This opening has a nice premise, a tension-filled meeting between two partners, but it’s let down by a few basic writing errors: passive language, confusion in pronouns, elements of exposition, that could all be sorted out by a decent copy-edit, or a thorough self-edit. It’s a good example of a submission that, although showing great promise, isn’t yet ready to submit to the industry. See if you can see the problems.
Title: The Stolen Papyrus
Language: US English
Synopsis: Archaeologist Leila Sterling is at an excavation in Egypt when finds herself caught up in a tangled web of truth, lies, thievery, villains, and antiheroes. All of which seems to have started with a papyrus that vanished the night her father was murdered.
Michael Sterling must die. The only pity was that he was going to have to kill him himself and, honestly, he didn’t want to deal with the mess.
“Send him up.”
Faris Al-Rashid slammed the phone down and ripped open the desk drawer to reveal the handgun inside. His fingers itched to feel the cool, black metal in his hand.
But he shouldn’t be so hasty. Hear the man out first. Surely he knew better than to show his face here. There had to be something important he had to say. Just one thing was for certain: Sterling would not leave this office alive. He slid the drawer shut.
Deep breaths filled his lungs and a comb raked through his hair as he examined his office. A neatly organized bookshelf filled one wall and a dark brown Chesterfield sofa sat at an angle in front of the wall-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the city. His eyes lingered on the long mahogany conference table just to the side of the entrance. No, none of it should give Sterling any reason to be suspicious.
A knock came at the door and at Al-Rashid’s bidding, Sterling entered. The American’s hair, damp from sweat, stood on end, windblown and blond from countless hours in the sun. It took all of Al-Rashid’s facial muscles to stop himself from grimacing at the splotches of dust on Sterling’s shirt and the faded knees of his pants.
“Well, look at what the sandstorm blew in,” he called from his seat at the desk with a honeyed voice. He managed to relax his shoulders, despite the tightening in his chest. A fake smile spread over his face. “And how can I help you?”
Without a word, Sterling stepped up to his desk. He shrugged a backpack off his shoulder and tossed it towards Al-Rashid.
Al-Rashid caught the bag and a puff of dust swirled into the air from the impact. “What is this?”
“One hundred thousand Egyptian pounds.”
Al-Rashid shook his head, then held the bag by its strap back out towards Sterling. “This is yours. You earned it.”
“I don’t want your money,” Sterling said flatly.
The bag dropped on the desk with a thud.
“Use it to help fund another excavation. Or buy another hotel. Or whatever.” Sterling stuck his hands in his pockets.
“But I thought you needed it? Five weeks ago you had no job, no money . . . ”
“I’ve got something lined up now.”
“Yeah. Egyptology department faculty. It’s a great opportunity.”
There was a pause. Sterling lifted his chin, unsmiling. “Glasgow.”
Al-Rashid closed his eyes as he sucked in his breath and held it. His whole body began to shake as he mustered as much self control possible to keep himself from exploding then and there.
“I knew it.” He tried to keep his voice quiet and steady, even though his face had reddened and his jaw twitched. “You. You and Aisha. If it weren’t for me, you’d still be sitting in that disgusting prison cell. And this is how you thank me? Running off to be with her? We were engaged!”
“She said you weren’t.” Sterling crossed his arms.
“She was promised to me.”
“That sounds more like an arranged marriage.”
Al-Rashid slammed his fist on the desk and stood up. “I don’t care what it sounds like! I loved her first!” With a violent swipe of his arm, he cleared his desk of everything that was on it. He ignored the sound of shattering glass and the clang of metal objects and dropped into his chair.
Unfazed by his outburst, Sterling stared him square in the eyes, a silent dare. It was a few moments before he finally replied, his voice barely above a whisper, “But did she love you?”
Al-Rashid looked at him in disbelief, at a loss for words. He put a hand to his forehead with his elbow resting on his desk. His eyes settled on the bottom left drawer. Sterling had just said his own death sentence. Even though his stomach churned at the thought of the impending carnage in his office, he used his free hand to slowly slide the drawer open.
“Get out,” he demanded.
“There’s one more thing.”
Al-Rashid tore his eyes away from the weapon to glare at Sterling. “I said get out.”
Sterling started for the door but stopped. With a hand still on the handle, he turned back to him. “I came here to tell you that a papyrus was stolen from our excavation in the Valley of the Kings. It hadn’t been archived yet, but the other archaeologists were saying it may have had information about the location of a queen’s tomb.”
“Well, someone had better find it and get it back,” Al-Rashid scowled.
“Indeed. The thing is . . . “ Sterling’s eyes narrowed. “It didn’t look like a break in.”
“What are you trying to say?” Al-Rashid said as he slowly stood from his chair and clenched his hands into fists.
“You were there in Luxor. Why don’t you tell me?”
“Get out or I’ll call security.” He jabbed a finger at the exit.
Sterling gave him one last look of contempt before he turned on his heel and opened the door. This was it. Al-Rashid picked up his weapon. Sweat ran down his temples as he steadied his aim on the back of Sterling’s head. With a shaky intake of breath, he squeezed the trigger.
The gun clicked. Sterling vanished. With a roar, Al-Rashid threw the useless weapon at the open doorway, just as Christopher Weston stepped into view. Weston ducked his tawny head just in time.
Al-Rashid ran his shaking fingers through his hair. He would stop Sterling. This was war.
Remembering Weston, he rounded on his assistant who stood frozen in the doorway, mouth gaping, his skin even paler than usual.
“You’re an hour late!”
“M-my apologies, sir. There were traffic problems,” the Englishman muttered, scurrying into the office.
Editorial comment: “Michael Sterling must die” is a great opening line. It has definite punch, clarity and threat. But as we think about it a little more deeply, it’s suddenly not quite as good as it looks at first. We don’t know who Michael Sterling is, or why he should die. We’re simply being told that he must die. That falls flat as far as engaging our emotions is concerned (which is what you need at the beginning of your book). It might engage our curiosity, which is good, but it’s a blatant “tell.”
The problem is compounded by a couple of other issues, the first of which is the confusion of third person masculine pronouns in the first few paragraphs. “The only pity was that he was going to have to kill him himself and, honestly, he didn’t want to deal with the mess.” Within a single sentence, using “he” and “him” to refer to two separate subjects is problematic. It leads to confusion. Another example here: “Surely he knew better than to show his face here. There had to be something important he had to say. Just one thing was for certain: Sterling would not leave this office alive. He slid the drawer shut.” “He” refers to Sterling throughout, until the very last sentence. One assumes at first that Sterling slid the drawer shut, apart from the fact that he’s not even in the office.
Those confusing pronouns aside, there are also some strangely passive constructions that look odd in those first few paragraphs. “Deep breaths filled his lungs and a comb raked through his hair.” Taken in isolation, the problems inherent in this sentence construction should suddenly become apparent. More confusion. Whose deep breaths filled his lungs? Was he being given mouth to mouth? And what powered the comb? “He took a deep breath and raked a comb through his hair” is much more active and normal language. There’s another example later, when a “knock came at the door”. It’s a strangely archaic way of phrasing it. If it were the tone of your whole piece, I’d assume that you meant it to be like this, but because the rest of the book is written very normally, it stands out. “A fake smile spread over his face” almost implies that Rashid wasn’t in control of it. Better would be something that shows us Rashid’s state of mind. “I’m going to kill him, Rashid thought. I’m going to shoot him right where he’s standing. But first, I need him to talk. He forced a smile. ‘Please, have a seat.'” Because we know what’s really going on in Rashid’s head, and we note the fact that he has to force the smile, we know that it’s fake—we don’t have to be told.
Then there’s the very precise and detailed layout of Rashid’s office. Unless there’s a specific need for us to know the exact layout of Rashid’s office furniture, spending several lines telling us exactly that is a waste, especially at the very beginning of a book when you want to get things moving on a plot basis. Now there may be a reason, since you say that “none of it should give Sterling any reason to be suspicious.” Even so, it seems to be a lot of detail that we can’t really need to know.
I’m pretty sure an agent wouldn’t read any further than these first few paragraphs. The kinds of mistakes I’ve mentioned are beginner mistakes—we all made them, so no shame in that. They do need to be ironed out of your writing though. You could try some writing courses, read a few good books on the subject, workshop the book in a writer’s group.
The expensive option would be to get a professional editor to go through it with you. You wouldn’t need to pay for the whole book to be edited. In fact, I’d advise against that. Most editors have an option where you can have just a few chapters edited, or the first 10,000 words. That should give you enough examples of where you’re going wrong for you then to apply that throughout.
Thanks for posting.
Thanks so much! Now that you point it out, I’m sitting here thinking “duh.” Great idea of getting the first few chapters looked at by an editor, too. I will work on tightening this up! Thanks again! 🙂