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First Page: Untitled Manuscript Fiction

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Clara Sofia Rogers never imagined that taking 18 days off to travel to Roatán, Honduras with her boyfriend would be the shove she needed to acknowledge that she no longer had much desire to be a ballerina.

She didn’t miss it, not one little bit.

Lying on the white sand beach of their resort’s private island in a bikini, oversized sunglasses and enough sunscreen to protect an albino, she sipped her margarita and looked out at the clear, turquoise ocean, wondering how Travis ever left at the end of 18 days.

Of course, he traveled there to work, not to play, so he probably didn’t experience the same level of relaxation.

Glancing down at her battered toes, she expected they liked the change of pace.

Sighing as she carefully placed her drink in the sand beside her, she silently lamented that her vacation was almost over. Not that she could really complain. For 16 days she had escaped her reality, eating foods off her typical diet, exercising for only an hour a day, spending the majority of her time lazing on the beautiful white sand beach, and one very memorable day playing with dolphins. The following day, Travis promised to find time to go on the glass bottom boat tour with her, but given his penchant for reneging at the last minute, she wasn’t about to hold her breath.

Sadly, since all of her energy went toward training, she also had not learned how to snorkel before going to Honduras, and she heard from several people she encountered on the beach that there was some pretty fantastic snorkeling on their island, including a wrecked ship that she would have loved to explore.

It occurred to her, while talking to that middle-aged snorkeler with the hairy belly, that she was wasting her life.

Clara sighed, a little bit of dread weighing on her shoulders, and then she reached over and dug her cell phone out of her canvas bag and swiped her finger across it a few times until it was ringing.

A few rings later, her best friend Leslie answered brightly, “Hey, how’s the beach?”

“Fantastic. I’m literally lying here by the ocean sunbathing and sipping a margarita. I’m pretty sure Jimmy Buffet is going to stop by any minute now.”

“Sunbathing?” she reiterated, and Clara could practically hear her grimace.

“I’m wearing sunscreen, Mom,” Clara said mockingly.

“I should hope so. I can’t even imagine you tan. You’re as pale as a ghost; you’ll come home with sun poisoning as a souvenir.”

“You think I’m pale at home, you should see me on this beach,” Clara stated. “It’s likely a few people assume I am a ghost.”

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

12 Comments

  1. Lynne Connolly
    Jun 21, 2014 @ 06:58:22

    At last! Something that isn’t in the first person or present tense! Not that I don’t like them, but-okay, present tense turns me off.
    This is competently written, but on this first page – nothing happens. She’s decided to make a change, gone on holiday – meh. So why should I, a reader who doesn’t know this character or you, read on?
    The First Page check is important for a reason. You’re losing readers if you don’t sink those hooks in on the first page.
    Cut the backstory. Where you can, integrate the backstory with the action. For instance, instead of having her gaze at her battered toes, get another character to notice them and say, “Wow, your feet are in a bad way” to which she says, “I used to be a ballerina.”
    Which puts question in the character’s mind. Why isn’t she a ballerina any more? Don’t answer it yet, because you don’t need to. Setting everything out upfront doesn’t add hooks. But don’t build up artificial tension. Let the information go when it feels right.
    Cut all the backstory that you can. All you need is to say is that she’s on a beach. Do as few sensory sentences to set the scene, such as curling her battered toes into the hot sand, adjusting her sunglasses against the harsh light. Is Travis important to the story? If not, ditch him. If he is, another sentence. “She didn’t even feel as sorry as she should about Travis leaving.”
    The rest should unfold with the story. That frees up your first page to make something happen.

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  2. Carol McKenzie
    Jun 21, 2014 @ 07:54:18

    I agree with Lynne; this reads like a letter home reciting what someone did on their summer vacation. While I’m sure the person on vacation enjoyed every minute, it’s not so interesting for the reader.

    Find the place where something happens to this character and start your story there. Weave the backstory in to the story, giving us what we need to know without spending valuable first page real estate telling us stuff that’s not all that exciting.

    As far as the writing, it’s good. You might want to get rid of the adverbs: brightly, mockingly. You can write to show us those things without using adverbs. It will make your writing stronger if you learn to write without them.

    There’s one section that’s a bit confusing, the bit about snorkeling. To be honest, I was skimming by then (not a good sign) and it took me a few tries to realize the comment about wasting her life was meant to have been before she went on vacation, not while she was on vacation.

    So, find some action, something to draw us in to your story, something that gives us an idea who your MC is. All i know is she’s a ballerina, or former ballerina, and she’s got a boyfriend. Other than that, there’s nothing that connects me with her, so there’s no reason for me to care about what happens to her.

    All that’s an easy fix.

    Thanks for sharing and good luck!

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  3. Anna Richland
    Jun 21, 2014 @ 10:19:45

    You’re super-close to nailing it. Just want to put that up front – I’ve judged a lot of contests, and you don’t have the technical problems that are frequent, and I can sense some of the conflicts coming, so I think you probably have a lot of good stuff in your book.

    But … I agree with Lynne and Carol that this first page isn’t the beginning.

    A long time ago a very wise author (unfortunately I forget who!) gave me excellent advice. Never end a chapter with the characters going to sleep, because the reader is probably reading at night after a long day, and if the character goes to sleep at the end of a chapter it will remind the reader that she too should go to sleep and the end of a chapter is a natural point to do it. That really clicked with me at the time. I see a parallel here – your book is opening with the character resting, relaxing, doing nothing but thinking – and yet the character is feeling a little bit guilty about doing nothing b/c she’s always so busy with her career – a familiar feeling to readers! Don’t give them that feeling – they want escapism, not a reminder that they don’t have time to relax in real life.

    So where’s the dramatic beginning? Is she trying snorkeling but doesn’t know how and gets in trouble? Is she ill with a terrible burn and a hunky ER doc helps her? Is she shopping for a cover up so she can go walk around, and her wallet is stolen? Is it when a hunk steps up to her, casts a shadow and she opens her eyes … and it’s not her boyfriend? The thing that happens should happen right away. Because if she’s sleeping/thinking on the beach, the reader’s going to sleep/drift too.

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  4. hapax
    Jun 21, 2014 @ 10:54:35

    I know it makes me a minority, but I don’t mind a story that has minor characters or doesn’t have immediate CONFLICT! on the first page. My taste is for more character-driven than plot-driven stories, and as long as the front page is building a character, that’s fine with me — if I like the character, that is.

    And I rather liked Clara. I could relate to her slowly letting go of a stressful life, and am curious to find out what she *does* want to do (besides lie on the beach sipping margaritas, that is.)

    A small thing, but I have friends who dance and none of them would think “I’m a ballerina.”

    Most likely, they would think “I dance”, or perhaps “I’m a dancer”; if they danced ballet exclusively, they might think, “I dance ballet.”

    Of course, that’s only anecdata, but it still threw me out of the story.

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  5. theo
    Jun 21, 2014 @ 18:02:04

    From your description of the boyfriend and the traveling he does for work, I’m thinking this woman is over 21. If so, how is it she’s still training hours upon hours every day? By they time a ballet dancer is 19 or 20, if she’s any good, she’s in a company, working full time, training with the other members, she has a life! This person has none except that she trains. I’d rather be lying on a beach too.

    What I’m trying to say is, I can lay on the beach and think the same way your character is. Anyone passing by who asks would be bored to tears in a matter of moments listening to my thoughts. I skimmed Clara’s. And this tells me your story starts somewhere else. It starts when the boyfriend leaves her there. It starts when she refuses to return home with him. It starts when she tosses her career aside to wait tables in vacationland rather than go back to the grueling schedule she’s kept up for the past fifteen years. It starts the moment her life changes. That’s not to say that it has to be an ‘action’ moment. But it needs to be something that makes me want to know what’s going to happen next. The only thing I’m pretty sure of here is that she’s going to look like a lobster, regardless of the sunscreen.

    So, my question to you is, how far into the story do we find out where her life changes in some way? That’s where I want to start.

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  6. Kristi
    Jun 21, 2014 @ 18:59:23

    Well written but I agree with the first commenter.

    I do have to say that instead of snorkeling, shouldn’t it be scuba diving? Who needs to learn how to snorkel? You just put on a mask and go.

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  7. Kate Sherwood
    Jun 21, 2014 @ 19:16:01

    I”m with Kristi – I agree with Lynne Connelly AND I don’t think snorkelling is hard to learn. SCUBA would make a lot more sense.

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  8. Sam
    Jun 22, 2014 @ 05:34:04

    Ok, I love all this feedback, it’s really great and I completely get what you mean…but this story is more character driven, and getting the backstory for both characters was the first chapter set-up. (His is delivered similarly to this.) If I don’t start the story until they meet (I also kind of hate when a couple meets in the first chapter) it kind of throws off the getting-to-know-their-circumstances part. I suppose I could do it, but…then all the backstory still has to be told, and I feel like it would be boring that way.

    Thanks for pointing out the snorkeling/scuba diving and ballerina vs . dancer things! Later she even refers to herself as a dancer, not a ballerina (and she is in a company, she dances for the Boston ballet, but her heart isn’t in it the way a dancer’s needs to be).

    Thanks again for all your comments! :)

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  9. Daisy
    Jun 22, 2014 @ 08:27:09

    The first sentences didn’t make a lot of sense to me. People generally don’t miss their jobs while they’re on holiday. Obviously lying on a beach is better than being at work. What is it that is making her think about packing in the dancing completely? Sentences like ‘Sadly, since all of her energy went toward training, she also had not learned how to snorkel before going to Honduras’ make her seems a bit spoilt. If you work in an office you probably don’t get much snorkelling in most days either. I think the life decision needs to have a bit more force behind it- she’s stressed, ill, whatever.

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  10. Lynne Connolly
    Jun 22, 2014 @ 08:27:38

    @Sam: YOu really don’t need all that backstory. You don’t. Anyone reading the slew of it on the first page is going to turn away.
    Why do you hate the main characters meeting on the first page? That way you’ve got built-in conflict, and that’s what you should be shooting for. On that first page you need to intrigue the reader, draw her in, and get her invested in the characters so she wants to know what happens next.
    At the moment, frankly, I don’t care one way or the other about your heroine. I could easily put that down and move to the next book on offer. I don’t care that she’s a dancer, that her boyfriend has gone home, that she’s turning herself into a lobster. I really don’t.
    So make me care. Stop me closing that book.
    This month I’ve gone through my heap of books on my reader, and deleted a big bunch of them. The bookshelf was getting too unwieldy, especially with all the 99p and free books I downloaded recently. Know how I made up my mind? I read the blurb and first pages, and made a snap decision. Deleted them. Now I might have been deleting a wonderful read, but here’s the thing. Something about that first page turned me off or bored me. The bored is the biggest factor, the “been there, read that” feeling. A huge bunch of backstory on the first page is the sure sign of the amateur writer. Very few writers can get away with it.
    And here’s the secret. Make your backstory part of the action. Make it count. Make it part of the heroine’s story going forward, and let the reader learn as the hero learns. If you don’t want them meeting on the front page, fair enough, but make her do something.
    As it happens, my WIP is about a dancer, a ballet dancer getting older with jobs getting scarcer. But since I start the book in a snowstorm and her car breaks down, that’s the last thing on her mind. Except that she’s going to miss her audition. But saving her own life comes a bit higher up. It’s only when the hero (who lives nearby) takes her boots off and sees her feet that the dancer thing comes into play, when he reacts to the state of her feet and the reader learns along with him that she’s a career dancer. That’s how you build backstory into the story and make it part of the action, instead of stating it upfront. Not saying it’s perfect, just that’s one way of doing it.
    (To please the promo fairy, I should mention that the book is contracted to Loose Id and comes out later this year).

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  11. Carol McKenzie
    Jun 22, 2014 @ 08:48:53

    @Sam: Everything that Lynne said. Backstory might be important but unless you get me as your reader interested in what’s happening now with your heroine, I’m not going to stick around long enough to read through all that backstory to get to the story you want to tell.

    Stories are like real life, only with all the boring parts taken out. Right now, I’m bored with the first page. If I have to read the rest of her backstory, and then the hero’s backstory…I’ve probably put the book down a long time ago.

    All that information can be fed to us through dialog with other characters, or in smaller chunks as the story moves forward.

    Also, if this is a romance, then there are some conventions your readers might be expecting to find in this genre. One is that the heroine and hero meet, so the romance can start. Delaying that meeting is delaying exactly what your readers are reading for. They’re looking for a hero to fall in love with, for the heroine to fall in love, the conflict that pulls them apart, the ending that brings them together. If you delay that by giving us everyone’s backstory, you’re withholding exactly what I want in a romance.

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  12. SAO
    Jun 23, 2014 @ 10:29:08

    1) It’s late, but I’ll add my two bits. I’d be okay with her not meeting the hero until later, but only if you’ve started her story arc. She’s trained, probably all her life to be a ballerina and now she’s possibly thinking of giving it up? That could be very interesting, but only if I know why. And not that, gee, lazing on the beach is better than tour jetes, but what place in her life did ballet have? And why is ballet no longer in that place.

    Maybe her mother pushed her into ballet and becoming an independent woman in Clara’s story arc. Maybe she’s facing that she’s never going to be a prima ballerina and the issue is how to deal with accepting that. I could think up any number of other options, but your story needs to be on this page.

    Because all I get from this this is that Clara likes lounging on the beach and doesn’t really want to go back to work. Well, so do we all, meaning this tells us nothing. I’d be on board to read about a woman dealing with a life crisis for a bit before I get to the romance, but I’m not on board with reading about Clara meandering on a vacation or lounging in a beach chair.

    I second what Lynne Connelly said, I’ve read too many lousy books, books that I didn’t bother to slog through to the end to want to spend time on something that doesn’t demonstrate a story arc or story problem in the first few pages.

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