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Saturday, June 23

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: Two


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through July 7.

This week’s question:

Does this opening work?


Market/Genre: Women’s Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

“Romy, you need to get out more.” My mum shakes out the Arts & Entertainment section and peers at me officiously over tortoiseshell spectacles.

We’re out on the patio of my parents’ house in Wollstonecraft, under a pergola of ornamental grapevines. The table is tiled with a happy spread of weekend newspapers, freshly-brewed coffee and buttery Bourke Street Bakery pastries. Sunshine streams through the leaves overhead. It’s one of those impossibly crisp Sydney spring mornings.

I gesture pointedly at our surrounds, sending a cloud of croissant dandruff aflutter. I inhale dramatically, catching a faint but unfortunate whiff of newly laid blood and bone. “Fresh air, sunshine, great company…” I glance at my dad, who is not inconspicuously picking a corn on his foot and scanning an article about maximizing asparagus crop yield. “…All signs definitely seem to point to me being out.”

Mum hits me with a Scarlett O’Hara eyebrow raise. “Don’t be glib. Hanging out with your parents once a week doesn’t count. I mean out out. ‘On the town’, as the kids would say.”

“No kids say that. And I do go out,” I protest. “In fact, I’ve been to a number of social events in the last few weeks.”

Dad looks up, his expression innocent. “What’s the number?”

I cross my eyes and poke my tongue out at him. Something about being at home always makes me feel and act much more juvenile than my twenty-four years. The gentle mollycoddling and not so gentle chiding, perhaps.

“Fine, a couple in as many weeks,” I admit. “It’s pretty much just work drinks on a Friday, if that.” I struggle to keep my tone chipper. “And there’s nothing that quite screams sparkling social calendar like everyone from work moaning over a few bottles of barely potable chardonnay. It’s just that…I usually can’t be bothered, you know?”

My Thoughts in Purple:

“Romy, you need to get out more.” My mum shakes out the Arts & Entertainment section and peers at me officiously over tortoiseshell spectacles.

We’re out on the patio of my parents’ house in Wollstonecraft, under a pergola of ornamental grapevines. The table is tiled with a happy spread of weekend newspapers, freshly-brewed coffee and buttery Bourke Street Bakery pastries. Sunshine streams through the leaves overhead. It’s one of those impossibly crisp Sydney spring mornings. I like the description here, but I wanted to see her respond faster. Perhaps open with this to set the scene a little and make the dialogue a bit snappier?

[I gesture pointedly at our surrounds, sending a cloud of croissant dandruff aflutter. I inhale dramatically,] It feels like a little too much here. Any two pieces work, but not all three [catching a faint but unfortunate whiff of newly laid blood and bone.] This seemed oddly out of place “Fresh air, sunshine, great company…” I glance at my dad, who is not inconspicuously picking a corn on his foot and scanning an article about maximizing asparagus crop yield. “…All signs definitely seem to point to me being out.”

Mum hits me with a Scarlett O’Hara eyebrow raise. “Don’t be glib. Hanging out with your parents once a week doesn’t count. I mean out out. ‘On the town’, as the kids would say.”

“No kids say that. And I do go out,” I protest. “In fact, I’ve been to a number of social events in the last few weeks.”

Dad looks up, his expression innocent. “What’s the number?”

I cross my eyes and poke my tongue out at him. Something about being at home always makes me feel and act much more juvenile than my twenty-four years. The gentle mollycoddling and not so gentle chiding, perhaps.

“Fine, a couple in as many weeks,” I admit. “It’s pretty much just work drinks on a Friday, if that.” [I struggle to keep my tone chipper.] I wanted a little internal thought from her here, since this suggests she does indeed wish it were more often. “And there’s nothing that quite screams sparkling social calendar like everyone from work moaning over a few bottles of barely potable chardonnay. It’s just that…I usually can’t be bothered, you know?”

The question:

1. Does this opening work?

Yes (readers chime in). It has some cute dialogue, and the setup suggests where the story is going, even though I don’t yet know the specifics. It feels like a classic start to a romance mixed with a “problem to be discovered later.” Something along the lines of a Jennifer Crusie novel, where the heroine has a problem and along the way meets someone and falls in love (no clue of that’s the case here, but I get that vibe).

Romy has a bit of spunk, her father makes me chuckle, and it seems like she has good relationship with her parents, even of they are giving her a hard time. She can’t “be bothered” by going out, yet I get the sense that she’d like to and is covering some potential loneliness with humor.

My only concern (and readers of this genre chine in, as I just dabble as a reader here), is that it could be too familiar and doesn’t show off the originality of your particular story. Parents telling an adult child they need to get out more could be common, or it could be the expected trope. I’d read on, but would this grab someone who reads of lot of this genre?

Technically, I’d suggest a little tweaking to tighten. The dialogue is snappy and fun, but it drags a tiny bit at the start. I think a little rearranging would polish it right up.

Overall, I liked it, and I’d keep reading to see what problem Romy was about to get into by “getting out more.”

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

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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 (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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5 comments:

  1. This does seem to be a case of fun style and that isn't yet showing off a particular story. I wouldn't be surprised if you're "pantsing" this tale. If you are, I hope once you're clear on what Romy will be dealing with, you put in more signs here about what that is and what kind of person she is that makes her the one we have to watch. Those omens are key for any kind of first chapter, including comedy.

    I'd like to see Romy do something in the start of the second paragraph, even if it's just a small but very indicative way of stalling. Paragraph one was a challenge to her, so we want to see just a little of *her* right then before the lines of description that follow. Otherwise, our first paragraphs' impression is that you're showing us everything except your star.

    I like how you manage Romy's age. The scene would be very different if she were a teenager, but in the second paragraph you slip in "my parents'" house so we're aware she's moved out. That sets up the basics, and then soon you give a hard number to make it clearer.

    Since "officiously" is Telling Not Showing, it's not making a totally vivid image. Do you want something better for your first line?

    Most of the precision I'm looking for comes from more serious stories. Any first page can benefit from them, but mostly, this story looks like a lot of fun.

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  2. Maybe I'm not as familiar as to what to expect from "Women's Fiction", but fiction is fiction to me. If I were to pick this off the library shelf, I would put it back. It reads younger to me. Sitting around a parents table reading the paper and them telling their daughter to get out more is not much of a "grabber" to me.
    The writing style is clear and good, but I think you can beef this up more. Inner dialogue on her thoughts/relationship with her parents, why they're always harping on her, why she doesn't get out more for her age...anything that indicates some tension and prelude to more to come. Right now, not much is happening. This seems like it could get inserted anywhere in the story, so to me does not make a power opening.
    I'd love to see you re-do and re-submit. Let's see who Romy really is...if even a little hint :)

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  3. Seemed like pointless small talk to me. I found nothing interesting in this excerpt.

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  4. I so disagree with your naysayers. I found this excerpt quirky and charming. I would read on. Keep it up.

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  5. Thank you very much Janice for the helpful critique. I look forward to revising accordingly!

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