Less is sometimes more. Instead of telling us all we need to know about a character from very early on, it’s often far more interesting for the reader to discover these facts about a character as they read on. In fact, leaving the reader in the dark, and forcing them to read on to find out, is a brilliant way of making your writing more immersive. If the reader is intrigued, you’ve already got them thinking about what they’re reading, instead of where they are (stuck on the 5:25pm stopping train to Orpington on a wet Tuesday in November), and that’s what you’re aiming for.
Language: British English
Synopsis: Pardis Police are hunting an expat, his mission’s to blow up an Air Pardis aircraft. They arrest a local girl, Nora, to help with their enquiries. Jackie, the cabin crew manager, pulls strings to get Nora released but her benevolent meddling plunges Nora and her mother into more serious danger.
Jackie Diamond was sitting cross legged on her daybed at the edge of the Arabian Sea. She was dressed in short shorts and a vest, her hair was pulled into a pony tail. Slender and tanned, with an athletic frame, she had a figure the flight deck wives envied: “You can tell she’s never had children!” Jackie was writing a letter, it was taking much longer than she had planned, earlier unsatisfactory drafts had angry lines criss-crossed through them. “How can half a dozen sentences be so difficult to compose? It’s not as if this is the first time I’ve written a letter like this!” She stretched out a manicured hand to gently stroke fluffy blond Milly, curled up on the day bed beside her. She said, “It’s not as if this is the first time Arthur has got into trouble! Just as well I have friends in high places! Pardis Today were really quite sweet when I asked them to mislay the press release. A flight to New York on Dreamliner is cheap at the price of the negative publicity.”
Milly thumped her banner of tail and let rip a small bark in agreement. Jackie laughed and breathed in the fresh salty air, she tasted the tang of the Sea. As always the view from her daybed was holiday brochure perfection, the sky was sapphire with small scudding clouds, the sea was a dazzling emerald and on the horizon bobbed a picturesque dhow boat with a triangular sail. The island of Pardis was a gorgeous oasis, a jewel in the Arabian Sea, people said ‘Oh lucky you!’ when she told them her home was on Pardis.
Such a shame the tranquillity had to be broken by black belching smoke from the village of Kashmir, less than a mile round the bay. This was the third time in less than a week that boys had set fire to the road. The fires and the screaming of fire engine sirens were becoming a regular feature, not just in Kashmir but Abyan too, and Mocha and Sind and the other small hamlets on the eastern seaboard to the Old Town.
Jackie read once again the last draft of her letter, an official, officious, legal style letter. “Not quite what I’d like to say but it’s going to have to do.” She jumped onto silky white sand and started to pack her work folder, files, printouts and letters, into a large wicker basket.
“Madam, madam, I am coming to help you.” Soft footed Saba appeared through the palm trees, ageless, smiling, serene, and wearing an apron of dazzling white. In her lovely lilting Pardis accent she said, “It is time to prepare for your night flight. I have run the camomile bath.”
Jackie stuck her feet into flip flops. She said, “You’re right. I must start getting ready. I’ve not packed my suitcase. Not written a shopping list. Is there anything you want in London?”
Saba smoothed out Pardis Today and put it into the basket. She gathered up the cushions off the daybed and tucked them under her arm. She said, “There’s nothing I want but if you don’t mind, Nora would like you to take a birthday present to Beatrice. I’ll understand if you say no, I know you don’t carry parcels for people.”
“Of course I’ll take it. I’m happy to take it! I’m also taking a card from her father. He’s bringing it over this evening.”
They walked together back up to the villa. The heat had gone out of the afternoon, the shadows were starting to lengthen, a bird sang from Jackie’s veranda, jasmine perfumed the air. Soon mosquitoes would start their night feeding and frogs would sing from the shadowy places. “I’m told it’s snowing in London,” said Jackie.
“I’ve never seen snow,” said Saba.
Jackie opened the lid of her battered black Delsey. Quickly she packed for the trip, she packed for both business and pleasure. She was going to interview a possible stewardess, a young woman called Caitlin Hennessey, for that she’d wear Air Pardis uniform. Then she was meeting her god-daughter, Beatrice. Beatrice had emailed to say she was booking a table for two at Samsara, ‘your favourite Pardisian restaurant and mine.’ So hard to believe Beatrice was almost eighteen. Where had the years gone? They’d flown since she was an innocent imp running naked and shameless through the garden with Nora. What should she wear to Samsara? The elegant understated Diane Von Furstenberg, or the riot of colour and texture from Odd Molly? She threw them both into the suitcase, with her Birkin and brown cashmere coat.
Jackie’s night flight to London was nine hours direct and for every minute of those nine long night hours she was expected to remain awake and alert, ready to leap into action in an emergency situation or to answer a call bell with a fresh smile if a passenger rang for attention. Jackie had learned from exhausted experience that she needed at least three hours deep, dreamless sleep before Lights! Camera! Action!- the night flight to London or else she’d be burnt-out on landing, fit only to lie in a comatose heap on her bed in the Crew Hotel, too tired even to answer the telephone or to go for a drink with the Crew. It had happened before, it could happen again, Jackie asleep in full uniform while the world kept on turning without her. She lit tall pale candles in her bedroom and bathroom and switched off the overhead lights. Selected Phyllis Nelson on her IPod and docked it. The opening bars of Move Closer were playing as she slipped into the bath and breathed in camomile fumes. Oh bliss! Oh sweet relaxation! Humming, she ran her hands over her body, enjoying the delicate dents at her throat, the knots of her nipples, the corrugated bumps of her ribs, the small swell of her belly, the hard cage of her pelvis. She lifted her legs from the hot scented water, straight up at a right angle; the water streamed off; she pointed her toes, then flexed, pointed and flexed till her muscles stopped screaming, and tight tendons behind her knees stretched. Then she bent her legs with a small moan of relief and slipped them under the water.
“Now I can start to relax,” murmured Jackie, euphoric and drowsy in the camomile fumes.
Editorial comment: You’ve mentioned the fact that you haven’t quite finished this book yet. You must finish it. Don’t let this submission deter you from that. It’s only after the book is complete that you should start looking at it in greater detail from a self-editing perspective. If a writer stops to get feedback on every stage of writing a book, they often never finish it.
With that warning out of the way, there are a number of problems with this submission. In such a case, it’s probably worthwhile focusing on the biggest issue (if you tried to correct everything all at once, you might get confused, and then disheartened). The biggest problem is that old problem of telling us what’s happening, rather than showing us. If you corrected this single flaw, a lot of other bad writing habits would probably sort themselves out. Let’s have a look at the very first sentence.
“Jackie Diamond was sitting cross legged on her daybed at the edge of the Arabian Sea.” This is very efficient writing. In 16 words you give us the character’s name and their precise location. However, it’s not at all immersive. You tell us her name. You tell us how she is sitting, on what piece of furniture and where, geographically, that furniture is placed. This kind of writing is very remote from the character – it reads like good non-fiction, the kind of writing we’re taught at school for essays and company reports. But this is fiction.
Let’s think about what we really need to know. To start with, why tell us her name? “Well, we need to know who she is,” you might say. We don’t, actually. Not really. Does your name tell someone who’s never met you anything about you whatsoever? No, it doesn’t. It gives them a clue about your gender, and helps pin down nationality and (perhaps) race, but it doesn’t tell them anything about who you are. Who you are is a lot more interesting than what you’re called. Who you are is about you. What you’re called is an accident of your parents’ imaginations. Don’t get me wrong. Lots of books, including bestsellers, start with the character’s name, as if the author isn’t confident we actually know who the book is about. I don’t understand it. We will find out who the book is about, if we carry on reading, and not telling us blandly from the outset means we’re more likely to read on to find out, than stop reading because we don’t know.
Does it matter that she’s sitting cross-legged (hyphen there, usually, by the way)? No, but perhaps it’s an indication as to her level of fitness, or suppleness, or age.
Does it matter she’s sitting on a daybed? Almost certainly not, but perhaps it adds a certain langour to the scene.
And “at the edge of the Arabian Sea”? Instead of giving us a map reference, why not show us where she is? How would you do this? You do it very easily later on, by mentioning a specific type of boat. So how about, for a new opening line: “She sat cross-legged on her daybed, watching the triangular sail of a dhow making its slow way across the horizon.” We actually know less about her with this sentence. We don’t know her name and we don’t know for sure that it’s the Arabian Sea, but we don’t really need to know her name, and we can make an educated guess that its the Arabian Sea by the dhow. By not giving specifics, you’re encouraging your reader to engage with the book. Instead of spelling it out, you’re encouraging the reader to think things out for themselves. Without being aware of it, your reader is much more engaged if they have to think what words imply.
We don’t need all the physical description that follows. Again, that’s telling us, not showing us, and it’s not really that interesting. If her physical appearance is actually vital to the plot, then think of ways to work that in to the story rather than just bluntly telling us she is “slender and tanned with an athletic frame”. Otherwise, leave it out. Physical appearance of characters is rarely as important as an author thinks it is, and if it is important, there will come a time in the book when it’s relevant. That time isn’t now, in the first couple of lines of your book. You might say, “But we’re getting to know the character”. We’re not, really, are we? Do you think that looks define a person in real life, that they tell us about a person’s character? I suppose you might, but most people would think that quite a shallow perspective.
The next interesting thing is that she’s writing a letter, and having a hard time doing it. Again you tell us, bluntly. “Jackie was writing a letter, it was taking much longer than she had planned”. Why not show us this, instead? You could mention a breeze rattling the discarded drafts at her feet. You could add on to the first sentence something like “…and tapping her pen against her chin.” In both cases, the reader is encouraged to put two and two together. You tap your pen against your chin when you’re thinking about what to write. Discarded drafts around your feet mean you’re having a hard time coming up with a final version of whatever it is you’re trying to write.
The rest of this paragraph is a slightly different problem. She’s talking aloud, ostensibly to her dog. One of the sentences she says to “Milly” is “A flight to New York on Dreamliner is cheap at the price of the negative publicity.” Not only does this sentence not make much sense, but she’s saying it to a dog. It’s what’s known as “maid and butler” dialogue, a character saying something aloud for no reason other than again, telling us, the readers, what she knows. Whatever this story about the press release and friends in high places, there has to be a better way to divulge the information than in a monologue to a dog.
Looking down the rest of the first page there’s an interesting mention of “trouble in paradise”, belching black smoke coming from the neighbouring village, and there’s a little dialogue emerging between Jackie and Saba that immediately sets a different tone to the writing (although another example of maid-and-butler dialogue when Saba says, “It is time to prepare for your night flight”), so there are indications that you can write, and clear clues that a story will be developing.
Unfortunately, I don’t believe an agent would read much beyond the first paragraph before they decided that this book is going to need some serious revision and rewriting, and therefore not ready for publishing.
However, as I said at the very outset, you must finish the book first. Get to the end. It’s of primary importance to finish before you start revising. Otherwise you run the risk of never finishing, and that would be a shame.
Thanks for posting.