Okay, Laura Montgomery is a crazy woman, and so asked me to do a first page critique of her novel Manx prize. She actually sent the me the first few pages, which is good, because I think she started it with the wrong opening.
Before I start this, though, please everyone remember these are just my opinions, and, at that, the opinions of a woman who hasn’t been very well these last couple of weeks. I could be completely wrong.
Also, I want to say that what Laura has done is not bad. It doesn’t read like beginner prose. Actually what it reads like to me is like she has worked it a little to hard, and fretted too much and lost sight of how she meant to start it.
To explain where I’m coming from: I broke in in the old slush pile days. My training is to grab the reader as fast as you can and not let go. To do that, in my experience, you need to situate the reader immediately.
I find it useful to find myself dropped into the main character’s head. Where am I, what am I wearing, what do I smell, is it cold? Bringing the five senses in on the first page helps. Also, right at the beginning keep things spare. You can always add information later. Right at the beginning you want that old journalistic standby “Who?What? When? Where? and Why?” But more importantly, you have to pick the one that’s the hook.
I did some editing on Laura’s first page, as I went (I couldn’t help it) and I have some questions, too, but then I’d start on the next page, and I’ll show (sketchily) how I’d do it. Sketchily because I don’t want to get too detailed and make Laura feel like she should do exactly what I say.
So, first pass:
by Laura Montgomery
© Laura Montgomery 2014
“Hey, Ms. Fisher.” the security guard said as Charlotte walked into the building.
Charlotte Fisher was almost too fretted to respond. How did the guard know who she was? Charlotte Fisher couldn’t guess, when he provided security for so many different tenants in the massive building beyond Virginia’s Dulles ‘port, she couldn’t guess.
These cuts are for speed and clarity, mostly. When you open with “Hey,Ms. Fisher” and tell me it’s the guard speaking it’s too much information. I don’t need that. I can infer it’s the guard from her reaction and then I’m safely in her head, and I know she’s the main character, so I’m not going to get whiplash.
That man leaving the building, for example, she had never seen in the five years she had worked there. Take the unknown man leaving the building. He was a stranger in a suit, looking like someone who worked in the District, not out in the wilds of Virginia. She would have noticed him if she had seen him before: he was blond and a good height for a man, namely, taller than her own five foot ten. He was on his way out the door and her Her glimpse of him was far too fleeting for the aesthetics of him but not so fleeting she didn’t know he was good-looking. If she weren’t so worried about Texas, and Andy hadn’t been in the picture she might have felt more than the fleeting moment of appreciation.
Again too many words, but more importantly is this man going to be important? I’m assuming so, so I work him into my “suggested first page” — but if he’s not don’t have him in at all. And you’re working too hard to tell us he’s good looking. Just say it and let it go. BTW what color suit? What color is his hair? How big is he? If he’s going to be important later, we should have an idea.
“Good morning, Warner,” she replied, running her ID. She ran her ID, her heart was pounding hard again. It had started when she woke up, when the news feeder, set for reentering space objects, any space objects, shuttles, capsules, nominal and off, upper stages and scheduled gossamer burns, informed her that a random reentry had hit a car in Texas—a car, what were the odds of that?—killing two people.
You’re too late for the response to the guard by now. The response pops us out of Charlotte’s head. We were following the stranger down the street, we’re not going to answer Werner now. She runs the ID and she turns to matters of work.
This did not bode well for her “hare-brained scheme” to win a prize offered by a consortium of satellite and orbitat operators located on the Isle of Man, a $50 million bounty–paid in gold–for de-orbiting a piece of space junk. Nor did the accident bode well for quieting her own demons, which were elephantine.
I MIGHT have continued reading, back when I was an editor, but only because I have friends who are similarly awkward about beginnings, and whose prose improves. However, by now you’re giving me stuff about orbitat operators and the island of Man and I’m not interested enough in Charlotte or her problems to read all of that. I feel like I’m in class, taking dictation and there will be a quiz later. If this were the beginning of a book, unless I were stuck somewhere, I probably wouldn’t continue reading. Sorry. If it makes you feel better, my own beginnings often read like this. Then I wait and clean up the beginning when I’ve finished the book.
Okay — Now, go somewhere where you can scream and call me names for a while, then come back.
Let’s think about this from the beginning. Do we need the guard? The guy leaving the building? I’m going to assume we need the guy leaving the building, but unless the guard is going to buy the farm in the next three pages, never mind him. I have no clue what this building looks like — I barely know the area — so I’m going to make up stuff. it will probably get you mad, which is good, because then you’ll have to go and break it apart and fix it:
Suggested First Page for:
by Laura Montgomery
© Laura Montgomery 2014
Charlote Fisher’s heart was pounding so hard, she thought surely the security guard would hear it, as she walked past. She said “Good Morning Werner,” in what she hoped was her normal voice, as she ran her ID.
She’d woken with the newsfeeder squawking that a random reentry had hit a car in Texas—a car, what were the odds of that?—killing two people. Okay, so she’d set the thing for reentering space objects, any space objects, shuttles, capsules, nominal and off, upper stages and scheduled gossamer burns. But the freakish incident seemed like a bad omen for what she intended to do.
As she pulled the door a man walked out, past her, leaving behind a faint whiff of cologne and the impression of height and blond hair. Just a glimpse, and the thought that if she were single she might have taken more interest, and that brought Andy to her mind,.
She must win the prize, so that she and Andy–
And that brought Texas to mind again, and how badly it bode for her hairbrained scheme of winning a prize offered by a consortium of satellite and orbitat operators located on the Isle of Man. $50 million bounty–paid in gold– seemed like a lot. But the safe de-orbiting a piece of space junk without crushing cars or people wasn’t as easy as it seemed.
Her boss hadn’t thought they should do it, and this wouldn’t help. She felt sick. She wanted to continue, but the danger had just become clear and real. There was no word yet on who had been killed. It had been late at night. Hopefully, it wasn’t kids. Let it not be kids. Brawn might back off the project entirely.
Space debris wasn’t supposed to be a problem. Most of it burned up in the atmosphere if it was in a low enough orbit to reenter at all. The real problems were in orbit, where debris threatened lives and property.
From the early days when launch operators failed to vent the fuels from liquid-fueled rocket bodies left topside, and the stages exploded, to later collisions between satellites, and then the famously aggressive anti-satellite demonstrations by the Chinese, the debris environment had expanded, growing progressively more deadly. Even flecks of paint posed a risk. They cratered windows and worse.
<Okay, that’s it. Remember that’s only my opinion, and all that and $5 will get you a cup of coffee. It’s quite likely you’ll think my opening is awful.
Just step back, take a deep breath, and consider what is foremost on her mind, what is most important, and what is most likely to grab the reader. I didn’t get the five senses in there, and I’d like to — but I feel like I’m taking liberties with your character. Does she taste the black coffee which was all she drank this morning, because she was too sick to eat? Does she realize she forgot to bring a coat as the cold breeze hits her on the doorstep while she’s running the card? Not much — don’t dwell on it, just in passing.
Then set it up and go!
And for the record, you’re a braver woman than I am, and you’re soooo close. Trust yourself and your voice, stop overthinking it, and I bet most of the battle will be won.
So, let us know when it’s up so that we can plug it. (And read it.)