First Page Critique: Indianner

By John Gilstrap

Let’s go right to the piece submitted by our brave writer, and I’ll see you on the other side.



Megan’s long nails played across the keyboard. Click. Click. Click. Acrylic on plastic keys. She paused, staring at the poster hanging above her computer. Grabbing a black marker, she leaned over her monitor and circled the faces of the three Native Americans dressed in traditional regalia. Circled their faces until she wore a hole in the paper. Around her bedroom, posters of gothic metal bands fought for the remaining wall space. Their dark lyrics appealed to her. She smiled as she glanced around the room at the black-circled faces staring back at her from every corner. A few more words and she was done. Click.

She refocused on the poster with the Native Americans: two women and one man, appearing in a musical performance that night in Frankfurt, Germany, a short walk from Megan’s hometown of Bad Homburg. This was her second time seeing the Navajo singer/songwriter Doli Yazzie in concert. Last time was disappointing; this time Megan was better prepared. She had post-concert passes in her purse, won through a contest held by Doli via her Facebook Fan Page. Megan was fascinated with all things Native American. “Dances with Wolves” and books by German author, Karl Friedrich May, were  cult favorites of Germans and other Europeans who followed their own version of the pow wow trail. As popular as the Renaissance Faires in the United States, the teepee camps and Indian pow wows arranged by and for Non-Natives were scheduled throughout the year in Germany and other countries. Megan was an active participant.

Shawnee/Creek flute player, Ella Longhat, and Ella’s husband, Caddo/Shawnee Charlie Longhat, a noted Native film producer and pow wow dancer, were something of an afterthought for her. Took up too much space on the poster, she thought. She was only interested in Doli.

“Megan, come on. We’re waiting on you. Momma says hurry. We’re going to be late.” Her little sister banged on Megan’s locked bedroom door.

“Go away, brat. Leave me alone. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Megan stood up, repositioned her chair, and rearranged her desk, squaring off a stack of paper, realigning pen and pencil. She glanced back and forth from Doli’s poster to her full-length mirror as she dressed in black pants and black t-shirt, the same way Doli dressed for concerts. Megan imagined herself looking like Doli, but Megan was a large girl, nearer to woman than child, a recent high school graduate working at a local American fast-food franchise. She brushed her dyed black hair, muttering as she covered a lighter section with a green parrot feather, and applied blush and lipstick to her pale face. Glancing one more time at her reflection, the poster, and a final time at her reflection, she joined her mother and two younger sisters. They walked in silence to the concert hall.


It’s Gilstrap again.

What a ride, huh?  A gripping tale of . . .

Wait.  Nothing happened.  No, seriously.  Nothing.  Happened.  In 474 words, Megan made circles on posters, thought a lot about music that is entirely unfamiliar to me, and she got dressed.  The purpose of this exercise is to learn how to grab readers’ attention with exciting prose that is worthy of the single most valuable patch of real estate any book can have.

Whether writing a thriller, a mystery, a romance or a literary novel, something needs to happen that will engage the reader.  The first paragraph needs to make us hungry for the second paragraph.  Ditto the first page for the second page.  This piece disappoints at every level.

Now, let’s talk about the writing itself, which feels young to me, and is not without promise.  Here’s the first paragraph again, but annotated:

Megan’s long nails played across the keyboard. Click. Click. Click.  As written, the nails are acting independently.  I would prefer that Megan drives the action: Megan played her fingers across the keyboard, acrylic nails against plastic keys. The “click <period>” construction plays as very slow typing.  If that is the writer’s intent, then fine.  But I sense that it is not the intent.

She paused, staring at the poster hanging above her computer. Grabbing a black marker, she leaned over her monitor and circled the faces of the three Native Americans dressed in traditional regalia.  There’s nothing wrong with this writing, but the -ing construction of the simultaneous action bothers me.  I would write this as separate sentences, restructured to have Megan drive the action: When she paused, she looked up at the poster she’d hung on the wall above her computer screen.  It showed three Native Americans in traditional regalia—two women and a man—who’d performed last night just a few miles down the road from Megan’s apartment in Bad Hamburg, a suburb of Frankfurt.  Grabbing a black marker, she leaned over her monitor and circled their faces.  Then she circled them some more.  And more.  Until her marker wore a hole in the paper.  Until those faces looked like all the other faces on all the other posters on her walls.

I don’t mean to presume to rewrite your piece, but I just combined two paragraphs into a few sentences, and while there’s still no action, there’s a sense of weirdness that I think is kind of cool.

All of the esoterica about the music and what she likes and what she doesn’t needs to be deleted, or at the very least moved elsewhere in the story.  Too many names come flying at the reader too quickly, and it’s confusing.  They call that stuff backstory for a reason—because it belongs in the back of the piece.  Certainly not the first page.

Finally, avoid the urge to be coy with your reader.  Specifics bring us into the story.  Her little sister has a name, so use it.  If you mean McDonald’s, don’t say, “American fast-food franchise.”

What say you, TKZ?


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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

11 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Indianner

  1. I absolutely agree that there’s no story here, not even the hint of a story. I would have stopped reading part way through the second paragraph. I think this writer should step back from writing this particular story and take some time to read about story and scene structure. (Write in your journal; write anything if you want to keep your writing muscle in condition, but do study the craft, too. A novel is a huge project; it’s worth doing some prep work before you really begin.)

    Conflict, conflict, conflict: learn what it is in all its variations (not just physical), and you’ll have one of many eureka moments. There is no conflict in this excerpt.

    ‘-Ing’ sentences (e.g., “Grabbing a black marker… “) can be a trap because so many writers m isuse them (i.e., “Crossing the room, he screwed in the light bulb.” Quite feat to be in two places at once.) Read award-winning writers–you’ll notice that they rarely use this sentence construction.

    Lots of picky stuff here that I could comment on (e.g., name repetition, information dumps, etc.) but instead I recommend a book that saved my “newbie” scream-out in everything I wrote: SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Renni Browne and Dave King (might have misspelled the authors’ names; to busy to check). Eliminate the newbie weaknesses and see how much your writing improves.

    But getting back to STORY: inexperienced writers can worry way too much about each sentence and making it “perfect.” They can forget that THE STORY IS KING, and that everything must serve the story. (Here there’s tons of information that doesn’t move the story forward and, in fact, hides the story. Some of it may be important and even intriguing later, but it’s certainly not important now.) Get your story and its structure right first. Then eliminate everything that doesn’t serve the story. Only then can you focus on the sentences and paragraphs.

    The authors involved in TKZ have written some great craft books. Check them out.

  2. I didn’t mind the first two paragraphs, but probably because I’m interested in that stuff too. But I agree some of that information can go, the sentences rearranged. The third paragraph is completely unnecessary, and as of right now I’m confused on who doli is. Three people on the poster, one name, and yet the other two names are of people not on the poster.

    After tha, I lose interest. I don’t really care how Megan looks, and the dialogue is too contrived and snooty for my taste.

    I would read on, but only if it was a short story. I don’t feel that what’s on this first page warrants an entire novel.

  3. I would not have read further, not because of the writing style which is kinda fun, but because there is no conflict except for big sis and little sis. And I don’t think the book is about sibling rivalry.
    Thanks to Sheryl for the recommendation on the self-editing book. (I certainly need it.)

  4. I would encourage this writer, who shows promise, to use the “Chapter Two Switcheroo” trick. Really. Do it. Make Chapter Two your new Chapter One. You’ll be amazed how much better it starts. Then you can dribble in any expository material from the original Chapter One that you need (and I emphasize NEED. You don’t usually need a lot of it up front.)

    One quick note. I liked these two lines:

    Circled their faces until she wore a hole in the paper. Around her bedroom, posters of gothic metal bands fought for the remaining wall space.

    Nice. But I would cut the line that follows: Their dark lyrics appealed to her.

    Why? Because the first two lines carry the meaning inherently (SHOW). The last line is flat out explanatory (TELL), and therefore not as powerful as the image you just set up. A good guideline is RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain). As much as possible, try not to use flat, on-the-nose exposition like that last line.

    • This is good advice, writer. Pay attention!

      One of the major decisions a novelist makes is where to begin. I think this story falls under the sin of coming in way too early. As everyone here has said, nothing is happening and there’s not even a hint that something might. Everything you have here is throat-clearing…in a crime novel this would be the equivilent of the cop getting a call in the middle of the night to come to a crime scene then he gets up, brushes his teeth, gets dressed and drives there (all on camera…Zzzzzz). The better opening is the cop standing there looking at the body and scene. Find a peak moment and parachute your reader into it.

      As Jim sez, take a good look at your current chapter 2…I suspect it’s at the concert? Does something happen? If so, there is your opening chapter.

      • I’m going to chime in to and agree that this feels like exposition that happens in chapter 2 rather than the opening. My recommendation is that the writer sit down and play with some alternate openings – grabbing the major scene/drama that is going to occur and placing the reader in this right from the get go.

    • Great advice. I’ve done this myself and it really works.
      My newest trick is to edit the work for words you don’t need. Just did this with a 4200 word short story and cut out over 300 words. It reads much better.

  5. IMHO, need an initial disturbance to upset the status quo and cut these one pages into one.

    Maybe have the little sister bust into the room, grab something, turn something over, get yelled at it, shoved out the door. She then screams, “Ow” and mom yells at Megan to leave lil sis alone.

    (“Grabbing a black marker, she …. ,) is a gerund. You’ll come across a few scattered over 300+ pages of published work, but if you have one per page that’s too many. I once3 did an entire rewrite consisting of gerundicide.

    I think you’re getting good advice regarding conflict, conflict and more conflict. And always listen to Dr. Bell. If you haven’t read ‘Plot and Structure’ I suggest you do.

    Writing, editing, rewriting a novel is such an inordinate amount of hard work that it’s mind numbing. Good luck.

    • cut these TWO pages into one

      No 3 after , ‘I once’

      Told you this is hard. I can’t even get 3 paragraphs right

  6. Dear Writer- Know that no one here means you anything but the best. I’ve never been anywhere with more expertise and helpfulness than this site…. Know that everyone here tells the flat-out, cold truth, no sugar coating. It is hard to get an honest evaluation and help, so keep that in mind.

    You have some good visuals and I can see that you see the story in your mind, like you are moving through it. That is the first phase. All of what you wrote down needed to be written. It is part of you finding your way into and through the story… the discovery phase. As Mr. Bell said – After you get going and look at your next chapters, you will probably find your more perfect starting point- the one with the action that jumpstarts your story. This still all needed to be written down, your story is trying to show you things that you might not have noticed or realized yet – it is happening.

    Since you’ve walked through it – the second phase of your story is to look at it like you are watching a movie – what is going on that you didn’t notice before – how is your character affected by it and how is her participation changing. You also have to step back and look at the story like this to “see” it the way a reader might see it. What questions might they have? Did you answer those? Are you showing them the right things to make them ask the questions you want them to and see the things you want them to see as they continue on with you and the story? Are they worried, at the edge of their seats?

    These are some of the things that stood out to me as I “view” your story and the things you were showing us. If I got them all right – you were getting your points across. If I got them all wrong – well then you weren’t “showing me” the what you really needed or wanted to. She has lots of hard metal posters around she loves and she’s into all of the dark and heavy stuff, but for some reason she is super interested (suddenly/recently it seems) in folksy Indian music and culture? So much so that she is trying to mimic it in dress and style? This combined with the circling the faces in black until the paper rips – really feels like she is some sort of stalker. Then you have a little sister popping in saying “mom says to hurry”? I just flipped my head to the side with a huge – “Huh?!” Her actions and reality seem to be having a psychotic break which makes it strange and confusing. (Unless she is going psycho – in which case – cool! Go more with that! Bring on the threats, the crazy, and the danger.) This is what your duality conflict feels like: GI-super-soldier-Joe came in, put on a pink tutu and bunny slippers, made some gourmet food for a dozen cats, sat down, and turned on the home shopping network and watched it while painting his toenails red, white, and blue – with stars of course. (It felt crazy with no reason or point to it.)

    Again, all of this information needed to come out of your head and onto a page. Mr. Bell advocates doing this sort of thing daily as a warm-up, or if you get stuck with a character or situation. Then you can “watch it” like a viewer and look to see what your brain is trying to tell you about your character or story. Go look at your second and third chapter – see where the action starts and start us there as well. You, dear writer, are our leader on this adventure. You tell us on the first page – who we want to root for or against, what we need to worry and panic about, what type of story it is, and how it is going to feel with you as our leader. If we get all of that we will feel like we can trust you and want to take the trip through your story with you.

    I would challenge you to find your conflict, your character, and your starting point. Re-do your first page, and re-submit. I would like to see what you are trying to show us.

  7. Yes, there was no real story here and I would not have continued to read it.
    That said, the critiques are very helpful from the many successful authors here.
    An improved story will emerge from these helpful comments. Best of luck with the rewrite.

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