New Year First Page Critique:
Resolutions We Shouldn’t Break

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something. — Neil Gaiman

By PJ Parrish

Welcome to the new year, crime dogs. Are we all rested, refreshed and ready to go? I should be since I did nothing during the holiday week except eat, sleep, drink and binge-watch Turner Classic Movies. (I think I have finally completed the Lana Turner oeurve).  The only “writing” thing I did was to judge a contest for non-published thriller writers.  It reminded me of our First Page Critiques, only amped up to 50 pages.

So, before I go into today’s First Pager, I’d like to share some of things I learned while reading these entries.

Two entries were really first rate. Like publishable now. What a joy to read them! I think this is what editors feel when they find a gem in the slush pile.

Most were, well, not publishable. Mostly it was due to the usual stuff we talk about here all the time, but when you read 50 pages, you get a better idea of how things can go off the rails. They made me come up with some writer’s resolutions you don’t want to break.

Don’t give readers the same-old same-old. Maybe it’s because there are so many novels out there now but it’s getting harder, I think, to come up with something truly fresh. As I heard one agent put it once, “Say something unique or say something uniquely.”  Which means you either have to come up with a fabulous new twist on the old formulas (Andy’s Weir’s The Martian = Robinson Crusoe in space or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven = The Road with Shakespeare). Or you need great writer’s chops to dazzle with singular style. (see Michael Chabon).

In my contest, I had an entry that read like a really cheesy James Bond knock-off, complete with macho hard-drinking spy and dumb redhead CIA agent who whined about her broken high heel and needed saving (Jill Saint John in the movie, I guess).

Don’t confuse the reader.  This was a common sin among the entries. Our stories spool out like David Lean epics in our imaginations, but often there is a short-circuit between brain and typing fingers and the result is an un-tempting ball of confusion. Some scenes I read were so poorly choreographed I had to read them several times before I figured out the action. Some entries never bothered to tell me — in 50 pages! — where the story was taking place or what time frame we were in. And a couple entries had bad head-hopping point of view issues, one so weird I mistakenly thought a third new character had come on stage when it was only the second man’s “sub-conscious” talking. And then there were just big lapses of logic. Like, how in the heck did a housewife from Iowa end up in that Iranian prison? (never explained!).

Don’t give hateful or boring characters the early spotlight. Now, I’m not saying all heroes should be Shane or Charlotte the spider. And yes, many a fine crime novel opens with the killer’s point of view. But don’t waste your precious opening pages on dirt-bags or deadbeats or dumb-as-a-stump bad guys. Unless, as in Lee Child’s Bad Luck and Trouble, they are tossing a man out of a helicopter or something equally cool.  One of my entries I read had this problem — exacerbated by the weakness that the protagonist didn’t show up until almost page 50. At least I think he was the protag.

Don’t crowd the stage too early. One entry had fourteen named characters in the first chapter. And three points of view. Nuff said, right?

Okay, okay, no more with the negative. So what about the two good ones? What set them apart? Well, the characters were flawed but immediately relate-able and even intriguing. Their voices were all distinct, especially one poignant twelve-year-old boy who is about to hang himself until someone stops him. The settings were well rendered but the stories never felt overpowered by description. Backstory was gracefully eye-dropped in at opportune times in the action rather than splatted down via info-dumps. And even though both entries had slow-build openings (no wham-bam shoot-em-up mechanics), I didn’t care because the characters were so rich I really wanted to see what was going to happen to them.

Enough resolutions. Let’s go to a First Pager.  I wanted to get this in because it somehow got lost in my hard-drive and the writer has been patiently waiting. Sorry about that, dear writer. And thanks for submitting. I’ll be back in a moment with comments.

TITLE: UNDER ONE FLAG

CHAPTER ONE

He took three more steps before he jumped over the railing. She followed and landed hard on the lobby floor two stories below. Her right shoulder dislocated on impact. The pain was undeniable. She pushed the pain down and got up.

The front door hit the outside railing when he kicked it open and ran down the stairs. Following after him she didn’t slow down when she deliberately smashed into the door frame popping her shoulder back in place. The sound that emanated from her throat was so high pitched she even scared herself. Exiting the building she slipped on the wet step bouncing on her ass, but she didn’t loose a beat in her pursuit.

Jordon, approaching on her left, called out. “Which way did he go?”

“I’ve got him. Waverly’s been shot. Fourth floor. Stay with him,” she shouted. Turning right she jammed her way through the opening in the fence.

Ahead of her the man was still running along the sidewalk, but with a distinctive limp he did not have when the chase began. Two blocks later he turned south. Only the quick reflexes of the bus driver saved him from being flatten on Humbolt Street. In that instance she managed to cross to the other side of the road before him.

There were only a few people out that time of night. Most moved aside as they passed them, but she didn’t get a clear shot until he reached the corner. She fired and his body jerked. He went down and fell into the street. She was still closing in on him when she heard the tires screeching and then the crunching sound she knew she would never forget.

She could hear sirens approaching from every direction. A car pulled up next to her and two women got out. One approached the body, ran a scanner over it and confirmed the obvious; the man was dead. The other went to check on the driver.

“Sheriff, you alright?” asked Jordan approaching from behind.

“I’m fine. What? Do you think this old lady can’t handle it?” she joked.

“Never doubted it for a second,” he said. “It’s just that you’re bleeding.”

The moment she saw the blood on her thigh her leg began to hurt. However she would never admit it, not even to the EMT who arrived a few minutes later to examine her. She refused to go to the hospital. She accepted the pain killers, ‘Just in case’.

_____________________________

Not bad, not bad at all. This has potential. What’s good is that we open with some hard action. I wasn’t confused and could, for the most part, see what was going on as this chase ensued. There are some nifty active verbs peppered in, which you always want in an action scene. The dialogue is clean. We stay in the protag’s POV and see the scene play out from her senses only.  I also like the way the writer slipped in the fact via dialogue that this woman is the sheriff.  All and all, I don’t have big complaints with this. So let me resort to Track Edits to make a few minor points and mere suggestions (my comments in blue).

He took three more steps before he jumped over the railing. She do we maybe want her name here since she’s the heroine? followed and landed hard on the lobby floor two stories I had to Google to find out if this is possible. Jumping onto hard surface from two stories without really bad injury strains credibility. Maybe cut it to one floor? below. Her right shoulder dislocated on impact. The pain was undeniable. This is you, writer, telling me. You can do better. Show me ie describe the FEELING from her POV. She pushed the pain down and got up.

The front door hit the outside railing when he kicked it open and ran down the stairs. Following after him she didn’t slow down as she followed, when she deliberately smashing into the door frame to pop her shoulder back in place. The sound that emanated from her throat was so high pitched she even scared herself. This woman doesn’t strike me as scaring easily. Is there a better way, more fitting her nature, to express this? Exiting the building she slipped on the wet step bouncing on her ass, but she didn’t loose a beat in her pursuit. If she fell, she lost a beat. Maybe it even works better if she’s on her butt when Jordan skids to a halt near her?

Jordon, approaching on her left, awkwardcalled out. “Which way did he go?”

“I’ve got him. Waverly’s been shot. Fourth floor. Stay with him!” she shouted. Turning right not sure you need this she jammed her way through the opening in the fence.

Ahead of her the man was still running along the sidewalk, Of course he’s still ahead of her; be more descriptive? The guy was running along the sidewalk but with a limp now. but with a distinctive limp he did not have when the chase began. Two blocks later he turned south. Only the quick reflexes of the bus driver Might want to imbed this image more firmly in her POV ie She rounded the corner just in time to see a bus swerve, and get a glimpse of the driver’s panicked face. saved him from being flatten on Humbolt Street. In that instance she managed to cross to the other side of the road before him. Again, exploit the moment. The man smacked into the back of the bus and almost went down. It gave her just enough time to catch up (or something).  Another possible thing to add to the tension etc — her police radio, pinned on her shoulder most likely, would be going crazy. 

There were only a few people out that time of night. Most moved aside as they passed them, She never took out her gun. Also, get in HER pov. Might be cool here to have her thinking about trying to get off clear shot, maybe raising the gun but stopping as a guy walks out of a bar. This part of your story lacks a grit and visceral-ness that gives us a sense about WHAT SHE’S THINKING and FEELING. Just because you’re in action mode, doesn’t mean you can’t give us a fleeting thought. but she didn’t get a clear shot until he reached the corner. New graph? She fired and his body jerked. He went down and fell into the street. She was still closing in on him when she heard the tires screeching and then the crunching sound she knew she would never forget.

I think you need to tell us he got run over. And again, can we have a quick reaction or thought from her? Pretty gruesome to see a guy run over. It would really draw us into HER instead of merely the action.

She could hear sirens approaching from every direction. You can do better. The sirens aren’t really approaching (ugly verb that). They are wailing, keening, screaming. A car pulled up next to her and two women got out. You need to slow down here. Who are these people? I thought they were onlookers at first. Have the sheriff go to the body FIRST. She is your heroine; don’t move your spotlight away from her and onto two spear-carriers. Have the sheriff go stand over the body. She can tell from looking he’s dead. Give her thought. Maybe give the reader a hint about who he is and why they were chasing him. We need a little context here, which could also ratchet up your intrigue. If he’s a high-stakes runner, drop a hint! If he’s an everyday dirt-bag, tell us that and what she thinks about it, that she just jumped down a lobby and dislocated her shoulder for THIS? You’re missing chances to pepper in some plot points. One approached the body, ran a scanner over it and confirmed the obvious; By writing this, you’re taking the “gun” out of your protag’s hand. Give HER this moment. the man was dead. The other went to check on the driver.

“Sheriff, you alright?” asked Jordan approaching there’s that ugly verb again from behind. She ordered him to go check on Waverly, remember. How about this?

Sheriff, you okay?”

She turned and it took her a moment to focus on deputy Jordan’s face.

“I’m fine. What? Do you think this old lady can’t handle it?” she joked. said. Let us read our own interpretation into this line. Don’t spoon feed the reader. Love that you hint at her age here. (This is good example of how dialogue can SHOW instead of the writer telling us in narrative that she’s forty-five.)

“Never doubted it for a second,” he said. “It’s just that you’re bleeding.”

The moment she saw the blood on her thigh her leg began to hurt. However she would never admit it, not even to the EMT who arrived a few minutes later to examine her. She refused to go to the hospital. She accepted the pain killers, ‘Just in case’.  My only comment here is to slow down and let this really play out on camera. Show us, don’t tell us! You need a good transition out of this high-fueled action scene, so why not play it out at the scene as the tension and action wind down. She watches as the CSI people do their thing and the EMT pulls up. One of the techs would routinely check her out and she might resist but in the end, maybe sit on the EMT truck bumper as they maybe try to treat her wound or whatever. This might also, in what I call a quiet moment, give you a chance to tell us what is going on, why the chase? Either she can think about it, or talk to Jordan or someone about it.  Don’t jerk her (and the reader) roughly out of the action and to the hospital. Pace yourself, and your scene. Think of pacing as a roller coaster. You took us up and then plunged us down a steep action hill, so we could use a “quiet moment” after that to catch our breath before we head into the next hill or turn. quiet slow moments are just as important as the fast ones. 

Again, this is a good start, but what you are lacking is feeling, emotion and thoughts from your main character.  We might admire her ballsiness in this foot pursuit, but because you’ve given us not one thought or emotion, we have no reason to emotionally attach to her.  Find that thread and begin weaving it in and you’ll be on your way!

Happy New Year all.

_____________________________

 

5+
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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

23 thoughts on “New Year First Page Critique:
Resolutions We Shouldn’t Break

  1. I agree with your recommendations, PJ. The author has a good opening that simply needs some polishing by an editor. There’s enough intrigue and action to keep me reading once the writing is cleaned up a little.

    I got the impression this is not the first time she’d dislocated her shoulder. She knew how to pop it back in place, right? Maybe just a quick “Not again” thought from her to show that?

    I was surprised that she’s “old” (in her opinion). Of course, she could be in her early 30s and still think that. You said she was joking, but there’s almost always a bit of truth in jokes. Consider revising to internalize and make your intention a little clearer. For example:

    She flexed her fingers twice before turning toward the deputy. Let’s see what kind of shape he’s in when he’s got another twenty years on him. “What? You think I can’t handle it?”

    I’m also intrigued by the “just in case” comment after the painkillers are offered. Does she know she needs them, but doesn’t want others to know? If so, maybe a thought about planning to down a couple of them as soon as she gets home?

    Overall, great start to the novel. Good work, author!

  2. Good reminders from that contest, PJ. We can all use them. And I like your approach on the first page critique — just a light edit on a good submission. Congratulations to you both.

  3. PJ, thank you for your insight on the contest for thriller writers.

    On the first page critique, I stumbled twice. The word “railing” was used twice, in close proximity, so I back tracked to make sure the first time the chase wasn’t already outside. Maybe “handrail” for the first railing? (Eh, or maybe it’s just me.) The other time I stumbled was on the name Jordan. I know so many female Jordans that I assumed he was a she when Jordan first encountered the sheriff “bouncing on her ass.” A more gender-specific name would have made it clear up front. (Again, I know it could be just me.) Overall, I enjoyed the excerpt and would read more!

    • Good point about names, Priscilla. What you mention are things I call hiccups…little but disruptive and you don’t want to give a reader (editor etc) any small reason to reject your work. Confusion created by gender-neutral names is a pet peeve of mine. And I am guilty of it by having a recurring character in my series named Joe who is a woman. Her real name is Joette but her father always called her Joe. (And I chose it because a woman with that real name won my character-naming contest!) I thought Joe was going to in one scene — no harm no foul — but she stuck around and I am stuck explaining it with every book. Robert Crais once lamented he regretted choosing Elvis for his hero…he managed to overcome it, however. 🙂

  4. I enjoyed your post, and the first page both. A two-for-one at the start of the new year! Your comments were illuminating. The unnecessary left-right stage direction struck home to me as a reader. Perhaps it’s because I’m left-handed in a world mostly of righties, I often find myself startled to read left-right directions in the middle of a scene that I had happily imagined up to that point in mirror image. I’m always thrown out of the story at that point, almost always for no reason.

    The line about running the “scanner” over the body made me think there is a sci-fi element to this crime story, which would explain the remarkable two-story leap and the shoulder reduction trick, both of which struck me as physically dubious for twenty-first century bodies.

    • Ditto, Doug, from a fellow south-paw. Hadn’t consider that maybe that is why I always want to delete directions that seem unnecessary. Our brains are wired different so what we “see” when reading isn’t what righties see.

  5. I love how you did this critique, Kris, with your remarks in blue. Your point about a 2nd story fall without injuries is dead-on. In my series that features a cat burglar, I need to be careful with the same implausibilities. We writers need to really think about each move our MC takes, or the tiniest detail can derail our story. Unless, of course, this first page is a sci-fi thriller. Hmm …

    • Re sci-fi…I hadn’t considered that possibility until someone brought it up. But if we are watching a robot sheriff, bionic woman or replicant or something, I’m thinking we need a hint so we are grounded in that world.

  6. Logic question: Why, when she jumps two stories, does she dislocate her shoulder? Did she land on her shoulder? Not her feet? I would buy a foot/ankle/leg injury over a shoulder injury. And how did the one she was chasing escape all injury?

    • Good questions. You make a good point about clarity in action scenes and stress why I suggested this writer slow down enough to adequately explain things. No reason we can’t know HOW she landed and what happened. If she dislocated her shoulder, she had to have landed directly on it, which means she was lying on the floor after impact. Action scenes (all scenes, in fact) must adhere to their own internal logic. And as you said, Cat, the escapee magically floated down with a mere limp as well. This kind of thing pull us out of scene and make us do a Scooby-Doo (Huh??) You don’t want that to happen — you want the action so smooth and logically that the reader is swept along in its wake. Thanks for commenting.

  7. This is a pretty good action scene.

    A few things that tripped me up:

    First few paragraphs left me confused: is this in his POV or hers? And who is she?

    And when she’s bleeding, I wondered if it was an actual injury or if it’s her period, since it’s on her leg. Maybe that’s why she’s refusing the help and hospital, because it’s something that shows weakness.

    • Good point about POV…it isn’t firmly connected from the start, which I guess is what I was trying to say in my comments. It’s too close to omniscient. We are never told, as you say, where the blood came from. Was she shot? Again, logic…

  8. Today’s critique demonstrates why there is so much to be gained from these first page critiques. I’ve certainly learned from them and enjoyed them.

    Would it be possible to know which two of last year’s submissions you felt were top notch, ready to submit? I would like to read them and see what they did right.

    • I assume you’re asking about the contest entries I mentioned? I can’t divulge anything concrete about the contest, Larry. (It is not affiliated with our blog here). We are still in the judging phase and I because it is a blind judging, I don’t even know if the ones I liked will make the final cut. Suffice it to say that I was impressed with the clarity (no confusion in the basic narrative) and the writers’ ability to make me care about the characters. Maybe later, after the contest is over and winners announced, I could elaborate, but only with the writers’ permissions. Stay tuned.

      • PJ,
        Thanks. I thought this was related to the first page critique. Wasn’t aware of a contest. Thanks anyway.
        Larry

  9. I wrote your quote “Say something unique or say something uniquely” on an index card and pinned it to the cork board over my desk—great stuff. And excellent remarks on the opening scene. It is way too easy to forget emotion when writing fights/chases, but they add so much. Jim Butcher does a great job of it in his books.

  10. My take on this scene is perhaps way out in left field, although I do agree with the suggested edits.

    But I want to care more about the protagonist–starting with virtually all action kind of leaves me a bit cold. The suggestion about more emotion and more showing might help, i.e., slowing down the action to reveal more of the protagonist’s wry humor, more of her voice. Make me care about her and/or her goal. Why is it important to catch the guy? What are the stakes, at least for the scene? I need something more than we’ve got at present.

    I also want a better idea of what this story might be about, but that may be too much to ask in 400 words. On second thought, maybe not, because if we learn more about the character, we may get a hint of the character’s arc, and then that may be enough hint about the story’s subject or theme. (My comment about the stakes might kill two birds with one stone, i.e., by making me care and letting me know what the story might be about.

    • Totally agree, Sheryl. The action is so high-octane that there is no room or time for even hints at characterization. That was my main problem with this otherwise good start. And, as you say, we need a hint of the stakes. Why is she chasing him? Don’t need a whole explanation of the set-up, just a teaser to make us curious. Thanks for comments.

  11. I’m late getting to TKZ today, and I don’t usually comment on first chapters. Good points made by all, and I’ve only got one thing that sets my teeth on edge. I’m old school (and old) and ‘alright’ will draw me out of a story every time. Miss Cook would be turning over in her grave. “There’s no such word as alright,” she would say, and it’s too deeply ingrained for me to accept as an evolving part of the language. When I’m dead, then you can add it.

  12. Even though the story is from her POV it appears to be written in 3rd person so I wouldn’t expect to get too into her head.

    I think there is a difference when writing dialogue and narrative Using such words as ‘alright’ in dialogue would be acceptable because it is used when speaking, but I think such words should be left out of the narrative.

    A two-story fall, depending on the building, would be about 22-28 feet. While I don’t want to try it, it isn’t that high. I do know 2 people who have fallen off the roof of two-story buildings and walked away with no injury. At the same time a friend’s father fell off the roof of a one-story building, hit his and died.

    Priscilla said – The other time I stumbled was on the name Jordan. I know so many female Jordans that I assumed he was a she when Jordan first encountered the sheriff “bouncing on her ass.” A more gender-specific name would have made it clear up front. (Again, I know it could be just me.) Overall, I enjoyed the excerpt and would read more!
    Once we know that she is the sheriff isn’t it likely that Jordan and Waverly are last names? It seems at this point in the story the reader has no idea if Jordan is going to be a MC – secondary character or never mentioned again. Why does it matter if Jordan is a man or a woman?

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