Saturday, June 13

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Historical Fiction Opening Grab 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 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: Three

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through July 11.

This week’s question:

1. Does this opening work?

Market/Genre: Historical Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

1. That Way Madness Lies

Boston - Saturday, 27 November 1773

Patriots if they knew of what Warren dreamed would surely judge him mad.

In quiet moments by a well-laid fire, the young doctor from Boston imagined what his peers might voice if he shared his visions, his troubled thoughts.

Doctor Warren's daft, I tell you. Gone completely daft.

Exposed a vision, one of his dreams to me, did he not. Unite the thirteen American colonies, he says. Forge a new nation, independent of English rule.

But, we're not to be the United Colonies. No, sir. State is what he prefers, derived from ancient Greece, he says. The world shall know us as the United States . . . the United States of America, where we and untold millions yet unborn shall live free.

Bold, but impractical concept. Blend varied populations, religious affiliations, and dissimilar economic pursuits into one. Impossible, I'd say.

His Majesty George III and Parliament, I tell you, will not surrender these colonies willingly.

Aye, there's a rub, another one of his bloody, improbable dreams. First, incite rebellion in Massachusetts Bay. With the support of the colonies, expand the conflict to other regions. But we'd have no hope to triumph in a war with England.

The stepping-stone to it all, Warren says, is the destruction of the Boston tea.

My Thoughts in Purple:

1. That Way Madness Lies

Boston - Saturday, 27 November 1773

Patriots, if they knew of what Warren dreamed, would surely judge him mad. Think this is missing a few commas

In quiet moments by a well-laid fire, the young doctor from Boston imagined what his peers might voice if he shared his visions, his troubled thoughts. This feels like a repetition of the opening line, so I don’t think you need both.

Doctor Warren's daft, I tell you. Gone completely daft. Cute

Exposed a vision, one of his dreams to me, did he not. Unite the thirteen American colonies, he says. Forge a new nation, independent of English rule.

But, we're not to be the United Colonies. No, sir. State is what he prefers, I get a little lost here. Is this a peer or Warren's thought now? derived from ancient Greece, [he says.] This phrasing is feeling a little repetitious now. Perhaps not use it so much? The world shall know us as the United States . . . the United States of America, where we and untold millions yet unborn shall live free.

Bold, but impractical concept. Blend varied populations, religious affiliations, and dissimilar economic pursuits into one. Impossible, I'd say.

His Majesty George III and Parliament, I tell you, will not surrender these colonies willingly. You might consider formatting it differently so it’s clear which text is the peer text and what are Warren’s thoughts. I'm having a tough time following who is thinking what.

Aye, there's a rub, another one of his bloody, improbable dreams. First, incite rebellion in Massachusetts Bay. With the support of the colonies, expand the conflict to other regions. But we'd have no hope to triumph in a war with England.

The stepping-stone to it all, Warren says, is the destruction of the Boston tea.

The question:

1. Does this opening work?

For me, not yet (readers chime in here, as I don’t read much historical fiction). Although I like the idea of the imagined conversation as an internal debate, it was confusing to follow. It also didn't reveal anything I don’t already know, so there’s no sense of conflict. This reads more like setup to me, giving readers a quick summary of the pre-tea party situation. You might examine how you format that conversation as well. For example, putting only the peers' dialog in italics would have made it much clearer for me to follow. It starts off with him imagining the peers thoughts, then it goes into what looks like an imagined conversation between Warren and his peers.

I suspect the goal of the scene and the meat of the story begins right after this ends, and now that this information has been established, the story can start. Warren will try to bring this plan to fruition and cause the Boston Tea Party. Or, it might jump back to a “three weeks earlier” device and show the events that led him to realize this path of action. It could go either way (or neither way, though that’s just how it feels to me).

(Here's more on knowing where to start your novel) 

I do like him musing about the naysayers to his plan, but it feels like it goes on a little too long without revealing anything new. You might consider trimming it down to a few comments and getting to what Warren does a little faster. I’m not yet grounded in the story to know what this scene is about—what’s Warren’s plan? What is he doing? I know he’s planning a rebellion, but that’s not enough to draw me in since I know how this all went down historically. Is there a twist or new element this brings to the historical event? What will readers discover here?

From a storytelling standpoint, what is the question readers will want an answer to that will make them curios to read on? They’ll already be interested in the American Revolution or they wouldn’t have picked this book up. What else is here to pique their interest? How might you bring out that aspect in this opening?

(Here's more on writing the opening scene)

Overall, this feels like a mini-prologue to me, and whether or not I read on would be determined by what happens next. The goal has been stated, I know this is a path that works, so what’s the twist here? Why should I keep reading about Warren? I imagine there’s something about him and his dream that is different from the history, though that might have been stated in the cover copy (or it might not exist at all if the purpose is just to show a fictional account of the historical event–historical readers chime in here).

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.

9 comments:

  1. FWIW, I had no sense of a conversation with Warren. I had the idea that “Naysayer” was doing all the objecting, perhaps as a group exchanging comments or a single person.
    However, I don’t read historical fiction either, so may not be understanding the techniques. It’s just how it read to me.
    Thanks!

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  2. Thanks to the author for putting their material on display.

    I edit historical fiction and have found that the best use assumed knowledge to their benefit, springboarding off of it into deep character interaction.

    In this sample, I wanted to see either action triggered by brief internal thoughts or the internal thought show a quick one-two punch of information and conclusion, followed by actions that showed the result of that conclusion (pounding the arm of the chair, getting up and pacing, etc). Quiet musing by the fire feel, to me, more like a scene that allows the reader to stop (with the character) and consider recent happenings, while formulating future action - in this case, treasonous actions and ideas. I want to feel like the character is uncomfortable (shifts positions in his chair, can't get comfortable, etc) with the information he's mulling over.
    Historical fiction, to me, is great fun because we get to put a personal face on historical happenings.
    Tell me more about the doctor, that character, and I'll gladly follow you to the next pages.
    Thanks, Janice for providing these reviews - it's a great opportunity to think through obstacles. I use these regularly to give me a broader perspective of my edits and how to better support my authors.

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  3. Reading this, it is not clear to me if he is arguing with himself or someone else.I love historical fiction.

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  4. I love historical fiction, but my favorites are the ones which spend time showing me a character like myself, who just happens to be in a setting I studied in history. I'd love to know who that character is going to be on page one. I wasn't sure if this book is about Warren or one of his compatriots.
    If you are writing from the viewpoint of a madman, be careful not to drive the reader crazy with crazy dialogue. Janice made a great point in her June 8 post: dialogue (even internal conversations) have to give the reader the feeling of the exchange, not an exact play-by-play.
    Lastly, I find it amazingly eye-opening to have total strangers read the dialogue/monologue passages outloud. When we read our own work, we know right where to breathe, where to pause, where the inflections go. Hearing our words with someone else's voice can teach us where to punctuate or restructure so the dialogue communicates what we want it to.
    Thanks for submitting your passage. I learned a lot.

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  5. I agree with Janice here. Although I like the stranger's objections and the descriptions of the period, I suggest you strip this down to half or less. Potentially this could be a prologue (seeing as no setting/action has been established).
    If it is a first chapter, it all depends whether it's from Warren's POV or a more omniscient one. My opinion would be to have him talk with a friend or colleague before the Tea Party so they could act this out with real dialogue (and as you follow him thru the streets, slip in period detail, citizens mocking soldiers, etc.) Him musing by the fire is a good scene to me, just not right at the beginning.
    Thanks for submitting. I might have to do it myself!

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  6. I agree with Janice that I got lost in this segment, although I could see the author was trying hard to establish voice-which I admired. I also agree that the reader needs to see more action and less internal dialogue. Real time dialogue, like Michelle suggested, is a good idea.

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  7. It didn't work for me as is, though I don't read much of this sort of historical fiction. I liked the Greek comparison, but even as someone with limited knowledge of American history (being English), I felt his over-ambition was hammered a bit too hard. Condense it all into 2 or 3 short paragraphs (or better, sentences), as a prelude to him setting off a bomb (literal or metaphorical), and I'd be in for the ride.

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  8. I didn't lose track of who was speaking. Warren, whomever he is, isn't speaking. It's all the narrator, as if he's heard what Warren is considering and is telling us as he (the narrator) gives his thoughts on it. It's different, I kinda like it, but I don't see a whole book of it.

    Yes, it might work better in a conversation with Warren outlining his plan and the other person stating his objections afterwards, or interrupting periodically, and finally saying, "Warren, this is crazy! You're crazy. Do you really think that....will work? Not in a pig's eye!"

    Who is Warren? Who is the current narrator? Are they real?
    And yes, we all should reread what we wrote before we hit send.

    good writing and good luck.

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  9. I did get lost. I assumed he was arguing with himself (the young doctor imagined) until I read Warren says. Then I wasn't sure. I would love to know who Warren is. I need to know in order to care about him. I'm assuming he's a doctor. I might read on if the opening is fixed.

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