Here’s another opening from a serial submitter! This YA author has a lot of talent, and from what I’ve seen has great story lines and a tight clean writing style with a strong voice. All the more important then, to make sure that the opening few pages are as good as they can be. Is this manuscript ready to go, or does it need copy-editing first?
Title: The Night We Met
Language: Canadian English
Synopsis: Homeless teenager Lucy Pembroke breaks into a suburban family’s shed, only to get caught by their son. Despite her disliking of the privileged, Lucy finds herself falling for him, only to discover that his life is not as perfect as it seems.
When the driver shoves me off the bus, I trip over my Timberlands and land ass-first in a snowbank. Cold wetness burns the backs of my thighs, and his caterpillar brows stitch as he points his fat finger at me.
“You pay for the damn bus like everyone else, kid. Next time I catch you sneaking on, I’m calling the cops.”
I hock a snowball at the closing door. “Asshole!”
The bus soaks me in a tidal wave of slush as it drives away. I catch my bedraggled reflection in the windows: a permanent scowl on my face, bangs clumped to my forehead, skin ghoulish and pale. Passengers peer through the glass like I’m some sort of zoo animal, but to hell with what they think. They don’t know me. Or what I’ve been through.
Keeping my dignity intact, I dust off my flannel and hide my face in my mittens to warm my cheeks with my breath. Damn, on the coldest night of the year, too. Stupid bus driver. All I wanted was a lift, a little bit of shelter from this arctic weather, but it was dumb of me to think he’d show me kindness. Doesn’t matter if red and green lights illuminate the block, or if Santa Claus flies with his reindeer on the billboard above. It’s Christmastime in Godfrey and the only people who give a shit are those rich enough to celebrate it.
Whatever. I’m closer now than I was three blocks ago. Silver linings, right? Got to keep moving.
Snow devours the city like volcanic ash, and the half-moon is obscured by layers of clouds. Nerves twist my belly. I’d rather be at Brett and Alecia’s right now, mindlessly watching Brett play Fallout from the safe warmth of his couch, but I need cash, and I need it quick. Alecia made it clear that she’s sick of my freeloading. I hate feeling like a mooch, hate being a burden, so I’m stepping up.
I want: a violin, extra minutes on my phone, and a big bag of Cheetos.
I need: a good meal, a winter coat, and probably some vitamin B12.
I have: a backpack filled with useless junk.
Maybe after tonight, I’ll be able to pitch on groceries at Brett and Alecia’s. I’ll get a burger with extra bacon. Fries dipped in a Wendy’s Frosty. I’ll ride that bus over and over just to prove to that driver that I’m more than some vagrant girl he can toss around.
The east end of Godfrey City is all fancy-schmancy neighbourhoods, regal homes, Beamers and SUVs. Hauling myself over the brick wall of a gated residential, I land in a world that might as well be another planet. Aside from the whipping of the wind, it’s as silent as a cemetery. This whole place is trapped in a safe snowglobe, guarded from all the bad in this city. All but me, I guess.
The air stings my face, but I push forward. At the top of a hill, my destination shines through the sleet like a beacon of light. Two stories of yellow brick ascend into the storm, while the lawn is alive with glowing reindeer. With bated breath, I creep along the hedges until I find a window that’s open a crack. The smell of cooking onions leaks into the night and makes my mouth water. Don’t think about food. Think about money for food. One step at a time.
Inside, the family sits at a long table under the light of a crystal chandelier. Gold ornaments, white wreaths, silver tinsel—these are the people who love the holidays. Like the bus driver, they wouldn’t give me the time of day. But that’s why I’m here to take it.
For the past three weeks, this family has left every Friday like clockwork—eight p.m sharp, right after a cozy meal. I’ve named them the Johnsons, because they’re stock-photo typical: Mom and Dad, plus two boys and a girl. With their matching fair skin and dark chocolate hair, they’re like porcelain dolls, delicate and noble.
My frigid palms get clammy as I hide in the bushes, watching, waiting. Like every other time I’ve spied on them, my attention gravitates to the middle child. I’ve named him John Jr.—Junior for short. He’s cute, I guess, in a teenage sort of way. Short brown hair that swoops over his forehead, big blue eyes that look uncertain of the world around him…
I see you, Junior. But does he see the disgruntled way his dad looks at him? Maybe that’s why Junior always looks so bummed. Despite the homey atmosphere, he sits with slouched shoulders, eyes glued to the sad mound of poked-at spaghetti on his plate. What’s he got to mope about? Failed quiz? Dad yell at him? Boohoo.
Beneath the wind, I catch snippets of their conversation.
“So.” The dad points his fork at Junior. “You’re not coming, then.”
“Dad,” Junior seethes, “I already told you, it’s not happening.”
“Stop it, you two,” the mom utters. An ill silence falls over their table, and Junior stabs a meatball, but doesn’t eat it. Ungrateful rich kid. I’d give anything for that meatball.
There’s only five-percent battery left on my phone. 7:47 p.m. I swallow the lump in my throat. Once eight hits, they should be gone for hours—and their stuff will be fair game. A smile curls at my lips.
Finders keepers, losers weepers.
Editorial critique: This opening is written in first person present tense, unusual (I think it’s the first on this site) but very effective, especially for YA. The PoV and style immediately lends the opening an air of immediacy and urgency.
There’s nothing wrong with the writing. The main character has a clear voice, we immediately get a feel for who she is. However, the problem is that the better a submission, the more in detail I can get to look at it. Here there are definitely a few copy-editing suggestions I’d make to help the sentences flow better:
I think the bus driving away covering her in a tidal wave of slush has gone (it would be the rear wheels that cover her in slush, wouldn’t it?) but I’m then surprised to read her looking at her reflection in the windows, and passengers looking out at her after the bus has gone. Perhaps change the order of those sentences?
“Keeping my dignity intact” seems a misstep. She’s been thrown off a bus, covered in slush, her backside soaked from snow. I’m not sure she has any dignity at this stage. Perhaps trying to regain her dignity?
I’m not too sure what you mean by “flannel”? I’m presuming you mean whatever she’s wearing on her legs, but I think “dust off” is an odd choice of words to describe getting rid of this particular snow. From the other descriptors, slush, and wet thighs, this isn’t the type of snow that you would describe as a dusting (I’m imagining dirty wet snow, half melted from road salt and half refrozen).
The “I want … I need … I have” section seems a bit artificial, a bit self-regarding. It takes us out of the otherwise quite compelling build of tension and her sense of purpose and direction. It’s quite clever, but … use it somewhere else in the book perhaps? It strikes me that it would be good as the opening to a subsequent chapter, but is a bit awkward in the middle of a scene. There’s a sense here that with this interjection the pace of the scene slows significantly, and I think you’d be better advised to keep the momentum going.
When people describe a group of BMWs, they’re “Beemers”, at least, in every occurrence I’ve seen of the term.
I wonder at her being able to just climb over the wall of a gated residential. That would seem to defeat the purpose of the wall, and the gates, and is “gated residential”, without any further noun-detail like “development”, a standalone phrase?
And lastly, although I get that it serves your plot purpose, why on earth does this family, sitting round their dinner table, have the window open, on what you’ve already described as the coldest night of the year? If you want your character to hear this dialogue, which for plot purposes I think you’re going to say you do, I think you might have to work out a different method. Perhaps have this conversation on the doorstep as the rest of the family are leaving? Or perhaps the boy comes out to fetch logs or something, with his dad yelling after him?
I don’t want to go on too long because that would make it appear that there’s lots wrong with this opening. There’s nothing structural, only needling little copy-editing problems, but I read recently on an agent’s blog that these days even agents want prose to be perfect. It seems unfair, but I think you need to bear that in mind when submitting. As I’ve said to you before, you could probably get away with submitting this to agents as is, but I would hate it to be dismissed for such tiny issues. If it were to be self-published, then it does need copy-editing, because I suspect that there would be similar issues throughout.
In submissions to this site that do have structural problems, I don’t even get to mention copy-editing problems. It’s only the fact that your scene is so good that allows me the chance to comment on a detailed level. That’s probably not much consolation, but it’s all I can offer!
Thanks for posting.
Oh God, I was laughing at myself at the part about the window being open – I have no idea why I wrote that in. 😛 I think a lot of this is a similar situation as my first submission, now that you’ve pointed everything out, I think I was trying way too hard, especially with the I want… I need… I have… thing. Which I will definitely remove, the last thing I want is to kill momentum or sound artificial!! I also don’t think I need to have the dialogue, I can probably just have her make observations about the family, as I did with an earlier version of the story. The open window is new. 😛
Reading your suggestions definitely gives me a better idea of little logic errors I need to look out for when I do the final edits! I’m definitely going to submit this one to agents once I have everything edited, so thank you SO much for this. I will absolutely be taking your suggestions 🙂 I want my prose to be as perfect as possible, as I know getting an agent is so cutthroat these days. Thanks again!
It’s hard to see those errors in your own work – you’re generally too close to the story. That’s why editors, or at least a second pair of eyes, are so important. Best of luck with your submissions. Keep us posted with any good news!