First Page Critique – The Recruiter

Photo credit: Thomas Quine, Creative Commons lic.


Please welcome today’s Brave Author who submitted the first page of The Recruiter for feedback. Enjoy the excerpt then we’ll talk about it.


The butt of the revolver smashed into my face, slicing open a half-inch gash above my left eyebrow. I pressed a hand to my bleeding forehead and cursed.

“You have a smart mouth,” Mr. White said.

“And you’re wasting my time,” I replied, feeling the sting of sweat in the wound. As soon as I pulled my hand away, I could feel the blood begin to pool again. In a few seconds it would trickle down and stain both my shirt and suit jacket a deep red.

Shit. I just had them both dry cleaned.

“Your time is my time,” Mr. White said. With his thick Eastern European accent, the line sounded more cartoonish than I bet he intended.

“Not until you pay me it isn’t. And for the past half-hour I’ve sat here and answered questions about everything from my shoe size to my favorite porn star.” I turned to the hired muscle standing behind me, the one whose gun now had drops of my blood on its handle. Guy was wearing Ray Bans even though it was 1:30 in the morning and we were inside an empty bar. Douchebag. “By the way,” I said to him, “my favorite porn star? It’s your Mom.”

This time the butt came down on the back of my neck. I almost passed out but bit my tongue until the gray spots in my vision disappeared. I spat a mouthful of pink saliva onto the dirty floor and sat up.

“I’m a thorough businessman,” Mr. White said as he twisted a pinkie ring between his thumb and forefinger. Another unintentionally cartoonish move. “And I don’t make deals with someone based solely on their reputation without asking some questions of my own.”

“Cut the shit. My reputation is the only reason your boy hasn’t blown my brains out all over this table and we both know it.” To that, neither man had a reply. “So if you’re done with the HR interview, let’s talk about why I’m sitting here, because it sure as hell isn’t for the company.”

Mr. White twisted his pinkie ring a few more times–gold, of course, and shiny–before he finally smiled. He nodded to Ray Bans and a black briefcase fell on the table in front of me. A thin cloud of dust from broken peanut shells and cigarette ash puffed up where it landed.


First off, congratulations to today’s Brave Author for an action-packed start. Nothing like the protagonist being pistol whipped to catch the reader’s attention.

Immediately following are a couple of great lines that firmly establish the genre as gritty and hard-boiled:

“In a few seconds it would trickle down and stain both my shirt and suit jacket a deep red.

Shit. I just had them both dry cleaned.”

Clearly, this ain’t the first rodeo for the as-yet-unnamed protagonist. For now, let’s call him Tough Guy or TG.

TG is no stranger to violence. In fact, he provokes it:

“By the way,” I said to him, “my favorite porn star? It’s your Mom.”

That earns TG another thump on the back of his neck.

The Raymond Chandler vibe predisposes me to like this page because Chandler is my all-time favorite author. The writing is crisp, clear, and error-free. The voice is strong and sardonic. The description is sparse but still paints a vivid picture of a grimy, low-end bar.

“A thin cloud of dust from broken peanut shells and cigarette ash puffed up where it landed.”

Good job of drawing the reader deeper into the story with action and unanswered questions. We want to learn who these people are, why they’re meeting, and what’s at stake.

We know Tough Guy isn’t tied up since his hand is free to wipe away blood. That raises more questions: Why does he tolerate being smacked around? Why does he bring more abuse down on himself? To prove his toughness?

Cops, private investigators, and fixers in 1930s and ’40s movies behaved that way and the audience bought it. But contemporary readers will wonder about TG. If he’s really that good, he could–and would–disarm Ray Bans after the first blow. Further, a pro would not risk unnecessary injury simply for the sake of hurling a snarky insult…even though the line about mom being a porn star is very funny. 

Here’s a possible different approach: TG baits Ray Bans with the insult about his mom, knowing the guy will retaliate. He’s prepared for the attack and takes the gun away, making RB look stupid in front of his boss. TG also makes himself look smarter and more competent to the reader.

Suggest you identify the protagonist on the first page by having Mr. White address him by name. Two possible opportunities: “You have a smart mouth, Mr. XYZ.” Or “Your time is my time, Mr. XYZ.”

A few small nits:

A revolver is generally perceived as a weapon from an earlier era. Semi-auto pistols with high capacity magazines are more likely to be today’s gun of choice for the well-armed thug.

Unless Tough Guy can see himself, he can’t know the gash is a half-inch long. Suggest you just use “gash” without the measurement.

“I could feel the blood begin to pool again.” Blood wouldn’t pool if it’s running down his face. Blood generally pools on a horizontal surface like a floor or table.

The blood on the gun butt is more likely to be smears than drops.

None of these issues is significant and all are easily fixed.

My biggest concern is the portrayal of Mr. White which veers into clichés. Mr. White’s thick Eastern European accent, pinkie ring, and stock dialogue have been done in countless books and films. The Brave Author even acknowledges that by calling him “cartoonish.”

Unless this is meant to be a satire, like Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), the author might consider a fresher approach to describing the heavy.

There are some great humorous lines.

“Guy was wearing Ray Bans even though it was 1:30 in the morning and we were inside an empty bar. Douchebag.”

“So if you’re done with the HR interview…”

Overall, this page is well written, strong, and compelling. I’m sure Brave Author will find a fresher way to characterize Mr. White.

The excerpt was a pleasure to read. It was also difficult to critique because I found so few problems. All were minor and readily fixable by this obviously capable writer.

A fine job, Brave Author! Thanks for submitting. Let us know when this is published.


TKZers: What are your thoughts on The Recruiter? Any ideas for the Brave Author? Would you keep reading?




Coming soon! Debbie Burke’s new novella, Crowded Hearts, will be FREE for a limited time. Watch for the announcement here at TKZ.




This entry was posted in hard-boiled, Raymond Chandler, Writing by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes the Tawny Lindholm series, Montana thrillers infused with psychological suspense. Her books have won the Kindle Scout contest, the Zebulon Award, and were finalists for the Eric Hoffer Book Award and Her articles received journalism awards in 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.

31 thoughts on “First Page Critique – The Recruiter

  1. I enjoyed this first page, Brave Author. My favorite line was “Shit. I just had them both dry cleaned” because the protagonist isn’t freaking out thinking he’s about to get beaten to death or whatever. It shows he’s cool and experienced.

    I don’t have a reason why, but I assumed the speaker was a woman detective. I like Debbie’s suggestion of having Mr. White address the speaker because that would clear up my confusion right away.

    I agree with Debbie that a revolver doesn’t fit as well as a pistol would. The scene came across as a detective story set in the early or mid 1900s until the douchebag line and the HR line.

    Other than my confusions with the protagonist’s sex and the time of the setting, I like this opening page. Best of luck on your continued writing journey, Brave Author!

    • Priscilla,

      Interesting that you thought the protagonist was a woman. That would turn the story on its head and be a refreshing change.

      All the more reason to name her immediately: “You have a smart mouth, Ms. XYZ.”

      Thanks for your observations.

      • Debbie,

        Thank you for all the time and thought you put into critiquing my work! I’m so happy you enjoyed it, and that the mix of gritty details and humor worked for you. I forgot to mention you personally in the long-winded comment below, so I figured I’d do it here. I will use not only your advice for my page, but all the advice you’ve given on other first pages as I continue to revise my manuscript. Thank you!


    • Priscilla,

      Thank you so much for the kind words! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I never even considered that someone would read the main character as a female, since he’s always been a guy in his early forties in my head. It’s just another reminder that our readers can only interpret the details we provide them. I’m making a conscious effort to weed out any other ambiguity that’s still lurking in the rest of the novel. Thanks!


  2. I agree, Debbie. There’s a lot to love about this first page. Well done, Brave Writer!

    One suggestion…

    As soon as I pulled my hand away, I could feel the blood begin to pool again.

    “Feel” is a telling word. If we wouldn’t think something in the same situation, it needs to go. To stay in a deep 3rd POV rewrite without the word feel. Something like, As I pulled my hand away, blood poured from the wound (Debbie’s right about “pool”). See how more immediate that reads? It’s more difficult to not rely on telling words, but your manuscript will be stronger for the added effort.

    • Sue,

      Thank you for the compliments, so glad you liked it! As I’m sure everyone on this site has done, I re-read my submission about fifty times after hitting “send” and that word “feel” jumped out at me like a moldy strawberry in a fruit bowl. I know EXACTLY what you mean and have been on the lookout for other “telling” words as I revise. As far as the blood “pooling,” in my head I pictured it pooling briefly in the wound before overflowing the sides and spilling down his face, but you’re right, it’s not quite the right description. Thanks!


  3. Overall well done. The action starts at word one and moves down the page. As noted, there are a few little things (pooling blood, the revolver, and a few extra words) that need a quick clean up.

    Yes, it does read like Raymond Chandler, etal, and that may be the problem. I have read this chapter a dozen times. I have seen it in another dozen movies. A well told cliché is still a cliché. A bad guy named Mr. White turning his pinky ring didn’t sit well with me. Maybe it’s me.

    Debbie is right, automatics have taken over action novels and movies. I did a quick Google looking for a revolver. The first set of images reminded me of a great detective/bad guy revolver. Inspector Callahan made a career out of his .44 revolver. Maybe the muscle ‘feels lucky’.

    • Alan,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment on my work, and for complimenting the writing. As for it being cliche, oh man, that’s the one thing I NEVER want to be. I think part of the reason I enjoyed writing this scene so much is because it was my chance to put a personal spin on a scene I too have read and watched a hundred times. It’s since been excised from the book, but I’m curious: After finding out the MC wasn’t a detective, assassin, secret agent or any other of the usual suspects but rather a professional recruiter for the criminal underworld, would that have changed your opinion at all, or would the cliche still be too thick to fully enjoy the rest of the scene?


    • Good point about the setting, Cynthia. It’s minimally described as a dive bar at 1:30 a.m. Perhaps a few more words to ground the reader. Is he sitting at a table? On a bar stool at the bar?

      Personally, I’d rather the author erred on the side of too little description as long as the action is this strong. But that’s individual taste.

      First person POV generally means the “I” character is the one to root for.

      Some books have successfully used first POV for the “villain” or antagonist–although I can’t find an example at the moment. TKZers, can you think of an example?

      • I’m probably too late for this conersation (I don’t check my emails often enough!) but…
        The only one I can think of right off is Jacqueline Carey’s Banewreaker.
        Not her best work, IMHO, but it definitely fits the bill for being told from the “bad guy’s” perspective.

    • Cynthia,

      Thanks for commenting! I’m so glad you liked the style. And for what it’s worth, I think “The Adventures of Pinky Ring and Bloody Face” would make an EXCELLENT title for an–admittedly dark–children’s book. Maybe we should collaborate!


  4. Really, really good start, Brave Author.

    I write most of my (as-yet unpublished) books in the first-person, so there was a couple of things I could suggest but will only comment on one:

    Unless Tough Guy can see himself, he can’t know the gash is a half-inch long. Suggest you just use “gash” without the measurement.

    When writing first person action scenes, I’ve begun to see that emphasis (which you have) enhances what you can’t see. The gash measurement: “The butt of the revolver smashed into my face, slicing open a half-inch gash above my left eyebrow.”

    I might suggest (or, sugguess, as my granddaughter says):
    His gloved right hand moved. The butt of the revolver smashed into my face. My neck snapped. I could smell that smell that I did when Bobby Moore hit me in the face with his head when we played backyard football. I knew Gloved Hand had opened upsomething Grand Canyon-sized. It hurt. It was bad. I wasn’t going to let him know how bad.

    As I said, a good start. I am envious.

    • Jim,

      Thanks so much for the wonderfully kind words. The critique about the length of the gash is one I never considered but which makes perfect sense the instant I stop and think about it. I’ll make sure I don’t make the same mistake twice. Also, your granddaughter’s word for “suggest” is adorable. My son, now 8, used to call memories “rememberies.” I loved it so much, I actually worked it into the book later on. Thanks again!


  5. This is only opinion. I agree that this is a well written scene, but something about it left me cold. Then I remembered a point P.D.James writes about in her fabulous book on writing. She points out that it is better to get the know the person who is to be killed or attacked first then present the action. (Read her book, she puts it a lot better than I have). Create an emotional connection to the victim. Put something on the line.
    I think this scene would work even better as the INCITING INCIDENT in chapter three or four when we know why the MC is taking this beating. Why the antagonist is so intent on his/her quest. Raise the tension even higher.
    I think we need to be careful about senseless violence in an age of senseless violence. The audience for fiction is different today than when Chandler wrote.
    Ms,.James book: Talking about Detective Fiction

    • Good points, Brian. As a number of us commented, this piece feels like an earlier era. The alienated loner who avoided emotions came into fashion around World War II into the ’50s and ’60s.

      Today’s readers seem to prefer more emotional connection with characters.

      Doesn’t mean one is superior to the other. Just means tastes, values, and conventions change with time.

      Thanks for adding yet another recommended book (Talking about Detective Fiction) to my TBR pile. It’s already so tall, if it tumbles over, I’ll be crushed!

    • Brian,

      Thanks for taking the time to share your honest opinion about my page. I appreciate the compliment about the writing, and value your thoughts on violence without proper context. When writing it, I never considered the violence “senseless,” because I knew why he was taking it. (You find out later he doesn’t like himself very much, and in addition to proving to Mr. White that he won’t be intimidated, it’s a form of assisted flagellation for how he earns a living). Obviously, you can’t know that until I put it on the page in front of you, though. I had hoped the humor took the edge off the violence, but it’s good to know that won’t be enough for everyone. Thanks for sharing!


  6. A great start, Brave Author.

    The tips shared in the previous comments about the revolver and the blood will help you refine the first person POV. Remember, your narrator can only see what’s in front of him. The more accurate you are in word choice, the more eagerly your readers will follow you into the story.

    I’d like to know where and when the action takes place. And something more to identify the guy getting bashed. Like Priscilla, I wondered if “he” were a “she.” Maybe it was that great line about getting the suit dry cleaned. Or perhaps it was because the protagonist just took the beating, making me wonder if he or she wasn’t strong enough to fight back. Or could the protagonist be playing for time, waiting for something else to happen? Hmmm. Next page, please.

    • Suzanne,

      Thank you for the kind words, I’m glad I left you wanting more! As I’ve stated in other comments, I’ll make sure to reveal enough details about a character to ground the reader sooner rather than later. Thank you!


  7. Oh, Brave Author, you’ve got me hooked with this first page!

    I don’t have any constructive comments because I’m still learning (from this fabulous team here at TKZ…), but I can say I’d keep turning the pages. I want to know who these people are and what they’re recruiting Tough Guy for.

    And if there’s a love interest lurking in the shadows somewhere, so much the better.

    The TKZ team has excellent pointers to make your first page even better than it already is…and yes, absolutely do let us know when it’s available! 🙂

    • Deb,

      Thanks so much for all the kind words! I’m so happy it hooked you the way I had hoped. As for a love interest, there’s an ex-wife he still holds feelings for, but they are not reciprocated. There’s also a strong female character who is the true badass of the novel and saves our MC with her advanced fighting skills on more than one occasion, but the heart of the story is in the relationship between the MC and his estranged daughter. While writing it, I tried to picture how I would feel if I had to leave my daughter behind and missed 10 years of her life. It was a powerful writing experience that I hope translates as well to the page. Thanks again!


      • Oh, the estranged father/daughter relationship is absolutely one I could sink my teeth into. Even more so than a romance, which, for my reader and author tastes, has to be lightly brushed in. Good job, and my best wishes for this story!

  8. Hello,Brave Author here! I can’t thank everyone enough for your inspiring compliments and helpful criticisms. I found this blog a few months ago and have found it invaluable as I work to improve my craft, especially the First Page Critiques. To have my page featured has been very cool.

    Ironically, the title of this blog post could have been “Kill Your Darlings.” I was in the early stages of writing my 2nd draft when I submitted this first page for consideration, and a few days after learning it was chosen for critique, I realized my novel started about 70 pages too early. To be clear: I love this scene. It was so much fun to write. And while I was able to incorporate some of those first 70 pages back into my novel later on, unfortunately this opening scene just didn’t fit. It hurt to cut it, but I know my novel is better for it. Still, I was very curious to see how it was received since the voice and tone established in the first 400 words definitely caries through the rest of the book. I am so relived to see that it (mostly) worked the way I had hoped, and even though the specific critique points are now moot, their lessons are ones I will absolutely use as I continue to revise the manuscript.

    I’m going to comment individually for everyone who took the time to do the same for me, but to address the general themes that came up:

    1. The title refers to the main character, who is a male, named Rick Carter. Sorry to disappoint all those who were hoping for Phillipa Marlowe! He’s a recruiter who finds hit men, smugglers and other assorted bad-guys-for-hire on behalf of crime lords throughout the world. He’s really good at his job and hates himself because of it.

    2. The revolver. It’s so funny how this detail lead everyone down a path I never intended. Honestly, the only reason it’s a revolver and not a more modern semi-automatic pistol is because when I pictured the scene in my head, that’s what Ray Bans was holding. I never even gave it a second thought. It was so eye-opening to see how a detail I viewed as throwaway was so pivotal in setting expectations for the reader.

    3. The MC’s name. Believe it or not, in the first draft, you don’t find out his name until Chapter Three. That’s WAYYYYYYYY too deep into the story, obviously, and has since been corrected. (It now is revealed on Page 2).

    Again, thank you to everyone. I intend to become a more active member of this group moving forward. It really is an incredible resource for any writer, regardless of where they are in their career. You’re all amazing!

    • Welcome to the TKZ family, Gregg! I’m always glad when the Brave Author comes forward.

      In writing, nothing is ever wasted, even it doesn’t wind up in the finished product. Sometimes you go quite a distance down a path (like the 70 pages you mention) to learn that’s the wrong way. But as long as you learn, the trip isn’t wasted.

      You already have a good handle on craft so you can concentrate on subtleties…like a revolver vs. a pistol. The devil is in the details b/c a small item can mislead the reader.

      You should be encouraged by the many positive comments. Let us know when the book is published.

  9. I am missing the obvious. The observations about the revolver make sense if the setting was contemporary. What in this first page tells everyone the setting is today? Could it be in the 1930s or 1940s? If the setting is current, perhaps the revolver has a sentimental value (“my first murder was with this pistol; it’s been my lucky gun ever since”). Regardless, an excellent first page.

    • I think the references to “Ray Bans” and “porn star” are hints of contemporary. But you raise a good point, Keith. Time and setting are both important to establish early in a novel.

      Thanks for stopping by.

Comments are closed.