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First Page: Unpublished manuscript

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“Hey, Anna, do you want the good news or the bad news?”

“Hold on a minute, Jen.” Anna Richards dropped her sports bag on the hall floor, struggled out of her red jacket, and hung it on the wooden coat rack. After pausing for a moment in front of the mirror to fasten back strands of her dark hair into her ponytail scrunchy, she went along the passageway to the large kitchen. “Okay, I need some good news, so start with that.”

Her housemate Jenny looked round from stirring a pan of what smelt like Bolognese. “We have a possible, albeit temporary, occupant for the top floor apartment.”

“Well, temporary is better than none, isn’t it?” She sat down on one of the chrome and black plastic kitchen stools. “But before you tell me more about that, what’s the bad news? Did the drains get blocked again? Or did we forget to pay the gas bill?”

“Neither. At least, not as far as I know. The bad news—for you, anyway—is about the new tenant, so I haven’t said a definite yes yet.”

Anna frowned. “Why not? What’s the problem?”

“Not a problem for me, but it’s your new Deputy Head.”

“What?”

“I kind of expected that reaction from you.”

“Jenny, you’re not serious?” She had to make a conscious effort to lift her lower jaw. “Deputy Head? Mr. – oh heavens, I’ve even forgotten his name. Carter, I think.”

“Steve didn’t mention the name. He called earlier to tell me his estate agent friend said the new Deputy at Southgate High was looking for some temporary accommodation for the first few weeks of next term. He’s bought one of those new apartments near the park, but it’s not ready yet. Have you met him?”

“No, I was on a course in Maidstone when he came to visit the school one day last term. Does Steve know anything more about him?”

Jenny gave the pan another stir and turned the gas flame down low. “I don’t think so. He only called because he knows we’ve been looking for another tenant ever since Karl left last December.”

Anna nodded. “Yeah. Even though it’s been great to have the place to ourselves, it would be good to have someone else to share the bills. Much as I love this big old house of yours, it’s the very devil to keep warm, isn’t it? That last heating bill took a huge chunk out of my salary.”

“Mine too. So you don’t mind if it’s your Deputy?”

She blew out her breath. “It might be a bit weird, but I suppose I can cope if it’s only for a few weeks, as long as he doesn’t want to talk shop the whole time, or thinks I should be doing schoolwork every evening.” After a brief pause, she went on. “Neil met him when he visited school, so I’ll call him and see what I can find out. Then we can make a decision.” She felt in the back pocket of her jeans. “Hang on, I’ve left my phone in my jacket.”

She slid off the stool and headed for the kitchen door.

Jenny’s voice stopped her. “Why not invite Neil for some spag. bol with us tonight, so we can shoot questions at him?”

She turned. “C’mon, Jen, you know I’m trying to cool things between Neil and me.”

“So why do you still play badminton with him?”

“That’s only when we’re playing a match with some of the other staff, like this afternoon.” She paused and sighed. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s a nice guy, but—”


Editorial note from Jane.
Please DO NOT make the comment wondering about whether the English is the author’s primary language in critiquing these posts.

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

21 Comments

  1. Lia
    Dec 22, 2012 @ 04:13:56

    To be blunt, I am not sure if I would continue reading this. Probably not.

    Your first sentence is good, as it grabs attention, but then I cannot help but feeling that a love triangle between Anna, her Deputy Teacher and Neill is set up, all on the first page. This might not be the case, but since the suggestion is already there I am not sure if I would want to continue reading after this first page.

    I find it more intriguing to find out why Anna is craving some good news…

    Based on the first page, I could not really warm up this. I think you should definitely do some restructuring and write a first page that is intriguing, but that does not give me the feeling that I can define the plot straight from the first page.

  2. Katie T.
    Dec 22, 2012 @ 05:07:18

    There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just really really boring. I wasn’t hooked at all. And if you’re intending to write to an American audience, I wouldn’t use phrases like spag bol, as most Americans don’t know it means spaghetti bolognese.

  3. a lurker
    Dec 22, 2012 @ 07:14:25

    You have two characters sitting around doing mundane things and talking about the situation. You need to start in the situation, not where they’re just sitting around talking about it.

  4. Violetta Vane
    Dec 22, 2012 @ 07:58:05

    Pros:

    Realistic dialogue. People actually sound like real human beings with natural speech patterns. This is sadly very rare.

    Cons:

    You’re dropping waaaaaaay too many facts and names and relationships without giving the reader a reason why they should care. It’s an infodump in the form of dialogue. And on a technical level, the dialogue doesn’t have any emotional color. It’s just dialogue with a little bit of motion and body language.

    Also, I’m not situated. I have no sense of place. What country are we in? What time of day? What’s the temperature? How does all of this affect the dialogue and the people speaking?

    My suggestion would be to rewrite, using dialogue as a skeleton but making sure to 1) never introduce a name or fact without giving the reader at least ONE reason why they should care. This is why it’s always better to start off at an intensely emotional, conflict-ridden, low-information moment. 2) situate the dialogue so the reader has a sense of place and time 3) make sure the dialogue has emotional color and emotional stakes. 4) Add humor to the dialogue.

    Good luck and good for you for submitting!

  5. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 22, 2012 @ 08:18:09

    You’ve started in the wrong place. Start when the story starts, when the gorgeous deputy head walks through the door. This scene is easily incorporated in a sentence of backstory. “When she’d reluctantly agreed that the new deputy head should lodge with them until his flat was ready, she hadn’t imagined that…”
    I’m against backstory as a rule, but a sentence here and there, once you’ve hooked the reader, doesn’t come amiss. When the reader is asking “How didn’t she know?” or “Who is this man?” is the time to drop in the occasional factoid.
    The conversation is great, I believe in these two and they are interesting me, so I’d probably read on.
    There are far too many details, but the first one that hit me was the description of the kitchen chairs. That’s something your pov character would take for granted, best left until the hero makes an appearance.
    Is this aimed at one of the Brit Harlequin lines, like Presents/Modern? Because the tone is right, although for Presents, the hero would have to be a millionaire!

  6. SAO
    Dec 22, 2012 @ 08:18:53

    This is two chars talking about what’s about to happen. Sorry, but it’s a nicely written yawn. Why? Because nothing is happening, we don’t get to know the characters. They could be any two housemates discussing a new tenant. It’s tough to show character without conflict or a bucketload of telling. I second Lurker, you need to start where the story starts.

    “You want the good news or the bad news?” is okay as an opening line (except for the unattributed dialogue to start), but the good news is mundane and the bad news not that exciting, since there’s no current conflict between Anna and Deputy. So, what you are promising me is more mundane details about what’s for dinner and what soon-to-be-ex Neill has to say about Deputy before we actually get to meet the guy whom I suspect is the hero of your book. All the name dropping (Steve, Karl, Jenny, Neill) makes me think your book will be full of friends getting together to discuss what might happen in the next chapter, rather than getting on with the plot.

    Start with whatever conflict you have been Anna and Deputy.

  7. Courtney Milan
    Dec 22, 2012 @ 09:01:04

    I agree with others that this story doesn’t feel as if it’s starting in the right place. You’re telling us why the story is about to start, and you don’t need to do that.

    I want to add that I think one of the things that makes it hard for me to attach myself to the story here is the complete lack of orienting details. I don’t think you need to delete references to “spag bol,” but I do think you need to orient readers to where you are faster–otherwise things like “estate agent” will make readers wonder whether you are pulling an E.L. James and writing a book ostensibly set in the U.S. but larded with Britishisms.

    Right now, this is a conversation between two voices in a disembodied kitchen. You do give some details, but none of them set the larger scene. You mention that she’s shedding a red jacket, but notice what you’re doing–you’re describing something just before it drops off scene. No description of her housemate. Almost no description of the house. And the description there is is disconnected with the narrative in a way that makes it feel offhand and irrelevant.

    Think of the details of this house that might add into the story you’re telling: the roar of the furnace (God, how expensive is that bill going to be this month?), the gray sky through the windows–looks like snow–the cheery atmosphere in the kitchen. Is she cold coming in from outside? Maybe she can get closer to the stove and inhale the spaghetti bolognese, and that can remind her of how lovely it is to be able to share a house with her best friend.

    You should use description as a tool to layer in the elements of the story–fears, worries, needs–as well as to fill out the scene in the reader’s eye. Right now, your description is perfunctory–a mention here and there of hands touching stoves, all of the description flat–red, wooden, back pocket–without any tones of emotional experience.

    You’re describing what happens. You should be trying to describe the experience of being in that house–the emotional experience, the feelings of being home, of being with a friend, of having a few financial worries–using the things in the house as tools to orient the reader to the main character’s emotional state.

  8. Karenna Colcroft
    Dec 22, 2012 @ 09:15:19

    I have to admit I got tripped up by “Deputy Head.” Thinking as an American, I was imagining a sheriff’s deputy *named* “Head”. Even when the mention of the school was made, I was thinking it was a sheriff’s deputy who’d been assigned to patrol a local high school, something pretty common here. I’m not sure what a “Deputy Head” is, though I’m guessing something similar to a “vice principal” here.

    Another thing that tripped me up was the consistent capitalization of Deputy Head; I think (grammar folks, correct me if I’m wrong) that if you’re using it as a title which substitutes for the person’s name, it’s capitalized, but in a phrase like “your deputy” it should be lower-case.

    I like the dialogue between the two characters, but the several names that are thrown into the conversation were a bit distracting and confusing to me.

  9. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 22, 2012 @ 09:23:47

    I did think the Brit references were quite clear, but perhaps not. Deputy Head, Maidstone, spag bol are very distinctive. I didn’t feel that it was too vague. Those things helped to orientate me, (orient = American use), it said “comfortable middle class,” in cultural terms. Capitalisation is done like this in British English. When you refer to a specific person, then it’s capitalised, be it Deputy Head, the Earl, or the Prime Minister. In US English, it’s lower case. Got a bit of getting used to, when I started writing American grammar and conventions!

  10. Karenna Colcroft
    Dec 22, 2012 @ 10:18:31

    Thanks for clarifying, Lynne. I think part of the reason “Deputy Head” tripped me up was because I didn’t immediately recognize it as a British term; nothing in the preceding part of the piece gave me enough information to recognize that we were in the UK instead of the US, unless I just wasn’t reading carefully enough. Since “deputy” has a meaning in US English as well, it confused me until I read further down the page and realized we were likely in a different country.

  11. Avery Shy
    Dec 22, 2012 @ 10:45:33

    This is one of those situations where I’d keep reading, but only for another page or two. You are a proficient writer. You have made no awful mistakes. I’m willing to give you a shot. Good job.

    That means we can move on to real problems: the subject matter.

    This is a terribly boring scene. It does introduce a key conflict, and that’s excellent. HOWEVER, you could do it in a more interesting way. IE, he comes to see the apartment. Two people sitting around talking about something is not the way to start a novel, period. Think of another way.

    One thing I did like was Neil. :) So she has a Nice Guy friend who is relentlessly pursuing her uninterested self, hm? You either have a very cliche love triangle coming up, or a very original villain. Here’s hoping Nice Guy gets kicked in the face. ;)

  12. Lori
    Dec 22, 2012 @ 13:23:24

    There might be a perfectly servicable romance coming but this introduction doesn’t make me want to continue reading to find out. Two people talking and not doing anything except filling me in on back story is a snooze.

    Echoing everyone else: start somewhere else.

  13. Angela Booth
    Dec 22, 2012 @ 18:04:12

    Smooth writing; I liked it, so kudos for that. I also liked your characters too, they have potential.

    Basically, I second what everyone else said: this is a “nothing” scene. Nothing happens. You don’t need to waste a scene on this, especially not the opening scene of your book.

    Generally speaking, add some emotion. There’s always conflict between housemates. You’ve got Anna and Jen getting on with each other far too well. “Not spaghetti again. That’s the third time this week” etc. Map out smaller and larger conflicts between all your characters. What about Jen and Neil? Does Jen have a thing for Neil? Does Anna know?

    Once you know what all the characters love and dislike about each other, that will make your dialog much more interesting.

  14. Irish Lass
    Dec 22, 2012 @ 19:13:29

    Greetings, fellow writer, and a tip of the hat to your bravery for posting this. Everyone here have offered many valuable insights – add setting details to ground the reader, add conflict, start in a different place.

    Hoo-kay, I’m in general consensus, but I must say, your dialogue sparkles, and yes, it’s not about spying a rock star or Prince William at the market, but I still track with it. Your writing is effortless to read, and that’s a huge plus. Clarity is so important. When readers struggle to understand what’s going on, that’s when the novel gets pitched aside.

    Your ability to write natural dialogue will be a definite asset in your fiction career. My personal belief is that the bestselling authors have a mastery of dialogue, and snappy, hot, witty dialogue is what contributes (massively) to sexual tension. I do think the dialogue in your opening veers on an information dump, yet I don’t have major objections. For me, and again, this is my mere opinion – it’s an issue of conflict. If your heroine, your lead, showed some semblance of GMC, (goal-motivation-conflict) – if we knew what was crucial to her – I believe you’d naturally trim back on the dialogue that’s a bit info-dumpish and get to the meat of the story.

    Perhaps you make the situation regarding the old house more dire. Perhaps her roommate is a shopaholic and spends too much, so that the heroine must make up the difference, or it’s vice versa. Maybe the roommates are very close, but their financial situation is putting a strain on the relationship. Perhaps your heroine is short on cash because she’s helping her elderly grandmother, or worse, she has a secret gambling addiction that her roommate either knows about (and won’t talk about it), or doesn’t know about. Maybe there are budget cuts at the school, etc.

    There should be a problem hinted at, a conflict, external and internal. And you won’t have to pound us over the head with it, won’t have to overly explain it. Make it a bit of mystery, have the reader questioning it, as in, “Why is she doing this? I must find out more. Who is this mystery Deputy Head (vice principal at her school, then?) – couldn’t he have some horrible reputation as a taskmaster or something that precedes his actual entrance, to make us anticipate even more conflict?

    Again, season the opening with a mystery or two, a burning question. Don’t over-pepper it with details, lightly salt, have your reader craving more. Sprinkle it in naturally, hint at conflicts, (hers – internal, external) – does not have to be overkill. You’ve got a natural feel for pacing, at least, to me, it seems you do.

    Add two sentences about the setting and how it affects her. Maybe she is looking outside her window, at the street, as she is taking off her coat. What time of year is it? Cold wintry, or a brisk autumn? Sounds like it’s winter, if they’re worried about the heating bill. Maybe you make it one of the worst winters ever or something… a problem that has an impact to their home, that is a potential threat.

    I just watched a “House Hunters International” with a young couple shopping around for a flat in England, very charming, and interesting, all the Brit references. I knew instantly your characters were English, and figured the Deputy Head had to do with school, (right?) – but as a few folks pointed out here, adding a quick explanation would help. So many of us fell in love with Bridget Jones and tracked with her Brit references.

    Any-hoo, many wonderful suggestions here, you have a fluid style, great ear for dialogue, deepen the conflict, give her a burning goal… and I think you could keep this opening, just trim it back a bit. Conflict and strife are critical to becoming a page-turner. As James Scott Bell writes, “Don’t write about Happy People in Happy Town. Write about an immediate problem.”

    Best of luck to you, I hope you find my advice constructive.

  15. Bren
    Dec 22, 2012 @ 21:56:42

    The only thing I wish to add to the comments above is to watch your “As You Know, Bob” tendencies. There are a number of instances in this conversation where they tell each other things that they already know.

    For example:
    Yeah. Even though it’s been great to have the place to ourselves, it would be good to have someone else to share the bills. Much as I love this big old house of yours, it’s the very devil to keep warm, isn’t it? That last heating bill took a huge chunk out of my salary.”

    and…

    She turned. “C’mon, Jen, you know I’m trying to cool things between Neil and me.”

    “So why do you still play badminton with him?”

    “That’s only when we’re playing a match with some of the other staff, like this afternoon.” She paused and sighed. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s a nice guy, but—”

    Be careful when trying to unfold backstory in this way. Conversations are great for giving the reader info but never have them discuss things they both already know.

  16. Ros
    Dec 22, 2012 @ 22:28:04

    So, I used to live in Southgate and also at one point, not far from Maidstone. I had no trouble with spag bol. Not all readers are American and not all writers have to be either.

    I did have some issues with your dialogue and I agree with others that this probably isn’t the right place to start your story. But I’d totally read it, because of the setting alone. Looking forward to seeing some local landmarks make an appearance!

  17. AlexaB
    Dec 23, 2012 @ 00:17:16

    @ Author:

    You’ve already received some very good comments. My only addition is that when you start a book with “Hold on” followed by the heroine faffing around and stopping the story action cold – as a reader I, too, hold on and put down the book.

    Don’t give me an invitation to put down the book!

    I easily picked up that the book was set in the UK , but I lived there.

    I hope you keep writing. You have all the basics down; now it’s a matter of refining description, characterization, and deciding the best place to start your story.

  18. From the Author
    Dec 23, 2012 @ 02:44:21

    Many thanks for all your comments, and thank you to all those who took the time to give me some positive feedback and/or constructive suggestions.
    You may be interested to know that, after submitting this first page to Dear Author, I submitted the book to a publisher. It has been accepted and will be published next year. It will be my ninth published romance novel – so I must be doing something right :-)

  19. Irish Lass
    Dec 23, 2012 @ 09:02:27

    Hi — thanks for providing a follow-up, and congratulations. Yes, you’re assuredly doing something right if this is your ninth published novel. Humbling to know that.

    I think so many of us aspiring authors, having taken our various online courses and swapping chapters for critique, start to look at things too clinically, we begin to dissect something and pick it apart, (examples): is this deep POV enough? Does it have GMC? Is the scene imperative to the plot? (etc., etc.) — and we can lose sight of what makes an enjoyable, effortless reading experience. I purchased a book by Francine Prose, “Reading Like a Writer,” explained as a “guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them.” Hoping this will provide me with further insights.

    At our RWA chapter recently, a seasoned published author brought in her chapter to be critiqued and wow — fabulous and humbling. What was most interesting, was a segment in her book that really did nothing to advance the plot, yet revealed the main character’s humanity, his compassion. The author kept it in, even though it could have been scrapped. Thing is, I responded to that portion as strongly as anything else in her chapters, and loved it. I was glad she kept it in.

    What I also appreciated, was that she brought her chapter in for critique, humbling herself as well as humbling us.

    All of us continually learn. I will never be “perfect” as a writer or as a human being.

    Margie Lawson is a popular online writing instructor, and once shared that she spied NYT bestselling authors carefully listening to How-To presentations and said, “We’re always learning.”

    When I attended art school, I was struck by how the arrogant, talented kids tended to stagnate. They started out as WOW! talents and didn’t have a wide arc, their work stayed about the same. Other art students who weren’t regarded as stars wound up surprising everyone, having wonderful portfolios at the end of their four-year education (and beyond). It’s also true that people can be arrogant and wildly talented — it’s just that you don’t count on that person ever helping you if your car breaks down. That kind of person would blow past you in his or her sports car… whereas a more generous soul (who could also be wildly talented) would stop and help. For me, it’s about being productive and a mensch… and offering an opinion as humbly as I can, and owning it — that’s all it is, my opinion, not advice from Zeus.

    Also… can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people remark, “so and so bestselling author breaks all the rules of storytelling.” That’s very true, it’s because they’ve got skill and once you’ve acquired advanced skills, you can violate a couple of rules. The basics are still there, but “Rule A” may not be essential.

    It’s all a matter of personal taste, too. Some people like paranormals, some like historicals, some like contemporary romances. Different settings, characters, etc. Some readers need the immediate adrenaline rush of action, others like a quieter start. Look at art — music. There is Mozart, there is Guns and Roses. There is Matisse, there is Caravaggio. Some authors transcend their genre and appeal to a wide reader base, others find a niche.

    I enjoyed your writing a lot! Best of luck to your continued success as an author.

  20. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 23, 2012 @ 10:23:32

    Congrats, author! I’ve had 50-odd books published, and I’m still learning. It’s a bit like Thom Yorke said, “We keep doing new songs because we’re not dead yet.” It’s really interesting to get an anonymous crit, and sometimes a complete rethink is needed. I put a page up here once because I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t work out why, and the people here really put me right. Very grateful for their help.

  21. Author
    Dec 23, 2012 @ 10:50:42

    I agree completely about always being willing to learn, and I have taken on board some of the very useful and valuable comments made here. Thank you, all.

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