5. Browning did actually make a .38 (not a revolver though, they never made revolvers). The Colt model 1900 .38 is an early patented desgin by John Browning. See a pic of the funny looking gun here.

    Thing is though, when deployed with troops during the Philipine uprising in 1902 the pistol was wildly unpopular due to the fact that a .38 caliber round was unable to stop frenzied berzerkers on attack.

    There are many mentions of Browning .38 around the web, but it is mostly in regard only to ammo designed by John Browning.

    Regarding the story, I’d say work on the show don’t tell aspects, passive voice. Also, communication wires made me think of the old WW2 crank radio sets my grandfather had set up for the neighbors in our homestead community in rural Alaska back in the 60s. He’d run phone wire from house to house for the comms system. One ring = Marcrafts homestead. Two rings = Joe’s road house cafe. Three rings = the Eggelston’s farm, etc.

  6. The Browning BDA 380 is a pistol made by FN Herstal. It’s a compact copy of a Beretta. They stopped making it in the lates 90’s at the request of several governments if I recall.

    I’m not the author, but I believe this is the weapon they were referring to.

  7. Hello all. I am excited that my first page was among those critiqued.
    I appreciate the thorough critique by John and everyone’s comments. This is my first novel and I struggled with where to start.
    Thanks for pointing out that I should verify research from tv and books (Joe) and that this also affected lingo and voice (Terri).
    Thanks James for the advice to re-write the first page, start with the action.
    I will take out the weather report and work on “show, don’t tell”.
    Thanks again.
    PS The gun I referred to was the Browning BDA .380

  8. Fletch–
    If they were referring to that weapon, shouldn’t they have called it a .380? To me, .38s have always denoted revolvers, and I think when readers see “.38”, I kind of believe they think of revolvers, too.

  9. No such animal as a Browning 38. There’s a Browning .380. And a Colt 1911 Commander is available in a 38 Super, but it was only designed by John Browning, not named for him. I got lost there. Why not a Smith 38, Smith and Wesson 38, Colt 38, Taurus 38, or any one of many more that actually come in 38. Browning Hi-Power is 9mm, but one hell of a pistol. Did I get off on a tangent?

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