With Help from Jeffery Deaver, Let’s Rock This First Page Critique!

Posted by Sue Coletta

Greetings, TKZers! Another brave writer has submitted a first page for critique. Rather than nitpick, I’ve approached this one a little differently. My comments are below. Hope you’ll weigh in too.

1st Page Critique

 

“Coming Home”

“Did I tell you I knew your father?”

John put on his best fake smile and nodded. “Yeah, you mentioned it when I first came in. You played football together?”

Ralph continued, “Yeah. Hank was one hell of a lineman. In our senior year against Haynesworth, he knocked their quarterback six feet into the air and…”

John couldn’t help but tune out. He’d heard the stories of his dad’s glory days retold hundreds of times with varying degrees of exaggeration. It happens when you live in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. It’s even more common when your father died becoming a local hero. It was bad enough when he was a kid, but ever since John returned home after flunking out of college last month he ran into people every day who felt the need to explain their connection to his father. He knew the story of every guy his dad had ever met or arrested and every woman he dated in high school. He just didn’t expect it during a job interview.

“…the refs decided we would get the point, the crowd went crazy. That victory carried us through the rest of the school year, but I don’t think that quarterback ever walked right again.”

John struggled to picture the large man sitting across the desk playing football. He couldn’t imagine this guy lifting anything heavier than a bowl of gravy since his beet-red face was sweating from the exertion required just to have this conversation. The man had to have had help squeezing his butt between the arms of that old wooden office chair which creaked horribly every time he moved.

John pushed to get the conversation back on track. “Pops, ur…sorry, Poplawski said you were looking for someone to start immediately.”

“The sooner, the better. Jim just walked out on us. No notice or nothin’. He came back from his shift one day last week and took his uniform off right here in this office. Said ‘this job doesn’t pay enough for this kind of shit,’ threw his clothes on the floor and drove home in his skivvies. Can you believe that? Left me in a pinch. I had to go out on his calls for the rest of the week.”

* * *

Overall, I liked this piece. Loved the voice too. With a few tweaks, I think this could be a strong first page. Brave Writer has given us a peek into the main character’s background without resorting to a huge info. dump. Paragraph four dances on the edge, but not so much that it pulled me out of the story. We have a sense of who John is and some of the difficulties he’s had growing up in his deceased father’s shadow. Life in a small town isn’t easy, and that’s clear.

I’m a sucker for snarky characters, so I loved this line:

He couldn’t imagine this guy lifting anything heavier than a bowl of gravy since his beet-red face was sweating from the exertion required just to have this conversation. 

It may read better if you broke it into two sentences, but I’d rather concentrate on the bigger picture.

What this first page is missing is a solid goal, something the MC needs to achieve more than anything. Sure, he’s applying for a job, but it doesn’t seem like he cares if he gets it. Why, then, should the reader care? Our main character must be in a motivated situation with an intriguing goal or problem to overcome.

The writer may want to save this piece for later in the story, even if it’s used on page two or three, and instead draw us in with a more compelling goal. Or, show us why this job interview is so important to John. Without the job, will he lose his house? Not have food? Is he trying to escape this small town for some reason?

Also, I’m not a fan of opening with dialogue unless it’s used for a purpose. For example, to raise a story question or to intrigue the reader. Dialogue, especially when used as an opening line, needs to sparkle (I’ll show you what I mean in a second). Without context and grounding, we risk disorienting the reader.

Let’s look at an example of dialogue that works as a first line and adds conflict to the entire first page. Maybe it’ll help spark some ideas for you.

The following is from The Burial Hour by Jeffery Deaver. For clarity, my comments are in bold, the excerpt italicized.

“Mommy.”

“In a minute.” 

Bam! Right off, we feel the tension mounting. 

They trooped doggedly along the quiet street on the Upper East Side, the sun low this cool autumn morning. Red leaves, yellow leaves spiraled from sparse branches.

Mother and daughter, burdened with the baggage that children now carted to school.

In five sentences the author has grounded us in the scene. We’re right there with the characters, envisioning the scene in our mind’s eye. Without even reading the next line we can sense the urgency of the situation. Plus, we can already empathize with the characters.

Let’s read on …

Clare was texting furiously. Her housekeeper had—wouldn’t you know it?—gotten sick, no, possibly gotten sick, on the day of the dinner party! The party. And Alan had to work late. Possibly had to work late.

As if I could ever count on him anyway.

Ding.

The response from her friend:

Sorry, Carmellas busy tnight.

Jesus. A tearful emoji accompanied the missive. Why not type the god-damn “o” in tonight? Did it save you a precious millisecond? And remember apostrophes?

“But, Mommy.” A nine-year-old’s singsongy tone.

“A minute, Morgan. You heard me.” Clare’s voice was a benign monotone. Not the least angry, not the least peeved or piqued.

first page critique

Can you see why this 1st page works? The goal is clearly defined and the main character needs to achieve it. The snappy dialogue between mother and daughter creates conflict. The voice rocks, and the scene hooks the reader. We need to read on in order to find out what happens next. More importantly, we’re compelled to turn the page. Questions are raised, questions that need answers. And that’s exactly what a first page should do. Don’t let us decide whether or not we want to turn the page. Grab us in a stranglehold and force us.

Over to you, TKZers. What advice would you give to improve this brave writer’s first page?

8+

24 thoughts on “With Help from Jeffery Deaver, Let’s Rock This First Page Critique!

  1. I didn’t like the butt thing, but I don’t like snark either. That’s where I would have stopped reading in the store and put the book back.

    I liked the overall voice.

    In the example, there is an ‘o’ in tonight. Didn’t the ranter see it? Or is she so upset she doesn’t see it?

  2. I agree with your assessment it would be nice to know ‘why’ he was motivated to take the job. But honestly I found today’s 1 page submission more engaging than the sample scene used. But that’s just me.

    • Ten people can read the same excerpt and we’d have ten differing opinions, but that’s what makes these First Page Critiques so valuable. Thank you for weighing in, BK.

  3. Good analysis, Sue. Loved the Deaver examples. Your comment on needing the job would add depth. I chuckled at him applying for a job that the last guy walked out of in his skivvies. Only s desperate person would stick around after that job interview. It would be good to get a hint of his desperation.

    I’d consider splitting up that great snark line for a better one-two punch:

    He couldn’t imagine this guy lifting anything heavier than a bowl of gravy. His beet-red face sweated from the exertion of having this conversation.

    Overall I like this submission and, after some tweaking, I would keep reading. The voice is there.

    • I chuckled at that line about the skivvies too, Jordan. This first page showed promise. With some tweaking, I’d keep reading too. Thanks for weighing in.

  4. Even with the recommendations of hinting at a goal, etc., I think the opening is also missing some idea of what this story is going to be about. I’m sure it’s not just about getting a job and overcoming his father’s shadow, although I suspect the latter will be one of the driving forces in narrative drive.

    Still, if this is a thriller or mystery (this opening doesn’t give us much sense of either of those genres), making it clearer, sooner, that he’s applying for a job on the local police force might help a bit, but that raises questions about him being a college dropout and perhaps not qualified, nowadays, for the job.

    Is he desperate for the job and worried about his qualifications? These factors could also add conflict to the scene. The lack of much conflict relative to the actual scene bothered me.

    I’d like the interviewer’s name and position, too, because if the MC gets the job, I’m assuming that he’ll have some dealings (with conflict, please.) with the interviewer, his new boss, especially if the new boss is a dramatic character and moves the plot forward or is an obstacle to the MC’s goals. I see no reason for leaving that information out at this point.

    The excerpt verges on Talking Heads, with few setting details to ground the scene or make it visual. Yes, there’s interior monologue, but that’s not enough to cure the Talking Heads problem.

    Does the main character’s name have to be John? Perhaps if the rest of the scene were stronger, his “generic” name wouldn’t be such a problem. I can also see that there might be a thematic reason for giving him a generic name, i.e, even his name doesn’t help to make him stand out from the crowd and escape his father’s shadow.

    The writing itself is okay, and I like the voice. Lots of potential here.

    • The lack of conflict is a huge factor, I agree. Hence, why I tried to show that even minor conflict (no babysitter) can be strong enough for a first page if done correctly. Since we don’t know the genre I was hesitant to bring it up, but I’m so glad you did. Thank you, Sheryl. All great points.

  5. I am not a fan of a story started with dialogue either. I too liked the dialogue in the critique better than the dialogue in the example.

    My problem with the first page is we have a guy who is tired of hearing the ‘backstory’ of his life (the constant reminder of his father’s hometown ‘heroing’), which kind of tells me the author knows its backstory – another no-no for the first page

    I got a good sense of his goal – he flunked out and needs a job.

    On the other hand – the man telling him all about the big game did say one thing to me – the interview is more of a formality. It is such a small town that everyone knows everyone – isn’t getting the job pretty much a done deal? And if it is not, for whatever reason, then maybe that is what he could be worried about while tuning the guy out.

    • Good point, Michelle. In such a small town the job interview could be a formality. If the job isn’t guaranteed, we need to know why. Which would also solve the lack of conflict problem. Great feedback.

  6. I, too, liked this. It was smoothly written and I didn’t have one hiccup. But I am with you, Sue, in that if you open with a line of dialogue it better be a stunner. (“Where’s father going with that axe?” Fern asked her mother — Charlotte’s Web.)

    The voice is strong and this is a good start. I would read on, but like you, I am waiting waiting for some compelling reason to. Just a hint could carry it, I think. (As we get in the Deaver example)

    There might be two possibilities (I’m guessing here based on the small sample). This guy appears to be applying for a security job. What if you drop in a line that this was his last stop on the long slide down — he had lost his badge on the Detroit PD (and we wonder why!) and security was the bottom rung of desperate ex-cops. But he had no choice. And what if he is returning to his small town? It denotes another “coming down” in some folks’ minds. I only mention this because I read a positive review this morning of a new thriller “Bonfire” which centers around a female environmental lawyer who returns to her small insular town and gets caught up in the 10-year-old mysterious murder of a mean girl who once tormented her.

    I guess I’m suggesting that the writer look for the deepest sources of possible plot tension to make us want to follow this character for a reason other than he is seeking a job he doesn’t seem to want. Maybe this IS in the story but as we always say, it’s hard to tell with such a short sample. Yet, a short sample is often all potential readers give us when they are browsing in the bookstore.

    But a good start!

    • Kris, I was hoping you’d weigh in. While searching for a first page that opened with dialogue I read the first pages to about ten of your books, and you hooked me each and every time. My TBR pile doubled in size.

      Love Charlotte’s Web dialogue opener. Wow. Perfect example.

      I read this sample a dozen times and didn’t see John applying for a security guard position. Yes, it makes perfect sense. Thank you for adding your feedback. Excellent advice.

      • Thanks Sue, but I do have one opening line that I wish I could take back: “The Christmas lights were up early this year.”

        meh… 🙂

        • Ha! As someone who nitpicks her work to death, I can relate. But I disagree. Your first line works. As a reader, I want to know why the Christmas lights went up early that year. That question alone would keep me reading.

    • I love psych, Cynthia. It’s such a fascinating field. I bet you and I could talk for hours about the criminal mind. Maybe we’ll run into each other at a conference sometime. First round is on me. 😉

  7. I didn’t care for this piece. I wouldn’t mind a line of dialogue starting the piece, but right after I need to be grounded, the paragraph after. When John was tuning out, so was I. I was thinking, I don’t care, what the heck is he talking to this dude for. I didn’t know until the very end of the fourth paragraph–if that first line is a title–that this was a job interview. I also didn’t understand that the dude was old until that one great line. I was also wondering does he have a mother? Who is he living with? Wouldn’t it hurt her most? Although you don’t have to address those questions right off if you have a mor compelling first scene.

    • Great point, ASAli. If the first page is compelling enough, we won’t have a chance to worry about what the writer isn’t showing us. We’ll be in that scene, experiencing it right along with the main character.

    • Thank you, Elaine. By deconstructing other writers’ scenes, it gives us a chance to see what works and what doesn’t in the context of the story. Which I always find helpful. So glad you did, too.

  8. My suggestion comes from recently reading Brian Everson’s short stories.
    In this submission, I would tell a lot less, stay in the present, and focus on the MCs internal pressure. The information about his father is mostly about the past. In the beginning, I think it is more interesting to see the feeling that has thrown him/her into conflict and save the why for later. Some call that suspense.

    Everson begins his shorty story ‘A Report’ this way: A week has passed since I made my report, and since that time, confined as I am, I have turned the words over and about in my mind.
    His story gets better and better as it goes on. Indeed, it is incredibly frightening by the end. You can find it in his collection called ‘A Collapse of Horses’.

    I will engage in a little hubris and rewrite the first lines of the submission: Why the hell I would want a job working day in and day out along side one of these blubbering slobs tells you just how desperate I’ve become. I picked up another glass of champagne from a passing waiter, then continued nodding at this bastard’s tirade on my father’s glory.

    But I’m a drama queen (king?). Whatever.

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