Sunday, September 15

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Opening Draw You in?

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 it 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 (+ one re-submit)

This week’s questions:

1. Does this work as an opening?

2. Am I telling more than showing?

3. The POV character is supposed to be "two days shy of twenty-four". Does she come across, from the jump, as older or younger than that?

4. Does this scene pull the reader in?

Market/Genre: Unspecified


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Teddy stood over her brother's clean bones. She plucked one from the ground like it was a clover or a feather from a hen. Just by disturbing his remains she was breaking the law, but she knew that if tonight did not go well she would have to break it in bigger ways than this. The bone was small, half-moon shaped. It was all Teddy had left to hold onto if only because there was nothing left to tear her apart.

As she bent to examine the rest of the skeleton she heard a crunching noise, from the edge of the woods, like leaves underfoot. She clamped a hand over her nose and her mouth, anxious not to make a sound. Her gaze trailed down to her red woolen coat. Forget mouth-breathing, genius, she thought, you’ve already made yourself obvious enough.

But who was following her? The winter snow had turned to water and, with more and more people out for walks these days, any sort of snitch might have spotted her by the creek that marked the edge of town. She took off at a sprint, past the Dye House and the bakery, not stopping until she reached The Hotel Bethlehem, where Town Council would be starting any minute.

Her heart beat hard against her ribs. She touched her cheeks; they were windchapped and warm from running. Get a grip, Teddy, she told herself.

It was probably a deer or a raccoon she’d heard in the woods, not some nosy neighbor who’d found her decision to take a walk at sunset suspicious.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Teddy stood over her brother's clean bones.] This gets my attention She plucked one from the ground like it was a clover or a feather from a hen. I wanted some internalization here, like she plucked the bone for a reason and would now think about it Just by disturbing his remains she was breaking the law, but she knew that if [tonight did not go well] Intrigued. What does she have planned tonight with his bones? she would have to break it in bigger ways than this. The bone was small, half-moon shaped. [It was all Teddy had left to hold onto if only because there was nothing left to tear her apart.] Intrigues me.

[As she bent to examine the rest of the skeleton she heard a crunching noise, from the edge of the woods, like leaves underfoot.] A little distant, and depending on the POV this could be a bit telling. The "as she bent" and "she heard" pulls away She clamped a hand over her nose and her mouth, [anxious not to make a sound] same here. Her gaze trailed down to her red woolen coat. What draws her gaze to her coat? Forget mouth-breathing, genius, [she thought] this also pulls away from the POV some, you’ve already made yourself obvious enough.

But who was following her? Good spot for some internalization as to why she thinks someone would or hint more at the stakes The winter snow had turned to water and, with more and more people out for walks these days, any sort of snitch might have spotted her by the creek that marked the edge of town. She took off at a sprint, past the Dye House and the bakery, not stopping until she reached The Hotel Bethlehem, where Town Council would be starting any minute.

Her heart beat hard against her ribs. She touched her cheeks; why? they were windchapped and warm from running. Get a grip, Teddy,[ she told herself.] A tad tellish

It was probably a deer or a raccoon she’d heard in the woods, not some nosy neighbor who’d found her decision to take a walk at sunset suspicious.

The questions:

1. Does this work as an opening?


I'm intrigued. The opening line hooked me and I'm curious why Teddy is out messing with her brother's bones. There's something going on here for sure. I did want a little more from Teddy herself to help me know who she is and what she's up to. She says she's distributing the remains, but I don't know exactly what that means so it's hard to visualize what's she doing. She also mentions something having to go well, but it's not clear if that's distributing the remains or something else. Perhaps clarify her goal a tad more so readers can see what her plan is.

(More on openings here)

2. Am I telling more than showing?

This one's a tough call, because there is some wording that could be considered told, but this also feels like a more distant third person POV. In line one it's "her brother's" remains, not a name, which immediately set the narrative distance slightly outside Teddy's head, as does the "she thought," and "she told herself," so I expect the narrator to be more distant, and thus a little more telling. Depending on your narrative distance and what you want will determine the telling level. For example:
As she bent to examine the rest of the skeleton she heard a crunching noise, from the edge of the woods, like leaves underfoot. She clamped a hand over her nose and her mouth, anxious not to make a sound.
The bolded sections are telling motive and explaining she heard a noise, which could be rewritten without those explanations. But it's also acceptable in a more distant POV. Author's call on this one, depending on what she wants.

(More on narrative distance vs telling here)

3. The POV character is supposed to be "two days shy of twenty-four". Does she come across, from the jump, as older or younger than that?

I tend to see characters as younger than they are just by being a YA author, so she did feel younger to me (readers chime in here). Some of the phrasing suggested a younger person (snitch, get a grip, genius), but that can mean twenties as well. Her attitude felt younger (out breaking the law and worrying about nosy neighbors), but not necessarily teen. Bottomline, if I bought this in the adult fiction section of the bookstore I'd have no trouble thinking she was an adult. If I bought it in the YA section, I'd buy she was a teen. It could go either way at this point so context is key.

If it concerns you, perhaps add something that suggests early twenties. Reference a career, something decidedly adult, etc. One detail is all it would take to narrow down an age range.

4. Does this scene pull the reader in?

The opening line did pull me in and I was curious about what was going on. I felt that it ended a little too soon and I wanted more to understand what was happening and ground me before it changed locations, though. Not a lot, but a few more lines to get a better sense of who Teddy is and what she's doing out there. What's she thinking about besides not getting caught? She suggests she's lost everything, but I'm not getting a sense of grief from her. Something larger is lingering in the air, but I'm not really feeling it yet. A few tweaks on the emotional level would fix that though.

(More on setting tone and mood here)

Overall, a good scene and I'd read on, especially if I was hooked by the cover copy.

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.

6 comments:

  1. The first sentence has me intrigued and the scene has me wondering what will happen next in the story, but there is some distancing. The metaphors and similes throw me off. They don't quite fit. The character could pluck the bone from the soil and I, the reader, know exactly what this means without referring to the feather, clover, and hen. Remove the leaves underfoot too. The leaves crunch. Keep it simple. Precise. Readers aren't stupid. We'll automatically know something is in the woods and assume someone is watching or following the MC even if there isn't. Let the reader's mind wander, imagine, and be curious.

    I agree, the character seems young. Yet, I can see her being in her early twenties (twenty, twenty-one, perhaps) if details are added later to solidify it.

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  2. Thank you, Janice! I really appreciate it.

    Your advice about clarifying my main character's goals, especially, is so timely. I just read an interview with an agent where he said authors not making at least one character goal clear in the first page is one of the biggest problems he sees. And I thought, "He's talking to you on this one, chica! You and your manuscript."

    I'll definitely work to ground my MC better emotionally and make it clear what she's up to.

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  3. I'm hooked too! I agree about the metaphors/similes more because I see this as a suspense sequence and that pulls me away.

    For me though the big problem was the sound of "like" leaves crunching after snow has melted. Leaves are soggy in water and probably gone if snow has come and gone - ya know? Maybe a twig?

    The age didn't sound young to me - or old. For this text she could be a teen or 26.

    But I do indeed want to read on.

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  4. I was surprised when Teddy waited, then ran from the noise. To me, it implied one of two things: a) that there was nowhere to hide - are her brother's bones really out in the open?, or b) Teddy felt confident she could outrun anyone who came after her. If that were true, I'd like to either know she was extremely quick, or had a sneaky route to follow that would throw off pursuit. Instead, it sounds like she ran straight into town. That would be noticeable, not just to the pursuer, but to anyone else looking out a window or walking down the street.

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  5. I was definitely pulled in by that first line. Very powerful.
    As for the age of the MC, I thought she was young as well but I have a tendency toward YA as well so please take that with a grain of salt.

    Great sample.

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  6. This is a compelling opening but I need to feel the emotional avalanche that Teddy is experiencing.Picking over your own brother's bones...that's chilling and original but I don't yet get the enormity of what's happening. Teddy came across as being in her early 20s - she's young but mature enough to take on the kind of challenge that most would shrink away from...I also like the last line - what kind of place is this that a walk at sunset could draw suspicious glances. Would I read on? Even as it is - you bet. But with a bit of revision you could make this unputdownable.

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