Hello! Welcome to our series of blog posts which will critique a brave writer's first page. If you'd like to see your anonymous first page (250-300 words) here, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
APRIL 28, 1848
A DAY’S SAIL PAST THE ENGLISH CHANNEL
Just one week aboard ship, Alvina-Kristina Gabrielsson had already learned to detest the sea. [Good opening line!] No one forewarned her that over one hundred souls would be competing for space intended for just eighty, nor of the rank food, the foul water, the vermin, the stench, and nothing, absolutely nothing, prepared her for the complete absence of privacy which stripped her soul naked of its dignity.
Lit by the amber glow from the four steerage lanterns, she tiptoed around the clutter towards the steep staircase that led to the main deck. Most below were still sleeping, though even in the dead of night the steerage was never a quiet place.
She stepped into the fresh air and the gloom of the predawn. Even above on the decks, her world was confined to just nine short steps from port to starboard, thirty-five bow to stern. The waves, wide and broad, rocked the deck as she stumbled to the starboard bulwarks. She clung to the ratlines while fending off the cold, huddling within her white shawl while her blond braids flapped in the brisk wind. High above, the tiers of canvas were swollen hard like metal breastplates, belled against the velvet of the awakening sky. Beyond the ship’s wake, the sun glowed just below a horizon of liquid brass. A crescent moon and the morning star waltzed together above the dawning sea. [I have nothing much to say about these two paragraphs other than they are steeped in purple prose. They are very pretty paragraphs, but ultimately tell us little other that what the ship is like and that she has blonde hair. I’ve underlined all the metaphors and adjectives so you can see what I mean.]
Her eyes, wide and cerulean blue, glazed with fresh tears while she lamented over her beloved home in Sweden. Her husband had dragged her to sea, tearing her away from everything familiar and dear for the promise of a better life in America. He had taken her from all that she had ever loved—her father, brother, sisters, and most painfully, the mortal remains of her firstborn. Their cattle, barn, and fields of barley had once been home, but home no longer. Now other feet trod the pastures and tilled the soil. The floorboards of her house sang to some other’s footfalls. [This is a whole paragraph of telling. I’m sure you know that old writing maxim of “show, don’t tell”. Sometimes you can shirk it because some things can only be told, but this is the first page! You really killed it in the first paragraph in grabbing my interest, but all the purple prose and the telling is dragging this out. Do we need to know this about Alvina-Kristina right away? Can we just know she’s sad about stuff? Can this come out in conversation? All these can be better than an info dump on the first page.]
This deep and aching sadness felt as if her heart had been torn from her bosom. [Sorry, I can never get behind using “bosom” just about ever. Breast?] She convinced herself that she carried a greater anguish than Cain when God exiled him to the Land of Nod—and she felt just as vanquished. [This totally fits for the character for this time and place, but you do have to be careful about dropping too many Bible references, especially one so specific. Few that didn’t grow up Christian or Catholic will immediately understand this reference. I think the way you’ve done it here is good, though. You’ve given us the immediate information about the story that’s relevant to her feelings—the exile. People don’t really need to know the whole story of Cain and Abel to get that. So, good job!]
All in all, you’re clearly a talented writer. My overarching comment for this is to avoid the purple prose and info dumping. I don’t think your problem is starting in the wrong place, since you seem to have a pretty good introduction, however you don’t want to drown the reader in backstory right away. What’s your hook? Why should we read this book over the dozen sitting unread on my bookshelf? (But let’s be honest, there’s more than a dozen. . .) Your first page’s job is to hook the reader, and the rest of your first chapter can more easily paint the scene. It’s not necessary to shove it all in as quickly as you can! I don’t have the benefit of reading a query or the jacket copy, so I don’t know anything at all about what this book is about, and your first page didn’t help me.
Just some things to think about! Definitely keep going. I think once you figure out how to pace your exposition, you’ll be golden!
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