Saturday, February 4

Real Life Diagnostics: Planting the Hook: Getting Readers Past the Opening Page

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: Seven

This week’s questions:

Am I showing, not telling? Also, does it make you want to keep reading? And does it sound like the voice of a 16-year-old?
On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
Looking over the professionally landscaped garden I try to guess which plant will win. They jockey for space, the invasive pachysandra trying to choke out the weaker bleeding heart. The flashy irises pulling attention away from the subtle sea holly. In this contest only the toughest survive. It reminds me of high school—and this party.

I’m standing on the edge of the Phinns’s yard, while around me throngs of people sing, eat and laugh. The Phinn’s annual Fourth of July cookout features live music, a catered B-B-Q dinner, and the opportunity to mingle with the Who’s Who in Sugarland. But I’m not exactly a mingler, so I squat down to deadhead some flowers, checking my watch to see how much longer I’ll have to endure the crowd.

That’s when he surprises me.

“Hello. Happy fourth.”

I fall, catching myself on my hands and knees, then stand up quickly, brushing the dirt off my knees. “Oh, hi.” I push a lock of hair out of my face, most likely smudging my forehead with dirt.

“I’m Gregor Sveitch. I’ve just been talking with your mother.”

“Oh, okay.” I glance toward my mom, who’s now talking to another woman. My mom doesn’t often talk about me, so who knows what she’s told this man. “I’m Becca Ford.” I don’t recognize him. And what’s up with the gloomy dark clothes? Isn’t this a party? Although maybe they’re navy blue, not all black.

“She says you’re quite good with plants and work at a local nursery.”

“Oh.” This I can talk about. Plants are much easier than people. “Yeah, I love plants. They’re fascinating.”

“Really? I have some skill with plants myself. What do you find so fascinating?”

“Well, you know, lots of medicines were originally derived from plants. They can cure, but also make you really sick. Even sometimes cause death.”

The man nods, his black eyes laughing. “But you’re not interested in hurting anyone, I presume.”

“Oh, no. No, of course not. I just think they’re interesting. And pretty too.”

“That they are. Pretty and useful.”

My Thoughts in Purple:
Looking over the professionally landscaped garden I try to guess which plant will win. They jockey for space, the invasive pachysandra trying to choke out the weaker bleeding heart. The flashy irises pulling attention away from the subtle sea holly. In this contest only the toughest survive. [It reminds me of high school—and this party.] This make me feel like the narrator is older, out of high school and reflecting on it.

[I’m standing on the edge of the Phinns’s yard, while around me throngs of people sing, eat and laugh. ] Same here, though if it wasn't right after that reflective line it might not read that way.  The Phinn’s annual Fourth of July cookout features live music, a catered B-B-Q dinner, and the opportunity to mingle with the Who’s Who in Sugarland. But I’m not exactly a mingler, so I squat down to deadhead some flowers, checking my watch to see how much longer I’ll have to endure the crowd. It says in the first paragraph about the party having an "only the toughest survive" feel, but nothing in this says that. Seems like a normal party.

[That’s when he surprises me.] This feels a bit retrospective to me, like this has all happened and the narrator knows who this is and how this happened.

“Hello. Happy fourth.”

I fall, catching myself on my hands and knees, then stand up quickly, brushing the dirt off my knees. “Oh, hi.” I push a lock of hair out of my face, most likely smudging my forehead with dirt.

“I’m Gregor Sveitch. I’ve just been talking with your mother.”

“Oh, okay.” I glance toward my mom, who’s now talking to another woman. [My mom doesn’t often talk about me,] Curious so who knows what she’s told this man. [“I’m Becca Ford.”] I was surprised that this was a girl. Something about the text felt like a guy to me. I don’t recognize him. And what’s up with the gloomy dark clothes? Isn’t this a party? Although maybe they’re navy blue, not all black. The tone of this paragraph feels different from the others. The others were older, more thoughtful, while this sounds younger.

“She says you’re quite good with plants and work at a local nursery.”

“Oh.” This I can talk about. [Plants are much easier than people.] Interesting. “Yeah, I love plants. They’re fascinating.”

“Really? I have some skill with plants myself. What do you find so fascinating?”

“Well, you know, lots of medicines were originally derived from plants. They can cure, but also make you really sick. Even sometimes cause death.”

The man nods, his black eyes laughing. “But you’re not interested in hurting anyone, I presume.”

“Oh, no. No, of course not. I just think they’re interesting. And pretty too.”

“That they are. Pretty and useful.”

The questions:
Am I showing, not telling?

Aside from that one line, it felt shown to me. And even that wasn't told per se, just felt like prior knowledge.

Does it make you want to keep reading?
There's nothing yet that hooks me, but there were a few lines that were intriguing and made me curious about the character. There's nothing to make me stop reading though, so I'd stick with it a little longer to see where the conversation was going.

Does it sound like the voice of a 16-year-old?
It could be a 16 year old, but it doesn't sound YA to me (a genre wasn't mentioned, so this could be an adult novel with a teen protag). There's a reflective tone to it with the high school and the he surprised me lines and that makes me feel like this is a story told from a time in the future. So I feel like this is someone who's been through this looking back on a time in their life. If this is for the YA market, I'd suggest eliminating those reflective sounding areas and make it feel more in the moment, which has a more YA vibe. If this is for adults it's probably fine.

Overall, this is one of those pages that's tough to critique, because it's a good snippet and there's nothing wrong with it. But it isn't grabbing me either (readers chime in with more opinions here). Something is likely about to happen with the strange man, but it's not there yet, and there no sense of something about to happen (no tension or narrative drive). However, had I read the query or cover copy and had an inkling of what the story was about, I might feel differently. I'd be able to put this page in context and read more into what's going on.

If the author wants to tweak, I'd suggest adding a little tension, a sense of a goal, or perhaps a better sense of the narrator and her voice. It's really close and I don't think it would take much to add a hook here. There are already a few interesting details, and perhaps knowing more about why Becca is avoiding the party or how she feels about the other people might show her better and let readers connect to her more strongly. If there was something to connect with -- a goal, a story question, a character -- then this could be a good opening.

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.

11 comments:

  1. The description of the mysterious man makes me think something freaky is about to happen. Am I right? I'd make sure the conversation really gets down to nuts and bolts to hook the reader. Like state immediately what he wants or at least drop some heavy hints. I'm thinking he wants her to help him poison the neighborhood. Ha. I have a good imagination.

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  2. Overall I liked it, but it reminded me of a lot of other teen novels I've read.
    Personally, the name 'Gregor' made me cringe, because it just screams Vampire!! Not only that, but it made my mind start reading his lines with a cheesy Russian accent. But that's just me, I assume he's foreign, or at least has foreign parents or grandparents. It's an odd name.
    But I liked the voice. Your MC sounds mature to me, and I prefer a certain amount of maturity in a heroine. I also like that she likes plants. A heroine who cares for the earth is sure to be less self-centered than a lot of teens.

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  3. Very brave indeed. Overall, I thought the writing was good.

    I would have thought both Gregor and Becca were in their mid 20's, and I also thought Becca was a man at first.

    It's a pretty rare thing for teens introduce themselves at a party with first and last names. Unless this is a stuffy/formal party. It's a very adult thing, especially with men.

    Does she love plants - or gardening? Very different.One is an academic pursuit, one is an activity. It's a good point of clarification and one you could drive home with a few tweaks, but it seems like a love of plants - which feels older.

    Dialog is a GREAT place to show age. Here's something you could try (I do this exercise all the time because I mess it up on a regular basis :)).

    Take these 4 four words/phrases: originally derived, fascinating, interesting and pretty.

    and replace them with things that show her age/personality.

    Try a few combinations and see if you can change the tone of Becca quickly- I bet you can. It's like mad libs, but for smarty pants writers :).

    I would, however keep reading. I need a problem to solve or quest to hook me, but this is a nice start.

    Thanks for sharing :)

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  4. Personally, I thought the narrator was female from the start.

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  5. Thanks to everyone for your comments. I've been playing with the scene based on Janice's comments, and already see improvement. And with the additional suggestions (Dustin-I like the Mad Libs-type idea) I think I can make it even better. And Elizabeth, you're partially right...Gregor is not a nice guy.
    Janice, with just about 250 (or a little more) words to play with you've given me such great advice.
    Thank you all!

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  6. I supposed from the start that it was a girl, although I kept changing my opinion of her age.

    I hope you won't be too offended if I say found it difficult to visualise, and I think it would benefit from more showing rather than telling - her touching the plants, smelling them, looking back at the party so there was a more obvious sense of disconnection. I personally prefer a deeper perspective than the one you have given here. For example, I'd change, "checking my watch etc" to "I check my watch. Damn, at least another hour before I can begin harassing Mom to leave. I'm not sure I'll make it that long." And then she can make a personal connection with the deadheads - neglected flowers, or needing more sustenance, or drooping.

    Also, if that guy doesn't turn out to be a vampire or some other supernatural being, I'll be amazed, lol! ;-) Because I'm a very visual reader, I would have found it good to get more of a physical sense of him straight away - does he stand tall over her? is he smiling? does he suck the evening shadows into his presence (I assume its evening because its dinner time??) Also, you call him a man, which makes me assume its not YA.

    The other thing is, I like the idea of a heroine who's into plants, although it does feel a little like a set-up (ie, plants are going to be pivotal somehow in the plot) because of how their conversation goes. Maybe I would have them talk a little more before bringing in the plants, so it feels less obvious? And she's got this great interest in them but she describes them as "interesting and pretty" - ? That doesn't jibe with the earlier mention of their names, the obvious deep understanding. If she's being lame about it because she's shy with the guy, then perhaps more needs to be shown about how she feels about him.

    All of that probably sounds negative, but actually I'd like to read more of this story, so you've hooked me, and that's not easy to do with me! :-) I think anyone who submits an excerpt to public critique is incredibly brave. I wish you luck and fun with continuing to write this :-)

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  7. I liked it, and would read on, but I'm in my 40's. However, I spend a great proportion of my waking hours trying to get in touch with my YA self (make of that what you will!) and wonder if it would have intrigued me as much during my misspent yoof.

    I think you're trying to show us a thoughtful, methodical young woman who feels alienated within her peer group. I'm guessing she's out of step with most of her classmates, as botany is generally not high on their list of interests.

    Therefore, opening with a line about a professionally landscaped garden is not the best hook for a YA audience, nor is what sounded like the botanical name of a plant (I've never heard of it, but I live in another country, it might be well known in the US for all I know). The opening may have a stronger YA voice if it were in the context of the MC denigrating the hosts' middle-class aspirations, perhaps (paying for a landscaper then neglecting the plants). If it's important to show us her interest in plants right from the start, perhaps the "suvival of the fittest, like high school" (love it!) could come earlier, or even a "beautiful but deadly" observation about plants would strengthen your hook.

    Hope it helps. and thank you for your courage in submitting.

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  8. I liked where the scene ended up but I have to admit I wasn't hooked until the end. That may be just me, since I kill every plant I come within 10 feet of. So, the beginning description of the garden didn't hook me. What did hook me was how she thought plants are much easier than people. In my opinion, that should be your first line. Then we automatically get a feel for who she is from the get-go.

    I also found it a bit too reflective. Since this is present tense you need to stay with what the MC is doing at this moment - real time. If those thoughts of status/survival really come to her right then and there, then show us why. Is somebody at the party being snotty to another person, is there a fight? Why does that thought come into her head right then and there.
    *Correct me if I'm wrong about this - I don't write first person, present tense so I don't have much experience with it*

    I also want a better feel to why Gregor's eyes are laughing when she mentions death. Does that creep her out? I sure was.

    Sorry if this seems so negative - I do like it and would continue to read. Even though I'm polar opposites to the MC you've made me curious enough to find out why she prefers plants to people. Good job and thanks for submitting.

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  9. I think the premise of the story sounds interesting and I'm curious what will happen with the stranger. I like the idea of being more comfortable with plants than people - there is a lot of fodder for the story. I felt distanced from the MC though, and would have liked a bit more of an emotional handle on her, something to make me really care about her and turn the page. I wish there was a clue to what was going to be the main theme of the story. Still, the writing is solid and the premise is interesting. Oh, one other thing, I liked her looking at the plants and wondering who would win - is that foreshadowing?

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  10. The great comments keep coming. I've revised it based on what everyone's said, and I think it's an improvement. Thanks so much.

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  11. Sorry to join the party late. I teach middle school, and would have thought this was an adult MC. I felt at a distance. I like the writing - don't get me wrong. I don't feel two normal teen emotions strongly enough. Huge annoyance at being forced to attend a dull adult party without any friends or insecurity about feeling awkward here. You get in there she isn't comfortable, but it feels like an adult uncomfortableness at a party. Remember teens are self-centered developmentally and filter everything through their own introspection. A little more internalization and your close.

    Remember teens worry a ton - most aren't yet comfortable in their own skin. I liked the part where she felt more comfortable with plants. I think show her trailing away to find solace in the flowers, avoiding the social rigors.

    Good luck. Opening are SO tough. I have written mine loads of time and I'm still not done. They are important though. I really like Hooked.

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