On one level this is a strong opening. As an editor I’d have some reservations. See what you think.
Language: British English
Synopsis: Orla Fitzpatrick is one of Ireland’s richest women with a dark past and an even darker present. With her investment bank in crisis, she is faced with choices. One road will have deadly consequences for others. The other will send her back to the gutter. Which road will she take?
Leaping from her taxi, the icy rain piercing her cheeks like needles, Orla Fitzpatrick dived in the door of La Bouterie and peeled off her thousand-euro coat. Shaking out her shoulder-length blonde hair, she threw her coat onto an antique armchair. Past the small bar and into the almost-empty restaurant, she strode towards her table, her heels clacking so loud that heads rose and faces turned in silent reproach. Orla didn’t notice.
Her companion half stood and extended a clammy hand. His head was bowed and his eyes refused to meet hers. Without a word, Orla squeezed his hand and took her seat, seizing a bread roll and snapping it in two.
”How bad is it?” she asked taking a nip of dry bread.
Josh Flaherty, the contract auditor she had hired to wade through the books of Northside Investment Consultants with a fine-tooth comb, raised his hand to his mouth and cleared his throat.
“Eh… it’s worse than you thought, Orla.”
“A hundred million, give or take.”
Orla swallowed hard and threw the bread onto her plate. Grinding her teeth, she gazed out the small square window on her left, failing to take in the throng of workers spilling from the tall office block across the street.
“All in Government Bonds?” she asked turning back to Flaherty.
“So Sullivan was the only bad apple?”
“I believe so.”
Monsieur Cloutier, the maitre d’, arrived with their menus and proceeded to list the evening’s specials.
“I’ll have the seabass, Jean-Claude,” Orla said ignoring the menu and handing it back to Cloutier.
“Certainly, Madame. Sir needs a moment?”
“The filet medium-rare.”
“And a bottle of my usual chardonnay,” Orla said. “White OK, Josh?”
Cloutier disappeared and Orla found a tissue in her bag. She dabbed her brow and folded the tissue in two, making a perfect square. Everything Orla did was deliberate and precise. She placed the tissue in the middle of the table, lining up the four corners to make a square within a square. Satisfied, she placed her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her fists.
“I should never have hired that cocky sonofabitch,” she said more to herself than Flaherty. “I never felt entirely comfortable with him.”
“Is he gone?”
“Yes. I told him to pack his bags as soon as Louise told me what he was at.”
“How did Louise cop what was going on?”
“One of her analysts spotted something that didn’t quite add up. If you ask me, Louise should have spotted it herself.”
“Well, based on my trawl, there’s no evidence of her being aware of what was going on, let alone involved.”
“Small mercies. So tell me exactly what Sullivan was at and how he managed to hide it for so long.”
A waiter arrived with their wine and Orla sat back in her chair. She rotated her shoulders while the waiter poured. Once he’d left, Flaherty described how George Sullivan, the company’s fund manager for Government Bonds, had first begun to lose money on risky financial manoeuvres. Over time, the losses mounted. At some point, Sullivan resorted to chasing his losses by taking greater risks, leading to even larger losses. He hid the losses by excluding them from official reports.
“How long has it been going on?” Orla asked.
“About four years.”
Orla shook her head from side to side and cursed under her breath. Their food arrived but Orla ignored hers. Pushing her plate away, she refilled her wineglass while Flaherty tucked into his steak. Glass in hand, she bit her lip and stared for a long time at a framed Monet print on the opposite wall.
“Any advice?” she asked shifting her gaze back to Flaherty.
“You could have brought this to the attention of your own company auditors. If you had, they’d be obliged to come clean to the Central Bank. So, since you brought me in instead of them, I suspect you want to, let’s say, keep your options open.”
“You’re right. I want to keep a lid on it until I figure out a plan.”
“Well, I’m not qualified to give you advice, then. You were always your own woman, Orla.”
Orla noticed Cloutier hovering. She grabbed her plate and handed it to him.
“Madame didn’t like her food?”
“Sorry Jean-Claude. I wasn’t hungry. Could I get some coffee?”
Cloutier nodded and cleared away Flaherty’s plate.
“How are you going to ensure Sullivan doesn’t blab?” he asked.
“He wants to work again, doesn’t he?”
“I guess so.”
“So it’s in his own interest to keep quiet. And what he did was illegal, anyway. So I’m not expecting it to appear on his Twitter feed.”
“What about Louise?”
“I’m working on her. She’s been badgering me about coming clean. But I think I can convince her. This would blow up in all our faces if it became public. And she knows it. My bigger concern is how I’m going to fill the gap.”
“So you’re just going to plug the hole? Find a hundred million?”
“That’s one option. And right now I can’t think of a better one. But I’ll sleep on it and maybe I’ll come up with something.”
Their coffee arrived and Orla quizzed Flaherty about the ins and outs of the fraud. Her expression was sombre, her mouth a thin line, her brow furrowed. Flaherty rattled on but at the back of Orla’s mind she knew she was asking the wrong questions. Rather than understanding how she got into the mess, she needed to figure out how to get out of it.
She fidgeted with the cheap engagement ring on her left hand, winding it around her finger, first one way then the other. It was at total odds with the rest of her ensemble. With the exception of the ring, Orla’s taste was extravagant, from her clothes to her makeup to her jewellery. Embellishing her left wrist was a platinum bracelet that had, on its own, cost a hundred times what the engagement ring had cost.
The chances are followers of the site enjoyed reading that opening. It’s well-written technically, sets up the story quite nicely and puts us straight into the action with what is presumably a fairly important meeting whose ramifications will reverberate through the beginning chapters. It asks the reader or, rather better, suggests the reader to ask, some important questions. What is the fraud, what are the consequences of that fraud going to be, and, crucially, why doesn’t Orla want to go to the authorities? All of these are great boxes to tick, which is why I’m going to give it a silver star. On one level, it works pretty well. However, if this author were my editing client, while I’d be happy to have them as a client with such a good grasp of the basics, I’d be telling them that they could improve on their story, and really give themselves a chance to raise it out of the “pretty good” to the “excellent”. What do I mean?
There are a few copyediting issues. In the very first line I’m sure you don’t mean “piercing” her skin.
Although you probably want to give the impression of Orla as a driven, aggressive individual, I think you might be overdoing it with the very early verb choices. She “leaps” from her taxi, “dives” into the restaurant and “throws” her coat on the back of the chair. Perhaps that’s just a matter of taste, but I also found it odd that she threw her €1000 coat on a chair and then walked off past a bar and into the restaurant. If this is a restaurant of any note, and it seems it must be if this woman with extravagant taste is a regular there, someone would be there to greet her at the door and take her coat. Neither would she be left to wander alone past the bar and find her own table. As a client of some standing, she would be escorted. It may be that she’s so used to this restaurant she treats it as a second home, she can’t be bothered waiting for the greeter, she has her “own” table which she always goes to and you make all this abundantly clear later on, but I can only go by first impressions, as would an agent. Authenticity in a scene is vital.
I think you over-egg Josh’s hesitancy, with the bowed head and the eyes refusing to meet hers and the clammy hand and the hand over the mouth and the cleared throat—do you see what I mean? Yes he has bad news to divulge, but it’s not his fault, is it? In fact it’s his job—he’s been hired for this specific task, so what’s he so concerned about? It’s not as if he’s some junior audit clerk who’s totally out of his depth. He’s astute enough to realise that Orla must have had an ulterior motive in hiring him.
By the end of the scene I was wondering exactly what the relationship between Orla and Josh was, and perhaps you elaborate on that later on? They meet to discuss this vital information not in a private office but in a public place where their conversation could easily be overheard. He orders what is probably one of the most expensive items on the menu and continues to nosh away while she sits there grinding her teeth. He asks her questions about how she’s going to keep various people quiet. They’re on first name terms. Altogether it’s odd behaviour for just a hired hand. I wondered if Josh wasn’t some kind of financial “fixer” for Orla, like “the Cleaner” in Pulp Fiction (except with less blood and fewer rubber gloves), and if so wouldn’t it be better introducing him as that, instead of just as a “contract auditor”. How does he know, for example (far less have the temerity to say), “You always were your own woman, Orla”?
You do have a tendency to over-explain. In addition to Orla striding and throwing and seizing and leaping all over the place, and Josh mumbling and looking at his feet and being, well, clammy, you have Orla with her OCD tissue folding. You take 40-odd words to describe how precisely and deliberately Orla folds a tissue, in the middle of which, in case we’d missed the point, you let slip that “Everything Orla did was deliberate and precise”. No shit, as they say in Detroit. Readers are smart and they want to believe. You really don’t need to beat them over the head until they submit.
I’d have similar comments throughout. On the face of it, it’s a good scene, but it does raise some questions about the characterisation that aren’t really answered in this short extract. One of the flaws of this Opening Lines process is that I only get to see a thousand words, so all may become clear in the next few pages, but as I repeatedly stress, agents and publishers generally don’t read beyond the first few pages unless they’re really taken with the prose. It doesn’t take them very long to begin to suspect that an author hasn’t really got their characters sorted out. It may be unfair, but that’s how it is. Having said all that, these are subjective copyediting issues. Many readers wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at anything in this scene. I can only give my opinion, and I’m very picky.
Now. The bigger issue I’d have with this extract is one of intent. In the synopsis it’s quite clear that this is a novel about Orla. Orla is confronted with a dilemma. Orla must decide what course of action she’s going to take, weighing up the greater good, “deadly consequences for others” against her own wellbeing, “send her back to the gutter”. My beef then, if I saw this novel at an early stage, is why you haven’t brought us much closer to Orla with a much tighter PoV? Instead of telling us what Orla does and says and thinks, why aren’t we Orla, thinking her thoughts, at one with the motivations and hopes and fears coursing through her brain? Have I misread it and actually, instead of a character study, this is a financial thriller? That’s fine, in which case you need to make this clear from the synopsis/blurb. If it is a character study, you could go whole hog and rewrite it in first person PoV, but you don’t really need to. A much closer third person PoV would work just as well. How would this work? Instead of telling us what she didn’t notice (because we wouldn’t notice it either), tell us the scene from much closer to her own perspective.
As she sat he looked down, fiddled with his napkin. Shit, it must be bad. She seized a roll and snapped it in half. “So?” she said. She took a bite of the bread. It was dry. Her mouth was dry, too.
“Eh … it’s worse than you thought, Orla.”
That little shit. I never should have hired him. She gritted her teeth. “Tell me everything.”
Do you see how we’re much closer to Orla in this version? We’re hearing her inner thoughts, rather than being told them. We see the scene from her perspective, instead of being told what other people are doing. If you want us close to Orla, living her story, then you’d need to redraft. If it’s really more a plot-driven thriller as, to be fair, you’ve said in your preliminary information, then you probably don’t need this level of reader engagement with the Orla character, but it might still be an idea. I think you’ve got a good opening that could be submission-ready if you did a bit of tweaking, but I think it could be a lot better as a book.
Thanks for posting.
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you’ve really given me food for thought. Looks like another re-drafting is on the cards. Since posting my early draft to you, I have improved it to remove some of the flaws you have pointed out, but your more strategic feedback is absolutely relevant, if I hope to achieve a gold star 🙂
I had intended the PoV to be close third-person, which I have clearly not yet achieved.
Thanks for the time you’ve taken, I really appreciate it,