Saturday, December 10

Real Life Diagnostics: Meet Bryan and Finn. Do You Like Them?

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly 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: Five

This week’s questions:
This is the current opening of my main project, which is a YA Urban Fantasy. In this scene, the narrator, the protagonist, is meeting Finn, who is the co-protagonist.

Is too much happening on this page?
Is the narrator's voice interesting and consistent?
Is Finn an intriguing character?
On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
I had one second to identify the exchange student before he tumbled over at my feet.

His wheeled luggage clattered on the tan carpeting. The passengers exiting the airplane tunnel walked around him as he pushed himself up with shaky arms, a cringe on his place. Dad and I stood dumbfounded. He had bandage on his forehead, along with a sheepish smile.

He rubbed the back of his head and laughed nervously as he took my hand and shook it. “Umm...sorry about that.” His British accent was soft, timid, like a feeble-lunged flutist.. “Phineas Walker...but call me Finn.”

I held back the temptation to shake my head. I let go of his hand and folded my arms. “I’m Bryan. Welcome to Memphis.”

Dad came forward “Hello, I’m Mr. Richardson.” He lifted Finn’s suitcase for him. “Do you have any luggage to get?” He didn’t look at me, considering what we were talking about one minute before Finn stumbled into Memphis.

“Besides this?” Finn gripped the handle. “Only one. I don’t have much.”

Dad began to lead us away from the seating area. “Oh, don’t worry. We have everything you need.”

Not we, Dad. Mom and I. You’re only taking us home before you leave tomorrow on yet another business trip.

But showing that bitterness in front of Finn can leave a bad first impression. Considering how scrawny and timid his first impression gives, an argument could scare him. So I followed Dad.

People passed us by, going to their own flights. Outside, the drab overcast contrasted the bright, tan color scheme inside. A storm caused Finn’s flight to be delayed. Weather can be such a bi-polar mistress.

My Thoughts in Purple:
[I had one second to identify the exchange student before he tumbled over at my feet.] The phrasing in this feels a little awkward, like the narrator knows he only has a little bit of time before the stumbling happens, though he wouldn’t know the student was about to fall.

His wheeled luggage clattered on the tan carpeting. The passengers exiting the airplane tunnel walked around him as he pushed himself up with shaky arms, a cringe on his [place.] Face? Dad and I stood dumbfounded. [He] ambiguous since you last mentioned Dad had a bandage on his forehead, along with a sheepish smile.

He rubbed the back of his head and laughed nervously [as he took my hand and shook it.] Careful of as statements. He’s doing three things at once here “Umm...sorry about that.” His British accent was [soft, timid, like a feeble-lunged flutist] Great line.. “Phineas Walker...but call me Finn.”

[I held back the temptation to shake my head] Why? I let go of his hand and folded my arms. “I’m Bryan. Welcome to Memphis.”

Dad came forward “Hello, I’m Mr. Richardson.” He lifted Finn’s suitcase for him. “Do you have any luggage to get?” He didn’t look at me, [considering what we were talking about one minute before Finn stumbled into Memphis.] This feels like I missed something. Did they discuss this before we get to this scene or does the reader not know what he means at this point in the story?

“Besides this?” [Finn gripped the handle.] Isn’t Dad holding the suitcase now? “Only one. I don’t have much.”

Dad began to lead us away from the seating area. “Oh, don’t worry. We have everything you need.”

[Not we, Dad. Mom and I. You’re only taking us home before you leave tomorrow on yet another business trip.] He’s clearly angry, but I really don’t know why. Also, should this be in italics since it’s a thought and in present tense?

But showing that bitterness in front of Finn [can] would leave a bad first impression. Considering how [scrawny and timid his first impression] These don’t feel like words Bryon would use to judge this boy. How does he see Finn? What are his impressions? [gives] gave, an argument could scare him. So I followed Dad.

People passed us by, going to their own flights. Outside, the drab overcast contrasted the bright, tan color scheme inside. [A storm had caused Finn’s flight to be delayed.] He’s already there, so unless this matters to the story moving forward, you probably don’t need Weather can be such a bi-polar mistress.

The questions:
Is too much happening on this page?

I don’t think too much is happening, but I think too much is being hinted at and not explored, so it feels confusing rather than intriguing. I can tell they’re getting an exchange student (Finn), and that Bryon isn’t happy about that. He’s also not happy with his father, who travels a lot on business and is never there. They were discussing something important and possibly difficult before Finn got there. But the details of all of those things aren’t here so I don’t understand what’s going on. I feel lost rather than hooked.

I’d suggest putting more on the page. Get more in Bryon’s head so the reader sees why he’s upset and how he feels about these situations. Give more details of the prior conversation so the reader knows what the conflict is here. (maybe even start there) Try using his internalization to set the scene and ground readers in this world and his dilemma.

Is the narrator's voice interesting and consistent?
It’s consistent, but I don’t really know Bryon well enough yet to be interested in him. He’s grouchy, but I don’t know why so that puts me off rather than piques my curiosity. But if I knew why he felt this way, I’d probably have sympathy for his situation and be interested in his problems. And wonder how Finn is going to affect those problems. Again, more internalization from Bryon would help here.

Is Finn an intriguing character?
I can’t tell yet. He hasn’t done much, and there’s nothing from Bryon to help me make any assumptions about him. You might think about letting Bryon study Finn more, judge him on his own to help the reader see him better and judge him on their own. You might also consider adding some more details of Finn’s personality. He’s clumsy, timid, British, and doesn’t own much. I don’t know more than that, and none of those things tell me what kind of person he is.

Can you have him say or do anything that shows an aspect of his personality or who he is as a character? Maybe something telling falls out of his bag when he stumbles, or his reaction to falling and how he handles it? Does he bring them a gift? Have a wacky suitcase? Dress differently? Any detail at all that shows why he’s unique and interesting.

I can see there’s a lot of conflict here and things brewing just below the surface, so try bringing all that out more.

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) and I encourage you 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.

13 comments:

  1. I struggle with this sort of thing so much myself. You read "trust the reader to get it - don't overexplain", and I agree wholeheartedly with this advice. But I am getting the same sort of feedback with my current manuscript -- that instead of "intriguing", it is just "confusing". I'm finding it hard to strike that balance, too.

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  2. Thank you for the advice. But his name's "Bryan", not "Bryon". It says so in the actual text. Could that be fixed? (Oh, and I spotted you said "about the fall" instead of "about to fall", so you were probably in a bit of a hurry when typing this).

    So in the end, things did happen to fast, and I need to internalize slightly.

    Also, Finn was supposed to come off clumsy, timid, apologetic, socially awkward, and a bit off, but apparently I didn't drive the point home enough.

    And the whole "thoughts" thing is something I'm having trouble with. I want to do a "actions past, thoughts present" style that Haruhi Suzumiya has, but without having to result in "I thought" or italics. Or do I have to resort to the latter? I'm unsure if full present tense is the way to go.

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  3. I think Janice's advice is spot on. I know a lot of writers suffer from the "intriguing" comes off "confusing." I think the two things that could clear that up is 1. start a little sooner, let us hear the conversation 2. more internal dialogue from Byron. As Janice points out, he comes of grouchy. More internal dialogue and we might empathize with him.

    Very brave to put your draft out for all to see. I'm not sure I'd have the same courage.

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  4. I agree that hearing Bryan's argument with his dad would make a huge difference in reading his reactions. Is he seeing Finn as weak an awkward because it's the truth, or because he feels like his dad is dumping the kid on him? (That's what I took from the `not we' line).

    Why does Bryan care about giving a bad first impression when he seems to just want Finn out of his life?

    I'm in love with the idea of two very opposite people who learn to appreciate their differences over the story, which is where I suspect this is going, but I agree that some background on Bryan would help a lot.

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  5. @Chicory:

    "Is he seeing Finn as weak an awkward because it's the truth, or because he feels like his dad is dumping the kid on him? (That's what I took from the `not we' line)." Bryan does see Finn as weak, which is true. For the second point, Bryan doesn't mind too much, but there're mom problems that I had forgotten to mention on the first page.

    "Why does Bryan care about giving a bad first impression when he seems to just want Finn out of his life?" Because it's his belief that if he gives off a bad first impression, he might scare the kid, and things will be more unpleasant between both of them.

    So basically, I really need to show Bryan more, right? The problem is trying to incorporate both Bryan and Finn onto the first page without having a slow down or a big dump of information.

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  6. And after re-reading Ms. Hardy's diagnostic, how can I show that Bryan and his dad had an argument right before Finn arrived? Having Finn arriving is the point which I want to start the story.

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  7. I was so mad I thought steam might be coming out of my ears, but just as I opened my mouth to shoot Dad one final zinger, this skinny kid came up the jetway. He was tall and awkward and his sleeves were too short, and just as I thought, Whoa, what if this is the one? he tripped over my feet.

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  8. That's a little too middle-schoolish for my protagonist (who is fifteen, who wouldn't use the phrase "steam might be coming out of my ears" in that context), but perhaps I can try the general gist of it.

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  9. I 'got it' about the argument that happened just before this scene. But I like Penny's suggestion.

    Having submitted three times to Real Life Diagnostics, I know it can be a bitter pill to realize one hasn't communicated as one had hoped. But I am so grateful for Janice's gentle honesty.

    I see good stuff here. I'm sure you can whip it into shape. Lots of potential. :)

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  10. This works fine, but you might try starting it a half page earlier, introducing the father in a couple of lines, building up the expectation of meeting Finn (like thinking he'll be a suave Brit), and using the line about his flight being delayed, forcing the father to spend more time with Bryan. That way Finn's falling down can both interrupt them and be a contrasting surprise, much the way Penny wrote it.

    Finn comes across clearest in the bandage and his voice like a flutist. As Janice says, a few more details would help.

    P.S. Not sure who picked it, but perfect choice of a photo.

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  11. I like the beginning. Having been on both sides of the exchange student experience (host family and student), meeting the family/student for the first time is a very awkward experience. I think you did a good job capturing that.

    Details I think that might be added: Finn's clothing. To enhance the wimpy first impression of Bryan, could Finn being wearing nerdy clothes his mother dressed him in to make a good impression? Buttoned-up shirt, glasses?

    To imply a fight, Bryan could have internalized thoughts about how calm his dad greets Finn after they just had a heated discussion.

    Other things that struck me: luggage doesn't clatter on carpet - it makes more of a thump sound.

    The airport I use most often (Minneapolis) doesn't allow people to meet passengers at the gate, only at baggage claim. And if Finn is coming off an international flight, he'd already have his luggage as he had to pass customs with it.

    Also, some flight announcements over the speaker system would place readers into the scene quite nicely. And people rushing past, maybe a business traveller pushes Finn into Bryan making an even bigger clumsy impression.

    But I think the major work is done - good job. A few more details will really transport your reader into the scene. Congratulations!

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  12. Thank you both of you! And also thanks for the airport facts. I'm not sure of the former once, but customs is one that I totally missed. I'll have to do more research.

    I'm going to bookmark this page for future reference once I get to revising the opening.

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  13. Chihuahua0, so sorry abut that! Yes, I was rushing a bit to get this posted and didn't proof as well as I should have. I was out of town since Friday with no access to email or it would have been fixed sooner.

    If you want to do the thoughts in present with no italics you can, I've just never seen them done that way before, so they come across as a tense error. I'm not sure if Manga (he's Manga, right?) rules and styles translate well into fiction, but I don't read Manga. If you don't like the italics, you might consider just plain third person internalization (past tense).

    As for the argument, you might try letting Bryan think about it. He's probably still mad, right? He might look at everything his dad does a little differently than normal. "I can't believe he was just standing there smiling right after calling me a spoiled brat." kinda thing (but your worlds and voice of course) He might also decide he isn't going to like Finn, or behave badly to get back at Dad, or something that relates to the fight (if applicable to the story) You can do a lot of compare and contrast between Dad now, and Dad during the fight and get across some of the information.

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