May 25th, 2018

First Page Critique

I chose this entry to crit this month because, at its core, it sounds like an interesting story, and it could be a compelling beginning. But it's buried in adjectives, adverbs and asides. I can tell this author slaved over this. But believe it or not, we can try too hard. 

Black = original

Red = my thoughts/comments

Purple = text I added/altered

Sickly  Sunbeams muscled through the grime-streaked window, nudging nine-year-old Georgie from a precarious sleep slumber. She peeked through the holes of her soiled pink and white blanket. and reached up to scramble the dust motes dancing within the muted shafts. All was quiet—not often always a good sign.
We are well anchored — we're getting hints of what Georgie's life is like. Well done. But I've cut the clutter — things we don't need. The reader wants to move along, especially in the beginning, so they can settle into your world and find out what the story is about. Playing with the dust motes is unnecessary. Be sure every word in your beginning is essential. Also, 'slumber' isn't a word a young girl would think.
 
            Georgie never knew who or what awaited her on the flip side of sleep—a landlord banging on the door forcing her to grab her backpack and skedaddle out the window, or worse, one of her mother’s smelly dates, staring at her like she inherently knew they shouldn’t be. 
See how 'inherently knew' is the author's voice, not a 9-year-old's? You want the reader to relate to Georgie — so put us in her skin by showing us how this makes her feel — in a little kid's voice, like, '...or worse, one of her mother's smelly dates staring at her like she was breakfast,' or something like that.
 
            If she couldn’t sneak away while her mother was doing 'entertaining' otherwise occupied, she’d jam the ragged easy chair into a corner, hide behind it and curl up like a basement bug. It blocked the sights—unfortunately, but not the sounds.
'Otherwise occupied' is the author's voice — and I know 'doing entertaining' isn't grammatically correct, but it's how I think a young girl would use the word she heard from her mother. LOVE 'basement bug'!  I think pulling the adverb from the last sentence and making it simpler makes it more stark — more brutal.
 
            Georgie pulled her blanket over her head for a few beats, trying to will herself back to sleep so she could fly across the night sky with Peter Pan to Neverland where the Lost Boys welcomed her—after all, she was a lost girl. 
Love the 'lost girl' (should it be capped? Not sure). But the reader will get it before you think they will, so I don't think you need the last part. Once a reader understands, anything after that, they'll skim. And skimming is the beginning of a reader putting a book down.             
 
            She peeked from behind the chair—no boyfriends leered back at her. Her mother lay sprawled completely naked half-on and half-off the tattered couch. Georgie crept toward her. A fart ollowed byf and a couple of snorts let her know mom that Carol was indeed alive. She plucked the bright pink kimono from the floor and covered her mom before dashing out to face another day.  
Wait — she's not in bed — she's behind the chair? I didn't get that from the earlier paragraph. Thought that was something she did some nights, not last night. Easy fix: go up to that paragraph and edit to — 'Last night, she couldn't....' then make the rest of the sentence past tense: 'She'd jammed,' 'hid behind it and curled up.' See what I mean?
Okay, this paragraph. She wouldn't think 'Carol' — she'd think 'mom'. A subtle author intrusion — trying to slip in a detail you think the reader needs to know. At the end, give us a few details. I assumed she was in pj's, but apparently she slept in her clothes — that's a detail you may want to put earlier. Even if she did, I doubt she'd sleep in her shoes, right? Also, you mentioned her backpack earlier, and I assume it's for school —  wouldn't she grab that?
 
            Georgie had made friends up and down the streets of the South Bronx. Besides Mr. Ahman, the owner of the local bodega, there was the hawk-faced lady who stood on a box reading from the bible. Mrs. Toradelli ran the corner newspaper stand and Officer Ken and Officer Lee were two of the beat cops who patrolled her neighborhood during the day.

This is good — it anchors us as to where we are, and gives us a picture of what the neighborhood is like. You say, 'officer,' and 'patrolled,' so we know they're cops. 

Tom Robbins says, “Challenge every single sentence for lucidity, accuracy, originality, and cadence. If it doesn’t meet the challenge, work on it until it does.”

This is never more true than in your first pages.

What do you think? Anything I missed? Does this make you want to check your first pages for adjectives and asides?

 *     *     *     *     *

Laura’s next book is available for preorder! (You know how much preorders help authors, right?) Just click on the photo to be taken to retailers.

This cowboy’s got one last chance to prove himself

Carly Beauchamp has loved cowboy Austin Davis since first grade. Ask anyone in their dusty, backwater New Mexico town of Unforgiven, and they’ll say “Carly and Austin” the way some say “big trucks and country boys.” But after years of waiting for a wedding ring, Carly’s done with being a rodeo widow . . .

Austin never meant to put his career on the circuit before Carly. She’s always been his future, his one and only. But now that she’s moved on, he’s beginning to see where he went wrong, and he’ll do anything to win her back. The only thing is, Carly’s suddenly acting differently, and she’s definitely hiding a secret—one that will test the depth of their love and open up a whole new world of possibilities.

47 responses to “First Page Critique”

  1. This sounds like a wonderful start to any book and your suggestions are spot-on! I saw my own early draft mistakes in here so slapped myself on the hands and said "Don't do that anymore!" Let's hope I'm listening... 🙂

  2. plntpolice says:

    You are certainly right about all the changes, but, ugh!, I see myself so clearly in this author that I feel overwhelmed. My abandoned WIP first-second-third draft is drowning in similar sins. Wouldn't it be easier to just let my book hide in the silicon netherworld of my computer, unedited, until my heirs wipe my hard drive?

  3. vanderso says:

    Makes me want to go after those darn metaphors that sound so nice when you first write them--but cringe over when you stumble across them in revision a month later. Good point, too, about authorial versus character voice.

  4. […] in the Storm often supply good lessons. This is a particularly cogent first-page critique that takes aim at some my worst foibles: too many metaphors, authorial intrusions, details readers […]

  5. Julie Glover says:

    Love this, Laura! And it shows how important it is to have a savvy second set of eyes to explain what's not there, which you probably thought was because you can see it in your head when you're writing.

    You also remind me of those times when my CP writes something like "trying too hard" in the margins. When it comes to descriptions, Robert Browning is often right that "less is more."

    But yeah, GREAT entry. This sounds like a fabulous story!

  6. Great analysis on the line-by-line level--so clear and helpful!

  7. KathleenBaldwin says:

    Nice edit, Laura! I always enjoy your posts.

  8. Lisa C Bodenheim says:

    So true, the trying too hard bit. As I edit my first work-in-progress, I'm re-reading Browne and King's "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" and reading blogs like this.

    Thank you, Laura. Your comments and your changes and explanations are so helpful.

  9. You are right, this story has lots of potential. I had a visceral reaction to Georgie's life right away and want to know more. It's so important not to get discouraged, listen to critiques, and find a good editor when ready. Thanks for the Tom Robbins quote.

    • Laura Drake says:

      Tom Robbins is my hero. It's so hard to spend time on tiny stuff like this, but then you come up with a line like his, at the end of Jitterbug Perfume:

      "The lesson of the beet, then, is this: hold on to your divine blush, your innate rosy magic, or end up brown. Once you’re brown, you’ll find that you’re blue. As blue as indigo. And you know what that means:…Indigo, Indigoing, Indigone!”

  10. vgfoster says:

    Another great first page edit. Thanks so much for this, it's full of eye-openers!

  11. Lisa Bodenheim says:

    So true, the trying too hard bit. I've been editing my first work-in-progress now, alongside Browne and King's Self-Editing for the Fiction Writer and reading blogs like this.

    Thank you, Laura. Your changes, additions, and comments are so helpful in seeing what works, what does not, and why.

  12. Fae Rowen says:

    Oh, Laura. When I do this to myself, it feels brutal. Your comments and suggestions don't—they're not only helpful but necessary to put the good writing on display. Okay, I'll go edit now.

  13. dholcomb1 says:

    I see what you did.

    denise

  14. Thank you Edit Whisperer for the reminders. This comes during the "kill my darlings" phase of rewrites. They are dead, six feet under, and won't be missed.

  15. Jenny Hansen says:

    I love these edits, Laura. And you are right, this author has the beginning of a super-compelling story with an engaging heroine.

  16. Thank you, Laura. Thank you so much for choosing my WIP 1st page to edit. You nailed what I had been missing and, even with this tiny little edit, I learned so many things I can apply again and again. I am especially encouraged with the comments from you and others. That you and others felt my beginning was compelling and becoming engaged with my Georgie in just those few paragraphs makes me giddy. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • Shirley Wine says:

      Wonderful writing, Carolyn. I was really caught up in your story and Laura's suggestions make it so much stronger. I just love the allusion to Georgie being a 'lost girl'. So many readers can empathise with her on this one point alone. Do persevere, it's a story worth telling.

    • Laura Drake says:

      What Shirley said! Thanks for 'outing' yourself, Carolyn - I take the names off, and never remember who wrote it! Everyone's rooting for Georgie, so go write more!

    • jeanne kern says:

      Super start, Carolyn. Love Love the basement bugs and the Peter Pan stuff. Wonderful character. And Laura Drake is a Goddess of Edits! Thanks, both of you.

  17. barbdelong says:

    Wonderful story and editing! My edits are daunting but I'll soldier on. Sigh!

  18. Christine says:

    Such amazing editing, Laura. You are right on about everything you did, and made the story so much better. Thanks for showing us how it's done!

  19. Shirley Wine says:

    I'm at the editing stage of my WIP and this is so choc full of helpful advice. Your explanations and suggestions make this a post worth saving so I can go back and refresh my memory, time after time.
    An extra pair of critical eyes help make the story ring true - I particularly appreciate the way you point out authorial intrusion.

  20. littlemissw says:

    This sounds like a great story. I really want to know how things will go for Georgie. I think the points you made were spot on. It's so hard not to 'over' write but I think once we find our own voice, and our character's voice, it falls into place.

    • Laura Drake says:

      Good point, littlemiss - most overwriting is in the beginning, where we're thinking about others reading it. Once we get immersed in the story, that tends to fall away.

  21. So very helpful! Thank you so much!

  22. Carolyn Toms-Neary says:

    Can’t wait to share this with MY crit group and again, thank you so much. I love Georgie and hope to do right by her-somebody has to. 🙁

    • Laura Drake says:

      Carolyn, you've pointed out a critical point....one of the hardest things to do as an author is to get the reader to know, and root for your character, right on the first page. She did that in spades!

  23. Laura, I love these edits and I agree, it is hard to balance the voice of a child with the narrator. When I first read Sing, Unburied, Sing - Jesmyn Ward's masterpiece, I initially thought the voice of JoJo (a male child of ten if my memory serves) wasn't realistic, even with the use of the word 'ain't'. When I finished the book, I decided the prose was lyrical and lush and it no longer mattered to me that it didn't quite mesh with the child's age or background. How do you balance the lyrical with the realistic? What did you think of Sing?

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