First Page Critique: the Silencer

Happy Monday! Today we critique the first page submission entitled The Silencer. As always, kudos to those brave enough to submit. My comments follow.

The Silencer.

Friday, 9:45 a.m.

But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.

James 3:8

The worst part about waiting to testify is I spend the entire time terrified the lawyers will uncover some huge mistake that screams how lazy and incompetent I am. I tell myself a hundred different ways that I always do the best I can … but I don’t really listen.

After so many appearances in court you’d think I’d have no problem when it comes time to testify. But it never fails. Every time the bailiff comes to get me from this small waiting room, the cycle begins. My therapist once told me my fear in court had more to do with my lack of control then my ineptitude as a witness. I disagree. Then again, she also said I joined the police in an effort to stop for others what I couldn’t stop for myself when I was younger.

The door swung open and a big woman with a horsey face and short gray hair stepped inside. Her uniform hugged her well-nourished figure. The web belt is off-center and sagged to her right, the holster almost resting on her thigh. She looked directly at me and I’m waiting to see if her voice sounded like John Wayne.

“Detective Rebecca Watson?” she asked in a soft voice.

“That’s me.” Like clockwork, my stomach twists into a knot, pushing its contents toward my throat as I stand and follow her into the courtroom.

The courtroom is overflowing with spectators and media. Knees trembling, my high heels echoed off the marble floor as I approach the witness stand, carrying a red binder, also known as a murder book. Today is going to be a very tough day. This is no ordinary case. The Florida Supreme Court awarded Leonard Lee Lucius a new trial or whatever verbiage they used. Some crap about tainted evidence. Anyway, his new defense team argued a crucial piece of evidence, the knife used to kill his girlfriend, Teri Goodson, was exposed to foreign fibers after being collected from the crime scene and before being signed into the evidence locker.

Apparently, neither the jurors nor his lawyers saw fit to argue this point during the previous trial. The jury found him guilty. The District Attorney sought the death penalty, but Lucius ended up with life.

All eyes in the courtroom focused on me. I kept my head straight to avoid their stares. As each foot stepped in front of the other, it feels like I’m the one on trial. This isn’t true, but I can’t wrap my head around the fact they’re judging me, even before being sworn in.

My comments

Overall I enjoyed this first page, but there were a few critical elements that held me back from being fully engaged or invested in this story. I’ve summarized these under two main headings: Character Development and Dramatic Tension. I’ll deal with each in turn.

Character Development

  • The main protagonist, Detective Rebecca Watson, seems in the first paragraph at least, to be a rookie who is understandably nervous about appearing in court. The second paragraph, however, indicates that she has appeared countless times and it sounds like her anxiety is more of a deep-rooted issue (one she sees a therapist about) based on a traumatic event in the past which is what drove her (at least in the therapist’s opinion) to being a police officer. This sense of inconsistency, makes it hard to get a handle on Rebecca as a three dimensional character . By the end of this first page I have to admit, she seems rather generic and her anxiety makes her feel less believable as a seasoned detective. This meant I wasn’t totally invested in her as the main character.
  • I also felt like I needed some action and drama rather than merely exposition about Rebecca as a character. I wanted to feel like I was in Rebecca’s head hearing her unique voice but also seeing her in action.
  • Although I feel like the writer knows his/her character, as readers we aren’t on a firm foundation (I don’t quite buy Rebecca as a detective yet). Why does she feel like she’s constantly being judged? Why does she lack confidence in her abilities – is it this case, or part of her own neuroses? If I’m going to like Rebecca and root for her as a main character, I feel like a need more depth even on this first page. This may come more in the form of intriguing specifics that can be fleshed out later but at the moment there’s not enough that goes beyond the standard ‘cop’ genre to really draw me in. Action demonstrates character far more than mere description or background.
  • Also, there seems a few contradictions on this first page – she seems nervous and anxious, yet she’s supposedly experienced. She is a detective but she says ‘new trial or whatever verbiage they used’ when speaking of the Supreme Court when, as a detective she would know exactly what was ordered.
  • We also get far too much detail about the bailiff when compared to the protagonist – If Rebecca was a detective wouldn’t she already know most of the court staff? We also don’t know whether Rebecca was involved in the initial investigation or her role in the tainted evidence question that is the reason for her court appearance (we assume).

Dramatic Tension

  • A first page is first and foremost a powerful lure that draws a reader in. It has to set the scene as well as the main character and, most importantly, it needs to have dramatic tension to ensure a reader is immediately invested in the story. At the moment this first page seems more of an introduction than a dramatic entry point to the story. We learn about Leonard Lee Lucius’s new trial in a rather cumbersome way with details that should come later or should be used in the first page to greater dramatic effect (perhaps by way of a scene in which the police are confronted by the tainted evidence).
  • Overall, it felt like there was too much time spent on Rebecca’s worries/feelings of inadequacy that on establishing a dramatic scene that confronts and intrigues the reader. I was left wanting more ‘oomph’ to keep me going and a stronger, more consistent main character that had flaws as well as depth but who felt ‘real’ from the get go.
  • I also wasn’t sure how the biblical quotation at the start of the page relates to the story – while we don’t need an answer per se, I think readers would like to get a sense of how it illuminates the story to come.

So TKZers, what are some of your comments and feedback? How can we help this writer punch this first page up to the next level?

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10 thoughts on “First Page Critique: the Silencer

  1. Really interesting – if you want to see how one author handles anxiety in a courtroom setting, I like Robert Rotstein’s Parker Stern legal thrillers – he does a great job of showing Parker’s neuroses.

    For me, the biggest challenge in reading was what I saw as abrupt changes in tense – the last paragraph as an example:

    “As each foot stepped in front of the other, it feels like I’m the one on trial.”

    Within a single sentence there’s past and present – and there’s a few other examples as well.

    Still – I’m a sucker for courtroom drama, and I’d continue to read for sure.

    Best wishes for success and thanks for sharing!

  2. Good point Jim – I noticed the tense issue and meant to mention it but forgot (serves me right for putting together a blog post late on a Sunday afternoon!). A first page is like a business card – first impressions are critical! I think when it comes to anxiety/internal tension the key is to make it feel authentic as well as personal to that specific character. It probably wouldn’t take too much editing to get Rebecca’s voice to channel this in a more consistent way. Heightened action and drama on the first page would also help to show her reactions rather than relying on exposition to describe her feelings alone.

  3. There are no egregious problems with the writing in this sample, and that’s a very good thing, dear writer. However, there are some issues that need to be addressed in the opening. The biggest issue is the introduction of the protagonist.

    One of the best ways to make readers like your protagonist is to make her competent at her job. That’s not to say that your protagonist shouldn’t have faults. On the first page, the focus should be on showing something about the character that’s going to make readers care about her and want to take a journey the length of a book with her. Her life history of seeing a therapist, etc., is something to work into the story later. Be careful about any opening where your main character is waiting around and thinking alone in a room somewhere. Show your character in action, and let that action give the readers a reason to care.

    If your character is nervous, have her spill coffee on herself (or some other action to show she is nervous). However, give her some positive trait to counterbalance any negative trait. If she’s smart, show that in some way. Maybe she is good at noticing details. Show the reader what your character is like through her actions. If you have the character “think about” backstory and such, that’s lazy writing. You have to find a clever way to show the reader these things with action. This is why openings can be so difficult. I’d recommend brainstorming a list of 10 possible ways to introduce your character. Then choose the most engaging one.

    Also, I’d think twice about giving an info dump about the court case on the first page. Work that information into the scene.

    Best of luck and keep writing!

  4. I had problems with the POV. The first paragraph is first person, which can work, but I’m not so sure it does here. Paragraph 3 almost seems like third person, but isn’t (reference to looking at me). I’m not so sure it shouldn’t be third person, but from the protagonist’s POV. What is the gain by going with first person? I also had the same problems that Clare did with character development (she seemed almost high school-like in the first para, and clearly she’s not) and dramatic tension.

    • I think the problem is that the writer switches tenses there. For the sake of consistency with the prior paragraphs, the third paragraph should read:

      The door swings open and a big woman with a horsey face and short gray hair steps inside. Her uniform hugs her well-nourished figure. The web belt is off-center and sags to her right, the holster almost resting on her thigh. She looks directly at me and I wait to see if her voice sounds like John Wayne.

      ***

      A good editor will fix this kind of stuff, but the opening needs to be revised. Why is the author spending so much first page real estate describing someone who is probably an unimportant character?

      • True – and although an editor will fix the tense issue, a writer really can’t get away with something like that. These days an agent or publisher will stop reading right there and assume the writer hasn’t done their homework. You have to be error free at least on the first page!

        • I agree completely. That’s why it’s imperative for new writers to hire a good editor before sending anything out to an agent or publisher. Agents are busy, and manuscripts that aren’t edited are pretty easy to spot. New writers can opt for substantive editing (structural, stylistic, and copy editing). Unfortunately, substantive editing services aren’t cheap. Here’s an article on common reasons for rejection:
          http://carinapress.com/blog/2010/02/reasons-for-rejection/

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