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Saturday, September 1

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Voice Interesting Enough?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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: One


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

This week’s question:

Is Sam’s voice interesting enough?


Market/Genre: Historical (mid-twentieth century)

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: The main protagonist is a female character, the British wife of the oil refinery’s chairman, and most of the novel is told from her POV. Henry is her husband. Sam Walker is a young American who has just arrived in Abadan to work in the refinery. This extract is the first time that the story switches to Sam’s POV.

Sam Walker sat with his feet propped up the white railings of the Boat Club’s pontoon and gazed across the Shatt-al-Arab towards Kuwait. A large vulture danced a raggedy jig on the tin roof overhead, clickety-click up and down the corrugated iron. In the creek below, a dozen swan-shaped pedal boats painted bright blue swayed at their mooring. It was too hot for anyone to pedal and only a few native dugouts drifted along the oily waters. From the Club came the sound of children splashing in the swimming pool, of girls cheering by the tennis courts. He had played earlier and won easily against the consul but Henry could not be defeated - still a champion, or as close to one as could be found on Abadan.

He sipped without enthusiasm at his gin-and-bitters; the ice had melted and the drink was warm. He was not keen on gin back home, but the bitter taste suited the heat. And what heat! It was like nothing else he’d ever known and he was still not used to it. It had rained the night before for the first time since his arrival, but the parched earth had guzzled up the moisture soon after dawn and the short rainfall had failed to wash away the stench of the refinery. Even at a distance of over two miles, it was still overpowering.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Sam Walker sat with his feet [propped up] this has a sense of voice the white railings of the Boat Club’s pontoon and gazed across the Shatt-al-Arab towards Kuwait. A large vulture danced [a raggedy jig] this also gives me a sense of voice on the tin roof overhead, [clickety-click up and down the corrugated iron.] same here In the creek below, a dozen swan-shaped pedal boats painted bright blue swayed at their mooring. It was too hot for anyone to pedal and only a few native dugouts drifted along the oily waters. From the Club came the sound of children splashing in the swimming pool, of girls cheering by the tennis courts. He had played earlier and won easily against the consul but Henry could not be defeated - still a champion, or as close to one as could be found on Abadan.

He sipped without enthusiasm at his gin-and-bitters; the ice had melted and the drink was warm. He was not keen on gin back home, but the bitter taste suited the heat. [And what heat!] this has a sense of internal thought, though it’s a little distant It was like nothing else he’d ever known and he was still not used to it. It had rained the night before for the first time since his arrival, but the parched earth had [guzzled up] this sounds like him the moisture soon after dawn and the short rainfall had failed to wash away the stench of the refinery. Even at a distance of over two miles, it was still overpowering.

The question:

Is Sam’s voice interesting enough?


Yes and no (readers chime in). There are bits and pieces here and there that stand out to me as Sam’s voice, because they’re a little different from the narrative. But the narrative itself sounds more like the author’s voice than Sam’s, because it’s heavy on the description and not enough of Sam’s observations. There’s only one clear line if internalization—And what heat!

It reads like a historical to me, but I feel a little detached from the scene itself (which could be by design if the author is using a more omniscient or further narrative distance). The focus is a bit too much on description and setting the scene than Sam living in the scene.

(Here's more on finding a character's voice)

For example, he makes only brief notice of the girls cheering by the courts, which seems like something a young man would pay more attention to, even if it’s just an extra adjective to show he finds them attractive or not. He also states his wins and losses at tennis in a detached way. I have no idea how he feels about losing to Henry, just that he did.

The spots where Sam’s voice stand out the most to me are where I can hear a “young American man” in the ’50s describing his surroundings. For example:
  • Propped up
  • A raggedy jig
  • Clickity-clacked up and down
  • Guzzled up
These all stand apart from the rest of the narrative and sound like Sam to me. He doesn’t “rest his feet on the white rail,” or “absorbed the moisture” or even “drank in the moisture.” I do like these glimpses into his character, and more of it would help strengthen his voice.

(Here’s more on developing a character’s voice)

I think his voice as it’s developing is working, as it has a ruggedness that befits a young refinery worker from America, but it's not quite enough yet. I’d suggest roughing up a few edges in the rest of the narrative to bring it out more. For example, “swayed at their moorings” sounds too polished, and someone who worked on a refinery probably wouldn’t even notice the stench of it anymore, or would use different words to describe it. "Even at a distance of over two miles, it was still overpowering" sounds more refined and educated than a young man working a refinery. "It stank two miles away" or the like seems more appropriate. 

(Here’s more on POV and description)

The “no” answer to the question has more to do with the scene itself than the voice. Since nothing is really going on but setting the scene, it’s not “interesting” per se. Sam has nothing to do in the scene, so there’s no real opportunity for his voice or opinions about the scene to come through. I feel like someone is watching Sam and describing it to me, not Sam himself experiencing this exotic locale. It’s missing some of the “just arrived” wonder that would show his voice in how he sees this new place (though perhaps at this point he’s been there awhile and it’s not as new to him).

(Here’s more on how POV helps with description)

Overall, I think it’s heading in the right direction, and I’d suggest a few tweaks and use more judgment words and phrases such as the ones that stood out to me. Show a little more of Sam’s POV in the descriptions and narrative, perhaps add a few more lines of internal thought to show his personality. There’s little of him here so far, so his voice isn’t getting enough of a chance to shine yet. But the situation gives you plenty of opportunities to show his “young American” personality as he describes this foreign land.

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

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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4 comments:

  1. This is well-planned, varied, and vivid description that brings the world around Sam to life.

    What I keep wondering is, what else is the scene meant to do? In many genres--especially if this were the start of the story--this would be a risky amount of time to take purely to build mood. In a historical a scene can have the space for this, but the paragraphs could still be doing double duty: showing the moment but also giving an active sense of the character within it.

    Kurt Vonnegut said "“Make your characters want something right away even if it's only a glass of water." Something is at the top of Sam's mind this instant--maybe hating the heat, marveling at the view, or stewing over the tennis loss--and in his perspective everything else would be filtered through that. This feels more like you're willing to use this time almost completely for the setting, and maybe then we'll get to know Sam. That seems more leisurely than you need to be; if this is the first scene with Sam's perspective, the reader wants to quickly see what this character they've glanced at is really like.

    A lot of historicals make a point of showing the scenery first and easing the reader into a scene, and you cover it well here. But I'd like to see what you could do if you let us feel Sam at the same time as we see his backdrop.

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  2. Curious as to why Sam would be playing tennis with the owner of the rig. It doesn't compute, unless there is more to that in the plot.

    Descriptions are good, but I would like to see Sam's response or lack of to his surroundings.

    It is a good start and looks like it is going to be an interesting story.

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  3. This diagnosis is going to help me a lot with my own WiP. Until I read this, I wasn't sure how to apply the character's voice.

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    Replies
    1. To me, the emphasis seem to be on the details and description of the setting. While this was well done, I didn't get a real sense of Sam's voice. It came across in the mention of his winning the tennis match and in his observations about the gin and tonic, as well as his opinion about the intense heat. I enjoyed this writing and would like to read more.

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