First Page Friday #10: Literary Fiction

First Page Friday #10! Woohoo! We made it to the double digits!

I took last Friday off due to Thanksgiving craziness and really missed it. I enjoy First Page Fridays so much, but I’ve been wondering how you feel about it. Is there any way I could change things up to be more useful? Do you like the grades? The surveys? Are there any sections you’d like to see me add? Please leave a comment.

Also, if any of my previous First Page Friday participants have any success stories or news they’d like to share, please get in touch. I’m sure the other blog readers would love to hear about it.

And lastly, I am opening up to new mentoring clients. You can read more about it here. It is on sale for the holidays – 25% off! You don’t have to use the time over the holidays, you just have to pay before January 1st.

This week’s submission:

Literary Fiction First 500 – By Carol Dunbar

FALL
In the morning before Luvera came charging up the driveway, panicked and honking the horn, Elsa Arnasson is doing the laundry. She comes out of her little, unfinished house with her wild hair caught up loose and haphazard at her neck, wearing her son in a backpack carrier and holding a basket of wet clothes. She slides her feet into shoes and crosses the temporary porch. Still new to living in the country and the quiet it offers, she steps out into the sun and stops, to look out at the day.There is nothing about the scene before her that might suggest catastrophe. The yard is littered with yellow leaves, the poplar and birch nearly bare now, the oaks still holding onto theirs, rust colored and brown. A small wind turns leaves cartwheeling past her feet, past the fire pit he dug for them, past the folding chairs they put out within hearing distance of the baby monitor. Farther out across the yard stands a row of pine, their boughs heavy and dark, watchful and protecting.

From out of this, a puff ball comes floating along. She sees it first down by the garden. Like the white part of a dandelion only larger, it drifts up the hill and crosses the yard. It approaches, this airy jewel suspended in sunlight; it captures her full attention then because of the way it hovers there, right at eye level, lingering in front of her, sitting on a current of air. She watches it and it seems to watch her, friendly, interested even. Elsa forgets about the laundry basket in her hands and the baby on her back. A feeling of rightness buzzes inside her, this beautiful day, this house they are building and their two children, all of it exactly the way it should be and she cannot imagine a better life or feeling that things are wrong. Then without prelude, the puff ball whirls backwards and away, spinning into the trees.

Had she known what would be coming next, she might have made more of this, but as it happened, she stands there watching, and it blows away, and she smiles. She chalks it up to life in the country, something mysterious, maybe even silly. It made her happy, and now she had work to get back to.

She walks up the hill through the woods to the clothesline behind their house, her insides still buzzy, unhooked a bit from time. Finnegan on her back plays with her hair, wrapping strands of it around his fist and trying to fit that into his mouth. She wades through the leaves, approaches the clothesline, where it should be, and it is no longer there. The bears again, she thinks, and sets her basket down.

Again she looks up at the trees, through the nearly bare branches and the sky pressed bold and blue beyond. She goes to her basket, and hangs a towel on a branch. She smiles, and starts draping clothes, red and blue and striped kitchen towels.

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 the author even more insight into where they’re hitting the mark and where they 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 Carol Dunbar

FALL

In the morning before Luvera came charging up the driveway, panicked and honking the horn, Elsa Arnasson is doing the laundry. < I find the mixing of tenses in this first sentence jarring. She comes out of her little, unfinished house with her wild hair caught up loose and haphazard at her neck, wearing her son in a backpack carrier and holding a basket of wet clothes. She slides her feet into shoes and crosses the temporary porch. <What is a temporary porch? A little more info here would help paint a stronger picture for the reader. For example: ..crosses the bare wood planks of the temporary porch. Still new to living in the country and the quiet it offers, she steps out into the sun and stops, to look out at the day. <I suggest cutting this. The next line implies that she is looking. Generally, you want to avoid outright stating that a character is looking at things or thinking about things because it is so easy to show/imply. 

There is nothing about the scene before her that might suggest catastrophe. The yard is littered with yellow leaves, the poplar and birch nearly bare now, the oaks still holding onto theirs, rust colored and brown. A small wind turns leaves cartwheeling past her feet, past the fire pit he dug for them, past the folding chairs they put out within hearing distance of the baby monitor. Farther out across the yard stands a row of pine, their boughs heavy and dark, watchful and protecting.

From out of this, a puff ball comes floating along. She sees it first down by the garden. Like the white part of a dandelion only larger, it drifts up the hill and crosses the yard. It approaches, this airy jewel suspended in sunlight; it captures her full attention then because of the way it hovers there, right at eye level, lingering in front of her, sitting on a current of air. She watches it and it seems to watch her, friendly, interested even. Elsa forgets about the laundry basket in her hands and the baby on her back. A feeling of rightness buzzes inside her, this beautiful day, this house they are building and their two children, all of it exactly the way it should be and she cannot imagine a better life or feeling that things are wrong. <I find the wording of this sentence difficult to read and understand. Then without prelude, the puff ball whirls backwards and away, spinning into the trees.

Had she known what would be coming next, < This is considered a pretty cliche line in omniscient. It might bother some and not others, depends on the reader. she might have made more of this, but as it happened, < “as it happened” doesn’t really make sense in present tense because it’s actively happening, but I have a stricter opinion about the use of present tense than some other editors. she stands there watching, and it blows away, and she smiles. She chalks it up to life in the country, < She chalks what up to life in the country? The puff ball’s existence? The happiness she derives from it? something mysterious, maybe even silly. It made her happy, and now she had has work to get back to.

She walks up the hill through the woods to the clothesline behind their house, her insides still buzzy, unhooked a bit from time. < “unhooked a bit from time” does not hold any meaning to me. It’s not an experience I can relate to. Not that that makes it inherently a problem – others may completely disagree. Finnegan on her back plays with her hair, wrapping strands of it around his fist and trying to fit that into his mouth. She wades through the leaves, approachesing where the clothesline, where it should be, and it is no longer there. < This rewording makes more sense because she can’t approach the clothesline and then have it not be there. The bears again, she thinks, and sets her basket down.

Again she looks up at the trees, through the nearly bare branches and the sky pressed bold and blue beyond. She goes to her basket, and hangs a towel on a branch. She smiles, and starts draping clothes, red and blue and striped kitchen towels. <Wording of this sentence is a bit awkward. Are the clothes she’s draping kitchen towels? That’s how I read it initially, but I think what you mean is that she’s draping clothes as well as red and blue and striped kitchen towels, but then that still has a clarity issue – are some of the towels red, some blue, and some striped or are they red and blue striped?

My Overall Thoughts

I don’t doubt your ability to write. This has a nice, pretty sound to the language. However despite the nice writing, too little was going on to draw me into the story, but the writing carries my interest enough that I would give you another few pages to hook me.

Key Places to Improve:

  • Clarity comes first. Always. If you have to write an ugly sentence that readers can understand, that’s better than a pretty one they can’t. Lovely language can get you pretty far, but clarity and substance will still trump it every time. So read your sentences carefully. Make sure they make sense.
  • The puffball had such a prominent position in this opening that I would expect it to have a major impact on the catalyst of the story. If this is not the case, you may need to downplay it.
  • Some sort of conflict had better be introduced within the next few hundred words or you’re going to start losing readers.
  • The present tense combined with a few past tense omniscient phrases (“as it happened,” “in the morning before,” “had she known”) kind of made my head spin, however it is not “wrong.” It’s just a matter of preference.
  • My biggest concern is that perhaps none of this opening matters, that you are just trying to be poetic by including the puffball, when really it does not tie into the story arc. If that’s the case, it makes this opening a bit too meandering and you might want to start a bit later.

The Writeditor’s Grade (out of 5): 3

This is a tough one to grade because it depends a lot on where the story goes from here. If these opening paragraphs tie in well with a conflict that begins within the next few hundred words, I’d probably bump this up to a 4. If no conflict occurs and these paragraphs are style without substance, I’d probably bump it down to a 1 or 2.  If you focus on clarity and substance (no pretty words just for pretty’s sake), I think you’re probably on the right track with the novel as a whole.

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.

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.

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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 and mentoring.

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One thought on “First Page Friday #10: Literary Fiction

  1. Thomas Johnson says:

    Hi, One thing that has helped me improve overall sentence clarity has been the speech function on my computer…for Mac it is located in the system preferences,
    It has been a big help being able to hear another voice read things back vs myself reading… It has helped me hear if the flow of the prose is working or not. I wrote out some instructions for Mac because it took me a bit of time to figure it out.

    1) in System Preferences click on speech its the vintage microphone Icon.
    2) click on the TEXT TO SPEECH bar at the top of the Speech control window.
    3) Then you can pick from a selection of voice types in a drag down menu … it is a bit computery sounding but adjusting the speed of the voice seems to help with this depending on the specific voice you select. I tend to slow it down a bit…
    4) click on the third box that says Speak selected text when key is pressed.
    5) on the same line as that box also press the Set Key button. it will ask you to pick a key that will activate the voice when you have text selected. I picked the button below the esc button on the keyboard because it is rare that I use that key. ( if you pick a common key it will activate the speaking when you don’t want it.)
    6) In order to work you have to select some text and hit the button you selected as the hotkey.

    Note: if you need to use that specific key for something later you may have to open the Speech dialog box and temporarily shut off instruction 4 above. That is why I picked a keyboard key that I rarely use.

    from Tom

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