Saturday, December 12

Real Life Diagnostics: Dealing With Tough Subject Matter: Would You Read On?

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: Five 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through January 16.

This week’s question:

I’m trying to get a story off the ground. What do you think of this as the first half of the opening scene? Are the showing and telling appropriately balanced? If this came at you over the transit, would you continuing reading? The scene continues with the boys working on their plan until the school bell calls them back to class.


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Rodger scanned the field before turning around. Lying on his back, he slid down the embankment and under the fence. A few yards into the woods, Bradley already had their AR-15s out.

“Hey, Rodge, you’re late,” Brad said tossing a rifle to him. “Anybody see you leave?”

“Yeah—like somebody would notice me.”

Brad tossed him a magazine. Rodger snatched it on the fly, slapped it into his weapon, and chambered a round in a single motion. The other boy grinned.

“Boy! You’ve got that down.”

“How you coming?”

“Watch,” Brad said as he ejected his clip. It hit the ground, and a second magazine appeared simultaneously. He jammed it home and pulled the bolt back in a blur. Only the sound of slapping metal confirmed what eyes had trouble following.

“Guess you’ve been practicing.”

“Yeah. I think we’re about ready. What do you think?”

“I think so, but I’m wondering about surviving.”

Brad shook his head. “We’ve been through this. There just ain’t no way. Even if they let us surrender, they’ll lock us in a hole forever. They’ll be a thousand dicks in our ass before we’re twenty, and then they’ll fry us. Man. I don’t want that life.”

“Me either, but I’m thinking maybe we can pull this off without getting caught.”

“How are we going to do that?”

“What if we empty a few magazines into the schoolyard and ditch the guns back in our hole? When we pop into the schoolyard a minute later, we act like we’re running for our lives like everybody else.”

“Man,” Brad sighed. “I can think of a thousand reasons why that won’t work.”

“Okay, man. Give it a go. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I think I’ve got it covered. If I missed something, maybe the two of us can figure it out.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

Rodger scanned the field before turning around. Lying on his back, he slid down the embankment and under the fence. A few yards into the woods, Bradley already had their AR-15s out.

“Hey, Rodge, you’re late,” Brad said tossing a rifle to him. “Anybody see you leave?”

[“Yeah—like somebody would notice me.”] Intriguing. I'm curious why not

Brad tossed him a magazine. Rodger snatched it on the fly, slapped it into his weapon, and chambered a round in a single motion. [The other boy grinned.] Not knowing the market when I started this, “boy” took me by surprise. I thought these were soldiers. That puts a different view on the "not notice me" line that's both sad, and foreboding 

“Boy! You’ve got that down.”

“How you coming?”

“Watch,” Brad said as he ejected his clip. It hit the ground, and a second magazine appeared simultaneously. He jammed it home and pulled the bolt back in a blur. Only the sound of slapping metal confirmed what eyes had trouble following.

“Guess you’ve been practicing.”

“Yeah. I think we’re about ready. What do you think?”

“I think so, but [I’m wondering about surviving.”] Uneasiness sets in about here. I’m starting to dread what these two are doing. 

Brad shook his head. “We’ve been through this. There just ain’t no way. Even if they let us surrender, they’ll lock us in a hole forever. They’ll be a thousand dicks in our ass before we’re twenty, and then they’ll fry us. Man. I don’t want that life.” There are a lot of questions here (which is good). I’m not sure if he means surrender if they do this or if they don’t. Are they about to commit a crime or fight for their lives?

“Me either, but I’m thinking maybe we can pull this off without getting caught.”

“How are we going to do that?”

“What if we empty a few magazines into the schoolyard and ditch the guns back in our hole? When we pop into the schoolyard a minute later, we act like we’re running for our lives like everybody else.”

“Man,” Brad sighed. “I can think of a thousand reasons why that won’t work.”

“Okay, man. Give it a go. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I think I’ve got it covered. If I missed something, maybe the two of us can figure it out.”

The questions:

1. What do you think of this as the first half of the opening scene?


It’s working. There’s tension, a sense of things about to happen, a good level of uncertainty about the meaning of the events to make me wonder what’s going on that I’d like answers to. Are these boys trying to hurt people or escape something worse? Where is this set—now or a future world? (though cover copy would clear that up), is this a retaliation for mistreatment? A cry for help? What's really going on here? Is there more or is this what it looks like? All good questions to hook me.

I’m not sure if these boys are trying to escape something or being bad people, so I don’t know if I should be rooting for them or against them. While that certainly helps with the hook to read on, it also creates a certain amount of trepidation. If this is a horrible, no-other-choice action to escape a worse fate, and they’re not actually trying to hurt anyone, I might feel bad for these two and hope they figure out a way to solve their problem without violence and want to see what they do. But if these guys are about to shoot at a school with the intent to hurt people, I have zero sympathy for them and would not want to read about their story (readers chime in here). My personal reading preference kicks in, and that has no bearing on the quality of the story.

(Here’s more on “not for me” novels)

I think the cover copy would shed a lot of light on this opening, as it would provide context for what I’m reading. The pieces are working to create curiosity and story questions, but the subject matter is one that will likely trigger a lot of emotions and be tough for some people to read. Which might be the goal—to tell a story about a difficult subject.

(Here’s more on crafting strong opening scenes)

2. Are the showing and telling appropriately balanced?

It reads as a third person omniscient narrator to me, so there’s a certain level of detachment, but it feels shown and not told. There’s no internalization to let me know what’s going on in their heads, though, and I’m not sure who the protagonist is, but there’s enough dialogue and action to keep the story moving. Not having the internalization actually works to create mystery, as I’m not sure what they’re up to. But it does keep me at a distance from them. It almost has a prologue feel, so I’m curious if these are my protagonists or the characters who trigger the plot.

(Here’s more on show don’t tell)

3. If this came at you over the transit, would you continuing reading?

Yes and no. I am curious about where this is going, but I also dread it (readers chime in here). I’d need to see what the book is about before I decided to keep reading. As I mentioned, it’s a tough subject matter, so how it’s handled will affect my interest in seeing more (but that’s just purely personal taste on the part of the reader). For example, Beck McDowelll’s This is Not a Drill, handles a school gunman well and creates a gripping story, and I enjoyed that book a lot. But I’ve also set down books that focused on the violence for the shock value and didn’t hold my interest.

Overall, this is a tougher snippet to diagnose. You said you were trying to get this story off the ground (I assume you mean trying to work out the first draft), so you’re on the right track. It’s doing what an opening scene needs to do—grab my interest and make me curious about what’s going to happen next. In that sense it’s working and I’d read on. What happens next will determine if this is the type of book I personally like to read or not.

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. Like Janice said, it's well handled and may all come down to how you present the characters in this.

    One tiny thing I had to point out: you give a lot of attention to the guns and their details (eg introducing them as AR-10s before quickly swapping in "rifle" for clarity). But I did see one use of "clip" instead of "magazine," and that's one of those infamous slips that weapon experts will hold against you forever. (At the same time, it's natural for non-military *characters* to say it, just because it's one syllable instead of three.) A small thing, and definitely not the point of your story, but it's a point worth handling.

    I've read RLD every week for at least a year now, and this is one of the more polished tales I've seen here. Nicely done.

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  2. I was just confused on the last quote after Brad said he didn't think it would work. Why is the other boy saying, Ok, give it a go? Maybe I've misread it, but other than that, nice start!

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  3. These guys don't seem evil. Their banter is like two buddies, without the dark passion needed to commit the atrocities they are contemplating. To me, this portends that you are going after the guns, not their intent. Without intent, the guns will do nothing.

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  4. I would liked to have one boy dead sure of what they are about to do and the other reticent. Then we have a new layer of tension - will they do it or not. I'm not sure if this is the right place to open the story. It doesn't feel like it. As a writer I ask myself where the story begins. Is this the doorway to a horrible act? Is this the place where the boys decide to commit a crime?

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  5. Janice, Ken, Lori, Dave, and Brian (Colleagues):

    I am the writer of this RLD submission. (Sorry to be posting anonymously—it’s a long story.)

    Thank you for your comments and suggestions. I very much appreciate (and need) all the help I can get. I intend to take your commentary to my writers’ group meeting next week. Previously, they reviewed a much longer version of this submission. I hope to reconsider our group discussion in light of your commentary and think your insights will help us improve as writers and critics. I know you’ve helped me.

    Thank you,

    Bob

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  6. I was a little confused about the phrase "what eyes had trouble following." Seemed to me that you jumped out of POV when you said this. Who's eyes? Because you said they went back into the school, I knew these were boys. But it really made me wonder about this snippet. They seem like they're about ready to blast a few people to bits, but then they go back into the school? I would have to agree with Janice that their motivation really matters to me. I can't tell if I should like them or hate them. I think Brian's idea of having 2 different POV on what they're about to do is excellent. Good luck!

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  7. Good overall voice, and great job of showing not telling. The only thing is that the dialogue does feel a little info-dumpy. I don't know your characters yet to really care about the world they live in and how it affects them. You don't need much, but a little more characterization to start with so we get to know the boys would make me want to read on. It is intriguing, just hasn't grabbed me yet.

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