First Page Critique: No Tomorrows

Happy Monday (and for me, the final week of summer before my twins start high school – so no stress at all this week…)!! Today I’m critiquing the first page of a project entitled (ominously…) ‘No Tomorrows’. As always, my comments follow and I look forward to your input!

No Tomorrows

Sally Lee’s sandals squished on the wet pavement. She should’ve changed to sneakers, but hadn’t wanted to take the time. She had to escape the house.

Escape? A curious word. Where’d that come from?

The fog had closed in after the evening’s pounding rain. It swirled around her, shrouding her in cold white anonymity as she walked away from the peaceful cul-de-sac where they’d lived for twenty years. It felt good to be walking somewhere, anywhere. Her jacket whipped around her. She zipped it up and tucked her blond curls under the hood.

Wrapped in the mist, she could think, find her reason again after the strange events of the evening. It had started with the conversation at the dinner table.

After the blessing, Sally asked, as she always did, “How was your day, kids? Anything interesting happen?” She started the mashed potatoes around the table, then reached for the platter of pork chops. Dinner as usual. Sally thrived on as usual. Dinner was family talk time.

Four scrubbed faces turned her way. Mayra answered first, tossing her long blond hair over her shoulder. At fifteen, she acted as if it was her right to be first in any circumstance. Sally often had to remind her to allow the youngest to go first sometimes.

“Remember I told you we have to write an essay?” she asked. “Today Miss Harris told us we had to choose one of three questions to answer in our essays.”

Five pairs of eyes looked at her.

“Well?” Roger asked, “What question did you choose?”

“What would I do today if I knew I’d die tomorrow?” Mayra answered her father, reaching for the platter of dinner rolls.

Sally dropped her fork. It hit her plate with a clang, then bounced to the floor, skittering under the table. Five pairs of eyes watched as she scooted her chair back and dived under the table. She picked it up, along with a piece of broccoli.  Her hand trembled as she pushed her hair back from her damp forehead. The fork clattered to the floor again.

“What are you doing under there, Sal?” Roger peered down at her.

“Getting my fork—you writing a book? Leave that chapter out, okay?”

The children giggled.

Crawling out, she wiped her fork on her napkin and popped the broccoli into her mouth.

“Five second rule?” chirped five-year-old Kimmie.

Overall Comments

I loved how this first page juxtaposed an ordinary dinner scene with Sally’s rather desperate ‘escape’ in the first paragraph. The reader knows something is off kilter, yet there’s nothing obvious to explain Sally’s disquiet…yet…and this provides the reader with a great reason to keep turning the page. The writing is also succinct and clear, with just enough detail to evoke the rain and fog, as well as the dinner table conversation and the family dynamics. Sally’s reaction to her daughter’s essay topic certainly left me wanting to read more and, as with any good first page, it left me with lots of questions I wanted answered.

I particularly liked the first paragraph and the chilling use the phrase Escape? A curious word. Where’d that come from? This definitely made me want to know more about Sally’s past and why she felt such panic and anxiety that she needed to flee her house. The author did a great job of introducing some short snippets of information that made us empathize and also be intrigued by Sally (I loved the line: Sally thrived on as usual. It reveals so much about her character in just a few words.)

Some Suggestions

Still, I do think there were a few ways in which this first page could be strengthened – although most of my recommendations are really only minor nitpicks:)

First, I did feel like the dinner scene could have had a couple of more lines describing the whole family as we only really hear Mayra, Roger, and Kimmie (if my math is right there are two other kids at the table). I found it hard to picture them all – and the use of “Four scrubbed faces turned her way” followed by “Five pairs of eyes looked at her” was a bit generic. Likewise, having both the protagonist and her daughter described by their blond hair didn’t seem very distinctive or interesting.

Second, I didn’t really believe the essay topic that Mayra had been given at school. At fifteen, “What would I do today if I knew I’d die tomorrow?” seems a rather odd topic (though maybe this is just me??). I think I would have been more willing to go along with it had Roger reacted in some way or said something like “Wow, that’s pretty dark…” or “Miss Harris is a strange one.”  – something to show his character a bit more. This would also provide a nice contrast to Sally’s reaction.

Finally, I think I would have liked just a little bit more tension, maybe even menace, when it came to Sally’s reaction to her daughter’s essay topic. Just one line that could intrigue the reader a bit more perhaps? I didn’t quite understand why Sally said: “Getting my fork—you writing a book? Leave that chapter out, okay?” but that might just me! I think I wanted her to snap at him or be more defensive – something – to add to the disquiet beneath the cozy domesticity of the dinner table scene.

Overall though, I thought this was an effective first page. It managed to combine the ordinary with an uneasiness that made me want to find out more about what was really going on in Sally’s life – so bravo to our brave submitter!

So TKZers what comments, feedback, or advice would you provide?

 

 

4+

22 thoughts on “First Page Critique: No Tomorrows

  1. Clare, I also appreciated the crisp, concise style of today’s brave author. But starting with Sally’s escape into the mist then immediately flashing back to the dinner table jarred me.

    What about reversing that order? Open the scene at the dinner table when Mayra brings up the essay question about dying tomorrow. Sally drops her fork, dives under the table, and stays there. Show that she’s staggered by the question and literally hiding from her family. At that point, you could insert the brief description of the children’s dynamics (like 15 yo Mayra feels entitled to always go first).

    While Roger and Kimmie joke, Sally trembles, trying to recover enough to reemerge. Then maybe she lies, “I need to get something from the kitchen,” and escapes outside to the mist.

    The brave author does a great job of creating a disturbance on page 1. Sally, who thrives on “usual”, is keeping a secret from her apparently happy, normal family. I’ll certainly keep reading to find out what that secret is.

    Good title and intriguing start!

    • My thoughts exactly. Sally has escaped. From what? Then onto a fairly normal dinner. I think flipping the order would help.

      • I agree with Debbie about reversing the order, and with Clare’s comments to describe all the children. This opening shows promise and I loved the line about the 5-second rule. Good work, Brave Author.

  2. Debbie – interesting take on the order of this first page. I actually liked having the mystery of why Sally is out walking trying to ‘escape’ and then having the dinner table scene but it could certainly work well reversed. I think to still have the same sense of disturbance maybe this would have the essay topic dialogue jar the reader right from the start.

  3. I liked this. Clare’s suggestions would make me like it even more. I also liked that the heroine (as far as we know) is an “average” person. No super-hero. No oversexed spy or undercover agent. Just Average Sally from the PTA who always brings store-bought cookies to the meetings. Everyone thinks they know her so well. But they don’t. They really don’t.

    I like that.

  4. I was hooked by the description of the escape followed by the uncomfortable dinner scene. Together, they made me curious about Sally. What happened? Where was she going. Well done.

  5. As the father of two high schoolers, The essay topic was more common than it is now. I remember writing an essay on a similar question back in the day. Sadly, I had a similar discussion this summer with my eldest who is starting her senior year. “Would you cover a classmate with your body in a school shooting?” Welcome to 2019.

    Back to the page. I wasn’t impressed. There is a lack of description of just about everything. Nothing seems to go anywhere. Maybe brave author is trying to do too much at once. Sally is escaping from what? Abusive husband, the boredom of suburbia, mashed potatoes, the boogey man? A little something would help me.

    The same with dinner. Sally is shocked at the prompt for the writing assignment. She doesn’t ask what the other choices are. Nor does she ask why Claire chose that one.

    • Ugh – that would be a horrific essay topic! Good points on the generic nature of most of the descriptions – more specificity would add more depth and color. I also agree that Sally doesn’t ask the questions most parents would when confronted with the topic – adding to how that dialogue doesn’t really ring true.

  6. I liked the order in which the scenes take place. I don’t think the dinner scene would evoke enough curiosity on its own, and would create a very different tone. Though I do like Debbie’s suggestions for rewriting the dinner scene; it’ll definitely create more tension.

    A few things to note:

    I originally thought Sally was a child, especially with the “blonde curls” description.

    I loved the transition from present to past, especially with the specific details of the food. After Mira starts talking, though, the scene becomes vague.

    “Four scrubbed faces” is a nice introduction, and gives the feel of a typical white middle class family. The “five pairs of eyes”–though I’m not averse to eyes being mentioned on the page–ccreates a group mentality kinda feel, which I think then creates the vague sense here. If you could replace those phrases with some more specific detail, it’ll help ground the scene.

    Last, nowhere here do you mention that Roger is her husband, and the dialogue just isn’t personalized enough to absolutely show it.

    Overall, I liked this and would definitely turn the page.

    • I agree, AzaLI. Some writers and teacher INSIST that we never start a story with the 1950s cliche, “I punched the button to silence the alarm clock . . . ” Then they give us the substantial list of good reasons why this is a bad way to start any story.

      But starting with a dinner scene? Mashed potatoes and gravy and roast beef? Corn? Buttered bread?

      There we are, back in the 1950s again, an era that I fondly remember with our white Kelvinator appliances, white buck shoes, and Elvis singing ANYTHING.

      On the other hand, the initial escape scene here clearly says dilemma, urgency, possibly fear, possibly a lot of different, bad things.

      Dinner says: DILEMMA–lumpy mashed potatoes, gravy dropped on the table cloth. What if I don’t like the dessert?

      Now, if dinner were to be interrupted by automatic weapon rounds coming through the window, now we’re talkin’.

  7. When I read about the topic of the essay and Sally’s need to escape my mind went to someone (Sally or Mayra) having a possible terminal illness that the rest of the family was unaware of. There is obviously something life-threatening for Sally to have that reaction. Or maybe she had another child who died or a sister, etc. There are lots of possibilities. I would like to read more.

  8. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer, and thanks to Clare and everyone for their comments. Here’s my take. So brave writer, put this in your bonnet and think upon it.

    Openings To Avoid

    One opening to avoid is where a character is alone thinking (even if she is walking while she is thinking.) See the article by Kristin Nelson entitled “All 9 Story Openings to Avoid In One Handy Post” in Kristin’s “Pub Rants” blog. Of course, writers break rules all the time, but I don’t see a good reason to do it here. Yep, I know I can be like a broken record on this point, folks.

    Thinking About Something That Already Happened

    Instead of having a character think about something that has already happened, take the reader right to the scene where something is actually happening.

    Here’s your lead:

    “It began with the conversation at the dinner table.”

    Repetitious Phrases

    “Five pairs of eyes” (used to begin two sentences)
    “for the platter of” (used twice)
    “to the floor” (used twice)
    “under the table” (used twice)

    Be careful. Use software to find this stuff for you, if necessary.

    Overwriting

    “Sally often had to remind her to allow the youngest to go first sometimes.”

    I wouldn’t use “often” and “sometimes” here. I’d write it like this:

    Sally had to remind her to allow the youngest to go first sometimes.

    More redundancy here:

    “What would I do today if I knew I’d die tomorrow?” Mayra answered her father, reaching for the platter of dinner rolls.

    Just say:

    “What would I do today if I knew I’d die tomorrow?” Myra reached for the plate of rolls.

    (Readers know she was answering her father, no need to say it. In general, if you put an action after a line of dialogue, the readers will know who spoke the line.) See JSB’s great book: How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript for additional information.

    Hope this helps. If I knew your premise, I could offer additional suggestions. Are you sure you’re beginning your story in the right place? Best of luck, and keep writing!

  9. Thank you, everyone! Great tips and suggestions. I have actually written this opening several times. The first draft opens at the dinner table with a completely mundane conversation that we’d hear in many busy households. I thought it didn’t give the reader enough tension…and fear. So, I settled on opening with the walk in the fog to mimic the fog shrouding her mind.

    But I definitely will add a few words of vivid description, and a bit more tension and foreshadowing. Sally and Roger Lee are typical Christian parents, living a normal, humdrum life -but the “as usual” for Sally is thrown out the window after dinner. She will be faced with Mayra’s essay question in a very personal and frightening way. My hope is, by the end of the story the reader will consider the question for herself.

    BTW, for this story, I have taken JSB’s teaching to heart and written voice journals for each main character. That process was an eye-opener for me and I’m hooked on it.

    Thanks again for the good work y’all do in training authors to put their best word forward!

    Deb

    • Deb, here are some additional comments, after reading your reply:

      So, if something is going to happen to Sally and she’s the protagonist, I think you want to introduce the reader to her at home and show that she is a good mother. Allow the reader to bond with Sally and see her concern for her family in action. The part about her dropping something and going under the table was good. Build on that. Show her getting progressively more nervous. Perhaps you could even give her some sort of nervous tic. Also, in order to make her seem more real, give additional setting details. Perhaps her kitchen has cow knick knacks all over it. Maybe pictures/artwork of the children are hanging from the refrigerator with little cow magnets or something. Maybe she keeps looking at a clock that’s shaped like a cow. (Obviously, it doesn’t have to be cows.) Take the time to fully introduce your protagonist. Give the reader a hint that something bad is going to happen before it happens. Nothing makes a reader turn pages faster than if he is worried about the protagonist! Check out “Donald Maass Talks About How To Make Your Readers CARE About Your Characters On The First Page” on Karen Woodward’s blog. I hope this helps.

      • Thanks, Joanne! Great suggestions. Much of those suggestions happen immediately after word 401…ha! But I see that I can add just a teeny bit before that. One thing I will give away is 3 year old Nora, sitting in her high chair right next to Sally, whispers (a bit further on in the MS but still in the first chapter) “Mommy, what’s die mean?”. When she says that, it’s a dinner table show stopper. Dead silence. I think I’ll try inserting that sooner, the catalyst that makes Sally drop her fork. It may be much more effective as a tension-builder.

        • Great idea. Can’t wait to read more, Deb. It would be nice if we could see the first five or ten pages, for sure. I don’t mind a more leisurely pace if I have an idea where the story is going. However, I think you’re thinking in the right direction.

          • I can send the first five or ten pages? If it’s allowed, I’ll certainly do it in order to gain more feedback. Where would I send it? Let me know, please! ::))

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