Saturday, August 27

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Romance Opening Work?

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 September 24.

This week’s questions:

1. Is this a good opening scene?

2. Do the logistics of her collision with the man make sense?

3. Do you care about Sarah yet?

4. Overuse of progressive verbs?


Market/Genre: Romance

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: Sarah has lived most of her life in isolation, avoiding human touch. She feels the emotions and pain of those she touches as her own. She develops a bit of an obsession for intimate physical contact with the very straight-laced, serious, and emotionless (safe) Michael Matthews (which is meant to be humorous not erotic). But when he falls in love with her, he is no longer emotionless, which causes serious and heartbreaking conflict.

Three years ago a plane was halted on the runway to cart her off to the Atlanta General psycho ward. This time Sarah made it through the flight to Denver, and stood at the threshold of the plane headed for LAX. Milestone two point five.

The boarding tunnel was empty, as she had premeditated, and the man in front of her was a good five feet away. He was thigh-tinglingly handsome, his hand in the pocket of his perfectly tailored grey suit, thumb sticking out – a sign of self-confidence she’d read somewhere. He appeared calm and relaxed, but you never knew, and she carefully preserved the distance between them.

She was about to give herself a mental high five, when she heard the child’s screams. Coming up fast behind her was a woman hauling a violently thrashing toddler, his eyes fixed on the oval mouth of the plane. Ahead of her, the trail of passengers was creeping. She squeezed her eyes shut and fought the impulse to collapse into the fetal position.

The blow to her shoulder was surprisingly powerful for a foot so small. A blast of terror scorched the point of contact and echoed throughout her body. She propelled forward, and reached instinctively for something to break her fall -- the man in the grey suit. Her arms circled his waist. One hand successfully grasped his coat, jerking it open. The other lost a brief grip on his belt, and slid, in what seemed like slow motion, firmly down the front of his pants.

He grabbed her armpit. Was he going to help her up, or fling her against the wall? He lifted her to her feet, shook her lightly until her disorientated green eyes met his cool blue ones, deposited her with a stewardess, rebuttoned his coat with one deft motion, and disappeared into the first class cabin. All without a smidgen of emotion.

Inexplicably, the terror she had absorbed from the child was gone.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Three years ago a plane was halted on the runway to cart her off to the Atlanta General psycho ward. This time Sarah made it through the flight to Denver, and stood at the threshold of the plane headed for LAX. Milestone two point five.] I like the idea behind this paragraph, but the text itself reads more like setup for the opening. 

The boarding tunnel was empty, [as she had premeditated] Intriguing. Makes me wonder if she has precognitive powers or just plans , and the man in front of her was a good five feet away. He was [thigh-tinglingly handsome] funny, his hand in the pocket of his perfectly tailored grey suit, thumb sticking out – a sign of self-confidence she’d read somewhere. He appeared calm and relaxed, but you never knew, and she carefully preserved the distance between them.

She was about to give herself a mental high five, when she heard the child’s screams. Coming up fast behind her was a woman hauling a violently thrashing toddler, his eyes fixed on the oval mouth of the plane. Ahead of [her,] not sure who this refers to the trail of passengers was creeping. She squeezed her eyes shut and fought the impulse to collapse into the fetal position.

The blow to her shoulder was surprisingly powerful for a foot so small. A blast of terror scorched the point of contact and echoed throughout her body. She propelled forward, and reached instinctively for something to break her fall -- the man in the grey suit. Her arms circled his waist. One hand successfully grasped his coat, jerking it open. The other lost a brief grip on his belt, and slid, in what seemed like slow motion, firmly down the front of his pants. I lose Sarah's great voice in this paragraph.

He grabbed her armpit. Was he going to help her up, or fling her against the wall? He lifted her to her feet, shook her lightly until her disorientated green eyes met his cool blue ones, deposited her with a stewardess, rebuttoned his coat with one deft motion, and disappeared into the first class cabin. All without a smidgen of emotion. This one, too.

Inexplicably, the terror she had absorbed from the child was gone.

The questions:

1. Is this a good opening scene?


A few bumps, but yes. I’d read on (readers chime in here). The first paragraph didn’t work for me, and I’d suggest cutting it and perhaps adding a little hint of that memory to Sarah’s internalization. Her being carted off to the psych ward is a good hook, but it’s coming across as setup as is. The ideas behind it are great—her very bad past experience—but it tells too much and doesn’t contain the fun voice you have going in the next paragraph.

Paragraph two kicks in nicely and I love the voice. It’s just distant enough to feel like someone who watches the world but doesn’t engage, yet personable to hear the actual person there. Since this is a tough balance, let’s look at why that paragraph works so well.
The boarding tunnel was empty, as she had premeditated, and the man in front of her was a good five feet away.
 “As she premeditated” hooks me. I wonder what powers she has, and it also shows her voice by saying she’s the type of person who thinks things out ahead of time. “A good five feet away” suggests she’s being wary about getting too close to anyone. “A good” is what makes this work.
He was thigh-tinglingly handsome, his hand in the pocket of his perfectly tailored grey suit, thumb sticking out – a sign of self-confidence she’d read somewhere.
You also hooked me with “thigh-tinglingly handsome.” It’s funny, a bit unexpected, and makes me like Sarah. So does “a sign of self-confidence she’d read somewhere.” This hints that Sarah doesn’t have self-confidence and was perhaps trying to gain some through books.
He appeared calm and relaxed, but you never knew, and she carefully preserved the distance between them.
The “but you never knew” shows her wariness, and it reinforces everything else in this paragraph. “Preserved” is also an interesting word, as it’s protective, careful. She didn’t “keep her distance” she “preserved it.”

The coat-grabbing paragraph loses some of this voice, and I suspect that’s why you’re unsure about it.

(Here’s more on the difference between good and bad setup)

2. Do the logistics of her collision with the man make sense?

Yes, but I think the focus is a little too much on the individual steps, so you lose the wonderful sense of Sarah and how she sees the world. I read more of the author describing what happens there. I’d suggest just adding in a little bit more of Sarah’s voice and perspective so it flows with the rest of the page. I think your instincts are telling you it’s not quite right, but you weren’t sure why.

(Here’s more on finding the right balance with your stage directions)

3. Do you care about Sarah yet?

Yes (readers chime in here). She’s funny, brave, and vulnerable. She’s clearly apprehensive about flying, but not for the usual reasons. She has interesting abilities I’m curious about. This is very hard for her, yet she’s not whining or complaining, she’s just gritting her teeth to get on that plane. And since she called it a milestone, I’m not ever sure if where she’s going matters or if it’s the flying that’s important, and I don’t care. I want to see if she makes it.

It’s a great example of how stakes can be quiet and personal and still feel high.

(Here’s more on making readers care about your characters)

4. Overuse of progressive verbs?

They work for me. Sarah is a person who is a step apart from the world, so the layer of narrative distance between her and the reader feels appropriate. She’s a watcher and a planner.

(Here’s more on narrative distance)

Overall, this works with one or two tweaks. I like the voice, the situation, the goals, the character. I suspect the challenge with this particular story is going to be maintaining that balance between Sarah the observer and the author butting in, so keep an eye on your internalization and her voice. Print out paragraph two and tape it to your monitor (grin). Aim for that and you’ll do fine. It’s a good reminder that all you need is a few words that are clearly Sarah’s to maintain that voice.

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.

17 comments:

  1. For me, there were some weird word choices that pulled me out of the story.

    "premeditated" was one. I didn't get the sense from the background blurb that she had precognitive powers, so this read like a bad thesaurus synonym switch. If she does and the book blurb mentions it, it works fine.

    The next one was the description of the woman "hauling" the child, then Sarah winding up kicked in the shoulder. The picture I had in my head was the woman walking with the child screaming while walking. I wasn't seeing a woman carrying a child like a thrashing sack of potatoes. So then child on the ground kicking Sarah in the shoulder made me do a double take. This one could just be me and a lack of coffee, so take a salt mine worth of salt with this bit of critique.

    The description of Sarah collapsing into the man also pulled me out. It's so detached and deliberate sounding. I don't get the sense that ripping open his jacket and grabbing his junk was an accident.

    Finally, "disorientated" was weird for me. I've heard it used by Englishmen before, but I've not heard it used much in American English. Even then, the Brits were using "orientate" as a verb (orientate their furniture in a room), and the form you're using is an adjective. "Disoriented eyes" sounds more natural to my American ears.

    But overall, I liked this. The premise sounds interesting enough that I'd pick this up, even as a non-romance reader.

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  2. I second Janice's suggestions, as well as 'lack of coffee's' observations. The terrible toddler was likely being 'lugged' by the mother. In the Midwest, hauled and lugged are lumped together sometimes, with hauled meaning something dragged because it's just too heavy to 'lug'.

    In the interaction with the mother, I lost who was doing what. So, mentally had the mom in fetal position (which might be right and proper, given the situation) -- but then realized it was the MC. So, 3 re-reads got it all sorted. This is a common enough issue and easily fixed, so no biggie.

    The other thing that threw me was, since I don't fly regularly, I wasn't familiar with the location 'boarding tunnel'. I strained to remember my few experiences and finally dredged up the memory of the enclosed walkway to the plane.

    I was then a bit confused when the collision, the MC being into the care of a stewardess, and then the mystery man disappearing into first class all seemed to happen - well, at the plane door? or just inside the plane? The stewardess would be at the door, and seeing someone disappear 'into first class' would require the ability to see that inside the plane, right?

    I don't know the layout of the plane, so am forced to create a spatial situation where this micro-action scene works. I would like to see the MC possibly see the literal end of the tunnel and perhaps be hoping to escape the mother and toddler, maybe press forward, taking the risk of being closer to the man than to collide with the toddler. This would place the MC close enough to fall into the man (5 feet is too far), close enough to the plane's door to be near the stewardess, and to then have the collision propel the MC and MMan into the plane -- where he spins her to the stewardess and moves swiftly to first class.

    Lastly, I hope the MC's query about him flinging her into the wall is explained later, since she picks up other people's vibes when she touches them.

    This little bit of curiosity, plus finding out why the child's terror was erased by mystery man's touch (or that's how it seems to be presented) are the two things that would make me read on...

    A good beginning and an interesting idea -- and I do like the MC for the same reasons Janice gave.

    Good luck and thank you for sharing!

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  3. I agree with the comments. I would start the story with Paragraph 2 and maybe end that paragraph with a thought from paragraph 1- "so far, much better than 3 years ago."
    Also- I believe stewardesses are now called flight attendants- unless this is to show that Sarah hasn't flown very much? Good job- I would keep on reading!

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    1. That's exactly what I'm going to do - start right out with paragraph 2. Will work the psycho ward in later -I liked the "much better" idea.

      Yes, it should be flight attendants. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. It's amazing how a little politically-incorrect slip up like that can be offending to someone you'd like to give you a nice Amazon review. It's me who hasn't flown very much - not since that trip to the psycho ward….

      Thanks for your suggestions.

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  4. i guess I'm the one out of step. This whole introduction seemed disjointed to me. i wanted the scene to focus on Sarah, not screaming kids, creeping people, and a mysterious man. I didn't get the purpose of the scene.
    The first paragraph is backstory and should go. But that takes away a good first sentence.
    All in all, I didn't get what the story was about. Is it adventure, suspense, paranormal, or what?
    I wish I could give you a thought or two that would help, but I just don't get this opening.
    I agree that a number of the words already mentioned seemed out of place.

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    1. Ouch!

      Based on the other comments, I'm not sure you're totally "out of step".

      I've had a hard time myself deciding what genre it should be classified as - and I know the whole story. I keep reading it's crucial to pinpoint that.

      I thought the first sentence would go down in the list of 100 best opening sentences in literature. Thanks to you, Christina, and Janice for the variety of reasons why it won't!

      BTW - In your "screaming kids, creeping people, and a mysterious man" phrase, the "creeping people" was really funny.

      I respect your honesty.

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    1. I'm disappointed you only echoed Brian. I've read some great critiques by you and was hoping you might drop in with some constructive (or even destructive) details. Maybe next time if I get the opportunity to submit a revision.

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    2. Hi JC, I guess I didn't understand where the background would fit in the story if this was your opening page. I also couldn't follow from the first to the second paragraphs. I thought your writing was done well when you were on point. It's nice to get feedback and experiment with different styles, keep working at it!

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  6. Anyone who's ever suffered any level of anxiety can identify with this passage and Sarah is a star for facing that monster. I liked Sarah after I got to know her, which is why the first paragraph needs to go. It requests sympathy for her before we know anything about it her. Slip in the details later. In fact, learning a little later about the life-shattering and embarrassing details would only add to her character after seeing how brave she's become.

    I'll put even more stress on voice than Janice did. This works when I hear Sarah, but hits bumps when I don't. The verbs are fine when it's Sarah's stressed voice talking, but seem over-blown when she fades. Same with the logistics. Janice describes it as becoming "steps," on-point description. That's accurate. For one paragraph it feels as though Sarah is shoved aside in favor of a narrator who's obsessed with details. What's important is that what she least wanted to happen—happened. The screaming kid collided with her and thrust her forward into the handsome stranger and, oh no, it was awful and terrible and reaching our ears as only Sarah could tell it.

    Your MC is gold (thanks to you). Set her free.

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    1. Thanks for your take on the first paragraph. I hadn't thought about the "sympathy" angle and that's the last thing Sarah would want.

      I loved hearing you talk about Sarah and looking at things from the perspective of what does her justice. It seemed like you cared about her. Your last sentence made me cry…. really.

      I hope you get back and read my reply. If you have the time, It would help me a lot if you would point out any sentences that you felt were her voice.

      You are a sweetheart, Christina.

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  7. TO JANICE:
    As you know, my first critique ever on anything! What was most amazing was that amid all the chaos, you were able to see Sarah EXACTLY (and I mean exactly) as I do. I have confidence in her "voice" now and will let her tell the story. Thank you so much for this awesome experience - and your oh so gentle critique.

    TO ALL THE COMMENTORS:
    I truly, truly, truly appreciate the time you took to comment. You've helped me not only with the first page, but the whole story. Sarah is an amazing woman, I love her, and have been studying and trying to tell her story for over three years. For those of you who liked her - that means the world to me.

    I hope to start a blog for writing "virgins" like myself, especially those who are not as "new" as their writing career. One thing I want to include is appreciation for those, like ya'll, who take the time to help strangers.

    Judi

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    1. You might be taking the critiques wrong. All of them are offering you two good pieces of advice. The first is that you obviously have some talent (otherwise I wouldn't have commented). and second, that you have a lot to learn, and that's okay. We all do.
      I would suggest this: Take the time to read all of Janice's posts listed on the left side. If you already have, read them again with new eyes. These posts are great advice and they are free. There are several other blogs like The Kill Zone, Terrible Minds, and Helping Writers become Authors that also have great advice for free.
      I've done a lot of things in my life including going to war, being an actor, and working for giant corporations. But none of that was nearly as hard as learning to write.
      I hope this helps. And best of luck. And for gods sake don't give up. Frankness in feedback is ten times more useful than stroking a writer's ego. Writers have to have a tough skin.
      P.S. Don't answer back. It sounds like you are evaluating the feedback and not learning from it.

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  8. I actually could hear the MC's voice quite clearly in the first paragraph. It set a quirky tone on a subject that could be quite dark, and turned the whole inciting incident into a fun event. However, I agree that it felt a bit more like telling (setting the stage) than like I was in the event.

    That being said, you had some interesting word choices, and they WERE creatively interesting, but that kind of distracted me at times from what was going on. For instance, I started wondering if you meant "predicted" instead of "premeditated," and then realized that was because I've watched enough crime dramas that I would associate "premeditated" with a murder to solve. So, I commend your being original, but I would say be careful because your readers might have different backgrounds which might prompt them to think of certain things you did not intend. (Unless you meant that correlation to be drawn to the gravity of premeditation, to make a humorous parallel--which DID kind of work there.)

    I was able to figure out most of the progression of that paragraph where they collided, but I had to slow down. I think mechanics of the scene are right, but you might have to emphasize some details over others in order to keep up the energy. Unless you were going for a slow-motion feel, like in movie effects?

    You DID really grab my attention with this scene though. I connected with the heroine, which is not something I do easily. And I totally wanted to follow that guy onto the plane! I guess I was a little unclear though as to whether they were actually on the plane or outside of it in line?

    Great job though! Openings are hard! Still working on fixing mine.

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    1. I appreciate you taking the time to "dig in" like you did to help me. I learned a lot from you about looking at all sides of the details and how they could make or break a smooth read.

      And, I gotta tell you, Seriah, it really made my day that you liked "that guy". I wanted to introduce him as the sexy, cool man that he is and it is soooo encouraging that I might have done that.

      Thanks for your help and support!

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