First Page Critique: Fallen From Grace

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Wikipedia Public Domain

Wikipedia Public Domain

A brave author has anonymously submitted the first 450 words of their work for critique. Read and enjoy. I’ll provide my comments on the flipside. Please feel free to give your constructive criticism in your comments to help this author with feedback.

***

When I first walked in, I hadn’t seen the guy who tried to kill me four years earlier.

I’d squeezed past the wooden tables, threw a nod the bartender’s way, and then walked around a railing to the right side. This is where all the pool tables were arranged. Usually the place was empty, but tonight, two middle-aged guys looked to be finishing a game while a couple of young girls played while laughing on about something at another table on the opposite side. The whacking of pool balls clacked over the country music that babbled over static from a stereo fixed on the wall.

I chose the lone pool table in the rear corner of the pool hall, like usual, and shrugged off my coat. The place was dark, but wide cones of light shone down on the pool tables from a light fixture above. I began retrieving the cue balls from the pockets and setting up the table.

When I’d glanced up, debating on a beer, my eyes snagged on him. I couldn’t see much more than a shadow. The place was dark, except for the cones of light that shone down on the pool tables from above. At first all I saw was his body darkened by the dimness of the pool hall. He was bigger than most men, and perfectly still, like a mannequin. It was perhaps unusual, but not worth focusing on. My mind didn’t pay him attention for too long. After a second had passed, it had wandered on to other thoughts.

It wasn’t until my eyes adjusted to the darkness a few minutes later that I saw him in more, this time in more detail.

He was slumped in a chair too small for him, taking small measured sips from a glass of amber liquid. It was a face coarse like alligator hide, broad and mean looking, with a small forehead cut deep with hard frown lines and cheeks pitted with craters. The face sloped and rounded down to a strong cleft chin peppered with stubble. The eyes, dark and cold like bullet holes, glared my way.

It was the kind of face you’d pick out of a line-up even if you weren’t sure that was the guy who was guilty. It was a face I knew all too well.

***

Feedback:

1.) Opener POV Issue – The first sentence has a point of view problem. Can you see it? How can the character “know” the man who tried to kill him is in the pool hall when he hadn’t seen him? I’m sure the first sentence is intended to grip the reader with the mystery of the deadly conflict between these two men and set up the tension, but unfortunately the POV issue deflated it for me from the start.

2,) Pull The Reader In – Having a gripping first line isn’t enough if the next two paragraphs (or a POV error in that first sentence) defuse all the tension and work against any imagery that might have been established. The next two paragraphs go into the setting, but the descriptions are vague and add nothing to the mood of the scene. It’s like the author is doing an inventory of the room to paint a picture that would have been more effective if the voice of the character had been more colorful and expressed more of an opinion of the pool hall’s patrons and decor, or added mystery. I recommend a strong opening line, followed by more intrigue to pull the reader in with mystery elements, in this case. Otherwise the opener is totally forgettable.

REWRITE Example: I hadn’t been back to Rudy’s Pool Hall since the day I almost died in this dump. I stubbed out my fourth cigarette as I leaned against my truck in the parking lot and made up my mind that I had to do it. I had to walk inside and see for myself. It wasn’t about daring fate to take another shot at me, A man had to face his demons, even if one of those demons outweighed him by fifty pounds. 

This rewrite suggestion creates an unexplained mystery of what happened years ago and hints of another man who is bigger than him. It also establishes the gender of the POV character as male. His 4th smoke shows he’s nervous and is building up courage to go inside. Once he’s inside, it’s already set up that he’s looking for someone and is haunted my his memories. Build on that. The author could set the scene of what the pool hall looks like, but never forget the tension. Let it build.

3.) First Person POV Has Gender Challenge – When an author chooses to write in first person POV, it’s important to try and establish the gender of the main character before the reader gets into the story too much. In this case I assumed this is a man, but nothing in this intro actually reveals that. This could easily be a woman.

4.) Where the Scene Starts – The scene might start with the 4th paragraph, the sentence that starts with “When I’d glanced up, debating on a beer, my eyes snagged on him.” This is the first place where the character truly sees his nemesis. The author might build up to this moment but creating a setting of a seedy pool hall. Why is the character there? Is he to meet someone? From the writing, I presume the guy is a pool player who comes to the place often. But maybe the mystery from the start could be that he hasn’t returned to this place since he almost died there.

5.) Redundant Imagery & Research Problems – In paragraph 3, there’s a line that is repeated in the next paragraph. The description is “cones of light shone down on the pool tables above.” Also, the last line in that paragraph describes the guy retrieving cue balls from the pockets. Big research error right out of the gate. There is only one cue ball and it is solid white. If this character is to be construed as an experienced player, the author must do research into the game of pool and know the basics that most people would know. I grew up with a pool table in my house. When we weren’t playing the game, my mom folded laundry on a field of green.

6.) The Wandering Mind – At the end of paragraph 4, I had to reread the last line. I usually try to rethink the use of the word “it” and clarify the subject so readers don’t have to be jolted from the book. In this case, the “it” should’ve been “my mind.” But this sentence reads as if this man has no control over his mind. His brain “wanders” without him being involved (ie. My mind didn’t pay him attention for too long.)

7.) Grip The Reader with Physical Reactions – The line “It wasn’t until my eyes adjusted to the darkness a few minutes later that I saw him in more, this time in more detail” needs rewriting to delete the typos, tighten it up and add more drama. What is the character’s physical reaction to seeing him at this moment? If the author wants to add the proper emotion to this scene, add that physical reaction to grip the reader.

8.) Setting Works Against the Drama of the Moment – The description of the menacing face in the pool hall is effective when it’s finally spelled out, but after the author has established how dark the place is, it made me wonder how much detail could actually be seen. Maybe have the guy stand up or lean into the light when he sees the main character.

With a rewrite, this first scene might establish the mystery of this confrontation and it certainly makes me intrigued over what happened in the past. I would recommend a more foreboding start that establishes this pool hall has a dark past for the character, but he goes there anyway. Don’t over-explain at the start. Pull the reader in with morsels of mystery that makes readers want to know more, like how the character is searching the darkness – for what? Be patient with luring the reader into the story. Set the mood, add a mystery, then climax with the final confrontation of that face.

What do you think, TKZers? Please provide feedback in your comments.

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“When FBI profiler Ryker Townsend sleeps, the hunt begins.” The Last Victim now available in print and ebook. Sales links HERE.

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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

22 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Fallen From Grace

  1. The author should also decide if s/he’s writing in deep 1st (which might make this opener more intriguing), because if s/he is, the words see, knew, and the like are telling words. Jordan, you’re rewrite makes me want to read on. That said, if the author deepens the emotional connection and takes Jordan’s stellar advice, this could be an intriguing opening scene.

    • I like your thoughts on deep POV, Sue. Spot on. Deep POV adds color and greater insight into what the character is feeling as he/she walks into the scene. Adding deeper emotion in the first half would definitely help build trepidation and foreshadow the confrontation better. Thanks for your comment, Sue

  2. Re: the opening. Technically, you can say you DIDN’T see the guy who tried to kill you, since you’re the narrator and you’re writing in traditional past tense, so you know what’s already happened. It’s similar to the “If I only knew” move, which you should use sparingly. My greater problem is with the word HADN’T. It’s simply not grammatically correct.

    The next paragraph has HAD as well, in I’D.

    Here’s a tip: Avoid the “had” construction as much as possible, esp. in the beginning. HAD stops forward motion. We want to be in the moment. HAD can be used later on, perhaps to get us into a flashback….but after the first “had” you don’t need it! Write in simple past tense.

    When I walked in I didn’t see the guy who tired to kill me four years earlier.

    I squeezed past the wooden tables, threw a nod to the bartender…

    I like that opening. For the rest, do some editing along the lines suggest by Jordan, and I’d be tempted to read on.

  3. One thing I look for in my writing is body parts doing strange things. The phrase “My eyes snagged,” jarred me out of the story. Eyes can’t snag on something without a rather painful mess occurring. I search for the word “eyes” in my drafts and make sure they aren’t doing impossible things like popping out, etc.

  4. Agree with all your great feedback, Jordan – for me the first line threw me right from the start but as I warmed up to the piece I could definitely see potential. The edits/feedback suggested so far would improve this piece and I would definitely keep reading then.

  5. Opener POV Issue – The first sentence has a point of view problem. Can you see it? How can the character “know” the man who tried to kill him is in the pool hall when he hadn’t seen him?

    My response to the response: well, at what point didn’t the POV character know the failed killer? When the POV character walked into the room? Or in the past perfect time, back when the guy tried to kill him.

    I admit it’s not real clear. But there is still room for the POV character to say when he did not know the failed killer.

    • It’s not that he didn’t know him. It’s that he didn’t see him. So the paradox is: how can you “know” the bad guy is in the room if you can’t “see” him?

      Whether a reader is confused by this line or not, the next 2-3 paragraphs of scene description detract from any suspense or mystery because they dilute the tension immediately. The opening line falls flat.

      Thanks for your take, Jim.

  6. As a noir fan, I agree with Clare about the good potential. With some tweaks, I’d keep reading.

    To me, the most intriguing part was the description of the would-be killer. That’s one bad dude and I’d suggest starting with the MC seeing him right away, rather than so much scene setting. Also the pool hall appears to be the MC’s regular turf (“Usually the place was empty”), so the tension builds not only b/c the man tried to kill the MC, now he’s showed up to intrude into his/her territory.

    Perhaps:

    I didn’t even have time to order a beer after I walked into Sleazy’s Pool Hall for my regular Tuesday night solo game before I saw the man who tried to kill me four years earlier.

    He sat perfectly still, like a mannequin, slumped in a chair too small for him, taking small measured sips from a glass of amber liquid. His face had the texture of alligator hide, broad and mean looking, with a small forehead cut deep with hard frown lines and cheeks pitted with craters. The face sloped and rounded down to a strong cleft chin peppered with stubble. The eyes, dark and cold like bullet holes, glared my way.

    It was the kind of face you’d pick out of a line-up even if you weren’t sure the guy was guilty. A face I knew all too well.

    Best of luck to this brave writer!

  7. This author has real potential. Keep on writinig. I like Jim’s rewrite for the opening. Calling a bar a “dump” is a noir cliche and I’ve been in enough of them to know. The author spends too much time describing the bar interior in the first couple of paragraphs. And I agree with the other commentators — watch those eyes. “When I’d glanced up, debating on a beer, my eyes snagged on him.” I’ve read bestselling authors whose characters’ eyes “slid across the room,” “rolled” and did other distracting movements.

  8. Oh my…I stopped cold right after “I’d…”
    I get what the writer was going for here but opening with the “had” construction immediately made me wonder what was going on, and not in a good way. Am I in the present? Am I in his memories of a past event? I had to plow on through a couple more sentences to figure it out for sure. As Jordan suggests, just open with an honest “A guy comes into the bar and sees the assassin” beginning.

    Also, I had some trouble figuring out what was going on in the protag’s head. He has spotted a man who tried to kill him, right? Yet, we get this line: “My mind didn’t pay him attention for too long. After a second had passed, it had wandered on to other thoughts.” Suddenly, he didn’t care? I THINK the writer means to say that at first he didn’t recognize him as the assassin but because of the odd “had” construction, it is unclear. There are other strange things going on here, like the protag is in the bar long enough to shuck off his coat and rack the pool balls, but then “minutes later” his eyes adjust to the dim light to make out the bad guy. Makes no sense. I know this sounds like nit-picking but it goes to creating credible mood and believability for me.

    One more little thing: I’m not a fan of openings that begin with “when.” (“When I fiirst walked in….” “When I’d glanced up…” ) Correct me if I’m wrong, grammar mavens, but it’s a conjunction when used like this, no? Regardless, it feels too formal, leisurely even, at odds with the tone of intrigue and possible danger the writer is going for. It’s a flabby un-dynamic word to open a story. Ditto I don’t think you want to opening with “As I walked…” “Whenever I thought…” “Although I knew it was wrong…”

    I recognize this conjunction thing is an ongoing debate and I might be in a minority here. I don’t mind them used in a novel in general. Sometimes they can add a punch. But I question the usage in the opening line. I think that here, “when” weakens the graph.

  9. “I’d squeezed” bothered me grammatically and while I continued to read, I spotted other edits I would have made. The story, as written, did not grab me at all. But I loved Jordan Dane’s rewrite. Spot on. Someday soon, I will be brave enough to submit a First Page…..not quite yet though:) Love your site.
    Frances

    • I hope you do submit sometime, Frances. Feedback doesn’t mean you need to change anything. You take advice if it makes sense to you and keep an open mind on craft ideas. Thanks for commenting.

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