First Page Critique: How to Better Establish Your Setting | Jane Friedman

First Page Critique: How to Better Establish Your Setting | Jane Friedman

Ask the Editor is a column for your questions about the editing process and editors themselves. It also features first-page critiques. Want to be considered? Submit your question or submit your pages.

This month’s Ask the Editor is sponsored by Book Pipeline. The 2023 Book Pipeline Unpublished contest is awarding $20,000 for unpublished manuscripts across eight categories of fiction and nonfiction: Literary, Romance, Mystery / Thriller, Sci-Fi / Fantasy, YA, Middle Grade, Picture Books, and Nonfiction. Register by March 10th.

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A summary of the work being critiqued

A Fine Suddenness is a WWII-era homefront novel that opens with Mary Miller learning that her husband, Dom, has been killed in London. Childless and introverted, she struggles to accept her widowhood while working to support local war efforts, care for her charming, but disintegrating, alcoholic brother, and protect herself from a dangerous admirer. 

Mary wrestles with feelings of abandonment and anger. She eventually finds a path to acceptance and faith, and learns the value of community and forgiveness along the way, but her hard-gained progress is put to the test when the war ends and she learns that her husband fathered a child in London prior to his death. It’s a crushing discovery, amplified because she and Dom lost their only child to pneumonia, and because she is friends with this “other” woman.

First page of A Fine Suddenness

Lake Arrowhead, California

Not every unexpected visitor brings news of a tragedy, but it has been my experience that tragedy, when it comes for us, is often accompanied by a stranger. It could be in the form of a tap on a shoulder, the ringing of a phone, perhaps a knock on a door.

On the day my stranger came, I was taking a cherry pie out of the oven. As usual, my dog, Goblin, sprawled at my feet, something I was so accustomed to that I didn’t think to move him. I routinely walked around him or stepped over him.

As I was about to close the oven door, his ears shot up, followed by his broad head. A Great Dane Labrador mix as tall as my chest, with a muscled body longer than the kitchen counter, he rose, handily knocking the pie out of my hand with violent impact, in the process. Then he took off, his toenails flying for purchase on the bare plank floor.

The pie flew straight up. I watched it spin crookedly at the apex before taking the plunge back down. The glass pan exploded at my feet, rocketing hot shards, glistening red cherries, and gelatinous filling in all directions.     

“Goblin!”                                      

Continue reading the first pages.

Dear Lori,

Thank you for submitting your work to our column. Your pitch caught my eye immediately because of my fondness for the Lake Arrowhead area and my interest in World War II novels. I was also intrigued by the idea of a protagonist who must deal with two devastating personal losses. But what makes your story especially compelling is that Mary learns that her husband fathered a child prior to his death. A crushing discovery indeed! What an ominous sign that she finds her diamond wedding ring covered with drops of blood the very day she receives news of Dom’s passing.

You might be aware that the market is filled with novels about World War II. A quick search for “World War II historical fiction” brings up over a thousand titles on the Barnes & Noble website, and many more on Amazon. Penguin Random House has an entire web page devoted to such books, including the international bestseller The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Other novels that come to mind are Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, and my personal favorite, Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key. Some acquiring editors might be hesitant to consider yet another novel about the Second World War. However, the best known of these novels are set in Europe rather than in the U.S. To my knowledge, none features the perspective of characters who live in San Bernardino County, and this should help your novel stand out, if not to large corporate publishers, then to independent or regional publishers.

The only issue is that I didn’t quite get a sense of this geographic location in your initial pages, despite the mention of the San Bernardino Army Airfield. You and I are probably both aware that the airfield was later named Norton Air Force Base after army captain Leland Norton. That said, assuming he died before Dom, can Mary be listening to a radio segment about the local hero when the story begins? At the same time, perhaps she can be comforted by the dry heat that’s so common in the Inland Empire, or be relieved that a breeze is coming in from the lake?

The time period of your story also warrants more attention. Right now, it isn’t clear until the end of the excerpt, when Dom is said to be “one of the many victims of the V-1 flying bombs Hitler had rained down on London in reprisal for the Allied invasion at Normandy,” that this is a wartime novel. The line about how Mary has used most of her sugar ration provides a clue, but you might also have her comment on other commonly rationed items in the 1940s to build on this idea. Even better would be to delve into how Mary supports the war effort. This information comes up in your pitch, but not in your pages, and whether Mary does this work at home, at the Red Cross, or perhaps at a factory, it’s likely fascinating.

All this brings up the question of the best way to begin A Fine Suddenness. If not with Mary’s contributions to the war effort, perhaps your novel can open with an introduction to the woman with whom Dom fathered a child? One idea is to have Mary talk on the phone with this woman and notice that she has been unusually supportive (or distant) of late. Maybe the woman can casually mention her child, causing Mary to sink into a deeper depression about losing her own? It’s such a curious twist that Mary is friendly with this person but has no idea of her betrayal! Your opening can certainly still mention Mary’s dog Goblin (who sounds adorable) and the cherry pie he causes her to drop (which is a good way to foreshadow events to come), but I worry that the heavy emphasis on these details, as well as on the impending arrival of Corporal Stone to deliver the tragic news about Dom, positions the novel as a general story about dealing with grief. Of course, this might be precisely the point, and I would encourage you to determine the unique premise of your story before further tinkering with the writing; once the premise is clear to you, it should be easy to integrate it into what is already a polished first chapter.

I hope these ideas are helpful. Thank you again for submitting!

—Sangeeta Mehta

This month’s Ask the Editor is sponsored by Book Pipeline. The 2023 Book Pipeline Unpublished contest is awarding $20,000 for unpublished manuscripts across eight categories of fiction and nonfiction: Literary, Romance, Mystery / Thriller, Sci-Fi / Fantasy, YA, Middle Grade, Picture Books, and Nonfiction. Register by March 10th.

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