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Hello, TKZers! Please join me in giving a hounddog-howdy to Anon, who has bravely submitted the first page of The Divinity Complex for our consideration. Anon, take it away!


Title:  The Divinity Complex

We have no choice when it comes to life and death. But sometimes others make the choice for us.

Chris Martinez pulled into Jimmie’s Travel Center early Sunday morning. He parked his blue Chevy Impala in the spot closest to the front door and walked into the convenience store. The entire journey from car to register should have taken no more than a couple of seconds. But it took Chris a bit longer because every few steps, he stopped and looked back at the car. It was apparent something was wrong…very wrong.

Randy, the thirty-year-old attendant on duty, watched from behind the cash register. He thought the customer’s behavior seemed odd, but then he reminded himself of where he was. Jimmie’s was right off interstate I-95 in South Georgia. It was somewhere between late Saturday night and early Sunday morning. Under those set of circumstances, it would have been odd not to see something out of the ordinary. It wasn’t a matter of if, just when.

When Chris arrived at the cash register, he looked Randy straight in the eyes. He cleared his throat as if he wanted to say something. But he couldn’t tell what was on his mind. Chris had to be careful of the words he chose. That was because the phone tucked in his shirt pocket was recording the conversation. Chris knew if he said the wrong thing something terrible would happen. He had no choice but to play by the script.

If he wanted to stay alive, Chris would have to rely on his ability to send a single telepathic message. Being a carpenter by trade and not a psychic, made the chance of success infinitesimal. But Chris had to at least try. It was his only hope.

Chris locked onto Randy’s eyes and concentrated. He screamed as loud as he could into his own head hoping it would get Randy’s attention.

Help me…Help me…Help me

Sweating and trembling, Chris handed over a twenty and two fives. All he could muster was a half-hearted but utterly fake smile. It was apparent something wasn’t right.

“30 dollars…on…uh…Pump…10,” Chris said. That’s all he could say. Anything else and there was a good chance someone would die. Chris looked at Randy again.

Help me…Help me…Help me

“30 on 10, you got it, buddy,” Randy responded.


Anon, I absolute worship road trip stories, particularly those that wander off the freeway and into parts that are at least initially unknown. You accordingly had me from the jump. There is a glaring problem that jumps out at me, however, and it leads to others. It’s fairly easy to fix, so let’s roll up our shirtsleeves and see if we can Chris back on the road.

The main problem that I had with your first page from The Divinity Complex is that the narrative point of view keeps shifting. You’re using the “third person multiple.” narrative. That means that you are describing the action through the eyes, ears, and thoughts of multiple characters in the third person. That is fine, but it gets confusing when you shift so quickly.  You go from Chris to Randy to Chris again in the course of three paragraphs and then seem to shift into third-person omniscient, where the third person narrator knows everything at all once. A number of books shift point of view from character to character throughout. There is nothing wrong with that at all. I recommend, though that at the beginning and for at least the first couple of pages you stick with one character’s point of view before shifting to another. Let’s start with Chris, as you did, and keep things focused on him and his perceptions:

— You step away from Chris before the first paragraph is even done. “It was apparent that something was wrong…very wrong.” Apparent to who? Whose observation is that? Randy’s? We haven’t even met Randy yet. Let’s drop that sentence altogether. Let’s cut that last sentence and use something like this, instead: “He couldn’t help himself.”

— You’ve introduced Chris so let’s bring Randy into the narrative through Chris’s perception. How about if we eliminate the second paragraph (but not throw it away altogether; more on that below) and go for something like this:

The doormat sensor went “dingdongdingdong” as Chris walked into the store. The cashier stood at the far end of it behind the counter, holding an open copy of Cavalier, eying Chris with a look of uneasy surliness. Chris thought that the guy looked to be about his own age, thirty or so. As Chris approached the counter he could read the name tag — “Randy” — pinned to his blue smock. Randy looked to Chris as if he wanted to be anywhere but where he was, which was just how Chris felt.

— Let’s take a look at those fourth and fifth paragraphs:

If he wanted to stay alive, Chris would have to rely on his ability to send a single telepathic message. Being a carpenter by trade and not a psychic, made the chance of success infinitesimal. But Chris had to at least try. It was his only hope.

Chris locked onto Randy’s eyes and concentrated. He screamed as loud as he could into his own head hoping it would get Randy’s attention.

— Anon, these don’t quite work. I get what you’re going for, but if Chris doesn’t have telepathic powers what makes him think he’s going to suddenly develop them? And the third sentence — “ Being a carpenter by trade and not a psychic, made the chance of success infinitesimal.” You don’t need the comma for sure. What if you change the sentence order and a couple of words?  See if this is better:

Chris wanted — needed — telepathic powers in the worst way. The problem was that he was a carpenter, not a psychic. He locked onto Randy’s eyes, hoping he could in some way communicate that he was in trouble without using words.

— I do like what you did here, telling us a bit about Chris — he’s a carpenter, which is interesting — so good on you. Keep doing that. Drop a few more breadcrumbs like that throughout the first couple of pages so that we get to know Chris and begin to empathize with him.

— Let’s drop down now to the seventh paragraph, the one that begins with “Sweating and trembling…” It ends with “It was apparent that something wasn’t right.” Again, where is that thought coming from?  Have we switched point of view to Randy again, who is looking at Chris “sweating and trembling” all over the place? Again, let’s keep the point of view with Chris while we change that last sentence a bit, using some of that second paragraph that we removed but did not throw away:

Chris was sure that Randy could tell that something wasn’t right with him. That didn’t mean that Randy would do anything about it. Jimmie’s was right off I-95 in South Georgia. Chris figured that it would probably be odd for Randy,   to not see something out of the ordinary at this godforsaken hour and at the back end of Bumfreak, Egypt. There was no help here, for sure.

Notice that I changed “somewhere between late night and early Sunday morning” to “this godforsaken hour.” The reason that I did that was that you already established in the first paragraph that things are taking place early Sunday morning. If you want to give the impression that it’s really early then give the time or mention that it’s “full dark” or even “no see” (as they say in the cotton fields).

— When/if you want to change the point of view to Randy you might want to remove Chris from the scene altogether. Have Chris leave the convenience store. Skip a couple of lines, begin a new paragraph or chapter, and switch the third person narrative from Chris to Randy. You can do anything from having Randy decide, yeah, that guy was weird even for the night shift, and calling the police, to pulling out a burner phone and calling an unknown person and saying, “Yeah, your pigeon was just in here, right on schedule. He looked REALLY shook up.” You can have all sorts of fun with this. Just make sure that it’s plausible.

I hope this helps, Anon. My rewriting is merely illustrative. There are several different ways to follow my suggestions and you should follow your heart. Seriously, I LOVE stories that involve gas stations off of the highway.  I want to love this one. I kind of already do, warts and all. I’m just not ready to buy it coffee yet, gaze into its eyes, and have it throw me over its shoulder and carry me off.

I will now make a valiant and probably futile attempt to stay uncharacteristically quiet while some of the finest folks in the world — our readers at TKZ — comment and offer additional suggestions. Thank you, Anon, for participating in our First Page Critique by sending us the first page of The Divinity Complex!


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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.

35 thoughts on “First Page Critique: THE DIVINITY COMPLEX

  1. Thanks for the feedback. I see your point. You were right. I was going for the third person narrative. I think it is better to have one point of view to tell a story than have multiple points of view. But that’s my opinion as an aspiring author. I can be a bit more descriptive, but I like being to the point and not filling pages up with non-value added words. All in all some good feedback here that I will take to heart. Many thanks.

    P.S. If you go to Amazon right now you can find out what happens to Chris for the special introductory price of $.99 (shameless plug).

  2. First! Anon, you are welcome, and thank you for the thank you. It’s much appreciated. By the way, all plugs are shameless on The Kill Zone! One more suggestion: have mercy on us old folk and include a link to your book on Amazon. Thanks for submitting and for the followup.

  3. Fd: calling you “Anon”…actually, your Mom and I have been meaning to tell you that, um…seriously, thanks for that story and for the link. Good luck!

    • Joe: Again thanks for your feedback. If I disrespected you (as everyone else says I did) I apologize. However, I do not think I did. I asked for feedback and I got it and will use it. I will get better thanks to you. I truly mean that. However, the hate being spewed my way from others is wrong and unfortunate. I will simply use it to drive me towards my goal. Its always good to take a negative and turn it into a positive. Thanks again for your help and professionalism. Greatly appreciated!

  4. Good critique, Joe. The “head hopping” glared out at me, too. Anon, this might have been good had you stayed in one point of view. As for “good feedback here that I will take to heart,” it might be a little late considering you have already published the book. I checked your link and read the first chapter on Amazon. You continue to jump between points of view in nearly every paragraph. If that goes on for the whole book, it would be basically unreadable to me. Sorry. Next time, maybe you should get your feedback before you publish.

    • Thanks for the honest feedback. I am new to this and only have two books under my belt. But we all need to start somewhere, Talk to me in five years and you will see a better writer.

  5. Thanks for sharing your work with us, Anon. Joe gave you a great critique. I echo the head-hopping thing. Even when you have a story that changes POV, it’s easier on the reader to stay with one POV for a long time before switching to the next POV.

    I argued with the intro line: “We have no choice when it comes to life and death.” I thought, Sure we do. We can jump off a tall building. We can drive under the speed limit with our seat belts on. But, unfortunately, the second sentence of the intro is true. “Sometimes others make the choice for us.” Perhaps you can ditch the first sentence but keep the gist of the second sentence.

    I’ve done that wish-I-were-psychic thing when it was inappropriate to speak up. Yelling in my head. Joe had a good point, but I like the “help me . . . help me.”

    Good luck in your continued writing journey, Anon!

  6. If I may be the cranky one, why are you wasting everyone’s time asking for a critique on a work you’ve already published? That shows colossal disrespect.

    • IMHO, I don’t think you’re being cranky. I think forthright is a better word. l

    • John: You are cranky and also very wrong. My passion for writing came late in life. I have now published two books and trying to get better every day. If I cannot ask for constructive criticism then where am I to go? I treat the feedback as a learning for future books. I just published the book five days ago so give me a freaking break. Just because you have more experience at this than me doesn’t make you right and me wrong. If you don’t know the whole story then maybe you should not offer your opinion.

      • Passion and talent are very different things, Anon, and neither have anything to do with rudeness and disrespect. I don’t have a problem with you seeking input–that is, after all, why we do this, taking hours out of our day to construct meaningful critiques. When you announced that the critique didn’t matter in the end because you’ve already published the book, that was a finger in Joe Hartlaub’s eye, and extended finger to the rest of us.

        As for offering my opinion, this is MY house, dude. I’ll offer up whatever I want to say.

        • John: With someone with your credentials I expected a lot more. I am beside myself. I am not wasting anyone’s time. You stated that “I announced the critique didn’t matter.” THAT IS AN OUTRIGHT LIE. Go look at the top of the page and see you yourself. Just use your mouse and scroll. I never said that. I demand an apology, but I doubt I will get it from you. publically. I appreciated Joe’s commentary, he seems like a good guy trying to help. Sorry to barge into your house. Maybe you should be a bit nicer to your guests next time.

          • Look, I’m not going to continue to flog this point. You either get it, or choose not to. Announcements needn’t be literal to be heard loud and clear. As a frequent instructor and a reasonably accomplished author all I owe here is honest opinion. And there it was. I’m out.

            • Sorry, I usually take it personal when someone says something about me that is not true. I really don’t know what came over me. I should have just shut up and taken it like a man.

              John, you are a better man than me. Its quite obvious. I am surely not worthy. SIlly me. Anyway, thanks for the very constructive feedback.I will remember it always. Enjoy the weekend,

  7. Thank you to everyone who has stopped by today or who finds their way here later on!

    • I go out of town for a few days and miss out on all this lively discussion! Thanks Joe, for your critique and for all that you do here. We appreciate you.

      • Thank you, Kathryn.

        You should see what fun we have here when the lights go out!

  8. Truthfully, Anon (and I promise to be gentle), your book needs editing. Critiques happen before a novel gets published. After publication, we can only review books. Serious writers won’t be able to give good reviews for books that haven’t been edited. Here are some problems that I see in your book after a quick peep:

    Spelling Errors

    For example, the last line of Chapter 3 (in the Kindle edition) reads:

    “I guess he doesn’t think Frosted Flake are so Gr-r-read after all,” Nikki said.

    I’ll leave it to you to spot the error and correct it.

    POV Problems

    Drake is your protagonist. You should tell this story from his POV for most of the scenes so that the reader can live vicariously through Drake. You want to properly introduce him as your protagonist. See Barbara Kyle’s article called “Making an Entrance” available online. I recommend that you study how to write in third-person limited POV. Email me if you’d like some writing book recommendations. If you use a professional editor, that editor should be able to correct you if you stray from your chosen POV. In any event, I don’t recommend using more than one POV per scene.

    “On-the-nose” Dialogue

    Use a search engine for a description of what on-the-nose dialogue is. (There’s one article on my blog.)


    Your novel is filled with bloated sentences. For example, you write:

    “But it took Chris a bit longer because every few steps, he stopped and looked back at the car.”

    Instead, just write:

    Every few steps, he stopped and looked back at the car.

    The reader will assume that if he keeps looking back it will take longer.

    Overwriting is a problem that a professional editor can correct. I also have an article on my blog about how to recognize and correct overwriting.

    More Showing, Less Telling

    Read Showing and Telling by Laurie Alberts.

    Janice Hardy has some articles on show vs. tell here:

    A good editor can provide advice on show/tell issues (and other issues that I don’t have time to get into now).

    On a positive note, I like your title. It’s good that you begin your story with something happening. The pacing is good, and I suspect you have an intriguing story to tell. Please don’t underestimate the value of a good editor.
    Best of luck and keep writing!

    • I made a typo when I copied the sentence below. The author did use an “s” in Flakes, but spelled great wrong. Sorry for my typo. Here’s what the author wrote initially:

      “I guess he doesn’t think Frosted Flakes are so Gr-r-read after all,” Nikki said.

      • Hi: Thanks for taking the time to read my book. As far as “Great” goes that is the way it is spelled in the advertisement. So that was done on purpose.

        I appreciate the feedback.I am new to this, so if I made a mistake by asking for a critique at the same time I am publishing, shame on me. I don’t know the rules. What I don’t need is (and this is not aimed at you, but someone else). Is for someone to treat me like crap and make up quotes about me.

        I was looking for honest feedback that is all. Nothing more. Maybe I should just quit writing and leave it to the real writers. But I won’t do that.I will use this as inspiration to forge ahead. Again, thanks for your feedback. Greatly appreciated.

  9. Dear Anon,
    As a routine contributor to his blog, I was astonished by your responses to John Gilstrap and others. I went to Amazon and read your preview for The Divinity Complex. Clearly, you aren’t a serious writer. I doubt you have any education in creative writing and I doubt your ‘books’ have anything to say. By the way, no one on this blog writes books. We write stories.

    The people you disrespected were trying to give you a lesson, a free lesson. John Gilstrap and the others write thousands of words a week. Many make their living writing stories. Their stories have been torn apart by teachers, professors in Creative Writing programs, concept editors, line editors, publishers, other writers, mentors, spouses, and early readers. My point is that they know what they are talking about. You should open yourself up to their help.

    Like so many starting out, you assume you can scribble some words on a screen and call it a book. It doesn’t work like that. Just because you drive across a bridge, doesn’t mean you can build one.

    You must learn the fundamentals then the nuisances of writing. Then you must actually have something to say. We writers share out knowledge like no other profession. Learn what writing is about. Learn about show and tell, grammar, the tropes of your genre, story structure, scene and sequence, climax, plot, dialogue, setup and payoff, first line, last line, and all the other facets of writing stories.

    You have insulted all of us. At the very least you owe Mr. Gilstrap an apology.

  10. Brian: I respectfully disagree. I did not start this. Go back and follow the timeline. I had playful banter back and forth with Joe and then John came out of nowhere and lit the fuse. If you cannot see that then there is nothing I can do.

    I am sorry that I am not a professional writer. I guess that needs to be a requirement before going on your website. Go ahead and put me down if it makes you feel good. I appreciate feedback. But I will defend myself when I am atttacked. If you were honest with yourself your would do the same.

  11. Anon,

    Having submitted and been critiqued by the excellent team of writers at TKZ — and not so gently I might add — I am here to tell you that every member has your best interest at heart. Instead of being a professional and taking the advice as it was intended, you let your emotions rule your responses and slammed both Joe and John.

    Writers tend to be emotional and protective of their work, but emotional outbursts should play no part in accepting free advice from some of the best in the business.

    Despite having two books under your belt, as you say, with your current attitude, you are sabotaging your own career before you even begin. And, good luck working with an editor or traditional publisher if you ever get the opportunity to go that route. I guarantee they have too many authors begging for their services to waste their time on someone with a ”know it all” attitude.

    So, please, put your pride to rest and accept the advice given with grace and professionalism. It will serve you well in the future. And an apology to Joe and John would be a good start.

    BTW, I downloaded your book for free and read it. Please listen and learn from some of the best!

    • I appreciate the try but it falls short. I know you all have to back each other. I wish someone would have a spine and see my side of the story. I want to forget this but there has been a wrong here and it ain’t me.

      Let’s revisit the facts:
      1.I submitted my entry
      2. Joe reviewed it and provided feedback,
      3. We had some playful banter and I thanked him.
      4. John-immediately said I was disrespectful and rude and that I threw up my middle finger because of what? AllI did was send in my entry. I did not utter a word. He made those words up. Yet I am the one being hanged here. Tell me how that works?

      I am sorry but all of you are blind to this. Talk about emotional? Is defending myself such a crime? I will not have anyone slander me without me pushing back. If you were honest you would have done the same thing.

      Please think about the fact pattern before you label me guilty. I should be sleeping now as I am flying to Buenos Aires. Instead, I am on the Delta WiFi defending my character.

      Thanks for the try. Please look at this issue from my point of view. It is the fair thing to dol

      • Peter, Wake up, man! In your timeline above you left out one thing – when you thanked Joe, you added:

        P.S. If you go to Amazon right now you can find out what happens to Chris for the special introductory price of $.99 (shameless plug).
        I copied and pasted that so you couldn’t claim I am making it up.) That clearly said that the book had been published. I clicked on your link and reads the first two chapters. You obviously had not changed anything to improve it and continued the head hopping. That clearly said that for this first page, the whole exercise was a waste of everyone’s time. You say to check in five years to find you a better writer. With your stubborn defense of your current writing, and your thin-skinned attitude toward criticism, I doubt that will ever happen. I’ll never know, because your behavior here has placed you at the top of my list of writers to never read. And I doubt that in five years you’ll become a better person.

  12. This is an interesting conversation to say the least.

    First of allI I never hid the fact that I published the book.Your “Critique Guidleines” do not state it has to be an unpublished piece of work.The purpose of getting feedback is to become a better writer. I appreciated Joe’s input. I joked about my name “Anon” and he made a joke about my mother. I did not take it seriously and knew he was kidding. I added in the “shameless plug” comment as a joke. If you go back to Joe’s comment he said that all plugs are shameless. We were having fun. Can’t you see that?

    I just published my book this week. I wanted feedback to get better. Not necessarily with the book I just published but with future books. It was an example of my writing. If there is a rule that the submission must be an unfinished piece of work then you should state that upfront. Go back to my comments and you will see I accepted all feedback and criticism.If I did not want it I would not have submitted anything. I would think the purpose of this whole excercise would be to help writers in any way possible. Obviously, that is not the case.

    If it was a waste of time Joe never said anything to me. I do not think anyone else can make a comment for another person. If I wasted Joe’s time he could have let me know and I would have apologized to him directly. I am not apologizing to other people that don’t know the facts and circumstances, like yourself.

    You doubt “I will be a better person?” Why the personal attack? I did not do anything to deserve this. The only reason I am responding is I am hoping someone would have a spine and stand up and say “Maybe he has a point. Maybe some us went a bit far in making assumptions without knowing the facts.” Instead I get piled on. Look if you cannot be fair and objective and come half way and have a civil discussion then it is a lost cause.

  13. Peter,

    First of all, I do not have to back anyone on TKZ. I choose to because of what their critique has done for me as a writer.

    I will give you the same advice that my mentor and a man that I respect above all others gave to me. If you ever want to acquire an agent and publisher think about what you want them to see when they google your name. What you do not want them to see when they click on TKZ blog is a writer who might not be flexible. A writer who might be hard to work with, and a writer who might not accept suggestions that would make his current and future works stand out among the best. Before you take this conversation any further, PLEASE think about your future as a writer and how swallowing your emotions and pride, and just saying ”thank you” to the people who donate their time and experience to unknown, inexperienced writers like you and me will serve you better in the future.

  14. I have been reading this blog for many years and have learned a lot from it, especially from the critiques. I don’t always comment but rest assure I am here every day soaking up the vast amounts of knowledge given by the contributors of KILLZONE.

    Thank you Joe, John, Jim, PJ, Sue, and others for your hard work and tireless, selfless dedication. I appreciate all of it.

    With lots of love and respect,

  15. Christine, speaking only for myself (though I am sure that everyone else feels the same), thank you so much. There would be no point in doing this if it were not for folks like yourself.

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