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First Page: Unnamed Contemporary

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Smith stopped the car at the edge of town and got out, looking inward for the first time in his life. It looked so different from out here, sleepy and content in the slow shadows of sunset. He hadn’t felt any of that contentment when he’d been growing up; to him the town had been slow and behind-times, too small, too boring, holding him back. It beckoned to him now, with the promise of a break from city life, the promise of home.
It had been home for eighteen years, but now it was strange. Or he was strange, seeing as he drove a clean foreign car and had a college degree carefully packed in his bags. The houses sat around the heart of town, houses whose families he had known his whole life. His father’s, the Spreens’, the Davids’. The Noor and Jackson farms were still there, way in the distance against the hilltops. Most all of the town was dark, but he could see the bonfire on the Noor property. It would be the first night of the summer festival, then-’the dance.

He drove into town, seeing nobody, and left his car at his parents’ to walk up to the Noor barn. For all he was an adult now, city-educated and his own person, something about the town where he'd grown up made him uncomfortable, made him want to fit in.

The dance was in full swing when Smith arrived. He stood in the doorway for a moment, unnoticed, and looked around. He knew all the faces: many of them older, some all grown up, one or two just the same. Even Blair David was there, also back from the city. His best friend standing off to the side for a moment, looking winded, his arm around pretty Shannon Miller, the daughter of the sixth grade teacher. Seeing Shannon made him think of Sarah, and he looked for her on the dance floor. There was no way she’d ever sit out.

And there she was, long hair hanging loose, flying over the ground in a maroon and yellow dress that drew attention, the attention of him and many of the other unattached males. Sarah David had grown up with a vengeance. When he looked at her face though, he was forced to revise his impression. As fine a body as she might have, the light in her eyes and the total abundance of life in that wide, wide smile were hypnotic and earth-shattering. She was beautiful, and she had been in love with him.

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

19 Comments

  1. DM
    Apr 17, 2010 @ 09:09:11

    Lose the shoe leather. Consider, as you write, whether or not you would be entertained if you had to accompany your protagonist on these edge-of-town, navel-gazing, parking and taking inventories of self adventures.

    Try this for your first page instead:

    The dance was in full swing when Smith arrived. He stood in the doorway for a moment, unnoticed. And there she was, long hair hanging loose, flying over the ground in a maroon and yellow dress. Sarah David had grown up with a vengeance. She was beautiful, and she had been in love with him.

  2. theo
    Apr 17, 2010 @ 09:29:05

    I have to agree with DM here. This reads like a travelogue. There’s just nothing here that makes me want to read on. Nothing to really make me care.

    You have a guy (I’m guessing he’s your hero) who comes home, feels like a fish out of water, goes to the annual dance and sees an old flame.

    Now, if he watched his old flame get gunned down on the dance floor, or he got knifed in the back while watching her dance, then I might read on. As it is, there’s nothing here to hold my interest.

    That said, your writing is good. It flows fairly well though all the ‘hads’ don’t do much for me. So find another way to tell us later on what the town is like, if it’s necessary to the story.

    Kudos for putting it out there and good luck.

  3. RebeccaJ
    Apr 17, 2010 @ 09:33:34

    I prefer action right out of the starting gate. I want something to hook me into continuing to read.

    It doesn’t hold my interest when the first page is “thinking” and “contemplating”, BUT a lot of veteran writers do it. Doesn’t make it any more interesting.

  4. Ros
    Apr 17, 2010 @ 09:42:10

    This is going to sound incredibly nitpicky but this is the thing that stuck out at me: a maroon and yellow dress? Really? I mean, I can see that it would draw attention but I’m not sure it would draw the right sort of attention. The thing is, I’m sure you can picture the dress perfectly and it’s probably fabulous, but the only thing I’ve got to go on are those colours and I just can’t see it working. Sorry.

    BUT, having read the other comments I wanted to say that I think it’s totally fine to start your book this way. You do not have to have explosive action on the first page. That’s a critique that comes up a lot here and I think it’s partly because the only thing we see is the first page. Personally, so long as there isn’t anything to hate in the first page (either because of technical writing problems or personal squicks), I’ll always give a book a chapter or so to get going and grab my attention.

  5. hapax
    Apr 17, 2010 @ 09:46:21

    “Looking inward for the first time in his life” — the FIRST time? Really? How shallow is that?

    Agree with others that your last paragraph is where this story starts.

    I shouldn’t be interested, but somehow I am. Your clean prose and understated imagery is very appealing. I really do want to know more about your hero — I just don’t want to spend the first page driving and parking inside his head.

  6. Jane O
    Apr 17, 2010 @ 09:58:52

    I tend to like slow beginnings, so that part doesn’t bother me at all. However, there are a number of things that bother me in a distracting way.

    “Looking inward” means self-examination to me, but then it turns out he just looking at the town from a distance.

    If there’s a college degree packed in his bags, it sounds like he just graduated. His parents didn’t go to graduation? Was there some big schism when he went off to college?

    Then you mention his father’s house, which sounds as if it’s only father, no mother, but later he parks at his parents’ house.

    If the Noor farm is way out of town off in the distance, why did he leave the car in town and walk to the barn?

    I’m also a bit confused about how old he is. Calling him by his last name, the sort of world-weary nostalgia at the beginning, make him sound older, at least in his thirties. But if he’s just out of college he’s what? 21? 22?

    That said, it flows well, even though some of the phrasing grates on me (most all, seeing as). I’m interested enough to want to read more.

  7. Sally Wilburn
    Apr 17, 2010 @ 10:37:15

    I’m another person who doesn’t need an explosive beginning. I have to say that I was confused about his age as well. At first, I thought he was in his 30′s, but after the “diploma in his suitcase” comment I wasn’t sure. I would read more.

  8. DS
    Apr 17, 2010 @ 12:17:27

    The page didn’t grab me so I found myself nitpicking. The “clean foreign car” seemed a strange comment. My college degree was mailed to me some time after commencement. I also spent some time trying to picture the maroon and yellow dress.

    I could get behind the story if it turned out that the barn dance was part of some sort of eldritch pagan ritual or they were aliens trying to act like they imagine small town humans act.

  9. Lori
    Apr 17, 2010 @ 12:40:28

    You lost me at the first line. Were you suggesting looking inward as self-examination or looking toward the small town he grew up in? Neither makes sense. If he’s never looked inward into himself then he’s probably an ass and if he’s never seen his town before then you mean he never once traveled outside except to go to college?

    I sincerely pondered this for quite awhile before I continued reading.

    Then you told and told and told and didn’t do a damned thing.

    Slice and dice this baby. Start at the dance, take out the dress (it sounds bad) and give us an idea of who this guy is.

  10. may
    Apr 17, 2010 @ 14:25:51

    All the names I won’t remember of families, all the painful detail to say: He was back home after being gone for nearly 2 decades and sees a girl who used to love him.

    I’m not saying you need more action, but you need to get me (reader) to care. At this point? I’d move on to another book

  11. Marianne McA
    Apr 17, 2010 @ 16:09:16

    I’d agree with the critisism of the first sentence – I found it confusing as well. I did read ‘inward’ to mean ‘self-examination’ and it took rereading to make the meaning clear.
    Also the ‘for the first time in his life’ just sounds odd – I imagine the idea is that he’s regarding the town through fresh eyes as an adult, but that’s not what it says.

    And I know that’s nitpicky, but a poorly worded first sentence would put me off a book. And the rest of the paragraph I liked: I’d be in the ‘don’t mind a slow start’ camp.

    The other thing:

    “…that drew attention, the attention of him and many of the other unattached males”

    That just sounds incorrect to my ear.

    (And I don’t believe he’d have known everyone at the dance after 3 or 4 years away, unless he lives in a remote village – but I’d give the writer the benefit of the doubt on that one – the character might only have noticed familiar faces.)

    Overall, I really like the page – it’s an interesting start. And I love the idea that he knows the heroine(?) won’t be sitting out. Sounds promising.

  12. Patty H.
    Apr 17, 2010 @ 16:55:23

    I agree with all the comments. There were several points I paused at. I grew up in a small farming community and you don’t walk to someone’s farm (even the one next door) because it’s a hella long walk, especially in the dark.
    Open with your last paragraph and as he is trying to watch her, make people come up and greet him. You can reveal a ton of back story with dialogue: “So, young Smith, you finally got a piece of paper that proves you’re smart?” or “Still driving that old jalopy?” or “Thought you were set on moving to New York.” Smith’s response to any of the questions will reveal (or not reveal) who he is and why he is there.
    I’m ok with a slow start, I just want to identify with the main character asap. I do like your style. Good luck.

  13. Emma
    Apr 17, 2010 @ 20:35:28

    This was a huge boring info dump with too many coincidences. He just happens to come back home on the same night as a dance that an ex girlfriend is it? Insert rolling eyes here.
    I need more reason to get into the story.

  14. Tracey
    Apr 18, 2010 @ 01:49:48

    I agree with everyone else. This is not badly written–but the last paragraph is where the story actually starts.

    And I lost interest right out of the starting gate. There were so many adjectives and adjectival phrases describing the town in an unfavorable light: sleepy, slow, behind-times, too small, too boring, holding him back, making him uncomfortable. Given that he disliked the town so much, I wondered why he was coming back at all. There was no reason for him to be here, as far as I could see.

    The main problem with this for me, however, is that Smith is not doing anything except thinking to himself and watching other people do things. He sits at the edge of town and thinks about how the town makes him feel. Then he drives his car to his parents’ house, drops it off, and walks to a barn dance. Then he describes some of the people at the dance–people that we don’t know yet, and given that he had been away from town for a while (I’m not sure how long), I wondered how he recognized all of these people. And then he offhandedly mentions wondering if Sarah David was there, because if she was, she would be dancing. Then we get a description of Sarah being beautiful and having “hypnotic” eyes–nothing about her personality. Only in the last sentence is it revealed that Sarah was once in love with him. There is no mention at all about whether Smith was in love with Sarah, but given the almost objective tone in these paragraphs, I would say not.

    I probably wouldn’t read any further. There’s no plot here–and very little emotion.

  15. Bernita
    Apr 18, 2010 @ 06:47:38

    For me, that Sarah was once in love with him is the most interesting item in the entire page. Please consider beginning with that.
    You do have nice style.

  16. evie byrne
    Apr 18, 2010 @ 10:39:17

    Ditto much of the above–though I never mind a slow start, as long as it’s a slow but interesting start–not a navel gazing start. I like Patty’s suggestion of telling backstory via conversation at the dance.

    Anyway, this is my one question: Does he think of himself as Smith? Since we’re deep in his pov, it struck me as a little odd. My expectation is that even if everyone else calls him Smith, in his pov he’d be John–whatever his first name is. But maybe that’s just me, since no one else has mentioned it.

    Best of luck with this!

  17. Julia Sullivan
    Apr 18, 2010 @ 19:27:42

    I have every confidence that this will be a strong book once you do some infodump pruning. Let me suggest that you take a look at Jo Walton’s thoughts on ‘incluing’ vs. ‘infodump’; she’s a science fiction and fantasy writer, but I think the general principle applies to all types of fiction.

    evie byrne makes a good point about the hero’s name being a little confusing. If his first name is Smith, this is fine; if his last name is Smith, I would suggest that the “protagonist everyone calls by his last name” seems awkward in romance, even though it’s a staple in crime fiction.

    And not “males”, please. “Men” or “guys” but not “males”.

    “Looking inward for the first time in his life”? A college graduate who has never once before done anything that he describes as “looking inward” is pretty unlikely, unless you are meaning to convey that he has some unusual cognitive or neurological or personality qualities (Asperger’s Syndrome, for example).

    Best of luck. The “hometown sweethearts try to pick up where they left off” is one of my favorite themes in contemporary romance, so thank you!

  18. Susan/DC
    Apr 19, 2010 @ 11:08:15

    Question1: Is Blair David his best friend? Can’t tell these days whether that’s a name for a boy or girl, and the sentence structure didn’t make it totally clear whether it was Blair with his arm around Shannon.

    Question2: Why does Sarah’s smile force Smith to revise his impression that she’s grown up with a vengeance? If what is meant is that she has a fine body but it is her smile and the light in her eyes that make her special, it should say so more clearly.

    Other than that and a few other minor points other posts have raised, I agree that starting slowly can work for me.

  19. Suzanne
    Apr 23, 2010 @ 07:11:00

    Have to agree that the last paragraph starts the story. All that introspection almost put me to sleep. Not a good way to start. Bring on the action and worry about his inner feelings later.

    Another point to ponder: Would a guy recognize a yellow and maroon dress (have to agree with terrible color combination) as maroon? To a guy it’s a dark red and how does he see the look in her eyes from the sidelines while she’s on the dance floor? Must have the eyes of an eagle.

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