A problem with many novel openings is too much world-building. This particular submission, while I think it has other problems that I’ll explain afterwards, is a very good example of how to beautifully drip-feed details of your world into the narrative, seamlessly, without pausing to have authorial “asides”, dumping information on the reader and totally breaking them out of the story.
Title: The Book of Dust and Breath
Language: US English
Synopsis: Max is a reaper longing to experience real human existence. He meets Lily in Vegas and, despite his secrets, they end up married. They make an effort at settling down, but Max finds himself facing impossible choices between love and duty. His decision is going to have eternal consequences.
Max leaned against his bike, his long legs crossed at the ankle, watching as the killer came slinking out of the alley. The man looked in both directions, checking for witnesses. His eyes slid over Max without registering his presence. He jogged up the stairs holding a Glock19 against his chest. If he tripped, there was a good chance he’d blow the left side of his face off.
A glance at his watch told Max he still had almost forty seconds left. So, there would be no messy accident on the front stoop.
The killer used a key to let himself in, and then he was hidden behind the closed door.
Eighteen seconds to go.
Max straightened, crossed the deserted street. In this kind of neighborhood, everyone worked. Kids spent their days at school or in daycare. None of these families could manage on a single income. If not for her newborn baby boy, the girl in the narrow white house would have been at work, too.
Her muffled shouts filled the next few seconds.
Max’s heavy boots clunked against the rusted metal sewer grate.
Gunshots; four of them in quick succession.
He went up the steps and entered through the same door the killer had used. By no means were doors necessary for him to enter a place, but he enjoyed familiar patterns and stuck with them whenever possible.
The inside of the shabby little house boasted a mismatched spattering of second-hand furniture. The place gleamed, spotless, if you didn’t count the blood and grisly bits of tissue covering the horrid shag carpet. Soon, those who spent their days contemplating death in all its many forms would arrive to take photographs and ask questions.
In some ways, Max felt a kinship with those folks. His work and their’s often brought them together. Of course, they weren’t aware of the connection.
The killer’s body lie in a spreading pool of blood. He would kill no more. The Glock, having never been fired, still remained clutched in his right hand. The woman who had shot him stood, frozen, a few feet away. Finally, the killer had encountered a female who had not cowered in fear.
The first time he had hit her, she threw him out. When he came back to her, she warned him she’d kill him if he ever tried to hurt her again.
He should have taken her at her word.
Now, the killer’s True Self rose to his feet. The soul appeared solid, more real to Max than the physical world around them at the moment. Having died a young healthy man in his prime, his form changed very little. Soft, powerful energy pulsed from him.
So much potential in a human soul, and this one, like too many, had never appreciated the gifts given him. To be born human, know you were human, die and move on as only humans do–how could anyone be so careless with such wonderment built into their existence? Disdain sprouted in Max’s heart and grew quickly into something darker and more shameful to name.
A frown creased the man’s brow. Barely sparing a glance for his broken body, he looked at the woman with the gun, and then at Max. “Who are you? What’s going on here?”
“Things didn’t go as planned, Marco. I’m here to help you cross over.”
The freshly deceased man swallowed hard, glanced down at his body one last time, and darted into the kitchen and through the back door without any attempt at opening it.
Max groaned and took off after him. Lord, but he hated it when they ran. He followed the shimmering trail of the soul across the tiny but meticulously well-groomed back yard. Marco had jumped the fence, but Max did bother. He stepped through and jogged toward the little tool shed where the trail ended.
The killer, now the killed, still clung to his old ways. He leaped out and swung a long-handled sledge hammer toward Max’s head. Max dodged it effortlessly, clamped a hand around the other man’s wrist so tightly sparks of energy flashed and sizzled. Reminding himself of the Grand Plan behind all things, he did his duty and carried the soul across The Divide in a pop of light.
One down, all the rest of eternity to go.
He left Marco with those who would take him on to the next step of his journey and returned to earth. Walking back to where he’d parked, he drew matter to himself, becoming once more a being of the physical world. Physical. Human. But not completely. Never exactly the same as those lucky bastards who wasted their days with mindless diversions.
The woman who’d just killed her child’s father sat on the bumper of the ambulance holding her newborn son against her chest. Her gaze fell on Max and moved away to the police officers milling about in front of her apartment. No hint of recognition lit her eyes.
Of course, it wouldn’t.
Anonymity was part of the gig.
He slung a leg over the Harley and felt it roar to life beneath him.
I-94 spread before him like a runway, wide open and clear of traffic jams with a good two hours to go before the afternoon rush clogged the vehicular arteries. He opened the throttle, letting the needle slide toward ninety as he wove between minivans and delivery trucks.
Bathed in warmth and still damp from a recent rainfall, the world around him bloomed into sweet, fragrant life with an urgent bent toward excess he’d never witnessed in any other part of the world.
Mother Earth knew her time to thrive was limited in this place, sandwiched between long stretches of barren cold. She wouldn’t waste a moment of glory.
Editorial comment: A very good opening. What struck me was the ease with which you’ve got across to the reader some important information about who and what Max is, without having some authorial intrusion into the narrative. I see many examples where this book might have started: “Max leaned against his bike, his long legs crossed at the ankles, watching as the killer came slinking out of the alley. The man looked in both directions, checking for witnesses. His eyes slid over Max without registering his presence, because Max was a being known as a reaper, and therefore invisible to most humans.” Then, later, “Max had a watch that told him the precise moment when the person who’s soul he had come to collect would die. Now, he looked at it, and realised he still had almost forty seconds left.” But you’ve made no such missteps. The idea that Max is “there, but not there”, truly visible only on some kind of ethereal plane, while not entirely original, is simply and economically portrayed with the phrase “His eyes slid over Max without registering his presence.” Similarly, the idea that Max knows the time of Marco’s death, to the second, is not explained. It’s implied, by the fact that Max looks at his watch and sees that he has forty seconds left. What kind of watch counts down? A stopwatch. So this is not a watch, but a timer, and it’s nearly at zero, so as readers we know we’re approaching a climax of some kind. It’s so hard, but absolutely vital, to credit your readers with intelligence. They’ll pick up vast volumes from tiny details. This sentence does that perfectly.
There are a few proofreading errors in this piece. No apostrophe needed on “theirs”, “Glock 19” has a space, a colon is better after “gunshots”. The killer’s body “lay”.
There are a few copyediting queries I’d have too. I think there should be a “but”, between “… his face off” and “A glance at his watch …”, because the phrases are very much related. Creating a new sentence (and even a new paragraph), caused me to miss the causal link between the Glock going off and “the messy accident on the front stoop”. It’s one of those things that’s obvious second time around, but not on first glance, for me at any rate. You don’t need “metal” after “rusted” when describing the sewer grate. “He would kill no more” comes across as a bit trite, especially since it’s so unnecessary because you’ve just said he’s lying dead in a pool of blood.
I found myself wondering how believable the central scenario was. A character identified solely by profession as a “killer”, with a loaded gun held (safety catch off, otherwise it wouldn’t blow his face off if he tripped) out in front of him, is shot three times by a woman with a newborn infant at home in the middle of the day. One surely has to assume that Marco is a bit more used to handling guns than his intended victim. If he had the gun out in broad daylight, he was expecting trouble. He didn’t knock; he let himself in with a key, so had the element of surprise. In everything but Hollywood, this is only going to end one way. But the stay-at-home mom pumped him full of lead before he even got a shot off. Where was her gun? Hopefully not stuffed down the back of baby’s diaper.
I had a query about the “world”, which is probably answered later on. At the end of the extract, Max hops on his bike and roars off. While he’s invisible, his bike presumably isn’t. Is it the case that people just don’t “notice” him, so that they see “someone” riding a bike, but, afterwards, wouldn’t be able to describe who they “saw”? From your synopsis, his crossing this physical/ethereal divide is crucially important. From what I’ve seen here, you’ve probably handled it consummately, but I’d want to be sure before taking this book on as an agent.
On the first read through, this piece comes across as very accomplished, and very well-written, which it is. It was only after an accumulation of tiny errors that my belief was suspended and I started to look at it a little more critically, and doubts about the plausibility of the central scenario started to creep in.
I don’t think this is a gold star piece. It’s not ready to publish as is; it certainly needs proofreading, and before that could probably do with an independent eye cast over for copyediting queries, much as I’ve started to do here. However, the initial impression was very good, and to an agent who deals in this genre I think the writing could well show enough promise for them to ask to see the full MS, with the understanding that they would be looking for further revision.
Since “Wings of Desire”, the late Eighties’ Wim Wenders film, there have been lots of films and books dealing with this topic. Your MS needs to really stand out in a crowded genre. You said you’re going to go down the agent route with this book. You’ll need to research exactly which agent is looking for this very specific genre. The editor in me would suggest getting it at least proofread first, just for that ‘best foot forward’, but you might feel you can risk it.
Thanks for posting.