Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 23, 2018

New WITS Feature: First Page Critique

I'm trying a new series here on WITS, where I'll crit a submitted first page. More on how to get your work considered below. In the meantime, let's jump right in!

I believe we learn best, by example.

The following is from a brave WITS follower who agreed to go first ~ Dilly dilly to her/him!

 *     *     *     *     *

It’s still dark outside and I’m pretty sure my body hates my brain right now. This is a repeat, and I think you say it better, next. Say it once, say it well! My brain says it’s time to get up, but my body isn’t convinced. In the end, my brain wins the battle. I shut off the alarm and sit on the edge of the bed. The dog rolls over and buries her head under my pillow. Her body wins the battle. Your reader gets it before you think they do. I think it’s funnier, just with this last sentence.I don’t think her brain even got involved.

I drag myself into the bathroom and turn the shower on, cranking the valve all the way to the left. Standing against the back wall, I reach out and test the temperature of the stream with a couple of fingers. Why does it always take so long to get hot water in here? This is Arizona and it’s July. Getting cold water should be a problem. Ah . . . finally. See below

The warm water feels good as it flows over my waking muscles. Now I don’t want to get out, but I know I have to. I dry off and comb my hair. Why am I bothering? I’m just going to put a cap and a helmet on anyway. I skip the hair-gel and just brush my teeth. See below

Stepping into the closet, I pull a pair of black bike shorts off the shelf. I only have black bike shorts—any other color would be wrong. The jerseys are a different story. I run my hand over the large selection hanging in front of me. Unlike the shorts, I don’t own a single black jersey. This is telling, and you show, next. Showing is almost always better. Most of them are bBright colors and patterns, some to the point of being obnoxious. Loud jerseys make people notice me. I like it when people notice me. See how the next sentence shows this? It makes them much less likely to leave a set of tire tracks up my back.

This morning We know. I pull on my Arizona flag jersey. The bright sunrise pattern seems appropriate for this time of day. Is it supposed to be sunrise or a sunset on the flag? I never thought about it before. I guess it doesn’t really matter. If it doesn’t matter, why mention it? I choose a pair of riding socks that match the jersey and head out to the kitchen. Now that food is a possibility, the dog slips off the bed, stretches, and follows me down the hall.


I’m a bicyclist, so I love the subject! You have a familiar, cozy voice, and I settled right in.

Little stuff:

I’d have loved to know what breed the dog is – why? It shows me how big it is, long hair, short hair, etc. I need a hint, so I can picture it.

You show, then tell, and repeat. Trust your reader to get it. Readers like when everything isn’t laid out for them – Example: The sunrise pattern – they’ll get why it’s appropriate.

Big stuff:

Readers nowadays are impatient. You don’t have a ton of time to hook them – maybe 5 pages. This is one fifth of that, and all we know is she rides a bike, has a dog, and does the same routine things in the morning that we do.

Put that way, does that hook you? Don’t waste time in the critical first pages, telling us things we could guess (the shower takes a long time to heat, etc.) You spend two critical paragraphs on a shower. 

Instead, make your first page do double-duty: slip in one thing that’s going to be critical to the story – raise questions in the readers’ minds. Is the character quirky in some way? What does she want (which, of course, she can’t have, right?) Who IS she? See how your first page doesn’t even hint at that?

What am I talking about?

Character. Conflict. Stakes. Goal. Motivation.

That’s what hooks readers.

I’m not saying this is bad – it’s not. But it can be so much more!

What do you think, WITS readers? Do you agree? Is this a subject you'd like to see more of?

I have so many submissions, it'll take a while for me to work through the ones I have now. I'll send out a call for submissions when I do! Thanks to those who sent them!

About Laura

Author Headshot SmallLaura Drake is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways, or a serious cowboy crush. She writes both Women's Fiction and Romance.

She sold her Sweet on a Cowboy series, romances set in the world of professional bull riding, to Grand Central. The Sweet Spot won the 2014 Romance Writers of America®   RITA® award in the Best First Book category.

Laura began a video blog for writers, answering their burning questions. You can watch all the episodes HERE. If you have a question you'd like her to address in a future episode, leave her a comment!

Did you know Laura teaches craft classes? Check out her upcoming ones, both online and in person, HERE.

65 comments on “New WITS Feature: First Page Critique”

  1. Thanks Laura and the brave WITS writer. It’s such an invaluable opportunity to learn by example. My favoured way to get the ah ha moments. Brilliant. I love WITS - I’ve only just found you all.

    1. Thanks, jayhicks - so glad you found us!

      This seems so simple when someone points it out to us - but believe me, I'm as blind to it as anyone. Jenny can tell you.

      My second book, Jenny kept sending me home to rework the beginning, with the comment, 'We don't care.'

      About the third time, when I threatened violence, She told me, 'We don't care about all this stuff (exciting as it is), until we CARE ABOUT THE CHARACTER.

      Brilliant words, that brought it home for me: It's all about character, stupid.

      1. OhmyGod, you were so mad at me. And the writing was so beautiful too. I wish I could write that pretty. But...look at how awesome Aubrey's story turned out! And look at how often you have to cut my hammer-the-reader-over-the-head-reiterating a whatever with: "WE KNOW ALREADY." Everyone's got their thing.

    1. I do too, spurvis500! Do you read, 'Hacks for Hacks', on Writer Unboxed? He takes the first page of a HUGE bestseller, and has you choose, not knowing the author, if you'd read on.

      I've found it SO inspiring-not only for the insight, but it's good to know that even the big guys don't always get it right!

      1. Actually I think that's the feature "Flogging the Pro". but you're right, it's fascinating to analyze best-sellers and realize even they sometimes get it "wrong.'

  2. I was pulled in by the tone of the writing--especially after your edits. I want to know more about the person behind this voice. But you're right. If I don't find out what's at stake, this character will be just one more bicyclist I pass on the road.

  3. Hi Laura and the brave WITS soul who sent in this first page - I’m a dog lover so I wanted to “see” that dog right off the bat. And I loved the changes you made to strengthen the first page Laura! But I have to say - I love this author’s voice! And that’s something that can’t be taught, so cherish that and keep on developing it. I’d definitely keep reading this story because of your voice. So, we’ll done in that score.

    1. Exactly, Laurie - you know it's so indefinable - the thing that makes us trust the author, to suspend disbelief, and fall into a story. Voice is a big part of that, and this author has it!

  4. Great learning experience. Thanks. May I borrow your comments on hooking the reader?Character. Conflict. Stakes. Goal. Motivation. I'm judging a contest right now and am trying to get across to the contestants the importance of jumping into the story asap.

  5. You're an angel for doing this. Maybe I'll see your next review offer in time to submit, but considering the immense response you probably received, and the incredible amount of work involved on your part…how can you find the time??? I'd be happy just to figure that out!

    1. Ha, Jerry, I've got it easy. Retired, no kids at home (or close, for that matter), we live out of town, and I have no other life but writing! (and the occasional motorcycle and fly fishing trip).

  6. Like just about all readers, I never start a book or story cold. I've always already read ads, blurbs, reviews, the covers etc. So bare first page critiques like this have always struck me as slightly artificial. But interesting nonetheless. Engaging the reader with the first page alone, knowing nothing else about the story, is quite a feat. I like the piece, but agree with Laura Drake's suggestions. Thanks for this!

    1. You are absolutely correct, johntshea. It's a bit unfair to judge a story by only the first page. But I'd also make the case that strengthening the critical first pages will draw a reader into your story, and hook them for the long haul.

      I believe the first and the last pages, though not the only critical parts of a book, may be the most critical.

  7. I'm so glad to see you offering this option, Laura! If anyone wants to read through more of these brief critiques, pop over to Janice Hardy's Fiction University and check out her Real LIfe Diagnostics. There are over 5 years worth, with links to various supporting articles within Fiction University. These are the first 250 pages of any fiction work, with the author also asking specific questions about the material. I was recently given the honor of working with Janice on RLD submissions and have had a blast with that task.

    So so happy to see that you've jumped into this generous giving -- I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!

    It may seem to some that doing a cold review/critique without some supporting info about the book would be ineffective, but writing is writing. The need to communicate well and to immediately connect the reader with the story is utterly vital. We must assume that readers may have only seen our back cover blurb, and the first page or two of our book.

    Hats off to you, Laura, for undertaking this challenging work. In my experience, it's been a real blast. :O)
    Maria D'Marco

  8. Gosh, we "know" this stuff but it is so much more helpful when we see it illustrated as in this example. Thanks. I'll keep an eye out for an opportunity to participate!

    1. I learned that from Margie Lawson - lessons only take you so far - seeing it (especially if it's not your work) really allows you distance to see the lesson put into real life.

  9. This is great, and kudos to the brave soul who went first! As others have pointed out, it's so much easier to get the show/don't tell when it's pointed out like this.
    I'll watch for these posts!

  10. First line, first page—so important. Loved the changes you suggested! I think you will be doing this gig for a long time!

  11. It is absolutely brave to open yourself up to critique, but crucial too. I also wanted more questions to arise here. I'd love to see the follow-up rewrite, but alas we probably won't.

    Yet by sharing our work and critiques with others, we can all take away lessons to apply to our own WIPs. Thanks to both the volunteer and the brilliant (and beautiful) Laura Drake!

  12. Laura, thank you so much for the critique and the kind words. All of your observations are spot-on! Sometimes our brains get in a certain groove and we become blind to the issues in our own work. That’s exactly why we need good editors and critique partners! Thanks for giving me a new lens to view the rest of this piece through as I do my rewrite.

    Oh, and bravery had nothing to do with submitting this for critique. It was completely self-serving. If you don’t put yourself out there, you never have the opportunity never learn and grow.

    1. to one EB from another EB: your final thought is a bottom line each and every writer or would-be writer should adopt. Thanks for a succinct expression of this vital bit of wisdom.

    2. Thank you for 'outing' yourself, Eldred - I really had forgotten who's this was! You are going to make it as a writer. I know because of your attitude, and wanting to learn. So much of this gig is about that!

      Thank you for submitting!

    3. Go, Bob!! I'm so glad you submitted and that she picked yours. I see how hard you work at this writing thing, so it's great when you get a perk like this along the way. 🙂

    4. Nice work Eldred, congratulations! I love your attitude too, this is a business and your approach is professional and human. Wishing you much success with this manuscript, and thank you for inspiring others (i.e. me) to submit. Best - Nikki.

  13. LOVE this feature! Laura, your comments are so clear and constructive and spot-on--this is a really promising opening from a writer that obviously has a wonderful, fluid style, but I agree with everything you said. Really useful, insightful feedback. And brava, brave author, whoever you are! Takes a lot of cojones to share a WIP, but what a great opportunity to let all of us learn .

  14. Laura, you never disappoint. I'm also a reader of JH's book openers. Great critiquing from each of you wonderful ladies. I learn as I go, from the real-example illustrations. Do hope I can into the queue on the next round. Writers are a super-supportive species, and authors do help authors, no joke.

    1. EB - this gig is so hard, and takes so long to learn, that it would be a shame if my mistakes only benefited me.

      I'm just paying forward what wise authors gave me, all those years ago. *looking at you, Char Lobb-hope you're keeping them laughing on the other side, but we miss you*

  15. Well done to the writer who submitted their work and went first. So brave! And what great feedback. When I read it again with the changes, it worked beautifully. Love the bit about the dog's brain not getting involved.

    Such a great learning tool for the rest of us.

  16. Nice to know my critique group knows best when they stress the author needs to describe the protag's age, sex, physical attributes all ASAP. So a hint at all of these is a good idea?

    1. It depends on the author, jagrout. You DO need to anchor the reader as to where, when and who they are. Detailed descriptions are the author's choice. I like my reader to imagine thier character, not mine, so I just sketch a few details.

      More importantly, I think, is the what....what are they facing? And of course the who, makes all that hard, right?

  17. Laura, you and Lisa Wingate are my favorite writers. Thanks for this informative post. I still love the story about when you couldn't get the first paragraph of a WIP right. Margie Lawson looked at it and bingo. That tells me volumes about your strong writing and the strong confidence in your talent.

  18. My critique group is brutal but correct almost 90% of the time. That other 10% is prob me being a stubborn bi-atch but I have been with the group of 8 others for over 2 years, so something must be working. I've sent my chapter in multiple times to get different feedback and I really think the critiques I get back depend on what the critique-er feels like looking at. The options are so limitless. Editing Grammer, plot, content, characters, drama, the 'message' and more is all possible, right? I think the first critique of new work is mostly line editing (move this here, make this hyphenated, you forgot a comma, etc). Then a 2nd critique is where the critique-er usually takes a look at 'the impact' of the beginning (does the beginning make me want to continue, does it have power, is it character based, etc). Then a 3rd critique might deal with tweaks about word choice and foreshadowing, and flow. Its a process but we all turn in some of our work each meet and critique each other. So the reiterations do nothing but improve the work imho.

    Great topic Laura. I've got a fantasy Sci-fi novel first page avail if you want to kick it around. Its been critiqued quite a few times but I haven't read it in a while so both our eyes would be fresh.

    1. Critters (critique partners), especially long-term ones are golden, Jeanne. I've found that to be true too - grammar and sentences first, then the meat. I'd love for you to submit - once I get through the batch I have now....

  19. Hi Laura. I sent my submission a while back with the original request in a earlier post. Hope you got the email. Would love some feedback. Love this blog!

  20. To everyone who submitted, I have your first pages. Remember the caveat of no guarantee to use yours, though - I'm using them as examples - if yours is awesome to start, or has problems I've already covered, I may pass (sorry).

    To those who want to submit - I'll do a call out when I work through the first batch - this is a once-a month feature, so please be patient!

  21. Love, love this! Fabulous comments, helpful to all of us. Applause and warm cookies to you, Laura; what a wonderful thing to do for writers.

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