Saturday, June 15

Real Life Diagnostics: Grounding Readers in Your Opening Scene

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: Eight (+two re-submits)

This week’s questions:

Is the character flat or real? Do you want to keep reading? Captivated? Do you get where she is both figuratively and literally? Does it feel tell-y?

Market/Genre: Women’s Fiction


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Context: Women’s Fiction with a strong foodie bent. It is about a young empty nester finding her way through her life’s toughest spot.

French buzzed, rolled R’s and nasal endings tumbled lazy and loose into blazing blue, the sky stretched tight like a clean sheet. An unfamiliar soundtrack tuned to the pitch of her growing panic. She squinted into this French day, dressed in Texas clothes, forcing herself to be still. Rein it in. Her head swiveled, scanning the crowd for Lucinda, pretending insouciance while her mind spun tales of abandonment and worst case scenarios, moving her closer and closer to utter freak out. Bodies rushed by, all going places--to a waiting family, lover, conference room.

The only proof she’d seen the Mediterranean sparkling at her as the plane overshot land and curved back was the salty breeze kicking up the eyelet hem of her skirt. It lifted and swirled, kissing her knees. She caught it, pinned it down with one hand, afraid it would blow up to reveal her underwear (boy shorts, pale pink with gray lace) and dimpled thighs. A moody looking guy watched. She shrugged, feigning oblivion as he exhaled a long curl of smoke into the salty air. Sweat flowered in the crook of her elbow where she had a death grip on her carry-on.

Lucinda would be here, in her email she said she would be here. With a sign. Now she’d done it. Never should have let herself be swept away, fixated, truth be told, obsessed by an ad at the back of a cooking magazine. Better to have stayed safe and bored at home and just gotten over it, gone to stupid London with Matt, sucked it up and redecorated, reupholstered, rewound.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[French buzzed, rolled R’s and nasal endings tumbled lazy and loose into blazing blue, the sky stretched tight like a clean sheet. An unfamiliar soundtrack tuned to the pitch of her growing panic.] I don't think it's clear she's referring to the language, so this is a little confusing as an opening [She] Perhaps use a name so readers can connect to a character? squinted into this French day, dressed in Texas clothes, forcing herself to be still. [Rein it in.] This might be a good spot to continue the internalization a bit and ground the reader to where they are and whose head they're in [Her head swiveled,] Perhaps just "she scanned" so her head isn't acting independently of her body? scanning the crowd for Lucinda, pretending insouciance while her mind spun tales of abandonment and worst case scenarios, moving her closer and closer to utter freak out. Bodies rushed by, all going places--to a waiting family, lover, conference room.

[The only proof she’d seen the Mediterranean sparkling at her as the plane overshot land and curved back] Reads awkwardly was the salty breeze kicking up the eyelet hem of her skirt. It lifted and swirled, kissing her knees. She caught [it] Since you're talking about the wind, it reads as though she caught the wind, not her skirt, pinned it down with one hand, afraid it would blow up to reveal her underwear (boy shorts, pale pink with gray lace) and dimpled thighs. A moody looking guy watched. She shrugged, feigning oblivion as he exhaled a long curl of smoke into the salty air. Sweat flowered in the crook of her elbow where she had a death grip on her carry-on.

Lucinda would be here, in her email she said she would be here. With a sign. Now [she’d] Who does this refer to? Lucinda or the narrator? done it. Never should have let herself be swept away, fixated, truth be told, obsessed by an ad at the back of a cooking magazine. Better to have [stayed safe and bored at home and just gotten over it, gone to stupid London with Matt,] these contradict each other so I'm a little confused sucked it up and redecorated, reupholstered, rewound.

The questions:

Is the character flat or real?

At the moment flat, because I'm not getting enough from her to know who she is. I also don't know her name, she's just "she," which distances me from the story. I start to get a sense of her in the last paragraph, and I like the voice there. She seems like someone taking a big personal risk (emotionally speaking) and is now having second thoughts. It makes her vulnerable, which makes her likable.

I'd suggest more internalization so readers can get a better sense of who she is and what she's doing there. Let her voice shine through more.

(More on internalization here)

Do you want to keep reading? Captivated?
Yes and no. The situation is intriguing and I want to see if Lucinda shows up. The narrator is off on an adventure she's unsure about, which also is a good hook. Her uncertainty about it all is working. What isn't working for me is the confusion in the prose itself. Key details and words are missing so it's hard for me to follow the action. For example:
The only proof she’d seen the Mediterranean [sparkling at her as the plane overshot land and curved back] was the salty breeze kicking up the eyelet hem of her skirt.
The center bracketed section clutters this sentence up, so by the time I get to the relevant part I'm confused as to what the sentence means. I suspect you're trying to pack too many details into a sentence.

It's okay to expand on these things and give each detail its own sentence if it needs it. If you mention she's at the airport in the opening paragraph, you don't have to force the fact that she was on a plane recently in here. Not only will that clear up confusion in the first paragraph, but it leaves this one to focus on the breeze.

(More on setting up your story here)

Do you get where she is both figuratively and literally?
I figured out she's at an airport in France, I'm guessing French Riviera, and she's there to take a cooking class. However, I had to work to get that, which kept me from being drawn into the story.

I'd suggest a few lines early on to make it clear where she is and what's going on. You don't need a lot, but more internal thought and a few tweaks would set the scene and ground the reader in the story.

(More on grounding the reader here)

Does it feel tell-y?
No, but I think it's trying too hard not to tell, which is adding to my confusion. The descriptions make sense if you know where she is and what she's doing, but without that it's not so clear. I get the sense you're trying not to explain things, and that's making the text sound a little awkward. It's okay to tell explain a little to get key facts in. "She walked toward the exit of Charles de Gaulle airport" or the like.

The descriptions also feel a little ungrounded as well. For example: "French buzzed" made me think someone named French was doing something, and it took me a second to figure out it was the language, not a person. And it didn't flow well with the rest of the sentence, so right away I was confused and struggling to understand what was going on. Take a closer peek at this:
[French buzzed,] [rolled R’s and nasal endings tumbled lazy and loose into blazing blue], [the sky stretched tight like a clean sheet.]
There are three fragments here that aren't working well together. It's talking about the language, the specific sounds, and a sky all at the same time. I'm not sure what the point of this sentence is or what's being said. The focus is off so it's confusing instead of setting the scene and telling readers where they are.

I'd suggest tweaking your descriptions so it's clearer what they refer to, and tightening the focus so the descriptions paint the right picture for your reader. You have some interesting things going on here, but they're getting lost and tripping over each other. Try giving them a little more breathing room so they can shine.

(More on narrative focus here)

Overall, I think there are some good elements here that can be developed into a strong opening. The situation feels right, it's just a matter of setting the scene more clearly and grounding the reader in what's going on.

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.

3 comments:

  1. I love books that combine food and a great story! This opening left me confused though. I wasn't sure where the MC was, or what she was doing. As Janice suggested, it needs some grounding. The second paragraph has some really good details, like her underwear and dimpled thighs (she likes to eat what she cooks), and the sweat in her elbow. But by then I was skimming and actually missed it the first time I read the excerpt because the first line is jumbled so I was moving on. Maybe words were left out? But I think there's maybe too much detail in the opening line of the second paragraph.
    There's a lot of good information throughout these paragraphs, I think maybe you just need to take a little longer getting it across. Use a couple more paragraphs so you can ground the reader on what and where the MC is. Oh-and like Janice said, using her name will help create more of a connection.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Janice pretty much touched on all the points of confusion I experienced.
    The MC's name would really help when placed a little closer to the beginning. That can really help begin the grounding process for the reader.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I too found the opening confusing - I had to let go of the first sentence, because I was re-reading it over and again to try to understand it. I had the same problem with the opening of the second paragraph and could only assume some words were missing?

    I don't mind not knowing her name, especially since I assume it would be on the book jacket. I do mind swivelling heads, but that's just me ;-)

    I thought your writing style overall was lovely. The risk with lovely styles is going overboard, but I think you sank only a couple of times. Janice put it really well - give your descriptions some breathing room. The third paragraph was best.

    ReplyDelete