On to First Page Friday. As always, if you'd like to have your first page critiqued, just email it to firstname.lastname@example.org with First Page Friday in the subject line. Remember to keep it double-spaced!
Emma: A Latter-day Tale
by Rebecca Jamison
My best friend was on her honeymoon, and I deserved a vacation myself, which was sort of what I got. A blizzard blew in a few hours after we dropped the newlyweds off at the airport, leaving us with no electricity, an unplowed street, and a refrigerator full of reception leftovers. Chicken salad anyone?
That was one good thing about living in Northern Virginia—a foot of snow meant no school or work for a few days. Still, it was nothing like Hawaii. Instead of lying on the beach in the sun, I split wood while the wind whipped through my hair and stung my face.
I wasn’t sorry when Justin Knightly came up the driveway because I was sure he’d take over the splitting. Justin stopped in front of me. “Does your dad know you’re using an axe?”
I swung the axe up over my head. “Twenty-three is old enough to use an axe. It’s a good way to work out my frustration.”
Justin stepped back. “Agreed.”
I pointed to the window above us, where Dad stood watching. “He’s ready with the first aid kit,” I said.
Justin wore a backpack and his ski gear. He also wore the relaxed grin of a guy who hadn’t shaved that morning. “Okay, Red, you look like you need a rest. Why don’t you let me takeover?”
I swung the axe against the log. “I’m not a red-head anymore.”
He laughed. “I keep forgetting. It must be the light.” Justin’s hair was in between blond and brown. He wore it short, which made it harder to tell what color his hair was. Mine was auburn.
I handed over the axe. “You know I hate it when people act like my hair color is all about me having a bad temper.”
Angela and Heidi's Comments
Wanted: A Sassy Attitude and a Good Sense of Humor
Our heroine has good “voice” and an ironic sense of humor. You can tell she’s going to have a bit of attitude, in a wry sort of way. I loved it when she says her dad’s standing by with the first aid kit. She’s also going to be a bit spunky; energetically working off her frustration by chopping wood on a cold, windy day clues us in to who we’re dealing with. This character has a distinct personality and promises to keep the reader entertained.
The whole “Does your dad know you’re using an ax?” bit is a great way to sneak in her age without feeling artificial. It also shows off Justin’s personality and sense of humor.
Same goes for the “I’m not a red-head anymore” line. It provides a potentially nice segue into the characters’ hair color and starts building an image of them in the reader’s mind, without being too awkwardly obvious. Then there’s some more humor (although we don’t get the punch line until the next paragraph) when she states that her hair color is auburn. (The distance between the red-hair bit and the auburn bit might create confusion and people would miss the joke. Putting it in dialogue would help with that delay. See my suggestion at the end of this paragraph.) But talk about splitting hairs – that’s still a red-head. And if her hair is naturally red, she’s still technically a red-head, even if she’s dyed it another shade. So nice humor, but at the same, we’re getting a little insight into this character. Obviously, she has issues with her hair. And with people judging her based solely on it. It sounds like she may have even gone so far as to dye it in order to escape the stigma (real or perceived.) (I would possibly massage that bit just a little more, as it can be confusing. Let’s find out Justin’s hair color through a joke or something—a blond joke maybe? Why would someone so familiar with Justin suddenly think about his hair color? Let’s have a firmer reason to get his visual stats. And she says she’s not a red-head, but then notes she’s auburn after that. Many readers would think it’s the same thing and thus be confused—would miss the joke. Maybe clarify in dialogue that red and auburn aren’t the same. He could say they are, and she can argue they aren’t, having firm conviction in her dye job.)
The other character, Justin, is very likeable. He comes across as easy-going and affable.
So we’ve got interesting, likeable characters with distinct personalities and a sense of the setting. You also have a sense of some problems in the heroine’s life, although nothing seems too insurmountable. There are some good questions being generated by this opening:
Is Red lonely with her best friend gone and happily married?
Is Red frustrated because she is tired from helping with the wedding, or because she is jealous she isn’t someplace warm and sunny, or rather because she hasn’t found her own happily ever after yet?
She’s 23 and appears to be at home. Does she live there still, or is she just visiting? And who is Justin Knightly? The boy next door? He seems to have an easy familiarity with Red, so it’s possible he’s someone she’s known a long time. He’s comfortable teasing her, and while she may be annoyed at that, she also looks at him as someone she can depend on (at least to take over her chores). If readers are going to invest several hours of their time with these characters, they want them to be fun or interesting, and Red and Justin promise to be both.
A Grand Opening
A solid opening should create questions, and this one does, but questions by themselves don’t always constitute a reliable hook. Questions can arouse curiosity, and sometimes curiosity alone can do the trick.
Take, for instance, the first line from Barbara Hambly’s The Silicon Mage: “The worst thing about knowing that Gary Fairchild had been dead for a month was seeing him every day at work.”
Or Margaret Hendry’s Quest for a Maid: “When I was nine years old, I hid under a table and heard my sister kill a king.”
Or Ingrid Law’s Savvy: “When my brother Fish turned thirteen, we moved to the deepest part of inland because of the hurricane, and of course, the fact that he’d caused it.”
Or Dean Koontz’s Relentless: “This is a thing I’ve learned: even with a gun to my head, I am capable of being convulsed with laughter. I am not sure what this extreme capacity for mirth says about me. You’ll have to decide for yourself.”
Or Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians: “So there I was, tied to an altar made from outdated encyclopedias, about to get sacrificed to the dark powers by a cult of evil Librarians.”
In these cases, we know nothing about the main characters, not even their names, gender, or appearance, but which of us wouldn’t want to keep reading until we solve the riddle the opening sentence has created?
If you can create a zinger of a first line, one that shocks or thrills or mystifies or charms or makes the reader laugh out loud, do it. It’s practically the first commandment of writing a novel. But remember that a good hook often extends beyond the first sentence. You can make your first paragraph, first page, and entire first chapter into a hook that makes your reader crave more, compels them to hurry on to the next line and the next page without pause. To create your own reliable hook, I think we need to extend it just a little further (into something distinctly at stake for the protagonist).
We’ve Got Trouble, Right Here in River City
So, as noted above, a good way to extend the hook is to put something at stake for the main character. Given how competitive publishable, marketable storytelling is these days, your opening scene should—if at all possible—contain the inciting incident. Les Edgerton in Hooked describes this as “…the event that creates the character’s initial surface problem and introduces the first inklings of the story-worthy problem.” In short, you’ve got to introduce trouble, chaos, and mayhem into the protagonist’s world. If you don’t got trouble, you don’t got story. The sooner you can get to the crux of the trouble, the better for your story.
Depending on the genre and style of your story, the trouble can range from an asteroid on collision with the earth to a kidnapped child to being fired by the boss. But trouble comes in all shapes and sizes. A romantic comedy won’t have end-of-the-world types of trouble, but things will go wrong in the protagonist’s life, and they can still pack the emotional punch of that rogue asteroid. (If it’s finally facing being alone due to the best friend, that needs to come out more, along with clarity on how big this is for your character—as well as how Justin might exacerbate such a problem. I didn’t get a clear sense of their relationship or relationship potential or relationship-conflict potential; does she feel annoyed to see him, relieved, repressed excitement, depressed? A little more emotional intensity/complexity there will help draw us in to their potential conflict or relationship).
For this story, we don’t have enough info to confidently label the genre, although it appears to be leaning toward the lighter end of the spectrum, either rom-com or lighter romantic suspense. Introducing trouble at the right spot (the beginning) can help clear this confusion up, because the type of trouble can let the reader know what type of story to expect. Your mission is to find the best way to show that trouble in the first paragraph or page, if possible, and if not, it still must be done in the first chapter, and you need to give major hints in the first page that trouble is on its way. It may seem formulaic, but it’s the new norm for novels today, although it isn’t necessarily a new concept. Even the ancient Greek playwrights understood the importance of this concept – for instance Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, which introduces the inciting incident in the very first scene.
Trouble = Happy Readers
So give the readers trouble, and they will be happy. Right now, Red’s only trouble seems to be that she wishes she were on the beach in Hawaii rather than snowbound in Virginia. That—and the fact that she’s been cursed with red hair.
You’ve got appealing characters, strong voice, and a nice touch of humor. Now throw some trouble into the brew, and you’ll have the start of something good.
Thank you to Rebecca, Angela, and Heidi for all their hard work. See you next week!