First Page Critique: The Meaning of Life

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a novel entitled 00 Miles in My Shoes: The Meaning of Life – which is certainly an intriguing title! My comments follow and, as always, I look forward to everyone’s feedback on this first page.

00 Miles in My Shoes: The Meaning of Life

Journal of Michaela Isabel Abel

July 6, Monday – 1970 –  Sunrise –

The clouds blaze red above the mountains. Chickadees and bluebirds sing.  The freshest air in the world! Good morning to me!

Last night Wally tied me to the bloodwood again.  The flash kept flashing, and when he stopped taking pictures, I feared what he would demand next.

Wally keeps a book of positions in his nightstand drawer. He showed me a picture of a girl getting a spanking. He says I have to do what he wants to keep him happy or I’ll go to hell. He says since I am his wife, I belong to him.

After he finished taking pictures of me, he pushed the bloodwood under the bed and set the alarm clock to six for me to get up and make his breakfast. I lay beside him wearing only the garter belt and black stockings he made me wear.

My punishment went on long after Wally was done – bad memories hurtled through my mind.   I stared at the light fixture hanging from the middle of the ceiling, shiny points in the dark. I prayed for my memories to die —  my whole mind speaking to God. My heart pounded so loud I was afraid the sound would wake Wally.

But he snored and made clicking sounds in his throat. I imagined the bloodwood flying back to Brazil like a magic carpet. I imagined the girl in Wally’s book standing up and swinging her arm back and slapping the man spanking her with all her might. I counted past a thousand, wanting sleep, but then God spoke to me – like a flash of light in my mind:  GO.

General Comments

Overall this first page lays a good foundation for an effective and compelling start to what could be a gripping novel (assuming it centers around Michaela’s escape). I liked the way the reader is immediately caught off guard – from the chirpy first line to the darker entries that follow. Initially I wasn’t completely convinced by the journal entry device (see my specific comments on this) but I did think the use of the first person POV was effective at drawing the reader into Michaela’s world of abuse right from the start. That being said, I do have some specific feedback for our brave submitter that I think might make this first page even more compelling.

Specific Comments

Journal Device

I have two major concerns about the journal device in this first page. First I wasn’t entirely convinced that Michaela would write such a journal entry. The first line seems so cheerfully at odds with the rest of the journal it made me wonder who Michaela thought would read this – would she really be writing “The freshest air in the world! Good morning to me!” when she’s clearly being abused and terrified? My second concern was given what she was writing about Wally, would she really be able to keep a journal from him? He sounds way too controlling for that…and if that’s the case then she would hardly be confessing that God told her to leave him. My suggestion to our brave submitter is to consider using a first person stream of consciousness approach and maybe interspersing Michaela’s thoughts with direct action of what took place the night before. This approach could help introduce a heightened level of dramatic tension – especially if this first page is setting the stage for Michaela’s decision to run.


While the reader doesn’t need much in the way of details, I do feel like I need a better sense of place to understand Michaela’s predicament. At the moment all we know is that it’s 1970, she’s somewhere in the mountains, married to an abusive controlling religious freak who likes taking photos and threatening punishment, and that she wishes she was back in Brazil. What we don’t get a good sense of though is exactly where she is (Utah? Colorado? Outside the US?, how she got there (just a hint perhaps of how she ended up married to him), or what kind of bad ‘memories’ are hurtling through her mind. Just a few added details would help ground the reader in the landscape of this first scene and allow us to visualize her predicament (is she miles from anyone else? How easy is it for her to leave? Is there a religious community surrounding her?) I’m not suggesting a lot of detail or background but just a few more specifics to give the reader a better grounding for the drama to follow. This leads to my final comment, on specificity.


This first page is designed (I assume) to shock and gain the reader’s sympathy for Michaela’s plight right from the start. It certainly goes a long way to achieving this but I feel it loses some of its effectiveness by speaking in generalities rather than specifics. Not to get too lurid, but I think if the author wants the reader to be appalled and genuinely concerned for Michaela then we need more horrible specifics and less generalities like: “I feared what he would demand next”, “bad memories” or visions of her simply slapping the man (I would definitely be thinking of a far worse fate for dear Wally!). My suggestion for the author would be to step back and consider the intended genre and target audience for this book. At this point I can’t really tell how ‘dark’ this book is going to get, but if the author is going for a darker thriller, then the details are going to matter in a different way (because the audience is harder to shock) than if this is more women’s fiction focused on  Michaela’s escape from her abusive situation. I also can’t tell how much religion is going to play a role in the novel but if it is, then maybe we need to have a better sense of whether Wally a member of some specific religious group or if his penchant for abuse emerged only after they were married. Specifics matter. They add nuance and tension to a first page, so I think just a few more details would help clearly define the predicament and set up for the novel in this first page.

NB: I also noticed the repetition of ‘flash’ (The flash kept flashing; like a flash of light) and was also unsure whether ‘hell’ should be capitalized as ‘Hell.’

Overall though this is a promising start and the set up for a potentially gripping novel – so well done to our brave submitter!  TKZers, what other advice and/or feedback would you offer? Those of you that write darker thrillers might also have better advice when it comes to specifics (I tend to be very gore-averse!)

11 thoughts on “First Page Critique: The Meaning of Life

  1. What an insightful critique, Clare.

    I too found this compelling but think a better first line might be: “Last night Wally tied me to the bloodwood again.”

    I agree more specifics would help. What does the bloodwood look like? Size, shape. How does he tie her to it–with rope, nylon stockings, scarves, handcuffs? When she’s lying in bed afterward, maybe she could rub her wrists, feeling the indentations still in her skin. Maybe she could briefly describe one position in the book that particularly frightens her and she’s afraid he’ll do that next.

    Good start, Brave Author.

  2. As Clare suggests, this journal opening is problematic, primarily because it makes the whole thing tell, not show. There is such an opportunity to create an immediate and gripping scene that could be stretched out before that decision to GO is reached.

    Suggestion: go over to Amazon and read the prologue to Stephen King’s Rose Madder. That’s what I’m talking about.

    • Thanks Jim – that’s great advice especially reference to Rose Madder – I’m interested in whether the author/submitter is looking at a Stephen King-esque kind of book.

  3. Dear Author, take a look at Clare’s comments. I don’t think the journal is going to work out. And yes Wally the control sadist would take this story in a whole different direction when he found it.

    I did not like the bright, cheery opening. It seemed to clash with the dark tale.

    Bloodwood. My brother is a woodworker. Bloodwood is a South American hardwood. It could be from Brazil. It has a beautiful red color. It is also very dense. Dense enough to dull the tools used to cut it. Dense enough it barely floats. It is also mildly toxic. In this story what exactly the Bloodwood is needs a description. It could be an ornate Brazilian plank for binding down a victim. It could also be basic 2 X 4s stained blood red by past victims.

    • Alan, thanks for the insight on bloodwood. I had to look it up as I wasn’t sure what kind of wood it was and I think the choice is an important one that the author needs to at least offer some hints about…

  4. Excellent critique, Clare. I agree with all your points. While reading I hoped for more emotion. And yes, lose the journal entry.

    Dear writer, you’ve chosen an emotional, gut-wrenching topic (domestic abuse). The spiraling emotions felt by abused wives needs to feel real. Often, abused wives fluctuate between “I deserve this” and “I wish he was dead.” It’s not uncommon for an abused wife to imagine her husband’s funeral, what she’ll wear, how she’ll act, etc. To convey an honest representation you need to portray this subject with honesty and empathy. My suggestion would be to read real accounts of domestic abuse, concentrating on the wife’s emotional rollercoaster. I hope you don’t have experience, but if you do, dig deeper and spill your emotions onto the page. It’s the only way this type of opening will work.

    Thus far, I am intrigued, though. Best of luck!

  5. Dear Brave Author,

    I agree with the comments above. You have a very compelling opening here, but the journal opening distanced me from Michaela’s plight. As a reader, I want to be grounded in the details here, however unpleasant. The first paragraph, while evocative, set the wrong tone for. I agree with Debbie, “Last night Wally tied me to the bloodwood again” is a very strong opening line.

    One minor note: It was unclear to me whether “memories” here referred to what had just happened, or what had happened prior to the scene she’d describing. As a reader, it pulled me out of the immediate scene.

    Thanks for sharing this opening, Brave Author. It’s a strong start to what sounds like a dark thriller.

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