First Page Critique: A Death In Vegas, And It’s Not The Corpse

By PJ Parrish

Today’s submission is a second attempt. I read the first draft of this a couple years back and I thought it was a hot mess back then. We didn’t print it here because I thought the writer needed a second chance. So here is the new version. Give it a read and we’ll talk. The writer calls this a light mystery with serious intent.


It’s not easy starting your life over when people think you murdered your husband and got away with it. Especially in a place like Morning Sun, Iowa.

The folks in Morning Sun — there’s only about four hundred of them — don’t have much tolerance for weird people, especially a rattlebrained housewife who tries to bail out of her marriage after a couple of little marital “tiffs.”

But I was born and bred in Morning Sun, and on that Fourth of July when my husband Brad came at me with the Ginsu knife we had just bought off a late-night infomercial, I didn’t figure I had a lot of options.

The police believed I killed him. My neighbors believed the police. My relatives believed the neighbors. But fortunately for me, the jury didn’t believe any of them.

So I walked. Actually, I ran.

Three thousand miles to be exact, all the way to Las Vegas. I had to get out of Morning Sun and I figured Las Vegas was a good place to reinvent myself. It’s the kind of town where everyone takes big chances. It’s the kind of place where dwelling on the past is about the only thing that’s really a sin.

Like I was doing now.

I rubbed my neck, pushed Brad out of my head and myself out of my chair. My Payless pinchers were where I had kicked them off when I came back to the office and hour ago. I glanced up at the surveillance monitor. So was Mr. Cranko. He was still planted like a Buddha at blackjack table 15, his sausage fingers ruffling his chips, the ash of his Marlboro about to fall to the green felt.

A tap on the door drew my eye to the door. Pete, my night manager, came in and tossed a yellow paper on my desk.

“Hey boss,” he said. He glanced up at the monitor. “How much is Cranko in?” he asked.

“Twenty-seven thousand,” I said.

Pete shook his head. “How does a Searchlight plumber get that much to play with?”

I shook my head even though I knew Cranko was a meth dealer. Half the lizard people in the desert were. I looked down at the yellow paper.

“How many?” I asked, giving the paper a poke.

Pete shrugged. “Just two. One for panhandling. The other for soliticting.”

“Male or female?”

“We couldn’t tell.”

Okay, we’re back. What is the basic problem here? C’mon, I know you all pay attention when we preach about this at The Kill Zone.

Yup, that’s right. Too much backstory. Too much thinking, remembering, musing, regretting. I wish I had enough room here to show the original version because this is actually much better. But this still isn’t ready for prime time. The protag’s past is interesting, but it’s just that — past tense. We’re already about 350 words in and nothing much is happening IN THE PRESENT. Sure, we get some dialogue and I suppose Pete coming in and interrupting the protag’s thoughts might pass for “action”. But it is interesting? Where is the disturbance in the norm, as James always pleads for?

Okay, true confession. My sister Kelly and I wrote this. It was one of our freshman attempts many many years ago. I found it while cleaning out the hard drive the other day and we decided to drag it out, hit it with the paddles and see if it could be resusitated.

Sigh. I dunno. I really like this protag and the arc of the story we wanted for her — she’s trying hard to make up for some bad life decisions, she’s in a dead-end job in Vegas, and she can’t find a new road forward. Her arc involves not just reinventing herself but also rebuildingg a badly damaged relationship with her dad. But this first chapter is fatally flawed because our desire to impress you with her backstory is getting in the way of the forward motion. SOMETHING HAS TO COMPELL HER TO CHANGE.

But no. We go on for about seven more pages describing the drab old-fashioned casino where she works, her sad attempts to start dating again, and how envious she is of the glamorous new casino, The Monolith, opening next door. So she opens her window and watches the klieg lights, the red-carpet crowds next door. More thinking, regretting, sighing…

Then, guess what happens at the end of chapter 1? Here it is:

I started away from the window.
That’s when I heard the scream.
A second later, I heard the thud of something against metal. My first thought was that something had fallen on the Dumpster in the alley.
But things, inanimate things, didn’t scream.
I went back to the window, and looked up. Nothing but the klieg lights waving like windshield wipers against the navy blue sky. I forced myself to look down.
It was so close to my open window, I could smell the blood.

To make a too long story short, a showgirl has fallen off the roof of the Monolith. Or was she pushed? Well, that’s where the story — and our protag’s story — finally begins to come alive.  Here’s the opening of Chapter 2:

I knew she was dead, but her eyes spoke to me.
They were green, probably from contacts she didn’t need, but an emerald green nonetheless. A red and gold sequined headdress covered her blonde hair, and her long legs were contorted under her. Her black fishnet stockings were caught on the chain-link fence like a giant spider web.
I watched as red feathers floated down, one settling on her forehead, right next to the line of blood that ran from her ear.

So, why am I sharing this? Not for sympathy. We know that if we want to do something with this story, we have a lot of work to do. I’m sharing this so you really understand a couple things about effective openings:

  1. Yes, your character’s backstory is important because it provides a context for their arc in your present-tense plot. And you want the reader to care about your protag. BUT…something in the present must trigger the protag’s journey out of the past.
  2. Act first and explain later. I think our opening paragraph is fine — it’s a good tease. But we need to find a way to get to the catalyst event — the dead showgirl — more quickly and weave our protag’s backstory into the plot later.
  3. Don’t waste time on dialogue and secondary character that do nothing to move your plot along. This means the stuff with Pete and Mr. Cranko has to go. They add nothing. Remember: Your real estate is precious in the early pages. Don’t clutter it up with flaccid dialogue and spear-carriers.
  4. Make your protag pro-active not re-active. Part of our character arc is that our protag has always dreamed of being a private detective. But we need to hint at this in chapter 1. Right now, she’s boring. We need to juice her up.
  5. First person is tough. Everything is filtered through one POV and man, if your character is moping and groping, who’s gonna care? If you chose first person, make your narrator sing. Even if it’s off-key at first.
  6. Don’t make this common mistake: Spend time, pages and energy world-building the norm, then when something bad happens to disrupt it, the reader will care even more. Nope. Hint at a norm but don’t belabor it. Get your plot moving and later, you can layer in the “norm” that has been lost.
  7. And find a way to tell us your protag’s name. Big duh for us….we don’t tell you her name until page 23.

Whelp, there you have it. Oh, I forgot one more thing I’d like you to take away from this lesson, maybe the most important thing:

8. Everyone writes crap. We had already published two of our Louis Kincaid series books when we wrote this. What’s weird is neither of our Louis books had these flaws. What happened to us? [I am laughing as I write this] Shoot, I don’t know. I think we got so enamoured of our character and her sad little life back in Morning Sun, Iowa, that we forgot that we needed a plot. In trying to save her, we lost our story. So when you do write something bad — and you will — set it aside, let it bake a few weeks, months or years in the drawer or hard drive. Then pull it out and give it a whiff.

Does it smell like cheese? Then it is. Admit it and try again. To paraphrase Woody Allen, sharks and writers die if they don’t keep moving.


This entry was posted in #truecrimethursday by PJ Parrish. Bookmark the permalink.

About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at

26 thoughts on “First Page Critique: A Death In Vegas, And It’s Not The Corpse

    • Vera, yes, it’s true. And I’ve learned how to articulate such problems since joining the group here. It is a process. You might sort of instinctively know something is off in your writing, but you’re so close to it it’s hard to own up. TKZ has taught me a lot about self-editing.

  1. Okay, maybe I’m the odd one but regardless of whether it’s backstory, I really enjoyed the first 7 paragraphs, ending with the “Like I was doing now.”. They are attention grabbing, and to me inject a bit of commercial humor with mention of the Ginsu. So regardless whether it happened in the past or not, I’m engaged.

    Where I begin to lose steam is the paragraph starting “I rubbed my neck…”. For a few reasons: 1) she glanced at a surveillance monitor but it’s not really clear to me why—is she a guard, an owner or high up in management? (I would venture if she’s wearing Payless she’s not an owner). But then Pete comes in & she refers to him as boss.

    Whereas Ginsu gained my attention in a good way, the name “Cranko” lost my attention. It reminded me of the spoof of Chicago gangsters that they did on Star Trek the original decades ago, talking about Fizzbin and such. LOVED the original Star Trek, but that wasn’t one of my favorite episodes.

    The yellow paper & talk of panhandling and soliciting is not quite clear either because you don’t really understand the context, still trying to figure out what her role is.

    So my thought, after reading the first page and then your concerns—was to suggest that after the “Like I was doing now” paragraph, add something very brief that clarifies her current role—maybe with the observed irony that she, while technically exonerated was seen as a murderer, worked security at (name of casino). Then get right to the current incident.

    But to me it isn’t taboo to share her backstory so briefly in those 1st 7 paragraphs. You’ve done it engagingly, and made the reader curious about her.

    • Good points. I am okay with a slow build opening. But I think you are right that it veers off course when her employee comes in and they jaw about Cranko.

    • Well, thanks, Patricia. I think the first couple graphs can stay but we have to get rid of the flab in the middle and get to the action sooner. You guys are giving me good feedback!

  2. Kris, this is actually a perfect example of what I’ve counseled many writers to do: the Chapter 2 Switcheroo. Make Ch 2 your Ch 1, and hold off on the backstory till much later, like Ch 4 or 5.

    • Yup. We are toying with several new openings. Once the showgirl falls, things move along pretty fast and Bailey (that’s our protag’s name BTW) gets caught up in wanting to solve the girl’s murder.

  3. You’ve come a long way, Kris! It’s tough looking at early works. My first four novels are trunked for a reason, and that’s where they’ll stay. I’ve stolen bits and pieces over the years, like the means and cause of death and the killer’s signature. For the most part, I find it easier to start from scratch than rewrite something that isn’t working.

  4. Thanks for sharing this, Kris. Like BK and Patricia, I’m intrigued by the character. She can’t seem to escape murder. I also agree with Jim that the story really begins when the showgirl plunges to her death in Chapter 2, and to salt in the back story later.

    I have five trunked novels myself. The fifth one was the first one I got feedback on, and the first one I outlined, but I’m thinking I would probably need to completely blank draft it, and it’s a far cry from both the urban fantasy and the library mysteries I write now.

    Your list of tips for effective openings is gold. My developmental editor on my sixth novel, the first one I published, directed me to do a voice edit on that novel, because the first person narrator-hero sounded off. I did so, and then I was requested to do a second edit for attitude–making her less mopey and more pro-active in her thinking and reactions. Eight weeks between the two edits, well spent, but man, did I work my tail off.

    • A voice edit…excellent idea for first person narrator. My agent at the time read this and said pretty much the same thing, that the protag’s voice wasn’t clear enough. We ended up setting the opening aside and moving ahead with the story. As we did, we got to know her better and then we better equipped to go back and rework the opening.

  5. I knew she was dead, but her eyes spoke to me.

    I would love to see this as an opening line, Kris! If I did, no way would I be able to put the book down.

    Love this post. The way you constructed it is like a mini-novel in itself. And, as always, much learning to digest.

    Happy Tuesday!

  6. Presenting this as a First Page Critique was clever, Kris! I thought you were being a little hard on Brave Author until I got to your true confession. I truly love little surprises.

    I liked the first sentence a lot. As a reader, that gave me all the back story I needed to know in Chapter One. I envision a short transition from that into the current setting of a Las Vegas casino and the protag’s job as security chief. Then the scream.

    I like your list of tips – especially #8. Comfort for the journey.

  7. Overall I like the character and there might be a great story here. For sure dump chapter one and start with chapter 2. Nothing quite builds LV intrigue like a dead showgirl.

    This brings me to some unanswered questions. Where does she work for real? The security office of a casino has someone watching the monitors 24/7. Are the crimes in the parking lot important? They could be clues to what happened to the showgirl, but right now they are unneeded fluff.

    Oh, Google Maps says Morning Sun, IA to Vegas is 1500 miles give or take. That our hero didn’t take a direct route is fine. Or, drop the number altogether.

    • Picky, picky! Seriously, we never bothered to actually find out the exact mileage. Another duh mistake! The place she works is one of those run-down old-time casinos that somehow survived in the huge shadows of the new mega-casinos. Her estranged Dad owns the dump and has given her a nothing job just to help her get on her feet. Their relationship comes a long way over the course of the story. But yeah, as you say, there is lots of junk to jettison in this chapter. Thanks.

  8. Kris, when I first read your assessment, I thought that’s brutal. Then came the reveal it was yours and Kelly’s draft. Great lesson.

    “It’s the kind of place where dwelling on the past is about the only thing that’s really a sin.” That jumped out as a theme.

    Pete calls her “boss” which threw me off b/c she probably couldn’t have passed a background check for anything but a menial job in Vegas.

    I thought the yellow paper would be a report of a violent crime like attempted rape that foreshadowed a dead body coming soon.

    Her past shadow background of a suspicious death is intriguing and I really like the voice. Maybe give this another hit with the paddles?

    TKZ has also taught me valuable lessons and improved my craft. I’m grateful for the collective wisdom that’s freely shared here.

    • I’m not *that* mean in my critiques. 🙂 All your points are well taken. I wanted to leave the bad stuff in so you all could see the points clearly.

  9. As a first page I thought it was pretty good but as you mentioned, the original draft went on in this vein for seven more pages of back story. Dropping the dead showgirl in that first page would have really grabbed me.

    I had to look up where Morning Sun was, as I have lived in Iowa since 1993, a refugee from Los Angeles. It’s in Louisa County, north of Burlington. How ever did you fasten onto that little bit of real estate? Aside from that, some real stories have come out of rural Iowa, like Lone Tree and Villisca.

    Although it is not genre writing I would recommend “We Have All Gone Away” by Curtis Harnack to get a feel for the region. He grew up on a farm in Plymouth County.

    A lesson well learned. I’ve been working on craft and structure lately and this fits nicely into what I’ve been working on from Brother Bell’s “Just Write” and “Plot and Structure”.

      • I reckon you haven’t missed all that much.

        Small rural Iowa towns are all pretty much the same. A Casey’s, a post office and maybe a farm cooperative if they’ve got a rail line, some might rate a Dollar General. Population declining, more old folks than young ones because there are few jobs you can raise a family on. It’s a story all across this part of the world.
        That being said, rural noir is my chosen genre because the pressures are there although it is not given to talk about it much. It’s family business.

  10. Actually, Kris, this piece has a very Lee Child feel to it. Read the opening of his Gone Tomorrow (2009) and you’ll see.

    But hey, lessons learned, eh? Good job in summarizing and tipping.

    BTW: nowhere in Iowa is 3,000 miles from Las Vegas. That error immediately jumped out.

    • Just went and read the opening to Lee’s book. It’s a slow narrative set-up and some backstory but by page 2, he’s already linked it to the forward plot with the line: [Now] “I was riding in the subway in New York City. He has gotten the reader back to present quickly and Reacher’s off and running. Thanks for the suggestion.

  11. Some quibbles, tho most of the opening, interesting as it may be, drops out if you flash forward to action, as you should.

    “My first thought was that something had fallen on the Dumpster in the alley. But things, inanimate things, didn’t scream.”
    Yes, and things don’t generally fall on dumpsters.

    “My Payless pinchers were where I had kicked them off when I came back to the office and hour ago. I glanced up at the surveillance monitor. So was Mr. Cranko.”
    Mr. Cranko was where you kicked him off? Or is he glancing at the monitor? Inquiring fussbudgets want to know.

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