Friday, September 23, 2011

First Page Friday

Did you all see the review for Ribbon of Darkness from LDS Women's Book Review? I'm so thrilled! If you're interested in what they had to say about it, you can go here

Now, on to the business at hand. I'd like to welcome back editor Angela Eschler. I'm so excited to have her as a permanent person to team critique with Ms. Shreditor. Angela will be critiquing the last Friday of every month.

As always, if you would like to submit the first page of your manuscript to First Page Friday, please follow the guidelines on my sidebar.

The Entry

The Messenger

by Brooke

Her mother’s voice fell silent as the song ended. The final notes of Haltion’s oldest legend drifted through the small cabin and mixed with the crackling of the fire until they were no more than a faint echo. Ascha opened her eyes and looked at her mother. Rosemary’s hands, always so busy, were finally still in her lap. No one could sing the stories of the Eastern Mountains like her mother.

"Sing it again, Mama,” Natan pleaded from where he sat on Ascha’s lap. “It is Ascha’s coming of age tomorrow, so we should be allowed to stay up just a little later.”

Rosemary laughed. “It is not your coming of age, Natan, and little eight year old boys should not stay up –“

“But Chillen gets to stay up!” Natan persisted.

“Chillen is a man now, Natan, and you are still a boy.”

A scratching sounded on the door and Rosemary’s voice choked into silence. They were not expecting visitors.

“Ascha, take Natan to the bedroom,” her father whispered.

Natan tumbled out of Ascha’s lap as their father slipped his shearing knife through his belt, and then she and Natan ran for their parent’s bedroom. Ascha pushed Natan to the far side of the bed, and then crept back to the door and pulled it open just a crack.

The front door creaked as her father undid the latch and pulled it open. Rain pounded against the floorboards, and a cold gust of wind stole underneath the bedroom door and clung to Ascha’s ankles. A man filled the doorway and then collapsed at her father’s feet.

“Joshi, it must be the messenger,” Rosemary said, reaching down to check his breathing.

Ascha pushed the bedroom door open a little further so that she could see her father and Chillen helping the man to the fire. Her mother looked worriedly out into the storm for anyone who might be lurking in the shadows and then shut the door softly. Her father pushed the wooden chairs out of the way and lay the messenger down on the ground. He was in a bad way. His chest lifted and fell heavily and his face was paler than moonlight on the snow.

Natan’s tousled hair butted against Ascha’s side.

“Is it all right now, Ascha?” he whispered, a little too loudly.

“Not yet,” Ascha whispered back. She put her arm around her younger brother and pulled him away from the door. She did not want Natan to see the man: not in the state he was in, but once he was sitting on the bed, Ascha crept back to the door.

“What’s happening, Ascha?” Natan insisted.

“It is a man who was lost in the woods, Natan. Be quiet now.”

“They saw me on the road outside of Dubasa,” the messenger gasped, his voice dry and faint. “I lost them in the woods and then sent my horse away to distract them, but they are searching. We do not have long. I am…”

The man began coughing, hard.

“I am so sorry to have led them here.” Rain dripped from the messenger’s dark hair and made silvery puddles on the floor below his head. He pulled a crumpled paper from inside of his coat.

Ascha’s father took the paper, read it quickly, and then tossed it into the fire.

Angela Eschler’s Critique

I’m very excited to review again this week. Let’s jump in with some strengths and then some suggestions:


--I admit that I am wanting to read more, so clearly you have a great hook! I have lots of questions as a reader and I can tell things are at stake here. I am concerned for our family, and wondering who the bad guys are, and how much time the family has to escape and where they can run to and if they are prepared and….Bravo!

--I like the names and am interested in the world. I would actually like to know a little more about the name owners and the world itself (see comments below).

--Starting off with a message, along with danger, is great, because it tells us there is a larger society or group somewhere that our little family is aligned with; and it speaks of opposing sides, which adds to the complexity; and it introduces an opposing side that cares enough to visit violence on the other, which means power is at stake somewhere in the story—and the desire for power can make for interesting bad guys. I’m very intrigued by all the things at which you’ve hinted.

--The first paragraph is a good grounding paragraph, revealing a bit about their geography/culture and the mother. I’d like to see more of that as the scene moves on.

Questions/Things to Fine Tune:

--I think the opening would be even stronger with just a little more detail and slower pacing in the first couple of paragraphs. Jumping right into the inciting incident that puts everyone in danger and on the path to adventure/danger/discovery is great, but without losing any of that impact you can slow the approach by just a few more sentences so the reader feels a tad more grounded in the scene overall.

First off, I think you could clear up a little reader confusion in that it’s a little disconcerting to suddenly have people show up on the scene one after another. We start thinking it’s just a mother and daughter, and then someone else shows up, and then someone else (in the form of introductions). We start to wonder how big the family is and when the characters will stop drifting on stage. My suggestion would be to think of the opening image as you would a movie reel. We would see everyone at once in the first shot, not as they each opened their mouths. So maybe start with the mom’s song, but have the daughter look around the cabin at her family, each member entranced or doing whatever would build their identities. Is there is love in her father’s eyes as well as ever-fresh awe at her talent, or is there something else? And do her two siblings seem entranced, older and younger (clarify the general population dynamics)? You don’t want to go around and name them all right then, but give us a sense of who’s on the scene so we’re ready for all the intros.

--Along with that comment, it would be good to know the father’s name before the children leave the scene, just to diminish that sense of too many people on stage. We know him as “father” but then later he is “Joshi.” It just makes it seem like endless people popping up. A reader tends to feel overwhelmed when introduced to so many people at once—particularly if the names are foreign in style, and thus we don’t have our gender markers in the back of our minds to help us keep everyone straight (if the names were Harry, John, and Catherine, we wouldn’t need to be told which gender they are, and we don’t need to be reminded several times which gender each kid is either; obviously those names won’t work, and I like yours, but the point is that you need to go easy on the reader when you’ve thrown them into a group of people—especially if we have no prior associations with the names to help us keep everyone organized). Here’s a quick example of what I’d maybe slip in if I were your editor: “Joshi,” their mother whispered, her eyes meeting their father’s, and her melodic voice now scratched with tension. Then dad commands the younger kids to leave the room.

--This comment is sort of along the same lines as those above, but gets at the meat of what I think would strengthen your intro most. I think you did a pretty good job with the setup and creating tension and providing something at stake. However, since you’re obviously a skilled writer, I’m going to suggest you bump it up a notch. Give us some more unique/concrete things about the family, clothes, cabin, relations (world-building basically) so that we have a sense of them as individuals and not just stereotypes of the fantasy genre. (I’m assuming this is your genre based on the names, but if not, it would be great to get an idea of what genre/sub-genre/melded-genre you’re giving us. Obviously marketing will determine what genre assumptions the reader will have when they pick up the book, but it’s always great to give your opening page an interesting flair and hint at what’s to come in order to interest the reader on many levels.) Are their clothes homespun or made of baskets or colorful and flowing, or is the family in poverty (what we assume with a cabin, but maybe cabins are standard fare for everyone in this world)? Is the messenger old or young or…?

We get a sense of the family, and see that they have innocent young children, so we know they are vulnerable and we are empathetic to their plight right off. However, I do think this is a bit of a short-cut on an author’s part, because it doesn’t require deep characterization to make us care about the characters and what’s at stake for them. It just requires us not to be heathens at heart—it’s like throwing a puppy dog on the scene. Of course we’re going to bite our nails if the puppy (or children) are in danger. Other than the first paragraph with Mom singing—which is still in line with fantasy tropes generally, but I think you have personalized it for your story—the family seems a little generic. I felt like I was looking at one of those museum windows with the ancient something-or-other-era-family wax figures going about their daily tasks. It is nicely disguised by the tension in the scene and the approach of the messenger, but you could certainly bring on the mighty pen to carve out a more unique niche for them. To develop the metaphor, we barely pass by their window before the messenger comes on, and don’t get the time to really examine—and thus appreciate—what’s behind the glass.

So what else can you tell me about any of the individuals? Looks? Is the older brother looking out the window with concern on his face, not paying attention to his little brother’s comment or his mother’s singing? Are the mother and father holding hands, or across the circle in some sort of hierarchy seating? What is the sister’s response to having her coming-of-age day mentioned? Is she excited, nervous, dreading it… ? Give us an idea of what that’s all about in this culture based on character behavioral nuance. Does the sister pinch her little brother for talking back to his mother, or is it all hair-ruffling and harmony? Right now we get the picture of family harmony, so adding to it with more harmony images doesn’t really enhance what we know about these people. Your first paragraph is great for giving some of this information, but then it sort of drifts into more generic interactions.

--And lastly, is our main POV character going to be the young, coming-of-age daughter? Usually the story is mostly about someone even if the other players have a lot of screen time. I wasn’t totally clear on who I was supposed to be aligning myself with most. That’s ok on a first page, but it would be better if it were clear.


In short, if you are hoping to snag an agent, the more distinct and rich you can make your opening without veering into word economy and back story issues (basically, making use of subtle/short hints in basically the same opening you have now), the more likely you are to set yourself apart for an agent or editor. What they always want is a new voice, not necessarily just a new story—though that’s a great foot in the door. If you are self-publishing, have the same professionalism on hand for the reader. If you want to set yourself apart and get great word-of-mouth reviews (the best marketing in the world), then take care to really set your story apart with the little details that show you know what writing is all about.

Other than that last piece of advice, I think you are well on your way to something exciting. You’ve got a great sense of how to pace tension and what is important information to convey in dialogue (from this example anyway). Your characters have a lot of interesting potential, as well as the world in which they are functioning. So challenge yourself to tackle the next artistry level with characterization, and I think you’ll have a winner!

Thanks so much to Angela and Brooke. We'll see you next week!


Sarah Pearson said...

I liked the first page, but on reading the critique - and what a useful, detailed one - I could see how the suggestions could make it even better. This is why I'm a writer, not an editor :-)

Debra Erfert said...

I agree. I liked these first three pages. They intrigued me well enough I probably would read the book after a good editing. There were a few places where the young child used contractions and the adults didn't, which bothered me. I thought the non-use of contractions might be a clue to where this was set, otherwise, Ms. Eschler touched on pretty much everything else I saw. Well, except the "throwing in the puppy" thing. I love to use an animal in with my stories to give the characters someone to talk to, and sometimes to interfere with bad guys when necessary. They actually become a secondary character.

I always learn something new from First Page Friday. Thanks Julie, Ms. Eschler, and especially Brooke for being brave enough to put your work out there for public critique.

Melanie Jacobson said...

I think this is one of the better first pages I've seen since you started this, Julie.

I felt an immediate sense of place and urgency and even though this is outside my usual genre, I would want to read at least a little further to see how things unfold. Pretty cool.

My only note (and this is such a personal thing) is that I totally understand the need to establish character names, but be careful of overuse of names in dialogue.

Brooke said...

Thank you so much Julie for posting my first page on your blog. I'm sorry it's taken so long for me to respond: I had a baby a couple of days after the posting, so I didn't even see it until now. Angela's critique is just what I was looking for. Thank you, thank you!!!