Wednesday, November 8

Julie Cohen's First Page Challenge

A couple of weeks ago, romance author Julie Cohen blogged about a "first page challenge", in which she posted the first page of one of her novels and annotated it to show how she had portrayed what her characters were like and what there problems were right from line one. She threw down the gauntlet to other writers to do the same with their first page, and many took up the challenge -- including (to name just a few) Donna Alward, Jenna Bayley-Burke, Michelle Styles, Kate Walker, Amanda Ashby, Fiona Harper, Ally Blake, and Liz Fenwick.

After I'd read all of these contributions and seeing how well-written they were, I got panicky about posting my own! But I've decided to do it now, because I think it's an excellent exercise in making sure your writing says what you mean to say about your characters, rather than just being words.

So here is the first scene of Haunted Hearts...

Beth Albright gazed up at the imposing Georgian country house and hoped that it really was haunted. [This shows that Beth is intrigued by the paranormal and is a hopeful, positive person.] Any paranormal investigator would be thrilled at the chance to investigate such a classically old-looking mansion such as Hoblington Grange, and she was no different.

She stepped down from the porch, walked across the gravel, and peered down the flagstone path at the side of the Grange. Her arrival had been right on time [she's a punctual person who plays by the rules], yet nobody seemed to be here. [Why would somebody who had arranged a paranormal investigation not be eager to greet their investigator?] Three rings of the doorbell and a couple of heavy knocks on the hulking wooden front door had not yielded any results. She shrugged and headed for the side-path that led to the back garden. [She doesn't want to let this investigation go easily and is prepared to go looking for her client.]

It felt more than a little strange to be back in Little Hoblington after the years she'd spent away, let alone being back in the grounds of the Grange itself. [She used to either live or spend a lot of time in the village -- where did she go, and why did she leave? She also used to spend time at the Grange, but is excited to be back here.] A lot had happened since Beth's last visit to the house--a weekend break from university [she's educated] that hadn't gone exactly as planned--but in contrast, the big red-brick country mansion sat here all along, apparently unchanged by the passage of time. [She had moved on emotionally once she'd left Little Hoblington, even if nothing else moved with her. Did she want to put something behind her?]

An overgrown butterfly bush came into view as Beth neared the end of the path. It shook violently. A hand appeared and dropped a bunch of clippings on to the ground before vanishing again. [The person clipping the bush is doing it quite roughly. Is it because they are angry, or because they're just trying to get the job done?]

"Hello?" She quickened her step. "My name's Beth Albright. I'm here for the paranormal investigation."

The bush stopped shaking. [The other person has heard Beth, but why have they not reacted immediately to her presence?]

"I'm sorry to intrude back here, but nobody answered the front door. I was told to be here at ten o'clock but perhaps I'm a little early?" Beth suggested out of politeness. [Being a professional, she wants to be sure the person knows that she was here at ten a.m. (on time), but adds the latter part of the sentence in order to allow them a get-out clause.]

She stepped over the pile of clippings and raised her head to greet the new owner of the Grange. [She's eager to meet the person even if they're not so enthused.]

Instead she found herself unable to breathe. [Why? Whose presence could shock her so, and why does it have this effect on her?]

A matter of inches away stood a tall, well-built man. [This guy looks after himself and can handle his own.] He held a rusty pair of secateurs in one hand, while the other was loose by his side. [He's doing the job with what equipment he's got, even if it's not the best, or perhaps he simply doesn't look after things that well.] His dark brown hair was short but unkempt [he makes an effort at neatness, but it doesn't always carry through -- has he given up?], and smudges of dirt decorated his stubbled jaw and white polo shirt. Exceptionally dark blue eyes bored into hers [he's assessing her] and for a minute, Beth felt as though she'd been transported back in time to that last awful visit to Little Hoblington. [This man is somebody from her past who brings back bad memories.]

It wasn't the new owner of the Grange who stood before her. [She had assumed the same person who'd owned the Grange when she had known it before was no longer here.] Nor was it the well-spoken woman who had called her two weeks previously to arrange the paranormal investigation. [This man hadn't arranged the investigation, so who did, and why is he here?] It wasn't even a gardener.

It was Sam Aston-Wilkes. Her first love. The man she'd given her heart to--along with her innocence--and who had later discarded her as if she were as useless as the wandering branches of the butterfly bush he had just been decimating so well. [Kinda speaks for itself, I think...]

I would love to hear your comments if you'd like to leave any, as I've been hesitant about posting to match Julie's challenge! This has been fun, though :)

I hasten to add that all the annotations I have made are my intentions as an author of what questions or insights I hope are coming across to the reader as they read. I realize that somebody may read the opening scene and get a totally different idea of things, not understand some pointers, or find a couple of new ones. If this is the case, It would be great to know which notes you do or don't agree with and whether there are any clues to the characters you've spotted that I haven't pointed out.


Just finished reading: Love on the Rocks by Veronica Henry

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow. You caught me... You have really set it up well. I love the description of Sam and who is the woman who set up the appointment? What is he doing there? What is Beth going to do? Has she gained the composure over the years to face him unexpected????

Great first page!

Jessica Raymond said...

I'm so glad you liked it and that it raised questions for you, Liz! :) :) This really is a great exercise.

Anonymous said...
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Sue aka MsCreativity said...

Well done Jessica!! You've got me wondering all sorts of things, and I can't wait to read Haunted Hearts even more now!

You needn't have been so afraid of joining in Julie's challenge, because your writing's great. :-)

Somebody asked me to post the beginning of mine, but I haven't even finished the first draft yet.
Like you, I didn't feel brave enough (but I'm not published like you are), and I knew if I went back to polish it, it would stop me from being able to continue going ahead with the rest of my draft. Well, that's my excuse anyway!!

Sue :-)

Jessica Raymond said...

Hi Sue,

Thank you for your lovely comments! *blush* Don't be afraid like me! As I was inserting the annotations and once I'd posted my excerpt I realized that actually, I hadn't done half as badly as I'd thought. It's quite an affirming exercise, not to mention educational.

As far as I've learned, the needing-to-polish never ends... Already I've noticed bits I want to change in that scene -- e.g. just caught the repetition of "little" in the sentence "It felt more than a little strange to be back in Little Hoblington..." Gah!

Jess x

Laura Vivanco said...

Beth Albright gazed up at the imposing Georgian country house and hoped that it really was haunted. [This shows that Beth is intrigued by the paranormal and is a hopeful, positive person.]

Her name suggests she's a positive person too - 'Albright' sounds like 'all bright'. This also gives us the setting, a Georgian country house. That's not old enough for the usual medieval monks and headless horsemen, so what type of ghost would it have? And are the owner(s) rich, or are they poor, wanting to sell the house but can't because of the haunting?

Any paranormal investigator would be thrilled at the chance to investigate such a classically old-looking mansion such as Hoblington Grange, and she was no different.

This'll just be me, but where I live I'm surrounded by Georgian architecture, and it doesn't seem very old. It's mostly the older part of town (i.e. the medieval bit) that gets the ghost tours. Maybe those are just my associations, though, and other people would feel differently. And just a minor point, since you mentioned the repetition of 'Little'/'little' elsewhere - here you've got repetition of 'such'.

It was Sam Aston-Wilkes. Her first love. The man she'd given her heart to--along with her innocence--and who had later discarded her as if she were as useless as the wandering branches of the butterfly bush he had just been decimating so well. [Kinda speaks for itself, I think...]

Is 'given her [...] innocence' a euphemism implying that he's the first person she had sex with?

The situation with the bush offers an alternative reading to Beth's. She assumes that he's discarding the branches, but it could be that he's doing something to the bush which appears destructive and hurtful but is really done in order to preserve it. Yes, I did read the synopsis of the story, but it's interesting to see it encapsulated here in the differing perceptions of how the bush is being treated. He cut himself off from her/cut off their relationship in order to protect her.

I don't have a clue what a butterfly bush looks like, but its name makes me think of it being delicate like a butterfly, or attractive to butterflies. Either way, it might convey a sense of beauty and possibly fragility, but in fact it has underlying strength. Does this describe the heroine too?

Jessica Raymond said...

Thank you so much for your insights on my excerpt, Laura. I must confess to not realizing I had layered in so much significance with Beth's name and the butterfly bush, but now you've pointed them out, these reflections fit perfectly :) To comment individually:

1. I take your point about Georgian houses not looking as old as, for example, medieval houses. I suppose it could depend on the size of the house and how well (or not) it is looked after? Hoblington Grange is a bit on the shabby side, which could make it look a little older than it actually is.

2. Dang. Another repetition I'd not picked up on! In fact, I think the second "such" was left in accidentally from one of my slash-and-burn editing rounds.

3. Yes, the "innocence giveaway" indicates that Sam and Beth were each other's first sexual partners. I realize now the phrase might sound a little too historical for the (contemporary) setting.

4. "Butterfly bush" is a common name for the buddleia. It's the fast-growing plant you see a lot during the start of summer and throughout the season, with long cones of tiny flowers in varying shades of purple. The flowers attract butterflies, hence the name. Originally I did use "buddleia" but thought people might know it more commonly as a butterfly bush and would be able to picture it better.

Thank you once again for your comments -- they were wonderful to read.

Jess x

Laura Vivanco said...

I'm very glad you liked my comments.

I had to smile when I read what you just wrote about 'slash-and-burn editing rounds'. There's Beth thinking nasty thoughts about Sam, who's only 'decimating' the branches of a bush and the person who's really got her into all this trouble is you, and your method of plant control is the even more brutal slash and burn!

Anyway, getting away from my tendency to spot metaphors everywhere, I realise I forgot to comment on 'Hoblington Grange'. It sounds more than a little like 'Hobgoblin', so fits in with the paranormal theme. Or is it more like 'hobbling', in that, like a horse hobble, it hampers the owner's freedom? Maybe both?

Anonymous said...

Laura you have done it again. Really insightful and telling comments.

Jess, I like the fact that all you put into the first was instictive and I think the exercise is so useful.......I have learned so much. As Laura ponted out on my first page once you see what you have put in their subconsciuosly you can then further develop it or see if it happened away:)

Now I have got to get my hands on Haunted Hearts :)

Jessica Raymond said...

*Cackles and rubs hands together* ... Yes, Laura, I like being the boss of my characters! :)

Liz, I was surprised too when I realized (thanks to Laura's comments) that I'd layered in this additional symbolism. It reminds me of English classes, studying the significance of storms and nature in Wuthering Heights and of water in Romeo and Juliet!

Jess x

Julie Cohen said...

Hooray! Thanks for doing this Jess...you and Laura have done a great job analysing what's going on. I particularly liked the butterfly bush (I don't think "buddleia" would be as evocative of innocence) and I thought "Hobgoblin" Grange, too.

I'm glad it was a useful and affirming exercise for you!

Pip said...

Hi Jess,
Your opening lines packed so much in. I've chickened out I'm afraid so I'm in awe.

Jessica Raymond said...

Post yours, Pip! Honestly, I felt just the same as you when I read everybody else's but you'll find as you go through it that you've raised many more questions than you thought. I bet you've got subconscious symbolism, too!

Jess x

Phillipa said...

Jess - funnily enough I got the revisions to my book just after I deleted my opening lines. The one thing my lovely ed hasn't changed is the opening page so that made me feel a lot better. But I'll keep it to myself until the draft is all done and dusted and then I'll post it.