1st Page Critique: Pinprick

By SUE COLETTA 

We have another brave writer who submitted their 1st page for critique. My suggestions will follow. 

Title: Pinprick 

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA 

Rosa Gomez slammed the door behind her and stalked out onto her small front porch.  She’d just seen the tattoo on her nephew Bernardo’s neck, and knew that if she stayed in the house she’d do something she’d regret.   Mara Salvatrucha was scrawled in ink across the back of his sixteen year old skin.   Mara Salvatrucha meant MS-13, the most vicious street gang in the Americas.   

She collapsed into the rocking chair where she spent her evenings, rocking back and forth, glaring at the gang members who paraded past her bungalow.  Her house was the last one in the neighborhood with a mowed lawn and a front light that hadn’t been shattered by gunfire.  They’d demanded that she pay them money as recognition that they controlled the neighborhood, but she’d vowed to die before she paid them any tribute.   

Most nights she sat with a shotgun on her lap, reminding the punks that they might control the neighborhood but they couldn’t control her.  

She glared out into the darkness, her lower lip thrust forward, knowing that her defiance would be seen by the mareros.  She’d been stubborn since the day she was born.  Her father said he’d seen more of her lower lip than any other part of her body.

Chamacas,” she shouts at the street.   She’s calling them little girls, the way they said it in El Salvador.    It wasn’t much to throw at them, but she’s so upset it’s all she can think of.   

She collapsed back into her chair, rocking back and forth in the early November chill, settling into the rhythm that pumped blood into her arthritic knees.   

 

I like where you’re going with this, Anon. If done well, this could be a compelling storyline about a world many people don’t know a lot about. One word of caution: please portray the inner-workings of gang life and those affected by it in an accurate way, rather than basing your research on the stereotypes fueled by the media. I’m not saying you’ve done that here, just something to think about.  

Big Picture  

Why not show Rosa’s reaction when she first sees the tattoo? This is a big deal. Her nephew just joined a ruthless street gang, the same gang that’s harassed the neighborhood for years. SHOW us how he first told his aunt he’d jumped in. Did she see the tattoo by accident when he stripped off his shirt? Did he flaunt the tattoo in her face? Had he been covered in welts, cuts, and bruises days before this tattoo appeared? There’s your opening. Save what you have here for page 3 or 4. 

First Lines 

I’m a sucker for a great first line. It often takes me several rewrites till I’m satisfied, so I understand the struggle. A great first line accomplishes many things.

A first line should …

  • Hook the reader 
  • Establish mood  
  • Give a sense of foreboding 
  • Reveal character and voice 
  • Hint at, or outright show, an obstacle 

If the first line doesn’t grab the reader’s attention – Think: “Hey, pay attention!” — they may not read the sentence that follows. For writers who choose the traditional publishing model, here’s a hard truth. Agents and acquisition editors give each query 8 seconds, max. If the first line doesn’t grab them, you could drown in that slush pile. 

Links for further study … 

Jerry Jenkins broke down opening lines into four categories: surprise, dramatic statement, philosophical, and poetic. Find the post HERE. 

Writer’s Digest gave us 7 Ways to Create a Killer First Line. 

One of my favorite features on Writer Unboxed is Flog a Pro. Here, you can read numerous 1st pages from books that sit on the New York Times Bestsellers’ List. Skim 58 opening lines, and you’ll see why they’re so important. It’ll also help spark ideas for your story. 

Point of View 

You’re using a limited 3rd POV, which is fine if that’s your intention. However, deep POV has the ability to more closely bond the reader to the main character. Whether you write in 3rd or 1st doesn’t matter. The technique is the same. I hate to keep beating this particular drum, so for an in-depth look at deep POV read this 1st Page Critique 

Nitpicks 

We use one space after a period, not two (or three, like you’ve done in a few places). This may seem petty, but details matter. You also have your tab set to an awkward spacing, which justified when I copied to the blog. The norm is .5.  

Nitty Gritty  

Rosa Gomez slammed the door behind her and stalked out onto her small front porch. (Strong action verbs form an excellent mental picture. Very good. However, try using a first line that delivers more of a punch.) She’d just seen the tattoo on her nephew Bernardo’s neck, and knew that if she stayed in the house she’d do something she’d regret. “Seen” and “knew” are telling words. Anytime you tell the reader what’s happened you rob them of the experience. The same sentence rewritten to show the action would look like this: After glimpsing the tattoo on her nephew’s neck (we don’t need to know his name yet)Rosa stormed out of the house before she crucified him. Sixteen years old and he’s marked for life.

Mara Salvatrucha was scrawled in ink across the back (isn’t the tattoo on his neck? Or do you mean the back of his neck? Be clear and concise. I had to scroll to the top to make sure I’d read “neck” the first time) of his sixteen-year-old skin. Too on-the-nose. See how I slipped in his age earlier? That’s one option. Another is to show through dialogue.  

For example, when she confronts Bernardo, he could say, “I’m an adult. I can do what I want with my body.”  

“But you’re only sixteen, Meho.” 

Mara Salvatrucha meant MS-13, the most vicious street gang in the Americas. The explanation of MS-13 I’ll get to in a minute. In the meantime, America has no “s.” Perhaps you meant “United States”.   

She collapsed into the rocking chair where she spent her most evenings, rocking back and forth, glaring at the gang members who paraded past her bungalow.  Her house was the last one in the neighborhood with a mowed lawn and a front light that hadn’t been shattered by gunfire (the wording could be tighter, but I like that this shows Rosa doesn’t take any crap. She’ll make a fine hero for this story.) They’d demanded that she pay them money as recognition that they controlled the neighborhood, but she’d vowed to die before she paid them any tributeTribute’s an odd word choice. More importantly, you’re missing an excellent opportunity to sneak in a tidbit about Rosa’s background and/or show her personality. Example: She hadn’t scrubbed bedpans for forty years to fork over the cash to a bunch of gang-bangers. They’d have to kill her first. 

Most nights she sat with a shotgun on her lap, reminding the punks that they might control the neighborhood but they couldn’t control her.  Nicely done. 

She glared out into the darkness, her lower lip thrust forward, knowing that her defiance would be seen by the mareros. The title of a street gang should be capitalized. “Knowing” is a telling word. You started to SHOW us the action, then pulled back. Rosa glared into the darkness with her lower lip thrust forward. Any minute now, the Mareros would catch wind of her defiance. She tapped her signet ring against the cool steel of her shotgun. Let them come.  She’d been stubborn since the day she was born.  Her father said he’d seen more of her lower lip than any other part of her body. The last two sentences are unnecessary backstory and all telling. SHOW these details later through dialogue and action. 

Chamacas,” she shouts at the street.   She’s calling them little girls, the way they said it in El SalvadorIt wasn’t much to throw at them, but she’s so upset it’s all she can think of.  This paragraph slips into present tense … “shouts” should be “shouted”, etc. But it also raises a bigger, more important issue — the use of a foreign language. On one hand, we want to be authentic in our writing. On the other, we don’t want to have to explain. Or worse, risk confusing our reader. Some writing advice says to stick with English. Period. Or only throw in a foreign word (always italicized, btw) if the meaning is clear.  

I like to take chances in my writing, so I didn’t heed this warning. In SCATHED, I included an old-school Italian grandmother, Mrs. Falanga. Like many Italian grandmothers (and I’m no exception), she’s very excitable and enthusiastic around children. Problem is, when she gets rolling she slides into mixing both dialects together. It’s also part of her charm, along with hand motions to accent her words. These mannerisms and speech enhance Mrs. Falanga’s character. To avoid her native tongue would destroy some of her endearing qualities. That said, she wasn’t an easy character to write. I can tell you how I handled using a foreign language, but we don’t have room for that today. I will, however, write a post about it in the near future. To be continued …  

She collapsed back into her chair, rocking back and forth in the early November chill, settling into the rhythm that pumped blood into her arthritic knees. I like the mental image. Rosa reminds me of Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino. We don’t necessarily need to know about Rosa’s arthritic knees, but if you choose to include it, then SHOW her knees aching. With the shotgun leveled in her lap, does she take a moment to massage one knee?

Overall, I like Rosa enough to turn the page. How ’bout you, TKZers? What advice would you give to strengthen this 1st page? Thanks to Anon for sharing his/her work. A public critique takes courage. Best of luck to you!

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31 thoughts on “1st Page Critique: Pinprick

  1. Good advice here for the writer to make this opening more immediate. There is a bit too much “telling” (e.g., Most nights she sat with a shotgun on her lap, reminding the punks that they might control the neighborhood but they couldn’t control her.) and exposition where we could have action that indicates what’s going on. For example, have another character out in the street whom Rosa confronts, and then we can see what she’s about. Much of the info in the page can wait (e.g., El Salvador, demands for money, backstory on her stubbornness). Act first, explain later.

    I agree that the first line can be tweaked, but I’ll stick up for the strategy, because it functions to move us toward the most important goal of the first page–bond us with a character. I like seeing characters in motion because of a disturbance. Rosa Gomez slammed the door behind her. would work for me. Then unfold the page with more immediacy, e.g., with interior thoughts:

    Stupid Bernardo! All tatted up on his sixteen-year-old neck. Marked MS-13 for life!

    And action:

    Shadows moved in the street.
    Chamacas!” she shouted. Little girls.

    • Love how short and concise that definition of the word comes when written like that. Slam! …and slam again. You can almost feel the ‘hrumph’ with the explanation.

      Brevity never was my strong point.

    • Thanks for the added advice, Jim. All great points. Not sure I’d understand “chamacas” to be little girls, though. Is that how you handle foreign words in your writing? Hmm, now you’ve got me thinking about my story.

      • I do, too, Joanne. Jim’s a master at dialogue. Have you read his craft book, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue? Fabulous resource. Highly recommend.

  2. Ok, hate me if you will–beat me if you must. But…

    Really only one space after a period? Really?

    /whine

    Is that just a publishing practice for space, or am I really just that archiac? And stubborn, apparently…

    It’s going to take quite a lot of fortitude on my part to change 35 years of practice.

  3. Sue,
    You are a tough reviewer. I love the way you do it. In fact, if I’d sent in a First-Page I’d hope you reviewed it.
    When i first read the submission I liked it, especially Rosa. Your comments and Jim’s above will make this a compelling story. It also sets a high bar for the rest of the story.
    Anon, not sure if you’re a structure person. If not Jim has a great book on the topic as does Larry Brooks. K.M. Weiland has a terrific post here: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/secrets-story-structure-complete-series/. The topic of you book is too important to not treat it with maximum professionalism.
    I hope I get to read it.

    • Aww, thank you, Brian. Whenever I do one of these critiques I worry if I’m being too harsh. Hence why I spend a full day agonizing over every comment.

      Jim, Larry, and Kim are all fantastic story coaches. Thanks for the link!

      I would love to read Rosa’s story, too. Love her spunk.

    • Good writers want tough reviews. A reviewer like Sue who cares enough to give her best critique should be thanked. The writer can always choose to ignore advice. Even good writers sometimes disagree. When I show a piece of writing to a colleague, I always say, “Be cruel, but be fair.”

      • You’re so sweet, Joanne. Thank you! I tend to be tougher on the stories I like most, because I know the writer is ready to up their game. It’s like anything else. Timing is everything. Roll an egg to the edge of the nest too soon and it may wobble off the side, shatter on the ground below. Nudge a yearling to the nest’s edge at the right moment, and it’ll flap those wings and fly.

  4. Not to nitpick, but ‘Americas’ refers to the continents of North and South America.

    • It does? Gee, I never knew that. Thank you for clarifying, V. This also illustrates why we need to know our target audience. If the average reader isn’t aware of a certain term, or the word just feels clunky, it’s best to substitute with a more common word or phrase. The last thing we want is to send our reader to the dictionary. Or maybe, it’s just me. In which case, Anon, disregard my comment about “Americas.” 🙂

      • Thanks for the great comments, and please keep them coming! In addition to Aunt Rosa and Bernardo, the reader will be meeting Bernardo’s brother Justo and Sinbad, the leader of a homeless group Sinbad named the Leeches. Hope to meet you all at Thrillerfest.

  5. I like Rosa already! I think Sue’s critique was very helpful.

    I stumbled a couple of times when reading. I’m not sure “stalked” is a good verb in the first line. Maybe it’s because I live in the country, but I first thought of hunters and prey when I read “stalked.”

    I thought the first page was a little wordy. Sue pointed out where words could be excluded and thus allow for smoother, faster (more exciting) reading.

    I understand the second time Rosa collapsed into her rocking chair. She had gotten all worked up and needed to release some of that tension. But the first time she collapsed in the chair she was still all worked up. Instead of collapsing, maybe Rosa “threw her tense body” in to the chair.

    I didn’t read “Americas” as the U.S. but as North, Central, and South America, so I think the plural is fine.

    I would read more about Rosa and her nephew. Good luck brave writer!

  6. I think this critique is spot on Sue. I agree that this has potential although I did feel it was on the edge of ‘too much telling’, ‘too much stereotyping’ for the situation. I think it’s tricky when writing about anything (like a gang) that has its own ‘inner life’ that only those really close to it know and get – I think I’d like something that gives me insight into this that would shock/surprise me, to make this first page more compelling.

    • A peek into this world that would shock or surprise is a fantastic idea, Clare! You’re so right. It’s tricky to write from a unique perspective when dealing with subjects like this … unless you’ve experienced it firsthand or research the heck out of it so the reader thinks you have.

  7. Sue, another amazing analysis! Between your notes and the comments, I’m rather at a loss. I have many questions for Anon, though.

    Anon, keep in mind the order of things. It’s not just important that you have a great opening line. The way it’s written, you quickly dive into a flashback to a moment earlier. Immediacy is critical. You don’t want the reader to have to work that hard–they don’t need a setup. I was prone to doing just what you did for many, many years until someone pointed it out. I still have to be careful.

    The nephew and their relationship gets lost with the “telling,” as Sue pointed out. It makes me wonder what this story is about. Is it about Rosa against the neighborhood troublemakers? Is it about saving Bernardo?

    Are the gang members stalking her, gathering around her house because it’s the only tidy one left? That’s super creepy, like she’s Neville in Matheson’s I Am Legend, facing mutant zombies. Or are they hanging out this evening waiting for Bernardo?

    What is her physical state? She stalks, and is defiant, yet she collapses a lot. I have an image of a tough, strong woman–but she comes off as very old. What would she do that she might regret? Whap him upside the head? Shoot him for his own good? Call the police? Spit at him? So many possibilities…

    I’m intrigued by the story. Take your time with it.

    • Thanks, Laura! When I first read this piece I had many of the same questions. Learning to slow down and really think about how a scene should play out is one of the best pieces of advice I’d ever received. If only someone mentioned it years earlier … Sigh.

  8. Thanks for all of your comments, especially about deep POV and “telling”, things I need to work on. I’m going to go back through the novel again–won’t be the first time–and make changes.

    First time I ever heard about one space after a period!

  9. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Here are my comments:

    1. The first line, while not exceptional, raises a question. The reader may want to learn why Rosa slammed the door. However, I don’t think your first line is as good as it could be. However, the first page (imho) has bigger problems than the first line.

    2. “She’d just seen the tattoo on her nephew Bernardo’s neck, and knew that if she stayed in the house she’d do something she’d regret.”

    No comma between an independent clause and a dependent clause.

    This line can be condensed:

    She’d seen the tattoo on her nephew Bernardo’s neck. To stay in the house would mean trouble.

    3. “Mara Salvatrucha was scrawled in ink across the back of his sixteen year old skin.”

    Use hyphens for “sixteen-year-old.” Even with hyphens the phrase “sixteen-year-old skin” is awkward.

    4. The second paragraph, except for the part where she collapsed into the rocking chair, is backstory. Some writers can get away with this if the writing is extremely engaging, but I’d advise getting to some action sooner. Also, the sentences could be tightened. In each one, I found words that could be eliminated without losing any meaning. This may not seem like a big deal, but if you have twenty or thirty more words on each page than you need, that turns into thousands of words for a 400-page book. (Many editors charge by the word.)

    5. “Most nights she sat with a shotgun on her lap, reminding the punks that they might control the neighborhood but they couldn’t control her. ”

    Try something like this for closer psychic distance:

    Like most nights, she sat with a shotgun on her lap. The punks might control the neighborhood. They’d never control her..

    6. “She glared out into the darkness, her lower lip thrust forward, knowing that her defiance would be seen by the mareros.”

    Most of the time, the word “out” after a verb can be eliminated.

    A protagonist sitting alone thinking is not the way to begin a story. I’ve said this many times in other critiques. I’ll say it again. A passive protagonist isn’t very exciting. I need more than facial expressions and shouting from the porch on the first page.

    7. “She’d been stubborn since the day she was born. Her father said he’d seen more of her lower lip than any other part of her body.”

    This is backstory. Anyway, don’t tell us she is stubborn. Show us in a scene. Begin with a scene. Your protagonist should have a goal. She should have motivation. There should be conflict. Goal. Motivation. Conflict. Make these things clear to the reader.

    8. ““Chamacas,” she shouts at the street. She’s calling them little girls, the way they said it in El Salvador. It wasn’t much to throw at them, but she’s so upset it’s all she can think of. ”

    “Shouts” is present tense. Your tenses are all over the place in this paragraph.

    Also, don’t tell us that she is upset. Show us. (And if that’s all she can think of, she might not be the kind of protagonist folks will want to follow for the length of the book. Why should readers care about this grandma?)

    9. “She collapsed back into her chair, rocking back and forth in the early November chill, settling into the rhythm that pumped blood into her arthritic knees.”

    This sounds like a closing when nothing has really happened yet. Do you want to rock your readers to sleep? I’d keep it more lively on the first page.

    10. The Chicago Manual of Style, the US Government Printing Office Style Manual, and the AP Stylebook recommend one space after a period.

    My best advice is to brainstorm ten ways to open your book. Think goal, motivation, and conflict.

    Best of luck, and keep writing!

    • Excellent suggestions, Joanne. Our TKZ family rocks. The comments on the 1st Page critiques never cease to amaze me. Thank you (and everyone else who commented!) for taking the time to help Anon.

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