Friday, September 9, 2011

First Page Friday

What a week this has been with hops and prizes and campaign challenges! I’m ready to sit down and enjoy a First Page Friday.

(For my new followers, it is a well-known fact that sometimes editors and agents don't get beyond your first page if it isn't stellar. My blog has a national editor we affectionately call Ms. Shreditor, who tries to help us polish our work by offering first page critiques every Friday. It's been very helpful for me as well, because when I read her comments to other writers, I can usually apply her thoughts to my own writing. If you want to submit, guidelines are in my sidebar.)

Here it this week's entry!

The Entry

by Charlie Moore

Murky water lapped against the hull of the Ellen Maria, docked at Liverpool harbor. A seasonably warm January rain shower off the coast moistened the faces of Henry Brown, his wife Catherine Maria and their children with a silky satin sheen. Light shone through breaks in the darkened sky promising partial sunshine for the first part of their voyage. Hundreds of Saints milled around the dock waiting to board the ship. Many had heard the missionaries from a new church not long before and accepted their message. Now they waited for new promises of opportunity in the land called Zion. In January, on the 22nd day, in the year of our Lord 1852, Henry Brown, a bricklayer by trade, along with his wife, Catherine Maria (called Maria) and their children, Henry, William, Samuel, Cyrus, James and Julia boarded the ship with other Saints hoping for the same dream. They were called the “poor company” because they were the first group of Saints to sail on monies from the Perpetual Immigration Fund. The church, through the inspiration of the prophet, set up an account to help people get to Zion who didn’t have sufficient means. They were expected to find work when they arrived in Zion and repay the debt thereby allowing the church to help others who’d come later.

“When will we be in Zion?” seven year old Samuel asked his father.

“The journey is long, Samuel,” Henry Brown said to his inquisitive son. “We must cross the ocean followed by a long trek on land in America before we reach the Prophet and the land of Zion.”

Ms. Shreditor’s Comments

Historical narratives can be tricky. The author has to establish historical context in short order while simultaneously hooking the reader. And, as is true for any first page, the reader must connect somehow with the main character.

This first page needs some work on those fronts. It bombards us with a lot of historical information and characters at once. Rather than speaking to us, it talks at us. At a time when the narrative should be a page-turner, it is flooded with historical factoids and extraneous details that distance us from the main characters. Much of the second paragraph reads like an encyclopedia entry about the “poor country” Saints. Right now, the readers are swimming in the very “murky water” we encounter in the first sentence. They need direction.

They also need a clearer sense of what’s at stake here. We know that the Brown family is about to embark on a journey to Zion. I sense that this is an oft-told tale in LDS historical fiction. So what makes this story different? What makes these characters unique? At this juncture, the reader needs something eye-catching to propel him/her to page two. Right now, it’s somewhat nondescript.

So what can you do to beef up the first page? Think about the story you want to tell. Is it about the pressures Henry faces as the head of the family? Is it the tale of a tough journey or the adjustments a family has to make in a new community? Will the story involve primarily the journey or the family’s new life in Zion—or something else entirely? In other words, what central conflict will drive the narrative?

Once you have a sense of these things, you can craft a first page with all the meat and none of the fat. You can get right down to the business at hand, which is not a rote recitation of a story from a safe distance, but a vivid exploration of both external and internal conflicts.

Also, as always, I advise all authors to copyedit their submissions thoroughly—or, ideally, have someone else do it. A polished first page reflects effort, professionalism, and sophistication.

I’d like to thank Charlie and Ms. Shreditor for their time and participation. I hope it was helpful.

See you next week!


Nikki Jefford said...

First Page Friday – I love it! And great pointers. It’s helpful to learn by example.

I just emailed the first page of my YA paranormal novel.

Last week I skimmed Noah Lukeman’s “The First Five Pages.” Beginning books and stories has always been one of my biggest challenges. I’m told time and again I began at the wrong place. Grrr, so tired of rewriting opening chapters over and over.

Melanie Goldmund said...

January in Liverpool is usually cold, so the light rain would be "unseasonably warm" instead of seasonably warm.

I don't know, I've always liked Jeff Savage's advice about starting your story off with something exciting, something that grabs the reader's attention and makes them want to read on. I'm sure that's as true for historical novels as it is for contemporary thrillers.

Janice Sperry said...

First pages are so hard! I can't count the number of times I've rewritten mine. But each time I rewrite, it gets better. (I hope) Start with some action that shows who your characters are. You don't have to tell us the son is inquisitive because he just asked a question.

Sarah Tokeley said...

I think the thing that stood out for me was the fact that Henry and his wife were introduced twice in two paragraphs.

Well done to the writer for submitting!

Charlie Moore said...

This first page is basically crap - it would appear. Nobody's writing is going to please everybody, but evidently this page didn't please anybody. I guess it's a good thing I'm an old man with a thick skin. I do respect the suggestions and other comments and appreciate them. I knew when I submitted this page it needed revision to a point. That is the point of doing this. Wouldn't make much sense if the only comment was "this is great, no problems at all."

This story is fictional in the context that I'm making up some individual scenes as I develop it. However, the characters are all real people. Samuel Brown, whom this story revolves around, is my GG grandfather. Many events (good and bad) occur in his life that make this a story to be told. At least I feel that way on a personal level. So I will make some changes and keep plugging along.

Thank you to everybody.


Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Charlie, I don't think it's crap at all! I think it has potential, and Ms. Shreditor was trying to help you figure out a great beginning. It's also interesting that this is based on real people. Is it more biography than fiction then? Because that totally changes the ball game.

It's sounds like you're a bit upset and I'm sorry about that. I thought it was a great reminder that beginnings that pull us in, especially in historical, can be difficult, but are not impossible.

I hope you let us know how this piece ends up. And thank you for submitting. I truly do think it was helpful for everyone.

Unknown said...

What a great thing you're doing here. I love finding blogs that offer such awesome critiques, and very helpful!!

I have to say to Charlie that nothing worth critiquing is crap. If they offer suggestions it's because they can see potential!! There is definite potential!!!

Anonymous said...

Charlie, every single line is one that should be used to good effect in your novel, just not in the same paragraph. They're all wonderful lines of description. The ONLY problem is that lines of description contain no story. Description has no elemnts of plot. And, unless you're really crafty and skilled, no characterization either--though you have done a very good job of characterizing your setting, so I do commend you for doing that rather skillfully. Well done!. All you have to do now is take your ms up a few notches like Ms. Shreditor suggests by including some lines of story, plot, and possibly a line or two of interior dialogue (or plain old dialogue) to show your characters' "reactions" to the story that motivates their actions.

Introduce your story along with your setting by intersperings some lines of plot along with your lines that set the scene and you'll be amazed at how interesting your first page becomes by adding just a few lines of story along with your WONDERFUL descriptions. And they are simply beautiful lines. There is nothing wrong with them. They just need some lines of plot TOO.

Something like:

Henry Brown hurried his wife, Catherine, and their children up the Ellen Maria's gang plank. He ignored the call of the first class steerage master to present their passage or be turned out directly and hid his family in the ship's hold before Liverpool's constable came round the corner at harbor street and vine and found them with the Mormons. The freedom of a handcart and the promise of a Zion in the desert suddenly held a brighter prospect than the throes of Liverpool's debtor's prison.

An unseasonably warm January rain shower off the coast pitter-patted against the porthole and Henry wiped clean the fogged-over glass. The constable, Isaac Botherington, turned off harbor street and began searching among the hundreds of saints still waiting to board. "Take the children to second class steerage." Henry handed Catherine their passage. "You'll be safe there. He'll not find any of you."

"You're not going to confront the constable."

"I'll deal with this."

"He spies you and this will be the end for us."

"There is no end for you and I. Never forget that." Henry kissed her on the cheek, then left her and the children in the hold and started back down the gang plank.