First Page Critique:
Let’s Get Logical, Logical!

By PJ Parrish

We have a submission today that is a good object lesson for all of us on the need to create an opening set-up that doesn’t leave the reader doing a Scooby-Doo. I’ll be back in a second to explain. Thanks to the writer for submitting!

INNOCENT VAMPIRE GIRLS

My name is Victoria Milford. According to The Sunset Heat, a local newsletter, I’m “The 24 year old, dark haired, sexy part owner, of the Sunset Strip nightclub; ‘Climaxes’.”

We serve drinks and we have live entertainment on the weekends. On weeknights, 25 year old Harry Edelstein is in the D/J booth.

Around 9 P.M. on a Tuesday night, business was slow. Less than half the tables were occupied. The recorded music blared, but not loud enough to drown out any conversation.

I was seated at the bar, going over some paperwork, when a guy sat on the stool beside me.

“Evening Victoria.” He spoke cheerfully. “Can I buy you something to drink?”

He was Jake; a mean looking dude in his late 20s, wearing a black leather jacket. He had a firm build and curly, light colored hair. He’d been showing up almost every night for the past two weeks, with a ditzy blonde chic named Rosalyn. She also had a mean look to her, but neither of them had caused any trouble. Tonight he was alone.

“Thank you Jake.” I told him, “Maybe you haven’t heard, but I’m part owner of the Club. I’m the one who buys drinks for customers. Not the other way around.”

“Then I’ll have my usual.”

I said, “That was slick, but you’re the one who has to pay for the drinks first.”

Then I asked, “So where’s your girlfriend, what’s her name? Rosalyn?”

“She’s on ice.”

“‘On ice’?” I said scornfully, “You mean you haven’t broken up with her, but you’re now on the prowl?”

“That’s partly correct.”

“What part?”

“When I said ‘She’s on ice’, I meant that literally. Right now she’s hanging upside down and naked, inside a freezer with the lights off.”

I laughed. “If that’s what dating you leads to, forget it. I don’t mind a little bit kinky, but risking death…”

“That wasn’t a joke Vick.”

“Yeah. Right.”

“You see, our employer doesn’t take any lip from any of their employees.”

“Don’t you think that’s kind of excessive? Every now and then I have to give somebody a good talking to, and that’s enough.”

“I said I wasn’t joking. We are employed by the Legal Department of Vidamort Corp. Our employer enforces Company rules, in a way that we employees never forget.”

I said, “Legal Department? You don’t look like a lawyer to me; and Rosalyn just doesn’t seem like someone who could pass any kind of a bar exam.”

“Roxy and I aren’t lawyers.” He told me, “She and I enforce company policy, in a way that our clients never forget.”

I said, “Enforcers?”

He said, “Vidamort Corp. wants me to explain Company policy to you Ms. Milford, in a way you’ll never forget.”

________________

I’m back. There are probably some of you out there who don’t remember Scooby-Doo. He was the Great Dane mascot in a 1960s cartoon featuring a band of young detectives. He was easily confused, and his favorite response was “huh?” Whenever I see a passage in a manuscript (including my own) that doesn’t quite make sense, I call it a Scooby-Doo Problem.  This, I think, is what we’re dealing with here in this submission.

I know we don’t cotton to hard and fast rules here at TKZ. But there is a cardinal rule in writing fiction: Don’t confuse the reader. Confusion is not the same as misdirection. The latter is a terrific tool in the novelist’s bag, especially for mysteries and thrillers.  Artful writers use misdirection to slip in vital information without hitting readers over the head, to change up pacing, to plant clues that may or may not later blossom (see Red Herrings), and to create characters that are not what they really seem to be (see Unreliable Narrator).  Some examples off the top of my head: the movies The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects and Pulp Fiction. Novels: Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, and in The DaVinci Code, the villain Aringarosa (whose name translates almost literally as red herring.)

Think of misdirection as the sleight-of-hand you see in magic acts. A great magician might do something to grab the audience’s attention. And in those moments of distraction, he is able to set up the trick’s pay-off.

So misdirection — good. But confusion? That’s a whole ‘nother kettle of red herrings. If your writing is simply unclear, you frustrate readers and they give up. What constitutes “unclear”?  Maybe we can’t tell what is physically happening, like a fist fight that is badly choreographed or simple movements of characters in place or time. Maybe the dialogue makes no sense in that a man says something and a woman responds with a non sequitur.  Maybe the writer hasn’t given us enough information for us to figure out where we are geographically or in time.  So we are left, like Scooby-Doo, going “huh?”

Okay, let’s apply this to today’s submission.  On first glance, this isn’t bad. We know who our protag is likely to be (because we get a Sue Grafton “My name is Kinsey Millhone” first-person opening graph.)  We know where we are — in a nightclub, maybe a strip club? — because the character tells us, also in the first graph.

But then things sort of get murky fast. When a mean-looking dude shows up, the dialogue begins to drift into illogical-land. Suddenly, things just don’t add up, the main character’s believability becomes compromised, and the set-up of the dead woman in the cooler veers off toward comedy.  Let’s take a look at this with Track Change edits:

My name is Victoria Milford. According to The Sunset Heat, a local newsletter, a newsletter is usually an in-house organ I’m “The 24 year old, dark haired, sexy part owner, of the Sunset Strip nightclub; ‘Climaxes’.” I’m not crazy about this opening.  We’ve seen it a million times, and it’s a prime example of “telling” ie  the newsletter used as a device to convey age, physical description, job, and that she’s “sexy.”  Find a way to SHOW this through the dialogue and plot.

We serve drinks and we have live entertainment on the weekends. On weeknights, 25 year old Harry Edelstein is in the D/J booth. You are wasting critical space on irrelevant info. Of course a nighclub does all of this. Lose this. Especially since adding Harry’s name (he’s a spear-carrier) clogs things up.

Around 9 P.M. on a Tuesday night, business was slow. Less than half the tables were occupied. The recorded music blared, but not loud enough to drown out any conversation.  Maybe the story starts here? Drop us smack into the place and moment. And you really need some scene-setting here. 

I was seated at the bar, going over some paperwork, This is where you SHOW us what her job is. I was seating at the bar signing the payroll checks. I hated the busy work but it had fallen to me, as half-owner of Climaxes, to do it since my partner Joe Blow went to prison (or whatever) when a guy sat slid? onto the stool beside me.

“Evening Victoria.” He spoke cheerfully. You call him mean-looking. That’s at odds with “cheerful.” Find a better way to convey his mood.  His voice had the bounce of too much booze. “Can I buy you something to drink?”

He was Jake; I smiled when I read this because “Jake” is actually an adjective meaning a good guy in old detective lingo. a mean looking dude this is generic. Can you describe what “mean” looks via Victoria’s consciousness? She works in a nightclub and “mean” probably means something very different to her than it would to a woman who works at Macy’s. in his late 20s, wearing a black leather jacket. He had a firm build and curly, light colored hair. He’d been showing up almost every night for the past two weeks, with a ditzy blonde chic named Rosalyn. She also had a mean look ditto to her, but neither of them had caused any trouble. Tonight he was alone.

“Thank you Jake.should be no thanks, Jake. I told him, “Maybe you haven’t heard, but I’m part owner of the Club. We know this and so does Jake if he’s regular enough to call her by first name I’m the one who buys drinks for customers. Not the other way around.”

“Then I’ll have my usual.”

I said, “That was slick, but you’re the one who has to pay for the drinks first.”

Hit pause: Here’s where the dialogue gets really fuzzy. Vick said I buy the drinks but then she says HE has to pay for it?

More logic lapses. I THINK Victoria could care less about this apparent loser, yet she is the one who keeps the conversation going below. And what happened to the paperwork she was doing? Maybe give Jake a line or two more that rachets up the tension (we don’t have any yet, by the way). Why is Jake here tonight? Why has he chosen to sit down by the owner and spill his guts? You need to set this up better for us to buy it or get interested.

Then I asked, “So where’s your girlfriend, what’s her name? Rosalyn?”  Both she and we already know this.  Just go with: “So where’s Rosalyn?” But why would she care? Is she just making small talk? This question is not logical. 

“She’s on ice.”

“‘On ice’?” I said scornfully, show me don’t tell me. Maybe she lets out a snort of derision. “You mean you haven’t broken up with her, but you’re now on the prowl? I am not sure what Vick means here.

“That’s partly correct.”  Again, this is a non sequitur. It doesn’t logically follow what she said above. She asked if they had broken up, so what is “partly correct” about that? Dialogue must be logical in its statements and responses.

“What part?”

“When I said ‘She’s on ice’, I meant that literally. Right now she’s hanging upside down and naked, inside a freezer with the lights off.” Okay, finally we have tension. We have  disturbance in the norm. But again, I have to ask, why is he telling her this? Vick has to AT LEAST have a thought about this.  Like:  Jake had been coming into the club for weeks but I could count on one hand the number of times he had talked to me. Why the hell was he getting so personal all of a sudden?  WHAT IS SHE THINKING? The guy just said his girlfriend is hanging in a meat locker and Vick has no thoughts? Don’t be afraid to go into internal monologues in your character’s mind. It is a great way to convey plot and you really really need it in first person POV. 

I laughed. More logic problems. I can’t tell what the tone of this book is going to be. Light and humorous? Sassy? Dark and moody? I THINK we might be in fantasy land but I am guessing that only because of the overly literal title with “vampires.” Why would a statement that Rosalyn might be dead elicit a laugh? “If that’s what dating you leads to, forget it. I don’t mind a little bit kinky, but risking death…” Another huh? moment here. Why would Victoria even mention dating? 

“That wasn’t a joke Vick.”

“Yeah. Right.” The dialogue really needs to work harder to advance the set-up.

You see, our employer doesn’t take any lip from any of their employees.” This doesn’t sound like Jake talking. He’s a borderline low-life. “You see…” is rather academic. I don’t see him using that. Pay attention to character’s voices. “Well, my dumb-ass boss doesn’t take no lip from the workers.”  (or whatever works)

Also logic again. This sort of implies (in Vick’s lack of logical response) that she already knows what he does. There is no graceful transition from what came right before.  Find a way for Jake to LOGICALLY segue into talking about his job.  Find a way to link Roz in the freezer to his boss.  And why doesn’t Jake seem to have no response of his own to the fact that his girlfriend is hanging naked in a meat locker? Is this meant to be humorous? Vick has to at least think it’s weird that he talks about it so casually.   

“Don’t you think that’s kind of excessive? Every now and then I have to give somebody a good talking to, and that’s enough.” Logic again. What is “kind of excessive”?  The last thing Jake said was his employer doesn’t take lip.

“I said I wasn’t joking. We are employed by the Legal Department of Vidamort Corp. Our employer enforces Company rules, in a way that we employees never forget.”  Clunky exposition here. Again, Jake wouldn’t talk like this — “we are employed?”…”We work for.” And they only thing relevant is that he works on the down-low for the legal department of a corporation. And I have to ask yet again — why is Victoria even wasting time with this guy? You need to set-up this interchange between two characters to be more believable.

I said, “Legal Department? You don’t look like a lawyer to me; and Rosalyn just doesn’t seem like someone who could pass any kind of a bar exam.” Me-ow. 🙂

“Roxy and I aren’t lawyers.” He told me,She and I  We enforce company policy, in a way that our clients never forget.”

I said, “Enforcers?” He never used the word “enforcers.” All we’re getting here is talk talk talk.  If you are using first person, you must go into the character’s head. What is she thinking about this creepy guy? 

He said, “Vidamort Corp. wants me to explain Company policy to you Ms. Milford, in a way you’ll never forget.”  Man, I am totally confused by now.  Jake has suddenly morphed into a threatening figure. It comes out of nowhere.  Maybe if you set it up better via Vick’s thoughts — she mentions that he never gave anyone trouble yet suddenly he’s coming on like a mafia hit man. And why did he suddenly go from calling her “Vick” to “Ms. Milford”? Give this some context.  Make it make sense. 

Some last general comments.  We talk often here about finding the optimal moment to begin your story. I call this the parachuting-in moment.  I think the writer got into this scene way too early with graphs of throat-clearing. S/he could also use a few quick brush-strokes to show me where we are. You TOLD me it’s a nightclub (with a raunchy name) yet I can’t see it, smell it, hear it.  Full disclosure: I have been in strip clubs on slow Tuesday nights (doing a story in my newspaper days) and it’s a pretty depressing scene but ripe for writers. Again, this goes to tone.  We can’t tell what kind of book this is because we get no descriptive details or thoughts from the protag. You can also slip in hints about how she feels about her job — good, bad, indifferent?  Start building your character’s onion layers as early as you can. Right now, Victoria is sort of a cipher. All we know is that she is “sexy,” according to a newsletter.  It might be fun, if you use that, to give us a zinger line about how SHE feels about that.

Thanks for submitting, writer. Comments open!

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

19 thoughts on “First Page Critique:
Let’s Get Logical, Logical!

  1. Too many writers believe that honoring the “rules” destroys creativity. Okay, so call them ‘tools’ and learn when to use them and when and why to ignore them. But the one rule that governs in almost every situation (except sometimes in humor) is the rule in favor of clarity. PJ, I love that you picked up on the lack of clarity here, because when I see lack of clarity–and logic, especially in characters’ motivations–I stop reading.

    The writer often doesn’t see the lack of clarity because what’s in their head explains it all. The problem is that what’s in the writer’s head hasn’t made it to the page. That’s why having a critique partner or group can be so important.

    One pet peeve of mine is the habit of describing people by their clothes or by giving a laundry list of hair, eyes, whatever. It’s difficult (at least, for me–but I am not alone) to make that kind description fresh and interesting. What about painting a picture with only one element of the person’s physical description, e.g., he had more dandruff than hair, or he looked like a man who ate too fast and talked with his mouth full. Think about finding something key to the character that can create a reaction in the reader and give the reader a real sense of who this person is, whether you’d want to have lunch with them–or not.

    Openings are another bone of contention for me. Preferably–but not always possible–I like to get an inkling of what the story’s going to be about, a hint about the major conflict, and a disturbance, especially in genre fiction. The trifecta is always my goal, but I rarely achieve it Two out of three ain’t bad, but if there isn’t at least one of these, I may read a couple more paragraphs, and if one of these three hasn’t shown up by then, I stop reading. Unless, of course, the writing itself is exceptional. In that case, I’ll read a few more pages. I like PJ’s suggestion about where this story could start, however, it needs more.

    One tool that helps me to analyze whether a scene has both logic and enough characterization is the Stimulus and Response tool. Does the first sentence create a Stimulus for the Response in the next sentence, which then becomes the Stimulus for the next sentence or idea. Then when you apply the tool to a character, you can easily identify where the character would react in some logical way, and when that character reacts, you have a great opportunity to reveal more about that character and more about the situation–and you can even sneak in a tiny bit of backstory. Each time a character doesn’t react, you’ve missed an opportunity. You can go overboard with this, of course. Not everything that happens needs an explicit reaction from the character, either via interior monologue, dialogue, or body language. The challenge is to find those places where the reaction is absolutely necessary, and then to use that opportunity to its fullest advantage.

    One thing this writer has is a good sense of using a kicker to end a scene or to make the reader want to read more of the scene, but there’s no appropriate build-up and no reason for the reader to care about what might happen to Victoria. We don’t know what she wants, even by the end of that day/night.

    If I were this writer, I’d take a break from the actual writing to review/read a couple of books on the craft of writing strong scenes and how scenes are used to move the story forward. Then go back to this scene and work on it until it feels stronger–until it feels right. When you’ve written enough scenes, you do get to a point where you know when a scene feels right, not perfect yet, but right. Whatever you need to do in terms of studying, reading and writing to get to that point is worth the effort because it feels so damned good.

      • Excellent insights, Sheryl. You are so right about the disconnect between what we “see” in the movie going on in our head and what comes out on paper. Translating our ambitious visions into something others would like to enjoy is our hardest task. We all tangle with this. I am grateful for having a co-author in moments like this!

  2. BTW, I’m surprised that more of your followers don’t comment or provide feedback on these excerpts. Perhaps they don’t realize that critiquing is an extremely valuable learning tool?

    • They sometimes do…I had one writer who wrote back to our email person, who forwarded it on to me. She was extremely grateful for the feedback and did major rewrites. I offered to read the second version and it was vastly improved.

        • Agree 100%, Sheryl. Critiquing is just as valuable to the critiquer as it is for the writer whose work is being critiqued. I love critique groups for that very reason. I often leave little comments on these first page critiques, and I read what other writers have said in their critiques. There’s always something new to learn by doing this.

          In the case of this particular first page, there were way too many typos and grammar mistakes which threw me off the rails, to say nothing of the confusion PJ pointed out in her initial critique.

        • Oh yeah, definitely! When you are forced to analyze and articulate other’s work, you learn a lot. It’s one reason I love doing it.

  3. I wasn’t confused so much as jarred in reading this submission. For example, I think I got why Victoria said, “Don’t you think that’s kind of excessive?” She was referring to Jake’s remark several lines earlier about the body in the freezer. It was jarring to read it several lines later. It was jarring when Victoria didn’t react to the comment about Roslyn hanging in the freezer–not in her thoughts nor in her words–in a way that makes sense. She laughs. Is it because she thinks he’s kidding. Why would she think that? What is his manner, his body language in telling her this that might not have her take him seriously?

    I too found myself jarred/stopped by the character descriptions. They were too similar–the style of talking about clothing, hair, etc.–and obviously inserted as a way to give information. It didn’t help me know the characters much better.

    In the set-up, Victoria is part owner. At no point did I get the sense another owner was a dark corporation with enforcers in their legal department. The image I got was of a small business with other individual owners. So the last line came as a jarring shock rather than as the turning of the screw the author intended.

    Instead of opening with the newsletter description, perhaps opening with Victoria worrying over a spreadsheet that’s in the red and anticipating corporate boss’s anger would start us off with tension. The end would make sense while still being surprising–she’s in more trouble than she thought.

    Keep going, anon. Victoria has the potential to be an interesting protagonist.

    • Good input, Jagoda. I like your idea of opening with Victoria fretting over something involving work. It would be a good means of getting us into the story faster and giving us some info about the woman herself. “She’s in more trouble than she thought…” That line from you begins to inject some sort of tension even before we get to poor Roz.

      Your point about dialogue following logically is well-taken. If someone says something, you the writer can’t let too much time and graphs go by before we get the response. And a certain statement demands a logical response.

  4. The last few first pages were notable because of their voice. This, I think, lacks it because we know nothing about the main character. She’s a stereotypical woman; sexy does not impress me, in fact, it turns me off. And the guy does not impress me either. Words like “sexy” “mean-looking” and “dark-haired” are very subjective and reveal practically nothing.

    The paperwork is also very tupical, and seems to be just a means for her to do something before Jake comes in. I remember in one of my earliest short stories, I had Hades doing paperwork just so Persephone could interrupt, even though I knew very well that Greek gods don’t do paperwork. And paperwork could mean any number of things. She could be doing it for work, yes, but she could just as easily be doing her own taxes, signing her kids school syllabi, applying for her passport, or filling out an evaluation for the concert she went to last week. Specificity is what this piece is lacking.

    I also understood what Victoria was referring to. It is actually an easy fix: “I said to his comment about Roselan’s punishment. Although, truthfully, I thought she was hanging upside down by her choice since she is “mean-looking”

    To avoid talking heads, put in internal thoughts, hand movements, facial expressions, and the noise of other people.

    I was not confused by this piece as much as I was bored and wondering when the conversation will get going. Dialogue is something that can’t be copied from real life, each line needs a purpose.

    • Double yes, to your point about generic descriptions. Such over-used words as “handsome” “beautiful” et al are devalued to the point of boring. They mean everything so thus mean nothing. And good point about voice, referring to some of our recent submissions. I agree.

  5. As I have mentioned before, I think I’m better at the 10,000 foot level than critiquing the craft level. Thank goodness many of you are are excellent at it.

    So, fasten you seat belts and place your tray in the upright and locked position. Here I go.

    We know that Victoria is a young woman who hasn’t lived long enough to have a history of solving crimes.
    We know that Victoria and Jake do not have a close personal relationship.
    We know that Victoria and Roslyn do not have a close personal relationship.
    We know that Victoria is deeply involved in making her business a success.
    Then, why in the world would Jake bring this horrible crime to her for help? What can she offer him that would make the situation better?
    When he tells her that his girlfriend is hung like meat, she should ask the bartender for the house phone, give it to Jake, and tell him to call the cops.

    So far, this piece doesn’t make sense. Maybe this will all be addressed in the next 400 words, but right now all the questions I have are about the logic of the scene and not the scene itself.

    How about this. Jake owns a shady bar called ‘For Jake’s Sake’. He was a pro football linebacker for one and a half sessions until his back was injured. He became a cop. He ended up as a suspect in the murder investigation of a street creep who was found dead in his jail cell. Then Jake did a stint as a pro wrestler named ‘The Montauk Monster’, but his back flared up again. Then he bought the bar. (Of course we don’t know all of this at first but a few hints like a photo or two on the wall might work)
    He’s sitting at the bar sipping a tonic and lime and contemplating the pros and cons of taking the juke box out and putting in a karaoke machine. He checks his watch – one thirty in the morning. He tells the bartender to start the clean up
    Then Victoria walks into the bar. Bogie’s ‘gin joint’ lines goes through Jake’s mind, because Victoria had been a problem in the past. She says, “Can you help me?” Then she collapses on the floor.

    • Hey, I’d read on! But what if we put a spin on your “dame walks into a gin joint” trope:

      Victoria is a former pro soccer player whose career went south when her knees blew out. She’s scratching out a living as as PI and trying to keep her late dad’s bar going. The bar is called Vic’s. She’s sitting at the bar, sipping her gin and tonic and contemplating the karaoke angle when a gorgeous man walks into the bar. She sort of recognizes him but can’t remember from where. Hunk-man asks “Can you help me?” But before she can answer he collapses on the floor, knife in his back.

      Just trying to update things a tad. :))

  6. Really useful critique, PJ.. Totally agree about the generic descriptions — mean-looking, sexy, etc. If the club owner is really talking to a man who just killed a woman by locking her in a freezer, I’d expect more a reaction — backing away, pushing the panic button under the bar top, reaching for the gun or ball bat she keeps there.
    You have a fascinating idea, writer — hope you’ll keep working on it.

  7. Thank you all. I am the writer of this piece you’ve critiqued. There are some things I should explain. This is not a new piece of writing that I’ve just begun. It is the first 400 words of a novella of mine titled “Innocent Vampire Gals” which can be found at http://www.webook.com/project/Innocent-Vampire-Gals .
    The novella consists of almost 36,000 words, divided into 21 chapters, on 111 microsoftword format pages.
    The plot summary describes what’s actually going on, which is different from what I’ve read in all these critiques. The plot summary states:
    “A shady woman nightclub owner is killed by a blackmailing vampire. She comes back as a vampire herself, and is then suspected in the vampire killing of her absentee business partner’s ex-girlfriend.”
    All I’m asking is that you give it a chance. The first 400 words really aren’t enough; and believe me, it does get better.

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