Friday, May 13, 2011

First Page Friday

Today is First Page Friday and I'm really excited to share this post with you!

As I mentioned earlier, agents/editors often only look at the first page and it really should be your best work. That’s what First Page Friday is all about—-helping you tweak it to be your absolute best.

I’m pleased to welcome Ms. Shreditor. She's going to remain anonymous on this blog, but I can tell you that she is amazing! She's an editor at a national book publisher, and has graciously offered to critique these first pages.

The Entry

The First Page
by Anonymous Entry

Alysen Smythe shivered, remembering the dark and stormy night she wanted to forget.

The bell rang, and her thoughts faded away like the dye on an old, favorite pair of dark blue jeans that had been washed too many times. Silly Alysen, she thought, you are just freaking out over nothing. By the time she had gotten her lunch from her locker, she felt lots better.

“Hi, Aly-cat,” said her best friend Isla. Isla had beautiful, blonde hair and blue eyes, and she was really pretty. She was on the lacrosse and track teams but still managed to get straight A’s every quarter. Alysen smiled. She was lucky to have her.

“What’s up, Eyeball?” Alysen asked and Isla laughed. It was an old private joke between them from third grade that never got old.

“Did you see the new guy yet? Alysen, he is so gorgeous. I think his name is Ian and I heard he was expelled from his last school for something really bad.”

“Whoa.”

“Yeah.”

“So what did you bring for lunch today?”

“Carrot sticks and hummus, you?”

“Same.”

So the two girls walked to lunch together, just like any other day. But little does Alysen know that her life is about to change forever.

~*~

Ian Turner did not like Ocean Crest High School one bit so far. The kids were such snobs, and one of them even asked him to his face if he was expelled from his last school.

Like he was going to tell them.

When he walked into the cafeteria, he immediately saw this beautiful girl by the snack machines with long brown hair and dark brown eyes. She was laughing with some blonde girl, but he didn’t care about the other girl. It was like this girl was staring into his soul and she wasn’t even looking at him. Taking a deep breath, his heart began to race. Walking across the cafeteria, he stopped at the water fountain near her to try and hear her voice. Listening, she began to talk to her friend and her voice really was musical.

Ian Turner was in trouble.

Ms. Shreditor's Comments

The Good:

The first page raises some intriguing questions: Was Ian really expelled from his previous school? If so, for what? And just what did happen to Alysen on that dark and stormy night?

The private joke between Alysen and Isla establishes a sense of longtime friendship.

Ian falls hard for Alysen when he sees her. This introduces an element of romantic tension, which will be more than sufficient to hook many readers, very early in the story.

The Bad:

This may be personal preference speaking, but quirky, cutesy name spellings can be a distraction. All too often, these re-imagined names constitute a pale attempt to make a boring protagonist seem more interesting. You don't have to name your characters Jane or John, but think carefully before saddling them with trendy name spellings, which may ultimately date your book, unless there is a story behind them. Is the alternate name spelling ethnic? Historical/genealogical? If not, consider whether or not "Alysen" has that much of an edge over "Alison" or "Allison," or if it actually undermines her character. If the most interesting thing about her is her name, you have some work to do.

The first paragraph, just once sentence long, underperforms. It contains one of the more egregious clichés in literature, the proverbial "dark and stormy night." The author needs to dip into the heroine’s past with more than just a timid toe and a perfunctory description. A cliché is a buzz kill, not an attention grabber.

The simile that likens Alysen’s thoughts to worn blue jeans is clunky, clunky, clunky. If you have to contort yourself mentally and/or syntactically to make a simile work, don’t write it. There are more organic ways to convey an image or emotion.

Who is Alysen? We learn quite a bit about her best friend, Isla (none of which is particularly interesting or distinctive), but we learn nothing at all about the narrator herself. She needs to be more than a vessel to fulfill a plot-mandated romantic destiny. She needs to be more than some nondescript Everygirl.

The point of view shifts too abruptly to Ian—before we’ve gained any bearings in the story whatsoever. While there is certainly no hard-and-fast rule regarding scene length, try for scenes more than half a page long when introducing your main characters. And if they must be short, make them count. When you have half a page to lay down a scene, you don't have time to waste on information dumps and carrot sticks.


The Ugly:

Where the heck are we? We might as well be staring at a Google map of the entire planet with no place marks. Give us something to latch onto—at least a snowcapped mountain or palm tree to suggest climate zone. For all we know, Alysen, Isla, and Ian are doing a semester in Antarctica for college credit.

The dialogue shows few signs of life. Resuscitation and dialogue tags needed, stat. Instead of learning more about Alysen or digging a little deeper into her past, we must suffer through a rather inane conversation about carrot sticks and hummus. As delicious as these things can be, they do not an interesting story make.

The narrative switches momentarily to present tense before the break. Stick with one verb tense—past, present, or, if you’re really adventurous, future. It also bears mentioning that you should stick with one perspective (first-person, third-person, third-person omniscient, second-person, first-person plural, etc.). That same sentence marks a shift from third-person limited to the godlike third-person omniscient. There are some writers who can switch seamlessly between verb tenses and perspectives (e.g., first-person for one character and third-person for another), but they are experts. Do not try this at home.

Participial phrase abuse. I encounter this all the time in my editorial pursuits: well-meaning authors who, for whatever reason, think that participial phrases make their writing sound more sophisticated or dramatic. This is often not the case. Look at the second-to-last paragraph and some of the sentence openings: “Taking a deep breath…,” “Walking across the cafeteria…,” and “Listening…” This is a bad habit. Break it. Past and present participial phrases have their place, but not when A) they create dangling participles (like in the first sentence--which, as written, tells us that Ian’s heart took a deep breath), B) they cannot happen simultaneously with the main clause (Ian cannot walk across the cafeteria and stop at the water fountain at the same time), or C) every sentence you write contains one.


I have to thank Ms. Shreditor for her critique today. I also want each author who contributes to First Page Friday to remember to, first, look at the good that was said, then look at the suggestions made and decide whether it's something you are willing to change. Not every editor or agent's opinion will match yours, but it is worth looking at every piece of feedback as you polish your piece. Thank you Ms. Shreditor for taking the time to critique today.

If you would like to submit your first page for Ms. Shreditor, please email it to juliecoulterbellon@gmail.com with First Page Friday in the subject line.

And feel free to leave your own feedback on this first page in the comments.

13 comments:

Kimberly said...

What a fabulous post concept. And many thanks to Ms. Shrededitor. I learned a great deal!

Jon Spell said...

Wow! That was some amazing commentary, Ms. Shreditor. I bet you go through many red pens in your day job. =)

I'll have to give this a shot. (After I revise!)

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Thanks, Kimberly! I appreciate it.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Jon, I would love for you to post!

Kerry Blair said...

What Jon said! That was a great exercise. Please choose my page next! (And my compliments to Ms. Shreditor. Love that lady!

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Thanks, Kerry!

Ms. Shreditor said...

I am so excited to participate in First Page Friday! Rest assured, my editorial bark is much worse than my bite. I love working with authors who are eager to improve.

I was tough on this first excerpt, but please know that I try always to be fair in my critiques. If your first page is fantastic, I'll tell you so; I won't go spelunking for things to criticize. By the same token, if your first page needs a lot of work, I will try to keep my criticisms constructive at all times.

To Jon: Yes, I go through many red pens (or tracked changes in Microsoft Word). Sometimes, though, I change it up and use green. What can I say? I'm a rebel.

Debra Erfert said...

LOL!!! The Good, The Bad, The Ugly! I've had to endure that Clint Eastwood movie more times that I care to relate, but now I'll have a different memory when I see the title.

Love the concept. Love Ms. Shreditor. Would love to send you my first page without any editing first. (Jon? I dare you! Ms. Shreditor can only help.)

Melanie Goldmund said...

This is such a fantastic idea! I've sent my own first page in hopes of some great feedback. :-) Hopefully I can improve in leaps and bounds after getting it.

Danyelle Ferguson said...

This is great, Julie! I learn so much from examples and feedback like this. Thank you to Mrs. Shreditor for her time & honesty.

I'm going to send you my first page, Julie. Can't wait to get shredded!

Cindy M Hogan said...

Very interesting. Hands on examples are so great.

Stephanie Black said...

This is fantastic! Thank you to Ms. Shreditor--I will look forward to this feature every week and will learn a lot!

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you mentioned this:

“Taking a deep breath…,” “Walking across the cafeteria…,” and “Listening…”

I've read so many published books where the editor just let the author do this, either because they were tired of having to edit SO MANY OF THEM, or they just didn't care.

One of the BIGGEST reasons not to participle away your writing, is because it splits the description in two. You end up describing two actions at the same time. And while that isn't grammatically poor, it waters down your writing. Do this too often (or even at all) and you end up destroying the voice in your writing. You end up being vague. You end up losing the clarity and descriptiveness you're trying so hard to achieve. Get rid of all those participles and watch the voice in your writing soar!