Saturday, May 4

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Opening 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: Seven

This week’s questions:

1. Does it show versus tell?
2. Enough imagery/description
3. Would you keep reading? (Does it work?)

Market/Genre: Mainstream


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: The story is about Lauren Dampner, an attorney who must battle her post traumatic stress disorder to defend her niece charged with murder in the shooting death of her rapist.

Something was wrong.

Like the spider that senses the most tentative movement at the edge of its web, Lauren could detect changes in air movement. This wasn’t the repetitive circular flow of the ceiling fan or the straight flow of the air conditioning vent. This was irregular intermittent movement at the corner of her bedroom by the door. Air moved by an intruder.

In a single swift movement Lauren rolled across the bed, grasped the handle of the Glock 26 on the opposite pillow and landed in a crouch on the opposite side of her bed. In a two handed grip she swung the pistol towards the corner. Pushed by a puff of sea breeze, the white cotton drape danced lazily along the edge of the window sill. Then she remembered.

It had been an experiment. See if the peace of ocean wave rhythm could override the anxiety of having an open window. Now she knew. Yes and no.

Wooker’s head rose on the opposite side of the bed. Her tail double thumped a greeting. A signal that everything was okay. Don’t worry, mom. Just you and me. I got it covered.

Lauren straightened up and lowered the gun. She wasn’t scared. Nor did she feel foolish. This was part of the process. She knew she wasn’t normal—probably never would be—but she was moving towards functional. Assuming that functional included having your day start with a Glock 26 in your hand. In her world that was perfectly normal.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Something was wrong.

Like the spider that senses the most tentative movement at the edge of its web, Lauren [could detect] telling a bit. Try detected changes in air movement. This wasn’t the repetitive circular flow of the ceiling fan or the straight flow of the air conditioning vent. This was irregular intermittent movement at the corner of her bedroom by the door. Air moved by an intruder.

[In a] single swift movement Lauren rolled across the [bed,] grasped the [handle] of the Glock 26 on the [opposite] pillow and landed in a crouch on the [opposite] side of her [bed.] [In a] two [handed] grip she swung the pistol towards the corner. Pushed by a puff of sea breeze, the white cotton drape danced lazily along the edge of the window sill. Then she remembered. Some repetition in this paragraph. Two sentences in a row start with In a, and several duplicate words. Might consider tweaking to eliminate

It had been an experiment. See if the peace of ocean wave rhythm could override the anxiety of having an open window. Now she knew. Yes and no.

Wooker’s head rose on the [opposite side of the bed.] repeated phrase Her tail double thumped a greeting. A signal that everything was okay. Don’t worry, mom. Just you and me. I got it covered.

Lauren straightened [up] don't need and lowered the gun. She wasn’t scared. Nor did she feel foolish. This was part of the process. She knew she wasn’t normal—probably never would be—but she was moving towards functional. Assuming that functional included having your day start with a Glock 26 in your hand. In her world that was perfectly normal.

The questions:

1. Does it show versus tell?

Depends on what POV you're doing. This feels solidly like third person omniscient, and that typically has a detached, tell-ish feel even when it's not. So if the intent is omniscient, then this shows. If the intent is a tighter limited third, then it tells more, as there's a strong outside narrator relaying information Lauren couldn't know. But because of that narrator, I suspect this is supposed to be omniscient.

Just in case (and for those who struggle with the difference), these are the lines that felt told if this was third limited:
  • Like the spider that senses the most tentative movement at the edge of its web
  • In a single swift movement
  • Pushed by a puff of sea breeze
  • white cotton
These phrases feel like someone other than Lauren describing what's happening, or are outside of her point of view. Or are things she'd be unlikely to notice or comment on in this situation.

(More on telling and omniscient view here)

2. Enough imagery/description
Yes. I didn't feel ungrounded or lost, even though there's not a lot of detail here. It's a bedroom, at night, it's on the beach. The action works to draw me in so I didn't need much. Now that the "danger" has passed, I can see this revealing a little more to flesh out the setting and ground the reader in this world and story.

I also liked how the details provided really fit the character. A woman in a panic, trained with a weapon, noticed the things that mattered to her. The weapon, the air movement, who and what was in the room.

(More on description here)

3. Would you keep reading? (Does it work?)
I would. It feels like a suspense to me, I like how Lauren's voice comes through at the end. She seems practical, yet broken, and she knows it. That she's actively trying to fix herself says a lot about her. Plus she has a dog, which makes her likable right away. And the dog calls her mom, which totally comes across as a real pet owner, so I like her even more.

One warning about the cliché of waking up with something wrong, though. It didn't bother me, but this is a situation I know agents and editors see a ton of and advise not to start a novel this way. However, it seems fitting for this character and works to show her PTSD and how she's managing it, so it might be the exception to the guideline. You'd have to make a judgment call there.

(More on deadly sins for a first chapter here)

Overall this works. A little tweaking for polish, but it feels strong so far.

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.

4 comments:

  1. "One warning about the cliche of waking up with something wrong." I thought she subverted the cliche, actually, since nothing actually is wrong. Lauren was just testing her limits and learning that an open window will still bother.

    FWIW, when she rolls across her bed to crouch, the phrase that came to my mind was "the far side of her bed".

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  2. The last sentence in the first full paragraph, "Air moved by an intruder." I don't feel like it's necessary because my mind had already gone there, thinking/assuming someone was in the room.
    I definitely felt her stress and anxiety.

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  3. There is a lot of air movement in paragraph one - the ceiling fan, the a/c and the open window. Are all of those things on at once? I find it hard to believe that the protag could tease out that extra tickle of flow from the window with all of that going on, even in her state. You might either indicate that the fan and the a/c are off (and who uses the a/c with an open window, anyway?), or shift the fear trigger a little. Maybe have the breeze cause the gentle tap of a half-closed venetian blind against the window frame.

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  4. Eep! Good for spotting the palindrome = in a, bed, opposite, bed, in a, etc. That's bad to write without realising it.
    I think 'straightened' needs 'up'. Without it I read she straightened the gun.
    I intended to comment about her superpower when she detected someone/pet in the room over two or three separate air-flows. I researched by interviewing a thief once, and it's completely possible with only one air-flow to detect the owner standing around.

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