From Fiction University: We're aware of the recent commenting issues and are working to resolve them. We apologize for any inconvenience and annoyance this has caused. Hopefully we'll have it fixed soon, and we appreciate your patience while we get this straightened out. ETA: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Saturday, October 28

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Fantasy Opening Draw Your In?

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 November 11.

This week’s questions:

Does the hint of backstory related to the primary character's sword feel intriguing or too much to handle this early? Does the close 3rd person POV maintain throughout the scene? Regarding the sentence: "The squeak of grinding gears was faint, but unmistakable." Is the phrase "but unmistakable" seem like it is telling? To me, it heightens the drama and is something that the character would think, so I don't believe I have lost the close 3rd person POV. Do you agree?

Regarding the phrase: "Facial muscles twisted against even a single blink." This is telling, but I feel it's OK in this instance. Do you agree? If not, what would you recommend for a rewrite? Regarding the sentence: "Though the elevated position armed them with a strategic advantage, the withering brush provided minimal concealment." I think this avoids telling as it would be logical for the primary character to be thinking in these terms. Do you agree? Regarding the phrase: "His hand floated to the hilt..." I am not one of those authors opposed to writing in the style of the "disembodied body part". What are your thoughts on this?

Is the setting clear? Have I succeeded in adding in enough conflict? (Conflict between the two characters and also the pending conflict with whatever is lurking in the orchard) Do the characters feel real? Do you feel tension/danger at the end? Any other Show, Don't Tell opportunities?


Market/Genre: Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

“Behind the Arabica with the shepherd's beard.”

Lying prone atop an embankment forty paces uphill from endless rows of coffee trees, Arusha strained eyes upon the one Catuai pointed to. The tree wore a swarm of fuzzy black-flecked white gypsy moths hanging in a pointed bunch from its lowest branch. He would report this to the Orchard Maester upon their return for immediate pruning before the pests spread their damage. But there was nothing else to spy. Nervous Catuai - always glimpsing monsters in the winter orchards.

“Curse you Cat." Arusha rolled onto his side and reprimanded his childhood friend. "We’re forty fields from Autumnheld and black approaches in the hour. Time spares no hunt for your phantoms or…”

The squeak of grinding gears was faint, but unmistakable. Arusha whipped back and strained again. Facial muscles twisted against even a single blink. The winter grass crunched under the pressure of Arusha’s flattening body. Though the elevated position armed them with a strategic advantage, the withering brush provided minimal concealment. Squint and strain. The rotted-sweet scent of decaying apple blossoms fragranced the winter air. Squint and strain. His hand floated to the hilt of Sarchimor, the sword his great-uncle struck in the forges of Sulawesi. Squint and strain.

Too many moments later Arusha ordered, “Retreat.”

“But Commander...”

“Shut your mouth. Retreat.”

Arusha gripped his soldier by the collar of his ring-armored jacket and stood him up. Now, it would be a race.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[“Behind the Arabica with the shepherd's beard.”] Perhaps tag this to provide some context.

Lying prone atop an embankment forty paces uphill from endless rows of coffee trees, Arusha strained eyes upon the one Catuai pointed to. The tree wore a swarm of fuzzy black-flecked white gypsy moths hanging in a pointed bunch from its lowest branch. He would report this to the Orchard Maester upon their return for immediate pruning before the pests spread their damage. But there was nothing else to spy. Nervous Catuai - always glimpsing monsters in the winter orchards.

“Curse you Cat." Arusha rolled onto his side and reprimanded his childhood friend. "We’re forty fields from Autumnheld and black approaches in the hour. Time spares no hunt for your phantoms or…”

The squeak of grinding gears was faint, but unmistakable. Arusha whipped back and strained again. Facial muscles twisted against even a single blink. The winter grass crunched under the pressure of Arusha’s flattening body. Though the elevated position armed them with a strategic advantage, the withering brush provided minimal concealment. Squint and strain. The rotted-sweet scent of decaying apple blossoms fragranced the winter air. Squint and strain. His hand floated to the hilt of Sarchimor, the sword his great-uncle struck in the forges of Sulawesi. [Squint and strain.] Using this three times felt a bit repetitive

Too many moments later Arusha ordered, “Retreat.”

“But Commander...”

“Shut your mouth. Retreat.”

Arusha gripped [his soldier] is this Cat? I’m not sure who it refers to, and I thought it was just the two of them by the collar of his ring-armored jacket and stood him up. Now, it would be a race.

The questions:

1: Does the hint of backstory related to the primary character's sword feel intriguing or too much to handle this early?


Too much, because it serves no purpose here, and it’s adding more made up names without context. But if you trimmed it to just “the sword his great-uncle forged” it would be fine. A family sword is easily understood.

2: Does the close 3rd person POV maintain throughout the scene?

Yes. It felt third person, medium narrative distance. It’s far enough away to provide a bit of oversight, yet some of the narrative still felt like the POV character’s thoughts.

3: Regarding the sentence: "The squeak of grinding gears was faint, but unmistakable." Is the phrase "but unmistakable" seem like it is telling? To me, it heightens the drama and is something that the character would think, so I don't believe I have lost the close 3rd person POV. Do you agree?

It struck me as a phrase someone trained to notice those things would think. But this doesn’t feel close third POV to me. Third limited for sure, but I’m sensing a layer between character and narrator. Nothing as far as omniscient, but I don’t feel inside Arusha’s head like a close third would feel. I’m more on his shoulder.

(Here’s more on knowing who your narrator is)

4: Regarding the phrase: "Facial muscles twisted against even a single blink." This is telling, but I feel it's OK in this instance. Do you agree? If not, what would you recommend for a rewrite?

For this narrative distance and POV, it reads fine. The narrator is not Arusha, though they’re following him and his story. They’re just outside enough to notice and remark on such things, but aren’t pulling too far away to over explain. If this were Arusha thinking it, it would feel more told, because he likely wouldn’t think that (or at least not in those words).

(Here’s more on narrative distance versus telling)

5: Regarding the sentence: "Though the elevated position armed them with a strategic advantage, the withering brush provided minimal concealment." I think this avoids telling as it would be logical for the primary character to be thinking in these terms. Do you agree?

Yes. Again, the POV style and narrative distance also supports this.

6: Regarding the phrase: "His hand floated to the hilt..." I am not one of those authors opposed to writing in the style of the "disembodied body part". What are your thoughts on this?

Your call. It didn’t yank me out of the narrative, so I had no issue with it. A disembodied body part is a problem only when it creates funny lines or distracts from the story. It’s something to be aware of, but it’s fine to use them as long as they work.

(Here’s more on the problems with disembodied body parts)

7: Is the setting clear?

A coffee orchard in a fantasy world. There’s not a lot of time here to fully set the scene, but it’s enough to give me a sense of where they are. I wanted a little more context in the opening line to help set the scene though. I have no idea who’s speaking or what the line means.

8: Have I succeeded in adding in enough conflict? (Conflict between the two characters and also the pending conflict with whatever is lurking in the orchard)

The character conflict is fairly minor (Arusha seems more annoyed at his friend than in actual conflict), but I do get a sense of something about to happen and a problem about to appear. I don’t see any goal, and without a goal it’s hard to see the conflict to that goal. But the potential for both is here.

9: Do the characters feel real?

I haven’t seen enough of them to really tell (readers chime in here). They feel like fantasy characters—a little stiff and formal. Arusha’s internalization makes him a bit more personable, but I still don’t know much about him. There’s nothing here that makes them feel two dimensional though.

10: Do you feel tension/danger at the end?

Yes. I don’t know the details, but I suspect an attack of some type, even if it’s on a small scale. Can Arusha alert someone before the bad guys get there?

11: Any other Show, Don't Tell opportunities?

Not really. Nothing stood out as told for this POV.

Overall, this read like an epic fantasy opening and fits the genre well. There’s a hook to draw readers in and enough mystery to pique curiosity.

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.

1 comment:

  1. First, thanks to the author for exposing their work to strangers. All of Janice's Real Life Diagnostics pieces reveal the strength of an author's resolve to produce the best material possible.

    I was able to connect the opening dialogue to the speaker, but you made me read to the end of the first sentence to do so. You have another solution to this: simply show the speaker pointing, then the MC's reaction.

    IMHO the first paragraph is a waste of space. This page time could be better used to set the scene -- beyond the first sentence, which has the mind gasping for breath. My first impression, what with all the coffee grove talk, was that they were guarding the orchard against coffee bean thieves -- or possibly had hiked up the embankment to gaze across the orchards, a hike these two took often together.

    In other words, there is nothing in the first paragraph to show that they are scouting some kind a enemy movement. Without knowing what the point is to them being on the embankment, the thing that pulled me forward was looking for clues in the dialogue.

    This first paragraph is too loose for me, and I would rather see the personality-setting of the 2nd character be more from the MC's perspective -- letting the reader know that Catuai is the nervous type. Also, it isn't clear which *he* will be notifying the orchard Maester.

    Small point: We need the MC to strain *his* eyes.
    Small Point2: Cat isn't assigned a gender status until the very last moment -- until then this character could be male or female or fantasy creature.

    The floating hand bugged me - period. Not only because of the dismembered idea, but because at this point, I finally decided that this was a scene of tension -- and *floating* was an odd descriptor in a tense situation. More likely, the MC was *easing* his hand toward his sword. This use supports the inference that the character wishes to limit his movement, so as to not be seen by whatever is below.

    I like the closing bit, and I'll read on because they are being forced to run -- and I still haven't a clue what they're running from... Might be a giant black-flecked white moth, for all I know. :o)

    Overall, I like much about this sample and want to know more about these two characters and what their 'quest' is relative to this scene.

    My main concerns were the lack of information that would allow me to bond with the characters, their quest and conflict. I was also too often reminded of the author due to word choice, sentence structure, or too-dense descriptions.

    In the questions to Janice, I was concerned with the author statements about not minding the use of things such as a 'floating hand', in their writing. I would gently caution that this readiness to defy or ignore writing rules, just because you don't mind disregarding them, may be costly in the end. Your readers may not share your view and you may risk losing their patronage or, worse yet, be considered a less-than-professional author.

    This brave author obviously has the writing skills and imagination to tighten up their book -- and I would be delighted to read it when it hits the virtual shelves. Best of luck to you!!

    ReplyDelete