Interface: A Critique

INTERFACE (a thriller)
First Page Critique

Tom Faraday awoke feeling like he had been sleeping forever, and immediately struggled to recall where he was, or how he had got there. Some nights, he reflected, you hope you remember. Others you hope you forget. Tom was not sure which category the previous night would crystallise under. Right now he was just feeling the after effects of what must have been an evening of extraordinary excess.

He rolled over in the hotel bed and blinked repeatedly. The alarm clock read 8:30 a.m. Next to the clock was his watch, and next to that an electronic card key for his room. Picking it up he saw he was at the Western Star Hotel, in Waterloo, central London. This seemed vaguely familiar, but a stabbing pain deep in his head was making it hard to think clearly. He slipped on his watch, a present from his mother, slid out of bed and padded across to where his suitcase lay open. From a small zipped compartment he retrieved paracetamol and swallowed them down with gulps from a bottle of mineral water. He then stumbled into the bathroom, and was greeted by a tired visage in the mirror. His eyes were bloodshot, hair unkempt, stubble unusually obvious. He stroked his chin distractedly, thinking he must have forgotten to shave the previous day.

Back on the desk he found an elegantly printed invitation, and as he read it his memories started to return. The card bore his name in calligraphic handwriting, and was to the launch party for CERUS Technologies’ new office building. Tom rubbed his eyes and thought hard. What did he know?
He knew his name. He knew his age: 26. He remembered his job. He was a lawyer at CERUS Technologies. And he remembered the party.

He remembered getting there by taxi, late on Friday night. He remembered William Bern’s speech. And he remembered drinking a few beers. And then a few more. Perhaps a lot more. Of the trip back to the hotel, he remembered nothing. Friday night had come and gone.

He stretched slowly and looked for another bottle of water. Apart from the headache he did not feel too bad. Hopefully no harm done, and the rest of the weekend to recover. The noise of a mobile phone ringing broke him from his thoughts. His phone. He retrieved it from his pocket, noticing the battery was nearly dead.


Critique by Nancy J. Cohen

The opening line is great. It immediately draws me in, wondering the same thing as the character. Where is he, and what is he doing there? I would delete “he reflected.” We’re in his viewpoint, and that qualifier is unnecessary.

Crystallize has a “z” not an “s”.

Delete the “just” before “just feeling.” This is one of those overused words. For more info in this regard, please see my review of a fabulous self-editing program at The Smart-Edit software points out all the words and phrase you overuse and much more.

What kind of drug is paracetamol?

I’d separate into a new paragraph, “The noise of a mobile phone…”

The cell phone is in his pocket? Is he still wearing his clothes from the night before? Or did he get dressed in them?

So the guy is hungover from a workplace party. I’m intrigued, but I am wondering where this is going. Hopefully the caller will inject more information. You do point of view very well, and I have no problems with the pacing especially if a dialogue ensues.

At first, I thought Tom had memory loss and couldn’t remember how he got where he is. But he does seem to recall everything, except maybe the cab ride back to the hotel. Then again, where does he normally live? My questions tell you I am hooked and would read more. I’d be hoping, though, that something happens to tell me all isn’t right and things are going to get hairier from here on in. Good job and Happy Fourth of July!

23 thoughts on “Interface: A Critique

  1. This is written in Brit English – we like to keep our “s” where we can… paracetamol is a mild painkiller.

    I would personally change the first line to “Tom Faraday awoke feeling like he had slept forever”

    I agree, I’m wondering where this is going, but the writing is good enough to keep me going a while longer 🙂

  2. I don’t favor openings with a character alone, thinking. And someone waking up and wondering about the night before has been done so much it’s a cliche. This is all really “telling” us about the character, e.g. he remembers his name, age and occupation in a single paragraph. It feels like set-up material.

    My advice in these matters is to cut everything until the first moment where there is another character in the scene. Or at least the solo character acting or reacting to some disturbing stimulus. If that means tossing this entire scene, so be it. Readers do not bond with characters who are just thinking or feeling. They bond with characters who are in trouble, or face change or challenge, even if it’s minor.

    Many writers think the readers have to know a lot of expositional material up front in order to make sense of the scene. They don’t. They’ll wait. Act first, explain later.

    • I’m with Jim, here. In reality, nothing happens until the phone rings. As a reader, I would be interested in knowing if whoever is calling brings good or bad news. But up until that point, the information means nothing to me. Also, watch out for passive voice, and the shift into second person in the first paragraph. Thanks to the author for submitting.

    • Good points. And it depends on what happens with that phone call. If it’s the “call to action” perhaps the first part could be shortened or woven into the conversation.

    • I’ve read this same advice in a number of your columns and books. The first time I read it I eliminate over three pages of my first chapter and ended up with a stronger opening.

      Great advice.

    • People waking up, people looking out windows or at themselves in mirrors, opening a first chapter with too much weather–all no nos. Unless, of course, you manage to bring it off.

    • James, Jim – fair comment. Things are about to happen with the phone call, and I was trying to give it some ‘context’, but as Nancy suggests, perhaps this could be better woven into the conversation and I can bring the action/jeopardy forward.

      Waking up and wondering what has happened to him is central to the plot (and he is about to find out that he is experiencing more than a hangover) – BUT, I agree it comes across as a cliche. Page 2 might be ‘great’, but if Page 1 doesn’t engage the reader, then they might not turn over… Which is why this ‘first page critique’ is so illuminating.
      Thanks again.
      Antony Argyle

  3. The overuse of adverbs pulled me from the reading and the stilted use of “visage” rather than face yanked me out.

    The drug name needs more of an explanation. And if it is a painkiller, why would he be drinking alcohol? Presumably it’s a prescription for an ailment or injury, not a mere hangover headache remedy. If it IS like aspirin, then use the generic reference and say aspirin.

    The opening paragraph sets up that memory loss or drinking binges happen a lot to this guy. Not sure how good a lawyer he would be if that were the case, but by the end if this short intro, he says that he’s feeling pretty good and it seems he recalls quite a bit (except the ride home), so the set up is diminished quickly and feels like a sham to pull the reader in with an overstatement that is reversed within a few short paragraphs.

    It seems odd that he wouldn’t remember checking in to a hotel if that presumably happened prior to the party and he had his luggage there. He hadn’t been drinking then, or else he wouldn’t have remembered so much about how he got there by taxi. So the details of what he recalls are not consistent.

    I agree with other comments made and your summary, Nancy. There is enough intrigue that I might keep reading as a reader, but if I am an acquisitions editor, all those adverbs could make me stop, given all the other books I am reading in my slushpile.

    Thanks to the author for submitting.

    • Let me add that there is a lot to like about this author’s writing style and sense of mystery storytelling. Book starts are a challenge for me and other writers. Author, keep working on this intro, but again, there us a lot to like in this submission.

    • Ahem, yet it does have a lot of adverbs. Jordan, Nancy, appreciate your constructive comments. The drug is what is more commonly known (in the US) as Tylenol, but it could just as easily have been aspirin, and I really would rather not confuse/distract a potential reader.

    • Hi – sorry I’ve re-read my comment and I may have been unclear (again). What I meant was that I agree with the comments, and that I should have said aspirin (so it’s clear it’s for his headache). I’ll stop now… :os

    • I’m sure that in the American version of this, some editor would swap in Tylenol. If you live in Britain — or you read enough books written by British authors — you know perfectly well what paracetamol is.

      An American writer mentioning a car’s trunk might well confuse a British reader, who’d spend time wondering why a large piece of baggage is strapped to a car.

  4. I’ll be contrary here to James and Joe: I don’t really mind the slow opening because it tells me something not good has already happened to this man. But the sooner something live DOES happen (ie a phone call, a knock on door or on his head) the better. So tighten your opening down as much as you can to increase tension:

    Tom Faraday awoke feeling like he had been sleeping forever.

    NEW GRAPH then give him a movement that SHOWS us he can’t recall where he is rather than TELLING us “[he] immediately struggled to recall where he was, or how he had got there.

    Some nights, he [reflected…a very aware word, like mused. Just thought?] you hope you remember. Others you hope you forget. Tom was not sure which category the previous night would crystallise under. [Right now he was just feeling the after effects of what must have been an evening of extraordinary excess…delete? Because you are showing us this]

    Generally, very well written and I’d keep going.

    “He rolled over in the hotel bed and blinked repeatedly.” Take out hotel here because he doesn’t remember where he is until next line. I’d lose repeatedly too.

    “Padded over to his suitcase.” Just a pet peeve, but “padded” is a silly little word for a grown man. I think of little forest animals, toddlers or drunks whenever I see it.

    Good job!

    • PJ – excellent thoughts, and wish I could afford this type of analysis for the entire MS…! I am psyched to go back and make this better 🙂

  5. I liked it and got the impression that some action would be right around the corner. A one page solitary set-up doesn’t bother me too much as long as something happens on page two.

    I think the character has lost more than one day and I’d hope for a body or blood found on page two.

  6. Think it’s a really strong opening, but it could be stronger. I’d suggest getting a bit more intimate with the character and remove all filter and thought words. We want the reader to basically put him/herself in the head of the character and experience the scene through their eyes. Each filter, which there were a few, along with adverbs, take us out of his head. Cutting down on on those, opening up the adverbs, and refraining from overuse of the character’s name, I think, would make this opening boom.

    Nice job at catching my interest though. Splendid!

    DC Stone

  7. Many thanks to Nancy and TKZ for including the opening page of ‘Interface’ on this feature.

    I’ve read the comments with great interest and find them both encouraging and insightful. Up to this point I’ve had a number of beta readers (of the whole MS), but all of them have been friends or acquaintances who have probably felt duty bound to read beyond the first few pages; a ‘real’ potential reader may make a much quicker judgement – which is the whole purpose of this first page critique. It is fascinating and instructive to see these experienced and independent views on why someone would keep reading, and why they would not. I feel inspired to go back and make things better.

    Many thanks again for everyone’s time.

    Antony Argyle

  8. Although I agree with JSB that I always opt for action versus thought and reflection for an opening, this is quite smooth and I enjoyed the writer’s voice. Also enjoyed everyone’s comments for improvements to it.

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