First Page Critique:
From the Mouths of Babes

By PJ Parrish

Good morning crime dogs. Today, for our First Pager we’re back in the land of the young again, this time with a five-year-old as our tour guide. I’ll let you take a read and then we’ll regather to talk.  In the meantime, I’m going to try to get Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “That Smell” out of my head.

Love Kills

“Eww! What stinks, Daddy?”

“I don’t know, Squirt.”

“Don’t call me that. I’m not a squirt.” Five-year-old Mandy thrust out her lower lip. One, because Daddy called her squirt, which meant he didn’t think she was a big girl at all, and two, because he was trying not to laugh and that made her mad.

“Am I allowed any kind of nickname?” her father asked

Mandy thought about it. It wasn’t like you could shorten Mandy into much, but having a nickname that didn’t make her feel bad would be nice. Everybody called her cousin Jason, Sport. That wasn’t a wimpy nickname. She decided it might take time to pick the right one. It was important. “I’ll let you know.”

“Okay, Squi….Mandy.” He squeezed her hand a little tighter as they walked the narrow path at the edge of the Sugar River. A silvery layer of frost covered the ground and it felt crunchy beneath her rubber boots. She pictured animals using the trail to get a drink of the river water and wondered if any of them ever slipped on the icy edges and tumbled in. The trees and bushes were still bare and the weather was what Aunt Jenny called iffy, which meant even though it was spring break her dad still dressed her in a winter coat on adventures like this first day of fishing.

Daddy held her hand and carried fishing poles and a tackle box in the other as he searched for the perfect spot to drop their lines in. Maybe she shouldn’t have made a big deal about her nickname. After all, she was the one Daddy took fishing. Not Jason.
“Let’s try the other side of that big rock.” He pointed a few feet ahead at a giant stone sticking up on the bank.

The breeze picked up and the smell got worse. Even worse than when her dad forgot the thawed chicken in the microwave and it took him two days to figure out what was stinking.

“Pee-ewe, what is that?” Mandy wrinkled her nose.

“Whew. No idea, but you’re right baby girl, that reeks.”

Another nickname she hated. Baby girl. No one in Kindergarten wanted to be called baby-anything. Mandy bit her tongue and forged ahead over the uneven land.

“Must be a dead animal around somewhere. Should we move or can you handle it?” he asked.

____________________________

Okay, a caveat. I sometimes wonder if we shouldn’t ask our contributors to tell us what genre or sub-genre they are working in.  It would make critiquing a submission clearer and maybe fairer. Given we have only 400 or so words here, I have to guess at the writer’s attempt, with few clues. The title Love Kills suggests crime fiction and I’d bet my last brass farthing that the eww-worthy smell isn’t a dead fish but a ripe body bobbing in the water. But beyond that, I can’t begin to guess who the target audience is for this book.  Children?  Doubt it.  Young adult? The narrator’s too young for that. Adults? That’s my guess here, and if that’s the case, we have to talk about the viability of child narrators.  But first…

I like this. It is cleanly choreographed, meaning I can tell exactly what’s going on. The interaction between father and daughter is sweetly rendered. My dad used to take me fishing when I was a tadpole and I treasured the time with him. There are some nice spare details like the crunch of boots on ice that tells us it’s cold, maybe in the netherworld months of early November or March.

But what I really like is that the writer has successfully captured the voice of the narrator Mandy. The simple syntax and apt word choices conjure up a five-year-old who is beginning to assert independence and wants to be seen as older. I like the line about weather that her aunt called “iffy.”  Kids are aural magpies — they pick up on the odd things adults say. I like that Mandy is worried about the animals. All nice telling details! I think the writer does a spot-on job of creating a believable and winsome 5-year-old girl.

However…

If we are reading crime fiction intended for an adult market (I am assuming here), then I question the wisdom of opening from a very young child’s point of view. The opening scene or chapter of your book is critical to getting your reader to bond with the character, and who you choose to put in the spotlight in the early going tends to signal to the reader that this is your protagonist, the person whose journey they are about to share. Is Mandy the protagonist? I don’t know.  But the spotlight is square on her in this scene.

Which leads to the next question. Can Mandy carry an entire book on her tiny shoulders? Few child narrators can.  And few writers can successfully pull off an entire novel written only from the point of view of a very young child like Mandy. Child narrators are common in kid’s literature. But not so much in fiction for adults. It can feel very liberating to write from a child’s POV.  They usually don’t have an ax to grind and they see the world in matter-of-fact ways. But because they are limited in experience and sophistication, they can’t be a truly reliable narrator. 

When I read this submission, I wracked my brain for examples of similar-aged narrators but came up short. The only example I could remember is Room by Emma Donoghue (2010) It is narrated by 5-year-old Jack who has been confined to a single room all his life, knowing only his mother (who was also captured and confined at an early age). His vocabulary and understanding of the world is very restricted.  Room has been roundly acclaimed. I couldn’t finish it.

I book I did love was Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980). It opens with an unnamed 5-year-old girl running scared through the woods, separated from her cave family during an earthquake. She survives a bear attack and is found, near death, by another clan. But Auel used a third-person omniscient point of view, so the reader can trust exactly what is happening.

Then there’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout Finch, the first person narrator, is only six years old when the novel begins, and eight years old when it ends. But the narrative has almost a memoir feel to it, as if we’re listening to a much older Scout telling us a story about what happened. It is a masterful sleigh-of-hand on Lee’s part that we believe we are hearing the blended voices of a 6-year-old (who, very childishly, calls her 50-year-old father “feeble”) and her older more knowing self.

Back to our writer’s story:  As I said, given the small sample here, we can’t know if Mandy will remain the sole narrator.  My instincts tell me she won’t. But if she is not meant to carry the story’s narrative weight, then I question the wisdom of opening with her voice, as sweet as it is. Where can you go from here?

Some things to remember if you’re contemplating using a child’s point of view:

  • You need a compelling reason why a child is the right person to narrate your novel.
  • You need to make sure the child is old enough to reliably convey information and events for the reader. Children younger than six aren’t developed enough for this. Even teens have their limits. (There’s an understatement!)
  • Do some research to get the child’s voice tone-perfect. Many of you have kids, so this is easy. The rest of us, well, we need to hang out at Chuck e Cheese maybe. And keep that voice consistent over the course of the story.

If the writer is available, I would appreciate hearing from him/her as to why they chose to open with Mandy as narrator and whether she will continue on into the book. The rest of us — what say you?

 

7+
This entry was posted in Writing by PJ Parrish. Bookmark the permalink.

About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

11 thoughts on “First Page Critique:
From the Mouths of Babes

  1. Thank you, Brave Author, for letting us take a peek at your first page.

    I enjoyed it. Your words flow. They’re easy to read. The opening is well edited so I didn’t trip over typos and stuff. I also like how you captured the little kid’s voice.

    I thought maybe this is a prologue, and that the detective, yet to arrive on the scene, would be interviewing Mandy in the first chapter.

    Or maybe it’s a flashback. “And that’s why I wanted to become a police officer,” says the older Mandy.

    If the rest of the novel carries on in Mandy’s young voice, I wonder like PJ how you could pull it off. Seems awfully risky.

    Best of luck in your continued writing journey, Brave Author!

  2. I enjoyed this first page, too. But like you, Kris, I worry about the age of the protagonist (if she’s the protagonist). Viewing a murder through a child’s eyes would certainly gut-punch the reader. Normally, I’m all for giving the reader a vicarious experience, no matter the subject, but writing about death and children is tricky; it’s a tightrope. I’m balancing on that same line in my WIP, and I continuously have to stop and think about every move I make.

    • Yup, I agree, Sue. I had a story idea that dealt with a child witnessing a murder and tried to start the story at that point. But I couldn’t pull it off. Probably because my default POV is intimate third person and I just couldn’t credibly describe the horror via a child’s limited POV, and I realized it would have been the only chapter written from the kid’s POV, which I think is sort of a cop out. I scrapped it and started over. The story is still unwritten to this day. Opening POV is one of the top decisions a writer must make.

  3. Overall I like what I see. As others have said, knowing if Mandy is the lead or just the lead in would help a lot. And no, I don’t think a five year old is going to carry an adult crime novel.

    Now for the dad hat.
    Dad seems to know that Mandy does not like “Squirt”. Given that, I would never call my children a nick name they don’t like. As it is a generic nick name, she doesn’t like it, and doesn’t seem to add anything, maybe it should go altogether. Mandy’s thought process seems a little adult for a five year old.

    I would like to see the next page. It is regrettable that I had to deal with my then three year old and not exposing her to a probably dead body. She barely remembers the day so I think I did a good job. I would really like to see dad handle it well.

  4. This isn’t going to help get “That Smell” out of your head, but . . .
    This version is by Warren Haynes, one of the great guitarists with the last version of the Allman Brothers Band. The other was guitarist is Derek Truck.
    Here’s Warren’s version:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQmNE7OgV0Q

  5. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I agree with everything Kris said. It would be helpful for the writers to specify genre and premise with their submissions. Without having that information, I’d make the same assumptions that Kris did.

    Your opening brought back memories of taking my son fishing for the first time when he was small, and it made me smile. However, like the other reviewers, I have concerns about using a child’s POV on the first page, because readers try to identify with the first character who appears in a story. Of course, using a child protagonist for an entire adult book is very risky. There are no absolutes in writing, though. In The Lovely Bones, the protagonist is a young girl who has just been murdered, and that worked very well. I think the important thing is to choose your protagonist (or opening viewpoint character if that character is not your protagonist) with purpose. It’s one of the most important choices you will make for your novel.

    Overall, I liked the uncluttered writing style. You might consider opening your story with something a little more original and compelling. Sometimes adding one unique setting detail that stands out can make all the difference.

    Be careful about punctuation. There was a missing period. Also, be careful when using ellipses to use only three dots, not four. There was some repetition. You used the word “nickname” five times and the word “called” four times. You also used the word “was” many times. Small stuff.

    Best of luck and keep writing!

    • Thanks for the input Joanne. What I enjoy about these critiques is that no one person (including me) has the truth. We try to help the writer, as first readers, find their path.

  6. Agree with everyone. I’m a mom with youngish kids. Frankly, when I dig into a book at night, the last thing I want is to be in a kid’s head. LOL. I’m done with kids by 10.

    If the girl is important in the rest of the story, a witness or something perhaps, I think it would be even more heart wrenching (and more interesting) to have the parent worried about how the crime impacted her and be helpless to do anything.

    Solid writing! Do come back to tell us more about this opening and where it leads.

  7. I think, if done well, a murder mystery from such a young child’s POV could be compelling.

    I am going to assume the intended audience are adults, Why, because if the intended audience are other five-year-olds there are bigger issues to discuss than the writing, can you say “inappropriate?”

    Assuming adult, always be mindful of the audience. The author describes the trees and bushes … Aunt Jenny calls it iffy. As adults the reader knows what iffy means and inside Mandy’s head, Mandy wouldn’t need to explain what Aunt Jenny means.

    I’m with PJ .I want to know more about the author’s thoughts and intents. If the author is reading this I ask you to come back and give us some insight, it can be done anonymously.

Comments are closed.