Friday, May 11, 2012

First Page Friday

I am so grateful to the authors who are brave enough to submit their work each week to be critiqued.  I find it so helpful to see the corrections in someone else's work so I can learn what not to do in my own.  If you would like to submit your first page for First Page Friday please refer to the instructions in the sidebar.

The Entry
Becoming Wildcreek
by Joy Allen

England, 1888
Early May 

“He’s really going to do it!” Jane Carlisle, Duchess of Chatham, hid behind the gnarled trunk of the old Sycamore tree and watched the duel begin between Henry, her husband, the Duke of Chatham, and his younger brother. “I didn’t believe that jackanapes William had enough bravado to step out on the field with my Henry, let alone hold a pistol in his hand while doing so.”

“Your Grace, please!”

Jane wasn’t sure if her maid’s exasperated words were a reprimand of her street language or whispered in worry for their Duke. Henry Carlisle, being fifteen years Jane’s senior, had more than time in his favor. He had a steady hand and an even temperament. Henry never seemed to get angry at Jane, or at his foolish brother, or at Henry’s employees even when he probably should do so to keep their respect. But what Henry failed to do in terror, he accomplished with patience and love.             

“Stop fretting, Ella. Henry is the best shot in all of Yorkshire County, if it comes to that.” Jane risked a glance at the older woman huddled close behind her shoulder. Elle’s gray hair, pulled tightly on her head, matched her pallid complexion at the moment. Henry’s father, the late Duke, had employed Ella since Henry had turned two. Losing him would be too much like losing a dear son. “All Henry need do is stare menacingly at his brother and surely he’ll regret his words and apologize to me, forthwith.”

Ella grasped Jane’s elbow. “Yet, they pace away from each other, Your Grace.”

The morning’s fog had lifted enough for Jane to see Henry’s face. The breeze played with loose strands of brown, curly hair around his pinked cheeks. He smiled, and Jane felt like he wore a suit of metal armor instead of lamb’s wool. His shoulders were back, his spine ramrod straight as he walked in the muddy field. Even in the throws of a duel he was the proper gentleman.

Ms. Shreditor's Comments

What struck me first about this piece was the heading. It sets a vague scene. Where in England are we? Why just “early” May and not a specific date? Does this information need appear in chapter headings, or can it be worked into the text somewhere? In most cases, just a chapter number will suffice in fiction. If the entire story takes place in England, I think you can establish time and place in the text without the headings.

The beginning of this sample felt a bit choppy to me. My first instinct was to break the second sentence into a new paragraph, but then I realized that it bridges the gap between Jane’s two bits of dialogue. Consider revising so that it reads something like, “Jane Carlisle, Duchess of Chatham, exclaimed as she hid behind the trunk of the old sycamore [note lowercase] tree...” That way, the exposition doubles as a dialogue tag to improve flow.

The duel presents some immediate suspense, and the author ups the ante by making it between brothers. The precipitating event, however, is unclear. What could William have said to incite his own brother to a duel? Jane seems almost flippant about it in places, so it couldn’t have been anything mortally offensive.

Of particular concern to me is characterization. This first page tells us a lot about Henry and not much about Jane herself. We’re not sure exactly what has sparked the duel, and we don’t know much about her beyond her title. Although she’s the catalyst of the unfolding action, she spends more time observing other characters than telling us anything about herself. This makes it difficult to connect with her.  

Make sure to proof your first page carefully before submitting to an editor or agent. Two spelling errors stood out immediately: 1) In the fourth paragraph, Ella’s name is misspelled as “Elle” in the fourth sentence. 2) The last sentence of the sample reads “throws of a duel” instead of “throes of a duel.”

Minor errors like these are bound to happen in a full manuscript, but they can be costly on a first page or in sample chapters. Book acceptance is contingent upon a lot of factors beyond a writer’s control: the market, competitive titles, reader trends, individual publisher preferences, etc. A writer can, however, control the quality of his or her work. Get a second or even third set of eyes on a submission to clean up any lingering errors. I’m not saying, of course, that a book will be automatically rejected on the grounds of a typo. But if an editor is on the fence about your story, errors could tip the scales out of your favor.

Thank you so much to Ms. Shreditor and to Joy.  Your hard work is appreciated.  See you next week!


Randy said...

Opening with a duel is a great hook. One between brothers doubly so.

I think we could do away with a title or two. Possibly just tell us that Jane Carlisle is hiding behind the tree. If her husband is the Duke we understand that that makes her the Duchess.

Considering that there is a duel in progress some of the information seemed out of place to me. We have a nice description of Ella during this time. Unless she is a central character could this wait until later. After all, we don't get a description of Henry until later and he is at the center of the action. Ella's description also slows down the pace.

However, it definately felt like England in 1888.

Debra Erfert said...

Duels are a fascinating thing. My husband's ancestor was involved in the first duel on American soil waaaay back before the revolution. Oh, I guess it wasn't technically American soil, then, was it?

Too bad for the spelling error. I'd hate to see a fun story get deleted/rejected just because of that.

I wonder if maybe Elle/Ella is more of a secondary character than the duke is. After all, we don't know the outcome of the duel.

Great critique, Ms. Shreditor.

Melanie Conklin said...

I want to read this story. I want to know what's happening! But the words are getting in the way right now.

Let the duel happen. Leave off that first bit of dialogue--opening with the Lady hiding behind a tree at the start of a duel is so exciting! Let us be there. Let us smell it. Let us feel the damp of the foggy air.

I would encourage shorter sentences and fewer compound structures. Let the action unfold and sweep us away. I honestly don't even need to know exactly who these people are just yet--show me the duel, the fears, the reason it is happening and why that concerns your MC.

Good luck! Can't wait to read this one.