January 24th, 2020

First Page Critique

I’m currently teaching my First Five Pages class at Lawson Writer’s Academy. I love helping writers strengthen their all-important openings. Joe Zarek is one of my students, and has agreed to allow me to share his ‘before and after’ first page. Kudos to him for working so hard and being willing to share his work to help others!

Here is the before:

“There shall be violence, bloodshed, and death.” The Marshal of the Field’s voice cut through the air, sharp and savage. He scanned the crowd made up of the Queen’s Royal Household, modern-day groundlings and a few goth-girls-in-waiting.

     Cheers rang forth from the packed crowds on either side of the jousting field.

     Boone smiled—Ah, mid-day May clear blue skies. Cheering crowds thirsting for blood. What’s not to love?

     A nasty sinking feeling stirred in the pit of my stomach.

     Whoa. That’s weird. Boone thought.

     I pat Henri on his firm neck and shoulders, and my eyes fall upon his head and ears.

     Henri’s standing fine, but the cock of his ears, and tilt of his head screams something’s off. But what? My eyes bounce from one side of the stands to the other. But, nothing’s out of the ordinary. Ah, it’s a horse thing. Henri’s new to jousting, and Flynn’s horse is older.

     “Come on, Henri, we got this.” I pat and rub his shoulders a little firmer.

     The Marshal signals us to come forward.

     Flynn and I ride towards one another, striking the tips of our lances together.

     “Sir Flynn, I love you, brother, but today I win the Queen’s favor,” I said, a slow grin quirked across my mouth.

     “Yes, yes, Sir Boone. You’ve said so many times before when you turn twenty-two, you shall best me.” Flynn said, a hint of mockery edging his mouth.

     “You know what else I say, Sir Flynn.” A smirk splashed across my face.

     “What’s that, Sir Boone?”

      “More jousting and less talkie-talkie,” I said, pinch-flapping my fingers.

     I lower my visor.

     “Good one,” Flynn replies, dropping his visor and bobbing his head up at me.

     We part, ride to the ends of the tiltyard, signal each other, raise our lances, and gallop towards one another.

     The massive adrenaline rush galloping, horse hooves pounding vibrate up my spine.

     We lower our lances at each other’s shield. 

     Our eyes lock.

     A smile explodes from the corners of my mouth.

     This time Flynn your mine.

     Our lances pass one another, and my eyes focus on the prize—Flynn’s shield.

     Nowhere to go now, Flynn.


     No, wait. What…? Was that an air horn?

     Flynn’s mount throws him.


     Flynn’s blazing baby blue eyes and mine both pop wide.

My thoughts: Great tense scene, and well done on the first paragraph; it's not easy to set the scene as contemporary while describing a joust.

I got where Joe was going with this, but there are awkward sentences, tons of dialog tags, and name repetition. Paragraph breaks convey speed and tension, but when there are more than necessary, it makes the read choppy.

It took about four pass through edits, but here is his final version:

St. Louis Renaissance Festival, Wentzville, MO 2020

          My horse shifts beneath me, restless. I scan the crowd made up of the Queen's Royal Household, modern-day groundlings, spectators, and a few goth-girls-in-waiting.

          All fell silent as the Marshall of the Field sauntered to the middle of the jousting arena. "There shall be violence, bloodshed, and death." His voice cut through the air, sharp and savage.

         From the packed stands, cheers ring out.

          Ah, mid-day May clear blue skies and cheering crowds thirsting for blood. What’s not to love?

          A nasty sinking feeling stirred in the pit of my stomach. I glance down at my mount. He’s standing fine, but the cock of his ears and tilt of his head screams something’s off. I scan the field, but nothing’s out of the ordinary. “Come on, Henri, we got this.” I pat his neck, not sure which of us I’m trying to convince.

          The Marshal raises, then drops his hand.

          Flynn and I ride forward, striking the tips of our lances together.

          “Sir Flynn, I love you, brother, but today I win the Queen’s favor,” my ginormous grin spreads.

          “Yes. You’ve declared that when you turn twenty-two, you shall best me. Such donkey prattle is ever amusing, Sir Boone.” His crinkling eyes mock.

          “You know what else I say.”

          “What’s that?”

          “More jousting and less talkie-talkie,” I say, pinch-flapping my fingers.

       "Good one" He deadpans.

          I lower my visor. We spin and canter to the ends of the tiltyard, then turn, raise our lances, and gallop towards one another.

          The crowd roars, and the massive adrenaline rush of pounding hooves vibrate up my spine.

          We lower our lances and raise our shields. 

          Our eyes lock.

          This time, you’re mine.

          Our lances pass close, and I stay focused on the prize—Flynn’s shield.

          “BWAAAT.” An air horn spooks Flynn’s mount. It rears, and Flynn’s blazing blue eyes pop wide.

See how the scene didn't change at all, but the hundred micro-edits made this scene sparkle? Every single line of your beginning is that important. Spend the time until you are happy with the word choice, cadence, clarity and emotion of every sentence.

It'll be worth it, I promise.

Do you struggle with a story's beginning? Share your questions (and your how-to lessons) down in the comments!

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Laura

Laura Drake was one of the founding bloggers here at WITS, and she has a new website! Check it out, and sign up for her newsletter.

Laura is re-releasing her small-town series, Widow's Grove, set in the Central California wine country. Her Road Home released January 7, and The Reasons to Stay releases on Valentine's Day! Check them out!

16 responses to “First Page Critique”

  1. Terry Odell says:

    Much better, although there are still a few glitches. Tense shifts between present and past, and some punctuation issues.
    I'm working on the start of a new book, and I feel the pain of getting an opening that will hook a reader. Introduce setting, characters, problem/question/tension. For me, the best way to approach a beginning is to know that the first several times through are for ME. I ask myself, "Does the reader need to know this?" and then, "Does the reader need to know this NOW."
    Then I send the first scene/chapter to my crit peeps and they rip it apart. Normally, it's Chapter 3 that should be chapter 1.

    • LauraDrake says:

      You’re right, Terry. He and I went through about six more iterations (adding pages) before it was perfect. You're so right about chapter 1 often being in chapter 3 - I see that a lot...sometimes in my own!

  2. Laurie Wood says:

    However many passes it took, this makes me want to read the book now. Which is the whole point! The second version is powerful.

  3. barbdelong says:

    Love the example, Laura. I'm going over the opening of my fantasy romance for my crit group this Sunday. Argh!! It's hard to world build just enough, and do everything an opening needs to do. Working hard on it! Thanks for this timely post.

  4. ecellenb says:

    Editing truly makes the writing shine.

  5. crbwriter says:

    This is fun! I enjoyed the action and the humor, and appreciated the clean-up between the first and second versions. I got confused toward the end: visors down, a tiltyard apart, their eyes lock. I haven't seen a joust, but I'd expect that their eyes would be in deep shadow, and that once their lances pass close, that they've gone past each other, and they must turn and aim at each other again. I'd love to read more!

  6. dholcomb1 says:

    Always love the before and afters of your critiques.


  7. Jenny Hansen says:

    It's Friday quiet over here at WITS but it is so very fun to look at one of your before and afters. Thanks for sharing it with us, and tell Joe we said, "Well done, man!!"

  8. littlemissw says:

    Really well done. The improvement was obvious. I loved the 'goth-girls in waiting' line and was glad he kept it in.


Subscribe to WITS