Saturday, February 27

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Mystery/Thriller 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 April 9.

This week’s questions:

Does this grab you as an opening? Why (if you would) want to turn the page?


Market/Genre: Mystery/Thriller

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Eve Bell held her chin high as she passed three reporters aiming microphones and shouting questions, and two photographers clicking cameras like they were machine guns. She didn’t like people who ducked and covered their faces when the media were present. Own up, Evie, own up, her dad used to tell her. She said nothing to the reporters. Didn’t stop for the cameras.

She entered the hearing room and paused, a hush fell over the crowd. She took her seat at the witness table, as did her appointed adviser, Lt. Walter Levy.

Before the OPA opened the case against her, Eve had never met Levy. She picked him from a list of Lieutenants provided by the department. His name was the only one from Major Cases. Couldn’t hurt to have a council with homicide experience, she had thought.

He’d been helpful, giving her tips on how to behave at the hearing and to tell the truth in short sentences, no elaboration. She had listened but had decided to follow her own instincts. She’d learned from Claire not to play defense when offense worked so much better.

Five Seattle PD commanding officers shuffled in from a side door. Each of them wore formal uniforms and displayed a chest full of shiny medals acquired over long careers. They stood until each was positioned behind their seats at the long table at the head of the room. They sat in unison.

Commander Thomas Dunham in the center seat shuffled papers and tapped on his microphone, then said, “This is the final session of an investigatory hearing into a shooting involving Detectives Claire Meeks and Eve Bell.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Eve Bell held her chin high as she passed three reporters aiming microphones and shouting questions, [and two photographers clicking cameras like they were machine guns.] I like the image here, but this feels like one detail too many She didn’t like people who ducked and covered their faces when the media were present. Own up, Evie, own up, her dad used to tell her. She said nothing to the reporters. Didn’t stop for the cameras.

She entered the hearing room and paused, a hush fell over the crowd. She took her seat at the witness table, as did her appointed adviser, [Lt. Walter Levy.] This made me think military, so it threw me that she’s a detective at the end

Before the [OPA] I don’t know what this stands for opened the case against her, Eve had never met Levy. She picked him from a list of Lieutenants provided by the department. His name was the only one from Major Cases. [Couldn’t hurt to have a council with homicide experience, she had thought.] This makes her feel a little cold to me. If she’s involved in a homicide, I’d think she’d be more concerned

He’d been helpful, giving her tips on how to behave at the hearing and to tell the truth in short sentences, no elaboration. [She had listened but had decided to follow her own instincts. She’d learned from Claire not to play defense when offense worked so much better.] I’m feeling a little detached from her, even though I get the sense that these are her thoughts. I’m not sure how to feel about her.

Five Seattle PD commanding officers shuffled in from a side door. Each of them wore formal uniforms and displayed a chest full of shiny medals acquired over long careers. They stood until each was positioned behind their seats at the long table at the head of the room. They sat in unison. Does she have any feelings about them? Is she scared? Is this routine?

Commander Thomas Dunham in the center seat shuffled papers and tapped on his microphone, then said, “This is the final session of an investigatory hearing into a shooting involving Detectives Claire Meeks and Eve Bell. A final session implies a decision will soon be made, but Eve doesn’t feel like someone about to face an important decision.

The questions:

1. Does this grab you as an opening?


Not yet, but it’s possible it’s just me (readers chime in here). There’s nothing inherently wrong here, I’m just not connecting to Eve as a character or finding her current problem compelling as a reader--which could mean I'm not the right reader for this particular book.

It has the right pieces. Eve is clearly in the middle of a problem, she’s involved in a shooting that most likely resulted in a death (since she’s pleased there’s a homicide guy there), there are a lot of heavy hitters there with all the uniforms, so it looks like this is a big case with high stakes.

Perhaps if I’d read the cover copy I’d see the bigger picture, but as is, I don’t know Eve well enough yet to care about her as a person. She’s cold and distant, very professional I gather, but there’s nothing there to make me interested in what happens to her. I also don’t know what the problem is about, so for all I know, she’s a killer or dirty cop and I’m not supposed to care about her.

More internalization from Eve to show who she is and how she feels about all this would help me connect with her better. I can see the overall general problem, but there aren’t enough details to ground me in what’s going on, and nothing personal enough to make me care enough to find out.

(Here’s more on internalization)

I was also a little confused about what exactly was going on. I guess a hearing isn’t a trial, but Levy felt like an attorney to me, so calling him lieutenant made me think this was a military hearing. When then Seattle PD arrived it threw me a little and I had to stop to reevaluate what I’d read.

Also, her comments about Levy’s advice and what she had decided to do instead made it seem like they just met, but then this was the last session of this incident. Did she not have representation before this? Hasn’t he been there all along? I feel like I’m missing key details to understand the situation, so a few more words to clarify what's going on might be nice.

(Here’s more on hooking readers in an opening)

2. Why (if you would) want to turn the page?

For me, I’d need a reason to care about Eve and the predicament she’s found herself in. Voice goes a long way to hooking me, and if I felt she was someone I wanted to spend time with to see how this turns out, I’d read on (readers also chime in here).

I might also be intrigued if I knew more about the shooting and what was at stake here. Eve isn’t capturing me personally, but if the intellectual problem was interesting enough, that could work as a hook until I get to know her better.

(Here’s more on hooking readers’ hearts and brains)

It’s possible it’s starting too late. I’m immediately thrown into the hearing with no knowledge of who or what is at stake, or what the conflict is. Had I read a scene with Eve just prior to this, perhaps her getting that advice from the Lt., or her deciding how to approach the hearing, something that showed me who she is and what she has at stake here, I might be drawn in more and feel more grounded in the problem.

(Here’s more on starting in the right place)

Overall, this might be a personal taste issue, so hopefully readers who read this type if novel more often than I do will share their thoughts. It’s too detached for me, and isn’t yet offering me anything beyond a generic courtroom drama. I feel like I’m struggling to catch up, even though I see things going on that are probably pretty cool. Perhaps add a few more personal touches from Eve (if that fits the story) to bring out the personal stakes side of this.

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.

4 comments:

  1. I quite liked the opening sentence, although the thought was broken when you brought the photographers in. I would watch repeating "like" two sentences in a row. Maybe another word choice? The introduction of five people's names along with military/police jargon is a bit much for me to focus on. I have a short attention span!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I liked most of this sample, and agree with most of Janice's responses.

    My impressions of the MC were that she was a disciplined person, had solid upbringing, and was facing a hearing. The clue there was that she wasn't entering a court room. I didn't expect a large audience, as that didn't fit my perception of a hearing. I also thought it was military, but the transition to law enforcement wasn't difficult.

    I did feel that the hearing had been happening for awhile, but the her reasons for choosing her defender were related as so current that I thought it was only the second day -- still early in the process. This made the 'final' designation odd.

    However, I was willing to find out more about the decision in the shooting, as I felt the story of that shooting would be forthcoming as the story of her dealing with the decision came out.

    Two female law enforcement officers was interesting to me. The officers with all their brass on felt threatening, but I wasn't clear as to their part - accusers, part of IA, or supporters.

    An officer shooting is a big deal, so I anticipated a lot of dramatic tangents being involved in the story.

    I would have read on...but then, I worked as a civilian in law enforcement for a long time, so...

    Good luck and thanks to the writer for letting us all chime in.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I like the writing. It's very precise, and from what I've read, this style probably matches the main character's personality well. I agree with Janice though that it feels distant in spots. Even a character with a straight-spine type personality who is good at hiding their emotions is going to have internal reactions and thoughts about what is going on around them.

    The third and fourth paragraphs are telling the reader backstory instead of weaving it naturally into the narrative. That took me out of the moment more than anything.

    For example, instead of telling us that Levy had given her tips, you could wait until she is being questioned and balk at a misleading question. It would make sense for her to think about Levy's advice in that moment, and you can show the reader how she decides to go with her instinct instead by how she responds.

    As for the third paragraph, I feel like it's slowing down the beginning of the story without adding any terribly important information. If it is an important distinction to the story that she didn't know him prior to the hearing, I would again say to try to work their familiarity or lack thereof into a natural interaction between them in the story... i.e. - Have him ask her a personal question related to the trial that someone close to her would already know the answer to or something like that. That way the reader can infer that Eve and Levy don't know each other very well.

    I really like how the first paragraph gives a sense of who Eve is—her pride and her priorities. I love this sentence, "Own up, Evie, own up, her dad used to tell her." I think a little more personal and in-the-moment reaction from Eve like this as the story goes on would really help the reader relate to her more.

    I assume this isn't a regular trial and is more of a police misconduct hearing which is why she has a LT as her adviser instead of a lawyer and there's no mention of a judge. Also, I kind of get the feeling that, since Claire isn't there, Eve has just experienced the loss of a friend and fellow officer. It would make sense if she was still in a bit of shock or trying to distance herself from her emotions. It will probably be tricky to walk the line between that and letting the reader in, but it's especially important to manage it at the beginning of the story so the reader doesn't want to put the book down after a couple pages.

    Overall, I enjoyed this opening and I would have read on to learn more about what happened with the OIS. Thanks for sharing your work with us!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I want to thank everyone for their comments. You have helped me make my opening stronger and and my future writing better. Thanks again to Janice and everyone.

    And Marie, there are not only two female cops, they are partners and really badass.

    ReplyDelete