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Saturday, June 9

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Read On?

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: Three

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through June 30.

This week’s questions:

1. Is the heroine dropped in the middle of the trouble?

2. Is there any “telling”?

3. Is there interior monologue without action?

4. Would you want to read on? 


Market/Genre: Christian Women’s Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Ava Fraser never anticipated the sharp turn in her life. Living alone in the house made it all the more realistic now.

With the hibiscus bushes trimmed, Ava hung the hedge clippers in the backyard shed and glanced at her two-story home. She headed inside before the day’s heat and humidity crept over the Fort Lauderdale coast. Ava kicked her sandals off inside the kitchen door. A loud clatter. She stopped and turned toward the direction of the noise.

Ava tended to hear every creak in the house with no one else around. It might’ve come from the garage area. Did she leave the garage door open last night?

Her body rigid, Ava inched toward the door which led into the garage. She grabbed her car keys with the pepper spray attached, in case. Maybe a squirrel found its way in. She could only hope.

A heavy thud, followed by a metallic clang echoed. She drew in a breath and opened the door a crack.

Her eyes grew wide. “Jeremy.” He was the last person she expected to see since the ugly divorce approached. “You scared me. I didn’t know you were here.”

He picked up the fallen wrench from the floor and flicked his head back so his blond hair fell into place. His steely, blue eyes bored into her “Why would you? It’s my house. I don’t need your permission to pick something up.”

Her palm hurt. She’d squeezed the car keys into it.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Ava Fraser never anticipated the sharp turn in her life. [This makes me curious]

With the hibiscus bushes trimmed, she hung the hedge clippers in the backyard shed and glanced at her two-story home. Living alone in the house made it [the sudden turn, right?] all the more realistic now. She headed inside before the day’s heat and humidity crept over the Fort Lauderdale coast.

Life continued. The ugly divorce approached. [I assume this is the ‘sharp turn’]

She headed inside before the day’s heat and humidity crept over the Fort Lauderdale coast. Ava left Leaving her sandals at the door, she stepped into the kitchen.

A thumping clatter. [thumping is an odd use to modify clatter – she can hear one, and then the other though – and readers can ‘hear’]

She stopped and turned toward the direction of [this isn’t necessary here] the noise.

After Jeremy had moved out. and now with and Her daughters were on vacation with him. On her own now, she tended to hear every creak in the house.

It might’ve come from the garage area. Did she leave the garage door open last night?

Her body rigid, [I would add this earlier, when she first hears the noise] Ava Grabbing her car keys with the pepper spray on the ring, she inched toward the kitchen door which leading into the garage. She grabbed her car keys with the pepper spray attached, in case.

Maybe a squirrel found its way in. She could only hope.

A heavy thud, followed by a metallic clang echoed. [where? on the other side of the door, in the garage?] She drew in a breath [is this in reaction to the sound or an anticipatory action?] and opened the door a crack. Her eyes grew wide. [If the breath draw isn’t a reaction, then I suggest she open the door, then react by a hard intake -which is expelled when she speaks]

“Jeremy. You scared me. I didn’t know you were here.” He was the last person she expected to see .[This is explaining something obvious]

He picked up the fallen wrench from the floor and flicked his head back so his blond hair fell into place. His steely blue eyes bored [this conjures a gory image of eyeballs, you know, boring holes…] into her.

“Why would you? It’s my house. I don’t need your permission to pick something up.” [belligerence, wrench, ugly divorce – can’t wait to see how this encounter plays out]

The questions:

1. Is the heroine dropped in the middle of the trouble?

I didn’t see that. She’s at her home, the soon-to-be-ex arrives without warning, so trouble may ensue, but she’s not dropped into it. In fact, at this point we aren’t even sure there is the potential of ‘trouble’. The continuing dialogue will undoubtedly show which way this confrontation goes. If Jeremey is prone to violence, then the trouble may require police or she may wonder why she didn’t take her lawyer up on getting a restraining order.

And then, there is the question that if he’s supposed to be on vacay with their daughters, why is he there but the daughters aren’t? Is Jeremy creepy enough to ‘take’ the daughters? Is there a custody component?

This opening is hinging on two words: ugly divorce. The degree of ugliness will define how far and which way this scene will go, but to this point we aren’t being shown that Ava is frightened, just surprised. So, maybe Jeremey is just a big jerk and won’t try to bash her head in with the wrench.

Your question also makes me wonder if Ava becomes a ‘heroine’? Right now, she’s just a woman with an unknown number of daughters (teens maybe?) who is struggling with newly living alone and doing mundane tasks to maintain a semblance of normalcy.

(Here's more on why "start with the action" messes up so many writers)

2. Is there any “telling”?

A bit…but these are small things that an active voice and some better balance with sentence structure will amend.

(Here's more on what writers need to know about show, don't tell)

3. Is there interior monologue without action?

Not really. I believe some of the movement can be better paced with the narrative. Bring her to a spot, stop, react, think, stop, decide, act, react, crack the door, react – have her open the door (unless you want her speaking through the cracked space) – then speak in a voice that matches her surprise. Stating that she didn’t expect him comes across as an explanation, which is unnecessary since narrative told of him no longer living there and being with the girls on vacay.

(Here's more on mixing internalization and action)

4. Would you want to read on? Any comments appreciated.

I would – part of me would want to give the story a chance, since this opening is a bit thin. (Readers chime in please)

I was able to draw on communal points (being a divorced woman) that I recognized and were sympathetic to me that allowed a quick initial source of bonding. However, many women may not make those connections.

The main reason I would read on is to find out how this scene plays out. Jeremy’s dialogue establishes his character and intent, so we want to know if he’s violent, a bully or a bluffer.

The facts we have been given are just enough to give us choices in becoming invested. However, I feel the current text is too passive for the situation once she’s alerted to a potential danger.

We’re told she’s jumpy, hearing every creak, yet when noise comes from the garage, we don’t get a lot of feedback from her. If she’s truly not expecting her soon-to-be-ex to be around, then her action of grabbing pepper spray and sneaking to the garage door says she’s either pretty confident in her ability to defend herself – or pretty dumb.

The scene demands I relate to the situation from my personal perspective and experiences, not Ava’s. This is okay, but I would never grab pepper spray if I thought someone/thing was in my garage. I would take strategic action to gain the most control over the situation as possible. This means I cannot get into the whole sneaking to the garage door and peeking out thing. It forces me to think this character is an idiot – and it’s also boring. Why not have her look out a front window to see if a car is out front? Why not have her call someone (friend, neighbor, cops) to see what they saw or to come check it out (maybe Bob the neighbor is a snoopy gossip and always watches her house)? She could be brave and come out the front door, sneaking around to the garage (if you want her to be ‘brave’) and thus, taking Jeremy (the jerk, right?) by surprise. At least if he attacks Ava, she’s outside where she could be seen or heard and has room to run.

So, for me, Ava seems to be a reactive risk-taker, maybe over-confident or reckless, not using common sense or logic. This might be from stress and a lack of sleep and operating on low attention levels. But, that’s just me – another reader may (probably will) see a different Ava.

I think this author has done a decent set up and has given readers a reason to read on.

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. This scene seems to be all about a subtext that isn't quite clear. In some genres "ex-husband" plus "wrench" would be a death sentence; in others it's a subtle pang about how everyone suffers in divorce. So the scene needs to fine-tune Ava's reaction so we're thinking just what we need to, even though there are so many ways the scene could go.

    One tool you have for that is Ava could be more active before she hears him. Kurt Vonnegut said "Your character should want something right on the first page, even if it's only a glass of water." What is Ava already trying to do and how does she feel about it-- is she forgetting her troubles with mindless yard work and sorry to be pulled out of it, is she getting frustrated with stubborn shrubbery, is she mostly looking forward to seeing a friend later? That first glimpse of her wanting something could give her a more interesting first impression, and more interesting still when she shifts from that to the sounds.

    Once that starts, Maria is so right: a potential crisis like this offers so many ways Ava could react to it, and choosing one tells us even more about her. Creeping up with pepper spray in hand feels natural as long as she's not that convinced it's really a problem, and she's too embarrassed to try some "non-housewife-y" tactic that would take her more time and effort; the stealth and the spray are just token precautions in the faint chance that it's a burglar after all. That would work for me if you don't overemphasize her nervousness, or maybe if she's on edge but even more afraid to admit it might be serious. And of course, a big part of that is would having a Jeremy in her life make her more nervous than that, or is he the reason she's got *new* worries she doesn't want to admit?

    It ought to all line up together: when she's alone, how her complete situation makes her react to this, and how it's revealed when she sees Jeremy-- and then if he surprises her further (which he should, a first scene should be a milestone, not just a vivid statement of where things are now). Put yourself in Ava's head, and teach us to see these moments through her eyes.

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  2. I feel the tension and would like to read more to see how the scene is played out, too.

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