Saturday, October 11

Real Life Diagnostics: A Look at the Opening Page of a Humorous Novel

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: Five

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through November 1. To catch up after my hiatus, I'll be doubling up with Sunday diagnostics for the rest of the month.

NOTE: Revised snippet at the end

This week’s questions:

  1. This is the first page of a humorous book, but there’s not really any humor on the first page. The humor more or less starts on the second page, so do you think that’s okay or should I try to get a tinge of humor in the first page?
  2. This is an adult book, so does the voice and protagonist feel of age (he’s 24)? I’ve had people claim that they think it does sound adult, a couple say it sounds YA, and even someone who says MG. (Might be confusing because the MC does live at home with his parents still, though maybe the voice itself is youngish?)
  3. Do any parts sound like the author intruding instead of the MC’s voice (this has been something I’ve been working on a lot, but always gives me difficulty)? For this story (as I usually do), I’ve been trying to keep fully in the MC’s head. It is in first-person POV, too, after all.
  4. Do any parts feel told?
  5. Does this work for a first page; would you keep reading?
Market/Genre: Adult fiction

On to the diagnosis…


Original text:

My fingers quivered with excitement as I plugged in the last thumb-sized, plastic piece and stepped back. Yep, that did it. After four years of nonstop, grueling—but at times invigorating—work, my masterpiece was finally complete. And finally—oh thank God, finally—I could prove my genius to the C.E.O. of Electrifirm and get the hell out of the mailroom once and for all.

Raw energy bolted through me as I stared at the array of tiny substations splayed out on the electrical power grid model on my bedroom desk.

Tomorrow was the day. Tomorrow I’d do it. First thing in the morning I’d walk right up to my boss with the model and demand he show it to—

“Norm, dinner!” Mom called from the bottom of the stairs.

“Coming!” I shouted.

The scent of steamed fresh vegetables never smelled so succulent—okay, it was intermixed with the heavy, foul odor of red meat—as I hopped down the stairs two at a time. The first time I’d done that since I was eleven or so. No doubt about it. I felt like a child again in light of my amazing accomplishment. Tomorrow was the day my life would change forever, and at the ripe-old age of twenty-four, no less. It simply felt too good to be true.

But the euphoric feeling immediately plummeted to the floor at the sight of my brother’s massive, muscular figure at the dinner table. No surprise there. Despite the fact Tom lived in the penthouse at the top of the second tallest building in Electri-City, he ate dinner here at our parents’ middle-class apartment every night.

My Thoughts in Purple:

My fingers quivered [with excitement] a little tellish as I plugged in the last thumb-sized, [plastic piece] of what? A little more context would help ground the reader to what's going on and stepped back. [Yep, that did it.] Sounds younger [After four years of nonstop, grueling—but at times invigorating—work, my masterpiece was finally complete. And finally—oh thank God, finally—I could prove my genius to the C.E.O. of Electrifirm and get the hell out of the mailroom once and for all.] This all feels a tad tellish, because it explains why this matters

Raw energy bolted through me as I stared at the array of tiny substations splayed out on the electrical power grid model on my bedroom desk. This feels like better place to start, as it gets right to the action without the explanatory setup

Tomorrow was the day. Tomorrow I’d do it. First thing in the morning I’d walk right up to my boss with the model and demand he show it to— Feels shown

“Norm, dinner!” Mom called from the bottom of the stairs.

“Coming!” I shouted.

The scent of steamed fresh vegetables never smelled so succulent—[okay, it was intermixed with the heavy, foul odor of red meat] this might be giving it a YA vibe, as this type of internalization is common to that market —as I hopped down the stairs two at a time. The first time I’d done that since [I was eleven or so.] Could also be giving a younger vibe, as adults are more prone to say "kid" and not be as specific No doubt about it. [I felt like a child again in light of my amazing accomplishment.] Feels a little tellish [Tomorrow was the day my life would change forever] he already basically said this, and at the ripe-old age of twenty-four, no less. It simply felt too good to be true.

[But the euphoric feeling immediately plummeted to the floor at the sight of] A little tellish. Perhaps show the brother there, then his reaction my brother’s massive, muscular figure at the dinner table. [No surprise there.] if it's no surprise, then why does he act "surprised" by his euphoria crashing?Also, this could also make him feel younger [Despite the fact Tom lived in the penthouse at the top of the second tallest building in Electri-City, he ate dinner here at our parents’ middle-class apartment every night.] A little infodumpy

1. This is the first page of a humorous book, but there’s not really any humor on the first page. The humor more or less starts on the second page, so do you think that’s okay or should I try to get a tinge of humor in the first page?

It's not necessary, but that could be a selling point and a reason readers pick up the book. If it isn't funny right away, you could be missing an opportunity to hook someone. The humor is also likely part of the tone and voice of the novel (I'm guessing), so seeing that right away could help make the opening scene stronger. Right now, it reads more serious because the narrator is about to do something to change his life.

Tastes vary, but I'd suggest trying to get the humor in from the first line. Humor is a huge hook, and if you have it, use it.

(Here's more on writing humor)

2. This is an adult book, so does the voice and protagonist feel of age (he’s 24)? I’ve had people claim that they think it does sound adult, a couple say it sounds YA, and even someone who says MG. (Might be confusing because the MC does live at home with his parents still, though maybe the voice itself is youngish?)

Fair warning, I'm a YA author so I tend to read with a "YA voice." That said, I did get a younger vibe off of this (readers chime in here). It's the subtle things, such as "Yep, that did it." and "okay, it was intermixed with the heavy, foul odor of red meat" and "since I was eleven" that did it for me. These lines just felt like a teen or kid talking and like traditional YA internalization. Living at home also adds to that vibe, as did the "all excited about building something in my bedroom" sense.

I'd suggest establishing the narrator as an adult first, then show he lives at home. Readers don't learn his age until after enough "kid" clues have already appeared. You might also look at adding more adult details like work and what he does right away, maybe have him swig a beer or something similarly adult.

(Here's more on showing a character's age)

3. Do any parts sound like the author intruding instead of the MC’s voice (this has been something I’ve been working on a lot, but always gives me difficulty)? For this story (as I usually do), I’ve been trying to keep fully in the MC’s head. It is in first-person POV, too, after all. Do any parts feel told?

There were some tellish areas that feel more like the author explaining the situation than the character living it. Let's look at those one at a time:
My fingers quivered with excitement
The only way the reader can tell that he's excited is because you tell them. There are no other indications that he's excited. It's not bad and people use "with X" all the time, but it could be more shown if you wanted to flesh it out.
I could prove my genius to the C.E.O. of Electrifirm and get the hell out of the mailroom once and for all.
This feels a little in his voice, but it also feels like it's explaining why this matters to him and what the point of it is. It's also telling where he works and what he does, and that he's a genius (or thinks he is). Odds are he'd use the CEO's name, not his title and where he works. That's there for the reader's benefit. In a few more lines, you show this much better and even create a little mystery with his plan to show the model to the boss. You could have him think "this will get me out of the mail room" and establish that fact as well in a more shown way.
I felt like a child again in light of my amazing accomplishment. Tomorrow was the day my life would change forever, and at the ripe-old age of twenty-four, no less. It simply felt too good to be true.
This explains how her feels and why this matters and suggests what's to come. It also repeats the shown lines, but doesn't really tell us anything more about what's going on. What's his "amazing accomplishment?" How does he expect this to change his life? There's a lot of vague information that tells readers they should be excited about his plan to change his life, but there aren't enough details or information to see why or how that's going to happen to be intriguing.
But the euphoric feeling immediately plummeted to the floor at the sight of my brother’s massive, muscular figure at the dinner table.
Readers see the reaction before they see what he's reacting to. It also feels a little tellish because he's explaining why his euphoria fades and describes his brother in an odd way. Is this really how he thinks or is that there to tell readers his brother is a big muscular guy? Try showing what Norm sees, then how he reacts. If he feels inadequate, show that by how he interacts with Tom.
Despite the fact Tom lived in the penthouse at the top of the second tallest building in Electri-City, he ate dinner here at our parents’ middle-class apartment every night.
Norm knows this so it's there for the reader's benefit. Try tweaking it so it sounds like something Norm would think about his brother. Maybe he says something to him, like "What? No food in that penthouse of yours? You have to mooch of Mom?" You might also try adding details that show a middle-class apartment instead of stating it outright.

(Here's more on telling in internalization)

4. Does this work for a first page; would you keep reading?

It's not drawing me in yet (readers chime in here) because there's nothing I want to know the answer to. Norm has something he's sure will change his life and I have no reason to doubt him. There's no sense of stakes to make me worry this isn't going to go well (aside from the tradition that these things never go well in stories). I don't know much about him to care about his plight yet.

This is where the humor could really pay off for you. Make a reader laugh and they'll follow you anywhere. If you establish Norm as a funny guy with a dream, then readers will want to read on to see if he gets it. If they like him (and humor goes a long way to making a character likable) then they'll read on even if nothing much is going on.

(Here's more on hooking readers from the first line)

Overall, I think this is trying too hard to establish setup details and not showing enough of Norm in his world, with his problem and goal. Perhaps focus a little more on him and what he's trying to do, and less on the setup stuff. Let readers get to know him, see what he's hoping to do, and why this might go badly so they can root for him.

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:

I popped open a can of Fizz Beer and took [the longest swig of any fluid I’d ever taken] Feels a little over exaggerated for an opening line The stuff was cheap as hell, and non-creatively-named to boot, but there wasn’t much more a twenty-four-year-old guy like me? could afford with a crummy mailroom job. And I had to celebrate my impeccable achievement somehow.

Raw energy—along with the insufficient buzz and flavorless taste of Fizz Beer—bolted through me as I stared at the electrical power grid model on my bedroom desk. After four years of nonstop, grueling, though at times invigorating, work, my masterpiece was finally complete. All I’d have to do was walk up to my boss tomorrow, show him the model, and—

“Norm, dinner!” Mom called from the bottom of the stairs.

Already? [Must’ve been so immersed in finishing my model, I’d completely lost track of time. As usual. ] Telling a bit, as he probably wouldn't explain to himself why he lost track of time I took another swig of Fizz Beer and grimaced. Should’ve gotten Buzz Beer instead. [Sure, it was a little more expensive, but it packed a bit more buzz and taste, and cut back a tad on the annoying fizz. ] Feels a little too much. Buzz Beer is funny, as it suggests a play on words, but this makes it sound like he actually means a different and real beer

I placed the can on my desk. I’d have to wait until after dinner to finish celebrating properly. [Or poorly, given the brand’s quality.] feels like a little too much focus on the beer

The scent of steamed fresh vegetables never smelled so succulent—[okay, it was intermixed with the heavy, foul odor of red meat] still just hits my ears funny stuck in this way—as I hopped down the stairs two at a time. The first time I’d done that since I was a kid. 

Overall, it's much better. Less telling, and I don't feel that the narrator is a kid anymore. I'm still not getting a sense of something about to happen to draw me in, unless the open can of beer is going to spill on his model and ruin it. Nice job!

3 comments:

  1. This sounds promising but your MC doesn't come across as 24 because his responds to his mother as if he were a 14 year old - those 10 years have to mean something. Perhaps his Mum says something like 'Your Dad and I've had supper: the kitchen's all yours.' This might even present an opportunity for humour if your MC dearly wishes that he was being treated like a teenager with his meals cooked and his washing done. I think one of the things the first page should do is tell me what kind of journey you're taking me on. So it should at least make me smile. If you can make me laugh then I am on my way to the cash register...

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  2. Out of curiosity, how old do you want your MC to come across to other characters? I'm 24 and people are genuinely surprised when they find out I'm over 20. I think so long as you establish he is an adult within the first page him coming across as younger than he is could present you with opportunities for humour which you may not have considered before.

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