Thursday, March 24, 2011

Real Life Diagnostics: The First 250 Words

We haven't done a Real Life Diagnostic in a while, and I was happy to see one pop up in the e-mail. Today, we have the first 250 words of a novel, and the writer wants to know:
I've read what you've had to say and what others have said about the first 250 words, and how crucial it is to have something happening, to give the reader a likable character, for it not to be cliche, and to set the tone. These are the main things I was hoping you could give me your opinion on.
So let's dive in and see how this opening answers those questions. My comments are in purple.

Chapter 1

Hitchhiking isn’t quite as easy as it seems. Even being a female hitchhiker. I think this works as an opening. This is someone who hitchhikes, possibly a lot since they know the ins and outs, or it’s someone who is just now trying it and discovers it's hard. Either way, I’m intrigued. The second line lets me know this is a girl, which makes it kinda funny (we’ve all seen the gal hiking up her skirt for a ride joke) and lets me know more about my protag. I like funny protags, so I like her so far.

It’s not glamorous either. This line loses me a little, because I never thought of hitchhiking as glamorous, so I had a “you think it’s glamorous?” moment that makes me stumble a bit. Not that I really thought it would be, per se, but I always thought hitchhikers had a sort of rebellious, carefree, and even sexy look about them. My dripping wet hair and sore thumb were none of the above. This next part works for me again, because I can see this gal standing there all wet with her thumb sticking out, thinking this might not have been the best idea she ever had, and I’m wondering why she’s out there. I can see starting the next para with “I always thought…” and trimming out the first part to tighten.

Eventually, you have to decide between the better of two evils. Hitchhiking on the road might give you the advantage of being seen, and possibly getting a lift (hopefully from a sane, well-to-do, good-looking guy, who will whisk me away from this nightmare). Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many 20/20 episodes of hitchhiking gone wrong, and before you know it, I turn into a prostitute turning tricks each night. This para is starting to lose me again. I like the hints that she’s hoping for a guy to whisk her away, and that there’s a nightmare to run from, but for me the clear understanding about the evils of hitchhiking contradicts the "maybe this wasn't such a good idea" from the second paragraph. And I like the girl who thinks hitchhiking is kinda sexy, and then discovers it’s not.

The other option is to cut straight through to the outskirts of town. This has the advantage of a quicker and shorter route, but also leaves me out of sight most of the time, which may or may not be a good thing. Walking through the woods, for example, can leave me vulnerable to random animal attacks or other insane killers, but this time from the country type, not the truck driver type. I’m ready to skim ahead a bit at this point. A little too much time is spent on the mechanics of hitchhiking and not enough delving into the really intriguing things presented in the first paragraph. She’s also coming across more and more as someone who really knows all about hitchhiking, which contradicts that fun “standing in the rain like a dork” image. That contradiction of what she thought and the reality was compelling.

I decided to take a combination of the two, mostly because it was necessary to take the main roads to get out of the city, and then easier to take the woods to cut through to the country. I wanted to do anything to get me out of this forsaken place as fast as possible. Same here. She wants to get out as fast as possible, but it’s taking time to get to the fact that she needs to run. I’m much more interested in that than the mechanics of hitchhiking and her thought process behind her decision to stand out on the road. I already know she’s there, so backing up to tell how she got there isn’t as interesting as why she’s there. It's essentially a flashback and stops the action.

Let’s look at the original questions and see how this stacks up:

Have something happening: A girl is hitchhiking to escape something nightmarish. This intrigues me and I’m curious about why she’s on that road. What makes me curious about this is her idea on what hitchhiking is vs the reality of it. This is a gal who might be in over her head and doing something dangerous without really understanding it. It’s a compelling situation full of potential conflict.

A likable character: The girl in the first few paras I like a lot, the later one not as much. There’s something calculating about the decision on which way to go that I didn’t find as likable as that opening line and first para. (Please note, I don't dislike her at all, I just prefer the girl I saw in the beginning more) It’s her vulnerability that I was drawn to. That she's taking a risk like this because things are so much worse for her at home. I want to know more about that life and this girl.

Not to be cliché : I didn’t find it cliché, though hitchhiking in general has been done. The “not what I thought it would be” idea really plays with the cliché and makes it work for me. It’s like the character knows the cliché and the reality is different. There’s humor and fun in that.

Set the tone:
I really like the tone at the start, then it gets a bit harsher. If the goal is to turn things harder and darker, then it works. I prefer the tone at the start to the tone at the end however. Something about this girl who will risk hitchhiking to get away from bad stuff makes me want to know more. I want to protect that girl and see her escape. The one who seems more worldly and knows all the ins and outs of hitchhiking doesn’t need my protection.

I think this starts out strong and does its job, but then stumbles a teeny bit. I suspect the next 250 words are going to go more into what she’s running from and why, and it'll be off and running again. My suggestion would be to trim out some of the mechanics stuff and get to the why she's hitchhiking part a bit sooner. Perhaps condense what you have to one paragraph. I like the choosing between two evils line, and that would work well as a transition to the “being seen vs meeting a crazed serial killer” choice in where to stand. Or you could skip it altogether (I don’t think it would hurt the story any) and go right into either what happens now that she has her thumb out or a bit as to why she’s running.
Overall, I think the writer is off to a great start and I’d read on another page or so before making any decisions about buying this book (so the opening did its job).  

Thanks so much to our brave volunteer for putting their work out here and letting me poke at it. I hope this helps them, and made some things clearer for anyone else struggling with their opening.

If you'd like to submit something for Real Life Diagnosis, check out the rules and how to submit.


  1. I learned a lot from this post. I have read and enjoyed hundreds of your articles. Your examples are so insightful. I know I am growing as a writer by reading your advice. Thank you!

    I would love to read more posts going over submitted work. I joined following the suggestion on an earlier post. I am enjoying it. However there seems to be no way to read other peoples critiques on that site. I really enjoyed this your critic of this work and would love to read anything you have to say about finding more excellent critiques like this one.

  2. KCharles: Most welcome. If you look in the menu on the left, you'll see the "Real Life Diagnostics" down there on the bottom.

    Here's the link to previous RLD articles:

    You might also try Absolute Write forums. They have a Share Your Work section and you can read crits there as well.

  3. @kcharles -- For Critters, if you go to "Critique" on the top toolbar, then choose "Manuscripts/Submissions", there'll be a beige box of "Helpful Admin Links". One of these says "Zipfile of Last Week's Critiques." It has all the critiques. You can also chose on your e-mail preferences to have all of these mailed to you, though I imagine that would be a lot of e-mail.

  4. Janice: Thanks for the real life link. I hadn't read two of those posts. As expected they were great as well.

    Megan: I'm looking forward to reading the other members critiques next wednesday for the stories I just critiqued. Thank you for the info!