From Fiction University: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Saturday, August 4

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Opening (and Narrator) Work?


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 August 25.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this opening work?

2. Is the narrator, the voice appealing?

Market/Genre: Commercial fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Note: I have broken the material into some paragraphs, as it came in as one solid block of text, which may be a formatting issue.

In 1969, I left Castle island for Cork, where I lived near the university in a shabby, WWII era, semi-detached house that had been hastily split into two flats, one up, one down, with a shared bathroom on the landing.

Both flats were occupied entirely by skittish single women like myself, at least eight, and sometimes more when friends stayed the night, all of us pre-occupied with having a good social life and maybe finding Mr. Right, while still somehow managing to pass exams in subjects like Old English, Critical Theory, and Molecular Biology, things of which we’d barely heard of up until then.

We pooled our food money and lived on a steady diet of boiled mince and onions with rice for our evening meal, the only real meal we ever ate. None of us had a car or could drive and bus fares would have consumed too much of the little spare cash we had, so we walked everywhere, as we had time in abundance.

For the first time in our sixteen-year-old plus lives, we had something like autonomy. Freed from the bell-clanging strictness of the secondary school timetable, beyond the reach of what our fathers thought we should wear and our mothers thought we should eat, every day was an adventure, an exploration.

We were kind to each other, up to a point, a certain one-for-all-ness prevailing as we forged our way in our brave new world. But we could be callously selfish as well, our fears of somehow messing up, falling short socially, or crashing in all our exams, making us cruel at times.

My Thoughts in Purple:

In 1969, I left Castle Island for Cork, where I lived near the university in a shabby, WWII era, semi-detached house that had been hastily split into two flats, one up, one down, with a shared bathroom on the landing.

Both flats were occupied entirely by skittish single women This made me wonder if all the girls were truly like this character, or if she’s living in her own world like myself, at least eight, and sometimes more when friends stayed the night, all of us pre-occupied with having a good social life and maybe finding Mr. Right, while still somehow managing to pass exams in subjects like Old English, Critical Theory, and Molecular Biology, things of which this isn’t necessary here we’d barely heard of up until then. [65-word sentence could use at least one break]

We pooled our food money and lived on a steady diet of boiled mince and onions with rice for our evening meal, the only real meal we ever ate. None of us had a car or could drive and bus fares would have consumed too much of the little spare cash we had, so we walked everywhere, as we had time in abundance. This made me wonder why this was so

For the first time in our sixteen-year-old plus Are they 16? Or are they older? What makes this particular cut-off special? lives, we had something like autonomy. Freed from the bell-clanging strictness of the secondary school timetable, beyond the reach of what our fathers thought we should wear and our mothers thought we should eat, every day was an adventure, an exploration.

We were kind to each other, up to a point, a certain one-for-all-ness prevailing as we forged our way in our brave new world. But we could be callously selfish as well, our fears of somehow messing up, falling short socially, or crashing in all our exams, making us cruel at times.

The questions:

1. Does this opening work?


It works in the sense that the reader has detailed overview of the unknown female protagonist’s (assuming here) life, surroundings and cohorts. I did wonder, regularly, as I read if all that was described was reality or if it was simply how the narrator viewed things?

Teenage girls, living in two flats, four to each flat, would beg conflict. The last paragraph makes me wonder if the cruelty mentioned is going to be at the core of this story. At this point, I don’t know why the narrator is at Cork, what university it is, what her course of study is – nothing personal is revealed, which could be perceived as a distant telling. However, what I put together from this material is someone relating a time in the past, telling the tale, painting a very certain type of picture that lumped the group into broad pockets of caring.

Considering that my initial read created the thought: Okay, scene set – what is the story? If your object was to set the scene, then you succeeded. Unfortunately, I don’t care about the narrator, as I have no information about her, which means I have trouble caring about the group and setting being created.

This reads for the most part as a series of combined statements, which makes for a jerky read at times. There are several sentences that could be shorter or the phrasing combined to create a more fluid pace.

The scene is entirely passive, so every word needs to draw us further along into this story setting. We need to be delighted to hear about the different aspects of it all until the very last bit of the very last paragraph.

Then, when cruelty is mentioned, it creates a small doubt and some mild curiosity.

The second page would need to provide immediate engagement in the story to keep me turning pages.

(Here’s more hooking your reader in three easy steps)

2. Is the narrator, the voice appealing?

This is a subjective issue to me. I would categorize the narrator as chatty, paints things with a broad brush. Making simple statements is not her style. When something is spoken of, all aspects and angles must be included. This is something some people do to control conversations and their realities, so no one has a chance to contradict or cast a different view on the subject.

So, the voice is unappealing to me, a bit breathless and trite for my liking, but again – that’s just my take (readers chime in here). For all I know, she may prove to be a very interesting and forceful character. Perhaps she’s even the ‘glue’ in the group – or views herself as such. Fact is, I just don’t know. The opening tells me about her as part of a group, not as an individual.

(Here’s more on finding a character voice)

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

3 comments:

  1. Actually, I like the voice. The sixteen-year-old-plus phrase is odd.
    I like the long narrative.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I like the voice, too. And sometimes a story needs a leisurely beginning. I would continue to read.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is an interesting voice, that's able to pick illustrative but odd points in the world. "entirely by skittish single women" raised my eyebrows too.

    As an opening scene... what is the genre, besides "commercial"? What subgenre is it, what kind of story is ahead? social change or personal growth, will it be about her schooling or a crime or romance or what? Looking at this scene doesn't give us a hint of that, and the best openings are about how they have a slant or an image right from the start that leads us toward what this is going to be.

    One of the best writing tips I've ever heard is that the first chapter is often written as just trying to figure out what the story is; another is that the first lines' final form might be the *last* thing to write, when you're lived through the whole story. So I'd suggest exploring or thinking hard about where the story's going, and deciding if the opening should be a more specific scene, or this general one. Or if this is the right track, but it could use a stronger image or introductory point to make this beginning more distinctive faster?

    What's the sound like in a split flat with eight skittish young women and all their friends there? what's the first thing the narrator misses, or savors? The best stories like this are remembered for their inventive opening statements-- what can you come up with that people will be eager to quote?

    ReplyDelete