Sunday, April 14

Real Life Diagnostics: How Much Do You Need to Explain on the First Page?

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:

I would like to know whether the opening works (why or why not), and whether it is interesting enough for the reader to continue. The rest of the chapter will explain who Claire is (the protagonist), and how she ties into the Clairvoyance Industry. Does it work to build up to that? I hesitate to use my first words as an info-dump about Claire.

Market/Genre: YA science fiction


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Claire looked glumly at the gum-snapping girl in front of her. The girl scratched at her sunburned shoulders, her dull green tattoos peeking through the reddened skin. Her tank top wasn’t doing much to ward off goosebumps on a chilly November day, but Claire supposed she had to show off her trip down south somehow.

Why was it only the dumb ones who came to Lady Ursula? The answer was obvious: who else would visit a Clairvoyant named Lady Ursula? The name conjured images of red beaded curtains and an excess of incense and flowing scarves. Which was unfortunately true. She was a throw-back, a caricature, evoking the days when all you needed to set up shop as a Clairvoyant was a crystal ball and a spooky manner.

No, the smart, the rich, and the otherwise-well-informed took their money downtown to J.S. Persimmon, or Halliday Brothers. People represented by crisp white business cards with embossed slate lettering. Lady Ursula, with her community college degree in Vision Reception, was allowed to mop up the spills of the clairvoyance industry with others of her ilk, but no more than that.

Still, Claire reflected, if she had to work in the Now, at least she was posted in the city. She could have been dumped in a suburban strip mall, or a remote village with only one Clairvoyant. For a first commission, it could be a lot worse.

“I feel the vibr-a-a-a-a-a-tions!” trilled Lady Ursula, eyes rolling back in her head.

If not a lot cheesier.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Claire looked glumly at the gum-snapping girl in front of her. The girl scratched at her sunburned shoulders, her dull green tattoos peeking through the reddened skin. Her tank top wasn’t doing much to ward off goosebumps on a chilly November day, but Claire supposed she had to show off her [trip down south somehow.] so you go south to get tattoos? I sense that that's significant, but not sure why yet.

[Why was it only the dumb ones who came to Lady Ursula?] Are the tattoos and going south what make her think this? The answer was obvious: who else would visit a Clairvoyant named Lady Ursula? The name conjured images of red beaded curtains and an excess of incense and flowing scarves. Which was unfortunately true. She was a throw-back, a caricature, evoking the days [when all you needed to set up shop as a Clairvoyant was a crystal ball and a spooky manner.] I like how this shows this is not true and setting up shop is more involved now. Yet it doesn't go into that. It's a perfect transition to that idea though.

[No, the smart, the rich, and the otherwise-well-informed took their money downtown to J.S. Persimmon, or Halliday Brothers. People represented by crisp white business cards with embossed slate lettering. Lady Ursula, with her community college degree in Vision Reception, was allowed to mop up the spills of the clairvoyance industry with others of her ilk, but no more than that. I'm hearing more about everyone but the narrator so far, and I don't know why any of it matters. It also shifts back to the customer, when the preceding paragraph was about the clairvoyants themselves.

Still, Claire reflected, [if she had to work in the Now] intriguing. Makes me wonder if they have jobs where people work in the past or future., at least she was posted in the city. She could have been dumped in a suburban strip mall, or a remote village with only one Clairvoyant. For a first commission, it could be a lot worse. I'm getting more of a sense about this world here, but I still don't feel grounded. The scene so far feels unfocused.

[“I feel the vibr-a-a-a-a-a-tions!” trilled Lady Ursula, eyes rolling back in her head.] Since Claire was looking at the gun-snapping girl in front of her, this feels out of the blue. Also, the girl has vanished now.

[If not a lot cheesier.] This almost feels backward. But not much cheesier? They way it's setup. I expected this to contrast it could have been worse. So it could be cheesier than this?

The questions:

Does the opening work?

Yes and no. There are some interesting things here, and I think had I read the cover copy first, I'd have been drawn in more since I'd have some context. As is, I'm feeling a little lost as to what matters and what's going on. I'd be willing to give it another page or two though because there are interesting hints.

It starts with a lot of words about the girl, but she doesn't appear to matter except to help Claire transition into thoughts on Lady Ursula. But Lady Ursula doesn't seem to matter except as a way to transition into infodump about how clairvoyants work. I'm not getting a sense of goal or what's going on here yet, and the focus of what's important feels off.

I suspect you're trying to do too much too soon. You've created a very nice setup to explain the difference between real clairvoyants and the Lady Ursula type using the girl as the trigger. I think musing on that would allow you to transition later into more world building and whatnot. Right now, it has four topics in four paragraphs, so nothing is standing out as the point of the scene.

(More on narrative focus)

I think if you added a goal and tweaked things a little so they reflected whatever it was Claire is trying to do, it would draw readers in better and clarify what this world is like. It could be something as simple as Claire doing her job while wishing she had a better posting. She just feels empty right now, standing there relaying information but not actually part of what's going on.

You might also look for ways to slip in some conflict to help drive the scene. I suspect the conflict is from her wishing she didn't have to work there, but something external would help draw readers in better. Something they'd want to see the outcome to.

(More on adding goals, conflict, and stakes)

I also think more interaction with the people she's thinking about would help ground her and the reader into this scene and world. Exactly what does she do? She's not clairvoyant herself? What is a "first commission?" Getting that idea across might be where the goal and conflict come from.

Perhaps instead of standing and staring at the girl, she brings her in, takes her to Lady Ursula, does whatever her job duties are. That would allow her to interact with others so the details can slip in more naturally, and you setup who she is and why she's there a little. It can also help give the sense that things are moving.

The rest of the chapter will explain who Claire is (the protagonist), and how she ties into the Clairvoyance Industry. Does it work to build up to that?
Parts do. You drop a few solid hints with why Lady Ursula is a throwback, and Claire thinking she could have been dumped in a worse post. Those are intriguing and make me curious about this world. But then they're never expanded on and other information I don't care about yet is given to me (how other people and other clairvoyants work) Though if Claire was dreaming of working at one of those fancier places and comparing it to this one while she does her job, you could make it work. It would connect better to Claire and her task and fit logically with what's going on.

(More on grounding readers in your world)

Your instincts are right about the infodumps, and you don't want that. But what you might try, is to continue dropping hints and showing Claire's world so readers get the sense that there is a bigger world out there. That would lay the groundwork for more explanation later when it becomes relevant.

(More on infodumps)

I think this is close, and if you have Claire show us her world by interacting with it more, and explaining it less, you'll have a good opening.

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 think Janice missed the humour and meaning behind the girl showing off her trip down south. She has a sunburn but wears a tank top even though it's cold so people will notice she has taken sun.

    "The girl scratched at her sunburned shoulders, her dull green tattoos peeking through the reddened skin. Her tank top wasn’t doing much to ward off goosebumps on a chilly November day, but Claire supposed she had to show off her [trip down south somehow.] so you go south to get tattoos? I sense that that's significant, but not sure why yet.

    I liked this and would read more.

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  2. I did read that differently, DMcWild. Nice observation :) I guess growing up in South Florida sunburns were so common I didn't give it a second thought. The tattoos stuck out at me instead. Now, a *tan* would probably have clicked for me. People like to show off their tans.

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  3. "For a first commission, it could be a lot worse...if not a lot cheesier." Sandwiching Ursula's trill between the two sets up the "not much cheesier" line; I think the author is saying no, you don't get cheesier.

    I like it, so far. The world hints are definitely interesting!

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  4. Would I read on? Yes. Paragraph 1 was good details, I engaged with Claire a little; paragraph 2 lost me a little; paragraphs 3 and 4 hooked me again; paragraph 5 lost me a little b/c of possible cheesiness but I'd have kept going. Claire hangs a lantern on it, which helps a little, but it's still a terribly cheesy moment.

    Claire's name is snort-worthy - I don't know if that's a good thing or not. If this is intended as a comedy then it's probably okay.

    I wonder if Claire's talent could manifest itself in the first paragraph, a Show Not Tell that lets her interpret beyond the obvious physical things?

    Anyway, pretty strong start; I'd read on. I'm not eager to charge right into infodump, though; if it can be made a part of a conflict that might help to ease the sting.

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  5. I feel that Claire and the Clairvoyant named Lady Ursula are the same person. Isn't Claire a little depressed about her station in life?

    ReplyDelete