Saturday, June 22

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Opening Grab You?

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: Nine (+two re-submits)

This week’s questions:

1. Am I showing or telling?

2. Does the scene pull the reader in?

3. Does the opening work?

4. What do you think about the characters?

5. Is the writing over dramatic?

Market/Genre: Unspecified


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

My heartbeat echoed across the moonlit living room breaking the silence of a sleeping house. Towers of unopened boxes cast menacing shadows to every corner. I tiptoed across the hardwood floor counting the steps in my head. Fifty feet from the stairs, eighteen steps to the second floor, and two doors away from safety. My hand latched onto the cool metal railing of the stairs as I began to climb. Six more steps. Almost there.

The overhead lights flashed on. I squeezed my eyes shut. I let the red dots behind my eyelids fade before I opened them again. My mom stood at the bottom of the staircase dressed in a pink old lady nightgown. Her hazel eyes already starting the interrogation I knew was coming.

“Where have you been?” Her grip tightened around the coffee cup she cradled between her hands.

I heaved the black duffle bag higher on my shoulder. “Nowhere.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Jacob Christopher Arthur, I’m only going to ask you one more time. Where have you been?”

I sighed. “Home.”

“You haven’t been here since yesterday morning.” The twitching muscles in her jaw told me she wanted to say more, but instead she turned and headed for the kitchen.

“The other home,” I mumbled.

The coffee cup fell from her hands. It bounced once before shattering into a thousand little pieces.

“Las Vegas?” She asked still not facing me.

“Yes.” I unzipped the outer pocket of the duffel bag.

My mom whirled around. “Why in heaven’s name would you go back there?”

“For you.”

Before she could say another word, I pulled out a long silver necklace with two gold wedding bands dangling from it. I placed the glimmering chain around her neck and stepped back. Her trembling fingers moved from the birthday present I’d bought her two years ago to her parents’ wedding bands.

My Thoughts in Purple:

My heartbeat echoed across the moonlit living room [breaking the silence of a sleeping house.] This feels a little over dramatic to me. It's not really breaking the silence, but it's stated as if this is a fact, not what the POV is scared of Towers of unopened boxes cast menacing shadows to every corner. I tiptoed across the hardwood floor counting the steps in my head. Fifty feet from the stairs, eighteen steps to the second floor, and two doors away from safety. My hand latched onto the cool metal railing of the stairs as I began to climb. Six more steps. Almost there.

The overhead lights flashed on. [I squeezed my eyes shut. I let the red dots behind my eyelids fade before I opened them again.] Feels like too many words for something that doesn't matter to the story. How does he feel right now? My mom stood at the [bottom of the staircase] If the narrator was climbing the stairs, how is Mom at the bottom? Is she in front of or behind him? dressed in a pink old lady nightgown. Her hazel eyes already starting the interrogation I knew was coming.

“Where have you been?” Her [grip tightened around the coffee cup she cradled] tightened and cradled contradict each other. Is she mad or scared? between her hands.

[I heaved the black duffle bag higher on my shoulder.] Tags on every line of dialog slows the pace. Also, this seems like he isn't affected by getting caught. What does heaving the bag signify? “Nowhere.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Jacob Christopher Arthur, I’m only going to ask you one more time. Where have you been?”

I sighed. “Home.”

“You haven’t been here since yesterday morning.” [The twitching muscles in her jaw told me she wanted to say more] telling a bit. , but instead she turned and headed for the kitchen.

[“The other home,” I mumbled.] How does he feel about this?

[The coffee cup fell from her hands. It bounced once before shattering into a thousand little pieces.] This seems a little melodramatic.

“Las Vegas?” She asked still not facing me.

“Yes.”[ I unzipped the outer pocket of the duffel bag.] He seems very cold here. What's going through his head?

My mom whirled around. “Why in heaven’s name would you go back there?”

“For you.”

[Before she could say another word,] telling a bit. She doesn't speak again, so this is clear I pulled out a long silver necklace with two gold wedding bands dangling from it. I placed the [glimmering] Don't think you need chain around her neck and stepped back. Her trembling fingers moved from [the birthday present I’d bought her two years ago to her parents’ wedding bands. ] I don't understand what this means.

The questions:

1. Am I showing or telling?

Mostly showing, though there were a few explanations in there. Any time you feel the need to explain an action, like:
The twitching muscles in her jaw told me she wanted to say more
That's a red flag you might be telling. Her muscles twitched. Let the reader figure out or assume why. Or perhaps let the narrator do something that suggests he expects her to speak, like brace himself, or think, "he it comes" or the like.

(More on telling red flags here)

2. Does the scene pull the reader in?
Almost. There's conflict between Jacob and Mom, and I'm curious about the "home" situation, why he went to Vegas, and how this is bad, but I'm not connecting to the narrator yet. I don't understand why he's doing any of this so it doesn't mean anything to me yet. (Though had I read cover copy this might be clear)

I'd suggest a line or two of internalization to flesh out his character a bit more, and show what his motives are here. Keep things a secret of you want to, but a little more context would help draw me in better. I don't know his goal so it's hard to know how all these details fit together.

(More on showing character motivations here)

3. Does the opening work?
I'd read another page or two to find out what's up with the rings and why he went to Vegas, but it's not as strong as it could be. The mystery part I like, but that's my only reason to read on so far. I'm not sure how much that would hold my interest if the narrator doesn't click for me soon.

I'd suggest doing a little more character work on him so readers can get a better sense of who he is and want to follow his story. I like that he broke a rule to do something nice for his mother, but without knowing more about what that means it's hard to get a bead on who he is. A few lines here and there is probably all you'd need.

(More on internalization here)

4. What do you think about the characters?

They're coming across a little flat right now, because I'm not in their heads. I see there's an issue here, but it's not coming across clear enough yet for me to sympathize with them. Is Mom someone I should care about or is she just a mean old Mom? Jacob says she's wearing an old lady nightgown, which has a bit of disdain to it so I think maybe I'm not supposed to like Mom. But then he seems to be doing something nice for her, so maybe I'm supposed to feel sorry for her.

Jacob seems to be doing something nice, and he's the protagonist, so I assume I'm supposed to like him. But is he sneaking out for days to rebel or because he's trying to do the right thing? Mom is clearly shaken and upset by what he's done, but it doesn't seem to affect him a bit, which makes him seem cold. I don't know how to position either of them in my mind.

I'd suggest clarifying how Jacob feels about her. Is he trying to be nice to her, spare her feelings, go around her back? That would allow you to better show him as a character and his emotions, which would in turn clarify who she is (at least to him). If readers get a stronger look at how he feels about his life and world, then they'd know how Mom and what's going on fits into that.

(More on describing emotions in first person here)

5. Is the writing over dramatic?
Style is very subjective, so readers chime in here. It was a tad overdone for me in spots, because the descriptions didn't fit the emotional state of the POV character. A lot of attention is spent on things seemingly designed to raise the tension, (like how scary the dark room is) but there's no matching emotional response from Jacob. The descriptions say "nerve-wracking and tense" but the character doesn't. He's more resigned that he got caught than worried. Because of that, the descriptions felt melodramatic.

I'd suggest a few tweaks so the descriptions and character moods reflect each other. It doesn't matter to the reader that the floor is hardwood, but it would matter to Jacob if there's a squeak in one of the boards, or if his shoes clicked on it. If his heart is beating so loud that he thinks the whole house hears it, then he'd likely act a lot more scared. I get the sense he'd think the towers of boxes are sad rather than menacing, because I suspect he didn't want to move (otherwise why is he going back when that's obviously a bad thing?)

I sense that the author want readers to feel nervous and scared and wonder what's going on, but the character doesn't share those emotions so there's a disconnect. What Jacob is feeling there is more important (and more compelling) than fake suspense. If he is scared and worried about getting caught, then let readers see that more in how he thinks and reacts to Mom catching him.

(More on making your descriptions work for you here)

Overall, there's potential here and I think if I had a better sense of what Jacob was trying to do I'd be drawn in. It doesn't seem like a typical "kid sneaked out of the house and is getting caught on the way back in" scene, and that twist is what makes this interesting.

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.

2 comments:

  1. I like it because the surprise at the end. As a reader I was expecting that Jacob did something bad and was touched by him bringing his mother a gift. The writing is over dramatic and you can make it simpler. For example starting like this ... "I could almost hear my heartbeat as I tiptoed across the hardwood floor counting the steps in my head." I like to know on the first page how is Jacob to know if this is YA fiction or not. You can put the age in a question by his mother like .."Las Vegas?" She asked still not facing me. "Why would a xx year old go to Las Vegas?" Best wishes with the novel.

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  2. I do like this and would keep reading, but at the same time do make a few changes. I did feel like the MC was fearful of the room and presents-not sneaking in. I like the end. Good luck!

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