Friday, December 2, 2011

First Page Friday

Got a nano first page you're dying to have critiqued by a national editor? We have January slots available for First Page Friday. First submitted, first critiqued. Directions on the sidebar

Here's today's submission. It's a good one!

The Entry
Aurora Sky: Transfusion

By Nikki Jefford

This was what freedom looked like. Endless stretches of trim green grass under a canopy of elders and stone buildings that resembled medieval castles and old English manors. Walking through the ivy covered archways was like stepping back in time. Even the students were well-mannered. No one was running or shouting through the hallways at Wellesley. The students sat on benches reading quietly or gathered in small groups on the grass discussing literature and the world at large.

Although it was fall in Massachusetts, the air was pleasant, the sun shining. Birds burst into song – unlike home where they’d stopped singing altogether.

I walked around campus in khaki capris and a black V-neck, trying to blend. My hair was pulled back in a long loose blonde braid. I pretended like I was already a student there, rather than a visitor on tour at the campus, though my mother, walking beside me, was a dead giveaway.

Fourteen hours later, we were on our flight back to Anchorage – an 11 hour return journey to the Far North. I’d appreciate the distance once August rolled around and I was headed over to the East Coast to stay. Six more months and I’d be finished with high school forever. With any luck, I’d be a student at Wellesley in ten.

I logged this countdown into my journal along with my observations about Wellesley on the plane ride home.

It was 6:47 p.m. when we landed in Anchorage, 10:47 back East.

The arctic wind blasted my mom and me the moment we stepped through the sliding doors from baggage into the arrivals lane.

Ms. Shreditor’s Comments

A warning to all: This week’s critique is on the longer side. So please don’t read while operating heavy machinery.

I’m enjoying all of these first pages that take place in the northeast. Despite what you may have heard, don’t be intimidated by us. Aside from our horrible, inconsiderate driving (I’m looking at you, Jersey Turnpike), we are a funky, diverse bunch.

What makes the first sentence of this piece so effective is its sparseness. “This is what freedom looked like.” Six words, no waste. And we learn a lot from these six words, don’t we? Already, we know that our narrator feels trapped where she is and has found a potential escape. What really ups the ante: the reveal that the narrator is from Alaska. Anchorage to Wellesley is a pretty long trek—almost as far apart as any two points in the United States can get. So she must be running from something.

The choice of Wellesley is intriguing; for those of you unfamiliar with it, it’s a women’s college. It’s also interesting that the character’s first instinct is to blend in rather than stand out; this tells us a lot about her. Maybe she doesn’t have a strong sense of identity yet. Maybe she’s a follower. We don’t know yet, but it’s good to turn to page two with unanswered questions like these.

I haven’t visited Wellesley College myself, but I am very familiar with New England. The depiction of Wellesley feels a bit hackneyed with the old buildings and abundant ivy. While it’s certainly accurate, try not to restrict the story with those New England clichés. There’s a lot more to the area than ivy-covered architecture and intellectuals. What's so compelling about Boston area colleges isn't that they're populated by people sitting around talking about books and trying to blend in, but that the student bodies are so culturally, ideologically, and ethnically diverse. (Of course, don't overdo it on the freaks-and-geeks factor, either.)

I fact-checked the admissions deadlines at Wellesley to make sure that the six-months-from-graduation timeline was plausible. Sure enough, I found that the regular admissions deadline is in January. Something to consider, though: This character seems pretty motivated to leave Anchorage and attend Wellesley. Someone that eager would likely be submitting an early decision application (due November 1 at Wellesley). I assume that the tour precedes her actual application process, so you might want to tweak the timeline accordingly. Six months before graduation would likely mean that she’s touring the school in November or December of her senior year—a time of year that is rarely warm enough in Massachusetts for a tee and capris. Moreover, this time frame seems quite late for an exploratory visit, even if she is submitting a regular decision application.

Also consider expounding upon her observations about Wellesley instead of simply telling us that she’s written them down in her journal. Surely this visit has conjured up a lot of feelings for her. What are they? We know some things about Wellesley from her descriptions, but we don’t know how she feels about those things. It’s the missing link between us and the character whose story we’re following.

I like the juxtaposition of the green grass in Wellesley that greets the narrator at the beginning of the story and the arctic wind that greets her in Anchorage. Nicely done. The chirping of the birds was also a nice touch. I’m not sold on the pacing, though. While I enjoy the juxtaposition between the two states, I think it might be worthwhile to explore the Wellesley visit in more depth (rather than gloss over it in three paragraphs). The shift from Massachusetts to Alaska feels abrupt.

I’ve written a book myself here, so I’ll close with the following advice: Make sure not to over-simplify the New England college experience. If you have never lived there (or even if you have), find someone who does as a beta reader. You want your setting to be vivid and not just a plot point.

Sounds like Nikki has everyone's attention with her first page. Well done! Thank you so much for participating in First Page Friday. See you next week!


Debra Erfert said...

Nikki did have my attention with this first page. I could see Wellesley with her description. While her MC was from the frozen north, I'm from the desert sands of the southwest--both barren and desolate at times. If I could chose a college to go to away from home, I'd want to attend a picturesque place like New England too, but, heck, give me men to go along with it.

One thing I see down here are visitors from up in the cold country wear shorts and tank-tops during our wintertime. While I'm freezing (59 degrees can do that, right?) their feet are clad in flip-flops and sandals.

I didn't notice it before Ms. Shreditor pointed it out, but there was a lack of emotion in the page. I'm afraid I've been accused of the same kind of writing, so I wasn't surprised I didn't pick up on that.

Great critique, as always, Ms. Shreditor. It wasn't too long. And thank you, Nikki, for submitting your work.

Michael Offutt, Expert Critic said...

I did like this. About the only thing that I didn't like was that I got a nice description of the college and then was whisked off to some other place entirely so that I felt that I had wasted my time in getting acquainted with the college. I almost wanted to say, "If the beginning of the novel is taking place in Alaska why don't we start in Alaska?"

Nikki Jefford said...

Wow, Ms. Shreditor – you are thorough on the fact checking! Love it!

Funny enough, since submitting this page I have a new beginning – starting in Alaska and starting with action. As an action packed novel it seemed a little too tra-la-la with the whole college scene, but it also felt important to show, as Ms. Shreditor so adeptly picked up on, “that our narrator feels trapped where she is and has found a potential escape.”

Thank you so much for the excellent observations and pointers. Totally want to avoid those (ivy covered) clichés. Great advice on rounding up beta readers from areas we use (and are unfamiliar with) in our books.