Saturday, May 24

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Prologue and Narrative Style Work for 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: Four 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through June 21. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some when my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay.

Also Note: There's a revised snippet up for the opening about the kids trapped underground in a school for those curious to see how the writer revised.

This week’s questions:

Does this work as a story opening, and more specifically, does it work as a prologue-type thing? And, in terms of narrative style, do you think there is a good rhythm to the words and sentence structure I've chosen, or does it feel disjointed? (This, in particular, is super important to me.)


Market/Genre: Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

She killed her own mother.

Her hand falls hard on the cobbled wall of the alley. She staggers, the dragging hem of her nightgown ripping beneath her bare foot. One step, another. Fingernails claw at the wall, jagged and broken, embedded with the dried and muddy red of...

She killed her own mother.

Falling to her knees, she retches. Nothing. Air - if that. Can her body even purge anymore? She pulls herself to her feet and lurches forward onto the street. It’s empty, too late even for the streetwalkers who roam this end of London.

How did she get here?

She remembers running; a haze of buildings and street lamps and the endless stone of road after road after road. Get away, get away, get away – her only clear thought in the frenzied fog that led her to this squalid corner of town, to the even filthier hovel she has spent the last...

She has no idea how long it has been. It feels like days but she can only recall hours, as if strings of time have been lost to her grief, to the sickened abhorrence weighing down the hollow pit of her stomach. Pain – she remembers pain; a sizzling on the back of her hand like the spill of boiling oil, and a stinging, burning scent she might have called death, if death wasn't now the smell of sandalwood perfume and the sheets on her bed. Forced back into the shadows of her dank abode, she had watched the wound heal in a matter of minutes, nauseous as her flesh knitted itself back together before her eyes.

Monster.

Standing in the middle of the road, she looks down to her hands. This is what she is now; this cold, unyielding flesh of the dead.

She runs.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[She killed her own mother.] I'm not sure who "she" refers to here, which sparks both curiosity (did the narrator kill her mother or does this refer to another person?) and could cause confusion.

Her hand falls hard on the cobbled wall of the alley. She staggers, the dragging hem of her nightgown ripping beneath her bare foot. One step, another. Fingernails claw at the wall, jagged and broken, embedded with the dried and muddy red of...

[She killed her own mother.] By now I assume the narrator killed her, but it's not clear

Falling to her knees, she retches. Nothing. Air - if that. [Can her body even purge anymore?] I like that this means more after you get to the end She pulls herself to her feet and lurches forward onto the street. It’s empty, too late even for the streetwalkers who roam this end of London.

How did she get here?

She remembers running; a haze of buildings and street lamps and the endless stone of road after road after road. Get away, get away, get away – her only clear thought in the frenzied fog that led her to this squalid corner of town, to the even filthier hovel she has spent the last...

She has no idea how long it has been. It feels like days but she can only recall hours, as if strings of time have been lost to her grief, to the sickened abhorrence weighing down the hollow pit of her stomach. Pain – she remembers pain; a sizzling on the back of her hand like the spill of boiling oil, and a stinging, burning scent she might have called death, [if death wasn't now the smell of sandalwood perfume and the sheets on her bed] great line. Forced back into the shadows of her dank abode, she had watched the wound heal in a matter of minutes, nauseous as her flesh knitted itself back together before her eyes.

Monster.

Standing in the middle of the road, she looks down to her hands. [This is what she is now; this cold, unyielding flesh of the dead.] An unexpected turn of events

She runs.

The questions:

1. Does this work as a story opening, and more specifically, does it work as a prologue-type thing?


This one is a tough call and it's more a matter of personal taste. I suspect if I'd read the cover copy and knew where the story was going I'd be more intrigued because I'd have context for these events (readers chime in here). There are a lot of interesting elements here, and I like that there's a zombie/undead thing going on, a mystery around what happened to both the narrator and the mother, what's going on in this world, and what the narrator is going to do now. But without any context I'm not feeling grounded in this world yet and it's hard to understand what's happening, so I'm not drawn in.

I don't know who this person is or what's going on so I don't feel connected enough to her to care. The "she" is ambiguous at first whether it's the narrator or someone else, and there aren't many clues to let me know when this is and where I am. "Streetwalkers in London" gave me a Victorian vibe, so the zombie/undead detail at the end really came as a surprise. Not necessarily a bad one, it just made it harder to figure out the setting.

Since it's in third omniscient, it also has that "this is a snippet from another time and place and isn't the actual story" feel (common with prologues). Despite this, there is something compelling about it and I'd read a few more pages to see where it was headed and if it hooked me once it got going.

(Here's more on prologues)

2. In terms of narrative style, do you think there is a good rhythm to the words and sentence structure I've chosen, or does it feel disjointed? (This, in particular, is super important to me.)

There's a strong voice for sure and it's clear this is the intended style. I like the rhythm of it, it feels like someone who is confused and unsure about what's going on. There are some great lines (love the new smell of death) and it flows well. No issues here.

(Here's more on finding your voice and narrative style)

Overall, this is well done and for me it would all depend on the cover copy. If the story intrigued me I'd keep reading, if not, I wouldn't. This is a great example of how personal taste can affect the reader's experience, so let's hear some other opinions and help this writer out!

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. I was unsure as to what was going on exactly - though I assumed the "she" was the narrator all along. But it was interesting. But you hooked me faithfully with the end - realizing this is a zombie story from a zombie point of view - which I've never seen though it certainly may exist - makes the fact that she killed her mother so much more pointed. When she said monster, she really meant it. It was enough of a surprise to definitely get me moving to the next chapter.

    I personally love the narrative voice. As Jan said, it is the disjointed feel that one would expect a new zombie to react with. Though again, nobody would expect that she was a zombie until the zinger end. I love being surprised like that, have I mentioned?

    This is definitely a story I'd want to read in its entirety, as long as it kept with the zombie point of view.

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  2. Not familiar with zombie stories, but was perfectly willing to submerge into this narrative, making the undead twist even more fun.

    I was struck though by Janice's comments that the cover notes could be a tipping point and drew the conclusion that a seasoned reader of this genre would/could be swayed into reading further by something as simple as cover notes. Makes one stop and think, eh?

    I would definitely read on - I want to learn how to stagger!

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  3. I loved this.
    The voice feels strong and bang-on for my vision of the protagonist so far. I like the paragraph structure of short and long and I must confess, I assumed the narrator was the killer straight away.
    Great stuff :)

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  4. Thanks for the feedback, Janice. It didn't even cross my mind that the narrator wouldn't immediately be identified as the protagonist, though like you said, with the third person omniscient POV I suppose it is a little harder to tell. You were right, the setting is Victorian London, but I might work in another descriptive sentence or two to ground readers more firmly into the world.
    Thanks again. Your criticism was very helpful.

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    Replies
    1. Most welcome. I assumed fairly quickly that she was the narrator, but I try to be a "dumb reader" on these to catch potential problems. :) As writers, we tend to see more than an average reader does because we know how the story is made so to speak.

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  5. And thanks to everyone else for the extra feedback :) Much appreciated.

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  6. I agree about the first line. If you'd used the protag's name instead of "she," I would have felt more grounded and less confused. If I had read the back cover copy and knew the protag's name in the first line, I definitely would have kept reading.

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  7. I immediately assumed that the narrator was the one who had killed her mother. I like the visceral emotions but didn't like the ellipses you used in several places. I would rather you said what was there. I don't want to be annoyed! I'm not into zombie stories--but this definitely had me interested. To me, it seems like a great place to start your book!

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    Replies
    1. I did wonder if the ellipses wouldn't work for anyone. Their purpose was to add to the confusion and disorientation I was trying to convey, but I suppose that's a little redundant if readers find them annoying! That's a good tidbit of feedback, Carol. Thanks

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  8. Try seduction not hit over the head openings and this will work. Your a very good writer and I can see that if you don't try so hard anyone will get pulled in then you can shock them.

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