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1. Can you see it. 

2. Do you care about what happens?

3. If the answer to #2 is no, what is missing? I know that not every genre is for everyone, but I believe there are common elements of strong writing across all genres. I want to hone this opening until it makes the reader want to turn the page and care. 

Version D (?) – 1st two paragraphs : Life. Senetence.

            Two parallel lines. A crosswalk. It was the safest way to get from this side of the street to the other side, where they could let the dogs off leash. About six months ago, this very crosswalk had been repainted in burnt gold and upgraded with tiny lights that would blink when in use. As Magen approached the corner where her family already stood, soda in one hand, dog leash in the other, she noticed her husband pushing the button to activate those tiny lights.  

            “Abby, walk your bike,” she reminded her daughter in French, the language they spoke to each other. Abby grunted in response, slowing down her bike enough to come off the saddle. Zigzag and Buttercup were minding well, sitting at the edge of the curb just waiting for their masters to give them the go ahead to cross the street. Sipping her soda, the hot afternoon sun beat down on her head, rays of heat boring into her brain. Why did you invite everyone? You know you needed time alone. But she had invited them along because that’s what a good person does. That’s what a good mom does. 

Magen’s flip flops clacked against the bottom of her feet as she stepped onto the black asphalt of the road, between the perfectly parallel lines. Isaac was saying something to her. Something about a car. Seriously. I just needed a break. I still need one. 

            “…right?” she caught the last word of her husband’s thought as the visual before her filled in the rest. A white Mercedes was barreling toward their little family, all vulnerable in that lit up crosswalk. Without thinking, she ran ahead of her daughter, making herself as big as her 5’2” frame could manage. Perhaps cars were like lions and would stop if they saw something threatening. But in her white running shorts and tank top, Magen was far from threatening. Until rage started bubbling up from deep within. 

            “She’s speeding up and swerving!” Isaac yelled as Magen stood her ground. Nobody would hit her family in a crosswalk. Not on her watch. She felt herself begin to tremble. It wasn’t fear. This was anger from deep down in her gut that had just needed a reason. 

            “Sweety, MOVE!”

            “No! Abby!” she screamed back at her husband. Abby was frozen in between her parents, dogs in tow. The car was approaching and Magen couldn’t tell if it was slowing down. She remained firm, waving her arms, soda spraying everywhere, the dog leash limp on the ground. The car finally came to an abrupt stop, a generous distance in front of spectacle in the crosswalk. All Magen could see was the oversized visor shading the woman’s face behind the wheel of the car. 

            “Slow the fuck down, bitch!” screamed Magen, walking deliberately toward the offensive vehicle in a lazy daze of rage.  

            “Sweety! Stop!” Isaac had almost made it to the other side of the street. Magen was smack in the middle of the road, Buttercup forgotten at her feet. Now, inches from the driver’s side window, Magen slapped the glass with her hand spilling soda all over her own arm and the ground, screaming obscenities at the woman as she drove away. You are such an idiot. Who does that? 

“Abby,” Magen fell into step beside her daughter who was walking her bike the rest of the way across the street, “That was probably not the best way to handle that situation.”

  • I'm sorry to have to say this, Kelly, but from my perspective, this opening has gone backwards.

    However, I can tell you what about it is not sitting well.

    In part, it's what Kate mentioned in the previous version - the focus on specific details that are peripheral. Are details important? Absolutely. But, of more relevance is the other question: which details are important? This is harder to answer, and is contextual. In this case, Magen is your PoV. The question isn't "what important to Magen?" but "what would Magen pay attention to in this instance?" (Additional caveat of theme elements - you can bend the rules a little for them.)

    The structure of a crosswalk and how safe it is? Probably not. That she is only bothering with it because the family came with her, and would have just skipped across if tehy weren't? Maybe. That the crossing funky new features are only six months young? Maybe.

    That she's holding one of the leashes? Probably not, unless it's unusual. Definitely not the sound or feel of her flip flops.

    Now, those questions will also apply to the second part, where another challenge has popped up. This has to do with tthe perception of time.

    In a moment of pressure, you have more space to use a lot more words. 100 words describing 100 years, pretty much nothing happened. 10000 words to describe 3 seconds: you're going to play the gushing thunder of each of those six heart beats, the changing fragrances noticed with highened awareness of the danger, every glint of light running up the length of a car's metalic trim. The screeching of brakes, the squeel of tires on asphalt, the burning small overlaying the (background odour of choice). She's going to be aware of the visor, and the position of the sun. She's going to realise that she can't be seen because the sun is behind her, blinding the driver. She's see that the car is twisting, starting to skid sideways. Fragments of seconds. Disaster barrelling towards her. time, even, for flashbacks of dreams unfulfilled, or regrets past and future (Abby's graduation, wedding; first grandchild). The certainty of sacrifice.

    But… in that moment of pressure, you're not going to have dialogue. Certainly not Issac's "She’s speeding up and swerving!” Those five words are more than your allocated three seconds.

    Maybe there's time for a "Nooo!" To feel Issac barrelling past, Abby under one arm, dog leash in the other. To hear the other dog whine in fear.

    Then, once the car has stopped, I don't believe her reaction. Going up to the window. No. She's jsut faced down death. The adrenaline is pumping. There's an emptiness that follows the certainty of an end-of-life moment, because "what now?" The car drives around her, leaving her in the middle of the road. Panting.

    At least, that's what I suspect was supposed to happen.


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    • Thank you so much Rick. This incident actually happened a few months ago, and it is hard to figure out how to convey that slowing of time. I'll take another look at it. I really appreciate your comments. 



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      • Short sentences. Fragments. Elements of the experience sans grammar. Strobe it.

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        • Thank you Rick - I feel like I'm learning how to write for the first time. I'm trying to approach it with childlike curiosity, like what can I learn today, and just let it come in its own time. You are so kind to help me. I really appreciate it. 

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        • Now, there's the other part of this.

          It's not about your writing, Kelly. Your writing is good.

          I'm going to suggest an exercise for you. Take it or leave it.

          Start by describing this entire scene in a single sentence, with no more than a single sub-clause. Capture the emotional essense of it. (Scene eolevator pitch.)

          Then, take that sentence and describe the same thing in more detail. Maybe four or five sentences (same rules). (Scene outline.)

          You can run this version past people. See if the structure works. Does it make sense?

          Then, repeat. Break each part of the structure down into beats. The intro might only be two beats, whereas facing down the car is six or ten. You may find that some beats can then be expanded another level. At this point, you are still telling. This is all what.

          Depending how long you want to make the whole piece, you may expand it again, and again. But each time, you're expanding the inner structure of the what that will happen. (There should be no dialogue yet - only descriptions of how each argument will affect the other person, or, where it's effectively a monologue, the reason behind what they say; the emotion underpinning it. (Yes, that "No," above, will require half a sentence to capture the tone it's screamed with, and the fear it represents.))

          Have someone who understand how you are approaching this - that it is entirely about outlining the flow as telling - critique it. Does it capture the flow? Does it capture the emotional states. Do you have a solid line drawing of what you will paint?

          Then, finally, there are two more steps. (Or three if you want.) These are about converting telling to showing. Colour it in. Turn it into mass-readable prose. Then, in the second pass, add texture. Add the shading to the folds of fabric hanging from the characters you've painted.

          (I'm not suggesting you do this for every single bit of the entire book - when you get used to it, you can intuitively skip some of the middle layers. But it's a good exercise to build up a scene to deliver what you intend it to.)

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          • I agree with what Rick has said about the length of time and the unnecessary attention to certain details but on the other hand I think you've done two really useful things with this version.

            First you've introduced a lot of tension into a scene that we can really picture ourselves in. You've moved away from the abstraction that I remember your early version being based around into a real life situation where the stakes are high. Even more importantly, from the perspective of your goals for your longer work, you've introduced the idea of Magen being an unusual character without telling us exactly what's wrong.

            There's a tension built up through her rather seemingly contradictory thoughts. We come to understand that the family image is being undermined by her true feelings and immediately get the sense that something is going on with her. It makes us curious to read on and find out what that is. 

            So in answer to your first two questions, yes and yes.

            Two parts I wasn't so keen on were:

            “Abby, walk your bike,” she reminded her daughter in French, the language they spoke to each other.
            -Here I'd either have it in French, or a simplified sentence which most people can work out to tell us they speak French together, or explain this later. Is it the kind of information we have to know on the first page?

            Nobody would hit her family in a crosswalk. Not on her watch.
            - which just sounded overdramatic. Too Hulk Hogan, too A-Team and not in keeping with the character.

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            • Thanks Benedict - I appreciate the comments - it was really what I was going for, to get more in the action; I get caught in the metaphysics of it all and then it's ungrounded and untethered. I was telling Rick that this actually happened, and that was exactly what I thought in my mind. It was part of my medications being out of whack and I was just becoming completely unhinged even over something that would likely never happen. I want to be able to get that across, and I feel that I can work on it bit by bit. 

              Many Thanks for your wise comments,


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              • That's an interesting point, Kelly - that you're transcribing an actual experience.

                It illustrates one of the key differences between what we actually experience and how we experience something in prose. The reality as you described it may be quite accurate, but it comes across as jumbled. (And yes, I get it was jumbled.)

                Prose needs a little more coherence, and a little less reality, to read as believable.

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