First Page Critique: It’s Time
To Kill Off The Woodpecker

Every thing must have a beginning…and that beginning must be linked to something that went before. — Mary Shelley

By PJ Parrish

Writing is nothing but a series of decisions. Some are big. You decide on your basic genre. (I’m going to write a thriller!) You decide on a main character. (She’s going to be a waitress who lost her job, has two kids to feed and her dead-beat ex owes a ton in child care so she decides to track him down and thus learns to be a PI!).  You decide on a setting. (I lived in San Francisco once so I’ll try that!)

Then, come all the little decisions. Which really aren’t so little over the course of 300 pages or so. Does she have a friend who can act as confidante? Will there be a romantic interest? What does her voice sounds like — ie is she Southern? A bit profane? Did she go to college? See where I am going with this?  Every decision you make affects your story.

But let’s go back to a big decision you’ll have to make really early. One that we here at The Kill Zone deal with all the time with our First Page Critiques. One that can kill your story right from the get-go, if you’re not careful:

WHERE DO I START MY STORY? 

I put that in big red neon because I believe it might be, after character, your most important decision. Because if you start too slow, you bore the reader. If you start to fast, you risk looking like a show-off (Yes, I believe you can start too fast). If you start too early, you get a lot of throat-clearing. If you start to late, you can confuse your reader. Think of it this way: You are asking your reader to enter an imaginary world. They will be taking this plunge on blind faith that you, the storyteller, are skillful enough to lead them clearly and that you are sly enough to seduce them into sticking around.

So, where do you start the story? What is your entry point? What door do you open?

I have battled this with every book I have written. Sometimes, rarely, I see the opening scene like a magnificent movie unreeling in my head. But more often, I feel like I am peering into a mist, waiting for the BIG MOMENT to reveal itself. Some beginnings come easy; most come with only the greatest of brain sweat.

In my last post, I talked about how I am taking a hiatus from novel writing. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think about my story. It’s sitting there on the back burner on a slow simmer. I think of it as a nice marinara sauce that is rendering down and will some day be ready to move to the front burner again.   I’ve been thinking a lot about my story this week. Thinking that it took me a long time to find the right door into it.

So, let me try to make my point today about WHERE TO BEGIN YOUR STORY by showing you how I screwed mine up. (So yeah, I mislead you — this isn’t a real First Page submission; it’s my own).

Brief set up: This book is a sequel to our stand alone SHE’S NOT THERE. In the first book, Clay Buchanan, is a skip tracer who’s been hired to find the missing wife of a rich lawyer. The wife, Amelia, was in a car accident that left her with amnesia and she’s on the run because she thinks her husband is trying to kill her. Buchanan was supposed to be a minor cog in the story machine but he proved so compelling that he became a secondary protagonist. His wife and infant son are missing, presumed dead eight years ago, and he was the main suspect. He is haunted by their disappearance. Our editor, and quite a few readers, asked us for a sequel focusing on his backstory.  By the way…I love Clay Buchanan. He’s a wounded anti-hero who wants to work his way back to the light.

So, here is the first 400 words of so of Clay’s story:

CHAPTER ONE

He cried when he heard the news. It was rumor mostly, but it came from people he knew and trusted, people with authority and letters after their names. His head told him that it probably wasn’t true, but in his heart…

In his heart, he wanted so much to believe.

She was alive.

Someone had spotted her down in Arkansas. And even though his head was filled with the fuzz of last night’s liquor, he threw a hastily packed bag into his car and headed out into the black Nashville night, not stopping until four hours later when he hit the single blinking traffic light in Brinkley, Arkansas.

These woods was where she supposedly had been last seen –- in a bayou of bleached trees and blue-black water, here in this lonely place that looked as raw as when the world was being born.

Clay Buchanan sat back in the kayak, setting his oar across his knees.

He had been here once before. Ten years. That had been ten years ago.

Why had he returned to this place now? That sighting a decade ago had long ago been discredited.

He closed his eyes and sat as still as he could, even holding his breath, so the softest sounds of the swamp could penetrate his consciousness. But there was nothing except the whisper of the water and the whine of a lone mosquito, and in that huge quiet, his memories moved in with a fierce and fast clarity.

How his heart had quickened when he saw the first reports of the sighting on the news. How the tears had felt hot on his face when he watched the grainy video on the internet. How he had called in sick to Gateway Insurance, saying he wasn’t sure when he would be back to work. And how his wife’s face had looked, waxy in the yellow porch light, as she handed him a thermos of coffee for the trip to Brinkley and told him that she and Gillian would be okay.

His boss didn’t understand. But Rayna always had. Rayna had always understood that his obsession was the only thing that helped him endure his soul-killing job. He could still hear her words that night as he left…

Go chase your ghost, Bucky.

Buchanan let out his breath, long and slow, and opened his eyes.

The ghost bird. That’s what everyone back then called it. Not the experts, of course. To them, it was Campephilus principalis, the ivory-billed woodpecker. But to birders like Buchanan, it was the ghost bird.

____________________

I’m back. Well, there’s some nice stuff in this First Page Submission. It tells me where the story takes place and it’s got a lot of cool atmosphere. But why does it fail? Lots of reasons.

First, the opening line. It’s a come-on. You think I am talking about his missing wife, right? Nope. It’s not his wife. It’s a bird. Clay is an avid birder (bird-watcher to us civilians). He heard about a sighting of the presumed extinct ivory-billed woodpecker and bolted off to see it. I am not playing fair with the reader; it’s a fake, a cheap device. If I were the reader, it would piss me off.  Now, when I wrote this, I thought it would be a cool metaphor — you know, dead missing woodpecker that’s called The Ghost Bird. Dead missing wife who Clay sometimes can actually hear talking to him — the ghost wife. Geez…

Second, it’s not very active. Even though Clay is technically doing something — bobbing around a bayou looking for a bird — it has nothing to do with the real story, and thus is a passive false start.

Third, I larded in a graph of backstory about his old insurance job, which surely can wait until I get the story up and moving.

You can see why I didn’t want to go back to this story with any urgency. I had chosen the wrong moment to drop my readers into the story. And in my subconscious writer brain, I knew it stunk. (Always listen to that voice when it speaks, by the way).

It took me a good two months to finally find the right door into Clay’s world. This is second version:

CHAPTER ONE

 Someone was following him. He had noticed it a couple miles back, but only because he was so good at tailing cars himself and had never been made.

He couldn’t be sure when the car had picked him up. It was too dark, too rainy, and on this part of the road, there weren’t any streetlights. Just a two-lane asphalt road broken by the occasional gate where at the end of long driveways lights from the big houses glowed like fireflies. It was the kind of road that was lined with white rail fencing to keep the horses in during the day and strangers out at night.

The car hadn’t been behind him when he left his apartment in downtown Nashville. Or maybe it had and he just had missed it. That bothered him. Was he losing his edge?

He slowed to thirty. So did the headlights behind him.

Damn.

The road T-boned just ahead. If the car turned left with him, he’d have to do something. For the first time in months, he thought of the nine-mil Nano he had bought from that kid in Oakland. He wished he hadn’t thrown in San Francisco Bay.

Suddenly, the darkness was split with different lights. Red and blue strobes.

Shit. It was a cop…

The cop hit his take-down lights, blinding Clay Buchanan’s vision in the rearview mirror.

There was a driveway on the right and clay pulled in. The cruiser pulled in behind, stopping about fifteen feet behind and just to the left. Clay didn’t move a muscle, just kept his hands high on the steering wheel. Even though his closed window he could hear the squawk of the cop’s radio, turned up higher for even a routine stop.

But no cop stop was ever really routine. Clay knew that.

He stayed frozen, but he could see the play of the cop’s powerful flashlight as it moved over the rear of the car and into the empty backseat. The cop moved carefully, avoiding silhouetting himself in his own headlights. He stopped just to the rear of the driver’s window. Textbook…no chance of getting knocked down by the push of an opening door. This guy knew his shit.

“Roll down your window, please.”

Clay moved his left hand slowly. The window whirred down. He put his hand back on the wheel.

“License, please. Registration and insurance, too.”

“It’s in my wallet, right front jeans pocket.”

“Get it. Slowly, please.”

Clay couldn’t see the guy’s face, but he caught a glimpse of the round patch on the cop’s rain slicker. Davidson County Sheriff Department. He carefully extracted the license and other cards and held them out. The cop took them, holding holding the license under his flashlight. Then he ran the beam over the truck’s interior, past the three manila folders laying on the passenger seat then stopping on the video camera. Clay hoped the guy didn’t know exactly what he was looking at — an Ultra HD infrared night vision full spectrum camcorder. There was a good reason it was nicknamed the Ghost Hunter.

“Your right tail light is out, sir.”

That couldn’t be what this was about. Clay knew what the cop was seeing – a beat-up Toyota Highlander. The camera, together with the rest of the gear in the trunk, cost more than the car was worth. Maybe it was the truck itself – a crappy heap driving slow in this neighborhood was reason enough for a stop.

The flashlight beam hit him square in the face. Clay squinted, resisting the urge to shield his face with his hand.

“You’re that guy,” the cop said.

What?

The light was blinding.

“You’re that guy who killed his wife.”

______________________

Well, I think it’s better. The whole scene is Clay going out to the deserted road where his wife’s car was found — empty with some blood in the front and the empty baby seat in the back. Earlier that night, the anniversary of his wife’s disappearance, he had what Jim calls his Man in Mirror Moment and has decided to find his dead wife and son.

I could have started Chapter one with that Mirror moment, but that would have meant a lot of passive narrative and backstory.  I needed to get him up and moving, DOING instead of THINKING ABOUT DOING.  I can weave in the backstory later.  I hope I also introduced some intrigue and empathy for Clay by having the cop recognize him. Even now, after ten years, he’s still a marked man.

Anywho, that’s my lesson for the day. The take-away for you guys is: Don’t go to the prom with the first guy who asks you. Sometimes, you have to really be patient and wait for the right MOMENT to open your story.

Be willing to throw crap away.

Be willing to try something completely different.

Be willing to admit you were wrong.

Be willing to kill your darlings. Even if they are ivory-billed woodpeckers. Especially if they are ivory-billed woodpeckers disguised as really ugly metaphors.

 

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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

21 thoughts on “First Page Critique: It’s Time
To Kill Off The Woodpecker

  1. Excellent, but that’s expected from you, Kris.

    I’ve learned that the first chapters I write are for me. I don’t plot, per se, but they’re discovery chapters. Discover the story, the characters, the conflicts. The reader never needs to see them, but writing them revs the engines.

    As I’ve moved forward in my writing, I cut less and less (I think in one of my books, the story actually started in Chapter 8, although I did drip bits from those first few chapters in here and there later on.) If you’re Jeffery Deaver who spends 8 months outlining, plotting, and researching, your first draft of Chapter 1 is probably pretty spot on, but for mere mortals like most of us, it takes a few ‘false’ starts. That’s how we plot.

    • Did not know that Deaver was a confirmed plotter. I am more like you…I have to throw a lot of stuff on the wall to see what sticks. I had a WIP once where the true chapter 1 was really chapter 12. It took me weeks to figure that one out. In the news business, that’s called burying the lead.

      • Jeff Deaver is such a plotter, that he can skip to chapter 24 and write it before he’s written chapter 3. He talks about that stuff and my head explodes.

        • Oh geez. That’s so depressing for a pantser like me. Maybe some brains can think in a non-linear way. Not me.

          • I just remembered that Jeff was the editor for a group-writing ITW thriller I was part of. We each had one chapter to write and didn’t know what was coming until the person before us was finished. Jeff about went nuts trying to keep us all under control. Now I understand why. It must have totally discombobulated him to not have the map in front of him!

  2. The original intrigued me because it was so emotional, and I empathized right away with Buchanan. For a non-active character, you nailed it. I liked the fact that our hero is a birder on the hunt for the elusive Ghost Bird. That alone would keep me reading. Then you throw in the parallel with the missing wife — and I’m all in!

    Not much help, huh? Sorry!

    • No, it’s actually helpful. In the back of my mind, I must have realized there was something good in the chapter because I kept it in a discard file. I think it will work later in the book as what I call a personal chapter. In pacing, I believe action chapters should be relieved by the occasional “personal” reflection scenes. You gave me an idea where I can insert it later.

  3. While I definitely see the lesson and take-away in the second opening you share, and it certainly opens in a way that you would expect a thriller would, I actually liked the first opening–enough that I would read another few pages and see how it was followed up. That first page would not turn me off. Now I suppose if the woodpecker stuff went on and on for pages, then it finally switched to the heart of the story, that would be a story killer, but as a brief diversion and seque into the heart of the story, I thought it was fine. A unique way to get to know a character. I mean, how many bird-watching characters are there? 😎

    • I love the fact he’s a birdwatcher. It figures in bigly in the first book. But as I said in my comment to Sue, I think it will work better further into the book when the plot is up and moving.

  4. Good call, Kris. I find “character alone, feeling” openings problematic, because we don’t KNOW the person yet. We don’t have a reason to care. Your second opening is a true disturbance, and that’s always interesting. Then the task is to hold and intensify the interest, which you do with the stop, the interchange, and then the last line: “You’re that guy who killed his wife.”

    Boom. I have to read on.

    • I think I made this decision to can the first version after reading some posts here at TKZ. Esp our First Page Critiques. Even for this old dog, they taught me new tricks. That line: “You’re that guy who killed his wife” is a kicker that I hope propels the reader to move on. I thought about using it as an opening line, but it didn’t work because it got into the scene too late. Sometimes, you have to save your best line for later.

  5. Yep, I really liked the line, “You’re that guy who killed his wife.” And especially with the precursor, “You’re that guy.” It lends an oomph to the second line.

    You know, there was a time, BTKZ (Before TKZ), when I would not have appreciated the difference between the two versions.

    Because of y’all, today I do. 🙂

    • Ditto for me, that years ago, I would not have really gotten the difference between the two. They both “work.” But since joining our group here, I have come to appreciate the need for a “do now think later” approach. Esp considering our genre.

  6. Your first story example isn’t a thriller; it’s a mystery. The very first rule of deciding what you are going to write is having a good understanding of the genre you are writing and what the reader expects so they won’t throw your book against a wall or delete it after writing a scathing review on Amazon.

    I’m not sure about the reason for the second first scene. Is it back story about the dead wife and the cops’ belief he did it? (It’s a giant info dump pretending to be story.) Will the cop say something that cops shouldn’t know that will be the inciting incident of the book? (Yeah, the story is starting.) Or are you so enamored of the ghost bird image that it’s more important to share than getting the story started? (Rethink that one during the edits.)

    Any way, the events are way too passive and slow. In the first paragraph, I’d start with his realization that a cop is behind him and his panic at the thought so the reader needs to know what happens next and wonders why he’s so panicked. Ratchet up that fear and anger as you move into the story.

    • As I said, I started the chapter the first time with the cop’s line. But it didn’t feel right to me. I felt it needed a small build up, because that is more my style. I don’t write wham-bam action openings. It’s just not…me. And I still think sometimes you shouldn’t use your best line first. But I see your point! Thanks.

      • Setting scene is perfectly fine, but you need to get to the point in your first page. Let him see the cop lights in his rear view mirror and freak out, then let the cop do the back story info dump.

        I’ve read that in this day of Amazon ebook freebies and over-priced paper books, the reader is even less patient about early set up in everything but cozies. From my own reading, I tend to agree.

  7. I was more moved by the first opening than by the second. The second promises a run-of-the-mill thriller, and I’m not clear how the opening relates to the events in the other opening.

    I agree only partly with your judgment that the first opening is misleading. I think the references to Buchanan’s first trip to these swamps ten years ago, to his wife’s well-wishes, and to the “grainy Internet image” make it clear, or could with minor tweaks make it clear, that this is another birder trip. And I love the ominous foreshadowing of her assurance, before the first trip, that she and Gillian would be OK.

    Once it’s clear that he’s there for the bird, he could receive word that his presumed dead wife has been spotted, initiating another repeat trip to another previously checked location. (I’m guessing where your story goes.)

    I’m not moved by the complaint that there is no action. I’ve just carefully studied Mosley’s Known to Evil. The only “action” in the first chapter, which depicts McGill at dinner with his family, is our insight into McGill’s troubled emotions and his interaction with his family. The disturbing event introducing the main plot occurs via phone call at the end of the meal. But we come to know and care about McGill and his family in this opening scene. Unless the birding plays no more role in your story, it’s a good way to come to know and care about Buchanan.

    • Good point about Mosley’s opening. Like you note, the “kicker” of the phone call does not come first (which would then necessitate some backstory set up). And as Jim said above, you have to establish an emotional connection with a character to care. The birding doesn’t play a big angle in the story, which is also why I jettisoned that approach. It’s just a quirk of his character. As for where the story goes, the whole point of it that he’s chasing a ghost. That is the plot arc. Does he find her and the baby? Are they alive? What happened that night on the dark road. 🙂

  8. Kris,

    What a great lesson. Thank you for sharing your story. I liked the first chapter well enough to want to read on. But, wow, the second rewrite. That last line made me catch my breath. Like Jim said, BOOM! I want to read more. Well done. You’re a great writer and a great teacher.

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