It's Friday the 13th, but here at the blog, we're lucky because it's First Page Friday! Let's get right to it.
by Melanie Conklin
It’s three weeks into my freshman year at Chester High and nobody, much less a certain best friend of my big brother, knows I exist. Except for Tammy. And Brian, of course—but middle school friends don’t count in high school!
Mr. Hughes is lulling me to sleep this morning, despite my popularity retarding love for all things animal-vegetable-mineral. His voice is like a blanket. And the stuffy, sticky air is not helping one bit. An Indian Summer heat wave has turned our spare cinder block classroom into a stinky beige oven.
“Hey, Katie. Do you know why they call it ‘Indian Summer’?” Brian whispers, like he can hear what I’m thinking under my sweaty black headband.
“Did I say that out loud?”
“Say what out loud? It’s hot. The weather guy calls it Indian Summer.” His brown eyes look scolded. I shrug off the weirdness.
“Never mind. So why do they call it that?”
“Well, the theory is European colonies expected raids by Native American war parties late in the summer, before the snow fell, so they called it Indian Summer. But it could be because they harvested at time of year too, and—“
“Excuse me, Brian,” Mr. Hughes says, “Let’s save the Indians for Mr. Hardwick’s class and keep our minds on biology, shall we? As I was saying, today we will discuss the structures of the cell. But first I have a little surprise for you.”
Pausing, he turns to his desk and scoops up an armload of photocopies. We hold our collective breath.
Ms. Shreditor's Comments
I like the humorous tone here, but this excerpt doesn’t quite grab my attention. We have a generic first-person narrator, some banter about Indian summer, and a pop quiz. The most compelling piece for me is the potential love triangle between the narrator, her brother’s best friend, and Brian (if I’ve interpreted his ability to read her mind correctly). However, it’s hard to invest in storyline possibilities when we learn so little about our heroine.
Be careful not to overwrite in the name of wittiness. Phrases like “popularity retarding love” feel a bit forced. (Also, I’d hyphenate compound adjectives like “popularity-retarding” when they precede the noun, for clarity’s sake.) That said, “all things animal-vegetable-mineral” was quite snappy.
I felt a bit taken aback at this: “…but middle school friends don’t count in high school!” I would reconsider this line, because it doesn’t cast the most favorable first impression. Sure, our narrator is only fourteen or fifteen, but why would she be so dismissive of her friends—particularly Brian, who knows her so well? Is she on a quest for popularity?
It’s been a while since I last discussed participial verb phrases, so I’d like to address the first sentence of the last paragraph: “Pausing, he turns to his desk and scoops up an armload of photocopies.” Participial verb phrases (in this case, “Pausing”) denote simultaneous action with the main verb (“turns”). In other words, this sentence is telling us that Mr. Hughes is pausing and turning to his desk at the same time, which isn’t possible. I’d cut “pausing” from this sentence and keep the rest; not only will the sentence not lose anything, but the progression of events will be much clearer.
It’s not that participial phrases are inherently bad—like all other grammatical devices, they have a purpose. They’re just tricky to get right. Incorrect use can create chronological impossibilities (e.g., “Opening the jar of pickles, she reached for the ketchup”) or dangling participles (e.g., “Tired after a long day, his head hurt”) if a writer doesn’t have a firm grasp of their function. It doesn’t help that they’re so darn seductive: Present “-ing” participles can create pleasant rhythm—rhythm that sometimes lulls us into grammatical error.
My best advice would be to rethink the opening of this story. Is a nondescript classroom scene the best use of space on the first page, or could there be a more compelling hook? What first impression would you like your heroine to leave? Lastly, what dialogue, if any, will be most effective in propelling this story (and the reader) forward?
Thank you so much to Ms. Shreditor and Melanie for their time and effort. See you next week!