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First Page: All I Ever Wanted

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Readers, though, the way that I look at it is this: Would the hook itself interest you in reading the book. If yes, what interests you and if not, what would you change to make it more appealing?

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I am submitting the first page of my as-yet unfinished novel for critique. The working title is All I Ever Wanted, and it is an inspirational chick-lit romance of a projected 95,000 words.

***

The thing about life is, no one ever tells you when it’s going to change. When you buy your calendar for half-price on January 10th, you never open it to find, two rows under the fluffy bunnies snuggling among the sunflowers, bold red letters declaring, "MAJOR LIFE CHANGE."

Because, if I had, I’d have worn better underwear.

As it was, it was an achievement that I’d dressed at all. It was a sweltering July day-’July 7th , to be exact-’the Monday after a long 4th of July weekend. My Fourth had fallen something short of glorious. After the traditional cookout at my parents’, increasingly violent arguments over croquet, and a bonfire which ultimately required professional extinguishing, I’d spent the rest of the weekend groaning on the couch, and, intermittently, in the bathroom. I blamed, alternately, my sister’s potato salad ("I even made the mayo!") and waaaay too many s’mores (the firefighters had politely declined).

I was still feeling queasy that morning, and I wouldn’t have gone to work at all if Roger hadn’t scheduled an important meeting for 8 a.m. . I’d neglected my traditional Saturday laundry, hence the four day-old bra (which still smelled a little smoky), and the stretched-out grannies. I consoled myself with the knowledge that my suit would have been wrinkled by day’s end anyway, and that the run in my hose could still be hidden in the sole of my shoe. Despite an excess of styling products, my hair went from fluffy to flat the instant it hit the humid air, but with the state of my stomach, I didn’t care. I wanted to call in and spend the day sucking on ice cubes, anaesthetized by daytime TV. Instead, I prayed that traffic would be light; I probably had twenty minutes before I’d need a bathroom again.

I made it downtown in twenty-five. For all of their ominous lurching, my innards behaved. Of course I hadn’t felt like putting anything in them for a few days, so they were pretty much empty. But, I reasoned, it had to get better sometime-’maybe by the end of the day I’d be back to normal.

Summer turns the normally crowded campus where I work into a ghost town. With a week to go before the next summer session and no new student orientations, I was able to park my aging Subaru close to the building and shuffle gingerly inside to wait for the elevator. Normally, when I am not on the verge of heaving, I take the five flights of stairs, my anticipation rising with each floor. I love my job. When I graduated from another college eight years ago with an English degree, I was constantly assailed with the question, "What are you going to do?" followed by "Teach?" A few education classes and a participation lab had convinced all involved that this would not have been wise. I toyed with the idea of becoming a novelist, but novelists have to have characters, plots, themes and, well, imaginations. Everything I managed to dream up seemed a little too much like the book I’d just read, the movie I’d just seen or, heaven forbid, last night’s stale sitcom plot.

So no, I wasn’t a writer. But I was a reader. I couldn’t remember a time when I couldn’t read, when I wasn’t reading, or plotting when I could read again. Other kids looked forward to Disneyland, little league, long hot summer days with nothing to do. I counted the days until the library’s summer reading club. I spent three months lugging home bagloads of books, keeping track of each title, obsessively examining each construction-paper chart to make sure no other kid was gaining on me. Occasionally, a "Greg L." would get a little too close for comfort. When that happened, I’d sequester myself with all of the Encyclopedia Browns. Come August, first prize was always mine.

***

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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

28 Comments

  1. Gail
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 06:31:39

    First, huge props for putting yourself out there and looking for critique. Please don’t take comments personally, that’s the number one rule of getting published and surviving it.

    Where is the hook? I was tempted to quit reading after the third “it was” repeated phrasing in the first line. Active, present tense is more interesting, but still, there is nothing to make me turn the page. First page has to grab the reader, hopefully compel them to keep reading.

    But chicklit just isn’t my thing. I could be all wrong about this.

  2. Kathleen MacIver
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 07:22:57

    I, also wasn’t hooked, but I’m honestly not sure why. Your writing flows very nicely, and I wasn’t bogged down by grammar mistakes, which is always a huge plus. I like your voice, too.

    But I wasn’t hooked, either. I almost gave up before the end of the page, but kept at it for you. Let’s see what I can figure out.

    After the “underwear” word, my curiosity picked up. It hints at an accident, to me, since people say you should wear clean underwear in case you get in one and have to be taken to the ER. But as the paragraphs wore on, and my curiosity wasn’t satisfied and I was given a bunch of background information and the set up intead, I started to have a hard time figuring out what was going on. I also was having trouble keeping track of so many details, so fast. Or rather, figuring out which details were important (and needed to be remembered) and which weren’t.

    Therefore, I think that this set-up information needs to be condensed so the story can be gotten to more quickly. More of the information, like the reader/writer info, appears (at this point) to be unimportant as well. Probably not unimportant to the STORY, but unimportant in hooking the reader.

    If whatever the first two paragraphs lead to is, indeed, the best place to start your story, then go through everything between the “As it was,” sentence and whatever it is that happens, and see how much of the information you give is necessary for your readers to understand that Big Happening. The rest of the information should (IMO) either be scrapped, or it should be saved for later on in the story if/when it’s needed.

    Some detail is good, of course, but, for example, this sentence (after yours) sums two paragraphs and moves us that much quicker to the Big Happening.

    “As it was, it was an achievement that I'd dressed at all. An aweful Fourth of July weekend with my family followed by potato salad food poisoning is enough to do almost anybody in.”

    If you can do the same thing with the next two paragraphs, and more gradually introduce the information presented later on, I think the story would hook us more.

  3. Kerry
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 08:08:15

    Bing bing bing! Like Kathleen, I wasn’t hooked but couldn’t figure why and it’s because your character is rambling. It’s very fillery, and you can’t have that on the first page. There’s also no sparkage of personality apparent, and you need that in a 1st person novel.

    I like the bit about reader vs. writer, because I identify with that orientation myself.

  4. Shiloh Walker
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 08:39:05

    Eh, I’m kind of hooked–the first part really caught my attention.

    The thing about life is, no one ever tells you when it's going to change. When you buy your calendar for half-price on January 10th, you never open it to find, two rows under the fluffy bunnies snuggling among the sunflowers, bold red letters declaring, “MAJOR LIFE CHANGE.”

    Because, if I had, I'd have worn better underwear.

    There is some rambling after that and I dunno if all the info about the lousy weekend is necessary on the first page, maybe work it in the first few pages if it has to be in there.

    But I’d be interested enough read more. I really love the first few lines.

  5. Sarabeth
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 09:03:31

    I was hooked at the underwear line, then I lost interest. As others said, your narrator rambles. Skip all that weekend story, where she got to park, and don’t tell us exactly how she dressed. I need to know the event that changed her life in the first page. The backstory of the weekend is interesting, but all that can be worked into other pages. Maybe someone asks her if she smells smoke.

    Hook people with the underwear, but start the action on that first page. So many readers choose a book on the back cover blurb, then the first page. The 4th of July picnic’s not going to keep them reading.

    Also, watch out for the “was”. They do distract readers.

  6. Jill Sorenson
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 09:41:06

    Well, I think this is a great first page. Some of the longer sentences didn’t flow as well for me, and you don’t want to trip up a reader in the first paragraph.

    you never open it to find, two rows under the fluffy bunnies snuggling among the sunflowers, bold red letters declaring, “MAJOR LIFE CHANGE.”

    While I can’t say this is incorrect, the comma after “find” had me backtracking, and the sentence about the family bbq affected me the same way.

    I like the Bridget Jones feel of this piece and I love the part about her being an avid reader. Summer reading program? Yeah, I was that kid. A lot of romance junkies can relate.

    Some of your details bordered on too much information for me, but I don’t think you rambled. The stretched-out granny panties and running to the bathroom (does she have diarrhea?) seemed like more of a bid for sympathy than quirky humor. And it had an ick factor.

    There is a point in Bridget Jones (the movie sequel?) when her character is humiliated so many times she just becomes silly. I want to laugh with a romance heroine, not at her.

    Overall, the writing style is good and the character is someone I immediately related to. I wish you the best of luck with this.

  7. Diane
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 10:08:20

    I stopped at the underwear line myself, because of the repetition of the word “change” in the first paragraph. When I read the underwear line, my brain put “underwear” and “change” together, came up with an image I really didn’t need, and stopped.

    I know, this isn’t how we’re supposed to read, but that’s what happened.

  8. ilona andrews
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 10:50:15

    Nothing happens.

    Sorry, this is a pass for me. :(

  9. Gennita Low
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 10:50:31

    This is a good first page. For a better hook, though, and please forgive me if I’m being intrusive (I know how it feels like when people change my writing around), here is what I’d do with the beginning:

    Use this as your first sentence:

    Had I known, I’d have worn sexier underwear.

    As it was, it was an achievement that I'd dressed at all. It was a sweltering July day-’July 7th , to be exact-’the Monday after a long and best forgotten 4th of July weekend. My Fourth had fallen something short of glorious.

    It immediately starts from a place of interest, telling the reader something is going to happen. I’d skip all the details that happened during the 4th, and go straight to the next paragraph (taking out smoky bra). The detailed info on the protagonist’s appearance is important because you’re building up to that something that’s about to happen, that would make her regret the granny panties.

    I hope this helps a little. I apologize again if I tinkered too much.

  10. Janine
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 11:21:53

    Kudos for putting your first page on display. It takes courage. I like Gennita Low’s suggestion but I also wonder if you could skip this intro and go straight for the major life change event. Start the book when it happens, maybe?

    It is hard to know for certain without knowing what is coming, but I think in the first page, as much as possible, you want the reader to be unable to put the book down. They may be picking up the book in the bookstore while browsing. You want to put something on that first page that will make them decide to buy it then and there.

    So if you have a major life change about to happen, why not start there?

    For example (working off of Gennita’s intro), if what’s about to happen is that she gets run over by a car, you could open this way:

    Had I known, I’d have worn sexier underwear.

    But that Saturday was the fourth of July, and I'd neglected my traditional Saturday laundry. Hence the four day-old bra (which still smelled a little smoky), and the stretched-out grannies I was wearing when the blue car hit me.

    Then you can go into a description of the accident (or whatever life event happens). I think that would be more attention-getting.

    Hope this helps!

  11. Jessica Barksdale Inclan
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 11:24:29

    I’m all for the underwear line being the first, but I’d lose the had. Avoid the tyranny of the had’s, as Monica Woods says.

    I love the calendar idea, too. So if you can tie those two together, I’m in. I like your voice a great deal, and because I like the voice, I’m willing to do go a bit of a distance.

    Of course, then things have to start happening. More quickly. I’m not sure you want to load us down with the past as you do. We learn a lot obout what happened and not what is happening on this first page. So get us moving, and then release in bits all this backstory.

    There is wit and humor, and I hope you will edit and move along with this.

    Jessica Inclan

  12. Dalia
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 11:43:40

    Ditto for Gennita and Janine’s comments re: condensing a few paragraphs into the first.

    I didn’t like the first paragraph because it was hard for me to read – perhaps the comma and/or dash placement? But after that, I got interested in your character’s voice.

    I’m not a reader too hooked on the importance of immediate ‘action’ because after reading the blurb, and maybe flipping through a few random pages, I’m invested enough already to last through at the very least the first chapter.

    I would definitely read on but like someone said – there comes a point when Bridget Jones is no longer ha-ha-I-empathise and is more good-grief-you-idiot-darcywhydoyoubother. I wouldn’t want to see that happen to your lady here because I like her frank tone.

    And the foray into inspirationals I read came up with nothing sounding like this. The characters were preaching paragons. Good to see an inspirational with ‘life’ in it, and real people (even if they have a liking for scatalogical humour :P)

    Keep on writing.

    I’m a reader. Neither editor nor agent.

  13. SonomaLass
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 11:47:23

    I really like the voice, and what I know about the character so far makes me want to hear her story. But I have to agree with others that less detail and a faster move to the life-changing event would improve the “hook.” I’d still want to know most of this stuff, but not all at once before anything has really happened in the present tense.

    Kudos for your style and your guts! Best of luck,; when this gets published, be sure to let us know.

  14. Maya
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 11:54:42

    First – I’m going to repeat a comment above and say : mucho praise for being brave enough to put your work in such a public place. IIRC, this is the first excerpt in a non-paranormal-suspense-sexy genre, and depending how the responses go for this one it might make up the minds of other genre writers whether to participate here or not. So, along those lines, if I were the author, it would be hugely helpful for me if the people who kindly take the time to share feedback would also give some sort of indication whether this is a genre they normally enjoy or not. In other words – if someone dislikes chicklit generally, then their reaction of not being hooked would probably have a different meaning for you than someone who does regularly read chicklit and says they weren’t hooked.

    Second, I personally do like chicklit, and I was hooked. I thought the opener was great – one of those thoughts I’ve vaguely had but never spelled out so clearly – and I didn’t have a problem with the heroine ‘wandering’ around a little in her thoughts (but – there’d have to be something of signficant interest happening by page 3, or I’d probably stop reading).

    Parts that didn’t work for me:
    - the fluffy bunnies. Made me think this was YA. When I realized that was wrong, I couldn’t figure out whether the bunny bit is intended ironically (to contrast with the life change thing) or she just likes to surround herself with ultracute images (which to me is off-puttingly juvenile). Either way, it interrupted the reading process.

    - a bit heavy on the digestive upset side. Does it need so much?

    - multiple spots with repetition:
    “As it was, it was…”

    “..July day-’July 7th , to be exact-’the Monday after a long 4th of July weekend. My Fourth..”

    “novelists have plots…last night's stale sitcom plot… or plotting” when”

    (I’m a reader/aspiring writer)

  15. Tracy
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 12:13:44

    The thing about life is, no one ever tells you when it's going to change. When you buy your calendar for half-price on January 10th, you never open it to find, two rows under the fluffy bunnies snuggling among the sunflowers, bold red letters declaring, “MAJOR LIFE CHANGE.”

    Because, if I had, I'd have worn better underwear.

    HAH! I loved that part!

    I would def. read more.

    I’m just a reader, so no suggestions, but I like your voice.

  16. Anion
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 12:31:25

    You’re a pretty good writer, but I’ll agree with the other comments–nothing’s happening, except for some rather disgusting references to your intestines which frankly turn me right off. Sorry. I know that’s a personal taste thing, but I don’t want to read about your digestion and bathroom visits.

  17. Anonymous
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 13:48:14

    What’s missing from the first page is action. In order to hook the reader, you need action more than you need narrative. You can work out the who’s who and what’s what later on, but in the first page especially, you need the hook, you need the action.

    I like your writing very much. Flows nicely, great prose. If some of the extraneous facts were removed, it would be even more compelling, because after one page, we don’t have any clue what is going on.

  18. K. Z. Snow
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 14:16:27

    Big pat on the back for putting yourself out there, Jane! I’m afraid I can’t offer much, since I have a strong aversion to chick-lit and couldn’t give an objective assessment. I do, however, like your self-effacing voice. My only advice: don’t carry it to extremes.

    Here’s wishing you the very best of luck with your “baby”! ^*toasting*^

  19. Jane
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 14:44:35

    This isn’t mine. It’s an anonymous submission.

  20. K. Z. Snow
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 14:59:52

    Oh, I’m sorry. I misunderstood your intro. (Should’ve known those asterisk breaks were there for a reason!)

  21. Jane
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 15:03:55

    Sorry for the confusion. I’ll make it more clear next time. I really have no writing aspirations so unless it is a total spoof, I doubt you’ll see any creative fiction from me.

  22. Marianne McA
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 15:51:15

    So is Greg L the hero?

    I’m looking at it as a reader, but I think the people who know about writing are probably right: at the end of the first paragraph I’m interested in what the Major Life Change is, and why the underwear mattered – but then she tells me about her picnic, then her laundry, then her stomach, then her workplace, and even a bit about her childhood – and there’s so much that I’ve almost forgotten what hooked me into the story.

    But I like her voice – as Maya said, if I was flicking through it in a bookshop, I’d read on, and as long as she got back to the story soon, that’d be fine. I’ve never read inspirational chick-lit, and I like the idea of seeing how that would work, especially with the character you’ve created.

    Really personal quibble – this quote:

    I toyed with the idea of becoming a novelist, but novelists have to have characters, plots, themes and, well, imaginations.

    I hate all variations of this. ‘He felt as if he was in a book’ etc. It breaks the fourth wall for me every time. (Unless it’s Jasper Fforde and the characters are in a book, which is fine.) Somehow the character saying she couldn’t write a book when I’m reading ‘her’ book – it just makes my brain implode.

    But I see it frequently, and probably no-one else minds.

    Good luck with the book.

  23. Tracey
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 16:04:43

    The style is fine, and I like the humor and the heroine. But what you’ve got is mostly filler. I’d cut the mention of her frequent trips to the bathroom and her style of underwear and her prose rendition of “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?

    Focus instead on the heroine and her major life change. She has a problem; tell me what it is, and how she’s dealing with the problem. That’s what I want to know about on the first page: “Who is this person and what problem does she have?” You need a hook, and you need action/plot. The filler could be largely cut or used elsewhere in the book. Right at the beginning, though–not the right place for it.

    I wouldn’t send an agent or publisher the first page of an unfinished novel; few are interested in fiction unless there’s a completed manuscript.

    I wish you luck with the book.

  24. Erastes
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 16:19:47

    The only thing I can add is that unless you are “this year’s genius” never tell anyone you have an unfinished MSS. I know of some agents who have signed people who have unfinished work, but I would imagine they are the rarities. Finish the work first – then plug it.

  25. Susanna Kearsley
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 20:14:46

    The thing about life is, no one ever tells you when it's going to change. When you buy your calendar for half-price on January 10th, you never open it to find, two rows under the fluffy bunnies snuggling among the sunflowers, bold red letters declaring, “MAJOR LIFE CHANGE.”

    Because, if I had, I'd have worn better underwear.

    I like this. I’m liking the voice of the narrator. One thing you might want to try, without losing that voice, is to move a few words around something like this:

    The thing about life is, no one ever tells you when it's going to change. When you buy your calendar for half-price on January 10th, you never open it to find bold red letters declaring, “JULY 7th: MAJOR LIFE CHANGE.”

    Because, if I had, I'd have worn better underwear.

    And then I’d be tempted to dive right into dialogue, put her at that early meeting and engage the reader right away in what is going on and what’s about to happen, filling in the background as you go.

    It’s just a thought.But I do think you show a lot of talent in those first few lines.

    For what it’s worth, I always go with Stephen King’s advice on criticism: If everyone’s saying the same thing’s not working, you might want to think about changing it; if they’re all commenting on different things, you can safely disregard them all and trust your instincts.

    Best of luck!

  26. Lori
    Apr 26, 2008 @ 23:46:38

    I do like chick lit and really enjoyed your first page. Great voice, immediate humor which hooks me every time. The only problem was that for a first page I felt slammed by way too much information. I didn’t mind the intestinal problems, just minded how quickly everything came at me.

    I would happily read more with a narrative voice like this. Thank you for being willing to share.

  27. Anonymous
    Apr 27, 2008 @ 13:47:43

    Whenever I read Query Saturday, I always wonder how the querists used the advice they were given, and whether or not it worked for them. I just want to thank everyone who took the time to read my first page and comment. I cannot tell you how encouraging and helpful you have been. Obviously, this book is a ways off from being submitted, but your advice will help me make it much better. I’ve always known I was a little, um, wordy, and figured I’d end up cutting a lot, but I had already rewritten my first chapter twice! Thanks for the eye-opener, and also for the hints on how to restructure it. (They were great, by the way!) I was completely unaware of the TMI effect. I am not very squeamish about that stuff, but enough people here found it a turn-off that I figure it’s a problem. Her symptoms do figure in her “major life change,” but I can tone it way down. And yes, Greg L. is the hero.

    Again, I really want to thank all of you. I so appreciate your kindness and generosity.

  28. eliz.s.
    Apr 28, 2008 @ 14:58:41

    Thanks for letting us take a look at your first page! I am a fan of chick-lit, and glad to read that the heroine works at a college instead of an NYC magazine/book publisher. Going from this draft of a first page, though, I wouldn’t keep reading. Like others have said, I couldn’t tell what the most important facts were, the random details threw me, and there’s not enough action. Even if the life-changing event doesn’t happen on the first page, something could happen at the picnic (besides getting sick) or on the way to work. . . I don’t know. I found this first page difficult to slog through. I imagine in a few more tries, you’ll get it, though. There is some good stuff here to be worked with.

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