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Saturday, February 3

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Keep Reading?

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: Two


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through February 17.

This week’s questions:

1. Does it have enough internalization, description, or narration?

2. Am I showing, not telling?

3. Does the dialogue sound natural and believable?

4. Would you want to keep reading?


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I grabbed the piece of paper, and got out of the car. It was a shabby looking building with dull, peeling gray paint and garbage bags piled along the street side.

I argued with Dad about doing this. He felt it would lead to a neighborhood with lots of drugs and crime. He seemed right about the neighborhood but I needed to find out her true feelings and why it happened.

I went to the front door of the apartment building, knocked and watched a thin man, probably in his mid to late seventies, open the door to the first-floor apartment.

“What do you want?” he said as he looked ready to slam the door.

“My name is John Rosewood. I’m looking for Carol Marbeth. According to the information I have she lives here but I don’t see her name on any of the mailboxes in the hallway.”

“You won’t. I took her name off last week. She died.”

“What?”

“She died a few weeks ago. One of the neighbors upstairs checked on her every few days and one day she didn’t answer.”

“Okay. Sorry to bother you,” I said as I turned away. It’s over, I thought.

“Are you from the Welfare department?”

“What? No. Bye.”

“Why else would you ask about her? I’m the landlord. They’re stopping me from throwing her stuff out. I need to rent the place.”

I turned back around. “I think she was my birth mother. I was given up for adoption twenty-three years ago. I just wanted to talk to her.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

I grabbed the piece of paper, and got out of the car. It was [‘it’ is looking for a home here…if the character & car are shown to be in front of a building, you can then describe the place] a shabby looking building with dull, peeling gray paint and garbage bags piled along the street side.

I argued [this use infers that Dad is in the car with him, is he? Or is the arguing past tense? >I had argued with Dad<]with Dad about doing this [whatever ‘this’ is, it warranted arguing with his father, which makes it interesting]. He felt it would lead to a neighborhood with lots of drugs and crime [Is Dad worried the previous ‘this’ will lead to drugs and crime? Or is there another ‘it’?]. He seemed right about the neighborhood but I needed to find out her true feelings and why it happened [we now have a quest, which could spark reader curiosity, just don’t wait too long to drop another crumb].

I went to the front door of the apartment building, knocked and watched [the use of ‘watch’ before the door is opened, infers that the MC can see through the door] a thin man, probably in his mid to late seventies, open the door to the first-floor apartment.

“What do you want?” he said as he looked ready [what is seen that makes him ‘look ready’?] to slam the door.

“My name is John Rosewood. I’m looking for Carol Marbeth. According to the information I have she lives here, but I don’t see her name on any of the mailboxes in the hallway.”

“You won’t. I took her name off last week. She died.”

“What?”

“She died a few weeks ago. One of the neighbors upstairs checked on her every few days and one day she didn’t answer.”

“Okay. Sorry to bother you,” I said as I turned away. It’s over, I thought. [he just gives up? I would wonder why since it was important enough to argue with Dad about (readers chime in), plus this is an opportunity to forward the story – have the MC push for more information, contact the neighbor who found her, ask to see the apartment…]

“Are you from the Welfare department?”

“What? No. Bye.”

“Why else would you ask about her? I’m the landlord. They’re [who is ‘they’?] stopping me from throwing her stuff out. I need to rent the place.”

I turned back around. “I think she was my birth mother. I was given up for adoption twenty-three years ago. I just wanted to talk to her.”

The questions:

1. Does it have enough internalization, description, or narration?

I’m not getting any feelings from the MC, no frustration, fear, no urgency. He has argued with his father, apparently about coming to this building, but that is just given as a statement, not showing any regret about the argument or defiance or being protective of the MC’s position.

The only description is of the building, which evokes a neighborhood of similar buildings with trash before them. Otherwise that’s it for descriptions. There is an intimation that the MC might live with his dad, which is a description of a relationship or the MC’s current life situation.

I would like some clarification of a few things in the narration, like the dad’s concern over what his son was doing would lead to lots of drugs and crime. I can see if his dad expressed concern that the MC would be going to a neighborhood known for drugs and crime, but that isn’t what’s expressed.

(Here's more on writing first person internalization)

2. Am I showing, not telling?

Not as much as you could be. The interactions with the landlord include places where you could show what is seen or happens that indicates what you’ve stated is so. These small instances can enrich an encounter and pull the reader in close. The MC noticing body language and how the other character presents himself can also inform the reader of the MC’s way of seeing his/her surroundings. These interactions can also create questions for the MC, who can wonder internally about something observed, again allowing the reader to experience the moment vicariously. From what I see here, this is an easy fix you probably would have caught in reworking this fresh material.

(Here's more on the power of subtext)

3. Does the dialogue sound natural and believable?

It’s not unbelievable, but it’s not informing as deeply as it could either. The landlord is old, probably suspicious of everyone, and obviously operates under the bluntness of his age. His words are dismissive at first and it could easily be imagined that he’s about the shut the door following his statement of his tenant’s death. I would like to see more reactions, more hesitation, more self-serving responses from both parties.

Consider the dialogue as exposures, bits that reveal what each character is after. The landlord is irritated that he can’t clear out the apartment to rent. John is looking for his possible birth-mother. The landlord immediately prods for information and states why. John seems to give up.

And this is where the story falters for me, because John was willing to argue with his dad, yet isn’t impassioned enough to pursue this lead. Why not ask if he can see the apartment? Why not ask to speak with the neighbor who found Carol dead? Why just give up?

We don’t know what came before this decision to take action, but presume that encountering this loss would produce an emotional response. John’s response is one of finality, so the reader may wonder if this was the last lead he had…and now he can close the door on his search.

I would suggest using the personality of each character here to drive their dialogue. The difference in these character’s ages is enough to show a difference in communicating, but add to it that the landlord manages a run-down apartment building and appears to be unconcerned about Carol’s death beyond his own needs – and you have some fodder to make his dialogue coarse, disgusting, rude, and presumptive. A formidable conversation opponent for 23-year-old John, who is on an emotional mission.

(Here's more on writing strong dialogue)

4. Would you want to keep reading?

Yes. I want to know the backstory now. I want to see if John investigates further while at the ‘scene of the crime’. I am not reading on because of any hook, I simply want to read a bit more before passing judgment. This is a shaky point, as I would walk away if John doesn’t either pursue more information, or the potential for that, or give a really good excuse for not doing so.

If, for example, he gets a phone call from his dad at this moment, checking up on things, and more is revealed about their argument and the ‘why’ of it, I would become engaged and follow that thread.

Overall, I still feel that the ‘what’ of the story is a bit thin, but it has worth and would deserve additional effort to strengthen it. Readers chime in with suggestions and thoughts. We all learn together, eh?

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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2 comments:

  1. Maria said it well-- there's plenty of room for emotion here, but it wants to be played up more.

    Two specifics that caught my eye: in the second paragraph "He felt it would lead to (a crime-filled neighborhood)" makes me think this is about trying to prevent crime and making it worse, when what you meant is that he'll probably *discover* there's no reason for his being given up besides simple crime. You probably want to phrase this as "He felt I'd find nothing but a..."

    And, the big moment where he learns Carol is dead. I agree this needs more emotion, but in particular I think it needs a thought before he speaks his first answer. It might be as simple as an "Oh" if you want the understatement to show his feelings are too deep for one moment, or it might be much more. But if his heart doesn't get some reaction in before his mouth (and it's not because his mouth is saying what's important anyway), it can sound as if he doesn't have feelings here. It could be a small change, but it would do a lot to help that line.

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  2. “My name is John Rosewood. I’m looking for Carol Marbeth.

    Two names delivered in a short sentence - names are always hard for readers to digest. Do we really need to know the MC's name at this point? And saying the MC's mother's name outloud could potentially be an emotionally moment. The landlord also gives a lot of information away in a succint sentence. Would he be so ready without some probing questions? This scene is a big deal for the MC. He would have given a lot of thought to it before setting off. He would have imagined a lot of possible outcomes: she slams the door in his face, she cries & hugs him etc. He probably hasn't imagined this one....

    ReplyDelete