We have some really interesting comments about present tense in today's critique. I know you'll find it as enlightening as I did! Remember, if you would like your first page critiqued, please submit it to email@example.com with First Page Friday in the subject line. We have a March spot open, first-come, first-served!
Again with the yelling. My sister seriously doesn’t get the idea of sleeping in. Or how mornings should be enjoyed in peace and—
“You said you’d drive today!”
I glance at the digital Mickey clock and groan; I could have slept in twenty more minutes.
I woke all twisted up in my sheets. Norma came to me last night in my dreams. My shrink told me to write down any memories that surface. Dreams included. But what if
I don’t like what I remember?
My stomach grumbles, and I decide it’s okay to get up now. My computer desk is a mess. I put away the scissors and newspaper from yesterday. The obituaries can wait. One clipping falls. I pick it up and see me. John Birch’s trench coat is thrown over me and my little sister. He’s trying to shield us from the snooping cameras. The caption reads “Teen Serial Killer or Innocent Bystander?”
I throw the paper in the red shoebox and stuff it in the closet before I slide on my cleanest jeans from off the floor. One quick check in the mirror tells me my hair is its usual mess. I flip my head over, rub my hands through and straighten up. That’s how I roll.
A Good Hook
In today’s fast-paced world of instant messaging and speed dating, a good story has a very limited time to convince a reader to stay and get to know it better. A writer usually has five pages or less (think of how many books you’ve browsed through at the library or book store, and set down after less than a page) to sell the reader on what a fantastic adventure awaits them if they will commit to the relationship and read the book. This story grabs the reader’s attention right away with the main character’s unique voice and with the dreams of Norma and the obituaries on the desk. Why would a teenage girl (we assume the narrative protagonist is a girl based on the sister calling her name, and teenage based on the character’s sarcasm) be clipping obituaries?
And a Promise
A good hook contains an unspoken promise that the story will continue to shed light on the mysterious, marvelous, or magical things that have been only hinted at. Let’s take a look at one of these:
Norma came to me last night in my dreams. My shrink told me to write down any memories that surface. Dreams included.
This is intriguing. Especially the name Norma, which wouldn’t seem to belong to a friend her age or anything. It’s ok to leave this a little mystery for the moment, but you’ll want to make sure there’s some follow-up explanation pretty quickly after the first page, maybe like in dialogue between the sisters as they talk about the Norma dreams or something.
Regarding the Norma paragraph and the obituary/serial killer paragraph: These add a good deal of mystery to your first page, and make some solid hooks, but you don’t want to leave the reader hanging too long wondering what this is all about. Make sure this is a real hook, immediately connected to the story, and not a smokescreen hook designed to pique our interest and then avoid answering these questions for pages on end.
Thoughts on Present Tense
Present tense is one of the least used tenses for fiction writing. Recently, there have been several books, especially in the literary and YA genres that have employed this tense, but it has some definite drawbacks, so use it with caution and know why you are using it. For instance, many writers, editors, and readers do not like this style. Obviously that doesn’t mean all editors or you wouldn’t see it in print. Does this mean you should never do it? In the craft of writing, there are exceptions to every rule. Present tense may end up being a workable choice for your story (I feel it’s generally working for these first few pages because you have a lot of internal dialogue, so the flow between external and internal isn’t interrupted as much as it would be in other books trying to use this tense ineffectively, and because your character has strong voice within both the internal and external parameters); but you shouldn’t select it simply because it feels edgy or trendy.
In English, past tense is the accepted form for most narrative, whether we are writing the Great American Novel or filling out the accident report on our fender bender. It is the style people slip into most often when recounting their own personal stories. Think about it: We say “Guess what I did?” not “Guess what I do?” We’ve been unconsciously trained our entire lives to feel comfortable with past tense, and that is still the rule, even though television and film have probably played a role in the increased use of present tense these past few years (in terms of the speed at which the narrative unfolds).
One reason writers use present tense is they think it will help keep the story very immediate for the reader, thereby increasing suspense. Handled with care, present tense can accomplish that. At the same time, the majority of books ever written have employed past tense, and many of those have masterfully kept the suspense high and the reader hanging on every word and scene, proving that present tense isn’t a requirement for maximizing tension and keeping the suspense cranked. Even keeping a main character’s life-or-death outcome a mystery can be done in past tense. But let’s face it: most readers are going to assume that the main character lives, regardless of which tense you are employing, so writing in present tense isn’t going to make a big dent in the readers’ assumptions. (As for actually killing the main character off and keeping it hidden from the readers – well, that’s a move you do at your own risk. Think readers with pitchforks and torches, coming to get their vengeance on your word-processor).
In addition, present tense limits perspective opportunities in the story. Award-winning author Philip Pullman has this advice for writers considering present tense:
“I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.” (“Philip Pullman Calls Time on the Present Tense,” The Guardian, September 17, 2010).
So while you have creative license to use any tense you want, consider using the tense that will appeal to the greatest number of readers, and give you the most freedom in developing your story. One option you may consider is to use present tense for things such as a prologue/character introduction (Dean Koontz does this nice segue from first person present to first person past in the introductory chapter of Odd Thomas; Night Circus effectively does this with 2nd person), or for a dream sequence.
In short, if you find (through professional-esque feedback as well as your own opinion) that you are using present tense effectively and with good reason, go for it; but if you are limiting the narrative just to be trendy, reconsider.
Curiouser and Curiouser: Making sure intriguing doesn’t become confusing
The caption reads “Teen Serial Killer or Innocent Bystander?”
This is all interesting, but this clipping obviously isn’t an obituary, so it would be helpful to clarify (“A clipping from another section of the paper falls”) because readers are trying to figure out how that would be in the obituary section. The headline pulls the reader in with unanswered questions – is it referring to our narrator? If so, a potential killer named Angelica? Her sister? Someone else? And who is John Birch and what is his relationship to the sisters? This paragraph does a great job at packing a lot of fascinating information into a short space (which is just what you want for a first page.) At this point, I am definitely curious. Just make sure that you don’t put in intrigue that is too much for the space allotted, making it confusing instead. Confusing a reader in the first pages is a very bad idea.
That’s how I roll.
The narrator has a great voice, with an assurance that is unusual for someone her age. Definitely a captivating beginning. Angelica is interesting, her background is interesting, and we’re intrigued to see where the sisters are going and what their lives are all about. At this point there’s nothing clear at stake for the character, but your hook with the background makes up for that, I think. Just make sure to have the “what’s at stake” part of the hook come up pretty soon after the first page. But overall, if I were an agent, I would definitely turn the page to see what’s next.
Best of luck!
Thank you to Angela and our submitter. I learned a ton today about present tense and I really appreciate everyone's time and effort. See you next week!