Friday, July 15, 2011

First Page Friday

I’m so grateful to those of you who have submitted to Ms. Shreditor. Thank you for your courage and I hope you’ll keep submitting! Again, the submission guidelines are posted on the sidebar and tell your friends!

The Entry
Ideal High
by Anonymous

Whose idea was it to broadcast the screen-sized faces of the dead to the farthest shadowy corners of the school’s auditorium. Everybody knew they were gone. Why emphasize the obvious even for the sake of a memorial. And why no rain on this
joyless day. Never a good Texas thunderstorm when you needed one. Instead, sunlight poured through the ribbon of windows high along the back wall.

It fell across the podium where Taryn stood, making it too bright to read the first name on the list. When she finally focused through the glare to speak into the microphone, the name echoed across the vast room. All eyes riveted on the screen behind her as the name and the face went straight to the heart of each student, parent, faculty member, and community leader standing at attention. The ornate school bell, a class gift thirty-four years prior, clanged long and deep at the side of the stage where it swung in its polished-wood stand.

Chelsea, leaning heavily on crutches at a second podium across the stage, recited the next name on the list. Again the old bell sounded and with it muffled sniffles that began at the front and rippled through the crowd.

“Kayla Carter.” Taryn spoke the third name to the back wall, avoiding the eyes of Kayla’s parents who stood with her own mother and father in the front row. Why had she agreed to do this? Even if she was alone in this nostalgia-ridden place, she
wasn’t comfortable speaking the names of the friends she’d lost out loud. She kept her eyes on the paper in front of her. Some were friends, some friend-like. All on the A-list as Jen liked to say. In fact, so A, they were considered A plus because they were cheerleaders.

Except for Blake. How many more until his? Taryn glanced down the list. She had scanned the names as soon as the principal handed them to her, immediately volunteering to go first before Chelsea had the chance to speak up. If duty required
Taryn’s participation in the ceremony, she certainly didn’t have to let Chelsea announce his name.

Ms. Shreditor’s Comments

At 357 words, this sample is a bit long for a first page. Keep in mind that a lot of publishers request double or 1.5 line spacing in manuscript submissions, so you will want to plan your first page accordingly. (And, in all likelihood, the page will break midsentence, so don’t worry too much if this happens in your submission. It’s natural.)

The first paragraph baits the reader with a series of rhetorical questions. However, I found myself distracted by the choice to punctuate them with periods. Was this intentional? At the very least, I would recommend using a question mark in the first sentence. A question can make for a powerful opening line, but this one loses something with the declarative terminal punctuation.

I like the choice to characterize the physical setting by what it isn’t (i.e., portraying the narrator as unnerved that it's so sunny on such a mournful day). The use of light is quite effective here: It blinds the narrator, and it defies the overwhelming physical and emotional darkness in the room by pouring in, unwelcome, through the windows. This juxtaposition creates a sort of literary chiaroscuro that leaves the door wide open for all manner of symbolism.

I was confused as to why the first piece of dialogue was the third name called. Is Kayla Carter of particular importance? Why not start with the first name on the list?

We already know that something tragic has happened at this school, but then the narrative sinks in its claws for a second round when we learn that there is a guy on the list whose loss is particularly painful to Taryn. Even meatier, the story establishes an immediate rivalry between Taryn and Chelsea. The reader is left wondering what happened between them, who Blake was to them, and how all these teens died. Was it a school shooting? Automobile accident? Natural disaster? The fact that I’m asking these questions is a sign that the first page has done its job. I know enough to want to keep reading; I care enough to wonder about these unanswered questions.

There are some minor proofing issues on this page, but nothing egregious. The text could use a very light copyedit for clarity in a few places (e.g., the A/A-plus/cheerleader exposition, which I found to be a bit muddy). Otherwise, this excerpt is in great shape.

Thank again to everyone who participates. Remember, if you offer your own comments and suggestions on “Ideal High,” please be constructive and respectful. See you next week!


Jon Spell said...

I agree about the questions: what happened?!? Is Chelsea's injury part of it? How many are on the list? Why are Taryn's parents in the front row with Kayla's parents? Did Taryn lose a sibling? It's all very intriguing!

I puzzled a bit on the first sentence. I'm still not sure what image it was meant to convey. How big is screen-sized? (Is it bigger than a bread box?) Why are they being broadcast into the corners?
(It's possible I'm just being dense here.)

Debra Erfert said...

I immediately got the idea that there had been a bus accident with cheerleaders and football players, and this would be a way to pay their respects. But that's just me. I liked the opening. Weirdly enough I didn't catch the first sentence statement vs question. And I thought the visuals of the light streaming through the windows and into her eyes were totally great.

Melanie Jacobson said...

I think there's a great sense of voice. One of the strongest I've seen on First Page Friday, actually. Good job!

Anonymous said...

In the opening paragraph there are six lines of interior dialogue that are not tied to any character. It’s true that a few grammatical changes like the addition of question marks in three of the six sentences will make the paragraph clearer. But the confusion doesn’t arise from easily-fixed grammar. What prevents the reader from enjoying the other story elements (which are done very well, by the way), is the lack of a clearly defined point of view character. The reader does not know if this opening is written in an omnicient voice or in third person.

If there is no point of view character on scene you're writing with an omnicient voice and the reader is led to believe that interior dialogue belongs to the author—which, in this case, is likely not what you're trying for. You want an intimate, heart-felt connection between the character and the reader. You want the reader to forget that the author is behind the scenes carefully orchestrating the scene.

When Tayrn appears on-scene, it’s done in a paragraph of description. The interior dialogue that dominated the first paragraph vanishes so abruptly that it has the effect of disassociating Tayrn’s appearance from the interior dialogue and the reader is led to believe that the author, writing in an omnicient voice as in the first paragraph, is now describing one of the many players peopling the setting, but not necessarily introducing a point of view character.

If the first paragraph is presented in an omniscient voice with the author and the reader sharing some interior dialogue without any character on scene, then the reader expects the second paragraph to follow suit and continue the omniscient voice. And it does. Tayrn is on scene, but she’s not viewing the scene. She’s just there at the podium along with a bunch of eyes riveted on a screen and the dinging of a school bell. Even Taryn’s “focusing through the glare” is interpreted as the author telling the reader what Taryn is doing. Taryn isn’t connected to any of it. She’s just part of the scene. Another actor, but not the view point actor. Once you've started in an omnicient view, it requires a skillfull transition into the third person view point and the second paragraph doesn't act as any sort of transition.

If the first and second paragraphs are written in an omniscient voice, the reader expects the third paragraph to follow the same form. The injured Chelsea is introduced here and since it hasn’t been confirmed to the reader that Taryn is or is not the point of view character, a little more confusion enters into the writing. Is the author viewing this story and relaying it to the reader? Or is Tayrn the one who thought all those thoughts in the opening paragraph? Or maybe it’s this Chelsea girl who also happens to be standing at a podium reciting names? We don’t’ know for sure and the confusion diminishes the impact that this opening could have.

It isn't until the fourth paragraph when Tayrn’s two-word dialogue is followed by a line of action, and then another line of interior dialogue that the reader confirms that Taryn is, indeed, the point of view character:

“Kayla Carter.” Taryn spoke the third name to the back wall, avoiding the eyes of Kayla’s parents who stood with her own mother and father in the front row. Why had she agreed to do this?

(continued below)

Anonymous said...

(continued from above)

If you confuse the reader about point of view she will likely not pay attention to the other scene setting clues, the foreshadowing clues, and the character developing clues that this first page does very well, until she knows who is viewing the scene. The reader wants to connect with the character. That’s one of the MAJOR reasons for reading a novel. The reader wants to identify with the character. She wants to stand in the character’s shoes. Feel what the character feels. See what the character sees. And decide how she would deal with the events the character deals with. Deprive the reader of knowing who the point of view character is, and she will ignore important elements in your story until that question is resolved.

I suggest changing the point of view of your opening paragraph from omniscient to third person. Name your point of view character, Taryn, in the opening sentence and intersperse her actions along with the interior dialogue and some scene-setting descriptions to firmly establish Tayrn as the one viewing the scene in the minds of your readers. Something like this:

Taryn read the first name on the list of deceased high school friends, but refused to glance over at the two-story projection of her classmates on the auditorium wall. Whose idea was it to project the heroic-sized faces of the dead? Everyone knew who they were, and that they weren’t ever coming back—not even Blake. Taryn focused on the list through the glare of the auditorium lights, the slight trembling in her voice broadcast over the dimly lit faces of a thousand mourning students and parents. She never should have agreed to read the names, not with Blake listed third from the bottom.

Notice how naming the view-point character in the first line acts as a speaker attribution for the second, third and fourth lines of interior dialogue. There is no doubt that Taryn is thinking these thoughts since her actions immediately precede the thoughts. And you've opened this story in third person instead of an omnicient voice. The fifth line names Tayrn a second time, firmly establishing her in the mind of the reader and, more importantly, reiterating the third person voice. The action of Taryn focusing through the glare of the auditorium lights in the fifth sentence acts as another speaker attribution for last lines of interior dialogue in this paragraph.

There are some other considerations. For example, if Taryn's association with Blake drives the major plot line, then bring him on scene, as I did, before other characters are named. That will firmly establish that Blake's death is an important element in your story. If, on the other hand, Chelsea's story is the principal driver of the plot, then bring her on scene first.

If you clear up the confusion about point of view by naming the view point character in the opening first or second sentence and use her actions as a sort of speaker attribution for her interior dialogue, you’ll avoid the confusion over point of view and the reader will develop an intimate, third-person relationship with the view point character right from the get-go.

Good luck. You're a wonderful writer! With tons of potential.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Thanks for the comments everyone! I think our anonymous submitter got a lot of great feedback today. :)

Anonymous said...

Sometimes beginning novelists have a hard time distinguishing between the omniscient view point and a third person point of view. An omnisicent view is, generally, where the author speaks directly to the reader. Often it is described as "head jumping" since it derives its name "omnicient" because the author can tell the reader what ever character is thinking. The author, essentially, jumps from the thoughts of one character to another, and has the ability to know what everyone in the scene is thinking and conveys that to the reader. The best definition I've found, however, is simply the author speaking directly to the reader. And in this opening, since there are no characters on scene in the first paragraph, you prepare the reader to recieve your story directly from the author. Its an omnicient opening.

Third person, on the other hand, disposes of the author entirely, and lets the reader connect directly with the character. If an omniscient voice is the author speaking directly to the reader, then third person should be understood as the character speaking directly to the reader. In an omniscient voice, there's no problem with telling the story since the author is speaking directly to the reader. But in thrid person, SHOWHING the story becomes a necessity, since the author simply can not run on scene, wave her arms in the air, and tell the reader stuff she needs to know. That's one of the reasons I burst out laughing (often) when I read third person novels where the author intrudes with a lot of TELLING of the story. I have this image of the author running on-stage, shouting, waving her arms, and screaming, "Did you get it? Did you see how devastated Taryn is at the death of her boyfriend Blake? Did you see the pain in the faces of all the parents? Did you?" We did, and we did got it in thrid person without needing the omniscient author running on scene to tell us about it.

Anyway, I thought that a little discussion about those two "voices" was important.

HOWEVER, do not confuse the reference of an omniscient VOICE or a third person VOICE with the VOICE of your writing. They are two distinct things. Omniscient and third person voice is actaully a reference to WHO IS VIEWING and TELLING the story. The VOICE of your writing is a reference to how you combine a number of elements (detail, declarative sentence structure, sentence length, interior dialogue, action, repetition, word choice, characterization) into an engaging read.

Anita said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anita said...

Wow. I love First Page Fridays. I learn something every week. Today while reading the comments from Anonymous I had an AH HAH that dovetails with Julie's Thursday post and the ensuing discussion about characterization. As a reader I'm often annoyed at the paragraph or two describing the character's height, weight, hair color, eye color and other vital statistics such as freckles and bushy eyebrows. Such description interrupts the story and is often
irrelevant. I think ANONYMOUS hit the mark in suggesting that point of view from the get go makes all the difference. If a reader has an intimate connection with the character from the first few opening lines, so much of the painstaking work of creating an authentic character happens ALMOST automatically. THANKS every one. Your comments are wonderful. With your help I may get this yet--if I live another hundred and fifty years!

July 16, 2011 8:54 AM

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Thanks, Anita! I'm so glad First Page Fridays are helping. I think for me, I like to have Ms. Shreditor's point of view because I know what an amazing editor she is and how good she is at her job in the national market, and then I also love the perspective of those people who comment in the comment section. I think it's very valuable for not only the submitter, but for me as a writer to have that sort of critique. It's like a nice hand in glove sort of arrangement and I'm thrilled that it's working for other writers as well.

I know I sound like I'm beating a dead horse, but I really am grateful to all my readers and to those who comment. I have the best blog commenters around! Truly.

Valerie Ipson said...

I don't mind NOT being anonymous...
yes, this is my first page and I had to thank Julie for this fun opportunity. The critique was great and all the comments helpful as well. Thanks Anonymous for taking the time to explain and give all that information. Insightful stuff! Gives me lots to ponder and work on! Thanks everybody!