First Page Critique: Tenor Trouble

Today’s first page critique is entitled Tenor Trouble, and raises many of the issues we’ve addressed here at the TKZ such as the appropriate entry scene for a novel, the use of description/backstory, and clarity in POV. Kudos to our brave author for submitting this page. My comments follow.

Tenor Trouble

“Oh no, my dear. No. You simply should not even think about auditioning for this role.”

Melissa stared at her teacher, all joy flooding from her. “I shouldn’t?”

“No, no.”

Helena Montague tapped her lacquered fingernails on the shiny surface of the vocal score for Othello, which had arrived from Amazon that morning.

Melissa had been delighted that she had caught the postman before she had to leave the flat for her ten-thirty seminar on Media Adaptations of Dickens, because she went straight from work to get to Glasgow in time for her singing lesson. It was possible, of course – even probable – that the Grande dame of British opera already had the score somewhere on the shelves that lined the music room in her elegant West End townhouse, but some instinct had made Melissa hold back on mentioning her plans until she had her own copy in her own hands.

It made it real, somehow. Melissa had been so keen to get her score that she hadn’t waited for the bulk order for the company to come through from Harmony Music, but had summoned one overnight from Amazon as soon as the choice of show was officially confirmed. Not that there had ever been a great deal of doubt about whether Agnes Farquhar’s choice of Verdi’s Otellofor Doric Opera’s next production would be voted through by the Committee.

And when she had ripped off the cardboard packaging in her kitchen that morning, and gazed reverentially at the glossy cover – identical to last year’s score, with the exception of the name of the show, framed in red – she marveled at how lightweight and relatively slender the book was. It was astonishing to think that this insubstantial volume held within it the whole of such a great work.

Now she looked at the same score on the lid of the baby grand piano, tingling with dismay. “Um – why?”

My Comments

Overall Feedback

First off, I thought the first three lines of dialogue worked really well at capturing my attention and interest. Unfortunately, after that, there is far too much narrative about Melissa’s purchase of the score for Othello and her traveling to her singing lesson, which stalls the action and drains the first page of the initial dramatic tension established.

The key to this first page is, I think, establishing emotional resonance. We want to feel (and care about) Melissa’s anticipation about auditioning as well as her dismay when her teacher immediately dismisses the prospect. To do this, the author could easily reduce the various paragraphs to one or two sentences. For example, something like “Melissa clutched the glossy score to Othello that she’d eagerly had shipped overnight and stared at Helena Montague, once the Grande Dame of British opera, in dismay.” Then the scene could immediately move to providing us with more action to give the reader a tantalizing glimpse of the novel to come.

I’m assuming the novel isn’t just about Melissa’s dashed hopes so I’d like to see some kind of foreshadowing of the drama (or mystery) to come. If this is a murder mystery, the reader should start to feel a sense of anticipation that a crime is about to occur.

More Specific Comments

Dialogue

I thought the dialogue was effective – from the initial first line I already had a good sense of Helena’s arrogance as well as Melissa’s insecurity. The teacher-student relationship was obvious. I think more dialogue rather than narrative would have strengthened this first page. That being said, we also need more action in order to become committed to following (and caring about) Melissa as a character. The dialogue so far makes her seem insecure and submissive (although that is possibly understandable when faced with the Grande Dame!).

POV

I confess I got a little confused at the start when the POV seemed to shift from Melissa to Helena Montague tapping her lacquered fingers (an image I liked BTW) on the vocal score that had arrived from Amazon that morning. It made me think (incorrectly) that it was Helena who ordered it. I think this page would work better if the author stuck close to Melissa’s POV and we knew quite clearly that we were observing Helena through her eyes.

Extraneous Information

As I already noted in my overall comments, there is far too much background detail in this first page that weighs down the scene. Do we really need to know that Melissa has a ten-thirty seminar on Media Adaptations of Dickens? Likewise, do we need details such as it was Agnes Farquhar’s choice of Verdi’s Otello for Doric Opera’s next production or that a committee voted on it? Probably not. Even though Melissa’s delight and reverence for the score packs some emotional punch, this could be portrayed more succinctly. We don’t need all the details regarding her ordering it on Amazon, intercepting the postman, or how she felt opening the package.

A first page is the reader’s initial entry point to the story and so every line, every word counts. My advice to our brave submitter would be to get straight to the heart of the matter and the initial incident which (I assume) sets up the conflict for the rest of the novel.

First Scene

One question I would ask our submitter is whether he or she thinks this is the best place to start the novel – could this confrontation occur perhaps later in the first chapter or even in chapter 2? Since I’m not sure where the story is heading, I can’t answer this myself but I do wonder if this chapter contains sufficient dramatic weight to start a novel. Although Melissa’s disappointment is evident, we probably need more intrigue/drama to become fully invested in her as a character. Sometimes it helps for a writer to take a step back and re-evaluate the best place to start the story so that it grabs the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go. Maybe (and I don’t have any idea about the actual plot for this book so I’m just throwing it out there) this novel starts with the discovery of Helena’s body and then moves to this scene as Melissa grapples with her mixed feelings over her singing teacher’s demise…

All in all though, well done to our brave submitter.

So TKZers what feedback would you provide or add?

 

 

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14 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Tenor Trouble

  1. I love the world and mood of this piece. I’m assuming Scotland Yard will be looking for DNA evidence under Helena’s lacquered nails before long and here’s hoping they don’t find it ;-). Helena’s first line of dialog would work better IMHO if it was more subtle. There are a lot of words she could use to quash Melissa’s hopes without coming right out and saying so. Some comment about enthusiasm with a half-smile (on cheeks sculpted in place with Botox)? Melissa knows her well enough to see through it, and her internal narrative gives the reader another chance to get to know them both. The tension in that town home is running high and it’s only the first page, which is great. The West End is a great place for a cozy. I would buy this book.

  2. I was confused by all the places mentioned. She left her flat (where?) for a seminar (where?). She goes from work (where?) to Glasgow (in Scotland?) for singing lessons that I assume are with this lady she’s speaking to, but the lady she’s speaking to lives in a West End townhouse, which to me says London. Where are we exactly?

    Good story question raised when Melissa sees the same score she sent for already on her teacher’s piano. Is the teacher coming out of retirement to vie for the part, or does the teacher have another student who will try out for it?

    Otherwise, I agree that too much time is spent on how Melissa got the score and not enough on foreshadowing the trouble to come.

  3. I agree with Clare’s comments. I’d like to expand on the idea of tension. First, we don’t know enough about Melissa yet for her emotions to effect us. Think of walking through a crowd and overhearing this conversation. It’s mildly interesting but do you really care? Now think of your best friend saying the same thing, you will have an emotional response.
    We need to know on a visceral level why this opportunity is important to Melissa. Has she coveted this for a long time? Is she competing with a rival? Does she feel held back by Helena or is Melissa a brat or a drama queen? Who is Melissa and is she good enough for this opportunity?
    We also need to know why Helena is against Melissa’s wish. Is she an honest mentor or does she have her own agenda? Then have your characters behave in an unexpected way.
    If this is an opening, I think it is too early to give away this much of the story. You need a build up. Chapter 2 is probably a better spot. If you are interested here are two good books written by top agents. https://www.amazon.com/Stein-Writing-Successful-Techniques-Strategies/dp/0312254210 andhttps://www.amazon.com/Fire-Fiction-Passion-Purpose-Techniques-ebook/dp/B002SS582W/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1528734611&sr=1-5&keywords=donald+maas

  4. I really like the first four, short paragraphs, well done. And then I got lost some, and I realized I didn’t care about where Melissa got her score or what her schedule is like. I was also a little frustrated that we got Helena’s last name and Agnes’s last name, but we didn’t get the protagonist’s last name. I think Clare’s critique and advice are spot on.

    An opera house setting for a murder mystery, how cool! . . . OMGosh, this could be a whole series. Write on. brave author, write on!

  5. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. My thoughts are very similar to Clare’s. I love stories about music and musicians, but writers with artsy backgrounds have to remember that the most important thing to do on the first page is to entertain the reader. Here are my comments:

    The Title

    The title Tenor Trouble interested me, especially since the conflict on the first page appeared to be between two women. The tenor range is low for a woman. Women with higher voices sing soprano. Then there’s mezzo soprano, alto, and contralto. A woman who sings even lower might be called contralto profundo, similar to a male tenor, or even contralto basso, similar to a male baritone, but there are lots of variations in categories. Verdi’s Otello is a tenor role, typically for a male performer since the lead is male. It’s a difficult role (https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/sep/05/verdi-otello-role-approach-caution-stuart-skelton-tenor-eno). There are only a few female parts in Othello: Desdemona, Othello’s wife, Emilia, wife to Iago and attendant to Desdemona, and Bianca, a courtesan and love interest to Cassio. So, I confess that I am curious about what the author plans to do with this. I wish the author had been more clear about what role Melissa wants. Does she want to play Othello? Or is the “Tenor Trouble” due to a conflict concerning a man who plays the lead? I am curious.

    Opening Line

    The story opens immediately with conflict. Good. However, there is no dialogue tag on the first line, which made me wonder immediately who was speaking.

    The Opening

    Sadly, after setting up an interesting opening situation, the writer then launches into three long paragraphs of backstory and interior monologue. For new readers here, let’s review:

    Backstory – all the stuff that happened before the story begins.
    Interior Monologue – all the character’s unspoken thoughts.
    Description – information about setting and other details

    Backstory, interior monologue, and description should all take a back seat to action and dialogue on the first page. I hope our brave writer follow Paula Munier’s advice in the article “Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right” which is posted on Jane Friedman’s blog.

    The most entertaining thing on the first page of this novel seems to be the “cat fight” that’s about to happen. So get to the entertainment, and weave in the other necessary story bits. Capture the reader’s attention first. Explain all the mundane stuff later. Or as JSB says: act now, explain later.

    POV

    No one likes a wimpy protagonist. Give your protagonist (Melissa, I assume) some attitude or some reason for the reader to be on her side. Also, give Melissa’s full name in the beginning.

    Show, Don’t Tell

    Examples:

    “all joy flooding from her”
    “gazed reverentially at the glossy cover”
    ” tingling with dismay”

    (And speaking of reverentially, that’s a pretty clunky adverb.)

    Character and Other Introductions

    Mellissa Last-name-not-given
    Agnes Farquhar
    Helena Montague
    Committee (why is this capitalized?)
    Harmony Music
    Doric Opera

    Be careful about introducing to many characters and organizations and such at once. You don’t want to overwhelm your reader.

    Overwriting

    Examples:

    “gazed reverentially” – I’ve already mentioned this due to the adverb.
    “It was astonishing to think that this insubstantial volume held within it the whole of such a great work.” – Just say: “This insubstantial volume held within it the whole of such a great work.” This way it sounds less distant and more in the character’s head.
    “but had summoned one overnight from Amazon” – no one talks like this; this is author intrusion. Say it how Melissa would say it. This is obviously not a historical piece where the language might be a little different than it is today since Amazon is mentioned.

    Overall Impression

    I’m on the same page as Clare, particularly the “emotional resonance” part. Show us the conflict on the first page, and give us a reason to get behind the character. If you follow the advice given, brave writer, I’ll be turning the page. That’s all I have time to write for now. Best of luck, and carry on!

    • Thanks Joanne, as always you’ve provided some wonderful, detailed feedback that I’m hoping our brave author takes on board:) The comment about the tenor role is a good one – I confess I did wonder how the ‘tenor’ bit came in as the characters so far are female which I don’t usually associated with a tenor role. I’d assumed maybe we’d get some romance thrown in which might explain the title…

  6. I got confused:
    HM tapped the score which had arrived from Amazon…
    Then we talk about Meliissa getting one from Amazon.
    And one in a great collection somewhere.
    One (all)? looks like the score from last year.
    And I want to know which one is sitting on the piano before her eyes.
    Well, I don’t really because I’m totally lost.

    Maybe it’s just me, because others seem to have figured out the drama underneath.
    Thanks for sharing because it’s all great learning. That’s why I read this post each week. The great news is that it’s an easy fix. And if you start with page one with the suggestions given by others here, you’ll carry it through for a compelling read.
    Best wishes.

    • It wasn’t just you, Jay. I noticed those things, too, but I sort of put things together and figured out what was happening. Your observations are good ones, and our brave author should strive for maximum clarity. Readers shouldn’t have to guess or figure out what’s what. Clarity is king.

      I love the idea of the story if it’s what I think it is. Give the world a female Othello! However, this kind of story takes some real writing chops. I’m rooting for our brave writer, though.

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