Sunday, June 19

Real Life Diagnostics: Opening With the Funny

Real Life Diagnostics is a recurring column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

This week’s question:
I just began work on a new novel about a week ago, so I'm glad to have the opportunity for some feedback on the opening. It has no working title just yet. The genre (unless some crazy idea occurs to me to completely change my outline) a comedic general fiction work. Does this opening work?
On to the diagnosis…


Original text:
Violet Abraham’s eyes watered, the product of the twenty pounds of cheese turning her messenger bag into a public health hazard. She’d read somewhere before that the smell of frying cabbage scientifically approached the level of hazardous air pollution, but cabbage had nothing on casu marzu. It stood proudly as the kingpin of evil dairy products.

Her feet swooshed across the thin carpet lining the jet bridge, and she searched for a restroom in the vicinity. The cheese had smelled a little on the short plane ride from Sardinia, but her seatmate from Rome and the flight staff had likely already alerted airport security about the unholy stink emanating from her luggage after eight hours in the air. Times like these, she hoped people just assumed she refused to wear deodorant and had horrible body odor. At least if she could get to a toilet — a bit of privacy behind closed doors — she could rewrap the packages and dampen the reek.

Not that she wanted to be face to face to with naked casu marzu and its cargo of maggots. She nearly gagged imagining the wriggling white larva looping and tunneling through the putrefied Pecorino. She’d come close to vomiting when the stooped cheesemaker had presented it to her with a flourish, his toothless smile like a gaping hole in his face almost as terrifying as the cheese itself.

Almost.

She’d been a procurer of things, odd foods that people wanted or needed, for five years, but this had been the worst job by far — the stupid maggots needed oxygen to survive, and Anthony Carluccio had been adamant. “No maggots, no final payment . . . ya unnerstand me?” he’d said, waving his hands, laying on his thick South Philly accent, and leering at her. Being the head of an underground eating club in the city required him to be a douchebag, apparently.

My Thoughts in Purple:
Violet Abraham’s eyes watered, the product of the twenty pounds of cheese turning her messenger bag into a public health hazard. LOL cute She’d read somewhere before that the smell of frying cabbage scientifically approached the level of hazardous air pollution, but cabbage had nothing on casu marzu. It stood proudly as the kingpin of evil dairy products.

[Her feet swooshed across the thin carpet lining the jet bridge, and she searched for a restroom in the vicinity.] Perhaps move this line to the end of the para? Maybe after “odor?” I stumbled a bit on the transition here. I also think the plane ride line fits nicely to carry over the idea of the opening para and let the reader know she’s in an airport The cheese had smelled a little on the short plane ride from Sardinia, but her seatmate from Rome and the flight staff had likely already alerted airport security about the unholy stink emanating from her luggage after eight hours in the air. Times like these, she hoped people just assumed she refused to wear deodorant and had horrible body odor. At least if she could get to a toilet — a bit of privacy behind closed doors — she could rewrap the packages and dampen the reek.

Not that she wanted to be face to face to with naked casu marzu and its cargo of maggots. Ew. Perhaps a tiny bit of explanation here as to why there are maggots. I gather from the rest of the passage that they’re part of the cheese, but it comes across as rotted food for a paragraph and that might turn folks off She nearly gagged imagining the wriggling white larva looping and tunneling through the putrefied Pecorino. She’d come close to vomiting when the stooped cheesemaker had presented it to her with a flourish, his toothless smile like a gaping hole in his face almost as terrifying as the cheese itself. This is (no pun intended) personal taste, but the maggots in this paragraph turn me off. It’s just a little too gross for me. Not everyone will feel the same way of course, but you might consider a way to make this more accessible. Perhaps add a little more humor from Violet to balance the ick factor?

Almost.

[She’d been a procurer of things, odd foods that people wanted or needed, for five years, but this had been the worst job by far] telling just a bit here. It’s not bad and you can probably leave as is, but you could also make it stronger by shifting it more in her head. — the stupid maggots needed oxygen to survive, and Anthony Carluccio had been adamant. “No maggots, no final payment . . . ya unnerstand me?” he’d said, waving his hands, laying on his thick South Philly accent, and leering at her. Being the head of an underground eating club in the city required him to be a douchebag, apparently.


On to the question:
Does this opening work?
Yes. I like the voice in this, and the idea of this poor gal hauling ghastly cheese from Italy is pretty funny. That one maggot paragraph felt a little off to me, but it didn’t keep me from reading past it. It might keep others away though (I've read plenty of times about agents who passed on something that grossed them out), so the author will have to decide how far to push that. 

I don’t yet know what the problem is going to be, but I suspect when she unwraps that cheese there will be dead maggots and get her into trouble with her client. Or she'll get into trouble at the airport over this. I'm not sure exactly what will happen, but there’s something to make me curious about what happens next. The concept is also rife with potential conflict. A woman whose job it is to get strange things opens up a lot of problems, so if things are okay with the cheese, I suspect she’s about to get a very strange request to get something.

Why this works:
What hooked me about this opening is the voice and the situation. There was humor, the writing flowed well and I felt in the head of Violet. It's third person, but there's a character here and a nice mix of narrative and internalization so I feel that I know Violet a little even though we've just "met." Her goal is small (to deal with the smelly cheese) but she's has one driving the scene and it's clearly going to lead to something larger. I don't yet know what that is, but I don't need to at this point. Things can go wrong and the situation can get funnier so I'm willing to go along for the ride.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they – and others – find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) so feel free to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive comments.

10 comments:

  1. Thank you so much -- that's very helpful!

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  2. I thought the tone and voice of this writing was interesting. I didn't find it particularly funny (I think I was grossed out by the description of maggots and the "gaping hole" of the cheesemaker's mouth.) but I can see how other people would.

    I liked your writing style, and wouldn't hesitate about reading more.

    One thing: Being someone who's worked in the travel industry for many years, however, I can't help but point out that she's probably breaking any number of laws by bringing cheese into the country without the proper quarantine procedures being followed. Those procedures vary by location, but bringing live animals (which is what maggots are) into a different country is always a difficult prospect. Perhaps you've dealt with the legal remifications later in the chapter. If not, it's probably something to look at.

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  3. I agree with Jo, this wasn't particularly funny for me either, but I can tell by the voice that it will be funny later on. I enjoyed the voice enough to overlook the maggots. I didn't really think that was gross, but there could be less emphasis on it though. I thought the line about "No maggots, no payment" kind of summed up how important it was to have them, so maybe cutting some of the rest and move on would be good.

    I'm not sure where this story is going, but it seems like it's off to a great start so far.

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  4. Maybe there's something wrong with me, but this made me want to go Google, see if this is a real cheese, and what kind of effect maggots would have on cheese-making (taste, texture?). I liked the light tone -- it let me know that I'd be in for an enjoyable ride.

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  5. I think Janice's suggestions are dead on. Moving the first sentence of paragraph two smooths out the read. Also, adding a touch more humorous thought on Violet, something a reader about to be grossed out can identify with and use to lighten the picture in their head would make this easier to, um, digest.

    As for the funny factor, well, I see this as page one, the set up of the joke. If you've watched enough comedians (which I have) you'll find that the openings to most complex jokes are not all that funny when viewed alone. It is the details of the setup however, that make the hilarity of the joke in the end. I think the setup has great comedy potential. Nicely done.

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  6. Yeah, I agree with Janice's comments, too.

    For anyone who's wondering, that particular cheese does require live maggots. I know a little about the cheese under another name, but I recognized what the writer was talking about from the description. (I "know" the cheese from research, not personal experience.)

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  7. I really rather enjoyed that, more than I'd imagined.

    I think the fact that people read it, despite the grossness of the maggots, is a nod towards a skill to keep things engaging. I understand why people say that the maggot bit might be too disgusting for some, but it if it gives me goosebumps, it means you're relaying how Violet feels very well.

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  8. Thanks for your feedback, everyone -- I'll look into ways to downplay the issue of the maggots. Is it just the word itself that freaks people out? Yeah, I know: no one likes maggots. Ha!

    Jo: the legality of smuggling cheese is addressed throughout this chapter, particularly when the MC makes it through customs without getting taken down by a rogue agent or cheese-sniffing dog.

    Thanks again -- this was really useful!

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  9. Nicole: It wasn't the word so much that got me, it was the description (which is a nod to you on your skills there). I could picture them wiggling around and that got me.

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  10. The concept is also rife with potential conflict. A woman whose job it is to get keep reading> strange things opens up a lot of problems, so if things are okay with the cheese, I suspect she’s about to get a very strange request to get something.

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