Saturday, January 21

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Read On?

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: Two 


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

This week’s questions:

Since the first 250 words are so important, I'd like your opinion on its worthiness as a first chapter.

1. Does the reader get a sense of Sherry? Enough to care?

2. Is it sufficiently shown through only narration as there's no dialogue or action?


Market/Genre: Psychological thriller

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Snug in boot socks and navy blue rubber mocs, Sherry’s feet had thawed and pulsed back to life when she returned to the parking lot outside her office. It was barely past five and already twilight. When the days were short like this, she took no appointments after three to leave her some of the afternoon for herself. She pushed it to four when the days were long but that was mainly because her clients had better things to do than “spill their guts on a couch” when tennis, golf and sailing beckoned.

She was thirty-two when she opened her practice five years ago, and couldn’t accept new patients after three years. Her clients were male executives and professionals, along with a few wives of executives and professionals who weren’t clients. That wasn’t by design; it was simply a mirror held up to the place and the time. Sherry chose her front row seat in this arena for its varied abundance of weapons and shields. Whether it be ornamentation, love, charity or their opposites, there was peace in others’ wars.

She’d already seen combat, deep in the hearth of the three hundred and sixty-degree impact that the protection of power and wealth has on all it touches. It blistered her at birth and burned her to the ground at eighteen.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Snug in boot socks and navy blue rubber mocs, Sherry’s feet had thawed and pulsed back to life when she returned to the parking lot outside her office.] I’m a little confused here—is she coming back from somewhere or leaving work? "Returned" makes me think she was away somewhere during work and just got back  It was barely past five and already twilight. When the days were short like this, she took no appointments after three to leave her some of the afternoon for herself. She pushed it to four when the days were long but that was mainly because her clients had better things to do than “spill their guts on a couch” when tennis, golf and sailing beckoned. Something about extending the hours when the clients had better things to do feels backward. I like the idea and the voice here, but it feels off somehow

She was thirty-two when she opened her practice five years ago, and [couldn’t accept new patients after three years.] does this mean she was good and overbooked or she couldn't deal with them anymore? Her clients were male executives and professionals, along with a few wives of executives and professionals who weren’t clients. That wasn’t by design; it was simply a mirror held up to the place and the time. [Sherry chose her front row seat in this arena for its varied abundance of weapons and shields.] I don’t know what this means Whether it be ornamentation, love, charity or their opposites, [there was peace in others’ wars.] I like this concept, but I'm unsure what she means. This paragraph feels like backstory and doesn’t draw me in

[She’d already seen combat, deep in the hearth of the three hundred and sixty-degree impact that the protection of power and wealth has on all it touches.] I don’t know what this means [It blistered her at birth and burned her to the ground at eighteen.] This is a neat sentence, but it loses impact since I don’t get what she means in the sentence previously. Many of the "cool lines" in this feel like they're trying a little too hard to sound "writerly" and it's getting in the way of clarity. 

The questions:

1. Does the reader get a sense of Sherry? Enough to care?


For me, not yet (readers chime in here). There’s very little so far from Sherry as a character to get to know her. I feel more that I’m being told about her than seeing her live her life. Part of that is due to the distant point of view and the lack of internal thought. There are a few lines that feel like they might be her thoughts to show her voice, but it’s on the fence. It could be an omniscient narrator or her. This distance, and a lack of something happening, is keeping me from connecting to her.

Sherry is leaving work, but there’s nothing else going on. As a reader, why would I care about this character leaving work? What’s here to entice me to care about her? I can see hints of tragedy in her life, but they don’t mean anything to me without more context or knowing how Sherry has been affected by them. So far, all this tells me is that a doctor who’s had some tough times is leaving work early. There’s nothing at stake, no goal presented, and no story question or mystery to pique my interest.

Look at it from the reader’s perspective: why should they invest hours of their time in this person? If the reasons aren’t making it into this opening yet, look for ways to add them in. Often, it only takes a line or two to grab a reader and make them read on.

(Here’s more on making readers care)

2. Is it sufficiently shown through only narration as there's no dialogue or action?

It’s mostly exposition and backstory so far, so it feels detached. While exposition can and does work to share information with readers, if it’s too detached and explanatory it can feel told. This has enough voice in it that it doesn’t feel told to me (readers also chime in here), but it’s also not making me connect with Sherry. I don’t feel this is a scene yet, but the explanation of a character.

Why do readers need to know about her practice before they know much about her? What about the setup is more critical than whatever problem she’s facing? If these details aren’t more important, then perhaps save them until after you’ve hooked readers.

What’s Sherry worrying about? What’s she facing? How is her day unfolding and why is it important that readers see this moment before they know anything else about her? Those are the things that will pique readers’ attention and make them care.

(Here’s more on exposition)

Overall, I suspect this just isn’t starting in the right place. In the submission, you mention a prologue where things are “off,” and that six months after chapter one, a woman is in danger. It’s possible chapter two is your actual opening if this is when Sherry becomes involved in the plot of the book. Something happens that draws Sherry into this situation and puts her in danger (I assume, since this is a physiological thriller and she’s a therapist of some type).

The prologue is very likely unnecessary, as it probably doesn’t give enough information to hook readers and doesn’t tell them anything the cover copy didn’t—something is amiss in this small town. I could be wrong (you’d have to look at it objectively), but this is very common with this type of prologue, especially if it’s designed to create the hook to keep readers interested while a character is introduced but nothing is going on yet.

(Here’s more on knowing if you should keep or kill the prologue)

I’d suggest looking at chapter two and considering how the book would read if you cut the prologue and first chapter and started there. Perhaps combine chapters one and two so the injured woman is found sooner and let readers meet Sherry as she treats her (or whatever she does, I’m just guessing based on the genre and setup I’ve read, but it feels like a logical plot progression).

If that won’t work, I’d suggest adding a few lines to this opening that show the goal or problem Sherry is facing, and a little more about her as a person—not the external details, but her personality. Let readers see who she is, not just what she is.

Now, let’s head off in left field for a bit…

In the original submission (the final posted here is a revised snippet), there was a small piece that I found very intriguing and felt would be a fantastic opening paragraph—if this situation affected the plot in some way (it could just be backstory). I loved this bit:
Horace Cooper became Sherry’s patient after his world fell apart. His mistress had committed suicide; his wife had left him and his daughter was ‘a budding sociopath.’ Still, he was improving.

All that stopped when he told Sherry he was in love with her.
If the next line is about Sherry’s feelings on the topic, how she’s dealing with it, and how this is making her life tough and transitions somehow into the book's plot, then I’d be hooked and care about her. This is great conflict and offers a lot of inherent problems that make me curious. How does Horace connect to the injured woman? Is he involved? Is his daughter? Already I’m hooked. If you can rework the chapter so this is the opening, and save the backstory for later, I think you’ll have the strong opening you want.

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 concur with all Janice said. The opening three paragraphs do nothing to connect me to the main character. It's backstory, but it's also vague backstory that hints and teases. I don't know intent, of course, but that's how it came across to this reader. There's no hook. A distant narrator telling us about a character in a scene where nothing happens and there's no internal dialog adds up to no pull on the reader. Janice had some intriguing advice that should be considered. Good luck!

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    1. Thanks. Multiple opinions always help and this will help me focus what I need to say more clearly.

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  2. If the cover copy had included Janice's revised snippet, I would have pushed past the first paragraph, but as intrigued as I might have been, I would have stopped after the last two paragraphs. I'd assume that writing style would continue and I don't like to work that hard to understand what I'm reading (personal preference?)

    There were some phrases that I liked quite a lot, just not so much in a single sentence or paragraph. I think I would have been impressed had they been sprinkled in here and there.

    Along with the comments by Janice and Christina, I'd suggest less focus on the words and more on the story.

    Based on the snippet, this sounds like a great story. Good Luck.

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    1. Thanks. This is beneficial. Back to the drawing board.

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  3. I echo everyone's comments. A good thriller needs a strong hook from the get-go. This doesn't have it. I also felt some of the thought trains were a bit random and didn't lead me to a solid place. But they should all be worked into back story. The plot sounds juicy. Make us want to find out more from the first paragraph. Keep going!!

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  4. Thanks for the bump. I think it's juicy too. Just gotta show it better. Really appreciate everyone's feedback.

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