Once again, I am thrilled to welcome Angela Eschler to the blog today. If you don’t know who Angela is, she is an amazing editor who has helped many authors get their manuscripts ready for submission. She has a knack for knowing exactly where a manuscript needs work and she’s fantastic to work with. If you’d like to know more about her services, you can go to her webpage here.
by Rebecca Talley
The sudden bright light chased all traces of darkness away while I waited, muscles tensed, for his judgment. Perspiration collected at the base of my neck.
"What was that?" Mr. Jordan's voice boomed through the room.
I knew better than to say anything when he was agitated, especially if I was the cause.
"Run this part of the scene again." He glared at me. "This time let's try some acting, if it isn't too much to ask."
He switched the house lights off and only the hot spotlights shone on Cole and me.
Cole delivered his lines. He strode toward me, anger painted on his face, and pushed me. I fell to the ground, hard, pain shooting through my elbow. I instinctively pawed at my arm, trying not to let the grimace cross my face. I hoped it was enough.
Cole reached his hand down and mouthed, “Sorry.”
I took a deep breath and latched onto his hand. He pulled me to my feet.
“Mildly better,” Mr. Jordan said. "But, don't anticipate it. Be surprised. We want the audience to be shocked at his display of anger." He peered at me. "Do you understand?”
I rubbed my elbow, the floor burn tingling and pulsating along my arm. “Yes, sir.” I knew Mr. Jordan would keep after me until I got this scene right, even if I fractured my elbow in the process.
The door at the back of the theater opened and light from the hallway backlit a familiar form. I smiled slightly. Nate. I glanced at my watch—he was early.
Without further ado, let’s jump into this review with brief points in no particular order of importance (other than the general categories).
--The opening sentence hook is intriguing. It could be any setting in any world. Where are we and what’s going on? Just a little confusion on our part, the feeling of darkness, etc.—all draws us in.
--The opening few paragraphs of the hook are a good follow-up. There’s something at stake in them—conflict. The main character is being judged, is worried about his/her performance is getting injured, and there’s a mean/sarcastic/judgmental antagonist in our Mr. Jordan (which riles our blood and gets our emotions involved right off). All good things to keep us interested.
Just as the initial tension/conflict is resolved, we are intrigued by the next possible source of tension—who is Nate? Oooh….And he’s early. What does that mean—early for what/early how?? (Heart pumping faster.)
This is all good. Keep the tension going with each breath in and out of the story. Especially in the opening couple of pages, you need a reason for the reader to keep turning pages. Great job on this. (Maybe you’ve read some good materials on the subject already, but if not, the book Scene and Structure, by Jack Bickham, is a great little read on keeping that tension going throughout your story. And when you’re in the mood to read through a tome on the subject, the bible for the topic is Story, by Robert McKee.)
Let’s pretend I’m the agent/editor you are submitting to:
--I need to know the genre. What age are the characters? The fact that the antagonist is “Mr. Jordan” made me think high school or junior high for the setting, as adult actors would probably call the instructor “Professor,” or just by his/her last name, or “the director” maybe. But on the other hand they are in a theater, not an assembly hall (as at a school). Some schools have theaters, but it does make me unsure of my setting. You’ll definitely want to clarify the world/age of the main character pretty quickly after this opening hook and/or be slightly less subtle—either overtly (but subtly phrased/placed please), or through character voice, or through setting, etc.
--I also need to know the gender of the main character pretty quickly, which isn’t clear in this hook. Mainly we just need to know how the POV character relates to the world around him/her, and gender is a very clear starting point for that. I am assuming “her” just because the violence visited upon her is a push rather than a punch, and because the person who enters at the end of the scene is a boy, that she smiles when thinking of, and there consequently seems to be a mild undercurrent of excitement from the POV character at his arrival (though this may be due to the simple fact that the scene ends there, so the reader automatically gives that moment more emphasis/emotional significance, and thus we assume the significance comes from how teen boys and girls feel about each other); but it would definitely be good to know if the main character is not a girl, and to clearly establish it immediately or before the time Nate arrives. If the POV character is a girl, she could be wearing a dress when she’s pushed, or something like that so we know her gender for sure.
The only case in which you wouldn’t want to clarify her gender, and/or ages, etc., soon, is if you were deliberately trying to write some sort of deconstructionist/post-modern YA novel where you were messing with the reader’s preconceived notions (like my assumptions above) and intending to produce social commentary with your novel.
--I’m not sure how to interpret Mr. Jordan’s words in the opening lines. “What was that?” With a little sarcasm? Otherwise, given that we don’t know quite what’s going on yet when he says it, we read it as if the main character had said something to Mr. Jordan (that we didn’t see) and was being asked to repeat it or speak up, or was in big trouble for it, etc. Maybe you want it to be vague to keep up the suspense about where we are and what’s going on, but at the same time, since there was no dialogue before this point, we are likely to be more confused than you intend (you want the initial reader confusion resolved pretty fast), and are likely to misinterpret it as our having missed some dialogue previously. The result is that it takes a minute for us to figure out she’s being asked to fix an acting scene. So we waste time getting our bearings, which can slow down the page-turning pace you might want to supply us.
--After the main character is pushed down, it’s momentarily unclear if the acting scene has ended, or if the following behavior is part of it. Again, we lose our bearings in the story. A transition would help: “The scene over, Cole reached his hand down …”
--A little word economy could make the opening lines more powerful: “Sudden bright light purged the darkness while I waited, muscles tensed, for judgment. Perspiration collected at the base of my neck.” The original diction was fine, but it was a tad wordy, so the reader loses the immediacy of the image while they slog through the words. Another option, if you love the opening description of darkness, is to break up the sentences so the opening line isn’t so long.
This is a good and interesting hook (or partial hook). However, if I were an agent, I’d need to know a few more things pretty quickly (within a page-ish) in order to decide if the book was something I should spend more time reading (whether it’s a genre/sub-genre I represent): I think you’ll want to move pretty quickly after Nate’s arrival in clarifying what kind of world we’re in—futuristic, current, magical (unless the magic comes later and is a surprise to the characters), or historical, whether this is YA or something else (characters’ ages, world views, establishing strong POV character voice), and you’ll want to present us with the inciting incident (the dramatic thing that occurs that puts our POV character on the path to the journey and lets us know what’s at stake so that we—gasp—can’t stop reading).
A full hook offers all of that within a couple of pages. Obviously this is just the first page, but a lot of your competing authors are trying to fit the inciting incident onto the first page, so you’ll want to be aware of that. Not all agents insist on the biggest, flashiest, oh-my-gosh hook on the very first page, but some do. So just be aware of to whom you’ll want to pitch this book and the pattern of hooks for the books they represent. If you don’t want/need an agent, the same goes for readers. What crowd do you want to draw in? What are they reading, and how (and how quickly, in terms of the inciting incident) do many of those books start?
As always, I’d like to thank Angela for her time and effort in critiquing for me and to Rebecca for being brave enough to submit. If you have anything else to add to Rebecca’s critique, feel free to do so in the comments, but remember to be kind as well as helpful.
See you next week!