Today, I'm going to critique the opening of the first manuscript I ever wrote. The working title was VOICE ON THE WIND. (Believe me, that voice was a cry for help!) I haven't looked at this in years, so it's practically new to me. This is the sort of critique I give and expect to receive from my critique partner. My comments are in red.
1866 (If I'm going to give the date, I should add the place: Savanah)
The bay gelding’s feet were wrapped with cloth to muffle the tattoo of his hooves on the cobbled streets. (Not a bad opener, but not great either. At least there's a hint of a question. Why is the rider trying not to be heard?) Every creak of leather and harness seemed unnaturally loud to the lone rider. His gray-green eyes, icy and forbidding as the Irish Sea, scanned the occasional passerby in the steamy night, searching for familiar faces. (I think I'm in this guy's POV, but it's such a distant view, I'm not sure. How about if I said 'He winced at every creak of leather and harness.'? It's much more immediate and I get a better sense of him. Wouldn't hurt to slip in his name. I need to cut the next part. No guy thinks about his own eyes as 'icy and forbidding as the Irish Sea'. The word 'scanned' leaps out at me as too contemporary. Sure enough, it wasn't used like this till 1926.) If they caught him there, they would kill him. (OK that's a good hook.)
Down by the river, the folks in shantytown had pulled their beds outside, hoping for a stray breeze on the hottest May night in recent memory. (Could I be more wordy? I should cut everything after 'breeze') To avoid them, he reined his horse down a rutted alley. Silently, he lifted a shirt and pair of trousers from a sagging clothesline, changed into them and stuffed his uniform into his saddlebag. (Wait a minute! He stole someone's clothes. Is this the hero or the villain? And what's his name anyway?) Even now, more than a year after Lee surrendered to Grant, it wouldn’t do to be caught alone in Savannah in a Union uniform. (With this sentence, I don't need to give the date and place at the beginning. It irritates readers when writers are redundant and say the same thing twice! ;-))
Especially since he spoke with a southern accent. (Ok this is an intriguing tidbit. He's a Southerner who fought for the Union. That makes for a conflicted character. I'd keep reading.)
Up on the hill, where the fine homes and the fine people were, he slowed the bay to a walk before moving into the eerie gaslight. (Usually, I redflag repeated words, but using 'fine' twice here is deliberate for emphasis.) Ponderous live oaks, heavily bearded with Spanish moss, concealed him in shadow as he stole into a small graveyard. He tethered his mount to the wrought iron fence near the mass grave for last year’s scarlet fever victims. (Evocative. I can see the scene, but I can't hear, smell or feel it. Use all the senses. If he hasn't been there, how does he know about last year's scarlet fever outbreak?)
“Be still now, Davy.” He gave the gelding a reassuring pat on the neck. (What? I know the horse's name, but I still don't know who this guy I'm following around is?) “I’ll be right back.” From there, he’d be safer on foot.
He moved with the stealthy grace of a panther, every tensed muscle under complete control. The borrowed trousers weren’t quite long enough for his legs and he could barely button the shirt across his broad chest. His hair was such a dark brown it was nearly black. His Celtic ancestors had bequeathed him fair skin and the contrast with his hair was striking. A raw-boned wildness in his features and turbulent pale eyes made his a face that sent many feminine hearts into palpitation. He would have been considered handsome save for the scar that ran from the tip of his right eyebrow nearly down to his square jaw. Even though the scar left him with a rakish and slightly arrogant expression, some women thought that only added to his attractiveness. Men recognized him as a dangerous man, one not afraid of a fight. (Where do I begin? First of all, if I'm in his POV, I can't have him give this self description. And if he did, he wouldn't use these words. They aren't "guy-speak." The whole thing has to go. Parts of it can be salted in later in small increments, preferably from an interested female's POV. No 'stealthy grace of a panther' though unless she regularly works with wild animals.)
But he wasn’t looking for a fight just then. He was just looking to see her. (Finally, we know what he's up to. Sort of. The whole scene is a little nebulous.)
The young man traced a route from his childhood through several expansive yards, past splattering fountains, and a rose garden perfuming the night with early buds. (Yay! Something to hear and smell!) A geriatric bloodhound roused himself from a carriage house doorway and nearly raised a tired alarm. (Oh, no. Geriatric wasn't a word until 1909! And if he nearly raised the alarm how do we know it would have been tired?)
“Hush, Boomer.” He massaged behind the dog’s long limp ear. “It’s only me.” (I've got to be kidding me. Now I've told the horse's name AND the dog's name, but not the guy's name. Sheesh!)
Boomer whined in pleasure and thumped his tail against the intruder’s legs. Boomer’s master would have been less welcoming if he’d known who was softly trekking across his property. The young soldier took a moment to survey the dark outline of the elegant house he grew up in. (Point of grammar. Don't end a sentence with a preposition.) The house where he was no longer welcome. (Ok, I'm liking this guy. I always pull for the outcast underdog, but what the heck is his name?)
Nimbly, he scaled the rock wall and dropped into the neighboring lawn. Here the fountain was plugged with old leaves and sludge. The Georgian-style home, grand enough in its prime, now whimpered for a fresh coat of paint. A graying shutter on the upper story swayed drunkenly on one hinge. No lamps were burning, but he could see in the moonlight that her window had been left open. (A tad overwritten. I'm personifying the house too much. Be careful about -ly words. I highlighted them in orange through out. I try to limit myself to 2 to a page. I've got 2 to a paragraph here. Think long and hard over whether adverbs are necessary. No guy would think of a home as Georgian-style unless he's not the sort to be interested in a woman's open window. But the open window suggests we're getting closer to the guy's goal.)
He sprinted across the yard and climbed the ancient cottonwood that overhung the narrow veranda girdling the upper story. Cat-footed, he dropped onto the veranda and froze, listening for sounds of arousal in the house. (Bet I mean 'rousal', not 'arousal' at this point.) Not a breeze stirred the muggy night, the air as thick as warm honey. Sweat trickled in rivulets down the ridge of his spine. Only the crickets’ song, and the low rhythmic march that he recognized as his own heartbeat, resounded in his ears. (Now I'm in a good tight POV. My heart is in sinc with his, but I still don't know the guy's name!)
The beckoning window stood open. (We know that already.) His body momentarily blocked the moonlight that fingered its way over the sleeping form under the gauzy mosquito netting. The sleeper was a young woman; a fitful sleeper to judge from the way her sheets lay bunched by her feet. (Oops! I've told then shown. If the sheets are bunched by her feet I'm insulting my readers by telling them she's a fitful sleeper. They can already see that.) Her coppery hair, in near-torrential waves, spilled over her pillow and curled in damp tendrils at her temples. The humid night air caused her thin shift to mold itself to the peaks and valleys of her form. (Near torrential waves of hair is serious overkill. Tone it down, girl. And I can tighten up the next sentence to 'Her thin shift molded to the peaks and valleys of her form.' Cuts 7 words. Less really is more. And he knows her name. If he told us the horse's name and the dog's name, he can think the girl's name, for Pete's sake!)
He paused for a moment to study her face, to measure her against his memory. The sleeper’s pert upturned nose was liberally sprinkled with freckles, which he knew she (And at this point, my two pages are mercifully up. The problem with this opening is that my hero, if that's who he is, has no one to interact with. It's almost empty of dialogue. I've started the story too early. Nothing has really happened. I'm sort of clearing my throat for a couple pages waiting for the action to start, which won't be until he slips into that bedroom window. Which I'm sorry to tell you is still another half page away! Everything up to this point needs to be axed.)
Ok, I'm relieved that's over. But if you're a writer, this post was designed to give you hope. This is how I wrote in 2001, before I attended any RWA meetings, critique groups or even read any "how to" books. This was just me trying to capture something and set it on paper. I had no idea about the elements of storytelling, little sense of POV and no sense of reader expectations. I share this with you because wherever you are along your writer's journey, you need to understand all those things are skills that can be learned. Writing is an art and a craft. Mostly a craft.
Become a student of the writing craft and take a healthy dose of critique regularly. You'll be amazed at the change in your writing over time. Have you ever received a critique suggestion that changed the way you approached telling your story?