First Page Critique: A Storm Is
Coming Or Is It A Space Ship?

By PJ Parrish

Well, I’m not sure exactly where we are today with today’s submission, but I will say I liked reading this one.  Which is why I’m going to be kinda tough on you, brave writer. Thanks for submitting your work.

(1)The Arrival

When the sun finally came up, Billy Watson was still sitting in the rusted out car, half asleep and shaking. The wind started to pick up and small bits of sand blew through the open windows, some of it getting into his mouth and eyes. A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance behind him. He tensed and turned his head, looking to the sky for more ships but not seeing any.

Catherine Belling sat next to him in the front seat, asleep. He touched her shoulder and shook it, feeling the smoothness of her silk blouse which was now in tatters. She jumped at his touch and sat straight up and looked around. “Catherine,” he whispered. “We’ve got to get out of here. We must keep moving.”

She reached to her right side and pulled a knife out of a leather sheath. It was a medium length hunting knife with a thick blade. She squeezed it, making her knuckles white. She started to speak but had trouble. She moistened her lips and said, “We can leave anytime. Where’s Ruben?”

“Don’t you remember? He wandered off last night and hasn’t come back yet. But we can’t wait around. The sounds are getting closer. Maybe we’ll find him somewhere in the desert.” He started to turn his arms and move his body. Every muscle ached.

Catherine put her knife away and pushed on the passenger door, which was cracked open. It squeaked and resisted and she had to use her leg to push it the rest of the way open.

They both staggered to the front of the car and looked around at the sky. To the north, from where they had come, they could see dark clouds and flashes of orange light and hear booms. To the west and east the skies were blue with a few clouds. To the south there were less clouds and what looked like clear, sunny skies. That’s where they headed.

____________________

I liked this opening. We are getting into the scene in mid-action, even though the two characters are just awakening. I don’t mind that, because they have obviously, from the description, been through something bad.  I like the unanswered questions of this opening — what happened last night? Why are they in such bad shape? (his injuries, her tattered silk blouse — and the little detail that it is silk is intriguing in itself given their barren surroundings.) What happened to Ruben? Are these two good guys or bad guys? This makes me want to read on.

Here’s what the writer didn’t do that also makes this work for me:  The guy wakes up and we don’t get a bunch of thoughts, musings, rememberings and god forbid, backstory.  The writer immediately gets us into some action. I trust the writer will explain as this chapter progresses what happened and how Billy Watson feels about it.

I don’t yet know exactly where we are, but I get the feeling of desolation. I also trust the writer will soon pinpoint the location. I get the sense that we are in some sort of apocalyptic time, possibly in future, since Watson looks to the sky to see if “ships” are there. I tripped over this sentence in my first quick read, thinking what the heck are ships doing in a desert? But then I got it.  While I like the spareness of the writing, I could use a few other descriptive details to ground me in where we are and what time era. All I can see in my reader’s imagination is sand, a storm-imminent dawn sky, and a rusted car.  One or two more choice details might go a long way here to upping the tension and intrigue.  Give me some hints!

One suggestion: Right now, we are getting the point of view mainly through Billy but with a semi-drift into Catherine.  I think it might be stronger we stayed firmly with Billy. A reader wants to connect with a main character as quickly as possible, and although Catherine may turn out to be just as important, it would help you establish rapport if you began more stronger with Billy.

Let’s go to some line editing so I can show you how.  And address a few minor quibbles.

When the sun finally came up, Billy Watson was still sitting in the rusted out car, half asleep and shaking. You are in omniscient POV here. This could be stronger if you can filter this moment only through Billy’s sensibility. It’s hard to make someone awakening FEEL real but if you can do it, it can be more powerful. Ask yourself, what is the first thing Billy is aware of?  A brightness that makes him squint (the sun coming up); the stiffness of his body? A smell? Make us feel this moment. The wind started to pick up and small bits of sand blew through the open windows, some of it getting into his mouth and eyes. Same issue here. This could be stronger! A sudden rush of cold-warm-hot? air on his face and the feel of grit in his eyes and mouth. A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance behind him. He tensed and turned his head, looking to the sky for more ships.  but not seeing any. He let out a long breath. No ships. It was just thunder. Make us feel his fear and/or trepidation more. But see my comments below about my confusion over what these “sounds” and “booms” are.

Catherine Belling sat next to him in the front seat, asleep. To make this feel more in Bily’s POV, I would not give her full name here.  He wouldn’t be thinking “Catherine Belling.”  Something like: He looked over at the woman slouched in the passenger seat. He touched her shoulder and shook it, feeling the smoothness of her silk blouse which was now in tatters. He shook her gently.

New graph is good when you move to a new character. She jumped at his touch and sat straight up and looked around. Give her a quick line or reaction. Is she scared-jumpy? I might even move up the whole bit with her knife. Also, action-reaction for your characters must be logical. If she is jumpy, her first reaction after someone touches her as she comes out of a fitful sleep might be to pull her knife. And Billy can calm her and then tell her they have to get moving.  That strikes me as more human. It also gives her a more logical reason to pull the knife.  

“Catherine,” he whispered. said. No need for whispers since it’s the two of them alone in a desert. “We’ve got to get out of here. We must keep moving.”

She reached to her right side and pulled a knife out of a leather sheath on her belt?. It was a medium length hunting knife with a thick blade. She squeezed the hunting knife, her knuckles turning white. She started to speak but had trouble and ran her tongue over her cracked lips. moistened her lips and said, “We can leave anytime.More details and more visceral.

Where’s Ruben?” she said.

“Don’t you remember? He wandered off last night and hasn’t come back yet. Obviously, he’s not back yet. This is a pretty dramatic point. Might she not react? Or say something?

But We can’t wait for him around,” he said. “The sounds are getting closer.” Confusion here. Above, you have him thinking the sounds are “just thunder.” Apparently the “sounds” concern him. Why? We need this clarified. Which doesn’t mean you have to spill all the beans but maybe somewhere in this brief scene he hears another sound that he KNOWS is not just thunder and that elicits this remark. Otherwise it makes no sense. Maybe we’ll find him somewhere in the desert.”

I would have Catherine put her knife away here, not later. Make this gesture mean something. Is she discouraged? Resigned? Frightened for Ruben? Maybe Billy thinks about her having the knife. The contrast between silk blouse and hunting knife is delicious. Make it work! Make every line of dialogue and every gesture AMPLIFY and ENHANCE your plot and mood.

He started to turn his arms and move his body. Every muscle ached. What did he start to do exactly? Be specific. How about if he tries to open his door and can’t. Make it mean something to what you’re setting up here. Have it relate to their dire situation. What happened last night to make him so sore he can’t move?  And the phrase “every muscle ached” is meh writing. You can do better. Make us FEEL something of this man’s pain — physical and psychological. 

Catherine put her knife away and pushed on the passenger door, which was cracked open. It squeaked and resisted and she had to use her leg to push it the rest of the way open. I’d have her come around and yank his door open. And make it mean something. Is Billy wounded? It gives her a chance to develop some personality.  Maybe you can even have Billy think something about here, which also gives you a chance to drop in her full name.  ie:  Billy flashed back to two nights ago, at the party. When Catherine Belling walked in a room, she always got stares. But that night, dressed in that white silk blouse and red pants, even he couldn’t look away.  That’s corny, but you see where I am trying to go with it?  An effective tool in fiction is compare and contrast.  If you can drop hints at what it was like BEFORE this moment (why do you have Catherine in silk otherwise?) then it can be an effective contrast to the arid and dire position they are in now.  Don’t dwell in backstory, but a brief well-rendered thought can be powerful.  It can also hint at the relationship between these two.

They both staggered to the front of the car and looked around at the sky. To the north, from where they had come, they Billy could see dark clouds and flashes of orange light you’re a good writer so this can be better and hear booms. Again, this “booms” is meaningless. Billy probably knows exactly what this is, since he knows about “the ships.” I think you’re being a little to obtuse here. A few choice details about what they have escaped from will go along way toward heightening your tension. To the west and east the skies were blue with a few clouds. To the south the sky was a blinding blue. there were less clouds and what looked like clear, sunny skies.

That’s where they headed.  I might put this in dialogue for Billy. But see caveat below.

Your description of the sky is a metaphor. Therefore, I would stay with north and south in that reference above because it’s clean and simple and is symbolic of the past (dark clouds, orange light and booms) and the future (blue skies.)  But be aware that clouds (bad past) and blue skies (good future) is a cliche. As the old saying goes, if you’re gonna use weather, make it mean something. Remember the end of “The Terminator” when Linda Hamilton is sitting in the jeep at the desert gas station and she looks ahead to the roiling storm clouds . A kid tells her in Spanish that a storm is coming. She says, with a heavy dollop of James Cameron portention, “I know.”  The weather must stand for something.   

So, all and all, a pretty good beginning. Which is why I’m being a little tough with you, dear writer, and asking you to stretch even harder. As I said, every line of dialogue, every action, every word of description you choose, must have a reason for being there.  Make every line you write more “muscular.” Make it work harder. You can do it. The story is worth it.

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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

11 thoughts on “First Page Critique: A Storm Is
Coming Or Is It A Space Ship?

  1. I like this.

    I would add feeling, though. Who is Catherine to Billy – old love? current love? random semi-stranger? How does Billy feel looking at her – love? annoyance? I think there’s an opportunity to build tension here, especially if Rupert (who I suspect is toast) turns out to be who she left Billy for.

    How many men can correctly identify a silk blouse? That sounds like more of a girl thing.

    As for the car doors – if they’re so difficult to open, how did they get inside in the first place?

    I would read this.

    • Good points all, Cynthia. Your observation about emotion is the quibble I have with this. Yes, I like the spareness of it, but a tad more emotion or hints at the emotional undercurrents at work here would add much, imo.

      As for silk blouse…point taken. But my husband can now identify a silk blouse. Ever since he threw mine in the washing machine. 🙂

  2. PJ, I wanted to say THANK YOU! for the clip addition of Sarah Connor from Terminator.
    * Huge grin over here *
    Perfect mood setter for this submission! (As well as near & dear to my heart, being a diehard fan of Linda Hamilton.)

    Great advice to this brave Anon, too.
    They got a lot right with the opening. Utilizing your suggestion of focusing down on narration will really help.
    Now they need to Amplify & Enhance. I love that bit of advice in particular. We talk so much about “polishing” a manuscript, but it’s really more of the above, isn’t it?

    Good advice about Catherine’s reactions: how she jumps; her use of her knife. And on Billy’s reactions to the sounds he seems to recognize.
    When writing post-apocalyptic, it’s important to keep in mind a character’s current mindset in relation to their past experience . They’ll be scared, which means they’ll be jumpy and over-reactive, but (the average person) will not be particularly tactically-minded. (Like Catherine sheathing her knife while sleeping.)
    Meaning: even if they’re not quite as naive as Sarah Connor in the first Terminator, they won’t be Terminator Two-grade Sarah Connor, either! (A little apocalyptic humour; I couldn’t resist.)

    I offer that only as something to keep on the mental back burner as you go, Anon.
    I personally love post-apocalyptic fiction so I read a lot of it. The worst gaffe I see regularly is unrealistic characterization. Characters survive really stupid blunders, or they exhibit unrealistic abilities.
    There’s suspense of disbelief of course (this is why we love fiction, after all, right?), but if a character is going to do something tactically stupid (like having an open fire in unknown territory, as in Terminator Salvation), make it a pivotal story moment. Hiding in the car was a great decision, as is Billy’s urgency to keep moving. Sounds like Ruben’s decision to wander off will be one of those pivotal moments!
    Best of luck in your writing!

    • I, too, love end of the world stories. And you make a good point about the human-ness of reaction in such a scenario. If Billy and Catherine are soldiers or some sort of conflict-hardened pros, their reactions here would be calmer, more measured. HOWEVER, if they are average Joes caught in an extraordinary situation (a la Sarah Conner or say, Chief Brody in Jaws) their character arc would be completely different. The latter scenario (average Joe caught in whirlwind which takes them out of their element) is a good time-tested trope. The writer needs to take this into account every time she/he writes a line of dialogue or an action.

  3. The Terminator clip was perfect. That was where I was drawn about a third of the way down the opening page. Therein is also a downfall. Overall it has a nice, tight style that has me wanting to turn the page. BUT, it has been done before. Sarah Conner being the archetype. Still, I think you could work from it.

    PJ’s notes make a good story better. Read through them.

    A few observations: “medium length hunting knife with a thick blade” is really just a knife. Her knife, a Buck knife, her survivor knife would all work better.

    Does the silk blouse really matter? If they are together, he would probably know it is silk. If they escaped from a fancy party and met running down the steps, it might be silk. Her green or ivory blouse might work better.

    Overall, I would turn the page and see where they are going and who is in the ships.

  4. I wrote “The Arrival” opening, and I want to thank all the writers who responded to it, especially PJ Parrish. I feel I have made fairly good progress since striking out with my first two submissions (Joe Blatz on 5/8/18 and Musical Hairs on 11/7/18). There is still a long way to go, but I’m up for the journey.

    I’ve read a lot of writing craft books (Swain, Bell, Sokoloff, etc.) as well as many writing craft blogs (especially TKZ), but what specifically seemed to help me with “The Arrival” were books by Dean Wesley Smith (“Writing Into The Dark”) and Harvey Stanbrough (“Quiet The Critical Voice And Write Fiction”). I just opened my dictation software, took a deep breath, and the character, setting, and situation came to me. I had no idea where it was going, but I felt “there” and just tried to keep up.

    Again, thanks to everyone here for taking time to respond. The comment that stands out the most to me – besides “I would read this” 😉 – is the one about adding feeling. That was a “duh moment” for me. Of course, add feeling. I am thankful for all the other comments and will copy/paste them for additional study.

    Bless you all. 🙂

    • Wow, thanks for coming forward Bob. We don’t always know if our comments have helped or not, so your willingness to own up is appreciated. I think you’re onto something good here. The comments about adding emotion is common because when you are just starting the long journey on a novel, sometimes you don’t really “know” your characters yet…they haven’t exposed themselves emotionally to you so it can be hard to detail their emotions in the early going. Don’t get too hung up on this. It happened to me with every book I wrote — some characters (just like real humans) are slow to reveal themselves to you. Just be aware of it and tackle it head on in rewrites. You might find, when you get to say, Chapter 6, Billy “tells” you something that will make you want to go back and amplify a moment in chapter 1. James and others here have given good advice on how to plumb your characters’ psyches and motivations, but sometimes, the characters just don’t flesh out until you are deeper into the plot. Trust the process that you can go back and enhance.

  5. Kris,
    Excellent critique.

    Anon, I like this first chapter. Take Kristy’s critique to heart. She makes very valid points. She also critiqued my first chapter. She was spot on with her remarks. I went back and revised my first chapter. It went through about eight revisions until I felt I got it right. When I compare the first chapter I submitted to the revised version, based on Kristy’s recommendations, it reads so much better.

    You have created enough intrigue for me to keep reading.

    Good Luck with your writing!

    • Only eight revisions? 🙂 My agent made us rewrite our first novel 10 times — the whole thing — before she submitted it. And it got 11 rejections until one editor bought it. And before that, the first novel I sent to her, well, she told me to throw it away and try again. She was right.

  6. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer, and thanks also to Kris–the visual of the scene from The Terminator was a great addition to the comments. I’m late to the party, but here are my notes:

    Title

    Instead of The Arrival, consider shortening it to Arrival.

    First Line

    The first line is meant to show off your writer chops, and this line didn’t do it for me:

    “When the sun finally came up, Billy Watson was still sitting in the rusted out car, half asleep and shaking.”

    The most interesting thing you mention in your first paragraph is the part about the ships in the sky. Why in the heck isn’t that part in your opening line? That would almost guarantee that your reader will get to the next line. Get that ship in the first sentence somehow!

    Genre

    The genre and the tone of the story is clear. Excellent.

    Repetition

    Consider revising the items listed below:

    You begin four sentences with the word she in your fourth paragraph.

    You use the phrase looked around twice on the first page.

    You use “started to” at least twice on the page. (Be careful about having characters “start” to do things.)

    Starting in the Best Place

    You write:

    “Don’t you remember? He wandered off last night and hasn’t come back yet. But we can’t wait around. The sounds are getting closer. Maybe we’ll find him somewhere in the desert.” He started to turn his arms and move his body. Every muscle ached.

    Rather than recapping (thru dialogue) something that has already happened, why not start at the time the exciting stuff begins rather than the morning after?

    Remember, you want to choose the best place to begin your story. Now, I don’t know your premise, but from reading this snippet, I don’t see any “story benefit” to beginning the story on the morning after. I want to see and feel all the interesting stuff that happened along with the protagonist, not hear about it in dialogue that takes place the day after. So many writers fear writing action scenes that I often see “aftermath” scenes in openings. Don’t be afraid to start right in the midst of the major action. What you wrote was good, but I think you can make your opening even more powerful.

    Overwriting

    Look to eliminate unnecessary words and consolidate where you can.

    Example:

    “She reached to her right side and pulled a knife out of a leather sheath. It was a medium length hunting knife with a thick blade.”

    Use one sentence, like this:

    She pulled a medium-length hunting knife with a thick blade from a leather sheath.

    (Is it necessary to tell the reader that she reached to her right side? I suspect not. Try not to describe every micro action.)

    Introducing Your Protagonist

    Cynthia wrote: “I would add feeling, though.”

    I think what’s missing is that the reader is not completely connecting with the protagonist. This is one of the biggest problems with the openings that I read here (and in many other critique settings). So, how do you get the reader to connect with your protagonist? Readers don’t pick up books because they want to think. They pick up books because they want to feel. Why is it that there are some movies that people watch again and again, even though they know how those movies will end? It’s because they are feeling something. It’s the emotional journey. Putting your character in jeopardy, as you did on your first page, is one good way to get readers to care, but you need to do even more. You want your reader to live through your character for the duration of the story. In order to do that, readers need to relate to the character in some way. How does your character feel about Catherine? He notices the silk blouse, but perhaps dig a little deeper to show some sort of emotional connection here. You also want to make your readers’ pulses pound as they worry about the protagonist. When you do your revisions, try to think of ways to make your reader experience what your protagonist is feeling.

    Setting

    Challenge: I want more setting details but in fewer sentences.

    Overall

    Best of luck, and keep writing! I want to see your next draft.

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