First Page Critique

By Elaine Viets

Here’s another first page by a Brave Author. Read it, and then let’s discuss it.

Absence of Truth

The letters on the envelope spelled out her name, Vanessa Barella but, they were neither written in ink nor typed. They were cuttings from a newspaper.
The envelope had no mailing address or return address. Not even a stamp, but somehow it had made its way inside Vanessa’s locked mailbox.
She unlocked her front door and placed her mail on the kitchen counter, then slipped off her high-heeled shoes. She threw her jacket over her grandmother’s chair that she didn’t have the heart to throw out. She poured herself a glass of wine and raised it to her lips while keeping her eyes fixated on the mysterious envelope. She broke the seal then removed the letter from inside.
‘I AM A GHOST AND I AM GOING TO KILL YOU’
The letter and envelope fell to the floor when Vanessa reached for the edge of the counter, to stop herself from falling. The rough grout cut into her skin as she held on tight. Vanessa gulped several breaths to slow down her breathing. When the blood restored to her brain and her vision cleared, she picked up the letter and envelope off her tiled floor and then removed her phone and wallet from her handbag. There was a business card in the pocket of her purse, and she dialed the number.
She brought the glass of wine to her lips. The line went quiet after the second ring. Wine dribbled out of her mouth and onto her silk blouse. Shit!
“Hello…, Mr. Cooper, it’s Vanessa Barella. I’m not sure if you remember me? I’m one of the legal assistants over at Anderson & Smith.” There was no response. “It’s a criminal law firm here in San Francisco. You do some private investigating for our firm,” she said. There was still silence. “Mr. Cooper, are you there?” Vanessa was about to hang up the phone when she heard Mr. Cooper’s voice.
“Sorry about that, had to find a quiet place to talk.”
“Mr. Cooper, I’m not calling you about a legal matter. It’s more of a personal one. I need your help.”
“I didn’t catch the name?”
“It’s Vanessa Barella. We’ve met a few times in the conference room. But we’ve mostly spoken over the phone.”

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This entry has possibilities, Brave Author, but it needs work.
There are minor typos, but having a misplaced comma in the first line is not a good idea. The errant comma should go after Barella. There’s a dropped “was” in this line: “When the blood (sic) restored to her brain . . .” You don’t need quotes around the ghost’s message. It’s in all caps.
Now, the opening: It’s not good and it’s not bad. It’s meh. And meh doesn’t sell books.
Here’s an example of a gripping opening, by John D. MacDonald:
“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.”
Richard Stark opened Firebreak with: “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”
Hillary Davidson started The Damage Done this way: “It was the bright yellow tape that finally convinced me my sister was dead.”
Here are more first lines: https://www.crimethrillerhound.co.uk/first-lines
I know you can do better, Brave Author. You’ve dreamed up a fascinating scenario. You have the ultimate dead letter here – a ghost is threatening to kill Vanessa. Use it!

The second major problem is Vanessa’s phone call. You’re trying to deliver information about Vanessa, and it’s a good ploy. But don’t forget how Vanessa is feeling. After all, she just got a death threat. She spilled wine on her blouse. She’s frightened to death. Make her that way. How about a version of this:
“Mr. Cooper, it’s Vanessa Barella. I’m one of the legal assistants over at Anderson & Smith.” Her voice shook. She was sick with fear. There was no response.
“You know, criminal law firm here in San Francisco. You do some private investigating for our firm.” Please, she thought, please answer. You’re my only hope.
There was still silence.
“Mr. Cooper, are you there?” Vanessa was about to hang up the phone when she heard [use Cooper’s first name] Cooper’s voice.
“Sorry about that, had to find a quiet place to talk.”
“Mr. Cooper, I’m not calling you about a legal matter. It’s more of a personal one. I need your help.”
“I didn’t catch the name.”
“It’s Vanessa Barella. We’ve mostly spoken over the phone.”

This critique is what’s known as a “praise sandwich”: criticism stuck between compliments. You’ve given us a good first draft, Brave Author. Now sit down and rework it. I want to read more about that murderous ghost.

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Get an autographed copy of A Star Is Dead, my fourth Angela Richman, death investigator mystery, and help an indie bookstore. Email Murder on the Beach Bookstore at murdermb@gate.net and I’ll donate $1 to Feeding South Florida (feedingsouthflorida.org) for every copy of A Star Is Dead sold at the Delray bookstore.

4+
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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

13 thoughts on “First Page Critique

  1. Good critique, Elaine. And I loved the first-line examples from a few of the masters. 🙂

    Liked the premise, BA. A ghost showing up and threatening murder and mayhem. And to a hapless legal assistant! Perfect. Here’s just a few things I noticed.

    The third paragraph contains the word “she” no less than five times. I’ve been dinged by that error several times by my editor (and the good folks at TKZ…). You could revise a bit and drop all but maybe one or two.

    “she picked up the letter and envelope off her tiled floor and then removed her phone and wallet from her handbag. There was a business card in the pocket of her purse, and she dialed the number.” IMHO, this needs tightening a bit. The tension is slowed by the detail. Maybe “She picked the letter up and grabbed her purse, searching for a business card. She dialed the number with shaky fingers.” Or something like that. (I’m sure the TKZ team can improve on my idea…)

    “There was still silence.” Either not needed at all, or revise to increase the tension. You’d already said, “There was no response” a few lines up. Maybe revise that to “No response” to get rid of the passive verb. Then, the second time, “She waited, hearing nothing but faint breathing and the click of a door latch.”

    Good job, BA, on creating an opening scene that begs me to read on. With some tweaking, this could be even better. Thank you very much for submitting it and for allowing me to throw out my suggestions.

  2. I re-read this after reading Elaine’s comments. I liked it better the second read through. The opening lines are a B- and need some work.

    I am not sold on the “clippings lettering” idea. It seems a little 1970’s cliche. On the other hand, maybe ghosts can’t use a pencil. It may work out later in the book.

    It is handy that the PI’s card is in her phone case. Her bag might be better. The bag could have been knocked over with the wine.

    Overall, not a bad beginning.

    • Good points, Alan P. I hope our Brave Author listens to them. Maybe she could get a text or email to modernize it — but aren’t those traceable?

  3. I’m going to sound like a terrible person here. I didn’t so much read it as skim it. Why? That misplaced comma in the first sentence. After that there wasn’t a sense of paragraph. Maybe something went wrong when it went from word processor to email to blog, but it just looks like a poorly spaced blob.

    Again, I realize that makes me look like a nit picking b, but I will bet money I’m not the only person who looked at it and thought the same. When I see that my immediate thought is that the writer is sloppy and/or just doesn’t care. This is a super easy fix.

  4. Brave Author, I love the idea of a ghost (either a spectre or a “ghost” from Vanessa’s past) sending Vanessa a death threat. This is my favorite line: “They were cuttings from a newspaper.” It immediately captured my attention and let me know something bad is happening to poor Vanessa.

    I thought Vanessa’s physical reaction was too strong. She’s a competent adult, but she almost passes out and has to clutch the counter . . . maybe just spilling her wine and having her voice shake on the phone is enough. The really big physical reactions can occur later during life-and-death encounters.

    As Deb mentioned, there are a lot of sentences that start with “she” in that second paragraph. I think if you read your first page out loud, you can hear for yourself how the “she”s stick out.

    I’m interested to know if Mr. Cooper will be a friend or foe. You’ve got my curiosity up. Best of luck, Brave Author, on your continued writing journey!

  5. “I am a ghost and I am going to kill you” is a terrific hook! Just the idea of a ghost using a technique normally used to prevent handwriting analysis is wonderfully goofy … and surprisingly menacing.

    I wondered, though, if the use of cut-out letters was period-correct or strangely anachronistic. After all, a ghost isn’t necessarily au courant and may be using techniques learned in 1920 to threaten someone in 2020. Or the story might be set in 1920. Can’t tell. So maybe the period needs to be nailed down right away.

  6. I, too, am intrigued by the ghost idea. Even if the antagonist is not an actual “ghost,” it’s a great hook.
    And I really liked the opening line.
    However, the rest felt clunky.
    (And I do apologize, Brave Anon, for that inevitable “however,” as I know critiques are difficult!)

    Words are indeed money for writers, but not the way people might think. Less is more. When dealing with reader attention and manuscript word-count, you must treat each word as if it were precious.
    My humble suggestion is to pare down for punch.

    For example, did we need to know at this early stage about her grandmother’s chair? Will it be pivotal later? If not, it needs to give ground for the all-important opening.

    I’d do some paring on the following scene-setting and action as well.
    “When the blood [sic] restored to her brain and her vision cleared, she picked up the letter and envelope off her tiled floor and then removed her phone and wallet from her handbag. There was a business card in the pocket of her purse, and she dialed the number.”
    I’m not certain we need to know the floor was tiled. I assumed from the “locked mailbox” that she lives in an apartment. We know she’s in her kitchen, comfortable enough to take off jacket and shoes and pour a glass of wine. All of that is secondary to how she’s dealing with the death threat in front of her.

    The action in the above paragraph seemed to be aimed at letting readers know Vanessa had the PI’s card in her purse. So again, save word count! Elaine and Deb gave good advice for this, too. Pare everything about picking up the letter and envelope, and then removing things from her bag. Give simplified action of her retrieving the card and move on to the more important call.

    Priscilla gave very good advice about Vanessa’s reaction. Save words and big reactions for the big moments.

    “There was still silence.”
    Avoid passive voice whenever possible. (was, had been, would be)
    This is not as immediately important as other issues discussed here, but it’s one I had to learn by hard knocks, and the bad habit is very hard to break! So I give warning in hopes of saving others.
    Try not to rely on cliché lines like, “Silence reigned.” but do give your action presence. Don’t relegate it to the “wasims,” as one of my friends likes to call passive voice.

    Carry on, Brave Anon! You have a great start!

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