We’re continuing to critique first paragraphs of my loyal blog readers which were posted here as comments a couple of days ago. Yesterday, we critiqued Patty and John, and there was a question worth answering from a reader today on that:
I have a small comment. I found starting with 2nd person then jumping to 3rd person a bit jarring. Maybe that was the intent?
Randy sez: The first sentence was the following:
Balancing a live goat on the back of your bicycle has its challenges
This is not actually second person. Instead it’s simply an observation that is a truism, and using this form is common. We are zooming in to the POV character from the author’s POV, so this actually is in danger of being authorial intrusion. I’m OK with it however, since it’s fairly common to do this at the very beginning of a novel. Janey Austen did it in Pride and Prejudice, and it still works, as long as you keep it short. I think it works here, which is what really matters.
Now, let’s critique Camille. Here is her first paragraph:
Ian MacLean nearly escaped.
He made it to the edge of the lamp-lit street with only four hard strides bridging the gap between him and his freedom: Maggie’s farm truck. Even in the pallid streetlight, his Granny’s old rattletrap never looked so good.
“That’s far enough!”
Randy sez: This is a pretty strong opening. The first sentence hooks us right away in only four words, telling us who the POV character is and setting up the first part of this scene by telling us in advance that Ian is going to fail. That’s normally a little dicey, but you have to jumpstart a story somehow, and it’s common to “cheat” a little at the beginning.
However, I think Camille is “cheating” a bit too long. We need to know pretty quickly who or what he’s escaping from, and we don’t. The modern reader is impatient. You can hook her curiosity and make her ask “Huh?” but you are not allowed to be coy with her. If Ian is “escaping” then we need to know (from within his POV) what he’s escaping from. We don’t need the whole meal, of course, but a little snack would be good.
OK, so Ian is striding along, which is good, but now we get two more characters introduced in quick succession: Maggie and Grannie. Or are Maggie and Grannie the same person? It’s not clear, and clarity is what you need here.
Understand that there is a time and place for being slightly mysterious and obscure. But references to people is not the place, and the first introduction of characters is not the time. We need to know RIGHT NOW how Maggie and Grannie are related.
I’m reminded of an example from an old Writer’s Digest that spoofed a Tom Clancy novel, in which a particular scene had somewhere between 2 and 7 characters. It wasn’t clear, because the author kept calling them “Mr. Smith” and “Chuck” and “the Executive Officer” and so on, all in an apparent attempt to avoid repetition. But lack of clarity is worse than repetition. Clancy often lacked clarity on this score.
Final point: The closing sentence really needs a tag. Is it Ian who speaks? That is the normal convention when you have an unattributed quote–the dialogue is understood to refer to the last character shown in action, (in this case, that’s Ian).
But a moment’s thought immediately tells you it can’t be Ian. Somebody is talking to Ian, and we need to know who it is. Why? Because we barely know this character and we’re confused, and dad-gummit, there are 99,999 other books in Barnes & Noble, and if THIS book is fuzzy and unclear, well the one next to is likely to be better. So that first paragraph better be a snapper.
I won’t revise this opening. It’s quite strong, but it needs a bit of sharpening to bring it into focus. I will say that I read the first 20 pages of this book on the plane coming home from my last writing conference, and I thought it was stellar writing. So it sharpens up pretty quickly. Good job, Camille! Go ahead and post your revision here if you get it sharpened up.
Now, we’ll turn to Daan’s submission:
11 February 1990 – Thousands of people were gathered outside the gates of Victor Verster Prison just outside Paarl, a town surrounded by the vineyards of the Western Cape. The air was filled with excitement and anticipation as Nelson Mandela was about to be released after he was sent to prison 27 years ago.
Randy sez: I’m delighted to see that Daan is writing what he knows. Daan lives in South Africa. It makes great sense to write a novel about one of the most influential South Africans of all time–Nelson Mandela. At least, I hope Nelson is a key character in this novel. Since this is all I’ve seen, I’m going to guess that he is.
First point that needs rethinking: This paragraph is “telling.” One can get away with “telling” if it is excellent. See the beginning of A TALE OF TWO CITIES or HARRY POTTER #1 or countless other books that start off with a fresh and new way of “telling.” But this example isn’t.
How can Daan improve this? There are a thousand ways to “tell.” Here are a couple:
Focus on Place. One simple way is to focus on interesting and unique details in the place itself. The scene in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in which Clarice Starling visits Hannibal Lecter is a prime example, in which the prison comes alive in stark detail. Tom Wolfe brought the world of aeronautical engineering alive in THE RIGHT STUFF by doing this also–beautifully rendered detail.
Focus on Character. See Book #1 of Harry Potter, in which J.K. Rowling spends the first page telling about the horrible Dursleys. By the bottom of the page, when you discover that they have a secret that they’re terrified people will learn, you want nothing more than for that secret to make Time Magazine.
Personally, I prefer not to start with telling. OK, honestly, I do it all the time myself, but then I kick myself and fix it in the second draft or the fourteenth, or whenever it is that the fumes of the first draft fade away and I realize that I’m fooling myself and really I should have started this book by showing, instead.
So if this were my novel, I’d focus in on one person in that crowd, show us what he sees, make us hear what he sees, make us feel what he feels. Within a few paragraphs, I’d let my reader know what my POV characters desperately wants. I’d show why he can’t have it, and isn’t likely to get it. And the story would be launched.
That’s what I’d do. Daan, what are you going to do? I’ll be interested to see if you can turn this from “telling” into “showing.”