Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Critique of First Page - Historical Fiction

by Jodie Renner, editor & author, @JodieRennerEd

Today I'm continuing my new Wednesday feature, where I critique all or part of the first page of a novel, anonymously. Click here to read my first critique, of the beginning of a different novel.

Red indicates comments by me and any words I have added, which would normally be in the margin, not interrupting the text as it is here, but unfortunately, I'm unable to reproduce that aspect of my Track Changes here.

If you'd like me to critique the first page of your novel or short story, please send the first 400-500 words to me at j.renner.editing(at)hotmail(dot)com, and I'll critique the first 150-300 words here. If you have a prologue, don't send that - send the beginning of Chapter 1 instead. Also, tell me the genre and a sentence or two about the story and main character. Thanks.

I chose this first page for today because it interested me and made me want to read more. But I could also see lots of ways to make it more compelling and intriguing, to hook more readers in and get them engaged right from the start.

I've changed the name of the character and the city, for greater anonymity.

Here's the original version first, with my suggestions in red in the version just below it.

Bonnie walked the noisy, dusty streets of Boston. The fishing ships were coming in for the evening as she passed near the docks. There looked to be another steamer in from Ireland as well. The smell of the city was always mixed, some wonderful aroma from a fire or a bakery... and something awful, rotting. Fish. Always, the smell of fish. She had to go a good ways inland to escape that smell. But tonight, she headed to work.  

She kept a close eye out. She had gotten in some trouble recently, but she had no idea if she was being pursued. Could be, no one knew. Or it could be she was a walking target. There was no way to know, but it had been two weeks now, since the incident, and no problems yet. She could never let her guard down- but that sort of survival was a strain on her.  

She hoped for a time that wasn’t so hard. In fact, she was planning on it. But her face gave a cynical slight grin, as she thought of it- her life had never followed the plans she laid out. If it had, she certainly wouldn’t be where she was now. She would have to work her way out.
 
Same three paragraphs, but with Jodie's suggestions in red:

Bonnie walked [Try to use a more specific, interesting synonym for “walked,” like “trudged” or “strode along” or "hurried along” or “strolled” or “raced through” or something that more accurately conveys her mood and how she’s moving.] the noisy, dusty streets of Boston. As she passed near the docks, she noticed the fishing ships were coming in for the evening. as she passed near the docks. There looked to be another steamer in from Ireland as well. The smell of the city was always mixed, some wonderful aroma from a fire or a bakery... and something awful, rotting. Fish. [Maybe “Like fish,” as there were other things rotting then, too.] Always, the smell of fish. She had to go a good ways inland to escape that smell. But tonight, she headed to work. [Try to add some urgency and tension here. Is she hurrying? Is she late for work? Is she worried about something at work? Also, what does she do? What’s her job? And how does she feel about it? Is she eager to go to work? Or does she hate her job?]

Tension and conflict are what drive fiction forward, and you especially need tension and intrigue in your first paragraphs and first page.

Also, since you mentioned this is historical fiction, I’d offer more indications of that right away, so the readers realize immediately that this story takes place in the past, and roughly how long ago – what period? For example, what kinds of vehicles or modes of transportation are passing her? Horses and buggies? Or...? Also, how is she dressed? How are people around her dressed? What are they doing? (Don’t get carried away in a great long descriptive passage, but add just enough telling detail to bring the scene to life and show the era.)


She kept a close eye out. [Try to add more tension to this sentence. Show her nervousness.] She had gotten in some trouble [kind of vague – can you be more specific?] recently, but she had no idea if she was being pursued. Could be, no one knew. [I’d take this sentence out, as it doesn’t really add anything more than we’ve found out from the previous sentence.] Or it could be she was a walking target. [Try to rephrase this in a more urgent, direct way, from inside her head, with more of her worries and fears apparent. Maybe something like, “She glanced around as she hurried along. Was she being followed? She felt like a walking target.”] There was no way to know [this is repetitive], but it had been two weeks now since the incident [can you give us some more hints, to add to the intrigue?], and no problems yet. [maybe rephrase this to show her worry more, like "and every day she expected to pay...." or whatever.] She could never let her guard down- but that sort of survival was a strain on her. [Try to rephrase this in a more direct way, showing her emotions and physical feelings/sensations. In other words, show, don’t tell.]

She hoped [“longed”?] for a time [maybe “future” or “life”] that wasn’t so hard. [This is a bit vague. Can you maybe add something specific here?] In fact, she was planning on it. [Can leave this out.] But her face gave a cynical slight grin [We’re inside Bonnie’s head, in her point of view, and she can’t see her face, nor is she thinking about the expression on her face, so this is a POV gaffe / violation. Show only what she is perceiving – seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking about, etc.] as she thought of it—her life had never followed the plans she laid out. If it had, she certainly wouldn’t be where she was now. She would have to work her way out. [Try to state this in a more urgent way, with more tension. How is she feeling? Overwhelmed? Discouraged? Worried? Exhausted? Determined? The more tension, the better, as a happy character is a boring character, and readers have no reason to read on or root for her.]

General comments from Jodie: I find this first page interesting, and definitely want to read more! But please show me more of Bonnie’s inner thoughts and emotions, with lots of tension! You want readers to identify with Bonnie right away and start bonding with her and rooting for her. In order for readers to become emotionally engaged with Bonnie and start caring about her plight, they need to feel what she’s feeling. So show us Bonnie’s thoughts, fears, hopes, worries, and other emotions, as well as her physical feelings, as much as possible in the first paragraphs and pages. Also, try to bring the scene more to life on the page by appealing to most of the five senses. What is she seeing? Hearing? Smelling? (that one's covered quite well). Also, is she hot or cold? Is it summertime? Any other tactile sensations or even tastes? And of course, her reactions to all this sensory barrage as she hurries to work.

Thanks for submitting this first page for a critique! I hope you find my comments and suggestions helpful. Who's up next?

Or, if you're tired of waiting for your first page to be critiqued here or you prefer to see the results in private, please contact me about critiquing your first page for $12. (PayPal takes $2, so that leaves me with $10.) Thanks! Alternatively, if you write a positive review on Amazon for one of my books below (please read the book first!), I'll put your name in a much smaller draw, so your chance of getting a free critique of your first page will be about 50%.

Jodie Renner, freelance fiction editor
www.JodieRennerEditing.com; www.CobaltBooks.net
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Twitter: @JodieRennerEd

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor who specializes in thrillers, mysteries, and other fast-paced fiction. For more info on Jodie’s editing services, please visit her editing website.

Jodie has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing and Killer Thriller, a short e-book, and Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power, which is available in paperback, as an e-book on Kindle, and in other e-book formats. And you don’t need to own an e-reader to purchase and enjoy e-books. You can download them to your computer, tablet, or smartphone.

For more info on Jodie's books and workshops, please visit her author website.

2 comments:

  1. Great Job, Jodie. Thanks for doing this. I really like the input. I think I could apply it and have a better first page, even just by adding a sentence or two, or tweaking a word here or there.

    This book was my first attempt at a novel, and I had not studied the craft one whit. Thus, there are surely many more spots where it could be improved as well. Nevertheless, it is my best selling book, and has lots of positive reviews. So the story is a good one, and since I have studied the craft, I hope my books are (and will keep) getting better and better. I am grateful for good critique like this, because in the end, we all want these stories to be everything they can be.

    I am grateful for your participation in the industry, Jodie, your generosity and kindness is appreciated. My next book will be done in deep POV, so I hope your book on deep POV comes out soon =)

    I'll be consulting your advice even more directly going forward.

    cheers!

    ~Samuel Solomon
    Author

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for revealing yourself as the author here, Samuel, although of course that's entirely optional!

    Yes, I could see a great story shining through, even from these first paragraphs, and I would definitely like to get to know your character better!

    I'm glad you found my suggestions helpful!

    ReplyDelete

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