First Page Critique: Where To Start The Story

By Mark Alpert

Hooray! Last Thursday I finished the first draft of my latest novel and sent the manuscript to my editor at St. Martin’s. Now, as I await her comments, I’ll take a stab at editing a first-page submission from one of our anonymous contributors.

Title: The Crichlow Chronicles

On the port

23rd November 2016, 9pm

Crichlow bundled his raven dreadlocks into the woogie from his wrist and
slid his cellphone across the pock-marked kitchen table. The evening
breeze drew a bead of sweat from his temple and brought into the kitchen
the chatter of people moving through the shanty like ants. But Crichlow’s
mind was elsewhere. He narrowed his gaze, struggling not to watch Shenice,
almost naked in her cheap g-string busy at the metal sink that looked out
into the tiny yard. Her narrow caramel back blossomed into rounded
buttocks so supple the sight of them made Crichlow fidget every time.

But he had to focus. He tapped out two words on his cell almost
imperceptibly. Even as she was turned away from his gaze, Crichlow could
tell by the slight shift of her hips that Shenice knew he was watching
her. The words were: “Moving now”, and with that he hit send and lay the
phone down silently, sliding it under the folded Express newspaper.

Far below, the port lights drench the warped tarmac: a crane light traced
the trajectory of a 40-ft steel container, placing it behind a tumbled wall
overgrown with vines. On spot you would have heard a fat rat squeal its
way along the cracked concrete. Crichlow, dressed in navy trunks that were
stretched taut across his onyx thighs, stood and took two lithe steps
across the uneven floor of the board house to stand beside her. He could
feel the heat coming off her lean shoulders and with a finger he delicately
traced the line of her collar bone. Out of the corner of his eye he noted
the movement of the port crane light far below and swore silently. He
would have to get down to Wrightson Road and back before the night was
done. But there was another more pressing matter: first he would need to
tire Shenice to sleep, and he knew just how. When he had joined the SIA
field agents, the others had joked: “Prof – there’s always work to be
done.” He had grinned to peals of laughter from the other men around the
table. “Know your priorities,” another had chimed in, “then make sure and
get them all done.”

So, tonight that was his plan.

He turned his head slightly, away from the opening that was their kitchen
“window” to watch Shenice directly, just as she swivelled round…

The first sentence got my attention, mostly because of “woogie.” I love that word! I could tell from the context that it’s a hair tie of some kind, and after a bit of Googling I learned that it’s a British Caribbean term, used in places such as Jamaica and Trinidad. At first I thought this might also be a clue to the geographic location of this scene, but later on there’s a mention of the Express, which is a newspaper in the U.K., so then I began to wonder whether the characters were Caribbeans who’d emigrated to a port city in England? On the other hand, Shenice is doing the dishes in her G-string, which suggests a more tropical location. I usually like to know right away where a novel is set, so unless the author has a very compelling reason to keep the location secret, I recommend that he/she mention the name of the port city at the very beginning of the piece. (Instead of “On the port,” which is maddeningly vague, especially given how specific the time stamp is — 9 pm on November 23rd!)

The second sentence confused me, though. How could the evening breeze “draw” the bead of sweat from Crichlow’s temple? Is the breeze evaporating the drop of sweat or triggering the secretion of a new one? I’d pick a different verb to replace “drew” – maybe “dried” if that’s what the author means. And the second part of the sentence was even more confusing. Maybe that’s because I think of “shanty” as a single dwelling, but the author perhaps intends it to mean the whole neighborhood of shanties where the scene is set. If that’s the case, he/she should replace it with “shantytown” or something similar. And the ant metaphor doesn’t work here, because the author is describing the chatter of the people in the shantytown, and ants hardly make any noise at all when they’re scurrying around. Besides, no metaphor is needed; just change it to “the chatter of people moving through the alleys of the shantytown” or something like that. In the first few sentences, it’s usually best to keep things concrete. Save the metaphors for later.

I’ve always been a huge fan of nudity, but the image of Shenice at the sink in her G-string struck me as a bit odd. I’m not knocking it; I’m just saying it’s not typical dishwashing attire, even in the tropics. Later on, in the second paragraph, Crichlow senses that Shenice is putting on this show for his benefit, but I think he would’ve realized it earlier. If it happened to me, I’d be like “Whoa!” right from the start. Also, why call it a “cheap” G-string? That seemed kind of petty, as if Crichlow were thinking, “Yeah, she put on a G-string, but it’s not the fancy Victoria’s Secret number, so I’m not impressed.” And then there’s the awkward juxtaposition of the cell phone message “Moving now” right after the description of Shenice’s shifting hips. It’s not until the third paragraph that we realize that Crichlow is describing the decidedly unsexy motion of a crane and a shipping container.

Which brings me to what I think is the main problem with this opening: It’s not starting at the right place. One of the best places to start a thriller is at the inciting incident, the event that sets the plot in motion. In the case of this novel, I think the inciting incident is Crichlow’s observation of the moving crane, which is important enough to him that he sends the news to whomever he’s communicating with on the cell phone. But if this is truly the book’s crucial opening event, the author needs to fully describe Crichlow’s reaction to it: was he expecting it to happen now, or is it happening too soon? Does it make him nervous, or is he taking it in stride like a cool, calm professional SIA agent? (That acronym bothered me too. Is it a real intelligence agency? If it’s fictional, why make it so similar to CIA?) Later on, Crichlow looks at the light again and “swore silently,” which made me think that things were going awry somehow, but I’m just guessing. I want to be in his head more. I want to know what he’s feeling.

Perhaps Crichlow is simply upset that he needs to go out and do some spy work, but he’d rather have some cheap phone sex with Shenice right now. But in the end he decides he has time to do both: first sex, then spying. And that also struck me as odd. His hope is that she’ll fall asleep right after sex, and then he’ll be free to go down to the port, but what if she doesn’t fall asleep afterwards? What if she wants to talk instead? It’s been known to happen. And if the movement of the shipping container is truly the momentous, inciting incident of the book, then it should require urgent, immediate action on the part of the narrator. How long is the sex going to take? I assume that Shenice will need to have an orgasm before she can fall asleep, so we’re talking more than two or three minutes. Won’t Crichlow be worried about the shipping containers for sale los angeles in the meantime? Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to come up with an excuse — “Gotta go, Shenice, there’s an emergency at work” — and take care of business first?

But this is all assuming that the movement of the container is the story’s trigger, an event of utmost importance to Crichlow. If it isn’t, then the story should start somewhere else. Maybe the inciting incident should happen after the sex: the novel opens with Crichlow lying awake in bed next to Shenice, who’s already fast asleep with a big smile on her face, and he sees the movement of the crane out the window. Then he jumps out of bed, throws on his clothes, runs down to the port, etc. It would be a much faster opening, a much quicker plunge into the book’s plot, and that’s exactly what the reader wants at the start of a thriller.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website:

6 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Where To Start The Story

  1. The first paragraph was off-putting for me–I didn’t want to read further–the minute I hit the g-string. While I happen to love erotic fiction, I’m not a fan of opening with any hint at all of sexual tension unless the writing itself is exceptional. I think you’ll find by reading agents’ blogs that they’re not fans of “sexual” openings either.

    Or, on a personal level–since I am a woman–I didn’t like it because the protagonist’s attitude toward the woman seemed to demean her. While many men avoid female writers unless the writers are already famous, women will read male writers–unless you piss us off–and since more women buy fiction than men, you definitely don’t want to piss us off. (You may criticize me for too much political correctness here, but too bad, how sad. Perhaps the better term for caring about others is empathetical correctness. I just made up a word, apparently.)

    The opening character description had me confused about point of view. Is it really going to be Author Omniscient, or is it intended to be Third Person? If it’s the latter, then the protagonist would not be thinking about his raven dreadlocks. Later on, it’ seems that the writer intends to write in Third Person, at least for this scene, but then even later we get a wardrobe description, so that’s AO. I’m confused, big time. Another thing agents (and readers) look for is the writer’s command of POV, and whether or not it wavers. Readers may not know the technical aspects of POV choices, but they feel it when they’re off.

    I feel a lack of commitment to the story here. I wonder if the writer truly cares about the story and why s/he is writing it. I don’t feel any underlying passion here, nor do I feel much narrative drive, both of which may be attributable to what I suspect is the relative inexperience of the writer. Inexperience can be cured, fortunately, but what can’t be cured is a lack of passion for your story idea, for what you want to say, and how to discover the best to say it.

    If you are passionate enough about your story, then studying the craft so that you’ll discover the best way to tell your story will not feel like a chore, but rather, an adventure.

  2. Given Mark’s excellent review and Sheryl’s comprehensive comments there is little else to say other than to agree with them. When I read openings like this, I cringe. At a high level, I don’t even know what this is about. It is cluttered with unnecessary words and images.
    I’ve just begun John Maberry’s celebrated novel, Ghost Road Blues. The opening illustrates what clarity can do. I won’t copy it all but the opening sentence is: The last thing Billie said was, “Oh, come on … there’s nothing out there.”
    Isn’t that a real grabber to open a horror novel?
    Dear writer. The overall problem with your work is that it is over written. Too many adjectives and adverbs not enough story.

  3. The set up here intrigues me even with the speed bumps.

    The POV wavering is part of it. I’m not an expert by any means but pulling dreadlocks into a woogie works for a more intimate feel. Describing the dreadlocks as raven is more omniscient as is his description of his own skin color later on.

    Can thrillers (not my typical genre reading) start with one POV then gradually shift to another? Similar to a television camera starting from afar and zooming in?

    Naming her G-string as cheap when they live in or are trying to look like they live in a shantytown is to name the obvious.

    I felt confused about his actions with the cell phone: sliding it across the table, tapping it imperceptibly, then hiding it under a paper. Is this to conceal what he’s doing from Shenice? If so, I’m not sure sliding and hiding it under a paper is noiseless. Or is he concerned there may be others spying on him/them? Some type of bug in the room or a neighbor’s window that looks into their space?

    Thank you for sharing your work with us. I don’t always comment but I find the critiques applicable to my own work.

  4. I seem to be in the minority here. I thought it was fine, needed work, but fine.

    I don’t need to know exactly where on the planet (if this planet) the characters are at the start of the story – he can see the port from the window and he is observing container is all you really need to know at this point – that’s what is important to him. Let’s remember this is the first page, not even the first chapter. I trust in the next few pages to come we will get more details.

    I agree ants don’t make noise, but if you want us to ‘hear’ a bunch of something how about rats? One isn’t noisy, but a bunch would be.

    Two things that stopped me in my tracks while reading –
    1) If he slid the phone across the pock-marked kitchen table, how does he have it in his hand to send the message and slide it (again) across the table?
    2) A cheap g-string – now there are overpriced g-strings for sure, but do they come in cheap?

    What’s going on with the container is either important or it is not. Is there an urgency to get to it? The choice of having sex so he can get out of the house makes no sense. As said above, sex has too many variables (at least good sex should). Having to leave for an emergency, having to run to the store for something he just can’t go without or offering her a glass of wine with a sleeping pill are better ways of getting out of the house. This of course is all based on the assumption she doesn’t know he is an SIA agent and he can’t simply tell her he needs to go to work.

  5. Great critique Mark, although I disagree with the use of the word ‘woogie’. Yes, I got it in context, but it jolted me for a second. Why not just use a universal term like ‘hairband’? Not as exotic, but makes for easier reading. I also think that a few less adjectives would help.
    Keep going brave writer – there is a lot to like in your writing.

  6. The story didn’t grab me and I began to skim over it. However, I wish the author good luck and best wishes with the story after suggested revisions.

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