Saturday, June 20

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Set Up an Intriguing Story Line?

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 site. 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: Two 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through July11.

This week’s question: 


1. Does my opening set up enough of an intriguing story line to read further? 

Market/Genre: Women’s fiction / literary fiction / fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: My story is about an autistic savant child with the psychic ability to converse with paintings who is groomed for time travel in her next life.

Chapter One – Who?

The first time a painting spoke to me I was three. That was in 1990, when I was Delphi Sharpe.

The view from the orphanage window had been a watercolor blur of blue and green as the first spatter of spring rain tapped hello, lightly on the glass. I waved at a robin hopping over the grass, trying to dodge the raindrops. As I giggled and pressed my nose against the glass, a woman’s voice called out behind me, “My brother loved birds too.”

It came from a book on Renaissance Art.

2012

Vancouver Island

PIAT - The Phoenix Institute of Art & Technology


– the ‘third level’ of captivity –

It rained again this morning. October rain trying to be snow. The trees creaked from the wet wind, juicy with sea salt, slamming my window and surging the forest canopy into a sea of leaves. In the midst of the swaying, nests clung to branches and baby birds clung to nests and new-laid eggs rolled softly under their mothers. I embraced the perfection of it. Bird augury quickened casually under my skin and fluttered like mild tremors.

I sent my eyes to keep lookout from a tall pine spar, grown bare and spindly a few feet from its top. I was watching for my father’s ship. I was waiting for the ‘Tardis.’ I was listening for my lover’s footsteps. I was looking for a sign. I could almost see the Eiffel Tower.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Chapter One – Who?

The first time a painting spoke to me I was three. That was in 1990, when I was Delphi Sharpe.

The view from the orphanage window had been a watercolor blur of blue and green as the first spatter of spring rain tapped hello, lightly on the glass. I waved at a robin hopping over the grass, trying to dodge the raindrops. As I giggled and pressed my nose against the glass, a woman’s voice called out behind me, “My brother loved birds too.” The repetition of glass, grass, and glass ht my ears funny, but that might be by design to show an aspect of the autism.

It came from a book on Renaissance Art. I'm intrigued.

2012

Vancouver Island

PIAT - The Phoenix Institute of Art &Technology

– the ‘third level’ of captivity –

It rained again this morning. October rain trying to be snow. The trees creaked from the wet wind, juicy with sea salt, slamming my window and surging the forest canopy into a sea of leaves. In the midst of the swaying, [nests clung to branches and baby birds clung to nests and new-laid eggs rolled softly under their mothers.] Nice I embraced the perfection of it. Bird augury quickened casually under my skin and fluttered like mild tremors.

I sent my eyes to keep lookout from a tall pine spar, grown bare and spindly a few feet from its top. I was watching for my father’s ship. I was waiting for the ‘Tardis.’ I was listening for my lover’s footsteps. I was looking for a sign. I could almost see the Eiffel Tower.

The question:

1. Does my opening set up enough of an intriguing story line to read further?


Yes and no (readers chime in). The voice is interesting, and the idea of someone who talks to paintings and travels through time is intriguing, but something feels disjointed to me. The shorter scenelttes like this are more common in literary fiction, so the twenty-two year jump isn’t as jarring as it would be in, say, a mystery or romance, but it still makes me wonder what the connection is.

The first scene intrigues me and draws me in. I want to know what the painting said and how that conversation about brothers and birds went. I’d read on from that, so that part works for me. However, the next scene doesn’t capitalize on the interest generated by scene one, and that scene doesn’t grab me. You have me at the end of scene one, but lose me in two.

The way scene one opens, it almost demands the next scene to open with “the second time…” Since it doesn’t do that, I assume that’s not the case. So I wonder why we needed to hear about the first time if nothing comes of it.

From a storytelling standpoint, I don’t feel that these scenes are building upon each other to a larger story. Perhaps look for ways that scene two could have a stronger connection to scene one, and pick up where it left off and take the story where it’s going.You might consider tightening your narrative focus so these scenes lead readers where you want them to go.

(Here's more on narrative focus)

I’d suggest building more on the hook you already have and continue that into scene two. Why does this scene connect to scene one? What is it you want readers to wonder about and be hooked by? Literary fiction is slower and softer than genre or mainstream fiction, so a quieter start isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t have to move fast as long as there’s a sense of things moving.

(Here's more on why quieter stakes are often easier to write)

Overall, I wonder if the right start of scene two is farther into the scene when that connection appears. I think if you continue to build on the scene one tension, you’ll draw readers right in and make them curious about the narrator’s story. But if it’s series of imagery-heavy scenes with no sense of purpose or connection, you’ll lose those readers. It could just be a matter of rearranging scenes for the strongest impact.

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.

7 comments:

  1. ''It came from a book..." is the strongest hook I've seen lately. I'd read this book.

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  2. Me too! Love the concept. But then the line "I sent my eyes to keep lookout..." stopped me. I had to think too hard about it and lost the flow.

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  3. I was drawn right in by the opening. I's very different and intrigued me right away. I would like to continue reading.

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  4. Love this opening.

    To me, the connection between the scenes was crystal clear. Rain. Wind. Trees. Someone looking through a window.

    The leap from childhood innocence and adult jaded-ness (that's how I interpreted it) was also revealing.

    I would read this book, too. Partly because I enjoy literary fiction and partly because I am an artist as well as an author.

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  5. OMG, this writer can write! Look at the joy of those words.
    BUT - I agree with Janice Hardy that lovely words need to lead forward to something that flows in a dramatic direction. I don't want to follow the words, I want to be carried by the unfolding story.

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  6. Wow. I loved that first bit, would love to read this!

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  7. This is an incredibly good opening. Definitely drew me in. But I do have three qualms with it:

    As mentioned above, the "I sent my eyes" line is a bit off. You can send your gaze somewhere, but your eyes shouldn't be leaving your body.

    Secondly, there is a problem in that there aren't going to be baby birds in a tree in October. Birds lay their eggs in the Spring, not the Fall. That mistake threw me right out of the story.

    And thirdly, I think the disjointedness you refer to stems from the first scene being only three paragraphs long when it suddenly jumps not only to a new scene, but a new location and time. I think the first scene needs more length so that it can feel more complete before we move on to the next one. Usually when this is done in a book, each time period is given an entire chapter. Which would be the natural breaking off point, I think.

    Well, that's my take on it. Again, this is some incredibly good writing here. Just keep the parts that are drawing the readers in and exorcise the parts that are kicking them out, and you'll really have something special here. But then, that's the tricky part isn't it?

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