I talked at the Dublin Writer’s Conference about novel openings, and this website, last week. Many people came to me after and said that it was a really interesting presentation, which is great, and I’m expecting a few new submissions as a result!
Here’s one of those. Pacing is all important in the first few pages. Although it’s great to have a knock-’em dead opening line, or paragraph, that pace has to be kept up. Let’s have a look at an example.
Title: The Spa Resort
Language: US English
Synopsis: A book about interrelationships and romantic attraction. It is the story of a middle aged, shy, businessman. He wants meaning in his work and his life. So, he quits his job to become a massage therapist and gets a job at a large five-star spa resort.
‘You can massage anywhere’ said the woman on my massage table. I was standing behind her head. She caught me off guard.
I said, ‘Pardon me’. She smiled and once again said, ‘I just want you to know that you can massage anywhere you like.’ I thanked her, kept my palms gently pressed to her scalp and tried to center myself. I always start like this. I clear my head of all thoughts, try to focus on the inner beauty of my client trustingly laying before me, then begin their massage with care.
I am a man though. I have done literally thousands of massages since becoming a licensed massage therapist. So, I am thinking to myself, Is this an instruction from her, or an invitation? My rational mind says that she is a seasoned client who knows it is awkward for a male therapist massaging a woman. Touch too close to certain body parts, stroke too sensually, and the woman may think you’re coming on to her. Of course, there are always a few body parts that are off limits. I’m sure she knows that. So, she means I can massage her thighs, stomach, and buttocks. That she’s not concerned at all about me working on those private parts of her body. Thank you very much for clarifying that Miss Client.
But, the tone of her voice. Maybe I was just listening with my male macho ears instead of my professional ears? But it did sound like she had a flirting sound, and adventuresome sound to her voice. I mean, I know some liberal woman who like trying out new and exotic sexual experiences.
This woman is about 40 years old, blond hair, fair skinned, with an average body. She seemed confident in the brief conversation that we had when I met her in our spa lounge. Not nervous at all. She touched my arm twice as we shared a brief bit of small talk. I have never been sure how I’m perceived by women. Sometimes I think I could be attractive. I have thick dark brown wavy hair, a broad chest, blue eyes, and occasionally someone says I look like so and so from some movie. At other times, it seems to me like so many women don’t even notice me. Like I’m invisible. I have always been shy, but hopeful.
In the end, I take a deep breath and imagine that I’m a proper English butler. Someone who is discreet, ethical and who always does the right thing. I give her a good massage, hopefully one of the better ones she’s received. But I decide not to massage her ‘everywhere’. A therapist could lose their job, their license for that sort of thing. Why just last year one of the best male massage therapists was fired from Mario’s Spa Resort for touching a woman’s privates. He’ll never get another job as a massage therapist anywhere now. All it takes is one wrong move.
I am a massage therapist. I have not always been a massage therapist. But who can say they have been anything for all their lives save for their gender. Even that can be called into question from time to time.
I work at a large spa owned by a little man called Mario. He is a short, plump, old Italian man who started out as a hairdresser along with his wife Joanna. There is a wall-sized painting of him hanging in the entrance to the fifth spa center that he’s built. It’s one of those ornate one’s like you see on the walls of some old 18th century mansion. He is sitting in a large wing back chair, wearing a dark suit with a red cravat about his neck, and he has an enormous cigar in his hand.
I am standing in what we call the Scheduler’s Room. It is the size of a large walk-in closet. Sometimes we have between four to six employees crammed in here together. Manicurists, facialists, hair stylists, and massage therapists – all waiting for work. We talk, laugh, rub each other’s shoulders, and flirt. When Pat, our manager walks by she discreetly comes into the room and with the most evil of looks, tells us all to find some work to do. So, some of us go and clean up the body treatment scrub rooms, or go down into the laundry to wash and dry terry cloth white robes and towels with Mario’s embossed on them, along with sheets from the massage tables. I go off with a bottle of spot cleaner to wipe out red wine stains from the cream colored plush carpeting that covers the floors here at the spa.
We offer over 100 spa treatments at Mario’s Spa Resort. Some women come here for up to a week to be pampered. In a day I may do between six to twelve massages depending on how busy we are and how much time the client requests. I’ve just received my first client ticket of the day. Well, now I have a woman’s name, Sophie, and she has requested an hour-long relaxation massage. I walk across the hall and into the first of our several ostentatious waiting rooms. There are three women in white cotton robes. One woman’s robe is too large for her. Another woman is too large for her robe. A third woman is looking across the room as if late night car headlights have just blinded her.
‘Hello, Sophie?’ I always call out the client’s name with a question mark to save me the trouble of having to interrogate the people sitting in front of me. I demand that you tell me your name and who sent you here, I think to myself in my worst German soldier’s accent.
‘Yes,’ says a demur woman with a dry throat. The headlights woman looks at me with both fear and anticipation.
‘My name is Daniel, and I’ll be giving you your massage today.’
Editorial comment: This is a nice idea for a strong opening line: a massage client saying something that could be misinterpreted. Or perhaps she wants it to be “misinterpreted”? We can feel the sexual tension immediately. “You can massage anywhere you like”, she says. It’s hard not to interpret that as a come-on, but this masseur is a professional and concerned about his reputation, and his job. What does he do? Does he act on what he thinks is a signal and indulge his client in some fantasy sexual encounter? Or does he keep his hands to himself and maintain his professional approach?
The trouble with this opening, I think, is that after that first paragraph, what happens? I want to find out. Does the masseur roll his sleeves up and get stuck in, or does he go and put some relaxing music on and hope his “client” falls asleep? But we’re left guessing. Instead of that, the opening few lines are revealed as a bit of a tease. In fact, what does happen is that the next 900-odd words are essentially a long digression, or sequence of digressions. We’re told that the main character has not always been a masseur, although we don’t find out what he was before. That’s a shame, because that could be revealing. We’re told where he works. We’re told the name of the owner of the spa. We’re told the name of the owner’s wife. We’re told the therapists’ working conditions, what they’re doing when they’re not gainfully employed doing their “thing”, that Mario’s is a bit of a hotbed of flirting amongst the staff. We’re told how many massages he’s expected to give a day, the process of hooking up with a new client. The trouble is that this is all “telling”. It’s all exposition, all backstory, none of it is immersive. We’re not being shown this information through dialogue, or a character’s perspective, so although we’re told all this information about where the character works, we don’t know what he really feels about it. We don’t really know if he’s happy or content, if he likes the work or perhaps wishes he’d stayed in his other career, or indeed what drove him to change career in the first place.
Although there’s immediate tension in the first paragraph, that promise isn’t borne out over the ensuing pages, and for me was entirely dissipated by the time we come back to his meeting “Sophie”, the client in question, for the first time.
When I was writing this critique I wondered whether my advice could be merely to cut out those middle 950 words of exposition and focus instead entirely on this encounter with “Sophie”, but then I found a few other flaws.
At the beginning he thinks to himself “My rational mind says that she is a seasoned client” and “She seemed confident in the brief conversation that we had when I met her in our spa lounge”. But then at the end of the extract when (I’m presuming) we meet the client in question you have, “‘Yes,’ says a demur [sic] woman with a dry throat. [She] looks at me with both fear and anticipation.” Now there’s a PoV issue there, in that how can he judge if she has a dry throat? But skipping that as a relatively minor problem, someone with a dry throat and looking as if they’re both “caught in the headlights” and with “fear and anticipation” doesn’t sound like the same confident “seasoned client” that he referred to at the outset. Have I made a horrible mistake and they are not the same client? If they’re not, then that’s a problem that I think most people would have with this opening. They want to find out what happened in this meeting of female client and male masseur. When we finally get back to the present situation, I think we’d be entitled to assume that they’re one and the same client.
The final comment would be perhaps more subjective. I wonder if a male massage therapist who has performed “literally thousands” of massages would relate at all to the person lying in front of them in a sexual way? Wouldn’t they be so inured to near-naked bodies that it would take far more than a slightly suggestive comment to engage his antennae? I’d say there’s probably a bit of sexual tension in every male/female massage and a bit of banter along the lines of “I’m all yours/Be gentle with me” would be pretty par for the course, but I’m not a woman, and I’m not a masseur, so I don’t know. I’m just wondering aloud if a masseur (who comes across as quite a thoughtful and introspective person) would respond to that kind of trigger. I think it’s far more likely that he would respond to something she says, some common interest discovered, a moving story about a tattoo she has, or something, but something intellectual, not a hoary old “massage me anywhere you like” come-on. But that might just be me.
On what an agent would think, or what a reader might feel, I think I’m on stronger ground. After the initial tease of the opening paragraph, I’m pretty certain an agent wouldn’t read the next 900-odd words to arrive at an uncertain continuation of the same scene which contains, when looking closer, a fairly fundamental continuity error. I think you need to carry on the scene you start so well, but show us the backstory you go on to relate (in rather factual and dry terms) through dialogue or, even better, leave all that out for now and just carry on with the scene and get us to the will he/won’t he moment much quicker. If you manage that … ahem … “climax” well, it will draw readers into the book, for sure.
Thanks for posting.