Sunday, November 13

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Avalanche Feel Real to You?

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.

Submissions currently in the queue: Three

This week’s question:
I'm wrestling with a part of my novel that has stuff happening that I've just never experienced myself. This case in point is an avalanche. I've done research. I've watched videos. But I've never lived in the high mountains. I've never even gone downhill skiing (only cross-country). So I've been working on this and I just can't tell anymore...Does this seem plausible? Convincing? And does it flow well? The first couple run-throughs there were some transition and order problems. This is set in late medieval times in fantasy/historical novel.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
Only a few pushes forward and she paused, listening. She peeled the scarf away from her ears. There was a low, bass sound, barely audible. She looked about, wondering at the source. Deciding there was nothing to worry about, she replaced her scarf and was about to go forward when she felt a vibration. She swung her head about. Where…?

A rumbling sound filled the air and she looked up. To the left and before her, the mountain seemed to be crumbling. Too late, she realized what it was.

Avalanche.

Rosso and Granny both had warned her. The spring sunshine had been warming the snow, melting it. Whole mountainsides were unstable. And she, like a fool, had forgotten and started singing.

She faced the snowy hillside. Watched it crumble like an old plaster wall. A cloud of white enveloped the mountainside, the valley and swept up towards her. The panicked voice inside hissed that she should run, hide. But she was halfway down the slope; halfway to the valley floor. She knew there was no way to outrun it. Not uphill.

She crouched, waiting for the snowy onslaught to reach her. Clouds of flying snow rushed up, swarming around and obscuring her vision. But the ground did not crumble beneath her and no suffocating blanket of snow enveloped her.

The shroud of snowy fog finally settled. She stood again on trembling legs and appraised the damage brought on by her momentary foolishness. The valley before her was filled with great chunks of snow and uprooted trees. It reminded her of a huge bowl of curdled milk, strangely sprigged with herbs.

My Thoughts in Purple:
Only a few pushes forward and she paused, listening. She peeled the scarf away from her ears. There was a low, bass sound, barely audible. She looked about, [wondering at the source. Deciding there was nothing to worry about,] telling a bit here, but it’s a good spot for some internalization she replaced her scarf and was about to go forward when she felt a vibration. She swung her head about. Where…?

A rumbling [sound] could cut to feel more in her head filled the air and she looked up. To the left and before her, the mountain seemed to be crumbling. [Too late, she realized what it was. ] telling a but here. Perhaps show the thought that goes through her head and her emotional reaction to it

Avalanche.

Rosso and Granny both had warned her. The spring sunshine had been warming the snow, melting it. Whole mountainsides were unstable. [And she, like a fool, had forgotten and started singing. ] We never see her singing, so this feels out of the blue, but it’s possible she was singing before this snippet started. Perhaps when she pauses above she stops singing? As for flow, this entire paragraph stops the action to explain how the avalanche was triggered instead of showing her reaction to it, which lessens some of the tension. I’d imagine this is a great moment to panic.

She faced the snowy hillside. [Watched it crumble like an old plaster wall.] Love this image A cloud of white enveloped the mountainside, the valley and swept up towards her. The panicked voice inside hissed that she should run, hide. But she was halfway down the slope; halfway to the valley floor. [She knew there was no way to outrun it.] telling a bit here, but a great moment to see this thought and feel her fear. Perhaps cut the “she knew” Not uphill.

[She crouched, waiting for the snowy onslaught to reach her. Clouds of flying snow rushed up, swarming around and obscuring her vision. But the ground did not crumble beneath her and no suffocating blanket of snow enveloped her. ] You mentioned this was a historical/fantasy, so perhaps there’s a magical reason for her not being killed in an avalanche, but this spot hit me as unrealistic. Perhaps this is the right way to act in an avalanche, but I don’t see how you can escape one without being swept down the mountain. Does she know the avalanche won’t hurt her or is she surprised that it doesn’t touch her? If she’s just discovering this ability, I’d imagine she’d be pretty surprised. What does she expect to have happen here?

The shroud of snowy fog finally settled. She stood again on trembling legs and [appraised the damage brought on by her momentary foolishness.] feels a little told here, though it’s a great spot for her to be shocked at what just happened, grateful to be alive The valley before her was filled with great chunks of snow and uprooted trees. [It reminded her of a huge bowl of curdled milk, strangely sprigged with herbs. ] I really like the imagery of the snow, though it lessens the danger of the avalanche. She just survived this and all it does is remind her of milk? Feels like she’d be more awed by this experience.

The questions:
I'm wrestling with a part of my novel that has stuff happening that I've just never experienced myself. This case in point is an avalanche. I've done research. I've watched videos. But I've never lived in the high mountains. I've never even gone downhill skiing (only cross-country). So I've been working on this and I just can't tell anymore...Does this seem plausible? Convincing?
Okay folks from the north, help this “raised in South Florida” gal out here where it comes to snow. I have very little experience with cold, but the details felt plausible to me until the avalanche didn’t hurt her at all. But I suspect she has a magical ability that protects her, so I’m willing to buy it if that’s the case. If not, then that’s one area you might want to look at. Something that can uproot trees can easily knock someone off their feet.

The area where I wasn’t convinced was actually her emotional response. She didn’t feel scared enough to me to be caught in an avalanche. No sense of panic, fear, desperation. I also didn’t feel the snow or the cold, even though there are some beautiful descriptions of the snow. I saw it, but I never felt it. That’s the area I’d suggest fleshing out more; her emotions while experiencing this, more tactile details in the description.

And does it flow well? The first couple run-throughs there were some transition and order problems.
It flowed fine to me (baring that one “this is how it happened” paragraph), though a little distant in some spots that kept me outside looking in. This narrative distance was another reason I didn’t feel the emotion of the scene. I never felt in her head.

It’s a good overview of the scene, and now that you know what happens, perhaps try an emotional edit pass to let readers feels it as well as see it. That might be why you’re not sure about its authenticity. The external details are there, but the internal ones are what’s missing.

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.

4 comments:

  1. Ooh, what an interesting piece of writing here. I would also agree that there needs to be more of an emotional response to make it seem real. I live where there is lots of snow, and though I'm used to waking up to 1000 feet of snow, if I was caught in an avalanche, my first response would be a blood-curdling scream! Yikes! And maybe explain she was freezing, but the fear and panic of the situation made heat rise up out of her as she's desperate to get out of harm's way. (Show that) And maybe to add to the panic, instead of saying 'She knew there was no way to outrun it' you could hear her internal voice screaming at her. 'Where do I go?!' or something much better than that ;)

    Sounds like an interesting story though from just this little bit. I wonder how she survived the thing, if she does have some magical power protecting her. Ooh, exciting!

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  2. I agree with Janice about how it seems a bit removed, and the description of it afterwards. And how good the plaster image is.

    I thought the avalanche worked fine if she was on the very edge of it - that's the feeling I got, that she was just lucky. But it'd be better if she showed some wisdom or pluck by diving behind a ledge or something.

    Also, be on the watch for sentences that have the words "there was," especially in dramatic moments. You'll find much better verbs that way.

    Good luck to you and your heroine!

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  3. "A rumbling sound filled the air and she looked up."

    Along with Mrs. Hardy's suggestion, these two thoughts feel jarring, as it doesn't feel like one causes the other. Hmm...perhaps:

    "Rumbling filled the air, causing her to look up."

    Better, in my opinion.

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  4. Boy there's a lot to learn here! On my first read-through, having never experienced an avalanche, I would have said you did a pretty good job with the description. But upon reading Janice's comments, though, I have to agree with them, and I realize I missed a number of things (things I can apply to my own novel writing!) I like your passage - good luck with your book!

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