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Saturday, September 15

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Opening Bore or Interest You to Read More?


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: Zero

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are open.

This week’s question:

1. Does this opening bore or interest you to read more?

Market/Genre: Women's Fiction

This is a resubmit. If you're curious to see how the author revised, here's the previous version.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The black envelope taped to the tarnished brass knob stopped me mid-stride. A wave of panic hit as I stepped closer to my basement door. A reminder of my overdue debt. A promise I'd made five years ago and ignored. The creditor: my own grandfather.

I slid the note from its envelope and recognized my grandfather Richard's elegant script. Not answering his phone calls must be setting him off. My churning stomach reminded me of the stress I'd had the past months worrying about my future.

Emma. Time is up. Paris. Come immediately. Richard

My hands shook as I stashed his demand into my jacket pocket. Disregarding his note was a dangerous decision given my grandfather's passion for family loyalty and respect. I'd hoped he'd give up trying to hold me to my commitment. Foolish dreams.

Last night's recording session had lasted longer than my ability to stay awake and I'd left my basement studio before the musicians decided on their course of action. This morning's wake up notice had already spoiled my star-studded day.

I walked the long hallway past the recording studios and opened the door to the engineering room.

My studio manager and childhood friend, Delaney, growled to the group of musicians. His red eyes reflected the long evening he'd had directing them. He dragged a hand through his straggly hair. "The Boss is here. Play the last version for her."

I stepped to my soundboard, picked up my headset and stopped cold. A ring box. Ugh. I don't need more drama today.

My Thoughts in Purple:

The black envelope taped to the tarnished brass knob [this appears that the brass knob is floating in space] stopped me mid-stride A wave of panic hit [I’d like to see this first, then the source of the panic and the reaction (stopping mid-stride] as I stepped closer to my basement door [readers will assume this door leads to living quarters, but later it appears this character is returning to a studio from the night before]. A reminder of my overdue debt. A The five-year-old promise I'd made five years ago and ignored. The creditor: my own [as opposed to someone else’s?] grandfather.

I slid the note from its envelope and recognized my grandfather Richard's elegant script. Not answering his phone calls must be setting [the note shows he’s already been set off, so not answering his calls must have set…] him off. My churning stomach reminded me [the churning is a reaction to stress, which is already present] of the stress I'd had the past months worrying about my future.

Emma. Time is up. Paris. Come immediately. Richard

My hands shook as I stashed his demand into my jacket pocket. Disregarding his note [you could use ‘it’ here] was a dangerous decision, given my grandfather's passion for family loyalty and respect.

I'd [this would read better as ‘I had’] hoped he'd give up trying to hold me to my commitment. Foolish dreams.

Last night's recording session had lasted longer than my ability to stay awake [this feels like the opening sentence] and I'd left my basement studio before the musicians decided on their course of action [this is distant and too general – what decision was involved?]. This morning's wake up notice had already spoiled my star-studded day [this feels incomplete].

I walked the long hallway past the recording studios and opened the door to the engineering room.

My studio manager and childhood friend, Delaney, growled [I only envision dog sounds here] to the group of musicians [who are where?]. His red eyes reflected the long evening [evening doesn’t mean overnight] he'd had directing them. He dragged a hand through his straggly hair.

"The Bboss is here. Play the last version for her."

I stepped to my soundboard, picked up my headset and stopped cold [a more personal reaction might be more effective, also she has ‘stopped’ before, mid-step].

A ring box. [where is the box?]

Ugh. I don't need more drama today.

The questions:

1. Does this opening bore or interest you to read more?

I am not bored. However, I’m a bit unimpressed by the presumed protagonist. She’s ignored a promise for five years, hoping her grandfather would just forget about it. She doesn’t seem to be afraid, just upset that responsibility has caught up with her. The black envelope created a touch of interest, but it’s ignored, so I immediately also dropped that prick of interest.

The opening is presented in such a loose way that I’m providing the connections as I read, hoping I’m guessing correctly. She’s actually returning to the basement studio, but we must deduce that. I initially assumed she found the note on her basement apartment door. But, then we learn that the basement door belongs to the studio location, which she has returned to after a session went late the night before.

The reference to a ruined star-studded day, sparked some interest, as it hinted at her purpose.

The studio manager is introduced, and I wonder why he would stay overnight, but not her. I make the assumption that she is owner of the studio, so doesn’t perform direct recording functions – perhaps more like a producer. I read on, searching for answers.

The manager is red-eyed and tired, after ‘directing’ the musicians all night. The use of ‘directing’ immediately makes me question what the manager was doing.

After Emma is ID’d as the ‘boss’ and the musicians are told to play the last version, I anticipate the scene being set: learning about the space they are all in, what Emma’s expectations are (internal thought), and reactions to the requested playback.

Instead, Emma is ‘frozen’ again by a ring box. It took a moment to adjust to this statement. Moving it to the next line isolates it, and gives it space to stand alone, alerting the reader. The internal thought is great, as it quickly gives insight into what this object represents to her: a PITA.

This switch in focus would work better if the box is placed in the space, grounded in the scene. As it is, the box is just floating somewhere, perhaps near the headset she just picked up?

Overall, there is interest potential galore in this opening, it’s just left a bit bare and the reader is forced to create the space of the scene. So, there would be great benefit in building just a bit of the scene.

Without making statements, you can establish that this is the studio door, that she’s returning after a difficult, over-long recording session from the night before, perhaps how she feels or a glimpse of why she’s already stressed. This way, the note on the door can be more effectively portrayed as an expected, but disturbing event.

In this scene setting, you are also setting up who this character is and what troubles or conflicts she is facing, which would include defining the promise to her grandfather she has reneged on for five years. Is she an irresponsible ‘user’ or spoiled brat or are the strings attached to the promise too harsh to bear?

I would read on, but I would be hoping that the material that follows is much more precise and informative – and doesn’t make me work so hard to create the scene. I’m lucky, since I’ve been in recording studios of all sizes and could cobble together a space, but not everyone has that background. Help your readers ‘see’ what you need them to see.

I do want to know more about this potentially dynamic female protagonist.

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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3 comments:

  1. I felt the opening line came out of nowhere. Emma gets "stopped," but we didn't even know that she was going anywhere. A little scene setting and characterization, might help: tell us where she's headed (back to the studio) and perhaps hint at her internal state (too little sleep? is she looking forward to getting back to work?). For example:


    Hurrying back to the studio, head not yet cleared by four shots of espresso, I stopped mid-stride before the door. Panic swept away the cobwebs: a black envelope was taped to the doorknob. A note from Grandfather. A reminder of my promise of five years past. A promise I'd desperately hoped he'd forgotten.

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  2. Knowing this is a rewrite of other scenes helps spotlight how tricky it is. You've spliced together several moments (the letter, the ring, plus the sense of last night's practice and whatever led up to the ring) into an exciting synergy. But you also have to lay out the emotional flow and the whys and hows behind this combination, as if it were the first time.

    I agree, revealing that the "basement" is a studio and already in use would help to tie things together, if it came almost immediately after noticing the note. That would explain why Emma's at the basement and how much getting to work is the context for her dealing with the note-- it also raises the question, how'd Richard (or more likely his agents) get inside?

    I agree with Maria, so much about "debt" and "creditor" makes Emma's reluctance seem naive. Is it more that after so many years she'd talked herself into believing Richard wouldn't call in that debt, and maybe it's the kind of favor he might have never needed to use?

    On the other hand "I don't need more drama" is just the right first tone for noticing that ring. (Though it does look odd with no sense of what the box is lying on.)

    Mostly, I'd say think hard about seeing this through new eyes. Forget that it's some of your past scenes reshuffled, and work out what a reader needs to see or understand at each moment for it to feel complete, and above all how Emma feels going through it. You have a lot to cover in a short time (the price of a scene that triggers so many events at once), but you want to be sure the balance and the texture really are what a reader needs to see the first time.

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