Sunday, April 21

Real Life Diagnostics: Why Isn't This Beginning Working?

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: Five

This week’s questions:

I'm looking for some advice because I've gotten so close with this story a few different times. However, the beginning just keeps bogging me down, and I don't know what I'm even looking for anymore. Some editors replied the story was a bit slow for them, so I'm wondering if you could shed some light on the beginning few paragraphs.

Market/Genre: Unspecified


On to the diagnosis…


Original text:

Amelia Beckett, who had the unlined skin and supple body of a girl about seventeen, took the ramp off the Liberty Bridge to the Boulevard of the Allies then into downtown. Nothing extraordinary about that, of course; no one would think twice. But what they didn't know was that that particular brand-new ruby red Nissan Maxima was her 113th vehicle. Now that could be cause for some surprise. Amelia herself, however, found it very reasonable. After all, she'd had a car since the moment they were invented. Add to that her love for taking very long drives at literally all hours (which allowed her to exceed 100,000 miles in half the time it took for the average person) and her penchant for buying a new car like she was buying a new pair of socks, and well, 113 was beginning to sound pretty reasonable.

And Amelia loved when things were reasonable.

A light drizzle was coming down, and her windshield wipers made a soft, consistent thunk as she searched for a parking space. It was the end of morning rush hour, but the streets were still jam-packed and traffic was slow. Amelia finally found a spot on Grant Street, one of the city's main roads that was always busy no matter the hour of the day. She parallel parked smoothly, but for the four seconds it took her to slide in, horns honked, people yelled. It was as if she were an iceberg in the middle of a churning ocean.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Amelia Beckett, [who had the unlined skin and supple body of a girl about seventeen,] This detail feels shoved in, and it was a bit jarring to get hit with it right off the bat. took the ramp off the Liberty Bridge to the Boulevard of the Allies then into downtown. Nothing extraordinary about that, of course; no one would think twice. [But what they didn't know was that that particular brand-new ruby red Nissan Maxima was her 113th vehicle.] feels a little detached Now that could be cause for some surprise. Amelia herself, however, found it very reasonable. After all, she'd had a car since the moment they were invented. Add to that her love for taking very long drives at literally all hours (which allowed her to exceed 100,000 miles in half the time it took for the average person) and her penchant for buying a new car like she was buying a new pair of socks, and well, 113 was beginning to sound pretty reasonable. Most of the focus in this opening paragraph is on stuff, and explaining to the reader why it matters. Also, if she buys a car like she buys socks, would she really describe it in such detail? She has a new red car. Isn't that all she'd care about?

[And Amelia loved when things were reasonable.] cute

A light drizzle was coming down, and her windshield wipers made a soft, consistent thunk as she searched for a parking space. It was the end of morning rush hour, but the streets were still jam-packed and traffic was slow. Amelia finally found a spot on Grant Street, one of the city's main roads that was always busy no matter the hour of the day. She parallel parked smoothly, but for the four seconds it took her to slide in, horns honked, people yelled. It was as if she were an iceberg in the middle of a churning ocean. This entire paragraph describes her finding a parking space, and isn't moving the story or offering the reader a problem to be solved or a question to be answered.

The question:

What's missing from the beginning?

In a word--conflict. There's nothing here to grab a reader's attention and pique their curiosity. It's all description and explanation about someone readers know nothing about, and aside from one line (she liked reasonable) there's no sense of character. All the focus is on her car, what she looks like, and where she parks. The fact that she's over 100 years old is getting lost in there.

(More on narrative focus)

Knowing absolutely nothing about the story but this snippet, I suspect you're starting in the wrong place. This feels like throat clearing, setting up the character and the situation before the story starts. Because of that, there's no goal or problem to hook the reader.

(More on knowing where to start your novel)

What is Amelia trying to do as this scene opens? What's her goal? What's in the way of that goal? (her conflict) What's at stake if she fails? I know that seems like a lot to put in 250 words, but you can do a lot in a little, and those elements are what will hook the reader.

(More analysis of a first page)

When does Amelia first encounter whatever problem sets her on the path of the novel's core conflict? Either the inciting event or the problem that leads to the inciting event. Odds are that's your opening scene. You want to start with a problem and conflict, and then use that to get your protagonist to the main issue of the novel.

(More on inciting events)

There's also a detached feel here, which could either be telling, or a third omniscient narrator. There are phrases that only an outside narrator would use (like " who had the unlined skin and supple body of a girl about seventeen") and it's pulling me out of the story to have details explained to me. I'm not seeing Amelia live her life and getting a sense of who she is, but I'm being told details about her life that don't matter yet since I don't know her.

(More on telling and narrative distance)

I also suspect lots of that information is going to be redundant. Is she's that old, that's probably something mentioned on the cover copy of the novel. She's a supernatural being, she's cursed, she's something that's likely part of your hook. If so, readers will go into this knowing that, so spending the opening paragraph telling them she's lived a long time and owned a lot of cars doesn't give the reader any new information to hook them.

I love the being reasonable line, so perhaps there's something to work with there. Maybe there's a way to show her with a problem, and show her reasonable side in a way that also shows she's lived a long time and gives a sense of her situation. Someone with that lifespan probably looks at the world very differently than a normal human. Show her being so old and all that comes with that as she lives her life and handles a normal problem for her.

(More on goals, conflicts, and stakes)

Overall, I think the reason this isn't grabbing agents is because there's no conflict or sense of a character with a problem. It's likely that your true opening is farther into the book and starting there will fix it, or you need to add a problem for Amelia to deal with now that will get her to the inciting event. Once you add that conflict, I think you'll start getting the response you're looking for.

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.

6 comments:

  1. Janice Hardy's suggestions seem helpful and doable. I found myself wanting to re-write the story too, even though it is someone else's story beginning.

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  2. Thanks to the brave writer for putting their work out for all to see.

    I found parts of this extract "slow" because of unnecessary detail and excessive use of "was"/"were" (about 10 instances). I hope my comments provide some help. :)

    1. The description of Amelia, as Janice said, seems forced. It doesn't really contribute to the story at all. You could have written a less than flattering description and it would have probably sounded more interesting. The current sentence (exceptions aside) reads as "your average teenager". Why should we care about her youthful body?

    2. The "113th vehicle" detail piqued my curiosity, but it came too late. I loved this detail, and I didn't need to be told by the narrator that it was "cause for some surprise". The number itself is certainly enough.

    3. "Add to that her love..."
    This sentence is almost 60 words long. Do we need to know about Amelia exceeding 100,000 miles in "half the time it took for the average person". If this detail can't be cut, at least try to shorten it.

    4. "A light drizzle was coming down,"
    Is drizzle anything but "light"?
    Perhaps more problematic is the entire sentence itself. It reads a little disjointed because the rain is falling, the wipers are thunking and she is searching for a parking space all at the same time.

    5. "It was the end of..."
    I understand that time (morning) needs to be established somewhere, but is this sentence absolutely necessary?

    6. "an iceberg in the middle of a churning ocean"
    This metaphor didn't work for me (though some readers will disagree) in part because of the "It was as if she were an" telling part.

    Is Amelia, as Janice said, "over 100 years old" or really seventeen? Either way, you could probably use some kind of quip like:

    "Just who did they think she was? Someone fresh out of driving school?"

    Not the best example, but something like that might tie in with the voice you established earlier: "And Amelia loved when things were reasonable."

    Good luck with the edit!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I wanted to agree with something Virtue said here... I think a lot of the sentences are very long. If you're getting feedback that the story reads "slow" one of the easiest ways I've found to increase the pace is to mix up your sentence length more.

    Shorter sentences force you to make some of the edits Virtue mentions and help the reader move more quickly through the words.

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  4. Janice's comments hit the nail on the head and the additional comments mentioned echo some great points. Thanks to the brave submitter because as I read it, I contemplated ways I could improve upon similar issues in my current WiP. :-)

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  5. One could also go another direction and make the narrator *more* intrusive - an engaging narrative voice can carry a story for me for quite a few pages. If OP believes strongly in the events and reveals of this opening, it might be worth a pass to engage the narrator more, and more engagingly (forgive me).

    This may be a can of worms, though, as that narrator may need to stick around throughout the story, if the narrative voice is a primary reason why the reader is sticking around.

    That said, that seventeen-line read as forced to me as well.

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  6. I agree with all of Janice Hardy’s critiques. The snippet above is packed with details describing the protagonist from every direction.
    In contrast, I have a newly discovered obstacle relating to the beginning of a story from the perspective of a writer and reader.

    When I write, I take a slower approach in character discovery by dropping puzzle pieces and allowing the reader to put them together. However, I recently read a fictional novel written in first person POV that lacked any clues until the 12th page that I had been placed in the head of a man and not a woman. In my own writing, I want to be sure to avoid that mistake.
    If a story is written in the first person POV and begins in the midst of a conflict, but without dialog identifying the protagonist’s name, how do you identify gender in the beginning without making it sound forced or cliché?
    Thanks,
    April

    ReplyDelete