Saturday, September 14

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Opening Working?

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: Eight (+ one re-submit)

This week’s question:

Is this opening working?

Market/Genre: Unspecified


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I didn’t master the jambalaya until three years after my earliest attempt. Several people assume my success resulted from three mindless years of laborious practice, but to date I’ve only made it twice. This throws off those who are curious to know what had caused the change, and just a few days ago I was assured it wasn’t mindless repetition.

It was intention.

***

I held my breath as I squinted through the thick mass of fume to find my way to the kitchen window. The struggle to unlock it went on longer than expected.

Moments later, I was brought back by the pounding smoke alarm.

I pushed the burning pot away from the heat of the oven before evacuating the batteries from the detector, and then examined my scalded attempt at breakfast. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Though, if that were true, I wouldn’t have had to close my eyes as I tucked a pinch of it into my mouth.

I walked back to the window to spend a good ten minutes fanning the smoke out of the kitchen while thinking about how I was going to get rid of the catastrophe that was meant to be dinner. I searched for the compost bin all over the kitchen, even though anyone would mistake the pot for the trash itself. But dad wasn’t anyone.

Still, I’d only stepped onto the sinkhole. I could jump off, that too with the motive of an Olympian; I didn’t want to disappoint dad agai-

“Asalamu-alaykum!”

And he was home.

My Thoughts in Purple:

I didn’t master the jambalaya until three years after [my earliest attempt.] This struck me as odd phrasing since there's no context for the earliest attempt. Several people assume my success resulted from three mindless years of laborious practice, but to date [I’ve only made it twice.] If so, then why the suggestion that it did take three years?And if she's only made it twice how can that lead to several people thinking it took years of work? This throws off those who are curious to know what had [caused the change], The change in her cooking? and [just a few days ago I was assured it wasn’t mindless repetition.] If she's only made it twice, then she knows it wasn't mindless repetition.

It was intention. I don't understand this opening section. It's a little too vague and doesn't tell me anything

*** Why a scene break here?

I held my breath as I squinted through the thick mass of fume to find my way to the kitchen window. The struggle to unlock it went on longer than expected.

Moments later, I was brought [back] to what? by the [pounding] do smoke alarms pound? Mine have always beeped smoke alarm.

[I pushed the burning pot away from the heat of the oven] pushing a pot away implies a stove top, but oven is internal, so I'm little confused as to what she's actually doing before evacuating the batteries from the detector, and then examined my [scalded] setting off the smoke detector implies more burning than scalding attempt at breakfast. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Though, if that were true, I wouldn’t have had to close my eyes as I tucked a pinch of it into my mouth.

I walked back to the window to spend a good ten minutes fanning the smoke out of the kitchen while thinking about how I was going to get rid of the catastrophe [that was meant to be dinner.] didn't she just taste her breakfast? I'm confused again. And why can't she just throw it out? It's burnt food. I searched for the compost bin all over the kitchen, even though anyone would mistake the pot for the trash itself. [But dad wasn’t anyone.] So she's making dinner for Dad and doesn't want him to know she burned it?

Still, I’d only stepped [onto the sinkhole] you'd step into a sinkhole, not on one. I could jump [off] probably out of, that too with the [motive] is this the right word? Does she mean reason or purpose or does it refer to the athleticism of the action? of an Olympian; I didn’t want to disappoint dad[ agai- ] I like the again here, as it implies this is more important that just making dinner

“Asalamu-alaykum!”

And he was home.

The question:

Is this opening working?


Not yet. I like the idea of someone trying to cook and making a mess of it, good intentions gone bad, but it feels like pieces are still missing. This opens with her talking about mastering jambalaya, but what she says doesn't make sense, and then doesn't go anywhere. I'm not sure why that's the first thing readers need to know. Is she cooking jambalaya in the next scene? Is that the dinner and her first attempt at making it? If so, the flashback isn't coming across as one and the transition between those pieces is awkward. You might consider cutting the jambalaya part and starting with the cooking fiasco.

(More on hooking the reader here)

While I can see her goal is to deal with her bungled cooking attempt, I'm not really sure what the point of the scene is. She doesn't want to disappoint her father and making him dinner is important, but I don't understand why or how she feels about it. I get the sense Dad getting home in the middle of this is going to be bad, but the goal and stakes aren't clear enough to hook me yet. Perhaps add more internalization from her to show what she's thinking and feeling about all of this so readers can see why this is so important. What is she trying to do here on a bigger scale? This seems to be more than just cooking dinner, it's about not disappointing Dad again. Let readers see why this matters.

(More on writing internalization here)

The word choice in many areas was also a little off, which led to some confusion on my part. I kept trying to figure out what the author was trying to say vs what was actually said, which pulled me out of the story. For example, stepping onto a sinkhole, when sinkholes are holes, not something raised up that you'd have to step up to get on. And food being scalded, which implies a lighter burn, when it was burned so badly it took ten minutes to get rid of the smoke. I'd suggest making sure the words more accurately describe what's happening so they aren't fighting with the action.

(More on word choice here)

I was also confused as to setting, since she mentions tasting the breakfast and then says she was cooking dinner. Is this morning or evening? You might consider fleshing out the setting a little more so it's clear to readers where they are and what time of time it is. It might also help to know what she's cooking if it in indeed the jambalaya. I also wondered where this was set. She goes looking for the compost bin and not the trash can or garbage, which suggests this might not be a US culture.

(More on describing your setting here)

Overall, I think there's a potentially interesting scene here but it's not coming across well yet. I suspect what's in the author's head isn't making it to the page, but once the critical details are there, it'll have more of a hook. Perhaps look for ways to get more of the narrator's personality and motivations into the scene so readers can care about her and her attempt at dinner, and why messing it up is bad. Show the stakes so Dad arriving home early has greater meaning. Give a sense that this is going somewhere readers want to follow to see what happens, not just seeing someone burn food. Burning dinner is no big deal, but if the novel opens that way, then it must be a big deal for this character for some reason. Lets readers see why so they can worry along with her.

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. The concept of trying to do something so as not to disappoint a parent is a great concept, especially when the attempt is bungled. I was, however, confused that we started off with a reference to a certain type of dish then cut away to a scene that appeared to be unrelated. As a reader, it was a bit jarring and I was unable to get back into the read. Perhaps just beginning with the cooking debacle could help. And adding in Janice's suggestions for clearing a few things up could amp up the reading experience.

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  2. The protagonist starts off as a bad cook, and, judging by the preamble, eventually becomes great. I would be interested in hearing more about why pleasing dad via cooking is important to her - why does she want to succeed in that particular task rather than try to please him another way.

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  3. I liked it, just plain liked it.

    I know some of it seemed difficult or illogical but I got it all as I was reading because I too was a failed cook who had to learn that the smoke detector was not a timer.

    I think you have all the ideas down, keep going and revisit when the critique you have gotten "soaks in."

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