The “Last” First Page Critique:
It’s A Jungle Out There

By PJ Parrish

This is my last post of the year before we take our annual holiday break. That means I have an excuse to post a picture of my dogs. Merry Christmas from Phoebe and Archie! Woof.

It also means I have the pleasure of reading my final First Page Critique of 2020, and offering it up to the TKZ hive for comments. It’s a medical thriller, and we’re off to the jungles of Jakarta. The plane is on the runway. Catch you on the return trip, crime dogs.

The Lazarus Outbreak

Republic of Nanga Selak, 650km Northwest of Jakarta

The scientists were late for their pickup.

Danni Lachlan swore and checked her watch again. She paced back and forth while staying in the shadow cast by her Cessna. The nose of the twin-engine plane pointed resolutely down the ribbon of dirt that barely qualified as a takeoff and landing strip.

Palm-leafed trees and vines dotted with colorful orchids still clung to the edges of the recently cleared space. Smells of rotting vegetation and jungle flowers hung in the air. The odd mix of scents reminded Lachlan of a perfumed burial shroud.

A shiver ran down her spine at the thought.

“Never should’ve taken this damn job,” she muttered under her breath.

She dug into a pocket before coming up with a cigarette and a lighter. She took a moment to light up before drawing breath and exhaling a cloud of smoke. The nicotine habit and the bush pilot company were all her ex-husband had left her. She’d made the best of both to keep sane and put food on the table.

Lachlan’s head jerked up as she heard a cry.

It could’ve been a human cry, but the jungle had a hundred ways of distorting sound. Her pulse started to pound as something made a loud rustle.

Suddenly, three people in silvery protective clothing tore free of the underbrush. The name CLARK had been stenciled in black across the chest of one, WIJAYA on another. The silver-suited one in the middle hung limply in the arms of the other two. The name HAYES was barely visible as the other two dragged their companion along.

A demented howl erupted from the tree line. Then a flicker of movement came from the bushes nearby. Clark and Wijaya traded a glance.

They dropped Hayes in the dirt and ran towards the plane.

“What is it?” Lachlan shouted. “What’s going on?”

The two scientists tore off their respirator masks and tossed them away as they ran. Wijaya’s coppery face stared blankly in fear. Clark’s was a mirror image in pale white.

“Start the plane!” Clark cried. “Get us out of here!”

Lachlan stared a moment longer.

Hayes’ body lay face down. It began to quiver. Arms and legs drummed mindlessly against the moist earth.

More flickers of moment in the underbrush. The sounds of something tearing its way through the underbrush. That finally broke Lachlan’s horrified stare and got her moving.

_________________

Let’s start with what works. We’re at a good dramatic moment, which is often a great entry point for a story. (Caveat: You needn’t always start with something this “action” oriented. A dramatic movement can be more subtle). The writer chose a good moment, just before the proverbial $%&^ hits the propellers.

I like how we get just the barest snippet of backstory — that she’s got a bad marriage behind her that makes her a bit bitter. I don’t mind that at all…it intrigues me, character-wise. Notice that the writer did not feel compelled to belabor Danni’s past or state of mind. Get the plot moving first! You can always layer in her past in “quiet” moments later.

A note: The writer could have opened right with the sound of the men breaking through the brush dragging their comrade toward the plane. That’s certainly more action-y. But I like the fact we get to “meet” the heroine first, as she waits for the rendezvous.

I like the location. Never been to Jakarta (closest I got to a jungle was my backyard in South Florida). The atmosphere and sense of isolation is nicely rendered. Good uses of senses beyond sight. Smell is oft-neglected in description. Wondering how the air feels, though. Like standing in a sauna, I would guess. Maybe she’s feel the press of her sweat-damp shirt? Brush away a wet strand of hair? The writer makes a point of saying Danni is pacing in the “shadow of her Cessna.” Good detail but it can be sharper by making the point that it’s the only shade from the searing sun?

Description is important, especially if you’re using a foreign locale. Don’t let any chance slip by to make us feel we are there. Description, used well, can enhance the sense of peril, fear, anticipation (whatever mood you’re going for).  But keep it razor-sharp, never over-wrought or too long in the early pages.

The writer is in firm grasp of basic craft, like dialogue, action choreography. We can tell pretty much what is happening here, so kudos there.

Something that confuses me. Danni is waiting for a team of scientists, as stated in the first sentence. Is she part of the team? Is she merely a pilot and thus doesn’t know them? Might want to drop in a clarifying hint. (See comments below about increasing tension)

About that first sentence. The writer sets it off all by itself in its own graph. When you do that, you’re telling the reader it is extra important. Yet the sentence itself is sort of flat and matter-of-fact. Like: “Well, damn, they’re late, so here I am again just cooling my heels.”  It lacks enough drama to set up what happens next. Especially since you make a big point of Danni’s impatience. Why is she pacing? Does she know there is danger in getting this team out? The word “pick up” is just sort of blah as well. Because we don’t know Danni’s exact role here, we can’t get the full effect of the urgency you’re trying to create with this scene.

I don’t know what might work better (ideas welcome!), but I think, given the excitement of this opening scene, you can come up with a better first line.

Let’s do a quick line edit so I can bring up some other points. My comments in red.

The Lazarus Outbreak The title works fine for a medical thriller. Even if you don’t know your Bible, that Lazarus rose from the dead, it’s interesting. I just hope the use of the biblical reference ties into the plot. Like, if you’re infected, you die then are reborn ie zombies? 

Republic of Nanga Selak, 650km Northwest of Jakarta I’m not a big fan of location tags but this one is okay because the action comes on so quickly, the writer doesn’t have an easy way to tell us where we are. 

The scientists were late for their pickup. As I said in comments, this is too blah for this good of a scene. You’d be better off just cutting it and opening with the second graph and finding a way to slip in the “scientists” info. Maybe something like:

Danni Lachlan swore and checked her watch again. She paced back and forth, careful to stay in the shadow of her Cessna, the only relief from the blazing sun. She looked down the ribbon of dirt in front of the plane, wondering again if there was enough room to take off. The landing had been hard enough. 

She came out of the shade and brought up a hand to shield her eyes as she peered into the dense jungle just ten yards away.

Where the hell were they? They knew they had only a half-hour window to get out of here.

A sharp crack made her spin to the other side of the brush.

Two men in silver hazmat suits stumbled into the open, dragging a man between them. 

 

Danni Lachlan swore and checked her watch again. She paced, back and forth while staying in the shadow cast by of her Cessna. The nose of the twin-engine plane pointed resolutely means admirably purposeful; too human for a machine and clutters things up. down the ribbon of dirt that barely qualified as a takeoff and landing strip. Do more with this image; ie she had barely made the landing…

Palm-leafed trees and vines dotted with colorful orchids still clung to the edges of the recently cleared space. This implies knowledge on her part, so she has been here before? Or is she a team member? Clarify if you use it. ALSO: how far away is the brush from the plane? We need to know to understand the action when the scientists come running out. Smells of rotting vegetation and jungle flowers hung in the air. The odd mix of scents reminded Lachlan of a burial shroud. Again, I love that you use smells here, but can you make this sing more, be specific? The still heavy air smelled of rotting vegetation and jasmine. (I checked; it’s common in Jakarta). The mixture reminded Lachlan of a burial shroud.  I don’t think this works. It sounds like YOU the WRITER describing something, not your character. Would this woman think in those images? Not unless it is in her specific sensory bank of memories. ALWAYS KEEP COMPARISONS, METAPHORS, SIMILES specific to your character’s experience. It feels more real and it helps you establish character traits. I can’t say what smell in her memory comes to her; that is for you to decide, but it has to connect to HER. 

A shiver ran down her spine a cliche at the thought. BUT…if that awful smell you describe above made her shiver then that means it RESONATES with something in her past. What in her memory made her shiver at that smell? It wasn’t a burial shroud, as they aren’t common anymore. 

“Never should’ve taken this damn job,” she muttered under her breath. I like this line here. 

She dug into a pocket for before coming up with a cigarette and a lighter. She lit up and pulled in a quick deep breath. took a moment to light up before drawing breath and exhaling a cloud of smoke.  Don’t waste words on routine actions. The nicotine habit and the bush pilot company were all her ex-husband had left her. Good! She’d made the best of both to keep sane and put food on the table.

Lachlan’s head jerked up as she heard a cry. The cry comes first, then her reaction. 

It could’ve been a human cry, but the jungle had a hundred ways of distorting sound. Her pulse started to pound as something made a loud rustle. Again, action causes her reaction. Also gives you a way to get rid of the clumsy “as.” You overuse the “as” construction. 

Suddenly, three people in silvery protective clothing I think she’d recognize hazmat suits and you have to put the fact they are wearing masks HERE not later because that is what she would notice first. And a note about breathing masks: They are in a jungle, it’s as hot as hell and these guys are in MASKS? What might she think? Use this moment to increase tension. SOMETHING ISN’T RIGHT HERE. EXPLOIT THAT. tore free of the underbrush. The name CLARK had been stenciled in black across the chest of one, WIJAYA on another. The silver-suited one in the middle hung limply in the arms of the other two. The name HAYES was barely visible as the other two dragged their companion along. This is important: When choreographing action, you must keep the order of the character’s recognition logical. What would Danni notice first? Names? Nope. She’d notice the men struggling to drag the third guy. If they are dragging a man, who’s apparently dying, they’d be crouched over; impossible to see their names. Plus, is it important to name them right now? Does she know them? If not, why bother? 

A demented howl Not sure demented works here. It means angry or crazyerupted from the tree line. Then a flicker of movement came from the bushes nearby. Refract this through her POV somehow. Danni saw the fronds on the low palms behind the three men moving.

Clark and Wijaya traded a glance. Too casual sounding. Stay in action phrasing.

The two men heard it, too. They looked back at the jungle then at each other. They dropped the third man and ran toward the plane. 

They dropped Hayes in the dirt and ran towards the plane.

“What is it?” Lachlan shouted. “What’s going on?”

This stretch of action implies they have a lot space to cover, yet you said the “runway” was a narrow ribbon carved from the jungle. Clarify this. The two scientists men tore off their respirator masks and tossed them away as they ran. Wijaya’s coppery face stared blankly in fear. Clark’s was a mirror image in pale white. This could use some work. Coppery face? Is he foreign? And he’s running for his life so I don’t think he’d have a blank stare. At this point the name CLARK on his suit might register in her consciousness but ONLY at this late point. Which might be where you to drop in the plot point that she’s ferrying out scientists. Waiting to tell the reader until now that they are scientists is a way to increase intrigue…dole out your plot one bread crumb at a time. Sometimes you want to hold facts back to make more impact later. It all about layering…

His dark face was contorted with fear. She saw the name CLARK stenciled across the front of his suit. Clark…Duane Clark, one of the three scientists she had been hired to fly out here.

“Start the plane!” Clark cried. “Get us out of here!”

Lachlan stared a moment longer. At what? Where is the second man? Again, keep her impressions of the action in a logical order. They dropped the third guy so she can’t possibly see his name. Something simple like:

The second man stumbled to the Cessna, but Lachlan’s eyes were locked on the man they had abandoned. He lay twenty feet away, face down in the dirt. His body was quivering, arms and legs drumming in the red dirt. 

Hayes’ body lay face down. It began to quiver. Arms and legs drummed mindlessly against the moist earth.

More flickers of moment in the underbrush. The sounds of something tearing its way through the underbrush. That finally broke Lachlan’s horrified stare and got her moving. I think we’ve got too many “flickers” in the brush. Maybe save the howl for here so you get a fresh punch. And make it really awful. Then don’t TELL me she gets moving. SHOW me her moving. 

Danni jerked open the door of the Cessna. Clark half-carried the second men the final yard to the plane and together they pushed him inside. Jumping into the pilot seat, she pushed the throttle in and hit the master switch. The Cessna roared to life, drowning out the sound of…WHATEVER THAT AWFUL HOWL WAS.  

So, this is what I would call a good first draft. Nice action, an exotic location, an interesting protag. (assuming Danni is such) and lots of juicy unanswered questions. Don’t be discouraged by my bleeding red all over your pages, dear writer. As I said, this is good stuff and we all find ways to improve as we go through various rewrites. Mine is just one opinion.

Thank you, anon writer, for letting us share your work. I know how hard this is, to put your baby out there for scrutiny. I’ve had some tough editors over the years, and it took me a while to realize they were tough because they wanted me to succeed. We’re here for you.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, all, and may the next year be…well, let’s just say brighter, healthier and a helluva lot more huggable.

 

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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

24 thoughts on “The “Last” First Page Critique:
It’s A Jungle Out There

  1. Medical thrillers are not my thing, but rugged pilots-for-hire and scary noises coming from a jungle most definitely are. While I might not make it through the rest of this book depending which way the story goes, I’m absolutely turning the page to see what happens next with Danni, her clients, and those strange howls…

    After it’s all been given a good polish, that is. I agree with PJ that this has solid first draft written all over it. There aren’t any major issues, just a bunch of little stuff that adds up to a messier read than I’m sure you’re capable of delivering. Echo words, for example. PJ already mentioned the overuse of “as,” but the word “underbrush” also appears twice in the space of 11 words. It pulls the reader out of the story and makes us pay attention to your mechanics.

    PJ pretty much pointed out all the rough edges that need to be sanded down, and the good news is that it’s mostly cosmetic. I really like the way this scene is set up, and would love to read it after you’ve given it another once-over. Good luck!

    • Thanks Gregg. That’s encouraging for our writer, that you’re lured in. I feel the same about sci-fi. It’s not my cup of tea, so it takes a sure hand to keep me turning the page. I think this writer is onto something good here. As you said — scrappy pilot, rumble in the jungle — what’s not to like?

  2. Kris –
    As usual rock solid input/suggestions. Thanks for another year of ninja-level contributions and wishing you a happy and healthy holiday!
    Author – I write and am a fan of medical thrillers (so am likely among your target readership). I think the first page you’ve shared is excellent. Kris and others will/have shared useful refinements. I want to emphasize a couple of the things you’ve done that I feel are particularly appealing.
    1 – protagonist. You’ve deftly revealed a wry, vulnerable, independent (“The nicotine habit and the bush pilot company were all her ex-husband had left her. She’d made the best of both to keep sane and put food on the table”), yet undeniably ballsy lead character (she’s a bush pilot on a primitive jungle air strip in the wilds of Indonesia). A unique and captivating lady that I’m already pulling for.
    2 – setting. Exotic, sensory rich and menacing
    3 – conflict/disturbance. Great supporting features/environment/threats as set-up for the primary “disturbance”.
    4 – disturbance. Hazmat suits, a collapsing and seizing “scientist”, unknown elements pursuing them from the jungle – plenty of potential here and all of it is wicked, high-stakes potentially cataclysmic stuff.
    5 – suspense. Clock is ticking. They lift-off in seconds or they’re goners. And even if they get air-borne I suspect the threat continues.

    Great first page submission! Love to read this work that has started with such promise. Feel free to reach out for beta input if inclined.
    Thanks –
    Tom Combs

  3. Not sure why the writer dropped the more intimate Danni for Lachlan. It distanced me. Otherwise, a good disturbance and with some of the cleanup suggested here, a gripping first page.

  4. Compelling first page, Brave Author. The situation, locale, and main character are all interesting. Follow Kris’s excellent advice and you’ll have a terrific start.

    One question: the action implies Wijawa and Clark are abandoning Hayes, leaving him to a grisly death, while they escape. What is Lachlan’s reaction? That not only sets up a potential conflict between her and the scientists but also gives an opportunity to show Lachlan’s characcter.

    I would keep reading.

    • Good point about why they leave their companion. That is what I meant by the author doing a good job of setting up unanswered questions. A compelling opening does just that — sets up a disturbance and questions. Then the rest of the book answers them. I like the fact that we don’t know why they just dropped the poor guy and ran, but it’s sure compelling! It would have been a mistake for the writer to try to address it right away ie: Danni demanding “Why’d you leave him there?” They need to get away from unnamed danger first. Good job on writer’s part on knowing when to leave things out.

  5. Good critique, as always. Jim brought up a point that often annoys me — how people refer to important characters. They start out with both names, then abruptly switch to one name, the last, and I’m going back through the text trying to figure out who they are talking about.

  6. I like medical thrillers and I am a licensed pilot. Author, take a look at the suggestions. I think you have a great start and an interesting story.

    A few things. If she was there to pick up the scientists and they were late and it is a rush job, she should have been starting up the plane when they broke through the brush. Presumably there is a pressing reason to get out of there right now.

    It is either a landing strip or a runway. It can be a recently cleared dirt runway, or a short, recently cleared runway. Take off and landing strip is awkward.

    Pilot again. The only high winged, twin engine Cessna is a Skymaster. The Skymaster has a push/pull engine configuration significantly (oddly) different to warrant a mention early. The other twin engine Cessnas have low wings and you would need to laydown to get comfortable in their shadows. Bonus Skymasters are good short, rough field airplanes. Well suited to jungle work. Many are over 20 years old and can have the “patina” of hard life in the jungle.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cessna_Skymaster The US Army used a Skymaster variant in Vietnam.

    This might work for the recently cleared field. “Fresh machete cuts had left palm trees, vines, and colorful orchids decaying along the edge of the runway.”

    Overall, a little clean up and I would pick up a copy.

    • Thanks for the inside info, Alan. This is a good point make here, that the details Alan cites are vital to creating verisimilitude (the feeling of something being real or true). I did a quick Google of “Cessna” to write my example and ran into the same thing you suggest: That a quick get-away scenario means the plane would be at the ready. Also the procedure to take-off is different depending on how long the plane has been sitting idle. Didn’t want to get into all this in my critique so I am glad you brought it up.

      It is important that since Danni is a pilot, these details are correct. Just as it would be if she were a cop for the writer to take great care with crime scene procedure and guns.

      Don’t settle for the generalized when the specific can create tension and interest. Whether it’s a Cessna or a Jasmine bloom.

      • And I like that image you suggested of “Fresh machete cuts had left…” Another good example of DETAILS making a difference.

  7. I’m stuck on the title. The Lazarus Outbreak. There’s a lot of foreshadowing in those three words. Although I don’t know the story synopsis, it’s going to be great if the story fits.

    Zombies, rising from the dead, rebirth — whatever it might be — I’m expecting some meaning out this book. I’m hoping for an adventurous or spiritual tone. But if there’s no link to one of the greatest stories, then is could be a let down to the reader.

  8. Ooh…I love a medical thriller, both in print and on the screen. Great critique, Kristy, and love all the additional suggestions by everyone else.

    Anon, I would turn the page. In fact, I was disappointed when the first page ended. 🙂 I love the title…so much potential for cool stuff to happen.

    Study these comments and take them to heart. Your already good story will only get better.

    See ya next year, Kristy!

  9. Congratulations, Brave Author. I liked the quick action in this piece.

    But I’m also a licensed pilot and I immediately picked up on a couple of details. In addition to the type of twin-engine Cessna that would provide shade, I thought Danni’s look down the dirt strip that she’s using as a runway could be used for more tension. If I didn’t have much room to get off the ground, I’d be mentally measuring the distance to see if the plane would clear the trees at the end of the dirt strip.

    • Exactly. That’s what I tried to suggest in milking the tension in the setting a little more. I think, in our desire to get a fast opening, we write a little too sparely. A quick thought on her part, as you said, would also enhance character and help us bond with her.

  10. Bbbbbbbb

    Brave Author, please, oh, please continue to work on this. I was hooked! As always, super editorial comments.

  11. When I read the original script, I loved it.
    When I read Kristy’s comments I saw how much better it could be.
    This is an excellent illustration why we all NEED editors.

    I’ll buy your book when it comes out.

  12. This is Brave Author – A big pre-Christmas thank-you to everyone who spent time reading and commenting, either for the encouraging words or the extremely helpful suggestions. This was like an early gift unwrapping, and each note shall find its way into the next draft.

    Special thanks to the comments by the professional pilots re: the Cessna. *Extra* special thanks for the line-by-line edits done by PJ Parrish and the pictures of Archie and Phoebe!

    • Thanks for weighing in. We don’t always hear back, so it’s good to know that you found this helpful. It’s like having a good critique group. Best of luck to you with Lazarus Outbreak!

  13. Congrats Brave Author! I like this first page. I agree with all the critiques–the writing can be tighter. But I’m drawn in and eager to learn why poor Clark has (presumably) expired. Keep going!

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