Optimize Your Opener Entry #4: Trade Deficit, by Annette Drake

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My sister was a girl in pigtails when she first killed a man. [I LIKE THE IMAGERY AND THE JUXTAPOSITION OF HER INNOCENCE AND MURDER. HOWEVER, I'M NOT A FAN OF OPENING WITH 'TO BE' VERBS, BUT THIS ONE ISN'T BAD.]

When father left us, he took what pride mama had with him. She took in dirty laundry, but it was never enough. Then there was the money Mr. Meany gave us, but that didn’t last. I was the man of the house, so I tried to get paying work, but I was too young. Mama would fret about “how to feed her brood.” One day, we moved in with a Mr. Thomas Cook. He lived in a dirty hovel one hour north by buggy, in the Melbourne Woods. His house had dirt for floors, but mama would sweep them with vigor twice a day, at least in the beginning she did. He was a trapper—beaver pelts—and they would pile up in the cabin, leaving a musty smell. We would wrap them around ourselves during the night, until we all smelled like them—dirt encased between our toes, and dank sweat under our shirts. We stopped bathing. Mama was going to teach us our letters, but that didn’t happen either.

When Mama’s younger sister came to town—“Just visiting” she said, AND? she brought my cousin Ned with her. Ned was older than I, but quiet and timid. We would spend our days in the forest, skipping stones and whittling pine into figurines. He promised to teach me chess, and he scraped letters into the dirt: C A T. Do you see? [INSERT QUOTE MARKS FOR HIS COMMENT, AS YOU DID ABOVE] He would say, in his soft voice. My Aunt never left,. Iinstead, she moved into the back bedroom with Mr. Cook, and Mama moved out. She [YOU SWITCHED 'SHE' -- AUNT TO MOM -- CONFUSING] slept in the kitchen on a too-small cot with Annabelle. [WHO'S ANNABELLE? THE SISTER IN THE FIRST SENTENCE? THEN WHY NOT NAME HER ABOVE]

1) A lot of great details here. While the style is trying to stay simple/colloquial, the author has so heavily relied on the "to be" verb that it makes the voice not just passive, but bordering on dull. That seems like a waste when there's all this good material. Insert a few more active verbs and the reader would benefit. I crossed out all the boring verbs to challenge the author to come up with more intersting ones.

2) My hardest comment is that, despite the interesting material, the author has chosen to the dreaded backstory opening. Albeit really interesting backstory. If the 3rd paragraph cuts to current action, the author could probably get away with this. If not, there's a big problem. Debut authors can't get away with backstory as openers. It reeks of amature writing. Agents and editors complain that you should NEVER open with backstory. If you are not sure why, read the Query Shark blog or Janet Reid's blog. She pounds this message hard. We need to start a book in CURRENT ACTION/SCENE.

3) I forgot to mention that the author did a good job helping me care about people in this story, especially the narrator. He has simple needs -- wanting to read and write -- and has to watch his mama get displaced. Still don't know the POV character's name, though (boy or girl?). But to open with heart in your story is very difficult, and you've succeeded.