Friday, August 26, 2011

First Page Friday

For those of you who are new, First Page Friday is a feature I run on my blog where a national editor we affectionately call Ms. Shreditor critiques the first page of submitted manuscripts to help aspiring authors. (Submission requirements are on the sidebar). Today, however, with the earthquake back East and work schedules for Ms. Shreditor, I have asked Angela Eschler, a renowned editor in her own right, to do the critique this week. Angela is a trusted editor (you can see her services and prices here) for many authors and I’m so grateful she agreed to guest-critique for us.

The Entry
by Brittany Larsen

My stomach fell to my feet as I pulled into the driveway. The light was on in Mom’s study! Blood rushed to my head as the thump thump of my heart began to pound so loudly it drowned out the song I'd just been humming along with on the radio. This night was going to end badly.

I shut my car door as softly as I could, hoping my arrival would go unnoticed, and made my way to the front door. In order to get to my bedroom I would have to pass the study, but maaaaybe if I tip-toed in I could make it far enough up the stairs to pretend I didn’t hear him if he called my name. I could sneak in the back door and hide out in the kitchen pantry until he went somewhere else. But what if, by some freak chance of bad luck, he decided to rotate the food storage and found me stowed behind the fifty pound barrels of wheat? That might be awkward.

Maybe I could just sit in my car until I saw the light go off. I turned back around, calculating the odds of freezing to death in my car against the odds of having to sit through the inevitable lecture that awaited me on the other side of the door. I had just reopened my car door when my inner voice, the one of Reason--she’s so annoying-- said “Seriously, Nicole. You’re almost twenty-seven years old. If you want to avoid your father then you should really just MOVE OUT OF HIS HOUSE!”

I groaned audibly this time, knowing Reason had got the best of me. Again. We’d engaged in similar conversations for years. Reason told me I should let my dad pay for college and graduate school. Pride argued we didn’t need his money. Pride won that battle. But when Dad convinced me to move back home last year to pay off school loans and save for my own place, Pride was swallowed and Reason won the war.

Angela’s Comments

Let’s dive into this review, with brief-ish points in no particular order of importance (other than the general categories).

Strengths:

--The opening paragraphs of the hook are on the right track. There’s something at stake in them (whether she’ll make it into the house without her dad’s lecture attacking her)—and immediate conflict. This makes us want to read more because we have questions. Good job.

--The main character has fun voice. It’s not crazy strong voice (or it takes a minute to kick in, so it doesn’t feel super strong at first), but it does make her seem like an individual that’s likeable and in an interesting situation we’re curious about. I think the voice would be even stronger if the first paragraph had a little more of her voice in it, and a little more word economy (addressed below). Nonetheless, we like her enough that we want to know more about her story, so we’ll probably read a little farther—which is exactly what you want from a hook.

--You did a good job of slipping in some of the heroine’s background without laboriously “telling” the reader about it. So we know a lot about her right off (age, education background, home life, and a little about her personality, etc.). The combination of a little background with the current, related conflict is great; we’re enticed to know more—what did she do that her dad would lecture her? What are her pride issues with letting her dad help her? For instance, are they major relationship conflicts with her dad or just personal self-reliance issues?


Questions, As Well As Thoughts on Upping the Impact:

How the hook could be even better:

--So the following questions could be answered in your narrative—or hinted at, which is better—with just a sentence each. So you say the night was going to end badly. How had it started? Was it great? She was humming along with the radio, so it sounds like a nice or neutral evening. Was it a fantastic evening that her dad was about to ruin? Could you increase the emotional impact on the reader by increasing it on the character through the use of a tiny bit more information? This is possibly a missed opportunity to add depth to her current situation.

Another issue that could be used to increase the stakes in the character’s life is why Reason won on the most recent discussion—moving back with her dad after grad school to save up. What precipitated her need to do that and suddenly give up her pride? No jobs to be had? (How would she save up then?), some personal trial that has complicated her life? Her mother’s death/parents’ divorce? I ask that because there is mention of a mom’s study, but no mention of “parents” waiting up—just a dad. Since just Dad is reasoning with her to take money, move in, etc., we’re thinking her mom is missing from the scene. But she can’t have been missing too long or that wouldn’t be “mom’s study,” which means her absence is supposed to be noted by the reader, thus could be affecting the character.

The point I’m getting at is that the hook would be fantastic if we not only saw the little hint of conflict you already have, but also saw a hint of something much bigger at stake than a lecture from her dad. Is she about to lose a relationship, about to end her relationship with her dad due to family or personal stress, or is something even bigger at stake in her life? Right now the reader has mild curiosity, but if you want compelling page-turning curiosity, you want to hint at even bigger things right out of the gate. The quick little read I always suggest for any writer who wants to produce a killer hook is the book Hooked, by Les Edgerton. Check it out and up the stakes for your character right off.

--I haven’t read more than the first page, so you may not do this, but remember—not too much background info as you move forward. You’ll lose the story momentum/tension you’ve set up.

--It kind of throws the reader off to say the light was on in Mom’s study, but then suddenly talking about “him.” It’s a little confusing at first. (Just say “the study” rather than Mom’s if Mom isn’t important here, or say “There was a light on. Dad was waiting for me in Mom’s study again” or something so that we know right off it’s not Mom waiting in her study—which is the natural inference the reader draws as they read that first line about the study.)

--The use of “odds” needs adjusting. It’s the odds of dying (due to freezing to death, which you’ve hinted at) vs. the odds of running into her dad (and then the lecture). But when you say the lecture is inevitable, it changes it from “odds” to a sure thing. So you need to lose the word “inevitable” and maybe change “having to sit through” to “running into dad before I could escape to my room” if you want to use that fun line about calculating the odds.

--A logical question the reader asks: Is there a reason her room would be a safety zone? It sounds like dad is determined to talk to her, so why would her sneaking upstairs save her from his eventually coming up after her if her called her name (which presumes that her heard her come in)—even if she did get to her room and pretended she didn’t hear?

--Word economy in the first paragraph: Your first line is really your first impression so to speak (the glimpse of the lovely girl with her hair blowing in the wind, metaphorically), and the first paragraph is that closer look at the first impression—where the reader decides they’re committed to that first impression and want to get to know it better. Your first paragraph is a little less “voice” than the rest of the page and a little more clunky with too many not-super-interesting words. The emotions seem a little forced/cliché given the age of your character (more on the character and the first paragraph below). So try to imbue the first paragraph with the character’s voice, and cut down on the words to deliver a smoother introduction to the reader. Or at least make the words convey a little more information and some of the voice or character’s personality within that word count—make the words work harder to give more to the reader.

Here’s a shot-in-the-dark example (I’m not trying to be brilliant here, so please don’t overly judge it):

“He just couldn’t leave it, could he? I didn’t even need my headlights to pull in. The driveway was illuminated by the light in the study. The radio sing-along competition I’d been having with myself ended on a bad note. Clearly I was the loser, and this night wasn’t going to end well after all…..” (Do you see what I’m trying to do here? Start right off with the antagonist and make us intrigued immediately with what his motives are and what he can’t leave alone. Throw in some unique personality in her response to realizing he’s there, rather than the standard stomach dropping/heart speeding. There’s also a tad bit of humor intended in the word play of “bad note” to hint at her funny personality right off. Adding “after all” to the end implies something good had been happening before. It’s just a tad bit of change in the intro, but it makes the opening a little more intriguing, hinting at more information than the original, and rewording the setting and her reaction so they are slightly more distinctive. Oh, and it saved you 2 whole words.)

Let’s talk about genre:

--So I’m leaving this discussion for the end, so that anyone who doesn’t want to read a semi-long treatise on chic lit and LDS market vs national market can sign out.

First off, this book seems intended for the LDS market, due to the mention of food storage in the pantry (basically, there are things that are not explained in the narration, so there has to be a reader assumption you are counting on). So I am assuming the book is written for the LDS market, not about an LDS girl for the national market.

So I have two cautions about writing successfully in the LDS market given the age/voice of your character: Make sure that whatever your character is dealing with is an adult-like issue and that it involves romance. I note these two things because light women’s fiction that is serious/family drama or literary does not sell well in this market and the publishers frequently reject it; and any book that seems to be YA (for young adults under 20) is also dead in the water in the LDS market, generally speaking.

The reason I want to make sure your “voice”/character is very clearly for adult readers is that adult readers are THE majority of the LDS bookstores’ clientele. Not teens. Mostly women. And they usually want adult romances. So when I read your opening paragraph, I worried a little that your character seemed a tad too young in voice. Here’s why that worry crossed my mind: What would a dad be lecturing a 27-year-old about that could be that stressful to her? Getting lectured is sort of a juvenile (teenage) fear. It’s one thing to roll your eyes at a lecturing parent, which is the adult response when your parent hasn’t figured out you’re a grownup, but your character describes her stomach dropping and her heart pumping faster. This makes her sound like a teenager. Also, exclamation points are very “teen” voice—representing an overexuberance that is generally attributed to the younger-than-27 crowd.

So, with that caution being sounded, you never know what will suddenly flourish in the market. So throw caution to the wind and write what you love, but be aware of the current market if you want to be published in it.

With all that being said, I am going to dive into a discussion of your genre, but touch on how it is looked on in both the national and LDS markets, because the markets respond differently in some areas and because most authors either start with the LDS market and then try to take their work national, or vice versa. Since I haven’t read the rest of your story, I don’t know how your main character develops and how her voice grows, but being aware of the following should help you solidify those things and your plans for the right publisher. So here are my two cents on your genre:

--So your character’s voice sounds fun/youngish, but the character is post college. Her current first-person, funny/slightly sarcastic voice, plus her age, makes this chic lit. For the LDS market, this genre is claiming fans right now (but the level of sarcasm, etc., from the national market chic lit might be different). For the national market, that genre is dead anyway. There are editors trying to create a definable market for this particular age of character—making it a subgenre all its own, one that isn’t about romance right now—but currently the chic lit category seems to be what your character falls into, and that’s disappeared for now from the national scene. (This happens all the time in both the LDS and national markets: a subgenre gets hot, the market gets flooded, and then it’s totally dead and no one will publish it anymore. Best-selling authors lose their contracts in those games. Then wait 5 to 10 yrs and it’s hot again but with a slightly different angle.)

Here’s a quick definition of chic lit in pure form: The protagonist is speaking in first person narration; the narrator is usually funny but also a little sarcastic/snarky (some editors also say “whiny”); the setting/plot often involves importance given to: money, social status/connections, fashion, boyfriend ownership, a nine-to-five job/life of some kind; the male hero is usually wealthy to some degree and also honorable, and must earn her love after mishaps and miscommunications; and the heroine lacks many of the things of importance listed above, as well as makes lots of mistakes/experiences mishaps, and is an empathic character at heart (also honorable in a best-friend kind of way). Sounds kind of Jane Austenish? It is. Bridget Jones’s Diary—the first big chic lit I remember—was a spinoff.

So what happened to all those funny, voice-ful, romantic books with characters in the 20-30s? They morphed into variations of genre under “light women’s fiction.” Some authors blended genres (worked in suspense or mystery or paranormal) or included quirky plot or character twists (like the Janet Evanovich empire with her funny Stephanie-Plum-Bounty-Hunter heroine), etc. Or there are many examples in the fantastical/paranormal/funny romance department. Casting Spells by Barbara Bretton would be an example that is still in first person, but it’s silly paranormal with the male POV alongside the female. Much of these books existed before chic lit (probably both examples I just gave), but the chic lit authors had to join the ranks of the genre benders when the chic lit phenomenon died.

The other way to spin the genre is to keep it straight romance, but take out some of the traditional chic lit elements (maybe adding in something else instead), and this may be what the LDS market is selling as chic lit, from what I can tell. Since careers and high fashion (and other worldly things) aren’t supposed to be super important to LDS gals, the LDS chic lit out there right now is slightly different in the details, but the bones are the same. And it seems the blended-genre chic lit isn’t the thing even though the national market supports it (and it didn’t sell well several years ago in the LDS market when some talented authors were writing it). For the LDS market it’s more the straight romance that readers want.

So you’ll see the same straight romance in the national market, but the funny voice and younger adult character will be written in third person rather than first, say, or she might not be too snarky/whiny in her humor, and/or she will maybe deal with slightly different issues than those of original chic lit. For example, Shannon Hale’s Austenland is an example of this modified chic lit (third person, not super snarky, etc.) And the books might also include both the male and female point of view—which I don’t think I’ve seen in the LDS market yet. (Anyone? Add a comment to the post?)

So, a good example of the new chic lit for the LDS market that’s selling well? Melanie Jacobson’s The List. Here’s a link to the plot summary.

If you can pull off the same level of fun voice, unique plot, compelling characters, etc.—heavy on the romance—you’ll probably have a winner in the LDS market.

Conclusion:

You’re on the right track—just be sure you understand the genre you’re trying to excel in and how to keep up with or beat the competition for the readers you’re targeting. Best of luck no matter which market you tackle!



I’d like to thank Brittany and Angela for their time and effort. See you next week!

11 comments:

Brittany said...

Thanks Angela! I really appreciate your advice/suggestions. I think they are right on point.
I actually have Edgerton's book and have tweaked the opening paragraph since reading it, but after I had already sent this page in. It still needs work though.
I'm actually very familiar with The List since reading it inspired me to go the direction I'm going with my writing. In fact, Melanie and I are in a writing critique group together, so I get great chic lit advice straight from the source.
Thanks again Angela and Julie!

Sarah Pearson said...

I'm new here and this is my first 'First page Friday.' I'm impressed with how thorough the critique was. The few points I had were picked up by Angela, and she had plenty that I hadn't even thought of.

Well done to Brittany for sending her work in.

Melanie Jacobson said...

Brittany, you know I'm laughing right now, right? I was invoked as a "do like this" example of something! *Fist pumps*

But I agree with you that Angela is on point. From reading more of your manuscript, I understand why Nikki's voice sounds young, but I agree that you want to raise the stakes in your hook because the voice definitely becomes much stronger as the story goes on and you want the beginning to match that. I actually think Angela's rework is pretty dang solid.

If it helps, I only have one out of five manuscripts where I didn't rewrite the first chapter after the whole manuscript was done. It's because the character crystallizes as I write her and I have a much better sense of who she is so then I can go back and write a beginning that really matches her.

I definitely think you're on the right track and this is going to be a fun read when it's done. Like I keep telling you, you have an excellent sense of voice and I just don't think that can be taught. As you refine it, your story is going to shine. Keeping punching out your draft; it's going great places.

Heather said...

Wow! Julie, I'm a fellow Campaigner, and I must thank you for this insightful and wonderful blog post. Angela gave fantastic notes, and I think I might be submitting my 1st page soon.

Brittany, the story sounds great and thank you for the courage to put your work under a microscope so people like me could benefit!

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Brittany, you did a great job! I can't wait to see how this all turns out.

Sarah, welcome!

Melanie, that is so true about rewriting the first chapter after the manuscript is done. There is a lot to be said about getting to know your characters throughout the book. (hey, did my campaign for an epilogue to The List work on you yet? Should I resort to bribery?) ;)

Heather, I'd love to have you submit! All the directions are on my sidebar. Let me know if you have questions.

Michael Offutt said...

Awesome review. I agree with everything that is said by the professional editor. However, I could not have said it like she did.

bridgetstraub.com said...

As a fellow campaigner I did not know what to expect when I came over here. I'm impressed. What a great opportunity you are offering!

Stephen said...

Something silly to add, but the last post at http://sixldswriters.blogspot.com/ really ought to be one with links to the blogs of the writers there who have blogs of their own.

Just saying, it would make it easier to find you all again.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Thanks, Michael and Bridget! Stephen, that's a great idea. I'll have to pass it along to the blog's owner. :)

Shanda said...

Another great first page friday. Looks like a fun story w/lots of potential.

Also, I'm pretty sure I've mentioned before that I want to be Angela when I grow up. :)

Crystal said...

Ooooh, I LOVE that you do this! I'm totally going to check out the submission requirements. :-)