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First Page: A Minute to Midnight

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Ella Andrews paced the small kitchen of the house that she shared with her grandmother and aunts. They were late again, which meant that the meal she made–roast turkey, homemade stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet corn, and biscuits–would be cold by the time they showed up. This, of course, would be Ella’s fault for not anticipating the fact that they would be late. She knew the drill as it happened at least once or twice a week, and as it was Friday and it hadn’t yet happened this week, she really should have known that it would be tonight.

She went to the cupboard, taking out the aluminum foil to cover up the food, hoping she would be able to save the potatoes, which would likely be inedible if they weren’t eaten soon. Ella knew she should be more understanding as they worked hard all day, but it wasn’t as if they were staying late at the office. Oh, no–Roberta and Gertrude Andrews would never put in a minute of overtime, even if they were in the middle of a huge order. That was the sort of thing that employees were for; if one needed to stay late, it was much more satisfying to have one of the workers stay than it was to do it oneself. That was the Andrews Family Motto. Her grandmother, Agnes, had even made Ella stitch it onto a pillow, despite the fact that the font was far too tiny to be read without a magnifying glass.

Even thinking about that pillow had Ella rolling her eyes, thinking about the day that she would be able to leave this place. She doubted that this was what her father had in mind when he asked her to care for her grandmother all those years ago, but no matter what her life was like, she would do as her father wished, although each day that she stayed there she felt herself dying more and more. It had been that way almost from the beginning.
It was obvious that her father hadn’t realized just how much influence his sisters had over their mother because she wasn’t anything like Ella had imagined. For days after her father’s death, she pictured her grandmother as some kindly old woman, who liked to bake cookies and watch “her programs” like her other grandmother, but she couldn’t have been more wrong.

Agnes Andrews, Ella quickly learned, was more concerned with profit margins than with chocolate chip cookies and with finding her daughters appropriate husbands than with Erica Kane or Dorian Lord. None of that would have mattered to Ella if it appeared as if her grandmother had even the slightest interest in her, but on the very night that she arrived on the doorstep, her grandmother shoved her off on one of the neighbors while she, Bert, and Gert attended a society function.

Sitting down on her favorite chair, she tried to shake of thoughts of her past and dreamt of what the future would bring. If there was one thing Ella was good at, it was dreaming. This time, she dreamt that she was a spy, skulking from country to country, attempting to stop a plot to assassinate the president. That brought a smile to her lips. Her, Ella Andrews–Spy Extraordinaire. She couldn’t help rolling her eyes. There was no way she would make a good spy. For one thing, she couldn’t skulk. She could barely walk normally without bumping into things, and she imagined that being stealthy was probably a requirement to join up with the CIA or the FBI.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

13 Comments

  1. SAO
    Sep 15, 2013 @ 05:25:31

    I get that this is a retelling of Cinderella, but it looks set in modern times and I just don’t understand why Ella doesn’t walk away. As you’ve described it, she’s a thankless dogsbody for a bunch of selfish relatives because her dead father asked her to. However, either:
    1) Dad didn’t know what Ella’s life would be like and if he did, he wouldn’t have asked her to do it or,
    2) Dad did know Ella would be an unpaid servant, but he didn’t give a damn about her.

    In neither case, do I see any reason for Ella to stay. So, I was rolling my eyes by the end of page one and wondering if Ella will ever grow a spine.

    I must say, if Dad has a slow degenerative disease, no money and Grandma pays for significant comfort — like round-the-clock nursing or hours of physical therapy/day to slow the degeneration, I’d be reading this with more enthusiasm.

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  2. Kate Sherwood
    Sep 15, 2013 @ 06:23:16

    I’m 100% with SAO – I have no respect for a heroine so spineless that she doesn’t leave.

    Cinderella was set in a different time when there were fewer options. This is a contemporary. You need to find a really compelling reason for a heroine to be acting as if she’s living in the past.

    Also, this is another first page that is almost all back story. In the present? Our heroine has looked for tinfoil. That’s it, that’s all the action we’ve got. We haven’t even got any real emotion from her – this is just one more example of the disrespect she’s been shown many times before, and she’s more worried about the potatoes than about her situation.

    So on top of the usual risks of starting with backstory, we’ve got the additional problem that your backstory isn’t compelling. If you start with action and make us care about the character, maybe we can overlook her obvious lack of self-respect or initiative when we discover it. But when her weakness is presented to us as a huge info-dump on the very first page, before we’ve had a chance to start caring about her at all, it’s really hard for us to find a reason to keep reading.

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  3. Holly Bush
    Sep 15, 2013 @ 06:35:56

    I liked this story line and I liked Ella straight away. The trick will be, as mentioned above, to keep me liking her. There may be reasons that Ella stays in a situation that doesn’t appear to benefit her. Maybe she’s a person who is afraid to move on, maybe the aunts and grandmother need her more than we realize quite yet, maybe she’s got ulterior motives – who knows? I think it’s a bit too early to declare her TSTL but I get what SAO is saying.

    What I think this story would benefit from is less back story in the large amount we see in this first page. If the second or third page has tons of dialogue and action, I’d dump the first pages and fill in what the reader needs to know by showing, not telling, pieces of the dynamics between these four women as they interact. Instead of telling us that Roberta and Gertrude would never put in a minute of overtime, maybe it could be shown in dialogue. Rough example: Roberta dropped her keys on the kitchen counter and talked over her shoulder to her sister following her through the screen door. “I don’t care if Billy Bob’s wife is having a baby, someone needs to finish packing the orders that have to go out tomorrow.” She sniffed the air and turned to Ella. “Did you burn the gravy?”

    Anyhoo, I liked that Ella was a dreamer and there could be all sorts of fun if this is a romance and the hero is someone who holds some power over the grandmother and aunts. A banker or a client, perhaps?

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  4. Vanessa
    Sep 15, 2013 @ 07:42:12

    I agree with everything SAO said (though the possibility of the degenerative disease is moot as her father is confirmed to be dead). I think this is one of those stories that doesn’t quite work in a contemporary setting. I understand that her father made her care for her aunt, but I really don’t think that’s enough of a reason to stay if they treat her so horribly. She’s presumably a hard-working girl so she should be able to get a paying job somewhere that still allows her a little bit of time to look after her grandmother’s affairs. I’m sure Ella doesn’t need to be totally dependent on her aunts and grandmother and she doesn’t need to spend all her time there if they only treat her as a servant. Unless her father made her promise to spend every waking moment tending to her grandmother, in which case I really don’t understand why Ella would actually agree to such an unreasonable promise.

    Plus, I’m a bit surprised that the heroine doesn’t have a microwave or an oven in which she can warm up the food if it gets too cold. (Or maybe I’ve gotten so used to sub-standard cooking in my life, so reheated food doesn’t really bother me; her aunts might be more particular)

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  5. Carol McKenzie
    Sep 15, 2013 @ 10:43:00

    I really want to like this, but I get stuck on the mashed potatoes and why they’d be inedible. Stick them in a metal bowl over a pot of simmering water, press plastic wrap over the surface and they’ll stay for a long time. If she cooks all the time, and they’re late all the time, she would know how to handle food, I’d think. So, for me, it’s starting her out as sort of TSTL.

    Otherwise, as above, it’s back story, something that could be woven into the story as it progresses.

    Maybe your story could start with the aunts and grandmother coming in and complaining. But I’m not sure it should start where it does.

    As it stands, I may not read further. I do like modern retelling of fairy tales, but Cinderella in a contemporary setting needs to have a contemporary Cinderella, a girl with some kind of backbone, with a very compelling and logical reason to be catering to her grandmother and aunts. The original Cinderella wasn’t TSTL. Her circumstances might be the same, but the setting as a contemporary romance (assuming it’s a romance) needs to give her a real twist to make it believable.

    Thanks for sharing. It takes courage to hear a critique of your work.

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  6. Nicole
    Sep 15, 2013 @ 10:43:16

    Waaah!

    Ella’s life does seem to suck, but right now she just comes off as whiny. She’s being mistreated, or at least taken for granted by her relatives, but we don’t yet understand why she puts up with it, so it’s hard to tell if we should feel sorry for her. Ungrateful relatives and toxic familial relationships are not uncommon in life or in fiction, and Ella’s not bringing anything new to the table.

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  7. hapax
    Sep 15, 2013 @ 11:00:50

    I love fairy tale retellings, so I’d read on, although I agree with everyone else that Ella needs a compelling reason to stay in her current situations.

    I don’t mind backstory, here, because Ella’s voice was entertaining. But you’ll need to be super-careful with the set-up, to make sure that the reader isn’t pulled out of your story.

    Some examples: not only was I puzzled over the “mashed potatoes” bit, but the whole meal doesn’t make sense in context. I thought at first that this was a Thanksgiving dinner. But roast turkey can sit for hours, biscuits only take minutes to bake so can be put in the oven just as folks arrive, ditto sweet corn. This would make more sense with a fussier meal like, I dunno, sole veronique. But if this situation came up all the time, Ella would be TSTL to cook such a dish — unless her grandmother had demanded a special meal because she was bringing an important client home? But then again, Ella needs a REALLY important reason for putting up with such behavior!

    Again, I laughed at the hyperbole with embroidering the pillow. But is such a long and specific saying *really* the “family motto”, to that extent? And what does “font” mean in that context — if the “letters are tiny”, just say that.

    And please, please don’t make Ella’s problem being “clumsy” — TWILIGHT killed that character trait forever for a lot of us. Unless the reason she doesn’t try to get work is that she is truly disabled to the point of having difficulty standing and walking; that could be an interesting read if it’s done authentically (which will take a lot of research if you don’t know someone already with a similar disability) and isn’t magically cured by a “fairy godmother” (which will make your book an instant wallbanger.

    Looks like a lot of nits for just one page, I know, but I truly like the premise and am rooting for your heroine, so I want this story to be a success!

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  8. Marianne McA
    Sep 15, 2013 @ 11:55:29

    I’m wondering if the reason she stayed is that she’s young. If her aunts are actively husband hunting, she might not be old enough to leave. I could imagine someone saying to a child ‘you must look after your grandmother’.

    If so, it might be good to let the reader know early – throw in a reference to school, or something.

    Sorry to say this, but the mashed potatoes threw me off too: roast potatoes I might worry about, but not mashed. And, as hapax said, if this is happening at least once a week, she ought to be cooking food that will sit for a while.

    Also, while I understand that I’m supposed to dislike the aunts for not working overtime in their business, I don’t.

    The pillow as well: I understand it’s meant to be funny, but what the paragraph actually says is that she embroidered “if one needed to stay late, it was much more satisfying to have one of the workers stay than it was to do it oneself” – and if you imagine reading that on a pillow it would make no sense. (It would have to start: ‘If one needs to stay late at the office…’)
    And there is nothing about Grandmother up to that point that makes us see her as an embroidered pillow kind of gal. So you lose the humor, because the reader is confused.

    I didn’t understand the Erica Kane/Dorian Lord reference, but that didn’t bother me.

    I am your audience: I’ll happily read as many fairy tale retellings as I can find, so good luck with this one.

    (Just one not-on-the-page thought. If she’s a teenager, and the aunts are grown ups, it’d be hard to sell me a story where they’re chasing after the same man. There would be bound to be an age gap problem somewhere.)

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  9. Ros
    Sep 15, 2013 @ 12:01:05

    @Carol McKenzie: I got stuck on the same bit, though I would put the potatoes in an ovenproof dish and leave them in the oven to go crispy on top. YUM.

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  10. Lucy Woodhull
    Sep 15, 2013 @ 12:15:12

    I agree with most of the above. No, potatoes don’t turn rancid in twenty minutes. Ella may be TSTL, and also have an ocular problem, as she’s compelled to roll her eyes twice in one page, which is one time too many.

    Mostly, I feel like you can do better. You’re retelling, for the umpteenth time, a story everyone knows. You can do anything with the characters. Anything! But I feel like you’ve chosen the most obvious route, even though it clearly doesn’t work with a modern heroine. I do not believe this woman who is confused by potatoes can be a spy, and, at this point in the narrative, I don’t want to stick around to find out.

    The best thing about this is the weird motto — but you don’t actually give us exactly what it is? Why would they have her put a long motto on a tiny pillow? Does TSTL run in the family? Why even have a tiny pillow? If you’re going to make the joke, make the joke. “Overtime Is for Plebes,” or make it truly ridiculous, like “Staying late is for office drones, and we’re not office drones, we’re the bosses. Now shut up and fetch me a coffee, worthless scum!” or whatever. Right now I’m totally rooting for the evil side of the family.

    Your writing is smooth and nice — I just think that this can be elevated out of the realm of the ordinary. Good luck!

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  11. Nicole
    Sep 15, 2013 @ 13:57:48

    @Lucy Woodhull:

    The best thing about this is the weird motto — but you don’t actually give us exactly what it is? Why would they have her put a long motto on a tiny pillow? Does TSTL run in the family? Why even have a tiny pillow? If you’re going to make the joke, make the joke. “Overtime Is for Plebes,” or make it truly ridiculous, like “Staying late is for office drones, and we’re not office drones, we’re the bosses. Now shut up and fetch me a coffee, worthless scum!” or whatever. Right now I’m totally rooting for the evil side of the family.

    Haha, definitely. That pillow detail was just too weird. A friend of mine sells needlepoint items with rude sayings on them, so I know this is A Thing, but without the author or Ella specifying exactly what’s on the pillow, it just comes across to me as more whining.

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  12. Leah
    Sep 16, 2013 @ 09:55:08

    I wasn’t grabbed by this opening scene and started to skim midway through. Maybe I’m not the target audience (what genre is this?), but all the detail spent on how the food could go bad bored me. It’s paragraph after paragraph of interior monologue about domestic banalities, and the voice wasn’t strong or engaging enough to pull me through it.

    I don’t think this is where the story starts. This reads like a warm-up for you to get into the narrator’s head. Skip forward to when something actually happens.

    And while I love fairy-tale retellings, they’ve been done so often at this point that you need a really clever twist to stand out (e.g., Cinder, Marissa Meyer’s YA sci-fi Cinderella retelling with a brilliant premise: What if Cinderella was a cyborg?). That’s not to say a contemp Cinderella wouldn’t work–merely that there wasn’t anything here that screamed, “Hey, this is Cinderella, but with a clever twist!”

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  13. Vanessa
    Sep 16, 2013 @ 18:21:38

    @Leah:

    Omg! Cinder was exactly what I was thinking about when I saw this submission. Futuristic Cyborg Cinderella definitely breaks the mold in terms of fairytale retelling.

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