First Page Critique: 12 Rules

Happy Monday! Today we have a first page critique entitled 12 Rules. My comments follow and I’m hoping that TKZers provide some great input and feedback for our brave submitter. I will be on a plane to Europe so may not be able to respond to comments – but I’m sure it will be a great discussion!

Title: 12 Rules

Chapter 1

Everything around them tended to die, including people. She always struggled with keeping pretty flowers in her room alive by forgetting to water them, and he never could sustain tiny house pets lifespan beyond a couple of weeks. Even inatime things like hopes and dreams had a tendency to writher over time between the two.

Though they both had to admit, this was the first human to die in their presence.

As heartless as Arlo hated to be, the person who had fallen quite literally at their feet was of no importance to either of them. It was Parks’ third cousins step sister. Technically, she wasn’t really family according to him.

Two weeks ago they were at his annual family gathering. Everyone was drinking, laughing, and having a good time as far as Arlo could tell. Her and Parks were huddled by a picnic table full of all the younger kids while sipping on red punch, discussing the boy Parks believed to be his nephew, but wasn’t all that sure. He was cute, Arlo had commented, and in the corner they were devising a plan to get him to talk to Arlo. She knew Parks was the wrong person to ask when his first suggestion came with, “accidently spill your drink on him.” Before she could even fathom saying a word to the gorgeous new stranger, Parks’ mom pulled them over for a picture. Lined up by height, Arlo of course was at the front along with a younger lady who was very pretty. She smiled at Arlo, flashing perfect whitened teeth over baby pink lipstick that popped. Then there was blinding flashes of more than one camera, and then the flashes were gone and she was seeing spots. Everyone stood up, including the nice lady next to her. Parks had already been back at her side with a new and improved plan, but never got the chance to tell her. The lady’s eyelids fluttered and her ocean blue eyes rolled like pool table balls backwards, and she tumbled to the ground like a tiny building- quick and short. The lady didn’t just fall to the side or backwards, she fell forward; right on Arlo’s sunshine yellow shoes she’d been so excited to wear. And just like that, the lady had smeared death all over her new converse. Following the fall and destroyed shoes had been earfuls of screaming.

Now they were bumper to bumper in early morning traffic yelling at each other over a blaring radio.

“You were supposed to take that exit we passed like ten minutes ago!” Arlo shouted. She felt the need to cup one of her hands around her mouth like a mega phone. But leaned back in the driver’s seat, he still refused to listen.

My Comments:

Somewhere in this first page there is a great story waiting to emerge – I can see glimmers of a cool, detached, wry POV and the beginnings of a story about two people who can’t keep anything alive suddenly being confronted with an actual death. Unfortunately, this story is stymied by some stylistic choices, a passive choice of sentence structure, and a lack of characterization that robs the page of much of its dramatic tension.

In brief, I think these are the main issues that need to be addressed:

  1. Pronoun confusion – The use of ‘them’, ‘she’ and ‘he’ before we know and understand the characters creates confusion as well as distance. At first I had no idea who was ‘he’ or ‘she’ as Arlo and Parks are gender neutral names (which is no issue – just needs clarification so we know who is who) and had initially assumed they were a couple who lived together. All through this first page, the use of pronouns creates an awkward sense of distance from the story which makes it hard for a reader to feel engaged.
  2. Passive sentence structure – Many of the sentences in this first page are written in passive voice creating further distance from the story. An good example of this is the phrase “Following the fall and destroyed shoes had been earfuls of screaming”…not only does this sound awkward and strange, it also robs the scene of the drama of having people screaming as someone literally dies in front of them. I would recommend the writer go through this first page and change passive sentences to active ones to create  sense of immediacy and action.
  3. Lack of dramatic tension – In the first few paragraphs, the reader starts to feel some anticipation about the death that is going to occur only for it to be handled in a prosaic, indifferent way that drains away all the dramatic tension. I wanted to be intrigued and invested in the characters and how they responded to this initial death and also to get some sense of the story to follow. Once the scene switched from the death to Arlo shouting about how they’d missed the exit, I was no longer engaged in the story.
  4. Lack of detailed characterization – Apart from my uncertainty over the relationship between Arlo and Parks – at first I thought they were a couple whose hopes and dreams withered as much as their house plants – there is also the issue of providing characters with real meaningful scenes and dialogue so that we, as readers, become invested in them as three-dimensional characters. In this first page, none of the characters introduced are given any real substance. We are told  that that Parks is trying to set Arlo up with someone at the party, but there’s no real action or dialogue to make us care about this occurring (also the suggestion to ‘accidentally spill your drink on him’ is so bland that it doesn’t give us a true sense of character’). Likewise all the minor character’s are merely described in detached terms like ‘Parks’ third cousin’s step sister’, ‘gorgeous new stranger’, ‘a younger lady who was very pretty’, ‘ the nice lady next to her’, and someone who Parks ‘believed to be his nephew, but wasn’t all that sure’ (which I didn’t really understand…). This meant it was very hard to visualize any of the minor characters or care about what happens to them in this scene.
  5. Telling not showing – This first page is almost entirely told to us rather than shown, with only the death itself containing much in the way of visual details. I would have preferred we were immersed in the scene and given sensory details so we could visualize all the characters and become invested in the story.
  6. Spelling and grammar issues – We always emphasize here at TKZ that a first page is the all-important first impression and, as such, it must be as perfect as possible. Grammar errors such as missing apostrophes and spelling errors (‘inatime’ not inanimate and ‘writher’ rather than ‘wither’) will immediately put off any agent, editor or reader from continuing to read the story.

Overall, I think there’s a good story lurking beneath the surface of this first page, but the writer could benefit from cleaning up the sentence structure, grammar, and pronoun use, adopting a more active voice, and immersing us in the scene with action, dialogue and more detailed characterization for this first page.

So TKZers what other advice or feedback would you provide our brave submitter?



15 thoughts on “First Page Critique: 12 Rules

  1. “Following the fall and destroyed shoes had been earfuls of screaming”–granted this is an awkward sentence, it is not passive voice. Passive voice requires a transitive verb directing the action to the subject:

    Active voice: The boy kicked the ball.
    Passive voice: The ball was kicked by the boy.

    Anon’s sentence, with a more normal word order: “Earfuls of screaming had been following the fall and destroyed shoes.” (Which would be the active voice, past perfect participle form of the verb ‘follow’.)

    Actually the author probably probably intended a participle phrase and didn’t get ‘there’ into the sentence: “Earfuls of screaming [there] had been, following the fall and destroyed shoes.” Still not passive voice. Past perfect of the intransitive verb ‘to be’.

    Passive voice would be: The fall and destroyed shoes had been followed by earfuls of screaming. (And I think passive voice always uses the past participle, not the present participle.)

    “Earfuls of screaming had followed the fall” is certainly more forceful, and thus, in a sense, more “active” than “Earfuls of screaming had been following the fall,” but just using a participle form of the verb does not turn it into passive voice.

      • That’s true, but neither here nor there re the issue of abusing the concept of passive voice. When I started writing fiction I was confused, and then upset by the number of people criticizing me for using passive voice where there was no passive voice at all. The error is thus widespread and should be resisted.

        The situations where passive voice would be appropriate are quite different from those where a participle verb construction would be appropriate. Consider the very appropriate use of passive voice in the Creed:

        Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est.
        He was incarnate by the Holy Ghost out of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
        Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato passus, et sepultus est,
        He was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried:

        And the switch to active voice:
        et resurrexit tertia die, secundum Scripturas,
        And he rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures:
        et ascendit in cælum, sedet ad dexteram Patris.
        And ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father:

        He _was_ crucified, but _He_ arose, not “he was resurrected.”

        I have some fun with passive voice at

        • You’re right. Writers should be careful about throwing around the term “passive voice.” I wrote an article entitled “To Be or Not To Be: Help for Distressed Writers” that addresses passive voice. Anyone interested can plunk the article name into Google with quotes to find it. I also discuss when it is desirable to use the passive voice. For example:

          People who want to be deceptive (or conceal the subject) often use the passive voice.

          Example of deceptive use of passive voice:

          Thousands of medical records have been lost.

          Written in the active voice, the sentence would pinpoint the culprit:

          Dr. Smith lost thousands of medical records.

  2. I was stopped by the first paragraph for the reason Clare points out–those misspellings.

    But then the page is dominated not by present action, but with, of all things, a flashback. And not a scene (show) flashback, but a told flashback.

    I would begin this way:

    “You were supposed to take that exit we passed like ten minutes ago!”

    Cut everything else and build from here. Make a scene. Don’t be in a hurry to TELL us anything. Let the exposition be below the surface until it’s forced up to take a breath.

  3. Putting your work out there for critique is a huge first step so congratulations. As Claire stated, I’m sure there is a good story waiting to come out, but it needs some legwork. I found myself wanting to relate to the story (i.e. we all have family reunion stories) but…

    I will say simply that by the second sentence I was confused and from that point on never got un-confused. Arlo, to me, is a male name, & I assumed Arlo was a he after half a dozen re-reads of the beginning part of the submission, then became even more confused later when it sounded like Arlo was a she. And I never really was sure who all the pronouns were alluding to throughout the piece.

    Add to that some basic punctuation and capitalization issues and I concluded the read as bewildered as when I started it.

    I don’t intend to sound harsh. I’m just honestly stating my reaction as a reader. It sounds like Arlo has the makings, but you must find a way to expose your characters & story to the reader in a way they can understand and relate to.

  4. I got super excited when I read those first two paragraphs! This writer has a beautiful poetic voice. Clare said it best, “a cool, detached, wry POV.” I think this author could give us “A Talented Mr. Ripley” story, which is my absolute favorite. That kind of voice is a gift to be thankful for. Hammering out pacing and the story is long hard work. Good luck.

  5. I agree with Clare. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Here are some additional comments and some practical advice on how to proceed:

    First Line

    “Everything around them tended to die, including people.”

    This is confusing. Who is them? The reader doesn’t know, because you’ve made no proper character introductions. Is the speaker even human? The reader doesn’t know after reading the first sentence. Pick a character, and write from that character’s point of view. For example:

    Everything around Arlo Smith tended to die, including people. (if Arlo isn’t human)


    Everything and everyone around Arlo Smith tended to die. (if Arlo is human)

    First Paragraph

    “Even inatime things like hopes and dreams had a tendency to writher over time between the two.”

    There are two spelling errors in this sentence. (Inatime, writher). Use a spell checker. I’d also advise using an editor. There’s an article at Microsoft’s site called “Check spelling and grammar in Office” that will tell you how to do this. Don’t ever skip this step.

    Show, Don’t Tell

    Don’t tell the reader Arlo is heartless. Show it. Find a way to show the reader that Arlo is heartless with her actions. Don’t come right out and tell the reader that character X is fill-in-a-trait. Show the trait in action in the present so the reader can experience it.


    “It was Parks’ third cousins step sister.”

    A person is either a “he” or a “she” and never an “it.” Apostrophes must be used to show possession. So write the sentence like this:

    She was Parks’ third cousin’s stepsister.

    There are many errors with punctuation and grammar. I don’t have time to correct them all. Using an editor is a must.


    “Two weeks ago they were at his annual family gathering.”

    Readers don’t care about what happened two weeks ago. This is called backstory. Readers want to experience life vicariously through the protagonist. Most of the first page is backstory, which is never a good idea. If what happened two weeks ago is so important, begin the story there. Dramatize the events in a way to make them feel immediate to the reader, as Clare suggested.


    This page is filled with overwriting. I don’t have time to mention all the issues that I see; however, these metaphors are a bit much:

    “…her ocean blue eyes rolled like pool table balls backwards”
    “…she tumbled to the ground like a tiny building- quick and short.”

    Also, when you’re writing a story, try not to provide too many details. This will bore the reader.

    There’s an article on my blog about overwriting that I invite you to read. You can also put “overwriting” into a search engine for more information.

    Final Sentence

    “But leaned back in the driver’s seat, he still refused to listen.”

    This sentence is missing a word, which doesn’t leave the reader with a good impression.

    How To Begin Your Novel

    Read The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings by Paula Munier. Also see her article on Jane Friedman’s site entitled “Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right.”

    Overall Impression

    I don’t want to discourage you, brave writer. However, literary agents and discriminating readers are particular about spelling, punctuation, and grammar. So, here’s your mission (if you choose to accept it):

    There are free online courses here:

    If you want to be a writer, you need to master the basics. Grab a copy of the famous Elements of Style book by William Strunk, which is available online free at The Project Gutenberg. You can also get How to Write A Novel: A Practical Guide to the Art of Fiction and other free writing books at The Project Gutenberg.

    Read some writing books. The “Write Great Fiction” series by Writer’s Digest is a great place to start. This series includes:

    Write Great Fiction: Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
    Write Great Fiction: Dialogue by Gloria Kempton
    Write Great Fiction: Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress
    Write Great Fiction: Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell
    Write Great Fiction: Description and Setting by Ron Rozelle

    You should be able to get these books at the library, but it would be good to start building your own library of reference books. The shop at Writer’s Digest online has the best prices I’ve seen for these books. When you’re finished reading these books, let me know. I’ll give you another list. There’s much to learn.

    Also, watch “Screenwriting Plot Structure Masterclass – Michael Hauge [FULL INTERVIEW]” on YouTube. It’s about an hour and a half long. If this sounds like a lot of work–well, it is. That should keep you busy for this week. Best of luck, and keep writing!

    • Excellent suggestions. I didn’t know about the Michael Hauge interview, so I sampled a seven minute segment. I can’t wait to finish it. I’ve set aside time this afternoon to watch it all. Thank you.

      To Anon. You may be a bit down right now. Don’t. You know something new. What you need to learn. Go get it. You might try a short story. I find writing a two or three thousand word story to be good opportunity to learn.

      • Brian, I am happy that you decided to watch the interview with Michael Hauge. I can’t believe it’s available for free online, but I’m glad it is. Everyone I’ve recommended it to has given positive feedback. (Incidentally, writers at all levels will enjoy it.) When you’re done watching that video, check out “In Conversation with Michael Hauge: The High Concept Movie.” You will love it. Of course, Michael talks about screenwriting here, but much of what he says is helpful to fiction writers. There is no reason at all for our brave writer to despair. One of the greatest joys in life is learning, and when you stop learning, you die.

  6. Brave author, thank you for submitting the first page of your story with the intriguing title, 12 Rules.

    I agree with Margaret Carroll about your writing voice. It does remind me of The Talented Mr. Ripley in a good way. Not everyone will like this voice, but some will love it.

    I’m always interested in first sentences, and I like yours, but I’d like it better if you took out “including people“ because no, people DON’T tend to die around them, not yet. Then the dead woman at the party would have more of an impact, but her death would still fit with your opening sentence.

    I was distracted by things Claire mentioned in her excellent critique and also the huge fourth paragraph. Big paragraphs announce, “This is a big slab of back story,” or, “This is a big description with no action-filled tension.”

    I like Arlo and Parks’ names. They are unusual enough without being hard to recall or pronounce. I also like the cool description of the dead woman’s eyes.

    Good luck with your continued writing, brave author!

    • I’m glad you brought up the title. The title is interesting, but I would qualify what the 12 rules were. The title should be appropriate for the genre. For example:

      Twelve Rules of Living and Dying

      I’d replace the “Living and Dying” with something related to this particular book.

  7. I so wanted to love this excerpt because the writer grabbed me with the idea of people dying when around the character(s), BUT the grammar mistakes and lack of clarity quickly dampened my enthusiasm.

    It’s certainly possible to have a narrator or character whose grammar sucks, but that has to be established with the character’s voice, and, here, I agree that we don’t get enough characterization.

    So, if it’s not a character’s grammar that sucks, then this writer needs to review basic grammar and sentence structure, but don’t despair–a friend, who truly was a genius intellectually–couldn’t spell worth a damn, and he learned well into his adulthood. Grammar is basic. I think it would be almost impossible to write well without a solid understanding of grammar basics. The good news is that it doesn’t take that long to learn or re-learn grammar basics.

    This writer already has the glimmerings of a voice and a strong and intriguing story, which puts them in a place way ahead of many aspiring writers. It won’t hurt at all to go slowly so that they can accelerate later.

  8. I am a beginning writer too and the critiques can be hurtful. Don’t fret, your skin will thicken, and you’ll be glad the critiques are honest. Friends and family will never give you the dirt, they love you too much.

    These are my exact words I wrote for another writer’s story that was critiqued. ‘Accept the critique. Recognize what’s critiqued. Appreciate honest critiquing. Study the “How To’ books. Read The Woman in the Window by A.J. Flynn–love his writing style. He said, “I try to write memorable sentences. I spend a lot of time trying to craft my prose.” I wanna do that too and that takes practice.
    Sign up for online classes. Listen to podcasts from authors. Write, write, write.

    A year or two later, return to the first story you wrote, and if you say, ‘Really? I wrote that? Ugh.’ Imagine feeling the buzz prickling your skin, and your nerves jumping for joy. Ya gonna wanna write more.’

    Oh, one more thing, read the TKZ’s library too.

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