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.)

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