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Saturday, February 2

Real Life Diagnostics: Is the Opening and Voice of this Literary Novel Compelling?

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: Two


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through February 16.

This week’s questions:

I’m curious if this opening and the “voice” are compelling. I am also curious if the dialogue sounds realistic.


Market/Genre: Literary fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This is the opening of an epic work of literary fiction set in rural China between 1966 and 1984. Zhou (pronounced “Joe”) is the protagonist. The brothers are playing in an irrigation ditch and will soon meet a man and two girls, one of whom will become Zhou’s wife 18 years later.

September 25, 1966

Brigade 853, Muba Commune, Sichuan Province

Trousers rolled to their knees, two boys waded knee-deep in the turbid water of an irrigation ditch. October loomed, yet autumn still struggled against the dogged summer. Shirtless, wiry bodies glistening, brown as chestnuts, they stalked the ditch for frogs. At the same time, they kept an eye on two figures trudging up from the river.

Pengluo, Zhou’s older brother by a year, had been pestering him for twenty minutes.

“Let’s go now.”

"What for?"

"Aw, come on. Let's see who they are."

“Why do you care?”

“You never—”

"Shut up. Be still.” Zhou froze, arms dangling, hands like opened claws, gaze fixed on something writhing just beneath the surface of the murky water. "What’re you so antsy about anyway? Only got one road. Be by soon enough."

Pengluo propped his fists on his hips. Zhou stifled a grin.

"What are you doing? There's nothing there. Come on. Let's go see."

With feline ferocity, Zhou snatched a hand in the water. "Got you!" He straightened. In his fist: ten inches of black, thrashing muscle.

"Wa sai! It's an eel. How d’you do that?" He splashed over. "Lemme see."

Zhou thrust the writhing fish in his face. Pengluo staggered back, laughing and swiping at the mud on his cheek where the tail slapped him.

"What’re you gonna do with it?" He eased back another step. "Better give it to Mama. She can cook it—" He clamped his mouth and looked around, then whispered, "Don't let anybody see it; they'll take it."

Zhou shot a glance at the lone window in the compound across the road. Empty, black. No way she was getting her hands on his eel. He had other plans.

My Thoughts in Purple:

September 25, 1966

Brigade 853, Muba Commune, Sichuan Province

Trousers rolled to their knees, two boys waded knee-deep in the turbid water of an irrigation ditch. October loomed, yet autumn still struggled against the dogged summer. Shirtless, wiry bodies glistening, brown as chestnuts, they stalked the ditch for frogs. [At the same time, they kept an eye on two figures trudging up from the river.] This feels out of place here.

Pengluo, Zhou’s older brother by [a year,] This doesn’t tell me if they’re ten or fifteen had been pestering him for twenty minutes. I wanted a hint of why here to set the tone. This could be a better spot to explain the figures. Do they know two of them are girls? That could add interest or tension and give the boys another reason to be curious about them, especially if one is older and more interested in girls.

“Let’s go now.”

"What for?"

"Aw, come on. Let's see who they are." This is also a possible spot to mention the figures.

“Why do you care?”

“You never—“

"Shut up. Be still.” Zhou froze, arms dangling, hands like opened claws, gaze fixed on something writhing just beneath the surface of the murky water. ["What’re you so antsy about anyway? Only got one road. Be by soon enough."] Since he just asked his brother to be quiet and still, talking here feels off. But this line could work instead of “Why do you care?” and help establish the people on the road

Pengluo propped his fists on his hips. Zhou stifled a grin.

"What are you doing? There's nothing there. Come on. Let's go see."

With feline ferocity, Zhou snatched a hand in the water. "Got you!" He straightened. In his fist: ten inches of black, thrashing muscle.

"Wa sai! It's an eel. How d’you do that?" He splashed over. "Lemme see."

Zhou thrust the writhing fish in his face. Pengluo staggered back, laughing and swiping at the mud on his cheek [where the tail slapped him.] Feels a bit told, and it might be fun to see the eel hit him

"What’re you gonna do with it?" He eased back another step. "Better give it to Mama. She can cook it—" He clamped his mouth and looked around, then whispered, "Don't let anybody see it; [they'll take it."] Intriguing. Since he doesn’t think of that first, it makes me wonder if this is a new situation for them. He hasn’t quite learned to be cautious yet, though he knows he needs to. Though it could also be him just being a boy.

Zhou shot a glance at the [lone window in the compound across the road.] This feels a bit out of the blue since it wasn’t mentioned before. Perhaps add “across from the compound” in the opening paragraph after “irrigation ditch” Empty, black. No way [she] interesting that he says she and not Mama was getting her hands on his eel. [He had other plans.] Makes me wonder what

The questions:

1. Is the opening and the “voice” compelling?

There are several intriguing details that do make me curious to keep reading. Why they worry someone would take the eel, why Zhou doesn’t want his mother to have it, why he calls her “she” and not “Mama.” I’m also curious about the compound, and who the approaching figures are. There’s plenty of story questions here to entice me to read on.

(Here’s more on asking the right story questions in your scenes)

The voice is a little flat for me (readers chime in here), but only because there’s no sense of the characters thoughts or feelings, which is where voice typically comes from (and what helps readers connect to the characters). The omniscient narrator is simply describing things, and there are some style and voice details building (and a nice animal motif brewing), but it doesn’t feel quite enough yet.

(Here’s more on knowing who your narrator is)

I think if I saw a little into the internal thoughts and feelings of the characters, the voice would feel stronger and I’d be able to connect to the characters more. It does sound like a literary novel however, so it has the right voice for the genre.

(Here’s more on creating internal thoughts)

2. Does the dialogue sound realistic?

Yes and no, but only because I don’t know what boys in rural China would sound like. Their conversation feels like one American boys would have, and there’s nothing here that says “rural China” to me. Had I not been told the setting, I would have thought it was in the US.

I don’t know the ages of the boys, but they feel around ten or twelve, and I can see brothers talking like this. Just enough is left unsaid so it sounds natural, but it also conveys enough detail for readers to understand what’s going on. There’s a nice flow to the conversation, and a good mix between focus on the search for frogs and the curiosity of the approaching figures that feels natural.

(Here’s more on using body language with dialogue)

Overall, it’s working, though I think a little internal thought or sense of the characters would make it stronger, as would a few setting details. There’s enough here to pique interest that fleshing it out a bit wouldn’t hurt it.

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. I agree, this is an opening that touches on the right elements-- and it's a good use of showing two things going on at once (the fishing and the girls) to make a more complex first impression of their life and what could be about to change. And it feels right, but there are ways it could be clearer or tighter.

    When I compare this to some of the best opening scenes of this kind, I think there are two directions it might move in.

    One is to go a bit deeper into something about the subject. Fishing in a ditch is interesting, and so is catching an actual eel-- but I think of how Janice's own *Shifter* opens not just with stealing eggs but the unique observation that the trick is to wake the chicken up first. You may want to build either the fishing or the girl-watching around some defining fact that makes the reader stop and realize how authentic it is, that no other writer would put that in here. It might be something about the setting (hiding the eel from other people might be moving toward that), or it could be something any two brothers might have that nails their relationship with the right specific.

    The other approach could be to tighten the conflict in some way. It might be having the girls closer by, so they interrupt the fishing or the fishing interrupts the boys' plan to watch them (eg Zhou's grabbing for the eel pulls them out of hiding). It might be playing up whatever in the boys' character can cause trouble or tension here (and of course it's the Key First Thing you want us to know about these two as people). There are writers who think an opening is weak if it doesn't include a death, a kiss, or a betrayal, but you don't have to inflate your stakes that way; just think about tightening the natural tension with whatever *is* at stake.

    This is a good, unique opening. It works as it is, but you might consider digging a bit deeper into the moment you've chosen to see how much more you can get out of it. It's a promising one.

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