Throat Clearing: When Your Story Opening Is in Search of Itself

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.


First Page

If I could know what I am, if I could see myself plainly, if there were a place that I could fit into like a bolt into a nut, if I wasn’t on this knife not knowing if the knife could go right though me, slicing me in two, if only I were not standing on this cliff about 
to fall right off into the flames below, then perhaps I could feel that I fitted into my skin, filled the cavity of my skull with my brain, but I know that these ifs are not about to be turned into certainties, I am not about to be one thing or another, not about to be circling complete as a person. Christ, this is all too Kafka for me, seeing myself as a turtle or the famous cockroach, I have to put all this shit aside and think of normal, everyday things.

Matti lifted a saucer and turned it over to examine the base. Not bad. Doulton Stellite, a reasonable restaurant product. Before she got married, she had worked as a buyer in a restaurant supply wholesale warehouse and she knows her china, does Matti. She placed the cutlery in precise order and folded and unfolded her napkin, while a slight breeze teased the terrace tempting her to lift her face into it.

It’s essential to present herself as especially elegant, chic, fashionable, sophisticated etc. for birthday lunches. Oh, God, her life is full of f—king clichés. Her butter-yellow silk Allendi suit glowed in the shadows as if her body was lit by a lamp inside it and for a change, her long, gold hair, just colored and streaked yesterday in a four-hour hair appointment …


First-Page Critique

Within the eight lines of its first paragraph, this opening scene presents readers with a mélange of no fewer than ten metaphors for the narrator’s frustrated desire to belong fully to something, to “fit in.” The writing is passionate, poetic, full of spit and vinegar—but what is it for?

“If I could see myself plainly,” the narrator laments at the inception of this hyperextended metaphor, then proceeds to describe her spiritual condition in terms of (a) a nut in a bolt, (b) a knife blade, (c) a cliff’s edge, overlooking flames, (d) an empty skull, and (e) something that “circles.”

Having exhausted nearly every available metaphor, the narrator throws her hands in the air, declares the whole affair Kafkaesque, tosses two more metaphors our way (one reptilian, one insectine), then ditches the metaphor parade in favor of “normal, everyday” thoughts—something some readers will wish she had done sooner.

As a nosedive into a neurotic narrator’s distraught thoughts, there’s something to be said for this opening, with its manic energy. On the other hand, less charitable readers will find it sentimental, brimming not only with mixed metaphors, but with feelings thrust at us with no basis, i.e. emotion[s] in excess of experience.

Whatever else this befuddled opening paragraph achieves, it convinces us, if we need convincing, that this first person narrator cannot see herself clearly.

But I suspect that the real purpose served by this opening may be even more basic. Stated by means of another serial metaphor, it’s to get the author’s pen rolling, to blow some warmth onto the icy blank page, to get the narrative blood flowing. Others less charitably inclined will call it “throat clearing.” In any case, for all its energy and passion, it should probably be cut, all of it. It’s there for the author, not for the reader.

The real beginning starts with Matti inspecting a piece of restaurant china at an event, a birthday lunch. Perhaps she’s an event planner of some kind. We don’t know, but she has a vested professional interest in the affair at hand and its dinnerware. To be sure, she is dressed to the hilt in her Allendi suit that “glow[s] in [its] shadows as if her body was lit by a lamp inside it”—making me wonder how much it would glow were it exposed to full sunlight.

Here the writing is comprehensible and much more effective. Still, we don’t quite know what’s going on; we have to guess. And some information provided seems misplaced. Do we really need to know that, before she married, Matti worked as a buyer for a restaurant supply wholesaler? Maybe, but within the context of so much more that remains unknown that bit of information seems more coy than generous, more like a tease than enlightenment. Most readers will prefer to know who Matti is and what she’s doing, rather than who she was and what she did.

Your First Page SelginIn the final paragraph, again the author seems to throw her hands in the air (“Oh, God, her life is full of f—king clichés)—a comment that doesn’t seem to attach itself to anything, unless birthday lunches are a cliché, or Allendi suits, or certain types of restaurant china. But my guess is that the charge of “cliché” is a preemptive strike by the author against her material, as if by the end of this first page she’s grown disenchanted and declares defeat even before the first battle lines have been drawn.

In each of the sections that pattern is repeated, with the author undertaking a bold initiative, then questioning it, then renouncing her kingdom before the reader can engage in hostilities. This reads more like a talented author’s exploratory draft than like a finished manuscript.


Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)

Posted in First Page Critiques.

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), 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.

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Lisa SlabachTed GarvinPhil MayesPeter SelginBud Recent comment authors

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John Atherton
John Atherton

I am reading Peter Selgin’s book, it is WELL worth the time and money.

Linda MacConnell
Linda MacConnell

I couldn’t agree more with your analysis. It’s the mixing of all those metaphors that makes me wince. But as you said, the writer has passion and talent and will have to edit out all those mini-darlings.

Jody Hadlock

Another spot-on critique! Love reading these, very helpful.

Sheila Myers
Sheila Myers

I liked it.

Kathryn Drew
Kathryn Drew

While the first paragraph is definitely over the top, almost to the point of being funny, I wouldn’t necessarily scrap it entirely–the interior monologue of the character has value. I might take a few lines and insert them into the subsequent paragraphs in a more measured way, revealing the insecure person inside the polished professional.

Joann Wallace
Joann Wallace

If it’s a first draft, keep moving forward. If it’s the final draft, rewrite. The emotion is powerful and it did pique my interest. I think know this is a person with talent.

Bud
Bud

There are way too may books out there, to waste my time on an opening that doesn’t waive the bait in front of my eyes! And, for me, the second “terminator” is the use of the “F-word”!. Here is an example of one that invited me to travel on done the “Inked Trail”: — Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude — I’m 73. I’ve been reading since I was four years old.… Read more »

Peter Selgin
Peter Selgin

Thanks for sharing Márquez’ wonderful first line, which, along with “They threw me off the hay truck at noon” and “Gregor Samsa awoke (etc.)” must rank among the top 10 greatest openers. As for that second opening, it would surprise me to learn that it’s from a published work.

Phil Mayes

I like the opening paragraph. I would cut “Christ, this is all too Kafka for me, seeing myself as a turtle or the famous cockroach,” and “shit,” but I like that it plunges us right into her existential angst. Starting with the inspection of a saucer is too tame for me. The second para changes voice and tense to offer an exterior view, which is fine except for “she knows her china, does Matti,” a brief third-person interior voice that fragments the description. I would drop “wholesale”; too many qualifiers, and it can be inferred. A third-person interior voice appears… Read more »

Ted Garvin
Ted Garvin

I’d cut the first paragraph entirely.

Lisa Slabach

I agree. The first paragraph is overwritten; however, as an author exercise, it is interesting subtext for the following action.