Friday, June 24, 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 A.R.

Paige walked into the lobby of the church building with butterflies in her stomach. She went to the chapel and found her parents. She tried to hold her excitement down so that they wouldn't notice. Jack Porter was home and she was finally going to see him again. It had been two years since she had seen him. Jack had been in Mexico the past two years serving a mission. And now he was home.

Paige looked up to the front of the chapel to look at Jack. There he was. He looked the same as when he left. He was tall and still lean. She couldn’t see his eyes well from here, but she thought of his dark blue eyes. Paige loved those eyes.

By the time the meeting started the chapel was full of family and friends of Jack’s. Jack always made friends wherever he went. He was just that kind of guy.

When it was Jack’s turn to speak, Paige sat up straighter and tuck her hair behind her ear. If he looked out in the crowd and saw her she wanted to look her best. He probably wouldn’t see her anyway, but it didn't hurt to try.

“I’ve been asked to speak about some experiences I learned on my mission,” Jack said to start his talk. Paige listened to his stories about conversions he was a part of and stories that happened to him and him companions. She felt uplifted listening to his experiences. That was why Paige liked him so much. He had a spiritual side to him and wasn't afraid to show it. If only he knew how much she liked him, had always liked him.

Ms. Shreditor’s Comments

The first sentence propels us directly into the story. Paige’s entrance into the lobby gives us not only physical momentum, but also narrative momentum. Butterflies in the stomach are a bit cliché, but perhaps tweaking the description a bit will convey the nervousness and preserve the otherwise compelling hook. Immediately, the reader wonders why Paige is nervous, impetus enough to keep reading.

The first paragraph, however, lacks rhythm. It is a string of simple sentences that sounds staccato when read aloud, because the periods force us to take a breath.

Point of view is an important consideration when writing a romance. Why is this Paige’s story and not Jack’s? We learn nothing about her on the first page; all we are given are her reactions to Jack. A lot of writers, myself included, sometimes take for granted that the reader will automatically find their protagonists as fascinating as they do, because they know things that the reader does not on the first page. Paige needs more dimension. Who is she? What about her makes her a worthy vessel for this story? The story of a young man returning from a mission in another country and reconnecting with a woman from his past seems much more compelling. Therein lies the problem. We learn so much more about Jack than we do Paige in this excerpt.

The story also tells us far more than it shows us. Jack gets one line of dialogue to introduce his speech, and then his actually storytelling happens off the page. Why can’t the reader be privy to his stories? We can’t feel uplifted along with Paige if we don’t know what she’s hearing. Moreover, statements like “He had a spiritual side to him and wasn’t afraid to show it” don’t tell us much. This much is obvious from the text. Explore that spiritual side in more depth—and, again, consider whether or not Jack might make the more compelling narrator. It may mean the difference between a story that uses Paige as a generic narrative vessel for readers to live out a romantic fantasy and a character-driven story about what it means to come home after two years away and try to rekindle a lost love.

I'd like to thank A.R. for submitting and Ms. Shreditor for critiquing. I know both people spent a lot of time on this submission and I'm grateful they were willing to be part of First Page Friday. See you next week!


A.R. said...

Thank you for the critique. Even in high school I was told that I need to "show, not tell".

I can see why the first page could be hard. Obviously so much of the story comes throughout the book, but like they say, first page needs to be great.

So I need to work on show, not tell and get try to smooth out the simple staccato sentences.

I would love any of opinions too. :)

A.R. said...

Hehe.. wish blogger had an edit button for comments. "Get" should not be in that sentence. :)

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

A.R. as a reader, I just felt like there wasn't a particular reason for me to be pulled into the story. I wanted to feel nervous with her, but didn't. (I want to make some off the cuff suggestions here, but please remember they are only my suggestions and you are free to disregard.)

What about something like, Paige opened the door to the lobby, her palm slipping down the handle, wet from sweat (because by showing us her palms are sweating, we know she's nervous. Very nervous). Maybe she could ask herself, Would Jack be in the foyer greeting people? Would she recognize him after two years? (because then we get some inner dialogue that she's going to see someone who's been gone for two years, presumably on a mission.) Quickly glancing around the entryway, she only saw her mother waving wildly to her, as if there were a crowd of people. "Come on, honey, let's go say hello to Jack before the meeting starts!" (We can start to see the scene and get to know a bit about her mother.) Paige resisted the urge to roll her eyes and cover her stomach from the sudden attack of butterflies. (Small descriptions can give us hints into the scene and add pieces to the characters we're getting to know.)

Anyway, you get the idea. Just more showing the story to us, helping us experience it and be a part of it. I think you've got a great set of bones, it just needs some fleshing out and dressing up. Good luck with it! And thanks for participating. :)

Ms. Shreditor said...

I wish I had access to an edit button myself to fix the egregious "his actually storytelling" in my critique! Coulda, shoulda, woulda.

A.R., I think that your story has a lot of potential. The first page is a challenge for all writers, I think--even the most experienced of them. Engaging the reader and fostering an instant connection with the narrator is truly an art form.

A.R. said...

I love to hear words like "potential" and "good set of bones". Thank you! Just knowing that people in the book world think that gives me a lot of confidence.

It's like I can see the story in my head, but I can't quite get the writing to match what I envision. I will practice, practice, practice until I get it right. And do a lot of reading about show not tell. :)

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

Informative as always, Ms. Shreditor! Good luck, A.R.!

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

p.s. I made the changes Ms. Shreditor suggests for my first page and I've had six full and two partial manuscript requests now!

Kate said...

Wow! Congratulations Kimberly

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

CONGRATULATIONS, Kimberly! I'm SO happy for you!!!

Debra Erfert said...

Congratulations, Kimberly!! Your Ninja story will soon be in print!! How exciting!

A.R.-- If I were your critique partner I would be highlighting redundant words, like, "two years," and "see him," and "seen him," and "was home," all in the first paragraph. You used "eyes" in two sentences in the second paragraph. Sometimes we are too close to our work we don't notice these things and we need others to point them out, in a critique.

I don't mind the short and choppy sentences so much. I've read classics that had this kind of rhythm, while other authors use flourishingly long descriptive sentences. Which way is best? I think everyone would have a different answer. I kind of like the longer ones with some shorter sentences in between, giving the paragraph a feeling of being in the water and riding a wave--longer going up and dropping suddenly, taking away a reader's breath.

Writing enough on the first page to get a good taste of our characters is almost impossible. Too bad the lit agents don’t allow a least two pages before they disregard the possibilities of a manuscript.

Ms. Shreditor said...

Congratulations, Kimberly! Hearing that just made my day.

Anonymous said...

Your straight forward and simple delivery is wonderful. I would call it a powerful strength of style—one I believe will serve you very well, especially if your stories are driven mostly by character development rather than by plot. It has a pleasant, sincere, home-town, folksy sort of delivery that is compelling. It makes me feel like we're sitting around a pot-belly stove and you're telling the story—something pretty easy to do in first person, but nearly impossible to achieve in third person. So congratulations on developing a unique and compelling delivery.

Multiple short sentences lined up one after the other in a staccato delivery isn’t really a problem. It’s the declarative nature of those sentences strung together over a full paragraph or an entire page that has the tendency to destroy the “voice” in your writing. Declarative sentences are usually a snippet of action, but you've managed to turn description and interior dialogue into declarative sentences too by explaining the emotions of your view point character rather than showing those emotions—something that makes what normally wouldn’t be a declarative sentence into, you guessed it, another declarative sentence. Kudos! That's not an easy thing to do, but something I would advise against.

The “voice” of your writing is a technique you, the author, share with the point of view character. For the reader, it’s like viewing the story through two lenses, one for the author and the other for the character. Sometimes the story is received by the reader directly from the character and the author fades into the background. Other times the author—usually due to the fact that the story demands some exposition or narration—becomes slightly more obvious. If you do a good job with point of view, you’ll balance your voice with Paige’s voice, and you’ll develop a wonderful, full voice in all your writing.

In a list of the top five things that have the tendency to destroy voice, I would have to list too many declarative sentences too close together as the number one voice killer. There are others and two more of them show up in your opening, but I won’t spend time mentioning them and getting us off track. The solution for too many declarative sentences side-by-side is really easy. Simply break up the declarative nature of your sentences with a sentence of description and another sentence of interior dialogue.

(continued in next post)

Anonymous said...

(continued from previous post)

You could begin with a declarative action sentence that has elements of description in it. If you do that, you’ve set the stage for a snippet of interior dialogue in the second sentence which has the effect of immediately identifying Paige as the point of view character for your reader as well as helping you develop the voice in this paragraph. NOTE ABOUT THIS PATTERN: The best way to set up interior dialogue for your reader is to have it follow immediately after a declarative sentence. Next, try a third sentence of description which prepares the reader to return to the beginning of this pattern with a fourth declarative sentence of action. Break thinks up like this and you can write five word sentences one after the other and no one will ever notice because you will have achieved so much variety in your presentation that the reader will be drawn into the rhythm and flow of your story. YOU WILL HAVE ACHIEVED A VOICE. When I go back over my writing and I find that it has a flat voice, the first thing I do is highlight the declarative sentences in a paragraph and that usually exposes the culprit. In fact, I’ve done that little exercise so many times I don’t need to highlight the “declaratives” any longer. They jump off the page and scream, “Rewrite me!”

I don’t know anything about the dramatic points of your first chapter, the foreshadowing of plots you’re trying to achieve, or the characterization of the actors that people your story so my attempt below to show you what I’m talking about is likely all wrong for your story. But it does begin with a declarative sentence, followed by some interior dialogue, then some description, then another declarative action sentence, followed by another bit of interior dialogue.

Paige walked into the chapel behind her parents and sat in the back, two rows behind them. If she didn't sit in the family’s unassigned assigned pew, would a little deviation increase the chance that Jack Porter would notice her? In two years she’d lost ten pounds and managed a new red Sunday dress from Sac's that grandmother insisted was a down payment on a wedding gift. Paige set her scriptures on her lap, raised her head, and smiled toward the clean-cut blonde in a worn-out wool suit with a frayed collar. Two years in Mongolia and she still turned inside-out in Jack's presence.

Anonymous said...

And just one more comment about SHOWING the emotion nervousness and all of its related cousins. Worry. Concern. Anxiety. Apprehension. Distress. Hesitation. Dread. And uneasiness.

Romances lend themselves to the need to show the main character in a romantically stressful situation. Like water finding the path of least resistance through a dry creek-bed, the author nearly always chooses physiological descriptions like sweaty palms, racing and pounding hearts, butterfly stomachs, light-headedness, fainting spells, flushed cheeks, out-of-control respiration rates, and the ever-popular catch-all tears. In fact, these physiological descriptions have been so over-used by romance authors they have lost their ability to effectively convey a sense of a thrill, longing, flirtation, or love. They've become cliché. And besides, if you think about it, how romantic are sweaty palms or a pounding heart, really? I doubt I’m the only author who cringes at the uncomfortable tension created by communicating true love through high blood pressure.

Save the tears for the climax!

I'd recommend you steer clear of most physiological descriptions to suggest romantic emotion. It may be that true love does twitter-pate the heart, but if this is a love story, and not just a cheap romance—and most good LDS romance if not all are about true love, aren't they?—then use interior dialogue to get across the emotion of the moment. You'll be rewarded for doing it. They'll call your writing fresh, new, creative. And all you’re really doing is dropping the physiological clichés for something that works even better.

Paige smiled toward the clean-cut blonde in a worn-out wool suit with a frayed collar. She set her scriptures in her lap and pressed her sweaty palms against the leather cover.

There’s nothing grammatically wrong with this sentence (knock on wood). And it avoids the voice problem of doubling down on declarative sentences by writing the first sentence as declarative action followed by a sentence of description. Paige’s reaction is clear. She’s nervous. But it lacks the freshness and the effectiveness it could have if you wrote something like the following. *Note: there is a snippet of declarative action in the sentence prior to the one that contains the interior dialogue. See how using the character’s interior dialogue of being turned “inside-out” conveys a sense of apprehension without identifying the emotion by name:

Paige set her scriptures on her lap, raised her head, and smiled toward the clean-cut blonde in a worn-out wool suit with a frayed collar. Two years in Mongolia and she still turned inside-out in Jack's presence.

Anonymous said...

And yet another comment:

There is the tendency in romances to use interior dialogue to force the point of view character to evoke emotions which are then immediately repeated by placing the point of view character in the on-scene, real-time situation which actually evokes those emotions. The author may believe they’re being clear. The reader will be bored. And if you repeat emotions too often, you end up watering down your scenes by showing the reader what you just finished telling them.

Paige stood in the foyer holding her scriptures with both hands. Would Jack remember her after two years in Mongolia? And if he did, would he care?

If you follow this short scene in the foyer with a related scene of Paige entering the chapel, seeing Jack seated up front next to the Bishop where she exchanges glances with him and then wonders, yet again, about what he may remember of their pre-mission relationship, you've essentially repeated the scene--once in the foyer and again in the chapel. You may try to cover your repetition by using different techniques. Dialogue in the foyer and interior dialogue in the chapel. But you're still conveying essentially the same emotions. Twice.

If you have to choose between scenes where the point of view character wonders about the romantic interest as opposed to a scene in which the point of view character is on-scene, in real-time, experiencing emotions in the presence of the romantic interest, always choose the later. Place your character IN THE SETTING that will evoke the heart-felt, deep, tender, raw emotions you’re trying so hard to get across. Wondering about the romantic interest in the foyer is okay. Placing the two together in the chapel is compelling.

Always choose to write the compelling scene!

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments, anon. I'm so glad we can all offer our individual perspectives to writers and opinions on what will work and what won't. I appreciate your thorough commentary.

A.R. said...

Thank you everyone for your comments and ideas. Lots to think about and incorporate. This has got me more excited about writing this story again. :)