Saturday, August 13

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Keep Reading This Domestic Thriller?

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: Five 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through September 17.

This week’s questions:


1. Does the tone seem right for a domestic thriller?

2. Does the first page hook you? Why or why not?

3. Am I using enough sensory language? Is there a good balance of dialogue, description, action and thought?

4. What do you wonder about where the story is headed?

5. Any other tips for me?


Market/Genre: Domestic Thriller

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

“Let’s be dizzy,” her darling Zoe had said.

Dizzy was a way of life for Katie Vogel, and spinning was a good excuse to act like a girl again, so she spun with her daughter in the park beside their white brick ranch. The crickets and frogs harmonized in July chorus as the mosquitoes began to appear with the veil of nightfall.

Katie closed her eyes, smelled the lingering barbecue and the smoke of spent sparklers, felt her whirling pull her blood to her fingertips, and recalled a night like this, herself as a small girl, spinning. Then she tried to picture what Zoe might look like as a woman of nearly thirty.

A stir of nausea sent Katie tumbling to the turf. She coughed and rolled to her elbows.

“Come here often?”

She looked up to see Will silhouetted by twilight.

“You all right?” he said.

She extended a hand.

Will pulled her to her feet with a strength that was unfamiliar, smooth and self-assured. As she settled on her toes, her face swayed inches from his. This was not her husband. It was Will’s younger brother, Ryan, the Hollywood screenwriter she’d never met, only seen in photos. A look of concern painted his face.

“Maybe,” Ryan said, “you aren’t cut out for spinning.”

“Maybe not,” Katie heard herself reply. Then, awkwardly, “Where’s Zoe? She was just here…”

Once in a while, Katie would come upon a man so undeniably attractive that in self defense she would cultivate a kind of philosophical detachment to keep the physical from overwhelming the rational. Not easy, but doable. Ryan was this type. With a resting smolder face framed by surfer-blond locks, he would fix you with intense, appraising eyes, and it was as though every word from your lips was worthy of his full attention. Meanwhile, don’t stare at his cheekbones or his chin or his mouth.

When Katie met Will, she felt this way: every moment charged with deliciously dangerous possibility, the sense of standing on a precipice and hoping to fall.

My Thoughts in Purple:

“Let’s be dizzy,” her darling Zoe had said.

[Dizzy was a way of life for Katie Vogel] nice, and spinning was a good excuse to act like a girl again, so she spun with her daughter in the park beside their white brick ranch. The [crickets and frogs harmonized in July chorus] also nice as the mosquitoes began to appear with the veil of nightfall.

Katie closed her eyes, smelled the lingering barbecue and the [smoke of spent sparklers,] love this felt her whirling pull her blood to her fingertips, and recalled a night like this, herself as a small girl, spinning. Then she tried to picture what Zoe might look like as a woman of nearly thirty.

[A stir of nausea sent Katie tumbling to the turf.] I find this interesting, because I don’t know if the spinning caused this or her thought of Zoe at thirty did She coughed and rolled to her elbows.

“Come here often?”

[She looked up to see Will silhouetted by twilight.] Zoe seems to have vanished at this point.

“You all right?” he said.

She extended a hand.

Will pulled her to her feet with a strength that was unfamiliar, smooth and self-assured. As she settled on her toes, her face swayed inches from his. This was not her husband. It was Will’s younger brother, Ryan, the Hollywood screenwriter she’d never met, only seen in photos. A look of concern painted his face.

“Maybe,” Ryan said, “you aren’t cut out for spinning.”

“Maybe not,” Katie heard herself reply. Then, awkwardly, [“Where’s Zoe? She was just here…”] Her jump from “where’s my daughter” to “look at the hot guy” feels strange

Once in a while, Katie would come upon a man so undeniably attractive that in self defense she would cultivate a kind of philosophical detachment to keep the physical from overwhelming the rational. Not easy, but doable. Ryan was this type. With a resting smolder face framed by surfer-blond locks, he would fix you with intense, appraising eyes, and it was as though every word from your lips was worthy of his full attention. Meanwhile, don’t stare at his cheekbones or his chin or his mouth.

When Katie met Will, she felt this way: every moment charged with deliciously dangerous possibility, the sense of standing on a precipice and hoping to fall. Maybe this is a better spot for her to ask about Zoe? She sees Ryan, has an immediate reaction, then shakes it off to look for Zoe? Otherwise it reads as if her daughter is gone, but she doesn't care because there's a hot guy there

The questions:

1. Does the tone seem right for a domestic thriller?

Fair disclosure…I don’t read these, and they’re a fairly new subgenre I believe (the last two or three years?) so it’s hard for me to say. I do get a romance vibe, and a secrets kept vibe, so from what little I know about the genre, I think yes. (Readers of domestic thrillers chime in here).

To test it, you might read the opening pages of domestic thrillers with samples on Amazon or B&N to further compare yours against theirs and see how it fits. From my own quick survey, it seems to have the same tone and feel.

(Here’s more on tone and mood)

2. Does the first page hook you? Why or why not?

Not yet, because I’m not sure what’s going on. Katie is playing with her daughter, there’s a hint that her life isn’t happy, then a stranger shows up and she has an inappropriate sexual reaction to him. I’m not sure what to think about this because the clues feel scattered.

This is a good example of a story that would have more context had I read the cover copy. I can see there are hints of things, but not enough to give me a sense of where the story is going. I get the feeling it’s going to revolve around Ryan in some way, but there’s not enough of Katie to ground me before things start.

Perhaps an extra paragraph or two to let readers know Katie a bit more? I think if I had a little more groundwork into her life I wouldn’t feel so lost. I'd also have a better sense of what aspect of her life Ryan was about to send into chaos (if that is indeed what happens).

(Here’s more on tightening the narrative focus)

3. Am I using enough sensory language? Is there a good balance of dialogue, description, action and thought?

Mostly, yes. I’d like more internalization, but that’s personal taste. As is, it feels more distant third person to me than it actually is. That detachment is fairly normal for thrillers though, so it likely fits the genre.

The descriptive details were quite nice, and you had several I liked a lot. I really loved the “spent sparklers” one. Such a strong scent that brings up so many images and memories.I get the sense of summer in a small town, and a touch of nostalgia.

(Here’s more on description and painting with prose)

4. What do you wonder about where the story is headed?

I wondered about Katie’s life and what was wrong with it. I got a sense that all was not well there, and I was curious why. I wasn't curious about Ryan, but I suspect that has more to do with personal taste than the writing itself (readers chime in). Infidelity isn’t something I enjoy reading about, so it has no draw for me, and he seemed to be the story problem. I have no idea if that’s where the story is going or not, but based on this one page that’s the vibe I got.


(Here’s more on hooking the reader in three easy steps)

5. Any other tips for me?

Aside from adding a little more about Katie and her life (and maybe shifting a paragraph or two around), no. It’s well written and fits the genre you’re aiming at. Perhaps an extra line or two of internalization so we get to know Katie a bit better before Ryan shows up?

Overall, I think this is close, and for readers of the genre, perhaps dead on. Context would make a big difference in how someone reads these pages, so I think readers who bought this would have a different take on it than someone reading it blind. Either way, a few minor tweaks wouldn’t hurt it, and if you wanted to flesh it out a tad, it would only make it stronger.

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 agree with Janice's notes. My only other comment is about the first line. The "had said" made it feel, to me, that this was opening with a flashback or backstory.

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  2. I think if she realizes Zoe isn't really with her and she's just re-living a memory, then meeting this man might work better. But that might not fit into your story.

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  3. I agree with Janice's assessment and the comments preceding mine. I was 98% onboard with the passage (the writing is excellent), but two small issues were a problem. The first was the opening line, which was a nagging issue. The "had said" implied the more distant past. Was this a memory? The second was her noting her daughter's absence and ignoring it to gawk at the guy.

    I'd like to think (from the standpoint of liking the character) that she's literally reliving her daughter's abduction and remains traumatized. Thus, the ominous, melancholy tone. She then becomes a sympathetic character. On the other hand, if lust is overriding parenting the story becomes a train wreck for me. Noting the girl's absence should be clarified at the moment it happens or this risks losing readers.

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  4. I think it's fine to have a character lusting even if the kids are around. The following chapters will flesh out why this is happening. The husband could be dead, literally or figuratively, and by not whitewashing allows for authenticity to the storyline.

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