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A Gate Called Beautiful
by Kara McKenzie
Claudia pushed a tangled mass of dark hair behind her shoulders, eyes fixed on the road leading to Capernaum, the small fishing town on the Sea of Galilee miles north of Jerusalem. Leaning against a large boulder in a rock-strewn area, she gripped her cup tighter, while people walked past toward the synagogue for afternoon prayer. Her voice rang out from sunken cheeks.
“Alms! For the poor! Alms! For the poor!” she cried. When she received no response, she smiled at the people on the clay-packed trail, a yearning in her eyes.
Her smile drew wider despite the hot, muggy day. Could one of them look this way? An ache struck deep within her eager for a smile, or to hear a soft-spoken word. She touched the twisted foot that made her unclean and smoothed out the folds in her wrinkled tunic and frowned.
Hearing a familiar voice from behind, she smiled and spun around expectantly. Baruch? She thought it was her friend by the sound of his voice, his enlarged chest making it difficult for him to breathe.
“How much in coins this day, Claudia?”
The beat of camels hoofs clomping along the road, sheep bleating on their way to the temple for sacrifice and the soft jingle of coins dropping into beggar’s cups half-drowned out his voice. “Not many, Baruch. And yet I’m hoping Adonai, the Lord, will provide. Although I wasn’t expecting much, after fifteen years of living on the streets and knowing how it is. They seem to take little notice of us.”
She averted her eyes from Baruch’s misshapen body covered in muddy, ragged clothes and a frown drew across her brow when she noticed the cloth tied to his feet with a piece of rope for sandals.
Ms. Shreditor's Comments
This sample’s greatest strength is its descriptiveness. The author taps into multiple senses to craft a vivid opening scene. There are hooves clomping, coins jingling, and masses of dark hair. However, I think that the first paragraph could be stronger. The first sentence is a jumble of details; in one breath, we’re meeting Claudia and getting a quick geography lesson about the area. The most compelling detail we get in the first paragraph is Claudia’s sunken cheeks. I’d suggest moving this character-defining detail to the beginning, as it will pique reader curiosity right off the bat.
While we’re on the subject of the first paragraph, I want to point out how important it is that descriptions be to scale. The first sentence indicates that Capernaum is “miles north” of Jerusalem. This doesn’t accurately depict the distance between the two—Capernaum is roughly 120 miles north of Jerusalem, which would have made for a very long journey back when this story takes place. As I’ve mentioned in past columns, you never want to leave your reader with the impression that you’re unfamiliar with the location of your story, so make sure to fact-check even the smallest geographical details.
There are some compelling elements on this first page. Claudia appears to be the classic underdog heroine, the kind of character that will always resonate with readers. I’m not certain where this story is headed, so I think it’s important to lay down a strong hook in the first paragraph. Readers don’t have to know exactly where they’re going on the first page, but it helps if they’re emotionally invested in the person who’s going to lead them there.