Saturday, February 11

Real Life Diagnostics: Are We Grounded? Setting the Scene and Engaging the Reader

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: Eight

This week’s questions:
This is the opening of a YA mystery novel I'm working on. I'm wondering if this opening is strong enough and engaging enough. Does it give adequate sense of voice and place and include enough tension? Should I cut or postpone the inclusion of anything?
On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
The bright blue dress my mother insisted I wear looked stupid. The neck was frilly, and it bagged across my hips. I hoovered a breath through my nose and tugged at the fabric for the millionth time. The shoes were just as bad – they pinched my toes together even while standing still. It sucked.

Clomping around the art studio to meet rich people while attempting to sell myself as a serious artist and forcing a smile filled me with the kind of dread I usually reserved for cheerleaders. And aside from my choppy black hair, dark-ringed eyes, pale skin, and brick red lipstick, I kind of looked like one at that moment.

Seriously. What had possessed me to allow my mom to pack my suitcase?

“Get it together,” I said to myself. I whipped out the smart phone my mom insisted I get for the trip and punched in a message to Katie and Miller, my two best friends: Kill me now.

Three knocks on the door whipped my head around so fast I thought I broke my neck.

“Stella, come on. Guests are starting to arrive. We need you out here.”

Ariel Greenbaum, the owner of the gallery, probably tapped the point of one perfect stiletto heel on the wooden floor outside the door as she spoke the words. The woman never had a hair out of place, never said the wrong thing.

She confused me: I hated her and wanted to be her.

I heaved out a gust of air, stowed my phone, and flung open the door. The gallery lighting was bright, which threw Ariel into stark relief, a glow haloing the severe brown bob.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, letting her manhandle me out of the bathroom and into the gallery.

My Thoughts in Purple:
The bright blue dress my mother insisted I wear looked stupid. The neck was frilly, and it bagged across my hips. I hoovered a breath through my nose and tugged at the fabric for the millionth time. The shoes were just as bad – they pinched my toes together even while standing still. It sucked. To give a better sense of place, you might consider a few more details in this paragraph to set the scene. Such as "I wear to the gallery opening" would show readers right away what she's getting dressed for. The word bathroom would also help, as it isn't until later you see where she is. Since she's not where readers would naturally assume (she's in her room at home) getting that information in right away grounds them.

[Clomping around the art studio to meet rich people while attempting to sell myself as a serious artist and forcing a smile filled me with the kind of dread I usually reserved for cheerleaders.] Love the cheerleader part, but this sentence feels a little long and awkward. The great line gets lost there at the end. [And aside from my choppy black hair, dark-ringed eyes, pale skin, and brick red lipstick, I kind of looked like one at that moment.] Self-description in first person is rough, but this feels stuck in here. You might look for a more natural way to say what she looks like. Perhaps when she meets the rich folks at the gallery? Their reaction to her looks could show it nicely and give her a reason to think about it.

Seriously. [What had possessed me to allow my mom to pack my suitcase?] This would make an awesome first line. It also transitions nicely to the paragraph about the dress.

[“Get it together,” I said to myself.] Does she actually say this out loud or just think it? The quotes suggest she says this. Since it's just her, you probably don't need the tag. I whipped out the smart phone my mom insisted I get for the trip and punched in a message to Katie and Miller, my two best friends: Kill me now.

[Three knocks on the door whipped my head around so fast I thought I broke my neck.] This feels overwritten and a bit awkward to me. I think it means that she was startled by the knocking, but it reads as if the knocks grabbed her head and whipped it around.

“Stella, come on. Guests are starting to arrive. We need you out here.”

Ariel Greenbaum, the owner of the gallery, [probably tapped the point of one perfect stiletto heel on the wooden floor outside the door as she spoke the words.] Not sure what this means. [The woman never had a hair out of place, never said the wrong thing. ] I like this, but it doesn't fit with her tapping her heels on the floor. How does that show she's never wrong and never has anything out of place?

[She confused me: I hated her and wanted to be her.] Very nice

[I heaved out a gust of air,] Be wary of trying too hard to over describe. stowed my phone, and flung open the door. The gallery lighting was bright, which threw Ariel into stark relief, a glow haloing the severe brown bob.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, letting her manhandle me out of the bathroom and into the gallery.

The questions:
Is this opening is strong enough and engaging enough?

It feels like the right place to start, but it's not quite grabbing me yet. I love that Stella is uncomfortable and dreading something that will ultimately get her what she wants (I'm assuming she wants to be an artist, so a gallery show is a big deal). That's a situation with a lot of potential conflict. But I'm not getting a sense of what she hopes to get out of this yet. She seems to dread it more than want it.

I'd suggest a little more internalization about what she hopes to achieve here, and a bit more about her situation. Is this her first show? Is there a lot riding on it? What does she have to do? You don't have to go into a lot of detail or explanation, but a few more lines would help show what she wants and how this is going to be a difficult day for her. And show what could go wrong, which will help raise the tension and narrative drive.

Does it give adequate sense of voice and place and include enough tension?
I like the voice in this, but some lines feel overwritten. Try letting Stella's voice come through more naturally and not try so hard to make her sound snarky. She's good when she's just her, awkward when she's trying to be overly descriptive. Trust your voice.

The sense of place is still a little murky. It isn't until the very end you find out she's in a bathroom, and almost the end before you find out she's on a trip and away from home. I'd suggest a few more details in the opening paragraph to let the reader know where she is.

As for tension, I think clarifying her goal and what can go wrong will help with that. Right now it's a girl who doesn't like her dress and doesn't want to go mingle with rich people. There's nothing to make you wonder what will happen, or care about Stella succeeding or failing at anything. But if we knew what she has to lose, and what she needed to do (especially if it goes against her nature or puts her out of her comfort zone) then we'd want to see how it turns out.

Should I cut or postpone the inclusion of anything?
I'd suggest waiting until a little later to get in what she looks like. (Unless you worked it into her fears or something goal related somehow). I'd also suggest moving the "don't let mom pack" line to the opening. That's great and accomplishes a lot of scene-setting. You might also wait a bit to describe Ariel and her quirks, and let readers see them when she actually does them. That would give you room to expand more on Stella's goals and fears.

Overall, I think you have the right pieces here for a great opening. I'm liking Stella, but I want to know more about her and less about the things I'll be seeing once she leaves the bathroom. Try tapping into her emotions more. You have a wonderful situation that teens can relate to -- being put on display and not feeling comfortable about it at all. Make us root for her, because Stella seems like someone worth cheering on.

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.

9 comments:

  1. I enjoyed reading this snippet and the analysis. One thing I noticed is that there are several references to her mom insisting on something or doing something for her, and it seemed like a bit too much to me, since they all are showing the same thing. But the idea of a teen have a gallery opening is intriguing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I know its very cliche, but since she's in a bathroom, why not leverage the inevitable mirror for the description? Perhaps do a little soul searching by addressing her thoughts to the mirror, or even talking to her own image; punch up the internal dialogue with a few phrases actually spoken out loud to herself. Especially if this is not her usual "look", might be a good way to raise the tension a bit.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I think you have a great setting that should be used right away i.e. have her already out in the gallery, going through her paces with all these thoughts going through her head. Makes it more proactive. Then right away you can say what her goal is eg to sell to that scary guy with the three piece suit, make Ariel some money etc. I agree with Janice that some emotional/physical reactions are a bit over written. Also with Andrea Mack that there are too many mentions of Mom which can make a character seem a little weak or whiny. Keep it to Janice's suggestion of Mom packing the bag in the first line. Then it's just right. Hope that helps.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Everything that Janice said - I thought she was in her bedroom at first, and I really liked her spunk and views, but it's hard to cheer for her when she's negative about something most people would be eager for. We need to know what she wants, and that push-pull would really help bring out the drama (just like with that line "I hated her and wanted to be her.")

    Besides the neck line, the one that seemed most awkward was Ariel tapping her foot. Might be better to trim it down to something like, "I could hear her tap her foot. Those perfect stilettos under that perfect dress."

    Well done!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I agree with Janice about the first sentence, although I think "Kill me now" would be the best way to start. That's a dramatic first line but it also gets straight to the point of the scene - that she hates being there - whereas your first paragraph as it stands contains details which seem insignificant to me.

    I don't mind that she's not in the gallery yet, I think that shows her reluctance.

    I like that you are trying to set up the tense relationship between her and her mother, and perhaps express Stella's own demure character. I don't mind a "weak" or powerless character in the beginning, as I look forward to watching her development. It would help me to know sooner how old she is and why she's there. I assume she's an artist - I'm interested to know how someone who is an artist with her works on display (if that is the case here) can be so bossed around.

    I personally think you have used too many words, and too many interesting ways to describe things - hoovered, heaved, whipped (which you used twice - cut one), manhandle, stark, haloing, etc. But I think that issue generally sorts itself out with writing experience. :-)

    What hooked me most about this piece was Stella herself. I like her vulnerability, uncertainty, but the fact she obviously is important and has friends - I like that contrast. So in my opinion starting with "kill me now" or the mom packing her suitcase line, and working your way outwards by using her feelings and perspective to create the scene, will utilise your greatest strength - the heroine herself.

    Well done. And kudos on your courage for submitting this piece. I would very much like to read more about Stella.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I really like the voice you have here for Stella. I agree with what's been said about the few sentences that have been overwritten. As a reader I prefer common verbs that tell me exactly what you mean. For me, hoovered brought to mind old carpets and dust.

    The self-description felt forced to me - but please don't use the mirror technique to describe her - it's been over done to the point of cliche. Nobody says the reader needs to know exactly what the main character looks like on the first page. I like to be able to form my own picture first then get very few clues throughout the book. If she's tall, then have her look down somebody's cleavage. If she's short, she notices the nose hair. Things like that to give the reader a glimpse of what she looks like. Less is always more.

    That being said, I think this is a great start. Hope to get to read some more soon.

    ReplyDelete
  7. From reading this snippet, it seemed like the root of the conflict was the tension between Stella and her mother. The mom sounds controlling, especially if she packed this teenage girl's suitcase and dictated what dress she was going to wear. I have to wonder if the mom is the one pushing her daughter to prove herself to be a "serious artist." As an artsy type myself, I was fortunate enough to have parents who let me choose what I wanted to do and how competitive I wanted to be. However, I had many friends who were forced into it by their parents, and ended up hating something they used to love. If that's the case with Stella, I think you could play it up a bit here. :)

    Also, I love having a YA character who's a serious artist! :D Young but going places, getting her own gallery show. That's a big deal for someone that young (for anyone, really).

    ReplyDelete
  8. I especially like changing the first line to the suitcase sentence as Janice said or to the text to her friends as Sarah suggested.

    Though I'm not a big fan of getting so much of the main character description so early on, I would have been interested in the lipstick detail if it bothered her and was not something she would normally wear. And I think if you just drop in bits of her description here and there throughout the novel, you'll be fine. Part of what stands out here is that there are so many together.

    Like everyone else here - I really like Stella, too! Best of luck with her.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I am not sure how old the protagonist is. Some of the terms seemed surprising like hoovered - I had to stop and think about that - wondering if it was hovered. I like the idea of starting with the mom packed her suitcase - that would add to her mortification - mom chosen clothes are never satisfactory.

    There is a lot of tension in the having to sell herself, and as an artist clothes would be part of her pallet.

    One of the awesome lines is "Kill me now." That sounds so teenager.

    The other good conflict line is "I hated her and wanted to be her."

    I would want to know more about Stella

    ReplyDelete