Saturday, June 3

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Cozy Mystery 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 July 29.

This week’s question:

Does this opening work?

Market/Genre: Cozy Mystery

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: Victoria is the elderly (70ish) amateur sleuth who, as well as trying to uncover what happened to her friend Margaret, wants to win her estranged daughter back. They became estranged when Victoria over-stepped her boundaries and interfered with her daughter’s love-life.

This isn’t Victoria’s first funeral, nor will it be her last. Yet each one causes her to evaluate and judge her entire existence. Is there time to make amends with those we have injured? Will I have regrets on my deathbed for not fulfilling my bucket list? Yes, death definitely conjures life. Victoria’s thoughts drift as the minister drones on at Margaret’s graveside.

A cactus wren chirps cheerily, oblivious to sadness as it flits from tree to tree. Orange blossoms omit wafts of sweet citrus fragrance. Spring time in the Phoenix desert is in bloom. Many signs of new life, but while the crocus is pushing up, Margaret is going down. Six feet down.

Victoria observes Margaret’s three daughters, standing together in somber dresses, holding hands. She thinks of her daughter, Elizabeth, and feels the familiar pang of regret for how their relationship has crumbled. She misses her dead husband, but should she be missing her very much alive daughter?

Like the cactus wren, her thoughts flit from one thing to another.

What really caused Margaret’s death? Her sudden demise appears suspicious to Victoria. She has read enough whodunits to know that the unattended death of a healthy woman is labeled suspicious and requires a police investigation, but, of course, she plans to do her own as well.

Victoria thinks, “Another irony. Today is Monday, Margaret’s favorite day. Monday Mah Jongg at Margaret’s. The three M day.

Is it possible that there is a fourth M in Margaret’s life? M as in murder?

My Thoughts in Purple:

This isn’t Victoria’s first funeral, nor will it be her last. [Yet each one causes her to evaluate and judge her entire existence.] Feels told Is there time to make amends with those we have injured? Will I have regrets on my deathbed for not fulfilling my bucket list? Yes, death definitely conjures life. Victoria’s thoughts drift as the minister drones on at Margaret’s graveside. This seems very serious for a cozy

A cactus wren chirps cheerily, oblivious to sadness as it flits from tree to tree. Orange blossoms omit wafts of sweet citrus fragrance. Spring time in the Phoenix desert is in bloom. [Many signs of new life, but while the crocus is pushing up, Margaret is going down. Six feet down.] Nice

Victoria observes Margaret’s three daughters, standing together in somber dresses, holding hands. She thinks of her daughter, Elizabeth, and feels the familiar pang of regret for how their relationship has crumbled. She misses her dead husband, but should she be missing her very much alive daughter? This paragraph feels told

Like the cactus wren, her thoughts flit from one thing to another.

What really caused Margaret’s death? Her sudden demise appears suspicious to Victoria. She has read enough whodunits to know that the unattended death of a healthy woman is labeled suspicious and requires a police investigation, but, of course, she plans to do her own as well. This paragraph feels told

Victoria thinks, “Another irony. Today is Monday, Margaret’s favorite day. Monday Mah Jongg at Margaret’s. The three M day.

Is it possible that there is a fourth M in Margaret’s life? M as in murder?

The question:

1. Does this opening work?


For me, no, but I don’t read cozies (readers chime in here, especially cozy fans). This felt fairly told and detached to me, more like setup explaining the scene, not the actual scene unfolding. I did read the openings of a random handful of cozies before reviewing this to get a better sense of them, and I did see that a detached narrator is not uncommon. It’s possible this fits the genre and it’s just a personal taste issue on my part, but I suspect it’s a little more told than what’s typical.

(Here’s more on showing vs. telling)

It also starts very somber, which feels off to me for a cozy, which I always thought were fairly light in tone, even when the bodies piled up (but I could be wrong here—cozy readers chime in here as well).

There’s no sense of Victoria yet so I never connected to her as a character. Even though she says Margaret’s death is suspicious, I don’t really see how she knows that. An “unattended death of a healthy woman” just wasn’t a strong enough reason for me to accept the premise, and I wanted something more specific to show why Victoria thought this was murder.

I like the concept behind this opening—a friend decides her friend was murdered and decides at her funeral to do something about it—but there’s not enough yet to establish Victoria before it dives into the plot. I don’t know who she is or why she feels this way. I’m not sure about her goals, as she seems to be contemplating her life and her bucket list, and thinking about her daughter, which all have equal weight as her friend’s possible murder. It feels unfocused as is.

(Here’s more on tightening the narrative focus)

Overall, I think this is explaining the scene more than showing the scene, which is keeping me from engaging in the story. Perhaps slow down some and let readers get to know Victoria a bit more and why she feels this was murder. Give a better sense of the setting and the character before diving into the plot. Maybe focus on Margaret and why Victoria thinks it’s murder and save the life and daughter stuff until after if you still wanted to get that all on the first page.

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. I agree with Janice comments that it looks like a explanation, not a scene, but I did like the first two sentences a lot. It could mention Victoria's age tho, I love when the MC aren't teens, young adults,etc. And I would pick your book because of this. An old lady solving a mystery? Man, that must be a good story.

    But we need to see Victoria doing something early on. When you wrote that she looked at the 3 daughters, I thought that was the route the scene would take. Maybe she would approach them and say that she suspected of murder. Or say something to someone standing by her, like: "do you think they look like murderers?".

    Something like that would create tension immediately and show what's going on Victoria's mind.

    The thing about her daughter can come later, it doesn't fit here (IMO). You tried to surmise too much in a short scene, but that scene doesn't need explaining, it needs to hook. You have strong opening lines, and I think you can do good stuff with that.

    Sorry about the lazy English (ESL), but I hope my comments help somehow. Good work!

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  2. First paragraphs is good. It sets the tone very quickly with a funeral and Victoria questioning her own life. You don't need to make much changes there.

    Personally, I don't have as much of an issue with ur approach - being more tell than show. You made a narrative choice to place us inside Victoria's head, so it became more tell than show. The downside is that the opener is a slow burner. But I would heed their advice to keep a good balance between showing and telling.

    The last paragraph presented is likely the weakest. Janice hit's it on the nose that the story loses focus and cohesion. There's a lot of unfinished thoughts, as the narrative jumps around like the cactus wren. I can appreciate why u wish to jump around, leaving a bread trail of unfinished thoughts, but u need to consider the readers perspective. Cleaning it up and getting more focused is the biggest priority in my humble opinion.

    Lastly, I wouldn't describe what we've read so far as cozy (so I must agree with Janice). Perhaps we haven't read enough yet to get to the cozy parts, but the opening at a funeral is far from cozy.

    Overall, I'd grade it a solid B. Keep up the good work

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  3. First off, thanks for allowing us to collaborate with you...

    My first impression was that you were trying to cram everything that was in your prefacing mini-synopsis into this first page. This page needs to simply establish that your MC is older, naturally curious and snoopy, and perhaps a bit eccentric.

    The wavering from a more intimate voice to the distant, telling/explaining narrative was disturbing, as I was waiting for the MC to 'connect' with her surroundings.
    She can be in a deeply reflective state of mind, which can be connected to her noticing the bird flitting about - perhaps she's seated near a window - perhaps the bird comes to the window sill - but you can tie her changing considerations/thoughts to the quick movements of the bird, showing that her mind is always wondering, considering, sleuthing.
    You could have her remind herself why she's here, to show that she may often need to rein in her analytic process. She could force herself to look at the coffin, then the minister, then a passing thought of others lost recently, perhaps considering their circumstances of passing -- and then, she makes quick comparisons of those circumstances and realizes Margaret's doesn't fit the usual. She casts a suspicious eye on the daughters, remembering something about Margaret that might be valuable to them (or some other tidbit that allows the reader to also be suspicious), and then, perhaps when the minister pauses before requesting communal prayer, she whispers: "They don't look like murderers..."

    My suggestions are meant to show how you can use humor, which usually laces through cozies, can be used and can also show how quickly your MC's mind works.

    The situation with the daughter needs to come later, like Silva, I think this is too soon as is. Perhaps when she leaves the service, she could again look at the daughters, regretting their sorrow, which leads her to wonder if her daughter feels sorrow, feels she has lost Victoria -- she could then even chastise herself for putting the thought of murder with the 3 daughters -- that no one would ever view her own daughter as a murderer of her mother.
    The cozy mysteries I read, and watch as classic tv shows, with older main characters, seem to rely on personalities that have a strong sense of humor, often self-deprecating. They also are intelligent, with high aesthetic principles, and usually follow quirky or unusual thought paths filled with 'common sense' points.

    I like the opening premise, just want a way to connect with the character and how she thinks. Plus, it would be stronger to not just say she reads mystery books, but to show how she's connected to such things -- does she work in the library? Is she a writer? Does she belong to a mystery book club? Was Margaret part of it? Does she go it alone, but maybe her daughter thinks she's a bit nuts?

    I had lots of questions, but no answers -- and wasn't able to feel Victoria's 'ear-prick' of curiosity. Like Janice mentioned, I simply wasn't able to get close to her.

    Good luck to you! And thanks again for standing in the spotlight.

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