First Page Critique – The Lies of Murder

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

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Today we welcome another brave anonymous author with a first page entitled:

The Lies of Murder

Merli Whitmore hadn’t stepped foot in her childhood home in ten years. She expected tension entering unannounced. Tension with her step-mother, not the heart-pounded tension of a bloody chef’s knife stabbed into the wood cutting board. Someone had left her a note on lined white paper dotted with drops of blood.

NO BETTER WAY TO START YOUR RETURN TO HAVEN HILL THAN FOR ME TO KILL HER FOR YOU. WELCOME HOME, MERLI.

From behind, Merli heard a familiar voice. “Hands up and turn around slowly.”

She obeyed the command, turning to face two police officers pointing guns in her direction. “Hello, Ian. Been a long time.”

“Merli?” She was the last person he imagined seeing. “What are you doing here?”

“You know her?” Officer Urbane asked.

“Cuff her.”

While Officer Urbane spouted the Miranda warning and cuffed her hands behind her back, Ian read the note under the bloody knife. Merli sat on a kitchen chair.

Ian pulled out a second chair and sat three feet away. “You didn’t answer my question. What are you doing here?”

Because I always follow my premonition dreams is what she wanted to say. Only her father and Aunt Cordelia knew about her dreams. “I haven’t been able to reach my father in three days. I finally jumped on a plane to find out why.”

“What did Vivian tell you?”

“My feelings toward Vivian haven’t changed.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Officer Urbane took a step forward, hands placed on his hips.

“You look familiar. What’s your name?”

“You’re not in a position to ask questions.”

Ian chimed in. “Zane Urbane. Xander’s younger brother.”

“She knows my brother?”

“Merli grew up in this house. Xander was in our class. Vivian’s her step-mom. Why don’t you find out what’s happening at the other scene?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Once Officer Urbane left the house, Ian returned his focus to Merli. “When was the last time you spoke to Vivian?”

“I don’t know. Probably a couple weeks ago. She has an unpleasant habit of interjecting herself when I’m face-timing with my dad.”

“And you came home because you couldn’t reach your dad?”

“He always returns my calls within a couple hours. I even tried texts and emails and no response for three days. If you know something, tell me.”

Ian leaned forward. “Where were you between six and nine this evening?”

~~~

This submission races out of the gate. Congratulations to the Brave Author for starting with action and a major crime. Merli Whitmore enters her childhood home for the first time in years and immediately finds a blood-spattered note fastened to a wood cutting board with a bloody knife. The message is a real punch in the gut—the note writer claims to have killed an unnamed woman for Merli. That’s some homecoming!

Then two cops pull guns on her and she knows one of them.

Merli has obvious, ongoing conflict with her step-mother and there’s a strong suggestion Vivian has been murdered, making Merli a suspect. Additionally, Merli’s premonition dream hints that her father is also at risk.

This page definitely grabs the reader’s attention early and piles lots of complications on the main character. Well done!

There is also potentially interesting backstory between Merli and Ian who know each other from school days. The author gives intriguing hints without an information dump. Her old classmate orders his partner to immediately handcuff her. Whoa! The reader wonders why–she’s cooperating and is not armed or combative. The author establishes things have already gone terribly wrong for Merli and only promise to get worse. Excellent!

Several plausibility problems jump out but are easily fixable.

  1. The cops appear only a few seconds after Merli enters the house and finds the note. If they were that close, wouldn’t she have seen their car before she goes into the house? Or hear sirens as they arrive?
  2. If a murder had already been reported, the house would be a cordoned-off crime scene and Merli couldn’t just walk in.
  3. As Jim Bell often reminds us, police do not immediately deliver Miranda rights. They gather background and hope the suspect will reveal information before requesting an attorney.
  4. Although putting Merli in handcuffs right away is an attention grabber, it seems excessive if the author wants to portray police procedure realistically. After all, they didn’t catch her standing over the body with a bloody knife in her hand.

However, if, as part of the plot, you want to establish these officers are overly aggressive or Ian is paying back an old grudge, then it does work to slap the cuffs on her as an intimidation tactic.

Merli’s character seems cool and confident, especially with guns pointed at her. She gives short, coherent answers but also shoots questions back at the cops. The reader roots for her because she doesn’t cave in to their heavy-handed tactics.

She has premonition dreams that predict the future—her dreams can be her curse but also her power. That makes for a complex, interesting character the reader wants to learn more about. Well done.

Some small suggestions:

Merli Whitmore hadn’t stepped foot in her childhood home in ten years. She expected tension entering unannounced. Tension with her step-mother, not the heart-pounded tension of a bloody chef’s knife stabbed into the wood cutting board.

Short, simple sentences might work better to convey the startling event.

Merli Whitmore hadn’t stepped foot in her childhood home in ten years. She expected tension for entering unannounced. She expected tension from her stepmother Vivian.

She didn’t expect the sight that made her heart pound: a bloody chef’s knife stabbed into the wood cutting board.

 

She was the last person he imagined seeing. This is a point of view inconsistency because it briefly goes inside Ian’s head:

Maybe instead: His startled expression said she was the last person he imagined seeing.

 

Weak gerunds: there are three verbs that end in -ing in three lines—turning, pointing, seeing. For stronger verbs, here are a couple of suggestions:

turning to see two police officers who pointed guns at her.

the last person he expected to see.

 

“You know her?” Officer Urbane asked. How does Merli know his name? Does she see a nametag? A few paragraphs later, she asks his name even though it has been used several times.

 

Attributions: Even though there aren’t many attributions, the dialog generally makes it clear who is talking. However, this passage was a little confusing:

“You look familiar. What’s your name?”

“You’re not in a position to ask questions.”

Ian chimed in. “Zane Urbane. Xander’s younger brother.”

“She knows my brother?”

Clarify who’s talking with a few action tags:

Merli faced the cop who’d cuffed her. “You look familiar. What’s your name?”

“You’re not in a position to ask questions.”

Ian chimed in, “Zane Urbane. Xander’s younger brother.”

Urbane’s face screwed into a frown. “She knows my brother?”

 

The author does a quick, efficient job of explaining the relationships without an info dump: “Merli grew up in this house. Xander was in our class. Vivian’s her step-mom.”

 

Ian leaned forward. “Where were you between six and nine this evening?”

Obviously, a crime happened between six and nine this evening. But would a responding officer ask about her whereabouts/alibi? That sounds more like an interrogation by a detective.

Also, where did the crime occur? There’s a reference to the other scene,” perhaps where the bloody knife was used. However, if the murder weapon is found inside this house, it would also be cordoned off. Ian would not disturb a crime scene by sitting and having Merli sit. He would take her outside and call for officers to secure the scene.

If the crime happened elsewhere, what caused the police to respond to this location?

I’m raising these questions because they will occur to a reader and will need to be answered within a few pages.

There is virtually no description or scene setting in this first page. The Brave Author might consider slowing down to include a few words to establish what the kitchen looks like (aside from the chopping block and bloody knife, which are great!) as well as the physical appearance of the officers, especially Ian since he appears to be an important character.

The time is this evening sometime after nine p.m., meaning it’s dark outside. Maybe include that detail: She expected tension entering unannounced at ten-thirty at night.

Merli displays almost no reaction to startling events that would normally provoke strong emotional responses—a bloody knife, a note confessing to a murder, cops who pull guns on her, being cuffed. While I admire her cool confidence, maybe include more reaction from her—the shock of cold, hard metal biting her wrists, a brief worry that her premonition dream about her dad is coming true. Let the reader inside Merli’s head to bond with her as she faces these frightening circumstances.

This submission features action, conflict, strong writing, and effective dialog that keeps the story barreling forward. The main character has a gift/curse of dream premonitions that offers great potential for present and future complications. Excellent work, Brave Author.

~~~

TKZers: Would you turn the page? What suggestions or comments can you offer this Brave Author?

~~~

 

 

Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff, is now available for pre-order at this link. If you order now, the special price is $.99. Dead Man’s Bluff will be delivered to your device on June 23.

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About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with a Heart. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, and Dead Man's Bluff. Debbie's nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

23 thoughts on “First Page Critique – The Lies of Murder

  1. Wonderful job of covering the points I was confused about plus a few I didn’t realize such as the time line.

    • Thanks, Keith! As authors, we’re too close to the story to see problems b/c we’ve already resolved them inside our heads. That’s why fresh eyes are helpful.

  2. I suppose the reason I prefer writing thrillers and not mysteries is that my poor little brain just doesn’t have the where-with-all to keep details, timelines, and other components straight demanded by mysteries. (Sometimes, I can’t even keep the same things straight when I’m reading them.”

    You done splendid, mystery writer of a mystery. (Thanks for your analysis and commentary, Ms. Burke. Superb as always.)

  3. Officers responding to a call would not read Miranda until the arrest. If they arrest the wrong person for the murder, they’d be handing the real murderer’s defense team reasonable doubt. In homicide cases, detectives (as Debbie pointed out) gather evidence before an arrest is made. Your mistake stems from watching TV crime dramas, which is the worst offender of inaccuracies.

    Brave Writer, research how officers react when in this position by calling the police dept. where the story takes place. Most are happy to answer a question or two. Great job hooking us right away, though. Best of luck!

    • Sue, great idea to call the police department! Nothing like getting it straight from the horse’s mouth.

      I too have found people are glad to answer questions, as well as offer additional information that helps the author build more authenticity.

  4. I like this submission, BA. Good job! Plunging me into a crisis right off the bat always works. The comments from the experts here will undoubtedly take your first page up a notch.

    One thing that occurred to me: At one time, I lived hundreds of miles away from my parents when I was attending college in CA. If (and thank God it never happened) I had been unable to reach them by phone (before texting and emailing were invented!), I would have called the local P.D. and asked them to send officers out for a well check-before hopping on a plane.

    Great job, BA. Best wishes as you proceed.

  5. Overall, I am hooked. DA, read the other comments. A little clean up and I would end up playing, ‘just one more chapter’ all night.

    A few things to clean up. I am not wild about Zane and Xander. Is there a third brother Yahuda? I have read some books where it looks like character names started as letters on the author’s outline. So Character C is now Charlie. It could just be me.

    While the context says the note is for Merli, The text

    “NO BETTER WAY TO START YOUR RETURN TO HAVEN HILL THAN FOR ME TO KILL HER FOR YOU. WELCOME HOME, MERLI.”

    is signed Merli. Split personality killer/hero would be an interesting read. Very Hitchcockian.

    And yeah, the whole Miranda/cuff thing. I know several authors have a retired or not so retired police officer friend who help them with procedure. On police reports it is sometimes listed as ‘read suspect the Miranda warning from form CA-920-2018.’

  6. Alan, I really like the way you rewrote the note:

    “NO BETTER WAY TO START YOUR RETURN TO HAVEN HILL THAN FOR ME TO KILL HER FOR YOU. WELCOME HOME, MERLI.”

    Now it’s ambiguous if it’s TO Merli or SIGNED BY Merli. Great idea.

    Zane and Xander also bothered me, unless they turn out to be twins. Similar- sounding names make it harder to the reader to keep characters straight.

    Definitely a Hitchcock vibe.

  7. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. What a wonderful critique you got from Debbie! (A little bird told me she likes See’s chocolates.) Here are my thoughts to throw into the mix:

    Opening

    Start with Merli reading the note. The lines before it detract from the story. Begin with something like this:

    Merl Whitmore’s heart pounded as she stared at the bloody chef’s knife stabbed into the wood cutting board in the kitchen of her childhood home. A note on lined white paper dotted with drops of blood read:

    NO BETTER WAY TO START YOUR RETURN TO HAVEN HILL THAN FOR ME TO KILL HER FOR YOU. WELCOME HOME, MERLI.

    Too Many Character Intros

    Don’t introduce more characters than necessary on the first page, and make sure that the reader knows exactly who is speaking. When there are more than two people participating in a conversation, make sure readers don’t have to guess who is saying what. On your first page, the reader meets these characters:

    Merli Whitmore
    Ian
    Vivian
    Aunt Cordelia
    the father
    Zane Urbane
    Xander

    Anything you can do to trim the list will help prevent the reader from being overwhelmed.

    Hyphen Usage

    step-mom – No hyphen is needed here.(https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stepmom)

    Same thing with step-mother. Just use “stepmother” here.

    heart-pounded tension (I already said to eliminate this “telling” sentence, but if you keep it, use “heart-pounding” here.)

    face-timing = Urbandictionary.com uses “facetiming” (without the hyphen).

    POV Confusion

    You write:

    From behind, Merli heard a familiar voice. “Hands up and turn around slowly.”

    This is incorrect as written. Merli did the hearing, and only Merli can do the talking if you group the dialogue next to that action. If someone else talks, begin a new line and attribute the dialogue to that person.

    You also write:

    “Merli?” She was the last person he imagined seeing. “What are you doing here?”

    If you are telling the story from Merli’s POV, you can’t switch to the guy’s POV here. The correct way to do it would be something like this:

    “Merli? What are you doing here?”

    Merli figured she was the last person he imagined seeing.

    *** Merli can speculate what he imagines, but you can’t leap directly into his head here.

    Dialogue Confusion

    You write: “Cuff her.”

    Who said that? It is not clear.

    Go through and make sure it’s clear which character is speaking each line of dialogue.

    The lines about Vivian are also confusing, and the reader doesn’t find out until further down the page who Vivian is. Make the dialogue as easy for the reader to follow as possible.

    Overall

    It’s good that you are starting with action to get your story rolling. Remember that clarity is king on the first page. You’re off to a fantastic start, and you’ll be in great shape if you make some simple fixes. Btw, if you need some references on POV, let me know. I can provide you with some helpful links. I didn’t comment on police procedure and that sort of thing. I’ll leave that to those who are experts in that area. Best of luck, and keep writing.

    • Thanks, Joanne, for a comprehensive critique. Haven’t seen as much of you lately and glad you’re back. My motto: Will edit for See’s!

      Many words start out with hyphens (like face-time) but as their use becomes more common, the hyphens disappear. The language keeps evolving.

      • I love See’s truffles, Debbie, and I have edited for them before… lol. Oh, they are so good. What’s your favorite? (I like the pineapple truffles and the blueberry truffles the best.) Btw, you haven’t seen much of me because I had a sick doggie that I just lost. I’m heartbroken. *sniff* Two parents and now my doggie in a short period of time. It’s been a tough time. But I’m hanging in there. Even on the days I don’t comment here, I always read. This blog is one of my must-reads.

        • Aw, Joanne, so sorry about your losses. Each one by itself is devastating but to have them piled one on top of the other is truly tough. Wishing you comfort and peace.

          Glad to see you back at TKZ.

          My favorite: See’s Easter eggs with chocolate buttercream and the pastel flowers on top. Or mocha. Or Bordeaux. Or coconut. Or nuts and caramel. Or….

  8. I have two big problems with this submission. The first is the underwriting. There is way too much left out for me to be engaged in the situation and to care about the woman.

    For starters, you place her immediately in the kitchen where she sees a knife and a note. Yet she’s coming back to her home for the first time in 10 years? Is anyone else there? I assume she has a key and let herself in? Why the rush? You TELL us she expects tension, so why not find a way to SHOW that thru her actions or thoughts? I’d back up and have her opening the door and her thoughts as she moved thru the home of her childhood — which can be powerful. Then when she gets to the kitchen and sees the knife, you have something to react against. As Deb notes, you skimp on her emotions here.

    Second: The police procedure, as others have said, is not believable. First, this is an illegal entry. They had no probable cause to suspect her of anything and thus cannot enter her home without a warrant. Also, what, by the way, are they arresting her for? You never say. This is her home. Presumably she entered via a key. They can’t arrest her for that.

    And then one of the cops (I’m confused which one) sees a bloody knife and a threatening note. Yet he has no reaction? He calmly sits down in a nearby chair and they start talking about their past. I don’t understand this. At the very least, a cop would be intensely curious about a bloody knife and a note like this. And it would immediately suggest a possible crime scene, which the cop then proceeds to contaminate.

    I’m sorry, writer. I don’t mean to be mean here. But the scenario is unbelievable and cops don’t act like this. You have to get this straightened out before the story can go forward. No matter what kinds of book you are writing — suspense, hardboilded, cozy — if the protocol isn’t correct, you will lose readers.

    • I don’t want to be too tough, either, but I agree with your comments.

      There was a bloody note, but there was no mention of a body. Where did the blood come from? (Maybe we will find out.)

      • Author,
        Please keep writing. You have to crawl before you walk. At least you are crawling. Because I’m not formally trained, I’ve had to educate myself. It has taken me over ten years to write anything worth reading (like everyone,I had a real life to lead). Be happy that professional writers like Kristi and Joanne has taken the time to help. Cheers.

        • Yes, I agree with Brian. My first book (which I am now editing for eBook after getting the rights back) has many errors and freshman mistakes. I got some of the cop stuff wrong. I didn’t mean to be discouraging! I do like your idea of a woman returning to a childhood home after a long absence and immediately getting threatened by an unknown wacko. Just slow down a little in your mood and story building. And find a way to have the cops introduced that’s more credible. Here’s something to chew on: You have two MAJOR plot developements in your first 400 words. First, she gets a chilling threat and bam! she’s arrested. It might be better to develop the first plot point in a good meaty opening Chapter 1 and then move onto the arrest, in Chapter 2, if it’s justified.

          • Yes, the opening seemed “abrupt” to me. I don’t think the character should spend a lot of time “thinking” about things in her head on the first page. However, perhaps a scene with some sort of set-up to introduce the character and her special dream premonition skills would be in order. As you mentioned, it’s not just the technical and writing details that matter. The writer has to make certain the reader cares about the protagonist enough to keep reading. Also, if the protagonist hasn’t cared enough to come home for ten whole years, why does she suddenly care so much to make a special trip? It’s important to consider the logistics of everything.

  9. Kris, Brian, and Joanne all make valid points. It is like juggling chainsaws to know how much action, how much character development, how much emotion, how to introduce a story problem, how to introduce characters, how to incorporate realism, and on and on. Plus we’re supposed to accomplish these tasks and more in the first few pages. No wonder it’s so difficult.

    Brave Author, you’ve taken a giant step by submitting this page. Congratulations! I hope you find the varied opinions helpful. Every reader views a story differently. The more input you receive, the more you learn what to whittle away, what to keep, and what to add.

  10. Thoughts on opening with action: These are common traits.
    1. Mysteries. The opening action happens before the story opens. (Hercule Poirot)
    2 Thrillers: Open with Action is good (Jason Bourne)
    3. Suspense: Open with getting to know the characters. (Hitchcock;s Malin Character)

    Heres how many define these three confusing genre:
    1. Mystery. The main character knows more than the reader.
    2. Thriller. The main character and the reader both know what’s going on
    3. Suspense. The reader knows more than the main character.

    Of course, elements of each can be mixed into the brew of your story.

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