First Page Critique: Envy Rots Your Bones

Another brave writer shared their first page for critique. Enjoy! My comments will follow.

Chapter One

Envy Rots Your Bones

Grandma Iris had never cradled me like she did that Bible. Sat across the table, she held it tight to her chest, tracing her bony finger down its decorative spine. The golden crucifix embedded in the book’s cover glinted as dawn streamed through the window. A wink… or a jeer… It knew it was Grandma’s favourite.

Jealousy stroked at me, teasing, and I swatted it’s claws away. Envy rots your bones. It’s a sin, I reminded myself. One of Grandma’s many teachings.

Leather creaked as Grandma delicately opened the book upon the table.

“Are you ready, Elisa?” A demand masked as a question.

I inhaled deeply, the cold dusty air of the dining room filling my lungs. I promised Grandma I would do better, be better, this time. And yet, for the second time that afternoon, I sinned.

“I’m ready,” I lied.

Her eyes flickered to mine. Somehow her wrinkles deepened, eyes became darker when they settled on me. And without another word, she fired the first test.

“Luke 1:47?”

With no time to comprehend the question, scripture tumbled out of me.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”

Grandma nodded, a fleeting gesture of approval. “Psalm 107:1?”

Again, I answered without pause, without a doubt. “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His mercy endures forever.”

“Excellent, Elisa,” she said, flicking through the dog-eared pages. “Psalm 18:3?”

I opened my mouth, expecting the answer to dance off my tongue again, but… nothing. Only silence filled the room. Scrunching my eyes, I frantically searched the depths of my mind, bible verses scrambled in my head.

‘When you ask, you do not receive,’ – no, not that one. ‘Come near to God, and he will be near to you’– not that either. 

I could feel her narrow gaze pinned to me now. Waiting, watching as I drowned amongst the scripture. Her fingers rapped against the oak table, underscoring each second that drifted by, still without an answer, still sinking. How silly of me to make false promises. Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, she always was.

Disappointed.

The word buzzed in the forefront of my mind, sending a ripple of familiarity through me. I said it out loud, feeling each syllable float from my lips.

Dis-a-ppoint-ment. 

And with that, I burst to the surface.

“In the midst of disappointment, know that God is listening and-”

But before I could complete the verse, a whoosh of air and the scent of old leather gushed towards me. Pain erupted in my cheek, knocking the words from my mouth and throwing me sideward. As I slammed into the floorboards, my eyes sprung open, just in time to see Grandma lower the bible back to the table.

* * *

Y’know what I love most about this first page? The scene is so complete and compelling, it could double as flash fiction. Anon didn’t feel the need to waste precious real estate by describing the room or the characters in detail. Instead, we’re dropped into the middle of a tense moment, and we cannot look away. This writer also gained empathy for the main character and showed us a lot about the relationship between Elisa and Grandma without resorting to telling. And the voice? Excellent.

I do have a few comments/suggestions, but nothing major.

Chapter One

Envy Rots Your Bones 

Grandma Iris had never cradled me like she did that Bible. (<– Compelling first line) Sat Aacross the table, she held it the book tight to her chest, tracing her bony finger down its decorative spine. The golden crucifix embedded in the bible’s book’s cover, glinted as dawn streamed through the window.

*Side note: Holy Bible, since it’s a title, should be capitalized; the bible—not a title—should be lowercase. Some writers prefer to always capitalize Bible. If you’re consistent, I don’t think it’s a big deal either way. When in doubt, listen to your editor.

A wink… or a jeer… It knew it was Grandma’s favourite.

*Side note: When I received the first page, Lynne noted: “UK writer.” Hence the British spelling of certain words, like favourite vs. favorite and Saviour vs. Savior. Please be aware, US spelling is the preferred industry standard.

Jealousy stroked at me, teasing, and I swatted it’s its claws away. (<–Love that line!) Envy rots your bones. It’s a sin, I reminded myself (<–we know it’s inner dialogue without this attrib.). One of Grandma’s many teachings.

Leather creaked as Grandma delicately opened the book upon the table. “Are you ready, Elisa?” A demand masked as a question.

I inhaled deeply (showing the act of inhaling implies deeply, so the adverb isn’t necessary), the cold dusty air of the dining room filling my lungs. I promised Grandma I would do better, be better, this time. And yet, for the second time that afternoon, I sinned. <–Excellent! These last two sentences say so much.

“I’m ready,” I lied.

Her eyes flickered to mine. Somehow her wrinkles deepened, eyes became darkened when they settled on me. And without another word, she fired the first test. (<– Slight hiccup here. As written, it implies “without another word” from Grandma. But I think you meant Elisa. Easy fix. “Without another word from me”)

“Luke 1:47?” (see below for citing scripture in dialogue)

With no time to comprehend the question, scripture tumbled out of me (comprehend isn’t the correct word. If she didn’t understand the question, she wouldn’t be able to cite the verse. Try: Without much forethought… Or leave out altogether: Scripture tumbled out of me). “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.”

Grandma nodded, a fleeting gesture of approval. “Psalm 107:1?”

Again, I answered without pause, without a doubt. “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His mercy endures forever.”

“Excellent, Elisa,” she said, flicking through the dog-eared pages. “Psalm 18:3?”

I opened my mouth, expecting the answer to dance off my tongue again, but… nothing. Only Silence filled the room. Scrunching my eyes, I frantically searched the depths of my mind, bible verses scrambled in my head.

When you ask, you do not receive,.(Removed single quotes and incorrect usage of en-dash.) No, not that one. Come near to God, and he will be near to you’–. Not that either. 

I could feel Now, her narrowed gaze pinned to on me now. Waiting, watching, as I drowned amongst the scripture. Her fingers rapped against the oak table, underscoring each second that drifted (drifted implies slow. Try: ticked, fled, drained, raced, sped, or another strong verb for fast) by, still without an answer, still sinking (<– Nice visual). How silly of me to make false promises. Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, she always was. (Suggestion: Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, her usual state of mind.)

Disappointed.

The word buzzed in the forefront of my mind, sending a ripple of familiarity through me. I said it out loud, feeling each syllable float from my lips.

Dis-a-ppoint-ment. (Would she really say this out loud in front of Grandma?)

And with that, I burst to the surface. (Consider deleting. I understand Elisa is metaphorically bursting to the surface, but it stopped me. Perhaps others will feel differently.)

“In the midst of disappointment, know that God is listening and—” (Use em-dash, not en-dash, to indicate cut off speech. For more on em-dashes, see this post)

But before I could complete the verse (Redundant since you went through the trouble of showing us the verse had been cut short), aA whoosh of air and the scent of old leather gushed (rushed?) towards me. Pain erupted in my cheek, knocking the words from my mouth, and throwing me sideward. As I slammed into the floorboards, my eyes sprang open, just in time to see catch Grandma lowering the bible back to the table.

The Editor’s Blog has a fantastic article about numbers in fiction. For citing scripture in dialogue, they recommend the following:

For dialogue, spell out the numbers as words. Do this whether a character is saying just the chapter or just the verse or is including both. “My dad always quoted Romans twelve to me.” “My grandmother’s favorite verse was Jeremiah twenty-nine eleven.” “I can’t remember if the verse he quoted was nine or nineteen.” (Could you make an exception for the Psalms? Probably so. “My niece learned how to say Psalm 23 in four languages.” If you consider psalm plus the number a title, I’d say that would work. I don’t know that other books and chapters, however, would get the same treatment.)

Outside of dialogue, use the typical convention for chapter and verse when you include both. Make this one of your exceptions to the rule about when to write out numbers. So—The text he’d quoted was Genesis 3:23.

Yet if you’re using only the verse, spell out the number (use a numeral for numbers greater than 100)—The text he quoted was verse twenty-three.

Also spell out the numbers if you’re not including the book and verses in the typical reference style—The text he was hunting for was in Luke—verses four through eleven of chapter six.

In a reference to the chapter only, you may want to adjust the wording—The text he quoted was from the third chapter of Genesis.

Could you write Genesis 3 or 1 Timothy 5? Probably. And I’d suggest using that format for the Psalms, writing Psalm 119 or Psalm 23. Yet such a format with other bible books might be difficult for readers, at least at first glance. You may want to play around with how you say it if you’re only including the book name and chapter number without a verse number. After all, many people would understand easily if you wrote—He loved the Twenty-third Psalm.)

Brave Writer, I really enjoyed this first page. Thank you for sharing your work with us.

I’d turn the page to find out what happens next. What about you, TKZers? Any suggestions/comments for this brave writer? Favorite line?

This entry was posted in #writetip, #writetips, #writing, #WritingCommunity, first page critique, First page critiques and tagged , , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

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

22 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Envy Rots Your Bones

  1. Just a quick style note: many times you can cut the word had and come up with a sharper sentence. Thus: Grandma Iris never cradled me like she did that Bible.

    And a note on the material: Work hard to avoid stereotyping and one-dimensional characterization.

    • I worried about that, too, but the voice spoke to me. I think–hope–Anon will flip the stereotype on its head. Glad you mentioned it, Jim. Thank you.

  2. Excellent! Writing and critiquing…

    I was hooked from that awesome first line. I knew, without reading more, that Grandma wasn’t the kind who bakes chocolate chip cookies.

    My favorite line: And yet, for the second time that afternoon, I sinned.

    That’s when I really became scared for Elisa. (And wanted to clock Grandma…)

    This is a page-turner. Good job, BA.

  3. Good critique, Sue. A well-written, compelling page.

    I had two problems:

    1. As Jim mentioned, Grandma felt stereotypical. I’m sure her characterization will deepen as the story progresses but it did put me off a bit.

    2. Using the Bible to smack poor Elisa is a great metaphor for punishing a “sinner.” Yet it seemed a bit off. Since Grandma clearly views it as sacred, would she really risk damaging it by using it as a weapon?

    Fine job, Brave Author.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Debbie. I didn’t have the same problem with Grandma. Many serial killers grew up confusing pain with religion (and sex) from a domineering figure in their childhood. So, for me, it rang true to life. But I do hope the writer will flip the stereotype on its head and give us something fresh and new. Anon has the writing chops to do it.

      • I agree with you, Sue. While possibly stereotyped by others, there’s something about this writer’s “Grandma” that rang true to me as well.
        Additionally, sacred things are sometimes used as tools for the very fact that they are considered to wield power.
        I felt this character uses the sacred object as an extension of her own believed power.

  4. Great job, Brave Author. I was engaged from the first sentence to the end.

    One sentence made me pause to try and figure out what it meant: “The golden crucifix embedded in the book’s cover glinted as dawn streamed through the window.” Since Grandma is holding the Bible tightly to her chest, I don’t see how the light could glint on the crucifix. Maybe she could lay the Bible on the table and then Elisa could remark on the light reflection. Also, a crucifix is generally understood to be a cross with a figure on it. It’s probably a cross on the cover of the Bible.

  5. I liked this as well. Good job, as you noted, of inserting the reader smack in the middle of the drama. I often ask writers for more description. But not in a case like this. There is time later for details.

    One thing I’d work on in rewrites: Whenever you move into action mode, especially a violent action like here (getting smacked in the face with a bible!), your style needs to tighten and change slightly to reflect the drama and intense sensory response of the moment. This passage:

    But before I could complete the verse, a whoosh of air and the scent of old leather gushed towards me. Pain erupted in my cheek, knocking the words from my mouth and throwing me sideward. As I slammed into the floorboards, my eyes sprung open, just in time to see Grandma lower the bible back to the table.

    Imho, this needs to be more visceral and exact in its choreography. Maybe:

    A whoosh of air and a smell of leather. A hard blow to my face that knocked me to the floorboards. My left cheek throbbed and I could taste blood. I lay there, unable to open my eyes. When I finally looked up, I saw Grandma carefully wipe the bible with her sleeve and cradle it back to her chest .

    You don’t need to TELL us she couldn’t complete the verse. Just show it. But good job! I’d read on.

  6. The “Ming The Merciless School of Literary Criticism” is a hotbed of fussbudgetry & nitpickery, so please take his remarks with a bag of salt.

    The opening is a grabber, without a doubt. Ming’s favorite line: “In the midst of disappointment, know that God is listening and–” Wonderfully thematic!

    Sue has done a very thorough job, as usual. “Ming” has just one quibble. Re the The Editors Blog’s 2016 opinion on Bible verses in dialogue, your numeric biblical references are succinct and easily read, as-is, and match script standards, says Ming.

    Ming thinks less is more. The moment is sufficiently impactful with just the action of Elisa being clouted with a Bible. Thus he would leave out some of the embellishment, such as the personification. If you want, just say “She loved that book more than me. I felt a pang of jealousy…” The jealousy/sin still works; Ming just wouldn’t personify it. Or the book.

    Why is the air dusty? If it’s dusty, why does she not sneeze?

    Action verbs are best, and Anon is a master at finding them, but Ming thinks they can be obtrusive when taken to extremes.

    The clouting moment is an action scene, so any superfluous words that slow the reader should be dropped, such as: “. . . a whoosh of air and the scent of old leather gushed towards me.” Doubting the MC would have time to notice the whoosh or smell the scent, Ming would omit that phrase.

    A good start. Keep it up!

  7. Thanks, Anon, for sharing your first page with us. My favorite line was when Elisa turned “disappointed” to “dis-ap-point-ment” and remembered the verse. (Maybe the verse burst to the surface rather than Elisa bursting to the surface??)

    I don’t imagine anything delicate about Grandma. Perhaps she could open the Bible reverently instead of delicately. And part of her sociopathic behavior could be sudden irrational outbursts like slapping Elisa upside the head with the revered Bible. Is that why there’s a blood stain next to the embossed cross?:-)

    Good luck with the story, Anon!

    • Good one, Priscilla! “Delicately” rang a bit odd to me on first read through, too.
      I think your suggestion of “reverently” is spot-on for the character! (At least, for what we’re given to know of her thus far.)

  8. I might not know how to describe what voice is, but I recognize it when I see it, and Brave Author has a fantastic voice. Great job Sue and the other commenters.

  9. Superb writing, and I’d definitely read on.

    I am always surprised when a piece is so good, that it can still be improved with tiny but significant tweaks.

    I have a question for Sue re: Please be aware, US spelling is the preferred industry standard. Is this norm globally, ie. for publishers in the UK too?

    • In my experience, yes. One of my publishers is based in Ireland, and all their books are Americanized for a US market. It might not matter at the submission stage, but many publishers will ask for you to covert to US spelling during edits. That’s my understanding, anyway.

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