First Page Critique: There’s A Man With A Gun Over There

By PJ Parrish

Good morning crime dogs. We have a new submission from a fellow writer to go over today that had me thinking about the movies Aliens and Blue Velvet.  I’ll be back in a flash with my input.  Please chime in with helpful hints, encouragement, and insights.

Chapter 1

Matthew Carter checked the magazine of his Glock G22 .40 caliber pistol for the third time before slipping it into the holster at the small of his back. 15 rounds, a full clip. Hopefully he wouldn’t need to use any, but knowing that they were there gave him a small measure of relief, and allowed him to better concentrate on the task before him. He’d been awake for the last three years and eight months – straight, twenty-four hours a day – and even though he felt more alert than ever before, the last thing he needed was for something to go wrong tonight. He knew all too well what a temporary lapse in judgement, or a tiny lack of preparation could do to someone in his position, and couldn’t afford to ever have that happen again, not now, not when he was so close. He got out of his Dodge Charger, reaching behind to touch the gun again, making sure his shirt was loose enough so he could get to it quickly.

The house he parked across from was a two-story semi-detached, and looked, from the outside, generic but well-maintained. The beige siding was clean, and the slate grey roof shingles looked like they were recently replaced. In front of the house was a small yard, the grass neatly trimmed and shiny. A narrow stone path led from the street to the front door. The sun was heavy and bright, blanketing the street in a searing white light. Carter adjusted his sunglasses and walked to the front door. He carefully leaned over to the window next to the door, raising his hand above his eyes to shield him from the glare. The street was quiet, and he saw no movement through the glass. The smell of freshly cut grass was everywhere.

He rapped his knuckles on the door.No answer. He knocked again, harder and louder. Still nothing. He waited a few more seconds then went into his pocket and removed a small rectangular device. The screen on the face of it instantly lit up, snapping to life. On it was a computer rendered map of the neighborhood he was in. A flashing green dot represented exactly where he was standing. Another dot, this one flashing red, appeared on screen about half an inch away. Carter looked up at the house. That meant there was someone about twenty feet away from him, most likely on the second floor.

____________________________

We’re back. This one really left me flummoxed. On first read, it’s not bad. We identify what I am guessing is a main character, maybe the putative protag, and we can tell what is happening, except for a couple lapses. A man is casing out a tidy home in a nice neighborhood. He has a Glock G22, which is the most common service pistol for cops, so I’m guessing he’s a good guy. But beyond this, I am lost. And worse, I am not sure I care about what is going on here.

Here’s my problem: The writer spent a lot of precious words describing things and using wasteful sentence construction when he or she could have been building some tension and dribbling in some choice backstory details so we get a sense of who this guy Carter is. But, you say, there’s a man with a gun over there! Not enough. Especially in today’s hard-to-crack crime fiction market. A guy sitting in a car casing a building has been done and done and done. And the problem is complicated by the fact that what this guy is, and what he is there for, is hazy.  Now, I hear you — we don’t WANT or even NEED to know every detail of the action in the first couple pages. But we have to have enough telling details to be intrigued.

And here’s a thing about description of your setting. If you are going to use it in your opening two or three pages, make it mean something. USE the setting to enhance mood and create tension. I think the writer was going for the juxtaposing of the neighborhood’s NORMALCY with the ABNORMALITY of lurking danger (either from Carter or whoever is inside that house).  But it doesn’t quite come across.

This made me remember the brilliant opening of David Lynch’s movie Blue Velvet. As the old song plays on, Lynch gives us lovely images of suburban life — rose gardens, picket fences, kids coming home from school, a man watering his lawn. Then…the man is bitten by something and falls. Lynch then takes the camera below the flowers, underneath the green grass and shows us these horrible insects eating each other alive. What lies beneath…

We need to be in Carter’s thoughts more. Why is the street deserted in broad daylight? Someone obviously just mowed their lawn, so why can’t we have some human beings in sight? Maybe Carter could be looking around this nice little neighborhood, watching a kid bounce a basketball, or an old lady walking her terrier. Or maybe the guy mowing his lawn stops and the sudden quiet SAYS SOMETHING about the mood. Maybe the lawn mower’s growl mimics the noise in Carter’s head and then when it cuts out, he hears this deafening silence that SAYS SOMETHING about his mood?  See what I am asking for here, dear writer? Make your setting work harder. It isn’t just there — it has to say something.

There’s a few weird things going on that I don’t get.  Carter says he has been awake for three years and eight months, 24-7.  That makes no sense. Unless he’s a zombie or something, and I don’t think that’s the genre we’re dealing with here.  We SEEM to be in present time (ie Glock and Dodge Charger).  If Carter is some kind of machine, droid or something un-human, you have to give us a clue. Also, you say it’s the shank of the day — broad harsh sunlight — yet he thinks  “The last thing he needed was for something to go wrong tonight.”

Now, because we don’t know what he is — cop? special ops?  assassin? — it’s hard to understand some of his actions. He has some kind of special human locator device.

First off, you have to be more specific about what the heck it is. If you’re making it up, that’s cool, but make us believe it! It can’t be a mere “small rectangular device.” Carter would know exactly what it’s called, so get in his head and tell us. I was picturing that thing in the movie Aliens that showed the monsters on a tiny screen as pulsating blobs. (See photo right).   Now, this technology doesn’t yet exist, as far as I know, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t in Carter’s world. You just have to make us believe it.  Have him think something like, “He pulled out the Arious Motion Tracker X40. There were only three in the world that he knew of. Hell, even the military didn’t know about them yet. He flipped the switch and pointed it at the house. Immediately, a white pulsating dot came on the small green screen. No big deal. That was his own infrared shadow.  But then a second red dot drifted onto the green. Carter started hard at it then looked up at the house. Someone was inside.”

And while we’re at it, why did Carter wait until he was on the porch to use this vital device? He seems to be concerned about his safety and not blowing his assignment again. (You have him thinking in the car: “He knew all too well what a temporary lapse in judgement, or a tiny lack of preparation could do to someone in his position, and couldn’t afford to ever have that happen again, not now, not when he was so close.”)

But here’s where you sort of lost me in the believeability.  Carter is obviously experienced in whatever it is he’s doing. He has reason to suspect someone is in the house. Yet he casually walks up in board daylight, knocks on the door, peers in the window, and sees nothing. This guy would be casing this house within an inch of his life. He’d look for security cameras. He’d see if a car was in the garage. And he’d wonder if this nice suburban house, like so many today, has a doorbell with a camera to ward off mayhem.  The worst thing you can do is make your hero look inept.

Now, I’d like to do some line edits for some clarity, mainly to show how you can eliminate some clutter-words. Also, dear writer, be more aware of your paragraph lengths.  You have only three, each almost exactly the same length. In an action scene like this (as quiet as it is), shorter graphs can heighten tension. I’m going to add a few paragraphs to show you what I mean.

Matthew Carter checked the magazine of his Glock G22 .40 caliber pistol for the third time before slipping it into the holster at the small of his back. 15 rounds, a full clip. Not sure this is your best opening line. For one, it’s a tad cliched. Also, you need to tell us he is parked outside a house sooner. He could be in a dark alley in Newark, a dessert hovel in Iraq, a brothel in Brooklyn.   

Hopefully Now, I’m not going grammar cop on you; you can use this. But why would you? It feels weak and wish-washy. I don’t think Carter is either. Try something like: Maybe, with a little luck, he wouldn’t have to fire one bullet. But he was never one to depend on luck.

He wouldn’t need to use any, but knowing that they were there gave him a small measure of relief, Again, relief sounds weak, like he’s not experienced at carrying. and allowed him to better concentrate on the task before him. He’d been awake for the last three years and eight months – straight, Hwenty-four hours a day I just don’t get this. – and even though he felt more alert than ever before, this means nothing. the last thing he needed was for something to go wrong tonight. ???He knew all too well what a temporary lapse in judgement, or a tiny lack of preparation could do to someone in his position, He knew because it had almost cost him his life two years ago in Istanbul. Drop in a dollop of backstory please. and couldn’t afford to ever have that happen again, not now, not when he was so close. He got out of his Dodge Charger, reaching behind to touch the gun again, making sure his shirt was loose enough so he could get to it quickly.

The house he parked across from This is passive construction. Establish higher up that he is casing a house. was a two-story semi-detached, and looked, from the outside, generic but well-maintained. The beige siding was clean, and the slate grey roof shingles looked like they were recently replaced. In front of the house was a The grass in the small yard was freshly mowed., the grass neatly trimmed and shiny. A narrow stone path led from the street to the front door. The noon? sun was heavy and bright, blanketed the street in a searing white light. It would also create deep shadows, making things stand out in high relief. Carter adjusted his sunglasses and walked to the front door. He carefully leaned over to the window next to the door and peered in. , raising his hand above his eyes to shield him from the glare. The street was quiet, and he saw He could see only a foyer but there was no movement. The smell of freshly cut grass was everywhere. Nice sensory detail but it is out of place here, where you are trying to escalate tension. Put all your description in one graph above and move on.

He rapped his knuckles on the door.knocked. No answer.

He knocked again, harder and louder. Still nothing.

He waited a few more seconds then went into his pocket and removed a small rectangular device. pulled a device the size of a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. It was a ….whatever you want to call it. The screen on the face of instanttly lit up, snapping to life. with On it was a computer rendered a map and of the neighborhood he was in. a pulsating flashing green dot that showed represented exactly his position. where he was standing.Another Then a second red dot this one flashing red, moved onto the screen about half an inch away. Carter looked up at the house. That meant there was someone about twenty feet away from him, most likely on the second floor. He can discover this later. Make your sentences short and staccato to mimic tension. 

New graph: Someone was inside.

Okay, dear writer. Don’t be discouraged. There is good material here. I just want you to work harder because I have a hunch this is a good story just off to a slow start. And Carter is a guy I want to know more about. Just make him come more alive. Because you — and he — get only one chance to make a good impression.

 

5+
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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

10 thoughts on “First Page Critique: There’s A Man With A Gun Over There

  1. This is a brilliant critique, Kris. I was also put off by the character saying he’d been awake for more than 3 years. Alert, even hyper-alert, definitely. Also agree about the opening. Do we need those details about the weapon?
    I hope our brave author has the courage to keep going.

    • Yeah, I had the same reaction to the weapon detail. Granted, what exact caliber kind of gun a hero carries might be interesting, but it’s taking up valuable space in a first line.

  2. Brave Author: Read what PJ has written. Glock, Charger, and sunglasses. It isn’t a tad cliche, it is THE cop/detective/PI of the twenty teens. Be bold, And a Ford Explorer is the cops second choice, so not that either.

    As PJ said, the tracker needs to have a name or be an app. Goldfinger was a long time ago. My children track their friends through SnapChat, it isn’t a mystery.

    But the biggie. Why has he been awake for three years? The X-Files episode “Sleepless” has being awake 24/7 at its heart. It was released in 1994. I need a why, and this would be the place to at least start me down that path.

    Overall, I like your writing. Would love to see version 2.

    • Same here, Alan. I bet the rewrite will be worth a read. Which is true of us all!

  3. Thank you, Brave Author, for showing us your first page.

    This was my favorite sentence: ” The sun was heavy and bright, blanketing the street in a searing white light.” I felt the glare of the summer sun bouncing off the concrete.

    I didn’t think this was a cop story because law enforcement wouldn’t need to remove the magazine three times to check if it had rounds. To be uber-prepared, a professional would probably just do a slide check to make sure a round was chambered. Then there was the line about no sleep, and I thought, This is definitely not a cop story but a science fiction story, and Carter is getting revenge on the cruel scientist that messed up people’s sleep (or something about sleep). The little rectangular device also pointed to a science fiction story.

    If it is indeed science fiction, I don’t think we need the gun to be the opening sentence, or the second or third sentence. And if the protag isn’t a sleep-science victim but a hired hit man (which explains his specialized holster), he’d be prepared ahead of time and not fussing with the gun at the last minute . . . so still no need for three opening sentences about the gun.

    There isn’t much white on this first page, and PJ addressed that in her excellent critique. As a reader, it’s fun when there’s white space so you can speed through the first page of a crime or science fiction story to see what it’s about.

    I did want to see if Carter is successful in carrying out his task, and I wanted to know if Carter is the good guy or the bad guy. And if this is a science fiction story, I especially liked the concept of messing with sleep.

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

    • Thanks for the good feedback, Priscilla. The good thing about these critiques is that the poster’s opinion is only one opinion. So it helps, I think, to see the submission from others’ POVs. I, too, wondered if we might be in sci-fi territory here. Or something akin to futuristic cop story (a sub-genre I like). If that is the case, with a little tweaking this opening could work well.

  4. For what it’s worth (a play on your title, humor, ar, ar ,ar) here is my opinion. I think it hard to improve on your critiques because you do it so well. Therefore, I shall not try.
    For the writer. Another website that does 1st page critiques has a check list that I use for every opening. (I copied it without permission, but don’t tell anyone). I hope you’ll find it useful.

    A First-page Checklist

    It begins to engage the reader with the character
    Something is wrong/goes wrong or challenges the character
    The character desires something.
    The character takes action. Can be internal or external action: thoughts, deeds, emotions. This does NOT include musing about whatever.
    There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
    It happens in the NOW of the story.
    Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
    Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
    The one thing it must do: raise a story question.

    • Excellent check list, Brian. All those bullet points are good ones. But I’d add one caveat. We give our submitting writers only 400 words, and man, it’s hard to make every one count. I’d say if this writer could rise up to at least half of your points, he’d be on a great start. Which is why I stressed the description of the setting…now, I love me a well-rendered setting opening (I tend to over-describe on first drafts). But it’s more vital, esp in this kind of cop story (again, I am assuming Carter is law enforcement), that a hint of the stakes are delineated. And as you said, something has to go wrong or a challenge has to be in the making, to make our hero come alive and make us want to root for him. Not easy to do this in a mere 400 words. But that’s what good storytelling is — finding the essence of your scene and writing tight. A good opening is hard hard work.

  5. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I enjoyed reading Kris’ review, and as usual, I enjoyed the music reference. Bravo! Brave writer, kudos for getting your first page written. Below I have some tips that I hope will help make it more engaging.

    Act now. Explain later.

    You spent too much time with description and giving the character’s inner thoughts. James Scott Bell says, “Act now. Explain later.” Wonderful advice. Read all of JSB’s books. Also, check out Jake Vander Ark’s book entitled Put the Cat In the Oven Before You Describe the Kitchen: A Concise, No-Bull Guide To Writing Fiction. Note to cat lovers: this book is not about torturing cats. Folks who are familiar with the Save the Cat books will understand this. By the way, writers, if you haven’t read Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody, put it on your must-read list, as well. My advice is to begin your story with some sort of interaction between two characters. Then, after the action gets rolling, work in the description and other details. Readers don’t care much about the inner thoughts of a character with whom they haven’t become acquainted. Don’t begin by explaining what led up to bringing the character to a certain moment of time. Begin with action. Then, after something significant is happening (not getting ready to happen), work in other details.

    Too Many Adverbs

    Examples:

    quickly, recently, neatly, carefully, instantly, exactly, likely

    Overuse of “Was”

    Try to rewrite some of the sentences below without using the word was.

    “the last thing he needed was for something to go wrong tonight”

    “not when he was so close”

    “making sure his shirt was loose enough so he could get to it quickly”

    “The house he parked across from was a two-story semi-detached”

    “The beige siding was clean”

    “In front of the house was a small yard”

    “The sun was heavy and bright”

    “The street was quiet”

    “The smell of freshly cut grass was everywhere”

    “On it was a computer rendered map of the neighborhood he was in”

    “A flashing green dot represented exactly where he was standing”

    “That meant there was someone about twenty feet away from him”

    Hint: Look at this sentence:

    “The smell of freshly cut grass was everywhere”

    It can easily be rewritten like this:

    The air smelled of freshly cut grass.

    Accomplished writers opt for using strong verbs. Train yourself to write without using was to the extent possible.

    Overwriting

    Never give more than about three setting details at one time. Don’t burden the reader with stuff that is unimportant to the story at all. Think before you write: “Is there a reason the reader needs to have this information?” Think after you write: “Can any of these details be consolidated?”

    Grammar

    The sentence below has some issues (and it’s too long):

    “Hopefully he wouldn’t need to use any, but knowing that they were there gave him a small measure of relief, and allowed him to better concentrate on the task before him.”

    Possible rewrite:

    He hoped he wouldn’t need to use ammo, but having it accessible allowed him to concentrate.

    That’s all for now, brave writer. I want to see the next draft. Best of luck, and keep writing!

  6. Your story sounds fascinating and I’d be interested in reading more. In addition to the excellent critique above, I would make one clarification regarding the terminology of firearm components.

    “Matthew Carter checked the magazine of his Glock G22 .40 caliber pistol for the third time before slipping it into the holster at the small of his back. 15 rounds, a full clip.”

    The term “magazine” in the first sentence is accurate, yet the term “clip” in the second sentence is an incorrect term sometimes used for the magazine of a semi-auto pistole. It may sound nit-picky to some, but it can be a distraction to readers who are firearm enthusiasts or professionals.

    By the way, Glocks are my favorite. I personally carry a G27 or a G23 depending on the weather. I am a firearms instructor and would be happy to share information or resources.

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