No, I’m not ready to post the first paragraph of Rhune yet…won’t be for a very long time. But I think that first paragraphs are so important that I wanted to talk about them a bit.
Sometimes brave wannabe authors…very brave ones…approach me asking my opinion on a bit of their writing. I must admit I hate it when this happens. Mainly because, I really, really want to help others, but I’m incredibly picky and most things sent to me fall very short of where I think they need to be. To say “it’s fine” would be a disservice, but I know that the criticism is going to sting. What’s a writer to do? By the way if you ever get me to say your first paragraph is good, it’s probably really, really good.
Yes, all of this is very subjective. And what I may want in a first paragraph may not be what others think is good. All I can speak to is what “I” think works (and what doesn’t) and I’m start this post with the caveat that I may be all wet and you should ignore everything I say.
So a few days ago a brave soul submitted me something, which I thought demonstrated some of the classic problems that many new authors do, so I asked if I could use as a demonstration. They agreed. The name of the character in the follow piece is changed, so you won’t be able to later identify the author or the work, but other than that. It’s presented as I received it.
Angelina Brovina stood beside her desk and traced her fingertips along the rim of the silver goblet which rested there. Along the sides of the cup grapevines stood in relief, twisting their way down the along the stem of the goblet. Around the base of the cup ran two small silver foxes with emeralds set in their eyes. They were sculpted as if chasing each other’s tails, cavorting in the vineyard with one another. The goblet had belonged to her for many years, and she always took it with her into the field. She was fond of the goblet. She enjoyed looking at it, enjoyed touching it. Above all she enjoyed remembering the screams of the man she had killed and taken it from.
Okay first the honey:
- I like that the author flips me. Initially, I’m thinking this is someone I should like, some brave shield maiden perhaps, and then I find out she may be dark…very dark. Okay my interest is piqued – Bravo.
- I really like that I know the characters name right off the top. I can’t tell you how may times I’m frustrated because I’m 5 – 10 pages into the work and all references have been to “the man” or “the woman” – It’s not building anticipating it’s annoying me and I’m likely to put down a book if you piss me off too long – so bully for that.
- I’m glad the person is trying to set the stage as to “where” I am. The “into the field” early is a nice clue to that. The fact that there is a “desk in the field – could have thrown me – except that we find out in the second paragraph that we are in a tent. It could have been “just a tad” stronger” if the goblet wasn’t on the desk, but that’s nit-picking.
Okay, now for the bad, and I’m going to focus this toward how an agent or acquisitions editor is going to look at it – so think traditional publishing. Readers may not be so picky, but let’s aim for a book that “could” be signed and then later decide if it makes sense to release traditionally or self-published.
- Wordiness – This is the #1 sign of a new or inexperienced author and will get you put in pile “b” (form rejection) faster than anything else. Tight prose is the sign of a professional, excessive words are problematic. Why use “foxes with emeralds set in their eyes” when “emerald-eyed foxes” says the same thing and much cleaner (two words (okay so one is a compound so maybe I should count it as three) versus seven).
- Unremarkable first sentence is a big pet peeve of mine. In this paragraph all that really is shown is three objects and where they are in relation to one another. Desk? Check. Woman? Beside the desk. Cup? On the desk. Oh good…glad we have that all straight. Remember that sometimes people will list the “first sentence” of their book as part of a reviews, or readers will have memes where they share the first sentence of the book they are reading. Use this as an opportunity to attract people to the book.
- Repeated words are another tell of someone who is fresh rather than seasoned. Notice how many references to cup or goblet is in that paragraph – I felt drowned in drink ware in this very small snippet.
- Parallelisms can also be a sign of someone new. There is a time and a place for it and when it looks like it was done purposefully – then great. If it looks like the author didn’t notice they did it, then it is bad. In the example above we have two sentences side by side that start with “along the sides” and “around the base.” It immediately hit a raw nerve with me when I read that.
- Don’t bury the lead. Yeah I see what this author was doing…and yes I praised them or it. But I also felt really bored up until that last line. I might not even have gotten to it because of all the goblets and cups I had to wade through first.
- Last but not least, never make a statement that gives a snarky person ammunition When I saw “silver” foxes – the very first thing that popped into my head was, “Well, duh…it IS a silver goblet, afterall.” Same with “small foxes” – how big could they possibly be?
I would rewrite the opening as follows (and no it’s not perfect – I hate the ending of the first sentence – but I really don’t have time to polish it – this is a “quick fix” not the ‘final edit).
Angelina Brovina traced two fingers along the rim of a silver goblet, remembering the screams of the man she had killed to get it. Grapevines twisted their way along its stem while two emerald-eyed foxes chased each other’s tails along the cup’s base. She always brought it with her into the field….(more is needed here but I don’t know enough about the story to say what. Probably why that cup was so important or perhaps her thoughts are interrupted when a servant brings in her armor to dress her for battle).
To me this is cleaner and more compelling opening. If someone posts THIS “first sentence” on their blog, it may just get someone to check out the book. As for the cup, I get the same “mind’s eye” impression of it in far fewer words. I also removed the desk because it really isn’t necessary to the scene and seemed odd to have a desk in a tent in a field).
I want to thank the author who volunteered up this paragraph. And sorry I tore it apart but it really was done with the intention of helping not hurting, and I hope you’ll learn something from this critique. Now back to my own writing, maybe I’ll share a few “opening paragraphs of my work and explain why I did what I did.
I like what you did with this – a good example of how polished prose differs from mere description.
Great advice. Makes me a little nervous though 🙂 I thought about sending you something as well but I figured you are probably really busy. I feel like I’m starving for some professional critique. This blog has helped that though.
I am busy, but I do do what I can – but as I said – I’m brutal.
Brutality–there’s no better way to learn. 🙂
Wow, this was great! Thanks for sharing your expertise and providing an example. I look forward to reading the post on your opening paragraphs.
Writing it now..stay tuned.
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