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FIRST PAGE SURGERYBitter Little ThingsThe thing about throwing him out the window,’ said Olive, ‘is that somebody is bound to see.’‘They’ll be asleep, said Josephine. The idea to throw the body out the window had been hers, and she was so keen on it that she’d crossed the room and flung open the sash in illustration. ‘The whole city will be passed out drunk by then, nobody will see.’Eloise snorted derisively.‘Too risky,’ said Olive firmly. ‘Think of something else.’ There was a moment of pensive silence. Josephine lookedwistfully out the window at the river. Olive leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. Eloise sprawled on her stomach on the rug and gazed around the room. It was a small room, but there was plenty to look at. The three sisters were sitting in the back corner of their father’s currently deserted coffee shop, in a terrace in the Riverbank neighbourhood. Likemost of its customers, the coffee parlour was ancient but seemingly immortal, genteel, but with a dubious history.The deep blue wallpaper was embossed with gilded fern fronds, rich enough that the occasional scar or smudge went unnoticed. The chairs were soft and florid, the tables dark and slender, poised on delicate feet as if to scurry away, clickety- clack, over the cool black and white tiles. Mirrored shelves behind the bar were lined with glowing bottles of liquor, tins of fragrant tea, teacups delicate to the point of translucence. The narrow counter supported a squat brass beast of a machine which only Olive could coax into producing thick, inky coffee. Three long windows at the back of the room overlooked the river, and the afternoon light leaping off the water made everything ripple and shine.‘We could burn the place down,’ said Eloise. ❐CONSIDER YOUR VERBSANNA SOUTH has worked as aneditor, reader and editorial consultant for over 20 years, first at Penguinand subsequently for The Literary Consultancy and most of the UK’s major publishing imprints. She specialises in both literary fiction and non-fiction.This is a killer opening line. No preamble, but straight in with ruthless precision. In just one line the author establishes narrative tension and sets in play a powerful sense of momentum and purpose (is there a touch of dark humour too in the idea of a body thrown out of a window?).This is fiction that means business. Who’s the man or boy Olive is talking about, why do she and her sisters want him dead and how can she be so casually cruel? The callous trio of sisters – one of whom ‘snorted derisively’, neatly capturing her character– intrigues me with its unity of ambition and decisiveness, and makes me long to know what their victim has done to inspire such hatred.After the opening volleyof dialogue, the narrativewidens into a richly-evoked sense of place: a nice nod tothe importance of narrative structure. Gathered not arounda kitchen table – far too obvious – the girls are instead in their father’s coffee shop. This is intriguing, as is the bar housing bottles of liquor. And this is the point at which the author begins to establish literary credentials, as the ‘dark and slender’ tables are ‘poised on delicate feet’ – lovely choice of verb – before the prose lifts to greater heights with the delightful imagining of them scurrying away ‘clickety-clack’.Such an imaginative piece of anthropomorphism. I can almost taste the ‘thick, inky’ coffeeonly Olive is able to coax from the ‘squat brass beast’ standing solidly on the counter, in stark contrast to the fragile teacups beautifully described as ‘delicate to the point of translucence’.This deftly evoked atmosphere provides a backdrop to the girls’ plotting, and offers the pleasure of prose that segues between lean sentences and lengthy undulating ones.But before we get toocarried away with the imageof the afternoon light ‘leaping off the water’ and making everything ‘ripple and shine’ –a stark contrast to this covenof scheming witches – we’re brought up short by Eloise’s bluntly assertive suggestion that they consider arson as a means of disposing of their enemy. While we’re left in no doubt of the seriousness of this plot, we are left wondering about the key facts underpinning the scenario. Albeit deliciously so.How old are the girls, for example? Does the image of Eloise ‘sprawled on her stomach’ suggest a long-limbed teenager? When and where is the narrative set, and how on earth coulda ‘whole city’ be passed out drunk? That’s quite some image, suggesting the aftermath of extreme hedonistic revelry, which in turn begs the question about this world the girls inhabit. Is Riverbank a fantasy place, or rooted in realism? Questions, questions. Just 300 words, but so many threads of intrigue.A novel has, of course, to open in a compelling and persuasive way, but by getting off to such a flying start, the pressure is really on. Can the author fulfil this sense of promise?While this opening impresses me, it’s not quite pitch perfect. The repetition of ‘but’ feels a little clumsy (‘but seemingly immortal... but with a dubious history’) and I’d like to have seen some more interesting verbs deployed instead of the tripleuse of ‘said’ (‘said Olive... said Josephine... said Olive’). A little more variety would be welcome.I also wonder how the text might read if the tense shifted into the present; something altogether more edgy and modern might emerge.The salient point, though, is that I want to read more. Will this develop into the intriguing and shocking literary thriller that I’m hoping for? Will the author fulfil the promise of prose I need to reread for the sheer pleasureof it? The stage is nicely set, with plenty of shadows in the wings, for the eponymous Bitter Little Things to do their worst. ❐A well-crafted first page is vital to snag the attention of an agent, publisher, competition judge or casual reader. To submit your first page for critique by an industry expert, see the subs info on p80. (Use a pen name if you want!)we’re brought up short by Eloise’s suggestion that they consider arson as a means of disposing of their enemy► In a clockwork-powered world, where only outlawsdare to meddle with magic, three sisters are kept from their mother by their unstable father, who is deeply enmeshed in the criminal underworld. Desperate to escape, they hatch a plotto kill him – but his villainous connections run deeper than they know and when their plan goes awry they must run for their lives. LUCY HUTCHINSONTHE PITCHmslexia Mar/Apr/May 2017 45

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