I want to thank Agent Marie Lamba from Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency for taking the time out of her busy schedule to critique 4 first pages that were sent in for May. Having her share her expertise is a huge help to all of us.
QUINLAN LEE, Agent, Adams Literary will end MAY with her four critiques posted on May 30th. Deadline to submit: May 22nd.
Here are the Results:
Jennifer Kirkeby / PEACEFUL ACRES / YA Magical Realism
“David, we’re here.” The voice jolts me awake. The bus driver’s eyes stare back at me through the large mirror they always use to catch kids smoking, eating, making out, or punching each other. Her eyes are glassy and tired with dark bags hanging underneath them as proof. Must have been a long drive. Below the mirror swings an assortment of crucifixes that she begins to untangle.
I wipe the drool off the side of my mouth and scan the inside of the bus. I’m three rows back on the right side, and unless someone’s sleeping in one of the seats, the only passenger. Weird. I look outside to my right, and am surprised to see a huge white mansion. Gardens out front, a gigantic fountain – real Great Gatsby stuff. Squeezing my eyes shut, I shake my head trying to rattle my brain cells into functioning order to tell me where I am. When I open them, I have a vague memory of going somewhere to do community service.
“Do you need help with your bags?” the bus driver asks while rubbing the back of her sizable neck.
“Uh, no. I got it, thanks,” I tell her, while looking around for my stuff. Noticing my confusion, she points to the floor under the front seat where I see my suitcase and backpack. Guess I’m staying a while. When I stand up, my body alerts me that I’ve been sitting forever. My legs practically fold underneath me, my muscles hurt, and my head throbs. I slide my bags out while the driver opens the door. The swooshing sound is like a giant vacuum seal releasing me into the unknown.
“I’ll see you in six months, David. Stay strong.” My stomach drops. Six months? Her eyes are apologetic. In seconds, her face shifts to genuine concern, and then… is that fear? What does she know that I don’t?
HERE’S MARIE’S THOUGHTS:
This first page raises lots of questions for the reader, which is always a good thing. It makes me wonder where he is and why? What will happen next? That’s the sort of thing that might make me want to read on. The other piece of that “want to read on” puzzle consists of character. Who is this character? Why might I care or worry about him? Get that right, and you’ll definitely have me on board to continue.
But in this first page (which, I realize, is just ONE page), I know far more about the bus driver and the setting than about the boy. So make sure your focus in this scene is where you truly want it to be.
The boy’s character is starting to be revealed when he describes the mansion as “real Great Gatsby stuff” – I like that. That’s the sort of detail seen through the character’s eye and said in his voice that not only reveals what he sees, but starts to reveal who he really is. I’d love to see more of his point of view.
First person can be tricky. It results in lots of “I” sentences. I wipe the drool… I look outside… I slide my bags… Make sure you vary your sentence structure throughout, or this will grow tiresome quickly. Also, once you’ve quickly established that something is in first person, you don’t have to say “I look outside to my right…” Just say, “Outside to my right…” He’s your point of view character, so how else would he see that? You can pull out most, if not all, of the “I see” and “I look” and “I notice” in a story by keeping this in mind. Also try to avoid phrases like, “When I stand up, my body alerts me…” Instead, consider something more direct like, “When I stand, my legs practically fold underneath me…”
My favorite line in this is: “The swooshing sound is like a giant vacuum seal releasing me into the unknown.” It’s a great lead in to a mysterious tale.
GAMBLER’S DAUGHTER, YA Novel, by Orel Protopopescu
PART ONE: January, 1968/ Chapter One
Six days out of seven, I didn’t know if my father would come home. Sometimes he stayed in the city, gambling, for three nights in a row, nights I was often alone in our house on the edge of a parkway in the middle of Long Island. But every Friday evening he met my train at Penn Station, took me to his club and some place for dinner, and then drove me home by dawn. This routine was my idea. One day a week, at least, I knew that he’d quit before the sun came up, no matter how much he’d lost. One day a week, we’d share a meal and a few laughs.
Plenty of girls would think I was lucky to be so free, those who didn’t know what it was like to be your own mother and father. They’d probably never met anybody like my dad, who’d let me do as I pleased since I was fifteen. If he ever found me in bed with Jimi Hendrix and his guitar, he’d just ask Jimi, politely, if he would play us a song. But my Jimmy wasn’t singing to me, unless you count choir practice, when he sang for everyone and no one. He wasn’t even talking to me anymore, so there was little chance of him ending up in my bed and there was nobody else I wanted to share it with. The world was full of boys and men, but I only longed for a boy who wasn’t even a friend anymore and a father who was almost never home.
It could have been worse, I told myself. Some kids were orphans, living in shelters, foster care, or even on the streets. That happened to the unlucky ones. But I could look across a table at my dad, no matter how late or early, and know that I still had a sort of family. That’s why I was making my way over the icy sidewalks between my high school and the train station on a freezing Friday afternoon. The winds were so fierce, I bowed my head to tunnel my way through them. This wasn’t the hard part. Being at the club would be harder. I was tired of being my father’s luck.
HERES MARIE”S THOUGHTS:
Right away, I was drawn into the voice and point of view here. Very important elements to sustain a novel, so this is a great thing!
One thing I suggest, though, is that the story start out within a scene, instead of with narration. I really feel I could have been pulled firmly into this tale better at the outset if it had instead started out with the line: It could have been worse, I told myself as I made my way over the icy sidewalks. Then pepper the action of the scene with the needed details and we are all on our way, instead of stuck on pause, waiting for the scene to form and begin through narration.
Two other suggestions. One: I might change the boyfriend’s name from Jimmy to something different, since I found myself stumbling over the Jimmi-Jimmy reference. Also, I thought that the character was a bit too self-aware when she said: “The world was full of boys and men, but I only longed for a boy who wasn’t even a friend anymore and a father who was almost never home.” Part of the fun of a novel is that the characters (like real people) aren’t so self-aware and through the course of the novel we, and they, start to learn how they really tick and why. I personally think it’s more intriguing to have the story and the character nibble around the edges of these sorts of facts.
But overall, a solid start.
Middle Grade novel: THE WOUNDED BOOK by Laurel Decher
In the year of our Lord 1006, on the eve of Ascension Day, the morning star rose over Arezzo, and Bella jumped from her window into the back of the woolman’s cart. The driver glanced over his shoulder.
Had he seen her?
He crossed himself, scolded his donkey, and drove a bit faster.
Bella wriggled herself in between two firm sacks of wool, and pulled her knees up to her chin. It had been easy enough to leap out the window of Uncle’s house. Had Papa passed as easily through heaven’s gate? Bella hoped so.
A tuft of wool tickled her nose and she sneezed. She held her breath. If the driver threw her off, how could she get to the market and back before the bells rang for Terce, so that Uncle did not notice her absence?
The cart slowed. Bella still did not dare to breathe. The cart stopped. She pressed her hands over her mouth and nose, praying that she would not be discovered. The driver called out. The cart turned the corner and rumbled on.
The rush of Bella’s pent-up breath set wool puffs dancing. She caught them, rolled them into balls, and pelted the woolsacks, singing under her breath. The third time through the Agnus Dei—backwards and a bit louder—she laughed.
“Do all you woolsacks think I am singing to you? Does every lamb think it is the Lamb of God? Come, I will sing you a psalm.”
Bella crooned three verses and stopped on the Paths of Righteousness, well before the Valley of Death. She laid her cheek against a rough sack.
HERE’S MARIE’S THOUGHTS:
THE WOUNDED BOOK
First of all, LOVE the title. How cool is that? And this story starts off fun too, raising good story questions. Why is she jumping out her window?
Who wouldn’t want an answer to that?
Some things could use tightening and clarifying here. Like – was the cart moving when she jumped into it? I had no idea and was a little thrown when I read “drove a bit faster.” Another thing that confused me was how at first she was so afraid to be discovered that she “did not dare to breathe,” but then she’s singing under her breath, then laughing, then talking, then crooning. What happened? No cone of silence here, right?
There are a number of sentences that start with “She,” so the writer could vary her sentence structure a bit more. And at one point the character spells out the stakes: “If the driver threw her off, how could she get to the market and back before the bells rang Terce, so that Uncle did not notice her absence?” I think this info could be conveyed a bit more artfully by pulling away from telling and putting the thought more into the scene and keeping the reader more engaged. Something like: If the driver threw her off now and she were late getting back… She shivered imagining her Uncle, his face red with fury, his hand raised in anger.
When Storms Surge in August by Lauren Rizzuto
In August, the heat always arrived before the sun did. It didn’t mind that the sky was still dark; the light would get there soon enough. Meanwhile, the heat was content to settle in, unannounced, easing into the streets and lawns and sidewalks, all the way up to the doors and windows of the houses. It didn’t knock because–well, it didn’t need to. Like a too-early guest, the heat just made its heavy self at home before anyone was prepared to wake up and greet it properly.
Inside the house at 39 Thornton Drive, an eight-year-old Ernestine Deveraux kicked off the covers to the double bed she shared with her little sister, Sarah. Her oversized tshirt stuck to her skin with sweat, bunching around her middle. Yanking it down, she flipped over onto her side and ferreted about the pillow with her cheek, trying to find a cool spot, but the cloth was too warm to be comfortable anymore. The clock on her nightstand read 5:56 a.m. Sighing, she turned onto her back and stared pointedly at the ceiling. She might as well get up. It wouldn’t do to be late on the first day of school.
Next to her, Sarah grunted sleepily. “You awake?” Ernie asked. No reply. Sarah never seemed to have as much trouble sleeping in the hot little room. Carefully, Ernie brushed her sister’s hair back from her damp forehead, with intentions as tender as they were curious. It looked like that birthmark was getting even weirder looking. Unfortunate.
“You can sleep for a little while longer,” Ernie whispered. Sarah continued playing possum, and so, being older and bigger, Ernie felt compelled to shove her, just a little, as she inched her way out of the bed and walked to the window. If she squinted, she could just make out the plump figure of Mrs. Demares, who was similarly standing and watching from inside her dark house, blowing cigarette smoke through her screen door.
HERE ARE MARIE’S THOUGHTS:
WHEN STORMS SURGE IN AUGUST
This first page, while clearly written and showing touches of the lyrical, is slow on the start. We writers often tend to write ourselves into a scene. Zooming from a large shot (the weather, the landscape), into a room (entering the house), focusing on a still unnamed child (an eight-year-old), and starting at the moment of the day beginning, but not, really, the beginning of the true story. I’m a writer too, and I’ve done this myself – and in very nearly the same form – on a middle grade manuscript I wrote early in my career.
Here’s what I found out through my own writing: most, if not all of this lead-in stuff can be cut.
Chances are good that this story will start cooking for real on page two or even further along. It’s always great to start right there with the character, and right at the inciting incident, or as close to it as the writer can begin. That doesn’t mean there won’t be room to add details about the heat or the neighborhood as the story moves along, but with tightening up the story the reader won’t have to wonder what is new or interesting here.
Imagine how potent this start would be if it instead started with something revealing and active like your heroine tugging her sister down the street, telling her, “Come on. You know what’ll happen if we’re late.” Then we are hearing her voice, we are in motion, we sense tension, we have questions we want answered. We turn the page.
In this sample, an intriguing detail involves that birthmark. I’m guessing it’s significant. Is this some paranormal sort of mark? A hint of illness? Something that will lead to teasing? Right now I have no idea, but it does add a question mark in my mind, which is always good. The title and the word choices hint at literary, but aren’t firmly in that genre either, so I’m not sure what sort of journey is being promised. You DO want the reader to have a sense of that.
One other thing to note: I’m assuming this is a middle grade novel. If so, the 8-year-old main character is very young. While middle grade is aimed at the 8-12 year old reader, kids typically want to read books about kids who are older than they are. So, by setting your character at age 8, you are cutting off a decent share of this market and editors must be very mindful of who will be reading this book – and if it will be profitable. That’s why you’ll find 7- and 8-year-old heroes starring more in chapter books and easy readers. If this is, indeed, a middle grade novel, then do consider making your main character older. Just something important to keep in mind.