First Page Critique – The Trouble with Vivian

Happy snowy Monday!

Today’s first page critique is for a submission entitled The Trouble with Vivian and it’s a hard boiled mystery – a quick disclaimer, I am by no means a hard-boiled mystery aficionado, so I will be looking to my TKZ colleagues and community to provide more input in terms of the genre. As with any first page, however, there are a number of key factors that contribute to its success (irrespective of genre) so I hope my comments prove useful to our brave submitter. My feedback follows the submission – enjoy!

The Trouble with Vivian

I stab the red icon on my smart phone.

“Miserly witch.” This month’s rent is only five days late and already she’s talking eviction. I resist the urge to throw the phone across the room, instead slamming it on a pile of unfiled dead case folders. Of course, I still owe her for last month and she has little tolerance for the rain or drought nature of a private investigator’s business. She threatens eviction with more regularity than pigeons shitting on park benches. This time, though, the old biddy claims to have someone interested in my office—as if anyone would want to climb six flights of stairs every day for this rat-hole.

A sigh escapes me. Five days or fifty, what difference does it make? I haven’t landed so much as a missing tabby in months and my bank account is more shriveled than a year-old prune.

I pace.

Wind rattles the only window and I use two nail-bitten, decidedly unladylike fingers to separate a pair of horizontal blinds. Typical Buffalo—leaves swirling on heavy gusts offer the only color on an otherwise dreary grey fall morning.

Five floors below a uniformed man, dark hat obscuring his features, closes the back door of a black Lincoln parked in front of the building’s main entrance. Even alley cats avoid this neighborhood, so I can’t imagine what a chauffer-driven car is doing here.

Surely nothing to do with me.

I return to pacing.

Until the click of heels catches my attention. Frosted glass offers the silhouette of a woman standing right outside my door. She hesitates. A delicate hand lifts and pauses, dangling like the proverbial participle.

While she fights with herself, dollar signs and desperation kick me into gear. I quickly straighten my desk, assembling scattered files into one neat stack atop my in-basket, and then drop into my chair. A spring poking through cracked leather digs into my ass and I bite back a curse. I grab my cell and press its dead, black face to my ear.

“Yeah, yeah. Sure. No worries.” I hope the woman hears—anticipation has my heart pounding and stomach doing the Superman coaster. At last the shadowy hand hesitantly taps on the glass “It’s open.” The knob rattles and hinges squeak. Without looking, I hold up one finger toward whoever enters.

“Hey, Eddie. Gotta run. Don’t worry. I got this.”

Overall Comments

I enjoyed this first page and felt it had the requisite cynical voice and tone that fits the hard-boiled genre. There were some great one-liners that definitely helped reel me in. I particularly liked: “She threatens eviction with more regularity than pigeons shitting on park benches” and “A delicate hand lifts and pauses, dangling like the proverbial participle.”Overall, I think the author did a good job setting the scene for the case to come and demonstrating how desperately the protagonist needs it to make ends meet. I also liked that this hard-boiled PI is a woman:)

That being said, I did feel there was an element of predicability to this first page and some repetition in terms of the protagonist’s financial predicament. I think the ‘less is more’ adage applies here and some judicious editing in the first few paragraphs could help streamline this first page and make it stronger. In terms of the scene, I guess I was just a little concerned (and this is where I’ll need TKZers to help weigh in) that it sounded very much like the start of any number of hard boiled mysteries – a deadbeat PI desperate for a break receives a mysterious client who will change everything…so I wonder if the author is starting the story in the right place (?) as this beginning could seem a bit cliched.

One nit pick – what is the red icon on the phone? I kept looking at mine and wasn’t quite sure what this meant (I have red ‘bubbles’ indicating  when I have a new email or text message but none of those icons themselves are red). For me (and it might be that I’m just a bit dense!) this diminished the strength of the first line as I was puzzling what it meant.

Overall, this first page displayed some good writing chops and I liked the crisp and observant way the scene was laid out. For me, this page definitely has the ‘noirish’ feel of the genre and the protagonist is already compelling. I would definitely keep turning the page to read more!

So TKZers what feedback would you give our brave submitter?

9 thoughts on “First Page Critique – The Trouble with Vivian

  1. Brave Author, I agree with Clare’s excellent critique. The writing is crisp and sassy but a bit repetitive. A hard-boiled female PI character is great but this beginning is cliched.

    What if you gave it a small twist? The PI’s car stalls, out of gas b/c her credit card was declined, at the curb in front of her office. As she unlocks the entrance door, wondering if she can sneak up six flights to avoid the landlady, the limo pulls up. The chauffeur approaches the PI and asks, “Are you Samantha Spade?”


    “Ms. Sternwood needs to speak with you.”

    That identifies the characters immediately as well as establishes the poverty of the PI.

    I also agree with Clare that the Brave Author has the writing chops to make this story a success. Good work!

    • Debbie
      I agree that having the character established ASAP is a great idea and could help move the beginning away from the more cliched elements.

  2. Brave Author, I understood the stab at the red button. That is a downside to cell phones. You can’t slam them on someone. But I don’t think stab is the right word. I have been thinking for a bit on what would replace it and haven’t hit on much. “I squeezed the end call button as hard as the screen would take.” Maybe someone else can do better.

    You do set a scene well. But it is a cliched scene and you don’t add much. Sorry. A female in the traditional Sam Spade role? I nice touch. I hope it goes somewhere. One quick thing. Your PI did not notice a woman get out of the chauffeured car. I would hope a PI would notice that.

    My biggest issue. Almost nothing happens. The mystery woman touches the door 248 words from the beginning of the page and then very little happens.

    • I think maybe I was just slow in the uptake re: red button (icon made me think something other than end call)…but totally agree that lack of action is draining this first page of dramatic tension. An easy fix as I suspect it’s more a question of where to start the story.

  3. Great critique, Clare. The red button made perfect sense to me. Maybe it’s brand-dependent? I use an iPhone, but maybe Android users don’t have a red button. Good catch!

    Brave Writer: Overall, I liked this piece. Great voice, sentence variation, just enough description, and a few lines of cleverly woven backstory. Great job! BUT you may have started the story a little too early. Drop us in the middle of a disturbance. Look at your second page after the new client enters the office. Could you start there instead? Then weave in the details of this page.

    • Again – think it was just me being a bit slow re: phone! But Sue I think you’ve hit the nail on the head that this first page probably starts the story too early and we need to be dropped right into the disturbance. One option could have the PI embroiled in discussing the case or in the midst of the action when the landlord’s call comes in. That way the author can weave the backstory and tone into a page that already has more dramatic tension and action. Just a thought!

  4. Just thought to chime on with a note or two on the protag’s penury. Freelancers know , are fully aware, that money comes in and money goes out; it’s the nature of the game, and they adapt both their mood and lifestyle to accommodate this. Freelancers become inurred to cashflow crises, and, in general, do not bewail their lot—unless (big unless) a client or two owes them money, or some other freelancer got what they’d be given to understand was their gig by underhand means. Long term freelancers are a stoic bunch but are much more likely to beat up on themselves during those periods when means do not match needs, than blame their suppliers’ (in this instance, the protag’s landlady) demands for payment.

  5. Hey, late to the party but wanted to chime in. I agree with the comments that this opening, while effective in mood and tone setting, veers too far into cliche territory. I got similar feedback on a first page I submitted last year, and it made me rethink the entire starting point of my novel (in a good way). My only other critique would be in the use of dialogue. It’s not bad, but it tends to come at the beginning of a long narrative paragraph without any dialogue tags. It sort of makes the words get lost in the shuffle. Maybe break those out into their own paragraphs, or at least add a tag before the narration begins to make the lines stand out. Good start, though!

  6. No matter how much I look forward to them, I will always be late to these critiques, because my email is not something I check first thing in the morning. However, I really wanted to comment on this one, so I hope Brave Author checks back in!
    I don’t even read hard-boiled mysteries (although I do have a fondness for the great “classic” movies of the genre) but I was immediately sucked into this one!
    The reason is a topic addressed not too long ago: writer’s voice. I love this writer’s voice and clever wording. I do believe I would read anything this person wrote.
    Yes, perhaps this opening scene cliched in places, but I almost expect that with the hard-boiled genre! (said with tongue in cheek!) It had all of the hallmarks spot on, even the frosted glass window in the office door.
    I understood the red icon moment with the phone. Honestly, I have no idea what icon my Android has because I so rarely use the thing for actual phone calls! Nonetheless, the frustration of the moment is visceral. I, too, “stab” my phone screen in thwarted fury, denied of both slamming a receiver down in a cradle and throwing the cellphone across the room!
    While I enjoyed the familiar scene of our Protag pacing and glaring out the window, I have to agree with others that the beginning should have been given more action. I don’t always agree that every opening paragraph need be a car chase, but perhaps something more than inner thoughts?
    And this is asked out of complete ignorance of inner-city skyscrapers, but does the fact that the sixth floor window opens mean that the building is upwards of seventy years old? No modern sixth floor-plus office buildings I know of have windows that open. Was this deliberately used to set the age of the building? There is mention made of how sketchy the neighborhood is, so it does fit. It was merely a detail that seemed momentarily incongruous with cellphones.
    But don’t take that as criticism, Brave Author! It’s merely a “Hmm” moment for me. I have no issues with genres like Hard-Boiled Mystery being set outside the “usual” timeframe.
    All in all, great job. Love the voice; look forward to perhaps catching a revised version…OR…perhaps the finished story for sale!

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