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Is my opening chapter good enough to submit to agents?

I've made a handful of submissions to agents but had no luck yet. Considering the competition out there, have I just been unlucky so far, or is my piece not up to scratch? This is chapter one of my novel, "The Name in Shadow". Any feedback would be greatly appreciated:


 How can that be me? 

The aspirin packets have been moved – they’re not even together. What’s going on?

As I rearrange them on the shelf, I spot the bruises on my knuckles. Please, not again. I pull back my shirt sleeve. There they are: more cuts and scratches. And a graze near my elbow.

The inside of my mouth tastes foul. I pick up my jacket from the floor and take a sniff: it stinks of tobacco smoke. No pack of cigarettes in the pocket, but that doesn’t mean much. Maybe I smoked last night, maybe I didn’t. Who can say?

The headache’s getting worse. Flashing lights, the works. Time for some more aspirins. There must be enough here for a whole football team.

*   *   *

I’ve been stupid: I should have counted how many tablets I took, instead of swallowing the lot.

My heart’s racing, my ears are ringing, and I’m panting like I’ve just run a marathon. I’m beginning to shut down. Stupid, stupid!

I can’t make it to the door because my legs have turned to jelly. The carpet is pressed against my face, and I might be sick.

At least the phone’s in my back pocket. I can barely focus on the screen, though, and it’s slipping out of my sweaty hand. I’ll just have to lie still and wait. Nice and still. Close my eyes…

*   *   *

A hard smack. My cheek’s stinging, and Dad is shouting at me. What’s he on about, waving his arms in the air like a deranged mime artist? Why can’t he just leave me alone?

How long have I been here? Was I unconscious? Did Dad knock? All I can hear is buzzing and hissing.

What are they? Wood splinters? He probably had to break down the door. I wonder if the lock—

Now he’s shaking me. Or am I dreaming? Hang on, I think he’s lifting me to my feet. Ah, we’re heading for the stairs. This’ll be interesting…

*   *   *

My head’s lolling from side to side. How can I be expected to sleep? 

Ow! Stop pinching my leg! I look through the passenger window, but everything’s a blur. Dad’s driving like a maniac.

*   *   *

They’ve rushed me into some sort of emergency room. The doctor keeps asking me questions: ‘Do you understand why you’re here? Can you tell me your name?’ I don’t know what I’m telling him. 

Now I’m retching, except I’m not being sick. Something’s being forced into my throat, and I’m too weak to fight back. They’re pinning me down, and a harsh light is shining straight in my eyes. The whole world is trying to penetrate me! I scream, but there’s no sound.

*   *   *

‘Breathe normally. Try not to swallow.’ A cool sensation is spreading through my stomach. I can’t speak; a snake is sliding deep into my body, gobbling up my entrails. I don’t care anymore. Let it eat me.

I want to close my eyes, but a voice keeps talking to me. An elephant is standing on its head. What on earth’s it doing here? Somebody with an enormous mouth is coming my way, spitting at me. Tiny pieces of coloured paper are flying towards me, and now the bed’s covered in them. The more I try to brush them off, the worse it gets – they’re all over the place.

A blaring noise makes me jump, and I look up into a grinning face. No! I turn away and bury myself in the sheets. When I look again, the face has gone, and so has all the paper.

*   *   *

The snake has eaten its way right through my body. Someone must have carried me off because I’m sitting on a toilet, and my insides are falling out. Maybe this is what I’ve needed. Not to die, but to purge myself of everything within me, literally to lose myself. Did it have to be this bad, though?

*   *   *

I can’t move my arm in case the needle falls out. I’m comfortable enough, apart from a sensation of emptiness, which I don’t mind. Because they finally let me sleep, I’m nice and relaxed at the moment. My head hurts, although I guess I’d better not ask for an aspirin.

I’m in a small room of my own here: a solitary bed, a white bedside unit with a vase of yellow flowers, an empty chair and the stand holding the intravenous drip. Thankfully, the sheets are heavy. Tucked in tight. All good.

There’s a gentle knock. A nurse appears by the door, her head tilted slightly, her expression friendly. ‘You have a visitor.’ The door opens wider, and Dad walks in, already unbuttoning his overcoat. Mother’s not with him. Probably for the best.

‘How are you feeling, Paul?’

‘My throat’s pretty sore.’

‘That’s not surprising. They told me what the doctors had to do to you.’

‘You didn’t deserve to be put through this, Dad.’

‘I’m just glad I got to you in time.’ He sits down beside me. ‘It’s your mother I’m concerned about. She was terrified.’

‘Tell her I’ll be OK.’

‘I have a better suggestion. Why not tell her yourself? They’ll be letting you out soon – you can stay at our house for a while.’

‘Is that what they told you to say?’

‘Don’t start getting paranoid, son. The consultant said it would be a good move, that’s all, and I agree with him. No one’s forcing you. You’re being seen for an assessment after this, aren’t you? Why not give yourself a break and recover at home with us?’

‘So you can keep me under observation, you mean? Don’t worry, I’m not going to go through this again.’

‘Glad to hear it. What do you say, then?’

I can’t really turn him down. Not after all this. ‘Yes, I’ll come home for a bit.’

‘Good. Your mother and I can never get used to the thought of you living on your own in that tiny flat.’

‘It suits me.’

‘Well, it suits us to take care of you right now.’

I smile my thanks. ‘Would you mind taking a look in the cabinet for me? I can’t reach that far. Have they put my things in there?’

Dad pulls open the bedside drawer. ‘Your phone’s here.’

‘What about my Arsenal key fob?’

He holds it up. ‘There’s no key on it.’

‘I know. Could you pass it to me, please?’

He hands it over without asking why I want it, thank goodness. I roll the fob around in my palm. The number ten has almost completely worn away.

Dad gazes out of the window. ‘Nice view from here. You can see the park. Not that you’ve had a chance to enjoy—’

‘I need to ask you something. When you brought me here, how was I acting, exactly?’

‘I’m not sure what you mean.’

‘I appreciate I was in a bad way, but did you notice any particular change in me?’ He watches me intently without saying a word. ‘Did I do anything that was so different, so … uncharacteristic, that I was like, I don’t know, like somebody else? Something I said, for instance? To be fair, I was probably talking gibberish the whole time.’

‘You did come out with a few words before they put the tube in you. It wasn’t gibberish, though.’ I don’t like that look of his. ‘Paul, remind me, what languages did you study at school?’

‘A bit of French.’

‘Nothing else? Evening classes? Phrase books?’

‘Nope. Why?’

‘Because yesterday you were speaking fluent Russian.’

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Replies (30)
  • Hi. I really like it and whilst I dont know how many agents have passed on this over which period of time, my initial thought is that perhaps agents look at this (as I have) and feel this should be a screenplay. It certainly reads like one (with a little more narrative than most screenplays). Did you receive any feedback from the agents that passed on it?

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    • Thanks for taking a look at my chapter, and I'm glad you like it. You are not the first person to comment on how much dialogue I write, although I wasn't aware of it being so obvious in this piece. After all, in a 1,200-word piece, there is no dialogue in the first 750 words. Perhaps it's the style of my dialogue that makes it look like a screenplay. I'm not sure. As for agents' feedback, I've had none – either standard rejections or none at all. With the latter response, it's very frustrating to hear nothing, especially when it can't be so difficult to reply to en email with a standard rejection. So it's nice to get feedback like yours!

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    • May I ask if you got any feedback from the agents, or did you get the absolutely painful silent treatment? Just need to know that piece of information before I say anything else.

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      • As I've just mentioned to MK Sutar, I've received rejections from some, and absolute silence from others. I'm looking forward to what you've got to say...

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        • Hi Terence, my apologies for returning to this so late. Life and its busyness, unfortunately.

          Ah, I see I am super late to the party and everyone else has commented on what I actually wanted to say. However, I'll add my two cents worth.... which I do think you may not like hearing.

          From my previous experience with submitting to agents, the standard rejections & silence means that you've been rejected on your cover letter. I am so sorry! You have permission to hurl rotten tomatoes at me.

          However, like the rest have indicated, I think your manuscript is still not ready for submission. As others have indicated, the first few paragraphs are confusing and that shouldn't be. I believe good prose has to be clear and as Harry says, precise, so the reader doesn't have to work to understand what you're saying and what's happening in that scene. Whether it's first person or third person points of view, your prose needs to be clear. Right now, its proven that it isn't. But, don't despair you can fix it, because you now know what's wrong.

          The dialog is good, but it also feels stilted. We get a feel of Paul's disdain against his parents/father, but at the same time, the dialog feels too formal. Perhaps make it more personal or oblique, since he's just woken up from the trauma of having his stomach pumped after an overdose. Add beats in terms of who said what and instead of all the place description in it's own para before the dialog, leave some of it there and nudge the rest in during the dialog.

          I hope this helps.

          Ps. hurl those rotten tomatoes anytime. (ties on a blind fold and stands ready)

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          • Thanks for getting back to me, Stephanie, and I appreciate your comments – no tomatoes coming your way, I promise! Just a couple of points:

            Paul, as is later revealed, has an issue with his mother, but his relationship with his father is more relaxed. Others have commented on how I should differentiate their voices more, though, and I agree with them.

            The opening paragraphs were originally written in the past tense as Paul recalls his experience while still in a hospital bed, but it was suggested that they would be more effective in the present tense, entirely from Paul's point of view. As he is slipping in and out of consciousness, it was deliberately written to infer confusion. But you may be right that I've gone too far by confusing the reader as well!

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          • I've only been writing myself for around three years, so take what I say with a pinch of salt. Your opening is well written, gripping and with a surprise ending which makes me want to read on and find out why/how. Psychic distance is close and that's good, but . . . I recall reading a blog by Harry about how the opening to a story is about getting the reader comfortable with the surroundings etc. (In a smart restaurant, the receptionist takes your coat and the waiter sits you at your table before someone starts throwing food about the place - I think his example was something along those lines.) Your opening would work well as a prologue but if this is Chapter 1, then I can see how you might have trouble with agents (I did it myself with my debut novel). The other deduction I've made from my own submission experiences is that agents/trad publishers are looking for authors rather than books. I may be wrong but perhaps what you wrote in your cover letter could also be a factor behind why you are getting rejections. Then, as you imply, it may just be down to luck and the daunting odds against us all. Good luck and keep trying. Keith.

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            • Binge immediately following the food fight. 

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            • Hi, Keith. I've just replied to your post, but I think I've accidentally deleted my answer. If I haven't, and this is my second reply, I apologise in advance! First of all, thanks for your comments. I was surprised about what Harry said about making the reader feel comfortable – this seems to go against the advice we're normally given to grip the reader from the very start. Do you know where I could find that blog? As a matter of fact, I originally included a flash-forward to the climactic scene at the end of my novel, and the rest of the book was a series of events leading up to that moment. After reading another of Harry's blogs, where he dismissed such an approach, I ditched it in favour of this one. As for my cover letter, I hope I haven't written anything to put agents off! I don't think I did but, if it's of interest, I can upload my letter, if you like.

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              • Hi Terence. I only skimmed your first beat yesterday, so will have to go back to comment on the whole thing, though I suspect L.'s feedback is going to be a good baseline for my own.

                However, as to the apparent conflict between the advice you've heard before and Harry's via Keith… they aren't mutually exclusive. Harry's advice isn't about setting the visual scene for your story - it isn't about boring readers with 10 pages of cinematic detail (that film manages in a 5-second sweep) - but about setting the tonal scene. It's about a promise. (It is also about creating emotional resonance between reader and character, but I won't even try going into that here…)

                If you open with a shoot-out, your readers will assume that your story is action-heavy (or, if you twist it within the first 2-3 pages, about dealing with the trauma of participating in such violence). If you open with a steamy romp - whether real or imagined - your reader has been pomised either straight-up erotica or a tense lust-driven romance. (Imagine either of those openings with the alternately themed story hanging off it: you would feel cheated.)

                If you open a story with someone in the middle of a drug-induced delusion, or having a mental breakdown (as the very first beat reads), then you are promising… a very twisted piece. Either that, or the reader might assume you aren't making any promies. Thus, they will ask a question you don't want them to entertain: should I bother reading on?

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              • Hi Terence, 

                Thanks for sharing your opening. You have an interesting premise and a great hook at the end. Plus your prose is fluid and easy to read so those are all good point.

                I'm not an agent but if I tried to put myself in the shoes of one, I would turn it down for the following reasons:  

                You have started at a dramatic moment of someone having an overdose of painkillers however I have no idea who that person is so I have no reason to be invested or care about what's happening to him. I was slightly confused as to why the MC seems to make a big deal of the paracetamol was not in its normal place and that it was a tell that something was going on. Furthermore the opening scene is suffering from the white box syndrome i.e. there are no grounding elements this could be happening in someone's house, hotel room, a spaceship but I have no idea as there are no point of reference so it's all happening in a white box. 

                Again only my opinion and others might feel differently but the scene went on for too long and I started skimming to see when something else was going to happen. Then when I got to thee hospital and that wall of dialogue I skimmed too for something relevant or that would hold my attention but it didn't happen until your hook at the end. I know that dialogue should be natural but it's actually the illusion of being natural. The dialogue for me goes on for too long and didn't hold my attention, same as the previous scene so if I were an agent this would tell me that the whole MS might suffer the same issues of unnecessary information, and scene that won't be tight enough so there will likely be issues with the pacing.

                Also a couple of minor things: I know the advice is to stay away from speech tags in dialogue but with that much dialogue it is good to throw one once in a while otherwise the reader is likely to lose the thread on who is speaking when. Also the MC is in a private room and  his dad knows who it is so the line ‘How are you feeling, Paul?’ the 'Paul' seems unnatural and just the writer wanting to give the reader the MC's name. Also for someone who had a tube shoved down his throat and got his stomach pump, Paul seems to be really alert and spoke with too much ease.

                I don't know your story so I don't know the answer to this but I wonder if this is the right place to start.

                I'm sorry if it sounds like a lot but it's all easily fixable elements. 

                I hope this helps.

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                • Many thanks for your reply, Laure. I appreciate your going into such detail, and you've provided some very relevant input. I especially like your point about the "white box". I'm going to give this some serious thought.

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                • I agree with L I think, Terence. The main thing that occurred to me was that we didn't know who the MC was, we're not invested in the outcome of their overdose. I absolutely know what you mean about getting into the story quickly - people often say inciting incidents should happen in the first chapter, for instance  - but I want to know who I'm following in the journey too.

                  Really fluid prose though and a great hook as others have said

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                  • Thanks, Lynn. The lack of emotional investment in the MC seems to be the general consensus.

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                    • It's so hard, isn't it? To get that balance between hooking interest from the off and building emotional contact. I love that idea of suddenly speaking another language, btw. Reminds me of cases where people with brain injuries are suddenly able to do the same. I'm very intrigued! 😀

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                    • Now done the full read-through.

                      And as suspected, I agree mostly with L. Especially the ability to talk post-op. Though I think your prose could be tightened quite a bit while still retaining its ease of reading.

                      I do like a lot of your descriptives, the experiences of treatment. Some brilliant imagery there. Though some of it also feels a bit off. (Of course, having not been through an overdose or a stomach pumping, I can't say for sure.)

                      It does feel a bit disjointed between initial treatment and Dad showing up. It comes across as almost immediately after, rather than post recuperation. (Would the hospital let someone out the day after they are rushed in for an overdose? I suspect not.)

                      Also… how does Dad know that it was Russian? How does he know it was fluent? For me, that stood out as unbelievable.

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                      • Actually, the elephant was one of the best ones. It was the snake - metaphor for the siphon hose, yeah, but that's harder, isn't it? - and it eating him from the inside… but does one actually feel anything significant when being pumped? I've had a probe stuck into my stomach, and felt nothing beyond my throat.

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                        • Thanks for that. I'll do a bit more research.

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                          • I agree that Paul wouldn't feel pain in his stomach, but I refer to the cool sensation which is apparently what you feel when saline solution is introduced. I agree that a large tube would make his throat sore, so I'll bear that in mind. By the way, I once had a gastroscopy, so we're members of the same club! I was advised to have sedation because of the gagging reflex, and so I don't remember a thing!

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                          • Hi Terence.

                            Not a lot to add to what others have already said, especially the excellent critique from 'L' which I agree with completely.

                            That hook at the end, though! Wonderful. For me, that revelation needs to be up front and centre on your first page as the 'What the...?' moment that will make me really want to read on further.

                            Your dialogue is very good, but as others have said there's an awful lot of it and the sparse ness of speech tags risks the reader losing track of who's saying what in the longer passages. I wonder in the tonal qualities of the characters' speech could be a bit more strongly differentiated, too? At the moment Paul and Dad sound very similar.

                            The 'fast edits' that begin the chapter are very cinematic but what works on the screen doesn't always translate to the page, and for me, they made it quite hard to get a sense of who this character was, where he was, what was happening and why! It wasn't until the 8th section that things settled down enough for me to find my bearings! And then I started to become much more invested in the story. 

                            If it was my story (and it isn't so please feel free to reject this suggestion entirely!) I'd be wondering if that's actually the point where the book should begin, and the more subjective and seemingly disjointed flashes could be used as Paul starts to re-live what brought him to that hospital bed.

                            Along with the others who've commented above, though, I think the writing is terrific. And I certainly wanted to know more once that hook hit home! 

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                            • I appreciate your feedback and encouragement, John. I'm a big fan of TV dramas and the cinema, so I guess it shows in my writing! I'll aim to be more of a novelist next time…

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                            • Thanks to everyone who has responded and been so generous with their time. It's certainly given me food for thought and I'll give this a thorough overhaul. I don't know what the exact etiquette is, but I intend to re-upload the revision once it's done. Hope that's OK.

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                              • Hi Terence, I agree with the comments above especially the imagery and the final hook. These are a few suggestions of my own.

                                Terence, it’s intriguing. Please don’t think I’m having a go at you because I aint. I’ve been as successful as you have in finding a receptive agent. However your manuscript reminds me so much of my early drafts. I spent so much time making my writing flow and then found I needed to take most of the commas, conjunctions and adverbs out and really study hard to crop the text and give it more pace and bite. It’s your story. When I first started in JW the first thing I did was to remove, and I kid you not -  194,000 words – now back story. And that was just for starters.

                                I can’t move my arm in case the needle falls out. I’m comfortable enough, apart from a sensation of emptiness, which I don’t mind. Because they finally let me sleep, I’m nice and relaxed at the moment. My head hurts, although I guess I’d better not ask for an aspirin.

                                I’m in a small room of my own here: a solitary bed, a white bedside unit with a vase of yellow flowers, an empty chair and the stand holding the intravenous drip. Thankfully, the sheets are heavy. Tucked in tight. All good.

                                There’s a gentle knock. A nurse appears by the door, her head tilted slightly, her expression friendly. ‘You have a visitor.’


                                How about something along these lines: 

                                I’m in a room of my own. The sheets pristine and tight. I feel safe. Yellow flowers on the bedside unit. An easy chair. An intravenous drip. That explains the needle in my arm and the elbow restraint. At last they let me sleep.

                                However you have a big conflict in the  I can’t move my arm paragraph. You’re comfortable but a sensation of emptiness – which you don’t mind. You’re nice and relaxed but your head hurts and you would really like some medication but dare not ask.

                                 As far as the needle in the arm is concerned it is probably is  in the vein in the crook of the elbow in which case the arm is likely to be bound to some type of restraint, not to keep the needle from falling out but to prevent the elbow from being bent and either breaking the needle or doing other serious damage.  

                                There’s  a gentle knock. I open my eyes A nurse is standing in the doorway, she smiles. ‘Paul, you have a visitor.’ 

                                Because there is only your protagonist, his father and the nurse present, when the father speaks he can only be addressing his son. Let the nurse introduce the name. 

                                Very early on you have: I pull back my shirt sleeve. There they are: more cuts and scratches. And a graze near my elbow. (19 words)

                                 I pull back my shirt sleeve. More cuts and scratches. (10 words)

                                 Not to die, but to purge myself of everything within me, literally to lose myself. Did it have to be this bad, though?

                                 Take out the first comma. Full stop after me. Remove though. Emphasise literally etc. Finish the sentence with bad.  Much more powerful ending.

                                 I hope you don't think I'm being too picky! 


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                                • Hi Ian, thanks for your suggestions. I've got to say, I wish I could write 194,000 words before an edit! My problem is the exact opposite, and I usually struggle to write enough words – I tend to get straight to the point and have to expand my writing when I re-edit. This novel of mine totals 81,000 words, no more. But I'm looking at rewriting the scene, and I'm grateful for all suggestions.

                                  One tiny point: I think saline drips are normally inserted via a cannula in the back of the hand, rather than in the crook of the elbow, so I think Paul would naturally be nervous of moving his hand too much.

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                                  • From personal experience drugs certainly are and taped securely. 

                                    There are several videos by Debi Alper including an excellent one I watched this afternoon on Self Editing. It's well worth watching. 

                                    Actually the total number of words in that instance, before I took the axe to it, was 292,000 - more a saga than a novel. Great fun. Have fun.

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                                  • It’s the mind. Morpheme is often confused as a common cure. Is it a cultural thing.

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                                    • A thought I had while out for my daily walk, Terence…

                                      Maybe a good way to rephrame this opening is as a conflict of communication, between Paul and Dad. I've read a few times, recently, that a good dialogue is really twop monologues running past each other. So the whole thing reframed from that perspective would provide good traction through to the hook.

                                      You could even start with a line like (my voice - rehash to suit yours):

                                      My throat is on fire. I need - need - to swallow. But I know all too well that more agony lies that way. The aftermath of the hose they stuck down there to save my life.

                                      Start with a brief observation of the room and the restraint, then Dad enters. You can then intersperse three monologues… Dad saying his thing, slowly coming around to trying to understand Paul; Paul struggling to speak, to ask his question around his impossibly painful throat, his responses to Dad being mainly thoughts and physical twitches (e.g. strain face up, then shrug, in respose to the quality of the view comment); and Paul's internal monologue giving details of how he ended up where he is.

                                      I would also suggest, when you drop the hook, to invert it. Have Dad tell him what he said… and then reveal "except it was in flawless Russian." I beleive that the previously supplied translation will remove the incredulity I felt as Dad knowing it was Russian.

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                                      • Thanks for the suggestions. I'll definitely bear them in mind when I rewrite the scene. 

                                        By the way, Paul's issue, as is revealed later and only hinted at in the first chapter, is with his mother, not his father. 

                                        The Russian Paul speaks is just a meaningless, but nevertheless fluent, string of sentences while delirious. I don't think offering a translation would work, and I'm not too sure it does anything to reduce incredulity. As I mentioned before, all is explained at the beginning of the very next chapter!

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                                        • If someone were to rattle off an incoherent string of English words, would you say they spoke in flawless English? No - you might say it was English-worded jibberish, in a flawless Queen's-English accent, but you would never say it was flawless English.

                                          That you don't want to reveal what was said - or can't be bothered deciding what would have been said - makes it feel like a contrivance… a hack to create the mystery. But as an author, you're not allowed those. Even if you never reveal the full truth to your audience, you need to know the answer. You need to know the why of every little detail. Because your knowledge - or lack thereof - will come through in your writing.

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