This opening starts well but loses focus quickly, undoing the good of some strong first lines. I’d suggest, to everyone who submits here, that they read a few of the other submissions. Some (hopefully the ones that I’ve gold-starred) will draw you in; you’ll be hooked. Others you’ll initially be interested in, but within the space of a few paragraphs you’ll find yourself losing interest. It might even be hard to pinpoint why you’re suddenly not immersed, but it will often be because from an initial sharp focus, the tension has been dissipated. This is a good example.
Language: British English
Synopsis: Four boys become adults and stay best friends. Life has worked out for some, not for others. One is unlucky. One is happy. One threw away his opportunities. One is brutally murdered.
Unlucky Jake must decide if he’ll take an eye for an eye or let a murderer walk free?
Tom stood in the darkness, staring at the shape in the bed. The thin envelope clutched in his hand felt heavy, its secret weighing on him. He should have told her when it first started, but in the beginning it seemed like nothing. Then it slowly grew bigger, turning into a big, fat, hairy deal. Now, he was in over his head.
It was the coward’s way out, but the letter explained everything he couldn’t bring himself to say. He crossed the room and put it in the bottom of his sock drawer along with a thumb drive. When he closed it with a thud, the mass of covers shifted, and Mary’s head lifted off the pillow. His wife’s long blonde hair fell away to reveal the beautiful face that made his heart race. He pushed the regrets to the dark corners of his mind.
Half asleep, Mary said, “Where are you going?”
“Work. Just for a few hours. I have to finish something.”
He shrugged. “Sorry, but on my way home, I’ll stop and get Hunter’s birthday present.”
“It’s all right. I’ll get it on my lunch hour tomorrow. Will you lay with me for a few minutes?”
“Can I get you naked?” He teased half-heartedly.
She propped herself up on an elbow and gave him a wink. “How about I give you a rain check for tonight?”
“No way. I’ve got a dresser drawer full of your rain checks,” he countered.
“Liar, you only have three or four. How about I do that thing you like?”
“You will?” He grinned mischievously and walked to his side of the bed. Still dressed, he crawled back under the covers.
“Yep, but first you have to do that thing I like.”
“I can do that. And, no rain check on this rain check.”
“Shut up, Tom.” She smacked him on the shoulder then wrapped an arm around him. She squeezed him tight. “I love you.”
“Love you too, baby.” He squeezed back harder with a pang of guilt. He’d tell her tonight once the kids were in bed. She’d tear up the rain check but that was the least of his worries.
Tom lay with her until her breathing was slow and rhythmic. He rolled her gently off his tingling arm and slid to the edge of the mattress. He waited for her to stir, but she remained asleep. Sitting up, he glanced at his watch. Every time he looked at it he thought of his father, a victim of a hit and run. The pain had lessened over the last twenty-two years, but still left a twinge in his heart. The roman numerals set around a bronze gear in the watch face read 7:30am. It was later than he hoped. He polished its beveled glass face on his pants and eased off the bed.
Tom tiptoed towards the bedroom door as he ran his fingers through his unruly brown hair. It was a lost cause. The brass knob turned in his hand. He hesitated in the doorway, considered turning back, and lying back down with Mary. The extra sleep would be nice. No, he couldn’t. The work would be easier to do with no one around.
“Drive safe,” she whispered after him.
“I always do.”
Thunder rumbled in the distance, announcing the impending storm. Instead of going down the hall to check on their three kids, Tom pattered down the stairs to the foyer. At the front door, Socks, the family cat waited. Tom bent down and scratched his ears. The cat meowed and flopped on its back, exposing its soft belly.
Tom bent down and gently scratched the soft black fur. “What? Is this what you want?”
Socks purred with delight. Tom loved animals.
Editorial comment: I cut this extract off here because by this point I’d lost my early interest. In the beginning we’re with Tom in his bedroom. Tom has a secret. Secrets are great. Readers are human (even agents are human, allegedly!), and humans enjoy finding out other people’s secrets. So you immediately have our interest. What is Tom’s secret? He’s in over his head, but in what, we don’t know. Is it an affair? Is it some criminal activity? The secret is written on a note in an envelope which he puts in his sock drawer, along with a thumb drive (is that a USB stick? I’m not familiar with the term, although others might be). That’s the first odd thing that stands out to me. He hides this envelope in his sock drawer. So why did he have it in his hand in the first place? Was he going to leave it beside his sleeping wife, and now he’s changed his mind? This seems like a very significant moment in his life, so it’s odd that there’s no reference to this change of heart.
Mary wakes up. She’s beautiful, makes his heart race (so not an affair then). He makes some excuse about going to work even though it’s a Sunday. What is he really going to do, we wonder? She asks him to lie with her for a moment (‘lie’, please, not ‘lay’), and he does. There’s some banter (I found the “that thing you like”, “that thing I like” a bit coy, but that might be me) about their sex life. Another slight pause here. Does he have a problem with their sex life or doesn’t he? “I’ve a dresser drawer full of your rain checks” he says. We don’t know Tom. Perhaps it is an affair after all?
He’d tell her tonight, he thinks, and then she definitely would tear up the rain check for sex. So it must be an affair?
She falls asleep on his arm. He extricates himself, then looks at his watch. “Every time he looked at it he thought of his father, a victim of a hit and run.” This is sad. When did his dad die, we wonder? Last week? Last month? “The pain had lessened over the last twenty-two years” – What? Every time he looked at his watch for the last twenty-two years he’d been reminded of the tragic death of his father? This is a serious jolt. Has no-one told Tom he should let go, or at least get another flippin’ watch?
Tom tiptoes away as he runs his fingers through his “unruly brown hair. It was a lost cause.” His hair is a lost cause? He’s seriously thinking about his hair? Hmmm, I’m losing interest at this point. I thought this was a guy in crisis, suffering some deep mental anguish, but he still finds time to worry about his hair.
Another pause, when we’ve been told a couple of times that Mary’s now asleep, but she still somehow manages to speak; “Drive safe,” she whispers.
Another pause; Tom “patters” down the stairs. This seems an odd choice of verb of motion for a grown man.
The final straw is Tom meeting Socks, the family cat. He bends down and scratches its ears. The cat flops on its back. Tom bends down (again), and scratches its soft fur. He talks to the cat. Socks purrs. “Tom loved animals” we’re told. Quite apart from the fact that you’ve volubly shown us this in the preceding four or five lines, this digression neatly eradicates any remaining trace of tension that you managed to conjure up in the first few lines.
It’s a shame, because it started well, but I doubt if an agent would read on. This is what I mean by losing focus. The distractions from the conflict you initially introduce, Tom’s secret, mount up and eventually overwhelm us. Is Mary asleep or not? First she is, then she isn’t, then she is again, then she isn’t. Is their sex life a problem? At first I think it isn’t, then I think it might be, then I think it isn’t, then I think it definitely will be if it isn’t already. Is Tom at a crossroads in his life, burdened with a secret that has to come out, no matter the fact that it will destroy his marriage? Possibly, but perhaps if he only had a better haircut, everything would work out, and even so, he does love animals. No one can be bad who loves animals, right? Focus on the conflict. If Tom is wracked with guilt about some desperate secret, show us he is. Show us his mental anguish, in everything he does. “Not now Socks, I’m not in the mood.” You need to up the stakes for Tom far more if you want us to be hooked on his story.
You mentioned two developmental editors have already looked at this. I’m surprised that they let this opening stand, frankly, but it serves to highlight something important that carries across all the critiques posted here. Mine is only one opinion. Other editors, not to say agents, may have a different opinion. And also this is a very focused, very intense look at merely the opening few pages of your book, for a very specific purpose, that of hooking the agent, or reader. Not every developmental editor looks at this issue with the same focus. I think it’s extremely important because it’s the most that agents, or readers, will see of your book unless you get it right.
Thanks for posting.
Thanks for the good review. It is very spot on. This story started as the clumsy beginnings of a novice writer, and this chapter was edited down from five long winded chapters that I believed I needed for character development. I can see I have more editing to do to streamline the story and set the hook before the reader spits it out.
Time to go kill my darlings.