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Saturday, May 13

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Historical Fiction 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 


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This week’s questions:

1. Tut is a six-year-old boy in this scene. Is he coming off as age-appropriate and realistic, or more like a caricature of a child?

2. I'm struggling a bit with point of view. I keep switching between third-person limited (like this scene) and third-person omniscient, trying to figure out which one works best. Does the point of view work in this scene? Do I need to get more into Tut's head?

3. Does this work as an opening?

4. Am I showing or telling?


Market/Genre: Biographical Historical Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background Info: This is a biographical historical fiction novel about the life of Egypt's King Tutankhamun. I'm trying to remain as true to historical fact as possible, while still telling my story. Because of that, the novel covers just over a decade of time, following Tut and his advisors from the time of the death of Tut's father, Pharaoh Akhenaten, when he was only 6, to Tut's own death at age 19.

Tutankhaten, prince of Upper and Lower Egypt, was flying.

He spread his arms wide, like the great desert falcons who protect the land with their outstretched wings. He closed his eyes and flung his head back, howling in pleasure as arid heat hit his face. His side lock whipped in the wind behind him, tangling in the string of his bow slung carelessly over his shoulder.

“Faster Horemheb! Go faster!”

Tut pretended he was a warrior, just like Horemheb, on his way to fight a mighty battle against the fearsome Asiatics. He pulled the small bow from his shoulder and gripped it in his hands, aiming at a large boulder protruding from the shore of the river. He watched as his mock arrow flew straight for the enemy, then hooted with excitement.

Horemheb, playing along with him, shouted in victory. "Well aimed, my Prince!"

Tut turned thoughtful. "Horemheb, when can we go on a real hunt?"

"Soon, Tutankhaten. I’ll take you into the desert to hunt hedgehogs. You just need to do a little more growing!"

"But why hedgehogs? They're so dull!" Tut scrunched up his small face to show his disapproval. "I want to hunt lions, just like you do!"

Horemheb laughed. "I think you need to work your way up to lion. But one day you’ll be ready."

"Vizier Ay says that all great kings of Egypt must learn to hunt. It’s a sign of strength. But my father doesn't hunt and he’s a great king. Why?"

"Well, the great god Aten showed a different path to your father. Akhenaten's strength comes directly from Aten, and not from making war with the Hittites."

"What about me? Where does my strength come from? Am I a warrior, or am I like my father?"

My Thoughts in Purple:

Tutankhaten, prince of Upper and Lower Egypt, was flying.

He spread his arms wide, like the great desert falcons who protect the land with their outstretched wings. He closed his eyes and flung his head back, [howling in pleasure] tellish as arid heat hit his face. [His side lock whipped in the wind behind him, tangling in the string of his bow slung carelessly over his shoulder.] Unless he can see this, this is an omniscient narrator

“Faster Horemheb! Go faster!” I assume this is Tut speaking, but it’s not 100% clear, and with the omniscient narrator it could be someone else.

Tut [pretended he was a warrior] tellish, just like Horemheb, on his way to fight a mighty battle against the fearsome Asiatics. He pulled the [small bow from his shoulder] you already mentioned the bow was on his shoulder, so perhaps pick a spot to say that and cut the other to avoid the duplication and gripped it in his hands, aiming at a large boulder protruding from the shore of the river. He watched as [his mock arrow flew straight for the enemy, then hooted [with excitement] tellish.] small thing, but it sounds like the arrow hooted, not Tut

Horemheb, [playing along with him] this is how he feels, so it’s feels omniscient, shouted [in victory.] tellish "Well aimed, my Prince!"

Tut [turned thoughtful.] tellish "Horemheb, when can we go on a real hunt?"

"Soon, [Tutankhaten] when it’s clear who is speaking, you don’t need to use the names so much. I’ll take you into the desert to hunt hedgehogs. You just need to do a little more growing!"

"But why hedgehogs? They're so dull!" Tut scrunched up his small face [to show his disapproval] tells motive. "I want to hunt lions, just like you do!"

Horemheb laughed. "I think you need to work your way up to lion. But one day you’ll be ready."

"Vizier Ay says that all great kings of Egypt must learn to hunt. It’s a sign of strength. But my father doesn't hunt and he’s a great king. Why?"

"Well, the great god Aten showed a different path to your father. Akhenaten's strength comes directly from Aten, and not from making war with the Hittites."

"What about me? Where does my strength come from? Am I a warrior, or am I like my father?"

The questions:

1. Tut is a six-year-old boy in this scene. Is he coming off as age-appropriate and realistic, or more like a caricature of a child?

He felt a little older to me than six (readers chime in), but considering the time period and the historical aspect, its probably fine. It isn’t until he asks when they can go on a real hint that he starts sounding young, so perhaps add something boyish earlier to show his age.

It’s realistic enough for me. It’s a historical novel about a famous boy king, and it’s for adult readers, so I expect a certain level of maturity for the story to work, especially with an omniscient narrator.

(Here’s more on showing a character's age)

2. I'm struggling a bit with point of view. I keep switching between third-person limited (like this scene) and third-person omniscient, trying to figure out which one works best. Does the point of view work in this scene? Do I need to get more into Tut's head?

This read solidly in third person omniscient point of view to me, and it worked fine (readers chime in). It feels like an outside narrator who is aware of what both characters are thinking and feeling. I never felt that I was in Tut’s head, so a little more internalization might be nice to get a better sense of who he is.

I didn’t feel jerked around by the POV, as it stayed a consistent narrative distance away and watched these two fly and play. Historicals often have more distant narrators relaying events, so it works for the type of story, and seemed to fit what was going on.

(Here’s more on POV and writing an omniscient narrator)

3. Does this work as an opening?

This one is a tough call for me, as I don’t read the genre (readers definitely chime in, especially historical fiction fans). There’s nothing here that makes me want to read on, though there’s also nothing that makes me stop reading. If I was interested in the subject matter, I’d probably give it a few page to see where it went.

There’s a bit of a question posed at the end that might be an interesting hook—is Tut like his father or not? And Tut does want to hunt, and hunt bigger prey, so there’s a suggestion of conflict and a possible problem for him there—will he try to hunt a lion and get hurt?

It’s also about a person shrouded in mystery, so that could also work as a nice hook. Readers who are intrigued by Tut would be interested even if the opening was quieter.

(Here’s more on hooking readers in an opening scene)

4. Am I showing or telling?

Telling is a sliding scale, and with an omniscient POV, a little more telling is acceptable. There are several tellish phrases (I marked them) that fall into “fine for the POV” that would feel more told in a tighter POV. There was only one spot that felt told to me even with the POV:
"But why hedgehogs? They're so dull!" Tut scrunched up his small face [to show his disapproval] This tells his motive and explains why he scrunched his face.
If you wanted to use a tighter POV, you’d simply shift the tellish lines to be more in the character’s head and show outward signs of those inner feelings. Such as, “turned thoughtful” would show a physical way someone looks when they’re thoughtful, or have Tut thinking about whatever he’s being thoughtful about.

(Here’s more on showing versus telling)

Overall, it’s a solid start, and I think a few tweaks will tighten it right up. It feels like one of those examples of a novel that will depend a lot on the cover copy. If readers like the premise, they’ll read on to see where things go. If the premise doesn’t grab them, they might not be drawn in by this opening page. If you wanted to punch it up, a greater hint of conflict would work, perhaps a little more from Tut internally to show what he’s struggling with, or suggest where his problems will come from.

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.

5 comments:

  1. I'm a big fan of historical fiction (I've read Alan Massie, Margaret George, Massimo Manfredi, Steven Pressfield etc.).

    I LOVED this introduction and I would read on. I can share my e-mail if you want, so you can send me some more pieces and I can give my fb as a reader (and fan of the genre) and not as a writer colleague (I'm currently writing fantasy).

    Best and good luck.

    ReplyDelete
  2. First, I'm going to say I loved this opening too. I think it's got a fun tone, and the "am I a warrior, or am I like my father" hook is interesting. I would definitely read more pages of this.

    If you decide to do a tight POV, have a good crit partner help you flag all instances of telling. Not all telling is bad, some of it can be useful, but you'll want to examine each instance on a case-by-case basis.

    In this example Janice flagged as telling:
    ""But why hedgehogs? They're so dull!" Tut scrunched up his small face to show his disapproval."
    The flagged phrase (to show his disapproval) is both telling and redundant. From the dialogue and Tut scrunching up his face, your reader can intuit that Tut doesn't want to hunt hedgehogs. Trust your reader to get it, don't beat them over the head. This telling should be revised out.

    Another flag Janice threw was for:
    "Horemheb, playing along with him, shouted in victory. "Well aimed, my Prince!""
    (in victory) was flagged as telling. For me, this telling could be OK, depending on the meaning of your sentence. If you mean Horemheb shouts, and then says "well aimed, my Prince", the "shouted in victory" is fine (for me, other people will disagree). If you mean Horemheb shouts "well aimed, my Prince" in victory, then the telling doesn't work (it's redundant again).

    That's the kind of examination you'll need to do. But this is a good opening! I enjoyed it a lot.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I edit and read historical fiction and I would have flagged what Janice flagged as well, and for the same reasons.

    The POV works for me throughout, but that distance can feel at arm's length, which may not be what the author wants.

    The Tut character comes across, to me, as older than six.

    I would also consider tighening all the getting of the bow, gripping it in his hands (how else?), as all this detail implies focused intent, when a six-year-old would just grab his bow and shoot with abandon. The carefree way in which a six-year-old would act isn't coming through, especially after the freewheeling opening.

    There also isn't any reference to 'how' he gets to feel like he's flying. Is he on horseback with Horemheb? Is he on Horemheb's shoulders?

    Placing Tut in his mode of movement could help show his age.

    Consider this: When you put Tut riding high on his guardian's shoulders, we instantly see a very young child who would feel like he was flying, and then would shoot and revel in his marksmanship as the great warrior/guardian carrying him ran along the river bank. This situation sets up Horemheb as someone who is very close to the royal family, and especially Tut's father.

    This opening is fun and does a good job of introducing us to the young Tut. I think if the situation between Tut and Horemheb is presented as the two in play, Tut being a young child of six will be easily seen.

    Good job and good luck!!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I love Historical Fiction also ( and anything about ancient Egypt), but join Janice's "on the fence" opinion about the opening. It did hold my interest. However, Tut was such an intriguing and colorful character of history, I tend to think something more "dramatic" as an opener would pull a reader in more. This segment could be used equally well as backstory or flashback further into the book/story. Just a suggestion. Sounds like this is going to be a fun read!!

    ReplyDelete