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First Page: Unpublished Manucript- Women’s fiction

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Neha Shah and her parents sat cross legged around a pious fire in their living room.  “Om Namaahh..Shivai” intoned the priest and tossed a few grains of rice into the flames. Neha stifled a yawn. This was the third hour of the puja by her last estimation.

Most people had a family doctor; the Shah’s had a family priest. He had performed this ceremony, intended to appease all nine planets, at the weddings of the previous three generations of their family.

Mrs. Shah had vehemently opposed any suggestions of procuring someone with a cheaper rate. ‘His presence is so lucky for us. See how everyone in our family has had successful marriages. My sister tried to act smart by getting a new fellow for her daughter and see what happened… divorce in a year!’

Now as Neha watched the elderly priest wheeze from the smoke and cover his coughs with a trembling hand, she hoped enough of his luck would rub off on him to not leave in a stretcher.

Despite the strategically placed table fans, Neha’s red tasseled blouse turned progressively maroon as droplets of sweat made their way down her back. Her normally curly hair had been tamed into submission by an hour of straightening. After waging a hard battle with the styling tool, it now lay meekly on top of her head in a loose bun, adorned with a row of tiny white beads.

Meera was not required for this part of the ceremony and was ensconced on a jute sofa across from Neha, her feet tucked underneath a pink saree. Mrs. Shah had been equally generous in passing her genes to her daughters. With dainty frames and fair skin, there was little to distinguish the sisters physically, except for a tiny mole on Meera’s lower lip, as if God Himself had put a black teeka on her as protection from envy. Meera munched on a tiny samosa and smiled guiltily at Neha.

Neha’s stomach gave an audible growl. It was so unfair. As a bride, she was expected to fast the whole day while Varun could eat whatever he pleased. She frowned as her thoughts drifted to her fiancé. She glanced at her mobile. He still hadn’t returned any of her calls since morning. Probably went for a smoke with his cousin from Bangalore, she told herself.

She got a sharp poke from Mrs.Shah. Neha looked up. “Please offer these flowers and ask Lord Ganesha to bless you with marital happiness” the priest repeated. Neha placed the petals at the foot of the idol in the center. ‘Pay attention Neha. You are the not the only one who had to get up early today…’ Mrs. Shah muttered under her breath.

Meanwhile in a flat in one of the more affluent areas of South Bombay, Varun paced the floor of his bedroom. Neha’s cherubic face had been blinking on his cellphone every hour or so, but he had disconnected every time. “Are you ready?” his mother called. “Yes. Maa. Just a minute”

His cellphone vibrated again. His thumb hovered above the end call button, but he hesitated. It was a text -“Its confirmed”.  Heart pounding, he grabbed his suitcase. His silk cream colored Sherwani was laid out carefully on the bed, the tiny ruby stones on the embroidery glinting in the sunlight. Next to it was a Titan watch, his first gift from Neha. Without a backward glance, he slammed the door shut.

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

18 Comments

  1. CT
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 06:09:52

    I try to read these with a critical eye, but I failed because I was so intrigued by the premise. So I have only this to say: I really, really, really want to read more.

  2. Kate Sherwood
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 06:19:28

    I like it and would like to read more, but I’d like you to tidy up a few grammar issues. Your second sentence needs a bit of work – I don’t know the exact terms, but the last part of the sentence hasn’t got a clear… subject, I think. Just taking out the “and” and replacing it with “as he” would fix it, I think.

    Similar issue with “she hoped enough of his luck would rub off on him to not leave in a stretcher,” although it’s not quite as obvious on that one – but again, I think it’s clear from context who’s not going to be on the stretcher, but not clear from the actual sentence structure.

    But those are nitpicks. Overall, I like the slow build, the sense of boring routine at one house combined with the impending drama… I want more!

  3. CR
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 07:22:47

    Very compelling! Can I make a pacing suggesting? Break out the religious ceremony into separate paragraphs, maybe italicize them all, so they become a drone in the background, the weight that holds this modern girl to her society? You’re already doing that with her cell phone vs the ancient priest. Those paragraph breaks might emphasis it more. And where does the mother stand in this continuum? How does Neha get away with numerous calls without Mrs. Shah noticing? Just a little thing, but I wondered.

  4. Carol McKenzie
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 08:14:27

    Hi Author and thanks for sharing!

    I like your writing, and while this usually isn’t my genre, I’m curious as to where the fiance is heading.

    A few nits: you have some spelling issues. Near the end “It’s confirmed” not “Its”. “His silk cream colored Sherwani” might want to be “cream-colored”.

    Also, and this is me being hyper-critical, a few breaks in POV, since I’m assuming you’re writing in third person limited (the POV of whichever character you choose to write from for those scenes) and not omniscient (even though you change character POV for the final paragraph, that doesn’t make it omniscient). Neha cannot know the back of her red blouse is turning maroon; she cannot see the back. She can see the front though.

    She cannot (really) know the priest is repeating his request. She can assume he is, since she got the poke in the ribs from her mother.

    I’m also lost in time. Bombay, to me, is Mumbai. I don’t know enough about how residents refer to their own city, so I’m not certain if this is contemporary or set before the place changed its name. I know, from personal experience, that when something changes names, such as a prominent museum I used to visit, I still called it the old name…still do…even though its name was changed decades ago.

    One final confusion on my part. I cannot clearly visualize how they are sitting around a fire. I see campfire, open fireplace…probably every conceivable way a family could sit around a fire in their living room, besides the way you wish me to see it.

  5. Mary
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 09:01:40

    @Carol McKenzie: In regards to the Bombay/Mumbai thing: my dad is Indian, and although he lived in many places in India, he spent at least 8 years in Madras, which is now called Chennai, but he always refers to it as Madras. I think he also tends to say Bombay rather than Mumbai. That being said, my dad is of an older generation and it’s probably mostly because he grew up with those names. I don’t know what the younger generation would say.

    I…kind of like this? I’m not sure. I was not raised with a lot of attachment to my cultural heritage, so I could be completely wrong here, but the white beads in her hair didn’t seem like something brides would wear at the Indian weddings I’ve seen photos/videos of. But again-those were all weddings in the 50s-90s so things could have changed, or it could be a different culture in a different part of India. Mrs. Shah also kind of seems like a stereotype to me-perhaps an accurate one, but still a stereotype rather than a character. There’s no sense of her daughter (whose POV we are in) finding her to be loveable despite her superstitions etc, she just comes across as “typical Indian mother”.
    I like this idea, but at the moment this doesn’t seem like a finished draft to me. I’m not sure how far I’d read on.

  6. Nicole
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 09:31:05

    Like other commenters have said, it needs editing, but I’m definitely intrigued. I want to know more about all of these characters. I kind of think that Varun is about to pull a total dick move and I as already like Neha, I wish her better.

  7. Sunita
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 09:45:17

    The grammar and sentence structure issues need to be cleaned up, but I’d definitely read this. This sounds like a typical Gujarati wedding to me, complete with Ganesh puja. Yes the Indian mother is slightly stereotyped but she is also completely authentic, in my experience. Also speaking from experience, though, there’s no way straightened hair is going to stay straight in Bombay humidity, even in the winter wedding season; mine lasted about 25 minutes from the time I left the salon.

    @Mary: A lot of brides wear flowers but jewelry is common too. I would assume it’s a row of seed pearls.

    @Carol McKenzie: The fire is the ritual fire you need in several of the Indian marriage ceremonies. It’s basically a brazier or something equivalent. I’ve seen them indoors, the room just has to be well ventilated.

    Lots of us still call it Bombay, especially if we’re speaking English. It’s not just an older-person thing. Mumbai is the name the Hindu-nationalist Shiv Sena party gave it when Indian cities were being renamed to their Indian-language equivalents (or changed completely, like Madras became Chennai). Bombay was always pronounced and spelled Mumbai (or something very close) in Gujarati and Marathi, but the Sena wanted to get rid of the English equivalent completely. Obviously businesses went along and government documents etc. changed, but given the identification of the change with other parts of the Sena’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim platform, saying Bombay isn’t just a refusal to recognize the present. Since the characters in this book are Indian and speaking/thinking in English, Bombay makes sense to me.

  8. Mary
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 09:55:22

    @Sunita:

    Okay, like I said, my daddy wanted us to have more of an “American culture” than an Indian one, so I didn’t want to say too much as my experience is limited. I’m glad that there are no factual errors here then :)

  9. Shaya
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 10:05:59

    The others have commented on the few writing errors, so I won’t reiterate. The only other nitpick I have is when you state that the ceremony is designed to appease all nine planets. Currently, only eight planets are recognized. I think you need to make some reference to that fact, like the ceremony being developed when there were nine planets instead of eight, or prior to Pluto being reclassified, or something. To leave the statement as is, I attribute it to lack of current knowledge by the author, even if that is not the case. We are not given a date for the events in this story, so I am assuming it is meant to be happening “now.”

  10. wikkidsexycool
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 10:29:10

    Hello Author,

    Thanks for having the courage to submit this. Like many other posters, I enjoyed your descriptions, your main character Neha and the intrigue surrounding just what “It’s confirmed” means for Varun, as I too think he may pull something along the lines of not marrying Neha.

    I was also highly interested in this short sentence: “Mrs. Shah had been equally generous in passing her genes to her daughters. With dainty frames and fair skin” because I’m currently researching the light vs dark complexion issues in several cultures.

    OT:
    I don’t know if your novel even touches on that, and I realize your sentence was simply meant to give a description on your character and her sister, but when I read that, it was a reminder on how having light or fair skin is considered an asset to some (I’m also looking at the skin cremes used to lighten complexions and those who promote and profit from them). From my There’s been some debate in India on this also (not just India, but all over the world, in the US and also Africa. Publicly, there’s a Nigerian celebrity named Dencia who promotes her brand of bleaching creme, and who dissed Lupita Nyong’o, which caused some controversy).

    But in regards to your piece, you paint a vivid picture of the family and the ceremony, and while there still needed editing, this is a very good first page imho.

    I think your “voice” comes out very clearly and I’d definitely read on. I hope you will post some sort of short blurb as to the premise, and perhaps even a follow-up regarding its progress (self-pubbed or agent shopping).

  11. Willaful
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 11:10:58

    @Shaya: I would prefer that a writer not interrupt the fictional depiction of a religious ceremony to nitpick about changes in scientific nomenclature.

    I’m glad Sunita gave us her informed opinion, because I found this intriguing and would like to read more someday.

  12. Carol McKenzie
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 11:23:10

    I would prefer the writer not interrupt the writing to explain the planetary discrepancy, but again, maybe some kind of reference to where we are in time would help clarify that as well. If a contemporary piece, then I’d be confused by the planet count, as I was with Bombay/Mumbai, although everyone’s input has helped me with that point.

  13. Author
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 15:44:54

    Hi guys,

    I want to thank everyone who took the time out to read my snippet!

    @Sunita – I agree with every single comment you made, honestly I could not have put it better myself.
    Yes, I think of it as Bombay even though I belong to a younger generation, because I think a lot of us have come to associate the name change with the whole ‘Marathi manoos’ anti immigrant sentiment.
    I guess to avoid confusing non bombayiites, I should make a quick reference to the time this is set in, Any suggestions on how to weave that in naturally without using something along the lines of ‘the year was 2006…’
    You are also correct about the Gujju wedding bit, this was supposed to be the Griha Shaanti ceremony (I thought throwing the name in there would be an overdose for those unfamiliar with the culture)
    I used to have a line about the humidity affecting her hair but took it out for the sake of brevity
    “Some of the strands, set free by the moisture in the air had returned merrily to their natural state”
    :)

  14. Author
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 15:55:40

    @wikkidsexycool
    Yes, having fair skin is definately considered an asset in India (sadly this is true even today, we actually have fairness skin creams for men as well).
    I would like to incorporate some reference to that obsession later on, but mentioning that in the first page itself would be an overkill IMO.

    @CR – Hmm..you raise a very good point about her calling him without mom noticing..I should probably change that to texting

    @Carol – Thank you for pointing out the breaks in POV. They would be seated on ‘bajrots’ or really low wooden stools in a circle around the fire.

  15. txvoodoo
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 18:37:32

    @Author:

    I really enjoyed this, and hope to see more someday.

    Re: the hair – as someone with curly hair, if it’s straightened and then it’s humid, I get a little bit of a halo of short strands.

    I won’t reiterate the other (valid) critiques – a little bit of beta-reading/editing, and you’ll be good to go.

    I also wouldn’t worry about Pluto. It’s actually now defined as a “dwarf planet” so for laypeople to say “nine planets” is totally legit. :)

  16. Sunita
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 18:47:52

    @Author: I like your voice a lot; do let us know when the book is done and available to read.

    On the 8 v. 9 planets, I’ll repeat what I said on Twitter: we could always read about Neha interrupting the pandit to say, “No, no, Panditji, it’s 8 planets now! Neil DeGrasse told us about it on Cosmos!”

  17. SAO
    Apr 13, 2014 @ 14:55:52

    I found this intriguing, but was a bit confused because:
    It wasn’t immediately apparent to me that this was a wedding ceremony and that Neha was the bride. The absence of the groom was part of my problem, but adding a phrase early on, as in “this was the third hour of the puja before for her wedding this evening” would have made things a lot clearer.

    Pious refers to a person, not a thing, I’m pretty sure. The Shahs have a family priest. The Shah’s family priest is old. (ie get the apostrophes right).

    My biggest problem is that this is part of a wedding and I don’t have any read on how Neha feels about it. Is she excited to be marrying Varun? Nervous? She’s tired and bored by the ceremony, but why aren’t her thoughts drifting to the honeymoon? Her (I presume) beloved? The enormity of being about to commit to a life-long partnership? I’d lived with my husband for a few years before we married, but the whole death-do-us-part thing had me freaked out. Was I sure for a lifetime? (We’ve been married for 20 years now, so it was the right decision).

  18. Elizabeth
    Apr 28, 2014 @ 11:56:59

    I really enjoyed reading this snippet!

    The matter of whose perspective to cater to is a touchy one, I know, and I don’t know what audience you have in mind for your work. So I will identify myself as a Western reader who especially enjoys novels set in times and places that are not my own; the vicarious travel and the encounter with different cultures is part of the pleasure of the novel for me, and so I LIKE details, digressions, explanations. So I come to this excerpt as someone who doesn’t have enough background to understand the ceremony Neha is sitting through, and who wants to know more about it. But I also think that too much exposition up front will turn off many readers. I would encourage you to add a bit more detail (the brazier so we can understand the physical setting, for instance) and perhaps compensate by omitting some of what isn’t strictly necessary (the priest’s luck or the cousin’s divorce or the hairstyle — you know your story, so you’ve got to be the judge of what’s relevant).

    It seems to me that the central tension here — the thing that is going to keep us reading — is the contrast between Neha’s rather tedious experience of the ceremony/her expectations for how the lengthy wedding process will proceed, and Varun’s abrupt departure. And clearly the excerpt works as it’s currently structured (since I’m eager to find out where he’s gone and why, and how Neha will react). But I think you could ramp up the tension a little by mentioning Varun earlier in Neha’s thoughts, by showing us how she feels about him — if she’s an eager bride, that makes his betrayal worse — if she’s an anxious bride, that ratchets up the tension. It’s OK that we don’t really know anything about him except that he’s taking off, since that creates mystery/tension, but we need to know how Neha feels. I think you want us on the edge of our seats, waiting for this wedding to crash down around her ears. (Mary mentioned that Mrs. Shah seems like a stereotype, but I think that adds to the sense of impending drama: Mrs. Shah is not going to react well to Varun’s departure. Whether you want to give her some nuance may depend on how important a character she is to the story.)

    Basically, I’d really like more explanation/detail, but I think that the scene’s emotional content is the most important thing and I’m afraid that the detail I want will bog down the emotion. So I guess my suggestion is to smooth out the opening a little, introduce tension sooner, and then go back for a second, more detailed look at Neha’s puja. And maybe that’s what the scene snaps back to after Varun leaves his apartment… I’d really like to keep reading this.

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