Saturday, November 5

Real Life Diagnostics: Looking for Speed Bumps in an Omni Opening

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 it work as an opening and make you want to move forward in the story? The POV is omniscient here. Should POV be with the MC, Maeve? Do you notice any 'speed bumps' as you read it? In other words, does it flow?
On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

December, 1917

In the dusky light of late afternoon on their way home from school, there should have been candles lighting up the windows and festive wreaths of holly and bayberry adorning the entries of the homes they passed. After all, the Christmas season was upon them. Instead, curtains were drawn closed, no children played in the street and none of the neighbors greeted them with the usual wave. Sadness mixed with fear hung over their neighborhood like a storm cloud. The signs on some entry doors warned people away and other doors were draped with black sashes.

School had just reopened after having been closed for two months in hopes of halting the spread of the flu since it reached epidemic proportions. Maeve and Grace Donnelly wrapped their arms around themselves to block out the icy wind, made even colder by the eerie silence of their St. Louis neighborhood. Their brother, Colin didn’t notice the signs of death and sickness. He could only embrace the cold, crisp air and he ran ahead of his sisters with his coat flying open and his woolen scarf waving in the wind at his back. Maeve called after him, “Colin, don’t be lettin’ Ma see you like that. Besides, you’ll catch your death!” At fourteen, Maeve played mother hen better than their own mother.

“Och, Maeve! I’m too warm. The cold air feels good. I’ll race ya’ home!” He ran all the faster, laughing and turning back to see if she and Grace took chase. Since he'd been playing defense on the school's Lacrosse team, he developed a competitive edge that he loved sharpening on his sisters. Grace winked at her big sister, smiled and the two turned their noses skyward. Chasing Colin, the fastest runner on the team, would be wasted effort. Maeve began dancing her way home, practicing her arabesque, to keep warm. Grace imitated her sister's steps and kept her eyes focused on her brother.

My Thoughts in Purple:

December, 1917

[In the dusky light of late afternoon on their way home from school, there should have been candles lighting up the windows and festive wreaths of holly and bayberry adorning the entries of the homes they passed.] I stumbled over this sentence a bit, so you might consider breaking it up or smoothing it After all, the Christmas season was upon them. Instead, curtains were drawn closed, no children played in the street and none of the neighbors greeted them with the usual wave. Sadness mixed with fear hung over their neighborhood like a storm cloud. The signs on some entry doors warned people away and other doors were draped with black sashes.

[School had just reopened after having been closed for two months in hopes of halting the spread of the flu since it reached epidemic proportions.] I stumbled a bit here as well. Maeve and Grace Donnelly wrapped their arms around themselves to block out the icy wind, made even colder by the eerie silence of their St. Louis neighborhood. Their brother, Colin didn’t notice the signs of death and sickness. He could only embrace the cold, crisp air and he ran ahead of his sisters with his coat flying open and his woolen scarf waving in the wind at his back. Maeve called after him, “Colin, don’t be lettin’ Ma see you like that. Besides, you’ll catch your death!” At fourteen, [Maeve played mother hen better than their own mother.] cute

“Och, Maeve! [I’m too warm.] I like this, as I instantly wonder if he has a fever. Whether it’s true or not, it’s a great detail to pique my interest The cold air feels good. I’ll race ya’ home!” He ran all the faster, laughing and turning back to see if she and Grace took chase. Since he'd been playing defense on the school's Lacrosse team, [he developed a competitive edge that he loved sharpening on his sisters.] Nice Grace winked at her big sister, smiled and the two turned their noses skyward. Chasing Colin, the fastest runner on the team, would be wasted effort. Maeve began dancing her way home, practicing her arabesque, to keep warm. Grace imitated her sister's steps and kept her eyes focused on her brother.

The questions:
Does it work as an opening and make you want to move forward in the story?

For me, this didn’t hook, but I have a hard time getting into an omni narrator, so it’s quite possible it’s just me. (These things really are subjective, so everyone chime in here and help this author out with more opinions) The reason it didn’t grab me was because I didn’t get a sense of something about to happen, and no one character that I made a connection with. There’s a hint of a possible issue with Colin maybe having the flu, but that could easily be me looking for trouble.

However, this has a more literary, historic feel and a slower, quieter opening often works just fine for those markets. Especially if the cover copy is strong and the reader knows going in what the story problem is. They might anticipate when things will go wrong.

If you want to add something a bit more hookish, some sense of apprehension or anticipation (depending on what the protag wants) about something coming up could work to help draw readers like me in better. I don’t think you’d need much, but a line or two of dialog or internalization from Maeve could be nice since she’s the protag.

The POV is omniscient here. Should POV be with the MC, Maeve?
That’s your call, and it all depends on what you want to accomplish with the story. An omni narrator allows you to pull back and know things the protag wouldn’t, which could be a benefit to this story. Looking at history from an outside perspective. But it does run the risk of being too detached and keeping readers at a distance.

If Maeve is the one with the story problem, and she’s the one to solve it and be affected by it, it might be worth considering her POV. If the problem is more situational, and you need to show many sides of it with all the things various people have at stake, then an omni POV can be a better choice. And some types of stories just work well in one or the other. Heist and spy novels for instance, are often omni because the reader needs to know things the POVs can’t know. Jumping around adds to the tension, not detracts from it.

Ask yourself, what benefits would omni give you for this story? What benefits would being solely in Maeve’s POV give you? Would the story be stronger in one POV or the other? Whose story is it? What’s the core conflict? What’s “the point” of the story and who does that affect most? You can also try one chapter in each POV and see which reads better to you.

Do you notice any 'speed bumps' as you read it? In other words, does it flow?
There were a few spots I stumbled over (marked above), but overall it read well and flowed nicely. Aside from those two spots, I didn’t find anything that stopped the narrative. And there were several very nice lines as well.

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.

10 comments:

  1. I really liked the old feel of the first two paragraphs - it seems like it could be a scene from Dylan Thomas.

    The first line stumbled for me, too, and might be easily fixed if you moved "on their way home from school" to the end of the sentence.

    If I was reading it, I'd give it a few pages more to see what happened when they got home before deciding whether to read on or not, so I'd say while the events didn't hook me, the setting and mood did. Well done.

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  2. Janice, thank you so much for your critique! I will consider changing POV and fix those sentences so they flow better! Great advice.

    @Maine Character - I really appreciate the insight from a reader's point of view. I'm happy to hear the setting was interesting. What happens next is something that I believe would hook you...glad to hear you'd read on to see what happens. Thanks for your insight.

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  3. I, again, would give it a couple of pages. (Partially because I'm a big fan a disease books!) Two sentences Janice marked out are definitely stumbling over doing too much. Try cutting come clauses:

    Like,

    "In the dusky light of late afternoon on their way home from school, there should have been candles lighting up the windows and festive wreaths of holly and bayberry adorning the entries of the homes they passed."

    Becomes

    "There should have been candles lighting up the windows and wreaths of holly and bayberry adorning the entries of the homes they passed on their way home from school.

    And

    "School had just reopened after having been closed for two months in hopes of halting the spread of the flu since it reached epidemic proportions."

    Becomes

    "School had just reopened after two months of a quarantine they'd hoped would halt the spread of the endemic flu."

    Not perfect, but you get the idea.

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  4. I am generally not a fan of omni, because it's rarely well done. In my opinion, this is well done. I think the omni is appropriate here to set the scene and provide the background. I really LIKED this opening and would definitely read more.

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  5. @Kathy- very good ideas...the sentences do sound better. Thanks.

    @Melissa - I really appreciated the fact that you liked the opening and that you think omni works here.

    Thanks to both of you for your comments and I'm happy you'd both want to keep reading.

    Is it not okay to switch from omni to character POV when it's necessary? Or do i have to stay with omni once I start?

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  6. I really enjoyed your passage. Your writing is lovely and evocative, and I didn't have any trouble with flow. I would certainly be willing to give the story a few pages to get into, but I am more patient that an MG or YA reader would be (not sure of your intended audience.) That said, even in omni, I'd like to feel a bit more connected to one main character. If it's going to be Maeve (which seems likely) then at least in the places where it's appropriate I'd like to see things a little more the way she would - feel that I'm in her shoes, know what matters to her. I think that would make me feel more drawn in and connected.

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  7. I really liked this opening, and would definitely read on. I'm generally not a fan of omni POV, but it worked really well here. I almost feel like shifting to Maeve's POV would be detrimental to the story, because there wouldn't be such a strong build-up of setting and mood in this passage.

    I particularly like the way you dropped in details throughout the passage without it feeling like an info dump. Details about their location (St Louis), the time of year, and their mother's nature would be harder to include if you were writing in Maeve's POV.

    The voice of the passage is great, and I hope the rest of the story continues in the same vein.

    I also agree with another commenter that it has a real "orl world" feel to it.

    The only "speed bump" for me was the first line, which probably needs to be tightened up a bit.

    I'd definitely keep reading this.

    (And as an answer to your question, I think that once you start in Omni you need to stay in Omni.)

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  8. Marcia, generally you stick to whatever POV you establish, though there are novels that do switch. But it's usually more from third to first that omni to limited. The problem there, is that it's harder to make a clear separation between what's omni and what's limited, so the omni parts start feeling like POV shifts. But there's nothing stopping you from spending more time in Maeve's head than the others. In the end, as long as it reads smoothly and works it's all good.

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  9. Kudos to the brave volunteer, and I appreciated reading Janice's feedback and these comments. Nice set-up with lots of potential! (I agree some tightening would sharpen it up.) Love historical fiction - good luck!

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  10. Marcie, you can stay in omni, but move in closer to Maeve's POV during more emotional scenes by dropping all filter words.

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