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.
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This week’s question:
Does this opening work?
Market/Genre: Romantic thriller
On to the diagnosis…
My leather riding boots sink into the muddy ground and with every step, oozing sludge threatens to seep inside and slither to my dry socks. The gooey thought sends a childish smile to my face as I edge out of the redwood forest after a delightful afternoon walk. My white mare follows and rubs her silken nose on my neck before returning to her corral.
Hopping aboard a nearby tree stump - one I’d cut a few months ago – I dangle my legs, unleash my ponytail, and raise an imaginary wine glass, “To my homestead.” Despite the recent temperature drop, a warmth spreads through my body.
Several bushes of scented lavender surround my nearby barn and fill the misty air with a rich, oily fragrance. Inhaling a deep breath and glancing toward my front porch, I stop mid-exhale. A solitary white envelope is propped up on the brick doorstep. Finish exhale.
Scooting off the stump, I inch closer to investigate. A foreboding omen slowly clouds my vision. Something is different this time. I study the shoe impressions appearing in the mud. A woman’s.
The recognizable envelope now lays at my feet. No return address. No stamp. An angry black marker shouts my name: Vanessa Barrett, Pilot – Bolinas, California.
I wish I could tell the anonymous sender that his admonition isn’t necessary because you see, I don’t need a yearly reminder of the fatal mistake I made when I was a teenager - a day never passes when I’ve forgotten it.
My Thoughts in Purple:
My leather riding boots sink into the muddy ground and with every step, [oozing sludge threatens to seep inside and slither to my dry socks.] these words don’t imply the happy reaction she has next The gooey thought sends a childish smile to my face as I edge out of the redwood forest after a delightful afternoon walk. My white mare follows and rubs her silken nose on my neck [before returning to her corral.] horses don’t usually go back to corrals on their own. Overall, this paragraph feels a little descriptive heavy, especially for a thriller.
Hopping aboard a nearby tree stump - one I’d cut a few months ago – I dangle my legs, [unleash my ponytail] cute, and raise an imaginary wine glass, “To my homestead.” Despite the recent temperature drop, a warmth spreads through my body. This almost feels disconnected from the previous paragraph. She was walking in the woods, now she’s looking at her house? Land? I’m not sure where she is or why
Several bushes of scented lavender surround my [nearby barn] wasn’t she in the woods? and fill the misty air with a rich, oily fragrance. Inhaling a deep breath and glancing [toward my front porch] I’m lost as to where things are in relation to her, I stop mid-exhale. A solitary white envelope is propped up on the brick doorstep. Finish exhale. A little too much description overall
Scooting off the stump, I inch closer to investigate. A foreboding omen slowly [clouds my vision] so she can no longer see? Then how can she pick up on the footprint?. Something is different this time. I study the shoe impressions [appearing in the mud] this makes it sound like they’re doing it as she watches. A woman’s. I like how this shows this is a usual occurrence for her, and not a welcome one
[The recognizable envelope now lays at my feet.] It was on the doorstep a second ago, so it feels like it magically appeared at her feet No return address. No stamp. An angry black marker shouts my name: Vanessa Barrett, Pilot – Bolinas, California.
I wish I could tell the anonymous sender that his admonition isn’t necessary because you see, I don’t need a yearly reminder of the fatal mistake I made when I was a teenager - [a day never passes when I’ve forgotten it.] Except we haven’t seen her have any type of thought to suggest this yet. She’s happily thinking about her home
1. Does this opening work?
Not yet (readers chime in here). I like the appearance of the letter, and how she likely gets one every year, but it feels tacked on at the end, and a little sudden. I’m also not yet getting a sense of who Vanessa is or how she feels about anything really, because the focus is on description.
Since this is first person, her using multiple words to describe everything she does feels a little distant and odd. Imagine narrating your day and describing everything around you in such detail. It’s more than someone would realistically notice, so it’s making things feel a little clunky.
Let’s look at the first paragraph a little closer:
My leather riding boots sink into the muddy ground and with every step, oozing sludge threatens to seep inside and slither to my dry socks.That’s a lot of words to say she’s walking in the mud. And if it’s deep enough to get past the tops of her boots, that’s almost to her knees (as most riding boots are knee-length, so readers are most likely going to imagine this). Walking through knee-high mud is a huge struggle. I don’t think what’s described is actually what’s happening, so even though there’s a lot of description, it’s not being accurate to what I think you want to show.
(Here’s more on choosing the right descriptive words)
There’s also unnecessary words bogging it down. Muddy ground = mud. Dry = socks (as we can assume her socks are dry). Seep inside = slither into. Oozing sludge = mud (I assume she means mud here and there’s not actually sludge in addition to mud). It uses words that create an unpleasant association with the mud (oozing sludge and threatens aren’t happy words), yet in the next line she says this thought makes her smile.
Perhaps trim the description back some and use words that imply the feeling you want your protagonist to have, such as:
My riding boots sink into the gooey mud with every step.Gooey has a playful feel about it, so her smiling next feels natural. She doesn’t mind the mud, it’s gooey and fun.
The gooey thought sends a childish smile to my face as I edge out of the redwood forest after a delightful afternoon walk.There’s a lot going on here, but nothing is really clear. Sends a childish smile to my face feels too self-aware for first person present tense. I smile is what she actually does. If walking in mud makes her smile, then perhaps add some internalization that shows why. And if she’s walking in a redwood forest, why isn’t she remarking on how beautiful that is? Redwoods are darn impressive. It feels like a missed opportunity to show the setting, and use it to also show how Vanessa is feeling today.
My white mare follows and rubs her silken nose on my neck before returning to her corral.This feels stuck on at the end. Vanessa is walking out of a redwood forest in deep mud, yet suddenly there’s a horse with her who immediately disappears on her own and takes herself back to the corral. Horses don’t do this. Left to her own devices, she’s most likely just going to start grazing on whatever is close. And if the horse disappears that fast, why mention her at all in the first place? Also, if Vanessa is out for a walk, why does she have a horse? That would be out for a ride.
Consider the word choices overall, as they’re not saying what I think you want them to. Cloudy vision implies she can’t see, yet she goes on to describe things and look closely at them. Appearing in the mud implies that action is happening then and now, but I suspect she finds prints in the mud left there earlier. The envelop now lays at her feet, which implies it moved on it’s on since we don’t see her move to the porch and stand by the letter. Small things, but they all add up to a scene that isn’t showing what you’re probably seeing in your mind.
(Here’s more on getting what’s in your head onto the page)
In general, I’m not getting a sense of who Vanessa is. The focus is on the what, not the who. There are no internal thoughts or emotion from her, and even the emotion is detached. For example, the thought sends a smile to her face, she doesn’t smile. Everting is happening outside of her, not her experiencing it. With a first-person narrator, she has to be the one experiencing it.
(Here’s more on using point of view)
I suspect the first few paragraphs are throwaways, and the real story starts when the envelop appears, but they’re not working to draw readers in yet. There’s no goal for Vanessa, so there’s nothing for her to do. She’s just waiting around looking at random stuff until the book actually starts. If the ride in the woods doesn’t matter, perhaps start when she walks up to the house and sees the envelop.
I’d suggest taking a step back and thinking about they type of mood and scene you want to setup before the envelop appears, and build from there. You have a wonderful emotion to build from if she’s really thinking sad thoughts on this day and dreading the letter. Ask yourself:
- What aspects or personality traits of Vanessa’s do you want to show?
- What problem/goal/task is she facing as this scene opens?
- How does she feel as this scene opens?
- What do you want the reader to feel as this scene opens?
If Vanessa thinks about the mistake she made all the time, and this is the anniversary of that mistake, and she knows she gets this same letter, then I’d suspect it would be on her mind. She’d think about it no matter what she was doing. She might even have a ritual surrounding it. But her feeling happy about her homestead doesn’t mesh with her saying not a day goes by where she doesn’t think about that mistake.
I’d love to see her feeling that, dreading that, doing things to avoid that feeling and getting past this day. There’s a lot of deep emotions you can play with to make readers curious about what she’s unhappy about and what happened all those years ago.
You don’t have to give it away this soon if you don’t want, but knowing this is a bad day for her and then seeing one reason why, will make readers eager to see the letter and see what happens.
(Here’s more on writing opening scenes)
Overall, I think the focus is just in the wrong place, and you’re not taking advantage of the strengths here. There are too many descriptive words, yet they’re not describing what I think you intend to show, so there’s a weird disconnect with readers. Try seeing the world and the situation through Vanessa’s eyes, and think about how she’d be feeling and acting on this day. Build the anticipation and thrill so by the time you get to the letter, readers are nice and tense waiting to hear more clues about it.
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.