Saturday, July 9

Real Life Diagnostics: Sentence Flow and a “Not Awake Yet” POV

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:(NOTE: Revised piece at the bottom)
I would like to submit the opening of my debut young adult urban fantasy novel. The questions I have are the following:

1) Does the writing bring the reader smoothly forward from one sentence to the next or can it be cumbersome and draw the reader out of the story?

2) My main character (Selina Kane) is not conscious until the start of the fifth paragraph and I wonder if it makes it difficult to get into the story right away since the reader isnt yet reading from Selina's POV.

3) Does this opening work?

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
The inexplicable feeling of being stared at drew Mrs. Riley’s attention from her computer screen and directly into a set of sea-grey eyes. She gasped, startled by the unexpected actuality of meeting the gaze which still had her skin itching, but quickly recollected herself, settling back into her seat at the familiar sight of Selina Kane’s glossed-over, unblinking stare; one which she had grown accustomed to after a year of lecturing to the perpetual daydreamer.

Selina’s pen formed a pool of dark ink on her blank paper as Mrs. Riley called out a ten minute warning. The assignment was the last Mrs. Riley would ever give the graduating senior class and she was particularly proud of it; a letter to the future which she would send back to each student after ten years.

Mrs. Riley didn’t want to get into a confrontation with Selina, especially not on the last day of class, but she really did want everyone to at least try to complete the assignment and so she reluctantly walked over to the daydreamer. As she stood before Selina’s desk, prepared to gently rouse her back into consciousness, the girl’s hand started to flow quickly across the paper. Mrs. Riley stared open-mouthed at the spectacle of the daydreaming girl whose unfocused eyes still stared forward even as she neatly filled her paper with looping calligraphy.

In that moment one of the other students finished his work and glanced at his teacher in the hopes of turning in his paper and leaving early. He followed Mrs. Riley’s open-mouthed stare to Selina and quickly nudged the girl sitting beside him, eager to point out the strange scene unfolding at the front of the classroom. Before long every single student had stopped writing and begun to whisper about the strange girl whose antics were a gossip staple.

My Thoughts in Purple:

The inexplicable feeling of being stared at drew Mrs. Riley’s attention from her computer screen [and] I stumbled a bit over the “and” here directly into a set of sea-grey eyes. She gasped, [startled by the unexpected actuality of meeting] Stumbled here the gaze which still had her skin itching, but quickly [recollected] Did she recollect herself or just collect herself? herself, [settling back into her seat at the familiar sight of Selina Kane’s glossed-over, unblinking stare;] I like this, so perhaps use this after she gasps to tighten? [one which she had grown accustomed to] If the stare is familiar, why did it startle her so? after a year of lecturing to the perpetual daydreamer. The paragraph overall felt a little cumbersome to me. There are a lot of words used to say she looked up and was briefly startled by a girl staring back.

[Selina’s pen formed a pool of dark ink on her blank paper as Mrs. Riley called out a ten minute warning.] An awkward time jump here. We go from her settling back into her seat to her calling out The assignment was the last Mrs. Riley would ever give the graduating senior class and she was particularly proud of it; [a letter to the future which she would send back to each student after ten years.] Reads a bit cumbersome

Mrs. Riley didn’t want to get into a confrontation with Selina, especially not on the last day of class, but she really did want everyone to at least try to complete the assignment [and so she reluctantly walked over to the daydreamer.] Perhaps make this its own sentence? Reads a little cumbersome with this included As she stood before Selina’s desk, prepared to gently rouse her back into consciousness, the girl’s [hand] Hand or pen? started to flow quickly across the paper. Mrs. Riley stared open-mouthed at the [spectacle of the] Reads cumbersome daydreaming girl whose unfocused eyes still stared forward [even as she neatly filled her paper with looping calligraphy.] Reads cumbersome

In that moment one of the other students finished his work and glanced at his teacher in the hopes of turning in his paper and leaving early. He followed Mrs. Riley’s [open-mouthed] Used this in the previous paragraph stare to Selina and [quickly] Used this word three times  nudged the girl sitting beside him, eager to point out the strange scene unfolding at the front of the classroom. Before long every single student had stopped writing and begun to whisper about the strange girl whose antics were a gossip staple. The flow in this paragraph works well.

The question:
1) Does the writing bring the reader smoothly forward from one sentence to the next or can it be cumbersome and draw the reader out of the story?
Style is a matter of personal taste (readers chime in here), but I did stumble over a few sentences in this. I think you might be trying too hard on those. Much of the rest reads smoothly, but the staring idea is being drawn out longer than it needs to be. It feels like there’s extra focus on it to make sure the reader gets it, and this is making it cumbersome. There’s nothing wrong with simple or short sentences. A good mix of sentence types allows you to control your flow and rhythm. You might try reading this aloud to see where the tricky parts are.

2) My main character (Selina Kane) is not conscious until the start of the fifth paragraph and I wonder if it makes it difficult to get into the story right away since the reader isn’t yet reading from Selina's POV.
Right now you’re in third person omniscient. There is no character whose eyes we see this story through. There’s someone outside the story relating all the information and telling motives.

If Selina is the POV and you plan to tell the story from her eyes, then there’s a good chance it will jar the reader to start out in third omni and shift into a limited third. The closer you plan to be in Selina’s head, the more jarring this will likely be. If this is her story being told through her eyes, she can’t be aware of what she isn’t there to see. And she can’t know what’s going on in the heads of Riley and the student who wanted to leave early. (That’s a POV shift)

If you continue with third omni, then you can shift focus to her and follow her around and dip into other heads when needed as you’ve done here. Like everything else in writing, anything can be done if you do it well and it works for the story.

As for the POV making it tough to get into the story: Yes and no. Third omni often comes across as told due to its detached nature. Most of the motivations are being told here, which keeps me at a distance. I don’t get to figure out anything on my own. This made it hard for me to connect to the characters.

If you keep the third omni, I’d suggest giving your narrator a stronger voice, a sense of a character so you have a “person” behind the descriptions and explanations. (Heist Society and The Name of This Book is Secret are two third omni books with strong narrator voices if you’d like examples) The third omni style that hooks me is the one where the narrator has an opinion about what’s going on and doesn’t just describe things from afar. (This is personal taste of course)

If you wanted a limited or tight third on Selina, then I’d suggest starting in her POV when she wakes up. Let her figure out what happened by the reactions of Riley and the other students, and what she sees when she “comes to.” I don’t see anything important in this omni opening that would be lost if you started with Selina waking up. Her emotions and internalization would also help raise the tension as I imagine she’ll have strong feelings about what’s happened to her. She’ll want to act, which will also give you a strong goal and kick the narrative drive off.

3) Does this opening work?
For me, it’s hasn’t hooked yet for a few reasons. (Readers chime in here) It reads more like setup, and there’s nothing going on that makes me curious about what happens next. I don’t get a sense that any of the characters matter yet, so I don’t know who I’m supposed to care about. Riley feels like the protag, but I know that Selina is the real protag. There’s no “point” in connecting to Riley if she’s very likely going to be gone in a few pages. But Selina hasn’t done anything to make me curious about her either.

The stares and the writing are obviously something, but Riley’s (and the other students’) reactions here suggest this happens a lot with her. If this is “normal” for Selina, there’s nothing for me to worry about. Perhaps if they worried more, then I’d wonder what was going on with this girl. If there was a sense of something wrong or something potentially bad going on.

This is probably something that is also going to be on the cover copy or query hook (Selina’s problems are due to her blanking out, I assume?) so her doing it won’t come as a surprise to readers. You might consider looking for a way to show Selina’s problem in action and how it affects her. Something that will start you toward the novel’s inciting event. Maybe the other kids laugh, or throw things at her, the teacher yells at her, are more vocal about how they feel, so readers can see how people will treat her. (And this just gave me an idea for Monday’s post, so thanks!)

Start with a character who wants something, whatever that is. You have something happening here, which is good, but it has no relevance to anyone yet because it’s all described from a distance. Perhaps Riley is doing something here to keep the action moving. Maybe she’s tired of Selina always daydreaming and she wants to force her to do that last assignment she’s so proud of. I think you have all the right pieces here, and you as the author knows what happens. Try looking at the various characters and thinking about what each of them would do in this situation. Give them a goal and a reason to act that’s personal to them. Let them drive the story and not simply exist in it. I think you’ll be happy with the results.

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.

A New Version:
Our volunteer sent in a revision, and with is a question: Which version do you like better? There was feedback for starting as they did, and some for starting with Selina waking up. Feel free to comment on her revised piece as well.

Original Omni Opening (revised)
The inexplicable feeling of being stared at drew Mrs. Riley’s attention from her computer screen directly into a set of sea-grey eyes. She gasped in surprise, but then settled back into her seat at the sight of Selina Kane’s glossed-over, unblinking stare. After a year of lecturing to the perpetual daydreamer she still found the habit unnerving, at best.

Mrs. Riley didn’t want to get into a confrontation with Selina, especially not on the last day of class, but she really did want everyone to at least try to complete the assignment. She reluctantly rose from her seat and walked over to the daydreamer, calling out a ten minute warning. But as she reached out to gently rouse Selina back into consciousness, the girl’s pen started to flow quickly across the paper. Mrs. Riley gawked openly as Selina neatly filled her paper with looping calligraphy without once looking down or stirring from her daydream.

In that moment one of the other students finished his work and glanced at his teacher in the hopes of turning in his paper and leaving early. He followed Mrs. Riley’s open-mouthed stare to Selina and nudged the girl sitting beside him, eager to point out the scene unfolding at the front of the classroom. Before long every single student had stopped writing and begun to whisper about the strange girl whose antics were a gossip staple.

New Opening From Selina's POV:
Somewhere in the space between sleeping and waking, Selina felt her pen drop idly from her grip. It clacked against the linoleum floor, the noise dispersing the remnants of her dream. The classroom came back into focus and with it, a nightmare. Twenty pairs of eyes were silently fixated upon her, waiting for her next move. She was confused by the undivided attention, and terrified.

For the millionth time that year Selina squeezed her eyes shut and desperately willed something magical to happen. She visualized opening her eyes to find herself transported out of the classroom and lounging in the shade of the great oak tree growing behind the school. It didn’t work of course, it never did, but she couldn’t help but believe that the next time it just might.

Magic hadn’t solved her problem, and Selina was fresh out of any other ideas, so she took a deep breath of air, gripped the sides of her desk, and let out the most forceful scream she could muster. It wasn’t the most obvious tactic to get out of the spotlight, but it did work.

“Detention! Right now young lady and don’t dawdle on the way,” squeaked her teacher, taking Selina by the elbow and leading her outside.

Selina looked up at her teacher, thankful to be sent away, to not have to be the center of attention for a single minute longer. Mrs. Riley just stared angrily back, her lips stretched into a thin line. But Selina noticed that the hand perched on her hip trembled. Everyone, even the teacher, was afraid of what they couldn’t understand.

My Thoughts in Purple:

The inexplicable feeling of being stared at drew Mrs. Riley’s attention from her computer screen directly into a set of sea-grey eyes. She gasped [in surprise],telling a bit here, as gasping indicates surprise but then settled back into her seat at the sight of Selina Kane’s glossed-over, unblinking stare. After a year of lecturing to the perpetual daydreamer she still found the habit unnerving, at best.

Mrs. Riley didn’t want to get into a confrontation with Selina, especially not on the last day of class, but she really did want everyone to at least try to complete the assignment. She reluctantly rose from her seat and walked over to the daydreamer, calling out a ten minute warning. But as she reached out [to gently rouse Selina back into consciousness], feels a bit detached here the girl’s pen started [to flow] could also use "flowing" here to avoid so many "to" quickly across the paper. Mrs. Riley gawked openly as Selina neatly filled her paper with looping calligraphy without once looking down or stirring from her daydream.

In that moment one of the other students finished his work and glanced at his teacher in the hopes of turning in his paper and leaving early. He followed Mrs. Riley’s open-mouthed stare to Selina and nudged the girl sitting beside him, [eager to point out] feels a bit detached here the scene unfolding at the front of the classroom. Before long every single student had stopped writing and begun to whisper about the strange girl whose antics were a gossip staple.


I think the flow problem is solved, as this reads much more smoothly now. It still feels a little distant to me, and more setup-ish, but I am admittedly a fan of tight POVs. There were a few spots I think can be tweaked and still maintain the omni style, but just went a little closer to telling for me. But a good revision overall.

New Opening From Selina's POV:
Somewhere in the space between sleeping and waking, Selina felt her pen drop [idly] Don't think you need from her grip. It clacked against the linoleum floor, the noise dispersing the remnants of her dream. The classroom came back into focus and with it, [a] If this has happened to her before, perhaps "the"? to show she's been through this nightmare. Twenty pairs of eyes [were silently] could cut to tighten fixated upon her, waiting for her next move. [She was confused by the undivided attention, and terrified.] I like the emotions here, but it feels a little told. Perhaps something that shows her confusion and fear?

For the millionth time that year Selina squeezed her eyes shut and desperately willed something magical to happen. She visualized opening her eyes to find herself transported out of the classroom and lounging in the shade of the great oak tree growing behind the school. [It didn’t work of course, it never did, but she couldn’t help but believe that the next time it just might.] I really like the voice in this line.

Magic hadn’t solved her problem, and Selina was fresh out of any other ideas, [so] could cut to be more in her head. Start the next sentence here at "She" she took a deep breath of air, gripped the sides of her desk, and let out the most forceful scream she could muster. It wasn’t the most obvious tactic to get out of the spotlight, [but it did work.] This felt a little distant to me because she says it worked before we see it work. But I suspect this is a tactic she's used before. Perhaps "had worked before" or the like to show that?

“Detention! Right now young lady and don’t dawdle on the way,” squeaked her teacher, taking Selina by the elbow and leading her outside.

Selina looked up at her teacher, thankful to be sent away, to not have to be the center of attention for a single minute longer. Mrs. Riley just stared [angrily] The description says angry so you can cut this. back, her lips stretched into a thin line. But Selina noticed that the hand perched on her hip trembled. Everyone, even the teacher, was afraid of what they couldn’t understand.
 
I like this version much better. Selina is in the middle of a problem and she acts on it. I see trouble brewing and how she feels about it, and I'm drawn in more because I've connected to her much better here. It's clear she's my protag and she has a weird problem she's dealing with. People are scared of her. She'd rather scream like a freak and get detention on the last day of school than have them stare.
 
Which version do you prefer? (and why?)

13 comments:

  1. Author: I think you have a cool idea here, and you are brave for sharing it :)

    Just like Janice, I got tripped up in a few spots. When I edit my own work I always think, "Can I say the same thing with less words?" And Janice's tip of reading your sentences aloud really works.

    Janice: I agree with you. I need to feel like there needs is tension, conflict, or something at stake right from the beginning--or I don't care.

    Thanks for another great RLD :)

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  2. I hate to disagree, but as soon as I finished those paragraphs I wanted to read more. However, I personally think switching the POV will be awkward for a reader. My initial idea, as it seemed was Janice's, would be to start after this event, with her finding out about it and dealing with the consequences.

    But like I said, loved the story!

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  3. I'm 100% with Janice on this. The overstuffed, ponderous second sentence in particular is way too much to ask of a reader at the very opening of a book. I agree also that the opening lacks a hook. An editor will likely put it aside after this first para.

    The author's challenge at the beginning of a work is to seduce the reader; to convince them that not only is this a good tale, but that the author can tell it in an agreaable way. The first paragraphs should slip in like a stiletto between the ribs, unnoticed until it's too late.

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  4. I also loved the story, though it did read like a scene set-up as in a movie script. Some sentences were long and awkward, but the last paragraph was really smooth. Keep writing!

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  5. You have beautiful writing, and your prose does feel like it flows, although there are parts that feel overdone. I get the sense that some of your sentences are "natural" whereas others have been worked over time and time again, and feel forced. This may or may not be true, it's just the sense I get. It would be lovely if the natural-feel flowed throughout the whole piece.


    Other than that, I have 2 real concerns. (1) There's nothing in this excerpt that makes me feel like it's YA. The protaganist is "clearly" Mrs Riley (although I know from your notes that this isn't the case), and a lot of the language doesn't resonate with me as something a teenager would use. (2) There's nothing in this excerpt that makes me feel like it's urban fantasy. That's not necessarily a problem if you've got an immediate hook or a charater who grabs your attention, but nothing important seems to happen here.

    I agree with Janice that starting from when Selina wakes up would work more effectively, and would probably solve both those issues.

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  6. Thank you everyone for your helpful comments. This is all feedback that I will definitely use!

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  7. Thanks for all the great feedback everyone. Alex, I LOVE to see different opinions on these RLDs. My way and taste is not the only one and it helps the submitter to see a variety of views.

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  8. I would ditch the whole Mrs. Riley’s POV. And I would use simpler words that roll off the tongue, and not to mention the advice to “show” rather than “tell” is one I would agree with.

    I struggle with the same problem.

    Here is an awesome link on “Showing vs. Telling”
    http://www.barbaradawsonsmith.com/showdon%27ttell.htm

    It helped me see the error of my ways. And I am certain it will help anyone that needs advice in this area!!

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  9. For some reason I kept reading 'a set of sea grey eyes' as a whole lot of sea grey eyes and I was thinking Why? Why? Are they all aliens? It threw me. Better would be 'Selina's sea grey eyes'. Also the teacher's skin is itching for real or only because of the staring? Sorry for being stupid. I liked the weirdness of the girl writing and staring straight ahead. Yes, I think using Selina's POV will really drive the action forward.

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  10. Thanks so much for submitting two new versions.

    I think your updated version of option 1 reads much more nicely. As I said in my first comment, I think you write beautifully. But...

    I absolutely LOVE option two, starting from Selina "waking up". Reading it, I feel an instant attraction to her. And every teenager can relate to the nightmare of waking up to find everyone staring at them. Not only does this make me want to keep reading, it makes me want to buy the book!

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  11. Hi again...

    I like version two, as I did version one, and I think it is the better one. I say this because it is more involved with Selina. I think you might be being a little verbose, but maybe I'm just picking at little things because, as a whole, it's great.

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  12. I also like version two better. I feel a much closer connection to the MC. Nice revision.

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  13. Thank you everyone for taking a second look; it's much appreciated!

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