Saturday, February 9

Real Life Diagnostics: A Look at a Darker Opening

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, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Six

This week’s questions:

1. Is the POV evident and strong enough?

2. Is this opening any good?

3. Is this Young Adult or Adult? I'm guessing it's Adult because of the swearing, but I'm a little genre befuddled.

Market/Genre: unspecified


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:


The worst thing about living in Specter City was the hood rats. Not the smog, not the grimy aesthetic, not even the ‘harmony’ of honking horns, police sirens and domestic disturbances in the middle of the night. No, the hood rats were by far the worst; spouting bullshit ghetto phrases and grabbing at their balls all the time. Who could blame him for kicking one’s ass? The lowlife had hit on his girlfriend! Okay, she had been stripping when the slum dog had grabbed her ass, but that wasn’t the point.

He dusted off his dark hands on his jeans and checked his knuckles weren’t bleeding. Nope, barely grazed. Good. He wasn’t keen on wasting blood, not on the groaning loser who lay at his feet. One punch and the sleazebag had gone down for the count. Satisfying. But a tense, hot ball of anger was still churning around in the back of his mind.

“Sirus!” The grungy strip club’s door slapped open; a dark-haired, olive-skinned beauty in a short silky robe was framed in the doorway. The buzzing neon sign on the wall of the club flashed CRAZY CHICKZ in vivid pink. It made her cheeks look flushed as she marched across the lot. “Are you insane?!” she screeched at him.

“Not yet, but the screaming might get me there.” Sirus stretched his neck and scratched at it. “What are you upset about anyway? I got this dead beat away from you.” He nudged the idiot on the ground with the toe of his scuffed, black ankle boot. He had protected her and she was angry with him for it?

My Thoughts in Purple:

The worst thing about living in Specter City was the [hood rats.] is this how he refers to them or is this a gang name? It's used like a proper noun, yet it's lowercase Not the smog, not the grimy aesthetic, not even the ‘harmony’ of honking horns, police sirens and domestic disturbances in the middle of the night. No, the hood rats were by far the worst; spouting bullshit ghetto phrases and grabbing at their balls all the time. Who could blame [him] This threw me, because so far it's felt first person. for kicking one’s ass? The lowlife had hit on his girlfriend! Okay, she had been stripping when the slum dog had grabbed her ass, but that wasn’t the point.

He dusted off his dark hands on his jeans and checked his knuckles weren’t bleeding. Nope, barely grazed. Good. He wasn’t keen on [wasting blood,] I found this intriguing. What is blood used for that he doesn't want to "waste" it? not on the groaning loser who lay at his feet. One punch and the sleazebag had gone down for the count. Satisfying. But a tense, hot ball of anger was still churning around in the back of his mind.

“Sirus!” The grungy strip club’s door slapped open; [a dark-haired, olive-skinned beauty in a short silky robe was framed in the doorway.] The POV has been very tight and in the voice of the character, but this feels more detached, and not the same person The buzzing neon sign on the wall of the club flashed CRAZY CHICKZ in vivid pink. It made her cheeks look flushed as she marched across the lot. “Are you insane?!” she screeched at him.

“Not yet, but the screaming might get me there.” Sirus stretched his neck and scratched at it. “What are you upset about anyway? I got this dead beat away from you.” He nudged the idiot on the ground with the toe of his scuffed, black ankle boot. He had protected her and she was angry with him for it?

The questions:

Is the POV evident and strong enough?

Not yet. The opening paragraph starts off in what feels like strong first person. Great voice, and I really feel like it's a person describing his city and what he doesn't like about it. Then it shifts to third person with the use of "him." The great voice is maintained, then it shifts again and feels more like a detached third person with observations the narrator probably wouldn't notice, phrased in words he probably wouldn't use.

I found the tight POV much more compelling then the detached one. I'd suggest either shifting to third or do it all in first person. The tight POV works and it's done very well.

To shift the first person feel to third, you could try...
Sirus wiped the spit off his knuckles. The worst thing about living in Specter City was the hood rats. Not the smog, not the grimy aesthetic, not even the ‘harmony’ of honking horns, police sirens and domestic disturbances in the middle of the night. No, the hood rats were by far the worst; spouting bullshit ghetto phrases and grabbing at their balls all the time. Who could blame him for kicking one’s ass? The lowlife had hit on his girlfriend! Okay, she had been stripping when the slum dog had grabbed her ass, but that wasn’t the point.
Just something as simple as naming the POV in third person right away shifts the narrative into his head.

(More on choosing between first and third person POV here)

Is this opening any good?
There's a lot to like about this, and "good" is hard to quantify in this particular snippet due to the subject matter. (Readers chime in here.) It's not a world I'd want to spend any time in, so the setting and world doesn't draw me in (a challenge for stories with dark, violent openings). Sirus isn't very likable yet, and this is a pretty brutal world. But he is looking out for his girl, which shows a redeeming quality and suggests he might not be as rough as he appears in this opening. A lot would depend on the cover copy (and personal taste). The voice does grab me and it's compelling in a dark way. If I knew what I was getting into storywise, and I liked that premise, I'd read on.

(More on openings here)

Is this Young Adult or Adult? I'm guessing it's Adult because of the swearing, but I'm a little genre befuddled.
Plenty of young adult novels have their characters swearing, so that isn't an issue (Kody Keplinger's The DUFF and Miranda Kennelly's Catching Jordan are two good examples of YA characters that swear and regularly drop F-bombs). The subject matter is what determines the age range.

This opening feels adult to me, because the characters seem to be facing adult issues. Working in a strip club, a couple in a relationship, an adult level of violence. I'm also not getting a young adult voice from this. These characters feel like adults, even if they're younger. They don't feel like teens. The deciding factor would be what the book is about though. If the problem is a teen problem and something teens face and have to deal with, it could be a young adult novel. But if the problem is adult, then it would be an adult novel.

(More on genres and markets here)

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. Text wise, I agree that 'hood rats' confused me -- I definitely pictured actual rats for half the paragraph.
    "kicking one's ass" is just awkward to me -- the one seems too high brow for this narrator (definitely thought it was 1st person until the 'him' also).
    I read a lot of YA and enough adult too. Definitely not YA (not because of the swearing or the violence, but indeed the angle this guy is coming from). I don't think I would read on, but, probably, that's a bad thing for this story -- I think the writing is overall good and enticing, just not for me [not interested in a protagonist without at least an inkling of turmoil for beating up a guy]. Hope that helps!

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  2. I'm a little muddy on the whole `adult' `young adult' issue myself, so no comment there.

    I am drawn in to the opening and I agree that caring for his girl gives the MC some sympathy points, though if she's a screaming harpy I'll wonder WHY he cares for her. I hope she gets more sympathetic in the next few paragraphs.

    One thing I noticed is the lack of contractions. The narrator voice is so strong that the lack of contractions seems forced. Of course, that might be because you're writing in third person. Is there a hard and fast rule about contractions in third person (since it's not actually someone talking) or does it depend on the voice?

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  3. I wonder if a certain amount of familiarity with the use of word choice impacts the reader's experience very heavily? Due to a certain amount of familiarity, a lot of the word choice was conversational-in-thought and put me immediately in the mind of a man believing his actions justified due to the way he saw the world around him. The POV shift from 3rd person close to further away then back again was a bit jarring. Clearing some of that up can help keep the reader engaged.

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  5. Rewriting my comment as I realised I may not have sounded as complimentary as I intended ...

    I don't think it would be YA simply because of the tone. It's grim and dark - which is good for the setting, and infact I'm impressed by how well you create a sense of the environment - but I'm guessing it would lead to an Adult rating. Just the fact alone of a stripper girlfriend would probably do it. Gotta wrap our teen readers in cotton wool, after all! ;-)

    I thought you had a brilliant first sentence. Perhaps you could change your second one to include the character's name and show his perspective of the city in a more sense-related way (eg smells, etc).

    I like the MC, and I think overall this was a good piece of writing, just more likely Adult or possible New Adult.

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  6. I really liked this, I admit I preferred the short 1st person POV paragraph more before it switched to third.

    Hood Rats made me think immediately of...well, hood rats. Hood rats is a common term used in London for your average loitering youth up to no good. Some people actually use the full term Street Rat lol.

    I enjoy dark stories with anti-heroes. Reading about the bad guy is nice once in a while, there are very few stories told from a villains POV, not to say that is what you're doing. I'm assuming your MC has some redeeming qualities and may soften up at some point. Or not.
    I also find "grey" characters interesting.

    Either way, I'd def read on.
    (Personally, I've been looking for a dark gritty story like this one seems to be.)

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  7. You guys have never heard the term "hood rat" used to describe ne'er-do-wells from the ghetto, also known as "the 'hood?"

    "Hood rat" is a pretty common slang term, though the current Urban Dictionary entry suggests its definition may have shifted since myself and this author became familiar with it. Nowadays it apparently refers to loose women from the 'hood, and that's not the author's intent here, either, so a change to a more recent term might be in order.

    "Hoodlum" is definitely NOT a term someone from the 'hood would use to describe them, though; it'd be used by people from outside the ghetto to describe people they perceive as threatening from the 'hood.

    "Thug" wouldn't be appropriate here either, because to someone from the 'hood, it often has positive connotations. It should definitely be modern slang though, since that's how Sirus relates to the world.

    Oh and by "kicking one's ass" the author meant "kicking [a hood rat]'s ass," so in that particular sentence they weren't being overly formal. They were, however, too formal in some of their descriptions and as Chicory said, the lack of contractions.

    And yeah, not YA. Unless it turns out Sirus and his girl are high school students and the story is really about them struggling to get through school and achieve their dreams in spite of the seedy world in which they live.

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  8. I like it because it's different. Seems like Quentin Tarantino's movie. I don't know if's it legal for teens to work in strip club, so I assume it's for adults. I will add to the storyline actual rats leaving out when the woman open the strip club's door. Not my kind of story but I get the picture of what's going on like in a movie ... so its' good. Best wishes to the author with this novel.

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  9. Must say that I wasn't sure whether we were talking a gang member or a rat, either. Add in something so readers aren't guessing. The back cover flap might clear this problem up as well. Readers would know what to expect.

    I would say adult for the genre. I thought the voice was very well done and established the setting. I did feel the shifts, so either intro third right away or consider first person.

    Not my genre, but this could appeal to many readers because the voice is strong.

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  10. I would like to read this in first person, personally. Especially with his confusion at the end when his girlfriend gets mad at him for what he sees as defending her. It would be much easier to understand his point of view if we were actually in his head. It's a bit detached right now and he sort of comes across as a jealous nut because we're looking at him from the outside in.

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  11. Thanks so much for your feedback everyone! It really helped me clear up a few things. Thanks to Janice for doing the diagnostic!!

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