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Saturday, November 18

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Opening Working?

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: None

This week’s questions:

1. Is this a good opening?

2. Is there a clear, consistent, likeable introduction to who Sarah is?

3. Is it clear what Sarah’s problem is?

4. Does the line describing her physical reaction to the boy’s fear work?

5. Is there a good balance of telling vs showing?


Market/Genre: Women’s fiction with magical elements

This is round three for this opening. You can see prevision revisions here #1 and here #2

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

There were three things that Sarah Livingston knew with absolute certainty. She had been born, she was going to die, and in between, she was going to feel. She had a couple options when it came to the “in between”. She could get a lobotomy like "droolin" Joe Mullstone, or she could take the handful of pills in her palm.

There was the slim possibility of another option, but she would have to risk flying to California without being escorted off the plane to the Atlanta General pycho ward again. She poured the pills back into the orange apothecary bottle and snapped the lid shut. They would still be there when she got back.

* * *

Following her meticulous flight-survival plan, Sarah made it through the flight to Denver without incident, and stood just inside the oval entrance to the plane headed for LAX. Milestone two point five.

As planned, she was the last passenger in line. The man ahead of her was a good three feet away. He was thigh-tinglingly handsome, a hand in the pocket of his perfectly tailored grey suit, thumb sticking out – a sign of self-confidence she’d read somewhere. He appeared calm and relaxed, but you never knew, and she carefully preserved the distance between them.

She hoped the unexpected footsteps scurrying up behind her were a herd of tarantulas. Not so lucky. An obviously terrified toddler, being half-dragged by his mother up the boarding ramp, was rapidly approaching touching distance. The line of passengers wasn’t moving. No place to run. No escape. She inched closer and closer to the man in front of her.

The child pulled away from his mother and grabbed Sarah’s knees. Heat like steaming honey blasted from his tiny fingers into her legs, her body, her head. She jolted forward, wrapping her arms around the man in the grey suit.

Inexplicably, the terror she had absorbed from the child dissolved.

My Thoughts in Purple:

There were three things that Sarah Livingston knew with absolute certainty. She had been born, she was going to die, and in between, she was going to [feel] perhaps italicize this to emphasize this is more than a normal feeling. She had a couple options when it came to the “in between”. She could get a lobotomy like "droolin" Joe Mullstone, or she could take the handful of [pills in her palm.] I wanted something to show why this is bad. It doesn’t have to be long, even just the right adjective before pills could work.

There was the slim possibility of another option, but she would have to risk flying to California without being escorted off the plane to the Atlanta General pycho ward again. She poured the pills back into the orange apothecary bottle and snapped the lid shut. They would still be there when she got back. I’m uncertain about this paragraph--more on this below.

* * *

Following her meticulous flight-survival plan, Sarah made it through the flight to Denver without incident, and stood just inside the oval entrance to the plane headed for LAX. Milestone two point five.

As planned, she was the last passenger in line. The man ahead of her was a good three feet away. He was thigh-tinglingly handsome, a hand in the pocket of his perfectly tailored grey suit, thumb sticking out – a sign of self-confidence she’d read somewhere. He appeared calm and relaxed, but you never knew, and she carefully preserved the distance between them. I wanted something after this to help transition into the next paragraph

[She hoped the unexpected footsteps scurrying up behind her were a herd of tarantulas.] struck me as odd, and I wasn't sure what it meant Not so lucky. An obviously terrified toddler, being half-dragged by his mother up the boarding ramp, was rapidly approaching touching distance. The line of passengers wasn’t moving. No place to run. No escape. She inched closer and closer to the man in front of her. Perhaps a sense of how she feels in here somewhere

The child pulled away from his mother and grabbed Sarah’s knees. Heat like steaming honey blasted from his tiny fingers into her legs, her body, her head. She jolted forward, wrapping her arms around the man in the grey suit.

[Inexplicably, the terror she had absorbed from the child dissolved.] A bit tellish. Perhaps show her being terrified so this is clear

The questions:

1. Is this a good opening?

I’ve read this multiple times over the last year or so, and I still like the setup and the the voice. I like what’s here, but I also would like more of it. I feel like there ought to be more in between the paragraphs that are here.

For example, I like the opening paragraph and the sense that her life is a bit complicated or unusual. “Feeling” is an issue, though I’m not sure yet at this point (as a reader), but it’s intriguing. However, I don’t know why the pills are bad enough to risk the third option, what that third option is, and I’m fuzzy on the psycho ward problem. I wanted another paragraph or two that connects the dots of why she’s doing this a bit better.

I’m also torn of the scene break. It works for a little intro, but it could also transition right into why she’s there in line with some tweaking. My instincts say it would flow better if the opening was the narrative that introduced the situation and not a separate piece (readers chime in here).

I’d suggest reworking paragraph two and focus more on the third option, and a hint of why she choose it and that’s why shes now standing in line. Take you time to get there. A few more paragraphs won’t hurt if they’re the right ones.

(Here’s more on writing the opening scene)

2. Is there a clear, consistent, likeable introduction to who Sarah is?

I liked her better in previous versions. This one feels a little stripped down to the narrative, and less of her internal thoughts and emotions. Sarah had some funny lines and quips that gave a good sense of who she was before, and those are missing here.

I’d suggest pulling some of those great emotional/internal lines and mixing them in to regain her fun voice.

3. Is it clear what Sarah’s problem is?

Less o here than previous versions. Until she absorbs the child’s fear (and absorbs is a good word, as that shows there’s more here to what’s going on), there’s nothing to indicate her problem. She might just not like people or being touched.

Expanding more on the “feeling” aspect would help here, as would showing her reactions when she gets close to people. Perhaps give her an example of feeling others’ emotions and moving farther away to show this is a problem. Or have her get a sense of calm from the man and feel better about being closer to him to give ore space between her and another passenger.

Having someone come in behind her who’s anxious could work. It shows her anxiety level spiking, drawing off the person, so she moves closer to the calm man and she calms down. Show her powers in action, so when the kid arrives, it overwhelms her and readers get why this is happening.

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

4. Does the line describing her physical reaction to the boy’s fear work?

Yes and no. I get that she feels something, but she never reacts to it, so I don’t know how it affects her. I’m told afterward that her absorbed terror is gone, but never see her be terrified.

(Here's more on describing emotions)

5. Is there a good balance of telling vs showing?

Mostly. It’s a more distant narrator, so that stays a step or two out of her POV, but that fits Sarah’s need to be separate from people. The “Inexplicably,” line is the most told, though it’s a great opportunity to show how her powers work and affect her.

(Here’s more on what you need to know about show, don’t tell)

Overall, I like the bare bones of this, but it probably needs to be twice as long to get in all the emotional and internal layers to bring it to life. Don’t try to make it fit onto one page. There’s enough of a hook with her fear and the situation to draw readers in, especially if you re-incorporate some of the good Sarah bits from earlier versions.

Ironically, this is a story about an empath who feels too much, yet the feeling and the emotion is what’s missing from this version. I’ve seen it in other versions though, so I know it’s there. I think if you blend the best parts of all three versions, you’ll hit the right balance.

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. Agree on all counts.

    The pills bothered me too. Readers will assume they're similar to other medication, in that they might soften the problem but have some awkward side effects, so they don't seem like the drastic answer you're implying. For one thing, couldn't she take them and then stop if she doesn't like the results? (Maybe this should already be "She could keep taking..." or "go back to taking..."?)

    Mostly, I'm with Janice about how the emotions and the sense of Sarah could be stronger here. We want to feel the sensations she picks up, and also what it's like to be the woman living with that power/ curse-- including this sense now when she's almost managed to plan her problem away but knows it could collapse at any moment. That's a unique, scary, brave position to be in.

    Part of that impression is that (Janice, again) it might flow better as a single scene. Scene breaks in a first chapter run a real risk of making the pieces look disposable, and you could do a lot with making this as one step-by-step buildup. Maybe she's just getting into the airport, looking at the terrifying line ahead (maybe the airport security line? it's much slower and busier than the boarding line later, so you're never "the end" for long), and knowing it's her last chance to back out. (She could still think of the pills back home, or she could have a couple with her and maybe throw them out here.)

    Note, that would make this scene her original Atlanta departure rather than a Denver transfer. That might make sense anyway; getting a direct flight could be part of how she's planned everything to minimize risks.

    This has so much compelling sense of being in the moment, with all the fears and decisions that have gone into bringing Sarah here all squeezed together to hook us. The more you bring that out, the better it gets.

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    1. Thank Ken, for stopping by to help me. I'm familiar with your comments and they are always thoughtful and thorough. You pointed out many things (backing up Janice) that I need to consider and watch out for - and I am listening.

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  2. Having not read any previous iterations, I will say that I liked this sample. I like Sarah. I like her attitude. I saw the pills as an option for handling her life -- since it was a handful, my assumption went to suicide. A bit dark, but she opted out, deciding to attempt a quest. The pills, it seemed to me, were possibly a stalwart go-to that comforted her in that they 'would always be there'. I didn't care what they actually were, because they were obviously coveted, so would eventually be explained.

    I needed no transitions or explanations through the text. Sarah is anxious, paranoid, and obviously pushing some personal envelope. Her reaction to the freaking out toddler was instinctive, a self-preservation move.

    The final interactions were very interesting indeed. My take on it all was that Sarah is an empath, someone who absorbs the emotions of others through touch. I assumed that, normally, the affect on Sarah can be extreme, especially with such raw emotion as a freaking out toddler. The author uses 'jolted', which infers to me that Sarah's reaction to these contacts can be quite violent. The final line, leading off with 'inexplicably', is exciting, since it appears that something else usually happens in these experiences -- something bad -- something that gets her thrown off planes. But...this time the child's terror slashed through Sarah and into the desirable stranger in front of her.

    That last line instantly made me want to know who the man is, what is he, is he anything at all? I can imagine Sarah grimacing, tensing, waiting for the madness or pain or whatever usually happens -- and then it doesn't. I can't wait for the man's reaction. Does the circumstance simply play out like it would for 'normal' people? A few exchanged apologies, slight dismay, a kind look from the stranger?

    In other words, I simply liked what I read. It was fun. I liked Sarah. I could relate to her. I enjoyed her determination to succeed and the hints that she hadn't succeeded before. I wanted to read on. I was entertained. Plus, most of all, I was completely engaged with this opening, as well as feeling reassured that whatever had been left unsaid or unexplained, simply would be...when I, the reader, needed to know it.

    Obviously, this author has visited this place before and has had the benefit of Janice's great advice. My only advice now would be: you've reached a nice balance in your delivery, so don't over do any changes. You're down to needing only a few words and maybe a couple sentences that could be refined. Keep in mind what you want to accomplish with any word or sentence. If you've accomplished it, leave it be! :O)

    In my world of developmental editing, I rarely get to read something that pushes the buttons it needs to, in the correct sequence, to produce the appropriate reader reaction, but I got to do that today.

    Thanks! This was fun and you've done a GOOD job.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks so very much, Maria. Your comment truly lifted me up. You somehow knew exactly what I was saying at every point, and that it worked. That gives me hope that what I add, spread out and "alter slightly" will work as well.

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  3. I liked this revision of the earlier submissions. the author has set the opening perfectly, the reader knows about her anxious feelings loud and clear. If she was in line behind the man, how did she know he was so handsome? No place to run or escape should be set off by itself so it is stressed to the reader and creates some tension. Good job with revisions!

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    1. Thanks Lori. Your comments have always been a great help to me. especially with details, and this one gives me more confidence that I AM advancing.

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  4. Thanks once again, Janice, for your help and support. I'm going to get there someday! The first scene (2-4 pages) is extremely important to me because it setups (or at least hints) at everything else to come and will keep me on track. You are right - I am trying to get too much in one page. I have in every submission.

    The upside is that I think I have a good idea of what those pages need to be now - (character/voice/problem/goal, etc.)just spread out and adding back some of the parts I dropped and the few little additional info to introduce a hint at the third element of "family". Just as you have advised....

    Thanks again.

    ReplyDelete