It’s important to remember that a reader coming to your book for the first time won’t necessarily have any idea what the book is about, other than what they’ve read on the back cover. As a result, giving too much emphasis to certain facets of your opening few pages might create some “misdirection”. The 50-word synopsis I ask for here (which is just to give me some kind of context for the opening few pages), is more like a blurb than a proper synopsis so in terms of this site, assume the reader knows nothing more about your book than the details below. Then have a closer look at your opening again, and see if it makes sense.
Title: She Carries a Shadow
Language: British English
Synopsis: Nancy Hart is running.
She’s running from the police. From those who believe she’s a target. From the man convicted of murdering her daughter. From a ruthless tycoon who would rather see her dead than let her go. She’s running from the Angels. Most of all, she’s running from herself.
I yank open the door, duck inside and fall against it. I blow into my hands and rub my ears. There’s a battered old electric heater by the community centre door, but nobody’s bothered to switch it on. I’m still trying to catch my breath when the door is pulled away from me. I lose my balance and fall back into someone. I know who it is in an instant, without turning to look. I try to escape but he has a hold of my arm. I can smell the sleazy skin of him. His rain soaked grubby shoes, laces broken. His trousers, damp and sweaty, longer than his legs, the hems muddy. His thin navy-blue raincoat torn at the seams. I scramble back to a standing position, push his outstretched arms away. He’s not supposed to get this close.
He glares at me, mumbles something of an apology. Those red plastic glasses are too small for his face. Above them, greasy hair, sticking up here and matted there. He is communicating as much with his arms as with his mouth.
I turn on my heel and run. Down the corridor, around the corner and into Room 6 where on Wednesday nights Perth & Kinross Acute Support Services (PKASS) provide a Victim Support Group.
‘Nancy Hart,’ Claire Potts shouts across the room, her voice sharp, her finger waving in the air. ‘We’ve been waiting for you.’
The usual six are sitting in a semi-circle, facing Claire, they ignore me. Claire is sitting with her legs tightly crossed, her back perfectly postured, hands gripping the sides of the grey plastic chair. Claire in her saintly role. Superiority oozes out of her. A social worker trained in grief counselling. She makes the 50-mile trip from Edinburgh every Wednesday without fail. That tells me all I need to know.
She’d had the nerve to turn up at the cottage last Tuesday. I heard the car, peeked out the living-room window and then hid in the loo. After lots of banging and shouting through the letter box, Claire pushed a yellow post-it through the door with the words, ‘Final Warning’, finished off with a gigantic C.
Gigantic C is tapping her foot on the wooden floor so I drag a seat to the edge of the semi-circle. Two hours of Hell is about to begin.
Claire clears her throat, uncrosses her legs and places her hands on her knees. She is about to speak when the door opens.
He has actually followed me in here.
Claire, forever on the lookout for a potential victim, is already by his side, her arm around him in a comforting gesture.
‘Everyone, I’d like to introduce our newest member,’ she says and for a second, it looks like she’s about to settle him on her knee. Instead she pushes him into the middle of the semi-circle.
That’s it. That’s all he says, with his head forward, his hands dangling at his sides. He’s avoiding looking at me. Yeah, that’s because he knows I won’t buy his ‘I’m shy’ act. To think he’d follow me in here though. He hasn’t done that before.
All new members are supposed to give a speech, their story, what brought them here to the victimhood. That’s not what it says in the pamphlet but that’s all that ever happens here. Claire gets a thrill at this part; it’s there, right now, in her eyes. She might as well lick her lips and rub her hands together. This must be the bit Claire signed up for, the bit she can get between her teeth, the bit where the victim virgin gets to hear all her crappy advice for the first time.
He is whispering in Claire’s ear. A lie most likely. He’s sharp. He’ll be making something up on the spot.
Or maybe not.
He’s been watching. Knew all along where I’d be tonight. He has come prepared.
He shakes hands with the others, his eyes fixed on me. Even before he reaches me I can smell him. The kind of smell that clings to someone who’s been skulking in the bushes outside my house on a damp November night. He reaches my knees, places his hand on my shoulder. He gives me his name, as if it were mine to own.
I shake him off. His hideous glasses slide down his nose. He’s watching me, as if he’s about to tell me a secret. Something about me he shouldn’t know.
He shouldn’t get to know my name. I hate the way he’s lingering at my knees. There’s a dead leaf sticking to the inside of his raincoat. He moves on. So he already knows my name.
‘Shall we start?’ Claire pipes up, as soon as Matt Spencer positions a chair next to mine.
‘I’d kind of like to start, if that’s all right with everyone?’ This is Weeping Wendy. Her tears about to burst and that quivering smile of hers. Teeth fighting over themselves for space, tied back hair as thick as mud and ratty at the ends. Weeping Wendy, without fail, rushes off before the end, claiming she just simply has to get back to Malcolm and his nervous tick, brought on by the Terror both have endured over the past four-years-three-months-six days-twenty-one hours or whatever. I’ve never met Meek Malcolm and as far as I know nobody else has either. But the story goes that Malcolm is too afraid to leave the house. Odds-on this is Malcolm’s great excuse to wriggle himself out of listening to his wife tell their story for the umpteenth time. And we’re all supposed to listen as if it were the first time.
It doesn’t help that Claire likes the sound of her own whiney voice. As if on cue, she launches into an extended introduction to Wendy, but Wendy butts in. As bored as we are of her own introduction apparently.
I squeeze my eyes shut. How to survive the Victimhood?
Editorial comment: I like this opening. There’s a strong voice and a lot going on – detailed characterisation sketched out efficiently, good dialogue. However, the first few lines are an example of what one might call misdirection. Your synopsis (let’s call it the blurb on the back of the book) is about how a woman, both literally and metaphorically, is on the run. Immediately the story starts we have someone in a hurry, yanking open the door. Then when the door is opened behind them, she falls back into the arms of a pursuer, someone sleazy, damp, sweaty, someone who is “not supposed to get this close”. She turns on her heel and runs.
There are two problems with this. The first is a relatively minor, practical issue. I find it hard to imagine pulling open a door, going inside, and then leaning against it. Most doors to public buildings have those automatic door-closing things. They generally take a while to close. Unless the door closes almost immediately, you’d be leaning against something that was quite unstable and would be subconsciously aware, even if not consciously, that the door might at any moment be opened from the outside and you could fall backwards, as indeed happens.
The second thing is that we’re completely mystified by who this person, that opens the door behind her, is. We jump to the conclusion, not knowing any better, that she is being chased and doing her best to try and escape her pursuer. This isn’t true. She’s actually just trying to get to her counselling class on time, and exactly what Matt’s role in her story is we don’t yet know. When he sits down beside her in the class, I came to a stop and thought I’d missed something, so went back to the beginning and started again, then looked at the synopsis/blurb to see what this situation was likely to be about. There were no clues, so I ended up just being confused. I didn’t know how to process what I’d been told about Matt. Here is a story ostensibly about someone on the run. Here she is, on the run, and yet the person she is apparently fleeing from is sitting down beside her in an evening class?
You do want your readers to be asking questions, but you don’t want them to be confused or, worse still, feel like they’ve been deliberately misled. This opening is perilously close to misdirection. Unless Matt does indeed turn out to be one of the people Nancy is running from, he is painted, from the very first moment that he appears, as someone to be feared and faintly disgusted by. Yet he is accepted by a figure of authority, Claire, and sits down meekly beside Nancy as if there’s nothing unusual at all in the situation. It left me wondering, “is this a giant red herring?” or is this really the moment the story starts, where Nancy, for the first time, confronts this person who she clearly has some remote knowledge of, but has never met and wanted to avoid. This threw me, and I couldn’t then really enjoy the opening for what it’s worth, which is a pity, because it’s quite well written.
I would caution against having flashbacks in the opening scene too. Try and compose your opening scene so that you get your reader’s undivided attention focused in one area. As soon as you write “She’d had the nerve to turn up at the cottage last Tuesday …” you’re throwing us out of the scene we’re supposed to be getting involved in and instead making us try and absorb what is, on the face of it, an unimportant detail in flashback. I think it’s counter-productive in the very first few pages. If that detail is important, then there are probably better places to include it later on when your reader is more immersed.
I’d suggest trying to picture this opening scene from the perspective of a reader who is completely fresh to the story. It’s a really tough thing to do because of course you know the story intimately, but you’re trying to immerse the reader in a scene with your protagonist. If the interaction with Matt is key, then I think the scene at the door needs a little more clarification. Is she actually running from him? If she is, why doesn’t she start screaming when he appears in the room? If he’s some harmless old tramp who’s smitten with her because he sees her every day on the street corner, then why is she so frightened of him at the beginning? The inconsistency of her psychological response to him is a bit baffling as it stands.
Thanks for posting.
What a great lesson this is. Thank you so much, this is exactly the kind of feeback I need. I have edited this opening a lot and I see now I’ve edited out the important bit! Your advice and comments are really helpful, not just for this extract but for my MS as a whole.
I see I can work on Nancy’s response to Matt and even simply thinking about it is giving me ideas. Up to now I’ve concentrated mostly on Nancy as her response to her situation is key to the rest of the story but I still have work to do with her responses to the other’s in the story.
This is a fantastic rescoure and I am grateful for your detailed attention and invaluable comments. I am at the ‘going crazy’ part of editing this story and need all the help I can get.
You are right about the door! And it has also been helpful to see my words written here, in this new light I see many words and phrases that I need to cut.