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First Page: More Of You / Contemporary

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Tam McCauley’s shovel delved into hard-packed snow. Environment Canada had issued a storm warning for the Gatineau Hills and he wanted to drive to town, run his errands, and return before sundown. Metal scraped against ice and the white inches diminished to form a path wide enough for his 4×4. Near the end of his drive, Tam looked down the empty country road. Evergreens and bare birch flanked the shoulders and weak sunlight streaked yellow through the grey clouds. Behind him, the family cabin was dark and empty. Occasionally, a tawny deer peeked around a tree. The air was clean and cold and moist in his nose. Since he’d arrived, he’d taken great lungfuls to clear the dirt and sand of Afghanistan. Most of all, he relished the silence, a safe and neutral silence. The quiet of Kandahar’s unpaved roads and arid terrain hid danger and bred suspicion. It was good to be home.

A tiny scarecrow in dark clothing emerged at the top of the road, taking short, quick strides, straining against the wind. As the figure neared, Tam distinguished a small woman in a heavy, long black coat and wide-brimmed hat, the wind whiplashing red curls into her face. A bare, pale hand brushed them away from her mouth. A heavy journalist’s bag tapped against her hip and she struggled to hold it in place. She waved and called out in a thin, breathless voice as she approached.

“Mr. McCauley … Mr. McCauley. I’m Phaedra de Beaupré.” She bent over, braced herself, held up one small wind-roughened hand, panted from her effort against the elements. “Mr. McCauley … you are not easy to locate. My car … further down … the road, stalled, had to walk to find you. In a moment … will … explain … my presence here.”

Phaedra de Beaupré looked up from Tam McCauley’s booted feet to his strong thighs in worn jeans, to a blue parka filled with muscle and sinew to a square jaw and full, unsmiling mouth. His silver eyes narrowed as he peered back at her. Awe-struck, Phaedra stared at Michelangelo’s parka-clad “David” … but no lifeless, white marble anywhere. Tall and broad-shouldered, his dark close-cropped hair looked like it could be a riot of curls if he grew it out. His eyes were akin to starlight on a cold Canadian winter night. Or, they might be the silver-blue of chipped ice … cool and … unfriendly. Phaedra offered him a shaky smile.

Tam took in her pale skin and a dance of freckles across her nose. Her contrite smile revealed an overlapping front tooth. He stepped away from her, but wind-lashed red curls brushed across his coat and his nose twitched at something flowery and feminine. A gust pulled the waves and curls back into her open mouth. She pulled off her hat with one quick, impatient movement, shoved a handful of hair under it and tugged it down. Tendrils flopped here and there as she hefted the bag over her shoulder.

“It is essential that I speak with you, Mr. McCauley. Please, I just need half an hour of your time.” Now that she’d caught her breath, her voice was low, vibrant, and urgent. Tam stared at the small hand clutching his sleeve like a burr. Her knuckles pressed into his forearm. Great, a nuisance from nowhere to disturb his peace.
“Miss de Beauport, I’m on my way to town. I can give you a lift and you can arrange to have your car towed.”

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

17 Comments

  1. Becky Black
    Nov 17, 2012 @ 06:14:15

    I find this a bit overwritten. There are word choices that don’t really make sense. Like:

    “shovel delved into hard-packed snow.”
    Do shovels really delve into snow? Is delve really the most effective word to describe shovelling snow?
    “the white inches diminished”
    Just sounds weird.

    “Behind him, the family cabin was dark and empty. ”
    This seems out of place in the middle of the description of what he’s looking at down the road. And the idea of even one deer peeking around a tree sounds a bit cutesy, never mind more than one.

    “A tiny scarecrow”
    This was just confusing. I was baffled for a second by the idea of a scarecrow emerging, and walking along. And why is she called a scarecrow anyway, and why is she described as that when she’s too far away to see properly yet?

    “the wind whiplashing red curls into her face.”
    Whiplashing is more over-writing, in my opinion. Whipping or lashing is fine, combining them adds nothing.

    “A heavy journalist’s bag tapped against her hip ”
    Are there really special bags for journalists? Also, a big heavy bag wouldn’t “tap”. Thump maybe.

    “I’m Phaedra de Beaupré.”
    I have to say I have no idea how to pronounce her first name and that can distance a reader from the character. Maybe it’s shortened later.

    “Phaedra de Beaupré looked up from Tam McCauley’s booted feet to his strong thighs in worn jeans, to a blue parka filled with muscle and sinew to a square jaw and full, unsmiling mouth. His silver eyes narrowed as he peered back at her. Awe-struck, Phaedra stared at Michelangelo’s parka-clad “David” … but no lifeless, white marble anywhere. Tall and broad-shouldered, his dark close-cropped hair looked like it could be a riot of curls if he grew it out. His eyes were akin to starlight on a cold Canadian winter night. Or, they might be the silver-blue of chipped ice … cool and … unfriendly. Phaedra offered him a shaky smile.”

    I would cut this paragraph entirely. Firstly because we’re suddenly in her point of view, which is jarring. And secondly, most of it makes no sense to me. The amount you can glean about someone’s body under a parka is very limited. Tall and broad, fine, but the rest, she’d need x-ray vision. Everyone looks bulky wearing a parka. And I have no idea how she can tell his cropped hair would be a riot of curls is he grew it out. I’d leave the description of him until later when you can move into her POV more naturally and when he takes his coat off.

    “He stepped away from her, but wind-lashed red curls brushed across his coat and his nose twitched at something flowery and feminine. A gust pulled the waves and curls back into her open mouth.”

    You’ve told us three times now that she has curly hair and twice that it’s red. Once is usually enough. I also think she’d have to be wearing a gallon of perfume for it to be detectable to him outside, in a stiff breeze, while she’s bundled up in a heavy coat.

    I’m intrigued by the situation, why this journalist has come to see him, but I wouldn’t read on, I’m afraid, because the style is definitely too overwritten for me and the sudden POV shift would put me off right away.

  2. GW
    Nov 17, 2012 @ 07:49:12

    I came to agree with Becky’s comments, above. For whatever reason, the heroine is giving off Mary Sue vibes, especially with her tireless trudging through the snow, and her name. Phaedra de Beaupré smacks of soap opera cliché.

    I especially agree with the comment about her appreciation of his “David”-like musculature — how could she possibly see “muscle and sinew” underneath a bulky parka?

    Based on this sample, I think you can do better than this. I’m intrigued by the setup of the the journalist struggling through that much snow to speak to a veteran. If you tighten this up and fix the POV shifts, I would read on.

    P.S. When Tam calls her “Miss de Beauport,” is that an error on his part or on yours?

  3. Willa
    Nov 17, 2012 @ 08:11:37

    Agree with Becky Black and GW. Not enough of a hook there for me to read on and very overwritten.

    He stepped away from her, but wind-lashed red curls brushed across his coat

    At this point all I could see was her hair growing in length like Rapunzul’s to be able to reach him.

    And I agree with her name . . too much of a mouthful, it made me stop and wonder how it was pronounced which jerked me out of the story.

  4. DS
    Nov 17, 2012 @ 08:39:52

    Miss de Beauport– this puzzled me for another reason also– how could he tell she wasn’t married?

    It’s also kind of strange to read Miss used in a non-historical setting.

  5. Sweeney
    Nov 17, 2012 @ 08:45:21

    I liked this a lot and I wanted to read on. I was sad it ended actually. The hook for me was the hero Tam, he already sounds like the kind of hero I love. I would try to make sure that the heroine is portrayed carefully going forward. Just make sure that she’s likeable!

    Also I LOVE the Canadian setting and the description of the winter air was spot on. Keep writing, you’ve got something good here.

  6. Maura
    Nov 17, 2012 @ 10:22:22

    I started getting lost in the first paragraph. Most of the sentences sounded the same- similar length, similar structure. This is probably another aspect of the “overwritten” vibe some other responders were getting.

  7. Irish Lass
    Nov 17, 2012 @ 11:20:29

    Agree that some of this is overwritten, and I would scale it back, too. YET – I’d advise keeping your most powerful descriptions, trimming the rest, that way, the descriptions don’t compete with each other. Watch any over-use of adjectives, especially. Get it to bare-bones and you’ll have a literary feel to your novel, something special.

    You seem to have two points-of-view here, his and hers, but you wrote them clearly enough that I was able to tell when they switched. I might stick with one, though, per chapter. But again, that’s my opinion, and it’s your novel, not mine. I think a lot of your language was lyrical and packed a punch, in terms of leaving an impression – it gave me a “mood,” which is what a good setting accomplishes.

    He’s a military vet. You may want to check out a series like Ken Burns’s “The War.” (for PBS, might be from 2007 or 2008). I watched a recent segment on post-trauma. Really provided deeper insights and could deepen a male POV in a powerful way. (Instead of the high-octane male who almost seems cardboard, you write a deeper male POV that sounds more human.) HBO has had a couple of powerful vet series, one was hosted by James Gandolfini, (The Sopranos). Great stuff.

    I think him calling her “Miss” is okay, I worked with ex-military guys and they referred to me this way, they were formal, too, talked in those “we had an appointment at oh-eight-hundred,” to which I replied, “Which military branch did you serve in?” But he called me “Miss” and so did his friend, another ex-military, they had been officers.

    This made me love her: “Her contrite smile revealed an overlapping front tooth.” Just endearing. It distinguishes her and that she’s approaching him in a humble way, not as a self-entitled Kardashian might, flinging back her long locks and giving an attitude. “I’m a reporter and a goddess and I’m here to interview you, you stud, you.” Come on.

    I like resourceful, spunky heroines, they don’t need smug confidence. This “Mary Sue” or “too stupid to live” movement really sends me over the edge, because all one needs to do is pull into a grocery store lot and see plenty of “too stupid to live” moments. Thing is, all of us make too-stupid-to-live maneuvers. None of us are perfect. Was Jane Eyre too stupid to live when she left Rochester and wanted to die, stranded in a strange land with the elements nearly doing her in? If one posted that excerpt today, poor Jane would be accused of being a Mary Sue. Thing is, Jane wanted to die. Dark moments can lead most every human to desperate acts. Are we all Mary Sue’s because we have our bleak moments or our impulsive moments where we are not cast in the brightest light? Was Scarlett O’Hara too stupid to live when she drove her carriage into a bad area and her second husband, Frank Kennedy, wound up dead? Yes, technically, she was – but it still happened, it was tragic, and it furthered the plot. The very act of living can put all of us into compromising circumstances, situations that are out of our control. Or, we act impulsively and do something dumb and we pay for that decision. Was Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” too stupid to live, being frail and elderly, climbing aboard that boat by himself? I could go on and on. Great literature does not hesitate based on: “Uh-oh, I better not write this, it could be a too-stupid-to-live moment. Otherwise, someone might blast me for having a too-stupid-to-live heroine and others will jump on the criticism bandwagon and we’ll be witnessing another Ides of March here.”

    Some can relate to the perfect, kick-butt heroine who has an answer for every situation. I can’t. I love the underdog who makes mistakes and yet is still a fighter, and I believe most readers respond to that kind of heroine, too.

    So, I like your heroine. I like that she’s hesitant and her line about it being essential that she speak to him… grabbed me.

    Overall, you’ve got some lovely writing here, it’s a bit cluttered and the descriptions could be pruned. Dialogue is a way to make a character leap off a page, too.

    I hope you’ll feel encouraged to keep at it. It took guts for you to post here, far easier to be a critic (myself included). Best of luck to you and your writing career.

  8. Sylvie
    Nov 17, 2012 @ 14:03:07

    I really liked this, and I’m no fan of military (current or ex) heroes. I loved the setting, and the characters interested me. Like the others, I’m no fan of delve, but the rest worked for me.

    About POV shift. It doesn’t bother me. However, I’ve recently thought a lot about it and think it should be minimized where possible. If you think of how it looks on a written page and your editor/publisher ultimately wants to separate POV with spaces or characters or whatever, it can make a page looked cluttered or scattered – or downright unpleasing. I’ve been looking at some 80s romances with changing POV and even head hopping and it was never distingquished – but the current trend bucks the other way.

    Please keep writing – I really like this.

  9. Shelley
    Nov 17, 2012 @ 16:43:50

    I love military heroes and for the most part I liked this but the descriptions are definitely sometimes awkward and could be scaled back and tightened overall but the setting is great and I have a feeling I’m gonna love the hero. I too liked the slight imperfection of the heroine. I say keep either her first or last name. Just my humble opinion.

  10. Marie
    Nov 17, 2012 @ 16:52:13

    I don’t know why but the heroine gave the too stupid to live vibe. That in order to make the hero look more masculine and capable, she would be resorted to doing things that would question her intelligence level. I believe she has already done that. Walking alone in the kind of weather that has snared a 4 x 4.

  11. Helena Fairfax
    Nov 17, 2012 @ 16:55:32

    I like the premise of the story and it’s definitely intriguing. It might work better if the first paragraph were cut altogether, so the story starts with the panting figure of the girl appearing out of the gloom. The vet could give her the information about the storm in the dialogue, eg “There’s a storm warning just been issued. I’ll give you a lift…”, etc. We could find out he’s a vet later on, maybe in conversation with the girl. I think there’s no need to give away everything in the first couple of paragraphs.
    I agree it’s overwritten. “Bare, pale hand” is a classic example. A “pale hand” would already let us know the hand was bare. Hope this author keeps on writing, though, I found I wanted to find out what was going to happen.

  12. Avery Shy
    Nov 17, 2012 @ 22:27:05

    I don’t read generally contemporary, much less het. That being said: I actually like this, and I’d continue for at least a few more pages.

    I love the heroine. Her car breaks down, she’s in the middle of nowhere, and she REALLY wants this interview… so she gets out of the car and walks. This speaks of a woman who isn’t afraid to do what she needs to do, even when it’s unpleasant. This is the opposite of too stupid to live, IMO. This is “too practical to care”.

    Triple on what the others have said about description. Definitely overwritten. Cut down on adverbs, cut extraneous information. Also, I’d cut the reference to Michelangelo’s David. It’s not impressing anyone.

    Double on the perfume thing. (I assumed it was hair product rather than perfume, though. Regardless, hair should not carry enough scent that it’s identifiable in a storm, even if it whips across his face.)

  13. SAO
    Nov 18, 2012 @ 00:38:48

    I, too, thought this was overwritten. I choked on the first sentence. Delved? White inches diminished? It sounds like you spent a lot of time figuring out how to avoid the most straight forward way to tell us what’s going on.

    In doing so, you missed was an opportunity to tie the stuff together. In para one, Tam’s shoveling and you have him look up to show us the scenery. He thinks about Afghanistan. This is an activity as an excuse for musing and telling the reader stuff. You should be working on making this more natural, rather than on your phrasing.

    For example, tie the scenery to his reviewing how much snow he has yet to shovel and how much he’d shoveled. He looks up and there’s more to go. He looks back to the house and sees how much he’s already done. Phaedra can have her tire/engine blow with a noise like a distant gunshot, making Tam jump/duck as a way of introducing Afghanistan. The deer could come in as he thinks hunting season is over. This way, you give him a mini-goal (get shoveled out in time to go to town and back), a reason to be impatient when Phaedra shows up.

    The other major issue I had was that you spent too much time on the physical details of the chars, and not enough developing a realistic conflict. Why is Tam so unfriendly? You have to be pretty mean not to help a stranger whose car broke down in the backwoods of Canada. As it so happens, he’s going to town anyway and that will probably take half an hour so he can do her a favor at what looks to me like ZERO inconvenience to himself. She’s only asked for a half hour so how much peace and quiet can she disturb, given that it would be normal to carry on a conversation during the car ride? At best Tam looks like a jerk, at worst your conflict looks contrived. If he’s got a reason to hate journalists, have her say “I’m Phaedra from The Backwoods News” and then have his eyes turn to as cold and black as the winter sky or pale blue ice chips.

    I love the name Phaedra. I knew a Phaedra once (didn’t love her, though). If people can’t pronounce it, Tam can say, Fay-what? as a clue.

    I had some minor quibbles:
    Cold, winter air is never moist, unless it’s near zero and miserably damp and slushy out. If you need a parka, you really need mittens. If the wind is whipping your hair into your mouth, you stuff it back under your hat, not take your hat off. Journalists don’t wear bags that proclaim their profession. Under a parka, no one can tell if you’re Michelangelo’s David, a bit on the pudgy side, or rather scrawny. Winter skies away from the city are black with white stars, not silver blue chips of ice. I thought the reason you had these details wrong was you wanted to use them to make your point — comparing to Kandahar, telling us what Phaedra’s job is, her hair is like, etc. You should work harder on making this an organic part of your story or leaving it to later. You can make someone compelling with a lot fewer details.

    This is just one page and it’s probably the page you worked the hardest on. Spend less effort on your language and more on making your scene flow smoothly. Good luck.

  14. Kerry
    Nov 18, 2012 @ 19:43:20

    Agree with most of the above – some overwriting, POV shift distracting (can work, but in this case, felt jarring), was NOT bothered by her name (canadienne francaise?), and some forced conflict, telling, and odd ruminating.

    BUT, I enjoyed this, loved the setting (born in BC – go Canada!!), am intrigued by these two disparate people, and would keep reading to see where you’re going. I hope you take all our comments FWTW, keep the essence of your story, and make it better.

    @SAO: Where do you live? Here in the Pac NW we nearly *always* get moist cold air in winter, and (at least where I live, in Portland) not in the least when it’s “near zero and slushy.” Doesn’t even have to be raining – it’s just…. moist. And cold. :c)

  15. Jacques
    Nov 18, 2012 @ 19:57:05

    Definitely overwritten, almost to the point of self-satire. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be engaging.

    I’m not sure there is a POV shift. Sure, our attention is drawn to one character or the other. But the POV is not defined sharply enough for that to be a shift. In other words, we are never really in Tam’s POV or in Phaedra’s. The narrator describes things one or the other could see or feel, but not from a position truly internal to either one. It’s more like we’re seeing what the narrator sees, but without seeing inside (or from inside) either character. It might be more accurate to call that “true” 3rd person rather than 3rd person limited.

    I’m not sure what to make of that narrative mode. It’s not bad, but it also doesn’t draw you in to the POV character’s experience in the exciting way 3rd person limited can. That means it has to get it’s energy from somewhere else. For example, the narrator’s descriptive powers can be much greater than any particular character, assuming the author actually possesses such powers.

    Phaedra? Okay, it’s a fun name. But unless you make something of it’s uniqueness, it’s just a vanity. For example, will she fall in love with her stepson and destroy him and herself?

  16. MetalQueen
    Nov 18, 2012 @ 22:30:05

    I really enjoyed this. I even enjoyed the over-writing because it was enjoyable to get an idea of the setting, some about the hero, and the heroine. I also like the heroine and her name. Him calling her “miss” was also sweet, very polite. I’d read on.

  17. SAO
    Nov 18, 2012 @ 23:27:39

    @Kerry
    I live in Moscow and cold winter air is dry, sometimes dry enough to dessicate a runny nose. Admittedly, I ski on the river, which is always windy. however, this scene reminded me strongly of digging my Niva (Soviet jeep) out when I lived in Bulgaria. We had a long driveway. Maybe not so long, except when you were shoveling it. The air was crisp, not moist.

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