Friday, March 21, 2008

Stunning Starts Critiques

Okay, as promised, we'll analyze a bunch of "first paragraph of story" sent in to us. Three today, more next week.

The first paragraph is what determines if an editor/agent--or eventually a reader--will keep going with the story, will consider buying it.

#1 - From Sarabeth:

Tired from her long day, she walked the short distance from her apartment to the pub she had seen earlier in the week, The Pied Bull. On its pitch black door a large brass ring hung from a carved bull's nose. She had to tug hard on the ring, so much so that she grunted. It squeaked as it opened, and every head turned to look in her direction. Averting her gaze, Kathryn entered and looked for a seat.

There isn’t a great deal here, but I don’t think there necessarily have to be bells and whistles in the first paragraph in order to catch a reader’s attention. I’m interested enough to keep reading; however, make sure there is a stronger question to follow. So far the point of interest is the pub and not the girl, which is fine, but the pub is not going to hold my attention for long unless there’s something more to it.

I would advise cutting out “the pub she had seen earlier in the week, ” because that can be explained later. Here, it just detracts from the punch of the rest of the paragraph. I like the setup of the heavy door with the brass ring and people turning to look at her in The Pied Bull (pub names aren’t italicized), because it gives the setting some ambiguity and piques the reader’s curiosity. You can convey that it’s a neighborhood pub and this is a fairly mundane going-on later, but the mystery and uncertainty of the setup helps place the reader in your character’s shoes.

This first paragraph doesn’t wow me. In fact, it doesn’t feel like the opening to a story at all—it feels like we’re coming into the middle of a scene. The use of a pronoun (“she”) in the first line suggests that we’re supposed to know this character already. Inexplicably, the second line immediately brought to mind, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” I think it has to do with an overuse of adjectives in that one sentence. It’s definitely not a horrible opener, though, and if this were a submission, I’d read more.

#2 - From Brenda:

Twig woke as usual to the rattle of the Fishmonger’s cart on its way to the Norwich docks.
“Gerroff you addle-beaked twit!”
The strident argument in the roadway under her window was familiar as well. Seng and his wife, Moll, had a terrible habit of raising their voices to the black skies in the morning: loud enough to wake the whores in the brothel next door. Twig’s bed was above the stable…nothing more than a rope bin filled with straw. This had been her home for the entirety of her eighteen-year span, and today of all days, her birthday, she wished to be somewhere finer than where she was, and knew a change of venue was about as likely as Seng and Moll losing their waspish tongues.

In just eleven lines, we get a lot of useful information about the character and her surroundings. At first, I found the line of dialogue confusing because it seems like it’s attributed to the Fishmonger, but that’s easily resolvable with some slight rewording in the subsequent paragraph. The last part of the paragraph is a nice lead-in to the action of the story, clarifying a bit of backstory for the character and giving her perspective without sounding like a blurb or giving too much information at once.

This one catches my attention immediately and makes use of an unusual name to get me wondering what’s going on, enough so that I want to read on. The second line—gotta love creative use of dialect—only makes me more intrigued, even though I strongly suspect there’s supposed to be a comma in there. Luckily, I’m amused enough by what I’ve read thus far to continue. There’s a lot of nice description in here, but not so much that it seems stuffed down our throats. It succeeds at setting the scene, giving us some backstory and some basic characterization, and lo and behold, I do actually want to read more.

The writing is a bit stilted and self-conscious here, which can happen with any first scene. What I usually suggest is keep writing to the end of the novel, then go back while you still have the energy (and before you put the book aside for later revisions) and rewrite the opening scene. You’ll have found the natural rhythm of your story by then, so your opening is more relaxed and natural.

#3 - From James:

Two Marines escorted me down into the bowels of the American Embassy. They buzzed me past fat panes of bulletproof glass and walked me along a long featureless corridor. The light inside was cold and institutional, the tiled walls white, the carpet scuffed to grey. We stopped at a doorway. They waved me in then pulled the door shut.

I’m slightly torn by this one. As a paragraph alone, it seems rather choppy, with no sense of transition between the sentences. However, I suspect that, in context, the choppiness may be deliberate, to indicate the curtness of the situation, businesslike and perhaps a bit surreal. I’d keep reading at least for a little while longer, to see what’s going on.

This one had me from the word go. I was immediately curious about what was going on—who is this man and what happened to bring him here? The description had depth without going over the top, and it felt very real. I would definitely keep reading.

This is an example of a scene that throws us into the fray from the beginning. It doesn’t give too much away about the story, instead choosing to focus completely on what’s happening right at that moment. It reads like the story could go in any direction from here, and it certainly raises some questions the author will want answered.

6 comments: said...

Fun post! I hope y'all do many more of these one minute critiques.

Rachel Glass said...

It's great to see these feedbacks; but looking at everyone's paragraphs, I realize I should have added slightly more beyond the first line. :S Ha ha, live and learn, live and learn.

Sarabeth said...

Thank you. I appreciate your comments and will work on the paragraph.

As an aside, I had meant to make the reader feel like she/he were entering the scene, knowing that there had to be more before it. My other starts never read right to me.

Again, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your advice- I ended up cutting the chapter (part of a nitwit framing device) but I may use that opening for a short story...

Would be interested to hear any advice on transitions.

Many thanks.


Ada [The Duchess] said...

Can we still submit our first lines?

I'd love to get an opinion on how it's going from an agent's point of view.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your valuable critique on my first paragraph. After being stuck in bed all weekend (not in a good way either *grins* but with that rotten flu) going to your site and finding myself selected as a good start was an incredible spirit booster.