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Saturday, April 7

Real Life Diagnostics: A Strong Take Off? Opening Pages That Hook

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: Six

This week’s question:
Is it strong/interesting enough for a first page?

Market/Genre: YA paranormal


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
Most passengers on the dark airplane slept, but Cash Flaherty couldn’t. His legs bounced like a June bug on a hot sidewalk. The advertisement he’d just read freaked him out. The Galway Seller was full of classifieds and junk for sale. All but one.

It mentioned his family by name.

Something about the cryptic ad gave him goose bumps. The seventeen-year-old brought his hand to his forehead. He felt strange. Probably jetlag. Or someone trying to take over his mind. He laughed at his overactive imagination.

The pilot’s brogue interrupted Cash’s thoughts.

“Ladies and gents, we’ll be landing in Shannon City where it’s a balmy twenty-two degrees Celsius. Now, your electronics interfere with our talking to the tower, so please put away the little darlings.”

Cash smiled at the Irish humor, powered off his iPad, and stretched his long legs. He flipped the footrest down and put the tablet in his backpack, careful of his handmade Lucchese boots. When he swiveled to face Economy, he noticed an odd passenger. Covered head-to-toe in a zebra stripe Snugglie, the dude stared ahead without blinking or moving. The guy must be really sick to wear that in public.

He poked the student next to him. “Wake up, Logan. Get a load of that.”

Logan Barnes wiped his eyes and swiveled his seat around. He barked a laugh and said, “Looks like a Psych patient. Check his ankles.” Catching the view out the window, he hollered, “Whoo Flaherty, watch out. All the cute girls for me; none for you.”

My Thoughts in Purple:
Most passengers on the dark airplane slept, but Cash Flaherty couldn’t. [His legs bounced like a June bug on a hot sidewalk.] This made me pause as it doesn't sound like something a teen guy would say, plus it sounded like something from the 50s, which immediately made me wonder when this was set. The advertisement he’d just read [freaked him out.] This is clearly a modern reference, so now I'm unsure what timeframe I'm in The Galway Seller was full of classifieds and junk for sale. All but one.

[It mentioned his family by name.] Cool. I'm curious as to why.

Something about the cryptic ad gave him goose bumps. [The seventeen-year-old brought his hand to his forehead.] Telling a bit here, though this seems to be a third omniscient POV. He felt strange. Probably jetlag. Or someone trying to take over his mind. He laughed [at his overactive imagination.] Telling a bit here as well. I gather the ad affected him this way (subliminal control maybe?) but it's vague. Attention is drawn to the ad, yet what the ad says or any details about it aren't mentioned. I'm told it freaked Cash out, but know nothing about it.

[The pilot’s brogue interrupted Cash’s thoughts. ] Small thing, but he's done thinking by the time this happens.

“Ladies and gents, we’ll be landing in Shannon City where it’s a balmy twenty-two degrees Celsius. Now, your electronics interfere with our talking to the tower, so please put away the little darlings.”

Cash smiled [at the Irish humor,] Be wary of these types of phrases, as they often feel told or distant. It tells why he smiles, when you've already showed the reason why. powered off his iPad, and stretched his long legs. He flipped the footrest down and put the tablet in his backpack, careful of his handmade Lucchese boots. [When he swiveled to face Economy,] Telling a bit here (be wary of "When" statements, as they often tell). Also, why does he look back? What triggered it? he noticed an odd passenger. [Covered head-to-toe in a zebra stripe Snugglie, the dude stared ahead without blinking or moving.] ooo dead guy? Small thing, but if he's covered head to toe, his head is covered and Cash won't be able to see his eyes. The guy must be really sick to wear that in public.

He poked [the student] Would he refer to the person as "the student"? next to him. “Wake up, Logan. Get a load of that.”

Logan Barnes wiped his eyes and swiveled his seat around. He barked a laugh and said, “Looks like a Psych patient. [Check his ankles.”] Unclear. At first I thought Logan saw something on this man's ankles, then when nothing was described I thought maybe he was saying they should check them for something. [Catching the view out the window, he hollered, “Whoo Flaherty, watch out. All the cute girls for me; none for you.”] Why does the view of landscape make Logan suddenly speak about girls?

The question:
Is it strong/interesting enough for a first page?

There are some bumps, but I'd keep reading a bit more. I was intrigued by the potential body on the plane, and the cryptic ad. I do get the sense that Cash is about to find himself in trouble.

I didn't connect with Cash as a character yet though, because the point of view kept me at a distance. (but I'm not a fan of a distant POV, so it could just be me. Folks, chime in here) The told sentences added to this, and I'd suggest tweaking them to show more. For example:
Cash smiled at the Irish humor, powered off his iPad, and stretched his long legs.
The bold section tells why Cash smiles instead of letting the reader hear the dialog and see Cash smile, and figure out the Irish humor caused it. A quick fix:
Cash smiled and powered off his iPad, then stretched his long legs.
You could even add some internalization.
Cash smiled. Were all the Irish this funny or just the pilots? He powered off his iPad, and stretched his long legs.
When he swiveled to face Economy, he noticed an odd passenger.
When statements are big red flags for telling prose. They explain what the character does instead of just showing them doing it, as if the narrator already knows what's going to happen. If you were watching Cash, just you'd see him turn around and face economy. It also telegraphs that something resulted from this. When this happened is caused something else. And because it feels like a trigger sentence, it hides the fact that nothing actually triggers Cash to suddenly turn around and look at economy. Why would he do this? Plot says he has to, but nothing in the text does.

I'd also suggest clarifying some of the vague areas, such as the timeframe issue I had in the opening paragraph, and the cryptic ad. If a reader feels lost or confused right away, it hurts the chances of them reading on.

Overall, the snippet had a strong foundation and wouldn't take much tweaking to make it shine. It did make me want to know what happened next despite the bumps.

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.