When Alicia and I first started talking about doing a blog together many months ago, we thought of it in terms of going public with our running conversation about books and writing. Anyone who has ever been privy to one of our long, wine-soaked gab sessions will recognize some familiar features on this blog: we hopscotch all over the writing playground, juggling multiple trains of thought, doubling back to tag an old idea, and generally having a grand old time even if we sometimes teeter when we intend to totter.
Well, okay, there's a lot less merlot on the blog. But in other respects, I think it really is taking on the flavor of our conversations. Which is good because we can chase stray ideas wherever they might lead, but, well, then we have to find ways back home.
Which leads us to Ian. Actually, before Ian, we started off talking about structure, but we didn't get very far. Opening World material led to a robust discussion of openings and sentence structure tricks to add impact, and that led to Ian volunteering his first lines.
The airport was a pandemonium of police, journalists, and strange, beautiful people in colorful costumes. Katie Malone watched them in fascination from the comparative coolness of the concourse. The temperature was threatening to break the hundred-degree mark for the third day in a row, and the air conditioning strained to keep up. She watched the jet from Deep Six taxi across the tarmac, circled by a woman sporting feathered wings.
Alicia has already parsed these lines, and I agree with everything she said. But I'm going to put the lines through the Theresa machine anyway. This is not because we're bored or have run out of material. This is because a) Ian was very brave to volunteer and deserves some extra attention, and b) there's a hidden lesson in having two editors walk through the same sentences. More on this to follow.
When I pick up a new manuscript to evaluate, my reading speed drops to about half what it normally is, at least for the first page or two. I'm not reading for the experience of reading here. I'm focusing tightly on the narrative and the story as presented through the narrative right from the first words. I parse as I go.
So I'm going to intersperse Ian's words with what my personal interior monologue might sound like if I were reading this as a fresh submission. I have read Ian's entire first page, but that was a couple of weeks ago and I don't really remember what follows these four sentences. (Nothing personal -- I've read a few thousand pages since then and I just can't hold all those details in my head.) But I do remember that I liked Ian's first page quite a lot.
His words will be in italics, mine will be in color. Purple for the good stuff, red for the red flags. Not all red flags are "bad" per se, as will become evident as we move through this. They're more like warning lights than stop signs.
clear setting, strong visual
flag -weak verb
sense of sound
authority figures in blue uniforms (Any word which can be used in a children's picture flashcard deck with present readers with strong visuals. The writer's job is to ensure that these are the visuals they intend to create.)
not uniformed, but I get a visual of drab people with a strong sense of purpose
and strange, beautiful people in colorful costumes.
Whammo! Look at what he did there. We move from uniforms to costumes and from drab to colorful. And from authority figures to "strange" people. The contrasts are subtle but they work. I don't know about the rest of you, but because this is an airport, to me "costumes" means not Halloween costumes but characteristic clothing. So I'm seeing saris, bright African and South American fabrics, a Hare Krishna's monk robes -- but no vampires or Nixon masks.
Next, I like it that he brushes the crowd into the picture with three strokes. Policemen. Journalists. Strange people. One, two, three. This is a great way to shorthand a setting without shortchanging the reader.
Finally, he's placed the correct item last in the list of three items. There are two rules of thumb for lists. First, move from shortest to longest. Or second, end with the highest-impact item. Often we have to choose between one or the other approach, but Ian's list complies with both. (Though he might consider switching the policemen and journalists. The visual progression is a bit cleaner that way. Drab-blue-colorful. Also casual clothes - uniform - costumes.)
By the end of this sentence, I've forgiven him the weak verb because the rest of the sentence is so strong. The rest of the language is highly evocative. If he'd said, "The airport was crowded and noisy," the weak verb would have continued to be a red flag because the rest of the sentence is also dull.
Ah, good, now we're being oriented to a single character in the crowd. I assume she's the pov character. I also assume that she is not a police officer, journalist, or strange person, because if she were, those three list items would have been handled differently. For example, if she were a journalist, she would have mentioned passengers instead of journalists, or she might have mentioned her cronies/competitors being pushed behind barricades. Something to orient the reader to her membership in one of those groups. Because she is introduced without reference to any of those list items, we can assume she belongs to none of those groups.
Again, she's an outsider
flag - this is "telling." Almost without exception, if you name an emotion on the page, you're telling instead of showing. You can get away with this every now and then, but on the first page you'd be better off letting me into her viewpoint so I can experience her fascination with her. This will quickly build the reader-character bond. Or, if you have reasons for a more objective point of view here, at least show her behaving in a fascinated manner and let me conclude that she's fascinated. There's an exceptionally cool book by Ann Hood called "Creating Character Emotions" that will give lots of ideas and insights for manipulating the show/tell dynamic.
from the comparative coolness
I like the use of temperature as a visceral cue, but compared to what?
of the concourse.
I'm starting to lose my sense of orientation to place. Katie is on the concourse. The police, journalists and strange people are in the airport. She can hear their pandemonium. But this sentence leads me to believe she's somehow isolated from the crowd. I'm a little confused. But this is something that can be clarified easily. If the pandemonium is on the tarmac rather than inside the concourse with Katie, then say "The airport tarmac was a pandemonium...." And then reverse the order of this second sentence: "From inside the concourse, Katie watched them without daring to blink." Or something like that. Move us from outside to inside in a more clean fashion.
Or am I wrong? Why are we being given cues that Katie is isolated from the crowd? Where is she compared to the crowd?
The temperature was threatening to break the hundred-degree mark for the third day in a row,
and the air conditioning strained to keep up.
Again, I'm not sure where she is. I like the contrast of heat outside and cool inside, though, and I like the use of the present progressive here -- it orients us in time (day three of a summer heat wave). It's crucial to orient the reader, and Ian does a great job here in every way *except* letting us know where Katie is in relation to the rest of the setting details.
flag - "watched" is a weak verb to begin with, and this is the second use in four sentences. Add in that "was" from the first sentence, and I'm starting to worry about the verbs. There's so much other good material here, a real deftness with detail, that I'm still feeling a bit forgiving about the verbs. But I've already decided to watch out for verbs as I continue to read.
the jet from Deep Six
"Deep Six" to me indicates a certain kind of story -- thriller, maybe spy, with perhaps a dollop of futurism. I'm thinking James Bond with lasers.
Note: this is the first real action verb. It's a good one, too. We've got a little internal echo here -- the X in six and the X in taxi, both of which are strong in the ear and on the page. It perks me up a little as I'm reading it.
across the tarmac, circled by a woman
This bugs me. I think Alicia flagged it too. According to syntax, the tarmac is being circled by the woman. But I'm pretty sure you mean that the jet is being circled by the woman. Modifiers should go next to the words they modify.
sporting feathered wings.
Right-o. Just like that, you got me back. Now I know the reason for the pandemonium and the police and journalists. Now I know why Katie is fascinated. It's not the air conditioning or the heat or the costumes or the noise. It's the woman who can fly. Now I want to keep reading to learn more about what's going on here and what Katie's role in all this will be.
The first and last sentences in Ian's quartet are strong. The middle two sentences trouble me a little but they're fixable. As an editor, I've already decided the manuscript is worth a little more of my time -- I'll keep reading in the hope that the promise in the first and last sentences pans out, and that the minor problems in the middle two sentences won't repeat.
I've already decided to edit the last sentence by killing the weak verb and moving the intervening prepositional phrase to the front of the sentence:
Across the tarmac the jet from Deep Six taxied, circled by a woman sporting feathered wings.
I'm still not 100% satisfied with this sentence, but it cleans up those little nagging problems while preserving the dramatic impact of that last phrase. (Ian, thank you for suffering through my tinkering with your prose.)
The Hidden Lesson
Two editors read the same four sentences. Some of the things we notice are the same, and some are different. But we both draw the same conclusion: this opening is pretty darn good overall.
Even though there are tricks and rules governing good prose, there is still an art that comes into it. The writer has his art, and the editor has hers. Part of our art has to do with the unique perspective we bring to the editing process. There are certain foundational things we all look for, but beyond that, it starts to become personal.
When we say that the editor's job is subjective, this is part of what we're talking about. Even though personal content preferences may come into play, in this respect it's got little to do with how much we like the content. If that were the governing force, very few people would edit dental journals, because who likes getting their teeth drilled?
The subjectivity that I'm referring to, then, has more to do with the editing process. Any good editor might take the same piece of prose and wind up at the same end point. But the paths we take won't always look alike.