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First Page: Unpublished manuscript

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This was what Hannah missed. Cool windy days in summer. Walks along the beach scattered with rocks, the occasional lava stones, seaweed and starfish. Seals and otters spying them on the shore and curiously watching as she walked with her dog. The fuchsia of fireweed come fall. Colors dancing along the ground against a backdrop of deep green spruce. Termination dust, the first snow to coat the mountains. Moonlight on the snow. Northern lights making a show late in the night. The curious quiet of winter when the snow muffled all sounds. The muted crunch of snow under boots. The bite of winter air and breath of wood smoke. Stars bright and bare against the sky.

Hannah recalled the night she arrived in Alaska well. She was 8 and wide awake despite having flown for over 12 hours from North Carolina. The lights of the town glittered ahead in the dark sky. Hannah leaned her forehead against the plane window and watched as the black night gradually filled with tiny lights. Hannah thought they must have been over forests and mountains for hours because she had seen nothing but darkness for as long. She peered down at the lights as the plane flew lower and the lights came close enough for her to see reflections on the water. Hannah knew the water must be the ocean for the town they were flying to, Spruce Creek, lay along the shores of Kachemak Bay. Hannah watched as the lights shaped a town in darkness for her, she saw the streets curving up hillsides and winding along the ocean. She could see what she guessed to be the downtown. A few neon signs shone boldly in the night. They appeared awkward in such a remote area, but they were easy to read, even from the plane. Hannah didn’t know if she should be comforted or offended that there was a McDonald’s.

The hum of the plane was strangely soothing. The runway shone out in the night, the lights inviting the plane down. As they landed, the tiny plane bounced and rumbled. The whir of the motors grew louder. Hannah would forever associate that particular sound with Alaskan nights. It heralded their arrival. She worried about arriving in the dark and cold. The plane felt warm and safe. She wanted to stay. Her mother hustled about getting their bags out of bins and shaking Hannah’s father awake. They clattered down the plane stairs and hurried across the cold landing area to the airport, if you could call it that. Small and utilitarian, the baggage area held about ten bags slid through by hand. There was one car rental place, staffed even past midnight.

Hannah remembered sitting in the car as they rolled slowly out of the parking lot. She heard the distinct sound of tires rolling over snow packed roads. Hannah’s memories of the rest of the night were vague. She recalled being covered in a heavy quilt some time later and then awakening to bright sun. Twenty-two years later, she remembered her first look out the window. She’d stared out at the mountains they’d flown over in the dark. Snow covered peaks stood stark against a bright blue sky. Deep green spruce trees dusted with snow were scattered across the view. Sun shone against the ocean bay, and Hannah had watched the wind whip waves along the water.

Hannah sighed and looked out of her apartment window. She was probably 4000 miles, give or take, away from Alaska. Her view here was of a coffee shop across the street. She lived in a small town in Western Massachusetts. The town’s main street was picturesque in its quaint charm, but it lacked the wild sense of Spruce Creek. After arriving in Spruce Creek, her parents had remained there, so the rest of Hannah’s childhood was spent in Alaska. Graduate school led her to Massachusetts. Just as she was finishing up her degree, the news came that her parents had died in a plane crash in rural Alaska. That was 6 years prior, and Hannah had yet to return to Alaska.

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

22 Comments

  1. Willa
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 06:07:41

    I enjoyed your voice and the words flowed – but for me there was no hook. Nothing there that made me curious and want to turn the page . . . it is just a large chunk of descriptive backstory.

    All I know is that Hannah lived in Alaska, loved it but doesn’t now.

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  2. Katie
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 06:30:55

    the writing is good but you are starting the story at the wrong point. Editors don’t like to read openings with characters thinking. You can weave in all the back story as you go.

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  3. Cara Ellison
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 07:01:37

    The first para was quite nice – if a bit too long. There is only so much we need to know about what she is missing, since we know nothing else about the heroine. However, you lost me at the second para. I have no idea who Hannah is – why would I care about the night she arrived in Alaska? This is 100% backstory, and though the writing is quite nice, it’s not what you need to start your story. Give me some action, some verbs. I have to agree with both the commenters above. Keep working on it.

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  4. Alyson
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 07:25:34

    All of your sentences have the same structure, making this sound very stilted: Hannah did this. Hannah saw that. Hannah watched this. The plane did this. The runway did that.

    Agreeing with the other posters: there’s nothing happening here, just an enormous chunk of backstory. I thought the last paragraph might be a better beginning, but it’s veering off into unnecessary backstory again with the information about her graduate school and parents. At this point, I don’t care at all about Hannah and wouldn’t turn the page.

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  5. Kate Sherwood
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 07:52:42

    Sorry, but I’m another vote for Too Much Backstory. Until I care about the character, I don’t care about her background. And even after I care about her, I’d still prefer that the backstory be snuck in as needed, not dumped all at once.

    I’ve just finished re-reading some Austen, and standards were obviously different back then. But you’re writing now, and modern readers want to get to the main course, not sample the appetizers.

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  6. Lil
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 07:55:35

    What everyone else said.

    You pick out some nice details, but there are too many of them. A scene, no matter how vivid, isn’t enough. I need a person to care about or at least intrigue me, but I get no sense of Hannah as a person.

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  7. theo
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 08:31:11

    I’m sorry, but this would be a book I’d set back on the shelf. Though your descriptions of Alaska are lovely, the first para reads like a checklist.
    Cool windy days, walks along the beach, scattered rocks, lava stones, seaweed and starfish, seals and otters, her dog, fuchsia of fireweed come fall…and on and on. Fine to fit it in here and there, but I’m not reading a travelogue. I’m reading romance.

    I also have no doubt who the main subject is in the second para. You use Hannah’s name every second or third sentence even though she is the focus of the para. Trust your reader to know who you’re talking about.

    I know those sound nitpicky, (and that should be a word, nitpicky ;) ) but readers will see that and put the book down. And it seems to be an inherent flaw in this entire section.

    The other thing, I have no sense of who Hannah is. She likes Alaska, the different seasons, the wildlife. She had an abrupt introduction to it and now lives 4000 miles away. That can apply to your Hn or a serial killer. I have no idea which is which here. No sense of your character or where this is going or what you, or your character, are trying to accomplish.

    Kudos for putting it out there and good luck, but this would be a pass for me.

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  8. Anne
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 09:14:22

    Unlike most others I like both descriptions and (well-done) backstory, even at the start of a book. The first paragraph went fine, but with your repetitive Hannah-this and Hannah-that you lost me and I started skimming.

    Try to get the rest of the description and backstory as intriguing and diverse as the first paragraph, and yes, shorten it considerably.

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  9. Lynne Connolly
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 09:36:24

    it’s nice, but that’s it.
    First, you’ve told the reader everything she needs to know about Hannah. There’s no mystery, and no tension.
    second, the descriptions are “static.” Make the surroundings interact with Hannah. Make it more vivid. Perhaps she met someone in that landscape.
    Slice and slice, but you can put a lot of this in the narrative later on. So slice and save. First, make the reader care about Hannah, start the story faster, then you can drip in bits of information.
    Don’t start the story, get the reader all excited and then stop everything for pages of backstory, either. That’s even more frustrating that starting the story with backstory.

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  10. Avery Shy
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 09:54:14

    I’m one of those rare readers who enjoy starting with backstory. But, it’s much too long here. You underestimate what a few well-chosen sentences can do, rather than several paragraphs.

    It’s the writing style that would make me put it down. Every sentence has the same structure; it’s like reading a bulleted list in paragraph form, and it makes for a monotone voice.

    Methinks your opening paragraph would be better if it were something like this:

    “This was what Hannah missed. Cool windy days on the beach, seals and otters spying from the shore as she walked with her dog. The fuchsia of fireweed come fall. Termination dust, the first snow to coat the mountains. Northern lights making a show late in the night. The curious quiet of winter, the muted crunch of snow under boots; the bite of cold and breath of wood smoke.”

    Throw some commas or semicolons in to combine some sentences, mix up the structure. Pick and choose what descriptions you want to keep, and cut the rest. Some of your description is composed of cliches. Other bits are original and vivid. Cut the cliches, adn cut adjectives. Colors always dance across a backdrop; stars are always bright (I like ‘bare’, though, very evocative); winter air always bites; moonlight shining on anything at all sounds a little trite.

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  11. Hannah E.
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 10:28:21

    My eyes glazed over after the second paragraph. They probably would have glazed over after the first paragraph, except that my interest was momentarily caught by the fact that the character is another Hannah from North Carolina. However, there is too much introspection and background information here. I don’t want Hannah’s life story on the first page. I need to know why I should care about her first. And you don’t need to repeat the heroine’s name quite so often. We know who you’re talking about; she’s the only character who’s been introduced so far.

    I agree with Alyson that you need to vary the structure of your sentences a bit more. The writing has a slightly plodding feel to it.

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  12. reader
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 12:47:17

    I will chime in with the other commenters. Start where things change for your character, but start with the change, not with the reminiscing. That can come later and I agree that you should save all this description to weave into your story later on, after Hannah’s reminiscing becomes important to the reader.
    But do save the description. That is the wow factor in your writing, so far. You have a real way with vivid imagery that makes me feel like I’m there. It reminds me of L.M. Montgomery’s way with landscape description; and I consider hers exquisite.

    One other thing: I’m not quite buying that an eight-year-old would be offended by the presence of a McDonalds, no matter where it was. :) (Unless she’s an exceptionally sensitive and mature eight-year-old. In that case, okay.)

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  13. Jacques
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 13:40:56

    @Kate Sherwood: I don’t think it’s standards that changed. It’s readers. As readers we have no patience for exposition. I wonder why. Too much video game playing? Or movies? In the movies, you wouldn’t tolerate 5 minutes of backstory at the beginning. Or would you? Think about the first Star Wars movie–how many people are bored silly before the backstory scrolling across the screen is over? People put up with it in 1977 because it looked cool, I suppose. It doesn’t look so cool anymore.

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  14. Julia
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 14:04:53

    @reader: I was going to say the same thing about McDonalds and eight year olds. At eight I would have been wondering if I could convince mom and dad to stop on the way home and what toy came with my mighty kids meal :)

    I agree with what everyone says about the backstory. I think that could be going somewhere interesting, I just can’t see any of it yet. I do like the voice, but I just need to get invested in Hannah.

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  15. Pharmer
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 14:29:51

    Hi – and thanks for sharing.

    You’re jumping between past and present tense here. It sounds odd:

    “Hannah recalled the night she arrived in Alaska well. She was 8 and wide awake despite having flown for over 12 hours from North Carolina. The lights of the town glittered ahead in the dark sky. Hannah leaned her forehead against the plane window and watched as the black night gradually filled with tiny lights.

    Also, if your opening sentence had said “Hannah missed Alaska.” the rest of the paragraph would have made better sense to me. My first impression was that Hannah missed cool windy days in summer – (associated walks on the beach, etc) – so I wondered why she was thinking about termination dust and snow and stuff. (Might be just me.)

    ‘Hannah missed Alaska’ clearly sets the scene for the following descriptions – otherwise it sounds like Hannah’s having random thoughts.

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  16. Bren
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 15:44:46

    I pretty much agree with all of the above. Too much introspection for the first page of a novel. Something *is* happening here… a plane is landing, bringing our heroine back to a place in her past. But all we have is physical description, no emotional hook. No specific memories. No stakes for the character that would make a reader want to read on.

    Your voice is lovely but this page has almost NO whitespace. Whitespace is almost as important as the printed words. Break it up. Keep those lovely setting descriptions and instead of rattling them off into a large chunk of paragraph, intertwine them with dialogue, thought, action, imagery.

    You can write. Just find the right starting point for your story.

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  17. Arwen
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 16:47:48

    Lovely writing and great description. Now take a scalpel and cut it down by at least half. Hate to dogpile, but far too much backstory. I needed to know more sooner.

    I felt cheated by the airplane that wasn’t. You put me back then yanked me forward. It does not make me want to read more. :D I’m in a plane. I’m in an apartment. Don’t make me motion sick.

    Again! Your descriptive talents are fabulous. Just less. :D Think of that as the color of the story. Right now you are letting the descriptions and scene setting be the fabric of your story. That needs to be the accents instead.

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  18. Cervenka
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 16:51:46

    @Pharmer: You lost me. I don’t see any present tense in this excerpt. There’s a lack of past perfect, which bothers me because there’s so much backstory it’s difficult to tell what is “adult Hannah” narrative and what is “child Hannah” narrative (meaning I have no idea whatsoever when or how she ended up in Massachusetts, and I gotta say, I’ve been no reason to care), but there isn’t any present tense there.

    Author: This is backstory dump, and it’s confusing. The first paragraph tells me she’s in Alaska. The last paragraph tells me she isn’t. That’s when the book goes back and the shelf and I look for something else instead.

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  19. Pharmer
    Aug 18, 2012 @ 19:41:35

    @Cervenka. Whoops. You’re right. Thank you.

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  20. Kate Sherwood
    Aug 19, 2012 @ 08:09:40

    @Jacques:

    Well, I’d say readers determine the standards, so… I agree, readers have changed!

    But I’m not sure movies are the right example with which to prove the point. Screenwriting generally allows quite a bit longer to set up a situation before getting to the main crisis of the story. Not generally in written format, like Star Wars (!), but visually.

    The last movie I saw was Magic Mike (I know, I know), and I was bored silly with the first ten minutes of “set-up” – Mike driving around, going to work, arguing with his boss – who cared? But the movie’s making money. Possibly for reasons other than the first ten minutes, I grant you.

    But it’s fairly rare for a movie to actually START with a bang. Apparently audiences can be more patient with a movie, but want their books to get going faster.

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  21. Author of today's first page
    Aug 19, 2012 @ 11:06:37

    A heartfelt thank you to Dear Author for providing writers the opportunity to anonymously post first pages and to those who took the time to read and provide thoughtful feedback on my writing. Thank you for both the support and much appreciated critical feedback. Somehow everyone gave me enough nerve to keep trying, along with enough suggestions and guidance to actually help my writing.

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  22. Meoskop
    Aug 19, 2012 @ 21:28:45

    I want to add that I thought Hannah was dead. Like, ghost dead, from the opening.

    ReplyReply

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