Friday, June 17, 2011

First Page Friday

Welcome back to First Page Friday!

Today we are excited to have an entry from our own Jon Spell. Here it is!

The Entry

9 Lives
by Jon Spell

Rudy gazed thoughtfully at the darkening world just outside his house. It was that peaceful time as the last light from the sun withdrew from the woods. He sat in his old recliner, tapping his pen on his teeth. He was unaware of the stealthy presence in his own house.

Rudy reached over to turn off the lamp to better see outside and saw his own reflection in the window. What he saw startled him, leaving him with his hand outstretched, fingers questing for the lamp's switch. He saw himself in the mirror every day, but this visage didn't look right. It was like looking at a caricature; he could see the resemblance, but it just wasn't quite right. Must be a distortion in the window. He shook his head and left the lamp on. Reflections at dusk prompted inward reflections. How might his life have gone had he taken a different path? "There must be a story in that," Rudy thought, getting excited. Not just the road less traveled, but the fast-paced highway he had never been on, where he had never seen any of the exits or destinations. At best, he'd flown over them and saw others who resided there. Rudy leaned forward to get his trusty legal pad, knowing this would make a good column for his readers, but found that he was stuck and couldn't move.

Ms. Shreditor’s Comments

There is a certain stillness to this narrative. The first page keeps our narrator firmly rooted in his recliner, a character-building sort of inertia. With this stillness, though, comes a lack of narrative momentum. The story begins passively, with Rudy gazing thoughtfully outside, and he remains pensive in his chair for the duration. There needs to be a stronger hook. There is plenty of time in a novel for introspection about what might have been, but the extended highway metaphor muddies the story at its crucial opening juncture. Dealing so heavily in metaphor so early on pulls readers away from a character before they learn anything of substance about him.

We do learn some important things about Rudy in these opening paragraphs, though: that he is a dreamer rather than a do-er, that he spends more time writing about life than he does living it. Still, what is the driving force of this story? Is getting stuck to the chair a pivotal moment or symbolic of his general passiveness? Why does the story begin here? The reader doesn't need to know it all after the first page, but he or she should have at least a vague idea of where the story is headed.

The central narrative question (“How might his life have gone if he had taken a different path?”) is compelling. It's the stuff of great stories. But, as stated, it feels somewhat cliché. You might consider recasting this question so that it feels fresher.

The writing itself is quite strong. The sparse descriptions help establish setting without inundating the reader with extraneous adjectives, and the varied sentence length gives the prose a natural rhythm—the kind of rhythm you might expect from authors who take the time to read the occasional paragraph aloud. Also, the distorted reflection was a really compelling device.

The bones for a meaty story are here, and the sample makes evident that the author has the writing skills to carry out the vision. The first page just needs some tweaks to make that vision clearer and hook the reader/editor/agent.


Thank you again for your entries and for the time Ms. Shreditor takes to help us each week. I know I’m definitely learning a lot from her comments (even though they're for other people!) and I think it’s making my own work in progress stronger.

See you next week!

12 comments:

Debra Erfert said...

I started the book I have out on submission in narrative, and during the critique stage I was told to change it, too, practically by every person who read it. Since then I've tried to begin with an action scene or dialogue. Still, it doesn't guarantee a successful opening hook. (ie ... last week's First Page Friday)

Good job, Jon! I'd like to have known why Rudy couldn't move from his chair.

Jon Spell said...

Well, I would have liked to tell you, but I ran out of space on the first page!

**Spoiler Alert**: Rudy is killed on the next page.

I suppose that's telling, though. I need to work it so that you find out what happens on the first page. Your comments about the hook are something I need to consider. Rudy is a victim, but WHO he is drives the plot, particularly initially.

I agree on the metaphor. It would probably be better served on the next page and then I could move the action up a bit. (So that you know what kind of book this is!)

Reading over it now, can I get some opinions on whether the last sentence in the first paragraph is too cheesy? At least I didn't start it with "Little did he know..." =)

Thank you for your time, Ms. Shreditor! Your comments here and on previous blogs has been very helpful.

Jon Spell said...

*have* been very helpful. I'm usually really careful about that. =S

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

The last line made me think not of cheesiness, but of telling rather than showing. Can he hear a creak, but dismiss it as his old chair? Or a sound from the next room as his cat runs in? Something to give us a hint that a stealthy presence is there without telling us?

Just a thought. What an interesting premise you've got going!

Debra Erfert said...

--He was unaware of the stealthy presence in his own house--

To me, this took the POV away from Rudy and into that omnipotent's POV. I could be wrong, but it was disjointed. I'd be more surprised if at the end of the first page you wrote . . .

--Rudy leaned forward to get his trusty legal pad, knowing this would make a good column for his readers, but found that he was stuck and couldn't move. A bright glint in the window made Rudy look up again. In the reflection he watched as a shadowy figure behind him held a butcher knife . . .

Rebecca Talley said...

Love this feature of your blog. I learn something every time.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Deb, I really like that!

Thanks Rebecca!

Ms. Shreditor said...

Debra, good catch on the POV of that sentence. I went back and forth on it and ultimately decided not to mention it. Perhaps I should have!

-Ms. Shreditor

Zach & Kaye said...

Thanks for this feature, we enjoy it every week!
My grandson and I are currently working on our own novel called "The Six Towers". It is the first book of a six part series. You help our writing with your posts. Thank you! Feel free to visit our blog or website at thesixtowers.webs.com

Bobdad said...

Thanks for the good advice and insight!!

Anonymous said...

The last sentence in the first paragraph IS NOT CHEESY. But it is author intrusion. You can get away with something like that if the revelation is so astonishing, so riveting, so central to the story, so climactic, so conclusive to your plot that the reader forgives you your intrusion and are drawn more deeply into your story instead of getting upset that you spoke directly to them and treated their intelligence with disdain for their inability to figure out from lesser clues that there is someone lurking in the house.

Joan signed her name to the neighborhood pot-luck dinner list. She could do lasagna without too much trouble. What she didn’t know was that her contribution would result in the death of her next-door neighbor.

What you may be trying for but didn’t use with this UNAWARE-OF-THE-STEALTHY-PRESECNE-IN-HIS-OWN-HOUSE sentence of author intrusion is the technique of foreshadowing. Opening chapters should foreshadow not only what is about to happen on the next page or two, but the entire novel including, and most important, the ending. So instead of doing the work of author intrusion, do the work of foreshadowing and your problems with this sentence will turn your opening into a much more satisfying read for your fans.

This particular sentence doesn't rise to the threshold of an author-intrusion-revelation that would pull the reader in more deeply. And it has the effect of leaving the reader wondering why you don't think she's smart enough to pick up on lesser clues.

Have your character hear some creaking in the house. Maybe a footstep or two. Is there a gun or a knife or a baseball bat Rudy can reach for? Does Rudy have a friend or a relative who visits often? Could it be Agnes from down the road a piece? She promised to bring Rudy some of her apple pie when the orchard started bearing, but the apples were still a month off. Was it Pluto? That mangy dog got into everything, but it had been a while since Rudy heard her barking. It was an odd silence. Pluto never went a moment without chasing down the birds and the forest was full of them this time of evening. Maybe it was the delivery boy from the Alpine Trading Post in town dropping off the groceries---Rudy left the back door open with a note to put the milk and eggs in the fridge and leave the bill on the kitchen counter. That's who it was. Joey the grocery delivery boy. Rudy set the baseball bat against the wall and settled back into the easy chair. The robin nesting in the upper branches of the spruce had three chicks. Three healthy little ones. And a blue jay jumped across the stone wall and disappear into the thicket of evergreen.

(continued in next post)

Anonymous said...

(continued from previous post)

From here you can ease the reader back into the sense of peacefulness, ease, comfort, happiness, seclusion, serenity, hopefulness, and then bring on the murderer with the murder weapon. The reader will love you for it---for one reason. THEY KNEW IT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN. And the only reason they knew it, was because you used the technique of FORESHADOW.

If this is a mystery, then have Rudy fall to the floor. He clutches the knife in his chest. Why was he such a fool to leave the note for the grocery deliver boy? The room went dark.

If it’s a romance, then have Rudy fall to the floor. He clutches the knife in his chest. Why was he such a fool to sign the life insurance policy for Jenny? The room went dark.

If it’s general fiction, then have Rudy fall to the floor. He clutches the knife in his chest. Why did he leave his notes on bio-warfare out of the security of safe for anyone to see? The room went dark.

If it’s fantasy action adventure, then have Rudy fall to the floor. He clutches the knife in his chest. And before the room went dark he presses the Batman call button on his secret decoder ring.

Give the reader some clues. But don't give it away. Author intrusion works best (and possibly only works at all) when it has the capacity to draw the reader into the story in a way that entices the reader to want to know what comes next.

I wouldn't try author intrusion in my stories. In fact, I think I’ve only ever tried it once. I don't feel comfortable with it. I'm of the opinion that the need to use author intrusion is actually a red flag. Author intrusion will suggest itself to you all the time, like water finding the path of least resistance through a dry creek bed. So use it. Write it down. But plan on getting rid of it at the very moment you write it down. Use it as a place holder. A book mark. A red flag reminding you to rewrite it later. And when you come back to it, figure out a better way. There is usually always a better way. It just takes more time, effort, and figuring out what techniques to use in order to, in the case of Rudy, foreshadow the possibility of danger.

Good luck with your writing.