Optimize Your Opener #5: MAKANI'S SERENITY
genre: YA Sci-Fi Coming-of-Age
The price was too high. Makani didn’t have enough money to get everything Grant had asked for, but they needed the supplies. Which left her with only one choice.
She darted between the aisles of the large, brightly lit department store, [BLAH DESCRIPTION -- COULD BE SEARS OR NORDSTROMS] arms almost full [OF WHAT? I CAN'T SEE ANYTHING], trying to keep her black shoes from squeaking [WHY?] and still get the things on her list quickly [IMPLIED BY DARTING, DO DROP THE ADVERB]. The sun would be on its way down before long, and that meant trouble [AGAIN, VAGUE -- TROUBLE AS IN LIFE-THREATENING OR GETTING GROUNDED?].
Okay, let me start by warning the author how tough I'm going to be on this. Even though you have fine sentence structure, good rhythm and beats, and POV established early (all excellent, by the way), your voice/style isn't coming through because of the issues listed below. Work on these, and you'll see your voice emerge.
1) This opening focuses on--though not very effectively-- circumstances (character is at store and needs to buy things, but no money) and motivation (character has to take alternate measures to get more money? or get things?, and needs to hurry for sun). Everything is vague. Both the conflict of circumstance and motivation are weak. If someone asked me what the story was about, I would say I have no idea. There's a female (girl, woman?) with sneakers in a store hurrying.
2) This opening tells us very little. When you are too vague, too evasive, the reader cannot enter the story. Many writers think that being highly mysterious makes the work more suspenseful. Skilled authors know that you have to give enough details and story and character to get the reader through the door and then hold back 1 or 2 pieces of plot information to keep the reader on the hook. Not all of the information. Here are the questions the reader is left with (too many questions)
a. The price of what is too high?
b. She didn't have enough money, but how much did she have (so we know the goal -- getting $50 is not the same stakes as getting $5,000)?
c. What did Grant want her to buy?
d. Why did they need them?
e. What was the one choice she could make? THIS IS THE ELEMENT I WOULD LEAVE AS UNKNOWN/UNSTATED. THE REST SHOULD BUILD UP TO THIS.
f. What kind of store is she in?
g. What types of supplies are in her arms?
h. Why does she care if her shoes squeak?
i. What remains on the list?
j. Why should I care about the sun going down?
k. Who the hell is Grant?
l. Why should I care about her or any of this?
3) Finally, let's talk about characterization. There is nearly none. Only her darting, feeling desperate (or in a hurry, neither is clear). Makani is immediately a cardboard character: nobody. That's a big problem. Yes, jumping into the fray of events is good tactically, but you have to marry that with giving us a character to care about right away. You have to introduce us to someone whose shoes we can use to walk through the danger ourselves.
So the author needs to see this as an early draft and start layering in details. Vague items need to be specific. Add information about the situation so we better understand the stakes and motivation. Not heavily, mind you. The best approach is to sprinkle info here and there.
More than anything, give us a specific, clear character to care about. Even though it's YA, you need to give today's sophisticated youngsters more information. They read all kinds of characters, so make yours really unique and tantalizing and you'll sell the work. Good luck!
The Editor Devil