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First Page: Unnamed Contemporary

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***

I first saw him when he was probably in the eighth grade, the Shoppette had a program for kids where they’d bag your purchases and you felt obligated to drop money in a box for them. He was a kid with brown hair and round glasses, and a sweet smile, and I think I stuffed a buck in the box and walked out. It was early summer, my family planned traveling over Europe – living in Germany had its advantages, the great cities were only a few hours away. At the end of that summer, the phone rang, and it was Steve, known universally as Coach, reminding Will that cross country practice began in a few days.

Will was a sophomore now, his first year of competing had been somewhat frustrating for him, but he’d found a mentor and a hero in Coach, he had the worst case of hero worship I ever saw. We went to the base exchange and bought running shoes, some new shorts and tees, all the things Will wanted to be "cool," especially those damn shoes; Coach wore Asics and by God Will was going to wear them, too. We showed up for practice on the appointed day, ambling on to the athletic field, where Will ditched me to hang with the guys.

I walked up to Coach, and he grinned; he had a wonderful crooked grin, long blond hair kept in a ponytail, with gorgeous runner’s legs and the lean body of the long distance runner.

"How ya doing, Piper?" He asked, leaning against the fence beside me, a cup of coffee in hand, watching the chaos of all these kids running around like fools before he uttered the command that would bring instant silence and obedience.

"Not too bad, Coach." I stuck my hands in the pockets of my khaki shorts. "My God, where do they get the energy?"

He laughed. "I promise they’ll be zombies by the end of practice." He glanced at his watch. "Time to scare the pants off the freshmen, c’mon."

I walked with him to the center of the field. It was a gorgeous day, almost too warm for late August in Germany. Coach took a sip of coffee, then cleared his throat. "Now!" he yelled, and forty kids froze, then jogged to the pad at the end of the field, between the football goal posts and the track, and sat down, completely silent. He had their full attention. "I’m Coach Steve Miller, and no, I did not play in a rock and roll band years ago. This is cross country, we run, and we run hard, and if you’re slow, you’ll find I’m running up your butt. Practice is from three-thirty to five, every day, our meets will be on Saturday. Mrs. Halliwell, Coach Halliwell to you, will be giving handouts to you at the end of practice, with your contracts, the rules, and dietary guidelines. If Coach Halliwell tells you to jump, you better start bouncing, even you, Will Halliwell." Will was sitting next to a good looking kid who looked familiar to me, and he flushed, cutting his eyes toward me.

***

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35 Comments

  1. Erastes
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 05:23:57

    I’m assuming that either this is “Charmed” fanfic or you’ve accidentally made a mistake with your heroine’s name. Although why is she “Mrs Halliwell”?

    A lot of it needs translation for me, and I found myself glazing over – I can guess what a lot of the terms mean: Shoppette, base exchange, Asics but they don’t help because I found it all very confusing.

    The first paragraph particularly – who’s she talking about? Will or Steve? She saw whoever it was at the beginning of the summer when he was in “Probably” 8th grade, but by the end of the summer…he’s in sophomore class? Don’t understand.

    Other confusing points.

    Will’s a sophomore, but then he’s in a class of freshmen
    Will’s related to Piper in someway?
    German cities might be a few hours away, but Europe’s a big place you know. For example – Berlin to Paris is an 11 hour drive.

    This is another type of confusion:

    Will was sitting next to a good looking kid who looked familiar to me, and he flushed, cutting his eyes toward me.

    Who’s flushing and looking? Will or the kid?

    I wouldn’t read on, because I’m not into fanfic these days, but if you can firm up the confusing points, it looks more promising than I’ve given the impression it is.

  2. Emmy
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 05:27:42

    I first saw him when he was probably in the eighth grade, the Shoppette had a program for kids where they'd bag your purchases and you felt obligated to drop money in a box for them

    Blah? You lost me with the first sentence. The entire first paragraph was full of disconnected sentences that followed no logical thought process (which should have made it legible to me, lol). I was so confuckled that I didn’t read any farther.

  3. Lurker
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 05:50:06

    Are those Americans living in Germany? Maybe army families? I’m German and have to say (coached) cross country is not really common over here. A typical German setting would be soccer practise. And you really won’t find a program in Germany where kids bag your purchase.

    Something is seriously wrong with the first paragraph. You should rewrite it or you might try to start with the second paragraph.

  4. The Profane Angel
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 06:38:13

    Popping in early here, I can see where I need to work! This was the roughest of drafts, about an Air Force family living in Germany. The boy mentioned in the opening paragraph is a boy who died with his father in the Kaprun, Austria tunnel fire of November 11, 2000, and who meant so much to me and my son, who was two years older than young Ben. Both boys ran cross country, and when I first saw Ben at practice, had the dim memory of seeing him working in the Shoppette a year or so earlier. I see my pronoun usage, among other things, needs serious work. And no, this is in no way a Charmed fan fic, I just stuck “Halliwell” in there until I decided on a last name. I really appreciate the direction given, as I prepare for the second draft. I can see where the first paragraph, of retrospective memories of a dead boy, doesn’t work, and where my pronouns confuse which kid I’m referring to, as well as the passage of time. Thanks, I can see much better through your eyes where the work is needed to make myself clear.

  5. Erastes
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 06:59:11

    Ah – well, that explains some of the first paragraph. There’s no indication that you are talking about the boy sitting next to Will when you talk about who’s working in the Shopette, the reader automatically thinks you are either talking about Will or Coach which leads to the confusion.

  6. Marianne McA
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 07:19:03

    I only found it confusing for a moment, and that was because of genre expectations – if you read ‘I first saw him in eighth grade’ as the first line of a romance, you assume ‘he’ is the hero, and that the narrator is therefore also a child at that time. Having made that assumption, I then read Will as her brother.

    And then she met the coach, and I’m thinking ‘Wait a minute…’

    I’d assumed that the family was stationed in Germany, so I wouldn’t have expected them to live a typical German life – I had assumed the Coach was working with the children of service personnel.

    I’d read on.

  7. Courtney Milan
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 08:01:10

    I think there is promise here, but the reason I stopped reading after a few paragraphs is that there is SO MUCH comma splicing. The end result is that even though I think there is a lot to like about the page and the writing, it really made me want to reach for a red pencil, and since I can’t mark up my laptop screen, it made my head hurt so much I couldn’t read on. In the first three paragraphs, there are (at least) six comma splices. Ouch!

  8. joanne
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 08:19:35

    I read through it 3 times.

    That’s problematic since I did the re-reads due to my confusion about the who, what, where and most definitely the when. For me, the story is all over the place and I wouldn’t want to read any further as it is written now.

    Good Luck & Thank you.

  9. shenan
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 08:51:59

    —because of genre expectations – if you read ‘I first saw him in eighth grade' as the first line of a romance, you assume ‘he' is the hero, and that the narrator is therefore also a child at that time.

    I thought the same thing. And then when I realized the heroine was an adult when she first met him, I got squicked out. Then she went on to describe the coach, and I thought HE was supposed to be the hero.

    I found everything else confusing as well. I can’t even figure out who the kid in the Shoppette is. I thought Will, but then we learn the heroine is apparently related to him. Or something. So I assume she hadn’t met him in the Shoppette. Unless she ended up adopting him? (The author post did nothing to clear things up for me.)

    There’s too much info about trivial things — like the shoes and the practice — and not enough about the things that matter. The pov character jumps around from bits and pieces of who she is and where, and then goes into a lot of detail about a practice. A practice that I assume took place years ago. Is it relevant to the present day story? Is the Shoppette pay-a-kid-to-bag-your-groceries line relevant? What’s the story here? I get no sense of anything related to plot or even to the characters.

  10. Kasey Mackenzie
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 09:19:23

    I don’t think the writing here is bad at all, but I think the first few paragraphs are full of too much confusing backstory, and it’s going too slow to really engage my interest. I really had to make myself keep reading after the first few paragraphs. The dialogue was pretty good, but I really think this is starting in the wrong place or needs to be completely re-written from scratch to be less confusing.

    And I would definitely change the last name Halliwell to something like Smith or Jones until you figure out a last name to use because the Piper Halliwell thing almost lost me completely because it made me think you were either trying to be cute, or were clueless about your heroine having the same not at all common name as a major tv show’s character. Just my own reaction, however.

    Overall, I definitely think this has potential! And good on you for being brave enough to share.

  11. theo
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 09:25:05

    I too read through it more than once.

    The only thing pertinent in the first paragraph at this point is the last sentence. It read as if you’d forgotten to delete the opening few sentences and originally were going in a different direction. The Shoppette had a program? Why? So the kids could earn some money? They were called bag-boys or grocery-boys here, they got paid for it, and I had no clue they were living in a foreign country (foreign to them, I know we have international readers) until the comment was made halfway through about living in Germany. Too many problems with setting the scene, the traveling across Europe needs to be researched a bit better, and the info is too confusing.

    The second paragraph is okay information wise, but definitely needs reworking.

    It started to grab a bit of interest for me with the dialog. However, I felt blindsided with the introduction of “Coach Halliwell” because everything leading to that moment made me think she was Will’s older sister for some reason.

    I didn’t put the last name together with Charmed though. I only saw a few episodes of that program, but can see, if it wasn’t simply a placeholder name for you, how it could be a big problem.

    And the last line, if someone’s embarrassed, (which is what I think you’re trying to get across with the ‘flushed’ description) they don’t look *at* the person they’re embarrassed because of, but away. If someone embarrassed me in front of one of my parents, the last thing I would do is look at them. I’d be trying to hide instead. That and trying to decide *who* it was that ‘cut his eyes to her’ and I gave up.

    No, at this point, this doesn’t make me want to read further either.

    Kudos for putting it out there though, and good luck!

  12. Leah
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 10:41:42

    I’ve never seen Charmed, so I didn’t catch the reference, but I also made the same mistake of thinking that the heroine first saw the hero-to-be as a child, and then that she was talking about her possibly older brother, Will. In fact, she gave Will so much attention that I wondered if he wasn’t going to die in the next few pages, or have some horrible encounter with the coach. When your narrator asked the coach how the boys had so much energy, she immediately pegged herself as older, but even a college student wouldn’t think like that, so I began wondering if she was, in fact, Will’s mother, and maybe the coach was going to be the hero. But if they’re stationed in Germany, is she married–or in the service herself? And then you refer back to the Shoppette boy again, I think, and since he blushed, I began to wonder, is the heroine a Mary Kay Le Tourneau???? It was just very hard for me to find solid footing in the first few paragraphs. Of course, if this were already published, I’d have a back cover blurb to go on, but I’d want it to tighten up within the first chapter, I think.

    As far as the comma splices go…. I use them, myself, and they do work sometimes when you’re describing your character’s thoughts, but when you use them constantly, it rambles. It also indicates to an editor that perhaps you’re not doing it intentionally, but are unaware you’re making a grammatical error. Like I said, I was the queen of the run-on and the comma splice, until someone pointed out to me that I had to follow grammatical rules to make a violation effective.

    Still, I’m interested. I’m particularly taken with the setting, as I think that using an overseas military base is unusual and exotic. I read tons of hen and chick lit, and I do get tired of everything happening in NYC and its environs .

    Keep writing, and best wishes!

  13. JulieLeto
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 10:50:06

    This is the danger of writing something that is too close to your own reality. You know the story backwards and forwards in your mind, so it’s hard to get it on the page. You might need some serious distance in order to tell this story best. You might get that by changing more of the details so it’s not so much like your own life, but more of a piece of fiction. I’m assuming this is fiction and not memoir, so I could be wrong on that.

    Best of luck!

  14. Gina Black
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 12:01:46

    I had the same problem as Courtney. Comma splices drive me mad! (And if you don’t know what they are, it’s when you join two complete sentences with a comma instead of letting them exist as sentences.)

    I liked the voice and probably would have read more if it hadn’t been for the construction problems.

  15. EC
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 12:25:23

    Certainly some interesting ideas here.

    My suggestion would be that the author attempt to tame punctuation and sentence structures before moving on with this story. A good voice . . . yes. But honestly? I don’t think an editor would get past the first couple of sentences.

    Best of luck!

  16. JoB
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 12:47:34

    I like the informality of the writing. I’d hope later drafts maintain this energetic ‘voice’.
    The setting holds lots of possibilities.

    That said — I have a couple comments.

    – The poster needs to get control of Sentences. Make each sentence solid and clean and squared off. Sentences are not just a random conglomeration of words.

    – Do not clutter up the approach to the First Action of the story.

    Here, the first action might be the meeting of male and female on the sports field.

    You don’t have to open with that action. But any backstory or description or musing or discussion of the mating habits of bluebirds that preceeds the First Action should enhance that action or make it more interesting or more significant or more understandable.

    Saying …
    ‘Steve was known for a take-no-prisoners, Drill Sergeant style of coaching,’
    or
    ‘My brother Will wanted fame, fortune and the adulation of teen-aged girls from sports this year. Steve ‘the Bull’ Warwick had other plans.’

    … leads us to the action on the sports field.

    Saying …
    ‘Steve used to bag groceries at the PX,’

    doesn’t just necessarily drag us to that scene on the field or enrich the scene when we get to it.

    – Finally …

    Is this a carefully polished draft?
    A draft containin mistakes you already know how to fix will net advice on techniques already mastered.

  17. Seressia
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 12:51:48

    Periods are not the enemy. Please work on the comma splices.

    From the first paragraph, I thought the narrator was a teen girl traveling through Europe with her family who’d developed a crush on a kid bagging groceries at the Shopette. Then I was trying to figure out who Will was and why this teen girl called a grown man by his first name instead of Coach.

    Now I get that she’s a grown woman named Piper, but she seems awfully fixated on good-looking, shy teens. If this isn’t your intention, please rethink the filter you’re viewing the young boys through. I also heartily recommend searching for a critique partner. The run-on sentences in the first chapter would be difficult for the average reader to power through, in my opinion. I really don’t like to work that hard when I’m reading commercial fiction, but that’s just me.

  18. JoB
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 12:55:06

    …A draft containing mistakes

    (sigh)

    A keyboard not picking up all my letters this morning.

  19. Lori
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 13:06:05

    This is good writing lost behind some mistakes.

    The first paragraph was confusing with the jumping around although I understood this as being a Mom speaking and Will being her son. But at the end I assumed it was Will who flushed and looked at the woman, not the other boy.

    The commas are off-putting as heck so sentence structure needs better work. But this is good writing and I think when the errors are ironed out, it’ll be a fascinating story.

  20. Ginger
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 13:32:25

    The first paragraph almost lost me, which was a shame because I think there are some really good bits later.

    This made me smile: “Coach wore Asics and by God Will was going to wear them, too.” I think it’s a well done use of a brand name to anchor the characters economic status (obviously the mom can afford the brand name shoes even if she’s a bit bemused by the necessity) and some of the relationships – mother is amused and supportive of kid’s picky interest, but not doting, the warm intense relationship between kid and coach – all very quickly conveyed.

    I also thought the dialog was very plausible, with good rhythm. The physical actions that supported the dialog (put hands in pockets, sipped drink, checked watch) kept me in the scene.

    What didn’t work as well for me: no hint of upcoming conflict, and oddly put together descriptive passages. I had a really hard time figuring out which actions went with which people, and still can’t figure out if Piper and Mrs. Halliwell are the same person or not?

    I get that Piper feels attracted to the coach, but I want a bit of a hint (even in the first few pages) about why this relationship might struggle to develop. It could be small, just a half a phrase somewhere. Is there an ex-spouse in the picture? An old dating relationship between mom and coach that didn’t go well? Is she worried that dating her kid’s beloved coach might hurt the kid-coach relationship? Something like that could be inserted into the paragraph describing the coach’s body, or follow their dialog exchange.

  21. Lynne Connolly
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 14:04:41

    This reads very disjointed. I wasn’t clear where they were until you mentioned Germany, because the lifestyle was far more American. Do Americans stick in enclaves?
    And Germany is a big place with lots of variations in temperature and surroundings.
    To the writing. Lots of run-on sentences, and I didn’t get a clear feel for the heroine. Is the hero present, or is this a chicklit as opposed to a romance?
    I would pick one scene and stick with it, try to get all the elements you need in that one scene. I think, tidied up, it could be interesting. I’d much rather see something more polished, than a rough first draft which the author knows isn’t ready yet.

  22. Val Kovalin
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 14:20:14

    I, too, got confused along the same lines as others here. Like Marianne McA pointed out, the first line of a romance can make the reader think the hero is being introduced. That’s what I ended up assuming. So I imagined Piper as an 8th grader as well, and that we’d leap ahead in time to our two leads getting together as adults.

    I further assumed it because she said, “my family planned” on traveling in Europe, and I read that as an adolescent whose parents had decided for her (e.g., an adult might have said, “My husband and I decided”). Then the introduction of Will and Steve who is really known as Coach threw a lot of names and characters into the mix too soon for me.

    This scene you’ve given us probably isn’t where your story will eventually began. I think you’re sorting through your variables right now and need to keep on writing, get it all put on paper, and then start reorganizing it.

    Courtney and others are right about those comma splices, though. I think that sentence fragments are more tolerable to most (to me at least) than comma splices, so you could go that route (separate each fragment with periods where you’re now joining them with commas) to keep your rhythm if you choose.

    A quick addition: I agree with Lynne on wanting to see a closer-to-finished draft. On these First Page critiques, we’re all somewhat wasted on rough drafts that authors are going to clean up eventually anyway.

    Unless it’s to gauge our interest when deciding to continue the project …

  23. Kathleen MacIver
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 14:43:54

    Everyone’s said almost anything… I’d just like to add that your voice is very strong and quite good. You really need to work on punctuation and pronouns, of course. I also think you really need to work on the distance-thing that people mentioned… you need to learn to shut out everything you know about the story and keep careful tabs on what you’ve told your readers, and what you haven’t.

    Once you get all that down, though, I think your voice will shine. It’s very distinctive, and it’ll pull people right into the story. The confusion is like dirt covering it right now, but once it’s swept away…

    Go for it!

  24. The Profane Angel
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 15:23:19

    I want to thank everyone for the sound advice. I’ll work on correcting the comma splices and pronouns. Everything said has been right on target. I’m not sure how far I can remove myself from the story of my son and his friend, but as the romance between Coach and Piper is the main story, I think I can pay tribute to an exceptional “David and Jonathan” friendship without losing sight of the larger story. I appreciate every thoughtful comment and suggestion. Thank you. TPA

  25. CT
    Nov 08, 2008 @ 21:46:20

    As I read contemporaries exclusively, I’m absolutely in love with the setting. It’s so fresh! And after reading your comments about the direction of the story, I find myself wishing I could read more–even if the original first page didn’t exactly grab me.

    I had real trouble reading this, due to the grammatical errors. I know you’re aware of it, so I won’t bother to harp. :-)

  26. Ciar Cullen
    Nov 09, 2008 @ 10:43:03

    What Shenan said. I think it’s fixable, and if it’s romance, the first bit about when she first saw him needs to be about the hero. If you make it clear it’s a military family, smooth it out, it may be really interesting. Keep at it!!!

  27. Tracey
    Nov 09, 2008 @ 12:44:54

    Chiming in with everyone else has said:

    I assumed, since the first sentence was about a boy in eighth grade and since Will is young enough to need a coach, that Will was the boy being spoken about in the first sentence. I would cut the bit about the boy who died and put it elsewhere in your story–or perhaps write a separate story about him and your son. As it is, your first sentence focuses on that boy, and not on Steve or Will.

    I think that you have a real problem in your heroine. First, you don’t have enough of a sense of her to give her a name of her own. That’s bad. And “Piper Halliwell” just screams “Charmed,” even if you didn’t intend it to do so.

    Second, from all the focus on teenaged boys, I initially thought that Piper was a teenaged girl who had a crush on Will, and that this crush would turn into love later. I was very surprised to find that Piper was a) an adult, b) a coach, and c) still focusing on teenaged boys. I wasn’t sure at first if her focus would be Will (who might be her son, brother, nephew or cousin, or might simply have a placeholder name) or if she would be interested in the boy sitting next to him. There had been so much talk about the teenagers that I got a distinct Mary Kay Letourneau vibe. I saw Coach Miller as a colleague and a possible friend of Piper’s, not as a romantic lead.

    The mention of Asics confused me. I guess they’re some kind of a sneaker, but they don’t conjure up any image for me. I’m not especially conscious of brand names; the only thing that mention of brand name clothing in books does is annoy me with the author’s fashion-consciousness. The fact that Coach Miller wears Asics doesn’t tell me squat about the man.

    I think that you really need to decide what story you want to tell–the story of your son and his friend, or the story of Piper and Steve falling in love. There’s so much attention on the boys rather than on the couple that I have to say that I think you’d prefer to write the former.

  28. Stephanie
    Nov 09, 2008 @ 19:50:35

    My biggest problem with this sample–whose story is this? While the setting is interesting and different, I was confused by the adult heroine’s preoccupation with some unrelated teen who seems destined for a tragic end. She certainly acts more interested in him than the coach who’s supposed to become the love interest. Also, is the heroine a single mom, widowed or divorced? Because if she’s still married to Mr. Halliwell, and she gets together with the coach . . . well, let’s just say adultery is a deal-breaker for a lot of readers.

    It does sound as if the author’s much more interested in the kids’ story than in the romance. So maybe she should drop the romance and write this as a YA novel about the boys’ friendship. Otherwise, it’s like trying to present “Bridge to Terabithia”–famously inspired by the death of a friend of the author’s son–as a genre romance.

  29. Masha
    Nov 10, 2008 @ 01:44:10

    Since there’s been so many comments about the Asics, I just want to say to the author that I really liked that detail. I have a lot of relatives that did cross country and track. Some of them still run and if they’re looking for shoes, other brands don’t even get looked at. It could be a generational thing. If Coach had worn Nikes, I would have wondered if he was under 30. But when Road Runner does their clearance, for some reason there are tons of Nikes left and not many Asics, so I’d guess a lot of serious runners still prefer Asics.

  30. Twila Price
    Nov 10, 2008 @ 10:27:40

    My son is in the Air Force, so when I saw “Shoppette”, I knew that the protagonist was part of a military family, but I did not get the impression that she was an adult. The comma splices and the sentence structure made me think she was much younger.

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