First Page Critique for Instrument of the Devil

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Smartphone image - free license from Wikipedia Commons

Smartphone image – free license from Wikipedia Commons

Please enjoy Instrument of the Devil, submitted anonymously for feedback. My comments are on the flip side.

INSTRUMENT OF THE DEVIL – A suspense thriller

“Instrument of the devil!” Tawny Lindholm glared at the new smartphone that her well-meaning son had sent for her fiftieth birthday. “I can’t even figure out how to call for help.”

 
The glossy black screen reflected her scowl while a musical tone dinged. What did that mean? She had tapped, swiped, and imitated other gestures she’d watched people make while zipping around the screens of their phones. They got directions, played games, texted, and now and then, made a plain old phone call. It looked so simple.

 
The screen remained blank, indifferent to her frustration. “If someone calls me, I don’t even know how to answer you.” The damn thing had her talking to herself.

 
A different tone chimed five times. Was this an incoming call? Or had she accidentally told the thing to launch a missile?

 
While Dwight was sick, she’d used a simple cell phone, no problem. Flip it open, punch in numbers, and connect with doctors, the oxygen company, friends, and finally, on a July night nine months ago, the funeral home.

 
Tawny didn’t need this monster that barely fit in her palm.

 
The bubble package came from an online retailer with a printed message on the address label. Happy Birthday, Mom. Love, Neal. She couldn’t even return it to a local store. If it hadn’t been a gift from him, she would gladly have smashed it against the wall. She still might.

 
She decided to name the thing Lucifer.

 
She sat at the breakfast bar, fingering a postcard that had arrived in the mail, along with the birthday package. Baffled by your smartphone? Free class. Easy, fun, impress your grandchildren. If she went, she’d be the dumbest one there. But how else could she learn? No instruction booklet had come with the phone.

 
The oldies station Dwight had liked played in the kitchen. The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” faded out. “I’m begging someone to put me out of my misery,” she answered the radio.

 
The announcer came on, promoting the same free class described on the postcard. Tawny turned up the volume. “Learn how to operate your smartphone. Tonight, seven o’clock, at the library in downtown Kalispell.”

 
First, the postcard, now the radio ad. Someone was sending a message. Might as well pay attention. Besides, what else did she have to do, except sit home in a silent house, listening to mysterious beeps and whistles on the phone?

 

Feedback:

1.) This intro is for a suspense thriller. but it reads more like a cozy mystery to me since it starts off with an almost funny scene of a woman trying to navigate a new cell phone.(I could definitely relate.) The title – Instrument of the Devil – seems to refer to the phone itself. Presumably if the cell had a previous owner, who carries a pitch fork and dons horns, the plot could turn into something scarier than the latest Google app. We only have 400 words or so to make a determination if we want to read further, so every word is a precious opportunity to snag the attention of an editor, agent, or a reader. In my opinion, this intro sends a mixed message, if the author intends for this to be a thriller.

2.) The narrative starts with the woman already dealing with her confusion over the new cell, yet later in the story describes how the cell came packaged in bubble wrap, which takes us back to when she first received it. I found that a bit jolting so I would recommend “the bubble package” line be moved to the start so the action reads in order and creates a bit of mystery for what’s in the package.

3.) I liked how the author inserted a quick backstory bit about Dwight and how this poor woman had been dealing with a sick husband who later died. The whole sad incident was expressed in terms of the cell phone. Clever. So I would recommend the mystery package arrival be quickly followed by the woman’s tragedy, so the reader is even more sympathetic.

4.) Everyone knows a cell phone does NOT come set up. If this one did, the author should play that up for a bigger mystery to draw the reader in. The way it reads now, it seems as if the author made a mistake on how phones usually come or makes Tawny seem foolish not to question the obvious.

Example:

Tawny Lindholm stared down at the opened package and sighed. She would never have ordered it. A smart phone came bubble wrapped from an online retailer with a printed message on the address label. Happy Birthday, Mom. Love, Neal. Her well-meaning son had sent it for her fiftieth birthday. She couldn’t even return it to a local store. If it hadn’t been a gift from him, she would gladly have found a way to get his money back. She still might.

While her husband Dwight was sick, she’d used a simple cell phone, no problem. Flip it open, punch in numbers, and connect with doctors, the oxygen company, friends, and finally, on a July night nine months ago, the funeral home.

Tawny didn’t need a phone smarter than she was, one that barely fit in her palm. Still, she might’ve given it a try if it came with instructions. For heaven’s sake.

“Instrument of the devil!” Tawny glared at the new cell. “Whoever set you up should’ve known I needed help. I can’t even figure out how to make a call.”

The glossy black screen reflected her scowl while a musical tone dinged. What did that mean? Who had set up her new phone…and why didn’t it have instructions?

“Oh, this is ridiculous.”

She had tapped, swiped, and imitated other gestures she’d watched people make while zipping around the screens of their phones. They got directions, played games, texted, and now and then, made a plain old phone call. It looked so simple.

The screen remained blank, indifferent to her frustrated prodding. “I wouldn’t even know how to answer you.” The damn thing had her talking to herself.
A different tone chimed five times. Was this an incoming call? Or had she accidentally told the thing to launch a missile?

Without an operating manual, she’d be dead in the water. She sat at the breakfast bar, fingering the only reading material she had on the phone. A postcard had arrived in the mail, along with the birthday package. Baffled by your smartphone? Free class. Easy, fun, impress your grandchildren.

Tawny shook her head. If she went, she’d be the dumbest one there. But how else could she learn without an instruction booklet?

 
The oldies station Dwight had liked played in the kitchen. The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” faded out. “I’m begging someone to put me out of my misery,” she answered the radio.

 
The announcer came on, promoting the same free class described on the postcard. Tawny furrowed her brow and turned up the volume. “Learn how to operate your smartphone. Tonight, seven o’clock, at the library in downtown Kalispell.”

 
First, the postcard, now the radio ad. Someone was sending a message. Might as well pay attention. Besides, what else did she have to do, except sit home in a silent house, listening to mysterious beeps and whistles on her annoying new phone?

 

What about you, TKZers? Any feedback for this brave author? Would you keep reading?

3+
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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

21 thoughts on “First Page Critique for Instrument of the Devil

  1. No, it doesn’t read like a standard thriller opening, but I found it refreshing. I can relate to this woman. The writing was quite good and her character realistic. The radio announcement was so out of place that I immediately knew something supernatural was going on. If not, then the author is in trouble. But I suspect that something evil is afoot.

    As a side note, I’d like to see more authors breaking a few genre rules, especially when it comes to opening scenes. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve read this before. Nice work. I’d buy it.

  2. I laughed out loud at the opening. I thought from the title that we’d have a thriller, perhaps supernatural. Then we have the opening line … and it’s about a smartphone!

    The only suggestion I’d make here is to cut the second line of dialogue (really monologue), and the later one, too. (“If someone calls me…”) People talking to themselves in fiction almost always sounds phony to me. The first line is OK because it’s a short outburst of frustration. The last one (to the radio) I’d convert to an inner thought.

    Love that she named it Lucifer.

    The title says thriller. The first page feels like, as Jordan suggests, a cozy of the comedic type. That’s fine to ths point, because you’ve given the character a nice voice. But if this is going to be a thriller get into the bad stuff now, the portents, the danger, the fear … something, or you may confuse the reader. I like Ron’s suggestion about bending a rule or two, for the surprise element. But you always have to balance that with genre conventions, which the readers, after all, expect when choosing by genre. Unless you want to “go for broke” as it were, which is an artistic call that has both risk and reward.

    This author has a good command of style, so get the MC into some hot water next and I’ll keep reading.

    • I liked the voice too, Jim. But as you say, we could use some hot water pronto.

      I have my own Lucifer btw. Took me awhile to set it up for all the bells & whistles it has. I might have liked the devil working his dark magic if it had come set up right out of the box.

  3. I agree that the piece doesn’t feel like a thriller at all–feels more like a cozy, as you said, or even chick lit, and since I love reading thrillers, I’d likely not read any more if I were looking for a thriller to read. “A story is a promise” (Bill Johnson), and this one doesn’t deliver for me.

    If the incoming message is a threat of some kind or mysterious (which I missed, BTW, until I read the prior comment), I’d be more inclined to start the piece with the message playing a role in the first paragraph, i.e., to raise a story question right up front. This might be a better hook and even a bit of an inciting incident (although not THE Inciting Incident), and would set up a feeling of story movement better, in my opinion.

    However, I loved the humor (e.g., launch a missile, giving the phone a name, a phone smarter than she is, etc.)

    A point about readers who don’t use smart phones. I’m home almost all of the time; I don’t need one, so the “unusual” elements of this particular phone and how it’s set up already, etc. went completely over my head, i.e., I missed the elements of mystery relating to the phone. Call me a dinosaur, but given that a huge demographic for thriller readers are people over 50, I’d find a way to make the differences clearer.

    Although I connected a bit with the character because of the humor and her frustration with the technology, I’d like to connect with her more than I did. The only emotion I see is frustration (and I didn’t need to be told – “indifferent to her frustration” might be better without the word ‘frustration.’) I’m wondering if it would be appropriate in the context to see a bit of grief over the loss of her husband. This might create a bit more empathy for the character… and according to your Larry Brooks, empathy is key.

    As someone who used to read a lot of submissions, I doubt I would have read more than a few paragraphs. Here are some of the picky things that might put off an agent: opening with dialogue, the exclamation mark in the first para, the timing and paucity of setting details (should come sooner, in my opinion, and I think the author missed the chance to use those setting details to reveal more about social class and character, perhaps even her occupation), possibly a tendency to overuse interrogatives, etc. None of these elements is necessarily fatal, of course, but the cumulative effect might be. Most of all, if the opening scene isn’t as structurally sound as it could be, agents might well suspect that the overall story is structurally weak, too.

    The good news is that the writer has an emerging voice.

  4. It’s an adorable first page, but therein lies the problem for me. With that title and “thriller” I kept waiting for something horrible to happen. That said, the voice is great. If this is truly a thriller, I’d love to see that phone do something unexpected. Or, have a bit more mystery surrounding why it’s set up and who sent it. Perhaps, her son calls and tells her he didn’t send it. But do it soon. As a cozy, it’s perfect. The author obviously has skills.

    • If the author hadn’t included “suspense thriller” in the title, I would’ve assumed a different genre for sure. Although I could relate to the frustration in technology, I expected more from this intro, something foreboding or a foreshadowing of the “hot water” ahead. Thanks Sue.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this first page and I would read further. I do agree with the consensus here that the page didn’t read like suspense thriller. I was expecting some major twist since the author took care to name the phone “Lucifer”. Any time you invoke the devil’s name I’m expecting bad things. But nothing really happened.

    I think the most suspenseful thing was the radio announcement coming at that exact time—I don’t know how big Kalispell is–probably on the smaller side of towns so maybe that kind of coincidence is more likely, but in a big market, the odds are a million to one against on hearing a specific radio advertisement at a precise time like that.

    I also agree with an earlier commenter who stated that not everyone knows Smart phones. I still have a stupid phone (and don’t want an update) so I wouldn’t know how they ship, whether or not they come set up, etc. All I know is modern technology is annoying, which is why I could greatly identify with the reader.

    I loved the humor (ie. the missile) and the writer’s voice. I also thought it was unusual to find a 50 year old named Tawny (was she a former pole dancer? *-)

    It may not have spoken suspense/thriller to me but there are enough interesting pieces of the puzzle and the appeal of the author’s voice to make me read on.

  6. I’m going to be the contrarian here. I had real problems with this opening. I just don’t buy that a 50 year old woman in 2015 (or 2016, or 2017, if this were when the book were released) would be completely clueless and incompetent to figure anything at all out on a smartphone. Maybe she wouldn’t figure out all the bells and whistles, but basic operation she should be able to handle, especially since she has used at least a basic cell phone before. Does she have no friends with modern phones? Even Hutterites in Montana have cell phones! Kalispell may not be New York, but it is still part of the modern world. And a class?? If one is really that clueless, and, again, I don’t buy this, one could always take it to the service provider (and if it’s chiming there’s a service provider) for a quick lesson.

    Is this supposed to be the Christine of the smartphone world? If not, then why would you spend your first page, your hook to the readers, going on about a cell phone? I really can’t get past this.

    Last week, in response to one of the first page entries, someone suggested that the author wasn’t entering the story at the right point, and others agreed. I’m going to suggest that for this story as well. I don’t know what the story here is, but IMHO dwelling on the arrival of a phone can’t be the best entry point for it.

    Sorry to be so contrary, especially since others seem to like it so much more than I do, but I just don’t buy it.

    • I tend to agree with you on where this story begins. Without knowing more, it’s hard to make a thriller oriented start using a cell phone idea like this one. I rearranged the flow of the story but used the author’s original wording as much as possible to keep the voice, but I’d love to know more about this story to explore if there’s a better place to begin.

      Many comments referred to the appeal of the humor but like you, I feel the heroine shouldn’t be so clueless as to ignore the phone is setup already. I would think that could be an opportunity to foreshadow. Thanks, Catfriend.

  7. I did like the voice. I realize we are supposed to feel the woman’s frustration, but I think there is a missed opportunity here.

    “Instrument of the devil!” Tawny Lindholm glared at the new smartphone that her well-meaning son had sent for her fiftieth birthday. “I can’t even figure out how to call for help.”

    This line gave me the impression that the character was in need of “help” so I was kind of waiting for something to ‘be happening’. I am not suggesting she be in trouble because that would change the flavor of the opening, but a first line with her trying to use the phone – calling her son to thank him (or curse him out) for the phone – but she can’t seem to get to the actual ‘make a call’ screen’ – then she can think how if she needed to she couldn’t even figure out how to call for help. I think that could anchor the reader more into the scene and her frustration and, with your voice, an added layer of humor.

    I didn’t find myself interested in reading more, that is until the announcer talks about smartphone classes and so did the postcard – classes are unusual and the coincidence peeked my interest. Nice job getting me back into the story.

    I love that you bring up the fact that it doesn’t come with directions – that is so true and any reader who remembers their first smartphone will definitely relate.

    It doesn’t open like a thriller, but I do think that it will be important for the reader to know that ‘thriller’ isn’t how the character usually spends her days before whatever the crap is going to be starts to hit the fan.

    Side story – my father is 93 and LOVES TECHNOLOGY so he has a smartphone and he is always pushing buttons – “Just to see what will happen.” So a while back I was driving and he was sitting in the passenger seat playing with his phone when it started to make this loud sound and he tossed it down on the floorboard, looks at me and says, “I didn’t do it.” I said, “No, you didn’t, that’s the emergency broadcast signal and if you wouldn’t mind picking up the phone and telling me what the emergency is I would appreciated it.” – flash flooding.

  8. After rereading this, I realized if she’s as clueless on technology as is portrayed here, how would she know it’s a smart phone? My smart phone doesn’t have a description telling me it is “smart.” The cell display in this intro states that the screen is black. If it is beeping & making sounds, it is on.

    I can see an out of touch person trying to punch buttons, rather than double tapping the touch screen, because their old phone probably wasn’t touch screen.

    But if there wasn’t an instruction manual to describe the cell phone, how would Tawny know it had smart technology?

    Lots of people have smart phones these days, no matter what their age. An author still has to think through the operational details and get it right, otherwise they’d run the risk of losing the reader on pg 1. Plus most editors & agents have tons of experience with smart phones. If this intro doesn’t ring true to them, they could dismiss the submission right off the bat.

  9. I would have liked to have seen the phone come up with a message about taking the class instead of the postcard and radio ad. Perhaps the message addresses her by name to show that this phone is ‘different’ and Tawny wondering how smart a smartphone really is to know her name already.
    And definitely change that name. I like to use a baby name app and go back to popular names for the year the character was born to chose one, unless an unusual name is more appropriate for the character.
    The paragraph that begins with her sitting at the breakfast bar felt like a change of time and place, but then reads like a continuation from the previous ones. It’s a bit late in the writing to establish place at the ninth paragraph.
    I do like the humour in it, but it is difficult to do in a thriller. But I tend not to like books completely devoid of humour. Even in the worst circumstances of life you can find humour.
    It piqued my interest enough to want to continue reading.

  10. I too am having some difficulty buying that the narrator is only 50. I’m 55 and highly computer proficient. Especially with the death of her husband (and references to oxygen, etc.) She reads more like 60 – 65. Even the word “Lucifer” sounds anachronistic, like something my grandma would have said in her 70s. Also lines about learning to use your phone to impress your grandchildren. She sounds old.

    I half-expected her to say “new-fangled.”

    But definitely a cozy voice. It is charming and funny and I like your suggestions. This is really sounding more paranormal and cozy than thriller. Great voice.

  11. I confess to submitting this first page.

    On page 3, Tawny meets the handsome, charming male lead. At page 6, the reader learns HE sent Tawny the rigged smartphone to set her up as the innocent pawn in a terrorist plot. Her “cozy” life changes to psychological thriller as the villain romances her deeper into peril.

    Thank you, Jordan, and all the other posters, for your thoughtful observations and objective feedback. I really appreciate your time, effort, and help!

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