First Page critique: Dance with Death

By Elaine Viets

Writers, I feel your pain! As you struggle with your first pages, I’ve had my own writing fight – six weeks crafting the first chapter of my new Angela Richman mystery. I had to introduce my death investigator, Angela Richman, describe her job, her age, explain where she lives, say what time of year it is – and hope people will keep reading.
That’s why I congratulate the anonymous author of the following first-page critique. AA has achieved most of those goals.
First, let’s read it, next I’ll discuss it, and then you tell me what you think.

First Page Critique: Dance with Death

Alle fought off the death grip of the sheets, flung her feet over the side of the bed, and tried to shake the dream as she searched for her slippers. She noticed Gulliver; the pink stuffed pig Sasha had given her and that she’d slept with every night for the last ten years, laying on the floor. She must’ve knocked him off the bed during her struggle with the sheets. Her heart sank seeing him there, like a discarded toy that meant nothing. A tear ran down her cheek as she picked him up.

Still half-drunk from her sleep meds she stumbled toward the bathroom, smacking her funny bone against the half-open bathroom door. Cursing, she made it to the toilet just in time. Still holding her elbow, she shut her eyes for what she thought was only a moment; but jerked awake when she lost her balance and fell against the vanity. Out of childhood habit, she looked up and pleaded, please don’t let this be a sign for today.

She kicked her way through the clothes littering the hallway and made her way from the bathroom to the kitchen and more importantly coffee. Leaning against the counter, head down and shoulders slumped, she listened to the drip, drip, drip of the Keurig.

Every night, it seemed, she dreamed of Sasha. She didn’t just dream she relived the day Sasha died. She drank her coffee and thought about those people who over the years had lied and told her it would get easier with time. “They don’t have the damn guilt.”

Carrying her second cup of coffee to the bathroom, she ran a hot bath, not something she normally did since she was always running late. The tension in her back and shoulders melted away as she slid into the almost scalding water. She drifted off into a semi-peaceful, dreamless sleep. The water turned cold and she woke up disoriented, panicking when she realized it was a workday. Her phone showed the time as 8:00. Damn it, I’m going to be late again!

Elaine’s critique:
This is a fine first page. I’d like to make a few tweaks.
The first sentence trails off and loses its impact. What if AA wrote that first paragraph this way?
Alle fought off the death grip of the sheets, flung her feet over the side of the bed, and tried to shake the dream. As she searched for her slippers, she noticed Gulliver, the pink stuffed pig laying on the floor. Sasha had given her Gulliver. Alle had slept with the stuffed pig every night for the last ten years.
Note the comma after Gulliver in this version. You don’t need that semicolon. Put a comma after “Still half-drunk from her sleep meds, she stumbled toward the bathroom . . .”
Later, you have another semicolon. The sentence might have more impact if you made that two complete sentences:
Still holding her elbow, she shut her eyes for what she thought was only a moment. She jerked awake when she lost her balance and fell against the vanity.

Next, Alle has “kicked her way through the clothes littering the hallway . . .” This would be a good place to tell us the season. Are these heavy woollen winter clothes? Summer shirts and swimsuits? You could also give us a hint of the season in the second sentence – is she searching for her slippers on a cold floor – or a warm one?

In the kitchen, Alle “listened to the drip, drip, drip of the Keurig.”
Do Keurigs drip? The ones I’m familiar with burble and blurp. They’re too noisy for polite drips.

This next paragraph sets up the death of Sasha. Can you give us more hints about that?

Every night, it seemed, she dreamed of Sasha. She didn’t just dream, she relived the day Sasha died. She drank her coffee and thought about those people who over the years had lied and told her it would get easier with time. “They don’t have the damn guilt.”
Give us some clues about Ali: How old is she? What does she look like?
You’re off to a good start, AA. What do you think, readers?

Win the new e-version of RUBOUT, Elaine Viets’ Francesca Vierling newspaper mystery set at the Leather and Lace Bikers Society Ball. Click contests at www.elaineviets.com

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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

16 thoughts on “First Page critique: Dance with Death

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

    I agree with Elaine’s keen assessment and recommendations. It’s a good opener, just not perfect (yet!).

    I think your first page is easy to read, flows nicely, and I didn’t get confused, all good. I kept wondering, though, why Alle has to get up. She obviously doesn’t want to. What’s driving her in this scene? Is there a kid down the hall that will miss the bus? Is she only 18 years old and her parents are coming home from a trip, so she has to clean up the empties before her parents get home? We do learn that she’ll be late for work, but we don’t know that until the end.

    This was my favorite sentence: “Still holding her elbow, she shut her eyes for what she thought was only a moment; but jerked awake when she lost her balance and fell against the vanity.” Because it accurately describes what it’s like when I’m exhausted and “rest my eyes” for just a sec. But I liked it better after Elaine’s suggested revision to make it into two sentences.

    I also liked that you used sound and hot/cold as well as sight in your descriptions.

    Do you need “childhood habit,” or can it just be a “habit”? I read through the opening twice and got hung up there both times. I think wondering about bad omens or pleading to heaven is an any-age habit.

    You will probably get dinged for opening with a character waking up. It’s been done a LOT. But I’m not overly opposed to a character waking up on the first page if it’s written well.

    Best of luck, AA, on your continued writing journey!

    • You’ve brought up some excellent points that I missed, Priscilla. AA did use sound and feeling as well as the other senses. Opening a story with a character waking up has been done a lot, but in this case, it’s done well.

  2. I’m writing a short piece that starts at the dinner table, with seven diners, and moves into the parlor, with two people playing chess and one, the POV character, surreptitiously watching the game while serving the men (it’s the 1940s.)
    I’ve really just begun, but I fear that having seven characters around a dinner table, while trying to introduce who’s who and why at the start of a story, may be daunting. Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

    • If I might venture, without reading your work Ed:

      I think your subconscious is trying to tell you something — you’ve got too many non-important characters cluttering up the valuable opening moments of your scene. I call these characters spear-carriers, after the folks in the background of an opera who are supposed to be just scenery — unless they start to sing and steal the spotlight from the baritone. (your POV guy). It is always a mistake to start a book with too many characters, especially if they have names and dialogue.

      Also, you might be getting into your story too early. Try this: Get into your story after dinner, so you can focus on the chess-players. In this character’s thoughts you can slip in that dinner was over, the other guests were in the parlor with their brandies (or whatever) but these two men had gone off on their own for a chess game. Focus down on just two people being observed and ignore the spear-carriers. Avoid the throat-clearing dinner scene (too many people to handle!) and zero in more quickly on something that will create tension. If there is material in the dinner scene that you need for your plot, find another scene or means to impart it to the reader later.

      • I read a book by a Big Name NYT best-selling author, the first of hers I’d read, although it was several books into a series. The opening was some sort of family dinner and EVERYONE was there, being introduced. Who’d married whom, who was having another kid, how the kids were doing … it was the last book I read by that author. I couldn’t keep anyone straight, and I Just Didn’t Care.
        When I’m writing and see more than 3 characters in the first few pages, I hit the brakes and try to figure out who needs to be there and why.

  3. Yeah, I’m afraid I’m going to have to “ding” this page. Character-alone-thinking openings are usually the author dropping in set-up material and trying for instant sympathy (guilt, past wound, etc.) If the scene objective is trivial (e.g., getting a cup of coffee) there’s not enough to keep me interested.

    Which is not to say such an opening, including this one, can’t be done in such a way as to grab us in the gut. The way to do it is to push past all comfortable limits. Make this the most harrowing morning this character has ever experienced. Make every thought and move the most excruciating she’s ever felt.

    Read the opening chapter of Dean Konntz’s Sole Survivor, or Strangers, and you’ll see what I mean.

    The other alternative is drop down to where there’s some action, and let her behavior indicate something disturbing going on below the surface. Start with her arriving late for work and getting grief for it, etc.

    The writing itself is fine.

    • I agree with you, Jim. Waking from a bad dream is pretty much a cliche these days. Nothing is really happening here. Woman awakes, has coffee, is late for work. Yes, it is interesting that someone dear to her has died and she feels guilt about it, but there has to be a fresher entry point for this story somewhere. I think this is another example of getting into a story too early.

  4. The sentence fragments that grabbed me the most from these opening paragraphs? The death grip of the sheets, half-drunk from her sleep meds, relived the day Sasha died, and “They don’t have the damn guilt.”

    I’m curious about what happened to Sasha, why Alle feels guilt, and the relationship between Sasha and Alle.

    But I’m also impatient. That tear that rolls down her cheek in paragraph one? I have no sympathy, no attachment to Alle yet. She’s slept with a stuffed animal for the past 10 years, given by Sasha. I’m assuming s/he is a lover who abandoned or left Alle. In a later paragraph, I discover Sasha is dead and Alle feels guilt. Then I feel some sympathy for Alle.

    On a grammarly note: in that second paragraph all the sentences begin in the same manner. You start the sentence with a word or a dependent clause before hopping to the main point of the sentence. Those sentences felt repetitious but maybe that’s just me.

    Best of luck in your rewrites and revisions, AA! I’m curious and want to know more about Sasha and Alle.

  5. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I’m probably the toughest reviewer here, and please remember that my comments are not intended to discourage you. Consider this critique food for thought.

    Characters Alone Thinking

    I don’t advise that you begin your story this way. I think most literary agents will back me up on this, and I suspect JSB will, too. Read this article by Kristin Nelson:
    https://nelsonagency.com/2016/06/new-article-series-9-story-openings-to-avoid/

    I’d like to see you begin with a meatier scene to introduce your protagonist. I don’t mind scenes with a character waking up if they are done well. For example, in the movie The Cutting Edge, Doug Dorsey wakes up in bed with a girl (whose name he can’t remember) and he’s late for the Olympics. That kind of opening is fine, because something compelling happens.

    Don’t Let Character Fall Asleep On The Page

    “She drifted off into a semi-peaceful, dreamless sleep. ”

    NO! Never let the character fall asleep on the page, my dear. You want the sleepy reader to stay awake reading, not to drift off to sleep with your character.

    Semicolons

    I’ve seen some authors like Jojo Moyes use semicolons successfully on the first page. However, if you use a semicolon, do it correctly. You use a semicolon twice on the first page, both times incorrectly.

    Goal, Motivation, Conflict

    There’s a book called Goal, Motivation, Conflict by Debra Dixon. Take a look, and I think it will help. Also, read Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham.

    I’m going to stop here. Honestly, I see a number of issues with this page that need to be addressed, but I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much information at once. I know it’s tough showing your work to others, and I applaud you for taking that bold first step. See if you can find the Writer’s Digest “Write Great Fiction” series at your local library. I think you’ll enjoy it. Best of luck, brave writer. Keep writing!

    • I wish there was a way to edit; somehow the italics got messed up. Here’s a small correction:

      There’s a book called Goal, Motivation, & Conflict by Debra Dixon. Take a look, and I think it will help. Also, read Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham.

      Hope that comes out right.

  6. As soon as I posted my review, I see that JSB was writing the same thing at the same time! 😉 Now I don’t feel so awful. It’s okay, brave writer. You will be okay.

    • I agree Joanne. It’s not the writing, which with a few grammar fixes, is fine. It’s that the entry point the writer has chosen isn’t compelling enough, imo. We’ve all been there. Can’t count the number of chapter ones I’ve had to delete.

      • Exactly, Kris. The more one writes, the easier it gets to toss out chapters.

        It’s most important to start in the right place. If the pink pig that Sasha gave Alle needs to be introduced in chapter one, then perhaps our brave writer might consider having a scene where a friend or boyfriend makes fun of the fact that she still sleeps with a stuffed animal. This would make for an entertaining scene. Maybe the boyfriend could say something like, “It’s time to ditch the pig. You’re a grown woman.” An argument could follow, and the readers could learn about the importance of Sasha and the pig in an engaging way. This is also a way to introduce conflict and hint at at where the story might be headed through actions and dialogue. This is just an example, but we need to get that protagonist interacting with someone in a meaningful way on the first page.

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