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First Page: Deep is the Water

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Sarah groaned, her forehead resting against the curve of the steering wheel. She opened an eye and peeked at the dashboard. Yup. The ‘check engine’ and the battery light were both still glowing. That was bad. Sarah didn’t know much about cars, but that had to be bad. She slumped backwards against the seat, shielding her eyes from the glare of the late summer sun. Fifteen miles. That’s all she needed. Fifteen more miles and she’d have been in town. Instead, she was stranded on the side of some barely-paved rural route to nowhereville. It was as if even the car knew where they were headed and didn’t want to arrive there any more than she did.

Nowhereville was actually Chesterville; half rural, half suburb, all nowhereville. A place she’d spent the better part of a decade avoiding at all costs. There was only one thing strong enough to pull her back to this unholy armpit of the world. Her mother’s voice at the end of the phone, uncharacteristically shaky, telling her that her beloved Auntie-El was in hospital.

It was some years since she’d been back. She’d lost count. The route still felt familiar, like something from a recurring dream. A necessary dream, as she drove down the roads on autopilot, the acidity of fear in her stomach. Without warning, the car had lost power and she’d coasted it to a shuddering, clanking stop, just managing to park on the gravel shoulder. Okay, maybe not without warning. The ‘check engine’ light had been showing for the past week, but she could have sworn that the battery light was new!

Why now? Why today, when she needed so desperately to be there? She took a deep breath, pressing the heels of her hands against her eyes to hold back the sting of tears. Oh Auntie-El, please be okay, she thought. Taking a deep, steadying breath, her hand searched through the contents of her purse, pulling out her shabby old cell phone. She flipped it open and tapped her thumbs against it impatiently as it slowly flickered into life. Damn. No signal. Nothing. Damn! She clicked the phone shut and tossed it back into her bag, suddenly full of a very sinking feeling.

Auntie-El would die. She’d die and Sarah wouldn’t be in time to say goodbye. She could feel the panicky sobs threatening to rise up and choke her. She had to clench her eyes shut and just breathe. Breathe slowly, until the sensation passed. No. She would not fall apart. She would stay calm. She would find a way out of this. She would get to the hospital somehow.

Popping the door open, she stepped out onto the rough asphalt, the heat instantly rising up through the bottom of her flimsy sandals. Why hadn’t she dressed more sensibly? Sun dresses and sandals were fine for a Friday afternoon in the office, but not for being stranded in the middle of nowhere. She leaned back against the bumper of the car, staring glumly at her feet. How many miles could she make it hiking in them before her feet were in shreds? She pushed herself up, shading her eyes, rising onto her tiptoes to stare into the distance. The undulating road disappeared over the next low hill, a stand of wind-break trees blocking her view. Not even a farmhouse in sight.

She ducked into the front seat and fumbled for the lever that released the hood. Maybe if she looked inside? But staring at the intricate tangle of wires, hoses and fans did nothing to enlighten her.

Resignation sat like a stone in her gut. She nodded to herself and bit back a harsh laugh. So this was what she got for staying away for so long. As if the universe was somehow making her pay for trying to escape from it all. The truth was, there was no escaping. And she was trapped, a tantalising fifteen miles away from a dying woman who had defined her childhood.

At first she dismissed it as her imagination. But what was at first just a far-off rumble was very suddenly a truck engine coming up behind her. A battered pick-up truck that pulled in on the shoulder some way ahead and slowly backed towards her.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and 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


  1. SAO
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 05:20:50

    This may be the beginning of an interesting book, but there’s a fair amount you can do to improve it:

    1) You inform us that Sarah is TSTL on page one. The engine light was on, that had to be bad, so why had she ignored that light for a week? No surprise the car broke down. Why hadn’t she dressed more sensibly? I wondered that, too. I had to read twice to note that there was no signal, the person you’ve described sounds like someone who would forget to charge her battery. She doesn’t know anything about engines; I don’t either and I’m not an idiot, but when we don’t know much else about Sarah, it’s piling on to the idea that she is.

    2) The scene, Sarah and some of the writing is passive. The biggest problem is that Sarah is. She hasn’t fixed her car, she groans, leans her head on the dash. She stares glumly at her feet. Resignation sits like stone in her gut. She was trapped. She does say she’ll get to the hospital somehow, but she isn’t acting like it. Avoiding Chesterville at all costs is another hint. You don’t have to avoid a town. All you have to do is decide to not return.

    You have a lot of ‘was’ constructions. I firmly believe that the past tense of the verb to be has a use in writing, but often, when you replace them, you get more interesting writing. For example, “She’d got out of Nowheresville and sworn she’d nothing could drag her. Then, yesterday, her mother called her. Auntie Ell collapsed and had been rushed to the hospital. Sarah had grabbed her bags, hopped in the car and set out for the armpit of the world to see her beloved aunt. ”

    Not much is happening in the scene. It’s mostly a sit and think. Either start later or start with the phone call.

    3) The details don’t add up. Sarah knows the route, it’s half suburban, so presumably she knows that she doesn’t have to walk 15 miles on an empty road before someone comes by or she reaches a house. If she knows there isn’t a house or likely passing car, at 3mph, the average pace of walking, it’s 5 hours to town and it is probably already evening, putting her arrival quite probably after midnight, so why does she say she’d get to the hospital some how? She loves Auntie El, but has never been home to see her?

    For me, the nail in the coffin was the truck coming to rescue her from her pitiful plight.

    You could have her break down on the way to the home from hell without making her into such an incompetent and pitiful ditz.

  2. Katie T.
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 05:50:48

    I don’t have a problem with the writing. I have a problem with the heroine being dumber than a doorbell, so no, I wouldn’t read it past this section. Seriously? You don’t have to be a genius to pay attention to a check engine light that’s been on for a freaking week, particularly when you’re going to be making a long and important road trip. What a twit.

  3. Marianne McA
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 06:19:07

    I remember my daughter telling me about getting stuck halfway home to a deathbed: I’d phoned her at uni and told her she had to come now, and she just dropped off the radar and did. And her phone had been stolen before that and she hadn’t any cash, and when she got from the airport to the bus station, the bus driver wouldn’t let her pay by card. Luckily, she found enough stray coins in the bottom of her bag to pay, but I remember her telling me that she’d just decided that if she hadn’t enough she was going to get on anyway, and point blank refuse to get off and force them to take her.
    Her mindset was: I’m getting home whatever it takes. And she wasn’t being bright about it: in those sort of circumstances people are helpful – someone would have lent her the fare – but her overpowering need to be home translated into powerful action, not navel gazing.

    I’d root more for your heroine if she would do that: just look at her feet, know it was going to hurt, and start walking anyway. And if Auntie El is dying, I’m not entranced by a heroine who thinks about how much she had disliked the area, and about how her current difficulties show that the universe is punishing her – I want her to think about Auntie El, to be urgent in her desire to get there if possible, and to demonstrate that urgency with some sort of forward momentum.

  4. KimMarie
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 07:01:11

    I’m a reader, not a writer, so my reaction is from that perspective. I would not read further because, as the others have said, the heroine is TSTL. She comes off as whiny, selfish and angsty. Angst as part of the plot is fine – angst as part of person’s character is not (for my tastes).

    Auntie El? My first thought was Wizard of Oz and couldn’t the author have come up with a better name.

    ” The ‘check engine’ light had been showing for the past week, but she could have sworn that the battery light was new battery light was new.” 1. And yet, the universe is conspiring against her even though she fails to deal with the “check engine” light? 2. It’s the battery that counts, not the indicator light. If she’s that dumb she shouldn’t be driving.

    Even though her Aunt is dying, all she can think about is what’s happening to her and how her aunt’s death will affect her.

  5. Lynne Connolly
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 07:57:57

    This needs serious slicing. You can do this in a paragraph. Slice the backstory. All gone. Start with her getting out of the car, blaming her concerns for her aunt for not checking the car before she left home. Calling herself stupid before the reader does.
    Now her anxiety levels and maybe anger is rising She is absolutely not going to be thinking backstory at this time and all the reader needs to know is that she’s on an important errand, and her car has broken down.
    Her reactions are going to depend on the kind of person she is, and this is your chance to hook the reader with her character. She’s going to assess the situation. Is there a bus stop nearby? Can she call for a cab? (I’d rather make it a no-signal area, rather than another TSTL event like letting the battery run down). Can she walk fifteen miles and can she afford the time? Here’s where you can touch on her disillusionment with the area. “Typical of her old home,” or something like that, but don’t overdo it. Or you can do it when she discovers her cell doesn’t work.
    Then she sees the truck. Could be dangerous. Does she have an impromptu weapon, or maybe the driver will let her use his cell?

  6. Lil
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 08:10:04

    I partly agree with the above comments. You obviously want her to come across as worried and upset, afraid she won’t make it to Aunt El in time. Unfortunately, she comes across as whiny and self-pitying.
    Some suggestions:
    1. A check engine light can be unimportant. Mine goes on and off as the spirit moves it, and no mechanic has been able to find a problem. Do you want her to be an idiot who failed basic car maintenance or is she supposed to be reasonably competent? Maybe she had an appointment for the car to be checked tomorrow morning and decided to take a chance.
    2. If she got the call about Aunt El at work and just hopped into the car and set off, she might be inappropriately dressed for the trip. If that’s the reason, say so.
    3. Does she know where she is? Specifically, that is. Can she know how far it will be until she reaches a house? Let her do some thinking and planning about her situation instead of just sitting there and moaning.
    4. Yes, you want the reader to know that she has been avoiding “nowheresville,” but for her to carry on about it now makes her sound too self-centered. She should be worried about Aunt El. Just a hint or two about the past will do.
    You’ve got a good start here. It shouldn’t take too much work to polish it up.

  7. Caro
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 10:17:04

    You have some real potential. There’s good stuff trying to push through:

    Nowhereville was actually Chesterville; half rural, half suburb, all nowhereville.

    I like this. There’s a nice pacing, a wry tone, a good voice.

    Sure, as others have pointed out, you have a heroine who’s coming off TSTL and whiney and self-centered. That can be fixed fairly easily. But I do think there’s more here than just the heroine weighing this down.

    She could feel the panicky sobs threatening to rise up and choke her

    First, as SAO has pointed out, there’s quite a lot of passive littered around in this piece. The above sentence is just one example. It slows everything down and pulls your punches.

    Panicky sobs clutched in her throat, threatening to rise up and choke her.

    Second, look at your paragraphs. They are all basically the same size. This gets monotonous. A rhythm creeps into your writing that lulls the reader to sleep. Look what happens when you vary your paragraphs:

    Auntie-El would die.

    She’d die and Sarah wouldn’t be in time to say goodbye.

    Panicky sobs clutched in her throat, threatening to rise up and chock her. Clenching her eyes shut, she breathed in. And out. Once more. And again.

    No. No. No.

    She would not fall apart. She would stay calm. She would find a way out of this. She would get to the hospital somehow.

    Third, I get quite a bit of backstory but not really. Stay with me here, LOL. Sarah TELLS me many things- her Aunt El, her hate for her hometown, her stupid decision to not pay attention to her car etc. But I’m not connected to her. I get no real sense of what drives Sarah other than she loves her aunt. Well, I love my aunt. So what? I don’t need huge hunks of backstory, what i need is to get a bead on Sarah. For example:

    The all too typical cynical resignation slid down her throat and hit her gut like a stone.

    Why should she be surprised?

    Every time she even thought about this fleabag town, all the old tapes started playing. She’d spent the last ten years being responsible, smart, and resourceful. But the minute she entered Nowhereville’s vicinity, she flipped right back into her teenage life.

    Ms. Crazy.
    Ms. Out-of-control.
    Ms. Undependable.

    I don’t mean to rewrite your story here, I’m just trying to give you a hint of what I’m looking for as a reader to make me keep going. So overall, there’s potential here, but it needs some polish.

  8. theo
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 10:45:54

    I have to agree with the other comments as far as this being almost all backstory, the odd cadence of the paragraphs and the problematic writing, which can all be corrected. And though you do have some good writing trying to shine through here, this was the final straw for me:

    She ducked into the front seat and fumbled for the lever that released the hood. Maybe if she looked inside? But staring at the intricate tangle of wires, hoses and fans did nothing to enlighten her.

    I have a daughter like that. Even given the fact that both her father and I build/have built professional race engines and she’s been taught more than most women about engines and cars in general, she still believes staring at the engine first might just fix it.

    And I roll my eyes every time.

    I don’t want to keep rolling my eyes at your heroine all through the story so I’m sorry, but one who can’t address a check engine light that’s been on for a week knowing the possibility of engine death may be imminent? No, sorry. So when she’s stuck at the side of the road, I have no sympathy for her. Her aunt dying and her wanting to get there isn’t enough the generate the sympathy I need to keep reading. I’m concentrating more on how dumb she was not taking care of her only means of transportation before it came to this.

    Please don’t make her so TSTL on the first page. It makes it hard to want to find out more about what’s going on or going to happen.

  9. hapax
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 21:57:38

    Just to strike a contrary note here; if your heroine is TSTL, then I’m afraid I am also. My “check engine” light flashes constantly, but all that means is the gas cap isn’t screwed on as tight as humanly possible. I can’t afford the time or the money to take it into the shop every time it does that, so ignore it too; and so yeah, I could find myself someday stranded by the side of the road while strangers berate me for my stupidity.

    Similarly, I don’t often use my cell phone except while on trips, so it only needs charging about once a week. I can easily see myself going off for an emergency trip and being stuck with a dead phone — especially if I were worried more about my relative than about my phone and my clothes and such like.

    All it would take is a sentence or two of set-up to make your heroine behave similarly. She wouldn’t be TSTL, she would be just HUMAN; and I liked her the better for it.

    However, the acid test would be how she handles the inevitable meet-cute with the driver of the pickup. If she doesn’t show a modicum of good sense and self-protection there (although her options are admittedly limited), I suspect that even I might give up on her.

  10. Lucy Woodhull
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 12:03:27

    I’m with hapax — I guess I’m a moron in that I don’t drop everything and run to VW the moment a light flashes in my car. I also don’t dress every day prepared for my car breaking down or the zombie apocalypse. Shit happens, you know?

    I really like your voice. I agree that there could be some tightening, and some variation in rhythm to make your prose sing even more. I enjoy a heroine who’s a bit of a mess — ain’t we all sometimes? You could help yourself and explain a bit why she hasn’t bothered to go to the dealership or whatever. Heaping a busy and/or disastrous life on top of poor Auntie Em’s illness (yeah — change the name unless there’s gonna be a blue dress and a twister) will raise the stakes and explain why the car thing is just one item too many for her to deal with right now. The “she could have sworn the battery light was new!” is golden. I would hit “buy” for that alone. In humorous works it’s often necessary to beat down your protag in order for them to rise like a phoenix from the ashes. That’s what I do to my poor heroines.

    If this is humor (and that’s what it reads like to me) you might try putting this in front of a couple of beta readers with writing experience who enjoy humor. Humor in romance is a tough road to hoe, but it’s doable. Good luck!

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