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Saturday, January 6

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Women’s Fiction Opening Work?

Critique By Maria D'Marco

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: None 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are open.

This week’s question:

Does this opening work? 


Market/Genre: Women's fiction

On to the diagnosis… 

Original text:

I stood at the edge of the forest pond and nudged a floating maple leaf with the tip of my well-worn riding boot. The red foliage teetered on top of the water, but remained afloat. Our world seemed alike. Both one rainfall away from sinking to the bottom.

A crackle of thunder in the distance broke my trance. Storm clouds hovered over the Pacific, a signal to finish my afternoon loop and hike home. Hopefully, enough time was left to lock my horse in the barn for the evening without getting drenched

I clicked my tongue a few times. “We have to head back, Vienna. There’s a storm brewing."

She walked to my side and I bowed to her. She lowered her front knees and did the same. Smartest horse I'd ever known.

"Falling branches would never spook a great warrior like you, but I don’t want you to get hurt.”

We hiked side by side and edged out of the redwood forest bordering the property. My strong, white mare kicked up her graceful gait and trotted to our apple tree in search of her afternoon treat.

I'd let her eat at her own pace. The ranch had a peaceful calm-before-the-storm feel. A stillness before the air shifted and a new weather front set in.

Plopping on top of a tree stump, I removed my hat, and shook my hair free. I crossed my legs, resting my hands on muddy jeans. Pride swelled through my chest as I surveyed my land. Healthy fruit orchards and lush gardens filled every space. After fifteen years of hard labor, I'd finally achieved my dream.

I reached into my jacket pocket and retrieved yesterday’s mail. Leafing through the small stack, I passed by the usual monthly bills and a couple of requests for donations.

My heart sank when I touched the final letter. A sterile white envelope addressed to Vanessa Barrett, Pilot. Bolinas, California.

My jaw tightened and I fought back the tears which would only pile on more emotion to this written taunt. Bowing my head, I released the tension in my neck, wishing for an end to this yearly reminder of my youthful disaster.

My Thoughts in Purple:

I stood at the edge of the forest pond and nudged a floating maple leaf with the tip of my well-worn riding boot [I like this image, it makes me anticipate a horse and riding said horse]. The red foliage teetered on top of the water, but remained afloat. Our world seemed alike. Both one rainfall away from sinking to the bottom. [This is a nice coupling, both lyrically and as a definition of the MC’s world. ‘Seemed alike’ needs to be stronger…Ex: Our worlds clung to the same tenuous balance/faced the same vulnerability…]

A crackle of thunder [a small thing here, common association is cackle of lightning and rumble of thunder] in the distance broke my trance. Storm clouds hovered over the Pacific [Can the MC see the clouds from the forest? Is this storm the rainfall that threatens her world? I was ready to see fear of the storm, a race home to check precautions, etc.], a signal [This use points to the storm being a regular occurrence, which undercuts the threat potential presented at the end of the last paragraph.] to finish my afternoon loop and hike home. Hopefully, enough time was left [Consider smoothing this. Ex: …I would have enough time…] to lock my horse in the barn for the evening without getting drenched.

I clicked my tongue a few times. “We have to head back, Vienna. There’s a storm brewing."

She walked to my side [This is the intro to this character and needs to capture reader interest. Replacing ‘she’ with ‘my strong mare’, would be a place to start] and I bowed to her. She lowered her front knees and did the same [The horse cannot perform the action, as written. Horses can purposefully lower their heads, mimicking a ‘bow’, and some can do more extreme actions] Smartest horse I'd ever known.

"Falling branches would never spook a great warrior [No offense to female warriors, but this term brings a stallion to mind. Being spooked might better relate to being ultra-stable, standing one’s ground, instead of being a great fighter] like you, but I don’t want you to get hurt.”

We hiked [This did throw me a bit, the MC not riding and hiking in riding boots] side-by-side and edged out of the redwood forest bordering the property. [If this is the MC’s property, ‘my’ would personalize & denote possession] My strong, white mare kicked up her graceful gait [This can work in the character intro above, replaced by the horse’s name] and trotted to our apple tree in search of her afternoon treat.

I'd let her eat at her own pace. The ranch had a peaceful, calm-before-the-storm feel. A stillness before the air shifted and a new weather front set in. [This feels like it’s explaining the last sentence]

Plopping on top of a tree stump, I removed my hat and shook my hair free. I crossed my legs, resting my hands on muddy jeans. Pride swelled through my chest as I surveyed my land. Healthy fruit orchards and lush gardens filled every space. After fifteen years of hard labor, I'd finally achieved my dream [This feels important and speaks to the MC now being in the position to guard that dream].

I reached into my jacket pocket and retrieved yesterday’s mail. Leafing through the small stack, I passed by the usual monthly bills and a couple of requests for donations.

My heart sank when I touched the final letter. A sterile white envelope addressed to Vanessa [The first indication that the MC is female] Barrett, Pilot [This piqued my interest], Bolinas, California.

My jaw tightened and I fought back the tears which would only pile on more emotion to this written taunt. Bowing my head, I released the tension in my neck, wishing for an end to this yearly reminder of my youthful disaster [This is a nice hook, framing the MC’s 15 years of effort, achieving a dream, yet being haunted by something in the past].

The question:

1. Does this opening work?


Overall, I would say yes. Readers chime in, please!

There is a reflective feel from the beginning, with hints of unspoken dilemmas or problems.

The first paragraph shows the character’s thoughtful mental state. Then later, the impression is given that this is a regular ‘hike’, possibly a time when the MC ponders things.The MC is happy about her 15-year achievement, but not content.

With the final bit of mail being referred to as a ‘written taunt’ and ‘yearly reminder’, it creates the idea that someone involved with an event in her past (youthful disaster) is torturing her with an ‘anniversary’ reminder. I would easily read on to quench my curiosity about this single mystery.

The things I’ve noted are fairly small, but tend to create an uneven presentation of the story. The first paragraph is a nice read, but when the MC, in riding boot, chooses to ‘hike’ with her horse alongside, the situation creates confusion, as it doesn’t follow anticipated actions (riding the horse) and strains credibility (hiking in riding boots).

My editor brain asks: Is it important to the story to have the MC not ride in this little scene? This one situation creates other questions, such as: Is the horse tacked or just following the MC bare-backed through the forest – which is not part of the MC’s ranch?

The MC could simply mount up, ride to the orchard, look out at her ranch (is the orchard on a hill?), then hop off and pick an apple for her mare. This brings up another small thing…

Unless the MC wants a miserable horse with a belly-ache, she won’t let him eat as much as the mare wants. This, again, is a small thing that isn’t a make-or-break to the story, but it will raise unnecessary questions, and might undercut reader trust.

I’ve highlighted portions of the 4th-to-last paragraph. These are areas that need a bit of thought, to my mind, because they are visual-building sentences.

Sitting on top of a stump should be clarified. It’s the edge of the forest, is this an old stump from when she first cleared the land? What type of forest is it?Is it not a stump, but rather a fallen tree that was never used to build one of the barns, the stable, the house? Does she sit on it at the end of every ‘hike’? Are there more stumps?

This is an opportunity to give a smidgen of personalized perception from the MC. Perhaps this was the last tree felled, and then she found out it was outside her property, and she had to pay a poorly-timed fine? We are told of ‘healthy’ (bountiful?) fruit orchards and gardens everywhere, but that generic view feels a bit weak when framing a 15-year achievement.

The description of her sitting, shaking out her hair after removing her hat, where her hands are, crossing her legs, comes across as a list of actions, but none tell us about this woman. Does she run calloused fingers through thick hair? Does she sigh when she sits down? Does she inspect her hat for invisible bugs – or slap it against her muscled calf to rid it of dust? Does she wear gloves? Is her jacket the worn, leather one that someone special gave to her?

She must be a strong woman, as the ranch and 15 years of effort attest. When the dismaying letter reveals she is or was a pilot, we again see a strong woman. Use this little pause in action to paint a picture of her through gestures, garb, and body language.

The language could be a bit stronger overall, as I’m not bonding with her very well. However, I am reacting to the story. A good start! One I would pursue into the book.

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.

About the Critiquer

Maria D’Marco is an editor with 20+ years experience. She specializes in developmental editing, and loves the process of wading through the raw, passionate words of a first draft. Currently based in Kansas City, she flirts with the idea of going mobile, pursuing her own writing and love of photography, while maintaining her fulfilling work with authors.

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4 comments:

  1. This is a marvelously lyrical set of descriptions, and does a lot to give the sense of how capable the character is.

    It leaves me wondering one thing, though: should that be all it does for the first page or so? In most genres there'd be a push to show a hint of the story from the start, some sense of change or trouble coming. This is the kind of opening that makes a non-women's-fiction reader like me wonder if this is one of the few genres where a whole starting page of pure mood really is what its readers want.

    Since this seems like a sad anniversary, a sense of what happened could be in Vanessa's thoughts from the start, just a few hints that play off of the ride that comforts her.

    Or maybe it works best as is. The untainted version here does paint a layered, appealing picture of a person we'd all find it interesting to be. If the genre makes that better than an early hint of what's coming, it works well.

    ReplyDelete
  2. As mentioned, this opening is certainly lyrical and wonderfully descriptive. But as a lifelong horse owner, I had the same issues with these details as the critiquer: Horses don't generally drop to their knees unless they are getting ready to lie down or are circus trained; If a horse eats all the apples they want they will end up with a killing colic; Mention of the riding boots and then the stroll described as a hike (unmounted) is confusing.

    Much, however, about the character is revealed in these few short paragraphs, and that's not an easy feat to accomplish. The "hook" at the end of the letter and a bad memory makes me want to read on.

    For women's fiction? Yes, I believe overall it works. I just feel more research is needed by the author about horses and riding in order to maintain reader trust.

    ReplyDelete
  3. In addition to what's been said, I won u 's use sentences 3 and 4 to begin. These are your books. Then follow with t h sentence 1. Two could be deleted. We see emotion when she gets the letter, which is good. I would keep reading. Overall it works.

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  4. As Maria noted, when Vanessa heard the crackle of thunder of the approaching storm she worried that she would have enough time to lock her horse in the barn .. then hiked calmly to a tree stump and started to read yesterday's mail. That threw me out of the story. As did most of what she told about her horse. I have seen a horse extend one front leg and bend the other in a bow, but that was in some performance.

    ReplyDelete