Slow or fast? The speed of an opening is very subjective. Some genres need a quicker start than others (thrillers and crime usually start with a bang, for example, literary fiction or romance, less so). But generally, some readers will be drawn in to a story, and won’t notice there’s not much plot or character development for the first few pages. They’re drawn in by the language, the use of metaphor, the tack-sharp dialogue. Others will find the same opening laborious and turgid. This is one of the reasons why one agent will rave about a book, another will pass. Where does this opening stand?
Title: Sea Glass
Language: Canadian English
Synopsis: Sixteen-year-old Olivia left her hometown after almost drowning. Six years later, she’s back to reconnect with her past and face her fears. But things go south when she finds out there’s a serial animal killer in town. Olivia suspects he’s messing with her, and slowly starts losing her mind.
Most people don’t return to the spot they almost died—at least not for a party.
“Wow, they’re already getting wild.” My best friend, Keely, grins. I don’t share her excitement. The clammy, sulfur-saturated air on the beach drowns me in nostalgia. Memories I’d rather forget.
“Maybe we should hold off on the party, Keel.” I fidget with my thumb. “I mean, it’s my first night back.”
“What? I thought you wanted to come!”
“I did, but…”
Just looking at that houseboat makes me seasick. Silhouettes of bodies dance behind the white-curtained windows, and reverberating bass overpowers the lapping of waves on sand. It’s docked near the bottom of the cliff, rocking against the surf like a bucket of floundering fish. The sky is the colour of faded denim, and the sea is as black as ink. But the lighthouse, perched at the top of the crag, is blood red under the silver moonlight.
I’ve been here in my nightmares too many times.
“I can’t get on that boat,” I say. “It’ll make me sick, and I might throw up all over a bunch of people I haven’t seen since I was ten years old.”
“Come on, Liv. I already told Miles you were coming, don’t you wanna see him?”
My chest tingles. Miles Hendricks, my childhood best friend, is in there. According to his Instagram, he grew up to be hot. I haven’t been back to Caldwell Beach in six years, yet I know what he ate last night—poached eggs and waffles, breakfast for dinner. He does it once a week.
“I do want to see him, but forgive me for needing a minute to breathe.”
Keely snickers. “Still think you two are gonna get married?”
“Oh my God, stop. Please don’t say anything like that to him, please.”
“You know I’m not that much of a bitch. Come on, let’s go.”
Next thing I know, I’m looking past my feet at water through the cracks of the rickety dock. It’s a meter wide, but I wobble over it like it’s a tightrope, arms stretched out and everything. Keely glances over her shoulder, her black curls falling down the back of her yellow crop top.
“You gonna be okay?”
“I’ll make it.” Hopefully.
She hops onto the deck of the boat and extends her hand. Swallowing the cluster of nerves in my throat, I steady my balance with the cold metal pole. Keely whips open the door to the boat, and the boyish smell of aftershave and soap wafts into the warm night.
There’s a lot of old money in Caldwell—the Hendricks are one of the major families, but this boat belongs to the Bonnets. I know because Carter Bonnet’s fake-tanned face hangs on half the pictures on the mahogany walls, mostly on golf courses in pale-green polos.
As expected, it’s nauseatingly hot and stuffy in here. In the living room, two guys hold another one upside down by his ankles and funnel beer into his mouth. The whole structure sways. Music pounds my skull. I don’t know what to expect, if people will make a big deal out of me being back, if they’ll even care. But as Keely and I blend with the congested party, vaguely-recognizable faces begin shooting me looks. Whispering in each other’s ears.
“Is that her?”
Cheeks burning, I keep my head down when I bump into someone. A seafoam green shirt, a string of shark teeth around his neck…
I stop myself from saying something stupid. The last time I saw Miles Hendricks, he was shorter than me. Not anymore, but he still has the same pale skin kissed red from the sun, and his blue-green eyes light up as he ruffles his sandy blond curls.
“Miles, you’re so different!”
“So are you!” He flicks a strand of my brown hair, just like he used to when we were kids, and my face flushes. Keely sneaks by and gives me a subtle thumbs up before she disappears into the crowd. Someone knocks my shoulder as Miles and I lean into the wall. Suddenly, I feel small under the weight of his stare.
“So,” I say, “how’s Faye? And West?”
Miles stiffens at West’s name. I’m surprised at how foreign it feels on my tongue, too. I haven’t spoken about Miles’ older brother in ages, not even to Keely. Because six years ago, Weston Hendricks rejected my Facebook friend request, which… stung. Yeah, it still stings.
“Everyone’s fine.” Miles’ smile is plastic. “Faye’s gotten great at ballet. West is, uh… well, my parents kinda disowned West. Not sure what else he’s up to, haven’t talked to him in months. But I’m sure he’ll say hi if you see him.”
“Disowned? That sounds—“
A guy in a bright yellow Spongebob shirt bumps into us, spilling some of his Molson Canadian to the linoleum floor. He steadies himself by gripping Miles’ shoulder, and the pickaxe-shaped scar on his forehead shines pink under the dim light. His tanned cheeks are flushed, his eyes are rolling back in his head, and he’s slurring all his words.
“What’s up, Drake?”
He opens his mouth to speak, but then his eyes fall on me and widen. “Whoa, Olivia Catheart?”
I smile tightly. “Hey.”
“It’s me, Drake Bowman. You didn’t forget me, did you?”
“No! Of course I remember you.” I do, but we were never friends as kids. Drake was always that weird guy at the back of the class. During recesses, he would burn ants with magnifying glasses, or bully other kids for their Pokémon cards.
“Damn, you got hot.”
I hug myself. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
His laugh gets under my skin. “Heard you moved away and became a city girl. How’s that working out for you?”
Back home, I’m a country bumpkin. Here, I’m a city girl. This is making my head spin.
Editor’s comment: This is really good in many ways. There’s very snappy dialogue. There’s an intense characterization going on. We get to know a lot about Olivia: how she feels, who she is, a little about her history (but with plenty of loose ends that we’ll want to follow up). There’s not much plot. In a thousand words, a girl goes to a party with some old school friends. Yes, that ignores all the subtext, but it’s a pretty accurate summary of the first few pages of this opening. But the writing is good. I like it. I like the unsettling threat intimated by rich white frat boys, which is a repeating theme in American YA. Here morals and principles are loosely tethered, you feel. Every girl is right to feel at risk. The fact that this is a realistic state of affairs, an accurate depiction of modern society, is appalling, but hey—the novel of the age reflects the era.
But it is slow. It’s a little indulgent. There’s a whole paragraph of 77 words describing the scene of the houseboat rocking under the cliffs. It’s prettily told, but because it slows down the pace of the storytelling, I start to think outside the story, and the first thing that pops out at me is the sky being “the color of faded denim”. Is that right? Faded denim is very pale blue, whereas the sky generally gets darker at night, especially if the moon has already come up. The sea has no intrinsic color, it’s water, after all, but the fact that it’s “inky-black” implies to me that the sky, from which it derives its color, must be pretty dark, as well.
If you start pulling on this thread, the sweater starts coming apart. No one would build a dock on a surf beach. A beach where there’s surf is totally unsuited to a dock. For a start, the dock itself would get an absolute battering, especially in winter. Secondly, any vessel tied to the dock would get repeatedly slammed against the side of the dock with each breaking wave, fenders or no fenders. From what you’ve said, the shore is a “lee shore” (ie, open to the prevailing wind). Again, that’s totally unsuited to any kind of dock. Harbor walls are built to encircle an area of water, to protect it from the surf and prevailing wind on which that surf travels. There’s no mention of that here. I say all this because these are all nautical issues which anyone familiar with the sea would know. I live on the Atlantic seaboard of Ireland, and anyone even slightly involved with boats gets to know these things – otherwise you lose your boat. Attention to detail is going to win you readers. Lack of realism will lose them.
For those reasons, the slow start and the lack of accurate detail about where a boat would be moored, this submission is not going to earn a gold star from me. Once you’ve been put on notice, there are a few other things that stick out. How does the guy who’s being held upside down by his ankles drink the beer that’s supposedly being “funneled into his mouth”? If she has such a visceral and immediate reaction to the sight of the boat, why did she ever agree to go to the party in the first place? She doesn’t seem that keen to meet anyone.
But the writing is very good. I liked how when her friend opens the door, “the boyish smell of aftershave and soap wafts into the warm night”. I like the way she wobbles down the meter-wide dock “arms stretched out and everything”. When you stop to think about it, that’s actually a very unspecific phrase, but it perfectly captures how a teen would think/speak.
As an agent, I would say, “Go and work with beta readers, or an editor. Your work shows a lot of promise, but needs some fine-tuning to be really marketable.” You say you’ve already worked with beta readers? Well, beta readers should be pulling you up on things like the sky being the color of faded denim when the sea is inky black, the inability of someone swallowing when they’re upside down, the placement of a dock on a surfing beach under a cliff on a lee shore. The fact that they haven’t neatly explains the difference between an amateur beta reader and a professional editor, whose job it is to point these things out.
But ultimately you have to consider how many of your readers will worry about these things? The answer might be, not enough for you to worry about them. That’s a decision you’ll have to take. The quality gap between 70% perfect and 99% perfect (you can never please everybody) is a large and expensive gap to fill.
Thanks for posting.
Thank you SO much for this incredibly helpful critique! I completely see where you’re coming from regarding the realism – I live in a city so I know absolutely nothing about boats. I’ll tone down the language regarding the imagery as well. As for the guy upside down- you’re right, it’s unrealistic. He should just be standing or on his knees 😛 I guess I just wanted to create a cliche teen movie scene and that popped into my head!
I’m really glad that you see potential in the writing. I’ll continue to work on it until it feels ready to submit. Thank you so much for this!