Sunday, January 26

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Opening Work?

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 (+ 1 Resubmit) 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through March 8. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some when my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay.

This week’s questions:

Does this opening scene work?


Market/Genre: Adult allegorical

RESUBMIT: Please scroll down to the bottom to see the revised snippet

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This is the story of a semi-retired special education teacher who moves from a wealthy New England school system to Arizona, the state with the border, the budget implosion and the some of the most beautiful landscape in the world. At 60, she’s a first year teacher again in one of the poorest performing schools in a state that is nearly last in the nation. In the middle of the hacked apart Science lab that will be her sad, hilarious and brave classroom, Janine asks, how can I teach kids with little more to work with than a stick and dirt, and do I want to?

Whoa. How did I get to this?

The plain white sign with black letters says: WILLOW CROSSING MIDDLE SCHOOL STAFF VEHICLES ONLY. Under the lone plum tree, my 4-cylinder engine ticks in the hundred-degree heat. As I drag my teacher bags and campus map from the backseat, the wind carries fine grit and a faint hello across the parking lot. From the other side of an iron gate, a woman shades her eyes in my direction, her mouth a dark oval in the middle of a pale face. At first glance, she looks small and vulnerable but by the time I reach the gate, she’s nearly a foot taller than I am. Titanium resolve flashes in her eyes. Then hides. Her hair is a color none of us is born with.

“You the new special education teacher? One who called a minute ago?” She squints into my face. “Janine?”

“That’s me.” The wind swallows my voice.

“Bonnie Baines, here.” She points at her chest with a butterfly-enameled fingernail and works the gate key with her other hand while pushing the ground latch with her foot. Though she has a thick folder tucked under her arm, she maneuvers in a calculated ballet that animates the butterfly tattoo on her shoulder with every move. More butterflies peek from platform sandals. A freak gust snatches the ten-foot gate from her fist and slams it into the concrete block wall. Missing paint marks the impact spot.

“You come on in now,” Bonnie says, extending that colorful hand—no rings, no watch, no jewelry of any kind, just butterflies. “ We been waitin’ for you, Mr. Edsel and me.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

Whoa. How did I get to this?

[The plain white sign with black letters says: WILLOW CROSSING MIDDLE SCHOOL STAFF VEHICLES ONLY. Under the lone plum tree, my 4-cylinder engine ticks in the hundred-degree heat. As I drag my teacher bags and campus map from the backseat, the wind carries fine grit and a faint hello across the parking lot.] These are feeling a little list-like. Good spot for some internalization to break it up and show how the narrator feels about these details From the other side of an iron gate, a woman shades her eyes in my direction, her mouth a dark oval in the middle of a pale face. At first glance, she looks small and vulnerable but by the time I reach the gate, she’s nearly a foot taller than I am. Titanium resolve flashes in her eyes. Then hides. [Her hair is a color none of us is born with.] Love this. This voice in this line makes me want to keep reading.
“You the new special education teacher? One who called a minute ago?” She squints into my face. “Janine?”

“That’s me.” [The wind swallows my voice.] Does this mean Bonnie wasn't able to hear her? Something is little off about the line, so it pulls me out of the story as I try to figure it out.

“Bonnie Baines, here.” [She points at her chest with a butterfly-enameled fingernail and works the gate key with her other hand while pushing the ground latch with her foot. Though she has a thick folder tucked under her arm, she maneuvers in a calculated ballet that animates the butterfly tattoo on her shoulder with every move.] A lot is going on here and it's feeling clunky and hard to follow. Perhaps break this up more and clarify More butterflies peek from platform sandals. [A freak gust] If wind just swallowed her voice then she knows it's windy and the gust might not be so freak snatches the ten-foot gate from her fist and slams it into the concrete block wall. Missing paint marks the impact spot.

“You come on in now,” Bonnie says, extending that colorful hand—[no rings, no watch, no jewelry of any kind, just butterflies.] What's her impression of Bonnie based on these details? “ We been waitin’ for you, Mr. Edsel and me.”

The question:

Does this opening work?

Not quite yet for me, though the one line about the hair color would make me give it a little longer. The voice there was wonderful, and I liked that character. Right now the focus is more on what things look like than who this woman is and why she's there. "Whoa. How did I get to this?" is the only indication of Janine's emotional state or what the scene goal or conflict is. She's starting a new job and has reservations, so try letting readers see those reservations and what she's worried about so they'll worry along with her.

I'd suggest adding more internalization to this using that great voice to draw readers in. Janine's humor is a strong hook, especially if her humor and how she sees things is going to be a large part of the book. Show readers that aspect of her right from the start.

(More on adding internalization here)

I like how she's noticing certain details and even judging them a little (like the hair) but I'd love to see more of that to really get a sense of who Janine is and how she sees this world she's just entered. Think about how you can use her point of view to get those opinions across. For example, she notices the many butterflies, but I don't know how she feels about that. Does she find it sweet? Flaky? What does she think about Bonnie based on this first impression of her? How does that impression make her feel about this new job and new state?

(More on point of view and description here)

You also might think about what Janine wants here. Is this her first day at the school or just an interview? What is she hoping will happen? Won't happen? What can work as a story question to draw readers into the scene so they want to see what happens next?

The situation feels right from a structure standpoint--Janine starting at a troubled school and she isn't sure she should be there, but the actual conflict of the scene isn't clear yet. How might you show more conflict in the opening? Does she think about this decision as she meets Bonnie and sees all the butterflies? Does the size of the gate give her second thoughts? How might the scene reflect her mood?

(More on adding tension and conflict to a scene here)

I think this scene is close to be a solid opening with a little tweaking. The pieces are there, but Janine is still missing a bit. I think once we're looking at this scene through her eyes and hearing how she thinks and feels about it, it'll pull readers right in.

Overall, I'd suggest playing up the conflict by getting more in Janine's head. She's starting at a new and troubled school and isn't sure about it. This conflict is right in the opening line, so try building on that and making both Janine and readers wonder if she made the right choice and what might happen to either reinforce her fear that it was a bad idea, or disprove that fear.

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.

Revised Snippet:

Whoa. How did I get to this? And what vision quest was I on when I decided teaching two more years in Arizona would be the perfect first step in my ideal retirement plan? Was it the vacation sunrise at the Grand Canyon? The sunset at Red Rock Crossing? Poolside at Los Pinos timeshares? This sounds like she's reacting to something she's seeing, but readers haven't seen anything so it feels a bit ungrounded.

The parking lot sign says: WILLOW CROSSING MIDDLE SCHOOL. STAFF VEHICLES ONLY. What it doesn’t say is that I’m in the middle of Arizona in July in a drought season that’s lasted over a dozen years and three weeks ago, my toes were wiggling in the cool green grass of Maine—which is where I wish they were right now. This feels like a better opening paragraph. It establishes conflict right away--she doesn't want to be there and I wonder why.

I park under the lone plum tree and grab my campus map. My 4-cylinder engine tsk-tsks at the high desert heat. [Claustrophobia tightens my ears to my head] I don't equate deserts with closed in spaces so this is unclear to me as [I unfold my map to compare the optimistic artwork of the campus diagram with the scene outside my rapidly heating window.] Since I don't know what she's looking at I can't quite follow this. Also, middle schools don't feel big enough to have a map of the campus like this. No way the person who drew those pictures of friendly fat buildings with smiley-faced windows and cartoony arms was ever here. The little kid speech bubbles saying, “I love my school.” and “Come learn with me.” Just might be the bait-and-switch of the decade. No, make that the century. Instead of a cheerful Jollyland, I’m surrounded by impenetrable fortresses, fierce and silent. Their windowless exteriors are blank, except the patterns created by flaking paint—the sad artwork of budgets in decline. I like the concept here that what she was expecting isn't what she's seeing, but I'm having a hard time seeing it. I'm also not sure why she's here exactly other than her retirement plan. What does this offer her that she needs? You don't have to spell it out, but a suggestion might help readers understand what's going on

[To stop myself from flight,] Telling, but I do like the idea that she wants to turn and run. Why isn't she? What's keeping her there? I open the car door and put one foot on the ground. The wind carries fine grit and a faint hello across the parking lot—pretty thin encouragement. From the other side of an iron gate, a woman shades her eyes in my direction, her mouth a dark oval on a pale face. I drag out my teacher bags from the familiarity of my car into the [non-brochure world] Is this a private school? It feels public, but they don't have brochures or maps and head in her direction. From a distance, she looks small and vulnerable but by the time I reach the gate, she’s nearly a foot taller than I am. Titanium resolve flashes in her eyes. Then hides. [Her hair is a color none of us is born with.] Still love this line.

This flows better than the original, and I'm more curious about what's going on. I'd suggest focusing a bit more on why she's there and what is making her reconsider this job. There are hints of it so far, but they feel a little hidden in the way things are phrased so they're not having the impact they could. You can still hint if you don't want to give things away, but perhaps be a little clearer in how she feels right now by what she sees.

For example, is she reconsidering because she thought the school would be fancy and it's not? Were there other promises she now worries won't be upheld? What's keeping her from just turning around and leaving? I'd like to know a bit more about what she's thinking and how she feels to get a better sense of who she is and what's going on in her head.

Good job.

5 comments:

  1. To add to what Janice has already covered, I wonder if adding a head nod near the line where the wind swallowed her voice so that it can pass an an understood that the wind made it hard for the other lady to hear her. Maybe adding in touches of comparing what she was used to with what she's experiencing now could help with tweaking and getting us more into Janine's head?

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  2. As an Arizona resident, I want to know where in Arizona this is, what time of year, and what time of day. :)

    The reason this is so important to someone with knowledge is that non-Arizona people think they can throw in hot temperatures and dirt and call themselves done with setting. But if this is around the beginning of the school year (which starts at the beginning of August here) and not early morning (no sign of kids hanging around for start of classes), those temperatures would be too low for most of the state. That time of year, the winds don't pick up until late afternoon for monsoon storms and temperatures would be closer to 110 in much of the state, while remaining in the 80s in other parts of the state.

    Details can build a story or take the reader out of the story. Be precise, do research, know the specifics.

    The Arizona school system would be much higher in the rankings if non-English-speaking immigrants or Native Americans were removed from student numbers for analysis of where to focus assistance. In other words, generalizations will cause trouble.

    The vast majority of the poor schools are going to be close to the border or in very remote areas, in the poor neighborhoods of central Phoenix or Tucson, or on the Navajo Nation. Those would all have very different settings and challenges.

    On the other hand, where I live, kids are given their own tablet computers in many schools. Generalizations pull the reader from the story and reduce complicated situations to tokenism and stereotypes. Deal with characters, situations, and settings with specifics to ensure there's no disrespect. :)

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  3. The freak gust line didn't bother me; I've seen windy days that picked up even more wind just in time to snatch something from your hands.

    This worked for me. I got bogged down in the lines about Bonnie opening the gate--too much going on at once for me to follow easily--but the rest was easy to visualize. I'd love to see this again with internalizations included.

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  4. Thanks to readers who "weighed" in back in January and to Janice for tackling the resubmit!! Wow. A place to start immediately to pump the impact as seen from another point of view. What a lovely service, Janice, and so generous!

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    1. Most welcome. Glad my feedback was helpful :)

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