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First Page: unnamed contemporary

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"Shit." Andy’s voice was in a pitch that would rival that of a dog whistle. She had rounded the corner at five knots and slammed into a scrawny chest and a huge red Slurpy.

Five minutes ago Andy had been sitting in the library, chewing on her lip, blinking back tears and mulling over what Molly had told her. The clock had been screaming at her that she was late and she almost didn’t notice. As fate would have it, she was very late and on the day of her Business Economics final. If she didn’t make it to the room in forty-seven seconds the door would close and she would receive an F on the final which would likely force her to retake the damn class. Of course that would mean that her entire scholarly plan would be flushed down the toilet.

"Wow, where’s the fire?"

"I am so sorry." Andy only missed half a beat and was running down the hall again. "Really sorry. I am so late.." She yelled over her shoulder.

"Stop Professor Ashburn I’m coming." Andy slipped her text book through the crack of the quickly shutting door, stopping the grumpy old professor, whose pants where pulled nearly to his chin, from keeping her from the test.

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

10 Comments

  1. Nadia Lee
    Oct 17, 2009 @ 10:18:14

    Five minutes ago Andy had been sitting in the library, chewing on her lip, blinking back tears and mulling over what Molly had told her. The clock had been screaming at her that she was late and she almost didn't notice. As fate would have it, she was very late and on the day of her Business Economics final. If she didn't make it to the room in forty-seven seconds the door would close and she would receive an F on the final which would likely force her to retake the damn class. Of course that would mean that her entire scholarly plan would be flushed down the toilet.

    I’m not sure if it’s wise to have a flashback so early because the 2nd paragraph jerked me right out of the story. Furthermore if what Molly told her made her almost miss a final exam, it must’ve been something really really important (esp. since you hinted that it made Andy cry as well), but we don’t get to see or experience any of that because we’re just told that it happened before Ch 1. TBH, I think what Molly said is probably more important and interesting than taking the final because it had so much impact on your heroine’s emotional state.

    BTW — Andy comes across as someone who’s overly melodramatic. Retaking one class is NOT going to “flush her entire scholarly plan down the toilet”. You just retake it and not miss the final next time OR major in something else. If her sounding melodramatic is what you want, keep it. Else delete or change.

    the grumpy old professor, whose pants where pulled nearly to his chin

    I like this tho. It made me laugh out loud. :)

  2. MD
    Oct 17, 2009 @ 10:24:14

    You’ve done a good job of setting up a question of what Molly told Andy that is so crushing that she forgets about an apparently make-or-break exam. That intrigues me enough to keep me reading at least another page. But you do have some problems on this first page that need to be addressed.

    Nitpick – isn’t it Slurpee? Or did you alter it to avoid legal problems? So is she covered in cherry Slurpee now? Who did she run into? I suppose it could remain an unidentified person, to convey the feel that Andy didn’t even look at who she ran into, but it reads weird to me. Someone she knows? Doesn’t know?

    Commas. They are your friend (ok, sometimes they feel more like your enemy). But you need some, especially in that line of dialogue, “Stop, Professor Ashburn! I’m coming.” Something like that.

    If she is the type who has her plans all neatly fixed up for education/career, etc., would she also be the type who is sitting five minutes before a vital exam in the library? I think she would be waiting impatiently outside the exam room door.

    The pants/chin thing does not belong in the middle of that sentence. If you want to add some description, that’s fine. But it doesn’t work right there. It makes the sentence too difficult to follow and is irrelevant there.

    You tell us twice that she is late in the same paragraph. And I’m not sure fate has anything to do with it. I think Molly has more to do with it. =)

    You write with a lively style and I think I could like Andy if I knew more about her. This page is a little thin on information (but maybe that is normal in a contemporary? I seldom read them. I prefer historicals.) I think you have storyteller skills. You just need to work on your writerly skills more.

    I wish you all the luck with your work.

  3. Alisa
    Oct 17, 2009 @ 10:37:53

    I read this earlier, kind of went huh. got distracted and reading this again…still a bit huh.

    Since a dog whistle is out of the range of human hearing, I’m not quite sure that’s the comparison you really want to go for even if “screeched” or “shrieked” aren’t necessarily the opening impression you want to make, though understandable with a shirt/face full of cold Slurpee guaranteed to stain shirt, going to get to take test frozen & wet if she gets there in time.

    The knots gave me a second’s pause though if Andy is into sailing /raised sailing / parents in Navy/fishing business that would make sense. Is this set in a coastal town? With out any back cover blurb or further info that stood out, but explaining why she’d think in such a term isn’t necessary on first page. Just a note if it isn’t something that would be natural to Andy’s thinking for a readily obvious/explainable reason.

    The entire second paragraph is a massive speedbump. She’s running, late, slams into scrawny kid with slurpy, *ground to stop with info dump/anvil set up with whatever Molly told her making her upset/possible education derailment* starts running again. Working it in a little more naturally, with difficulty focusing on test what Molly said coming back into her head could work possibly rather than the interruption of action where it is.

    Not quite hooked in by Andy from this, but I’d probably skim another page or two to see if I could be if I was in the mood for a contemporary/category style story.

  4. JoB
    Oct 17, 2009 @ 11:33:09

    This snippet is very good in that it is immediate and concrete and vivid. That’s a lot going for you when you’ve presented only one page.

    Couple of points.

    1) My own taste is to just say stuff. Unless you’re embellishing the language on purpose to slow the pace and make the reader think, I’m in favor of keeping it simple.

    This is a matter of authorial taste, so take it with a grain of salt.

    But lookit.

    - in a pitch that would rival that of a dog whistle
    – rounded the corner at five knots
    – As fate would have it, she was very late

    Could be:

    - she squawked
    – rounded the corner fast
    – she was late

    and in the simpler form the reader would get the picture just as much but would not notice the language.

    It’s not that I am against colorful language and bright metaphor. It’s that complicated language can tangle the feet of an action scene, which is what you are writing.

    2) When I look at the flashback.

    You are writing action. The paragraph of explanation drags us out of the action. By the time we get to “Wow, where's the fire?” I’ve forgotten all about the scrawny chest in the third sentence and wonder who said that.

    Doing action, we ideally stay in the action to build a sense of threat/fear/anxiety.

    Yes, we have to show that there are stakes. But we do this by writing the immediate emotional reaction to the stakes, not so much describing the details of them.
    We can lay down the details somewhere else.

    So in an action scene, it might be less,

    As fate would have it, she was very late . . .
    and so on through the little bitty flashback,

    and more ..

    She rounded the corner, fast, and slammed into a scrawny chest and a huge red Slurpy.

    The hall and his sweater and his hands were full of pink ice. “Hell. It’s all over my books–”

    She gasped, “Sorry. So sorry. Money and Madness final. Half the grade. Professor Ashburn.”

    “Oh. Ass shite Ashburn.” Dark and skinny didn’t quite forgive her, but he understood. “Saw him in the elevator. Better run for it.”

    “Ack. Sorry. Damn sorry.” She ran.

    How important are the details of her college career right then? All that matters is she’s in a tearing hurry.

    3) If you decide to eliminate the paragraph of backstory, you could move the other backstory material out of the past and insert it in the present. Make it ‘now’.

    Thus, not so much;

    Five minutes ago Andy had been sitting in the library, chewing on her lip, blinking back tears and mulling over what Molly had told her.

    but more;

    She flung herself into the elevator.

    She had to stop thinking about Molly’s bad news. Stop thinking about it. Just stop. If she didn’t put her head firmly into Business Economics mode, she was going to flunk the test anyway.

    4) And finally.

    “Shit.”

    Must you? This is where I’d lay the book down.

  5. Castiron
    Oct 17, 2009 @ 12:50:41

    First paragraph:

    It took me a couple sentences to straighten out viewpoint. Andy's voice was in a pitch that would rival that of a dog whistle — that sounds like someone observing Andy rather than Andy’s own thoughts. (Also, I read “Andy” as a male name; I’d expect a woman to be “Andie”.)

    The action (running into the guy) happens right before the story opens; it’d be more effective if you started with the collision on-screen. (Or see comments on paragraph 2.)

    Knots? If Andy turns out to sail or to have a parent who served in the Navy, that’d make sense to me; otherwise, it’s weird.

    Second paragraph: Bad place for a flashback and infodump. If you need to get this information across now, what if you started with Andy in the library mulling over Molly’s news and then realizing the time? Then she can race from the library to the building where the exam is, crash into nameless guy (who I’d be unsurprised to find is the hero), and barely make the exam. That’d make the story flow better and be far less confusing.

    Fourth paragraph: Grammar issue. “Really sorry. I am so late..” She yelled over her shoulder. should have a comma and lowercase s — “Really sorry. I am so late,” she yelled over her shoulder. (I’d actually reverse the two — She yelled over her shoulder, “Really sorry. I am so late.”

    Fifth paragraph: “Stop Professor Ashburn I'm coming.” The lack of punctuation may be intended to give a sense of urgency, but here it just looks like you forgot it. “Stop, Professor Ashburn! I'm coming!” reads better to me.

    Andy slipped her text book through the crack of the quickly shutting door, stopping the grumpy old professor, whose pants where pulled nearly to his chin, from keeping her from the test. Overly complex sentence, and the description kills the tension. Just “the professor” would be sufficient. The image of “whose pants were pulled nearly to his chin” is good, but in the middle of this sentence it defuses the urgency and suspense. The description, both of the grumpiness and the pants, would fit better in a later paragraph, after we find whether Andy’s going to be able to take her exam or not.

    Overall: This could be an interesting and fun story, but as it stands now, if I were the slushpile reader, the combination of convoluted sentences and basic grammar & spelling errors would make me stop and send the rejection slip. It wouldn’t take much to fix, though! You’ve done one important part; you’ve immediately established your heroine wrestling with a problem that’s important to her. Untangle the storyline and fix the punctuation and grammar errors, and you’ll have an opening that keeps me reading to find out what happens next.

  6. Leah
    Oct 17, 2009 @ 14:55:48

    I liked it. When I was in college, I was very melodramatic, and failing a class would have made me feel like my life was in the toilet, even if that wasn’t exactly true. It seems like everyone has given you great tips on how to spruce it up some. My only thought is, that if she isn’t going to date or marry Slurpee guy, he doesn’t have to be there. What with what Molly told her and the pressure of her exam, the reader can understand her stress level w/o the Slurpee incident. Besides, as a reader, I paused to wonder if that incident would eat up her whole 47 seconds, etc. So I might get rid of him.

    Good start!

  7. Moth
    Oct 18, 2009 @ 03:16:38

    @JoB: Do you object to “shit” itself or the placement as the first sentence in the book?

  8. JoB
    Oct 18, 2009 @ 14:33:46

    @Moth:

    The opening lays down the voice of the characters. So ‘shit’ in the first line is the author signalling that the reader can expect much similar to come.

    I have no problem with vulgarity or obscenity, of course. It’s realistic characterization. Wonderful writers use the strength and earthiness of shit and fuck and co.

    But — and this will not be everyone’s experience — I find extensive reliance on the half dozen most common expletives usually means unimaginative dialog.

    So ‘rat twats’ would send me reading onward, intrigued.
    ‘Shit’ . . . not so much.

  9. blabla
    Oct 19, 2009 @ 11:28:19

    I feel NOTHING!
    I read this story and think, nah, I’m not gonna buy it, ’cause its boring. Your story failed to engage me, and I don’t feel compellede to buy it. So a girl is late for her exam…whats so exciting about that?

  10. silvia
    Oct 20, 2009 @ 01:03:59

    The opening feels flat almost from the beginning, with awkward phrasing and reliance on a less immediate tense.

    Her voice “was in the pitch that would..” = Awkward! And then the next sentances have “had rounded the corner”, “had been sitting”, “had been screaming”. You lose all immediacy.

    I agree with one of the other commenters that I’d take the “in a pitch that would rival a dog’s whistle” bit out and exchange it with something short but strong.

    Some really vivid imagery might punch up the opening — did the Slurpy spill, how? did it hurt when she slammed into the chest – what kind of pain, what did it feel like? What else might she encounter during her rush?

    One way to create prescence for the reader is to capture our multiple senses – describe smells, tastes, sounds in her surroundings. Maybe go to a school, close your eyes, and stand here for a bit and think about what sounds you hear, what you smell, and then open your eyes and note what you see. You don’t need paragraphs of description, but a couple really vivid sentances of this type every page or so can do wonders to spice things up and pull the reader into your world.

    You say “late” twice in 2 sentances right next to each other, and that’s something that really bothers me as a reader.

    The punctuation errors need to be cleaned up as well. I wouldn’t read further after seeing something like: “Stop Professor Ashburn I'm coming.”

    In general, wider terms I think an issue you have here is that there’s nothing that stands out about your opening. There’s nothing unique – no phrasings the reader won’t have come across before, no fresh narrative voice or unusual situation.

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