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 …
Hayley Nicole Stone
Hayley (H. N.) Stone is a recent graduate of California State University, Sacramento where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in History and a minor in German. Her poems have appeared in the 2014 and 2015 Calaveras Station Literary Journal, and more recently, she served as a judge for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. When not reading, writing, or editing, she designs book covers, falls in love with video game characters, and analyzes buildings for velociraptor entry points. She writes speculative fiction, and is represented by Marlene Stringer of Stringer Literary Agency.
June 14th 2012, New York City
J.J. realized he was procrastinating when he counted the menthol butts littering the brick sidewalk under the maple tree. He dropped a chewed toothpick. It touched the tip of a flattened filter, looked like a willow branch in the middle of full-grown tree trunks floating down river to the mill. You use several filter words here (realized, looked like) that create distance between the reader and the narrative. Eliminate the filter words, and let us observe how he is procrastinating rather than simply telling us. Additionally, the closing sentence is convoluted. Try a simpler image that also conveys the mindset of the MC: It touched the tip of a flattened filter, a willow branch floating in a sea of lumber. Small. Insignificant. (Obviously you don’t have to go with this example, but try utilizing objective correlation to help convey emotion.)
He wanted a menthol, not a toothpick. This is a stronger opening sentence than the one you currently have. Also a good opportunity to inject some voice into the piece. Is J.J. one to swear? If so, it could read: He wanted a menthol, not a damn toothpick. Always look for opportunities to add voice.
The unmistakable horselaugh echoed from the tavern. The word “tavern” made me second-guess the genre, because it tends to have fantasy connotations. Give the tavern a name to help ground it in the contemporary setting. Specifics lend a story more verisimilitude. It was louder than every other sound emerging through the open door. What sounds? Again, be specific.
Time to get on with this.
He couldn’t believe he had agreed to do Evan a favour. He didn’t owe him any favour. He considered why he had agreed. Evan asked. Conceding was easy. Since he had called Evan a few months ago to tell him his dad died and that he was going to Paris, Evan had been pushy about him delivering some message to this girl. It was making him paranoid. This exposition is clunky at best. Cut it, and introduce it more naturally throughout the first chapter. When it comes to backstory, always ask yourself, is it absolutely vital the reader knows these things up front?
He crossed the sidewalk, climbed up three granite steps and entered the tavern. A girl backed into him. His eyes adjusted to the dark interior. She turned and scowled. An unlit menthol between her lips dropped to the floor. Her short skirt exposed athletic thighs when she bent to snatch the cigarette off the sticky planks. Just his type of chic. If he wasn’t meeting Evan he could have bummed a smoke. Read through this paragraph aloud. You’ll hear how repetitive the prose is. This happens. Then this happens. Then this happens. Try and add more sentence variation. Something like this: He crossed the sidewalk, climbed three granite steps, and entered the tavern. Before his eyes had even adjusted to the dark interior, a girl backed into him. She turned. Scowled. An unlit menthol between her lips dropped to the floor, and when she bent to snatch the cigarette off the sticky planks, her short skirt exposed athletic thighs. Just his type of chic. Hear the difference? Variation keeps the reader engaged.
Dark wood panelling lined the walls. Yeasty beer scent made his mouth water. Ooh, yeasty. Great sensory detail! It was Happy hour and loud. He stepped forward and scanned the packed tavern. There is more sentence repetition here. Try and convey the beat of the tavern in the prose. Ex: Dark wood panelling lined the walls, yeasty beer scent making his mouth water. It was Happy hour. Loud. He stepped forward and scanned the packed tavern.
While I definitely get a sense of the atmosphere, unfortunately, not much is happening on this opening page overall. I don’t have a good sense of who the main character is or what he wants. I’m also unclear about what genre this is: Contemporary? Thriller? Romance? A hint would be good.
There appears to be some underlying conflict with J.J.’s reluctance to enter the tavern, but with only that chunk of exposition to go off of, there isn’t enough reason for the reader to care about him or his mission yet. The most interesting part is when he bumps into the stranger, but even then, J.J.’s reaction seems detached. Emphasize more of his character, and provide some suggestion of what the story’s major conflict will be. Also consider beginning in media res, or as close to the action as possible. In late, out early is a good rule of thumb for most scenes.
Jessica lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she writes novels for middle grade readers. Her debut, NOTHING LIKE LENNON, is currently out on submission. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch
If you were to walk through Whitterly End, somewhere along the Here-and-There Bridge, you would find a little twig of a girl with flowers in her hair and love letters on her hands. Her name was Floralie Alice Laurel, and the flowers were for sale, but the letters, well, no one asked about those. Floralie supposed nobody noticed them—or if they did, they were too polite to ask. Except, apparently, for that boy.
The writing here is really, really lovely. That being said, the opening left me a little confused. When I initially read “love letters on her hands,” I wondered if it was a typo. But then when I got down to the part about the people being too polite to ask, I thought the letters must literally be on her hands? In either case, I’d clarify; you don’t want your reader confused in the first paragraph (or thinking you have a typo in the first sentence). If they are actual letters, consider changing on to in. If they are written on her hands, perhaps you could include something simple like etched or inked on her hands to clarify.
I’d also like to encourage you to reconsider the last sentence, particularly that boy. Overall, the voice and prose has a whimsical, gentle, otherworldly feel, (perhaps even a different era?); that boy strikes me as a contemporary (snarky?) sensibility that doesn’t quite fit. Could you say something like: Except, apparently, for the boy standing right in front of her.
He was scraggly, with untidy walnut hair and chapped lips Love these details!, even though it was summer. If he were a pet cat, Floralie might have named him “Scruffy,” or “Smudge.” He stared right at Floralie for a good long minute before Floralie finally said, “G’morning.” I love all of this, but again, I’m having trouble visualizing it. In my head, the boy is standing directly in front of Floralie. Since this appears to be 3rd person POV from Floralie’s perspective, it seems strange that you’d tell us the boy stared at her for a minute before she said good morning. It would feel more organic if I knew what she was doing during that minute. Is she attempting to ignore him? Is she staring back? How does his staring make her feel? You don’t have to answer all of those questions, but I’d like a hint about how she takes a stranger staring at her for that long. (I’d also like to know where/how far away he’s standing, but I’m hoping you’ll clarify that in the first paragraph).
The boy simply stared.
Floralie fiddled with the two-inches-too-small-sleeve of her school uniform—former uniform, to be precise. Another great set of details! “Er—Would you like to buy one?” she said, offering her basket of roses and tulips for the boy to peruse.
He stared some more.
Floralie bit the inside of her lip, and then the boy did something quite strange. He slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled from it a fountain pen and a tattered leather notebook. He flipped open the book and scrawled something on the page. How much?
Floralie eyed him quizzically, then took the pen and leaned over his notebook. For a tulip or a rose? Why does she write him her question? Since she offered to sell him a flower and he asked how much, wouldn’t she assume he can hear?
The boy took the pen. For a poem.
Floralie laughed and quickly covered her mouth to hide the gap in her teeth. We don’t sell those! I love the visual of Floralie laughing and covering her mouth to hide her gap; it’s very endearing. Unfortunately, these couple of lines confused me again. Even though you don’t say directly in the first paragraph that the letters are for sale, it seems somehow implied since it’s paired with the flowers that are for sale (as though they would be for sale if someone bothered to ask). Since you know the story, this probably all makes a great deal of sense (i.e. if the letters are on her hands, how would they be for sale) but since the reader doesn’t know the story, it comes across as somewhat confusing. It also makes me wonder, again, about the letters. If they are real letters, her reaction is totally appropriate. But if they are somehow written on her, then isn’t she embarrassed? Or stunned that he A. noticed and B. was bold enough to ask?
Overall, this is an incredibly promising beginning; I know I’ve spend an undue amount of time trying to figure out the love letters, but I suspect that will be easy to clear up for the reader, and then this first page will shine. Best of luck!
Thank you, Hayley and Jessica, 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.