Welcome to the July First Page Workshop with some of our past and present PitchWars mentors. From a Rafflecopter lottery drawing, we selected many wonderful writers to participate in the workshop. Each mentor has graciously critiqued a first page for one lucky writer. The writers are anonymous. Follow along all month to view the first page critiques. We welcome comments and further suggestions, but please keep them kind and respectful.
Rachel Lynn Solomon is a contemporary YA writer, educator, and tap dancer living in Seattle. She is represented by Molly Jaffa of Folio Literary Management.
I pull another plump hornworm from a tomato plant in the garden and drop it in the cloth bag. [As far as first lines go, this one doesn’t hook me as much as it could. It’s a bit wordy and has quite a few prepositions (from, in, in). You could easily cut “in the garden,” but even then, I would still push for a snappier opening. What is the most interesting part of this scene you’re setting? Is this your MC’s job, rounding up dinner? It sounds like he enjoys it, but I can’t tell from this first sentence. Could you pump some more emotion into it?] Those are the juiciest ones. There must be about two pounds of them writhing around in the bottom of the bag. Dinner is going to be good tonight. Fried in some oil with a little salt and pepper. Delicious. My mouth waters. [This description does a nice job showing us that wherever we are—in the future, I assume—food is scarce enough that people are eating worms. I don’t know if this is the strongest opening paragraph, though. It doesn’t feel quite dynamic enough for me. I like your second paragraph much more!]
The tomato plants in rows leading up to the north concrete wall are covered with them. The trick is to let them eat enough so they get big, but not too much so they destroy the plant. It’s all about balance. Controlling variables. [I love this paragraph. It has a great rhythm to it, and it also fleshes out your MC, who I assume has some kind of interest in botany/gardening/science. I wonder if there’s a way to open with this instead, with some kind of reflection on the hornworms? This is more interesting to me than your first paragraph because it shows us a lot about your MC in just a few sentences.]
There’s a big hornworm deep inside a plant, gnawing on a leaf. I reach into the plant and inhale the earthy scent of the leaves. Smells like summer. [Is it summer now? If not, does your MC long for summer? I’d love more context.] As I pluck the worm from the branch, the ground rumbles and a large boom erupts outside the wall. A plume of fiery black smoke billows up. I can’t tell where exactly. But it’s close. Maybe a few compounds down the road. [I can’t quite gauge Jax’s reaction to the boom. Is he scared? How does fear manifest for him?]
“Jax,” Dad yells.
I look to the shed on the other side of the compound yard where Dad is tending the geothermal water pump. Our eyes lock. The realness of it takes a moment to sink in. It’s not a drill this time. It’s actually happening. I had hoped it never would. [This intrigues me; I definitely want to know what it is that’s “actually happening” and isn’t a drill!]
“Get your mother and brother into the shelter,” he yells. [Dad yelled in the previous line of dialogue. Can this dialogue tag simply be “said”?] His greasy fingers rush to assemble the last couple parts. If we lock ourselves in the shelter, we’ll need the pump working so we’ll have power. [I’m having trouble picturing the pump. Could you give us a few more descriptive details to ground your reader?] The batteries only last so long.
Hi! Thank you for giving me the chance to critique your first page. Your writing is succinct, and you have a great rhythm in some of your sentences and paragraphs. While I would read on to find out what’s happening, I’d love some more descriptive details, context, and a stronger, hookier opening. Right now, your second paragraph tells me more about your MC than your first paragraph does. I’d recommend playing around with those opening paragraphs to ensure your manuscripts sucks the reader in right away! Thanks again, and good luck!!
Kendra lives with her awesome family in Tennessee where she teaches eighth grade by day and writes twisted middle grade and young adult tales in the wee hours. If it goes bump in the night or leads to fantastical journeys, she’s probably writing about it. She’s a member of SCBWI and a proud part of the newly-formed KickButt KidLit blog. Kendra is represented by Taylor Haggerty of Waxman Leavell Literary Agency.
I cleared my throat almost to the point of choking myself up trying to catch Jebrick’s attention. [The image of someone clearing their throat hard enough that they nearly choke is, oddly enough, so funny! The phrase “myself up” feels redundant though, and slows down the image. Maybe reword a bit just to eliminate that phrase, or to avoid two –ing words so close together. Either might help the flow.] No luck. He sat on the raised wooden sidewalk and stared across the cobblestone street at Hansel’s General Store. [Excellent story question here…why is he starting at the front of a store? It’s just enough to create that little itch at the back of my mind that keeps me reading!]
Small note: The raised wooden sidewalk and cobblestone streets have me wondering what time period we’re in. Do even small cities still have those? I’m from Tennessee and have never seen that, except maybe in touristy areas but even then only near certain landmarks. That doesn’t mean they don’t still exist but figured I’d mention it, just in case.
A brisk Saturday, April morning [It might be clearer to say, “A brisk Saturday morning in April,” or something similar. As written, I was halfway looking for a specific date to follow.] in our town of Rollins, Tennessee—a small town on the Mississippi founded by my great, great grandfather, Cornelius Rollins [GO VOLS! Sorry.]. It also was a small town just about to get swallowed by the expansion of Memphis which had pushed its way to the very border [“Edge” instead of “very border,” perhaps?] of our town.
Standing next to me, the imposing figure of Big Abe leaned against a post [What kind of post?]. He just shook his head at Jeb and rolled his eyes. We knew Jeb was up to something and that something would definitely, as usual, involve us. [Another itch of a story question! Well done!]
“Moving again?” I asked with a look at the ratty, old Yankee [Union?] army bag hung over his [Jeb’s?] shoulder. [You have both a dialogue tag and an action beat in the previous sentence. I’d suggest a period after “asked,” making the next line its own sentence and clarifying who has the bag over their shoulder.]
Jeb’s eyes broke from his frozen gaze on the front window of Hansel’s across the street. “What?”
“Your bag. It only comes out when you are changing addresses, which, I might add, is fairly often.” [Doesn’t Jeb already know he moves frequently? Why does the MC need to tell him? I’d end the sentence at ‘addresses’ and let the reader infer that Jeb must move a lot, since he must if the MC knows that’s when his army bag comes out.]
No answer. Jeb returned his attention to the storefront.
Big Abe laughed. “I remember when he fished that nasty thing out of the Mississippi. We were running limb lines when it floated up.”
“You’d have thought it was Christmas the way he fussed over it. Thing must have fallen off a steamer running Union soldiers up the river,” I added. [Why are they talking about Jeb like he’s not there? I’m also really curious about the time period now since it sounds like they believe the bag may have fallen in the river during sometime in recent history. And wouldn’t they have already discussed the theory of how the bag got into the river when he first found it? It feels like this conversation is meant to deliver information/backstory to the reader instead of feeling authentic. Does the reader need to know how Jeb found the army bag? If so, I’d suggest finding a way to weave that in later.]
“Jeb, are you moving again?” Big Abe asked slow and loud.
A couple of questions—if both of Jeb’s friends are fairly certain he’s moving, why do they feel he’s up to something that would involve them? That’s the line that drew me in, “Jeb was up to something and that something would definitely, as usual, involve us.” But that bit of tension was lost once the conversation turned to Jeb’s impending move and the Union bag that he’s apparently had for quite a long time (if he’s used it in numerous moves).
I’m also a bit curious about the MC. What’s their name? Male or female? How old are the characters here? Finding a way to gently weave in some of that information can go a long way toward helping ground the reader in your story.
Overall, I’m curious about what Jeb might be up to and why he’s staring at the general store and would like to know more—and this is good since the first page’s main job is to get the reader to want more! My biggest suggestion is to limit the focus on the army bag and the frequency of Jeb’s moves and get us to whatever ill-fated plan Jeb might’ve cooked up. That’s where I suspect the real fun begins!
Best of luck!
Thank you, Rachel and Kendra, for your critiques. Interested in more first page critiques? Come back tomorrow for our next two critiques by Pitch Wars mentors, and while you’re here, check out our June posts for our mentors’ query critiques. And get ready! The Pitch Wars Mentor Wishlist Blog Hop starts August 2 with the Pitch Wars submission window opening August 17.