First Page Critique: Side Effects

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. Enjoy! I’ll catch ya on the flip side.

Title: Side Effects

Genre: Psychological Thriller

All he could hear was the thunder of rushing blood, only distantly aware of the sharp, bright pain in his palms as his fists tightened and fingernails sunk into flesh.  He pushed his hands deeper into his pockets and poured his focus into moving more quickly along the crowded sidewalk, but not so quickly as to attract attention.  It was a good thing to focus on, a much better thing than the closeness of the warm bodies surrounding him or the intoxicating coppery scent that still lingered in his mind, and as the scope of his concentration narrowed he felt the wild pounding of his heart begin to slow.

Things had gone even worse than he had imagined.  Much, much worse.  The entire point of taking this job had been to avoid contact with the target.  Just simple surveillance and data collection, no face-to-face interaction.  No unspoken promise of violence.  It hadn’t turned out that way at all, but even with the plan shot all to hell, he couldn’t honestly say that he hadn’t hoped for this.

And that was bad.

An alleyway not choked by storage crates or piles of trash appeared ahead on his right.  He darted into it, stopping behind a dumpster and immediately pulling a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket.  It was dry here, the layers of fire escapes overhead blocking out the steady drizzle of warm summer rain.  He lit up with surprisingly steady hands, the tip of the cigarette flaring as he inhaled deeply and pressed his back against the wall of the alley.  The brick was pleasantly cool and rough through the damp fabric of his shirt, and as his lungs burned he felt the first wave of nicotine-fueled calm wash over him.

After a moment he stepped forward and looked around the corner of the dumpster towards the street.  Everything seemed normal.  There were no sirens, no sprinting cops, no gawking onlookers wandering in the direction from which he’d come.  It was unlikely that anything could tie him back to what would be found in that apartment, and that possibility wasn’t what worried him about the situation anyway, but it was good knowing that there was one less problem to deal with right now.

Let’s look at all the things Brave Writer did well.

  • Compelling exposition
  • Action; the character is active, not passive
  • Raised story questions
  • Piqued interest
  • Great voice
  • Setting established. We may not know the exact city/town, but s/he’s planted a mental picture in the reader’s mind and we can visualize the setting.
  • Stayed in the character’s POV
  • The title even intrigues me. Side effects of what? Did an injury or drug turn this character into a killer?

The writing could use a little tightening, but nothing too dramatic. 

All he could hear was the thunder of rushing blood (anytime we use telling words like hear, we distance the point-of-view. Remember, if you and I wouldn’t think it, our characters can’t either. Quick example of how to reword: Blood rushed like thunder in his ears,) only distantly aware of the sharp, bright pain (Excellent description: sharp, bright pain) in his palms as his fists tightened and fingernails sunk into flesh. from his fingernails biting into flesh.

Technically, only distantly aware would be classified as telling, but I like the juxtaposition between only distantly aware and sharp, bright pain. Some might argue both things can’t be true. Hmm, I’m torn. What do you think, TKZers? Reword or leave it?

He pushed (use a stronger verb like shoved or jammed) his hands deeper into his pockets and poured his focus into quickening his pace moving more quickly along the crowded sidewalk, but not too fast or he might so quickly as to attract unwanted attention. It was a good thing to focus on, a much better thing Better to focus on his stride than the closeness of the warm bodies strangers (the warm bodies sounds awkward to me) surrounding him or the intoxicating coppery scent (Love intoxicating here! Let’s end well, too, by replacing scent with a stronger word. Tang? Aroma? Stench?) that still lingered in his mind,. and

As the scope of his concentration narrowed, he felt the wild pounding of his heart begin to slow. “Felt” is another telling word. Try something like: As he focused on his footsteps, the wild pounding of his heart slowed to a light pitter-patter, pitter-patter.

Things had gone even worse than he’d had imagined.  Much, much worse.  The entire point of taking this job had been  was to avoid contact with the target.  Just Simple surveillance and data collection,. No face-to-face interaction.  No unspoken promise of violence.  It hadn’t turned out that way at all, but even with the plan shot all to hell, part of him he couldn’t honestly say that he hadn’t hoped for this.

And that was bad. The inner tussle between good and evil intrigues me. 🙂 

He ducked into aAn alleyway—swept clean, no not choked by storage crates or piles of trashappeared ahead on his right.  He darted into it, stoppinged behind a dumpster, and immediately pullinged a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his (coat?) pocket.

Something to consider: Rather than use the generic word cigarettes, a brand name enhances characterization. Example: Lucky Strikes or unfiltered Camels implies he’s no kid, with rough hands from a lifetime of hard work, a bottle of Old Spice in his medicine cabinet, and a fifth of Jack Daniels behind the bar. A Parliament smoker is nothing like that guy. Mr. Parliament Extra Light would drink wine spritzers and babytalk his toy poodle named Muffin. See what I’m sayin’? Don’t skip over tiny details; it’s how we breathe life into characters. And it falls under fair use as long as we don’t harm the brand. For more on the legalities, read this article.

 It was dry here, the layers of fire escapes overhead blocking out the steady drizzle of warm summer rain (If it’s raining, we should know this sooner, perhaps when he’s focused on his footsteps).  He lit up with surprisingly steady hands, the tip of the cigarette flaring as he inhaled deeply and pressed his back against the wall of the alley. Love surprisingly steady hands! Those three words imply this is his first murder, and he’s almost giddy about it. Great job!

The cigarette flaring is a bit too cinematic, though. The last thing smokers notice is the end of their butt unless it goes out. If you want to narrow in on this moment, mention the inhale, exhale, maybe he blows smoke rings or a plume, and him leaning against the brick wall. That’s it. Don’t overthink it. Less is more.

The brick was pleasantly cool and rough through the damp fabric of his shirt, and as his lungs burned he felt the first wave of nicotine-fueled calm wash over him.

Dear Writer, please interview a smoker for research. A smoker’s lungs don’t burn. If they did, they’d panic, because burning lungs indicates a serious medical issue. Also, a smoker doesn’t experience a wave of nicotine-fueled calm. It’s too Hollywood. The simple act of him smoking indicates satisfaction. Delete the rest. It only hurts all the terrific work you’ve done thus far.

After a few moments, he chanced a peek at stepped forward and looked around the corner of the dumpster towards the street.  Everything seemed normal. There were Nno sirens, no sprinting cops, no gawking onlookers wandering in the direction from which he’d coame. Nothing It was unlikely that anything could tie him back to what would be found in that apartment (let him be certain so when the cops find something later, it throws him off-kilter. Inner conflict is a good thing. Also, simply stating that apartment is enough. We know he killed somebody. Kudos for not telling us who.), and that possibility wasn’t what worried him about the situation anyway, but it was good knowing that there was one less problem to deal with right now. I would end the sentence after apartment, but if you need to add the rest, reword to remove “knowing,” which is also a telling word.

One last note: Use one space after a period, not two.

All in all, I really enjoyed this first page. It sounds like my kind of read. Great job, Brave Writer!

I would turn the page. How ’bout you, TKZers? Please add your helpful suggestions/comments.

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About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire and writes two psychological thriller series, Mayhem Series and Grafton County Series (Tirgearr Publishing) and is the true crime/narrative nonfiction author of PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND: True Stories of Violent Vixens and Murderous Matriarchs (Rowman & Littlefield Group). Currently on submission, her latest true crime project revolves around a grisly local homicide. For the spring 2022 semester, Sue will be teaching a virtual course about serial killers at EdAdvance in CT and a condensed version for the Central Virginia Chapter and National Sisters In Crime. Equally fun was when she appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

17 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Side Effects

  1. Sue, your excellent critique made this already-good noir submission even better. After cutting unnecessary wordage and repetition, it really snaps.

    I agree the cigarette business goes on too long and is somewhat cliched. Use that time to raise more questions, deepen the mystery, or show another dimension of the character.

    Brave Author does a great job of leaving questions unanswered so the reader is compelled to turn the page.

    • Thanks, Debbie. This first page was a pleasure to work on.

      Yes, I agree. S/he did an amazing job of giving us just enough information to keep us interested.

  2. Great critique, Sue!
    I agree, this first page has promise. There’s a suggestion of recent violence, a possible crime scene, a literary flirt with blood. Pretty compelling.
    It just needs a bit of word paring and tightening of passive voice. “Beware the wasims, ” as I always think to myself. Bring your reader into the present whenever possible.

    I found your suggestion of the cigarette brand fascinating, Sue! And an excellent device for characterization!
    As an ocassional social smoker, I agree. The lungs don’t feel as if they’re burning. You might notice the feel of smoke filling your throat, and perhaps a harshness, depending on brand. I started with unfiltered Lucky Strikes. I can tell you, they’re harsh! Completely different from a filtered Marlboro, for example. You notice the harshness (or smoothness) in your throat first..

    And perhaps it’s just the fact that I dont partake often, but nicotine always seemed to energize me more than calm. However, do speak to someone who smokes a pack a day or more. Their experience is likely quite different!
    And we don’t focus on the lit end unless it’s dark. Judging from watching those who DO smoke often, I’d say they completely forget they’re holding a cigarette.
    It’s my guess our narrator might be focusing more on the fact that they’ve made a slick escape from something gone horribly wrong!

    Random aside: I don’t live in an urban setting. Do multiple fire escapes block out drizzle? I would have expected them to at least drip unpleasantly.

    All in all, great job, Anon!

    • Thanks, Cyn! I’ve been a smoker for 30+ years. Good point about harshness, but unless the character is an occasional smoker, he might not notice if he’s smoking his usual brand.

      Haha. My dad smoked Lucky Strikes! What a way to start smoking. 😀

  3. Thanks, Brave Author, for letting us take a look at your first page. I’m intrigued!

    My favorite line is: “The brick was pleasantly cool and rough through the damp fabric of his shirt”
    because it helps with the setting (temperature and rain) plus brings in the wonderful sensation of texture.

    I slowed down in the second paragraph. It’s entirely backstory when the first page of a thriller has little room for backstory. You might try snipping that paragraph down to single sentence and sprinkling the rest of the info on page two.

    I think Sue gave you an excellent critique. Her suggestions on tightening the prose make this first page all that much more exciting, and I’d definitely turn the page.

    Good luck on your continued writing journey, Brave Author!

  4. If the pain in his hand was “sharp” then how was he “only distantly aware” of it? Is the rushing blood truly all he could hear?

    This may be just a matter of taste, but this kind of thick, overly sensory writing slows down a story for me and actually prevents me from becoming immersed in the fiction. I had trouble following what was actually happening because I was bogged down by all the little details.

    On the bright side, this author clearly knows the genre and is very on top of making things vivid even if not executed to my liking. I can see a lot of work went into this. Keep writing!

    • All good points, Philip. Yes, I agree, it’s a balancing act to sprinkle in enough description without detracting from the story. Thanks for weighing in. 😀

  5. I also loved this First Page. Good critique, Sue! I’d keep reading.

    The best part for me was intoxicating coppery scent…

    Prior to reading that, I’d sympathized with whatever the character had just experienced. I had the idea he was a victim of some sort.

    But that one phrase shifted my thinking. This is no victim. Normal people don’t find the scent of blood intoxicating. That phrase reached out and grabbed me by the throat. From that point on, I really needed to find out what he’d done and why.

    Great job, BA.

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed this first page, and I would definitely read on! As always, the critique is excellent too!

  7. If the viewpoint character isn’t a vampire, the whole first paragraph needs to be recast, since the references to the sound of blood, warm bodies, the smell of blood, and heartbeats leaves me 99% convinced that he’s a vampire.

    If he is a vampire, I’m bothered by the question of WHOSE blood he’s hearing. His, or that of the people around him? His hyper-awareness of the warm bodies around him has been established, so I can interpret it either way, but not knowing which way to take it diminishes the scene for me.

    As for the point of view, I’d suggest either going whole-hog with stream-of-consciousness, as indicated by Sue, or firmly establishing something not quite so straitjackety in the first paragraph.

    • A vampire? Gee, I never even considered that, Robert. If true, then the writer should change the genre to fantasy rather than psychological thriller.

  8. Definitely some gold nuggets here. “Warm bodies” means not cold, like the stiff left behind. The noir is strong in this one, all the way through. Sue has done a masterful job, up top, so I’ll not arouse my inner Ming the Merciless critiquer.

    “The entire point of taking this job had been to avoid contact with the target.” No, the entire point was probably to get paid a bundle of spondoolies. Try “He’d been warned to avoid contact with the target. He’d failed.”

    The piece is written at more than one level. I see elements of setting, noirmosphere, flashback, character reaction, mystery, suspense, and something you’re hiding. All good.

    But too much for an action opening. In action scenes, go for sumié, not tromp l’oeil. I’d tighten the piece by 20%, maybe 25%. Consider dropping most of the alleyway part.

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