This is another technically well-written beginning—there wouldn’t be much for a proofreader to do—but it suffers from too much unnecessary padding that kills the pacing. At the beginning of a novel, every word must count. Here, there are whole paragraphs not earning their keep. Read the extract and see if you agree. Editorial critique follows. Comments are invited in the Reply box below.
Wordcount: About 52,300
Genre: Science Fiction (for Middle-Grade readers)
Language: AusEng (OED/Macquarie)
Synopsis: Eleven-year-old Jay Oakley is catapulted into an adventure of space and time on board the Antares, an unfinished Space Force Cruiser captained by his father, fighting for survival when Earth is attacked by mysterious invaders.
Text: “Jayson! Come on now, sweetheart. We really have to go!” Beth’s impatience echoed down the corridor.
These days, everything seemed to be in a hurry. Right now, Jay didn’t want to rush off anywhere. The way Beth had been though, something was urgent. As usual, there’d been no explanation.
His backpack had been emptied of school supplies and stashed with clothes and other essentials. He reckoned it felt too light as he slung it over one shoulder, while his big long jacket seemed to weigh too much draped over an arm.
Then again, everything felt wrong.
He didn’t mean to be rude to Beth, but still found himself a little annoyed at what she’d said when she’d arrived. He didn’t appreciate being called ‘Jayson’, even though technically it was his name. The fact she used his full name meant things were serious, but how serious, Jay didn’t know.
Instead of calling back, a petulant sigh seemed all he could manage.
He stole a farewell glance at his bedroom. In spite of everything happening out there, he hoped he wouldn’t be away for too long. He’d made sure to leave an extra-big pile of food in Bertie’s aquarium, hoping it would be enough. Even now, the tortoise’s yellow-tinged grey shell tapped against the impenetrable glass as Jay headed out the door.
Bathed in morning light, Beth stood at the open front door in her familiar khaki uniform. She’d been a friend of the family for years, but Jay seldom saw her dressed in anything else. She rolled her eyes as he appeared in the corridor.
“There you are. Come on now,” she urged with a guiding hand on the boy’s shoulder, careful to hide the worst of her impatience.
Jay stepped outside, the crisp garden-scented air of the broad porch a contrast with the climate-controlled house. His shoes scuffed the stone paving as Beth shut the door behind him. An unfamiliar vehicle in Space Force drab hovered nearby, rear passenger hatch already open.
Though he tried his best as he clambered inside, his head still collided with the door-frame.
An officer in khaki uniform sat silent at the controls, silhouetted against the glow of the sky. Close behind, Beth hurried to store Jay’s backpack and coat in the trunk. She climbed in beside him, the cabin door sealing with a dull thud and click.
As the vehicle pulled away, Jay spotted six large crows surrounding a dead white rabbit on the front lawn. A hedge obscured his view a moment later. He wondered where the rabbit had come from. It must have been somebody’s, but by the look of things, it now belonged to the crows. He loved rabbits. Not as much as tortoises, but he still loved them.
A pang of sadness descended, which had nothing to do with leaving home.
The empty, abandoned streets of his local neighbourhood gave way to the main motorway. He barely paid attention, occupied by imaginings of glistening black wings beating the air, steered by piercing eyes and wicked sharp beaks.
Grown-ups were typically full of confidence and reassurance in Jay’s presence, and while some of that had changed in the last few weeks, Beth had continued to be a rock for Jay and the family. The last few days had changed that, and now an anxious Beth refused to explain what was going on, or where Jay’s parents and sister were, or anything else. Instead, here they were speeding along strangely empty motorways, heading off for what had been evasively described as ‘time away from home’.
“Beth?” Jay asked.
“Need you to be quiet for a moment,” she said as she peered out the window.
Circumstances all round had become increasingly tense and strained after the ‘Arrival’. Jay gazed out his window and skyward, half expecting to see something out there. With a tinge of disappointment, he found nothing except the usual blue sky with light scattered clouds above a suburban landscape. From here, he couldn’t see any evidence of what had turned everything upside-down only a few weeks before.
Beth placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. He smiled at her, but she went back to peering out each window in her search for something.
His new sport shoes hadn’t been worn in enough to lose their sheen of bright green and silver. He wondered if gear like this would ever be available any more. Headlines had reported factories, retailers and service industries had largely shut down while everyone mobilised in defence of Earth. He’d probably have to follow his mother’s advice and take care of his gear to make it last longer, even if he’d outgrow it anyway.
He gently ran his thumbnail down a thigh seam of his pale grey smartskins to feel the stitching underneath. Given their specialised stretch fabric, he wouldn’t outgrow those in a hurry. He fidgeted with the front seal of his lightweight jacket while shoe heels gently bounced against the seat. He admitted to himself he might have been in mortal peril like the rest of humankind, but that didn’t stop him from being more than a little bored at that moment.
All of a sudden, a hard acceleration shunted him backwards. The vehicle swerved violently and in a moment powered on even faster. Ordinarily, this would have been a thrill, but Beth’s heightened anxiety alarmed him. Pinned back, he fought to lean forward so he could see out his window. Streams of black smoke streaked past as the dull, gut-churning boom of a weapon detonating nearby lurched the vehicle for a heart-stopping moment.
Beth desperately peered through every window, trying to spot where any danger might be coming from.
“There! Two o’clock!” she yelled to the driver. “Two more at five!”
Jay clung to his seat with both hands, trying not to be thrown around even under the firm grip of his restraints. The vehicle veered with stomach-churning speed as the driver opted for an exit off the motorway. A searing flash of light and ear-splitting crack reverberated behind them.
Editorial comment. Every word must count. Over the length of a novel that’s a tough standard to aspire to, but it’s what the best authors do. In the first few pages, I’d say that mantra is absolutely essential. It doesn’t mean that every story has to start with an explosion on page one, but it does mean that for at least the first few pages, every single word must justify its existence. It must develop plot, or character, or both.
This starts well. Beth, whose relationship to Jay is nicely ambiguous, tells Jay to get a shift on. They need to leave, now. That inspires immediate tension. What’s happening? We want to know more. Even so, it might just be the school run, or they’re trying to get to the library to return a book that’s overdue – something prosaic and ordinary. No, there’s some nice detail about Jay’s tortoise which satisfies our mantra about plot and character. Only a certain type of child wants a tortoise for a pet, and he’s not sure when he’s going to be back, so leaves Bertie a lot of food. Thus we have some insight into Jay’s character, and we know this isn’t a trip to the corner shop for a pint of milk—there’s something going on. Both plot and character.
The problem that I see with this opening is that between Beth’s admonition and the line about the tortoise, we have 168 words that really aren’t earning their keep, and worse, they are killing both the mood and the pacing. If we look at the second paragraph, the first sentence is “These days, everything seemed to be in a hurry.” Two problems with this. a) What does that actually mean? It’s an extremely generalised comment that doesn’t seem to have any real meaning. b) By saying everything always seemed to be in a hurry, it robs some of the tension of the first line. The urgency we felt from the first line is not dramatic then; it’s “usual”. No, this sentence is not earning its keep. It actually detracts from the plot, and certainly doesn’t add characterisation. Second sentence: “Right now, Jay didn’t want to rush off anywhere.” This adds characterisation all right. Jay is naturally lazy. Is that correct? I can’t think that’s how you want to portray your hero, but perhaps that’s his challenge. Third sentence: “The way Beth had been though, something was urgent.” This is telling us what you’ve already shown in the very first line, so is unnecessary, and it also contradicts the first line of this paragraph, where such “hurry” is deemed normal. Do you see how this is getting bogged down? We still haven’t moved on from the first line in plot or character, but we’ve read another 33 words.
His “backpack … had been stashed with clothes and other essentials” is passive. By whom? And why? An easy way to get round this problem is, once again, with dialogue. “Beth, what have you done to my backpack?” “I packed some basics, clothes and stuff.” “But where are my schoolbooks?” “You won’t need schoolbooks where you’re going. Now come on!”
For a scene that’s supposed to express urgency, there are a lot of words and phrases that undermine that mood. Jay “found himself a little annoyed” by Beth’s behaviour, we’re told. And he didn’t appreciate being called ‘Jayson’. Okay. His family are entirely missing, the Earth has been invaded by aliens and civilisation is probably over, but he “doesn’t appreciate” being called by anything other than his precise choice of name. Like, get a grip, Jay.
Jay also seems curiously unemotional about the absence of his family and the substitution of ‘scary lady’ Beth, but this is never explored or explained, leaving us with a large gap in Jay’s psychological make-up. What happened to them? Doesn’t he care? How are we to get a grip on Jay’s character if we don’t know basic motivations like family? Jay is eleven. Take an eleven-year-old out of their family unit and they are disorientated, angsty, nervous and uncertain. Add global catastrophe and they would be in a profoundly traumatised state of mind. But Jay? No, he’s just bored, swinging his heels and absent-mindedly wondering where the hell everyone was?
There are some details I like here. The tortoise is a nice touch. The idea that the trainers he’s wearing might be the last pair he’ll ever get if all the world’s manufacturing capacity has been destroyed is classic child-thinking (it’s all about me), but then the reference to “service industries” in almost the same breath is bizarre. I’ve never heard an eleven year-old talk about “service industries”, and doubt I will in my lifetime.
If this extract were cut to the bone, leaving only those words that actually develop plot or character, it would be a fraction of the length. That’s a really hard message to take on board, but I stand by it. Which sentences tell the story, and which just add filler that you “think” adds depth but actually only detract from the story?
Thanks for posting.
Thanks for the awesome feedback on “Antares”
I didn’t think it was too bad for a third draft. Your observations and insights are amazing and only serve to frustrate me all the more when I realise I can’t afford your professional services at the moment.
Out with the snips on this one, and here’s hoping what I end up with works a whole lot better.