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First Page: Unnamed Contemporary

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***

Jackie Rutledge awoke to the abrasive grind of sand against her bare breast. She groaned and turned, feeling it abrade between her thighs, her shoulder, the cheeks of her butt. She was sleeping on sandpaper. Then the abrupt and shrill peel of her phone threatened to rupture the tenuous strands of sleep that still held her head in one piece. Oh, the joys of hangovers.

The phone blared again, announcing to her along with the blinding slice of light beaming between the curtains, that it was indeed morning. Or midday perhaps. Again the phone teetered dangerously close to making her head explode. A deft fling of the pillow that had been covering her head from the glare was rewarded with a soft thump and a meow. Bickerstaff, the captain of all things comfort, blinked at Jackie from the end of the bed, a decidedly distasteful look on his face.

"What?" He blinked but otherwise did nothing. "Don’t give me that look." The phone beat into her skull once more, and Jackie turned over to grab it off the nightstand. "Oh, my God. Shut up!" In the dim, morning light, she poked at the buttons on the phone and managed to miss the mute button entirely.

"Hello? Jackie?"

It was Laurel, her soon to be dead partner. "Have a good reason to call me at the crack of dawn or I will stumble over there and throw up all over you."

"It’s almost nine, you nit. I know you’re hung-over and blinded with a headache, but get your ass out of bed now before Belgerman drives over there and drags you out.”

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

27 Comments

  1. Karenna
    Aug 08, 2009 @ 04:58:04

    The use of “abrasive/abrade” in the first two sentences seems repetitive, and pulled me out of the narrative a bit. Further along, “Laurel, her soon to be dead partner” is a bit confusing to me; I’m assuming you mean she’s soon to be dead because she’s woken Jackie so Jackie wants to kill her, but it’s phrased somewhat ambiguously. Unless you’re putting a bit of foreshadowing there, in which case I’d have to wonder how Jackie knows that Laurel’s soon to be dead.

    On the plus side, I love the line “Bickerstaff, the captain of all things comfort”; what a perfect description of a cat. I’ve never had a hangover, but the way you describe Jackie’s gives a pretty clear image of what one is like.

    I have to say, I’m not sure I’d read on, though. Nothing here gives me the impression that anything’s going to happen other than her getting in trouble for being late to work.

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  2. joanne
    Aug 08, 2009 @ 08:01:38

    When I re-read the passage starting with

    The phone beat into her skull once more, and Jackie turned over to grab it off the nightstand. “Oh, my God. Shut up!”

    your writing ‘worked’ for me. The first two paragraphs felt neither essential nor important to your story, at least to me.

    The business about the sand made me think she had passed out on a beach and really I wouldn’t want to know anything more about that character. The beam of light that bothered the character was later described as being blocked by a pillow. So, IMO, some serious editing?

    Thank you so much and good luck with your writing.

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  3. Fae Sutherland
    Aug 08, 2009 @ 08:18:51

    I was very confused by the opening. She woke up to sand and grit but…she’s actually in bed? I’ve had more than a few hangovers and I don’t recall it ever making my skin feel like I was covered in sand (eyeballs, yes, gritty as hell, but my breasts? Not so much). I’m really not sure what the sand thing is about and it’s bizarrely confusing.

    I didn’t mind the rest, but do be aware that opening a book with a character waking up is a pet peeve of a lot of agents/editors. I don’t necessarily believe the current “Start with action, only action!” fad, but do start where the story begins. Best advice I ever got as a writer? “Start a book at the moment everything changes.” I do not get the impression waking up inexplicably feeling of sand is where this story begins.

    You have a comfortable voice, a seemingly good grasp of grammar etc, but this, imo, isn’t the start to your story. Find the right one and I bet we’d be having a very different conversation. Good luck!

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  4. DS
    Aug 08, 2009 @ 08:33:04

    Paragraph one– no. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a hangover. but I have probably had more than my share and never a feel of sand paper in the lot.

    Also, how did the morning get from the

    blinding slice of light beaming between the curtains,

    to dim? Seems the morning wasn’t dim at all.

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  5. anon
    Aug 08, 2009 @ 08:44:56

    sand all over but she’s really in bed? What? That pulled me right out of the story – as another mentioned as well.

    I’m a hardcore lover of all things contemp. romance, and this as a first page would have me moving on to buy something else. She got real drunk the night before an important something-er-ather at work? Idiot. I don’t like ‘oh I got soooo drunk’ heroines anyway, so that combined with the whole nothing happened in these few short paragraps that was interesting or intriguing has me saying no thanks.

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  6. Lindsey
    Aug 08, 2009 @ 11:42:11

    Hmm…the only way this would work for me is if something dramatic happened the night before on a beach that would provide a reason for the sand and the drunkenness. After drowning her sorrows over some major life event, she had sex with the hero on the beach the night before? And now she gets to work and finds that the new boss or the client is the one-night stand?
    Drunken heroines don’t interest me much unless this was a unique occurrence, but her friend seems to imply she regularly wakes up with a hang-over and misses work. As a reader, I'd need a good reason to keep going beyond this first page. Like an immediate flash-back to whatever happened the night before….

    I do l like the cat though, and I think the description of him is well-done.

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  7. Maili
    Aug 08, 2009 @ 13:22:55

    I repeatedly reread the first paragraph and I still don’t quite get it.

    I’m not exactly proud to admit I have had my share of hangovers, but I don’t think I have experienced the sandpaper sensation. Is it similar to having a pins-and-needles sensation? Or is it a left-over souvenir from the night before, such as a beach party?

    The sound effects of a phone ringing aren’t consistent. Blare and shrill peel. To be honest, I think there is too much description going on there. I’m not a writer, of course, but as a reader, I struggled to visualise all descriptive details you provided.

    Loved the Bickerstaff bit. I think it would be nice if you edit out the confusing sand part and begin with the phone ringing, waking your heroine up to Bickerstaff’s distasteful stare. Or something like that.

    I think, if it was rewritten to clarify, I’d read on to see where you’ll take us. Thanks and good luck. :)

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  8. JoB
    Aug 08, 2009 @ 15:44:38

    Rewrite.
    Start the story somewhere else.

    Sorry, but it’s that simple.

    You are devoting good writing effort to an inherently flawed opening.

    .
    Don’t start the story with someone waking up in bed with a hangover and hearing the phone ring.

    – It’s been done a million times.

    – It is static. Nothing happens.

    – Reading about somebody’s hangover symptoms is not as interesting as you would think.

    – This opening tells us nothing about the POV character or her setting or the problems that will confront her.
    After an entire page we still do not know if our gal is a cocaine-addicted Inuit schoolteacher in Biting Moose, Alaska or a professional assassin with an interest in classical ballet in Jerusalem.

    – We have no idea what the stakes of this story are.

    .
    I also fear that we may head directly from
    ‘Book Starts with Protagonist in Bed. Phone rings.’
    to
    ‘As You Know, Bob’
    where Laurel will tell Jackie what Jackie does for a living, and then tell Jackie what Jackie did last night to get drunk, and then remind Jackie about the major problem in the story.

    .
    All else being equal, your story should start with the character in the midst of something happening. That something happening should relate to an important part of the story.

    .
    Look at four openings chosen at random from the four nearest authors on my keeper shelf …

    It was hell being a hero. With the guns crashing and the deck a blind chaos of powder smoke …
    Kinsale. ‘Seize the Fire’.

    “You’re in for it now, my girl.”
    The majordromo’s whisper resonated in the quiet hallway as he reached for the polished door handle.”

    Krahn. ‘The Perfect Mistress’.

    The heavily shadowed gallery of the museum was filled with many strange and disturbing artifacts. None of the antiquities, however, was as shocking as the woman lying in a dark pool of blood on the cold marble floor.”
    Krentz. (w/a Quick.) ‘The Third Circle’.

    Nicholas had learned as a child, over a century ago, that immortals did not cry.
    Krinnard. ‘Prince of Dreams’.

    .
    In a couple dozen words, each of these four authors tells us something about the stakes of the story and/or the protagonist.

    They do this by putting the POV character into the middle of stuff happening. Look through your story sequence until you come to something happening and start the story there.

    ReplyReply

  9. Julia Sullivan
    Aug 08, 2009 @ 16:31:41

    The phone peals, it doesn’t peel.

    “Her soon-to-be-dead partner” confused me a lot. Here are my thoughts when I read that:

    - Paranormal?
    - Clumsily handled foreshadowing?
    - Ah. Joke that fell really, really flat.

    This isn’t ready yet. You can do better; I can tell that by the cat. The cat is good.

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  10. Anion
    Aug 08, 2009 @ 17:42:50

    Actually, it took me three reads to get that she was talking about a cat, and I believe you actually mean he had a “disdainful” look on his face, as “a distasteful look” would mean a look which was distasteful to the narrator, not an expression of distaste. So the cat thing to me wasn’t any better than the rest of it.

    Agreed on the sand. Agreed on the blinding light which also somehow manages to be dim. Agreed that an opening in which a character wakes up, especially to a ringing phone, is one of the most cliched openings possible, and is a major turn-off.

    I also think this is heavily overwritten, to the point of incomprehensibilty. I wasn’t at all engaged by it. Good writing serves the story, it doesn’t stand in the way. I felt as though I was tripping over words here, being tangled in them; they weren’t telling me anything but were in fact just parading around showing off.

    Having said all that, you’re not a bad writer. This just needs another edit and a better opening. And as Fae said, begin at the moment when everything changes. That’s where your story starts. It’s excellent advice.

    Good luck, and don’t give up.

    ReplyReply

  11. blabla
    Aug 09, 2009 @ 07:08:13

    This thing is just one big contradictory mess.
    Contradiction no. 1:
    Jackie Rutledge awoke to the abrasive grind of sand against her bare breast.

    She was sleeping on sandpaper.

    A deft fling of the pillow that had been

    So which one is it? Is she sleeping in the sand, the sand paper or the bed with a comfy pillow???

    Contradiction no. 2:

    The phone blared again, announcing to her along with the blinding slice of light beaming between the curtains, that it was indeed morning. Or midday perhaps.

    In the dim, morning light, she poked at the buttons on the phone and managed to miss the mute button entirely.

    Again, which one is it??? Why is the light so blinding one second and then so freakin’ dim that she managed to hit the wrong button??? And also, why is Laurell soon to be dead? I’m confused.

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  12. Lindsey
    Aug 09, 2009 @ 09:17:56

    Hey, Jo B, I love this: “After an entire page we still do not know if our gal is a cocaine-addicted Inuit schoolteacher in Biting Moose, Alaska or a professional assassin with an interest in classical ballet in Jerusalem. ”

    In fact, let’s throw the two characters together into the same story.

    Our Israeli ballet-loving assassin-hero goes on assignment to Biting Moose, Alaska, where he falls desperately in love with an Inuit schoolteacher, but he has to wean her from the cocaine before they can have their HEA.
    Sounds like a winner to me ;)

    ReplyReply

  13. Jim Duncan
    Aug 09, 2009 @ 13:52:21

    For those who might be interested, the presented opening page from February got dropped and the story started a couple of pages later. The new first page is below:

    Beneath the serene, protective canopy of maple leaves, a boy reclined against the trunk, withered and bloodless, his skin two sizes too big for his depleted body. It was death in all of the wrong ways.

    Jackie Rutledge squinted at the chaos from the parking lot of the park, located in the far west of Chicago's burbs amidst a swarm of onlookers and media, wondering why anyone would choose hangover Mondays to commit a crime. It had to be a conspiracy. She looked over at the crowd, the television vans with their incessant, morbid story hounds and finger-pointing gawkers who hoped to get their faces flashed on the evening news. It was difficult to say which Jackie disliked more.

    The drifting scatter of clouds blissfully shielded her from the mid-morning sun, only to laugh at her a few moments later. Jackie hoped that luck would find her and a thunderstorm would send the crowd running, but all of her luck was being hogged by Bickerstaff, a fifteen pound tabby still sleeping at home on her pillow.

    The enormous maple, it's branches drooping nearly to the ground, was completely encircled with crime scene tape. Some of the crew were walking around, combing through the grass. The local police looked to have been put in charge of crowd control.

    Jackie walked over to her partner Laurel's car, and accepted the triple-shot latte and handful of Tylenol. “Thanks for the wake-up. Why can't killers keep better hours?”

    ReplyReply

  14. Lindsey
    Aug 09, 2009 @ 18:32:05

    This is a good improvement and I like how the chapter starts with action and suspence.

    Is this really a “contemporary?” It reads more urban/paranormal to me. Who is your intended reader?

    - the image of the dead boy: has he been murdered by a vampire or similar monster? Otherwise the sagging skin seems like a very odd image – I think of obese people who lose weight but still have sagging sacks of skin..

    And is there a good way to be murdered? I’d get rid of “It was death in all of the wrong ways.” – too confusing

    - Is “hangover Monday” a popular term? I’ve never heard this and it was quite jarring. Do a lot of professional women get so drunk on Sunday night that they can’t function on Monday morning? Maybe your character is an alcoholic with a bunch of enabling friends (what is up with her partner offering her a “handful” of Tylenol? Is she trying to kill her?) If this is a romance, rather than a mystery, you’ll need to quickly explain the circumstances and try to redeem her. Why is she regularly drinking on a Sunday night? Bad childhood memories of bible class?

    Detective novels aren’t my cup of tea, but I’d be curious to see where this goes. I keep picturing Helen Mirren's tragic, alcoholic, brilliant detective in Prime Suspect…Best of luck!

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  15. Jane
    Aug 09, 2009 @ 18:47:53

    @Lindsey – I think it’s a paranormal but when i posted it (and I always post these late Friday night), I wasn’t sure. So the title is my fault.

    ReplyReply

  16. Blogrotica
    Aug 09, 2009 @ 21:07:24

    What’s your intended audience with this piece?

    ReplyReply

  17. Julia Sullivan
    Aug 09, 2009 @ 21:33:51

    Fix the errors—you’ve got the wrong “its” in the new bit, and between that and the “peel/peal” thing in the old bit, it seems clear that you can’t let spell-check do your copyediting for you. If you need to trade copyediting with another writer, do that.

    I like the action, but Jackie seems like a self-centered ass here. Also, the cat comes out of left field entirely, not in a good way—when I’m at a paranormal crime scene, I want to be there, not at home with the cat. Bring the cat in when she gets home.

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  18. Jim Duncan
    Aug 09, 2009 @ 22:22:41

    thank you for the feedback folks. Yes, this is more paranormal suspense with romantic element, and if anyone cares to read more you can find it up at scribd under the title, Deadworld.

    ReplyReply

  19. blabla
    Aug 10, 2009 @ 08:16:19

    So Jim Duncan, did you write this?

    ReplyReply

  20. Jim Duncan
    Aug 10, 2009 @ 10:12:53

    Yes, the story is mine.

    ReplyReply

  21. blabla
    Aug 10, 2009 @ 11:46:07

    Cool! I definitely liked the re-write a whole lot more than the original one. No offence but the original one was highly unpolished.
    Hmmm, so you're a guy, huh? I guess that explains why the story started with Jackie, her breasts and the sand between …its highly uncomfortable by the way, having abrasive sand in between ones breasts-provides much, much irritation later. Trust me, I've been there. Sort of like a guy getting kicked in the nuts. Ha ha ha! Anyway, more kudos to you for changing it! So, why did you start with her breasts then? Did you think it would establish in your mind more that you're writing from a girls point of view or some thing else? I don't mean to be critical or any thing I just genuinely want to know. Could you please tell me?
    Your re-write was definitely much, much better and it truly shows that you have tremendous potential in becoming a good writer in the future. I mean, you have no idea how many women writers writing from a guys point of view and they have their hero constantly saying things to themselves like how they're a guy and then doing ridiculously “manly” things that a real guy just wouldn't do ’cause its too stupid! God, thinking about that makes my blood boil! So, I had a guy friend and I showed him those bits and he was also of the same opinion as me in that why do these “guys” constantly keep referring to themselves as a guy (isn't that kind of redundant since they are one and its unnatural to think about it constantly)? Anyway, enough about me; I definitely liked your second rewrite-it provided amazing visuals. Hmmm, hang in there as I'm gonna go read it some more and see if there's any thing wrong. Until then, ciao!

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  22. Jim Duncan
    Aug 10, 2009 @ 13:45:57

    About the sand thing. Jackie is waking up from a hangover after an anonomous fling with a lifeguard in the sand on the shores of Lake Michigan. Yes, I did realize the cliche of starting with a character waking up, but I felt it important to the establishment of the character who has some significant issues with alcohol and men. Hopefully it came out fine in story as is. Folks here have been correct about the original opening being a bit confusing/disjointed. To be honest, I’d forgotten I’d submitted my first page here, otherwise I’d have resent the newer version to post. Anyway, for those who read ebooks in pdf format, you can check out the whole story on scribd and offer any more feedback if you feel so inclined. I’m pretty thick skinned, so if you just don’t like it, that’s ok. Constructive criticism is always appreciated.

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  23. JoB
    Aug 10, 2009 @ 16:15:46

    May I wax tediously philosophic about story beginnings?

    ‘Establishing shots’ work fine. Lots of mysteries and thrillers start with 300 or 500 words of establishing.

    But
    after all the establishing shots, there comes a point at which the writer wishes to make the reader giveadamn about the character.

    This ‘giveadamn’ moment pretty much happens when the character walks on stage.
    Look at your giveadamn moment:

    .
    Jackie Rutledge squinted at the chaos from the parking lot of the park, located in the far west of Chicago's burbs amidst a swarm of onlookers and media, wondering why anyone would choose hangover Mondays to commit a crime. It had to be a conspiracy. She looked over at the crowd, the television vans with their incessant, morbid story hounds and finger-pointing gawkers who hoped to get their faces flashed on the evening news. It was difficult to say which Jackie disliked more.

    .
    What this passage should do is connect the reader with Jackie.

    But you see how cluttered that paragraph is?
    It’s not about Jackie.
    It’s about

    parkinglotChicagoburbsswarmmediahangoverMondays
    conspiracytelevisionvanincessanthoundshangover
    scrowdfingerpointinggawkersflashedeveningnewsdifficultdisliked

    and lots of wtf-ery like that.
    Including maple trees.

    Jackie is drowning in the maelstrom.

    .
    You could move your establishing paraphernalia into its own paragraph and pare it down to a manageable:

    The parking lot was chaos. The usual half-witted onlookers milled around. Television vans spun out cable. Bored reporters spit-polished their eyebrows and waited for the cameramen to get their act together.

    .
    The giveadamn moment for Jackie would then be a readable:

    Why the hell would anybody want to get murdered on a Monday? Jackie Rutledge shoved a couple pimple-faced teenagers out of her way and headed for the corpse. At least this one wasn’t stinking yet.

    .
    Now, you see how I’ve altogether left out all the ‘morbid story hounds’ and “I hate reporters it’s all a conspiracy’ stuff?

    A cop, walking towards a crime scene, will not be mulling over her general view on reporters.

    She will be thinking about when the coroner is going to show up with the wagon and have they taken the photos so she can turn the body over and my god I hope it doesn’t rain before CSI processes the scene.

    All that complicated commentary you are trying to put in Jackie’s head — whether it is drinking problems or not liking reporters — is a variety of backstory.
    An argument can be made for establishing shots.
    Backstory, however, doesn’t belong on page one.

    May I add a final general comment?
    I’m expecting more more gritty realism from Big City Homicide Cop.

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  24. Jim Duncan
    Aug 10, 2009 @ 20:13:47

    Point taken, JoB. I like what you have to say here, and think I may tweak things in the direction you are suggesting. Thanks for the commentary!

    ReplyReply

  25. blabla
    Aug 11, 2009 @ 09:05:00

    I see what you're getting at, Jim Duncan…but it's a good thing that you dropped the whole sand in her breasts thing because if my first introduction with the heroine was something unpleasant then I would've become reluctant in identifying with her more. Hmmm, so you're saying that you want to portray more about the trouble she has with men and alcohol, huh? Okay then, fine by me. However, one piece of advice though, I hope she's not very neurotic, in that after sleeping with guys she bawls her eyes out about how she's turning in to such a slut or some thing. In this day and age that's highly ridiculous. I remember reading this one guys first novel (he used a woman's pen name and only recently I found out that he was actually a guy), and he had his heroine be kick ass and sassy and for some reason very concerned about being virtuous. That just pulled me right off of the story. Also, the whole time I was thinking: man, this guy really has no idea what women go thorough and was probably just exaggerating all the stereotypes he heard about chicks ten fold! That would've been all fine and dandy if he was writing a romance novel, but not a contemporary-urban legend. Real girls in real life do sleep around a lot, but they never stress about it in that they just don't have the time and energy (because they spend it elsewhere in something more useful, like work) and also because they enjoy it. However that is totally your choice…
    Now the re-write:
    You're 2nd paragraph contains way too much information; flesh it out more because I don't understand if there really is a conspiracy going on or she's just trying to be funny. Also, why is she so…prickly, for lack of a better word? Gives me the impression that she hates her job. If some one hates their job then they can't be good at it. Is she new?

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  26. Jim Duncan
    Aug 11, 2009 @ 15:24:57

    One last post up, taking into consideration some of the helpful comments posted up here the past couple of days. Open page, edit # (uhm, have lost track of how many times I’ve tweaked the first few pages of this story):

    Beneath the serene, protective canopy of maple leaves, a boy reclined against the trunk, withered and bloodless, his skin two sizes too big for his depleted body. It was death in all of the wrong ways.

    Jackie Rutledge squinted at the chaos from the parking lot, frowning at the milling gawkers. A gaggle of reporters and cameramen huddled around their cluster of vans waiting to pounce on the nearest unwary law enforcement officer. She absently rubbed at her throbbing temple. There should be a law against committing crimes on Mondays.

    The drifting scatter of clouds taunted her by momentarily blocking the blinding summer sun only to laugh at her seconds later. Her sunglasses provided little relief from the pain induced from last night's bottle of tequila, and Jackie hoped that luck would find her and a thunderstorm would send the crowd running. There was no luck to be found in this park however. Death had sucked it all away.

    The enormous maple, it's branches drooping nearly to the ground, was completely encircled with crime scene tape. Some of the crew were walking around, combing through the grass. The local police looked to have been put in charge of crowd control.

    Jackie walked over to her partner Laurel's car, and accepted the triple-shot latte and four Tylenol. “Thanks for the wake-up. Why can't killers keep better hours?”

    “Off shifts pay better,” she said, and reached up to brush off some lingering sand on Jackie's forehead. “How was the lifeguard?”

    ReplyReply

  27. blabla
    Aug 14, 2009 @ 08:21:21

    Yup. this is defenitely much more better than all the others combined; good job.

    ReplyReply

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