Ray’s post today is part of the “All the King’s Editors” series, where an editor from the Writer Unboxed contributor team edits manuscript pages submitted by a member of the WU community.
Each participating editor approaches a submission in a unique way, and speaks only for him or herself.
Remember, editing is as much art as science, and your take on the passage may differ. If so, feel free to join in the discussion at the end, but above all, be kind.
If you’re interested in submitting a sample for consideration, click HERE for instructions.
But what about Flog a Pro? This post takes the place of Ray’s regular Flog a Pro column, but his lash gets testy if not regularly exercised, so he’ll be here flogging a pro on SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 25th.
The author tells us this about her submission:
“My first novel is an historical fantasy. What I’ve sent is the beginning of the sequel. One of my challenges is working in the information from the first book so that those who haven’t read it will understand that my heroine had a time-travel experience several years earlier and that her child is the result of a romance that took place in the 15th century.
“At the beginning of this second book, her son Dickon has disappeared, along with her friend that was caring for him. In the succeeding pages, she will discover that they have gone back in time and she must go back again herself to rescue them.”
I agree that the protagonist’s time-traveling is key, not only for orienting a reader in the story but also to raising strong story questions that will deepen and compel the reader’s involvement with the story.
The way I see it, the objective of opening pages is to profoundly engage readers so they keep turning pages, and I believe that a character dealing with trouble is key to raising strong story questions. In your case, the opening needs to not only raise story questions but also include an aspect of time travel that clues the reader in to the special nature of the character and the story.
Your prose is strong and you have a fine voice, so I’m not going to do any line-editing. But, while your opening pages do raise story questions, there’s one major problem: the protagonist’s time traveling is not revealed until the last sentence of the last page of the chapter, 600 words after the story opens.
For me, far too late for this key component of the story and the world.
Here’s the original first page.
I’m used to lying. For the past five years, I’ve responded to questions about the identity of Dickon’s father with evasive half-truths and downcast eyes, giving what I hoped was the clear impression I’d rather not discuss the subject, even though in my heart I longed to describe his sweet smile and piercing blue eyes. If pressed, I said he was a Brit I’d met while on the archeological dig at Richard III’s gravesite, but I never shared his name, even though I still whispered it, all alone in my bed at night. If they asked about his involvement in Dickon’s life, I told them he wasn’t aware he’d fathered a child, and then even the most curious moved on to other topics. But this was the first time I’d lied to the New Haven police.
“So you don’t know Richard York’s current whereabouts?” Detective Vernon asked, rubbing a hand over his bald brown head.
“I have no idea. It doesn’t matter. He wouldn’t have taken him,” I said. I almost told them Richard was dead, but then they would have asked me more questions. When did he die? How did he die? The truth was not an option.
“You can’t know he isn’t involved, Ms. Lyons. We have to look at anyone who might have an interest in the child, and the boy’s father certainly fits that description.”
I couldn’t bear to spend more time on this useless line of questions when my son and my best friend had already been missing for two days. I closed my eyes and willed myself to be patient.
The protagonist’s first concern seems to be about lying to the police. Really? With her child missing? This opening page does finish by raising a strong story question, I’ll grant you. On the other hand, I don’t get the sense of despair and panic that a mother whose child is missing and possibly kidnapped would feel. She seems quite calm.
Has this opening done all it can in terms of establishing a gripping story? Not as long as the time-travel element isn’t included. I think that’s the clincher for letting a reader know that a fascinating story awaits.
With a little trimming and the inclusion of a few transitional words, what follows is an alternative first-page narrative using various parts taken from the chapter that, in my view, serves to better establish the problem, the protagonist’s feelings in this terrible time, and the intriguing aspect of time travel. The rest of the material in the chapter can be woven in as the story continues. Oh, one little nitpick: you refer to seeing “film” from surveillance cameras—I believe it would be video, not film.
An alternative opening:
My son and my best friend had already been missing for two days. My living room was still strewn with Becky’s books and papers; she hadn’t expected me home from Georgia for several days. Her phone was gone, and her purse, but her clothes were still in her carryall in my bedroom. She didn’t leave them behind on purpose. And Dickon’s little bed was neatly made, so Becky must have helped him straighten his Jedi knights comforter before they . . . before they left? Were taken?
Detective Vernon said, “Can you think of any reason she would abduct the child?”
“She’d never steal my son, and she wouldn’t abandon him, I’m sure of that. Wherever they are, they’re together.”
“We’re talking with her co-workers at the museum. As far as we can tell, that was the last place they were seen. And we’re checking out the video from the surveillance cameras.”
I put my head in my hands, too horrified to cry. Would the video show my friend struggling to save my son from some monster? Would it be the last time I ever saw him alive?
He checked his notes. “You don’t know the father’s current whereabouts, Ms. Lyons?”
“I have no idea. It doesn’t matter. He wouldn’t have taken him.” I almost told him Richard was dead, but then he would have asked more questions. When did Richard die? How did he die? The truth was not an option. He’s been dead over five hundred years.
In this version, the opening line gives the reader a strong hook immediately—the disappearance of the protagonist’s son and best friend, a sentence that raises instant and meaningful story questions. The first paragraph goes on to set the scene and deepen the mystery with what is there and what is not.
The detective’s questioning creates suspicion about the best friend in the sense that readers “know” that a protestation of innocence in a story often means possible guilt. So another story question is raised—despite her faith in her friend, has Becky betrayed her?
In the dialogue about the museum we see some of her emotion, her horror at what is happening and what may have happened. This part of the narrative raises the stakes by voicing the possibility of her son’s death.
Then the father with whom she had an affair in the 15th century enters the story, first as a possible suspect in the detective’s eyes—raising a story question—and then that story question is answered by disclosing that the father has been dead for 500 years. Which ends the page with another gripping story question. For me, this first page is truly compelling.
Moreover, I think this opening creates a continuing foundation of tension in the reader that will take you through doing the setup and action that further establish the story.
For what it’s worth.
Hope to see you Sunday, November 25th for a pro flogging.
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!