I come before you today, asking for any spare feedback you may have for me. I've been trying to decide on my opening page for the last two weeks and eventually managed to narrow it down to two different versions, but now I can't decide which one is better. I keep going on circles, listing the positives and negatives of both, reading them back to back but I just can't decide. A new pair of eyes would be just the thing for me right now. Maybe there's a clear winner here that I can't choose, or maybe they are both bad and I've worked on them for so long that I can't see it anymore. Any comments would be greatly appreciated.
On a (white) Probably don't need this - snow is white or grey and slushy, snowy day in Manchester, UK, Selim was stuck in an exhibition hall, walking on the red-carpeted lanes among the booths, thinking,
I shouldn’t be here…
The hall was well-lit inside, vibrant colours of the exhibits screaming (tense wrong - screamed) for attention as scores of people wandered around. The sound of their chatter was encouraged by the high ceiling to resonate (prudishly) (don;t need an adverb and I'm not sure prudishly works prudishly is a strange word to use to describe sound), causing an (uproar) - again a strange word to use of excitement. And in the middle of all this jamboree was Selim, squinting (his eyes) - (squinting is fine but no need to include the eyes as the reader will know.) to seem interested in the showcased products as thoughts devoured (another unusual word - thoughts generally don't devour things. Flooded, perhaps or just say he was distracted his brain.
I don’t belong here...
But regardless of those cowardly thoughts, Selim was on a quest. A quest to act like a young, enthusiastic engineer. And (I'm not a stickler for grammer and occasionally it's OK to start a sentence with AND but here it jars.) he may have been failing miserably at it as obstinate (again I wouldn't use obstinate to describe a yawn) yawns of boredom kept slipping out, but what the others thought didn’t matter. It was what his parents thought that really mattered and he had been strategic about that, walking behind them whenever he could, taking photos of random products when in their sight, and quickly lifting a catalogue up to his face when a yawn managed to get out.
Still, the thoughts kept coming,
I took a six-hour flight to come at a fair that I knew full well I would hate...
This looks harsh, I'm not meaning to be I find structuring a beginning very difficult too but the aim is for the first page to make the reader excited/scared/amazed or at least mildly curious enough to want to read on - I can see what your'e trying to do here but your character Selim, needs an angle something he's hiding or about to do that makes the trip to the exhibition interesting and relevant. You need a hook quickly.You need to avoid pairing words that don't work - Resonate Prudishly, Obstinate yawning - this puts the reader off and distracts them from what you are trying to achieve.
I hope this helps - putting stuff up on here takes courage and well done for that. So far I've done it twice and the feedback has been brilliant. It also helps you develop a thick skin something you'll definitely need as a writer.
I like the brevity of number one. I think it reads better than the second one, which has quite a few repetitions and redundancies in it. Number one also cuts through all the description and setting to get us into the mind and the dliemma of your protagonist much quicker. It sums up his situation better.
So the simple answer to your 'which is best' question at least for me (although others may well differ!) is easily 'Opening - 1'.
That said, I think it still has some flaws, and could do with another round of editing to tighten it up and make the various moments stronger.
Danny's suggestions above, although I think threy're made on the Opening - 2 version, are really good, and the moments he mentions where the language is a bit odd or doesn't quite convey the meaning you're after were things I noticed immediately too.
But the biggest issue, for me, is that you're telling us what Selim is doing and (to an extent) what he's thinking without really showing us how he's feeling. So we're not really strongly invested in him and empathising with his dilemma. As Danny says, we need a hook.
I would suggest that the hook is in his feeling of being in the wrong place, trapped, and doing something which he doesn't really want to do. He's caught between his sense of duty to his parents and whatever it is that he really wants to be or do rather than be an engineer.
That's his dilemma. That sense of wrongness and being trapped is what you need to make us feel. Then we'll really care about Selim.
Your hook, I think, is contained within the line 'I don't belong here at all' - which is there in the text, but doesn't really have the prominence it merits.
As an exercise, can I make a really cheeky suggestion? It's something that's worked for me when I've needed to get deeper inside my character's head (usually in response to advice from people on here! 😁 ).
Try writing this opening scene in the first person, as if Selim is simply telling us his thoughts - his real, innermost thoughts, not just observations of where he is and what he's doing. His fear of disappointing his parents. His self-hate at the lie he's living. His worry at what the future holds. His sense of not belonging. You might find that some much more personal and emotional expressions come out. You can then re-use these when you go back to the third person viewpoint for another pass at the passage.
With that really personal aspect added, I think the shorter opening will be much stronger.
Thank you so much Danny and Jon. I love receiving harsh feedback. Though I love receiving pleasant feedback too. I think I just love receiving feedback in general. Anyway, these are actually just the first few paragraphs. They don't even complete the first full page. What I was really concerned about was the POVs and the distancing to be honest, but your comments made me reconsider other aspects as well.
About the hook, I agree that the reader should want to read more after the first page, but I respectfully disagree that there must be an exciting event right at the beginning. Most of the time, the reader knows about the hook before even opening the first page. Having that in mind, what I tried to do here with the exhibition is establish Selim's mental state and his relationship with his parents before proceeding with the real exciting event. Of course I put up here a very short piece of the opening chapter so naturally its not too clear. So in the first chapter I'm actually trying to do what Jon has advised ("I would suggest that the hook is in his feeling of being in the wrong place, trapped, and doing something which he doesn't really want to do") and just make the way for it here in these openings, though admittedly I'm not entirely sure if I'm doing it successfully.
About the use of language, being a foreign writer, unfortunately I still do direct translations from my native language sometimes and it results in these odd words (even I don't know what I was thinking when I wrote 'prudishly' there.). But I'm not sure about the 'obstinate' - I'm just asking because I don't know. What I was trying to define there with 'obstinate yawns' was when you try to smother a yawn, and maybe you even succeed the first time, but you are so sleepy that another yawn comes and you're trying to hold that in too. Then a few minutes later comes another yawn and eventually the urge is so strong that one manages to get out. So you keep trying to fight the urge to yawn but its too stubborn. If 'obstinate' sounds odd here, do you think 'stubborn' would be a better word? Or if you have any suggestions they are always welcome.
Oh, I hope what I wrote didn't come across as too harsh! It certainly wasn't intended to be... I liked the passage! 😀
And you're absolutely right that it's often very difficult to get the full effect of a scene from an extract! You know the shape of your book much better than me(!) so feel free to ignore anything that doesn't fit with your vision.
I know exactly what you mean about those yawns! I would suggest that you explore words that are synonyms for 'involuntary' rather than 'obstinate' or 'stubborn' maybe? My own feeling is that 'stubborn', like 'obstinate' personifies the yawn a bit too much. I know you're trying to convey almost that the yawns have their own independent life and are 'stubbornly' coming despite the yawner's best efforts to stop them. But there's something a bit odd about it to my ear.
Such yawns are definitely 'involuntary' in that the yawner can't help themselves or do anything to stop them, but admittedly it does change the focus from the yawn itself to the yawner.
Another option might perhaps be 'uncontrolled' or 'reflexive' - both describing that inability to suppress the yawn. It's a tricky one! 😄
I think I understand what you mean about personifying the yawn too much. If it sounds odd to a native speaker, then it must surely be changed. It is indeed a tricky one! I will work on 'uncontrolled', 'reflexive' or similar words. Or maybe it's best to find a totally different way to say it.
Thank you very much for the suggestions and the feedback Jon 😀
Hi Ahmet, I agree with the above comments and my main concern was about the telling not showing of both excerpts. Also the opening sentence is not punch enough but the one below it was - I don't belong here. A statement that sets the scene beautifully. Already we know something about the protagonist. I also liked the way it repeated - but I felt that the strength of the statement was in its boldness and sharpness. I like the internal conflict being apparent right from the start. The words 'was' and 'had been' are passive voice and take away from the immediacy of the protagonist's dilemma. I hope you don't mind, but I have taken out the passive and mixed it up a bit to show what I mean. Feel free to ignore my comments as all this is subjective and I am no expert!
I don’t belong here.
Stuck in an exhibition hall on a snowy day in Manchester, UK, Selim walked on the red-carpeted lanes among the booths. The exhibits’ vibrant colours screamed for attention in the well-lit hall as scores of people wandered around, their excited chatter amplified by the high ceiling. Ears assaulted by the cacophony Selim pushed through the clumps of interested visitors in the wake of his parents, schooling his face into a parody of interest.
I don’t want to be here.
Suppressing his wayward thoughts and another yawn Selim tried to act like an enthusiastic engineer. It was what his parents thought that mattered. They forged ahead and he walked behind them whenever he could, taking photos of random products when in their sight, and quickly lifting a catalogue to his face when a yawn managed to escape.
First of all thank you so much giving me your feedback and taking the time demonstrate your advice Barbara. I definitely don't mind. I do agree that 'I don't belong here' is a better way to start, and actually in my earlier draft that was the opening line. However, after reading about the POVs, the distancing to the character and how it might be uncomfortable for the reader to delve right into the characters mental state before setting up a scene, I decided to change it. To be honest, I was never 100% sure of it though. So your comment on this is really helpful.
I will take all the positives from your version and hopefully I can implement it with mine to produce something much better than the two openings I posted here.
Go with your gut instinct - if it feels right do it. Only take on board the things that resonate with you and you can't go wrong, the vision for the book is yours and the story is yours and the way you want readers to meet the character is yours. I will say that the closer the reader is to the inside of the character's head the more they will connect. I am looking forward to the next version. I have radically changed my book, rewritten, redrafted and even taken a whole war out of it - so trying out versions is good. I have also taken out a character I later reinstated and all these things make the book better and increase our skills.
Thank you Paul. The contrast between his feelings and the atmosphere was exactly what I was going for there! I'm trying to come up with a new version for the opening by taking the good points of both versions. I will definitely keep your reasons in mind.
For whatever it may be worth after all the thoughtful and detailed feedback offered above I would like to offer a few things, some of which is perhaps more grand-scale writing philosophy than it is specifically helpful:
(1) I absolutely think the second draft is stronger. It has a better overall rhythm and flow.
(2) I am 100% with Barbara about how the line “I don’t belong here” makes for a strong, intriguing and grabby opening. If there was any desire to play with the poetry and rhythm of it even more – or to add an extra layer of anxiety/tension to what the character is feeling – those little bites of inserted internal monologue could build on themselves... So, the first one could be
I don’t belong here.
Then, the second time we return to it, it could be:
I shouldn’t be here. I don’t belong here.
Then, the third could be something like:
I didn’t want to come here. I shouldn’t be here. I don’t belong here.
And, then the last time could be:
I took a six-hour flight to come to a fair that I knew I would hate...
Again – just playing with it to see what else it can offer - *NOT* saying I think it should be rewritten in this way!
This more poetic/cadence/emotion-evoking idea brought me to this more philosophical idea about style and voice:
(3) I actually enjoy the language of an “obstinate yawn” :) On its own – in a single adjective noun pairing – it doesn’t quite work. But, when I read through the description for the logic of why that word was chosen I was totally on board. I truly believe – and have observed over and over again in writing I’ve read – that the key to going a route that may not be as smooth and familiar as others is to commit to it fully. And, that sometimes writing which goes an unfamiliar route can be very compelling/intriguing. A way to play with this piece and offer an example - borrowing from the intro and some of the comments above - could look like:
Selim was on a quest, a quest to act like a young, enthusiastic engineer and yet all his traitorous body wanted to do was yawn. Every time a yawn tried to surface, he pushed it down. And then again. But, the compulsion to yawn was obstinate and despite his best efforts, one forced its way out of him and into the exhibit.
Linguistically, in this version it is not the yawn that has been personified, but the “compulsion to yawn” and – again – I am by no means trying to say that this is what *should* be done or that it’s even any good on its own merits, lol! I just wanted to offer an example of what I mean by committing to the imagery.
From every person I’ve known who’s learned English as a second language (and even in my own writing where I've been known to make up words or compound a bunch to try to create new meanings), I’m led to believe that it has a lot of limitations. Further, literary style, and voice, are quite personal choices. Nothing we write is going to feel natural and good for everyone who reads it (everyone has preferences and styles and genres they prefer). As others here have said, the best we can do is soak up the knowledge and gifts given to us by others’ feedback and then come home and honour the spirit of our own style and voice; we can write something that we will also hopefully enjoy reading.
So. If there is any lingering affection for the idea that a yawn can have a personality and power of its own (which I personally enjoy) – then I would argue the job is to make more of it, not change it. If after all the feedback, the desire is to just change it and honour a different set of energies in the writing – then CHANGE IT!
There is an author – Tom Robbins – who essentially built a writing career on giving personality and purpose to things to which the English language, and its associated cultures, does not usually attribute personality. Some of his books might be classified more as “magical realism” or some kind of “animism” maybe? So, I’m not bringing him up because I think his style fits here; I’m bringing him up because I just like to remind myself that there isn’t one way to write and that sometimes leaning into things that feel absurd or silly can spark creative fires even if we later choose to snuff parts of them out because that’s what winds up feeling right.
Anyway! I’m babbling.
My last thought:
(4) is that I really look forward to hearing more about Selim’s parents and his relationship to them. My mind is immediately taken up in so many stories I hold of family pressures/relationships and personal identity. It’s rich, complicated territory that a lot of people can relate to.
Okay! That’s all for now. Thank you for sharing your work and I look forward to seeing where it all goes when you post more pages!!
Thank you so much for sparing your time to write such a detailed comment. I truly appreciate it. Internal monologues building on themselves is an excellent idea! I will try to implement that to my new version, but the thing I'm worried about is the length of the novel. I had a one-to-one session with an agent a few days ago and she said the key event that starts Selim's journey in the story (Selim falls in love with a girl on a train and leaves everything behind to find her, but the only thing she knows about her is that she has a pink suitcase.) should happen within the first 5,000 or so words. In the previous draft, Selim met the girl at page 22. I managed to decrease that to 16 which is at about 4,700th word or so. But I'm not sure with even that. This is one of the reasons why I wrote a shorter opening as well.
I changed the "obstinate yawn" part in the new draft. I wrote "... yawns of boredom kept forcing themselves out." for now. But honestly, I really didn't like changing it. 😅 And now that I think about it, I probably have lots of other personifying adjectives like that in the manuscript. Now, I either have to identify them, see if they work and delete the rest, or as you said, own them as my way of writing style and try to sell it like this. Owning them sounds much better of course, but the thoughts that sound good are also good ways of fooling ourselves. 😄 Another aspect for using this voice in my writing is that it's similar to Selim's voice. It's written in third person but it's limited to Selim's POV and I tried to write it depending on his personality. I have to maintain that voice as I do new edits.
I'm really glad I posted these versions here after all these profound feedback I received. And it seems the suggestion that everyone agrees on is to go with our gut and do what we think is right (after careful consideration of every feedback of course). So, I know I'm thanking a lot, but once more I want to thank everyone for their comments and suggestions. I don't have many people around me that I can get feedback from so your every comment is invaluable. 😀
First: Editing is hard and good work and congratulations on being able to do that deep editorial work that shaved off those pages! WOOT! In case it might have some value here, I will also add this: For me, creative writing projects kind of ebb and flow like the tides... They swell (get longer) and soak the shore and pick up all this "stuff" and then they recede (get shorter) and leave what felt like precious and interesting pieces behind that they just don't need anymore... Then they repeat this process a few more times until they finally arrive at a point where it's more like we just take a picture of them to freeze that particular version in time rather than we truly stop writing... If I'm being honest, even things I finished years ago still linger... I think about them... Imagine how I would write them differently now. At the time, though, I decided they were "done," took my 'picture,' and let them go.
All of this to say that maybe there is creative freedom and strength to be found in letting yourself write whatever you need to write without worrying about the word count just yet. You can always take things out and make it shorter again. Maybe the key is to make sure we let the narrative swell and capture new pieces, then ebb again in ways where we keep the parts that really belong and leave the rest on the beach? Eventually, we will take our picture and call it "done." I guess I worry about trying to limit words and ideas too soon... Sometimes, when I've tried to do that, I've used far more overall energy trying to be 'restrained' than if I'd just written everything that wanted to come out and then gone in for some savage (and satisfying) editing...
Your rewrite of the obstinate line does work and I wish you luck figuring out which way you want to go in terms of "personification" in general. My general sense is that the more we play with things, the more likely we are to figure out what truly fits for us. Thus, my advice is pretty much always - unless things are in a hard deadline phase in the final stretch of a project - PLAY MORE!! :)
And, I hear you about the lines we like the most. I pretty much always assume that whatever line I like the most is the first one I'm going to cut when I come in for a solid editing session. So, I enjoy them while I can but try not to get too attached, lol!