Thursday, May 9, 2013

First Page Critique: Heart Failure

James Scott Bell

Here is today's first page critique. My notes follow the text:


By the time Dr. Carrie Markham heard the shots, she was already huddled on the floor well of the car, shielded by Adam’s body.

One, two, three sharp reports. It took Carrie a moment to recognize them as gunshots. She flinched against an expected shower of glass, but none came. Instead, she heard muffled thumps as bullets hit the car’s seats, seats she and Adam occupied just seconds ago.

“Stay down,” he said. The pressure on her back lessened. She turned her head and watched Adam peep over the dashboard. Carrie’s heart continued its salsa dance while her mind wrestled with what was happening. After what seemed like an eternity, Adam bent down and whispered, “Okay, they’re gone. You can sit up.”

Carrie eased into a sitting position and looked around her. The parking lot of the Multiplex Cinema was as peaceful as it had been when she and Adam Davidson walked out after the late movie, just minutes ago. The few cars still there probably belonged to the people who were inside the theatre hurrying to close up and go home. If there were witnesses to the shooting, they were out of sight.  

A few minutes earlier, she and Adam were talking about closing out this Saturday night date by going for ice cream. That option was off the table now. Instead, Carrie struggled to keep from spewing her dinner onto the floor of the car, and the thought of a hot fudge sundae almost pushed her over the brink.

She swept back a stray lock of hair, took a deep breath, and tried to control her breathing. When she was sure she could speak again, she said, “Adam, what was that all about?”


I like the beginning situation. I advocate an opening disturbance on first pages, and this certainly qualifies. While the disturbance doesn't have to be "big," here it is. The opening line, however, may be trying to do too much at once. Breaking it down gives it a crisper, punchier feel:

When Dr. Carrie Markham heard the shots, she was huddled on the floor of the car.  Adam shielded her with his body.

[Note: I changed shielded by Adam's body because that suggests Adam is dead. It threw me when it turned out he wasn't.]

But there are problems (for me at least) with the setting and physical dynamics of the scene. Do we speak of "the well" of a car anymore? A floor's a floor, yes? And if they're in the front seats (because Adam peered over the dash), I just don't think this can be accomplished physically. Front seats are divided these days, and even so, there's not really enough room for two people to huddle down there, out of the seats, unless they are jockeys or Munchkins.

Tip: When you do an action scene like this, it's a good idea to sketch it out for yourself, even construct a little scene on a table so you can "see" it (chess pieces work nicely for this). The readers are trying to make things fit in their minds, so you have to make sure they fit in yours first.

Next, the unfolding physics of the scene are hard for me to picture. You have no shattering glass, but bullets hitting the seats. That means bullets traveling through all kinds of metal and engine works (it's presumed the shots are coming from the front, as Andy peers over the dash), but I just don't think that can happen. What's wrong with shattering glass, anyway?

I also have to wonder about two or more assassins firing into a car in a nearly deserted parking lot and then taking off without checking on their handiwork. Maybe this is to be a warning of some sort. Maybe Andy is about to explain. But right now I am thinking that subconscious reader question all writers must deal with: Would they really do that?

This also applies to emotional responses. Carrie's question: “Adam, what was that all about?" seems almost comically casual. Wouldn't she be a bit more freaked out? Especially if she's about to spew?

Tip: Put yourself, like a method actor, into the emotional moments of a scene. How would YOU react? Find some kind of unexpected reaction. What if Carrie slapped Adam across the face?

Random notes:

Carrie’s heart continued its salsa dance

While it's good to search from metaphors and fresh ways of "showing" emotion, it has to fit the tone and context. This metaphor connotes joy and happiness, the opposite of what's going on in the scene.

That option was off the table now.

RUE: Resist the urge to explain. We don’t have to be told that the option for ice cream is "off the table." It's obvious. Cut this line.

Bottom line: I do like the initial situation. Couple comes out of a movie, gets in the car, and shots fired. And the shooters disappear. It makes for a great opening, where the reader will want to know what's going on. Your task is to make it believable, both physically and emotionally. Re-envision this, re-work it . . . and then stick a novel after it.

Other thoughts? 


  1. Stuff like this is why I have a concealed carry permit.

    That said, it did seem like the good doctor was a bit casual feeling between her bouts of near puking. I'd say ratchet up the tension by removing any explanation or 'showing' make this an all 'do' scene then let the explanation come out in the later do scenes.

    Written right, I'd really want to know what happens next and why they were being shot at.

  2. That opening seems out of order to me. She's already huddled on the floor of the car before she even hears gunfire. That would mean Adam would've shoved her down and covered her before she knew what was happening, like she never saw the threat. That opener would be more exciting if it flowed in the right sequence.

    She sees a car barreling for them. It screeches to a stop seconds before shots ring out. He shoves her down before she gets a good look. She hears the shots. Her heart is pounding. She can't see what's happening. She doesn't know if Adam had beem hit. Does she scream? Clutch hands over her head and ears? Is she shaking? In this intro, we are missing the emotion and what this woman us feeling through her senses. It doesn't seem like a real threat.

    Is the shooter on foot or in a car? If the shooter is on foot, that is even scarier if they don't know where he wrnt. He could be anywhere. For having been shot at, both of them seem pretty casual in the aftermath. We need to see the visceral reaction of them almost losing their lives & fearing the gunman is still lurking or will come back. The last thing on her mind would be ice cream. They should be running for cover.

    1. My cell keyboard died before I could fix all my typos. Oy!

  3. I agree. The girl was way too calm. Any sane person would have been hysterical and not thinking clearly. Unless she sees this kind of thing every day, there has to be more internal mayhem and confusion. I like the opening, too. Nothing like date night gone bad!

  4. I'm just going to throw out a couple of things I noticed before I go through and read anyone else's critiques (so I'm probably going to repeat a few things others have said...sorry).

    First, the floor well? I'm 38, and I've never heard the floor of a car called anything but the floor. The wheel well jutting out into a pickup bed, maybe, but never the floor well. So I'm pulled out of the story and trying to figure something out before the first sentence is done. Oh, and "shielded by" makes it seem like he's dead. Suddenly he's not (and he has a last name that's crammed in pretty quickly. Just let him be Adam for a bit, and let him actively shield her).

    Second, how is she not freaking out? I've been around guns my whole life, but I can guarantee if someone's shooting up my car on a date, my wife won't be the only one in Holy Shit Mode. Most doctors I know are a little more isolated from the gun-shots-rang-out lifestyle, so they're going to lose that calm, composed exterior pretty quickly.

    Third, was this a crackhead drive-by? Because if it wasn't, who fires three or four times and then leaves, satisfied? If you matter enough for me to try to kill you, I'm gonna make sure I succeed. Then reload, just in case.

    And then the background of the date just to fit in the vomit line? If you want to show her terror, maybe have her looking around but unable to hear from the ringing of gunfire still in her ears, or her vision that's blurred by tears, coupled with the lightheadedness of her hyperventilating. Or forget the "Just a few moments prior" part and just have him ask, "You okay?" and she responds by nodding, taking a breath, and then throwing up.

    If you're going to go with an action start-up instead of a tense, character-building one, I'd feel a much stronger connection to someone who is so clearly frightened. That's mainly because, even without knowing her, I'd be frightened for her. When she doesn't seem scared, I find it less believable so I don't care if she gets hit or not. I'm not saying I'm cheering for the assassin's yet, but I'm not really pulling against them, either.

    Hope that helps!

  5. I had a problem with the bullet thuds into the seats as well because there wasn't any glass shattering.

    If something like that happened to me, the first words out of my mouth wouldn't be:

    “Okay, they’re gone. You can sit up.”

    “Adam, what was that all about?”

    It would be more like, "Holy shit...Oh, God."


    Maybe a short cry or tremble before asking, "Are we alive?"

    I would expect broken speech patterns and adrenaline, even with just two people in a car. I don't feel that emotional trauma I expect from someone who'd been within seconds of meeting death.

    Also, I agree with Mr. Bell. If my target is in a car and I'm shooting at the car (why else would bullets hit the seats?) then I'm going to make sure I check that my job had been successful. I have the guns, I'm checking in that car, and if the bodies are alive, or even if they're just playing dead, I'm putting a shot to the head to make sure.

    I think the opening scene is the right one to start with. It has action and we know who the good guys are (protagonists).

  6. I have a question about the first page critiques in general. Who were the first 30 who made it in? Is there a post with a list?

    1. I'd appreciate knowing that as well.

    2. These submissions are anonymous by design. A list would go against that notion. Not everyone wants to be outed.

      Since we are expecting to spread these critiques through the year, posted on the Thursdays that Michelle Gagnon had, more people will get the chance to submit. I'm sure there will be another announcement for submissions when we get low.

    3. Upcoming critiques are listed in the sidebar, too.

    4. So I guess we'll just have to stay tuned and be pleasantly surprised if we made it.

  7. Great critique and I agree with most of the previous comments (and so don't have much to add!) I get the feeling that Adam knows more about what's going on - as he seems way too calm - he even managed to pull her down before the shots rang out. I was taken out of the story by the 'salsa dance' line as well as her moving a stray lock of hair. If I'd just been shot at, the last thing I'd be worrying about was tidying my hair. I think with just a bit of tightening the author can up the ante in this scene and if Adam does knows something, then I'd want to have some hint. Isn't Carrie just a little bit intrigued that he reacted so easily and so well. Saying 'you can come out now, they've gone' seems way too calm otherwise.

  8. Just to put things in perspective, this was submitted as I struggled with the first draft of this book--I'd frankly forgotten that I even sent it. The material has changed drastically since that time, I'm pleased to say.

    I appreciate Jim's critique and the comments. Good stuff.

    1. Submitting is always a brave step. I learn from these discussions too.

  9. Sorry! Just got home so I'm a little late. Not bad opening...I am intrigued and would read on but it can be better.

    Because you chose to open with an action scene, you have to be extra careful to keep your writing visceral and in the moment. So any little thing that pulls the reader out of the moment will distract. (As others have pointed out).

    First, I wouldn’t use her title. It’s you the writer signposting a character trait instead of letting it be revealed organically through the narrative. (ie telling not showing). Find a way LATER to gracefully insert that she is a doctor. It could be something as simple as having the windshield shatter and Adam get dinged and she sees the blood. Give her a quick visceral thought: She had seen blood in her operating rooms every day but seeing Adams now made her heart pound. (that’s bad but you get the idea…stay in the moment!)

    “Reports.” That’s a military/cop-like word. You are in Carrie’s POV and it’s not a word she would use, I think. Again, that’s YOU the writer inserting your consciousness. Everything must be from her POV, including word choice in her thoughts.

    The physical actions: As others said, they don’t make sense. Unless they are in an open convertible, the shots would hit glass not seats. Adam also would not poke his head up unless he MAYBE heard the screech of retreating tires. Even then not sure he would because as others said, the bad guys would stick around to finish the job.

    Other things that take me out of the moment: “salsa dance” is out of tone. “What seemed like an eternity” is a cliché. The lot was “as peaceful” feels wrong…quiet maybe. Ditto the ice cream comment. No way someone is thinking about this after being shot at. “She swept back a lock of stray hair” is romantic sounding and too casual (again tone) As is her comment, “Adam, what was that all about?” If Carrie is your protag (and because you opened with her name I must assume she is) you’ve already colored her as passive (being “saved” under Adam) and timid sounding. She’s a doctor; give her a spine. Even when she's scared.

    General comment: I know the temptation is huge to pile high action in the opening moments of Chapter One but I wonder if you got into this scene TOO LATE? You can create good suspense by contrasting an earlier quiet moment as they walk through an empty parking lot on a nice night and show the entire shoot out ON CAMERA as they get into their car. By picking it up so late in the action, you might be losing a chance to contrast moods. (which you try to do by inserting those little backstory thoughts from Carrie (ice cream).

    Just a thought!