First Page Critique: The Secret of Thieves

By Elaine Viets

It was a pleasure to critique this first page. Our Brave Author had an intriguing premise and a fresh way of starting this story. As you can tell, I liked it. In fact, I really liked it. I found a few things that might be changed, but here’s how it was submitted:

The Secret of Thieves
I don’t believe in ghosts, magic, or lucky charms. There aren’t fairy godmothers or elves. If you lose your wallet or the concert tickets you distinctly remember placing in your purse, it wasn’t because of a goblin. I’d know, because it was probably someone like me who took them. And I am as red-blooded and white-boned as the next girl. As brokenhearted and scared. As daring and tough. And a hundred percent, just like every other person, I am haunted only by my memories—not that they aren’t doozies.
Like the one where my best friend dies right in front of me.
That’s why I’ve come back to the lake, to the spot where Lance and I’d spent so much time when we were young. I’m not trying to contact the dead. There’s a difference between trying to contact the dead and retracing your steps to figure out where you went wrong.
I close the door of my car and walk slowly around the hood. Ever since I first set young eyes on this cliff and watched a grinning Lance leap into the air, I’ve been afraid. Was it a fear of heights, I wonder, or fear that he was leaving me behind?
I stash the keys by the front tire and hesitate. When I’d started the list of my failures last night, I’d known the lake would be first. This cliff. This time of year. Lance’s favorite adrenaline rush. My own pulse trips wildly. I clench my teeth. It no longer matters that I’ve always thought it impossible to jump. I pull off my t-shirt dress, slinging it across the side mirror, then take one step and another toward the cliff, hugging my bare middle.
My progress is buffeted by inarticulate gasps, but I don’t stop until I’m at the edge. An unhinged laugh escapes and I clap my hand over my mouth. It’s as bad as I thought it would be. His cajoling never got me this close. Neither did his dares. But there it is, the lake ripples twenty feet below. A pebble dislodges under my water shoe and tumbles over the edge, clipping the cliff face once, twice, like a loose bullet, before disappearing beneath the dark blue water. I jerk my gaze up, wiping sweaty palms on my bikini bottoms.

Elaine’s Critique
Like I said, I enjoyed this first page, starting with the reader-grabbing title. There are some nice turns of phrase, including the ones in this sentence: “A pebble dislodges under my water shoe and tumbles over the edge, clipping the cliff face once, twice, like a loose bullet, before disappearing beneath the dark blue water.”

However, there are some things I’d change. I had a problem with this sentence, and would rework it: “I’d know, because it was probably someone like me who took them.” That “them” might be clearer and in agreement with the subject if it was changed to “your things” or “your valuables.”

Also, this sentence is awkward: “And a hundred percent, just like every other person, I am haunted only by my memories – not that they aren’t doozies.” I’d smooth that out to: “And, just like every other person, I am haunted only by my memories – and they’re doozies.”

The next sentence would be more effective if the phrase about the best friend was in past tense – then we’re sure Lance is dead. So I’d change: “Like the one where my best friend dies right in front of me” to: “Like the one where my best friend died right in front of me.”
Two paragraphs later, I’d make it: “Ever since I set my young eyes on this cliff . . .”
And one last nit to pick – I’d explain what a “water shoe” is. Water shoes are generally used for walking along pebbly surfaces or surf walking, to protect your feet.
Now there are some questions that our Brave Author has to answer, and soon: Where are we?
What time of year is it? It’s obviously a warm day, because our character is wearing a bikini, so it could be spring, summer, fall, or a warm winter day.
What is our thief’s name and what does she look like?
And most important, what is her age? She talks about “since I first set young eyes on this cliff” but she also refers to herself as being “red-blooded and white-boned as the next girl.” So if she’s still a “girl” how old is she?
Answer these questions, and your novel is off to a terrific start, Brave Author. I look forward to reading the rest of it. Good luck!

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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book. www.elaineviets.com

31 thoughts on “First Page Critique: The Secret of Thieves

  1. Way to feed into my acrophobia. And, no. I’m not demanding a “trigger warning.”
    I agree with Elaine. Great opening.
    I’d like to see paragraphs indented or double spaced. I found it harder to follow the structure with them running together like this. (Apologies if that’s just something that happened in getting it onto the web page.)
    The one change I’d suggest, besides Elaine’s good suggestions, is to break up the first paragraph. It’s a full, dense paragraph. What if you broke it at “And I am as….”
    And drop the ‘And’ at the beginning of that sentence. You’ve got another one two sentences later, where the ‘and’ does work. (Elaine left it in her rewrite of that sentence.)
    Your protag sounds like someone going through challenges which I’d be willing to share with her.
    Is this (primarily) a “dealing with the errors of my youth” story or a mystery?

  2. I find the first paragraph — and the first sentence especially — to be an impenetrable barrier to the rest of the book. It seems to portend one kind of story before subsequent paragraphs shift to another kind. I want to start with what Jim Bell calls “pleasurable uncertainty” — a disturbance in the universe of the character, not in the character’s thoughts. Start with action, and let the character reflect on action later. To me, this page is throat-clearing, and I’m being forced to deal with a barrage of irrelevant imagery — ghosts, cereal, goblins, concert tickets — before I have any orientation in what’s actually taking place. Plus, this opening sends this message to the reader: You are going to spend a lot of time inside this person’s head. And if that’s where the majority of the study is going to take place, then I’m going to lose interest in a hurry.

    The writer writes well, and has a good feel for existential dread and atmosphere, but that’s not enough to keep me going. I wonder if the thing to do here is to render this as a flashback prologue to Lance’s death in action and dialogue, and have the character reflect on it later as she grapples with an objective disturbance to her world in the present day. (I’m not a fan of prologues, but if the writer has determined that revisiting her best friend’s death is the springboard to present-day events, then render that as a scene with a killer first sentence: “I warned Lance a million times not to stand that close to the edge,” or something like that.

    • I agree with you, Elaine. I really liked the opening graph — it establishes who we are following (a girl) and brief glimpse of where we are (edge of a cold cliff) and a good sense of dread. It ends on a strong note about being haunted by memories (and aren’t we all?) Then goes right to the heart of the scene — she saw her friend jump to his death.

      I don’t think every beginning needs to get directly to the peak moment. Many scenes (like this one) benefit from a slow build, like how a good old-fashioned roller coast works.

      I really liked this…a lot. I am engaged and in sympathy with the narrator.

      Just a housekeeping thing: Our format (the dashboard by which we create these posts) does not do paragraphs. You have to double-space them in by hand. 🙂

    • Elaine,
      Thank you for your critique! I’m honored to be included here and plan to take every comment to heart. No one but my small writing group has seen this and I wasn’t sure the opening worked. I’m attempting something over my head and I enthusiastically appreciate your encouragement!

  3. I usually agree with what Jim Thomsen is saying about the first paragraph, but the narrator declaring she does not believe in ghosts or lucky charms piqued my interest. She comes off as a no-nonsense woman, and I already expect to see some bad-arse fight scenes later on.

    And being a no-nonsense, thieving woman, while baring her midsection and about to jump off a cliff, she would not bother with water shoes. She’d step out of the car barefooted.

    I thought Elaine’s nitpicking was spot on, and they really are just nits because overall the writing is so good. I was enveloped by this first page and wanted to read more.

    Good luck with your continued writing journey, Anon!

  4. I loved this opening. It hit me harder than I thought, perhaps it triggered my ghosts, but that is what good writing does.

    Brave author, Elaine has some tiny fixes, a good proof reading would find those as well as any others, but you are off to a great start.

  5. I enjoyed this.

    I thought the “them” was clear..

    Personally, I don’t need the answer to any of those questions anytime soon. Does it really matter if she is standing on a cliff in Dover or off the PCH (sorry, Pacific Coast Highway ), whether she is 23 or 63 or if her name is Sue, Latoya or Yasmin? What matters is that this is the spot where her life changed. The reader is in her head and I assume she knows where and who she is (not knowing could certainly add to the story – hehehe).

    Sometimes I think writers rush details just so they can be checked off a list. I prefer when information comes more naturally. – she joins a line and thinks how she has never gotten to security at LAX and there weren’t 100 people ahead of her (location), a friend calls out to her, “Sabrina, over here!” (name) or she recalls fondly the day she bought that bikini for spring break when she was 19 and realizes one should not own anything for 30 years other than a house, jewelry or parrot (age).

    As I said, I enjoyed this,. Keep up the good work.

  6. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. People here clearly have differing views about this opening. Why? The key is genre. With commercial fiction (which this submission isn’t), we have a protagonist with a goal, motivation, and a clear finish line. Commercial fiction is plot driven. A character wants something. There are obstacles. At the end, he succeeds (or doesn’t). The reader has something to root for.

    This snippet appears to be literary fiction. The story seems to be more character driven. Think Eat Pray Love. This particular submission is apparently about a character whose life has gone wrong, and she wants to go back and retrace her steps (sounds episodic, rather than goal driven) to figure out how she got so screwed up.

    The writer does seem to have a nice voice, but I would caution the author that it’s much harder to sell literary fiction. Yet, the opening did grab me because of the strong voice. However, after reading less than 400 words, I don’t know if the writer will be able to keep my interest. I’d need to see more pages.

    Here’s an interesting article on the difference between commercial and literary fiction:

    https://annieneugebauer.com/2014/01/27/the-differences-between-commercial-and-literary-fiction/

    As Annie Neugebauer notes, in commercial fiction, the protagonist does the work. In literary fiction, the reader does the work. Annie gives some excellent examples.

    Brave writer, I’m going to point you to Barbara Kyle. If you have any uncertainties, you might consider getting her professional opinion about the saleability of your idea. I think she will be able to point you in the right direction. Her agent is Al Zuckerman of Writers House, if that means anything to you.

    • I don’t necessarily get the sens this is literary fiction. I think this could be going in a lot of directions. Thriller, YA, mainstream. I don’t think we know enough yet.

      I also really liked this submission and thought the author did a great job raising a lot of questions and suspense quickly. And there is action – she’s about to jump off a cliff. She’s not just sitting in her car ruminating, or driving and thinking.

      Lots of promise in this piece!

      • I would also like to see some conflict. The voice is good, but I don’t know enough about the story to say whether the writer is beginning in the right place. A scene with some pickpocketing going on might be an interesting way to begin. Anyway, I’d love to have a few more pages.

        • I agree with Sheri; this doesn’t seem particularly like lit-fic to me. It’s not schlock and it doesn’t rely on a whizz-bang opening, but it isn’t literary, either.

          Interesting link, Joanne Thank you. I don’t think I necessarily agree with it. I would say story and writing are key in lit fic but in commercial, it’s story that is most important and the writing doesn’t matter as long as it pulls you in. And it doesn’t have to be good to pull you in, just flash-bang. Of course it has to follow some rules, because humans; you can’t just write ‘blood, sex, killing an an enemy, fireworks, money, beautiful people’. It still has to follow a certain prototype. I think plonking down everything in front of the reader with no room for their imagination or ability to surmise.

          I guess it’s all relative: no ‘literary’ writer thinks his work is too much hard work. It’s very much easier to sell commercial fiction, so it must by reason be much more popular. Those who suit for loftier artistic expression always lose at the time, although the works they prefer may stand the test of time and the popular stuff so often doesn’t.

    • Thank you for your comments. They are very helpful and call attention to the problem I’m having deciding on genre. I have 30,000 words about a 24 year-old pickpocket who finds notes to herself from Lance in strangers pockets. I have looked up the resources you recommended and intend to use them. Thanks again!

      • You definitely want to be clear about your genre from the first page when you’re writing. Try to get that part nailed down. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen writers make is to use the wrong genre to develop an idea. Likewise, combining too many genres can be a disaster… too many story elements. After reading the opening of your novel, the reader should be clear about what kind of story you’re going to tell. Sheri admits that she had no idea what genre you story was. For me, I latched onto this line:

        “There’s a difference between trying to contact the dead and retracing your steps to figure out where you went wrong.”

        This made me think the story might be about a girl who was trying to figure out where she went wrong and became a criminal.

        After reading your comments about finding the notes from Lance, I’m thinking something else. Is the story about finding Lance, who maybe isn’t really dead? Or is it about finding where the protagonist’s life went wrong?

        Ideally, all readers should be on the same page after reading your opening. I think most people here loved your voice. However, you must decide on genre and try to make that clear from the beginning. Best of luck, and definitely keep writing.

  7. I agree with your comments, Elaine. I enjoyed this.
    I think this read will have readers immersed in the head/POV of this character…because of that I feel it is effective and worth the words wherein the author piques interest in the no-BS, thief protagonist who had experienced the unexplained death of her “best friend” the smiling cliff-jumping Lance. The protagonist as revealed and the unanswered questions are appealing to me.
    Actually I would suggest deleting the stated possible explanations of “was it a fear of heights..or fear of him leaving me behind?” and leave the unqualified evocative initial statement “Ever since…I’ve been afraid.”
    I think readers will want to guess why.
    One small point…as a teen jumping off cliffs (st Croix River) 20 feet was not very high…could boost that height depending on story intent/needs. There were 50 foot jump spots there and other places i’m aware of.
    Great start author – a likable, intriguing character, an unexplained death (drowned?)
    and several unanswered questions – I’d definitely read on.
    Thank you!

  8. I really thought this was excellent. Elaine, great comments. I had no problem with ‘had taken them’, though; I knew what the author meant without question. ‘Those things’ might give the sentence a little more weight than it needs.

    I did wonder, though, why she harps on the supernatural. As a horror fan, I’d expect ‘the lady doth protest too much’. I would expect that there comes a time when her belief system was challenged, at least. The further info from the author satisfies that curiosity: Lance may not be a ghost but SOMETHING odd is going on with him.

    On that note, also, I wonder if too much weight is given to pinning down genre just because we don’t know it HERE? In a practical situation, an agent, reader, publisher, etc, will have been given info as to the genre. And then, at the most important point, in a bookshop, a customer will look at the genre before perusing the book. I know a fair few genre books that don’t announce, without question, their category on the first page. Lamb’s ‘I Know This Much Is True’ could well be horror; ‘Snowblind’ could be anything from a murder mystery to a literary romance. The first page of ‘Pet Sematary’ could be a family drama.

    I think needing the genre pinned down irrevocably on the first page might well lead to quite over-done writing, especially if we’re talking thriller or mystery or horror. As a reader, I’ve already picked up the book because of its subject, I’ve read the blurb etc. I can wait while other interesting stuff is happening before the ‘genre’ action starts.

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