First Page Critique: INDELIBLE

Shuttertstock photo purchased by TKZ

Shutterstock photo purchased by TKZ

We’re critiquing a first page submission today, called INDELIBLE. I’ll add my comments at the end, and then please add your feedback for the writer.


“I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

​A short silence followed as Theny’s words fell between them.


Like an ice-skating buffalo.

​“Good.” A pause . “I hope you realize I can make that happen.”

​Through squinted eyes, Theny Carlisle slid a sullen sideways glance over at the woman threatening her from the driver’s seat of the Caravan. And for the briefest of moments, Theny mentally ticked through the list of all the things she really didn’t know about her mother’s life before she’d been domesticated. Susannah Carlisle’s meek appearance could fool most anyone, making her the next-to-last person one might expect to make such threats. Petite with large doe-eyes and flowing brown hair, Theny thought her mom looked faintly…Amish.

Minus the bonnet.

Or the dress.

But with make-up.

Oh—and a tattoo.

On her neck.

Of a skull.

Driving a minivan.

Okay…Maybe not so much Amish.

​“You don’t know what it’s like, Mom,” Theny huffed and took to her iPhone.

​“Oh, don’t I? I think you’ve forgotten that I, too, was in high school once.”

​“Mom—seriously. You’re such a f…” Theny managed to catch the word ‘fossil’ right before it slid off the end of her tongue. She was in deep enough doo-doo as it was.

​“I’m such a what?”

​Theny swallowed, paused. “You’re such a…a…f-fine public speaker. So you wouldn’t understand.”

​With her thumbs poised over the phone’s screen, Theny gasped as her mother reached over from the driver’s seat and grabbed the phone from her death grip. Where had she honed such cat-like reflexes? The woman was quick. Impressive. Like a greased cheetah.

“PLEASE text me…so bored…riding shotgun with…the Fossil…,” Susannah read with the device propped on the steering wheel, seemingly unfazed by the F-word.

​“Hey—no texting and driving, Mom. Remember…‘It can wait.’”

“You are giving that speech, Betheny Jane Carlisle. And that’s final.”

“Speech? We could have died just then,” Theny scowled out the windshield.

​“Well then,” Susannah said with an evil grin, tucking the confiscated device into her shirt pocket. “I guess that’d be one down, nine-hundred-ninety-nine to go.”​


​“And I quote—‘I’d rather die a thousand deaths’—End quote.”

Theny sighed and let her head fall back against the headrest. It rolled to the right and smacked the rider-side-window. “Admit it, Mom,” she mumbled with her cheek pressed to the glass. “You were Mafioso before you met Dad.”

My comments:

This first page has some notable strengths–I like the strong sense of the young girl’s voice, and the equally strong opposing voice of the mother’s character. Other aspects of the scene had me a bit confused.

Where the heck are we?

The unusual name “Theny,” plus the reference to the mother’s character as having been “domesticated” made me think we’re reading a scene from a dystopian story set in  the future. But then, other references, “iPhone,” “Amish,” “(Dodge) Caravan,” undid that first assumption, leaving me feeling confused. Where (and when) are we, exactly, in this scene?

Keep every stimulus with its corresponding reaction

This scene starts off with the phrase, “I’d rather die a thousand deaths.” We have no idea what that dialogue refers to until much later, when the mother finally says, “You are giving that speech…” And even then, we have to surmise the implied association. Overall, this is a confusing setup. By the time the reader figures out what these characters are talking about, she may have lost interest. Keep every stimulus in your story closely associated with its corresponding reaction (you can also think in terms of keeping every cause with its associated effect). In this scene, we wander all over the place (the lengthy descriptions of the mother, tattoo, dress, makeup, etc.) before we learn what the heck these two characters are arguing about.

Don’t let readers make wrong assumptions

What kind of speech are the characters discussing in this scene? We need to get that information as early as possible, as well as a sense of why Theny is resisting the idea of giving the speech. Readers tend to “fill in” missing information by making their own assumptions. (For example, I assumed Theny is supposed to give a valedictorian address, but that assumption may be wrong.)  Don’t let readers wander down a wrong path by withholding specific information that they need to know. (Another example of this is when a writer introduces a character without physical specifics, and later refers to her as a brunette. That would be jarring to readers who had “filled in” the specifics by visualizing her with blonde hair.)

Use appropriate language for each character

I liked the way the daughter’so dialogue is written–it seems appropriate for a character in her teens. But then, when the daughter’s thoughts describe her mother, the language seems to belong to a much older speaker. “ reflexes.” “Greased cheetah.” (“Greased cheetah” didn’t work for me, in general, btw. Nor did “ice skating buffalo”.)

Avoid confusing interruptions and transitions

I got lost during the back and forth about the iPhone and texting. For example, when I first read “Theny took to her iPhone”, I didn’t understand until rereading that she had started writing a text message. Then we have an interjection of dialogue from Susannah, “PLEASE text me..” without establishing a sense that it is now Susannah who is speaking. When you shift gears from one character to another, you need to make sure the reader stays with you.

A minor note: I also got thrown by the “F” word discussion. “Fossil” seems a very tame “F” word for Theny to be worried about using.


I sense the development of strong characters and an interesting story in this first page. Avoid unnecessary distractions, and keep going! And thanks to our brave writer for submitting this page for review!

Do you have feedback for today’s writer? Please add your thoughts in the Comments.


11 thoughts on “First Page Critique: INDELIBLE

  1. Overall, I like it. It has a nice snapping quality and thank you deities, unlike too much YA, is not written in present tense. That gets two thumbs up from me right there.

    Delete “through squinted eyes.” The next sentence, about the side-eye tells all that is needed.

    I agree with Katherine that the kerfuffle over “fossil” seems a bit overblown, but it’s not terrible.

    I would kill the rhetorical “where has she honed such cat-like reflexes.” It is really internal dialogue stuck in the middle of the paragraph. Either separate it out, or kill it. I do like greased cheetah and the water buffalo, it seems teenish.

    As for the speech. It seems like the first line is hung there as a red herring. a gotcha. Nah, not needed. You can deal with it by mom saying, “I can make that happen if you punk out on this speech today.”

    I’m guessing this is going to morph into a “my mom was/is a spy” and mayhem will ensue. I like that as well.

    Good snappy page. Keep it up. So far, I would turn the page.


  2. Yes, what is it with YA and present tense nowadays? When did that lamentable (at least to me) trend start? Granted, I’m not the target audience. I’d be interested in hearing from some of our YA gurus how and when that got started.

  3. Like you, I’m left confused. The combination of “I hope you realize I can make that happen.” after the die a thousand quote followed by the reference to the mother’s “domestication” led me straight down the SF path. This is followed by mundane, albeit nice sounding, mother-daughter banter. I have no idea what this story is about, or what the real conflict is, ’cause the speech ain’t it. I did like the use of short sentences for effect. It was an entertaining description of her mother, and indicates potential from the writer. I like the idea of the conversation, and IMO the author can effectively write dialogue, but I’m not sure if this speech banter in a minivan is the right topic for the first page of the story. Repeating myself, it’s too mundane. I can remember hearing lines like “Oh, don’t I? I think you’ve forgotten that I, too, was in high school once.” so many times from my parents that I roll my eyes when I see them in novels (or tv, or movies). I would suggest something more germane to the real story and less humdrum in its place. “took to her iphone” is awkward and needs rephrasing. “Fossil” and “doo doo”? Pretty tame. “Fossil” doesn’t sound like a teenager, and I would just edit out “doo doo”; the sentence has the same meaning without stating what she is deep enough in.

    I hope I don’t seem too critical here. I think the author has a strong voice, and that there is potential, and that this first page is a perfect example of how hard writing is, and how important editing and rewriting are to the craft.

  4. Also: having seen cheetahs run in the wild I can assure you they are plenty fast on their own!

    • I agree that there’s a nice ear for dialogue here–that’s a real plus. Thanks for commenting, catfriend!

  5. I liked a lot about the writing. It felt quick, which is a good thing. There were only a few minor things to nitpick. For me, I like the first line of dialogue of each character to be clearly attributed. It’s a little too long until we find out she’s talking to her mother. And Theny was such an unusual name that I didn’t immediately know the gender. Plenty of male names end in ‘y’ like Tony and Johnny. I didn’t mind ‘ice-skating buffalo’ or ‘greased-cheetah’ as it helped establish tone. But four sentences to say how quick her mother’s reflexes were was at least one too many for me. I’d delete ‘rider-side’ and just write window as we’ve already established the mother was driving. And I’ve never met anyone with a neck tattoo who I’d describe as having a meek appearance. Lastly, if this is a story about the mother being a spy, assassin or something like that then I’d like her dialogue to be a little more unusual and less mum-like. But overall, really good.

  6. Clarity is Rule #1 for me, and because I was confused, not only at the beginning, but in many places throughout the text, I wouldn’t have read any further.

    Some of the similes/metaphors were distracting. I’d use fewer of them (said by someone who once had three conflicting similes in the same paragraph! I learned.)

    However, the writer already has a voice, which is rare indeed, and an ear for dialogue. I would hate to think that any criticism would discourage this writer from keeping at it. Go for it!

  7. I was confused from the beginning. The dialogue between mother and daughter (and it took time for me to realize it was a mother-daughter situation in the front seat of a car) didn’t tell me what was really going on between them. The title was also confusing to me. The story does have potential and could be much better with the feedback provided. Kudos to any writer brave enough to submit a first page. We learn so much from honest critique.

  8. Hi
    I think there’s some great feedback here, but if I may add:
    For me, the description of the mother over many lines lost impact. I think it would have been better to stick to a few. Also, in this section of the story the lines all flow until ‘Driving a minivan’ – considering that all of the lines had full stops after them, but continued on from each other, it’s an easy mistake to read it as the skull is driving the minivan. I had to read it twice.
    Well done to the writer for submitting!

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