Optimize Your Opener #6: The Labyrinth

Maggie Duncan searched through her mind for survival skills. She gripped the sink’s edge and leaned into the counter of her country kitchen [GOOD SHOW OF TENSION IN HER]. Sunbeams through the window landed on the stacked soiled dishes. Unwashed laundry overflowed the wicker hamper in the open laundry area. [GOOD SHOW OF HER LIFE OUT OF CONTROL] She stared, unfocused, through tears at the soft hills and fruit trees of the acreage [SHE'S SAD ABOUT THE LAND/HOME?]. Maggie let go of the counter and paced, arms wrapped around her abdomen. The first time she failed to comfort her squalling newborn son, the words “bad mother” tumbled from the rooftops of her mind. Stomach burning self-accusations——no patience, anger, self-pity——repeated, like stuck recordings. [SEEMS TO ME THIS TYPE OF "LOOKING BACK" IS BEST FOR LATER PARAGRAPHS/CHAPTERS BECAUSE IT'S NOT ACTION, IT'S PERSPECTIVE, GAINED FROM EXPERIENCE - AND WE DIDN'T GAIN IT WITH HER, SO IT'S NOT OF VALUE TO THE READER]

She rose out of the rocking chair and wandered, still clutching her middle, through the connecting rooms of the old-fashioned farmhouse. She imagined the muscled arms of her husband wrapped around her, stroking and kneading her back as he whispered, ‘Maggie, my wonderful Maggie...’ before skimming his lips down her neck to capture her mouth [DOWN HER NECK TO HER MOUTH? MOST HUMAN'S HAVE THEIR MOUTH ABOVE THEIR NECK, SO THIS SOUNDS FUNNY]. She shook off the dream. When she tried to tell him how she felt, he glanced at her for about as long as a TV commercial, before backing away and continuing the priorities on his agenda, the newspaper, TV, yard work.

This piece is really emotion-packed and clearly covering a delicate issue -- either she lost a child or was bad to a child. Regardless of subject matter, I still have to treat the story as a story.

1) Show is better than tell. Despite all the details of her home being in chaos, her obvious mental/physical pain, it still feels like you're telling us information instead of walking us through a story. Despite all the scene details, and comments on her body, nothing else is happening, so you're left just telling us how unhappy she is.

2) This leads me to the lack of storyline. The best scene has action, dialogue, and characters in tension-building situations. Here we have a woman pondering, looking at her surroundings with sadness, guilt, but still just pondering. That's not action. You have to lead the reader to water, not drink it for them. You have to give us a situation to "be in" so we can feel the pain for her. There's a concept in the screenplay world that says never let your characters cry; just put them through hell and let your readers cry for them.

3) Careful on letting a character feel sorry for him/herself. Self pity is unattractive when we don't see that it is earned. Because we haven't been led up to this point, we enter the story with a character that is being "pitiful" and that's not as engaging as if we'd seen how she got there. It's important to show why we should care about your character, to give the story a heart right away, but pity is not the means to that end. Shoot for empathy, not pity.

4) Considering the above comments, I suspect that you've begun your story too late. That's tough news. Most writers start too early and just have to edit out the first paragraphs to get to the right starting point. You may have to write the start from scratch. Which can also be loads of fun. But whatever you do, start with a story. Something happening.

Good luck!!!
The Editor Devil