Saturday, September 24

Real Life Diagnostics: Dreaming of a Good Start

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 questions:
1. I've set the first paragraph off as a beginning to the first section of the book. It would most likely come on its own page. I know it will be hard to say since you haven't read it all, but does it feel contrived, or does it set the tone the way I hope?
2. Does the tension of whether or not this really is a dream come through?
3. Does this hook you and make you want to read more?

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
While other girls dreamed of ponies and boys, Talia dreamed of fire and pain. It didn’t take long for her to realize the dreams foretold her future. They set her apart, made her an outcast in her town, but she understood they were a gift, a chance to save herself if she could find the way.

****

Death lurked in the shadows. Talia clenched her fingers into a fist to stop her hands from shaking. Her heart pounded uncomfortably and her breath came is shallow bursts. Water sloshed against the wall and weighed down her skirt as she ran through the tunnel searching for a place to hide. The passageway curved into shadows in both directions with no promise of safety. Not even a doorway to squeeze into.

Two men in black robes stumbled into view. The older of the two men gasped for breath as he leaned against the wall. Talia pressed herself into the shadows between the circles of light coming from the hanging light bulbs.

Wait it out. It's just the dream. But the cold seeped through her blouse, making her chest ache until she shivered. Minutes passed with only the sound of the men's ragged breathing and her desperate attempt to wake before the next stage of the dream. It felt real enough that her confidence that it was only the dream wavered.

Calmness fluttered near Talia’s heart, just out of reach, as her mouth moved in sync with the man’s words, “It's too late. They're here."

My Thoughts in Purple:
[While other girls dreamed of ponies and boys,] The author mentioned this is an adult science fantasy. This line immediately made me think Talia was a teen, and that this was YA. This whole paragraph had a very YA vibe to it. Talia dreamed of fire and pain. It didn’t take long for her to realize the dreams foretold her future. They set her apart, made her an outcast in her town, but she understood they were a gift, a chance to save herself if she could find the way. I really like the voice in this opening

****

Death lurked in the shadows. Talia clenched her fingers into a fist [to stop] her hands from shaking. Her heart pounded uncomfortably and her breath came is shallow bursts. Water sloshed against the wall and weighed down her skirt as she ran through the tunnel [searching for] a place to hide. The passageway curved into shadows in both directions with no promise of safety. Not even a doorway to squeeze into. A few spots tell motive, but they don’t feel told in this instance. The POV feels distant enough that it reads fine. (I point this out because folks are always interested in what good telling vs bad telling is, and this is a good example)

Two men in black robes stumbled into view. The [older] if they’re wearing robes and it’s dark, how does she know which is the older one? of the two men [gasped for breath] perhaps change to eliminate the duplicate “breaths” so close together as he leaned against the wall. Talia pressed herself into the shadows between the circles of light coming from the hanging light bulbs.

Wait it out. It's just the dream. But the cold seeped through her blouse, [making her chest ache until she shivered.] Something about this phrase bothers me. I think the ache first and shiver second feel reversed. Don’t you shiver until your ache, not ache until you shiver? Readers chime in here, as this could just be me [Minutes passed with only the sound of the men's ragged breathing and her desperate attempt to wake before the next stage of the dream.] Perhaps break this into two sentences? I don’t think there’s a sound of her trying to wake, right? It felt real enough that her confidence that it was only [the dream] wavered. I like the “the dream” references, as it clearly states this is a specific and known dream for her

Calmness fluttered near Talia’s heart, just out of reach, as her mouth moved in sync with the man’s words, “It's too late. They're here." I like how she knows this well enough to know the words, but it feels a little disconnected with the previous paragraph. Perhaps a transition? Last we see the men they’re leaning against the wall gasping, now they seem very coherent.

The questions:
1. I've set the first paragraph off as a beginning to the first section of the book. It would most likely come on its own page. I know it will be hard to say since you haven't read it all, but does it feel contrived, or does it set the tone the way I hope?

I like the voice in the opening and there’s something compelling about it. If this para continues into something happening that relates to this opening (like her fighting her destiny or showing her in her normal world—even if that normal for her is weird for anyone else), then it might work as an opening paragraph. As its own page I’m not so sure. It’s telling something key to the character and story instead of just showing it. If it continues as an explanation of Talia and her powers, I suspect it will come across as a giant infodump. It actually reads more like part of a query letter.

I wonder if this snippet is there because of the “don’t start with a dream” rule. My advice for a book that starts with an explanation snippet would be to skip the intro and start with what that snippet talks about—in this case, Talia dreaming of fire and pain. Yes, dreams are frowned upon, but they can work if done right. If this book needs to open with a dream (which the author mentioned it really does) then perhaps look for ways to avoid the common reasons folks say don’t start with a dream. Twist the cliché around and make it work for you.

2. Does the tension of whether or not this really is a dream come through?
No, because you tell us in line one Talia dreams these things. And since this is her core problem, that’s likely to be on the cover jacket as well, so none of this is new information. I’d suggest using what your snippet paragraph says instead. Perhaps show her trying to save herself in the dream. Let us get to meet her and see what drives her to fight, how she accepts this gift, terrible as it is. Let the tension come from something we don’t know. Maybe Talia has something she’s trying to figure out that will drive her through the book. Hints of that (or even saying it outright if that’s the core conflict) could work well and supply the needed tension.

3. Does this hook you and make you want to read more?
Not yet, because I’m not getting a sense of Talia. It’s a faceless girl in a dream trying to wake up. The cliché works against you here since readers have seen a lot of this, which it makes it even harder to hook with. They know none of it is real and it doesn’t matter. I’d suggest going more personal with Talia to help fight this. If we love her right away, we’ll be drawn into her story faster. Perhaps add more internalization that shows her personality and voice, and really lets us see who she is.

Readers will want to know right away:

Who is this person?
Why do I want to spend time with them?

Right now, we know nothing about Talia except that snippet, and that’s just information, not her herself. In the opening scene, there’s nothing that conveys her personality. Try showing the things that will help ground the reader in Talia’s world and make them care about her. Until they do, her problem won’t hold their attention. And her problem isn’t that she’s having a bad dream, right? It’s what that dream represents for her. She knows this is her fate and she wants to avoid that fate. Maybe start out showing her trying to do just that, even if it’s futile. You’ll get a sense of her personality and a goal to drive the story.

One reason dreams rarely work is that they toss the reader into a situation that isn’t the protag’s real world, so there’s nothing to ground them in the book. If the reader knows it’s a dream, then they have no context for what’s real and normal and what isn’t. If they don’t realize it, they can feel cheated when they find out.

Perhaps make the dream matter by making what happens there real? Not real in the literal sense, but real as in the things she does/decides/feels actually affect something important to her. It’s not just a dream she experiences and then it’s over. She has some kind of awareness or control over it that allows her to act. Since she’s trying to avoid this fate, something along those lines might work here.

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 feedback.

9 comments:

  1. I thought the opening paragraph was YA fantasy, and it would make good jacket copy.

    I skipped right to the text, so I didn't know it was a dream until Talia mentioned it.

    Beginning with a dream is often a cliche, but I really liked how she knew it was a dream, a recurring dream that she even knew the words to.

    As far as the tension goes if it's a dream, there's really only one line about it - "It felt real enough that her confidence that it was only the dream wavered."

    This might be better if you extend it out. Something like, "The cold chilled her so that she doubted it was the dream - this time might be for real. And still she couldn't wake."

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  2. As to whether it's alright to start with a dream sequence, I think it's mostly a problem if you pretend that you're opening with some desperate cliff-hanger, then it doesn't -it was just a dream. You're not lying to your readers. We knows the character is dreaming, and that the dream is leading somewhere.

    As for the opening itself, I like it a lot, but I didn't realize it was supposed to be an adult book until Janice mentioned that in her comments. I love the cold making her unsure if the dream IS a dream.

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  3. Author - I thought this was well written, but I would also like to connect with your MC more. That being said I would have read on :)

    Janice - Great advice. I would love to see a post about making cliches work for you.

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  4. I also thought this was YA until Janice mentioned otherwise. The opening line of the first paragraph sets her up as a teenager (if not younger), and even having that paragraph there reminds me of a children's story, setting the scene and telling the stakes before the story actually starts.

    If the rest of the novel is aimed at adults, I'd suggest ditching the first paragraph (it's not necessary, and all the info can be shown later in the first chapter), and then looking at your wording throughout the rest of the excerpt.

    (To me, Talia sounds more like a YA name as well, although that's just a personal prejudice. Obviously all those teenage 'Talia's eventually grow up.)

    Janice mentioned that you need to start with a dream, but I wonder if there's any way to avoid it? I really liked your voice, and so would keep reading if the book was in front of me, but this wouldn't entice me to buy it. Knowing that this is a dream means that there's no real stakes here.

    Good work, overall. Your voice is great and your writing is clear. With a few adjustments, I think this could be awesome.

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  5. Excellent writing. Loved Janice's critique. I hope it helps!

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  7. Great excerpt and great critique! Fun Sunday reading. Ditto to a lot of things:
    1. This felt YA to me--it's a very nice YA voice.
    2. I'd omit the opening paragraph, catchy though the first line is. It feels too explainy to me. (Yep, sounds more like something on the back of the book.) You pretty much SHOW everything later anyway, so the opening paragraph seems unnecessary.
    3. If a page or 2 of Talia's real life came first, perhaps, then the reader could connect more and the opening wouldn't be a dream sequence. The intro is intriguing this way, but like others have said--we know it's a dream so the feelings of stakes and involvement are minimized.
    4. I too really liked the recurring dream making it so that Talia knew the words to it (mouthing it).

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  8. Thanks everyone for your comments! A special thanks to Janice as well. It was great meeting you yesterday. I loved the relaxed feel at the bookstore. It was the highlight of my day, and I'm sorry I couldn't stay longer.

    This story started out YA and I'm still trying to catch all the things I need to weed out. Thanks for pointing out the first paragraph for me.

    This first chapter has been the hardest for me to pin down. I've started without the dream and had people confused about why the dreams are so important to her. I've put the dream and had people feel cheated when she woke. So I put in all the bits about her knowing it was THE dream, but agree the tension slipped with that. *sigh* I'm still digging for the perfect balance. I appreciate all your suggestions.

    Something Janice said sparked an idea that I'm mulling now.

    I did want to qualify that the dreams have a real physical affect on her. She doesn't "just" wake. I added the dream back in because the dream is why she "drinks" the sunrise--which is one of the coolest magical gifts she has in my opinion. ;) It's so hard to pack the right words into that first page, isn't it??

    Thanks again everyone!

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  9. Angie, great idea! I'll do that.

    Charisty, great meeting you too! I love FoxTale for that reason. Such a fun store. Oo, I like that there are physical affects of the dream. That might be something you can play with.

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