First Pages is a series featuring an early draft of a published book’s first page and a short commentary from the author describing how that draft evolved into its published form. I’ve read thousands of first pages, and I started this series to study how authors get it right. It takes a lot of courage for authors to share their first or early draft, so these are a real treat!
In this installment of the series, we look at DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND, a Young Adult Historical Fantasy (Salem witch trials) by debut author Heather Eagar (Jan 2016, Clean Reads). I really enjoyed this book and reviewed it shortly after its release. Part of my review is now printed on the back cover of this book 🙂
“A touch of romance, plenty of action, and more than one heart-rending betrayal.
For me Devil’s Playground fixed something emotional that The Crucible had broken.”
– 5-star Review by CM McCoy.
Sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Winters may be a witch, but she doesn’t know the first thing about magic—unless you count accidental bouts of spontaneous combustion. Elizabeth’s father, a wizard himself, has forbidden the use of her powers for her own protection, but when accusations of witchcraft start flying through Salem Village, she wishes she was more prepared.
Despite her lack of magical knowledge, Elizabeth appoints herself to save innocent women from the demise the village has in store for them. Elizabeth finds, however, that she is not the hero Salem needs her to be.
She meant to save them. She cursed them instead.
First Draft of First Page
Salem, Massachusetts. 1692.
“Elizabeth! Are you up?” I hear Mother call.
“Yes, I’m almost ready,” I lie. I cringe as my bare feet hit the cold floor. Time to put on my ‘Sunday best.’ I pull out the first dress I see. It doesn’t matter much when my choices are the black dress, the dark black dress, or the other black dress. Shall I wear the one with the hole, the one with two holes, or the one the mouse chewed through?
“Elizabeth! We are going to be late, we need to leave,” Mother calls.
“I’ll be right there!” I call back.
I exchange my white nightdress for the dark black dress that the mouse chewed through. I tie my white apron over the dress, hiding the hole. I’m nearly out the door when I realize I have forgotten my bonnet.
I quickly pin my hair back before covering it with the bonnet so I now look like every other girl in the village. It seems a shame to let my natural curls go to waste and I pull a few forward. I walk out to the front room where my father, mother, and younger sister, Anna, are waiting. Mother sighs and shakes her head.
“What did I do now?”
Commentary from the author
Ugh. That’s how I feel when I read the early versions of Devil’s Playground. And I didn’t even notice what was wrong until other people called me out on it. Getting my work out there for submissions, competitions, and other readers was SO important to my revision process. They aren’t trying to be mean when they are telling me what isn’t working. They are helping me in ways I can’t help myself.
Notice how pretty much every sentence starts with ‘I’? And there isn’t nearly enough description to help me see what is going on in this scene. As a result, this version is about 60 words shorter than the published version.
Final Version of First Page
Salem, Massachusetts. 1692.
I shiver as my bare feet hit the wood floor. It is too early to be awake. It is always too early. An incessant throbbing behind my eyes tells me I ought to be back in bed.
“Elizabeth, are you ready?” Mother calls from the kitchen.
“Yes, I will be right there,” I lie. With a tired shuffle, I make my way to the large chest at the foot of my bed and pull out the first dress I see. It doesn’t matter much when my choices are the black dress, the dark black dress, or the other black dress. Shall I wear the one with the hole, the one with two holes, or the one the mouse chewed through?
“Elizabeth! We are going to be late, we need to leave.”
“Just a moment,” I say.
After exchanging my white nightdress for the dark black dress that the mouse chewed through, I tie a white apron around my waist, attempting to hide the hole. Before walking out the door, I realize my cap is missing.
With a sigh, I pin my hair back before covering it with the white cap, a symbol of my purity. I now look like every other girl in Salem Village, just how it should be. It seems a shame to let my curls go to waste, and I can’t help but pull a few forward.
After double-checking that everything is in order, I walk out to the front room where Father, Mother, and my younger sister, Anna, are waiting. Mother shakes her head.
“What did I do now?” I ask.
First Pages Review by CM Mccoy
I grab a book from the shelf and devour its first page. Some sentences wind up on my Post-It Note Wall of Great Line Fame and some get rewritten inside my head as I read. I love them all. I am a first-page whore, and these are my confessions: DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND edition.
An example of setting the mood with subtle and perfect word choice.
Elizabeth has awoken late and must begrudgingly make herself ready to fit in with every other young lady in town before she leaves the house with her humble family.
This first page does so many things so well. It’s all about setting the time period and mood with perfect word choice and genuine dialogue. Words like shiver, sigh, shuffle, black, waste–these words create the perfect gloomy mood for the main character’s structured life. The heroine, Elizabeth, comes through as the nonconformist teen who longs to stand out (but just a little) in an obviously strict culture. It’s exciting because I recognize that this is a promise from the author: this will cause MAJOR problems, and I can’t wait to see what they are.
Usually I’m not a fan of the cliche “waking-up and I’m late” scene to begin a novel, but the language and this antagonism between Elizabeth and her family more than make up for the cliche. The final sentence, ‘“What did I do now?” I ask.’ nails so much backstory in so few words.
The best thing Heather did in revising this first page was cutting “Time to put on my ‘Sunday best.’” <– This sentence would’ve ruined the question hanging in the air, the reason I have for turning the page–what are they late for? I love that in revising, Heather found some confidence in her readers and lets us figure it out as the story unfolds in the white space on the following pages.
The one thing I’m missing from this first page is any hint at the fantasy genre. Were it not for the ball of fire in Elizabeth’s hand on the cover, I’d assumed from the first page this was straight historical fiction. I would’ve liked just one subtle hint, which I know author Heather Eagar is so deftly capable of delivering.
Final first-page verdict:
- Readership: YA. She lives with her parents, sleeps in, and is dressing herself. No question.
- Genre: No hint at the fantasy element, but the year stamp and language makes the historical sub-genre inescapably clear.
- Mood: This book will make you sit up straight, enunciate, and straighten your white apron. The first-page mood is harsh with a dash of funny (Shall I wear the black dress, the dark black dress, or the other black dress? Decisions, decisions…)
- Character building: The main character has a wild hair (see what I did there?). She views her choice of dresses with gloomy resignation but rebels by pulling some curls from her cap, and I can all but hear her thinking, “Take THAT, stupid conformity!” Her mother is as straight-laced and unyielding as they come. I love the how the author sets the foundation for their dynamic.
- World-building: It’s all about word choice and dialogue here, and the time period/conservative, religious culture is masterfully set. With just these first few words I already feel the pressure to conform and I kinda want to run away, which is EXACTLY the experience I’m looking for in a YA Crucible retelling.
- “Tell me more” factor: I knew Elizabeth made her family late for something important, and I definitely wanted to keep reading to find out what. Where are they heading and what consequences await?
Devil’s Playground has just been nominated for a Whitney Award, and for good reason. Everything about this book rings true for me: the historical references, the language, the voice, the emotion, the setting, the subtlety… As I wrote in my full review, this book fixed what THE CRUCIBLE had broken, and I couldn’t help but punch the air a few times, shouting, “YES!” and that’s why I begged Heather to share her first pages for this series.
This first page earns 4 out of 5 stars. The book as a whole was 5-stars awesome. Read my full DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND review here.
About Heather: Heather Eagar currently resides in Logan, Utah where she strives to balance her love of writing with raising a husband and two kids. Devil’s Playground is her debut novel, but it will not be her last. She is currently working on the second book in the series. Heather is also a book reviewer and you can find reviews for middle-grade fiction through adult novels on her website http://www.heatheraeagar.com.