First Page Friday #42: Contemporary Fantasy

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First Page Friday is a blog series where I provide a free edit and critique of the first 500 words of an unpublished novel.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 Fantasy – by L. Reed

CHAPTER 1 – The End

Kitt stood at the boundary between two worlds, her nose almost touching the frost-flecked window pane in front of her, and twisted up her Rubik’s cube with both hands. She watched planes taxi across the tarmac in a strange, robotic ballet, and watched work crews draw dark cursive c’s and s’s in the fallen snow with the tires of their vehicles. Behind her, the airport terminal was swollen with delayed passengers.

She turned around to check that her father was still there, and he was, installed in a blue airport chair a few yards away, filling in his Sudoku book with a mechanical pencil, his lips moving but making no sound as he teased out a solution. He was wearing ancient, unstylish jeans and a two-year-old Christmas sweater. Is this the best we can do, you and I? she thought. Solve our separate puzzles while we wait around in the same room, not talking? At least he had come with her, to help her get settled into her new dorm.

She looked down at the cube in her hands, its colored squares thoroughly jumbled up now, and noted the time. Then she began solving it, soothed by the staccato click-click-click of polyhedron sliding against polyhedron.

Kitt was off to college, one semester later than planned. She tried to imagine what the first homecoming would be like. All of her friends who had done it last fall said it was weird, that you could never really go home again, that you stumbled around your old neighborhood for the entire Thanksgiving break, mourning for something you hadn’t even noticed you had lost, and muffling your existential discontent with turkey and cranberry sauce. Kitt wondered if that applied to her, not just because this was spring semester and turkey wasn’t going to be involved, but because her house already felt empty, like a shell from which the wriggling life inside had been scooped cleanly away.

Maybe home was supposed to be an abstract concept, not a real place. But if she clicked her heels together three times, right now, and said Dorothy’s magic words, where would she go? Into the ether?

While Kitt’s friends had been slogging through freshman composition and getting woo-hoo-I-can-do-whatever-I-want-without-parental-supervision tattoos, Kitt had been tutoring middle school kids in math and trying to figure out how she and her father were going to work as a family of two. She had thought that he would need her close by, would want to talk to Kitt about it, but he hardly spoke directly about his late wife. Kitt supposed he lacked the emotional vocabulary to express grief. He had an engineer’s mind; fuzzy variables like words and feelings did not fit into his brain’s precise equations and formulas. Instead of talking, he solved puzzles and built things. Immediately after the funeral, he had turned the garage into a woodworking shop, and when he did speak to Kitt, it was mostly about planers and beveled edges and saws.

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Contemporary Fantasy – by L. Reed

CHAPTER 1 – The End

Kitt stood at the boundary between two worlds, < This opening doesn’t wow me. It feels like something I’ve read before (so you could probably put a more unique foot forward), and it could disorient readers by making them feel as if she is standing between two fantasy worlds when she isn’t. That said, I don’t hate it, it just doesn’t blow me away. her nose almost touching the frost-flecked window pane in front of her, and twisted up her Rubik’s cube with both hands. < This feels a bit long for an opening sentence. She watched planes taxi across the tarmac in a strange, robotic ballet, and watched work crews draw dark cursive c’s and s’s in the fallen snow with the tires of their vehicles. Behind her, the airport terminal was swollen with delayed passengers. < You did a nice job setting the scene here.

She turned around to check that her father was still there, and he was, installed in a blue airport chair a few yards away, filling in his Sudoku book with a mechanical pencil, his lips moving but making no sound as he teased out a solution. < I’d break this sentence into two. It feels very long. He was wearing ancient, unstylish jeans and a two-year-old Christmas sweater. Is this the best we can do, you and I? she thought. < This threw me off. Her playing with a Rubik’s cube had me imagining a child, but this is far too sophisticated for a child. Solve our separate puzzles while we wait around in the same room, not talking? At least he had come with her, to help her get settled into her new dorm.

She looked down at the cube in her hands, its colored squares thoroughly jumbled up now, and noted the time. Then she began solving it, < I assumed she had been solving it already, but I realize now that she was unsolving it in the beginning. soothed by the staccato click-click-click of polyhedron sliding against polyhedron.

Kitt was off to college, one semester later than planned. She tried to imagine what the first homecoming < I initially thought she was wondering about a homecoming dance (which made the next sentence confusing), but that might just be me. would be like. All of her friends who had done it last fall said it was weird, that you could never really go home again, that you stumbled around your old neighborhood for the entire Thanksgiving break, mourning for something you hadn’t even noticed you had lost < For smoothness, I would write this “you’d lost.” , and muffling your existential discontent with turkey and cranberry sauce. Kitt wondered if that applied to her, not just because this was spring semester and turkey wasn’t going to be involved, but because her house already felt empty, like a shell from which the wriggling life inside had been scooped cleanly away.

Maybe home was supposed to be an abstract concept, not a real place. But if she clicked her heels together three times, right now, and said Dorothy’s magic words, where would she go? Into the ether? At this point, I’m ready for something to happen – for the scene to advance. I want to move into some action, dialogue, etc.

While Kitt’s friends had been slogging through freshman composition and getting woo-hoo-I-can-do-whatever-I-want-without-parental-supervision tattoos, Kitt had been tutoring middle school kids in math and trying to figure out < “And trying” reads awkwardly here. You could change the first word of the sentence “while” to “as” and use “while” in place of the “and” here – that would be one option for a smoother read. how she and her father were going to work as a family of two. She had thought that he would need her close by, would want to talk to Kitt about it, but he hardly spoke directly about his late wife. < This sentence seems clunky to me, especially “had thought that he would” and “about it” (we don’t know what the “it” is until the end of the sentence). Kitt supposed he lacked the emotional vocabulary to express grief. He had an engineer’s mind; fuzzy variables like words and feelings did not fit into his brain’s precise equations and formulas. Instead of talking, he solved puzzles and built things. Immediately after the funeral, he had turned the garage into a woodworking shop, and when he did speak to Kitt, it was mostly about planers and beveled edges and saws.

My Overall Thoughts

Your writing has a really nice sound that is pleasant to read. I would definitely keep reading, however if the telling continued (rather than showing) I would likely stop. Besides a few clunky phrases, the writing reads as very proficient.

Key Places to Improve:

  • To avoid potentially jarring the reader, you may want to make it clearer that Kitt is not a child. A Rubik’s cube is likely to lead readers to imagine a small girl. You could cut the cube or you could add some other indication of her age.
  • I suggest moving more quickly into the “meat” of the scene. There’s a lot of telling, which (though done well) could lead some readers to grow impatient. I’m not sure how much telling there is after this, but if there’s another dense paragraph (or more), I’d look for ways to break it up.

The Writeditor’s Grade (out of 5): 4

I find your writing style very enjoyable and easy to read, which is great. Normally telling has me squirming with impatience, but you held my attention (though not for too much longer without some showing). If you clean up some clunky places, I think you’ll have a nice solid opening.

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 L. Reed

You can connect with L. Reed on her website.

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12 thoughts on “First Page Friday #42: Contemporary Fantasy

  1. Jim Lamb says:

    “Kitt stood at the boundary between two worlds, her nose almost touching the frost-flecked window pane in front of her . . .” A couple times you have redundant prepositional phrases like “in front of her” that don’t add anything. Where else would the glass be if her nose was almost touching it. Also “with the tires of their vehicles”. The reader would assume the tires are doing this. Phrases like these slow the prose down. That aside, you created a protagonist that we can relate to and I enjoyed the scene. I agree that something needs to happen soon.

  2. Julie Griffith says:

    I like this. The writing is intelligent and the voice appeals to me. The first line did have me thinking about a doorway between two dimensions, especially since the genre is fantasy. I already get a feel for the protagonist’s personality and she seems like a character I could connect with. I like the Rubik’s cube. It makes me think she’s a little quirky and likes to challenge her mind. Maybe you could refer to the fact that it’s the same one she’s had since she was a child and some of the colors are wearing off, etc, to show that she’s older and clear up any confusion about her age at the beginning. I do agree that there was too much telling toward the end. The information in that last paragraph might be told later on or shown in a scene where he avoids discussing his feelings about his late wife by talks about woodworking instead. Especially for the first page, there just needs to be a little more actively going on, or possibly a little dialogue to hold the reader’s interest. Otherwise, great job.

  3. Lara Willard says:

    I LOVE this. It isn’t too telling to me because it’s literary. Now, if you were this “telly” throughout the book, when the action starts, I might think it’s too much. As it stands, this is beautiful, I want it, and I want to clutch onto it like I do Jess Walter’s BEAUTIFUL RUINS. I mourn a little you aren’t on Twitter, but I’ll be hopping to your website next.

    That said, it isn’t perfect. “Polyhedron” was a bit much for me, and I couldn’t tell that Kit was college age either. But honestly, if you can’t slip that in without messing up the rhythm, leave it. Nobody picks up books blind. It should be obvious by your book description, by where/how it’s sold, and perhaps by the cover how old your MC is.

    “in math and trying”—change to “in math, trying” to cut the clunk and imply the two are simultaneous.

    Change the “had”s and “would”s to contractions, drop the “that”s (She’d thought he’d need), and please, give me more to read!

    • L. Reed says:

      Thank you so much! And thank you for saying what didn’t work for you in a constructive way. I don’t tweet, but I blog a little. I want to go check out Beautiful Ruins now!

  4. Juan Zung says:

    Very nicely written and easy to read. The descriptions are plain (in a good way!) and seem pretty accurate and trustworthy. The tone is also uniform.

    I like how you introduce that Kit is in college at the end of the second paragraph. And then elaborate on it in the fourth. That short paragraph in between let the idea/image of Kit begin to formulate in my imagination.

    I did get a little bit bored after this point with the descriptions of college kids’ activities. But it’s tolerable and, as others have said, if the action commences shortly thereafter, all is good.

    In the last paragraph, I might consider breaking it in two or cutting the “While Kit’s friends” part out. Maybe it’s just me, but I felt like the important details of their family were getting obscured. But I get that it’s part of the scene, that life goes on in the midst of tragedy. So maybe I’d try it both ways just to see how they feel.

  5. Cheryl says:

    I had no problem understanding the age of the protagonist. I could tell by the intellectual style of writing and other details that Kitt was a teenager. I’m over forty and so I remember when the Rubik’s Cube was in its original heyday and how the age range for interest is broad, and also how you can “play” with the cube without “solving” it, because it’s one of those things you either fiddle with, or concentrate on. I agree that the tires should be creating the S’s and C’s in the snow rather than the work crews (who would be goofing off if they were doing that! :-0 )
    I think some action or dialogue is definitely needed soon after the part where Kitt begins “solving” the cube, as well as clues about how this is going to become a contemporary fantasy, or else it starts to drag. But the quality of the writing kept me interested, so I would say it’s a very good start.

  6. Adrian Christiansen says:

    The last sentence of the first paragraph might risk confusing the the POV, since the text is written in 3rd person limited, but in this sentence, we hear about something out of her sight. The first sentence refers to two worlds, but this is not elaborated on in the text that follows. What distinguishes the two worlds and why are they important? Is one world safe and homely, the other risky and adventorous, for example? In general, I found the writing inelegant. Can you be installed in a chair? Lastly, it’s not clear when the funeral of the “late wife” took place – was it recent, and the grief still raw, or did it take place in the distant past and over time, the unmentioned emotions have discoloured the father-daughter relationship. Also, by calling her the “late wife”, it’s unclear if the dead woman was actually Kitt’s mother or step-mother.

  7. Bets (@bets_wilcox) says:

    I don’t agree that the writing is too “telly.” This is a character sketch: we’re shown what the protagonist looks like, where she is, and what she’s thinking. All the elements — the rubrics’ cube, her fears about college, the movements that surround her in the airport — allow me to get to know the character. Action might reveal a character’s strengths and weaknesses, but these sorts of reflections give me insight into the character and make her more relatable. That said, I can see the addition of dialogue or anecdotes to keep the writing varied.

    I had no trouble understanding the age of the main character, nor that the threshold/”two worlds” she’s stepping over is a psychological one.

  8. Silvie Monk says:

    I guess I’m one of the few that really didn’t like this. For me, the writer is trying too hard to be literary and missing the mark. Take this long, clunky sentence:

    All of her friends who had done it last fall said it was weird, that you could never really go home again, that you stumbled around your old neighborhood for the entire Thanksgiving break, mourning for something you hadn’t even noticed you had lost, and muffling your existential discontent with turkey and cranberry sauce.

    So college age kids that had been away for 2 months are having an existential crisis? And “you could never really go home again” is too much of a cliche to drop into an opening page. I’m a cliche counter: 2 or more on the opening page, and it goes back on the shelf.

    Speaking of cliches:

    Maybe home was supposed to be an abstract concept, not a real place. But if she clicked her heels together three times, right now, and said Dorothy’s magic words, where would she go? Into the ether?

    How many times in my life do I have to read about Dorothy and her heels?

    I assumed this took place in the late 70s, given the rubric’s cube, but then the father is working a sudoku. I’ve never seen a college age kid working a rubric’s cube. Maybe that’s just me, but it did give me that mental hiccup where my mind was trying to figure out the date or if Kitt was a 12 year old genius going off to college.

    “Late wife.” Hmmm… that had better not be her mother. And why is tutoring more important than a mother’s death? I feel like you buried the lead. If I had read of her mother’s death BEFORE the tutoring, I would have had an emotional connection to Kitt. The way it reads now is odd and disconnected. Maybe that was your intent.

    I’m very confused at what audience this book is for. The story seems to be for teenagers, but then you use phrases like “existential discontent” and “polyhedron sliding against polyhedron” and “installed in a blue airport chair.”

    • L. Reed says:

      @Silvie Monk, I feel that this comment is not in the spirit of constructive criticism. You are not really offering suggestions about how to improve. Ellen’s lovely site is about helping people get better, not about tearing them down. It’s very easy to be negative on the internet. In fact – it’s a bit cliché. 🙂

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