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.

11 comments:

  1. Before I get down to the level of sentences, I ask myself if the action in a page makes sense and if the author is being fair to the reader. To me, mentioning the ad without telling us more about it is being unfair to the reader. Cash is thinking about the ad - he would be thinking about what it said. Holding back on telling the reader that seems to me like a kind of cheating to create suspense. You could make the whole ad thing more interactive by having Logan be the one to point it out to Cash.

    The second thing that does not make sense to me is that apparently in the whole airplane trip, this is the first time Cash has looked back, so the dude in the zebra stripes is a surprise to him. This gives me a little glitch as a reader - why hasn't Cash noticed him before this?

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  2. I know it's hard to say with short sections like this, but I feel like the ad is a better pull to the reader than any of the other stuff on the plane. I feel like you've promised an explanation or at least an elaboration on that. I got impatient with the rest of the stuff, because I was more interested in your hook.

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  4. Thanks, Janice and everyone for your insightful comments. After this draft, I put in the ad after mentioning it:

    Seeking heirloom. Flaherty family only.
    Bloodline proof required.
    Reply: Edgewarder Foundation, Galway, Ireland.

    These are some of the same critiques I got from my online group, so I put in lots more IM and rewrote it for clarity.

    To answer a few questions, I see I need to put in more info, such as why Cash didn't notice the guy in Snugglie (not dead, just in a trance, etc.

    This is such a great service, Janice. You rock!

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  5. From this snippet, I assume Cash is in first class. He hasn't paid attention to coach. The June bug bit - I would cut. He could thing Restless Leg Syndrome or something. Glad your including the add. I did feel at a distance reading this. Look at Janice's list of telling words. I would keep reading. I think this could easily be fixed, so don't trash the scene. Just tweaks. By the way, I thought the friend thinking about all the girls in Ireland was exactly something a teen boy would say.

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  6. That ad would definitely keep me reading. Along with the fact that he's clearly in first class already, there's a sense of big money and big trouble coming.

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  7. My critique of this piece can be summed up as "not enough." Even the bit you added about the advert wasn't enough to stir my interest - I don't see anything in that to get him so excited. Except the use of the word "bloodline", which for some reason makes me think this is going to be a werewolf/vampire story, lol!

    However, this kind of skimming is a common beginner issue, and my advice would be for you to go back through and layer in some depth. One good way to do this is to ask "why?" For example, why does he look back? Another is to add in more senses. How does his body feel? What can he smell? What can he hear? What does he remember?

    The only other thing I would say is when you use terms like the seventeen year old, the dude, the guy, the student, the tablet, the view, the window - it's a small thing, but it niggles.

    While I wouldn't keep reading, I might if you added more depth. And you've had really encouraging feedback from everyone else, so well done :-)

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  8. I'll comment on this diagnostic entry later this week, but wanted to say-

    Janice, You've won an award!

    It's not the Newbury or the Pulitzer, but hopefully it cheers you up a little.

    Taurean

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  9. It was bugging what felt off about this, and why I felt so distant from your MC. I wanted to repost to let you know. For me, I think, I don't feel grounded in the setting.

    I know we don't want to waste words on too much description in the opening, but as the character moves you could show the plane. How is he feeling? Is he cramped? The stale germy plane air bugging him? Are there crying babies or that sort of thing. We don't have any internalization about his feelings about the plane or the trip. Part of my disconnect. I never felt on the plane with him - the captain was an attempt.

    I know you also are trying to slip in the setting as Ireland. Who doesn't look out the window at all that green? I would think he might be amazed and wonder if there is any place more green. Just a guess, I've never been there.

    Don't go overboard, but a little description as he moves and what he sees (five senses) might really help this with along with his internalization.

    I hope this was helpful. I could be way off. I usually write first person. For mine, I have many openings for mine, and I'm not sure I'll keep any of them. So few words, so much pressure. Good luck.

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  10. Taurean, aw, thanks so much!

    Good feedback everyone.

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  11. Be careful with your Irish details. Shannon is not a city! For anyone familiar with the country, that jars.

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