I believe it’s easiest to learn from example, so I’ll be doing this from time to time – analyzing a generous and brave writer’s donated work. Thank you for trusting me with your baby!

This isn’t a bad beginning. My main points are:

  • Remember, the reader comes cold to the page. You can’t even assume they’ve read the back cover copy. So be sure to anchor them as to time/place/character, before you throw in complicated pieces of plot or backstory – you do not want to lose your reader!
  • You also don’t want to bog down the read with any non-critical dialogue or information. A beginning should zip along like a bullet train.

I’ll post the original, then my edited version. My comments in red.

Vivienne Sheridan was born during an earthquake and had been shaking things up ever since. But last week, a tremor of a another sort jolted and jerked her world: a long-hidden book of unspoken secrets was no longer hidden—and she spoke to only one person about it.

  Vivienne was all too aware that secrets—and their cousins, those little wedding-dress white lies—were sneaky beasts. But they rarely snuck up on her like the rare summer typhoon did that day. It had eased its way up the Pacific coast from Mexico, masquerading as a summertime Southern-California shadow stealer. However, this storm was a sledgehammer in the sky. Rain drops pelted and slithered down the airliner’s window Vivian stared out of.

This is all good, but it’s a distant narrator’s voice. No mention of where we are, until the very end. Put us in the scene, in that plane, right up front.

Even though it was fastened snuggly over her lap, the seatbelt stole the attention of her anxious fingertips. Her mind, however, was consumed with just two things: her safety and her ticket to Hiroshima. She was sure this trip was putting her on a catastrophic collision course. Not like two tectonic plates. And not with the surface of the Pacific or the face of Mount Fuji.

But with the past. Specifically, the summer of 1945.

Good writing, but too long.

Doubts began to flash and ricochet in her mind like the streaks of hot silver that split the sky above LAX’s tarmac. Am I doing the right thing? Is this just a stupid-ass whim? Will I regret this for the rest of…?

Love the lightning similie.

“Fear of flying, Miss?”

Vivienne didn’t immediately respond. A few machine-gun-paced heartbeats later, she turned in the direction of the deep voice.

Why slow the read by telling us what’s not happening (her non-response).

“That obvious, huh?” Her gaze travelled upward to meet the welcoming face of a Ken-doll flight attendant. “Fear? Yes. Of flying? Nope. I’m afraid of dying, again. I have some experience with that.”

You know what this means, but you’re going to lose the reader. Don’t worry about cramming everything into the first page;

The steward narrowed his eyes and tilted his head like a confused cat does. “Not sure I can help you with that, miss. I’m more of a blanket, booze and bag-of-peanuts kind of guy.”

Great humor.

“My tendency to over-share puts people off, I know…”

She may be oversharing, but since he’s as confused as the reader, it hardly counts.

He stepped on her words and reassured her. “No need to say one word more. I’m your guy…your sky guy.”

You’re ‘telling’ in the first part of the sentence, and honestly, he’s not telling us anything we don’t know – I’d cut it.

 “I should tell you it’s not my first flight…just my first over-an-endless-ocean flight…”

She struggled to leave her fastened seatbelt alone. Her sweaty fingertips involuntarily traveled over and over and over the smooth metal, tugging and tightening the mechanism.

“It can’t be safe to fly in weather like this…but you guys still boarded us on the plane so that must mean it’s okay…you know I actually don’t mind flying.” Vivienne unleashed her thoughts to him, “So long as there’s no turbulence…and I get a nice snack…and some ginger ale…sorry, I talk a lot…and fast…when I’m nervous…and I have trust issues…clearly, I’m babbling…so I’ll just stop right there.”

“As you wish.”

I wouldn’t slow the read with the above. You can show her babbling when her seatmate shows up.

She noticed the calming tinge to his words.

He continued, “And I completely get where you’re coming from. Your secret’s safe with me.”

If he only knew how used I am to keeping secrets. Sharing secrets. Being left in the dark about them. Hell, if I told him I stopped using Secret deodorant because I couldn’t bear to have any more secrets…well, I’d surely…

 “You’re going to be just fine. I’ll see to it. And that’s something you can count on.” His eyes shifted from Vivienne to the aisle. “It’s your lucky day. Someone’s coming who might just have a special gift for helping people in times of need.”

Again, I don’t see enough reason to slow the read with the above. The reader is looking for clues about the character, about the story – you’re inviting them to skim by showing anything that is not riveting or new information.

“Um, thanks?” She scrunched her face, nodded and lowered her eyes to witness her fingertips dancing chaotically on her seatbelt.

Third time you mentioned her and the seatbelt. We get it.

  Even over the hissing of the plane’s ventilation system, she heard the unmistakable sound of stiff-fabric swishing. It drew her eyes back to the aisle. A black cloud of cloth stopped at the empty seat next to her.

An angel of death? This isn’t happening. Really, it’s not happening. I’m at home sleeping in my bed. This is a nightmare, right?

I don’t see her really believing it’s the Angel of Death.

   “How-dee-doo. This here must be 25B, which means we’re gonna be seat partners on this adventure.” The words were said in a distinctive Southern slow and sticky way. “Y’all got the window. I got the aisle.” The nun tucked her colorful carpet bag—not unlike Mary Poppins’ bag in the movie—under the seat in front of her. “I’m Sister Kathryn Marie Culpepper. You just call me Sister Jelly Bean. Everyone does. Mighty glad to make your acquaintance. And you are?”

This sounds like a great character!

Okay, now my revision:

Rain pelted the airliner’s window and slithered down, obscuring Vivienne Sheridan’s view the LAX tarmac. The storm had blown up the coast from Mexico masquerading as a summer shower, only to hit Southern California a sledgehammer blow.

Vivienne cared only about two possibly opposed things: her safety and getting to Hiroshima. Her fingers wandered to the seat belt, once again testing and finding it, fastened snugly over her lap.

She was on a collision course. Not with the weather, or even her fear. But with the past. Specifically, the summer of 1945.

Doubts began to flash in her mind like the streaks of hot silver splitting the sky. Am I doing the right thing? 

“Fear of flying, Miss?” The welcoming face of a Ken-doll flight attendant hovered over her.

“That obvious, huh?”

“Don’t worry. Your secret’s safe with me.”

 She was all too aware of secrets—and their cousins, those little wedding-dress white lies—were sneaky beasts. The toe of her shoe rested on an entire book of unspoken secrets. But they wouldn’t stay secrets much longer. 

 He glanced up. “It’s your lucky day. Someone’s coming who’s made a career of helping people in need.”

Over the hissing of the ventilation system, she heard the unmistakable sound of stiff-fabric swishing.  A black cloud of cloth stopped at the empty seat next to her.

“How-dee-doo. This here must be 25B, which means we’re gonna be seat partners on this adventure.” The words came out in a  slow and sticky Southern drawl. “Y’all got the window. I got the aisle.” The nun tucked her colorful carpet bag—not unlike Mary Poppins’ bag in the movie—under the seat in front of her. “I’m Sister Kathryn Marie Culpepper. You just call me Sister Jelly Bean. Everyone does. Mighty glad to make your acquaintance. And you are?”

What do you think? Is the revision more clear, direct and bullet-train? Do you struggle with any of these issues? Please let me know anything I missed in the comments.

I’ll be doing these critiques now and again. If you’d like me to consider a beginning of yours for this blog, reach me through the Contact page!

Again, thanks to the author, for trusting me with your work!

4 Comments

  1. Veronica Mixon on June 15, 2020 at 7:34 am

    Enjoyed your initial comments to the writer as well as your final revision. The revision reads great—first pages are always a struggle to get just right. But worth every minute of the many, many, many rewrites. If a beginning is written well, providing a sneak peek at the back of the previous novel will increase organic sales, and make a tremendous difference in the number of readers a book will entice—

    This is such a great idea, Laura. Looking forward to reading more.

    • Laura Drake on June 15, 2020 at 3:45 pm

      Exactly right, Victoria – I don’t think you can stress enough how important those first pages are – If you hook them into the story right away, they’re invested in the characters, and settle in for the ride! On the other hand, if it’s slow, or confusing, readers will bail quickly.

  2. Jamie on June 15, 2020 at 9:19 am

    I think your rewrite is brilliantly concise and forward-driving. Bravo!

    I tripped over the first sentence about secrets and their cousins. “Were” didn’t fit with the verbiage before the dash, but I kept moving.

    With your rewrite it was easy to see the places where the original lagged in tempo or gave too much nonessential information.

  3. Laura Drake on June 15, 2020 at 3:46 pm

    Thanks Jamie – and thank you to the brave submitter – it’s not easy to do – trust someone enough to chew up their darlings for all the world to see!

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