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First Page: Where the Boys Are (Futuristic Romance)

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Chapter One

Conan’s waiting for me when I get home. Like always. He opens the door, takes my briefcase, and hands me a cold, damp cloth.

I press it to my sweat-dampened neck and forehead. Though it’s just mid-February, the weather is already summerlike—hot and humid. If my only job opportunities weren’t here in DC, I’d live in Nome or maybe Valdivostok. Someplace where global warming hasn’t all but eliminated the seasons.

I hand the cloth back to Conan.

“How was your day?” he asks, pressing a cool, dry kiss on my cheek.

“Okay,” I reply. It hadn’t really been that okay, but Conan can’t help me resolve unresolvable equations, so I stuff the thought and step further into the house. I catch a whiff of something savory emanating from the kitchen, and my stomach growls.

He hears it. “Dinner will be ready in twenty minutes. Would you like a glass of wine while you wait?”

I shake my head. Hungry as I am, I’ll just get wasted if I drink the real stuff, and the non-alcoholic synth wine tastes like mouthwash. I’m about to collapse onto the couch and kick off my shoes when a blinking red light on the vidcomm panel in the corner catches my eye. What the hell? All my messages are routed to my handheld when I’m not home.

I frown, and my forehead pinches between my eyebrows. “You should have mentioned it when I came in.”

His expression is blank. “It’s never happened before.”

I sigh, half exasperated, half amused, and cross to the panel. When I touch my hand to the screen, the interface springs to life. “Sera Marline Belova, you have a private, encrypted message from Central Authority. Would you like to view it now?”

I plop down on the chair in front of the vidcomm, my knees suddenly weak. This cannot be good. Private messages from the government never are.

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. Anonymous
    May 21, 2011 @ 07:13:14

    Conan had better be a robot, or I don’t like the domestic dynamic.

    Other than that – I get a good idea of the setting, but less about the character. For my taste, I’d like that reversed, but I don’t read a lot of scifi, so you may be fine for your target audience. That said, it felt like maybe a strange mix of the things that are the same and those that are different – I don’t know how far in the future we are, but if DC’s sweltering in February, it’s pretty far. (I’m not sure your climate change predictions are quite in keeping with my understanding of the science, but, fair enough, the science is still developing) But your character is still in an un-airconditioned environment? And why does she need a briefcase? I would have thought the world would be paper-free by then. These are just nitpicks, obviously, but I feel like if you’re going to open with the scifi setting, you need to be damn sure the setting is SOLID.

    Which is maybe another concern. The setting isn’t all that interesting, really – your character is still living her life in a way that’s really similar to the way we’d live today. So maybe it’s not worth opening with. If this is a romance, the main story is probably emotional, right? But I’ve got no real feeling for the emotion of anything, yet. The last paragraph gives a bit of tension, so maybe open with that, and then fill in the rest of the setting as you go?

    Typo on VALdivostok.

  2. Sandy Williams
    May 21, 2011 @ 08:08:42

    Love the voice! So far, this reads more like a dystopian to me than a futuristic romance, but then again, I guess dystopians are usually set in the future so it works.

    I’m very interested in reading about the message from the government.

    I agree with the first commentator that there’s not much emotion in this first page, but that’s okay with me. I feel like this society has kind of been stripped bare, and people are just kind of surviving. They’re too tired to experience emotion or have turned their emotions off. I would read on with the expectation that emotion will grow within this story.

    Good writing!

  3. DS
    May 21, 2011 @ 08:10:54

    I’m intrigued with the sf aspect. I would definitely read on. I think that Washington DC would be underwater by then if the world had warmed so much. How that was resolved though may be part of the sf background. Also it not inconceivable that we will not in the future have enough energy to provide air conditioning in private spaces. I didn’t read the wet towel as meaning that there was no air conditioning.

    “and my forehead pinches between my eyebrows”– This, though is another one of those things that someone in first person would probably not be aware of, it’s more of third person observation.

  4. galwiththehoe
    May 21, 2011 @ 08:48:20

    Would you consider starting a tiny bit later in the story? Or perhaps a tiny bit earlier if the heroine’s profession is relevant to the story? Coming home after a long day and getting greeted with a damp cloth and yummy dinner just spells “Ooooh, nice. Relax. Breathe out. Winding down now… Zzzzzzz,” to me.

    Good luck.

  5. dick
    May 21, 2011 @ 08:57:30

    Too blah! The blinking light’s ominousness would serve better as a start IMHO. The domestic stuff isn’t that interesting.

  6. job
    May 21, 2011 @ 09:09:44

    Good, clear writing. Very fine.

    You want to doublecheck where you might stray from idiomatic English. If your folks don’t say, “there is a savory smell emanating from the kitchen,” you probably shouldn’t put those words into the POV character’s thoughts. She smelled Chicken Marengo might be more natural.

    Hard to tell the social setup from a single page. I may be way off here. If I am, ignore me.

    Any fictive world has to have a rational economic, historical and social basis.

    Relationships with one person throwing his/her weight around and the other subservient — whether it is marriage, maidservants, or on the job — generally means there’s a lack of economic power and opportunity for the pushees.

    Your world-building suggests high technology and the economic dislocation of climate crisis.

    High technology, so far, seems to be associated with a lessening in the disparity in education and opportunity. And a world in climate crisis makes me wonder at the excess economic productivity that allows the average midlevel bureaucrat to maintain an expensive home and lifestyle on one salary.

    Admittedly, I’m reading a lot into one page.

    SF is world-building. In the rest of the chapter, I’d be hoping you’d show me how a male/female power shift is historically plausible. And convince me a 1950s domestic set up makes economic sense in a 2250 technological world. And maybe you could make the female protagonist less of a jerk.

  7. Carolyn
    May 21, 2011 @ 10:39:58

    I like it. Admittedly, the name Conan brought me up short for a minute, but that was the only thing.

    There’s too little here to make a judgement on anything really. For all I know, Conan might be a humanoid robot and his name a joke. He sure acted like a robot.

    I’d definitely read on.

  8. Sharon
    May 21, 2011 @ 10:41:11

    I agree with Anonymous that I hope Conan is a robot. Otherwise, he is entirely too bland, emotionless and subservient.

    This whole opening, actually, is bland and emotionless up until the government message. That may be exactly your point, but it can be risky to wait for a page or two to offer something to grab readers. After the last paragraph, I’m interested, but most of what came before that didn’t grab me.

    I was also bothered by the global warming reference, both because this is an extremely controversial theory and because you didn’t seem to use it realistically. I’m definitely not an expert on this subject, but if you’re going to make it a major part of your world-building, you’d better be. I believe that DS is right that if the world has warmed that much, then coastal areas like DC would be under water. Also, I recall reading that global warming would not eliminate the seasons, but exaggerate them – colder winters, hotter summers, stronger storms, greater flooding in the wet areas, greater droughts in the dry areas, etc. It’s a very theoretical science, and we probably won’t know within our lifetimes whether the climate change scientists are correct or not. Chances are that at least some of their predictions will be wrong. Those predictions do, however, affect how your readers will respond to your version of climate change. You can shape your future world however you like, but if you’re going to refer to a current hot-button topic like global warming, you need to be aware of the expectations that will create in your readers, and make sure that your version is believable.

    On a related topic, it bothered me that your heroine thought of the weather as “summerlike”, even “though it’s just mid-February.” Your heroine is viewing the weather from a 21st century perspective here, with an underlying assumption that February should be cold, and hot, humid weather is for the summer. Presumably she’s lived with this climate all of her life, so she should expect February to be hot. That’s normal in her world.

    All of these things are fairly easy fixes. It’s impossible to tell from this short excerpt whether you’ve got a great story here or not, but I would love to know what that private message says, and that’s a good sign!

  9. The Author
    May 21, 2011 @ 10:50:26

    I think the fact that Anonymous and several of you mentioned the oddness of the dynamic between Conan and Sera suggests I didn’t start in the wrong place. I want the reader to get the sense that there’s something vaguely “off” in this world ALREADY (not just the climate) before the other shoe drops and things get really ugly.

    Thanks for the other comments. I’m pondering all your thoughts.

  10. SH
    May 21, 2011 @ 11:25:46

    Okay, I didn’t even notice the weather thing until I read the comments – February is the hottest month of the year here!

    I’d read on. I know it’s common knowledge you’re supposed to catch your readers with the first sentence (which you did, for me at least), I give a book the first chapter before making a decision.

    I want to know who Conan is, and hopefully the more I read the less I’ll attach ‘the Barbarian’ to the end of his name! I do agree he’s a very passive character in this segment.

  11. JenMcQ
    May 21, 2011 @ 11:53:20

    I would read on… messages from the government are frightening even now! IRS anyone?

    The voice is strong. I felt it was stripped bare of emotion as part of the setting, not as any deficiency in writing. I didn’t initially get that Conan might be a robot, I thought it was more a symptom of the Society, but I would read on to find out.

  12. Anonymous
    May 21, 2011 @ 12:58:10

    Same anonymous, back — I should probably set up a user name, I guess.

    Anyway…The concern I have about starting where you did, and wanting the reader to get the sense that there’s something vaguely ‘off’ about the setting is that it could just as easily make the reader think that there’s something off about your writing. I appreciate the patience of people who give a book the first chapter to interest them, but unless the book has been highly recommended to me, or unless I know the author, I give new books less than a page. I have no idea which approach is more common, but I worry that you could be losing at least some readers who aren’t patient enough to sit through your slow build.

  13. B
    May 21, 2011 @ 14:49:10

    I see that you’ve said that Conan is supposed to be Off. Okay, but still needs a different name — everyone is either thinking barbarian or comedian.

    I’d jump in with–
    She’s about to kick off shoes, sees the blinking light, Swears. Conan the robot says what’s wrong. She says “It’s a message from the Ministry of XX. This is not good.”
    and then throw in a little of the Stepford oddness. Ex:
    Conan looking perplexed, “You won’t be eating then? But I’ve spent all day preparing chicken marsala, your favorite.”

    Using dialogue creates sense of action.

  14. Jill Sorenson
    May 21, 2011 @ 16:05:50

    I like it as is. I agree with DS about the forehead detail but even that didn’t trip me up. Good luck!

  15. Arwen
    May 21, 2011 @ 23:44:00

    I was intrigued enough to come comment on it. The sterile nature of Conan (cool, dry kisses aren’t partnerlike so I immediately thought he must be the gay roommate) made me keep reading. Really loved the small details that cemented this was a futuristic. I’d definitely keep reading.

  16. Julia Sullivan
    May 22, 2011 @ 04:51:20

    It’s a thin line between low-key and boring (I actually mean that) and it’s hard to tell which is which on the basis of one page.

    I think if the language was a little less stiff (as others have already mentioned) it might work better; on the other hand, if you are trying to show that your protagonist is absurdly formal, then you’re stuck with the stiff language.

  17. SAO
    May 22, 2011 @ 13:34:01

    Frankly, the damp cloth made me think your heroine was having a hot flash. Maybe it’s just my perspective.

    Vladivostok starts like Vlad, which I guess you know, since Belova is a Russian last name.

    When I lived in the tropics, it took me a while, but I got to recognize the different seasons. You might have been able to swim in the Caribbean year-round, but winter was different from summer. I presume the perspective of your heroine would be different from ours, unless she came from the North.

  18. Janine
    May 22, 2011 @ 14:58:29

    FWIW, between his name and his behavior, I was sure that Conan was Robot until you implied that he might not be in your comment.

    I agree with SAO’s last point, I live near the Southern California coast, where the weather is warm and remarkably even, but still, there are seasonal changes. The “no seasons” thing is a Northern perspective.

    But I disagree with JoB’s comment that:

    If your folks don’t say, “there is a savory smell emanating from the kitchen,” you probably shouldn’t put those words into the POV character’s thoughts. She smelled Chicken Marengo might be more natural.

    For one thing, this is first person, not third. I think of first person narration as being someone either verbally narrating or else writing down his/her story. Therefore I think this type of diction can be used.

    Second, it also depends very much on the character. If she is formal or literate, she might say “There is a savory smell emanating from the kitchen” where someone else might use the vernacular. If she is not very educated, she obviously wouldn’t use a word like “emanating” and it would be a different story.

    On the whole, I thought this had promise. I would keep reading at least long enough to see what the government wants.

  19. The Author
    May 23, 2011 @ 11:42:16

    Just popping by again to thank everyone for the comments.

    I didn’t want to “spoiler” this for anyone who hadn’t read it yet, but those who guessed Conan is a robot are right on target. (Technically, he’s an android, but potato/potahto, right?) I’m actually quite tickled that so many of you got that right out of the gate.

    One thing I will change based on the feedback is some of the stuff on the climate. It’s actually not all that critical to the story, but it clearly became a lot of readers’ focus and that’s definitely not the intention. It was really something I threw into the story almost in passing :).

    What really pleased me the most, though, is that not ONE person who read this commented on the first person, present tense narration as a problem. I know there are a lot of readers who heartily dislike first person narration and the fact that it’s written in present tense is essential to the story (someone mentioned the heroine seemed like a jerk; trust me, if this were narrated in past tesne, she’d seem even MORE like a jerk). Anyway, that’s the thing I was actually most concerned about–whether that would be off-putting, and so I’m really happy that it didn’t seem to trip anyone up.

    On the subject of the “savory smell”–that comment was very interesting to me because it never occurred to me that most people could identify exactly what dish is cooking based on the smell. I certainly can’t nor can my husband, and his sense of smell is so overdeveloped that I can’t use scented laundry detergent without driving him up a wall. Every night when he gets home, he asks what I’m cooking (unless I’ve told him in advance) and he can usually smell it when he walks in the door, but that doesn’t mean he can distinguish between ham, beef, chicken, etc.

    Thanks again for your time and your comments. They are very much appreciated.

  20. Tasha
    May 23, 2011 @ 13:15:04

    @DS: I was wondering the same thing, and also wondered whether Vladivostok was the best choice to suggest a “cold” region, given that it’s a coastal city and has weather much more similar to Boston (which would likely be gone are a result of rising oceans) than to Nome, especially if the ocean’s temperature has risen.

    I’d suggest using a city like Novosibirsk or Krasnoyarsk, in the Siberian interior, to contrast with the warmer DC weather.

  21. Maura
    May 23, 2011 @ 14:10:12

    Honestly, I didn’t comment because the tense really was a problem for me, and so I didn’t finish reading the excerpt. I have a real problem reading first person present- but that is an “accounting for taste” item; many people have no problem with it, so I didn’t post about it at the time. :)

  22. Jane
    May 23, 2011 @ 14:10:42

    @Maura: Ditto.

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