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Saturday, July 7

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Crime Fiction Opening Hook You?

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.


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Submissions currently in the queue: Two


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through July 21.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this first chapter opening hook you?

2. Would you want to read on?

3. Does it bother you that the protagonist’s “real” name/identity is not revealed until the last line of the chapter?


Market/Genre: Crime Fiction/Suspense

Warning: colorful language ahead

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Walking the streets sucked.

Standing in the shadows of the tall buildings, she tugged at the bottom of her tiny skirt and adjusted the collar of the pink fake-fur jacket, hoping to provide a bit of warmth to her frozen neck. Damn cold weather…damn Azul. If it wasn’t for him, I’d never be doing this in the first place. Fishnet stockings offered no protection from the unseasonal chill of the Windy City; her vinyl boots now two giant ice cubes impacted on her feet. Stiletto heels produced a tortuous spasm that ran from toes to spine. Why me? He could have picked someone with more experience to handle this drug deal. What had Azul said…‘nobody else available’... bullshit. She hated being here, doing this. Definitely not what she signed on for. But what choice did she have? If Azul said do the job, she did the job. Or else.

She paced in anticipation, dodged remnants of stray trash that blew in off the sidewalk, careful not to touch them with her boots. Where the hell was her contact? She poked her head out between the buildings, hoped to spot him before she turned into a Popsicle.

Finally! Five-foot-five, spaghetti skinny, skin the color of a swamp alligator—Jimmy Johnson, drug pusher to the hookers.

"Hey, Bugs. Over here," she yelled. Everyone called him "Bugs". Not because he looked dirty, although that could be a reasonable argument, but because of his protruding ears and conspicuous front teeth. One half-expected him to hop instead of walk. She gestured to join her in the narrow space where she huddled.

"My, my, is that you Miss Cheetah?" His nickname for her after the leopard-print boots she wore. "Why y'all hidin’ like a scared jackrabbit? Those nasty policemen been chasin' after you or somethin’?" His drawl felt out of place on the streets of Chicago.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Walking the streets sucked. This strikes me as internal thought, changing the tense of the last word, connecting to the next spate of internal thoughts.

Standing in the shadows of the tall buildings skyscrapers (?), she tugged at the bottom of her tiny skirt and adjusted what was the adjustment? the collar of the pink fake-fur jacket, hoping to provide a bit of warmth to her frozen neck. explains ‘adjusted’ instead of showing specific action driven by environment, then using internal dialogue to support. Damn cold weather…damn Azul. If it wasn’t for him, I’d never be doing this in the first place. Fishnet stockings offered no protection from the unseasonal chill of the Windy City; her vinyl boots now two giant ice cubes impacted on her feet. Stiletto heels produced a tortuous spasm that ran from toes to spine. lots of near-cliché description, location established and nearly the time of year – but by now I’m wondering why the weather is so important – and if this is an unusual outfit for her to wear? Why me? He could have picked someone with more experience to handle this drug deal.What had Azul said…‘nobody else available’... bullshit. She hated being here, doing this. Definitely not what she signed on for. this creates a question I want answered. But what choice did she have? If Azul said do the job, she did the job. Or else. this feels like more explanation – I would leave it off and let the reader hang with the unanswered question – the last sentence is stronger and leaves this character in a stronger place.

She paced in anticipation, more explanation dodged remnants of stray perhaps pick one or the other? I suggest: dodging stray… trash that blew in where is ‘in’? off the sidewalk, careful not to touch them with her boots. why? will they melt the vinyl? another explanation that creates unnecessary questions. Where the hell was her contact? She poked her head out between the buildings, this should be established up-front, I envisioned her pacing the sidewalk, like a placeholder… hoped to spot him before she turned into a Popsicle. another reference to the cold/her being cold – better to show here if she has established a ‘cut-off’ time to her participation or something that speaks to who she is…

Finally! Five-foot-five, spaghetti skinny, skin the color of a swamp alligator—Jimmy Johnson, drug pusher to the hookers. nice description but looking for more - where is he? is he on foot, in a car?

"Hey, Bugs. Over here," she yelled. Might consider trading the dialogue tag for a gesture or whistle. Everyone called him "Bugs". Not because he looked dirty, although that could be a reasonable argument, this is a distraction/explanation and forces an idea on readers but because of his protruding ears and conspicuous front teeth. One half-expected him to hop this formal use is out of character and the sentence is another needless distraction – honor the style you’ve begun… instead of walk. She gestured what did she do? [for him] to join her in the narrow space where she huddled.

"My, my, is that you, Miss Cheetah?" His nickname for her after the leopard-print boots she wore. this connection didn’t quite fit for me, as cheetah=very fast, not leopard-print…"Why y'all hidin’ like a scared jackrabbit? Those nasty policemen been chasin' after you [y’all] or somethin’?" His drawl felt out of place on the streets of Chicago. this is a much stronger and more natural location reference than the one used earlier…

The questions:

1. Does this first chapter opening hook you?


Somewhat. (Readers chime in please) A possible streetwalker has been ordered to do a drug transaction with someone she knows, who even has a nickname for her. I presume from the material that she isn’t afraid, just cold and irritated to be where she is and doing what she’s expected to do. I see no conflict beyond these two things.

I have one hint that something isn’t as it seems: the reference to this not being what she signed up for, but that could simply mean that her view of her place in the world is as a hooker – only.

There is a small indication that Azul (this name put me immediately in mind of the original Ghostbusters movie and the demon who took over Sigourney Weaver) left her no choice, and that she had to do it ‘or else’. But I didn’t get any real fear from her even at that point. Perhaps if she was nursing a bruise or we were show that her cheek still stung from him slapping her when she complained – anything that would overcome all the information of how she was cold.

Overall, the material allows us to get in this character’s head, but I want to see more emotion or actions that show me her conflict at being there – and not just because it’s cold or she doesn’t like it.

(Here's more on making readers care about the story situation)

2. Would you want to read on?

Yes – but at this point, it would only be to give the opening a chance. If her situation is more sharply defined (beyond being cold), then I have something to question and wonder about. Is she in danger? How well does she know Bugs? How long has she been a streetwalker and how did she get into this situation?

Right now, I’m ‘looking’ for questions, because the opening isn’t quite prickly enough for them to just pop up.

I have trouble being afraid for her because she doesn’t seem afraid. I have trouble having sympathy for her, because she’s been presented as having chosen this life. I have trouble feeling concern about her being cold, since I have to wonder if she also chose her outfit.

The first sentence, if switched to internal thought, actually allows me to immediately get in her head. I can relate to being where you don’t want to be, being uncomfortable, a little angry maybe. I want to see this character as a strong personality, no nonsense – maybe a little bit of false bravado? But, she simply doesn’t feel at risk or deeply compromised. However, as I mentioned, I would read on to see if the author brings that risk or deeper conflict forward on the next page.

(Here's more on raising tension by creating story questions) 

3. Does it bother you that the protagonist’s “real” name/identity is not revealed until the last line of the chapter?

No, that wouldn’t bother me. However, you bringing this up as a concern piques my curiosity, as it infers some kind of upcoming mystery, something beyond what is presented in this opening. This is the perfect type of thing to hint at in back cover blurbs or marketing tag lines though – and knowing your question about this going into this critique did slightly bias my ability to say: Yes, I’d read on.

(Here's more on asking the right story questions)

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.

Website | Twitter

5 comments:

  1. An opening like this strikes me as risky, taking a whole page mostly for atmosphere. Authors used to take that long or longer, and established ones still get away with it, but modern readers have trouble with a slow start. Cheetah has a few thoughts during the walk that establish her basics, but they don't give us enough to make the moment unique. (And they don't, like Maria suggests, dig into her fear enough to let that carry the moment.) Finally, weather description is a sore subject for many readers who don't like slow openings like this.

    So I'd suggest starting the story sooner, or making more specific use of the minutes she's walking. Some readers might not mind this, but too many want more faster-- not necessarily a gunshot at the start, but an immediate sense of what's unique about her problems and herself.

    One other thing: she calls him Bugs (Bunny), but then he calls her a scared jackrabbit. That's the kind of coincidence that might make readers stop and think how many separate rabbit references are there (it would be different if he directly said "you're acting more like a rabbit than me"), and also that with him calling her Miss Cheetah that's three animal references in a few lines. They're small things, but they push the reader out of the story itself, so you might want to find a non-animal way for him to mention her nervousness.

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    1. Thanks for the critique. I mentioned when I submitted to Janice that I originally started with the antagonist murdering someone, but read in so many writing books to start with the Protagonist. This is a minor re-write to do so.
      She is actually a cop on her first big undercover assignment to nab a drug lord. So she had established this relationship with Bugs much earlier. It is the impetus that launches her into a chance to be a homicide detective (that plays out in chapter 4) her true goal throughout the book. As Maria mentioned, this will most likely be revealed in the back cover, so I am thinking a reader might put the two together early on. She hates "dressing up" (which also plays out later in another way) and hates the assignment..hence the emphasis on the clothing. Also, she has OCD quirks throughout the book...kicking at the trash hints at that...guess I should add so her boots don't get dirty :)
      The last sentence of the chapter reveals her identity as a police officer.
      I know it's hard to get all that in 250 words:) but I appreciate knowing the things that aren't working this early on. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Wish I could submit more for review :)


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  2. I thought she was a cop working undercover.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Laurie...you picked up on that right away :)

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  3. Personally, I would've cut most of it and started at the point where Cheetah and Bug meet. Perhaps a few sentences showing her annoyance and that the cold contributes to her annoyance. The weather stuff was too much unnecessary information. Also, 'unseasonal weather' of the Windy City would be heat, not cold. And much of the description makes her sound very young, like teenager. Her feet feeling like Popsicles, etc.

    Neither character seemed very sympathetic or relate-able either. Was she the (soon to be) victim or hero? I really couldn't tell.

    I think it would've been more effective to open with Azul, pushing her out of the car and ordering her to do this thing with Bug and then leaving her there in the cold street, in her skimpy outfit - maybe even unexpectedly, which would explain why she wasn't dressed for the occasion.

    Anyway, lots of ways this could have gone - I don't think was the best way though.

    ReplyDelete