Monday, September 10, 2007

Monday Mania: First Page

Introducing our first Monday Mania submission. One of our readers submitted the first page of her novel. Feel free to make comments, but please make them constructive.

Critique Archive 0001:

Zina Martin shivered, though the early summer night was dry and mild and the full moon bathed the desert in a gentle glow. Then she prayed, a habit she had abandoned for a while, that someone would stop and offer her a ride somewhere, anywhere, far away from the polygamous hamlet of Gabriel’s Landing, Utah.

She heard the soft “Who? Who?” call of an owl in a scraggly juniper tree, and the Mormon crickets answered in unison with their rhythmic two-note “You-you, you-you, you-you” chorus. She knew that whenever she would recall this night, the moonlight, the scent of sagebrush, the owl’s mournful question and the crickets’ accusing reply would seep into the memory.

Her heart pounded, fear made her hands clammy and a cold bead of sweat slid down her spine. She had never been more than a hundred miles from home, and then only with an adult family member. Now she stood in the weeds beside the shoulder of the highway, a few clothes hastily stuffed in her duffel bag, and thirteen dollars and eighty-four cents in her pocket. She was sixteen, abandoned by the golden-haired man she had loved, and promised in plural marriage to a forty-two year-old man with four other wives and twenty-five children, some of whom were older than she.

Zina was trapped, just like the solitary sparrow that had flown inside the open window of her English classroom last week. The terrified bird had darted from one wall to another and bumped into windows in vain, trying to escape. The teacher finally tossed his jacket over it and took the bundle carefully to the window, unfolding the sleeves and allowing the trembling bird to fly away with a pitiful chirp. Zina understood the little creature’s terror and she envied its freedom. She hoped it had returned to the flock, or at least found a safe haven in a tall pine tree.

It was just the day before yesterday, when she overheard her father give Cyrus Hamilton permission to court and therefore marry her, that the final brick had been fit and cemented into the wall—a wall built, brick by brick, to keep her from the outside world and sentence her to a way of life she had always known she could not live. How could she begin to explain that to Mother and Father and Aunt Sarah and Aunt Hannah, so true and dedicated to the Principle, and so certain of her ultimate happiness and destiny as a young polygamous wife? Tonight would be her last chance to climb over the wall.


Heather B. Moore said...

You have a lot of great imagery here. The line that stuck with me the very most was the last line of the excerpt, "Tonight would be her last chance to climb over the wall."

This was fascinating and brought many questions to my mind. You might consider having this be your opening line, and hooking us in from the beginning.

The mini-flashback to the sparrow in the classroom is out of place. Flashbacks on a first page slow the story.

I also wondered what century this was at the beginning . . . because of the polygamy reference. It wasn't until you mentioned the duffle bag that I realized it was a modern-day setting. Take the "Mormon" off of crickets. Those outside of Utah may not know what you mean.

If you aren't going to use external dialog (the animal sounds don't count), give us some internal dialog so that we can see her emotional state (instead of "telling" us she's afraid to be so far from home--let us feel her anxiety through her thoughts).

Overall, I want more "showing" on the first page. You are cramming in a lot of information at once. Slow down and give us your best hook, then gradually feed us the morbid details of this poor girl's situation.

Janice LeFevre said...

I agree with all of Heather's comments, so I won't repeat my version of those comments here. (You could, instead, just read Heather's again! LOL.)

Here's more observations.

I enjoyed your first page, especially the owl asking "Who?" and the crickets answering "you-you."

I felt like many of your sentences were cramming too much into them--shoving in back story that you could either omit here and/or expand into 2-3 sentences. These crammed sentences were awkward to read. If you'll do more showing, this is an easy problem to mend.

Great draft. Good luck on the next revision!

Oh, and I highly recommend going to the LDS Storywriters Conference next March. Their training last year helped me to improve my writing significantly and helped me to see weaknesses I'd been blind to before.

Lu Ann Brobst Staheli said...

I also second Heather's comments, and although I agree with her that that "Tonight would be her last chance to climb over the wall" would make a great opening, I think for your target audience---I'm seeing this as a YA novel---you should start with the paragraph that begins "Zina was trapped."

It is true that you have jam-packed too much information---especially back story---onto the first page. Slow it down. Play it out. Give us one scene at a time.

Try reading your story aloud. Many sentences were difficult to follow. Often we recognize this on our own when we read aloud something that we haven't looked at for a week or two. If you stumble, so will your reader. If an editor stumbles on the first page, they send a rejection.

If you're worried about not getting the polygamy issue introduced soon enough, that can actually come in your query letter. If you throw it at your reader right away, you may lose them immediately.

A technical comment, because an owl's call comes from the word "hoot," I've usually seen the diminutive spelled "Hoo" rather than "Who," although I do like your play on words.

Overall, you have a good start on knowing your character, where she came from, and where she needs to be going. I think once you find the real beginning and allow the background to come into the in a more natural flow, you'll have a winner. Good luck!

Ceil said...

Great story. I agree with the comments already made. The only thing I would add is to cut qualifying statements. "She knew that whenever she remembered this night," for example. Very good.
Ceil DeYoung

Josi said...

Great voice, great writing style. I agree there is a lot of information packed in very tight, and I would also like to see a very 'hooking' opening line, such as "Zina was trapped. The only way out was the highway and so with a few changes of clothing shoved into her duffel bag she was turning her back on her home, her family, and the end to which she was born--the third wife of a man three times her age." something that would immediately help us sympathize with her, rather than description. Great writing, though and what an intriguing subject--I'm assuming it's contemporary polygamy. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the feedback!

FYI, it is not a YA novel. My audience is adults, probably women. The query (though I'm not sending it out yet) does contain references to polygamy, so your point is well taken that I could hold back with some of that information.

I'll have to see where in my ms I make my first reference to time (it is contemporary).

Thanks for pointing out the show/tell issues.

I have attended the Storymakers workshop twice. I intend to go to next year's, and I agree that it's wonderful.

I think I'm getting more comfortable in my own skin - I do think my voice is developing and I think I can hold the reader's interest with some edits.

Also, I planned to open the strong imagery and sense of place because this girl is leaving home and she'll never return. I'd like the reader to get a distinct impression of the environment the girl has known all her life, because she's going to encounter a world she never imagined exists.

I think that's a matter of plot and pacing, something I'll be sweating over in the next few months!

Plus, I know Zina so well now, I'll listen very carefully to her as she tells me her story, so I can do it justice.

Of course, Zina is not a real person . . . . so I know the above paragraph sounds absolutley crazy to anybody except writers!

Again, thanks for the comments.