Friday, June 3, 2011

First Page Friday

Welcome back to First Page Friday!

Ms. Shreditor is unavailable this week, but I am so proud to have Angela Eschler critique for us today. Angela is a phenomenal editor (she was my first editor at Covenant. Loved her!) She is extremely talented and has an innate knack for knowing how to fix a story. She is now a freelance editor and writer with twelve years experience in the field. In 2007 she retired as senior in-house editor with book publisher Covenant Communications in order to work more flexible hours, starting Eschler Editing and serving as the company owner and projects manager, and to pursue her own writing. Eschler Editing is comprised of talented and experienced editors, writers, and designers who have served many publishers, businesses, individuals, and universities in a freelance capacity.

You can find more information on Eschler Editing’s staff and services at BookEditingAndMore.com, and you can learn more about Angela’s most recent book at AngelaEschler.com.

I highly recommend her services and am so thrilled that she was able to critique for us today. (And while the critique is long, it is totally worth the read. I learned something today that I am definitely applying to my current work-in-progress!)

The Entry

Old Money
By Debra Allen

“You can eat dirt!” I watched the soft red strawberries slowly slide down the wall; the juices dripping in thin trails like fine ribbons of blood heading toward the bowl laying broken near the baseboard. I’d missed hitting the door by only six inches when I threw my tantrum—and the ice cream at my boyfriend’s head.

Correction, my ex-boyfriend.

Lucky me, graduating from the Arizona State University on Thursday, and getting dumped by the guy I’d had a serious relationship with for the past two years the next night. Anger doesn’t begin to describe my feelings.

Three soft taps came from the door. I knew who it would be before I saw the multi-colored spikes peeked its way inside my dorm room. “Hey, Gracie. I take it David is gone?”

I don’t know why such a pretty blonde would dye her hair the way Chelsea does. She must use a whole bottle of gel to get the little spikes to stick up so neatly around her head. I impulsively ran my fingers through my shoulder length brown, very bland, bob cut hairdo. “He’s gone.” I followed her eyes to the newly redecorated wall. “I missed.”

“It doesn’t look like it.” Chelsea knelt down and picked up the largest chunk of ceramic bowl.

“I mean I missed hitting the jerk.”

“Jerk?” Chelsea grinned at me. “You’re just now realizing he’s a jerk?”

I fell onto my unmade bed, sighing loudly. “He told me he wanted to be friends.”

Angela's Critique of Old Money:

This is a rather long review, but that doesn’t reflect on any deficits in the manuscript sample. It has more to do with the fact that I took extra space to give context for my comments on voice and audience. So never fear! Given the length of my comments, we’ll just dive right in with bullet points where we can.

Positives:

· Starts with strong negative emotions, which engages the reader’s interest

· Exposition (background information) is mixed in pretty well with dialogue and some action, so the story continues to move forward, which is the reader’s primary concern

· Very clean copy; the punctuation/grammar, etc., is spot on, except for one line I noted that needs proofing: “colored spikes peeked its way” should be “peeking” and “their way.” Also, I’m not sure on this use of “peek”; technically something does peek from a place of concealment, but peeking—by the dictionary’s standard—is a form of peering, a furtive glance. So hair can’t technically peer at someone.

· The girls read as teenagers, for the most part, as conveyed by their dialogue. This can be difficult for adult writers to re-create convincingly. Bravo.

· The relationship between the two friends feels natural, as the dialogue between them works, and it’s clear (if you intended this) that they are very close—if not best—friends (I assumed this based on the simple line “I knew who it would be before…” which implies that Chelsea would be the obvious person to check on Gracie). I love subtle info bites like this in which the author is not spelling out for me (the infamous “telling”) what the relationship between two characters is. The dialogue works in reinforcing the subtle reveals about their relationship because it is well paced and implies background knowledge of each other’s lives, which is a great way to work in character development and minor bits of backstory (i.e., that the ex-boyfriend may have been a jerk all along), as opposed to using their dialogue to force more awkward, spelled-out exposition (i.e., “What just happened?” [Plot retelling:] “I just threw my ice cream at my now-ex-boyfriend.” “Gasp. Tell me all about your relationship history and what just happened…”).

The fact that the best friend is not even surprised by the breakup implies that she’s been getting up-to-the-minute updates on the relationship and has her own opinions about how healthy of a relationship it is. Well done. The reader gets to be on the inside immediately because of this, and thus feels connected (as if to real girls), rather than as if she’s reading a book in which characters are obviously being created in front of her. Connecting with the reader and having them engaged in your story and empathetic to your characters immediately is one of the keys to hooking them.

Things that I questioned or that could be improved:

· Let’s talk about audience as context for my other observations:
My first thought was, “Based on the opening scene (which, in traditional genres, should give the reader a hint as to what the overall story is going to be about), this feels like a teenage-romance/girl-finds-herself story, but the characters are graduating from college. This might be a difficult sell.” (If your story is not meant to be of the genre I just noted, see my comments below on changing the beginning).

I recently had a client who was writing just such a story (girl-finds-self-and-real-love), but after some online research exploring current blogs of agents and editors representing national books, she discovered there isn’t a market right now for college-age characters in this type of story. Currently, teen romance is big, and adult romance is big (college graduates are generally considered to be adults), but those two genres generally have different “voices” to appeal to different crowds, and your book seems more like teen voice. The chic lit phenomena was the bridge for a while—snarky, funny, sort of teen-like perspectives of the single, working professional gal—but that genre is considered dead now. Since agents are pretty keen on having a clear audience in mind to whom their books will be sold (especially when we’re not talking about speculative fiction, which can bend genres more and has more crossover appeal and allows for a great variety of voice), this could be a problem if you intend to market this story to a national audience.

To clarify, I don’t mean there aren’t college-aged readers out there—there are plenty—but the publishing industry generally works with genres they can define by particular markets so they can estimate sales as accurately as possible.
There are a few editors out there trying to start a market for college-age-issue fiction, but from what I understand, those editors are not interested in romance right now. There are some books coming out right now that feature college-aged individuals, but they aren’t primarily romances, which your book seems to be from first impressions.

As my recent client discovered, many times, with books where the appeal of the characters is borderline like this, the agents ask authors to make the characters younger—just getting ready to go to college or just starting it or just finishing high school. This still appeals to teenage girls who are interested in reading about characters a little older than themselves and thus allows for the genre to be clearly marketed to publishers when the agents go to pitch your book.

If you are marketing this book to the LDS market, which is more of a niche market that works just a little differently (depending on the genre), you will find more examples of this type of story with characters this age, but in some years they have not sold as well as romance novels where the main character is in her thirties or older. I recently asked the senior editor at one of the big LDS publishers what their current thoughts are on this dilemma, and he told me they don’t know right now. So you could try sending in a ms with characters this age, but you may need to be open to making them older or younger, depending on what your story is really about.

Based on which market you want to write for, doing a little online/bookstore research might help you nail your agent or publisher needs right off the bat. If that is not actually the type of story you are telling, then this opening will mislead the agent/editor/reader and may lose you a buy. Or get you a customer who is later annoyed because that’s what they were expecting and they didn’t get it. Is that really the impression you want to give and thus where you want to start your story?

· Let’s talk about hooks as an extension of the previous audience/market discussion:

If your story is about something else, you may want to find another place to start it. Regardless, you’ll want to study good hooks so you can start your story as powerfully as possible. A most excellent book on creating hooks that sell your story, quickly reveal the genre, and intrigue the reader because they immediately hint at the main conflict/source of tension in your story is, appropriately titled, Hooked, by Led Edgerton. It’s a short little read, but simply brilliant in the clear way Edgerton explains exactly how to do a good hook. A key to a good hook is starting with something intriguing that is relevant to the bigger story problem and is a high-stakes issue. Such hooks fit a lot of “what’s-going-to-happen?” intrigue onto the opening page and make a reader stand in the bookstore turning pages to find out what will happen. As it stands in your story right now, you have started with tension, which is a good first step, but I’m not necessarily dying to know what’s going to happen because I don’t know what’s at stake for the main character in the loss of a boyfriend. Knowing something big is still at stake (not just lost and now a sunk cost) for the character will compel a reader past the first or second page. We need a clearly stated goal that we can worry and wonder over as we move into the narrative. This, along with voice, is the main thing agents and editors are looking for because their job is to sell books to readers. Readers buy what they can’t put down. (After you read Hooked, I would strongly suggest another little book called Scene and Structure, by Jack Bickham. It covers the next step in hooking readers at every chapter and every page.)

· Let’s talk about “voice” as it relates to hooks/markets:

We’ve covered potential audiences, so let’s discuss the next relevant part of that discussion, which is gaining the interest of the right reader through voice. Given that you might be trying to appeal to teenage or young adult girls, the opening line (“Eat dirt”) is a very old-fashioned thing for a teenager of today to say. I was wondering if this was some sort of historical story involving teens, but then the rainbow-spikey-haired best friend threw that theory off. If I were a YA agent, this might be a turn-off because it seems like your main character won’t be very up-to-date in terms of voice—that she won’t be “hip/current” enough to appeal to teens today. Options are to make her insult a bit more in-your-face crass or rude, which many teens/young adults are, but which can be unpleasant to read, as many agents don’t really enjoy reading sarcastic teenagers (though this is not all agents), or to be more creative in her voice so that she comes off as clever/funny/unique in her dialogue and insult-throwing generally (which is also a better solution if you are writing for the LDS market). I would strongly suggest upping this character’s voice due to your use of first person. First person calls for very strong voice in which every single thing the character observes comes through the lens of their personality. So objective narrative observations don’t work as well as they might in a different point of view.

Right now Gracie is likable, but she feels just a little bit generic. (Granted, she hasn’t said much yet, but that’s the point of having a killer first page—to blow the reader out of the water by securing their interest in the character or plot conflict). A good example of very strong, contemporary teen voice can be found in the book Dark Song. The book is on a very serious and—as the title implies, dark—topic (and I couldn’t recommend it as a nice, clean read for kids), but the author nails the overdramatic, boy-focused, sarcastic voice of teenagers today. The teens in the book are witty, funny, dramatic, and interesting—and each has a very unique voice (and no physical description is needed to distinguish them from each other given their voices are so unique). (I think chapter two or three of Dark Song has a great example of several teens talking; there is also some great voice toward the second half of the book when the main character is first introduced to the once-thought-to-be-dead grandparents.) This is only one type of teenage voice, and your character might be one step up in maturity, but a study of those chapters would still be helpful in terms of creating a unique voice for your main character. (And especially if you decide to lower the age of your main character to reach a teen audience.)

· A second example of problematic voice is when your heroine observes her spikey-haired friend. Gracie seems to step out of character—both regarding her voice and her relationship with Chelsea—when she says, “I don’t know why such a pretty blonde would dye her hair the way Chelsea does. She must use a whole bottle of gel to get the little spikes to stick up so neatly around her head. I impulsively ran my fingers through my shoulder-length brown, very bland, bob cut hairdo.”

If Chelsea is the close friend she seems to be, Gracie would know why she does her hair like that. In addition, it seems very much like something a grandma would say about a grandchild she loves but thinks is too unladylike. So the effect is that your character again seems very outdated for a young person today, or she comes across as sort of a square—and I’m not sure you mean for the reader to see her that way. It’s a little hard to empathize with someone like that.

· Let’s talk about use of detail to create compact and packed scenes:

Speaking of the example above, it was also a bit too wordy and too forced of a passage. Clearly it was a strategy for describing everybody’s hair color and general looks. The instinct for fitting it all in at that particular spot is good, but the execution was a little too long-winded and obvious. Generally I discourage authors from spelling out setting details and physical descriptions until they can synergize the effort with revealing something about character psychology (either character on the scene, but preferably both), or till they can use the setting details as metaphors for an idea or theme in the book. So don’t just tell us what someone looks like, tell us how the observer analyzes those details—what the observed person’s clothing says about them on deeper levels. I don’t care so much if the friend in the room is wearing jeans and a T-shirt as I care what the main character thinks of that friend based on their outfit. So tell me that the jeans are too tight or that the T-shirt is way too baggy and screams insecure about my weight—something that lets me know how the observer feels about it. That will reveal things about the observed and the observer that are far more interesting than just what someone looks like physically and/or objectively.

Unless the outfit reveals something about the characters and their inner worlds, I don’t really care what they’re wearing or what their hair is like, etc. I am going to assume everyone is wearing the standard protocol for their age group and that no one is walking on screen naked. In the case here, your sidekick character is wearing something a little more interesting, but the way Gracie frames it, it almost made me wonder if there is any reason you’ve made Chelsea a little boundary-breaking, or if you just did it to make her look different. If her looks don’t actually give a hint as to her interesting character development later—preferably something relevant to the story and/or the girls’ relationship—there’s no real narrative reason to make her look like that. If you can give us a hint as to her characterization, not just her looks, on the first page, that’s a much better use of a first page. In other words, give us depth at all levels of the storytelling. Especially on the first page.

So, summing up the three points with an example (not making Gracie into a grandma, not being too wordy just so you can fit in everyone’s descriptions, and not wasting first-page narrative time on simple physical descriptions), you could do something along these lines: “Her new do was untamed and a conversation starter, but it did sort of distract from her best features. As a natural blond, it was obvious how pretty she was. But I guess it was more interesting than the brown bla bob I had going.” You could exchange the key adjectives for unique words your particular heroine would use. So instead of “pretty” you could use “hot” or “smokin” or something that reveals your character’s voice better and matches the lingo of her age group. The same with the adjective that defines Chelsea’s hair. I used untamed, but you might not want the reader to think that’s why Chelsea went with that look. So use an adjective that describes why—in Gracie’s mind—Chelsea used that look. “Hew new do was wild/spunky/rebellious/unboring/retro, etc.” This gives us an idea of how the main character sees her friend and herself, but without sounding like a disapproving old lady.

· Let’s talk about word economy, which will give you the edge with agents/editors:

Since I mentioned that the description of the girls’ looks was too wordy, I’ll touch on word economy now. This is even more important in the industry now, with agents and editors wanting stories that are tighter and tighter, allowing reader assumptions to take the place of authors spelling it out (which readers can do based on clever/precise author rhetoric). Below I’ll edit a couple examples of wordiness that slowed down the pace of the reading, and could thus stall reader interest. Both occurred at the opening of the story, which is the last place you want something too wordy.

To deal with wordiness, basically, take every sentence you write (particularly exposition/narrative that isn’t dialogue) and ask if you can cut three to ten words from it. Some strategies for that might be: 1) employing the use of more powerful verbs/words that could eliminate the need for articles and smaller getting-there words, 2) looking at small groups of sentences and consolidating information by combining descriptions, and 3) examining anything that is implied by context and can thus be cut, like saying, “I watched the strawberries . . .” If she next describes the strawberries dripping down the wall, clearly she’s watching them, so we don’t need to be told she’s “watching” them. And strawberries are likely to be red, so we don’t need that detail—the reader’s assumptions will fill in for that information.

So on the samples below, compare them to your original to see what descriptions I merged, what I cut based on reader assumption, and where getting-there words were trimmed to get at your more powerful descriptions.
“You can eat dirt!” The soft strawberries dripped down the wall; their juices like fine ribbons of blood pooling in the broken ice-cream bowl near the baseboard. I’d missed hitting the door—and my boyfriend’s head—by only six inches . . .” (the tantrum is implied by the action and the dialogue).

AND

Lucky me, Arizona State graduate on Thursday—bright future ahead—and dumped from my serious two-year relationship the next night. Bright future significantly dimmed. You could say I was mad.

This second bit of exposition had a few too many details to seem like a first-person direct thought, which should be a bit more abbreviated and casual, and the two subjects (graduating and being dumped) seemed like they needed a bit more logical of a connection (transition) to be paired in the same paragraph. So in addition to addressing wordiness I addressed some of that “author precision/rhetoric” stuff.

· The final take-away?

Excellent first step in setting up dynamic characters and tension, but let’s give your book the edge with an immediate intro to your extra-unique character’s personality; also, make sure you know what audience you’re writing to so you can start the story at exactly the right point (hinting at what’s at stake). The best way to streamline and frame all of the above is to up the ante on the voice of the main character so it’s stronger and more distinctive and to support that with tighter overall writing, focusing on your most interesting sentences. Best of luck!

Thank you so much to both Angela and Debra. See you next week!

11 comments:

Melanie Jacobson said...

Wow. This is a fantastic mini-tutorial. Thanks!

Debra Erfert said...

Thank you, Ms. Eschler. I've got a lot to think about with your in-depth exploration of my first page. I can see the (embarrassing) flaws of this rough draft. Your critique will head me in a slightly different direction. I guess age of the character/s is a fundamental part of audience bonding. Its a blessing to know now that Grace (22) is at that awkward age; too old for YA and too young for the adult audience. It will be easier to change it at this point than if I had finished the manuscript, although I'll need to sit back and digest this critique over again.

I can see why Julie gave you such high praise. You clearly know your business. Thank you, again, for your expertise. I've already taken it to heart.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Melanie, I thought that, too! Angela did such a great job, always thorough.

Debra, my first manuscript was this same age group and I had to make them older. I hope you really took to heart that Angela said you have an excellent first step in setting up dynamic characters and tension. She doesn't throw away compliments. :)

Jon Spell said...

I'm glad editors don't have to worry about word economy. =) Wow, that was just an amazing critique.

and that no one is walking on screen naked
Because that would be a whole 'nother genre!

The only thing that really jumped out at me for the story was that I had no idea what the story was about. It's a good introduction to the main characters, though.

Also, and this is really nitpicky, so take it with a grain of sugar, but I have a hard time imagining the ribbons of blood from the strawberries. Nice imagery, possibly foreshadowing, but my experience with strawberry ice cream is that either there are no actual strawberries involved, or there are frozen, freeze-dried ones with very little juice. If you did happen to use fresh strawberries, they'd probably be mashed up in the ice cream and produce pink ribbons, like streamers on a little girl's bicycle. ;) I propose an experiment of throwing strawberries at a wall to see what the results are. (Catch the remains on a clean towel for subsequent ice cream insertion.) Now, if she'd thrown a piece of strawberry pie at the wall... well, that'd be really messy.

Angela, I have some questions for you regarding the editing industry. I'll go check the website to see if there's any way to contact you. =)

Debra Erfert said...

Jon,
I just got through baking a wedding cake with homemade strawberry filling, and the aforementioned filling was bright red and it was crowded with large slices of strawberries. In my mind, this is what topped the French vanilla ice cream Grace threw at the wall. Who would intentionally eat strawberry ice cream with this combination on hand? (Hint: Not me!) If you carry through with your experiment, please contact me for the recipe and I'll gladly send it to you. Actually, it probably is very close to strawberry jam or pie, for that matter.

When I wrote the first page, chapter, sentence, I had no intention of filling the reader in on what the story was about. I've been critiqued before about information dumps. Even a single paragraph was deemed too much. Finding that balance is very difficult, but I hope not impossible. With every new page I reveal a little more through dialogue and her internal thoughts. But I guess I need more of a hook than just the foreshadowing of what’s to come. I’m too subtle.

Heather B. Moore said...

Great job, Angela :)

Shanda said...

First, Debra- Kudos to you for putting yourself out there. Also, for being so polite, accepting and open to change with your manuscript. It's a scary thing to do (I wouldn't dare at this point in my writing which isn't very far.) Taking this brave step and putting your work out there shows your dedication to your craft.

Second- I want to be Angela when I grow up.

Thanks, Julie. I love this feature on your blog.

The Damsel in Dis Dress said...

Fantastic! This has given me a lot to think about.

Melanie Goldmund said...

I'm a bit late to this, but I just wanted to say that it was an excellent blog post. My first reaction was "Me next, me next -- oh, wait, it's already been my turn." :D But one day I hope to have such an excellent editor myself, too. :-)

Kate said...

Oh, wow. Just wow. I've read this twice now--think I need to bookmark it. Thank you, thank you! Back to work.

Valerie Ipson said...

All I can say is WOW.