Saturday, June 17

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Historical Fiction Opening Grab You?

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: Six 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through July 29.

This week’s questions:

1. Does the opening work?

2. Are the voice and characterization working?

3. Would you read on?

4. Any red flags?


Market/Genre: Historical Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

One more stop before the train pulled into Bari Centrale Station and they'd find out if all their hard work paid off. Pino yanked the strap of his vest on his shoulder and wiggled the hefty garment back into place under his coiled wool sweater. Out the wide train windows, the charred, broken remnants of Foggia’s once sturdy municipal buildings passed, cradled in sunlight, wood girders and crumpled stone pillars strewed up and down the hillside like a child’s discarded toy blocks.

Pino palmed sweat off his widow’s peak and committed the scene to memory. If he ever painted again, the devastation in this once proud Italian town would be the first scene he’d paint. He imagined scraping burnt browns and blistered grays onto a canvas to capture the town’s destruction after months of Allied and Nazi bombings.

Pino shook the image from his mind. He needed to focus on today and on the deep, etched worry lines that would lift from his father’s face when Pino surprised him with the money from this mission. “My son. Finally, a man,” his father would say. Pino imagined his mother’s warm embrace and the feeling of pride flooding his body. Today’s the day. He would do whatever it took to prove himself and to help his father’s struggling almond factory stay afloat.

Exhaustion tugged at Pino’s neck muscles, but the murmuring rumble of the train’s gassy engine calmed his breathing. At least until Alfredo slapped a palm across the back of his head.

“Wake up. You look too relaxed,” Alfredo said and slid into the seat next to Pino. “We need to be ready when we hit Bari. I figured out our exit plan.” Alfredo rolled two hazelnuts in his palm, clicking the shells like a squirrel organizing nuts in its cheeks.

Pino jerked his head toward two uniformed soldiers playing cards at the far end of the train car. “Are you crazy?What if they hear you?”

Alfredo curled his plump lips into the crooked smirk that had won over every school teacher since first grade. “Nah, they’re too busy stealing each other’s money.”

Confident bastard. Didn’t even bother to whisper.

My Thoughts in Purple:


One more stop before the train pulled into Bari Centrale Station and they'd find out if all their hard work paid off. Pino yanked the strap of his vest on his shoulder and wiggled the hefty garment back into place under his coiled wool sweater. Out the wide train windows, the charred, broken remnants of Foggia’s once sturdy municipal buildings passed, cradled in sunlight, wood girders and crumpled stone pillars strewed up and down the hillside like a child’s discarded toy blocks.

Pino palmed sweat off his widow’s peak and committed the scene to memory. If he ever painted again, the devastation in this once proud Italian town would be the first scene he’d paint. He imagined scraping burnt browns and blistered grays onto a canvas to capture the town’s destruction after months of Allied and Nazi bombings.

Pino shook the image from his mind. He needed to focus on today and on the deep, etched worry lines that would lift from his father’s face when Pino surprised him with the money from this mission. “My son. Finally, a man,” his father would say. Pino imagined his mother’s warm embrace and the feeling of pride flooding his body. Today’s the day. He would do whatever it took to prove himself and to help his father’s struggling almond factory stay afloat. I like the emotions in this paragraph, but it feels just a tad too tellish and detached, even for the omniscient narrator

[Exhaustion tugged at Pino’s neck muscles, but the murmuring rumble of the train’s gassy engine calmed his breathing.] This doesn’t seem like a “but” sentence. Being exhausted doesn’t connect to the breathing At least until Alfredo slapped a palm across the back of his head. I like the idea that he’s starting to relax and the slap jars him out of it, but it reads awkwardly as is

“Wake up. You look too relaxed,” Alfredo said and slid into the seat next to Pino. “[We need to be ready when we hit Bari. I figured out our exit plan.”] Feels a little tellish. Perhaps combine these two, such as “I figured out our exit plan when we hit Bari”? Alfredo rolled two hazelnuts in his palm, clicking the shells like a squirrel organizing nuts in its cheeks.

Pino jerked his head toward two uniformed soldiers playing cards at the far end of the train car. [“Are you crazy?What if they hear you?”] This is the first indication that they’re up to something

[Alfredo curled his plump lips into the crooked smirk that had won over every school teacher since first grade. “Nah, they’re too busy stealing each other’s money.”

Confident bastard. Didn’t even bother to whisper.
] I like the voice in these lines. I feel like the story has come alive in these last three paragraphs

The questions:

1. Does the opening work?

Not quite yet for me (readers chime in here), though I suspect I was just getting to the good part. It wasn’t until he mentioned the soldiers that I had any idea these two were planning a heist or some type of potential criminal activity (and that’s just a guess based on the text). I read this as a tired man heading home to his family with a plan to save the family business.

I suspect there's information here that isn't making it to the page in the beginning of this. Pino fidgets with his vest, and on a second read I wonder if that vest is protective or utilitarian or something related to what they’re doing. His tenseness and breathing also take on new meaning if I look at this as someone about to do something risky or dangerous. Being willing to "do anything" to save his family also has a more dire tone. But these details didn’t jump out at me as anything risky until the end of the snippet.

I’d suggest making it clearer at the start that Pino and Alfredo are up to something potentially no-good or dangerous (if that is indeed the case). Maybe let Pino spot the soldiers and act nervous, or show some hint that he’s worried about them. I think if I knew sooner that this was pre-plan to something risky, I’d be drawn in more. In the last few lines, my curiosity was certainly piqued, because that’s when I realized there was more going on here than a guy going home. It went from vague setup to something going on.

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

2. Are the voice and characterization working?

I like the voice towards the end, because I felt closer in Pino’s head, but the third omniscient made it feel a little distant to me overall. That’s a common POV for the genre, though, so it could be a personal issue and not an actual problem. I’ve marked the few places that felt a bit tellish and too distant even for the POV.

I don’t yet feel like I know these two, but I do get a sense that Pino is an artist and a family man, and probably has a good heart, while Alfredo is the charmer and troublemaker.

(Here’s more on developing character voices)

3. Would you read on?

Maybe (readers chime in here). If the cover copy intrigued me, I’d probably give it another page or two to grab me. But if this was all I saw, I’m not sure I’d have made it to the intriguing part (as that fell outside the standard 250 words in a page). But I think if there had been a few more (or clearer) hints of what’s going on in the first few paragraphs it would have held my attention.

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

4. Any red flags?

Just the ones I’ve already mentioned.

Overall, I think this just isn’t quite clear enough about what’s going on at the start, so there’s no tension or hook to draw me in until later. I think clues are there, but they lead to the wrong conclusion for me based on what other details were in the scene. I thought I was reading one book at the start, but by the end it seemed like a different story. One didn’t grab me, the other was starting to. I don’t think it would take much tweaking at all to clear up those details so they all point where you want them to point.

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.

7 comments:

  1. Definitely agree, this is fine mood that could be quicker at its first hints at the specifics that will be coming up.

    Most of what I have are nits that stuck out to me:

    When you say his father will call him "finally a man" we wonder how old Pino is-- and a character of 15 is very different from 17, let alone 12 or 22. If he's just a young man and the details don't matter yet, you might want to remove that line; otherwise the YA rule applies that it's actually distracting if you don't give his age to the year, fast.

    What's the point in history here? If Allies *and* Nazis have bombed them this could be either shortly before or after the Allies took this part of Italy, or it could be in the years after the war. This will probably be clear on the book cover, but it's part of the fabric of the moment too. (Sneaking around postwar peacekeepers is a whole lot less dangerous than dodging Nazis or brownshirts!)

    "Almond factory." I may not be the only one who reads that and wonders if the factory *makes* almonds. If there's a smooth way to name it for how it processes them, that name might be worth using, at least the first time.

    All in all, well-told.

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  2. I may be at odds with other comments, but I had to force my way through all the descriptors, which mostly added to the passive feeling of the first 2/3 of the material. As Janice mentioned, if the cover copy & image was intriguing, then I would read on simply to validate what the cover copy indicated. A search for the 'tease' that had made me read the first page.

    The second sentence is a problem for me. With all those words, I had to struggle to get the visual. if this sentence only serves to indicate that he is wearing something that might hold the whatever that will be revealed at the next stop, then it's gone way overboard. I was unsure if it was truly a 'vest' or perhaps a 'backpack' of sorts. We don't need to know how he adjusts it, only that he's wearing it and shifts it to --- a more comfortable position?

    All in all, the second sentence left me with unanswered questions and doubt, which then colored my reading onward.

    Another stumble for me was building debris being 'cradled in sunlight'. A cradle contains and holds from below, which sunlight cannot do -- and I had to abandon the phrase.

    Overall, this opening is nice, but doesn't present much to hold onto until the very last. You might accomplish this by flipping some of the material around. Show Pino being exhausted, shifting his vest or grasping it protectively, then moving to him reflecting on the scene he had just absorbed from the train window, of desolation and wholesale destruction. Then have him glance at the two soldiers, tying them to the visions of destruction. Then mention the war references. Then move to thoughts of his father & the family business (perhaps farm or grove instead of factory?). Show another protective movement associated with the vest. Then show another physical aspect that denotes nervousness or fatigue. Then bring in the second character.

    We need to understand why Pino is so nervous, so fearful of Alfredo's loud, dangerous talk. If you don't want to tell more particular information now, then at least make the reader curious and define the difference between nervous Pino and cavalier Alfredo. :o)

    You have a great start here! I suggest reading Janice's post about creating tension -- tips you can instantly apply to this opening scene. Good luck!!!

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  3. I would echo the previous comments. There are MANY historical fiction novels out there right now that center around WWII, Nazis, etc. etc. so yours needs to be a grabber from the get-go. I too got hung up on that vest thing and the wool whatever. So, is it necessary for the suspense? If so, play it up so we get its significance.
    I think the story has the potential to be something different in the "war" market, so keep going with it. Good start!

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  4. I'd completely cut the first three paragraphs, as they're mostly just setup. If the details are important, weave them in later, but something needs to be happening to draw in the reader right away.

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  5. Agree with Maria D'Marcos feedback above. I would recommend the following.

    1. Clean-up and streamline the opening, so it becomes an easier read.

    2. Rework ur description, which are flowery but doesn't quite hit the mark.

    3. Shift ur language. Ur opening is bit tellish - needlessly.

    4. Include as solid hook to entice the reader to read on.

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  6. Thank you to Janice and all of you for the helpful and generous feedback. I am humbled and grateful and will rework my opening with all of this in mind.

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  7. I would have started the novel with the sentence, "If he ever painted again..." Delete the paragraph before that and the opening would be a lot stronger.

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