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First Page: Unnamed Contemporary

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***

Overwhelming sorrow descended upon me, as I sat on the shore with my feet buried in the sand. Soft waves flowed, producing a pool around my feet. I stared at the image of the woman smiling back at me from the photograph I held in my trembling hand. Her curly raven locks with flecks of sun-drenched brown perfectly framed her delicate honey face and caressed her slight shoulders. Her warm eyes were as a pair of onyx jewels set in pearls. Red undertones glistened under her cheeks and peaked at high cheekbones as they rose in her vibrant smile. Full rose-colored lips turned up fully, atypical for that time in her life. Her heart filled with elation as her eight-year old daughter snapped the photo, just hours before the meeting she had been certain would salvage her dying marriage.

An involuntary shiver went through me, as I thought of that afternoon. The woman in the photo was me, and it had only been a year since my Lillie took it. A stray pebble fell into the lake and as the ripples settled, I caught sight of the image that remained. The woman reflected, someone with whom I had lived the last year and had faced one heart-breaking loss after another, I still found a stranger.

* * *

Soft beeps echoed from some unknown place, gradually increasing with resonating sound and dragging me into consciousness. I used the strength of determination to open my left eye against the ton's weight of my eyelid. The glare of the bright lights burned such that hot tears started to well. It was then that I felt the force of water behind my right eye and realized I could not open it.

"Hello Alicia." My heart fluttered at the bass of the voice, which I instantly recognized as my husband's. The screech of his chair scraping against the floor went through my teeth and jaw like chalk against a chalkboard. His aftershave, usually sending welcome tingles down my spine, brought my stomach into nauseous convulsions. I struggled to turn where I felt his presence to the right of my bed, but the intense throbbing in my neck produced a painful but quieted shriek. "I-I'm sorry." I listened to his footsteps as he made his way to the other side of the bed and my heart startled with wonder at what this visit meant. Even with dulled thought, I could surmise that I was in a hospital but I did not know why. Moreover, I did not know what to make of his coming to see me.

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

20 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Nov 27, 2010 @ 05:04:05

    I like that the woman in the photo turns out to be the protagonist. However, remember that you show us the photo from her POV – not somebody else’s. And she says:

    “My curly raven locks with flecks of sun-drenched brown perfectly framed my delicate honey face and caressed my slight shoulders. My warm eyes were as a pair of onyx jewels set in pearls.”

    Does she really think of herself like this?

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  3. theo
    Nov 27, 2010 @ 07:55:16

    Let me preface my remarks by saying I agree with so many who say these excerpts usually aren’t long enough to get a good feel for the story. That and the lack of a back blurb makes it hard sometimes to give good comments so…

    I’m guessing by a back blurb I’d have more to go on, but with these two sections, I felt like I was in two different stories. First I read about a woman who presumably is devastated due to divorce. Then in the next section, I have a woman who is relating a story from the confines of a hospital bed and I’m wondering where the divorce went and what this has to do with the woman on the beach. Also, from the second section, I got a decidedly paranormal feel from the content. I imagine I’ll be the only one in that, but after reading the first section, it came across that way to me.

    That said, I agree with Anonymous in that I question if the protagonist would really think of herself that way. Should that be me, I might be thinking, “I looked so healthy/pretty/calm/happy/whatever” but I doubt very much I’d be ticking off a list of physical attributes. If I were that devastated over what had happened, I would be thinking perhaps more on how I got to that place, not how I looked. It just comes across as shallow with that much detail.

    My other caveat is that I don’t read first person often. It must be very well written or I don’t enjoy it so I’m not really your target audience here, but the phrasing you’re using puts me in mind of the early 1800’s however the camera and the ‘soft beeps’ makes it current and it just doesn’t resonate with me in that respect. I expect a contemporary to be written with that cadence in mind. Same for an Edwardian or Victorian or Austen era story. This one seems like too much of a contradiction but again, that’s most likely just me.

    Kudos for putting it out there and good luck.

  4. Marianne McA
    Nov 27, 2010 @ 07:59:58

    It’s just all a bit much – the sorrow is overwhelmimg, the eyes are onyx jewels, the marriage is dying – the character comes across as a bit overwrought. She’s sitting on the shore, looking at herself, in an emotional, depressed way – I couldn’t spend a book with her. Sorry.

    I also didn’t find all the descriptions that useful. Take this with a pinch of salt, because I do avoid descriptive writing. But my brain when asked to visualise onyx in pearl sends me back a picture of a stripy brown pebble on top of a round creamy pearl. (My brain: not good at imagery.) It doesn’t give me beautiful eyes. For me, a really straightforward description like ‘brown eyes’ or ‘hair so dark brown it almost looked black’ is just easier to read.

  5. Jennifer Armintrout
    Nov 27, 2010 @ 08:06:18

    For a contemporary, the prose is awfully historical-ish. And since it’s the protagonist at the end of the story reflecting back on how she got to this place, it’s a bit passive. Everything is just happening to her. Sorrow is descending on her, she’s shuddering involuntarily… if this is the character at the end of the story, she seems weak and helpless because of the wording. I’m not sure I would continue reading if I knew that was the end result of the journey the heroine was going to take, ykwim?

  6. Lynne Connolly
    Nov 27, 2010 @ 08:08:53

    I agree with the comments above. The two extracts read like that – disjointed. And first person can be a hard sell, unless you’re writing urban fantasy. But if that’s the way the story is telling itself to you, go with it. I tried to put Richard and Rose in the third person and the story just – died on me. It might be worth trying, though.

    The first part is a “mirror scene” where a protagonist describes herself when looking into a mirror, pond, reflective surface or in this case a photograph. They rarely work, and this one, I’m afraid, doesn’t, mainly because of the reasons described by Anonymous above.

    The story also reads dispassionately, and I think that’s because you’re “telling” not “showing.” That’s a mistake more common in first person narrative, sometimes.
    Take an example:
    “His aftershave, usually sending welcome tingles down my spine, brought my stomach into nauseous convulsions.”

    That is telling. You’re describing how she feels, not taking the reader right in and sharing the feelings with her. If you’ll permit me, this won’t be perfect, but it might give you an idea.
    “My stomach turned over and bile rose, bitter in my mouth, an instinctive reaction to the presence that should mean so much to me. But not in that way.”
    Given time, I’d go deeper, but that’s a start.

    It’s a lot easier to say “I felt nauseous” but that gives the reader no sense of the place or the experience.

    I hope some of that helps.

  7. Jaclyn
    Nov 27, 2010 @ 08:57:45

    I’ve read, and enjoyed, books that start with a short interlude like this and then move on to the story, and at some point the interlude makes sense or adds richness to the whole story. Here, it’s just too brief an excerpt to tell if that will happen–but I’ll presume it will :)

    A while back there was a discussion here on voice. I would classify the voice here as “in development”. It’s quiet, it’s in there, but it’s not fully realized. Or I don’t fully “hear” it with my reader’s ear.

    The story is opening more sadly and full of woe than I usually prefer. Like @theo said, the jacket copy/back blurb might give me more to go on, but without more to go on, unless I was in the mood for a sad book, I might not keep reading.

    One thing that did grab me–mentioning the scent of the husband’s aftershave and the woman’s physical reaction to it–that was a compelling moment for me. I like when scent is brought into a book; often it’s so much about creating a visual picture for a reader, but we have more senses than just sight.

    Good luck with your story!

  8. SAO
    Nov 27, 2010 @ 09:35:06

    I had trouble from the start.

    1) If she’s sitting on the beach and water is pooling around her feet, her rear is likely to be in wet sand, too. So, this looks improbable for me. I’d notice wet bum long before wet feet. And she’s looking at a picture, which might get wet. Again, I’m not seeing this as the actions of a normal human in a normal world. This is more like an author not thinking about the real world.

    2) The description was over the top. In my view raven hair is black, without flecks of a lighter color. What is sun-drenched brown anyway? Onyx in Pearls? Huh, what? Who talks like this.

    3) The woman describes the picture in the third person, and then it turns out to be her. I had to read this twice to believe it. I had assumed the picture was the woman’s mother. Jerking me around by using third person to talk about herself is annoying.
    And who talks like that about herself?

    4) The woman who remained was a stranger to herself? I’m not quite buying this, either. That the woman in the photo seemed like a stranger, I might get.

    5) So, then I get through this whole thing and the scene is gone. No action follows. We start over with another scene.

    All in all, I get an author who is going to make every single description excessive and who ignores the laws of physics/human nature/anatomy in search of a poetic image.

    No thanks.

    I want a story. I want straightforward prose, not strained poetry.

  9. SAO
    Nov 27, 2010 @ 09:54:49

    I’ll try to be more constructive this time.

    The first scene is all info dump about her past. Nix it.

    If you want to write in first person, you have to stick to the limitations of first person. Otherwise switch to third.

    The hospital scene is okay, but, of course, we didn’t get much of it. In real life, the minute she opens her eyes, anyone there (ie husband) is going to talk to her. He’s waiting for her to open her eyes. Don’t let her muse too long before interacting with him.

    In general, you should not start with musing. Either the extended muse on the beach or musing for a long time before the characters in the scene (husband, possibly nurse, too) act. You should start with action.

    Don’t muse. Show and act. Show us the hospital, don’t have her surmise she’s in one. Have her act/react to Hubby, don’t let her muse about his presence. Have her ask, ‘What are you doing here?” or shout, “Get out!” or whisper in a shaking voice, “Could you please call a nurse.” Any of those three reactions will tell us more about her and her marriage than her telling us, “I don’t know what to make of his presence.”

  10. okbut
    Nov 27, 2010 @ 10:02:19

    I mostly enjoy these 1st page saturday exercises, and as a writer myself, feel grateful for the subbmission.

    In this case, I agree with previous posts. Too wordy, not sensical, and confusing.

    I like the voice, I see the potential storyline here, I would start with the hospital scene, then go back in the 1st person POV, to fill in more info. This could be a good marital abuse story, if reconstructed. I realise that it takes many months between submission and actual posting of the 1st page. You may have already come to some of these conclusions.

    For the other commenters, I would like to ask what the problem is with first person POV. Every week something negative is stated about this approach. I find a lot of very interesting novels written in the first. Of course, a story written by a nine year old’s POV, is not that entralling…

  11. Maria
    Nov 27, 2010 @ 10:54:02

    I can’t speak for everyone else, but for me, when I’m reading first person, then the protagonist is me, or at least the imaginary me inside my head. If I don’t immediately identify with that person, then there’s a disconnect between what the book protagonist is doing/saying/feeling and what the imaginary me would do/say/feel in the same situation.

    The other thing about it is that unless it happens directly to the protagonist, the reader doesn’t get to see it or experience it, unless of course you switch POV.

    I guess I enjoy being the semi-psychic fly on the wall instead of being trapped inside the cage of a person I may or may not like for the length of the book.

  12. theo
    Nov 27, 2010 @ 11:16:48

    @okbut

    For me, I need a first person narrative that makes me feel like I am in the scene. The above submission is a good example of how I’m not a part of this scene in any way because I don’t feel the narrator’s experience. I’m being told by the narrator rather than actually being a part of what the narrator is going through. That I need to know her feelings and thoughts without being told “I felt sick,” or “I thought he was a jerk,” because it’s very hard not to write it that way. And it’s the narrator or in this instance, the first person account that has to tell me everything in the book in such a way that I still feel like I know what every other character is thinking and feeling and their motivation for their actions as well.

    A very hard thing to do in a first person account without telling through the whole story and too many I’ve tried to read are just that. All telling, very little showing. So for me, first person rarely works. But again, that’s just me!

  13. hapax
    Nov 27, 2010 @ 11:20:35

    I’m a sucker for “marriage gone bad / reconciliation” stories, so I really wanted to like this one.

    But the combination of violently purple, overwrought prose, reliance on the passive voice, and the first-person narration made me think for a moment that this was meant as a parody of a teenage self-dramatization.

    For example:

    “I used the strength of determination to open my left eye against the ton's weight of my eyelid.”

    If there is someone out there who would really think that way instead of “I forced open my left eyelid” (or something similar), I shudder at the thought of spending hundreds of pages inside her head.

    You have some lovely, strong metaphors in here, but throwing too many of them in at once is like eating an entire box of chocolates in a few minutes. Use them sparingly, so we can appreciate their richness.

  14. Gwynnyd
    Nov 27, 2010 @ 13:06:52

    I like well-done first person stories. We are out there.

    I know it’s a style thing – and everyone should not write alike – but with the heavy introspection and the flowery language, this feels like a 60s gothic opening, not a 21st century contemporary.

    You lost me first at “overwhelming sorrow descended” in the first line. My random mind immediately conjured up a Monty Python-esque foot descending from a cloud and squashing her. Wouldn’t “overwhelming sorrow” surge up from inside, and not come crashing down from outside, her?

    Many of your phrases left me with oddball pictures. From where do stray pebbles simply fall into lakes? Is she sitting on a tiny strip of sand under an unsteady cliff? Is there someone behind her pitching rocks? It makes no sense to have stray pebbles appearing when you need the reflection to waver. Couldn’t she just move her feet to accomplish the same thing?

    The tenses were off, too. Surely, if she is remembering the time when the photo had been taken, wouldn’t “which had been atypical” better describe her smile, and “her heart had filled with elation” when her daughter took the picture. Why are these thoughts not in past tense?

    I agree with Lynne Connolly above who said you were telling us what she feels rather than showing us. I know, from my own attempts, that showing and making it look effortless is a much harder skill to master, but I think it would be worth it, especially since you are writing in first person POV.

    I got to the end of the first part and expected the next scene to be the day that Lillie took the picture. Why would you set up such an elaborate opening, and then not use it? I can’t see any connection between the first and second scenes.

    I’m not even sure who is sorry in the second part. DId she say it or hear it? And with her husband pacing all around her, how come she can’t figure out that she’s half blind before she starts to cry. How swollen would an eye have to be before tears built up pressure behind it? I’d think tears would leak out regardless of the swelling.

    And she produces a “a painful but quieted shriek.” How does anyone shriek quietly? Moan, sob, whimper… but shriek?

    Then I thought, OMG! Is she one-eyed, scarred bald and ugly in the opening, which is why she spends so much time on the lyrical description of how she used to look? That would be radical, but, on second thought, I doubt it.

    Too many things are throwing me out of the narrative here rather than drawing me into it.

    You write well, but it feels as if you are trying too hard. Let some of the sentences and thoughts be simple.

  15. Sao
    Nov 27, 2010 @ 14:11:15

    @ok
    There are so many traps in first person. As this author demonstrated, you really sound self bsorbed if you think of your own hair as raven, with sun drenched flecks. In third, it’s not so odd.

    In first, all perceptions about other characters emotions has to come from the observations of the pov char. That risks the pov char being an improbably acute observer of body language.

    If the pov char has a strong character, it can get tedious, living with all of her opinions. A bland char is fine in a plot driven book. The Grafton alphabet books come to mind.

    Im okay with first person books, but especially by novice authors, it’s badly done. It’s hard to get the sense of being there, rather than the sense of someone telling you what happened after the fact.

  16. Kenya Lumpkin
    Nov 27, 2010 @ 15:10:37

    Hello Everyone,

    This is Kenya (keen-ya) Lumpkin, the author. As an only twice-published novelist, I still feel like quite the novice at writing for any eyes beyond mine. I thank you for all of your feedback. The funny thing is that I submitted this piece so long ago that I did not even remember that I’d written it in first person voice. I had actually written it a few years ago in first person then changed it to third person more recently, which, as many have pointed out, is far easier. It is also funny that I did not catch how the description of how the woman sees herself comes across, as I actually wrote a “mirror” scene in my first novel from the third person POV. I get the impression that people felt like they were her (the character in the book) because I did not tell what she was feeling –they could feel what she felt– and because it did not come across as someone self-absorbed with her physical image. First person POV is a struggle, but I put it out there. Thank you for your responses, and I welcome any more.

  17. FunnyGirl
    Nov 27, 2010 @ 17:10:23

    @SAO
    you really sound self absorbed if you think of your own hair as raven, with sun drenched flecks. In third, it's not so odd.

    I have to disagree. Any POV heroine thinking of herself as such gets an eye-roll and a book-toss from me. First, third – I don’t care. It’s all obnoxious.

  18. DS
    Nov 27, 2010 @ 19:01:07

    @FunnyGirl: Agreed. It set my Mary Sue meter off at once.

    Krentz in some of her earlier category novels would describe the color of her heroine’s hair as toast. Great way to give her heroine seem a bit warm, homey, down to earth, and a touch humorous.

  19. SAO
    Nov 28, 2010 @ 00:46:24

    @funnygirl:

    In third person, if the phrase is, “she pushed a lock of sun-drenched raven hair behind her ear,” it doesn’t sound like the character thinks of her hair as sun-drenched raven.

    “I pushed a lock of my sun-drenched raven hair behind my ear” is truly gag-making.

    If it’s clear that we’re tightly in the POV of the owner of the raven locks, and the description is hers, then, yes, third is the same as first.

  20. Anonymousss
    Nov 28, 2010 @ 09:41:59

    One of my pet peeves as a reader is when a POV character describes their emotional state for me (just in case I don’t get it from the writing?), and this First Page starts in just that manner, stating that the POV character is feeling “Overwhelming sorrow.”

    As someone who writes in deep third, I consider any named emotion in my own writing as an indicator that I’ve taken a shortcut. Something needs a little more work.

    Because we’re in first person POV, we have a front-row seat into the character’s physical feelings and perceptions. USE THEM. What is this character experiencing physically, what is she seeing in her surroundings, that might tip us off to her emotional state in a more subtle, nuanced manner?

    I find the writing and the character to be quite melodramatic and over-the-top. I would not continue reading.

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