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Sunday, February 19

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Fantasy 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: Eight 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through April 15.

This week’s questions:

1. Is this engaging enough for a first scene?

2. It's hard to give more internal thoughts on this beginning, because the action is all of a sudden. Do you think I should try putting more internal thoughts in these first 250 words?

3. Even if the scene isn't good in overall, is there anything that would make you read the next page?

4. I had Melissa cursing in this scene, but some people said it was horrible and I took it away. It's not a problem for this scene, but she is a cursing type of person (which shows some of her background) and I wanted it to shock some other characters along the novel with her poor vocabulary. Can you give me a hint on how to deal with this?


Market/Genre: Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Melissa stopped and sat down at the top of a dune, trying to recover some of her energy and at least a little bit of her desire to keep on. She had been walking for a long time, but she could still see the warrior statue that marked the beginning of her journey. Her feet were on fire inside the gaiters.

This is so useless…

She took a sip from the canteen and choked when a person appeared at the top of a dune, to her left. Melissa closed the canteen and began running towards the stranger, whom was covered in black rags.

It was the first person she saw since the doors of death opened and gave her access to that hellish desert.

"Hey, hey!” she screamed.

The ragged one kept walking, in a pace three times faster than Melissa could stand. She grabbed him by the shoulders when he ignored her.

“Hey…” she said, unable to keep an emotionless voice.

Under the rags, there was a woman with a flaring red skin, full of bruises. She had the smell of a dead body.

So weird, but if she knows where I can find a village or something, it's enough.

“Hey, hey,” Melissa said again, shaking her by the shoulders.

The only answer she got was a scared look, coming through red and sore eyes.

“Where are the others? Where do you live?”

The traces of fear in her eyes became pure confusion.

“Say something. What’s your name?”

Melissa snapped when the woman remained silent and threw her over the sand, as if that would help turn her mind on.

Unbelievable.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Melissa stopped and sat down at the top of a dune, trying to recover some of her energy and at least [a little bit of her desire to keep on] this intrigues me, as I wonder why. She had been walking for a long time, but she could still see the warrior statue that marked the beginning of her journey. Her feet were on fire inside the gaiters.

[This is so useless…] Since this switched to present tense/first person, either italicize it so it’s clear it’s her thought, or switch it to past tense/third person to remain in the narrative as an internal thought, for example: This is so useless… or This was so useless. Either works.

She took a sip from the canteen and choked when a person appeared at the top of a dune, to her left. [Melissa closed the canteen and began running towards the stranger, whom was covered in black rags.] This feels a little tellish and clunky

It was the first person [she saw] she’d seen [since the doors of death opened and gave her access to that hellish desert.] Also intrigues me. She’s been through something

"Hey, hey!” she screamed.

The ragged one kept walking, [in a pace three times faster than Melissa could stand] something about this feels off. [She grabbed him by the shoulders when he ignored her.] if he’s moving so much faster, how did she catch him? This paragraph feels a little out of whack

“Hey…” she said, [unable to keep an emotionless voice.] telling a bit. What does this actually mean? How does she sound? Does she rasp? Cry? Plead?

Under the rags, [there was] a little passive. Try using the active voice a woman with a flaring red skin, full of bruises. [She had the smell of a dead body.] here, too

[So weird, but if she knows where I can find a village or something, it's enough.] Either italicize or make part of the narrative: So weird, but if she knew where to find a village or something, it was enough.

“Hey, hey,” Melissa said again, shaking her by the shoulders.

The only answer [she got] don’t need was a scared look, coming through red and sore eyes.

“Where are the others? Where do you live?” Good spot for some internalization

The traces of fear in her eyes became pure confusion.

“Say something. What’s your name?”

Melissa [snapped when the woman remained silent and] explaining motive, which feels a little tellish threw her over the sand, as if that would help turn her mind on.

Unbelievable.

The questions:

1. Is this engaging enough for a first scene?


I’d read on a little more (readers chime in here). There’s a clear sense of Melissa in the middle of a problem, and she’s been through something and in trouble. All is not well in this world, though I don’t know what or why yet. But the general problem it clear enough for me to follow along in the story.

(Here’s more on writing an opening scene)

2. It's hard to give more internal thoughts on this beginning, because the action is all of a sudden. Do you think I should try putting more internal thoughts in these first 250 words?

There was one spot I wanted a little more to show her desperation and frustration, but overall it was fine. I’d suggest deciding how you want to handle your internalization though. Internal thoughts can either be italic and first person to show immediacy (though this gets tiresome if all the thoughts are like this, so I recommend using it only for thoughts you want to emphasize), or keeping it in the third person narrative. Most internalization you can make part of the narrative.

(Here’s more on choosing which thoughts to italicize)

3. Even if the scene isn't good in overall, is there anything that would make you read the next page?

I found the hints that there was more going on intriguing and that drew me in. The situation worked for me, and even if the text could use a little polishing still, the scene is sound. There’s a little telling and some clunky sentences (common for early drafts), but I can see from the rest of the text you can easily clean that up and smooth the prose.

(Here’s more on keeping readers hooked)

4. I had Melissa cursing in this scene, but some people said it was horrible and I took it away. It's not a problem for this scene, but she is a cursing type of person (which shows some of her background) and I wanted it to shock some other characters along the novel with her poor vocabulary. Can you give me a hint on how to deal with this?

Go with your instincts. If you feel that’s the character, let her curse. It’s possible you had a few beta readers who simply don’t like cursing and it’s their personal preference.

Andy Weir’s The Martian starts like this:
I’m pretty much f@#%ed.

That’s my considered opinion.

F@#%ed.
So clearly, swearing the first page doesn’t matter if it’s the right thing to do (grin). However, if most of your beta readers are saying this and they have no problems with cursing, it could indicate a problem. Maybe the swearing is right, but the word used is too much for that scene. Trust yourself and do what you feel works best.

(Here’s more on trusting your writer’s instinct)

Overall, this scene is working as intended, and a few tweaks to polish and smooth the text would get it where you want it. This feels much stronger than the previous opening you submitted.

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.

11 comments:

  1. Janice, this was very helpful. I'm not satisfied with how I've been handling internal thoughts, and thia fb shows my gut feeling was right.

    The verb tenses are lookimg much better in the original text tho, as we don't have the perfect tense in Portuguese and it's substitute is considered poor writing for us (which gives me a lot of "voice" problems when translatig, its really hard to nail it, lol). However, The tense problems in internal thoughts are not because of the translation and they will enter my review spreadsheet.

    Overall, I'm very happy with the fb, which gives me the will to continue and a north on things I need to correct.

    Hope some ppl leave more fb on comments.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I thought this was a nice read, well written for the most part. This paragraph could be enhanced:

    Melissa took a sip from the canteen, choking at the sight of a person appearing at the top of a dune. She began running, closing the canteen as water leaked from the opening. Her feet slipped through the sand as she ran, slowing her body. Her arms tingled with the closer view of the stranger. A woman whom was covered in black rags.

    The point is, describe what is happening. How did she run? What emotions were going through her mind and body? It gives more tension to draw out the scene and paint her actions.

    Also, I didn't really get that she was thrown over sand.

    Good luck, keep working at it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! I'll surely work on these points.

      Delete
  3. For me, the tone doesn't feel like it matches the situation.

    Melissa is described as being in a "hellish abyss", and as far as I can tell, she's only got water. No food (although that might be mentioned after the 250 words). No other people. No civilization. But she doesn't sound scared or desperate, she sounds annoyed. She thinks "this is useless". She's worried about her energy flagging, but not worried about food or water or shelter. When she sees a person, she tries for an emotionless tone, instead of being happy or relieved or desperate. And when the person smells like a corpse, her thought is "so weird". And then she body slams the lady. How is that supposed to convince the lady to help her?

    I'm not sure if this translates, but Melissa is no selling the situation. Everything about her situation sounds pretty dire, but her reaction is just 'meh'. It's hard for me to connect with Melissa, and subsequently care about what's going on, if she doesn't seem to care.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the fb, these are relevant points for my characterization. Maybe I should be more explicit about the message in this paragraph: It was the first person she saw since the doors of death opened and gave her access to that hellish desert.

      She has been a long time already in this place, something that is not clear in this scene. I'll have to work on it.

      Delete
  4. I'm in agreement with Janice on her points concerning internalization and how it's presented, passive voice, and the awkward sentences. There are a few other places where unnecessary words could be cut, but I'm sure later drafts will take care of those issues.

    You present a lot of questions here that are engaging so I'd consider this a good start. It's possible to add more internalization without it overwhelming the action. Even a word here and there would make a difference. She strikes me as tired and frustrated, yet not scared or intimidated by the circumstances. That's intriguing.

    There's enough here to encourage turning the page, but I'll admit stumbling over the "Melissa snapped..." line would cause me to hesitate because I found it confusing.

    Without seeing a sample where she's cursing I can't make a final decision on that issue, but knowing she normally does makes me feel I'm not seeing the true character in this scene. That could be a problem. Does she curse a lot or doesn't she? Whatever the answer to that question is should be reflected in the story's opening. Who she is, is who she is. Let the reader make their page-turning decision based on the real character.

    Suppressing her true nature could be harming her ability to express herself so it's possible that freeing this character would make the internalizations easier to write, solving two issues at once. Overall, you're clearly on the right track with this. In many places you've already found the right balance, a sure sign your skill is coming through to the reader. Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thats great advice, thanks!

      Delete
  5. Would I read on? Possibly, just to see if the questions this opening were answered or explained. Overall, I see that the MC is in a tough situation, but it's uncertain if she's been banished to this place or made the choice for whatever reason. That ambiguity is the first stumbling block for me.

    The opening sentences set a mundane tone. Melissa sits down, and then does my pet peeve: 'tries' to do something. Since she just sits (down is unnecessary) on the sand, I get no feeling that she's distressed, lost, nearly dying of thirst or hunger, or in this place under duress.

    If she dropped to her knees, scanned the horizon, felt despair that though the terrain was featureless, she could still see the monolith that marked her starting point -- then I might have a better or beginning sense of her current mental, emotional, and physical state.

    Her cursing would be appropriate if it fits her character and emphasizes her frustration. If she undertook this trek willingly, then she can curse her decision to do so. If she was forced into this place, then she can curse those who are responsible.

    As far as seeing the wandering person: did she expect to see anyone? Is she looking for someone? Is she going somewhere in particular?

    She doesn't seem surprised at the condition of the mystery person and her reaction seems to indicate that she either doesn't consider the person an actual person, or that Melissa is a bit of a psycho. This encounter could be more interesting if we had a reaction from the MC that revealed more about her feelings before flinging 'it' to the ground. I would accept a cursing Melissa in this encounter, if it showed her building anger over her situation.

    So...yeah, you need more internal thought to take us deeper into why this scene is happening.

    I feel you have a good, strong concept -- so far. To be able to invest in the story or the character, I would need more 'meat' on what is currently bare bones. I believe you can accomplish this if you take your time and ensure you answer questions before readers have a chance to ask them. You want your readers to ask only the questions that you have framed and which further your story.

    Good luck and thanks for allowing strangers to give feedback.

    ReplyDelete
  6. So many great comments, thank you very much.

    ReplyDelete
  7. The opening seems fine with me. It provides a sense of conflict (woman against nature) from the opening. This is ratcheted up quickly when another person appears. The description and actions of that person provide the added conflict: this is no friend or savior. I suspect I would read on for a couple of pages, at least, to learn a little more.

    As for swear words, I'm not a fan of them, and seeing them on the first page would probably cause me to put the book down. I doubt, however, that I'm in the majority in that.

    ReplyDelete