This opening raises an interesting problem that relates to point of view—unusual, in that it doesn’t come up that often. Is it wise to hide things from the reader?
Title: Star Gazing
Genre: Coming-of-age drama
Language: British English
Synopsis: All Joe White wants is to be left alone. But what chance of that when his carefully-controlled existence is shattered by three weeks of turmoil. Retreat isn’t an option anymore as he is forced to confront loss and grief as well as the ever-increasing incidents he cannot make sense of.
Text: Globe, football game, wallet. Globe, football game, wallet. Globe, football game, wallet. Globe, football game, wallet.
Turning away from the desk, my eyes fell on the bottom right of the mirror. I didn’t need to look there; the folded sheet had only one sentence written on it. Same as every other day, I mouthed the words. Then an unexpected colour farther up the mirror stalled me. The more I stared at it the more I didn’t know what to think. A freeze held me until panic took over. I furiously pressed and rubbed at my right ear.
How can it be gushin’ like that?
A shout to Mum died in my throat as I took my hand away from my ear and examined it and then looked back at my reflection. Not a drop of blood on either. The boy in the mirror looked as confused as I felt. Good days didn’t start this way. Whatever the hell this was.
After I closed the front door, I couldn’t resist one last check. I walked around to the side of the house and peered in my bedroom window. Nothing had changed—all three were still on my desk. Of course they were—only a minute had passed.
Thoughts of the mirror and my bloody ear still clung to me when my right foot stepped into the flood in the hollow.
Shit, I can’t get through that.
If I went back for my wellingtons, I’d be late for the bus. I did an about-turn. And another one. Why hadn’t I remembered the rain? It’d teemed so hard that the hammering on the roof woke me at four o’clock.
Race through it, it’s only water.
No, that wouldn’t do—it was well up the hedge. I could’ve taken off my shoes and socks and walked through it, but the nerve to do that wasn’t there.
What if I tripped?
Why is my heart poundin’? This is nothin’.
Convincing myself was another story. I considered going into the field and walking around the flood in there. If I walked lightly, I’d be okay.
This is what I did. I wasn’t okay. Shoes covered in muck. And wet. Socks soaked. I cleaned the shoes with a handful of grass. A proper clean would have to wait. My heart still thudding, I walked faster. Too much weight on my back for me to race.
What if the bus is gone?
What if the moon slams into the sun? This is not a big deal.
Repeating that last sentence helped.
When it comes to bends the Mississippi has nothing on our road. Mike King said that whoever designed it must’ve been pissed.
Finally, the last bend came into view and I thought my luck was in. But then I heard a low rumble which stuck me to the road while at the same time put the shits right up me. I had to know, so I made myself peek around the bend.
Shit, it’s there. Go.
If Des didn’t see me coming, he’d wait only a few seconds.
I couldn’t walk out there with all those eyes on me. The alternative was to stay put. I stayed put. The engine revved and the cranky red-and-white bus moved off. I didn’t move. Not straight away. Everything had to be thought out. Going back home would mean having to explain to Mum. Walking on could lead to anything.
As I made my way towards the big road a primary-school poem came back to me—Johnny head-in-the-air. It started—“As he trudged along to school it was always Johnny’s rule to be staring at the sky and the clouds that floated by”. I was no Johnny head-in-the-air.
After two minutes on the big road a car approached from behind, slowed, passed me, and stopped.
Not a car I knew. The last thing I wanted was to end up with a questioner. A huge-shouldered man in the driver’s seat. Without saying a word, I sat in and closed the door.
Is this really what I’m doin’? He must think I’m a complete oddball.
Don’t think, please don’t think right now. Watch the road and get this over with and get to school.
Whoeveritwas said, ‘I can bring you to town.’ His words came out as a low growl.
I managed a frightened, ‘Thanks.’ My eyes hadn’t left the road ahead, but something about this set-up confused me. Thinking that didn’t help. Burger boxes and coke cans swarmed around my feet. I hoped they were empty. Nasty wet-dog smell from the back seat. A queer knocking sound from the engine. But it wasn’t any of these that confused me. It had to do with the driver. How he moved. How his hands moved. His hand movements were weird. My stomach knotted while the sweating went up a notch. For the second time this morning I struggled to figure out what was going on. I had to know more. A slight twist of my head and movement of the eyes and I saw what was wrong.
Why me? Why did he have to stop? Why didn’t I walk to the damn bus?
He’d spotted me. ‘I suppose you’re wonderin’ about the steerin’ wheel?’ Belly laugh.
What do I say? What do I do?
If only I’d been able to ask him to stop. All I could do was quickly shake my head—but not too much. Getting on this maniac’s bad-side wouldn’t be a good idea.
‘I lost five straight games of pool and fifty quid to that bastard Cheevers last week. I kept it together in the bar, but by Jesus the steerin’ wheel got the brunt of it after. It ended up in three pieces.’ Another bellylaugh. ‘Anyways, these vise grips are as good as any steerin’ wheel.’
I gave up trying to stop shaking.
‘Did you start that essay yet?’
‘Not yet. Tonight, hopefully.’
‘You’ll do well on that.’
Editorial comment: For me the problem with this submission is pretty immediate. The whole piece is written, quite competently, in a reasonably close first person PoV. A writer would choose this PoV because it is immersive, draws us naturally in to the character, allows us to develop a profound empathy with the character’s desires and ambitions, and lets us experience the story from the character’s unique perspective. It’s often a good choice for YA coming-of-age stories, which this book is, because that kind of story is often about the development of the PoV character above all else.
So my question to this author would be: Having gone through all that reasoning, correctly identified your genre, chosen an appropriate immersive close PoV, and gone to the trouble of carefully crafting your opening in that PoV, why would you then choose to hide apparently vital pieces of information from the reader, pieces of information that we have to assume are important, because the main character mentions them in the first few paragraphs?
The whole point of an immersive PoV is that the reader experiences the story from the perspective of the character. We share their journey, feel their pain, see what they see, empathise with their needs. How then can you withhold from the reader what the character is saying and seeing not once, but three times in the opening paragraph?
We are not told what sentence is on the piece of paper. Since the scene is very much “of the moment” and the paper is folded, that might be okay, but then the character actually enunciates what is written on the paper, as he does “every day” and we are still not told what the sentence is. How can we empathise with a character if we don’t know what he’s saying?
Then he sees an unexpected colour in the mirror. We don’t know what colour it is, and have to wait 65 words until “blood” is mentioned, by which time we’ve almost forgotten what question we were asking (what is the colour he’s seeing?).
Then he leaves the house, walks round to his bedroom window and notes that the “three” are still on his desk. What “three”? Nope. We’re not told. Was it the “Globe, football game, wallet” of the very first few lines? We’re just guessing. We don’t know what significance those three items have for the character (or the significance of their not moving—does he have some kind of OCD fixation? The synopsis mentions his “carefully controlled existence”), but because other information has been hidden from us, we don’t know what to think. Perhaps these are another three things that we haven’t yet been told about? We’re not bedded into the character, who tells us nothing more and just slopes off to meet his school bus. I’m lost at this point, and we’re only a few hundred words into the opening.
You’ve done a lot right with this opening. It’s competently written. There are a few copy-editing niggles to sort out but nothing major, nothing really that might prevent you going straight to an agent. But this issue with trust and PoV consistency is fundamental. If you write in an immersive PoV there’s no point in hiding things from the reader. You’re just destroying all that carefully built up empathy, throwing up barriers left, right and centre between the reader and the character you most want us to be close to.
What’s on the folded paper? If it’s important to the plot we must know what’s written there if the main character not only knows, but actually says it out loud. If it isn’t, why even mention it? Why don’t we see the colour of blood in the mirror, at the same moment our character does? That would be far more shocking, and let us experience the character’s own horror, than “hearing about the idea that he thought he was seeing blood” half a paragraph later. If the three things are sitting on his desk are the globe etc, why are you delaying our understanding of them? Surely it is in your interests to draw us in to the character, to make us aware of his obsessions and fears as soon as possible, not make deliberate attempts to keep us in the dark?
Okay. Perhaps you do reveal everything, perhaps even in the next few pages, so I’m ridiculously overthinking this and should just chill out altogether? But I have to stress this repeatedly. An agent starts at word one and reads until they find something that throws them out of the story. There’s a good chance that if they find a problem that throws them out of the story in the first few sentences, they’ll move on. They’ve a dozen more new submissions to get through that morning before their eleven o’clock meeting, after all, and maybe one of them will be brilliant. On the basis of these opening few pages, I think most agents would worry about your ability to maintain a consistency in your close third person PoV, and too much authorial intervention in the natural processing of information from the story. If this is problematic in the very first few lines, they might jump to the conclusion that it may well reoccur throughout. That might be an unfair assumption, but the publishing business isn’t fair.
It’s a rare fault, so thanks for submitting and letting us explore the issue. There’s not much else wrong with this opening, so I’d recommend rethinking these authorial sleights-of-hand and retelling this opening (and anywhere else this type of problem resurfaces later on in the book) in a true immersive third person PoV. Try not to interpose yourself, as author, in between your readers and the characters—let the characters tell their own stories.
Thanks for posting!