Friday, August 5, 2011

First Page Friday

I just want to thank everyone who has submitted to First Page Friday. It is exciting to see the entries come in and to be able to provide a forum for writers to get their work critiqued. I am also glad to have such a talented editor as Ms. Shreditor who takes time out of her incredibly busy schedule to offer critiques and help those who are looking for honest feedback. Thank you all!

Just a reminder that submissions are critiqued in the order in which they are received, so be patient, your turn is coming!

Today Ms. Shreditor quotes Led Zeppelin in her critique so let’s get to it!

The Entry

Kylee pulled her knees tighter into her chest and tightened the grip of her arms around them. The cold of the cement she sat on was creeping through her worn jeans, chilling her flesh. Cold was seeping through the worn-out tennis shoes as well. Her socks had too many holes in them to hold any of it out. How had she gotten herself into this mess? What was she going to do now? A snow began to fall, gently drifting onto her hunched shoulders.

A car pulled into the parking lot, its headlights playing across the side of Kylee's bent head. Kylee didn't notice it. She remained in her hunched position, shivering. Where could she go? She had nothing anymore. Her car had broken down finally on the freeway several miles away and she had managed to walk this far, but could go no further. This rest stop, somewhere outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, was her last stop.

The muscles in her stomach tightened again, frightening her. What did it mean? Nothing? Trouble? There was no one to ask. Her dad had never been around at all, he had left Kylee and her mother when Kylee had been only days old. Her mother had died three years ago leaving fifteen year old Kylee on her own. She hadn't told anyone at school that her mother had died. She hadn't wanted to go into state programs for underage children and been put into foster care. Bad stories went around about teenage girls in foster care. Kylee didn't want to find out first-hand if those stories were true or not. She had lied about her aunt moving in. She had no aunt. At least none she knew of. Once she had graduated, she had left her tiny town on the Texas/ Louisiana border and taken off across the country looking for work and a place to call home. Six months later, here she was, stranded at a rest stop, watching happy families drive by, cars full of smiling faces and wrapped packages.

Ms. Shreditor’s Comments

What struck me most about the first paragraph were the two questions toward the end. These are pressing narrative concerns, and the writer’s task is to make readers care about the answers. My first instinct was to move them up after the first sentence to create a more immediate urgency. Readers, what do you think?

I’m interested to hear what the cryptic “last stop” comment means. Has Kylee given up on life, or does she simply mean that she has nowhere left to go? I was a bit unclear on the set of questions following the mention of stomach cramps. The first question reads, “What did it mean?” Should this read, “What did they [i.e., the cramps] mean?” Is she distressed because she has no parents to consult about her physical symptoms and is worried about her deteriorating condition?

I ran into some willing-suspension-of-disbelief issues in the third paragraph. Kylee’s father walked out on her family immediately after her birth. A bit extreme, but not outside the realm of possibility. But then we learn that Kylee’s mother died three years ago, and she “hadn’t told anyone at school.” This is an incredible stretch for me. We’re to believe that Kylee’s mother died in a state of such complete social isolation that not one member of her community knew, that Kylee had no friends or relatives who would have found out? It’s understandable that a girl her age would be terrified of foster care, but the utter secrecy surrounding her mother’s death feels contrived. It feels as if the writer may have been trying to force the details to fit a rigid storyline concept (i.e., Kylee hacking it on her own for three years while finishing high school).

There is another key issue in this paragraph: Kylee lies about her aunt moving in. If no one knows that her mother is dead, why would she need to lie about an aunt living with her? And, that aside, what adult would just take her at her word without checking up on her? These plot holes need resolution.

The passing cars with their families and gifts are a poignant symbol of what Kylee is missing. I’ve inferred from the cues in the excerpt (the cold weather and wrapped packages) that this is the holiday season, a particularly lonely time for someone in Kylee’s position.

One technical issue: Avoid comma splicing—i.e., joining two independent clauses with a comma. An example: “Her dad had never been around at all, he had left Kylee and her mother when Kylee had been only days old.” When both parts of the sentence can function independently as complete sentences, punctuation stronger than a comma becomes necessary to separate them. A semicolon works in this case, but there are some instances that might call for a colon. (See the first sentence two paragraphs above. Note that, depending on a publisher's house style, the first word of an independent clause following a colon may or may not be capitalized.)

So there are some issues to iron out and some plot holes to fill, but the story certainly has merit. The first page raises some intriguing questions and presents a potentially fascinating character with a "whole lotta [baggage]," to paraphrase Led Zeppelin.



Once again, my sincere thanks to everyone who participates in First Page Friday. See you next week!

9 comments:

Janice said...

I like the storyline. I agree with Ms. Shreditor. There are a few plot holes. One she didn't mention was how the MC managed to support herself for 3 years.

You used tighter and tightened in the first sentence. The first sentence is so important. I'd avoid that.

I would remove A snow and replace it with Snow. A snow sounds strange and you start the next sentence with A car.

Your details are great and it's easy to follow - something so important in writing.

Kate said...

I agree with Mrs. Shreditor. It's an intriguing premise. The author does a good job of making me feel that Kylee is utterly alone. I'm worried about her.

I vote for moving the first two questions to follow the first sentence.

I feel there is too much background info on the first page. I'd rather it came out in smaller chunks as the story progresses. I also couldn't believe no one would know her mother died given the details here.

The writing needs to be tightened--especially concerning active and passive voice.

PASSIVE: The cold of the cement she sat on was creeping through her worn jeans, chilling her flesh. Cold was seeping through the worn-out tennis shoes as well. Her socks had too many holes in them to hold any of it out.

ACTIVE: The cold cement curb creeped through her tattered jeans chilling her flesh. Frigid night air seeped into her worn-out tennis shoes and socks with too many holes.

NOTE: I changed worn jeans to tattered jeans since you use worn-out in the next sentence.

Also, I thought the story was in 3rd person limited until I read this:

A car pulled into the parking lot, its headlights playing across the side of Kylee's bent head. Kylee didn't notice it. She remained in her hunched position, shivering. Where could she go?

You've got the bones of a great read here. I want to know what happens to Kylee.

Debra Erfert said...

Although the first page needs a lot of work, I really felt sorry for Kylee as a character. I could feel her isolation and loneliness, which is probably what the writer was aiming for. And I agree, Ms. Shreditor, the questions should be the opening lines. They would create an immediate sense of urgency.

Charlie Moore said...

I really feel many of the suggestions made are meant to get the writer thinking about the overall concept of their story. Make changes where needed to strengthen as your story as it jumps out of the gate. For me the suggestions may also direct us to pay attention as our story as it unfolds. Hook the reader early (very early), but good things need to happen page to page. If everything great happened on page one then we would only read page one and boy would it be a long page.

Anna said...

I like the idea of the story too. From this first page, I would definitely read more. I agree though with tightening plot holes. Good job.

Anonymous said...

The skill of knowing what makes for a good opening scene is based, in part, on choosing a good ending scene. Today, at about noon, while chopping lettuce for a salad, I figured out how my next novel will end. Until today I was pretty sure how it would begin, but I couldn’t start writing the opening with any certainty, until I knew the ending. Now that I know the ending, I can write an on-scene, real-time scene that will foreshadow my ending because I know the major plot line that will be resolved in my ending. That doesn’t mean that you won’t have many other plot lines introduced and resolved throughout your novel, but the first plot line introduced should be the last one resolved.

If you figure out how this story of Kylee ends, you’ll know if you should open with her mother’s death, her lying about an aunt, or her running away. Let’s say that you decide that this story ends with Kylee coming home—whatever that means. You may not exactly know what “coming home” is right now, but you have a good idea that you will create some sort of “homecoming” scene for the ending of your novel. That should indicate to you that a good, on-scene, real-time opening would be Kylee running away. Or maybe your story ends with Kylee coming to grips with death and you’ve chosen the mother’s grave site as the setting. That would indicate that your opening should include the death of the mother in real-time and on-scene, or at least the wheeling of her body out of the house. Let’s say that you’ve decided to end your novel with Kylee coming to grips with the false life she’s created for herself. That would tell you that you should begin your novel with Kylee telling yet, another lie and your opening should be about lying and the implications of creating a fictitious life by Kylee. If you want to know how to choose the best on-scene, in real-time opening for you novel, figure out how it’s going to end, and then you’ll be led right back to a stellar, well-conceived and engaging opening that foreshadows your entire novel.

The scene you’ve written here is great, it’s just not the best selection for an opening. It’s more of a bridging scene—one you use somewhere around the halfway point in your novel or later to summarize for the reader what has happened to Kylee up to that point. A bridging scene, like the one you’ve written here, is best used after introducing a number of plot lines that you believe are so varied or so complex that they beg for a short summary. The summary shouldn't appear in your novel as a list or a number of bullet points. You have to find a creative way to get them across. Maybe an agent from child protective services goes over Kylee’s file. Maybe a police detective in missing persons summarizes her situation. Or maybe Kylee acts as the "summarizer".

Another time you may want to use a “bridging scene” is as a pivot point for Kylee character—the moment when she reaches bottom and begins to make a turn in her character arc. But the opening page isn’t the best place to do that. Wait until later in your novel when you feel like there are so many divergent, emotion-filled plot lines that are beginning to get out from under your control that you feel the need to focus all of them back into one emotional, heart-wrenching pivot point. You want the reader to experience simultaneously with Kylee all the heartache you’ve created and use that heartache to show a change in her character. That’s when you sit her down and throw the whole ball of wax at her in the form of a summary and you do it in such an emotionally impacting, yet unobtrusive way, using some trigger in the setting which forces Kylee to refer back to all the previous on-scene moments that you created up to the point, that the reader accepts your summary as an important part of the story.

Anonymous said...

(continued from above)

Notice Anna’s comments above where she writes, “I like the idea of the story.” That should be a hint that you’ve summarized some scenes in this opening that are begging for you to turn them into full-blown, on-scene, real-time scenes. An idea for a story is not a story. An idea for a story lacks the details of plot. An idea for a story can impersonate a story by hidding in narrative summary, like you've done here, but in the full light of an on-scene, real-time scene, an idea for a story melts away like a wicked witch in a water fight. And the last thing you want in your opening scene is a page of narrative summary. On-scene, real-time (have I repeated that mantra enough here) should be your motto for an opening. The mother’s death could be an entire chapter. The creation of a fictitious aunt and Kylee lying about her to keep the illusion going could be another. Kylee running away, is yet one more possibility among many. Maybe you create an opening scene where Kylee blames herself in the on-scene death of her mother. Maybe another chapter shows Kylee lying to child protective services about a live-in aunt who is taking care of her in order to get them off her back. Maybe you create yet another harrowing chapter about her running away and becoming destitute. Once the reader has experienced these moments with Kylee, you can actually refer to them and expect the reader to not only accept the summary as part of the story, but the reader will also feel the impact on Kylee. But not now. Not here in the opening scene of your novel. The reader doesn't know this girl. Hasn't seen her troubled past. Doesn't understand why she feels like she has to lie about her situation. Does she lie out of a sense of guilt over her mother's death? Does she lie in order to be free of adults and get out on her own (which would turn this into a sort of coming of age novel)? Does she lie because she fears any intrusion from people she doesn't know or trust? Those are all possible explanations for her lying that you will want to explore if you’re serious about writing an engaging novel. If you create some real-time, on-scene chapters for your reader, then, later on, you can write a “bridging” or “summarizing” scene like the one you've written here and it will have real impact.


There are essentially only three points of view. Omniscient. Third person. And first person. (Sorry Kate) As this scene is written right now, you, the author, are speaking directly to the reader simply by choosing to use a long string of descriptive sentences about cold cement followed by worn-out tennis shoes, and then socks, before actually giving us some interior dialogue. If you switch around the order in which you present the interior dialogue, you’ll ease the reader into the third person point of view right from the get-go. By waiting until the end of the first paragraph to use interior dialogue, you begin in an omniscient voice which then creates an uncomfortable tension between the omnicient and third person voices when you finally toss in that interior dialogue at the end, almost as an after thought. You can’t use interior dialogue like a baker throws raisins into a muffin mix. You must become aware of the effects of your decisions on the reader. Notice how, in the example below, alternating between descriptive sentences and interior dialogue from the very start draws the reader into Kylee’s thoughts immediately. And alternating back and forth between the two, also develops a nice, even-flowing voice for your character.

Kylee pulled her knees into her chest. How had she gotten herself into this mess? She tightened her grip. What was she going to do now? She never should have sat on the cold cement with the only pair of jeans she owned. The chill stung her skin and the rain-water in the gutter seeped through her worn-out tennis shoes. Where could she go now?

Valentine said...

Thanks to everyone who courageously submits a selection to be shredited. I'm learning TONS at your expense.

Anonymous said...

I failed to comment on the question about moving the interior dialogue of the first paragraph "up" to the second sentence. That’s the best choice here, but understanding why it is becomes very important to your novel-writing education. The underlying principle of properly developing the third person voice for your character will remove much of the “guess-work” or gut-feeling rewriting from your work and replace it with a confident voice.

It isn't so much that re-arranging the interior dialogue will create a sense of "urgency", as much as it creates a more intimate connection between the reader and the character. In my previous post I pointed out the uncomfortable tension created by writing the first four sentences in an omniscient voice when the author chooses to introduce the character through a string of descriptive sentences—

Kylee pulled her knees tighter into her chest and tightened the grip of her arms around them. The cold of the cement she sat on was creeping through her worn jeans, chilling her flesh. Cold was seeping through the worn-out tennis shoes as well. Her socks had too many holes in them to hold any of it out.

—and then, like a baker randomly throwing raisins into a muffin mix, tacking on two sentences of interior dialogue—

How had she gotten herself into this mess? What was she going to do now?

By moving the interior dialogue to the second sentence and using third person point of view from the very beginning, the reader is drawn into the thoughts of the character and views the world as the character does, which in Kylee's case happens to be a sense of hopelessness.

Kylee pulled her knees into her chest. How had she gotten herself into this mess? She tightened her grip. What was she going to do now? She never should have sat on the cold cement wearing the only pair of jeans she owned. The chill stung her skin and the rain-water in the gutter seeped through her worn-out tennis shoes. Where would she go now?

But if Kylee's interior dialogue was focused, say, on the sheer joy of splashing through rain water in the gutter, then her "urgency" would veer toward a sense of "carefree child-like happiness".

The gutter water ran down the street and seeped through Kylee’s worn out tennis shoes—just like the spring rains in front of her mother’s trailer park when she was a little girl. She splashed about. Free at last. And there was no one to tell her when to go to bed or brush her teeth. She pulled her knees into her chest. Running away was the best decision. She tightened her grip. She’d never go back. Not ever!

Or if Kylee's interior dialogue was about anger over her decision to run away, then her "urgency" would take on a sense of "self defeat".

Kylee pulled her knees into her chest. What an idiot she was. She tightened her grip. She never should have run away. The cold cement curb pressed against the back of her legs and the rain-water in the gutter seeped through her worn-out tennis shoes. Why did she always choose wrong?

Notice that when you are dealing with hopelessness, or uncertainty, or even self defeat, that much of the interior dialogue is best conveyed in the form of a question. But when the charcter is experiencing joy, or excitement the interior dialogue is best written in a more direct, affirming, declarative sentence. Creating a solid third person voice for your view point character will always have the effect of urgency because of its intimacy. You just need to become expert at creating that voice.