Sunday, July 14

Real Life Diagnostics: An Opening That's All in Your Head

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)  
Note: Right now I'm booked up to September 7 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:

Does this opening work? Does it have a distinctive voice? Is it well paced? Am I showing or telling?

Market/Genre: YA / Coming-of-Age

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: Protag is a just-turned eighteen-year-old recovering from a suicide attempt four months previous.

My life consists of three constants: my mom, sleep, and group therapy. The first two, I love to death. The last one, not so much.

The attic is humid and stinks of too many bodies, which is understandable with eighteen guys all ranging from fifteen to twenty-one occupying it. The round window at the front of the room is closed. I don’t know why. I never know why.

It’s always the same, every week. Mom drops me off, I walk in the door of the narrow house beside the clinic, struggle up the two flights of stairs to the attic, and take my seat in the farthest corner, the one closest to the fan, though no one, not even me, is smart enough to turn it on. I always figure it’ll cool down after the heat in my face from effort of walking up all those stairs dies down.

It never does.

Instead I’m stuck in a too-hot room with guys I don’t have much sympathy for and a counselor who has too much enthusiasm of a body so small. And we talk about our feelings. I don’t like talking about my feelings, so Counselor Pavel suggests I just talk about my day. The problem is, nothing happens during my day, or nothing worth noting over and over and over again. I sleep excessively, mostly during the sunlight hours. I eat excessively, mostly junk food. When I get a phone call, I don’t answer it. When Mom calls me down for dinner, I don’t come. I’m too wrapped up in my thoughts to care about much of anything, I’m surprised I haven’t crumbled to pieces.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[My life consists of three constants: my mom, sleep, and group therapy.] Intriguing line The first two, I love to death. The last one, not so much.

[The attic] Small thing, but this made me stumble because I expected him to be in therapy, and this made me think he was in his own house. Perhaps an extra word to make it clear the attic is where the therapy takes place? is humid and stinks of too many bodies, which is understandable with eighteen guys all [ranging from fifteen to twenty-one occupying it] feels too clinical. Perhaps rephrase for voice? The round window at the front of the room is closed. [I don’t know why. I never know why.] I like this because it feels like he's saying he doesn't understand things on a regular basis. The "never know why" refers to more than just this one window

It’s always the same, every week. Mom drops me off, I walk in the door of the narrow house beside the clinic, struggle up the two flights of stairs to the attic, and take my seat in the farthest corner, the one closest to the fan, though no one, [not even me, is smart enough to turn it on.] He seems too self aware here. He's saying he's not smart enough to turn on the fan and knows that. but that feels wrong. I always figure it’ll cool down after the heat in my face from effort of walking up all those stairs dies down. Perhaps show him doing all this instead of explaining it?

It never does.

Instead I’m stuck in a too-hot room with guys I don’t have much sympathy for and a counselor who has too much enthusiasm of a body so small. And we talk about our feelings. I don’t like talking about my feelings, so Counselor Pavel suggests I just talk about my day. The problem is, nothing happens during my day, or nothing worth noting over and over and over again. I sleep excessively, mostly during the sunlight hours. I eat excessively, mostly junk food. When I get a phone call, I don’t answer it. When Mom calls me down for dinner, I don’t come. I’m too wrapped up in my thoughts to care about much of anything, [I’m surprised I haven’t crumbled to pieces.] Feels too self aware. These are all great things, so perhaps show them so readers can get a sense of who this person is and what his life is like.

The questions:

Does this opening work?

It has some nice moments, but it's not drawing me in yet because it starts explaining instead of showing me the narrator's world. I'm too much in his head and the story stalls. I'm not sure where or when I am once he starts going through the rundown of his life. Am I in the attic or is he just telling me about his life?

I'd suggest giving him a goal, even if it's small, to help drive the scene and allow you to dramatize it instead of explaining it. Maybe he wants to avoid talking, or turn on the fan, or get through it without thinking about X--whatever fits your story.

You already have a good hook with the reason why he's in group therapy (though this will probably be known information from the cover copy) , so that gives a little drive. But the point of the scene from a story standpoint? What is he trying to do in this scene that readers can want to see the outcome to? Why should readers care about a guy who states outright that nothing ever happens? What's their incentive to read to his story? Look at it this way: He's basically saying, "My life is painfully boring and I don't give a crap. Want me to spend the next 400 pages telling you about it?" Why should readers say yes? Find that reason and show them in this opening to keep them reading.

(More on character goals and motivations here)

Does it have a distinctive voice?
I like it. There's a nice cadence in the phrasing. "The first two, I love to death. The last one, not so much. I don’t know why. I never know why. It’s always the same, every week. though no one, not even me." I really like how that rhythm and sentence structure suggests second guessing or hesitance of thought. That goes nicely with someone in his mental state. There's also a sadness to it, maybe even a tad wistful and hopeless.

It does start to feel a little heavy when it gets to the end paragraphs though, because it's too much the same rhythm over and over. But dialog and action would break that up and allow the voice to shine through. You also might consider showing some redeeming aspect of him so readers will like him. Does he has a dry wit? An interesting way of looking at his life? Is he nice to old people or kids? Right now he's coming across as "I'm a depressed and unhappy person who has no sympathy for anyone and doesn't care about anything or anyone." Use his voice to make readers care and want to spend time with him.

One way you might do this is to let the words and phrases he uses fit who he is as a person. For example, the way he describes the boys in the room feels like an author conveying a piece of technical information:
eighteen guys all ranging from fifteen to twenty-one occupying it
Is this how this person would think of this? Would he use these words or something that fits his personality? Perhaps try to get in more than just flat details. Show some of his judgment of who the other people in the room are.
eighteen guys, from the fifteen-year-old kid who gulped down his mommy's Xanax to the twenty-one-year-old jerk who keeps buying him beer.
How he sees his fellow patients will show readers who he is without him having to explain it. They'll see he has no sympathy for them because he won' show any.

(More on voice here)

Is it well paced?
It feels slow right now because nothing is happening. The beginning makes me think I'm going to see a therapy session, but then it spends the rest of the time explaining his life. There's no goal driving the scene and no reason to keep reading.

Adding a goal and dramatizing the summary paragraphs at the bottom would fix this.

(More on fixing pacing problems here)

Am I showing or telling?
Most of this is telling. Everything takes place in his head and there's no actual action in this snippet. The opening internalization is nice and feels like I'm hearing his thoughts and I'm there in the attic, then it becomes all explanation.

I'd suggest showing the things the last several paragraphs tell. There's a nice setup at the beginning about them all being in the attic for the therapy session, so perhaps build on that and show him walking up the stairs and facing the same people he does every week. Let readers see him go through his routine as it happens.

One thing that's tough with first person is that it can suffer the same problems as third omniscient. If the narrative distance pulls away, it can feel really told because someone is "outside" explaining it instead of inside living it. When a character is so depressed he does nothing but sleep and eat junk food, he probably isn't well enough to be so introspective and see what he does that isn't healthy. He can't look at himself that objectively. So being that self aware feels like someone outside looking in, or someone telling a story after he's lived through it. It becomes more retrospective.

(More on narrative distance and showing vs telling here)

Overall, I think his goal will make or break the scene. The voice is nice, the setup is good, and if there's a hook/goal/mystery to make readers want to sit through the therapy session and find out what happens with X, then they'll be drawn in. Find that X and show it, and this will be a good opening. If it's just a description of him in therapy with no drive, readers probably won't be drawn in.

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. I actually liked the parts that were a little more self aware. It felt appropriate considering his current mental state and situation, and gave me an aspect of his personality that I found intriguing. I couldn't tell if he was being snarky, self-deprecating, or dangerously critical of himself, and that made me want to read more to see which one it was. Just a thought! :)

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  2. I did wonder, if he loves his mom so much, why does he ignore her when she calls him down for dinner...?

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  3. I'm interested that you used the phrases "love to death" and "effort of walking up all those stairs dies down." I'm wondering if this was intentional considering the protagonist is a suicide survivor? I also liked that he knew he was not smart enough to turn on the fan. If you wrote these things intentionally, there's an eerie sardonic self-awareness to them which chills me (in a good way) - it seems to suggest self-mockery, maybe even self-hatred.

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  4. Somehow, this style of group therapy doesn't ring true to me. Is it just the protagonist's perception that all they do is "talk about their feelings" - is there really more going on here that he just doesn't see because of his illness? I'm sure you are working up to why the protag tried to commit suicide (depression, bipolar, a traumatic event), and obviously that reason will have a huge effect on his perceptions. But I would expect a suicide survivor to be in a much more structured and serious program. This reads to me like the protag just "feels bad".

    @1000th monkey: you can't view the actions of a mentally ill person through the lens of a mentally healthy person. Loving his mom has nothing to do with being capable of getting up and going to dinner, or trying to please her in any other way.

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  5. This is wonderful! I love the bit about hoping. That's the thing that really got me to make my final decision to sign with my agent she had this amazing optimism just leaking out of her pores when she called to offer representation.
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