Friday, August 30, 2013

First Page Friday

So glad it's Friday and we get another installment of First Page Friday!  Today we are talking a bit about hooks and backstory, something we can all work on I think. 

As always, thank you to our editors and authors who go to so much time and effort so we can all learn the craft of writing.

If you would like your first page critiqued by our amazing editors, submit your double-spaced, 12 pt font, first page to  We have two openings left in September, so hurry and submit! Critiques are scheduled in the order in which they are received.

See you next week!

The Entry
The Night is Gone

by A.R. Talley

Tristan didn’t remember his driveway being quite so long. The last time he had seen it, the trees lining the pavement were gray and bare. Now the oaks were in full bloom and alive with the green of a warm, wet summer. Tristan wondered what the other kids at the Midpoint Center for Drug and Alcohol Addiction would think of his home and his life here. Most shared a life similar to his—wealthy, respected in the community—the illusion of perfect families.

Even considering their shared backgrounds and addictions, Tristan had been different from the rest. Most of the kids were bored—turned to substance abuse for entertainment or rebellion. Most of them had come from broken homes where parents tried to make amends with money and leniency. Tristan’s home wasn’t broken—at least not in that sense. He had been raised in an atmosphere of family devotion and religious straightjackets. But, perhaps straightjacket was too harsh a word.

As all 7000 square feet of the brick colonial that he called home came into sight, Tristan knew on some level he had taken his privileged life for granted. His family was better than what most of those kids had. And he had almost squandered it for a momentary escape from standards he thought impossible to keep. No. He knew they were impossible to keep. But in retrospect, he wished he could. He really did want his life to be different now.

“We made some changes to your bedroom,” his mother said somewhat apologetically. Tristan had watched her closely in the mostly silent drive from the airport. Allison McKinney was petite, with a flair of auburn hair that she always wore up in some kind of hair clip. The only time Tristan could remember seeing his mother with her hair down was when he was little, when he and his twin sister, Tessa, would climb into her bed early in the morning for a cuddle. As a little boy, he remembered feeling proud—he had the prettiest mother of any of his friends.

“What kind of changes,” he asked.

“It may appear a bit Spartan to you,” his father answered.

Comments by Heidi From Eschler Editing

What works:

The writing is solid, grammatically clean, with no major mistakes. It is a promising enough start, with perhaps the exception of too much backstory, which is easily resolved by starting at a different point in time. You’ve got great potential here for a human drama full of pain, struggle, and conflict. The nature of the struggle has got lots of room for your character to grow over the course of the story. So let’s look at a few things that could get in the way of a great story.

What needs re-thinking:

  • At this point, we don’t have any solid reason to become emotionally invested in the main character, and you need that emotional connection to go from good to great. What reason do we really have to care for this character? The initial perception is that Tristan is whiny and perhaps a bit spoiled. 
His “excuse” for his actions is that he couldn’t keep “impossible standards.” That may come across the reader like he was too weak to keep them. What standards are being referred to here? Staying out of drugs or alcohol? Know lots of people who kept that one. No sleeping around? Know a lot that kept that also. Keep up good grades? While working to help the family? And being honest and kind? Ditto. My guess is that most of your audience will have kept some standard or another, and to them, this will immediately sound like the cop-out that it is (he wasn’t bored into drugs—no, it was his religious family that made him do it). Even if there was a real extenuating circumstance, we don’t know that yet, so this is what people will be likely to think. No standards are impossible to keep. History is full of examples who held themselves to values (also plenty of examples of people who didn’t with sad results). So basically, he’s not strong enough to keep a rule?

  • Tristan wondered what the other kids at the Midpoint Center for Drug and Alcohol Addiction would think of his home and his life here. Most shared a life similar to his—wealthy, respected in the community—the illusion of perfect families. But his life isn’t similar to the other kids. For one, his family doesn’t appear to be broken in the traditional sense. And it’s stated that he isn’t bored. The only similarity seems to be the wealth. Also, if the kids come from broken families, how are those families maintaining the illusion of perfection? Mixed signals here.
Another vague message: He had been raised in an atmosphere of family devotion and religious straightjackets. Talk about opposite ends of the spectrum: family devotion co-existing with fanaticism?

But, perhaps straightjacket was too harsh a word. So is he backpedaling? Should we assume that this is just his opinion—and one that may be distorted at that? The line about religious strait-jackets is good because it catches our attention and pushes buttons but we have no evidence that his family is fanatic other than his opinion. The idea could be really intriguing if you expanded more on defining the strait-jacket rather than leaving it to the reader—in this isolated case—because our assumptions don't bond us. But it has potential.
  • Speaking of family, it is odd that we have three whole paragraphs where we don’t even know his parents are there. Then we get a bit of a tangent about his mother’s hair and appearance, but it doesn’t seem to have much relevance to the story. Perhaps it does, but this may not be the best place to explore that. 
  • No driving force. What is the real problem of the story going to be? The conflict is poorly defined—we have a hint of past conflict (he’s coming home from rehab) and we can guess about future potential conflict, but it’s unspoken, vague. In non-fiction, you have a thesis statement. Usually within the first paragraph or page, you tell your audience what your essay/article is about. Fiction actually works better when you borrow that rule—let your audience know quickly what the conflict/problem is going to be. In this case, is it that Tristan is weak enough that he is going to risk falling back? Did he fall in with a bad crowd and they are going to try and drag him down again?
Or will it be conflict with his family? His mother? His father? A younger sibling that is going down the wrong path? A dysfunctional family? In that case, what is the underlying problem in the family, beyond pat answers like “religious strait-jackets”?
  • How long was he in rehab? Why the Spartan room? The reason for that escapes me. Is he likely to be suicidal? Is this punishment from his family? Seems very strange without explanation. 
  • We are in Tristan’s head a lot (that can be good) but opening with more action would create more intensity. He’s driving (or being driven) and thinking and looking at how the scenery has changed, and unless he’s got amazing, compelling thoughts, it’s kind of slight. Action is better, or at least more dialogue. Show more, tell less. Instead of so much explaining and labeling Tristan’s emotions, try instead to demonstrate them with his action, body language, and dialogue.
Next Steps: 
  • Consider starting the story someplace where you get more action, more bang for your buck. For instance, Tristan walking back into class? The whispers and stares from the other kids in the hallway. Having one of his old friends try to talk him back into his addiction? Have his dealer confront him in the parking lot at high school?
  • Let the reader know upfront what the main conflict will be, or at least hint at it. 
  • Look for places to show instead of tell. Telling plays an important role in most stories, so you don’t need to avoid it completely. Just be sure that you keep it balanced with plenty of action and dialogue. 
Everyone loves a story where the protagonist overcomes their weaknesses and redeems themselves. If that’s where your story is heading, that could be a great read. Even if you take off on another angle, it seems like you’ve got lots of room for creating a story packed with emotion and drama.

Happy writing and best of luck.

1 comment:

Debra Erfert said...

I know this has no bearing on the critique, but I love the name Tristan.

Great critique, Heidi! All solid points to think about for a first page. I learn something important each Friday when I click onto this post.