Friday, May 10, 2013

First Page Friday

This was a very interesting critique and I hope you read it and answer Ms. Shreditor's question:  What do you think of semi-colons in dialogue?

As always I'm so grateful for the time and effort put into First Page Fridays.  I always learn so much!  If you would like to submit your work, please follow the guidelines in the sidebar.

See you next week!

The Entry
Until Shiloh Comes
by Robert M. Starr

October, 1876

The little girl at the piano was the first to see him ride over the ridge and down into the Montana valley that was her home.

“Rider coming, Mother, leading a packhorse,” she said, as she continued to play.

Sarah Hadley walked to the window beside the piano and looked across the wide expanse of grass. The rider was far enough away to be still only a dark silhouette against the pale brown of the autumn grass, but the young woman’s breath caught momentarily as she watched him. The rider sat his horse like the cavalry officer her late husband had been. How many times, she wondered, had she watched Jonathan ride across that grass in just such a manner, leading a packmule in from a hunting trip or from a trip to town for supplies?

“Keep practicing, Hannah; he is still a long way off.”

Sarah left the window, went out onto the wide porch on the front of the house and stood by one of the massive columns that supported the balcony above. She looked again to measure the rider’s progress then turned toward the barn and corrals to look for Caleb Stohr, the one man who had remained on the ranch through the trouble of the past two years. She saw him working his way around the corrals and the creek, approaching the house out of sight of the coming rider. As he reached the side of the house, she moved to the end of the porch to speak to him.

“Caleb, do you suppose he is looking for work?” she asked. “This time of year, he might be looking for a place to spend the winter.”

Ms. Shreditor's Comments

The excerpt that came to me was four pages, so I cut it off after the first page for review purposes. I’ll use this as an opportunity to review 

Julie’s submission guidelines: one double-spaced page of text in 12-point font. I have to be a stickler for this because, as I’ve mentioned in past columns, failing to follow submissions guidelines will land your hard work in a slush pile or recycling bin. Read the guidelines carefully, because they will likely be more complex than those for First Page Friday.

Now, the critique:

I knew from the date in the chapter heading that this would be historical fiction. What came as a surprise was how engaging it was from the outset. Historicals are tough; a writer has to present characters living in a long-gone era in a way that resonates with modern-day readers. They must establish setting and historical context without information dumping.

It’s so rare that I read an unpublished one that fires on all the right cylinders. This page, however, does just that. It lays down some compelling storyline fodder: the fact that Sarah is a widow/single mother, the mysterious “trouble of the past two years” on her ranch, and the arrival of a male stranger. These are all timeless story components. A writer could tackle any one of the above conflicts just as easily in a contemporary story, so they work well in a historical setting.

There is a nice balance between narrative and dialogue here. There’s enough interaction with other characters (namely, Hannah and Caleb) to establish immediate connections, but there’s also enough narration to ground the reader in the Montana setting and lay the groundwork for the central storylines. Combined, these elements leave me feeling complete, as if this first page has accomplished just about everything it needs to.

The writing is generally well edited. There isn’t much I would correct beyond a few punctuation marks here and there, but the second line of dialogue presents an opportunity for debate. Sarah says, “Keep practicing, Hannah; he is still a long way off.” In the strictest grammatical sense, the semicolon is correct; it links two independent clauses. However, some grammarians discourage the use of semicolons in dialogue because it’s too formal. I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this. My Chicago Manual of Style is at the office, and I can’t remember the “official” verdict. (To all writers reading this blog: If you don’t have a copy of CMS, I’d strongly recommend getting one. It’s the encyclopedia of bookmaking and the style guide of choice for many book publishers.)

This piece deserves an audience because it delivers so much of what a reader is looking for on a first page. Again, make sure to read submission guidelines carefully and follow them to the letter. Otherwise, there isn’t much to be done here.


Debra Erfert said...

I don't mind semicolons. It is proper, and the use of it don't slow my reading down as much as the warning that it was going to be used. I enjoyed the story, so far, and I'd like to read the rest of it.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

I liked this story, too. :) I think it's weird to put semi-colons in dialogue, but that's just me.

Jane Marie said...

I liked it and didn't think the semicolon was improper at all. I think it was better than breaking the line into two sentences. I don't read historical fiction, and I don't read cowboy stuff, but this first page left me wanting to read whatever this is.

Kristine Nielson said...

I read right past the semicolon without noticing it. Then again, I use a lot of semicolons in my writing.

I have to agree with everyone else. This is a great first page, that would suck me into the book, and I don't read historical fiction often.

Robert M Starr said...

Thank you very much for the critique from Ms. Shreditor, and for the additional comments regarding the semicolon. I apologize for the failure to follow the correct guidelines. I sent the post based on guidelines I read on Authonomy's forum. I believe they asked for the first chapter rather than the first page, but I will have to double-check to be certain (I've grown old, and my photographic memory has been out of film since 1993 - in this digital age, film is no longer available;^). I entered Until Shiloh Comes in the most recent Deep River Books Writer's Contest; as a finalist in the fiction category, the book was awarded a Certificate of Merit. It is currently available on Amazon as an eBook in Kindle format.

I'll have to obtain a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. As a newspaper writer, I believe my editor used the New York style book, and, having been educated many years ago, much of what I was taught has fallen out of favor, so I've recently been using an online version of the U of W style book to resolve conflicts between my time-fogged memory and modern preferences.