Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 27, 2018

First Page Critique

I'm ready for more first page submissions! Just copy and paste your first page into the body of an email, and send it to: LauraDrake@LauraDrakeBooks.com

I can't promise to use yours - I'm choosing them mostly for what lessons they can teach. But please, submit!

I thought it would be fun this month to show you the submission of an excellent writer. One who frankly makes me feel like a hack. Why? Because there's a great lesson in seeing what someone did right, too, right?

Black = original

Red = my thoughts/comments

Purple = text I added/altered

For the lucky living, the night was ripe. It was the year of the Tiger—Nixon was running scared, Ted Bundy was just getting started, and the tallest buildings in the world had opened down on Wall Street.

Everyone who was underage in Connecticut was welcome in New York. All the doors of the Stateline bar were open wide to the night and the place was packed. The smoke-laden air inside pulsed out into the heat and humidity of the fecund darkness and flowed back inside, carrying a heavy tinge of marijuana. There was a furtive commotion in a dark corner of the parking lot. Fighting or fucking, it didn’t matter. April was in a hot hurry to be July.

Wow. Talk about scene-setting! Do you see how the author gave us more than a simple where/when? They gave us the feeling of the time and place. And it's a shared emotional experience. You may have never been to New York, but you know this feeling - you've felt this feeling; being young, and in a hot spot.

What elevates it even more is the word choices. 'Fecund darkness, lucky living, April was in a hot hurry) Do you see how the emotional words draw you in and bind you to the page?

The amplified sounds of a rock band complete with horns hushed all the night creatures around the ramshackle country bar for a hundred yards in every direction. The music held sway over all, from those in worn, holey denim to the spandex and polyester crowd up from the city. The band—consummate crowd-pleasers—smoothly moved from rock to disco, to funk and blues with occasional stops at country and doo-wop along the way and no one could resist the urge to move to the beat.

Notice the use of all the senses - smell, and sight in the first paragraph, sound and sight in this one. See how it puts you there?

Tonight, the revelers would include a woman with no heart and a man with no soul.

BOOM. The author changes the cadence here, for a huge impact. Up til now, the words are flowing, rich, and flavored. This sentence is stark and brutal. See how switching is like a laser? It tells the reader, 'this is important.' And it doesn't hurt that it's a beautiful line.

It's also a dividing line - a shift from a wide-angle, impersonal viewpoint, narrowing to a protagonist and antagonist.

Anna perched on a stool at the bar, working diligently at drinking herself into a state of safety from the rioting mental scatter of the other patrons. While Fishing for money in the depths of her purse, she found a dusty, travel-worn pill. Small, greenish, the embossed markings illegible, she shrugged and washed it down with the last swallow of her third tequila sunrise. Que sera, sera.

Details matter! It wasn't just a stray pill in her purse...it was a dusty, travel-worn pill. We've all seen those, but I've never seen one described that way. Margie Lawson calls that fresh writing - well done!

A syrupy warmth flooded through her body, as the noise and jagged energy of the crowd receded. and she sat up She straightened, taking a long, deep breath that lifted her even taller in her seat, her guarded cynicism spinning away like a bad dream. Thirsty with the sudden heat, she scanned the top shelf liquor.

Again, great word choices: jagged energy, guarded cynicism spinning away...

Wary of the change in her demeanor, the bartender said, “Honey, if you’re gonna to be sick, take it outside.”

A tiny POV violation here - we're in her POV - she could notice him being aware of her change in demeanor, but she couldn't know he was wary of it.

Anna smiled in slow motion, licked her lips, and focused on him with devilish intensity.

IMO, first overstep. 'devilish' is a tiny bit too far. But that's me. Less is more. Let the reader wonder who/what she is. 


What do you think? Have you learned as much from a great example as you did from one that needed work? Am I the only one feeling like a hack after reading that?

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Laura's next book is available for preorder! (you know how much preorders help authors, right?) Just click on the photo to be taken to retailers.

This cowboy's got one last chance to prove himself

Carly Beauchamp has loved cowboy Austin Davis since first grade. Ask anyone in their dusty, backwater New Mexico town of Unforgiven, and they'll say “Carly and Austin” the way some say “big trucks and country boys.” But after years of waiting for a wedding ring, Carly’s done with being a rodeo widow . . . 

Austin never meant to put his career on the circuit before Carly. She’s always been his future, his one and only. But now that she’s moved on, he’s beginning to see where he went wrong, and he’ll do anything to win her back. The only thing is, Carly’s suddenly acting differently, and she’s definitely hiding a secret—one that will test the depth of their love and open up a whole new world of possibilities.

Forever-Romance.com Cover © 2018 Hachette Book Group, Inc.

41 comments on “First Page Critique”

  1. Wow! I love how you shared it, and pointed out what works and why it works in this. This is a great example, and makes me want to go back to my first paragraphs to make sure I've got impact. Thank you for sharing this, Laura!

  2. I feel like I've read that before somewhere else. Did it appear on some other blog post somewhere? Where it was being critiqued? I swear I read an earlier version somewhere.

    1. I thought so too because I remembered what happened after this cut off. It was on Writer Unboxed for their new "All the King's Editors" columns.

  3. Is this a published author? If so, I'd love to have Laura tell us who so we could read more. I agree, great writing. Something to strive for

    1. Maggie, I'm sorry - I take the names off when I work on them, and the forget! (hey, I'm old) - maybe she'll 'out' herself in the comments....

  4. I'd love to know who this was too. I'd love to read her work. In the meantime, I feel like I need to go shred my manuscript and start again!!

  5. I want to know who it was, too! And, yeah, this is a hack writing this comment...but I learned so much from reading not only this example, but what you had to say about it. Thanks so much, Laura!

  6. Yeah, I'm right there with taristhread. This example makes me want to use my manuscript to toast marshmallows.

  7. Laura, this was helpful. I'm keeping it and will read it multiple times. Now, I wish I wasn't headed out the door for a root canal and crown because I want to get back to my writing. Your post energized me. Thank you. Just one other thought. Until I saw the word Anna, I had no idea whose POV was in play. Though excellent use of writing talent, it didn't seem to me that those words were in her POV. I loved it all, in spite of my initial confusion.

    1. Since the beginning was almost an omniscient POV, I was okay with it, Cricket. And come to think on it - this is usually a no-no, because the author effectively changed POV, mid-scene.

      But it proves the rule: 'You can break any rule you want, if you do it brilliantly". Right?

      And thanks for pointing it out - I hadn't thought about it!

  8. This is inspiring, and it's scary to try and live up to it. As soon as the garden is planted I'm starting a new WIP. I know the first page will change over time and after each rewrite but the reminder of adding the sensory details right up front is helpful as ideas roll around in my head. Great comments and I'm impressed by your tweaks, showing us the importance of editing. The change in POV and what you call an overstep is interesting after such a strong opening. Wonder what the book is and how the story plays out.

  9. I went and looked at Dave King's analysis of this on Writer Unboxed (Here's the link: http://dld.bz/gMwdu ). It's fascinating on several levels - Dave worked on an earlier version than this. His edits are great!

    And it may help that 'feeling like a hack' thing, to see that it didn't start out THIS good!

  10. Hey Laura, what a fantastic example of a page 1 lure! I'm going to ease myself out onto a limb by saying this, but I wonder if romance writers have grown a little too beholden to keeping their text in a single POV. I've noticed a lot, and I mean a lot, of the very best literary writers use subtle POV switches to better explain the action. These authors don't go leaping from brain to brain, but they do add touches like, "Wary of the change in her demeanor, the bartender said..."

    1. Elf, we'll have to agree to disagree on that one. The POV character could note how he looked, but she couldn't know he was wary. He could LOOK wary, and she could assume it was due to the change in her demeanor, but she couldn't know.

      When I read that in a book it stops me, every time.

  11. Thanks for the link. The piece is longer, gives a sense of the story, but the POV changes several times and is at issue there. Confusing and needs cleaning up according to the editor. Also thanks to the writer for letting us learn from her writing. I would read the book if or when it's published.

  12. Thank you for this piece. I spend a ridiculous amount of time putting words together in the hope they come out as beautiful as what you shared here. You just have to stop to reread bits like this one: "heat and humidity of the fecund darkness and flowed back inside, carrying a heavy tinge of marijuana" I am kind of surprised, but also consoled that this author would error on the head hop! Might this have been a better option? "Thirsty with the sudden heat, she tried to focus on the wavering bottles of whiskey on the top shelf." (showing her decline) and the bartender could have just spoken his dialog with the understanding he observed her drunken condition? And if I may, in the 2nd paragraph "ramshackle country bar" stopped me because we are in NYC -- I would not have stumbled had it read country music bar. Thank you again!

    1. I wondered about that at first too, Luna. But she doesn't say NYC. It's New York, and a stateline bar, between Connecticut and New York - not New York City. Two reasons, I made the assumption, I think - I'm not from the area, so to me, the State is in my mind as the city, and the reference to the Twin Towers in the first paragraph.

      Which points out one more fine point - if people stumble over something, even if you're correct, you're better making it clearer. You don't come with the book when someone buys it, to be able to explain that you're right!

  13. This one is great. A keeper. About POV switches: they can sometimes be necessary within a scene, but as long as rules are adhered to, as you pointed out about the current POV character "assuming not knowing," it works fine. Keep 'em coming!

  14. Laura, seldom has a morning email made me move so fast--first to send my first page and then to pre-order your book. Luckily I slowed down to read your example and comments. Wow. Just wow.

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