First Page Critique – The Scribe’s Boy

Photo credit: desatboy at Unsplash

By Debbie Burke



Let’s welcome another Brave Author who submitted today’s first page for critique, entitled The Scribe’s Boy. Please enjoy reading and we’ll discuss this on the flip side.


The worst thing about a beating is how much it hurts the next day. But this time I wasn’t going to wait that long. Seth and me were running away right now. Away from the Wiltshire Inn, away from being kitchen boys, away from Bernard and his fists like boulders.

The blood had dried on my cheek but my right eye still flashed and throbbed – I’d be lucky to see out of it tomorrow. Could barely see anything now, with darkness falling and this sudden downpour swallowing us. But dusk and the downpour helped hide us as we cowered further under the wet undergrowth, hoping those two horsemen wouldn’t see us. Bad luck the heavens opening like that just when we were making a run for it – we barely got across the road and into the trees. Even worse luck when the two riders came trotting towards us like smoky shadows and reined in at the hedge we’d scrambled under.

Seth shivered close against the curve of my body, his back to my front. He was folded, knees to chin, his bones digging into me. Our tunics and leggings were sopping wet and slimy with mud but I kept my arm tight around him, sheltering him best I could. The smell of wet earth and leaves filled me.

Twigs jabbed into my scalp and rain dribbled off my hair into my eyes. It stung.

“How’d you like that then, Alfred, eh?” Master Bernard’s fury rang in my head as if he were yelling right next to me. I flinched. Even curled up in the mud I could still hear him as he threw me across the kitchen to sprawl in the rushes on the earthen floor.

Beside me now Seth elbowed my ribs and whispered, “We should run for it.”

“No. They’re too close.” Fear kept me curled up, fear that had me by the throat and made me lie still and silent among knobbly roots and old leaves. My side ached and Seth pressing against it didn’t help. I tried not to tremble but the cold was eating me up. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking.

What I wouldn’t give for some stockpot stew right now. Bernard bragged he ran the best lodgings in the kingdom – always open to anyone willing to pay for pot luck. It was only his kitchen boys he didn’t like feeding.


Wow! I have to say I’m totally impressed. The Brave Author literally began with a wallop. I don’t know the protagonist yet but already feel sorry for him for being on the wrong end of a vicious beating.

Sentences two and three present the goal: escape from brutality.

Next, the Brave Author sets the scene with the location, establishes the approximate age (children rather than adults) and job of the protagonist and his fellow escapee, Seth, and introduces characters including Bernard, the bullying antagonist with fists like boulders.

One tiny suggestion: How about if you insert “Master” in the first paragraph? That shows the boys are in servitude: “…away from Master Bernard and his fists like boulders.”

A lot of information is packed into one sentence yet it flows well, is clear, and keeps the reader firmly in the action.

The next paragraph establishes the time (dusk), the weather (pouring rain), more location details about the road they crossed and the hedge they’re hiding in. Most important, it sets the era as historic by describing the searchers on horseback.

There is rich sensory detail in the next two paragraphs, especially touch and smell. The boys’ bony bodies not only offer physical description but also indicate the further abuse of being malnourished. The protagonist’s protectiveness toward Seth makes him not only sympathetic but admirable. He’s terrified yet still tries to help his friend.

I feel the chilly rain dripping on them, slimy mud, and sharp twigs poking the protagonist. Tunics and leggings additionally establish the historic time period.

The next paragraph is the only one that felt jarring.

“How’d you like that then, Alfred, eh?” Master Bernard’s fury rang in my head as if he were yelling right next to me. I flinched. Even curled up in the mud I could still hear him as he threw me across the kitchen to sprawl in the rushes on the earthen floor.

The flashback of Bernard attacking Alfred yanked me out of the story. It interrupts the forward momentum and intensity of the scene. Its main function seems to be a way to work in the protagonist’s name and more setting details like the rushes on the earthen floor.

I recommend cutting the flashback. The setting information can be woven in later. The Brave Author is definitely skillful enough to let the reader learn Alfred’s name without resorting to a flashback. One easy way is for Seth to call him by name: “We should run for it, Alfred.”

The next paragraph incorporates more wonderful sensory detail that evokes the boys’ terror.

The last paragraph is poignant, heartbreaking backstory of child slaves being starved by a cruel master. Reference to “the kingdom” sounds British, another location hint seamlessly layered in.

The title The Scribe’s Boy indicates the historic time period. defines a scribe as:

a person who serves as a professional copyist, especially one who made copies of manuscripts before the invention of printing; a public clerk or writer, usually one having official status.”

Such a job would require the ability to read and write, a rarity in the time period that this submission appears to be set. People with education were respected and awarded high status in the community.

Presumably a scribe’s boy is an assistant or helper. The title possibly foreshadows Alfred’s future. Will the abused kitchen boy rise to success and freedom? I’m rooting for him.

The page is clean–no typos or spelling errors. “Seth and me were running away…” is ungrammatical but appropriate and consistent with Albert’s voice.

Every word counts on this page. There is no sloppy phrasing or unnecessary verbiage. Each sentence is as tight and resonant as a violin string.

This page hits all-important story elements to hook the reader: action, tension, conflict, setting, introduction of characters, sensory detail, emotion, and suspense.  

Am I invested in the boys’ struggle? Completely. Am I eager to turn the page? Absolutely.

This is a really excellent first page, Brave Author. You should be proud. Let us know when this book is published.


TKZers: What are your impressions of Alfred, Seth, and Master Bernard? Do you have ideas or suggestions for the Brave Author? Would you read the book?



Try Instrument of the Devil for FREE. Then come back for more Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion by Debbie Burke.

Establishing a Strong Sense of Place

Today our first page critique raises an important aspect in making many a good mystery or thriller – a strong sense of place. I always think the challenge in creating a sense of place is to make it instantly fully realized as well as believable. A reader truly needs to ‘be there’ and to have full confidence that the author has done their research.

A strong sense of place can be a tricky prospect for a first page: too much and the reader starts to yawn; too little and the story can seem generic and bland. If the set-up seems too contrived or deliberate, a reader starts to feel awkward; if the writer gets crucial facts wrong, the reader immediately disconnects from the story.

I think the first page we are reviewing today manages to instantly capture a great sense of place. Although I might tighten it up a wee bit (see my comments after the piece) all in all this first page grabs me – in part because the place itself resonates and intrigues.
So here it is – the first page of the novel, 65 below.
Richardson Highway
East of Fairbanks
17 December 1600 hrs
“Damn! When it gets dark out here, it is dark as death.”

Eugene Wyatt drove as fast as conditions allowed down the Richardson highway in his big beige Ford F250 Crew Cab Diesel pickup, with the brown and white Tanana Valley Electric Cooperative logo emblazoned on the doors. It was only four o’clock in the afternoon but the late December sun had already long descended, leaving the land in total inky blackness. His three-year-old golden retriever Penny sat on the passenger side of the wide bench seat. She ignored her master’s Oklahoma drawl and stared out the window as they drove along. The dog’s breath shot a burst of steam onto the frigid glass a few inches away every time she exhaled. Her tongue hung limply over the teeth of her open mouth.

On any typical evening, there would have been brightly lit signs atop tall poles in front of the gas stations, or neon beer advertisements pulsing blue, red, and yellow from within the windows of busy bars as he passed through the small city of North Pole then the even smaller town of Moose Creek. Tonight though only the glow of candles and oil lamps flickered dimly between the curtains of the handful of homes along the highway. The power was out, everywhere.

Eugene looked at Penny who stared transfixed at the truck window. The frost from her breath created a ring of ice crystals on the glass that she seemed to be studying. The area had warmed up significantly in the past few days though after an unseasonal cold snap that held the land at negative fifty for several weeks. The red mercury line on the thermometer now hovered at a livable zero degrees Fahrenheit.

Eugene remembered a line a comedian had said on TV the night before.
If it is zero degrees, does that mean there is no temperature?

The humor of the line dissipated fast. There had never been an outage like it in his thirty years in Alaska’s electricity business. At first, the authorities thought it was a local failure within the Tanana Valley Cooperative area. It was not long though before they discovered it was much bigger. The phone company went out at the same time. Cellular towers failed. The whole of the Interior region of Alaska, an area the size of New York State, was thrown back into the 19th century in an instant.

My comments:

  • First off, I liked how the author started the book with dialogue – it instantly set the tone and introduced us to the character.
  • The details (car type/age of dog) on the first paragraph might (perhaps) be tightened up but I thought this and the second paragraph set the scene really well. The success I think in this first page is that it establishes the scene with a minimum of backstory and explanation – we know all we really need to know at this stage: It’s Alaska, the power is out, the main character (an outsider from Oaklahoma) is out on the highway with only his dog and there is a sense of foreboding that promises much in the way of suspense.
  • I thought the final two paragraphs set up the problem well – that there had never been a power outage like this, that Alaska was now a total ‘frontier’ land, and the reader now gets a strong sense that something awful/shocking is probably about to happen – Just what you want the first page of a good mystery/thriller to set up!

So what do you think? Did you get the immediate, visceral feel of Alaska like I did? Did you feel the set up was there and, more importantly, would you read on?

I know I would.