A revisit to TOL for this author. How does this reworked opening compare?
Title: About Ben
Genre: Womens’ Fiction
Language: British English
Synopsis: A woman’s dream of becoming a professional singer is hampered by family responsibility and a dysfunctional relationship.
As her marriage descends into an ongoing battle, she finds the courage to fight back.
It was a slow night. Between serving I perched on a stool behind the bar and visualised the music for the following day.
‘Alright girlie?’ Cyril, one of our regulars, was watching me. I had probably been mouthing lyrics.
‘She’s quiet tonight,’ said Sissy, a neighbour and my mother’s friend. ‘For a change.’
I got up as two stray tourists, presumably passengers from the liner docked at Deep Water Quay, stepped into the bar. Pulling two half pints of Guinness, I set them on the bar to settle and waited while they counted out euros. I was at the till when my phone vibrated in my pocket. Ben.
‘Hi.’ I tried to keep my tone noncommittal, aware of all eyes on me.
‘Hello, you. How did the rehearsal go?’
‘Bit of a tug of war to start with. But we settled eventually.’ I watched the tourists taking pictures of the bar and the dark timber beams overhead.
‘Are you back in the pub?’
‘Yes. Give me a second.’ I topped up the Guinness halves, set them back on the counter and moved to the bottom of the stairs, turning my back on the barflies.
‘Now. I’m all yours.’
‘Glad to hear it.’
That voice. The night we met, if I hadn’t seen him before the lights dimmed, if he had simply murmured in my ear in the dark amphitheatre, his voice alone would have stirred something deeply primal in me.
‘It’s going to be a late night here,’ he said. ‘What time is the wedding?’
‘Two. I’m meeting Fintan there at one, for a last run through.’
‘I’ll take a long lunch. I’ll pick you up at twelve thirty.’
‘No! I don’t want you there.’
In the hurt silence I could have bitten my tongue off.
‘That came out wrong,’ I said. ‘What I meant is that I need to be alone. To focus.’
‘I will be really quiet. A literal church mouse.’
‘Do you have any idea how much of a distraction you are?’
‘But I want to hear you.’
‘You have heard me.’
‘Impromptu late- night sing songs to the philistines in your parent’s pub? I want to hear you properly. I want to soak up every perfect note that falls from those luscious lips.’
He made my singing sound like foreplay. Which was precisely why he couldn’t be there.
‘I want to support you.’
‘You do.’ I said. ‘If I wanted anyone there, it would be you. But this is something that I have to do alone.’ I changed tack. ‘Why don’t I meet you at the hotel afterwards?’
He sighed softly. ‘If you insist.’
After numerous murmured goodbyes I pocketed my phone and turned back to the bar.
‘Right! Anyone in need of a refill?’
Sissy stared at my flushed cheeks. ‘She’s completely gaga over this latest chap.’
‘I certainly am not, not that it would be any of your business if I was.’ I served two drinks and mopped the bar. Lifting the flap, I went outside to sweep the pavement. Apart from a naval vessel crossing to the base the harbour was still, the sea and the sky blending in grey. I leaned on my brush for a few minutes and inhaled the oceanic calm, watched a flock of birds flying home before dark.
Going back inside, I threw cigarette butts into the bin and emptied the slop tray. I had just resumed my station behind the bar when Donna and Jackie came in.
‘What’s going on?’ For a minute I thought that I had forgotten an arranged meeting.
‘We wanted to wish you luck,’ Donna said, shrugging out of her denim jacket.
Jackie was still in her scrubs: she must have come straight from her shift.
‘What will it be? On the house,’ I said, just as mam appeared by my side. I hadn’t heard her coming downstairs. It was those ancient slippers that she shuffled around in all day. I had been frequently caught out in my misspent youth by those stealthy slippers.
‘Vodka and coke, please.’ Jackie said, opening the door to the Ladies. ‘Back in a minute.’
‘Mineral water for me,’ Donna said, leaning on the bar. ‘How are you, Mrs Baxter?’
‘Can’t complain,’ Mam said, in a tone that smacked of the opposite.
I took three glasses from the shelf behind the bar and poured the drinks, adding an orange juice for myself.
‘Can I take a break?’ I asked Mam, taking money from my purse and putting it in the till under her watchful eye.
She nodded, looking around the bar. ‘Nothing much happening here anyway.’
We took the drinks over to our favourite seat by the window.
‘How are you feeling?’ I asked Donna softly. Only a select few of us knew about her pregnancy. So far, she had only told Fitz, Jackie and me.
‘Don’t ask.’ She had always been pale but the slight tinge of colour on her face had leached away, her freckles prominent against her pallor. And she had lost weight, as if this barely formed human was already draining her reserves.
‘I saw Ben leaving,’ she said, sipping her mineral water.
I shook my head. ‘Ben wasn’t here.’
Jackie emerged in jeans and a vest top that accentuated her slender frame.
‘That’s better,’ she said, bundling her scrubs into her bag and sliding in beside us.
Donna was still looking at me. ‘I saw him drive away when I was on my way to the station to meet Jackie.’
‘Saw who?’ Jackie said, reaching for her drink.
‘Donna thought she saw Ben,’ I said. ‘But it couldn’t have been. He rang me half an hour ago, on his break at the hotel.’
‘I’m sure it was him.’
‘Well, if he’s at work, clearly it wasn’t.’ Jackie said, exasperated. ‘Anyway, why would be hanging around outside, and not calling in?’
Donna shrugged, beaten. ‘Well, I thought it was his car.’
‘His car!’ Jackie rolled her eyes, making me smile.
This is a revisit to TOL for this author with this book, this opening being completely different to the previous one which I thought was a reasonable start but one that needed a bit of copyediting and tweaking of the rather distant PoV. However, reworking that beginning hasn’t resulted in the author being picked up by any agents, so here we’re trying something new.
Firstly the writing standard. Much higher this time round. This author has really learned their craft in the last two and a half years. There are a couple of minor details but nothing that could remotely put an agent off reading.
Now, the actual opening scene. I’m at an advantage here because I’ve read the full book, and I know that there’s an inkling into the major plot development in the very last few lines of this scene, but if I came to this entirely fresh I would have a problem with the slow pace. There’s not a lot that appears to happen in this first thousand words. There’s a long conversation with her boyfriend, which is rather indecisive. He suggests one course of action, she insists on another, he agrees – no real drama. Then there’s a bit of banter with her girlfriends and finally, in the last few lines, the hint that Ben wasn’t miles away at work, but sitting outside in his car. But the idea is so easily dismissed by the main character that you wouldn’t, I’m guessing, jump to the conclusion that her perfectly supportive and amenable boyfriend has hidden qualities that are going to be thrown into sharp focus later on in the book. I think it’s a little too subtle, if I’m honest. If Donna had said outright “I’m sure it was him. I didn’t see his face but he was wearing that blue-checked shirt and red tie combo he always wears” … If there was something that made us immediately sit up and think, “Oh, that WAS weird. What was he doing pretending he was miles away across the city?” or if there was some immediate doubt in Maggie’s mind rather than blanket dismissal, we might suddenly be intrigued. Even so, this could happen earlier. Is there a reason we have to empty the cigarette butts and empty the slops tray and sweep the pavement outside and look at the birds and the ship in the harbour etc. etc.? (But how refreshing to read an opening that doesn’t start with the name of the main character spelled out in the first sentence “Maggie Baxter, twenty five years old, with a blond bob and slim but curvy figure, perched on a stool behind the bar …”) I would suggest reworking this, only slightly, to get to the crux of the point you want to make in this opening scene and ever so slightly tweak the emphasis of the hint that you’re dropping so that we have some sudden doubt, too. You can’t overdo it, because you’re writing in a reasonably close PoV and part of the developing story will be that Maggie is, essentially, an unreliable narrator. She doesn’t want to believe what we, the reader, can see is happening, and therein lies the tension of the plot.
I don’t think you’re quite there yet with this opening, but definitely on the right path. In your previous version there was none of the incipient tension that could develop here with a little tweaking.
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