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Guide lines Q no. 4: This is supposed to be the opening part, but certainly not the whole of the first chapter or page for that matter... I'm not exactly sure anyone would take 30 seconds to read that, and I'm told that's what it takes for a reader to decide on a writer they've never seen or heard of before. So, does it work? And if not, what guidelines do you propose?


‘The world is only just recovering but we continue to punish each other. Independent scientists from around the globe have been unwilling to comment while big names in private research could only give hints that help nothing in the current stream of rumors. Others completely refused to cooperate in what seems to be international governments trying to buy more time. In that regard, NASA has announced that a press conference is to be held hour fifteen-hundred today afternoon at the United Nations Head Quarters in New York, being the only official word we could get up until now, and at the same time reinforcing rumors that authorities so far played catch-up to hide.’

“It’s mumbling of which they have no clue,” Tana said, turning from the television to the control HUD projected on the nearest wall; no voice-command in hospitals.

Adam had been heeding the broadcast, hardly for the news. “Leave it,” Adam told his mother. He gritted his teeth when his body refused to let him adjust his pose; he let go. “Why is she on television?”

“Actually, many of your friends were asked for… certain jobs today. For Ellie,” she paused, looking at the television, “it looks like the TV’s river of reporters depleted!”

She had tried to lighten up the atmosphere, when she failed, she tried again, “Oh-- Well... an' she came to see you before they called.”

One thing specifically caught his thought. “Friends? Jobs?”

“Isn't she into jour...”

“I know she's into journalism, but why is she reporting?”

“The explosion was big, hopefully it went unnoticed... The school was badly damaged, and they're trying to hide it; those not injured were given jobs as... prodigy cases... The last thing they want is minors getting into the mix...”

Oh, that... He paused and tilted his head; when he did talk, it didn't help that he appeared not to fully understand, and that rarely happened, “Badly, damaged?”

“Yes. We... You landed... It's Los Angeles.”

“America? Wh- What the–?” he mumbled and tried to sit only for pain to shoot through his spine again. The next remark was a command, gentle in tone, but not a wish. “Don’t tell me they know. Please don’t.”

“You want what I think? You should rest. You had nothing to do with it.” She asserted, with a firm look as she adjusted his head on the pillow. “I think people have more pressing matters than a light pop on the moon and a couple of here-says that it was something educational. Politics got our back this time... People have other things to talk about and, apparently, move about,” his mother stopped and pointed at the television projection on the wall.

The reporter was listening to something through her ear-piece. She seemed increasingly worried; although it was subtle, Adam noticed it. She kept shaking her index finger. She wasn’t just worried; she told more than what she voiced.

‘This’s just in: The PHFO has issued a worldwide alert that Atlantic and Pacific coastal areas should be evacuated within two kilo-meters off shore. Again; Atlantic and Pacific coastal areas should be evacuated within two kilo-meters off shore. No government has yet commented on this warning and it remains for public decision. And prayers. This is Elizabeth Wilson, WWN. Reporting live from The White House, Washington D.C..’

“My god…”

31 days ago...

Draft 1; Rev. 3 (4 suggestions taken by, the rest underway) Nov. 30, 2011 | 20:40 GMT+00

Note: Does editing the body bump up the question?

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Welcome to the site! :) Since the StackExchange format is very different than most forums, our critique topics have some specific guidelines. The tricky one is that we ask that they be critique questions, with a specific focus - what precisely you're asking about the piece. Typical questions for a first page like this are "Is this gripping? Does it entice the reader to continue?" and "Is it clear enough what's going on here?". You might have other focuses you're interested in. –  Standback Nov 29 '11 at 10:18
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Typically, it's the gripping part. My first question said "Would you want to continue reading after this part?" But the site told me it was 'subjective.' All in all, does this 'beginning' hook the reader? –  Mussri Nov 29 '11 at 12:14
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@M.Na'el - editing does bump up the body. More importantly, editing makes the older answers pretty obsolete. In the future I'd recommend opening a new question that references the old question with clarifications on what you incorporated. –  justkt Nov 30 '11 at 21:27
    
I still have the first version I'd sent; I could upload it again and post the updated versions from hereon in a separate answer (just one answer updated each time as per suggestions). Could this work? Or does editing answers bump the question too? I think these questions (about editing, that is) should have been covered in the FAQ somehow... –  Mussri Dec 1 '11 at 8:08
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I'm giving out my thoughts just as a reader and not as a critic; there's a difference. I would definitely read it! –  Amin Mohamed Ajani Jun 14 '12 at 10:33
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3 Answers 3

So here's a question I'd like you to consider. You're trying to grip the reader. What, in this passage, do you expect/hope will manage to do that?

I'm afraid I didn't find this opening to be very compelling. Sorry to welcome you with negative feedback, but I hope you'll find it helpful.

This opening is mostly a whole lot of ominous foreboding - we're being punished, we're facing something, the government is hiding rumors; something's going on with Adam's friends and somebody might know something. My problem here is, you're trying to get us interested and tense, but you don't give us any detail to elicit our interest and tension.

We don't know your characters. We don't know your world. We don't know how we're being punished, or who Adam's friends are, or what "jobs" they're getting, or who it is that Adam is afraid knows something. What we do have is a whole bunch of lines saying "something important is going to happen." That's a natural way to go, but for that to work, we need to have at least some idea of what's going to happen, or why it's important, or who it's important to. Otherwise, it's just hyperbole.

Consider:

Johnny had been receiving threats all week. He was terrified.

This isn't a bad opening, but see what happens when you just add in a detail.

Every day of the past week, Johnny had found a new death threat delivered to his email inbox. It was creepy - the emails showed with a font that looked like cut-out letters from a newspaper.


Johnny had been receiving threats all week - threats hinting all too clearly that someone was out to make sure his father wasn't going to survive his surgery.


Johnny had been receiving threats all week. He was terrified - who in their right minds would be devoting this kind of attention to a second-rate mechanic in the wrong part of town? He'd never been no trouble to anybody - what the hell did want from him? Anybody finds out somebody's gunning for Johnny, and Johnny's gonna find himself with no customers, not a one.

Each of these gives us a hook - something to interest us; something we want to see resolved. What kind of creep sends emails like that? Is Johnny's father going to be OK? How'd a guy like Johnny get into a jam like this? These are explicit questions, they're great to get the reader hooked because once you've established a question, the reader wants to find out the answer. The difficulty is that the questions in response to your opening are all of the "what is going on here?" variety, and those aren't interesting - they don't cause the reader to be eager to find out what happens; they mostly keep him confused.

(Notice how each one of these details seems to lead to a very different story. The first one might focus on the weirdness of Johnny's stalker; the second one might be a story about protecting his father; the third about a simple person caught in an insane situation. Doing that is great, because it helps us understand right away what kind of story this is, what the conflict is, what's at stake - and that's what keeps us interested. Your story doesn't really do that yet - I don't get any sense of what the central conflict and stakes might possibly be.)

Now, you can't necessarily get a whole lot of detail in right from the start; I'm not saying I'd stop reading after a page of this. But if it goes on in this vein - spending more focus on saying things are very bad than explaining what's bad about them, who's suffering from them, how people are responding to them, and why I should care - I'd give it a pass after a few pages.

I'll also add you've got a fair share of awkward phrasing - if this is your current level of presentable prose, I suggest you should find someone who can help edit your work. For example:

For Ellie, it looks like the TV’s river of reporters depleted.

I'm afraid I can't make heads or tales of this. It looks like this to Ellie, or to everybody? Is the river of reporters depleted, or does it only look like it has? What in this sentence is "the job"? And this should be "the TV's river of reporters had been depleted," or something similar, or else the river depleted something else. I won't run through the whole thing, but you've got a lot of poor phrasings like this, and that doesn't encourage me to read on.

Again, I'm sorry to give you negative feedback - I hope you find this helpful, and remember that everything I've said here is easily fix-able :)

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I can't comment on everything since I need to compare notes first, but... I don't quite get the 'awkward phrasing' part; this is supposed to be dialog, with personality and this particular character learned English in America (so no many perfect tenses) and at an old age; she's not a native. That's what I can say right now. As for the negative criticism part, just imagine what the editor will say if I give him my FIRST manuscript that achieves almost everything they look for in a novel; it'd make a pretty good first impression I'd say! For that, I'm glad for you-all's help. –  Mussri Nov 30 '11 at 14:42
    
Oh, one more thing; the start is more of a 'flashforward' (not Sawyer's)... So, unless I rewrite this piece from the start, the immediate next line should say: 31 days ago... If that should help for a more focused answer. –  Mussri Nov 30 '11 at 14:48
    
Regarding the phrasing: We don't know yet that she's not native. And the tone of the rest of the piece doesn't feel different enough for it to be obvious her speech isn't "normalspeak." And she's using advanced, nuanced words like "mumbling" and "depleted." As for the 31 days ago - which of the points I've raised do you think this addition addresses? –  Standback Dec 1 '11 at 13:14
    
It only says that that's it for now, ie. everything there is to know about the characters will be dealt with in small doses as the story progresses until this point, around the end of act 2. That's not to say the first 2 acts have no story, they have the main plot that gets to this point and... it's complicated... Could you give more examples of turns of phrases you didn't like in the narrative? Anyway, have you looked at the body text again? Also see my third comment on the body text; see if you can help. –  Mussri Dec 1 '11 at 13:49
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That's the problem; I only write, I don't analyze it that way... I understand that as I get used to it, I won't have to and that you ask this only because up until now, I don't seem to have that objective... To clear things up, I'll post another question, about the same thing in the same story; but I'll give myself more time first, until I find a beginning that'd attract me even if I didn't know the story ahead. Wow! I really blubbered! –  Mussri Dec 1 '11 at 17:17
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Two things immediately jump out at me:

1) Granted that this is a very short excerpt, there isn't enough info or setting for me to understand where the characters are, in time or in place (not literally — I get that they're in LA, but Adam acts surprised that they're in LA, so why would the character not know what city he's in?). There's something about the moon, but it's casual, so maybe this is fifty years in the future? or maybe not?

2) Move the material in italics to dialogue. It can come from two characters who each only know part of the puzzle, comparing notes. Two reporters would work nicely. Or the reporter and a friend who's "connected," and each of them getting more concerned as they start assembling the pieces and realize what the gaps are, and what they imply.

So, you have a start, but there's not enough tension or suspense here yet. Drag it out a bit more so the evacuation notice is more of a punch.

ETA 1) yes, the updated body gives a better sense of place and a little more of character.

ETA 2) Your opening para in italics is narration. It's an information dump (infodump). You as the author are just dumping a load of backstory on the reader. You are telling us. One of the most important tools in a writer's toolbox is Show, Don't Tell. Show us two reporters coming into a newsroom and talking.

"Did you talk to your buddy at the White House?"

"Nobody's talking. He hung up on me. He sounded terrified."

"I can't get NASA to call me back either. But my sister-in-law works for the NYPD, and she sent me a text message. Three words: RUN TO MOM'S."

"Where's Mom's?"

"Indiana. Her mom, my mother-in-law. Who we both can't stand, so if she's telling me to go there, something's serious."

and so on. Don't tell us that the White House isn't talking. Show us that someone tried to call the White House and the staffer, who does know what's going on but isn't allowed to share, won't talk to the reporter.

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Could you elaborate on the second point? I also updated the main text. –  Mussri Nov 29 '11 at 13:11
    
Alright, I think that's mostly a problem with formatting... You see, the italics are supposed to be together; the same person, Elizabeth, is the reporter Adam notices and mentions in his first line. So? - I'll have a closer look at the conversing anchors but I wanted to avoid introducing any minor characters at the very beginning; Adam is the protagonist, Tina is his mother, and is important, Elizabeth is even more vital and appears with him most of the time. –  Mussri Nov 29 '11 at 16:50
    
yes, probably a formatting issue. Make it clear that you have at least two people talking, if not several. –  Lauren Ipsum Nov 29 '11 at 17:47
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In addition to what others have noted (as always, just my opinion, use it or ignore it):

It didn't grab me, either.

Quoting the television is good for an info dump, but I don't feel it works as an opening. I find it too factual and boring. I can see you've tried to introduce an air of mystery by withholding information (recovering from what, how have they been punished, why won't scientists talk, governments buying time for what purpose etc.), but I'm not sure that really works here. What would work is if there's conflict, emotion and character, but these are all lacking. Besides which, they're not overly concerned listening to the news report that you started with, so why should the reader?

"Tana said and went for the HUD on the nearest wall; no voice command in hospitals." Why the explanation of no voice command in hospitals? It's completely out of place. And why did she go to the HUD? To turn it off? And why the one on the nearest wall? Are there more than one? Also, be sure that HUD is a commonly known abbreviation for your audience.

If you use a name, stick to it. You switch from "Tana said" to "his mother" without there being a conclusive link in the reader's mind that they're one in the same. This is a tactic some writers use to introduce more information about people, but it rarely works. You're better off letting your characters reveal this information, and stick to using Tana. For example, Adam could say, "Just leave it, mother."

You do the same with "Elie" and "the same reporter" - are they all one and the same? I suspect they are, but it's certainly not clear. Stick to using Elie. We already know she's a reporter, because she's reporting on TV.

Setting is an issue: we only know its a hospital because you told us it was a hospital.

Lastly, there is a complete lack of Point of View character, which makes the piece almost completely unemotional and flat. Perhaps that's what you were going for, but I suspect you wanted Adam to be the PoV character.

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@M.Na'el - This is becoming increasingly an "editing" exercise, and I don't have a lot of free time to help you with that, I'm afraid. It really just doesn't grab me. I still think it's all unclear and a bit of a mess, so I'm at a loss to recommend how to fix it because I actually don't really know what's going on, or what you're trying to achieve. You may be better off joining a critique site online, and getting them to review your work. I wish you good luck in your writing endeavours. –  Craig Sefton Dec 1 '11 at 14:07
    
I guess that settles it... I've been reading about writing novels, reading novels, trying to get it right... While my science is solid and the plot is as unique as my mind tells me, it just needs more time. Looks like the teenager Hugo is out this time. -- I won't do any more edits; but if anyone have anything to add, I'll continue discussion in comments... –  Mussri Dec 1 '11 at 14:20
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