Opening: The Ferryman and the Sea Witch

I’m a couple of weeks away from finishing my first draft. I should focus on those last 20k words, but I keep returning to the opening. Tweaking, mulling, editing, changing, and then changing back. Then changing again.

Openings are important. If a reader has been intrigued by your cover and blurb… and cracked open the book, you don’t have much time to give your hook a good yank (or subtly slide a barb through the reader’s lip).

There are a lot of suggestions for crafting openings that grab your reader:

  • Showcase your protagonist in his or her POV. This way your reader knows who to root for.
  • Reveal something about your protagonist’s emotional landscape. Help the reader care.
  • Start in the middle of a tense situation with your character in the thick of it.
  • Arouse curiosity or create intrigue. Pull the reader in so he asks, “What will happen next?”
  • Share a glimpse of the setting (world or place or time period).
  • Establish a unique voice for the character.
  • Hint at the theme and what your story is about.
  • Structure the opening like a plot. Tell a story.
  • Convey your writing style.

Yikes!

This opening isn’t finished, but I think it’s getting closer.

The hemp net hung from the boom over the waves. Within its lattice of pinched knots, the slender merrow drowned in the heated air. She had ceased her struggle as the sun tilted up, when shadows pooled beneath hard-heeled boots. Her graceful tail with its angelfish fins dangled from the end of her confinement. Beyond the reach of her fingers, swells rose and fell. Taunting, seductive. Rhythmic as they sloshed against the hull.

Like a storm-torn sail, the tip of her tangled hair dipped into the sea with each crest, shed droplets with each trough. The creature wept for her kind, for the sea breathing beneath her. The mournful plea filled young Callum’s head, overwhelming the clamor of merriment arising from the Brid Clarion officers who’d captured her in their mesh.

“We should free her,” Callum murmured. He drew his fish-knife. “She’s dying. They’re killing her.”

 “I spoke my mind, boy.” The captain placed a firm hold on Callum’s scrawny shoulder. “Put away the blade. It’s not our place to chart the course of another man’s conscience.”

When Characters Mutiny

I’ve got my plot outlined. World-building done. Research underway. Character bios are complete. Despite the distracting news on the television, I’ve written 23k words. I’ve got a cover concept, a rough draft of a blurb. Things are sailing along.

Then…

One of my minor characters, Briar, has decided to stage a mutiny. He has a cutlass pointed at my progress, and he’s walking it up the plank.

He’s called a meeting on the quarter deck of the Windwraith. All the main characters are there, wondering why the wind in our sails suddenly died. I leave the helm and join them, arms crossed as I lean on the mizzen mast.

Briar’s pacing, eager to explain his reasons for the summons. He looks right at me. “Listen, Peach, this course you’ve charted needs some revising.”

I roll my eyes. Here we go again.

“Hear me out,” he says. “I think you’re making a mistake if you let the ferryman throw me overboard in Chapter Six.”

“Hmm,” I reply.

“You might not have meant to do it, but you’ve made me interesting. I’m nuanced.” He turns to address the rest of the crew. ”Okay, I’m a little lazy and a bit of a bully, but I have a heroic side.”

The crew chuckles as he faces me. “I’m actually younger than you first envisioned me, and I have startling blue eyes. I’ve also got all my teeth, which you can’t say for Kezo.”

The first mate smiles at me, flashing his gold tooth. I groan inwardly at the clinches. Those are coming out as soon as this irksome rebellion is over.

Briar grins. “You made me the perfect choice for some romantic tension with Marissa.”

I glance at Marissa. She shrugs. “Fine by me. It’s not really a romantic story anyway.”

“Wait,” I say. “Before you all get carried away. I’m eleven chapters in. You’re asking for some significant revisions here. If I give Briar the role, what do I do with Kellin? He was supposed to fall for Marissa.”

Briar makes a pffting noise. “That kid is too young, too naïve.” He gives Kellin an apologetic wince, then puts the blame on me. “It’s just not the right story for him. He’s like a little brother. Marissa would never fall for him. The relationship will feel forced. Your readers won’t believe it.”

Kellin sighs and rakes back his flyaway blond hair. “I kind of agree with him. You wrote me about four years too young.”

I’m tempted to argue that I wrote him exactly the way he is, but it’s not the time for a chicken/egg debate with a bunch of mutineers. And to be honest, I kind of agree that Kellin isn’t strong enough for the part.

“You know, Kellin,” I say, “if I make this change, I’ll have to kill you off.”

Briar puts on a sad face as shallow as a tide pool. “Instead of rescuing him in Chapter Eight, you could have him get shot with a pistol, fall into the sea, and drown.”

Kellin frowns at the suggestion. “She doesn’t have any pistols in the story.”

“She has to revise anyway. She can add them in.” Briar leans against the gunwale, his case made.

I narrow my eyes at him, feeling a bit shanghaied, but he’s made a few good points, and the changes feel right. None of the crew looks miffed. Even Kellin seems to understand that his death would make a better story. He’s a nice kid… Readers will feel the loss.

“Fine,” I say. “I need to go back and plot the changes before we sail any farther into the Deep. Shore leave is cancelled until we’ve caught up.” I gesture to the first mate. “Brace about. We’re changing course.”

As the big man takes the wheel and bellows orders to the crew, I retreat to my cabin. I log into Word and scroll back to Chapter One. Then I open the internet and look up everything I ever wanted to know about flintlock pistols.

(Names have been changed to minimize spoilers).

Do your characters do this to you?