Saturday, June 2

Real Life Diagnostics: Getting to Know Me: Character Focus in an 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: Five

This week’s questions:
I'm trying to focus more on the character in this opening. I'm basically wondering if it works as an opening, but splitting up that up: Does this (rather obvious) opening hook actually hook? What impressions you get of the main character and her situation in the opening segment--is she interesting, likable? Does the opening drop enough hints of the speculative nature of eventual story? And finally, Does the 1st person present ever seem awkward?

Market/Genre: YA Science Fiction/Fantasy


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
I want to evaporate my math test, but I don’t think they’d believe it was an accident. Not after what happened with my last school. But really, I don’t know how they expect us to focus on triangles and squiggles when it’s a balmy 85 degrees with sunny skies and just enough wind to keep things interesting. I glance at my pager. Well, not too interesting.

Shifting to lean on my elbow, I tap my pencil lightly as though I might be pondering the mysteries of 23b, but I’m actually surveying the room. I don’t really know anyone, since I switched classes after my transcript went through. But summer school is reserved for three types of people: the people who screwed up the first time, the people who couldn’t get summer jobs, and me. Me? Well, school is my job really, or one of them. I’m certainly not falling behind. Since I transferred, I’m on track to graduate at 16—it’s not like anyone wants to fail me.

A paper football lands on my desk. I look up. A boy in the second row winks at me. During a test? Checking that the teacher is still engrossed in her trashy paperback, I unfold the note:

New? I’m Darris

Name__________

#______________

I smile. Cellan Roesler, I write. I glance at him mischievously. Coffee 1st?After class. Reverse the folds, take aim. A gust from the window sweeps the note away, trailing the smell of smoke.

EEP-EEP-EEP. My pager shrieks. FIRE.

My Thoughts in Purple:
I want to evaporate my [math] could use trig or geometry here test, but I don’t think [they’d believe it was] I want to say they'll and it's here since it's present tense an accident. Not after what happened with my last school. But really, I don’t know how they expect us to focus on triangles and squiggles when it’s a balmy 85 degrees with sunny skies and [just enough wind to keep things interesting.]This intrigues me. What about the wind is worth watching? I glance at my [pager.] This makes it seem more retro than science fiction, as everyone uses cell phones these days Well, not too interesting.

[Shifting to lean on my elbow,] This pulls me away from her POV a bit. I tap my [pencil] this also feels more modern lightly as though [I might be pondering the mysteries of 23b] cute. I like her voice here, but [I’m actually surveying the room.] why? What's she looking for? I don’t really know anyone, since I switched classes after my transcript went through. But summer school is reserved for three types of people: the people who screwed up the first time, the people who couldn’t get summer jobs, and me. Me? Well, school is my job really, or one of them. [I’m certainly not falling behind. Since I transferred, I’m on track to graduate at 16—it’s not like anyone wants to fail me.] feels a little info-dumpy. She's surveying the room and talking about the types of people who go to summer school and explaining herself, but none of these details seem to matter to her or what she's doing right now Perhaps continue the thought about why this is her job? Show some kind of goal or drive for her.

A paper football lands on my desk. I look up. A boy in the second row winks at me. During a test? [Checking that the teacher is still engrossed in her trashy paperback,] Pulls me away from her POV a little I unfold the note:

New? I’m Darris

Name__________

#______________

I smile. Cellan [Roesler,] would she give him, her last name? I write. I glance at him mischievously. Coffee 1st?After class. Reverse the folds, take aim. A gust from the window sweeps the note away, trailing the smell of smoke.

EEP-EEP-EEP. My pager shrieks. FIRE.

The questions:
Does this (rather obvious) opening hook actually hook?

Mostly. I'm intrigued, and I might be more intrigued if I'd read the blurb to provide context, but right now I'm feeling a little lost. There's a lot here I like, but I also feel like a lot of little tidbits are dropped in and then left there, so I'm not sure what to focus on. I assume I'll know what her power is (I'm guessing she has a power) when I start this book, but right now I don't know what she did at her last school, I don't know why wind is interesting, what the pager is for, what the fire means, how many jobs she has, why no one will fail her, or why she's driven to graduate early.

These are all good things to hook a reader, but I feel like I'm just getting hints about her, not about the story yet. She's bored when it opens, not doing anything, not worrying about anything, just looking around casually. Nothing about that entices the reader to read on, even though there are interesting things here.

I do find why she's there in summer school when she doesn't want to be there interesting though. This could be what gives you the drive to draw readers in until the fire and the action starts. Just wanting to leave because it's a nice day doesn't work since there are no stakes. But the wind and her pager suggests she's part of something (supernatural?) that might be worth worrying about if she's stuck in school and thinks there might be trouble or a reason to leave. I have no idea if that fits your story or not though.

What impressions you get of the main character and her situation in the opening segment--is she interesting, likable?
She's feels like a typical teen, though there are hints she's more than that. I do like that she gets the note and makes a quick decision to go get coffee with him. A nice change from the insecure protagonist who frets over a cute guy asking her out. She seems self assured. She almost seems driven and ambitious (on target to graduate early), but then it also seems like she's advancing because no one wants her in their class, so she could just be a slacker who gets her way all the time (she doesn't want to be there even though it's her job). More internalization would let me get to know her better. She's talking more about herself here than being herself if that makes sense.

What makes the wind interesting to her? Why does she survey the room? What's she looking for? She says there are three kinds of people, yet she never singles any of them out. If she knows what she's going to find in the room, why survey it? Why does she need more than one job? What is her job or what is she doing there? A little more about how she feels on any one of these would give us insight into who she is. You don't have to do a lot, or do all of them, but what do you want readers to know about this girl right away? Show those aspects of her personality in action.

Does the opening drop enough hints of the speculative nature of eventual story?
The paper evaporating/last school/won't fail me comments make it seem like she has a power, but if I didn't know this was speculative, I might just assume she was being colorful about something she's done (arson maybe). All the fire/pager/wind references could suggest she works for the fire department somehow. Knowing it's speculative, I get a firestarter/firestopper type person vibe. But nothing in this really jumps out at me as speculative yet. A few hints, but not strong.

Does the 1st person present ever seem awkward?
One line at the start felt a tad off, but the rest read smoothly. No troubles here.

Does it work as an opening?
I'd read on another page or two to see where this goes. If it didn't grab me after that, then I'd likely set it down. There's a lot of intriguing things here, but I don't know where it's going or why I should come along for the ride yet.

Overall, this has a lot of interesting elements in it, and knowing the blurb would likely make the difference in how a reader connects to them. If I knew what some of these things meant, I'd be more drawn in and know where the story was headed. I'm reluctant to suggest a change to make thing more obvious and then have it come across feeling repetitive if you know the details going in.

However, I would suggest a little more of a goal/drive/issue at the start so you're not opening with a bored protagonist doing nothing. Perhaps make her want something so the reader can wonder if she gets it and wants to see if she does. Or make her more eager to evaporate the paper. Or play up why the wind is interesting and what that means to her. Or why she's there when she'd rather be outside. Or play up her personality and voice with humor. You have lots of options here.

It's pretty close. Minor tweaks and this would probably be good to go.

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.

5 comments:

  1. I enjoyed reading this. Janice has some great points. I didn't even pick up that the wind would be important until I read her purple comments.

    Some things I did notice the first time through:
    The trashy novel. Really? In every school I've been in the last ten years, that kind of behavior would get a teacher in so much trouble. Even in summer school. A magazine, perhaps. Grading, yep (a teacher ALWAYS has papers to grade). The trashy novel would be saved for personal time.

    Last name. Would she really give her last name? That sounds kinda elementary school age-ish. From my experience.

    And only losers in summer school? Maybe in some school districts and yes in the past. But, my husband is a teacher. Where he taught in the last ten years (outside of Wash. D.C) the middle/high school summer terms were full of kids trying to get ahead academically. There were a handful of remedial kids. But, most were from families that valued education and were putting their kids on the fast track.

    So...just some food for thought. I did enjoy reading this and am curious where it all would lead. Best wishes!

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  2. Wow! This gives me food for thought about my own WIP. I'm also writing in first person, present tense, and have wondered if I'm straying out of the perspective or info dumping. So I appreciated the diagnostic.

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  3. I really enjoy this character's voice. I didn't really pick up a speculative fiction feel, though. Not sure how that could be fixed. Sorry I can't offer anything more helpful.

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  4. Like @Amelia said, summer school has different purposes now; some might be for flunkees, but lots of kids are taking advanced classes now, maybe making the distinction could shed some light on the rest of the story. I have seen a lot of first pages on blogs where commenters have criticized starting with a classroom scene. Not to say it can't be done, but maybe consider if this is the best place for your story to begin.

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  5. Thanks for the post. One of these days I'll get brave and send you something of mine...!

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