Saturday, May 26

Real Life Diagnostics: A New Start: Pacing and Hooking Readers in the Opening Scene

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: Three

This week’s questions:
Is this too slowly paced? Does it hook? And was I able to keep this firmly in Anna's head? (Third person-close) NOTE: Revised text at the bottom with new comments.


Market/Genre: Fantasy 

Additional Note:  There's also a revision of an older post for those curious. An update for the snippet where the girl's parents are killed in the dark right in front of her that was asking about reactions and emotions. It's a great revision, and worth seeing how the author tweaked it.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
Anna-Maria jerked her gloved hand upwards and her falcon darted into the empty sky. Guinevere’s wings sliced through the air, climbing higher than a cathedral’s towers. She was so beautiful and strong.

If only I could be the falcon, Anna wished for the thousandth time. Instead, she was rooted to the ground; bound by ties of blood and honor and the hapless fate of a noble daughter.

She turned, watching Guinevere as she circled back towards home. The castle gleamed white against the green hills and blue-green lake. Slender turrets reaching heavenward as if they could invite her mother to return to earth again, if only for an hour.

That’s when she saw them. Three carriages and more than two dozen outriders trotting toward the castle gate along the lake road.

Merda! The guests weren’t to arrive for another three days.

Guinevere had returned, wheeling overhead now, ready to hunt. And curse the plow, Anna hadn’t beaten the bushes for any game. Before she could start forward, a brace of foolish crows flew off out of the woods. She waited to see if Guinevere would spy them.

She finished her turn. Yes, she spotted them. Anna watched, breathless as the falcon dove, hurtling toward the earth and her prey. Her speed was incredible.

The blast of trumpets startled Anna, drawing her gaze back to the castle. The gates opened. They swallowed the carriages and horsemen.

Anna’s heart beat like a blacksmith’s hammer. She was not ready to face her hoard of suitors. Their wandering hands and roving eyes. Harrow them all! Three days early and in carriages? Anna kicked at the grass savagely.

“Would to God that I was born to another life!” She kicked again. “Curse the lot of them!”

My Thoughts in Purple:
Anna-Maria jerked her gloved hand upwards and her falcon darted into the empty sky. Guinevere’s wings sliced through the air, climbing higher than [a] Tiny thing, but this came be ever closer to her POV if you use "the" cathedral, which would also indicate there's a cathedral there (if there's not, then a works fine) cathedral’s towers. [She was so beautiful and strong.] Feels like Anna's thoughts

If only I could be the falcon, Anna wished for the thousandth time. Instead, she was rooted to the ground; bound by ties of blood and honor and the hapless fate of a noble daughter.  Feels like Anna's thoughts

[She turned, watching] This pulls away a little Guinevere as she circled back towards home. [The castle gleamed white against the green hills and blue-green lake. Slender turrets reaching heavenward as if they could invite her mother to return to earth again, if only for an hour.] Great description, but it feels a little stuck in. Anna is watching the falcon, wishing she were free, then she's suddenly looking at the castle and thinking about mom. I'd suggest adding in a word or two to further connect this to her emotions in the opening paragraph. This is also a great spot to show who she is as a character and help hook readers. Tug at the heartstrings a little.

[That’s when she saw them.] Feels a little distant. What specifically here catches her eye? Three carriages and more than two dozen outriders trotting toward the castle gate along the lake road.

[Merda! The guests weren’t to arrive for another three days]. Feels like Anna's thoughts

[Guinevere had returned, wheeling overhead now, ready to hunt. And curse the plow, Anna hadn’t beaten the bushes for any game. Before she could start forward, a brace of foolish crows flew off out of the woods. She waited to see if Guinevere would spy them.] This all feels a little told, so perhaps re-think how Anna would see and think this. "She" hadn't beaten the bushes (she'd not think of herself as Anna)

She finished her turn. [Yes, she spotted them.] Feels like Anna's thoughts Anna watched, breathless as the falcon dove, hurtling toward the earth and her prey. Her speed was incredible. I like the falcon, but what does this have to do with the carriages? The narrative focus is a little wide through here, which makes it hard for the reader to know what's important

[The blast of trumpets startled Anna] telling a bit, drawing her gaze back to the castle. The gates opened. They swallowed the carriages and horsemen.

Anna’s heart beat like a blacksmith’s hammer. [She was not ready to face] A teeny bit distant her hoard of suitors. [Their wandering hands and roving eyes. Harrow them all! Three days early and in [carriages?] ] Feels like Anna's thoughts. I especially like the emphasis here as well, like this is something awful. An intriguing bit of world building Anna kicked at the grass [savagely.] stronger without

“Would to God that I was born to another life!” She kicked again. [“Curse the lot of them!”] perhaps cut since she does actually curse multiple times in this.

The questions:
Is this too slowly paced?

It did feel a little slow to me, but tightening the narrative focus will fix that. Right now, Anna's thoughts are a little wild. She's thinking about the falcon, her mother, being a trapped noble girl, the suitors arriving. Her thoughts dart from here to there so it's hard to know what's important and where the scene is headed. I'd suggest tightening everything so it all relates to her being stuck in a jam (the suitors and being forced to marry I assume?). Use the details you have in the scene to build on the problem and stakes so when the carriage arrives, we really feel for this girl and dread what she's going to find. I like the comparison to the falcon, so you might even play more with that to show she's a wild thing who cannot be caged (if that's the case of course).

Does it hook?
Not quite for the same reasons, but I can see that things are about to happen and conflict is about to occur, so it wouldn't take much to turn this into a good hook. The pieces are there, it's just a matter of polish. Use these details to build suspense and a sense of anticipation. She doesn't want to get married, so...? Is she going to do anything about it? Does she have a plan now or is just going to go accept her fate? Even an inkling of action will help hook here.

Was I able to keep this firmly in Anna's head? (Third person-close)
A few places pull away, but it's mostly in her head. One paragraph stood out most:
Guinevere had returned, wheeling overhead now, ready to hunt. And curse the plow, [Anna] hadn’t beaten the bushes for any game. [Before she could start forward,] a brace of foolish crows flew off out of the woods. [She waited to see] if Guinevere would spy them.
This feels outside looking down. The bold words give it that detached feeling, since they describe Anna either from a distance, or explain her motivation. Try reworking it and showing what Anna sees and thinks from inside her eyes looking out. Although this paragraph pulls the narrative focus away, so you might rethink it entirely. I kinda want to see her sic the falcon on the carriage (grin). Maybe have her do something to react to suitors arriving early and what she'll do in response to that. Show her personality some.

Overall, it's not far off and I think a little tweaking will turn this into a fun opening scene. I do see improvement from your last submission. (Maybe we can fix Anna up with Henri?)

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.

Revised Text and Comments:

Anna-Maria jerked her gloved hand upwards and her falcon, Guinevere, darted into the empty sky. Her wings sliced through the air, as if she could climb as high as the snowy tops of the eastern mountains.

If only I could be the falcon, Anna wished for the thousandth time. [Beautiful and strong.] Since being free is what she wishes for, perhaps use details that show that. Anna-Maria isn't wishing to be beautiful and strong, right? It's the freedom?  Instead, she was rooted to the ground; bound by ties of blood and honor and the hapless fate of a noble daughter.

Guinevere circled back towards home. The castle gleamed white against the green hills and blue-green lake. Slender turrets reached heavenward as if they could invite her mother to return to earth again, if only for an hour. This is a good spot for some personal action. A sigh, pushing hair back, etc. Something to draw the reader into the head of the character Just a few words of encouragement and a long embrace would make the next fortnight more bearable. A good spot for some internalization about her missing her mother or maybe what she dreads. Something personal.

As if her thoughts had conjured them, a line of carriages and more than two dozen outriders crested the far hills and rolled down the lake road towards the castle.

Merda! The guests weren’t to arrive for another three days.

Guinevere screeched, wheeling overhead, ready to hunt. And of course there was no game. [That’s what happens if you sneak out of the castle without servants and then daydream instead of beating the bushes. ] I like her voice here

A brace of foolish crows flew out of the woods, thank St. Bavo. Her falcon finished her turn and arced into a dive. Yes, she spotted them. [Anna] Anna or Anna-Maria? watched, breathless, as the falcon hurtled toward the earth and her prey. Her speed was incredible.

The blast of trumpets drew Anna’s gaze back to the castle. [She frowned at the unwelcome distraction.] Perhaps an internal thought her for the same idea? A "What now?" type The gates had opened. They swallowed the carriages and horsemen. They seemed to get there awfully fast.

Anna’s heart beat like a blacksmith’s hammer. She was not ready to face her hoard of suitors; their wandering hands and roving eyes. Perhaps add something about what she plans to do. How she's going to suck it up or hide or whatever her plan is. Even a small thought would help drive the scene forward.  [Harrow them all! Three days early and in carriages? Anna kicked at the tall grass of the fallow field. ] This might flow better in the merda line. This is a great reaction to seeing the carriages.

“Would to God that I was born to another life!” She kicked again. [Anger was better than fear.] Love this. Perhaps have her first reaction be fear and then she works herself into anger to help deal? I like that personal struggle. 
 Good revision, I see improvement in this scene. Perhaps one more pass to flesh out the personal layer and really hook the reader to this girl's plight. 

11 comments:

  1. It seems to me that this lacks some specificity. Anna is bemoaning her parentage, but we don't know who they are besides "nobles." What level of Nobility are we talking? Baron? Earl? Duke?

    And here:
    “Would to God that I was born to another life!”

    This sentence would be a lot better if it was more specific, like:

    “Would to God that I was born a baker!”
    or
    “Would to God that my father was a cheese-monger!”

    From the way you've phrased this, I'm also getting the impression that these are not actually the suitors arriving. Do you intend this?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I’m going to highlight the first two sentences; it should show the little things that could be improved throughout the work. I comment before reading the whole post, since I don’t want to be swayed in a certain direction from other people’s comments… also, it’s just an opinion; take it for what’s it worth.
    ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
    Anna-Maria jerked her gloved hand upwards and her falcon darted into the empty sky. Guinevere’s wings sliced through the air, climbing higher than a cathedral’s towers. She was so beautiful and strong.
    If only I could be the falcon, Anna wished for the thousandth time. Instead, she was rooted to the ground; bound by ties of blood and honor and the hapless fate of a noble daughter.
    …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
    Anna-Maria jerked her gloved hand upward, as her falcon, Guinevere, darted through the air. Sun glistened off her wings as she soared over the cathedral’s towers. Anna admired her beauty and strength, If only I could be the falcon, she wished.

    Instead, she was rooted to the ground, trapped in the life of a noble man’s daughter.

    ----------------------------

    That’s how I would write it, off the top of my head; to me at least it feels closer. I need to connect with the character, and the tighter it is written; the more I see what I am reading rather than trying to interpret what you meant.
    I want to see the tower, admire the grace of the bird through the air… give me an experience, rather than something to read. I am not saying mine is perfect, I am sure I missed some key grammar points—since it takes me hours to correct such things in my writing.


    What I am trying to convey is the need to write in a way that brings words to life… I hope it helped in anyway.


    Don’t give up… growth is vital to the writing experience.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I thought your writing was pretty good actually. I felt Anna's wistfulness and restlessness. You could do with tweaking it, but on the whole I actually preferred your version to Jeff's (no offence Jeff :-)) Let me take that first paragraph myself to show you what I mean by tweaking ... ;-)

    Anna-Maria jerked her gloved hand upwards and her falcon darted into the empty sky. (I like empty sky, but "darted" could be improved. Do falcons dart? It's a "too-much" word. Especially coming in the same sentence as "jerked". But don't use soared, that's cliched!) Guinevere’s wings sliced through the air, climbing higher than a cathedral’s towers. (Her wings aren't climbing, she is. Sliced through the air is a cliche. The cathedral mention is okay, but there would have to be a reason she used it rather than "higher than the forest" or "seemingly higher than the mountain over there to the right of the scene.") She was so beautiful and strong. (I liked the wistful quality of this.)
    If only I could be the falcon, Anna wished for the thousandth time. (wishing for the thousandth time is cliched. But I think it's okay to say that she's wishing it, rather than just showing her wishing - just think of a better way of putting it. Having said that though, wishing to be the falcon is really cliched.) Instead, she was rooted to the ground; bound by ties of blood and honor and the hapless fate of a noble daughter. (This is telling, which I actually don't mind, but you could improve it by describing the ground. The territory. Her father's land.)

    All in all, my main comment would be that the writing was okay, needs editing but that's part of the ongoing process - but for me the whole scene was a cliche. Sorry, but how many times have we read about noblemen's daughters with feisty spirits who don't want to marry the suitors who come en masse to her father's house? I'm betting she runs away or gets kidnapped ...

    My advice would be to keep writing, you have a good start here, but shake things up. Get rid of all the cliche and do different things, use different, unexpected kinds of descriptions, deepen Anna's wistfulness in unexpected ways, have the falcon land on the carriage ;-) Best of luck! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  4. No offence taken… the most important thing to a writer’s growth, at least in my opinion, is to take the advice that rings true to them—on a personal and soulful level—and adapt it to what they like. Writing and reading, are very subjective; the key is be clear and use vivid words to convey words into visions in the readers mind.

    I only offer my opinion to help the writer see it from a different point of view.

    If it helped, i am glad.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The story's opening needs to do so many things, they're so hard to get right. This opening had a few merits - we can all relate to the frustration of guests arriving early! - but I'll put in a few points of my own.

    If "darted" and "soared" are out of the question, maybe try rising/ rose or some form of that verb. I think the falcon works well in the opening, as it sets the scene and it's a hook, as falconry is interesting, and shows us a lot about the MC.

    I personally dont like the MC's thoughts in italics inserted in the narrative, I think it halts the flow. (Although I have resorted to it at times when I couldn't think of an other device for internalisation.)

    There's nothing wrong with describing a sense of longing triggered by the bird's freedom, (a tightening in the throat, a sense of being dwarfed by the sky, and so on).

    However, she sounds a little self pitying: "bound by ties of blood and honor and the hapless fate of a noble's daughter" and "would to GOd that I was born to another life". Both stray into poor little rich girl territory, and (for me at least) reduces sympathy for her. That info could be given later, perhaps when she returns home to meet her suitors - and I am guessing they're all horrible!.

    Maybe stick to the issues that readers could identify with to make her as sympathetic as possible. Grief for her mother, her dread at possible married life with a meat-head, and so on.

    Hope it helps Keep going, author, you have some good stuff there.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Personally, I like the falcon. It is interesting and does say a lot about her character and the time period. When your life bites, the freedom of a bird is to be envied.

    I agree with the above post - I am getting the sense that the carriages aren't filled with suitors. Maybe some other trouble or more death. Not sure if you meant it to read this way.

    I think with her thoughts of her mother, you are trying for sympathy for the character. I agree with Janice that it needs tied together. It feels disjointed.

    You don't want her to come off as a poor rich girl. Is there one suitor she despises in particular - some old geezer who makes her shudder? Suitors could be carriages of hotties, but I am guessing this isn't the case.

    I would love to know what plan she has up her sleeve. Perhaps she doesn't discover her backbone until later - sometimes that works too.

    I think you have a good start and you can make this scene sing with her grief, feelings of being trapped, and distaste for the awaiting suitors. Would her mother have allowed her father or whomever to marry her off? Good luck.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Jeff. I very much agree with your response and I thank you for it :-) If we all wrote and read in the same way, there would be no true creative writing. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks for all the insight, Janet and others! Appreciate it!

    I've been working on tightening my 3rd person POV for a while, so I am glad to get more hints as to how to make this happen.

    I don't want Anna coming across as "poor little rich girl". So I'm glad several pointed this out. I'm going more for wary and wounded, but doing her unpleasant duty.

    Anna is a contradiction in a lot of ways.She tried to toe the line for much of her childhood. When she was given an opportunity to "spread her wings" (sorry about the pun) at age14, both "mean girls" and a predatory boyfriend crippled her emotionally. She's been hiding in the country at her father's castle ever since. She's done a lot of healing and a lot a growing. But now she's getting "old" for marriage (age 17 @ circa 1380s). She's gotta get hitched. Eight suitors she hasn't met are coming for big jousting tournament and marriage market. Other noble girls are coming too.

    Just after this section, Guinevere gets lost (because Anna is distracted). Anna tries to call her, but is unsuccessful. She decides to let her have her freedom. If Anna can't be free, then at least Guinevere can be. But when she gets back home, Guinevere is perched above the postern gate, waiting for her. Even that bid for vicarious freedom is thwarted.

    The carriages, she finds out, in a couple pages, are not filled with early arriving suitors, but something worse...the mean girls from 3 years before.

    So, there's a few thoughts as to where I was trying to go on this. Any more comments would be appreciated. I am grateful for your time and your willingness to share.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I know that hardly anyone will read this, but I wanted to put my "improved" version out there. I tried to link the various bits together (falcon, castle, mother, carriages) to show what's really bothering her.


    Anna-Maria jerked her gloved hand upwards and her falcon, Guinevere, darted into the empty sky. Her wings sliced through the air, as if she could climb as high as the snowy tops of the eastern mountains.

    If only I could be the falcon, Anna wished for the thousandth time. Beautiful and strong. Instead, she was rooted to the ground; bound by ties of blood and honor and the hapless fate of a noble daughter.

    Guinevere circled back towards home. The castle gleamed white against the green hills and blue-green lake. Slender turrets reached heavenward as if they could invite her mother to return to earth again, if only for an hour. Just a few words of encouragement and a long embrace would make the next fortnight more bearable.

    As if her thoughts had conjured them, a line of carriages and more than two dozen outriders crested the far hills and rolled down the lake road towards the castle.

    Merda! The guests weren’t to arrive for another three days.

    Guinevere screeched, wheeling overhead, ready to hunt. And of course there was no game. That’s what happens if you sneak out of the castle without servants and then daydream instead of beating the bushes.

    A brace of foolish crows flew out of the woods, thank St. Bavo. Her falcon finished her turn and arced into a dive. Yes, she spotted them. Anna watched, breathless, as the falcon hurtled toward the earth and her prey. Her speed was incredible.

    The blast of trumpets drew Anna’s gaze back to the castle. She frowned at the unwelcome distraction. The gates had opened. They swallowed the carriages and horsemen.

    Anna’s heart beat like a blacksmith’s hammer. She was not ready to face her hoard of suitors; their wandering hands and roving eyes. Harrow them all! Three days early and in carriages? Anna kicked at the tall grass of the fallow field.

    “Would to God that I was born to another life!” She kicked again. Anger was better than fear.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Amelia, I post revisions and even comment on them. I'll copy this into your main post on Saturday's RLD and tell folks a revision is up. (I add a "hey, check this revision out" link before the newest post)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Awesome! Thanks so much, Janice!

    ReplyDelete