First Page Critique – Or, the Devil You Don’t

By Debbie Burke


Today let’s welcome another Brave Author who submitted a first page of a story in the horror genre. Please enjoy then we’ll discuss.

Or, the Devil You Don’t

 Chapter 1

Nothing on earth compares to autumn in North Carolina.


I close my eyes and let my head fall back. Sunlight filtering through baring branches warms my face. After a moment, eyelids drift open and I marvel at how the sunlight seems to catch on the edge of each brightly colored leaf, holding just long enough to suggest luminescence, before breaking free.

The Colonel would have been livid.

“Is it almost over?” I ask, leaning so only Carl can hear me.

“Not quite, Debra,” he says. “Be patient.”

“Be patient,” I say, under my breath, face distorted.

If the Colonel were still alive, he certainly wouldn’t stand for it—the weather, I mean. He would have insisted it mirror the melancholy of the gathering.

It doesn’t.

Instead, it mocks us. If it were up to him, he’d cancel the whole damn thing.

He would say the day of a funeral should be bleak, a bitter wind blowing—the kind of wind that bites as it slides past your cheek. The skies must be gray. Perhaps even a light rain. Yes, rain would be perfect. Everyone huddled under black umbrellas.

Why does no one else appear to agree? Sadly, their loss is not so personal. They stand around uneasily, in obligatory attendance only, serving time graveside—staring at the shoes of the person next to them as if they are the most fascinating things on earth. The man in the black pin-stripe suit stretches his arm to sneak a glance at his watch. They never knew the same Colonel I did.

Nervous energy bids my fingers to pick imaginary lint from the front of my drab dress. I feel the eyes of every person here staring at me.

In the background, the minister’s drones.

“We have all been touched by Thomas Edward’s life and story, and each of us feels this loss deeply. But we cannot change…”

I glare upwards with all my might, willing the birds to cease their songs. They ignore me. Apparently, I have no ability to communicate with birds.


Right off the bat, the title is intriguing. The author takes a well-recognized saying—the devil you know or the devil you don’t know—and cuts the phrase in half, leaving only the second part, which is more sinister because it taps into the primal fear of the unknown. This is a good title choice for the horror genre.

My only question is the comma. It’s distracting and not necessary. I suggest you cut it.

But that’s a very tiny nit to pick!

This is a quiet, slow-burn beginning. The sensual description—how the sunlight seems to catch on the edge of each brightly colored leaf, holding just long enough to suggest luminescence—is beautiful. The reader briefly feels lulled by the warm sun until the next paragraph: The Colonel would have been livid.

That’s a shocking statement that contrasts with the lovely setting.

We talked recently about pros and cons of opening a story with the weather. I think this works because of the surprise twist that the Colonel would be angry. Why? Who is this character who would cancel his own funeral because he doesn’t like the weather?

Debra goes on to describe the gloomy conditions the Colonel would have preferred, pulling the reader deeper into the story as more questions arise.

Sadly, their loss is not so personal is an oblique, understated way of expressing the sorrow that Debra feels. She sounds wistful that other people didn’t know him as well as she did.  They are only there because they have to be. The description of them is spot on: serving time graveside—staring at the shoes of the person next to them as if they are the most fascinating things on earth.

However, the next paragraph contradicts that because she says everyone is staring at her. Maybe add a bit of transition that changes their focus from shoes to her. Does she cough, hiccup, or make a gesture that draws their attention? Plucking a bit of lint isn’t enough to cause people look up. What if she shifts her stance, twisting her ankle, and has to catch herself?

They never knew the same Colonel I did. That raises more compelling questions. What was the nature of their relationship? Was he family? A lover? Her commanding officer? Why did he open up to Debra? What did he have to hide from other people?

Her grief is further expressed in her frustration that the birds won’t shut up when she glares at them. That adds an ironic bit of humor that echoes the Colonel’s imagined annoyance with the weather. Both characters wish they could control nature but they can’t.

By the end of the first page, the reader still knows very little about Debra, Carl, the Colonel, how he died, what their connection is, and why she mourns him. But the Brave Author’s skillful, subtle, yet vivid writing seduced me. I want to turn the page to learn the answers to those questions. I also want to find out how horror will be introduced into the story.

Awkward phrasing caused a few small bumps:

Baring branches stopped me, maybe because it came right after another word, filtering, that also ended with ing. Perhaps just cut baring.

…eyelids drift open sounds disembodied. Suggest you add my eyelids drift open.

“Be patient,” I say, under my breath, face distorted. She might feel her facial expression, but she can’t see it.

…wind that bites as it slides past your cheek. Biting is sharp and sliding is smooth. Maybe use a different verb that goes better with bite, like tears or rips.

In the background, the minister’s drones. Is this a typo? Should it read: In the background, the minister drones.

Brave Author, I had to work hard to find suggestions to improve this first page. I don’t generally read horror, but I would definitely read more. Great job and best of luck with this intriguing story!


TKZers: Any suggestions for the Brave Author? Would you turn the page?

If not, do you prefer a faster beginning?

This entry was posted in first page, first page critique, First page critiques, Writing 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.

16 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Or, the Devil You Don’t

  1. Thank you, Brave Author, for letting us take a peek at your first page. I love the title. But I agree with Debbie that it’d work better without the comma.

    I don’t think the first two sentences/paragraphs are necessary. “I close my eyes …” would be a fine place to start.

    Instead of “baring branches” how about something like “golden-leafed branches”?

    I stumbled on “face distorted” because that’s a visual, and Debra can’t see her own face. Maybe Debra can do something like huff or squeeze her eyes shut.

    I read Debbie’s excellent critique, and I agree. I would turn the page!

    • The title intrigued me too, Vera.

      As you mention the first two paragraphs may not be needed except they establish the location, North Carolina, and the time of year. Plus the single emphatic word “Nothing” gives an early hint of Debra’s voice and attitude.

      The Brave Author will be encouraged by your comments. Thanks, Vera.

  2. Great critique, Debbie.

    I loved this beginning of a story, and I bet the beautiful descriptive opening will stand in stark contrast to what follows. I would turn the page.

    Excellent job, Brave Author.

    • Steve, good observation. The lovely setting may well be about to turn ugly. Contrast is an effective tool to show how quickly normal life changes to horror.

  3. Thank you, Brave Author, for submitting this. I was immediately drawn in, and I’d turn the page.

    One thing that misled me at first was the sentence “I close my eyes and let my head fall back.” I visualized someone lying under a tree. Is there another way to phrase that?

    Debbie’s critique was great. The only thing I disagree with her on is the phrase “wind that bites as it slides past your cheek.” I liked that description.

    Knowing this is a horror story, the last sentence gave me a slight chill. “Apparently, I have no ability to communicate with birds.” I wonder if that’s a hint of something to come.

    • Thanks for your comments, Kay. I too tripped a bit on the head falling back.

      Disagreement is good b/c it shows how different readers respond differently. Opinions are always subjective. The author takes what’s helpful from a critiques and ignores what isn’t.

  4. Thanks, BA, for this First Page. I, too, don’t usually read horror, but I might make an exception for this.

    The title drew me, your vivid descriptions, and the first line. I liked that first line because I knew where I was.

    My favorite line was, staring at the shoes of the person next to them as if they are the most fascinating things on earth. Who of us has not been right there, in that awkward, uncomfortable moment-wishing to be somewhere else. That line placed me standing next to Debra, staring at shoes. Good job!

    I agree with Debbie’s critique, but also agree with Kay’s comment about “…wind that bites as it slides past your cheek.” I also liked it.

    I’d definitely turn the page.

  5. Brave Author you have a beautiful way with words. I see North Carolina in fall. I feel that special feeling at a funeral, I would probably enjoy the whole book.

    But not much is happening. I am well down the page before knowing the Colonel is Thomas Edward and I still don’t know why I should care. I know next to nothing about Debra and the Colonel’s relationship. Maybe your story just spools out slower than others. I don’t know.

    But your use of language is a joy to read.

    • Alan, this is a slower start than many submissions. BA is depending on the strength of the writing, rather than a disturbance, to hook the reader. I totally agree with your comment that this is “a joy to read.”

  6. Yeah, I was confused by the third line, because I had a picture of somebody lying down. The first two lines don’t grab me because I have no reason to be grabbed.

    I have two suggestions to consider. 1) you could make the first line something about the minister’s voice droning. That way, when she puts her head back we know she’s either in church or at a funeral.
    2) start with “Is it almost over?” This immediately makes it a scene. You can drop in the weather details further down.

    Keep writing.

    • Oh, I really like your suggestion #2, Jim. Great way to both make it a scene and pose an intriguing question to draw the reader in immediately.

  7. Hi!

    Great first chapter! I only have a few comments/suggestions.
    -The first paragraph needs to be a big punch, and by breaking it into two lines and a brief paragraph, you lose some of that power.
    – You used sunlight twice in the first paragraph, maybe change one of them.
    – In the same first paragraph you focused a lot on the light and luminosity, maybe explore other senses, like the sounds or smells.

    Overall, like Debbie said, the first page doesn’t tell us much other than the weather and that she is at a funeral. Maybe adding a few hints of why she is there, or what the Colonel meant to her and why would raise the interest for turning the page and discover what happens.

    Just my two cents, I hope it helps!

    G.A. Maza

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