Monday, March 23, 2009

First Three Sentences, and Then Some

We haven't done an analysis of an opening in a while. This one popped up in our blog inbox and caught my attention. ( in case you want to email us, but be aware we rarely have time to check it.)

Usually, we only look at the first three sentences, but the author provided more, and we're in an indulgent mood. Or, if you really want to know the truth, I spent all weekend rejecting manuscripts and setting people's shoes on fire, and now I want to restore some karmic balance. So we'll look at all nine sentences.

Assume this one is a middle grade novel.


The combination seemed simple. A few sideways steps, jump and switch feet, then back the other way. Yet when Melissa slid to the side, she stumbled in a small hole in the dance floor, straight into Her Majesty.

Of all people to bump into, why her?

"Hey! Watch it, klutz!" Her Majesty narrowed her eyes at Melissa and dusted herself.

Melissa stammered an apology while she backed away. What a way to start at a new studio, colliding with the reigning prima ballerina. Before class, Her Majesty had dismissed Melissa with a glance.


Okay, right off the bat, I'm thinking both yes and no on this one. Yes, because the writing is clean and active and easy to follow. And yes, because we're in a scene to start with. And yes, most especially, because we've got a strong voice and an author obviously in control of the manuscript.

But no, for three reasons. I'd be interested in knowing whether anyone else had the same reaction to any of these three points.

A dance studio's floor should not have holes in it, right? Am I the only one thinking that? I loved the vivid, active description of the dance moves, and I loved the pov even though we didn't get the pov character until the third sentence. That all worked.

But the hole in the dance floor -- is this, perhaps, meant to be a metaphorical hole? Is Melissa actually clumsy, and tripped over nothing? Kids do that. Paws grow faster than the rest of the puppy, and kid brains can't always coordinate all those bits and pieces. So tripping over air -- a "hole in the floor" -- is something a kid could probably relate to, but if that's what's happening here, I'd like it clarified.

Otherwise, I'm inclined to think this is a bad dance studio, and it's not such a crisis if Melissa doesn't get along with Her Majesty.

Her Majesty. Is this the best way to introduce Her Majesty as a character? Is she an important character? At first blush, my guess is that the conflict will have a lot to do with some kind of competition between Melissa and Her Majesty. If this is so, then I want just a bit more physical description of the character. We get a voice and an attitude. Give us something concrete to hang that on. Something maybe like,

Her Majesty narrowed her eyes at Melissa and dusted off her immaculate white designer leotard.


Her Majesty narrowed her eyes at Melissa and jabbed her with one too-thin, pointy elbow.

Or whatever. Something physical about the character so we can attach the voice to the body.

Before class. This is sentence number nine, and we're shifting out of scene time and into backstory. It's probably too soon to disrupt chronological time. No hard and fast rules, of course, but if the scene before class is important, if it establishes the baseline dynamic between these two characters, why not show it? This is presumably where Her Majesty earns her nickname. I'd sort of like to experience that moment.

What does everyone else think?



Laura Hamby said...

Hmmm... I like the start. It's snappy and draws you in, so I would read more before I'd decide what to do with this ms, if I were the editor's chair.

Um... lessee... I do have a problem with the small hole in the floor of the dance studio, too. Right there that tells me that this place WOULDN'T have a "Her Majesty". Unless this hole is more of an indent worn from so many feet? Not sure that would fly either, but I'd ask for clarification or an outright change. It wouldn't be enough to keep me from requesting to see more, nor would it be an auto-rejection because an editor can always ask for revisions. (And explain the why, while she's at it, if she's so inclined, that is. :) )

Chuckling over "Her Majesty." I can see her without further description, but that may be because I'm a character-driven writer and this is a character that I might've invented. I see her as tall, thin (my youngest sister danced, still does some, so I also have the benefit of knowing the body type, etc...), and given her Prima status, no doubt she's well-attired for practice and VERY aware of who she is and what her position in the troupe is. I personally find "Her Majesty" to be a very evocative name. I think description of Her Majesty could be layered in a couple paragraphs down the road---as a writer, I'd be content to let the name suggest her appearance. (Oh, and I also saw her in an ermine leotard! LOL!) I dunno, I'm inclined to think that further description of her at this initial point would almost be an insult.

Backstory: Yeah, without reading sentences 10, 11 and 12, this does come across as abrupt. However, with the sentences that follow, it may change how it reads and may very well give us that opportunity to experience the moment. I'd like to see what follows that final, switching-to-back-story sentence before I can say for certain it's a "no."

Grace Tyler said...

I went somewhere else. I thought "Her Majesty" was actual royalty until I got nearly to the end.

Man, I don't know if I want you guys to read my first few sentences.

As far as the hole in the dance floor, the sentence reads well if you change it into "stumbled into Her Majesty." Not the actual queen, mind you.

Julie Harrington said...

The hole in the floor stopped me cold because I was like, wait, a hole? She fell in a hole? Are they outside? And then read "the floor" and thought, wait, why would you have a hole in the floor? Where are they?

I didn't make the connection between how the dancing was introduced (The combination seemed simple. A few sideways steps, jump and switch feet, then back the other way) with ballet at all. Blame my time on YouTube this morning watching rap and hip hop club videos. {blush} But I was picturing that kind of dancing. Then it was ballet. Took a blink to readjust from that.

The "Her Majesty" usage was okay, but I wonder if there's a more appropriate name to give her that's more dance oriented or even ballet oriented. Obviously prima ballerina is out. LOL. But maybe something along those lines.

And on the 3rd point, I agree. I want to see the start of the animosity between the two characters since that sets the tone and they "why" motivation of why they're so deadset against liking each other in the first place. So I'd really like to see that. I mean, what did she do? Knock the Prima into a trashcan?


Edittorrent said...

All good points. I think we all like this one a lot, though, right? I mean, I want to read more.

Julie Harrington said...

It's intriguing enough for me to read on. :)


Riley Murphy said...

The hole in the dance floor is easily fixed. So no huge comment on that - only to fix it. (I’d would place the blame on Melissa’s inadequate slippers - maybe there’s a dent on the end of one toe that throws her off balance - mirroring the same way she feels while in the company of Her Majesty, you know?).

I probably would make a finer tuned connection when using the words and action of ‘dusted herself off’ By saying something like : ‘Her Majesty narrowed her eyes at Melissa, dusting herself off in disgust as she smoothed out her immaculate leotard with a regal sweep of her elegant hand.’ Further highlighting how offensive it is to be bumped by Melissa and clearly showing the hierarchy that the writer is establishing - between Klutz and Majesty.

I would mention the ‘before class’ meeting when Melissa is thinking about: ‘of all the people to bump into.’ And tag that with something like: 'Why did it have to be her, again? The one they call ‘Her Majesty’. Falling against her in the locker room prior to class had been humiliating enough and now this?’
(Personally I think that establishing Her Majesty’s reputation/name with a third party connection as in: (the one they call) - is more effective than if you just have the heroine referring to her as such...but then, I have only this small bit to go by so this could all make sense later on I suppose.

I think these are all small - mini little gripes - that are easily fixed. The voice and style show strength so, my vote would be more yes than no.:)

Babs said...

This was good. Comments all make sense to me. Do any of you guys do critiques with fellow writers? Murphy? I think I agreed with you a while back, too. My brain has gone soggy.

I'm working on a sci fi. When you say that you can send in three sentences to your email do you mean the very first three sentences or any three sentences?

I'm new to this.

PatriciaW said...

Overall, I liked it and would read more to see where it went.

First thing I'd do would change the order of the second and third paragraphs. I wanted "Her Majesty" to react right away, and then feel Melissa's reaction to Her Majesty's rudeness.

I also probably would delete the "Before class..." sentence, especially if the next few sentences were more backstory. Perhaps the outside of class interaction could be shown in another way. I got that "Her Majesty" was a nickname, but I wouldn't over do it with that, unless she's calling her that in part because she doesn't know the reigning ballerina's name, seeing as she's new.

Hole in the floor? I envisioned a tiny imperfection in a wood floor, enough to make her stumble. Not the whole Alice in Wonderland thing. This can be cleaned up easily.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I totally went Alice in Wonderland with the hole in the floor. I even groaned.

Maybe her jazz shoe won't stay tied. Or she wanted to look cool and she sewed ribbons on her ballet slippers so she'd look like she had pointe shoes on, and they've come unwrapped. Maybe she just stumbles -- in fact, I like that idea best. She's self-conscious, perhaps made so by the presence of Her Majesty. And that self-consciousness makes her stumble.

One question I have is why Her Majesty and a beginner are in the same class. This, for me, raises questions about Her Majesty. If H.M. is also a beginner, her attitude becomes that much more intriguing. Who IS she under that haughty exterior??? How has she earned this attitude?

And, thus, I'm hooked. Not on the POV character as much as Her Majesty.

Riley Murphy said...

Ha! I'm glad someone agrees with me. And um, could you mention this to my husband - who has a tendency to believe that my brain is in a perpetually ‘soggy’ state.:D

Wes said...

Great opening, but I had the same reaction to two of your three points. Both or all three can easily be fixed as others have suggested. The hole in the floor doesn't work. Number two didn't bother me. Number three was noticable, but just dropping the last sentence seems like an acceptable fix.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I've been thinking about the "before class" part -- I think it's entirely dependent on what comes next. If it's something like, "Before Class, Her Majesty had dismissed Melissa without a glance, but now she was all but spitting poison," it would be acceptable. A quick comparison to what had gone before (maybe to help set up Melissa's nervousness) sets up the escalation in Her Majesty's behavior.

danceluvr said...

You can't imagine how happy it makes me to read several of you want to read more!

Yes, I am closer!

Thank you so much for your great suggestions.