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Saturday, January 7

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Opening Make Sense?

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 February 4.

This week’s question:

Below is the opening of the third novel of the Matryoschka Heritage linked novels (not a series). In the first novel, Alex and Sarah Beth get unwisely caught up in a battle between a less-than-competent secret government research agency and a transnational group that’s over 500 years old. Alex dies. End of book one. In the second novel, Sarah Beth, despite ‘interventions’ by Alex’s wife, Antonia, the government agency, all their friends, and everyone else, searches for the way to bring him back. Sarah Beth dies in her success. Alex lives, again. End of book two.

Does this opening work as a relatively coherent introduction to the situation, and the complexities Alex now faces? 


Market/Genre: Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Alex: Day 3982

When you die, a decent person stays dead.

"Are you ready for this?" Katie, my rock. She's on detached service at the Fort Lewis Adjutant General Office, and got the General to request a full week 'special assignment.' I'm the special assignment.

"No." What's with the meadowlarks? It's not the mating season, but they're singing up a storm. Something important, just out of my mental reach. My recovery from whatever state I was in left me with holes that tickle, always tickling.

"Let's stick to the plan. I'll go first, talk to them. Surveillance puts them both at home." She pulls the visor mirror down, checks her pulled-back hair, and any insignia out of place. Still thin as a rail, and the darkest person I've known, she carries her six foot two well. Especially in the full Army dress uniform. The brass eagle looks good on her shoulders. A full Colonel in Army Judge Advocate Corps. Sarah Beth was right; she's definitely fast tracking. "I'll signal you; just like the old days."

"In my excitement I forgot to ask. Who notified them when I died?"

"I did, in uniform. I felt you and they deserved it." She leaves the keys in our rented sedan with the privacy film on the windows.

General's orders. "Family only. Not whole damn Ballard district." Stepping out of the sedan, she positions her uniform hat and stares for a moment at the 'inconspicuous' follow-van. Complete with antennas, just like the old days. I sense the geeks, and two likely security-types inside. Even a private reunion with a dead son doesn't rank high enough for privacy from the General's corps.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Alex: Day 3982

[When you die, a decent person stays dead.] Intriguing line. Made me curious to read on.

"Are you ready for this?" asked? Katie, my rock. She's on detached service at the Fort Lewis Adjutant General Office, and got the General to request a full week 'special assignment.' I'm the special assignment. I wanted something to connect back to the dead line here to provide context

"No." [What's with the meadowlarks? It's not the mating season, but they're singing up a storm.] This confused me, as it come out of the blue Something important, just out of my mental reach. My recovery from whatever state I was in left me with holes that tickle, always tickling.

"Let's stick to the plan. I'll go first, talk to them. Surveillance puts [them] who is them? I’m feeling a little lost both at home." She pulls the visor mirror down, checks her pulled-back hair, and any insignia out of place. Still thin as a rail, and the darkest person I've known, she carries her six foot two well. Especially in the full Army dress uniform. The brass eagle looks good on her shoulders. A full Colonel in Army Judge Advocate Corps. Sarah Beth was right; she's definitely fast tracking. "I'll signal you; just like the old days."

"In my excitement I forgot to ask. Who notified them [when] I love this subtle word, as it shows that he did indeed die. When he died, not that he did. I died?"

"I did, in uniform. [I felt you and they deserved it.] I feel like I ought to know what this means, but I don’t " She leaves the keys in our rented sedan with the privacy film on the windows.

[General's orders. "Family only. Not whole damn Ballard district."] I’m confused what this means Stepping out of the sedan, she positions her uniform hat and stares for a moment at the 'inconspicuous' follow-van. Complete with antennas, just like the old days. I sense the geeks, and two likely security-types inside. Even a private reunion with a dead son doesn't rank high enough for privacy from the General's corps.

The question:

1. Does this opening work as a relatively coherent introduction to the situation, and the complexities Alex now faces?


Not quite yet (readers chime in here). It isn’t until the final line that I get an idea of what’s going on, and there’s too much before that leaving me confused. But what’s going on is fantastic, filled with potential conflict and high emotions—a son facing the family who thinks he died. The fact that he actually did only adds to that, and that will be a fun shock for readers who started with this book.

(Here's more on getting what's in your head onto the page)

I’d suggest a little rearranging and clarification to help get new readers onboard sooner. You might consider moving the final paragraph where Alex says what’s going on (telling his family he’s no longer dead) to after he says, “No.” I think if we understand why he’s there, the rest of the opening will make more sense. For example:
When you die, a decent person stays dead.

"Are you ready for this?" asks Katie, my rock. She's on detached service at the Fort Lewis Adjutant General Office, and got the General to request a full week 'special assignment.' I'm the special assignment.

"No."

Stepping out of the sedan, she positions her uniform hat and stares for a moment at the 'inconspicuous' follow-van. Complete with antennas, just like the old days. I sense the geeks, and two likely security-types inside. Even a private reunion with a dead son doesn't rank high enough for privacy from the General's corps.
You’d need to move some things around a little, but I think this sets up what’s happening and creates enough context to understand the scene, but also allows for mystery to those who don’t know the books. A dead son? Cool, what’s that all about. Readers unfamiliar with the story will likely think he was mistakenly declared dead, so the truth will be a surprise. It’ll also add some intrigue to his comments about how he feels right now, which are fun clues that he’s been dead for real and this isn’t a notification mistake.

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

Once it’s clear what’s going on, I think the opening will work well. There’s action, mystery, and some fun story questions, and there’s a sense of something about to happen. Not reading the other books won’t affect this then, as there’s enough intrigue to hook even if you don’t know the details behind what happened.

Overall, I think a little rearranging and fleshing out will clear the confusion right up, and this will work nicely. It has all the right pieces, just not quite in the right spots for the best impact.

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.

6 comments:

  1. I love the opening line; however, it could be improved. The tense switches from second person to third, making it sound awkward. Consider saying something such as this: When decent people die, they stay dead.

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  2. Clarity, yes. I think the sense of how much backstory and character sense is involved here is interfering with the scene's picking what we need to know first.

    Things I'd like to be clear about in the first few paragraphs:
    * That this is just two people here (I think), preparing to go into a house. That very basic setup wasn't given for a while, and it made it harder to relate to anything else. (Even the meadowlark line would go over better if we had a sense of where they were before you added the birds to the scene.)
    * That they're here to talk to the family about a death, Alex's. After the first line, it takes half a page before we get more hints what death has to do with them being here. Even if you assume that readers will have read the back cover and probably the first two books, it's still the center of the scene and the most interesting part of it. You could be indirect about it and keep us guessing for a while to just what death it is (like Janice said, it's always a thrill to realize a character's talking about himself actually dying), but we don't want to go through that crucial starting section with no hints.

    You do a fine job of showing us the characters and their back-and-forth interplay to add to the scene. But this reads a lot like a good second scene or second chapter, and less like how a first page could also (re)focus on the core points as we start up.

    ReplyDelete
  3. It might have more shock value to comment on the "stay dead" part first.

    Decent people stay dead when they die.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The first line is great (as Anonymous said, it could be even better). But it is disconnected from the next paragraph, and that ruined it. Maybe a little explanation (why is it decent to stay dead?) would help connecting it.
    As for the rest, a little less ambiguity is needed. Some of the lines are confusing, because there is no context, and internalization from the characters could easily clarify them.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The backstory information given was nice to know, but (for me) didn't alter my expectations or reactions once I read the material.

    I immediately wanted to know who Alex was and why a count of days was so important. I expected to find out who Alex was fairly quickly.

    I suggest the first line be as tight as the day count: Decent people stay dead.

    Those two simple bits were enough to have me anticipating a bizarre tale.

    From there, I understood that it was Katie speaking and needed no tag. The 'explanation' that followed was a bit dry, and didn't support the important 'my rock' declaration. I needed to see a more personal observation, maybe that alluded to some special efforts or particular gratefulness.

    I also wanted to see the sentence: "I'm the special assignment." on a separate line for emphasis.

    The 'birds' paragraph attempts to allude to Alex's current condition. I liked the 'hint' that something wasn't quite right, or needed to be remembered. But this needs to be more prickly and show some kind of emotion or reaction, or refusal to acknowledge, etc. I believe it's important to show that Alex isn't quite 'right'or may question his current condition. We also wonder if he truly knows what happened to him, as he alludes to 'whatever state I was left in".

    The emphasis on Katie's appearance is given enough importance that I was forced to shift my perspective from Alex to her. This broke things a bit for me, as Alex is observing and not engaging, so it feels distant.

    I assumed 'them' means family members.

    The move that Janice suggested is a must. It will achieve a flash-point for the reader, who will then be primed to read and read and read to get into the story. For me, this change would mean being armed with anticipation, as it would shift the dynamic dramatically.

    As I thought about the complexity of the story line from the beginning, I wondered if this opening is a bit loose because you are saturated with the story. The assumption of reader knowledge, as well as the inescapable fact that you know the story so intimately, might be interfering with your ability to make the opening sharper.

    As I always suggest to my author clients, read this material aloud. Have other people read it aloud to you. This process usually illuminates any soft points or lost tie-ins or lack of character reaction or interactions.

    Best success to you! Thank you for submitting and allowing this public feedback.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Love the first line. Brilliant.

    I agree with Janice. I was just too lost. The ideas are all there, but you need to flesh out the word picture for me so I can get a handle on where I am and what is happening.

    Put some ground under my feet in the first paragraph. In your version, I don't understand we are in a car until much later in the passage. In Janice's version, after the first two lines of exchange she goes into description. That lets me get oriented.

    Also, Janice uses movement to set the stage. Kate gets out of the car. She looks back at another car and that allows your protagonist to make an assumption about the van following them. That one act lets me see the car they are in, the street, the sidewalk perhaps in front of a building that they plan to enter. Great, now I can start making my mind movie while I read. She adds another van and what the character knows about the van giving me a more vivid picture and telling me a little about these characters at the same time.

    You could certainly use that technique to describe Kate's uniform and body. The building they enter, even the meadowlarks could be fit into description via action and manipulation of the environment by the characters. That always makes setting more dynamic.

    The Meadowlarks completely confused me and brought the movie in my head to a full stop. That's bad. The birds might be interesting but I would move them down a little and explain them more fully or bury them with other description. If the birds are a horror type of thing--the birds are sounding warning at an undead person and you plan to show them over and over again--I would still move them down until you orient the reader and then maybe show one or two singing at the wrong season as your characters enter the building. Mix the birds in with a bunch of other description so it isn't so prominent. Then escalate the birds every time you see them. The number of birds, the volume of their song and how prominent they are shown to the reader can all be escalated.

    ReplyDelete