First-page critique x 2

By Joe Moore

Today we present 2 first-page submissions– sort of a buy one, get one free or 2 for the price of one. You get the idea. My comments follow each.


They say bad things happen fast but good things take forever, like saving up a hundred dollars one penny at a time.

I don’t know about that. Looking back it seems more like a cartoon avalanche that started with a pebble that hit a stone that hit a rock that hit a boulder that just buried me and everybody and everything I knew and loved.

Knowing what I know now I can see that it wasn’t a series of unconnected random events; even if that’s what they had meant for it to look like. Everything had been meticulously planned months – or maybe years – in advance.

They had contingency plans and had contingencies for contingencies.

The only thing they hadn’t counted on was Bill.

I like this one, particularly the voice. Although it’s short and there’s no sense of place or time, I know that the narrator is in trouble. “They” caused something bad to happen to him/her and others. There’s not a lot to pick at because it is so short. But I would definitely keep reading.

Friday, 3:08 am

Dan Taylor sat in the wingback chair next to his bed, watching the quietly dreaming form of his wife in the darkness. The pale sheets rose and fell ever so slightly as she breathed. Dreaming of starting a family, he was sure. Maybe that had been possible when they were living in Camden, but he couldn’t allow it now. Not until he felt safe in his work. He just wasn’t sure how to tell her that yet.

He hadn’t slept well since they moved to North Carolina. Vicki told him countless times how much she liked living in his hometown. She seemed really happy. He still hadn’t figured out how to tell her that he wasn’t. Not at all.

To be fair, Raleigh was a nice town. Always had been. And he had to admit that finally making detective at 33 was a relief.

Still, he left a lot of personal demons behind when he moved away. Every night for the last two weeks, they invaded his dreams to remind him they were still here. Lurking. The only solace he could take was that Vicki thought he slept as well as she did at night.

If only.

Glancing out the window, he watched the ghosts of past mistakes dance before him. Long gone, but still alive in his mind’s eye. He saw the anger, the handkerchief.

The blood.

He shut his eyes, but the images only became clearer. Too long ago, he thought. I should be over this. What the hell was he thinking, coming back here?

The blare of his cell phone in the stillness made him jump. He lurched for it, his pinky finger banging on the edge of the table. His eyes flashed at the sharp jab of pain. He bit his lip to stay quiet, involuntarily shaking the injured hand.

The phone rang again and Vicki twitched, groaned from somewhere in the depths of her slumber. He picked up the cell to keep it from waking her.

“You asleep, kid?”

Kid. Mark Harris, his partner, insisted on calling him that. Dan glanced at the face of his alarm clock, shining blue in the early morning darkness. He grimaced.

“Harris, it’s three o’clock,” he whispered. He considered going in the other room, but watching Vicki sleep was calming. Dan needed that calm right now.

OK, the good news is that I see this as strong writing. I feel the narrator’s pain. I have a vivid sense of place. I am aware of his mental and emotional tension including the conflict of family planning between the cop and his wife. Within a few sentences, I believe he is a three-dimensional character. There’s a wonderful sprinkling of backstory without explaining anything or slowing us down. And of course the proverbial call to action. We know there’s a dark past and more bad things are coming. We’ve been given a quick setup and now we’re ready. We read on.

Now the bad news. I’ve seen or read this central casting setup more times than I care to remember. Although it’s written well, it’s a cliché. There’s nothing fresh or unique or different here. Still, I see an excellent writer at work and would keep reading.

Thanks to both brave authors for submitting their work. Good luck to you both.

How about the rest of you Zoners? Any thoughts?


27 thoughts on “First-page critique x 2

  1. #1

    I too like the potential voice, though this is a bit too much of what I call “the look back hook.” The narrator is TELLING us to be on the edge of our seat. A little of that goes a long way. And having the narrator say Looking back and then Knowing what I know now, is redundant. I’d cut this opening substantially. I’d even suggest cutting both these phrases, but if you really want one of them, make it only one.. Include the semi-colon when doing the cutting!


    Act first, explain later. This is all exposition and backstory. I’m guessing the Lead is being called to a crime scene. Start with that. All this explanatory material can wait.

    And why use a time stamp when the Lead not only looks at a clock, but also mentions the time in dialogue?

    • JSB – the time stamp is extraneous for this scene, but is a heading for every chapter because the time table is truncated. Now I look at it here, though, I see what you mean. As for everything else, I cringed when I saw just how much backstory I’d left. A thousand apologies.

    • Hey Jake, not even one apology. This is a workshop, and you put your work out there and have taken suggestions well. It’s all good….and your writing? Already better.

  2. #1 has promise. Interesting voice, and the twist at the end – they hadn’t figured on someone named Bill. As long as it stops right there and gets on with the story, this is a promising opening.

    #2 – Like you said, a cliche. As soon as I read the wingback chair, I thought, “Ah, a furniture story.” The old reliable wingback chair. What else could it be in a mystery that starts in a bedroom. And then a long series of standard tropes. All telling instead of letting us see through the character’s action as the story progresses. As a reader I don’t need all this going on and on about his problems with the past. Show me. This is a book I’d glance at at the library, then stick it back on the shelf.

  3. #1

    Shoulda, coulda, woulda. It’s my way of saying get to the story. I would read on, but the voice needs to be less somber and meek. I feel like the setup is describing something that happened to the narrator, so I’m expecting the vengeful voice, but am getting none


    I agree, cliche. A phone call in the middle of the night (on the first page) will make me put a book down. I like the description of the wife sleeping, but then after that it got a little boring.

    If you start the scene after the phone call, he could have some action going on, getting dressed, thinking about things, grabbing keys, cursing his partner, etc. Anything would be better than him lying there in bed and thinking gloomy thoughts to be interrupted by the phone call.

  4. #1

    I like this opening, as long as the next thing that happens is action. One suggestion: Give Bill a nickname to make him more intriguing. And if you make the nickname surprising, all the better. “The only thing they hadn’t counted on was Hillbilly Bill.” That name might not work for your story, but you get the drift.


    I agree with the other commenters. Have most or all these things come out through actions, especially interactions with other people. For example, the tension between he and his wife about starting a family would be great in a conversation over breakfast, especially if the conversation starts out indirectly. The wife could comment that a new daycare center is opening up just down the street. And it goes downhill from there. That’s more challenging–and fun–to write.

    Also, I was thrown off by the third person, first person, third person switch in this paragraph: “He shut his eyes, but the images only became clearer. Too long ago, he thought. I should be over this. What the hell was he thinking, coming back here?

    I was just struggling with this in a piece of my own. I almost left it alone, but something niggled at the back of my brain. I’m beginning to pay attention to that niggling.

    • Vis a vis – Bill.

      I think the reason it works is BECAUSE Bill is such a prosaic name. Here’s the set up for this huge problem caused by a meticulously made plan, and it was undone because they didn’t count on Bill. It’s very ordinariness (is that a word?) is what makes it work. Not “They didn’t count on Flash,” or “Agent Steele,” or “Muscles McGirk.” Just Bill. Plain old Bill. Only a half step away from Bob. It emphasizes the small, the slight miscalculation that threw the evil plot off. A pebble stopping a boulder, so to speak. I like it!

    • Eric – the first person is italicized in the ms (or was supposed to be, now I think of it I might have underlined using more archaic “rules”). But I see what you mean about the confusion. Thanks for the suggestions!

  5. #1
    I agree, I like the voice and, there’s some kind of problem. However, the 3rd paragraph, “everything had been meticulously planned…etc.,” started to lose me. It sounds paranoid. Who is this person that someone planned for years to ruin their life?

    I’m missing some specific things that were those pebbles, stones, rocks, boulders, etc. Without those specifics, I feel I’m in mid-air with no way to evaluate what the narrator is saying. It’s giving me the “meaning” – events weren’t unconnected, had been meticulously planned, but not the circumstances.

    I already got the picture with the previous metaphor, e.g., things started randomly rolling and crashing into each other and buried him/her. I don’t need more meaning. Tell me a bit about the person’s lived life, their circumstances.

    As others have said more concisely, it starts to be talking about the story instead of getting into the story.

    My last question on this one: why Bill? Is Bill the important person, not the narrator? Why are we in this other person’s head, not hearing about/seeing Bill? Maybe I missed something here, but this threw me.

    I’m actually okay with cliche, in terms of a guy who’s got demons, can’t sleep, gets a phone call. I was okay with all of this action. What I wasn’t okay with, was how long it was taking to get anywhere. I agree that it would be more effective to weave some of the back story and the character’s ruminations in as we get going on that phone call and wherever the guy is going to go.

    To me, what made this piece vulnerable to the charge of “cliche” was the slowness of getting into the story. Most everything has been done somehow. To me, it’s not so much that there’s something wrong with a phone call in the middle of the night. Just, get on with it.

    His situation is potentially interesting – his thoughts, not so much. Not deep, not original. But just because his situation isn’t wildly unique, doesn’t mean it couldn’t be compelling, if we could get on with it.

  6. #1
    Good opening line! Not to be nit picky, but I think the second sentence would be stronger if “it seems” were made more specific to this story. Something like:

    “When I look back on the horrible events of last summer, it seems as if…”.

    I was a bit confused by the reference to “Bill” in the last sentence. Is Bill the first-person narrator who is speaking? If so, it seems odd for him to refer to himself in the third person, although it’s a good line.


    I agree that the story should open with whatever is about to happen in the next scene. This page is a warm-up to the main act to come. The writer should consider putting this type of scene deeper in the story, when the main character will clearly have lots to worry about. One thing struck me about the writing–some of the language had a slightly feminine tone to it, making me think the writer is a woman (I’m thinking here about the references to hurting his pinkie finger, plus biting his lip. Those bits don’t sound like a male detective to me.) Same goes for his thought about not feeling “safe in his work”. Does that mean he feels physically unsafe, or is he simply afraid he’ll lose his job? Either way, this guy’s thoughts don’t sound convincingly male to me.

    I think the use of the telephone conversation in the opening is weak. Here’s what Kris said in a previous critique:
    “Telephone conversations are such a dead way to move your story along. You need them at times to impart info but I don’t think you want to waste your crucial opening with such a static — disembodied — device. “

    All of these issues are very fixable. As previous comments indicated, the writer also needs to turn this familiar-sounding story into something fresh and non generic. I suggest the writer browse back on TKZ posts discussing ways to inject life and energy into story characters. We need to be drawn into the story by seeing this character react in a scene with more dramatic tension. Plus, we need to know what’s driving this guy, what’s haunting him. I’m sure there’s more to him than what’s conveyed on this page.

    • Feminine…never heard that one before. With the pinky finger, I think I was just trying to make him human (stand up too fast, bang shin on coffee table, curse) and I forgot to R. U. E. My hope is that the story itself does turn the cliche on its ear, but I guess I thought I had to establish the cliche first. Going back to cut that. Thank you!

  7. The first one pulled me right in. Just taking a wild guess here, but… Is Bill a dog? I hope so.

    I didn’t know what it was about the second one. But Joe’s right. I have heard all that before. I found myself skimming. Otherwise, the writing is strong and compelling. Just get right into it.

  8. No. 1: I liked this. And as someone said, I like the prosaic-ness of “Bill.” But it has to get going pretty quickly as this contemplative start. I like the voice though…I’d read on.

    No. 2: I always ask this question when I start a scene: What is the best point of entry? Yeah, the guy being awakened by a call is a cliche, especially since it doesn’t seem of any urgent nature. If he were awakened by an odd sound in his home — maybe it works? Ditto what other said on the backstory. We can get the point about friction in the marriage the move and lack of conception has caused in one or two lines. And then the writer can expand on it later. But it’s too much too early. The writing is okay but there’s nothing fresh here, and with the market being so tough today (was it ever easy?) you have to bring something really special to the agent’s table to get noticed.

    • I agree. I cringed when I started reading this. I couldn’t believe I kept that much backstory trying to create “tension.” All I did was bore the reader. And I think I’ll have him pausing on his way out the door. I was going for an “initial refusal to the call” and dragged the story down as a result. Thank you very much, Kris.

  9. Author of #2 here. Can’t believe I didn’t put the title (The Messenger) in that email, although a publisher would probably change it anyway.

    Let me start by saying I really liked the voice in #1. Brave author, whoever you are, I loved the “they hadn’t counted on Bill” bit. In spite of issues (that were even more glaring in my own submission) I would definitely keep reading.

    As to my piece, thanks to all of you who commented. I will keep all of your critiques in mind as I go through a massive overhaul and series of rewrites. Joe, thank you SO MUCH for the compliments on my writing, even if the piece itself has major problems. Words can’t cover how good it feels to hear that. It will certainly be a lift as I go through the rewrites.

    I’m so glad you guys did this (even if I’m embarrassed by what I submitted, now that I’ve had a chance to learn from so many others). It has been a tremendous help. TKZers, y’all rule. Thanks again to everyone who chimed in.

  10. Number one is in the mode of ‘I’m gonna tell you a story”. The style explicitly acknowledges that this is a recounting of things that happened before. It is an intimate format and works for a number of big-selling authors. It highlights authorial/character voice imo.

    Number two builds a framework supporting a level of mood and dramatic anticipation. The skilled writing has been noted. IMO the area of opportunity is to reveal some level of story conflict/intrigue/suspense that warrants the verbiage supporting mood/detail/gravitas.

    In writing classes the format I’m familiar with is that the author is silent until all comments are voiced. Clarification and response/questions from the author are then entertained. I believe that the basis for this is the belief that reviewers’/critiquers’ (? if word) will be most revealing if author response is saved for the end. Any thought on this TKZ authors?
    Not a criticism – an honest inquiry,

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