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Dear Track Changes: A First Page Critique

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Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a writer we've had the pleasure of working with on a couple of occasions. She recently sent the first page of her memoir, Breaking My Own Heart to Dear Track Changes for a critique.

First Page:

Cinco de Derby. May 5, 2007

The bruise on my groin is a faint green now and the hair is slow to grow back. It itches as a nagging reminder. I scratch at it and watch people arrive for the Derby Day party in my friend’s basement.

The male nurse who wheeled me to surgery made me uncomfortable. I knew I’d need to be shaved. Was there anything more humiliating? Halfway down the hallway I blurted out, “will you help me preserve my modesty?”

Anyone walking into this party knows how absurd that sounded coming from my mouth. A prude I am not. But, a medical degree doesn’t guarantee you unlimited access. I’m a clinical prude, I decided.

The nurse stopped the gurney and adjusted my gown sleeve to cover my shoulder – it had slipped off as if on cue.

“Yes,” he said giving me a kind nod. This was something else foreign to me, especially when it came to men who had what I perceived as an opportunity. I’m used to the kind of guy who has expectations. The guy who will take what he can get – no matter the situation.

In the surgery room another nurse, a female nurse, typed data into a computer. The male nurse looked at me and said, “I’m going to get a few things ready. Sandy here, will get you prepped for the procedure.”

I was relieved to see him organizing an instrument tray with his back turned. I wondered if the tray needed organizing at all, but I was grateful for his kindness.

Sandy pulled back my gown, exposing my furry crotch. She covered it with gauze, taping it down on either side.

“I just need to shave here on the one side to give the doctor clean access to the vein,” Sandy said.

“So, I’m not getting a Brazilian, then?” I chuckled attempting to ease my anxiety.

Critique Memo

Dear Bonnie,

This is a really nice first page! I think it’s a great example of just how much information can be packed into 300 words or so. By the end of this short sample, I got:

  • Both the central conflict of the memoir—your struggle with this illness—and some key parts of your personality—your typical boldness that has been tempered a bit by this strange and scary situation.
  • A nice bit of tension created by the contrast of your worries about the procedure with how things actually play out. That sets up an interesting subversion of expectations, where we see the cold clinical setting end up being a bit warmer than your sex life might have suggested. That’s a really nuanced idea that bodes well for the book’s depth.

Maybe most importantly, I can already tell that this memoir is going to be honest, even painfully so. You hear those words a lot when people are talking about memoirs they love—raw, unflinching, intimate—because the best memoirs tend to look into an author’s psyche that dispense with polite societal norms that pervade everyday life. Even in these early pages, I get that bold vibe from your writing. First page pubic hair is certainly a shot across the bow of readers that you’re not going to be censoring yourself. I think that’s great!

For starters, I’m not sold on the way you are trying combine the two settings—the Kentucky Derby party and the hospital prep room. We’re supposed to be joining before the party while you think about your experience at the hospital, but that’s not coming across smoothly as its currently written, in large part just because you don’t establish the Derby party scene in very much detail before flashing back. I don’t think it would take too much to flesh out the party setting in a meaningful way, but you also don’t want to wait too long to get into the meat of the scene. Without seeing more material, it’s hard for me to make a firm recommendation, but I think you’ll want to make a choice: either flesh out the party setting in the first few paragraphs before shifting back to the hospital, or just start with us in the hospital and leave the party for later on.

For example, take these few sentences:

This was something else foreign to me, especially when it came to men who had what I perceived as an opportunity. I’m used to the kind of guy who has expectations. The guy who will take what he can get – no matter the situation.”

To my ear, that feels a little vague and stiff in a moment where you want to be vivid and natural. Rather than saying “This was something else,” be clear and direct. Rather than talking about your perception of an opportunity, I recommend going for the jugular, slicing through the ambiguity. Maybe something like this:

“His politeness felt foreign to me, especially for a man who was about to see my vagina. I’m used to guys who have expectations. Guys who will take whatever they can get—no matter what the situation.”

See how the gravity of that first sentence changes? Rather than grappling with the unnecessary words in the original version, a strong, simple statement propels us forward.

Comb back through and find other moments where you can be bolder, more specific, more colorful. Once you’ve done that, I think you’re going to be in great shape. Good luck!

Love, Track Changes

Ask Track Changes is written by our editor William Boggess, who had never before typed the phrase “first-page pubic hair.”

Thank you to Bonnie for participating. Let her know your thoughts in the comment section below and learn more about Bonnie at WriterBonnie.com.

To submit your first page or a question to Track Changes, email tc@nybookeditors.com.

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