Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Story openings to avoid, part six

Good heavens, is this series of posts still going?

At Pub Rants: 9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 6

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#6) Your novel opens with prose problems, such as flowery or overly descriptive verbiage.

I suppose! Of course whether a particular flowery, descriptive opening is a problem depends on the reader. The example in this post is certainly overdone:

This morning, while sipping my steaming hot and deliciously aromatic Mountain chai with creamy half and half and gazing out my window at the cerulean sky, I pondered on the inevitable curiosity borne of dissecting why working authors succumb to the passion of crafting overwrought prose.

But part of that is not the pile o’ adverbs and adjectives, it’s that some of the clauses are stupid. “Pondered on the inevitable curiosity borne of” is kinda nonsensical, which would interfere with an otherwise . . . still somewhat overdone sentence, granted. Cerulean is a great word, but, yeah, overdone here.

How about this opening:

No one really knew where Peri lived the year after the sea took her father and cast his boat, shrouded in a tangle of fishing net, like an empty shell back onto the beach.

Or this one:

While the ruler of the ancient city of Ombria lay dying, his mistress, frozen out of the room by the black stare of Domina Pearl, drifted like a bird on a wave until she bumped through Kyel Greve’s unguarded door to his bed, where he was playing with his puppets.

Or this one:

Her father ordered two full-grown trees to plant in the green area behind the inn. One was a kirrenberry, the tree of silence. Sit beneath it in spring or summer and its limbs, with their flat, dark leaves, would stretch noiselessly above you; in autumn or winter you would hear no rustle from its slender branches as it shook in the frenzied breeze.

Do you recognize those? The first two are books by Patricia McKillip: The Changeling Sea and Ombria in Shadow. The other is The Truth-Teller’s Tale by Sharon Shinn.

I wonder if, after being prompted by a handful of not-very-well-written intro sentences, an agent might be more likely to consider these sentences too flowery or descriptive? Granted you could load any of them up with a lot more adjectives and overdo it, but frankly they have plenty of flowery description already. I hadn’t quite realized how much McKillip does with metaphor when she’s writing description.

I don’t know that it would take too much to pull back that first bad example and make it sound okay. How about this:

This morning, while sipping my steaming hot and deliciously aromatic Mountain chai and gazing out my window at the cerulean sky, I pondered on why working authors succumb to the passion of crafting overwrought prose.

Still overdone? What do you think? Even with the cerulean sky, I’m not sure this would jump out at me as a bad example now — depending on what kind of book this was supposed to be. I could see this as the opening of a cozy mystery with an author or poet or someone like that as the protagonist.

Anyway, click through if you’d care to read the rest of the post and also get the links to parts one through five in the series.

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8 Comments Story openings to avoid, part six

  1. Pete Mack

    “Drifted like a bird on a wave.’ So is she a duck, or a goose?

    The problem of Littonesque prose for prospective writers is prevalent enough* that it needs a strong warning.

    And their list is interesting. I’ve been trying my hand at fanfic for the first time ever, and immediately ran into ‘white room’ problems. Having a name for it helps. (I did manage to avoid the other five.)

  2. Rachel

    Their list is interesting, true. I would expect each example to be helpful to some prospective writers, for sure.

    I am, perhaps fortunately, not all that well acquainted with typical mistakes of prospective but serious writers. (I am all too well acquainted with the mistakes of beginning writing students, but those fall more into the categories of: a) does not understand punctuation; b) cannot tell when sentences make no sense.)

  3. Pete Mack

    Hmm. I had bad grammar beaten out of me, first in 6th grade, where we did sentence diagrams, then in 11th and 12th, where we the teacher would fail(!) any papers with fragments or run-ons. I assumed the former was true everywhere–though the latter was, perhaps fortunately, a habit peculiar to our truly excellent top English teacher, memorialized by a fellow sufferer, here:
    http://www.post-gazette.com/news/portfolio/2008/09/03/Storytelling-Fear-and-trembling-in-AP-English-with-Mr-Guthrie/stories/200809030213

    Surely knocking off a full grade point per error is sufficient.

  4. Rachel

    I assumed the former was true everywhere

    Hah hah hah no.

    These days lots of students throw in commas totally at random, trust me on this. Also, random capitalization of whatever nouns seem important. Lots and lots of fragments and run ons. Lots of pronouns that lack antecedents. Lots of sentences like: Therefore, I will be exploring the effects among disabilities and illnesses. (Recent example from a paper sitting right in front of me.)

    I don’t think anybody diagrams sentences anymore. I wish they did. I faintly remember diagramming sentences myself, though to be fair, my mother is the one who really taught us grammar. My mother would probably get along well with Mr. Guthrie.

  5. mona

    My 7th and 8th grade teacher was like that– really focused on grammar. I remember her saying, “You’ll thank me later.” (She said that a lot.) But I think high school solidifed that foundation, which otherwise might have crumbled.

    Each student had these two thick books of grammar, filled with explanations and tons of exercises. Some classes all we did was read a chapter individually and do the exercises at the end, like you might expect in math class.

    And we totally had to do that impromptu essay / paper in English, 11th grade. Not AP though. That was a pain sometimes, if you couldn’t figure out what to write!

  6. Rachel

    There’s a lot to be said for drill-and-kill to really thump a process into your head . . . though I believe you mainly learn grammar in context, by writing and (more importantly) re-writing.

    Surely you knew an impromptu essay was coming up? Could you pick your own topic ahead of time, or did the teacher give you a (probably really boring) writing prompt? I can see that might make it tough.

  7. mona

    Well, we knew the teacher liked surprising us. But to be fair, it usually had to do with whatever work we were reading at the time. So if you were behind in reading, you’d be in trouble. I wasn’t ever behind in that class, but I remember being stumped by some of the topics anyway. Can’t recall what they were though. I suppose it was good practice for the essay portion of the AP English test.

  8. Rachel

    It probably was good practice . . . I’m trying to remember whether we did much writing actually in the classroom and honestly, I don’t think we did. These days as a teacher I would, just as a final check against plagiarism.

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