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Saturday, January 13

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Women’s Fiction 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: Four 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through February 10.

This week’s question:

Does this opening work?


Market/Genre: Women's Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I, Emma Grant, hated black boxes. They inspired darkness, finality, hopelessness, perhaps even death.

A small one waited for me when I arrived at my recording studio’s control booth this morning. Disguised with a pretty teal bow, its warm velveteen rested on the console of my cold soundboard. A mysterious surprise to reveal one’s eternal true love Or not.

Listening to the five musicians jamming outside the glass partition, I felt something wasn't musically right with this love song. Closing my eyes, I pictured Cameron sitting near, strumming his guitar. Serenading me with the softness of his long fingers caressing the steel strings, a serenity he transferred from his soul to the listener’s.

The remedy struck and I was ready to consult the songwriter, but turned to view Cam's empty chair. I resented he wasn’t here to take charge of his music or his proposal. Musicians.

I slipped the box of finality under a pile of composition notebooks and attempted to control a band of restless musicians. A group of alpha males that might resent my opinion and direction. Regardless of their feelings, I pressed on with my job. That's what I do, it's who I am.

I flipped my microphone on and spoke to the band members. “Sounds great, but not quite there yet. Let’s record it again, but this time, I’d like to hear the acoustic guitar begin a few measures before the drums.” I picked up a pencil and pointed it at the ego-maniac drummer. "And, lighten up on those cymbals." I smiled to manipulate his talented ego. "Please."

Mumbling arose between band members and the skin-beater, Stuart, wagged a drum stick toward me. “Hey, we thought the last take did total justice. What’s the issue now, dude?”

I leaned back in my chair and tapped my pencil on the notebook. “Cameron likes his intros a bit softer, just try it, and see how it feels.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

I, Emma Grant, hated [black boxes]. They inspired darkness, finality, hopelessness, perhaps even death. This is a bit vague, and it isn’t until later you realize it’s a jewelery box. So it’s hard to put into context at first. Perhaps just add the word “jewelery?” Not liking jewelry is unusual enough to make readers wonder why, and when you add the negative and dark descriptions, it raises even more questions about why.

A small one waited for me when I arrived at my recording studio’s control booth this morning. Disguised with a pretty teal bow, its warm velveteen rested on the console of my cold soundboard. [A mysterious surprise to reveal one’s eternal true love. Or not.] I feel like this is important to her and her character, but it immediately goes to the musicians and I’m confused about how she feels or what she’s talking about. Perhaps a small reaction or internalization to clarify? I gather she knows who sent it and has an opinion about that

Listening to the five musicians jamming outside the glass partition, I felt something wasn't musically right with this love song. Closing my eyes, I pictured Cameron sitting near, strumming his guitar. Serenading me with the softness of his long fingers caressing the steel strings, a serenity he transferred from his soul to the listener’s. This paragraph feels unconnected to the previous ones, so it feels like the story has stared over. Perhaps add a transition to show Emma going from unpleasant surprise to having to deal with work and a love song

The remedy struck and I was ready to consult the songwriter, but turned to view Cam's empty chair. [I resented he wasn’t here to take charge of his music or his proposal. Musicians.] She never opens the box, so how does she know it’s a proposal? And if it is, then she’s not reacting to it at all.

I slipped the box of finality under a pile of composition notebooks and attempted to control a band of restless musicians. A group of alpha males that [might] so she’s never worked with them before? resent my opinion and direction. Regardless of their feelings, I pressed on with my job. That's what I do, it's who I am.

I flipped my microphone on and spoke to the band members. “Sounds great, but not quite there yet. Let’s record it again, but this time, I’d like to hear the acoustic guitar begin a few measures before the drums.” I picked up a pencil and pointed it at the ego-maniac drummer. "And, lighten up on those cymbals." I smiled to manipulate his talented ego. "Please."

Mumbling arose between band members and the skin-beater, Stuart, wagged a drum stick toward me. “Hey, we thought the last take did total justice. [What’s the issue now, dude?”] The “now” makes it seem like she’s had issues before, but she just got there and this is the first comment

I leaned back in my chair and tapped my pencil on the notebook. “Cameron likes his intros a bit softer, just try it, and see how it feels.”

The question:

1. Does this opening work?


Not quite yet (readers chime in). I can see that there’s a romantic issue between Emma and Cameron, but that’s being shoved into the background a little too much for me to understand their situation. Does she love him? Does she want to marry him? Is she sure the box is an engagement ring? She even even opens it.

Because the focus is a bit more on the musicians. I’m not sure if the conflict is her being a woman in the music industry dealing with male artists who don’t respect her, or her dealing with a musician who wants to marry her and she doesn’t want to get married. Both are good conflicts, but I don’t feel grounded strongly enough in either one yet to know what the goal and conflict of the book is supposed to be.

(Here’s more on drawing readers into the opening scene)

Does one create trouble for the other? Are these the two sides of her story arcs (character and plot)? The setup feels right for the genre, so I think the pieces are all there, just not quite coming through yet. It also gives me a Jennifer Crusie “Charlie All Night” vibe, so it feels very solid for the genre.

I’d suggest fleshing this out more to show Emma’s reaction to the box, give some hints about how she feels about it and Cameron, and why this is a problem for her. You might also work on the transition from box to job, as those two elements feel disconnected as is. You could easily do both in one paragraph—have Emma react to the box, get annoyed that Cameron sent a box but didn’t show up for the session, relate that to their relationship and how Emma feels about it, then her shifting those emotions on to the band she now has to work with. If the band’s reaction to her is similar in any way to Cameron, you could also use that to layer in her emotional state and her thoughts on Cameron and the box at the same time.

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

Overall, I think we just need to be let into Emma’s head more to see her problem and know what’s going with her. She has a goal (to get the track down), there’s conflict (with the musicians, and the box), but neither is really driving the scene yet. I think once you layer her emotional state and internal thoughts, everything will start connecting and falling into place.

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

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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6 comments:

  1. This is an interesting opening, harmonizing (so to speak) the ring and the band with the balance being Emma almost casually looking away from a marriage proposal to focus on work. It's a clever, layered way to start a story, but it depends on tone and clarity.

    Like Janice said, I think Emma's just a little too understated about the ring. No surprise at all, and no other reaction to it and then barely more to realizing that the propose-er is absent, because she's more interested in Cam's music and the rest of work? Are you going for a sense that she expected it all and doesn't think a proposal from Cam means much? or is the situation something else? It could use more clarity there.

    Part of this is us recognizing the box itself; the first paragraph's "box... death" had me starting at "coffin." And just a ring box (that she doesn't open) seems incomplete. Maybe an added breadcrumb might be if there's a note with the box, maybe just two or three coy words that show a little more of how Cam sees this proposal and lets Emma react to something more specific.

    One thing that does tie this together is Emma giving the band advice in the name of that same missing boyfriend. That's a fun, ironic layer of everything bleeding into each other-- her wording makes me wonder if her own choice would have been different, and there are so many other ways that could go. And there's her moment of steeling herself, that she's more comfortable (or maybe she isn't?) guiding musicians than indulging them, but she still doesn't compare that to the proposal.

    This is a very unique layering of moments and feelings here. It feels as much like a middle chapter as a start, with how it understates its impressions and relies on how we'll learn more later, as if we'd also already been reading for a while. With a bit of refinement it really could smooth us into the feeling that we know Emma.

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  2. I agree that the relationship between Emma and Cameron needs flushed out more. I disagree that the word "jewelry"should be added to the fist paragraph. By opening with she hates black boxes - it implies a deeper meaning than just jewelery. I like that, but it's a loose end that a reader (me) would like to find out "why" she hates black boxes at some point. I do think the word jewelry could be in the second paragrpah. Maybe change "its warm velveteen" to "the warm, velveteen jewelry box."
    Thee does seem to be discord from the "box" and all it implies to jumping into work with the musicians. I know we don't need to have all the answers right in the beginning, but since we don't know these characters yet, I think it takes too long for us (the readers) to realize that Cameron is even part of the music business. Perhaps something that ties it to the business or her job before she jumps into work with them.

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  3. Minor comments: I agree with Joanne. I think adding the jewelry word elsewhere works better.
    The ring-sized box in # two ...or I slipped the jewelry box of finality in # five.
    Also... in the opening she's using past tense. Does that mean eventually her fear of black boxes subsides or is gone completely? Probably POV correct, but if she never overcomes it, doesn't work for me. If she does...fine:)

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  4. When I read "black box" I immediately thought of the black boxes that are recovered from crashed airplanes. This threw me for a moment, until it became apparent that this is a jewelry box. What if the box had been red, or some other color. Would Emma have had the same reaction?

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  5. This kind of threw me, because I'm guessing she's either a recording engineer or the producer. They're always the first people there before the band even shows up. At first I thought they were rehearsing, which is rare in a studio because studio time is super-expensive (bands book time at rehearsal spaces to work out their dynamics before thinking of recording). And I've never heard or saw a band all playing at the same time while recording. Drum tracks are recorded first, usually followed by bass, then rhythm parts, and the last are vocals. It just seemed unrealistic to me.

    Nice writing. Smooth. Even flow.

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  6. There are different ways to record. If a band is tight and plays together all the time, they usually can record a tight track. If the band doesn't normally play together, then separate tracks are laid down. Depends on the situation

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