First Page Critique of MOONSTONE

Jordan Dane

Cry baby Truss ZF-9327-85193-1-001


Another courageous author has submitted the first 400 words of a work-in-progress anonymously for critique. Read and enjoy. See you on the flip side with my comments, then join me with yours.


Waterford, MN
June 4, 1994

By the light of the moon you can catch fireflies, or sit by a campfire watching the embers drift upward toward the stars. By the light of the moon you can stroll down a dirt road, or just sit on a back porch with a tall glass of iced tea. By the light of the moon you can propose marriage, or just leave your lover.

And by the light of the moon, if you have a shovel, you can try to bury your past.

That’s exactly what Jack Cicero had in mind, on this night in early June. The sun had already dipped below the horizon, and the full moon was threatening to make an early appearance. As he ducked under the oak trees, darkness shrouded him, causing him to have to use his flashlight which lit up the area like a beacon. All of his senses went into high alert. He pushed his thick eye glasses tighter on his nose. He strained his ears to listen for the sounds of approaching cars. The night was silent except for sounds of the Snake River choking itself on the rocks in its path; and the pounding of his own blood in his head.

He pushed on not willing to test his luck. He spied a large rock under the trees, and set the flashlight down in such a way as to shield its light from the road. If he heard anything, he could grab it in an instant and kill it.

He picked up his shovel, and cursed and groaned as he stabbed the soft earth at the base of the rock. He had to hurry, because this moon was a reluctant, silent witness rising higher in the sky, threatening to expose him. Although she tried, the full moon failed to penetrate the thick oaks overhead. But that didn’t make Jack feel any better. Despite the cool night air, he was breaking a sweat. He swore and picked up the pace. He was in a race to put everything behind him, closing one chapter so that he could open another.

With a groan, he hefted one final shovelful. Then he patted the dirt down and scraped some of last fall’s dead leaves over his handiwork. For a moment he thought that he might actually vomit. He dropped to his knees, leaning against the large rock and bent his head. A single tear rolled down his cheek, soaking into the sandy soil below. A final act of contrition. He wiped his face with his sleeve, pushed off of the rock and stood up. It was done. But Jack knew that no matter how much he could try to hide the past, it could come back to haunt him. He’d always be looking over his shoulder for someone to figure out his secret and expose him. Considering he knew just about everyone in Waterford, the list of possibilities was longer than the river itself.


OVERVIEW: At first reading, I liked this introduction because it stuck to the action (for the most part) and did not slow the pace with back story or explanation. That takes discipline for an author to do this. The narrative is simple and pulls the reader into the story with its mystery. Well done. But as I got into this on a 2nd and 3rd read, I found things I would edit if this were mine. This author shows promise and if the following items are addressed, I would keep reading.

THE START: I understand what the author intended with the first paragraph – to set the stage with a light and breezy beginning of harmless imagery before the reader is shocked once they realize the story will take a dark turn. Who’s POV is this? No one’s. It’s omniscient before the POV becomes that of Jack. This tactic–and the use of YOU–pulled me out. If the story is set up properly, where we see Jack in the dark with a shovel, he could be doing ANYTHING until we learn what’s happening and the mystery begins. The shock factor would be presented in another way, without the need for the faux lead-in.

THE ACTION: What is Jack doing? He’s got a shovel and a flashlight, but it doesn’t appear as if he’s burying a body because he’s not carrying anything else. Is he digging something up? He starts by digging into the ground with his shovel but ends by patting down a mound of dirt and pushing leaves over the pile to hide what he did. The transition from start to finish didn’t describe enough for me to understand what he’s actually doing. With the vagueness, the reader might make an assumption that would prove false later on, and the author takes a chance of alienating the reader if this is not made clearer. I also wondered why Jack would pick a spot by a road where he can be seen with his flashlight. If he’s got a choice and wants to be secretive, why risk a location where he can potentially be seen? I know the risk of getting caught adds to the tension, but maybe there would be a way for the author to explain why Jack picked the spot (even if it meant risk of discovery) and still leave an element of mystery.

WORD CHOICES: In 3rd paragraph, “The night was silent, except for the sounds of….” If there are sounds, the night can’t be silent. The night might be “still” or “quiet,” but not silent if noise is heard.

In 5th paragraph, calling the moon “she” pulled me out and made me wonder if another character had stepped into the scene.

In 5th paragraph, the moon can’t be a “reluctant” witness to anything, but in one line the moon is shining on him, threatening to expose him, then in the next sentence, that description is contradicted by this – “the moon failed to penetrate the thick oaks overhead.” (Oaks are usually ‘overhead’ too. Directional words like up, down, overhead should be scrutinized during the edit process. They can usually be deleted.)

I’m not a fan of the word THAT. It’s often unnecessary and can be eliminated.

DESCRIPTIONS: This might be nit picky, but this phrase pulled me out of the narrative and made me wonder if there would be a better way of describing what is happening. This comes across as TELLING to me and could be more effective.

As he ducked under the oak trees, darkness shrouded him, causing him to have to use his flashlight which lit up the area like a beacon. 

“The area” is actually the ground but what’s on the ground? How does the light play across it? it might be a more effective line if the author could get the reader to actually see the effect of the light, rather than merely saying it “lit the area.” Do the shadows of spindly grasses elongate and move as the light passes over it? The effect could add a creep factor. What sound do they make in the wind…for a guy who is already nervous?

PASSIVE VOICE: One of my favorite TKZ posts of all time came from Joe Moore in Jan 2012 – Writing is Rewriting. A great overview of the draft and edit process. Below are some examples of passive writing. My first pass at editing is to delete and tighten my sentences into succinct and clearer writing. Many readers might not pick up on the passive voice, but authors should strive to hone their craft and challenge themselves with each new project.

3rd paragraph: “was threatening” should be ‘threatened.’

5th paragraph: “was breaking” should be ‘broke.’

Last paragraph: “could try” should be ‘tried.’

PARAGRAPH LENGTH: I prefer to give the reader some white space so the paragraphs don’t appear laden and heavy as they look ahead. A heavy paragraph could encourage a reader to skim. As Elmore Leonard (RIP) once said – “Try to leave out the part readers tend to skip.” I often break up longer paragraphs into 3-4 sentences and change the length of those sentences to create a natural cadence if the words were spoken aloud.


What about you TKZers? What constructive criticism would you give this author?


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32 thoughts on “First Page Critique of MOONSTONE

  1. If I may…

    The phrase, “…causing him to have to use his flashlight which lit up the area like a beacon…” seemed clunky – why not just start a new sentence and shorten it to, “He turned on his flashlight lighting up the area…” (and taking your SHOW suggestions from there).

    There a couple of places where the sentence length and beginnings (He…) were repetitive and I found a little “sing-songy”

    However, I like the mystery of WHAT (or who) he’s burying ~ could be a body (age?), a briefcase full of cash, a dirty bomb, or even a hostage in box with air and food.

    I don’t think he dug long enough, not that we have to have each shovelful detailed, and there’s no sense of him having put anything in the (small?) hole.

    Perhaps, addressing your comment about just having the shovel and light as he goes through the woods, he is returning to whatever he’s burying after having lugged it to its final (or temporary?) resting place. If that’s the case, then suggesting that would address your point AND keep the mystery of what’s going underground.

    Just my pair o’ pennies ~


    • Thanks for your pair of pennies, George. Good feedback. I’m glad you noticed the repetitive sentences starting with “He.” I noticed that too. When I do these critiques, I sometimes leave out some catches in order for things to come up in comments as discussion. Reading aloud may help this author catch things like this. Thank you.

  2. Absolutely agree that the opening is author intrusion, but it’s an easy fix to simply put it, with some revision, perhaps combining it with some action, into the POV character’s head.

    I was thrown a bit by the fact of a Prologue. This made me question whether Jack is the main character and whether this is a frame, or whether we’ll ever see Jack again. I hope it’s the, or a, main character, otherwise I think it’s risky. Even if the story starts before this event, you could call it Chapter One and then go back, e.g., Chapter Two could take place x years or months earlier.

    I wanted to know more about Jack and what he’s burying. Sometimes writers withhold information, thinking the suspense will be greater, but that’s not necessarily the case. Here, all we know is that Jack is burying something, which raises the question, “What?” I think raising the question, “Why?” might be stronger, and that requires filling the reader in a bit more.

    But, more importantly, why should we care about Jack? 400 words isn’t enough space to fully develop a character, but I’d like some hints about him, a reason to care, e.g., who might be hurt by the discovery other than Jack? What might happen in his life? Answering questions like these (with hints, at least, and more emotion) gives you a chance to show a bit more of his character and raise the stakes in the scene, thereby creating more tension and suspense.

    As well, I absolutely agree about the clunky beacon sentence and the other comments.

    Interesting choice of setting, i.e., near the Snake River. I used that river in one of my stories, but oaks didn’t grow in that area of the river. If you haven’t checked, it might be worth doing, just in case. However, more specific setting details, especially the type that Jordan has suggested, would increase the tension as well by bringing the reader closer to the character.

    On the whole, however, a promising start.

    • Hi Sheryl.
      I thought the author might try starting at a later point, such as – “As he ducked under the oak trees…” – or simply write “Jack Cicero ducked under the oak trees…” As you suggested, in deep POV, his thoughts could go anywhere from there and his guilt or “contrition” could show earlier for us to know (or care) more about him in small bits. It’s important to stick with the action and not bog it down with too much internalizing.

      Like you, I research floral & fauna in a geograohic area I’m writing about to make it more authentic. Good feedback on the type of trees near the Snake River.

      I hear you on the Prologue thing. I have used them on occasion and not one editor who bought that story made an issue of it or changed it. I now tend to start at chapter ones and use tag lines to introduce time period shifts. Prologues don’t bother me as long as the inciting incident contributes to the story in an interesting way.

      Thanks, Sheryl.

  3. I want to offer a note of encouragement to this author, and the choice to begin with a “poetic” opening. That’s a valid option when the author is going for a “literary feel” in a crime novel. The trick is to make it compelling in and of itself, and get to the action quickly. The author does the latter, and I’m intrigued by what’s going on.

    As Jordan points out, the opening graph is Omniscient. It’s author voice. Again, that’s not the unforgivable sin; indeed, some might argue it’s the sine qua non of literary writing. We can have that discussion another time.

    The actual writing in the first paragraph, and throughout, is quite good, IMO. There are some lines I would tweak (e.g., giving the moon a female pronoun), but overall it’s easy to tell this author has writing chops.

    I believe the author could change the opening in one way, and make it more compelling. What about this:

    By the light of the moon he could catch fireflies, or sit by a campfire watching the embers drift upward toward the stars. By the light of the moon he could stroll down a dirt road, or just sit on a back porch with a tall glass of iced tea. By the light of the moon he could propose marriage, or just leave his lover.

    But by the light of the moon this night, Jack Cicero tried to bury his past.

    One word about prologues, as Sheryl mentioned. Controversial these days, so my advice: Cut the word Prologue. Just start with the date stamp.

    Overall, great promise for this writer.

    • Great input, Jim. Thanks for weighing in. I agree this author is a storyteller and has great instincts on making these 400 words appealing. I liked your revised intro and your take on a literary influence. It can reflect on the character too if Jack is sentimental and his reflection is part of his guilt-ridden mind set or part of HIS past. If he’s a poetic or an insightful guy, those thoughts would work as his own. Much better than the “you” references.

      I like your idea of having a post on literary use. It’s a thing these days. Thanks, Jim.

  4. As a new writer, I see so many “shoulds” and “don’ts” out in the market that it makes my head spin. No prologues. No omniscient POV. Get to the point. I, for one, found this submission engaging and lyrical while it’s subject matter appeared dark. I was intrigued rather than turned off by the opening paragraph and I thought it did offer a hint of what might be going on in the “leave your lover” line. This writer has a style that’s different and lyrical and I would definitely read more.

    • Thanks for you input, Maggie. We all have our different takes. Yes, there are a lot of so-called/perceived rules to writing but it is always up to the author to decide what works for them. This author will get many comments that he or she will have to sift through for that kernel of truth in their own writing. Just because someone says or blogs about no prologues doesn’t mean any author should heed that automatically and without question. They can do what they want and I’ve sold enough break the rules books to keep me doing it when it makes sense.

      In this submission, there IS a lot to love. Your instincts are right, but it can be made much stronger with some of the suggestions here. At the end of the day, only the author can decide what goes into their story. When I was a new writer, I loved hearing “rules” just so I could break them. As you gain confidence in your own voice, you get better at picking out what could work for you.

  5. What I like best about this excerpt is the opening. I like the images and the fact that they become increasingly serious. I like the rhythm and the clean writing. It’s lovely. The problem is it doesn’t have much to do with the rest. It would work if this were Jack speaking and the story were in his first person POV. And for starters, the moon should be shining. No dark shroud. no flashlight. I hope the fireflies, marriage proposal, etc. actually happen in the story. Those things are as intriguing as the burial. Are they part of what’s getting buried?

    • Absolutely, Nancy. If this lovely opener could somehow be made a part of Jack and the mystery, it would work better. There’s real potential to this piece because of the opening and the mystery unfolding, if it were better incorporated. Thanks for you comment.

  6. I just thought of something else that may or may not apply.

    Where did I pick up that the title of this WIP is MOONSTONE? Am I confused?

    Anyway, this starts like a potentially dark psychological thriller with no hint of the magical. If the title of the WIP is, in fact, MOONSTONE, then maybe we’re talking about a thriller with magical elements, i.e., a cross between thriller and fantasy. If so, then the opening should probably contain more of a hint about that.

    As for rules, all the rules are made to be bent, twisted and broken in the hands of a skilful writer. As for the specific POV, I broke it in the opening paragraph of my first novel in the same way, i.e., the para sounded like AO. When someone picked up on this and I changed it, the opening para became so much stronger, which only proves the point that we break the rules at our peril, especially if we don’t have a solid understanding of why we have such rules in the first place.

    I don’t know whether this is true or not, but it seems to me that the most vociferous voices against the rules are those who haven’t yet mastered them… as if we ever do master them.

  7. Just two things to add to the good chorus:

    I, too, like the opening. As I said in the previous First-Page Critique of a couple days ago, I don’t think every thriller or mystery has to open with a wham-bam knock-me-out first line. A good first PARAGRAPH like this one can be just as effective and might be more fitting to the tone of the entire story. But I do like Jim’s tweaks…how interesting that just the fix of one or two words can make such a difference!

    But I was pulled out of the mood and story because I couldn’t figure out what the heck Jack was doing. I assumed he was there to bury something, given the first graph, but he never digs a hole, just pats the dirt with his shovel. And if he was burying something, we have to know he is dragging/carrying something there to bury. In fact, it might be quite effective to give us a HINT of what he is burying…

    Jack slipped the small wrapped bundle into the hole, taking a moment to fold the blue blanket carefully over the top.
    Jack dragged the heavy box into the hole and stood up, worried that he hadn’t dug deep enough and that the first good rain would reveal the stenciled name and number on top.
    Jack kicked the canvas bag into the hole and wiped the sweat from his face. It would be winter before he’d be able to get back here and retrieve it and he knew he’d run out of cash long before that.

    Anything…but just a hint. One good telling, intriguing detail about what it in the hole. Remember that song — What exactly DID Billy Joe and that girl toss off the Tallahatchie bridge?

    Misdirection is powerful tool (ie holding back details to create suspense) but when it veers toward confusion, you just make the reader impatient or angry.

    But a good start, I say!

    • I agree on opening lines. I tend toward drawing readers in by authorly quicksand where a question is setting up but maybe in paragraph 2 comes a misdirection or a mystery element. Then down the page comes another. That’s my thing.

      But as you say, Kris, sometimes too much of a mystery is just vague for no reason. Teasers are still mysteries that provide some hints and more intrigue if done right.

      It feels as if this is an early draft of a good story that could be nuanced with more layers. One of those layers could be – what the heck is he doing? A hint is better than leaving the reader scratching his head. Thanks, Kris.

  8. I was immediately drawn into this story, even though the writing was a little clunky in places. The good news is that, imho, everything is easily fixable.

    I’d begin in Jack’s point of view. For example, maybe something like:

    Jack Cicero had lived some of life’s finest moments beneath the light of the moon. Childhood memories of catching fireflies and sitting by campfires watching embers drift toward the stars. Tearful goodbyes to teen lovers. Long chats on the back porch with Gran over tall glasses of iced tea. A marriage proposal.

    How fitting that on a moonlit June night, he’d use a shovel with a heavy gauge tempered steel blade to bury his past.

    That’s just a quick stab at it, but hopefully you get the idea.

    Sometimes repetition in writing works, but it should be avoided most of the time. In your opening, the word “He” is used to begin ten sentences. The phrase “He pushed” is used twice. The phrase “By the light of the moon you can” is used three times. (This didn’t work for me in the way it was done, but perhaps it could be modified if you want to keep the repetition.)

    Here’s a list of some other words that were used more than once in your opening: large, expose, final, picked, knew, pushed, sit, early, below, try, threatening, full, under, thick, sounds, silent, head, itself. There are more. Sometimes, it’s necessary to reuse words, but I think it’s best not to use words that stand out (i.e. “threatening”) more than once on the same page. If you have trouble spotting repeated words, there’s software that will find them for you.

    Where you write “pushed off of a rock,” it’s redundant. “Pushed off” works.
    Where you write “might actually vomit,” I’d get rid of the “actually.”

    I absolutely loved your final sentence: “Considering he knew just about everyone in Waterford, the list of possibilities was longer than the river itself.”

    Keep working on this story. I want to read it when it’s done!

      • Thanks, Jordan. I really loved your recent article “Infusing Emotion into Every Scene and Chapter.” I’ve shared it with quite a few friends!

        • Aww. Thank you. I noticed it getting around on Twitter. I appreciate you spreading the word and am glad it connected with you. That makes my day.

          • I shared it through e-mail – haven’t joined the Twittersphere yet, but I’m weakening. It’s very generous of you to share your time and talents helping other writers.

  9. I’ll leave the critique to the experts, but as a reader, I am hooked. I now want to read further into the story. Whoever the writer is, I say well done!

    • That’s the beauty of writing, Phil. Every author has a story to tell and a reader who will take the journey of a true storyteller.

  10. I agree with many of the comments. One suggestion: Remove “By the light of the moon” from the second and third sentences. It’s been stated in the first line. We get the point. Restating it in the fourth line then gives it more emphasis, more power, rather than seeming repetitive. I would try this with JSB’s suggestion of changing the POV. The author could take the opening from merely good, to really really good.

    Look at the piece as a whole. Notice that there are a lot of commas. Are they all necessary? IMO many of those sentences would be better off broken up. I would advise playing with some of those. Example: “As he ducked under the oak trees, darkness shrouded him, causing him to have to use his flashlight which lit up the area like a beacon.” And semicolons are nearly always a bad idea: “The night was silent except for sounds of the Snake River choking itself on the rocks in its path; and the pounding of his own blood in his head.”

    I, too, would like to have some idea of what he is burying.

      • We’d all like to know what (or “who”) he is burying, and sometimes that’s what will keep the reader turning pages late into the night! What we do know is that Jack doesn’t want to be spotted. He’s sorry about something, because he shed a tear (“his final act of contrition”).

  11. I like this voice a lot. I stayed in the story and had no bumps at all. I’m particularly attracted to this story because it reads like a Dean Koontz novel, and for that I’m a bit bias! Anyway, I do want to continue reading!

    • Great observation! Dean Koontz actually wrote a novel called “By The Light of the Moon.” Koontz does use repetitive phrases quite a bit. For example, on the first page of the aforementioned novel, he uses the word “before” three times in the first sentence. On the second page, he uses the phrase “if he hadn’t been” repeatedly (in a deliberate fashion, of course). Further down on the second page, he uses the phrase “not like a” repeatedly. This repetition is definitely part of his style, and he makes it work.

      I really do like this story, and I’m glad to see that you jumped in with nothing but encouraging words for the author. Sometimes a little praise from someone is all that’s needed to inspire someone. I think most of us here want to continue reading, even if we offered some suggestions.

  12. I just noticed some repetition in my last comment, but alas, there is no way to edit. *sigh*

  13. Thank you all so much for the wonderful feedback. You have given me much to think about. I enjoy your critiques and have learned a lot from them all.

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