Cops at Your Door & a Mystery Unfolds – First Page Critique: Healing Wounds

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

For your reading enjoyment, we have the first 400-word submission from a work-in-progress introduction from an anonymous author. When I got this submission, the first few lines were broken apart, so I had to reunite them. I don’t know if this weighty first paragraph was the author’s intention, so forgive me if it doesn’t look right. I’ll have my feedback on the flip side. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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She had the dream again last night. It lingered as awareness of morning pulled her up and her thoughts coalesced into memory. Audrey Grey saw Jacob’s imprint on the pillow beside her. The light through the curtains told her it was time to get up, too. She stood under the water, transitioning to the day ahead. Thoughts of her dream receded as the day took hold. She dressed and finished a buttered bagel. He should be back anytime. The knocking surprised her. Not tentative and apologetic like you might expect so early in the morning. It sounded . . . commanding. She tiptoed to the window and eased apart a slit between the blinds. A man in a gray and black uniform waited. She let the slats fall shut and took inventory of her appearance. Wet hair, worn skinny jeans, baggy knit top. He knocked again.

You don’t just ignore the police at your door. It’s dishonest and she couldn’t lie to a cop about not being home. Her clumsy fingers fumbled with the lock and slid the chain off. The door always stuck a little, but with an extra tug it gave way. She leaned into the door frame, face to face with the visitor. She could see the gold shield, the belt fully rigged with gear and the black gun at his side.

“Good morning, Ma’am. My name is Officer Mike Welden, Wake County Sheriff’s Department.” He consulted a black notebook flipped open in his hand. His questioning eyes moved from the page to her wary ones.

“There’s been an accident and the identification on the injured party gave this address. Do you know Jacob R.

Grey?” She caught her breath. “Yes, he’s my husband.”

“May I come in?”

She stepped back allowing him to enter. His trained eyes scanned beyond the entry and he spoke her line.

“Would you like to sit down?” Obediently, she took a seat on the edge of the sofa, swiping at shower damp tendrils of hair falling onto her face. “You saw my husband? Is he okay?”

“I found him, yes, ma’am. It appears he was hit while on his bicycle this morning. He’s been taken to Duke Hospital.”

No. He would be here soon. They had to buy a grill for the cookout. “I’m sorry, what do you mean, ‘appears’?”

“We have no witnesses, so it’s not clear exactly what happened.

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – This intro is a classic opener with police knocking on the door of a wife to share bad news about the husband or a family member. Here at TKZ, we preach to start with a disturbance and cops at your door would qualify, but I would’ve liked to see the dialogue with more tension and intrigue. With this being a bicycle accident, the lines are bland. If you isolate only the dialogue and take everything else away, nothing much happens.

Would it have been better to open with the bicycle accident?

We also have an opener with someone in their own head and thinking about a dream, but with the dream not explained any more than a vague 2-line notion, it’s not interesting either. I’ve opened with internal thoughts of a character, but the writing has to intrigue and create elements of mystery to keep the reader (or an editor and agent) turning pages.

It’s my opinion that the author might try to find a better place or a better way to start. Let’s drill down into the details.

OPENING LINE: ‘had the dream again last night.’
The dream is only brought up twice in this weighty opening paragraph. With the first line and this one in the middle of the first paragraph – ‘Thoughts of her dream receded as the day took hold.’ There is so little known about the dream, it’s almost not worth bringing up. It’s a cheap tease that doesn’t work for me.

To intrigue a reader, there needs to be elements of mystery that would force them to want to know more about the dream. In these two lines, even the author dismisses the importance by saying ‘her dream receded as the day took hold.’ If this dream is significant, more of it needs to be layered in and it must reflect or foreshadow what is about to happen–or create the start of a mystery to be solved–otherwise it’s not worth the focus.

If this is a dream where Audrey symbolically loses her husband Grey or can’t find him, that might provide an answer as if she is telepathic or deeply connected to him. If the dream is of something else that will carry through the story, like a distinct thread that evolves, then more needs to be hinted from the start.

Maybe the dream is something buried in Audrey’s subconscious that has put Grey in danger. The author must show patience at dangling this kind of story element into the story, but there needs to be more in order for it to gain traction.

To play with this opener, the author could have the cops get Audrey out of bed from a dead sleep. I liked the imagery of her waking to see Jacob’s imprint on his pillow. She could be more traumatized and her mind muddled if they wake her from an exhausting night of bad dreams, only to wake into her own nightmare.

But I’m more of a fan of action in the opening. Hard to say what I might’ve done in these 400 words, but the bicycle accident would appeal to me more. The reader could be drawn into Grey’s world of normalcy as he rides his bicycle, only to be suddenly struck down by a mystery assailant who races from the scene. BOOM! Opener. Then build on the foreboding dream of Audrey’s that comes to fruition with a knock on her door with police standing there. Solid start.

DISTRACTING LINE – ‘You don’t just ignore the police at your door. It’s dishonest and she couldn’t lie to a cop about not being home.’

This line should be deleted. It’s a strange thought for her to even think about not opening the door to police. A lie about not being home is odd. Most people would be intrigued as hell about why cops were at the door. Why isn’t she? It makes her sound flaky and doesn’t read as solid motivation. In the following line, there’s a focus on action where ‘her clumsy fingers fumbled with the lock.’ That shows her mental state, as if she’s nervous (and rightly so) which is contrary to her strange thought about not opening her door as a dishonest gesture.

VISUAL IMAGERY – In the second paragraph, Audrey comes face to face with the policeman. This struck me as odd, given the next imagery of her staring at his duty belt and gun. I would imagine a cop would be taller than Audrey, unless she’s tall. If she’s shorter, her eyesight might see his duty belt better. I can see her distraction with it. Many people aren’t familiar with guns and she might be intimidated by it, but the police are there for a reason and she doesn’t seem curious enough about why they are there. If this image is important, then clean it up and make the cop more intimidating, if that’s the intention, but in the whole intro, Audrey doesn’t act like a normal wife getting bad news about her husband. I’ll explain below in the section on CHARACTER MOTIVATION.

HOUSEKEEPING – There’s plenty to clean up, line by line. I’m sure other TKZers will help with that, but something that stood out was the cop’s mention of Jacob R, about halfway down. Who is Jacob R? Didn’t the police have his last name? Why would the cop only call him by his first name and an initial? When Audrey says, “Grey?” I had to reread to get the leap she made. (Maybe she jumps in to add it and interrupts him, but there’s punctuation of em dash that would help make that clearer. The author should explain why the police only referred to Jacob R or use his full name. Presumably they would have it since Jacob is at the hospital and survived the accident. He would have ID on him.

In the sentence that starts with ‘His trained eyes scanned beyond the entry and he spoke her line.’ If this is in Audrey’s POV, the author leaps into the head of the cop when referring to ‘his trained eye.’ The author should delete the word ‘trained.’ I also had to reread the last part of that line – ‘he spoke her line.’ This is out of order from real action. How would Audrey know he was about to speak her line -‘Would you like to sit down?’ In that one short paragraph, two characters are speaking and it’s confusing. Separate the lines with space to make things more clear and I would write the cop’s line more distinctly to show he’s speaking.

“It’s best we sit down. After you.” The big man took charge and Audrey lead him into the parlor.

“You saw my husband. Is he okay?”

CHARACTER MOTIVATION – Officer Welden tells her that he found her husband, saying ‘it appears he was hit…’ Instead of Audrey focusing on what a real wife might want to know – “If he’s okay, why isn’t he home?” “Was he injured? Where is he?”

Instead, Audrey focuses on the word ‘appears’ and acts like a sleuth, at the expense of the well being of her poor husband. If she comes across as jarred by the news, physically and mentally, she would be more sympathetic and the tension and emotion would be escalated. But with this cold reaction, it only adds to the bland nature of this opener. The reader will care more if they can relate to the character and Audrey’s understandable emotion.

After Audrey asks if her husband is okay, Officer Welden only says, ‘I found him, yes, ma’am’ before he jumps to more of what happened. This is a police notification to a family. They would be more concerned with sharing news about the husband’s condition and where he’s been taken. Audrey can push for details on the case and who caused the accident once she knows her husband is okay and sees for herself, but there is no sense of urgency on Audrey’s part and the cop should explain more about Jacob’s condition.

“Your husband sustained a broken arm and a few cracked ribs. Doctors at Duke Hospital are examining him now.”

Audrey mentions an internal thought of ‘No, He would be here soon. They had to buy a grill for the cookout,’ (a line that I would italicize to show an internal thought for the reader). The emotion or her confusion isn’t in sync with her cold reaction and focus on the word ‘appears.’ Put more emotion into this section and have her react like a more normal wife and the reader will care more too.

DISCUSSION:
1.) What is your feedback, TKZers?

It takes guts to submit your work for critique. Any comments are solely for the purposes of providing help to a fellow author. We’ve all been here. Thanks for your submission, brave author. The beginning of every story is my greatest challenge, always. Tweak this and perhaps re-imagine a different beginning for Audrey and Jacob and you’ll have a solid start.

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

18 thoughts on “Cops at Your Door & a Mystery Unfolds – First Page Critique: Healing Wounds

  1. Please consider opening with the character’s name rather than “she”. That makes it clear right away who we’re dealing with. I was confused by the nameless she and then the mention of Audrey Grey. I thought they were different people.

    With the popularity of 50 Shades, the name Grey has become associated with that.

    “A man in a gray and black uniform” – doesn’t Audrey recognize him as a police officer? Most people’s first thought would be “Holy cow, there’s a cop at my door!”

    Why would Audrey take inventory of her appearance? She knows what she’s wearing. She knows what she looks like.

    It seems odd that with her husband missing and a cop at the door, Audrey doesn’t fling it open and say “What happened to Jason?”

    Right now this feels very distant.

    • All good points, Cynthia. I especially liked your comment about this piece feeling very distant. When you write the main character devoid of real emotion and have them ask odd questions that most people can’t relate to, that is how the emotional aspects can feel distant.

      The “taking inventory” thing is an easily seen author trick of describing what the character is wearing, like looking in the mirror and describing her brown hair. She KNOWS she has brown hair, why would she say it like that? It’s best to slip descriptions into the natural flow of the scene, even if these descriptions aren’t together. For example, when the cop says something that surprises Audrey, she could clutch at her pearls, a nervous habit. Wearing pearls in the morning says a lot about her nature.

      Good point on the name use from the start. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for letting us take a peek at your first page, brave author.

    I got hung up on the same things Jordan did with respect to the dream, the officer’s trained eyes, “spoke her line,” and the missing em dash. Just polishing up those items would make it a smoother read. Then either starting with the bike crash, or a more emotional encounter with the deputy at the door would pump some blood into this opening.

    I had to chuckle that Cynthia thought of 50 Shades at the name Grey . . . because I did, too! If you’re trying to put together an easy to remember name by repeating the -rey in Audrey and Grey, just use the technique on a different last name like Foley or Bauer.

    My last little bit of input is to trust your reader. It doesn’t slip by us that the officer said “appears,” so Audrey doesn’t need to repeat it to bring it to our attention. Then Audrey can go about the business of reacting to the initial shock that her husband is in the hospital.

    Good luck with your continued writing, brave author!

    • As a rule of thumb, whenever I come up with the name of a character, I search for it on the internet to make sure I’m not picking the name of someone famous or notorious. A well-known author of thrillers that I know had used the name for her main character and it turned out to be a famous comedian in wacky movies. Since it turned into a series for her, she still has that name (so I won’t mention it to out her), but I laughed aloud when I saw it. I wish I could mention the comedian’s name. You’d die laughing too. Just the visual image of this guy saving the world is hilarious.

  3. Congratulations, and thank you for sharing your writing, Jordan. I like it, but, please, take off that dream opener altogether and shorten up that opening paragraph. With some editing (we move awfully fast from pillow to shower to bagel), start in the middle….can’t wait to see what happens with the poor guy.

  4. Dear Reader, others have already told you what is wrong. I’d like to take a shot at how to fix it.
    Your piece is difficult to understand. The action is clear, but the internal dialogue and the way it is presented is too confusing to continue reading.
    Remember our readers want an engaging entertainment not an experiment in literary post-modern literalism, so don’t reinvent the wheel. Even James Patterson and the writers in his book writing factory stick to proven methods. Here is my take on how to start a story.

    Start with action and set a mood that speaks to the ‘normal’ situation’. Then upset the normal with a disturbance that changes the main character’s life forever. Don’t tell me anything I don’t need to know before the disturbance. Choose to allude to setting and time, but don’t describe them. Readers can take a hint and fill in the rest.
    Here is an example the might work with your story idea.

    Audrey Harrison looked at the coffee maker and said, “Shit”. The pod didn’t work. She rejiggered it until it did. Coffee splattered onto the counter. Her shoulders dropped. She dashed to the cupboard to get a cup.
    The doorbell rang before she could get back to the machine. “To hell with it.” She put the cup on the the counter.
    Her temper turned her mind into an inferno. The angry as hell Audrey jerked the door open. “What?”
    Then paused. “I’m sorry officer, I’ve had a bad morning.
    “I’m deputy Michael T. Weldon, are you Audrey Harrison?”
    “Yeah.” She took a step backward.
    “May I come in?”
    “It’s Jeff isn’t it?”

  5. I think we’ve covered this topic before — opening with dreams. I’m not a big fan, unless you can make the dream really integral to the plot or character development ie bad insomnia fueled by demon-dreams that relate to the protag’s daytime struggle. Even when a dream is handled well, it still feels, as Jordan said, a little cheap to start out the story with it — it’s artificial tension.

    Maybe she’s jerked out of sleep by the doorbell and banging on the door — the cop downstairs. She might go to the bedroom window to see who’s down there, balk with dread at the sight of a cop (wouldn’t we all? A cop at your door in the early morn is never a good thing). And maybe only *then* might she look over and see the imprint of her absent husband?

    Also, it’s sort of unclear where she thinks her husband is. She notes only that he’s gone. Is a morning bike ride in his normal routine? Is he usually there when she wakes? Or has he been absent for a while for some reason — ie a separation? We need some hint of where this relationship is at.

    And the writer needs to clear up the simple choreography of moving her characters around in space. She wakes up then suddenly she’s standing “under water” then she has a buttered bagel. You need to say she showered, dressed and went downstairs. That’s six words. I know this sounds nit-picky but it’s not; it’s clarity. But as others have said, all this is throat-clearing anyway, an attempt to show “normal life” before a disruption. Start with the cop at the door.

    • All great points, Kris. It’s hard to critique a story that you don’t know much about except for 400 words. If we knew more, we could help brainstorm a more suitable starting point. Some writers can make a dream work if the emotion is there and the writing is compelling, but why force that if there is a better place to begin? The glaring starting point for action is the bicycle accident, but like you, I’m trying to work with the vision of this author. I just hope we’ll present options for this author in our comments. Thanks.

  6. Last week we had what I thought was an outstanding opening with a 17 year old kid gunned down in the street, followed quickly by the introduction of a pastor taking a call from the kid’s mother. Many comments were made about putting the pastor at the scene to hear/see what happened because quite a lot of folks wanted to avoid an overused, omniscient opening of the crime.

    Now we have a woman at home hearing about her injured husband, and the advice seems to be that the book should open with the accident. If the wife isn’t going to be there, then it will be an overused omniscient opening, won’t it? (This assumes that it would give the story away to see how the poor guy got run down.)

    It would be great to see a TKZ column on opening variations and perhaps some of the regulars could weigh in on openings they’ve read that were both engaging and unusual, just to kickstart the ol’ brain cells into finding new ways to approach crime story beginnings.

    • You asked about good openings. Here are ten I like.

      1. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kruger
      2. Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
      3. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Partricia Highsmith
      4. A Thief of Time by Tony Hillerman
      5. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
      6. Cockroaches by Jo Nesbo
      7. Darker Than Amber by John D. MacDonald
      8. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
      9. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John LeCarrie
      10. I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane
      11. BONUS: My personal favorite, The Martian by Andy Weir

      • Thanks, Brian. Reading good books make the best examples. I also find that a story in the hands of a masterful writer, any generally accepted “craft guideline” might be ignored because the author simply found a way to make their opening work.

        As a writer, I like breaking perceived rules. I’ve done it many times. It never gets old.

        • When you break the rules, though, you’re doing it deliberately. I suspect that some of our brave writers don’t know what the rules are.

    • We walk a line when we do these anonymous critiques. First, these pieces are short by design, because editors & agents can make a quick decision on whether they are drawn to read more or reject it. 400 words is enough to give industry professionals a feel for the author’s writing.

      For me, I don’t want to reword everything because I would do it differently. I’m more apt to work with what I perceive to be the author’s vision and nurture what’s presented to show how it can be tightened or improved. So my feedback works two angles – 1.) working with Audrey’s opener & 2.) Suggesting an alternative opening of the accident. I wanted the author to have options for them to decide.

      To your point, there are many ways to begin a story. Reading good books can be a wonderful resource. Brainstorming a premise could be worthwhile in a group setting.

      To clarify, I’m not proposing an omniscient POV. Since I don’t know the author’s story, I’m only guessing the action could be seen through Jacob’s eyes in his POV. For crime fiction, I recommend starting with a disturbance and/or action that’s intriguing. Full on action would work or (as I mentioned above, mystery elements can draw the reader into the story). This isn’t formulaic because it’s up to each author & their unique voice to make the world building real and the characters alluring. I hope this clarifies my points.

  7. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Jordan gave a great critique, and the other folks have also given some wise advice. Here are some additional comments to throw into the mix:

    Opening Line

    “She had the dream again last night.”

    As Cynthia pointed out, you should use the character’s full name instead of “she” (a vague pronoun reference since the reader doesn’t know who she refers to here). However, that’s not the biggest issue. The biggest issue is a problem that I see in nearly every opening I read here: a story that begins with a character alone (e.g. thinking, dreaming, waking up) and ruminating about something. Also, readers will not bond with Audrey Grey if you begin your story by summarizing her day from waking up to getting a shower to buttering her bagel. You need a hook. Nothing significant happens in your opening until the police arrive, but most readers will stop reading long before then. So make the first sentence so interesting that the reader will have no choice but to read the next one. Use an opening line that is assertive and gets right to the action. Quick example (which you could modify to fit your particular story):

    Audrey Grey had just opened a pair of blue booties at the baby shower thrown by her colleagues when the police officer arrived.

    Setting

    Readers have seen “the police coming to give the bad news of a death” opening too many times. So, how could you make this scene more interesting? Where else could the police track her down and deliver the bad news other than at her home? You need to put a unique spin on this scene. Here are a few ideas, just to show you that there are so many choices:

    1. at her baby shower
    2. at a pub where the policeman has seen her before and believes she’s having an affair (except she really isn’t; there’s another reason she’s there).
    3. at the school where she teaches (or some other place of business); this would provide an opportunity for the reader to see what makes the protagonist tick, so to speak.
    4. at an out-of-town conference where she’s giving a presentation
    5. while she’s swimming/flirting in her pool in the backyard with her neighbor’s college-age son
    6. while she’s standing on a ladder, picking apples from an apple tree in her yard
    7. while she’s at the police station after being arrested for demonstrating about some political cause with a group of women who were cited for baring their breasts in public to call attention to the cause
    8. while she’s asking her boss for a raise because she’s just learned she’s pregnant and wonders how she and her husband will pay the bills
    9. while she’s flirting with the mail carrier
    10. after her beloved dog has just gotten loose and she’s asking her neighbor about the dog

    Come up with your own list of ten ideas that relate to your particular character and support your story’s theme. Pick the most interesting ones and write your opening scene a couple of different ways. Then choose the most entertaining/engaging one. Use the setting to your advantage. Choose something unexpected, as well as something that will help readers to empathize with (or at least be interested in) what happens to the protagonist. So few writers give appropriate attention to the setting of the first scene.

    Writing Must Make Sense

    Example:

    “The light through the curtains told her it was time to get up, too. She stood under the water, transitioning to the day ahead.”

    This makes no sense. How does she go from her bed to being under the water? Why would readers care about the morning routine of a character they haven’t bonded with yet? Save your first page for action that will seduce your reader into reading more.

    Open With a Scene

    Actually, it’s not enough to begin with action. The action has to be interesting action. Things like a character performing bodily functions (waking, showering, eating) aren’t interesting.The most unusual thing about this scene is the arrival of the police, and that part is buried beneath a lot of ho-hum action. If the police must arrive, have them arrive while the protagonist is doing something that shows her defining quality in action. If you are a new writer and you want your story to attract agents and publishers, your idea needs to be original from the start. Don’t give agents a reason to stop reading your first page. You’ve got to make it so good that they can’t help but ask for more pages.

    Dialogue

    You write:

    “There’s been an accident and the identification on the injured party gave this address. Do you know Jacob R.

    Grey?” She caught her breath. “Yes, he’s my husband.”

    It looks like there may have been some sort of problem with pasting the text here; however, be sure to begin a new paragraph each time the speaker changes.

    Tense Shift

    “You don’t just ignore the police at your door.”

    Here you shifted into second person. If you keep this sentence, write it like this:

    “She couldn’t just ignore the police at her door.”

    Yes, there are published writers who get away with doing this sort of tense shift and get away with it. *sigh*

    Don’t Describe Micro Actions

    “The door always stuck a little, but with an extra tug it gave way.”

    Unless the fact that the door sticks is going to be used later in the story for some reason, don’t tell the reader this.

    Adverbs

    “Obediently, she took a seat on the edge of the sofa…”

    I’d lose the “obediently” here. It isn’t needed.

    Emotion

    If you want the reader to feel more emotion, I’d make Audrey’s concern for her husband more apparent, as Jordan suggested.

    That’s all I have time to write now, brave writer, but I think you’ve gotten great feedback with lots of ideas on how to proceed. Best of luck and keep writing!

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