First Pages That Grab: Janine Southard’s Which Star My Destination

Janine Southard author photo

Have you been enjoying these last few winning entries in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest, campers? I have — they’ve been providing us with a great deal of material for discussion, especially about the joys and challenges of writing YA. I’m toying with running a similar contest in January specifically for literary fiction and memoir, so we could have a nice, jolly time delving into the peculiarities of those highly specialized book categories.

Hands up, readers who would be interested in that.

While you’re giving that some thought, let’s turn to another winner in the YA category, Janine Southard’s WHICH STAR MY DESTINATION. I’ve got to say, by the time I finished reading Janine’s book description, I had already thought of four YA readers for whom I would buy this book for Christmas were it already out. It’s a real grabber of a premise. Take a gander:

When high school is over, Zheng still doesn’t know what to do with his life. Worse, his friends are all moving on, following their dreams, and getting off the planet Hartwell. As one last adventure together, Zheng packs up his interstellar automobile — which he modified in his parents’ garage — for a road trip, taking his university-bound friend to college.

When he and his best friends reach Luna City, Zheng stumbles across what looks like a scholarship scam, but his investigative mind uncovers the truth…revealing an alien organization quietly preparing the human race for galactic culture. Now Zheng knows what he wants to do: he intends to culturally prepare the aliens for humanity.

Yet from the first page of text, it is not entirely clear whether this is a YA book. Why not? See for yourself — and, as always, if you are having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing the + key to enlarge the image.

Southard page 1

Actually, let’s pause a moment before we consider the content in order to examine this page cosmetically. While this page is very close, it isn’t entirely in standard format for manuscripts: there’s a double-spaced line of empty space missing between the chapter heading and the first line of text, and while the dashes are properly doubled, there should be spaces between each end and the words immediately preceding and following them.

Let’s look it again without those distractions, shall we?

Southard revision1

And already, hands have sprouted up all across the galaxy. “But Anne,” the sharper-eyed residents of the universe point out, “you added more space at the top. How on earth did you manage to cram all of the sentences in the original onto the revised page?”

Oh, that was easy, galactic nitpickers: I merely eliminated one of the two single-sentence paragraphs. As we have discussed before, in English prose — at least of the non-journalistic variety — it takes at least two sentences to make up a narrative paragraph. So while single-sentence paragraphs are fine in dialogue, Millicent tends to frown at them anywhere else, at least in fiction submissions. (Due to the phenomenon’s ever-increasing prevalence in journalism, she’s less likely to react negatively to them in nonfiction submissions.) The higher the education level of the intended audience, the more negative her reaction will be.

So if you like how a single-sentence narrative paragraphs look on the page, and you happen to be writing mainstream, literary, or high-end women’s fiction, you might want to reserve the convention for only those moments when what is revealed in that single sentence is genuinely startling enough to be able to carry its own paragraph. That way, the very rarity of its occurrence will add to its impact.

Behind you — aliens!

See? Standing all by itself, that statement is much more startling than if it were merely tacked onto the end of the preceding paragraph — or, sacre bleu! buried in the middle of it. A skimming eye (like, say, a weary Millicent’s when screening her 57th page 1 of the day) may well skip lines mid-paragraph, so if an action is important, a piece of characterization essential, or a sentence particularly lovely, you might want to make sure it appears in either the first or the last line of the paragraph.

Or, if the information is once-in-a-manuscript important, in its own one-line paragraph. There’s a reason that journalists tend to present the most important planks of their arguments in single-sentence paragraphs: the eye jumps right to ‘em.

Speaking of things to which the reader’s eye jumps, did you find all of the capitalization distracting? Most Millicents would have. Obviously, some of it is unavoidable — place and people names do need to sport capital first letters, after all — but some is by choice. Compounding the problem: many of these choices appear quite close to each other in the text.

Not sure why that might be distracting for our Millie? Okay, let’s look at the page again, a capitalization-sensitive reader might see it. While I’m at it, I’m going to highlight the word and phrase repetition as well. See if anything in particular jumps out at you:

Janine repetition sheet

There’s a fair amount of word and phrase repetition here — more acceptable in YA than in adult fiction, of course, but still a pet peeve for many Millicents — but I’d like you to focus on the underlined bits in particular. Do you notice anything about them?

If you squinted at those little lines and immediately cried, “Wow, that’s quite a few instances of the verb to be,” you get a gold star for the day. That particular verb appears in various forms no fewer than 14 times on this page. 4 of those times are in the first paragraph — and in a type of sentence structure that is an even more common submission red flag. Any guesses?

If you pointed to the first few sentences of the story and said, “Hey, those are in the passive voice,” pat yourself on the back sixty-seven times. All of those it was constructions are indeed in the passive voice: instead of actors doing things, the sentences presents things as occurring all by themselves.

Again, this is rather more accepted in YA than in adult fiction, and the younger the target reader, the more acceptable the passive voice is deemed to be. (And yes, both of those last two sentences were in the passive voice. Take another gold star out of petty cash.) Unfortunately for lovers of to be and it was, most Millicents — indeed, most professional fiction readers — are explicitly taught that the passive voice is the least creative way of saying, well, almost anything. So opening a book with several instances of it in a row might well raise some professional eyebrows.

It is worth noting, however, that the only judges who were not bothered by this were the YA authors. But then, they didn’t mind the single-sentence paragraphs, either.

Again: norms vary by book category. If you want to find out what is and is not considered good writing in yours at the moment, there’s just no substitute for going to a well-stocked bookstore on a regular basis, seeking out the shelves devoted to the type of book you write, and plopping yourself down to read the opening pages of some recent releases.

Even better, you could buy new releases in your chosen category. Or ask Santa to do it for you, because what’s a better gift than professional development in the career you want most in your heart of hearts to pursue?

Did you spot any other potential distractions from the story here? Let’s take a gander at what Millicent might have scrawled in the margins.

Janine's edit1

Ah, at last we are starting to talk about plot and characterization. The story definitely drops the reader into an exciting conflict right away — good move, Janine! — but by YA standards, the description of the environment is rather scanty. YA is known for its vivid, sensual descriptions, but other than that very vivid purple imagery in the first paragraph — again, nice choice, Janine — the reader doesn’t gain a very strong sense of what it feels like to be on Luna.

Including just a few more physical details would make all the difference here — and for YA, a great way to do that is through the protagonist’s bodily sensations. Is the gravity heavier on Luna than on Hartwell, for instance, or lighter? Is Does the sunshade affect how plants grow? Are there any plants — and if so, could Zheng be allergic to one of them, because he’s not used to it?

Another prime target for descriptive expansion is the crowd. Are the people in the room all humanoid? Are any of them humanoid? Who is the group, and how can Zheng tell that they are the ones in authority — over and above the death threats, that is? Are the con artists restrained in any way? Is he? Are they close enough together to create a distinctive smell, or to increase the heat in the room?

And so forth. The possibilities here are practically endless; just remember that unless the narrative gives the reader hints of what the environment and characters looks, sound, smell, taste, etc., the author cannot be certain that every reader will envision the same thing. For some details, it’s fine to let the reader’s imagination run free; for others, it can throw off understanding of the plot.

Not sure what the latter might look like in practice? Well, if Zheng’s captors had three arms, when would you want to learn about it, when they first appear in the book, or just after one of them grabs our hero and two other captives as they try to escape?

I want to talk about two more pieces of marginalia, then I shall move to the punch line. In the next-to-last paragraph, the narrative between the dialogue indulges in a few devices quite common for a submission, but rare in published books. Here’s the relevant piece of dialogue, ripped out of context for your tag line-considering pleasure:

“You know far more than you should, and we must keep you from speaking,” the group’s Speaker proclaimed stiltedly to fidgeting from other swindlers around the room. “We should simply kill you, but we’re peaceful people. I’m not going to start killing now.” She paused, then qualified, “Unless you give me no choice.”

Did you spot all three? No? Okay, let’s take them in the order they appear. First, the adverb in the initial tag line, stiltedly, is a trifle awkward — and all the more likely to be noticed as such, because there was an entire generation of English students taught to avoid using adverbs in tag lines at all. Some of you must remember that old writing truism, right? The dialogue itself should demonstrate to the reader just how things were said; lose the -ly words, already.

This writing advice is far less common now, and its adherents certainly less vitriolic, than way back in the day, but it was so influential that millions of Baby Boomers ran terrified out of their English classes, absolutely convinced that they should never use adverbs, ever.

Why should a writer of today worry about that misconception? Millicent may be the child of one of those students. Or the grandchild. Or — brace yourself — the employee.

Just use adverbs with discrimination, okay?

Let’s move on to the second issue: what’s going on just after that adverb isn’t completely clear, is it? The causative to construction is fairly common in submissions, used to indicate that what happens after the to was in response to what came before it.

Unfortunately, a skimming eye often misses the implication. In a manuscript, then, it’s usually safer to spell out causation. Heck, we can even toss in one of those much-maligned adjectives:

“You know far more than you should, and we must keep you from speaking,” the group’s Speaker proclaimed. The swindlers around the room fidgeted uncomfortably.

The third issue is a subtle one, but a surprisingly pervasive professional readers’ pet peeve. “Why, in heaven’s name,” Millicent mutters under her breath, “do aspiring writers insist upon telling me every time a speaker hesitates for so much as an instant? In and of itself, it’s seldom either character- or situation-revealing.”

It’s pretty clear why Janine chose to insert a pause here — to increase the menace of the threat — but you must admit, Millie has a point. The mere fact of pausing doesn’t add all that much to the speech. If the speaker did something more specifically threatening, the menace in could be heightened considerably. Perhaps even by employing an adverb!

“We should simply kill you, but we’re peaceful people. I’m not going to start killing now.” Her ice-gray eyes swept the room contemptuously. “Unless you give me no choice.”

Now that your eyes are sharpened to the particulars, I’m going to ask you to step back, consider the overall picture again — and revisit that burning issue from the beginning of the post. Re-read that first page: does this voice and worldview strike you as inherently and necessarily YA?

If you’re unsure, ask yourself this question: based upon this page alone, just how old do you think the protagonist is?

To the judges’ collective eye, there was no indication here that Zheng was not a full-fledged adult — not the usual choice for the protagonist of a YA book. (Adults drop students off at college all the time, right?) Admittedly, there’s also nothing here that indicates he couldn’t be a teenager, but that might not be enough to stop an impatient Millicent looking to screen out the overwhelming majority of the submissions on her desk that day from huffing, “Oh, this isn’t YA. Next!”

Since we liked the voice, the premise, and the leap right into conflict — well done, Janine! — we wanted to flag this problem. It’s one that dogs many a YA submission, particularly now that so many writers of adult fiction have been tempted by the category’s popularity into switching teams, as it were. Out comes the broken record player again:

broken-record8YA has its own distinctive conventions, particularly with respect to voice and subject matter. If it is not apparent from the first paragraph of page 1 that a manuscript is YA, even the best-written YA manuscript runs the risk of rejection on that ground alone.

Not sure in this case? Take another peek at that first page, then ask yourself: is the central conflict of this scene one to which a teenager could relate?

The judges felt — and I concur heartily — that being lectured by an authority figure because one has found out a truth one shouldn’t have might strike teen readers as somewhat familiar. Particularly the part about not speaking up about it. The black-and-white nature of the authority figures’ logic (I’m not going to start killing now… Unless you give me no choice.) would also be more likely to appeal to teenage sensibilities than those of adult readers; in adult fiction, superlatives and extremes tend not to play as well.

A different definitional ambiguity troubled the judges in the book category description. In answer to the question how will this manuscript add something new and exciting to its book category? Janine provided the judges with a rather interesting response:

Which Star My Destination takes the themes of exploration and road trips to grand scale by involving the entire universe. It also reminds us that, different personalities aside, teenagers are faced with the same situations and feelings, even in the far-flung future. Plus, spaceships!

Plus, spaceships! saved this description at judging time, frankly; blanket assertions often raise more questions than they answer in book descriptions. While the notion of a universe-wide road trip was amusing (if rather reminiscent of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), the fantasy writer on the panel was nonplused by the assertion that an exploration story was unusual simply because its extent was intergalactic — that has been a staple of science fiction since its inception, has it not? Other, more historically-minded judges wondered how we could be certain that teenagers in the far future would face the same situations as those today, as it would be difficult to argue that the teenagers of two hundred years ago did, or even the teens of thirty years ago, when feelings-based YA really hit its stride as a book category.

Unsure if that’s true? Try reading Paul Zindel’s classic, Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on My Eyeball; the protagonist’s frequent emotional and even physical abuse of his love interest barely raised eyebrows in 1978, but it would have to be handled as the central problem of the story today. Or E.L. Konigburg’s 1967 Newberry Award-winning From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, where two children run away from an apparently perfect home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; if it were written now, there would be some serious problems in that household, and at least one responsible adult would experience some qualms about sending those kids back.

Fortunately, the first page was enough of a grabber to cause even the skeptical judges to want to read more — and the book description’s nod to Jerome Beatty, Jr.’s much-loved Matthew Looney series brought a smile to many a child of the 1970s’ face. All agreed that the combination was a potentially powerful one.

There’s a moral to all of this library-oriented reminiscence, should you care to know it. Any given manuscript will not be the first book in an agent’s chosen book category that she or her staff will have read; if they like those kinds of books enough to devote their lives to representing them, it’s a good bet that everyone concerned has read a wide array of them.

Why is that important for a submitter to know? Because in order to wow Millicent the agency screener, a manuscript is not merely competing with the other submissions of recent months; it’s also competing with all the similar books she has ever read. It had better compare favorably.

While competing with the classics in one’s genre is a tall order, the writers of today enjoy a considerable advantage: you are aware of today’s cultural expectations (“Wait — the female protagonist is supposed to DO something, not just wait around to be rescued? “YA writers of the 60s and 70s marvel), demographic trends (“Hey, when did living with one’s still-married birth parents stop being the norm?”), and, yes, recent bestsellers. (“Tell me why precisely we’re supposed to find vampirism sexy?”)

Current YA writers also reap the benefits of writing during an exciting burgeoning of the category. Boundaries are being pushed; experiments are being wrought, and a diverse array of individual voices of unprecedented complexity is being welcomed. (And yes, all of that was in the passive voice; good eye.)

Janine is poised to take advantage of this expansion with a story that seems interesting, exciting — and a whole lot of fun. Just what a road trip should be.

Keep pressing those boundaries, everyone — and, as always, keep up the good work!

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