Key Ways to Lure Readers with an Opening – First Page Critique: Follow the Raptor

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

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My last TKZ first page critique for 2019. I want to thank all the brave authors who have submitted their novel introductions to share with our TKZ community. Although it’s never easy to hear criticism, no matter who you are, we grow as authors by taking risks. Kudos to all the courageous writers we have at TKZ–those who submit their work and those who offer constructive criticism. Thank you all.

***

From the airport, I drove north in a rental car toward Ketchum, and turned onto a small paved road that ended at an estate owned by a man who had offered to pay me handsomely for an assignment he wouldn’t describe over the phone. I announced myself to the intercom and the gates swung onto a flat curve of driveway. A big-guy checker piece in black answered the doorbell. He mumbled into an earpiece and jotted in a small notebook, a juxtaposition of the new and old. I noticed this because Tireia would notice, and lovers learn such habits from one another.

The big guy identified himself as Jonathan. He led me down a wide hall peopled by brass effigies and through double doors into the presence of a massive sandstone fireplace that loomed over curved and plush seating. The room was filled with paintings and statuary, rainforest plants, and stacks of oversized books on tables that looked as if they were laser-hewn from petrified wood. The drapes were open on floor-to-ceiling windows, displaying a lawn that flowed to sage-strewn foothills on this high-desert side of the road to Sun Valley.

Jonathan left and I wandered over to a Gainsborough-like portrait of a woman in a pleated gown that covered her feet. It was better than the other one on the same wall, of a high-breasted brunette in a print blouse, who sat in a thin chair and stared out of the 1940s at the viewer. She was familiar, and not being able to place her irritated me. The signature in the corner read, “Katherine March.”

Soft footsteps signaled the appearance of my trim and compact host. He sported a velvet smoking jacket and suede slippers, which made me grin.

“I’m Cassim Geyer,” he said.

“Reese Sapere.”

We shook hands.

“I assume you’ll be flying your plane home, Mr. Sapere, so I won’t offer liquor. Will tea do?”

“Tea? Yeah, OK.”

He went to the fireplace and pulled a bell cord, which delighted me only slightly less than the lovely young woman who soon appeared, in a short black skirt over a white blouse. Cassim requested the tea and sat down across from me. He flicked a bit of nothing from his slacks, looked up, and caught me regarding him.

“Tradition has its upside,” he said, “if you take it with a dollop of nonconformity.”

***

FEEDBACK

SETTING FOCUS IN INTRODUCTION – This introduction sticks with the action of what is happening. No real backstory. That’s a plus, but when the tedious description of the setting overtakes the narrative, the pace slows down to a crawl. The author hasn’t given me enough reason to care about the setting. I really don’t know where Ketchum is – in Oklahoma or Idaho? If the character had more of a colorful opinion, I might see the reason for the description-to showcase and give insight into the character.

A reader isn’t as much after the details of a setting, but more about atmosphere and mood.

Here is an example of a more effective intro that paints a picture of setting, but it also reflects on the character and a darker mystery.

EXCERPT

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred introduces her room with details that not only grab us but hint at something dark:

A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.

If the action in this submission were better matched with the setting details, the main character might be more integral to the setting with hints of emotion or something more at stake. As it reads now, the setting descriptions are just an inventory of room furnishings. Below is a good example of how the author uses plain setting descriptions to stir feelings of foreboding in the reader and give insight into the female lead.

EXCERPT

Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion turns a simple setting into something ominous when the character realizes someone has violated her home and been inside. Can’t we all relate to being shaken at the possibility of a home invasion? This short description, that incorporates the details of a setting, gives insight into the woman living alone and the emotion she must be feeling.

Reaching for the bedside lamp, she stopped and withdrew her hand. The photograph of her father had been turned out to face the room. She touched it every night before she went to sleep. It was always facing towards her, towards the bed, not away from it. … In the darkness, what had felt safe before now felt frightening: the way the dressing-table mirror reflected the street-light through the curtains and the sight of the wardrobe door left slightly ajar.

 

MYSTERY – There are elements of mystery to this intro. Below are four I noticed, but not all of them are presented well.

Good Mystery Elements

1.) The character is paid handsomely for an undisclosed assignment. Why? This is a good mystery to drop at the start. Make the reader wonder what this guy does for a living. Good guy or bad.

2.) Who is Katherine March and why is she familiar to him? This is a good mystery. It’s intriguing and it has the potential for foreshadowing something to come. I like it.

Not so Good…

3.) What gender is the central character (male of female)? I have to wait until nearly the end of the dialogue where he’s called Mr. Sapere. Even the first name of Reese can be female. It’s not good to keep a reader guessing about gender, but this can be an easy fix if the author would introduce gender earlier.

4.) Who is Tireia? From the line – “I noticed this because Tireia would notice, and lovers learn such habits from one another.” There’s no attempt at an explanation, but why bring it up? This reads like a series with characters the reader should know. This kind of mystery will have the reader scratching their head and wondering why. I would find another way to bring this up later, but it’s not necessary in this intro. It’s only confusing.

LOCATION – I mentioned this earlier, but the reference to Ketchum could be in Idaho or Oklahoma or anywhere. A simple tag line would clear this up. Or the author could make a choice to make the setting clear from the start and make it memorable in short order, as in the excerpt below.

EXCERPT

Gabriel García Márquez, opening One Hundred Years of Solitude, introduces his village like this:

Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.

FIRST SENTENCE LENGTH – The first sentence is too long with too many unrelated details, that they get lost in the length. My instincts would be to make the character more colorful with a more memorable voice. Give him an opinion of his surroundings that reflect on him, as a protagonist. Make him more wary of who this new client is and why is the man so secretive about the assignment. The first sentence (below) is tedious, forgettable, and the last part of the mystery assignment almost gets lost at the tail end.

From the airport, I drove north in a rental car toward Ketchum, and turned onto a small paved road that ended at an estate owned by a man who had offered to pay me handsomely for an assignment he wouldn’t describe over the phone.

Also, in this submission, we learn at the very end of the 400 words (in the dialogue) that the protagonist is a pilot and must have rented a car from the airport. It’s seems odd that we have to wait until the end dialogue to discover that Sapere is a pilot. It’s a bit confusing that the new client knows more about Sapere than the reader does, after being in Sapere’s head.

MAKE DIALOGUE COUNT – For the first lines of dialogue, they are very anti-climactic and chit-chatty.

WHERE IS THE ANTICIPATION? – I would’ve liked to see the author have a build up of anticipation where the protagonist is curious about the man who wants to pay him handsomely yet couldn’t talk about the assignment over the phone. This is how you build on the mystery, when the protagonist is drawn in himself and searches for clues.

It’s obvious the man he came to see is someone he doesn’t know. I would think he would screen his jobs better. Wouldn’t he be more wary? Wouldn’t his mind be searching the grounds for hints of the assignment or who this man is?

SUMMARY – This author shows talent. There’s a good crime fiction start here, but this reads like a first draft. With some feedback and filling out of details to create more mystery and a sense of anticipation, this introduction could be more effective.

FOR DISCUSSION:

Please share your constructive criticism with this writer and with your TKZ family. We all have an opportunity to learn.

 

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

16 thoughts on “Key Ways to Lure Readers with an Opening – First Page Critique: Follow the Raptor

  1. Your comment “A reader isn’t as much after the details of a setting, but more about atmosphere and mood” will stick with me. It’s a brilliant way to approach description for every author to think about.

    • Thank you, Barbara. I love a good setting to fill out the bones of a first draft. It’s not just about taking inventory. The most memorable passages are deliberate, selective & instill a mood to stir a visceral reaction in the reader. An effective setting can become a microscope into the mind & heart of the protagonist or it can come alive in the reader’s mind to become its own character.

      Thanks for your comment, Barbara. Merry Christmas.

  2. Just a couple of observations:

    I agree with the critique. I got lost in this house the author described. Too many details. I found myself hoping for a dead body, or a man with a gun, or even a pair of eyes watching Mr. Sapere from behind a grate. The description of Jonathan as a “big-guy checker piece in black” had me scratching my head. And “in a short black skirt over a white blouse”. I think we wear our blouses on top and our skirts on the bottom.

    The last line: “Tradition has its upside,” he said, “if you take it with a dollop of nonconformity.” Now this line gives me hope. I want to know how Mr. Geyer flouts the norm.

    Thanks for letting me give my two cents. I learn so much here. And Merry Christmas to you, Jordan, and all y’all!

    • I’m really glad you brought up those lines, Deb. I noticed them too & did the head scratching thing. No amount of re-reading helped. Very observant of you.

      Thanks, Deb. Have a fun holiday season.

  3. Excellent critique, Jordan. This excerpt felt like the brave author was trying to channel Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep with the grand estate and eccentric owner who wants to hire Sapere.

    When is the story happening? The costumes–velvet smoking jacket, maid’s uniform–make it sound 1940s or ’50s. Maybe a description of the plane he flew could offer a hint. A Stearman biplane, a Cessna, or a Learjet would all give different insights into Sapere as well as set the time period.

    I liked the unusual names Caseen Geyer and Reese Sapere but totally agree the author needs to reveal Sapere’s gender earlier, although I guessed male b/c of his descriptions of women.

    With some work, I would definitely keep reading.

    Merry Christmas, Jordan! Warm holiday wishes to the TKZ family!

    • Excellent observations, Debbie. I got that classic Raymond Chandler PI vibe too, especially with the time period suggestions.

      Merry Christmas, my fine friend.

  4. If it’s written well, I like a descriptive opening that’s essentially a beautiful word painting. For example, this lovely sentence was my favorite:

    He led me down a wide hall peopled by brass effigies and through double doors into the presence of a massive sandstone fireplace that loomed over curved and plush seating.

    However, even a beautiful word painting could use some tension. The setting is so thick with money, but it doesn’t faze the protagonist. (I’d be worried I was underdressed or tracking dirt on the marble floor or whatever.) The meeting is remote and mysterious, but the protagonist doesn’t fiddle with a gun hiding in his waistband. He doesn’t even have his antennae up, looking for a trap.

    I think the excellent examples Jordan came up with show descriptions that have tension, too, with sentences about a place to hang oneself and the wardrobe left ajar as if someone is hiding in the wardrobe.

    Overall, I like this opening, but I want some punch to make me as a reader nervous for the protagonist.

    Thank you, Brave Author, for letting us take a peek at your first page. Good luck on your continued writing journey!

    • Excellent, Priscilla. I especially loved your take on the protag’s feelings about being in such luxury. Only the author knows whether Saphere feels comfortable in the posh setting or not, but more insight into Saphere (& tension/anticipation) would make this more interesting. Thank you, Priscilla.

  5. I agree with Jordon’s evaluation. I also love giving examples of good work. One of the best selling horror novels of this year is THE LOST CAUSES OF BLEAK CREEK. It starts with this:
    The boy raced through the woods. Blood streaming from his hand.
    He was growing faint.
    Short sentences, story question, tension, and engagement, all in fourteen words. Great stuff. I hope it helps our author as she/he thinks about a rewrite.

    • Great example, Brian. Yes, the shorter sentences add tension to a suspenseful passage. The reader often doesn’t realize their heart is racing as they turn the pages into the night. Mix up the sentence lengths for good cadence, but in action sequences, I like to shorten the sentences, the paragraphs and the chapter lengths.

      Thanks for the words of encouragement for our author, Brian. Merry Christmas.

  6. The undefined assignment is a great way to open. Right away, the reader has a big question–and that’s a good hook.
    I’d respectfully suggest the author refer to why he took an undefined assignment. Because the client had a reputation of ______?
    ” ” ” was a famous ______?
    I’d also suggest the author limit setting descriptions to things that reflect the client’s power? His money? The unusual amount of security equipment in the client’s house?

  7. I liked this a lot.

    The first sentence is long, but it is a perfectly good sentence. The length adds to the feeling of the journey it took the character to get there. That feeling would be completely lost if the sentence was broken into 2 or 3 sentences.

    I think it is important to remember whose head we are in when critiquing. At this point the reader may not know why he is there, but Reese knows. He may not know the specifics, but Reese knows the voice i
    on the phone wants to hire him to do what Reese does.

    What’s wrong with a little description? He is standing alone in a room – waiting. Shouldn’t he look around, make some observations. If this author had simply said he entered a room and waited five minutes until the host came in the critiques would be what did the room look like, give us some description.

    I don’t think the description slows down the story, while completely unnecessary details would. Besides Ketchums (or whatever natives call themselves) who cares where Ketchum is at this point. This is the first 400 words. Does it make any difference to the story at this point if we are in Idaho, Oregon or north of Ho Chi Minh City?

    Is it really unfair to compare Reese’s observations to those in The Handmaiden’s Tale. Here is a man obviously doing what he does, meeting strangers to discuss some job within his field in a lovely posh home. In The Handmaiden’s Tale it is the observations of a woman condemned to a life of servitude making babies for someone else. Is it any wonder that what they observe and how they feel would be conveyed to the reader so differently? Whether Reese is an assassin, a fixer, into kidnapping and recovery (as either a kidnapper or recoverer) this scenario is most likely familiar to him or he wouldn’t be there, he was invited, the guy at the front door gave his name, how nervous, uncomfortable or on alert would he be? In my mind, not very. This comparison isn’t apples and oranges – it’s apples and the tow truck upside down in a ditch on fire.

    Just finding out what Reese does for a living would be enough to get me to turn the page. Great job.

  8. Oops, one more thing, gender –

    When and how should the author have told us Reese’s gender before they did? It’s the character’s point of view in first person. ‘I headed north …’ and ‘I wandered over …’. In this perspective how would gender come up? He certainly wouldn’t say ‘As a man I headed north …’ or ‘in a manly stroll I wandered …’
    You need a 3rd person to observe gender, in this case verbally, which is what the author has done.

  9. “He sported a velvet smoking jacket and suede slippers, which made me grin.”
    More of this please! For me, first person narratives are all about voice/character, but most of this entry is simply descriptive and missing Reese’s point of view.

    Rather than writing a laundry list of what Reese observes, write his OPINION about what he’s seeing. That will make him memorable.

    • Absolutely, Sue. Inventory lists rarely stick & readers tend to skim after they realize the author hasn’t included many character flourishes. Character voice shouldn’t be reserved for dialogue alone. The deep POV of the character should fill the pages.

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