First Page Critique – Finding Grace

By Debbie Burke


Today we welcome another Brave Author who’s submitted a first page for discussion. Please enjoy then we’ll discuss it. 

Finding Grace

In a few hours, the airwaves would crackle with breaking news, and the stories would all lead with the same headline Edward Sika-Nartey was staring at. WHISTLE-BLOWER BOMBSHELL. DENAQUIN CLINICAL TRIAL DATA FALSIFIED. TWELVE DEATHS UNDER INVESTIGATION.

Edward flung the three-inch-thick report on his desk and gripped the back of his chair with both hands. “It’s worse than we thought.”

“Is it?” Stanley Adjei crossed his legs and brushed a piece of lint off his trousers.

“People have died.”

“People may have died,” Stanley said. “There’s no definitive proof that Denaquin caused these deaths.”

Edward stared at his godfather and L&N’s vice-chairman with folded brows. There was not a single wrinkle in the man’s suit. The collar of his white shirt was as pristine as when he’d stepped into the office the previous morning. If Edward hadn’t been stuck there with him, he wouldn’t have believed Stanley had spent the last eighteen hours in the office.

Edward walked around his chair and leaned his elbows down on his desk. “Thirty percent. That’s how much JP shares have fallen in two days. My source at the FDA says the director is calling a press conference later today. God knows what he’s going to say. This is a disaster.”

“We didn’t work late into the night for nothing, Edward. We knew this was coming.”

“My point is, you don’t look worried at all. It’s like we read two different reports. There’s talk of deaths. That’s very concerning.”

“Concerning, yes. But for Offet Johnson.” Stanley uncrossed his legs and sat forward. “Look, this is an unsubstantiated report from a fanatical private watchdog. The FDA will do its own investigation.”

“And if it comes to the same conclusion?”

“I don’t want to sound crude. Like you said, people may have died. But a corroborating report by the FDA would put us in an even stronger position.”

“Is the takeover under threat?”

“You’re worried about the board, I understand. But you shouldn’t. The market is already reacting. Trust me, sooner rather than later, Offet Johnson’s going to concede.”

“You’re more confident than I am.”

“Oh, he’s as stubborn as they come. But he will have no other choice.”

Edward pursed his lips and nodded. Stanley was right, as always. Perhaps this drawn-out battle with JP was finally coming to an end. The report, scandalous as it read, could only help L&N’s attempt to acquire Johnson Pharmaceuticals. It certainly couldn’t hurt. The messier Offet Johnson’s reign looked, the more eager JP’s board would be to cast aside their loyalties.


Brave Author, thanks for submitting a professional first page with clean, clear writing, free of typos and grammatical errors.

The title, Finding Grace, is intriguing because it raises curiosity in the reader’s mind about different possible interpretations.

Is the story a search to find an actual person? Who is Grace? Why is she missing?

Or does this refer to seeking a state of grace? A quest for redemption?

A title that prompts a reader to ask questions is a good start.

However, starting a story by talking about an event that would happen in several hours is not a strong hook.

Two questions come to mind:

  1. Are these the right characters to introduce the story?
  2. Is this scene the right place to begin the story?

Edward and Stanley are executives in high positions at a corporation that is trying to take over a pharmaceutical company that apparently falsified drug trials and caused deaths.

I’m not against opening in a villain’s POV and have done it in my own books.

But, to hook the reader, negative characters must be strong and compelling. Here’s what we know so far about Stanley and Edward.

Stanley is indifferent and without a conscience. After spending the night at the office, his clothing is still pristine except for a bit of lint. BA does a good job of showing that he is physically and mentally untouched by the plight of the dead victims of the drug. The reader instantly dislikes him.

The POV character Edward seems slightly less callous. He at least recognizes the deaths are worth worrying about, even though his consideration is how they affect the stock price.

Two greedy executives are not distinctive or memorable.

A recent post by Anne R. Allen talks about the trend of unlikable characters in books and films. Anne says:

“I’m bored by stories where everybody is horrible and there’s nobody to root for. I want a story to have a hero — an actual protagonist that I can care about.”

I respect Anne a lot and believe her comment is worth considering, especially when crafting the all-important first page.

Second question: is this scene the right place to begin? Let’s examine the conflict.

Two companies, L&N and JP, are involved in hostile takeover. If stock prices sink, Offet Johnson, who’s presumably the owner of Johnson Pharmaceuticals, will look bad, making the takeover easier for L&N.

At this point, the reader already doesn’t like Edward and Stanley and doesn’t know Offet. Who cares if his company fails?

In fiction, a corporate merger isn’t going to grab most readers. They want characters with heart–even if the heart is evil.   

Below are some ideas on how to approach this story from different angles.

What if the protagonist is the whistle-blower? That evokes a much different reaction than cold executives. The first scene could introduce a protagonist with a goal of exposing false records and deaths that resulted.

The conflict and theme are immediately clear—whistle-blower David vs. corporate Goliath. That’s much more likely to capture readers.

Another option is to keep Edward and Stanley but have them talk about the whistle-blower. The reader becomes a fly on the wall, hearing what the enemies think about the hero and what plans they make to vanquish him/her. Here’s an example:

“Look,” Stanley said, “this is an unsubstantiated report from a fanatical private watchdog.”

Edward slapped the report. “Jane Q. Public already forced XYZ Corporation into bankruptcy because of unsafe working conditions. We shouldn’t underestimate her influence. She has to be discredited.”

The whistle-blower-protagonist is now on a clear collision course with the callous executives. That raises the reader’s curiosity and encourages them to turn the page to find out what’s going to happen next.

Another alternative is to put the focus on the victims of the drug. What if the main character is a surviving family member, seeking revenge or justice for a loved one’s wrongful death. Here’s an example that leads with the headline:


Edward Sika-Nartey flung the three-inch-thick report on his desk and gripped the back of his chair with both hands. “It’s worse than we thought.”

“Is it?” Stanley Adjei crossed his legs and brushed a piece of lint off his trousers.

“People have died.”

“People may have died,” Stanley said. “There’s no definitive proof that Denaquin caused these deaths.”

“That won’t matter once this whistle-blower’s report hits the media.” Edward flipped open the binder to a tabbed page and read out loud, “‘Joan Johnson, brain hemorrhage, age thirty-two. Mona Riley, brain hemorrhage, age twenty-seven. William Washington, brain hemorrhage, age sixteen.’” He slapped the binder shut and glared at his godfather. “How can you be so cavalier?”

There are a couple of minor wordsmithing issues:

What are “folded brows”?

“Edward walked around his chair and leaned his elbows down on his desk.” Assuming the desk is normal height (rather than a stand-up desk), this seems to be an awkward position. Is Edward really bending at the hips and leaning over that far?

Brave Author, thank you for submitting. Your writing is very good and there is the promise of a compelling plot that will unfold eventually. I just don’t believe the best way to kick off your story is with these particular characters and this particular scene.


TKZers: any ideas and suggestions for the Brave Author?

This entry was posted in first page, first page critique, Writing and tagged by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes the Tawny Lindholm series, Montana thrillers infused with psychological suspense. Her books have won the Kindle Scout contest, the Zebulon Award, and were finalists for the Eric Hoffer Book Award and Her articles received journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers.

20 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Finding Grace

  1. Brave Author’s piece is fairly neat–well put together, as noted. There are problems, of course. I don’t see a “save the cat” moment, here. There’s no charismatic MC. OTOH, whistle-blower characters have become a trope. I’m open to villains “finding grace” and changing teams. The other problem is that the piece is a bit backstory-heavy. The setup is not immediately clear. Some nomenclature oddities, too: L&N? Louisville & Nashville RR? Offet Johnson? SIck and Gnarly?

    There is some awkwardness. How is Sika-Narley grasping the back of his chair with both hands? Is he in it or standing behind it? Why does the report not make noise when it hits the desk?

    The stakes are insufficient. Twelve deaths is tame in today’s panicdemic world. Struggle for control of a company can be important, but may not be sufficient to grab the reader. Let the reader know that more a lot deaths are potentially involved. Let the billions of dollars at stake be revealed. I’d suggest opening with an actual, voices-raised argument, emphasizing the stakes:

    “Johnson Pharma has lost five billion in stock value in two days,” Edward said. “And it’s going to get worse when the FDA report is published.” He flung his copy of the three-inch thick document onto his desk, where it made a solid wham.

    Stanley brushed a piece of lint from his immaculate suit. “On paper, Edward. Only paper losses.”

  2. Wow, this is amazing. Anonymous author here, although I see myself as part of the TKZ family, having followed the blog religiously since 2016. I comment as often as I can, though not as often as I should as I read every single post. I know all of you as well as you were distant relatives. So this is truly incredible for me. Thank you Debbie for your wonderful and though-provoking critique. Your True Crimes Thursday posts are some of my favourites.

    This is actually my second first-page critique here. My first one several years ago was by Sue Colletta, whose excellent advice helped me greatly improve my writing. I guess some of the problems from then still persist today and that is entirely on me to find solutions to them.

    The story of Finding Grace takes place in Ghana, West Africa, where I’m from and live. Whistle-blowing, in real life or in fiction, is not as prominent and played-out as it is in the West. I can understand why JGuentherAuthor would see it as a tired trope. I’ve certainly read enough Western thrillers to know this is true. But in a young democracy like Ghana and many other African countries, people are only just beginning to appreciate certain things that are taken for granted in the West.

    Anyway, the story isn’t really about whistle-blowing or corporate takeovers. It’s about a character going against the grain of everything he’s been taught and raised with. Edward is actually the protagonist in the story. He’s a young, compassionate but impressionable man who has just taken over the reins of the monstrous company his father and godfather have built. A man looking to live up to the reputation of his godlike father. Edward’s ark is a positive one, and so I thought readers could follow his journey and see whether he was going to be just another Sika-Nartey.

    The Grace in the title is a character, the second MC of the story who makes an appearance in the very next scene. She’s a down-on-her-luck prostitute whose family was ruined by Edward’s family’s ruthless business practices. Like Debbie observed, her name is apt for the essence and theme of the story because it’s also something Edward has been seeking for something he did in his youth. When they’re paths cross, Edward is going to have to make a decision. I’m glad you liked the title. I got it from my brother while we were having a random Bible discussion.

    I’ve looked for other ways to start the story and I always settle on this scene. The coldness is deliberate, Edward is trying to be like his father and godfather. Maybe I should give him something more in this scene, something to make a reader stick with him. It’s hard to achieve in just 400 words. I’ll try nonetheless.

    Anyway, thank you Debbie and everyone for your wonderful advice. I really appreciate it.

    • Nana, thanks for coming forward! Your explanation sheds a whole new light on this first page.

      Ghana is a fresh and fascinating setting, esp. to western readers. As you say, the struggles of a young democracy are different and deserve extra attention. I suggest you lead off with that setting to immediately draw the reader into that world. To you, it’s your everyday life but to most readers outside of Africa, it’s unusual and we want to learn more.

      Another idea: What if the first scene is in Grace’s POV? As a direct result of Edward’s family, Grace’s family suffered real loss (as opposed to “paper loss” that J mentioned above). That’s a much more compelling hook. The reader is emotionally involved and wants to see justice done.

      Then segue into this scene that introduces Edward and Stanley. Once the reader has the context of past damage and how it affected Grace’s family, they will want to learn more about the characters who caused that loss. That sets up an even more dramatic character arc for Edward as he finds redemption.

      We all understand how difficult first pages are. We’re not objective b/c we already know where the plot is going, while the reader does not. Our foreknowledge makes it difficult to decide what to showcase to hook the reader.

      Your comment reveals a lot of untapped potential. Focus more on those aspects and you’ll have a story that grabs readers and won’t let go.

      Thanks for submitting and being part of TKZ’s family!

    • Nana, thank you for coming forward, and for the kind words. The setting of Ghana intrigues me. If you could slip in a setting detail like heat, humidity, wind, or a storm rattling the windowpanes, it’d help draw in the reader. Maybe something like, “the South African sun blazed through the window, the scorching heat raising Edward’s body temp even higher.”

  3. “People have died” sounds pretty passive and not really the way people talk.

    How about
    “People died.”

    I love David and Goliath stories and would read this, particularly after all the pharmaceutical shenanigans going on in the world. Just make it move.

    • Cynthia, David and Goliath stories resonate b/c we’ve all been the underdog at some point in our lives. A heroic struggle against overwhelming odds is timeless.

  4. When I first read this, I thought Edward might be the protag.

    Great start, BA, and I’m so glad you stepped into the light. Your setup explanation was valuable, because the setting in Ghana instead of corporate America significantly upped the stakes in my mind.

    Debbie’s critique is spot on. I want to meet Grace first, care about her, then meet the bad guys.

    Thanks for your submission.

  5. Thanks, Debbie, for your great critique, and special thanks to Nana for letting us know about her story.

    I also did not feel compassion for either of the two characters in the scene. Even though Edward seemed to have concern about the deaths, he immediately transitions to worrying about the stock prices. I like Debbie’s suggestion of keeping Edward firmly focussed on the deaths and maybe even dismissing the merger. Let Stanley do all the worrying about that.

    Nana, your explanation that the story takes place in Ghana explains why I had so much trouble with the names. I’m guessing these names are pretty common in Ghana, but if you’re seeking an American audience, you might want to use names that are easier for a western ear to grasp. And the sentence about Stanley’s pristine suit would be a great place to slip in a clause about the placement. Maybe something like “Even in the 90-degree Ghana heat, Stanley’s suit …”

    I love the title and the way you arrived at it. Best wishes for much success as you continue your writing journey.

    • Kay, I actually liked the names b/c they are distinctive. Once we know the setting is Ghana, they fall right into place.

      Good suggestion of sliding in the temperature, although wouldn’t a wealthy corporation have air-conditioned offices?

  6. Thanks, Brave Author, for submitting. The writing is crisp but as Debbie said, I’m not sure this is the right place to start the story and my reason is that we don’t yet know these characters well enough yet and because of that, the opening page is a bit confusing. Here are a few thoughts:

    “In a few hours, the airwaves would crackle….” In a few hours takes away any immediacy of the threat, so doesn’t really offer much tension. And a side note, I was torn about the word crackle–which I tend to think of in more historical context, rather than modern age. But that could just be me.

    I also was stopped in my tracks by the phrase “folded brows”. Not sure how that’s physically possible.

    “Edward walked around his chair and leaned his elbows down on his desk.” This is physically unlikely. Even if Edward is short, this can’t possibly be comfortable.

    In the succession of paragraphs that begin with “I don’t want to sound crude…” I totally got lost for lack of speaker attributions and couldn’t figure out who was saying what, because at this point I don’t know these characters very well so distinguishing them on the first page without speaker attributions is difficult.

    I would be less inclined to turn the page because at this point my main reaction is simply one of confusion. Not all readers are engaged by mergers and acquisitions–business talk tends to make my eyes glaze over but that’s just me. I would also add that it takes some re-reading (at least for me) to clarify that the drug seems to be distributed by Offet Johnson’s company, not their own. A bit confusing.

    I believe underlying this first page is a search for justice for the deaths, but as it reads at this stage, we don’t truly get a sense of those stakes. We’re just listening to the interchange of two people who sound very uncaring although we can see that Edward might have a bit of a conscious.

    This is a tough subject to tackle. Best wishes on your project!

    • Thanks for your comments, Brenda. I too needed to reread to figure out that Offet Johnson’s company was the distributor rather than Edward and Stanley’s.

      Corporate takeovers are inherently confusing–another reason why I didn’t think this page was the right place to start the story. A confused reader won’t turn the page.

  7. Rookie here.

    I thought it was pretty cool but I’m not sure that BA needed to do too much explanatory followup. I get why they might want to and my instinct when I submitted my first page critique/pet project a while ago was “But wait! You don’t understand!” . I didn’t do it.

    Turns out the critics were right and I winced when I just looked at it. It didn’t stand on its own hind legs.

    A lot of what was presented ought to be carried by the story itself. I realize this is not a standalone piece but that raises the question of context and how to place the story within a setting that westerners may not be familiar with.

    Just my opinion, mind you. Your mileage may vary.

    • Robert, we’ve all had that instinctive first reaction to critique–“Wait, you don’t understand!” But as you so colorfully express it, the story must stand on its own hind legs.

      Context is difficult to achieve in one page but strong, effective hints lay the groundwork. Nana has the writing chops to pull it off.

  8. There’s a subtle undercurrent that I find appealing. Maybe too subtle, but this writer definitely has the chops to enhance this first page with notes from your superb critique, Debbie. Well done, Brave Author!

    • Thanks, Sue. I also felt the undercurrent which is why I suspected Edward might be the protagonist who eventually finds grace and/or Grace.

  9. I thought Edward might be the protagonist, but I still didn’t like him much and agree with your excellent critique. As for that “Wait, you don’t understand”–it is so hard to hear that your baby might be ugly. I have seventeen books under my belt, and I still flinch when I get that first edit back. And then the second… I remember my very first romance to Harlequin. The story was 263 pages long and I had 279 comments from the editor…yep, I counted them. But in those comments, I learned how to write a romance.

    • Thanks for adding your wisdom, Patricia. No matter how thick our rhino skin is, that first edit is always a jolt. 279 comments must have been daunting but you took the advice to heart and learned what you needed to. That’s the mark of a pro.

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