Saturday, May 12

Real Life Diagnostics: An Opening Look: Does This Scene Work?

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:
Does this opening work?

Market/Genre: Young Adult fantasy with mystery theme


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
The rumour all summer had been of Enemy submarines and submersibles, glimpsed far out in the Gulf. Or, if not seen, certainly heard, during the lengthening autumn nights or when a blanket of fog lay heavy on the coast. Grace Archer wondered if Moonfleet Cove was perhaps a little fanatical about sightings. And all the talk about Enemy spies, she suspected, was equally exaggerated.

“See, I reckon this is where a sub could come in at night,” Ben Jervis was saying, his hands taking in the cold grey Gulf and the deserted shore. It was a misty evening and getting almost too dark to see. Grace had let Ben step out ahead of her on the sloping shingle. He was a slight indistinct outline in the dusk.

“When you see so little, it’s easy to imagine anything.” Grace’s mild comment was hardly loud enough to be heard over the soft tumult of the turning tide, but he heard her.

“It’s not just what people see, though, it’s what they hear!” Ben flung the words over his shoulder, whipping himself with his Youth Brigade beret for emphasis.

“And what have they heard?” She fed him the line with an inward smile.

“All sorts of strange sounds in the darkness!” Ben assured her triumphantly. “Unearthly pinging sounds, and sounds like birds only no birds make such cries. And Bailey from school, his uncle heard sucking and splashing sounds in the middle of the night, and the wake was something else when it came to shore.”

My Thoughts in Purple:
The rumour all summer had been of Enemy submarines and submersibles, glimpsed far out in the Gulf. Or, if not seen, certainly heard, during the lengthening autumn nights or when a blanket of fog lay heavy on the coast. Grace Archer wondered if Moonfleet Cove was perhaps a little fanatical about sightings. And all the talk about Enemy spies, she suspected, was equally exaggerated. The possibility of enemy spies in intriguing.

“See, I reckon this is where a sub could come in at night,” Ben Jervis was saying, his hands taking in the cold grey Gulf and the deserted shore. It was a misty evening and getting almost too dark to see. Grace had let Ben step out ahead of her on the sloping shingle. He was a slight indistinct outline in the dusk. Are they out here to find a sub? What's their goal?

“When you see so little, it’s easy to imagine anything.” Grace’s mild comment was hardly loud enough to be heard over the soft tumult of the turning tide, but he heard her. Could be a good spot to show her thinking about what she might see. You could provide some world building here through her internalization.

“It’s not just what people see, though, it’s what they hear!” [Ben flung the words over his shoulder, whipping himself with his Youth Brigade beret for emphasis.] I don't know what this means. I can't visualize it.

“And what have they heard?” She fed him the line with an inward smile. I get the sense she's teasing, but I'm not in her head enough to know her yet

“All sorts of strange sounds in the darkness!” Ben assured her triumphantly. “Unearthly pinging sounds, and sounds like birds only no birds make such cries. And Bailey from school, his uncle heard sucking and splashing sounds in the middle of the night, [and the wake was something else when it came to shore.”] I don't know what this means

The question:
Does this opening work?
The idea of enemy subs and spies is interesting, though I don't yet know why these two are out looking for them, so there's nothing to draw me into the story quite yet. If I were intrigued by the cover blurb, I'd probably keep reading for another page or two to see where it goes though.

A few things did jump out at me in this. The omniscient narrator made it difficult for me to know who my protagonist is, though I suspect it's Grace since she's mentioned first. But I'm not in anyone's head for long, so I'm not sure which character I should be following. I'd suggest clarifying who the POV is here and maybe getting in a little internalization to ground the reader to this world and what's going on.

Every line of dialog is tagged, and most with a name even though there are only two people speaking. That creates a odd rhythm as you read. This is something that would stop me from reading on. I'd suggest breaking it up and varying the sentence structures so it's not so similar. (speak-description-speak-description) I'd also edit out the names after the first introductions, since it's clear who is speaking each time. If we knew whose head we were in, it would help fix this.

I'm also a little unsure about the genre description. This reads more like historical fiction to me (the dialog and phrasing seems nostalgic) and not fantasy. I suppose it could be a dystopian future fantasy, but that isn't coming across yet. It might not matter so much since a reader will have read a blurb before they start it, but you might consider a few details to give it that fantasy (or dystopian) feel. Internalization would also help here, as you could have the POV think about things in context and do a little world building at the same time.

Being closer in the POV"s head would also allow you to offer the reader a likable character to connect to, which could satisfy them until the plot events pick up.

Overall, it's not a bad start and could be a good hook with a little tweaking. There's already a sense that something is going to happen with the spies, and it wouldn't take much to capitalize on that.

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.

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19 comments:

  1. I found this opening intruiging, although I would have liked some clues about the era it is set in (WW2?). I guess the reference to the Youth Brigade beret was trying to do that, but if so, its implications went over my head (I'm not from the US).

    I would read on. I think you've succeeded in building tension. I'd like to know what was lurking in the gulf. I suspect something scary will happen to the MCs on that misty evening. However, I think it needs to happen very soon after that opening to maintain interest.

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  2. Interesting opening. I agree about the beret though. The mental images I come up with look a bit awkward. Overall, however the opening has created some suspense.

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  3. I don't really read YA fantasy/mysteries, so keep that in mind.

    I wasn't really drawn into this opening as much as I would have liked.
    I think that's because I didn't really connect to a character very strongly. Maybe that's because the Omni voice is really distant?

    The submarines and spy stuff was cool. But the more I read the more,I guess,confused I became.

    There's some good hints at setting, and plot that I liked, but, again, I just didn't connect to any character.

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  4. I wonder how it would sound if you put the first paragraph just a bit later. I like the idea of starting in the here and now. It felt nostalgic to me, too. I was thinking WW2, also.

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  5. I like this a lot. I like Ben, he seems adventurous and excitable and i think he's fun to read.
    I understand the line about the beret, it's a gesture, like smacking your hand on your thigh to show you mean what you're saying, but 'whipping' is a harsh word, it makes it sound like he is trying to punish himself. And it's an awkward gesture to describe.
    overall I thought it was well written and had a feeling of something big about to happen. I mean, they are out alone on this shore at night (was it at night? I imagined it at night, but that might just be me) where strange things have been happening. I'm guessing that they are going to be the ones who figure out what has been making the sounds.
    This also sounds like a fantasy set in the past, alternate history? I agree that so far, it doesn't sound like fantasy, but I assume that those elements will become a part of the story soon enough. Like when the strange noises turn out to be an invasion of alien dolphins, or when nazis attack and grace learns she came turn herself invisible. :)
    anyway, good job! I like this, I would read on and maybe even just buy the book, if I liked the blurb. sorry about the long comment. :(

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  6. On a passing read, I didn't catch the visual for the beret. Maybe if you phrased it something like: "hitting his thigh with his Youth Brigade beret..." That way the image is more distinct and you have a specific place on the body rather than the vague 'himself'.

    As nitpicky personal preference, I would take the triumphantly out-- not sure if it's needed in combination with the exclamation point.

    The threat of war and submarines does invoke WWII, but the genre makes me think this will be something like steampunk. I like the beginning enough to continue reading to see what they will inevitably discover.

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  7. I liked this and can see the potential. I agree that the first paragraph could come just a tad later. Maybe start with Ben's opening lines and have Grace internalize. Is she out on a date/walk with Ben? Is he trying to impress her? He's wearing his uniform/beret. She seems less gullible and we can see that if the first paragraph is firmly in her head as she reacts to his eager showing off.

    About the beret: I'd mention the beret was in his hand earlier then say he smacked his thigh with it. This shows his emotion and that he's bought into the stories that Grace is taking with a grain of salt.

    This can help the feeling of tension/conflict between these two characters. Ben seems to want to impress Grace, but he's choosing to do it with something Grace is already cynical about. I imagine he'll try to convince her and she'll continue to resist. Then...will something pop out of the water or ping or whatever?

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  8. I agree that the dialogue tags are distracting. Two of them would be fine, but a couple of them, like the beret like (I visualize the words being flung out of the hat) and "She fed him the line with an inward smile." are a bit wordy and distracting.

    Personally, you should focus on refining the dialogue and making the conversation your hook. Find the right amount of information to give, and make that first impression, along with foreshadowing what's to come.

    However, I like the mood set. I imagine "gray" during this first page.

    ----

    By the way, Janice, I showed another author this, since she's critiquing another version of my current first page. The combination of both of your thoughts are useful for crafting it.

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  9. I agree with previous posts that the spies and submarines are intriguing. You've got me wondering why Ben and Grace are out there, or if they're even supposed to be. I think what's throwing me is their dialogue/language. As Janice said, it sounds sort of historical rather than fantasy, but it is a short blurb, so maybe the fantasy is coming up. Good job!

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  10. I like this opening because it leaves a lot of food for thought in a sort of foreshadowing technique, establishing the possibilities.

    The first paragraph sort of paused me a bit with the commas but otherwise, pretty decent opening.

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  11. I really liked this. I liked the presumably historic setting - I don't see why a fantasy story can't take place in the past. My own current fantasy w.i.p. is set in the past, and I'm reading another which is also. Also, I've read many wonderful fantasy novels which are set in another world, or even in the future, but they capture the feel of an historic period of our own civilisation. It works because it draws on our memories or understanding of those days, and so deepens our experience of the fictional setting.

    I understood the references which others found difficult and it makes me wonder what country you are from. (I find American English is subtly but significantly different from English).

    I wasn't too troubled by your dialogue tags. I probably should be - I can see where and how to fix them - but frankly I was enjoying reading it enough to not mind the clunkiness. If I was editing this piece, I'd change a few things but you've given a good base to work with. And you've created clear characters to me - the excitable Ben, the calm and self-contained Grace. I liked that Ben whipped himself with his beret, it shows him to be over-the-top.

    I am pretty sure Grace is the protagonist, there are various little clues which point me that way - especially that you introduce Grace first, and that "Ben Jervis was saying", which gives a certain distance and orients us to be his audience rather than in his head.

    My personal difficulty with the piece was its repetitiveness. You've introduced the concerns, and Grace's opinion of them, in the first paragraph - but then the entire conversation spells out those concerns and opinions again. If it were me, I'd use that first paragraph to describe the scene, create a mood, and then let the conversation do the work.

    I would very much like to read more of this. Infact, I would like to *write* something based on this snippet, you've captured my imagination, and I can't think of anything better for a writer to do.

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  12. Thanks to the brave volunteer for letting us learn from your opening. :D

    The first paragraph drew me in, but my interest waned a bit when things switched over to the dialogue.

    It may be because I don't know who these two characters are to each other yet. I assume their relationship is important since their dialogue makes up the majority of the first page. A touch of internalization might help with that, IMHO.

    I also wonder why they've gone out to the shore at night. To me, this suggests urgency, but the tone of their back and forth felt more playful than worried or mysterious, so I'm not sure how I should be feeling about it, though my guess is more of that is covered over the rest of the scene. I would've kept reading on for a bit to see where it all goes.

    Thanks again for sharing.

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  13. I really liked this! I honestly wanted to keep reading and wished there was more. I could easily imagine the setting and the premise was really interesting.

    The only thing that threw me a bit was the last bit of dialogue from Ben. The beginning part about the unearthly pings and bird-like noises felt a little formal compared to how he described what Bailey's uncle heard, and that made it difficult for me to get a sense of what Ben is like. Phrases like "such as" feel more like something an adult would use if they wanted to sound really educated, but he's clearly younger. Just a thought. :)

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  14. I really liked this! I honestly wanted to keep reading and wished there was more. I could easily imagine the setting and the premise was really interesting.

    The only thing that threw me a bit was the last bit of dialogue from Ben. The beginning part about the unearthly pings and bird-like noises felt a little formal compared to how he described what Bailey's uncle heard, and that made it difficult for me to get a sense of what Ben is like. Phrases like "such as" feel more like something an adult would use if they wanted to sound really educated, but he's clearly younger. Just a thought. :)

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  15. Being from Galveston, I know exactly what the author is talking about. During WW II, German subs did get into the Gulf of Mexico as far as the Texas coast. Several were sunk near Galveston. Years ago, there was a book about a boy whose brother was a watcher for subs. The boy saw one coming in at night and helped his brother get the word out. I wish I could remember the title, but it was an SCBWI member who wrote it. Well done, too.

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  16. Being from Galveston, I know exactly what the author is talking about. During WW II, German subs got into the Gulf of Mexico as far as the Texas coast. Several were sunk off Galveston, which is an island. Years ago, an SCBWI aurhor wrote a book about a boy whose brother was a watcher for subs. The boy saw one coming in, informed his brother and helped him report the sub. Wish I could remember the title. maybe you can do a search and find it, because it was well done.

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  17. Thanks everyone for the many thoughtful comments! I forgot I had asked and then I came across Janice Hardy's useful blog again and remembered I had sent in something and well what a pleasant surprise.

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  18. and one more point... to your many observations abt Ben and the beret, I plumbed my unconscious overnight and realized I am channeling Dickens whose Great Expectations words, regarding Trabb's Boy, linger with me over the years "I beheld Trabb's boy approaching, lashing himself with an empty blue bag"

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  19. Anna, I've caught myself writing something similar to a favorite line. Those things do stick in there :)

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