Saturday, February 25

Real Life Diagnostics: Living in a Dream World - And Writing About it

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: Nine

This week’s questions:

I'm working on a MG fantasy novel. This selection is from chapter 2, the introduction of one of my main characters. My story is built around a boy who has bizarre dreams. I'm a little worried about it reading right. Does it work the way I have it below? My other question is about voice: Does the writing sound too plain? Do you have any sense of the character telling the story (the narrator)?
On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
I tried not to roll over again. My legs ached from rolling over so many times. I squeezed my eyes shut. In my head, I heard the eerie ditty that Uncle Tunny had been singing. I jammed my pillow over my head, as if to block out the song. I finally drifted off …

… I walked on cold flagstones with bare feet. A fountain spewed water in several criss-crossing arcs. I was in an open room lined with columns.

I turned between them and walked down a narrow hallway. Ahead of me a girl stepped out. I watched her as she ducked into another door.

The room she entered had a window out to the courtyard. I peeked in.

It was a kitchen. The girl was sharpening a knife. She looked up.

I crouched back, breathless.

She came out of the door carrying the knife and a basket.

“Peace to you from the heavens. Are you hungry?” She lifted an eyebrow at me.

“Well …” I started and stood up.

We were the same height. She wore a long simple white dress. I straightened my shoulders. I bet I could outrun a girl in a dress if she really meant to use that knife. But she didn't, I figured from the curiosity on her face.

“Well, come on.” She gestured for me to follow her. “I’m Sharassa.”

She led me down the columns and out into the open. An eastern sun gilded a small orchard and vegetable garden. The garden was so small. This must be one of the smallest communities.

My Thoughts in Purple:
[I tried not to roll over again. My legs ached from rolling over so many times.] Not sure you need both here. Perhaps just start with the second line? I squeezed my eyes shut. In my head, I heard the eerie ditty that Uncle Tunny had been singing. I jammed my pillow over my head, as if to block out the song. I finally drifted off … There are a lot of "I did this, I did that" here, which reads a little clunky and doesn't give a sense of the narrator yet. A little internalization will help with this.

… I walked on cold flagstones with bare feet. A fountain spewed water in several criss-crossing arcs. I was in an open room lined with columns. And how does he feel about this? Since this is the first moment in the dream, you have an opportunity to set the scene and frame this in the way you'd like readers to see it.

I turned between them and walked down a narrow hallway. Ahead of me a girl stepped out. This is a good spot for some internalization. What are his thoughts about this girl? I watched her as she ducked into another door.

[The room she entered had a window out to the courtyard. I peeked in.

It was a kitchen. The girl was sharpening a knife. She looked up.

I crouched back, breathless.

She came out of the door carrying the knife and a basket.
] The separate lines here give this a list-like feel, which actually slow the pacing for me vs. picking it up (like you'd expect from this type of formatting). I think it's because it's mostly just description of things and there's no personal connection yet to make me care about the narrator. He's just my window into the world, not someone I need to fear for. This is a possible area to flesh out some of the world or dream details.

“Peace to you from the heavens. Are you hungry?” She lifted an eyebrow at me.

“Well …” I started and stood up. This is a good spot for some internalization that shows how he feels about this.

We were the same height. She wore a long simple white dress. I straightened my shoulders. [I bet I could outrun a girl in a dress if she really meant to use that knife.] Love this line. It's the first time I've felt a connection to this character. More like this throughout and I'd be hooked But she didn't, I figured from the curiosity on her face.

“Well, come on.” She gestured for me to follow her. “I’m Sharassa.”

She led me down the columns and out into the open. An eastern sun gilded a small orchard and vegetable garden. The garden was so small. This could be a good spot for some internalization. This must be one of the smallest communities. Or here.

The questions:
Does it work the way I have it?

Without seeing the first chapter (which could have set this up) it's a bit hard to say, but nothing in this so far is grabbing me yet. The narrator has bizarre dreams, but this doesn't feel bizarre to me. It also doesn't feel dreamlike. I'd suggest looking at what the goal of the scene is, both from a character perspective and a structure perspective. What does the author want this scene to accomplish? Since it's the second chapter, I'm guessing this is the first dream, so it'll likely setup that this is happening and what it means (or suggest what the problem with it is). If the dreams are bizarre, perhaps push the bizarre factor higher so the dream itself is intriguing and weird to pique a reader's curiosity. The narrator probably isn't going to have a goal per se, but a stronger sense of narrative drive might help draw readers in. What's about to happen here?

Does the writing sound too plain?
I don't think it's too plain, but it does feel a little spare to me. Details are general and vague, with no grounding from the narrator about of what they mean. I'd suggest tweaking a bit so these details reflect the world and the protag better. What does an open room lined with columns signify to this boy? Is it beautiful? Scary? Does he feel like it's a temple? A palace? A typical villa in his world? If he's entering this dream he'll likely be trying to make sense out of what he sees, so he'd compare it to what he knows (and thus show the reader what's normal to him). That'll help make the world come alive, and even if the writing is clean and basic (which is often is in MG), the details used will paint a stronger picture.

Do you have any sense of the character telling the story (the narrator)?
Just in that one line, but I did love the attitude shown there. You have a great start here knowing what happens and what things look like, so now, try going back in and adding the personal comments and judgments from the protag. Let us see what he thinks about this and what it means to him. Why does he peek in the window or follow the girl? Why is he trying not to sleep? What about the ditty bothers him so? We've got the what, let's flesh out the who and the why.

I think a little will go a long way here, and a few lines of internalization will put readers in the head of this boy and allow them to feel the strangeness of his dream and what he's experiencing. If he thinks this is all normal because of the dream state, perhaps let the situation be bizarre to show the contrast. If the situation is normal, try letting him feel something is off to show the strangeness. Maybe normal seeming details feel wrong, or aren't in the right places or whatnot.

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.

5 comments:

  1. You've got an interesting idea going here and Janice's suggestions could help a lot. I did notice the use of "I" to begin many of the sentences, so maybe if you rework those it'll flow better. Easier said than done. I do the same thing. Good luck!

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  2. This is s short cutting from your chapter, yet the reader wonders "what is happening next?" This is what we all strive for.

    Janice is right. Fleshing out the characters and setting will put the reader in the story with the characters on the adventure you're writing.

    Thank you for sharing your work.

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  3. The premise is interesting - but showing his feelings is important. Not reading chapter one, I don't know if he's experienced these kinds of dreams before, but if I fell into a dream and ended up in another world I'd have some feelings. What might make it more alive is to put more of the senses into the story - are there smells from the kitchen? Does his stomach growl? How does the girl know he's from the heavens? Does he wonder if he can get back?

    I would read the story to find out what happens later. I wonder what the dreaming will do in the future. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. I wasn't sure if I should be feeling fear or wonder. At one point when he sees the knife it's fear but then their conversation is kind of palsy and non threatening. Also words like ducked and peeked suggest fun rather than fear to me. Thanks for letting us read.

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  5. You've got a great thing going on here, helping others with the diagnostics of storytelling. I will be keeping an eye for more of these.

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