Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress. Learn more about getting a first-page critique.
Our father kidnapped us on a January afternoon, the day before Faye’s eighth birthday. I was twelve and should’ve known better. A few days earlier at the grocery store Mom had bought yellow cake mix, chocolate frosting, candles, and icing. She’d asked me to please bake the cake when I got home from school, as I’d done a few months earlier for my own birthday. Birthdays weren’t a big deal in our new three-person family—money was tight and Mom worked a lot of nights tending bar at Roughboys back then—but there was always a little something: if not quite a celebration, then at least an acknowledgment. A cake. A simple gift or two after a macaroni and cheese dinner, or hot dogs, or take-out. But for some reason I hadn’t connected those dots, that it didn’t make sense for him to take us on this unannounced trip while those cake ingredients sat untouched on Mom’s kitchen counter.
He was sitting in his ’67 El Camino outside our school in Emeryville, smoking a Kool, one booted foot up on the glossy dashboard heavily greased with Armor-All, “Southern Nights” by Glen Campbell crackling from one working speaker. It still seems like yesterday. A second cigarette was tucked behind his ear, the one with the ragged earlobe. A couple years earlier, at a backyard barbeque, he’d been toying with his new fishing rod, showing one of his friends how to cast properly. My mother had told him not to do that with so many people around, and, the way I remember it, about two seconds later, on his backswing, he’d hooked his own ear, tearing the lobe clean away.
The junior high was across the street from the elementary school Faye attended. My job after school was to meet her so we could walk home together. I hadn’t minded this the year or two before, but by junior high I’d started to feel self-conscious: my friends getting rides from their older siblings in high school, while I moped down the sidewalk alongside my little sister with her pink boots and pink hair ribbons and pink Shaun Cassidy lunchbox.
Sometimes a little editing is all we need. Let me walk you through my revision of this good opening, which begins:
Our father kidnapped us on a January afternoon, the day before Faye’s eighth birthday.
Not a bad opener, but not as good as it could be. In killing two birds with one stone it does, or tries to do, too much. Better one bird, one stone:
Our father kidnapped us on a January afternoon.
Our father kidnapped us the day before Faye’s eighth birthday.
The problem with the second version—and it’s a problem in the given draft as well—is that, since we don’t know who Faye is, instead of raising the pertinent question, “Why did this man’s father kidnap him?” we are left asking, “Who is Faye?” That bit of false suspense spoils the opening, diffuses its energy. We have to read on until the end of the final paragraph to learn that Faye is the narrator’s little sister.
The event pointed to by the tantalizing opening sentence has barely been engaged—in fact it hasn’t been engaged at all—when the third sentence (“A few days earlier at the grocery store…”) yanks us out of it and into a flashback.
Rule No. 1 for flashbacks: until and unless you’ve invested us in a scene, don’t flash back (or away) from it. The point of a flashback is to illuminate the scene from which it digresses, to add dimension and tension to it. The depth of our investment in the primary scene, the amount of suspense generated by it, determines how long a flashback it can support. In this case, since the primary scene hasn’t yet left the station, it can hold a flashback of exactly zero words.
After the narrator and his sister have gotten into the car with their mysterious father—that’s where the flashback belongs, and where, having shortened it, I relocated it. In my revision, the “had” in the flashback’s first sentence (“A few days earlier at the grocery store, Mom had bought yellow cake mix, chocolate frosting…”) has been deleted. It’s not necessary, since “After a few days” makes it clear that the scene takes place in the past before the past that we’re in, or the past perfect. My rule about “had”: use it when necessary. For instance, the next use of the past perfect had (“She’d asked me to please bake the cake”) is warranted, since it takes us to a moment before the narrator went to the grocery store with her mother: a past (cake request) before the past (grocery store) before the past (father/car scene). Other “hads” have been cut.
Much of the rest of that long first paragraph (“Birthdays weren’t a big deal in our new three-person family…”) is implied or anyway not crucial enough to warrant weighing down this dramatic opening with less-than-crucial material. The respective ages of the narrator and his sister are—or will soon be—made clear by the fact that he’s in junior high while she’s in elementary school. Whatever else isn’t crucial can be discovered later. We need to get to the “kidnapping” promised by the first sentence, to the father waiting in his car, to that event.
Once we get to it, we want to be kept in the moment(s), with digressions (in the form of flashbacks and exposition) occurring at points of high, or at least sufficient, tension, and cunningly distributed between actions (“ ‘Get in,’ said my father” / “My sister and I got in my father’s car”), such that, though our engagement in the main scene is interrupted, the brief interruptions add dramatic tension. They enhance more than they annoy.
The cunning distribution of exposition and action throughout a scene is called pacing.
Revised opening page
Our father kidnapped us on a January afternoon.
He was sitting in his ’67 El Camino outside our school in Emeryville, smoking a Kool, one booted foot up on the glossy dashboard heavily greased with Armor-All, “Southern Nights” by Glen Campbell crackling from one working speaker. A second cigarette was tucked behind his ear, the one with the ragged earlobe.
“Get in,” said my father.
Farley Junior High was across the street from the elementary school my sister Faye attended. Normally after school I would meet her and we’d walk home together. While my friends got rides from older siblings, I moped down the sidewalk alongside Faye with her matching pink boots, hair ribbons, and Shaun Cassidy lunchbox.
My sister and I got in my father’s car. “Where are we going?” I asked.
“Vacation,” he said.
I should have known better. It was the day before Faye’s eighth birthday. Days earlier Mom asked me to bake a cake, as I’d done a few months earlier for my own birthday. It didn’t make any sense for our father to take us on a “vacation” while the ingredients for Faye’s birthday cake sat untouched on the kitchen counter.
Those are my editorial suggestions. If this were your opening, how would you revise it?
Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2008). He has published a novel, Life Goes To the Movies (Dzanc, 2009), three books on the craft of fiction writing (Writer’s Digest, Serving House Books, Broadview Press), and a children’s picture book, S.S. Gigantic Across the Atlantic (Simon & Schuster). His first essay collection, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man (University of Iowa, 2012), was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize. A novel-in-manuscript, “The Water Master,” won the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for Best Novel. His memoir, The Inventors (Hawthorne Books), which won the Housatonic Book Award, was among Library Journal’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2016. He is Associate Professor of English at Georgia College & State University. Find out more at his website.