First-Page Critique #105

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Here at Vanilla Grass, we want writers to succeed and we’re willing to sacrifice our time to help improve literature by coaching one author at a time. You can see why we care in our Changing the World One Voice at a Time post and why first-pages matter to us.

All submitted first pages are anonymous and we follow the same critique guideline on each.

Whether you submit or not, you can learn from the critiques we post. For a full list, click here. Each posted first-page has been read and evaluated by both Carolyn (C) and Dedra (D).

And sometimes, they don’t agree! But that’s why multiple opinions are so important. One reader might love what you write and another might not care for it. Same with editors. So read the commentary, and tailor it to what you’re seeking to accomplish with your manuscript!

We approach critiques by asking if the author met certain criteria and by focusing on their strengths and weaknesses in a question, answer formatted response. At this time, we don’t focus on line-editing, as we believe it can distract from the more important issue of content quality.

The First-Page:

First-Page #105

[Submitted Manuscript]

The sirens seem even louder than usual, perhaps because, unlike the nearby cities, the sleepy streets of Kensington Grove very rarely see any such commotion. Now, the wailing of the sirens has been replaced with the hushed murmurs of the residents crowding behind the yellow tape. For a town that never experiences any excitement beyond the annual duck race, two unexpected deaths in the space of three months is to the local gossipers like mother’s milk to a baby. Sure, they’re expressing the appropriate amount of concern. Some are even wiping a tragic tear from their cheek while whispering something about how it’s “awful, just awful,”, but everyone knows that the main reason they’re stood out in their slippers and dressing gowns is to find out all the juicy details. Perhaps even sneak a peek.

I’m standing at the back of this crowd, hugging my cardigan around me to ward off the morning chill. I’m not interested in getting a peek at the dead body in the garden. Instead, my eyes are trained on the grim-faced police officers, attempting in vain to read their lips as they mutter to one another. I’ve got a vague idea of what the current storyline is thanks to the game of Chinese whispers that’s circling the group. Someone has stabbed Norah Williams to death in her back garden, and little Lacey Williams is missing, most likely kidnapped by her mother’s killer.

I’m thinking about Lacey, about how she messaged me just last night. I’m trying to recall exactly what was said. No doubt the police will want to speak to every resident of Kensington Grove, and, with everything that’s happened over the past few months, I’m going to be the prime suspect. Already I can feel the side-eyes of my neighbours. Funny how your actions follow you around. Something you do that seems insignificant at the time comes back to haunt you months later. I wonder, as I stand here watching the forensics team place little cones along the sweeping driveaway leading to the William’s house, if I would have done things differently had I known how it would all turn out. Would I have even moved to Kensington Grove at all? Hindsight is a [word omitted].

The Critique:

Critique #105

Greatest strength: 

C: Your setting descriptions are just the trick for a mystery novel where every little thing going on around the MC counts.

D: You’ve set a tone for an angsty mystery, which immediately sucked me in. And if I were editing your paper with a red pen, there were several places I would have hearted your descriptions.

Character development: 

C: I feel like your character development begins in paragraph two, but even then I want more. I need something to connect with her on. Or him? I’m getting a sense of voice, but I need something about the character to make me care about why they might be the prime suspect. Maybe tell us how they felt about the little girl? Or a reason they moved to Kensington in the first place. Something relatable we can latch on to from the start.

D: I’m guessing your character is female based on the cardigan, and she’s in some sort of trouble, or at least she’s been targeted by the gossipers. It might be helpful to cut down extra descriptions that aren’t necessary so we get to your main character faster. In the first paragraph, you could cut out the section starting with sure. I get a good enough idea from the mother’s milk that this town is full of gossipers and it would move the story faster.


C: There is tension here, but I don’t feel it in the first paragraph. I think you find your footing in paragraph two. I think, though, you could really build your tension up by putting some of these thoughts and observations into dialogue and action. Have your main character push past someone giving them the side eye. Have someone whisper that the coppers are looking for your MC to ask them questions. These will bring the action to the forefront while still teasing us with mystery.

D: Yes! You definitely produce tension by making the MC a suspect and including details about the strained relationships. I would keep reading to find out more.


C: I get some anxiety at the end and some disdain for the fellow townspeople.

D: I’m feeling for the little girl, and the town. The MC seems a bit distant and callous since she talks about a possible kidnapping and then launches into internal dialogue with herself. So if you want me to not like your MC much, then you’re doing great. Otherwise, maybe consider revising how your MC describes things.


C: Adult

D: Adult


C: Classic Whodunnit / Mystery

D: Mystery

Triggers & Delays (Reasons to Keep Reading): 

C: You complete this in the third paragraph when you mention that the main character will be the primary suspect. There’s some build up with who did it and why before that, as there should be in a mystery.

D: So you have some triggers that hint at things that you’ll hopefully reveal later, but there are several hints without any reveal. Many readers struggle with this so if you can, go ahead and tell some of them. When there’s a lot of vague “telling” without giving answers, readers might not trust you and could put your book down before they reach the end. Give them enough information to trust you, while still being true to your story.


C: I get a nervous, uneasy vibe, which is good for the genre.

D: Ominous–perfect for a mystery.

Main Character Goals: 

C: I don’t see one yet, though I’m assuming it will be clearing their name and getting the heck out of dodge.

D: They aren’t clearly stated yet, but I’m guessing your character wants to avoid blame for the death.

Where to focus energy: 

C: I would move the information from the first paragraph to somewhere else in the story and start off with paragraph two. It has a much stronger hook. I would also move a lot of the exposition into action and dialogue to get the pace moving.

D: Tightening the POV (point-of-view) will help your writing flow and draw your readers in as if they were experiencing the story themselves. To do this, rewrite sentences that use “I’m thinking,” or “I’m trying to recall,” so that you avoid those phrases.

Consider including dialogue. Some of the facts the MC describes could be whispers she hears while standing on the street.

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