First Page Critique: Into the past with DEATH KNELL

Photo: “Tree Tunnel” by Gaurang Alat, courtesy

Good morning, and let’s give a hound-dog howdy to Anon du jour, who has gathered up a seemingly endless supply of courage and submitted the first page of work-in-progress DEATH KNELL for our collective consideration!

Title:  Death Knell

Chapter One: The Visitor

   No one is ever who they appear to be.  Peter Templeton had this thought as he stepped out of his car and looked up into the crimson blanket that covered the evening sky.  It was a gorgeous sunset and cast a glow over his entire neighborhood. Another perfect ending to another perfect day in his now perfect life, he thought.                 

   Across the street, neighborhood children scattered and laughed.  He watched the children play for a minute and smiled. Two years ago, he sat in a small cubicle and knew it would be his grave.   Now, he was living in a world where children played on well-manicured lawns, driveways were lined with vehicles named Cadillac, Lexus and BMW, and people spoke to each other across wooden fences.  He shook his head and smiled again.

   As if on cue, a silver Mercedes drove up the driveway next door.  The driver honked two short bursts and waved as he got out. That was Simon, Peter’s neighbor and financial planner.  Simon sat in a different type of cubicle and helped old people enjoy their final days. By the look on his face, he enjoyed it as much as anyone.

   Peter waved back and thought his life in a different cubicle.  He didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as Simon did. He hated every minute of it.  When he was younger, Peter thought heartbreak and pain were the worst things he would ever experience.  But he was wrong. Boredom, he discovered then, was a whole new kind of hell. It was a living hell where you lived the same day over and over and over again.  A hell where the seconds felt like minutes, the minutes felt like hours, and the hours felt like days. A hell where you prayed for death to end the boredom. But those prayers were never answered.  They didn’t even give you the freedom to kill yourself back then. Time was the only thing he was allowed to kill.

   He looked over the lawns and thought about what a difference a few years can make.  Back then, he just existed. He was a zero then. A nobody. He was a murderer in the eyes of the law and a criminal to everyone else.  He was a loser waiting to die. And he knew the world would be a better place without him.

   Then his salvation came out of nowhere.  It pulled him from his hell and dropped him in the middle of this quiet, calm and gorgeous neighborhood.  It removed all of the failures in his life like a strong tide and cleansed them in a sea of normal society.  Gone were all the wasted dreams, lost loves, and poor decisions. Now, he was really living. He was a winner now.  And God-damn it, he loved every second of it.

   Peter took a deep breath and looked down the street again.  Tree branches made a canopy over the road. For a second, it reminded him of the tropical leaves on the island.  They formed a natural ceiling and made the island feel like a great cathedral. He looked around again and took another deep breath.  There were many funerals in that cathedral and he witnessed too many of them. He didn’t miss that at all.


Anon, you’ve got an interesting setup here. It sounds as if Peter is a guy who has taken the opportunity to reinvent himself and has done so to his satisfaction. You’re hinting just enough to bait the hook in the reader’s interest and sink it. I have the feeling that Peter’s past is going to come knocking on his door and I would love to be there when it does. You’ve got the substance down. Let’s work on the form of your project just a bit to get it ready for publishing.

— Let’s begin with a little housekeeping. The color of the text in your submission went from blue to black about halfway through it.  I’m not sure if the problem was on your end, mine or somewhere in between, but please check that on your manuscript before you send it off an agent. Your text color can be any color you like so long as it is black unless your target tells you otherwise. You also want to proofread a bit more carefully. For one example, you state in the fourth paragraph that  

Peter waved back and thought his life in a different cubicle.

You left out the word “about” or “of” between “thought” and “his.” I do this so often in my own writing when my fingers are flying faster than my brain, that I am embarrassed to the extent that I might have a tee shirt created that states “I BEAT GRAMMARLY!” A proofreader (either you or someone else) will hold you in good stead.

— With that out of the way, let’s look take a look at Peter’s interior monologue. Your story is told in the third person past tense, so we want to have a clear delineation between what Peter is directly thinking and what our omnipresent narrator is telling us. You can do this by setting Peter’s thoughts off in italics when you want to tell us what he is thinking. You can say “he thought” once in a while but if you use it once early on with the thought italicized your readers (particularly TKZ readers, who are among the most intelligent on the planet!) will get the idea. You can remind them every once in a while but using “he thought” too frequently will become as boring as “he said.” Also, please note that if Peter is engaging in an internal monologue he is going to be thinking about “my” rather than “his” now perfect life. Let’s see how that will look in your first paragraph:

No one is ever who they appear to be, Peter Templeton thought as he stepped out of his car and looked up into the crimson blanket that covered the evening sky.  It was a gorgeous sunset and cast a glow over his entire neighborhood. Another perfect ending to another perfect day in my now perfect life.

— I also got a little distracted by your use of tenses. I noted earlier that Death Knell is told in the past tense. That’s all well and good. We understand that all of the events in the book took place in the past. You need, however, to distinguish between the “past,” which is when your primary narrative occurs, and the “remote past,” which occurs before your main narrative. We use the “past perfect” tense for this. The “past perfect” tense is formed by taking the past tense of “to have” (which is “had) and combining it with the past participle of the verb you are using. It’s easier than it sounds. Here is what happens when we utilize it in the fourth paragraph of Death Knell, where Peter begins to really rock ‘n’ roll about the past and about how things are much better today:

Back then, he had just existed. He had been a zero then. 


He had been a murderer in the eyes of the law and a criminal to everyone else.  He had been a loser waiting to die. And he had known the world…

It makes for easier reading, given that the reader doesn’t have to sort out the past and the remote past, as you, the author has already done it for them. Which brings us to the next thing on the list:

— Your writing style is just a bit repetitive in spots, Anon. You have a slight tendency to use the same words in close proximity to each other and to repeat what you have already stated or indicated. You are hardly alone in overwriting. I’m in that very large room with you. So is Charles Dickens. The late Harlan Ellison, in his column The Glass Teat, did a short but hilarious sendup of Dickens and the seemingly endless repetition of Tiny Tim’s classic line “God Bless us, every one!” in A Christmas Carol. To correct this,  read through your work and if you are describing the same thing over and over, or using the same word more than once in a paragraph, get rid of it and use a synonym.

Let’s look at that fourth paragraph again, where with a snip here and a clip there we can move things along just a bit faster by reducing the use of the phrase “He was”:

Back then, he had just existed. He had been a zero then, a murderer in the eyes of the law, a criminal to everyone else, and a loser waiting to die.  He had known the world…

That’s all I got, Anon. In the interest of brevity (…) I tried to focus on the broad picture and give an example or two rather than to go through and pick out each and every potential error. I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically quiet while I give our wonderful readers a turn at commenting on your work. I sincerely hope, Anon, that you keep plugging away so that we can see the rest of Death Knell at some point in the future. And thank you for submitting to First Page Critique!














Your story is told in the past tense.  All of the events described took place in the past. The problem arises when you have to distinguish between events which took place in the past in your main narrative — and events which took place even further in the past. That’s where the past perfect comes in. It’s easy enough to use



— Peter waved back and thought about his life in a different cubicle.



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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

13 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Into the past with DEATH KNELL

  1. I have a different take on this opening, although I am curious. The references to cubicles were confusing. This confusion isn’t necessarily a good thing, and may have resulted from the writer’s “social messaging.”

    I may be wrong, but I get the feeling that this writer has a lot to say about the state of the world, and that may end up interfering with good storytelling and good story structure. This comment may be the pot calling the kettle black, because my writing is definitely strong on social messaging so I know whereof I speak. We have to let the story carry the messages, rather than allow the messages to interfere with the story.

    Another story-killer can be over-writing. This writer has talent, in my opinion, but may be trying too hard to achieve a “literary” flavor to the writing. I suggest forgetting about perfect writing for the moment, and instead, focusing on the story until the overall structure of the story is right, and until each scene is structured well.Then worry about the actual writing and whether the quality of the writing gets close to your aspired level.

    However, nothing happens in this opening, nor does it seem as though anything is going to happen, I think that’s dangerous, and could kill narrative drive before enough readers decide to take a chance and turn the page. Basically, this opening feels like an “info dump” to me, and yet the info is confusing. I’d definitely start in a different place..

    Also, ‘I’d reveal the secret I think this writer is hiding. Sometimes we keep secrets from the reader because we think the secret creates narrative drive, but it really depends on the nature of the secret. I’d definitely make the character’s situation much clearer.

    Hope this helps. Keep on writing!

  2. Like Sheryl, I got confused between cubicles, thinking Peter and Simon were coworkers in a vast corporate cubicle farm.

    “Simon sat in a different type of cubicle and helped old people enjoy their final days. By the look on his face, he enjoyed it as much as anyone.” I wondered if this was sarcasm but didn’t get a clue.

    Although the writing painted a nice visual, I didn’t get interested in the story until the fifth paragraph: “He looked over the lawns and thought about what a difference a few years can make.”

    Try starting the story here:

    “What a difference a few years can make, Peter Templeton thought as he scanned his lush neighborhood where children played and Cadillacs sat in the driveways of comfortable homes like his. Two years ago, he had languished in a small cubicle and knew it would be his grave.
    Back then, he just existed. He was a zero, a murderer in the eyes of the law and a criminal to everyone else. He was a loser waiting to die. And he knew the world would be a better place without him.”

    The seconds to minutes to hours was a repetitive cliché and could be cut.

    The last two paragraphs were terrific and hooked me. I want to keep reading to find out how he was swept out of prison and into his new life. And what will arrive to interrupt the perfection.

    Thanks for submitting, brave author.

  3. Thank you, brave author, for making your submission.

    I would have to agree with Sheryl on several points. Nothing happens in this opening. The references to different cubicles left me confused.

    The biggest problem for me was that I don’t like Peter. He starts in neutral for me. As Joe says, he appears to be a guy who reinvented himself, and he’s almost too pleased with that. I especially thought that once we learn that what made Peter into such a success involved a lot of deaths. If Peter is the bad guy, he’s not quite interesting enough to keep me reading. If he’s the hero of this story, I don’t like him in the least. I feel no empathy for his escape from cube-land because you’ve indicated that the cost was too high, and it wasn’t paid by Peter. You haven’t shown me any likeability ‘pet the dog’ moments where Peter gives selflessly of himself. He doesn’t have niggling concerns about the cost. None of that is an issue if he’s the selfish bad guy, of course. But if he’s the bad guy and we haven’t met the good guy yet, there’s more chance that I’ll abandon this story instead of reading on to meet the hero. With no positive emotional attachment, I don’t know that I want to continue.

  4. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I’m guessing you’re new to TKZ, because your opening contains many of the kinds of problems that we’ve discussed many times before. However, that’s fine, because new people are probably finding this great blog all the time. Here are my comments:

    1. One question all writers should ask themselves before submitting an opening for critique:

    Is my protagonist alone, contemplating his life, whether it’s wonderful or miserable?

    In the case of this opening, the answer is yes. This is not the way to begin a novel. See “All 9 Story Openings to Avoid In One Handy Post” by Kristen Nelson. You can use a search engine to find this post.

    2. Another question writers should ask before submitting a first page for critique:

    Is the opening mostly action and dialogue? It should be. Try agent Paula Munier’s exercise found in this post: “Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right” ( The exercise described in the article will help you identify what portion of your opening is comprised of backstory, description, and inner monologue. The first page of a novel is not a place for backstory. Description needs to be woven into the action. The first page isn’t the place for a lot of inner monologue, either.

    3. Another question to ask before submitting a first page for critique:

    Is the protagonist introduced properly? Think about memorable characters that you will never forget. For example: Scrooge, Lucy Ricardo, James Bond and so on. Protagonists should be memorable. How should you introduce a protagonist? Barbara Kyle gives some wonderful advice in her article (available online in a PDF file) called “Making an Entrance.” Your character needs to make a much better entrance. Also, watch the movie Erin Brokovich for an example of a wonderful character introduction.

    Unfortunately, that’s all I have time to write for now. However, I’ll provide more feedback for you this evening. We have such a helpful group here. Joe is always so nice and encouraging, and I know the others will jump in, too. Remember that the comments here are all in the spirit of trying to help you get your book published, brave writer. I think many of the issues here can be solved by diving a little further into your story. Just remember that writing is a process, and revisions are a part of life. More about that later.

    • Where’s my spell checker, Brian? The agent I mentioned is “Kristin Nelson.” Sorry about that, because I don’t want our brave writer to miss out on reading her article, which is a must for new writers. (There are so many ways to spell Kristin. We also have authors Kristen Lamb and Kristan Higgins. But the article I want our brave writer to read is by agent Kristin Nelson. Thirty lashes with a wet noodle to me! Ouch. If you ever send a query to this lovely lady, be sure to spell her name right.

  5. No action in this opening. And by “action”, I don’t mean explosions or car chases. I mean direct physical activity by the central character designed to set the scene for the story and pull the reader into it.

    Sheryl Dunn encapsulated it perfectly when she said nothing happens and it appears nothing is going to happen. The writer should completely redo this opening with the idea of coaxing the reader to turn the page.

  6. Dear Anon, I am intrigued by Peter and this setup. You’ve gotten a lot of good advice already. I’d add, begin the scene ‘in media res.’ Show Peter interacting with another character who is going to play a major role, or alternatively doing something to either get what he wants or protect what he has. I’m guessing this is a story about the day Peter’s past comes calling (I love those kinds of stories), so show us. It could be chilling and small, mail with no return address but handwriting he’d know anywhere. How did they find him? Peter could scan the street, but all he sees is kids playing and cheery Simon pulling into the drive next door. Could it be Simon? Peter feels sick……Anon, you get the idea. One last thing, it’s a speed bump for me: why talk about ‘the different kind of cubicle’ that Peter was in when he felt his life passing him by? Cubicle is such a powerful metaphor for existential angst that I would avoid it since it sounds like Peter is worried about sudden violent death. Just my take on it. This is such a good premise. Who can resist a story about danger lurking just beneath the surface in suburbia? Good luck!

  7. I’ll bet you’ve now got a good idea what went wrong. I’d like to offer some ideas that might help fix it.
    1. All of the information in you opening should be saved for later. The reader doesn’t need it, yet.
    2. Get your hero immersed in his PRESENT situation and it can’t be good.
    3.Give a good idea about his new role in life.
    4. Have the MC going to the car. They symbolism is better.
    5. Set a mood. The books tell you not to start with weather, but a word or two and set mood.

    Something like this:
    Peter Templeton stepped out into the morning drizzle. Across the street, a familiar face, one he didn’t need to see, leaned against Pete’s faded Cadillac.
    “Detective Marks. Get the hell off my car.”
    “Don’t get all touchy on me, Temp.” Marks stood up and adjusted his cap. “You been checking in with your parole officer?”
    “What the hell do you want?”
    “We found April Burton’s body over in MacArthur Park this morning. I think you’re good for it.”
    “Prove it.”
    Marks grabbed him by the arm. “You were a crap cop and now you’re a crap con.”
    “Go to hell.”
    Templeton drove off in the Caddy. The news of April’s death was a hard left hook to his chin. Everyone knew that he and April were separated and having hard times. He wiped away the tear rolling down his cheek.
    He’d have to prove he didn’t kill her before Marks could frame him.

    I’m sure you’ll come up with a better idea, but notice the lack of backstory, the action carried in dialogue, and the conflict. Remember, the only failure in writing is quitting.

  8. Let me give a big Sweet Joseph thank you to all who have visited/commented and otherwise been a part of First Page Critique so far on this wonderful weekend, and if you are hanging back but have something to say…we. never. close., so please submit your comments. Anon, there is lots of good advice here, so please feel free to pick and choose. Thanks again for submitting to First Page Critique. Brian, wherever your spell checker might be, mine is sitting lost right next to it!

  9. Brave writer, I promised some more feedback. Here are a few more hints:

    Story Structure

    Read Techniques of the Selling Writerby Dwight Swain. Pay special attention to the fourth chapter (but do read the whole book).

    Swain writes: “A story is a chain of scenes and sequels.” A scene is a unit of conflict experienced by your character (and the reader). A sequel, according to Swain, is a unit of transition that links two scenes. Scenes should be entertaining and move the story forward. You should pit your character against some sort of opposition. This will raise a question that will interest your reader. Will the character get what he wants? Every scene in a compelling story will ask some sort of question that gets the reader wondering how it will be resolved. This creates suspense. A scene should bring change (be it large or small) into the life of a character. A chapter ends with a more significant change. Big changes, or turning points, happen at the inciting incident, the climax of Act I, the climax of Act 2, and the story climax. There’s much more to story structure than I can type here. Please feel free to ask the group here any questions you might have about story structure. If you haven’t read JSB’s book on plot and structure, put that on your reading list, as well. Even people who write well must study basic story structure. There’s no getting around that, sorry to say.

    Write to Create Emotional Impact

    There’s a book called Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias that I recommend. It was written for screenwriters, but much of what the author has to say also applies to novelists.

    On your opening page, what were you hoping to make the reader feel? Always know what you are trying to achieve before you sit down and write your scene.

    Running out of time again, but I wish you the very best. Keep writing, and I hope to see your next draft.

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