First Page Critique: Manuel’s Revenge

Happy Monday! (even though it’s starting to feel like everyday is like Sunday…)
Today I have a first page critique which illustrates the challenges in grounding a reader right from the start. My comments, and recommendations follow.  I also look forward to getting you input for our brave submitter after this first page submission.
Manuel’s Revenge

They wouldn’t understand, especially the little ones.

“Daddy’s gone to heaven,” she would say. They would cry and grieve and she would find someone else.

When he opened the door, the apartment smelled of greasy chicken and diapers. Earlier in the evening he told her he’d be at Jerry’s Bar and Grill. Julie was furious, of course, so she and the kids had gone to visit her sister for a few days. He and his wife had exchanged harsh words, but Manuel felt relief. She and the kids wouldn’t be home. They wouldn’t see the carnage.

The scotch having fixed his resolve, Manuel made the call.

As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he crossed the frayed carpet, opened the closet door and removed a plank near the back wall. He hadn’t used the weapon in years, a nine millimeter Smith and Wesson that felt strangely familiar. From years on the streets he knew how to use the gun, but only killed when necessary, always in self defense, never for pleasure—unlike the monster who murdered his brother.

After prison, Manuel truly believed he could change, but his mind never stopped playing that endless loop. His brother’s face—the pleading, the tears, the anguish—would never disappear. Graven into his memory like etchings on a gravestone was the leering face of the thug who pulled the trigger.

Tonight that man would die, and Manuel would die with him.

Replacing the plank, Manuel eased along the wall to observe the rendezvous point from his perch three stories up. On the street below, his brother’s killer would step into the alley expecting an easy exchange. Bills for baggies. No problem.

But when Manuel looked down on the scene, his fists tightened around the pistol. Cops were erecting a barrier and a tarp-covered body lay in the middle of the alley.

A crime scene.

Two uniforms conversed under a streetlight. The lights of a patrol vehicle rotated across the dark bricks of nearby tenements.  In the shadows something moved, something barely perceptible. Even from this distance, the thick man in the sideways baseball cap shifted easily from light to darkness, watching.

Then into the shadows the thug disappeared. The meeting would be aborted. The man who killed his brother would flee. Then, as it had so many nights before, Manuel’s cowardice would seize his thoughts and haunt another sleepless night.

Main Comments

This first page had some good things going for it, right from the get go. It was written in clear, direct prose, and was immediately personal. The reader could easily grasp that the stakes, at least for the main protagonist, were going to be high and that this story was going to be about avenging the murder of the protagonist’s brother. That helped create some nice tension right from the start, but for me, this first page suffered from a lack of specificity and grounding, that made the story, even though it was going to be high stakes and personal, feel almost generic.

In terms of lack of specificity, I wanted more detail about the main protagonist to set him apart. I wanted to be able to picture him, get a hint of intrigue (why had he been in prison for example?) and to hear a more realistic internal dialogue that made him feel like a real person – one I immediately felt sympathy for, and whose story created the kind of dramatic tension that could sustain a novel.

In terms of grounding, I wanted more details to be able to picture the apartment and the building – especially as it seemed such an easy vantage point from which he could have killed the ‘thug’ in the past (had he tried before? – this wasn’t clear).

Specific Comments/Feedback

Having mused over the best way to provide constructive feedback regarding this first page, I decided that providing further comments/notes in bullet form as I read the first page was probably the most useful. So here goes:

  • First line – ‘They wouldn’t understand, especially the little ones’ had me intrigued. But then, just as I was thinking about the children (and we never find out how many or their names, or ages), the comment ‘they would cry and grieve and she would find someone else’ suddenly seemed cold and rather flippant. I wanted to know more about his relationship with his children and their mother (who was, I assumed his wife) but was a little put off already.
  • We get a brief description of the apartment but nothing more. I wanted to be able to visualize the place, and feel grounded in the surroundings. Where are we? What is the socio-economic background of this family? (they sound poor but then he drinks scotch in the next paragraph which doesn’t seem consistent with this initial impression). I’m assuming Julie is his wife but why had they exchanged harsh words – was it because he was always at Jerry’s Bar and Grill (and here, the name is specific but seems unnecessary since I have no other information or context regarding all the other surroundings). Also ‘carnage’ is a very strong word and it makes me think of a large scale, mass killing.
  • Now Manuel makes the call – but I’m not sure what this means as we haven’t got the backstory or context yet – but I’m willing to go with it.
  • Then we have a paragraph about him getting his weapon out and again, we get specifics about it (9 millimeter Smith & Weston) but few specifics about his past. He always killed in self-defense? Why? How did he know the monster who murdered his brother killed for pleasure? I need more here to be invested in this story.
  • ‘After prison’ – again, we get a hint of a past/backstory but no details, except about his brother (who, as yet, remains nameless). The line ‘graven into his memory…” would work better if I had more details so I could really visualize the scene.
  • ‘Tonight that man would die, and Manuel would die with him’ – Why, if he’s shooting the man from the vantage point of a window three stories up, would Manuel have to die? This didn’t quite make sense without more context and information on what Manuel was planning. It sounds like he wasn’t going to be the one going to make the exchange below (as he is upstairs) but how is the exchange supposed to work exactly (?) – and how did Manuel know all this (had he set it up? I couldn’t tell by the end if he had, or if these kind of exchanges were just a frequent occurrence in the alley and Manuel had finally got the courage to try and kill the ‘thug’ this time (?) (again, this reveals lack of grounding and specificity to me).
  • Now, when Manuel looks down on the scene he sees cops…but didn’t he hear sirens or see the flashing lights as he walked across the dark room towards the closet in the previous paragraph?
  • So it’s a crime scene, but we have no context for it – and now a man is watching from the shadows but the police are clueless(?) There’s a reference to nearby tenements but again I can’t picture the scene, as I haven’t got any description or point of reference for where we are.
  • The final paragraph has the ‘thug’ disappear (which seems too easy given the police presence), and ‘then, as it had so many nights before, Manuel’s cowardice would seize his thoughts and haunt another sleepless night’. I really liked this last line, but it still confused me as I don’t have context for his previous attempts or the past that links him to the thug and the circumstances surrounding his brother’s murder.

As all these comments reveal, this first page really needs more specific details and a clear description of place, backstory, and characters to come to life for me, and to create the tension needed for me to turn the page and keep reading. That being said, the scene itself is a compelling one – a man risking everything to avenge his brother’s death – and our brave submitter no doubt knows all the details that could easily be added to bring color and tension to this story. Overall, most of my comments/recommendations are a relatively easy fix and I think once we get the specificity and grounding we need as readers, this first page could be the start of a something good.

So, TKZers, what comments or feedback do you have for our brave submitter?

 

6+

20 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Manuel’s Revenge

  1. Thanks, Anonymous, for letting us take a peek at your first page. I like a good crime story which appears to be what you’ve set up. This is my favorite line: “Bills for baggies.” It’s short but says so much about the setting of the neighborhood and the character of the killer. It also sounds poetic, a memorable line.

    The second and third paragraphs really confused me. I thought the second paragraph meant that the narrator is married and that he is going to commit suicide, but now I’m not sure. Is he going to murder his brother’s killer, and the killer has kids?

    The third paragraph confused me because I didn’t know who “he” was. Is it still the narrator, or is the narrator talking about the killer and the killer’s family?

    I thought Clare gave you a really good critique. I would just add that you need to make sure the reader knows which character is speaking, acting, or thinking. Good luck on your continued writing journey, Anonymous!

    • Priscilla – great points about the confusion in the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs. An easy fix but necessary so readers don’t get put off from the get go as they try and work out what’s going on.

  2. Brave Author, this is a compelling premise. Clare gave excellent suggestions how to focus the story that currently feels ungrounded and unclear.

    Suggest you introduce Manuel’s name right away. We don’t learn that until the third paragraph and have no idea who “he” is. Withholding his name doesn’t increase tension. It only puts the reader off balance and distanced from the protagonist for too long. How about:

    The little ones wouldn’t understand, especially three-year-old Teresa, Daddy’s girl. Manuel regretted that but it had to be. Julie would tell them, “Daddy’s gone to heaven.” They would cry and grieve and she would find someone else.

    I actually liked the line about crying/ grieving, and finding someone else. It’s cold yet also reveals what Manuel believes his death will mean to his family and shows how little he thinks of himself.

    A small nit: if Manuel fired from his third-floor apartment, police could easily trace bullet trajectory straight back to his window. Meeting in the alley is a smarter plan.

    I agree with Clare about lack of sirens and noise and the clueless police who don’t notice the man sneaking away. This doesn’t seem realistic unless you establish the street scene more–maybe there’s a large crowd of bystanders that covers the man’s escape.

    The last paragraph is very well done and provides insight into Manuel’s character. He’d worked himself up then his plans are dashed. He knows he’ll lose his resolve once again, which indicates he’s been stewing about this for some time. It shows the flaw of cowardice he must overcome if he’s to accomplish his mission.

    Brave Author, thanks for sharing your promising first page.

    • Thanks Debbie and great point about the police easily finding Manuel if he fired from the window – I wonder whether the author though there would be some kind of shoot out as the assumption seems to be that Manuel would die too…which I think adds to the confusion. I also liked the last paragraph and maybe the author can start there and work backwards so we’re more in Manuel’s head from the start (?)

  3. I agree, this first page is compelling.

    I really liked the opening line-it brought out the mother bear in me. But then I was confused briefly about POV. The more I read, however, I understood. But I wanted to understand right away.

    The phone call intrigued me. I would have liked to hear at least Manuel’s side of it, though, to help me figure out at least part of what he planned.

    I agree that he should have heard street commotion before arriving at the window. And having worked in law enforcement in my dim past, I find it odd that they’d set up a perimeter without a clue that the bad guy was lurking. Beat cops and such usually have a good idea of who the questionable folks are in the neighborhood.

    I think I’ll like this story, though, BA. It has tension for sure on the first page, and purely as a reader, I think you’ll be able to make me care about Manuel and his little family. Thanks for submitting and for allowing me to comment. Good luck with this!

  4. I liked this opening. I wasn’t bothered by the intentional lack of details–I felt it was BA’s way of getting us to turn the page. I assumed Manuel was planning to meet the bad guy in the alley, was just looking down beforehand from his window. That’s when he saw the cops–but if they were there for a dead body someone found, maybe they wouldn’t use sirens but just lights. Certainly a few more details wouldn’t hurt, but I would turn the page. Nice job Brave Author!

  5. I really liked where this was going.

    I disagree with the critique.

    Why should I care how old the children are and their names? They are not in the room and observing the event.

    Since he is the only person in the room ‘he’ isn’t confusing and his name isn’t important – as long as he stays isolated – I don’t ever have to know his name.

    I believe this covers everything we could possibly need to know at the moment – he is about to kill someone.

    He has got the MEANS – the gun and the perfect location.

    MOTIVE – the dude killed his brother – enough said.

    OPPORTUNITY – He has made sure his family is not present by staging a fight with her – at her sister’s is enough detail, don’t need to know the relationship between sister and her husband unless it’s important later. He has made a call. I’m assuming he called the guy – which as a mystery writer/reader I get was to request drugs – make sure the guy will be in his alley tonight. Will that call come back to haunt him???

    And his opportunity has been blown because someone already died in the alley tonight.

    I’m just left hoping it’s not the brother’s killer – all that time and energy planning the killing would be wasted.

    And it doesn’t matter if the police could easily figure out where the shot came from since his plan also includes taking his own life.

    Actually, now that I’ve written my opinion I would like to change it –

    I think the first page was excellent.

    • Thanks for the comments, Michelle! And it certainly shows again that every reader has their own perspective. Still, I think that much of the feedback reveal valid concerns and I urge any author to look closely at their own work once feedback like this has been provided. I also thought it interesting that you took from this piece that Manuel knew he was going to kill himself – I certainly hadn’t got that from this first page – and I had also assumed that the sentence about making a call was not about a literal call but rather a decision to kill the thug that evening. I’m sure our brave submitter will be glad to get your perspective and complimentary feedback but that doesn’t mean that some of the concerns raised aren’t something he/she shouldn’t also pay attention to. Our goal here is to provide constructive feedback to help writers improve their craft and (if this is their goal) get published. I’ve always found the best approach is to take on board all feedback, both negative and positive, so that I can cast a more critical eye over my own work.

      • The call – I paid no real attention to it until DEB’s comment about the phone call. I didn’t recall a phone call. I went back and read it and then formed my opinion as to what it was. Reading it again now – not sure if it was a phone call or a mental call to action. Maybe that should be clear.

        He talks about going to heaven and dying tonight.

        “I’m sure our brave submitter will be glad to get your perspective and complimentary feedback but that doesn’t mean that some of the concerns raised aren’t something he/she shouldn’t also pay attention to. Our goal here is to provide constructive feedback to help writers improve their craft and (if this is their goal) get published.”

        You seem annoyed that I disagree with you – isn’t that the point? I did not say you were wrong just that I disagree and why.

        • Gosh – not annoyed at all:) I just wanted to reiterate how I view the first page critique process here at TKZ. It’s important to get as much feedback as possible and a broad range of opinions is always valuable.

  6. I guess my biggest concern is that I liked this a lot. I completely understand murder for revenge. Overall, I would pick this up and read to the end.

    But I do have some nits to pick. The first two sentences don’t add much. They could go altogether, or move down the page and never be missed.

    I too thought we were heading to a murder/suicide. An intentional misdirection or vagueness? I would like a little clarity.

    If the police are setting up barricades the sirens would be over. The flashing lights would not. He would have noticed the red and blue before getting close to the alley.

    It brought me in even with what everyone has pointed out. I would love to see the second draft. It would probably come home with me.

  7. I’m late to the party, and Claire already gave our brave writer a thorough critique. However, I’ll add a few quick suggestions to our brave writer.

    While I’m sure there’s an interesting story waiting to be told, this page has many of the problems typical of first pages. In order to correct them, Paula Munier has created a wonderful exercise discussed in her article “Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right,” which is posted on Jane Friedman’s blog (https://www.janefriedman.com/your-first-scene/). On the first page, you want action and dialogue to move the story forward, rather than backstory, description, and inner monologue. So, go through your first page, and use colored pencils (as described in Paula’s article) to identify what’s what in your first page. This is the quickest way to identify the problems.

    Also, try not to use ambiguous pronouns, as they are confusing to the reader. Introduce a character before using “he” or “she” so that the reader doesn’t have to guess.

    Avoid melodramatic overwriting. Example: “Graven into his memory like etchings on a gravestone was the leering face of the thug who pulled the trigger.”

    So, brave writer, see if you can begin in the “here and now” of your story with your character doing something in the present. Don’t have him thinking about the past, going into tons of backstory, or explaining what’s going on in his mind. As JSB says, “Act now. Explain later.” Focus on the action. The first page is the place to introduce your character by showing him doing something that defines who he is. Keep the inner thoughts and backstory to a minimum. Avoid “telling” and stick with “showing” on your first page.

    Best of luck, and keep writing!

  8. A brave author indeed who puts a page up before countless eyes… Because we all have our own take on this, of course. I tried to read this more as a beta reader picking up a paperback than a reviewer analyzing structure and content. I read the text only once. Unfiltered reactions: the premise is strong and the character compelling and I want to know where he’ll go from there. The confusion about who is who in the very beginning threw me off a bit. I puzzled the family relationships together but felt that simple fixes – use the names right away – would make it easier on the reader and improve the flow. My other comment contradicts Clare somewhat. I don’t feel I need more backstory off the bat (I’m sure there will be opportunities to inject that info as the story progresses). I feel I get too much information compressed in too short a segment – the kids, the wife, the bar, the brother, prison, drugs, previous attempts, etc. It’s rat-tat-tat, almost a synopsis. Either these need more development (Clare’s comments) which might burden the beginning too much, or some elements could be removed and kept for later. I believe it would improve reader focus and allow for a richer atmospheric build up. So, lots of ideas in that first page – which is a good problem to have! All the best, anonymous writer, keep going, you got something there.

    • Martine – Totally agree that we don’t want a huge weight of backstory and the beginning and I think the approach of having a richer atmospheric build up is a great one – with this, as you say, some of the backstory can be filled in later.

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