Okay, Laura Montgomery is a crazy woman, and so asked me to do a first page critique of her novel Manx prize. She actually sent the me the first few pages, which is good, because I think she started it with the wrong opening.
Before I start this, though, please everyone remember these are just my opinions, and, at that, the opinions of a woman who hasn’t been very well these last couple of weeks. I could be completely wrong.
Also, I want to say that what Laura has done is not bad. It doesn’t read like beginner prose. Actually what it reads like to me is like she has worked it a little to hard, and fretted too much and lost sight of how she meant to start it.
To explain where I’m coming from: I broke in in the old slush pile days. My training is to grab the reader as fast as you can and not let go. To do that, in my experience, you need to situate the reader immediately.
I find it useful to find myself dropped into the main character’s head. Where am I, what am I wearing, what do I smell, is it cold? Bringing the five senses in on the first page helps. Also, right at the beginning keep things spare. You can always add information later. Right at the beginning you want that old journalistic standby “Who?What? When? Where? and Why?” But more importantly, you have to pick the one that’s the hook.
I did some editing on Laura’s first page, as I went (I couldn’t help it) and I have some questions, too, but then I’d start on the next page, and I’ll show (sketchily) how I’d do it. Sketchily because I don’t want to get too detailed and make Laura feel like she should do exactly what I say.
So, first pass:
by Laura Montgomery
© Laura Montgomery 2014
“Hey, Ms. Fisher.” the security guard said as Charlotte walked into the building.
Charlotte Fisher was almost too fretted to respond. How did the guard know who she was? Charlotte Fisher couldn’t guess, when he provided security for so many different tenants in the massive building beyond Virginia’s Dulles ‘port, she couldn’t guess.
These cuts are for speed and clarity, mostly. When you open with “Hey,Ms. Fisher” and tell me it’s the guard speaking it’s too much information. I don’t need that. I can infer it’s the guard from her reaction and then I’m safely in her head, and I know she’s the main character, so I’m not going to get whiplash.
That man leaving the building, for example, she had never seen in the five years she had worked there. Take the unknown man leaving the building. He was a stranger in a suit, looking like someone who worked in the District, not out in the wilds of Virginia. She would have noticed him if she had seen him before: he was blond and a good height for a man, namely, taller than her own five foot ten. He was on his way out the door and her Her glimpse of him was far too fleeting for the aesthetics of him but not so fleeting she didn’t know he was good-looking. If she weren’t so worried about Texas, and Andy hadn’t been in the picture she might have felt more than the fleeting moment of appreciation.
Again too many words, but more importantly is this man going to be important? I’m assuming so, so I work him into my “suggested first page” — but if he’s not don’t have him in at all. And you’re working too hard to tell us he’s good looking. Just say it and let it go. BTW what color suit? What color is his hair? How big is he? If he’s going to be important later, we should have an idea.
“Good morning, Warner,” she replied, running her ID. She ran her ID, her heart was pounding hard again. It had started when she woke up, when the news feeder, set for reentering space objects, any space objects, shuttles, capsules, nominal and off, upper stages and scheduled gossamer burns, informed her that a random reentry had hit a car in Texas—a car, what were the odds of that?—killing two people.
You’re too late for the response to the guard by now. The response pops us out of Charlotte’s head. We were following the stranger down the street, we’re not going to answer Werner now. She runs the ID and she turns to matters of work.
This did not bode well for her “hare-brained scheme” to win a prize offered by a consortium of satellite and orbitat operators located on the Isle of Man, a $50 million bounty–paid in gold–for de-orbiting a piece of space junk. Nor did the accident bode well for quieting her own demons, which were elephantine.
I MIGHT have continued reading, back when I was an editor, but only because I have friends who are similarly awkward about beginnings, and whose prose improves. However, by now you’re giving me stuff about orbitat operators and the island of Man and I’m not interested enough in Charlotte or her problems to read all of that. I feel like I’m in class, taking dictation and there will be a quiz later. If this were the beginning of a book, unless I were stuck somewhere, I probably wouldn’t continue reading. Sorry. If it makes you feel better, my own beginnings often read like this. Then I wait and clean up the beginning when I’ve finished the book.
Okay — Now, go somewhere where you can scream and call me names for a while, then come back.
Let’s think about this from the beginning. Do we need the guard? The guy leaving the building? I’m going to assume we need the guy leaving the building, but unless the guard is going to buy the farm in the next three pages, never mind him. I have no clue what this building looks like — I barely know the area — so I’m going to make up stuff. it will probably get you mad, which is good, because then you’ll have to go and break it apart and fix it:
Suggested First Page for:
by Laura Montgomery
© Laura Montgomery 2014
Charlote Fisher’s heart was pounding so hard, she thought surely the security guard would hear it, as she walked past. She said “Good Morning Werner,” in what she hoped was her normal voice, as she ran her ID.
She’d woken with the newsfeeder squawking that a random reentry had hit a car in Texas—a car, what were the odds of that?—killing two people. Okay, so she’d set the thing for reentering space objects, any space objects, shuttles, capsules, nominal and off, upper stages and scheduled gossamer burns. But the freakish incident seemed like a bad omen for what she intended to do.
As she pulled the door a man walked out, past her, leaving behind a faint whiff of cologne and the impression of height and blond hair. Just a glimpse, and the thought that if she were single she might have taken more interest, and that brought Andy to her mind,.
She must win the prize, so that she and Andy–
And that brought Texas to mind again, and how badly it bode for her hairbrained scheme of winning a prize offered by a consortium of satellite and orbitat operators located on the Isle of Man. $50 million bounty–paid in gold– seemed like a lot. But the safe de-orbiting a piece of space junk without crushing cars or people wasn’t as easy as it seemed.
Her boss hadn’t thought they should do it, and this wouldn’t help. She felt sick. She wanted to continue, but the danger had just become clear and real. There was no word yet on who had been killed. It had been late at night. Hopefully, it wasn’t kids. Let it not be kids. Brawn might back off the project entirely.
Space debris wasn’t supposed to be a problem. Most of it burned up in the atmosphere if it was in a low enough orbit to reenter at all. The real problems were in orbit, where debris threatened lives and property.
From the early days when launch operators failed to vent the fuels from liquid-fueled rocket bodies left topside, and the stages exploded, to later collisions between satellites, and then the famously aggressive anti-satellite demonstrations by the Chinese, the debris environment had expanded, growing progressively more deadly. Even flecks of paint posed a risk. They cratered windows and worse.
<Okay, that’s it. Remember that’s only my opinion, and all that and $5 will get you a cup of coffee. It’s quite likely you’ll think my opening is awful.
Just step back, take a deep breath, and consider what is foremost on her mind, what is most important, and what is most likely to grab the reader. I didn’t get the five senses in there, and I’d like to — but I feel like I’m taking liberties with your character. Does she taste the black coffee which was all she drank this morning, because she was too sick to eat? Does she realize she forgot to bring a coat as the cold breeze hits her on the doorstep while she’s running the card? Not much — don’t dwell on it, just in passing.
Then set it up and go!
And for the record, you’re a braver woman than I am, and you’re soooo close. Trust yourself and your voice, stop overthinking it, and I bet most of the battle will be won.
So, let us know when it’s up so that we can plug it. (And read it.)
Just in case people are wondering what this is all about…
Back a while, there was a posting by Sarah https://madgeniusclub.com/2014/02/02/sorry-i-completely-spaced-this/ asking for writing topics.
A few days later, I happened to be poking around and noticed another blog where they were doing “first page” critiques, with a volunteer submitting the first part of a story or novel, and the blogger doing a critique or comments. I suggested this as a possibility, and Sarah said, “Oh, I could do that. Any victi– volunteers?” Laura M was kind enough to volunteer. Sarah did ask for a little bit more than just one page.
And the rest is history… Well, here it is on the blog, anyway. Thanks!
It was a bit of a Godsend for me ‘nother Mike, because I’d just had two beta readers tell me they didn’t get “into” the story until X. So, although I am, of course, very brave, I was much more interested in fixing the thing than not. I want readers to make it past the sample read on Kindle.
Sarah, thank you for doing this. Your beginnings always grab me so I knew you would be able to help me out. This is invaluable. You are correct, we don’t need the guard, and, yes, we need the guy leaving the building. And, I can streamline the Statement of Facts.
Very cool. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
No problem. Stupid question, and please don’t be offended, this comes from an ESL reader and we see stupid things — Are you by any chance bilingual in German?
You’re going to have to tell me why you asked, because I suspect I know what caused what you may have identified.
I was born in Saigon and late in learning to talk with 3 languages coming at me. When we lived in Mexico I was bilingual at 5 in Spanish. Forgot it and got it back in high school. When we lived in Thailand my Thai was never good.
If I come across as German, I suspect my work environment is to blame.
No, you don’t. It was the awkward phrasing of “his aesthetics” which sounds a lot better in German. My German is largely gone, but I used to switch between French, German, Portuguese and English in one thought. It made it possible to think in a very flexible, modular way, but sometimes bits of phrasing that don’t work in English fell into my writing. And I thought I recognized that one. Ah well, I don’t speak any Asian languages, so it’s possible something is similar. I learned Portuguese only till 11 when I learned French, then English at 14 and German at 16. Then the other languages. Weirdly, German just sloughed off.
Interesting. Not what I expected. I work with engineers who know no German but are constantly creating compound words (and then capitalizing them and then turning them into acronyms) that look like long German words. I thought maybe I’d gone to the dark side without knowing it.
The whole field of aerospace engineering was ruined after the war when they brought in all those German scientists.
Grins, ducks, and runs away.
You should run.
But, you know, I never put all that nounification (see, I’ve learned how to do it, too) together with the historical backdrop. And, I’ve been known to say, “This is not German,” to certain persons of the aerospace engineering persuasion.
The romance review site Dear Author does something similar. If you have something that might be interesting to the broader romance community, take a look at the First Page Saturday feature of Dear Author: http://dearauthor.com/tag/first-page/
I’ve posted first pages there in the past, even though romance is only a subplot in my stories, and gotten useful, and sometimes really encouraging, comments. It’s also where Sarah’s law of catch them in the first sentence really applies, because only your first sentence shows up in the blog entry, and if it’s boring, you get fewer people clicking on “read more”.
Hmmm. Good to know. I have a romantic subplot.
Maybe I read funny (undoubtedly i read funny–my dad’s a dyslexic English teacher with a M. Ed. in guidance), but I am hoping Laura finds a way to merge her opening with Sarah’s revision. I liked learning how tall the main character is, how she feels about taller-than-she blond men in (presumably) nice suits (tho I’m now wondering about time of year–is he wearing a cashmere coat over his suit, or is it perfect suit weather?). The brief mention of Andy was enough to tell me she’s not single & basically happy in her relationship. And a satellite consortium on the Isle of Man offering a large bounty makes me wonder what sort of Bond villains we might be dealing with–because I grew up watching 007.
Side note, Laura–your main character sharing your first name did throw me off, mostly because I wanted to refer to both you and your character by name (it’s the polite thing to do, or so I’ve been taught). I don’t know which you’d rather change (pseudonyms are fun!), if either, but thought I’d mention that, too.
I look forward to reading it when the time comes! You will keep us posted, yes??
She doesn’t. That’s my version. Her name is Charlotte. It just got confused.
Actually, her name is Charlotte. Sarah changed that one. (That was pretty diplomatically put, by the way. You are to be commended)
To clarify, using my own name would be very Mary-Sue-ish, and I thought you were very tactfully warning me off that. I hadn’t seen all the other comments on that yet when I replied.
I definitely intend to incorporate Sarah’s approach, if not her actual words.
No worries! Just doing my part to keep candy coming to the stores…I’m greedy that way.
Have now re-read it with “names changed to protect the innocent”–“Charlotte” fits (which looks/sounds crazy, but one must consider the source). Definitely looking forward to reading more! 🙂
Was anybody else thrown off by the main character’s name changing from Charlotte to Laura?
I was at first, but I think that was just Sarah confusing the names.
YEP. The man knows me. 😉
Oh, believe me, I could quite easily do the same thing.
fixed. It was late. Sorry Laura!
THAT was me. Not Laura. Look, it was late and I have issues with my OWN name, much less someone else’s.
No problem. Some mornings are like that. 🙂
This seems a good time and place to ask: What are people’s opinions on various narrator perspectives? I started something in Third Person, with what the Wiki article I’m looking at describes as “objective” (without directly knowing the characters’ thoughts or emotions), but omniscient in location. However, I have seen a lot of stories recently which are either First Person or Alternating First Person, so I also wonder if the current trend in reading is to prefer these perspectives.
My main criteria as a reader is: does it work? If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, try changing it. but don’t change it if it works just because you’ve seen something else or been told it’s a “rule” or “trend.’ 🙂
Wayne, I write in both 1st and 3rd limited. I use the 1st person in the books I write under the pen name because it is better suited for the genre. I use 3rd person with my Nocturnal Lives books mainly because it works best for the UF/police procedural plots — at least the way I write them.
As a reader, I’m not a big fan of alternating POVs in first person. That’s a personal preference because I’ve read too many books with it where the “voice” of the two POVs is so close it’s hard to tell whose head you’re in.
I tend to write the CAD stories in third-omniscient or third-limited, and the Colplatschki stories in limited third (one POV). I did have a first person short story pop up, to my surprise. As a reader, first person irks me. I’m not certain why, unless it is because I’ve read one or two bad samples too many.
I guess it boils down to 1) what works for you the writer and 2) can you keep track of different POVs and do it so the differences are clear to the reader? For example, I know Andre Norton wrote several books with two characters alternating first person narrations, one chapter per voice, and those worked very well. I’ve read others where the author uses formatting tools to signal a shift in POV.
Having started the way i did, I’m having a little trouble staying out of characters’ heads, sometimes. Makes me wonder if I should go back and do over.
It’s good being in a character’s head. Especially at the beginning of your story. 🙂
There is no reason you can’t have third person close-in — i.e. in a character’s head.
Oh, sure. I’ve read plenty of stories that way, but that’s just not the way I started.
It might work for an opening, to ground the reader in the world, then focus in closer with a switch to alternating third person POVs, so the reader can get into the characters’ heads.
It’s really a matter of what works for a given story. I’ve been attacked by a very egotistic, self absorbed type person. He insists on first person, because, you know, those other people don’t really count.
Well, and DST is rife with unreliable narrators, so it MUST be first person.
I have to admit that as a reader, 1st person irks me, too. I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out how to explain why….I think maybe because it seems too self-conscious? There are exceptions to that, but it has to be an exceptionally well-written book. Quite often, if I pick up a story and see that it’s been written in 1st person, I just put it back down without looking any further.
I have more trouble thinking of a good way to do second than the others, so I’m probably going to do as everyone says and mostly use first or third as appropriate.
Interesting critique– made me look at things that I don’t see when I am writing openings.
Laura, you’re a brave woman. But the plot looks interesting. How far along are you with the book?
Thanks, Kali. It was a suspenseful moment this morning clicking on MGC, but I sent it in because I wanted it to be better so I wanted what I got.
As for where I am, I’ve heard from all my beta readers except my orbital mechanic. I gave him some orbital rendezvous scenes. He’s assured me they are full of errors but hasn’t give me them back with redlines. I’ve incorporated everyone else’s changes, plan to fix the beginning per Sarah’s suggestions and then it goes to my volunteer copy-editor. The cover is making lots of progress. I’m probably one or two months from it going up, given the copy editing.
Cool. So it’s all done but for the polish and typos? I’ve started really enjoying seeing a book come together.
And the tech check. Now that I know there’s so much that needs to be done at the end, it makes the initial drafting go a lot faster.
Brave Laura! Apart from the “aesthetic” line (which would have just thrown me out of the story and confused me), imho, the original opener wasn’t (as Sarah already said) “bad”. But the edits do make it streamlined and draw me into the story better. I’m personally not much into sci-fi (not counting sci-fantasy as “sci-fi”), so I’m a harder “sell”.
Thanks for doing this, both of you. I’ve always learned a little better by seeing examples with an explanation “why” than being given a vague spiel about, “make it pop” or “cut out whatever’s unnecessary” or “start in the middle of things”. I always go, “yes, but what does it look like and why?”
If you’re ever in need of another volunteer, hit me up.
Thanks, C.R. It was definitely worth doing, although completely befuddling to see my story written a la Sarah. It gave me an odd, parallel-universe feel. That “aesthetic” line is gone, gone, gone.