Saturday, October 8

Real Life Diagnostics: Opening With Journal Entries: Do They Hook?

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:
Is this scene an effective hook, and does it make a reader want to continue reading to find out what happens?


The book is actually written in third person omniscient, with every chapter opening with a diary entry, letter, or various other forms of communication between characters that provides most of the backstory without huge information dumps.

On to the diagnosis…
Original text:
(Excerpt from the Bayview Journals written by Kassandra Fotheringham from 1943-1945, appended by Pastor Hugh MacGregor June 2009 through May 2012)

June 5, 2009

Nothing, of course, ever begins the way you think it did.

I believe Lillian Hellman, the famous playwright, said that. She was right. I had thought I'd known where it all began: when Jonathan Fotheringham went on a murder spree through Bayview Manor in 1945.

I have never been so wrong. But I'm not the only one; everyone had it wrong. But no one knew it until Geoffrey Windsor bought the house.

The house…

Can a structure be evil? I don't think so, even considering what happened. But a structure can shelter evil, and since a structure can't fight back, can't seek exorcism, perhaps the distinction is not so important.

The Manor gave sanctuary to humans for decades; it might again, despite my warnings. I am comforted that no one will reside in it while the present owner lives.

But when he is gone?

Ah, best not to dwell on that. You can only do what is within your power during your lifetime. After that, the gauntlet is taken up by God's chosen…or not at all. Will the evil claim more innocent lives? Perhaps.

All I can do is weave the tale and hope it isn't looked upon as some deranged fairy tale, a trivial work of fiction.

It begins with Rachael Payne—well, our part of the Manor's long history begins with her, at any rate. The last I saw of Rachael, she was staggering away from Bayview Manor, reeking of gasoline, her hand blistered from the flame of the match she used to set fire to the mansion.

But Bayview Manor is still standing. I wonder sometimes ... Is Rachael?

My Thoughts in Purple:
(Excerpt from the Bayview Journals written by Kassandra Fotheringham from 1943-1945, appended by Pastor Hugh MacGregor June 2009 through May 2012)

June 5, 2009

[Nothing, of course, ever begins the way you think it did.] Great opening line

I believe Lillian Hellman, the famous playwright, said that. She was right. [I had thought I'd known where it all began: when Jonathan Fotheringham went on a murder spree through Bayview Manor in 1945.] This is a terrible thing, yet it’s not “where things began.” Makes me curious what began.

I have never been so wrong. But I'm not the only one; everyone had it wrong. [But no one knew it until Geoffrey Windsor bought the house.] Makes me want to know what happened.

The house…

Can a structure be evil? I don't think so, even considering what happened. [But a structure can shelter evil,] Nice and since a structure can't fight back, can't seek exorcism, perhaps the distinction is not so important. This whole para is excellent

The Manor gave [sanctuary to humans] The author said this was paranormal romance, so this makes me wonder if the narrator here isn’t human. Especially intriguing since it says he’s a pastor. for decades; it might again, despite my warnings. I am comforted that no one will reside in it while the present owner lives.

[But when he is gone?] Makes me wonder if this is how Geoffrey got the house and it all began.

Ah, best not to dwell on that. You can only do what is within your power during your lifetime. After that, the gauntlet is taken up by God's chosen…or not at all. Will the evil claim more innocent lives? Perhaps.

[All I can do is weave the tale and hope it isn't looked upon as some deranged fairy tale, a trivial work of fiction.] I’d suggest cutting this. It feels too blatant and stands out to me.

It begins with Rachael Payne—well, our part of the Manor's long history begins with her, at any rate. The last I saw of Rachael, she was staggering away from Bayview Manor, reeking of gasoline, her hand blistered from the flame of the match she used to set fire to the mansion.

[But Bayview Manor is still standing. I wonder sometimes ... Is Rachael?] This line totally rocks.

The questions:
Is this scene an effective hook, and does it make a reader want to continue reading to find out what happens?

This is easy. You betcha. I love the voice. The last line is awesome. Chill-worthy. I’d read on for sure after this.

The book is actually written in third person omniscient, with every chapter opening with a diary entry, letter, or various other forms of communication between characters that provides most of the backstory without huge information dumps.

It’s impossible to tell without seeing a bit of this third person section, but I’m concerned about the switch here. Your first person voice and journal entry was so strong and I totally want to hear this guy’s story. If I’m not in his head, I’m not sure how hooked I’ll be. To go to third omni

Journal entries are frequent trouble spots, because they tend to explain too much or sound too exposition-y. This one worked well because it reads like a narrative, not a journal. It does what a good opening is supposed to do. It presents an interesting character (more than one actually. I’m intrigued by Rachel and I only saw a few lines about her), shows a problem at hand, suggests a bigger issue lurking that the reader can uncover. It also ends with a dynamite hook that makes you really want to know what the heck happened in this house.

This is one of the easier RLDs I’ve done. I loved it.

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. I definitely like all the good stuff Janice pointed out.

    I'm big on trimming, though, and I’d trim the first three sentences, since the next one stands very well on its own.

    I'd also trim the "it" in “but no one knew it,” and this part:

    Will the evil claim more innocent lives? Perhaps.

    All I can do is weave the tale and hope it isn't looked upon as some deranged fairy tale, a trivial work of fiction.


    But besides some possible trimming, yeah, definite mysterious voice, soaked in age.

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  2. I loved it too :) Get it published so I can buy it!

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  3. Ooh, I love this! But I've got to say switching to omniscient is going to be really tough. Best wishes on this one.

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  4. I'm not usually attracted to horror-ish books. I'm too much of a coward. But I really love this! It's chilling. In my opinion, it's better to keep the POV rather than switch it to third person.

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  5. I'm wary of of character journals. . . but wow, this has voice. You're right; now we do want to be inside this person's head. But to me, it didn't sound like a journal. It sounded like narration. Perhaps first person would be a better option for this story.

    My only concern is how all the other entries can be as enticing. Beginning with a journal entry is one thing; the readers know nothing. Making a journal entry in the middle of the story would seem redundant; the readers have been with the character until now, and hearing their natural thoughts to show backstory.

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  6. I agree with everyone else -- the voice is enthrasticating (made-up word, but no other describes the way it pulls you in and makes you want more).

    I guess I'd have to see a little of that 3rd person to really make a judgment call on whether it works -- for me anyway. BUT I know it's been done well in the past. There are a few Salvatore novels where the book or some chapters are preceded by journals from Drizzt, and I absolutely love them; I think they add to the story rather than detract.

    In any case, would love to read more.

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  7. Man, this is wonderful! I usually am not a big fan of "journal books", but this is definitely interesting. I agree with Janice. Not sure about how the 3rd person omniscient will work out--have to see. Love the voice.

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