1st First Page Critique for 2021!

Despite 2021 starting off like a bad sequel to a disaster movie, I’m trying to get back on track with all my writing goals and I hope you are too (in between just a few news distractions!) Today is my 1st first page critique of the year, and this one, despite having no title, is described as romantic suspense.  My comments follow  – see you on the flip side.

First Page Submission

What do the bitches have planned for me today?”

Gasping, she looked around. Had she really said that out loud? The thought that ruled her life and had done so since she’d arrived on campus in August. What hell were her roommates going to subject her to this time? God damn it. How the hell did the trio manage to mess with her when they weren’t even around?

Sighing when it appeared no one was paying her any undue attention, she resumed trudging towards her dorm, absently wiping a tear from her eye. Having stayed away from the room as long as she could, there wasn’t anywhere else to go. The library and student union had closed so it was the room or her car. And sadly, if she wanted to try to sleep in her car, she’d need a blanket from the room anyway. To make things worse, the football team had won that day, so they’d be drinking and probably pretty wound up.

The key bounced all around the keyhole, her hand seemingly trying to protect her from the evil on the other side. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to relax so finally, on the tenth try, the key slid in and it was time. Bracing herself, she crept into the room. Madison and Morgan spun away from her desk, their faces turning red. Morgan hustled to the other side of the room, but Madison just stood and stared.

She walked to her bed and dropped her backpack, “Need something, Madison?”

“Your damn ass out of here.”

Right on cue, it was starting again. She tried to pretend she didn’t hear it, silently repeating to herself, don’t let them win, don’t let them see any weakness. Sitting on the bed, she pulled a fresh spiral notebook out of her backpack and grabbed a pen. All she wanted to do was ignore them and hope they might leave her alone, for once. She flipped to the first page, eager to document her initial thoughts for the latest English Lit project. It was her favorite class and the professor was the reason she was here. He was a friend of her junior college English teacher and had gotten her a scholarship. Today, he’d given her a special assignment, challenging her to dig deeper into herself after she’d confided that she had thoughts of writing for a living. ‘The ones who set themselves apart share a small part of themselves in each work’, he’d said, ‘Could she be a great one?’ Excited by the challenge, she started jotting notes. Ten seconds later, the notebook was ripped out of her hands.

Overall Comment
This page certainly has an attention getting first line, but after that I have to admit I was a little uncertain about the tone of the story, the voice of the protagonist, and whether this was the beginning of a younger adult novel dealing with bullying or (as it had been described) more of a romantic suspense novel. The tone of this first page definitely seems more suited to YA and I didn’t really get a suspense vibe…So my first major comment to our brave submitter, is what tone do you want to set for this novel? The first line “What do the bitches have planned for me today?” presents a very aggressive, in your face POV, which definitely drew me in, but after that the protagonist becomes much more passive and weak, and her actions seem to contradict an initial strong beginning. Likewise the descriptions and actions used in this first page are all over the place, presenting mixed signals about the protagonist’s character as well as the tone of the book. The final paragraph for example, seems very odd – after steeling herself for what her roommates will do to her, and fearing for the ‘evil’ they will unleash, the protagonist suddenly sits down and starts musing about her English Lit assignment…
Specific Comments
Given my overall comments focus on POV, character voice and tone, I thought the easiest way to illustrate these concerns was to go through this first page and embed my specific comments throughout. Here goes:

What do the bitches have planned for me today?” I love this attention getting first line. Wasn’t sure if intended to have as actual speech, if so need two quotation marks. Remember grammar and punctuation need to be perfect.

Gasping, she looked around. Now I’m deflated. Perhaps, the internal monologue should continue to give the protagonist a stronger voice Had she really said that out loud? The thought that ruled her life and had done so since she’d arrived on campus in August. What hell were her roommates going to subject her to this time? God damn it. How the hell did the trio manage to mess with her when they weren’t even around? Maybe move these questions up earlier so we continue to hear the protagonist’s inner monologue. Remember voice is critical to a first page so you want it ringing out loud and clear.

Sighing This seems passive, given the aggressive first line. when it appeared no one was paying her any undue attention does she secretly want attention?, she resumed trudging towards her dorm, absently why would it be absently if she’s so upset. Does she want people to see her pain and help? wiping a tear from her eye. Having stayed away from the room as long as she could, there wasn’t anywhere else to go. Explain why The library and student union had closed so it was the room or her car. And sadly, if she wanted to try to sleep in her car, she’d need a blanket from the room anyway. If she’s that afraid, why not go to a hotel? The reader needs to get a sense of why she had no one to turn to – especially as college campuses usually have counselors/RAs etc. To make things worse, the football team had won that day, so they’d be drinking and probably pretty wound up. In this paragraph the protagonist’s voice sounds far different to what we read in the first paragraph – much weaker, more passive and using different language..she says bitches and then only uses ‘wound up’?? It’s confusing for the reader and weakens the dramatic tension.

The key bounced all around the keyhole, her hand seemingly trying to protect her from the evil on the other side Very passive descriptionTaking a deep breath, she forced herself to relax so finally, on the tenth try, the key slid in and it was time. Bracing herself, she crept into the room. Again crept is a very weak description given how aggressive she sounded at the beginning of the page Madison and Morgan spun away from her desk, their faces turning red. Morgan hustled to the other side of the room, but Madison just stood and stared. So they’ve been looking through things on her desk – shouldn’t she have more reaction to this?

She protagonist should have a name as it’s unclear who this ‘she’ is walked to her bed and dropped her backpack, “Need something, Madison?”

“Your damn ass out of here.” Without more background their bullying starts to border on caricature – their actions need to feel very specific and real if we are to sympathize with the protagonist

Right on cue, it was starting again. She tried to pretend she didn’t hear it, silently repeating to herself, don’t let them win, don’t let them see any weakness. Why doesn’t she just grab the blanket and leave like she intimated in previous paragraph? Sitting on the bed, she pulled a fresh spiral notebook out of her backpack and grabbed a pen. Why do this? She’s been so afraid and upset, yet she calmly sits on the bed and pulls out the notebook?All she wanted to do was ignore them and hope they might leave her alone, for once. This seems inconsistent, given how much bullying we’ve been led to believe has happened She flipped to the first page, eager this verb seems oddly out of place given how fearful of their bullying she’s been to document her initial thoughts for the latest English Lit project. It was her favorite class and the professor was the reason she was here. These seem unnecessary details which drain the scene of dramatic tension He was a friend of her junior college English teacher and had gotten her a scholarship. Again, why is this detail here?Today, he’d given her a special assignment, challenging her to dig deeper into herself after she’d confided that she had thoughts of writing for a living. Suddenly, despite the threat from Madison and Morgan, she’s just thinking about an English Lit assignment?‘ The ones who set themselves apart share a small part of themselves in each work’, he’d said, ‘Could she be a great one?’ Excited by the challenge, she started jotting notes. Tone inconsistency – she was afraid of their evil a few minutes ago and now she’s excitedly jotting notes?Ten seconds later, the notebook was ripped out of her hands.

I hope these specific comments help highlight the issues I have with this first page. That being said, I think this brave submitter has the basis for a strong first page if the protagonist’s voice can really shine through and if the set up for the story is clearer, more consistent, and the bullying comes through as very real and dangerous.

So TKZers what constructive feedback do you have for our brave submitter?

+9

10 thoughts on “1st First Page Critique for 2021!

  1. Thank you, Brave Author, for putting your first page out there so we could take a look at it. I think Clare provided an excellent critique, and I do agree with her that the narrator’s tone confused me. Is she a fighter or someone who runs and hides? Perhaps you envision her as someone who starts off meek and weak but ends up a fighter by the end of the book (which gives you a character arc to follow).

    My fave sentence was “The key bounced all around the keyhole, her hand seemingly trying to protect her from the evil on the other side” because it shows how nervous she is.

    It stood out to me that the narrator took 10 tries to unlock the door, and then a few paragraphs later it took 10 seconds before her notebook was ripped from her hands. If it’s not your intention to highlight 10, you could simply change one of them to another number.

    As Clare pointed out, if the bullying is so bad in the dorms, the resident advisor or mental health councilor would have to step in. Perhaps a college campus isn’t the right setting. Maybe the first apartment after college??

    I do like the tension on this page between the mean ladies and the narrator, but maybe it’s TOO much, too harsh, for this early in the story. If you start out at such a high level, it will be hard ramp up the tension for the next 200 pages.

    I think you’ve got material to work with. The first page just needs some adjustments. Good luck, Brave Author, on your continued writing journey.

    • Thanks Priscilla – you make a good point that if the bullying is too harsh from the get go, it makes it harder to ramp up the tension. My preference (for what it’s worth) is for the scene to have a more insidious and uncertain quality so the reader is left guessing what the mean girls are really up to or whether the protagonist is just being paranoid. This would give a lot more scope for suspense. Just a thought!

  2. Thanks for bravely submitting a work for critique! That’s never easy. I agree with the critique given. For me, the first few pages of a book are where I test a writer’s story–check to see if they’ve created a character and a story situation that entices me to read on. In this case, I would say I would not be inclined to read on.

    The main reason is character passivity as mentioned. This character basically chose to walk in and then ignore a hostile situation. While I suppose it’s possible to ignore hostility and that it will quietly go away, I’m not sure how well that concept translates to the fictional page.

    I confess, if this is intended to be YA, I do not know the genre. Nor do I know what it’s like to live in a dorm because I went through years of night school for college. But the roommates (and the narrator) struck me as quite immature for college age, but since I don’t have first hand experience, I may be way off base. The behavior struck me as junior high. If I read correctly, this narrator has been to junior college, so this isn’t her first round of college life (nor, I presume, is it first round for the roommates). If the author’s intention is for this to lead up to some crime or something, it should be fashioned with that in mind.

    I would sum up by saying I didn’t get a solid sense of purpose for the opening. It starts with the immature exchange and ends with her aspirations of being a writer before the notebook is snatched from her hands. I just didn’t really get a sense of where this story is going. But don’t give up. Sometimes we have to keep scraping away at our drafts to drill down to the best and most relevant parts. Best wishes as you continue to discover your story!

    • Thanks BK – and great advice for our brave submitter to focus on purpose for this opening page. Sometimes stepping back and reevaluating what you want to achieve helps provide clarity so you know what you need to start the story off on the strongest footing.

  3. Good start, Brave Author. Like Clare, I was uncertain about the tone after that attention-getting first line.
    One thing I know for sure — it’s definitely not a cozy.

  4. Hi, Brave Author. Like everyone else, I found that first line a real grabber. Afterwards, as Clare noted, the hero became much more uncertain in her attitude. If she’d come in, brushed off the nasty comments, and defiantly sat and pulled out her notebook and pen, it would have better matched that first line. Opening with her thinking or saying that to herself, and then immediately stepping into the room, avoiding the fumbling with the lock, would have placed us more squarely in the initial confrontation.

    As it is, I agree it feels more like a YA novel than an adult one, but even for YA, she seems very unsure of things. I hope Clare’s wonderful feedback and our comments inform and inspire you. Writing is rewriting, someone once said, and I’ve found that to be the case for me, times ten. Thanks for sharing this with us!

    • Dale – Thanks for the feedback and I do think that the author needs to really hone in on making the tone feel appropriate for the type of book he/she intends (whether it be YA or adult).

  5. Hi,

    Brave submitter here. Thanks for choosing to critique my submission and for all of the wonderful comments and suggestions as well. I really appreciate them. And no, Elaine, it’s definitely not a cozy. 🙂

    I didn’t intend it as a YA novel. I was aiming for straight romantic suspense. It’s hard to get the premise of the story across with just the first few hundred words but I should have done better so I have a lot of rewriting to do.

    I actually wanted the first line to be fearful, not aggressive. I thought it led nicely into her actions getting into the room and her reactions there. I do see now that the section with the notebook is jarring given the rest of the action and I will work on repairing that (I intended the notebook to be the key to them starting in on her again. It gets torn in half and thrown at her which leads to the three abusing her again).

    I do agree that the abuse was at a fairly high level, but I thought that I couldn’t start slow with it given the first line. And believe it or not, I was able to make things worse for her in later chapters.

    Later in the first chapter, there’s a section explaining why she feels like she’s trapped in a situation that has no way out (promises made to her parents who were worried about something like this happening). The women who are abusing her are the stars on the college’s cheer squad, the reason why the school was the defending national champion, which intimidates the RA into doing nothing about their behavior. I actually have some first hand knowledge of a situation similar – the RA was afraid to turn in a star on the football team even though his behavior was well beyond what was acceptable.

    Thanks again for all of the great suggestions. I can already see how some of them will make this a much better story. I know I have a ways to go to make this a story worthy of trying to get published, but that’s the fun part of this, isn’t it.

    Steve

    • Steve
      Thank you brave submitter for coming forward – it’s always nice to get some background to a submission and to know that our feedback was helpful at least! All the best to you for the revision process – I do think the kernels of a great story are there, you just have to get them down effectively on the page. Good luck!

    • Hi Steve,

      Late to the party but glad to see your positive attitude about Clare’s excellent critique.

      I agree that bullying is unfortunately tolerated when it involves the campus celebrities. The tone is very dark and I wondered if this could turn into a Carrie-type story where the meek victim eventually wreaks revenge on her tormentors.

      This seems more like straight suspense than romantic suspense. If there’s a love interest, hint at that early on to give the reader a taste of hope.

      You sound willing and eager to do the work of rewriting–that’s half the battle. Best of luck!

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