Friday, July 8, 2011

First Page Friday

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.

The Entry

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."

I nodded.

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.

The Critique

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.

Last thoughts:

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!


Rebecca Talley said...
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Rebecca Talley said...
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Rebecca Talley said...

Thank you so much for the critique, Angela. I absolutely agree with you. I need to rewrite the first page to anchor the setting in high school, establish the POV character is female, and hint that it's a YA paranormal. Great comments! Thank you for taking the time to do this. I appreciate it!

Debra Erfert said...

I went back and re-read the page again with the idea that I didn't assume the POV was female, and Ms. Shreditor was right, it could go either way. Strange how I took it for granted it was a girl just because Rebecca wrote it. And for what ever reason I thought it was set in a college stage. Wow! I guess we each can picture things so differently unless we're told otherwise.

Great advice, Ms. Shreditor, as always.

I love paranormal genre, especially when there's some romance involved. Good luck on Glow, Rebecca.

Ms. Shreditor said...

In response to Debra: Unfortunately, I can't take the credit for this thoughtful critique! Angela Eschler was the mastermind behind this week's first page analysis. Julie was kind enough to give me the week off because I had some time-consuming projects on my plate this week.

Debra Erfert said...

Oh, my apologies to you and to Ms. Eschler for my slip. I guess I shouldn't read after my physical therapy--its affecting my brain. :)

Anonymous said...

The big issue in this first page is NOT intrigue. It’s VOICE! If the reader doesn't know where the scene takes place, doesn't know the gender of the point of view character, and doesn't know any details about either, it leads to confusion rather than interest. And in the process you destroy the most important story-telling weapon in your arsenal. VOICE!

One of the most voice-destroying things an author can do is choose general rather than specific details. If you want your writing to have a rich voice it must be detailed. Precise. Meticulous. Your writing takes on more clarity when you use well-selected details. Lots of them. And you kill two birds with one stone. You no longer confuse the reader and you develop a strong voice.

A man stood to the bar and ordered a drink.

This is not a bad sentence. There are no grammar problems. And the action is clear. But it lacks the detail (and powerful voice) that it could have.
A dwarf bellied-up to the bar and ordered a Bloody Mary.
With our dwarf sentence we've got some detail. You write stuff like that sentence after sentence and you’ll find your story-telling voice becomes engaging, interesting, and page-turning. In the first example the character was simply a man. In the second the character becomes a dwarf. That's a little more interesting only because there is more detail. In the first example the action was standing up to the bar. But in the second example the dwarf bellied up to the bar. More detail again. And ordering a drink isn't nearly as interesting as ordering a bloody mary only because there is more detail.

Fill your stories (every sentence) with rich detail and you will not only be less confusing to your reader, you will enrapture them with the most engaging skill in the writer’s bag of tricks. VOICE!

It’s true the that opening should act as a hook. But before the opening ever acts as a hook the author must be very clear. About setting. About gender. About the actors who people the setting. And, most importantly, CLEAR about the conflict at hand. Don't be mysterious in your opening. Be clear. Be bold. And let the reader know exactly what is going on so they can start to see the story through the eyes of your point of view character. Then you’ve prepared your fishy little reader to swallow your hook, line and sinker.

(Continued below)

Anonymous said...

(Continued from above)

If the scene that was critiqued today is set during the tryout or rehearsal for a theatrical play (and its important you choose one or the other since a tryout suggests the characters may not know each other well while a rehearsal suggests that they are rather familiar with one another) then you can find all the details you need online by Googling theatrical plays and clicking on "List of Theatrical Plays and Musicals" which provides you with a comprehensive list of every theatrical play ever written. Then click on any play listed and you will link with hundreds of the most notable lines from each play. That's precisely the detail you're looking for in this opening. So go find some detail and then use it to create a voice for your story.

In the following example of a possible opening that includes important VOICE-CREATING details the character names and the lines they speak come from the musical CABARET:

Spot number five came up on cue. I turned my back on Herr Schultz, took two steps toward the empty theatre--any further and I was sure to fall into the pit with Mr. Jordan--and threw my head back. "Oh, you like Lulu, huh?” I glanced over my shoulder and scowled. “Yeah? Well too bad! So does Rosie." I put my hands on my hips and gave a little kick. "And I'll tell yah another--

"No, no. That's all wrong, Emcee." Mr. Jordan cut the spot and stood on his chair, his bald head backlit by the twinkling of a thousand theatre aisle lights. He never called me by my real name. Not even in class. I was always the third sister in Annie Get Your Gun or the maid in Arsenic and Old Lace. Just once would he please call me Jane and tell me I'd never get the lead role in Cabaret no matter how perfect my whinny dance-girl voice? I was as good a show-girl actress as any, but Mr. Jordan was sure to see to it that I never played a leading role opposite Nate that required a kiss. Mr. Jordan never let his leading men fall in love with a novice high school drama student.

"Spot five up." Mr. Jordan settled back into the pit. "Emcee, cue it again with less bluster. You’re trying for a Broadway show-girl not a Saturday-morning cartoon."

Gina said...

The first couple lines did make me think "DANGER!" so the next bit was a little jarring... but it DID hook me in, so put it in the win column! :)

Rebecca Talley said...

I agree that specific details are better. In my defense, I was using a specific play, "The Clearing" with which I am familiar, but was not sure if I could quote exact lines since it is illegal to quote song lyrics and I hadn't yet researched whether the same applies to lines from a play.

Thank you for your comments, Anon, Deb, and Gina. They are all very useful and I appreciate the time you took to read through my first page and make comments.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

I'd like to thank everyone for their comments.

Sometimes it's difficult to offer advice/critiques to authors because we don't want to impose our own will or voice on their unique work and there's such a fine line!

I think we have a wonderful group of people who are anxious to help our authors and I'm grateful for that. Thank you to everyone!

Anonymous said...

Let your editor worry about copy right. If a direct quote of a line from a play doesn't fit their interpretation of what is allowable then they'll be sure and ask you to fix it. And the fix is easy. Change the names of the characters, fiddle with the dialoge and you're good to go. The point is not which detail, but that there are interesting, charactierzing details.

So use the quotes. Name the plays. And those details will spur even more creative detailing as you write along. Don't hold anything back because of a silly old copy right law. That's for your publisher to sort out. You're the creative one. And you let your publisher keep 85% of the money you generate to take care of the business details of which copy right is one for which you PAY your publisher handsomely to get right. Every time.

Melanie Goldmund said...

Anonymous, please feel free to come to my website and critique my work!

*beg grovel grovel beg*

I love reading critiques of other people's work; it makes me think about my own, and how I can improve. So, thank you both, Angela and Ms. Shreditor. (Will try to resist the temptation to call you Shreddie.)

Taffy said...

I love these posts! Very helpful.

Anonymous said...

One additional thought that has been troubling me all weekend.

Detail is not the addition of poetic pros. It is not usuing more complex sentence structure. It is NOT adding more descriptive adjectives. Or LY adjectives. Or adding paragraphs of description. It is not using multi-syllabic words or, to use the words of Gilbert Blythe of Anne of Avonlea fame, detail is not "high a falutin mumbo jumbo."

Detail is mastering the art of precision. Instead of calling a character a man, you call him a two-timing circus clown. Instead of having your character walk down the hallway, he taps his florshiems past the principal's office. Write one characterizing deatil after another your pages are filled with the smells, colors, sights and sounds of the setting and the the dialogue is filled precisely the words the character would speak in the situation you've created for her until her diction is audible on the page and the reader finally has the means to leave their seat at the library table and enter the world you've created for them. That's when you will know that you've achieved a remarkable voice for your storytelling.

"I'm not your horse, Mr. Blythe!"

"Anne, look I'm sore-ey, what else can I do?"

"Let me get a word in edgewise before I pinch you!"

"You'll marry someone who will read you Tennyson by firelight. I hope he breaks your heart whoever he is."

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Anon, as a Canadian, I'm very glad you pointed out the true pronounciation of the word, "sorry." It drives me nuts to hear it said, "saury." ;)

Rebecca Talley said...

Great points again. Thank you!