From Fiction University: We're aware of the recent commenting issues and are working to resolve them. We apologize for any inconvenience and annoyance this has caused. Hopefully we'll have it fixed soon, and we appreciate your patience while we get this straightened out. ETA: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Saturday, December 17

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Paranormal 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: Seven


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through February 4.

This week’s questions:

1. Is this a good opening?

2. Do you like Sarah?

3. Is there TOO MUCH of Sarah’s voice now?

4. Would you keep reading?


Market/Genre: Paranormal romance

Note: This is a revision to a previous submission.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

BACKGROUND: 35-year old “delightfully (I hope) disturbed” Sarah has recently been successfully treated for a particularly serious bi-polar disorder. Although it turned out the BP disorder was not the ONLY reason for her lifelong extreme and erratic emotions, she is optimistic because she is so much better now and believes she is ready to leave her life of fantasy and isolation and face the world – this is her first attempt.

Following her meticulous flight-survival plan, Sarah Livingston made it through the flight to Denver without incident, and stood just inside the oval entrance to the plane headed for LAX. Milestone two point five.

As planned, the boarding ramp was empty behind her. The man ahead of her was a good five feet away. He was thigh-tinglingly handsome, a 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 a child's scream echoed up the boarding ramp, “No, mommy. No.” She peeked over her shoulder and conceded celebration might be premature. A woman carrying a violently squirming toddler was rapidly closing in.

Her first impulse was to shrink into the fetal position, but the best she could remember, that was the position she was in three years ago when they escorted her off the plane to the Atlanta General psycho ward. Perhaps something here that shows she doesn’t want to do this again She inched closer to the man in front of her.

The blow to her back was surprisingly powerful for the child’s small foot. Her body shuddered as his fear penetrated the point of contact, and shot straight to her frontal lobe. She fell into the man in the grey suit like a tree hacked by a lumberjack. Her face slammed against his rear end, and she grabbed the front of his pants –more intimately than he was probably in the mood for.

Inexplicably, the fear she absorbed from the child dissolved.

He lifted her to her feet, and shook her shoulders lightly until her disoriented green eyes met his very, very blue ones. Apparently satisfied she could remain upright on her own, he disappeared into the first class cabin. Unruffled, Never a smidgen of emotion. What a man.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Following her meticulous flight-survival plan, Sarah Livingston made it through the flight to Denver without incident, and stood just inside the oval entrance to the plane headed for LAX. Milestone two point five.

As planned, the boarding ramp was empty behind her. The man ahead of her was a good five feet away. He was thigh-tinglingly handsome, a 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. I wanted a little “I wish I was that calm and relaxed” thought from her here to show why this is hard for her

She was about to give herself a mental high five, when a child's scream echoed up the boarding ramp, [“No, mommy. No.”] A strong reaction here to show why this is bad would help us understand her problem She peeked over her shoulder and conceded celebration might be premature. A woman carrying a violently squirming toddler was rapidly closing in.

Her first impulse was to shrink into the fetal position, but the best she could remember, that was the position she was in three years ago when they escorted her off the plane to the Atlanta General [psycho ward.] I wanted a bit of “that’s not going to happen again” here to show her determination to go through with this [She inched closer to the man in front of her.] Perhaps if she was inching toward his calm? I’m looking for opportunities to show her empathy is her trouble

The blow to her back was surprisingly powerful for the child’s small foot. [Her body shuddered as his fear penetrated the point of contact, and shot straight to her frontal lobe.] This still feels clinical to me, but what if she uses this clinical tone as a defense mechanism? Maybe let her react with all the crazy emotion she feels, then pulls back, struggle to analyze it clinically to help control it? She fell into the man in the grey suit like a tree hacked by a lumberjack. Her face slammed against his rear end, and she grabbed the front of his pants –more intimately than he was probably in the mood for.

Inexplicably, the fear she absorbed from the child dissolved.

He lifted her to her feet, and shook her shoulders lightly until her disoriented green eyes met his very, very blue ones. It seems odd he never says a word, so perhaps a small exchange of dialogue here? Apparently satisfied she could remain upright on her own, he disappeared into the first class cabin. Unruffled, Never a smidgen of emotion. [What a man.] This feels a tad off to me. Since he clearly has a positive effect on her, I wanted to see her act because of this, such as decide there and then she has to sit next to him to survive this flight.

The questions:

1. Is this a good opening?

It’s getting better. I still like the setup, but I’m not quite getting a strong sense of what the problem is and what Sarah is doing about it. Unless readers know she has the empathy problem, she comes across as someone scared to fly.

You submitted several revisions, and I really liked the opening paragraph of one you decided against. I think it has a great hook, strong voice, and intriguing story question. I’d suggest finding a way to open with this and transition into what you have now. Perhaps something like:
There were three things that Sarah Livingston knew with absolute certainty. She had been born, she was going to die, and in between, she was going to feel. She had a couple options when it came to the “in between”. She could get a lobotomy like "droolin" Joe Mullstone, or she could take the handful of pills in her palm.

She choose option three—by far the most reckless choice—and boarded a plane for LA.

So far, so good. She’d followed her meticulous flight-survival plan and made it to Denver without incident, and now stood just inside the oval entrance to the plane headed for her new life. Milestone two point five. [then transition into what you have as she decides to take this last step]
I think a hint of what she’s trying to do will give her actions and thoughts the necessary context for readers to understand the problem here. She’s not just scared to fly, she has a “condition” that being around people and trapped on a plane could be devastating to her.

You might also look for ways to insert her motivations a little more. It’s clear she wants to get closer to the calm man, but not really why. She’s wary of the toddler, but no more than any person who doesn’t want a screaming child behind them.

Her internalization is key to understand her actions, so look for details that can show her motives as well as explain her predicament. For example, she “inched closer to the man in front of her” but I suspect it’s because he radiates calm and she needs that. If you show her trying to enter his circle of calm and the man is basically irrelevant, then we know it’s the calm she needs (at this point in the story). That will also make her surprise at him absorbing the fear all the more shocking to her and spur her to act.

I don’t know what happens after this, but I’d love to see her want to sit with the man to make it through the flight. That would be a great goal to get her moving and provide a natural way for you to explain her situation.

(Here’s more on mixing action and internal thought)

2. Do you like Sarah?

I do. She has just enough funny comments to make me care. I think using her voice to help show her situation will help readers relate to and like her even more, as well as help set the scene. One of the things that makes her compelling is watching her struggle to overcome something hard for her. She's being brave despite her fear, and that's a strong quality for a protagonist.

(Here’s more on what makes a character heroic)

3. Is there TOO MUCH of Sarah’s voice now?

I don’t think so. I’d like more, and suggested several possible spots in the text to add some.

(Here’s more on character voice)

4. Would you keep reading?

Yes and no. If it started with the other paragraph I suggested, I’d give it a few more pages to see where it went. Without it, I’m not drawn is as much. But I think it’s getting close, and a few more hints that this isn’t a woman afraid of flying for mundane reasons would pique my interest enough to keep reading. I don’t think the real problem is coming across clearly yet to hook me. But that real problem is interesting to me (readers less familiar with this story than I chime in here).

You might also consider making her apprehension about catching the next flight a little stronger. She’s in a very difficult situation right now—stuck between where she left and where she’s going. If she doesn’t get on the plane, she’s trapped somewhere she never wanted to be, far from home and all she knows. There’s a lot riding on her catching that flight, but it’s not coming across as desperate as she probably is. A sense of that desperation and struggle will help draw readers into her plight.

What she needs to do is get on that plane (the goal) despite her affliction and fear (the conflict), and the man in the grey suit can help her do that (the choice). But she has to find a way to sit with him to do it that doesn’t involve her getting thrown off the plane (stakes). She also has to board without letting her emotions take over and get her kicked off the plane (more conflict and stakes) That’s a nice group of problems to work with to create tension and narrative drive, so look for ways to bring all that out in the text.

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

Overall, I think it’s getting close and another pass to add that internalization layer might just do it. I like the setup and the issues at hand, it’s just a matter of making what’s cool about this story clearer for readers.

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 (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

3 comments:

  1. When reading this revision, I noticed several things that I've had to deal with in my own writing.

    I know who Sarah is, but I don't know her personality. For example, the thigh-tingling is a good spot to show her voice... Wow, what a thigh tingler, or Are those my thighs tingling?, just examples.

    Also, the pace is slow for me. Several unnecessary adjectives. I noticed several places where sentences could be shortened to add tension - try removing some of the "and"s and separate the action with shorter sentences.

    I did agree with Janice that you removed the part of the beginning that drew readers in. The hook.

    You've made good revisions and have lots of pieces to the puzzle. Keep going!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have to second everything that's been said, and especially I like that other opening:

    Sarah's perspective is meant to be confused, and you do that, but any first page should be careful not to make the reader *too* unsure what the story's about. And "she was going to feel" is great phrasing for letting her not understand it but hint to the reader that she might turn out to be an empath. Especially with the cover copy probably hinting the same thing.

    (And, you probably do need those hints of clarity because you're classing this as paranormal romance, and your reader wants that sense of the story's basics. If it were called science fiction or full horror, you could stay away from hints and make Sarah and the reader have to go through *everything* before they had a real clue.)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Janice, thanks for all your help with my first page. I learn so much from RL Diagnosis - both my own and others. Such a generous gift of your time and expertise. I'm keeping at it - "If at first you don't succeed...."

    Thanks also to Lori and Ken for taking the time to help me out.

    ReplyDelete