Saturday, March 8, 2008

One More Opening, This One A Competent Miss

Never again. Never ever again. Pauline tugged her knees to her chest and buried her face in the pillow. The stench of the alley still stung her nose, even though she had fled Melbourne hours ago. But here she was safe, at least until they found her.
Brrrrrzzzzz. Brzz. Brzz. Brrrrzzzzzzzz. Sadhu rolled over and looked at the bedside clock. Two-fifteen. Who in the world would be ringing the doorbell at this ungodly hour?

First Impressions

Oh, dear. Sometimes we just have to call them like we see them, and so I'll have to call this one a competent miss.

The writing is clear and lucid. Point of view is deftly handled, the sentences are mostly clean, and we get a sense of a crisis unfolding. The writer of these sentences has a good grasp of the writing process, based on what we can see from this snippet.

But the opening fails all the same. It's far too jarring -- we get this great, tense, brief first paragraph, and then we cut away before we've really had a chance to bond with this character or explore the premise.

And there is one fairly large point of confusion for me, anyway, in the second paragraph. There's this buzzing noise, and then the guy rolls over in his bed and looks at the clock. Am I the only one thinking, at this point, that the buzzing is coming from that clock -- the alarm clock? It confused me when we started talking about doorbells, and I had to reformulate the opening of the paragraph to conform with the end of the paragraph.

Who are we supposed to care about here? Pauline or Sadhu? The author needs to decide this basic question and then write the opening with the answer in mind.

There are a couple of other small nits -- stench still stung creates an alliteration that doesn't read comfortably to me. I'm not crazy about the phonetic representation of the buzzer, either, because it looks overdone to my eyes. And why are we starting with the buzzer? Do we really care about Dadhu sleeping and rolling over and all that? Why not just start with him opening the door? And why are we starting with the moment Pauline becomes safe? Isn't danger more interesting?

But the big problem, and it's big enough to undercut all the strengths in this opening, is the switch in povs. Job One on every first page is to build that reader bond. Give them something to care about, someone to care about, and let them sink comfortably into your fictive world.



EB said...

I enjoyed the first paragraph for the most part; it sets up a "what happened?" scenario. But the change in POV was so striking, that I initially took the characters to be the same even with the different names. Pauline is curled up on a pillow--which suggests bed, then Sadhu is looking at a bedside clock. So the settings are the same. And the onomatopoetic break did nothing to separate the scene for me (and I had the same confusion; I thought the sound was from the clock).

Dave Shaw said...

I agree, let's bond with one character before shifting to another. I also thought the buzzing was the clock. I think I'd drop the doorbell in favor of someone knocking--less confusing that way. But really, start with Pauline or Sadhu--don't confuse me by switching so quickly. Leave that to my wife and daughter. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Quite apart from the quick changeover, this is too forcedly mysterious for me. I feel I'm being made to wait for a concrete explanation. Pauline strikes me as coy - she does not think about the nature of the threat, the enemies, does not observe anything about her surroundings, just appears to exist to push my 'wonder what happened' button.

Unfortunately, I don't work that way. My mind latched onto the single fact I was given - fled Melbourne hours ago - and now I wonder what safe haven she might have found hours from Melbourne. And 'safe until they found her' does not convey a sense of safety to me - *every* refuge is only safe until your enemies find you; why does she have hopes that she will not be found easily in this one?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for these comments [says writer coming out of hiding]. Your points are all good and quite helpful. Let me give a bit of a further explanation of what I was attempting.

Dr. Sadhu Singh is Pauline's psychotherapist. The person at the door is Pauline's father, searching for her. BTW, Sadhu is a woman.

At first I opened the story with the door buzzer scene, but since Pauline is the focal point character of the book, someone else suggested opening with her, so this is what I came up with, her seeking safety.

The book is a mix of tight 3rd POV scenes: Pauline, Sadhu, and the detective you haven't met yet.

Now, given all that, what to do?

PS: thanks for saying my writing is at least competent. That's a start. :-)

Dave Shaw said...

Jan, perhaps you should experiment with giving Pauline enough of an initial scene to hint at what's going on before shifting to Sadhu and Pauline's father. Try answering, or at least hinting at the answers, to green_knight's questions, and give us enough of her so that we begin to care about her. Build the best opening that you can that way, compare it with the best opening you can come up with going straight to Sadhu, and pick the one that's better. There really isn't one right answer, so play with it until it works for you and whoever you can get to help you with it. I'm willing, for whatever that's worth. Good luck!

Edittorrent said...

All good points. I'm always so impressed by the level of discourse in the comments!

Jan, the rule of thumb is to start with the protagonist. There are exceptions to that, notably in the thriller genre which often starts with the antagonist so the reader has a sense of what horrible things might happen if the antagonist isn't stopped.

I think your ground zero question is: do you want the reader to know what has happened to Paula? That's going to govern what you write. If it's okay for the reader to know at this point why Paula has run off, then give us the scene where she runs. Not the scene when she reaches the end of the run. Does that make sense?

If you don't want us to know, then you'll have to come up with something else. Maybe even a precursor scene before she runs, if it's important to the plot and contains enough drama to stand as an opening scene.

You've got the skills to make it work. It's just a matter of finding the right scene.

Green Knight, that's exactly why I was bugged by the whole "safe" thing. The prose avoids details about the problem, which I saw as deliberate and related to the "safe" moment. But safe from what?