Here’s a new first-page critique, of the British thriller Pity the Living. The page is below; my comments, and those of editor Ann Aubrey Hanson, follow.
Craig stood in front of the faded hardwood door and hesitated. He glanced left and right. A few cars drove by, but there were few people on the street. He was a little surprised. This was a popular residential area, and he expected commuters and children to be heading out to work and school. He turned his attention back to the door and knocked, hard. Ten seconds seemed to be a reasonable time to wait for a response, but at three he was pulling out a key, its once sharp teeth smoothed by many years of wearing holes in pocket linings—some of them his. He tried to remember the last time he’d used it. Six years ago? Seven?
Craig pushed the key into the lock, the clicking of tumblers drowned out by the noisy squawk of Brighton’s seagulls. He glanced up and smiled. Those damn birds had probably started their morning racket with the rise of the sun, two hours earlier. The wooden door, swollen from years of neglect, squawked louder as he pushed it inwards. He hadn’t taken a step when the salt-fresh sea air was replaced by the unmistakeable stench of death. His stomach spasmed. He turned and threw-up the roadside breakfast-in-a-bun he’d eaten less than fifteen minutes earlier. His first thought was borne of pure shock, and he knew he’d forever associate it with this moment. That shit didn’t actually taste any worse the second time round.
Craig wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and turned back to the doorway. He breathed in through his nose, deeply. The smell wasn’t one he ever wanted to get used to, but this wasn’t the first time he’d smelled death. Those times were different, though. This time it was personal. This time he knew whose rotting corpse was waiting for him.
Craig pulled the sleeve of his jacket over his right hand and stepped over the threshold. He used his sleeved hand to push the door closed and stood for a moment, letting his eyes grow accustomed to the gloom of the familiar hallway. The two doors on his left were closed, as was the bathroom door at the top of the stairs ahead of him. Cheap curtains with no lining hung limply across the window to the right of the bathroom door, but did a poor job of keeping the morning light out.
This page offers a good mix of anxiety, determination, and mystery. I like the way we sense that this is a story weighted with history, and that the author creates this atmosphere without dumping backstory onto the page. The history is going to be revealed organically, strategically, after Craig opens the door. The page tantalizes us with hints—about Craig’s background, both personal and professional, and about the surprise that awaits him inside the house.
The writing is extremely competent. This submission has no issues with grammar, usage, or tenses. This might sound like a minor compliment, but writing competently is a tall hurdle to clear. When professional readers come across clean, proficient prose, we cheer. And the author knows to start the story in the right place: just before the main character crosses an awful threshold into a world soaked with death.
My suggestions relate to sharpening the prose, and pacing revelations. The author is interlacing description amid the action. That’s a good impulse, but in places it slows the flow of the story and results in long, convoluted sentences. Some details might not matter to the story, and can be tightened.
Opening paragraph: the author can reshape or cut most of the middle sentences. “Craig stood in front of the faded hardwood door. He raised his hand to knock, and hesitated. He glanced left and right. [Why? Checking for surveillance?] The street was surprisingly empty. This was a popular, leafy neighbourhood, but no commuters were driving to work, no children heading to school. And nobody was watching him. He rapped on the door, hard. He tried to wait ten seconds, but after three he pulled out the worn key. When had he last used it? Six years ago? Seven?”
One thing to change: the parallelism in the structure of these paragraphs. Each one starts with “Craig.” It’s too much. Paragraph two:
“Overhead, seagulls squawked. Craig smiled. Those damn Brighton gulls had probably been at it since sunrise. He jammed the key into the lock and pushed the door open. Swollen from years of neglect, it squawked louder than the birds. Instantly, a stench hit him. It overwhelmed the salt-fresh air. His stomach spasmed. He spun and threw up his roadside breakfast. The smell permeating the house was unmistakeable. Death.”
End the paragraph with the hardest hitting revelation!
“He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. His first thought, borne of pure shock, was: That shit didn’t taste any worse the second time around. His second: I’ll never forget that a puked-up breakast-in-a-bun is what I thought about at this moment. He turned back to the doorway. He breathed in through his nose, deeply. [Clarify why? Because the olfactory nerves soon go numb?] The smell was one he never wanted to get used to, but this wasn’t the first time he’d smelled death. Those times were different, though. This time it was personal. This time he knew whose rotting corpse was waiting for him.”
In the final paragraph, do you want to show his emotional state as the first seconds of shock give way to action?
“He pulled the sleeve of his jacket over his right hand and stepped across the threshold. [If he wants to avoid leaving fingerprints, would he wipe the lock?] He shut the door with his covered hand and stood. His eyes adjusted to the gloom of the familiar hallway. His heart didn’t. It pounded. The two doors on his left were closed, as was the bathroom door at the top of the stairs ahead of him. Cheap curtains with no lining hung limply across the window to the right of the bathroom door, but did a poor job of keeping the morning light out.”
This is a solid opening page—but if the book is going to be an action-oriented thriller, then soon—very soon, within the next few words—it’s time to instigate some action. I suspect that those closed doors might hide bad guys. I hope so. Because as soon as possible, it’s important to put Craig into a scene with other people. That’s where conflict, dialogue, and story really get rolling. Don’t leave your characters alone!
Thanks to the author for submitting this first page. Good luck!
I am immediately pulled into the story. You have used the senses to set the stage and provide something more than just the bare outlines of action.
He walked to a door, knocked, waited, let himself in, and found a body—This is so much more than that! We smell the salt air, hear the birds, hear the tumblers, see the neglected wooden door, and then smell death, not specifically but knowing that it is bad enough to cause the narrator to heave. Excellent use of the senses!
The rhythm of the sentences is also outstanding. Whether read silently or aloud, the sentences slip off of the page without staccato or pause. Such a rhythm makes it easy to read.
Though you haven’t explained who Craig is or why he is there, but you’ve given us a lot to work on: the fact that he has been there before, numerous times, and the fact that he has a right to be there (he has the key). There is mystery, and a touch of suspense, but we immediately know that he has a right to be there, of one kind or another.
I like the breakfast-in-a-bun reflection too. Cleverly written, almost an aside.
I have no line-by-line specifics to correct. You’ve done a masterful job with sentence construction and punctuation.
Unlike Meg, I like the description worked into the opening. I don’t feel that this is an action-thriller, but will be more of a detective/mystery, in which such details can and should play such a part. It’s also a difference in taste between Meg and me. I like the detail. She can’t wait to jump off the ledge.
Well written and controlled. Keep going.