Sunday, January 5, 2014

Real Life Diagnostics: Cinematic Prologues: Does This Engage You?

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: Six + one resubmit 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through February 15. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some when my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay. I'm working to get caught up.

This week’s questions:

1. Are you engaged by the opening? If so, why; if not, what's putting you off?

2. The POV in this scene is actually Shoshonna (par3), but I wanted a more cinematic opening. Does this blatant violation of POV (it sticks to her POV thereafter, if that's useful information) put you off?

3. The opening -- a prologue - is currently in present tense, while the rest of the book is in past tense. Our characters come to the church in chapter 4 or 5, where they discover (the thing that went wrong during the ceremony). Does this work for you, conceptually?


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

On the open floor beyond the heavy glass door, two dozen women sit stiffly in office chairs ringing a heavy-iron DrḖmwRx workstation and the black-haired woman who stands with the computer at her hip. They sit in silence with one hand in the hand of the woman to either side, ignoring the thin green wafers stuck to their skin at their temples and at their C4 vertebrae above the collars of their Temple-appropriate dresses and suits.

The workstation has no monitors and no keyboards, no wires connecting the machine to the outside world. This is not a matter of security.

The black-haired woman, whose name is Shoshonna, prays in a throaty voice with her heart open wide.

"Blessed be this congregation, Holiest of Holies, and blessed be our working. We offer humble supplication and ask for nothing that you think beyond our wisdom."

"And a new car," one of the women says, and laughter ripples around the circle like a scandal.

"And if you see fit to give Sister Lynn Marie a new car after interrupting my prayer," Shoshonna continues without breaking stride, "may it have a tiny engine and severe undercarriage rust."

The women laugh again. A stranger might not observe the peculiar strain to the sound. But they are making the effort, and Shoshonna appreciates it. This has not been an easy few weeks for them.

"The Book of Code tells us that we are never to ask for our own gain, lest we turn to selfishness. And so we ask only for what wonder you see fit to send us, Goddess. For wonder and Your inspiration."

My Thoughts in Purple:

[On the open floor beyond the heavy glass door, two dozen women sit stiffly in office chairs ringing a heavy-iron DrḖmwRx workstation and the black-haired woman who stands with the computer at her hip. They sit in silence with one hand in the hand of the woman to either side, ignoring the thin green wafers stuck to their skin at their temples and at their C4 vertebrae above the collars of their Temple-appropriate dresses and suits.

The workstation has no monitors and no keyboards, no wires connecting the machine to the outside world. This is not a matter of security.

The black-haired woman, whose name is Shoshonna, prays in a throaty voice with her heart open wide.] This opening section isn't drawing me in because it's just description, and it was a tad hard to parse. Took two reads to fully place it in my head.

"Blessed be this congregation, Holiest of Holies, and blessed be our working. We offer humble supplication and ask for nothing that you think beyond our wisdom."

["And a new car," one of the women says, and laughter ripples around the circle like a scandal.

"And if you see fit to give Sister Lynn Marie a new car after interrupting my prayer," Shoshonna continues without breaking stride, "may it have a tiny engine and severe undercarriage rust."] Funny. I like the voice here. This is where I get drawn in because it gives me characters who seem likable, makes me laugh, and defies my expectations.

The women laugh again. A stranger might not observe the peculiar strain to the sound. But they are making the effort, and Shoshonna appreciates it. [This has not been an easy few weeks for them.] Makes me wonder why not, continuing to draw me in

"The Book of Code tells us that we are never to ask for our own gain, lest we turn to selfishness. And so we ask only for what wonder you see fit to send us, Goddess. For wonder and Your inspiration."

The questions:

1. Are you engaged by the opening? If so, why; if not, what's putting you off?

The small humor exchange worked for me, turning this from setup to story. That's the moment I was drawn in, and wanted to keep reading. I'd read on to see where this was going, especially if the cover copy intrigued me.

This feels science fiction or alternate world with the green wafers and work machine. I'm guessing a DrḖmwRx is something made up, not real, and medical related? Religion and medicine is an odd combination and that's intriguing. What looks like nuns worshipping a computer is even more intriguing, as is the Goddess, not God. They might not be doing that, but these things all feel connected in a weird way that makes me curious what it's all about.It has a post-apocalyptic vibe, or a secret cult in today's world vibe.

The opening paragraph was a tiny bit cumbersome, which put me off a little. I had to read it twice to ground myself with who was where and doing what. (Readers chime in here) It smoothes out after that though. You might consider breaking the hand-in-hand sentence into two, as I got tripped up there.

(More on knowing where to start your novel here)

2. The POV in this scene is actually Shoshonna (par3), but I wanted a more cinematic opening. Does this blatant violation of POV (it sticks to her POV thereafter, if that's useful information) put you off?

This is more personal taste than anything else. I have a hard time connecting to omniscient narrators--they almost always feel detached and told to me. This opening is clearly someone else describing this scene and telling readers what's happening and why it's important. That vibe usually says "setup" to me, especially if I know the scene isn't in the protagonist's POV. This delays when I get invested in the novel because I know the story hasn't started yet. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though. Certain genres typically do this, so it's expected and enjoyed by readers. If you prefer the cinematics, go for it. There's nothing wrong technically, just different style choices.

I'd find it weird to immediately switch to her POV after this, but if her POV didn't show up until later and she wasn't the protagonist, it wouldn't be as jarring. (Readers also chime in here)

(More on maintaining or varying the POV here)

3. The opening -- a prologue - is currently in present tense, while the rest of the book is in past tense. Our characters come to the church in chapter 4 or 5, where they discover (the thing that went wrong during the ceremony). Does this work for you, conceptually?

Without reading it or knowing any other details it's hard to say. A present tense prologue can work to help set it apart from the rest of the novel, and this reads fine to me in that tense. As for the scene itself, it'll depend on how much readers care about what happens and what you want them to think in chapter 4 or 5. If readers know what happened here before they get to those chapters, then you risk losing the mystery or suspense going into it.

However, knowing what the characters are about to walk into could work if the situation is a very bad thing and readers can see disaster coming. That would help build tension and make them worry about the characters. Like if this scene created a dangerous situation the protagonist is clueless about, but readers know. The characters think they have nothing to worry about, but readers know better.

You'll have to decide if this prologue creates a situation for the readers to worry about later, or just shares information and backstory about a later event. If it's just explanation, then ask yourself why it's important for readers to know this before the characters see it. What does that gain you from a storytelling standpoint? Because if readers know what happened, then when your character start wondering or investigating there's no tension or hook to keep readers interested. They already know. If you want readers to figure it out along with the characters, then perhaps not tell them first thing.

(More on how to decide to keep or kill a prologue here)

Overall I liked it, the humor and world hooked me and I'd read 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.

10 comments:

  1. Thank you to the person who submitted this sample for today's RLD. It's always helpful to learn when also trying to help others. For today's sample, I'm wondering if this prayer is something that may work better as a flashback? As the reader, we're entering unaware of what a DrErmwRX is (or at least I have not idea what it is) and what the green wafers stuck to the women are or have to do with anything. The presence of the green wafers, though, do cause some intrigue and the humorous exchange after getting more into Shoshanna's POV is nicely done.

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  2. Because Shoshanna is the first named, and because she's the focal point of the scene, I'll buy her as the POV.

    C4 vertebrae irks me a little--a personal thing--because then I stop to count the vertebrae and try to figure out which one you mean, and then I wonder why you're so specific. Why not "spine"? But if there's actually a reason it's that particular bone, carry on!

    "New car" is perfectly timed. Just as I began to zone out a little ("eh, nothing's happening"), you cracked a joke and I zoned back in.

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  3. I can tell you know this story and the fresh creativity certainly has a lot of potential. I see some world building going on but nothing 'hookey' or 'grabby' early enough to make me want to read on. I was put off by the need to figure out what and where this may be happening.

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  4. Hi
    I liked this scene, enough atmosphere and unanswered questions to interest me. I agree with Janice, the opening paragraph felt a little clumsy, perhaps just from trying to introduce the scene or genre a little too quickly. Do you need to have that much detail, particularly if we're then going back in time following the opening? Is it essential that you use this moment to describe the details of the religion. As Rachel6 says, I'm not sure the C4 is necessary.
    I loved the humour, it felt very natural. It reminded me a little of The Handmaids Tale in flavour, which is a good thing :)
    thanks
    Mike

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  5. Thank you all for your feedback!

    I'm intrigued by how the thing that attracted Michael ("enough unanswered questions", which was btw what I was going for) turned off Harry. Both completely valid opinions, but directly in conflict. Interesting.

    I'm surprised that the specificity of the vertebrae number was such a turn-off! Usually readers want more specifics, not less. Huh.

    Much to think about, thank you!

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    1. One thing to remember about feedback in general and the RLDs in particular, is that people will have varying opinions. And when someone looks at a small sample without context, all they have is what's right in front of them, so things that might not bother them if they read it in context stand out.

      With feedback, I like to look at why someone said something. For example (and just an example, no meaning behind it about the comment), it might not be the vertebrae itself that bothered the reader, but the sense of an outside narrator being too detailed. Or they didn't get the reasons behind it so it seemed weird. Like I know it's part of the interface, but only because you told me in an email. I didn't get that when I first read it, but just assumed the wafers would be explained at some point. So it might not be a too-specific detail issue but a matter of worldbuilding and grounding the reader. Feedback can be tricky :)

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    2. Fair and good points, thank you!

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    3. Hi JD just to clarify. I was lost right off. I would like to see a simple opening. You have a lot of great elements so just keep at it. My novel so far has been through an entire rewrite and the opening has been revised five times now. Keep on.

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  6. I thought I'd chime in on the C4 discussion and say that my issue with it was that it was jargon. It didn't take me out of the flow because I knew it referred to the 4th cervical vertebrae, but I know many readers would not even be aware that the vertebrae are categorised in this way, which might give them a 'huh?' moment - not something you want in the opening. I think to create a smooth flow you need to keep it simple, and the sentence would work fine without using the term C4. just to say it's above the collar and attached to a vertebra is clear enough IMO. Furthermore, C4 is also a type of plastic explosive (well known to readers of thrillers), and while I'm not suggesting any reader would seriously think anybody's spine was armed, you really dont want that sort of WTHell moment, even briefly.

    I'm ashamed to admit it, but in the first line I initially took "ringing" as it's other meaning and was wondering not just what a "dreamworks" was but how they could make it ring. then the part about the dark haired woman just sounded like it came from left field. In other words, I utterly failed to get it. ok, it says more about me than it does about you, but since I missed the point I would have not been bothered to continue if this had been something I picked up off the shelf or browsed on Amazon (unless it came highly recommended or the blurb/cover art had been spectacular).

    Openings are hard. Dont let a silly ambiguity turn eyeballs away from your words.

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    1. Thank for clarifying your comments, Jo! I think it's really helpful for people to see how comments are both given and taken. It can be so subtle, but powerful.

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