Saturday, March 2, 2013

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Keep Reading? A Look at Historical Beginning

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 questions:

Does this opening work? The dialogue does not necessarily occur in this particular scene. Is that confusing? Do you want to keep reading?

Market/Genre: Historical Fiction: Age 8-14


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Disapproval reigned in the hackney coach where the four Kelly children and their father found themselves. Disapproval, along with a strong dose of curiosity – curiosity about their great-aunt; disapproval that they had to visit her.

“Why is this necessary?” said Sergei.

“Relations must be kept up,” replied his father.

Although England was the country of their deceased mother, the Kelly children and their father did not frequent it. They had spent time in nearly every other country of the civilized world, but unless I am mistaken, they had tried to avoid England as much as possible. They had not even seen their relatives since –

“I don’t even want to consider how long it has been,” said Anisha.

“You don’t like England, do you, Father?” said Jean-Pierre.

“Eh - no,” admitted Father.

“At least we don’t have to stay very long,” added Muriel.

Yes, there were four Kelly children: Anisha, Sergei, Jean-Pierre, and then Muriel. Although they were half French and half English, they were entirely French in spirit and in patriotic zeal.

The hansom coach pulled up at the side of the street at the house numbered nineteen. The small copper plate at the side of the door read “Tabitha Cox.”

The two-story brick home sat back only few feet from the street. A wrought-ironed railing lined the tiny, square porch. Narrow, green stained-glass windows around the door offered the house its only distinguishing character from the other houses on its street. The window boxes were sadly empty beyond the skeleton flower stalks, tattered by the February wind and rain.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Disapproval reigned in the hackney coach where the four Kelly children and their father found themselves. Disapproval, along with a strong dose of curiosity – curiosity about their great-aunt; disapproval that they had to visit her.] I like this opening, but the repetition of disapproval was a little clunky for me. I'd suggest taking one out.

“Why is this necessary?” said Sergei.

“Relations must be kept up,” replied his father.

Although England was the country of their deceased mother, the Kelly children and their father did not frequent it. They had spent time in nearly every other country of the civilized world, [but unless I am mistaken,] The use of first person threw me here, since this felt solidly third person omniscient. they had [tried to avoid England as much as possible. They had not even seen their relatives since – ] intriguing. Makes me wonder what happened.

“I don’t even want to consider how long it has been,” said Anisha.

“You don’t like England, do you, Father?” said Jean-Pierre.

“Eh - no,” admitted Father.

“At least we don’t have to stay very long,” added Muriel.

[Yes, there were four Kelly children:] You already said there were four  Anisha, Sergei, Jean-Pierre, and then Muriel. Although they were half French and half English, they were entirely [French in spirit and in patriotic zeal.] Cute

The [hansom coach] said it was a hackney coach in the first paragraph pulled up at the side of the street at the house numbered nineteen. The small copper plate at the side of the door read “Tabitha Cox.”

The two-story brick home sat back only few feet from the street. A wrought-ironed railing lined the tiny, square porch. Narrow, green stained-glass windows around the door offered the house its only distinguishing character from the other houses on its street. [The window boxes were sadly empty beyond the skeleton flower stalks, tattered by the February wind and rain. ] Nice image

The questions:

Does this opening work?

I like it. It has an intriguing voice that reminds me of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, or The Mysterious Benedict Society, and that works well with the target age group.

The slip into first person threw me, however. I'm not sure what that was or how a first person narrator fits into this, as the text reads like third person omniscient. Perhaps it's a leftover typo after a revision? If no, then who is the narrator and how do they fit into the scene?

(More on third person omniscient here)

The dialogue does not necessarily occur in this particular scene. Is that confusing?
I don't know what you mean here. I assumed the dialog was part of the conversation they had in the coach on their way there. Is that not the case? Is the conversation a flashback? If so, I'd suggest just making it part of this scene. There's no need to flashback anywhere, and it's not clear that the location changes. (Though looking at the original email, I see that the dialog scene is single spaced, and the rest is doubled. I assumed that was a formatting error on the email, but perhaps that was to show this was a separate location?)

The conversation works fine as part of the scene, and had you not said anything, I'd have assumed (and did) that it was discussed in the coach. If they have to have this conversation somewhere else for story reasons, I'd suggest starting the story there and moving forward. Flashing back after one paragraph is a pretty good indication you're not starting the story in the right place. 

(More on knowing where to start your story)
 
Do you want to keep reading?
Yes. The situation is fun, with a family going to visit someone they don't want to visit yet are intrigued by. There's something off with this family since they haven't seen relatives since some mysterious time (which piques my curiosity). I feel as though something is about to happen, and I want to know what. It's a quieter beginning, but there's tension here to make me want to know where this goes.

However, if the POV continues to be confusing, I'd stop reading. It's a weird POV shift-feel, yet the voice is strong so I wonder if there's a narrator I haven't met yet following these characters (like a cat or some person/creature that is there but not a "person" the other characters interact with). That ambiguity could be a problem moving forward, but there's not enough information to know from this.

(More on point of view shifts here)

Overall, it's a strong piece with a solid voice and an intriguing setup. I don't feel completely grounded yet due to the POV shift, so that might be an area to focus on a bit moving forward, especially if you're doing something unusual with the POV.

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. Your first-person shifts and your repetitions felt, to me, as if you were trying to recreate an older form of story-telling, like that in the Hobbit or in Edith Nesbit's books. Asides from writer to reader, snippets of information, brief chatty shifts that bring out your personality as much as your characters'...
    I find it charming to read because it evokes older children's lit, but I don't think it would work for a modern author, for the reasons Janice mentioned.
    I'm intrigued by your story, and very curious to see how the great-aunt will respond to her relatives' reservations!

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  2. I loved your narrative technique of including the narrator's voice. It follows the spirit of Lemony Snickett, but also all those genius classic novels for children - as Rachel6 pointed out - and I'm not sure why something so charming, intelligent, and engaging wouldn't work for a modern audience.

    On a technical note, I personally found your first two sentences awkward, I would have stopped the first at "Disapproval reigned in the hackney coach" and then in a new sentence explained how and why the Kelly family were disapproving. But I enjoyed the rest of the piece. I feel you could add more at different places, eg describing the children or at least giving their ages when you list them. Also, is a hackney coach the same thing as a hansom coach? But these are editing points and in general my feedback is that I would indeed keep reading - and am disappointed I can not right now.

    This is a good start on what looks like becoming a very entertaining story.

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  3. Thanks so much for the critique! Yes, I intended the first person remark to be from me as the writer, like E. Nesbit or Lemony Snicket. If I want to continue with that, I had better make it clear who is talking.
    After I sent in the excerpt, I realized that I was inconsistent with their coach, so I got it fixed. :)
    Thanks again!

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  4. The more I think about it, the more I lean toward sarah's opinion. I'd love to see you rework it to make the first person omniscient narrator work; I always loved Nesbit.

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  5. I enjoyed it. As for the narrator comment, can you pick a character to somehow be the narrator. Maybe an older version of one of the kids, or whatever fits your story best?
    Then the interludes are not from you, but from a narrator with personality and interest?

    Just a thought.

    ReplyDelete