Category Archives: First Pages

First Page Clinic: Forget the hero/nemesis/love interest, we have pointy ears.

SM: Untitled

My attention was focused on the two customers in front of me when he walked in and sent the old string of bells at the door chiming.

Tighten this up; it’s not instantly obvious where our attention should be pointed, which isn’t okay in your first line. If “the two customers in front of me” aren’t crucial to the scene, I’d try using something else to convey the narrator’s distraction. Doesn’t have to be concrete. More importantly,–I shoulda said this first–you left the gate telling us something we’d like to observe and conclude for ourselves as readers. How can you show that she’s preoccupied by something?

After a brief glance at him Perfect place for a beat, a little physical action to punctuate the scene. No brief glances, ew.  I turned my attention back to my two potential customers It’s cool to introduce them here; leave em out of the beginning, continuing my sales pitch about a cell phone and allowing my employee to greet the newcomer. The two humans across the counter from me were in their early twenties and retropunks by the look of it Tell us what they looked like, not the narrator’s judgment, which would explain what they were doing in my antique shop Wordy.  The one on my right had a mop Cliché. Think of something fresher of lime green hair — cut short on the sides and long on top — that fell forward into her eyes as she bent her head over the phone, the myriad God I hate myriad. Everyone quit saying myriad of silver hoops traveling up her right earlobe gleaming in the shop lights.  Too much action on the part of the earrings. Gleaming’s enough; let something with feet travel. The guy standing next to her had a long magenta ponytail pulled back with a strip of yellow leather, and each of his nails was painted a different fluorescent color.  They both wore the tight bright clothing that was classic to their subculture. The guy even had on real denim pants.

These two last lines don’t jibe. It’s okay that we don’t understand who or what the narrator is quite yet, but be consistent. “Classic to their subculture” is a formal, scientific observation. “Even had on real denim pants” is a more normal reaction. It’s cool for the character to be capable of both, but give us a minute to meet her.

The ponytail pulled his hair back tightly Whoop! Whoop! Adverb to smite!, showing off the pointed tips of his ears which were a little too short and angular, a telltale sign of implants.  I saw him glance I don’t hate glance as much as myriad, but it’s usually a pretty ickystupidboring way for a character to look at a thing several times at my own ears, and I could almost see his thoughts on his face What did his face do? as he tried  to decide if my tips were real or if I just had a really good mod surgeon. Oo. Interesting. I want a mod surgeon and so will your audience.

So. All this description? It’s okay, but it stops the action cold, assuming the character we really care about is Door Chime Dude. If you’re into these “retropunks,” and I bet you are, make them pay for their presence, and do it in a way that doesn’t interrupt your story. I might write a scene with them, a conversation, to start off with, and Door Chime Dude can interrupt.

*This is all one super-long paragraph. Try breaking it up to make it less formidable, at least as a book opener.

I’d keep reading, but mostly out of curiosity. Needs a lot of rewriting. Better justify those ears.


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First Page Clinic: death isn’t this boring, I promise

CB: Confessions of a Pillar of Salt

I’ve been dead for ten minutes of my life. Punch this up. For such an interesting intro, it lacks oomph. Instead of a dark, cryptic “I know what it feels like to die,” this sounds more like “I had mono in college.”

First time I died was a week before my second birthday. I’d start this sentence with “the.” Give us at least a line or two to get oriented before such casual narration. Otherwise it starts off reading like an email. I stood on a chair mashing my nose against a bug-screen, with glass panes of what? open to let in crisp spring Oregon air wordy, and watched birds flit around rose bushes overlooking Portland’s skyline a story below. My cunt of a mom Is her cuntness going to be something I wish I’d figured out for myself? Probably. Still totally reading, though. clattered cutlery in the kitchen, ignoring me as she blared NPR. It was during Larry from Ord, Nebraska’s gravely diatribe on how feminists ripped the moral fabric of America that the fabric of my mesh ripped. Maybe my career as a pilot was birthed in those moments of being airborne. Paramedics found me snagged halfway down the hill in blackberry brambles, strapped my battered body to a rescue board, and hiked up. I died near the hill’s ridge. I was dead for four minutes before they brought back. Cool, but this last line’s more disappointing than suspenseful. Instead of “I was dead for four minutes,” try giving us something

Second time I died I was in sixth grade. My body cooked itself to kill invading pneumoniatic  spirochetes. The hospital’s solution to the fever was simple: neck-deep in a bathtub filled of ice. Not large square cubes but a slurry of industrial crushed-ice slushy hash, digested by an ice machine’s internal whirling blades.  Nurses saturated my bloodstream with aspirin until they knew my brain’s proteins wouldn’t coagulate and curl like cooked egg whites. Ugh. Right on. It hurt to inhale: my condensed breath skimmed [what] as ragged curling ghosts of steam melting my encasing ice. I hyperventilated until I passed out. Then my heart said ‘screw it’ and quit. Don’t use single quotes for no reason. If you’re just quoting your pissed-off heart, use doubles. After the nurses revived me, I’d been dead for three minutes. Again, there’s something missing, and not in a what-happens-next way, but in a do-I-trust-this guy-with-his -story one.

I’d keep reading, though.

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First Page Clinic: sudden death in the slush

WH: Darkness Surrounds
Darkness surrounded his senses.
Odd word choice. It’s jarring to try to imagine darkness “surrounding senses.” And I don’t want to try, I want to read and enjoy.

Fear wrapped around him like a blanket too tightly wound. His breathes were shallow and quick. He wanted to cry out, but he had to be quiet. He had been told time and again what would happen if he made a noise.
Creepy (and that’s good), but I’d quit reading here. The wordiness of the first line combined with the misspelling in the second don’t bode well for the rest of the page, much less the novel. (Mistakes happen, but on the first page, they just can’t. It’s like showing up for a blind date without your wallet–there’s just no incentive for giving you the benefit of the doubt.) That’ll sound awful, but it’s true. Screening slush has to be quick or we’ll never get through one day’s worth of submissions. I’m going to keep going (it’s First Pages and all), but it’d be over by now in the real-life slushpile.

He heard shouts and raised voices. Both? He had to remain quiet. This could be a really powerful, key part of your scene-building, but it’s wasted here by being fed to us. Let your reader see how afraid he is of making a sound by his actions. We won’t feel his terror until we’re engaged in the character and the story, and bland narration does not achieve that connection. Then he saw a splinter of light through the wall. He went to it and peered out. Hoping that what he saw would calm his fear.  Watch that sentence structure. While I’m all for flexibility, can you imagine saying this to someone as it’s written?
His father was being attacked by a group of men. More bland narration. This language does not match the action it’s describing. His father’s being attacked? Holy shit! Make this a scene; it’s reading like exposition. They were dark apparitions More, dammit! More! like the soulless Aine his mother talked about in his bedtime stories. I’d work this into some background scenes. Let us listen to the stories with him. They overwhelmed his father. That’s it? As his father was dragged away he glanced at the wall in which Alaman was hiding. The young boy saw eyes the color of a storm at sea, Watch descriptions like this–it’s really hard to see the color of people’s eyes in the best conditions, and distracting to read in an action sequence (that’s not an extreme face-spitting closeup) and a face tear streaked and twisted with sorrow. Then his mother fell on her knees, like a limb that falls lifeless to the earth and shatters. I like this, but it doesn’t match the scene in tone or pacing. It interrupts more than it contributes to the energy we’re going for here. Even as she wept her jaw was set and her eyes burned with fierceness. He cried out as she was struck and the dark figures looked to the wall.

Wood groaned as the panel was ripped away. Hands reached in to drag Alaman outside. Terror gripped Alaman I don’t care, because I’m not feeling his terror. Tell me more; scare me. as he was dragged from his house to the cart filled with boys his age. His  arms and legs struck out, earning him a blow that sent his world spinning. He was placed roughly Junk that adverb. I want to see the roughness, not hear about it. into the wagon with the rest of the boys.

A whole lot of first drafts have to be killed with fire. Do that and don’t look back!


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Call for First Pages

Let me see that first page (250 words) of your novel. Please change any identifying details you don’t want the internets to read, and use a name/initials and a title you don’t mind me sharing.

I’ll post it with my comments, reviewing it in a slush-reader mindset and marking where I’d stop reading, if I would.

If you think slushy considerations don’t apply to you, be warned:

Agents get slush too–and their piles are even bigger. Uglier, too, I hear.


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