First Page Critique: DEATH BY PROXY

Good day to you all, and join me in welcoming today’s Anon, who graciously submitted the first page of their work in progress, DEATH BY PROXY, for critical reaction:

If a lawyer saves you from prison and gives you a job, you’ll do anything he asks.

               Which is why Tawny Lindholm was driving at a crawl through a January Montana blizzard, trying to find house numbers on condominium buildings. Whoever laid out Golden Eagle Meadows Golf Resort didn’t have much sympathy for pizza deliveries or a nosy middle-aged woman trying to find the unit where her boss’s father lived. A good six inches of fresh snow layered the street, with more heaped up on the curbs. She parked the Jeep Wrangler and crunched through white banks. Her booted feet shuffle-scuffed on what she hoped was the slippery walkway to the right condo.

               Icy bullets stung her cheeks and nose, penetrating the wool scarf. With a gloved hand, she thumped on the door. Waited. At nine-thirty in the morning, he should be awake. Thumped again. Waited.

At last, the door swung open. Inside stood a preview of what her boss Tillman Rosenbaum would look like in thirty years. Stoop-shouldered, but still way over six feet tall, lanky build, iron gray curls, snapping black eyes, jutting lower jaw, and a suspicious snarl for a greeting. “What?”

               Tawny smiled with as much warmth as she could manage at ten degrees. “Mr. Rosenbaum, my name is Tawny Lindholm. I wonder if I could have a few minutes of your time.”

               “You’re too old to be selling Girl Scout cookies.” The door started to close.

               “I’m not selling anything, sir. I work for your son and he asked me to—“

               “I have no son!” the bass voice roared.

               Tawny forced her smile wider. “Sir, if I could just talk to you for a few minutes.” Her teeth chattered. “I promise I won’t take up much time.”

               The old man glared down at her.

     Tawny had already felt that same rage from the son and learned to stand up to him. Would that work with the father? She met his dark angry eyes with a steady gaze. “Mr. Rosenbaum, your son is my boss and I know as well as you do that he’s a big pain in the ass. If I don’t do what he’s told me to do, he’ll fire me and, sir, I really need this job.”

The first page of Death by Proxy is actually very well done.  Anon, you have a future as a writer, but let’s fix that formatting. Let’s indent the first sentence of each of your paragraphs by five spaces, rather than what you have, and while we are at it double space each line. Also, old guys like John Gilstrap appreciate it when you increase your font size to 12, as I have done above. It makes your efforts easier to read, as opposed to the 9.5 you used originally.

That done, let’s take an overview of what we have. The substance is good. It’s very good, actually.  A lesser writer would have started by describing Tawny Lindholm as a middle-aged woman employed by an attorney who was walking up a driveway in the middle of a snowstorm. Anon tells us all of this in due course, but gradually. Anon starts with an intriguing sentence that raises a question for later — what sort of trouble was/is our protagonist in? — thus baiting the hook that tugs the reader into the story. The mood is very well set, indeed, with the description of the weather. Did Anon grow up in the Midwest? Death by Proxy sure reads like it. I love that “shuffle-scuffed” term. I had never encountered the term before, but I certainly know what it is. We here in flyover country learn at an early age how to “shuffle scuff” on an icy sidewalk or we develop callused posteriors. Anon also does a terrific job of hinting at the conflict between the father and the son. It reminds me of a joke about two guys on a camel and…anyway, it’s well done. I was honestly very disappointed when the page ended.

As good as the substance is, the form needs a little first aid. Fortunately, we’re looking at bandages instead of casts or sutures. I will note, Anon, that it appears you took the time to proofread. I couldn’t find any typos. There’s another good job well done.

Now let’s put the bandages, with a little Neosporin, on the abrasions. One element that sticks out, Anon, is that you seem to like using incomplete and fragmented sentences. You absolutely can and may use them;  they do have a place. Don’t overdo it, however. You’ve got several in your first page. If the rest of your manuscript is similar then I would recommend going through your story and changing four of every five fragments to complete sentences. Using too many of them interrupts the flow of your narration.

Here we go:

Paragraph Two:

— “Which is why Tawny Lindholm was…”

hmmm. “That was why…” would be better. You can and may use a conjunction to start a sentence, but it’s awkward here. You also want the tenses to match, rather than jumping from present to past tense within the space of a few words.

— “…sympathy for pizza deliveries or nosy middle-aged woman…”

For consistency’s sake — what Jim Bell and others who actually know how to teach this stuff would call “sentence parallelism” — you want to use “pizza deliverers” or “pizza delivery people” with “middle aged woman,” thus having “people,” if you will, on either side of that “or,” instead of an action — “deliveries” — on one side and a person on the other.

Paragraph Three:

— “ Icy bullets stung her cheeks and nose, penetrating the wool scarf.”

I love the elements of the sentence, but not the order of the clauses.  Those icy bullets — good description, Anon — penetrate the scarf — her scarf — first, and then sting her cheek and nose. Tell what happens in the order it occurs. “Icy bullets penetrated her wool scarf and stung her cheeks and nose.” (or “…stinging her cheeks and nose.”) Let’s also change the order of the clauses in the next sentence,

—“With a gloved hand, she thumped on the door.”

I’m a sick puppy, so I visualized Tawny holding a severed, gloved hand, bleeding profusely from the wrist, and using it to knock on the door. Switch the clauses and make it personal. “She thumped on the door with her gloved hand.” Or, better yet, “She knocked on the door, her gloved hand almost numb from the bitter cold.”

— “Thumped again. Waited.”

Try transforming these two incomplete sentences into one complete one:  “She thumped (or knocked) again and waited.”

Paragraph Four:

— “…in thirty years. Stoop-shouldered, but…”

Let’s use a colon to make the sentence fragment beginning with “Stooped shouldered” a part of the preceding sentence (I really like the set up, by the way, as it tells us not only what the father looks like but gives us an idea about the son, as well). How about “…thirty years: stoop-shouldered, but…”

Paragraph Five:

— “Tawny had already felt that same rage from the son and learned to stand up to him. Would that work with the father?”

Let’s call the “son” by his name — Tillman — once in while, or by his familiar title, “her boss.” Let’s also break the first sentence up a bit and then change the second sentence slightly to reflect that change, as follows: “Tawny had already felt that same rage from her boss. She had learned to stand up to it, and to him. Would it work with his father?”

Anon, this may seem like a whole slew of corrections, but please don’t be discouraged. Go back to what I said about being disappointed when the first page ended. Please keep going…and thank you for sending your submission to TKZ’s First Page Critique!

I will step aside at this point (for the most part). Are there any comments or questions from our friends out there?



20 thoughts on “First Page Critique: DEATH BY PROXY

  1. Agree that this is a very well done page, and with Joe’s comments … except for the colon thing. I avoid semicolons and colons in fiction. Doesn’t mean I’m right, only that I’ve chosen to follow the advice I’ve received over the years. Maybe it’s my Deep/Intimate POV preference, where even narrative is in a character’s head, and I don’t think many people think in terms of punctuation other than commas and periods. But that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.
    Good job, Anon!

  2. It grabbed my attention with the first line, which is critical to story telling. The staccato style of writing is.a good mechanism, but, in my opinion, should not be overdone. It can make for awkward reading.

    Keep writing, you are doing great.

  3. Great first page, Anon!

    Good morning, Joe. I loved your comments and critique. There were a lot of good ideas there.

    The only thing I would add (tongue in cheek): I was surprised you didn’t comment on how Tawny described her attorney boss – “he’s a big pain in the…” For those not in the legal profession, sorry JSB and Joe, would that possibly help bond the reader with Tawny? Just saying.

    Thanks for the great critique, my esteemed legal friend.

    • Good evening, Steve! And thank you. As for the terms in which Tawny described her boss, I can state that I have been called much worse, for much better reason!

      Also, I am a walking supposito…er, I mean, repository of attorney jokes, none of which I will share here. Please email me for a good laugh. Or several!

  4. I don’t have much time to devote to this at the moment, but I noticed that this page has some POV issues. POV should remain the same throughout the entire scene.

    The first line begins:

    “If a lawyer saves you from prison and gives you a job, you’ll do anything he asks.”

    Notice the word “you” is used. (second person) Since I don’t have a lot of time, I’ll give you a link to Grammar Girl:

    I wish I had more time to discuss POV, but there’s one hint for you!

    Best of luck and keep writing.

  5. I agree that this is a good first page and I too wanted to keep reading.
    In addition to what’s already been said, I would add two teeny edits. The following descriptions took me out of the story:

    “…she hoped was the slippery walkway…” I don’t believe you meant she hoped the walkway was slippery, anon. Perhaps, “…she shuffle scuffed along the slippery walkway to what she hoped was the right condo.”

    “…snapping black eyes…” Those eyes sound like an alien’s to me. Did the father blink rapidly? Are his eyes deep brown? Wouldn’t his pupils be narrowed against the brightness of the snow?

    Anyway, these are teeny. All in all, I hope to read the completed book one day, anon. Nice job.

    • I agree with your comments. I didn’t have much time to comment earlier, but I think the author would be wise to heed your advice.

  6. I like this page, too. It draws you straight in to the scene without delay and moves along in a timely fashion.

    I don’t have the same issue as Joe with the fragmented sentences. I don’t feel the writer overused them, and each one works for me. That said, I will admit there are times when I read such sentences that don’t work, but there were none of those on this first page.

    ” … the bass voice roared” caught my attention. It’s just one of my neuroses, but I don’t feel “roared” is appropriate, especially since the dialogue ends in an exclamation point. “Said” would’ve worked just as well. Or no dialogue attribution at all.

    I had the same problem as Joe with the “gloved hand” sentence. Something like “Her gloved hand thumped on the door” might work better. Saying “With a gloved hand, she thumped on the door” is redundant.

    These (along with the formatting problems Joe pointed out) are really minor criticisms for what I feel is an outstanding first page.

  7. Very good stuff here. Like Joe says, lots of promise.

    In this game, when you ask for criticism, you’ll certainly get it (which is why I’m not a big fan of first page reviews… you really can’t tell all that much about a story or a writer from a first page, provided it plays at a certain level of effectiveness overall, which yours certainly does). I think you could rewrite this ten times, each time addressing one of the pieces of feedback, and the eleventh would still have a page full of nits from someone. What you do have in thread are those nits, valid nits, but what’s more true, is that those critiques are how the critic would do it, rather than flagging something that is truly “wrong,” per se.

    Someone could nit the hell out of that last sentence, by the way… but… did you get it? Me thinks you did.

    My nit: a tad too heavy on the adjectives. And, when she tells the guy she might lose her job if he does’t hear her out… that’s pretty light-weight relative to stakes. It isn’t all that threatening, and it could/should be. Imply there’s more at stake for her, and that it might be darker.

    And… my two cents… never use a semi-colon in fiction (you didn’t, by the way, but it was suggested). Again, that’s just me, it isn’t a right or wrong thing. An English teacher would want one, but anytime there’s a semicolon, it could work just as well if you divide the sentence, which an English teacher (who, odds are, doesn’t read commercial genre fiction anyhow) would like. Cramming two thoughts into a sentence, semicolon or not, is often risky, better suited to non-fiction.

    One of the most common bon mots out there is this: “there are no rules” (but there are principles that will serve you… you hear that much less often). This is true for voice-driven fiction, as well. Sentence fragments, go for it. Like this. Because there will always be someone telling you there are too many, or too few, whatever. You have a conversational, high-energy voice, and it works. It’s already as good as the professionals already on the shelf. Let it flow, forget the “rules” and have the whole thing judged as a whole.

    Well done!

    • Larry, so happy to hear your thoughts on first page. Obviously, first page is important, but I find myself having to resist the urge to ensure some critical event occurs within the first 500 words, or at TKZ, the first 400 words.
      Doesn’t mean you should meander about on page one, but as you implied (Ithink,) if some of the critical elements are there, voice, setting, etc., you have to hope readers will give out more than 400 words. I understand some won’t – I just don’t think you can write from that place of fear (gotta make it happen on page one!)

    • I agree with what Beth Hill says about semicolons:

      There are times when semicolons are useful, but they should be used sparingly. Beth’s article explains how to use semicolons effectively.

      An author can choose to break rules, but I do think authors should know what the rules are. Writers who want to get representation should use professional editors. Criticism shouldn’t upset good writers; they don’t need to be praised and coddled. Good writers embrace the work. It’s wise for writers to pay the most attention to the issues mentioned by multiple reviewers. Of course, it’s unwise to spend too much time revising an early draft. The first page of a novel is likely to change many times. Critiques are always helpful, because reviewers can point out things the writer did not consider. Once a certain type of error is mentioned, some perceptive writers will file that information away for self-editing purposes.

  8. I liked the page, though I noted most of the things already noted. For what it’s worth, I though the incomplete sentence worked fine.
    The ONLY thing I really didn’t like was that first sentence. One of the other folks noted it as a POV issue, which it is – narrator versus 3rd person. For me it went beyond that. It wasn’t even the narrator speaking – it was the author – and while it might work for some, for me it’s a hammer over the head. I’d rather learn that the son saved her from going to prison and gave her a job,and that she feels indebted, through the character’s experience on the page.
    Having said that, I realize if a writer took everyone’s advice too seriously, they’d never write another line.

    • I didn’t have too much time to comment earlier, but I’ll take a stab at editing/tightening the first bit:

      After her lawyer saved her from prison and gave her a job, Tawny Lindholm would do anything he asked, even if it meant driving through a Montana blizzard in January. She squinted as she struggled to read the number on the snow-clad condominium building. Whoever laid out Golden Eagle Meadows Golf Resort hadn’t thought much about pizza deliveries—or a nosy middle-aged woman trying to locate her boss’s father.

      • If the author wants a different “feel” for the first sentence, here are a few other alternatives:

        After her lawyer saved her from prison and gave her a job, Tawny Lindholm would do anything he asked—even if it meant driving through a Montana blizzard in January.


        After her lawyer saved her from prison and gave her a job, Tawny Lindholm would do anything he asked. On occasion that meant driving through a Montana blizzard in January.

        Ah, there are just too many ways to play with this.

  9. Good job, writer. At the risk of sounding repetitious with these critiques, I like the “moment” you have chosen to enter your story…something is already happening and you didn’t waste words or my time having her get in the car, drive somewhere, think a lot about what she was going to do before she did it. And there is enough tension in this scene to make me want to read on.

    As Larry said, all the nits are there to pick and we all pick at different ones…these can be ferreted out in rewrites, so I will just say I agree with all the small suggestions above. Except semi-colons. Hate ’em in all fiction. Hate ’em in non-fiction, too, but concede that one a year is maybe allowable.

  10. I really like this. I’m also going to slightly disagree with JH, and suggest one more sentence fragment (actually it is a sentence). I would change “A good six inches of fresh snow layered the street, with more heaped up on the curbs.” to “A good six inches of fresh snow layered the street. More was heaped up on the curbs.” I would also consider breaking the previous sentence into two, and start the second one with “Or”. This might be too much for JH. I prefer “Which” over “That”, but now we’re talking minor quibbling.

  11. By all means, let’s keep the comments coming, but I’d like to jump in and on behalf of Anon and myself thank everyone who visited and commented today. Anon, there have been a number of divergent opinions on lesser points, but everyone seems to agree that, as the dust settles and the smoke clears, DEATH BY PROXY is off to a very fine start. Keep moving forward. I have no doubt that in a year or so I’ll crack the binding on your book and fondly re-read that first page. Thank you for submitting it.

  12. Terrific critique, Joe. I agree that this is a solid start with great possibilities.

    FTR: Grammar Girl or no, I have zero problem with the use of “you” in general–but I don’t think the POV it implies is consistent with the rest of the story. I expected to find that the rest was in first person.

    “She parked the Jeep Wrangler and crunched through white banks. Her booted feet shuffle-scuffed on what she hoped was the slippery walkway to the right condo.”

    A bit of overwriting. “Booted feet,” then “gloved hand.” “Shuffle-scuffed” sounds like the writer is trying a little too hard to evoke an image that is already pretty well drawn.

    Well done, Anon!

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