First Page Critique – Deadly Water

Photo credit: Ray Bilcliff, pexels

by Debbie Burke


Happy New Year! Hope the spirit of the holiday season kept you warm in spite of the frigid weather.

What better way to kick off the first week of the new year than with a First Page critique? Please take a plunge into Deadly Water submitted by a Brave Author.


Deadly Water

Kit sat on the back steps and laced up his running shoes. Getting a bit battered he thought. Might have to invest in a new pair if I plan on doing that marathon later in the year. Jumping nimbly to his feet, and making sure he had the ball in his pocket, he set off up the road towards the beach. Gem trotting happily beside him.

The day had one of those dirty gray overcast skies that were full of rain. The forecast was indeed for it to bucket down later. Kit knew these skies well, having grown up on the street he still lived. Rain would come from the north east, and it would last for a few days. Given his current mood this suited him perfectly well.

Down on the beach the tide was well out. Despite the number of runners, walkers, dogs, and strollers, there was plenty of room for Kit and Gem. As she had done for countless kilometers, Gem was content to lope alongside Kit. Half border collie, half German Shepard, Gem was a true companion. Loyal, obedient, and possibly deadly. Strangers never knew if Gem was going to herd them, or rip their lungs out.

Kit ran with one of those easy strides that made running look easy. He was tall, with hair that wasn’t quite red, not quite auburn. With that, and his green eyes, he could either scrub up stunningly, or just as easily look like he had slept rough for days.

They did the mandatory four lengths of the beach. Kit then took the disgusting old tennis ball out of his pocket and threw it into the water for Gem to chase. He still had a good throwing arm from his cricketing days, so this gave Gem a good workout. The sprint up the hill home always made him feel virtuous.

Back home he made his regular breakfast of egg with tomatoes on toast, and fed Gem. It was now getting on for seven thirty, and Kit wasn’t sure what he was going to do with the rest of the day. The house really did need some work, especially the fence. Ever since his parents had died, and Kit inherited the house, he had not much felt like renovating.

The promised rain arrived.

It was on day three of the rain that his mobile went. It hadn’t rung for days. His mates knew better than to annoy him when the mood was on. Kit and Gem had still run every morning. Running as therapy Kit thought grimly to himself more than once.


Okay, let’s get started.

Title: A title makes the book’s first impression on a reader and Deadly Water fills the bill for the mystery/suspense/crime genre. It immediately raises the question—why is the water deadly? That promises sinister happenings–maybe a floating body, murder by drowning, or a dangerous hunt for undersea treasure.

The title also works to set the story’s mood. Treacherous seas evoke primal fears of being lost, alone, and helpless in the depths, along with the terror of being unable to breathe. BA made an evocative, effective choice with Deadly Water. Good job!

Craft: The writing is generally clear. No typos or spelling errors except “Shephard” should be “Shepherd.

“Might have to invest in a new pair if I plan on doing that marathon later in the year.” This is the only place where “I” is used. The rest of the page is in third person.

For consistency, consider changing I to he: “Might have to invest in a new pair if he planned on doing that marathon later in the year.”

“Well” is repeated twice in two paragraphs.

The phrase “one of those” appears twice and is unnecessarily vague and wordy.

Try reading this page out loud to pick up repeated words and to smooth out a few awkward phrases.

Beginning a sentence with “It was” sounds weak. What does it refer to?

Watch out for gerunds (-ing words). “Jumping nimbly to his feet, and making sure he had the ball in his pocket, he set off up the road towards the beach. Gem trotting happily beside him.”

Suggested rewrite: Kit made sure he had Gem’s ball in his pocket. He jumped to his feet and set off up the road towards the beach, the dog trotting happily beside.

Setting and tone: British-isms like “scrub up” and “mates”, as well as the reference to “cricket”, suggest the setting is an English seaside town.

“Dirty gray overcast skies that were full of rain” is a nicely written phrase that establishes a gloomy, threatening tone.

“Given his current mood this suited him perfectly well” indicates Kit feels melancholy.

Characters: Two characters are introduced, Kit and Gem.

Kit is a fit marathon runner who still lives on the same street where he grew up. He recently inherited a home after his parents’ deaths.

Kit ran with one of those easy strides that made running look easy. He was tall, with hair that wasn’t quite red, not quite auburn. With that, and his green eyes, he could either scrub up stunningly, or just as easily look like he had slept rough for days.

This description gives a clear picture of what Kit looks like. However, the point of view is omniscient—as if a god is looking down on him—in contrast with the third-person POV in the rest of the excerpt.

An important goal at this early stage is to interest and connect the reader closely with the main character. Switching the POV pulls the reader out of the story, which is risky.

Gem is described as:

Half border collie, half German Shepard, Gem was a true companion. Loyal, obedient, and possibly deadly. Strangers never knew if Gem was going to herd them, or rip their lungs out.

Whoa! Ripping lungs out grabs the reader’s interest in a big way. I want to know more about this dog.

What causes her to react with unexpected violence? Is she trained to attack? If so, why does Kit need or want an attack dog? Should she be off-leash on a public beach? How does Kit handle Gem’s scary behavior?

At this point, Gem is a far more interesting, compelling character than Kit. She is also an effective device to foreshadow future conflict.

Story Problem: This otherwise well-written page has a major flaw.

Nothing happens.

Here are the problems Kit faces on this page:

Should he buy new running shoes?

Can he motivate himself to fix the fence?

His mobile goes dead.

None of these problems is compelling or earth-shaking.

The reader doesn’t care. And that’s a BIG problem. 

A side note: I was confused by the sentences “It was on day three of the rain that his mobile went. It hadn’t rung for days.”

On the first reading, I thought “his mobile went” meant the phone had gone dead. On rereading, I wondered if the first sentence was missing a word. Should it have read “his mobile went off”? In other words, did it ring for the first time in days?

If in fact the phone does ring for the first time in days, that constitutes a disturbance, which I’ll discuss in a moment. However, since the reader doesn’t know the significance of an incoming call, it’s not a compelling hook.

Back to the story problem. BA hints at potential difficulties. Kit is depressed enough that his mates know not to call him. He considers running as therapy but doesn’t address why he needs therapy. If his mood is connected to the deaths of his parents, how does that lead to a larger story question?

At TKZ, we talk frequently about ever-shorter attention spans. Reading is only one activity in world filled with constant distractions.

For authors seeking traditional publication, agents and editors need to be grabbed by the first page, paragraph, or even sentence. Otherwise, they quickly move on to the next submission.

The same applies to self-published authors. The “Look Inside” sample must immediately grab a prospective buyer’s attention. If not, there are a few million other books they can check out.

This first page is not a story yet because there is no disturbance or conflict. It’s just another day in the lives of Kit and Gem where nothing out of the ordinary happens.

The background may be useful to help the author become familiar with the setting and characters.

 But…it’s boring for the reader.

 My guess is the real story begins a few pages later when a significant event changes the course of Kit’s life.

Unfortunately, most readers won’t stick around that long. To hook them, put the disturbance on the first page, preferably in the first few paragraphs.

What if Kit throws the ball for Gem to retrieve but instead she brings back a severed hand?

Bam! The story is off and running.

Here’s one possible way to begin:

Kit’s mobile went dead during his regular morning run along the seashore, deserting him when he needed it most.

Gem, his German Shepherd-border collie mix, was racing down the beach after her ball. Abruptly, she stopped to sniff a pile of flotsam that three days of windswept rain had washed ashore. As Kit approached, he noticed a stench besides rotting seaweed.

A body. 

He started to call emergency services then realized his phone was dead, as dead as the young woman handcuffed to a wooden rail.

Jim Bell frequently counsels writers to “act first, explain later.”

To make this first page effective, try beginning with action. What disturbance changes Kit’s predictable, monotonous life into a story adventure?

The background information—like his familiarity with weather patterns, his parents’ deaths, and that he lives on the same street where he grew up—can all be woven in later, after the reader is hooked.

Summation: This page has potential. I like the English seaside setting and Gem is an interesting character. The excellent title promises that something bad is going to happen.

If BA rewrites the first page with action that lives up to the title’s promise, the reader will be eager to plunge into those Deadly Waters.

Thanks for submitting, Brave Author!


Over to you, TKZers. What do you think of this first page? What suggestions do you have for the Brave Author?




Start the New Year with a new series. Please check out award-winning Thrillers with Passion by Debbie Burke. 

Amazon link

32 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Deadly Water

  1. Debbie has stolen all my thunder―the good title (containing two power words!), the mood set via the weather and title, the POV shift, and the rather passive “It was….” That doesn’t leave much for me to carp about.

    But carp I shall. The piece is solid enough, mostly lacking serious errors, that I must fall back on stylistic quibbles. Steel yourself.

    “Kit ran with one of those easy strides that made running look easy.” As with the well-well instance, this is a stylistic peccadillo, a redundancy to be avoided, along with the similar easily close behind. The problems go away if you shun or shorten the adverbial phrase, and simply use a power verb, as in, Kit loped…, etc.

    Note also good-good, further down. This needs work, too: …grown up on the street he still lived (on?)

    The jocose mandatory, later, is a bit of a reader-stopper. It’s not really mandatory except in the MC’s mind, which we’re not in, if we’re third person.

    The only real issue is the lack of a reader hook, another stylistic nicety, but a vital one for today’s reader. As I was told long ago, “Shoot the Sheriff in the first paragraph.” At the very least, provide a “Save-the-Cat” moment to raise reader identification with the MC. (The dog or an elderly neighbor may be used to construct such a moment.)

    But Debbie’s body-on-the-beach works well. An alternative might be leading off with the first sentence spoken on the mobile. If necessary, you could work in his detesting phone calls in the subsequent conversation.

    All in all, not bad. A lot of pluses, high quality writing, and just one fairly simple change will provide significant improvement.

    • Happy New Year, J!

      This excerpt shows a lot of promise. The set up makes me think the Brave Author probably does have a good hook within a few pages. Move that hook to the first page and the reader’s interest will be captured.


    The rest is quibbling. With a title like Deadly Water, I kept looking for you know, death in the water. Dead body in the surf? Maybe. Gem goes into the surf after her ball and doesn’t come back? That will grab people. Debating the condition of your shoes and should you fix the fence aren’t action.

    You could have something people won’t put down… if you can get them to pick it up.

    Good luck though. You might have something well worth reading.

    • Alan, good suggestion about Gem going in the water but not coming back. That would grab every dog lover in a heartbeat.

      There’s definitely something worth reading once the hook shows up.

  3. Good fist page critique, Debbie. Good first page, Brave Author.

    I am sending this short comment to see if it will be “Denied for too many attempts.” If it makes it through the anti-bots software, I’ll write more.

    • Hurray! The system is working.

      Great critique, Debbie.
      I like this first page. If “his mobile went” means the phone rang, and that is a disturbance, would you, the reader, be satisfied with a first sentence that foreshadows and sets up the meaning and significance of the disturbance (the phone ringing)?

      Just trying to stir things up a bit this morning – a disturbance.

      • Yaay, the comments are working. A big thank you to our webmaster Brian!

        Steve, stirring things up is exactly what a first page is meant to do. Thanks for adding your thoughts.

  4. Great first page critique, Debbie. I agree that the writing is good, but the action isn’t compelling. (Although I always like running scenes. 🙂 )

    I would be intrigued if BA started with
    “It was on day three of the rain that his mobile pinged. It hadn’t rung for days. His mates knew better than to annoy him when the mood was on.”

    He could stuff the phone in his pocket, determined not to be bothered before his morning run with Gem A paragraph or two later, he could find the body or whatever it is that will drive the story.

    Good luck with this, Brave Author. You have us all wondering what Kit is going to happen onto.

    • I knew the running motif would catch your attention, Kay. Running provides good physical action, as opposed to a character by himself thinking. If Kit quickly runs into trouble, the story will take off.

  5. I’m just going to put here that you don’t need a dead body, brave author, on the first page.

    I was intrigued by the first two paragraphs. It set the tone nicely, and I liked the line about the weather matching kit’s mood. The only word that tripped me up there was “nimbly.” I know you want to show Kit’s a good runner, but nimbly is a positive word.

    I sort of skimmed through until the last paragraph where Kit’s phone goes off. I agree that that first sentence is a bit vague, but the next cleared it up for me.

    My suggestion, take it or leave it, is to cut out the stuff in the middle about the beach, character descriptions, and breakfast and get to the phone ringing. I hope there’s a good argument on your second page.

    • Azali, you make an excellent point that a crime story doesn’t need to open with a dead body. Depending on who’s calling, the phone call can certainly provide enough disturbance to cause the reader to turn the page.

  6. Excellent critique, Debbie.

    Anon, I’d delete everything before It was on day three of the rain… and start there. If, and only if, the phone call acts as a catalyst to kickoff the quest. If it doesn’t, then you’ll have to search the manuscript for where the story really starts.

    Please don’t be discouraged by my suggestion. Many new writers struggle with the same issue of starting Chapter One too early.

    • Thanks, Sue. An early draft often helps the writer become acquainted with the characters and the story world. Background and info dumps serve those purposes. Once the writer is firmly established in their own mind, the extraneous material can be deleted or, if needed, woven in later.

      There’s good potential here. BA just needs to find the right doorway to enter the story.

  7. Can’t get in this morning…again.

    But, just in case, agree with your excellent critique, Debbie.

    Thank you, BA, for this great beginning. Bottom line-make something happen on this first page.


  8. Ack. Punctuation matters!

    The second sentence needs a comma. So does the last sentence.

    After beach there should be a comma, not a period.

    Need a comma in the last sentence of the second paragraph. (Also, missing a word in 3d sentence)

    Suggest getting Strunk & White…and running text through the free grammar checker at ProWritingAid.

    Oh, and try beginning your manuscript with Chapter 2. It’s amazing how often that works to act first, explain later.

  9. In the middle of this bucolic, calm setting, having a dog that seems happy and amiable enough but strangers never knew whether the dog would rip their lungs out seems strangely out of place, and not exactly in a nice way.

    By comparison I happened on a short story on reddit last night and there was no doubt about it, a dog on a rural farmstead savaged a fugitive running from the police. I’m also in mind of a Benjamin Percy (I think) short story about a dog attacking a child in the snow.

    I think the potential is there for something really bad to happen with the dog that would make an excellent hook right in the beginning.

    As others have said, in genre fiction you only get one chance to grab the reader by the scruff of the neck and take them on a wild ride.

    • Thanks for your observations about the dog, Robert. Most dogs are lovable companions. When they display a vicious side, it’s shocking and that would make an effective hook, as you suggest.

      • Uh-oh, the website gremlins are misbehaving again.

        If anyone has problems leaving a comment, our intrepid webmaster is working on it.

        Thanks for your patience!

  10. Good suggestions already given. I will note that for me, when a dog appears in a story, they’ve already stolen the show. 😎 I found the comment odd about strangers never knew if Gem was going to herd them or rip their lungs out–that seemed like an implausible leap of logic as written. Is this simply based on the fact that the dog is part German Sheperd? At any rate, because of this description, I expected that when the dog went to retrieve the ball some crime scene/body was going to make it’s presence known. But nope, they just played fetch and went home.

    I will also note that since the first page seemed to be about the character basically navel gazing, when Debbie, in her comments mentioned the parents dying, I thought she was referencing some additional information that BA provided when they sent in the submission–but when I went back and checked the submission again, this fact was indeed there. The fact that I did not even register it on read-through shows that the confusion about the dog ripping lungs out and the character’s navel gazing made the parents’ loss irrelevant in the narrative.

    I concur with others who mentioned this story should simply start a bit later. I can totally sympathize with the character, who gives a feeling of being restless and at odds with himself, maybe a bit discombobulated for some reason(s)–but would probably work better later in the story after the action has been launched, whatever that may be. It sounds like you’ve got the material to work with, just need to find your best starting point. Thanks for submitting!

    • Brenda, you’re so right that dogs often steal the show! As other commenters have mentioned, Gem might well be the hook that tugs the reader into the story.

  11. Thank you, Brave Author, for submitting this, and thank you, Debbie, for once more providing a thoughtful first page critique. BA, I agree strongly with Debbie’s comments, and feel that the novel opens too early, a common problem many of us have as we are trying to get our feet under as with a new book.

    FWIW, I’d advise starting later–Debbie’s new opening is a great model/example. I’d also see about getting a bit closer to Kit, with the point of view, and try describing things through his eyes and mindset, so that we aren’t watching him, but are right there alongside him.

    Keep at it! You’ve got the writing chops, and, by starting at the end of this, an intriguing set up.

    • Dale, thanks for your observation about getting more deeply into Kit’s POV. Excellent suggestion! When readers feel a strong connection with a character, they keep turning pages to learn what happens to that character.

  12. I agree with Debbie and others. Not enough tension in this opening. But there’s good potential.

    Changing to a meta topic… I’ve mentioned this before but I’ll say it again: whoever is adding opening images to these First Page Critiques is doing a big disservice to both the anonymous author and to those reading the post. I don’t know if it’s the poster or a TKZ administrator, but PLEASE DO NOT DO THIS. Let the writer’s text be what—and all—you see. Adding a stock image (waves crashing here) immediately biases the responses. No images please. (Sorry to be harsh, but come on… this should be obvious.)

    • Mea culpa, Harald. I added the image. According to blogging experts I read when I first started posting years ago, photos and images catch attention and attract more readers. So I adopted the practice.

      But you make an interesting point that first page critiques need to stand on their own without interference from images.

      Any other TKZers want to weigh in on this?

      • My take, FWIW. Yes, images attract readers. Why don’t we here at TKZ adopt an image that signifies a “first page critique” that has nothing to do with the submission?

        • Nice idea and cuts the time to find an apropos image, too.

          I’ve been getting the dreaded “too many tries” message. I’ve reloaded the site. Maybe that will help.

    • As a grateful recipient of two FPCs—and with a long career as an Art/Creative Director and designer—here’s my free advice (worth every penny):
      On First Page Critiques (“FPC”), design the page like this (top to bottom):
      — “First Page Critique” heading [+ NO title or heading of the piece, even if offered]
      — generic, standing TKZ graphic for all FPCs
      — byline of poster
      — short intro by poster
      — the anon text
      — poster analysis/summary/etc.

      Bada bing.

  13. Brave Author here.
    Thanks so much to everybody who has critiqued. I’m certainly taking the comments onboard. Especially about the lack of action.
    Once I have rewritten, am I able to resubmit?
    FYI setting is Takapuna Beach which is an idyllic spot on the North Shore of Auckland, in New Zealand.

  14. Thanks for coming forward, Stephen!

    A suggestion: the New Zealand setting itself can serve as a hook since the locale is unfamiliar and exotic to many readers. Combine that with action and you’ll have a compelling start.

    l’ll check with the bosses about resubmission and let you know.

    Best of luck and keep up the good work!

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