Last week Alicia Rasley blogged for us about book beginnings and their importance. She generously offered to comment on sample beginnings from some of our fans. As an editor, author, and teacher, she has a lot on her plate, so I am grateful for the time she spent and the effort she put into these comments.

Each of us can benefit from her comments, even those who didn't send in a beginning.


From Alicia.

I WILL PUT COMMENTS IN CAPS SO THEY'RE EASY TO SEE. I DON'T MEAN TO BE SHOUTING. :)

LN

Whipped by wind, sweet and strong as Jamaican rum, the white robe fluttered behind her. EDITOR HERE—I THOUGHT THAT MUST BE A MISPLACED MODIFIER, BUT IT'S JUST MAYBE TOO MUCH MODIFYING OF THE ROBE AND WIND. WHY START WITH THEM? START WITH YOUR CHARACTER-- "DIANE FINDLEY DUCKED HER HEAD AND GATHERED HER ROBE AROUND HER… " I LIKE A GLIMPSE OF THE SETTING EARLY, BUT THIS MIGHT BE TOO EARLY, ESPECIALLY WITH THE CONFUSION OF MODIFIERS (THE FIRST REFERS TO THE FAR-DISTANT ROBE, THE SECOND REFERS TO THE WIND, I THINK? A WIND THAT IS SWEET? NOT CLEAR—TOO MUCH TO TAKE IN ABOUT A MINOR ELEMENT, ANYWAY. START WITH HER. WHAT IS SHE DOING? WHO IS SHE? WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT HER THAT WE SHOULD KNOW RIGHT AWAY? Wet hair flailed her staring eyes. WE DON'T KNOW WHAT SHE'S STARING AT. She ducked her head against the gale. Around her ankles, the sea foamed. The drums beat louder, their wild rhythm echoing in her veins. In her head, the Whisperers’ exotic voices urged her to sink beneath the waves. I'D START HERE. THIS IS INTERESTING. THE REST COMING AFTER WON'T SEEM SO STACCATO. TRY RE-ARRANGING TO PUT HER FIRST—

In her head, the Whisperers’ exotic voices urged her to sink beneath the waves. Around her ankles, the sea foamed AS the drums beat louder, their wild rhythm echoing in her veins. ALL AROUND HER THE WIND WHIPPED, sweet and strong as Jamaican rum. SHE WANTED TO KEEP WALKING INTO THE SEDUCTIVE WAVES.

OR WHATEVER—BUT PUTTING HER AND HER PROBLEM (THEY'RE TRYING TO GET HER TO DROWN?) MAKES ALL THE SETTING INFORMATION IMPORTANT. IT'S NOT A COLLECTION OF BAD WEATHER THINGS, IT'S ALLTHIS CHAOS AND FRENZY THAT IS SCARING HER AND SEDUCING HER INTO MAYBE SUICIDE.

THE MOTIFS YOU'RE SETTING UP HERE ARE: THE SEA. THE WIND. SUICIDE. SELF-DESTRUCTION. DESTRUCTIVE NATURE. SEDUCTIVE NATURE.

GOOD START!

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Next beginning

R

Banging and a muffled shout woke Felicity from an uneasy slumber. She sat up and glanced at the window. Only a faint light shone through the crack in the curtains. She must only have been asleep for a few hours, since she hadn’t retired until almost one o’clock. Rising and tying her robe around her, she felt her ribs protruding, another sign of her inattention to her health and her harried state. But it was impossible to worry for herself when ‘Ret had been so ill and…

“Miss,” the maid called softly.

Felicity rushed to her door and opened it. She blinked at the low flicker of the candle the maid carried.

“Antony is here. What should I say?”


I LIKE THE WAY YOU SNEAK IN SETTING (SHE'S IN THE BEDROOM, IN BED). JUST A BIT MORE—SAY ONE IN THE MORNING, NOT ONE O'CLOCK, WHICH COULD BE AFTERNOON.


ALSO, IF SHE'S BEEN NURSING RET, PROBABLY THE BANGING AND MUFFLED SHOUT WOULD BRING HER BOLT AWAKE—WORRIED. GO WITH THAT. BE IN HER. IF SHE WAS ASLEEP AND TROUBLED (TROUBLED SLEEP), THEN A NOISE WOULD PANIC HER. SHE WOULDN'T HAVE TIME TO THINK ABOUT HER RIBS. SHE WOULD JUMP UP, GRAB HER ROBE, HEAD FOR THE DOOR. SHE COULD THEN ENCOUNTER THE MAID. THAT IS, MAKE THIS MORE FRENZIED, MORE ACTIVE, ON HER PART. RIGHT NOW YOU HAVE THE MAID AS THE MOST ACTIVE PERSON (KNOCKING ON THE DOOR, SPEAKING). TRY THIS—HAVE THE NOISE BRING F AWAKE. SHE GETS UP, RUNS TO THE DOOR, WORRIED ABOUT RET, AND THROWS OPEN THE DOOR, SEES THE MAID, SAYS, "WHAT'S HAPPENING?"


THEN THE MAID CAN ANSWER WITH THE ANTONY LINE.


ALSO LITTLE THINGS CAN HELP US PLACE WHERE WE ARE. IF THE MAID WOULD SAY, "LORD ANTONY" OR "MASTER ANTONY" OR "MR. ANTONY," WE WOULD GET FROM HER RESPECTFUL ADDRESS THAT WE'RE NOT –NOW-. BUT IF SHE'S USING THE FIRST NAME, AND SHE'S THE MAID, WE'LL THINK IT'S NOW, A MORE CASUAL EGALITARIAN AGE, WHERE EVERYONE REFERS TO EVERYONE BY FIRST NAME. IF THIS IS NOT RIGHT NOW, IF IT'S HISTORICAL, THINK ABOUT USING THE MAID'S WAY OF ADDRESSING AS A SIGNAL OF A DIFFERENT TIME.


MOTIFS SET UP: ILLNESS, SUDDENNESS, DAWN/LIGHT, SLEEP. YOU MIGHT LOOK FOR SOMETHING CONCRETE TO USE AS A PROP TO CONNECT TO THE END—MAYBE SHE LOOKS OUT THE WINDOW AND SEES A CARRIAGE, OR SHE GLANCES IN THE MIRROR.


---)()()()()()()()()()()()(

Next beginning

ES

Penelope Shallott picked herself up off the flagstone path, wondering whose spell that backlash had come from. It had been enough not only to knock her flat, but to make her feel as if her own magic was being torn out of her grasp, eroded like sand under a sudden flood. Only by dint of both hands, her whole mind and every fiber of her being had she held onto it. NOTICE HOW YOU'RE IN PAST PERFECT HERE ==HAD BEEN ENOUGH, HAD HELD ONTO IT… "HAD" IS A SIGNAL THAT THE IMPORTANT STUFF ALREADY HAPPENED. PROBABLY BEST NOT TO USE IT IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH? CONSIDER STARTING WITH THE BACKLASH—THE CONFLICT, THE EVENT—NOT THE AFTERMATH. IT'S JUST A MATTER OF GOING BACK A MINUTE.

PENELOPE FELT THE FORCE. KNOCKED HER FLAT. MORE IMPORTANT, SHE COULD FEEL HER MAGIC SEEPING AWAY. SHE HELD ONTO IT. WHEN THE VIBRATIONS SUBSIDED, SHE SLOWLY GOT TO HER FEET, WONDERING WHERE THE BACKLASH HAD COME FROM. (YOUR PROSE IS MUCH BETTER—I JUST WANTED TO SHOW YOU THE SEQUENCE.)

BY THE WAY— USING "tHAT BACKLASH" INDICATES TO ME THAT THERE WAS MORE THAN ONE, BUT SHE'S FOCUSED ON "THAT" ONE, THE LATEST MAYBE.

"THAT"IS A MORE DEMONSTATIVE ARTICLE/PRONOUN THAN "tHE". JUST A THOUGHT. EVERY WORD HAS EXTRA SIGNIFICANCE IN THE OPENING, WHEN THE READER IS TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT'S GOING ON.

Just visible above the trees of the forest that curled protectively around the edge of her property, the tips of the towers of the Royal Palace of King Beaucharmant IV shot bolts of sunlight from their still-wet slates. Nelly squinted up at them. The backlash had seemed to emanate from that direction.

IS PENELOPE NELLY? IF SO, YOU SHOULD PROBABLY USE THE SAME NAME AT LEAST ON THE SAME PAGE BECAUSE IT'S NOT THE OBVIOUS NICKNAME. (IF YOU HAD PENELOPE/PENNY, THIS WOULDN'T BE AN ISSUE. JUST DON'T WANT THE READER THINKING—AS I DID FOR A SECOND—THAT THERE WERE TWO WOMEN.)

GOOD WORK STARTING WITH THE PROTAGONIST AND TROUBLE!

MOTIFS—MAGIC, "BOLTS," "BACKLASH," TOWERS.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

SC

Paige Campbell was closing up shop when the phone rang.

"Hans' Music Haus. This is Paige. How may I help you?" She figured her Uncle Hans was calling to check up on her--he still didn't trust her to close the store alone, even though her three-month probationary period had gone off without a hitch--but what she heard was a steel-cranked synthesized voice.


The metallic tone rasped, "Stop asking

questions or you're dead."

GOOD WORK GETTING VERY QUICKLY TO THE VERY BIG CONFLICT!! AND YOU END THE EXCERPT (PROPERLY) ON A QUITE STRONG WORD ("dEAD"!).


THE OPENING LINES ARE SORT OF SLOW, THOUGH. I HAVE TO SAY, I WAS SURPRISED THAT THE END LINES WERE AS ACCOMPLISHED AS THEY WERE, BECAUSE THE FIRST TWO SENTENCES ARE WITHOUT "VOICE" OR DISTINCTION. SORRY, BUT WHAT I'M SAYING IS—YOU'RE CLEARLY A GOOD WRITER. WE CAN SEE THAT IN THE END OF THIS OPENING. CHALLENGE YOURSELF TO MAKE THE FIRST LINES AS INTERESTING (IF NOT AS INTENSE). YOU CAN ACTUALLY JUST REARRANGE A BIT AND THE FIRST LINES WON'T SOUND AMATEURISH, LIKE:

WHEN THE PHONE RANG JUST AS SHE WAS CLOSING UP SHOP, PAIGE SIGHED. She figured her Uncle Hans was calling to check up on WHETHER SHE'D (DONE SOME TASK LIKE LOCKED THE CASH REGISTER OR TALLIED THE DAY'S RECEIPTS).


WITH RESIGNATION, SHE ANSWERED, "Hans' Music Haus. This is Paige. How may I help you?"

NOW CLEARLY NOT AS INTENSE AS "I'LL KILL YOU," BUT STILL A BIT OF TENSION AND CONFLICT FROM THE VERY FIRST LINE. WHAT DO YOU THINK?



<><><><><><><><><><><><><

PV

Charlie didn’t know why the bad voice lived in his head.

When he was young he’d thought everyone had one. His had first talked to him in his mommy’s tummy. He’d tried not to listen. Really, he had. That’s why he THAT WAS, PROBABLY—THAT'S PRESENT. I KNOW, I KNOW. BUT THE CONVENTION WOULD BE, THAT WAS WHY…

YOU START WITH A SPECULATION—DOESN'T EVERYONE HAVE A VOICE? FINISH THAT.

Charlie didn’t know why the bad voice lived in his head.

When he was young he’d thought everyone had one. His had first talked to him in his mommy’s tummy. He’d tried not to listen. Really, he had. That WAS why he didn’t understand when people hated him because of the bad things he did. He’d had no choice. Do what I say…or die, It always said. BUT THEY DIDN'T UNDERSTAND. THAT WAS WHEN HE REALIZED HE WAS ALL ALONE. HE WAS THE ONLY ONE WHO HAD A VOICE.

Laughter, then…Payback’s a sweet bitch. Especially when it’s long in the coming.

Charlie rubbed the side of his head hard. It was awake from its nap! I LIKE THE ACTION OF HIM RUBBING THE SIDE OF HIS HEAD. THE "IT WAS AWAKE" SOUNDS WEIRD. MAYBE "OH, GREAT. THE VOICE MUST BE AWAKE FROM ITS NAP, AND TALKING CRAZY AGAIN."

THIS IS KIND OF HORROR, RIGHT? SO GIVE US MORE FEELING—HORROR IS AN "EMOTION GENRE", SO WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENS, SEE IF YOU NEED THE CHARACTER REACTION IN THERE.

I’ve waited five years for my day of reckoning. Five years of planning. Five years of following the warden’s damn schedule. Time to eat, one hour on the prison yard, time to protect my ass in the shower, lights out. Endless tick-tocks of fighting for control. But that was then; this is now. And now I’m in charge.

“Please. Be nice.” WHO SAYS THIS? CHARLIE? PUT HIM IN THERE, THEN. CHARLIE WHIMPERED, "PLEASE. BE NICE." OR ANNOYED, CHARLIE SAID ALOUD…. YOU'RE IN CHARLIE'S HEAD. SAY WHAT HE FEELS AND/OR THINKS.

GOOD—HAVE MORE "CHARLIE" IN THERE, TO GIVE MORE SENSE OF THE HORROR(THERE'S A REAL KID HERE BEING TORMENTED), BUT ALSO TO EASE THE TRANSITION FROM HIM TO THE VOICE IN HIS HEAD.

MOTIFS TO PICK UP IN ENDING MAYBE:

VOICE. PAYBACK. HEAD. "PLEASE." FRAGMENTATION (ME/VOICE IN MY HEAD).

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

-----------

THANKS, EVERYONE! GREAT WORK! EACH IS SO DIFFERENT.


JUST REMEMBER IF YOU CAN, FOCUS THE FIRST PARAGRAPH. IF YOU WANT TO ESTABLISH THE SETTING, UNIFY IT AND MAKE IT ALL ABOUT THE SETTING (THOUGH YOU CAN MAKE THE FIRST –OR- THE LAST SENTENCE IN THE PARAGRAPH ABOUT THE CHARACTER OR A GENERAL OBSERVATION – YOU KNOW, "IT WAS DEFINITELY THE WORST OF TIMES. THE WIND WHIPPED…") BE CAREFUL THOUGH NOT TO HAVE A –MIDDLE- SENTENCE IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH THAT ISN'T THE SAME FOCUS AS THE OTHERS, LIKE—


SETTING SENTENCE, SETTING SENTENCE, CHARACTER SENTENCE, SETTING SENTENCE.

THAT'S GOING TO COME OFF AS DISJOINTED.


IF YOU START WITH CHARACTER, TRY PUTTING HIM/HER INTO ACTION (EVEN A SMALL ACTION, LIKE TURNING AWAY FROM THE STOVE TO LOOK OUT THE WINDOW), AS THAT HAS HER INTERACTING WITH THE SETTING AND WITHOUT DESCRIBING THE SETTING, YOU'LL STILL IMPART CLUES TO THE READER—OH. STOVE. KITCHEN.


WHEN YOU GET TO THE END OF THE BOOK, SEE HOW YOU END IT, AND IF THERE ARE ANY MOTIFS YOU CAN PLANT IN THE FIRST SCENE TO FINISH IN THE LAST. FOR EXAMPLE, JUST AN EXAMPLE! LN'S BOOK COULD END—I'M NOT SAYING IT SHOULD, JUST USING THIS AS AN EXAMPLE—WITH HER BACK AT THE OCEAN, BUT IT'S DAYTIME, AND BALMY, AND SHE HEARS A VOICE, BUT IT'S A CHILD CALLING, "HEY, MOM, LOOK AT MY SANDCASTLE!" (SOMETHING HAPPY). SO WE SEE THE CHANGE—BACK AT THE SAME PLACE, BUT SHE'S CONQUERED THE CONFLICT.


JUST AN EXAMPLE, BUT SEE HOW YOU CAN RETURN IN THE END TO SOMETHING FROM THE BEGINNING TO SHOW THE CHANGE.

15 comments

  1. jaylen watkins // February 7, 2012 at 12:46 AM  

    Thanks for this interesting post. All the best to you.

    Sample forms

  2. Judy // February 7, 2012 at 9:21 AM  

    Wonderful post, Alicia! It's so helpful to read an editor's comments and see ways in which anyone's writing can be improved! Thanks for putting in the time! You were spot on!

  3. Nightingale // February 7, 2012 at 11:33 AM  

    Sorry I didn't get by yesterday to read you take on my beginning. I'm the one with the wind and robe! Thanks so much for rearranging this. It is far better.

  4. Reina // February 7, 2012 at 12:10 PM  

    Thanks for your time, Alicia! Very informative, as usual. :)

  5. EC Spurlock // February 7, 2012 at 7:02 PM  

    Thanks for your comments, Alicia! It's always helpful to see what an editor sees when looking at an opening paragraph; we can sometimes be too close to the work to see how it can be improved. The idea of backing up just a moment and seeing HOW the backlash happens is something I hadn't thought about, but would definitely make for a stronger opening. And it's good to see that you did pick up on the motifs that run through the rest of the story right away - all of the things you picked up on are significant plot elements that develop through the course of the story. Good to know I did something right! :-)

    Thank you so much for taking the time to help us struggling writers! It's very much appreciated!

  6. Barbara Monajem // February 7, 2012 at 7:06 PM  

    Very helpful comments! I didn't submit, but I loved your approach and will try to use these techniques in my own revisions. Thanks!

  7. Patrice // February 7, 2012 at 7:16 PM  

    Oooh, this is really good stuff. I feel that the author's were brave to put their work "out there" but I'm sure everyone learned from this experience.
    Well done, and thank you Alica for taking the time for our blog.

  8. Pamela Varnado // February 7, 2012 at 8:39 PM  

    Thank you, Alisha. Your comments helped me tremendously. I see where I distanced Charlie when I could have made the reader feel the horror of the situation. I'm in his head now!!!!

  9. Beth Trissel // February 7, 2012 at 8:43 PM  

    Thank you so much Alica for sharing your valuable insights with us. Excellent post.

  10. Josie // February 7, 2012 at 10:38 PM  

    MM,
    Thanks so much for hosting Alicia Rasley today, and thank you, Alicia, for joining us. Your comments and suggestions are so helpful---a definite keeper.

  11. Mary Marvella // February 8, 2012 at 1:34 AM  

    I am pleased Alicia could be here with us and grateful for her help! She is a generous lady.

  12. Edittorrent // February 8, 2012 at 1:47 AM  

    Thanks to everyone who donated an opening!
    Alicia

  13. Shalanna // February 8, 2012 at 3:44 AM  

    Thank you, Alicia!

  14. Autumn Jordon // February 8, 2012 at 4:50 PM  

    Great lessons. Thank you to the brave writers who shared their work, to Ms. Rasley for sharing her opinions and to MM for putting this blog together.

  15. Mary Ricksen // February 8, 2012 at 7:02 PM  

    Sorry to get here late! thought I had commented. I love when I learn something. Need all the help I can get!