First-Page Critique: How to Elegantly Reveal Character Motivations | Jane Friedman

First-Page Critique: How to Elegantly Reveal Character Motivations | Jane Friedman

Photo by Alice AliNari

Ask the Editor is a column for your questions about the editing process and editors themselves. It also features first-page critiques.

This month’s Ask the Editor is sponsored by Plottr. Ditch the index cards and unleash your storytelling with Plottr – the #1 rated book outlining and story management software for writers. Use code JANE15 at checkout for 15% off. (Expires Dec. 31, 2023)

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A summary of the work being critiqued

Title: The Siren Dialogues
Genre: Literary fiction

When Libby Levine is assigned a story on renowned photographer Tanner Bixby, she sees an opportunity to prove her writing chops and win a promotion. As a bonus, the photographer has a vacation cabin on the same island as her boyfriend, Jasper. But Bixby has a surprise agenda: he’s looking to find the long-lost love of his life—who he claims is a mermaid.

When a mysterious, half-conscious woman washes up with the tides, Libby forms an inexplicable bond that challenges what she knows about herself as well as her past decisions and true loyalties. With the arrival of a hurricane, the woman fully awakens and reveals her true nature. and Libby must summon all her power to choose who and what she wants to become and who she’s willing to betray, or run the risk that someone else might choose for her.

From the writer: I’ve had questions whether to present this as literary fiction with magical realism or magical realism with a literary bent. I’ve also wondered if beginning the book with a duck hunt is off-putting to some readers? This is a book that has gone through many iterations over multiple years and I am anxious to get it into the world! Are the character motivations clear? Is the voice engaging? These are some of the big questions I have.

First page of The Siren Dialogues

Libby

Libby angled her flashlight beam over Jasper’s tall, lean frame and the wagon load of decoys and gear bumping along the boardwalk behind him. The beam caught the eyes of one of the decoys, a mallard duck carved from wood, bringing it to life just as a warning gong echoed from a buoy and a ship in the distance issued a long, low response. The early morning hour was alive with sound and magnified over the body of the bay. Even her new duck boots made a satisfying slap against the wooden boards. She turned up the collar of her field coat and patted the pockets. Notebook on one side, gloves on the other. She’d need both to capture the day.

Normally she kept her work and personal lives separate. Elizabeth in the city and Libby on the island for her weekend escapes to Jasper’s cabin. This time was different. Soon her new client, the famous photographer Tanner Bixby, would arrive. She would chronicle his stories for a new photography book and give context to his vision. Her boss, Diane, was taking a chance on her and she planned to come through.

Jasper dropped the wagon handle at the dock and hopped into his boat. He switched on the running lights and the engine hummed to life. His was the last craft left in its slip, all the summer people gone back to the city and their boats put in dry dock. He grasped her by the wrist as she stepped from land to water with only the floor of Jasper’s boat between them. Her blood thrummed beneath Jasper’s long fingers. “Easy does it, Libs,” he said.

She squeezed before letting go and settled on the gunwale. Port side, she reminded herself. Port left red like Port wine. Starboard right green. She looked over the side to see if she’d gotten it right and there was the red blaze of the navigation lights in confirmation. The truth was, she was glad this trip would be different. She’d been with Jasper over a year now. Maybe it was time to shake things up.

Continue reading the first pages.

Dear Lisa,

Thank you for submitting the first several pages of your novel for a critique. I’m especially intrigued by your subject matter. Back in 2020, when The Washington Post noted that “mermaid mania is coming around to books again,” I wondered if it would wane. Instead, interest has grown, and mermaids are featured in several new books for readers of all ages, at least according to HuffPost. To be competitive in the current publishing market, you’ll likely need a progressive twist on the mermaid (or siren) archetype. If The Siren Dialogues is anything like the comparative title you mentioned, Julia Langbein’s well-reviewed American Mermaid, then you are in a strong position.

Opening your novel with a duck hunt is also, in my mind, a plus. Although some agents and editors might be opposed to the idea of hunting in principle (this one included), it is an American pastime. and while I can think of a few contemporary books that depict some form of hunting (C.J. Box’s novels, Helen Macdonald’s heart-wrenching memoir H Is for Hawk), none come to mind that are about duck hunting, specifically. If your novel is set in a region where hunting is common, or if your novel could be considered historical fiction, then you would be justified in leaving it intact.

My bigger concern about the opening is that the exposition may be getting in the way of the action. Your pitch clearly explains that Libby is embarking on a duck hunt with her boyfriend, Jasper, and photographer Tanner Bixby, whom Libby is to interview for her work. But in your pages, this information becomes blurred, due in part to such descriptions: “The beam caught the eyes of one of the decoys, a mallard duck carved from wood, bringing it to life just as a warning gong echoed from a buoy and a ship in the distance issued a long, low response.”

This line is wonderfully evocative, but it’s also on the long side, and it’s the second line in the book. If the wooden duck isn’t relevant to other events in this scene, and if it isn’t meant to symbolize other inanimate creatures that later come to life, then might this sentence be trimmed or removed?

The boardwalk might not be necessary to mention here, either, since it comes up later in the chapter when Libby hears Bixby’s footfalls pounding the wooden boards. In fact, the first paragraph might work just as well if Libby and Jasper are already on the boat rather than preparing to board it. This setup would enable you to focus on how Jasper is waiting for his friends while Libby is anticipating the arrival of Bixby.

Aside from streamlining the opening paragraphs, I would encourage you to better integrate some of the boating terminology into the story so that it sheds more light on Libby’s motivations. For example, did Libby get “settled on the gunwale” because she believes that sitting on the upper edge of the boat will give Bixby more space to spread out? If so, then it’s no wonder that she is startled when he later “plopped down next to her, upsetting the boat’s balance.”

Or you could have Libby reflect on the day that Jasper taught her the difference between “port” and “starboard,” how the glass of wine he handed her helped her remember, “Port left red like Port wine”—if this is at all accurate? If not, perhaps she can be upset that he’s never explained to her why metal wings are positioned below the hull and aft wings, how he acquired his Russian Volga hydrofoil—or why he enjoys hunting an animal that she could never harm?

If it’s true that Libby once said hunting is “cruel and unusual punishment,” as Topher later reminds her, then you might briefly delve into why she’s seeing Jasper, if they have conflicting beliefs. (Such an explanation would have the added advantage of addressing your concern that some readers will find the duck hunt off-putting.) The line at the end of the fourth paragraph about how Libby has been with Jasper for a year and “it was time to shake things up” makes for a terrific cliffhanger, but right now it’s unclear how Libby feels about him and what kind of change she has in mind.

Another way to further strengthen the opening is to reassess when to bring in the siren. Currently, the point of view switches from third person narration about Libby to the siren’s first (and second) person narration rather suddenly, just as readers are just getting to know Libby. Assuming that you’ve chosen a dual narration for the novel that alternates between Libby’s and the siren’s point of view, it should be easy enough to space out their sections, bringing in the siren sometime after the last line of this excerpt, when Libby declares that she’s “hungry and ready for anything.” Until then, you could potentially foreshadow the siren’s appearance by incorporating a few more light touches of magic to Libby’s section. For example, maybe she notices something inexplicable moving about in the bay, or that the early morning moonlight has a silver glow? The delightful passage later in the chapter, about the “salve that washed away the residual layers of [Libby’s] city self” and how Libby “loved … letting go of one self and embracing the other, as if she were a mythical creature transforming to its true nature,” should make for the perfect lead-in to the introduction of the siren.

As for your question about whether to present this as literary fiction with magical realism or magical realism with a literary bent—perhaps you don’t need to include either descriptor? Since you say that your novel is written in the vein of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, the recipient of numerous literary awards, agents will assume that your work is literary as well. What would be more helpful is to indicate how your writing is similar to Ozeki’s, whether in terms of setting, theme, or tone. The other comparative books you’ve chosen, coupled with your title, suggest that your work is speculative. Since “magical realism” is often associated with contemporary Latin American writers, maybe it’s best to avoid this term, focusing instead on the “magical elements” of your novel? Your many impressive publications and accolades, including your Pushcart Prize nomination, also speak volumes about your craft. Be sure to mention them in your bio, as they are certain to garner interest from agents.

Best of luck!

—Sangeeta Mehta

This month’s Ask the Editor is sponsored by Plottr. Ditch the index cards and unleash your storytelling with Plottr – the #1 rated book outlining and story management software for writers. Use code JANE15 at checkout for 15% off. (Expires Dec. 31, 2023)

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