First Page Critique:
Naked Came the Stranger

John William Waterhouse’s “Naiad.” (1893)

By PJ Parrish

I am way behind on my First Page duties, so I hope you all don’t mind taking a look at another, coming right behind yesterday’s submission by Clare. This is an odd one, in that I am not quite sure what to make of it.  I know it’s a mere 400 words or so, but it’s hard to tell what kind of book we are dealing with here.  Your comments, TKZers, are always welcome.

The Artist and the Model

Blake Everette loved painting seascapes. He enjoyed the rock outcroppings around Smugglers Cove. While descending the steep path down the cliff, he noticed two Sea-Otters playing on the rocks. He found a spot he liked near the south end of the beach, away from the path. Before he set up his easel, he grabbed his sketchpad to sketch the Otters. But, soon they left, swimming off. Blake set the sketch aside thinking: Perhaps, I’ll add the Otters to today’s painting.

Blake worked all morning, painting. At noon he stopped for lunch. He grabbed a sandwich and a beer from his backpack, sat on the dune, sandwich in one hand and a beer in the other. Soon, a movement on the rocky outcrop drew his attention. His first thought: The Otters are back. He reached for the sketchpad. Yet, on closer inspection, he realized: It’s not the Otters … it’s a person. From his distance, he couldn’t tell gender.

The figure walked along the rock stretching its arms and legs. Before long, it dove into the sea and swam outward, with powerful confident strokes. After a hundred yards, it turned back. The swimmer reached the shore, ten-yards from Blake. At that point, gender was not in doubts—it was a woman. Her swimsuit was a piece of red material, held in place by a red cord around her hips—other than that, she’s naked.

“Hi there,” she waved.

“High yourself,” Blake replied, “It’s a bit cold for swimming?”

“A little—but invigorating.”

“I paint here often, and you’re new.”

“I usually swim further up the coast. But I’ve had trouble there. I heard of this spot—deserted—thought I’d give it a try.”

“What sort of trouble?”

She cupped her breast in both hands, “Some people don’t appreciate nude swimmers on their beach.” She dropped her hands, looked straight at him, “Does it bother you—nudity?”

He slipped his sunglasses down and looked over the frames. “Not a bit.” He sat down, “I see nothing unpleasing to these eyes.”

“Ha, ha,” she laughed, dropping to her knees. “I like you,” she smiled. “You’re not like the other older people around here.”

“I don’t consider myself old. But, I’m fair and reasonable,” he said.

“It was a compliment. And as for age, I didn’t mean to imply…” she covered her mouth, blushing.

“No harm done—the truth is: I’m not as young as I once was.”

“In that context—neither am I,” she giggled.

“My name is Blake, by the way.”

She extended her hand, “Nice to meet you Blake—I’m Nancy … Nancy March.”

____________________________

Okay, we’re back and all goose-pimply from our nude dip in the sea. As I said, I haven’t the foggiest idea what genre we’re in here, so I will assume the story will reveal, eventually, a crime element given our bent here at TKZ.  Or maybe it’s romance. So let’s consider our usual basic question about good openings: Has something been “disturbed?” Well, I guess seeing a naked woman emerge from the surf is disturbing, so yes, we might read on.

But there’s a strange lack of emotion on Blake’s part about all this. I write a series about a male protagonist, so I have to, well, try to think like a man. I’ve been living in Louis’s head for 15 years, so usually it’s not an issue. If you want to write fiction, you must be able to write credibly outside your own experience and gender. But once, I got stumped. I was writing a scene where Louis comes upon a woman sunbathing topless. I knew he had to react, but I couldn’t figure out exactly how. So I asked my husband, “what would you do?”  He said, “I would look but pretend not to.”

I guess what I am looking for in this submission is some kind of reaction from Blake — and not just about a naked woman. We are TOLD that he loves to paint. We are TOLD that he enjoys this particular cove. He seems charmed by otters. Yet when a naked naiad appears before him, he has no thoughts, no emotions, no nothing. Even when the woman makes the oddly sexual motion of cupping her breasts.

Also, there’s a little bit of throat-clearing. Why begin at the morning with all the busy-business of him setting up, stopping for lunch, etc? Pick up the scene later, maybe when he pauses to take a drink of beer and then sees the woman? There are also some logic issues. What exactly is this woman wearing? I’m thinking it’s some kind of red bathing suit, bottoms only? But from a distance, he mistakes the “figure” as a brown otter?

We also have myriad typos and mistakes in here. Yes, we all make them, but we have to strive for a certain level of professionalism, even in a rough draft submission. Let’s take a closer look:

Blake Everette loved painting seascapes. You’re telling me; show me this through his thoughts and actions. He enjoyed the rock outcroppings around Smugglers Cove. While descending the steep path down the cliff, he noticed two Sea-Otters why capped?playing on the rocks. He found a spot he liked near the south end of the beach, away from the path. Before he set up his easel, he grabbed his sketchpad to sketch the Otters. But, soon they left, swimming swam off. Blake set the sketch aside thinking: Perhaps, I’ll add the Otters to today’s painting.  Maybe I can add the otters in later to today’s painting, Blake thought. Don’t use “academic” punctuation like colons to convey thought.

Blake worked all morning, painting. At noon he stopped for lunch. I’d suggest starting here. He grabbed a sandwich and a beer from his backpack, sat on the dune, sandwich in one hand and a beer in the other. Don’t need to tell us that. Soon, a movement on the rocky outcrop drew his attention. His first thought: His first thought was that the otters were back and he reached for his sketchpad. But then he realized it was a person. The Otters are back. He reached for the sketchpad. Yet, on closer inspection, he realized: It’s not the Otters … it’s a person. From his distance, how far? he couldn’t tell gender.

The figure walked along the rock stretching its arms and legs then Before long, it dove into the sea and swam outward, with powerful confident strokes. After a hundred yards, it turned back. The swimmer reached the shore, ten-yards from Blake. A little confusing here. When he first noticed the figure, it was so far away he couldn’t tell it was a naked woman. She swam 100 yds out and came back, but somehow ended up 10 yds from Blake? I thought she began way down the beach? 

 At that point, Go right into a reaction here. gender was not in doubts—it was a woman. Her swimsuit was a piece of red material, held in place by a red cord around her hips—other than that, she’s naked. A tense lapse.

“Hi there,” she waved. “waved” is not an attribution verb. She waved and then said. 

“High ???yourself,” Blake replied, “It’s a bit cold for swimming?” Seems a strange thing for a man to say to a naked lady. Unless you made it a visual point that maybe her skin is all goose-pimply? You don’t give us much visual to go on here at all. You missed a chance to SHOW us what the woman looks like via his thoughts. This whole scene is oddly bloodless. It might work to tell us before this how cold the day is. 

“A little—but invigorating.”

“I paint here often, and you’re new.” Again, this seems an odd thing to say. I am dying to know what this man is THINKING! Go into his thoughts a little. What is he feeling? Shy? Embarrassed? Turned on? He’s not even curious! At the very least, you are missing a chance to slip in a little backstory ie: He had been painting at Smuggler’s Cove every morning since he had moved here two years ago. He knew everyone in the village, from the old woman at the post office who remembered he liked bird stamps to the skinny kid who never seemed to remember he liked his newspaper tossed on the porch.  But this woman…he had never seen her before. WHERE ARE WE? Blue Hill, Maine? North Vancouver? There are always ways to gracefully slip this info in early on.

“I usually swim further up the coast. But I’ve had trouble there. This is the first indication of intrigue. I heard of this spot—deserted—thought I’d give it a try.”

“What sort of trouble?” Again, this begs for a quick thought. Maybe this is where you can tell us where we are? He can think that up the coast in Mendocino (or whatever), there had been trouble with kids on the beach…or something. Don’t miss small opportunities to insert details about setting.

She cupped her breast in both hands, I think you mean she cupped her breasts? Or do you mean she is trying to cover herself? Cupping is provocative. Folding her arms across her chest implies modesty. “Some people don’t appreciate nude swimmers on their beach.” She dropped her hands, looked straight at him, “Does it bother you—nudity?” A bunch of punctuation mistakes here and/or missing attribution.

He slipped his sunglasses down and looked over the frames. “Not a bit.” He sat down, “I see nothing unpleasing to these eyes.”

“Ha, ha,” she laughed, dropping to her knees. “I like you,” she smiled. “You’re not like the other older people around here.”

I’m only thirty-four, he thought. (slips in backstory!)  But he guessed that the woman was maybe twenty, so perhaps she considered him old.  We also get NO description of the woman other than she’s wearing a red bathing suit bottom. Perfect place to SHOW us what she looks like via Blake’s point of view. “I don’t consider myself old. But, I’m fair and reasonable,” he said. What does that mean, I’m fair and reasonable? 

“It was a compliment. And as for age, I didn’t mean to imply…” she covered her mouth, blushing. This woman, given her provocative actions thus far, does not strike me as someone who blushes easily.

“No harm done—the truth is: Lose the colons! I’m not as young as I once was.”

“In that context—neither am I,” she giggled. What context?

“My name is Blake, by the way.”

She extended her hand, period. “Nice to meet you Blake—I’m Nancy … Nancy March.”

________________

As I said, we’re handicapped by our 400-word limit, so it’s hard to tell where we’re going or what kind of world we’re entering here. But my main suggestion, dear writer, is that you slow down and little and add some emotional meat to these bones. The situation is intriguing, but because you haven’t given much of a context in setting or in your main character’s thoughts and emotions, I feel…well, at sea.

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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

17 thoughts on “First Page Critique:
Naked Came the Stranger

  1. I noticed the typos but I think if I picked up this book to read the first page, I probably wouldn’t continue on mostly because, as you mentioned in the opening, I’m not really certain where we’re going with this in terms of genre. On the one hand, imminent death, dead bodies and violence on the first page can get a bit old. On the other hand, in something like this where the only bit of tension is the woman having to change her swimming location, it’s too relaxed.

    Just goes to show how tricky the first page of a story is!

    • I agree, BK. As some of you regulars here know, I actually like a slow opening, as long as there’s enough of a tease and a hint of tension. As you note, I think this scene is a little too casual to pull readers in. But maybe others here disagree?

  2. Instead of learning about those cute otters, maybe if our brave anon had started at lunch. The painting is coming along. He feels good about it. Then he sees the woman and that triggers a fear response (what is TBD and is a main factor in the resulting plot, maybe he’s been accused of sexism some way). Then he is conflicted with his natural response is the engage with her but his recent experience has made him cautious.
    The difference between a good scene and a great one how much it means to the protagonist.

    • “The difference between a good scene and a great one how much it means to the protagonist.”

      Excellent point!

  3. I can’t believe I am going to say this since a character’s inner thoughts usually annoy the hell out of me in a story, but I need some inner thought in the first paragraph. It is just too bland and wishy-washy.

    Blake Everette loved painting seascapes. He enjoyed the rock outcroppings around Smugglers Cove. Why??? What makes Smugglers Cove more enjoyable than Pirate’s Bluff just a mile down the road?

    He found a spot he liked near the south end of the beach, away from the path. Okay, according to the writer he has been here before, so how does he ‘find’ this spot? Did it magically appear? Or did he find a good spot FOR TODAY – the sun is hitting the water just right, there is just enough shade to protect him from the sun, it is sheltered from the wind.

    The first paragraph doesn’t offer enough detail to really make it worth the reader or writer’s time. It either needs to be left out or pumped up. I would pump it up. There is a reason why this man carrying his sketchpad, easel, paints, I assume a canvas and his lunch descended the steep path down the cliff.

    Also, and this of course depends on what is going to happen next in the story, but it seems to me no one else is on the beach, they both made an effort to get to this spot – shouldn’t one or both of them be a bit disappointed to find they are not alone? The conversation is too casually for the scenario.

    • I think we’re all looking for a little insight into this character, Michelle. We don’t need a lot…as you say, it can get annoying, especially early in the story. Thinking and not doing…that’s a big no-no. Get things moving, yes. But we also have to begin bonding with our protag and it’s hard to do that with Blake.

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

    1. What genre is this? I assume by the whimsical “by the sea” tone that it’s not a thriller. The title, The Artist and the Model indicates that the story is about a relationship. Perhaps this is a romance. However, the POV character in a romance novel is usually a woman, because women are the target audience for romance novels. Also, in a romance novel, more attention is given to how the protagonist is feeling. When I read the part where the woman “dropped to her knees,” I feared this story might be erotica, but thankfully, after reading what followed, I discovered it was not. Anyway, try to make the genre clear from your first paragraph, if not from your very first line.

    2. I don’t have time right now to correct the issues with punctuation and grammar; however, this sample needs those kinds of edits. PJ pointed out many of those kinds of things already.

    3. I have no problem with a slower opening, but the slower the start, the more outstanding the writing has to be. Perhaps this is a story about seduction. Even if it isn’t, your job as a writer is to seduce the reader from the first line. The first line must invite the reader to read the next line. A good first line helps to set the tone for the story. I’m going to give you a first line, and maybe you can tweak it to work for your story. Try something like this:

    Blake Everett had begun the morning sketching sea otter from a coastline cliff on Smugglers Cove the day he met the bare-breasted woman.

    Look at how much information you can pack into an assertive, powerful sentence.

    Who wants to read the next line? Better yet, who wants to write the next line?

    4. I’m glad to see some dialogue, because dialogue helps readers get to know the characters. However, dialogue in a story can’t be as bland as everyday conversation. You need to keep it snappy, and take out the boring parts. Characters often say one thing while thinking something entirely different. Read some books on how to write dialogue. JSB has a good one. It should be on your shelf.

    I wish I had more details like genre/premise/major plot points, because then I’d be able to give more help. Keep writing, brave writer, and good luck!

    • Thanks for your valuable input, Joanne. Good points all. I was thinking (as I was cleaning house today) that Blake is an artist. As such, he would be acutely attuned to the visual. He sees the world through an artist’s eyes. Maybe that is the writer’s special path into his thoughts and feelings. Blake does not see the world as say, a CPA or engineer would. He sees things in his own unique way. We could use a sense of that.

  5. I agree with your critique, PJ. This opening is strangely emotionless. We have a grown man WITH A NAKED WOMAN, for heaven’s sake. Even today, that’s shocking.

  6. I agree, Kris. This first page felt unemotional and in some parts, odd. I think Anon might be trying to show the woman emerging in his sightline in the way a movie might show the scene, with the blurred vision slowly becoming clear, but it missed the mark. That may be the problem with the entire opening. Seems to me Anon is writing what she sees in her head rather than slipping into her character’s skin. If she views her story differently it may help to understand your fantastic critique.

  7. She wasn’t the first naked woman he’d seen, nor would she be the last. He was, after all, an artist who’d painted many nudes…

    An opening sentence like that might explain his nonchalance. Also if he’s at a nude beach, albeit deserted, he might not be that surprised. Pleased, probably, but not surprised.

    If he has painted nudes, he would be observing details like how the light hits various curves and contours, the angle at which she should pose, etc. Even if he examines her like a car aficionado examines a 1967 Corvette Stingray, that would give more hints to his personality.

    Kris, love your husband’s answer: “I would look but pretend not to.”

  8. I’ve been an acquisitions editor for several small publishers. If this had been a submission, I would have read one paragraph and then put the submission into the rejections pile.

    Many writers think that we get a better shot at acceptance, i.e., that the publisher’s reader will read a page, at least, if not five pages, but it ain’t so. Your opening paragraph doesn’t have to be Putlizer-prize quality, but it cannot contain an obvious lack of knowledge about punctuation and spelling, etc. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

    But even if this opening paragraph had not contained such errors, it’s, frankly, boring. It doesn’t mean anything the way it stands; it leads us no further into a story.

    This writer is not alone. Every writer I know has written opening paragraphs that put readers to sleep. I tend to leave my first draft of that paragraph the way it is in all its boring glory until I’ve finished the first draft of the entire manuscript because only then do I really know the subtleties of what my story is about, and which of those subtleties I might be able to exploit in my opening paragraph to make the reader want to read more. The subtlety could relate to character or to the story itself or to theme, but there has to be a key something that readers may go back to after they’ve read more, and say, “Ah ha! Now I know why the author opened with this paragraph.”

    Of course, another option for the opening paragraph is to make the writing so incredible that the reader must read more, simply to savor the writing itself. I can’t kid myself into thinking I could accomplish that objective, so I rely on studying the craft instead.

    The picky stuff (punctuation, spelling, dialogue formatting, etc.) can be learned, and the craft can be learned. The Pulitzer Prize? Fuggetaboutit, and focus on learning the craft.

    Great comments, BTW. Lots of helpful stuff for this writer.

    P.S. I’m not crazy about the title because the book with the original title is so well known, although it fits since the book opens with an almost-naked stranger.

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