Saturday, June 30

Real Life Diagnostics: A Historical Beginning: Hooking the Reader

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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: Four

This week’s question:

Is the opening scene working?


Market/Genre: Historical

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
My name is Fabunni Regan Ellis Ewen. Yes, that's right. All of them names belongs to me. My mistress, Greer McGowen, gave me that name when my mama birthed me in her house. Miss Greer said my name is an acronym to spell out that I am free, and yes, I do know what that word—acronym—means. Thanks to Miss Greer, I am not an ignorant slave, but I am an educated black woman. Well, almost a woman. I am twelve. Miss Greer said the moment I was born, she knew I was gonna be free.

My first name, Fabunni, is because of my African heritage. My father came from Africa. Fabunni means, "God gave me this." Some folk seem surprised that people from Africa, with black skin and all, know there is a God. One day, when the laws change as Miss Greer says they will, I will tell all the white folk who don't think people with black skin think or understand or know their God—I will tell those folk that they are wrong. Until the laws are changed, I try to keep quiet cuz I know the law gives them the right to kill me for telling them the truth. The rest of my name is Irish cuz of Miss Greer's patronage.

My mama was one of many slaves given to Miss Greer by her father, Finis McGowen, who owns hundreds of slaves to work his cotton and cornfields in southeastern Arkansas.

My father and mother married while Finis McGowen owned them. Many white owners considered their slaves as property instead of humanity, so they didn't regard slave families important enough to leave them together.

My Thoughts in Purple:
[My name is Fabunni Regan Ellis Ewen.] Starting with an introduction has become a cliché these days, so you might consider a different opening. Yes, that's right. All of them names belongs to me. My mistress, Greer McGowen, gave me that name when my mama birthed me in her house. Miss Greer said my name is an acronym to [spell out that I am free,] I like that her initials are free. and yes, I do know what that word—acronym—means. Thanks to Miss Greer, I am not an ignorant slave, but I am an educated black woman. Well, almost a woman. I am twelve. Miss Greer said the moment I was born, she knew I was gonna be free.

My first name, Fabunni, is because of my African heritage. My father came from Africa. Fabunni means, "God gave me this." Some folk seem surprised that people from Africa, with black skin and all, know there is a God. One day, when the laws change as Miss Greer says they will, I will tell all the white folk who don't think people with black skin think or understand or know their God—I will tell those folk that they are wrong. Until the laws are changed, I try to keep quiet cuz I know the law gives them the right to kill me for telling them the truth. The rest of my name is Irish cuz of Miss Greer's patronage.

My mama was one of many slaves given to Miss Greer by her father, Finis McGowen, who owns hundreds of slaves to work his cotton and cornfields in southeastern Arkansas.

My father and mother married while Finis McGowen owned them. Many white owners considered their slaves as property instead of humanity, so they didn't regard slave families important enough to leave them together.

The question:
Is the opening scene working?

Not yet. This opening is all backstory and explanation about the character and her name, so there's nothing happening yet to draw the reader in. The voice is interesting and could hook some readers, but it's not enough to make me read on. Traditionally, openings need to start with a hook. Something happening that's going on to make the reader want to know what happens next. There's nothing happening here to wonder about.

I'd suggest finding a way to get the important information in while Fabunni is doing something active. Maybe she's holding her tongue in a situation that can get her into trouble because Miss Greer told her to. Or maybe it's a normal day for a slave that also shows why she's different. Something that would allow you to show the situation and who Fabunni is but still create something happening to make the reader curious and want to know how the scene turns out.

There's also a teaching vibe to the narrative that feels a bit off. Like the goal is to explain how slavery worked and what was normal and not normal during this time. It doesn't feel plausible to me that a twelve-year-old slave would be so knowledgeable of the politics and situation of this time period. She has our modern day understanding of what happened instead of whatever views a young slave at this time might have. She feels too modern overall in her attitudes.

This is something that fantasy writers also run into. Putting modern views onto a society that didn't look at themselves the same way we do now. You might look at ways to show this society and culture, even if their views are radically different from your own. Slavery is bad, but slave owners didn't think of themselves as bad. The stigmas we place on it weren't there when it was happening. Show this world and these people as they were.

If speaking her mind would get her killed, would she really understand that at this level or would she just know you don't speak your mind so she doesn't? Would she know the laws and what other slave owners did and did not do with their slaves? Even if Miss Greer is very liberal about slavery, I'm not sure she'd behave like Fabunni describes, or that Fabunni would be so aware of the overall situation. Women were basically property too back then, so her modern views seem anachronistic. I also can't see someone who owned hundreds of slaves (as her father did) being so radical. A few slaves that became family I can picture, but not hundreds during this period.

I think the voice is fun, and if there was something happening and not just backstory and exposition, I'd be drawn in more. Try taking this interesting character and putting her into an interesting situation.

Readers chime in, especially those who read historicals.

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.


More on Writing Beginnings:

On Your Mark. Get Set. Go! Writing the First Line of Your Novel
The First 250 Words of Your Manuscript
Overcoming False Starts on Your First Chapter

4 comments:

  1. I like the voice, and I can tolerate a slow beginning if the slow beginning itself is engaging. I can get caught up in backstory, description, or anything else if the writing is good enough. The writing is skilled here, but the backstory is 21st century preachy instead of immersive.

    I have a couple of problems here. First, I cringe when I read about educated slaves and the anti-slavery owners who, as Janet said, boast modern mindsets. I expect that the people who aren't anti-slavery will be presented as evil or, at least, misguided. The anti-slavery people will be politically correct in every possible way. It's maddeningly unrealistic.

    Second, if her name is African and means "God gave me this," it isn't referring to the Christian God. Not even CLOSE. A book that included the slaves' struggle to maintain their traditional religions while having Christianity forced on them with a whip might be interesting. Slaves who have completely converted with no vestiges of their traditional religion? Not so much.

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  2. I think your concept sounds interesting.

    I am sorry, but I don't think this opening is working either. I felt myself start scanning, and that is always a bad sign. You do have voice in this opening, but the voice seems older or too worldly for twelve. Is this a MG book then?

    I actually thought of Thomas Jefferson's black mistress, Sally Hemmings. She has a very worldly view, but I don't think it started off that way. I agree that some part of the voice doesn't fit the time period or situation.

    Openings are really tough. I have lots of different openings - I am still not sure which one I am using or I may just write another try.

    I liked Hooked by Les Edgerton - a book about openings. You just need to find the right starting point. Good luck.

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  3. I occasionally read historical fiction, although I would not say I'm an aficionado, but I am nevertheless jumping in with my 2cents worth.

    Firstly, I think the voice needs consistency. The MC starts by saying "all of them names belongs to me", then diverts into a discussion about Acronyms and patronage, in a grammatically correct way.

    I'd be better able to accept her as a precocious 12 year old if her voice remained consistent. Actually, I'd be more likely to accept her as precocious and socially aware if you showed us her using her sense to avoid the sort of trouble an "uppity n-word" person might face.
    Also, there was a trend for historical fiction to open with a lengthy introduction to the MC - a description of their physical features, their social standing, who their parents were etc, (almost mirroring the way the genteel folk of yesteryear would require letters of introduction before accepting a newcomer into their social circle) but historical fiction published over the past 20 or so years tends to open with action.

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  4. I think this is excellent writing. Regarding back story, for me it works fine up until "My mamma..." After that too many characters are getting introduced and attention starts to flag.

    In The Help, the author starts with back story but it is back story concerning other people and an active and immediate problem. Maybe that's all our writer needs to do? Present her character with a problem.

    I'd cut the details about the mother and father and put it right there.

    Keep up the good work!

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