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Saturday, January 19

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Opening Working?

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 January 26.

This week’s questions:

Does this opening work? Does it feel like telling? Would an agent ask for more?


Market/Genre: Romantic thriller

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I stifled a yawn and brought the coffee mug to my lips. Last night's recording session had lasted longer than my ability to stay awake, and I'd left my basement studio before the musicians finished their newest creation. Now, leaving my kitchen, I hoped the songs would be polished and ready for final approval. With my studio's history of Grammy nominations, the big names who record here demanded not only perfection in recording sessions, but also zero scheduling conflicts.

I approached the studio door and stopped mid-stride. Waves of dread rattled my inner maracas. A black envelope was taped to the tarnished brass doorknob and I stared at the reminder of my overdue debt. The promise I'd made and ignored.

The creditor: my grandfather Richard.

My debenture: Six months of my life to use as he pleased in exchange for full ownership of the studio.

I slid the note from its waxed seal and recognized his elegant script.

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

Given my grandfather's expectations of family loyalty, I knew better than to disregard it, but wild horses might have to drag me from San Francisco. I’d foolishly hoped his affection for me would allow him to see how happy I was and forgive my obligation. One of my unrealistic expectations.

I stashed his demand into my jacket pocket and opened the door to the studio. Inspiration flowed from the signed photographs of famous musicians lining the walls of the long hallway. I didn’t know how I’d give up something so dear and trade it for something so criminal. A game of chicken seemed in order.

My Thoughts in Purple:

I stifled a yawn and brought the coffee mug to my lips. Last night's recording session had lasted longer than my ability to stay awake, and I'd left my basement studio before the musicians finished their newest creation. Now, leaving my kitchen, I hoped the songs would be polished and ready for final approval. With my studio's history of Grammy nominations, the big names who record here demanded not only perfection in recording sessions, [but also zero scheduling conflicts.] This feels like a potential problem, so I wanted a little more here. Except this vanishes immediately, so perhaps shift it slightly to something she wants to check on when she gets there and not a stated issue? I like the idea that she might have a problem, but it's a little vague as is. Is she worried someone is there and she needs to get them out before the next artist arrives? I guess I don't get how this is a problem for her at this moment.

I approached the studio door and stopped mid-stride. [Waves of dread rattled my inner maracas.] not sure about this line A black envelope was taped to the tarnished brass doorknob and [I stared at the reminder of my overdue debt.] This feels a bit explained [The promise I'd made and ignored.] I’ve no sense of when this promise was made, but it feels as though this is an ongoing thing since she recognizes the letter immediately

[The creditor: my grandfather Richard.

My debenture: Six months of my life to use as he pleased in exchange for full ownership of the studio.] Same here. Perhaps just show the letter taped to the door, her dread, then she opens it and reads. Or better, she opens it without knowing what it is and then is blindsided by it

I slid the note from its waxed seal and recognized his elegant script.

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

Given my grandfather's expectations of family loyalty, I knew better than to disregard it, but wild horses might have to drag me from San Francisco. I’d foolishly hoped his affection for me would allow him to see how happy I was and forgive my obligation. One of my unrealistic expectations. This paragraph feels more explained than her reacting to the letter

I stashed his demand into my jacket pocket and opened the door to the studio. Inspiration flowed from the signed photographs of famous musicians lining the walls of the long hallway. [I didn’t know how I’d give up something so dear and trade it for something so criminal.] feels explained [A game of chicken seemed in order.] Not sure what this means

The questions:

1. Does this opening work?

Almost (readers chime in). I like this better than the ones I’ve read so far, but I think it’s still missing the mark a bit. I like the setup, but it reads a little too explanatory, giving me the information I need to know instead of showing Emma encountering this horrible problem.

(Here's more on mistakes to avoid when building suspense)

2. Does it feel like telling?

More explaining than telling, but yes. I’m told she made a deal she doesn’t like, she has to give up something she loves, she has to be a criminal, who the letter is from and what it contains before she even reads it.

This opening feels like an attempt to explain the premise of the story and the conflict on the first page instead of letting readers get to know Emma and then smack them with this terrible problem.

(Here's more on the key to creating suspense)

3. Would an agent ask for more?

I’m not an agent so I can’t really say. If they liked the premise they might give it a page or two to see how the story developed (it is a cool premise), or they might say it needs another revision pass. There's nothing in this page that really draws me in yet that wouldn't be in the query blurb. I do think you’re on the right track though.

As is, I feel like Emma has been getting these letters and ignoring them, which forces you to explain why instead of letting her open it without realizing what it is and then reacting to it. I’d suggest letting this slap her in the face. That lets her think about the promise and what it means in a way that’s natural to the story.

I think you have three options:
  1. Put the letter at the end of the scene or chapter and showing Emma's life before it changes.
  2. Putting the letter in the opening paragraph and let the shock of it start the story, and then show her dealing with it as she tries to get on with her normal day.
  3. Putting the letter in the middle, but leave enough of her normal day to get to know and like Emma, then hit her and show the rest of the scene/chapter as she deals with this issue.
Personally, I like either option 1 or 2. The letter is a big deal, so putting it in a place of prominence feels right.

Whatever you do, don’t tell readers what the letter is, just show Emma seeing it, and being very unhappy. Let her read it and react. You have time to get to the inciting event—you don’t need to do it on page one (unless you want to and it works that way). Her being worried about a “come due promise” while she works could be enough to pique interest and show something’s not right in her life.

(Here's more on how ambiguity can work in a novel)

How much you want to put in before she gets the letter is up to you, but I think it needs to be paired with examples that show what she’s being asked to give up. It can be before she gets the letter or after while she’s reeling from the summons, but readers need to see what’s at stake.

I also think letting us see a glimpse into the life she loves before it’s yanked away from her will make us care about her and her studio. I like her staying up late to work, then going down first thing. Give us a little more of her in her element, being good at her job and being happy.

Of course, if you want to do it on page one you can. Start with her staring at the envelope on the door and dreading opening it. It’s the trying to show the two sides of her life in one page that’s not quite working yet. Tease readers about the letter and what it means. She can’t go to Paris, she has a life here. But she has to, she made a promise. You don’t need to say why she has to go or what for, just show how much she doesn’t want to but can’t say no.

Is there a set date when her promise is due? You could add some tension there by having her notice the date and start worrying. Maybe she’s trying to get through the morning and is jumpy every time a phone rings or something. You might show she expects trouble, but not reveal just what it is. A promise made she wished she hadn’t or the like, and then she gets the letter—either on her door or delivered.

Overall, this feels like the right pieces now, just slow down and let the tension and story build. Don’t rush in to explain everything, even if the letter appears in the opening line. What she has to do is a good hook. What she promised and why is a great reason for readers to keep reading. Let it play out some to drive the story.

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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1 comment:

  1. Like Janice said, it does feel like the right pieces are here, but with a feel of being rushed and explained.

    I agree, part of the challenge is showing how much Emma loves this life that's endangered, and you do have choices as to how much of it we see before the envelope. To bring "ordinary moments" to life, I always rely on Kurt Vonnegut's "make them want something, even a glass of water" rule. And that's partly a question of what Emma's mind would jump ahead to or stick on right at a moment, even if nothing outwardly spectacular is happening quite then.

    If you keep that in mind to show her normal life, you have all kinds of options about pacing that as compared to the envelope. She might have a page or more of dealing with one recording problem, and then this jolts her world. She might be just thinking for a paragraph or so about a date last night or even the joy of coffee in the morning, if you can make that poignant for a brief time. Or she might start with the envelope, and immediately have people or issues crowd in around her and we see her trying to juggle them plus her much larger fear. There are so many ways you can bring different balances to life, so be sure you choose the best mix.

    Especially, what do you want us to instantly understand about Emma as a person? Does she relate to the best in people (so she's good with the musicians and vulnerable to sinister folks like Richard), or is she a techie who struggles with everyone? is she a planner, a fighter, a lover? (And, how is this affected by Richard being her grandfather, someone she's grown up under his shadow? Plus, be careful of spending too long on work or home elements she'll spend the whole story away from, except for the ones that are clearly lessons about what she'll be like in other circumstances.) The two best things a first chapter can do are to give us a sense of who is facing this challenge and what the challenge is-- better still if there's a delicious synergy of "how's *she* going to face *this* kind of problem?!!"

    You can use those to pick the essentials that the scene needs, and the best pacing and elements to bring them to life. After that, like Janice said, just slow down and let those steps show the facts and build the tension. For instance, she's got both the moment when she sees the black envelope (its color and sudden appearance seem like Richard's trademark, cool) and when she actually reads it. So you can decide how far she thinks out the facts of her promise just from the sight of it, and how far when the message confirms her fears-- just make that natural and suspenseful. (Of course, if someone else barges in before she can read it or make a decision about it, that stretches the suspense out and plays it off other things.)

    (Oh, and I'd be careful opening with Emma yawning. Part of the reader will have to start thinking "Will this have me yawning too?" and that sets an extra-high bar for your story's hook to pull them over.)

    First chapters are a real challenge, but I think their key is how well you can choose the most basic needs of the story, and find a mix of moments that brings them out. This opening felt like you'd made your choices without being positive why they were right, and so the details didn't have enough of the structure or confidence that would have done them justice.

    What's the story really about? what order do those keys show up here? You know what it needs-- just be more certain how it lines up.

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