First Page Friday #33: Contemporary Women’s Fiction

About First Page Friday

First Page Friday is a blog series where I provide a free edit and critique of the first 500 words of an unpublished novel. Read the excerpt without my notes first and leave your vote in the poll. Afterward, feel free to leave a comment for the author. Feedback is always helpful!

Contemporary Women’s Fiction – Kaylee Nicole Ward

Nothing prepares a human being for loss: that’s what I tell people. Time heals wounds, they would respond. Not scars, however, rarely scars. I’m covered in them. They stripe across my thighs and the inside of my elbows, they leave light dents in the nook of collarbone. They make a shiny home under my jawline. They tell horrid stories that would only normally be heard from convicted criminals. I’ve been trying to see past my own reflection, the little black girl made of barely skin and bone and dark sunken eyes, but that’s always easier said than done. My social worker, Ms. Patty, was trying to make me feel better about my first foster home. She was chattering away about my new parents. As usual, I wasn’t listening. I was watching out the window. The world seemed bigger than it had in years. I felt small.
“Ms. Patty,” I finally spoke up from the backseat of the car.
Ms. Patty looked in the rear view mirror, eyes wide. It still always seems to surprise her when I say anything at all. I’m not entirely sure why. However, I think it has something to do with the fact that everyone thinks I’m broken or something. “Yes, dear?”
“Please stop talking.” Once it came out it felt too harsh. Though, it got the point across.
Ms. Patty’s eyes saddened, but she nodded. I contemplated apologizing, but decided against it. I knew she would instantly feel better and begin rambling again.
The sky is dark today, grey clouds hovering low. I couldn’t see the setting sun on the horizon and all the colors it would paint along the edge of sky. I wish I could. I lost my sense of time inside the rehab center. I bit down my nails and let every withdrawal symptom known to man hit me like a train. Ms. Patty was still watching me, but I was too focused the sky.
“The sky is dark today,” I finally said out loud. I wanted the statement to mean that I was upset by this, but I don’t think I executed it properly.
Ms. Patty smiled at me through the mirror. “It is. I suspect rain this evening.”
I nodded. I didn’t want to rain on my first day out. I didn’t want the world to be dark and gloomy. I thought I would hear the birds sing, smell the sunshine and feel the heat beating down on my skin. I bit at my nails and watched the clouds roll around along the darkening skyline. The car smelled of lemons and was fabricated with leather. I don’t know anything about cars, but I guessed it was on the older side of the spectrum. It made a funny rattling sound as it rode and the windows didn’t go down all the way.
“Will they like me?” I asked.
Ms. Patty rose an eyebrow. “Who?” 
“The foster family,” I said.

 

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.

My Feedback

 Critique Key

Original Text is in italics. (Author is already using italics, so my comments are going to be underlined this week)

Red is text I recommend removing.

Green is text I recommend adding.

Blue is my comments.

Orange is highlighting.

Contemporary Women’s Fiction – Kaylee Nicole Ward

Nothing prepares a human being for loss: that’s what I tell people. Time heals wounds, they would respond. < Quotation marks or italics would indicate to the reader that “Time heals wounds” is not simply narration. “Would” does not agree with the previous sentence. Think about it like this: “When I tell people, they would respond.” That sentence is incorrect. Not scars, however, rarely scars. I’m covered in them. They stripe across my thighs and the inside of my elbows, they leave light dents in the nook of my collarbone. < With the underlined section, I have a hard time understanding what sort of scar this would be. They make a shiny home under my jawline. < Are we still talking about scars or do you mean bruises? Usually scars aren’t “shiny.”  They tell horrid stories that would only normally be heard from convicted criminals. < Do you mean that she got the scars by committing some kind of crime? My first thought is that maybe she murdered someone and got away with it (but maybe I have a dark mind)? I’ve been trying to see past my own reflection, the little black girl made of barely skin and bone and dark sunken eyes, but that’s always easier said than done. My social worker, Ms. Patty, was trying to make me feel better about my first foster home. < I didn’t expect this to be a girl young enough to be in foster care. Now I’m thinking that she was abused rather than that she committed a crime, but that makes the line about criminals a bit confusing to me – what does she mean? I’m also wondering how old she is. She was chattering away about my new parents. < I wouldn’t expect a foster child to refer to foster parents as “new parents” since foster care is generally temporary. As usual, I wasn’t listening. I was watching out the window. The world seemed bigger than it had in years. I felt small.
“Ms. Patty,” I finally spoke up from the backseat of the car.
Ms. Patty looked in the rear view mirror, eyes wide. It still always seems to surprise her when I say anything at all. I’m not entirely sure why. < Is this story being narrated while Ms. Patty is still her social worker? If not, present tense doesn’t make sense here. However, I think it has something to do with the fact that everyone thinks I’m broken or something. “Yes, dear?”
“Please stop talking.” Once it came out it felt too harsh. Though, it got the point across.
Ms. Patty’s eyes saddened, but she nodded. I contemplated apologizing, but decided against it. I knew she would instantly feel better and begin rambling again.
The sky is dark today, grey clouds hovering low. < This seems to be flipping back and forth between past and present tense randomly. This is present tense, but the next line is past tense. I couldn’t see the setting sun on the horizon and all the colors it would paint along the edge of sky. I wish I could. I lost my sense of time inside the rehab center. I bit down my nails and let every withdrawal symptom known to man hit me like a train. < I’m not an expert on rehab centers, but I believe she would not still be having withdrawal symptoms if she was released. Ms. Patty was still watching me, but I was too focused on the sky. < Isn’t Ms. Patty driving the car? It doesn’t seem like she could’ve watched her for this long without wrecking.
“The sky is dark today,” I finally said out loud. I wanted the statement to mean that I was upset by this, but I don’t think I executed it properly.
Ms. Patty smiled at me through the mirror. “It is. I suspect rain this evening.”
I nodded. I didn’t want it to rain on my first day out. I didn’t want the world to be dark and gloomy. I thought I would hear the birds sing, smell the sunshine and feel the heat beating down on my skin. I bit at my nails < She already bit her nails in the previous paragraph. This feels like the same description placed too close to the first one. and watched the clouds roll around along the darkening skyline. The car smelled of lemons and was fabricated with leather. I don’t know anything about cars, but I guessed it was on the older side of the spectrum. It made a funny rattling sound as it rode and the windows didn’t go down all the way. < The wording here makes me wonder if she is younger than I originally thought.
“Will they like me?” I asked.
Ms. Patty rose an eyebrow. “Who?” 
“The foster family,” I said.

 

My Overall Thoughts

I see potential in this for a great voice, a really captivating character, but I don’t think it’s there yet. I spent too much time waffling about who she was (her age, initially) and what was going on (abuse? drugs? crime?). Sometimes things come across in ways writers don’t intend and perhaps that is the case here. It may be clear in your mind, but not on the page.

Key Places to Improve:

  • The voice, behavior, and descriptions would be stronger if they worked together to tell us something about her personality. She opens with describing her scars, which indicates to me that she is wounded and that she feels it defines her enough for it to be her first description of herself. Yet later, she says “everyone thinks I’m broken or something” like she does not believe it’s true. So these two elements seem to be working against each other in establishing a clear picture of her personality. Does she or does she not see herself as wounded? Why does she struggle to see past her wounded appearance only to turn around and seem to not understand why others would view her as broken?
  • You have the opportunity to describe the scars in a way that really hints towards something (perhaps that’s what you’re trying to do?), but I found myself confused about the connection she draws between the scars and criminals. The location of the scars on her thighs and arms suggests self harm, but the jawline and collarbone scars seem more like physical abuse. Yet later when drug use is mentioned, I began to think that perhaps her scars are track marks? I would either keep this deliberately vague (simply mentioning that she has scars) or I would choose locations and descriptions that clearly indicate their source.
  • Watch your tenses. They jump around a lot, which will be a red flag to agents and editors.

The Writeditor’s Grade (out of 5): 2.5

I’m intrigued enough to want to read on, but I would prefer to have a much stronger understanding of her age and the source of her scars. The tense issues will likely turn off agents and publishers.

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.

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About the Editor

Ellen Brock is a freelance novel editor who works with self-publishing and traditionally publishing authors as well as e-publishers and small presses. When not editing, she enjoys reading, writing, and geocaching. Check out her freelance novel editing services and mentoring.

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12 thoughts on “First Page Friday #33: Contemporary Women’s Fiction

  1. thewriteedge says:

    I agree with the age issue. It’s not clear at all how young/old the protagonist is. Overall the writing doesn’t seem to match her maturity level. As Ellen said the narrator talks about foster care, which for some reason immediately gave me the idea that this girl must be somewhere between 10 and 12. But the writing seems too old for a tween. Because we don’t have any information yet on how old she is, this becomes a distracting factor and keeps the reader guessing enough to miss much of the story.

    It does sound like the beginning of a piece of transformation, however, and I wish the writer all the best with it.

  2. Kate Sparkes says:

    I really like this character! I don’t know what happened to her, but her attitude seems appropriate given her past (whatever it is). I agree with the edit notes, though, especially about the character’s age, and the past/present tense flipping.

    Hope we’ll see more of this some day!

  3. Jutta says:

    Intriguing beginning of a story and as always, very interesting to read the comments. I agree with all of them, with the exception of ‘shiny scars’: they do exist, as I happen to know from experience.

    I don’t know whether there is a general rule of what is important in a story and what is hardest to fix – when it does need fixing – but I would guess that among the hardest and most important things to get right, are the voice and a strong main character. Most other issues can be fixed much more easily (or so I hope). And this story has the potential for both a captivating character and a great voice!

    Best of luck!

    Jutta

  4. Anonymous says:

    Agree with the past/present tense flipping and the age/rehab seeming conumdrum. A note on the scars – black skin scars differently to white skin; I think the medical term is keloid scarring, so I don’t have a problem with the description. I don’t like “bit DOWN my nails” – maybe it’s a US/UK thing. If “down” is used for emphasis, I would prefer “bit my nails to the quick”. I know it’s fiction, but to me, this opening passage reads as if it’s going to be a “horrid childhood” memoir and unless the blurb gave me something more, it’s not a genre I would read. If it’s NOT a “horrid childhood” story, then yes, I would probably read on.

  5. Sue says:

    Agree with the past/present tense flipping and the age/rehab seeming conumdrum. A note on the scars – black skin scars differently to white skin; I think the medical term is keloid scarring, so I don’t have a problem with the description. I don’t like “bit DOWN my nails” – maybe it’s a US/UK thing. If “down” is used for emphasis, I would prefer “bit my nails to the quick”.

    I lost my sense of time inside the rehab center. I bit down my nails and let every withdrawal symptom known to man hit me like a train. < I’m not an expert on rehab centers, but I believe she would not still be having withdrawal symptoms if she was released.
    I took the nail biting/withdrawal to have happened while she was IN the rehab centre.

    I know it's fiction, but to me, this opening passage reads as if it's going to be a "horrid childhood" memoir and unless the blurb gave me something more, it's not a genre I would read. If it's NOT a "horrid childhood" story, then yes, I would probably read on.

  6. Sue says:

    Ellen/Kaylee, Apologies I seem to have inadvertently posted twice, the first one is incomplete and anonymous. Feel free to delete that comment (and this one!)

  7. Edward Anthony Giambalvo says:

    A strong voice. I especially liked “Ms. Patty,” followed by “Yes, dear?” followed by “Please stop talking.” I felt the girl’s braveness in contemplating whether or not to apologize and then deciding not to. Well done.

    Overall though, it reads like a first draft with some missing words, changes in tense, etc. as already pointed out.

    Another thing I’m finding out is that less is often more. You need to trust your reader to get the meaning. For example, the before and after example below;

    BEFORE
    I couldn’t see the setting sun on the horizon and all the colors it would paint along the edge of sky. I wish I could. I lost my sense of time inside the rehab center. I bit down my nails and let every withdrawal symptom known to man hit me like a train.

    Ms. Patty was still watching me, but I was too focused on the sky.

    “The sky is dark today,” I finally said out loud. I wanted the statement to mean that I was upset by this, but I don’t think I executed it properly.

    Ms. Patty smiled at me through the mirror. “It is. I suspect rain this evening.”

    AFTER
    I couldn’t see the setting sun on the horizon and all the colors it would paint along the edge of sky. I wish I could. I lost my sense of time inside the rehab center. I bit down my nails and let every withdrawal symptom known to man hit me like a train.

    “The sky is dark today” I finally said.

    Ms. Patty smiled at me through the mirror. “It is. I suspect rain this evening.”

  8. Pam Portland says:

    I, too, wondered about the age of the speaker. The internal thoughts seemed far more mature than a child, and I wondered if it was an adult thinking about a past experience, although would a child have thought enough about whether or not she sounded harsh and if she should apologize (as a parent of a 23-year-old, I don’t think they even realize it at this age). Also, at what age would she be sitting in the back seat of a car rather than the front seat? Or is there a reason she is sitting in the back?

    I think the use of ‘Ms. Patty’ may be slightly too frequent when a pronoun may suffice.

    Separately, and this is something with which I struggle as a writer, I find this selection touches on a few visually stimulating ideas, such as the scars and injuries, but if this ride in the car is going to be the beginning of a life-changing experience, as a reader I would enjoy a more in-depth description of what the character is seeing outside the window besides just the half sentence about the sunset. Even if she is just ignoring the buildings or farms, or whatever she is passing, I would like to get an idea of her surroundings.

    Best of luck with this writing; it seems like it make touch on some very personal and meaningful themes!

  9. Pam Portland says:

    I am just now reading Ellen’s ‘Key Places to Improve’ and a big thank you for offering some great questions regarding character development! (Does she or does she not see herself as wounded? Why does she struggle to see past her wounded appearance only to turn around and seem to not understand why others would view her as broken?) They helped me think about the notion of looking at my character from the outside, as others would see her, rather than just the way I see her as the author. Thanks!

  10. nikkiharvey says:

    I agree with the present tense/ past tense problems and would like a clearer idea of age, but the main thing that confused me was that she was having withdrawal, but I came to possibly the wrong conclusion that she was withdrawing from the rehab centre? I also felt the first sentence was a bit cliche but I liked it overall and want to read more

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