Friday, May 27, 2011

First Page Friday

Welcome back to First Page Friday. For any new people, several agents and editors said recently that they really only look at the first page or two of a submitted manuscript and if they aren't hooked on the story by then, they reject it. So, that's what First Page Friday is all about, having a national book editor, (whom we affectionately call Ms. Shreditor) critique first pages that are submitted to the blog and help tweak them be their absolute best. (If you would like to submit your first page for critique, email it to and put First Page Friday in the subject line.)

As always, authors should look at the good comments and bask in that for a moment. Then look at the constructive criticism and remember that feedback can make your manuscript submission stronger. :)

The Entry

by Melanie Goldmund

Bonnie Sorex jogged down the corridor as fast as she dared. It was busy at this time of day, and she had to dodge all kinds of people on her way to the medical centre. Niana, she thought, desperately reaching out to her twin, but their telepathic link was even more quiet than when Niana was asleep. At last, she arrived, and burst breathlessly into the reception area.

"How can I help you?" the man behind the desk asked.

"Geminiana Sorex," Bonnie gasped. "I was told she was here."

"Sorex," the man repeated. "Geminiana. Yes. Wait over there, please, I'll inform the medic that you're here."

There was already a fairly large group of worried people "over there" and all the seats had been taken. Bonnie leaned impatiently against the wall and watched them surreptitiously. She'd only been told that her twin sister had been involved in an accident and was now in the medical centre; now she had the feeling that others had been involved, too. And indeed, soon after, another relative arrived and was shown into their corner. Bonnie scooted over to make room. Again, she reached out telepathically to her sister, but again, the result was the same unnerving silence. Eventually, a woman in a white uniform came through a connecting door, checked a holopad, and called out a name. The man in question stood up and asked, "Is she all right?"

"Come with me," the woman said. She looked stern. "We'll talk about it inside."

It did not leave Bonnie with a positive feeling.. She waited while two other groups of relatives were called in, and the first man had come out again – alone and silent. Then the woman in white came out and called, "Trebonia Sorex?"

"Yes," Bonnie said, and straightened up from the wall.

"If you'll come with me," the woman said, and led her to an office.

"I'm Medica Vetrania," the woman said. "Geminiana Sorex is your … sister?"

"My twin," Bonnie said. The medic had said "is." That was a good sign, she thought vaguely. "Where is she? Is she all right?"

"She's alive," Medica Vetrania said. "She's in a suspended animation pod."

"What?" Bonnie gasped. No wonder she wasn't able to sense her sister. "Why?"

The medic sighed tiredly and said, "Exposure to heta gas. I'm afraid we're just not equipped to deal with it here on board the NL-13."

Bonnie wasn't sure she'd heard correctly. "Heta gas? Here?"

"It's only the newer transports that have to conform to government regulations about alternate energy lines," the medic said, then sighed. "This ship is old, and back then, nobody knew that heta emissions would react with both fire and water to produce heta gas."

"Fire and water … but how could that happen here?"

"There was some kind of explosion that blew open both an energy line and a water pipe," Medica Vetrania said. "Or at least that's what I've been able to deduce from the injuries. Unfortunately, the only people who can tell us for certain are dead. Your sister was one of the lucky ones. She's still alive, and we do have the suspended animation pods so that her condition won't worsen until she can get proper treatment."

Ms. Shreditor's Comments

The Good

There is a good mix of dialogue and exposition here. The story opens with action (Bonnie jogging down the hallway), and this creates narrative momentum right out of the gate. The writing is generally strong, with only minor copyediting issues here and there. Either this author is one heck of a self-proofreader, or she knows someone with solid proofreading skills. The text is quite clean for an early draft.

The story itself is quite intriguing. Telepathic twins and suspended animation pods and heta gas, oh my! There is a popular young adult sci-fi book/series, Across the Universe, that also involves suspended animation; however, the similarities end there. The telepathic twin angle diverges sharply from Beth Revis’s (The Chicago Manual of Style tells me to include the “s” after the apostrophe, and I am CMS’s slave.) bestseller and makes for a compelling plot element.

Speaking of Chicago style, I’d like to take a moment to encourage all authors to invest in a copy of the manual. The book is currently in its 16th edition, but the 15th edition will suffice for most stylistic issues. It is the gold standard of book publishing.

The Bad

I talked about nomenclature (i.e., naming conventions) in my first Friday critique. The names Geminiana and Trebonia feel a little forced. Is there a story behind these names? (If there is, you don’t necessarily need to cram it onto the first page; I just want to be sure that you’re not falling prey to the tendency to overdo first names.) It’s not that I’m against exotic names (to the contrary, they can be a welcome vacation from more conventional names, particularly in a futuristic sci-fi story like this), but once an unconventional first name surpasses three syllables, it starts to feel somewhat jarring to me. The twins’ nicknames, Bonnie and Niana, feel much more natural.

A stylistic note worth mentioning: When sharing thoughts inside your narrator’s head (Niana, she thought), make sure to italicize the thought itself (Niana, she thought.) This creates a clear delineation between the narrative and the rare glimpse into your protagonist’s mind. You also want to set up your autoformatting in Word to convert double hyphens into em-dashes. There is one in here that appears as an en-dash when it should be an em-dash. I won’t bore you all with a lesson on em-dashes versus en-dashes, though.

There are a few rough transitions in here, but nothing that a good copyedit couldn’t fix.

Lastly, use ellipses sparingly. They can become somewhat of a bad habit. They have their place (e.g., at the end of a piece of dialogue when words trail off), but authors sometimes overuse them to create rhythm in their dialogue. More often than not, more conventional punctuation can accomplish the same flow.

The Ugly

I think that the “ugliest” thing here (I hate using that word, but I couldn’t put part of Clint Eastwood’s three-pronged title out to pasture) is the length of the submission itself. At 538 words, this excerpt is much, much longer than a first page. A standard book page is 250 words, and a chapter-opening page is typically even shorter.

However, there is a silver lining here: This gives me an excuse to talk about the importance of following submission guidelines. I will digress from the sample at hand to address all writers reading this blog.

Read the guidelines very, very carefully before submitting your work for publication. Tape them to your bathroom mirror if necessary. Recite them to yourself at night instead of counting sheep. If the publisher calls for 60,000-65,000 words, don’t try submitting your 120,000-word behemoth. This is the fastest way to land your manuscript or proposal in the recycling bin. (And to any publishing houses out there that don’t recycle their office paper: for shame!) I won’t make a general practice out of critiquing samples this long, but the extended length of this sample provides a valuable teachable moment.

I have worked with unpublished authors who complain heartily when they fail to follow guidelines and wind up rejected because of it. Look, let me give it to you straight: If you can’t follow submissions guidelines, no publisher is going to want to work with you. The journey of a book from proposal to print is grueling, and the ability to follow instructions is vital to keeping the book on schedule.

Again, I'd like to thank Ms. Shreditor for her time and efforts. I really appreciate her. See you next Friday!


Melanie Goldmund said...

Thanks for the critique, Ms. Shreditor! I'll definitely do better next time because of your help!

Melanie Goldmund said...

Oh, and maybe I should explain that my first page was longer than normal because I have become used to writing so that I can just copy and paste directly onto the internet, which means I didn't double-space or indent, I only put a line between paragraphs. My mistake, I do apologize, and thank you again for critiquing despite its length.

Gina said...

I want to weigh in on the name issue, too.

I love, love, love the name Niana. Speculative fiction almost demands unique names, it's part of what sets the tone for the "other-world-ness" in the story.

Niana is unique without being so far outside our contemporary conventions that I can easily read and pronounce it. Geminiana is a mouthful. Anytime I have to mentally "sound out" a name (Gem-in-i-an-a...Gem in i an a... Geminiana), it's frustrating. Super weird ought to be relegated to secondary characters.

I am intrigued by the start of this story, though!

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Melanie, I hope you saw that Ms. Shreditor called your work intriguing and thought it was really clean copy. :)

I thought it was a great story starter as well. Do you have the whole thing complete? I was just curious.

Melanie Goldmund said...

Julie, I did notice that, but thank you for pointing it out again. *beams happily*

But sadly, I haven't completed the story yet. I'm still having trouble with the ending, and the fact that although I want to compress this idea into 5000 words, it wants to escape my bonzai plans and become a novella, or even a full-length story.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

LOL Well, stories seem to take on a life of their own, don't they? :)

Kimberly said...

Great insights and advice, Ms. Shreditor! Good luck, Melanie! It's a great start!

Debra Erfert said...

Sometimes I can go through a whole book without ever pronouncing the main characters names, which is a terrible thing to admit. I love historical romances, and Sci/Fi's, and strangely enough these two genres seem to inherently have, um, the most unique sounding names.

I learned a lot from this post, Ms. Shreditor. Good luck Melanie! It sounds like a fascinating story. I love telepathologo. . . telepathical. . . people who are telepathic. lol

Jon Spell said...

I have a question about the "thought as italics." I thought I read somewhere that you shouldn't submit italics, but should find some other way of conveying it. (Or maybe it was that you shouldn't use bold.)

Regarding the OP, the use of "centre" makes me think British English. Was that intentional?

(Um, Julie, I may need to edit my submission to add italics!)

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Jon, feel free to edit your submission. :) I'm excited to see what Ms. Shreditor has to say about it.

Lisa said...

I'm not a huge fan of sci-fi however my interest is picqued by the medical centre backdrop. To each their own, but you already know your audience. I agree with the confusion over the names. In another popular novel series, Ihad to wait for the movie to know how to pronounce "hermione" so I just heard "h" in my head.

Ms. Shreditor said...

At the publishing house where I work, it's house style to italicize thoughts. This may vary from publisher to publisher, but it's pretty standard practice (particularly in third-person narratives, as thoughts will often necessitate a switch to first-person). The variation in font style helps to eliminate confusion as the perspective shifts gears.

You're right on about the bolding. Bold font isn't typically used in fiction unless there's an extenuating text design circumstance that demands it. You see bold font more often in nonfiction in subheads and in main text to highlight key terms. Travel books, for instance, often bold place/attraction names to facilitate quick scanning for desired information.

Anonymous said...

Frequent italics are the typographical equivalent of an elbow in the ribs. "Did you get it? Did you?" Romance novels make frequent use of them and italics have, sadly, spilled over into other genres. But I'd only ever use them when you are actually referring to the word in italics, like Bill Clinton was famous for saying, "It depends on what the meaning of the word is, is." All the other uses are cheap excuses for not doing the harder work of developing the view point of your character.