Welcome to July’s 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.
Here are the next two mentors and their critiques …
Lori Goldstein, author of BECOMING JINN, was raised in a small town on the New Jersey shore and now makes her home outside of Boston. She has a BA in journalism and worked as a writer, editor, and graphic designer before becoming a full-time author. She currently lives and writes outside of Boston. Lori is the author of the young adult contemporary fantasy series Becoming Jinn (Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, April 21, 2015, Spring 2016). You can visit her online at www.lorigoldsteinbooks.com.
Buy Her Book:
Lori’s first page critique …
“It’s a lie Jackson, everything is a lie. Find the eyes Jackson…They watch us Jackson, the eyes are always watching….”
[Hello! Thanks for being brave enough to submit your first page for critique! I’m a copyeditor by trade so I’m going to start off with some CE tips! You need to add commas before “Jackson.” Also, I think you should cut the ellipses. You are quoting what Gramps said and unless you are leaving bits out, you don’t need the ellipses. They are potentially distracting.]
These were the last words that Gramps spoke, as his lips [,which had been?] dried by the winds of a thousand sand storms fell silent for the last time. [I’m confused by the “as” phrase. It took me a few tries to get it. Take a look at this and see how you can adjust it so it’s clear. You never want a reader to stumble on the first line. I added something to help, but it’s a voice that falls silent not lips…I wonder if you can start a bit stronger here.] I didn’t expect the words or the death, although the illness had been putrid inside of him for months. [Again, this is a bit awkward. I have to read these sentences more than once to see what you mean. That’s never a great thing and especially on page one. Clarity goes a long way. Be careful with your prose and make sure every word and sentence is as clear as you can make it.] A sickening smell of sourness and despair that coated his teeth like plaque. [I’m a huge fan of phrases and fragments! But this coming off those other two sentences again makes the reader double back to really see what’s going on. Especially when you are writing with a longer style of prose, being grammatically correct is more necessary. The writing style and the clipped sentences feel at odds with one another. As an aside, so does the use of “Gramps”. Feels too homey for this style.] He didn’t close his eyes when he died, they gazed up unseeing as if the words he spoke shocked every bit of sense from him. I held his hand in mine for a while [cut the “for a while”; it diminishes the power]; death didn’t scare me. I’d seen plenty eaten from the inside by the blackness. Death was as pointless as life. [These last few sentences are stronger than the rest. I almost think this is your opening! Starting with “Death didn’t scare me.” This is where I’m intrigued and that’s what first lines need to do.]
His hand still felt warm as I held it for the last time. Seemed senseless warming up something that was dead. [But is he intentionally warming his grandfather’s hand? It just is already warm, right?] Life, at that point had no point, no reason, [for who? For the narrator, for Gramps? For everyone?] and Gramps had escaped at last. But those words! Spoken with a voice that was strong and sure. It was a belief of another Gramps, another man who believed that dreams were real and not the nightmare of our everyday life.
But the escape of hope. [Breaking this here again makes the reader double back and word too hard to understand what you are doing here. Be very careful with fragments and phrases – sorry to repeat myself! 😉 ]
The promise of another world.
They were the words of a madman. [This comes very far from your “those words” sentence. You are losing the punch as a result.]
[Okay, deep breaths, I know a lot is in here! But I really want you to look at this page with new eyes—the eyes of a reader, like me, who knows nothing of these characters and this story. I’m wondering if this is a prologue? It kind of reads like one and they can be tricky. I feel right now that this might not be the best place to start your story. It is hard to have emotion for a death for a character you have yet to meet. What’s your intention on this first page? Do you want the words to stand out? The death? This is also a bit of a flashback and that also makes it hard for the reader to dive into the story. Maybe you need to back it up. Or move forward and start later and dole out these important words in a scene of action. They may feel less forced that way. Right now, it is like you are hammering it over the reader’s head that these words are important. It can be too much and a more delicate approach might work better. I am one reader and this is your story, so take the pieces of advice that ring true to you. And thank you so much for giving me the honor of reading your first page! Best of luck with it!]
Traci Chee & Renee Ahdieh
Traci Chee is an author of speculative fiction for teens. An all-around word geek, she loves book arts and art books, poetry and paper crafts, though she also dabbles at piano playing, egg painting, and hosting potluck game nights for family and friends. She studied literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz and earned a master of arts degree from San Francisco State University. Traci grew up in a small town with more cows than people, and now feels most at home in the mountains, scaling switchbacks and happening upon hidden highland lakes. She lives in California with her fast-fast dog. The Reader is her YA debut.
Renee lives in North Carolina (Go Heels!) with my husband Victor and our dog Mushu. Her YA fantasy novel, THE WRATH AND THE DAWN, is available wherever books are sold. In her spare time, she likes to cook, dance salsa, and wreak havoc on the lives of my characters. She is also a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, as well as an active member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.
Traci & Renee’s critique…
Renée’s comments in blue. Traci’s comments in purple.
Chapter 1: Happy Birthday(,) Esther
My wet sticky shirt clings to my heaving body as I tiredly collapse in the damp green grass of my front yard (Be careful you’re not overusing the adjectives/adverbs, especially if the sentence gives ready context clues—a sticky shirt would cling, and it’s not necessary to state that one is “tiredly collapsing” when merely the use of “collapse” will do.) Running seems to be the only thing soothing my frustrations these days. The cool grass immediately chills my overheated body, but my lungs are under the impression that I’m still running full speed. I inhale slowly(,) then exhale at equal pace fighting to catch my breath. My head tilts back(,) and I take in the aroma of freshly watered grass beneath me(.) and almost simultaneously My eyes meet the alluring red sun that overpowering the gray sky above. I gaze into its dark red beams of burning light(,) still mesmerized by its mysterious appeal and undefined occurrence. (I’m not sure what you mean here.) (I think the abstractions “mysterious appeal” and “undefined occurrence” do you a disservice here. While a little intrigue can hook a reader into wanting to read more, too much can be confusing or off-putting. If something really unusual is happening in Esther’s world, there’s no reason or her to withhold it, because she’s staring right at it. Try stating what this red sun is and what it means. Is it an alien invasion? An enchantment? Or is it something more mundane, like pollution? If you come right out and give the reader a real, concrete mystery or conflict to latch onto, they’re more likely to follow you to the next page.) An inexplicable happening enslaving all of us curious and self-proclaimed intelligent minds (This metaphor is lost on me.) (Again, try clarifying instead of obfuscating.).
“Ay(,) Esther, what are you doing in the wet grass? I just watered it,” Dad calls out from the porch. (Is this detail about the wet grass necessary? In the first paragraph, you’ve already mentioned that the grass is “damp” and “freshly watered.” In general, each action or piece of dialogue should build on what’s come before, presenting new information, new conflicts, deepening existing tensions, etc. If everything builds, rather than repeats, then the reader feels like the scene is moving forward toward something, rather than rehashing the same information.) (Traci makes excellent points here.)
“Just resting!” I yell back. (We also knew this from the first paragraph.)
“Do you need me to grab you a cup of water? It’s burning up out here. You shouldn’t be running in this heat.” (The father says it’s hot three different ways here. Again, this is all information we already knew. I’d consider rewriting this exchange so that it reveals something new instead of rehashing old details.)
“No, I’m fine. I’m used to it.” (Ah! Here’s an opportunity for new material. You could add a detail here about why Esther is used to the heat. Is it because this running is something she does all the time? If so, why? Is it because this strange red sun has dominated the sky for x-amount of time?)
“Well get in here(.) Your mama has your dinner ready.”
I get (You could use a stronger verb here, something that will show Esther’s internal agitation, like “haul myself to my feet” or “force myself”) up(,) annoyed at my forced participation in a birthday celebration I specifically remember begging my parents not to do. I drag my tired body up the four (Is the number of steps a necessary detail? Does it add to our understanding of Esther, her world, or the conflicts you’re setting up? If not, cut.) steps of our cement porch and give my dad an eye roll (Eye-rolling tends to be cliché, so I’d use it sparingly, and probably not on the first page.) as I pass him to get inside.
Renée: Okay, so first of all, I always think it’s amazing when someone puts his or her work out to be critiqued for everyone to see. It’s such a tremendous learning experience, but it can also be a pride-swallowing siege, so mad kudos to you! 🙂 I also really appreciated the use of alliteration here. It was great!
Traci: I agree! Thank you for sharing your work with us.
Renée: With regard to this first page, I’m a bit confused as to the genre. If it’s contemporary, the beginning strikes me as somewhat generic.
Traci: Yes, we don’t get a great sense of who Esther is, except that she’s frustrated and gets annoyed at her parents (which could really describe almost anyone’s teenage years, amirite?). It’s impossible to tell us all the lovely, unique things about a character in a single page, but there should be some hints about what makes her special, what makes her worth turning the page for. Because the details about the heat and the grass are repeated so many times, we don’t get the chance to really meet the character, to get a feel for what her situation is beyond the generic.
I’m of the mind that every sentence should basically be doing double or triple duty. A sentence that reveals setting can also show, in the diction (word choice) and syntax (word order), what the character thinks/reacts emotionally to her situation. A line of dialogue can establish the situation while also hinting at the existing relationship between the two characters and creating tension between them. (And so on and so forth.)
Renée: If it’s speculative, I need a stronger sense of that at the onset. If the worldbuilding is intended to be presented in the red sun and its dark beams of burning light, I have to admit that was lost on me, and those sentences in general tripped up my initial read, as they came across as metaphoric, and the metaphor failed to strike the right chord.
Traci: IF it’s speculative, then I think the two lines about the red sun had the most potential to hook the reader. As it stands, the red sun is buried in abstractions, words that are so general and idea-y that they don’t really tell us anything. I’d love to see details about what this red sun really is (or if Esther doesn’t know, when it showed up/what happened after/her emotional reaction to it/etc.) and what it’s doing there.
Renée: Additionally, there is a preponderance of adjectives/adverbs in the first paragraph. My suggestion is to pare these down. I’m a big fan of descriptive writing, but I do think you should spend some time questioning every word you use, especially in your opening. An agent often gives less than a minute to a manuscript before moving on to the next one, and an overabundance of adverbs/adjectives can be a great disservice to your story in such a case.
Traci: I noticed you often used a modifier-modifier-noun pattern (wet sticky shirt, damp green grass, freshly watered grass, alluring red sun, dark red beams, self-proclaimed intelligent minds). When used too often and too close together, patterns like this make the rhythm of your prose feel ponderous, so I’d try to winnow them down a bit. (Although not just by cutting them down to adjective-noun patterns, because you’ve got a fair number of those too.) A good way to cut down on modifier use is to use strong verbs. For example, if you said, “My shirt clings to my heaving body as I collapse in the damp grass of my front yard,” the verb “clings” already does the work of “wet and sticky” and as Renée mentioned, “collapse” does the work for “tiredly.” The sentence skips along more smoothly without the unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. Depending on the character’s voice, you could also sub in figurative language (simile, metaphor, etc.) to show us Esther’s unique view of the world.
I think this first page has a lot of potential. You’ve just got to open up spaces to let the tension and uniqueness of your characters and story come through! Thank you again for sharing your work with us.
Renée: There’s definite potential here! Step back and ask yourself what character traits most embody Esther. Then make sure you’re showcasing them under the brightest of lights, especially in these first few paragraphs. As Traci said, it’s important to keep your reader wanting to turn the pages. Best of luck to you!
Thank you, Lori, Traci, Renee, for your critique. 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.