First Page Critique: Where Are We
And Whose Head Are We In?

By PJ Parrish

Morning, crime dogs. We have another First Page submission to chew on today.  It has things to teach us about picking a point of view.  And a big hat tip to our writer who has pushed her/his baby out there for our scrutiny.  Remember…that takes guts.

SCARLET LIES

Scarlet crossed the multi-lane city street without checking for oncoming traffic. They would stop. And if they didn’t, what of it? A few horns blared and she clicked her heels across the road, the sun blaring in her eyes through the smog and haze. A man sat across the street, watching the foot traffic from a cafe table. He drank from a small, cream-colored mug.

Was that him?

Yes. It was. It was him. She couldn’t believe she saw him there, just on the other side of the street, drinking coffee, existing. How long had it been? Two years?

“Guy! Hey! Guy!” She hustled, her voice screeching and her gait reminiscent of a baby calf with awkward, tiny steps. Her skirt was tight, the shopping bags she carried were bulky, and her stilettos were sharp. The traffic did stop for her.

The man turned and watched her wobbling approach. She was grinning. He was not.

He said nothing, creasing his brow and sipping his coffee. He ended the call he was on. Slid his phone into his pocket. His olive complexion had deepened in the summer sun, and he had opted not to shave for a few days, giving him a rough, careless appearance.

She was radiant, elbowing people out of the way to get to him and straightening her walk.

“Guy! How are you? It’s been forever!” She was breathless. She stepped through the cafe gate and sat at the table with him. She raised her hand at a server, waving her over. A young woman approached and looked at the two of them, waiting. Scarlet looked at Guy, and blinked a couple of times.

“The lady will have an extra-hot Americano with a half-pump of hazelnut and a pitcher of cream on the side, please.” He looked up at the waiter apologetically.

“Oookay. One very special nearly hazelnut Americano and some creamer coming up.” She forced a smile, rolled her eyes and walked away. Scarlet beamed at Guy, biting her lip.

“You remember my coffee. You were always so thoughtful. How are you, though? Really?” She leaned towards him.

He looked at her for a moment, not returning the smile. “I’m good. I’m surprised to see you, Scarlet. Out in the wild.”

“Really? Why is that?”

He didn’t answer. He sipped his coffee and stared at her.

“I’ve missed you so much.”

“I doubt that.”

__________________________

Well, right off the bat my first question is: What kind of book am I reading here? Given the description of the woman and the interplay with the mystery man, it feels a little on the romantic suspense side or maybe we’re in cozy territory. Which is fine, if that is where the writer is going.  If this is straight mystery or suspense, then this opening, with its emphasis on the woman’s clothing, shopping bags, shoes etc., is off in tone. It’s hard to tell.  So we are left to judge it as it is, absent the helpful context of cover art or back copy.  The title SCARLET LIES could be anything, but it suggests to me a lighter tone.

Now about point of  view.  We are firmly in Scarlet’s POV at the start because we get her thoughts about the cars not stopping and her wondering if the man is the cafe is “him.”  But as we get deeper into the scene, the POV wavers a tad, floating up into semi-omniscient or even into the man’s POV when the writer starts describing her stilettos and her screeching voice and awkward gait. Who is making these observations?  She cannot, so it is either the man in cafe (which is a head-jumping POV shift) or it is the writer herself (which is a shift to omniscient).  It’s good that the writer is coming up with specifics in the descriptions but they must be grounded in a single POV to be effective.

Now, what is happening in this scene? Not too much really. A woman, apparently just finishing shopping, spots a man in a cafe, someone from her past, and initiates an encounter. The man seems blase, almost irritated.  Oddly, though, he doesn’t seem at all surprised to see her even though it has been “forever.”  Is this enough to make us want to read on? I don’t think so. There’s not enough meat here in the encounter and the woman, to be frank, is ditzy to the point of being annoying. Guy, on the other hand, by his simple  indifference, seems more interesting.  I can’t tell who the protagonist is here.  I hope it’s not the woman because, as I said, I think she comes across as silly.  If Scarlet IS the protagonist, then I think there’s a problem in asking readers to attach themselves to such a flimsy character.

If Guy is the protag, then I suggest the writer switch this scene to his point of view only. It could be much more interesting.  Let me demonstrate:

Guy Talbot ended his call and laid the phone face down on the cafe table. He was tempted to turn the damn thing off because he was tired of being on call and just wanted to be alone. Just for one afternoon. That’s why he had picked the Tiffany Cafe on Rodeo Drive. No one he knew would ever show up here. 

He was about to pick up his coffee cup when a flash of red across the street caught his eye. A trailing blazing of red hair, and a glimpse of tight red skirt visible through the bounce of Prada and Hermes shopping bags. 

Jesus, what that her? Of course it was. No woman on earth had hair that color. He hadn’t seen her in five years. What the hell was she doing here in Los Angeles? 

He picked up his sunglasses to hide behind. Too late. She spotted him.

“Guy! Guy!” she yelled.

She started across Rodeo Drive without looking. No matter. The cars would stop for her. They always did. Sure enough, a guy in a Ferrari stopped, the screech of his tires matching her voice.

I did this not to rewrite your work but to demonstrate what a difference a secure point of view can make. All description needs to be filtered through a solid POV. So pick one and stay in it.  Now I’d like to do some line editing to specifically show where the point of view has issues.

Scarlet crossed the multi-lane city street without checking for oncoming traffic. Is this a compelling enough sentence to open a book? I think you could do better. They would stop. And if they didn’t, what of it? Ditzy thought…if they don’t stop, she’d get hit. A few horns blared and she clicked her heels She didn’t click her heels; her heels made click-clacking sounds…big difference and it goes to POV across the road, the sun blaring in her eyes through the smog and haze. A man sat across the street, watching the foot traffic from a cafe table. He drank from a small, cream-colored mug. This observation must come from her POV.  She spotted or saw a man sitting in a sidewalk cafe WHERE? You need to tell us where we are. 

Was that him?

Yes. It was. It was him. She couldn’t believe she saw him there, just on the other side of the street, drinking coffee, existing. I don’t understand this. How long had it been? Two years?

“Guy! Hey! Guy!” Set your dialogue off on its own line before you go into movement.

She hustled, odd and unflattering word. She hurried? her voice screeching and her gait reminiscent of a baby calf with awkward, tiny steps. Here is where you really lose your POV. She would not describe her own voice as a screech nor would she compare herself to a calf. Her skirt was tight, the shopping bags she carried were bulky, and her stilettos were sharp. The traffic did stop for her.

The man turned and watched her wobbling approach. This feels like you are now in Guy’s POV. She was grinning. He was not.

He said nothing, creasing his brow and sipping his coffee. Again, you are now in his POV. She hasn’t arrived at his table yet. He ended the call he was on. Slid his phone into his pocket. His olive complexion had deepened in the summer sun, and he had opted not to shave for a few days, giving him a rough, careless appearance. Now we seem to be in omniscient POV. This is you observing, not Scarlet. It’s good to describe him this way but it MUST come from her not you. 

She was radiant, Another POV lapse. She cannot see herself as “radiant” which is in itself an odd description. elbowing people out of the way to get to him On the sidewalk? and straightening her walk.

“Guy! How are you? It’s been forever!” Again, separate dialogue from movement. It’s cleaner. 

She was breathless. She stepped through the cafe gate and sat at the table with him. What happened to all the shopping bags? She raised her hand at a server, waving her over. A young woman approached and looked at the two of them, waiting. Scarlet looked at Guy, and blinked a couple of times.This is one of her gestures that strikes me as ditsy

“The lady will have an extra-hot Americano with a half-pump of hazelnut and a pitcher of cream on the side, please.” He looked up at the waiter she’s a woman apologetically.

“Oookay. One very special nearly hazelnut Americano and some creamer coming up.” She forced a smile, rolled her eyes and walked away.  Giving the waitress this line adds nothing. It wastes space in your precious opening moments. Have her just leave.

Scarlet beamed at Guy, biting her lip. More ditziness. “You remember my coffee. You were always so thoughtful. How are you, though? Really?” Here’s an example where your dialogue isn’t working hard enough. We are in the first page or two of your story. Make every word count! She leaned towards him.

He looked at her for a moment, not returning the smile. “I’m good. I’m surprised to see you, Scarlet. Out in the wild.” I really like this line.  It is the first punch of suspense as it implies she has some kind of weird past.  It also makes Guy interesting. 

“Really? Why is that?”

He didn’t answer. You really need to amp up the tension in this scene so having him answer nothing after he laid out that great “out in wild” line feels limp. I think you missed a big opportunity to layer in some badly needed background between these two or give him more thoughts about her past or his own. MAKE YOUR DIALOGUE WORK HARDER. He sipped his coffee and stared at her.

“I’ve missed you so much.”  Who is talking? Makes a big difference! I’m guessing it’s her given her fawning tone. 

“I doubt that.”  As I said, Guy’s recalcitrance makes him more appealing as someone I would be interested in following for a couple hundred pages. 

Okay, so to sum up, I think you need to brush up on point of view, especially as it applies to description. You also need to make your dialogue more muscular. What do I mean by that? You need to make every line mean something. Every word and line has to contribute to your dramatic point.

Most important, you need to find a way to inject more interest and tension into this scene. A chance meeting between two characters who had a past together isn’t meaty enough unless you layer in some intriguing undercurrents. Ask yourself: What is the POINT of this scene? What am I trying to accomplish? An effective opening has to introduce your main character, tell us where we are (you need to add that) and most importantly, begin to establish some kind of disturbance.

Thanks writer, for letting us get a peek at your work. Don’t get discouraged. As Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is always junk.” Although trust me, he used a much stronger word. 🙂 Hope you find this helpful.

 

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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

9 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Where Are We
And Whose Head Are We In?

  1. The POV does need a clean up. But more importantly, NOTHING REALLY HAPPENS. Scarlet crosses the street oddly and a guy, Guy, orders her coffee.

    Some continuity issues: If she walks boldly across a wide city street shouldn’t he be able to walk in a skirt and heels? I probably would have gone with something like ‘five lanes of city traffic’ over the multi-lane street.

    Not wild about the name Guy. On my first read I thought she was using an odd form on ‘Hey You’.

    Guy puts his phone away but you didn’t have him in the middle of the call.

    The whole ordering for her thing. Yes James Bond does this and I love Bond. But it is stilted and a little sexist. She can brave taxi cabs without looking but can’t order a latte? For that matter, having Scarlet correct Guy with her current drink would have been a quick easy way to brighten the whole thing.

    • Good points all, Alan. I, too, wasn’t crazy about the guy ordering for her thing, but I understand why the writer did it — to establish a history between these two, that they were intimate enough once for him to remember how she likes her coffee. But given Scarlet’s other ditzsy things, it is just adds to things. As you suggested, if she corrects him or says something to contradict him, it would add interest. I suggest the writer go back and read Jim’s Sunday post about going against the expected and how it can help you create tension and develop character.

      As for Bond, well, yeah, he was sexist. But we were all in on the joke. 🙂

  2. I have written all of my novels in the first person POV.

    My late start is a standalone story written in the third limited POV–that is, it is not a third person omniscient POV.

    It’s tough. There are times I can’t tell where I am. I’m re-reading your critique with care.

    • Hey Jim,
      I don’t really understand the difference between third person limited and third person omniscient. That is probably due to the fact I have written only in intimate first and third for 20 years. Habits die hard. Maybe someone who is better versed on this subtle difference can weigh in.

      As I understand it, the main difference is that third person limited is when the story is told from a character’s perspective, while a story in third person omniscient is told by a narrator external to the story. (writer?) In third person limited the narrator only knows the thoughts and feelings of one character. But, one character is closely followed throughout the story, and it is typically a main character.

      I guess I get hung up on POVs that tread near omniscient because the intimate POV is so popular in current crime fiction; I hear editors talking about it all the time. That doesn’t mean it is the only way, just that it is the most popular.

      Is this your story? If so, thanks for submitting as it gives us a good chance to get into the weeds of POV. Can anyone else shed some helpful light?

  3. Thanks for letting us take a peek at your first page, Brave Writer.

    Sexist or not, my favorite line is when Guy orders Scarlet’s coffee. It shows they have a past relationship, and it shows how picky and pampered she is.

    I thought PJ gave you an excellent and detailed critique, but I disagreed a little concerning your first line. The first line kept me reading because I wanted to know if she would make it across the street or get hit by a car.

    Yes, there are some POV issues. I think they are easier to spot in my own writing after a chapter has rested awhile and I look at it again with fresh eyes. You might try that.

    I also thought it was a little wordy. For example, this is pretty wordy:

    Was that him?
    Yes. It was. It was him. She couldn’t believe she saw him there, just on the other side of the street, drinking coffee, existing.”

    That whole passage could be whittled down to “Was that him?” without losing any meaning. We already know she spotted a man drinking coffee (probably coffee) at a sidewalk cafe.

    Your description of Scarlet is pretty effective. I know she’s chatty, picky, spends a lot of money, wears sexy clothes, is self-centered (the traffic thing), and talks with a screechy voice. It’s pretty impressive to fit all that on a first page.

    Up the tension and zero in on a POV, and I’d turn the page to see what Guy and picky-pampered Scarlet do next. Best of luck on your continued writing journey, Brave Writer.

    • Thank for the comments Priscilla. No one person has the answers, which is why others commenting is helpful. I see your point about the coffee thing. I do wonder, still, who the protag is.

  4. Kris’s comments are spot-on, as always. I agree this feels like romantic suspense. Or romantic comedy.

    With a little tweaking, this could work very nicely into Scarlett’s deep POV while intriguing the reader more. I like the idea that this ditzy, vain, self-centered woman who demands that traffic stop for her is about to get her comeuppance from the man drinking coffee.

    Suppose she jilted him in the past yet she still expects him to be thrilled to see her. Why wouldn’t he be? She’s still beautiful, stylish, and EVERYONE is ALWAYS glad to see her. Aren’t they? (Start to inject a little doubt into her inflated ego.)

    Here’s where she could become more interesting. Maybe she realizes the terrible mistake she made by dumping him. She’s embarrassed and self-conscious and wonders why, when she’s used to walking in stilettos, all of sudden, she’s as clumsy as a newborn calf. When she calls to him, the screeching of her own voice shocks her, an indication how nervous she is. She grins, sure he’ll smile back and be happy to see her. But he obviously isn’t. Uh-oh, this isn’t going the way she planned. More self-doubt.

    She plops herself down at his table uninvited and clearly unwanted. Now what should she do? The more she talks, the more she screws up.

    This feels a little like it could be that other Scarlet and Rhett Butler meeting years after he told her he didn’t give a damn.

    If that’s where the brave author is going, there’s lots of potential for a great character arc for Scarlet.

    A couple of nits: sun “blaring” isn’t accurate. Blaring is a sound. Maybe you meant “blazing.” Also, if the sun is blinding her, how could she see a small, cream-colored mug? Better if she concentrates on the man.

  5. I like your suggestions, Debbie, as to how to make Scarlet more likeable and someone whose story we want to follow. The “trick” I think is getting deeper into Scarlet’s “wants” so the writer can better develop her as a character we can care about. This is what is so difficult about crafting a great opening. You only have so much time (and pages) to make a good impression. Scarlet needn’t be totally “likeable” at the start. But within the crucial first couple pages we have to be seduced into perhaps forgiving her long enough to follow her deeper into the story.
    Thanks again to the writer to contributing.

  6. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I agree with Kris about your submission. I’m going to limit my comments tonight to POV.

    One article by Jami Gold I’d like everyone to take a look at discusses 7 methods for handling POV changes (https://jamigold.com/2013/07/7-methods-for-handling-point-of-view/). One of the most advanced methods of a POV change is called the baton pass method, but I don’t recommend that inexperienced authors try it. However, some famous authors get away with it. Sometimes people think these authors are “head hopping” when they are actually using the baton pass method. Use the “baton pass” at your own peril. I am not encouraging anyone to try it, but it’s good to be aware of this method. I had English teachers (old school) who loved the baton pass method, but it has gone way out of favor with agents and editors these days.

    Here are some articles that discuss the basic rules for POV. Read these articles, and then we can cuss and discuss them:

    See “Point of View—Part Three” by Beth Hill at The Editor’s Blog.

    See also “The Ultimate Point of View Guide: Third Person Omniscient vs. Third Person Limited vs. First Person” by Joe Bunting at The Write Practice.

    See also “Point of view definitions and examples: Getting POV right” at Now Novel.

    See also “The Basics of Point of View for Fiction Writers” by Jane Friedman.

    Janice Hardy has many interesting posts on POV at her Fiction University blog. Read them all.

    See also “Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View” by Jodie Renner

    I can also provide a list of textbooks (with appropriate page numbers) for anyone who would like further reading. Just ask. 🙂

    Readers these days want to experience life through a character. Remember the famous Meg Ryan scene from When Harry Met Sally with the famous line: “I’ll have what she’s having!” Well, readers want to have what the protagonist is having. That’s why most writers choose to write in either first person or third person subjective. So let your readers feel what your protagonist is feeling. Also, think attitude. Give your protagonist an opinion. Give your protagonist difficult choices. Give your protagonist motivation. Let the reader become your character.

    Hope this helps! Best of luck, brave writer, and keep writing.

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