First Page Critique – Untitled


Today’s submission is an untitled first chapter featuring a bartender in a classic hotel. Please enjoy then we’ll open the discussion.



Under a trickle of air conditioning, Dylan swirled the bar spoon through a jumble of vermouth, bitters, Makers Mark, and ice. His shirt collar, rigid and wet, scraped against the back of his neck. Normally, he liked a penguin suit, the way it accentuated his biceps. But on the ten or so summer nights when the July heat pressed the moist cloth against his skin, he wished the owners would cough up enough cash for decent AC. Instead of cool comfort, they blew their wad preserving turn of the century crystal chandeliers, wrought iron balustrades, and red velvet wallpaper. Clayton Hotel’s clientele loved the ambience, confusing run-down with high style.

Dylan served the Manhattan to a regular at the end of the bar, a lawyer by the name of Jim whose pupils had overtaken the blue of his eyes. Must have gotten the 8-ball Dylan had stashed for him in room 414. This week, Jim wanted coke. Other weeks, ketamine or a tab of E. For the right price, Dylan could track anything down or make it himself. His meth was the purest in Portland. The graying lawyer sniffed hard and wiped his nose with a blue polka dot handkerchief for the fourth time that night. He set his half-empty martini glass on a gold napkin and waved his hand to get Dylan’s attention.

“You bruised my bourbon again.”

Dylan cleaned the mahogany bar top with a towel. “Ouch. Has it turned black and blue?”

The loose skin around Jim’s neck tightened. He was about to say something when a tall brunette in Lucite heels and a red leather bodysuit strolled past the dining room manager, a thin 40-something who looked so much like Rod Stewart in his sparkly blazers that everyone called him Rod. From deep down in his Rolodex, Rod could find the perfect escort for every man.

The brunette waved like a beauty queen. While she made her way across the dirty-blue carpet, her tits bouncing in gorgeous synchrony, everyone checked her out. She looked like a girl who came from someplace Dylan wanted to visit, like Malta or Majorca.

She took a seat next to Jim and clapped her red gloved hands against the bar top. Before Dylan could respond, she shot out, “Scarlet O’Hara.”

He walked towards her. “Scarlet? Nah. More like Rita Hayworth.”

She leaned forward, titties barely contained inside her sweetheart neckline. “Go heavy on the cran. Make it pretty and scarlet, just like Miss Morgan.”


The Brave Author does a good job of setting the scene without slowing the action to describe it. The reader is grounded right away: Clayton Hotel, a hot July night in Portland. The writing is generally clear and economical without extraneous verbiage.

The tone is noir and the scene has a 1980’s vibe, evoking the Tom Cruise film Cocktail. The dining room host-procurer character “Rod Stewart” reminded me of the tune “Some Guys Have All the Luck.”

Dylan, the POV character, quickly comes across as a disaffected bartender with a detached, snobbish, superior attitude toward his customers.

He’s vain and likes to show off his biceps, even though a tuxedo is miserably hot. Nice sensory detail of the collar chafing. One small nit: stiff collars generally cut into the throat rather than the back of the neck.

He takes pride in his skill set—“His meth was the purest in Portland.” He has no problem accommodating legal or illegal requests from his customers and feels disdain for them at the same time he profits from their cravings.

His banter is clever but insulting—“Ouch. Has it turned black and blue?” That crack nearly provokes an argument with Jim, the annoying, hopped-up lawyer whom Dylan can’t please.

Dylan is unabashedly sexist in his description of the brunette who flounces in on Lucite heels. He immediately flirts with her in front of Jim, even though Jim appears to be her john for the night. Dylan again pushes Jim’s buttons.

The potential for conflict is high. But…

Will readers want to follow a self-absorbed, egotistical, snobbish, drug-dealing, misogynistic antihero? 

The Brave Author takes a chance by leading off with an unsympathetic character. Some readers (especially women) will instantly dislike Dylan and put the book down. Others may read a little farther to see what happens next. But, unless Dylan shows more promise, they will soon grow weary of him.

Author-screenwriter Heywood Gould said about Cocktail: “…met a lot of interesting people behind the bar and very rarely was it someone who started out wanting to be a bartender. They all had ambitions, some smoldering and some completely forgotten or suppressed.”

Gould has expressed what’s missing—at least for me—in this first page.

Readers don’t necessarily have to like a character as long as there’s a quality they can relate to and identify with. How can the Brave Author add depth and humanity to this character to make him resonate with readers?

Here are a few questions that might trigger ideas:

What ambitions or longings does Dylan have? What does he want to find or achieve?

What does he struggle against? What disappointment marks him? What traps him in a job he dislikes?

I’m not suggesting a backstory info dump but rather a carefully chosen line or two that hints at the trouble that haunts him.

Another method to make an antihero work is to give him a distinct, unique voice or an unexpected worldview that fascinates the reader. A few examples of recent successful antiheroes: Dexter, Walter White in Breaking Bad, and Tony Soprano.

Literature through history is full of compelling antiheroes: Hamlet, Raskolnikov, Jay Gatsby, Michael Corleone.


I made the assumption that Dylan is the main character. But maybe he’s not.

Perhaps this first page introduces Dylan to set him up in an inciting incident. On page two, he could wind up dead in the Clayton Hotel dumpster and the story focuses on solving his murder.

Or maybe Dylan is the prey and the prostitute in the red leather bodysuit and Lucite heels is actually the undercover cop who busts him.

The story could go in dozens of different directions, which is why it’s difficult to judge from 400 words. However, in today’s competitive market, an author must grab the reader right off the bat. Often, the first page is the only shot you get and that’s why it must be pitch perfect.


A few line editing comments:

He was about to say something when a tall brunette in Lucite heels and a red leather bodysuit strolled past the dining room manager, a thin 40-something who looked so much like Rod Stewart in his sparkly blazers that everyone called him Rod.

The sentence is too long and gets confused between the brunette entering and the description of Rod. Suggest you split it up into shorter, punchy sentences and more paragraphs:

The loose skin around Jim’s neck tightened. He started to speak but movement at the entrance distracted him. 

A tall brunette in Lucite heels and a red leather bodysuit strolled across the room. She bounced in all the right places. Dylan and Jim stared, along with everyone else in the room.

Dylan winked at the dining room manager, a thin 40-something everyone called Rod because he looked like Rod Stewart in his sparkly blazers. Rod’s Rolodex guaranteed he could find the perfect match for every man. Looked like he succeeded again tonight.

The following line confused me: “Make it pretty and scarlet, just like Miss Morgan.” Is the woman introducing herself as Miss Morgan? Or is there another meaning?

I googled “Miss Morgan” to see if it was also the name of a cocktail, like Scarlett O’Hara and Rita Hayworth. I found a reference to an actress “Miss Morgan” in a TV series, “Keye Bondage Images.” Hmmm.


Brave Author, your writing is solid. You do a good job of setting the scene and describing characters while keeping the action moving forward. Well done.

If Dylan is the lead, work on developing his depth and humanity. If you make him a more compelling character, readers will want to follow him.



Over to you, TKZers. What do you think of Dylan? Do you have suggestions for our Brave Author?

This entry was posted in Writing by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Crime novelist, suspense and mystery novels are her passion. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Her nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications and she is a regular blogger at The Kill Zone. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers.

14 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Untitled

  1. I think this is very good, and, Debbie, I agree. I’m looking for that saving quality, just a dab here. The setting and drawing of the characters is terrific. I’ll read more.

  2. Thank you, Brave Author, for letting everyone take a peek at your first page.

    We know Dylan’s name, the fact that he’s vain and a wisecrack, and what he does for a living. We know it’s a contemporary story by the language (“tab of E”), and that we’re in an historic hotel in Portland (Maine? Georgia? Oregon?). We know that Jim is an addict. I’m impressed that you got all that info into the first page without info dumping.

    My fave line: “The graying lawyer sniffed hard and wiped his nose with a blue polka dot handkerchief for the fourth time that night.” That line together with the lawyer’s dilated pupils tells us he’s stoned. You could have just said, “Jim’s high,” which would have been a yawn.

    My favorite protagonists are either unreliable or unlikable. Dylan’s chauvinistic, arrogant characteristics don’t bother me as a reader, but like Debbie explained in her wonderful critique, I do need to know Dylan’s goal pretty soon or I won’t have a reason to cheer for him.

    I love your noir voice in this opening, Brave Author. It’s evocative, and I can sense the story will be full of action and drama with very little fluff. Best of luck on your continued writing journey!

    • Priscilla, I too was impressed by how much information the Brave Author packed into this first page w/o slowing the action. Skillful tight writing.

      Thanks for chiming in.

  3. Bravo, Anon!
    I, too, found most of this opening solid. And while I don’t fully connect with the setting or characters personally, I would continue reading out of piqued curiosity (which is what we all want as writers!)
    Like Priscilla, I’m not bothered by a scoundrel as the MC (I enjoyed Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series, for example.)
    But Is Dylan going to be one we love to hate, or one we fervently wish would die horribly in every episode, like the heroin junkie from Fear the Walking Dead? I would read on to find out, but if it turns out to be the latter scenario, he’d have to be quite compelling for me to continue.

    One minor concern was the same line which Debbie mentioned, where the brunette and “Rod” are introduced at the same time. I read it too quickly and wound up wondering if she was a transvestite or a drag queen, and then wondering how a brunette could look so much like Rod Stewart! It’s a great line, just parse it apart a bit as Debbie suggested so as to avoid more comic misunderstandings.

    Other that, the only thing that detracted for me was the paragraph descibing the prostitute’s passage to the bar.

    While she made her way across the dirty-blue carpet, her tits bouncing in gorgeous synchrony, everyone checked her out.

    I think this sentence could be rephrased to avoid the awkward feel of “…everyone checked her out.” falling at the end.

    Also, the POV felt off with the word “tits” and the later use of “titties.” (Note that is is not a complaint for language…not at all! Please read on…
    (And I’m no expert in POV so please bear with me; perhaps another reader has a better grasp of the jargon involved.)
    I would think if this was written in First Person, the use of the world would seem logical, coming from Dylan’s thoughts.
    But since this seems to be written in Third Person Limited, the vernacular comes across as awkward.
    Honestly, I’m not sure how to fix it, other than shoehorning Dylan’s immediate thoughts into the moment. Not certain that’s any better, to be honest.
    And to use the more common synonym “breasts” seems to rob the description of its tacky glory.
    Suggestions, anyone? Am I completely off-base on this one, or did anyone else feel the same speedbump there?

    • A drag queen who looks like Rod Stewart is a great picture but obviously not what the author intended!

      Cyn, your comment on POV made me go back and reread. It appears to me that we remain in Dylan’s close POV throughout. I took “everyone checked her out” as something he could observe and comment about rather than a shift in POV.

      No matter what the cause, speed bumps are good to avoid, so thanks for mentioning what stopped you.

  4. Overall, I would keep reading. I do like your descriptive style, even if the ‘has had its day’ bar is a bit of a cliche. It could work.

    Please look at the line edits. Then read them again. I thought your prostitute looked like Rod Stewart. Not the worse thing, but probably would have taken the story someplace else. A description of her light olive skin, green eyes, etc. would have been better than “being from Majorca”.

    Tuxedos don’t show off biceps. They can be tight, constricting, but don’t show off arms. As someone said, a too small dress shirt pinches in the front. Someone working in a tux is going to have a shirt that fits and allows him to move.

    Tits, titties? No. I am not a prude by a long shot, but go with boobs.

    • Alan, glad you brought up the tuxedo and biceps. It didn’t sound quite right to me either but thought that was my ignorance. Good observations!

      • One of the things that has always baffled me. James Bond can fight 12 henchmen in a suit and it stays buttoned and neat.

        I can barley itch my ear.

  5. A hard look at an anti-hero character that works is Jim Thompson’s classic noir The Killer Inside Me. Lou Ford (MC) is a violent sociopath and serves as a small town’s Deputy. On the surface, he is a mild, dull man who does his job. In private, his dark urges leads him to beats women. It is the good part of his personality (and the fact that his antagonist is as bad as he is) and his attempts to check his impulses that keeps you reading. Which side will win out?

    I think this is a great example of what Debbie is pointing out. Great review.
    Warning: The Killer Inside Me is a violent read that can touch the darkest parts of you soul.

  6. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I enjoyed reading Debbie’s critique. Here are a few notes that I hope will help as you make your revisions:

    Overuse of “Like”

    “a thin 40-something who looked so much like Rod Stewart in his sparkly blazers that everyone called him Rod”

    “The brunette waved like a beauty queen”

    “She looked like a girl who came from someplace Dylan wanted to visit”

    “like Malta or Majorca”

    “More like Rita Hayworth”

    “just like Miss Morgan”

    Too Much Name Dropping

    Too many names mentioned on one page can be overwhelming for the reader. Examples:

    dining room manager
    Rod Stewart
    Scarlet O’Hara
    Rita Hayworth
    Miss Morgan


    A few examples:

    “a trickle of” and “a jumble of” (both in the opening sentence)
    “by the name of Jim” (just say “named Jim”)
    “He was about to say something when” (If he didn’t say it, do the readers really need to know it?)
    “From deep down in his Rolodex” (Just say “From his Rolodex”)

    See “Overwriting: How to Recognize and Correct It” (on my blog) for more information on how to tighten your prose.

    Strange Eye Behavior

    “whose pupils had overtaken the blue of his eyes”

    See “Breakaway Body Parts: Are Your Characters’ Body Parts Acting on Their Own?” by Janice Hardy (available online).

    Speaking of body parts, I had difficulty picturing this:

    “The loose skin around Jim’s neck tightened.”

    Introducing Your Protagonist

    As Debbie noted, you haven’t given the reader a reason to care what happens to Dylan. He objectifies women, which will put off many female readers. He seems like a typical scumbag, with no redeeming traits. If someone came in the bar and shot him at the end of the first page, would anyone care? Moreover, the scene begins with him thinking about air conditioning, of all things. Better to begin with him doing something to show his defining personality trait in action than to begin with him thinking about air conditioning and his biceps. See Barbara Kyle’s article entitled “Making an Entrance” (available in a PDF online). Even bad guys can be interesting. Think of the delightful Raymond Reddington character in The Blacklist. One thing readers want to know fairly quickly is what your story is about. What does your protagonist want? What’s standing in his way? What are the stakes?

    Best of luck, and keep writing!

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