First Page Critique ‘Beware of Geeks Bearing Grifts’

Jordan Dane


Bernie Madoff – DOJ photo 2009

The title of this anonymous submission gives us a clue on what this story might be about. At first pass, I had misgivings about mixing the tension of finding Granny’s body with the humor of this voice, but the title made me realize this is the voice of a grifter. I’ll have my thoughts on the flip side. Please share yours in the comments.


The pissy mood that sprang up when the supermarket was out of my favorite brand of salsa, evaporated at the sight of my grandmother sprawled at the foot of the stairs. I peeled the plastic bags off my right arm and dropped them on the needlepoint bench in the entryway.

“Nana?” My voice boomed in the silence of the house.

I don’t know why I said anything. It’s not like I expected an answer. I didn’t have to be a medic to interpret the sideways tilt of her head and the ninety-degree wrong way bend of her knee. There was also no need to call in the CSI team to figure out what happened. The old wood floors had soaked up most of the gin, but the outline of the shiny stain hinted that the broken glass had been full. The near-empty bottle near her head told me the glass had been refilled more than once. The cherry on top of this shit sundae was the bunched-up throw rug about halfway down the stairs.

I sat cross-legged, with my back against the elephant ear plant, sipping the dregs of her booze. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than a cigarette. I’d kicked in prison, it was easier than hustling, but if I had a pack right now, I’d be blazing up as fast as I could suck them down. I thought about calling the cops and even reached for my phone. Then, through the light liquor haze, I remembered the last time I’d voluntarily talked to the law. I’d stepped into the interrogation room and hadn’t seen daylight again for two years. I was an ex-con with a dead body on the floor and my name on all her financial accounts. I spun the bottle across the floor like a stone on a pond.

No cops.

Without a death certificate I couldn’t arrange a funeral, and even if I could, there was no money to give her the nice send-off she’d always wanted. Fixing the roof had drained most of the proceeds from the reverse mortgage. The words reverse mortgage sobered me up faster than a pot of hot coffee. The minute the bank heard that grandma had kicked they’d swoop in and take the house faster than I could say next-of-kin.


Overview: Feeling a little larcenous? After I imagined this guy coming across his dear Nana planted at the foot of the stairs (completely potted), and seeing him plop down for a drink to shrewdly think through his dilemma, I had to chuckle. Forget about a forensics team determining time of death and that his grocery receipt may give him an alibi, he’s an ex-con who would cause a good detective to put him at the top of his suspect list. What comes next for this grifter could be lots of fun.

INTRO – I would start with “Nana?” to focus on the inciting disturbance. With this being a grifter and the dark humor is apparent, I would take some of the first paragraph and add it as follows:

REWRITE example:

“Nana?” My voice boomed in the silence of the house. With my grandmother sprawled at the foot of the stairs, I forgave the supermarket for not having my favorite brand of salsa and set down my grocery bags.

POV – I’m assuming this is a man, but there is nothing that indicates this, other than reading between the lines. A way to remedy this is to have him chastise himself, using his own name, when he gets riled or finding another way to clarify gender before the reader gets too far into the narrative.

1.) With the fall breaking her drinking glass, I can buy a shine left on the floor might indicate it was nearly full, but the author may want to describe the nearly empty gin bottle was unbroken. Did it have a cap on? Otherwise the shine on the floor may have come from the bottle tipping and spilling.
2.) The throw rug that caused her fall should probably be clearer that it was on the landing. I thought at first this was a stair runner or wondered why a throw rug had been on the steps.
3.) Why would she be carrying the bottle and the glass as she walked on the stairs? Was she going upstairs for bed and it was her usual habit to drink up there? She would have to be going up the stairs. I don’t know why she would be coming downstairs with the bottle and glass. Most people keep their booze downstairs.

The paragraphs strike me as too many ideas lumped into each long train of thought. If the author broke up the elements, it would showcase the dark humor more.

REWRITE example:
I sat cross-legged, with my back against the elephant ear plant, sipping the dregs of her booze. I hated drinking alone. I raised a glass to Nana and craved a cigarette. Why the hell did I ever give up smoking? Oh, right, I remember. Selling smokes in prison had been easier than hustling.

I thought about calling the cops and even reached for my phone until deja vu cured me of stupidity. The last time I’d voluntarily talked to the law, I’d stepped into the interrogation room and hadn’t seen daylight again for two years.

I assessed my situation from a cop’s point of view. One dead body, check. One ex-con at the scene–that would be me–double check. Only one name on all the financial accounts of the dearly departed–yes, me again–trifecta check. DING! DING! DING! We have a winner.

FLOW – As I stated before, breaking apart a weighty paragraph might highlight the character’s thoughts better, show his dark humor, and highlight his train of thought flow better.

REWRITE (broken into 2 paragraphs):
Step one had to be no cops. Done, decision made. Step two, I needed a proper death certificate. Without legit paper, no funeral. Nana deserved a nice send off, but the funds from her reverse mortgage were nearly gone after fixing her roof.

Shit! The reverse mortgage sobered me faster than a good slap to the face. The minute the bank realized grandma had kicked it, they’d swoop in and take the house faster than I could say, ‘next of kin.’ Nana would’ve wanted me to have the house. That left me with only one choice.

I like where this is going, because it seems as if our ex-con has a scheme to grift grandma’s death into a fiasco. Reminds me of FARGO. I would encourage the author to get over the top with what this guy does. FARGO was based on real events. Keep piling on the absurd situation while you keep the protag deadly earnest with his situation. There’s load of potential for this plot and I love the dark humor of it.

Where do you see this story going, TKZers? Constructive comments on the writing would be appreciated.

VIGILANTE JUSTICE (Available Now) $1.99 Ebook
In Montana, when a disturbing pattern of missing teens and college students falls under the FBI’s radar, former CIA operative Mercer Broderick fears the violent abductions are at the heart of a dark web of conspiracy that must be stopped and Brotherhood Protectors won’t be denied from the fight.

This entry was posted in #amwriting, first page critique, Writing and tagged , , by Jordan Dane. Bookmark the permalink.

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

7 thoughts on “First Page Critique ‘Beware of Geeks Bearing Grifts’

  1. Brave author, thanks for submitting this fun piece. The black humor would keep me reading. The planting of backstory details w/o an info dump was skillfully done.

    In comedy, timing and delivery are crucial. Jordan’s rewrites improved both.

    Personally I didn’t have a problem visualizing that Nana fell *down* the stairs after slipping on the throw rug at the top. A serious alcoholic would clutch the bottle like a baby’s pacifier, and conceivably could be carrying it downstairs to work on her needlepoint in the living room. But a little more clarity about the choreography never hurts.

    Good solid start. Looking forward to seeing this published.

  2. I like the black humor in this one, too, Jordan. I see a few minor editing problems: “I’d kicked in prison, it was easier than hustling, but if I had a pack right now, I’d be blazing up as fast as I could suck them down” should maybe be changed to “I’d kicked the habit in prison, it was easier than hustling, but if I had a pack right now. . .”
    A good, strong voice, brave author, and a unique tale. Give us more.

    • Thanks, Elaine. This was a fun submission because it was unexpected.

      I read Bill Cameron’s LOST DOG about a kleptomaniac who gets caught up in a murder. Such a great book with a unusual anti-hero who is a recovering criminal. Elements of this intro (the unexpected protag) reminded me of Bill’s debut novel.

  3. I really liked this one. It feels fresh, both in main character and voice. I like the way the writer balanced the action at hand and the backstory. The writer gave me enough backstory about the ex con to get me intrigued but not too much as to bore me. Love the fact the writer opens by dropping us right into a disrupted situation…kudos there. I don’t even mind the slow opening graph. (Probably because — personal taste here! — I don’t like books that open with dialogue. Love how the writer uses small details…”peeled the bags off my shoulder” the elephant ear plant that seems to take root in every ugly apartment lobby.

    Jordan’s points are to point of course, but keep going writer!

  4. I like this page. Apart from needing a few basic edits, it’s got voice, tension, and pinpoint pacing, all evident in just a few brief paragraphs. This is how it’s done.

Comments are closed.