Saturday, October 1

Real Life Diagnostics: Building a World That Sucks You in

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:
Does this works as a gripping enough opening? Does the world building hits you over the head or comes through the writing naturally?
On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
Sketched in pencil on scraps of toilet paper, the end of the world sat neatly folded in her jacket pocket. Davey chewed on the cuticle of her thumb and checked the digital clock blinking neon green above the reception desk. She had thirty minutes to get home before the Serafim took to the streets.

Peering out the window, Davey swiped her ID card, hopping in agitation at the three second delay in the building's electronic mechanism. She'd have to hurry to catch the tram. She didn't want to be caught on the street by the red-masked Serafs; the elite military force keeping citizens in check, although that concern seemed petty considering the world was about to unravel.

She tapped her jacket pocket trying to ignore the dread sensation brewing within. Her fingers fluttered at her throat above the St Christopher medal she'd worn since she was two years old. Uttering a prayer, she hoped her Mom had been right about guardian angels.

Identity approved and work-hours logged, Davey hurried onto the pavement. The wind was cold, whipping her braids across her face. With a shiver, she dodged the cars buzzing along the street and caught the last tram to the fence, which divided the city into the haves and would-love-to-haves.

Stepping into the carriage, she stood at the door, not wanting to be caught in the crush of bodies as workers rushed towards home. Scanning the occupants clad in uniforms denoting menial labor, Davey's gaze fell on a tall man garbed in a vintage trench-coat of unusual design. He hovered in the corner of the carriage, his face obscured by the shadow of a wide-brimmed top-hat. She shivered and turned away as the tram screeched to a stop, and she was forced onto the street by the wave of workers pushing towards the fence.

The world's going to end, the words echoed in her mind.

My Thoughts in Purple:
[Sketched in pencil on scraps of toilet paper, the end of the world sat neatly folded in her jacket pocket.] Love this first line. Very reminiscent of Neil Gamin or Douglas Addams. Davey chewed on the cuticle of her thumb and checked the [digital clock blinking neon green] This detail tells me they have technology, though “digital” might be something someone wouldn’t think about. If it’s normal, she’d just see the clock blinking neon green above the reception desk. She had thirty minutes to get home before the [Serafim] I immediately think angels. took to the streets. Strong opening para. I’m hooked.

Peering out the window, Davey [swiped her ID card,] More evidence of technology, and some security since she needs an ID card for her building [hopping in agitation] Telling a bit at the three second delay in the [building's electronic mechanism.] Not sure about this detail. It’s already established they have electricity here. Perhaps something about why there’s a delay instead? Is it checking something like her file? Or doing a scan of the front hallway? Could be a spot to add in something about the world She'd have to hurry to catch the [tram.] Tram is different from train, and makes me think of those things from Disney World. Technology, maybe something that runs on electricity instead of gas [She didn't want to be caught on the street by the red-masked Serafs;] Something about the repeat of getting home before the Serafs got out hit my ears funny. I see why it’s repeated, but perhaps find a smoother way to get in the mask info about them? the [elite military force keeping citizens in check,] This says what they are, but it might be too vague. This is a bland fact. How does Davey think of them? It’s a good opportunity to both describe the world and get in a sense of who Davey is and how she feels about this world [although that concern seemed petty considering the world was about to unravel.] Funny. This could be a good spot to go into more detail and hint at her goal. The world is ending but what’s she doing about it? Just trying to get home?

She tapped her jacket pocket [trying to ignore the dread] be wary of the phrases that tell her feelings. Once in a while is fine, but two in a row jumped out at me sensation brewing within. Her fingers fluttered at her throat above the [St Christopher medal] This tells me they have religion, and this is probably our world sometime in the future she'd worn since she was two years old. Uttering a prayer, she [hoped her Mom had been right about guardian angels.] This makes me think angels aren’t real in this world, yet earlier she mentions Serafim like they’re a fact. I just assumed they were real angels, but now I’m not so sure. Could be something to clarify.

[Identity approved and work-hours logged,] this is the perfect detail to add early on while she’s waiting for the mechanism. This is what it’s doing and shows something about the world Davey hurried onto the pavement. The [wind was cold,] It’s not a tropical setting whipping her braids across her face. With a shiver, she dodged [the cars buzzing] They have cars, and buzzing suggests they might be electric along the street and caught the last [tram] In this context I think maybe trams are busses to the [fence, which divided the city into [the haves and would-love-to-haves. ] cute. The fence is part of this world and Davey knows it, so she’d probably not describe it like this. Yet it’s also something that’s tough to show since it’s so big. But it’s a great opportunity to show something of Davey. The have/love to haves is really cute and feels like something Davey would think. Maybe she sees the fence as they drive along, and she sees folks on either side and describes them this way?

[Stepping into the carriage,] Carriage feels off since she’s been calling it a tram so far. Also be wary of this type of introductory phrasing. There are four in as many lines, and the rhythm stands out. Try mixing it up some so there aren’t so many in a row. It’ll also put it more in your POV’s head and less a distant narrator. she stood at the door, [not wanting to be caught] telling motive again here in the crush of bodies as [workers] interesting that she calls them workers instead of people. That suggests some kind of class distinction and she’s above them rushed towards home. [Scanning the occupants clad in uniforms denoting menial labor,] telling here. These are good moments to help ground the reader in the world and in Davey’s personality. How might you show this and let the reader figure out they do menial labor? She looks around, sees someone dressed in X sweeping the street or cleaning out a trash can. Try using details that suggest the situation instead of telling it outright Davey's gaze fell on a tall man garbed in a vintage trench-coat of unusual design. [He hovered in the corner] You probably don’t mean literally here, but for some reason I pictured him floating. Could just be me. Also, this man is unusual enough to point out, but she doesn’t think about him at all. of the carriage, his face obscured by the shadow of a wide-brimmed top-hat. [She shivered and turned away as the tram screeched to a stop, and she was forced onto the street by the wave of workers pushing towards the fence.] consider breaking this into two sentences. A lot happens all at the same time.

[The world's going to end, the words echoed in her mind.] The tone here doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the para, which had a funny, almost snarky feel to it. It also doesn’t convey any new info, as this has been mentioned twice already. Perhaps something about the man in the trench coat? He’s different and made her shiver, so it feels like he’s important.

The questions:
Does this works as a gripping enough opening?
The opening para hooked me, especially the first line. I really like the voice and style there. It starts to lose me as it goes on however, because there’s more telling about the world as Davey walks through it then me seeing her live in it. What I liked about the opening is that I felt like there was a person there with a snarky sense of humor and a great hook—the end of the world benignly sitting in a pocket. That quirkiness and fun fades as the POV pulls away and I lose that great narrator.

Shifting back into Davey’s head would fix that. I’d have a character to ground me in this world and give me a reason to care about it ending.

Does the world building hits you over the head or comes through the writing naturally?
About half and half. Some comes through naturally, some feels a little told.

Both questions would easily be improved by adjusting the POV. The right details seem to be there, it’s just how they’re conveyed that feels detached. That detachment makes it hard for me to get swept up in the story.

Try taking the same details and putting them in Davey’s perspective. How would she see these things and what do they mean to her? For example, she sees people dressed in a way that signifies menial labor. That’s an “outside looking in” fact that doesn’t really tell me anything about this world. We have dozens of uniforms for menial labor here.

What does Davey see? Men with brown uniforms sweeping floors? Children in red empting trashcans? Women in white scraping gum off the sidewalk? It’s an opportunity to show how the world works. Better still, it’s an opportunity to show how normal this is to the world by how Davey reacts to it. Is this a common sight she sees all the time? Is she sad for these people? Are they unusual at all? Is she worried she might be one of them one day? Does she feel bad that they’re working so hard when the world is about to end? If you chose to show this detail to the reader, there must be a reason for it. What is that reason and how can you get that across by how Davey describes it? What she thinks is critical to understanding this world.
Davey shoved a man in a brown sweeper’s uniform out of her way. Some nerve, him getting that close to her.

Davey halted and let the sweeper pass. Poor man. Wrinkles covered the back of his brown uniform as if he’d slept in it.

Davey hurried past a sweeper in a brown uniform. He risked a smile, but she kept her gaze straight ahead for both their sakes.
Same details, but notice how their meaning changes based on how Davey reacts to them. And how her personality changes, as well as what those reactions say about the world itself.

Think about what you’re trying to show with your details, especially if it’s different from what’s known for the real world. Then think about how that detail would be seen if you lived in that world. Then, think about how your POV would see it and feel about it. Davey knows the world is ending, so her feelings toward what she sees everyday are probably a little different now than they were when she went to work that morning.

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.

7 comments:

  1. Oh some excellent suggestions! Thank you thank you thank you!! I am really excited to get back into the book now and edit the POV - need to look at the world through Davey's 'filter' a lot more. I'm so glad you picked up on the futuristic elements - you were spot on which I guess means I did something right ;)

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  2. I loved your first sentence. In fact I enjoyed the whole piece. Here are some areas I thought you could tighten or simplify. (Janice mentioned all, but thought I'd agree).

    If you show us the blinking neon green clock you don't need to say "digital". You can also add the description of the Serafim to the first paragraph. That way the reader doesn't think of angels first, but right away we know they are the military elite. Then maybe add one sentence telling what that means? (BTW, I think I need to do the same with my "military elite". I just realized that could mean a lot of things.)

    I also agree with the idea of moving "Identity approved..." up after the "three second delay." That flows much more naturally and doesn't slow down the read.

    When you said "carriage" I jumped to a Cinderella like mode of transportation. Could just be the fact my girls are watching Tangled though.

    All in all, I'm very interested in the story. I want to know how she knows the world is about to end. What is she going to do about it? Does she think she can survive? On and on. I like having questions.

    Janice, great comments. I realized there are similar problems in my wip. I need to get more in my MCs head as well.

    Thanks to both of you!

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  3. These diagnostics are so valuable--also your analysis of the power of details. We all need to learn to step back and look at our own WIP this way.

    This opener definitely sucked me in.

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  4. Excellent opening paragraph, and thought Serafim a great name and the slang for it even better.

    There's a lot of sentences that run, "Doing this, Davey did that." Just read Janice's notes, and she called them "introductory phrasing," which is cool to know.

    So yeah, good start - reminded me of some of Bradbury's world-gone-wrong stories.

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  5. I really like your opening. It sounds very appealing/ Like Janice, my first reaction to the word 'Seraphim' was angels, although I'm not sure that's what you intended.

    I found it immediately interesting that she wears a St Christopher medal, since he's the patron saint of travellers. With the follow-up line about guardian angels, it made me wonder how travel would going to fit into the story. I assume that 'travel' has a large role to play either in her life or in the plot overall. My first thought was that she knows about the end of the world due to time travel of some kind. (I'm probably way off base here, but just giving you my initial thoughts.)

    Finally, like maine character, I noticed a lot of your sentences have the same rhythm.

    Dum-de-dum, dum-de-dum-de-dum. Dum-de-dum, dum-de-dum-de-dum.

    I'd suggest reading it aloud to pick up on the places where the flow is repetitious, and then mix up the format a little.

    Overall, a very intriguing opening. I'd definitely read on.

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  6. The opening line really sucked me in as well; I like sci fi-futuristic-end of world stuff and I liked that the POV character here is female.

    Loved the little details--the medal, the end of the world in her pocket, her thought about hoping her mom was right about guardian angels...If I recall correctly, seraphim themselves were angels so I like the dichotomy (and irony, I guess) of her hoping in guardian angels and patron saints, as well as fearing their namesakes.

    I agree that there is some loss of the character POV in the details. An easy fix is to see it through her eyes. I think sometimes we try to describe the world so the reader can relate on his/her own terms, instead of letting the character show it and we figure it out.

    Regarding sentence rhythm, I think when you start sentences with -ing, it's much easier to fall into that sing-song trap.

    But, in the end, I really want to know what's going to happen with this character in this story.

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  7. Thank you for all the suggestions!

    I didn't realise the repeated rhythm - thanks for pointing that out. Will fix!

    I'm excited to get back into editing the MS now :)

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