Jul 17, 2009


Click here to read the query.
A revision of the query has been posted, click here to read it.

Chapter 1 – “Ten Years”
Wrapping her arms around his neck and hugging him tight - she whispered something in his ear. His arms were around her now holding her tight; his face buried in her hair. He pulled away after a few minutes just enough to look into her eyes. She stared right back, his bright blue eyes piercing into hers.

“Thank you.” He said putting his hands on the sides of her neck; he kissed her lips softly. The tears on his cheeks melting with hers.

7:00am – Sitting on the train into midtown, I try to grade the essays I had neglected last night. But something in my brain hit the play button on the story again and vivid images of my dashingly handsome main character invade my thoughts.

Yesterday my red pen couldn’t move fast enough as I was feeling the need to pick apart each and every one of my student’s mistakes, but today nothing could put a damper on the high I was experiencing – not even a bunch of goofy teenage students pretending to have read last night’s assignment. I walked the five blocks to the school – a bounce in my step today as I enter the hallway leading to my classroom.

“Good morning Mrs. Newman.” I hear a young voice call from outside my classroom door.

“Good morning Anna. Are you ready?” My most devoted student – a good way to begin my morning.

“Yeah, I guess. This paper is really killing me. I’m still worried about missing the central theme. And what about Mr. Antolini? Is he a child molester? Because it sure seemed like it.” I unlock the classroom door and turn on the lights. Pointing to a seat for Anna to sit, I place my coffee and bag on the desk sitting in the seat across from her.

“The interpretation’s not clear-cut. What you have to understand, Anna - is that Holden is an unstable narrator. We only know what Holden sees. Mr. Antolini made him uncomfortable but maybe Holden’s easily scared. Use what you already know about his character but then it’s up to you to decide the rest.” Her expression is skeptical and her eyes narrow in confusion.

“So what you’re saying is I can’t be wrong?” I smile at this truth, the reason I love literature; it’s never an exact science.

“In my class you won’t be wrong if you can back your theory with evidence.”

“That seems a little too easy, what’s the catch.” The handsome boy and the girl on the beach are floating back towards my frontal lobe; I can see tears in his eyes as she takes his hand pressing it to her cheek.

“There’s no catch.” I say to Anna “You just have to sell your idea – like everything else in life. Most things aren’t as clear as they are in school. I think you will eventually find that life after high school is just one big gray area.”

Anna’s face is blank – like a four year old who just received a lecture on home mortgage loans. I must be heading off the deep end now. If I was going to continue writing, I would need a better grasp on separating life from story.

“Um. . . forget that,” I say shaking my head again. “Anyway Anna, you asked about the central theme in the book? This one’s fairly simple.” I flip the pages of her copy of Catcher in Rye.

“Listen to what Holden says here,” I read the passage aloud.

“And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all.”

“Anna, think about what that cliff represents, and why Holden is so determined to prevent those kids from going over?”

9:30 am – “Tonight’s assignment is to read the final scenes of Macbeth. Trust me on this one – stay away from the internet, resist buying that copy of someone’s paper from last year - remember this is Senior AP English; I expect you all to tell me something I don’t already know. Let’s get creative!” The bell rings and the class begin to file out the door.

“Sam, can you stay for a minute please?” I say to the skinny red haired boy. He walks up to my desk with his bag over his shoulder. I slide an envelope across my desk toward him.

“What’s this?” he says

“It’s your letter of recommendation for NYU. I thought you needed two for your application?”

“Actually, I’m not going to apply.” He says quietly

“Sam, you’re my best student. Not only are you a shoo-in for admission but I know you could win the Phelps Scholarship. Why aren’t you applying?” I ask him, though I have a pretty good idea of the reason.

“Well, you know my family’s moving to Texas at the end of the school year and my mom thought . . . . .” I put my hand up to cut him off.

“Sam, you’re eighteen. You have to decide what’s best for you. Your mother’s issues with you being away from home are something she’ll have to deal with herself. The deadline is two weeks away. If I have to do your application for you, I will.”

“I know I should apply, but she just gets so upset even at the mention of me being away.” Anger at Mrs. Edwards is boiling inside me. Though this is true, seeing his face allows sympathy to overtake my anger.

“Just apply for now and then you can make your decisions later. You should keep all your options open.”

“Alright,” he says taking the letter off my desk and putting it in his bag. I sigh heavily as he leaves the room; parents sometimes had a way of ruining everything.

11:30am – I give the drink machine a hard kick with my right foot as the frozen dinner revolves around in the microwave. Finally, my Diet Coke comes tumbling out – slightly dented. As I sit down with my meal, the door to the lounge opens.

“Good morning, Holly.”

“Hi Todd.” I start scribbling nonsense in my notebook; maybe if I look busy he won’t try to talk to me.

“How’s Catcher in The Rye coming along?” He says in his annoying nasally voice.
We tend to have a very different approach of getting students to love what they read. Todd threatens them with failing grades. I prefer to coax them into listening to me read aloud if I don’t feel that the class is prepared. It’s most important that they hear the story – the rest is just details.

“We’re moving along well, and you? Have you taken inventory on “Cliff notes” at Barnes and Noble lately?” I say as his students are infamous for finding ways out of the reading. If he read aloud to them like I do I’m sure they would all complete their reading assignments to avoid listening to that horrible, nasally voice for an hour.

“I like to keep tabs. You’ve never been able to catch your students using “Cliff notes” have you?” He said condescendingly.

“No, I haven’t caught anyone yet, but I know I won’t.” I said, casually.

“Why is that? Everyone else does.” He says with a sneer to his voice

“My students all know there is nothing they can buy in a store or find on the internet to give them any short cuts on my essay.”

“Oh, right. I forgot about your open ended questions – you can’t be wrong if it’s your opinion.” He’s mocking me. How immature! I took a calming breath before speaking.

“It’s most important that they know the story; my job is to teach them to think for themselves – not study some useless passage about symbolism and themes in a three dollar pamphlet, most likely written by someone who obviously wasn’t good enough to write their own book.” I ignore his shocked expression and pick up my lunch, toss it in the garbage can and walk out of the lounge.

1:30pm –
“I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It's awful. If I'm on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera. It's terrible.” I read aloud to my fifth period class of juniors.

“Mrs. Newman?”

“Yes Jason?”

“Why should it matter if Holden is a great liar, he’s not writing for anyone else? I don’t understand why we can’t trust his narration? And please don’t say: What do you think?” I laugh aloud at how well he knows my style.

“Ok, let me ask you this Jason, Do you think it’s possible for someone to lie to themselves?” I say trying to work around his request.

“I guess I see what you mean – like denial?” He says

“Exactly, people lie to themselves all the time. Mothers in denial about their kid being the school bully. My kids not fat he’s just big boned!” The class is laughing and I have all their attention now.

“The only fact you really need to know when deciding what to take as true in the book is that Holden’s perspective changes, the way he looks at the world changes from the beginning of the book to the end. If you can focus on the significance of that change what’s true and what’s exaggerated becomes a lot less important.”

“So I’m guessing that will be a test question?” Another boy says

“Absolutely, the test questions aren’t a secret. I’m not making a test to trick you.”

“That sounds like a trick to me!” A girl named Emma says

“If you’ve read the story, I mean really read it, you’ll do fine. I’m happy to give you my opinions on the interpretation, but if you decide that Holden really works for the CIA and you can give me examples and details to support that you won’t fail.”

“You know that could be true.” Jason says causing the entire classroom to erupt in laughter.

“Remember, I didn’t write the book – It’s not my place to tell you you’re wrong. Unless I can tell you didn’t read, of course.”

“In other words, there’s no easy way out?” Jason speaks up again.

“There never is.” I answer him with a smile.


Suzan Harden said...


I think you're trying to establish Holly's everyday life in the opening pages, but you might want to consider trimming this down quite a bit. Or change the scene's focus.

As your reader, I want to read about Holly. If I want to read about Holden Caufield, I'll pick up Catcher in the Rye. Show me Holly. I want to know Holly, and if not like her, then at least sympathize with her.

There's nothing wrong with starting with an everyday world scene, but in your query, you insinuate Holly will be questioning her relationship with her husband. You might want to focus on that relationship in your opening scene. If that's not the case, then what are the things in her life Holly will be questioning in her charater arc? You want to start with those thing(s) in your first chapter.

Best wishes on your ms.

Julie said...

Suzan, you're right! I trimmed the fat this morning and sent the revisions to Rick already.

I was clutching on to to those pages like a little girl who's outgrown her favorite dress!

I think I needed all that detail so I could better understand the main character, but my readers don't need it.

gj said...

The writing is essentially solid (but watch the adverbs following dialogue tags, and watch the tense -- I'd suggest going into past tense, but if you're doing present tense, watch out for slipping into past tense).

But the story hasn't started yet. I suspect you needed to write this to get yourself into the story, but there's nothing here to hook a reader. You're force-feeding the reader information you want her to know, when the trick is to dribble out information as they reader wants it.

Bottom line: cut the entire section, chalk it up to preparation or pre-writing exercises (writing is never wasted), and start where the trouble starts. Start with the protagonist havng a goal (even if it's not the entire book's goal, but just a temporary goal, one tht the character REALLY cares about)and doing something to accomplish it.

Suzan Harden said...

LOL - I understand all about "killing your little darlings." It's a hard but necessary evil. I've written fifteen different beginnings with my current wip.

BUT there's nothing wrong with writing out your backstory so you get a better feel for the characters!

gj said...

Definitely, do whatever process works for you. As long as you know the backstory (and are able to use it skillfully in the manuscript itself), it doesn't matter how you got there. Writing it out is helpful for a lot of authors, and there are countless anecdotes about authors having to cut the first chapter(s) of their drafts to get to the proper starting point.

Julie said...

Thanks Suzan and gj! You guys have been extremely helpful.

gj - I have the worst habit of changing tense, I don't know if I'll ever break it. But I'm trying.

I have cut a 12 page chapter into 5 pages and I really like it. I'm going to leave one short scene of Holly teaching her students just to show a couple things about her character. Then the mystery starts and we have a teenager.