We’re critiquing a first page submission today, called INDELIBLE. I’ll add my comments at the end, and then please add your feedback for the writer.
“I would rather die a thousand deaths.”
A short silence followed as Theny’s words fell between them.
Like an ice-skating buffalo.
“Good.” A pause . “I hope you realize I can make that happen.”
Through squinted eyes, Theny Carlisle slid a sullen sideways glance over at the woman threatening her from the driver’s seat of the Caravan. And for the briefest of moments, Theny mentally ticked through the list of all the things she really didn’t know about her mother’s life before she’d been domesticated. Susannah Carlisle’s meek appearance could fool most anyone, making her the next-to-last person one might expect to make such threats. Petite with large doe-eyes and flowing brown hair, Theny thought her mom looked faintly…Amish.
Minus the bonnet.
Or the dress.
But with make-up.
Oh—and a tattoo.
On her neck.
Of a skull.
Driving a minivan.
Okay…Maybe not so much Amish.
“You don’t know what it’s like, Mom,” Theny huffed and took to her iPhone.
“Oh, don’t I? I think you’ve forgotten that I, too, was in high school once.”
“Mom—seriously. You’re such a f…” Theny managed to catch the word ‘fossil’ right before it slid off the end of her tongue. She was in deep enough doo-doo as it was.
“I’m such a what?”
Theny swallowed, paused. “You’re such a…a…f-fine public speaker. So you wouldn’t understand.”
With her thumbs poised over the phone’s screen, Theny gasped as her mother reached over from the driver’s seat and grabbed the phone from her death grip. Where had she honed such cat-like reflexes? The woman was quick. Impressive. Like a greased cheetah.
“PLEASE text me…so bored…riding shotgun with…the Fossil…,” Susannah read with the device propped on the steering wheel, seemingly unfazed by the F-word.
“Hey—no texting and driving, Mom. Remember…‘It can wait.’”
“You are giving that speech, Betheny Jane Carlisle. And that’s final.”
“Speech? We could have died just then,” Theny scowled out the windshield.
“Well then,” Susannah said with an evil grin, tucking the confiscated device into her shirt pocket. “I guess that’d be one down, nine-hundred-ninety-nine to go.”
“And I quote—‘I’d rather die a thousand deaths’—End quote.”
Theny sighed and let her head fall back against the headrest. It rolled to the right and smacked the rider-side-window. “Admit it, Mom,” she mumbled with her cheek pressed to the glass. “You were Mafioso before you met Dad.”
This first page has some notable strengths–I like the strong sense of the young girl’s voice, and the equally strong opposing voice of the mother’s character. Other aspects of the scene had me a bit confused.
Where the heck are we?
The unusual name “Theny,” plus the reference to the mother’s character as having been “domesticated” made me think we’re reading a scene from a dystopian story set in the future. But then, other references, “iPhone,” “Amish,” “(Dodge) Caravan,” undid that first assumption, leaving me feeling confused. Where (and when) are we, exactly, in this scene?
Keep every stimulus with its corresponding reaction
This scene starts off with the phrase, “I’d rather die a thousand deaths.” We have no idea what that dialogue refers to until much later, when the mother finally says, “You are giving that speech…” And even then, we have to surmise the implied association. Overall, this is a confusing setup. By the time the reader figures out what these characters are talking about, she may have lost interest. Keep every stimulus in your story closely associated with its corresponding reaction (you can also think in terms of keeping every cause with its associated effect). In this scene, we wander all over the place (the lengthy descriptions of the mother, tattoo, dress, makeup, etc.) before we learn what the heck these two characters are arguing about.
Don’t let readers make wrong assumptions
What kind of speech are the characters discussing in this scene? We need to get that information as early as possible, as well as a sense of why Theny is resisting the idea of giving the speech. Readers tend to “fill in” missing information by making their own assumptions. (For example, I assumed Theny is supposed to give a valedictorian address, but that assumption may be wrong.) Don’t let readers wander down a wrong path by withholding specific information that they need to know. (Another example of this is when a writer introduces a character without physical specifics, and later refers to her as a brunette. That would be jarring to readers who had “filled in” the specifics by visualizing her with blonde hair.)
Use appropriate language for each character
I liked the way the daughter’so dialogue is written–it seems appropriate for a character in her teens. But then, when the daughter’s thoughts describe her mother, the language seems to belong to a much older speaker. “Honed..cat-like reflexes.” “Greased cheetah.” (“Greased cheetah” didn’t work for me, in general, btw. Nor did “ice skating buffalo”.)
Avoid confusing interruptions and transitions
I got lost during the back and forth about the iPhone and texting. For example, when I first read “Theny took to her iPhone”, I didn’t understand until rereading that she had started writing a text message. Then we have an interjection of dialogue from Susannah, “PLEASE text me..” without establishing a sense that it is now Susannah who is speaking. When you shift gears from one character to another, you need to make sure the reader stays with you.
A minor note: I also got thrown by the “F” word discussion. “Fossil” seems a very tame “F” word for Theny to be worried about using.
I sense the development of strong characters and an interesting story in this first page. Avoid unnecessary distractions, and keep going! And thanks to our brave writer for submitting this page for review!
Do you have feedback for today’s writer? Please add your thoughts in the Comments.