Saturday, June 25

Real Life Diagnostics: Voice, Tone, and a Little Bit of Scary

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 want to make sure I'm establishing a strong voice and a sense of immediacy by showing rather than telling (of course). I'm also attempting to develop a slightly ominous tone for my story.
On to the diagnosis…


Original text:

Every day for two years now I’ve spent the afternoon stretched over my grinding stone, wearing away my knees, shoulders, and spirit so someone else can eat. Smoke from my crumbling chimney wells up inside the shanty, so, in spite of the cold, I’ve taken to letting my door swing on its hinges, just so I can breathe while I grind. And so I can watch.

Today, I am even more vigilant than usual. I straighten from my work, push my knuckles into my thighs, and peer through the sliver of open doorway. The trees' shadows, stretched and skeletal, advance across the worn path, which is unusually quiet. After the events of this morning, all the womenfolk surely have a firm hold on each of their children, afraid they will somehow be snatched up and carried off, even though the slavers should be long gone. The slavers I again failed to predict.

I glower toward my divining charms heaped in the corner, but as I do, something darts from the shadowy tree line. I whip around, scanning the prairie grass. There! A dark figure creeps toward the one shack still standing obstinately outside the new village the master built. My shack.

I scramble out of sight and hunker behind the door, fumbling for my heavy grinding stone. I peek around the door’s splintery edge. The dark shape has a bowed head and wide, male-looking shoulders. Male means dangerous—likely a rogue slaver or some master’s son looking for a little easy fun. I clench the stone in my hand. I am not easy or fun.

My Thoughts in Purple:
[Every day for two years now I’ve spent the afternoon stretched over my grinding stone, wearing away my knees, shoulders, and spirit so someone else can eat. Smoke from my crumbling chimney wells up inside the shanty, so, in spite of the cold, I’ve taken to letting my door swing on its hinges, just so I can breathe while I grind. And so I can watch.

Today, I am even more vigilant than usual.] I really like what’s behind this section, but for some reason it’s bugging me. I stared at it for several minutes trying to pinpoint why, so there’s a chance it’s just me (taste does play a role). I think what’s bugging me is that it feels a little too much like explanatory setup, even though it’s strong in the voice and POV. There’s a distance that feels off compared to the nice tight first person POV, since she’s talking about what she’s done for the last two years instead of what she’s doing now. (Others please comment on this so our author gets some more opinions here). What I like about this is that I instantly get that times are hard for these folks but they don’t reap the benefits of their hard work (she works every day so others can eat). She also braves the cold so she can watch. That’s suggests she has reason to watch. The word “vigilant” confirms that it’s due to danger.

I straighten from my work, push my knuckles into my thighs, and peer through the [sliver] Sliver feels smaller than her earlier statement of letting the door swing open of open doorway. The trees' shadows, stretched and skeletal, advance across the worn path, which is unusually quiet. [After the events of this morning,] With no context for this, anything could have happened. Perhaps add a little detail, like “after this morning’s raid…” so we know they were attacked in some way. all the womenfolk [surely] This suggests she’s guessing, but I bet she’s right and can see how scared these people are. This would be stronger if we can see how the women are reacting to the attack. have a firm hold on each of their children, afraid they will [somehow] Weakens the thought since they know exactly how and why the children would be snatched up. Their fear is real, right? be snatched up and carried off, even though the slavers [should be] Also weakens the thought a little, though I suspect it’s to indicate the slavers might still be around and thus raise the tension. But without other fear to back it up, it feels like she isn’t concerned about it.  [long gone.] The “long gone” also helps to lessen the fear here. [The slavers I again failed to predict.] Interesting line since she’s appeared to be nothing more than a baker. Now I see she does more, and has failed doing it.

I glower toward my divining charms heaped in the corner, [but as I do,] This adds some distance to the POV that pulls me out of the story. Like she’s aware of what she’s doing and that someone is watching her. something darts from the shadowy tree line. I whip around, scanning the prairie grass. There! A dark figure creeps toward the one shack still standing [obstinately outside the new village] Another interesting tidbit. She’s a loner and wants it that way. Makes me curious why she wants to be outside the group. And why they let her. And why the village is new. Lots of stuff in this one bit the master built. My shack.

I scramble out of sight and hunker behind the door, fumbling for my heavy grinding stone. I peek around the door’s splintery edge. The dark shape has a bowed head and wide, male-looking shoulders. Male means dangerous—likely a rogue slaver or some master’s son looking for a little easy fun. I clench the stone in my hand. [ I am not easy or fun.] This line alone makes me want to read on. There’s something awesome in the voice and attitude here that really clicks with me. This whole paragraph is quite good and conveys the ominous tone you’re looking for.

The question:
I want to make sure I'm establishing a strong voice and a sense of immediacy by showing rather than telling (of course). I'm also attempting to develop a slightly ominous tone for my story.

Voice:
I think the voice is strong, and I love the attitude in the last line. You’re conveying a lot of info with some great specific details and words.

Immediacy:
Her thinking about the past and summing up her life right at the start takes away some of the immediacy, but other than that opening paragraph, I feel there in her head and in this world with something about to happen. I also get the sense there’s a lot more going on than what I’m seeing, which is wonderful.

Show vs Tell:
Aside from that nagging “something” in the first paragraph, I think you’re showing well. I think what bothers me about that opening is what I noted later in the scene. The sense that she was sitting outside herself relating the events (telling if you will, even though we’re solid in her head). It might just be the time references. If you cut those, we’d just see her life. Since this is hard to articulate, I’ll edit a little to see if that makes it clearer.
I stretch over my grinding stone, wearing away my knees, shoulders, and spirit so someone else can eat. Smoke from my crumbling chimney wells up inside the shanty, so, in spite of the cold, the door is open, swinging on its hinges, just so I can breathe while I grind. And so I can watch.

Today, I am even more vigilant than usual. (actually without the “two years” part, this line works. Transitioning to something about the raid might work well here, and allow you to get in some thoughts about feeling guilty she didn’t predict it if you wanted to)
Ominous tone:
There is an ominous tone, but I think you can make it even stronger if you tweak the opening a bit to show her worried and watching, how the others in the village are behaving, maybe even how guilty she feels (if she does) about not predicting it. The pieces are all there, so perhaps just nudge them to the surface a little so they shine.

Overall, I think this is an effective scene with strong writing and a good voice.

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. That's a great opening, and it conveys a great deal, as with the shack, without laboring it on.

    I agree with cutting the two years part, and as for the "Today, I am even more vigilant than usual" line, the author could add a more ominous tone with something a bit more visceral, like, "If I'd only been as vigilant this morning, those screams wouldn't have cut the dawn."

    So yeah, good suggestions, and the author has a great start here. I especially liked the understated way she chastises herself for not seeing it coming, and then showing us the divining charms. It brings out sympathy for her that she's not as good as she'd like in protecting her people.

    And great last line, too.

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  2. One thing jumped out at me... sounds to me like she's doing her grinding someplace other than her own shack (where the stranger is heading for)?

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  3. I also really liked that last line. Something about the present-tense made this story feel a little creepy to begin with. Thanks for volunteering! I always learn so much reading these.

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  4. I agree with Steve. You have a great opening that conveys a lot, but if you add a few concrete details the feel of the character and ominous tone would come out even more.

    Like Janice, I really like your voice, but there's a certain distance to a few sentences. Even though we're inside her head, some of the phrasing made it feel like we were just watching her work, inside of right inside her head.

    "Every day for two years now I’ve spent..."
    "Today, I am even more vigilant than usual."

    These are the main phrases that make me feel like I am watching her. Most characters won't think to themselves "I am more hungry than usual". It would sound a little more natural, I think, if you personalize it with something like "I have to be vigilant, today more than ever after this morning's raid."

    Rephrasing that sentence makes it more like your awesome last sentence: "I am no easy fun." and less like something an observer would say about her.

    I think overall you did a great job, and I am definitely intrigued. :D

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  5. This is a beginning, and I'm really curious. I especially like the sense of place. It seems unusual.

    the present tense didn't bother me for the short length here, but it might bug me for the length of a novel. That's a really personal-subjective comment. I know a lot of people like present tense, and this opening is interesting enough that I'd keep reading despite the tense to see where it's going.

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  6. Great points... I learned a lot here.

    Thx

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  7. Thanks for chiming in with more great feedback everyone!

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  8. I wrote `this is a beginning' in my previous post. (Guess that makes me captain obvious?) I meant to type `this is a great beginning.' Somehow I missed the word `great.' :)

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  10. Actually I totally disagree with comments suggesting you drop in something about what happened in the morning (i.e. openly explaining why he or she is being vigilant, mentioning a raid etc). I think the ensuing paragraphs explain it perfectly, and to put in a big 'thud' revelation too early would, in my opinion, make it clunkier than it needs to be. I like your style for slow revelation, I think you've created a nicely tense atmosphere, and I LOVE your last line - don't change it.

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