First Page Critique – An Easy Fix

by Debbie Burke


Today, welcome to another Brave Author who’s submitted a first page for critique. The genre is noir fiction. Please take a look then we’ll discuss.


An Easy Fix

You always think you know what you’re doing, but that’s just the first circle of hell. Well. Maybe not the first circle but the escalator only goes one way and that’s down.  Oh, you can try and run up but you’ll never make it. You’ll run out of breath, you’ll sweat and wheeze and pant and then you’ll collapse like a bag of dirty laundry.

The bartender came over to Elam’s end of the bar from where she’d been cleaning glasses. She wiped her hands on a towel.

“What’ll it be, Elam?”

“A double of Jack and a draft Bud, Katie.”

The bartender placed two coasters on the bar, poured the draft and two shots, and set them in front of Elam. He placed a crumpled twenty on the bar.

“What have you been up to, Elam? How’s Charity?”

“Exceptional children, they call ‘em. Whoever thought that up needs to be smashed in the face. I mean, what are they trying to do here? Make people feel good about disasters? The only reason Charity was exceptional was the fucking doctors with their knives and their halothane masks.”

“Really? I thought you were over the worst of it.”

“You know what a bum mitral valve is, Katie? She’d run out of breath and turn blue, couldn’t keep up with the kids on the playground. So they say, ‘Oh yeah. An easy fix. Be back home in five days.’ And then the fucking anesthesiologist is thinking about her cheating husband, and her girlfriend and his girlfriend and their trip to Aruba and her mind’s a million miles away and she’s not paying attention because it’s all so routine. An easy fix.  And the pressure drops and the cock sucker is fucking with the regulators in a panic but it’s too goddamned late. There’s no going back.”

“I didn’t know. You never talked about it.”

“Now the kid’s in a wheelchair and can’t see and can’t walk and she goes to a special school for kids like her.  She’s a tape recorder, everything that she hears she repeats.”

That’s how Elam knew about Carol’s boyfriend, from Charity.

A year after Charity came home Carol left.  It was anticlimactic. No big showdown like the OK Corral.  Elam came home from driving the beer truck and Carol was gone, took nothing except a suitcase and her Ford Fairlane. She did clean out the bank account and set the credit cards on fire at ATMs across Missouri and Kansas.

Elam never heard from Carol again. He’d hear things every now and again when his mother in law would let something slip, something about her boyfriend and Las Cruces, but that was all.

He didn’t care any more.


Title: An Easy Fix offers the right blend of noir and irony, promising the story will be anything but an easy fix.

First Paragraph: Trying to run up an escalator that’s going down is great imagery of never-ending frustration and despair.

But combining that image with the first circle of hell feels like mixing metaphors.

The point of view is uncertain. Is it omniscient or Elam’s? Is Elam addressing the reader? Or musing to himself?

A bag of dirty laundry doesn’t really collapse because that implies it was previously upright. Choose a different verb.

This first paragraph shows promise but needs a little honing.

Premise: Elam’s situation is tragic and compelling. He’s the father of a child who was permanently damaged by medical carelessness. His marriage has fallen apart. He’s tired of trying to run up the descending escalator of his life. He wants to give up.

The last line is: “He didn’t care any more.”

That line sums up what I see as the biggest problem with this page: If the main character doesn’t care, why should the reader?

How do you make the reader care?

Make something happen.

But…the next paragraphs don’t advance the story. The setting and actions are ordinary and generic—wiping glasses, ordering a drink, putting down coasters, paying, small talk.

That’s followed by an info dump of backstory about Elam’s daughter. Medical terms like mitral valve and halothane masks add authenticity. But there’s too much for one passage, especially on page 1.

Then comes another info dump about his failed marriage. At this point, do readers need to know all these details? Or can they be saved for later?

This first page describes a typical day in Elam’s dreary life as he unburdens himself to a bartender. That’s not enough momentum to compel the reader to turn the page. It needs a stronger sense that something dire is about to happen.

Disturbance: What is different about this day? What changes Elam’s course?

Charity provides an excellent opportunity to make the reader care and also pump up the forward momentum of the story: “She’s a tape recorder, everything that she hears she repeats.”

That line is loaded with possibilities. What did Charity say on this particular day to disrupt Elam’s life?

The scene in the bar could be reworked like this:

Before Elam had time to settle on his regular stool, Katie slid a beer and two shots across the bar to him and asked, “How’s your daughter?”

He slugged down half the brew. “You won’t believe what Charity said today…”

Then reveal the problem.

Another place to open the story might be when Elam comes home from work and Charity delivers a startling message. For instance:

“Your electricity will be shut off tomorrow for non-payment.”

Or Charity quotes her caregiver: “Tell your dad I quit. I’m sick of cleaning up after a brain-dead little brat who shits herself and parrots every effing word I say.”

Or Charity repeats a voicemail from Elam’s lawyer: “The judge dismissed your malpractice suit for lack of evidence. Sorry, there’s nothing more I can do.”

The words Charity hears and repeats force Elam to take action. Backstory can then be added in small bits while the action moves forward.

Action Options: What are Elam’s choices? He could surrender his daughter to an institution, commit suicide, or storm the hospital to take revenge. Or the Brave Author has entirely different plans in mind.

I’m guessing, in the next few pages, Elam makes his decision. Try moving that decision to page 1.

Another alternative: Keep the bar setting but make the big change occur there. Katie feels sorry for Elam’s financial troubles. She heard about an upcoming heist and the gang needs a driver. Since Elam drives a beer truck and knows how to handle a big rig, he’s the perfect guy. Then she hands him a phone number.

Character: There is no physical description of Elam and Katie. All character development is done through dialogue (more on that in a minute). I’m not suggesting  driver’s license details like hair and eye color but give the reader a few hints such as…

When Elam sits on the barstool, he realizes he’s slumping and thinks, at 40, he probably looks as old and broken down as his dad who died at 65.

Weave in their attitudes and personality. Elam can notice sympathy in Katie’s eyes. That irritates him because he doesn’t want to be pitied.

Add interior monologue, such as: People always think they understand but they don’t. They don’t know what’s it’s like to change stinking diapers or get her wheelchair trapped in a narrow doorway. 

Dialogue: Elam’s cursing shows his frustration and bitterness but it quickly becomes repetitive. Save F-bombs and C-bombs for significant moments. Otherwise, they lose their impact.

Try interspersing gestures, facial expressions, and Elam’s thoughts with the dialogue so what he says sounds less like a speech and more like a conversation.

Time stamp: Ford Fairlanes were manufactured between 1955-1970. Readers who aren’t gearheads probably don’t know that. But it’s a subtle, economical way to hint at the era.

Summing Up: Brave Author, the premise has excellent potential but I feel the story starts in the wrong place. As you reread your draft, look for the passage where a change occurs in Elam’s situation. As mentioned above, it may be on page 2 or 3 or later. Try beginning the story at that point.

Make something happen. Elam may not care but readers must care or they won’t turn the page.

Thanks for submitting and best of luck!


 TKZers: Does the Brave Author’s premise grip you? What do you think of Elam? Any suggestions?



When the law prevents justice…

When DNA isn’t enough…

When a lie is the truth.

Please check out my new thriller, Until Proven Guilty. 

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First Page Critique – Donny Malone

Photo credit: Thomas Wolf, Wikimedia CC

By Debbie Burke



Please welcome today’s Brave Author who’s submitted the first page of a historical Crime Novel. Give it a read then we’ll discuss it.  


Donny Malone

Larry began eating at Vicenzo’s after his last picture went bust and his fourth wife fled with the remaining cash. It was a cheap breakfast joint off Santa Monica’s Broadway and Sixteenth.  A SWELL LITTLE JOINT, he wrote Howard Miller in a telegram arranging the meeting.

Miller was one of those full-time writers on the payroll at Paramount. Swell kid. Owed Larry too. Back in seventeen, Larry accepted Miller’s romance script titled: The Loving Call. Anyway, cut a long story short, the picture made money. Big money. Made Howard Miller a star. Or as much a star as its possible to be for a writer. Still, he had the manner of a kid from the Bronx, old Howie. He’d still roll up his sleeves when the L.A. sun hit noon. He’d still greet a guy with a firm, two-handed grip, and look any maître d’ in the eye without flinching. Howard weren’t into none of that small talk baloney neither. Soon as Vicenzo filled the coffees, he got down to talking shop.

“So Larry,” he asked. “How’s the kid?”

He was asking about Malone.

“Donny’s swell. Donny’s Donny.”

“Cos last I heard, Malone burnt his bridge back to vaudeville.”

“Donny’s done with that vaudeville hooey. Gets into L.A. tomorrow. Donny’s big time.”

“I hope you’re right.” Howard sighed, shaking his head. He dropped two sugar cubes into his coffee. Gave it a stir with his finger. “Since Malone gets his kicks making Mackenzie Campbell out like a chump.”

“Mack’s done. Donny’s contract was up.”

“I’m talking about Mack’s wife.”

“They were done.”

Done, Larry? You think Campbell – Campbell – is letting Malone cross the country with that broad?”

Larry didn’t know what Mack had planned. Never thought to wonder. All he knew was Donny Malone didn’t belong in no dying nineteenth-century circus act. This was a kid who could jump from a railway bridge onto a series of fast-moving carriages. Who would do it in a hot minute for a twenty-cent bet. A kid with the acrobatics of Buster Keaton. The dashing victory-smile of Fairbanks. And Larry wasted no time telling him. Put on his Hollywood voice and told the kid straight. Told him, ‘Donny. Baby. You ain’t signing with that bum another season.’

“So what he say?” Howard asked.


Let’s start with the title. On its own, Donny Malone isn’t intriguing. I immediately thought of the 1997 film Donnie Brasco with Johnny Depp and Al Pacino. Unless a person is famous or notorious, a name doesn’t generally make a good title because the reader doesn’t yet understand the reference. A better title could hint at the bygone era of Hollywood that might attract readers who enjoy the noir genre.

This first page does a nice job echoing conventions of pulp fiction and noir. A telegram  sets the time as early to mid-20th century in Santa Monica. The language is sharp, crisp, and slangy, further setting the period tone.

Brave Author introduces Larry who’s down on his luck, reduced to eating at a dive café after suffering professional and personal misfortunes in the Hollywood film industry.

Howard Miller’s character is established with backstory (more on that in a moment) as a successful Paramount screenwriter who is indebted to Larry. The inference is that Larry contacted Howard to call in a favor since Larry’s career is evidently languishing.

The subject of their conversation is an unseen third character, actor Donny Malone, followed quickly by the introduction of two more unseen characters: Mackenzie Campbell and Campbell’s wife with whom Donny has or had a relationship. Campbell is apparently not someone to mess with, raising a possible threat to Donny. The reference to an expired contract indicates Donny and Campbell once had legal obligations to each other but that’s now over.

The potential for conflict is present, although the reader isn’t sure yet what the conflict is. For the reader to fully engage with the story, s/he needs to understand the relationships among characters and what their opposing goals or agendas are. Suggest you fill in those aspects quickly in the pages that follow. 

The lead-off sounds promising but I see four issues that need work.

First problem: What is Larry’s profession? He’s in the Hollywood film business but in what capacity—producer, director, talent agent, actor, writer? The lack of that knowledge makes it difficult to pin down what he wants and what he hopes to accomplish by meeting Howard. It sounds as if Larry might represent Donny as his talent agent but that’s not clear.

The character sketch of Howard is well done. Describing him as a “swell kid” reinforces appropriate slang of the era. “Back in seventeen” narrows down the time closer to the 1920s.

However, it also highlights the second problem: most of that paragraph is an information dump about Howard. After the line “Still, he had the manner of a kid from the Bronx, old Howie” I suggest you cut the rest of the paragraph and save it for later in the story.

The following lines confused me:

Soon as Vicenzo filled the coffees, he [which he? Vincenzo or Howard] got down to talking shop. 

“So Larry,” he [again, which he? Vincenzo or Howard] asked. “How’s the kid?” 

Easy fix: Soon as Vicenzo filled the coffees, Howard got down to talking shop. 

“So, [need comma] Larry,” he asked.

The mention of sugar cubes and Howard stirring coffee with his finger were wonderful little details that again reinforce the era. Fun fact: restaurants replaced sugar cubes with packets after World War II.

The third problem is yet another info dump, this time about Donny Malone.

Buster Keaton, photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

“All he knew was Donny Malone didn’t belong in no dying nineteenth-century circus act. This was a kid who could jump from a railway bridge onto a series of fast-moving carriages. Who would do it in a hot minute for a twenty-cent bet. A kid with the acrobatics of Buster Keaton. The dashing victory-smile of Fairbanks. And Larry wasted no time telling him. Put on his Hollywood voice and told the kid straight. Told him, ‘Donny. Baby. You ain’t signing with that bum another season.’”

While the description of Donny is compelling and shows he has great star power, it’s still an info dump.

Don’t feel bad, Brave Author. We all struggle with finding the right balance between telling just enough background information to orient the reader and over-telling that halts the story’s forward movement.

Also, if this whole paragraph is Larry’s thoughts, the transition back to the conversation with Howard is a bit bumpy. ‘Donny. Baby. You ain’t signing with that bum another season’. Because of the single quotes around these sentences, I had to reread to determine if Larry is reviewing the conversation in his head or if he’s telling Howard about it.

In the passage below, Larry and Howard are already talking about Donny:

“Donny’s swell. Donny’s Donny.” 

“Cos last I heard, Malone burnt his bridge back to vaudeville.”

“Donny’s done with that vaudeville hooey. Gets into L.A. tomorrow. Donny’s big time.”

“I hope you’re right.” Howard sighed, shaking his head. He dropped two sugar cubes into his coffee. Gave it a stir with his finger. “Since Malone gets his kicks making Mackenzie Campbell out like a chump.”

“Mack’s done. Donny’s contract was up.”

“I’m talking about Mack’s wife.”

“They were done.”

Done, Larry? You think Campbell – Campbell – is letting Malone cross the country with that broad?”

Why not continue the conversation and incorporate Larry’s thoughts about Donny into dialogue?

Here’s a different way to convey the info:

Larry didn’t know what Mack had planned. Never thought to wonder.

One side of Howard’s mouth pulled down, unconvinced.

Larry leaned close and put on his Hollywood voice. “Listen, Howard, for a twenty-cent bet, this kid will jump from a railway bridge onto a fast-moving train. He’s every bit as good an acrobat as Buster Keaton. Plus, he’s got that Fairbanks smile. I didn’t waste no time telling him straight. ‘Donny. Baby,’ I says, ‘you ain’t signing with that Campbell bum another season.’”

The reader still doesn’t know exactly what’s happening or what conflicting agendas are in play among Larry, Howard, Donny, Campbell, and Campbell’s wife. But enough hints have been provided to promise the reader that fireworks are ahead.

The fourth problem is point of view. It feels off. Sometimes the voice sounds as if an unseen narrator is telling the reader about Larry rather than Larry thinking to himself.

Vintage films often used voice-over narration to explain context and introduce characters. A prime example is the 1944 classic Laura where Clifton Webb talks to the audience about her murder. If this is the effect Brave Author is striving for, it doesn’t quite succeed.

Currently, readers favor deep point of view, inside the main character’s skin, thinking his thoughts, experiencing his sensations and physical reactions. Yet that doesn’t feel quite right for this historical piece.

So I confess I’m stumped how to handle POV except to suggest that Brave Author study classics written during this time period to pinpoint how those authors treated POV to achieve their tone. If TKZers have other ideas, please chime in.

There are minor problems with word repetitions and typos:

“Or as much a star as it[‘]s possible to be for a writer.” I smiled at the humorous observation that the writer is definitely at the bottom of the movie industry food chain.

The word “swell” is used three times on the first page. If “swell” is a verbal tic Larry falls back on when he’s nervous, three times might be okay but more than that may wear thin with readers. Perhaps change one to a similar slang term for the era, e.g. Vincenzo’s is the bee’s knees. Same suggestion applies to “joint,” used twice in the first paragraph. And “still,” used three times in the second paragraph.

The last line So what he say? might be slang but could also be a typo. So what‘d he say? sounds more natural. 

Overall, this page is well written and captures the time, speech patterns, and period slang in a style that’s reminiscent of noir pulp fiction. The reader doesn’t yet understand the story problem or what’s at stake. However, the historic setting and the voice are intriguing enough that I’m willing to read on to discover if Larry is a sour-grapes loser, a hustler seeking a shortcut back into the big time, a determined guy who refuses to give up, or someone else. Knowledge of his profession would help frame his personality.

This promises to be an entertaining trip into the gilded age of Hollywood where treachery lurks beneath the glamorous veneer.

BTW, Jim Bell has discussed pulp fiction and noir here. On Patreon, he offers short stories set immediately after World War II about a studio fixer in the Hollywood film industry. You might check out how our resident expert handles his first pages.

Best of luck to you, Brave Author. You’re off to a good start.


TKZers: What do you think of Donny Malone? What suggestions can you offer our Brave Author? How would you handle POV? 




Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff, is on sale at the introductory price of only $.99. Please check out the link here.

Can Dark Shed Light?

I got my start in the Christian fiction market. It was a natural fit for me because I’ve always been interested in the great questions surrounding life, the universe, and everything––what theologian Paul Tillich called matters of “ultimate concern.” (And what Douglas Adams called 42).

Basically, how do we figure out this journey we’re all on?

In college I loved philosophy, though I didn’t major in it. I took a much more practical major, film. But all through college and after, I continued to read philosophy and theology. Love Plato. Love Pascal. Love the Stoics. I tried reading Kant but my head exploded. Aquinas was tough but fair. I’ve tangled with Nietzsche and the existentialists.  
The point is, I guess, that I just find compelling the threads of great thoughts as they wind down through the centuries.
Even now, with a general market publisher (Hachette) for my Try series, I find my characters involved in the big questions. Ty Buchanan is a lawyer whose fiancée is killed on page one of the first book, sending him reeling spiritually and every other way. He is befriended by an African American priest and a basketball playing nun who have one view of things. He hangs out at a coffee place run by Barton C. “Pick” McNitt, a former philosophy professor at Cal State who went insane, recovered, and now pushes caffeine and raises butterflies for funerals. He’s an atheist.
Buchanan finds himself bobbing and weaving between these characters even as he’s trying to find out the truth behind his fiancée’s death. 
And so it goes. The fiction I love best has characters going through inner as well as outer challenges, dealing with a dark world and trying to find their way around in it.
My recent release, Watch Your Back, has generated some responses from my established readers. One comment is that the tales seemed “dark” and unlike my previous work. This, I note, in spite of the fact that I do not use gratuitous elements in my fiction. I like to write in a style that would fit a 1940’s film noir (noir, of course, is French for dark).
So here’s why I chose the material I did for Watch Your Back: Dark tales can often be the most moral of all.
I believe in what John Gardner, the late novelist and writing teacher, said in an interview in Paris Review. Good art is about “creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life that is worth pursuing.” He contrasted this with art that is just “staring, because it is fashionable, into the dark abyss.” And staying in the abyss. That doesn’t interest me.
As I look back at my work, the thread that seems to run through all of it is the pursuit of justice. Maybe that’s in part because of how I was raised, by an L.A. lawyer who fought for justice for the indigent as well as for paying clients.
Now, a dark story, in my view, ought to explore the consequences of human actions. Indeed, isn’t that what Greek tragedy was all about? By showing the audience the catastrophe of hubris, the theater was training citizens in virtue. There was a cosmic justice in the tragic fall.
Cut to: Stephen King. I would argue that King’s “dark” fiction is highly moral. Much of it shows, for example, what happens when one trucks with evil, even with good motives. Pet Sematary is perhaps the most lucid example of this. He has many others. I would call your attention especially to the fabulous mini-series he wrote, Storm of the Century. I won’t give away any spoilers, but you ought to watch it to see how this sort of thing is really done.
So, in my stories in this latest collection, you will find criminals, rip-off artists, adulterers and liars. But I believe you will also see I am not dwelling in the dark. When characters get it “wrong,” that’s another way of showing what’s right.
On the other hand, I’m not being didactic. I’m not a professor. I’m a writer whose first job is to keep you turning the pages. My favorite writers of all time do that for me, and then leave me thinking about the book when it’s over. I don’t know if you can ask much more of a fiction writer than that.

And that’s what I try to do in my fiction, including Watch Your Back.

So who are some of the writers who have taken you through a dark story with a candle in their hands?