Friday, August 16, 2013

First Page Friday

I'm excited for today's First Page Friday because we're talking about introducing characters.

As always, thank you to our author and editor for all their time and effort.  If you would like your first page critiqued by a national editor please submit your double-spaced 12 pt. font first page to

See you next week!

The Entry
by Ellen Bahnsen

“Are you ready to take on Graham by yourself,” Bruce asked.

“Yes, I am,” Jillian lied. Jillian McConaghy sat with her supervisor Raina Goldstein and her husband Bruce for dinner at Budekan restaurant in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Raina and Bruce were leaving Monday morning for a long-deserved, one-month cruise along the Mediterranean. She wondered if Raina knew how she felt about their boss. Jillian feared to be alone with Graham. Never, ever would she tell to anyone, but she had a huge crush – more than a crush – on their boss, the young and attractive Graham Parker. She was in love with the out-of-wedlock son of Arthur Bosch, owner, CEO, and President of Bosch Consolidated.

Raina had told Jillian in her initial interview that she worked at Bosch Consolidated for over twenty-five years and worked for Graham Parker the young Chief Operating Officer for the last two. Jillian worked as Raina’s assistant the summer before her senior year at college and since she graduated five months ago. Jillian held a degree in public relations from Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey; however, the recession only afforded her the opportunity to work as a secretary for a holding company in Center City Philadelphia. Bosch Consolidated, outside of its main shipping business, owned several companies, including a real estate agency and a small public relations firm in which she hoped to transfer eventually. She needed to prove herself first with Raina and then with Graham.

After Bruce paid the check, he escorted the ladies from the table. Jillian spied Neal Bosch, the young Chief Financial Officer at Bosch Consolidated and Graham’s half-brother. He sat at the bar watching her. A tall, statuesque brunette-haired woman sat next to him observing the door with impatience. Jillian thought Neal approachable and very attractive. He gave her a charming smile so she smiled back. She heard the office gossip about Graham and Neal. They were born six months apart with Neal as the oldest. Arthur Bosch had an affair with Graham’s mother while married to Neal’s mother. She also knew Mr. Bosch had two older daughters from his first marriage, a younger son, Bryce, who also worked at Bosch Consolidated, from his third marriage, and now there were twin, six-year old girls from Mr. Bosch’s fourth marriage. Graham was one of seven children – all half siblings.

Heidi Brockbank from Eschler Editing Comments

What Works

The Bosch family’s rather unconventional genesis could be very interesting. There’s definitely material here for satire, social commentary, or dark humor. You’ve also put a lot of thought into adding details to help establish the setting and bring the reader up to speed with what I assume is going to be a central issue to the story, given the amount of focus on Graham and his unusual family dynamics. However, you want to be careful not to go the other direction and overwhelm your audience with so much information all at once.

Things to Consider 

There is a multitude of people/relationships the reader has to track. Imagine being set down in the middle of a party with people you’ve never met, and having all these introductions and backgrounds and relationships given to you in two minutes, and then you spend the rest of the party totally befuddled about who’s who and what’s what. That’s what too much info can do to the best of readers. In this beginning, we are introduced to seventeen characters, either by name or implication: Jillian, her supervisor Raina, Raina’s husband Bruce, Jillian’s boss Graham, his father Arthur Bosch and his half-brothers Neal and Bryce, a nameless brunette who appears to be with Neal, Arthur’s two daughters from another marriage, Graham’s mother that Arthur had an affair with, twin daughters from yet another marriage, not to mention his four marriages. Assuming all (or most) of these people know each other to some degree, that’s 136 different relationships created by that group. And they are all complete strangers to the reader. You see the problem.

Another problem I see right at the start—it’s unclear that Bruce is Raina’s husband. I had to read the paragraph twice before I realized that Jillian wasn’t calmly sending her husband off on vacation with another woman. I’d look for ways to avoid bringing an unnecessary character at this point—so give Bruce the ax, at least for the time being. He’s part and parcel of the plethora of people we don't know anything about so we can't instantly make the right connections.

Aside from characters, the reader also has to try and keep straight their titles, the corporate structure of Bosch Consolidated, Jillian’s resume and work history, and the Goldstein’s travel plans. While it’s true that you want to give enough information in the first pages of a story so that your audience can get their bearings and have an idea of what is going on, information on this magnitude can drown the reader and wash them out to sea before they even get to the good part of the story. More importantly, too much information too soon leaves no room for more essential information: thoughts, feelings, emotions, and motivations.

The main thing is that you want to give good information to the reader. Too little information can be just as deadly to your story as too much. But the information has to be timely and relevant and must aid in setting up the story-worthy problem and engaging our curiosity right from the start. A lot of the information in this opening could wait for a few more pages, or even a few more chapters.

Where’s the Problem?

In addition, I can’t find the real hook in any of this. It may be there, hidden from view, or the excess info may simply be acting like a magician’s sleight of hand to hide the fact that there really isn’t a substantial hook. Where is the problem for the main character? What is the event that is changing his/her world?

There’s the out-of-wedlock son. This would be a grave problem in a regency romance. An illegitimate child could not inherit the lands or the title. Graham would not be able to play a major role at his father’s company or even possibly be allowed to mingle in polite society. Nowadays, this doesn’t hold the same onus. Even if your personal ethics or creed has reservations against having children outside of marriage, and even though children born outside of marriage have definite financial, educational, and social disadvantages, society has shifted completely in how they are received in general, so I don’t see that being a big stumbling block in Jillian’s relationship with Graham.

Jillian has a crush on the boss—pretty typical if your boss is handsome and you are young and na├»ve. But I’m not sure that’s gripping enough to be the story-worthy problem. She’s scared of him, but I’d guess shy is a more accurate description. Unless you want to imply that she’s attracted to him, but he has a dark side that she’s seen hints of in the past. That could get our attention.

Showing versus Telling:

You want to swap out some of the telling for showing. Give us a more interactive scene with Jillian as the central player. What if this story started with women at the office cooler dishing over their hot boss? Jillian could be part of the conversation, but at the same time, you could show her internal thoughts as counterpoint to the outward conversation. The reader could compare/contrast the women’s attitudes to Graham next to Jillian’s, who could be cool, nonchalant, or flippant on the outside, but inside, she could be in the throes of a massive, unrequited crush. You could even have Graham walk by and interact with the women. Would he be charming and flirt with them? Would he be all work and no play, and growl at them to get back to work? You’ve got a lot of ways to introduce us to the hero and heroine.

Every story needs a story-worthy problem. For romance, a good working model is to have a short-term problem and a long-term problem. These could be thought of as a surface or external problem which brings the couple together and a deeper, often internal problem, such as a character flaw or painful experience in their past that creates conflict and presents a barrier that makes it difficult for the couple to be together. Graham’s family history has potential for lots of emotional pain. He may be distrustful of relationships in general, due to his father’s poor example of marital fidelity. Jillian should have her own internal problems. Without these deeper problems adding conflict and tension to the story, you end up with weak tea.

Your Next Steps

Consider limiting the number of characters to three or less in the opening page. You’ve got an entire book to introduce the rest of the gang, giving the reader a chance to get to know them one by one.

Show more, tell less. Use action and dialogue to create a scene that lets the reader experience the unfolding events without relying too much on narrative summary. Instead of telling the readers about Graham’s unusual family, let them experience it through the characters’ interactions with each other. There is room for telling, but keep the balance tilted to more showing and you’ll end up with a more engaging story.

Check out Leigh Michael’s On Writing Romance. It has lots of great examples on how to work short and long-term problems into your plot.

I’m interested to see where you go with this story. A well-written romance is fun and entertaining. It’s always satisfying to see two people overcome the obstacles that keep them apart and find true happiness. Best of luck and happy writing!

1 comment:

Debra Erfert said...

This is what I call a classic info dump. Heidi was too sweet to call it that, of course. She's a professional, and I'm, well, not. I also noticed that the entry was too long of a submission. I confirmed it when I copied and pasted it to a document. Yep, too long by a whole paragraph. Why is this important? So glad you asked. I've been querying a manuscript to literary agents this past month, and each agent has specific guidelines. If you don't follow them exactly, then I'm sure they are too happy to delete the submission without further thought.

I have to admit that I was confused at the many characters introduced, and unlike Heidi, I was put off with the whole idea of the casualness of Graham being an "out-of-wedlock" son as something totally acceptable. To me it isn't. There are still things a person should feel shame for. And although Graham didn't do anything wrong, his mother and father certainly did! It shows great lack of decency and character. Therefore, I think, this might be something better revealed later in the story, and the rumors of the age disparity grind around the office.

But that's my opinion.