First Page Critique: Whose Face
Is Behind That Pebbled Glass?

By PJ Parrish

I think we’re stepping back in time with today’s First Pager. Back to an era when men were right gees, women were dames, a gun was a gat, but cigar was always just a cigar. And the view of the world comes through the slats of Venetian blinds and a swirl of smoke. But whose view is it?

Fatal Infraction

Chapter 1 — Offensive Planning

THE BOSS’S OPEN HAND slammed against his desktop with an ear-splitting smack. Every ornament, pen, and even the desk phone jump and then rattled back into place. “Damn it all! I didn’t want it to come to this!”

The huge man standing on the other side of the desk remained unfazed. His pectoral muscles stretched at the fabric of his black t-shirt, thick forearms crossed across his chest, biceps bulging above the short sleeves. Maintaining a placid expression required more self-control than most of his duties, which tended toward knocking heads together. A protruding vein, just visible above his left ear throbbed with increasing frequency. He hoped the boss would not notice. Being cool under pressure was his identity.

The early evening sunlight filtering in through a gap in the Venetian blinds. A recently smoked cigar lingered in the air.

“We knew he was a wild card, boss.” Not a quiver from the big man’s arms as he spoke. His voice was even; detached.

“Yeah, I know. But I still feel like we could have handled it better.” He sighed as he spun in his leather chair and reached for a cut-glass tumbler sitting on a polished credenza next to a crystal decanter. He poured himself two fingers of The McCallan 12. His companion stood stoically as he savored a sip, then turned back around. “You don’t think there are any other options?”

The big man shrugged, “That’s not my call, sir.”

“It’s really a shame. He had potential. He could have made us a lot of money.”

“That’s why you picked him. But, like you said, we can’t tolerate his actions.”

The boss took a long draught, then set the glass down with a clink. “I know. The time is right. You take care of it.”

“I will.”

The man behind the desk leaned forward and reached for his telephone handset as the big man left. He mumbled to himself, “It’s a damned shame.”

___________________________

I’m just guessing here because the scene-setting is bare bones, but I think we’re in the era of the pebbled glass door. The tone of this opening suggests the bygone era of pulp novels — Venetian blinds, smoke, whiskey, a desk phone rather than iPhone.  The tone also comes from the clipped macho dialogue, the physical descriptions (bulging biceps, throbbing veins). If I’m wrong, then I think the writer has a problem going in.  We can’t really tell where we are in time or place. More on than in a moment.

But the main problem here is one of point of view. There isn’t one. Sure, you can make a case for omniscient but it’s not consistent. And as we’ve said here often, omniscient POV just doesn’t cut it in today’s crime fiction where readers are looking for intimacy and connection with characters.

First off, the set-up itself is interesting. Two mugs are talking about a deal that has apparently gone off the rails because somebody screwed up. Someone off-camera is in trouble. Trouble is good. But because of the point of view problem, we don’t really care. Not caring is bad.

We have a classic case of head-hopping here. It feels like we are in The Big Man’s POV because we get some thoughts and details filtered through his consciousness. But the POV is not solidly grounded because we have omniscient intrusion with details like a throbbing vein in his head, stretching pec muscles (which the Big Man cannot see). Then, in the last graph, we are yanked out of Big Man’s POV with this:

The man behind the desk leaned forward and reached for his telephone handset as the big man left. He mumbled to himself, “It’s a damned shame.”

Whose head are we in now? Marginally, The Boss’s. This just doesn’t work.

Establishing empathy, sympathy, or at least INTEREST IN THE ACTION is essential to any opening. Because we are not grounded in any character’s POV, we can’t bond. Because the set-up is so bare bones, we can’t care what happens next. This feeling is intensified by the writer not giving us any names. It’s coy, in my opinion, and serves no real purpose.

Whose story is this? That’s the big question here.

Now, here’s a caveat:  I could be wrong, but I don’t think the protagonist of this story is on stage yet. I have a feeling the writer is using the device of showing us the danger or villain before we meet the hero. The fixer Big Man (bad guy) is sent on a mission to track down and deal with the protagonist. Let’s call the protag Jack Evans. This structure could work. Given more details in this set-up, we might begin to wonder about Jack. All we are told is he did something wrong and he’s a “wild card.” Maybe we need to start worrying about Jack. We need a reason to turn the page.

I think this could be a good opening if the writer dropped in some more details. Big Man needs a name because I suspect he’s going to have more scenes and POVs and it’s going to get really tedious to keep him nameless. The man he will be hunting down needs a name here. What kind of business is this? Why withhold that info? At least give us a hint of that and what got screwed up. Also, WHO screwed up? The Boss at one point says, “I still feel like we could have handled it better.”  Yet Big Man is sent to go after Jack the wild card.

The dialogue is not working hard enough. The writer needs to pack more information into it.  Let me give you an example of how that could work.

“We knew he was a wild card, boss.” 

“Yeah, ex-cops always are.” He sighed and spun around in his chair to pick up the decanter on his credenza. He poured out two fingers of The McCallan 12 but didn’t take a drink. “Why do you think Jack turned on us?” he asked.

The Big Man didn’t answer. He knew Jack’s kid was really sick with leukemia and that Jack was desperate to get him to that big hospital up in Rochester. He needed money bad. Bad enough, maybe, to even cross The Boss. Note drops of backstory that tell us something about Jack and make us care. Note too that by not telling The Boss about this we are learning something about Big Man as well.

“I don’t know why he did it,” Big Man said. 

The Boss swung back toward him. “Jack Evans had potential. Could’ve made us a lot of money. Damn shame.” He finally took a drink of the whiskey then set the tumbler down. “You think there are any options?” he asked. 

The question sounded almost like a plea. The Big Man remembered that The Boss had taken to calling Jack Evans “son.” More backstory nugget that deepens the relationship and makes us wonder what’s the dynamic here.

“That’s not my call, sir.” Big Man said.

The Boss shook his head slowly. “I’ve put up with enough. It’s time,” he said quietly. “Take care of it.” 

Okay, I’m running long. Here’s a quick line edit to cover some other things.

FATAL INFRACTION I like the title!

Chapter 1 — Offensive Planning

The Boss’s open hand slammed against his desktop with an ear-splitting smack. Cleaner: The Boss slammed his hand down on the desktop. You get rid of the ugly ss possessive and it’s active and not passive. Don’t need ear-splitting smack because it’s not in anyone’s POV. Every ornament, pen, and even the desk phone jump and then rattled back into place. “Damn it all! I didn’t want it to come to this!”

The huge man standing on the other side of the desk remained unfazed. His pectoral muscles stretched at the fabric of his black t-shirt, thick forearms crossed across his chest, biceps bulging above the short sleeves. Omniscient POV…Big Man can’t describe himself. Maintaining a placid expression required more self-control than most of his duties, which tended toward knocking heads together. A protruding vein, just visible above his left ear throbbed with increasing frequency. Ditto POV but easily fixed with “He could feel a vein throbbing in his temple. He hoped the boss didn’t notice it. He hoped the boss would not notice. Being cool under pressure was his identity.

The early evening sunlight filtering in through a gap in the Venetian blinds. A recently smoked cigar lingered in the air. A nice description here but can you filter it thru Big Man’s consciousness? He squinted against the sunlight slanting through the Venetian blinds and resisted an urge to swat away the cigar smoke lingering in the air. SMOKE lingers in the air, not the cigar itself btw.

“We knew he was a wild card, boss.” Not a quiver from the big man’s arms as he spoke. His voice was even; detached. It was a struggle to keep his voice even and detached because he knew what was coming and he didn’t know if he could do it. Again, drop in some hints here of intrigue. These men are flesh and blood. Show us some emotion.

“Yeah, I know. But I still feel like we could have handled it better.” He sighed as he spun in his leather chair and reached for a cut-glass tumbler sitting on a polished credenza next to a crystal decanter. He poured himself two fingers of The McCallan 12. His companion stood stoically as he savored a sip, then turned back around. Again, he can’t tell “his companion” (odd phrase) is stoic because his back is turned. And Big Man would not think to himself “I’m standing here stoically. You don’t think there are any other options?”

The big man shrugged, “That’s not my call, sir.”

“It’s really a shame. He had potential. He could have made us a lot of money.”

“That’s why you picked him. But, like you said, we can’t tolerate his actions.”

The boss took a long draught, then set the glass down with a clink. “I know. The time is right. You take care of it.”

“I will.”

The man behind the desk leaned forward and reached for his telephone handset as the big man left. He mumbled to himself, “It’s a damned shame.” Final POV issue here. You’ve switched to the Boss’s POV in mid-scene. I would end this scene with Big Man. He’s the bridge to what comes next — the hunt and chase to find Jack Evans. So you should end with him leaving and doing something outside. Which might give you the chance to tell us where we are. Also, the sentence construction itself is bulky — He leans forward, reaches for his phone AS the other guy leaves. Big Man leaves. Then you can move on.  But again, I would stay with Big Man — he’s potentially more interesting at this point because he’s OFF TO DO SOMETHING.

Remember: The last line of a chapter is as important as the first line because it is the bridge to the next chapter. Don’t give your exit line to someone who doesn’t matter to what comes next.

So, brave writer. My main two suggestions is that you chose a point of view and run with it. Make your men come alive. And although I recognize you’re going for a spare neo-noir style here, we still need a little more meat. Don’t be afraid to slow down and give us a dollop of backstory and more description. We need a sense of your setting here beyond the old tropes of a smoke-filled office (that’s been over-done). Maybe take the scene outside via Big Man and let him — and your scene — breathe a little more.

That’s it for today. Thanks to our writer for submitting their work. And I hope you find this and other comments helpful.

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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

18 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Whose Face
Is Behind That Pebbled Glass?

  1. The voice and tone of this story are right up my alley. Yes, the opening of a smoky office is cliche, but that’s never a turn off for me if it’s done well. And I think this COULD be done well, with some tweaking. PJ’s critique, as usual, is spot on. Personally, I would love for the protagonist to be Big Man. I’m a sucker for anti-heroes, and the heavy who makes a moral decision to disobey an order from his boss would hook me right in. But PJ’s right that, as of now, I have no idea who I’m supposed to be rooting for. I really, really want to though! You’ve chipped away the big hunks of stone, now it’s time for the more detailed work of polishing it up. Good luck with it!

    Also, two quick nits:

    1. You alternate between present and past tense a few times here. (The desk phone jump, sunlight filtering). Pick one (past tense, ideally) and stick with it.

    2. As a scotch drinker, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you misspelled my favorite dram. It’s Macallan, not McCallan. 🙂

    • Gregg, my stand alone “She’s Not There” has an anti-hero protag. (I have double protag actually). He’s a kicked-around skip-tracer who’s hired to find a missing wife (real protag). I didn’t intend him to be a protag; he was supposed to be the villain. But once he began telling his story, I had to listen to it — all of it. Still trying to write a sequel about him. I think Big Man would be a great protag. But he needs a name. Re the scotch: Always check spelling on liquor. Got an email from a sharp-eyed reader when I screwed up a fancy wine once — was trying to impress and ended up looking foolish!

      I like your sculpting metaphor. The reader has indeed begun chipping the stone into something rough and recognizable. But it’s the hard work of chipping in the details that make a character come to life.

  2. I nodded all the way through your critique, Kris. This struck me as a case where the writer envisions the scenes and feels like they need to drown the reader in minute details to force us to see the same thing. Too much description doesn’t ground the reader in the scene. It has the opposite effect. Brave Writer, study the rewrite and take note of how Kris used action first, the description (secondary) worked to enhance the action.

    • Yes, there is a often a disconnect between that film we see in our brain and what comes out from the keyboard. Description is seductive because, while vital to world building, it can lull you into thinking you are creating character-building.

  3. The title makes me think this is going to be a humorous sendup of classic pulp. I was smiling at the over-detailed description of the huge man, esp. which tended toward knocking heads together.

    Of course, I could be wrong, in which case the author is advised to follow Kris’s sage advice.

  4. I do like this. There are so many ways it could go.

    I know this is most likely one of many drafts to come, but be careful with sentence structure.

    ‘The early evening sunlight filtering in through a gap in the Venetian blinds’ – is not a sentence. If you change filtering to filters or filtered it becomes a sentence.

    Not a quiver from the big man’s arms as he spoke – not a sentence. Replace ‘Not a’ to ‘There wasn’t a …’. And I have to ask what is this suppose to mean and why is it here? Is the writer trying to enforce again how stoic the man is? As the reader, I already get that he is as cool as a cucumber and I don’t want to piss him off. Don’t waste too much time trying to get me to see it ‘more’ now, there is the whole rest of the book for that.

    Rather than spend such precious novel real estate describing the man, the author can give an example the audience can relate to – the former professional wrestler worked hard to stay in shape.

    I know that every writer and reader is different and audiences vary so opinions are seldom the same. For me, unless a story starts with something like a duckling trying to escape a mean cat I am never going to care about or be invested in a character after reading the first page. However, I can be drawn into a story wanting to know what happens on page two. This could easily be that kind of page one, but the conversation isn’t SINISTER enough, it is too casual.

    If the author picks the POV of the big standing man may I suggest a little inner dialogue … ‘if I don’t take care of him someone is going to take care of me’ or ‘the boss makes a mess and I’m the one who has to get dirty cleaning it up again’.

    • That’s a good point about the tone of the conversation, Michelle. It isn’t *sinister* enough to suit what the action is describing. It does feel sort of casual. Of course, for two hit men, death is casual. But it goes to my point of making your dialogue work harder. Thanks!

    • Michelle – thanks for the thoughts. Your comment ‘if I don’t take care of him someone is going to take care of me’ or ‘the boss makes a mess and I’m the one who has to get dirty cleaning it up again’ makes me smile, since the character (well, one of the two possible people in the scene) is later referred to as “Mr. Clean.” It’s a tricky starting scene, and I appreciate your suggestions. Thanks!

  5. Brave Writer, thanks for letting everyone take a peek at your first page. I like the idea that something bad has happened, that someone has betrayed the boss. It caught my interest. My fave line was: “Every ornament, pen, and even the desk phone jump and then rattled back into place” because it shows the physical strength and the temper of the boss. (Except jump needs to be in past tense.)

    My biggest issue was the lack of a solid point of view, and I think PJ addressed this well. If your story needs multiple points of view, it can be done by switching points of view at chapter breaks instead of in the middle of a scene.

    The black tee shirt threw me off. The opening feels like it’s the 1930s or ’40s, but they didn’t have black tee shirts back then. Tee shirts were white (being mostly undershirts at the time).

    Also, I picture a bicep as bulging below a tight short sleeve, not above it.

    I dig a retro story. Good luck with this one, Brave Writer!

  6. This is such a great critique! I’ll be taking it very much to heart and working hard on it. I’m mortified that I added the stray capital “C” to The Macallan (the bottle labels are in all caps, but I should have checked). Thanks to the TKZ gang for this!!

        • PJ — the two characters in the scene are either the killer and his boss . . . or the other killer and his boss. The two killers have enough of a physical resemblance that it could be either of them. The reason they are not identified is that the reader needs to wonder during the story which of the two possible pairs this was in chapter 1. But, the victim (Jimmy) could certainly be identified, as was suggested. The heroes are the homicide detectives who work the case (Mike Stoneman) and his partner (Jason Dickson). This is book #4 in the series, so I don’t feel compelled to introduce the heroes in the first scene.

          • I agree you don’t have to intro your hero(s) in first scene or chapter. Have waited to do so myself in a couple books. This is easier to do with a series, imo. But don’t wait too long! Best of luck and thanks for submitting!

  7. Pricilla beat me to it. The phone should have jumped. And the black T-shirt. In
    Mickey Spillane’s day it was an undershirt, white, possibly sleeveless (or wifebeater in another age). Perhaps your story is more contemporary, but it isn’t reading this way. Look at the review. Set in the 1940’s or 21st century, I like a classic Film Nior story. But given how many there are, it needs to be well told.

    Oh, While they are the pectorals, it doesn’t work for me in the story. Chiseled chest? Meaty? Overlarge? Maybe it is just me.

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