Tuesday, October 1, 2013

First Page Critique: Love Always, Lola


Our new first-pager is an entry titled "Love Always, Lola. My comments follow and, as always, a big thank you to our brave writer. We welcome your input and insights. -- PJ Parrish

I hate kids. I have to.

“Lola? Did you hear my last question?” The disembodied voice over the phone asks.

I blink, feeling for all the world like I’m about to lose my lasagna on the wood floor of my bedroom.  Zoe, my mentor here at Corner House Crisis Pregnancy Home, smiles and waves her hands in the air like she’s trying to keep the tape reel going in my mind.

“Um, yes. I like kids. Enough. They’re great.” I look down at the red and white checkered quilt on my twin-sized bed, rubbing my swollen belly to get rid of the itch.

“Do you have any experience working with them?” Mr. Compton, the voice, wants to know.

“A little, I guess. I used to babysit for my mom’s church and stuff.”

“What about camp? Do you have any experience with camp, maybe family camping trips or summer camp?”

I trace a circle around my stomach with my fingernail.

Zoe plants her hands on her tiny stick hips. “Focus!” she whispers.

“No,” I blurt. “No family camping trips or anything. But I am CPR-certified.”

“Great, that’s a start,” Mr. Compton says. “Can you tell me why you’d like to work at Camp Qavah this summer?”

“Well, I feel like I have a really great connection with kids.” Like I'm carrying one right now, literally connected to her by an umbilical cord. “I’m looking for an opportunity to grow and become my own person this summer.” I’d love to run away from who I am right now. “And I’m not afraid of hard work.” I once used my former roommate’s toothbrush to scrub the suite’s toilet.

“Fantastic.” Mr. Compton seems satisfied with my answers. “One last thing—you’ll be replacing one of our other counselors who’s had to cut her commitment short for the summer. Your first day would be mid-July. Will it still work for your situation?”

He puts it so delicately, but we both know what situation he’s talking about. That situation is currently kicking my ribs like she’s a jiu jitsu master.


“Uh, yeah. I think so. I’m due around the first of June. Mid-July should be fine.”

***

First, a personal bias: I am not a big fan of novels that open with dialogue. (I know, the first line isn't in quotes but it is what we call "internal dialogue" in that we are in the narrator's thoughts.) So maybe this goes to a taste thing. But I wasn't pulled into this opening. To begin with, the first line might sound intriguing but when you think about it, it makes no sense. Why does she HAVE to hate kids? And the moment we find out she's pregnant, the line becomes almost off-putting. Either way, the question just hangs there, unanswered, provocative for sake of provocation. Second, because the first page is almost all dialogue, there was no way for me to find my footing in the world the writer was trying to conjure up. When a reader first picks up a story, they are like a coma patient—fluttering open their eyes in an unfamiliar world, wondering, where am I, when am I, who am I? The writer has an obligation to quickly and efficiently orient. (that's how writer and teacher Benjamin Percy put it, not me, alas.) 

Yeah, I know. Some great books open with dialogue. Charlotte's Web opens with "Where's Papa going with that axe?" And then there's Little Women: "'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,' grumbled Jo, lying on the rug."  But it's a tough act to pull off and in this case, it backfires because the writer has provided me with so llittle context or setting. And what does that do?

Confuse me. And that's death to a first page. I am confused from the get-go because I think I am overhearing a telephone conversation between Lola and "disembodied voice." Then suddenly Zoe is there but where is "there?" Is Zoe the voice? Is she in the room with Lola? Is she listening in on an extension? Speed-bump. Okay, call me dense. But the last thing you want your reader to do in your first page is work hard on the little stuff. 

Third thing: There's not a lot of tension here. Maybe this isn't a mystery or thriller but still, we need a compelling reason to follow Lola. And although her voice -- cocky, cynical and sassy -- is interesting in a snarky sort of way, the set-up isn't enough. Telephone conversations are such a dead way to move your story along. You need them at times to impart info but I don't think you want to waste your crucial opening with such a static -- disembodied -- device. Also, this style is pretty bare-bones spare (the only detail we have is that Lola is at a pregnancy crisis center). Sometimes openings give TOO MUCH information (ie backstory) but I think this one gives too little, maybe because the writer believes by holding back, he/she creates a sense of mystery. I forget who said this but it works for me: The only thing you hold back is what happens next.

All this said, there's some good lines here, sharp observation, and the writer has a good grasp of how to construct dialogue. The writer has a nice touch. I just wish she/he had chosen a more compelling opening scene, something that is worthy of their talent. What Lola and Compton are talking about is pretty banal. This  would work as a later scene, but only after the writer has hooked me into this character's situation and her voice. I'd suggest the writer find some really good female protag fiction to read. I mention this only because I am re-reading Wally Lamb's "She's Come Undone" right now. It's a really good job of entering a female viewpoint via first-person POV.  Ditto "The Lovely Bones." Anybody have any other good examples? 

***

I hate kids. I have to. I'm not crazy about kids either but this line was sort of offputting.

“Lola? Did you hear my last question?” The disembodied voice over the phone asks.

I blink, feeling for all the world like I’m about to lose my lasagna on the wood floor of my bedroom.  Zoe, my mentor here at Corner House Crisis Pregnancy Home, smiles and waves her hands in the air like she’s trying to keep the tape reel going in my mind. Not sure I get this image. And Zoe pops out of nowhere.

“Um, yes. I like kids. Enough. They’re great.” I look down at the red and white checkered quilt on my twin-sized bed, rubbing my swollen belly to get rid of the itch.

“Do you have any experience working with them?” Mr. Compton, the voice, wants to know.

“A little, I guess. I used to babysit for my mom’s church and stuff.”

“What about camp? Do you have any experience with camp, maybe family camping trips or summer camp?”

I trace a circle around my stomach with my fingernail.

Zoe plants her hands on her tiny stick hips. “Focus!” she whispers. Hard to whisper when you use exclamation point.

“No,” I blurt. “No family camping trips or anything. But I am CPR-certified.”

“Great, that’s a start,” Mr. Compton says. “Can you tell me why you’d like to work at Camp Qavah this summer?”

“Well, I feel like I have a really great connection with kids.” Like I'm carrying one right now, literally connected to her by an umbilical cord. Nice line but you might want to put these thoughts in italics because they are used in quick succession during dialogue. I’m looking for an opportunity to grow and become my own person this summer.” I’d love to run away from who I am right now. “And I’m not afraid of hard work.” I once used my former roommate’s toothbrush to scrub the suite’s toilet.

“Fantastic.” Mr. Compton seems satisfied with my answers. “One last thing—you’ll be replacing one of our other counselors who’s had to cut her commitment short for the summer. Your first day would be mid-July. Will it still work for your situation?”

He puts it so delicately, but we both know what situation he’s talking about. That situation is currently kicking my ribs like she’s a jiu jitsu master. Nice image.

“Uh, yeah. I think so. I’m due around the first of June. Mid-July should be fine.”



14 comments:

  1. I'm with you on disliking the use of dialogue as the opening line, Kris. It's interesting that the two examples of successful dialogue openings were from children's books. I think of dialogue openings as being more appropriate for younger, less sophisticated readers. When I was writing Nancy Drews under contract, we were required to open every story with dialogue from, or directed at, Nancy. (A la, "Bess, you silly goose, you do NOT look fat in that dress!") I know many writers and readers are okay with dialogue as an opener, but it always strikes me as a somewhat unsophisticated way to get into a story.

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  2. I need more info on the MC. Like her voice but is this the start of a YA novel? The way she mentions her mom's church group, I'm assuming she is a pregnant teen. Which is fine, I enjoy reading YA but I still need more info in order to like/sympathize with this particular teen.

    If the author were to explain why the MC felt she had to hate kids (I'm assuming because she's giving this one up for adoption and is afraid of loving it), then the first line would be okay, but she'd have to explain pretty quick.

    I think the author does a good job of setting up what is to come as far as the MC getting a job at a summer camp where she will be surrounded by children. Interesting, and could be a heart-breaking or heart-warming story. I'd keep reading to find out.

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  3. I liked this page, and can see a confident voice at work, which is the hardest thing to teach.

    FWIW, I like dialogue openings. I prefer it to characters alone, thinking. Dialogue guarantees you're in an actual scene, and it's often a weakness with manuscripts that there's not anything really happening on the first page. See The Last Coyote (Michael Connelly) as an example of a dialogue opening.

    I like the first two lines, too. I'm thinking, why does this narrator HAVE to hate kids? A little mystery in the opening is a good thing, in my view. Things said that need to be explained, only later...

    I do think there's a missed stylistic opportunity here. I'd do it this way:

    I hate kids. I have to.

    “Lola? Did you hear my last question?” The voice over the phone asks.

    “Um, yes. I like kids. They’re great.” I look down at the red and white checkered quilt on my twin-sized bed, rubbing my swollen belly to get rid of the itch.


    By shifting her line up, it contrasts sharply with the thought she just had, and emphasizes the contrast.

    Also notice I cut two words. "Disembodied" really threw me. I thought I was reading SF. A voice on a phone is not disembodied. The speaker still has a body.

    I also cut "Enough." Why? Simply because of the sound. Sometimes that the only reason.

    I blink, feeling for all the world like I’m about to lose my lasagna on the wood floor of my bedroom.

    I like "lose my lasagna." It's specific and has attitude. I like the specificity of the details (stick hips, jiu jitsu master).

    And I loved the choice to use an action (tracing a circle on her stomach) instead of saying something. It's a specific detail that characterizes, and so often writers don't take that opportunity in dialogue. They are either verbal or put in an action that's innocuous.

    There are tweaks I'd make. For example:

    “Fantastic.” Mr. Compton seems satisfied with my answers.

    I'd cut the whole second line. We know he's satisfied because he says "Fantastic."

    But overall, I think the author's off to a good start.

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    1. Good tweak on the opening line James to fix its oddness. I, too, liked the voice...and as you said, it's almost unteachable. So yes, there is promise here.

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  4. I'm with JSB. I really liked this submission. I felt it had tension from the start. "I hate kids" has a certain tension to it because that's not a thing we say in proper society. "I have to" intrigues me even more (but I'll want some sort of answer quickly--second page?).

    The dissonance created by that first line and her pregnancy AND the job she's applying for created a lot of tension for me because all sorts of questions popped up in my mind. (Why does she hate kids? Why is she pregnant if she hates kids? Why does she want to work at a camp for kids? Does her mentor have a clue about how Lola feels?)

    I do agree that I'd like a little more grounding in the scene. I zipped over the first reference to Zoe and got confused when she was mentioned the second time.

    And I liked the word "disembodied." It gave me the sense that Lola had zoned out so that the voice on the phone was only at the edges of her perception. But now that I read back, I see that probably wasn't the feeling the author was going for.

    I'd keep reading. Too many intriguing questions for me not to.

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  5. First off, my perspective is only as a hard-core fiction reader, not a fiction expert.

    I understand the reasons for not beginning with dialogue, but if it's done well, I don't have a problem with it, and didn't necessarily have a problem with it here.

    This writer does have a good voice, and I found the writing itself to be pretty solid. I agree there are a few words here and there that could be tweaked, but overall it's well written (IMHO).

    I too got confused, trying to keep Zoe and the voice on the phone straight. The author doesn't give a name to the voice on the phone, so when Zoe appears, and the MC has two different conversations going on, I had to re-read the beginning to figure out who everyone was. At one point I even thought there was another person in scene. These should be easy things to fix, though.

    Thanks for sharing, and good luck!

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  6. I thought this flowed well and I didn't have any confusion over the different conversations. We know right away who the protagonist is. We know there is tension because who wouldn't be tense during an interview while someone else is listening in? We also have this mystery of why she hates kids but it trying to land a summer camp job.

    Nice job keeping me interested and I don't particularly enjoy YA. :)

    The one part I didn't really like (style wise) was the dialogue, thought, dialogue all in one paragraph.

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  7. I, too, had to reread the opening to figure out who Zoe was in relation to the MC and the voice. Other than that, I like the first line and the voice overall, but prefer JSB's tweak. Makes it snappier. I'd keep reading right up to my one problem with it...

    My quibble is, yes, there are sometimes strikes in some teachings of Jiu Jitsu, but they're rare. Jitz is primarily known the world over as a grappling/joint manipulation martial art, and anyone who's studied any form of martial arts will associate it with grappling first, which makes your image confusing (unless you mean the baby is curled around one of Lola's ribs and is twisting it). Sparring in jitz is even called "doing rolls" or "rolling" because the bulk of the fighting is hold technique, and is practiced on the ground in various stages of the "guard."

    If you don't want to go with tried-and-true Karate or Tae Kwon Do or Kung Fu as your image, you could use something a little more exotic like Capoeira (Brazillian dancing martial art style), or maybe Wing Chun (a style of Kung Fu, but more specific), or Muay Thai (Thailand kickboxing with knee and elbow strikes, and my favorite).

    I just don't want something little like that to hurt your credibility with your audience (like someone putting the safety on a Glock, or popping the magazine out of a revolver).

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    1. That's a really good point Jake. My grandfather was a Jiu Jitsu instructor in the Marines in the 1940s. In his late sixties he could still toss my then 19 year old Marine self across the room with a flick then get me in a lock that took my breath away.

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  8. interesting character
    captured my interest
    a distinct voice(edgy but somehow engaging)
    I saw lots of conflict in this short section (internal and external)
    Good stuff imo!
    would keep reading

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  9. I enjoyed this submission quite a bit. I have no trouble with dialogue openings. (Side note: the comments discussion sent me on a quick rummage through my bookshelves. I was interested to find that not many books I have begin with dialogue. However, the most recent 5 Joseph Wambaugh "Hollywood" volumes all begin with dialogue and so does Patricia Highsmith's "The Tremor of Forgery." So, it can be done.)

    Also, this really *isn't* a dialogue opening that matters. I had to read it twice to figure out that the "I hate kids. I have to" thought of the MC is a short version of what will be the longer interior asides that are given once we get into the conversation with Mr. Compton. She's (apparently) been asked if she likes kids and the first line of the page gives us her real thoughts as opposed to the rehearsed interview answer she gives three paragraphs later - after the "disembodied voice" has spoken again and Zoe has waved her hands.

    And that, somehow is one of the problems here, it seems to me. The scene-setting isn't quite smooth enough. The details about Zoe and the disembodied voice and the red and white checkered quilt seem to interrupt and drag out the narrative instead of making a vivid setting and strengthening the reader's understanding of the story.

    BTW, I loved the paragraph that contrasted what she said to Mr. Compton and what she thought (the one that begins, "Well, I feel like I have a great connection with kids...") But, I'm not sure it was formatted optimally.

    I think someone else suggested using italics for her thoughts, which might work. Or, possibly, just more paragraphs: break out the non-apostrophied thoughts from her spoken dialogue. I thought the contrast between the two was really excellent and demonstrated the MC's frame of mind - but it was a sort of a clump of text and I think some good lines, e.g., "I'd love to run away from who I am right now," could easily get skimmed over and lose their impact.

    I agree with JSB that the voice sounds confidant - the general writing style kept me interested and amused.

    I think, in general, this could be tightened so that we get deeper into the MC's dilemma(s). It's a fun, interesting conversation, but it could be shortened and still be just as fun, plus get us further along in the story. Unless it's a comedy sketch, job interviews only hold so much interest.

    BTW, I was not under the impression that this was YA. The voice doesn't really sound YA to me. I suppose a Crisis Pregnancy Home implies teenager, but I wouldn't think it would have to be someone underage. I was just thinking this told us that she doesn't have other economic support. She does sound young, what with her short work history, but something about the authorial voice didn't sound especially young to me.

    In the real world, my decision to read more or not would be determined on what kind of story this is, that is, whether it's centered around this young woman's pregnancy and getting her bearings in the world or something else. From this excerpt, I can't really tell. But, I did like the writing and would give the writer another few pages to see where the story's going.

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    1. should have said, "this isn't really a dialogue opening AND that matters."

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  10. Personally I like starting with dialogue. It feels like I've just walked into a conversation. If it's interesting enough I may continue eavesdropping. Here I might stick around and try to find out what up with this somewhat desperate sounding pregnant girl trying to get work with kids right after having a baby she seems unsure of loving.

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  11. Am late getting back to you all today because I am in San Francisco and was out "on vacation" for a couple hours today. But I wanted to say that I think this is great that I seem to be in a minority here. This is what is so great and helpful about TKZ critique process -- it works like a really effective critique group in that tackle some good writing issues but we also diverge on our opinions. This is what I know I value here...the good give and take. So thank you dear writer and creator of Lola for a provocative entry! And thank you to all our commentors. I really enjoy being part of this.

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