Saturday, July 6

Real Life Diagnostics: Hooking Readers With Subtle Intensity

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: Ten (+one re-submit)

Note: Right now I'm booked up to September 14 on submissions. I'll double up on the weekends when I can to clear out the queue, but this is the most I've ever had waiting. Sorry about that, guys! I'll get to them all soon as I can. 

This week’s questions:

Are you hooked? Am I trying to cover too much ground? Is it too intense?

Market/Genre: YA


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: Set in the Civil Rights era. When the Freedom Rider bus rolls into Amelia Justice Queen’s small Southern town, she must face the shameful secret of her past: one playful kiss destroyed her colored friends’ lives.

Something about the way the squad car rounded the corner spooked me.

Perched under the drooping branches of our live oak, the deep shade promised no relief, offered no protection. All I’d wanted was to escape from the oven that was my house. To sit in peace under my tree and cut the okra for supper without Mother hovering. Hemmed in and sweltering, I peered out.

No lights. No sirens. The Chief’s car paused next door, then crept closer. Just like before.

Closing the snipping scissors, I stuffed them deep into my basket. I didn’t mean to let the fuzzy okra leaves touch me. Mammy Easter had warned me to be careful. The sticky sap oozed down my arm. The itching was worse than a mosquito bite driving me crazy, but I kept my hand firmly on the scissors.

Chief Maubry turned off the ignition. He stooped beside my tree, then pinned me with those same vicious eyes. The slobbery butt-end of a cigar hung from his mouth. His stubby fingers flicked ash my way. The foul smoke crawled under my freckles, then buried itself deep inside of me, worming its way into the tight places, where it should never have dared to go.

My mind traveled backwards to that time I wanted to forget, when I was so little, so vulnerable. Why had he come again? Hadn’t Daddy made him promise to leave me alone?

Chief Maubry inched toward me, wiping the sweat from his brow, shoving his hat lower on his forehead. The brass insignia on his hat brim glistened under the fierce white sun, inflaming all that had been snuffed, dead and gone, years ago. All the lies. All the deceit. . . .

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Something about the way the squad car rounded the corner spooked me.] Great line. I want to know why she's scared.

[Perched under the drooping branches of our live oak,] small thing, but at first I thought this was referring to the police car, so it threw me for a second the deep shade promised no relief, offered no protection. All I’d wanted was to escape from the oven that was my house. To sit in peace under my tree and cut the okra for supper without Mother hovering. [Hemmed in and sweltering, I peered out.] This feels tacked on the end. Perhaps combine this idea with the first line (perched) so it's clear it switched to the narrator and not the car?

[No lights. No sirens.] Nice. She's not being arrested, but there's clearly more here The Chief’s car paused next door, then crept closer. [Just like before.] Very nice. I know something has happened and I'm curious

Closing the snipping scissors, I stuffed them deep into my basket. [I didn’t mean to let the fuzzy okra leaves touch me. Mammy Easter had warned me to be careful. The sticky sap oozed down my arm. The itching was worse than a mosquito bite driving me crazy,] This reads a little awkwardly and feels too self aware. but [I kept my hand firmly on the scissors.] Love this. I feel like she feels the need to have a weapon, so the tension is high. Why need a weapon against the police? I will totally read onto find out

Chief Maubry turned off the ignition. He stooped beside my tree, then pinned me with those same vicious eyes. The slobbery butt-end of a cigar hung from his mouth. His stubby fingers flicked ash my way. The foul smoke crawled under my freckles, then buried itself deep inside of me, worming its way into the tight places, where it should never have dared to go.

[My mind traveled backwards to that time I wanted to forget, when I was so little, so vulnerable.] This feels like it's about to go into a flashback. If so, it's fine. If not, I think you could cut and just have her thoughts. They're strong and make me curious about what happened. Why had he come again? Hadn’t Daddy made him promise to leave me alone?

Chief Maubry inched toward me, wiping the sweat from his brow, shoving his hat lower on his forehead. The brass insignia on his hat brim glistened under the fierce white sun, inflaming all that had been snuffed, dead and gone, years ago. All the lies. All the deceit. . . .

The questions:

Are you hooked?
Yeppers. This has a wonderful mix of little lines that make it clear there's a bad history here, and I want to know what that is. The conflict between a girl and a police chief raises the tension even higher, as police usually represent safety, not fear.

Am I trying to cover too much ground?
I don't think so. The descriptions of the chief felt a tad heavy toward the end, but I prefer sparse descriptions, so it's likely just me (readers chime in here). It's clear something has happened, and that there's bad blood between these two, and I have no idea what might happen next and I want to know.

Is it too intense?
Not for me. The tension was strong and drew me in. It was the little lines that really did it. The hints of hidden depths and mysteries of the past. There's nothing inherently foreboding about a police chief walking over to a girl cutting okra, yet her memories and judgment of the situation take it to a whole different level, and that contrast created a lot of great tension. Everything is off kilter to what I'd expect, so that makes it unpredictable ad compelling.

Easy peasy RLD today. This works, and it's a great example of how a small line can affect a scene and have a profound impact on the emotions.

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. The one paragraph I wasn't crazy about was the one setting her under the oak, and that was just the wording. Bravo, submitter, this is excellent!

    About the sap: I think if you take out 'driving me crazy', that'll fix the awkwardness. 'The itching was worse than a mosquito bite, but I kept my hand firmly on the scissors."

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is terrific, author! I am quite curious to find out what happened between her and the Chief, even without the little bit of background about the book.

    I agree that the paragraph about the okra reads a bit awkwardly and is an abrupt change of subject that throws me out of the tension of the scene and leaves me going, "Huh?"

    When did the okra leaves touch her? As she shoved the scissors in her basket? This wasn't clear to me. I'd tighten up that paragraph a bit as others have suggested.

    Your "voice" is nice and straightforward, with just enough interesting description and just enough hints and foreshadowing. Bravo.

    Love all of Janice's suggestions. Would be interested in reading this book, even though it's YA and I'm 56, lol!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi,

    I love your first line and the tension throughout the page is high.

    Great job.

    ReplyDelete
  4. THis is an awesome opening! I would definitely read on!

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is a great opening. High tension, doesn't cover too much ground and I am hooked ready to read more. Thanks.
    I did agree about the cigar smoke a little over the top, but otherwise fabulous intro.

    ReplyDelete