First Page Critique Redux:
What A little Rewriting Can Do

“Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.” ~Michael Crichton

By PJ Parrish

Hi there, crime dogs. Today I’d like to revisit one of our First Page critiques.  Not because I think that the submitting writer needs to be raked over the coals once more.  This time, I’d like to show (rather than tell) what a little judicious rewriting can do.

Rewriting is dear to my heart. It reminds me, at times, of the despair I used to feel in my sculpture classes when I was a college art major. I was terrible at anything involving three-dimensional design. I aced portraiture, watercolor, acyrlic and oil. But when it came to creating something out of a piece of wood, clay or plaster, I was really bad.  Don’t know why…it’s just the way my brain is wired.  I had to work really really hard in 3D design. It didn’t come naturally to me.

So those of you out there struggling with the structure of your book, I feel your pain.  I know how hard it is to take a lumpy gray mass of hot mess and try to turn it into something with shape, definition and, yeah, even beauty.

Which brings me back to our topic of the day — rewriting.  You can’t fear it. You shouldn’t fight it. You must embrace it.  I read one writer who described rewriting as trying to scrub the basement floor with a toothbrush. But it needn’t be that gruesome. Writing may not come naturally to you, but you can be better at it if you try.  Rewriting is how you get all the bad stuff out of your system.

It’s okay in your first draft to use cliches, stale metaphors, boring chapter endings, bad transitions, unoriginal description.  It’s okay to have potholes in your plot, flaccid character development, turgid backstory.  Get it all out there, keep moving forward, finish the draft. Philip Roth once described a first draft as a floor that, once in place, he could walk upon.

So build your floor. Then go back over it and do the hard work. Don’t despair. Trust that you can do it.  Your pencils should always outlast your erasers. I think Nabokov said that.

Now, back to the First Pager. Last month, I critiqued a submission titled Scarlet Lies. It wasn’t bad, but it had some basic problems. The writer asked if I would read her second attempt. Because her attitude was so receptive, I agreed. I will let you see how things went. First, here’s the original:

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.”

_______________________

Now here’s the second version she sent to me:

Scarlet crossed six lanes of traffic on East 57th street without looking. New York hadn’t claimed her life yet, but she felt it would be an easier fate than dealing with her mother’s charity gala tomorrow. How was she supposed to find a speaker when she’d only been released for two days? As usual, her mother’s demands were unreasonable.

Tires screeched as she strutted across the road, the sun blazing in her eyes through the smog. A Ferrari skidded to a halt and blared its multi-tone horn.

“Watch it, lady!” A man yelled out the window at her.

She held up her middle finger at him as she stepped onto the sidewalk.

Scarlet walked two more blocks towards her target. A coffee shop, apparently. She double checked the location on her phone as she approached.

Then, serenity. She saw Michael sitting at a cafe table, talking on his phone and flipping through a notebook. Scarlet smiled, knowing her luck at finding him here would probably be considered closer to criminal stalking, but he would benefit from her charming companionship, regardless of what he claimed to believe or what he had said to her the last time they parted. That was two long years ago, and he hadn’t been thinking clearly.

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. He was absorbed in his conversation. Next to him, steam curled from a small, cream-colored mug. Her heart pounding, she watched the image of him flicker in and out of view between the gray masses of people elbowing their way around her.

She hadn’t spoken to him since the fire. Since he “swore her off.” Well. Time to change that. She adjusted her skirt and walked through the cafe gate.

“Michael! Hi!”

The man froze in place for a moment and then looked up, his face stony. She was grinning. He was not.

She heard him bark a quick “call you later,” and he slid his phone into his pocket.

“How are you? It’s been forever!” She was breathless. She down sat at the table with him, dropping her shopping bags on the ground beside her.

He looked at her for a moment, dread and quiet disbelief on his face. “I’m honestly a bit surprised to see you, Scarlet. Out in the wild.” He gestured in the air around him.

Scarlet raised her voice an octave and flipped her hair behind her shoulder. “Well! Vacation’s over.”

“Vacation?” He pressed his lips together, eyebrows raised. “I don’t think so. Did you break out, or did your parents pay?”

She smiled again. “I’ve missed you.”

___________________

So, what is improved by the rewriting? Let’s try to break it down. Again, this is just my opinion:

  1. Scarlet is much more likable now. Some of you liked her better than I did, but I found her sort of ditzy and wondered if readers would want to follow her for an entire book. Now, I think she comes across as just high-spirited. Big difference. I don’t know what sort of sub-genre the writer is going for here, but the light tone makes me think this would be appropriate for romantic suspense, straight romance, or cozy. What’s better now is that the tone is more consistent, and that’s important. Some writers never quite grasp the idea that you have to have a tone for your story — light, dark, hard-boiled, historical, whatever — and every word and sentence you write has to support that tone.
  2.  We now know where we are geographically. Important to establish that right away.
  3. The dialogue is much better. Do you notice how just separating the dialogue from surrounding narrative makes it look cleaner? Easier to read for today’s writers. If you go back and read older fiction, you’ll notice this may not be true. But for today’s market seems to demand it. It’s a matter of taste and trends but it’s good to be aware of it.
  4. Point of view: This is where the writer really improved things. In the original, the POV wavered between Scarlet, the man, and wandered up into omniscient. Again, this is a modern trend, but being firmly in one character’s POV at a time is  important in today’s market.

One last thing I pointed out to the writer:  We don’t know what genre she’s working in here, but if it is suspense or mystery, it is crucial to pretty quickly establish some kind of disruption in Scarlet’s life. Something has to go wrong, or you have to drop hints that something ALREADY has gone wrong — and that THIS is what your story is really about. I advised her to not waste too much more time on chit-chat between Scarlet and Michael unless it supports this. His dialogue about the breaking out and her being out in the wild hints at it, but the writer still needs move the CONFLICT closer to the front of the stage. And you don’t want to wait too long to do this.

So, end of object lesson. Thank you — again! — dear writer for letting us learn as you do. And to remind us that in baseball, you only get three strikes. But in writing, you get as many as you need.  I think Neil Simon said that…or maybe it was Yogi Berra.

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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

21 thoughts on “First Page Critique Redux:
What A little Rewriting Can Do

  1. Thank you for the critique PJ and to anonymous for resubmitting.

    In regards to tension or curiosity, Scarlet’s internal thoughts in the first paragraph include that she’d “only been released for two days.” And I’m asking myself…released from where, what. I’m intrigued by the story.

    • Yup, I agree. This is what we mean here at TKZ when we talk about dribbling in bits of backstory — putting in intriguing things like this and not explaining them right away is an effective way to build suspense, particularly in a story like this one where the opening isn’t slam-bam-blow-em-up.

      But at the same time, it is NOT just a character thinking, musing, remembering (which is static). Her interaction with the man help the story move forward.

  2. Yes, good strides from the first version. And I agree with the mystery in the first paragraph. Nicely done.

    This may be a generational thing now, but I lost sympathy for the Lead with the middle finger gesture. Perhaps a younger audience sees nothing wrong with it (quite a social commentary inherent in that, but leave us stick with writing). My question would be, though, is it necessary to turn off potential buyers with a more vintage hue? (And BTW, isn’t she carrying shopping bags?) I find a more sympathetic picture of a woman trying to ferry bags across the street and almost getting hit, sans gesture.

    And if this is romantic suspense (or even if it’s not) I liked the guy in the first version better. He has charm, esp. the line: “The lady will have an extra-hot Americano with a half-pump of hazelnut and a pitcher of cream on the side, please.” I also liked the dialogue a bit more in the first version, esp. his silence at her question. I wonder if someone told you to add more exposition by way of his answer (in the second version). But that answer again is less sympathetic. It makes him seem petty. The first version gives the impression of trying NOT to offend. And exposition can wait.

    To the author: Just like critique group, isn’t it? You’ll get lots of advice, some contradictory. Think about it all for a few days then make the choices that feel right to you.

    • Good points, Jim. I, too, liked the contrariness of the first Michael. And your last point about critique groups is well taken. I remember well the heated discussions of my Fort Lauderdale critique group. Sometimes I disagreed completely with the input but inevitably, it made me think harder about what I was trying to accomplish and almost always led me to better choices.

    • I so very rarely comment here, but I agree with you, Mr. Bell. The “middle” finger–in this instance–serves no purpose. It is superfluous and doesn’t need to be there. It can be deleted. Not because it bothered me…I think, at my age, I’ve become immune to it. (Maybe that’s not a good thing, huh?)
      Again, it’s gratuitous and adds nothing to the story.

  3. Thank you for this second look. I know what I do with your wonderful analyses of my first page, but I’ve wondered what other authors do with them.

    This rewrite does sound much more interesting to me, and the Scarlet is definitely more interesting!

    Thanks again. Never miss any posts from y’all. (That’s a real word, BTW!)

    • It was interesting to me to see what this author did with the input. This will probably not be her final draft — the opening often needs to be readdressed as the writer gets deeper into the story — but I like seeing a writer find her legs.

  4. Wow, what an improvement! I like Scarlet even less this time because she’s a stalker and flips people off and maybe is an arsonist, but somehow I care more about her and want to know if she’s going to turn her life around or end up in prison again.

    I also didn’t stumble over any POV issues which made for a smoother read and made it easier to understand what was going on.

    I like the description of his image flickering “in and out of view between the gray masses of people elbowing their way around her.”

    Yay, Anonymous!

    • Small note – daughters of mothers who are in charge of charity galas do not run around flipping people off. Way too common. But this may a Southern thing, and the story is set in New York, so who knows? But classwise…no.

    • That’s a great point Priscilla that you LIKE Scarlet less but CARE about her more. Which goes to the larger question we often struggle with: Must a protag be likeable? But that’s another blog!

  5. I wasn’t bothered by the middle finger at all, except for her carrying shopping bags. I would flip the bird at the honker in a heartbeat. I thought the “watch it, lady” was the problem. “Bitch” would have been the more likely word coming out of the driver’s mouth. This would no doubt further offend those already offended by the finger action. But here’s my real suggestion: cut those two lines out altogether. They stop the action. Let her keep walking.

    How is she holding that phone with all those bags? And if Michael is not so fond of Scarlet, why is he still sharing his location with her?

  6. Rewriting, like scrubbing the basement floor with a toothbrush. I like that.

    I’ve been following Mr. Bell’s good advice and writing daily to a quota. I’m cranking out a daily minimum and I have shelves now covered with stories. About twenty five shorts and a novel.

    All of them are first drafts. I’ve pulled some of my favorites out of the stacks and made first attempts to clean them up, following the advice of many good writers and teachers. It just does not go well. It eats the time I could use for hitting my quota. And all that “kill your darlings” advice sounds cute and pragmatic, until they are MY darlings. It’s tough.

    Not sure why I’m posting this. It sounds like I’m complaining. I guess I get why so many see rewriting as a chore.

    • Ha! Boy, are we different sides of the coin. You hate to rewrite and want to move forward. I dread the daily quota thing and love to rewrite. We all have different quirks and paths. Onward!

  7. Again, for what it’s worth since I rarely comment here, yes, the rewrite is much improved. We now see better POV delineation, a closer peek into who Scarlet is, and leaves me curious, wondering where our brave author is taking us. I think I’d like to read more.

  8. One of the first things I noticed was something no one else mentioned. That was the change of the man’s name. In the first version, she called him Guy and he became Michael in the rewrite. I didn’t like the middle finger gesture either. Maybe this was used to show her coarseness from being in prison but it didn’t make her very likable. The second version was better but I think it could be even better.

    • If I recall from the original post a month ago, one of our commentors here didn’t like the name Guy…might have been because it could be confused with generic “guy”? Hey, I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone back in rewrites and changed a name. The trick is to find all the old names and get the changed so you don’t have a mistake in the final draft.

  9. Thanks for sharing your work with us again, brave writer. I agree with Kris. The revised edition is a step in the right direction. I’m inclined to agree with JSB’s comments, particularly about this wonderful line:

    “The lady will have an extra hot Americano with a half-pump of hazelnut and a pitcher of cream on the side.”

    (I eliminated the please at the end of the line and the hyphen between extra and hot, but I love the line.)

    I don’t like the “middle finger” bit as a way of behavior for a lady in real life, but sometimes writers have to do things to show the reader (rather than tell) what kind of person a character is. Yes, some people with very rich parents exhibit vulgar behavior. The behavior would not make me want to hang out with the character in real life, but the contradiction does make the character infinitely more interesting in a story world.

    I’ll also pick a few nits.

    Repetition

    “The man froze in place for a moment and then looked up…”
    “He looked at her for a moment”

    Watch out for repeated phrases like “for a moment” that weaken writing.

    Too! Many! Exclamation! Points!

    Examples:

    “Watch it, lady!” A man yelled out the window at her.

    “Michael! Hi!”

    “How are you? It’s been forever!”

    “Well! Vacation’s over.”

    Be careful. Too many exclamation points on a page will get an agent’s attention, and not in a good way.

    POV Quibble

    “She was grinning. He was not.”

    Characters normally don’t think about the expressions on their own faces. Also, the “he was not” is unnecessary. Better to show rather than tell. So, instead of saying that she was grinning, try something like:

    This was like the time she beat him at strip poker, only better.

    I’m not suggesting you use this exact line. Just something I came up with on the fly to demonstrate showing the character being smug rather than coming out and saying she was grinning.

    Overwriting

    Look for places to eliminate words. For example:

    “Watch it, lady!” A man yelled out the window at her.

    Get rid of the “at her” here.

    She held up her middle finger at him as she stepped onto the sidewalk.

    Get rid of the “at him” here.

    “How are you? It’s been forever!” She was breathless. She down sat at the table with him, dropping her shopping bags on the ground beside her.

    Tighten this up. Maybe something like this:

    “It’s been too long.” Breathless, she sat down and dropped her shopping bags.

    (Readers know the bags are being dropped on the ground. Where else would they drop? Readers can also assume that she sat down at the table with him. Readers can also assume she kept her bags beside her.) Always looks for little words that you don’t need.

    Why We Need Editors

    “She down sat at the table with him”

    Can you spot the error here? Hint: words are reversed.

    Advanced Phrasing

    “She saw Michael sitting at a cafe table, talking on his phone and flipping through a notebook.”

    The word “she” adds distance. Instead try writing it like this:

    Seated at a cafe table, Michael flipped through a notebook while chatting on the phone.

    Whenever you can eliminate the word “she” from your writing, do so. It will make your writing more powerful.

    Opening Paragraph

    Marvelous! My exclamation point is warranted here. Your first paragraph made me want to read more. One tiny thing. Since you’re telling a story in the past tense, rather than use the word tomorrow, I would use “the next day.”

    Wow, though. This page has improved so much. For the next pass, see if you can use the word “was” a little less. Keep writing, brave writer!

    • Good points all. Especially your comment about the exclamation mark. It should be used only with the greatest care. Sort of like curry.

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