First-page critique: HAIR TRIGGER

By Joe Moore

Today’s first-page critique is from a story called HAIR TRIGGER. My comments follow.


They were going to cut my hand off.

When I came to, I was tied to a chair. It was dark in the print shop and, like a character in a 1940s film noir, I could see the distorted silhouettes of a tall man and short man standing in the shadows. I was dizzy and felt sick from the blow to my head. The two figures swam in and out of focus.

Leaning over as far as I could, I barfed on the floor at their feet.

“Feeling better?” the short one asked in a strained high-pitched voice that reminded me of Peter Lorre.

“Please don’t say ‘fuck you’,” the tall one added.

I didn’t. I just vomited again.

After I finished whooshing whatever cookies were left inside me, I noticed my right hand was trapped under the clamping rail of a paper trimmer. This type of machine is commonly called a guillotine and has a razor sharp blade with thousands of pounds of pressure behind it. It can make very neat cuts through thick reams of paper.

The short guy stood next to it but I still couldn’t see him clearly.

“It says here this thing can trim up to a thousand sheets of paper at a time,” he read off the metal tag on the side of the machine. “Apparently, the operator must have a hand on each of the side switches for safety.” He looked straight at me. “Gee, I’d like to see how it works. Wouldn’t you?”

The big guy walked to the wall and pulled down the breaker handle on the electrical panel.

Machines around the shop started to power up. I could feel the vibration of the cutter humming through the metal surface under my hand.

The trimming blade gleamed wickedly.

“Now this is the part of the James Bond movie where I ask you to tell me what I need to know. If I don’t get an answer I like, you’re going to have to learn to jack off southpaw.”

I have very few phobias. One, however, is my fear of dismemberment. I get queasy just thinking about it, let alone imagining what my life would be like without a vital appendage such as my gun hand. In feudal Japan it was considered a sign of dishonor if a samurai lost a limb in battle. It showed everyone that he had failed in his duty as a warrior.

I liked this submission, and would keep reading. It starts, just as we so often suggest here at TKZ, with a life-changing event. The protagonist is in trouble and the author presents the reader with a big question: how is he going to get out of losing his hand? The bigger question, at least so far: what did he do to get into this situation?

The voice is not quite solid but it does take on enough character to intrigue. The scene is cliché – two bad guys, one tall, one short, but it does have forward motion and kept my interest.

A bit of line editing and cleanup would help, but it reads like a decent first draft. Nothing wrong with that.

I’m not sure who said the line starting with, “Now is the part of the James Bond . . .” That need clarification.

I would suggest not using the word “very”. It is meaningless. What’s the difference between few phobias and very few phobias?

There were a couple of places where the story slowed down while the writer explained how an industrial paper cutter works and what it means to lose a hand in feudal Japan hand. I would suggest avoiding those type of speed bumps at this stage of the story.

Lastly, even if it’s appropriate to the story, I recommend not dropping the f-bomb on the first page, or anywhere in the story for that matter.

Overall, not bad. I want to know what happens next. Thanks to the brave writer for submitting.

Now, Zoners, what do you think. Would you keep reading or does this guy losing his hand not grab you by the throat? Hold up your hands.


THE BLADE is an absolute thrill ride." — Lisa Gardner

26 thoughts on “First-page critique: HAIR TRIGGER

  1. I thought it was a very good first page. The F bomb didn’t bother me, in fact, in this situation, I would be surprised if there wasn’t at least one. The very short explanation of the printing machine was necessary for those of us who have no idea about print shops and didn’t take me out of the story at all.

    The ‘very’ was not necessary but if I were to change anything about this first page, it would be the whole ‘I have very few phobias’ line. How many phobias do most people have? It makes the MC sound weak, or neurotic, which he may be, we don’t know enough about him yet. But I’d take that line out. Who doesn’t have a fear of losing a limb?

    I’d sure like to know how he gets out of this…

    • I agree with Amanda about the “I have very few phobias” but he does have a phobia about losing a limb. Take all that out. Losing a limb is terrifying to everyone, so no need to explain or justify why it would be a frightening prospect.

  2. I really like this, but I agree with your cliche assessment, Joe. The reference to Peter Lorre isn’t a common thing for a contemporary storyline and the early planted image of a 1940s film noir accentuates the cliche. Maybe the author is going for campy, but it makes the main character appear to be older. Way older.

    One thing I would add is a clean up of the passive voice line – I could feel the vibration of the cutter humming…

    In first POV, this can become common. Look out for the word “could.” It’s one of my edit triggers. COULD FEEL is passive compared to FELT. A better way to start that sentence, however, would be – The vibration of the cutter hummed… When writing in first person, overuse of “I” can be repetitive over the course of the book.

    Nice submission though. I would keep reading.

  3. I think this is a compelling piece. I like the tension and the setting and the voice. I have only two suggestions:

    1. Cut the first line. It steals from the drama of the reveal when he sees that his arm is tied into the shear. Let your audience share in the horror right along with him.

    2. Given my early work, this will come as a shock, but I’ve learned that F-bombs are rarely justified, and are always a mistake on the first page. It’s not that I’m a prude, but from a business perspective, you will never gain a reader because of the F-bomb, but I guarantee you will lose them. Middle America doesn’t like gratuitous profanity. And in the context of your story, “Don’t tell me to go screw myself” conveys the message just as well.

    • I agree with John about the first line, but for a different reason. This probably sounds picky, but how does he know they’re going to cut his arm off before he wakes up? He says that, then wakes up. I’d stick to the actual sequence of events for more realism and better continuity here. Although it certainly is a powerful first line!

  4. Very good opening line. “They were going to cut my hands off.” Yeah, I’d read more. Like the machine humming under the arm, very visceral.

    I found the repeated film references a little annoying. “Like a ’40s film noir.” Sounded like Peter Lorre. “This is the part of the James Bond film…” And that’s just the first page. We get it. You’ve seen a lot of movies. It’s a crutch for not describing it yourself, just throw the reader a cue and let her/him fill in the blanks. The film noir and James Bond references drop right out without any damage to the text. The Peter Lorre one, I’d work harder to actually describe the voice than to count on readers in 2014 to know who that 30s,40s character actor was.

    Agree about the use of very. It never really helps. A case of less would be more.

    But generally a really good opening page.


    • I agree with John. I found the “James Bond” thing a bit too light and humorous for the situation and the whole tone of the scene. But maybe that’s just me.

      Overall, great scene and powerful writing! I see great things for this writer!

  5. I hate to be the negative one, but…
    I didn’t like this submission at all. The references to film noir Peter Lorre, and James Bond is a sophomore trick that is too easy. The flip attitude and the contrived “Goldfinger” type cutting machine is not fresh.
    I like to know who, where, and when as soon as possible.
    I wouldn’t read on.

  6. I liked this first page and I think if the 1940s film noir references were more pointed or unique I’d be okay. As it is combined with the James Bond reference it does sound a bit cliche and too lighthearted given the situation. I really liked the first line but agree with Jodie on the sequencing. A bit of a refinement in terms of sharpening the voice and this could be a compelling read.

  7. I like the set-up, but there is too much tell. First you have the MC tell me how the paper cutter works and then you have the bad guy tell the MC how it works. I would kill off the first one.

    And everyone fears dismemberment. I didn’t mind the samurai reference, but maybe as internal dialogue.

    F-bomb doesn’t bother me at all, but it is judicious, like strong spice.

    Has good attitude and the voice is on its way. More action, more dialogue (external and internal) will enhance the tension. I do want to know how he gets out of it.

    Thanks for the sub! Terri

  8. My opinion: Good craft, over-intrusive voice. The constant cultural referencing seemed smart-alecky and distracting. I don’t see a man in near-mortal terror taking the time to stretch out his Dennis Miller grab bag of pop-culture ephemera.

  9. Thanks to everyone who dropped by and commented. I think this writer has potential and has received some terrific advice. Good luck. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

  10. Although I find good things about this opener (the paper cutter, for one), I am with Jordan Dane in her quibble about the reference to film noir and Peter Lorre. Add as well the one to James Bond. Too many references to well-known names and characters cause me to think the writer is trying to piggy-back on the work and reputation of others. When this happens, I become skeptical. It’s better to let the story sell itself.

  11. The first line got my immediate attention. I liked it. I did begin to lose interest when it mirrored the “same old, same old” that we see on TV so often these days. I found the critique extremely helpful.

  12. It got my blood moving. Of course I nearly zipped my thumb off two years with a power saw and I used to operate an industrial paper cutter just like he was talking about. So this scenario has run through my mind more than once. I think I’d be telling ’em everything and giving up everybody I’ve ever know, if faced with that.

    Timing and movement in a piece like that is extremely important. You need to draw the reader (reader’s hand) right in there. Make ’em start curling their fingers up in anticipation. That should be the escalating focus. Like I said, I can already feel the breeze of that blade zinging down, along with the momentum coursing through my body, down my legs and out through my feet.

  13. I think anyone who has seen one of those massive industrial paper cutters has viscerally wondered, “What would happen if my arm …” Any writer who has seen one at work has probably thought, “How can I use this in a story?”

  14. Way too much telling, not nearly enough showing.

    “When I came to, I was tied to a chair.”
    “I was dizzy and felt sick from the blow to my head.”
    “…I noticed my right hand was trapped…”
    “I get queasy just thinking about it…”
    plus a few more.

    Nevertheless, the page did build solid tension. With a little reworking, it could pack a real punch. The excessive telling on this first page, however, would indicate it extends throughout the book, so a major rewrite might be in order. I would say go for it. You’ve set a good opening scene.

    The f-bomb, IMHO, was a little out of place in that specific context, but I have to say I am 100% opposed to AVOIDING profanity purely for the sake of avoiding it. Those who are offended by it are likely to be offended by a host of other things as well, and I believe the author makes a big mistake by allowing those smeary hands to reach down into his writing and push his pen toward their own moral compass.

  15. I agree with most of the comments above. I’d delete the reference to Peter Lorre. Its probably outdated and the name is not known to newer generations. Ditto was Joe said about using the F word especially on the first page. If it’s appropriate to the character, fine, but sprinkle it in. Don’t hit us with it right away or you might end up alienating readers who won’t look further than the “Look Inside” on Amazon.

  16. I agree with Brian about mentioning film noir, Peter Lorre, and James Bond. These things pulled me away from the story. Unlike Brian, though, I would read a little more out of curiosity, only to find out how he gets out of this mess.

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