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Saturday, August 25

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Opening 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: Two


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through September 8.

This week’s question:

1. Does this opening work?


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Freesia Hollister closed the basket on the picnic lunch she'd made for her husband. She placed the precious cargo on the front seat of her red pickup truck and smiled at her simple scheme. Driving to his office, gave her the time she needed to reaffirm: cheating husbands deserved entrapment.

Free rode the elevator to the eleventh floor of the glass office building and strolled to the receptionist with a smile. "Hi, Betsy."

"Hello, Mrs. Hollister." Betsy removed her headset. "Glad you got my message."

Free opened the basket and her bangles slid down her wrist. She pulled out a wrapped sandwich "Lunch for your kindness."

Betsy placed her nose near the treat. "Smells so good. Thank you."

Free unbuttoned her jacket and yanked her long hair from under the collar. She reached into her purse for an envelope and handed it to Betsy. "A bonus."

"I'll continue to keep you informed, Mrs. Hollister." She nodded toward Shawn's office. "He's alone, you can go on in."

She stepped into his office without knocking. Her disrespect toward his workspace and his privacy was the one thing she knew pushed his buttons.

Shawn's elbows rested on tomes of legal books, magazines, and notepads. His jacket hung on the coat rack behind him. His vest buttoned up tight, like the look on his face. "Free. What a surprise."

I bet. She placed the basket with the special bugging device on the corner of his desk. "Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt your busy day."

My Thoughts in Purple:

Freesia Hollister closed the basket on the picnic lunch she'd made for her husband. She placed the precious cargo on the front seat of her red pickup truck and smiled at her simple scheme. Driving to his office, gave her the time she needed to reaffirm: cheating husbands deserved entrapment.

Free rode the elevator to the eleventh floor of the glass office building and strolled to the receptionist with a smile. "Hi, Betsy."

"Hello, Mrs. Hollister." Betsy removed her headset. "Glad you got my message."

Free opened the basket and her bangles slid down her wrist [bangles slide ‘to’ her wrist or down her arm]. She pulled out a wrapped sandwich. "Lunch for your kindness."

Betsy placed her nose near the treat. "Smells so good. Thank you."

Free unbuttoned her jacket and yanked her long hair from under the collar. She reached into her purse for an envelope and handed it to Betsy. "A bonus."

"I'll continue to keep you informed, Mrs. Hollister." She nodded toward Shawn's office. "He's alone, you can go on in."

She stepped into his office without knocking. Her disrespect toward his workspace and his privacy was the one thing she knew pushed his buttons.

Shawn's elbows rested on tomes [do you mean to say his elbows are on piles of these things? A tome is one large, very heavy book] of legal books, magazines, and notepads. His jacket hung on the coat rack behind him. His vest buttoned up tight, like the look on his face [nice line]. "Free. What a surprise."

I bet. She placed the basket with the special bugging device on the corner of his desk. "Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt your busy day."

The question:

1. Does this opening work?


Yes, overall. I would like to comment on a few things from the beginning and on…

I like the first two sentences. They have the feel of a harmless ‘plot’ to surprise her husband with lunch or perhaps she always brings him lunch, but this time she has something special in mind. Whatever, the presentation could even be taken as playful. Now, the third sentence changes all that, but it also seems like an explanation of something we weren’t involved in.

She needs time to reaffirm…um…the decision to entrap her husband? Or the plan she’s decided to use? To me, this isn’t clear. Plus, it feels like it weakens the premise, since later there are elements that show she’s already invested in her plan.

What I would have accepted more readily was her smile being followed by internal thought that supported that smile. A rough example might be: Yep, cheating husbands deserve to be trapped – like the rats they are.

This small thought (as you would write it, of course) allows us inside her head, right at that moment, while also hinting that she has a ‘plan’.

I like the idea of showing her as confident, feeling justified in her planned actions – not needing to reaffirm – it makes her a stronger character, one with conviction, who is starting (or has started) a battle.

Also, since we learn very soon that the basket has a listening device, not a bomb or poisoned sandwiches, we can easily tie her thought here to her presumed ultimate objective: catching her husband at cheating.

In the second paragraph, the strolling with a smile left me wondering a bit. Walking slowly to the receptionist’s location, which I presumed must be within eyesight of the elevator, as we aren’t told otherwise, seems odd. I believe it’s because there is no description of this character, at all, and strolling is a bit exaggerated a gait to imagine an unknown character doing.

This is also a moment where you could produce some needed location descriptions, some stage direction, to give readers some perspective. The door to her husband’s office being right there by Betty – I wondered: does he command the entire floor?

Since the topic of cheating husband is on the reader’s mind, they may, as I did, wonder if Betty is the other half of the cheating and was now getting a tainted sandwich. However, the fact that Betty had called Free earlier, received the sandwich and the ‘bonus’, it’s easy to see that she’s an ally. It also becomes apparent that Free’s plan was already in motion.

The reference to disrespecting his work space further shows that she has weaponized her knowledge of what irks him as part of her plan, perhaps to goad him into taking a reckless action?

By this point, I’m interested in knowing more about how the story got to this place, what the background is, how she discovered he was cheating, and how far her plan goes. What is her goal? Revenge? Securing evidence for a massively debilitating divorce? Does he die and she’s the suspect, but not the killer? I’m prepared to go in any direction.

Next, we come to a small stumble with the use of ‘tome’. I’m unsure if you meant there were piles of materials on his desk on which he rested his elbows or if you meant there was a legal tome, along with other items, on which he rested his elbows.

After that, we have the dialogue where the husband states her visit is a surprise. She thinks: I bet. Is she inferring that he would somehow know that she was coming? If he had said what a pleasant surprise, then I would understand her retort, since she assumes/knows he had/has a tryst planned.

The reveal of the bug in the basket is fun, and I’m ready to ‘hear’ what she hopes to catch in the recording. It’s not exactly a hard hook, but it will get me to the next page.

So, with a few tweaks, overall this is a nice opening with a little intrigue that could lead to a story of suspense or romance or…?

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. It's hard to find much to add here.

    Most of starting a story is in choosing the right moment and focusing on what tension makes it right, and you've done that admirably. I see a few moments where the wording could be smoother, like "the time she needed to reaffirm"-- and like Maria says, it might be more interesting if her reaction was more determined there. Or if she had doubts to push through, you could capture them better. You've got a great sense of what makes a story and you play a few twists along the way (a loving picnic? no-- is the secretary the other woman? no), so reading the words aloud and looking at the smoothest writers you know might be the main thing left to do.

    The only thing that bothers me is her name. A name that shortens to "Free" might be one step too obvious for a breezy tale of female empowerment-- or it might fit just fine. I'd say, check the genre and any seasoned writers you can contact, to see if it works for or against you. Or she could use her full name more (especially if you could fine her a less unusual name than "Freesia" that has the same nickname) and only use the on-the-nose nickname now and then so it's a quieter point.

    You seem to know what makes this story work. That's most of the struggle right there.

    ReplyDelete
  2. My reaction was a bit different. While the writing is smooth, I felt there was too much "stage direction" (I noticed because I'm guilty of it myself in my own writing and all my critique partners point it out). If you examine your segment, every sentence has several actions taking place: closed basket, put it on the seat, drove. rode elevator, strolled. removed head set. Opened basket, bangles slid, pulled out sandwich, etc. etc.
    I think if you eliminate some of those it will tighten things and allow for more inner dialog which would serve better to create some tension.
    Also, if Free is paying Betsy to be in on the plot, wouldn't she have her plant the bug, since Betsy would have complete access to the office and would be able to find the best hiding spot for it? Free can't leave the basket there, so planting the bug won't be easy and it will be an obvious plot ploy to have her do it so the husband doesn't see her.
    This is a classic set-up, which is not a bad thing. Definitely makes us want to keep reading to see what the bum is up to. I'd just like more inner dialog to ramp up the tension a bit more.
    I had the same thought as Maria about the sandwich- that was a good twist, and agree with Ken about the name Free.
    You can take us in many different directions with the set-up and I think most people would want to keep reading to find out how your twists will be different. Good job!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Agreeing with both comments above, each time the name "Free" came up, I needed to reread the sentence. It makes the reader stop, which is of course something you don't want to do. I also agree with Anonymous in that their is a lot of stage direction. A cheating husband and revenge is always a great plot. I'd like to feel a little sympathetic to Free - maybe putting the children on the bus, hanging up with her (or his) mother - something to connect me to her - that's just my opinion. I also agree that Betsey would be the better choice for a "bug" the lunch would be a better choice for a bomb :) Lastly, I feel there could be a little more tension - perhaps a woman leaving his office as she arrives, or him opening the door as Free and Betsy as talking - something to ramp up that tension a bit.

    ReplyDelete