Saturday, March 5

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Opening Engage 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 16.

This week’s questions:

1. Does the opening work to engage the reader emotionally in Deborah's problem?

2. How does she come across character-wise?

3. Do you feel 'grounded'?

4. Is this too long an introduction to the main scene?

5. Is there enough tension?

6. Would you wish to read further?

Market/Genre: Mainstream fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Richmond, Surrey,

March, 1973

Nineteen-years-old and her life was over. What was she to do?

She could jump from the attic window but the thought of her smashed skull and brains splattered all over the driveway wasn’t too appealing. She could slit her wrists but gagged at the mere sight of a drop of blood. Overdosing on sleeping pills was another option but since she wouldn’t dare steal from Mummy and had no way of obtaining a prescription that idea too fell by the wayside.

Sighing heavily, Deborah rubbed away the wet patch of condensation misting her bedroom window and stared out over the garden. On a clear day, the view was breathtaking. On those rare days when the sun shone and the sky turned blue, the Thames valley stretched for miles and miles, a lush green belt of heaths and commons, woodlands and parks so beloved by every self-respecting Londoner. Today, however, visibility was appalling. Gray fog clung like matted cobwebs to the evergreens, raindrops dripped from the twisted branches of the gnarled old oaks and the gazebo lay shrouded in a bleak, ghostly pall.

With another sigh, she released the frilly net curtain, slumped back to bed, climbed in and buried herself beneath the eiderdown. The official announcement of her engagement to Rodney in last weekend’s London Times and the ensuing avalanche of congratulations was the final nail in her coffin. Now there was no turning back. Nothing now, short of a miracle, could save her.

The jangle of the front doorbell pealing through the Georgian mansion with the shrill, harsh urgency of an ambulance siren jolted her out of her musings.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Richmond, Surrey,

March, 1973


Nineteen-years-old and her life was over. What was she to do?

She could jump from the attic window but the thought of her smashed skull and brains splattered all over the driveway wasn’t too appealing. She could slit her wrists but gagged at the mere sight of a drop of blood. Overdosing on sleeping pills was another option but since she wouldn’t dare steal from Mummy and had no way of [obtaining a prescription that idea too fell by the wayside] didn't they have over the counter pills in 1973?.

Sighing heavily, Deborah rubbed away the wet patch of condensation misting her bedroom window and stared out over the garden. On a clear day, the view was breathtaking. On those rare days when the sun shone and the sky turned blue, the Thames valley stretched for miles and miles, a lush green belt of heaths and commons, woodlands and parks so beloved by every self-respecting Londoner. Today, however, visibility was appalling. Gray fog clung like matted cobwebs to the evergreens, raindrops dripped from the twisted branches of the gnarled old oaks and the gazebo lay shrouded in a bleak, ghostly pall. Perhaps have her equate this view to her mood? Feels like it could benefit from a thought here.

With another sigh, she released the frilly net curtain, slumped back to bed, climbed in and buried herself beneath the eiderdown. The official announcement of her engagement to Rodney in last weekend’s London Times and the ensuing avalanche of congratulations was the final nail in her coffin. Now there was no turning back. Nothing now, short of a miracle, could save her.

The jangle of the front doorbell pealing through the Georgian mansion with the shrill, harsh urgency of an ambulance siren jolted her out of her musings.

The questions:

1. Does the opening work to engage the reader emotionally in Deborah's problem?

Yes (readers chime in here). Her life is over, and she doesn’t want to marry Rodney, and she seems just as gloomy as the view. She has a clear problem and feels strongly about it. What confused me a little, is that it’s 1973, so I’m not sure why this is an issue. Why doesn’t she say no and break the engagement? Why did she agree to marry him in the first place if she didn’t want to? It has a Regency Era arranged marriage vibe, but I’m not sure that’s true.

(Here's more on opening hooks)

2. How does she come across character-wise?

As a very unhappy person facing a marriage she doesn’t want. There’s not enough of her yet to get a strong sense of who she is beyond one “my life is over” sentiment, but I get the sense more is about to come with whoever is at the door. It does enough for the first page to set an emotional tone.

(Here's more on introducing characters)

3. Do you feel 'grounded'?

Yes and no. I can see it takes place in London, in what feels like a rich household. I love how the view mirrors her mood. Although I know it’s 1973, it feels like 1873 to me, so it’s a little disconcerting. It has all the earmarks of a historical, but it’s not.

If this were a Regency romance it makes more sense, but it seems old fashioned for what is essentially modern day (even if it is in the 70s). Because it feels so much like a classic Regency problem and the tone matches, I’m not sure what to make of it (readers chime in here).

(Here's more on painting the story world)

4. Is this too long an introduction to the main scene?

No. It creates a mood, sets up Deborah’s problem, and gives enough clues that readers know she’s facing a unwanted marriage and is nearly suicidal about it. Since it’s an odd thing for a girl in the 70s to be worried about, I’m curious why.

(Here's more on setup)

5. Is there enough tension?

There’s no real tension yet. Deborah doesn’t want to marry, but since I don’t know her or what any of this means, I'm more curious than worried. There’s also no goal is stated for Deborah, so I don’t know what she plans to do about it, aside from stay in bed and hide. I imagine whoever is at the door will complicate things, though, and there's a sense of anticipation and enough story questions to keep me reading. It’s a curious situation.

(Here's more on creating tension in quieter stories)

6. Would you wish to read further?

I’d give it a few more pages to see where it was going. I am intrigued, and if the conflict hooked me or I really liked Deborah once I got to know her a little better, I’d keep reading.

Overall, it has a few odds aspects, but I suspect the cover copy might clear some of that up. It’s offering a question that piques interest, it’s heading somewhere, and the problem is clear. This is a good example of an opening that really depends on what the book is about. If I was hooked by the cover copy, I’d give it time to unfold. If not, the next few pages would determine if I stuck with it or not (and personal taste does play a role 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.

12 comments:

  1. Here's my tuppence worth: I immediately knew the writer is not a native. First of all, there's no such thing as the "London Times" it's simply "The Times." Foreigners frequently make this mistake. It's fine to call it that in your own country in order to distinguish it from your local newspaper, but no one from the UK would ever do so. Ours was the first (1700s), and all the others which followed have to include their country/city of origin. In addition to the spelling of grey as "gray," the other dead giveaway is that Thames Valley is used incorrectly (it's also Valley with a capital V). I'm Home Counties born and bred, have lived in the Thames Valley area, and in that part of London, and therefore know it (and Richmond upon Thames) very well. There will be subtle nuances of the language that someone not raised here simply will not get. I've lost count of the number of books I've stopped reading and just deleted due to such innacurracies. I'm not at all sure what the appeal is of setting a novel in a country you're unfamiliar with - perhaps it seems exotic somehow, I don't know. My suggestion to the writer would be to set your story in your own country, in an area you know well, that way the story and the characters will ring true. Other than that, I liked what I read, and you should definitely keep writing :)

    @Janice I almost forgot to say, sleeping pills aren't available over the counter, you can only get them on prescription here.

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    1. Hello Anonymous
      My second shot at replying! Hope this one works.
      Just wanted to thank you for your great feedback. I had a good chuckle because I do happen to be a native-born Londoner from the northern suburbs who left England at the age of 21 for warmer climes. As such, I should have known about "The Times". "Thames Valley" has a far nicer ring to it than simply "the Valley", but of course one's facts have to be 100% accurate so thanks for pointing out the mistakes.
      Regarding "gray" and "grey"...although I now live in Canada where the spelling is the same as the U.K. I'm aiming to get published in the North American market where spelling and terminology is different.
      Only Part One of my novel is set in England. The rest takes place in Israel where I lived for several years, (a far more exotic location!)
      I really appreciate the time and effort you put into your comments. It was a great little critique. Thank you! Any chance you could do some "beta" reading for me? You have a sharp eye for details :-))

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  3. Obviously, the writing is very fluid and easy to read, even for a non-native english speaker like me.
    There are a few things that don't fit very well. For instance, the hook is false. 19 years old people say their life is over because a bad haircut. So, no tension here, feels more like an ironical approach to a youngster's misfortunes. The next paragraph deepens this feeling. Thinking about suicide rationally means you want to attract attention. If you really want to do it, you don't worry about what your brains gonna look like or what Mummy is gonna think of you stealing her pills.
    Finally, in the last paragraph, POV becomes omniscient. Surely the hero doesn't refer to her house as "georgian mansion".
    Best wishes for the author. Keep writing, you do it well, in my opinion.

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    1. Many thanks for your feedback. POV character really doesn't want to do it (commit suicide) Just random thoughts running through her mind because, for reasons later revealed, she feels her life has spun out of control. You're quite right about "Georgian Mansion". Easily fixable! :-)) Thanks again.

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  4. I also thought this was easy to read and would continue on to see if there is a twist to a common theme. Aside from that, I think as a work of fiction, the writer has a right to make the places their own and doesn't have to have the born and bred lingo down.

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    1. Many thanks for your comments and interesting opinion.
      All best :-))

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  5. I'll try not to be too harsh, but I'm not a fan.

    From the opening line and the paragraph where she thinks about suicide, I got the impression that Deborah was a 13 yo girl trying to be edgy. I lost a friend to suicide. He blew his brains out all over the living room, and if his boss and another co-worker hadn't been concerned enough to duck out to check on him, his elementary school aged kids would have been the first to find his body. Thinking about others' opinions was the farthest thing from his mind. Obviously, not every reader has my experience with suicide, but that's what made me think Deborah was a young teen. More concerned about what everyone else thinks than how she actually feels.

    My second thought about the opening line--she's pregnant. Whenever I've heard college age women say "my life is over", it was because they got pregnant. So then it was a little jarring later to find out she's actually just engaged. Interest dropped dramatically for me then. She could just break the engagement. Easy. Unplanned pregnancies have a lot more complications.

    I also agree with the first Anon--why bother setting the story in London if you can't get the details right? What's the point? Find a beta or spend some time with Google. Details matter. If I were to pick this book up to read, I want to be transported to 1970's London. Not to some bizarro Americanized version of London. I can go to Epcot for that.

    Still, after all that, I did really enjoy the paragraph describing the setting. You have a real talent for painting pictures with words; that imagery is simply fantastic.

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    1. Hi Leah
      Really appreciate your input. Harsh--a little, but that's fine! Positive criticism is always welcome. I'm truly sorry about your friend and that this touched a raw nerve. What a tragedy!
      No, she wasn't pregnant but, should she break off her engagement, the consequences would, to her mind, be just as terrifying.
      Thanks for your last paragraph :-))

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    2. Linda -

      Phew, I didn't mean to get quite so emotional. Suicide for me is a very delicate subject (no kidding, huh?).

      Honestly, if the opening had gone straight from "What was she to do?" to the description of the setting, I would've been interested in more. The shift from thinking she's pregnant to she's engaged wouldn't have bothered me quite as much. That is some wonderful writing, and I want to read more of it.

      As a detail-oriented reader, the color/colour thing wouldn't bother me. That's more of a localization issue. Even the Harry Potter books were changed slightly for American audiences (Sorcerer's Stone vs Philosopher's Stone, for example). And if your agent or publisher wants the alt spellings for flavor, it's easy enough to go back and find+replace.

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    3. Thanks, Leah for your reply and I appreciate your encouraging words.
      Several previous drafts did have Chapter One opening straight into the setting, which I felt set the mood, time and place. Then a literary agent told me she didn't like openings that begin with weather or description and that it's important to open with the main character facing a problem. Hence the thoughts, flippant and fleeting as they were, flitting through Deborah's head; thoughts that are totally in character with her rather melodramatic, feckless and impulsive nature. Again, I'm sorry if reading this brought up old wounds. Take care and happy reading and writing! :-))

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  6. I actually really liked it. The writing was enjoyable to me and I immediately got that she was being melodramatic and didn't actually want to commit suicide. I did get an older vibe, more historical. I glazed over the date and didn't even realize it was set in the 1970s until I read Janice's notes.

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