Sunday, March 31

Real Life Diagnostics: A Look at a Mainstream 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: Seven

This week’s question:

Does this opening work for mainstream?

Market/Genre: Fiction


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Awaiting escort to the doctor's office for discharge, Lizbeth Kelleye stood at the barred hospital window looking down at morning activities. A stooped-elderly woman, assisted by an attendant or perhaps a daughter, moved with sliding steps along the walkway. The woman cautiously tried a footing on the grass and then continued to a bench. She sat down, smiled and shrank into the comfort of the helper's arm.

Lizbeth would never experience such a precious scene. Her parents were gone now. She would neither know why they had not loved her, nor allowed her to love them. Pushing back pressure in her throat, she stepped from the window, sat down and covered her face with cold hands. In the darkness behind her eyes old memories played across her vision—the longing for inclusion—intense now as back then, when Daddy pushed Patrick onto his shoulders, swung him high in the air, and then grabbed Mommy. They giggled and whirled while Lizbeth jumped and reached high for inclusion until the empty space swelled in her chest and her eyes burned with dry tears. Then—the whisper in her ear—"Don't cry, don't cry … run … hide."

The old memories carried questions. Questions that lingered in feelings that couldn't be formed into words. Thirty-two years old now, how could those lonely childhood years still live within her? After all, they had given her everything a child needed except that which money could not buy … they had not loved her, leaving her with so many whys that she had never felt at home any place. She owned her own home now, yet the home feeling wasn't there. Why, why, why. They had loved Patrick. She ran a hand across dry eyes and shifted in the chair, forcing her back to join the chair's erect form. There was so much to do now. Too many unanswerables, now. Why had she lost her cool and attacked Patrick at that particular time? Why had Patrick admitted her to this psychiatric hospital? Why hadn't Catherine, her dearest friend, taken her home from the funeral? Or Janie Lou? Or Woody? Or Isaac? Why hadn't someone questioned Patrick, argued with him about admitting her to this kind of hospital?

My Thoughts in Purple:

Note: There was a short prologue included with this submission that I didn't post due to length. Some of my comments refer to information learned in that prologue.


Awaiting escort to the doctor's office for discharge, Lizbeth Kelleye stood at the barred hospital window looking down at morning activities. A stooped-elderly woman, assisted by an attendant or perhaps a daughter, moved with sliding steps along the walkway. The woman cautiously tried a footing on the grass and then continued to a bench. She sat down, smiled and shrank into the comfort of the helper's arm. Most of this opening paragraph is about people the reader will never see again, so why is it there? Perhaps add some emotional reaction from Lizbeth here to show why this glimpse of strangers warrants the opening paragraph. Why it's important to her and the story.

Lizbeth would never experience such a precious scene. [Her parents were gone now.] How does this make her feel? From the prologue, I know she has strong views on this and must have strong feelings now, right? [She would neither know why they had not loved her, nor allowed her to love them.] Is this really what preys on her most right now? Not whatever is about to happen to her or why she was sent there in the first place? [Pushing back pressure in her throat] not sure what this means, she stepped from the window, sat down and covered her face with cold hands. In the darkness behind her eyes old memories played across her vision—the longing for [inclusion]—intense now as back then, when Daddy pushed Patrick onto his shoulders, swung him high in the air, and then grabbed Mommy. They giggled and whirled while Lizbeth jumped and reached high for [inclusion] careful of duplicate words so close until the empty space swelled in her chest and her eyes burned with dry tears. Then—the whisper in her ear—"Don't cry, don't cry … run … hide."

[The old memories carried questions.] Around here I start wondering what the point of this opening is. Nothing is happening, and these questions don't track with the prologue Questions that lingered in feelings that couldn't be formed into words. Thirty-two years old now, how could those lonely childhood years still live within her? After all, they had given her everything a child needed except that which money could not buy … they had not loved her, leaving her with so many whys that she had never felt at home any place. She owned her own home now, yet the home feeling wasn't there. Why, why, why. They had loved Patrick. [She ran a hand across dry eyes] Why? If he eyes are dry why wipe them? and shifted in the chair, [forcing her back to join the chair's erect form.] awkward [There was so much to do now.] Like what? Knowing would give this scene a goal Too many unanswerables, now. [Why had she lost her cool and attacked Patrick at that particular time? Why had Patrick admitted her to this psychiatric hospital? Why hadn't Catherine, her dearest friend, taken her home from the funeral? Or Janie Lou? Or Woody? Or Isaac? Why hadn't someone questioned Patrick, argued with him about admitting her to this kind of hospital?] Since the reader doesn't have much context for this, none of these questions mean anything. Also, "at that particular time" feels like you're purposefully trying to hide information from the reader. Just say at the funeral.

The question:

Does this opening work for mainstream?

Content-wise, it's fine for mainstream because it feels like a non-genre story, though it does have a touch of a mystery vibe. As an opening, it's not drawing me in yet for one main reason. It's all explanation and nothing is happening.

A woman is standing at a window thinking about her past and asking questions. The reader doesn't know what any of this means yet, aside from whatever the cover copy will tell them. I suspect part of that will include that Lizbeth recently got out of a psychiatric hospital and blames her twin brother for her parent's death. So if readers know that going in, explaining it here isn't giving them any new information to draw them into the story.

Right now, Lizbeth isn't doing anything and doesn't want anything. She wants answers to a lot of questions, but it's not coming across as something she's actively trying to resolve. It's just backstory to show she's been abandoned by everyone she cares about. What is she trying to do as this scene opens? What conflict will hook the reader and make them want to see what happens next?

(More on knowing where to start the story here)

There's an issue with the brother, so perhaps the conflict is there. If he had her committed, and she thinks he killed their parents, then I imagine seeing him again would be a major problem for her. If no one is there to pick her up, then perhaps her problem is how to get home, or even where to go. I have no sense of how long she was here, so it could have been years and everyone she knows has moved on without her. That could work with her possible character arc, as finding a home and love to fill the void she lacked during childhood is something she's clearly still distressed over. Not knowing or having anyone to help her now could also give you a way to have her think about her friends and those who did nothing when she was sent here.

(More on conflict and character arcs here)

You might also consider what your inciting event is and how this opening gets Lizbeth to that event. What moment triggers the story and sets Lizbeth on the path to resolving her issues? Is it something that happens here at the hospital, or later after she gets home? Whatever that main goal the book is about, at some point something happens to get Lizbeth involved or make her decide to pursue it. This opening could start with that decision, or an event that leads her to that decision.

(More on inciting events here)

I'd also suggest a little more internalization so readers understand Lizbeth a little better. This has a distant third POV feel, so I'm not feeling the strong emotions she talks about. Some sense of what these emotions make her want to do would help there, as they'd become more than just unhappy memories. She's unhappy and had a bad childhood, but from a reader's standpoint, so what? Why should they care? What makes her story worth hearing? Understanding what's going on inside her head and how these memories and feelings are affecting her and her actions, will help make readers care enough to keep reading.

(More on internalization here)

Overall, I get the sense that the story hasn't quite started yet, but it probably will in another scene or two. I'm guessing something happens when she leaves the hospital and decides to do...what? That what is what's missing here. This reads as setup as is, though if you get that goal and what she plans to do once she's out into this opening, I think it could work.

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 connected very quickly with Lizbeth maybe because of my own history. However, I do understand your critique. Seems this could be a Memoir instead.

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  2. I connected very quickly with Lizbeth maybe because of my own history. However, I do understand your critique. Seems this could be a Memoir instead.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Your critique points out some things that caused a few issues when I read the non-marked portion.

    I tried to connect with Lizbeth, however, I was left with far more questions than Lizbeth asked herself. With the slightest bit of clarification to ground the reader, I can really see this as a powerful beginning.

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  4. I thought the concept was interesting, and I wanted to know more about Lisbeth and what had happened to her. But the except lacked momentum. With some tightening and a clear goal (at least an initial want or need), I think this could be exciting.

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  5. This seemed very static and in-the-past to me.

    For me, if the story is about childhood as much as it is about adulthood, then it might be worth considering if the story should start in childhood; if it's about the adult, then perhaps the story should establish an adult here-and-now storyline before going back to the past.

    I'm mostly a genre reader, though, so here's a bucket of salt to take with that...

    ReplyDelete