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First Page: Unnamed YA

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"I'm quitting."

Mr. Thompson gaped at me, his crooked glasses sliding down his beaked nose ever so slightly.   He shuffled through the pile of papers strewn haphazardly across his desk, as if they would contain the answers he needed.   Looking up, he stammered, "R-r-rose-‘"

"I'm sorry, but I've decided that I need to focus on my grades and college applications," I continued.   "Joshua is more than capable of replacing me."

"Oh God," Mr. Thompson groaned, "that's just cruel of you to suggest."   He added with a derisive laugh, "That kid thinks piano means banging only less slightly on the keys than usual."

"Again, I'm sorry.   I'll finish this semester but won't be returning to orchestra in the fall."

He sighed.   Looking me in the eye, he said quietly, "Are you sure?   You're so talented, Rose.   You have carried this orchestra this past year.   You have potential to go on to a professional music program, which very few students here ever do.   Are you really sure?"

I twisted my hands together behind my back, my only sign of agitation.   Otherwise, I forced myself to remain as poised as ever.   "Yes, I'm certain.   I don't want to play anymore."

Liar liar liar.

I wanted to play.   But I couldn't play, not anymore.

Mr. Thompson raised his caterpillar brows at my seemingly forceful tone.   "What-I don't understand."   His tone became incredulous.   "Are you quitting piano completely?"

"Yes."

Gaping at me again, my orchestra instructor shook his head at my answer.   "When you said quit orchestra, I never thought you-‘of all people!-‘would give up piano.   You love piano, I know you do.   Has something happened?"

Concern lined his face.   I could feel my heart stutter at his expression of sympathy, and anxiety scraped at my nerves.   I replied unsteadily, "No, nothing has happened.   I'm sorry for quitting like this."

I then picked up my backpack from the floor and left a stunned Mr. Thompson in his office.

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

15 Comments

  1. Moth
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 04:24:40

    My first reactions:

    The opening line “I’m quitting” falls pretty flat for me. It’s a cliche. Also, you’re starting in the middle of a conversation. This leaves me as a reader out at sea. I’m playing catch up from the very first sentence. I don’t know your main character, you’ve given me no stakes for her. So I don’t care that she’s quitting, and I don’t care that her boss is flustered and upset. You’ve lost me in the first three sentences because there’s nothing to hook me, nothing to make me care and keep reading.

    Other stuff:
    The dialogue is also pretty stilted for me. And it gets a little redundant. “You’re quitting?” “I’m quitting” “But you love music! You’re quitting?” “I’m quitting.” You can use repetition for comedy, of course, but only up to three times and it needs to be more deliberate if that’s what you’re going for. The repetitions here all just seem like redundant writing.

    For a first person narrative I feel really distant from your narrator.

    This for instance:
    “I twisted my hands together behind my back, my only sign of agitation. Otherwise, I forced myself to remain as poised as ever.”
    It’s like someone is looking at her, not like you’re in her head, feeling what she feels. You need to be inside her head.

    Also, you use distancing language:
    “I could feel my heart stutter at his expression of sympathy”
    Instead of starting with “I could feel” just say “My heart stuttered at his expression of sympathy.” She’s your narrator so we know anything that she sees, hears, smells, feels, is her feeling it, so you can leave those things off. Using “I felt” “I saw” “I watched”, etc, makes the reader feel one step removed from the action. Omitting these phrases makes your writing more immediate and makes the reader feel more connected and in the story.

    My guess just based on this is you’ve started your story in the wrong place. Maybe the real opening is three chapters in from this point or maybe it was the day before this page happened. It’s hard to know without more information but you need to start with your heroine in conflict, making choices. In this scene there’s no real conflict, and her choice has already been made which = no tension. And you need tension to make the story engaging.

  2. SAO
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 06:41:51

    I think you could this page work, to put in some stakes or some sense of urgency if you added more of her feelings. We only know that music is her passion from Tompson.

    “I’m quitting.” I bit my lip and forced back the tears which were too close.

    “I’m quitting.” The words came out evenly. I’m good at sounding stone cold. I’ve had lots of practice.

    “I’m quitting,” I said between chews of gum, hoping to convey that the decision was merely a whim.

    You see, all of these convey that the decision is forced, but show some character.

    As it stands. I don’t know Rose and I don’t know why she’s quitting. I don’t care much either.

    It’s hard to get the right stuff on the first page. Not getting it right doesn’t mean you’ve got a bad book or not enough talent. It just means you need to tweak your first page.

    As a minor point, the first sentence strikes me as a run-on. Change to something like glasses sliding a quarter inch down his nose.

  3. Nadia Lee
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 07:12:52

    I almost stopped reading when I realized that the teacher was freaking out over a pianist in a HS orchestra. (Given that it’s a YA, I presume it’s about HS kids…)

    Most HS orchestras do not have a pianist, much less two. Almost no orchestral pieces require a pianist, and the ones who are good enough to play piano concertos perfectly are probably touring the world or something.

    The teacher’s reaction would be more realistic if your protagonist had been the concertmistress of the orchestra she’s trying to quit, esp. if he’s going to say stuff like how she’s “carried this orchestra this past year”.

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  5. Gianisa
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 09:06:58

    Nadia is right. A high school orchestra would never have a pianist. A standard HS orchestra has violins, violas, cellos, and string bass.

    Also, nobody “carries” an orchestra musically. That’s one of the major ideas behind an orchestra: it’s a group of people working together to produce the music. If you want a situation where somebody needs to carry an orchestral piece, then you would focus on the soloist. I honestly can’t think of a situation where any one person’s performance would result in an orchestra being fantastic instead of mediocre.

    You might want to shift the focus to something smaller, like a chamber orchestra, which some high schools do have but is more common in college. If the plot needs the protagonist to be a pianist in a symphony orchestra, you’ll have to come up with reasons why a) a high school would have a symphony orchestra and b) why the pianist of all people is “carrying” it.

    if your protagonist had been the concertmistress of the orchestra she's trying to quit

    And in HS, the concertmistress is not nearly as important as in a professional orchestra. The teacher is there for a reason.

  6. okbut
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 09:28:56

    Good first page, liked the voice, wanted to know more. Could pick on a few things, but other commenters are going at it full force as usual here. So, enough said.

    Good luck and thank you for submitting.

  7. Pat
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 11:07:19

    I’m way out of your target audience here, so feel free to ignore me.

    That said, I do have a question: Why is she telling the teacher that she is quitting? She says she will finish the semester but won’t be back in the fall. If that is the case, she doesn’t have to say anything. All she has to do is not turn up in the fall.

    There needs to be a reason for this conversation. Does she want him to talk her out of it? Is she looking for his support but is afraid to ask for it? I need something to show me that she isn’t just a self-dramatizing adolescent looking for a stage.

  8. galwiththehoe
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 11:23:18

    ” (…) You love piano, I know you do. Has something happened?”

    This is the important message I get which makes me sympathize and which makes me want to know more.

    I’d shift the teacher’s whole reaction a little more in this direction because before I got to this point I was not so enamored with the idea of reading about flawless super-pianist who’s so much better than that stupid other kid and carries the whole orchestra anyway. I was rooting for Joshua to show ‘em. ;)

    Thank you for sharing.

  9. Suze
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 13:08:11

    I really like it. I’d keep reading. There are enough hints that there’s something else going on that I’m intrigued, and I want to find out what. (I know nothing about orchestra.)

  10. EGS
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 14:30:55

    Hi everyone, thank you for your feedback! I actually was in band my entire time in high school (which wasn’t toooooo long ago) so I’m not totally without personal experience in this area. That being said, I agree that the piano in choice of instrument might not be the best in this situation; I might use something else (I played the flute for years and years but wasn’t really sure a flautist story would interest anyone, heh) I might change to violin, although I don’t have much personal experience with string instruments, although of course I can always google. :)

    And @Pat, generally if you were in band/orchestra but not coming back in the fall you’d probably need to tell your director (at least in my HS), especially if you were a good player. I think, also, I wanted to show that Mr. Thompson has gotten to know Rose so it would seem right that she would make a point to tell him if she were quitting.

    Thanks, again!

  11. Elle
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 14:30:55

    I’m intrigued. Perhaps it’s my love of music. I’m not sure. I found the dialogue to be a bit too interrupted for my taste. And I agree that perhaps this just doesn’t start in the right place. Others here have great suggestions. Take them. Clean it up a bit. Make us feel for Rose.

    With that being said, I do think that this has great potential! Thanks for sharing.

  12. Valerie
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 14:49:13

    I agree with what most of the other posters have said already, so I won’t rehash. I will say that I understood why she was having this conversation instead of just not showing come fall; I wasn’t in band, but I did theater, and you build relationships with your directors which would warrant a conversation before quitting.

    This sentence makes no sense to me: “That kid thinks piano means banging only less slightly on the keys than usual.” Huh? Banging less hard? Banging less lightly? What?

    Also, I think you should switch to the flautist, if possible. I had trouble buying that a HS would have ONE pianist, let alone 2.

    Final thought: this convo makes me dislike your heroine. She’s SO talented, and SO important, etc, she annoys me. And that’s what I’ve been TOLD about her, not what I’ve seen.

  13. Maura
    Jan 16, 2011 @ 11:21:17

    Leaving aside what others have said about the unlikelihood of a HS orchestra having one pianist, let alone two, I was put off by this page. Its whole purpose seemed to be to have someone tell me what a fantastic and irreplaceable musician the narrator is… and not even the narrator herself. When I’m immediately confronted with someone telling me how special the viewpoint character is, it’s got to be handled very carefully for me to read on. This is just a little too much for my taste.

  14. Castiron
    Jan 17, 2011 @ 00:06:06

    Speaking as a good but not great musician who quit band at the end of my junior year of high school: I can certainly buy her teacher trying to talk her out of quitting and to find out why she’s dropping out, but I agree that a pianist wouldn’t be that important to the orchestra. And there certainly wouldn’t be more than one pianist, unless maybe Rose and Joshua play another instrument most of the time and can play piano when it’s needed.

    All it’d take for me to buy it completely, though, is toning back Mr. Thompson a bit. If Rose really is an extremely talented musician and clearly loves playing, any music director worth their salary would be wondering what’s up; she doesn’t have to be the only thing holding the orchestra together on top of that.

    I’m definitely curious as to what’s convinced her to quit, and I’d read a couple more pages to see where the story’s going, but I’m not yet hooked.

  15. Jane Lovering
    Jan 17, 2011 @ 07:33:39

    I’m with the ‘rein in the perfection’ crowd. Surely a good teacher who is concerned for his students would care about her dropping out of orchestra, even if she’s only moderately talented, and want to know the reason why. She doesn’t need to be the ‘bestest EVAH’ player, just a regular attendee who tries hard.
    Teachers care about the try-hard crowd too…

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