Wednesday, April 30, 2008

First Page Critique

Well, I've been relatively quiet on the blogging front lately, mostly because I've been working on a few short stories. Short stories aren't my usual writing or reading style, to be honest. So it's taken a little work to really get into it, without trying to make the short into a full length novel. So, I thought, since my last few posts have been Query critiques, and since I'm not sure how well my opening is playing, I would open this post up to a critique on my first page...

Any and all comments are welcome. This one is called, Marigold Mourning and it runs a bit under 3,000 words. I wrote it originally a number of months ago and sent it out to rejection, before deciding it definitely needed something... and one of my favorite bloggers suggested I change the opening - which I did. So you guys tell me - does it hold your interest? Would you keep reading? If you wouldn't keep reading, where would you stop and why?

Marigold Mourning - opening page



Marigold stopped short at the sight of the bouquet standing upright against her screen door. She turned around, scanning the empty yard and walkway, but she hadn’t heard anyone at the gate and she’d only been to the alley and back. It couldn’t have been more than a minute, how did they get the flowers there and leave... what if they hadn’t left?

Her eyes fell upon the open back door as she maneuvered up the steps, each creak of the wood making her bite her bottom lip a bit harder than the last one. She peered into the kitchen, dreary in contrast to the bright August sunlight of the porch. Grabbing the flowers she searched for a card of some sort, knowing there wouldn’t be one – there never was. The stems were meticulously wrapped in lavender ribbon, and she tapped them against her palm as she paced back and forth over the small wooden porch, trying to decide whether to go in or not.

She held her breath and opened the door, plunging into her kitchen in a reckless clatter, as if the noise of her arrival might scare any intruder away. She shoved the offending flowers into the garbage and grabbed the phone off the counter, hoping her dialing finger would be quicker at nine-one-one than an intruder’s machete arm might be.

“Haaaaaaa!” she yelled, holding the phone over her head as she whipped open the downstairs closet.

After making sure there was nothing more insidious than outdated clothes hanging there, she continued her rampage through the entire house, shoving back curtains and checking under beds with frenzy. At the end of the mad dash, she wound up in the kitchen when the ringing doorbell sent her into orbit.


Okay, usual rules apply - thanks for reading and any feedback you guys can give me.

28 comments:

Gina said...

Excellent opening line. Yeah, I'd read on, I'd want to find out who left the flowers... and who was at the door. One suggestion-I'd be a lot more frightened at finding out someone was in my house-and could still be there. If she was more frightened? or more angry, maybe? I felt that if you injected more emotion into her response it would suck the reader in quite a bit more. I guess it depends on who you're writing for-I don't know much about the YA audience. But the opening and the last lines are great.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Gina,

Thank you! I think that's a good assessment, too, I'd taken out some more telling lines, because they came across as a little cheesy, but I think that's because it was telling. I'll go through and see if there's a way to show a little more fear without going over the top.

This one's not YA, though. I originally started out writing adult fiction - women's and literary - but got really into middle grade and children's writing, I think because I read so much of it with my own kids and I enjoy it.

This one's my first stab at suspense (I actually read a lot of mystery, suspense, and enjoy forensic and crime stories, but I'd never tried to write them before)

jjdebenedictis said...

The final three paragraphs of what you posted are hilarious. I would definitely read on. Marigold attacking the closet with her phone made me laugh out loud.

The first two paragraphs didn't grab my attention quite as well. I think the reason why is that there isn't enough tension there. Part of that is long sentences; shorter ones, with snappier editing, would get Marigold's fear across more effectively.

I like what I see here; I really think all that holds it back is editing.

Here's a potential rewrite; feel free to ignore it if it doesn't resonate with you. I've used your sentences, but added a few words for clarity and removed a few others that were unnecessary. What I've tried to do is highlight Marigold's fears more and streamline a little.

~~~~~~~~
Marigold hadn’t heard anyone at the gate and she’d only been to the alley and back. How did whoever left the bouquet standing upright against her screen door get the flowers there and leave? It couldn't have been more than a minute.

What if they hadn’t left?

Her eyes fell upon the open back door. (Add a sentence here to show her deciding to go up the stairs.) She maneuvered up the (porch) steps, each creak of the wood making her bite her lip a bit harder than the last one. She peered into the kitchen, dreary in contrast to the bright August sunlight. Grabbing the flowers(comma) she searched for a card, knowing there wouldn’t be one – there never was.

The stems were meticulously wrapped in lavender ribbon. She tapped them against her palm as she paced back and forth over the small porch, trying to decide whether to go in or not.

Merry Monteleone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Guys,

Thank you so much for the great feedback. I did a bit of a rewrite, tell me what you think:

Marigold stopped short at the sight of the bouquet standing upright against her screen door. She hadn’t heard anyone at the gate and she’d only been to the alley and back. It couldn’t have been more than a minute, how did they get the flowers there and leave so fast?

What if they hadn’t left?

Her eyes fell upon the open back door as a sudden chill ran up her arms that had nothing to do with the temperature. Should she check the house? Maybe she should run to a neighbor’s.

“The hell with that,” she thought, advancing with more bravado than she actually possessed, “it’s my friggin’ house!”

As she maneuvered up the porch steps, each creak of the wood sent her top teeth a bit further into her bottom lip. She peered into the kitchen, dreary in contrast to the bright August sunlight.

Grabbing the flowers, she searched for a card of some sort, knowing there wouldn’t be one – there never was. The stems were wrapped in lavender ribbon, and she tapped them against her palm as she paced back and forth over the small wooden porch, trying to decide whether or not to go inside.

She held her breath and opened the door, plunging into her kitchen in a reckless clatter, as if the noise of her arrival might scare any intruder away. She shoved the offending flowers into the garbage and grabbed the phone off the counter, hoping her dialing finger would be quicker at nine-one-one than an intruder’s machete arm might be.

“Haaaaaaa!” she yelled, holding the phone over her head as she whipped open the downstairs closet door.

After making sure there was nothing more insidious than outdated clothes hanging there, and wondering why she ever thought she could wear orange, she continued her rampage. Marigold shoved back curtains without reservation and mangled innocent boxes under her bed with the broom handle.

At the end of her mad dash, she wound up in the kitchen, chest heaving in exhaustion and, perhaps, a bit of pride when the ringing doorbell sent her into orbit.

Mary Witzl said...

I worry that I am too easy to please. I loved this and would happily have read on. In fact, when I originally saw that you'd posted a story, I considered leaving and coming back (I'm cooking jam and the timer's about to go off.)

I'm always amazed and impressed by how sharp-eyed the other commenters are. They spot things I consistently miss, and I used to think I was discerning.

Believe me, I am filled with respect and admiration for you and your reviewers. I will be back begging for help when my next short story gets rejected by Glimmer Train. You guys are good.

And I laughed aloud at Marigold's phone-attack too.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Mary,

mmmmm.. jam.... funny you should mention glimmer train - they already rejected this one ;-) Ah, well, onwards and upwards.

Thanks for stopping in, and I've said before, happy to crit with you any time.

jjdebenedictis said...

I like the rewrite!

Aaaaand of course I have more comments to make; I can't be trusted to shut up, can I? :-D

This phrase:

advancing with more bravado than she actually possessed

is telling, and I thought the sentence would read smoother with it deleted.

When the chill runs up Marigold's arms, and you say it has nothing to do with the temperature, that implies it's cold outside. And yet, it's a sunny August. To me, that reads like an error in the logic.

You mention the porch steps are wood and creak when Marigold walks up them. Then later, she is pacing on a "small wooden porch". I think you should omit the description of "wooden" from that later sentence, as it's repeated information.

The transition between Marigold picking up the phone and opening the closet downstairs seems too abrupt to me--like she beamed to another part of the house instantly--but it could work as is. Maybe someone else will weigh in on that point? That's just the way it struck me.

Again, this is very nice work! Well done. :-)

Kalynne Pudner said...

What if the first sentence were rearranged to direct our attention, along with Marigold's, to the flowers?

"The bouquet standing upright against the screen door stopped Marigold short."

This is doubtless the teacher in me, but..."they" in the first paragraph doesn't have a referent, and if it did, wouldn't it be singular (e.g. "whoever")?

If she's really scared about an intruder (as opposed to irritated or paranoid), shorter sentences might convey it. Like JJ, I love the image of her attacking the closet with her phone.

But yes, I would keep reading. I thought it was odd that she shoved the flowers into the trash without knowing who left them. Or does she know?

Mary Witzl said...

Oh great, Merry! If this got the chop, there's no hope for mine. I'll be expecting that rejection any minute.

I'll send you mine if you send me yours? How's that? Though I can't help but think you're going to win on this deal.

Ello said...

Merry you know I like this. But I am amazed at the comments JJ left. Wow. I need her to critique my stuff!

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi JJ,

I like the fact that you always have more input - it helps me fine-tune... about the chill that had nothing to do with temperature, I added that because I didn't want to leave the impression that it was chilly - but maybe the reader will get it, just by the fact that I mention it's August.


Hi Kalynne,

You're right, grammatically, about 'they', but it sounded too clunky to say "he or she" - I hadn't thought of "whoever", let me try that one out...

The flowers - there's a hint that she's gotten them before (the bit about there never being a card), but later it's explained that she's been getting bouquets for a while and it's creeping her out.

Hi Mary,

I'll send you an email in a bit. But, you know if you want to post your first page on your blog - I'd certainly participate in a crit there too.

Hi Ello,

JJ's awesome at this, isn't she? How do you like the new openning, I think it's stronger than the original, but now I like the character so much I almost hate to put her through the rest of the story.

Erica Orloff said...

Hi Merry:
I would definitely keep reading . . . You have my curiosity raised.

My "editor" side would say . . .

Love the bits of humor. I think the machete arm/911 is very funny (and as someone who often cheks under the bed . . . I get it--LOL!) A wonderful "show" about her.

I would say what I'm missing . . . is any sense--real sense--of who Marigold is. I realize it's page one, but you only have 3,000 words. Is she a young woman? A kid? An old woman? I think you need to add just the slightest of hints here for us, otherwise, while I'm trying to engage myself in your story. . . I'm utterly clueless of what I should be imagining. And then whatever THAT answer is would color everything (in my opinion)--like those clothes in the closet--are they outdated because she is an old woman? Because she's a frumpy middle-age person? Why is her kitchen drab (is she living with her grandmother? Is she too tired to care about perking it up?) Is she old? Young? When she goes searching, is she out of breath from the exertion because of her age . . . or is she young and her paranoia drives her?

Without more clues . . . I am left rudderless as I go on. WITH the clues, THEN we can edit word for word, because then you will be choosing words to further develop her character--with each and every word. We cna't really do that yet, I don't think.


E

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Erica,

Thank you!!! You are absolutely correct, in my editing of all things 'telling' I cut out all of her descriptives... you forget by the third or fourth pass that your reader isn't privy to all the things you know about the character. I'll go back through and see where I can pepper the essentials.

Julie Weathers said...

Merry, I agree a description of her would be nice.

I like the bits of humor interspersed in it. Her wondering why she thought she could wear orange is hilarious.

The last line about sending her into orbit grates on my ear for some reason.

I like this story very much and would definitely keep reading.

jjdebenedictis said...

The last line about sending her into orbit grates on my ear for some reason.

(I liked that line.) /$0.02

festplatte defekt said...

I read your Whole Post. I am also think about that Guy who left the Flowers! Anyway, I love your emotion about writing. Please keep it up. Thanks

Aerin said...

Weighing in on the opening paragraph - it doesn't do a lot for me. The first line seems sort of monotone, and then the third sentence is a run-on of sorts that was difficult to read.

I read the whole bit, read the comments, read your new version, which cleared it up well. Still not crazy about the run on ("couldn't have been more than a minute, how") though.

I agree with the "advancing with bravado" as telling, because the creaking wood sending her teeth to her lip captures it very very well. Love that image.

Okay, also, this is so so minor, but, here goes. If the bouquet is standing upright, and Marigold is approaching the house from the outside (actually, or the inside), it's unlikely there's anyone inside because an intruder couldn't go inside and then prop the bouquet up against the screen. Does that make sense?

I'm not saying she shouldn't still be worried - just that it made my brain snag a minute.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Julie,

I've got a bit more description in now, though I think I need a few more passes at the whole, it's more filled out now - the character who came out during this revision doesn't quite match the original character, so there's been some smoothing and changes.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read and the feedback.

Hi Festeplatte,

Thanks for stopping in and the thoughtful commentary.

Aerin,

You, my friend, are an astute reader! There's actually a rather large twist that will explain the positioning of the flowers later, it was one of those things that I figured a reader might notice afterwards, knowing the full story - though now you have me wondering if it works or if it might jar the very careful reader out of the story.

Dina Darling said...

Ah Merry!! I want to read more!!! I may not know the logistics of writing stories but I know I love what I'm reading!! I always have when it's written by you! You are by far one of the most amazing people I could know!!

Love ya!

Aerin said...

Oooh, oooh, a twist, I love twists!!

My take on it was she was so rattled, it wouldn't have mattered if the flowers were taped across the door, guaranteeing no one was in the house. If you're going to "explain" the flowers standing later, just let your reader deal with it for a while!

Can't wait to read more!

ChrisEldin said...

Merry, I'm going to disagree with the comments so far. I think it has nice bits of humor, but the opening is so slow that they get lost. I would lose most of this and start here:

Marigold continued her rampage through the entire house, shoving back curtains and checking under beds with frenzy. At the end of the mad dash, she wound up in the kitchen when the ringing doorbell sent her into orbit.

This puts you with Marigold. Raises a ton of questions, and engages the reader immediately. Snap! They're in.

Anyway, just my two cents..

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Dina Beans!!!

Thank you - I know my blog tends to focus on the writing end of things, but readers who don't write are always welcome - especially the ones who drink and eat pizza with me :-)

Hi Aerin,

If you'd like to beta read, I should be finished with the revisions soon.

Hi Chris,

Oy. Actually, that would put me back at the original copy, with the flowers already in the garbage and explained later in conversation and the mc's internal dialogue. The humor was added in this revision, too, though, originally you didn't get much of a sense of the character's humor and she was a bit one dimensional.

Travis Erwin said...

Grabbing the flowers she searched for a card of some sort, knowing there wouldn’t be one – there never was.

This line hit me as being the strongest and drew me in, so I would like to see it moved up.

I would read on, but I'm not convinced she's really scared. You told me she was but I didn't really feel it. Drop me an email if you want and I'll give you a better line by lien critique of the beginning or the whole thing if you want.

Josephine Damian said...

OK. I was going to crit the first version till I saw this one:

Marigold stopped short at the sight of the bouquet (Tell me what kind of flowers. I'd rather the flowers be named than the character be named for a flower) standing upright against her screen door. She’d only been to the alley and back; she hadn’t heard the gate creek open. It couldn’t have been more than a minute. How did he get the flowers there and leave so fast?

(What if he's not gone?) Delete this. It tells what the reader should be wondering from what comes next. Let the reader do some of the work.

A chill ran down her spine when she the back door swung open.

Her every instinct told her run to next door.

Get a grip, she told herself. He'd never be so bold as to meet her face to face. He preferred the quite gesture.

“The hell with that,” she thought, advancing with more bravado than she actually possessed, (Telling!) “it’s my friggin’ house!”



Merry this is where I stopped reading (and re-writing!)

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Travis,

I agree with you - I'm not getting enough of a sense of her emotions in that copy, either... still tweaking, but I may take you up on the beta reading offer in a few days if you've got time. Thanks.

Hi Josie,

First, I like your re-write, except we're telling different stories... my character doesn't know who the flower bearer is, so she wouldn't think, "...He'd never be so bold as to meet her face to face. He preferred the quite gesture."

Okay, so now the real challenge is fixing it well enough that you want to read past the first page... rough challenge, let's see if I can do it... I'll post the revised in a new post later this week.

Fotobuch said...

This is my first visit to your site. After reading this short story i can say that your writing ability is great. I like your starting style.

silken said...

I like it Merry and I'd keep reading. I won't comment on the editing, as I am no editor and there is enough here to keep you working! it sounds good and I hope I get to read the rest of it sometime (hopefully in print!) :)