Saturday, April 9

Real Life Diagnostics: If You Were an Agent, 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: Four
 
Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through May 7.

This week’s question: Would this first page make an agent want to read more?


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Freezing rain along the Detroit riverfront meant a busy night at Joe’s Bar. The only table big enough for the dozen regulars who braved the blustery winds for our Monday night beer-and-bitch session was by the windows. Max grabbed the seat next to me. Overly aggressive, but we both knew he was my most valuable reporter. His connections reached from the county courthouse to crack dealers on Eight Mile.

He pressed a muscular leg against mine under the table, but I didn’t mind this time. His generous frame and camel hair topcoat blocked the frigid night air. “You see your mail today?”

The question startled me. “Why?” No one was supposed to know about the registered letter I’d signed for only a couple of hours ago.

“You going?”

Until I knew what he was talking about, a shrug was the safest answer.

“If not, I’ll go.” He flipped open his notebook and thumbed through the pages. “I should be able to give you a thousand words on the governor’s agenda.”

“The governor?” I had to give the Boy Wonder credit. He stayed on the lookout for a quick story. He didn’t need to worry; I had no plans to start a quota system like some newspapers were doing. “I need something bigger than a political speech.”

“You should go, Boss.” Asia butting in on my conversations was resented by most of the long-time employees sitting around the table. Max ignored her. “The rich chick you went to Michigan with will be there.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

Freezing rain along the Detroit riverfront meant a busy night at Joe’s Bar. The only table big enough for the dozen regulars who braved the blustery winds for our Monday night beer-and-bitch session was by the windows. At this point, I’m not sure who the narrator is so I feel a little ungrounded. Max grabbed the seat next to me. Overly aggressive, but we both knew he was my most valuable reporter. His connections reached from the county courthouse to crack dealers on Eight Mile.

He pressed a muscular leg against mine under the table, but I didn’t mind this time. His generous frame and camel hair topcoat blocked the frigid night air. This made me chuckle. [“You see your mail today?”] I’m not sure who says this. Perhaps tag

The question startled me. “Why?” No one was supposed to know about the registered letter I’d signed for only a couple of hours ago. Nice introduction of a puzzle

“You going?”

Until I knew what he was talking about, a shrug was the safest answer. Nice

“If not, I’ll go.” He flipped open his notebook and thumbed through the pages. “I should be able to give you a thousand words on the governor’s agenda.”

“The governor?” I had to give the [Boy Wonder] This nickname doesn’t fit the character I’ve seen so far credit. He stayed on the lookout for a quick story. He didn’t need to worry; I had no plans to start a quota system like some newspapers were doing. “I need something bigger than a political speech.” I’m a little lost because I don’t know what they’re talking about or how it all fits together. Wouldn’t she be relived he’s talking about something other than the letter? Or is the letter related to the governor?

“You should go, Boss.” [Asia butting] Perhaps tag a little clearer? This felt jarring in on my conversations was resented by most of the long-time employees sitting around the table. Max ignored her. [“The rich chick you went to Michigan with will be there.”] Is this still Asia speaking?

The question:

1. Would this first page make an agent want to read more?


I’m not an agent so I can’t speak for them, but this isn’t grabbing me me quite yet (readers chime in here). I really like things about it, but I’m confused about the key details to draw me in. However, it’s possible that had I read the query blurb I’d feel differently. Some of the context is no doubt there to set the scene on this scene.

I like the writing. There’s a clean, straight forwardness to it that fits the voice of a newspaper editor (I’m guessing that’s what she is based on clues in the first page). Her putting up with the inappropriate leg press because it’s warmer made me laugh and I liked the practicality behind that. Made me like her as well. I also like how she shrugged to avoid revealing anything. I would enjoy reading about this character. It works to hook on two levels so far: voice and character.

From a plot standpoint, it has a mysterious letter to create interest, and more mystery with how Max knew about it (and if he did know about it). It may or may not involve the governor. And then a rich chick gets pulled in, which doesn’t seem to connect to anything and might just be a clue to where the narrator went to school. The plot aspect is where it’s not working for.

(Here’s more on common problems with beginnings)

I'm confused about what’s happening and what these seemingly unrelated details mean (and as I said, some of this might have been cleared up by the query). I struggled almost from the first few lines and felt myself slipping more and more into confusion as the scene unfolded. However, I think a few more clues here and there to ground readers in the scene would help make it clearer, and thus draw in readers.

Let’s go over where I got lost and why:

In the opening paragraph, I’m not sure if the narrator is someone working at the bar or a regular. It isn’t until the word “our” in the second sentence that I realize the narrator is a patron. It’s also when I realize this is first person, as everything prior to “our” could have been a third person distant narrator. It’s the “the dozen regulars” that made me think it’s third person because that sounds like someone else describing the group, not someone in the group. It’s a tiny disconnect, but enough to make me stumble to understand the first paragraph. One or two tweaks in this opening would clear up my issues though. I’d suggest adding something to the second sentence to make it clear who “the regulars” are and how the narrator fits into that.

The idea of the mysterious letter appears, which is good. Something is going on with this letter and I’m curious. Then is gets a little muddied and I have trouble keeping up. I’m not sure if the letter has anything to do with the governor or not. It sounds like Max is referring to an invitation to a governor’s event or even press conference (clues such as: you going, 1000 words on the agenda, you should go, support this assumption), so I think what he’s talking about is separate from the letter. But the narrator never says that or gives any clues of relief that Max isn’t asking about the letter, so I’m knocked out of the story while I try to figure out what the registered letter has to do with the governor and the event. The narrator acts like these are still connected.

If the letter and the event are indeed different elements, perhaps add a reaction from the narrator to show that. A quick thought such as “whew, good, he meant the governor’s lunch” would help me put everything in context. Though it would clear up the sense of conflict so far, which is Max trying to find out something he doesn’t know from the narrator. Without that, there’s no real conflict that I see. Though it does still have the mysterious letter to move things forward.

(Here’s more on hooking your reader)

In the middle of me trying to figure these two things out, Asia butts in with additional information that only adds to my confusion. The “Asia butting in…” tag didn’t feel like a tag, and with the unusual name I first think this has to do with Asia the continent or some geo-political group doing something related to the governor or the letter. Then I figure out it’s a person. Perhaps use an “Asia said, butting in” type tag so it’s clear a person is speaking. I just assumed it’s Max at first, and the narrator explaining what Asia had to do with it.

By the end, I’m trying to figure out what any of these details have to do with any others, and nothing seems to fit together (aside from the governor thing and the rich chick thing). If there had been a few more paragraphs, I’d have read on to see if something put all of this into context for me. If it didn’t clear up quickly, I’d stop reading.

(Here’s more on seven deadly sins for a first chapter)

Overall, the clarity issue is pretty minor. I think this is just a matter of the author knowing what all these things mean, so the extra details for readers aren’t quite making it to the page. Add in those details, and this will likely be a strong first page. It has a lot of good stuff going for it and doesn’t need much tweaking to make it shine.

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. I agree with the clarity issues...Also I don't connect to the main character, give me a sense of or flash picture of the main char--for first impression are everything and that impression will carry through the story--also you did an awesome job setting up weather, now set scen in the bar. I would def keep reading if those items where addressed. Remember, for me at least, paragraphs should give the reader flash images in their mind... that's why strong active
    Verbs are so pungent on the mind.

    I would love to read more....keep it up

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  2. Nice writing style, and I agree with Jeff's comments. Personally I'm unclear whether the narrator is male or female.

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    Replies
    1. I was confused about the sex of the narrator,too. I like the writing style. Personally, I'm not a fan of a lot of scenery detail so I was fine with just enough info to give me context. I'm already interested in the characters and I'd probably read on to see where this is all going. Thank you for sharing your work! Best of luck!

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    2. I don't like a bunch of scenery details that slow the story...but give my brain something to latch onto to elicit an image that corelate to movement and environment... And be done with very few strong discriptors

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  3. Stupid autocorrect... Sorry for typos, posting from my phone. Examples of scene setting. I'll give main character my own name since I don't know it.

    Janice walked in and scanned the dim bar, she made eye contact with a few of her friends that dared braved the horrible weather to meet for their regular Monday night beer-and-bitch sesion.

    She pointed to the big table by the window and began working her way through the crowd.

    Hopefully it helps. It's hard to post with my phone.

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  4. I agree, the intrigue is there. But the clarity needs work as suggested. Stick with the narrator and one other person. Possibly the sentence from Asia.I would take out sentence two so you can get to the hook of Max and the stuff he reports which is what keeps reader attention. You can sprinkle the rest on farther down.

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  5. I don't want to comment on the clarity of 'what's going on' because I can't say I've ever read the first page of a book without checking out the title, blurb and genre and to be quite frank, in this day and age, I'd go as far as checking out Goodreads for online reviews - all which I have no access to right now. So with all that said, I EXPECT to be lost here and I don't think its fair for me to blame the writing for that.

    I like slow burners. This comes across as a slow burning opening in terms of plot, but not with characters. I'm getting a good feel of the characters. Again, knowing the gender of the MC is something I probably would have picked up from the blurb, though that's if it's even THAT clear cut. We live in a world where not everyone fits neatly into male or female so not knowing the gender of the MC (or expecting it to fit in to one of two boxes) doesn't bother me as much. There's a lot of talk about diversity in publishing these days so I expect to see more of it, but if we read with set expectations and get confused or give up when something like gender isn't simply spelt out for us, we're not giving diversity a chance or worse, we're mentally creating boxes for authors to write into. Yikes! Sometimes things like gender aren't so black and white and need more time to explain and the first page just might not be enough. Personally, I like to slowly discover and have my assumptions challenged.
    For example, Asia seems to imply the MC will be interested in seeing the "chick" from Michigan. Why? Is it an old friend or old flame? Neither will give away the gender of the MC, even IF it's an old flame.

    Towards the end I can understand why some readers felt lost in regards to who was speaking, but I thought that since it was Asia suggesting the MC 'go', it seems right that Asia would then follow up with the 'why' - the "Michigan chick" being there.

    Anywho, I thought the writing was strong and it sure as hell got my attention. The scene is set and the characters I should be paying attention to seem clear enough. I'd read on...

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  6. I must be in the minority... I never remember blurb when I read a book... Maybe a small detail about gender and time/place, but little else.
    Redundant dialog tags are needed for clarity, and a sense of movement for imagination--those missing items in a book results to closing said book with in a few pages. But, to each their own.

    Love the comments

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  7. I got a little lost in this...seemed like too much backstory was being shoved into this first place. But, characters and story seemed intriguing!

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