Saturday, January 2

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Historical 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: Six 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through February 13.

This week’s questions:

This is my first attempt at writing a novel. I would like to know if this opening is gripping enough to make you want to turn the page, or if it is too obscure or confusing. It is still a very rough draft, so any pointers on where I am telling instead of showing or switching tenses would be much appreciated as well.


Market/Genre: Adult Historical Science Fiction with aspects of Historical Mystery

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The salty spray stung Astrid’s cheeks as she reflected on her current predicament, which was the fact that, despite her physical presence on board the shipping liner, she did not exist. She focused her gaze on the dock through the mist and darkness with clenched teeth. There wasn’t anyone around, which was lonely, but a necessity. Peering over the railing at the black water below, she tightened her grasp on the cold bar, feeling the moister seep through her fingerless wool gloves, and her whole body stiffened with anxiety. She glanced at her watch, 2am, it was now or never. She ran through it one more time in her head, lower one of the life boats, slip under the Casco Bay Bridge until she saw the Nova Seafood building, pull the life boat on shore so the crew will see it and retrieve it in the morning, slip through the bushes next to Nova, and start the two hour walk to her Aunt’s house. She had done it countless times before, and she hated it every time. She just had to stay unseen, and keep her teeth hidden; otherwise she would have far more complicated things to explain than a lack of a last name or identification. The tip of her tongue compulsively touched each of her canine teeth before she released the rope latch on the portside of the ship facing Casco Bay city, hidden from the International shipping dock on the starboard side, and began lowering the life boat down to the choppy water below.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Note: It might have been a formatting issue, but the submission was one block of text, so I broke it into paragraphs where I felt they belonged. 


The salty spray stung Astrid’s cheeks [as she reflected on her current predicament, which was the fact that, despite her physical presence on board the shipping liner, she did not exist.] feels a little tellish since there’s no sense of what she’s reflecting on She focused her gaze on the dock through the mist and darkness with clenched teeth. There wasn’t anyone around, which was lonely, but a necessity.

Peering over the railing at the black water below, she tightened her grasp on the cold bar, [feeling the moister seep] a little tellish through her fingerless wool gloves, and her whole body stiffened [with anxiety.] same here. Her body stiffening shows her anxiety  She glanced at her watch, 2am, it was now or never.

She ran through it one more time in her head, [lower one of the life boats, slip under the Casco Bay Bridge until she saw the Nova Seafood building, pull the life boat on shore so the crew will see it and retrieve it in the morning, slip through the bushes next to Nova, and start the two hour walk to her Aunt’s house.] This tells readers what’s about to happen, which hurts the tension She had done it countless times before, and she hated it every time. She just had to stay unseen, and [keep her teeth hidden;] unexpected detail, and intriguing otherwise she would have far more complicated things to explain than a lack of a last name or identification.

The tip of her tongue compulsively touched each of her canine teeth before she released the rope latch on the portside of the ship facing Casco Bay city, hidden from the International shipping dock on the starboard side, and began lowering the life boat down to the choppy water below.

The questions:

1. Is this opening is gripping enough to make you want to turn the page, or if it is too obscure or confusing?

I’d read on a little more (readers chime in here). Something is definitely going on, and the little clue about her teeth is intriguing. I’m curious why she’s running and what she is (though that might be revealed on the cover copy). I don’t have all the details yet, but that’s okay since I can clearly see she’s running or escaping something (at least going somewhere, but it has a “run” feel to me). There’s a sense of her trying to accomplish a goal (get to her aunt’s house) and a story question to draw me in and make me want to know more.

I’d suggest cutting the part where she explains what she’s about to do, though. Part of the draw is wondering what she’s up to, so letting that unfold will help hook the reader. Giving it all away means there’s no reason for the reader to keep reading.

Due to the distant narrator, it has a prologue vibe to it, so I’m not sure (based solely on this), if this is the actual story or if it’s going to jump ahead in time after Astrid reaches her aunt’s. This could go right into her taking the boat to shore, or cut to later or even another character.

A few very minor things…This is labeled as “adult historical” but I’m getting a YA vibe since it’s a girl running to her aunt (but that could just be me since I write YA). I’m also not getting “historical” from this, so you might consider adding a few details to help set the scene’s time period.

(Here’s more on grounding readers in the setting)

2. Are there any places where I am telling instead of showing or switching tenses?

This is one of those snippets where this is hard to answer definitively. It does have a distant, explanatory tone that makes it feel a little tellish in spots, but that’s also an aspect of a third person omniscient narrator.

(Here's more on narrative distance vs. telling)

If this is an omniscient narrator, then those spots are part of the narrative style and not likely to bother readers (readers chime in here). If this is third person limited centered on Astrid, then those spots will feel told due to the red flag telling words. I’d suggest editing those to show more. Either POV style, showing more would help readers feel more “in the moment” and add even more tension, so it’s not a bad idea.

(Here’s more on omniscient narrators)

Overall, I’d read on to see where this went. It’s offering me a puzzle I want to see answered.

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.

3 comments:

  1. I think it would help a great deal if the past tense words were changed to present tense. In the moment, (showing) because it feels like the narrator is relating events after they happen. (telling)

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  2. I always end up agreeing with Janice. And since this is historical, I really don't have a sense of time period which you could put in with just a few specific details. And although you mention some places, none are familiar to me so I can't place this. Although, that could come later. The stuff about the teeth was distracting to me. Unless it's really important to put in at the beginning, I'd layer it in later. Good luck! Historical YA fiction is hard to do! But for an excellent example, read "The Hired Girl" by Amy Schlitz. I'm reading it now and am in awe. Deep POV and great historical details.

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  3. You asked if I would turn the page. Sadly no. In fact, I would probably close the cover. Part of it is the giant block of words. Part of it is that I couldn't tell what was going on. It didn't feel like deliberate confusion, just confusing.
    The first sentence is the hardest to write. It sets the mood for the entire story. Here are some thoughts that might help.

    One of Elmore Leonard's rules for writing is: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
    This sounds like writing to me. You don't need to clarify everything immediately. That first sentence is like a hook in a song. It is the grabber. Here's what I mean. Emily had to get off this damn ship before...well before he found her. With this I would know the main character in this scene is a woman, she's upset, she's on a ship, and she thinks she is in danger. All in 14 words. (I've spent a lot of time on first sentences).

    Another good idea is: Start at the beginning. To me that means start at the point the real story begins. Jump into action.
    Read some great opening lines like these:

    It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

    “It was raining in Richmond on Friday, June 6.” —Patricia Cornwell, Postmortem

    "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

    ― William Gibson, Neuromancer

    I picked these pretty much at random. There are of lot of lists of great first sentences and they are worth reading. I hope this helps and I'm sorry if I called your baby, ugly.

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