First Page Critique – “New to the Neighborhood”

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

By Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21002061

For your reading enjoyment is another brave author open to feedback. My comments will follow. Feel free to share your constructive criticism in your comments. Let’s nurture this author, TKZers.

***

The words, sprayed in red, dripped like blood down the white siding of the ranch house on the corner. “They could have at least gotten the spelling right,” I called from the curb, loud enough for the woman in the yard, scattering grass seed from a coffee can, to hear.

Maggie looked up. She stood – a scarecrow with choppy, flaxen hair under a straw hat, worn jeans, and flannel shirt rolled to the elbow – and we looked at each other. She called toward the backyard: “June. We have company.”

A second woman approached along the slate flagstones that curved between a pansy-and-petunia border. Knee-length shorts and a Hawaiian shirt showed dimpled limbs and rose quartz skin. A halo of gray-flecked, light brown curls accented the cherub face. The tight line of her mouth loosened into something like a smile. Then her lips began to tremble and her eyelids flutter. She wrapped me in an airtight hug, which I returned with less vigor.

Maggie pressed June’s elbow. “June, get us some chairs. Can you sit a while, Kelly?”

They’d arrived two months before, in March, setting the block’s antenna twitching. Two single women, the wrong ages for mother and daughter, no men in sight. Sue Hoycheck said they seemed nice enough, but Sue was a kind-hearted grandmother who thought everyone seemed nice enough. They told Edie Isom they’d moved from St. Paul. One or the other –Edie couldn’t remember – had been hired to manage the art mall opening in the old Amtrak station downtown. When Olin Frey murmured that he’d seen just one bed – queen-size – come off the moving van, all the pieces fit together.

“It’s no big deal,” Lynn Franklin insisted. I’d come to Franklin’s Hardware to order specialty paints, coffee bean brown and French olive green, for a dining room trim. “As long as they return the rototiller they rented from us, who they sleep with is their own business.”

I smiled with mischief. “And if they don’t return the rototiller, who they sleep with is . . .?”

She frowned. “It may seem funny to you. You probably met a lot of them in New York. But around here . . .”

“I don’t know how many I met,” I said. “I’ll bet you don’t either.”

***

FEEDBACK

Overview: There is a lot for me to like in this intro. The inciting incident is a disturbance established with graffiti. It’s the first image the author draws our attention to. The idyllic setting is marred by red paint on the white siding of a ranch house. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the women. Very visual and easy to imagine. I also appreciated the underlying emotion in this scene when the visitor & the narrator console with a hug.

After I read and reread this intro, I noticed things that I would edit if this was my work. I had questions on POV and the characters as I read on. I sincerely enjoyed reading this intro. The talent of this author is very apparent, but some housekeeping is in order.

ESTABLISH GENDER: Since this is in first person, the gender of the narrator would be important as soon as possible from the start. This is minor, but add a word to this line:

I called from the curb, loud enough for the OTHER woman in the yard,…

Good call for the author to establish June’s name by having Maggie call out to her.

SENTENCE CLARITY: This is me, being nit picky. The sentence below might flow a little better:

BEFORE: “…loud enough for the woman in the yard, scattering grass seed from a coffee can, to hear.”

AFTER: “…loud enough for the other woman in the yard to hear as she scattered grass seed from a coffee can.”

STICK WITH ONE POV – If this scene is told from June’s singular POV, the intro should consistently be seen through her eyes. In the second paragraph, when Maggie looks up at June, this line follows”

and we looked at each other

I would suggest that the author stay in June’s head and try to imagine what she might see in Maggie’s eyes – worry, fatigue, hurt, concern, wariness? Or simply change the line to: “When my eyes fixed on Maggie’s, something passed between us.”

Another line switches the POV from June to Maggie: Maggie pressed June’s elbow. If this is truly meant for June’s POV, this line would read: Maggie pressed my elbow.

In paragraph 5, that begins with “They’d arrived two months before…”, the author switches from June’s POV to telling a “THEY” story. The POV should be consistent throughout this intro scene, so that line might read “I had moved with Maggie two months ago…”

But from this writing, maybe June and Maggie aren’t the “they” the author is writing about. Perhaps the author is writing about Kelly and her significant other. It’s not explained who Kelly is or why June is reticent to embrace her. By the time I got down to reading Lynn Franklin’s lines, I realized the hardware store owner was talking to June, as if June was an insider to the town. Some clarity is definitely needed.

If June and Maggie are the newcomers, other lines should be fixed for POV as follows:

BEFORE: Two single women, the wrong ages for mother and daughter, no men in sight. Sue Hoycheck said they seemed nice enough, but Sue was a kind-hearted grandmother who thought everyone seemed nice enough. They told Edie Isom they’d moved from St. Paul. One or the other –Edie couldn’t remember – had been hired to manage the art mall opening in the old Amtrak station downtown. When Olin Frey murmured that he’d seen just one bed – queen-size – come off the moving van, all the pieces fit together.

AFTER: We were two single women, the wrong ages for mother and daughter, no men in sight. Sue Hoycheck told others that we seemed nice enough, but Sue was a kind-hearted grandmother who thought everyone seemed nice enough. Word spread through town busy body, Edie Isom. It didn’t take long for folks to know Maggie and I hailed from St. Paul. Edie didn’t remember which one of us had been hired to manage the art mall opening in the old Amtrak station downtown, but I guess that didn’t matter much. But what set the town on fire came when Olin Frey murmured that he’d seen just one bed – queen-size – come off the moving van. That’s when all the pieces fit together for folks with small minds.

But if the “they” is Kelly and her partner or wife if they are married (unsure of the time period of this piece), then “they” should be explained with names.

EMBEDDED DIALOGUE – I would recommend to draw out dialogue lines so they are not embedded within a paragraph. It allows the reader to follow more easily and keep track of who is speaking.

The words, sprayed in red, dripped like blood down the white siding of the ranch house on the corner.

“They could have at least gotten the spelling right,” I called from the curb, loud enough for the woman in the yard to hear as she scattered grass seed from a coffee can.

Maggie looked up. She stood – a scarecrow with choppy, flaxen hair under a straw hat, worn jeans, and flannel shirt rolled to the elbow. When my eyes fixed on hers, something passed between us. She nudged her head and called toward the backyard.

“June. We have company.”

TIGHTEN SENTENCES WHERE NECESSARY: In the BEFORE line below, if the visitor’s lips are “beginning to tremble”, they are already trembling. A cleaner sentence would be:

BEFORE: Then her lips began to tremble and her eyelids flutter.

AFTER: Her lips trembled and her eyelids fluttered.

SHOW TIME LAPSE: When the dialogue line “It’s no big deal…” comes up, time has passed and June has left Maggie & Kelly or it’s another day or a memory. It would be nice to clarify this and I changed the flow a little in the AFTER example.

BEFORE: “It’s no big deal,” Lynn Franklin insisted. I’d come to Franklin’s Hardware to order specialty paints, coffee bean brown and French olive green, for a dining room trim. “As long as they return the rototiller they rented from us, who they sleep with is their own business.”

I smiled with mischief. “And if they don’t return the rototiller, who they sleep with is . . .?”

She frowned. “It may seem funny to you. You probably met a lot of them in New York. But around here . . .”

AFTER: Two hours later, I stared at the weary face of Lynn Franklin, owner of the local hardware store in town. I’d come to Franklin’s Hardware to order specialty paints, coffee bean brown and French olive green, for a dining room trim.

“It’s no big deal,” Lynn Franklin insisted. “As long as they return the rototiller they rented from us, who they sleep with is their own business.”

I smiled with mischief. “And if they don’t return the rototiller, who they sleep with is . . .?”

She frowned.

“It may seem funny to you. You probably met a lot of them in New York. But around here . . .”

“I don’t know how many I met,” I said. “I’ll bet you don’t either.”

SUMMARY: I really like how this ends. If the author adds clarity on the areas I brought up, the conflict is apparent, but I’m wondering where this will go and if it’s enough for a whole novel. The characters intrigue me. I would read on.

DISCUSSION:

1.) What changes would you recommend, TKZers? Would you read on?

2.) What possible plot twists can you see stemming from this introduction?

5+
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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

19 thoughts on “First Page Critique – “New to the Neighborhood”

  1. I think the entire page is from Kelly’s POV. I don’t see it ever in June’s POV. June and Maggie are the newcomers. Kelly is the friendly neighbor.

    I like the way the characters are described and how other members of the community are brought in through interaction with Kelly.

    June’s reaction when she sees Kelly is a bit strange. Is it just relief that the visitor Maggie announced isn’t an antagonist? Or are we meant to think that June has a thing for Kelly?

    I do wonder where this story is going. Will it be just a preachy tale about intolerance? I don’t think that would hold me long. What would hold me?
    -a novel in which the real story is about something other than intolerance (triangle with Kelly, June and Maggie? or a murder mystery, maybe with the intolerance being a red herring?).
    -a novel that turns the intolerance on its head–it turns out to have nothing to do with attitudes towards lesbians.
    -a novel in which the intolerance takes unusual or subtle form or puts someone (Kelly?) in a moral or social quandary.

    Or whatever. Something more than “lesbian couple moves to town–faces intolerance–does something to win over their antagonists.”

    In any case, to start the novel with the graffiti attack seems too much “on the nose.”

  2. This writer has good bones here. I would say a bright future if this is where their writing journey begins. Housekeeping. I was right there until all the names gave me too much to think about, but nowhere to ground me. Go slow. Milk every moment. Let the reader feel the story. No need to rush. Keep going. I want more.

    • Thanks for your words of encouragement for this promising author & story.

      I agree that with this introduction, many townspeople names can be confusing until the author brings them back later & hopefully has a plan to make them stick. One way would be to give each a small town characteristic or function (like hardware store owner or town gossip).

      A friend of mine who lives in a tiny town in Oklahoma always entertained me with the alternative names she would give her neighbors, like Mr. B. O. Plenty.

      Thanks, Jay.

  3. I read this the same way Eric did–Kelly is the friendly-neighbor narrator visiting the newcomers June and Maggie. But if someone as astute as Jordan interpreted the POV differently, that’s reason enough for the author to reexamine the wording to be sure it’s clear.

    The descriptions were fabulous: pansy-and-petunia border, rose-quartz skin, dimpled limbs, airtight hug, etc. All painted vivid pictures.

    The names didn’t bother me b/c the author perfectly captured the rhythm and nuances of small-town dialogue. At this point, gossip serves to set the scene more than introduce characters. I assume the names are throwaways that I won’t need to remember until/unless they reappear in later scenes.

    The scene in the hardware store seemed like a flashback to me but, again, the author should revisit to make clear if it actually is a flashback or if it’s a new scene that’s moved forward in time. The line about returning the rototiller made me laugh out loud.

    Anonymous Author, your writing is vivid, nuanced, and evocative. You’ve balanced the tension with just enough exposition to ground the reader. I care about these characters and want to find out what’s going to happen to them. Great job!

    • Thanks for weighing in, Debbie. What drew me into this piece was the small town feel and the world the author is revealing, with an undertone of intolerance. This author definitely has talent and I’d be willing to see where this intro would go.

  4. I didnt notice I didnt know the sex of the character so it really isn’t important at this point.

    Even though I read this a few times, I remained confused as to whether the conversation in the hardware store took place after the graffiti or two months ago.

    I have no idea where the writer is going but if it were me i wouldn’t tell the reader what the graffiti said for a couple or many chapters. It would have nothing to do with them being lesbians, maybe a controversial piece of art in the gallery. I live writing red herrings.

    I wouldn’t be interested if the story was solely about intolerance, but since this site is for mysteries and thrillers I’m guessing its not.

  5. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer, and thanks to Jordan for sharing her time and talent here at TKZ. There’s a lot that writers can learn from studying this opening. Stories about same-sex couples are very on trend right now, but I think if you want to sell this story, brave writer, some things need attention. Here are my comments (many of which are going to sound similar to Jordan’s, but sometimes it helps to hear the same thing said a different way):

    Title

    New to the Neighborhood isn’t a very interesting or genre-specific title. If this story is going to be about a murder, as the word “blood” in the opening line suggests, then I would make sure you give the novel a title that doesn’t make it sound like a “beach read” story about a group of women.

    First Line

    “The words, sprayed in red, dripped like blood down the white siding of the ranch house on the corner.”

    The opening line suggests immediately that this is a novel about a murder. If it isn’t, get rid of the “dripped like blood” from the opening line. The beginning must prepare the reader for the coming tone. The story begins with a disturbance, and that’s a good thing. As a reader, I wanted to know what was written on the siding, however, since the spelling was mentioned. Also, I’d write the sentence like this:

    Sprayed in red, the words dripped like blood down the white siding of the rancher on the corner.

    I would not separate the the subject and the verb in your opening sentence. I also eliminated a word by using “rancher” instead of “ranch house.” Be as concise as possible.

    Too Many Character Introductions on the First Page

    Maggie, June, Sue, Olin, Lynn, Kelly and so on. Have you ever arrived at a party where the hostess introduced you to a lot of people at once? How many of those names do you remember?

    It sounds like you are introducing a whole cast of interesting characters (perhaps some future murder suspects). Unfortunately, the sheer number of character introductions adds to the POV confusion (more about that later). If you want the greatest chance of success with this book, begin the opening scene with two characters, the POV character and one other character so that it’s absolutely clear to the reader who is who. This way you will have no confusion. If you want to have a party of characters on the page, you might be able to do it later in the book after the reader has had a chance to meet people. Don’t do it on the first page, because a confused reader won’t turn the page. These characters sound like such interesting people. Give the reader the chance to get to know them slowly. Remember, clarity is king.

    POV

    If you’re going to write in first person, literary agents will expect a strong, clear voice. When you write in first person, you have to follow certain rules. You can only tell the reader what the POV character sees, feels, hears, smells, tastes, and thinks. Writing first person POV isn’t a skill that anyone should expect to master overnight. Writing in first person takes considerable study to do well, and there are some advantages and disadvantages to this POV choice. Since I always like to recommend books, today’s first recommendation is a book called Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway. There’s a good discussion of POV. Another good book is Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. Also, there’s By Cunning and Craft by Peter Selgin, which includes a good discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of writing in first person in chapter two. The Beginner’s Guide to Writing a Novel by Marina Oliver has a good discussion in chapter four about how to choose the most effective viewpoint for your story. Then there’s Characters, Emotion, & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress, which includes some great writing exercises. Maybe you can find one or more of these at your local library.

    Importance of Word Choice

    “She wrapped me in an airtight hug, which I returned with less vigor.”

    Airtight is a word I think of when I think of a sandwich bag, not a hug. This may seem like picking nits, but I’d rewrite this sentence.

    Backstory

    Readers aren’t interesting in reading about stuff that already happened on the first page of a novel. They are interested in what’s happening in the “right now” of the story. You have included a lot of backstory on the first page. Some writing teachers say not to include more than a couple of lines of backstory in the opening. Here’s the last line before you launch into backstory:

    Maggie pressed June’s elbow. “June, get us some chairs. Can you sit a while, Kelly?”

    Stay in the here and now of the story on the first page.

    Don’t Describe Every Micro Action

    You write: “The tight line of her mouth loosened into something like a smile. Then her lips began to tremble and her eyelids flutter. She wrapped me in an airtight hug, which I returned with less vigor.”

    It took you three lines to (basically) tell about a hug. This level of detail will be tedious for a reader. The middle sentence also has issues, but the important takeaway is to describe actions succinctly. Get rid of the actions that aren’t so important to the overall plot.

    Final Comments

    I don’t have time to comment on every issue I see right now, but that’s why it’s good that there are so many reviewers here at TKZ. I think Jordan gave you great advice. Aim for clarity above all else. I want to know what was written on the siding and what happens to the same-sex couple. Best of luck, and keep writing!

    • Caught a typo. Sorry. “Readers aren’t interesting in reading” should read “Readers aren’t interested in reading” … forgive any other typos you may find, please. Things are crazy around here, today!

    • Thanks for the details, Joanne. All of this will help the author decide what to do. One of my more detailed editors at HarlequinTeen became my fav editor because she paid attention to details. Her track changes on the document with comments were sometimes off, but simply because she mentioned anything that confused her (even when I thought I’d been crystal clear), I knew I had to take seriously. It’s best to error on the side of clarity. If someone like my editor felt a point needed to be clearer, I always made changes.

      • Excellent point, Jordan! If an editor, critique group, or beta reader notices something, they might not necessarily know how to fix it. They just recognize something is off. I always pay attention to their warning bells.

      • It’s great to have an editor that you trust, and I agree completely about erring on the side of clarity. I love revising almost as much as writing, but I’m probably weird that way.

  6. I, too, thought the POV was confusing.

    However, I like knowing–or at least getting hint of–what this story will be about, so I don’t object as much about the “on the nose” feel to this piece; however, you could soften it a bit without eliminating the issue entirely.

    I’m not a fan of list-type character descriptions no matter how well written, (as these are) although it is important to describe main characters the first time we meet them. I’d tend to pick the two most important details, preferably something that also reveals a bit of characterization) and leave other pertinent details for later. Even a significant and unique (to the character) detail of body language–which you can modify later on many times can be used to great effect, as E. Annie Proulx’s use of the hand to chin by Quoyle in THE SHIPPING NEWS.

    Some of the dialogue feels extraneous, and may possibly be the result of the overall lack of clarity in the piece, but I’d take a look at my narrator’s goal for the scene (i don’t even get a hint of that goal) as a way of reviewing the scene’s structure. I think the structure needs some work.

    However, overall, I think this writer has great potential, and I would want to read more.

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