First Page Critique

Admin note: Strong language, content advisory.

By Elaine Viets

Another brave writer has sent in this untitled first page for a critique. We’ll start with the page, then my comments.

Chapter One (Monday)
“I hate men.” Faith sat on the bed cross-legged, Indian style, naked, dipping pineapple chunks and strawberries into chocolate fondue.
“Well, you do have valid reasons to feel that way.” Bill stretched out along the side of the bed opposite the fruit and chocolate, naked.
“I only want to hate men that I knew before I was 24, so I can include Troy. But the list keeps growing.“
“I want you.”
“You’re trying to distract me.”
“Obviously, doesn’t change that I want you.”

“Why are you the only man I can stand to be around?”
“Because I want you for who you are. Because I respect the hell out of you. Because I accept all that you are, and all that you aren’t. Because I don’t want to change a single thing. Because I don’t want to control you. Because I don’t need to have power over you to feel like a real man. And some other things that nicely pass the eye-test.”
“Because you are the only man I have ever felt comfortable with.”

“Exactly what I said, just a bit more concisely. Pass me a strawberry. And you keep eating the pineapple.”
“Ha, you and your pineapple. That’s an old wives’ tale.”
“Not at all. I’ll let you taste my tongue next time.”
“I need to get to the office. Lots to do and I’m losing time here.”
“What? No session two? What the hell?”
“Not today. I owe you, rest up for a few days old man.”
“Fuck. OK. Go harass some men, make the world a better place, save some women, be the super-woman that you are. I will patiently await your blessing me with your presence again.” Bill stood up, picked-up the platter of fruit and fondue and turned toward the door. “Stay moist my friend.”
“Oh, you know I will. Someday I’ll understand how you make me wet and every other guy makes me grind my teeth.”

* * * * * * * * *******************************************************************
Monday
“Everyone, in the conference room please. Bring your creative and strategic minds and plenty of coffee. It’s time to change the world.” Faith skipped down the hall of her tiny set of offices and headed straight into their conference room, which was really just the largest of the tiny offices that she rented for her not-for-profit agency. “It’s time to rid the world of domestic violence. Are you WITH ME?”


ELAINE VIETS’S TAKE:
Two naked people are in bed eating chocolate fondue. This is a bold start to a novel. Many writers are shy about writing sex scenes, or in this case, postcoital scenes. Congratulations for a beginning that grabs readers by the (eye) balls.
This first page has so many possibilities, but many are unfulfilled.
Most important, who are these chocolate lovers? They seem lost, ghostly figures adrift on this mattress like shipwreck survivors on a raft.
All we know is they are naked.
What do they look like?
How old are they? What color is their hair? This is the one time we will truly know if characters are natural blonds. Is her hair tousled from sex and sleep? What about his? Does he even have hair, or is he all the way bare? We don’t know.
They’re both wearing birthday suits. What color is their skin: flour white, deep chocolate, caramel? Are they fit and tan? Pale and flabby? Wrinkled? Or well-nourished and well-developed, as the pathologists say?
What about the lovers’ relationship: Is this a long-term romance? Is it a romance at all? Are they married or single? This appears to be a passionless encounter. Is this true? If there’s heat, we need to know it. If love is dying, we need that too.
Where are we? We know it’s Monday, but what month? What’s the weather? Is it a sunny morning? A chilly afternoon? Is the day as hot as the potential scene? And what about the room? Is this a poorly furnished apartment? A luxurious home? Again, that mattress is floating in space.
The scene is supposed to be sexy, but there’s a strong ick factor. Bill says, “I’ll let you taste my tongue next time.” No, thanks.
Why does Faith hate Troy? Give us a hint: did he beat her, abandon her, or betray her? A word or two would ratchet up the tension.
“I want you.” Bill says this twice. Are these three words said with a sensual smile, or simply a demand? Does Bill love Faith, is he obsessed with her, or does he just want more sex? What actions go with those words? Show us what he’s doing. Show us her reactions: Does she love Bill? Is she bored with him?
What’s he doing with that fruit while they’re talking? Is Bill still eating strawberries? Dipping them? Dripping chocolate on her body? Painting it on his? Does she want him to do that? How was the sex for him? Is he exhausted? Exhilarated? Satisfied? Or was it just a routine roll in the hay?
Bill says he wants her, but is there any physical evidence? Is he fully erect? Does he reach for her? In this version, he’s all talk. Is that intentional?
POV: What’s the point of view here? It needs to be stronger.
Fix that misplaced naked. This sentence reads better as: Bill stretched out naked along the side of the bed opposite the fruit and chocolate. Otherwise, it sounds like the fruit and chocolate are naked.
What old wives’ tale about pineapple?
The dialogue starts out interesting, but slips in to self-help cliches. Bill says, “Because I want you for who you are. Because I respect the hell out of you. Because I accept all that you are, and all that you aren’t. Because I don’t want to change a single thing. Because I don’t want to control you. Because I don’t need to have power over you to feel like a real man. And some other things that nicely pass the eye-test.”
Does he mean that? Or is he being ironic? We can’t tell.
The scene at the office is confusing: We don’t know it’s Faith talking until four sentences into the paragraph. Set the scene first, please. Tell us the time of day.
Now that we’re naked – what are we doing? What kind of story is this? What are we reading? Is this a mystery? A thriller? Crime fiction or adult fiction? A line or two, a little foreshadowing, can answer this questions: “Faith wanted rid of domestic abusers, and she knew the best way was to eliminate the men who hurt those women . . .” “Faith knew the best solution for domestic abusers was to stash them six feet under.” You can come up with better examples, but you know what I mean.
You’ve got the start of a fascinating first page here, Anonymous. Now make it live up to that potential.
What do you think, TKZers? Feel free to add your criticism – constructive criticism only, please. We writers have tender feelings.

Elaine Viets is the author of the critically acclaimed Brain Storm, an Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery. “Brain Storm has everything I love in crime fiction – complexity, intelligence, pretzel-plotting, and a touch of dark humor.”– PJ Parrish, New York Times bestselling author of She’s Not There and the award-winning Louis Kincaid series.
Brain Storm is an e-book, a trade paperback and audio book. Buy it here: http://tinyurl.com/hr7b9hn

 

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23 thoughts on “First Page Critique

  1. I liked the opening but the author lost me at the stream of, as noted, “self-help clichés”. It seems on the nose, so much that one has to wonder whether it’s being said sarcastically or self-consciously, in which case, a hint, say, of conflicting body language, of subtext, would have been a welcome addition.

    I’m not sure which genre this is aiming for. I seem to detect an undercurrent of sarcasm that tilts it towards comedy.
    I could be mistaken.

  2. My first thought was “Fondue? In bed?” Fondues have to be kept warm, or the stuff solidifies. Do they have a fondue pot with a naked flame with them in bed? Wouldn’t that be dangerous?

  3. I love being privy to a writer’s first page!

    I wanted to know their relationship. A word said affectionately would have been enough, even a kiss good-bye would have helped; or a comment that indicated they were bed partners only.

    I admit I am very literal so I did not care for her skipping down the hall–unless she actually was!

    I hope the writer will continue to work on this. It has great potential.

    • I agree this has great potential, Karen, and hope Anonymous will continue. Don’t be put off by the criticism. Every writer goes through this, and I’ve had my work blistered by editors. Keep on, Anonymous.

  4. I sort of don’t like either character just yet. They’re so liberally dated and nothing stands out for me that is real. They sound like hippies with idealistic visions and no substance, and this line is gross:

    “I hate men.” Faith sat on the bed cross-legged, Indian style, naked, dipping pineapple chunks and strawberries into chocolate fondue.

    Character named Faith, sitting cross-legged (Indian style is redundant) and naked on the bed leaves a really nasty connotation when paired with terms like dipping, chunks, and chocolate. The visual is not desirable to me.

    I’m not trying to be mean, but words juxtaposed to an image already conveyed can ruin the whole flow of a scene to me. After reading that, everything else was distasteful, not the writing. The writing is fine. I just couldn’t overlook the feeling I get when reading the first paragraph, and I’m not sure why completely.

  5. J. D. James deliberatly let’s the reader get to know the character before the crime happens, so the reader will care. That’s what is wrong here–l don’t know these people, so I don’t care. I wouldn’t read on. However, the same scene in context could be terrific.

  6. IMO this wasn’t a first page at all. It was a page from the middle, after characters and relationships are established. Other than the their names we learn almost nothing about the characters or what the story is about.

    If I picked this up in a bookstore and this were the first page I wouldn’t even make it to the bottom. HOWEVER, after I had some notion of the story and characters I would be perfectly fine with a scene like this.

    I hate to be this harsh, but that’s my opinion.

  7. “Because I want you for who you are. Because I respect the hell out of you. Because I accept all that you are, and all that you aren’t. Because I don’t want to change a single thing. Because I don’t want to control you. Because I don’t need to have power over you to feel like a real man. And some other things that nicely pass the eye-test.”

    Could be from any one of a dozen bad rom-coms, actually, as I look at it now, I think it is lifted as a chunk from Jerry McGuire. As others have said, make it sarcastic or better still ditch it for better.

    The characters are like post it notes with names on them. On page one I don’t need to know every guy Faith has ever said hello to, but something, anything to make her remotely real would be the place to start.

    As Avis said, fondue in bed is dangerous, not sexy. Chocolate sauce. A can of whipped cream to go with if you want to get steamier. Setting the bed on fire if this is actually a comedy or a way for Faith to hook up with a fire fighter.

    Monday and presumably later on Monday. Put a clock next to the bed. “Bill watched as 11:59 Sunday became 12:00 Monday.” would set the time. “Faith arrived at 7:54am. She liked being in the office ahead of her staff.” Actually, unless the time at the office matters drop it. Most office workers go to work on Monday mornings. “It is 9:00am, lets start this meeting.” not only tells the readers what time it is, it sets Faith as a get down to it kind of woman.

    Indian style. In addition to being redundant it is also considered offensive. Children in pre-school now sit ‘Cris Cross Applesauce’.

    “So I can include that cheating with a Hooters Girl Troy.” Now I know why he needs to be included.

  8. Great critique, Elaine. Especially with regard to the “self-help clichés” comment. That paragraph (along with the one where he tells her, “Go harass some men”, etc.) sound way more like the author’s fantasies of what she wants to hear from a man than what a man would actually say. It was almost as though Faith was speaking for both characters.

    I also completely agree that we, as readers, are lost as far as picturing who these people are. No descriptions, no identifying characteristics, nothing.

  9. Personal taste here, but I don’t like openings that are all dialogue. It’s coma-victim syndrome: Where am I? Who are these people? What year is it? There is no context at all to this opening. It just sits there, all alone — adrift on the bed, as Elaine so aptly put it — and we are left to fill in all the blanks, every single one of them. And scene one has no relationship, no bridge, to scene two. Were these two eating fondue in bed on Monday morning and then Faith went to work on same Monday? Makes no sense.

    I know the writer is going for a certain spare style here, but this is bones with no skin or beating heart.

    And I agree with the assessment that the man’s explanation of why he is with Faith sounds stilted…like it came from that column in the Sunday New York Times relationship column “Modern Love.” And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

    All this said, however, I applaud the writer for trying something a little different. I just need to have a reason to care about these people, and we need an established POV in the first scene because I *suspect* Faith is our protag, but there is no way to really tell.

  10. While I love chocolate, fruit, and fondue 😀, this opening doesn’t work for a couple of reasons:

    ♥ There is no conflict in this scene; it’s just bedroom banter. See Jodie Renner’s article about how all scenes need conflict here:

    http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/2012/04/every-scene-needs-tension-and-change.html

    The guy rolling over saying, “Oh, do you really, really have to leave?” isn’t conflict.

    ♥ If Faith is the protagonist, I want to feel more of her “attitude” in the scene. There’s a lot of dialogue but not much of a viewpoint character.

    ♥ The opening scene makes me feel like a peeping Tom. I don’t know these characters (yet), and I’m not ready for naked bodies and chocolate. Introduce your protagonist in another setting (perhaps at work), and allow the reader to gain some empathy before plunging into sex and fruit. Honestly, the “stay moist” line made me cringe. I have no problem with sex scenes, but unless the genre is erotica, character introductions should take place before dipping the pineapple and—um—anything else.

    ♥ The dialogue doesn’t seem realistic. Guys don’t typically sound like greeting cards when they talk. For example:

    “Because I want you for who you are. Because I respect the hell out of you. Because I accept all that you are, and all that you aren’t. Because I don’t want to change a single thing. Because I don’t want to control you. Because I don’t need to have power over you to feel like a real man. And some other things that nicely pass the eye-test.”

    Maybe the guys at TKZ can weigh in on this, but I think this guy is in need of some testosterone.

    ♥ Give the reader a few more dialogue tags and actions. Too many isn’t good, but a page of “talking heads” won’t do, either.

    ♥ The tone of this scene suggests that this might be a rom-com. The protagonist seems to have issues with domestic violence that she needs to overcome, perhaps in order to find love. Whatever this story is really about needs to be clarified. Spell it out for the reader. Think about what the protagonist’s story goal will be. What will the readers hope will happen for the protagonist? If the protagonist has domestic violence issues in her past, she’s awfully casual about fruit and sex with a male friend. I’m not sure if that’s where this story is going, but if so, I’d suggest doing some research on domestic violence.

    Have a great day, brave writer, and carry on! ♪♫♪♫♪♫

  11. For me, the opening didn’t quite make sense. I get that the opening line “I hate men” is strong and may make the reader question why, but that is quickly followed by the realisation that Faith is saying that to a man that she is in bed with. I need to know what sort of relationship they have for this to make sense. This is followed by the line “I only want to hate men that I knew before I was 24, so I can include Troy. But the list keeps growing.“ This line doesn’t make sense at all for me. Why put an age on it? If a character is going to hate all men, as the first line basically says, then there’s some before the age of 24 and some after. She could say something like, “At first I just hated Troy. But then the list kept growing.” This (to me) would be better.
    On the plus side, I don’t mind dialogue on the first page and I don’t remember ever reading a book that started with a scene similar to this one.
    Keep writing!

  12. From the page:

    “Why are you the only man I can stand to be around?”
    “Because I want you for who you are. Because I respect the hell out of you. Because I accept all that you are, and all that you aren’t. Because I don’t want to change a single thing. Because I don’t want to control you. Because I don’t need to have power over you to feel like a real man. And some other things that nicely pass the eye-test.”

    There may be men in the world who would speak this way to a woman, but very few indeed. It sounds to me like he’s ticking off a list he found in the Cosmo magazine sitting on the nighstand: “Traits of the Perfect Man”. I’d stop reading after that paragraph. Cheers.

  13. I liked the opening sentence. It did get my attention. But like the other critiques, it wasn’t plausible to have fondue on the bed. Strawberries and chocolate I could understand, but not the rest.
    Unfortunately, the author lost me. I didn’t know anything about the relationship and what was really between them.
    Critique was very good and with changes, I’m sure the story would have potential.

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