Whose Story Is it? First Page Critique: Sunny Days Ahead

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

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I feel for Charlie in this story opener when he makes a phone call that risked his pride and ego. Join me in reading this 400 word opening and providing constructive criticism in your comments. I’ll have my comments below.

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Charlie examined the slip of paper and wondered if he had been set up. It could have been some random set of digits she pulled out of her head? That shit happened once before and it ended up being the number for Dial A Prayer.

Charlie fed the payphone, and the muscles in his neck tightened as he dialed. He recalled the cute turned-up nose, dimples, and full pouty lips of the girl at the concert. He struggled to believe he’d worked up enough nerve to ask for her number and was suspicious of the ease with which she gave it to him.

Finally, the first ring sounded. He waited for someone to pick up, but took a breath when he realized no one answers on the first ring.

The second came, and his stomach rumbled.

As the third arrived, hope began to fade.

After the fourth, he relaxed, thinking either she wasn’t at home, or his suspicions were true. Then, a click, and there came the smooth, soft, voice of a sleepy angel.

“Hello.”

“Hi, this is the guy who sat behind you at the concert. I hope you remember me. Anyway, I only have a couple of minutes to impress you. So, here goes. I think you may well be the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen in my life. I got my own place. I like every kind of music there is except opera. Dogs love me, and oh, I don’t remember if I mentioned this, but I think you are, without a doubt, the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen. Okay, how am I doing so far?” It felt like a year-long silence as he waited for her response.

“Well, Dude, you are most definitely full of shit. And that’s okay. On good days so am I. Of course, I remember you. And I’ve been hoping you’d call.”

“No shit, really. Why? I mean, wow. That’s great.”

Sonny, paused. I felt your eyes on me in the concert and when I turned around everyone in the audience was scoping out what was happing on the stage. But you were looking straight at me with the sweatiest smile. That’s what made me remember you.

“And dude, If I’m the prettiest girl you’ve ever seen, you need to work on your social life.”

“Yeah, that’s sort of why I’m calling. Oh, and I’m Charlie Anderson. What’s your name?”

“It’s Sonny, Sonny Makenzie.”

FEEDBACK

All the typos were obstacles to me truly enjoying this anonymous submission. Even the last line and name of a main character is misspelled. More misspellings: happing & sweatiest. Editing 400 words for clean copy is the least an author should do to make it harder for an editor or agent from rejecting the story right away. Enough said. Let’s get to the substance.

Overall Impression – I liked the first line where Charlie hints of a set up. That got my attention. The tension was quickly diffused by the revelation that Charlie is calling a girl, so I didn’t mind that this wasn’t about a crime. I thought Charlie was charming and I could relate to the risk he took.

General Questions – Charlie is using a payphone? In a technical age, why doesn’t he have a cell? If this is a retro story line, that should be tagged at the beginning to ground the reader in another decade. Plus, is ‘Dial A Prayer’ still in existence? I queried on the Internet and only found a reference to a 2015 movie. Charlie mentions that a girl had slipped him a ‘Dial A Prayer’ number, but wouldn’t that have to be an 800# since that’s a national service? If a girl slipped him a phone number that starts with 800, that should’ve been a clue. These details kept me from getting fully engaged, beyond Charlie’s story.

Setting – Where is the setting? What is Charlie doing as he makes a call from an old payphone? World building is important. Did he slip away from his apartment to make a call from a public phone? What city or town? What can be shared about Charlie? This feels like a stripped down first draft without depth. The bones might be here, but it needs more.

To help an author realize what layers are missing, I like to ask open ended questions to trigger ideas from the author. Questions like: Where is Charlie? Can the weather add tension or mystery to the scene? Does Charlie have money? Does Sonny? Can their clothes give insight into their lives? What other open ended questions would you ask, TKZers?

Add More Tension & Build Up – The long dialogue line where Charlie tries to charm Sonny with “Hi, this is the guy who…” is long and the reader might lose interest or the build up could be better. I would suggest the author break up Charlie’s lines with how he reacts as the tension builds. When he hears nothing on the other end of the line, he keeps talking. We’ve all gone through phone calls like this. Make the reader feel his mounting doubts and the risk he finally takes to spill his guts.

Rewrite Example:

“Hi, this is the guy who sat behind you at the concert. I hope you remember me.”

The girl left him hanging and didn’t bail him out. Dead silence. Charlie decided to keep talking and go for it. He had to bring his A-game, whatever that is.

“Anyway, I only have a couple of minutes to impress you. So, here goes.” He swallowed and took a deep breath.

“I think you may well be the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen in my life.” What a tool. You sound lame, Charlie. Give her your best stuff. Go for it.

He pictured her mesmerizing blue eyes staring at him and how lights from the stage last night had played on her blond hair. Don’t sound like a stalker, asshole.

“I got my own place. I like every kind of music there is except opera. Dogs love me, and oh, I don’t remember if I mentioned this, but I think you are, without a doubt, the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen. Okay, how am I doing so far?”

It felt like a year-long silence as he waited for her response.

Point of View Shift – Before this scene ends, Sonny’s Point of View (POV) interrupts Charlie’s moment. I found this jarring and editors and agents would see this as head hopping. Sonny hints that she might have an ulterior motive to giving her number to Charlie. As a general rule of thumb, I write each scene using one POV. I tend to pick the character with the most to lose or the most emotion. To revise this intro, I like Charlie’s vulnerability for the start, but then create a scene break and shift to Sonny’s POV to draw the reader into her mystery. But when you jumble both together, you lose the impact for both.

First Person Shifts to Sonny – Another craft issue is that when the POV shifts to Sonny, the tense changed to first person. A whole book of this will confuse the reader, especially if, within scenes, Sonny starts speaking in first person in the middle of Charlie’s third person.

HERE is the POV shift to SonnySonny, paused. I felt your eyes on me in the concert and when I turned around everyone in the audience was scoping out what was happing on the stage. But you were looking straight at me with the sweatiest smile. That’s what made me remember you.

As I’ve suggested, the author might consider staying with Charlie’s third person POV as the intro, because he is relatable and vulnerable and there’s a mystery for readers to get into. End his first scene, then pick up Sonny on the other end of the line. What is she doing? What has Charlie interrupted? I often have fun with a simple outsider person calling my protagonist and they talk as if it’s a normal call, but I clue the reader in on what my protag is doing – like killing someone, or cleaning up blood.

Title – ‘Sunny Days Ahead’ needs work as a title. There’s nothing intriguing about it and no mystery.

SUMMARY – I look forward to seeing other comments and opinions on Sunny Days Ahead. For me, I might want to read the book jacket to see what this story is about. I like Charlie, but this intro needs filling out. Sonny holds promise in my mind, but nothing here tells me that. It’s my hope. Thanks for your interesting submission, anonymous. You have bones to build on here. I hope my feedback and the comments from our members will stir your imagination to fill out this story. Good luck.

DISCUSSION

Feedback comments, TKZers? Would you read on?

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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

12 thoughts on “Whose Story Is it? First Page Critique: Sunny Days Ahead

  1. I like the internal thoughts that Jordan used as an example as I wanted more of something in this snippet. And yes, the POV slip into Sonny startled me and made me go back to reread to figure out what was going on.

    I also wondered if Sonny was a dude, to use his language, who had dressed in drag for the concert.

    Best of luck, Anon, as you push ahead with the revisions and rewrites!

  2. Sonny is called by name before we find out “the prettiest girl I have ever seen” is Sonny. I scrolled back up to see if Charlie had typoed to Sonny. I have seen it before especially when ‘changing the name to protect the innocent’.

    Where and when we are would be a big help. That this phone call is in the past is fine. Although 1976 or 1956 would be good here.

    Overall it is a nice enough little tid bit, but I am not sure it will get me to chapter 2.

  3. You have more patience than I do, Jordan. I was put off by the typos, the whiplash (and unnecesary POV change), and the time wasted on Charlie listening to the phone ringing. Also, doesn’t anyone find it weird that this woman gave a stranger her phone number without them even exchanging first names? More important for me:

    A phone call is a static situation because you have to, in dialogue, account for all the usual chit chat stuff. Which forces you into dialogue cul de sacs like we have here:

    “Hello…I hope you remember me, etc.”
    “So here goes…”
    “Yeah, that’s sorta why I’m calling…”
    “My name is…”

    You don’t want to waste valuable time and opening-page real estate on this kind of throat-clearing. It’s just not very interesting. When Charlies thinks: It felt like a year-long silence as he waited for her response, well, this is a clue of what a reader might also be feeling. Phone call openings, imo, work only if the content of the call is really compelling or urgent. It has to be central to the plot conflict. Something like this:

    I answered on the first ring. But all I heard was breathing and I was sure I had screwed this up.
    “You’re two minutes late,” the deep voice on the other end finally said.
    “You told me no cell. Nobody has pay phones any more. I couldn’t find one.”
    “Tough shit.”
    I closed my eyes. “Let me speak to my son.”
    Another long silence.
    “Let me speak to Matthew!”
    “Calm down. He’s still alive.”

    A phone conversation is all dialogue, so it darn well better be dazzling. Especially in an opening. I’m thinking there has to be better entry point for this story.

    • Great insights, Kris. Your suggestions would intrigue me if I were reading your version of this story. Crime fiction is my comfort read, but in 400 words, it’s hard to infer too much.

      I try to work with the basic storytelling for the author when I suggest stuff. It’s hard to know where things are headed. I take a 30,000 foot view, rather than line edits. My preference is for action or a disturbance to jumpstart any genre. I’m glad you brought up that nothing much is happening here.

      But it’s really good for the author to hear everybody’s views for their consideration. Thank you. Good stuff.

      • As you note, Jordan, we don’t know the genre we’re dealing with here. Could be romance, so the slower opener between these two could work. I just really wish for a more active send-off!

  4. The mere fact that the author mentioned a pay phone let me know we were most likely in the past, I trust the author will give more details later.

    I liked the title. Sunny Days Ahead could be so misleading – meeting her could be the start of something wonderful or the most miserable time in Charlie’s life. I suggest whether her name is Sunny or Sonny use the same spelling in the title.

    Maybe their first meeting could be more memorable. If the only thing he has to remind her who he is is that they sat next to each other, why would she give him her number, real or fake? Why not something like “I’m the guy who spilt his beer on your head” or “I’m the guy who shared his gummy bears with you”. Depending on the time frame, maybe gave her a joint. There needs to be some actual interaction.

  5. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer, and thanks to Jordan for her thoughtful advice that is always kind. Here are my notes:

    Sunny Days Ahead

    If your story is a romance, your title certainly seems to imply a happy ending. Is it the most original title I’ve ever heard? Probably not. Use it as a “working title” if you can’t think of anything better. Don’t let thinking of the perfect title keep you from moving forward.

    First Line

    “Charlie examined the slip of paper and wondered if he had been set up.”

    This is too on-the-nose, perhaps. Also, avoid “thinking” words like “wondered” on your first page. Here’s an example of how to write in a way that’s not so on-the-nose:

    Charlie stared at the seven digits scrawled on the chard of paper that he’d won in the pool game at the tavern. Not even twenty-four hours had passed. Was it too soon to call? Memories of the scent of fruity bubble gum and those strawberry blonde locks told him not. The girl had to be ten years younger, and as he fed coins into the payphone, Charlie half expected he’d be greeted by “Dial-A-Prayer.”

    (This scene should be a “sequel” to the cute meet, though.)

    Cute Meet

    The “cute meet” in a romance novel should take place on the page. This is important. So, how about showing the scene where Charlie tries to get the phone number first? This would be a great way to introduce conflict and tension into your scene. The phone call scene should come AFTER the “cute meet.” You can’t skip that scene. It is required if you are writing a romance novel. The readers want to experience this. Telephone scenes don’t usually make good first scenes in novels, anyway, but there are exceptions.

    Dialogue

    Keep the dialogue lines short and snappy. Don’t have the characters speak to each other in long paragraphs. Don’t forget to put quotes around your dialogue here (I corrected the typos):

    Sonny paused. “I felt your eyes on me in the concert, and when I turned around everyone in the audience was scoping out what was happening on the stage. But you were looking straight at me with the sweetest smile. That’s what made me remember you.”

    I’m sure the smile was the sweetest smile, rather than the sweatiest smile. Big difference. You must proofread your work!

    Setting

    Work more setting details into the dialogue. Remember, though, the “cute meet” scene comes before the phone call scene. If you’re writing in a time period when pay phones are popular, this time period needs to be evident in all of the scenes. Consider fashion, technology, and the like.

    Overall Impression

    As Jordan and Kris mentioned, the typos and other errors need to be cleaned up. I love a good romance novel, but be careful not to be too “on the nose” with thoughts and dialogue. Readers will go into sugar shock. Definitely don’t skip the “cute meet.” That scene is a must if you are writing a romance. It’s one of the most important scenes in the novel that you will write.

    Book recommendation: On Writing Romance: How to Craft a Novel That Sells by Leigh Michaels

    If you’re going to write a romance, there are certain required scenes that agents and editors expect to see. The book above will help you on your way. Best of luck and keep writing!

    • Yikes. Leave it to me to make an awful typo myself at 4 AM.

      chard should be shard

      I do love to eat Swiss chard, though… lol.

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