First Page Friday #32: Crime Fiction

About First Page Friday

First Page Friday is a blog series where I provide a free edit and critique of the first 500 words of an unpublished novel. Read the excerpt without my notes first and leave your vote in the poll. Afterward, feel free to leave a comment for the author. Feedback is always helpful!

Crime Fiction – David Coldrick

The three Bushmaster armoured cars raced along the road from Tarinkot to Kandahar with their cargos of ten Australian soldiers each. Hemi Parata and James McDonald sat opposite each other in the third car, both lost in thought. They were to be returned to Australia the following week, and unspoken between them was the concern that some damned incident would occur that might interfere with that. The mission for this joyride was supposed to be a cakewalk – guard duty for a village while a visiting Afghan politician glad-handed the punters – but you never knew. The funeral for one of their own, shot by a rogue Afghani trainee, had been just the week before.

They had met in boot camp, and quickly became good friends, going out drinking and chasing girls together. They were both tall – Hemi at 6’6”, James 6’3” – and good-looking, and were quite successful with women. The uniform also helped. Both were amused by the fact that Hemi was the Maori equivalent of James, and that seemed to provide an additional bond between them. They enjoyed the martial arts classes available to ADF members and excelled at the Korean techniques of Hapkido, which Hemi described as “better ways to hit people”.

Hemi was born in Hamilton on the North Island of New Zealand. He was educated at home by his parents for primary school, then went to Te Awamutu College, about 30 km to the south. The multi-cultural secondary school gave him an interest in the larger world around him. Despite his excellent academic performance through Year 13, he jumped off the treadmill to work in a local garage for a couple of years. He emigrated to Australia, and took Australian citizenship soon after, followed by induction into the Australian Defence Force.

James was born and raised in Sydney to parents who had become wealthy in the local booming real estate market. Attendance – more or less – at excellent private schools failed to make an academic of him. He dropped out, and to the despair of his parents, seemed destined to become a surf bum, a vocation he vigorously pursued on Sydney’s many great beaches. During one of the parties that accompanied his chosen lifestyle, he decided that the ADF was where he wanted to be. Despair no longer described his parents reaction, incredulity was more like it.

Currrump! The front end of the Bushmaster lifted crazily on a tilt before crashing back to the ground. Curses and cries of pain followed. Joe Stone, the soldier manning CROWS was unconscious or dead with a bloody gash in his forehead. Hemi pulled him aside and took his place at the weapon station. He panned the external camera through 360 degrees, looking for a target for the .50-cal machine gun. Nothing. Just a single IED then? The answer came with bursts of small-arms fire from both sides of the road, and Hemi suddenly had more than enough targets. The other two Bushmasters also opened up, and the hostiles went quiet.

 

Reader Participation – What Do You Think?

Before reading my take on this novel opening, please take a moment to record your thoughts in the poll below.

Your thoughtful critiques and suggestions for the writer are also welcome in the comments section. Explaining your vote gives the author even more insight into where they’re hitting the mark and where they can improve.

My Feedback

 Critique Key

Original Text is in italics. (Author is already using italics, so my comments are going to be underlined this week)

Red is text I recommend removing.

Green is text I recommend adding.

Blue is my comments.

Orange is highlighting.

Crime Fiction – David Coldrick

The three Bushmaster armoured cars raced along the road from Tarinkot to Kandahar with their cargos of ten Australian soldiers each. Hemi Parata and James McDonald sat opposite each other in the third car, both lost in thought. < Stating that characters are thinking is rarely worthwhile. It’s better to imply or explain what they’re thinking (as in the following sentence). They were to be returned to Australia the following week, and unspoken between them was the concern that some damned incident would occur that might interfere with that. The mission for this joyride was supposed to be a cakewalk < This is the fourth unpublished novel I’ve read in maybe 2-3 months that opened with a mission in Afghanistan or someone reminiscing about a mission in Afghanistan.  So this may not be the best or most unique way to open your novel.  – guard duty for a village while a visiting Afghan politician glad-handed the punters – but you never knew. The funeral for one of their own, shot by a rogue Afghani trainee, had been just the week before.

They had met in boot camp, and quickly became good friends, going out drinking and chasing girls together. They were both tall – Hemi at 6’6”, James 6’3” – and good-looking, and were quite successful with women. < This is a crime/thriller/military cliche – the tall, attractive, lucky with the ladies protagonist. Remember that realism is more important to readers than any positive physical or personality trait. The uniform also helped. Both were amused by the fact that Hemi was the Maori equivalent of James, and that seemed to provide an additional bond between them. They enjoyed the martial arts classes available to ADF members and excelled at the Korean techniques of Hapkido, which Hemi described as “better ways to hit people”. < This paragraph is an info dump. Nothing is happening in the moment.

Hemi was born in Hamilton on the North Island of New Zealand. He was educated at home by his parents for primary school, then went to Te Awamutu College, about 30 km to the south. The multi-cultural secondary school gave him an interest in the larger world around him. Despite his excellent academic performance through Year 13, he jumped off the treadmill to work in a local garage for a couple of years. He emigrated to Australia, and took Australian citizenship soon after, followed by induction into the Australian Defence Force. < This paragraph is an info dump. I know it can be tempting to give the reader all the background about your characters in a big lump, but it fails to hold the reader’s interest. These characters are vivid and real to you, but to the reader, paragraphs like this are like reading the Facebook profile of someone they don’t know. You haven’t given readers any reason to care about this person so the details of his life are meaningless.

James was born and raised in Sydney to parents who had become wealthy in the local booming real estate market. Attendance – more or less – at excellent private schools failed to make an academic of him. He dropped out, and to the despair of his parents, seemed destined to become a surf bum, a vocation he vigorously pursued on Sydney’s many great beaches. During one of the parties that accompanied his chosen lifestyle, he decided that the ADF was where he wanted to be. Despair no longer described his parents reaction, incredulity was more like it. < This paragraph is another info dump.

Currrump! The front end of the Bushmaster lifted crazily on a tilt before crashing back to the ground. < “Lifted” makes me think it’s physically being raised by something rather than being flung up by an IED.  Curses and cries of pain followed. < This is very distant from your main characters. I’d rather know what they experienced specifically (getting flung to the side, hurting themselves, screaming, etc.) rather than general cursing and cries of pain. Joe Stone, the soldier manning CROWS was unconscious or dead with a bloody gash in his forehead. Hemi pulled him aside and took his place at the weapon station. He panned the external camera through 360 degrees, looking for a target for the .50-cal machine gun. Nothing. Just a single IED then? The answer came with bursts of small-arms fire from both sides of the road, and Hemi suddenly had more than enough targets. The other two Bushmasters also opened up, and the hostiles went quiet.

 

My Overall Thoughts

Part of the reason I chose this opening for First Page Friday is to talk about current cliches and trends in crime fiction and thrillers. It can be difficult to think about our work in terms of marketability (obviously we love what we’re writing!), but sometimes it’s important to consider whether there is enough uniqueness to stand out to agents, editors, or readers.

Across crime fiction and thrillers, this is the fourth opening (out of the 5-6 crime fiction and thrillers I’ve looked at in the last 2-3 months) that has opened with a tall, handsome, lady killer who is or was in Afghanistan. One of those other three novels opened with nearly an identical first chapter (armored vehicle getting hit with an IED during a cakewalk of a mission right before the soldier was supposed to go home).

What does that mean to you? To maximize your odds of getting noticed, you have two options: Blow the competition out of the water with absolutely stellar writing (see key places to improve), or start your novel at a different point, emphasizing what makes it unique.

Key Places to Improve:

  • Info dumping on the first page is never a good idea. The first page is all about pulling the reader into the action (doesn’t have to be literal action, just something going on) and endearing the character to the readers. Info dumps don’t do either of those things. You can learn more about how not to use info dumps in this article.
  • In order to relate to characters, we need to “see” things about them that make us like them. You can use actions (doing something good or proactive) or goals (something they want). You explain that they want to go home, but why? Do they want to see their baby’s face for the first time? The wife they’ve left? Or are they just bored of the military?
  • This is probably my most frequent advice on First Page Friday, but spend time figuring out your hook. What makes this book different? Is it the characters? Is it some element of the plot? What makes this story more valuable to agents, editors, and readers than all the other books with similar subject matter?

The Writeditor’s Grade (out of 5): 2

The info dumps make it very difficult to get invested in the story, and the lack of unique elements in the opening doesn’t provide enough to hook readers and reel them in.

A note on the grading scale: The rating of the first chapter does not indicate the rating of the novel as a whole nor does it indicate the writer’s overall ability.

Submit to First Page Friday – (currently OPEN to submissions)

***Please read this entire section before submitting***

Due to the amount of time it takes to respond to each email and due to the volume of submissions received (I booked 4 months in about 2 weeks), I am changing the submission and selection process for First Page Friday for my own sanity as well as to increase the quality of the series.

Submissions will no longer be accepted on a first come, first serve basis, and I will no longer be scheduling posts in advance. I will review submissions once a week and choose a first page that I feel provides the best learning opportunity for readers. This means that as much as I would love to respond to every submission, you probably won’t hear from me if I don’t select your first page. It also means that I may select your first page months after you submit it (you are responsible for updating or pulling your submission as needed).

To Submit, send the following information to ellenbrock@keytopservices.com or if you have trouble with that email address (as has been the case for some of you lately), send it to editorbrock@gmail.com:

  • The name you want used on your post (real name, pseudonym, or anonymous)
  • The first 500 words (Don’t stop in the middle of a sentence, but don’t add sentences above and beyond 500 words)
  • Any links you want included with the post (website, Amazon, GoodReads, Twitter, etc.)

Title your submission email: SUBMISSION: First Page Friday – [Genre of your book]

If you don’t tell me your genre, I cannot choose you for First Page Friday so please include it!

If you need to update or revoke your submission, title your email: UPDATE: First Page Friday – [Genre of your book]

If you are also interested in my editing or mentoring services, please send a separate email from your First Page Friday submission so that I can address it promptly. I will only open as many submission as it takes for me to select a first page, so I probably won’t get to your email for several weeks.

I will not remove First Page Friday critiques after they are posted, so please do not submit if you are not okay with your work being publicly critiqued on my blog.

I ask that you please comment, vote, and share First Page Friday posts from other authors. It’s courteous to both give and receive help. Thank you!

***A few people have emailed asking if they can have a private first page critique. I am more than happy to do that, but due to being completely booked (I’m working 10-11 hour days!), I have to charge $25 for private, offline first page critiques. Thanks for understanding!***

About the Editor

Ellen Brock is a freelance novel editor who works with self-publishing and traditionally publishing authors as well as e-publishers and small presses. She owns the editing company Keytop Services and the writing and editing blog The Writeditor. When not editing, she enjoys reading, writing, and geocaching. Check out her freelance novel editing services and mentoring.

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19 thoughts on “First Page Friday #32: Crime Fiction

  1. Edward Anthony Giambalvo says:

    Aside from tightening up the sentences a bit, I thought the first paragraph was a decent opening. The next three paragraph’s scream backstory, info dump, etc. Not good. The next paragraph starts with “Currrump!”. That’s pretty good, but the 3 paragraphs of info dump need to go, completely. That leaves you with a decent 1st paragraph followed by “Currrump!”, which is not right either. Too soon for “Currrump!”. Something needs to happen in-between that makes us care about the two guys. Could be a conversation about where they’re going to drink tonight and/or the women in their lives (meaningful and/or one night stands). Maybe they curse at the driver, who’s swerving along the road, tossing them about in the cab. Whatever – something that feels like life happening with some purpose, and then “Currrump!”, a flash of pain, or maybe there was a third guy involved in the conversation, who’s disposable. He’s sitting there, already dead, a bolt or something otherwise sticking out of the side of his skull. Things changed, just like before, but maybe now we care.

    • Jutta says:

      David, I really like the first paragraph. It might not be the only novel which opens with an Afghanistan scene, but when well written, hopefully, that should not be a hugh problem (as Ellen already pointed out). It wouldn’t keep me from reading the story, for sure, and after reading the 1st paragraph, I have no doubt that you can indeed write a good story!

      And yes… there is the info dumb. I wondered whether or not to mention it, as it has been said before twice. However, it might have some value to repeat that point, as it was the reason why you completely lost me (as a reader) in the end. And please trust me: I am an expert at info dumbing myself 😉 so I say this with love!

      The other point, which has also been mentioned before, is the ‘star quality’ of you two leading guys. They are both too good to be true. That is a shame, because I want them to feel real. I want to believe they actually (might) exist, because I was drawn into the story by the 1st paragraph = I was ready to meet a couple of guys, whose life or death would keep me hooked to your story for some long reading hours. But I cannot care about two guys being killed or not, if I don’t have the feeling they might be real. Because if I know they are not real, they are like Bugs Bunny to me… I know they will get up, no matter what hit them.

      Edward, great suggestions!

      David, good look with your story!
      Jutta

  2. PinkLed (@PinkLed5) says:

    I really like the setting and the characters and think this story has a lot of potential. Unfortunately, the first 500 words which introduce us to our protagonists seems like one extended info dump. I felt like I was reading their biography instead of their story. My recommendation, for whatever it’s worth, would be to expand the first 500 words into a few pages with more development and description. Add that and I’m totally hooked! 🙂

  3. nikkiharvey says:

    Too much info dumping as already said. I also got confused and had to go back and check names. It says about a friend being killed and then ‘they met’ starts the next paragraph, so I was thinking is this how the original two guys met, or is this how they met the guy who was killed last week. Also I don’t think the one guy who was killed last week is who they are going to be thinking about. As soldiers they will have seen a lot of death, why focus on this one person? Why not reminisce about ALL the friends they have lost over the years. If they’ve been there long enough to be close to going home, it’s unlikely they’ve only seen one person die. They could even have a conversation about them, as conversation is a great way to make a story feel real and also to find out more about the characters speaking by the way they speak. The characters are very cliche. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that; if you made them short ugly and unlucky with women it would also seem off. But the cliche character traits aren’t what I want to know this early in the story. I want to know what makes them different. There has to be some part of the character that is different. Are they unusually intelligent? Practical jokers? Obsessed with an unexpected music artist? These are the things I want to know at the beginning, not that they are tall and attractive. I can find that out later. I think this could make a good scene without the info dump but I’m not sure it’s the right place to start for a first page. The men are under attack before we know enough about them to care. I think the info dump should be removed and expand on the attack. There seems to be one weapon that Hemi is using, but the other people in the car aren’t doing anything, are they just sat there doing nothing (I doubt it), are they unconscious, are the uninjured trying to help the injured? Are they pulling out guns and other weapons? Are they pointing out hostiles to Hemi? And finally, I think the last paragraph and first paragraphs were my favourite, but the last paragraph is disappointing in that the action starts and finishes in just one paragraph when surely such an event deserves more. They have been thinking about trying not to die before they went home. Is there any panicked thoughts that they aren’t going to make it home? It could be great but it needs more work so good luck making it great 🙂

  4. Jim Moore says:

    Thanks David for submitting your first page. I always learn from these even though I don’t always get to comment. I understand the suggestions and comments so far and a thought came to me. Why not have some ugly guy that doesn’t get the ladies start your fiction work, build him into a person of integrity and then a hero?
    I’ve noticed a lot of war or battle theme beginnings and inserts in books lately. I see it in crime drama television too. I understand that it’s a real part of our society and I firmly believe we need to honor our soldiers. We owe them a lot. I would keep reading, but I know honestly that if I couldn’t relate to the guys soon through some character flaw, humorous twist or other room for improvement trait I may move on. I would love to see the rewrite.
    Now I’ll go see if my current work has enough of a hook on the first page, again.

  5. David Coldrick says:

    Thanks, Ellen, for posting my page so quickly, and for your critique. On re-reading, I agree with all your suggestions. Well, except the one about “This is a crime/thriller/military cliche – the tall, attractive, lucky with the ladies protagonist. Remember that realism is more important to readers than any positive physical or personality trait”. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher comes to mind, and Lee seems to do OK 🙂

    I had never heard the term “info dump” before: I’ll take it to heart. Thanks to the others who gave feedback, most helpful. The “Black and White Detective Agency” series is on its way!

    Best regards,
    David

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      No problem about posting it! I’m glad it helped!

      Yes, Lee Child does great, but things become cliche because they’re used too often (not because nobody uses them), so there are always published examples of cliches. Established writers can also get away with cliches much, much easier than debut writers who are struggling to stand out in submission piles flooded with similar books. That said, as others mentioned, focusing on what’s unique about them upfront (rather than the cliche traits) will make this much stronger and more or less eliminate the problem.

      Best of luck with editing!

      -Ellen

    • Jutta says:

      If your protagonist has to be “tall, attractive and lucky with the ladies”, maybe you could start by showing that he is tall int the first scene(s) and introduce the “attractive and lucky with the ladies” later – after your readers have warmed up to the character?

      If you could do so by showing instead of telling the readers your protagonist’s good looks (for example through the way others react to him), that might also soften the impact?

      Because once we do believe that he is (or at least might be) ‘real’… he can be as good looking as he wants. 🙂

      Lots of luck with your story!
      Jutta

  6. Hailey says:

    The second-to-last sentence in paragraph one . . . I had to read it 4-5 times before I understood it. I like it when authors use distinctive slang, but it doesn’t quite work there.

  7. Sue says:

    Have to agree with the info-dump comments. I didn’t have a problem with glad-handing the punters – but that may be because Oz English is closer to Pom English than American English. I wasn’t sure where you were going with “the Maori equivalent” though?

  8. Sue says:

    David – oh! and duh! I don’t know what I was looking for meaning-wise but I totally skipped over the obvious answer. Thanks for the answer.

  9. Holly Dolly says:

    “They had met in boot camp, and quickly became good friends, going out drinking and chasing girls together. They were both tall – Hemi at 6’6”, James 6’3” – and good-looking, and were quite successful with women.”

    This is where you lost me as a reader. It made me instantly dislike the character and it made me stop reading.

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