First Page Friday #5: Literary Fiction

First Page Friday

First Page Friday is a new section on The Writeditor’s blog. Every Friday I will provide an in-depth edit and critique of the first 500 words of an unpublished novel.

Please read the chapter without my notes and record your feedback in the poll before moving on to my critique. This really helps the author. Thanks!

I apologize for the wonky formatting of this first page. No matter how hard I try to add spaces between the paragraphs, it won’t “stick” once I hit publish.

First Page Friday Edit & Critique

Literary Fiction First 500 – By Olusola

He is a man I could have killed, and no court would have found me guilty.
“I love to hate you and hate to love you,” I tell him.
“You’re full of semantics, a player with words,” he replies.
Tell me, why wouldn’t I hate him, a Poseidon to my Odysseus’s ship, a setback to my trip to Ithaca? But could I have killed him? His death would have meant my suicide. I literally can’t live without him, because he is the man locked under my skin, the color of rich coffee. We speak to one another under our breath.
“He’s part of you. It might not be possible to get rid of him,” a psychiatrist told me matter-of-factly after I had been seeing him for some months. A tiresome breath whooshed out of my lungs. I left the psychiatrist’s office without saying bye.
He is standing now at the basin mirror and lathering his face with jasmine-scented shaving cream. Then he shaves, relishing the up-and-down motion of the razor on his skin. Whiskers gather in the foam like the quills of porcupines trapped in a furious snow.
Not time-conscious, he can spend ages dressing, as if preparing for some pageantry. His life revolves around the ephemeral—food, binges, music, and dance. My entrepreneurial habit is a luxury to him; his pleasure-seeking is too costly for my liking. Some folks have said he wanders off the point, that his life has become a rudderless ship. Does he see this as a challenge to make something meaningful of his life and prove his critics wrong?
Since our teens, he’s never wanted to mature or become responsible. The truth is, we wouldn’t have reached where we are now if it hadn’t been for me. I tell him he wouldn’t have had a roof over his head or be settled into this two-room apartment if I hadn’t forced him. He cried that I was being brutal and insensitive when I had combed Lagos, not minding his fever, to make money for the rent. Shameless man. Nothing was wrong in wandering from one friend’s house to another, begging to spend the night. I hated that lifestyle, but he cherished it like a little girl treasures a favorite doll.
On this morning he wouldn’t have left bed if I hadn’t dragged him out. When the alarm clock went off at six, he murmured and kicked the mattress. The tooting horns of cars and the chants of early morning hawkers on the street floated into the room, as if to confirm the dawn of a new day. But he lay there, his head buried under the pillows, cursing the morning for coming too quickly. He crawled out of bed, staggering, his limbs still ached from last night’s revelry. He and other revelers at Energy, the nightclub overlooking our backyard, had become nasty with music of all kinds. But I couldn’t have cared less about his sore joints, because I wasn’t going to allow what had happened a few weeks earlier to happen again.
His morning habits had cost me a job. Or maybe I should blame his late-night fixation. He had watched movies until three in the morning and woken up at a few minutes to eight, for a nine o’clock appointment. Dressing up had taken him eternity, yet he still had the time to brew coffee, which he downed with bread. Of course, I turned up late to my appointment, and they politely turned me away. When I blamed him, he whispered to me, “Que sera sera, Mensah.” Blaming him is absurd. He just doesn’t have my sixth sense: urgency.

Reader Participation – What Do You Think?

Before reading my take on this novel opening, please take a moment to record your thoughts in the poll below.

Your thoughtful critiques and suggestions for the writer are also welcome in the comments section. Explaining your vote gives Olusola even more insight into where she’s hitting the mark and where she can improve.

The Writeditor’s Feedback

 Critique Key

Original Text is in italics.

Red is text I recommend removing.

Green is text I recommend adding.

Blue are my comments.

Literary Fiction First 500 – By Olusola

He is a man I could have killed, and no court would have found me guilty. < Is there a reason for this to be in past tense rather than present? I would like it more in present tense: He is a man I could kill and no court would find me guilty.
“I love to hate you and hate to love you,” I tell him.
“You’re full of semantics, a player with words,” he replies.
Tell me, why wouldn’t I hate him, a Poseidon to my Odysseus’s ship, a setback to my trip to Ithaca? But could I have killed him? His death would have meant my suicide. < “would have” but not anymore? The switching between past and present tense isn’t quite working for me here because I keep wanting to chalk it up to a mistake and switch it all to present. The next line is in present tense and confirms that she will die without him, so it would make more sense to me if the previous line were in present tense as well: “His death would mean my suicide.”  I literally can’t live without him, because he is the man locked under my skin, the color of rich coffee < If this is an attempt at being enigmatic, it works well, but if it’s an attempt to convey something concrete, it’s not working. I can’t understand what you mean by this. We speak to one another under our breath.
This is very jarring because the previous line implies that the narrator is speaking to the man, but this dialogue that follows is not coming from the man, it’s coming from a psychiatrist. You can fix this by changing the order of the paragraph so that the psychiatrist is mentioned before he is given dialogue. “He’s part of you. It might not be possible to get rid of him,” a psychiatrist told me matter-of-factly after I had been seeing him for some months. A tiresome breath whooshed out of my lungs. I left the psychiatrist’s office without saying bye.
He is standing stands now at the basin mirror and lathering lathers his face with jasmine-scented shaving cream. Then he shaves, relishing the up-and-down motion of the razor on his skin. Whiskers gather in the foam like the quills of porcupines trapped in a furious snow.
Not time-conscious, he can spend ages dressing, as if preparing for some pageantry. His life revolves around the ephemeral—food, binges, music, and dance. My entrepreneurial habit is a luxury to him; his pleasure-seeking is too costly for my liking. Some folks have said he wanders off the point, that his life has become a rudderless ship. Does he see this as a challenge to make something meaningful of his life and prove his critics wrong? < Wouldn’t she know the answer to this question? She seems to know everything about him.
Since our teens, he’s never wanted to mature or become responsible. The truth is, we wouldn’t have reached where we are now if it hadn’t been for me. I tell < Is she actively telling him? Or do you mean that she “told” him? him he wouldn’t have had a roof over his head or be settled into this two-room apartment if I hadn’t forced him. He cried < Now we’re back to past tense, though it seems to be the same incident as the one being described in the previous sentence in present tense. that I was being brutal and insensitive when I had combed Lagos, not minding his fever, to make money for the rent. < I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here. What did she comb Lagos for? Why does he have a fever? Shameless man. Nothing was wrong in wandering from one friend’s house to another, begging to spend the night. < This sentence reads like it’s coming from the narrator’s opinion, so it’s jarring to then read that she hates the lifestyle. Make it clear that it is the man who thinks there’s nothing wrong with it. I hated that lifestyle, but he cherished it like a little girl treasures a favorite doll.
On this morning he wouldn’t have left bed if I hadn’t dragged him out. When the alarm clock went off at six, he murmured and kicked the mattress. The tooting horns of cars and the chants of early morning hawkers on the street floated into the room, as if to confirm the dawn of a new day. But he lay there, his head buried under the pillows, cursing the morning for coming too quickly. He crawled out of bed, staggering, his limbs still ached from last night’s revelry. < How does she know how his muscles feel? Are they the same person? Is this just a mistake in point of view? It’s not clear.  He and other revelers at Energy, the nightclub overlooking our backyard, had become nasty with music of all kinds. But I couldn’t have cared less about his sore joints, because I wasn’t going to allow what had happened a few weeks earlier to happen again.
His morning habits had cost me a job. Or maybe I should blame his late-night fixation. He had watched movies until three in the morning and woken up at a few minutes to eight, for a nine o’clock appointment. Dressing up had taken him eternity, yet he still had the time to brew coffee, which he downed < “downed” implies speed, which contradicts him moving slowly and makes it seem as if he’s rushing. with bread. Of course, I turned up late to my appointment, and they politely turned me away. When I blamed him, he whispered to me, “Que sera sera, Mensah.” Blaming him is absurd. He just doesn’t have my sixth sense: urgency. < “urgency” isn’t a sense, so this doesn’t really make sense to me.

My Overall Thoughts

It’s difficult for me to say much about this opening because I don’t really understand what it’s about. However, there’s a nice rhythm to the writing that makes it pleasant to read despite the lack of clarity.

Key Places to Improve:

  • Clarity. There are several problems contributing to my finding this opening confusing, but I suspect that they all boil down to an attempt to create an interesting and artistic voice at the expense of clarity. But clarity is always the most important aspect of writing (unless you’re being deliberately enigmatic, which is difficult to pull off well). So clarity comes first, voice comes second. This reads very much like voice is coming first.
  • Another thing affecting the clarity is the tense. At times, the switching between past and present tense makes sense, but often it wasn’t clear if it was intentional or a mistake. Make sure to comb through your work carefully to straighten out the tenses.
  • I say this a lot, but it’s a very common problem with first chapters: there is a very fine line between raising interesting questions and being frustratingly unclear. This is leaning towards the latter for me. Why doesn’t “the man” have a name? Why doesn’t the narrator have a name or even a gender? These things need to be identified quickly or else it leaves the reader unable to fully connect with the story.
  • Avoid juggling multiple time frames if you don’t have to. This opening section has a present situation (the “now”) as well as descriptions of several instances in the past: him not getting out of bed this morning, him losing the narrator a job at some point in the past, him partying the night before, the narrator seeing a psychiatrist. This is a lot of back and forth in time that adds confusion without providing much insight into the characters or their circumstances.

The Writeditor’s Grade: 1.5

While the writing is interesting, making me want to like it, the clarity issues make this very difficult to enjoy. The questions raised aren’t intriguing as much as they are frustrating. That said, this opening may just not be my style and other readers may very well disagree. What does everyone else think?

My Grading Scale:

1 – Wouldn’t have finished the first page if I wasn’t editing. Back to the drawing board.

2 – Read the whole thing, but couldn’t look past problems with the writing to enjoy the story.

3 – Read the whole thing, was entertained at times, but I probably wouldn’t read on.

4 – Read the whole thing and liked it. Wasn’t really “wowed” but I would read on.

5 – Read the whole thing and loved it. I’m excited to read the rest of the book!

A note on the grading scale: The rating of the first chapter does not indicate the rating of the novel as a whole nor does it indicate the writer’s overall ability.

Connect with Olusola

You can connect with Olusola (the author of the first page)  on Twitter: @olusolaakinwale

Submit to First Page Friday

If you’d like to submit your novel for First Page Friday, please send the following to ellenbrock@keytopservices.com:

  • The name you want me to use in the blog post (real name, alias, or anonymous).
  • The genre of your novel.
  • The first 500 words (give or take, don’t stop in the middle of a sentence) pasted into the body of the email.
  • Any links (Twitter, Blog, Goodreads, etc.) that you’d like included in the post (not required).

Please do not submit if you are not okay with your first page being posted, critiqued, and edited on my website.

About the Editor

Ellen Brock (AKA The Writeditor) is a freelance novel editor who works with self-publishing and traditionally publishing authors as well as e-publishers and small presses. She owns the editing company Keytop Services and the writing and editing blog The Writeditor. When not editing, she enjoys reading, writing, and geocaching. Check out her freelance novel editing services.

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