Critical Reading of a Beginning

A friend is trying to sell her first book but not getting good responses from agents and editors, and she’s getting very frustrated and depressed about the whole process.  I read her book a couple times during the editing process, but I hadn’t seen the version that she’s shopping around.  When she emailed me the other day that her new website is live, out of curiosity, I popped over to check it out, and I couldn’t resist taking a quick glance at the first chapter she had posted.

When I read the first sentence, my thought was “It’s no wonder everybody is turning her down, because I’d turn her down, too.”  Which is sad because she’s a marvelous storyteller.  But the sloppy mechanics of the beginning sentences of her book overshadow her fantastic storytelling ability.

So how does the story begin?  I’ll give you the first paragraph (with the character’s name and details changed)

Chapter 1
Montana
Thursday, September 2, 1908: Afternoon

George Martin ran with perspiration matting his hair and streaming down his face. He gave an impatient shake of his head to clear his eyes only to stumble over a stone and almost fall. Regaining his balance, he doggedly ran on. If he just could run fast enough, he might be able to get home and avert disaster. He might be able to keep the horriblness away, and so he prayed as he ran, the prayers bursting through his clenched teeth in disjointed rasps of desperation. “Holy Mother of God…dear Jesus…oh God please, please, please…dear God, please…”

and now, my thought process as I read it, so you can understand how a critical-reader (editor/agent) might process your story as they read it.

Montana
Thursday, September 2, 1908: Afternoon

I like this, because it saves a whole lot of trouble for everybody.  But,  Montana is an very big place, so it doesn’t pin down the setting very much.  And the very specific date/time combined  with so general a location is a strange combination. Not a red-flag, just unusual.

George Martin…

Good, the author gave me a last name.  I like last names because they give me subtle insight into the character. When the first names and last names clash in terms of ethnicity or flavor, or when the name clashes with the story’s setting (ethnically or culturally), it hints at a character already in conflict with themselves, which I like.  With this character’s name there’s no conflict, which is fine, and tells me that this character won’t be dealing with those specific internal conflicts.
What else does this name tell me?  Since the story begins with a specific name, this character is probably the hero/heroine of the story. Since it’s a novel aimed at adults, this character is likely an adult.  And the character is likely male, but I say only “likely” because I’ve known a couple women called “George”, so I will reserve judgment on the character’s gender until I learn more.

… ran with …

Active verbs are good, especially in first sentences. And George (still not sure about age or gender) is running WITH somebody, so we get to figure out more about George by finding out who he’s running with.

… perspiration matting his hair and streaming down his face.

Huh?!?  I need to go back and re-read the sentence to make sure I didn’t read it wrong… which is the death-bell for any query.  If I was an agent, I’d have fifteen other chapters sitting here waiting for me to read, a dozen phone calls that are vital to make in the next hour, four full-manuscripts to read, and that’s before my office-hours start.  I wouldn’t have the time or energy to deal with an author who makes me re-parse the first sentence of their story.  Come on, folks, you should know better than to write sentences like this.
Okay, I just re-read the whole sentence.  It is: “George Martin ran with perspiration matting his hair and streaming down his face.” *snicker* I have to admit that the visual is amusing.  But *sigh* I’m sure that’s not what the author meant.  This is red-flag #1: if an author is THIS sloppy with their sentence structure in the MOST IMPORTANT sentence of the whole book, then it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the book.
But, it may be a fluke, a typo or a quirk, and authors are human just like me, so I’ll give them a break and read some more.

He gave an impatient shake of his head to clear his eyes only to stumble over a stone and almost fall.

I found out  “George” was a “he” in the previous sentence, along with the fact that it’s hot enough wherever he’s at for him to be sweating, so no new information is given in this sentence.  I still have no idea of the character’s age, personality,  location, or setting… other than there’s a stone, and that can still be just about anyplace.  And still no plot reason for him to be running.

Regaining his balance, he doggedly ran on.

He’s got reasonable reflexes and seems determined for some reason, but no other new info and no hint of a plot.

If he just could run fast enough, he might be able to get home and avert disaster. 

He’s running “home”, but we don’t know where or what home  is.  To “avert disaster”, which is a good “plot” bit,  but we don’t know anything about the disaster, nor do we know if he’s running to the disaster or from the disaster.
Nor have we learned anything more about the character, location or setting.  Is he in the country or in town?  Running on concrete, gravel, dirt or grass?  Is the disaster at home or where he came from?
So, to summarize, the reader knows we have a sweaty,  adult male, hero of story, in decent shape to have run all this way, with some unknown disaster behind or before him that he thinks he might be able to impact in some way.

He might be able to keep the horriblness away, and so he prayed as he ran, the prayers bursting through his clenched teeth in disjointed rasps of desperation. “Holy Mother of God…dear Jesus…oh God please, please, please…dear God, please…”

Okay folks… I know this should be obvious, but maybe it’s not… an agent or editor will be reading your submission in an email window… and my email window underlines misspellings!  Don’t submit stuff with misspellings in it.  Sure, things happen, like spell-checkers don’t catch switched words and things like that, but when a word is clearly underlined as a misspelled word, there’s no excuse for that.   And, yes there are various ways of spelling words, you can argue that later with your copy-editor, for right now, make sure no words in your submission are underlined as misspellings.  A spelling error in the first paragraph, on top of that first sentence that I had to re-parse, is red-flag #2.
Beyond that issue, what more did we learn in these two sentences about the character/plot/setting?  We learned he’s likely some version of Catholic.  Okay that’s good.  But saying that  the disaster is “horrible” and he’s “desperate” doesn’t tell me-as-reader anything new, because those attributes are implied in the use of the word “disaster”.  So, I haven’t really learned anything new in these two sentences.
I, personally, find all these generalities (disaster, horrible, desperate) annoying, especially in first sentences of novels, because it seems so out-of-character for a  person in this situation.  And for me, this inconsistent characterization is red-flag #3.
Think of a real person: he’s running, either to or from a “disaster”, he stumbles, he’s sweating, he’s desperate and he’s praying.  I can’t imagine that a real person would be thinking in the terms/words/thoughts that this character is using.  Wouldn’t that person be thinking about the details of the “disaster”?  Who might be hurt and why?  How did it happened? How could it be averted?  And so on.
Now, I’ll grant you that all this information wouldn’t fit into the first paragraph, but when the only information given to the reader in 100 words is “a sweating, coordinated, determined, praying, Catholic male is running to/from a disaster that he feels he can influence”… well, I said that in 18 words… it seems a waste of the other 82 words.
And… I’ll grant you that if the story had started out with only those 18 words, I’d complain even more.  🙂

I’ll stop here with the detailed analysis, and if I was an agent/editor, I’d skim a page or two more, but if something didn’t crop up to strongly offset these problems, then I’d hit the thanks-but-no-thanks button.

I know that new authors get told again and again: “SHOW don’t Tell”, which is all well and good, but the “showing” needs to be useful showing.  The “showing” needs to give the reader as much information as possible, not be useless showing.

So many opportunities were wasted in this paragraph, especially considering George Martin is an eleven-year-old boy running across farm fields toward home to tell his father (who is the hero of the story) that [changing the details but keeping essence of the story] the blight has hit the neighbor’s farm.

It only takes a word or two, scattered around the paragraph to add so much to the story.

How would I do it differently?

Original:

George Martin ran with perspiration matting his hair and streaming down his face. He gave an impatient shake of his head to clear his eyes only to stumble over a stone and almost fall. Regaining his balance, he doggedly ran on. If he just could run fast enough, he might be able to get home and avert disaster. He might be able to keep the horriblness away, and so he prayed as he ran, the prayers bursting through his clenched teeth in disjointed rasps of desperation. “Holy Mother of God…dear Jesus…oh God please, please, please…dear God, please…”

Quick, first draft, of possible new beginning:

Desperate, George Martin ran through the freshly harvested field.  He had to get home; he had to tell Dad that the blight had taken Pa Stoke’s entire crop and the family had nothing  left to eat.  As George wiped sweat from his eyes, he stumbled, then caught himself and ran faster.   With a mumbled prayer to St. Mary, he hurdled the stone fence.  Thigh-high weeds tugged at his jeans, slowing him unbearably.  If only he was sixteen instead of just eleven, he thought as he tried to make his legs move faster on the uneven ground, then he’d be stronger and for sure he’d get home in time for Dad to stop the blight from taking their harvest.

Okay… obviously a draft, a little silly, a little longer, and obviously a totally different writing style… but do you see my point?  Do you see how much more information is included in the second example?  It has character, setting, plot and stake.  All put there in one-, two-, and three-word bits.

In the original version,  the lack of detail and all the generalities left me feeling ho-hum about the story and character, because there wasn’t anything worth investing myself and my time.  Whereas, I think that the second version gives me connection potential, because the character is clear, with a clearly defined problem and a clearly defined stake, in a defined setting.

And, no, you shouldn’t put the entire plot of your story into the first paragraph, but put something there for me-as-reader to connect to, and do it without making me re-parse sentences and without spelling errors.

Cautionary Reminder: All beginnings of stories must be consistent with the situation the characters find themselves in and representative of the remainder of the book.  If you book is a leisurely romp, then you wouldn’t begin the story with the intensity of this example.

Toolbox Building Exercise:

Critically-read the first 100-200 words of your story.  What information are you giving to your reader?  What are you saying about character? Plot? Setting? Stake? Is it enough to get the reader invested in the story so they’ll keep reading?  Or are you skimping on so many details that the reader doesn’t care about the character or the situation?

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