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 …
Jenni L. Walsh is an author of YA fiction who has spent the past decade enticing readers as an award-winning advertising copywriter. Her passion lies in transporting readers to another world, be it in historical or contemporary settings, and her latest project tells the untold story of how church-going Bonnelyn Parker becomes half of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde duo during the 1920s.
Jenni is a proud graduate of Villanova University, lives in the Philly ‘burbs with her husband, daughter, and goldendoodle, and is represented by the fabulous Stacey Glick of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. She’s a contributor to the newly-formed Kick-Butt Kidlit blog.
Jenni’s first page critique …
Dust swirled around Coop’s head like pollution, clinging to his hair, skin, and eyelashes. Grit lined his nose and tickled his throat, irritating at times. I like that you open with a visual and emotion, but if you can show his irritation, it’d add to the visual. Also the “at times” threw me a bit. Are there times where he enjoys the grit? Also, right off the bat, I’m wondering if he’s inside or outside to complete the picture. I’m a very visual reader. But Mac kept reminding him restoration was an art form, a way to bond with the vehicle. I’d like to see this dialogue—done quickly—for a few reasons. 1) The way it’s phrased now leads me to believe that Mac would have an interesting voice. 2) The dialogue could help establish Mac’s age if based on his choice of words. We learn later that Mac is an old man, but at this point, I thought it was a kid around Coop’s age, and 3) A few lines later Coop remarks that Mac is famous for topic changes. That idea will come across stronger if we see the random flip flop in dialogue. Coop cut the sander off, and ran his gloved hand across the fender. Admittedly nitpicky thought: he’s wearing gloves, so why isn’t he wearing safety goggles? Less nitpicky thought: what’s going through Coops head. Sure the grit is annoying to him, but—if he’s running his hand over the fender—is he taking pride in his work? Or is he simply wiping off all the dust because it’s everywhere. A little more here could give the reader a sounder look into Coop’s head.
Mac grunted. He sat with his casted foot propped on a case of WD-40 and gripped a swerved tea glass.
Coop pulled the dust mask from his face. Oh okay, so he is wearing protective gear. Ensure that the details in the opening paragraph align with this detail. Right now… the dust clinging to his skin and eyelashes and tickling his throat… may not be plausible if he’s wearing a dust mask. “What? Not good enough?”
“Don’t go on many dates, do you?”
Mac was famous for causing whiplash with topic changes. Coop had learned to roll with it. Not entirely sure you need this last sentence. You could simply show the reader via Coop’s response. “Huh?” Since this topic change is expected, I’d rather Coop really roll with it and simply answer Mac. It’s also an opportunity to teach us something about Coop. Is he a ladies man? Does he strike out a lot? Is he too shy to talk to girls? Did he just get dumped and Mac is imparting wisdom to Coop? Is he embarrassed to answer? Is he eager to brag? Does he not feel comfortable telling Mac this information? Maybe Coop’s a funny dude. He can make a joke negatively about his appearance (You see this nose? This nose doesn’t get many girls). Or vice versa, make a positive joke (Girl’s don’t say no to these dimples). Both my examples aren’t great, but his response could be a double whammy that shows us slices of both his personality and appearance.
Mac shifted in his circa 1950’s leather La-Z-boy to ease pressure on his leg. His garage was a haven for old shit. He’d stored stuff If you can quickly give an example, I’m curious as to what stuff everywhere, even in the rafters over their heads. “A car’s like a woman.”
Coop mopped the sweat on his forehead with one arm. What the hell did that have to do with anything? Mac’s wrinkled gaze I don’t think a gaze can be wrinkled, but his nose could. Not sure a nose fits though homed in on his, and Coop realized the old guy wanted a response. “Yeah, how so?” Since this response comes at the end of a few sentences, I’d be clearer with it: “Yeah, how’s a car like a girl?” Otherwise, readers may have to go back to remind themselves of the question. Via your word choice/Coop’s voice, you could even hint at his mindset. Is he genuinely curious but just confused? Or is this question more defiant – More of a “you don’t have a clue, old man” vibe?
“A woman must be handled gently.” Mac ran his calloused hand lightly, almost lovingly, across the fender. Is the La-Z-boy right next to where Coop is working? Otherwise, I’m not sure Mac would be able to reach the fender. If Mac is that close, he’d probably be covered in grit and dust. “Stroked in a way that soothes rather than offends. A car is the same way.” Mac was full of…little bits of wisdom. I’m not sure if Coop is a willing participant/listener of Mac’s wisdom (but he’s just confused right now) or if he’s rolling his eyes because Mac always pulls this crap and he doesn’t feel like listening. Or is this conversation random and subsequently really awkward, especially since he’s talking about stroking a woman.
Coop eyed the sanded spot Is it done poorly? As if he didn’t stroke it correctly?, struggling to follow. Since he’s actively trying to follow along, it leads me to believe he’s a willing listener, just confused?
“Take that blasted glove off.” Mac’s gravelly voice landed on Coop’s last nerve If you’re trying to show that Coop has a short fuse, then this works (and be sure to show it in other places throughout your story). Otherwise, build up Coop’s annoyance, from the second Mac does his topic change. Maybe Coop starts with sigh in that moment and it escalates from there. Show us his reactions/emotions along the way. Make it clear what his annoyance is tied to. Is it simply because Coop is confused? Or is his annoyance linked to more than that? but he ripped the glove off.
There’s a lot this first page leaves me wondering:
– Coop. I feel like I know more about Mac (he’s old, he’s a hoarder, he’s injured, he changes topics quickly, he’s an advice giver, random details about his appearance, etc) than I know about Coop. For starters, how old is Coop? I’m mentoring YA, so I know Coop is a teen, but otherwise…
– The setting. We know a garage. But, is it during the day? Does Coop race to Mac’s during his lunch break to spend time with him? Or maybe Coop skips school. Maybe it’s a Saturday morning? Or maybe none of the above and it’s dark/late at night? Is the garage door open because it’s summer and suffocating otherwise? Is the door closed because it’s winter and they’re keeping any heat in they can? Maybe there’s even a space heater if it’s cold. You’ve got a blank slate right now; so see if you can place the reader firmly in a setting.
– Their relationship. Coop called Mac “the old guy”. Who is Mac to Coop? His grand dad, a neighbor, his dad who he calls by a first name, or maybe some old guy he doesn’t know but he’s in his garage for one reason for another? Which leads me to…
– The circumstances. Did Coop go to Mac to learn about cars? Did Mac go to Coop and ask him to fix up his car because he’s unable to do it himself? Or maybe Coop and Mac have been fixing up cars for years and they’ve lost track of how many cars/projects they’ve done together? Or maybe Coop hit a baseball through Mac’s attic window and he’s fixing up Mac’s car as payment? Or he’s involved in a program with the elderly and they’ve been paired up?
– The genre. The only info I know about your book is that it’s YA. I get the sense it’s a modern-day contemporary story (mention of the circa 1950s chair and the fact Mac stores old shit, the “coming of age” advice from Mac, etc). If it is, I think this set up works fine. But let’s say your story is actually a fantasy. It’s tricky and sometimes difficult to weave in, but it’s a good idea to hint to genre/fantastical elements in the first page/chapter.
So, I know that’s a lot. And, I’m not expecting ALL of this to be answered in the first page. But, from your little snippet, I get the sense you are a very strong writer. Sentences are structured well. Writing is pretty tight. Now it’s a matter of putting the right words, details, etc in those well-structured sentences to start your book with a solid foundation of setting, character development, and voice.
I’d selfishly love for you to pitch to me and Trisha Leaver (we’re teaming up as co-mentors) during PitchWars so I can get another look at your story 🙂
Her brand spankin’ new reader group
Lisa Maxwell is the author of Sweet Unrest (Flux, 2014), Gathering Deep (Flux, 2015), and The Stars Turned Away (Simon Pulse, Spring 2016). She’s worked as a bookseller, editor, and teacher. She has a PhD in English, and when she’s not writing books, she’s a professor at a local college. She lives near DC, where she spends her weekends taking all sorts of adventures with her family.
Check out Lisa’s books:
Lisa’s first page critique …
Ida couldn’t wait until dawn; the pillory would be frozen by now. Tense shifts here. “by now” feels like present tense. She collected the bag of supplies, put on her glasses, and snuck past her sleeping mother. The hall was deserted, and she reached the back door without trouble. Stopping only to tie her leather shoestrings around her ankles, she hurried into darkness.
The icy sea wind was a slap to the face, and [so? Since it seems to be a reaction to the wind?] she pulled her long, lank hair over her ears. It didn’t help. Why was it so cold tonight, of all nights? It was mid-September, but it felt like February [,] and Mr. Hanson was confined in only a thin shirt and breeches. He would be frozen half to death. This repeats above—maybe it would be stronger to open with “he” would be frozen, instead of the pillory itself.
“Ikshik,” Ida cursed as she passed the Basilica’s blood-red gates.nice Maybe he was frozen to death;this is the second semi-colon in less than 200 words. Think of semi-colons like exclamation points—use them only when they’re really essential, or sentence structure starts to get repetitive it was cold enough. She cursed again and sped up. If only her mother hadn’t guessed she would sneak out, if only she hadn’t sat up to stop her, if only she had fallen asleep sooner, this feels like it contradicts the opening line. The opening makes it feel like she’s decided not to wait until morning, but in the morning, her mom would definitely be awake, right? Ida would be wrapping Mr. Hanson in a blanket right now.
Her mother never listened to reason.
“He’s your oldest friend,” Ida had argued. “We’ve got to do for some reason, these words strike me as off in terms of tone. The rest feels almost formal/historical, but this phrasing feels more modern. something.”
“The streets aren’t safe at night,” her mother said. “And you can’t do anything in the day. Remember that woman who was stoned to death for helping her pilloried husband?”
“No. It’s too dangerous, you’re too young.”
“I’m fifteen. You were married at my age. If I left now—”
“I forbid it.”
You have an opening here with an immediately interesting premise. We get a sense that the MC is a girl with her own mind and determined to do what needs done, which is great. But I want a bit more about what she’s doing. Mr. Hanson is the mother’s oldest friend, but who is he to Ida? Is she doing this for her mother? Or because Mr. Hanson is something to her? And what has Mr. Hanson done? (I’m assuming his being pilloried is unjust, but maybe it’s not?)
I think the opening could be crisper—that someone is maybe already freezing to death. Right now the opening line feels like it’s about the pillory, but it also gives the sense that Ida was maybe going to wait for dawn, but then decided against it. Then, when we read on, it’s clear that she wasn’t waiting for dawn…just for her mom to fall asleep. And from the way the passage ends, it’s clear she couldn’t wait for dawn anyway—she’d get stoned for helping him if someone saw her.
The other thing that you might want to consider is giving us some sense of place. I tried looking up ikshik, but couldn’t find a translation—so are we in a read place? Is this a fantasy w/ a made up language. Just a word or two. “The icy [name of sea] wind” might be enough to situate the reader in the world more solidly.
Thank you, Jenni and Lisa, 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.
Want a critique or books from our Pitch Wars mentors, some awesome authors, agents, and editors? We’re putting together an auction and posting it this weekend to help one of our mentors save her home. To read more about this campaign, go here: http://www.gofundme.com/we4dv4m