First Page Critique – Rene Out on a Limb

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By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 Happy 2021 and welcome back to TKZ after the annual holiday break!

Today, we kick off the new year with the first page of Rene Out on a Limb, a humorous middle-grade mystery. Please enjoy this submission then we’ll discuss it:

 

 

 

Rene Out on a Limb – First 400 words

The branch of the tree makes a creaky noise when I wriggle out on it, and the ground looks really far away. I’m not worried, though. Oak tree limbs don’t break … do they?

“Psst.” My cousin Joanie tries to whisper, but it sounds more like a moose wheezing. Joanie is nine years old, but she never learned how to whisper properly. She’s sitting on a low branch like she’s glued to the trunk.  A squirrel pokes its head out of a knothole and gnaws on an acorn while he stares at me. Like he’s surprised to see a girl halfway out on a limb. But this is my life. An investigative reporter knows no fear.

“Psst. Rene, stop.” Joanie’s voice gets a little louder and scaredier as I inch my way along the branch.

“Shh.” I whisper back with much better form. “I want to hear what they’re saying.” It’s good practice for a reporter to eavesdrop on possible subjects, and I’d radared in on Nate Peterson as he walked across campus with his girlfriend. They were so wrapped up in each other, they didn’t even see us. They stopped next to that big elm tree a few feet away, and the girl stood with her back against the trunk while he leaned toward her with his hand on the tree and a goofy expression on his face.

I’ll never understand adults. If Nate’s trying to impress his girlfriend, he’d do better if he stood on his head or did a couple of cartwheels. At least it would show a little talent. Maybe he could buy a yo-yo.

I creep another couple of inches forward, ease the notebook out of my pocket, and strain to hear. He calls the girl “Cassie.” I write it down.

Cassie was saying something about Reverend Newton. I know him. He’s the minister at the university chapel. She says, “He asked me to stop by today after lunch. It’s about Mr. Myet.”

Mr. Myet? Wasn’t he the librarian who died in that fire?

Cassie frowns. “Reverend Newton thinks there may have been foul play.”

Murder! My heart pounds and my ears become antennae. Maybe I can solve the mystery and expose the killer. I could be famous. I’ll be the youngest person who ever won a Pulitzer Prize!

I try to ease forward, but my foot gets caught.

~~~

This story blasts right out of the gate. In three short paragraphs, the author introduces Rene, the first-person protagonist, establishes her approximate age, and introduces her goal—she wants to be a famous investigative reporter.

By the ninth paragraph, she presents the mysterious death of the librarian, Mr. Myet. Rene’s mission grows more ambitious with that revelation. She’s determined to solve the crime.

The Brave Author includes another important detail: Rene is already in danger because the tree limb she’s clinging to could break. If that happens (and I’m fairly sure it will in the next page or two), Rene might be injured. But a more serious consequence: she will be discovered by the people she is surveilling. Her covert mission is blown.

That sense of risk propels the reader to turn the page. We need to find out Rene’s fate.

Does she survive? Once she’s discovered, can she talk her way out of her dilemma? Can she continue with her mystery-solving mission?

The Brave Author sidestepped the common problems we see on many TKZ first pages—lack of conflict, lack of action, too much backstory, difficulty with point of view (POV), unclear characterizations. In this excerpt, character, action, and conflict combine smoothly to engage the reader immediately. Effective pacing moves the story forward, inducing the reader to keep turning pages. Well done!

Humor is a bonus in writing stories for most age groups but particularly, it seems, for young readers. Rene’s voice is wry, witty, and delightful. She makes observations that sound appropriate for an intelligent child without being too advanced. Although her exact age is not mentioned, her mildly superior attitude toward her nine-year-old cousin suggests she’s perhaps a year older.

Joanie as the cautious sidekick contrasts with the fearless Rene, showing the personalities of both characters quickly and efficiently.

Rene pokes fun at Nate’s attempts to impress Cassie. Further, she inserts her own suggestions that standing on his head, turning cartwheels, or doing yo-yo tricks would be much more effective. Young readers can follow her child’s logic and older readers should find her lack of sophistication amusing and endearing.

I do suggest rearranging that paragraph a little, grouping all Rene’s suggested alternatives together and then drawing her conclusion.

I’ll never understand adults. If Nate’s trying to impress his girlfriend, he’d do better if he stood on his head or did a couple of cartwheels. If he’s super cool, he could demonstrate yo-yo tricks like The Elevator or Walking the Dog. At least that would show a little talent. Maybe he could buy a yo-yo.

 

 

The paragraph below works better if it’s split into two paragraphs. Joanie’s inability to whisper should be a separate thought from the squirrel’s action and Rene’s reaction.

“Psst.” My cousin Joanie tries to whisper, but it sounds more like a moose wheezing. Joanie is nine years old, but she never learned how to whisper properly. She’s sitting on a low branch like she’s glued to the trunk. 

A squirrel pokes its head out of a knothole and gnaws on an acorn while he stares at me. Like he’s surprised to see a girl halfway out on a limb. But this is my life. An investigative reporter knows no fear.

Let’s talk about verb tense. The story begins in present tense, which is common in children’s books. That sense of immediacy appeals to young readers.

Then there’s a switch to past tense. That is understandable for events that have already happened, like this paragraph:

I’d radared in on Nate Peterson as he walked across campus with his girlfriend. They were so wrapped up in each other, they didn’t even see us. They stopped next to that big elm tree a few feet away, and the girl stood with her back against the trunk while he leaned toward her with his hand on the tree and a goofy expression on his face.

Then the tense switches back to present as Rene makes her entertaining observations about how Nate should impress his girlfriend. Present tense is appropriate because the reader is inside her head, thinking her thoughts as they occur to her.

This is followed by Rene’s actions of creeping further out on the branch and taking notes, also in present tense.

But then, in the next paragraph, a change to past tense causes a slight clunk:

Cassie was saying something about Reverend Newton.

It might read more smoothly this way:

Cassie is saying something about Reverend Newton.

Here’s another tense change that tripped me:

Mr. Myet? Wasn’t he the librarian who died in that fire? 

The thought in Rene’s head should be in present tense, in the moment that it occurs to her:

Mr. Myet? Isn’t he the librarian who died in that fire?

These nits are tiny. Yet they make a subtle difference. When the author avoids small bumps like these, the reader stays totally engaged in the story, without even a millisecond’s distraction from the fictive dream.

I had a hard time finding ways to improve on this already-excellent submission. Maybe other readers can see places to change but I was entirely caught up in the story and would read further.

A young girl who wants to become a crime-solving reporter is an appealing premise. I discovered Rene has a real-life counterpart, Hilde Lysiak.

The ambitious young lady, originally from Selinsgrove, PA, started a local newspaper when she was seven as a homeschooling assignment. By age ten, she had scooped conventional media with her coverage of a grisly murder committed with a hammer.

Because of that story, she was publicly criticized on social media. Her response to criticism from (so-called) adults was posted on You Tube and went viral.

Hilde made headlines again when the marshal in Patagonia, Arizona (where she now lives) challenged her right to shoot video, claiming she broke the law. She repeatedly asked him what law she had broken.

She did not back down despite his threats. Gutsy Hilde was acting within her First Amendment rights.

The officer’s false assertion led to a formal apology from the town mayor.

Along with her father, former NY Daily News reporter, Matthew Lysiak, Hilde scored a six-book series, along with a new Apple TV show chronicling her adventures as a kid reporter.

Judging by Hilde’s success, the appeal of a young female reporter who solves crime is certainly commercially viable.

With the excellent quality of writing and storytelling skills in Rene Out on a Limb, the Brave Author should be able to grab the attention of children’s publishers and enthusiastic young readers.

Thank you for submitting this fun piece, Brave Author. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

~~~

TKZers: Does this first page capture your interest? What suggestions can you offer the Brave Author?

~~~

Flight to Forever by Debbie Burke is coming soon!

Nobody tells Vietnam veteran Lou Belmonte he can’t hug his wife of 50 years. When pandemic restrictions won’t let him visit his beloved Cameo in a memory care lockdown, he busts her out, injuring two employees who try to stop him. The couple flees to a remote fire lookout in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness.

With cops in pursuit, investigator Tawny Lindholm and her defense attorney husband, Tillman Rosenbaum, race to find the aging outlaws first because Lou won’t go down without a fight.

Flight to Forever is the sixth book in Debbie Burke’s Tawny Lindholm Thriller series. Check out a sneak preview at this link.  

This entry was posted in #amwriting, first page, first page critique, First page critiques and tagged by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the Zebulon Award. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, Dead Man's Bluff, Crowded Hearts, and Flight to Forever. Debbie's articles have won 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. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

16 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Rene Out on a Limb

  1. I enjoyed this first page. My favorite line was: “Joanie’s voice gets a little louder and scaredier as I inch my way along the branch” because it shows how the two kids in the tree really are kids with kid-language.

    The change in tense did confuse me a bit, but overall I wanted to turn the page and either laugh when Rene and Joanie fell (unhurt) from the tree or get even more intrigued when they went to question the reverend.

    Best of luck, Anonymous, with the rest of the story!

    • Priscilla, I also loved “scaredier” b/c it’s kid language–ungrammatical but perfectly accurate and far more descriptive than the “correct” way .
      I suspect that unbreakable tree branch will. And Rene has to talk her way out the situation. Once unveiled as an eavesdropper, that throws another roadblock in her way when she wants to question the reverend.

      Thanks, Priscilla, for your encouragement to the Brave Author.

  2. If I’m picking nits–because like Debbie said, that’s all I can really do with this excellent page–we get to the murder reveal a tad too early for my tastes. Now, it should be noted that I have not read middle grade fiction since I myself was in middle school (my daughter prefers graphic novels and my son is a nonfiction facts junkie), so perhaps that kind of pacing is common for the genre. Still, unless Cassie’s “foul play” line is a red herring, and the real mystery is something to be revealed in a later chapter, it just feels a bit rushed. But man, I’m grasping just to come up with that critique. Really nice job!

    • Gregg, I’m also not familiar with contemporary middle-grade fiction. But, given the ever-shortening attention span of today’s readers (adults as well as children), I think erring on the side of too rushed is probably preferable to too slow.

      I also struggled to find nits b/c this was so well executed.

      Thanks for commenting.

  3. Loved this first page, Brave Writer! Great voice, plenty of conflict, excellent characters. I’d definitely turn the page.

    Fab critique, Debbie. I wondered how you’d improve this first page. The better the page, the harder the critique is to do. Terrific suggestions regarding tenses. To simplify the line about Cassie, Anon could write, “Cassie says.”

    • “The better the page, the harder the critique is to do.”

      Sue, that is so true! I had to read this several times to come up with the few tiny bumps. I like your suggestion to simplify to, “Cassie says.” Get rid of the dreaded “was.”

      Thanks, Sue!

  4. Bravo, Brave Writer! Your opening page engages the reader immediately, with a little tension, lots of conflict, humor and a witty voice with attitude, and a great pairing of characters. I’d keep reading to see what happens next.

    I agree with Debbie’s suggestions. Minor tweaks, really. I like Sue’s suggestion to simply the line about Cassie.

    As a now-retired public librarian, one thing we never seemed to have enough of in our collection were engaging middle grade mysteries. If the rest of the book engages the reader as much as this opening page, you’ll find a ready audience with young readers. Well done!

    • Dale, you are far better qualified to judge middle-grade mysteries than I am. Brave Author must be thrilled to receive your librarian’s stamp of approval.

      Also, your comment that libraries never have enough MG mysteries shows there’s demand for this story. How wonderfully encouraging for BA!

      Thanks for your experienced, knowledgeable input!

  5. Brave Author, you’ve captured a reader who doesn’t read this genre! Well done.

    I agree with Debbie’s critique…sprucing up your first page with her suggestions should put you on the way to producing a stellar story. And a series!

    Thank you for this great read…

  6. Well, I can’t wait to turn the page, Brave Author. I love the voices of the two main characters.

    Just take care of those nits that Debbie picked and we’ll all be clamoring to know your launch date.

  7. I found it very engaging and enjoyable. As has been noted, the dialogue and thoughts put you in the heads of kids and humor isn’t easy to do but you nailed it. I have only one very minor nit and probably it’s only because I’m always fixated on the time period of a piece–I didn’t get a sense of what time period this was for. I certainly don’t view it as historical, but the fact that the protag pulled out a notepad and not a cell phone makes me think it’s not precisely modern day, as did the mention of a yo-yo. Now I’m not around kids that much so I may be totally wrong, but I just don’t see or hear much about yo-yo’s any more, which was another reason I thought it perhaps was not contemporary.

    In any case, it was a great page, so in the grand scheme of things, not being certain about time frame on page one isn’t that big a deal. Great job!

    • BK, thanks for mentioning time period. Since everyone who commented here is an adult, the Brave Author would also benefit with beta readers in the target age group.

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