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Saturday, December 9

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This 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 we 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 December 23.

This week’s question:

Does this opening work?


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Please Note: This submission went over the word limit, but I’ve included the extra text in the submission because I do refer to it in the diagnostic.

A soft finger slid down the bridge of my nose. Tender lips kissed my eyelids. I opened my eyes from my pretend nap and stared at the gorgeous man settling near my bare feet. First class recliners were my favorite way to fly.

Eli handed me a shot of whiskey. “You’re seriously going to sleep the whole way home?”

Given his loosened tie and mussed hair, he looked like he'd already had several shots. I downed the soothing liquid and smiled. “That was my plan.” The best way to avoid discussing hot topics.

He refreshed my drink. “It’s time to discuss our relationship, Maze. Stop putting it off.”

I glanced at two elderly passengers nearby. From the looks on their faces, they were enthralled with Eli. It was understandable. The handsome congressman resembled a young Robert Redford.

I sat up and pulled out my purse, removing a tube of moisturizer. “Fine. If you insist.” My stomach knotted as I applied the soothing lotion to my skin.

Eli cracked a smile, one I doubted I’d see after our conversation. “I insist.”

“Eli, darling, I’ve told you since we were fifteen I needed until I was thirty-five to decide.”

He set our glasses down and lifted my hand, caressing my fingers between his. “You turn thirty-five in less than a month. I’ve put up with your dating game for twenty years.”

“And now, I hope you’ll put up with it for one more month. I’m going to find that mystery man I've been seeing around town, Eli. I’ll get to the bottom of what our bizarre attraction means.”

His brow furrowed, and his jaw tightened. He grabbed my moisturizer and squirted a blob on his hands, then rubbed his with mine. “Could it be you’re just scared to settle down with me, so you use this as an excuse?”

“I’m not afraid, I just need time.” Time to figure out everyone's motives. Even yours, Eli.

Our fingers entwined, and he grinned. “I’ve allowed you to limit our relationship to one hundred days a year. I’ve watched you date football players, baseball players, actors, and anyone who turns those green eyes of yours flaming red.”

“I promise, this is the last time you’ll have to watch me disqualify a marriage prospect.” Releasing my hands from his, I slid the moisturizer back into my purse. “When we get home, I’m searching San Francisco, and I’ll find him before you and I marry. I shook my head. “You’ve gone out with your share of women. Please, don’t pretend you’ve been pining away.”

“We’ve both enjoyed our youth, but it’s time.” Eli placed a blanket over my legs and brushed a hand through his soft hair. He changed the subject in the smoothest way politicians must learn in the womb. “I know your family is a forbidden subject to discuss but…”

“No exceptions, sorry.” I pulled him toward me and kissed his cheek. “What you don’t know can’t hurt you”

“I’ve always agreed, except now, I see that approach hasn’t worked for you." His serious congressman face appeared. “What happened before I arrived in Zurich?” He pushed my blanket aside and stroked my ankle bracelet, rubbing the ancient gemstones with his sensitive hands. “What’s going on? Instead of mellow and sexy, you’ve been cold and indifferent.”

“I was forced to grow up and face my destiny.” I reached into my purse and pulled out a sleep mask. My fingers molded into fists around the lace edges. "I can't answer the other questions today, I'm sorry."

My Thoughts in Purple:

A soft finger slid down the bridge of my nose. Tender lips kissed my eyelids. I opened my eyes from my pretend nap and stared at the gorgeous man settling near my bare feet. First class recliners were my favorite way to fly.

Eli handed me a shot of whiskey. “You’re seriously going to sleep the whole way home?”

Given his loosened tie and mussed hair, he looked like he'd already had several shots. I downed the soothing liquid and smiled. “That was my plan.” [The best way to avoid discussing hot topics.] Makes me curious what that might be.

He refreshed my drink. [“It’s time to discuss our relationship] On a plane seems like a weird place for this, so “it’s time” felt off to me. Maybe more of a "I'm done waiting?" type phrase? Maze. Stop putting it off.”

I glanced at two elderly passengers nearby. From the looks on their faces, they were enthralled with Eli. It was understandable. The handsome congressman resembled a young Robert Redford.

I sat up and pulled out my purse, removing a tube of moisturizer. “Fine. If you insist.” My stomach knotted as I applied the soothing lotion to my skin.

Eli cracked a smile, [one I doubted I’d see after our conversation.] Makes me think she’s about to dump him, which adds some conflict “I insist.”

“Eli, darling, I’ve told you [since we were fifteen I needed until I was thirty-five to decide.”] This might just be a way to show how long they’ve been together, but this feels off to me. She knew at fifteen she didn’t want to decide on love (?) until thirty-five?

He set our glasses down and lifted my hand, caressing my fingers between his. “You turn thirty-five in less than a month. [I’ve put up with your dating game for twenty years.” ] Why?

“And now, I hope you’ll put up with it for one more month. [I’m going to find that mystery man I've been seeing around town, Eli. I’ll get to the bottom of what our bizarre attraction means.”] It’s nice that they can be so open about this, but Eli ought to run if she’s put him off for twenty years over this (grin). This also makes her seem callous and unlikable.

His brow furrowed, and his jaw tightened. He grabbed my moisturizer and squirted a blob on his hands, then rubbed his with mine. “Could it be you’re just scared to settle down with me, so you use this as an excuse?”

“I’m not afraid, I just need time.” Time to figure out everyone's motives.[Even yours, Eli.] This also intrigues me, because this situation is a bit odd, so I’m wondering what’s with these two. (end of official submission)

Our fingers entwined, and he grinned. “I’ve allowed you to limit our relationship to one hundred days a year. I’ve watched you date football players, baseball players, actors, and anyone who turns those green eyes of yours flaming red.”

“I promise, this is the last time you’ll have to watch me disqualify a marriage prospect.” Releasing my hands from his, I slid the moisturizer back into my purse. “When we get home, I’m searching San Francisco, and I’ll find him before you and I marry. I shook my head. “You’ve gone out with your share of women. Please, don’t pretend you’ve been pining away.”

“We’ve both enjoyed our youth, but it’s time.” Eli placed a blanket over my legs and brushed a hand through his soft hair. He changed the subject in the smoothest way politicians must learn in the womb. “I know your family is a forbidden subject to discuss but…”

“No exceptions, sorry.” I pulled him toward me and kissed his cheek. “What you don’t know can’t hurt you”

“I’ve always agreed, except now, I see that approach hasn’t worked for you." His serious congressman face appeared. “What happened before I arrived in Zurich?” He pushed my blanket aside and stroked my ankle bracelet, rubbing the ancient gemstones with his sensitive hands. “What’s going on? Instead of mellow and sexy, you’ve been cold and indifferent.”

“I was forced to grow up and face my destiny.” I reached into my purse and pulled out a sleep mask. My fingers molded into fists around the lace edges. "I can't answer the other questions today, I'm sorry."

The question:

1. Does this opening work?


This is a case where the cover copy would make or break it, but yes, I think so (readers chime in, especially romance fans). The situation is a little odd, and I suspect knowing the general plot of the story would clear up some of the uncertainty I had about what’s going on.

For example, something feels off about her “wait until I’m thirty-five” declaration. From just seeing this first-page snippet and knowing nothing else, it appears that when she was fifteen she said something about her romantic life that she wouldn’t decide until she was thirty-five. I assume it’s marriage, though “settle down with me” is the only real indication about what that decision entails. But sticking with a “I won’t get married until I’m thirty-five” decision made at fifteen seems childish, especially if these two have been together twenty years. I assume there’s more to this, so I’m willing to read on for now. There’s a bit more about it past the opening page that shows this is an unusual situation and relationship, so it does explain a little more fairly quickly.

Her “I want to know what this attraction means” statement is also strange. She’s been dating Eli for twenty years, yet she’s still looking for a better option? Why does he put up with it? This seems so callous and cold to me that it’s a little hard to like her as a character, though I suspect there’s more here than meets the eye, and that would have been covered in the cover copy. More of this is also seem past the first page, and that makes me wonder why he's willing to have such an unconventional relationship with her. Who is she that makes this worth it?

No genre was specified in this, and I assumed romance, though by the end I wonder if this has a supernatural bent. Her comments about “destiny” have a light fantasy or paranormal vibe to them, as do her flaming eyes and off-limits family.

Overall, there’s enough here to intrigue me about what’s going on with these two, and even though Maze seems mean to Eli, I have a feeling there’s more going on that I’m not seeing. Her questioning his motives helps keep her on the right side of likable, as this suggests he’s not just a guy who’s been in love with her for twenty years while she blows him off looking for someone better. Why does he put up with this? Why does he want to marry her this badly? What is she hiding? I’m curious to know.

(Here’s more on writing the opening scene)

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. I agree, this is a good study in building suspense... except it doesn't feel like a couple that have been on hold for twenty years.

    That's such a specific situation, and it seems like it's a lot more specific with the paranormal hints, and the "mystery man," most of which Eli seems to know a little about. But emotionally, this reads more like an ordinary couple debating whether a year or two is long enough to tie the knot.

    And I think the tone is what would make the difference, because a year in relationship limbo is something we can all imagine ourselves in, but a preplanned twenty years is such a unique situation. If we read a story about that, we want to be immersed in all its implications and how it feels. Especially, we want to really believe that the two care enough about each other to wait that long, and yet that Maze has doubts --or duties-- that hold her back. I'm sure Anne Rice could do unforgettable things with this kind of emotional tangle.

    For instance, it seems odd that Eli feels he might be able to make her decide a month early, after he's lived with her hard deadline for twenty years. (I could see him raising the question as a joking, wistful "Can I change your mind?") And the mention that they both have other relationships seems like scratching the surface of what ought to be a bigger issue, or at least an old wound. And "the mystery man" seems like it's the start of the real plot, so we want a couple of specifics to get a sense of what he means to her and how Eli sees it.

    There are a lot of paranormal stories and other romances about girls of 18 or 23 putting off a boyfriend. If Maze is a woman of 35 who has reasons for putting the same boyfriend off for this long, I'd like to have a real sense of what it's like.

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